I Am Forever
Book 2 in the What Kills Me series
I stared at my reflection. Dried blood caked half of my face. It snaked down my neck in crusty, lumpy streaks. My shirt, my jeans, and my sneakers looked as if they had been splattered with mud.
My right arm, from my fingers to my elbow, was painted dark red. It was like a tree branch, the surface of my skin as textured and cracked as bark, my fingers hooked and gnarled like twigs.
All of it was blood. Sticky. Heavy. And none of it mine.
I won. I beat the bad guy. So this is what a survivor looks like, I told myself. At least, a very freaked-out survivor who let the bad guys lock her in an empty room.
“What are you looking at?” Lucas said, breaking my trance.
I tried to run my fingers through my hair, but it was stuck to my scalp.
“I look like hell,” I muttered.
“Well, you’ve been through hell.”
“Oh, so you agree?”
He came and stood behind me and peered over my shoulder. “I think this is a good look for you.”
“Yeah. I’m drop-dead gorgeous.”
Neither of us smiled. Maybe it was too tense to joke.
I turned to face him. He too looked like he had been through hell. His green eyes were dull and tired. Rusty stains leaked down his chin from coughing up his own blood.
“What do you think is going to happen?” I asked.
“Well, they can’t kill you.”
How ironic, I thought.
Since I had become a vampire, the Empress and her monarchy had done everything they could to kill me. They tried to burn me in the sun. The general tried to chop off my head. But somehow, with Lucas, I had survived, only to learn that if I died, every vampire would die with me, connected to me as they were by our blood.
I scratched my brow, red flakes scattering and falling into my eyelashes. It all seemed so impossible.
Hours earlier I had stood in the palace’s ballroom, my hand stinging from a cut across my palm and every vampire bowing at my feet as they bled from the same wound. It was surreal.
But the rapture of victory was fleeting. Confusion and panic washed over the ballroom. The clerics rushed around, arguing among themselves and with the Empress. The noise of everyone speaking at once became an indistinguishable drone. What should we do with the Super Vampire…? Lucas and I angled our bodies toward the exit. I had thought of running at every moment, but I wanted to see how they’d handle me now.
Finally, Uther, the first vampire I ever trusted, had stepped into our paths. He ushered Lucas and me into this room.
“We will figure this out, Lady Axelia,” Uther said before the door closed and locked. “You are most sacred to us. I promise, everything will be fine.”
Hadn’t he promised me something similar when I was first turned? After I drowned to death in the well filled with the blood of their gods? After his page, Lettie, washed me and dressed me like a schoolgirl? What an education that was. But everything after had not been fine.
How close we all came to the end…Uther, Lettie, Lucas. Everyone would have been killed if I had been killed. I shuddered.
Looking around the room, there was nothing to fight with. There was nothing to sit on. Just a polished concrete floor, wall-to-wall mirrors, and a black dome camera in the ceiling, staring like a shiny black eyeball. Pacing the perimeter, I slid my fingers along the glass, and Lucas crouched near the door like a guard dog waiting to pounce.
They’re watching us. These are probably two-way mirrors.
They would never leave me—the future of their race—alone here unsupervised. They would likely never leave me alone again. Unless, well, they left me alone in a cage.
“They’ll lock me up,” I said. “Like they did the first vampires. Entomb me alive forever.”
I imagined them putting me in a bulletproof, transparent case in the ballroom, like some living trophy or a packaged doll. Everyone would stare and point. I imagined myself, at the very least, giving them the finger.
“I won’t let that happen,” Lucas said. “We’ll escape.”
“Sure. We’ll just walk out the front door.”
“I know this place. I snuck in here to rescue you, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, and I can’t believe you did that. You knew it was suicide, right?”
“You’re not giving me enough credit. I had a plan.” He rose up from his haunches. “When they brought you here, I made a promise that I would come for you. And I promise you now that we will survive this.”
He sounded so resolute. Lucas. Always so brave. But I knew better. Everyone that he had ever cared about had died. His father, Noel; his page, Jerome; his sisters; his creator, Nuwa. All he had left was his ex-lover, Samira, and, well, me. Some crazy seventeen-year-old girl who stumbled into his home and brought chaos.
But I had brought chaos to the Monarchy too. I had terrified everyone. Tested the power of the Empress. Killed their general.
I had to remember that I could be brave as well. That I had to be—for us. I’ve been able to fight back. And I will fight again if they try to hurt Lucas or imprison me.
