Chapter 5

Mindful of the horrors of morning breath, I kept my mouth firmly closed as I rolled over to see if Alec was awake. To my utter disappointment—and, if I was strictly honest, a lot of relief, since I’d been wondering how to make it to the bathroom without him getting a good look at my butt—the bed was empty of insanely handsome, green-eyed men.

“Crap,” I said aloud, then cocked an ear to listen for sounds of occupation in the bathroom. There were none, but the bathroom door was closed.

“Good morning,” I called out brightly as I snagged my bathrobe from a nearby chair and pulled it on, adjusting it so that it left some cleavage showing while covering less savory parts. “I hope you don’t mind that I’m one of those annoying morning people. I’ve tried to be a little less chipper in the morning, but I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll just order us some breakfast, OK?”

There was no dissenting comment, so I dialed the number for room service and placed an order for a breakfast for two.

“Coffee or tea for breakfast, Alec?” I asked, one hand over the phone.

I frowned after another moment of silence.

“Madam?” the room service person prodded.

“Um… how about one coffee and one tea,” I said to cover both bases, then hung up and went to the bathroom door. “Alec? Do you prefer coffee or tea?”

No sound of running water greeted me. There was a faint scrabbling sound, however, a sort of odd rustle that had me suddenly panicked. What if he’d slipped and hit his head on the counter? “Alec, are you OK in there?”

Silence met my question, silence that was broken only by what sounded like a whimper.

“I’m coming in. I hope you don’t mind, but if you’re hurt or stuck or something, I can help.”

The bathroom faced southeast, and I knew from previous mornings would be filled with morning sunlight diffused through the privacy glass. I opened the door slowly, relieved to see that there was no man hunched over the toilet injured or being sick. That relief immediately turned to horror as the door swung all the way open.

“Oh dear god!” My skin crawled as I ran forward at the sight of the bloodied body that lay slumped up against the cupboard beneath the sink, the handle of a knife protruding from the chest. “Oh my god!”

It wasn’t a man’s body—it was a woman. A woman whose eyes opened slightly as I squatted next to her, unsure of what I should do. There was so much blood, sprayed on the wall and door opposite, splattered on the floor and sink and shower glass. “Don’t move. I’ll call the aid unit,” I told the woman, then did a double take when I realized I knew her. “Anniki?”

She made a horrible mewing noise, her hands fluttering toward the knife as I spoke. “Take… it.”

I stared in horror at the bloody knife. Only the handle was visible, the blade having clearly been sunk deep into her chest cavity.

“Take…”

I touched the hilt, giving it the slightest of tugs. If it wasn’t in as far as I thought, perhaps she just didn’t have the strength to yank it out.

It didn’t budge.

“I’m sorry, Anniki, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. On the cop shows I’ve seen, they always leave things in people when they take them to the hospital.”

“Take…” She gasped, her eyes opening wide suddenly. Her hands grabbed me with a strength that startled me, her fingernails digging into the soft flesh of my palm.

I bit back a yelp as pain laced my hand.

“Let justice roll down like waters,” she said, her voice taking on a strange, distant timbre, “and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

“What… ? I don’t…”

“You must right the wrongs,” Anniki begged. “Promise me!”

“I promise!” I said hastily, trying to pull my hand back, more than a little sickened at the sight of all the blood. The way her fingernails dug into my flesh, I assumed some of it was going to be mine. “I swear to you that I’ll do anything you want, only let me go call for some help first.”

A horrible gurgling noise rose from deep in her chest as she released my hand, reaching for her neck, her hands so slick with her own blood that her fingers fumbled with the clothing. “Take it. Follow the light. Make things… right. Be the stream.”

The gurgling noise grew as she whimpered with frustration, her hands finally closing around a thin chain worn around her neck. She pulled it off slowly, the chain cutting into her flesh for a second before it snapped. “Remember the light. Always remember…”

Her hands closed around mine, cold and wet with blood. I stared in horror that seemed to have no end as her eyes rolled back in her head. Her hands dropped limply to the floor, and I knew with absolute conviction that she had just died.

Every atom in my body recoiled with revulsion, my brain screaming at me to get away from the dead person. I don’t know how long I stared with dumb incomprehension at her slackened face before my gaze finally drifted to my hands. They were covered in blood now, deep, crimson, crescent-shaped welts on my palm indicative of just how hard she’d gripped my hands. My blood mingled with hers as I stared in horror down at myself—it wasn’t just my hands that were bloody; my arms and much of the front of my bathrobe were soaked red.

