Darkness by Terence West

EXTRACT FOR
Darkness

(Terence West)


PART ONE

One Soul…

It will not be easy.
It will be a life without reward, without remorse, without regret.
This path is placed before you, stretching out endlessly into the horizon. The road forks and winds into countless millions of different possibilities, each changing everything.
But the path is yours alone.
It will not be easy.

PROLOGUE

White fog laced with heavy black smoke from the numerous campfires drifted over what would become the night’s battlefield. As the last rays of sunlight began to sink in a pink and orange haze behind the horizon, the far-off sound of inhuman war cries began to waft over the peaceful grassy plain. To the east sat a dense line of trees that cut like a scar across the pristine green field before them. Darkness, even in midday, seemed to cling to this place as if it were a mother protecting its young. It swooped in and around the grizzled branches of the trees and vegetation, providing a soupy blanket that most sane men would not penetrate.
On this night, they had no choice.
It was the year 1704 of their lord, a day when all must be sacrificed for the good of mankind. The encroaching darkness had moved too far into the world of man. They vowed to draw the line here and no farther. These creatures were more like a plague than an invading army. They would attack with sheer animal ferocity, all the while, harvesting the dead soldiers to their own ranks. To send wave after wave of soldiers at them did nothing more than bolster their army, yet this was what the Esgobaeth had seen. This was the way it must be.
Many did not see the wisdom of the Esgobaeth—the High Council—yet Solomon Cole was beginning to. The upcoming battle, while important to the men here today, held significance for the future, no matter the outcome. Tonight would be a defining moment for the Gwyliad Wriaeth. Cole was starting to understand that. Sir Solomon Cole was a knight of the British Empire. He fought for those in the realm who could not do so. This was his sworn duty and he would die to uphold it. It was this belief in duty and honor that led him to the White Guard. Swathed in mystery and disinformation, they were fighting a war they went to great lengths to conceal from all prying eyes. There was greater importance here than the empire’s acquisition of wealth and land. These men were defending the future. Cole could not let this call go unheeded. He was fighting tonight for the very fate of every man, woman, and child on Earth.
Drawing his broad sword from its sheath, Cole listened to the clink of his plate armor as he gripped the hilt with both hands. Clad from head to toe in meticulously crafted armor and chain mail, he sat proudly on the back of his sturdy, powerful steed. A bloody, jagged wound sliced from his left cheek to his throat, spilling blood on the silver and gold breastplate of his armor—a trophy from the previous night’s engagement. His mocha colored hair fell down from his head in curly waves and terminated just above the imperial purple collar of his shirt. His dark brown eyes scanned the empty battlefield ahead as the sounds of war once again met his ears.
The armored segments on his gloves scraped together as he moved the sword into one hand and lifted it high above his head. Turning to look behind him, he surveyed his men. Each clad in various bits of armor and common clothing, they held their weapons at the ready. Hands shook and lips trembled as they faced what they knew would probably be their final moonrise. Some were extremely young, having just entered Her Majesty’s Service, while others had weathered far too many winters. Yet, each was willing to fight and die at Cole’s side, no questions asked.
A proud smile flickered across Cole’s face as he pulled on his horse’s reins and turned the beast toward the men. “You men should all be commended on your courage,” he boomed. “You are not fighting for the queen or England, but rather, for the lives of our children, and our children’s children.” He began to pace back and forth in front of his regiment. “I do not know what the future holds for us,” he admitted, giving the men a brief glimpse of the same fear that ran cold through their veins, “but tonight, mankind takes back the night!”
The men cheered loudly.
“Tonight,” Cole paused, “we fight!”
Wild cheers erupted among the men as they clanged their weapons together and stamped their feet. Turning back to the battlefield, Cole saw the first of the golden-eyed demons break free of the trees. Taking a deep breath, he gripped his horse’s reins tightly in his armored hand. Pointing his sword forward, he dug his spurred heels into the horse sending it surging ahead.
“Charge!”
As Cole’s army of Wraiths raced across the green field, they caught the first glimpse of their enemy. Looking like nothing more than fragile, gray, reanimated corpses, each creature’s eyes burned a shimmering gold that illuminated the night. As the creatures spilled from the eternal darkness of the forest onto the battlefield, the men quickly spotted a few who had previously been among their ranks. Several of the creatures wore shattered bits of armor and shreds of white fabric—the traditional color of the Wraith. To Cole’s horror, the demons began to change. Their demonic forms melted away in favor of healthy pink flesh and clothes that were not previously there. They quickly began to mimic the appearance of Cole’s army. Cursing under his breath, Cole locked his eyes onto one of the men he knew was an enemy and pushed his horse faster toward the fray.
As the battle was joined, a fallen horse’s scream shattered the cool evening air. The creatures surged ahead into Cole’s ranks, clawing and destroying as they went. Moving almost too fast for the human eye, the first wave tore through the Wraiths with pure, animal ferocity. Men were ripped from their mounts and flung across the battlefield like children’s toys, while others never had the chance to strike. It was as if a dark tide washed into the army and sent them sprawling helplessly across the ground.
Several of Cole’s men fought ahead undaunted, their silver blades carving a swath through the darkness. As a man was picked off from behind, Sir Gerard, one of the few of Cole’s fellow knights to join the Gwyliad Wriaeth, lifted a fallen banner from the ground. Holding it high as he cut and slashed, he forged ahead, even though his horse had been killed. Five men followed Gerard’s lead and fought brilliantly through wave after wave of oncoming demons. However, luck was not on their side this night. One by one, the creatures dismantled the unit.
Holding the banner in his left hand, Gerard struck ahead with his sword, embedding the blade deep in the heart of a golden-eyed soldier, now more determined than ever. Snapping his gaze to the right, he saw three pairs of gold eyes materialize out of the darkness. Ripping his sword free of the demon, he spun on his toes just in time to cut down the first and second attacker. The third leapt over the bodies of the other two and came crashing down onto Gerard’s chest. The knight let out a grunt of pain as the breastplate crumpled into his ribs under the force of the blow. Focusing his eyes on the creature pinning him in place, he could see nothing but the glistening, pearl-white fangs. Mustering every bit of saliva left in his mouth, Gerard spit at the creature’s face. “I die for the glory of Her Majesty.”
The creature sneered, “You think so?”
Snapping Gerard’s head to the side, the creature lunged for his throat. Gerard gnashed his teeth together as the creature’s fangs broke through the flesh of his neck.
Slashing down with his sword, Cole easily lopped the head from his first target. Bright blue flame surged from the creature’s body as it writhed on the ground in agony. Slowly, red embers began to flit into the air as its body was reduced to ash. Snapping his head around, Cole struck again and again. As an unholy blue fire blazed around him, he lifted his sword high into the air. “Death to all vampires!” he roared.
Turning, he saw his men falling quickly to the advances of the vampire army. Rage gripped him. This was not a battle they were destined to win. The vampire’s numbers were far too great. The Esgobaeth had sent them carelessly to their deaths. All his men would be sacrificed on this field. For what cause, for what future purpose would this serve? Hundreds would die here tonight. Gritting his teeth, Cole decided, at that moment, he would not be one of them. He would fight until there were no vampires left standing. Spinning around, he charged blindly into the waves, killing everything he saw.
As the last remaining soldiers under his command fell, he found himself surrounded on all sides by leering golden eyes. His steed whinnied and bucked, almost knocking him free of his saddle. He held on tightly knowing that the horse was his only advantage. The wave of darkness surged forward again, ripping and tearing at him. His steed whinnied and bucked again and again as it tried to escape the claws and fangs, but it was no use. There were simply too many of them. As his horse was brought down, Cole continued to fight, slashing wildly with his sword. The screams of his men filled his ears as his mount came down hard, pinning his right leg beneath it.
“The Wraith will never give up,” he grunted in pain. “I promise you!”
The scores of golden eyes hovered around him in the inky darkness, hissing and giggling with glee. In one horrible movement, they surged toward Cole. He flailed wildly as the razor-sharp claws and fangs dug into his exposed flesh. Piece by piece, his armor was ripped away, exposing the clothing and flesh beneath. He roared in rage as the claws of unseen bodies began to tear at the golden crest of his family emblazoned on the purple shirt he wore. As the claws ripped through his shirt, he lifted his eyes toward the heavens. Blocking out the pain, he uttered a silent prayer in the hopes that God would look after his wife and child. He screamed in agony as the first set of fangs dug into his flesh.


