Aurora was stunned at the ultimatum. “Jasmyne how can you say such things? I am your sister!”
“It’s enough Aurora. No one loved Stefan more than I did, but the way you’re reacting to his death is unimaginable. It’s like you’ve gone mad and now you’re out here with this murderer. What were you thinking?”
Aurora and her sister stood face to face out on the snow. “I am the elder of this family Jasmyne. You don’t question me and you don’t speak to me with such disrespect. I know what I’m doing.”
Aurora knew her sister must have been surprised to walk in and see her with Gabriel, but to say such things, and in front of him. It was unacceptable. But her sister didn’t care.
“No Aurora, I don’t know what’s going on but if you’re willing to be out here with him then you are not my sister and certainly not our leader.”
Aurora leaned in and grabbed her hard by both shoulders. “You don’t make the rules Jasmyne, I make the rules. Now we’re leaving. We’ll discuss this at home. Alone.”
But her sister stood fast. “I have the strongest bloodline after you. I may not have had a mother with a royal title, but you need to make a choice. Either help me kill him or you don’t come back. I will have our sister’s blessing to take your place as the head of our family once they know what you’ve done.”
Aurora was speechless and to think this was all happening in front of Gabriel. It was humiliating and it was heartbreaking. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Aurora didn’t know what to do.
Beside her Gabriel took a couple of steps forward and looked at Jasmyne. “There was actually nothing going on between us. She really was trying to kill me, if that helps?” He opened his shirt and pointed at the bloody scratches across his chest. “It hurts like hell to tell you the truth.”
Aurora wanted to laugh. She also wanted to cry. Was he actually defending her after she had just tried to kill him? With his ripped shirt and scratched skin, he looked as though he had been to battle, and he had, with her. She took him in and wondered how she had missed the simple features of his face. The tiny scar under his right eye and the freckle next to his nose. The way his hair hung messily over one eye like the sweep of a bird’s wing.
“You think this is the time to be funny?” Jasmyne hissed. “You’re a murderer. You stole the only person I’ve ever loved. How dare you make light of this?” She turned to Aurora, her face flushed with anger. “Don’t you see? He doesn’t care. He’s not even sorry for what he did.”
Aurora snapped back to the present and stared at her sister. “After all these years, you really don’t trust me?”
“You’re not yourself Aurora. If you were you would not be out here with him.”
Aurora snuck a glance at Gabriel and tried to read him. What was he making of all this? “You would really try and banish me from our home?”
“I don’t know if it’s the loss of Stefan or what is wrong with you sister, but it’s obvious we can no longer look to you as our leader. I don’t…”
“You don’t what?”
“I don’t believe in you anymore.”
The words stung. Aurora was humiliated and she was hurt. How had it come to this so quickly? Just this morning they had been a family. She had believed with all her heart that nothing could ever tear them apart. How could the events of just one day change the course of an entire life? She took a deep breath and stepped back from her sister. “I loved Stefan. He was my brother for more than 100 years, but this was meant to be. My vision told me this strigoi was sent for a reason. I was willing to cast that aside tonight and kill him, but I can’t Jasmyne. I need him.”
Jasmyne tilted her head to one side and stared at her as though she had gone completely mad. “You need him? That’s it, I’ve heard enough. From this moment you are no longer welcome at our home Aurora. You will not return.”
Aurora closed her eyes and tried to breathe. She wanted to turn and rip Gabriel’s head from his body but how could she when he might be the key to everything she had been searching for?
“Stefan is gone, I have to trust my vision,” she managed. “I have trusted them for more than a century. Stefan did too you know, regardless of what he may have told you. His death was for a reason Jasmyne. I still believe that. He did too.”
“Liar! He would not have just stood back and let this murderer take his life. He would have fought. He would have stayed with me. He loved me.”
“I wouldn’t lie to you sister. I love you too, please don’t forget that.”
“Then kill this hunter,” she pleaded. “He means nothing to us. Stefan meant everything.”
“There is more at stake than just our family Jasmyne. Don’t you feel it? It’s in the earth and the wind. Something is coming.”
Aurora could feel Gabriel’s eyes on her. He knew nothing of what had happened to her parents. All he knew was that she had come here tonight to kill him and now everything was back to front. There was so much he had to learn and if she had to sacrifice her family to keep him alive, he had better be a quick learner.
“So be it. You will not return to our home Aurora. And you…” Jasmyne turned to Gabriel. “This is your doing. I don’t know who you are or what you’re trying to do, but I hope one day our paths cross again because despite the treaty, I will kill you.” She stared at Aurora one last time and shook her head. “How can you do this?”
“I’m sorry sister, I have no choice.”
