Katelina opened her eyes and blinked against the late afternoon sunlight. She looked around the room. The bed she lay in was built in an alcove. Carved stools sat along one wall, sandwiching an open doorway, and a table was laden with random items; a vase, a box, and a hair comb, among others. There was nothing familiar, only vaguely exotic.
She peeled back the blankets and swung out of bed. Her back and shoulder burned, and her clothing was strange; an embroidered robe with a faint musty odor. Though the cut was different, it made her think of the kimonos that...
That what? The thought ran to nothing and she rubbed her head. In the back of her mind phantoms moved. The shadows of screams sounded. Crimson splashed on dusty stones.
It was a fragmented moment, captured like a photo. She pressed and others popped to the surface. There was a temple gouged into a mountain. Dust, old carvings. A secret door that led below and then an attack. She smelled terror but couldn't feel it, even as she saw herself dragged down to secret chambers.
A mummy laid in a box. Sorino read an inscription on the wall with a smug expression. It wouldn't do him any good because he needed the Heart of the Raven to wake the sleeping mummy and she had that. She...
He made her draw it out. Made her stuff it between the mummy's lips. The mummy turned into a withered, ancient vampire. It drank from her arm until she screamed. Then it went on a rampage.
The legends said the ancient in the box was Lilith, and that whoever replaced her heart - the legendary Heart of the Raven - would command her. The legends were wrong. The heart wasn't hers, but one of her husband's other wives, and the mummy wasn't Lilith. It was her husband Samael, and once awakened, no one could control him.
Katelina saw snapshot scenes of Munich, Germany and of a battle in a Finnish forest. There was a destroyed fortress in Uzbekistan, laid waste by the Children of Shadows, a vampire cult that crushed everything in sight. There was a jungle, then Indonesia. She saw her allies fighting against the wave of black. Micah and Loren. Oren and Torina. Verchiel hanging by his fingers from the ledge as he tossed his sword to Jorick.
He was etched in her mind: long black hair, dark eyes, perfect skin, and gleaming vampire fangs. When she'd last seen him, he'd stood like an unbending storm waiting to unleash its fury. Malick, his former master, cowered away, clutching the stump of his wrist where his hand used to be.
She tried to piece together what had happened next, but there was only blackness and agony...had Jorick...Was he...?
"He is behind. Better to hurt now than later, for betrayal and pain is all a lover brings."
She turned to see a man in the doorway, dressed in an embroidered robe of bright yellow. Long hair fell around his shoulders like a curtain of shimmering night and his face...She couldn't look away. It was as if beauty incarnate stood before her, with eyes that burned like the heart of a dark star. She was lost in their center, and it was only when he closed them that she came back. She stood in the middle of the room, hand outstretched, as if desperate to touch something so exquisite.
She stepped back. Nothing made sense. Where was she? Who was he? But she knew. She knew him with every breath in her body.
It was Samael.
A feeling of peace enveloped her, too strong to fight. He motioned her to one of the stools and she went without thought.
"There is nothing to fear. I have not brought you here to harm you, only to deliver that which I promised."
His voice was gentle, like whispering rainfall in the spring. She could almost smell the green of the leaves and the damp of the earth.
He laid a hand to her head. Electricity sang through her and memories popped to the surface. In her mind she was back in the cave of the Raven Queen's Temple. She lay on the floor, waiting for Samael to kill her. He lifted her gently and met her eyes. His voice resonated inside her, not as words, but as a sense of meaning. He told her not to fear, that he must prepare the way, and soon her destiny would be fulfilled. She would stand above the world, a queen of darkness who would never know suffering again.
"Why?" She was surprised to find she'd spoken the word aloud.
"Because you woke me. Do you know what it is to lay for centuries, both alive and dead? To feel the pulse of the world, but not touch it? To exist on what scraps her handmaidens slip between your lips?" She drew away from his anger and he softened. "You freed me from the forced slumber, brought back the light." He held out his hand and played through the dancing sunbeams.
She was mesmerized by the motion of his pale fingers. "But you're a vampire."
"After slow march of time, even the sun begins to lose its power. There is nothing that can stand in the way now. We will find Lilith, and we will destroy her and bathe in her blood."
