At first, there was only the blackness. And then slowly, steadily:
Relentless, regular, never abating. The rhythm pounded through the infinite blackness. And then, at last, something stirred.
The being that awakened couldn’t put a name to the sound. Nevertheless, primal instinct kicked in, an awareness coalesced, and the blackness came to life with a single, driving mission:
Now that the being was aware once more, other sensory inputs flooded in. In addition to that regular beat, there were loud explosions, primordial cries of anguish, and the sound of things falling apart. Unraveling. It was hell and darkness and chaos.
But the being didn’t care. All that mattered was that distant sound:
Thump. Thump. Thu-Thump.
A minute could have passed or a day. The being had no sense of time or space. It only knew that it needed to reach that sound. Needed… Needed…something.
As if mocking it, the pulse echoed through the blackness:
Thump. Thump. Thu-Thump.
Movement was alien to the being in the blackness. It was not aware at first that it had limbs that could move, a body that could carry it to that tantalizing sound. But as its desperate hunger grew, impulses from its starving brain flashed out wildly, and its limbs jerked erratically in response. And then, as the being slowly relearned how to move regrown limbs, its thrashing began to take on purpose. Intention.
All in the direction of that sound:
Thump. Thump. Thu-Thump.
Something was binding the being in place, holding it back. It slashed and fought with every fiber of its growing might. Whatever was restraining it stretched and broke.
Frantic and frenzied, the being surged toward the sound of the beating drum. The being encountered a barrier almost immediately. Razor claws punctured glass. The tube around the being shattered, and it spilled out onto the floor in a widening pool of the liquid that had encased it.
Thump. Thump. Thu-Thump.
Air hit the being’s lungs for the first time. It lurched and gasped. For a second, a frisson of primal fear rolled through it – This is death. – but then its lungs expanded, contracted, breathed.
The being rose on shaky legs.
“Wh-Who’s there?” a voice sounded in the dark, in perfect harmony with the thump-thump-thumping. “Is someone else there?”
The being didn’t recognize the words, however; all it knew was the sound of that beat. Slowly, it learned how to stagger ever closer to that sound.
“Sh-Show yourself!” the voice demanded, laced with fear. “I can hear you breathing.”
Step. Step. Stumble. The being drew closer and closer.
“Did you escape, too? I’m Cinq Flèches, not Red Shield. H-Here’s my ID.” A smaller circle of light illuminated the darkness, and a small, white square was visible within it.
The light was blinding, painful at first. The being became aware of the blackness for the first time, because it now knew there was something other than blackness. The light made it recoil at first, but it instinctively moved long claws up to shield its eyes. That made the pain abate. The being pressed onward.
“Pl-Please! I know this area is strictly prohibited. B-But they’ve killed everyone. I j-just needed a place to hide. Just tell me who you are and…”
The beat was speeding up, and – as if dancing in rhythm with it – the being sped up as well. Its steps grew steadier and surer, from staggering to walking to finally running, galloping at full speed, the beat growing closer at an exponential rate now, and—
“I’m just a lab tech,” the voice sounded, mere feet away now, “I—”
The small circle of light flashed in the being’s direction now, but the being was too close to that beat to care about the blinding pain its eyes.
The lab tech’s jaw dropped when the light landed on the being, and he let out a bloodcurdling scream.
The being lunged, claws and fangs sank in, and then there was…
That was the first word the being recalled as it drank and drank and drank.
This was blood. This was life.
The lab tech struggled against the being for only a fraction of a second before he grew too weak to carry on. The flashlight fell from his hand, clattered to the ground, and turned off. His limbs went limp, and the beat slowed and stuttered to a stop.
As the being drank greedy mouthfuls, the insanity of endless hunger slowly receded. More and more words returned to its mind. Thoughts formed, connected, and interrelated. Memories twisted together and solidified. Blood was not only life, but also intelligence and consciousness. Blood healed and taught and nurtured. Blood was everything.
When the being had finally drained the lab tech dry, it was no longer a nameless being anymore. It looked around, and even in the blackness its eyes could see the lab equipment and the test tube it had escaped from and the hoses that had bound it in place. All was dark and silent, and that must have meant that power for the lab had been cut. Whatever equipment had kept the being from waking was rendered useless. The equipment was Cinq Flèches. Van, no doubt, the crazy bastard.
In the end, though, it wasn’t surprising that Van had found one more experiment to run to bring a crystallized, shattered body back to life. If anything in this world was a monster, it was surely that Doctor Frankenstein.
The being stretched its claws and jaws, and gradually they transformed once more into the false shell it had worn in its previous incarnation.