The moonstone from the bookmark I’d seen earlier was now hung on the bloody chain that lay across my bleeding palm. It was the stone that Anniki had pressed into my hands, and my brain, numb with shock, slowly brought itself back to life and realized what had just happened.

Let justice roll down like waters, she’d said. I recognized that from childhood Sunday school classes—it was from the Bible. Anniki had begged me to follow the light, to right the wrong done to her. She wanted me to be Zorya. And I had sworn I would.

Minutes seemed to crawl by as I knelt next to the mortal remains of Anniki, too stunned to sort through my wild thoughts. Why was she in my bathroom? Who killed her? What was I going to do about the deathbed promise I’d just given? And most importantly, where was Alec?

“Get a grip, Pia,” I said aloud, and was shocked to hear how shaky my voice was. Somehow, I’d also been crying without knowing it. Bracing myself, I reached out a tentative hand to Anniki’s wrist, gently taking it in hope of feeling a pulse.

There was none, of course. I hadn’t really expected one, not since I was so certain she was dead, but I had to make sure. I stared at the body and blood-splattered bathroom, hoping against hope there would be some answer to all the questions that spun around in my mind, but there was nothing. Anniki had somehow magically appeared in my bathroom and been nearly murdered and left to die—all without me being aware of anything. I glanced quickly over to the door leading to Madga’s room. Perhaps she or Ray… I shook my head even as I thought it. The door was locked from this side. I knew I had left it unlocked, which meant someone else had locked it.

That thought chilled me like no other, and had the benefit of sending me flying from the bathroom. I stared at the bloodied stone in my hand, throwing it on the bed as I thought furiously. “I’ll have to call the police. They’ll want me to leave everything just as it is, but what am I going to do about the stone? Think, Pia, think!”

Clothing. I needed to get dressed. That was the first priority—not even the police could expect me to wait around in a bloody bathrobe for them to arrive. With shaking hands I yanked off the robe, and quickly grabbed my clothing.

“Ick.” My hands were still damp with blood. I glanced toward the bathroom, unwilling to go back in there, but having no other choice. I averted my eyes from Anniki’s still body, using a damp towel to wash the blood off of me. I was about to leave when I realized I was being heartless beyond belief, and forced myself to go back into the room. I knelt on the towel, and with tears streaming down my face, took Anniki’s hand in mine. “I’m not a religious person, but I understand what you asked. I don’t know if I can bring about justice, but I’ll do the best I can,” I told her, and closing my eyes, said a prayer for the passage of her soul.

Grief washed over me, grief for the loss of a woman who had been so vibrant only a few hours before. I might not have known her well or long, but she deserved better than this. She deserved justice.

And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

“I’ll do what you asked,” I said, my voice thick with tears as I pressed her fingers. “I don’t know how, but I will right the wrong done to you. You can rest easy on that account.”

It didn’t take long for me to mop the tears from my face and hurry into my clothing. I was next to Anniki, unsure of whether or not I should cover her with a blanket before calling the police, when a knock sounded at my door.

I froze for a second, terrified the killer had come back, but realized after a moment of incoherent thought that it must be the breakfast I’d ordered.

“Pia, can I borrow some ibuprofen? I’ve got the world’s worst head—”

A familiar voice had me spinning around.

Denise stood in the doorway of the bathroom, her eyes and mouth making little Os of horror as she stared at the body on the floor.

“I didn’t kill her,” I blurted out, seeing the accusation in her eyes. I made a gesture of innocence, but Denise’s eyes bugged out a bit more as she stared at my hand. It was red with blood. “Oh, that. That came from the stone she gave me. I really didn’t kill her,” I repeated. “I found her like that. Well, she was alive, but she died right away.”

Denise started to back away slowly.

“Do I look like I’m the sort of person to stab another person in the heart?” I asked, following her out of the bathroom.

She paused for a moment, then flung back her head and screamed in the most unearthly way. “Murder!”

“Hell’s bells, Denise, I just told you—”

Murderer!” she screamed again, raising her hand to point at me.

It’s an old adage that your life passes before your eyes when you’re about to die. I’m living proof that such an idea is completely false. Not only did a speedy vision of all my life’s high and low points zip through my mind at that moment, but a vision of the immediate future followed, one in which I tried to explain to the police about such things as Zoryas, handsome men who apparently indulged in one-night stands before disappearing into the blue, a group devoted to ridding the world of evil, and just how a dead woman I’d seen a few hours before happened to be murdered literally right next to me.

In my bathroom.

