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.
“What about the dinner table? Have any of you seen it? My centerpieces are lovely,” Sasha added in his booming, baritone voice from the library doorway.
“You’ve all been very helpful,” settled Sarah as she joined the growing crowd. Ana and Aneta eventually filtered in as well.
Peering inside the old crate, Charlotte found the hundreds of shimmering, glass globes she and Valek had collected over the years. There was a small owl he’d whittled from an elm twig. “This one first. It’s my favorite.” She handed it to Mr. Třínožka who took it in one of his four normal-shaped hands and strung it over the very centermost branch.
Valek was last to join the coven in the den, rubbing his hands together, grinning.
Poking out from behind a crystal star and a red ball, she found another wooden ornament—a sun—given to her a few years ago . . . as a gift . . . from Aiden Price.
The excitable chatter about the room lulled as all the mind-readers became privy to Charlotte’s abrupt internal upset. So much for staying out of her head.
At once, she yanked it from the box and chucked it into the fire, grimacing as she watched the flames blacken the smiling face. Tears gathered in her eyes. She clenched her jaw, her heart throbbing.
Valek came up behind her, squeezing her shoulders. “That’s all right,” he whispered near her ear. “We needed kindling.” She hadn’t even heard him enter.
Charlotte turned to the rest of her strange family, smiling, though the dull pain continued to throb in her chest. “Anyone want to help me with the higher branches?”
Sasha and Lusian jumped, diving claw-first into the box until both of them held armfuls of ornaments.
They proceeded to hang them, Lusian starting an argument with Sasha about not clumping too many gold ones together.
Charlotte gathered a few silver snowflakes on hooks when Sarah came up behind her, offering a full cup of sweet mulled wine. She was a lush during holidays. “Cheers,” she said. “To a new beginning.” And then the Witch pulled a few red bells out of the box herself.
Charlotte glanced down at the deep-red liquid filling the cup. “Yes,” she mused. “A new beginning.”
A swift kiss against her temple surprised her and she looked up to find Dusana smiling broadly. If she wasn’t so used to the fangs and the demonic blue eyes, the grin might have been frightening.
“Thanks. I’m so lucky to have friends like you guys.”
Mr. Třínožka responded by wrapping one of his long arms around her middle, sweeping her up from the floor and onto his back. She teetered for a moment, steadying herself before another one of his hands reached up, offering her a silvery star tree-topper. “We feel the same ’bout you, girly.”
With a new, happier smile, she leaned forward, concentrating on her balance, as she placed the star over the tree’s very tip. And the room exploded in exuberant applause.
“Terrific!” Ana and Aneta cheered at the glittering pine.
“It’s stunning,” marveled Jorge.
Mr. Třínožka placed Charlotte back on the floor. In an instant, Valek embraced her tightly, some of her wine sloshing over the brim of her cup.
“Who’s hung—uh—thirsty?” giggled Sarah.
With more enthusiastic responses, a few of them tittering off in different various conversations, the group left the library, filing into the dining room, which was dressed just as marvelously.
Sasha really did have a keen eye for table-decorating. Large wine glasses were filled with blood. For Sarah, Edwin, Mr. Třínožka, Charlotte, and Ludo, there were golden bowls topping silver plates, surrounded by more garland, candles, apples, cinnamon sprigs, pears, and clumps of cranberries.
Once they were all seated, Sarah served the first course to those who were eating—a hardy mushroom soup. “You know, I could have bothered with goat and boar and all that, but—”
“Sarah, this is more than necessary,” Valek chided, resulting in bouts of boisterous laughter.
By the time Charlotte finished with her goose and the traditional Czech potato salad, the Vampires had gone through about a dozen glasses each of blood. A small question about how Sarah was facilitating it all bubbled in her mind, but she didn’t bother to ask. As she peered down at the goose meat still left on her plate, and then over to the rabbit on Sarah’s, she decided she didn’t want to know.
Mr. Třínožka and Edwin disappeared from the group after they’d both cleared their plates. The way they both snickered on their way out of the room was an obvious suggestion they were planning something.
“You know,” Charlotte began. “Francis would have loved this. He would have been really proud of you, Sarah.”
The group responded differently. Both Valek and Sarah frowned in deep thought. Dusana and Jorge voiced how much they actually missed the brat, and Sasha and Lusian saluted a new glass of blood to him, the crystal clinking loudly.
“To Francis! For once, I think even he would say there’s too much glitter,” chuckled Lusian.
“Nonsense. If Francis were here, you’d really experience a dinner party,” mused Sarah, smiling, though there was something sad about it. She leaned back in her chair, her hands patting her swollen stomach. “I need a break before desert. Who wants to open gifts?”