CHAPTER ONE

The room was bathed in darkness as the hopefuls were led inside. These were the chosen few, those who had completed the training and excelled in their courses. This would be part of their final test. If they passed, they would continue the crusade begun centuries ago; if they failed, it meant certain death. Such as it had been for hundreds of years, so would it continue to be with this new generation. As the hopefuls were led through the darkness, each was instructed to kneel with their hands clasped behind their backs. If they were to break the link of their hands at any time, this test would become null and they would lose their chance to complete the training. There would be no make-up day if they failed, no do-overs. This portion of the test was far too important.
Each of the seven—the largest graduating class the academy had seen in some time—were blindfolded to keep them from seeing the members of the High Council. This was done for not only the student’s safety, but also for the council members. Though it was not revealed at any point in the training, as a Wraith aged, their features became more and more vampiric in nature. It was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between actual vampires and the oldest members of the order. It was also required to keep the student from knowing which member of the council had chosen them for the ritual. Each member of the High Council, or Esgobaeth, was well over one thousand years old, but there were a few older and their “gift” varied according to age. If students had their choice, it was common knowledge they would always chose the eldest member of the council to complete the ritual; however, they knew that not all students could handle, or were worthy of, that much power to begin their careers. The seven watched each member of a class closely, determining whom they would pick for the ritual.
The seven students were all men, save for one woman. A female Wraith wasn’t as uncommon as it used to be; yet the council found that few actually completed the training. They were all nearly the same age of twenty-five, with a few a little younger. The female student, Emily St. Louise—her peers called her Saint—was the youngest at twenty-three. She had been observed with special interest by the council for exhibiting a special aptitude for this kind of work. Handpicked for the academy by her Master, Ben Quinn, at the ripe young age of thirteen, she had instantly excelled at her studies and fieldwork. This was rare in a student. Many took months, even years to adjust to their new way of life, while others could not cope at all and washed out. The council had been very impressed with her work over the past ten years and subsequently had chosen her to receive the ritual from the eldest among them: One.
As a Wraith ascended to the council—a spot was rarely ever available—they lost their name and individual identity. Each was given only a number to cling to, the order in which they joined the council. To keep personal wants and needs out of the master equation, these were stripped from a new member. They would think only of the Gwyliad Wriaeth. Nothing else mattered to them anymore. If any of their number began to show personal interest in matters outside the order, the remaining six members dealt them with quickly. This had only happened once in the history of the Guard, but even hundreds of years later, the ripple of consequence was still being felt. It would not be allowed to happen again.
As the two attending Wraiths completed situating the students and informing them of the rules of the ritual, they stepped out of the way and faded into the darkness. The students could hear the slight rustle of fabric as the silence closed in around them. From the head of the immense room, the seven council members appeared as hundreds of candles flickered brightly around them. Each one, dressed in a long, white robe that hid their gender and shadowed their faces, held a ceremonial cup and dagger. Though they were all old enough to have developed fangs, to use them would be an affront to everything they stood for. It would make them no better than the prey they swore their lives to hunt and destroy.
The first—One—stepped out of line and moved in front of the other six council members. Holding the silver dagger in its hand, it pointed to the students. “On this twenty-eighth day of October, in the year two-thousand and four, we are gathered here to transform these students into Acolytes.” Its voice was full and deep as it echoed off the cavernous walls of the council chamber. “If there is one here who wishes to refuse the ritual, let them speak now.” One paused, although it knew none would speak out. “Very good,” it said with more than a hint of pleasure in its voice.
One motioned to the other members of the council to take their positions. As each moved across the room, a row of candles shimmered to life as they walked, lighting their way. Stopping in front of their chosen student, the candles encircled the two, separating each pair from the others. Setting the cups before the students, the council members knelt down and held their daggers at the ready.
“If you scream out,” One warned, “you will fail this test. If you unclasp your hands, you will fail this test. If you touch any of the council in any way, you will fail this test.” One looked to the other council members, then back to the young woman kneeling before it. “This ritual has been passed down through the generations. It will be the penultimate test in your training, and though you have made it this far, know that this ritual is not without its dangers. I give each of you one final chance to back out and spare yourselves what could be a horrible death.”
Again, no one spoke.
“Let the ritual begin.”
Moving its hand carefully, One wrapped its fingers around Saint’s neck. Tilting her head back, it could feel her heart throbbing in the veins of her throat. It was fear that gripped her, yet she was doing her best to remain strong. Lifting the dagger up, the ancient Wraith pressed it to the side of her throat. With one swift stroke, it pulled the blade through the soft, pink flesh, splaying it open. Blood instantly spurted from the wound as an artery was cleaved in two. Without a single grunt or wince of pain, Saint began to bleed to death. Pushing her head down, One watched her crimson life spill over the hard stone floor around them. Turning to its right, One could see the process repeated on each of the students. To One’s approval, none cried out at the quick flash of steel.