With my fingerprints on the murder weapon.

And a precious gem belonging to her now in my possession. All that zipped through my brain in the time it took for Denise to scream out one word. By the time she sucked in the air needed to fuel another scream, I’d come to a decision—there was no way I was going to be able to explain any of the happenings of the previous day. I’d have to seek help from people who wouldn’t think I was crazy.

I didn’t say anything more to Denise; I simply grabbed the moonstone, flung open the French doors that led to a small balcony, and climbed over the railing, praying I wouldn’t break a leg in the fall to the grassy lawn one floor below.

I hit the ground hard, but not so hard that I injured myself. Denise’s scream wafted out of the opened doors, which set me to running out of the tiny garden at the back of the hotel. I raced around to the front of the building, pausing for a moment to get my bearings. In front of the hotel sat a familiar-looking car, the passenger door of which opened almost immediately.

“Alec,” I cried gratefully, and ran for the haven he offered.

The startled look in Kristoff’s blues eyes told me he wasn’t waiting outside the hotel for me.

“Where’s Alec?” he asked, frowning as he peered over my shoulder.

Behind me, a woman screamed. I hesitated, unwilling to trust him, but equally unsure whether I would stand a better chance with the authorities.

The memory of the glow of pleasure in Denise’s eyes as she screamed at me was the deciding point.

“I don’t know,” I answered, hopping into the car, slamming closed the door, and slumping down in the seat. “But we’re about to have company, so unless you want to explain to the police why your buddy disappeared leaving a murdered woman in my bathroom, I’d suggest you get moving.”

I’ll say this for the harsh Kristoff—he didn’t need to be told twice. He just slammed his foot on the accelerator and peeled off.

“Stay down,” he commanded, using one hand to shove me onto the floor.

I wasn’t about to argue the point. I curled up in as small a ball as I could and tried to keep from banging my head on the door or dashboard as he zoomed through the streets.

“We’re out of the town. You can get up now. Who’s been killed?” he asked after a few minutes.

“The Zorya.” I winced when he took a corner too quickly, slamming me back against the car door. “Are we being followed?”

“You are the Zorya,” he insisted, his face grim as I hauled myself into the seat, quickly grabbing for the seat belt.

“I am now, but I wasn’t as of an hour ago. That job was held by a woman named Anniki.”

“No,” he said, his eyes on the road as he sped out of town. I glanced around. The car had darkly tinted windows, which gave everything a dull blue-black flavor, but I thought I recognized the road leading to a quaint little fishing village to the south that my group had visited on our first day in Iceland.

“Look, I know you didn’t believe me before when I said that I wasn’t the Zorya, but I really wasn’t. Then.”

“No, we’re not being followed,” he said, casting me a curious glance. “You knew the Zorya.”

“It turns out I did, although I wasn’t aware of it.” I pulled off my necklace with its modest little garnet rose, and slipped the moonstone onto the chain, wrapping it around my wrist a couple of times before securing it. Did Kristoff know that Alec spent the night with me? If he was waiting outside the hotel for his friend, it would appear he did. “You don’t know where Alec is?”

“He said he was going to be with you.” Kristoff’s jaw tightened. Obviously, he didn’t approve of Alec’s interest in me.

“He was. At least, he was there when I fell asleep. He wasn’t there when I woke up. What were you doing outside the hotel?”

If he heard the suspicion in my voice, he didn’t comment on it. “Alec told me to pick him up in the morning. Tell me about the Zorya.”

I hesitated, unsure of whether or not it would be wise to tell him.

He slid me another glance. “Afraid?” he asked, one eyebrow quirking.

“Honestly? Right now you’re tops on my list of suspects,” I answered. “Despite the fact that you’re about swear up one side and down the other that you would never harm poor Anniki.”

“On the contrary, I would quite happily dispatch a reaper if it was within my means.”

A cold sweat started on my palms, but the memory of Anniki begging for justice was too fresh in my mind to ignore. “Did you kill her?”

The words came out stark and bold.

He glanced at me, his eyes unreadable. “Would you believe me if I said I didn’t?”

“That’s not an answer.”

Silence filled the car for a few minutes. “Answering is a moot point if you don’t believe I speak the truth.”

“I think you do whatever serves you best,” I said baldly.

To my surprise, he nodded. “Yes.”

“Including killing the Zorya?”

His lips thinned. “As a matter of fact, I didn’t kill her.”

I relaxed against the side of the car, relieved.

Kristoff sent me a puzzled glance. “You believe me?”

