On long rides like this, Cassandra often found herself torn between observing their surroundings and observing the man that in her heart she called brother. Blood be damned, her and Jacob had been together through too much and for too long to be anything but. Before the war had become the exhausted stalemate it now was, they hadn’t been a pair of strange birds sticking together.
They had been a trio.
Jacob, Ezekiel, and her. Her, the witch, Jake, the knight, Ezekiel, the thief. They had been a force to be reckoned with, in the service of King Flynn & Queen Eve. But the war had taken many friends from them, Ezekiel included. To Jake and Cassandra, it had felt like losing a part of themselves. However, it had not broken them. Now they were stronger than ever, hardened from battles with werewolf and vampire alike, adept in fighting back the creatures of the night.
Before losing Ezekiel, Jacob had always loved long journeys. He had been talkative and spirited, and often stopped to hunt with great success, Ezekiel gleeful at his side. But as their friends died in front of them and the war ravaged the land, the glee of life began to leave the knight’s meaty shoulders. Now he was solemn and silent on their journeys unless Cassandra prompted him. She found herself wondering what Ezekiel would say, if he could see how the life had left the two of them. Ezekiel had always had such a passionate belief in loving life…she wondered if her friend would weep or laugh at the state of the world now. Maybe, she dared ponder, it was better that he died young and in the brightness of those better days.
The sunlight pushed its way through the forest’s thick canopy above them in its effort to glint off of Jacob’s armor. Said armor was still dented, scratched and smeared with dried blood from the rigorous battle they had been subjected to a few days’ ride ago, long before they had reached the Western Forest.
“We’ll be near the bloodsucker border soon, be wary.” Jacob called back to her suddenly, shaking her out of her thoughts. She huffed, her red robe fluttering slightly in the breeze as it hung around her face.
“They’d dare not cross into our territory, not even a fang’s length across that border, not after King Carsen slayed Dracula and Renoir in one blow.” Cassandra announced. Almost as if in approval, her horse whinnied, white mane fluttering in the breeze, tiny little braids catching the light just right. Another product of long journeys alone with her best friend.
“The rumors of your arrogance are true, witch!” Came a chilling, amused voice, echoing out through the trees. Cassandra’s spine straightened instantly, and she was whirling around in an to scan the treeline.
“Cassandra, up-” Jacob began to shout, but it was too late. Darkness descended in one fell swoop from above. Suddenly, there was a weight landing on her and a piercing pain in her neck. The last thing she heard before she lost consciousness was Jake’s screams.
Blood. The smell of blood; rusted metal and the sticky heat of life. Burning red against the endless night. That was what awoke Cassandra, drew her out of a painfully entered darkness that was just as painful to exit. It came slow but she pushed, knowing that dread was waiting and eager to meet it for fear of losing even more than she already had.
Her heavy eyelids snapped open, adjusting quickly to the contrast of her new surroundings. She was on her knees, bent forward, hands bound behind her. The first thing she noticed was the lack of Jake. Oh, god, please don’t be dead. I can’t lose Jake, I can’t lose another brother. She found herself praying as she regained her bearings. The second thing she noticed was the lack of her magic. The blood she smelled was her own, dripping from wounds she could feel sharply on her neck. Fang wounds. Vampires
“Don’t try anything, witch.” A snarling voice commanded from in front of her. From the shadows of the stonewalled, shady room, slithered a snake Cassandra knew by reputation alone. The patriarch of the First Coven and chief of the Vampirical Legions. Cassandra felt a strange weight around her neck as she tried to sit up, and realized it was a collar. A rune collar - to block her magic. Cold terror ran through Cassandra as she felt as helpless as a new babe all of the sudden. A new babe, being set upon by a murderous predator.
When Thomas was close enough, he leaned down, glaring down his ridged nose at her. His skin was…tan? How could his skin be tan? His dark eyes flicked over her confused expression in satisfaction. Then he stepped forward further, putting his face directly in the ray of sunlight that entered the center of the room through the only window, high upwards in the roof. Cassandra’s eyes widened as his face didn’t burn.
“How?!” Cassandra breathed. Tomas laughed, stepping through the pillar of sunlight and brushing her hair out of her face. She jerked away from his touch, disgusted, and his smile instantly turned into a snarl. He backhanded her, with a touch of his superhuman strength, sending her reeling to the side, her body crashing into the stone. She crumpled to the floor, still bound, feeling like she had surely been flattened momentarily by that impact.
“Insolent little human, I can’t wait to suck all the magic from the marrow in your bones!” Thomas snarled at her viciously, stalking towards his helpless, disoriented prey. He seemed to hum with superhuman energy and his face grew darker, more twisted, fangs protruding farther. He reached down and grabbed onto the collar around her neck, using it to lift her up, dangling her in front of him like she was nothing. She choked and struggled, black encroaching on her vision, but she could do nothing. And worse still, it was chilling how little effort it was taking him to do all of this to her. And still, she could not reach her magic.
“I’ll save your head, though. I can’t wait to send it back to your precious King.” Thomas spat, before he started to rear back his head. Before he could descend on his helpless captive, however, something happened. Cassandra spotted a glimmer of yellow out of the corner of her eye, like pollen and sunlight, and suddenly there was another powerful presence descending upon their struggle.
“Tomas! Brother, please, you promised me!” The woman’s voice pleaded angrily, her hand on his arm, halting him. He turned to her, some of the tension leaving him at her touch on instinct. Who was this woman to him? Cassandra struggled to see anything other than her arm, from how high and the angle Thomas was choking her at. But her voice was like bells, the church bells of the great cathedrals across the mountains Flynn had taken her to years ago. Echoing out with the clarity of the sky and the rhythm of the earth.
“Brother, you are too rash. There is information we could gain from her yet! You promised me I could have her, you know you owe me.” She chastised, and yet there was something else to her voice, something...more familiar than even a consort. Sister, maybe? Lord Thomas has a sister, yes, the Lady Estrella...she was said to be as beautiful as she was fearsome in battle. What did she want with Cassandra?
