The Key to Erebus (Les Corbeaux: The French Vampire Legend Book 1)

By Emma V Leech

Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance, Magical realism, Action & adventure


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44 mins


Eleven years ago ...

For a moment the world seemed to hang, suspended. The acrid stench of smouldering undergrowth and the sickly sweet scent of magic stung my eyes and obscured my vision until tears streamed down my face. And then everything was happening in a blur of movement and noise as the spell left my hands with a ground shaking roar of magic. Despite the power behind it the creature was still moving forward, getting closer and closer - the spell simply wasn’t working. I closed my eyes, stubbornly ignoring the panic that was stealing my breath and making blood thunder in my ears and focused instead on the energy that blazed through my body. There was a blast of air and a crackling, electric rush as the magic increased and forced itself through my hands. Pain seared my flesh and my bones felt molten beneath my skin. I cried out, falling to the ground and knew I had nothing left. I could do no more. All that was left was to prepare for what must come next, when to my astonishment the smell of burning and the copper tang of blood thickened the air. In front of me the monstrous thing wavered before collapsing to the ground, writhing and thrashing wildly, sending plumes of deep purple smoke spiralling into the air. I tried to breathe - to calm my thundering heart - but my chest seemed to be held in a vice. I just sat there stupidly, on the forest floor, paralysed with horror as the obscene thing twitched and finally stilled, and the world became quiet again.
She was lying face down with her head twisted unnaturally to the side, eyes staring blankly out into the trees, an expression of startled surprise frozen onto her face. The image of her charred body, once again a woman’s body, seared like a brand into my mind as reality hit me. The knowledge of what I’d done was overwhelming and I felt bile rise in my throat. I swallowed hard, somehow pulling myself to my feet and stumbling away from the body, before turning back and realising that I couldn’t remember which way I’d come. I was lost.
As I stared desperately out into the night, something else moved in the darkness. Every nerve ending strained with the desire to run as far and as fast as I could - but I knew that if I ran, they’d hear me. I crouched down behind a tree, holding my breath against the scream building in my chest. Minutes passed and I was starting to think that maybe I’d been lucky, when suddenly he appeared out of the shadows and stepped carefully over a rotting log to where I was standing.
The scream echoed around the room, a sharp thing, tangible amongst the safe, beige surroundings of the clinic.
From behind his designer glasses, the doctor’s cold grey eyes regarded me with an expression which I’m sure he thought was benign and understanding, but was actually exasperated at best.
“It’s quite alright, Jennifer, you are perfectly safe.”
“My name’s Jéhenne,” I repeated for the fiftieth time, before gagging and rushing from the room as the smell of burning flesh assaulted my nostrils once again.
I just made it, throwing up my breakfast, not for the first time, in Dr. Leonardo’s gleaming, marble-tiled bathroom.
I heard my Mother’s voice, a soft French accent that was totally at odds with the conservative mother-at-Marks-and-Spencer’s image she tried so hard to cultivate. She sounded like she should be sipping champagne in some chic Parisian bar.
I peered at her through the crack in the door. As usual she had done everything possible to disguise her looks: pulling her thick wavy black hair into a tight bun, wearing no make-up and clothes that smothered any suggestion of the figure underneath. I wondered sometimes if she did it to make me feel better about myself. As I washed my hands I glanced in the mirror above the sink and winced. I didn’t like mirrors.
“You see how it is!” I heard her say. “I cannot let her go on like this. Either give her the treatment or I will find someone else who will.”
“Now, Mrs. Corbeaux, let’s not be hasty. You remember we discussed this and decided that it was too drastic a step for a child of her age. She's only seven after all.”
“No, you decided! I have given you thousands of pounds, as well as weeks of my time, and still she persists with these stupid dreams.”
“They're not dreams!”
Two sets of eyes swivelled round to look at me.
“I’m sure they seem very real to you …” Dr. Leonardo began.
“They’re not dreams. They’re visions … of the future.”
I glared back at them, knowing full well I sounded like a lunatic.
“Voilà! You see!” Mum threw up her hands. “No change at all. I tell you now, you either give her the treatment or we leave and don’t come back.”
“Mum, please…”
“Enough, Jéhenne!”
I watched as the Doctor nodded and turned to me with his most reassuring smile.
“Well then, Jennifer, let’s see if we can’t take those nasty dreams away shall we?”

Chapter 1

When I arrived at the beginning of September, the Dordogne countryside had been warm and vibrant with the scent of summer still lingering but with the cool promise of autumn on the breeze. Now it was barren. Frost still covered the hard ground even though it was well after midday, and the trees looked naked, shivering against the white sky as the wind gusted past.
I took the narrow dirt track through the woods towards Gran’s cottage which stood in the middle of a large clearing. It was a long, low, stone cottage with a barn attached on one side.
Leaving the car outside the barn doors and stepping out onto the gravel path, I braced myself as the icy air cut through every layer of clothing I was wearing. Wood smoke curled from the chimney and the scent made me smile. I would always think of France when I smelt it.
Running to the front door, which had once been painted a jaunty bright blue but was now peeling and faded, I grabbed the handle and pushed hard, wincing as the bottom of the door grated on the stone floor.
As soon as I stepped inside I was enveloped with all the strange yet oddly familiar scents that permeated Gran’s house. Thankfully, the first to hit me was the decidedly normal smell of coffee. I hurried over to the old range cooker where the battered metal pot was sitting and poured out a mug full. Cradling the steaming mug in my hands, I sat in the old rocking chair in front of the log burner, not bothering to take off my coat and scarf just yet.
My mother’s family, the Corbeaux, had been living here for centuries, since the beginning of time if you were to believe everything that Gran said, which I didn’t.
I had ended up living in the UK because my Dad was English. Mum and Dad stayed in France until I was five when, as Mum put it, “I had to get you away from that witch.”
I had always thought that it was just a figure of speech, but since I’d been living with her, I'd begun to have serious doubts.
It had been almost six months since I left my home in the UK. Six months without a word from my parents. Every time I thought about the night of the row I felt sick, remembering the awful things we’d both said to each other.
For the first few weeks I had phoned home endlessly. The first time Mum actually picked up, heard my voice and cut me off without saying a word. I’d sat staring at the phone in shock. I’d also texted hundreds of messages - even sat down and written a letter, something I’d never done in my life before. There was never any response. I realised too late she had really meant what she said, that if I went back to Gran she’d have nothing more to do with me. I was on my own.
The stupid thing was I didn’t even know what I was doing here. In my memories, being with Gran just gave me a feeling of belonging, of being understood. Life with my parents on the other hand, was spent trying to pretend I was normal, even though all evidence pointed to the fact I was weird at best. I just had a gut feeling that the only one who’d give me answers was Gran. When I’d suggested spending some time with her, my parents’ reaction had been shocking. They were violently against me seeing her and yet they refused to give any explanation.
My temper, as usual, got the better of me and I packed my bags and left the same night. I flew out on the next available flight, still in a fury and turned up on Gran’s doorstep without the slightest idea of what to say to her.
My French was pretty rusty as Mum had stopped speaking it to me some years before and when I had arrived, Gran led me to believe she didn’t speak a word of English. I had to struggle to speak French until, one night while we were eating dinner Gran had spoken to me in perfect, if accented, English. I had stared at her in amazement for a moment, before leaving the table and slamming my bedroom door. I’d refused to speak to her for the whole of the next day, in any language. Thankfully it was now coming back to me and I didn’t have too many problems.
I was just beginning to wonder where she’d got to when the door grated again and Gran came into the kitchen. She was carrying a full basket and simultaneously cursing expressively and kicking the door shut.
“Hi, Gran. Here, let me take that for you.”
“Ah merci, Jéhenne, mon Dieu, it’s as cold as the grave today.”
I loved to hear Gran say my name. She pronounced it properly, in the French way, like Jen but with a soft J as in “mirage”.
At school I had inevitably been called Je-Hen, or worse, some awful play on hen or chicken. I’d gotten sick of poultry related nicknames pretty quickly.
I took the basket from her and placed it carefully on the table as I could see she’d collected the eggs from her hens. I wrinkled my nose as another peculiar smell, emanating from a bunch of odd looking roots, joined the warm, herby aroma that always filled the kitchen.
“Er, Gran, what are those for?” I asked, hoping fervently they weren’t on tonight’s menu as they smelt disgusting.
“Heh, don’t worry, they’re not for you. Georgette has her old trouble back again - I said I’d make her a tonic.”
“Gran, don’t you think she should just call a doctor?” I looked at the smelly roots with apprehension. “What if you make her ill?” Or worse, I thought.
I heard an expressive snort, as she went through the door next to the range, into her herb room.
