Lothaire could scarcely imagine such a place.
"After all our wanderings, I feel we are close, Son."
That first night, as they'd wended through the terrifying Bloodroot Forest that surrounded Helvita, she'd feared Lothaire wouldn't make it through the freezing night. Again and again, she'd tried to teleport them to Dacia, only to be returned to the same spot.
He'd survived; she'd exhausted herself.
Now she was too weak to trace, so they plodded toward another village, one that might provide a barn to shelter them from the coming day's sunlight.
Unfortunately, each village teemed with filthy mortals. They always gazed at Ivana's beauty and the foreign cut of her clothing with awe-then suspicion. Lothaire received his share of attention for his piercing ice-blue eyes and the white-blond hair forever spilling out from under his cap.
In turn, Ivana ridiculed their unwashed, louse-ridden bodies and simplistic language. Her loathing for mortals continued to grow, fueling his own.
Each night before dawn, she would leave Lothaire hidden while she hunted. Sometimes she'd return with her cheeks flushed from blood, and triumph in her eyes. A slice of her wrist would fill a cup for him as well.
Other times, she would be wan and sullen, cursing Stefanovich's betrayal, lamenting their plight. One sunrise, as he'd drifted off to sleep, he'd heard her mumble, "Now we sleep with livestock, and I must drink from the flesh. . . ."
Ivana slowed, jerking her head around.
"Are they following us, Mother?" Humans from the last town had been more hostile than in any other, trailing after them, even into the wilderness.
"I don't believe so. The snow covers our tracks so quickly." She trudged on, saying, "It's time for your lessons."
During each night's journey, she instructed him on everything from how to survive among humans-"drink from them only if starving, and never to the death"-to Dacian etiquette: "outbursts of emotion are considered the height of rudeness, so naturally I offended my share."
And always she extracted vows for the future, as if she thought she'd soon die?
"What must you do when you are grown, my prince?"
"Avenge this treachery against us. I will destroy Stefanovich and take his throne."
"Before he finds his Bride."
Lothaire dutifully answered, "Once his fated female bloods him, he'll become more powerful, even more difficult to kill. And he will father a legitimate heir on her. The Vampire Horde will never follow Stefanovich's bastard while his true successor lives."
"You must be utterly certain that the Horde will swear fealty to you. If your effort to claim the crown is unsuccessful, they will annihilate
you. Wait until you are at your most powerful."
"Will I have to go red-eyed to fight him?"
She stopped, tilting her head. "What do you know of such matters?"
"When a vampire kills his prey as he drinks, he becomes more powerful, but blood stains his eyes."
"Yes, because he drinks to the quick, to the pit of the soul. It brings strength-but also bloodlust. Stefanovich has become one of the Fallen." She added vaguely, "And it will be all the more torturous. For him, in particular."
She gave Lothaire an appraising look, as if deciding something about him. "Think not of these things," she eventually said, making her tone light. "Never kill as you drink, and you will never have to worry about them."
"Then how will I . . ." He blushed with shame. "How will I ever be strong enough to slay Stefanovich?"
Ivana reached for him, pressing her frozen hands against his cheeks, raising his face. "Forget all you've heard from your father. When you are older, immortal males will tremble before you in dread while their females swoon in your wake."
"You are perfectly formed and will grow to be a magnificent Dacian, a vampire to be feared. Especially once you become blooded." She peered up at the cloudy sky, snow dotting her face. "And your Bride?" Ivana met his gaze once more. "She will be incomparable. A queen that even I would bow down to."
He squinted at her to see if she jested, but her demeanor was earnest.
Lothaire hoped he found this female quickly. He knew that when he was completely grown, his heart would slowly stop its beat, his lungs their breathing. As he became one among the walking-dead vampires, he'd feel no need for females.
His uncle had once chucked him under the chin and said, "Just when you've forgotten how much you miss the cradle of a female's soft thighs, you'll find your Bride, and she'll bring you back to life."
