DARK CORRIDORS haunted every corner of the world and even the brightest mansions made by the hearts of Heaven. Alexandretta in all its ancient beauty hardly saw some of the wickedest demons known to man with the history present planting memories of God into every cornerstone, every grave, every heart who knew Jesus. It didn’t matter, though.... When the Turkish and Syrian people and the hot sands under the setting sun slept, shadows walked.
As the moon and stars gleamed in the night of the deep caverns of the jagged crescent moon, one shadow lurked, snaking its way through with a purpose—to find an ancient artifact. Entering the darkened halls of the ruins, a breeze disturbed the quiet peace. Like the murmur of a dark soul.
To a point, the light of the night couldn’t reach into the depths. But that didn’t stop the shadows from moving. The sinister sounds whispered across the stone still. Faster. It was like the pitch-black fed the whispers more of that inner hellfire to find what they were looking for. The further down the voices went, the more heated they became. They began racing, hungered for the enlightenment.
Twisting through corridor after corridor, disrupting the motionless majesty of the sleeping dust and dirt of dead memories, the entity searched in the comfort of the ebony empyrean, no distractions. The dark served well. As the excitement heightened more and more, it seemed to lead to the credence that whatever was searching for something was getting closer and closer. The idea that motivation was a powerful force: it couldn’t have been truer, no matter if the force came from the light or the dark.
Once it found a massive cavern, the sounds subsided some. Only a whisper or two, like the slither of a serpent, it gradually made its way through the darkness to reach a chest of such majesty only seen by its magnificent light upon the opening of the lid. Like sunlight upon gold.
Surprisingly, those dark serpentine whispers somehow sounded like...laughter.
And Nathaniel Krane thought something.... This broke the natural continuum of contrast: good versus evil, love versus hate, pain versus passion. He relished in it.
Somehow, though, it didn’t seem right that he was able to open the lid of this chest in the blackness of the underworld in Alexandretta. Nevertheless, he did successfully.
The power of God quietly exploded in swirls of golden starlight laced and tainted by an empty ardor already long gone. Perhaps the presence of the hideous paranormal swallowed all that light. The two become one, somehow.
A click on the front of the chest ignited, and with a shadowy hand came up a key designed for an ancient palace gate adorned with jewels. The golden light silhouetted it in the hand’s grasp. And the other hand went into the chest....
He wanted to lick his lips.... As if this was the peak of a horrendous revelation to undue all creation, all natural order. God may have raged in His glory at the sight of this on Earth.
There was a plan, however—as dark as any part of the plan may be, it had to be what God intended. After all, He knew the serpent was on that tree to tantalize Eve. He knew that Eve would tempt Adam as well. He knew humanity would fall. He knew people would die—not that He was looking forward to it. Krane was looking forward to it.
Evil had a way of playing a hand in the fates, he thought. Unfortunately, those fates had a journey fraught with many failures, suffering souls, sad hearts and private personal hells. But they all came with a purpose, or so many thought. People would die for a reason. Horrors would happen to prove that the light would prevail, right? Wrong.
Perhaps Evil was already playing the part on the stage. It was inevitable to lead to that ‘happy ending.’
He reached for his prize, trying to grasp onto it, all the while thinking that the people of the world with their baby births, black suits and ties, business attire, shoes, 401k’s, salaries, air conditioned homes, insurance costs, graduations, marriages, divorces, deaths—thinking that it’s just part of life—when it proved to be nothing more than a cage for the sheep to be slaughtered.
And all this time, in the mere absence of life in decrepit earth, the very balance of the universe began to shift right there at the advent of the opening of the chest with the shadows reaching in for something inexplicably mundane, or so he thought.
The shadows thickened as the hand pulled out a carpenter’s cup with a halo glowing around it. Apparently, the mundane became magnificent.
His entire figure formed, eclipsed by the light of the chest behind him. Nathaniel Krane held the cup in his hand with fierce tiger eyes. Yes, indeed—evil had a way of playing a hand in the fates.
