Snow dances in the air like fallen flower petals as I knock a silver-tipped arrow into my bow, waiting for the wind to die down before aiming at the passing nobles on horseback. I loose a nervous breath as wind batters me from where I crouch behind a thistle bush, and I can faintly feel thorns scrape against my cheek. With luck, the thin trickle of blood won’t be enough to awaken the vampiric hunger of Lord Nikolai Petran, who seems much too engrossed in boasting of his influence to the nobles dressed too finely for a horseback excursion to notice the bleeding mage readying to slay him. Nikolai, who charmed his way into court life, Nikolai, who alerted the city guards to my father’s threats against the crown. Nikolai, who reportedly kept the blade they used to behead my father, a trophy from before he became the king’s new Overseer of Arcmira's Undead. His black curls fly free in the wind, and as inclined as I am to abandon my assassination plot and battle for his attention, I find that the spikes of my father’s ring dig deeper into my flesh in warning. Another gust throws off my aim. I curse and tighten my clammy grip. I only have one shot before the horses will frighten and flee. With luck, a horse will trample Nikolai if I miss. At such an image, the ring withdraws its spikes as if pleased. I loose the arrow, thinking only of what Father told me before he was dragged away by the Arcmiran royal guard. Think not with your heart, for it is but blood and flesh. Do not let soft thoughts sway your hand. Soft thoughts do not sway my hand, but a powerful gust does. The arrow lodges itself in the bark of a tree behind the vampiric lord, who stops his horse so suddenly I half-expect his party to crash into him. But they don’t, and instead quickly retreat to the city, each noble fearfully spurring their mounts into a mad dash. All except for Nikolai, who plucks the arrow from the tree and twirls it in his hand, careful not to let his skin come in contact with the silver. With a smug grin, he deposits it in a saddlebag, following the trail back to the city.
“Have you regained our titles, Magdalena?” Silviana asks when I nearly rip our front door from its hinges. She lounges in an armchair, her feet dangling off the sides. I throw my bow at her, growing more furious when she manages to catch it. Silviana has always been the more graceful one. Despite her lazy ways, she was next in line for Overseer of Arcmira's Undead, having proven herself the trickier mage before Father was stolen from us, before our titles were stolen from us. We were once ladies of Arcmira, reduced now to disgraced maidens of the Faewood. I thank the gods that we were allowed to walk away with enough money to afford the upkeep of our late grandfather’s hunting cabin, lavish enough for Silviana’s fine taste even when we found it teeming with rats and fungi. It’s nothing compared to our lost manor, but I find that I prefer the cozier feel the cabin provides. “Has Razvan written you back yet?” I ask. Silviana shakes her head, and I almost scream in frustration. The prince of Arcmira has been sending her flirtatious letters for months now, his teasing words made worse by the constant gaps in correspondence. If my sister can court the young prince, we may stand a chance to worm our way back into the noble’s affairs and take back what’s ours. “Men are simply like this, sister,” Silviana reassures me. “Had Princess Sabrine not taken a wife last Spring, I’d have a far easier time with her.” “And Razvan could take a spouse just as suddenly,” I snap. “Those cursed royals are as useless as ever. We must act faster. These demure plots aren’t working.” “I’d hardly call assassination attempts demure.” “They are when they fail.” Silviana rises from the armchair and hands me an envelope, its wax seal already broken. “We have been invited to Lord Petran’s Masquerade,” she says as I inspect the invitations within, finding them too elaborate to be forged. “My reciprocated toying with Razvan wasn’t for naught, it would seem.” I resist the urge to toss the invitations into the crackling fireplace. Is this a trap? An insult? “Petran is directly responsible for our misfortunes,” I mumble into the glossy paper. “This is a grand chance to kill him, but it could also be a grand chance to have us killed.” “What does he gain from eliminating us?” Silviana asks. “He already has the title, the power, the wealth. The only thing he lacks---” “Are necromantic talents?” Silviana blinks at me. “No. A lover. Why would the undead need to raise the dead?” Heat rises to my cheeks. “What makes you so sure he seeks a lover?” “Power attracts lovers, and rumor has it, Nikolai lacks one,” she insists, tucking a chestnut lock behind my ear. “And since you fancy ladies and men, you’ll be a more convincing actor. Now, would you prefer lace or velvet?”