She shook her head to clear her confusion. "You said you'd make me your queen, but what if the person who woke you was a man?"
"Gender matters very little. When they had drunk enough from me they would be beautiful regardless. I am not seeking a lover."
"What if a vampire had woken you?"
"Then I would only need to give them my protection. It is unimportant. There is very little in this world that matters. You will come to understand that." He stepped back, hands clasped before him. "You must feed. There are humans to serve you. You have only to command and they will obey." He bowed. "I will see you soon." Then, he was gone.
Her head still tingled where he'd touched her. She rubbed it absently, and tried to remember what she'd been thinking about. There was only an image of him, burning bright as a star.
The sun dropped in the sky. Katelina gathered her wits and looked for a bathroom. She found a set of doors and stepped out into a paved courtyard. Snow clung in the cracks of the stones and kissed the naked trees. A winter afternoon lit the sky in golden hues that promised twilight's approach.
The robe was long but not warm. Katelina wrapped her arms around herself and looked from building to building. The sloping tiled roofs and bric-a-brac looked Chinese, but not as bright as she expected. The wooden pillars were dark, and the buildings seemed heavy.
She wandered a complex until she found what was clearly a public restroom. There were marks on the wall where a sign had been pried away, but all the plumbing worked. When she finished she stared in the mirror over the sink. Her long blonde hair framed her pale face. Vivid blue eyes stared back, calm despite the strange surroundings.
She checked to make sure she was alone, then unfastened the robe to look at her sore shoulder. The wound surprised her. It was two inches long and looked like a shallow trench. She poked at the scab and flinched. With the pain came a watery memory of a battle - no, the battle. In Indonesia. Someone had shot at her and missed.
She twisted to see her naked back in the mirror. Four jagged cuts ran across it, like claw marks from a giant cat. Or a clawed weapon. A vampire with a bizarre comic book-style glove.
The wounds were clean and neat, so she fastened the robe again. She left the restroom and stood uncertainly on a path. She could see trees and lakes, a curved bridge and decorative pagodas. Mountain-like hills rose in the distance. Where was she?
The door of a nearby building opened and a pair of women hurried out. They both wore jeans and sweaters. As they drew closer Katelina could see that their clothes were rumpled. The women's dark terrified eyes met Katelina's and skipped away.
"The master has sent us to care for you," the tallest said in thickly accented English. "Please return to your rooms and we will bring your meal."
They bowed, and turned to go, but Katelina grabbed the shorter woman. "Where are we?"
The girl barely suppressed a scream. Her companion motioned wildly for her to shut up, then fell to her knees in front of Katelina.
"Please forgive us."
Katelina let go. "For what? What's going on?"
The taller woman pulled her still hysterical companion to her knees. "We beg forgiveness. We will bring your meal to you shortly."
She half stood, still crouching in a ridiculous half bow, and dragged the other girl into the building. Katelina stared after them. She'd seen fear like that before, but it was usually directed at vampires.
The word left her reaching for her mouth. Her probing fingers found her usual human teeth and she heaved a sigh of relief. She wasn't ready to be a vampire yet. When the time came it would be Jorick who turned her.
Jorick. As if his name was a talisman, the forgotten thoughts returned in a rush. Where was he? Why wasn't he with her?
"Because the sun's up." The words were logical, but felt wrong. What had Samael said? That Jorick was "behind." Behind where? Was he going to catch up? If only she could concentrate!
With nothing else to do she went back to her rooms and sat on a yellow cushioned chair. Yellow. Everywhere was yellow. She'd never been fond of it, and certainly not for decorating. From the look of the furniture, she doubted the designer had been creative. Traditional China seemed to be the motif.
She tugged absently at her robe. Where had it come from? Like the furnishings it seemed appropriate for a period drama. How had she gotten there? Who had dressed her?
Her thoughts were interrupted when the women shuffled into the room carrying large trays. They managed to bow under their burdens and quickly set several dishes and a pair of chopsticks in front of her. The taller asked, "Is there anything else that the mistress requires?"
