Niklaus had stayed with me throughout the whole evening, wrapping his arms around me. I did not feel uncomfortable, but not quite comfortable either. I did not feel anything. My entire mind felt blank, and I was sure my face mirrored the blankness.
When I awoke the following morning, Niklaus was gone. There was a single red rose lying on the pillow beside me. I took it, running my fingers absent-mindedly over the thorns, just as there were three knocks on my door and Claude entered.
"Good morning, my lady," he said, placing a tray of food on my lap.
"Morning," I said, starting to eat as he crossed the room and opened the curtains.
I looked around Niklaus’s room, marvelling at the half-finished paintings occupying nearly every open space.
“The transformation was fully triggered last night,” I said softly, more to myself, “Niklaus's blood was the key."
"I drank his blood, and the transformation was completed," I repeated, staring at the rose, "I don't care anymore, not even about this rose ..."
I held the rose up while taking a bite of the toast, twirling it around my fingers while Claude continued staring at me blankly. There was silence for a long while, in which he seemed to be struggling with himself.
"Are you going to say something?" I asked, taking the last bite of toast.
"I am trying to find the right words, my lady," he said, his voice trembling.
"While you're at that, would you mind training me again?" I asked, "I need to get stronger."
"To kill my father," I said, "Once I'm satisfied, I'm going to force Manson to take me to him."
"I don't mean just physical training, either," I interrupted, "You have to teach me to shield my mind, as well. I need to be able to recognize hallucinations and stop them. Other than that, my ranged combat is terrible. I rely too much on my Change and Tio's power. I need to be able to defeat an enemy from a distance.
"Also, I'll ask Niklaus if I can start running errands for him. I can't stay here any longer. I need to start killing again. I need to stimulate my mind, as well. Sebastian once said he helped strategize against the Spirits, so he has to test me regarding that."
I surprised even myself with the careless, expressionless tone of my voice. It was worse than how Claude's had been in the beginning. I thought for a while longer, biting my lower lip, trying to see if I had missed something. I looked up at him to see that he was trembling, and felt confusion take me over again.
"I'm sorry," I said, not knowing what to do, "I'll take care of it myself."
"I'll will pass on your messages," he said with a slightly unstable voice, and exited the room without a further word.
Shrugging, I got up and took a shower before drying my hair and going over to the mirror above the chest of drawers. There were dark circles under my eyes and my face was slightly paler than usual. I looked dead. Rolling my eyes, I rummaged through the bottom drawer and found the box where all my makeup was, and applied black eyeliner and maroon lipstick. I combed my hair and shook my head so that it was wild again before flattening it so that it looked slightly curly as always.
“Claude?" I called once I had finished getting dressed. To my surprise, there was no reaction. He usually appeared instantly when I called his name: why would today be any different? I sighed and called, "Sebastian?"
"Yes, my lady?" Sebastian asked, entering my room.
"Where is Claude?" I asked.
"We is sulking in the kitchen, my lady,” he replied, “He does not speak with anyone. He simply cleans everything, and does not react when someone speaks with him."
"Oh," I said, "In that case, will you spar with me throughout the day?"
"Yes, my lady," he replied, "Claude told me you wished me to teach you certain battle strategies."
"Would you not like to start with those first, before physically training?"
"That is a good idea," I said, "Very well. Would you care to bring some books from the library, ones that would be used in the Academy, so that I can catch up?"
"Of course, my lady."
"Aren't you supposed to be torturing Aurora?" I asked.
"I already have," he said, "If you can remember, torturing someone for two days only takes around five minutes in the real world. She is curled on her bed at the moment."
Over the following few days, Sebastian brought me my breakfast, always repeating the same sentence - 'he is still oblivious to everything and everyone around him’ - when I asked him about Claude. He brought me some school books and left me with them during the entire day. After about a week I got sick of the mansion and started studying at the lake, using Appoloin's sword for warmth, sometimes sneaking away to bother the creatures in the forest. He even tested me afterwards by asking me various questions about the weapons, herbs and shields.
After Aurora had finally come out of her room, she kept well out of my way. I noticed that her eyes were always red and puffy, and Luka seemed a lot brighter lately. I frequently saw him trailing after Sapphire and they both had red cheeks and broad smiles.
Arrow was always in the library when I entered, and he looked somewhat grumpy all the time, but somehow everyone's strange moods aroused no curiosity of mine, something to which I was grateful - trailing after answers that would most likely just end up confusing me more was not worth it.
