How about a Tristan and Isolde retelling?

Wickedly handsome and shamelessly rich, Tristan Stahl is a villain. A businessman by day and an underground cage fighter by night, he fears no one, and respects one man alone – his adoptive father, Mark Stahl. It’s at Mark’s request that Tristan recruits Isolde Molnar for her “special talents”. He doesn’t expect complications from this “piece of livestock”, but working closely with her turns out challenging in more ways than one. Throw a modern alchemist’s potion in the mix along with Mark Stahl’s growing infatuation with the girl, and there you have itTristan and Isolde Reloaded. Enjoy!

CHAPTER I

ISOLDE

It’s lunchtime, and the café is packed. Can’t discharge the self-pity just yet. I make a beeline for Nadine’s red head among the boisterous corporates that litter the place, hoping she’ll help me feel better. She types in a frenzy on her smartphone, but tucks it away as I drop in the chair across from her.

“How did it go?” She really hopes for the best, I can tell.

“Sorry to disappoint. I’m overqualified. They took someone with fewer degrees, an impeccable collar and, of course, male.”

“Oh, Isolde, I’m so sorry.” She reaches over the table and puts her hand over mine.

I appreciate her compassion, even though I could use more encouraging lines right now. Maybe something like, “there are plenty of opportunities out there.” But there aren’t, and she knows it. I know it. Berlin is oversaturated in my field, and my peasant girl face, no-name suit and cheap briefcase don’t exactly increase my chances.

“Don’t worry, I expected it.”

“What did I tell you about negative expectations? You’re calling this upon yourself.”

“It’s not being negative, Nadine, it’s being objective. No one needs another market analyst. The world is full of them. I’m useless.”

Nadine replies and keeps talking, but nothing she says helps. I lean back in my chair, looking around and feeling angry at the world, starting with this place. It’s pretentious, expensive and kitschy – for all the leather seats and marble pillars, our waitress is wearing a skirt and sneakers. Even my decrepit sense of style feels offended, so the sin must be capital.

“You’ve been successfully foreseeing market trends for months now, Isolde,” Nadine says. “Your predictive calculations are mind-blowing, almost clairvoyant. They should’ve been of some help during your interview.”

“Shoulda, coulda.” While she’s right, I have nothing to show for my “successful” anything. “And who is going to endorse me on my predictions? I haven’t had a client in six months, those calculations were mere mental weight-lifting. A means to keep myself in shape.”

“I can endorse you. I was your client – sort of, since you never let me pay.”

A smile spreads over my face. True, dat. One of the most powerful people in Germany is buying Nadine’s services as a consequence of my guidance. She met him at an exclusive conference that I dug out for her, and that cost her a fortune and high-up connections to attend. The contract she’s supposed to sign today is a huge deal. Not many people can brag to have ever even met the mighty Mark Stahl, founder of Stahl Biotech, face-to-face, let alone work for him personally. His headquarters is top secret, not even his employees see much of him, if at all, and he picked one of the places he owns to meet her.

I expect him or his people to be here soon, so I hurry to sip my cappuccino, dreaming of something stronger. I’m not a drinker, but today I can’t wait to get home and fix myself an Aperol Spritz from my brother’s spoils from the bar, and drown my sorrow.

Customers finish their lunch and leave table by table, men in dark suits and stiff attitudes typical for a mogul’s bodyguards replacing them. Soon there are only few “real” customers left, the café almost entirely populated with Stahl’s men, which makes sense. If he wants to keep anonymous, he can’t just pop up in public and wave like the Queen, he’ll need good cover.

But the café staff didn’t see any of this coming, it seems. The skirt-and-sneakers waitress stares puzzled, clutching to her chest the electronic device she uses to take orders. The bartender is virtually shrinking behind the mahogany counter. Tension grows. It’s too much for me. I’m grateful I’ll soon sprint out the door in the direction of my Aperol, not having to share with Nadine the burden of this meeting.

“Okay, I should go now.” I take one last sip of cappuccino as I stand up. But as soon as I’ve grabbed my briefcase a rough hand grips my shoulder from behind and pushes me right back into my seat.

“Ouch!” I make to stand up again and face my aggressor, indignant, but the guy’s hand keeps me put. His grip is like forceps on my collarbone. I look to Nadine, searching her face for answers. She looks uncomfortable too, but she’s smiling.

“I e-mailed Stahl’s vice president your calculations after I met him,” she explains. “Since you used Stahl Biotech for some of your mental weight-lifting, I thought he might be interested in your results. So – ” She looks around, the smile quivering on her lips. She didn’t expect the freaking commando, and she’s clearly scared too. “Surprise.”

I blink at her, struggling to grasp what’s happening. It’s like I’ve been catapulted from my sorry life right into James Bond’s world. Before I can gather my wits a pair of blond bodyguards flank the chair to my right, and a man in a high-quality dark suit takes the seat. When my eyes settle on him I freeze.

He can’t be Mark Stahl. Mark Stahl is an old man. This guy is very young, with a strong build and a face like nothing I’ve seen before. He has white blond hair and ice blue eyes, resembling a ruthless Viking god who’s lost his way from Norse mythology. A scar interrupts his eyebrow, which adds to his heathen looks along with his chiseled, rough features. He seems a man few would ever dare cross – maybe only the stupid.

“Isolde, this is, this is,” Nadine babbles, motioning toward him, “Mr. Tristan Stahl, Mark Stahl’s adoptive son and second in command, so to say. The vice president of Stahl Biotech.”

Adoptive son. I wonder what happened before the adoption. Might sound cliché, but everything about him screams “violent childhood”, lurking beyond those eyes of steel.

“I see,” I whisper.

Tristan Stahl doesn’t greet us. He doesn’t speak at all. He measures me with those chilling eyes, and I’m so intimidated my tongue goes stiff. I can’t think of anything to say. I’m embarrassed to stare, but I can’t look away either. The tension eases a bit when his focus switches from me to the file a woman appearing on his left hands him. She’s pretty and stylish with her shiny blond bob and white leather gloves.

“Why the pharma industry?” His voice is commanding baritone, masculine and thick. It makes my belly prickle, and my words faint.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s an ambitious endeavor. You could’ve at least gone with a niche. Maybe the homeopathic field.”

“That’s not what will deliver the next breakthrough,” I say automatically.

“And what will?”

My eyes flick to the file in his hands as he leafs through it. I recognize my charts and bolded highlights. “It’s all in there, isn’t it?”

“Just answer the questions, ma’am,” the woman with the white gloves cuts in.

I gulp down the discomfort in my throat as I realize Nadine and I are the only dots of diversity in an Aryan pool. Everybody around is tall, athletic and some shade of blond, which makes me feel at odds with my Latino short-and-curvy build, dark hair and dark eyes. My German father refused not only to give me his name, but also to pass down any blond genes.

“Your results are interesting, Ms. Molnar.” Tristan Stahl draws my attention back to him. “But some of your reasoning doesn’t seem very logical. There’s little data to work with.”

“I relied a lot on my intuition, it’s true.”

He drops the file on the table. “That’s not very professional, Isolde. I may call you, Isolde, yes?”

“If my work doesn’t convince you, why take the trouble to meet me – Tristan?” I want to defy him, but I’m only glaring at his lips. I could never hold that arctic gaze of his. He relaxes back in his seat, and a wicked smile curves up a corner of his mouth. It makes him look even younger. And staggeringly handsome.

“Because I’m intrigued.”

“What an honor.”

“Are you sure you want to go sarcastic on me, Isolde?”

“I didn’t mean to offend.” I can feel his gaze rest on the top of my head as I lower it.

“You considered the Psychosomatic Research Institute our main competitor,” he says. “That’s a pretty far-fetched theory. What led you to it?”

“Intuition, I guess.”

“And what activated your intuition? It must have been some kind of data.”

“In a way.”

I pause, but he seems comfortable with the silence, waiting for me to continue. I don’t want to break the first word, but I feel like I’m sitting on needles. I crack.

“All intuition is a form of logic,” I mutter. “It’s like . . . tapping into information that’s stored in the back of my mind.”

“And what information made you look at the I.P.R.? They’re not a big player on the market, why should we worry about them?”

“That’s exactly it – they don’t work on the market yet, but on the side of it.” The words start tumbling out of my mouth, soon turning into a waterfall. I even forget all about the hostile environment. Once I get started on my work, it’s hard to stop.

“Whoever finances the I.P.R.’s research is giving them a shitload of money, no questions asked, not budget limits set, which is pretty rare in our times of austerity. Nobody invests in psychological research these days, let alone astronomical amounts. This can only mean the financers are certain they will one day profit from the Institute’s findings big time, on the market. Other pharma companies in Germany – your direct competitors – never took the trouble to look at the Institute in any depth because they don’t expect any competition from this field, the underdog, but you –” I point at him as if he were the person responsible himself, “Stahl Biotech, you paid every influencer e-zine in the country to publish trashing articles about the Institute’s dubious practices.”

Tristan glances at Nadine, probably understanding how one thing led to another: Nadine is my best friend, and she’s been an investigative reporter for years. She has friends at all major journals. When I came across those articles over and over again, I became suspicious and asked Nadine to activate her contacts and track down the source. Her inquiries led, however diffusely, to Stahl Biotech. The theory took shape in my mind – Stahl Biotech felt threatened by the Institute for Psychosomatic Research.

“Those articles claimed that the Institute’s scientists are scammers, and their practices border on the esoteric.” I lean in over the table, narrowing my eyes as I look straight into Tristan Stahl’s wickedly handsome face. I can’t believe my own guts. “But I think you are out to destroy them. You felt threatened by their research, because their results are stunning. Yes, I took a closer look at –”

“I’m not here to discuss the Institute’s research,” Tristan cuts me off, his voice splintering mine like a slap. My tongue freezes. He leans in, and a rich scent slithers through my nostrils, filling my heart with memory – mulled wine on winter nights, the magic of Christmas. I breathe it in deeply, trying to hold it.

“You’re a highly intelligent woman, Isolde. But brains and a big mouth make a dangerous combo nowadays.” He measures me from head to toe like he’s scanning me. “Take my advice – talk less, dress better, and your life will improve. Someday it may even get you a boyfriend.”

Shock and his scent muffle my indignation at first, but soon after he turns his attention to Nadine and begins discussing the conditions for their further collaboration it starts to boil inside of me. I bite my lips bloody and manage to keep quiet, but then the woman in white gloves drops a document and a ballpoint pen with Stahl Biotech imprinted on it on the table in front of me. She sneers, “Sign,” and I can’t hold back anymore.

“You really are a spoiled brat, aren’t you, Tristan Stahl?”

He turns to me, eyes glinting like metal. “Excuse me?”

“You have no doubt whatsoever that I’ll sign a document I haven’t even had the chance to read just because you’re one of the most powerful moguls on the continent. Well, guess what?” I slap the document shut – Service Agreement stands written on the cover sheet – and drop the ballpoint pen on top of it. “I do not want to work for you.”

Silence. All I can hear is the buzz in my ears. “Are you crazy?” is written all over Nadine’s face. Soon the words start pulsing in my own head, and only moments later I’m not so sure anymore. This is suicide!

Tristan leans in to me, his features locked in a handsome mask of ice. “Listen carefully, Isolde, because I’m only going to say this once: Sign the contract, or you’ll never get a decent job again in your life. You’ll be happy if a pimp hires you for your juicy curves to wipe the tables at some red light.” His upper lip curls over his teeth as he spits the last words, as if he despises me. Like I’m nothing but a worthless piece of meat, brains or not. Indignation flares in my chest, and I knock back my chair. My face is burning.

“You entitled bastard! I rather wipe a pimp’s tables and his ass than call you boss.”

My pulse drums in my ears as I grab my briefcase and stomp out of the place without waiting for his reaction. No one tries to stop me on my way to the exit, but I can feel the hostile eyes on my back.

I’m so angry I can barely swerve in the crowd at the underground, and bump into people who cuss the crap out of me. In the train I find a seat against all odds, and I manage to at least even my breathing. I realize what I’ve done, and I despair.

“Shit!”

“Everything all right, ma’am,” an older man in a shabby coat asks, holding to the overhead rail. He looks worried, so my distress must be glaring.

“Yes, fine.” Like hell I’m fine. That bastard Tristan Stahl is so fucking powerful I’ll be lucky to make rent next month. Now I find myself wondering what services I was supposed to render for him. I should’ve bitten my lips yet more and waited for him to grace me with his attention again for the details before breaking out like that.

No way! I know the world is in the hands of men like him, and I know I can’t beat that, but this I can do – refuse them my allegiance, my services, my dignity.

I get home, take the rattling piece of junk we call an elevator to the third floor – my knees are still too shaky for the stairs – and go straight for the refrigerator. I pull too hard, and the tired chipped magnets clatter on the floor, the grocery list I left for Roland this morning floating like a feather. He forgot again. I grab the Aperol and the Schweppes, but can’t wait to fix a spritz. I end up drinking straight from the bottle.

“Wow, sis, what’s with the thirst?” Roland’s voice resounds from the doorstep.

Startled, I choke on the liquor and drop the Aperol. It smashes against the floor, the rosy liquid creeping on the old tiles like anemic blood.

“God!”

“Jeez, woman, what’s wrong with you?” Roland hurries over to clean up the mess. I didn’t expect him to be home at this time, I thought I’d be alone. I watch him with my arms limp, feeling like a total loser.

What can I tell him? That I’ve screwed up my life completely, probably also his? That he might be stuck as a bartender at a nightclub forever because his big sister, who was supposed to take care of him, decided to go smartass on a freaking oligarch?

