As promised, I’m celebrating my birthday by sharing two more chapters of Throne of Blood before the book’s release on July 21st 😊
In case you’ve missed Chapter One, it’s better to start here.
The wooden boat tore through the black waters, and the cave’s hungry mouth swallowed them whole. Icicles of stone fell over flooded underground halls and emerged from the dark river, and William’s warriors rowed carefully to avoid them. William glanced at their guest—only vampire eyes could pierce the darkness, and she was missing all the fun.
He bent to pick up a torch from the boat’s deck and lit a spark. A gasp sounded behind him, and he turned to face the girl.
Her brown eyes were wide as saucers. Her hair fell in waves around her shoulders and past her waist, with a few strands hanging outside the boat, dipping into the dark waters. William raised an eyebrow. If she knew what lived in the Pivka River, she would have snatched her hair out of the water in a heartbeat.
William raised his torch, letting the light play on the curtain of pale stalactites hanging from the ceiling. “Do you like this?” He smiled at the human. “You should. Back in the Old World, these formations glowed in blue, green, and golden lights. Humans from around the world flocked to see the famous Postojnska Jama, to take a boat down the underground river, and to take pictures with the strange formations. Musicians held concerts in the great halls.”
William lowered his torch, and its light slipped over the black waters. The girl flinched away, her body hanging halfway outside the boat. His smile fell. “These times are gone. The human population is a small fraction of what it once was, and many spots that were once thriving are now deserted. Ours.”
His eyes followed the torchlight. There, underneath the dark waters, swam creatures from a different world. Long and snakelike, their skin a fleshy pink and so thin that one could see their hearts and guts. William’s hand shot into the water and pulled one out. “And do you like this?”
The girl screamed and jumped to her feet. The boat shook, and she screamed again. She looked as if she was about to jump into the river, but then she gazed down, and all blood drained from her face. All around their boat swam dozens of creatures like the one William held in his hand.
He chuckled. “Locals called it človeška ribica—a human fish. It looks like a grotesque embryo, don’t you think? Others believed these were dragon spawn.”
The boat turned behind a rock, and the lights from more torches welcomed them from far ahead. He fell quiet and regarded the girl through narrowed eyes. She was shaking and paler than death. It mattered not. She was their weapon now, and they did not need her to be brave.
The girl curled into herself. William dropped the wriggling creature back into the water and looked ahead, where the narrow passage opened into a great hall. On the riverbank rose a high stone throne, partly embedded in the stalagmites rising from the floor.
Scores of vampire warriors flanked the throne. He spotted Anne’s bright pink head and Indira’s vivid orange tunic. On top of the throne sat his Queen, her midnight-blue dress trailing over the floor and her dark red hair falling like a cape around her shoulders. Armida’s eyebrow rose. “This is our weapon?” Her clear voice carried easily over the water.
William glanced at the girl. Most likely the poor creature could neither hear the Queen nor see her face well, but Armida had already assessed her and dismissed her. “Are you judging the human based on appearances, Your Majesty?”
Armida stood and walked to the shore. “I’m judging her based on age. I was expecting the greatest physicist you could find to be… older. She’s still in her teens.”
The boat reached the shore, and vampires rushed to tie it to a stalagmite. William grabbed the girl’s arm and yanked her up, dragging her to solid ground. “First of all, she’s twenty. And second, you’re letting Old World notions cloud your mind. We are approaching the end of the twenty-sixth century and must adapt to the times.”
He swept the hall with his eyes, scanning all warriors’ faces and taking mental notes on who was listening attentively and who was ignoring him. “In the past, older people were better scientists because of their studies and experience. Nowadays, people in their sixties have spent their formative years in farms, never studying at the time when they had the greatest potential to learn.” He pushed the human forward. “This girl has spent fifteen years in captivity and five in freedom. And she has used these past five years to learn and grow.”
“I see.” Armida’s eyes glided from the top of the human’s head, down her tattered pants, to the soles of her boots. “So, in a nutshell, this twenty-year-old is the greatest physicist of our time, though her skills and knowledge are poorer than the expertise of twenty-year-olds of the Old World, who, in turn, were less knowledgeable than Old World humans in their forties and fifties.”
A snort escaped William’s throat. “That’s a good way to put it.”
Armida approached them until she stood in front of the girl. “And how did you decide she’s the best?”