Every morning I awoke to find a red rose beside me from Niklaus. Sebastian had taken to bringing me a purple and black vase to put them all in, and he cared for them every morning. I just did not feel the need to.
The Blackbeard family left shortly after they had arrived, not even greeting me, which was to my liking. I did not need any more disturbances.
Finally, after two weeks, Sebastian and I started sparring. He was a little stronger than Claude, but he at least fought with a pair of weapons - two silverware forks, claiming he did not need more. In order to make my battles more challenging, he made Sapphire shoot at me with a pair of pistols while fighting him, so that I had to dodge the bullets while fighting. This was considerably more difficult.
One evening I remembered that I wanted to ask Niklaus something, and felt a weak wave of irritation at the thought that Claude had not relayed my message, so I went to his room, not bothering to knock or to greet him. "When will you start sending me out on missions?"
"Why do you want to go on missions?" he asked, "Everything you need is right here, in this mansion and in my care."
"You must have noticed that you cannot flatter me anymore," I said, "And not everything I need is in the mansion. I cannot kill anyone."
He sighed, "You want to run errands for me?"
"Near the border of our country, there is a village called Siandus," he said, "The people are starting to speak with the others, trying to sneak warriors past the borders and to my mansion, to other countries to ask for help. Take care of them. The other three will accompany you."
"They will only burden me," I said.
"They barely have a chance to take a life, and when they need to, they are too hesitant. They will die that way. Teach them otherwise."
"Two missions at once," I said thoughtfully, "When do I leave?"
"Whenever you are ready. I will have Sebastian relay the message to them in the morning."
"Fine," I sighed, exiting the room again.
Two days later Aurora, Arrow, Luka and I started walking down through the forest in a strained silence, each of us carrying a large backpack with necessities. Arrow had his arm around a sniffling and shivering Aurora, while Luka kept his distance from the two, and all three walked a little way behind me. We all wore double-breasted coats similar to the one I had last worn to the Village of Water: it reached the middle of our thighs, Aurora and I wore belts over it to keep it in place, and there was a pair of snakes coiling at the bottom on the back, and an ornate cross on each upper arm.
The wind was picking up, as winter was nearing once more, and I knew that there was a big chance that it might start raining within the following three days.
Niklaus had given me a small vial full of snakes as long as my middle finger, and told me to spray it over the villagers if they are in large crowds. The snake will inhabit the body and, should they speak ill of him, he will know, and they will suffer for it, but he did not give details and I did not ask. He also gave me enough money for a first-class room at the inn.
"Can any of you Summon something yet?" I asked them after a while.
"No," Arrow replied, "Neither can Sister."
"I can," Luka said softly.
"Grizzlies will bring us nowhere," I sighed, "Once we're at the lake, I'll have my angels carry us."
"Do you have enough?" Luka asked, "One or two angels won't be able to carry all four of us."
"Do not underestimate me," I say. He glares at me, but does not say anything.
Twenty painfully silent minutes later, detouring out of the way of dangerous-looking creatures, we broke free of the dense trees and were in sight of the frozen lake. I muttered my incantation, bit my thumb and pressed my hand to the frozen ground.
Appoloin, Manakel, Elemiah, Forfax, I called in my mind, and the four angels appeared in a large quick-to-disperse puff of smoke. They bowed deeply to me. Elemiah was a beautiful female, with pure white hair matching her long dress, and a shining white bow in hand. Forfax was a muscled, intimidating male with gladiator clothing and a large axe, and his wings had a brownish tint to them.
"Good morning, mistress," they chorused, bowing and curtsying.
"Greetings," I said carelessly, "Just so the four of you know: my transformation has been completed with Niklaus's blood, so pass on the message to Gabriel if you wish."
"Yes, mistress," they chorused, inclining their heads respectively, their faces devoid of emotion, something I liked.
"Are any of you needed elsewhere?" I asked.
"There are hundreds of angels, mistress," Appoloin said, "We are not needed frequently. If we are, we will be able to give a warning ten minutes beforehand."
"Very well," I said, "The four of you need to carry us to the border of the village Siandus."
"Yes, mistress," they chorused.
Less than two hours later, we broke through a small forest and came in view of a large village bordered with a high stone wall. The wall and all the buildings were made of the same yellowish brown stone, visible underneath the layers of snow, and there was barely any colour except for a few banners and flags here and there, but I could not see what they illustrated from this distance.