Mistress? Katelina blinked at the title. "I'm not sure I can use chopsticks. Do you have a spoon?"
The women looked at one another and the taller one murmured, "The restaurant."
With a nod and a bow the other scampered away. Her companion bowed yet again. "We apologize. We did not think."
"There's a restaurant?" Katelina's stomach rumbled and she picked at the rice with her chopsticks.
"Was," the woman said hesitantly. "It still stands, but the master will turn it into something else. He has done much already."
"Where are we?"
"The master's villa," she said at last.
It wasn't much of an answer. Katelina wanted to push, but she couldn't stand the terror in the woman's eyes.
The rice was cold before the other girl returned, huffing and puffing, and waving a spoon.
They apologized for the wait, then stood, hands clasped behind their backs, as Katelina tried to eat. Their dark eyes felt intrusive, and finally Katelina dismissed them. Better to eat alone than with an audience.
The sun sank lower and the women returned with lanterns. They lit them, then bowed their way out.
Katelina's thoughts wondered to Jorick again, then slipped away. She tried to remember what she'd been thinking about, but Samael walked through the door. She met his eyes and the room disappeared. She could hear her heart pounding in her ears like a heavy drum. When he finally turned his head, she found she was standing in front of him, her fingers brushing his cheek.
She jerked her hand back. "I'm-I'm sorry."
"There is nothing to apologize for. The fascination will disappear once you have been changed."
She heard the rustle of his robes and chanced a look as he took a seat at the table. Though his long dark hair hid his face she still couldn't look away.
"I had thought to wait until our victory to share the gift of the ancients with you, but your frailty has become apparent. It would be better to secure your immortality sooner rather than later. You will need to be purified first."
"There are rituals," he said dismissively. "They will take three nights. The altar to the night god should be completed by then." He traced the rim of a bowl with his fingertip. "We should begin tonight.
Without thought she agreed. "All right."
He stood and motioned her to follow. She obeyed, her attention so focused on him that she barely noticed when he led her outside and through a complex of dark buildings.
"There are three phases to the purification," he explained as they walked. "Mind, spirit, and body. The body is the last step, when one is cleansed of mortality and all that it entails." He paused. "It has been long since I last saw the rites performed, and though this place is suitable, it is not perfect. Some things must be improvised."
They moved to a covered walkway and Katelina looked away from him long enough to see a giant stone gate. Its triple archways were packed with rocks and rubble. Bits of what looked like silver turnstiles stuck out of the debris in odd places, and she wondered what the mess was.
"To stop them from coming in," Samael said to her thoughts. "This is a complex of some kind, built long after my time. No longer used, human peasants have been allowed to come and go at will, wandering the grounds and palaces. Now they will come no more."
As if sent by Samael, images of people snapping photos, reading signs, and milling down tree lined paths popped into her head. It was a historic site turned tourist trap. Or had been. That explained the restaurant and the hotel. But what about the human servants?
"They were here and so I kept them."
The conversation ended as they stepped into a dark building. Two men, possibly father and son, hurried through the door behind them. They bowed low, then quickly lit lamps to reveal a pillared room.
A second set of men appeared, carrying a pair of cushions and some other items. As they hurriedly arranged them, Katelina wondered how they knew what to do. Was Samael speaking to them silently? No doubt
he could call them from a distance if he chose.
"Of course." Samael motioned to one of the cushions. "Sit."
It was only one word, but with it came the knowledge of exactly what position to take. She knelt on the pillow, hands in her lap and back straight, facing the second cushion.
Samael knelt across from her. With a wave of his hand her eyes snapped closed. The word "relax," or at least the sentiment, echoed through her. The heavy scent of incense filled her nose, and she wondered if that was part of the original ceremony or one of the improvisations.
Samael raised his voice in a sing-song string of words. Though she didn't understand them, she wanted to listen forever. Each sound was perfect, beautiful, and she soared and sank with the rhythm.
The words died away and she felt sorrow at their absence. It disappeared when he touched her head. Electricity crackled across her scalp. In her mind she could see a fuzzy pink blanket and a tiny pair of feet, as if she was lying down looking at herself. A woman's voice cooed in the background and a man leaned over her, smiling. Katelina recognized his face from the framed photograph her mother kept on top of the TV.