“Stranger things have happened,” I said, trying to gather my wits.

“That’s not to say I wouldn’t kill a Zorya if given the opportunity.”

I stared at him. He looked in deadly earnest.

“I suppose, then, given the fact that I just promised Anniki I’d do her job, I should be very worried.”

Amusement flickered momentarily on his face. “I have a different plan in mind for you.”

“Oh, that makes me feel better,” I said, my stomach turning over at the thought of what sorts of evil things he might do to me. I shook my head at my folly—surely the police would have been a better choice than a madman? “Why would you kill one of your own people?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“But you just said—” The penny dropped with an almost audible clang. “Wait a second—you’re not part of the Brotherhood?”

“Would that I were so I could see them pay for their crimes,” he said, biting off each word.

“Pay for what?” I was feeling more and more like we were talking in circles.

His knuckles went white on the steering wheel. “They killed Angelica.”

“Your girlfriend?”

He nodded.

“I’m sorry. Alec said something about you losing a loved one a few years ago.” Against my better judgment, a small well of sympathy opened up. Having lost both of my parents to a drunk driver some eight years before, I knew how long the grief of sudden, tragic death could remain. If he was on a vendetta against a murderer, I could understand his desire to see someone pay. “I assume the person responsible was never caught?”

He shot me a quick, unreadable look.

“I’m not asking just to be nosy—my parents were killed by a drunk driver with a long record and no license. It took my brother and me four years of legal wrangling before we finally got a vehicular homicide charge to stick, but I remember how consumed we were to see justice done.”

“I killed the reaper who conducted the ritual upon her,” he said flatly, his voice as hard as flint.

Horror stirred the hair on the back of my neck at the way he spat out the word “ritual.” I remembered Anniki saying something about how the Brotherhood performed rituals on vampires…

That last word echoed in my head with a terrifying enlightenment, one that left me gaping openmouthed for a moment. “You’re… you’re… you’re one of those vampires, aren’t you? The ones Anniki was telling me about. The whatchamacallits… Black Ones?”

“We prefer the term ‘Dark One,'” he said without the slightest sign of concern that he had just admitted he was a vampire.

“Holy Jehoshaphat and the wizard of Oz,” I swore, fear skittering up my back. “A vampire. A real vampire. Oh my god. Does… does Alec know?”

He bent a look upon me that implied I was a moron, which at that moment was probably deserved. “Alec is older than me.”

I stared at him, my brain trying to come to grips with the fact that the man sitting next to me, the perfectly normal-looking man, was, in fact, the evil undead. “What does that have to do with anything?”

He spun the wheel, sending us careening off the main road and down a winding track that led into the small fishing town. “You can’t expect me to believe you’re that naive.”

I gasped, really gasped as his meaning struck me. “You’re not saying Alec is one, too?”

“I just told you he’s older than I am. I was born in 1623. He has at least eighty years on me.”

My jaw dropped again, so stunned was I that it only dimly filtered through my brain that Kristoff had stopped the car in the shade of a squat stone building that was perched on top of a cliff that overlooked the small fishing village. “But… a vampire? Alec? No. I don’t believe it. You’re just trying to scare me.”

“If I wanted to scare you, I’d tell you what I was thinking at this moment,” he said dryly.

“Alec is no more a vampire than I am,” I told him, absolutely confident in what I said.

Kristoff raised an eyebrow.

“Answer me this, then, Mr. Fangs—vampires drink blood, right? So if Alec is a vampire, why didn’t he drink my blood?” I asked in tones of indisputable reason.

“I have no doubt that he did.”

“A feeble answer at best,” I said smugly. “I’d know if someone was drinking my blood.”

Kristoff suddenly leaned over me, turning my head to examine the side of my neck farthest from him. “I thought so,” he said after a moment’s silence, releasing my chin and sitting back in his seat. “You are mistaken. You bear a mark.”

“What?” I pulled down the overhead sunshade, examining myself in the mirror contained on its back. Sure enough, there was a small bruising on the side of my neck, right where I remembered Alec nuzzling me. “That’s not vampire teeth marks. It’s a hickey.”

I could swear that Kristoff was having to fight to keep from rolling his eyes. “It is the same thing.”

I touched the spot gingerly, eyeing it before turning to him. “I always thought vampires left two little teeth marks.”

“You watch too much TV.”

“Are you saying you always leave a mark when you bite someone?”

“Not always. It takes much concentration, however, and generally we’re… distracted.”

“By what?” I couldn’t help but ask. “Garlic?”

