Heart of the Raven – Chapter One

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Katelina stared at the sandwich as though it were an enemy. The limp tomato stared back from between layers of stale bread and suspicious lunchmeat. It was a clash of wills, and sadly the wilted lettuce won.

Katelina tossed the sandwich on the coffee table and leaned back on the couch with a groan. It had been three days since the vampires’ underground Citadel had been attacked and the sixth floor, home to the handful of humans who lived there, had been decimated. Though many repairs had been made, the human amenities were still in shambles. Jorick had done the best he could, but the only available food was several crates of premade sandwiches.

Jorick. Boyfriend. Significant other. No label really fit the vampire but, for better or worse, she was in love with him – and she was supposed to meet him outside the audience chamber in a few minutes.

With a resigned sigh, she ate the limp sandwich in three bites, gave her long blonde hair a final pat, and charged out of the apartment and into the black carpeted corridor of the exclusive Executioners’ block. Like a private building, one had to have a special keycard to get in and out of the living area.

Outside was a public corridor. Largely undamaged, the hallway was bordered by hotel-like doors that gave way to mall style entertainment: a spa, an arcade and a movie theater. Vampires, already bored with the events of two days ago, lounged, and chatted as if it was just another day. Most ignored Katelina as she walked past.

The hair stood up on the back of her neck and Katelina hurried past them. Despite their indifference, any one of them could kill her without a second thought. Or maybe not. After all, she’d killed her share of vampires.

The thought squared her shoulders and she climbed in the elevator with a group of them. In the close quarters her courage waned. Luckily, the trip to the third floor was short. She exited quickly and turned for the audience chamber, a sense of dread in her stomach. She knew Jorick would be there, but it was little comfort. She still remembered the trial that had left Jorick sentenced to work as an Executioner, a member of The Guild’s “police squad”.

That had been Malick’s idea. Just thinking of his name was enough to make Katelina shiver. The former head of The Guild, the last time she’d seen him, he’d marched with his faithful underlings over a carpet of corpses. Worse than the sound of popping bones had been Malick’s face. Serene and gentle, like a loving father, even as he killed those he was supposed to protect.

The huge polished doors of the audience chamber loomed ahead of her, fronted by a gray suited guard, but no Jorick. She was only two minutes late. Surely he hadn’t left?

The guard eyed her with the general disdain most vampires showed. “Can I help you?”

Her first instinct was to ignore him, but she needed information. “I was sent for by Jorick, the Executioner.” It was a twist of the truth, and the title was unnecessary, but she enjoyed the way the guard’s face paled.

“They’re, uh, they’re still in session. I suppose you had better go in.”

It was her turn to falter. The last thing she wanted to do was face the remaining Executioners en masse, but it was that or pull up a bench across the hall and wither under the guard’s annoyingly superior gaze.

With a nod, she motioned to the door.

The guard opened it easily, though it weighed more than she could have moved. She swallowed her nervousness in a lump that tasted like the dried out sandwich, and marched inside.

The room was large and round, ringed by pillars and alcoves with tapestries. A crack in the vaulted ceiling hinted at the three day old battle, but everything else looked as it had the last time she’d been there. A red rug cut up the center of the room, bordered on either side by a haphazard arrangement of tables. A small cluster of chairs had been arranged to form three jagged rows. Vampires in black and silver uniforms, members of the greater guard, sat in them and stared with hopeful interest at the raised dais at the far end of the room.

Five thrones sat on the platform, meant for the members of the High Council. Above them, where the golden eye used to hang, a symbol of Malick’s power, a silver dragon winked and caught the light. No doubt it symbolized the new leadership of The Guild.

Beneath the new artwork sat the master himself, Eileifr, with long, braided blond hair and a bristling beard. Though his Nordic features were composed, the air around him seemed to crackle. Without Malick’s overwhelming presence it was suddenly obvious how terrifying Eileifr really was.

