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Elegy of Twilight Preview

Elegy of Twilight Preview

Elegy of Twilight Preview

Beads of cool water kissed my skin as Wilcox tied my hands behind my back. Coarse rope wove around my waist, binding me securely to the rough wood of the birch tree.

“Not too tight,” called Captain Elroy, hand on his blade as he scanned the glade once more.

Weeping willows grew alongside the pool, and a waterfall cascaded from above like a giant pouring out a basin of water. Flowers grew along the bank like a cluster of ladies-in-waiting, blush and lavender blossoms uplifted as if in worship to honor the sky and water.

“It is done,” said Wilcox as he finished tying me up. He squeezed my shoulder. “We won’t let any harm come to you, milady.”

He was one of the younger knights, shy and good-natured but a bit overzealous when it came to knots. I bobbed my head, not trusting my voice. I hadn’t exactly agreed to this, but I’d had little choice in the matter. 

“Let’s take our places,” Captain Elroy instructed, his deep voice stern. His dark eyes held mine. “Be brave, Lucia. We’ll attack as soon as he appears.”

Rising to my full height, as best I could while tied to the tree, I lifted my chin.

The two knights disappeared into the surrounding wood, and I was seemingly alone. But I knew the truth. The Knights of Veilix—vampire hunters—were determined to catch their latest prey: the vampire king himself. I was the bait. Once he appeared to taste my blood, the knights would attack and free the village from the bloodthirsty tyrant.

I’d be lying to myself if I claimed I wasn’t afraid. Because I was.

The sun set.

An itch settled just under my ears, and I craned my head, unable to give myself relief. Before the evening meal, Lord Elroy had approached me with a demand and a secret. I was to be the bait, but I couldn’t tell anyone, especially not the Head Priestess, for she would never agree to put the life of one of her wards in danger.

But I wanted to help, and I knew why I’d been chosen. I’d been abandoned, left on the steps of the abbey when I was a baby. The Head Priestess never said why, but I guessed it was because of the strange silver runes on my skin. Like a birthmark, they were blemishes on my skin that embarrassed me. I wore long sleeves to keep them hidden, but the runes on my face and neck were not easy to hide.

I waited, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, wishing my arms weren’t tied behind my back. Captain Elroy said it had to look real, as though I were a sacrifice to the vampires, a symbol of goodwill to ask them to leave the village in peace.

The light faded from the sky in hues of azure, blush, and peach. A numbness spread through my bones as a light breeze picked up, ruffling the ends of my dress and stirring the fabric against my legs. If I’d known I’d be spending my evening on the mountainside, I would have worn something warmer.

Goosebumps prickled on my arms, the thin material of my sleeves doing nothing to keep me warm. The neck of my dress was open, on purpose, because I was a sacrifice to tempt him.

Darkness came, every blade of grass sharp like horns, the trees creepy shapes that might emerge into the monster I waited for. And then came a sound like the rush of wind blowing over strings.

It came again, a haunting melody gaining volume as the player strummed with boldness. It wove around me like fingers, and a warmth filled my body as it grew louder. Every inch of me tingled with anticipation, and my breath went shallow. I expected him to appear at any moment, but I didn’t recall any tales of music being associated with monsters.

My eyes adjusted to the gloom as a shape walked into the glade. It was tall, limber, walking on two legs like a man, and as it approached me, ice-cold fear made me shrink away as best I could.

He was here. The vampire king. He’d fallen for the trap. He’d come to devour me.

Slowly, methodically, he approached as though he had all the time in the world to spare. I waited for arrows to fly, distracting him, while the hunters sprang out of their hiding places to capture him.

But nothing happened.

The vampire crept closer, and my limbs trembled.

I pressed my lips together, terrible thoughts twirling through my mind. What if it wasn’t a trap, but I truly was a sacrifice? Had Captain Elroy lied to me?

Panic came over me, and I yanked at the rope, but it was too tight and too late. The vampire stood before me. I forced myself to think. The vampires that haunted the land were vicious and violent, murderers who ripped their prey apart. But perhaps I could talk to this one and convince him to let me go free.

I faced him and a chill swept through me, for he appeared like nothing I’d imagined.

He stood a head taller than me, with piercing blue eyes that cooly assessed me. Rumpled black hair curled around his neck and ears, as though he’d recently run his fingers through it. A shadow of a beard crossed his powerful jaw, and his lips curved back in an amused smirk at what he beheld.

His open shirt revealed a smooth chest, and hooked across his back was a stringed instrument, likely the same one I’d heard earlier. Leaning closer, he sniffed, and when he spoke, his low tones sent a blend of ice and fire through my veins. “Hello, little feast.”

I screamed.

The sound ripped out of my throat as I thrashed, banging my head against the tree trunk in order to escape him. Eyes squeezed tight, I waited for teeth to close around my throat, but the pain never came.

Chest heaving, I waited a bit longer, then peeked one eye open, then both.

The vampire still stood there, staring at me. “Are you quite done?” he asked.

“Please don’t eat me,” I begged.