"You may leave," I told the angels.
"Yes, mistress," they chorused before disappearing from view.
"Wh-what d-did you m-m-mean earlier, about Niklaus's b-blood completing y-your transformation?" Aurora asked, shivering, and Arrow rubbed her shoulders to try and warm her. Luka looked just as curious.
"It doesn't concern you. Let's go."
"Wait, wait, wait," Luka said, "We can't just barge in there without a plan."
"We have a plan," I said simply, "We tell them who we are, get the villagers together and tell them they will be killed if they betray Niklaus."
"What are you talking about?" he asked incredulously, and I stared at him. I could not understand what could be wrong about that plan, "We can't threaten them like that. We'll get murdered before-"
"So you doubt my strength?" I asked dangerously.
"No, I know you're strong, and the four of us are elementals, but if we go against an entire village -"
"My name is well-known," I said, "I have exterminated entire villages before. They will know I do not play games. Let us go."
The three of them were staring at me with wide eyes, and Aurora muttered, "It's on your hands if any of us gets killed."
"Your blood will be on my hands anyway, one of these days," I replied, silencing her.
We descended the hill and took to the path leading to the large steel gates, where a guard stood on either side.
"What is your business here?" one of them asked as we neared.
"I bring news from Lord Niklaus," I said simply, and their faces twisted into hatred, but changed to fear at my following words, "My name is Victoria Black. If you do not grant me entrance, you will die, whether by my hands or Lord Niklaus's."
"Of course, my lady, I understand. Welcome to Siandus," the other said, bowing.
"Where is the inn?" I asked.
"Just walk straight up this road," the first one said, "It will be on your left."
They pushed the gates open and we entered the village. Immediately all attention fell on us, but I guessed that was because we were the only ones wearing so much black; everyone wore earthy colours matching the grassy patches here and there and the stone from which everything was built. We passed a small clothing store, a few houses, a grocery store, and a four-storey building from which people with forehead protectors bearing the mark of a snake entered and exited: Animos. The flags and banners all illustrated snakes.
I saw a few small snakes slithering in and out of the grassy bushes as we reached a large town square with a round stone platform in the centre, and finally reached the inn, where a sign hanging from the wall bore a round golden pot, above which was written: The Golden Cauldron. I rolled my eyes and we entered.
It was a cosy place. The counter, tables, chairs and staircase were all made of the same dark wood, polished to perfection. An aged bartender stood behind the counter, wiping glasses clean, and lifted his gaze to look at us. He put the glass down and stared as we approached him.
"I want two first-class rooms beside each other," I said carelessly.
"What are your names?" he asked.
"What do you need them for?" I asked.
"In case someone comes looking for you," he said.
"No one will come looking for us," I said, placing a gold coin on the counter. Instantly, the bartender's face lifted.
"Welcome to Siandus, travellers," he said brightly, and handed me two keys, "On the top floor, right at the end of the hall."
I took the keys and turned away as Luka said pleasantly, "Thank you."
People's eyes followed us as we ascended the creaking wooden staircase and made our way to the top floor, which was the fourth.
"Why is everyone staring?" Aurora asked.
"No one visits here frequently, Sister," Arrow replied, "It is Lord Niklaus's territory."
"Here," I said, handing Luka one of the keys, "Meet me downstairs after the sun has set."
I glared at him for a moment until he nodded before entering the room right at the end and glancing expectantly over my shoulder at Aurora, who entered timidly, and I closed the door.
The room had two beds made with beige and gold, two bedside cabinets atop which stood a golden lamp and a desk with paper and pens in front of a large window with gold organza curtains.
"It's ugly," I said carelessly as Aurora stood looking at me timidly.
I walked over to the bed on the right hand corner, almost parallel to the door, and she moved to the other. I took off my backpack and took Tio from inside and strapped it to my back.
I stood on the same spot for an hour or so, allowing Luka and Arrow to gossip about me all they wanted. Aurora was reading a magazine. When the sun was high in the sky, I took the vial with the tiny snakes, placed it in the pocket of the coat, strapped Tio to my waist, put my backpack back on and glared at Aurora.
"Oi, cretin, come on," I said loudly, and she jumped, grabbing at her scythe and looking around, alarmed, until her eyes rested on me, "You're stupid."
"Screw you," she said, rubbing her eyes with her free hand.