“You could be sued you know,” I yelled.
I couldn’t have translated Gran’s next comment, but it seemed to be along the lines of you can’t get blood from a stone. Well, that was the clean version. My understanding of French swear words was now pretty comprehensive as Gran was colourful with her language at the best of times.
I sighed and sat back down with my coffee. I knew better than to interrupt her when she was brewing something. I wondered, not for the first time, what the hell I was doing with my life. I was stuck in the middle of rural France with a relative who was, well ... odd to put it politely. I had no proper job, and no prospect of getting one.
I peered around the door at Gran who had started muttering to herself under her breath as she tied up a little bundle of herbs. Soft white hair fell in gentle waves to her shoulders and she was wearing a flowery overall of the kind that seemed to be favoured by all elderly French women. Her face was rounded and pleasant, but set with startling green eyes, the same colour as my own. As to her age, that was anybody’s guess. I’d asked her once but she’d refused to answer; anywhere between seventy and eighty maybe?
She wasn’t like any other little old lady though. I’d only been here a few days when I’d heard a furious argument coming from her herb room. I’d nearly broken my neck running down the steep staircase, which was actually more of a ladder that led up to my bedroom. I flew into the room to find Gran holding a wicked looking knife in her hand and not a soul to be seen. She’d shrugged and smiled and carried on grinding something with a pestle and mortar. When I’d asked who she’d been talking to, she said, “Just an unhappy soul, dear. Don’t worry, she’ll find her way.”
The hairs on the back of my neck had prickled and I’d been too freaked out to ask anymore. Mainly because I knew I’d heard two voices.
There had been other incidents too and not all of them around Gran. My nerves were so jangled now that I’d jump at the slightest noise or creak.
Weird stuff tended to happen to me though, or around me at any rate. This had increased my worry that all the women in my family were actually insane, or at least attracted insanity. My Dad, on the other hand, just lived permanently in a genial world of his own, not that I blamed him.
I could also never understand my Mum’s absolute refusal to accept that maybe there was a problem that couldn’t be explained by the usual doctors or shrinks. This was in spite of the fact that when I was little, I’d regularly set fire to the house if I lost my temper - and not with matches.
When I was eight I’d been sent to a psychiatrist because I had weird dreams and imaginary friends. You might think imaginary friends are not that unusual but I didn’t just have one, I had loads. I saw them everywhere and … I didn’t think they were imaginary.
After a particularly embarrassing incident at Hever Castle when I was seven (where I’d managed to freak out an entire coach party of American tourists) we tended to stay away from historic buildings. Not so easy when you live in London.
Eventually though, the treatment seemed to work and I didn’t see them anymore, at least not until my seventeenth birthday when I began to notice odd things again. Sometimes it was just a face in a crowd of people and when I looked again it was gone. Other times I was alone but had the feeling there was someone standing behind me. When I turned around there never was.
I didn’t say anything to Mum in case I got sent back to see some quack doctor but the weird dreams began again at the same time. None of them made any sense to me but they were amazingly real, not to mention scary as hell.
I finished my coffee and hung my coat up but I still felt chilly so I got up to fetch another jumper from my room.
I climbed up the wonky ladder to my bedroom and went to the window. I had just reached to pull the curtains shut when I looked outside and felt my heart stop. Looking back through the window at me was an elderly man’s face. At the same time I heard an ear-shattering scream and clapped my hands to my ears praying that the noise would stop. Then I realised it was me that was screaming and my head hit the floor.
I was woken by a cool cloth being pressed to my forehead. It smelt vaguely of lavender and eased the throbbing in my temples a little. I opened my eyes cautiously to see Gran smiling at me.
“Ça va, chérie?”
My eyes darted to the window, but the curtains were tight shut.
“There was a face,” I pointed to the curtains as I struggled to sit myself back up.
“Oui, chérie.” Gran patted my hand. “It was only Louis.”
“What do you mean it was only Louis?” I demanded. “Who’s Louis? I mean ... he was… he isn’t… I mean, I think he was dead?” My voice sounded kind of squeaky and hysterical and Gran raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Of course he’s dead, chérie,” she said with a puzzled expression. “Otherwise he couldn’t have been outside your bedroom window, could he? You are on the first floor.”
A million responses to this statement came to mind, but my brain didn’t seem to be functioning properly. Instead I just sat with my mouth open.
“Alors,” she continued, “you’d better come and apologise to him, he’s very upset.”
“He’s here?” My stomach had begun to churn and my head throbbed harder. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Nonsense! Don't be a baby, come on now.”
I got to my feet a little unsteadily, putting my hand to the tender spot on the back of my head. “Ouch!”
I sank back onto the chair shivering violently and not caring that I was crushing the pile of clothes underneath.
“They were all real, weren’t they? All those people I used to see?”
“Of course they were real.”
“But the psychiatrists and Mum, everyone said I was imagining it.”
Gran snorted in disgust. “The psychiatrists were idiots, and your mother lied.”
“But they went away, I stopped seeing them,” I insisted.
“Non, ce n'est pas vrai, you just didn’t let yourself see them anymore. They were always there.”
She folded her arms and looked at me critically. “You must be very strong to have suppressed them for so long.”
I looked at her in surprise. “Strong” was never a word I had associated with myself.
Gran sighed and sat on the bed, her hands clasped together.
“Jéhenne, you must understand, your maman, she never had much of a gift, but the worst thing was she denied any knowledge of what she was. She pretended it wasn’t true and turned her back on magic and on me. She simply rejected her inheritance, refused to learn.” Gran sounded disgusted, as though Mum had been a major disappointment to her. “It made her afraid you see, but you, Nina, you were strong. I could see it in you as soon as you were born.”
I smiled at her calling me Nina. She had called me that when I was little. It was an old word, not French at all, but Occitan, the language spoken before French, before France even existed.
“Your maman could see it too of course, that’s why she ran away, she was scared for you, of you too - of what you would become. She thought if she took you away from here that you would never know, it would all go away. She was a fool!” she said. She smiled suddenly, her expression fierce. “But I always knew you would come back.”
“What do you mean she was scared of what I would become? What am I?” My heart had started beating erratically.
“Why, child, I think you know in your heart that you are different, that you have a gift,” she said, as if that explained everything.
I threw my hands up in frustration. “What does that mean, for heaven’s sake? What sort of gift? Am I a witch?”
“Of a sort, yes,”
I looked at her in astonishment, that hadn’t been the response I’d expected.
“But you are far more than that,” she added with a knowing smile. “I will explain, but not now.”
“Not now! You can’t just say something like that and not explain it.”
She got up, smoothing down the hideous flowery overall.
“Oui, Jéhenne, I can and now you must come and apologise to Louis, he’s had a terrible evening. First he died before the end of Columbo and then he had you shrieking at him, le pauvre.”
“He’s had a terrible evening?” I replied indignantly. “He scared me half to bloody death.”
“Don’t swear, Jéhenne.”
I raised my eyebrows in disbelief. “Gran, you swear more than anyone I’ve ever met.”
“Heh! I have more to swear about, chérie, as you will now discover.”
I didn’t like the sound of that.
I sighed. “I’ll come down, just give me a moment, OK?”
She shrugged. “D’accord, come when you’re ready,” she said and made her way carefully down the stairs.
I sat on the chair for a moment, staring at the floor and wondering when the shock would register. I’d just discovered that I really had been seeing dead people and that I was some kind of witch, that should be a big deal, but somehow it was a relief.
No matter how many psychiatrists had explained to me all the rational explanations for what I’d seen, I’d never really believed them.
But Gran had said I was a much more than just a witch. I began to remember, with a creepy feeling, things that had happened in my life. Odd things, usually when I was very upset, that my parents ignored and I always pretended hadn’t really happened at all.
Like when Julia Duggan had been teasing me once again for my carrot-coloured hair when I was six years old and her beautiful blonde locks had suddenly burst into flames. Thankfully, I’d been standing a long way from her and it had just been put down as a freak accident.
I decided I really did feel better. OK I was, as I’d always suspected, a freak, but that was better than a crazy woman, wasn’t it? Gran said she would explain so I would finally have some answers and if she thought it was a gift - well maybe it wouldn’t be so bad?
I was considering this when I realised I could smell fresh coffee and, more importantly, food.
I crept nervously downstairs to see Gran sitting with Louis at the table, writing as he dictated, looking just as if he was alive and well, which he wasn’t.
I looked at him and was unsurprised that he didn’t look especially ghost-like. There was a faint blurring to the edges of him, like in a photo when someone moves at the wrong moment, but he looked pretty solid. The films always made ghosts wispy and see through or else gruesome reflecting the manner in which they died. The truth was much less startling but still somewhat disconcerting.
