Chapter 1: Vincent
“Ask him the traitor’s name.”
Azrael’s clipped instructions filtered in through a speaker in the interrogation room where I was chained to a chair. The one-eyed monster I’d nicknamed Cyclops stood at my side with an electric prod that doubled as a baton. I knew its abuses intimately. I couldn’t seduce my jailor—neither with my hypnosis nor my mudra—which meant I’d given up any hope of escaping. Every day I prayed you’d come for me. Break down the walls like a caped superhero and deliver me from this hellish place. My prayers were all I had left to sustain me.
For now, I focused on the old man dressed in rags who sat across from me, grinning. He did not look well. His eyes looked like foggy marbles and oozed yellowish fluid. The skin on his face and scalp was pale as a plucked chicken, and the whiskers on his chin were like gray barbs. His balding head revealed fresh cuts and bruises as well as scars from old wounds. It took a lot to mutilate our bodies, something I knew from experience.
And there was that grin.
I’d met several of Azrael’s soldiers, slaves, and prisoners since my capture. None of them had greeted me with a smile. He must be mad.
“I’m Vincent,” I said, and the name—my own—felt strange to say out loud. It had been weeks since I’d last spoken to someone.
“We meet at last, youngblood,” the old man rasped. For him to know I was bloodborn meant he’d been warned. Or maybe he detected my hunger, like a cloud of noxious fumes surrounding us. I’d been starved off and on for months, with bloodmeals only given after a successful interrogation.
Feeding wasn’t something I wanted to think about.
“Azrael believes you have an informant in the Imperium,” I said to the old man while attempting to steady his gaze. It was difficult, not only because of the film that obscured his eyes but also because of his constant tics.
“I know your mother,” the old man said. “Perhaps she has spoken of me? I am Orcus, ambassador of the shadowborn here on earth.”
I’d never heard of him, though I knew the shadowborn’s natural habitat was the under realms. But their numbers had been steadily growing in the earthen realm. Mater had told me that much. Was that why he’d mentioned her? Were they plotting mutual takeover? And what was my role in all of this? To provide a helpless distraction?
“Ask him for a name,” Azrael demanded. He had no patience for small talk.
“There is a traitor—”
“In the Imperium,” Orcus finished. “There are many. As soon as one is discovered, another takes up the mantle of resistance. Our kind are no longer willing to be subjugated by the Angel of Death. You’re not happy here, are you, Vincent?”
The answer was obvious. I was miserable. Tortured night and day. Isolated, drugged, beaten. Starved. Missing you. Wondering if you were still looking for me or if you’d given up hope. Maybe you’d grieved and moved on. Like before.
I couldn’t dwell on my feelings. Whenever I did, it made me want to die.
“I can see that he’s not feeding you properly,” Orcus said sympathetically or maybe he was only mocking me. “He who controls a bloodborn’s hunger…” Orcus drifted off as though I already knew the end to that riddle. I could make an educated guess. I was a slave to my thirst, and to Azrael for quenching it. I lost a little more of my humanity every day.
“I met your Henri,” Orcus continued. I flinched at the mention of your name. I wanted you desperately, but that also meant you knowing what I’d become.
“A while ago. I tried to warn him.”
“Warn him about what?”
“Your fate. He’s the one who captured me. And delivered me so cruelly to your master. Just as he did to you.”
“Henri did not—” I bit my tongue until I drew blood. The coppery brine flooded my mouth and I sucked it down hungrily. At my side, Cyclops stirred, anxious for the order to deliver a blow that might knock me out. Or kill me.
Orcus was wrong. It was Mater’s fault that I was imprisoned here. And my own. But never yours.
“Your informant,” I said, barely hanging on to my sanity. I was shaking with hunger and weakened by the mention of your name. “Do you have a name for me, Orcus?”
“He seeks to weaken you until there is nothing left. Until you are begging him for every breath.”
“There is nothing left,” I said flatly. Azrael had succeeded already. There was only my loneliness. And my thirst. “Please?” I begged the demon as tears stung my eyes. I hated what Azrael made me do—not only the interrogations, but the feedings… the murders.
“You are disappointing me.” Azrael’s voice again—cold, calculating, and precise in its terror.
I blinked back my tears.
“I need a name,” I said. And then this would end. For him and me both. At least, for now. I couldn’t think past this hour, this minute. Couldn’t think about the next “traitor” I would be forced to interrogate or the torture they might have to endure because of what I compelled them to reveal.
“You’re not listening, youngblood.” Orcus leaned toward me. Shadowborn survived the earthen realm by feeding on souls. Maybe he would consume mine. End it for me where I’d been unsuccessful.
“Take mine,” I said lowly and pulled against my chains until there was no slack left. I offered my soul to him, what was left of it anyway. Orcus leaned forward and sniffed as though tasting my flavor. The tendons in his neck pulled taut, his scabby lips parted, and then, he pulled back.
