continued blankly looking at me, as though he could not even see me, "Can you hear me?"
I jumped about a mile high when I saw the door open, and the ghost disappeared. Niklaus appeared in the doorframe, looking at me with confusion.
"Lady Victoria," he said, alarmed, helping me up, "Why were you on the floor?"
"I thought I saw something," I replied, not sure I had really seen it.
"Was someone here?"
"No," I lied. Or was I lying? I ran my fingers through my hair as he led me through the short, familiar corridor and into his room, "No, there was no one."
"I heard you screaming," he said softly.
"I didn't scream," I said. I changed the subject before he could make any more troublesome comments. "Siandus is taken care of. You won't have trouble with them anymore."
I sat down on the soft armchair beside his double four-poster bed and briefed Niklaus on everything that had happened, but when I mentioned Lunarian's name, he clenched his fists in anger, "I thought you killed him."
"I said he would probably die of blood loss," I corrected him, "I never said he was dead."
"What did he want?"
"He gave me an envelope-"
"What did it contain-?"
"Stop interrupting me!" I growled, annoyed. It was enough trouble running these ridiculously easy errands for him without him interrupting me the whole time during the feedback.
I gasped when I felt pain in the inside of my elbow, and a glance told me that Niklaus had planted a knife there.
"You will show me some respect," he said menacingly, but no emotion other than irritation stirred inside me. I did, however, value my life, so I decided to do as he said.
"I never opened the envelope," I hissed, trying my best to ignore the pain in my arm, "I told Heath to pass the message on to Lunarian that I want nothing to do with him."
Niklaus nodded. I decided not to tell him about Ylnor. If he wanted more beneficial soldiers, he could find them without my help. I was sick of him already.
"Is Aurora the only air elemental alive?" I asked innocently.
"What has she done now?" he sighed.
"I asked you a question," I said, "Answer it with a statement, not another question-"
I let out another yell as another knife was plunged into my arm, a little higher than the first. I could not even keep track of Niklaus's movements, and that annoyed me.
"Her father is in captivity underground," he told me, glaring at me, "He tried to kill me and my warriors numerous times. He refused my offer of working for me, so I recruited his daughter instead."
"I see," I said. I glared at him for a moment, until he roughly pulled the knives out of my arms. Without saying anything, I got up to leave, but Niklaus blocked my way, "What?"
"What did you see earlier?"
"Well, Siandus, the view as we got back, the interior of the castle, your doorknob and now you," I said sarcastically, "I don't have time for any more chitchat. I need to go to sleep so that I can get up early tomorrow to train. If you remember correctly, I have someone I would very dearly like to kill-"
I growled angrily when I was slapped in the face with a force that cracked my neck. This was really starting to get on my nerves. People randomly thought that they would be obeyed if they slap me in the face, and it was starting to annoy me beyond anything else. I glared up at Niklaus, refusing to even brush my burning cheek.
Without saying anything, I left the room and returned to my own.
I kept a steady lookout, pausing for a moment before every doorknob, right up until Sebastian and the other three started asking questions, which I, of course, could not answer, so I just stayed in my room, hoping the ghost had been my imagination running wild.
I sat on my bed, staring at the doorknob, for the following few days, even peeking every few minutes when I took a shower. I knew I was going insane, but it had felt so real. I knew I saw that face, but I had no way of explaining to myself - without downright telling myself that I was insane - how the face had come through the doorknob. I considered it being Manson who had made me hallucinate, but I knew that he would not do such a thing without reason, at least not to me.
I soon returned to my training, sparring with both Sapphire and Sebastian simultaneously, and glad when I did not need the powers of my Change at all. Soon Sebastian set me up against Aurora, and I was surprised at how strong she was. She nearly countered me: her air manipulation was a bit of a hassle against my water, for water could not really cut or block air, so I had to dodge all her attacks while trying to come up with a plan to gain victory, which is where Sebastian’s earlier strategic training came in handy. I won against her after a lot of cussing and swearing, and then fought each Arrow and Luka. They were both stronger than me, and it left me feeling annoyed than I had been in a long time.
"Get Claude's ass over here," I snapped at Sebastian, "I'm training with all three of you."
"Yes, my lady," he replied before disappearing in a blur.