He looks up at me, his eyebrows furrowed, but his face clears once his eyes settle on mine. He comes back to his feet and takes my head in his hands.

“God, Izz, you look like shit. What happened?”

My chin trembles, and I can’t control myself anymore. I burst into tears and throw my arms around my little brother’s neck.

***

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Read on:

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

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The Executioner – Ep. XVI – Mad Conan

“See, what did I tell you? They found Mad Conan to blame it on. As for the old man, he’s a scapegoat,” Rux said as images of a sorry old doctor with Einstein hair, cuffed hands and fragile body in a tweed suit appeared on the screen, led to a police car by two men in black uniforms. According to the reporter, the car exploded only shortly later, the doctor and the policemen all dead. The connection to Dad fired in my head – first extraction, then death.

“Jesus, Rux, this is bad! This is real bad!”

She looked at me, startled by my reaction. In a few breaths and with no second thoughts I broke my oath and told her about the extraction, glancing at the door to make sure Mom didn’t catch me on it.

“Help me, Rux,” I pleaded. “I need to see him, make sure he’s not being held hostage and questioned like a heretic, then maybe even killed in some staged accident!”

“And who’s gonna tell you where Dr. Preda is? Apparently no one wants you to know.”

“We’ll go see Varlam at the station. I’ll find a way to get him talking.”

“You don’t have his number?”

I snorted. “How do you suppose I could talk to him about these things on the phone? Plus, if we call first it’ll give him time to think of ways to ditch us or fool us. The only solution is going to the station, and talk to him face to face.”

Rux studied me for a while. A deep-in-thought V formed between her eyebrows as she assessed my face, and the moment Mom walked back into the living room, she began talking without warning or turning her eyes from me.

“There’s no way I can spend days here without something proper to wear.”

She sounded so convincing, I fell for it myself. “You can have anything from my wardrobe,” I babbled.

“You’re petite, Alice, you don’t own anything I can actually take out on the street or to campus tomorrow.”

Her eyes danced on mine, maybe in expectation for me to kick the ball back at her. But, since I was too puzzled to produce a sound, she went on herself. “I need to buy a few things.”

I finally understood her game, but Mom intervened as if burnt with a red iron before I could say anything.

“You’re sure not going out, not with darkness knocking on the door.”

Rux’s face froze for a moment but, as she turned to Mom, it had already regained its elasticity and added a rakish smile.

“What if we ask one of the boys outside to accompany us to Marvimex?”

“They’re here as watchmen and not escorts,” Mom admonished.

“Then please, have a word with them,” Rux said.

Mom gave me a suspicion-filled look, which I blocked with an innocent smile and a shrug.

“I’d love to get out of the house for a bit,” I said. “It feels like prison, and I need a breath of freedom, Mom.”

It was the begging tone that unbalanced Mom’s resolve, no doubt. After little more insistence from our part she allowed us to get ready while she went out, looking for Officer Sorescu and his colleagues. I had no idea why Rux invited the escort, but I decided to trust her judgment in the end. She always knew what she was doing.

I parted the curtains with two fingers and spied – much like old Mrs. Teodorescu from across the street did each time a car pulled up in front of one of the neighboring houses. Mom crossed the street, keeping the long winter coat wrapped closely around her body.

To my gaping surprise, she entered the corner bar where loud drunkards burned away their time gambling cigarettes and bottles, sometimes their wives’ jewelry, sometimes their wives. With its barred windows and narrow entrance the place was perfectly designed to keep interest at bay. Yes, suited for undercover tailing operations, why not.

“What if the place hadn’t existed, I wonder,” Rux said. “Would they have extracted your neighbor Mrs. Teodorescu and had an agent disguise himself as her, with apron an’ all?”

She forced a laugh that made her look and sound mentally deranged rather than amused. The picture of Officer Sorescu’s round face framed by a colored kerchief did reach my mind’s eye, though.

Rux and I went to the antechamber, where challenge number two was up – getting around George. He lay on the sofa with eyes fixed on the small TV, watching no less than Bugs Bunny. Mom must’ve turned to the old tape to keep his mind off anything heavy.

Rux stared at him, holding a finger up in front of her pursed lips – keeping me quiet, I imagined. He seemed not to be aware of our presence, his mouth open, drooling, and brows high in the expression of a retard. Maybe the colored motion on screen simply put his mind off duty. Or maybe he was high on prescription medication.

Slowly, Rux opened the doors to the wardrobe. The slower she moved the more they creaked, and George stirred.

“For God’s sake, Rux, he’s not Alien or something,” I mumbled, refusing to accept that George wasn’t to be treated like a normal person anytime soon.

“Shhhhh! D’you want him screaming and wriggling?” she retorted through her teeth.

I knew she was right but it felt wrong anyway, treating George like an inconvenience.

Rux skimmed over the shelves with an all business frown, scanned the available items – not by far satisfactory, judging by the silent scoffs – and snatched a white wool sweater and a pair of tight jeans that reminded me too much of what Svetlana had been wearing in the mountains. But as soon as Rux closed the double doors to my room behind us, I shrugged off the memory as I did the nightgown and pulled them on without protest. Time was too precious.

The jeans were a couple of years old and had gone through repeated washing along with the other pairs, but I’d only worn them once on the day of acquisition. Tony had labeled this particular pair “slutty” ‘cause it molded on my thighs “like latex leggings on hookers’ legs.” What saved them from becoming a giveaway was my “modest” wardrobe, as Rux often put it, so I’d kept them to make me feel I owned at least a little more than I needed.

A change of clothes was already folded for Rux on the rocking chair by the window. I watched her sinewy shape dance into it and recognized Mom’s elegant red turtleneck sweater and a pair of white pants.

“How do I look?” she inquired.

“When did Mom give you the threads?” If Mom had offered Rux access to her wardrobe, what was the point of shopping, especially at five in the evening?

“She didn’t. I helped myself after the shower today.” She winked. “Your clothes are all too small, and I figured Jenna wouldn’t mind. She never did before.”

“But she’ll see you’re wearing her stuff when we go out. Marvimex won’t stand, she’ll know we’re going somewhere else. Plus, even if we manage to persuade her we’re going shopping, we might not even make it to Varlam with one of those watchmen on our heels,” I threw at her, sounding increasingly desperate as I realized the holes in our plot.

“Oh, we’re going to Marvimex, all right. I can’t wear Jenna’s clothes forever, she knows that. Once we’re there, I’ll talk the guy into accompanying us to see Hector. I’ll tell him you and I have confidential information, and that our seeing him needs cover.”

“He won’t buy it.” I shook my head. “It’s weak, it won’t work.”

“Wanna bet?” Rux retorted, a mischievous grin quirking up a corner of her mouth.

In the end Rux turned out to be right. Mom didn’t even ask how come my best friend wore her outfit. The explanation must’ve been obvious.

Embarrassing as it was, we had to accept Mom’s pushing cash in our hands with bent heads. All the money I’d managed to save from tutoring activities was at our apartment in the outskirts, as were Rux’s savings from all her baby-sitting.

In less than half an hour we stood under the large sign creaking askew above the entrance to Marvimex, the rain rapping on our umbrellas. The crooked plate read “Shopping Center,” yet the place wasn’t far from a bazaar. Engulfed by grey blocks of flats with walls damped by rain that testified half century of communism, it looked like a stable with dozens of barracks in the middle of a concrete fortress. Small, round men and women wearing thick golden chains around their necks populated them, offering contraband like circus performers did their tricks. Still, many shoppers preferred the place to the Tomis Mall for its cheap and often unique wares.

Valuable objects such as antique adornment artifacts and clay pots weren’t unusual here. There were actually even stories of vintage jewelry that had made it to the manors of lords and ladies in England or even tycoons in the States for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But to me, these were no more than myths until proven otherwise.

Officer Sorescu sheltered Rux under the umbrella he held for both of them. She’d been quicker to charm him than I’d thought possible.

I caught glimpses of her profile now and then as we slithered through strings of people towards the roofed hall that housed an anthill of booths. These glimpses read seduction off her smile, and I divined the batting of her thick lashes. They produced the effect of melting poor Sorescu on his feet, and I knew she’d soon be able to touch on the sensitive subject, namely ask him to accompany us to the station for a confidential meeting with Agent Hector Varlam. Then the even more sensitive core of the subject would follow – no one was to hear of this.

I lost them from sight as a young family in shopping rush squeezed me among them, and disappeared again suddenly in the roofed hall. I’d lost my umbrella in the process too. Persian rugs hung among lamps and chandeliers of different shapes, their glass icicles clinking whenever they trickled too low and touched my hair. They gave dim and pleasant light of warm and silent colors.

It was as if I’d been teleported by some tornado in another dimension, this part of the bazaar as good as empty of life except for a few passer-by shadows here and there. I spun among the hanging rugs, curtains and lamps that surrounded me the way circus gadgets would a child. Intertwined patterns engraved into the carpet fabric had a hypnotic effect. An effect that was all-surrounding. It gave me an unsettling feeling and a nagging presentiment of danger until a powerful voice called my name.

“Miss Preda.”

I turned on my heels and gasped.

The largest man that must’ve ever existed stood before me, his head much above mine. Big to the extreme, something most people don’t get to lay their eyes on in a lifetime. A black cloak that reminded me of the garment of a priest molded on his wavy, way-too-big shoulder muscles. Cold sweat trickled down my temples.

***

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI, Episode XII, Episode XIII, Episode XIV, Episode XV. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – for example, check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

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The Marquis – Epilogue – THE END

It’s true what they say about London – it’s rainy, gloomy, but full of charm. After only a few days here I feel like a maiden who’s eloped with the prince of her dreams to his magic land. My heart slowly cleanses itself of all the hurt and trauma from Northville, and I actually feel this love can put my soul back together.

Kieran and I spent the first couple of weeks alone in a beautiful townhouse. In the morning we’d watch the fabled London rain together, me wearing his shirt and holding a steaming cup of tea by the window, surrounded by his strong marble arms. On each one of these mornings my heart swelled with heavenly pleasure and joy. We visited old cathedrals, places and museums, we went out to concerts and restaurants on fairy-tale dates, and I can swear all I feel is bliss. Until I think of my mother.

It’s a good thing she stayed back in Northville. A good thing for me. It’s not like she didn’t want to come and be part of our lives, but the idea made me cringe with every one of her pleas. Kieran offered to pay for her to enjoy a most comfortable life wherever she would like to lead it, but since staying with us wasn’t an option because I refused, she decided to stay in Northville, where she could contemplate her past and her wounds.

Northville. The place can never go back to normal life. The town people saw too much, experienced too much, know too much. They agreed to help keep the serpents’ secret, and now the town has become a fortress, a heavily guarded keep for the serpents’ world-changing mysteries.

Lauren remained in the dungeons deep under the manor in the end, while Zed, Joyous and Jeanie stayed behind to oversee Northville’s fortification, and only joined us again today – on my first exhibition.

We’re at one of the most renowned art galleries in London, now filled with my paintings. They’re enjoying great success, but I have a feeling that has more to do with the power and money of the Marquis de Vandenesse than with my work. This event seems more of an introduction to the Londoner high society than anything else. People are more curious about me – the Marquis’ future wife – than about the paintings, though a few persons do show themselves impressed by a few pieces which they also decide to buy. Whether for the sake of the art or for the Marquis’ favour, I’ll never know for sure. But what I enjoy most about tonight is watching the young and handsome Kieran Slate as the Marquis de Vandenesse surrounded by elegant people seeking his attention, and realizing that all his hypnotic black eyes ever seek is me.

“It must be a true blessing, being worshipped like that,” a calm voice says, and soon the woman it belongs to steps in front of me.

“Vivien!” I make a move to hug her, but the golden lace dress I’m wearing screams at the brusque move. It threatens to tear, though it cost a small fortune – a paradox of fashion I always failed to understand, and a purchase I decide not to replicate. Vivien giggles a bit when I fail to wrap my arms around her, giving her an apologetic smile.

“You’re the most envied woman in the room, Saphira Lothar, soon-to-be Saphira de Vandenesse.” She looks me up and down, her intelligent brown eyes as kind as her words and voice. “Beautiful, talented, special and loved beyond measure by your man. None of these people miss any of these things, trust me.”

“I have a hard time fighting my vanity right now, I must admit.” I squeeze her hand, hoping the gesture expresses as much as a hug would. I keep my voice down, though I want to call out how happy I am to have her here. “So wonderful that you came.”

“I won’t stay long.”

“I don’t understand. Where are you going? I mean, I doubt you wish to return to Northville . . .”

“Indeed, I have no desire to do that.” She drops her gaze, but I keep mine steady on her. I can’t help but marvel. Despite all the torture she’s been through, she’s lost nothing of her inherent refinement and style.

Vivien Grant is a highly educated young woman, she speaks four languages fluently, she’s been to the finest schools, and majored in Philosophy. She’s a true intellectual. Her cleverness is obvious in her eyes, which intimidated men all her life – the very reason she was always single, I think. But after everything she’s been through she’s lost a bit too much weight, and the black pencil dress doesn’t do much to hide the willowy lines of her body – something that makes her look like a model, and attracts the eyes of fat-bellied rich men. She’s not too tall, not too short, and she moves with the gracefulness of a ballerina. The natural porcelain smoothness of her face adds a touch of innocence to the nobility of her features, and so does her un-dyed brown hair that’s now restrained in a sleek elegant chignon.

“But where will you go?” I whisper. “And . . . why?”