Holding its fingers firmly on Saint’s throat, it could feel her heart beginning to slow. From its own experience, One knew she was very near slipping from consciousness. The ritual had to be timed precisely. This was the reason ancients only completed it. If they didn’t wait long enough, the ritual wouldn’t take and the student would be lost, yet if they waited too long, the student would die. It was a fine line they treaded, nevertheless, each was confident in their abilities. Lifting Saint back into a kneeling position, One steadied her with its hands as blood rolled down onto its white robe. “Hold on, my child,” it whispered. “It’s only just begun.” Lifting the dagger again, One pressed it firmly to its own wrist. Pulling once, it laid open its veins. Setting the blade aside, it quickly reached for the cup.
As One held its wrist over the cup quickly filling it, Saint began to feel herself slipping away. Darkness encroached over her brain, threatening at any moment to sever her connection to this reality. The gaping wound in her neck throbbed with pain with every heartbeat, every breath. No longer could she feel her arms and legs, the pain was all-consuming. Reaching down deep into herself, she summoned a strength she had only glimpsed before. She had to hold on. To come so far in ten years, only to die on the council chamber floor would not only disgrace the order, but herself as well. She would not fail, not this close to the finish.
One lifted the cup of its own blood with two hands toward Saint. Its hands trembled slightly, but it quickly calmed itself. To lose this student now would be a tragedy, but fate always had its own agenda. Tipping the young woman’s head back, One began to pour the blood into her mouth. Saint gagged as the thick, lukewarm substance hit the back of her throat. One held his hand firmly around her mouth refusing to let her spit any out. She needed every drop to complete the ritual. “Swallow, child,” One said, almost pleadingly. “Swallow.”
Saint’s eyes rolled back as she choked on the liquid. Pulling a breath in through her nose, she closed her mouth and opened her throat. Gulping down the thick substance, her eyes opened wide, then snapped shut. It felt like battery acid chewing its way down her throat. She felt the immediate urge to retch, but clenching her teeth, she fought it. Balling up her fists behind her back, she felt the blood hit her stomach like a brick. Doubling over in pain, she narrowly missed One with her head as she hit the floor. Making sure to keep her hands clasped behind her back, she rested her forehead on the floor amidst a pool of her own blood. Gritting her teeth, she wanted to cry out, but refused. She felt as if red hot needles were being pushed into her skin and muscles over and over again. Intense pain rocketed through her skull as her upper canine teeth were broken and forced from her gums and two tiny fangs slid into place. Rolling onto her back, her head snapped and hit the stone floor with a crunch. Opening her eyes again, she felt her vision become blurred. The tiny veins in her eyes popped and exploded, sending blood gushing into the chocolate brown irises, but it quickly receded as the iris in each eye melted to a solid gold. As fast as they had changed to gold, they turned colors again. The color faded away, leaving her irises a pale blue that was almost gray. All at once, her body convulsed, then relaxed as she lost consciousness.
Standing up, One looked down at Saint with satisfaction. Looking to his right, it saw each of the council members standing over their students in much the same way. Three had a bit of a worried look spread across its face. “What happened?” One asked.
“The eyes did not revert to normal,” Three said, shaking its head. “At least not yet.”
One muttered a curse under its breath. Lifting its hand, it snapped its fingers once and pointed to the third student in line. The two attending Wraiths materialized out of the darkness and hovered around the student. Lifting slender, wooden stakes out of their gray and white coats, they stood silently above the unconscious boy. He was a young male of approximately twenty-five years with wavy brown hair. His white ceremonial robe was splattered angrily with his own blood as he lay motionless.
Three dropped down to its knees and rested a hand on the boy’s head. “He’s growing cold. We’ve lost him.”
One shook its head. “Not everyone can handle the ritual. We always expect to lose one or two.”
“I know,” Three breathed, “but it never gets any easier.” Lifting the boy’s eyelid with its thumb, Three saw the solid gold eyes within. Standing up, Three took several steps away from the student. “Finish him before he wakes up. He wouldn’t want to live like this.”
The two Wraiths nodded. Dropping down to their knees, one reached in with his powerful hands and pinned the boy flat on his back, while the other pressed his knee firmly into the boy’s chest. Lifting the stake over his head, the Wraith watched as the boy’s eyes shot open. The glowing eyes snapped to the Wraith in instant anger. Struggling against the more powerful men, the newly created vampire shrieked in protest.
“Do it now!” Three commanded. “Do not let this abomination live!”
The Wraith brought the stake down swiftly, piercing the vampire’s heart. The creature screamed in horror as blue flame leapt from the newly created wound and quickly began to engulf his entire body. Leaping away, the two Wraiths watched as smoke and cinders were thrown into the air as the vampire writhed on the floor. It was only moments before his body was reduced to ashes within the circle of candles.
“May God have mercy on our souls,” One muttered. Looking up, he readdressed the council. “The ritual is complete. Let us retire and rest before the final test tonight.” One turned his attention back to the two Wraiths. “Please attend to the students. Watch over them to make sure no one else turns.”
The Wraiths nodded and set about their task. Moving to the right, one Wraith lifted Saint first and slung her over his shoulder like a doll. He could feel her warmth even through his clothing and smiled. Her body was in a state of flux, in the process of metamorphosis, and she would make a fine addition to the Gwyliad Wriaeth.