He saw me coming down the stairs and looked immediately panicked, as though I was a bomb that might go off at any moment. I raised my hand and waved feebly, trying my best to look harmless. “Je suis désolée, Monsieur Louis.” I smiled.
He looked even more horrified so I decided to investigate whatever it was that smelt good and leave him to Gran to deal with.
Gran had made a bœuf bourguignon earlier this morning and the smell was making my mouth water. I picked up the ladle on the counter and gave myself a generous helping, grabbed a hunk of baguette and sought shelter in the herb room.
I made myself comfy in the old wicker chair in the corner; it was covered with an old, faded patchwork throw which I remembered from my childhood. The pinks, blues and greens of the various pretty patterns were tied into the fabric of my memories as tightly as the smell of the cottage.
It was this room, more than anything, that I had always thought of when I remembered Gran. She would stand me on a chair next to her at the bench and explain the name of each herb, plant or root that she was using, what they were for and how to prepare them. I always felt very grown-up and special at these times as Gran never spoke to me like I was a child.
It would be lovely until Mum came in and found us together and then I’d get that guilty feeling crawling down my back, like I’d been caught doing something bad.
I heard the front door grate open then bang shut again and I briefly wondered why Louis hadn’t just walked through the wall. Surely he didn’t need to use the door, although maybe that took a bit of practice. He’d only been dead a few hours after all.
I joined Gran at the table where she had helped herself to the bourguignon. “So what was all that about then?” I asked, settling myself opposite and forking up a mouthful of beef and carrot.
“Unfinished business.”
“Really? You mean that’s true about not being able to move on to the other side if there’s something they need to do?”
“Bien sûr.”
“But why did he come to you?”
“Well, the guide told him to. Everyone who dies is met by a guide to show them the way. In this area souls are often sent to me if there is anything they need to do.”
“Are there many people like you then?”
She grimaced. “Less and less, people think they are so clever nowadays, they are so wrapped up with mobile phones, iPods and computers and heaven knows what else, they have forgotten the old way. They don’t see anymore, they shut out anything they can’t explain with science.” She looked at me with her sharp green eyes and stabbed her fork in my direction. “You know it’s true, Nina.”
Yes, I knew it was true.
I helped to tidy away the bowls and Gran got out the rest of a gorgeous chocolate cake that she’d made the day before. She cut us both a big slice and got a bowl of crème fraîche out of the fridge to serve with it. I’d asked her, half-heartedly to stop making desserts as my jeans were beginning to protest. Thankfully she’d ignored me.
Later, I said goodnight to Gran and went up to my room. I put out a pair of warm pyjamas as my bedroom was freezing in the morning. Squeezing out of my jeans with some difficulty, I thought ruefully that I’d really better go easy on the chocolate cake from now on.
I slipped into bed, pulling my dressing gown over the covers for extra warmth and lay there wondering how Louis was getting on and whether he had been reunited with his family yet.
I fell asleep dreaming of ghosts.

Chapter 2

The next morning was freezing again. I peered around the heavy curtains and rubbed the ice off the inside of the window. Central heating was something I had taken for granted at home; I was definitely missing it.
I grabbed the dressing gown off the bed: it was a revolting pink and red flowery thing that Gran had lent me. On the plus side it was really warm and I wrapped it around myself, shoved my slippers on and padded downstairs to the blissful warmth of the kitchen.
Gran had left a note saying she’d popped to the boulangerie to fetch bread and croissants. I put some coffee on for her and made myself a cup of tea in the hope it would wake me up a bit. I was not what you’d call a morning person.
There was a small purple silk bag lying on the table which seemed to stir a memory. I undid the thin yellow rope that tied it shut and slipped out the contents - Tarot cards. I slid them through my hands admiring the designs and the vivid colours. Some of them were beautiful: The Lovers standing in the Garden of Eden looking up at an angel; The Sun, showing a little boy joyfully riding on the back of a white horse with arms outstretched under a blazing sun.
Others were downright scary: The Devil with his horned head and wings, with a couple chained beneath his feet; The Tower, struck by lightning and on fire, the inhabitants flung from the windows. I wondered what they meant and how they were used. They seemed very familiar. I guessed I must have seen Gran use them when I was little.
At that moment she came in, cursing at the door as usual, and placed a bag of croissants and a baguette on the table.
“Bonjour, Jéhenne, ça va, chérie?”
“Oui, ça va. I made you some coffee,”
I got up to fetch the butter dish and a pot of blackberry jam I’d helped her make when I’d arrived last year.
She put the plates on the table and helped herself to coffee as I systematically pulled a croissant into pieces and loaded it with creamy white butter and jam.
Gran watched me in amusement. She thought it spoiled a good croissant, but then she dipped hers in her coffee which I thought was equally disgusting.
“I was looking at your tarot cards,” I mumbled through the croissant.
“Ah oui?”
“I was wondering if you’d teach me.”
“Bien sûr, I’d be very happy to. Here.” She handed me the cards. “Why don’t you try now?”
I licked my fingers and wiped them on a serviette before carefully taking the cards. I suddenly felt very nervous.
“What do I do?”
“Just shuffle the cards.”
“Like this?” I slid the cards awkwardly one over the other. One thing was sure - the cards weren’t going to tell me to get a job as a croupier.
“That’s fine.”
“Now what?”
“We’ll keep it simple, just pick three cards and lay them side by side.”
“From the top?”
“If you like or just at random.”
I picked three cards and laid them carefully on the table.
“OK, these cards represent your past, present and future. Turn over the first card- this is for the past.”
I bit my lip and turned it over ignoring the tremble in my fingers.
“The Hanged man.”
“Don’t worry,” she said with a smile, “this card is telling you that you have been waiting for something to happen, but there was nothing to do but wait. It means that you have had to suspend your ordinary life and that you may need to make some sort of sacrifice. Turn the next card, Jéhenne.”
I picked up the next card with mounting anxiety and gasped as it revealed the Death card. Gran laughed out loud.
“Oh, Jéhenne, the look on your face!”
“Well, I’m glad someone finds this amusing,” I muttered.
“The Death card rarely means an actual death - more it is the death of a situation or a cycle in your life. This card is telling you that it is useless to hold on to the past but that you must welcome the birth of a new period in your life.”
I turned the third card to see a man holding what looked like a big wooden stick in a defensive pose, six other sticks were pointing towards him. Gran frowned.
“The Seven of Wands. You are willing to fight for what you believe in, and you will have to fight. You may be outnumbered, but you must believe in yourself. If you do, you can achieve anything.”
I glared at the card in question. “That sounds pretty ominous.” It was obviously a load of old rubbish anyway.
Gran smiled. “The cards are nothing to be afraid of, Jéhenne. They serve to help you, to prepare you for what may come.”
I drank the last of my tea and eyed the cards warily. “OK, if you say so.”
“Go and get dressed now. Sitting around in your pyjamas at this time of the morning … I’ve been up for hours!”
I groaned at Gran’s scolding. I could well believe she’d been up before the sun.
“Oh all right.”
I couldn’t put off facing the bathroom any longer. It was a tortuous experience though, like getting washed in a fridge.
Clouds of steam immediately fogged up the tiny room as the hot water hit the cold air. Washing at record speed, I then groped around in the fog for the towel as goose bumps prickled my skin.
Finally dry I pulled on jeans and a thick, woolly moss green jumper which went well with my hair.
I’d been teased my whole life about my bright red hair and been called the usual names - from Duracell to carrot top - not to mention little red hen (back to the poultry jokes).
No matter what I did to it, it had hung long and lank. That wasn’t the worst of it though. I’d been small and scrawny with pale white skin, covered in freckles which did nothing to camouflage the acne. Then I turned seventeen.
At first I noticed simply that my skin had cleared up almost overnight, which was fantastic. I remembered being really happy that at least I didn’t have spots on my birthday, but fully expecting them to reappear. Then over the next few weeks my freckles faded, my hair got glossy and wavy and my figure, well, it ‘filled out’, to put it mildly.
I’d never really bothered with bras, being as flat-chested as any skinny boy, but suddenly I found I was in serious need of some new undies.
None of this was unusual for a teenage girl, of course, but usually it happened over a few years or at least months. Six weeks on from my birthday I didn’t recognise myself. I was completely bewildered. Now instead of being teased as a skinny, ginger freak I was the subject of rumours about plastic surgery, boob jobs, skin grafts - you name it.
Frankly I didn’t blame them. I almost wished I could go back to how I was. At least if I kept my head down I had gone relatively unnoticed. Now I was stared at by the boys and glared at by the ‘popular’ girls as they bitched about how much money I must have spent to create such a transformation.