She lifts her eyes and directs her gaze to someone in the room. I follow it and see Zed in the Marquis’ entourage. Though the pain that last distorted his edgy, stony features is now well hidden behind the “Stone-mask” and the ice-blue of his eyes, there’s a bitterness and sullenness about him that scream it out. I remember Joyous’ explanation about what killed Yvette, and I grab Vivien’s wrist.

“No! It can’t be! You really . . . The Black Monks’ curse . . . Vivien, are you?”

She yanks her hand away and looks around as if to remind me we are being watched, and to get a grip on my temper. “I don’t understand what happened, Saphira. I just know I can’t be around him anymore. I just . . . shouldn’t feel how I feel about him. Yvette died because of it. And somehow he holds me responsible for that, as if it’s my fault we are now bound to each other, I . . .” She looks up, blinking and seeking to dry her tears and gag her sobs.

I take her hand in both of mine. “Please, Vivien. You just arrived, I just got you back. You can’t leave me again, please.”

“You don’t need me, Saph. You’ll enjoy a wonderful life with Kieran, and you’ll share your happiness with Jeanie and Joyous. I don’t fit in this picture, I’m broken and nothing can fix me.”

“With more reason. You need us.”

“No, Saph, I don’t need you, no matter how much I love you. And neither did you need me for healing, let’s be honest. What healed you was Kieran’s love that is special and perfect. Joyous loves Jeanie the same way, with a love that is natural only for superhumans.” Her voice breaks with sadness. “With the same love Zed felt for Yvette, and will never feel for me.”

Distress must be obvious in my face, because Kieran joins us and wraps a protective arm around me. “Is everything all right here?”

Vivien looks at us with her eyes full of tears but also kindness. “I wish you to be so very happy together, Saphira and Kieran, with nothing to ever shadow your love again. From the bottom of my heart, I truly wish that for the two of you.”

Unable to control her tears anymore she turns and hurries away, losing herself in the crowd. I want to follow, but Kieran stops me.

“Don’t.” He looks at Zed. I follow his gaze, and I see it – the terrible truth. Connections fire in my head as I grasp the truth.

“Oh. My. God.”

“The stake is high, Saphira,” Kieran whispers gravely. “And whether it will ever burn or not depends only on Vivien Grant.”

 

***

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for having followed the story of Saphira and Kieran the Marquis! It’s been an exhilirating ride for me, and I hope you enjoyed it as well. Stay tuned for many more goodies to come on this site, from personality tests and psych secrets to new thrilling stories of suspense and love. Also, feel free to ask me any questions you might have about the tests, articles and stories, I’ll be happy to answer them. A big, warm hug,

Yours,

Ana

 

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The Executioner – Ep. XV – In Danger

“How can you be sure Dad is safe with the Intelligence Service?” Worry broke through my voice, no matter how hard I tried to keep it chained.

“Because there’s nothing safer than their protection in this country,” Mom said.

“The few words I exchanged with him back at the hospital, he didn’t seem anxious about his life. He wanted to stay here, with us.”

“Two of his colleagues and their families have been killed, Alice. Those men worked for the same organization as your father from Barcelona and Bristol, also in matters related to genetic research. The R.I.S. are certain BioDhrome were the moral author of these murders, and that back in the mountains they meant to finish you in the same horrendous way to teach your father the same kind of lesson. Therefore Tiberius is a risk factor in this house, for us and for himself. Without him we’re safer, but still. Officer Sorescu, the man you saw in here . . .” even more careful now, “he’s around with his colleagues, just in case. Melanie and George will be staying with us too.”

“Does this mean we’re confined to these walls?”

“No. The R.I.S. and the doctors, they all agree that the trauma will be slow to leave you, so a normal life is essential. Especially public places are benefic. Crowds are safe.”

She smiled as if this were supposed to thrill me like alcohol would a teen. And it did, to a certain extent. Crowds, places like the campus and even clubs were safe indeed in our town, people’s built-in curiosity would let no event unobserved. It worked better than CCTV, so there was strong reason to believe that BioDhrome wouldn’t risk taking action in open field. They’d try to get us alone, at night in lonely places or even in our homes. So surveillance and protection made sense.

But the feeling that Dad had been extracted against his will nagged. He’d been desperate like never before at the hospital, his tone had left no room for doubt. He’d been convinced that he could protect us, especially by being present.

“And if we want to talk to him? Is there some number we can call? Some place we can go, for example, I don’t know, a phone cabin downtown like in those detective movies or something?”

“We can contact Agent Varlam.”

“I see.” I proved unable to control an acid grin. So this is how Hector was forcing cooperation. By leaving us no way around him. On a second thought, what if extraction was no more than a cover? A gross lie? What if he’d thrown Dad in a nasty cell and punched and kicked information on Damian Novac out of him? I jumped to my feet, bumping into the table edge. My ears whistled in tune with the kettle on the stove.

“Well, I’d like a word with him right now,” I spat.

Mom stood up too, hand on my cheek to calm me down, blue eyes identical to mine wide and worried. Standing half a head taller though, she made me feel like a kid again.

“Alice, honey, the whole idea behind this was to keep out of touch. Why bother organizing an extraction, if family stops by at the hideout to say hello anytime they please?”

“And you accept this so easily?” I snapped and brushed her hand off. “Are you really not worried about him, not one bit? His absence doesn’t bother you in the least?”

Now it was Mom’s turn to frown and apply a hard edge to her voice. “It’s not much difference to the last years, is it?”

“But this is different, Mom! BioDhrome is serious shit, real trouble that not even the R.I.S. might be able to protect him from.”

“I am worried about your father, Alice, believe me, but yes, I admit, I’m more worried about you. And if his presence puts you in danger, then I don’t need or want to see him again until the afterlife.”

Her words sent a stab through my brain, but I kept protest and anger behind tightened lips. Mom’s honesty was sharp, like glass colliding with glass in her voice, leaving no trace of vulnerability. Moreover, Dad had been cheating on her for a long time, and she knew it. I happened to know even with whom. Indeed, why should she give a shit? I tried for a peace-making tone.

“But I wouldn’t be seeing him, Mom. I’ll just talk to Agent Varlam, make sure Dad’s all right. I need to convince myself.”

“I know you’re hard to assure of anything, sweetheart. You have a counterargument ready for anything, you’re able to question even the law of gravity, and I think you’re taking it too far sometimes. That’s why I’m telling you now: your father is safe and sound, take that for granted.”

Mom wasn’t the dictator Dad could often be, but when she stood for something there was no way past her will. Behind the mask of the kind, soft-spoken Madame Jenna everyone appreciated, she had ways of getting what she wanted, brains to bow to and the patience of a reptile. On days like this, I ate my heart out for not having inherited at least half of everything she was.

Still, I found the guts to try and make up a strategy around her in my head, but before it caught shape I heard the door from the antechamber to my room. Then light steps. Ruxandra’s steps. The knock on the doorframe to signal her presence was accompanied by a weak smile.

Her pretty face had lost much of its glow, her olive complexion now pale in its own way, her hair a washed-out black, rumpling down to her waist. Her jaw was locked despite the smile. The experience we’d been through had taken away what was left of her carefree self, I would say.

Mom smiled back and hurried to pour her a cup of coffee, eager to cover the subject of our conversation. Ruxandra relished Mom’s warm welcome like an orphan would a Christmas night with presents, and joined me at the table, huddled in my old pink bathrobe that came too short on her arms and legs.

They were all “Rux, dear,” and “Jenna” to each other, as always. They had a special relationship. Mom had made a life purpose of plunging deep into the troubles of the gypsy minority, she had dedicated them her time even though there was no trophy to be won. Rich wives of the Western World she came from did charity, Mom had told me, but she didn’t think much of it. “Raising funds for clerks. Trust me, half of the donated money ends up on their pay-checks,” she’d say.

But Mom was determined to be of use on a very personal, palpable level, and made a great “career” of social work. Many of the gypsy kids in our neighborhood, Ruxandra and her older sister Cora included, had listened to her winter stories and learned to read and write from her. Both Romanian and English. It had been Mom who’d helped Ruxandra’s mother leave her husband and find a job at the textile factory many years ago. She’d fought and achieved so much in those difficult times. A rush of admiration swept over me. My heroine.

Ruxandra took a long sip of coffee, fingers curled around the mug, then leaned her head back, savoring not only the aroma but also her surroundings. There was love in her gaze as it crossed over every detail of the room – the cluttered wooden cupboards nailed to the walls over the counter, the door to the back garden with its frosted glass pane, the pots, kettles and spoons dangling from a wooden stripe with hooks above the sink like bells waiting to be played.

“I’ve missed this place,” she said, her hand gently stroking the nylon table cover.

Mom gave her a warm smile. “It’s missed you, too.”

Despite the promising start, the conversation got stuck as soon as Mom uttered a “Did you sleep well?” Ruxandra lowered her head and pressed her lips, as if not wanting to remember. But, if she’d had nightmares, I hadn’t noticed. She’d been still and quiet. Only George’s low moaning and sighing had reached me once in a while through the veil of light sleep.

Mom tried to guide Ruxandra back on the conversational track, but all she got were attempted smiles from the trembling corner of Rux’s mouth. She wasn’t quite herself. But then again, neither was I.

Mom’s insistences on tea, cookies, coffee, chocolate, marmalade and another dozen sweets per minute were a clear sign I was a disturbing sight too. I wasn’t even sure to perceive and answer all her questions. I had this feeling they’d passed by my ears more than once, like “deja heards or something.

George woke up late in the afternoon. His sudden screams as if someone sliced him alive made us all jump, and Mom almost threw down the door to the antechamber to attend him. His pained groans sent chills down my back. Ruxandra slapped her palms over her face, her shoulders shaking in sobs.

Carefully, I took her in my arms. I threw a glance at the big, lazy clock on top of the bookcase – four in the afternoon. George had at least gotten a good chunk of sleep. Unlike Ruxandra and me, who hadn’t even found the energy of losing the pink bathrobes we still wore like overgrown babies, curled on the couch, TV on.

Without Mom to promptly switch channels as soon as the news came on, always packed with tragedies and subliminal, “This is the end of the world,” Ruxandra and I were now fully exposed to them. A report about a massacre at a remote cabin in the mountains of Bulgaria made both our eyes bulge.

The twin of our story, only that no one had been found, dead or alive. The perfectly groomed reporter’s words were like other “deja heards,” her voice matter-of-fact but disturbed in its depths. Censured images that played on the half of the screen next to her face accompanied her story.

“Blood on pieces of clothing and torn curtains. Broken windows and . . .” And this is where my ears began buzzing, muffling the sound of the TV. My blood pressure must’ve shot up.

So this one made it on the news.

“They’ll cover up in a few days max,” Ruxandra said, close enough to my ear to pierce through the buzz.

“How is that supposed to work? How could a footage like this be a mistake? They freaking filmed the mess. People are not stupid, Rux.”

“No, they aren’t. But there have been so many tragedies with so many explanations lately, that illegal experimentation won’t cross their minds. They’ll accept any animal attack, serial killer, drugs and orgies that ended up badly, you name it.”

Then the reporter said, “The police arrested Dr. Lazar Dobrev, a psychiatrist. He used to treat one of the missing persons. Dr. Dobrev set the man on the loose, even though he was known to have murderous impulses, which he shouldn’t have had trouble acting on at a height of two meters, and a hundred and seventy kilograms of muscle.”

 

***

 

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI, Episode XII, Episode XIII, Episode XIV. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

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Freed – Ep. 44 of “The Marquis”

It’s heart-breaking, watching Zed bent over the bed where Yvette lies, her face like wax. I would’ve never imagined the Head of Security, the man I once nicknamed “Stone Face” expressing such intense hurt. His edgy features are distorted, his eyes scrunched shut as he bites his knuckles as if that helps him subdue the pain to a bearable level, hands clasping tightly to each other. So much death, so much pain.

“It was Lauren Morris who killed her,” Joyous whispers in my ear. We’re standing in the doorstep of a small service hut adjacent to the manor. “She killed Yvette on her way to the tower, where she planned to do the same with you. They fought, but in the end Lauren was stronger.”

“But that’s not possible,” I babble among sobs, keeping as quiet as I can in order not to disturb Zed. “I saw the two of them fight each other before, Lauren would’ve never stood a chance against Yvette.”

“Normally not, but Lauren had a secret weapon – the truth about what happened when the Black Monks’ curse hit Zed, and his fingers drilled into Vivien.”

My head snaps to him. “Something happened then?”

Joyous the Healer keeps looking at Zed as he talks, as if assessing the state of his health from a distance. “Vivien and Zed connected on a very deep level. We still don’t understand exactly in what way, but we know the first thing Zed said when he opened his eyes – after you made the painting of him – was Vivien’s name. The event had a powerful effect on Vivien as well, an effect that apparently went as deep as her DNA, which we’ll test soon. We don’t think what binds them is romantic in nature, we rather think it’s biological, but it’s still something we have yet to fully understand.”

“Then how . . . why . . . how could Lauren use that as a weapon against Yvette?”

“It was all in the way she put things. It seems she made Yvette think Zed and Vivien were now bound like star-crossed lovers who would only resist being together in order not to hurt her, and that weakened Yvette’s desire to live.”

“Joyous, are you sure about this? How do you even know what was said between Lauren and Yvette?”

His face takes on an infinitely sad expression, like that of a parent melting with pain as they see their child cry. “When Zed found Yvette she was still alive. She died in his arms, after she gave him her blessing to be with Vivien.”

Tears course down my face, bundling on the tip of my chin. This is a tragedy. I try to keep my sniffling inconspicuous, but I can’t bring myself to leave the hut, not wanting to miss the chance of helping Zed if he needs me in any way.

Other serpent-men come in and out, pretending to have things to do in the hut in order to quietly check on Zed, then they leave just as quietly and grim-faced.