Darkness by Terence West

EXTRACT FOR
Darkness

(Terence West)


PART ONE

One Soul…

It will not be easy.
It will be a life without reward, without remorse, without regret.
This path is placed before you, stretching out endlessly into the horizon. The road forks and winds into countless millions of different possibilities, each changing everything.
But the path is yours alone.
It will not be easy.

PROLOGUE

White fog laced with heavy black smoke from the numerous campfires drifted over what would become the night’s battlefield. As the last rays of sunlight began to sink in a pink and orange haze behind the horizon, the far-off sound of inhuman war cries began to waft over the peaceful grassy plain. To the east sat a dense line of trees that cut like a scar across the pristine green field before them. Darkness, even in midday, seemed to cling to this place as if it were a mother protecting its young. It swooped in and around the grizzled branches of the trees and vegetation, providing a soupy blanket that most sane men would not penetrate.
On this night, they had no choice.
It was the year 1704 of their lord, a day when all must be sacrificed for the good of mankind. The encroaching darkness had moved too far into the world of man. They vowed to draw the line here and no farther. These creatures were more like a plague than an invading army. They would attack with sheer animal ferocity, all the while, harvesting the dead soldiers to their own ranks. To send wave after wave of soldiers at them did nothing more than bolster their army, yet this was what the Esgobaeth had seen. This was the way it must be.
Many did not see the wisdom of the Esgobaeth—the High Council—yet Solomon Cole was beginning to. The upcoming battle, while important to the men here today, held significance for the future, no matter the outcome. Tonight would be a defining moment for the Gwyliad Wriaeth. Cole was starting to understand that. Sir Solomon Cole was a knight of the British Empire. He fought for those in the realm who could not do so. This was his sworn duty and he would die to uphold it. It was this belief in duty and honor that led him to the White Guard. Swathed in mystery and disinformation, they were fighting a war they went to great lengths to conceal from all prying eyes. There was greater importance here than the empire’s acquisition of wealth and land. These men were defending the future. Cole could not let this call go unheeded. He was fighting tonight for the very fate of every man, woman, and child on Earth.
Drawing his broad sword from its sheath, Cole listened to the clink of his plate armor as he gripped the hilt with both hands. Clad from head to toe in meticulously crafted armor and chain mail, he sat proudly on the back of his sturdy, powerful steed. A bloody, jagged wound sliced from his left cheek to his throat, spilling blood on the silver and gold breastplate of his armor—a trophy from the previous night’s engagement. His mocha colored hair fell down from his head in curly waves and terminated just above the imperial purple collar of his shirt. His dark brown eyes scanned the empty battlefield ahead as the sounds of war once again met his ears.
The armored segments on his gloves scraped together as he moved the sword into one hand and lifted it high above his head. Turning to look behind him, he surveyed his men. Each clad in various bits of armor and common clothing, they held their weapons at the ready. Hands shook and lips trembled as they faced what they knew would probably be their final moonrise. Some were extremely young, having just entered Her Majesty’s Service, while others had weathered far too many winters. Yet, each was willing to fight and die at Cole’s side, no questions asked.
A proud smile flickered across Cole’s face as he pulled on his horse’s reins and turned the beast toward the men. “You men should all be commended on your courage,” he boomed. “You are not fighting for the queen or England, but rather, for the lives of our children, and our children’s children.” He began to pace back and forth in front of his regiment. “I do not know what the future holds for us,” he admitted, giving the men a brief glimpse of the same fear that ran cold through their veins, “but tonight, mankind takes back the night!”
The men cheered loudly.
“Tonight,” Cole paused, “we fight!”
Wild cheers erupted among the men as they clanged their weapons together and stamped their feet. Turning back to the battlefield, Cole saw the first of the golden-eyed demons break free of the trees. Taking a deep breath, he gripped his horse’s reins tightly in his armored hand. Pointing his sword forward, he dug his spurred heels into the horse sending it surging ahead.
“Charge!”
As Cole’s army of Wraiths raced across the green field, they caught the first glimpse of their enemy. Looking like nothing more than fragile, gray, reanimated corpses, each creature’s eyes burned a shimmering gold that illuminated the night. As the creatures spilled from the eternal darkness of the forest onto the battlefield, the men quickly spotted a few who had previously been among their ranks. Several of the creatures wore shattered bits of armor and shreds of white fabric—the traditional color of the Wraith. To Cole’s horror, the demons began to change. Their demonic forms melted away in favor of healthy pink flesh and clothes that were not previously there. They quickly began to mimic the appearance of Cole’s army. Cursing under his breath, Cole locked his eyes onto one of the men he knew was an enemy and pushed his horse faster toward the fray.
As the battle was joined, a fallen horse’s scream shattered the cool evening air. The creatures surged ahead into Cole’s ranks, clawing and destroying as they went. Moving almost too fast for the human eye, the first wave tore through the Wraiths with pure, animal ferocity. Men were ripped from their mounts and flung across the battlefield like children’s toys, while others never had the chance to strike. It was as if a dark tide washed into the army and sent them sprawling helplessly across the ground.
Several of Cole’s men fought ahead undaunted, their silver blades carving a swath through the darkness. As a man was picked off from behind, Sir Gerard, one of the few of Cole’s fellow knights to join the Gwyliad Wriaeth, lifted a fallen banner from the ground. Holding it high as he cut and slashed, he forged ahead, even though his horse had been killed. Five men followed Gerard’s lead and fought brilliantly through wave after wave of oncoming demons. However, luck was not on their side this night. One by one, the creatures dismantled the unit.
Holding the banner in his left hand, Gerard struck ahead with his sword, embedding the blade deep in the heart of a golden-eyed soldier, now more determined than ever. Snapping his gaze to the right, he saw three pairs of gold eyes materialize out of the darkness. Ripping his sword free of the demon, he spun on his toes just in time to cut down the first and second attacker. The third leapt over the bodies of the other two and came crashing down onto Gerard’s chest. The knight let out a grunt of pain as the breastplate crumpled into his ribs under the force of the blow. Focusing his eyes on the creature pinning him in place, he could see nothing but the glistening, pearl-white fangs. Mustering every bit of saliva left in his mouth, Gerard spit at the creature’s face. “I die for the glory of Her Majesty.”
The creature sneered, “You think so?”
Snapping Gerard’s head to the side, the creature lunged for his throat. Gerard gnashed his teeth together as the creature’s fangs broke through the flesh of his neck.
Slashing down with his sword, Cole easily lopped the head from his first target. Bright blue flame surged from the creature’s body as it writhed on the ground in agony. Slowly, red embers began to flit into the air as its body was reduced to ash. Snapping his head around, Cole struck again and again. As an unholy blue fire blazed around him, he lifted his sword high into the air. “Death to all vampires!” he roared.
Turning, he saw his men falling quickly to the advances of the vampire army. Rage gripped him. This was not a battle they were destined to win. The vampire’s numbers were far too great. The Esgobaeth had sent them carelessly to their deaths. All his men would be sacrificed on this field. For what cause, for what future purpose would this serve? Hundreds would die here tonight. Gritting his teeth, Cole decided, at that moment, he would not be one of them. He would fight until there were no vampires left standing. Spinning around, he charged blindly into the waves, killing everything he saw.
As the last remaining soldiers under his command fell, he found himself surrounded on all sides by leering golden eyes. His steed whinnied and bucked, almost knocking him free of his saddle. He held on tightly knowing that the horse was his only advantage. The wave of darkness surged forward again, ripping and tearing at him. His steed whinnied and bucked again and again as it tried to escape the claws and fangs, but it was no use. There were simply too many of them. As his horse was brought down, Cole continued to fight, slashing wildly with his sword. The screams of his men filled his ears as his mount came down hard, pinning his right leg beneath it.
“The Wraith will never give up,” he grunted in pain. “I promise you!”
The scores of golden eyes hovered around him in the inky darkness, hissing and giggling with glee. In one horrible movement, they surged toward Cole. He flailed wildly as the razor-sharp claws and fangs dug into his exposed flesh. Piece by piece, his armor was ripped away, exposing the clothing and flesh beneath. He roared in rage as the claws of unseen bodies began to tear at the golden crest of his family emblazoned on the purple shirt he wore. As the claws ripped through his shirt, he lifted his eyes toward the heavens. Blocking out the pain, he uttered a silent prayer in the hopes that God would look after his wife and child. He screamed in agony as the first set of fangs dug into his flesh.