Well alright, I almost wished it, but not quite. I won’t deny it, it was nice to be looked at not because I was a freak but because I was, OK yes, still a freak but at least I was reasonably pretty.
The strangest thing of all though, was how Mum looked at me, or rather didn’t. I’d thought she’d be pleased for me, but instead it seemed to make her incredibly nervous, and if I mentioned anything about it she’d change the subject.
I rubbed the mirror with a towel to get rid of the fog and looked at this new me. More than a year had passed and I still hadn’t gotten used to my reflection.
I’d let my hair get long, down to my waist, and it hung in heavy waves framing my face. I had a straight nose which I’d always thought a bit on the big side, and a full, wide mouth. I guessed my eyes were my best feature; they were an unusual shade of green, just like Gran’s.
Alright, so I wasn’t ugly, but I’d gone through seventeen years of hell before it happened and I didn’t have the confidence that went with being born pretty. If a boy ever did come and speak to me I still believed I was the scrawny, unattractive kid I’d always been and usually stammered something incredibly feeble.
I’d never been very popular at school. I’d quickly gained a reputation for being weird and had mostly kept to myself. I generally hung around with the nerds and other outcasts, but once my appearance changed even they rejected me. I’d had a few dates but the boys were clearly not interested in anything other than my new look and they’d all ended in disaster, one way or another.
I decided not to dwell any longer on my tragic love life and instead to go and get some fresh air.
Gran was in her herb room so I popped my head round the door to say I was going for a walk. She was engrossed in a massive old book which she’d propped up on a big stone mortar and she waved absently at me, without taking her eyes off the page.
I grabbed an apple from the big, chipped blue bowl on the kitchen dresser and yanked the door open, wincing as usual as it scraped the stone floor.
Outside the air was still icy cold but the sun felt good on my face even though there was little heat in it.
Munching on the apple I walked around to the back of Gran’s cottage through the orchard.
I opened the gate that led into a big field that Gran let a local farmer cut for the hay and headed towards the woods that edged the field off to the right. The land rose steeply here but if you climbed to the top there was an amazing view across the valley. I walked a bit farther along than usual before beginning the climb up.
I was beginning to feel warm despite the chill of the morning when I noticed what looked like the entrance to a cave. There were many in this area, called Grottes in French.
Jumping down from the boulder I was on I walked farther down to the mouth of the cave. As I looked around the opening I noticed a little ledge carved into the stone.
On the ledge were a torch and a packet of spare batteries. I wondered if Gran had left them there, though I doubted she could make the climb anymore. She was amazing for her age, but she was still an old lady. Deciding that it had probably been walkers or maybe even the farmer who worked the adjoining field I took up the torch and headed through the narrow entrance and into a long corridor.
Thankfully it was tall enough for me to stay nearly upright so I carried on to the end of the tunnel and straightened up in the darkness. I shone the light around the walls looking hopefully for some signs of prehistoric paintings. Instead, the beam from the torch landed on the figure of a man, sitting on a rock and looking straight at me.
There was no sound. I might even have stopped breathing. Then there was a sigh and the shadows shifted and danced as the figure stood up. I backed away, trying to aim for the corridor whilst keeping him in the torch light but he had disappeared.
With my imagination on overdrive I frantically swung the torch back and forth until I felt the cool damp wall of the cave against my back. Feeling a little more secure knowing he couldn’t surprise me from behind I made another pass with the torch. As I turned to follow the light my heart thudded. He was standing just inches from me.
My heart began again, hammering painfully against my chest and my eyes flew from one part of the cave to another, trying to figure out a way past him through the darkness. He looked perfectly capable of outrunning me so I decided I wasn’t willing to risk it. I just stood there frozen with shock, helpless and completely terrified.
“Buenos días, señorita.” He spoke without warning and I uttered a small scream of fright before bolting towards where I thought the tunnel began. I prayed he wouldn’t follow, but he crossed the cave floor with lightning speed and took hold of my arm, steering me in the other direction as I screamed again, struggling against him.
“I think you’ll find this way is a little easier.” He laughed, a gentle sound against the drumming in my ears.
I struggled to get free but he was unreasonably strong and completely ignored me as I tried to pull away. He simply carried on in the direction he’d started, dragging me with him, just glancing at me curiously now and again. I saw his teeth flash in the torchlight and shivered with cold and horror.
Still holding my arm, he tugged me towards a high wall covered with ivy tendrils. There, he let me go and brushed some of the vines aside, revealing a gap in the rock just big enough for a man to get through without much trouble. He grinned and gestured for me to go through. I didn’t want to stay in the dark of the cave so I darted forwards as quickly as I could.
I found myself on the other side of the hill, blinking in the sunlight.
The man followed.
He was quite tall and slender in an elegant kind of way and looked rather less threatening in the daylight, though I kept a good distance from him just in case. His long, ebony hair was pulled back into a ponytail, revealing high cheek bones and a pair of eyebrows that were raised inquisitively above deep brown eyes.
He looked in his early twenties but was strangely dressed, black trousers, a white shirt and a green silk waistcoat. A bizarre choice of outfit for climbing around in caves.
He looked at me with an amused smile on his face as I put some more distance between us. From the way he’d addressed me, I guessed he was Spanish but he spoke to me in perfect English.
“Allow me to introduce myself.” He seemed to be ignoring the look of terror on my face. “My name is Felix Rodríguez.”
“Keep away from me!” I stooped down to grab a fallen branch, the tremor in my voice betraying my fear. I carried on moving back, keeping my eyes on him and holding the branch in front of me.
He watched, amused, until something made his eyes widen. He reached out a hand in alarm but I didn’t stop moving - until I backed into a tree stump and fell, hitting my head hard on the ground for the second time in twenty-four hours. Stunned for a moment, I lay still. Felix was looking down at me in concern.
“Are you all right?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
I breathed out, winded, and he reached for my hand as I scrambled away in alarm and struggled to my feet. I stood still, scowling at him and rubbing the back of my head.
He gave an apologetic smile. “I’m very sorry for startling you. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t realise I was so frightening,” he said with a wink.
I stared at him in outrage.
“It’s nothing personal, Felix, but when someone jumps out at you in a dark cave and then drags you around by the arm, I’m not sure what kind of impression you expected?”
His eyes twinkled and he laughed. “Well, you seem to have recovered now anyway.”
I sniffed, but it was true. Now we were out in the open, and I could see him properly, he didn’t seem quite so terrifying. I was actually a bit embarrassed.
We stared at each other warily for a moment before he decided to try again. “I think we got off on the wrong foot. How about you tell me your name?”
I frowned at him but figured giving him my name couldn't hurt. “Jéhenne Corbeaux.”
His eyes widened incredulously. “You’re a Corbeaux?”
I frowned a bit harder, suspicious all over again. “Do you know my family then?”
He laughed out loud. “Of course, I have known Inés Corbeaux for many, many years.”
I thought that was a bit much. He wasn’t much older than me so he couldn’t have known Gran as long as all that. “But I never knew she had such a beautiful … granddaughter?” he added, sounding far too smooth.
“Yes she’s my grandmother.” I was irritated that I was becoming less cross with him now and determined that I wouldn’t be charmed.
“I definitely would have sought you out sooner if I’d known,” he replied, and I noticed how his eyes sparkled with mischief as he flashed another enchanting smile in my direction. I felt my stomach flutter despite my annoyance. He’d turned on the charm full throttle now. I wasn’t sure whether I should make a run for it or invite him home for lunch. “In fact, that is where I’m going now, if you will allow me to walk back with you?”
I felt a lot happier now, knowing he was a friend of Gran’s.
“Well OK, but I don’t know the way from here,” I admitted.
“I do.” He flashed that smile at me again and I Looked quickly away. We walked along in silence for a little way until I got up the nerve to speak to him again.
“Why do you want to see Gran, I mean Inés?”
“Reina sent me ahead to check the cave was still usable. She is visiting Inés to give her some news”
“What on earth would you use the cave for?” I asked in astonishment.
His eyebrows flew up again.
“Why, for the council meeting of course!” he replied, giving me a strange look, as though that should have been obvious.
“Council meeting?” I tried to imagine the municipal council members clambering over the rocks. As there wasn’t one of them under the age of sixty and meetings were usually held in the salle des fêtes, this seemed unlikely.
“Why on earth would they want to hold a council meeting in a cave?”
Felix stopped suddenly and stared at me intently.
“You are Inés Corbeaux’s granddaughter?” He seemed suddenly anxious and my nervousness returned.
He stared at me, as though he was sure I was lying to him but he couldn't figure out why.
“And you’re of her blood? I mean to say, you’re not adopted?”
