They say that it’s always darkest before the dawn. I know it’s a cliché that’s meant to give people courage when everything seems hopeless, but it’s actually true.
My team has spent our nights struggling against the Cursed Ones, counting the seconds until the sun would rise and deliver us from evil, terror, and death. Battling with our last ounces of strength, about to die but holding on for that flash of light as the sun begins to climb the horizon. But there’s something else that happens in those moments before daybreak, something far more terrifying than darkness:
Silence so terrible, so absolute, it’s as if the whole world is holding its breath. It makes you feel incredibly alone, even if there is someone standing beside you.
And right now, that silence is killing me.
Everything has fallen apart. My sister is missing. Is Heather alive, dead, alone, with other vampires? No one can say. Skye, our White Witch, was kidnapped by Estefan, her ex, during the last battle with Aurora. Our master, Father Juan, has cast the runes to try to find Heather and Skye, but they’ve given him no answers. They are silent—as silent as Eriko and all our other dead. We dug their graves in the rubble of our home, the University of Salamanca. We told them good-bye with prayers and tears . . . and their silence broke our hearts.
Even those of us who are here barely speak. Holgar is mourning the death of the werewolf he was once promised to. He had to kill her in the battle. Would I ever be able to do that? Jamie shuts himself away from the rest of us for hours. I know he’s working on two guns, one to kill werewolves and one to dust vampires. And our team has one of each. Sade is so traumatized by the massacre that she can barely speak.
Father Juan spends every waking moment on his knees in the chapel, praying in silence for us all. Noah passes the time cleaning weapons and working out.
There’s been no word from the outside world, no way of knowing how my grandmother and mom are doing. There’s no whisper of the men with black crosses. No news about anything. Even “Kent,” the Voice of the Resistance, is silent here—we don’t have a radio, and we’re in Spain, which is probably too far away for him to broadcast, anyway.
And Antonio . . .
His silence is the worst for me. When Aurora reawakened his bloodlust, he went on a killing spree back in Las Vegas. He was a monster. A butcher. Skye and Father Juan cast spells to reclaim his goodness, but they can’t be sure they worked. Antonio won’t even look at me. I know he’s afraid of hurting me, or killing me. I want to talk to him, tell him that I know he wouldn’t do that.
But maybe I would be lying.
So this cursed silence has fallen between us, and it’s worse than the silence around us.
And me? I know my place now. I understand what I have to do, but until Father Juan can point us in a direction, there is nothing to do but wait. In silence.
—from the diary of Jenn Leitner,
retrieved from the ruins THE HELL FIRE CAVES, OUTSIDE LONDON
SKYE AND ESTEFAN
Skye York screamed at the top of her lungs, but she made no sound. Her blond dreadlocks were powdered with vampire ash and soot, and her black petticoats hung in tatters above her knee-high boots. Beneath her bustier, the gargoyle tattoo at the small of her back burned, pouring white-hot fire through her nerve endings. She was nearing her breaking point.
Estefan had been torturing her for what seemed like years, but it couldn’t have been that long. She hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since he had kidnapped her, and though she was dehydrated, she hadn’t died of thirst. Still, though the pain was unbearable, her tears had all dried up.
He had dragged her back into the Hell Fire Caves, chambers of flint and chalk beneath the Dashwood family seat. Sir Francis Dashwood was said to have reigned over the notorious Hell Fire Club in the 1750s, when powerful Dark Witches had conducted unspeakable rituals. The caves remained a trendy partying spot for witches who flirted with the darker side of magick. Skye and Estefan had partied there almost three years ago—before she had known he was a liar and a killer. Now he had her chained to a rock wall in the same spot where he had kissed her one night and asked her if she would move back to Spain with him.
It was ironic, then, that he had dragged her from Spain back to England. Why had he bothered to bring her all the way here from Salamanca? Where was Aurora, the evil vampire he worked for? Had Aurora been staked in the last battle? What about Skye’s friends, her teammates? Were they alive or dead? She had tried asking Estefan, but he had just laughed. The worst part was, she wasn’t sure he even knew.
He only seemed interested in tormenting her. He rippled shocks of magicks over her skin, burning her without leaving a mark, making her muscles quiver and contract until she shook.
Why doesn’t he just kill me?
