“Stop… Stop… Please!” I could barely utter the words through the pain.

He stopped only after my back had become numb from the torture. Then he grabbed me and pulled me to a standing position next to him.

“Now, you need to heal. But first I must change vessel. All this unnecessary exertion has rendered this old one useless.”

He dragged me out of the room, back toward the black marble staircases. Despite my stumbling and tripping against him, we climbed down several more levels.

We entered yet another chamber, this time with a young blonde vampire wearing a tattered red dress. The Elder sat me down on the ground, removed his black cloak, and gave it to me to hold. Then, without warning, his decrepit form collapsed in a heap. The female vampire let out a bloodcurdling scream, then her neck clicked, her face contorted and she stood up as if nothing had happened. She walked over to me and grabbed the black cloak, throwing it over her shoulders. Then she pulled me to my feet just as harshly as the man now dead on the floor had set me down.

“That old vessel was second-hand already. This one is much more comfortable. Now, let’s fix you.”

The lashes and the shock of what I’d just witnessed made me dizzy. I tried to steady my legs but fell to the floor and everything faded to black.

****

When I came to, I found myself lying on a cot in a room not dissimilar from the one we had left Abby in. My back was still causing me so much agony that it sent my head reeling again.

Sitting in the corner was an old woman—a human, I knew instantly. Her blood smelled irresistible. Sweet. Succulent. The Elder sat at the opposite end of the room, watching me.

“This is an immune. We haven’t turned her yet, as you can see. I’m sure you’ve noticed how much sweeter and richer her blood smells? You want to stop the pain? You drink.”

The old woman whimpered and cowered in the corner.

“I can’t,” I said through gritted teeth. It took every ounce of restraint to not fly at the woman’s throat.

The Elder stood up and dragged me closer to the woman, pushing my head down so her scent was now intoxicating me. I shook my head violently.

“No… No… Get off of me!” I stamped down hard on the Elder’s foot, making her lose balance. This gave me the five seconds I needed to flee through the open door.

I had no idea where I was going and the pain slowed me down. I headed back toward the staircases and then upward, hoping to lose myself in the maze of dark hallways and chambers. But it didn’t take long until I bumped into a second vampire—another Elder inhabiting another old vessel. I could tell this time due to the yellowish tinge of the body.

He caught my arm and pulled me down, holding me against the stairs until the Elder chasing me had caught up.

“Thank you,” she said, addressing him. “I’ll take charge from here.” Then she turned to me. Her eyes rolled in their sockets and her mouth split into a lopsided grin. “Very well. You won’t cooperate? We’ll just have to make you our very own little puppet then.”

She pulled out a vial of red liquid from her cloak, and before I could even react, she yanked open my mouth and poured it in. Its sweetness tantalized my tongue and the effect was instant; my wounds stopped aching. And, for the second time in the past few hours, I lost all consciousness.

****

This time when I opened my eyes, my surroundings felt strangely familiar. I lay on a cold stone slab. I sat bolt upright and glanced around. I was in the largest and innermost chamber of The Shade’s Sanctuary.

The exact spot where Derek woke up. Where I first met him. Where it all started.

The torches fixed to the high walls gave off a dim glow. A wave of relief washed over me. I was home. For all I knew, Derek could be within less than a mile. But then the reality hit me full force. How did that Elder bring me here? Why on earth would it bring me home? I knew that the answers to these questions would bring me neither joy nor relief.

The chamber seemed empty, although there was a strange round hole about fifteen feet away from me. I stood up cautiously. Just as I motioned to walk over to it, a deep voice I knew so well echoed around the room.

“Sofia.”

Xavier! A figure stirred in the shadows in a far corner of the room. I was ecstatic to see a dear friend. I rushed toward him to pull him into an embrace. But as I got closer, joy turned to horror.

Translucent eyes. A manic grin.

“Xavier!” I screamed.

Xavier fell to the ground, twitching. A freezing cold enveloped me, seeping into my bones. I managed to scream for a few seconds, but then I lost my voice. I couldn’t move my tongue. I couldn’t open my mouth. I couldn’t move any part of my body. I felt trapped in my own body as a dark presence closed in around me.

Then I heard my own voice speak.

“No, darling. I’m not Xavier. Just the darkness that consumed him. The same one that has now consumed you.”

Chapter 4: Derek

Early the next morning, I packed up a few key belongings. I made sure to leave behind a spare phone, instructing Corrine and Ibrahim to contact me only in an emergency. Then, after holding Rose one last time, I headed further inland, to the city of Liberia. There I used a telephone box to make contact with Aiden and, six hours later, I found myself boarding a helicopter bound for Hawk Headquarters.

During the flight, I tried to stop thinking about what Sofia and my son could be going through. I tried to stop thinking about what was beyond my control. If I was to think clearly and not be a constant fire hazard at Headquarters, I had to keep my emotions in check.

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