He did roll his eyes now. “Hardly. The act of taking blood can be very… intimate.”

“Oh, that sort of distracted.” I touched the spot again. It didn’t hurt, just felt somewhat numb. “So drinking someone’s blood is sexually arousing?”

“It can be, yes. Not always, but it can be so, depending on the subject.”

I flinched at his term, casting my mind back to the events of the evening. There had been a moment when Alec was nibbling my neck, and I thought he’d bitten me a smidgen too hard, but that had eased up almost immediately. “And the person you’re biting doesn’t know you’re doing it?”

“That depends,” he said, consulting his watch.

“On what?”

“On whether or not there is a shared sexual attraction.”

Well, there had definitely been that last night. So perhaps the hickey wasn’t so much a hickey as it was an indicator that Alec was more than he seemed. But if that was true, then he’d be no better than Kristoff.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t believe it. Alec is good. He’s not evil, like you.”

Kristoff turned his teal eyes on me, the look of scorn in them so strong it stung. “Your people kill mine ruthlessly, without prejudice, conducting the most obscene rituals they can think of, and you call me evil?”

I clawed at the seat belt, ripping it off as I jerked open the car door, desperate to escape the dangerous Kristoff.

He snarled something and leaped after me, slamming me up against the stone wall of the building. We were on the shaded side, the sun not having yet warmed the stone, but it was not for that reason that I shivered against the cold wall.

“The Brotherhood purifies people—” I started to say, grabbing at my memory of what Anniki had told me the evening before.

“Purifies.” He spat the word out like it was poison, leaning close to me, so close I could feel the warmth of his body, but it was the rage and hatred in his eyes that left me paralyzed with fear. “Do you know how your precious reapers purified Angelica? They started with a crucifixion, draining almost all of her blood, leaving her racked with pain and almost unbearable hunger. After that, they called down their cleansing light. Do you know what that is, Zorya?”

I shook my head, tears blurring my vision.

“Complete immolation. They used to simply burn people at the stake, but now they use a form of electricity to burn her body from the inside out.”

My stomach lurched, a horrible vision rising in my mind. I closed my eyes, tears burning paths down my cheeks.

“They didn’t burn her to death then. That would have been too easy a death for her. Their last rite of purification was a beheading… slowly, taking several strokes, with the spinal cord severed last.”

I shoved him away, racing to a small scrubby bush and falling to my knees, wanting to vomit, but my stomach was too revolted to do even that.

“They left her head with her body so I could see the expression on her face,” he said from behind me. “They wanted me to know what torment she suffered before she died. Those are the people you represent, Pia. And you wonder that I hunt them.”

“If that’s true, I wouldn’t blame you in the least,” I started to say, but before I could finish he yanked me to my feet.

If it is true?” His furious gaze searched my face. “You doubt me?”

“I don’t know what to think,” I wailed, too overwhelmed with confusion to try to sort things out. “I don’t think you’re lying, no. I know grief when I see it. But Anniki wasn’t that sort of person. At least I don’t think she was—she seemed compassionate, as if she really cared about people.”

“People, but not Dark Ones.”

I opened my mouth to dispute that statement, but didn’t know what to say.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, his expression going hard as he wrapped a hand around my arm and hauled me to the front of the building. “Believe what you want. I’m going to ensure that you, at least, will not allow the reapers to kill any more of my people.”

“Oh dear god, you’re going to kill me!” I screamed, panicking as he jerked open a wooden door and hauled me inside the building.

“If I wanted to do that, I’d have broken your neck last night. Be quiet, woman!” he yelled, startling me into silence, the last few echoes of my screeches fading away. “The priest here doesn’t speak English, so it’s no use begging him for help.”

“Priest!” I squawked, clawing at his hand in an attempt to get free. My entire body was riddled with fear and the knowledge that I was about to be killed by a vampire. “For last rites?”

A small, wrinkled man shuffled forward out of the gloom, and I realized with a start that I was in a tiny church. For some reason, that scared me even more. What if the vampires had their own horrible cult, someplace to conduct their dark doings?

“What I am about to do is much, much worse than death,” Kristoff said, pulling me so close I could see the tiny black lines that flared out from his pupils. Suddenly, he smiled, but it wasn’t a nice smile, not nice at all. It was the sort of smile a panther would give a particularly juicy-looking rabbit just before it pounced. “We’re going to be married, Zorya.”

I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my head. “You’re not going to kill me?”

His smile grew. “No.”

I sagged with relief until his next words hit me.

“But you’re going to wish you were dead before I’m done with you.”

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