Lothaire cared naught about bedding, but the idea of his heart stopping horrified him. He asked Ivana, "How long will it be till I can find
She gazed away, saying in an odd tone, "I know not. It might take centuries. Outside of Dacia, female vampires grow scarce. But I do know that you will be a good and faithful king to her." Then she asked, "And what will you do when you possess the throne of the Horde?"
"Unite with your father, aligning the Daci and the Horde under one family crest."
She nodded. "Serghei is the only one you can trust. Not my brothers or sisters with their scheming and plots. Solely my father. And of course you can trust your Bride. But what of everyone else?"
"I'm to use and discard them, caring about none, for they matter naught."
She curled her forefinger under his chin. "Yes, my clever son."
They spent the next few miles in this manner, with her teaching him the intricate customs of the Daci as they tried to ignore the cold. A lowering sky threatened even more snow; dawn would claw through the dark in mere hours.
Lothaire shivered, teeth and baby fangs chattering.
"Silence," Ivana hissed. "The humans did follow." She scented the air. "Gods, their smell aggrieves me!"
"What do they want?"
She murmured, "To hunt us."
"Wh-where can we hide?" They were in a wide valley with high plateaus to the east and west. The mortals advanced from the north. Mountains loomed far to the south.
She gazed around despairingly. "We must make it to those mountains. I believe that is where we'll find the pass that leads to Dacia." She gave him a shove. "Now run!"
He did, as fast as he could, but the snow was too high on the ground, blinding bits of it raining down too swiftly. "We'll never make it, Mother!"
She snatched his arm and attempted to trace with him. Their forms briefly faded but wouldn't disappear. Gritting her teeth, she tried once more, to no avail.
Releasing him, she spun in place, searching for an escape-then stilled, listening. Her eyes shot wide. "Father!" she screamed, the sound echoing down the valley. "I am here! Your Ivana is here."
No one answered.
Mortals in the distance gave shouts as they neared.
"Papa?" She swayed on her feet, her expression . . . lost. "I know I sensed him and others."
So had Lothaire. Immortals of great power had been here. Why not rescue their princess?
Crimson tears slid down her beautiful face as she dropped to her knees. "We were so close." The proud Ivana began to dig into the snow, using her claws to stab through the permanent layers of ice.
Even as her claws tore off and her fingers began to bleed she continued digging. "How low I've been brought, Lothaire. When you remember me, recall not this."
With each handful of ice, a hole grew. "You are the son of a king, the grandson of a king. Do not ever forget that!" When the skin on her fingertips began to peel away, he tried to help her, but she slapped his hands, seeming nigh maddened. Finally, she pulled him into the small pit she'd made. "Come. Hide here."
"I must make it deeper, Mother. There's not enough room."
She whispered, "There's room enough. I'll make sure you're safe."
His eyes widened. She meant to fight them? "Trace from here alone," he said, though he knew she was probably too weak even for that.
"Never! Now, what are your vows to me?"
She snapped her fangs, her irises gone black. "Your vows!"
"Take the life of Stefanovich. Seize his throne."
"Whom will you trust?"
"None but your father and my queen."
More tears dropped. "No, your queen alone, Lothaire. Serghei and the Daci forsook us this day."
"I led these mortals too close." She gave a sob. "He chose the kingdom's precious secrecy-over our lives. I am to pay for my brashness, for my lack of cunning. They make an example of me."
Panic flared within Lothaire. "How will I find you? What do I do?"
"Once the humans are gone, my family will come for you. If not, you'll do whatever it takes to survive. Remember all I've taught you." She shoved her sleeve up her arm. "Drink, Lothaire."
"Now?" He shook his head in confusion. "You cannot lose blood."
"Obey me!" She bit into her wrist. "Lean your head back and part your lips."
Unwillingly, he did, and she raised her arm over his upturned face, above his mouth. Her blood was rich, quickly warding off the chill.
She made him drink till the stream had ebbed to a trickle, till ice had formed on the wound. "Now listen. I will lead them away from you, distract them. They will take me-"
"Nooo!" he howled.
"Lothaire, listen! When they capture me, the need to protect me will rise up within you. You must ignore it and remain here. Ignore your instinct and rely on cold reason. As I failed to do with Stefanovich. As I failed to do a thousand times. Vow this!"