Luka and Arrow were already waiting in the hallway, and we went down the stairs. The pub downstairs was now packed with people, most of which stared at us as we descended the stairs. I made my way to the counter and ordered myself flavoured vodka while Luka took a beer and the twins each just took a soda.
"Why are we here?" Luka asked me.
"We're somehow going to gather the villagers in one place," I said, "I'm just trying to see who'd be up for the job."
"Victoria Black?" a voice said from behind me, and I turned around to see a man with a forehead protector branded with a water droplet, "May I have a moment in private?"
"Move," I told the other three. They pulled irritated faces and scooted a few seats, and I looked expectantly at the man, who sat down, "Who are you?"
"My name is Heath," he replied, "I come with a message from the Village of Water."
"How did you know I would be here?" I asked.
"This village has sent reports to ours gossiping about Klaus, and we figured he would send some of his warriors to put a stop to it. We hoped it would be you."
"You mean, your king hoped it would be me," I stated, and he shifted uncomfortably, "What is your message?"
"This," he said, taking a thick envelope from inside his jacket.
"What is it?" I asked, taking it.
"A letter from His Majesty."
I sighed. Why could he not just leave me alone? Had I not made it clear enough on our last encounter that I wanted nothing to do with him anymore?
"Do you have a pen?" I asked.
He took a pen from his jacket pocket and handed it to me. I held the envelope up and ripped it in two, making him flinch in surprise. I took one half and wrote on the envelope:
I asked you politely the last time we saw each other that you should not look for me anymore. If you do this again, Lord Niklaus and I will make sure that every person you know is killed.
I handed the two halves back to Heath along with the pen, and he placed them back in his pocket uncomfortably, "How is Ylnor?"
"Ylnor Morosus?" he asked, and I just looked at him expectantly, "He was in a coma until recently. His whole body is paralyzed."
"It will only be so for a few weeks," I said, "Lord Niklaus is the one who caused the damage. Go to him and tell him that he will make a great asset. He just has to pledge his allegiance to Lord Niklaus."
"Is this all you wanted to give me? The letter?" I asked.
"Then be gone," I said.
I waved my hand in a shooing motion, and he left with an irritated look on his face. The three elementals returned just as a small boy made to run past me, but I grabbed him by the elbow while the other three stared at me with wide eyes.
"Do you know a lot of people in this village?" I asked him.
"Yes, ma'am," he said sweetly.
"Do you think you can gather a lot of people at the town square in fifteen minutes?" I asked, handing him a silver coin.
"Yes, ma'am!" he said, gladly taking the money before moving to the people in the inn and starting to talk with everyone with a grin.
"Come," I told the others. I tossed two silver pieces at the bartender and left the building with the other three trailing behind me, and I climbed onto the platform. A lot of people stared at me, now with confused expressions. I started walking along the edge of the platform in a circle while the other three just stood still in the middle.
After a few minutes the boy ran from the inn and started talking to random people around him, and they gathered around the platform, whispering among themselves and glaring disapprovingly at me. The boy ran up the street and returned a few minutes later with several more people. Finally there was a large circle of people clustered around me.
"What's this all about?" a man from the crowd yelled at me, but was hushed by those around him.
"I bring a message from Lord Niklaus," I called, loud enough for everyone to hear, and people started exchanging panicked looks, "My name is Victoria Black."
"I thought you were dead!" someone called.
"The Village of Water said you were killed in a prison!"
"If I am interrupted one more time, that person will die," I said, and everyone fell silent, "Evidently I was not killed, and you all must be behind the time, in any case because, a few weeks ago, I visited the Village of Water, and the few who survived our attack must have spread the news that I had joined Lord Niklaus."
"This is all bullsh-"
I interrupted the man by throwing a knife at his head, and he toppled over backwards, causing women to shriek and shield their children's eyes and men to roar angrily.
"Victoria, that was unnecessary!" Aurora hissed.
"Quiet down," I told the crowd, and they reluctantly did so. I saw, at the back, the Animos from earlier, Heath, standing with his arms folded over his chest, eyeing me carefully, "I told you I was going to kill anyone who interrupted me."
I looked around at the silent, fearful crowd.
"Who was it that betrayed Lord Niklaus's trust and spread news of him?" I asked, and people looked around in confusion.
"What does it matter, anyway?" another man yelled, "He doesn't care about us."
"Yeah, we're just here to keep other people from getting to him!?
"He deserves to rot in a prison cell!"