CHAPTER ONE

The room was bathed in darkness as the hopefuls were led inside. These were the chosen few, those who had completed the training and excelled in their courses. This would be part of their final test. If they passed, they would continue the crusade begun centuries ago; if they failed, it meant certain death. Such as it had been for hundreds of years, so would it continue to be with this new generation. As the hopefuls were led through the darkness, each was instructed to kneel with their hands clasped behind their backs. If they were to break the link of their hands at any time, this test would become null and they would lose their chance to complete the training. There would be no make-up day if they failed, no do-overs. This portion of the test was far too important.
Each of the seven—the largest graduating class the academy had seen in some time—were blindfolded to keep them from seeing the members of the High Council. This was done for not only the student’s safety, but also for the council members. Though it was not revealed at any point in the training, as a Wraith aged, their features became more and more vampiric in nature. It was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between actual vampires and the oldest members of the order. It was also required to keep the student from knowing which member of the council had chosen them for the ritual. Each member of the High Council, or Esgobaeth, was well over one thousand years old, but there were a few older and their “gift” varied according to age. If students had their choice, it was common knowledge they would always chose the eldest member of the council to complete the ritual; however, they knew that not all students could handle, or were worthy of, that much power to begin their careers. The seven watched each member of a class closely, determining whom they would pick for the ritual.
The seven students were all men, save for one woman. A female Wraith wasn’t as uncommon as it used to be; yet the council found that few actually completed the training. They were all nearly the same age of twenty-five, with a few a little younger. The female student, Emily St. Louise—her peers called her Saint—was the youngest at twenty-three. She had been observed with special interest by the council for exhibiting a special aptitude for this kind of work. Handpicked for the academy by her Master, Ben Quinn, at the ripe young age of thirteen, she had instantly excelled at her studies and fieldwork. This was rare in a student. Many took months, even years to adjust to their new way of life, while others could not cope at all and washed out. The council had been very impressed with her work over the past ten years and subsequently had chosen her to receive the ritual from the eldest among them: One.
As a Wraith ascended to the council—a spot was rarely ever available—they lost their name and individual identity. Each was given only a number to cling to, the order in which they joined the council. To keep personal wants and needs out of the master equation, these were stripped from a new member. They would think only of the Gwyliad Wriaeth. Nothing else mattered to them anymore. If any of their number began to show personal interest in matters outside the order, the remaining six members dealt them with quickly. This had only happened once in the history of the Guard, but even hundreds of years later, the ripple of consequence was still being felt. It would not be allowed to happen again.
As the two attending Wraiths completed situating the students and informing them of the rules of the ritual, they stepped out of the way and faded into the darkness. The students could hear the slight rustle of fabric as the silence closed in around them. From the head of the immense room, the seven council members appeared as hundreds of candles flickered brightly around them. Each one, dressed in a long, white robe that hid their gender and shadowed their faces, held a ceremonial cup and dagger. Though they were all old enough to have developed fangs, to use them would be an affront to everything they stood for. It would make them no better than the prey they swore their lives to hunt and destroy.
The first—One—stepped out of line and moved in front of the other six council members. Holding the silver dagger in its hand, it pointed to the students. “On this twenty-eighth day of October, in the year two-thousand and four, we are gathered here to transform these students into Acolytes.” Its voice was full and deep as it echoed off the cavernous walls of the council chamber. “If there is one here who wishes to refuse the ritual, let them speak now.” One paused, although it knew none would speak out. “Very good,” it said with more than a hint of pleasure in its voice.
One motioned to the other members of the council to take their positions. As each moved across the room, a row of candles shimmered to life as they walked, lighting their way. Stopping in front of their chosen student, the candles encircled the two, separating each pair from the others. Setting the cups before the students, the council members knelt down and held their daggers at the ready.
“If you scream out,” One warned, “you will fail this test. If you unclasp your hands, you will fail this test. If you touch any of the council in any way, you will fail this test.” One looked to the other council members, then back to the young woman kneeling before it. “This ritual has been passed down through the generations. It will be the penultimate test in your training, and though you have made it this far, know that this ritual is not without its dangers. I give each of you one final chance to back out and spare yourselves what could be a horrible death.”
Again, no one spoke.
“Let the ritual begin.”
Moving its hand carefully, One wrapped its fingers around Saint’s neck. Tilting her head back, it could feel her heart throbbing in the veins of her throat. It was fear that gripped her, yet she was doing her best to remain strong. Lifting the dagger up, the ancient Wraith pressed it to the side of her throat. With one swift stroke, it pulled the blade through the soft, pink flesh, splaying it open. Blood instantly spurted from the wound as an artery was cleaved in two. Without a single grunt or wince of pain, Saint began to bleed to death. Pushing her head down, One watched her crimson life spill over the hard stone floor around them. Turning to its right, One could see the process repeated on each of the students. To One’s approval, none cried out at the quick flash of steel.
