Chapter 1 – Caught
I dragged my feet; every step propelling me forward became slower than the last, as everything suddenly became too loud, too bright, too sharp. It was sensory overload at its worst. My breath ripped from my chest in small gasps as fear, cold and instinctual, washed over me. My heart pounded fiercely and I was sure I wasn't the only one deafened by it.
Now, as I allowed myself to fall further behind the excited crowd, I couldn't understand what it was that made me agree to a free tour of the castle. On my vacation through Italy, I had already seen many like it but none caused the terror that this one did.
There were things here in this ancient place that waited to grab me, like the Bogey man hiding in my closet that I used to fear when I was a child. Only here, there was no loving mom or dad to root out the dark things and demand they leave and no light powerful enough to force them back into the shadows where they belonged. Here, they would swallow me whole and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
That knowledge didn't mean that I gave up. I mean, humans are nothing if not survivalists. Even at our lowest point we still struggle, however futilely, to live. So I continued to struggle and dropped further back, hoping to get far enough away to make a break for freedom and life.
I feigned a sudden interest in one of the many paintings and tapestries that adorned the rough stone walls, but I was trembling almost convulsively and the woman following close behind me saw it and knew the reason.
She was achingly beautiful; tall, proud, with an almost regal bearing. Her long perfectly arranged auburn hair and designer clothing intimidated me. She had been the one in the street to approach me and offer a tour. Why had I not politely declined and then immediately left the city? Why had I not run screaming into the light? My best interest had not been her goal.
She smiled at me as I met her eyes and I knew that was why I had so readily agreed. There was something about her eyes that drew me in and would not let me go. I felt like I was like drowning … like I had no control of my own actions when I looked into her strangely hypnotic eyes. They were such an odd color -- an unnatural violet -- yet they were compelling enough that I lost all independent thought when she fixed them upon on my own.
It took several vital seconds and a supreme effort on my part, but at last I wrenched my dazed gaze from hers and rested my unseeing eyes on the soothing Tuscan landscape of the painting immediately in front of me. I tried to remember what it was I had been planning on doing.
She giggled the sound of wind chimes. "Don't you want to see the rest of the castle?"
Her voice was beautifully pitched, but that alone had little effect on me. As long as I didn't look into her eyes I could resist. I stared a hole in that painting, imagining it as life preserver.
My voice broke in fear with that one word. If I wasn't careful, I was going to totally lose control and break down, and then I knew I would have hope of getting anywhere. I took a deep breath hoping to steady myself.
"I think I have seen all the castles I want to. Could you direct me to the exit?" My request came out more or less steady.
"But the best is yet to come." The woman said. I could hear an underlying glee in her silken voice and I wondered if the best was for me or for her. I had a hunch it was the latter.
I was shaking so hard my teeth were chattering. I could just make out the last person at the end of the tour group I was with rounding a corner and suddenly as much as I wanted her to show me the way out, I did not want to be alone with this woman.
For a second, I debated sprinting up the corridor to catch up with the group, but had the overwhelming feeling – I actually pictured lemmings, following each other to their deaths -- that that was not the brightest idea and merely one thought of for the comfort being near others like me offered. For the woman standing too still at my side was not like me, not at all. I knew it as certainly as I knew the sun would rise in the morning.
How had I not realized that on the street? Her whole being was foreign; her voice - too beautiful, her figure - too flawless, her eyes ... No, we were definitely not a part of the same human race. But what was she?
My sudden realization of her not being like me in any way caused me to take a step back from the painting I was not examining. Frantic now, I half turned to the direction I had come, but she mirrored my movements almost before I had finished making them and blocked my way. I made the mistake of glancing up at her face.
It was held in a perfect smile; a seemingly warm smile, but her jaw was hard. It was as if I was getting on her nerves and she was smiling only to keep up the appearance of being friendly. Her eyes were flat and dead; again it took all my strength to jerk from under her malignant gaze.
I took a step, as if to go around her, and she bent, positioning her body strangely – almost like a cat getting ready to pounce on some small, unsuspecting creature, and put out a hand to stop me when a lightly accented voice from behind caused me to gasp and whirl and her to straighten casually.
"Heidi, there you are. We didn't want to start without you." The voice died off as its owner took in the sight of my pathetic and shivering figure standing slightly in front of the glorious figure of the red-haired woman.