“Gifts!” cheered the twins collectively.
Cheerful sounds of bells twinkled from the hallway then, capturing everyone’s attention, before Mr. Třínožka burst back into the dining room. Now, he was dressed head to toe in a scarlet suit with gold trimming. Around his ears, he wore a frazzled fake beard, his head topped with a pointed Wizard’s hat. “Har har har,” his voice boomed.
“Think you’ve got the wrong laugh,” Jorge began. “Isn’t it—”
“Listen here! I happen ta know the real Saint Nicholas.” Mr. Třínožka wagged his finger at him.
“Once good friends, he and I, and believe you me, the laugh went ‘har har har!’ None a this ‘ho ho ho’ nonsense.”
Edwin stood meekly beside the great spider, looking sheepish in an emerald-green get-up and pointy shoes. “I feel r-r-ridiculous.”
Sarah hopped up from her chair, clapping her hands on Edwin’s shoulders. “Oh, you both look simply wonderful!” She planted a kiss on right on his nose, and he teetered a bit. “Come on! Back into the study!”
The group, once more, clamored from one side of the hallway to the other, each of them finding seats around the hearth and the tree. Where there wasn’t before, now, the floor beneath the fat pine was littered with gifts. Some tall, some wide and round, large and small. They were all wrapped in shimmering red and green with gold ribbon. Valek pulled Charlotte into his lap as they both sat in his armchair. It was his place in that house. No one else was allowed to sit there. She pecked him on the cheek.
“I see one with my name on it!” called Lusian.
“Very well,” Sarah sighed, throwing him the little present from Dusana.
He caught it in his claws, releasing an excitable roar as he tore the paper to shreds.
“It’s a new nose ring,” Dusana admitted with a satisfied grin.
“You’re not supposed to tell me,” whined Lusian. But as he finished unwrapping, his grin grew wider and he wrapped her in an enormous hug.
There were too many to pay attention to what everyone was given. Charlotte noticed a pair of matching black dresses given to Ana and Aneta from Sarah. They were the latest in Gothic fashions from Prague. Charlotte and Valek gifted Sarah with a brand-new grimoire dedicated solely to fortune-telling spells. She’d get good use out of it. Fortune-telling was what she wanted to do most, after all. She liked it much better than just simple healing.
Edwin wrapped up a bottle of the finest maple sap for Ludo, and an entire set of Fae-wing tea for Mr. Třínožka who hurrahed his appreciation for such a thoughtful present.
Dusana placed some edgy black nail polish into a small box for Charlotte, Valek gave Jorge the entire works of William Shakespeare unabridged and a Rubik’s Cube, which would take him all of five minutes to figure out.
At last, Valek opened his gift from Charlotte: It had taken her weeks to make it perfect, but she finally completed an enormous canvas drawing of their home and the entirety of their new family. It was elaborate. The shading itself had cost her several afternoons. The house was perfectly detailed.
The trees. Everyone was featured.
The whole room marveled at it.
“Wow, Charlotte. What a talent,” cooed Ludo.
“B-b-brilliant,” said Edwin.
Taking it in her hands, Sarah added with wide eyes, “We must find the absolute perfect place for this.”
Standing up from his armchair, Valek took Charlotte’s face in his hands. “It’s masterful. You are a sensation.” He kissed her very lightly before pulling away. “Of course, I have something for you, as well.”
And suddenly everyone’s attention was on the two of them. Valek’s smile was deep and it crinkled the corners of his eyes. Charlotte smiled back at him. She didn’t know why, but for some reason, her nerves rattled.
Reaching into his pocket, he produced a velvet black box, small enough that it fit into the palm of his hand.
The non-mind-readers in the room gasped. Everyone went silent. So did Charlotte, and her mouth fell open.
“No, no,” Valek chuckled, shaking his head. “Nothing like that. Lottie.” He stepped closer to her. Her throat closed and her mouth went dry. Maybe it wasn’t what she originally thought it was, but whatever he was holding in his hand . . . she knew it was something very important. “I want you to have this. I know . . . she would want you to have it.” He pushed the small box at her and she took it in both of her hands.
Her heart hammering, she opened it, revealing a small simple golden band. Her breath hitched again. She’d seen it before. “But . . . but this is Andela’s.”
Valek’s smile remained, though faded into something more serious and thoughtful. “Yes.” He cleared his throat. “You and I are fated to one another. This ring was an undying symbol of devotion for Andela. She gave it to me before she...” He didn’t bother finishing the thought, his face falling. He shoved his hands in his pockets, suddenly looking pained. “I know why she gave it to me. It was a promise. Once I found you after you were taken, she never wanted me to lose sight of you again. She wanted you to have it. So you always feel protected. So you always feel loved. By all of us.”