“I sent letters to all good universities, pretending I was looking for their best student for a research program.”
She glanced at him. “No surprise that worked. Your forging skills are your one redeeming quality.”
“I have many qualities.” William nodded towards the human. “And I’ve found our weapon. Her name is Yasmina.”
“Yasmina.” Armida turned to the girl. “You are Persian?” she asked in Farsi.
The girl shrank within herself. “My grandparents were Persian. I am domesticated.”
Armida laughed and winked at William. “She has the right attitude.” She looked back at the girl. “Do you speak any other languages?”
Yasmina’s eyes widened, and she stepped back but stopped when William nudged her between her shoulder blades. “French.”
Armida’s eyes narrowed. “Fluently?”
Yasmina looked down. “My grandparents were visiting relatives in Strasbourg during the Nightfall. My parents and I grew up in a French farm.”
Armida clapped her hands. “Excellent!”
“Don’t encourage her,” William interrupted. “I think everyone should learn English.”
He had never thought green could look icy, but Armida’s eyes proved him wrong. “And I think you should fall on a stake and rid me of your blabbering, but I am polite enough to keep my thoughts to myself.”
William bowed his head. “Apologies, Your Majesty.”
The Queen turned back to the human. “We have plenty of documentation on the WeatherWizard in French. You will examine it. In the meantime, William and I will assemble a team of bright people who will help you. You will lead them.”
The girl clasped her hands in front of her stomach. “Lead them? To what?”
Armida’s lips stretched into a smile, but her green eyes remained cold. “I think you know the answer to that.”
William watched all blood drain from Yasmina’s face. “You mean to reconstruct the Wizard.”
Armida waved a hand at a nearby vampire. “Take her to the hall we prepared. Make sure she has food, water, soap, warm clothes, medicines, and whatever else humans need.”
Yasmina shook her head, but the vampire guard grabbed her and dragged her back to the boat. William’s eyes followed the vessel, and as soon as it disappeared behind a turn in the cave, he looked at his Queen.
“Your Majesty, I fear I also have some less pleasant news.”
Armida pressed her lips together. She nodded at Anne and Indira. “Come.”
The four of them walked through a low passage leading to a smaller hall. Once they were out of vampire earshot, she turned back and met William’s eyes. “You’re scaring me. What is it?”
“You need to be scared. Yong is dead.”
Her face turned grey, and she reached out, leaning on the rock. “How?”
William swallowed hard but forced himself to hold her gaze. “My agents found his body with fingers and a foot cut off, skin burned and flayed, nails removed, and—”
Armida raised her palm. “Enough.”
Indira grabbed her Queen’s arm. “Vladimir. He must have tortured Yong for information, and now he might know that Tristan is alive and where to find him.”
Armida took a deep breath. “So it’s only a matter of time before he learns what I did, if he hasn’t already. Damn Yong. He should have killed Tristan long ago.”
“What’s done is done,” Anne said. “We must look to the future. Once Vladimir learns what happened, he will come for you.”
“I know,” the Queen said. “We must leave immediately and find another cave.”
“That won’t be enough,” said William. “We must get to him first. We must kill him before he gets a chance to harm you.”
Armida wrapped her arms around herself. “Yes. I suppose we must.”
Indira wound her arm around Armida’s. “Come, my Queen. You need to rest. And then, we will prepare a plan. We have to strike first.”
Armida nodded mutely and allowed Indira to drag her away. William’s eyes followed them as they disappeared into an adjacent hall. Everything was going so well. Vladimir had done exactly what William had needed him to do.
When he looked back at Anne, he found her scowling. “How long should we put up with Armida?” she said. “We no longer need her. We haven’t needed her for a long time.”
William took Anne’s small pale hand in his and gave it a kiss, his eyes never leaving hers. “Patience, my love. Whether we like it or not, we still need Armida. She’s charismatic, and right now she is one of the few who could lead vampires to a second Nightfall. Once that happens, we will no longer need her, and you and I will rule together.”
Anne’s scowl deepened. “And Indira? Surely we no longer need her.”
“Oh, but we do. For now, we need her to whisper in Armida’s ear and keep her paranoid. We need to convince our Queen her priority should be to destroy Vladimir. As long as he lives, he is a threat to our rule.”