There is blood in my champagne glass, and I’m so furious I almost drink it. Silviana left me the moment we were admitted inside Petran Manor’s ballroom, and I was immediately overwhelmed by the sea of giggling courtiers. It then occurred to me that I had only seen Nikolai from afar, and would likely have no idea who he was until he was sinking his fangs in my throat. It was then that I was handed a glass of blood by a servant. I shouldn’t blame the lad. My necromantic heritage makes me appear as undead as the bloodsucker I seek. I’m thankful there’s no sign of the royal brats tonight, for their hatred of blood-consuming creatures runs deeper than the River Aranafel. How am I to find Petran in this crowd? I could try to wait for him to find me, but that may take all night, and there are far finer ladies in attendance. Silviana may laugh in my face if I follow her and use her as bait. Absently, I take a sip from my glass, forgetting its contents. Before I can spit it out, however, a hand is on my shoulder. “Is it to your liking?” a silky voice behind me asks. “I couldn’t manage to find enough human blood for a whole party, but I would argue that deer is just as filling.” I turn, resisting the urge to spit the blood out. “It’s fine, thank you.” The stranger wears a black blouse with a high neck, the rest of his extravagant outfit in varying shades of purple; his waistcoat, his pants, even the odd velvet cape he dons. What intrigues me most are his fangs. A vampire may be just what I need to find Nikolai. “Just fine?” he laughs. “A lovely lass such as yourself deserves the best.” “How do you know I’m lovely?” I ask. “I could be a hag in disguise.” My breath catches when the stranger runs his clawed hands through my chestnut hair, and I suddenly find myself eager to remove the ribbon that holds back his dark curls. “I’m Magdalena,” I find myself saying. “Magdalena Lupescu.” “Ah, are you Silviana’s younger sister?” I must not hide my irritation well, for the stranger laughs again. Ever since Father was dragged away, Silviana thought it best to use our mother’s maiden name from then on. Now, people only react to the name out of lust for my sister. The Adravescu name once instilled raw terror in all I met; now I’m just a lesser Silviana. “Forgive me, you must be sick of such a question,” he says. “It’s a shame how many must overlook you, Magdalena. Do you not get enough attention?” Gods, I’m here to put a dagger in Nikolai Petran’s chest, not flirt with this well-dressed lad. Nervously, I take a generous sip of my champagne that I forgot wasn’t champagne. The stranger reaches his hand out to my face, thumb whispering over my lip to bring the excess blood to his mouth, his playful eyes never leaving my own. “This must be the first gathering you’ve been to, for I can’t imagine Silviana would allow one lovelier than her to steal away all the pretty lads and lasses.” Silviana warned me against getting overwhelmed by the nobles, but here I am letting myself be charmed by the first man to speak with me. Think not with your heart, for it is but blood and flesh. Do not let soft thoughts sway your hand. Have I gone mad? I am here to kill Nikolai. I am here to damn him to the infernal flames. Perhaps I have been stunned by the bright lights and brighter melodies. “May I have your name?” I ask once the dizzying moment has passed. He looks puzzled at first, but then answers, “Apologies. I forget that I wear a mask. I am Lord Nikolai Petran, a name I hope you’ve heard before.” As if to prove it, he lifts his purple mask to show me the whole of his face, winking as he does. Father’s ring reacts so furiously to the discovery that I almost drop my glass. “My sister has told me a bit about you,” I say. Silviana gave me the run-down on the lord’s social affairs during the ride to the manor. She told me everything, from his favorite flowers to his favorite dance partners. I must ensure that I am the sole lady he waltzes with tonight. “All good things, I hope,” Nikolai says. I expect him to excuse himself to greet the rest of his guests, but he now eases the glass from my hands. “Silviana doesn’t drink blood. Have you just been pretending to like it, dear?” I feel my cheeks redden underneath my mask. “A server offered it to me, and I didn’t want to be rude.” Nikolai laughs, a rich sound that makes my heart skip