Sun Umu Lam… Marcus Brennan thought. What does that mean? kept running through his head as he shuffled through his notes. The name of an archaeological discovery related to theological art and sculpture. Sun Umu Lam. Pressing his glasses into the bridge of his nose, he cleared his throat. He glanced around.
A few of his students in the darkened lecture hall stared blankly. Some were slowly chewing gum like cows at pasture. Others had glazed eyes like sour cream donuts. They were probably thinking of them, too.
It was a far cry from his days as a youth pastor. Being a professor at the prestigious University of Illinois brought on many challenges.
Marcus cleared his throat again, checking his massive flat-screen behind to see if the correct slides were showing. He had the painting of “The Last Supper” on. As he tightened his tie, one of his students spoke—
“So, professor, what you’re saying is,” he pointed, “the whole da Vinci thing could be real?”
His whole classroom seemed to laugh. Deep inside, Marcus laughed, too. Stifling a chuckle, he brought his hands up. With renewed vigor, he calmed them all down.
“Hats off to that author,” said Marcus, “for creating an utter masterpiece of theological mythology and utter fantasy and making it seem so real!”
His whole classroom chuckled a little louder. Marcus smiled. Another student raised her hand. Marcus pointed at her.
“Come on, Mr. Brennan,” she said. “You believe in those theories, don’t you?”
“Now, now,” he said. “Not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of possibility.”
She sat dumbfounded. “Huh?”
“Roll with me on this, guys. Just follow me. Possibilities. Remember what this class is about, people—religious symbology in paintings. Focus here. I point out this da Vinci ‘Last Supper’ here to make a point, and it’s not that I worship religious thriller novels or anything like that—”
“You like that stuff, don’t you, Mr. B?” asked another student abruptly.
Several students burst out laughing, but Marcus caught them and pulled them back with a retort of his own. “Better than splatterpunk, I think—sort of gross and pointless. You’re right, though. I do like cozy religious thrillers.” Some students chuckled softly at him as he pulled away and meandered toward his slide. “Speaking of pointless, I digress. We’re talking about religious symbology. The hidden meanings in paintings. And how do we discern fact….”
He gazed around at their stunned faces, continuing…. “From fiction?”
Countless seconds passed as his students drew silence, leaving that gentle air conditioning drone to meddle through it. He stepped softly in another direction, eyeing some of his other students.
“Anyone?” he asked. “In our history, we have some of the most vehement artists painting, writing, composing. And you would think that some of their beliefs…thoughts…would be embedded deep into the lines of any masterpiece. We all have convictions. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, Raphael, Van Gogh, Goya, Manet, Monet—they had to have had convictions about many things, too. Don’t you think? Politics, religion, morals, lifestyles. As I’ve said before, art is a form of expression. You see it in music today, too. Expression has become the communication of ideas.”
Marcus paused again, watching some of his students peer into the slide. As if they were thinking deeply—or maybe they were thinking about those donuts.
Other students were furiously scribbling notes down. Some kept chewing gum as they held their smartphones up, recording his lecture. The clearing of throats echoed around the hall.
He continued. “History. Research. You learn as much as you can about the artist. You study the era, what was prevalent of that time. In time, you then make connections, hypotheticals. Looking at the lines of the artistic work, you can deduce what some possible symbols within a painting might mean—”
The bell rung.
Students swiftly grabbed their books and bags, heading out. Under the commotion, Marcus shot out assignments, lifting his chin and trying to extend his voice. He couldn’t even hear himself; he wasn’t sure if they did either.
However, that was the beautiful thing about many students at the university-their hearing was superhuman. Godlike. Because most of those students followed the directions and assignments to a tee while seemingly half asleep in class.
Student after student filed out, and Marcus saw all of them out. He whispered his thank you’s and good-bye’s as the students wished him a good day. One after the other.
The last one took one look at him—an attractive blonde with blue eyes, reaching out to shake his hand. She wore form-fitting jeans and a nice tight navy blue turtleneck.
He did a double take on her, though, and noticed that her eyes were pitch black. No pupils. And she bared her teeth. Two fangs in her upper row, sharp as can be.
Her smile wasn’t one of gratitude either. But of bloodlust.
