“Aaron?” Natsumi asked, concerned as she stumbled upon the boy staring motionless into the distance. The azure-haired girl gently tapped his shoulder, which seemed to release his mind from his trance. Aaron turned to face her with a look of annoyance. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Natsumi was taken aback by his sudden change in behavior. “Sorry, I got pulled into a debate.” She sighed, but quickly furrowed her brow as she mentally processed the last few seconds. “Are you alright?” Aaron seemed confused by her question. “Why wouldn’t I be?” She narrowed her chocolate eyes in suspicion. Natsumi put a hand to the boy’s forehead and rested her ear against his chest, listening to the light drumming against his ribcage. Doing so made her even more suspicious.
“You’re heartbeat is faster than it should be.” Aaron crossed his arms. “Well yeah, I’m stressed. I’m in a room of people that could rip my head off if they felt like it. You really expect me to be calm?” Natsumi shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. Dangerously fast, as in too-fast-for-your-body kind of fast.” The boy’s eyes widened in shock and a hint of panic. “What does that mean?” She put a finger on her chin and thought for a minute, before turning to Aaron with a serious flash in her eyes. “Have you interacted with a tall man, looks like he’s in his 40s, with shoulder length black hair and naturally red eyes?” She pointed to the mural on the ceiling. “Like that guy in the front.” He shrugged. “No, why?” He sounded genuine, but Natsumi didn’t seem convinced. “We should find Alex. Now.”
Aaron glanced at the azure-haired girl quizzically, but said nothing as she pulled him through the crowd. She only stopped once she reached the doorway that led to an enormous, elongated room with rows of wooden tables and hundreds of chairs. In the very center of the room was a carpeted path that led all the way to a small, elegantly carved wooden table with throne-like chairs sitting perpendicular to the rest of the tables. Despite the dining hall being over a mile long to accommodate all the members of the Tepes clan, Aaron could clearly see the dark-haired Romanian, sitting with an uncomfortable and bored look on his face. Next to him was a rather fit looking girl with similar shaded locks of long almond hair, which she pulled into two tight ponytails. Her well defined form was complimented with a long, ruby cocktail dress, that matched her rosie orbs. They looked to be similar ages, though Aaron had no way of knowing her true age based solely on physical appearance.
Natsumi and Aaron swerved in and out of the large gathering until they reached Alex at the other end. As they got closer, they saw another man sitting at the end of the wide table. The strains of dark, almost black hair that fell over his shoulder and his deep red eyes were vaguely familiar to the boy, though he couldn’t quite understand why. Natsumi, however, seemed very aware of the man’s presence as she halted in her tracks, cursing under her breath. The man took a sip of red from his crystal wine glass and smiled. “There you are! We were waiting for you.” He gave them a slightly sinister grin that made Natsumi shiver with unease. She tried to hide her fear under a polite smile and bowed respectively to the tall man. “Sorry to keep you waiting, sir. I hope we’re not late.” From the way she was acting, Aaron could only assume this was Vladimir Tepes. His aura softened and he sat back in his chair. “Not at all. Have a seat.” He gestured to the two empty spaces at the otherwise crowded table. Aaron looked to the people sitting, only now realizing Tarje to Alex’s left. His signature glaring eyes and irritated demeanor were gone. Tarje had lost all the confidence Aaron knew him for and was instead staring timidly at his plate of food. The boy caught a glimpse of defeat in his eyes and that only made his panic rise.
Natsumi nodded and sat across from Alex and Tarje, between two people Aaron didn’t know or recognize. The only seat left was the corner next to Tarje. With an uneasy sigh, the freshman sat at the vampire’s table. As he did so, his azure eyes flared with shock. On the end seat directly adjacent to him, was a mature young lady with curly crimson hair and dark blue eyes. She wore a tight blue pencil dress and lacked her striking ruby coat, but Aaron knew that face anywhere. The boy’s eyes turned a deep, yet glowing scarlet and his smokey aura visibly darkened around him. “Celeste...” He whispered through gritted teeth. She turned to him and gave him a mocking grin. “Hello, again. Aaron, was it? It looks like you’ve become a bit of a celebrity around here. You should thank me.” Aaron stood, violently sliding his chair against the marble surface. The boy lunged at the redhead, but was stopped by Alex’s booming voice. ”Aaron!" He yelled, his voice echoed off the cold, stone walls. That seemed to get everyone’s attention as the whole dining hallway turned to face them. The freshman looked back at his serious, crimson eyes. ”Sit down." With those words, Aaron felt Alex’s authority overwhelm his mind until he had no choice but to obey.
