Gabriel and Aurora exchanged worried glances as they followed the sound of Lucius’ voice down the hall. When they found him sitting on a large sofa watching a flat screen television, Gabriel raised his brows.
“Well that seems out of place,” he mumbled, more than a little annoyed his snuggle with Aurora had been interrupted.
“I apologise for disturbing your nap,” Lucius began. “But you really must see this.”
He pointed to the television and when Gabriel saw what was on the screen, he knew immediately why Lucius had woken them.
“I repeat,” the news reporter said. “We are bringing you breaking news of a mass grave site discovered in Sweden where the skeletal remains of more than 100 people have been found in a cave at the base of the Swedish Alps. Police at the scene have described it as a copycat of a mass murder committed 44 years ago to the day, where police found the mutilated bodies of 83 people in the same cave. All reports say the same kind of ritualistic evidence was found at the scene as in 1972. Police have ruled out any connection to nearby satanic groups however, saying there are no known groups in the area with a history long enough to include both mass murders. The investigation is ongoing.”
“I’ve seen something just like that before,” Gabriel breathed. “Back in the Peaks. It was awful.”
“You what?” Aurora spun around and stared at him.
“You can’t tell from the angle of the cameras, but I bet what they found in that cave is just like what I saw in the Peaks about 17 years ago except the bodies were, fresher that time.”
“Gabriel, why didn’t you say something back in the caves when we first saw those paintings?”
“Yes Gabriel,” Lucius added. “Why on Earth didn’t you tell her then?”
Aurora’s mind was spinning. Gabriel had known all this time the Reapers had killed people in the Peaks and never told her? Why would he keep something like that a secret? Better still, how had her research missed it?
I just didn’t think,” he began. “That morning at the cave you told me about a lot of things Aurora. Demons and Satan and it was all a bit overwhelming. I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to keep it from you.”
“What year did this happen?”
Gabriel rubbed at his chin and cast his mind back.
“Gabriel come on, what year was it?”
“Alright,” he snapped. “Just give me a minute, let me think. I had been turned just a few years earlier, so it would have been around 1999. When I first saw it, I thought it was the work of vampires. Like the thing that attacked me.”
“And that’s why you came after us at the farmhouse,” Aurora breathed. “You thought we -”
Armain and the other two members of the Council appeared in the doorway.
“My apologies for being so rude earlier,” Lucius interrupted. “Aurora, Gabriel this is Armain, Roman, Siegfried.”
Roman stepped forward and once again Aurora marvelled at his resemblance to Lucius. “It’s an honour to finally meet you Aurora,” he said. “We have waited a long time for you.”
“Yes, it’s an honour indeed,” Siegfried echoed. “You too Gabriel, you are a very important part of all this.”
“A very important part of all what exactly?” Gabriel replied, almost stealing the words from Aurora’s lips.
Siegfried bowed his head and looked at them. “Of destiny.”
Aurora’s patience with the Council was wearing thin. She needed their help and it was time they started explaining. They had travelled a long way and what they needed were answers, not riddles. “Lucius, we have some questions. There are a lot of things we still don’t understand.”
“But of course child, that’s why you are here. Please, won’t you come with me.”
Aurora and Gabriel followed the members of the Council into a grand dining hall with a marble table long enough to seat more than 100 guests. Gabriel stared at the vacant seats and imagined 100 vampires descending up the room. It was not a reassuring thought. “We expecting company?”
“No one has been here for more than 250 years child. So no, we are not expecting company. Now please sit.”
At his request, Aurora and Gabriel took their seats at one side of the table while the members of the Council sat across from them.
“I could explain it to you, but I think it will be clearer if I show you,” Lucius announced. “If you would both close your eyes.”
Beneath the table, Aurora took Gabriel’s hand and squeezed it tightly.
“This could prove difficult to watch,” he warned. “But you must understand what the Reapers really are.”
“Reapers?” Gabriel breathed. “What?”