“Do not chide me in front of others, sister, or I will make you remember your place!” Thomas hissed angrily, jerking Cassandra up higher, causing her to cry out as her vision began to fade. She didn’t hear what Estrella or Thomas said next, their exchange sounded far away, as if Cassandra was starting to drown. But then, before she knew it, Thomas let go of her. She began to crash to the floor, except at the last minute, disturbingly strong arms caught her, sweeping her up instead of letting her hit the ground. And they were not Thomas’ arms, Cassandra could tell that much before she finally passed out.
The first thing Jake felt was his knees and shins grating against stone, pain lacing through his body as he was dragged by the arms by two disturbingly strong men. Vampires. They held him between them as if he were nothing, and he was certainly a something of a man. He tried not to panic once he came to, focusing on his surroundings and clearing his head. He was injured, wearing nothing but his trousers, with a bite to the neck, and it felt like they hadn’t been that gentle in transporting him at all. Where was Cassandra? She was more valuable than Jake as a prisoner, they were probably torturing her. But he couldn’t think about how much that drove him crazy, how much it terrified him, he had to focus on getting out of here so he could get to her. He wasn’t going to lose her like he had lost Ezekiel to the wolves.
For what seemed like forever, the two silent vampires dragged Jake’s (seemingly) limp form down the dark and moist tunnel of what was undoubtedly a dungeon. When they finally came to a stop, they opened a terrifying looking metal door, and dragged him into a small room with no other doors or windows or impressions - only a bucket in the corner, rags on the floor, and chains on the wall. In one set of chains, in the far left of the room, huddled a young girl. She had dark eyes and mousy brown hair that was matted and hung in front of her. Jake’s anger at her captivity instantly roared, but he could do nothing, as he was soon locked in a twin pair of chains. When the vamps turned and tried to leave, Jake lunged at them, and before he could blink he found himself on the floor, being strangled. A pale, snarling, monstrous face hovered over him, salivating at his suffering.
“Fool, don’t kill him! Ambrosius needs his strong, fresh blood!” The other guard hissed from the doorway. The guard strangling Jake sighed, spat in his face on last time, and let him go. Jake gasped for breath as the vampire’s slightest gesture sent him crashing into the wall behind him. The door slammed before Jake could find his bearings, and he let his head fall back against the wall. Then he frowned, glancing over at his companion in the cell. Her eyes were trained on him with a sharpness he wasn’t used to from children her age. He had a feeling small talk really wasn’t the best way to break the ice in this situation.
“Why didn’t they chain me up like you?” He asked the girl softly. The girl stared at him, shuffling in her spot in the corner. Then she looked away finally, at the place where the wall met the floor.
“You are not dangerous to them.” She said, her voice raspy and weak, as if she was sick. His concern for her seemed to increase with every passing second. This child would surely die down here if she didn’t see the light of day and proper care soon. Jake turned his head, examining the cell, trying to forget the throbbing pain that inhabited his body.
“And you are?” Jake asked, even more confused. The girl shot another look at at him, and he turned to hear what she had to say. But instead of saying anything, her face trembled, as something started to change. Jake’s breath caught in his throat as an inhuman growl let out of her throat, and her eyes burned red. Wolf.
Instinctually, Jake flinched back against the stones, raising a fist against the burning eyes that he had faced in battle so often. The lycan girl, in return, flinched back against the sight of his raised fist, her werewolf features melting before they even really started to push through. She turned away, wrapped her thin, raggedy arms around her body tighter and pushing herself against the wall. She had given the knight his answer, and left him to stew in an awkward silence for the rest of the night.
Cassandra awoke to a cold and moist rag being dabbed gently against her forehead. Her eyes fluttered open, and the world came into focus. Above her hovered the form of what must have been Lady Estrella, for she was a vision that was almost worth eternal death to glimpse. Cassandra was struck by how she seemed to glow, despite being...what she was. It was not a cold glow, it was warmth, sunlight pouring out of every pore.
“You’re awake. Try not to move too quickly, my brother nearly killed you. You might have trouble speaking for a while, among other things…” Estrella said softly, her voice thick and smooth with her Spanish accent, pulling her hand away so as not to scare the woman with her proximity. She knew what she was, who she was. This girl had not a single reason to place her trust in the daughter of the night, sister of the man waging this war. Yet, Cassandra found she felt no need to draw herself away from the vampire. Not yet, anyhow.
Cassandra took a second to breathe through her contused, still bound throat, looking around as she did. The chambers where beautiful, full of daylight from the windows thrown wide open, and more surprisingly full of...plants? Dozens of plants, hanging from the ceiling, out the window, on shelves, lining the floor and the walkways it looked like, framing the bed...all sorts of beautiful, flourishing fauna, some so exotic that Cassandra had never before laid eyes on them, save in Sir Judson’s books.
“You saved me.” Cassandra rasped, her own voice harsh with injury, but not unhearable. The statement was somehow a million questions wrapped in a bow. Estrella nodded, smiling at Cassandra as she set the rag on the table beside the extravagant bed. Oh. She was in the Lady’s bed…
“We are not all the monsters i’m sure you’ve come to believe us to be.” Estrella said, carefully. Cassandra raised her eyebrow. She knew that once, vampires had lived in peace with humans, for the most part. It was only recently that war had truly broken out. But even before that, humans had more often lived in constant fear of the creatures of the night. Perhaps too much fear…
“And your brother?” Cassandra asked, her voice managing to be just as accusing as she needed it to be, despite its roughness. Estrella’s expression darkened. She looked down, pain in her movements.
“Tomas is no brother to me, not anymore. I only pretend to be loyal to him so that he won’t kill me.” Estrella confessed. Cassandra narrowed her eyes.
“Likely story…” She muttered, glancing around the room with more skepticism as she pulled herself into a sitting position. Estrella’s head whipped up, and her eyes hardened.
“Don’t doubt me about my feelings for my brother, Lady Cassandra!” Estrella snapped, and the sound of her name on the vampire’s tongue sent shivers down the sorceress’ spine. “He murdered my mother! Sophie, who was next to take the throne after Vlad finally fell. She was the one holding Vlad in check from starting this war a hundred years ago, all she ever truly wanted was peace and harmony between the creatures of the night and the children of the sun.”
Cassandra swallowed, finding herself moved by Estrella’s passionate words. Still, she was a bloodsucker. This could all be an elaborate ruse.
“Even the wolves? Your mother didn’t want their pelts lining her halls in this dream world?” Cassandra asked, hoping to catch Estrella in a contradiction. Estrella’s eyes flashed, and her expression was serious.