I watched as a tall man with pale olive skin and thick waving hair strode down the hall towards us with long strides. He moved a little too quickly, with an impossible, flowing grace and I moved my eyes from his face before I could be taken away by the force of his gaze. But I had already seen too much and I could not stifle the gasp of shock that forced its way between my cold lips even as I froze and glued my eyes to the floor.
His irises were the color of rubies; they even glittered as the gem would if you turned it this way and that in the sun. An all consuming fire seethed in them ready to burn and devour. I felt the cold sweat of terror trickle down my spine between my shoulder blades.
I felt the woman behind me, Heidi, placed her hard, cold hands on my shoulders and squeeze them a little tighter than was comfortable. I winced as she propelled me forward with no effort on her part although I had planted my feet.
"It would seem we have a balker," She said in a smooth, easy voice. I tried not to squirm away from the pressure she was exerting on my shoulders. It felt like she could snap every bone in them at any second.
What hell had I been thrust into? I hadn't ever been a wild child or a bad girl. I had never done anything in my life to warrant this type of punishment. If someone had wanted to scare me into perfect behavior, they were going overboard. If I got out of this situation – which I was sure I wouldn't, not now, not after all I had seen – I would never talk to another stranger as long as I lived. In fact, I would never leave the Southwest again … maybe I would never leave the house.
"Ah." I heard the man breath. I saw his feet as he came to a stop in front of us. He wore expensive looking black leather shoes.
"Being difficult, is she?" His voice was low and husky and I longed to hear it again, yet feared to. I knew this was a man who could make me do anything he wanted. The dark amusement in his tone was clearly evident.
I fought the urge to look up to see if the same amusement was in his eyes -- his bright red eyes. That thought helped to quash the urge and I winced when Heidi's hands tightened again. I could not help the whimper that escaped me. I swear I could hear my bones groaning under the duress.
I watched the man's feet as he took one more step, closing the distance between us and I had nowhere to go, no way to escape. I was a pathetically weak human caught between two infinitely stronger non-human creatures. My heart stuttered and I fought to control the urge to babble incoherently or blubber pleas for them to let me go.
The man reached out and gently pried Heidi's hands from my shoulders, awarding me some small bit of comfort, but he didn't back away as he spoke to her -- I was still trapped between their taller bodies. They were close enough that I could feel the cold radiating from their chalky skin.
"I can handle this, Heidi. You are thirsty. Why don't you go and get something before there is nothing left." His voice was so soft and reasoning that I almost believed it.
I felt Heidi step away from me, heard the whisper of fabric as she adjusted her clothing or moved to smooth her hair and then she was just … gone. I swung my head from side to side in a panic searching the long corridor for her, confused as to how she could have been there in one second and gone in the next.
I heard the low chuckle of my new companion and eased one foot back as I shifted my body in order to run. It had been awhile since I had run in an all out sprint, but I was sure my high school track training would kick in -- the adrenaline coursing through my body was key.
"You don't really think that will work, do you?" The calm voice broke through my resolve as a voice of reason and he carefully took my wrist in his hand. His touch was icy and when he came in contact with my skin, a current – like static electricity, passed from him to me. I heard the same amused inflection as I had previously and my stomach knotted.
"Well, do you?" He asked again.
I shook my head desperately. "No." Fear had caused my voice to leave, what came from my mouth was a thin, broken whisper.
"I am Demetri. What is your name?" He asked politely.
Anger flared briefly, surprising me. That he could pretend to be so civil and so pleasant. What was he playing at? I knew he wasn't human and I was sure he had a pretty good idea that I knew it.
I shook my head again, gritting my teeth to keep from answering in some snide way. The last thing I wanted to do was get him angry, yet I didn't want to tell him my name either. A name was power and I didn't want him to have that power over me. That was what I told myself then. Later, in my soul, I knew the truth, though. I was simply too terrified at how I would react at hearing the sound of my name coming out of his mouth with his voice.
"Come now, can't we be friends?" The dark amusement was present again in that deceptively friendly voice. Was I some sort of joke?