I stretched my fingers out and then clenched my fists, my nails pressing into my palms.
“Are you getting ready for battle?” Lucas said.
“Can you contain it until the enemy comes? Because right now it’s just you and me, and I’m not in the mood to fight you.”
“You couldn’t take me anyway,” I said, half-joking.
“Not anymore,” he replied, serious.
It was true. Lucas said that vampires grow in strength over time. But I was several times more powerful than vampires who had been alive for centuries. Such was another unexpected gift of having fallen into the well—strength, as well as immunity to the sun, and this blood connection with the vampire race. But could I fight my way out of this place?
When that door opens, anyone in my way dies. If I can get us into the hall, I can fight them a few at a time. They can’t surround us if we’re not in an open space. And they can’t hurt me. They’ll probably try to take Lucas hostage and use him to get me to surrender. That can’t happen. I’ll take someone’s weapon. Lead the way. But if we get outside, what if it’s daylight? Lucas will burn…
Suddenly Lucas was beside me. He always seemed to know what I was thinking, as if my skin changed color to match my emotions. He touched my elbow. Because of his short brown hair, the patches of blood in his scalp created a camouflage pattern. His black shirt was torn at the chest, and the fabric sagged like a lip where the general had plunged his sword. He had sacrificed so much for me. I pressed my hand to the tear and he covered my hand with his.
“I won’t let them separate us,” I said. Looking at his mouth, I thought of our kiss. Desperate. Crushing. His blood in my mouth. Horror and romance. How unlikely.
Before they took us, would I try to kiss him again? Was it ludicrous that I was even thinking of it at a time like this?
I turned to the mirror and looked into my own amber eyes, as bright as fire. “We won’t be separated,” I told whoever was watching.
Just then, footsteps and voices approached the door. Lucas put his arm out to sweep me behind him. Instead, I pushed him aside and stepped in front of him.
This is it.
Someone opened several locks on the door before it became unstuck and swung inward. There stood Uther with a phalanx of soldiers behind him.
“Uther,” I said.
He was smiling. He lifted up the folds of his blue robe and shuffled into the room. He must not have changed his clothing since I’d last seen him—blood from my battle with the general soiled the edges of his robe, and his gold corded belt sagged at his hips. The soldiers, expressionless and focused ahead, did not follow him inside.
“Lady Axelia.” He sounded relieved to see me. He put his palm to his chest and bowed his head.
“Are you all right, my lady?” he asked, clasping his hands over his abdomen. I glanced at Lucas, then back at Uther’s serene face.
“What the hell is going on, Cleric?” Lucas snapped.
Straight to the point.
“I apologize for leaving you alone here,” he said.
I pointed at the camera. “We are not alone.”
“The Monarchy just wants to ensure that you are safe at all times—”
“Safe from who?” Lucas said.
“—because you are so very important to us, my lady,” Uther continued. “Thank you for your patience. We simply needed time to restore some order and have a meeting of clerics.”
I kept a wary eye over his shoulder at the soldiers outside the door. I saw four. But who knew how many more lined the hall?
Uther followed my gaze. “Don’t worry, my lady. The Aramatta will not enter the room. It is just you and I. No harm shall come to you.”
“And Lucas,” I said.
“And the swordsmith,” he said.
“What’s going to happen?” I asked.
“Nothing.” He leaned toward me. “You are safe.”
As a vampire I had learned that those words came with a caveat. You are safe. For now. Actually, more like for five minutes. And then someone else is going to try to hurt you.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“We had a conference with Cleric Yuri in Romania about the Sacriva’s prophecies,” Uther said. “He confirmed the readings: ‘A human girl will be reborn a vampire. She will shed the blood of all those who walk in darkness.’” His tone took on an almost musical cadence as he recited the passages in the vampire bible. “‘She will be the first. She will mean the death of all vampires.’”
“We’ve heard this already,” Lucas said.
Uther ignored this. “You are our most sacred being,” he said to me. He reached out for my hands and I denied him.
“You are everything to us,” he continued. “All will protect you and care for you. All will love you and worship you.”
Is this Bizarro World? Is Uther insane?
“Worship me?” I heard myself say.
“That’s…” Lucas began.
“…ridiculous,” I finished.
“I know this is difficult to comprehend,” Uther said. Uther, always telling me things that are “difficult” to understand. He had been the one to tell me that I had become a vampire and that I would never see my family again. He had been the one to tell me that no other vampire had ever been created without the permission of the monarchy; no immortal had been born without having drunk the blood of another. “But yes—they will worship you. And love you.”