Before the platform was a table, and the remaining nine Executioners sat around it, dressed in black with silver medallions hanging around their necks; the symbol of their office. Katelina recognized them all, but only one held her attention. Jorick read a piece of paper, boredom on his face. His long black hair fell around his shoulders in a cascade of silky darkness and his pale skin gleamed like perfect marble in the light from the chandeliers. As if he sensed her scrutiny, he looked up, surprise in his dark eyes. Katelina met them; blue sky clashing with night. He cocked an eyebrow and then, as if he’d seen the answer in her mind, motioned her to wait out of the way.

He wasn’t the only one to notice her. An Executioner with crayon colored red hair also caught her attention. He offered her a fanged smile and a cheery wave. She gave him a scowl, then purposefully looked away and moved to an empty chair on the other side of the room.

Verchiel. How could he expect her to return his greeting? She and Jorick had fought over her almost-friendship with the crazy redhead, only for her to find out that he wasn’t her friend at all. He was only watching her on Malick’s orders. Why hadn’t Jorick warned her?

He did, her thoughts whispered back. But you didn’t listen.

Surrounded by vampires with various mental abilities, Katelina wasn’t sure if the thought was her own or one of theirs. It didn’t matter. It was right either way.

The Executioners handed papers back and forth and Katelina tried to occupy her mind. She noted with surprise that the bulky vampire Zuri sat among them. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been a prisoner and his severed arms had been stored in a metal box of blood. Though apparently reattached, she envisioned them dropping off at any moment.

Eileifr cleared his throat loudly and addressed the Executioners, “Please mark your top choices and hand them to me.”

Top choices for what? She wondered.

Eileifr looked through the papers and nodded with satisfaction. “The new Executioners have been chosen. Candidates, please stand.”

As one, the black clad guards climbed to their feet, eye riveted to the ancient master.

“Will the following candidates please come to the dais? Cyprus, Fallon, and Lisiantha. The rest of you may go. Thank you for your interest. Should another replacement be required, you will be notified.”

A low murmur went up from the guards as all but three filed out. Those who remained approached the dais as instructed. Katelina easily guessed that the brunette female was Lisiantha, but it was only Eileifr’s greeting that confirmed the identities of the males. Fallon had thick blond hair that curled just to his shoulders, while Cyprus’ long reddish-brown hair fell midway down his back.

Eileifr spoke to them about the importance and dignity involved in being an Executioner. Katelina had to bite her tongue to keep from chortling. Dignity was not something she associated with the vampires’ police. Cruelty, excessive force and haughty superiority, sure, but not dignity.

When he finished, Ark, the head Executioner, welcomed them and gave a speech about loyalty and the need to obey orders. That was more like the Executioners Katelina knew. Though Ark was good looking; long chestnut hair, emerald eyes and a face made for an elf, he was one of the haughtiest.

She met Jorick’s eyes and silently asked if they could go. Jorick glanced to Eileifr, then back, and shrugged. Had Malick still been in control, he’d have answered not only Jorick’s silent inquiry, but her own. A powerful mind reader, she was pretty sure the master had known what everyone in the complex was thinking. Eileifr, though ancient, didn’t have that particular power.

Still, he seemed to guess what Jorick wanted and made a gesture of dismissal. Katelina was already on her feet before Jorick reached her. She wasn’t sure who dragged who into the corridor and to the elevator.

They exited on the sixth floor. The damage to the walls and ceilings had been repaired with plaster patches. She wished they’d spend some time on the restaurant.

Jorick led her towards the reception room. “You didn’t bring your coat.”

There were so many electric lights and environmental controls in the underground Citadel that she forgot that above them, in the real world, it was January. “I’ll go get it.”

“No.” He peeled off his long black coat, part of the Executioner uniform, and slipped it over her. “That should do.”

The coat was too big and she felt like a child wearing Daddy’s clothes. With a grin, Jorick pushed up one of the sleeves to catch her hand. He brushed his lips over her knuckles and squeezed her fingers gently. “You look fine.”

They ducked into the reception room and took a set of stairs up until they reached a space age metal door. Jorick pushed the red button and they stepped through the swishing door to Midwest chaos. The Guild’s Citadel was hidden under a grain elevator complex in Iowa. The main entrance went through what looked like the office; complete with a back room full of seeds and binders, and a front area with an old coffee pot, a bulletin board of announcements and, sitting behind the counter, nose in a newspaper, what looked like a perma-tanned farmer. The yellow dog in the corner was almost too much.