Holding its fingers firmly on Saint’s throat, it could feel her heart beginning to slow. From its own experience, One knew she was very near slipping from consciousness. The ritual had to be timed precisely. This was the reason ancients only completed it. If they didn’t wait long enough, the ritual wouldn’t take and the student would be lost, yet if they waited too long, the student would die. It was a fine line they treaded, nevertheless, each was confident in their abilities. Lifting Saint back into a kneeling position, One steadied her with its hands as blood rolled down onto its white robe. “Hold on, my child,” it whispered. “It’s only just begun.” Lifting the dagger again, One pressed it firmly to its own wrist. Pulling once, it laid open its veins. Setting the blade aside, it quickly reached for the cup.
As One held its wrist over the cup quickly filling it, Saint began to feel herself slipping away. Darkness encroached over her brain, threatening at any moment to sever her connection to this reality. The gaping wound in her neck throbbed with pain with every heartbeat, every breath. No longer could she feel her arms and legs, the pain was all-consuming. Reaching down deep into herself, she summoned a strength she had only glimpsed before. She had to hold on. To come so far in ten years, only to die on the council chamber floor would not only disgrace the order, but herself as well. She would not fail, not this close to the finish.
One lifted the cup of its own blood with two hands toward Saint. Its hands trembled slightly, but it quickly calmed itself. To lose this student now would be a tragedy, but fate always had its own agenda. Tipping the young woman’s head back, One began to pour the blood into her mouth. Saint gagged as the thick, lukewarm substance hit the back of her throat. One held his hand firmly around her mouth refusing to let her spit any out. She needed every drop to complete the ritual. “Swallow, child,” One said, almost pleadingly. “Swallow.”
Saint’s eyes rolled back as she choked on the liquid. Pulling a breath in through her nose, she closed her mouth and opened her throat. Gulping down the thick substance, her eyes opened wide, then snapped shut. It felt like battery acid chewing its way down her throat. She felt the immediate urge to retch, but clenching her teeth, she fought it. Balling up her fists behind her back, she felt the blood hit her stomach like a brick. Doubling over in pain, she narrowly missed One with her head as she hit the floor. Making sure to keep her hands clasped behind her back, she rested her forehead on the floor amidst a pool of her own blood. Gritting her teeth, she wanted to cry out, but refused. She felt as if red hot needles were being pushed into her skin and muscles over and over again. Intense pain rocketed through her skull as her upper canine teeth were broken and forced from her gums and two tiny fangs slid into place. Rolling onto her back, her head snapped and hit the stone floor with a crunch. Opening her eyes again, she felt her vision become blurred. The tiny veins in her eyes popped and exploded, sending blood gushing into the chocolate brown irises, but it quickly receded as the iris in each eye melted to a solid gold. As fast as they had changed to gold, they turned colors again. The color faded away, leaving her irises a pale blue that was almost gray. All at once, her body convulsed, then relaxed as she lost consciousness.
Standing up, One looked down at Saint with satisfaction. Looking to his right, it saw each of the council members standing over their students in much the same way. Three had a bit of a worried look spread across its face. “What happened?” One asked.
“The eyes did not revert to normal,” Three said, shaking its head. “At least not yet.”
One muttered a curse under its breath. Lifting its hand, it snapped its fingers once and pointed to the third student in line. The two attending Wraiths materialized out of the darkness and hovered around the student. Lifting slender, wooden stakes out of their gray and white coats, they stood silently above the unconscious boy. He was a young male of approximately twenty-five years with wavy brown hair. His white ceremonial robe was splattered angrily with his own blood as he lay motionless.
Three dropped down to its knees and rested a hand on the boy’s head. “He’s growing cold. We’ve lost him.”
One shook its head. “Not everyone can handle the ritual. We always expect to lose one or two.”
“I know,” Three breathed, “but it never gets any easier.” Lifting the boy’s eyelid with its thumb, Three saw the solid gold eyes within. Standing up, Three took several steps away from the student. “Finish him before he wakes up. He wouldn’t want to live like this.”
The two Wraiths nodded. Dropping down to their knees, one reached in with his powerful hands and pinned the boy flat on his back, while the other pressed his knee firmly into the boy’s chest. Lifting the stake over his head, the Wraith watched as the boy’s eyes shot open. The glowing eyes snapped to the Wraith in instant anger. Struggling against the more powerful men, the newly created vampire shrieked in protest.
“Do it now!” Three commanded. “Do not let this abomination live!”
The Wraith brought the stake down swiftly, piercing the vampire’s heart. The creature screamed in horror as blue flame leapt from the newly created wound and quickly began to engulf his entire body. Leaping away, the two Wraiths watched as smoke and cinders were thrown into the air as the vampire writhed on the floor. It was only moments before his body was reduced to ashes within the circle of candles.
“May God have mercy on our souls,” One muttered. Looking up, he readdressed the council. “The ritual is complete. Let us retire and rest before the final test tonight.” One turned his attention back to the two Wraiths. “Please attend to the students. Watch over them to make sure no one else turns.”
The Wraiths nodded and set about their task. Moving to the right, one Wraith lifted Saint first and slung her over his shoulder like a doll. He could feel her warmth even through his clothing and smiled. Her body was in a state of flux, in the process of metamorphosis, and she would make a fine addition to the Gwyliad Wriaeth.