Experimentally, human-looking lips tried out the words:
“I am Karl.”
The newly-reborn Karl looked at the ruined lab and the body of the lab tech and three-foot-steel door that separated this secret room from the rest of the complex above, where gunfire from Red Shield’s raid continued to sound.
“And I am still alone.”
A mad laugh echoed through the blackness.
There were holes.
Karl hadn’t realized this immediately, but slowly they crept into his awareness. He remembered people and concepts, but not necessarily details. He knew that he had died – completely, irrevocably – but he couldn’t remember the precise circumstances of his demise. Saya had been involved, of course. And…another?
The holes were more bearable than the loneliness, though.
He had realized not long after the gunfire above had stopped that something was missing. Some central core connection of his being was gone. It could only mean one thing: Diva was dead.
Images of Diva flickered in and out of Karl’s mind: of his time spent with her, with his brothers, how it had offered the promise of family but ultimately failed. Now that sliver of connectedness was gone, and Karl was even more alone than he ever had been. He would never be by Diva’s side again. He would never be Diva’s chevalier again.
Karl had had the nebulous notion that he could try to find Saya, for a time. But images of Saya caused the desperation to swell up within him again, the loneliness, the trickle of fear, the rage, and… Karl didn’t think on Saya for too long.
In fact, Karl had no real purpose or plan. All he knew was that he was alone in the blackness, and he wanted it to stop. The hunger was rising again, a living beast inside of him, and he wanted that to stop, too. He knew he had to escape, but he was still weak and confused. He clawed at the steel door that kept him from the world above, a world in which Diva was no more and Karl acknowledged he might not even recognize.
Scritch. Scritch. Scritch.
The sounds of Karl’s talons slowly scratching their way through the steel were much less tantalizing than the sound of a human heartbeat. Karl wondered sometimes how the lab tech had even found his way to where Karl had been buried away from everything, Van’s dark little experiment to be locked away forever.
Scritch. Scritch. Scritch.
Now Karl was aware of time passing, but he couldn’t count it. It could have been days or years. He drove himself halfway to madness trying to figure out how long he’d been trapped, how long he’d still be trapped. His claws bled, wore down to the bone, and then healed again.
Scritch. Scritch. Scritch.
Every time they healed more slowly. Karl knew he needed more blood, just like he knew that that was hopeless unless he could escape.
Scritch. Scritch. Scritch.
He had clawed a hole nearly a foot deep into the steel now. It wasn’t wide enough for him to pass through, but he needed to know: how much further? Not knowing was driving him just as mad as the loneliness and the hunger and the holes and…
Scritch. Scritch. Scritch.
Karl’s healing slowed to a crawl and then, finally, he thought that he wasn’t healing at all anymore. He still hadn’t made his way entirely through the door. He knew he wouldn’t die; there was nothing in this situation that could kill him. He would merely lose consciousness from the lack of blood, fall back into an eternal sleep, and when he awoke the madness would have overtaken him once more.
If he awoke.
It was possible that no one would ever visit the lab again. It would sink down into the strata of the earth for centuries, millennia, eons. The steel would be slowly compacted around Karl’s comatose body until he was crushed to nothing, finally to be burned to oblivion in the earth’s fiery furnace.
Scritch. Scritch. Scritch.
Karl wore his hands down until there was nothing left.
The blackness encroached upon him, steady and relentless, and Karl came to slowly accept that he was going to die alone for a second time. It was both fitting and horrible, and Karl could have wept or screamed, but he didn’t have the energy for that anymore.
Karl lay on his back and stared into the void and felt consciousness slowly leech from his body once more.
What was the point of waking, just to die again?
His mind could find no answer to that question as it began to shut down.
And then, rich and silky like music, Karl heard it:
His name. But not the way it sounded when he spoke it with his lips in the darkness. When Karl said his name, it was tinged with awareness. This intonation was something different. Something tinged with sadness and joy and sin.
A part of Karl recoiled at the sound of his name like that. There was something wrong, but there was something right, too. Another part of Karl was drawn to that sound, tempted, intrigued. Maybe it was the stirrings of madness; maybe the sound of his name was a hallucination of his own diseased mind, come to torture him with false hope in the final moments before death.
Karl. Karl. Karl.
It was the last thing Karl heard before the blackness engulfed him.
Karl regained awareness at the sound of a ragged moan. He felt a hot exhalation of air against his cheek and then the subtle shifting of limbs. Karl sank his teeth in deeper and continued to drink. He hadn’t even been aware that he was drinking up until that point.
