Seventeen

Anger, scarlet and burning, blazed through Serena’s limbs and charged the atmosphere above her pale skin. Every muscle was tight and the entire Underground seemed quieter, as if sensing her fury miles away and ducking away in fear. But her eyes were hard with apprehension. She stared at the stone floor beneath her feet, painted long ago into an intricately detailed, decorated map of the Earth. By now, the colors were faded, but the black script was as fresh as though the ink was still wet, and the gold accents threading through the oceans sparkled in deceiving peace. Perhaps this was the gods’ view, the world looking so quiet and pretty from so far above, Serena briefly thought, instead of the reality. Her lips peeled off her teeth as she hissed in frustration, staring at one point that glowed brightly.

She could feel Izel’s ring growing farther away from her with each passing moment, the pull tightening until now, where it felt as though each movement cost extra effort. She could trust the location spell, but grew increasingly resentful of it each day she entered the chamber and it hadn’t moved. It taunted her, it had since the moment she felt the ring move out of the city and begin its heavy hold around her. She had had to stay in Paris nearly an entire month. As much as she wanted to, she could not run off immediately and follow it. She needed a plan, because she alone knew the truth.

“My queen,” a rasping voice interrupted and she growled at the little being’s rudeness. A pale, gaunt human figure stood in the doorway, not daring to actually enter the room with her, but leaning in to speak. She arched an eyebrow, waiting impatiently. His breaths were like whimpers, his weak heart pumped with frailty and the thick, sludgy scent of bad blood made Serena want to gag.

“Well, what?” she snapped when he did not speak. He jumped, his heart moving even faster, spreading the smell further until Serena resisted to urge to actually hold her nose with her fingers.

“There is a…a man, a-a vampire…in Paris. H-he…I think you will like to see him,” he got out.

“You think?” Serena mocked. He ducked his head, entwining his fingers.

“H-he is one…one of…them,” he stuttered, his eyes widening on the last word. Serena could sense the change in the human, the natural response they had to the supernatural. But not just any, he was particularly frightened. The humans who were in the Underground were under the Enchantment, any normal vampire didn’t scare them. Serena merely nodded and looked back at the map, the human taking the hint and disappearing.

Serena’s thoughts returned to Izel’s ring, now an ocean and almost an entire continent away from her. She bit her tongue against the wave of shame that rose at the thought. Her long ago creator and keeper would be so disappointed. Her instructions had been absolute, her voice echoing them in Serena’s mind as if Izel had spoken only moments ago.

Coal black eyes pierced hers, so intensely Serena dared not breathe as Izel leaned in. The witch’s long fingers wrapped Serena’s as though they were tiny twigs, in a grip that threatened to snap them.

“I trust this in your possession, my child,” she spoke urgently, voice thick with Aztec accent and urgency. “This ring holds an Entity, and She is the most powerful this world will ever know. You must take care, and you must not release Her unless the night demons overpower us, because once let into the world, She cannot be withdrawn.

“Every power develops a Habit to their trapper, but also to their freer. She will know you, and you will know Her, but if She falls out of your hands and into someone who lets her loose, She will no longer be loyal to you.”

“Izel, what is a Habit?” Serena had asked, still naive despite her years with the witch. Her voice sounded so young, even in her mind.

“A relationship, of sorts,” Izel had answered, tone surprisingly even. “You must understand this, Serena. It is an attachment, but not of affection. It is malicious. It may appear to be protectiveness, but with time and if your mind is weak, She will take control.”

Loud, confident footsteps again pulled Serena from her reverie, but the being did not cower under her glare this time. In fact, when her sight found him, it was she whose confidence shrank. Serena could sense a unique power in this vampire, stronger and brighter than the ones who commonly inhabited the Underground. He was old — no, ancient. And stronger than any she had felt in a while. Something in the back of her mind tugged at her conscience, and she bowed her head slightly.

“If you may introduce yourself?” she inquired, swallowing the disgust at having such manners to one of the beings she despised. His lips curled into a grin, letting Serena know that he saw right through it.

“My name is Astoiluno,” he announced, tone casual despite his aura. Serena felt her bones turn to ice as it registered. She had never actually met him, but she knew his name. Every supernatural being did. “I thought I’d stop in and see who’s been running the place, your majesty,” his tone became mocking. Serena swallowed, forcing her spine and shoulders to remain straight despite the unfamiliar fear prickling her skin. Still, despite his obvious dissatisfaction, he made no move to close the distance between them.

“Some semblance of organization is important,” she replied, forcing her tone neutral. He nodded, smirk still playing at her insides. “I am leaving, of course, now that you have returned.” At this, she bowed her head again. He hummed in thought.

“And where to?” he tilted his head, considering her. Serena chose honesty, or as much as she could. Lying to humans and shadow-hugging beasts was one thing, but to a First…she stood no chance.

“America,” she answered. “A possession has been stolen from me, and it is in all our interests that it is returned.” She hated that she nearly had to ask for permission, but her mind was forming a new strategy as she spoke.

“And that is?” he stepped closer. Serena refused to allow the sliver of hope show on her face. She would need help, especially if her suspicions came true. And who better to bring than a First Vampire. She prayed that Izel would guide her.

“A ring,” she answered. “I have been tracking it, and no harm has been caused yet.”

“What does it do?” he interrogated, and she was willing to answer.

“It releases a spell that is able to forever ruin any supernatural being,” she gave him as much information as he needed. He raised an eyebrow.

“You want me to believe that you, little Serena, went from one of the people most resembling a snake that I have ever met–present company included–to wanting to be, what, our savior?” he asked drily. She bit back her indignation at his tone, instead focusing on the truth he’d unwittingly given her. After so long, she could never position herself as fully trustworthy, but she didn’t need to.

“We’ve had our differences, and I forgive you as much as you forgive me,” she said honestly. “But this spell does not care. It knows only night and day, human and…not human. I am often willing to dance with fire, but I prefer to have water nearby,” she let her eyes narrow and some emotion seep into her voice. At this, he nodded.

“If this relic is what you say, I’d rather it not be in the wrong hands,” he said, snakelike pupils piercing hers, but she dared not look away. The intonation was all too clear, but she smiled delicately.

“Do we have an accord?” she offered her hand, tilting her head demurely. His face remained uncaring, hands remaining in his pockets. Only once Serena let her hand trail back to her side did he nod.

“Sounds like a plan,” he deadpanned.