EXTRACT FOR
Darkness

(Terence West)


PART ONE

One Soul…

It will not be easy.
It will be a life without reward, without remorse, without regret.
This path is placed before you, stretching out endlessly into the horizon. The road forks and winds into countless millions of different possibilities, each changing everything.
But the path is yours alone.
It will not be easy.

PROLOGUE

White fog laced with heavy black smoke from the numerous campfires drifted over what would become the night’s battlefield. As the last rays of sunlight began to sink in a pink and orange haze behind the horizon, the far-off sound of inhuman war cries began to waft over the peaceful grassy plain. To the east sat a dense line of trees that cut like a scar across the pristine green field before them. Darkness, even in midday, seemed to cling to this place as if it were a mother protecting its young. It swooped in and around the grizzled branches of the trees and vegetation, providing a soupy blanket that most sane men would not penetrate.
On this night, they had no choice.
It was the year 1704 of their lord, a day when all must be sacrificed for the good of mankind. The encroaching darkness had moved too far into the world of man. They vowed to draw the line here and no farther. These creatures were more like a plague than an invading army. They would attack with sheer animal ferocity, all the while, harvesting the dead soldiers to their own ranks. To send wave after wave of soldiers at them did nothing more than bolster their army, yet this was what the Esgobaeth had seen. This was the way it must be.
Many did not see the wisdom of the Esgobaeth—the High Council—yet Solomon Cole was beginning to. The upcoming battle, while important to the men here today, held significance for the future, no matter the outcome. Tonight would be a defining moment for the Gwyliad Wriaeth. Cole was starting to understand that. Sir Solomon Cole was a knight of the British Empire. He fought for those in the realm who could not do so. This was his sworn duty and he would die to uphold it. It was this belief in duty and honor that led him to the White Guard. Swathed in mystery and disinformation, they were fighting a war they went to great lengths to conceal from all prying eyes. There was greater importance here than the empire’s acquisition of wealth and land. These men were defending the future. Cole could not let this call go unheeded. He was fighting tonight for the very fate of every man, woman, and child on Earth.
Drawing his broad sword from its sheath, Cole listened to the clink of his plate armor as he gripped the hilt with both hands. Clad from head to toe in meticulously crafted armor and chain mail, he sat proudly on the back of his sturdy, powerful steed. A bloody, jagged wound sliced from his left cheek to his throat, spilling blood on the silver and gold breastplate of his armor—a trophy from the previous night’s engagement. His mocha colored hair fell down from his head in curly waves and terminated just above the imperial purple collar of his shirt. His dark brown eyes scanned the empty battlefield ahead as the sounds of war once again met his ears.
The armored segments on his gloves scraped together as he moved the sword into one hand and lifted it high above his head. Turning to look behind him, he surveyed his men. Each clad in various bits of armor and common clothing, they held their weapons at the ready. Hands shook and lips trembled as they faced what they knew would probably be their final moonrise. Some were extremely young, having just entered Her Majesty’s Service, while others had weathered far too many winters. Yet, each was willing to fight and die at Cole’s side, no questions asked.
A proud smile flickered across Cole’s face as he pulled on his horse’s reins and turned the beast toward the men. “You men should all be commended on your courage,” he boomed. “You are not fighting for the queen or England, but rather, for the lives of our children, and our children’s children.” He began to pace back and forth in front of his regiment. “I do not know what the future holds for us,” he admitted, giving the men a brief glimpse of the same fear that ran cold through their veins, “but tonight, mankind takes back the night!”
The men cheered loudly.
“Tonight,” Cole paused, “we fight!”
Wild cheers erupted among the men as they clanged their weapons together and stamped their feet. Turning back to the battlefield, Cole saw the first of the golden-eyed demons break free of the trees. Taking a deep breath, he gripped his horse’s reins tightly in his armored hand. Pointing his sword forward, he dug his spurred heels into the horse sending it surging ahead.
“Charge!”
As Cole’s army of Wraiths raced across the green field, they caught the first glimpse of their enemy. Looking like nothing more than fragile, gray, reanimated corpses, each creature’s eyes burned a shimmering gold that illuminated the night. As the creatures spilled from the eternal darkness of the forest onto the battlefield, the men quickly spotted a few who had previously been among their ranks. Several of the creatures wore shattered bits of armor and shreds of white fabric—the traditional color of the Wraith. To Cole’s horror, the demons began to change. Their demonic forms melted away in favor of healthy pink flesh and clothes that were not previously there. They quickly began to mimic the appearance of Cole’s army. Cursing under his breath, Cole locked his eyes onto one of the men he knew was an enemy and pushed his horse faster toward the fray.
As the battle was joined, a fallen horse’s scream shattered the cool evening air. The creatures surged ahead into Cole’s ranks, clawing and destroying as they went. Moving almost too fast for the human eye, the first wave tore through the Wraiths with pure, animal ferocity. Men were ripped from their mounts and flung across the battlefield like children’s toys, while others never had the chance to strike. It was as if a dark tide washed into the army and sent them sprawling helplessly across the ground.
Several of Cole’s men fought ahead undaunted, their silver blades carving a swath through the darkness. As a man was picked off from behind, Sir Gerard, one of the few of Cole’s fellow knights to join the Gwyliad Wriaeth, lifted a fallen banner from the ground. Holding it high as he cut and slashed, he forged ahead, even though his horse had been killed. Five men followed Gerard’s lead and fought brilliantly through wave after wave of oncoming demons. However, luck was not on their side this night. One by one, the creatures dismantled the unit.
Holding the banner in his left hand, Gerard struck ahead with his sword, embedding the blade deep in the heart of a golden-eyed soldier, now more determined than ever. Snapping his gaze to the right, he saw three pairs of gold eyes materialize out of the darkness. Ripping his sword free of the demon, he spun on his toes just in time to cut down the first and second attacker. The third leapt over the bodies of the other two and came crashing down onto Gerard’s chest. The knight let out a grunt of pain as the breastplate crumpled into his ribs under the force of the blow. Focusing his eyes on the creature pinning him in place, he could see nothing but the glistening, pearl-white fangs. Mustering every bit of saliva left in his mouth, Gerard spit at the creature’s face. “I die for the glory of Her Majesty.”
The creature sneered, “You think so?”
Snapping Gerard’s head to the side, the creature lunged for his throat. Gerard gnashed his teeth together as the creature’s fangs broke through the flesh of his neck.
Slashing down with his sword, Cole easily lopped the head from his first target. Bright blue flame surged from the creature’s body as it writhed on the ground in agony. Slowly, red embers began to flit into the air as its body was reduced to ash. Snapping his head around, Cole struck again and again. As an unholy blue fire blazed around him, he lifted his sword high into the air. “Death to all vampires!” he roared.
Turning, he saw his men falling quickly to the advances of the vampire army. Rage gripped him. This was not a battle they were destined to win. The vampire’s numbers were far too great. The Esgobaeth had sent them carelessly to their deaths. All his men would be sacrificed on this field. For what cause, for what future purpose would this serve? Hundreds would die here tonight. Gritting his teeth, Cole decided, at that moment, he would not be one of them. He would fight until there were no vampires left standing. Spinning around, he charged blindly into the waves, killing everything he saw.
As the last remaining soldiers under his command fell, he found himself surrounded on all sides by leering golden eyes. His steed whinnied and bucked, almost knocking him free of his saddle. He held on tightly knowing that the horse was his only advantage. The wave of darkness surged forward again, ripping and tearing at him. His steed whinnied and bucked again and again as it tried to escape the claws and fangs, but it was no use. There were simply too many of them. As his horse was brought down, Cole continued to fight, slashing wildly with his sword. The screams of his men filled his ears as his mount came down hard, pinning his right leg beneath it.
“The Wraith will never give up,” he grunted in pain. “I promise you!”
The scores of golden eyes hovered around him in the inky darkness, hissing and giggling with glee. In one horrible movement, they surged toward Cole. He flailed wildly as the razor-sharp claws and fangs dug into his exposed flesh. Piece by piece, his armor was ripped away, exposing the clothing and flesh beneath. He roared in rage as the claws of unseen bodies began to tear at the golden crest of his family emblazoned on the purple shirt he wore. As the claws ripped through his shirt, he lifted his eyes toward the heavens. Blocking out the pain, he uttered a silent prayer in the hopes that God would look after his wife and child. He screamed in agony as the first set of fangs dug into his flesh.