I glared back at him. I didn’t know what he was getting at but I had the feeling I was being insulted.
“Of course I’m not bloody adopted.” I felt aggrieved, though I knew at some level I was being unreasonable, after all there’s nothing wrong with being adopted, but I had the distinct feeling the morning was taking a direction I wasn’t going to like.
He stared at me some more and then his expression changed completely as if he suddenly understood some private joke and he began to laugh.
“Oh. Oh dear, that’s priceless,” he spluttered, bursting out laughing and looked far too pleased with himself. “You don’t know! How is this possible? And she hasn’t told you!”
I stopped and glowered at him.
“Told me what exactly?”
“Oh no!” He held his hands up in mock defence. “That is definitely a conversation you need to have with Inés.” He smiled broadly. “Though what I wouldn’t give to see your face when you do.”
We had rounded a corner at this point and I recognised a narrow path that led back towards Gran’s house.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets and stomped off ahead of him as fast as I could. It seemed Gran had some serious explaining to do.
The route back was easier than climbing rocks but also a great deal further so by the time I got to the cottage I was feeling breathless, hot and very irritated. This was not helped in the least by the fact that Felix had effortlessly kept up with me and without having broken a sweat.
I wrestled with the door which seemed to be stiffer than usual and flung myself into the cottage.
I was about to demand an explanation when I noticed a beautiful woman leaning against the fridge. Her hair was black and glossy and flowed down her spine in silky waves. She had flawless, olive toned skin, a full, wide mouth, and intense dark eyes that glanced briefly at me as I entered the house. This, I assumed, was Reina.
She was dressed extravagantly and was covered in jewellery, a dozen silver rings and studs dangled from her ears, a huge ornate silver necklace inlaid with turquoise was clasped around her neck, and silver bracelets clinked gently as she moved her arms. I gaped at her for a minute, until I saw the look on Gran’s face. She was at the kitchen table and her mouth was tight with worry. Felix followed me in.
“Jéhenne, I’m so glad you’re back. I need to talk to you,”
“Yes, I think you do.” I crouched beside her, taking her hand gently. “Are you OK though?”
She patted my hand in return.
“Yes, yes I’m fine, but there is so much to do, things that I need to tell you.” She sounded agitated.
“We will leave you now, Inés,” said the exotic looking woman. “I shall see you tonight at the meeting.” Her voice was deep and rich, heavily accented.
“Yes, Reina. Thank you for coming.”
“It is always a pleasure to see you, Inés, though I wish the circumstances had been different.” She smiled, showing dazzling white teeth, and bent to embrace Gran.
“Ven, Felix,” she snapped, as though addressing a dog, and though he threw me another dazzling smile he followed without protest.
Gran got up and went over to the big dresser at the bottom of the stairs. It was a massive thing in dark wood and heavily carved with a hunting theme. Dead pheasants and rabbits draped over each other and there was a scene with a chasseur, or hunter shooting a deer. I’d always hated it when I was little, it had given me the creeps.
Gran opened the cupboard door, which creaked ferociously. It seemed there wasn’t a door in the house that opened without protest.
Gran fished about in the depths for a moment and came out clutching a home-made bottle of some clear liquid, which I guessed to be a kind of home-brew called eau-de-vie but knew for certain would be absolutely lethal.
She picked up two small glasses with the other hand and returned to the table. My misgivings about what she needed to tell me were growing by the second.
Gran poured out two shots of the clear liquid and handed one to me. “Santé.” She raised the glass and proceeded to down it in one. She’d apparently made it from a bumper crop of plums a couple of years before and as I didn’t want to offend her, I took a small, ladylike sip. The cold liquid hit the back of my throat and seemed to strip a layer of skin off my mouth on its way through. Bloody hell. It was a waste of good plums if you asked me.
However a warm and not unpleasant glow had begun in my stomach and I looked at Gran to see what came next.
She smiled ruefully. “I don’t know where to start.”
I looked down at the table, tracing a pattern with my finger on the colourful blue and yellow oilcloth that covered it as I waited for her to decide.
“Jéhenne, the world your parents took you to was not the world you were destined to inhabit. If you had stayed here with me, you would have been prepared. I would have taught you everything. As it is we have little time and I have so much to explain.” She paused and poured out another shot of eau-de-vie. I covered my glass with my hand. “This world is not as it appears, there is another hidden beneath the surface that is not visible to most mortals. You know already that you can see the dead.” She looked up at me and I nodded mutely.
“What about Felix and Reina, did you notice anything about them?”
I shook my head this time.
“They looked just like ordinary people, oui?” she queried. “Maybe they are a little more exotic than the usual but nothing extraordinary, non?”
“No, I guess not.”
“They are Nagual.” She sighed at my blank expression. “Shape-shifters. They can change into another form - an animal.”
I remembered when I was a kid watching cartoons of Tom and Jerry and laughing when, as Tom realised Jerry was about to blow him up or drop a piano on him, his jaw would literally drop to the floor. I had a feeling I was doing a fair imitation.
“Oui,” She nodded and took a breath, obviously realising I was going to need rather more information than this to buy into the story. “There are many other supernatural creatures that live in this world, either side by side with mortals or in secret. The Korrigan, for example, are secretive and dangerous. They inhabit water sources, wells, fountains and waterfalls and don’t interact at all with the mortal world unless humans make the mistake of getting too close. Faeries are a different story, the Light Fae that is, there are also Dark Fae, who will likely murder you if you refer to them as Faeries, and Elves too.”
“Faeries and Elves?”
My voice sounded funny, like it was far away and I wondered briefly just how strong that eau-de-vie really was. I stared at Gran, wondering which of us had finally lost the plot. I had a feeling it might be me as I felt instinctively there was truth in what she said.
“How can you tell what they are?”
“Not easily, because the Light Fae in particular do very well amongst mortals. The Elves and Dark Fae don't settle here as a rule, they find our world too toxic. But the Light Fae seem to manage. As a race they have beautiful skin, golden hair and blue eyes. They tend to be rather voluptuous as they have a very sweet tooth. They often end up as pâtissières or chocolatiers. You know Anaïs at that wonderful boulangerie in Brantôme?”
“No way!”
“Faerie.” She nodded. “Though she doesn't know it,” she added thoughtfully.
I frowned, considering. “Oh!” I said suddenly. “What about the lady in the Chocolaterie in Perigueux, where we bought those amazing Mendiants?” These were fat little discs of dark chocolate studded with candied peel, nuts and raisins. We’d eaten the bag full before we’d even got back to the car.
“Faerie.” Gran nodded and smiled.
“Oh, and the man in the boulangerie at Saint Saul?”
She shook her head this time, her lips pursed.
“Oh. Well, what else is there?”
He face changed, suddenly angry. “Jéhenne, this is not a game!” She slammed her glass down on the table and I jumped. “Some of these creatures are more dangerous than you can imagine. They must always be treated with the utmost respect.”
“Faeries are dangerous?”
She nodded, her expression grave. “Never ever trust the Fae, Jéhenne, especially Elves, they're tricky bastards. Ghouls are another matter.”
“What are ghouls?”
I had a feeling I didn’t want to know.
“Ghouls are basically good, often quite shy and would never harm a living creature. They live within the bodies of dead mortals and are sometimes mistaken for zombies. They can be unpleasant to deal with though, depending on when they chose their … erm new host or body. Even though they are able to move from body to body, they often don’t as most of them don’t seem too bothered by appearances.” Gran closed her eyes and swallowed hard. “They live on dead flesh.” She glanced at me to see how this had gone down.
“Oh.” I swallowed hard as that information sank in. “That’s just ... disgusting!” I exclaimed. My stomach churned and I could feel acid in the back of my throat. I snatched up my glass of eau-de-vie and downed what was left. It took my breath away and I struggled for air for a moment or two but at least it steadied my nerves.
“You mean dead bodies, don’t you?”
Gran bit her lip and nodded. “Not always, it’s much harder to get hold of nowadays and they’re not bad creatures, some live on raw animal flesh, but … for preference …”
I groaned.
“OK, what else?”
“Jéhenne, there isn’t time to tell you everything now but the reason we have called this council meeting is because a keeper has been murdered.”
“Murdered?” I said, horrified. “How, and what’s a keeper?”
Gran sighed and rubbed her eyes, she looked exhausted.
“Since time began the supernatural world has fought battles over its most precious artefacts. These are things that hold great power for those who possess them and in the wrong hands can cause untold damage. The wars that were waged over them killed so many, and caused such misery that even the most bloodthirsty among us became weary of it.
“A council was created with a representative from each group of creatures to see if a peaceful solution could be found. It took decades of discussion and many more died, but eventually they came to an agreement. The council decided that many of these objects would be placed in the care of the keepers.”