The moan sounded again, wild and desperate, and this time Karl echoed it. The blood on his tongue was sweet and somehow more vigorous than the last blood he’d sampled. He wasn’t rabid with hunger this time around, only groggy because of it, and it took him a while to wake enough to realize just how different this feeding was.
The body beneath Karl shifted again, and Karl tried to hold it down, to force his prey into submission. His ‘prey’ flipped Karl over onto his back instead, entirely contrary to his wishes. Karl struggled to gain the upper hand again, to keep the flow of blood coming, but he was weakened, and the hands holding him down were impossibly powerful.
“You never did like to be held in place,” came a melodious voice from above Karl.
That sweet throat was pulled back, and Karl thrashed violently to try to gain access to more of the blood. Two droplets fell from rapidly healing flesh, and Karl caught them eagerly on his tongue.
“Terrible table manners, too.”
The last was said with a wistful sigh, and then the neck leaned back in, and Karl bit down ravenously once more.
A gasp of pain followed the force of Karl’s bite. “I never could impress upon you the importance of being gentle.”
Karl’s hunger began to be sated, while his annoyance only grew. Strength was returning rapidly to his limbs now and was being drained from his prey. He tried to topple them once again, and this time met with more success.
Pale, languid-looking eyes blinked up at Karl, entirely unconcerned by this change of circumstances.
Karl licked the lingering taste of blood from his lips. “Solomon,” he snarled.
A beatific smile lit up Solomon’s lips, and he raised one hand to cup the side of Karl’s face. “You are yourself,” he said, sounding relieved.
Karl’s hands were still positioned around Solomon’s throat, and automatically his fingers began to tighten. A swirl of emotions swept through him: anger and frustration and anxiety and passion and…
“Shh.” Solomon smoothed the gnarl in Karl’s brow with one patient finger. “It’s all right now.”
Karl calmed and, at the same time, was more furious than ever. He’d always hated that about Solomon: how Solomon could soothe his rages to nothing with only a quiet word. Solomon had always held power over Karl, even back when Karl had been human. Karl had never been able to deny Solomon anything. It was the reason Karl still existed to that day.
Karl shook his head and loosened his grip around Solomon’s throat. “How am I alive?” he demanded.
Solomon’s smile gentled. “That’s the one benefit to being an experiment,” he said coolly, as if the last word should hold no pain for Karl at all. “Scientists like to keep back-ups, just in case.”
Karl, numbed, sat back on his heels, still perched over Solomon’s body. “I’m just a back-up, then. Not even a true chevalier anymore…”
Beneath him, Solomon sat up so that they were nose-to-nose, Karl straddling Solomon’s waist. “If you’re not a true chevalier, then neither am I,” Solomon responded.
Karl frowned. “I don’t—”
“Shh,” Solomon soothed again. “It doesn’t matter.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“No,” Solomon agreed infuriatingly.
Solomon was twirling Karl in endless circles already, and Karl had only just awoken again. It was only to be expected, of course. It had never been anything different.
“Diva?” Karl finally asked, even though he knew.
“Dead.” Solomon looked away as he said it, as if hiding something important.
“Saya?” A hint of mania lit up Karl’s eyes.
“Hibernating.” Solomon gauged Karl’s reaction to this carefully.
Karl snarled again and pulled back off Solomon until he sat at the foot of the bed. It took him a moment to process their surroundings. In the back of his mind, Karl had registered that he was no longer in the lab. The terror at being buried forever had been absent ever since he’d awoken.
The bed they’d been lying on had the white curtains around it drawn, but light from what must have been a series of floor-to-ceiling windows filtered in. The bedding was white, too, although now stained with Solomon’s blood. There was no question who was responsible for the décor. Karl fought the urge to roll his eyes at Solomon’s predictability.
“Another pointless wait, then,” Karl snapped and flung open the curtains at the foot of the bed. He stepped out into the sunlight and blinked as his eyes adjusted. “How long has it been?”
“Hmm, a year or two,” Solomon answered disinterestedly.
“Decades of pointless waiting,” Karl said angrily and began pacing the room.
“Pointless waiting, indeed,” Solomon said, but he emphasized it in an odd way.
Karl turned just in time to see Solomon rise gracefully from the bed. “You’re not going after Saya, then? You’re not going to finish what Diva began?” he demanded angrily. “Do you have so little respect for our mother’s memory?”
“That madness cost you an arm and a leg and finally your life,” Solomon said calmly. “Do you honestly intend to repeat the same mistakes now that you’ve been given a second chance?”
“This life of mine, just as the last one, belongs to Diva,” Karl insisted. “If she is dead, then I will continue the war with Saya in her place.”
