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“Immunes,” I said suddenly. “How is Sofia a vampire?”

“Immunes on Earth are no longer immunes once brought to Cruor. They become too affected by the atmosphere of that realm to resist infection.”

“What are immunes? How did they come to be?” I opened my eyes briefly to see the witch shift in her chair.

“That is a long story… Close your eyes again.” This time the vision of a very different realm appeared. “Behold, Aviary, realm of the Hawks, or ‘Guardians’ as they like to call themselves.”

A harsh sun beat down on dense jungles. I’d always thought that our redwoods at The Shade were magnificent, but the trees of Aviary were three times the width. Swarms of bees the size of small birds buzzed around giant flowers. The place seemed larger than life, almost Jurassic. Wild four-legged carnivores the likes of which I’d never encountered before raced through the vegetation. Massive predatory birds crowded the skies. Finally, I spotted the Hawks themselves, muscular men and women whose features would have looked almost human, had it not been for their sharp beaks and black wings. I recognized them from when Arron had arranged for some to accompany us during the storming of The Blood Keep.

“Cruor and Aviary,” the witch continued, “have been enemies since time immemorial. Legend has it that the Elders of Cruor attacked Aviary to extract its life source. And the Hawks… well, they don’t forgive easily. They’ve been at war with Cruor ever since.”

“All right. But you still haven’t answered my question. What are immunes?” I said.

“There was a time, before I came to power, when Cruor posed its first threat to The Sanctuary. We… we didn’t want this looming over us. We struck a bargain with the Elders that we’d provide them with access to sustenance and in return they would leave us in peace. My ancestors used their magic to create gates between the vampire realm and Earth. To make the deal more attractive for the Elders, we also created ‘immunes’. We arrived at a potion that could be injected into a human’s bloodstream. It made their blood sweeter, but most of all, they were immune to being turned into vampires while on Earth. Their succulent blood could be consumed without fear of turning them. We created only a few thousand immunes, but with time those blood strands were passed on through the generations.”

My mind was beginning to reel at the sheer scope of the witches’ deception. Perhaps sensing my rage, the witch moved on. “So… now that we had pacified the Elders, we thought our problems had been solved. That was until Aviary turned on us and threatened to storm our realm for assisting their enemies. In their eyes, we had given Cruor an unfair advantage. Thus, to pacify the Hawks, we agreed to create their own gates to Earth, in order to maintain a balance between the two realms.”

At this point, I could no longer contain my anger. “Why the hell did you have to divert all this to us? Couldn’t you just have destroyed the gates linking to your own realm, the gates between The Sanctuary and Cruor and Aviary?”

“Between the supernatural realms, no gates are needed. It’s only when entering this mortal realm that we require special portals.” The witch continued as if I hadn’t interrupted. “Maintaining a balance has always been challenging, since one realm was always trying to gain more of a foothold than the other. But, since your discovery of the cure to vampirism and the arrival of numerous Elders, we’ve been forced to implicate your kind more and more in this struggle…”

“So let me get this clear,” I fumed. My palms felt like they were about to start blazing again. “This balance you’ve been harping on about is nothing but a way to save your own backsides from getting burned. Everything revolves around diverting the heat away from your realm toward ours. You stole my wife from me because Cruor demanded it and you were too scared to deny them. And to top it all off, you had the gall to try to persuade me to help you with all of this by collecting immunes for you!” I spat at her feet. “You’re nothing but conceited self-serving cowards. You don’t deserve the air you breathe.” I directed my palms to her and more flames erupted.

The witch’s eyes widened before she once again manifested water to extinguish my fire. “If you were in our position, wouldn’t you have done the same to protect your own kind?”

“Deliberately direct such evil toward vulnerable people who’d never done my kind any harm? Do you really need me to answer that?” I stormed out onto the verandah. “And why are you even here telling me all of this? Out of the goodness of your heart?” I sneered at her.

The witch followed me outside. “You must understand that my role as leader has always been to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors, the Ancients. For the protection of our kind, they set down rules that I and my council have always abided by… but Ibrahim has opened my mind to another possibility.”

“Oh, and what is that?”

“Working together might serve our realm better.”

“Again, your realm! Your safety. Your peace of mind. Let’s ignore the countless innocent lives you’ve ripped apart and the many more you’re about to destroy. Can we please spend more time thinking about how we can keep you comfortable? Because I honestly don’t think enough effort has been put into that already.”

It was hard to find words to express my exasperation and disbelief. I stared at her, struggling to comprehend that any creature could be so incapable of conscience. I recalled the flash of guilt in her eyes. Is this just an act she is forced to put on to retain her status as leader to her kind? Or perhaps that look of guilt was meant to manipulate me, and the inhabitants of The Sanctuary do indeed have hearts of stone… or no hearts at all.

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