“Even the wolves. My mother saw no evil in what we are born into, only what we choose to become.” Estrella replied firmly, and her voice held a pain Cassandra was all too familiar with. Cassandra looked down at her lap, feeling...a tinge of shame?
“She sounds...like a good mother.” Cassandra found this was all she could bring herself to say. Estrella glanced at her, and she gathered herself.
“Yes. She was. I’m sure she would have admired your spirit, it takes a certain kind of person to die for what you care about.” With this, Estrella stood up. Cassandra reached a hand up, brushing her fingertips against the collar around her neck. It was thin, as to allow for a vampire to take a bite whenever they pleased without too much trouble.
“So, you saved me from your brother. What now?” Cassandra asked. Estrella walked across the room, picking up a watering can and tending the plants as she began to speak.
“I’ve lead him and the others to believe I desire you for my own blood slave. They will expect me to be feeding off of you, and you to be doing whatever I tell you to do.” Estrella turned to give her a sincere expression.
“But do not worry, I promise I will never feed on you, or hurt you, do you understand? If I am ever cruel to you, it will only be a mirage in the presence of others.” Estrella explained. Cassandra nodded, understanding, despite how the arrangement felt...dehumanizing to her.
“Do you have an actual blood slave?” Cassandra wondered. Estrella shook her head, her dark hair shuddering around her.
“I haven’t ever had one. Even under Vlad’s rule, I chose only to feed on the rare occasions where it does not require hurting people. That being said, the last meal I had must have been...well, I suppose it doesn’t matter.” Estrella shrugged.
“But don’t vampires become as weak as humans when they don’t feed? Won’t you eventually die?” Cassandra questioned, surprised by the answer Estrella had given. Estrella just smiled at her, and she was beginning to become enraptured by that smile very quickly. Perhaps it was some dark vampiric magic, making her let her guard down and get all doe eyed. If it was magic, it was more difficult to resist than anything she had ever encountered.
“What, are you worried about my health?” Estrella teased, and the way her voice trilled with amusement and affection made Cassandra taste honey and sugar on her tongue.
“Just...surprised. I’ve not known a vampire too fast the way you describe.” Cassandra attempted to cover up her concern.
“That is because the only vampires you have known have been those who see themselves as above humans and everyone else. Not all who are trapped in this existence choose to live like that, in fear and darkness and blood.” At those words, Cassandra’s eyes widened, as she remembered something very strange she had yet to question.
“The dark - you are in the light! The sunlight! And so was your brother! How is that possible?” Cassandra exclaimed, pulling herself up off the bed so she could stand with Estrella amongst her plants. Estrella smiled, and gestured for Cassandra to follow her to the window. When Cassandra looked out, her breath was taken away. They were inside of a giant cavern, underground, a cavern that was so huge she could barely see the other side. This was the vampire heartland? The capitol they had been searching for in vain throughout the war? The palace itself was in the center of an ancient stone citadel that rose out of a lake, the spires and the gothic architecture interrupted on the east side by a large crater, that had ripped a whole entire part of the city apart. Less impressive buildings seemed to sprawl out outside the stone walls, and she could see floating shapes on the water that looked like houses.
Above them, the impact point of whatever caused the crater had ripped a giant hole in the ceiling of the cavern. Sunlight spilled down in a singular pillar, illuminating only the center of the heart of the castle itself. Everything else lay safe in shadow. The crater in town had already flooded with water, and Cassandra was surprised to see figures splashing in the water and laughing in the sunlight.
“Are they…” Cassandra began, wide eyes drinking in the view from the tower they must have been inside of.
“Vampires?” Estrella filled in her question, and then carried on to answer it. “Yes. A rock came down from the sky, burning with a fire that was not of this world. It killed many of my people, nearly half the city died in the sunlight that came down, if not in the impact.”
Cassandra spun around to face Estrella, too caught up in the new information to care that they were nearly touching chests.
“A meteor! And it crashed here? In the heart of the bl- vampire lands?” Cassandra quickly corrected herself, not sure how her new master would take to being called a bloodsucker. Since when had she cared about insulting the lady?
“La Ruz is still recovering from it. A meteor, you call it? Whatever it is, it has strange properties. It has begun to change us, allowed many of us to touch light and remain unscathed. We’ve been trying to figure out the magic behind this ever since. I am...rather learned, you could say, when it comes to many scientific and mystical disciplines. It is for this reason my brother allows me to live, as long as I pretend to support him and am still valuable. And as long as those truths hold out, you will also be protected.” Estrella assured her, tilting her head to give her an even brighter smile.
“I believe you.” Cassandra heard herself reply, regardless of what her better judgement was telling her. She found herself inclined to trust Estrella already, which she feared in the back of her mind she may come to regret.
Estrella asks for Cassandra's help in figuring out how the meteorite works.
Jake woke up to a cold hand stroking the pulse of his throat, to which he flinched violently away from as his eyes snapped open. A man with fangs and tan skin stood over him, blonde hair swept up in a style as regal as his clothes were pompous. How the fuck did he have a tan?
“You must be Jacob of Stonewall. I've heard a lot about you. You and that witch with the loud mouth. Good thing Lady Estrella is putting that mouth to better use as of now.” The vampire gloated, leaning over where Jake was sitting against the wall. Jake roared, surging up to try and headbutt the bloodsucker, as Queen Eve might have done. Unfortunately, the vampire was too fast, and he merely stepped out of the way so that Jake slumped back against the wall, his energy wasted in a fruitless siege. Jake panted, glaring at the monstrosity before him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the wolf girl cowering in the corner, her eyes wide with hate and fear.
“Such fire inside of you. I can't wait to taste it. I can't wait to make your pretty, muscular body dance to my will. Maybe when you’ve spilled all your blood and secrets to me, and my Lord and Lady deem themselves done with your Prophetess, I'll make you fuck her until she's dead. What, too cruel? There is a child present, after all…” The vampire laughed, flashing a toothy grin at Jamie before he carried on. “Maybe I'll just make you slit her throat and be done with it. Depends on how I feel. We’ve waited a long time to get revenge on your precious King for what he did to Vlad and Lady Simone.”