Beneath the table Aurora squeezed his hand. “We’re ready. Please Lucius, we need to know.”
They closed their eyes and suddenly Aurora could see everything Lucius was thinking as though his mind’s eye was her own. She knew Gabriel was having the same experience because his fingers wrapped tightly around hers and his leg moved closer until they were touching.
It was dusk and the vision had transported them into a clearing in the middle of a dense jungle. Aurora could hear Lucius telling her it was an area of the Congo in northern Africa. In the distance she heard the shrieks of birds and the territorial roar of a male gorilla, the kinds of sounds animals made when a large predator was around. She could feel the brush of banana leaves, sticky and wet as they made their way along a dirt track. Her skin felt slick in the humid air and up ahead she heard the tribal rhythm of drums. When they reached the edge of the clearing she stopped and caught her breath. Down below, Reapers had surrounded at least 50 tribesmen who all stood silent and still as though they were in some kind of trance. Their eyes were open, but Aurora could tell from their blank expressions they were not aware of anything happening around them. From out of the shadows a larger Reaper stepped forward and Aurora gasped. It was the same creature she had seen in her parent’s kitchen all those years ago. As it reached into a satchel and pulled out five skulls one after the other, Aurora thought back to the painting she had seen on the cave wall and realised she was watching the same ceremony. Unable to look away, she watched on as it purposefully set the skulls down around the humans at five points.
“What’s happening?” She whispered, but Lucius immediately silenced her.
The Reaper returned to its place in the circle and together the demons began to chant.
“And war broke out in Heaven. Michael and the angels fought with the dragon and the dragon and his angels fought but we did not prevail and no place was found for us in Heaven any longer. So the great dragon was cast out and his angels were cast out with him. Woe to the inhabitants of the Earth and the sea for the devil has come down unto you, having great wrath. Our time is but eternal and without end. And the morning star fell like lightning from the Heavens with us, his angels in tow, and for thousands of years we have wreaked havoc and murder upon the Earth and its inhabitants in the name of Satan our Father. In return he has bestowed upon us eternal life and thanks be to the great Father for this blessing. Tonight we pay tribute to Astaroth the beloved. May we bestow fear and reign terror upon the Earth in the name of our Father, until the blessed day we rise at the place where the fallen lies. There we will spite our enemy and cross the grave of the forgotten saviour. Thanks be to the Dark Lord Satan and the five demons of Hell.”
When the chant was over the Reapers fed and Aurora wished more than anything that she could close her eyes and make it stop. Beside her Gabriel’s body stiffened. It was a bloodbath. Screams tore through her and she could feel their pain. Blood sprayed out across the leaves and the sound of snapping bone echoed into the night. The Reapers revelled in the fear. The organs nourished their bodies and terror fed their appetite. Aurora had never seen anything like it. Not even what happened in her childhood home could compare to the massacre she was witnessing. Silently she begged Lucius to make it stop and as quickly as it had begun, the scene disappeared and she was back in the dining hall with Gabriel and the Council. Around her the pristine room felt alien in its perfection after what she had just witnessed.
“I’m sorry.” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I couldn’t take any more of that.”
“I understand,” Lucius told her. “The first time I saw it for myself I was… How can I put it? Disturbed to say the least, and I have had my own fair share of human dinners.”
Gabriel sat taller in his seat and Aurora feared he would leap the table and wrap his fingers around Lucius’ perfect white throat.
“But what does it all mean?” She pushed, trying to change the subject. “How does this help us?”
“That’s what you and your companion need to figure out.”
The frustration was too much. They were so close and yet Lucius and the Council were still not providing any of the answers they needed.
“Why can’t you just tell us?” Gabriel demanded, echoing her thoughts. “You seem to know everything, so just tell us straight. What are they? Why are they killing humans? And why did they kill Aurora’s parents?”