The farmer nodded as they walked past. Katelina tried not to stare as he spit tobacco in a cup, revealing a flash of fangs.

Outside, Katelina huddled into the coat. Gravel crunched beneath her feet and the dark sky spread above her, stars wheeling into eternity. Like the office, the complex was perfectly rural; a giant elevator, an assortment of grain bins, a corrugated metal machine shed and a scattering of other buildings. There was even a rusty piece of farm equipment. No one would guess that underneath it was perhaps hundreds of vampires.

The wind shifted and a familiar, smoky scent wafted past; half cooking meat and half burning hair. Katelina covered her mouth and tried not to gag. “What in the hell?”

“I forgot. They’re still disposing of the bodies from the battle. We’ll go back.”

The breeze died, and with it so did the smell. “No, it’s all right. We’ll just walk the other way.” She offered him a smile. “At least they aren’t making you do it.” He didn’t answer, and she added, “They’re not going to let you out of being an Executioner, are they?”

Jorick stopped walking and turned to face her. “No, little one. Someone must go to Munich to testify to the True Council about what happened.”

Her heart sank. “Why?”

“The True Council will not accept testimony from anyone less than an Executioner. Since Malick is my master I have certain insights that others lack.” His tone held no emotion, but something dark shifted in his eyes. She understood. For Jorick, Malick was a complex subject wrapped in layers of conflicting emotions. Hate, love, anger, and regret warred with one another for the dominant spot.

She squeezed Jorick’s hand tightly. “What will I do? I don’t want to stay here by myself.”

Sarcasm crept into his voice, “Not even with your friend?”

She flinched at his tone. “Verchiel isn’t my friend. I haven’t spoken to him since the attack. You know that.”

Jorick made a low noise in his throat and looked away. “I told Eileifr that I’d prefer you accompany me.”

“And what did Eileifr say?”

The hint of a smile haunted Jorick’s lips. “It’s not uncommon for an Executioner to ask for a servant to attend them.”

She smacked him on the shoulder and cried, “I’m not your servant!”

“That depends on how you look at it.” He gave her a wink and then looked serious. “Regardless, I’m allowed to take someone, and you’ve already been approved as suitable. It’s only a matter of waiting to go.”

Waiting. That was something vampires were good at. When one had eternity, what were a few days? But to Katelina, each day was another x on the calendar, another handful of lost hours she couldn’t get back.

Jorick’s tone turned teasing as he answered her silent thoughts, “We could remedy that.”

She looked to him sharply. “I thought you wanted to keep me human.”

“I never said one way or the other. I don’t have a preference. I’ll admit, there are certain conveniences to your being human; you can drive in the sunlight, for instance, but at the same time so many things can kill you. And I worry that someone else might change you.”

His dark eyes glittered dangerously and she sighed. “You’re just paranoid. No one’s going to make me into a vampire, except you. Someday. I guess.” He laughed softly at her hesitation and she scowled. “I’m glad you find my commitment issues amusing.”

“I do.”

Something about those words, uttered so close to the word “commitment”, made her uncomfortable.

Jorick suddenly stiffened and his face twisted into a scowl. He snapped around, eyes on the small white office building. Katelina started to ask what it was, but then the door opened and Verchiel waltzed out into the night.

She slunk behind Jorick, her forehead puckered with irritation. Oblivious, the red haired vampire called, “Hello there! Just the pair I was looking for!” He came to a stop before them. “And how are you?”

Jorick’s scowl grew darker. “What do you want?”

Verchiel batted his eyes innocently. “Read my mind and tell me. Oops. I forgot, you can’t.” Jorick growled and Verchiel dodged away and then back so fast that he barely seemed to have moved at all. “I’m only teasing. I have some paperwork for you to fill out.”

He pulled the sheaf from his coat and Jorick jerked it from his hands. “Fine. Now go away.”

“Don’t you want to know what it is?”

“I’ll read it myself! You may go now.”

Jorick turned away and tugged Katelina after him, but Verchiel wasn’t finished. “It’s about that trip to Munich, so they can issue little Kately a passport.”

