They neared the clearing where Aurora knew her sisters would be waiting, and Gabriel reached for her hand. “Before whatever is about to happen happens, please tell me what you saw back there.”
But once again she shook her head. “I can’t Gabriel. Right now, I need you to stay focused on the task at hand. This is your plan and it’s a good one, but we need to make it work. It’s more important than ever that we get to the Council.”
She re-tied her hair back into a tight ponytail and fixed her eyes on him. “My sisters are out there. Are you ready?”
He nodded and tried to push his questions aside. Whatever she saw was bad, that much he knew. But the first job was getting past her sisters, then he would try to find out what the hell happened back there. He ran the plan over in his mind one last time. It would work. It had to because he had no plan B.
“I need you to get through this Gabriel, do you understand?” She was asking. “I need you.”
Their eyes locked and for Gabriel it felt like time stood still.
“Aurora - ”
But she cut him off. “It’s time. Let’s go.”
They moved quickly up and over a rocky peak and when Aurora signalled they were getting close, Gabriel felt his entire body tense.
“The Council’s bunker is down there,” she pointed. “Jasmyne and the others will be scattered throughout the forest surrounding the entrance.”
Gabriel gasped as he took in the magnificent castle. “That’s what you call a bunker?” He breathed. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
An earthen path wound up and around until it reached a 10-foot high solid wooden door. The walls were made of hand-cut sandstone and up on the roof he saw an open terrace with greenery cascading down over the side. At the very top a soaring tower rose high into the sky. He stared up at it and couldn’t help wondering if perhaps God might actually hear them from up there.
“Now is not the time to be thinking about death,” Aurora whispered. “We’re going to get through this, I’m sure of it.”
“You said you couldn’t read my thoughts?”
“I can read that look on your face,” she told him. “So, if you need something to believe in, believe in us. We can do this Gabriel.”
He nodded and scanned the area looking for any other way in, but she was right. There was no way to enter other than through the front door. “Well there’s certainly no way of sneaking up on the Council is there?”
“No, that’s why they’ve survived for more than 300 years. They’re smart Gabriel. There isn’t much they haven’t seen.”
He thought about all that must have taken place in the past 300 years and tried to imagine what they had experienced. So many changes and advances, and so much fighting. What must they think of the human race?
“It’s time Gabriel. Let’s get into position.”
Together they began down the track, moving in silence until they were just metres away from the towering wall.
“Any moment now,” she whispered. “Any moment and she will show herself.”
As if on cue, Jasmyne appeared from the forest dressed in olive green camouflage pants and a black hooded parka. Her hair was slicked back in a tight ponytail. She was ready to fight.
“Stop where you are sister! Do not take another step.”
The rising sun cast Jasmyne’s shadow out across the ground making her appear as though she was 10-feet tall and just for a moment, Gabriel found it unnerving.
“Jasmyne,” Aurora gasped. “What are you doing here? How did you know I’d be coming?”
“Never mind that,” she announced. “All that matters is you will not shame this family by going before the Council with that murderer by your side.” She stepped forward until they were face to face. “How dare you come here with plans to have him pardoned? How dare you plan to tell the Council wild stories about monsters? I will not let you bring shame upon this family Aurora and I will not let this murderer get away with killing Stefan.”
Before Aurora could answer, her sisters strode out of the forest and gathered at Jasmyne’s side. She knew from the looks on their faces they were ready to tear Gabriel apart.
“Jada, Aria, Amelia…” She greeted each of her sisters by name. “You have all lost faith in me? Even after all I’ve done for our family?”
Amelia was like a golden palomino with flaxen hair that fell to her shoulders and almond coloured eyes. She was tall, slender and graceful. She was strong and she was smart. Aurora knew she would have helped Jasmyne with their plan and it hurt to know their trust had been broken.
“Aurora, we have to do what’s right,” she began. “We can’t let you go to the Council with a murderer asking for clemency.”
“You think that’s why I am here Amelia, to ask for clemency? To try and save this murderer’s life?”
“He killed Stefan,” Jasmyne snapped. “Do not forget sister, it was you who chose him over us.”
“Does it look like he and I are in this together?” Aurora snapped. It was the line she and Gabriel had rehearsed and just for effect, she tightened her grip on a noose she had placed around his throat. Gabriel coughed and struggled but Aurora showed no mercy.
“Shut up murderer,” she hissed. “Don’t even think about trying to get away. The Council will deal with you.”
“And we’re supposed to believe that he’s your captive?” Jasmyne asked, her voice dripping with scepticism.
“Of course he is,” Aurora told her. “Did you really think there could be something between us? He killed Stefan. He has to pay.”