Vlad laughed, rather maniacally, before turning his attention down the table. “Well, on that note, let’s discuss the reason I’ve gathered you all here today.” He sat forward in his chair and laced his fingers together, resting his elbows on the white table cloth. “There’s been some recent behavior by a large portion of my army that I find...concerning.” His eyes locked with Celeste, a smile stretched from ear to ear, but it wasn’t a pleasant one. His aura held nothing but hostility and malice. Celeste kept a tall stance and innocent eyes, but Aaron could feel the fear overflowing from her. Vlad seemed to be enjoying her discomfort. “I have reason to believe that that sect of revolutionaries is being led by the Nystrom children.” An eerie silence fell over the room. “Well, Celeste? As the oldest Nystrom child, what do you say to these accusations?” The redhead thought for a moment before glancing up at Vlad. However, Aaron noticed her actively avoiding direct eye contact. She was calm and confident. “I’d say they’re completely ridiculous. The Nystrom family has been by your side for thousands of years. We are loyal only to the crown, my lord.” Vlad’s smile quickly faded as suspicion flashed in his eyes. “I see.” He panned his vision to the left and his crimson orbs fell on the raven-haired boy. “Well, Aaron, tell me what’s really going on.”
Aaron felt a tight grip around his arm and Tarje leaned in to whisper. “Don’t.” His voice was desperate, panicked. “Please, I know she hurt you, but...” Tarje continued talking, trying to convince Aaron against outing his sister, but he was no longer listening as a heavy cloud formed around his mind. He felt that same authority he sensed earlier wash over him, crushing his critical thinking until there was nothing left but Vlad’s command. “She’s a liar.” Aaron broke the silence. His voice was deep and his tone seemed dark, angry. “She killed me trying to get to Alex and she sent other students to attack us. She would’ve killed him, but I got in the way.” Alexandru, Natsumi, and Tarje all looked at the freshman in shocked silence. “Aaron...why?” The blonde’s voice was barely a whisper. He couldn’t believe what the boy had done.
With a sinister chuckle, Vlad returned the spotlight to himself. “As I thought.” His haunting crimson orbs finally locked with the paralyzing shock swirling within Celeste’s crystal orbs. “By the terror in your eyes, I’m sure you know what that means.” The man slid his chair away from the table. His sudden movement made Celeste’s heart stop dead in its tracks. Her eyes glowed with panic as several silver knives rose from her purse, flying towards Vlad and the other vampires in that direction. A gasp of shock and confusion spread across the crowd as they watched a Nystrom child attack their master. Celeste’s unique and powerful ability was well known throughout the Tepes clan and the gathering of vampires quickly dispersed as soon the silver cutlery danced through the air.
Celeste’s cobalt eyes widened and she could hear her own heart pound against her eardrums as she stared into crimson eyes burning with unleashed fury. Those hate-filled eyes belonged to the fledgling paragon, who wrapped his hands tightly around her neck. His aura was so dark it was hard to see past the smoky outline. As she looked up, she noticed her own knives floating around her head, glistening blades pointed direct at her. She was paralyzed with fear as she locked eyes with the boy. ”Aaron! Stop!" The commanding voice of Alexandru Tepes rose from behind him as he stood. Aaron, feeling his mind cloud and his head heavy, loosened his grip on Celeste’s throat. “Don’t listen to him. You’re doing great, son.” The boy heard a sudden breathy voice in his ear as Vlad appeared behind him.