At this, the vampire stopped, leaning closer to Jake’s glaring face. Jake trembled in rage, but dared not move. The vampire sneered in his face, cold eyes glinting with a dark triumph. His next words sent shivers of dread and confusion down Jake’s spine.
“I can't wait to walk proudly through the sunlight up to your golden city, just to dump your rotting bodies at its gates. And then I’ll take your world as my own. All your people will bow to me or die!”
With that, the man swept away through the door, locking it behind him and leaving Jake to wonder who exactly he was in the custody of.
The wolf girl continued not to speak to him for the rest of the night, which he was fine with. He was preoccupied trying to plan a devious escape, which he didn't really have a lot of luck with, since … since Ezekiel had always been the one to handle escaping, and impromptu plans. He had really had a gift for getting in and out of tough places...
The best bet he had was to fight his way out. He had fought his way out of worse situations. He needed to get to Cassandra before they killed her, preferably before they defiled her too horribly. With every passing minute, god knew what torture and violation his friend was enduring. His heart ached as painful memories resurfaced of Ezekiel. Jake hadn’t been able to save him from the wolves in the desert, but he would be damned if he wouldn’t be able to save Cassandra from the bloodsuckers of the north.
After their initial conversation, Estrella had been called away on business. Whatever that meant. In the meanwhile, Cassandra was left to investigate her new quarters, an antechamber to Estrella’s extravagant ones. It was really just a fancy way of saying prison, but she wasn’t as stubborn as Jacob. She knew to accept a good thing when it came. Although, at the same time, she wasn’t the same as Ezekiel either. Ezekiel would have indulged in every luxury he could find in the space provided, no doubt. Her heart ached to remember his zest for life, a life she couldn’t save, so she turned her attention to her surroundings with a sharper, more analytical focus.
She wandered around her smaller room for a while before daring to go back into Estrella’s, leaning to look closely at her plants. While she strolled around what might as well have been an indoor garden, she found her might drifting to the past.
It had started with her and Jacob, at least, from her perspective. They had grown up together in Flynn’s castle, each destined to be instruments in the political landscape of their world. They had always known that their paths were already somewhat carved out for them, but it had never really bothered them. They had always been close, but something had been missing between them. Their interests differed more and more as they grew older, their paths took them farther away at times it seemed. Jacob did not approve of magic at first, of Cassandra’s destiny to embody it in the name of the land and in the name of the King. But time proves all truths and all trusts, and Jake had come to terms with both who he was and who she was meant to be.
Looking back, Cassandra supposed the day it all changed was the day a snarky thief was caught with his hands clutched around the royal crown by Eve, and instead of throwing him in the dungeons, the Queen had insisted on inviting him to dine with them. Cassandra felt a ghost of a smile overtake her features at the memory, however painful it might be to remember.
“What’s wrong?” A familiar voice asked from behind her, and she spun around, almost knocking into the plants in shock. Estrella stood, blinking at her fright.
“Nothing! Nothing’s wrong. I’m only a prisoner of war in the homeland of the vampires, and my only saving grace is being the pet to the princess. Or am I your feeding bag?” Cassandra found herself lashing out, the pain in her heart still too close to the surface. She had lost Ezekiel to creatures of the night, like the one standing before her. They were all the same, Ezekiel used to say. What if he was right? Estrella pursed her lips, seeming undisturbed by Cassandra’s words.
“You’re angry. That’s understandable, but that’s not what I meant. There are ways of telling human emotions that are remarkably easy to my kind. You were sad, before. In agony, more like. If you are worried about your knight in shining armor, he is alive. For now.” Estrella swept past her into the bowels of her chambers. Cassandra turned and found herself following, a few steps behind. Relief, of a strange sort, swept through her.
“Can you save him, too? You’re royalty, who cares if you have two blood slaves, right?” Cassandra asked hopefully, putting a remarkable amount of faith and pressure on the woman who she had been baiting into a fight seconds before. Estrella threw her a look over her shoulder that was unreadable. Ezekiel had always been better at reading people.
“We’re already in a precarious position, here. I can’t afford to jeopardize that by going against Lord Marco’s wishes, let alone in the name of seeming like a human sympathizer. Lord Marco is...very close to my brother. They have shared a bed and they have shared combat, I fear my brother may well kill me before he ever kills Marco…” Estrella admitted, taking a heavy seat on her bed, trying her best not to let her tears slip down her face. Cassandra felt her gut twist. The pain was so clear on the woman’s face it felt like she could feel it herself, so similar to the ache for her lost brother. And now another one, close behind.
“I'm so sorry. That's not how family should treat each other. Especially siblings.” Cassandra said tentatively, feeling suddenly guilty for her mood swings. She had gone from attacking Estrella the minute she entered the room, to begging her to risk her life on her whim. All from the woman who had chosen to save her life. Cassandra gulped, hesitantly taking a seat on the bed, a few inches away from where the vampire was hunched over in her grief.
“I didn’t mean what I said before. I’m so grateful that you saved me. I just...I already lost someone to the werewolves, in the east. I was supposed to take care of him and I...didn’t. Every day, I wake up, expecting him to be there, smiling at me, but he’s not and-” Cassandra’s voice cracked as a tear of her own sprang free, and she took a deep breath.
“I’m terrified of losing Jake too. I shouldn’t have taken it out on the only person helping me.” Cassandra confessed. Estrella turned to look at her, face no longer twisted in pain, but slack in a sort of awe. Cassandra felt herself somewhat magnetized by the closeness between them, the way their gazes locked, with so much understanding between them. Like the girl could see into her soul.
“I’m sorry for your loss. I told you, I understand. You have nothing to apologize for. Are you hungry? I’ve ordered for some suitable food to be brought up. Until then, I could take you to my laboratory. There are some things we need to discuss.” Estrella asked, standing and offering her hand to Cassandra. Cassandra felt her soul light up at the mention of food and of the mystery of the unknown. And maybe with something else.
Strange, how these bright feelings blossom in the darkest of times.
The next time the door opened, the blond monster was accompanied by two goons. He had a wicked smile on his face, fangs sharper than the edge of Excalibur’s blade. Jake glared him down, showing no fear as the men, if you could call them that, approached him. They ignored the wolf girl in the corner, who watched with eyes that were frankly too big.