I know the kind of pain that’s consuming him, and I know no one should approach him now. He needs to be with Yvette. Still, I can’t take my eyes and focus off them until Jeanie approaches and whispers between Joyous and me.

“The town people got a priest for the dead. He’d start with Yvette now, so that her soul can be on its way. She’s the only human, the rest of the dead are Black Monks and serpents, and for some reason he doesn’t consider matters as urgent for them.”

I’m more than relieved that my sweet curly-headed, milky-skinned Jeanie is safe and sound, but all I feel capable of giving her is a slight nod. She looks devastated as well, and it has to do with Jeremy. He’s not dead, though, and that moves him down on my list of priorities.

Lauren is top of it right now. I need to talk to her. I already forgave her for many things, such as having sought and used every opportunity to hurt me all my life, for having destroyed my relationship with Jeremy right before our wedding, even for having tried to kill me, but I can’t forgive her for this cruelty – when asked whether she regretted having killed Yvette, only a few hours later in the dungeons, she says with a vicious grin that she doesn’t in the least.

She says that Yvette was a plump middle-aged woman who embarrassed herself by pursuing a relationship with a man who seemed much younger than her, not to mention outrageously more handsome. She also says that she’d merely cleared Zed’s future of what would’ve proven ballast that he respected too much to shake off. That he should actually be grateful to her. Her only regret is having tormented me the way she did, now realizing I’m the only innocent person in this entire story. I can’t listen to any more of this. I turn on my heel and stomp out of the dungeons along with en escort of serpent-men.

The serpents manage to keep Zed away from Lauren’s cell, since he would surely end her, and she stands under both my and Kieran’s protection for having made the decisive move in the fight between Kieran and Basarab. Hadn’t it been for her, my lover would now be dead too. We have yet to see what to do about her.

Joyous, Jeanie and a few serpent-men escort me to the study to see Kieran. Here he’s having his last important talk before he brings his business in Northville to a final close, they say. And right before we knock on the doors they open widely to let a team of men in white medical clothes carry away a screaming and raging Jeremy Simmons. They make for such a commotion, that we instinctively clear the way to the sides to let them pass, restricting our reactions to staring after them, seeking sense of the picture.

Jeremy’s bulk is useless against the expert arms of the very same men who’d broken my bones with jets of water at the asylum. All I can do is watch as they take him away. His maddened eyes latch on to me like I’m everything to him, his fingers splaying towards me like a man’s reaching for his only hope.

“Saphira, listen to me!” His voice reminds me of the lamenting lunatics back at the asylum. “This wasn’t my fault, Saphira! This was not my fault! We are both victims, Saphira!”

He keeps calling out my name as the men in white drag him away down the corridor, his screams growing faint. A presence behind me makes me turn, and my eyes meet the beautiful face of Kieran Slate.

Our arms wrap around each other, our embrace tight like that of two people frantic to keep together, terrified they might be separated again. We touch each other to make sure the other isn’t hurt, and I must say the hard feel of his body under his shirt elates me – it gives me the feeling that he’s not only whole and healthy, but also indestructible. I couldn’t take knowing him in mortal danger again, it would surely kill me.

I cup his face and look up into his pitch black eyes, revelling in the awareness that we’re together again, and promising him and myself that I’d never leave his side again.

“I love you, Kieran, I love you so much!” I stand on my tiptoes, kissing his cheeks and his forehead that he seems happy to offer, bending down to me.

“And I adore you, Saphira.”

We kiss deeply and desperately, our souls merging with each other, forgetting time, place and the group of serpent-men hovering around us, watching. Joyous clears his throat and touches Kieran’s shoulder, bringing us both back to reality.

“There are a few more matters you might want to deal with right away. Like Saphira’s mother, for example, she’s desperate to see her daughter.”

“Take her to a room in the west wing. Saphira will come to see her after she’s rested.” He looks at me again, a delicate smile on his face. “It might take until tomorrow.”

For a moment there I ask myself if all the horror I’ve been through is the price for the out-of-this-world love that I’ve been blessed to experience. It’s so unique, intense like the strongest drug, and so much more powerful than anything I’ve ever felt, even for Jeremy. Jeremy . . .

“Isn’t that measure too drastic?” I ask Kieran a while later, after immediate matters have been attended to, and the door to our chamber closes behind us. “Locking Jeremy in the lunatic asylum, I mean. In the end, he was under Basarab’s possession while he did everything he did, even as he first cheated on me.”

“Precisely because of that,” Kieran says, removing his shirt and revealing the marble perfection of his elegant muscles. “Basarab’s possession left him seriously damaged, plus that –“ he approaches and wraps his arms around my exhausted body. “He did serve the Elite, Saphira, remember? Those old pigs that run half the country paid Jeremy Simmons to keep them warm in Northville and in his side of London, and he obliged without scruples.”

The Elite . . .

“What will happen to them?” I whisper.

“They will pay dearly for what they’ve done, but that’s no longer our concern. I want to dedicate my life to making you happy, Saphira. No more revenge, no more bitterness, no more war.”

Kieran bends his head and kisses me under the light of full moon that hazes between the vaporous curtains. I close my eyes and relish in the silky, warm feel of his lips, excited like the first time my crush kissed me, and yet feeling so at home. The most wonderful sensation, the perfect interlacing between the highs of infatuation and the depths of true love. I nestle my head at his chest, listening to his heartbeat. Maybe we still have a chance of putting all this behind us, a chance at complete happiness, even after so much evil. Maybe this love does have the power to dispel the shadow of everything that happened.

“Take me away from all this death, Kieran.”

***

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The Executioner – Ep. XIV – Discoveries

Where was Dad?

I threw the blanket aside, squirmed out of bed – squashing Rux in the process, provoking a sleepy grunt – and rushed to the master bedroom.

The curtains hung open, making way for the pale winter light through the overlarge window. The bed was made – of course, Mom must’ve been up for hours, if she’d slept at all, considering the circumstances. Having left the parental home a few years ago to live with Ruxandra in the suburbs, most of my parents’ habits had moved to the back of my brain, only to resurface when exposed to them again. As they did now. I remembered the smell of scrambled eggs that used to draw me to the kitchen when I was still a teenager. It hadn’t spoilt my olfactory senses in some years and it didn’t now either, but, as I said, old memories resurfaced.

I tiptoed to the kitchen to find Mom sitting at the table, her thin fingers slowly stroking a coffee mug smeared with souvenir photos of San Francisco – one of the few items that still bound her to her own home. Her stare was lost over the black liquid that didn’t give out steam, which meant she must’ve been staring blankly at it for some time now. Her hair, blond and crisscrossed by gray strands, fell rumpled to her slim shoulders. A fluffy white nightgown clad her thin body.

The sight was disconcerting, considering her usual innate urge of always looking flawless and making an impression of aristocracy on all eyes that fell on her, including the cleaning lady’s. Now the absence of an elegant and shiny chignon and the uncovered wrinkles on her meager face in the presence of a stranger were another definite sign something was wrong.

His sitting with her, the corner cupboard hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles, was even more disturbing. A heavy winter coat hung negligently on the rest of his chair, his chubby hands cupping a coffee mug of his own like pillows of flesh emerging from under thick sweater sleeves. His mien was grave as he set small brown eyes on me.

Round and unfriendly, that’s the impression his face made. Was he her lover? No way, my inner self spat. She would’ve gone for someone less . . . stiff. Plus, he didn’t seem to be feeling awkward, nor did he try to justify his presence.

Just a few moments of puzzling silence, then he stood up, gathered his coat and turned to the door that led directly to the back garden – something told me he’d come in through the same, but I was clueless as to the reason why he refused to use the front door. With a hand on the handle and the coat on the other arm, he turned once more to Mom.

“You know where to find me.”

She nodded, and he left.

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Still, my sixth sense activated again and sent me with slow steps to the table, then seated me in the man’s place.

Mom didn’t raise her head. On the contrary, she seemed to sink it even closer to the mug, a hunch forming on her slim back that was otherwise as straight as a wood plank. Hadn’t it been for the thick bathrobe, I would’ve seen the skin stretch over her ribs. The truth of the man’s visit must’ve been a burden not much different from an affair. Could it be?

“So?” I managed after a while.

Her fingers still stroked the mug with slow, even moves. “We’ll be under police surveillance. I don’t know for how long.”

Police surveillance?

“Why’s that?”

“You and your friends. The . . .” she chewed on her lower lip, probably to keep back what looked like a nervous breakdown. Her cheek twitched. “Those people from the mountains. BioDhrome, they told me.”

Panic shot to the tips of my toes.“BioDhrome’s our priority now, Tiberius. They won’t stop here.”

“Where’s Dad?”

Only now Mom looked me in the eyes, eyebrows up like a crying pet’s. She looked for the way to put it, there was no doubt.

“No, God, please no!”

Mom’s expression grew from wrecked to worried, more alert now, the way it had been at the hospital. She touched my wrist, voice soft and soothing, though it cost her some effort. “No, baby, no. He’s all right, safe and sound.”

“Where is he then?”

This was the news she’d been nervous about, I could tell by the pause and fixed gaze on my eyes. “He’s been extracted, they told me.”

Extracted? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Another nervous chew on her lip. “This BioDhrome thing.” Then reconsidering, “Alice, this must stay between us. Tell no one, not Ruxandra, not anyone.”

“Just tell me, Mom!”

“Give me your word first. For your own safety, not my comfort.”

“I’m your daughter, you really believe I’d betray your secrets?” A stab in the chest accompanied the words. As I don’t betray Dad’s. “All right, may I die in chains, if a word on this leaves my mouth,” I went for one of the gypsy oath formulations I’d learned in Ruxandra’s crowded home as a child.

Mom shuddered. “Not like that, please. Your word suffices. Keep this all to yourself, for your own good.”

“No need to elaborate on that. Elaborate on extracted.”

She took a deep breath, gathering her nerves. “I’ll have to start with the beginning so you understand.”

“Please do.”

“For many years, Tiberius has been working with an international organization whose name he never told me. He’s been analyzing blood samples they delivered him. The results were always classified, your father never spoke of them. They often surprised and baffled him, which filled him with enthusiasm in the beginning. But after we had you, he withdrew in his shell like a turtle. Soon his work started to take too heavy a toll. We had midnight fights more and more often.” Her voice trailed off, lost in painful memory.

“Tell me about it,” I whispered. All those late nights when Dad tiptoed to the master bedroom, the quiet quarrels they thought I didn’t hear played like a movie in my head. All those empty weekends, Mom sunken in her books and I in mine, Dad only a picture on a shelf, even though he was still of this world.

“I put him under pressure to quit what he was doing. I imagine that’s why his heart grew cold to me, and he began seeking comfort elsewhere. Oh, dear baby, I haven’t asked – some coffee? Tea?”

With the premiere of her confession on my shoulders I nodded, and Mom put a kettle on the stove. I let her decide on whether coffee or tea and moved a few inches in to let her sit by me and slide a loving arm around my back, as if to support me through what she’d say next.

“Your father is a BioDhrome target, they tell me, because he works with their direct enemy, an organization which calls itself ‘the good guy,’ but I don’t know. They’re so powerful that they could order the R.I.S. to take your father in while we were still at the hospital in Brasov, and that kind of power is dubious. To be completely honest, I’m no less afraid of them than I am of your attckers in the mountains.”

***

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI, Episode XII, Episode XIII. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

I love reading from you, so don’t be shy and share your thoughts and feelings in a comment.

 

Blades and Roses – Ep. 43 of “The Marquis”

Ivan Basarab is dead. It becomes clear to me as the wounds in Kieran’s picture begin regenerating like slowly closing zippers. His reptilian powers of self-healing work freely, which means no one is attacking him anymore.

The canvas of Basarab’s picture, on the other hand, is drenched in red, dripping thickly on the floor and on Lauren’s shoes. It’s dead quiet outside, as if the wind itself were holding its breath, and all I can hear is the beating of my own pulse in my ears. As the breeze makes it through the window again I release the air from my lungs and fall to my knees.

“It’s finished,” I whisper, covering my face with palms full of colour.

“What just happened?” Lauren mumbles. I look up at her through the blurry veil of my tears, but I can see she’s completely bewildered. Intoxicated with hatred and seeing me hopelessly fighting to save Kieran, she did the only thing that was in her power– she stabbed and slit Basarab’s picture. The outcome is something neither of us expected, but synapses fast-wire in my brain, helping me put two and two together.

“Normally it’s the pictures that work as doubles for the people,” I explain quietly, “taking all the blows and the harm. But it seems the energy you put into your attack combined with the energy I put into making the painting reversed effects.”

“What the hell does that mean?” The turbid green of her eyes isn’t enough to camouflage her bewilderment this time.

“It basically means that by killing the picture, you killed the man.” I can hardly believe it myself as I voice it. “Incredible . . .” Incredible what human emotion, intention and energy can do. “It was . . . teamwork.”

A fat drop of red splashes on the tile under the tripod holding Basarab’s picture, and releases a chain reaction – the rusty smell of blood fills my nose, making me sick. The adrenaline has kept me unaware of the smell until now, but the relief that it’s all over brings back sensitivity to all my senses.

Billy Dean – Ivan Basarab – has open wounds that reach his bones, fat and muscle visible as if the canvas were made of flesh. My stomach can’t take the image, and I break down, crawling on all fours and struggling against the sickness.

Fortunately Lauren proves great presence of mind. She hurries to me, helps me up and out of the room from the Dark Tower, leading me down the gloomy spiral stairs and away from the horror behind. Even the spiders and insects seem to clear from the place as we descend.