Solomon’s eyes flashed. “You fight Amshel’s war. That madness, at least, was not Diva’s doing.”
Karl lunged at him. “You dare to speak of Diva in that way?” he spat, inches from Solomon’s face.
“I speak of the events I experienced, as I saw them,” was the infuriatingly enigmatic answer.
Karl had had enough. “What about Amshel? Where’s Amshel?”
“Dead.” This time Solomon didn’t try to hide the hint of glee at the corner of his mouth. He batted absently at the collar of his no-longer-pristine suit with a handkerchief.
“It’s just the two of us, then,” Karl half stated and half asked.
Solomon was smiling again, that smile that seemed sweet but was really wicked at its core. “What will we do with ourselves, I wonder?” he teased.
Karl snarled at him and stormed right out before Solomon had a chance to whisper more blasphemous words in his ear.
Karl succeeded in avoiding Solomon for two years, although even Karl had to concede that that was probably because Solomon was giving him some space. Karl did need that time, though, to confirm that everything that Solomon had said was true. On the surface, that seemed to be the case. Karl had been to Japan and France and Russia and Germany and Vietnam and the United States and Brazil and South Africa and several other places along the way, and he had seen it all.
All of Diva’s line had been destroyed, Saya was in an impenetrable sleep, and the only ripples of their kind that remained were the lingering Cinq Flèches experiments around the world. Those were being ripped to shreds, though, one by one. Karl was impressed by the thoroughness and ruthlessness of the destruction. Every base Karl knew about had been leveled to the ground.
Karl assumed it was Red Shield, of course. Who else but Cinq Flèches’ sworn enemy could obliterate it so completely? But Karl wouldn’t have guessed that Red Shield had had the intelligence or resources to be so comprehensive in their onslaught. Soon there would be nothing left.
Karl had the feeling that there was something else he was forgetting, just beyond the edges of his recollection, which no doubt accounted for that hint of deception in Solomon’s smile. In any case, Karl was resurrected, alone, and purposeless.
He had just come to that conclusion when Solomon visited him at dawn of New Years of the third year.
“Miss me?” Solomon asked with a casual air when Karl, after a night of feeding, stormed back into the abandoned building where he’d been squatting in Port-au-Prince. Solomon twirled a white rose between his fingers in an affected manner.
Karl knew what blue roses and red roses meant; the symbolism of the white rose escaped him. “How did you find me?”
It was clearly a frustrated rhetorical question, and Solomon didn’t bother to answer. He brought the rose up to his nose and sniffed it delicately.
Karl’s fists clenched, and he tried a different tack. “Cinq Flèches is almost entirely destroyed. You don’t seem to be doing much to stop it.”
“Cinq Flèches has served its purpose,” Solomon concluded.
“How can you say these things?” Karl demanded. “Cinq Flèches is Diva’s blood, our blood!”
Solomon’s expression darkened. “Cinq Flèches was Amshel’s pet. The work of a madman, bent on—”
“You speak as if you want Red Shield to burn it all to the ground,” Karl said in disbelief. “You…”
Solomon smiled again, just a little bit too genuinely, the way he had when he’d first told Karl that Amshel was dead. Pieces of the puzzle began to fit together, but the picture they portrayed was just…impossible.
“Red Shield,” Karl said slowly, “could never find all our labs this efficiently.”
“No,” Solomon agreed quietly.
“Red Shield could never kill this coldly.”
“No,” Solomon agreed again.
“You…” Karl couldn’t even finish the thought. It was too unthinkable.
“Yes,” Solomon smiled softly.
“No.” Karl shook his head.
Solomon approached Karl carefully, like one would an injured animal. “Is it so incomprehensible to you?” he pleaded. “Diva is gone, and nothing can bring her back. What purpose does Cinq Flèches serve anymore? It could only prolong the suffering from a war that’s already ended. Is it so wrong to stop that? To want a fresh start?”
“You destroyed the lab I was being held in,” Karl said with dawning realization. “You left me for dead.”
“No,” Solomon insisted vehemently. “I didn’t know you were there. And when I finally tracked down Van, and I learned…” Solomon dropped the white rose to the floor so that he could cup Karl’s face with both hands. “I came back for you. You had done such an impressive job fighting your way out, and on only one human’s blood, too…” Solomon pressed his forehead to Karl’s and shut his eyes briefly. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I came back for you as soon as I knew. You have no idea how happy I was to find you alive, and yourself again.”
Karl ground his teeth. He still couldn’t even begin to process the treachery in Solomon’s words. Even worse, Karl now owed Solomon his life. It was never wise to be in debt to Solomon; Solomon had a decided talent for turning a single debt into innumerable favors. It was all part of the manipulation and deceit that Solomon spun around his every action.
