READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Of Blood and Magic by Shayne Leighton
Charlotte Ruzikova returns to her home in the Bohemian countryside, accompanied by her Vampire and their newfound family. By day, everything seems peaceful. But when night falls, more monsters descend upon our loveable coven of misfits and rogues.
A mysterious organization toils one thousand meters under Prague, threatening to unearth some deadly secrets about Valek’s past. All the while, a strange illness threatens Charlotte’s mortality.
Which monsters can be trusted, and which will eat her alive? Will love conquer death ...or will Charlotte drown in her own, toxic blood?
Shayne Leighton’s riveting sequel to Of Light and Darkness, OF BLOOD AND MAGIC, is out Tuesday, December 8th! Preorder your copy today:
Death was an unexpected visitor that came knocking at my door the moment I needed it the most.
Death was surprisingly dependable. Death was what my life had been missing….
I will never forget those final moments as I was ushered into hell—into becoming the thing I was never supposed to be—
Valek, the vile leech, clung to me for support while the severe light of early morning tore through his stony flesh. I watched it rupture his wretched heart, burning him from the inside. We were killing each other. Light and dark. At last entwined in battle. But I was winning. I had to be winning. I almost laughed as he suckled the life from me like nothing more than larva starving for sustenance.
Death, in that moment, felt so undeniably good. I opened my arms wide and welcomed it.
Even now, it feels as though my enthronement ceremony was only yesterday—standing with the rest of my Regime brothers at dawn in front of hundreds of our subjects, about to embrace a life of love and servitude with the one I desired most. With Charlotte.
Minutes away from taking the throne. A new day. A new reign. A new dawn. Just like Vladislov promised me. Just like they all promised me.
The sun stretched over the wicked spires of the Tyn Church, eager to commandeer its rightful place at the very top of the atmosphere, where the light belonged. Night died a slow death beneath the morning’s violent yellow onslaught. It set a wicked gleam in my father’s eye as he looked upon me, at last, with pride. Finally, I’d done something worthy of his affection.
Charlotte trembled. I noted the strain in her face, the jewels of sweat glistening at the base of her throat, the faint shudder of her eyelashes as she fought back tears. She didn’t realize it, but all I was trying to do was good—to rescue her from her miserable life of shadow with those blood mongers.
The high priest’s words melded together as I went on fantasizing about how satisfying my wedding night would be, exactly the fusion of passion and revenge I’d been craving for so long. I was about to have my turn with the entire Occult society, with Charlotte, and if all went well, the entire world.
However, the fates had much different expectations for me.
At first, I hadn’t noticed them enter the throne hall—those heathens. My back was turned to the doors as I headed up the gilded steps to the royal chair. All eyes were on me…until chaos ensued.
The next thing I heard was the slam of heavy doors on ancient, rusty hinges. Gasps and screams chorused behind me. He stormed my celebration. The bane of my existence. The leech. The dark hero, or so, that was the picture Charlotte painted of him. I burned with rage when I saw the relentlessness in his eyes. The determination. The hell-bent fury. She cried his name in I way I knew she would never utter mine.
Enough was enough.
I launched myself into the riot, fighting with everything I had until his icy teeth buried into the flesh at my throat. I shoved him hard enough to knock one of his shoulders out of its socket. The room went blurry. An impossibly strong vacuuming sensation pulled at my insides, all the fluid in my body feeling like it was being suctioned out. The empty half of myself fell completely to numbness as I continued to fight him with all my might. My mouth opened, but my throat was ravaged like I’d swallowed handfuls of sand.
There was no sound but my own dying heartbeat. In spite of my life being ripped from me, I could still hear my stubborn pulse hammering, a reminder to hold tight for what was to come.
My fists slammed over his spine over a dozen times, it seemed. I could have sworn I’d even cracked a few ribs, though he refused to break in my arms—too cursed by the evil inside of him to yield against my power. I continued to fight. It was all I could do. It was instinct—my last will to survive at the clutches of darkness.