I feel so sick that I rely on Lauren completely. From the night she almost beat me to death at the asylum I know how strong she is despite the very few pounds of flesh that cover her bones, but the fact that she’s so fast and stable on her feet despite the stilettos and the tight leather outfit is rather admirable.

As we emerge in the granite main corridor on the ground floor I manage to voice my thoughts, and Lauren admits she’s been training with Jeremy – probably while the Inspector was under Basarab’s possession – for months for this mission. In my head, I thank God her allegiances switched from Basarab to us, otherwise she would’ve easily killed me. In my stained canvas gown, barefoot and exhausted, I wouldn’t have posed much of a challenge.

The manor is huge, hollow, quiet and dark, only our steps filling it like ghosts. Lauren leans me on a pillar by the main entrance in order to try and open the double doors, but even with all Jeremy’s training she’s not strong enough to pull aside the enormous bronze lock that traverses them. I should’ve thought about it, the thing is designed to withstand a whole crowd pushing to open the doors.

We have to go down to the catacombs and use the opening that I discovered the night I first witnessed Kieran turn into a serpent. His men had replaced the glass I’d broken with a bulky bronze door, but I know the way to open it.

Lauren and I emerge out onto the rocky fields. The sea is far, but the salty breeze seems to carry drops from its raging crests. I close my eyes but open my arms and breathe in deeply, allowing the freshness of the night to fill my lungs.

“It’s over. It’s really over.” Relief courses from head to feet, turning me soft.

The horrors of these past months run before my mind’s eye and through my heart like they say things do a moment before you die. Before I first met Kieran at the Royale a felt eternity ago I was a pampered upper class girl secluded among her paintings, with little knowledge of the world out there. So much has changed since then. Right now I feel like I’ve just escaped execution after a long line of torments and tortures. My flesh hurts and my soul aches, but I’m alive.

A hand clasps my upper arm and hides me behind a back dressed in dark fighting clothes. I recognize the leather expansible outfit the serpents wore when they left for battle, as well as Joyous’ locks. He hisses at Lauren, who retreats in a hunched, rather awkward-looking fighting position on her mosquito legs, eyes wide and knives ready to protect herself.

“No, Joyous, wait,” I intervene, holding tightly to his arm and straining to make him listen. “She’s helped me back in the tower. She’s on our side now, and it was her who killed Basarab.”

Joyous doesn’t react immediately, but keeps circling Lauren while I keep dragging after him and holding tightly to his arm to prevent him from hurting her. He measures her from head to toes viciously, and finally addresses me, yet not taking his eyes off Lauren.

“Maybe it was only an act she put on as she realized her people were losing.”

“Her people were losing, but Kieran was dying. She saved him, Joyous!”

He still doesn’t look convinced. After glancing from Joyous to me a few times Lauren gives a crooked, daring smile and drops her knives, lifting her hands in the air in a gesture of surrender. The expression on her face still retains a kind of mocking pride, though – her way of keeping dignity as people emerge from the shadow, throw her down and tie her hands behind her back. Frankly I don’t blame her for it. She had to put up with enough humiliation.

“Treat her well until this is cleared,” Joyous orders. “Put her in a dungeon, but make sure she has minimal comfort.”

I want to intervene and plead that they don’t put her in a cell at all, but Joyous clasps my shoulders and makes me look at him. There’s something pained in the Healer’s eerie honey-coloured eyes surrounded by dark circles.

“I know you trust her, Saphira, but I can’t do the same, since . . .”

He pauses, and my heart jumps. “Since what?” I clasp his wrists in anguish. “Don’t hover, Joyous, I beg of you!”

He drops his voice as if to help keep us both calm. “There have been losses, Saphira.”

“Losses, what losses? Oh, God, Jeanie?!”

“No.”

My pulse seems to settle, but then the name hits me like an arrow in the breastbone.

 

***

To be continued on Friday.

Previous episode.

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Stay tuned for a new episode on Friday, we are drawing towards the end! ONLY ONE EPISODE TO GO plus Epilogue! Until then, feel free to roam this site for all the goodies it has to offer.

 

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The Executioner – Ep. XIII – Dirty Secrets

 

“My Dad is the mobster she danced for?”

“The mobster thing was just speculation, cheap gossip. But Novac . . . I’ll have to stop here, you’re in no condition to hear this . . .”

“My condition didn’t stop you until now. Go on.”

Hector gritted his teeth. “You know how I received this assignment? The Cezare Lupan file, archived with the R.I.S., disappeared six years ago. Disappeared, you understand? No one can make that happen unless they’re the K.G.B., F.B.I., fucking David Copperfield or a nasty monster with friends in high places, like BioDhrome. That’s how the Intelligence Service got me on the job.

“After six years of rubbing shoulders with him, I still don’t have evidence against Novac, I don’t. But I’m positive as hell he works for BioDhrome. Still, any chance of producing evidence by myself is gone with the wind. My cover is now history, blown when we got out of that frozen hell, blown when my R.I.S. superiors came forward too directly, overconfident I’d gotten all the proof and witnesses we needed to nail Novac after this.”

The room spun with me. This isn’t happening was back in the charts.

“So help me.” Hector lowered his voice even more, taking my hand in both of his. They pressed on my bandaged fingers, reminding me of how my nails had come off. The pain helped revive awareness that I was still in the real world.

“What did they talk about, your father and Novac?”

He put slightly too much emphasis on this last question. My thoughts suddenly fit together like puzzle pieces, leaving no room four doubt: he’d come to see me as an investigator, yet he’d done as good as all the talking, telling me horror stories about a Machiavellian agent and a father I refused to recognize. All this even though I lay on a hospital bed with IV lines snaking around my arms. “Everything hurts, no matter what.”

It dawned on me. The son of a bitch tried to manipulate me into betraying my own father, and Dad had known it. Maybe what he said was true, but he wielded the truth to get a fat bonus, trying to nail Dad along with Damian Novac, or Cezare Lupan, or whatever his name was. I turned my head to the narrow window, letting the gray daylight flood my eyes, as stinging as it was.

“I wouldn’t know, Agent Varlam. I wasn’t yet awake.”

“Yes, you were,” he insisted. “Your mother told me you were.”

“She was wrong.”

“As simple as that?”

“It’s the simple truth. Now if you don’t mind, I’m tired. Everything hurts.”

Hector tensed, I felt it in his grip on my hand and the intensifying pain in my fingers.

“I really hope you’re not covering anything, Miss Preda,” he stressed. “More shit will happen if I don’t lock up Damian Novac soon.”

“And who else would you have locked up, Agent Varlam?”

“Whoever aids him in his endeavors, directly or indirectly,” he spat.

Especially because of this covert threat I was relieved when he left the room, and anxious to see Dad at the same time. Soon I received another visit, but it wasn’t him. Mom rushed to my side and kissed my forehead, again and again, smothering me. I was so eager to talk to Dad that I didn’t wait for the right moment to ask about him, making Mom feel superfluous. She said he’d be back any minute now, but minutes and hours flowed slowly, the nerve-wrecking clock ticking them away.

No, Damian can’t be working with BioDhrome, I chewed on my thoughts. Of this one thing his conversation with Dad should have assured me. But then again, maybe he’d been playing Dad for whatever reason all the time they’d known each other. Maybe he did sleep with Svetlana Slavic, Dad’s slut, and maybe that wasn’t the only way he betrayed Dad. Maybe he was indeed a foe.

After two phone calls in hushed voice, with her hand covering the receiver and her mouth, Mom announced that Dad had urgent business back in Constanta and had been forced to return on a short notice – a surprise, considering his vehemence in staying by my side. But when Mom mentioned the business was related to “the case at hand”, assuring me that Dad was all right, I relaxed. Her voice usually had that effect on me. She also revealed we were at the General Hospital in Brasov.

A white-lit place it was, but depressing as hell. I got to explore its corridors while searching for Ruxandra as soon as I could walk, which didn’t happen until the following day. Considering the great blood values I was supposed to have according to Dad, the weakness and vertigo that made me throw up were unexplainable. Didn’t dare talk to Mom about it, though. It was hard to even look her in the face, knowing what I knew now – that Dad had been sleeping with a girl my age, a girl I knew. But I couldn’t walk without help, so I had to live with the crushing guilt as we strolled through the hospital. To top the whole thing, I had this ever-present sensation that I saw Damian everywhere, unyielding and unnerving that I almost choked on it.

“Is it just me, or you’re hoping to see this boy?” Mom said with a patient, experienced smile.

“I do.” The truth tumbled like a rock off my chest.

“He must be very fond of you, too. He spent hours by your bed.”

My heart jumped. “He did?”

Nod. “Didn’t take his eyes off your face. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was hypnotized, standing there like a statue.”

I don’t think a bungee leap could’ve been more exhilarating than the feeling that coursed through me at those words.

“When your father and I arrived, he was already with you. God, sweetheart, never put me through this again . . .” She paused, swallowing the panic down her thin, dry-skinned throat as she skipped to a part that seemed to comfort her. “That boy was always there as doctors swarmed around you, and he stayed after they stabilized you, too. I didn’t have the heart to ask him for privacy.”

“Really?”

“He’s remarkably handsome, if I may say,” Mom continued with another conspirator smile. If only she knew how innocent she actually was, despite her long years of wisdom.

“That he is,” I whispered.

Only as we finally found Ruxandra’s room in the east wing – as dark and humid as any old building that rarely saw an investment – did the bitterness succumb, replaced by a flood of sadness at the sight of my friend lying on that piece of metal with a flimsy mattress, her chocolate eyes drooping and lips drawn downward from crying.

We exchanged no words. Just that locking of the eyes. I dropped by her side and squeezed her in my arms as hard as my tired muscles allowed. She was softer than usual too, her flesh felt like warm polenta. And tears flowed, wordless, both of us shaking with them, our fingers hooking like claws in each other’s hair, tugging as memories drained from us. We cried and leaned on each other like exhausted boxers until there was no drop of rage left, just sighs and lunatic laughs.

Although Ruxandra was perfectly healthy too, as her blood tests showed, the hospital wasn’t cleared to let her go. The police had ordered that none of the survivors leave the premises until specifically permitted to do so, which left no big difference between the hospital and prison. Hector prolonged this situation by as much as his badge allowed, so clearance came in about twenty-four hours. Every survivor was then ready to leave, no one with serious injuries or needing medical attention for an extended period of time, but mentally we were all wrecks.

Mom drove all the four-hour way to Constanta in silence. George had great need of it. He was sensitive to all sound, he’d cover his ears, his face would twist in a grotesque mask and he’d squeeze his lids shut at every word he heard. He’d killed a man with his own hands, the trauma was most severe for him, the doctor had explained. He remembered every detail of it vividly, which tormented him with violent headaches.

“Don’t leave him alone, for whatever reason,” the doctor had warned.

The street up to my parents’ house revealed itself on a last turn, cobbled and ghostly in our headlights. Barking from neighboring yards and the crisp sea air were the first to greet us, lonely and timeless, like the screech of our old iron gate and the warm darkness of our living room. I think that was my first real experience of synesthesia, I could almost feel the massive oak bookcase through my skin, the homely upholstered couch, Dad’s favorite armchair.

George didn’t wait for an invitation to throw himself face-down on the sofa in the small antechamber that opened into my room, which I used to call my “boudoir” back in high school. Ruxandra and I shared my bed.

Mom turned on the lamp outside, the thick skeleton of our old apple tree bathing in its mild light. We kept the curtains open so we could face it from the bed, my old guardian from childhood days. It felt safe, but I still couldn’t close my eyes until the early morning hours. Something was missing, something wasn’t right. Something wasn’t home. It only hit me when my eyes snapped open at midday, my brain refreshed:

***

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI, Episode XII. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

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Judgment Day – Ep. 42 of “The Marquis”

Lauren approaches the picture of Billy Dean. I can only see her back – her blood-red hair in a bun, her tall skinny frame clad in black leather – as she strolls away from me. She keeps proud and straight perched on her stilettos, as if she’s demanding an explanation from Billy’s bespectacled, narrow face. Now that I think about it, in reality his front rodent-like teeth are even more prominent.

“But how can this be?” she whispers, inspecting Billy’s painting. “He’s not one of the men who committed the crime against Catherine Lancaster.”

“You know about that?” I can’t hide my surprise.

“I know about many things. Jeremy – Billy,” she corrects herself sourly, “– sometimes talked after sex. He always stopped before his tongue rolled too much, but I got the essential. I also know the Marquis suspected the real Ivan Basarab was one of Catherine’s tormentors. Jeremy – Billy – said his father had been among them and the true Ivan Basarab, and that he was merely continuing his father’s work, since the man himself was dead.”

I nod to myself. “That was only a diversion Billy created on purpose. He discovered that Northville had been a gloomy, anonymous enough resort where rich people acted out their inner demons for decades, and in time he discovered their dirtiest secrets. He used these discoveries in order to divert the Marquis from the truth. These people used Billy as a notary for bad business such as questionable adoptions and money laundry, especially since he seemed so easy to manipulate and to intimidate. He took advantage of that, one thing led to another, and within a few years he practically owned them. Billy has an incredibly high IQ, and he used his intelligence to get what he wanted. I’m sure he got himself introduced to the Marquis’ ‘makers,’ and got them to enhance him the way they’d enhanced other so-called superhumans like the Marquis. That’s how he must’ve obtained his demon-like ability of taking possession of other people’s bodies, as incredible as that sounds. I think he found a way to engineer the Black Monks too.”

Found a way,” Lauren repeats, still inspecting Billy’s painting closely, her hand tracing his nose and lips and chin. Her voice is full of hatred. “This man fucking possesses other people, Saphira. How can you simply put it like that – he found a way?”