“Traitor,” Karl spat, and before he knew it his arm had transformed – monstrous and hideous as ever – and backhanded Solomon clear across the room.
Solomon didn’t even try to block it. He crashed through the wood and plaster of the far wall, then rose slowly to his feet and brushed the plaster dust from his suit. “I’ll understand if you can’t forgive me, but I hope you will. I…”
“Fine,” Karl said coldly. “I owe you my life, so I’ll give you yours now. But I will never forgive you this. My debt is cleared, and now we’re nothing to each other anymore.”
An expression that looked almost like pain twisted Solomon’s features. “We have a chance to begin anew. We both died for that pointless war of Amshel’s, and now—”
“We both died?” Karl cut him off.
Solomon froze. “I…”
Karl’s eyes narrowed. “When I woke up, you said you were no more a chevalier than I was. What did you mean by that?”
Solomon looked away. “You’ve guessed it already.”
“You’re nothing more than a back-up either, are you?” Karl accused. “What, did Cinq Flèches back us all up? Is that why you had to destroy the labs? To get rid of all the Amshels and Jameses and… Divas!” Karl exclaimed in alarm. “Did they back up Diva, as well?”
“No method known to science has ever been able to duplicate a queen,” Solomon assured him. “You know that.”
Karl felt some relief at that, at least. “How fortunate for you that you awakened first so that you could murder your own brothers,” he accused. “Or, rather, it wasn’t fortune at all, was it? Did you have a deal with Van? To wake you up first?”
“Diva was gone,” Solomon said. “What was I supposed to do? Let Amshel begin the bloodshed again? What good would that have done anyone?”
“I can’t believe you,” Karl spat. “If I hadn’t just promised you a life debt…” He felt his features shifting again and forced back the rage. “Why did you rescue me, then?” he asked instead. “What purpose could you possibly have had for letting me live?”
“Can you still honestly not know?” Solomon sounded broken at the thought. “You’ve always been the only one…” He composed himself, cooled his voice again. “If any of them deserved a second chance, freed from Amshel’s thumb, it was you. You were never just an experiment, Karl, not to me.”
“What do you know? You’re not even the real Solomon. You’re just another experiment, and now we’re leftovers in a meaningless world.”
Solomon shook his head resolutely. “I’m the real Solomon just as much as you’re the real Karl. And meaning… I’m willing to find meaning with you, if you’ll come with me.” He held out a hand to Karl in invitation.
Karl slashed it away, drawing sharp lines of red blood across Solomon’s arm. “I don’t have time for any of your games.”
“Don’t you?” Solomon said mildly, even as his cradled his now-bloody hand to his chest. “It seems to me that now we have all the time in the world, with nowhere to be…”
Karl let out a low growl and was off.
He hated when Solomon was right.
It wasn’t that Karl didn’t wonder about Solomon at times during the years that followed. He did, often. What had Solomon found to do with himself in this new world without purpose? Was Solomon alone, too? How could he not be waiting for Saya to wake once more? What else was there?
They were the same in many ways now, more than they had ever been before. They both had to learn to live in a world without Diva, for one. They were even now both whims born from Van’s test tubes. But other than that, they were nothing alike. Solomon was a Goldsmith and would always be a Goldsmith. He could never really understand what it was like for Karl, to be granted immortality only to become an immortal lab rat, to be used and discarded, unwanted by his only family, forgotten and left to die in that hell of a lab. Solomon had always been worlds apart from Karl.
Don’t think like that, Solomon whispered sweetly in Karl’s mind. Can you still be so blind to what you are to me?
Karl shut Solomon out as rudely as he could. It had become another of Solomon’s little games: slip into Karl’s thoughts at random intervals and leave with promises of devotion and an eternity they could have together.
Karl could have found Solomon during those years, almost as easily as Solomon could have found him. It probably would have been easier to pass the time, even. But Karl’s anger held him back.
There had been a fragment of a memory, inextricably linked to Solomon, that Karl hadn’t been able to figure out at first. Karl understood the images of Saya and blood and the sheer exhilaration of the fight. He also understood the sensation of his flesh crystallizing, shattering, moving relentlessly upward and ripping him apart. The images were disconnected, like different snips of a reel of film that had been hacked to pieces.
What Karl didn’t understand at first was why Solomon’s sad face was tied in to those pieces.
After Solomon’s revelations, though, about the depths of his betrayal, it all became clear. Solomon had been there, had watched Karl die, had even helped the enemy kill him. The last was so repugnant that Karl couldn’t even believe it at first.