Those in the crowd raced for any exit they could find in fear one of Valek’s parasites would hunt them down. I recall loud crashing, as if the Regime palace was falling to ruin around me. I could hear Charlotte’s distant wails, muddled beneath the screaming, the bone crunching, and the magic being wielded…powerful fire blasts and the roars of the undead.
While she had been so at ease before this day with her monster guardian, hiding from me in the decrepit bowels of the Golden City, I’d been searching for her. No building had I left unchecked. I overturned every last hole in Prague in the endeavor to make her mine—foolishly believing she was the love of my life—
Charlotte is nothing more than a mere street snipe who led me on for years, squeezing my heart until it bled in her hands before throwing it to the rats and refuse and left it there to rot.
It is where my heart remains.
As I lied slain on the marble floors of my ransacked palace, I could feel something drip onto my lips, seeping into my mouth. I was too weak to see what it was. It tasted metallic. Salty. Rotten. And as my world began to blacken, my mother weeping over me, I, at last, gave in to the forceful tide.
Death was seductive. It beckoned me under and hugged me close. It took hold of what was left of my soul. I could hear a new heartbeat—wet and gushing in my ears. It aroused a feeling within me I could not define. Something I needed to satisfy, though I didn’t quite know how.
At last, I allowed myself to be at peace among the clouded light. My body went limp, turning in the warm soft waves. All of the screaming and crying faded in the distance until there was nothing but my arms and legs floating out around my body, unfeeling, as I swam through the beauty of all the nothingness. Memories of the life I had only just departed from began to muddy and fade.
Charlotte’s emerald eyes were the last of those images to dissolve before me. They did not anger me. They did not sadden me, nor throw me into an envious fit, as they once had. They merely shimmered before my consciousness as a reminder of what my mission would be once I woke again.
And I would wake again.
It might have been days of floating in that infinite abyss. Not breathing. Not moving. Not being. It might have been weeks or months. I was unsure. It was impossible to determine how much time had gone by, or what the fate of the rest of my family was, or of my palace or friends. But the funny thing was…I didn’t care about any of that. There was only one thing I desired. Revenge. I could only wait.
Until, the fire set in.
At once, it turned my calm and cloudy ocean sanctuary to ash as my body lay chained, incinerating. Flames ate through my flesh. I tried to swim through the scorching sea, but no matter how I kicked or pushed, I could not resurface. I remember howling, yet the hopelessness of the nothing drowned out any noise I might have made.
No one was there to save me. I thought that would be my eternal prison— surely in hell, and I knew who put me there.
Until, at last, there was that fateful moment when everything diminished into cooling winter snow. My body was whole and alive with a complete, new power.
I opened my eyes and began my search for her once more.
This time…in the dark….
He heard his name being called from the front of the house.
Thud, thud, thud, thud. Frantic steps came whizzing down the hall.
Stopping his work with a splint and a roll of bandage in his hands, Valek sighed, albeit, happily.
“You’ll excuse me, won’t you?” He said to a Forest Sprite sitting on the edge of the gurney in the stark office at the back of the large baroque house.
“Of course.” Ludo smiled, nursing his broken arm dangling at the elbow—a snapped tree branch.
Charlotte burst through the office door, her eyes bright and big, her smile wide over cheeks rosy and freckled. “Valek! Would you look outside? It’s snowing!”
He chuckled at her, setting down the instruments he’d been using to bind up Ludo’s arm.
“Lottie...Now, haven’t I told you I’d be working for a bit, today?”
“I know. But—” She stopped short, craning up on her toes and sideways to peer around where he stood, giving a short wave at the other fellow in the room. “Hi, Ludo! Sorry, Valek, but it’s the first snow and you haven’t seen it in ages, and I don’t want you to miss it. It’s so pretty in the sun, and everyone’s outside, and—”
Valek’s barking chortle rolled over her prattling. She spoke so fast each of her words melded together into one long one. “Very good. Go join the others. I’ll be out in a moment.”