Three more knives were thrown by me and mothers frantically shrieked and tried to scatter along with their children. I hissed to the other three, "Prevent anyone from leaving," and they disappeared, only to reappear at the edges of the square to prevent people's escape.
"This," I said, taking the vial from my pocket and showing it to the frightened people, "Is how we will restore order."
I opened the vial and scattered most of the contents over the crowd. A few tried to make a run for it, but I saw the snakes enter the eyes, ears, mouths and noses of several people and knew it was enough.
"Those snakes will do you no harm as long as you remain loyal to Lord Niklaus," I called, "Should you spread any more rumours, whether they're true or false, about him, he will know, and the snakes' technique will be released. You will suffer from a disease released by them for the rest of your life, leaving you weaker than a ninety year-old. In other words, it doesn't matter to whom, who you are or where you are, you are forbidden to speak of him at all."
I suddenly felt hands grab at my elbows and, more out of instinct than anything else, I muttered my incantation under my breath, managed - with difficulty - to bite my thumb and pressed my hand to my captor's body, as it was the only flat surface I could reach.
Appoloin, Manakel, I called in my mind. Instantly the two angels appeared and, after taking a small bow and quick curtsy, each stabbed the men in the heart without much difficulty. I watched as other Animos stopped in their tracks at the sight of the angels.
"I can Summon more angels," I told them, "If you wish to die so early in your lives, oppose me again."
They did not move, so I took the vial in my hand again. There were still a few snakes left. I manipulated some of the ice and used it to transport the snakes.
"Hold them steady," I told the angels.
Appoloin took one Animos in each hand while Manakel prevented the others from escaping. I used the water to feed all of the Animos one of the snakes. I had about three short, but Manakel took a few from the ground that had failed to land on the villagers, and fed them to the remaining Animos.
"You all know the rules. You know who I am. Should one more word of Lord Niklaus leak out, my killings will be more brutal. Are we understood?" I looked around as no one made any move to react to me, and I growled, "Are we understood?"
"Yes, my lady!" everyone called, somewhat dispiritedly.
"Then my work is done here," I said to myself, glaring at Heath in the distance before Summoning Elemiah and Forfax, and we left for Niklaus's mansion.
"You really didn't have to kill so many people," Aurora said as we entered through the gate of Niklaus's mansion.
I did not answer her. I could not see the flaw in the plan. I got the job done. There was no way those people would ever betray Niklaus again.
"I got the job done," I tell her. I mock remorse for a moment, "But maybe I shouldn't have killed so many - oh wait, I don't care."
"They won't respect Lord Niklaus anymore because you do things like that, and they think it's under his order. They'll only obey him now out of fear."
"It's better to be feared than respected," I said simply as Sebastian opened the large doors before we needed to knock and we entered into the warmth of the mansion. Sebastian took my coat.
"Good evening, my lady," he said to me, bowing, "Welcome back."
"We are here, you know," Aurora snapped.
"Of course," he said with a smirk, "Welcome back, Miss Aurora and Sirs Arrow and Luka."
"What's the time?" I asked.
"It is nearly ten in the evening, my lady," he said as the other three walked away, Aurora glaring hatefully at Luka all the time, but he ignored her.
"Is Niklaus busy with anything?" I asked.
"He is busy awaiting your return, my lady," he said, "Would you like for him to come to your room?"
"No, I'll go to him," I said, "That will be all."
"Good night, my lady," he said. I headed up the staircase to my room.
I threw my backpack down on my bed, but kept Tio strapped to my back, and washed my hands in the bathroom - some of the Animos' blood had landed on my hands - before heading up the staircases to the top floor and to the room right at the end. The corridor was empty except for the paintings, windows and curtains, and my footsteps echoed annoyingly off the walls.
I reached the door on the other side, where there was nothing but a doorknocker the shape of a snake in the centre of the door. I reached out to knock.
I gasped and fell over backwards, my heart pounding. The first few seconds, I thought it might be some kind of hallucination I was having because of the kills, but as reality dawned on me, fear gripped at my insides.
A face had appeared over the doorknocker. It was the face of a middle-aged man with hair flowing upwards like Gabriel's, as though he was underwater. A monocle was over one eye, while the other eye was missing from its socket, raw flesh dangling. I could have handled this kind of gore, because I was used to it. What I could not handle was when I realized that the man had not appeared over the doorknocker, but through it, and the body was missing from the middle of his neck down. Other than that, he was pale blue and translucent.
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