Anne pulled her hand from his grasp. “We have better ways to achieve this.”
William laughed. “Indeed. Indira’s time will come, and through her death, she will serve us better than she did in life.”
The corners of Anne’s lips twitched as if a smile was fighting its way out but she was suppressing it. “Would you care to share your plan?”
He shrugged. “Simple. We kill Indira and pin her murder on Vladimir. Then we convince Armida he’s coming for her next.”
The smile won the fight, and Anne’s lips curled. “That would be perfect. But how?”
“You forget,” William said, his eyes focusing on the passage where Armida and Indira had disappeared, “my one redeeming quality is forging handwriting.”
Vladimir removed frozen earth and dirt, grain by grain. His hands bled, the skin torn off, but his heart bled more. His painstaking excavation revealed the full picture one tiny fragment at a time, and every new bit plunged another knife into his chest.
Tristan looked dead.
His bare torso was paler than the surrounding snow, and dozens of bite wounds covered his chest, stomach, neck, and arms. Wounds inflicted years ago that had never begun to heal. His silver-golden hair was a tangled mess, chopped off unevenly at his shoulders.
A sense of wrongness enwrapped Tristan’s body like a shroud, and for a moment, Vladimir could not place it. Something was off, something terribly strange that made his insides fill with bile and terror. Slowly, it dawned on him—a complete lack of scent. Any vampire could smell the blood that gave life to another—the humans or animals one had drunk. But Tristan smelled of nothing at all. Like pure water. Or ice.
He looked dead, but he was not, or the body would have started decomposing. Or would it? What if he had died here, in this icy hell, frozen until the end of time? Vladimir closed his eyes, fighting the bile burning his stomach.
No. Tristan was not dead—he could not be. But he was drained to the last drop, to the last minuscule particle of blood. Neither living nor dead, trapped forever in an endless nightmare in the deepest pit of hell. Just like Yong had wanted it.
Vladimir’s gaze darkened. He had spent the last five years gathering knowledge and ingredients for a resurrection spell he no longer needed. Perhaps it was worth using it on Yong and killing him once again.
He shrugged off his coat, pulled a blanket out of his backpack, and wrapped them both around Tristan. Next, he undid the cuff of his sleeve and gazed at the dark vein underneath his skin. Tristan would need his sire’s blood, but it would be far from enough. And Vladimir’s blood would be weaker now that he had drunk no humans for the past week. He needed to find an animal.
A seven-year-old boy stood before a slaughtered lamb, watching the crimson blood stain the white fur. The iron stench mixed with the scent of spring flowers. The sun shone, making sweat roll off his forehead. A dozen flies circled the dead animal, trying to land, and the boy waved his hand to chase them.
His father cleaned his knife with a piece of cloth. “Only kill an animal if needed,” he said. “To eat and to feed those in need. For sacrifice. To protect yourself and others. To protect others’ livelihood. You will be a great boíla one day—if a wolf plagues your people’s herds, it will be your duty to hunt it down.”
He took a smaller knife with a curved blade and started skinning the lamb. “But never kill out of desire or cruelty. Every animal reincarnates into another of its kind, and if you disrespect it, it will remember and will come back to cause trouble.”
Vladimir had spoken those same words to Erniké once she had been old enough to hunt and to help with the slaughtering of livestock. He would have spoken them to Asmara too, but he’d never had the chance.
His father’s words came to him every time he killed an animal… or a human. With humans and vampires, the list of acceptable reasons to kill grew longer. Getting information, manipulation, revenge, shaping the world into what he wanted it to be. But never cruelty for the sake of it.
He looked at the snowy peaks and the blazing skies. Was his father’s spirit nearby, in the mountains and lakes, watching him? Had his soul found a home in a tree or a stone, forever waiting to reincarnate in a seventh descendant that would never come? Or had it chosen to leave this earth and travel to the stars?
Vladimir closed his eyes and focused on the sounds and scents. He breathed in, his senses stretching over the hills and streams, across dead woods, over glaciers, waterfalls, and fiords. And through the smell of sulfur, fire, and ice, more scents reached him one by one.
An arctic fox. Too small, not enough blood.
A polar bear. Interesting. More of these vicious beauties had been arriving from Greenland in the centuries before the Nightfall, prompted by changing weather. A polar bear was a fun challenge, but he wanted to bring the animal back alive, to keep the blood fresh and flowing. With a polar bear, that would be difficult, and now was not the time for games.