Gran got up and fetched the baguette she’d bought earlier, along with a Camembert, which had been sitting under a small glass dome on the dresser. She put them out on the table and handed me a plate and a knife.
“Keepers,” she continued, while she cut off a big chunk of baguette for herself, “are peaceful and secretive creatures. They have no interest in power or wealth or the lives of others. They do however like to own things; these things are generally of no great value and are usually come by honestly. They would never consider murder to get their hands on an object, no matter how they coveted it. They are also very good at hiding things.”
“So the objects were given to the keepers and they hid them?”
“Exactement,” she agreed handing me a big chunk of bread. “The keepers are honourable creatures and they know what is at stake. They would die before giving up the objects they held.”
“But why would one have been killed if everyone knows they would never give away the hiding place?” I asked, puzzled.
“We can’t yet be sure the creature didn’t give up its secret. We don’t know where the items were hidden, but maybe someone has found a way to get the information from them.”
“But how?”
Gran shrugged. “That, I don’t know.”
“Who would do such a terrible thing?”
“Oh there are many that would. It’s by no means the first time.” She sounded tired and bitter and I watched as she absently chased a crumb around her plate with a finger. “I think it’s most likely a vampire.”
I stopped chewing.
“You’re kidding?” Though I don’t know why I was surprised after everything Gran had told me so far. “Vampires? No. No! That’s just a legend … isn’t it? It is just a legend isn’t it, Gran?
Gran didn’t look up but stared at her plate intently, breaking the crumb into smaller pieces with her nail.”Non, Jéhenne, not just a legend.”
“You mean to say there will be vampires at the meeting tonight?”
Gran nodded.
I got a cold feeling, like ants crawling up and down my back.
“But that’s ridiculous! Aren’t they dangerous?”
Gran looked up suddenly and grasped my hand across the table. “Yes, Jéhenne, they are dangerous. Vampires are among the most powerful and most dangerous of all the supernaturals.” She squeezed my hand harder and stared at me intently. “They are not to be trusted. Do you understand?”
My eyes widened in surprise. Surely she didn’t think I was going to get friendly with a vampire?
“Don’t be fooled, Jéhenne, they can be very beautiful. When they want to they can be extremely charming, fascinating even.” She paused and let go of my hands. “Seductive,” she said, lowering her gaze back to her plate.
I flushed.
“Well, I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about there.” I shifted in my seat uneasily, feeling a little flustered.
“Have you looked at yourself in the mirror recently, Nina? You are beautiful. They will want you, whether you like it or not.”
I could feel the heat in my cheeks, this was a conversation I really didn’t want to be having with my grandmother.
“It is important that you are at the meeting, chérie. It is time you took your place in this world, but for the moment at least, we must make sure you don’t draw attention to yourself.”
“Fine by me!” I nodded vigorously. I couldn’t have agreed more.

Chapter 3

By the time it was dark I had worked myself up to a frenzy of anticipation. I wasn’t sure which emotion was foremost as I was scared half to death, but I couldn’t deny I was incredibly excited too. All the amazing creatures that would be gathering together tonight in one place, things I had believed lived only in legends and faery tales, were actually real. I figured I could quite happily go a lifetime without meeting a ghoul, but I had to admit to feeling a terrified fascination with the idea of seeing a real vampire.
Gran had picked out my most conservative and boring stuff to wear and given me an old, heavy coat which reached nearly to my ankles and a thick black shawl which she had wrapped over my hair and around most of my face. This charming ensemble made me look like a pile of old clothes destined for a charity shop, but when I’d said as much she had snapped back that that was entirely the point.
As we left the cottage Gran had given me a powerful torch and I used it to pick our way through the orchard. It was tricky walking through the low branches and over the rough ground at night but at least there was a bright full moon to help us.
I was worried about Gran getting up to the caves, but she told me not to fret about her and sounded irritable. In the end it was me who needed help when I got the shawl snagged in a bramble just as we reached the edge of the woods, where we were apparently supposed to meet up with Felix.
As I was waiting for Gran to untangle me, something silky smooth bumped against my hand and a warm, sandpaper tongue licked the ends of my fingers. I nearly leaped out of my skin and screamed at the top of my lungs, until Gran grabbed hold of me and gave me a violent shake.
“Sssh!” she hissed, “it’s only Felix.”
I looked around, wondering what the hell he thought he was playing at - licking me, for God’s sake - when the torchlight illuminated a sleek, black panther that was sitting meekly beside Gran. I could swear it was grinning.
“Bloody hell!” I gasped, as I remembered Gran had said he was a shape-shifter. The panther raised his head and made a low growling noise. “Er, hi, Felix.” I gave a half-hearted wave. I was really going to have to get better at this. He got up and sprang with incredible grace onto a big granite boulder and roared, clawing at thin air with one massive paw.
We started to climb and I watched in awe as Gran steadily progressed up the hillside. It was hard going though, wearing the big coat and shawl and I tripped over the hem as I scrambled up the last rock and smacked my knee hard. Cursing under my breath I yanked the coat aside and pulled myself up. Felix of course was waiting for us at the top and to my surprise, so was Gran. She smiled at me smugly as we went into the first small entrance to the cave.
The corridor I had walked though earlier was now lit up with flaming torches and our shadows made mad shapes flicker on the rough walls. I could hear voices now and my heart began hammering as the reality of what was happening really struck me. It was too late to back out now though and we entered the main room of the caves.
At first I was disappointed. I glanced around the room and saw nothing that seemed especially out of the ordinary. Alright, a group of people meeting at night in a cave wasn’t exactly normal, but neither did I see unicorns or winged faeries flying around.
Reina saw us come in and walked over to greet us. She was dressed extravagantly once again, and I wondered how the hell she’d got here in those killer heels. Even barefoot she’d have been a good head taller than me, but now she made me feel small and very insignificant.
She glanced at me curiously, making me feel even more like a walking bin bag and then turned her back on me and began talking in hushed tones with Gran. I used her impressive frame as a kind of camouflage, clearly no one was going to be looking at me when she was there, and peered around her back to get a better look at the room.
A massive fire was blazing in the middle of the vast opening and I looked at the group of people who were closest to us on my right. I realised, with a sinking feeling, that these were the ghouls. In actual fact, they didn’t look quite as gruesome as I had feared they might, though certainly not the picture of health. I wondered if they’d picked up a ‘new outfit’ for the occasion. I pushed the thought aside as my stomach gave a lurch in protest. This wasn’t helped when I noticed a faint but nasty smell coming from their general direction. I swallowed hard and decided to focus on the group next to them. Felix was among them. He had changed back to his human form now and was dressed in tailored trousers and an expensive looking shirt. I wondered how he’d brought the clothes in his panther form.
He was approached by a lovely little blonde with beautiful rosy cheeks who offered him something from a small red tin. He rewarded her with a flash of his dazzling smile and took what looked like a chocolate from the container.
“Wait, rosy cheeks, chocolate - oh right, Light Fae!”
The faerie returned to her companions looking very pleased and slightly dazed. I was glad it wasn’t just me he had that effect on.
Arranged in a circle round the fire were a dozen ornate chairs. They were massive, like ancient thrones and carved in a heavy dark wood. Each one seemed to have a different design on the back, which I guessed was significant to the owner. I assumed these were for the council leaders of each group to take their place.
Most of the council that had gathered at the meeting were standing around in groups talking animatedly and waiting for things to get going. But at the far end of the room I noticed one man had picked up one of the large wooden chairs and moved it to lean back against the wall of the cave.
He looked utterly bored, and was lounging with his long legs stretched out in front of him. I peeked further out from behind Reina to get a better look and felt something stir in my chest.
Even from a distance I could tell he was incredibly good-looking, not pretty like Felix, but more ruggedly handsome and very powerfully built. His hair was on the long side and fairly scruffy, light blond strands fell across his face and over his eyes, with dirty blond tendrils brushing against the base of his neck. He was wearing a pair of ragged jeans that were torn at the hem, and a plain black t-shirt that displayed smooth, muscular arms that were folded across his chest. There was nothing elaborate or adorned about him. He wasn’t wearing expensive jewellery like Reina, or fancy clothes like Felix. So I assumed he wasn’t a Nagual. What then?
I felt the almost overwhelming desire to know more about him and moved from behind Reina and edged along the back of the cave, keeping my head down and out of sight, staying behind the crowd until I could get a better view.
As I was casting my mind over the list of creatures Gran had told me about before we left the cottage, he shifted position and lifted his head. He stared across the cave and looked directly at me so I could finally see his eyes, which even from this distance were a piercing, cobalt blue that glittered in the firelight. There was something entrancing about them, then a flash of something dark… Oh crap. Vampire!