Again I shook my head in stubborn refusal. Granted, it was probably not the most intelligent thing to do; but they could steal me away, keep me from leaving, frighten me, but they could not make me talk to them. Well, in all honesty, they could, but I was keeping my face securely pointed toward the ground. Even that was distracting, he had very large feet and very big hands; I could only imagine how big the rest of him was.
He chuckled again and moved his free hand to my chin, my breath caught as his cool skin came in contact with mine -- thankfully there was no electric snap this time. He easily forced my face up to his. My trembling started with renewed force the moment he touched me and I was so sure I would shake into pieces that I forced my eyes to the side, so I would not have to look into his crimson eyes. Tears welled up and spilled over in a mixture of helpless fear and impotent anger.
"Won't you look at me?" He crooned, his voice dropping lower, growing even more soothing, inadvertently giving away his ulterior motive.
He thought to charm me with his voice but it wouldn't work, I wouldn't let it. My traitorous heart would though and it responded by skipping at the seductive sound. I shook my head as well as I could considering he was still holding my chin firmly in his big hand.
"Very well," he said moving his hand. He was silent for a long moment, so I deemed it safe to take a swift look up.
I rapidly blinked the tears away, there were so many and they wouldn't stop. As my vision cleared, I was surprised to see him examining the water that had dropped from my eyes onto his skin. A thoughtful frown creased his brow as he looked at them.
His eyes shifted to mine and snared me before I had the opportunity to look away. I was so stupid. I cringed at the sight of those horrible, unblinking red eyes, but was unable to tear myself away from the fire there. If I didn't, I would go up in flames. His face smoothed and he looked up the hall. I drug a ragged breath into my lungs as soon as he broke eye contact and relief flooded through me.
"You need to come with me now." He said, in a very decided tone of voice.
I instinctively pulled back on his viselike grip, shaking my head in denial. I knew what had not been voiced, to leave with any one of the people with red eyes, would be to walk straight to my death and I didn't think it would be a calm, peaceful death. The kind of death we all hope for. I was absolutely, positively convinced it would be the exact opposite. It would be something I would be dragged into, screaming and begging for the earth to swallow me, for the pain and fear to somehow end.
Since I would not look at him, he bent near to my ear. His breath was icy. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I held very still, caught in a cotton-mouthed, wide-eyed terror.
"You have to trust me. If you don't come with me now, you will be killed." There was urgency now in his soft husky tone, a wild urgency that made me want to comply. I saw his face in my peripheral vision turn to glance down the hall again, his eyes flicking so rapidly I almost missed it up and back to me.
The word 'killed' caused my feet to move when he turned to lead me back the way I came. Hope warmed me -- for a second -- until we turned right down another dim corridor instead of left. I turned my head to the exit, but was brought roughly back to the present when I lost my footing and nearly fell.
He looked down on me with a frown as he paused to steady me with one hand and I shook my head helplessly. As it was, I was running and he wasn't going faster then a quick walk -- for him. I could never have kept up with his speed. Despair overwhelmed me as I realized even if I had been able to break his grip on my wrist, I could never have ran fast enough to get away. He paused for the briefest of seconds at a heavy wooden door then wrenched it open and spun me inside.
"Get against the back wall, don't move and I will be back for you as soon as I can." His eyes were hard, like the gems they matched and just as unfeeling.
I nodded like a deer in the headlights and backed away towards the wall once the door was pulled shut after him. I did one better than just getting against the back wall, though. I wedged myself in between the gigantic wooden bed that dominated the room and the wall. It took quite a bit of pushing and pulling to maneuver the thing, but I had just enough adrenaline racing through my blood that I was able to finally get it far enough from the wall to cram my body into the space.
I sat there not moving, not even feeling claustrophobic like I would have at any other time, as the tears poured down my face and I gave myself over to the fear and despair of the situation. My thoughts ran through my mind so quickly, I had no time to decipher their meanings before they were gone and a new one had taken place. I couldn't understand myself, I made no sense.
I must have fallen asleep or into some unconscious stupor because the next thing I remember was being pulled from my hiding place and set on the bed. I snapped awake very fast then and cringed in to the wall, nearly falling into the space I had created in my panicked haste.
He was back and staring at me in concern, though he kept a careful distance. My jaw dropped and I stared at him well passed the time appropriate for good manners.