A reindeer. Perfect.
His eyes snapped open. The Northern Lights greeted him, carving a path of green through the black sky. He jumped to his feet and followed, running by hills of ice and lakes of fire. The ground shook underneath his feet, and far ahead, a mountain peak exhaled a cloud of black ash.
The reindeer sensed him and ran, but he was faster. The creature fought, its long horns pushing, stabbing, its legs kicking, hooves finding flesh and bone. But soon Vladimir had the animal’s antlers firm in his hands. He draped the creature around his shoulders and ran back.
He laid the wriggling beast next to Tristan and used his knife to make a deep cut in its neck, then brought the bleeding wound to Tristan’s face.
Tristan had only superficial wounds. If he drank enough blood, his recovery would be almost instantaneous. But first, he had to start drinking.
Even vampires drained of all strength would react to blood, drinking on instinct. But Tristan had lost his last drop of magic. Animal blood would not do.
Vladimir placed the struggling reindeer on the snow, pressing it down with his leg. He pulled up his sleeve and sank his fangs deep into his wrist. Once his blood was flowing, he brought his wound close to Tristan’s mouth. Still nothing.
Vladimir squeezed his arm until his blood dripped. A single drop fell on Tristan’s lips. And another. Drop by drop. Blood of the sire. My blood gave you life once. Let me give it again.
The black ashes from the eruption flowed over the sky, thick and dark, devouring the bright Northern Lights. He smiled. Perfect. They would also hide the rising sun.
At last, Tristan’s lips moved, seeking the blood on their own. And once he started drinking, he never stopped. He drank on into the night until, at long last, some color appeared in his cheeks. Vladimir stayed motionless until he was certain he had no more left to give. At last, he pulled away his hand, wrapped a cloth around his wrist, and brought the reindeer over.
Tristan latched on to the new source of magic and went on drinking. Suddenly, his eyes snapped open and grew so wide, they looked as if they would pop out of his head.
Vladimir bit his lower lip, getting hold of the emotion swelling in his throat. “Welcome back, my treasure,” he said softly. “Don’t try to speak. Keep drinking. I need you to finish this reindeer.”
Tristan’s eyes grew even wider, which had seemed impossible a moment ago. He kept drinking, but after two long sips, he turned his face away from the blood. “Reindeer?” His voice was raspy, like sandpaper over wood. “Where the hell are we?” His gaze turned up. “And what have you done to the sky this time?”
Vladimir winced. “Long story. Finish the reindeer, and I will tell you everything.”
Tristan drank until the animal was nothing more than a dry husk. He sat up, his movements nearly back to their usual gracefulness, and placed his palm flat on Vladimir’s chest. “Your heart?”
At first, Vladimir did not understand what he meant. When he did, a gaping hole opened in his stomach. “Tristan… my heart is well. I have recovered.”
Tristan frowned. “But how? The wound was terrible.”
A cold wind blew snowflakes and ash through the air. Vladimir bit his lip harder and stared at the now blackening snow. “There is something you should know. A while has passed since the battle.”
Tristan gasped and sat back in the snow, shaking his head, the newly acquired blood draining from his face. He knocked off his blanket but reached out to pull it back into his lap. “A while? How long?”
Vladimir’s heart clenched, and he looked up, meeting Tristan’s eyes. “Five years.”
With a snort, Tristan threw up his hands in the air. “Five years? You sounded so dramatic and gave me such a scare over five years? I thought you’d say something crazy, like five centuries.” His eyes narrowed to slits. “And, may I ask, what took you so long to rescue me? I thought leaving me to rot in the Resistance’s dungeon for three days was already unacceptable, but this is a joke.”
Vladimir reached out to him, but his hand dropped when Tristan pulled back. “We’ll have time to talk, but you should take it slowly. You have barely recovered.”
Tristan glared. “Oh no, you don’t. You said you’d tell me everything if I finished my reindeer, and I did. I ate all my breakfast like a good little boy. Now it’s your turn.”
Vladimir’s eyes ran over Tristan, searching for any demons that would still haunt him. One did not escape such a trauma unscathed. If Tristan remembered nothing, was it not better to keep it that way?