A cruel laugh came from his lips. “Why not? You were left here to be a sacrifice to me. Were you not?”

“I. . .” I broke off, unsure what to say, and determined not to give away the hunters. Where were they?

His eyes practically glowed as he placed one hand on the tree beside my head. “But you have a dirty secret, don’t you? You’re not truly here to be a sacrifice but to lay a trap…for me.”

How did he know?

“You don’t have to worry about the hunters. I sent them to sleep with my lute. It’s just you and me.”

My heart stopped. “What are you going to do with me?”

He cocked his head. “I’m not sure yet. Depends.”

“On?”

“How entertaining you are.”

I bit my lip, but a whimper exploded from my throat anyway. I’d grown up sheltered in the abbey, but even so, I had a faint idea of what kind of entertainment I might provide as both a meal and. . . something else.

He narrowed his gaze, studying me. “My words distress you.”

Leaning closer, he placed two fingers on my neck and trailed them along the silver runes glistening there. The muscles of my neck constricted, but there was nowhere to go.

Rough fingers caressed my skin as though I were a stringed instrument and just the faintest touch would coax the sweetest tunes. A shuddering breath came and then another when he did not drop his head and bite me. Tonight, I’d have to play his game, and when the sun rose, I’d escape. Except sunrise was so far away.

“Your runes are beautiful,” he purred. “Have you always had them?”

Beautiful. He was the first to call my runes beautiful, but of course, a demented vampire king would think so. Curiosity glittered on his face, and sensing no danger in the question, I gathered my courage and answered, “I have. I was born with them.”

He fidgeted with his belt and pulled out a knife, the glint of it clear in the reflection of light the pool gave off.

My throat went tight. I wanted to look elsewhere, to stare at the cascading waterfall or the ripples in the pool, but my gaze would not be torn from that knife.

“Please,” I begged. “Whatever you’re going to do, do it quickly.”

Befuddled amusement crossed his face. “I’m beginning to think you have the wrong idea about me, lady of the moon.”

The knife disappeared as he pressed his body against mine. I felt the hard lines of his body, solid chest, a deep, masculine scent, and the heat of his breath. The rope fell away from my waist, although my arms were still tied.

He was still too near, and he bent his dark head, lips brushing my ear as he whispered, “We are going somewhere quiet where we can talk, so no more screams, or I’ll have to gag that pretty mouth of yours.”

A silk cloth blinded my vision. I stumbled, but strong arms caught me, then hauled me over his shoulder like a log. My face bumped against his back, but it was impossible to steady myself with my hands tied. To show him my displeasure, I grunted. In response, he patted my bottom.

Blood rushed to my head as he carried me semi-upside down. The roar of the waterfall became louder rather than more distant. My other senses sharpened without my vision, and I smelled a combination of leather and wood, the sweet musk of closed-in air, the earthy scent of fungi, and the humidity of a closed-in place that had lots of moisture.

The vampire swung me off his back, and I landed on something spongy. I struggled to sit upright as the hiss of a flint striking stone came, and then he was back. His warmth surrounded me as he untied the blindfold, and I realized what disarmed me. He was warm, alive, with a heartbeat like mine. Not cold and dead like vampires were rumored to be. Who was he?

Free to see, I blinked slowly, allowing my vision to adjust to the low light. Concave walls of a cavern arched over me, revealed by pale torchlight. I sat upon a ruined bed while directly in front of me, he perched on the flat top of a rock, which might be used as a table. In one hand, he held a golden goblet and poured something dark and red into it. It might be wine, it might be blood. I shivered.

“This is your home?” I asked.

He grimaced. “It’s a hideout, nothing more.”

The steady drip of water confirmed my assumption that I was in a cavern somewhere beyond the waterfalls. Veilix was a lush countryside of hills and mountains hiding deep canyons and yawning caves. As a child, I’d explored many of them, but now they were forbidden. For the hollow caves were where vampires lurked in the shadows, ready to pounce, to kill, to drink.

The man before me did not look like a vampire, but what did I know? I’d never actually seen one. Still, his fingers were just that, fingers not claws. His eyes, instead of red, were the color of bright blue water graced by flecks of sunlight. The way his rumpled hair curled was disarming. If I’d seen him in the village, I would have greeted him kindly, offered him a meal, and thought him handsome. In the shadows of the musty cavern, an intoxicating danger emanated from him.

He held out the goblet, but I shook my head. I’d be a fool to take a drink from a stranger. With a shrug, he downed the rest of the contents and picked up his lute. It reminded me of a guitar, although much smaller, with a rounded body and twelve strings instead of six. When he strummed a few notes, a hum echoed, and my heart rate slowed.

“Will you untie my arms?” I dared to ask.

“Why should I free one who so willingly offered herself to be tied up?”

“It’s getting uncomfortable,” I admitted.

He strummed a few more notes, studying me intently. “If I do, will you hurl the goblet at me and run into the cavern, searching for escape?”

“I’d very much like for you to let me go, but I don’t know my way home from here, and I’d hate to run into more vampires.”

