It’s happening. Tonight. Serpent-men are crawling on and under the fields, slithering among rocks, shrubbery and through the underground tunnels. The Black Monks began moving forward, bringing the final battle closer with the synchronized rustle of their marsh. The town people haven’t reached the property’s borders yet, but they’ll sure be here in no time, along with Jeremy’s special forces and the Elite’s mercenaries. The serpents are greatly outnumbered, and I’m their only true chance, which leans heavy on my shoulders.
I sit on the floor in the dark tower, facing a semicircle of sketches representing almost three dozens serpent-men like mirrors. I’m dishevelled and exhausted, holding the paintbrush and pencils loosely but ready to intervene if pictures start cracking with the bubonic plague. My eyes are puffy and tired, but wander relentlessly along the canvases.
I glimpse a patch that begins expanding on the cheek of Lugo’s picture on my far right. The first curse has struck, and I hurry to repair it. The plague doesn’t appear on Lugo again, but it pops up like stains of paint on different faces at very short intervals. With every repaired piece energy leaves my body, and in a matter of minutes I’m desperate. There’s no way I can keep up with the Monks’ curses, I’m overwhelmed, and the stains keep spreading.
While I rush to fix a face, the bubonic plague wastes another one within seconds. A few serpents must’ve ended up in the Black Monks’ direct line of fire, since the curses riddle them as fast as a machine gun. My hands can’t move quickly enough, and I cry out in despair. Faces practically combust before my eyes with the disease, blackening, crumpling and disappearing under the curses’ power.
There’s nothing more I can do. I fall to my knees, crying out in frustration as the night’s rustles, shrieks, groans and hisses reach me through the open window.
The Marquis, my love, might soon be lost to me. I raise my eyes to the picture I made of him all those months ago, splendid and vivid, hanging on the wall behind and above the others. His ivory features are flawless and unscathed – yet. I must pull myself together, I must save him or die trying. I get up and start toward the painting, but a pitchy, nasal, unwelcome voice makes me freeze in my tracks.
“He is indeed exquisite.”
It’s Lauren. Though I can’t bring myself to turn and face her – what happened between us last time left me with a trauma – I know she’s standing in the doorstep. Her shoes make a clicking sound on the tiles as she approaches, her eyes surely on Kieran’s picture as she speaks.
“So heartbreakingly handsome, so compelling. I would’ve turned from Basarab and betrayed his plans to the Marquis, that’s how much I desired him. But he refused me.” She’s now close behind me. “He was madly in love with you already, whether he wanted to accept it or not. He couldn’t help but be loyal to you. Well, what can I say, now you can both die loyal to each other.” There’s poison in her voice.
“Lauren, please believe me,” I manage, “I did not know what Gunnar was doing to you. He never touched me when I was a kid. Please, believe me.”
She snorts and starts walking around me, checking me out from head to toes. She clearly has the higher ground. I’m only shrouded in a stained gown, barefoot and vulnerable, while she’s dressed all in black leather resembling a character of older action movies, wearing high metal stilettos, and she holds a knife in each hand. Her blood-red hair is tightly bound on top of her head, emphasizing her sharp, angular features that might not be exactly beautiful for a skinny woman, but darn bad-girl sexy. The hostility in her turbid, cat-like greenish eyes is so intense, it can easily pass for malice, and I admit – I’m afraid of her. I keep silent, which gives her room to spit more venom at me.
“Too bad Jeremy wasn’t capable of such loyalty. He didn’t love you enough to resist me.”
“And isn’t that satisfying enough for you?”
“Enough to let you live? No.”
“Why not? You took life from me once, I was completely broken after I found you and Jeremy in bed together. And in the end, he preferred you – you’re still sleeping with each other, aren’t you? But he asked you to keep it a secret.”
Lauren’s eyes narrow. For a moment there she’s fazed, and I grab the chance. Somewhere in the background another picture crumples and dies, making rage swell inside my chest.
“You think Jeremy is Ivan Basarab, don’t you Lauren?”
She’s shocked. “You know?”
“Yes, I do. You don’t.”
“What the hell do you mean?” She grows alert, takes a step back and flashes a knife at my throat to stop my advancing. Another canvas dies, and rage grows inside of me at a scary pace. I can’t control myself anymore, and my instinct of conservation fails. I keep forcing her back, and when the tip of the knife touches my throat I brush her arm out of my way.