“Jacob, I hope you rested well. I like to play with my food, and it’s no fun if they don’t have the energy.” Marco cooed, reaching out to stroke his face. Jake steeled himself, not reacting at all, as best he could. If what this guy got off on was getting a rise out of him, playing cat and mouse, Jake wasn’t going to give him that.
Marco frowned, the very tips of his fangs still visible, poking out between his lips. He reached out, wrapping his hand around Jake’s throat, pressing down a bit. Not enough to making it hard to breathe, really, but enough to threaten the action. To establish dominance. To feel his pulse speed up, he realized with a final jolt as he was pressed back against the wall. Marco’s form seemed to cast a shadow that didn’t fit the amount of light in the dank cell, an all consuming darkness swallowing them, cushioning them from the outside world.
“That witch girl of yours sure was a good lay. Screamed out spells that wouldn’t work right until we finally drained her completely dry. Nothing but a husk with a frock of red hair, now. Tomas is considering her hanging up in the hall for decoration.” Marco snarled happily. Jake’s whole body tensed with the effort to keep from trying to rip Marco’s smile off his face, or from trying to slit his own throat. No, no, no...she couldn’t be gone. He had to be lying. Fuck, he’s not lying.
He stared anywhere besides Marco’s intense glare, trying to drag his mind away from reality so he wouldn’t give into what the monster wanted. So he wouldn’t give into the overwhelming pain that threatened to consume everything he knew, his heart breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, as if it was being ground under God’s heel. But still, he kept from reacting, as much as any sane man could.
Marco seemed to sense his resolve, and licked his lips, tilting his head. Then he let go of Jake, turning away and starting to walk towards the door.
“I guess if you don't want to play, we’ll just suck you dry as well and hang you up next to her.” He said, as he left. Jake’s shoulders slumped, relieved he had made Marco lose interest in his game, and trembling under the weight of his whole world collapsing around him. At least soon Marco would be gone, and he could figure out a way to hang himself with these damned chains before he let the vampire have his fun.
“It’s a pity we’ll never have the complete set. Those wolves really never leave a corpse intact, do they? Who knows, maybe we’ll find his bones someday, and suck out the marrow that’s left of Sir Ezekiel...Maybe you can ask him where they’re buried when you all see each other in hell again! You should really thank me for the reunion!” Marco called back thoughtfully, causing Jake to surge forward against his chains, crying out in rage and anguish, the pain of losing both Ezekiel and Cassandra breaking through his efforts. The two people he loved more than anything in the world, and they were gone, and he wasn’t going to let this monster force him to live as his plaything any longer than he had to. He strained against the chains, crying out again like an animal, and Marco stopped, smiling as he turned to face the human.
And the for the rest of what must have been his life, all of Jake’s world was reduced to blood. It filled his vision, drowned his thoughts, covered his body, sprang from his mouth and from his mind. The smell of it and the sound of what was left of it pumping through his veins became all he knew, all he was. And so, the knight lost himself in a sea of crimson.
Estrella showed Cassandra to her place of work, which filled the witch with a familiar feeling. The smell of parchment, dirt, and tinctures of unknown origin. Estrella was truly brilliant, and Cassandra found herself enraptured. By both the beautiful woman, her mind, and her theories.
“So you think the meteorite protects you from the sun? How? I don’t think it’s any sort of spell, so it must be a natural result of the mineral.” Cassandra asked after Estrella began to show her the fragments of the rock she had collected.
“Yes, but outside the cavern, we cannot walk in the sun for more than a few paces. Many have tried...and failed,” Estrella said sadly, her shoulders tense as she ran her hand over her own notes, as if it would cause them to proffer up some answer of which she hasn’t thought. Cassandra mentally envisioned having to spend your entire existence in fear of even the tiniest ray of light...and one day, you’re finally free, finally able to bask in one of the greatest gifts of creation...only it wasn’t freedom. It was just another limitation. Then her mind fell to the information that those who had tried to leave had died...she had seen vampires die before, by the light. It was a horrible way to go, and their screams often haunted Cassandra. Especially those who she had forced into the light herself, in the midst of battle.
Cassandra felt her own eyes burning into the back of Lady Estrella’s head. How many of the vampires that Cassandra had fought...how many of them had been under orders from Tomas, and how many of them truly wished harm? How many had Estrella known? Grieved for? What if the pain Estrella felt was akin to the agony she felt over Ezekiel? What if it was worse? How much pain had Cassandra inflicted onto the world in the name of her own survival, in the name of war?
Estrella turned to her, and she snapped herself out of her heavy thoughts, feeling like a deer caught in headlights.
“Do you have any ideas? We have heard tell of your genius, even here, in the depths of the North.” Estrella said sincerely, with a slight smile that made Cassandra’s stomach flop. Cassandra tried to swallow past the dryness in her mouth, and looked down at the piece of meteorite she was holding in her hand, instead of making eye contact with the Lady.
“I know some magical techniques that can let me see past the surface of this mineral, get to know what it’s really made of.” Cassandra said, as it was the only thing she could think of at the moment. Estrella didn’t answer, and Cassandra looked back up at her, to find the vampire's gaze was lingering on her throat. Or more, the collar wrapped around it.
“Oh. Right. I forgot...do you have any affinity for magic? I could just show you how, to the best of my ability, by proxy.” Cassandra nervously tried to find another answer, feeling strange, for momentarily forgetting she was so physically prisoner. How could she forget that? Was this beautiful creature’s pull on her really so strong? Or was it the grief, and the mystery before her?
“Unfortunately, I never have had much luck with it. Vampires are often inclined to have difficulty with manipulating the world around them. Another part of our curse, I suppose. The wolves have no such issues with spellwork, when they can find education on the subject, but they aren’t undead.” Estrella explained. Cassandra was stricken by this information.
“Really? How did I never know that? In our...encounters with vampires before, i’ve had to fight off magic - “ Cassandra stopped herself, her keen mind scrambling to put together all the battles she’d ever had involving magic and vampires. Her eyes widened further. “Of course! You use magical items and potions, things that don’t require spellwork. Magic that already exists before you even think of using it!” She exclaimed. Estrella huffed out something that seemed like a soft laugh, as she watched the human’s mind roll over and over onto itself.