“Come, now, Valek. She’s right,” Ludo added with a nod of his leafy head. “Go, on. My arm isn’t gonna sprout back in the next minute.”
Poor Ludo. Guards of the Central European Magic Regime had more than tortured the inhabitants of the Bohemian Occult City during their relentless search for Charlotte and Valek just several weeks ago. The tyrannical leaders of Europe’s magic kind sought them out, bent on capturing Charlotte and slaughtering Valek for what he was. Dark. A blood-feeder. Heathen, they called them. Leaches. Scoundrels.
For decades the Regime deprived the Vampire kind of their usual human-hunting pursuits, which brought about the beginning of a revolution between the Light and Dark kind. Anyone who refused to relinquish information regarding the whereabouts of Valek and Charlotte was physically punished . . . or worse.
Ludo was one of the lucky ones, his arm being only the least of his injuries.
“But, you are surely in pain,” Valek pressed, wincing as half of Ludo’s branchy arm dangled by one green tendril.
He shrugged. “Not too much. What you’ve given me seems to be working.” His daft grin resulted in a new giggle from Charlotte.
Valek sighed again, pushing his hair behind one ear. “Very well.” He turned his smile to the girl still bouncing enthusiastically in the doorway. “But just a few minutes.”
“Great! A few minutes,” she chirped, and raced over to wrap her small warm hand around his claw, tugging him forward out of the office and down the hall.
Beyond the foyer, past the wooden doorframe elaborately carved with the many faces of creatures and beasts, Valek could see a group huddled together on the porch landing. Each set of shoulders was wrapped with a different-colored scarf, knitted by Sarah, the Witch who lived with the coven of misfit monsters, and one, particularly vibrant mortal girl in a city of magic that was kept secret from the rest of the world.
“See?” Charlotte trilled again. “Everyone’s been waiting for you.” She towed him by his sleeve over the threshold, shoving their way to the front of the gathering. “Look! Look how brilliant it is!”
“Yes, Lottie. It’s beautiful,” Valek chuckled again, for every day since their homecoming had been the same. Every chance she got she wanted to reintroduce Valek to the world in the daylight. She’d tear him from his paperwork every sunrise so they could watch it together. She’d break him from some deep conversation with Jorge to force him out on a trek through the wood some quiet afternoons.
And he didn’t even mind. Because it was everything he ever wanted.
It had been over a century since he’d seen the sun, having been condemned to a life of damnation and the terrible curse that came with his immortality:
Every morning, with the sunrise, Vampires returned to their deathly state—their true form—a corpse, only enchanted by the power of night and the darkness. Each daybreak, Valek would suffer the same horrible demise . . . over and over again. It was a feeling of being burned from the inside, a feeling of suffocation and starvation, all at the same time.
But the Regime and the powers of Light kept a dastardly secret for centuries. Vladislov, the ancient Wizard and lord over the Regime oligarchy, had been shielding this knowledge from the other Occult sects. He held the only cure—the only antidote for the Vampires’ strange affliction. Blood. But, not just any blood. Blood of the Light. Blood of the royals. The Elves, and anyone who presided within Light realms of magic. This secret was finally unearthed with Vladislov’s demise and the destruction of his heir . . . Valek’s adversary . . . Aiden Price.
Charlotte was right, of course. The snowfall was worth seeing. Blankets of the fine powder glistened like sanded diamonds under the late-afternoon sun, streaming in bright-yellow beams through the breaks in the wintery clouds. Thick flurries of snow pirouetted down over their spired house, the dense woods, and the city square beyond. Snowflakes clumped together in large tuffs, like cotton, as they fell, a few landing in Charlotte’s autumn hair.
She was quite odd in her own right—the only mortal in a family of monsters. Valek found her, an infant abandoned by her human parents in the gutters of Prague nearly two decades ago. He’d brought her up in this world of magic. Took care of her. Watched her turn into the unearthly woman standing before him.
Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he squeezed her into his side and planted a firm kiss at the top of her head. “Brilliant,” he whispered down at her. “But you are even more so.”