“I couldn’t really afford dropping on my butt and gaping at the idea,” I reply, throwing my hands in the air. “I had other priorities, I couldn’t stop to investigate the science behind the way. Lauren, I almost died almost every day these past few months. I saw the Marquis turning from a stunning young man into a slimy, huge serpent, I found out there are immortals out there, I discovered that my father was a rapist and a murderer, that an army of leper monks invaded Northville, and I got almost beaten to death in a lunatic asylum just to name a few of my troubles. I’m not even sure my brains are still inside my head.”

A sound like canvas tearing interrupts my tirade, and my head snaps to the source of it. The Marquis’ painting is bleeding, his shirt soaking with viscous red.

“Kieran!” I haste toward the picture, grabbing the paintbrush and the crayons off the floor, and I start repairing feverishly.

Another tearing sound in another canvas makes my eyes search desperately for the source until they fall on Billy’s picture that is bleeding as well.

“They’re facing each other,” I shriek as Kieran takes more blows, his beautiful ivory face getting slash after slash as if Billy were attacking him with Wolverine-like claws. I’m aware of Lauren looking puzzled from my desperately moving hands as they work on Kieran to Billy’s painting that’s also getting wounds so ugly they seem inflicted with an axe. His flesh is split to the bone in many places. It looks like the Serpent and the Slayer are literally killing each other. Neither is winning or losing, they’re chopping each other to pieces.

I can barely keep up ‘repairing’ Kieran, and I don’t register when Lauren grabs the knives she’d meant to use on me just shortly before. I only spin round in dread when her outcry, vicious and full of hatred, rings in my ears. For an instant there I’m sure she’s attacking me, but I’m wrong.

With wide eyes I watch Lauren lunge to the picture of Billy Dean, the man who’d loved her his entire life, but who’d used her without scruples. She rams both knives exactly in the centre of his face, making blood surge as she pulls downward, cutting Ivan Basarab in half, and shredding him.

 

***

To be continued on Friday.

Previous episode.

All previous episodes.

Stay tuned for a new episode on Friday, we are drawing towards the end! ONLY TWO EPISODES TO GO! Until then, feel free to roam this site for all the goodies it has to offer.

 

 

The Executioner – Ep. XII – An Angel with Black Wings

“Alice is a gem, I must admit. Sweet in appearance, sharp in wit and loving as an angel. But she’s your daughter.”

Expectation popped like a balloon stung with a needle. The refined barbarian that was Damian Novac had found the perfect words to avoid a direct answer, but there it was, between the lines. It may have been his way of saying I was the little sister of Shitty, since “amazing”, “stunning” or at least “attractive” hadn’t as much as touched his description of me. To save a bit of face, I prayed my playing asleep had worked the first night at the cottage as it did now.

After tormenting moments Dad spoke again, low and careful. “Don’t take this the wrong way, lad. It’s just . . .” Awkward pause. “You’re dangerous, Damian. It’s not your fault, they did this to you, yet . . .”

“I get it,” Damian cut him off.

The air was so laden that I could almost hear Dad nod. “I can’t risk them doing the same with Alice.”

“Then let me take over. Will you tolerate my wing over her?”

Long pause. Apologetic, maybe fearful answer. “I won’t, lad. Your wings are black and thorny. One can’t protect from fire with fire or from hell with demons.”

Damian lingered in silence for moments, but his anger filled the room, heavy as his presence. I could feel it as I did my own strange anxiety lacking the frantic heartbeat.

“You leave me no choice, Tiberius.” – urging. Low.

“Respect and loyalty, Damian, if I may remind you,” my dad retorted, determined yet pleading. “Just don’t do anything behind my back.”

“No. Not behind your back.” With that, Damian closed the door behind him.

A chair raked the floor as Dad pulled it close to the bed and sat down. He stroked my forehead with long, lab-man fingers for a long while, a while that I used to calm my rage at destiny, to quench the curses that burned the tip of my tongue, and to ensure I’d look innocent and unknowing when I’d open my eyes. Yet the first hoarse words that I managed when Dad’s tired face appeared through the blurry shield my eyelashes made were, “What did BioDhrome do to Damian Novac?”

***

Unbelievable how Dad could still shove my questions under a carpet after all these years. He wanted to forget I wasn’t a child or a pet, and tried to shift focus by answering my questions with his own.

He recovered from surprise and stroked my hair. “Are you feeling dizzy?”

“How do you know him?”

“Does your head feel heavy? The whole body? Lift your right hand,” – as if he didn’t hear me this time either.

“What did they do to him, Dad?”

“Is breathing difficult? How about talking?”

“Damn it, Dad!” – no difficulties there – “What’s the story?”

The door creaked ajar and Dad’s face sprang over mine. He whispered sternly in my ear, “Breathing is difficult, Alice. Everything hurts, no matter what.” Then he straightened up to face the visitor.

A mind-blowing surprise to see the person interested in my wellbeing this time was Hector, the bearded singer with aquiline features. Only when two men in POLICE jackets followed, did I realize he wasn’t there as brother-in-pain. His frown and suspicion-filled eyes measuring Dad from head to toe already spoke of a strict inspector or something, but as he flashed his badge my mouth still popped open.

“Your wife kindly announced us that Miss Preda is awake,” he croaked, low and controlled, as if he hadn’t been there with us, as if he’d only just read the case facts in a file that got slapped on his desk. What movie is this?

“She’s still weak, she won’t be able to deliver much.”

“I’d be much obliged if she tried,” Hector adjusted his attitude to match Dad’s aristocratic demeanor, clearly mocking.

“Later, Agent Varlam, I must insist.”

“Time is precious, Dr. Preda, given the circumstances. Surely you understand.”

More of this back and forth “I insist,” and “So do I,” until Dad was left with no choice, the two officers framing him on each side. With silent threat on their furrowed brows they grabbed Dad by his arms. Offended, he jerked from their grasp and whisked his suit, giving me a reassuring, “I’ll be back with you as soon as the hawk’s out. Don’t let him pressure you.”

With that the officers ushered him out, and Hector took the chair by my side, examining me with a stiff attitude. His lips were split, a large cut with stitches presided on his forehead, not to mention that one eye was already turning from blue to black, so it couldn’t be just in my head – he’d been there with us, he’d taken a gulp of dread and violence as large as I had.

“What is this?” I managed, unable to hide astonishment.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Agent Hector Varlam, at your service.”

“Jesus, Hector!” Memories of lilt guitar tunes spun in my head. “You were there with us. You lived it all first hand, what? Why? Why are you here?”

“Now, now, take it easy, babe. I don’t need you to recount what I already know, of course. I only need to find out what happened after you played decoy and got almost everybody out of the cottage.”

“How do you know I played decoy?” I didn’t wait for the answer though, other questions pressing against this one like a crowd against a door. “And what d’you mean almost everybody?”

“There have been fatalities, I’m afraid. Marius Iordache and six others didn’t make it. I hate being the one to deliver the news.”

“Jesus Christ!” One particular memory lit up – the Wretch, coughing out blood and grunting.

“Alice, please,” Hector lowered his voice and face. “This isn’t easy on my side of the barricade either. But we have to keep a cool head and recount the facts while the whole thing is still warm. If too much time passes, the brain begins to edit broken pieces of memory.”

“How long have you been on this case, Hector? How long have you been chasing BioDhrome?” I didn’t even think of going about the bush. If he’d been undercover it was because he already knew, no doubt. He didn’t try to hide it either.

“Quite a while. For six years, to be exact.”

“So you didn’t get them in six fucking years, and now you want me to believe my account of a fight in frosty woods will make the difference?”

“A fight? Is that what happened?” He looked at me with raised eyebrows but no genuine surprise.

“I have a feeling you know more than you let on.” Like he did that I played decoy.

“The rescue team did find the body of a villager close to where they found you. But the man was all meat stripes, and I seriously doubt you were the author.”

“I wasn’t. It was wolves.” But I had a feeling he knew that, too.

“Humor me. Tell me what happened.”

I did. Short sentences, only facts – struggling to push the gate shut in the bustling face of all emotion. Hector listened, eyes down at his hands taking notes on a small notebook.

“You were the only one attacked, you know,” he murmured, without lifting his head. “The rest of us ran and ran, faster and faster, whipped by such rage and bloodlust that we saw red. For me the rush started to fade as I strayed through the woods and, by the time I reached the village in the valley, I was dead tired, my lips and fingers frostbitten. I didn’t find a soul in the village, Alice, it seemed completely abandoned. I was the first to find refuge in the church. Soon the others joined, your friends Ruxandra Ignat and George Voinescu included. All usable paths turned out to lead to that village and its church like a fuckin’ maze. That church was the only friendly-looking place, all houses and other buildings looked like coffins.

“Interestingly enough, the only one who managed to escape that maze was Damian Novac. He came in last, hours later, not alone. He’d found the military base deep in the woods, some miles from the village, and brought help. How he made it there remains a mystery. Like so many things about him.” At this point, his eyes shot at me. “He was here with your father, wasn’t he?”

“So is this it? Is this why you’re really here and pretending to be bonding with me? To find out what they talked about, compare my version to the one they’ll later give you?” I grinned at him, unable to hide the contempt in my voice. He’d been shadowing Damian for years, and yet here he was, squeezing information from a traumatized civilian.

“Damian Novac is dangerous, Alice, you must understand. I have reason to believe he’s a BioDhrome agent. I don’t have proof, since the guy is damned shrewd, given, but I’ve been around him for six years. Six. That’s enough time to feel things, if not know them.

“I’d studied Novac before this mission, monitored his every move, adjusted my personality to get under his skin. We became friends, or so I thought. But his past, he always guarded it. Still, one thing slipped, by chance actually – his friendship with your father. I discovered it when I saw him emerge from Dr. Preda’s private booth at the Marquette . . .” he went on carefully here, “The booth where Svetlana danced for him, you understand? For your father. I’m sorry, Alice. I really didn’t want to tell you this, but I need your trust.”

Rage clouded my head. “What are you fuckin’ saying?”

“I’m saying that your father rented a booth at the club and paid for anonymity. I’m saying he’s having an affair with Svetlana Slavic, and Damian Novac is the only person he trusted with this secret.”

***

njoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

I love reading from yu, so don’t be shy and share your thoughts and feelings in a comment.

 

Pic source.

 

The Painter-Witch – Ep.41 of “The Marquis”

 

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.”

“You’re insane.”

“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.”

 

***

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The Executioner – Ep. XI – Upgraded

Whispering somewhere close. I might’ve been dead, but not alone. I didn’t see, but I could hear – not an ideal situation, but still something. And I felt warm and so very comfortable, all that whispering, as if somebody were careful not to disturb.

Then I must’ve fallen asleep and dreamt, even in death, and it felt anything but nice. I was small, so small, a bee in a jar. And I tried to get out, but the glass was slippery, with nothing I could grab. Every time I tried to reach up, my palms would leave traces of blood down the jar. Instead of fingernails, I had pus and blood. I screamed a sharp scream like a train whistle, then pushed hard on my hands. And then my eyes were open, though heavy, so very heavy.

I sat up, sweat trickling down my forehead and neck. The room seemed warped, like in a dream, my skull burdensome as if it contained rocks. I dropped back on pillows that smelled of disease, and something stung my arms. My body grew heavier and heavier, sinking in the mattress like a pile of steel. I realized I wouldn’t be able to lift myself again, it had been only a rush that my body wouldn’t sustain again anytime soon.

A sweet, pained voice rang close to my ear. “Alice, baby, you’re awake. Thank God, you’re awake.”

English. That moment I knew Mom leaned over me, her lips pressing on my temple and forehead. I tried to open my eyes again, but I didn’t find the strength, my lids swollen.

She held my hand, I now felt it, aware again of the life that flowed feebly through me. A slow pulse in my chest, like a lazy clock. Tick – pause – tock. Tick-pause – tock.

Among sobs, Mom began telling me the story of the Sleeping Beauty. It had been one of my favorites as a kid, and her voice brought back the oldest and sweetest memories of pink pajamas and Judy the Monkey. Memories as distant as how and why I’d ended up feeling as beaten and finished as I did. My mind filled with only the image of a prince with beautiful, sculpted face and long raven hair, the girl slumbering in a high, ivory tower, and the taste of cotton candy mingling with that of blood.

The story came to a forced end when two men walked in – I could tell they were men by the deep voices that didn’t manage to keep their heated conversation to the mere level of whispers.

“I won’t leave her under your wing alone.” The direct, determined tone immediately triggered the man’s identity in my head – Dad. The feeling of warmth and peace now became whole – they were here, both Mom and Dad. I was safe.

“You’re being unreasonable, Tiberius,” the other man warned in a commanding voice. Probably as commanding as his person, since he called my dad by his first name – very few called the great Dr., PhD., a-pile-of-titles-in-biochemistry-I-can’t-even-read Tiberius Preda by his first name.

Suddenly, images of a rusty chain and strings of fur crossed my mind’s eye like sharp lashes. Then the fall, the knock in my head. I reached the conclusion rapidly – I was at a hospital and the man must’ve been a doctor.

“I can take care of her at home,” Dad said.

“That’s not a good idea,” the doctor stressed.

Among wretched sobs Mom whispered, “She’s woken up, Tiberius. She was up on her hands, she opened her eyes.”

The shuffle of fabric told me Dad hurried to my side. Hands checked the catheter in my arm. Hospital, doctor, IV lines . . . reality caught outline. How on earth could I have survived? The leaden sensation all through my body prevented me from moving or making a sound, and a ton of sedatives and painkillers must’ve been keeping me numb to pain, but my brain activity took off like a rocket.