He was huge. Much bigger then I had first thought; at least six foot three and muscled to proportion. He had the perfect male build; long arms and legs, broad shoulders that narrowed to his waist. He was too heavy to be lanky, but too lean to be bulky. He was the epitome of the fantasy man you read about in good romance novels.
His face was faultless; very masculine with clean, strong lines -- nothing weak about him, a straight aristocratic nose and beautiful lips – the bottom plumper then the top. He would have been olive complexioned had his skin not been so chalky and his curly hair and eyebrows were a soft ebony.
He eased back into a chair that rested near a large desk and I relaxed a bit at the distance between us. I appreciated that he made an effort to move as deliberately as he could, though there was still no way he moved like a human.
"Where am I?" I asked in a small voice. It seemed the most obvious question I could ask at the moment.
His brows drew together, bemused, "Italy."
I sighed; it was clear by his expression that he wondered if I were a bit slow. Though, in all fairness to me, I was pretty lucid. I was not sure that anyone else in my position would be quite that clear, but I didn't know for sure. I knew of no one that had ever been in my position and lived to tell.
"I know that," fear sharpened my voice more then I had intended, "and I know I am in Volterra, but where am I now? What is this place? What happened to the tour group that I came in with? Why should I be killed?"
The questions tumbled out one after the other before I could choose which was most vital to be answered and I was vaguely aware that I was hugging my knees to my chest and was rocking back and forth ever so slightly.
The man considered me for a moment as he watched my self-soothing motions, "You are in the castle, the northwest corner to be exact. And the group that accompanied you is gone."
His words rang ominously in the still air of the room and I gathered all I needed to know from them. The entire group, some twenty or so people, was dead. I felt my face blanch and the convulsive shaking started again.
"And why should I be killed?" I asked, my voice lowering in volume to hide its shakiness.
He shrugged, an incredibly graceful, breathtaking motion -- if a man as physically large as he was could be called graceful or breathtaking, "You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time …"
His voice faded in a way to make me think here was more.
"And?" I encouraged, not entirely sure I wanted to hear his answer.
"And … you appealed to Heidi."
That didn't sound good and I ducked my head, laying my forehead on my knees, squeezing my eyes shut and rocking a little harder.
"Now will you tell me your name?" He inquired.
I rocked for a moment or two, wondering if it would make any difference if I told him or not, probably not. If I were to die, at least one person would know who I was and maybe he could be persuaded into sending a letter to my family. I didn't want to think of the grief my parents would be forced to experience upon hearing that I had died. I hoped they would not feel guilty for having sent me here.
"It's Sarah. Sarah Wilder." I finally whispered.
"Thank you, Sarah."
My name rolled off his tongue just as I knew it would and my heart gave a responsive little flutter. I hugged my knees tighter trying to get it under control and asked the most important question of all.
"What will happen to me now?"
He met my eyes steadily, "I do not know."
"But I can't leave, can I?"
The tears started again; silent and hopeless, they poured down my face in an unstoppable flood. I hadn't known I could cry so much. I soaked the knees of my jeans and nearly jumped out of my skin when he suddenly and silently appeared in front of me, a handkerchief extended.
"Thank you." I whispered as I blew my nose and attempted to dry the unending tears.
He lingered near me, "Is … is there anything I can get you?" It was said so hesitantly -- almost shyly -- that had I been in any other situation, I would have been touched.
I shook my head, "I just want to sleep." And forget, even for a brief moment of time.
As usual, the emotion strain of the situation – not to mention the gallons I had cried – made me want to lie down and slip into a dark oblivion for awhile. I knew that after I had released the stress and gotten a bit of rest, I would be more inclined to be hopeful. I glanced up, worried and met his eyes briefly.
"You won't … I mean, you'll let me … without …" I couldn't bring myself to say the words.
He nodded, "You can sleep. I won't harm you."
He didn't have to say the word 'yet' for me to know he was thinking it. I pondered just letting him get on with it, if death was to be my fate, but I just wasn't ready to let go yet. Sleep would make it easier to process and perhaps we could come up with a solution that involved a little less death. I shuddered, but nodded in gratitude before slumping over to my side and curling up into the fetal position, my back to the cold wall. It wasn't long before my breathing evened and I slipped into the healing black darkness of sleep.