“You are beautiful when you’re thinking.” Estrella said, almost without realizing. Cassandra’s mouth snapped shut, and her face flushed as red as her dress. Which was...ripped and filthy, still, Estrella realized.
“How about we see if I have any clothes you can borrow? Unfortunately, our best seamstress died when the rock struck, or I’d have her make you something herself. She was a miracle worker…” Estrella said, turning towards the door, cursing herself for saying something so foolish to someone who had every right to hate her and everything she was.
“I’d like that!” Cassandra practically squeaked, so taken aback she carried the meteorite in her hand with her as she hurried after the vampire. She was fairly certain some of the mud on her dress wasn’t just dirt, and relished the chance to change.
When Pack meets with Pack in the Jungle, and neither will go from the trail,
Lie down till the leaders have spoken — it may be fair words shall prevail.
- The Law of The Jungle
In the end, Jake wasn’t sure what woke him from his unconsciousness. It could have been the agony of his broken body, or it could have been the sounds of screaming, battle, and death. The wolf girl was cowering in the corner when Jake mustered the strength to look around the cell.
“Wha’s happening?” He slurred, realizing his tongue was swollen in his mouth, and blood leaked out of the corners of his lips as pain lanced through him. He must have bitten it at some point during the beating. She didn’t answer, but cocked her head at him, sniffing at the smell of fresher blood. As if she was surprised he had lived through them breaking and folding his body like parchment between them.
He tried to move more than his neck, and he found not only did his entire existence became one of pain and nothing else, but he couldn’t even get his body to respond in the slightest. Dread, fear, and misery flooded him. He closed his eyes, as his heart and mind were overwhelmed with the sour wish for death. He wished he had never woken, but now, he would surely die a slow and painful death. Alone, surrounded by the monsters who had taken the two people he loved most away from him. Tears started to leak out of his eyes, and sobs managed to clip from him, his lungs barely able to heave the breath for it. HIs muscles barely able to muster the ability to shake with his sorrow.
The pain of the physical and the emotional blurred together, it was all he knew. He wished he at least had the strength or the tools to be able to end his own life more swiftly, so he could be with Cassandra and Ezekiel, finally, wherever they were. He just wanted this to be over, why did the world hate him, why couldn’t he have died in battle, in glory and honor, amongst his people...why was he still breathing now, why did his brain have to be intact to comprehend this pain? There was no release in sight, and there wouldn’t be for god knew how long…
The sound of battle raged closer and closer to their cell, but it was distant to Jake as he succumbed to fate. It didn’t matter to him anyway. He could only hope whoever won would end him in a kinder manner.
Suddenly, the door swung open, and firelight was cast over Jake, causing him to drag his eyelids open weakly. The figure towering in the doorway stepped forward, and through the shadows, Jake swore he saw a face he thought he’d never see again. Before he could even focus his eyes properly on the ghost in front of him, however, his mind finally slipped into total darkness.
After an evening of Estrella having handmaidens bring her clothes for Cassandra to try on to her liking, the human took her leave and returned to her chambers. Her prison, more like. Or was it her sanctuary? After all, this room was part of Estrella’s home, and she was the one who had saved Cassandra. Perhaps she could think of it less as a gilded cage, and more like a corner of brightness in a terrifying situation. And Estrella was brightest of all…
Cassandra lay awake that night, staring at shadows as they danced across the ceiling. The ceilings were painted in immaculate, graceful designs, depicting perfect understanding of geometric ratios. It was like music to her eyes. She was keenly aware vampires had painted it, which meant vampires were not only as intelligent as humans, they were as passionate, as emotive, as caring for beauty and expression. As curious and enlightened by the ever unraveling mysteries of their strangely unnatural world.
Estrella occupied her thoughts most of all. She was nothing like Dracula, who had torn across the human lands like a plague, bringing darkness and death for longer than anyone could remember. Well, longer than any mortal creature could remember. It seemed Estrella and her brother had perhaps predated Dracula’s rise to power, and the dark ages of war that had torn the races to pieces without mercy on any side.
Cassandra had lived her life in a world of black and white. Well, more like red and blue. Blood all around her, so she had turned her head to the sky and believed the others when they told her only humans were capable of reaching for the stars the way she yearned to.
Yet, here she lay, in the antechamber of a vampire princess, who had a heart perhaps bigger than even Cassandra’s. She was certainly far more beautiful than Cassandra...she could feel her pulse race every time she let her eyes linger on the other woman for too long, especially if Estrella turned those deep, honey sweet eyes on her, and she felt her legs wobble. Among other things.
Cassandra tossed in bed, pulling the covers over her form, hoping to ward off the heated thoughts traveling through her body and mind. They weren’t appropriate, not right now, not when everything was nearly lost to her. But her heart couldn’t help its own aches, it seemed. Whether they be pleasant aches, the kind that made her want to reach out and run her hand through that raven hair, or the aches that came from knowing she had lost one of the most important people she had ever known.
They said time healed all wounds, and in a sense that was true. However, the knowledge Jake was alone, and probably being tortured or fed on by vampires, made the pain of losing Ezekiel rise to the surface. It tore at her from the inside out, and she felt tears start to drip from her face as she was flooded with her perfect memories of his smile, his laughter, and the smell of his blood as the wolves tore his flesh. The sound of his screams echoed in her head, making her see colors she wished her eyes could be blinded by, so she’d never have to see them again.
Sometimes, she really hated not being able to forget.
A shadow moved through moonlight, small and nearly unnoticeable against the darkness of the castle stones and the roofs. The shadow moved through all the right places, swiftly, with an agility that spoke of endless practice. Soundlessly. If not for the full moon, Eve might not have spotted it at all. Once she watched the shadow move over the sloping roof opposite her balcony, and swing itself down into the building below through a window, she turned and fetched her sword without a word to the man still slumbering in her bed. Flynn would wake if anything went wrong and the alarm was raised. Besides, ever since she’d become Queen, Eve had seen less and less action. She was itching for a fight, truth be told.
By the time she made it to the treasury, through a secret shortcut she knew, the shadow, now more clearly defined as a hooded man, was prying open the nearest chest of gold. Eve smirked to herself and approached unnoticed from behind. Then she pressed the tip of her sword to the back of the thief’s neck, feeling a little disappointed with how easy this had been.