“Because I love you,” Estefan said, stepping from the shadows. There were dark splotches on his tight jeans and black silk shirt. Her blood.
The Spaniard, with his charming accent and macho swagger, had easily enticed an innocent fourteen-year-old Skye. His attributes, which had once seemed dark and mysterious, were just brutal and sadistic now.
Skye wished she had never met him, but then she would never have fled him to Salamanca and the Spanish training school where she had learned to fight vampires. She would never have met her friends or her fighting partner, Holgar.
Holgar. Thoughts of him kept her going. Kind and generous, he was also the strongest person she knew. Now, as her knees buckled and she hung from the iron manacles around her wrists, she let herself fantasize about what he’d do to Estefan when he found her.
“Your friends aren’t going to find us,” Estefan said.
He had been wandering freely through her mind, torturing it even more cruelly than her body, inserting himself into her thoughts, obscuring her memories, conjuring new ones.
At least, she prayed to the Goddess that these memories weren’t real. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself. She saw herself here, in this cave, performing Black magick, drinking blood, pledging her loyalty to the Cursed Ones. She knew that Estefan had done all those things. But what had she done? She had been under his spell when she’d gotten the gargoyle tattoo on the small of her back. She actually remembered it, but the memory was detached, as if she were watching herself from a distance.
I’m seeing it through Estefan’s eyes, she realized.
“That’s right,” he chuckled. “You were drunk when you got that tattoo. You told me that love is forever, and you swore to love me always.”
Her girlish crush on him hadn’t come close to touching such a sacred emotion. What was it Father Juan had said in one of his sermons? Perfect love casts out fear. What they’d felt for each other certainly hadn’t been love. Looking into Estefan’s cold, glittering eyes, she realized he was incapable of understanding, let alone living, that truth.
She squeezed her eyes shut, but she still saw his face in her mind. He laughed at her. He touched her cheek, and she turned her head to bite him, but her teeth just snapped together painfully.
He had been drugging her—she knew that—to keep her from spell casting. Her energy was too depleted to use magick to escape. But the drugs were wearing off. Hope surged through her, and she tried to test the chain around her wrist. She couldn’t move.
Horror swept over her as she realized that Estefan had changed his game—he had paralyzed her. And it wasn’t only her body that he had in an iron grip. He flashed impressions of everything that had terrified her since she was a little girl. In her mind he showed her images of them kissing, whispering romantic promises to each other, which filled her with shame. Well, two could play at that game.
Skye pictured Holgar. Funny Holgar, howling uncontrollably during the ambush back in Russia and looking so shocked at himself, and then laughing hysterically about it. She loved his sense of humor. More than once it had made the misery of a situation bearable for everyone. Sweet Holgar, who offered his shoulder as a pillow when they were sleeping on the snow-covered ground in the forest. Strong Holgar, carrying her on his back even though he was injured, then protecting her seconds later by ripping out the throats of attacking vampires and werewolves.
She could feel Estefan watching, observing, wondering why she was thinking of Holgar Vibbard. Good. The distraction might weaken his spell.
She let herself imagine Holgar as she’d never actually seen him—his face glowing with love. She thought about kissing him, working hard to make it seem like a memory and not just a fantasy. Estefan’s startled thoughts flared like lightning as his emotions began to skitter out of control. Jealousy, rage, hate.
She was playing a dangerous game, one that could backfire. Fury provided power to those who used the darker arts. She doubted Estefan was that skilled, though. In place of magickal training, he had relied on his looks and charisma to get much of what he wanted. Skye, on the other hand, had been brought up very strictly in White magick. Estefan might have power, but she had knowledge on her side.
She pushed deeper, showing herself passionately kissing Holgar as they lay in the snow. Holgar sliding his hand up her leg as they pressed against each other outside the University of Salamanca beneath the moonlight, their desire blessed by the silver smile of the Lady Goddess.
Estefan’s emotions surged and crashed like stormy waves. And as with the surf that touches the sand, then recedes, she began to slip through his fingers.
Growing hopeful, she pushed harder.
She envisioned making out with Holgar in their Las Vegas hotel. She imagined his hands moving over her, and was surprised at the sudden flash of heat and desire that filled her in response.
She also felt Estefan’s wild stabs of jealousy. The threads of his magickal web frayed as his mastery over himself—and her—threatened to snap.