Tristan cleared his throat, which turned into a cough. “Start talking.”
The wind sighed in between the glaciers, and Vladimir followed it with his eyes. He did not wish to relive these memories, but he owed it to Tristan. And perhaps the truth would set him on a path to healing as white lies never would. “When I first woke after the battle, Armida was caring for me. She…” He let the frosty wind embrace his face and lift his hair behind his back. “She told me you were dead.”
A raven cawed nearby, and Vladimir turned around, watching as the messenger of Odin sailed to the ashen skies. “I refused to believe it. Or, rather, I refused to believe there was nothing I could do to bring you back. As soon as I could walk, I left Armida and spent the next years traveling this new world humans now ruled over, searching for the most ancient of our kind. I occasionally returned to Armida to bring her news of my discoveries before leaving again.”
Tristan moved over the snow, sliding closer. “What were you looking for?”
“Spells. There are magical spells for everything. I wished to know if there was one to bring a vampire back from the dead.”
A wild scoff burst out of Tristan’s lips, and he leaned back on the ashen snow, eyes wide. “What? You wanted to turn me into a zombie?”
Vladimir gave him a small smile. “Not a zombie. I wanted a real spell, one that would actually bring you back. Some ancients believe that, unlike humans, vampires never die a true death and can return.”
Tristan sat up, frowning. “Don’t tell me it’s possible.”
“There is a story,” Vladimir said. “I heard similar versions from multiple vampires. They say that around 4000 BC, a vampire named Nin-dada lived in Sumer. She died at the hands of her enemies, but her friends refused to let her go. They walked to the place where the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates meet and performed a ritual, a sacrament to the moon god, Nanna, a longtime protector of our kind. They did the spells, made the sacrifices, and Nin-dada came back… as a human.”
“What?” Tristan rose to his knees.
“That’s what the story says. She came back as a human, but before her friends could turn her into a vampire once again, her enemies killed her. And then she was gone forever, for no one could bring a human back from the dead.”
Tristan frowned. “Hmm. If that ritual works, it opens the door to many cool experiments. We could get you killed and resurrected. You come back as a human, and I turn you. We could be each other’s sires.”
Vladimir suppressed a smile. “You sound like Lucien.”
“But seriously, think about it. That would be so convenient. We could share blood at any time.”
“Yes, a great reward with no risk whatsoever.”
Tristan’s eyes narrowed. “Did you believe the spell would have worked?”
Vladimir nodded. “I went on searching, looking for any information I could find on the ritual and for all the ingredients I needed. But there were two I couldn’t find. The spell calls for the blood of a living vampire, but in the story, it is Nin-dada’s brother, Ur-lama, also a vampire, who gives the blood. My sources were unsure if the blood had to come from a relative, but most believed the blood of any random vampire would not work.”
Tristan pulled the blanket closer around his shoulders. “But we’ve shared blood. We are blood brothers. Surely that counts.”
“I thought so too. I planned to give my blood and to hope for the best.” He left the rest unspoken. The ritual called for eleven vampires, and he had never figured out how he would find so many willing to help Tristan. And there was a reason why vampires were not performing this spell all the time. Some ingredients were rare—nearly impossible to find—and even then, there was no guarantee. Apart from the story of Nin-dada, he had heard of only two cases in which anyone had attempted the spell. And both had failed.
“And the second ingredient?”
Vladimir hesitated. “Tristan, we have a long distance to cover. If you feel well, perhaps we should talk on the way. A friendly volcano has given us an ashen cover for the day.”
Tristan frowned. “Why does it sound like you’re trying to change the topic?”
“I’m not.” Vladimir pulled his backpack off his shoulder and reached inside. “I have brought you some clean clothes.” He tossed a bundle of garments, which landed at Tristan’s feet.
Tristan wrinkled his nose and examined the white tunic and light blue sweater. “Could be worse.” He slid into the tunic but froze, his eyes wide and uncomprehending. Tristan raised his hands and ran them through his hair, his fingers stopping midair at the point where the hair ended. He repeated the movement, again and again, as if expecting the missing hair to miraculously be there the next time.
Vladimir winced. “I’m sorry. But with a human-rich diet, it will grow back in no time.”
Thunderbolts shot out of Tristan’s eyes. “Who did this?”