”Stand and face me, before I run you through for being such an easy catch.” Eve demanded.
With a tense slowness, the figure slowly stood and turned around, and Eve used the tip of her blade to toss his hood back herself so she could she could see him better. And when she did, she nearly dropped said blade. She blanched, as she was glared down by a child. A child of Eastern descent, it looked like. Darker skin, hooded lids. His features were sharp, strong, and striking, for how young he obviously was. As was the heat of his gaze, and his very presence here, in the royal treasury, in the middle of the night. At the end of her sword. He was younger than Cassandra, younger than Jacob. She felt sick.
”What is your name, thief? How old are you?” She demanded, her brows furrowed in a mixture of anger and concern. She was still holding him at swordpoint. Something about him screamed that however young he was, she shouldn’t be underestimating him. Quite the contrary, based on what she’d witnessed from the balcony.
”Why, don’t you recognize me, M’Lady? I’m the King! Why else would I be coming to get my gold? I forgot it here, you see, If you would just let me-” The child began talking smoothly, mockingly, his accent a far cry from what she expected based on his appearance. He must have been born here, in the North, or brought here when he was very young. Or somewhere with a similar accent. Eve raised an eyebrow in disbelief as he made a sweeping bow, which was obviously meant to mock her and the King further.
”Why are you so confident I won’t kill you for this treachery where you stand? Or throw you in prison? Send you to the mines?” Eve demanded, narrowing her eyes at him as he smiled at her, wondering so many things at once. The boy laughed, he actually laughed.
”My name is Ezekiel. And as to why i’m so confidant...let’s just say, when you spend your entire life on the run, you learn how to get out of worse scraps than this. So excuse me if i’m not trembling at the tip of your sword, General - or is it Queen now?” Ezekiel asked.
Eve didn’t bother to reply to that. It was clear conversation was only going to get her so far in this situation. So she stared down the boy in silence for a long while, motionless, thinking. Before she abruptly pulled her sword away, sheathing it. She turned away, and started to walk towards the door.
”W-what? That’s it? Are you letting me go? You know i’m gonna take all the gold I can carry! Your guards will never catch me!” The boy called, sounding shocked and confused by her actions. She stopped and turned to smile at him over her shoulder.
”You made it pretty clear there’s no sense trying to keep you here against your will, and i’m not killing a child. So, if you want the gold so much, take it. I could care less how much gold can fit in your pockets, kid. But if you want something more than just running from raid to raid, you can follow me and i’ll take you to your new chambers. They’re ridiculously over luxurious, i’m sure you’ll feel right at home.” Eve said matter of factly. Ezekiel’s face shifted more, and he rocked back on his heels, glancing at the windows and at the gold, before looking at her retreating back. Curiosity won out, and he rushed after her. Out of the old, and into the new.
There was a huge, heavy warmth against Jake, when he came back to the world of the living. This time, waking up was less of a struggle. He blinked open his eyes, disorientated already from the lack of agony he was in. It all came back to him before his eyes could even adjust to the sudden sunlight, however. He had been about to die. The end was fuzzy, as if it was a dream. He had probably imaged what he had seen, but he surely hadn’t imagined what he was experiencing now.
He was laying on the ground, on some sort of bed made of cloth and hay. He was in the woods, surrounded by thick brush, underneath a large rock outcropping that was hung over with vines and foliage, forming a partial screen of sorts. Next to Jake was something that made his whole body freeze up and tense, screaming at him to get away. A wolf, but one larger than normal, nearly the size of a man. It was dark black, with long, thick, soft fur that had a slight silvery sheen on the top. The wolf must have been asleep next to Jake, but when he froze, it blinked it’s huge, piercing golden eyes, swiveling it’s large head over to cock it at Jake. Jake felt his breath halt as the beast stared down at him, realizing it’s head was so large it could very well snap Jake in two without much thought. But the beast held no malice in it... as if it were a docile lapdog around the castle. Jacob had helped raise hunting dogs and royal lapdogs alike, he knew a thing or two about canines.
He also knew this was no ordinary wolf. This was a man, in the skin of a wolf. He had killed enough to know that some werewolves could take complete wolf form, and when they did, they were formidable. But it was rare. The last time he had come face to face with them…
The wolf stood, and Jake scrambled back until his head cracked against the stone wall at his back. His breathing resumed, heavy and rushed, and he realized that his bones were no longer broken. How could that be? The only answer was magic, which sent a shiver down Jake’s spine. Cassandra was...Cassandra was...that could only mean…
“Our pack has a healer. She would not have healed you, if it were up to me.” Said a voice, from behind the veil of vines. A figure moved around the entrance to the makeshift cave, and Jake was surprised to watch the girl from the cell stride towards him, an authority rolling off of her young frame that startled him. As if she were a predator completely in its own element. Yet her face was smiling, bright as a summer’s day. A far cry from the extent of her expressions cast towards him during their shared captivity.
“You. The wolves came to save you. Why take me as well? Why am I alive?” Jake demanded, putting the pieces together as quickly as he could, glancing back and forth between the two wolves. The girl cocked her head, much like the large wolf had just done. She seemed to be gauging him.
“You say that like you’re disappointed. You wanted to die. Strange, coming from the man who’s killed so many of my people to stay alive. They say the great Sir Jacob has our pelts for his winter cloak. Or is that just a story told to scare the pups, to keep them away from the humans?” The girl scoffed, crossing her arms, as if unimpressed with the man behind the myth. Jacob felt his stomach turn, and the instinct to fight left his body. He let go of the tension he’d been holding in case of an attack, because he realized he would welcome one.
“I have nothing left to live for. Are you going to put me out of my misery? Is your pack going to take revenge for what i’ve done from my side of the war? I wouldn’t blame you. I killed as many as you think I did. Maybe more. And some of them didn’t deserve it, I know that now. I was blind with the hues of war and mad with grief. I’m sorry, and if you kill me quickly, I’m grateful.” Jacob sighed, letting his head slump back against the rock, turning his head away as his eyes went dead and his soul began to feel more withered by the second. Leaving his neck open in hope of a quick slash to the jugular. But he knew that a quick death was probably too much to ask. For one, this was a girl, no matter how she talked. For another, they wouldn’t have kept him alive like this if it wasn’t to torture him slowly, to make him suffer like he had made them suffer.