“It never gets old,” Jorge said from where he stood, his sweater-clad arms hugged around one of the porch columns.
“Never thought I’d see it again,” added Dusana, effortlessly balancing herself in a sitting position over the thin banister. “I could watch it all day.”
“I only wish Andela was still here,” Jorge continued, speaking about a beloved member of their clan who’d perished during the uprising against Vladislov, Aiden, and the rest of the Regime.
“She would have loved this,” said Sasha.
“We should make snow angels,” chanted the twins, Ana and Aneta.
A sudden white blur whizzed past Valek’s nose before he watched it smash into the side of Jorge’s head. Deep and intruding guffaws sounded from the corner of the group as Lusian threw his head back and slapped his knee. “It’s been decades!” he cried, wiping at the corner of his eye.
“Cocoa!” Sarah’s voice sang from behind them. She, too, shuffled and jived her way between the towering Vampires toward the front of the group, careful not to spill the frothy liquid in the mugs occupying both her hands. The drinks looked festive, topped with swirling foam and red and white peppermint sprigs. Smiling, she handed the first to Charlotte before clanking hers against it. “Cheers!”
And then she swilled a large gulp, the foam leaving a bubbling white mustache under her nose. “I’ve added some cognac,” she added in a very audible whisper, winking.
“Well, what about me? My twigs are frosting, over here!” Ludo called, still within the foyer, but emerging out onto the deck with the rest of them.
“Of course!” Charlotte swiveled out from the crook of Valek’s arm and skipped to hand Ludo her mug. “Have mine. Sarah and I have to finish up in the kitchen anyway.”
He took it in his good hand. Pushing it up through the air over his head, he said, “Cheers, to such lovely…er…friends!” before throwing it back.
“Yes, yes. She’s right. The boys will be back soon,” Sarah trilled. Of course, she was speaking of Edwin, the mysterious scarecrow boy, and Mr. Třínožka, the massive spider Shape-Shifter with a great mustache and a fondness for junk-collecting. They were in the town square fixing up Brouka General Store after it had been looted, the windows smashed. The grand re-opening was only days away now.
“Excuse me, but where do you think you‘re going?” Valek folded his arms over his chest, though still amused as his Lottie turned her innocent eyes up to him once more. “You interrupt my work—you drag me out here—and now you’re leaving?” He lifted an eyebrow at her.
With her whole hand wrapped around his index finger, she pulled him a step closer. Pressing herself up on her toes, she was able to land a soft kiss on the side of his jaw. “Only a few minutes . . . just like you said,” she murmured under a playful smile. “Ludo still needs you and we have to get ready for our Yule celebration tonight.”
Her mention of the Occult holiday resulted in a few exuberant gasps and cheers from the rest of the bunch.
“Going to a lot of trouble for a bunch of people who don’t even like gingerbread,” grumbled Lusian as he skipped down the steps to begin helping the twins with the snowman they were starting to erect. Or . . . perhaps, he just wanted to roll one massive snowball to crush his next victim with.
“Oh, bite me, you blood junkie! Neither Charlotte nor I have ever had a big Yule. Let us have our fun!” The Witch twittered as she began pushing Charlotte back into the foyer.
“Perhaps I can assist.” Valek followed after them. But he nearly tripped on their heels when they stopped short.
“Uh . . . Valek . . .” Charlotte began nervously, exchanging a questionable look with Sarah.
“Maybe you should stay outside with the others. You know . . . enjoy the day a little longer.”
Sarah mashed her lips into a tight line and scratched the back of her head. Casting a sideways glance at some worried thought, the Witch refused to make eye contact with him.
Valek groaned. “What have you girls done?” He dashed ahead of them to find—
Their usually spotless kitchen was now overturned, as though Saint Nicholas, himself, had thrown a whirlwind of a tantrum over what ingredients they were using in their pastries. Valek counted three sacks of flour over the counters, dusting them in white like the winter outside. One of the bags was overturned, spilling a mound of the powder in a heap on the floor.