a beat. “Tell me, what made you finally wish to enter society?” he asks with a teasing grin. “Seeking someone to give you all that attention your sister has stolen from you?” Suddenly, the dagger at my hip feels heavy. It’s covered well by my billowing skirts, but I fear one wrong move will send it clattering to the floor. And Nikolai’s voice has my legs doing odd things. I haven’t felt them tremble so hard since Father’s execution. “I’m not much like my sister,” I stammer, forcing the horrid memories away. My ring warms as if trying to comfort me, a sign to press ahead. “Silviana lives for the lavish, but I find my necromantic studies far more interesting than glitzy parties.” Why am I telling all this to my enemy? My necromantic powers can be easily silenced through holy enchantments, and while Nikolai may not be capable of such magic, he must know someone here who is. “You’re right. I don’t much like necromancy,” Nikolai says, his jaw tensing as he speaks. “Alastair Adravescu was a necromancer and the Overseer of Arcmira's Undead for decades. A shame he let his magic corrupt him to the point of threatening the crown. I do hope your dabbling with the dead isn’t much like his?” Silviana explicitly warned me not to discuss Adravescu affairs. Not many knew Alastair had children; to them, we simply did something a noble didn’t much like, and it earned us scorn. With a nervous shake of my head, the vampire seems to relax. “He disgraced our craft,” I mumble. “May he rot and never again know light.” Nikolai seems pleased with my answer. “Well, you’re quite skilled at your craft. Not a single spell uttered and you’re already raising the dead.” I blink at him, my eyes darting about the ballroom to ensure no rotted hands have sprouted up from the floorboards. My panicked thoughts fade away when I remember he is of the undead, and his smug face suggests he was making a less-than-holy joke. My face feels like it bursts into flames as I stumble away from him nearly drawing my dagger on the disgusting nobleman. “Oh, I’m only teasing you,” he laughs. “Just a little fun.” “And that is your twisted idea of fun?” I ask, feeling as though I don’t wish to know his answer. As predicted, he merely winks at me, running his tongue over his fangs. I scowl at him through my mask, but it isn’t enough to shatter his dirty desires. He downs the remainder of the blood in the champagne flute and dumps it off on a passing servant’s tray. His eyes glow with power, and despite my own wicked talents, I feel sickened by his satisfied smile streaked with red. “Dance with me,” he breathes against my flushed cheek, taking my hands and dragging me further into the ballroom, choosing to twirl me around directly underneath an impossibly large chandelier sparkling with red and black crystals. It’s sickeningly macabre, but if I could keep him under the light fixture and somehow snap the cord… His foot comes down hard on my own, eliciting a foil enough curse to startle a pair of dancing partygoers. Father’s ring pulses around my finger as if in laughter. Knowing his daughters would have to endure court life, he taught us both to dance when we were clueless, giggling children. My legs were made to stand strong against magical energies, not gently sway in a swishing dress. “Ah, where’s all that grace, Lena?” Nikolai whispers, his grip tightening around my waist. I hardly hear him over the music and snickering courtiers. Sounds and lights and movement ambush my senses as I force myself not to slit Nikolai’s throat and flee from this glittering nightmare. His comments on my dancing skills only add another layer of hot fury to my temper. “I already told you, I am nothing like my perfect sister,” I hiss at the smirking vampire. He shakes his head slightly. “I wasn’t comparing you to her. I was comparing you to the agile girl who fires arrows at me when I take the Trosan trail into the Faewood.” Nikolai is practically pulling me along at this point, and I nearly take us both down when I stumble over my heels, but his vampiric strength keeps us upright and keeps me close to his frigid body. There’s no way I can run now, no way I can kill him. I can only open and shut my mouth, each excuse dying on my lips like fresh soldiers on a battlefield of the undead. Something slick drips between our interlocked fingers. From the throbbing pain and Nikolai’s wicked grin, I can only assume Father’s ring is trying to slice my finger off as if it too is trying to escape. “I kept all the arrows,” the vampire continues, his claws on the small of my back silently threatening to eviscerate