It was tempting to take torches but would suit them better to go in darkness. Snow would cloud the skies and prevent an early dawn, allowing them further hours the following day in which to move about in daylight without seeking shadows. He separated from Amelia and Tanis at the crossroads, silent apart from the sound of the horses' hooves in the freshly fallen snow. There was no moon and the storm worsened with their approach of the outer reaches of the town. Kraven followed him through the darkened streets, their presence awakening no one, the only man to see them stumbling out of the tavern and collapsing drunk in a snow bank.
Many years had passed since Viktor had been in these regions, not since they had imprisoned William. First, he had been kept subdued in the dungeons of the castle and then moved into a prison from which he could not escape. The key had been made by a special blacksmith who had not asked questions, just worked for the sum he was paid. Half of the key resided in Viktor's chest, beneath the ashen quality of his skin, a procedure that had been excruciatingly painful but assured him William could never be freed without his assistance. The other half had been made into a pendant that his daughter had worn around her neck from childhood to adulthood, never leaving her side even as she had fornicated with that animal. In the midst of his rage, Lucian had taken it out of Viktor's hands, fresh off her corpse, as a keepsake, but he could not have known what it represented, or that it might unleash his ancestor. Eventually, he would become curious and search for answers. It was too dangerous to allow the blacksmith or his family to survive.
It would not be the first time Viktor had engaged in slaughter for a purpose, and it was not a task that repulsed him, for his heart was cold since his daughter's death, his only thought to defeat their adversary. Kraven rode with him to the small farm where the man rested asleep in his bed, arm around his wife, ignorant of the immortal that passed silently into the barn. The horses moved uneasily with his presence, shifting in their stalls. It would be enough to awaken the master of the house, and sure enough he ventured down the stairs from the rooms above, holding a lantern aloft in a weary hand, his eyes dull with exhaustion. Golden light bathed the straw beneath their feet and he was surprised as he approached, his uncertainty transforming into recognition. "It is you, my lord," he said with surprise. "I have not seen you in … eighteen years, near about. The hour is late, has your horse thrown a shoe?"
He started forward with a pleasant expression but they were the last words he ever spoke. His death came swiftly and without much pain but there was a horror in his face as he beheld his unholy murderer, fangs bared and eyes glinting in the shadows, pale as the grave and with inhuman strength. Blood seeped from his veins into the Vampire who held his rigid form tight against his breast, memories flooding with it of past incidents and memorable threats. Most of them were unimportant in their sentimentality, but a few lingered even after Viktor allowed him to slump to the ground. He went from room to room taking their lives, systematically, the children awakening enough to scream abruptly before their cries were silenced forever. None would be allowed to remember the Secret. There was just one left, a girl, the daughter near Sonja's age. She would have played with Sonja if it had been allowed, but they had merely looked at each other, one a peasant's child and the other the only offspring of a warlord.
It was a unique scent that compelled him to return to the barn, where he found her weeping over her father's cold form. She was huddled mass of dark hair and slender limbs beneath the folds of her nightdress, shivering as much from the cold as her emotions. He looked at her and could not bear to kill her. The others yes, but not this one, for she looked so much like his daughter that for a moment he could not move, wondering if Sonja's ghost had returned to haunt him. Tearful dark eyes lifted to him in fear and desperation, shaking fingers reaching out to him in a plea for preservation. He knew it went against everything in his nature and that it was dangerous but drew her to her feet, allowing her to shed further tears against his bloodied armor.
"There, there," he said. "You are safe now."
And she believed him, the soothing tone of his voice, the reassurance of his arm around her, his gentleness as he took her to the horses where Kraven waited, unspeaking but curious as to their new companion. Trust should not have been easy for her, but she gave it to him utterly as they rode through the quickening snow.
A mile from the castle darkened shapes materialized from the gloom. The horses reared and the girl tumbled to the ground, terrorized as the Lycan lunged for her in the darkness. It met the full force of Viktor's sword and fell to the ground, crimson staining the snow as a guttural final growl escaped its raging mouth. More animals bounded out of the trees and the flash of silver accompanied the spatter of blood. They were outnumbered but Amelia and Tanis came over the crest of the hill and rode in to defend them, her hand as strong in wielding weapons as those of her companions. When at last their adversaries lay strewn on the ground, they rode on, their numbers increased slightly but not enough to justify the danger.
The girl was taken to a room with a fire where she could feel safe, reluctant to leave her savior but not unwilling, and in her absence Amelia removed her hood and strode forward.
"It is not difficult to see why you have chosen to keep one as a pet," she remarked. "Did you kill the rest?"
"Yes." Viktor could still taste them on his lips, on the surface of his tongue, their warmth having restored some of the color to his ancient flesh. They did not often drink humans, for it tended to generate suspicion among the locals, resorting instead to feeding on livestock, but he had never liked the taste. Human blood was so much more filling, so enlightening; it was a temptation to gorge on it, to fill his mind with their memories as their life-force passed through his lips. He saw it openly cross Amelia's face: envy, for while she did not desire the carnage, she lusted after the blood. Her narrow fingers curled into her fists and she said nothing, for there was no observation to be made. Viktor had preserved their Secret, one they shared though she did not know the resting place of the second key.