Charlotte batted a tear away from her cheek. Of course she didn’t slip the ring over her left ring finger. It was better anyway to place it on her right. She understood the meaning. And after all, her fate line was on her right palm. “Valek,” she breathed, leaning up on her toes to throw her arms around his neck. “I love it. I will never take it off. Never. Thank you.” She turned back to the rest of the room. “All of you.”
He hugged her back. “Of course, Lottie.”
“Well, that ended nicely,” said Sarah.
“Wait, wait,” called Sasha, shaking his finger toward the tree. “There’s still one left!”
The family of misfits silenced again and turned at once to peer at the lone package tucked under the lowest branch. Sarah had thrown around so much tinsel the silver box was difficult to notice.
“Hmm.” Sarah placed her fists at her hips and tapped her foot. “I don’t remember wrapping that one.”
Mr. Třínožka stretched one of his long arms past the group and pulled the present out from its hiding spot. In the warm firelight, they collectively marveled at the simple elegance of it. Prismatic silver wrapping paper with faint swirling patterns was surrounded by black silk ribbon. Near the bow, was a thin metallic tag. Needless to say, it didn’t match any of the earlier gifts.
“Well? Who is it addressed to?” Sasha bellowed.
Mr. Třínožka lowered the present down over the knit area rug in the middle of the room. Everyone leaned in to examine it, but the one who spoke first was—
“It’s for Charlotte,” Jorge muttered quietly.
The only sound in the room was the crackling fire and the branches scraping against the roof outside A few eyes landed on Valek. But he only shrugged, looking bewildered. “It isn’t from me.”
“What say you, boyo?” Mr. Třínožka asked Edwin. Usually, the scarecrow boy was good at sensing when danger was on the horizon. At the first notion of it, he’d sputter and twitch until he eventually just tuckered himself out. But this time . . .
“I s-say, open it, Ch-charlotte.” He only smiled and slid the gift across the floor closer to her knees.
And then all eyes were on her again. With a wary question in her eyes, she glanced up at Valek once more. There was still a lot to be wary of—still many reasons to be cautious. How long would they have to live looking over their shoulders? She couldn’t help but think they should have killed Aiden when they had the chance.
“I’m sure it’s all right.” He nodded.
“You’re surrounded by an entire gang of magical ruthless assassins.” Lusian jeered. “What could go wrong?”
Dusana and the twins responded with a snicker.
Reaching first for the ribbon, Charlotte unraveled the bow, which freed the tag. It was an embossed piece of metal. Not silver. Something darker. Onyx? She wasn’t sure. Examining it closer, she found her name scrawled in cursive. Then, she lifted the present into her lap, noting the weight, the size, and how it shifted in the wrapping.
“It’s a book,” she mused.
Dusana snorted. “I was the same way when I was a child. I could always tell when my nan gifted me a book.” She rolled her eyes. “At least it’s not socks.”
“But, I like books,” Charlotte mumbled before she pulled the paper away from the sides and then the bottom.
Of course, she was right. It indeed was a book. But not just any book.
A few soft gasps resonated in the room when she discarded the paper from the thick volume bound in black leather with silver scrawl on the front and shiny red along the page edges. The Anatomy of Vampires: Volume Two. It looked like a modern edition with a seal on the front that read: Regime-banned literature.
The earlier quiet dissolved into an even heavier silence. Even the crackling in the hearth seemed to hush. Charlotte’s fingers began to tremble as they hovered over the cover. She regarded Valek again. Everyone was watching Valek.
His gaze hardened, his eyes wide. She could see his chest balloon as he inhaled. With his shoulders squared and his jaw tensed, he looked very, very angry.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” It was a deadly whisper.
“I-I thought you knew,” her voice cracked.
“Knew what?” Sarah snapped, worried. She was one of the only people in the room who wasn’t a mind-reader. Naturally, most of everyone else was already privy to the reason for Valek’s abrupt mood change.
Without waiting for more of an explanation, he stormed up to Charlotte and ripped the book out of her lap. She winced and recoiled. “Who sent this to you?” His eyes were wild as he examined the thing.
“It was a note I received months ago,” she rushed to explain, tears filling her eyes. She stood up over her wobbly knees, all of the blood draining out of her face. “When we first came back from the battle at the Regime, someone left me a note. Someone with the initials C.D.” She tore through her memory for more details about the mysterious little letter. “Why didn’t you see it in my mind?” He usually liked to listen to everything in her mind.