But instead of answering, Lucius turned to Siegfried and shook his head slowly. “I sometimes wonder if we didn’t make a mistake changing this one. He is becoming a thorn in my side.”
Suddenly Gabriel was up on his feet and leaning half way across the table. “What did you just say?”
“Oh, come now child, don’t be so quick to anger. And besides, as I understand it you’ve warmed to our way of life since meeting Aurora. You could say we have bestowed a great gift upon you.”
Gabriel fixed his eyes on Lucius. “You set this whole thing up for me to be turned? It was you?”
“Of course not child, it was already written. We simply followed the instructions. When the Reapers rise, a strigoi warrior shall reveal himself.”
“And why in hell would that be me?” Gabriel shouted. “I had nothing to do with any of this!”
“So much anger,” Roman uttered. “Aurora, have you taught him nothing since he was delivered to you?”
“Since I was delivered? Wait, what?” He turned on Aurora. “You knew? How could you do this to me?”
Horrified by the accusation, she pushed back in her seat and stood up. “Gabriel that’s not true! I know as much as you do. Tell him Lucius. Tell him I had nothing to do with any of this!”
“Damn it!” Gabriel slammed both fists down on the table. “Someone better start talking or I swear…”
Tired of the outburst, Lucius sighed and got to his feet. “Very well. According to our scripture a human man will sacrifice himself to aid the fire-haired warrior in her quest to defeat the Reapers. Together they will save the Earth.”
“And you just assumed that was me?” Gabriel shouted. “Why?”
“What year were you born?”
“Why the hell does that matter?”
“Come with me child. You too Aurora.”
Despite his anger, Gabriel followed Aurora and Lucius back out into the hallway. When they came upon the painting that resembled the both of them Lucius stopped.
“I told you earlier that I too am a visionary. Do you recall?”
“Yes,” Aurora answered. “We share the same gift.”
“That’s right. And are our visions ever mistaken?”
“Aright then. Gabriel would you please look closer at this artwork I created.”
“You painted this?” Aurora gasped, leaning in closer. “It’s incredible. Your work should be in a gallery.”
“And what makes you think it isn’t?” He grinned. “But it is not acclaim I seek with my art. It is just my way of seeing the future and this piece my dear shows your future. Together.”
Gabriel leaned in and looked closely at the signature on the painting. It was of course signed by Lucius, but it was the date that caught his attention. “You painted this in 1715?”
“I did. After a vision told me that one day we would be in great danger from the Reapers. However, I never expected to have the kind of problems you’ve both caused. And there was nothing in my vision about you being so angry all the time Gabriel. It’s utterly prehistoric.” Lucius looked down at his hands as though they needed washing. “Humans, you never can tell what awful traits they’ll bring with them.”
Gabriel ignored the remark and fixed him with a gaze. “So you’re telling me because of her, I had to be turned into what I am?”
Aurora did not miss the look on his face. Anger. Accusation. Could it really be her fault he had been turned? “Gabriel…” She tried to touch his arm, but he pulled away.
“Explain this to me,” he demanded. “Are you saying that had it not been for her mission to kill these Reapers or demons or whatever the hell they are, I could have lived out my life as a human? That none of this would have happened?” His voice boomed out across the room like rolling thunder and there was no mistaking the anger building inside him.
“It’s not as simple as that Gabriel.” Lucius stepped back and looked at him closely. “This course was predetermined long before you were even born. It was always going to happen.”
“That’s bullshit!” He shouted. “Every man and woman is responsible for their own destiny. Fate is something you make for yourself.”
“Then how do you explain this painting?”
Gabriel stared up at the wall and shook his head. “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you one thing. You can count me out, all of you. I want nothing to do with any of this!” He turned to Aurora. “From here on out you’re on your own.”
“Gabriel please,” she begged. “I had no idea.”
But he shook his head and turned away. “When you told me I was the one, I thought… I don’t know, that maybe somehow I could turn this situation into a positive, maybe even use what happened to me to do some good. I had no idea that I was made into this because of you.”