“But I saw you.” Jasmyne turned and addressed her sisters. “I saw them in his cabin holding hands. I swear, I saw it with my own eyes. Then I saw them in the coffee shop planning this entire journey.”
As her sisters exchanged glances, Aurora sensed an opening and shoved Gabriel to the ground face first. “This filthy murderer killed my brother. He has destroyed our family and what? You think I am in love with him? Have you gone completely mad sister?”
It was difficult for Aurora to say the words and even harder to hear them out loud. It was true he had killed her brother and yet…
At her feet he tried to speak, but she closed his mouth with her foot. There was nothing he could say that would help the situation. She had to handle it herself, just until they were inside.
“Sister are you certain you have this right?” Amelia was asking Jasmyne. “It doesn’t look like they’re in this together to me.”
“Quiet Amelia! I know what I saw. She’s had many chances to kill him and yet here he is still alive. That speaks for itself.”
Aurora noticed her sisters once again exchanging glances. They were starting to waver. It was time for the final scene. “You all know the penalty for killing a strigoi,” she announced. “I went to the cabin to end this murderer’s life, but when I got there I realised there was a better way. To kill him means I will also pay the ultimate price and I am not prepared to be locked away for the rest of my life because of a creature like this. I have kept you all safe for more than 100 years and despite what you may think Jasmyne, that’s what I am here to do today. Whether you believe me or not, I am taking him to the Council to be judged. It’s the right thing to do.”
Her sisters whispered among themselves and eventually it was Jada who spoke. She had been blessed with olive skin and sapphire eyes that sparkled like water on glass. Her mother had been one of the elders who survived the attack but died on the ship as they tried to escape Europe. “I believe you Aurora. Our sister has clearly made a mistake but given her loss it is understandable. I will not hold it against her despite our long journey.”
“Thank you Jada,” Aurora said quietly. “And the rest of my sisters?”
“Me too,” Aria flipped her dark hair back over her shoulder. “I’m sorry Aurora. We should have known better.”
Amelia nodded and dropped her eyes. “I’m sorry I doubted you Aurora.”
Aurora turned to her eldest sister. “Jasmyne, can you find a way to believe me?”
But Jasmyne refused to give in. “Sisters, I am not so grief stricken that I have lost my mind,” she pleaded. “Don’t you see? This is nothing more than a ruse. What will happen when she goes inside and the Council sees what has become of her, of us? We will all look like fools, a laughing stock. After all these years is that how you wish the Council to perceive this family?”
“What on Earth is all this commotion going on outside my home?”
Not even Aurora had noticed Lucius standing there, his black robes trailing out behind him like the wings of a fallen angel. At her feet, Gabriel spat the dirt from his mouth and managed to move his head sideways, just far enough to see three other men dressed in the same robes standing by the gateway.
“I do believe I asked a question,” Lucius told them sternly. “I do not like to be kept waiting.”
Gabriel squirmed beneath her foot, but Aurora pushed down even harder. They were almost there.
“Council,” she began. “I have brought you a strigoi male who must be dealt with. I understand his existence must be of great interest to you and I implore you to let us inside so that I may tell you of his misdeeds.”
The three remaining members of the Council stepped forward and seeing them together, Aurora caught her breath. They were truly a sight to behold. Although they were not related, over the course of 300 years the four vampires had become irreversibly similar, not quite identical, but so much alike that it was difficult to tell them apart. The one telling fact was that Lucius always stood slightly in front of the others. A sign he was the eldest.
“I see,” he answered. “Well the Council must discuss this gathering before your entry can be granted. It is highly unusual for anyone to come here and cause a scene like this. I must tell you, it is quite unacceptable.”
Aurora nodded and the four of them began to whisper. When they finally broke apart Aurora held her breath. She knew Lucius had sought Gabriel’s help, but would he play along?
“We understand there has been some dispute over this strigoi and his actions,” the vampire Armain began. “Does this family of descendants agree he should be brought before the Council for judgement?”
Jasmyne stepped forward and pointed her finger accusingly at Gabriel. “This strigoi killed my partner, not in battle but while he was unarmed. He must be punished.”
“And yet you tried to stop him reaching the gates?” Lucius replied. “Why?”
“Because she has brought him here on another matter. One that would bring shame upon this family.”
“And what would that matter be?”
“Council, she will ask for clemency for his deeds and guidance on the…”
“On the nature of mythical creatures,” Jasmyne managed. “Both of these matters would bring great shame and embarrassment upon our family and I implore you to imprison this murderer and turn my sister over to us so that we may deal with her failings in private.”
“Mythical creatures?” Lucius grinned and steepled his fingers. “How interesting.”