Marcus snapped, seeing her. His heart instantly raced. Pulling back, trembling, he stepped back into the same blonde. Black eyes. Mouth wide open. She hissed a feral screech for a few seconds—
Marcus screamed. Blinking, he almost fell over a few chairs. He blinked again.
The vampire was gone. The vampire—another one, yet again, meddling in his life.
Heart thumping hard enough to crack his ribs, he stumbled back, landing on his backside. He looked in every direction, terrified at what he saw. What he imagined. Or maybe it really was real….
Not again, not again, not again, he thought. He wheezed, shivered. The darkness of his lecture hall seemed to close in on him. He was all alone. Loosening his tie, he cursed himself again for thinking it was all over. After numerous flashbacks about them…. No, the evil wasn’t over. He was only fooling himself.
The slightest noise made him jump—a rumble in the vents, footstep echoes. Marcus made his way through the building. Briskly walking through the parking lot, he tried to calmly breathe out the winter air. The sun was setting. He hated it when the sun would set. It brought back horrible memories.
After the trek downstairs, a trip in the elevator and constant behind-the-shoulder checks, he felt the acid burn his calves. He swore someone was following him. Someone was always following him. How much longer could he run? Sweat beaded down his forehead and cheeks. Horns in the distance honked, shaking him in his winter boots. He hated this fear. Those monsters all started it for him. That fear made his life miserable, losing friends, losing even family. Just a scared, lowly professor.
His lungs started to hurt from the hectic breathing. Panic attack was about to arrive.
No! he thought, stopping in his tracks and glancing around in every dark corner he could find. No panic attacks. He clenched his teeth, wanting to scream out. Those demons, he hated.
And to think he was already done with personal demons. Before, his own private demons followed him wherever he went. Now, ever since those damn vampires, their hideous memory became his faithful companion. It tortured him.
He swore he heard them. Whispering. Laughing. Those sick vampires hunted him down. He wiped his brow, still gritting his teeth. He wanted some of his medication. And the crazy part about that was he hardly ever needed it, because he stood up to those memories all the time.
The horrific memory of Cain, the savage Nikolas and Mason and all those thrells—to see them every night when he closed his eyes haunted him. And angered him.
He saw them again in his mind.
Nikolas’ fierce eyes and angular face, the look of a handsome demon. And Mason’s savage expression, dark looks. Cain’s terrifying frame plagued him and made him shiver uncontrollably. He remembered they smelled like cinders and sulfur. And those eyes…. Those images sent him over the edge.
Marcus clenched his eyes and ears shut. Hoping not to hear their voices. Those whispers grew stronger. All around him. He tried to will them to stop. Slowly, he felt everything grow a little darker, the sun going down farther. It reminded him that it was all inevitable. Again, the voices in his head screamed those harsh whispers, like chalk on a board. Louder. Louder, louder—louder—
And louder—“Mr. Marcus Brennan, may we have a word with you?”
It was a real voice this time.
Marcus turned, facing four charcoal-jacketed men. Two with spiked white hair and the others bald. They didn’t look exactly like college students. Wearing shades, they approached him with a serious stride. The winter wind blew their long jackets aside. He felt the breeze on his brow. Seeing his breath, he started backing off.
“Who—who are you?” he stammered.
One of the white-hairs grinned. “Friends.”
Marcus glared. “Friends? Don’t know you.”
“We know you, Marcus,” said a bald-headed man.
The four staggered around him, forming a circle. His heart quickened. Palms got sweaty. They stared him down as if he were prey. His throat pulsed, and his ears rang.
“Know me? Introduce yourselves, then.”
“Qualiin.” …. “Vix.” …. “Crule.” …. “Jaden.”
Examining closer, Marcus saw very angular, Asian qualities to Qualiin, his white spiky hair chaotic. Vix’s spiky hair was thicker and wavier; he looked more American. Crule and Jaden were twins: Marcus was sure of it. And they looked a whole lot tougher than Qualiin and Vix.
“Whatever you want from me,” Marcus said, “I don’t have. I’ll call the campus police if you won’t leave me alone.”