“Aaron!” The boy turned at the mention of his name, though no recognition broke through his glossy, crimson eyes. Tarje held his palm outstretched as hundreds of ribbons of floating water rose from the dinning tables and into the air. “Let go of my sister. I know she’s done terrible things. Celeste is a traitor and she’s in need of punishment.” Silent tears dripped down the blonde’s cheeks as his serious cobalt eyes flared a bright crimson. “But, please, she doesn’t deserve to die.” He glared deeply into Aaron’s vacant orbs as his grip tightened around his sister’s neck. Celeste yelped from the sudden pain as the boy’s fingernails dug into her flesh. Seeing his sister hurt made Tarje lose his temper and he subconsciously commanded the beams of water to strike. His mind was eased when Alex’s comforting hand gripped his shoulder. The water transformed into shards of ice and hung motionless in the air.
Aaron didn’t take Tarje’s threat lightly as Vlad and him took several steps back, dragging Celeste along with them. The boy’s eyes then filled with potent hatred. His already blackened aura grew and began swirling around them like angered typhoon. The unnatural wind roared as it ripped through the empty dining hall, shredding weak material like wood and fabric to shreds from shear force alone. The trio tried to stand their ground, but even Alex was having difficulty standing against the chaotic wind. He looked passed the raging storm to Aaron, who seemed unrecognizable in his current state, and then to his father. His amber eyes glared at Vlad’s smug grin. “What did you do to him?! Let him go!” The Romanian’s voice was shaky, failing to hold back the anger dripping from his very words. Vlad shrugged. “What? I’m just testing out my new toy and punishing the traitor at the same time. Two birds, one stone.” Alexandru’s hatred of his father was so potent, Natsumi and Tarje could almost taste it in the air as his aura darkened around him, much like Aaron’s. The two exemplars glanced at each other with concern. It wasn’t often that they saw Alex lose his temper. “Aaron isn’t a toy, father.” The anger in his tone was low, but frightening. “He’s the next generation of paragon. My brother, my successor, and a very good friend of mine. I don’t appreciate you using him like some sort of puppet!”
The paragon’s eyes burned with a fiery crimson as the red liquid that remained in the abandoned cups lifted into the air. The blood condensed into razor sharp pillars of red, which tore through soft flesh. However, as Alex looked closer, he saw that his father wasn’t the one who was injured. Aaron dropped Celeste and had moved to shield Vlad. Countless of finger-like strings of blood pierced through his arms and chest. The boy began coughing up blood and his white undershirt poured with red, but he kept his stance. Shock and regret hit Alexandru like a tidal wave as his crimson eyes returned to their amber form and the blood puncturing Aaron’s body liquified. Alex stood there paralyzed, fists shaking, until Natsumi grabbed his arm. He turned to her. “It’s clear your father isn’t going to let you touch him. He’s using Aaron as a shield so any attack will just hurt him. We need to find another way.” The paragon sighed. “I know...but I have no idea what to do.”
“You sure got yourself into some trouble this time, brother. You really are hopeless.” A mocking female voice appeared beside Alexandru. He glanced to his left to meet the smiling face of the long, dark-haired girl with the now tattered ruby dress. The brother sighed in relief. “Anya, thank god you’re here.” Anya giggled. “Alex, you’re turning 4,322 next month. I didn’t think you still needed me to babysit you.” Alex glared at her taunting. “Make fun of me later, sis. This is serious.” He turned his darkened eyes to the lifeless form of his fledgling. “I can’t get through to Aaron and I don’t know how to break father’s mind control.” The girl with the almond pigtails sighed. “Of course you don’t, because you bothered to learn.” Alex looked at his sister in confusion. “Does that mean you know how?” Anya nodded. “I can break the current control on Aaron’s mind, but you should know that father’s power runs much deeper than just simple mind control.” Natsumi grabbed hold of Anya’s hands, locking eyes with her. “Then, please, tell us what his true power is.”
Before Anya could respond, the elegant table they were sitting at moments beforehand flew towards them. She calmly mimicked a cutting motion in the air with her fingers. As she did so, a violet wave of energy exploded from her fingertips, slicing the wooden table in two. Anya turned to Natsumi like nothing happened. “I’ll tell you later.” She then glanced up at Alex. “Right now, we should get your fledgling away from father. It’ll weaken his influence.” “Got any ideas?” Alex asked, somewhat desperately. Anya put a finger on her chin, silently thinking of a plan. “Normally, the one you call Aaron wouldn’t be much trouble, especially with two paragons and a backup of exemplars. However, going by how savagely he’s acting, I’d say he hasn’t had any blood in several hours, animal or otherwise. A hungry vampire is quite a handful, and a hungry fledgling is even harder to deal with.”