“Why would I waste magic to save you just to help you die?” The girl asked. “My father would have my head. He likes to pretend he’s the alpha, and that would just put too much strain on him, don’t you think? No, it was hard enough to convince the pack not to feast on your bones. And you have my companion here to thank for it. He’s the one who carried you from the batnest and threatened to tear out the throat of anyone who -” She began, but a low growl from the wolf in question caused her to snap her jaw shut, glancing at him. That caught Jake’s attention. The girl had just claimed to be the one who was really the alpha of this pack, and yet, she answered to this … outsider? Why would he save me? Who is he? What does he want?
“Why isn’t he…walking upright?” Jake decided to ask, out of all the question circling in his brain. The girl sighed.
“He...prefers that form. Some do, some don’t.” She said, too shortly. With too little confidence. Jake frowned further.
“Who is he? Why did you let him save me, if you’re in charge? Why would he want to?” Jake asked. The girl turned, looking towards the wolf instead of him. They seemed to stare each other down, having some conversation that was beyond him. Then the girl smirked, as if she had made a joke, and turned back to him with a decisive stance.
“You can call him Prophet. And you can call me Jamie.” The girl announced, and Jake got the sense she thought she was being clever, if the wolf’s snort and shuffle of his paws was any indicator. “As for why he wants to save you, precisely because he’s a prophet. He’s foreseen a future, one where vampires, wolves, humans, and fae unite. And he says you’re a part of that future. So is the Bleeding Witch. You’ll leave in the morning, to get more humans so you can fetch her before it’s too late.”
“Cassandra?” Jake choked on her name, as he tried to process the information. He knew she was called that title in particular, because of her tendency to get nosebleeds in battle. But she was dead... A future? United? This had to be a laugh.
“She’s dead. All that’s left to fetch is a corpse, if they haven’t cut it up into trinkets.” Jake muttered miserably, tasting metal in his mouth as Marco’s harsh words rolled through his shattered mind.
“No, she isn’t. Marco lied. He never even got close to her. For one thing, I can smell when he’s lying. For another, we know people in the City of the Dead. She’s being held as the personal blood slave to the Lady Estrella.” Jamie assured him, scoffing as she finally stopped looming over him, instead taking a seat in the hay next to Prophet, reaching to stroke him behind his ears. He flicked them, as if annoyed, but didn’t make any other moves to stop her.
Jake’s heart leaped, as all the hope he’d lost sparked again, clinging to this information. Could this be? If Cassandra was still alive…
“I have to save her!” Jake burst out, surging to his feet. Jamie and Prophet didn’t even flinch, but she laughed as if he’d made a joke. Her laugh was...adorable, frankly. And therefore a bit disconcerting. She shook her head at him.
“Why do you think you’re here? Alive? I had to sell them something to keep you alive, you know. The power of an alpha isn’t as strong as you humans think, we have free will and self-interest just like you. You’re here to help us save her, so you can bring an end to the slaughter you helped commit.” She said, as if he was daft to think otherwise. Clearly, he had no choice in the matter. But he didn’t need to think twice. This was a second chance, one he would not waste. The fire inside him flared to life once more, and he felt his will to go on fill every fiber of him again. He had a purpose, a redemption, a goal. And he would not fail. He wouldn’t lose anyone else.
“Are you sure this is allowed? Is it safe? Without my magic...” Cassandra whispered to Estrella, clutching onto the vampire’s cold (but remarkably soft) hand as the woman strode confidently down the hall.
“Stay behind me, and don’t make eye contact. Act like a slave and they won’t find anything out of place with you.” Estrella replied, out of the side of her mouth, not even turning her head as they began to descend a spiraling staircase, occasionally passing a mixture of human slaves and vampires, from servants to those who appeared to be of some importance. Cassandra bit her cheek as she tried her best to swallow her pride and act like a slave. Even though Estrella assured her it was only an act, it was too rooted in reality for her. Her dignity was stripped from her, her magic was cut off from her, she was vulnerable and if Estrella really wanted to drop the act and be her master, there was nothing Cassandra would be able to do. If Estrella wanted to, she could hold her down as if she were nothing and drain every drop of blood from her. Or worse.
While she felt inclined to be open-minded about her new ally, the fear of what could happen was practically unbearable as she was forced to shrink away from the piercing gazes of the powerful creatures who glared at her as they passed by. The humans, the other slaves, just looked at her with pity. Somehow, this was worse. But Estrella had something important to show her, and Cassandra knew the odds of getting out of here without Estrella. They weren’t good. And they wouldn’t be able to escape together unless they could find a way to make the vampires sun-proof permanently.
However...if Cassandra helped Estrella truly figure out what was allowing the vampires to walk in the sun, wouldn’t that be a huge advantage on their side of the war? They’d be able to attack humans and werewolves whenever they wanted. It would upset the balance of nature itself. She was truly in a dilemma now.
Once they finished the trek down the elaborate staircases, they emerged from a series of corridors and archways to see the large, water-filled crater that Cassandra has seen from the window so high above. The water was tranquil and clear, almost glowing with how the light hit it, and vegetation was already spreading over the torn up horizon as the rubble had been moved away. A few vampires were milling around the outer edges, enjoying the more direct rays of sun. They offered Estrella’s new companion a few long glances, but Cassandra did her best to ignore it, letting her eyes move around and look for patterns in everything. The soil, the ground, the air...she could see it all, as if it was floating right in front of her.
“It’s so…lush.” Cassandra murmured. Estrella let go of her hand finally, stooping down to pull something from the ground. When she did, Cassandra caught herself admiring the way her hair fell around her neck. Estrella turned to her, and handed her a small chunk of dark, rough, metallic rock. She took it in her hand, turning it over and over, analyzing everything she could with her senses.
“It makes the soil as fertile as the greenest mountainsides, the most humid valleys. With this little sun!” Estrella explained.
“This must be the cause of the immunity. But how…” Cassandra whispered, imploring the mineral to give up it’s secrets to her. In her hand, she knew, she held the weight of both her life, and countless others. What she did with it now…
“I believe in you.” Estrella said, and Cassandra looked up to find the woman staring at her with emotions that made her throat tighten, and her heart throb.