“Gabriel, that’s not what Lucius is saying.”
“Well that’s what I heard.” He turned back and looked at her. “I’m leaving. You can find your own way home.”
As he stormed out, Aurora fought to hold back her tears. Every bad thing that had happened was because of her.
“Now don’t you go thinking that,” Lucius warned. “He’ll come around, fate will arrange it.”
“Damn you and your stupid fate,” she shouted. “Why did this have to happen to him? I could have done whatever is needed to stop them on my own.”
“No child, you couldn’t. The task is far too exhaustive for one descendant. Only together do you have a chance of stopping the Reapers.”
“Well if you know everything, then why can’t you stop them? Or at least just tell us what to do? Why are you making everything so difficult?”
Aurora was furious. Even though she had not meant to, she had hurt Gabriel, and the Council, particularly Lucius, was just playing games with them.
“Control yourself,” Lucius warned as her eyes bled to red. “Remember where you are.”
But she no longer cared about the rules. “If I have the strength to help defeat the Reapers then maybe I can kill you as well.”
Suddenly Siegfried, Armain and Roman were at Lucius’ side. They moved so fast she didn’t even see them until they were already in position.
“There’ll be none of that Aurora,” he warned. “It is your responsibility to stop what is coming and you will need Gabriel. You have been tasked with a mighty destiny, you know that. What you witnessed in the vision I showed you will happen to every human on Earth. Now is not the time to let emotions get the better of you.”
“But why do I have to be the one to change everything? All I wanted to do was avenge my parents, to make things right. I didn’t ask for this.”
She could no longer contain the tears that burned in her blood-red eyes. It had been one thing to hunt the monsters that killed her parents, but the task Lucius had given her was so much greater. It was the kind of burden that was too great for anyone. It was clearly too great for Gabriel.
“You are the chosen one Aurora. This is your destiny to fulfill.”
“And if I refuse?”
“I think you know the answer to that.”
Aurora thought back to the vision she had been given in the forest. The Earth had shown her what lie ahead. Reapers spreading like a virus, decimating humanity and destroying every living thing on the planet.
“Why is this happening?” She asked. “Why now?”
Lucius stepped back and opened his arms. “Things have changed child. Don’t you feel it?”
“The humans think they are so clever,” Armain began. “They think they are progressive but what they are is destructive. The industrial revolution set into place a dire course for our world. One that has inevitably led to this.”
“Then they should be the ones to fix it,” Aurora argued. “Why does this fall onto our shoulders? Onto mine?”
“Aurora, the human race is still in its infancy. They do not understand what their industry, what their machines and need for power can unleash. You saw for yourself what the Reapers will do now that they can, stay here.”
A shiver ran through Aurora’s body like a whisper in an empty room. “What do you mean stay here? What aren’t you telling me?”
“Our atmosphere has changed Aurora,” Armain began. “Since the Industrial Revolution of 1750, industry that creates carbon dioxide, along with deforestation and agriculture has caused a higher level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than we have ever experienced in the past 800,000 years of our planet.”
“But that’s the fault of humans. What does it have to do with the Reapers, or Gabriel and I?”
Lucius took Aurora by the shoulders and looked at her deeply. “The atmosphere in Hell is dense in carbon dioxide child. Do you understand?”
Aurora nodded slowly, fearing she already knew what he would say next.
“The Earth has inadvertently become a liveable environment for the Reapers and other demons.”
“The Reapers no longer need to just come up and feed Aurora. Soon they will be able to live in our atmosphere.”
Aurora struggled to take it all in. If the Reapers were allowed to rise and remain on Earth, everything she loved would die. “I understand,” she whispered. “But why Gabriel? What is his role in all of this?”
Lucius smiled and to her surprise, leaned forward and kissed her softly on the forehead.