Skye pictured more kissing, more touching.
Estefan gasped. Though she couldn’t see his face, she sensed he was caught in the grip of frenzied near madness. The last time they’d been together, she had set him on fire—literally—to escape him. He’d hunted her ever since, to wreak his revenge.
Empowered by his weakness, she let real memories slide through too, memories that were sweet or intimate in their own way. Kindness and tenderness were foreign to Estefan and therefore something the two of them had never shared—and never could. But for her they could be used as wellsprings of White magick—power he didn’t possess. And so she let herself think of Holgar tenderly. She remembered when, after one full moon, she had brought him his clothes and let him out of his cage. She’d lifted the tarp that covered his cage to find him still asleep. Naked.
She had quickly turned away, as Holgar whispered—
Noooo! Estefan screamed inside her mind. His control loosened almost completely. And she knew what she had to do next.
She conjured an image of herself entering Holgar’s cage, then pulling the tarp back down. She watched Holgar drowse awake as she’d seen him do a dozen times. But then she created a vision of Holgar looking at her with love and joy in his eyes. Holgar reaching for her, and herself reaching for him.
Then Holgar curled himself around her, nuzzling her nose to nose. Sweetly, he cupped her cheek and very slowly and deliberately pushed down the bodice of her blouse just a little. She laughed. They kissed. Kissed harder. The warmth between them heated, then blazed—the greatest gift of the Goddess—as Holgar tore off her clothes and—
Estefan slapped her across the face, and Skye was finally able to scream.
The shrill sound echoed through the caves as Skye grabbed Estefan’s wrist. Yanking him toward her, she pulled the power of his Dark magicks and the energy of his consuming jealousy from him and into herself. Taking back what he had cost her—her self-will, and her self-respect—as she grabbed his face.
She screamed again and it boosted her dominion over his power. Anger surged through her, and she used it, growing stronger as he grew weaker. Gritting his teeth, Estefan struggled against her, but purpose and desperation fueled her. Finally she let go, and he fell to the ground with a cry.
“Stay away from me,” she hissed. She stared down at him as he sprawled, panting, on the rocky cave floor.
He’ll never leave me alone. I should kill him. But I can’t. It goes against everything I was raised to believe.
The thought made her shiver. Everything she was raised to believe. Did she believe it was wrong to kill him, even in self-defense?
She wouldn’t—couldn’t—answer that question now. She had to get away. As she focused on that thought, a burst of energy swelled from within her, shattering the manacles around her wrists.
“No,” he rasped.
Skye made a wide berth around him as she stumbled forward. Everything hurt, but she couldn’t spare the time or energy to heal herself until she was safe.
Winding her way through the shadowy cave, she staggered out of the darkness and into the bright sunlight. It blinded her, and she tripped, falling to the ground and knocking the air from her lungs.
She scrabbled to her feet as a roar came from behind her. Spinning around, she saw Estefan lurching toward her, his face wild with hatred, his eyes glowing red like a vampire’s.
Panicking, Skye threw up her hands. “Incendio!”
And just like a vampire, he began to burn, just as he had two years before—the first time she had set him on fire. Near this very spot he had sworn to bind her to the vampires, with or without her consent; she had burned him then, as she burned him now.
Orange flames dancing over his skin like an aura, he screamed, falling back into the opening of the cave. A sob burst out of her. She had harmed Estefan grievously. That was not the way of the Goddess. White Witches were never, ever permitted to hurt another living human being.
I had to do it, she told herself. My Lady will understand. And besides, I don’t think Estefan is completely human.
He had saved himself before. He wouldn’t die. There weren’t even any scars from her first attack.
She ran, trying to outrace her own fear. She was in England. She had friends, family. They had to help. They just had to.
How long had Estefan had her? What had happened back at Salamanca? Was Holgar alive? Jenn? Father Juan? She had to find out. But first she needed a place to hide, and food and drink. Estefan’s torture had taken a toll on her body. The energy she had extracted from him would only sustain her a few more minutes. She was weaker than she had realized.
Skye fell again and pushed herself back to her feet with a sob. She had to think. Where could she go?
She, like Holgar, would be an outcast to her family. She had run away. She fought vampires. Her family was resolute about doing no harm to any creature, no matter how foul or evil they were. That was why the Yorks, along with most witches, had gone underground when the war started. She imagined she would not be welcome, but there was no choice. She needed to hide.