“Love me?” His words lit a spark of anger in me. Rage rose up like hot bile. “Everyone hates me. Everyone has been trying to kill me!”
Uther shook his head, his jowls wagging, his eyes widening. “That was a horrible mistake, my lady. There was widespread panic at your creation. No one could have known the truth. The Monarchy misread the prophecy and reacted out of fear. It upsets me to think about what could have happened if…if you had been harmed.”
“Yeah, it upsets me too,” I said. I felt a twinge of guilt for my sarcasm. Uther had done nothing but try to help me. He was only the messenger.
Uther ignored my tone. “Please let the Monarchy rectify its errors.”
“How?” I asked.
“Come meet with the Empress. She wants to speak with you.”
Lucas came up beside me and hooked my arm. He didn’t need to warn me. I was instantly wary. My previous meetings with the Empress had not gone well.
“Uther, I don’t think…” I began.
“Please, Lady Axelia. The Monarchy wants to make this right. The Empress herself acknowledges how sacred you are to the race. You will see. Meet with her.”
“It’s a trick,” I said. “They’re going to lock me up, Uther.”
“I assure you, the Monarchy has no plans to do that. Please speak with her.”
Lucas tightened his grip.
“Lady Axelia, I will accompany you and the swordsmith,” Uther said. “I swear on the Sacriva and on my word as a cleric that no harm will come to either of you.”
He put his hands out again and I took them. The Empress’s face flashed in my mind; her blue eyes were closed and her hand was pressed to her chest. She had bowed to me, I remembered.
“Uther, I am trusting you.” I moved in close and dropped my voice. “But if I sense that something isn’t right, if a soldier looks at me funny, if the Empress sneezes, Lucas and I are fighting our way out of here. Tell the Empress that.”
“No one would dare risk injury to you—and ourselves.”
“We’ll see about that.”
* * *
“The Monarchy’s top architect designed this wing,” Uther said as he walked ahead of us. His voice echoed in the hall, which was as large as a gymnasium.
My runners, the ones Samira had gifted to me, squeaked on the shiny gray marble floors, and I was struck with the thought that I was too dirty to be walking here. Several fifteen-foot-tall iron sculptures posed in the center of the hall. On either side of us dozens of arched doorways revealed soldiers at the ready.
“Zee, I don’t think this is a good idea,” Lucas whispered.
“I know. But what are we going to do?”
“We either leave now or leave later. Either way, they’ll chase us.” I glanced at the soldiers, still as the statues. “I want to hear what she has to say.”
“Does it matter what she says? We can’t trust them.”
“I trust Uther.”
“We’ve trusted the wrong vampires before, and look where that led us.”
Right. Nuwa. Lucas’s maker had betrayed us to the Monarchy in hopes of ingratiating herself with the Empress.
“Uther’s not like that,” I said.
“You’ve only known him for a week.”
“I’ve only known you for a week.”
He clucked his tongue.
“I don’t know why but I know Uther’s not lying,” I said. I knew Uther and the soldiers could hear us, so I added, “Plus if they try anything, we’re gone.”
“Yes. Should we have a signal?”
“If I sense trouble, I can pull my ear like this.” I tugged on my earlobe.
“Just break someone’s neck.”
“That works too.”
Uther led us down a flight of marble steps and through several automatic glass doors, where a wall of moisture hit me. The smell of plants and soil was smothering. I no longer needed to breathe as a vampire, but all my senses had heightened. I could inhale to intensify scents and exhale if I wanted to.
“This is one of the Monarchy’s many botanical gardens,” Uther said as we moved down a dim corridor. Lit panels in the floor made it feel as if we were in a spaceship.
Uther stopped in front of frosted glass panes. A green lightbulb glowed above a control panel that he flipped open. He pressed a gray button. A buzzer sounded and the glass slid open.
The wet heat settled on my skin as we walked into a lush greenhouse. The lofty ceiling was a patchwork of white hexagons; it was like being inside a beehive. Silver sculptures soared at least two stories high, coiled like ribbon and topped with shrubs. Spiky crystal ornaments dangled from tree branches and plants. We followed a winding mosaic path made of pebbles and crossed a small bridge trimmed with clusters of fat, fleshy succulents. I heard a bird in the trees ruffle its feathers and take flight.
Did they know that I love gardens?