“I don’t know,” Valek muttered, still fuming. “Where is it?”
“Where is what?”
“The letter!” He exploded and everyone in the room flinched.
Details of what it said came back to her:
Please see Volume Two.
Yours most sincerely,
“There, now, Valek. No need ta get upset—” Mr. Třínožka attempted to soothe.
“I didn’t see it in her mind, either,” Jorge offered.
“More Light magic trickery?” questioned Dusana.
Charlotte couldn’t understand his reaction. Who was C.D.? Did Valek know? More secrets? Months ago, when they were hiding in the bowels of Francis’s home in Prague, Valek had promised her there would be no more secrets.
“This isn’t like that, Lottie,” he said, answering her thoughts. He was undoubtedly tearing through her mind for an answer. “This is a potential threat! Where is the note?”
Swiping a string of tears away from her cheek, she indicated the bookcase against the far wall. “The third shelf. I t-tucked it between The Tempest and my Volume One. I’m . . . sorry. I’d forgotten about it. I was sure you heard it in my thoughts. I meant to ask you. . . .”
Valek raced on the mahogany shelf, tearing books away from it like a mad man until he clutched the crumpled piece of parchment in his trembling fist. Sarah rushed to gather the strewn books in her arms.
Valek visibly shook as he examined the letter in front of his nose before chucking it, too, into the fire. The flames reacted with bright red sparks before the fire turned black as bile.
“Will someone please tell me what in the Goddess’s name is going on?” Sarah blanched.
“You are forbidden from touching this, Charlotte!” Valek thundered, shaking the book at her. “If I catch you reading this, God help me—”
“God help you what?” Charlotte challenged, her fingers winding into fists. She felt her inner fire race up to her esophagus and out of her mouth. “What are you going to do? Punish me? I thought we were beyond that now.”
Valek’s jaw muscles tensed and he grimaced at her.
Various gazes dashed from one face to the other about the room. Lusian looked like he was rather enjoying this, collapsing back on the couch, a new glassful of blood in his hand.
“Don’t touch it, Charlotte. I mean it,” Valek repeated. His anger was quiet again. Blue fire. “Do you understand?”
“You can’t order me around, Valek. I’m not a child anymore.” What if there was something this C.D. person wanted her to know? Someone from the Light would never send her knowledge about the Dark. Maybe this was someone trying to reach out to her. To help. The uprising wasn’t over yet. She could feel it in her bones, despite all of the hopeful nonsense Valek liked to fill her head with. Aiden isn’t coming back. Yeah, right.
“I. Am. Serious.”
From between the pages, a small scarlet-colored envelope fluttered to the floor. Charlotte glanced down at it, and then back up at Valek before dashing to her knees to tear the thing open. He reached, but she dodged him, shooting to the other side of the room.
Unfurling the card, horrible black smoke swirled up over her head. The writing seemed singed with fire—branded—into the parchment. The embers were still alight. It was a new note and addressed to her. As the smoke dissipated, the letters seemed to cool, turning a shiny metallic—the same deep-red color as the envelope.
Dear Miss Charlotte,
You’ve been cordially…
Though, as she tried to read on, her vision blurred. She blinked hard a few times, trying to focus. Maybe she’d had too much mulled wine. The script grew hazier and harder to decipher. In fact, nothing in the room would focus. Her hands started to tremble more violently.
“Charlotte,” Sarah called to her, though as from the other end of a long tunnel.
And then it came—just like it had the first time in Francis’s home in Prague. Fierce burning flared at the side of Charlotte’s throat, the place of Valek’s initial bite. It was the single most painful thing she’d ever experienced, like flames tearing her flesh away from her bones. It started out dull, but then exploded, like a brushfire, up the side of her cheek, rolling down over her shoulder and the top of her arm.
The first time, she’d begged Valek to bite her again in the same spot. His kiss was the only thing that could quell the pain. The condition was rare, Sarah said. An ancient curse shared between a Vampire and a fated human.
But it had been months and Charlotte nearly forgot about the terrible ailment. It hadn’t come back. Not until now. Valek, nor any of the others, dared to feed from her since.
“Lottie.” Valek’s voice was filled with fear as she fell to her knees. She searched for him in the tilting room, but he only appeared to her a darkened blur against the firelight. She reached for him, gasping, unable to speak. Her fingers were sprawled.
“Val—” It was all she could croak. Her throat was sandpaper.
And then she collapsed, hitting the floor with a hard thud. The last thing she heard was his voice, echoing, calling to her from down a long, dark tunnel.