There were at least a dozen bowls, some full, some only halfway, with sorts of dough that varied in scents of nutmeg, berries, and chocolate. The oven was lit. There was something inside, though with the sensory overload, he wasn’t sure what exactly. The icebox was left ajar, and various sorts of fruits, some exotic, filled the sink.
He gaped at the disarray as Charlotte and Sarah pushed past his sides, slipping into the kitchen from the hallway, giggling with one another.
“What in God’s creation—”
“Hush, Valek!” Sarah batted her manicured, little hand at him. She’d done up her nails in gold that morning. There was nothing about the Witch that wasn’t festive. Even the threads in her century-worn apron still sparkled. “You’re just as bad as Lusian.”
“Yeah! We’ll clean up, right Sarah?” Charlotte snickered. Cradling one of the mixing bowls and a spoon, she merrily began to stir.
Inhaling, Valek softened and rolled his shoulders back. She hadn’t seemed so happy—so carefree—in a very long while. This moment felt so far-removed from their nights of torture and fear he decided, messy kitchen or not, having this holiday was, indeed, a good idea.
However, even with the joyous nature of the day, there was a concern still buzzing at the front of his mind. . . .
“Lottie, how are you feeling today?” He noted the nervous shake in his own voice.
She frowned up at him. “Valek, you ask me that almost every night. I told you. I’m fine.”
“Right, of course. I don’t mean to keep bringing about the topic.” He eyed the side of her throat, particularly the area where his own teeth had punctured her flesh. While in hiding, Charlotte suffered some mysterious ailment—a terrible scorching pain resulting from his cursed kiss. Though her symptoms were fleeting and had not returned since, it was still an issue to consider. He’d been a medical professional in both his human life and this one, and he’d never witnessed anything else like it. “You’ll tell me if something feels out of the ordinary.”
Her smile was fleeting and incredulous. “Yes. For the millionth time, I promise I will tell you. Why keep secrets? It isn’t like you wouldn’t hear it in my mind, anyway.” She mumbled the last bit under her breath.
Valek folded his arms and sniffed. “No. I’m honoring your privacy . . . as you so vehemently requested. . . .”
“Thank you,” she chirped and went on with her mixing.
Charlotte had made it clear time and again she wasn’t super happy about living in a house filled with mind-readers who were privy to her most vulnerable thoughts. So they all did their best to respect her and tune out.
Exhaling slowly through his nose, he said finally, “When you’re through, clean it with a spell, please, Sarah. I’d rather have my countertops and cutlery back to normal again before next year’s Yule.” He lifted his index claw at the girls. “And don’t get too carried away, because none of us...” Eyeing the kitchen, once more, he dropped his hand and sighed. “Never mind.”
Turning, on his heel, he trudged back toward the foyer to fetch Ludo who was still sipping cocoa on the porch.
He thought of Francis, then, wherever he was. He’d made leading a coven look easier than this.
Charlotte watched as Sarah shoved the final baking pan in the oven, wiping at her brow with a quilted oven mitt.
A few members of the coven still played like children outside in the snow, which was now twinkling in the muted hues of early evening. While Sarah rolled, molded, and powdered, Charlotte skipped a few times to the bay windows to peak out at them. Lusian and the twins had succeeded in erecting a snowman that looked an awful lot like Valek, though its face was mangled in a sort of evil grimace with a dried twig for a unibrow. Not a very flattering depiction.
She’d invited Ludo to stay for dinner. He and Jorge were in the library rivaling over an intense game of chess. Valek was still locked away in his office, finishing up whatever he needed to sort out upon completing a patient procedure.
Order and peace, once again, fell over her little life, the same way the tranquil frost made the forest and the city slumber. She sighed, toeing back into the kitchen.
“Almost time for supper,” came Sarah’s voice as she pulled out the roasted duck, browned and steaming, setting the pan over the oven top. She strung the baking mitt back in its rightful place.
Charlotte pulled herself up to sit over the counter. “Couldn’t you have whipped up all this food with a swish of your magic sewing needle?”