“Here’s a truth you might not like: Jeremy never betrayed me.”
“What the hell –”
“You’ve been fooled all along, Lauren. Ivan Basarab has a very special power – he can switch bodies. Jeremy is not the real Basarab.”
Lauren stares at me perplexed, and I know I should take it easy on her. But time is way too precious, and there’s none for “taking easy.”
“You never slept with Jeremy Simmons, Lauren, you slept with someone else. Someone who’s been hopelessly in love with you for years – Billy Dean, the Notary.”
“What? Are you mad?”
“Billy possessed Jeremy, because he knew you were into him. You slept with Jeremy’s body, but inside was Billy.”
“Do you remember when Mr. and Mrs. Dean first adopted Billy? Where did they adopt him from? Let me refresh your memory – from a Monastery in Romania.” I glance at the window and point to it with my finger. “The Black Monks out there, where do you think they come from? It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see the connection. The science behind what the Monks do and Billy’s own abilities is another story, but I’m sure you see where I’m getting at. Billy – by his true Romanian name Ivan Basarab – took care to always remain just a ‘face in the crowd’ so that he could implement his plans from the shadow. A face in the crowd, that’s all he ever was in Northville, even in the stories of our lives. Think about it – if you were to tell your story, how often would you mention him?”
I’m now so close to her that our noses would touch if she weren’t much taller than me on her stilettos, and I weren’t looking up at her. “When Jeremy was first swayed by your advances, just months before our wedding, Billy had taken over his body. Billy possessed Jeremy like a demon. Whenever Jeremy is himself, he still wants me. He’s not aware of what’s happening to him, which ensures that he’d never betray Billy – he thinks he was drunk the night he cheated on me with you, that’s why he never denied; but he doesn’t actually remember it. Moreover, Billy may have allowed Lord Barkley to get close to you, he even used you to get the old prick to do what he wanted, but when it came to the intimate part, he possessed the old man. The only one you actually ever slept with was Billy, always Billy.”
She blinks and drops on a box by the far wall, where I’d pushed her to as I talked. She looks around as if she’s looking for her scattered thoughts, then looks at me, then at the window.
“They all fucking used me. Gunnar used me. Billy and Jeremy used me. Everybody used me.”
I hunker down before her and take the chance to remove the knives from her hands as she gazes teary-eyed at me. I place them slowly on the floor and take her hands in mine.
“Not everybody. Lauren, you and I, we loved each other like sisters once. They say emotions never change or disappear, they are buried somewhere deep from where they will always find their way back to light, even if it’s a neurotic, sometimes even hostile way.”
Overwhelmed by melancholia, I kiss her pointy knuckles. “I want you back, Lauren. I still love you.”
She bursts out crying as if something inside her breaks loose from chains, and throws her arms around me. “After everything I’ve done to you, you can still say these words? Forgive me, Saph. Oh, God, please forgive me!”
I stroke her nape with one hand and hold her tightly with the other arm. As we let go I realize it’s still outside, calm and even suspiciously serene. Lauren and I approach the window, looking out into the night. A light goes on in the distance, then another and then another. I recognize the serpent men standing on the fields, here and there dead Black Monks. And as a whole line of torches becomes visible from behind rocks, my smile broadens.
“The town people turned against the Black Monks! Instead of going after Kieran they helped him.” As the torches approach I distinguish faces and voices, and I have a strong feeling the town people made the decision themselves, and Kieran’s influence wasn’t even necessary. They understood who the real enemy was. But Lauren isn’t as relieved as I am.
“But what about Basarab?” She says. “With the powers you told me about, he could take over extremely strong creatures to defeat the Marquis. And if he doesn’t defeat him using one body, he can try over and over again using hundreds.”
My smile might’ve just turned cunning, maybe even a shade bad. “There’s a limited number of people that Billy can possess, it only works with the weakest personalities – or with his closest friends, like Jeremy. But now even that possibility is out of his reach. I have some talents of my own, and I went creative with them.”
I turn around and point to the picture by the door, as anonymous as the man it represents – the picture of Billy Dean, in which his soul is now anchored. “Billy will never be able to leave his body again.”
To be continued on Friday.
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