me. “I know your scent. I know your blood, and I’ve been waiting to gorge myself on it. Lord Adravescu’s was bitter, but you smell sweeter than cherries.” “You---” I choke on my words, on the memory of my father’s death. I knew they buried him with his ancestors in the nobles’ cemetery, but I didn’t know they’d let Nikolai do such a horrid thing. “You beast. I’ll rip your pretty eyes from your skull for that. I’ll---” He laughs. “That reminds me, the kitten still hasn’t been declawed.” A gasp escapes my lips when his hand pulls away from my bloodied grip, darting under my skirt in search of my dagger. Only, he went for the wrong leg, and now my hand is free. Ignoring the frustration that the partygoers would turn their cheek at such a piggish display, I draw my dagger and swiftly try to bury it in his side, missing wildly as he tugs away. The blade managed to slice his side, sending his dark blood trickling down the length of his leg. Nikolai’s claws swipe along my thigh, sending blood trickling onto the polished floors. The puddle of red isn’t as easy to ignore, however, as dancers around us quickly move away. I hear one lady shriek, and it makes me so enraged I swipe once more with my dagger. Once again I miss, and find that the sweat and blood coating my hand slickened my grip enough for me to lose my dagger with the swiping motion. Guards are upon me the second the crowd clears, and I kick my legs furiously as Nikolai stands upright and wipes his hands on his coat as if mildly inconvenienced. His wound has already stopped bleeding, and he makes a dramatic display of licking my blood from his claws. “So sweet for such a rabid lass,” he says, waving away a concerned guard. “Chain her and take her to my chambers.” My magic flares, but quickly recedes. The guards wear iron, warding off my powers. Not even the energy stored in Father’s ring can lash out against the suppressive metal. Blood flies at my mad attempts to wriggle from the guard’s hold, evoking shrill gasps and a sea of whispers. Silviana shouts out, but I don’t spot her in the crowd before I’m dragged away down a dark hallway, screaming out my sister’s name. For a sickening moment, I wonder if this is how Father felt. I wonder if he felt just as ashamed and angry, as panicked and prideful. I wonder if I will soon find myself on the chopping block.
Nikolai Petran’s sitting room is colder than a cave in the frigid months and just as unwelcoming. Smothered with shades of red and black, I’m disgusted to discover he left the room the way my father left it. He never wanted guests, so he chose the gaudiest color scheme and decor to deter visitors and mock those who believe all necromancers are gothic, dull beings. My brief sentimentality bursts into fresh fury when I notice Nikolai even upheld the tradition of potted lilacs on the table between the two armchairs, one of which I was shoved into after having my hands bound in front of me by rusted iron chains. Lilacs were Father’s favorite. How dare Nikolai mock us like this? How could he be so heartless? Once I find a way out of these chains, he’ll truly lack a heart, and I’ll flee from this gilded prison with it in my grasp. It’ll make good feed for the lilac bush. As if hearing my deadly plan, the lord enters the room after a mocking knock. He’s changed out of his bloodied party attire, and now wears black slacks and a red button-down, the shirt unbuttoned in such a way that any proper lady would avert her polite eyes. I only view it as easy access to the chain’s key hanging from his neck. His mask is gone, revealing to me his supernaturally perfect face, the one I’ve shot at day after excruciating day. I almost find myself prey to his pretty eyes watching my pathetic squirms and kicks; I didn’t lie to him earlier. I think his red eyes would make for fine earrings. Nikolai gently moves the potted lilacs aside to slam a quiver full of silver-tipped arrows down on the table. I flinch at the silent accusation, but hold my glare. “Twelve failed assassination attempts,” the lord hums. “You’re quite the poor shot, Lena.” “Give me another chance, and I shan’t miss,” I snarl in retaliation. Grandfather’s cabin had an overabundance of the arrows, so I shoddily self-taught myself the skill. Father’s ring squeezes around my finger as if scolding me for my horrible aim. “Your murderous rage ends here, darling,” Nikolai says, lowering himself in the armchair across from mine. “Tell me, is Alastair’s spirit trapped within that onyx ring you wear?” I stiffen. “I don’t know. After the guards dragged him away, I found this on his desk. Silviana