When I turned back around, I saw Luka holding Sapphire's hand, who was staring at the floor. I had been looking for someone to take my irritation out on. Growling with anger, and surprised that I felt such a troublesome emotion, I took Tio and sliced at her hand, making her shriek and pull away with a bleeding wrist.
"God damn it!" I shouted. Luka swore at me before kneeling down beside her, but I held Tio's blade to his neck, "You are not allowed to go near her ever again. The two of you are forbidden to communicate by any means whatsoever!"
"What is wrong with you?!" Luka growled, "Just because you lost your humanity taking the lives of other people doesn't give you the right to take away our free will!"
"No free will or no life, your choice. If you remember correctly, Niklaus makes sure my every wish becomes reality," I said, just above a whisper, and glared at Sapphire, watching her tears fall to the floor, "Stop crying and clean yourself up. You have ten minutes."
"Yes, my lady," she said, running from the room.
"You're not seriously still expecting her to train, are you?" Luka cried, "Are you out of your mind?"
"I will kill you, fire elemental," I said menacingly, "We really are supposed to be mortal enemies, in any case."
"Because of the elements we control? Seriously?" he said. He shook his head and turned away, "You really have lost your mind."
Over the following few days, I trained with all three my servants. Claude was expressionless as always while trying to cut me to pieces, but Sapphire was slow at shooting at me. The training was satisfactory, however, and often left me nearly unable to walk because of my sore muscles, but now that I looked I could see that the other three were all matching up to my strength, so I decided to ask Niklaus if I could run more errands for him.
“I am not certain that you are ready for more errands,” he told me one afternoon. “You are too reckless. Like you, I have a reputation to uphold.”
“Tell me what I should do and I’ll do it,” I pressed. He sighed.
“My supply of ingredients is running out,” he said, gesturing to the table behind him.
It did not look to me as though it needed any stacking: as it was, there was barely enough space for the ingredients that occupied the space.
“You want me to get you alchemic supplies?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. “I didn’t even know you used these.”
“I have a supplier,” he said, walking to the desk and retrieving a piece of paper, “In the town of Kiana, there is a man by the name of Coilin. He owns the town’s clothing shop, but he sells these kind of ingredients in the black market.”
He reached inside his pocket and took out a single gold coin, and handed it to me along with the piece of paper.
“Be back before dark.”
I nodded and left. The journey to Kiana did not take me long. I travelled with Appoloin and reached it in less than an hour, and then the angel disappeared again. The guards seemed to want to keep me outside, but their eyes came to rest on the snake emblazoned on the shoulder of my coat and they let me through.
“Where can I buy some clothes?” I asked them.
“Coilin sells clothes,” one said, “His shop is in the main street. You won’t miss it.”
I nodded and started walking. I did not pay attention to anything around me and simply searched for some sign of this Coilin. I did not have to look for long. After twenty minutes of walking, I came across the most flamboyant sign yet, with Coilin’s name spread out in extravagant font in yellow on a blue background. I entered. He was busy taking the measurements of a woman.
“Welcome,” he told me. “I’ll be right with you.”
I waited impatiently as he finished with his customer and then approached me.
“What can I do for-“
Before he could finish his sentence, I thrust the piece of paper Niklaus had given me into his hand. He opened it and skimmed the contents, took a watchful look around the shop, nodded meaningfully at the man who seemed to be his assistant, and led me through the shop to the back.
“I haven’t heard from Lord Niklaus in a long time,” he said when we were through the door and in a massive but dimly lit room. I did not answer, but simply watched him go through the list while muttering to himself. “Fadeleaf, where did I – ah, here it is … Steelbloom, Steelbloom, here … Dreamfoil, here … Stonescale oil, haven’t seen that one in a long – where is it – where did I – ah, here …”
When he had finished collecting all the ingredients and stacked them in a large bag, I handed him a golden coin and he led me outside through the back of the shop. I looked up and saw that the sun was beginning to set, so I just Summoned Appoloin and made for the mansion and gave Niklaus the ingredients.
“Well done,” he said, setting the bag down beside his table.
“What did it matter when I returned?” I asked, “Do you still not trust me?”
He chuckled. “Not the case at all. There is a man who needs to be tortured tonight. Would you care to do the honours?”
It turned that the victim was a fool who had been spying on Niklaus’s mansion for several days, and needed to be taught a lesson. When I was finished with him, he refused even to say Niklaus name.