I never wanted to hurt you, Solomon’s voice slithered like silk through Karl’s mind.
Lies! Karl accused. You killed me. You betrayed Diva, even when she was still alive.
Let me explain. Solomon always sounded so reasonable. It made Karl feel like he didn’t know anything, even when he knew he was right. Come see me, and—
If I ever see you again, Karl replied coldly, I will rip off all your limbs, one by one. And, when you heal, I will do it again and again.
NEVER contact me again! You disgust me!
That finally put an end to Solomon’s telepathic games, which was just as well. Karl should’ve known that Solomon’s word could never be trusted. The promises of love and a life together had been lies, just like everything else that had ever spewed from those deceptively angelic lips. Karl had been a fool to ever think otherwise.
It still surprised him how much this betrayal hurt, though. He’d been betrayed by his brothers before plenty of times, even by Solomon, who had once so sweetly assured Karl that taking Diva’s blood would be the right thing to do. It wasn’t surprising that Solomon – that all of them – had betrayed him again and left him to die at Saya’s hands.
As always, Karl’s family shut him out, and his only salvation lay in Saya.
She, at least, was honest in her bloodlust.
She was the only thing left for Karl in this world.
And so Karl waited. And waited.
Karl located Saya’s burial spot fairly quickly; it wasn’t exactly well hidden. Red Shield swarmed around the place day and night, however, and their technology had advanced to the point where their bullets could drive Karl back long enough to heal his wounds. He would have bet an arm and leg (ideally the experimental ones he’d already lost) that Red Shield had pirated some of Cinq Flèches’ old technology for keeping the mice under control.
The final time Karl visited Saya’s sleeping place, he ran afoul of her chevalier as well. For a brief while, Karl entertained himself by tracking Hagi and trying to rip him to shreds. It was pointless, of course; neither of them could do the other any permanent damage without a queen’s blood. But it gave Karl something to do, something worthy to hunt, something to rage at while he very deliberately did not think of Solomon.
In the end, though, it was unfulfilling to wait patiently, like a good boy, for Saya to wake up. None of what happened in Karl’s skirmishes mattered, and that just made the rage threaten to bubble over in him more and more with each passing day.
And, finally, one day he just gave up. Slunk back off into the darkness for however many decades it would take for Saya to wake up and play with him again. Admitted defeat – not at the hands of Red Shield or even Hagi, but at his own endless, empty existence.
Those were dismal years. Karl returned home and vanished into the dark jungles of Vietnam for over a decade. He had no need for sleep, but he lay there, hidden and remote, moving only enough to feed whenever the odd stray human penetrated his blackness.
Once, things had gotten so low that Solomon even dared to try to contact him telepathically. Sweet, tantalizing lies: It doesn’t have to be this way and You’re not alone.
Karl was in no state of mind to deal with Solomon in those years and responded tersely with death threats and professions of hatred, coupled with excessive profanity.
Karl wondered during those years whether this was any different from dying in the blackness of that underground lab. In effect, it was the same. However, this time it was a choice; this time Karl was in control.
Eventually, through no real reason that Karl could fathom, he emerged from the depression he’d sunk into. It had started off slowly with a sense of boredom that grew and grew until finally Karl rose and ventured back into the inhabited world for the first time in over ten years.
It was just to feed at first. And then Karl began to pick up a bit of what was happening in the world at large: where the wars were, where humans were suffering, who had power and who didn’t. It was a change in routine, at least, and Karl might easily have waited out the rest of Saya’s hibernation like that but for one thing.
The family Karl had devoured that night were malnourished and unsettled his stomach a bit. A downpour had begun while he was feeding, as well, and Karl didn’t particularly relish spending the rest of the night out in the wilderness in the pouring rain.
So he stayed in the family’s small house for the night, and with nothing else to do, read through the few newspapers and magazines they possessed.
Amid the glossy pages of a fashion magazine that could only be escapist fantasy for a poor family like this, Karl saw him.
At first, Karl couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It had to be a look-alike, a bizarre coincidence. If there was a rogue chevalier out there in hiding, there was no reason for him to have kept the same face. It was incomprehensible. Maybe Karl had gone insane and was imagining things. Again.
Of course, the last time Karl had thought he was hallucinating, it had been really happening as well.
Karl ripped the single page from the magazine to take with him, and left the rest to congeal in the blood of the family he’d killed. He had a purpose now, something that he had to, at the very least, pursue:
Nathan Mahler was alive.
Tracking Nathan was nothing like tracking Solomon.