“She’s regaining her strength fast,” Dad said, and bent close to my ear. “Alice, do you hear me? Are you awake, sweetheart?”

Regaining my physical strength felt far from the truth, since I didn’t find enough to moan, let alone answer.

“She fell asleep again,” Mom lamented, as if I were more dead than alive. “She fell asleep, my poor girl.” My temple tickled when she caressed my hair.

“You should get some fresh air, Jen. You look and sound tragic, and that’s the last thing she needs.”

Mom took offense, it was obvious in her higher-than-usual pitch. “I’m not going anywhere. This is my baby, barely out of a cold ditch.”

“Go, Jenna.”

“Not in that tone Tiberius, I’m not one of your sluts.”

“You’re catching fire, and that’ll afflict her. You need some fresh air. I promise, I won’t stand in your way when you come back, but go come to grips first.” Dad sounded severe – that kind of severe that used to sew my lips together years ago. Now it shut Mom up and strengthened my decision of playing asleep. I sensed her linger in the doorstep, as I did her crying eyes on my face before her steps faded down an echoing hallway.

I still couldn’t understand why she put up with his brashness. Once she’d said it was for my sake, but that hadn’t kept him under the same roof with us anyway. His work took a heavy toll on our family.

“I’ll leave you with her,” the doctor said calmly.

“No, don’t. Close the door, we need to finish our talk.”

“Not here. Not now.”

“I won’t abandon her with you, lad, and I don’t want you doing anything behind my back to force my hand.”

He can force Tiberius Preda’s hand?

“I won’t take action without your knowledge”, the doctor said, “But I won’t back off.”

“I won’t have her in your custody. That’s my final word.”

“Let’s talk about it later, some other place.”

Dad seemed not to hear him. “There’s something else that can’t wait, though. Have you seen her blood count? It’s so good it’s frightening. After hours in the cold and everything she’s been through, not even a bladder infection. She fell down a precipice and not a broken bone. This is not normal. Besides, she’s always been a fragile kid.”

There was a trace of discontent in Dad’s voice that baffled me to the marrow. If I was doing so good, what was there to be urgent about? And why was I hooked to IV and felt like shit? And why ask my own doctor if he’d seen my blood count?

Thank God my face was too stiff to express anything. The slightest sign that I could hear them and false smiles would greet me, then the discussion would be taken somewhere else, leaving me with no clue as to my own situation and the reason for Dad’s distress.

The doctor wasn’t as surprised, though. “She won’t remain this strong. But either way, she remains in danger.”

“What if she doesn’t come back to normal? Ruxandra Ignat, her blood count looks just as staggering, there’s still no change …”

Ruxandra. In flashes, I began remembering the last moments at the cottage.

“BioDhrome’s our priority now, Tiberius. They won’t stop here.”

He knew about BioDhrome? And Dad did, too?

I strained to pinpoint the doctor’s voice. I knew him, I surely did. That voice, deep, composed and pleasant to my ears like thick, flowing honey. I didn’t have to search long until recognition hit – my unattainable barbarian, Damian. He was alive, thank God he was alive, thank God for learning it before I was aware enough to go nuts with the uncertainty! But how on Earth did he know Dad?

I attempted to open my eyes again, but the effort equaled lifting bricks, giving me the necessary seconds to reconsider. The conversation would come to an end at the first sign I was awake. I stayed still as a corpse, but inside excitement, joy and curiosity strained to pump my pulse. For whatever reason, they failed, my body wouldn’t respond. What the heck am I on?

“No, BioDhrome won’t stop here. Especially if these kids’ blood counts don’t come back to normal,” Dad said.

“They will. The gas effects always fade. It causes the body to regulate its chemistry so that it can become a fighting machine, the best version of itself, this is no secret to you. But the effects are always temporary. Alice will be the fragile kid you know again. But that still won’t stop BioDhrome.” There was scorn in Damian’s tone, as if he suspected Dad of wishing weakness on me. It didn’t throw Dad off his distressed track, though.

“The effects of the gas might wear off after a while, but the experience will never go away. And the experience is powerful, and, combined with the gas, it can make the effects permanent. I don’t want her . . . Forgive me, but I don’t want her ending up like you either. An Upgrade is as doomed as a target.”

A what?

“They did much more with me than they did with Alice, Tiberius, you know this. She’s far from an Upgrade, and her values will normalize. You’ve seen George Voinescu’s results, his liver’s already a wreck again.”

George made it too . . .

“What you had was inclination, Damian, talent, if you will. That played the most important part, along with your accumulated anger. Their procedure came second. Blood and spirit are connected, make no mistake about that, and don’t listen to small minds with a degree in science. Alice might not be talented, she may be soft and frail, but she is . . . in a difficult place. She is angry enough to facilitate irreversible effects from this experience and the gas.”

“For that you have only yourself to blame,” Damian said, calm but cold like a judge in court. “She gave up your inheritance, she ran away from everything you represented, she went desperate enough to want and marry a loser so she could be rid of your name. Of your shadow. And things got worse and worse.”

Pause. Both in Dad’s breathing and mine.

“Put like this it strikes you, doesn’t it, Tiberius? With all due respect, you can only hurt your own daughter. And you surely won’t be able to protect her now, not with BioDhrome’s eye on her.”

“How deeply did you two bond, boy, that she told you all of this?” Dad hissed. He’d virtually bowed his head and gulped down all Damian’s scorn, however veiled in a detached tone, but it was easy to imagine him pointing a rifle at my handsome barbarian now.

“She talked. I listened.”

“Did all that listening get her in bed with you?”

Oh, no, no, no, Dad, please don’t!

“Have I not proven my loyalty and respect?” Damian’s voice went a frequency lower, sounding like insulted bass. This time emotion was clear, making my stomach flutter with both butterflies and embarrassment. “I only got close to her when the situation turned ugly. I owe you much, Tiberius, and this is my opportunity to repay you. I can and will protect Alice until we track down BioDhrome’s head and chop it off.”

Long pause.

“So can I rest assured that you haven’t taken a special liking to my daughter, Damian? That you weren’t on this trip because of her?”

Another pause, this time in Damian’s response and in my breathing again. He hesitated. Good God, he hesitated . . . Was it a good sign? Was he reluctant to admit that he liked me? Or was he unsure of how to tell Dad his baby wasn’t worthy of attention?

“Why don’t you prove your respect once more, and keep as honest as I know you,” Dad demanded. Expectation virtually built up, but my pulse stayed steady. The strangest sensation.

Damian’s reply lagged for seconds, but when it came, it came through velvety and clear.

***

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

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Secret Weapon – Ep. 40 of “The Marquis”

The Manor’s main hall is intimidating. It was intimidating when I first saw it on the Night of Venice, but now it’s nothing short of crushing with the Marquis’ deadly soldiers-in-black replacing the partying crowd’s laughter. They’re lining a long, impressive table, heavy chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling, the immense space crawling with whispers.

The Marquis and I sit at the head of the table, and I feel mighty awkward with everybody staring at me like I’m the Queen. The diamond ring on my finger draws serious attention. Kieran’s men look at it and at each other, all of them baffled but for a few exceptions – Zed, whose stony features and ice-blue eyes are fully restored, and Joyous the big-boned, eerie-eyed Healer; the Marquis’ most trusted men, who’ve been with us every step of the way.

There are more soldiers present – serpent men loyal to the Marquis – than I imagined. Probably over three dozen of them. Maybe not enough to stand against the Black Monks, Inspector Jeremy Simmons’ vassal Special Forces and the Elite’s mercenaries, but surely enough to make a point about how much they respect Kieran Slate, a.k.a. the Marquis de Vandenesse.

“You’ve always been our leader, whether official or not,” one of them says after Kieran talks about our plan. “We’ve always followed you, but this is pure suicide. We can’t simply attack the Black Monks, they’ll freaking roast us before we get to say ‘charge’.”

“Hear him out, Lugo,” Zed cuts in. He still sounds weak, but then again, only a few hours ago his flesh was practically turning into ashes on his skeleton, so no wonder the healing exhausted him.

“Saphira here,” Kieran continues, “my future wife, has a special talent. She’s a painter whose work amazed and intrigued, but recently we discovered her talent has more powerful underlays.”

He chooses his words well as he tells about my ability of making what his men called “voodoo pictures” that can take over all harm done to a person, leaving the person unscathed. At the right moment Zed stands and bares a part of his tattooed back where the last remains of the bubonic plague are visibly healing.

“I owe this to Saphira Lothar,” he declares, giving me a deeply grateful look, and going on to explain what happened. The man who first spoke – Lugo – stares at me like I’m turning into a mermaid with every word that leaves Zed’s mouth.

“This is a miracle,” he says. The crowd turns restless, but Kieran’s voice rises over them. Everybody falls silent, eyes stuck to him, drinking in his words.

“Saphira is the ace in our sleeve. She agreed to make pictures of all of us – it can be only sketches, she’ll add the ‘flesh’ to them as we go along – and she’ll keep restoring them while the curses hit us. Nevertheless, there’s a catch. We’re outnumbered, so Saphira might have a very hard time keeping up with the Black Monks’ ‘blows.’ It would drain her of her vital energy. So we need to go about this in an energy-saving way.”

Lugo frowns. “What do you mean, in an ‘energy-saving’ way?”

“We need guerrilla tactics. We first dispatch scouts to find out who are the Monks’ most important people, their leaders, their secret weapons, and we go for those. We try to keep in the shadow, unnoticed, for as long as possible in order to avoid as many blows as we can. And, of course, one of us has to go for the head of the octopus – Ivan Basarab, the Slayer. I will gladly take on the task.”

Lugo jolts forward and bumps into the table, that’s how much the statement charges him. “You know who he is, Marquis? You finally discovered that bastard’s true identity?”

Understandably, Kieran hesitates. There’s no easy way to put this, since Ivan Basarab is literally no easy man to pin down thanks to his very special power.

Kieran licks those sensual lips that look like sin, preparing to speak, but the doors open and Jeanie Simmons enters the hall, followed by a squad of serpent-men. It looks like she had just been saved from her brother’s hands and returned to her beloved Joyous’ arms that open broadly to receive her. Her sweet dark curls bounce up and down as she runs to the Healer, her otherwise milky face on fire, and her eyes still wide with fear.

“The people in town,” she calls out once in the safety of Joyous’ embrace, “they gathered with torches and weapons to march here and set fire to this manor, Marquis. They want to kill you, they’re convinced you’re the source of all evil that’s befallen Northville.”

Kieran’s face turns to ice, and my heart beats like crazy – he might be ready to fight all the foes out there, but there’s no way he’d fight the town people. They’re innocent, victims of the elite string-pullers, and he’d rather die than take on them – I read every one of his thoughts and feelings on his beautiful marble face. This could be a dead-end.

I cup Kieran’s jaw with my hands, and guide him to look at me. “There will never be a better time than this to use your powers for the good, Kieran.”

His black eyes search mine puzzled. I take a deep breath and, though feeling guilty for my thoughts, I share them. “Influence their feelings, Kieran. Make them fight your enemies instead of you.”

“What? Are you –“

“Yes, I am.”

“But Saphira, if I do that and don’t get to Basarab fast enough, they will die–“

“And what will happen to them if you die? Basarab’s Monks will finish them for sure, there’s no way they’ll leave any witnesses who could tell the tale of Northville. They won’t allow the slightest bit of truth to ever come to light, because it would turn the world upside down – engineered serpent men, painters who can make ‘voodoo pictures’ of people, healers? What will the world do when it finds out that lines such as ‘everybody dies,’ and ‘we’re all only human’ are bloody mockery? Yes, Kieran, normally influencing people is wrong, is bad, it’s a big No, but in this case, it’s plainly the best thing to do.”

 

***

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The Executioner – Ep. X – When Men become Beasts

In a fraction of a second my brain spat out thoughts that fell into place like dollar signs on slot machines. Out, we had to get out, but my mouth didn’t bother to open. Not a soul would listen to me, a flimsy creature with a little voice, it didn’t take a genius to know that. I didn’t even present enough interest for anybody to attack me.

Damian was my best hope of making myself heard, but he wasn’t easily reachable. He’d placed himself between two of his friends, whose fists already balled by their thighs, ready to jump at each other’s throats. He’d taken the posture of a bouncer, his gaze sharp as he tried to talk sense into them. The men turned red with violent impulse against him. Months or even years as adulating Betas and Omegas had accumulated bitter envy that now fought its way out. Still, even under the influence of whatever substance floated unperceivable in the air and put them into fight mode, they didn’t dare move against him. They knew better.

Before I could reach them a mass of hysteria poured my way. The noise turned deafening. I lost Damian from sight and hurried to move out of the congestion before people’s eyes fell on me along with their wrath. My heart pounded with fear, my eyes wide and my mind alert. There wasn’t a friendly face left, every single person everywhere I looked had turned into an animal. By this time maybe even Damian and Hector.

As I found refuge by the wall, I realized my hand was cramped, clutching hard to a thick handle – the screwdriver. Air, I had to let air in, aware that soon the screaming and kicking all around would either freeze me in panic, and some unseen blow would knock me out, or that I’d end up hurting someone with the screwdriver myself, maybe even causing irreparable damage in a desperate attempt to stay in one piece.

I reached the window, the one closest to the stove, gripping to the handles and trying to jerk the frame open when my eyes struck against the black pane. I let out a startled cry.