She had to go home. TOLEDO, SPAIN
THE SURVIVORS OF SALAMANCA: JENN, ANTONIO, HOLGAR, JAMIE, FATHER JUAN, NOAH, AND SADE
Seated in a beautifully carved but very uncomfortable monastery chair, Jenn stared at her journal as her frustration simmered. She had asked Father Juan to perform stronger magicks to help them locate Skye, but so far he hadn’t come up with anything. Jenn knew how terrified Skye had been of her ex, and she tried not to think about what Estefan Montevideo might be doing to her.
Exhaling and closing her journal, Jenn stood up and headed for the chapel, knowing she’d find Father Juan there. Incense and the smell of candle wax wafted toward her as she pushed open the arched wooden door. A large crucifix hung above the altar, which was strewn with flowers. To the left of the altar, before a large statue of Mary, small votives flickered. The faithful had been asking her for favors, for help.
In the pew closest to the statue Father Juan knelt in prayer—and he wasn’t alone. Antonio was beside him, head bowed, eyes closed. Jenn’s breath caught in her throat as she stared at Antonio. His dark, curly hair wisped around his ears. His ruby cross earring once again sparkled in his left ear. Antonio had cast it away after Aurora had broken his humanity, returning him to the fiend he had been when he was first converted into a vampire. Jenn had found the earring on the stairs leading to Aurora’s penthouse and rescued it. She took it as a good sign that he was able to wear it without it burning his skin. Antonio was the only vampire they knew of who could touch a cross.
Antonio stirred, having heard her or smelled her, or both. He touched Father Juan on the shoulder. After a moment they both crossed themselves, bowed on one knee as they left the pew, and faced her.
Jenn swallowed down all her wanting and grief. Antonio seemed so distant, even when she could reach out and touch him. She folded her arms to keep herself from doing so.
“Jenn?” Father Juan asked softly.
“There’s a war to be fought,” she said. “And we can’t do it if we’re hiding here.”
A look flashed across Antonio’s face. She couldn’t tell if it was pride or fear.
Father Juan sighed. “I understand your impatience.”
“No,” she said carefully, “I don’t think you do.”
They each raised an eyebrow at her.
“The two of you are used to spending hours, days, praying and meditating. Meanwhile the rest of us are just waiting, alone with our own thoughts, and trust me, none of them are happy right now.”
“We haven’t given up,” Antonio said quietly.
“This feels like surrender to me,” she retorted. “It’s only a matter of time before Jamie goes off on his own and does something stupid or Sade completely loses it.”
“What do you suggest we do?” Father Juan asked.
“Enough with the skirmishes. It does us no good to kill a dozen, a hundred, even a thousand vampire foot soldiers. They can convert more in a heartbeat. We need to eliminate the leadership.” She frowned. “We shouldn’t have let Greg and the other black crosses stop us from attacking Solomon in Washington when he held that press conference with the president.”
“I’m not so convinced Solomon is the real power,” Father Juan said, glancing at Antonio. “Not after what we saw in Salamanca.”
“Even if he’s not, he certainly thinks he is,” Jenn replied. “And so do most of the civilians out there. If we could take him out—”
“We can’t worry about him right now,” Antonio broke in. He winced and turned away.
What is up with him? she wondered.
“We think we might have found something,” Father Juan said slowly, giving Antonio a concerned glance. “Someone.”
“What? Who?” Jenn asked.
“My grandsire,” Antonio whispered without looking at her. “Lucifer, the father of all this misery.”
* * *
Antonio was in hell.
He couldn’t imagine someplace worse, or a more apt description for what it was he was suffering. Even glancing at Jenn made him yearn to drain her. He still struggled with his bloodlust. It was dangerous for him to be around anyone, even Father Juan.
And Jenn was going through her own changes. Since her knock-down, drag-out fight with Jamie six days earlier, she carried herself differently. She seemed stronger, more aloof.
She’s become the leader Father Juan knew she would.
Antonio was so proud of her, even though he mourned the loss of her innocence, which had so charmed him. She’s been through too much to ever go back.
They all had.