He squinted and blinked, feeling the effects of his anxiety and stress. The hallucinations. That’s what they were: hallucinations. The vampires were out of his life, and he had nothing to worry about. It was all in his mind. And these four were just punks looking for a sorry, sad individual to mug.
“You very much have what we want,” Vix said. “And we are kindly asking you for it. The Strigoi Key.”
Marcus shook. “I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
Qualiin spat. “Nothing but shit!”
“Give us the key!” Jaden roared.
“What key?” Marcus stammered. “I don’t have any key!”
Qualiin hulked closer, shoulders hunched. He stared Marcus down. “You have what our father needs. We want it! Give us the key!”
“Listen, listen,” Marcus hollered. “I have money!” He fumbled for his pockets. “Cash!”
“We don’t want your money. We want the key!” Crule said in a dark voice.
“What key are you talking about?” Marcus’ heart pounded.
The four of them began antagonizing, pressing. Their eyes grew darker. Marcus looked at all four, thinking the worst. Thinking they could be….
“I suggest you back off from the good professor now,” said a voice across the way.
Marcus jumped underneath his skin. Looking around, he caught sight of a man pointing two Magnums at the general direction of the four culprits. The sight of him actually made Marcus shake more than the four—
Crule and the rest of them turned to face the voice…and Marcus swore he heard them growl like panthers.
“Kidding me…you’re kidding me!” he said.
The man, with eyes like a raptor, wore white clothing. Deep stare. Marcus recognized him immediately. But he couldn’t remember his name….
“Marcus?” the man said. “Walk away slowly. Now.”
Vix, Jaden, Crule and Qualiin each pulled out their own pieces. They growled more.
Maybe Marcus’ mind played tricks on him…but he thought he saw their eyes glow like cats in the night.
A standoff. And he was caught in the middle of it. Not again, he thought.
Not again, not again….
“Once again,” said the strange man in white, “Marcus, please, walk away slowly. Very slowly.”
The hairs on Marcus’ head felt hot. His lungs hurt from exasperation.
He stuttered. “Not—not until I get some answers! What the hell is going on here?”
He looked around to see the four of them, their eyes white hot. Aiming their guns at both him and the man in white. When it couldn’t have gotten more heated, another man appeared from the shadows, pointing a semiautomatic at the quartet.
He seemed to back up the man in white. Making the standoff that much more intense.
Dressed in long brown leather, bald head with an elaborate dark tattoo along one side of his face, his stare burned Marcus down.
Marcus swung every which way, fed up with the situation. He sputtered, clenching his teeth. Every muscle in his neck tightened. He glanced at the man in white. Glanced at the other guy who showed up. He looked at the four strange men…men he feared to admit weren’t human.
Crule spat. “Two hunters!”
“Shut it!” Vix said.
“Willocke,” said the man in white, “I’m not liking this.”
“Shifters, Kyan.” said the man named Willocke.
Marcus then remembered his name…. Kyan.
He swiftly looked around, waiting for her, another welcome guest. Or unwelcome guest, given he faced his worst nightmare. Their leader. He was sure of it now. The looks in their eyes said it all.
“What the hell are shifters?” Marcus yelled.
Jaden approached, taking a few steps. “Listen, hunters, this doesn’t concern you—”
“Back off.” Kyan said.
“Oh, come off it, hunter, we understand your rules!” Qualiin oddly giggled.
Vix tilted his head, eyes glowing hotter. “You cannot kill us.”
“Don’t make us, mate,” Willocke said, poised to blaze away with the semiautomatic.
“Not the time. Back away now. There will be another time. Back off!” Kyan said, still pointing his Magnums in their general direction.
“You won’t kill our good professor either, you know?” Willocke said. “You need ’im!”
“So this standoff has turned into a…standstill.” Jaden smiled in jest.
The four of them slowly started giggling. Louder, and louder. Marcus’ hands shook. He glanced at the man Willocke, a sneer on his face. Kyan stared dead straight, unwavering.
They weren’t laughing.
Marcus’ lungs hurt, holding in his relief. Stuck in a standoff. Or a standstill as Jaden pointed out. Sweat rolled down all sides of his face. His fingers ached and spiked with apparent blood loss, that red rush flushing his cheeks and making him slightly lightheaded.