“You have a destiny to fulfill, youngblood, and it is not to be my meal, unfortunately.”
I slumped back in my chair, rattling the chains and earning a dissatisfied grunt from Cyclops. There was no way out.
“Tell me what to do,” I begged the demon. “Tell me how to end it.”
“An eye for an eye,” he said.
“Shut him up,” came Azrael’s booming voice again. I tensed for the blow that never came as Cyclops swung his baton like a baseball bat against Orcus’s skull, cracking it with a sickening thud. It broke like an eggshell, spilling blood like yolk. My empty stomach turned while my hunger flared at the scent of fresh blood. I spat bile onto the floor while attendants came and dragged Orcus’s lifeless body away.
“You have failed,” Azrael said.
I dropped my head in defeat. How would he punish me this time? A beating? Starvation? I preferred the latter. It meant I wouldn’t have to murder anyone today. But no. The door opened again, and a young man was forced inside, slender as a fawn. He’d been stunning the first time I’d seen him months ago. Now, his once glossy brown hair was matted and dirty. His skin was no longer porcelain, but sickly and sallow. Too little sun and even less nutrition. His emerald eyes were still shocking, though. They sliced through me like cut gems.
Azrael always made me choose my victim, and this man I’d been avoiding. Too thin. Too young. Bonded by our tortures. Or maybe I needed the revulsion in his eyes to remind me of the murderer I’d become.
He was stoic now, as resigned to die as I was to murder him. There was no mercy in this place. If I didn’t drain him completely, Azrael would order Cyclops to kill him, and that asshole liked to inflict pain. At least I could give this man a gentle death. Like slipping underwater.
That was how you did it, right? Redemptio per sanguinem.
We stared at each other. My eyes were probably cavernous pits, hollowed out with hunger. His were twin green flames. An eye for an eye, Orcus had said. A demon full of riddles that meant nothing to me. I smelled the man’s unwashed skin, his misery, and his grief. I wondered again what he’d done to end up as Azrael’s blood slave.
My blood slave.
“I don’t want to feed,” I said, a lie. Red was all I could see. Blood pouring down in cascading curtains, coating my tongue, sliding down my throat, bloating my stomach.
“You feed or he dies,” Azrael said.
“He dies anyway.”
“Then I suggest you make his sacrifice worth it.”
Cyclops unhooked my chain from the metal anchors on the floor so that I could stand and approach my victim. The brute didn’t expect me to fight back. It had been months since I’d last tried.
I ventured toward the man slowly, our eyes still locked on one another like dance partners or sparring opponents. Would he fight me? He didn’t back away, only straightened his spine as if steeling himself for the inevitable. How many times had he been brought to this room, or one just like it, expecting to be killed? How many times had he been forced to watch others die and bear witness to my murderous thirst?
I saw the revulsion in his eyes, fierce in their hatred. They told me I was a monster, a sinner, an animal. Beyond redemption. They flashed with fury and dared me to come closer. And I did because even while his eyes repelled me, his pulse called to me like a mother’s heartbeat. Blood throbbed in the jagged blue line of his throat. Underneath the grime, bruises encircled his tender neck where he’d been collared or choked. But it was bare now, for me. His cuts and scrapes had scabbed over but not healed completely, and he smelled…
“I won’t hurt you,” I said. Another lie. I hurt all of them. The man knew it too. He’d seen me soothe the others and then suck the life out of them. He didn’t flinch when I laid my hands on his shoulders and stood on tip toe to reach him. He only turned his head, breaking eye contact at last. I licked along the strong vein of his neck, tasting his salty, sweat-stained skin. He froze like prey, trembling a little, and waited for me to bite down. And I wanted to, so badly. The roar of the ocean was inside me, telling me to give into my craving.
Instead, I jerked violently on my chain. Cyclops stumbled toward me, and I threw out a foot to trip him so that he went sprawling. I kicked away the baton, then jumped on top of him like a wild animal and tore at his throat savagely. I’d gulped down only a few mouthfuls before strong fingers clamped around my windpipe and choked the life out of me.
Faintly, I heard screaming.
Chapter 2: Henri
When I wasn’t hunting down Imperium soldiers to barter for your release, I’d taken to wailing with the sirens. Rather, I’d perch on a craggy rock with the salt spray lashing at my skin and listen to their doleful cries. Only my island spirits understood my torment over losing you. Or at least, they were very good at mimicking my grief.
On the mainland, Lucian was busy administering to our dozens of captives, and Lena was on a clandestine world tour, peddling the gospel of Parousia to the Grigori heads-of-family as though you weren’t currently a prisoner in one of Azrael’s strongholds.
It was for the best that Lena stayed out of my sight. My compulsion to behead her had not diminished in the six months since Imperium forces had kidnapped you from that hellish mine. If I thought Azrael desired her, I’d gladly offer up Lena as a trade, but he’d made it clear he had no more use for her.