didn’t want anything to do with it. If you’re assuming he’s somehow controlling me from the beyond---” “No, no, even I know necromancers are powerless after death,” Nikolai interrupts. “I only ask because normal rings don’t emit such strong auras, and I wasn’t aware Alastair was even capable of siring children. Where’s your mother?” “Rotting beside her husband.” “Alastair was buried alone in your family’s plot.” “I never said he was her husband.” Nikolai is silent for a moment, his face unreadable. Then, he crosses his legs and asks, “Are you not aware that my death won’t restore your father?” “My plan was to happily gnaw on your bones as I awaited my execution,” I shrug. “Silviana would take your place, and the Adravescu name would be restored once she dug up enough dirt on you to justify your murder.” “Clever girl,” he mutters, a claw on his lip in mock thought. His tone sends pleasant shivers up my spine, my face warming from the genuine compliment. “A shame you had to take my bait. I was merely going to hold Silviana hostage and draw you out, but I am honored you attended my party nonetheless. I do enjoy dancing with adorable ladies who can’t contain their blushes.” “Your teeth will make a fine necklace once I do away with you,” I grumble. “Oh, you like my teeth?” Nikolai taps on a fang with his claw. “Do you want to feel them pierce your flesh?” I remember suddenly his comment about Father’s blood, and I fight to stand against the chains tethering my ankles to the legs of the chair. Nikolai sighs. “Enough of this, Magdalena. I don’t wish to harm you, so you can settle---” “You killed my father and then feasted on his blood,” I find myself screeching. “Don’t tell me to settle. Where’s my sister? What do you plan to do with me?” “I plan to grant your wishes, so stop screaming before I give you a reason to scream.” I resort to spitting on the carpet that was notorious for being hard to clean. Nikolai must know this too, for he runs a frustrated hand through his hair. I hadn’t noticed earlier, but it lacks the ribbon from earlier, now flowing over his shoulders like that of a majestic deity after battle. “Magdalena Adravescu,” he begins, the way he says my name sending a shameful wave of warmth throughout my core. “I did not wish for Alastair to be executed. My message of his workings against the crown---curse their royal name--- was only meant to fall on rebellious ears. I only accepted the glory and position of Overseer to avert any suspicion from myself; I don’t even know where half of Arcmira’s undead dwell. “I rode down that trail in hopes of finding you and your sister, to beg those taught the job to help me perform my duties. But it appears you took my discreet pleas as gloating, and you couldn’t even do me a kindness by picking off a few noble fools. And you know how much our beloved rulers despise my kind, so of course I lied about draining Alastair. I can’t stomach necromancer blood---yours nearly made me throw up, else I’d have carried you to my chambers myself.” “You warned me in the ballroom of plotting against the crown,” I object, trying to push aside the delightful image of Nikolai hoisting me over his shoulder. “Yes, so that no one caught on to my ruse,” he sighs, sitting back in his chair. “Prince Razvan has been breathing down my neck for weeks about some lich uprising, and Princess Sabrine sends her spies to follow me everywhere I dare go. I don’t even know what a lich is, Lena, and I’m getting tired of warding off silent attacks from her royal brattiness. You must help me.” It’s my turn to laugh, but I stop when he begs, “Marry me, and the position is yours.” “Did your brain die along with the rest of your body?” I snap. “Do you take me for a lovesick fool, Nikolai?” “You are rather lovesick,” he mumbles, but at my growl, he quickly adds, “But that’s fine. I can brush this whole affair aside as you being drunk, then court you. In marriage, you can take the position over for me. We needn’t even share my chambers. You can have other lovers. You---” “Kiss me.” He stops his desperate tirade and sputters, “Pardon?” I say, “Kiss me, and I’ll decide if it’s worth letting you pretend to court me. Silviana always says no man with a lying tongue can kiss well. I’m inclined to believe you, for it’s no secret the royals despise your kind and would seek your death. Prove to me you mean this, leech.” For the first time in his unlife, Nikolai Petran looks miserably mortal. After a moment of battling with himself, he closes the distance between us impossibly fast, his cold lips locking with mine so forcefully I