Kyan looked concerned, watching every move of the four…vampires: that made Marcus feel even more lightheaded.
The actions of those four seemed too…inhuman. Breath tripped at the thought. That’s what they were: vampires. Or else why would Kyan and this other guy Willocke face off with them?
“This…” Marcus stammered. “This obviously does not concern me…. So I need to walk away.”
Crule growled. “You stay where you are, professor!”
Kyan’s voice softened. “Marcus…” Hearing his name startled him. “Please just don’t move—”
“Shut up!” Marcus said. “Shut up!”
Out of breath, shaking in this vile combination of fear and anger, he appraised his situation again in disbelief: four feral men…vampires…pointing guns at him; of course, they were aiming for Kyan and Willocke, who were also aiming weapons back. Marcus was just in the middle.
“You underestimate us, Van’heirshin,” Kyan said, approaching slowly.
Marcus swung his stare back and forth. Afraid someone might get itchy with the trigger. The four vampires pressed their heels down, switching their targeting from Kyan to Willocke. Willocke began to advance, too.
“Cocky.” Vix said, half-smile on his face.
Marcus’ hands ached, wanting to hold onto something. What were they doing? Advancing for what? Did they want the four of them to fire their guns? Marcus couldn’t find his voice. Nothing but emptiness echoed inside his mouth.
“Not cocky.” Amazingly, Kyan’s serpentine stare narrowed even more. “Well trained to face…shifters.”
Marcus stole a look at Willocke; the bald man started looking nervous.
“K-Kyan? Seriously, mate,” Willocke said. “Tanaka, two of us.” Eyes wide, he put up two fingers. “And four of them! Not smart!” He pointed with four fingers at those New Age gothic-style vampires.
Marcus agreed. “Yes! Yes! Not smart!” He started waving his hands like a traffic controller. “Stop walking! Stop walking!”
Their stares literally impaled Marcus from both sides—four on one side, two on the other. From standoff to standstill…to staredown.
He looked at the four—Qualiin, Vix, Jaden and Crule—slowly grinning slightly. They had this set for themselves all along. Marcus’ heart pounded harder. Whatever ‘shifters’ were, it probably solidified their ability to walk off with what they wanted. He could see it in Willocke’s face—forehead creased in worry. Apparently, shifters were…deadly.
He then looked at Kyan’s face and saw something just a little different. Steely eyes still fixed on the situation. Cold, burning resolve in facing a tense dilemma. And a quiet…confidence. As if he were trying to…force the vampire shifter-whatevers to make their move first.
Kyan wanted them to. It was as if he urged the shifters to succeed.
“You’re all an obsolete breed,” said Kyan. “Nothing but punks.”
Marcus’ jaw dropped. Stood there in shock at what he just said.
Willocke did a few double takes on Kyan. Still pointing the Magnums at the vampires, Kyan half-smiled. Eyes pierced even harder. The man lost his damn mind.
Vix, Jaden, Crule and Qualiin grew heated. Kyan was challenging them.
“What the hell do you know about us?” Crule said, growling. “Nothing!”
“I know enough. And none of it impresses me.”
“Vile hunter!” Vix said…. Marcus actually caught a hint of fangs under his upper lip.
Willocke stood in awe. “Kyan, don’t piss ’em off!”
“Please!” Marcus said, hands up. “No one get pissed off, not while everyone’s pointing guns at me!”
In unison, the vampire shifters roared…. “Shut up!”
“Qualiin!” Jaden said, motioning for Marcus. “Crule!”
“Damn!” Willocke gripped his semiautomatic a little tighter.
Marcus blinked, heart skipped, and both Qualiin and Crule vanished in brilliant flashes, trails of electric blue smoke curling around where they had stood—
The hairs on Marcus’ neck sprung tight as he felt the same flashes, ice cold, dance close behind him. Along with two sets of hands grabbing his shoulders. He screamed. Those flashes… engulfed him completely. For a moment, he thought he lost his body and became a spirit. He saw nothing of the parking lot. Nothing of Kyan and Willocke….
So this is what death feels like!