She stopped in her tracks and snapped back, “Quit calling me that! It’s not my name!”

Verchiel’s innocence doubled. “You didn’t yell at your mother when she used it.”

“You’re not my mother. Now go away.”

Katelina and Jorick took a few more steps when Verchiel called out, “Awww, come on. That’s no way to treat your traveling companion.”

Jorick’s face froze in a mask of disbelief and horror. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Verchiel was suddenly in front of them. It was only the woosh of air that said he hadn’t materialized there. “It means we’re going to Munich together! Won’t that be exciting? It’s been a long time since I was overseas.”

Jorick grabbed Verchiel by the front of his coat. “Why would they send you?”

“Why not?” Shorter than Jorick by five inches or more, the red haired vampire stared right back, a cheesy grin plastered across his face. “Maybe Eileifr thought I needed a vacation?”

Jorick practically threw him aside and stormed towards the office, Katelina on his heels. “We’ll see about this!”

“Good luck!” Verchiel called after them.

His words only seemed to infuriate Jorick more.

Jorick led Katelina back to the now empty audience chamber. They climbed the abandoned dais to find a door concealed in the paneling of the back wall. Jorick pried it open and they ducked inside what looked like a meeting room with a long table. Katelina hung back, unsure if she should be there, but Jorick stormed to a door in the farthest wall and pulled her though it.

The room was small and lounge like. Eileifr was seated in a plush green chair, and Celandine, the female member of the High Council, sat across from him. She turned her silver-gray eyes on the newcomers and Katelina suddenly couldn’t move. She could feel the pressure of the ancient vampiress in her mind, seeking the answer for their appearance. Though not as strong or as devastating as Malick’s intrusions had been, the brief invasion left her unsettled.

Eileifr motioned Celandine to stop. “I can guess your errand, Jorick. Yes, I am sending Verchiel with you to the True Council.”

Jorick’s lips tightened to an unbending line. “May I ask why?”

“You may ask, but I doubt you’ll receive the answer you wish. I believe his presence may be necessary.”

Jorick turned his flaming eyes on Celandine. They stared at one another until Jorick backed down. “Fine. But I’m not responsible for him, and if he gets in my way I won’t hesitate to rip his heart out.”

Jorick didn’t wait for an answer, but strode back the way they’d come, Katelina hurrying behind him. He didn’t speak until they were alone in the corridor outside the audience chamber, and then he let loose a string of obscenities.

As much as Katelina hated the idea of Verchiel going with them, Jorick’s reaction seemed extreme. “What was that all about?”

“Eileifr is shielding his mind. He’s seen something in the future he doesn’t want me to know.” He rounded on her. “I meant what I said. I will kill him if necessary.”

Katelina shrugged and crossed her arms over her chest. “Don’t stop yourself on my account.”

Though she couldn’t feel it, she suspected Jorick was doing what Celandine had just done, only more gently. As if he’d found what he sought, he nodded. “Good. I don’t know about you, but I’m rather out of the mood for a walk now.”

When Jorick left their apartment the next evening, paperwork in hand, Katelina dressed and marched to the sixth floor. The front of the restaurant, once much like an open mall eatery, was a pile of charred rubble, and the inside was just as bad.

“Come to help?”

She jumped at the familiar voice and found Verchiel standing behind her. Instead of his all black Executioner garb, he wore a neon t-shirt and a pair of low slung blue jeans. “What are you doing here?”

“I get to supervise the sixth floor restoration until we leave. Isn’t that great? And here you are, volunteering.”

She stepped away from him. “I would have volunteered, but not now. I already told you that I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

He gave an exaggerated pout. “I thought we were friends.”

“No. You just pretended to be my friend because Malick ordered you to.”

Verchiel rolled his eyes. “Malick’s gone, so, if that’s true, why am I talking to you now?”

“Because you think it’s fun to piss me off? I don’t know! I just know that you fooled me once and you’re not going to do it again.”

His cheerful persona disappeared, replaced by something serious. “That’s not fair. I never actually-” whatever he was going to say was lost as his work crew came around the corner. His usual smile reappeared and he stepped back from her and turned to them. “About time! All right, let’s get this mess cleaned up!”