"You want me to hide? To not defend you against those creatures?" Embarrassing tears welled.
"Yes, this is precisely what I want. Son, your mind is the brightest I've ever encountered. Use it. Do not repeat my mistakes!" She gripped his chin. "You've one last vow to give me. A vow to the Lore that you will not leave this spot until the mortals are gone."
To the Lore? 'Twas an unbreakable vow! He wanted to rail, to deny her this. How could he not defend her?
She raised her chin. "Lothaire, I . . . beg you for this."
A proud princess of the Daci begging one like me? His lips parted in shock. Words tumbled from them. "I vow it to the Lore."
"Very good." She pressed a cool kiss to his brow. "I want you never, never to be brought this low again." Over his frantic protests, she began to bury him in the snow. "Become the king you were born to be."
"Mother, please! H-how can you do this?"
"Because you are my son. My heart. I will do whatever it takes to protect you." They met gazes. "Lothaire, anything that was worthy in me began with you."
He refused to believe this would be the last time he saw her, refused to tell his mother how much he loved her-
She whispered, "I know," then cocooned him in snow.
Warmed by her blood, he lay huddled, quaking with fear for her. His eyes darted, seeing nothing.
Had she swept to her feet, sprinting back in the mortals' direction? In time, he heard her struggles from a distance, could feel the vibrations of a number of footfalls. What must be dozens of humans surrounded her. He clenched his fists, battling his frenzied yearning to save her.
Yet Lothaire was powerless-bound by his vow and undermined by his weakness.
His stifled yells of frustration turned to scalding tears when he heard the clanking of chains, her muffled screams.
The guttural sounds of men.
He'd been raised in Helvita under the wicked reign of Stefanovich; Lothaire knew what those mortals were doing to her.
As he fought not to vomit the precious blood she'd gifted him, he resolved that he would become one of the Fallen, preying on other creatures for strength.
He might grow mad with bloodlust; never would he be helpless again. . . .
What must have been hours later, her cries fell silent. Again, his eyes darted. He thought he caught a thread of smoke, then the scent of burning flesh.
Dawn. Her screams renewed.
As she burned, she yelled in Dacian, "Never forget, my prince! Avenge me!" Other words followed, but he couldn't make them out. Then unintelligible sounds . . . agonized shrieks.
To the sound of her screams, he sobbed, repeating his vows over and over, adding a new one.
"Burn the k-king . . . of the Daci alive. . . ."
"My sanity will fail me long before my will does. Luckily, the only thing more interesting than a madman is a relentless one."
-LOTHAIRE KONSTANTIN DACIANO, THE ENEMY OF OLD
"Me, a steel magnolia? Steel, my ass! [Laughing, then abruptly serious.] Try titanium."
-ELIZABETH "ELLIE" PEIRCE, EXPERT IN BOYS, REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY, AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT EVASION
"The difference between you and me is that my actions have no consequences for me. That is what makes me a god."
-SAROYA THE SOUL REAPER, DEITY OF BLOOD, SACRED PROTECTRESS OF VAMPIRES, GODDESS OF DIVINE DEATH
FIVE YEARS AGO
So you thought to exorcise me?" Saroya the Soul Reaper asked the wounded man she stalked by firelight. "I don't know what is worse. The fact that you thought I was a demon . . ."
She twirled the blood-drenched cleaver in her hand, loving how the man's widened eyes followed each rotation. ". . . or that you believed you could separate me from my human host."
Nothing short of death could remove Saroya. Especially not a mortal deacon, one among a group of five who'd come all the way out to this vile trailer in Appalachia to perform an exorcism.
As he scrambled a retreat from her steady march forward, he stumbled over one of the broken lamps on the floor. He tripped onto his back, briefly releasing his hold on the spurting stump that used to be his right arm.
She sighed with delight. Centuries ago, when she'd been a death goddess, she would have swooped down and sunk her fangs into the human's jugular, sucking until he was naught but a husk and devouring his soul; now she was cursed to possess one powerless mortal after another, experiencing her own death again and again.