His lips curled back in a smile, and then he stood, leaning over me. His cheek grazed mine, the stubble rough against my smooth skin. The scent of sweet berries left me feeling heady. I held my breath as he ran his fingers down my arms in the most sensual manner.  As I tipped forward to allow him access to my hands, my head pressed against one of his broad shoulders. Again came the quick pitter patter of his heart, as though he were doing something thrilling, arousing.

At last, he pulled back with the rope in his hands. I rolled my aching shoulders and rubbed my wrists.

“Thank you,” I whispered, not daring to look at him until he’d resettled on the rock across from me.

“Tell me, oh lady of the moon, do you have a name?”

I weighed giving him the information, and then gave in. Conversation was better than being eaten. “Lucia, and you?”

He wagged his finger. “I’m not sure you’ve gained the honor of my name.”

“But I’ve given you mine,” I protested.

“True, but I haven’t decided whether you’re trustworthy.”

“I made a choice to trust you with my name, the least you can do—”

“You also made yourself a willing sacrifice for me,” he interrupted with a smug grin. “I think I control the information here.”

I glowered at him, the remark stinging. “I only did it to protect Veilix.”

“So you came willingly? You weren’t forced?”

“No, I took vows to serve and protect those around me with what skills I’ve been given.”

“A vow,” the man teased. “Oh, how special you must be, a member of the Order?”

“No, I’m a priestess.”

“Ah, you’ve taken a vow to abstain from worldly pleasures. Shame, I could show you many things you’re missing.”

Aware that I was alone in varying shades of gray and gloom with him, I drew a sharp breath, searching to change the dangerous trajectory of the conversation. “I’d like to extract a vow from you instead. You will leave Veilix alone and go elsewhere to hunt for blood.”

“You’re asking me to leave and terrorize another village? Doesn’t that strictly go against your vows?”

It did, but the vampire king was sitting right in front of me. I had to make a deal with him so my sacrifice would not be in vain.

“I will make a bargain with you if you leave Veilix and all villages in peace. No more nights of terror.”

“A bargain, you say. It assumes you have something I want.”

“Name it. I work closely with the priestesses and the Knights of Veilix, the hunters. If I explain your request and your promise, we can come to a solution.”

A barking laugh exploded out of his mouth. When he looked at me, his azure eyes were dark blue like the night, and his mouth set in a grim line. “If only, my dear Lucia, it were that easy.”

My heart thrilled at the sound of my name on his lips. But I ignored the sensation.

“It can be that easy,” I protested, my words trailing off as he fixed me with those transcendent eyes.

Standing, he held out his hand. I reluctantly placed mine in his, an unsaid question hovering on my lips. He tugged me to my feet but did not let go, reminding me how fully I was in his power. I had no recourse but to bend to his will.

“Tonight of all nights, I expected to be tricked and trapped and lied to. But I did not expect an honest priestess whose runes shine like the moon and make me want to be a better person. You’re young, innocent, and sheltered from the world behind the walls of your abbey. It makes me want you all the more.”

My heart quailed, but my stomach fluttered as he drew me into the circle of his arms.

“We can make a deal,” I said because it was the only thing I could think to say that might save me from the terrible fate he had in store for me.

His fingertips danced up my spine, stroked my neck, traced my runes, and my body betrayed me because it felt exquisite. It wasn’t supposed to feel good, the touch of my sworn enemy, the depths of his eyes like a bottomless pool. I felt a tug on my soul as though I were being pulled in, falling into a place I wasn’t meant to go.

Backing me against the wall, he lowered his head, inch by inch, until his lips hovered over mine. “I don’t ask for forgiveness. Hate me if you must, but give me this one kiss, and then I will take you home.”

Home. The word broke through me like a beacon of hope. I opened my mouth to respond, just as he crushed his lips against mine. He was warm and rough and yet tasted like sweet wine, heady and intoxicating. I succumbed as his teeth raked against my lower lip, nipping, but not hard enough to draw blood.

Despite everything he was doing, the worst realization came as I found myself feverishly kissing him back. This nameless man, this vampire king, somehow he’d broken through my defenses and seduced me. My hands, which had initially come up to push him away, were holding onto him, keeping him tethered to me.

I felt his shuddering breath when he wrenched himself free from me.

Without speaking a word, he took my hand and led me into darkness.

I trotted along, sometimes beside him, sometimes behind him, but he never let go of my hand. The roar of the waterfall ebbed and flowed, but all I could think about was his mouth and how disgraceful it was to kiss him. Not simply because of my vows but because he was the source of pain and frustration and death in Veilix.

At last we emerged from the caverns onto a familiar strip of land. The man guided me with ease to the walls of the abbey. “Here is where I leave you, my moon goddess,” he whispered, finally letting go of my hand. “If I find you in that glade again, you leave me with no recourse but to punish you.”

I shivered. “Will you leave the village in peace then?”

“I make no promises.”

I took a step toward the abbey, then glanced back, searching for a last visage of him. But he’d faded into the darkness as though he was nothing more than a figment of my imagination.

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