Despite the heat in the caves I felt chilled and darted back out of sight behind a large group, hoping his attention would turn elsewhere. My breathing had turned ragged and laboured from the shock and I closed my eyes for a moment to steady myself. I realised I could feel a tremor in the air, like it had been electrically charged. Waves of energy washed around me. I caught my breath and held it, as I realised he was the source of the power. My skin prickled and with a crawling feeling I realised I'd felt this sensation before. The day I'd arrived in France the taxi that had taken me to Gran's had detoured off the road into the woods. It was dark and I was alone and I'd been sure I was about to become a sensational headline in the next weeks papers. Only the prickling feeling had been there too, and moments later the driver, looking white as a sheet had apologised profusely, claiming engine trouble and taken me straight to Gran.
I frowned, perplexed and after a few moments the feeling subsided. I chanced a look in his direction once more. Behind him stood a tall dark haired man, also extremely handsome and looking at me with an intensity that made my skin itch. But it was the bored blonde male who fascinated me and my eyes returned to him like they had no choice, only to see him in conversation with a stunning young woman. She looked older than me, twenty-five maybe, and was wearing black leggings and boots with a very short denim skirt and a cropped jumper which showed off a tiny waist. She had draped herself over the side of the chair and was whispering to the man and flicking her blonde hair around artfully, fully aware of the picture she was making. I decided I hated her.
I turned to walk back to Gran, feeling unreasonably irritated, and came face to face with Felix.
“That’s Amelia.” He nodded in the blonde’s direction. “She’s quite something, isn’t she?”
“She’s certainly very beautiful.” I felt my irritation increase with the admission.
“Hmm, I find she’s not to my taste. I prefer something rather more … warm-blooded.” He smiled and brushed his finger gently down my cheek and I felt my skin burn in response. Combined with the woolly shawl and the flush in my cheeks I must have presented quite a picture of my own. I imagined it didn’t compare favourably with Amelia.
“Who’s the guy?” I tried not to sound too interested.
“Oh him.” Felix grimaced. “That’s Corvus. He’s the Master of the vampires.”
“The Master?” I glanced back at him and looked quickly away as something in my stomach fluttered. “He must be pretty old then I guess?”
Felix frowned at the expression in my eyes and looked over at Corvus himself, scowling harder and snorting in disgust. “Yeah, he’s practically a fossil.”
I raised my eyebrows at Felix, surprised at the sarky remark.
“So if he's the Master, does that mean he’s head vampire or something?”
Felix pouted and shrugged as though it was of little interest to him either way. “Yes, I suppose it does. Nobody messes with Corvus unless they want to wind up dead, so stay away from him, he’s dangerous.” He sounded snappy and aggravated now but he was just repeating what Gran had said so I figured he was just worried for me.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.” I grinned and walked with him over to Gran.
Despite all the warnings I couldn't help myself and glanced back at Corvus once more. He had resumed his previous position and was staring into the fire. The flames cast terrible shadows across the strong lines of his face, making his eyes look haunted and full of pain. I felt a jolt of sorrow and something else I couldn’t identify deep in my heart, fear perhaps. I shuddered as a strange, desperate feeling settled over me and pulled the shawl further over my head. I reminded myself of Gran's warning and made myself look away, following Felix to where Gran was taking her place with the other council members.
A small, neat-looking French man with white hair and a trim white beard called the council to order. He waffled on for some time, obviously following the order of ceremony which was usual at these events. I let his words wash over me, finding it hard to follow his rather flowery French, and instead looked at the heads of the council.
Gran was sitting next to one of the ghouls, who caught my eye and winked at me. I tried to smile back at him as he seemed friendly, but I was afraid it was more of a grimace. The heat in the cave was intensifying and the smell of the ghouls was getting stronger. I felt my eyes drawn unwillingly back to Corvus. The flames dancing between us seemed suddenly threatening, like some premonition of disaster and my heart began to thud.
I felt a bead of sweat trickle between my shoulder blades and tried to loosen the shawl a little to allow some air around my neck. I could feel my damp hair sticking to me and the scratchy wool of the shawl was driving me mad.
On Gran’s other side was Reina, who had crossed her long elegant legs, I wondered how she had the nerve to sit down in a skirt that short. Not that she appeared to be the shy and retiring type.
Everyone looked up at a commotion which had begun at the entrance to the cave and the whole of the cave's attention was taken by a gorgeous woman. She had long, auburn hair that seemed to have a strange sheen to it like liquid gold. Moving slowly and purposefully toward the council circle she took up position in one of the two remaining chairs. I gasped as she turned around as she had a pair of large black leathery wings on her back.
Felix grinned at my expression and whispered to me. “Celeste always likes to make an entrance. She’s a siren.”
Celeste had arranged herself in the chair and was staring at Corvus with an intense expression that could only be described as hungry. I watched with interest as Corvus kept up his position of staring darkly at the fire and steadfastly ignored all her flirtatious attempts to gain his attention. I grinned smugly as her every attempt was met with cool distaste and then wondered what the hell I was playing at. I tried to focus on something else to keep my attention from wandering back him.
“Who’s the last chair for?” I indicated a vacant space next to Celeste.
“Garou. He used to speak for the wolves but he disappeared years ago. Everyone says he's dead. There are hardly any wolf shifters anymore..”
I raised my eyebrows in question and he continued.
“Those that remain tend to keep to their wolf form, they don't mix with the human world at all and avoid all but their own kind. They never had much interest in the council to begin with.”
I looked around, fascinated and overwhelmed by all the information. “What about the Fae? I've seen the Light Fae, what about Dark Fae and the Elves?”
He shook his head. “The gates to the Fae Lands are out of bounds, they're not supposed to cross over at all but some still do of course. The Light Fae though.” He nodded at the pretty fairy I'd noticed earlier. “Their King, Auberren, he's never liked the gates being closed, you get all sorts of trade coming from that Kingdom.”
“Like?” I asked, my curiosity peeked.
He shrugged. “Drugs, slaves, weapons.”
I looked back at the pretty fairy with new eyes and frowned but at last the speaker appeared to have arrived at the point of the meeting and had begun to discuss the murder of the keeper.
Suddenly the pretty blonde vampire Felix had called Amelia, hissed and moved with incredible speed so that she was right up in Reina’s face, fangs bared and hands reaching for her neck.
“What did you say, worm?” she snarled, her grip tightening around Reina’s throat. Before anyone could even react there was a blur of movement and Corvus pulled Amelia from the Nagual and threw her to the floor.
A deathly hush fell on the room. Corvus spoke to the quivering girl, now lying in the dirt. His voice was quiet but seemed to burn into my mind, there was no doubt that everyone had heard him.
“If you cannot control yourself you will no longer be welcome at the council meetings, Amelia.” He sounded seductive and deadly at the same time and she cowered at his feet like a dog.
“But, Corvus, she said it was a vampire that killed the keeper.” She kept her eyes on the floor, her voice quavering as she spoke.
Corvus stared down at her before turning to face Reina, who flinched under the weight of his cold blue gaze.
“We have no idea who is responsible for these murders,” he said, watching her steadily, “so I would prefer if you refrained from accusing us so quickly, Reina.”
The air around him seemed almost to blur with the power he radiated. Reina nodded, looking more than a little shaken and sat down without a word.
Corvus turned and dragged Amelia to her feet and returned her to her place outside the circle, silently resuming his chair. Everyone watched him, it was impossible not to. We were all trapped in the cave with a beautiful monster, moving with the deadly grace of the predator that he was, the icy blue of his eyes travelling over each council member in turn.
“I do have some information on that matter for the council however,” he continued as though nothing untoward had happened.
The small white haired man gestured for Corvus to continue. He hadn’t moved an inch during the interruption.
Corvus frowned, drawing his thick blond brows together, which only served to make him look more devilish in the firelight.
“We believe someone has created a fledgling vampire without the consent of the Senate.”
A ripple of alarm went around the room and I glanced at Felix to gauge his reaction. He looked at me and bent his head to whisper. “It is against vampire law to create another without the consent of the Senate. It would mean the fledgling and the maker would be hunted and killed.”
“Why would anyone risk it?”
Felix shrugged, it was becoming a familiar response.
“How do you kill a vampire anyhow, I thought they were immortal.” I kept my voice as low as possible, not wanting anyone to think I was getting ideas.
“They are pretty much,” he admitted, though he looked chagrined by the admission. “But some things can kill them, silver and the sun mainly. As punishment for a crime they stake them to the ground with silver chains so they cannot escape when the sun comes up. For a fledgling it would be a matter of seconds but for an old vampire, it could take hours and hours to die. It would be very painful.”