Jenn was right. They needed to act soon—if for no other reason than they couldn’t hide where they were much longer. Father Sebastian, the monastery’s abbot, had given them sanctuary. But there were three other priests in residence, and Father Sebastian had warned Father Juan that they were loyal to Rome. The Church had outlawed vampire hunters and declared that anyone caught helping them would be excommunicated—cast out from the Catholic community. It was only a matter of time before one of the loyalists figured out who the team was and reported them—and turned in Father Sebastian for aiding them.
Antonio tried to swallow his bitterness. He would never have believed that his beloved Church would turn its back on the hunters they had spent centuries training to fight the Cursed Ones.
The world was upside down.
Holgar had killed a woman he loved.
Jenn, the leader of a vampire-hunting team, was in love with him, a Cursed One.
And he, Antonio de la Cruz, was drowning in guilt and remorse, not only for the lives of the innocents he had so recently snuffed out, but for killing his sire, Sergio Almodóvar, at the last battle against Aurora.
His guilty conscience was proof that he was insane. Killing Sergio before he could harm Jenn’s sister—or any human being—had been the right thing to do. Watching Sergio fall into the fiery pit in Salamanca had brought a rush of relief. A burden had lifted once and forever—Sergio loved to kill churchmen, and when Antonio had served in Sergio’s court, he had killed seven Catholic faithful for him. Why then was he feeling so sinful? Replaying Sergio’s death, torturing himself with it. He hadn’t told Father Juan of his torment. He didn’t need to give anyone more reason to distrust him.
Ay, mi alma, he thought, crossing himself. My soul.
His soul, named Jenn. MADRID, SPAIN
In the ruins of the palace once inhabited by a Spanish princess, Aurora raged with grief.
Sergio was dead.
In fury she paced back and forth on a cracked black marble floor, hurling an empty bottle of sangria at a stained-glass window of some idiotic saint. The window shattered, revealing the bone-white moon hanging above the ravaged garden.
If anyone was going to kill that bastard, she should have been the one to do it. Not that she was planning to before Antonio de la Cruz had stolen her choice from her.
I hate him. I hate Antonio more than I have ever hated anyone.
She cast a contemptuous gaze at the minion cowering before her, a vampire who had fought the hunters at Salamanca and lived to tell the tale. He was terrified of her, which was good. His knees shook.
He’s too weak to be an effective lieutenant. Actually, too weak to be allowed to live.
She reached out with both hands, grabbed his head, and twisted it from his neck. For one second the lieutenant’s eyes blinked at her in shock, and then all of him, head and body, transmuted into dust.
That made her feel a little better.
As she wiped her hands on a nearby chaise, she just wished she could do the same to Antonio. And to Estefan. The Dark Witch had gotten his prize, the girl Skye, and fled the battle without a word.
He would pay for deserting her.
But first Aurora would leave Madrid. In a few hours she would be with her sire. When Lucifer called, none dared ignore it. Love and fear mingled within her at the thought of seeing him again. She would have to tell him about Sergio’s death, though Lucifer probably already knew. Her dark lord knew everything.
He probably even knows that I captured Antonio and then lost him.
She shuddered at what he might do to her for that blunder. There was nowhere in this world or the next that she could hide from Lucifer, and she would go to him with her head held high.
But first she had once last thing to attend to.
“Come,” she commanded.
One of her fledglings entered the room silently. The young girl’s arms were full of white satin. She inclined her head to Aurora, who felt her throat actually constrict with unspent emotion.
It was time.
Aurora beckoned the girl forward, and the little thing held out the white gown. It was reminiscent of the style of the Spanish royal court when Aurora had been alive. Aurora had died in 1490, becoming a vampire to escape the Spanish Inquisition.
With a sense of ceremony, Aurora disrobed, and the fledgling helped her don the heavy costume, slipping her arms into the white embroidered sleeves. Experiencing again the confinement of the small, stiff hoops that created the slender bell shape of the skirt, Aurora held herself regally, her posture impeccable.
Then the servant helped her arrange her long, raven-black hair, entwining lilies in it as she piled it on Aurora’s head. When she was finished, Aurora fought the urge to glance in the mirror. She was more than five hundred years old, yet it still startled her when she could not see her own reflection.
The dress was beautiful, and she knew that modern society would have assumed she was a bride, and not in deep mourning. The royal court in her time had favored white for funerals. It felt more appropriate to honor Sergio in that way than with the modern black.
