My mouth dried out. “How can you not know?”
“Neither I nor any of my fellow Elders have entered the chamber since we locked them in here for safekeeping almost two decades ago.”
Safekeeping. They wanted to keep these vessels safe. The Elders must have been convinced that they would survive. Otherwise what was the point in locking them in here? They might as well have just let them perish like their other vessels.
Still, I couldn’t keep myself from asking, “Do you really not know what happens to a vampire when they starve?”
“I do not know,” the Elder responded, a hint of impatience in his tone. “I have never witnessed the result of starvation in a vampire before. Open the door and we shall see.…”
As we resumed our hold on the door and forced it loose, we geared ourselves up to likely be the first people in history to find out.
* * *
Nothing could have prepared me for the sight that lay beyond that stone door.
As we stepped through into a pitch-black dungeon—darker than even the dank corridors we’d been traveling along— the first thing that hit me was the smell. The thick stone walls had contained and stifled it while we had been standing on the other side, but now it was unbearable.
The scent alone sent my mind into a panic. Vampires indeed could starve and the smell was that of rotting corpses.
But the strange thing was, as I cast my eyes despairingly around the large, circular chamber, there wasn’t a body to be seen. The floors were empty, except for the odd puddle of water.
“The ceiling!” Braithe choked.
As my eyes drifted upward, I stopped breathing. The stalactite-ridden ceiling was lined with… bodies. Naked, stark-white bodies. I stumbled further into the chamber, my head hanging back as I gazed upward in disbelief. The bodies… they were utterly emaciated, their skin—if it could even be called that anymore—was thin as papyrus. From where I stood, I could only see their backs, but I could see the backs of their heads—each devoid of even a strand of hair.
No. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.
“Hans!” I croaked. My cry echoed around the chamber, causing it to sound all the more anguished.
I staggered into the center of the room, falling to my knees as I continued gazing up hopelessly. Were they dead? How were they all clinging to the ceiling like that with their hands and feet? They all appeared motionless.
Almost as soon as I had the thought, the last of the echoes of my cry fading in the room, they began to stir. The sound of cracking filled my ears—cracking bone. They loosened their tight hold on the uneven ceiling and the next thing I knew, their legs dropped loosely beneath them. Now their faces were no longer obscured, I was able to witness the full horror of their transformation.
What have they become?
Their faces were shrunken, as were their lips, and their noses had receded into their skulls. Their eyes, small black dots in the center of their eye sockets, stared down at me, unblinking. I scanned the ceiling to see if I could recognize Hans. They were all so horrifically transformed.
“Hans,” I called weakly.
Please let this be a nightmare. Please. Don’t let Hans be lost to me.
Arletta clutched my hand as the body—a male—hanging directly above us shifted. We all stood back as his hands detached from the ceiling. He dropped to the floor and crumpled in a heap. Could this be him? We rushed forward, and I reached out, my insides squirming as I touched his papery, skeletal shoulder. He seemed too weak to stand up. I gripped the upper portion of his bony arm, afraid that it might snap even at the slightest pressure. Braithe clutched his other arm and slowly, we raised him to his feet.
Now I was able to take him in fully for the first time. He was approximately the right height for Hans, allowing for the bend now in his spine. And although his face was so horribly deformed, I could just about make out the shadow of his familiar strong jawline.
“Hans?” I urged.
He stared back at me blankly.
“Is that you, brother?” Braithe asked.
He continued looking at us as though he either couldn’t hear, or didn’t understand.
What happened to you?
“We need to get him out of here,” I choked, looking desperately at his siblings. “We need to get him back to the ship and feed him blood. He’ll recover. I know he will.”
Although my brain told me that he would never recover from such a state, my heart couldn’t let go. I held onto the irrational hope that somehow, if we just fed him enough blood, he would recover slowly but surely, and he would be mine again. Hans. The same man I’d fallen in love with.
“Arletta, Julie.” Hans’ youngest brother, Colin, addressed us. “Go open the door wider so we can carry him through. I’m not sure he can even walk.”
Although I didn’t want to leave Hans’ side, we did as Colin suggested. Arletta and I hurried back to the door and heaved it open wider, as wide as it would go.
A snarl came from behind us. Then a strangled yell. Braithe’s yell.
Arletta and I whirled around to see Braithe on the floor, Hans on top of him… attacking his throat.
I was too stunned to even move. But Arletta shrieked and raced forward.
The siblings hauled Hans off Braithe, and as they pushed the former away and helped Braithe to his feet, I could see that Hans had ripped a huge gash in his neck. Braithe looked in agony as he gripped the side of his throat and attempted to stem the blood flow.
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