It was her father.
Scenes raced by on fast forward. Her father was there, then he wasn't, replaced by flowers and a yearly trip to the cemetery. People came and went: family, friends, teachers, classmates. School years rose and fell like autumn leaves on the wind. Her best friend Sarah cried in her arms. Graduation caps soared. Russ and Janine Telkes were all over one another in the car in Smith's parking lot. Patrick looked at her with haunted eyes. Jorick stormed through smoke and blood. His face was grim and his long black hair whipped around his shoulders. Then he disappeared, replaced by an empty ache.
The room came back into focus and she realized she was crying. The tears weren't just for Jorick, but for everything. Her father's death. Her friend's misery. All the times she'd fought with her mother. All the people she had disappointed, and who had disappointed her. The times she'd hurt someone. The times they'd hurt her. Her jealousies. Her insecurities. All the pettiness that made up her world.
"None of it matters," Samael said. "It is like dust that accumulates to obscure the truth. Clear it away to make room for more important things."
He gestured and her eyes closed. Once more, his voice rose and fell in its sing-song refrain, and she relaxed, spellbound. The words came to an end and he laid a hand to her head. She gasped as lightning sliced through her. The world-or her perception of the world -stretched to infinity. A million stars wheeled in an all-encompassing sky and billions of lives pulsed across the planet, like tiny flames: flickering, dimming, dying, igniting. It was more than she could comprehend.
The depth of field narrowed. Most of the lights disappeared into the blur of the background. The remainder glowed fiery white, with a few that were throbbing points of golden yellow. One was brighter than the others. It seemed to grow and grow, until it filled the world, or else became it. There was nothing but the golden light. Nothing else mattered.
Milky images began to take shape in the center of the glow, like a crystal ball. They sharpened until she saw two men with long black hair and similar features. One was taller and broader, the other more scholarly. Though their names were lost, she knew they were brothers.
They bowed to the gods. No, not gods. Vampires, hiding under the guise of mythology.
The men were replaced by two women. One was beautiful and the other a little too plain and a little too plump. She looked to her companion with dark, jealous eyes. Like the men they had no names, but she knew who they were: the brothers' wives.
The women faded. The scenes changed rapidly, moving so fast that Katelina missed most of them. She saw not through her own eyes, but through the eyes of the smaller man. He touched first one woman, then the other. Jealousy, anger, hurt. The beautiful woman's stomach swelled with a child. The plump woman screamed. A door slammed. He knelt before the gods again. A trail of crimson leaked down his chin.
The flashes moved faster. Moments of inadequacy, anger, powerlessness. His wife was gone and he was alone with only duty. Loneliness, longing, blood. Three women appeared, each one beautiful. Though kinder, they were no replacement.
The name Kanghui surfaced, and with it the feeling of identity, of some importance. Then his wife was back, but unsatisfied. He and his friend took power and crowned themselves, but he chose not to be the king. Still she had some command. Screams. Blood. She gloated while the lesser suffered.
It ended in war. Through the haze of fire and misery he could see the truth, see her true nature, and he surrendered. He begged forgiveness and Nuwa gave it. But she was furious. Suddenly there was darkness and the faraway cries as the three women were slaughtered with gloating laughter. Katelina's mind burned with hatred.
She drowned in the blackness and struggled to breathe. There was nothing else. No light. Nowhere to go. No escape. Helpless. Trapped. Suffocating. On and on it went for an eternity. Then there was the taste of blood. The tiny pinpoint of white light fluttering in time to a mortal heartbeat, glowing in the darkness like a beacon, bringing life.
Katelina understood. Not just the visions, but everything. A thousand mysteries were solved, a thousand questions answered. She understood the world, the cycles, the connection. The meaning. The reason.
The visions fell away and the pillared room came into focus. The link was severed, their minds separate. The shock was like being stabbed through the brain. Thousands of years screamed inside her, and her vision tinted crimson. Her head pounded like it would explode. She pressed her hands to her ears to try to hold it together. A shriek of agony echoed through the chamber.
Then the world went black.