There they were again, those eyes, now clear and perfectly defined. Like the glare of an animal caught by camera flash, they glowed bright, only that the color was clear as light – Blue. The pane broke instantly with a splintering sound, followed by a sharp pain in my knuckles. Without realizing, I’d punched the window. Then the fog of shock dissipated, stripping the truth.

Mine. Those were my own eyes. I squeezed my hand above the cuts to numb not only the pain, but also the dizzying swirl of automatic connections in my head. Luminous eyes – was it an effect of the gas?

The next thing I knew, a furious groan cracked in my ears. In the blink of an eye George gripped the pointy shard that hung from the frame like a lonely fang, and stabbed his opponent in the throat with it. I screamed as thick, dark red blood poured from under the hand the Wretch took to his wound, between his fingers and down his wrist. He opened his mouth in distorted awareness that life drained out of him, the nerves in his eyeballs exploding like red lightning while he rattled. Dying.

Maybe there was still time. I flung the coat off me and jolted to him, intent to press it on his wound and stop the bleeding, but bumped into George’s arm that punched into my stomach like a barrier of bone. Struggling for breath, I managed to pull myself up. It was too late. The Wretch crouched on the floor like a squirming pretzel, coughing out blood. The sound drilled through my brain.

Time lost meaning. I stood there, watching transfixed how this young man died. I didn’t want to see, nor could I look away. Every second of his suffering imprinted in my adrenaline-fueled heart as everywhere around fists punched, windows broke, men and women growled like beasts.

Windows break. My fault. This boy’s death was on my hands. Trying to stop the mayhem, I’d only fulfilled the prophecy. This time too, some peasant would find the place torn apart, windows broken, blood smeared on walls and rags that parents would clutch to their chests as they’d fall to their knees and cry out to heaven in despair.

Exposure. Exposure was the only chance to get the angry beasts everybody had become out into the open, out into the cold winter air that would slap their wits back into their heads. It was a long shot. But it was the only shot. Enough planning.

I turned on my heels and sprinted to the main door, grabbing coats, jackets and arms in my way, pulling hair, bumping into brawling bodies, as many of them as I could in order to draw attention. I don’t know by what miracle fists hit only the air behind me, by what newly surfaced instinct I ducked down before anybody could grab me. Maybe fear had really kicked my adrenaline level so high that my feet moved like propellers and my reflexes sharpened of their own accord.

I threw the main door open and cast myself into the raging blizzard that felt like needles against my skin. Sight instantly blurred, visibility reduced to inches, but my legs kept running as if a whole murderous army chased me.

I hoped it did. I hoped they’d gotten out of that slaughterhouse disguised as a lonely cottage, a wooden ghost in the Carpathians. I hoped I’d angered them enough to have them rush after me, screeching their teeth, thirsty to see blood drain from my body like it had from the poor Wretch. Thirsty to see me squirm in dying pain. But I also hoped that, by the time they caught me, they’d be themselves again. This wasn’t supposed to be a suicide mission, but a wake-up action.

The snow was quicksand to my legs, sucking me down, but despair fueled my otherwise lazy muscles and propelled me forward. Every glance I threw behind revealed nothing, the storm a wall both in front as well as behind me. It roared loud, swallowing all other sound. There might have been wolves just meters away, I wouldn’t have known, I wouldn’t have heard them howl or growl.

Suddenly, something thick, heavy and metallic closed around my ankle like an iron fist and jerked my leg from my hip, causing such pain that my heart stuttered out of rhythm. I fell flat on my face. Before I could spit out the snow in my mouth, a force yanked me in a pull. I snaked backwards, dead trees, roots and stones rushing by, while I desperately tried to hook my fingers in the ground.

Snow was scraping glass to my palms, and I knew exactly when a couple of fingernails sprang off. The pain was there, but just so severely unimportant that it didn’t stop me from grabbing on to every dead branch, from hooking my fingers into the frozen ground again and again. Still, I let go fast of anything stable, or the pull would’ve ripped the leg from the rest of my body. The ride was dizzying and my screaming automatic. I didn’t hope for help, nor was I scared, I just did things out of instinct. My reason shut down, and autopilot kicked in.

Only when I came to a brusque stop I began to realize the burn all over my skin. Not the face, since I’d kept it up to detect any means of saving myself, but the arms and belly. I waited a few moments for the pull to start again and, when it didn’t, I rolled on my back. My flesh was stiff. I couldn’t flex my muscles to get up, I only managed to lift my head. Torn clothes, the skin on my stomach and breasts looking like beaten meat. I cried before I touched myself, expecting pain. But there was nothing, nothing except the burn, as if everything under skin level was completely numb.

Whimpering, I put snow on the reddest places with a stiff hand, but even that small amount of wit fled off when a pair of legs in earth-gray pants and rubber boots emerged from the white storm. The face cleared from the curtain of snow only when it was really close above mine. A face withered by many winters, with ashen stubble and a rotten grin. A face that might once have been peasant’s, but belonged now to a blood-thirsty animal. Not for a second did I have hope. I knew he was there to hurt me, I saw it in his eyes.

He said something, but I didn’t hear it. The storm’s roar covered the sound. He pressed his fingers on my stomach, grinning with expectation, hungry for the pain. But, when nothing came, he tightened his lips in anger and threw himself over me. With sadistic appetite, he crushed his fist into my face.

The blow felt like lightning in the most literal sense. Then it all went black for moments, until the next one came. Then the next one, until I tasted blood in my mouth. He wasn’t going to stop. He’d beat me to death, leaving my corpse disfigured.

In a surge of despair sight resurfaced, bringing the madman’s face in sharp focus. That ugly face with a bad, stinking grin. The face of an evil maggot who didn’t deserve to live. Who thrust himself at a helpless woman, taking her for an easy prey, for a chunk of meat on which to unleash his killer instincts.

Anger fueled my blood, pumping like frantic petrol in my veins, making me feel as strong as a machine gun. I let out a cry of rage and sank my fingers in his eye sockets, pushing my thumbs hard in the jelly of his eyeballs and wishing for the rusty screwdriver I’d dropped at the cottage. He grabbed my wrists and tried to pull away, but I didn’t let him. I wound my legs around his waist, sticking to him as a leech.

“Oh, no, we’re going all the way, asshole!” I could only hope he heard me. I wanted him to feel the fear. To be in the victim’s shoes. To become the victim to the very marrow of his bones. I could not let him live. I would not let him live.

“I’ll fucking suck the life out of you!” I screamed.

He fell to the ground with me, wriggling like a stabbed snake, but went smart enough to move his hands from my wrists and grab my shoulders. He rolled over me. Applying more strength, I felt the fingernails I had left pierce his eyeballs, but just a moment later something made of fur knocked him hard from my hands. He flew to the side, followed by more stripes of fur that leaped after him. I got up on my buttocks and squinted through the blizzard. Though I didn’t see anything, I did hear his cries and faint animal growling. Wolves, those strings of fur were wolves.

For some reason fangs felt more threatening than the rusty chain that still coiled around my ankle, more threatening than the man’s sadistic glare, than his blows. I got up to my feet, slowly walking backwards, my eyes darting left and right, careful for the rest of my body not to make a sudden move. They could still have been very close. I bled, which placed me far down the food chain and would make them put up a fight for my flesh.

I dragged my leg with the heavy chain until one wrong step sent me stumbling backwards. My body smashed against rocks. I fell for long moments down some endless slope, blow after blow hard in my ribs and crack after crack loud in my ears. I didn’t even get to feel any pain. It all stopped with a knock in the back of my head, and light began to close in on a small moon. That face again. Those eyes. The brightness fizzed in them like flickering neon and I was sure this was it. My muscles relaxed and my lungs gave out one last, resigned breath.

***

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

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The Picture of Kieran Slate – Ep. 38 of “The Marquis”

“All weakness of the flesh passes on to the voodoo picture,” the young butler mutters to himself, staring in awe at the portrait of Zed that blackens and crumples with the pestilence that until now had been eating at his body.

The meaning of all this sends my neurons spinning, making me barge out of the room and run down the grand stairs towards Kieran’s study, my bare feet slapping the granite floor. The double doors open as I haste toward them, and Kieran appears, my heart surging at the sight of him.

Those pitch black eyes that I love beyond all reason and common sense meet mine. I lose the last bit of control over myself and jump in his arms, practically assailing him. He says my name with the reverence of a priest invoking an angel as he lifts me, and claims my lips like a starved animal.

I savor the feel of his hot, silky kiss with every fiber of my body, and I hold him so tight that my muscles hurt.

“I’ll never let you go again, never,” he says in his intoxicating, low voice. We kiss desperately again and again, only pausing to drink in the sight of each other’s faces, touching each other as if we both want to make sure this is real.

Remembering I must look much like the loser of a boxing match, I search for my own reflection in the black luster of his irises – I’m indeed disheveled and I seem a ghost, but I can’t see the bruises. I speak my mind before I think it.

“Medicine man’s talents extend to face-lifts?”

Kieran doesn’t find it amusing, and pain distorts his youthful features.

“I’d be just as crazy about you if you were a goblin,” he says. “But Jeremy Simmons and Lauren Morris will pay with their lives for what they did to you.”

“Please, Kieran, whatever happens, don’t hurt Lauren.”

A frown curls his otherwise marble-smooth brow. “Why do you defend her?”

“Long story. But fact is, she was punishing me because my father abused her when she was a child.”

“That’s no excuse for trying to beat you to death.”

“Oh, is it not?” I snap. “Didn’t you start off with the same intention? Didn’t you want to make a sacrificial lamb of me too for my father’s wrongdoings?”

His eyes become slits, his pain all too obvious as he beats his own chest with his fist.

“I wish you were inside this for one minute to feel how remorse tortures me. It sears to look at you, and yet I can’t look away. From the moment I laid eyes on you, you were like a drug, and the more I saw you, the more I wanted you until I desired you so much that it hurt, Saphira. I fell in love with you, and the deeper I fell, the more I despaired. Every time I did something to hurt you was like driving a dagger in my own flesh.” He drops his voice, a dangerous glint crossing his eyes. “I love you so much that I’d let myself be killed for you.”

He kisses me once more like a madman, taking my breath away in the most literal sense. I push him gently so I can inhale and stop my head from spinning in the wake of his love declaration that got me melting in all the right ways and places, and I catch a glimpse of the gathering behind him. I lean to the side to see clearer past Kieran, and my mouth opens as I make sense of it.

Kieran peels himself from my field of vision to clear the sight of his desk, which now serves as a stretcher for Zed. Surrounded by his peers, the Head of Security lies still as a corpse. Except that he’s very much alive, not to mention plague-free. His stony features are once again recognizable, his dark-blond hair clean, and the black skeletal fingers that Kieran had almost surgically extracted from Vivien’s flesh have skin on them again. His peers had cut the black suit off him, exposing the nakedness of his sturdy body that’s covered with tattoos, contributing even more to the intimidating look of him.

“It’s a miracle. You are a miracle,” Kieran says, turning me around and looking at me like I’m the Holy Grail.

“You know what happened with the picture I made of Zed?”

“The butler boy searched the place like crazy while we were trying to save Zed, and explained he was looking for things you could use to paint. I suspected what the whole thing was about, and as the bubonic blackness started retreating from Zed’s skin it all became crystal clear to me.”

He cups my face with his hands. “I knew there was something very special about these golden eyes of yours, I knew it all along. You see people in a way the fewest can. In the portrait you made of me you focused all humanity and vulnerability that I’d thought forever lost. It was the first thing that scared me in a very, very long time Saphira. And now it turns out you can do so much more.”

“But how . . . How is that even possible? The whole voodoo thing, I mean.”

“It’s your born potential activated by close contact with – well, with me. When I first influenced your mind with my own powers, your potential unlocked. You became subconsciously aware that the impossible is possible. Your subconscious mind pulled out that unique something that you were born with, since we are all born with one special particularity that only we can excel at, and sharpened it into a weapon. Back when you painted me you could have used that picture to hurt me; your probably did, in a way, by baring my soul in it and therefore making me love you. All people have unique talents that they can develop to more-than-human extents, but most cannot unlock their true potential naturally, like you did. Most people need psychological guidance and maybe –” he gestures at himself and his men, “ – tampering a bit with genetics. That’s why I say you’re a miracle.”

This blows my mind, and I fear I might faint. I grip tighter to Kieran’s supporting arms.

“Is it . . . magic?” I breathe.

Kieran smiles. “Let’s say it’s a kind of magic that can be explained.”

“Will this magic be enough to defeat Ivan Basarab’s Black Monks?”

A shadow falls over Kieran’s face as he understands what I’m getting at. “It could be, but it would take an enormous toll on you. Every portrait you paint using your newly discovered power draws vital energy from you, and during battle you would have to repair portraits again and again before they are consumed with plague or wounds. You can’t possibly do that for all of us, we’re two dozen people.”

“And Basarab’s Black Monks are at least a hundred. You’re greatly outnumbered, Kieran.”

“Then give me Basarab’s true name, and I will take him on, one on one.”

Joyous enters the room and intervenes. “It’s too late, Kieran. Black Monks surrounded the manor, and the catacombs are blocked halfway to the asylum. If you get out there, they’ll cast their curses on you a hundred at a time. You may be the most powerful serpent ever engineered, but with that kind of viciousness you’d be dead within the first couple of yards.”

“Plus,” I put in with a shudder, “Basarab’s identity provides more reason for worry than for hope.”

Kieran squares his shoulders and takes the powerful attitude of the leader everyone knows and needs right now. “Give me his name, and I’ll find a way to reach and eliminate him – It’s as simple as that.”

“No, it’s not.” I look around at the men’s confused faces. “Basarab has a special power of his own, and I’m afraid it’s a nasty one.”

***

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