Once again the Council huddled together and Aurora wished her gifts extended to mind reading. When Lucius finally stepped forward her chest tightened.
“We grant entry to the descendant Aurora and the strigoi Gabriel,” he announced. “I would ask that the rest of this group go back to your home and do not return. We do not appreciate a scene being created on the grounds of our residence, especially one that seems to be unnecessary. Am I making myself clear child?”
Jasmyne finally nodded, her head hung in defeat. “Yes Lucius. Please accept my apology for the disruption.”
“On your way then,” he instructed. “And you two, follow me.”
Not wanting to shatter the ruse, Aurora pulled Gabriel to his feet with so much force that he almost fell back into her. With the ropes still in place she shoved him forward and they followed the four members of the Council into the castle.
Once inside, Armain and the other two members of the Council broke away from the group and moved silently down a winding hall, their feet almost gliding over the polished floor.
“This place is amazing,” Aurora breathed. “I had forgotten how beautiful it is.”
Cream walls inset with spiralling gold thread dominated the interior and gargantuan chandeliers fell from every ceiling like sparkling waterfalls. Sweeping velvet curtains framed the windows and antique furniture adorned each room. On the walls hung enormous paintings of what Aurora guessed were vampires and strigoi who had played significant roles in the legacy of their species. She and Gabriel immediately stopped when they came upon a life-size painting that looked very much like themselves.
“What is this?” She stared up in amazement. “That strigoi female looks just like me and the male… Is that Gabriel?”
“Come Aurora,” Lucius smiled. “We’ve been waiting a long time for you and your companion to arrive.”
They followed Lucius into a decadent room that overlooked the forest below and the road they travelled in on.”
“You saw us coming,” she whispered.
“Aurora, I saw you both coming hundreds of years ago. You are not the only one with the gift of being a visionary. Now untie your companion, the ruse is over.”
She untied the ropes around Gabriel’s neck and let Lucius’ words play over in her mind.
“Then why didn’t you just tell Jasmyne the truth?” She asked eventually. “Why did we have to go through the entire charade?”
“Jasmyne has a role to play in all of this too. In time she will become key to a truce with the humans. She’s hurting now but that will mend. She needs to see for herself how important Gabriel is. And she will. Your family was chosen for a reason.”
Aurora stood at the window and looked out over the expansive forest. There was so much she didn’t know and she was so tired. As if reading her mind, Lucius told them it was time to rest, that they would talk later. He led them to two bedrooms, each as beautiful as the rest of the castle with crackling open-fires, four-post beds and furniture decorated in gilded-gold.
“Thank you,” Aurora smiled. “I didn’t realise how tired I was.”
“Rest now child, you will need your energy for what lies ahead.”
She waited for him to tell her what would happen next, but instead he simply nodded and excused himself to show Gabriel to his room.
When they were gone Aurora showered and climbed into the luxurious bed. It felt like heaven with blankets so soft it was like falling into a cloud. She quickly drifted off to sleep but a gentle knock on the door brought her back.
“Lucius, what is it?”
“No, it’s me,” Gabriel whispered as he stepped quietly into the room. “I just wanted to say that you were great out there. The plan worked because of you Aurora.”
She sat up and rubbed at her sleepy eyes. “I think the plan worked because Lucius wanted it to.”
“You could be right,” he grinned. “But either way we’re a good team.”
“We are. Sleep well Gabriel.”
He nodded and turned to leave, willing himself not to think about kissing her. But when she called him back, his breath caught in his throat.
“Would you stay with me?” She asked softly. “I know it sounds like a strange request, especially from me, but I just don’t want to be alone Gabriel.”
She had known him less than a week but had already come to depend on him. A time would come, sooner than he realised, that he would be in great danger, but he would fight admirably. She had seen it.
He nodded and a wide grin broke out across his face. “Of course, but don’t go getting any ideas now.”
She slid over to make room for him beside her. “You’re safe, trust me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this tired in my life.”
She expected to feel comforted by his presence, but when he climbed into the bed his body felt larger than she anticipated. She had never shared a bed with a man and he took up so much space. It was difficult to stop their bare skin from touching.
Without warning he reached out and pulled her close and instead of feeling imposing, his body was warm and fitted perfectly beside hers. When his head tilted back and she knew he was asleep, Aurora finally relaxed. She could sleep, comfortable in the knowledge she was not alone, that no matter what happened he would be there. It was the first time she had ever laid beside a man and it was different than she imagined. It wasn’t passionate or lustful but safe and reassuring. She trusted him and he believed in her. Within a few minutes she fell into a deep sleep knowing that nothing would ever tear them apart, that they were a team. But then a knock on the door changed everything.