“Pish-posh, no! That wouldn’t be any fun at all! Cooking the old-fashioned way is so much more fun.”
She and Sarah had, in all probability, baked over twenty batches of assorted Yule cookies. They would need to pass a few around in the square tomorrow. Or, if they were feeling selfish, freeze them and save them for summer. The massive freezer in Valek’s office wasn’t being used for the dastardly deeds it used to be used for after all—now that the Regime was toppled, there were no ramifications to keep him from going out to hunt on his own. No more bodies to hide.
The slam of the front door shook all the walls of the house and jingled the golden bells Sarah placed around the doorframes and other various nooks.
“Home!” It was Mr. Třínožka’s butterscotch voice. “Smells delectable in here! Someone’s been busier than a queen bee!”
Charlotte rushed to the kitchen entry, and leaned into the hallway finding the massive spider and Edwin hanging their scarves on the coatrack by the front door. “Almost done. Hope you’re both really hungry, because we made enough to feed the whole town!”
“Doubt it,” grumbled the aged spider-man. “We ‘ave ogres in this town. And you’d be surprised how much they kin eat.”
Jorge appeared in the hallway from the library then, as well. “But we can’t eat yet. There’s still more decorating to be done.” Ludo emerged next to him, looking a tad miffed as he rocked back on his heels. He must have lost the game.
Charlotte pivoted to frown at Sarah over her shoulder. “What’s left to do?” After all, the Witch had dressed just about everything. There wasn’t a single surface in that house left un-garlanded or un-glittered. Golden sparkling bewitchments swirled along the ceilings, enchanted lights blinking delicately in every corner. The staircase banister was covered in tinsel and poinsettia, red and white candles fluttering in every sconce.
From the room opposite the library came the baleful Sasha who looked funny with one of Sarah’s frilly red aprons wrapped around his hips. “Table’s set!” he said proudly. They were finally making use of the home’s opulent dining room, which had mostly been ignored throughout Charlotte’s upbringing. With only she and Valek living in that house, there was never any need to use it . . . until now.
“Fine, but what about the tree?” Jorge continued, his moon-bright gaze turned to Charlotte again.
The tree! She gasped excitedly. She’d forgotten all about that. It had been years since she and Valek celebrated the holidays properly.
“Oh, goodness me. Of course,” Sarah slapped her forehead.
“We pulled down yer trunk a danglies from the attic this mornin’,” added Mr. Třínožka.
“Ornaments?” Charlotte raised her eyebrows, but couldn’t subdue her giggle.
“I w-want to h-h-help,” sputtered Edwin with a smile. He and the spider disappeared into the library, Jorge and Ludo dashing aside to make way for Mr. Třínožka’s girth.
“Well, let’s get to it, then.” Jorge rushed up to Charlotte, taking her by the hand and started leading her into the study. “We’ve been waiting all day for you to help us.”
“Sarah? Are you coming?” she called back to the Witch.
“In a moment!”
The study was just as festive as the foyer, with a healthy fire burning in the hearth, more garland littering the mantle and around the windows. Bewitchments that resembled ivy and icicles dripped and wound haphazardly off every surface in the room, glittering gold orbs hovering in the air. More candles of every size flickered, wax melting down the sides and pooling in whimsical heaps over the floorboards.
With his arm over Charlotte’s shoulders, the boyish, blond Vampire indicated the bare tree in the corner near the bookshelves. It was tall enough to scrape the ceiling—nice and fat. “Needs your touch, Charlotte.”
“It’s perfect!” She clapped her hands in front of her face. “Where did you find it?”
“Hauled it in here, myself,” Dusana said proudly, flexing her tattooed biceps as she and Lusian, too, made their way into the study.
“Right, after I helped you chop it down,” Lusian chided.
“I could have done it myself.”
“I do not approve of tree-chopping, I might add,” muttered Ludo. But then he relinquished the smallest of smiles. “But . . . I suppose . . . for an occasion like this, I might make an exception.”
“We’ll plant a new one in its place,” promised Charlotte.