Aurora looked at Aurel and his yellow eyes stared back. The wolf had been her constant companion since she found him as a cub, alone in the woods and separated from his pack. He was not a pet but a loyal friend, free to leave at any time. He glanced back at Jasmyne for a moment then trotted over to her.
“I love you sister,” Aurora whispered. “Please don’t ever forget that.”
Jasmyne shook her head sadly and then turned and walked into the darkness. Aurora held her breath and waited, but her sister didn’t look back.
When Jasmyne was out of sight Gabriel started toward her. “What the hell just happened? Why did you do that? What the hell am I missing here?”
She knew he was confused, but now was not the time. She had just lost her entire family and the world was spinning. She needed space. “I have to go.”
“Where could you possibly be going?” He threw up his hands. “You can’t go back there, you heard her. Aurora, what the hell is happening?”
“I need some of my belongings,” she began. “My mother’s things are there.”
“You can’t go back, they’ll kill you. Besides you need to stay here and tell me what in Christ is going on!”
It sounded like the punchline of a bad joke. Her family would kill her. How could this be happening? But instead of explaining, she turned on him.
“Why? Why do you need to know so badly? You’ve lost nothing. You have no right to demand anything of me!”
“I have a right to know what’s happening in my own damned life!” He shouted back. “And right now, it seems like I’m the only one you’ve got. So, if I’m going to help you I need to know what the hell is going on!”
She stared back at him, unable to decide whether to tear his head from his body or simply walk away and never look back.
“Aurora… I’m sorry,” he began. “I didn’t mean to shout. I just…”
But she was in no mood to listen. “I said not now.”
Out in the darkness Aurora wandered through the Peaks for hours. She climbed over rocky outcrops and hiked along winding tracks canopied by towering redwoods. She could feel the energy of the trees, the vibration of their roots spread out for miles beneath her like the bustling arteries of a subway. She could sense the owls in the trees, their enormous eyes peering down into the brush. She could hear the rustle of a tiny mouse and the racing heart of a jack rabbit.
As she rounded the second highest peak, her body fell into rhythm with the energy of the forest. She had no idea whether she was running toward something or away from it. Everything was upside down and back to front. She climbed higher and higher until she couldn’t go any further and collapsed onto the only dry patch of earth she could find. In many ways Jasmyne was right. For all her searching she still had no evidence of the things that had killed her parents.
So where were they?
She glanced over at Aurel and dared to contemplate her worst fears. What if as a child she had made it all up? What if she had spent her entire life chasing not monsters, but ghosts? The wolf stared back and she could feel the beat of his heart.
“I wish everyone was as loyal as you Aurel,” she whispered. “What do I do now?”
Deep in her heart she knew what she had seen in her childhood home was real and that they were out there, somewhere. In her visions she had seen destruction, barren land and desolation. Those things, whatever they were, were responsible but why did they kill her parents? And what could it possibly have to do with Gabriel? How did he fit into all of this?
She stretched out and looked up at the sky. The clouds had cleared and above her shone the constellation of Orion, glimmering tall and proud. Orion the Hunter. His sword was formed by three stars, the middle one not a star at all, but a ball of glowing hydrogen busy creating new constellations. She followed the twinkling line from Orion’s Belt south to the brightest star in all the heavens. Sirius. It made up part of the constellation Canis Major, also known as the Big Dog, but Aurora liked to think of it as a wolf. She stroked Aurel and closed her eyes. Soon the sun would rise and she would have to face a new day without her family. The only place she could go was Gabriel’s cabin but that came with so many complications. She needed him, but staying there?
She silently begged the universe for guidance but when none came, she rested her head against Aurel’s warm fur and let the rise and fall of his breath sooth her to sleep.
As morning light crept over the horizon, Aurora was woken by the scratch of a small scorpion scuttling over her foot. Tiny and black, it shone in the warm light, the sun’s rays reflecting off its strong outer shell. She rubbed her eyes and stared at it closely.
The universe had responded. It had given her a sign, right there in front of her in the form of that tiny creature. The claws, the external skeleton, they shared the same features. She was not crazy. The monster that killed her parents was real and she had to find them. She got to her feet and followed the scorpion as it crawled toward the yawning mouth of a cave she had not seen in the dark.
“Did you see that cave before?” She asked Aurel, but the wolf just stared at her and trotted after the tiny creature as it crawled toward the opening.
The air inside the cave was damp and somewhere in the distance Aurora could hear the trickle of water against stone. Beneath her foot a twig snapped, the sound echoing through the cave like the crack of breaking bone. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. After a few minutes the cave twisted and the path ahead fell into darkness. She knew it would be pointless to go any further without some kind of light. Disappointed she turned to leave.