“A descendant, even one as powerful as you, does not have the ability to destroy a demon. But Gabriel carries the bloodline of one of the most important strigoi to ever walk this Earth. One even more important than your father.”
“But he was just a human before you changed him. I don’t understand?”
“That may be so, but even as a human Gabriel carried the original bloodline. Aurora, our true history began when the very first demon was created in Hell with one purpose.”
“I know, to destroy humans.”
“I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple.” Lucius retreated to an olive armchair that glimmered with threads of gold. “You see, God loved humans so much that He created them in His own image. When Satan was cast from Heaven he promised to take revenge on the Heavenly Father by creating his own race of ‘humans’. It was the ultimate insult you see, to recreate God’s work out of hate instead of love. Humans could procreate and multiply and so could his demons. In fact, not only could they procreate with each other, they discovered they could also turn God’s humans into versions of themselves. Satan truly was the universe’s first alchemist.”
“And that’s why they were able to change their fate, to stay on the human realm instead of destroying humans,” Aurora nodded. “Free will. But what does any of this have to do with Gabriel?”
“As you know, Satan’s first demons were called vampire. When the vampire began selectively changing humans, those souls became the strigoi like your father. That’s why it was possible for your father to create life with your mother and why you are sitting before me today.”
“Gabriel carries the bloodline of the very first strigoi. A Serbian named Arnold Paole who had the great fortune of becoming the first human ever to be changed by a vampire.”
Aurora tried to imagine the encounter. Had Paole been terrified or excited? What had the vampire looked like? How did they meet? She longed for answers, but time was running out. She needed to find out as much as she could about Gabriel and the Reapers before he got too far ahead and she couldn’t catch up. “And Gabriel is the last strigoi to carry the original bloodline?”
Was she imagining it or did a look of sadness cloud Lucius’ eyes? If they were the last of their kind and Gabriel was the only living strigoi, then Lucius and the Council were a race that was all but extinct.
“That’s right child.”
“And what happened to the other vampires?”
“What happened indeed,” he sighed. “Humans child, one day they stopped being food and instead became vigilantes. Once they knew of our existence the humans stopped at nothing to eradicate our species from the Earth. They do not like anything that threatens their power you see. They like to always be at the top of the food chain.”
“But if vampires were so powerful then how did humans defeat them?”
“As they became part of society the confidence of vampires grew. They implemented themselves within royal families and took on key roles in government. They stopped living in the shadows. It was inevitable their secret would be uncovered and despite their efforts to create as many worthy strigoi as they could, between vigilantes and disease eventually all were killed. As a race the strigoi also feared being exposed, especially after what happened to their creators, so they stayed close to the ground. But as you know, they too all died out after being infected with human diseases. That marked the end of both our races, except for us, and of course now Gabriel.”
Aurora let it all sink in. “And what happened in Hell once Satan’s creation was destroyed. He must have been angered?”
“Never one to be deterred, Satan set about creating a new race of demons and this time he meant business. He knew one day there would be a great battle between Heaven and Hell and so he created a new army, one that would not share the weakness of the vampire. They were nothing like humans, but that also meant they couldn’t survive for long periods on the earthly realm, until now.”
“And these demons have a leader. The one in charge of the ritual we saw in the jungle. The one who killed my mother.”
“Yes, his name is Melloch. He leads Hell’s army.”
Aurora nodded and thought over everything Lucius had told her. “If the army was created for an impending battle between Heaven and Hell, then who do they fight in the meantime?”
“They feed and they wait.” Lucius told her. “And that’s all they do. That was until Melloch went and created a little agenda of his own.”
“To rise up and take over the Earth?”
“But why can’t you and the Council kill the Reapers?”
“Aurora, we may be demons but we are hundreds of years old. We are no match for Melloch and his army.”
“And neither is Gabriel,” she countered. “They’ll kill him.”
“That may be so child, but only a demon can kill another demon and right now, other than us, Gabriel is the closest creature to a demon you will find on this Earth.”