"You should not keep her," she said, softly. "It is too dangerous." But she knew he would not listen to her, that the young woman who now resided in their keeping reminded him of the daughter he had slain. Viktor was cold and inhuman in all but one emotion, and that was an immense and unfathomable grief, for it had tortured him to kill her, to take the life of his only child for the good of the Coven. He might have hated them for that but it had been done as it needed to be. Amelia could not begrudge him this regret: the wife he had lost, the daughter he had forsaken. Her comment lingered on the air between them and prompted a bitter smile. He knew it was true, that it was a weakness not to take the girl's life. If she remembered any of it, he would take it… drain her and leave her to die. But he would not know until he had tasted her blood.
Lifting her hand, Amelia moved it toward him and he caught it, his eerie blue eyes shifting to her face. Intensity raged between them more ferocious than the storm. How long had it been since they had united to bring down William and force Markus into unwilling submission to their will? He remembered it clearly, those reckless moments in which their rival had fallen and been imprisoned. Markus could do nothing against them, not when Viktor and Amelia were insistent that the Wolf be locked away for all eternity. Amelia had distrusted and hated the Wolf as much as he had, and an unholy elation had filled them at his downfall. It had taken them to his chambers and to a union no one ever suspected. He had taken no other woman since his wife's death, her absence leaving emptiness in him for many years, but for one night Amelia had conquered his memories of her, for she was much more powerful, his equal; two Elders, betraying Markus in more ways than one.
"Have our armies been somewhat replenished?" he asked, the feel of her arm smooth beneath the touch of his fingertips. She smelled faintly of the jasmine that pervaded her coffin and the blood of her adversaries. His hand was so strong, so commanding that she did not pull it away, for she liked his touch.
"Yes, but not in vast enough numbers to defeat the Lycans. Any that escaped this night will go to him, to your half-breed, the father of new legions."
Contempt flashed between them, for it was apparent she did not forgive him this betrayal, his decision to breed Lycans while she slept, and he narrowed his eerie eyes at her. "Let Lucian come," he said. "We will defeat him."
He released her and strode to the open doorway, knowing there was not much time. The girl would become one of them, immediately. He knew Amelia wanted to watch, that she craved bloodlust as much as the rest of their kind, and did not begrudge her distant presence in the shadows as he returned to the enormous fireplace before which the young woman huddled. The castle was dark and cold, so full of distant and strange sounds that she was relieved at his return, appearing out of nothing behind her, long robes having replaced his armor. Rising to her feet, she said tremulously, "I have given it much thought, and are you not the lord that my father once worked for, many years ago?"
So she did retain certain memories. He hoped she did not remember the details. "Indeed," he said and resisted placing his arm about her shoulders. She was so like Sonja, from her lean features to her tattered dress. Even her hair was similar, long and jet black. Her eyes were a beautiful shade of autumn brown but would change when she took his blood. They would become cold and blue, like his, another daughter to replace the one he had lost. The one he had slain. Memories of her dreadful screams would haunt him forever, but perhaps this one might ease his pain.
Tears entered her unusual eyes and she brushed them away with a trembling hand. "Thank you for rescuing me, sire," she whispered. "I do not know what had slain my father and the others… but if it were not for you, I would have surely died."
"You need fear none of that now, for you are safe from those that would harm you."
The girl stood so near to him he could smell her blood, almost taste it on the tip of his tongue. He touched the side of her face, beneath the strands of uneven hair. She would be beautiful as a vampire. She did not pull away from him but there came a certain amount of distrust into her gaze. She assumed he wanted something different from what he had in mind.
"You are so like my daughter," he said, and some of her apprehension faded. "I lost her not so long ago so as you see, we share the same state of mourning."
Deep in the shadows, Amelia remained silent but he sensed her incredulousness at the audacity of this statement. It brought reassurance to his companion and she let down her guard. It was then he took what remained of her innocence, for he drew her to him and without warning or more pain than was unavoidable, sank his gleaming fangs into her throat. She struggled and fought before his calming influence flooded through her and rendered her motionless as her memories poured into him along with the crimson life. He saw flashes of childhood incidents—her sitting on her father's knee, listening to stories, learning to read, running through the narrow caverns in which William was to be imprisoned, of the key that resided in his chest and the locket Lucian had stolen. There were other memories too, stronger ones of recent times, of moments her father would have disapproved of. He even saw snatches of himself, experienced her strange emotions toward him; and then they were at the end of her life and it was draining away.
Her limp body was now on the floor and he knelt over her, unmoving as he stared down at the ashen countenance. Amelia's slender fingers descended on his shoulder and she said, "You must be certain."
Certain that she did not know too much, that she would forget, and that this would not kill them all.
"I am certain," he said, and sank his fangs into his wrist.
His blood flowed forth and dripped into her mouth, filling it and causing an instinctive response. Her hand closed around his arm, drawing it against her lips, and she drank until she was full, falling back against the rough stones and staring uncomprehending at the figures standing above her. The transformation was gradual as her flaws faded, her senses sharpened, and her heart stopped. Death was an unavoidable, terrifying nothingness before life returned. It would take some time and Viktor carried her into one of the inner rooms, laying her out on the bed and placing his hand alongside her face, murmuring that it would soon be all right.
Standing in the shadows watching them, Amelia wondered if this was not folly, if this innocent child would be their end.
"There now," said Viktor, as he sat holding the dark-haired girl's hand. "Now, you are born again."
Her eyes opened at last. She sat up.
"My child," he said, "what is your name?"
It whispered through the columns. It stirred the snow falling outside. It sent a shiver through Amelia.