“Aurel, out of the way,” she scolded. “You’re blocking the path. We have to turn back.”
As she tried to nudge the wolf out of the way, something on the cave wall caught her eye. The colours were faded and it was hard to make out what the images were, but they were there. She peered up as soft morning light shone in at an almost perfect angle. What were the chances she wondered, of being at this exact location at just the right time for the morning light to illuminate the walls? Could it really just be a coincidence?
She stretched up onto her toes and let her finger trace the outline of a ghastly figure slowly revealed by the sun’s rays. Her nose accidentally brushed against the rough stone as she squinted and tried to figure out what she was looking at. And then she realised. It was them.
Her heart racing, she moved along the wall to another image that showed some kind of ritual. The next image showed them feeding and even though it was only a drawing, the savagery of it made her look away. Lost in her own world, she didn’t hear anyone enter the cave until a twig cracked behind her. She leapt and spun around, her fists up ready to fight.
“Whoa… Hey, it’s just me,” Gabriel told her, his hands up in surrender. “Don’t shoot.”
“Gabriel,” she breathed. “What are you doing in here?”
“It was getting light,” he pointed out toward the sky. “I was worried you might have gotten lost.”
“Lost? You have to be joking, I don’t get lost.”
Secretly Aurora was both surprised and touched by the gesture, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of knowing she had lost her way. “How did you even find me?”
“I’m a hunter, remember?”
“Well, I guess when we need to track rabbits, you’re our man,” she snapped. “In the meantime, I have found a real clue.”
He walked over and peered up at the cave wall. “Right, kid’s drawings. That’s great Aurora but can we get home before the sun rises and cooks me to a crisp?”
“They were not done by a child,” she snapped. “It’s them.”
She pointed up at an image of a monster standing over a dead body. It was holding up what appeared to be human entrails.
“Them?” he whispered, staring up at the primitive drawing. “What do you mean them?”
“I don’t know what they’re called,” she whispered. “But I think they might be demons.”
“I’m sorry, can you repeat that because I thought you just said demons.”
He was standing so close and the light was so dim that Aurora suddenly felt suffocated and had to step away. “Yes Gabriel, demons. I don’t know who painted these but they’re very old. It looks like they’ve been here for hundreds of years. There were tribes that used to live in this region but…”
“One day they just disappeared. Either they were killed off, or just suddenly left the area. No one knows for sure.”
“Well if those things are demons, they sure are ugly sons of bitches.”
“You have no idea.”
“So, you mean actual demons? As in Satan?”
“Not Satan, but definitely from Hell.”
“Wait. Hell is real?”
She was shocked that he could still be so naive. “Yes Gabriel, of course Hell is real. Where do you think your ancestors came from?”
His head dropped, his shoulders caved and he stared at the ground for what felt like an eternity. She hadn’t meant to hurt him, he was just so sensitive. This was going to be a lot tougher than she thought.
“Well, I thought my uncle came from New Jersey,” he said eventually. “But I guess that’s not true anymore.”
“I’m sorry Gabriel, I didn’t mean it as a bad thing. My father was a strigoi too, remember? Not all strigoi are killers, despite what you…”
“Did to your brother?”
Aurora knew her words were hurting him and she was only making things worse. He was so confusing. All the strigoi she had known, including her father, were proud of their heritage but Gabriel was different.
“I think from here on out if we are going to work together it would be best if we didn’t talk about what happened,” she told him. “The reason for Stefan’s death will reveal itself in time. Until then let’s not discuss it again.”
Gabriel nodded and watched her closely, the way she tucked her hair behind her ear when she was nervous. The way her bottom lip quivered when she said her brother’s name.
“Anyway,” she continued. “If you’re going to help then you should probably know a little more about the history of… Well, of those who came before you. According to ancient lore, the original vampires were demons created by Satan and put on Earth to multiply and eventually eradicate humans.”
Gabriel nodded as he walked beside her. “So, what happened?”
“Well, back in the 1700 and 1800s the original vampires looked just like humans, but there were not. They did however enjoy the spoils of humanity. The castles, the lavish parties, all the creature comforts so to speak. So why eradicate a species that not only fed them, but also provided a lifestyle they enjoyed? Instead of following the plan they decided to stay and enjoy their new world. They did turn some humans they deemed special enough into replicas of themselves, but for the most part they were happy with the world as they found it.”
“So they changed some of the humans,” Gabriel replied. “And they became the strigoi?”
“And that’s what I am?”
“The same as your parents?”
Aurora closed her eyes and just for a moment, there in the darkness, she saw her mother and father as they had been when they were alive, glowing with an abundance of love and happiness.