Felix seemed quite taken with this idea and appeared to be about to expand on the theme when the speaker interrupted.
“The matter of a fledgling vampire must be taken very seriously. Although no one is suggesting a vampire is responsible for these reprehensible events all avenues must be explored. Corvus, you have the matter in hand?”
Corvus nodded. “Everything is being done to find and deal with those involved. I will of course keep the council informed of any progress made.”
The little French man seemed satisfied with this, though I heard Gran snort in disgust, and he continued to speak.
“Then we must proceed with the evidence.” He briskly gestured to two ghouls who bent and lifted a massive rock between them. They moved awkwardly with the weight and bumped Corvus’ chair on their way past. He scowled at them and they quailed under his gaze as he got up. 
“Allow me.” He took the rock from the ghouls as if it was nothing and placed it with care in front of Gran. He nodded at her, stiff but polite before returning to his seat. I was astonished by the look of sheer hatred she gave him. I knew Gran was no fan of vampires but I had no idea quite how intense that hatred was.
Reina was looking equally disgusted and still a little shaken, but she was watching Gran intently.
“Inés,” said the speaker. “This is the only remaining evidence of the crime. I have been assured that a little of the keeper’s blood has been spilt on it. Will it be enough?”
“We shall see.” Her face was grim in the firelight as she got up from her seat and knelt beside the stone. Bending forwards she placed her fingers lightly on the surface and closed her eyes. Her mouth moved forming silent words I could only guess at, and to my amazement tiny white lights danced over the surface of the rock. A sweet familiar smell grew around her and I realised that this was what magic smelt like, that strange cloying perfume that always hung around Gran’s cottage and seeped into everything around her.
Suddenly she stopped and her hands slammed flat against the stone as though it was a magnet pulling her down. Her face was drawn with concentration and I felt suddenly very afraid for her. She was in pain, I was sure. I grabbed Felix’s arm.
“Felix, do something, help her, it’s hurting her.” But Felix just patted my hand and returned a reassuring smile.
“Don’t worry, querida, she's a powerful witch, she is perfectly OK.”
I turned back to Gran who was at that moment released from the stone’s grip and seemed to slump down into a heap. I gasped and ran to her.
“Gran! Gran are you OK?” I helped her to sit up a little and smoothed the hair back from her forehead. The shawl fell over my face as I sank down beside her and I pulled it off impatiently. She blinked at me, confused for a second, and then smiled.
“Oh, Jéhenne, chérie, oui, oui, ça va. I’m fine now. There was just such violence, such pain.” She looked up at the speaker who was watching her with concern.
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Remé, I could see nothing that would help identify the killer. I could only feel the fear and pain of the keeper. He was so brave, so courageous. He did not reveal the whereabouts of the stone, of that I am sure.”
The speaker sighed. ”Well, that is a great blessing. We must give thanks to the goddess and pray his soul finds peace in the next world.” Gran nodded her agreement. The speaker turned to Corvus.
“Corvus, would you mind removing the stone, before its dark energy corrupts the sanctity of the circle?”
Corvus nodded walked over towards us and I felt my heartbeat quicken as he came closer. So close I could have reached out to touch him. He bent to grasp the massive rock and I watched, my mouth dry with awed fascination at the sight of the powerful muscles working under his marble white skin.
He straightened up with no visible effort and was about to turn away when his gaze found mine and for a moment I was certain the world stopped spinning. Our eyes met and a pain lanced through my heart like a lightening strike. I cried out and the rock slipped from his grasp and hit the stone floor with such force the noise echoed and vibrated around the cave. It split in two with the impact and his eyes, which never left my face, widened with shock. I was no more capable of looking away than he seemed to be and I saw so many emotions in his eyes I had no idea what was happening, but I felt sure one had been pure joy.
Before I could even begin to wonder what that could mean he was snarling with fury and a wave of energy hit me and threw me to the floor. He leapt forward in a blur of movement and grabbed Gran, lifting her like a doll and shaking her violently. There was an explosion of light and he roared in pain, dropping her to the floor.
“You will never lay hands on me, night crawler,” she spat at him.
He bared his fangs at her and growled in fury, a terrible sound that echoed around the cavernous space, the agonised pain behind all that incandescent rage making it all the more dreadful.
“What is the meaning of this?”
His voice thundered around the cave and I realised with astonishment that he was pointing at me.
“She is my granddaughter, she is a Corbeaux, of my blood!” said my Grandmother, her tiny frame standing defiantly against him.
“You cannot expect me to believe this is not a result of your sorcery?” His face was stark with confusion and horror and despite my terror I found I could feel nothing but pity for him.
“I neither know nor care what you believe, Corvus. I have business to settle with you and I will have my revenge, make no mistake,” Gran said, her green eyes blazing. “But I swear to you she is innocent and you will stay away from her, or so help me I will make you pay.”
Corvus looked back at me those blue eyes wide with longing for something I didn't understand. He shook his head.
“No!” He sounded furious all over again. “No, it is not possible, it is a trick,” he bellowed.
I looked from him to Gran and back again, utterly bewildered and terrified. My heart was beating so hard I felt sure it would give out at any moment and I couldn't seem to breath. I tried to manoeuvre myself away from him, inching away by degrees, but suddenly he was there, right in front of me. I gasped, as he stilled, his face so close to me. His eyes searched mine and I saw in his expression such desperate sadness and loneliness that it made my throat tight. He reached out his hand, moving slowly, as though he was the one who was afraid and tentatively took a lock of my hair in his fingers, stroking it with his thumb. I heard his breath catch.
“It’s not possible,” he whispered as though talking to himself. I fought back against the urge to reach out and touch his face. The part of my brain that was still functioning was screaming at me that I might as well be thinking of petting a cobra, but something deep inside me wanted to comfort him, wanted more than anything to take that pain from his eyes. He dropped his hand suddenly and glared at Gran.
“I will discover what you plan, Inés, you will not entrap me so easily.” Gesturing towards me he hissed. “This ... is an abomination!” And then suddenly he was gone.
I looked at Gran, my breath coming in gasps and my head beginning to spin. She ran to me and gathered me in her embrace.
“It’s all right, child, you’re safe. I won't let him harm you,” she crooned, as though I was five years old again and had just scraped my knee.
My head was filled with questions but I couldn’t breathe, the heat plus the smell of the ghouls and the magic was making my head hurt and I felt sick to my stomach.
“Need some air!” I managed to gasp.
Gran nodded. “Felix will take you home. You’ll be safe with him.”
I staggered to my feet trying to ignore the incredulous faces and frantic whispering that was filling the cave with a buzzing noise that made me want to scream. I fled towards the exit, stumbling on the uneven ground and didn’t stop until I was outside in the freezing air. I gulped in great mouthfuls like I was drowning and steadied myself against a tree. I was sweating and trembling and it was all too much. The force of the terror and overwhelming emotion of the past few minutes hit me again and I retched and vomited until there was nothing left.
Felix, thank God, had kept a discreet distance but now handed me a small silver hip flask. I fished in my pocket and found a tissue, wiped my nose and mouth and took the flask from him. I sipped at it cautiously and found it to be brandy. I would have preferred a glass of water, but at least it got rid of the taste.
I thanked him and handed back the flask with a trembling hand. We walked in silence until we reached Gran’s cottage.
“What was that about, Jéhenne?” he asked, his voice quiet.
I remembered the terrible pain in those beautiful blue eyes and my heart ached despite the terror I'd felt.”I have no idea. I was hoping you could tell me?”
Felix shook his head.
“I’ve never seen Corvus like that. Not ever. He never loses his cool. It’s what makes him so dangerous.” He looked at me, his expression appraising and curious. “It was unbelievable … like he knew you.”
I felt so cold at that moment I didn’t think I would ever be warm again. My hands were shaking and I was drained, exhausted. All I wanted was to get into my bed and pretend tonight had never happened.
“I’m sorry, Felix,” I said as I reached to open the front door. “I can’t talk about this right now.”
“Of course, I understand. I’ll see you soon though.” He smiled and raised his hand to wave at me.
I tried to smile back but my face didn’t seem to be working so I just thanked him for walking me home and went indoors.
I stood for a moment in the darkness of the cottage trying to let my nerves settle but it was useless. I walked up the stairs to my room, left Gran’s coat where it fell and laid down on the bed fully clothed.
My mind whirled with the events of the evening but I just couldn’t get rid of the image of Corvus’ face. Those blue eyes … But the harder I tried to think about it the further it slipped from my grasp.
Eventually I slept, my mind filled with flames and uneasy thoughts of being lost in the darkness.



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