When they’d been together with Diva, Karl had always steered as clear from Nathan as he could. There was something dangerous simmering under Nathan’s jovial façade. Power and experience radiated from him at all times, and Karl had always just known that Nathan wasn’t a chiropteran to trifle with. Karl’s instincts had even told him that Nathan was stronger than Amshel, although rationally Karl tried to convince himself that that couldn’t be so.
Nathan had also always had a subtlety and secrecy to him that Karl could never fathom. Communicating mentally with Amshel, Solomon, and James had always been easy and fluid. But Nathan was more distant, like there was a layer of fog between his mind and the rest of Diva’s chevaliers. Perhaps, he’d honed his mental shields better. Karl didn’t know. All he knew was that Nathan was virtually impossible to find.
With Karl’s senses useless, he had to resort to other means. The magazine article he’d found had been almost two years old. He tracked down the design firm Nathan had been working with in Paris, only to discover that Nathan had left only four months prior. In one of the most annoying inquiries of his life, Karl confirmed that no one matching Nathan’s description was working for any of the other big-name fashion firms. That meant that either Nathan had changed his human disguise or he’d changed businesses. Or both.
Either option alone would give Karl avenues to pursue. If it was both, Karl was entirely out of luck. Karl spent his days sneaking into various fashion agencies, trying to sense Nathan’s unmistakably overwhelming aura of power from any of the current employees. He spent his nights researching where Nathan had last lived, how he travelled, where his finances had been.
Eventually, Karl found him.
Nathan was in London, still looked as unconcernedly the same as ever, and now owned an upscale restaurant. Only Nathan’s bank records had allowed Karl to track him.
“Oh, Karl honey!” Nathan cooed cheerfully when Karl stormed in the door during the dinner hour, easily throwing off both the maître d’ and two waiters who insisted he needed a reservation and formal attire. “You must be famished.”
Karl let himself be herded into the back where Nathan kept his offices, amid Nathan’s mindless blather of how good it was to see Karl and how very handsome he was looking these days. Karl gritted his teeth.
“So,” Nathan’s flamboyant act dropped the instant his office door was shut, “I see Solomon resurrected you.” He sighed wistfully. “It must be love.” Okay, so maybe he didn’t entirely drop the flamboyant act. He did pour each of them a glass of blood, however.
Karl drank the whole glass in one gulp. Nathan made a face, like he was deeply offended by Karl’s table manners, and sipped his own glass daintily.
“You’re alive,” Karl said without preamble.
“Did you really track me down just to state the obvious?” Nathan drawled and poured Karl another glass.
“Solomon led me to believe you were dead.”
Nathan shrugged and sauntered around his desk to sit in the over-sized, over-cushioned leather chair. “Solomon probably thought I was dead.”
“You’re not another of Van’s lab clones, then?” Karl demanded.
“Hardly,” Nathan drawled with distaste but said nothing more.
Karl had forgotten this, how trying to have any sort of meaningful conversation with Nathan was like pulling teeth. “What happened? To Diva and Amshel and James and…” Something else he didn’t remember. “I deserve to know.”
“Those three are gone to the wind, honey,” Nathan said with a yawn. “No use crying over spilt milk.” He swirled the blood in his glass lackadaisically. “It is interesting to know that Solomon’s back, though. And you, of course.” He raised his glass to Karl. “Cheers!”
Karl drank with him, even though he didn’t really feel any good cheer emanating from Nathan. It was usually impossible to tell if Nathan was pleased or displeased by anything, but Nathan generally wasn’t very fond of Karl, and he was making that graciously apparent now.
“How was Diva killed?” Karl repeated. “I want to know, and I can’t see how you can be so cold about our mother’s death.”
Nathan leaned both elbows on his desk and rested his chin on his folded hands. He smiled a mysterious, dangerous smile like he knew something very valuable that Karl didn’t. “It was Saya, of course,” he finally answered simply enough. “And Red Shield, too, I suppose…”
Karl growled. “I’ll make her pay for that.”
Nathan laughed. “Oh, don’t even go there. Without Diva’s blood, Saya is truly immortal now. Her chevalier, too. It’s never wise to cross a truly immortal chevalier.” The light in Nathan’s eyes danced like there was some spectacular in-joke there.
“I don’t care! I’ll bleed them dry until they wish they were dead and—”
Nathan sighed wearily. “You remind me of Amshel. Such a one-track mind. This is what happens when a queen isn’t selective about her chevaliers, you know. They turn out just as defective as they were when they were human.”
Nathan gave Karl a look to let him know that Nathan certainly considered Karl among the ranks of the defective. Karl seethed under that look.