“It doesn’t matter now. He’s dead. Come.” Vladimir picked up his backpack and looked over his shoulder to make sure Tristan could follow, that his legs were steady.
“Is that what you hesitated to tell me?” Tristan grumbled as he hopped through the blackened snow. “Or is there something else?”
If only that could be all. “The other ingredient for the spell was a strand of your hair. That’s why, after I had collected all else, I set out to find where your body was buried.”
“A strand of hair?” Tristan hopped over a small hot spring, agile as a mountain goat. At least his strength appeared to be coming back. “But why? I guess a decaying body part would have also worked?”
“It would have.” The corner of Vladimir’s lip twitched. “But I thought that would be a morbid thing to say.”
Tristan threw up his hands. “You’re a vampire. Being morbid is the whole point.” They reached an icy hill and started climbing. “And?” Tristan prompted. “You started looking for my body?”
“I first tracked down the vampires who fought against us at the Daybreak.”
Tristan stopped and whirled around. “The Daybreak? That’s what they are calling it?” He massaged his temples. “These ridiculous names are giving me a headache. So, I imagine you tracked down Yong and company and questioned them?”
Vladimir stopped as well and stared at the black sky. If only he could unlearn the things he knew. If only he could undo the past five years. “I learned that Yong didn’t kill you.” His voice was hollow, as though coming from a broken pipe. “He kept you as a war trophy. He served you at the dinner table to his guests as an exquisite meal. He let them drink your blood at feasts. He fed you only enough so that you could give back.”
Hesitantly, Vladimir looked at Tristan. His face had grown ashen and still, and a dark shadow had appeared in his grey eyes. His chest stayed unmoving.
“After over a year, Yong grew tired of this.” Vladimir forced himself to continue. “But he didn’t wish to grant you a quick death. He drained you of all blood and buried you here, trapped in never-ending torment, but marked the location in case he decided to get you back. You have lain here for close to four years.”
The wind raised Tristan’s tangled shoulder-length hair, streaking it with black ash. He stood unmoving, still as a stone. The shadow in his eyes grew, consuming him. Snowflakes rose and fell, but he said nothing.
Suddenly, the shadow receded, and he moved once again. “Let’s go find some food.”
Vladimir blinked. “Tristan, you can talk about—”
“Food. I want to talk about food.”
Vladimir took a few long strides to catch up with his friend, who was now climbing the hill like a possessed antelope. “Now you know everything. If you need to talk about it—”
“I smell an arctic fox.”
“Are you that hungry? I know you were drained, but the reindeer was large.”
Tristan whirled around, eyes blazing. The fire in them almost suppressed the shadow. “Not me, you imbecile.” He tapped on his wrist. “What’s that I feel in my veins? Your blood. And lots of it. How much did you give?”
A weight dropped from Vladimir’s heart. If Tristan was in the mood for insults, there was hope he could fight this new shadow. Perhaps that was the best way to heal. “Not more than I could spare.”
Tristan snorted. “Right. When was the last time you fed?”
“I had a raven last night.”
Tristan’s eyes grew wide, and he slapped his forehead. “Seriously? A raven? Do I still have to babysit you, at your age? Come, let’s get this fox, and hopefully something bigger.”
They ran over the hills, hunting foxes, minks, and puffins, feeding and hunting once again. The sun rose, but the thick volcanic ash blocked its deadly rays. Perhaps Tristan was using this new mission to distract himself, but Vladimir knew he would have to face his demons sooner or later before healing could begin. Right now, he was only delaying the inevitable.
The black-and-white world around them blurred. Tristan is alive. Tristan is here. Was he dreaming? Vladimir wanted to slow down, to savor the moment, to process that it was really happening. But they had to go on, and he dared not think how Tristan would feel once there was nothing to occupy his mind and give him a sense of purpose.
Once Tristan had declared them both sufficiently fed, they returned to their course, crossing glaciers and lakes, with geysers exploding around them. “So,” Tristan said. “Where are we going, anyway?”
Tristan would not be happy, but perhaps it was for the better. The shadow was still in his eyes. Perhaps another argument would drive it away for a little while. “You won’t like it.” Tristan snorted. “Of course I won’t like it—it’s one of your ideas. Tell me something new.” But then he stepped over the mountain ridge and froze, gaping at the view. “You are joking.”
To be continued