“Oh! Anya! Thank you, dear, for reminding me!” All eyes turned to Vlad as he stepped out of the ecstatic wind. The moment he did so, the dark tornado vanished and the wind settled to reveal that Aaron was no longer standing there. It took the group second to notice him on the ground beside Celeste. He forcefully ripped away her evening gown and sunk his elongated fangs into her throat. She tried to squirm away from him, but he pressed her body down with unmatched strength and began sucking the life force out of her. Vlad Tepes chuckled. “Though I do enjoy the chaotic nature of a ravenous fledgling, desperate for blood, their mind is blinded by that hunger and is thus weakened because they can no longer use their powers effectively.” His face twisted into a sinister smile. “I should’ve remembered to feed my pet. However, in my old age, I guess that thought escaped me. I’m grateful you’re here to remind an old man of such important things, Anya.” He glanced at Aaron as he drank the blood from Celeste. Though her blood wasn’t human, it was enough to quickly heal his numerous wounds. When he was done, he stood, empty eyes locking with Alex as red flowed from his mouth and stained his clothes. Celeste gripped Aaron’s legs and tried to pull herself up, but it seemed she was far too weak to stand. She was unnaturally pale and her arms shook just attempting to raise them from the ground. “It seems you feel better now, huh Aaron? Wonderful! Now for the parasite at your feet.”
Aaron looked down at the woman trying to climb up his legs as anger swirled in his eyes. Tarje saw that hatred and ran to his sister’s aid. “Stop! Don’t hurt her!” Before he could get to her, Aaron smashed his foot against her chest, using all of his weight to crush her ribcage. Power flowed freely from the boy’s body as the marble floor cracked and caved in under Celeste’s body. She cried in pain and blood spilled from her mouth. “I’m sorry...please, spare me...” The redhead looked up, tears running from her crystal eyes as she watched Aaron ready another attack. However, his momentum was stopped as a lavender whip of energy wrapped around his torso and flew him across the room. “Alright, little one. That’s enough.” Anya said sternly, like a disappointed mother disciplining her son. Alex glared at her roughness. “Be careful with him, please.” All the girl did was roll her eyes. “He might not be a full vampire, but he is a paragon. No need to baby him. He can take a beating.” Anya’s blunt nature made her brother sigh in frustration. “Maybe, but he’s not our enemy. There’s no need to cause unnecessary damage.” The older sister laughed. “My, my, how you’ve changed. The Alex I knew wouldn’t hesitate to shatter an entire city to pieces just to prove his strength.”
Alex tried to respond, but Natsumi pushed her way between them. “You two can bicker in the safety of our dorm. Right now, we need to get Aaron and Celeste out of here.” The three of them looked to Tarje, who held his sister in his hands. They then looked to the opposite of the room where Aaron was tossed. His body was lying motionless atop the remains of one of the dining tables. Alex appeared next to him and crouched down to inspect his wounds. However, as he sat face to face with Aaron, his eyes suddenly opened, revealing swirling crimson orbs. Alexandru was rocketed to the other side of the room by an invisible force, which stopped everyone in their tracks. Alex groaned as his back connected with the unforgiving stone wall. His vision was hazy and it took him a minute to stand due to the immense pain that spread throughout his body.
Alex silently studied the room. From Tarje, holding his unconscious sister, to Natsumi and Anya, who were standing in the center of the vast hall, and then to Aaron at the other side. He tried to think of some sort of strategy, but he only came up with one. They had to leave, as fast as possible, to get Aaron away from Vlad’s corruption. Celeste also had severe injuries that required professional attention. She needed help and soon. Alex nodded to himself, making up his mind. He vanished, reappearing between Anya and Natsumi. He took both girls by the arms and disappeared again. All three of them reappeared beside Tarje and Celeste. Alex turned to Anya. “Grab Aaron. We’re leaving.” She nodded as the same violet whip emerged from her fingertips. It stretched across the room and wrapped around Aaron’s body once again. “Got him, go ahead.” Anya said with a smile and with that, they all dissipated from view.
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