But then Nathan’s tone lightened and came as close to friendly as Karl had ever heard it. “You need to learn to let it go. Live a little. Pick up a hobby. Other than pestering your dear aunt, that is. Or the children.”
The words rang through Karl’s mind, and suddenly several of the holes in his memory started to fill themselves. He knew he’d been missing something, that there was something he had been forgetting. Diva had mated. She should have been pregnant. She should have had children, a new generation of queens. And, apparently, Diva had lived long enough for her children to be born.
Nathan’s eyes widened, and he realized too late that he’d given away something important. “Don’t you dare—” he began.
“Where,” Karl demanded, “are Diva’s children?”
Nathan rose to his feet and had Karl pinned back against the wall faster than Karl’s eyes could see. “You will not harm them!” Nathan snarled with a flash of fang.
“They are my sisters!” Karl spat back. “My…new queens. I must find them and—” Karl’s mind was reeling with the possibilities, a new family and this time he could guide them into adulthood, rather than Amshel, and—
You. Shall. Never. Touch. Them. Nathan’s voice, dark and low and dangerous, suddenly resonated through Karl’s mind. Karl’s ears rang with the power behind those words. His thoughts seemed to decompose, fracture, and for a moment Karl knew true madness, before his mind recovered from the blow it had received.
Karl shivered. For the first time, he knew fear – not that Nathan could rip him to shreds, which he’d always known – but that Nathan could completely destroy Karl with the power of his mind alone.
Karl staggered back.
“Your sisters are in good hands,” Nathan said with false pleasantness, “and they do not need your interference. That’s all you need to know.” He brushed absently at Karl’s lapels, laying them flat once again, and stepped back. “Like I said: a nice hobby. Or a boyfriend. You could use one of those to set you straight…metaphorically, of course.”
Karl rolled his eyes. “Not interested.”
“Not offering,” Nathan smirked back. “No offense, but you’re not my type.” He sighed longingly. “It really was a pity about James…”
Karl had had enough of this. Nathan wasn’t family; Karl didn’t think he ever really had been. And clearly Nathan was only here to close old doors, not open new ones.
“Don’t be a stranger, now,” Nathan waved over his shoulder, his unconcerned back turned toward Karl.
Karl planned to be exactly that.
Karl would have liked to have said that his next path – the only one he’d ever had, really – had been obvious. In reality, it had taken him months after his meeting with Nathan to come to that inevitable conclusion.
Karl had been in Spain, overlooking the Mediterranean at sunrise, and he recalled a day many lifetimes ago when he’d been young and foolish and human, and he’d been looking over a very different sea, and the most beautiful man he’d ever seen had walked up beside him and smiled an angelic smile.
Are you still there? Karl thought wistfully into what seemed like emptiness.
Always, came the warm reply.
I want to see you, Karl hadn’t even realized it was true until he’d transmitted the thought.
Any time you want me, Solomon promised. I’ve waited for you all this time.
Karl took the next flight out for Hanoi.
The aptly named Rose Blanche was a rural farm not far from where Karl and Solomon had first met all those years ago. Karl doubted that was a coincidence. Elegant wrought-iron gates surrounded the complex, and even if Karl hadn’t been told Solomon was behind them, he still would have suspected. Solomon had a certain style to all his businesses that was unmistakable.
Karl didn’t bother with Solomon’s security. He easily jumped the gates, loped through fields of perfectly cultivated white roses, and entered the mansion through a pair of open French windows on the second floor. It turned out to be Solomon’s office.
Solomon looked up from the papers on his desk and smiled softly. “You came,” was all he said.
Karl froze in the windows and watched the shadow he cast over Solomon.
“Are you here to rip off all my limbs, one by one?” Solomon asked pleasantly, conversationally, like the answer didn’t matter to him either way.
Karl himself hadn’t known the answer to that question until that moment. In that moment, though, everything seemed clear, the affection and longing in Solomon’s eyes more genuine than it ever had been before.
Without knowing what he was doing or why he was doing it, Karl approached Solomon with one hand upraised. He brushed Solomon’s cheek for one second and then, deliberately, sliced one nail over the tip of his index finger.
Solomon turned into Karl’s touch, caught the droplet of blood that swelled on Karl’s finger with his tongue, and deliberately swallowed. They watched together as the cut almost instantly healed shut.
“I’ve wanted to taste you for years,” Solomon admitted softly.
Karl could feel the blood pounding in his ears. It seemed that they were linked now, more inextricably than they had been before. Karl had tasted Solomon’s blood, and Solomon had tasted Karl’s.
“I still don’t understand what you’ve done,” Karl said, “but I’m ready to listen. Tell me everything.”
Solomon’s smile was radiant.