Through narrowed eyes Lucas scanned every inch of the greenhouse, and I hoped that I hadn’t led us into a trap.
“Your Highness,” Uther said.
The Empress, a thin, ethereal figure in a long-sleeved white gown, stood at the top of a spiral staircase. As she descended, the train of her dress spilled over each step like foamy water. The sides of her short, jet-black hair formed points at her chin, and her blue eyes were so bright they seemed fluorescent. As she gazed down at me, her lips, red as the poppies in my mother’s garden, parted slightly and then smiled.
“Lady Axelia,” she purred. “Thank you for coming.”
Her voice was smooth, low, and husky. It penetrated the air like the notes of a cello. “I appreciate your patience today,” she said. “I trust that you were not too uncomfortable while you were waiting.”
I’m more uncomfortable with you plotting to trap me.
When she reached the ground, I heard vampires approach from the other side of the greenhouse, their dresses swishing. I glanced at Lucas. He was frozen, listening and assessing the threat.
Two female vampires wearing skin-toned gowns rounded the base of the staircase. Their hair was pulled back into chignons, their eyes rimmed with charcoal and their lips painted white. They looked, well, undead.
One stopped in front of Lucas and me with a mirrored tray on which balanced two crystal goblets of blood. She curtsied while the other dropped her head and put her hand on her chest.
“Please drink,” the Empress said. “You must be famished.”
I was so thirsty that I could already taste the blood in the back of my throat. But was this the poisoned apple to make me sleep?
No one spoke. Neither Lucas nor I moved.
“Maid,” she called.
The vampire twitched once before retreating to the Empress, who reached for one of the goblets. The skin on her hand was perfect, waxen. Slowly she pressed the edge of the crystal to her mouth, sipped, and then drank from the other goblet. She let out a low, satisfied hum. As I watched her savor the ruby liquid and run her tongue over her teeth, I bit the inside of my lip. How long had it been since I’d fed?
Uther, who stood waiting between two bushes clipped into pyramid shapes, nodded encouragingly.
“Please, my lady,” the Empress said. “We want you to be strong.”
By “strong” she must mean locked away. “Why?” I asked.
“Because if you are strong, then we are all strong.”
Does the connection work that way? Or is this a metaphor? The vampire returned to me with her offering and I ignored her.
“The Monarchy has been awaiting your arrival,” the Empress said, “and, finally, you are here.”
Are you seriously greeting me like a long-lost relative? Are those goblets filled with crazy juice?
“You’ve been waiting to kill me,” I blurted.
The Empress’s beautiful face fell. “Yes. That was a horrible mistake.”
Oh. Well, glad we cleared that up.
Like a specter she floated away from us. Uther motioned for us to follow. “Please walk with me,” she said over her shoulder. I stepped around the gauzy lace of her dress but kept my distance.
“Our kind has endured many tribulations,” she said. “We’ve been hunted. We’ve been at war. But we have always survived. As strong as your will is to live, so is ours.”
We stopped in front of a sloping garden, where the Monarchy’s circular emblem was represented in red blooms against a bed of white flowers.
“The prophecy said a vampire would be born and she would bring death. We feared for our lives. Naturally we wanted to protect ourselves. But we were wrong. We were so very wrong.” Her glare was hypnotizing. “You, Lady Axelia, are life. You are our future. We would never let anything happen to you now.”
“By locking me up?”
She tilted her head to the side. “Why would we do that?”
“You did it to the first vampires. You imprisoned them alive forever to protect yourselves. And I’m basically them, in one body.”
“You are right. We did it to protect ourselves. But the Ancients were destructive monsters with an unquenchable bloodlust. Are you a monster, Lady Axelia?”
Her eyes bore into mine and I looked away. I had worried that I was some sort of monster. Too powerful for my own good. Too different from anyone else on earth. I was no longer the silly girl who’d left Winnipeg for Rome and who climbed out of a window into the arms of a murderer. After everything I had been through, yes, I was different. And yet, somehow I was still me.
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
“Of course not. You’re a miracle. It is so clear now. You were born to save us. We are at war with an evil enemy and you were born to ensure the survival of our race.”
War. The rebellion Samira and Lucas spoke of.
“We all belong to you now, Lady Axelia. I. Cleric Uther. Your swordsmith,” she said, acknowledging Lucas for the first time. “You must guard us all and keep us safe. In return, we will honor you and revere you as a god, as your true self—the First, the Only.”
I Am Forever will be released on January 31 2014.