almost forget to carry out my plan. I just need to reach for the key--- Nikolai’s hands leave my face and snap the chains binding my hands. He pulls away with a content sigh, snapping the chains on my ankles without breaking eye contact. When I don’t rush to flee, he pulls me into his arms, twisting me around on top of him as he presses his lips to mine once more. His grip around me is gentle, not even strong by a mortal’s standpoint. Is he inviting me to run? Or is this another trap? In my struggle to decide if I want to run or give in, my knee separates his legs, brushing up against his prior filthy joke. It seems my powers work despite the iron still digging into my wrists. “Are you going to kill me?” he breathes into my lips, silencing my answers with more kisses. “Don’t tell me. Do it and take the position. You’ll do the kingdom a favor.” “The kingdom killed my father,” I whisper, tangling my hands into his hair. “I owe it nothing but my worst.” Nikolai grins, but I smother his reply, eagerly exploring his cute fangs in a hungry kiss. I don’t even remember where my dagger was taken. I don’t know where Silviana is. I don’t care. She was right in some capacity, but I’ll never admit it. I shall regain our titles through this false courtship, and kill Nikolai if he becomes worrisome. Though, my heart sings at his chilled touch that sends heat throughout my core. I could grow used to his cold passion on warm nights. I remove my hands long enough to wriggle the ring off, tossing it into the potted lilacs. If his spirit does linger in the ring, I don’t want him to see this. He’s probably happier with the flowers. His time in this world has gone, but mine is only just beginning. “Would you bite me if I asked?” I find myself sighing. Nikolai grumbles, “No. Your blood tastes like dirt, my sweet girl.” I suppress a girlish giggle. “Then you’ll make a fine fake husband. With your charm and my wit, we won’t need to raise an army of corpses. We’ll have all of Arcmira’s undead under our control.” Think not with your heart, for it is but blood and flesh. Do not let soft thoughts sway your hand. My thoughts are not soft. They are sharp as any dagger or fang, and they pull my heart into this dangerous desire. Passion crashes over me like a wave of magic in a graveyard, where corpses reach out to me with their dead energies, begging to once again know life. Nikolai’s hands roam down my back, searching for a strap or zipper that will free me from my dress. I sit up on his lap, forcing his hands away. At his lustful expression, I almost take my dress off for him, but I bite my lip and swallow the hot yearning in my core. “Another time, love,” I promise, running my hands down his chest. My own body complains at the delay, but this isn’t the right moment. “Now, you go back out to the party and tell everyone but Silviana of my imprisonment. Tell her of our plans, but be sure to threaten her with the same fate to avoid suspicion. Can you do that for me?” “Whatever you say,” he sighs, reaching a hand out to my flushed cheek. “Your arrow has pierced my unbeating heart, you little cherub.” Hopping off his lap, I find that I haven’t the energy nor desire to roll my eyes at the sappy sentiment. It’s rather sweet. I’m almost glad I didn’t kill him, but sugary remarks won’t keep him alive forever. Just to be safe, I grab a handful of silver arrows. “I’ll wait here for you,” I say, sinking into the other chair and kicking off my heels. “If you betray me, Silviana will be the next to target you, and she isn’t nearly as clumsy as I.” My heart soars like a reanimated body when he smiles at me and says, “Magdalena, please take this job from me before I lose my godsdamn mind.” I twirl an arrow in my hand as he leaves, the lilacs catching my eye. The ring glows from the pot, its power slowly draining the lilacs of their color before they wither and droop. Father must be appeased, and now I can only hope I will be, as well. I will become the new Overseer, and will do well to remind the royals why they fear creatures who stalk the moonlit night. Like a revived corpse, the dead Adravescu house shall rise.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Victoria Wraight is a writer and undergraduate student in the BA English program with a focus on creative writing at Fredonia State University. She is currently a managing editor of The Trident literary magazine. Victoria is an avid reader of fantasy novels, and searches for the cryptic and strange in her hometown of Buffalo, New York. She can be found on Twitter @cryptic_vic and on Instagram @vickytoria_wraight