“How do I look?” she asked the fledgling.
“Like a beautiful ghost,” the girl said with a faint smile.
Better that than a corpse. Or a pile of ash scattering slowly in the breeze.
“Bueno, I’m ready,” Aurora announced, stepping through bits of brittle colored glass and vampire dust.
The woman walked ahead and opened the door, and Aurora glided out. She descended a circular stone staircase to the main hall, where nearly two dozen of her most loyal followers waited. At her request they too had dressed in white, although they had opted for modern styles of clothing—suits and formal gowns. She didn’t begrudge them that.
Leading the way, she left the house and walked slowly toward El Retiro Park. The others fell in step behind her, a funeral cortege, many carrying blood-red roses or lilies, others crystal decanters and simple glass jars filled with blood. Along the route some human passersby stopped to stare. Others fled.
Aurora kept her eyes straight ahead, allowing herself to think more fully about Sergio than she had in years. Memories, both good and hideous, flooded her like a rushing river. Sergio had been magnificent and arrogant, passionate and unpredictable. He had been her one great love. He had also been willful, reckless, cruel, and insensitive. She had hated him as much as she had loved him.
He made me feel so alive.
Sergio had worshipped the dark god Orcus. Orcus no longer possessed active temples or followers. There was nowhere she could go to respect that part of Sergio. So she had chosen instead their favorite trysting spot in the city of Madrid.
Inside the park, the procession wound to the Fountain of the Fallen Angel. Meant to depict Lucifer as he was being cast out of heaven, it had always been their private joke. The sculptor who had fashioned it had given the Fallen Angel the face of a very different Lucifer: their vampiric sire.
Silently, the mourners circled the fountain. Emilio, an aged vampire Aurora and Sergio had both held in esteem, stepped forward, an ebony-and-maroon leather volume in his hand. He opened it and began to read the words he had written for the occasion.
“Immortality—the greatest of gifts—must not be approached with trepidation. Life is not something to be sipped, but to be grasped with both hands and bled for all its worth. This fire—this passion—sustains, nourishes, uplifts, illuminates all. We are blessed, not cursed, to understand, to taste the finest fruits of the universe.”
He closed the book. “None knew this more than Sergio Almodóvar. Filled with bloodlust, the finest of killers, he was a vampire who knew how to live. Sergio himself would remind us that though we may have eternity, it can be taken from us in the twinkling of an eye. Every moment must be savored to its last drop of potential in the chance that it is to be our last.”
A stricken sigh passed through the assembly. Immortality denied was a terrifying tragedy. Humans were born doomed. Vampires . . . spared.
“We are here to honor his memory and to commit his soul to Orcus,” Emilio continued. “God of Light, God Below, look upon your most loyal son with favor.”
Around Aurora the others stirred, reflecting on the dark god or goddess they themselves worshipped. Like humans, vampires followed many deities, worshipped in many ways. For some, their underworlds were ruled by beings connected with light and the returning of their souls. For Aurora Abregón, there was only one thing that felt right. She rent her clothes, as her Jewish ancestors had done, ripping the finery with vampiric strength, and she wailed—mourning in the style of the ancient Romans, of Orcus.
Those who had brought flowers ringed them around the base of the fountain. Those who had brought blood spilled it into the waters—an offering and a remembrance.
I will remember you. I will never forget who did this to you.
As she let out another cry, her heart was truly broken. Aurora would not have killed Sergio, had she had the chance. She knew that she would have forgiven him for every wretched, horrible slight, every cutting insult, every wrong he had committed against her.
She might have tortured him for a few weeks, but she would have declared the slate wiped clean.
Fueled by her passions, Aurora led the procession back to the crumbling palace. But even as she thought of the banquet that was waiting, her misery was so great that she had no hunger. She was too angered by her grief to eat anyone.
“My friends,” she said, facing the assembly. “Sergio must be avenged. Swear a blood oath with me that you will kill his assassin—the traitor Antonio de la Cruz.” She raised her left hand and sliced a fingernail across her palm. Blood welled up and began to drip as the others followed suit. Under the moonlight the vampires bled.
“He is as good as dead,” Emilio said; the others inclined their heads.
And Aurora smiled.