Katelina didn’t stay to help.

The cable was restored – blood and circus Jorick had called it – but the apartment still felt like a prison. More than once Katelina thought about going back to the sixth floor, then the memory of Verchiel’s fanged grin stopped her. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she hadn’t defended him to Jorick before. Verchiel’s betrayal had made her look like a naïve imbecile.

She flipped the TV channels and stopped on a campy vampire movie. The villain hovered over his fledgling and spouted cheesy lines about joining the “army of the undead as my immortal slave”. Katelina shook her head and flipped past it. If only it really worked that way, then things would be less complicated. After all, it was Jorick’s fledgling, Oren, who had led the attack that caused so much damage to the Citadel. Among the screams and explosions, Oren’s attack was overshadowed by Malick’s revolt and mass slaughter so, when the dust settled and they discovered Oren was missing, no one pushed too hard to find him. The High Council happily executed his brother-in-law in his place, along with the so-called leaders of Oren’s allies, and Katelina hadn’t heard anything mentioned since.

Though she didn’t know where Oren was now, she knew why he’d disappeared during the fight. Jorick had drained his blood and stashed him in a supply closet. He’d then rehydrated him and sneaked him out before sunset, through the underground tunnel, and that was the last she’d seen of him. Good riddance, as far as she was concerned.

When Jorick returned she was watching a rerun of the news. “More from the world of grim disasters and terrible misfortunes?” he teased.

“There was a fire in Namibia last night. A whole town was burned to the ground. They’re blaming terrorists. They say that no one escaped.” She thought of the people burning to death, screaming as Oren’s allies had screamed when the High Council let the sunlight burn them into bloody ashes.

Jorick cut into her thoughts. “You watch the most cheerful programs.”

“There’s nothing else on.” She climbed to her feet and he pulled her into a deep kiss that she ended reluctantly. “This place is so boring.”

He tangled his fingers in her golden hair. “I know, little one. But have heart; we’ll be leaving for Munich tomorrow night.”

His words ran through her like ice and she shivered. “When you say night, you mean…?”

“Five or six in the morning, our usual bedtime.”

“So soon?”

“It would have been faster if the network hadn’t been damaged in the attack. Now that it’s operational we’ll have our passports and all the rest of the necessary paperwork tomorrow.” He drew an unhappy breath. “I suppose while I’m working tomorrow you should… go shopping. We’ll need luggage and you probably need more clothing and what not.”

Katelina thought of a set of neatly packed suitcases that were waiting for them at Jorick’s little house in Maine. The luggage was conveniently loaded in the car and abandoned when they were hauled to the Citadel against their will. How many suitcases did they need? And did she really want to brave the vampires’ shopping mall on her own?

“You won’t be alone. I’ve arranged for a guard to escort you. Though I’m not well acquainted with him, he understands the penalty for mistakes.”

“Is an escort necessary?”

Jorick made a low noise in his throat. “Katelina, you’re in a vampire Citadel. Have you noticed any other humans roaming around alone?” he didn’t give her time to answer. “No. Only the restaurant staff, and they do so at a high risk. Most vampires have no respect for humans and would think nothing of drinking from you, or at the very least harassing you.”

His tone left no room for argument, but she tried anyway. “Where will you be?”

“With Eileifr, breaking into Malick’s chambers. He sealed them before he left.”

Something sick twisted in her stomach. “Sealed? Like magic?”

Jorick laughed. “No, it’s more likely they welded the doors shut. There’s no such thing as magic.”

“And there’s no such thing as vampires, yet here I am talking to one.” She poked him in the ribs. “How long will we be in Munich?”

His shrug was casual but his expression seemed stiff. “A few days at the most. Why?”

“I need to know how many outfits we need.”

“We? I have plenty.”

“You’re afraid I’ll buy you something that isn’t black.”

He cleared his throat and picked invisible lint from his shirt. “No, I just don’t see the point in wasting the money.”

She stepped back and crossed her arms over her chest. “You’ve turned frugal all of a sudden?”

He gently pulled her back to him and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Of course not. I’ve always been frugal. Why do you think I refuse to buy a car?”

She couldn’t argue with that.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2 >
Chapter 3 >>

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