I took a long nap the following afternoon and, that night, minutes after the sun had set - I was not afraid of the curfew anymore, and I knew that the vampires who lived here would not hurt me - I was walking along the empty corridor leading to Niklaus's room to tell him to start training me, Tio strapped to my back. I was already wearing my pyjamas - black boxers, a plain black shirt with thin straps instead of sleeves and bare feet was enough in the heat of the mansion - and was halfway to the door leading to his room when it happened yet again.
Translucent, pale blue figures emerged from inside the paintings. Some were missing ears, others eyes or teeth or noses or fingers, and one held his head under his arm. When I looked past my fear and the gore, I saw that the people who emerged were, in fact, the people painted in the portraits.
They reached out to me with hands worn with age, some with skin dangling and revealing the glowing snow white bones underneath. When I tried to turn around to run away, I tripped over my own feet and fell to the floor. I immediately turned around to face them, backing away backwards on all fours as the zombie-like hands reached out to me and groans filled the air, begging for help.
There was nothing I could do. My body had frozen, but the pace with which they approached me never slowed. My vocal chords would not cooperate. My breath was stuck midway in my throat. And all the while ugly, dirty nails reached out to me.
Just as their touch made contact with mine, I let out a scream, covering my head with my hands as their nails dug through my flesh.
Their touch disappeared and I looked up to see Niklaus running toward me. I looked around but there was no sign of the ghosts, but their faces were still printed on the backs of my eyelids.
When Niklaus crouched in front of me, I grabbed at his collar and pulled him close to me, for once not rejecting his touch when he wrapped his arms around me.
"Take the paintings off," I begged, "I don't want any more paintings in the corridors. Please, please - I'm begging you."
"All right," he whispered, hushing me and rocking me backwards and forwards, "What has happened?"
"Just remove the paintings," I continued begging, "Take them off, please."
"Sebastian!" Niklaus called angrily, and after a whooshing sound he ordered, "Remove all the paintings from the walls immediately, and take them to the basement."
"Yes, my lord," Sebastian said from behind me before disappearing with another whooshing sound.
"Come," Niklaus said, trying to help me up, but my legs would not support me. He picked me up and took me to his room, laying me down on his bed. I sat back upright and moved backward until I was against the wall, and hugged my knees.
My back, arms, legs and head all burned where the ghosts' nails had cut through my flesh, but there were no marks to prove that. What did they want from me? And why did they disappear every time Niklaus came near?
"Drink," Niklaus said, and I looked up to see him holding a cup with black tea out to me, "It will make you feel better."
I took it silently and drank all the liquid at once as he sat down at my feet, and I placed the cup on his bedside cabinet.
"I'm not crazy," I told him, "They dug through my skin with their nails. I'm not crazy."
"Is this related to the other night, when I found you on the floor?"
I nodded and said, "They're after me. I don't want them near me."
"Who are you speaking of?"
"The people in the paintings," I replied. When his brow creased into a frown I added, "I'm not crazy."
"I know you are not crazy," he said softly, moving forwards and cupping the back of my head, pressing it against his chest.
* * *
It had been so long. I missed her so much. I did not even attend Lucian's or Rynth's or anyone else's funerals because I was trying to strategize against Klaus. I spent night after night, barely sleeping, trying to look up every documented article of the tampered Mark, hoping against hope that there was a cure to the Dark.
And yet, Heath had returned from Siandus with a torn-in-half letter and a message from her telling me to leave her alone. How could she expect something as impossible from me?
I was pulled from my trance at four knocks on my office door, and tiredly said, 'Enter'.
My spy entered the office, never removing the cloak bearing the illustrations of skulls, never revealing his face.
"Greetings, old friend," he said.
"You have brought news?" I asked, rubbing my burning eyes.
"I recently discovered that another one of the Shadows is not truly loyal to them," he replied, and I looked at him inquiringly, "He is spy to Lord Niklaus."
"That does not ease the position I am in," I sighed.
"All the same," he said nonchalantly, "I also brought other news. The other Shadows wish to recruit her. We cannot let that happen, ever. I am on the verge of discovering a drug that will remove all pain from the body, hence our soldiers will not die until their heads are cut off. We can use them to eradicate the Shadows, and then go after Niklaus."
"Whatever it takes to save Victoria."
"The time is soon upon us that everyone should know my true identity ..."
I looked at him in surprise, to see that he had, for the first time, lowered his hood.
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