CHAPTER ONE

The room was bathed in darkness as the hopefuls were led inside. These were the chosen few, those who had completed the training and excelled in their courses. This would be part of their final test. If they passed, they would continue the crusade begun centuries ago; if they failed, it meant certain death. Such as it had been for hundreds of years, so would it continue to be with this new generation. As the hopefuls were led through the darkness, each was instructed to kneel with their hands clasped behind their backs. If they were to break the link of their hands at any time, this test would become null and they would lose their chance to complete the training. There would be no make-up day if they failed, no do-overs. This portion of the test was far too important.
Each of the seven—the largest graduating class the academy had seen in some time—were blindfolded to keep them from seeing the members of the High Council. This was done for not only the student’s safety, but also for the council members. Though it was not revealed at any point in the training, as a Wraith aged, their features became more and more vampiric in nature. It was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between actual vampires and the oldest members of the order. It was also required to keep the student from knowing which member of the council had chosen them for the ritual. Each member of the High Council, or Esgobaeth, was well over one thousand years old, but there were a few older and their “gift” varied according to age. If students had their choice, it was common knowledge they would always chose the eldest member of the council to complete the ritual; however, they knew that not all students could handle, or were worthy of, that much power to begin their careers. The seven watched each member of a class closely, determining whom they would pick for the ritual.
The seven students were all men, save for one woman. A female Wraith wasn’t as uncommon as it used to be; yet the council found that few actually completed the training. They were all nearly the same age of twenty-five, with a few a little younger. The female student, Emily St. Louise—her peers called her Saint—was the youngest at twenty-three. She had been observed with special interest by the council for exhibiting a special aptitude for this kind of work. Handpicked for the academy by her Master, Ben Quinn, at the ripe young age of thirteen, she had instantly excelled at her studies and fieldwork. This was rare in a student. Many took months, even years to adjust to their new way of life, while others could not cope at all and washed out. The council had been very impressed with her work over the past ten years and subsequently had chosen her to receive the ritual from the eldest among them: One.
As a Wraith ascended to the council—a spot was rarely ever available—they lost their name and individual identity. Each was given only a number to cling to, the order in which they joined the council. To keep personal wants and needs out of the master equation, these were stripped from a new member. They would think only of the Gwyliad Wriaeth. Nothing else mattered to them anymore. If any of their number began to show personal interest in matters outside the order, the remaining six members dealt them with quickly. This had only happened once in the history of the Guard, but even hundreds of years later, the ripple of consequence was still being felt. It would not be allowed to happen again.
As the two attending Wraiths completed situating the students and informing them of the rules of the ritual, they stepped out of the way and faded into the darkness. The students could hear the slight rustle of fabric as the silence closed in around them. From the head of the immense room, the seven council members appeared as hundreds of candles flickered brightly around them. Each one, dressed in a long, white robe that hid their gender and shadowed their faces, held a ceremonial cup and dagger. Though they were all old enough to have developed fangs, to use them would be an affront to everything they stood for. It would make them no better than the prey they swore their lives to hunt and destroy.
The first—One—stepped out of line and moved in front of the other six council members. Holding the silver dagger in its hand, it pointed to the students. “On this twenty-eighth day of October, in the year two-thousand and four, we are gathered here to transform these students into Acolytes.” Its voice was full and deep as it echoed off the cavernous walls of the council chamber. “If there is one here who wishes to refuse the ritual, let them speak now.” One paused, although it knew none would speak out. “Very good,” it said with more than a hint of pleasure in its voice.
One motioned to the other members of the council to take their positions. As each moved across the room, a row of candles shimmered to life as they walked, lighting their way. Stopping in front of their chosen student, the candles encircled the two, separating each pair from the others. Setting the cups before the students, the council members knelt down and held their daggers at the ready.
“If you scream out,” One warned, “you will fail this test. If you unclasp your hands, you will fail this test. If you touch any of the council in any way, you will fail this test.” One looked to the other council members, then back to the young woman kneeling before it. “This ritual has been passed down through the generations. It will be the penultimate test in your training, and though you have made it this far, know that this ritual is not without its dangers. I give each of you one final chance to back out and spare yourselves what could be a horrible death.”
Again, no one spoke.
“Let the ritual begin.”
Moving its hand carefully, One wrapped its fingers around Saint’s neck. Tilting her head back, it could feel her heart throbbing in the veins of her throat. It was fear that gripped her, yet she was doing her best to remain strong. Lifting the dagger up, the ancient Wraith pressed it to the side of her throat. With one swift stroke, it pulled the blade through the soft, pink flesh, splaying it open. Blood instantly spurted from the wound as an artery was cleaved in two. Without a single grunt or wince of pain, Saint began to bleed to death. Pushing her head down, One watched her crimson life spill over the hard stone floor around them. Turning to its right, One could see the process repeated on each of the students. To One’s approval, none cried out at the quick flash of steel.
Holding its fingers firmly on Saint’s throat, it could feel her heart beginning to slow. From its own experience, One knew she was very near slipping from consciousness. The ritual had to be timed precisely. This was the reason ancients only completed it. If they didn’t wait long enough, the ritual wouldn’t take and the student would be lost, yet if they waited too long, the student would die. It was a fine line they treaded, nevertheless, each was confident in their abilities. Lifting Saint back into a kneeling position, One steadied her with its hands as blood rolled down onto its white robe. “Hold on, my child,” it whispered. “It’s only just begun.” Lifting the dagger again, One pressed it firmly to its own wrist. Pulling once, it laid open its veins. Setting the blade aside, it quickly reached for the cup.
As One held its wrist over the cup quickly filling it, Saint began to feel herself slipping away. Darkness encroached over her brain, threatening at any moment to sever her connection to this reality. The gaping wound in her neck throbbed with pain with every heartbeat, every breath. No longer could she feel her arms and legs, the pain was all-consuming. Reaching down deep into herself, she summoned a strength she had only glimpsed before. She had to hold on. To come so far in ten years, only to die on the council chamber floor would not only disgrace the order, but herself as well. She would not fail, not this close to the finish.
One lifted the cup of its own blood with two hands toward Saint. Its hands trembled slightly, but it quickly calmed itself. To lose this student now would be a tragedy, but fate always had its own agenda. Tipping the young woman’s head back, One began to pour the blood into her mouth. Saint gagged as the thick, lukewarm substance hit the back of her throat. One held his hand firmly around her mouth refusing to let her spit any out. She needed every drop to complete the ritual. “Swallow, child,” One said, almost pleadingly. “Swallow.”
Saint’s eyes rolled back as she choked on the liquid. Pulling a breath in through her nose, she closed her mouth and opened her throat. Gulping down the thick substance, her eyes opened wide, then snapped shut. It felt like battery acid chewing its way down her throat. She felt the immediate urge to retch, but clenching her teeth, she fought it. Balling up her fists behind her back, she felt the blood hit her stomach like a brick. Doubling over in pain, she narrowly missed One with her head as she hit the floor. Making sure to keep her hands clasped behind her back, she rested her forehead on the floor amidst a pool of her own blood. Gritting her teeth, she wanted to cry out, but refused. She felt as if red hot needles were being pushed into her skin and muscles over and over again. Intense pain rocketed through her skull as her upper canine teeth were broken and forced from her gums and two tiny fangs slid into place. Rolling onto her back, her head snapped and hit the stone floor with a crunch. Opening her eyes again, she felt her vision become blurred. The tiny veins in her eyes popped and exploded, sending blood gushing into the chocolate brown irises, but it quickly receded as the iris in each eye melted to a solid gold. As fast as they had changed to gold, they turned colors again. The color faded away, leaving her irises a pale blue that was almost gray. All at once, her body convulsed, then relaxed as she lost consciousness.
Standing up, One looked down at Saint with satisfaction. Looking to his right, it saw each of the council members standing over their students in much the same way. Three had a bit of a worried look spread across its face. “What happened?” One asked.
“The eyes did not revert to normal,” Three said, shaking its head. “At least not yet.”
One muttered a curse under its breath. Lifting its hand, it snapped its fingers once and pointed to the third student in line. The two attending Wraiths materialized out of the darkness and hovered around the student. Lifting slender, wooden stakes out of their gray and white coats, they stood silently above the unconscious boy. He was a young male of approximately twenty-five years with wavy brown hair. His white ceremonial robe was splattered angrily with his own blood as he lay motionless.
Three dropped down to its knees and rested a hand on the boy’s head. “He’s growing cold. We’ve lost him.”
One shook its head. “Not everyone can handle the ritual. We always expect to lose one or two.”
“I know,” Three breathed, “but it never gets any easier.” Lifting the boy’s eyelid with its thumb, Three saw the solid gold eyes within. Standing up, Three took several steps away from the student. “Finish him before he wakes up. He wouldn’t want to live like this.”
The two Wraiths nodded. Dropping down to their knees, one reached in with his powerful hands and pinned the boy flat on his back, while the other pressed his knee firmly into the boy’s chest. Lifting the stake over his head, the Wraith watched as the boy’s eyes shot open. The glowing eyes snapped to the Wraith in instant anger. Struggling against the more powerful men, the newly created vampire shrieked in protest.
“Do it now!” Three commanded. “Do not let this abomination live!”
The Wraith brought the stake down swiftly, piercing the vampire’s heart. The creature screamed in horror as blue flame leapt from the newly created wound and quickly began to engulf his entire body. Leaping away, the two Wraiths watched as smoke and cinders were thrown into the air as the vampire writhed on the floor. It was only moments before his body was reduced to ashes within the circle of candles.
“May God have mercy on our souls,” One muttered. Looking up, he readdressed the council. “The ritual is complete. Let us retire and rest before the final test tonight.” One turned his attention back to the two Wraiths. “Please attend to the students. Watch over them to make sure no one else turns.”
The Wraiths nodded and set about their task. Moving to the right, one Wraith lifted Saint first and slung her over his shoulder like a doll. He could feel her warmth even through his clothing and smiled. Her body was in a state of flux, in the process of metamorphosis, and she would make a fine addition to the Gwyliad Wriaeth.