“Not exactly. My father was the first strigoi to ever fall in love with a human, my mother, and she was really something Gabriel. If you had met her you would have been in awe of her. All Scythian women were beautiful and strong, but she was of royal bloodline. A queen by title, but really she was a warrior. She led many horseback raids on caravans of the rich taking only enough to support the clan, enough to keep everyone fed and comfortable. You see, the Scythian women were human, but they also had gifts. They had the ability to connect to the spirit of animals, to feel the pulse of the plants.”
Gabriel tried to imagine a woman more special than Aurora, but it was an impossible task. He wanted to tell her as much but the sadness in her eyes stopped him.
“And where are they now? You’re parents, I mean.”
“They’re both dead Gabriel. Those things on the wall, they murdered my mother and father and almost all of our clan.”
“They..?” Gabriel glanced back toward the cave. “And you’re certain?”
The pain in her eyes told him she was, and he saw that behind her tears for Stefan swam a deeper hurt, a darker shadow. One that had been given time to grow and fester.
“You were there,” he whispered. “You saw it happen, didn’t you?”
She nodded quickly but didn’t meet his gaze. “Yes, I was there.”
And finally, he understood. She needed to avenge her family and he was supposed to help her.
“So that’s my role in all of this? To help you find those things? That’s why you chose to stay with me instead of your sisters?”
They stepped outside of the cave and she took a deep breath, relieved to draw in the fresh air. “My sisters are my family Gabriel, but they are not my blood. Stefan was my blood, as were my parents. But my brother is gone and there has to be a reason you…” she faltered and then gathered her strength. “That you killed him. There has to be. My vision showed me this was the course and he understood that.”
Gabriel took it all in and turned to her. “When I got there, he knew about me. He said as much.”
“He believed in you Gabriel, enough to give up his own life. I have seen those things in my visions desolating the Earth. I need to make it right, what happened to my parents, but there’s more to it than that. Something is happening.”
Gabriel’s head was spinning. It was so much to take in, but he knew she was right. He had sensed a shift in the forest around him as though something was off course.
“I feel it too,” he told her. “I don’t know how to explain it, but something just feels off. Something in the way the wind blows, in the vibration of the ground. I don’t understand any of it, but I feel it deep in here.”
He touched his hand to his chest and her heart skipped a beat. He believed her.
“I need to find them Gabriel. I need to understand what’s happening. The animals are frightened. They’ve been acting strange as though a predator is around. Everything seems, on edge somehow.”
He nodded and tried to think. “Maybe a predator is around, a rogue bear or maybe a cougar?”
“No, it’s the apex predators. Yesterday I saw a six-strong wolf pack cowering in a cave while a herd of deer walked right by them and it is winter Gabriel. Food is scarce, something’s not right.”
His body was rushing, partly with fear but mostly excitement. For the past 10 years he had no purpose, no reason to exist, and suddenly everything was different.
“So, what do we do next? Do you have a plan?”
“Find them and kill them,” she answered bluntly, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“But how? Where are they? I mean, are they here?” He looked over his shoulder as though any moment they might leap out from behind the rocks.
“No, I don’t believe that. I think the animals sense something the same way we do, but I don’t think they are here. Not yet anyway. But these paintings are the first real sign I’ve had in more than 100 years and I don’t think the timing is a coincidence. You turn up and now suddenly I find this?”
“Wait,” he said holding up his hands. “You’re 100 years old?”
“I am 123 years old,” she corrected. “Why? How old are you?”
Gabriel swallowed and stared down at his feet. Did age still come into play when one person was a strigoi and the other the descendant of an Amazon warrior?
“I’m 35,” he told her quietly.
“Yes, but how old are you in total years?”
“35,” he repeated. “I was 25 when I was turned. That was 10 years ago.”
She nodded her head and looked away. “You’re just a child.”
“I’m not a child Aurora. I’m a man and one who is doing his damnedest to try and play catch up here. The least you could do is cut me some slack.”
“You killed my brother! The fact that you are still alive is more than enough slack!” She turned her back so she wouldn’t have to look at him.
“Okay, alright… Let’s not lose our heads,” he told her. “You want to find these things, right?”
She closed her eyes and tried to calm the flames licking at her insides.
“Yes. I want to find them.”
“Alright, then help me out here. How do we do that?”
“I guess the only way is if we do it together,” she shrugged. “I know what I said about not discussing Stefan, but this is very hard Gabriel. You took something precious from me. I need you, but I don’t know if I can forgive you.”
He tried to reach out, but she turned away. “Aurora, for what it’s worth I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
She nodded and started back down the hill.
“Where are we going?” He called after her.
“Home before you start to cook.”