That was in our last meeting in the dream realm a few weeks ago when I’d begged the Angel of Death on my knees for your release, and he’d denied me, again. He warned me to stop my assault on the Imperium and told me your needs were being met. I didn’t care if you were living like a prince and dining off of silver platters, I’d continue my raids until you were in my possession again.
It was during one of my hauntings with the sirens that Lucian found me. I was drunk. It had been a few hours since I’d returned from my last job in Cairo. Having deposited the prisoners at Lucian’s doorstep, I’d retreated to my islands to brood that in all these months of searching, I’d still not been able to locate you.
“Henri?” Lucian said and paused to take me in. It had been two weeks since we’d last seen each other, but Lucian’s reaction to my bedraggled appearance did not shock me. I’d let myself go to seed—not bothering with any of the grooming rituals you’d always held in such high regard. Drinking was the only way I’d found to cope with my regrets.
Lucian carried with him a large wicker basket and what appeared to be a fresh fish wrapped in butcher paper. Your cat emerged from the shadows to slink against his calves. Spooky and I were reluctant cohabitants. She’d followed me to my islands and insisted on stalking me in the dead of night, if only to hiss at me her recriminations.
I nodded to the empty rocks beside me. Lucian selected a table-topped one and set down his provisions. It was through his efforts alone that I didn’t starve.
“The hearthborn are getting our crops to produce incredible yields,” he said conversationally, “and they do love to bake. The blood is fresh but needs to be consumed within a few days.” He eyed me warily, perhaps noticing my ribs, which weren’t protruding but were a little more prominent than before. Sometime in the past few hours, I must have discarded my shirt, though where, I had no idea.
“And what’s that?” I pointed at the fish.
“The seaborn wanted you to have it. They stopped me on my way here.”
I grunted. The trio of fishfolk had been using my islands as their personal playground ever since I’d raided a safehouse near Athens and taken them captive.
“Why won’t they stay on the mainland with the others?” I groused. I didn’t wish to encounter them, however infrequent those episodes may be.
“They prefer the hunting here,” Lucian said in an offhand way, but I suspected he’d suggested it as a way to keep watch over me. Not long ago, Lucian had caught me gazing from the tops of my cliffs at the jagged rocks below. I supposed the seaborn would at least be able to plumb me from the depths should I choose that route.
I wouldn’t though, tempting as it was. I’d not abandon you to Azrael’s design.
“I’m worried about you, big brother,” Lucian said, taking up a seat beside me.
So, this would not be a short visit.
“Vincent should be the cause for your concern.”
“He is ever present in my mind, but it might do you good to interact a little more with our guests. Show them you’re not the villain in all of this.”
Lucian was spending a small fortune keeping our prisoners housed, fed, and entertained with all manner of bacchanalian pursuits. It was part of our mother’s campaign to persuade the other tribes to join her revolution. I doubted the Grigori would be as pleased with us when we traded their Nephilim sons and daughters back to Azrael, for we surely would.
“I don’t care what they think of me.” My aim was simple. Capture Imperium soldiers until Azrael conceded. I’d hoped to determine your location from their intelligence and steal you back myself, but our captives’ reports always proved false, which had embittered me toward them. Regardless, how Azrael’s foot soldiers were treated while in our keep was not my concern. I cared nothing for our mother’s Parousia or the liberation of our kind. I only wanted you.
“This war will be won or lost on persuasion,” Lucian said.
“We all know I’m not the one with the charms.”
“And how would Vincent feel to know you’ve been living like this?”
I glanced around at my dire surroundings. Broken glass littered the ground from my previous rages along with bloodstains from my fists against the rock walls. There were a few empty bottles, including the jug of wine I’d grabbed from my cellar last night, before stumbling here in the dark. I couldn’t recall whether I’d slept or not, though I certainly did not feel rested.
“But he’s not here,” I said, stating the obvious. If you were, everything would be different.
“He will be, Henri. It’s only a matter of time. You should be preparing for his return rather than mourning him as though he’d died.”
“How do you know he hasn’t?” I rasped viciously. I’d lost you once already. I wouldn’t put it past Azrael to claim your soul again, angelic law be damned.
Lucian studied me in deliberation. “One of the captives you brought in last night claims he was imprisoned with a man who sounds like Vincent.”
I cleared away the dull fog in my mind to focus on that information alone.
“Why didn’t you say so?” I growled. “Why bother me with the lecture?”
“Because, Henri, when Vincent returns, he’s going to need you to be strong. Whole and… stable. You’re none of those things right now.”
I reached into Lucian’s basket and uncorked one of the bottles of blood. I drank it down in a few hasty gulps. The fish I tossed on the ground for Spooky to devour. I fed her, for you.
“Enough of this, Lucian.” I didn’t want to waste any more time on nonsense. “Take me to the prisoner.”
Also in this series:
Vol 1: Book of Orlando
Vol 2: Bloodborn Prince