It was a slow death.
When I cast the spell three days ago, I knew it was a calm, methodical killer. Just three simple words breathed life into the spell, bounding nature’s will to the incantation. Its parasitic nature ate the victim, or mark, from the inside out. Often, it was too late before they even knew something was wrong. It crept coldly like a flu, dragging the victim down with an aching fatigue. No one could ever stand a chance against the raw power of turning the body’s own systems against itself. That was the beauty of it.
Some spells require the caster’s energy to power it, but not ravenous. The spell simply sparked a series of changes in the immune system, causing something similar to an autoimmune response. The body begins attacking itself and within a day, systems start to fail. By the end of day three, there’s little left of the mark. If you can catch it in time, a reversal could be cast to calm the immune system’s attack response and boost tissue healing. Ravenous is nothing like anything I’ve cast before.
In fact, because of its very nature, it was prohibited and sealed by the covenant long ago. A handful of spells, such as ravenous, will attack or even kill you, if they aren’t cast perfectly. Anything even slightly out of alignment in the ritual can cause immediate, fatal consequences. But these are extraordinary circumstances. War looms on the horizon, weaving through every thread of our lives. I can’t help but pray the dice roll in our favor.
My breath clings to the air, hanging in a soft cloud, as the people in Red Square hustle past quickly, intent on their destination. Their noses are buried in their scarves, heads down as the wind forces itself between the bright red buildings and pierces through their heavy coats.
Ahead of us, St. Basil’s Cathedral touches the sky with its voluminous, candy-colored domes. I slow near a vendor’s stall as I notice my brother taking a couple of photos of a family in front of a large copper statue of what I can only assume to be Lenin or Stalin. Tourists, I snicker to myself regretting I hadn’t paid more attention in history class. They’ll be lucky if one of those pictures is in focus. We learned early on that Ryan has a way with cameras . . . and it isn’t a good one. The lesson has never stuck, though. He’s always managed to talk his way into being the family photographer no matter how many times we swear he’ll never be allowed to again.
One of us should have spotted our mark, Anatoli, by now. A couple of days ago we were tipped off that he has what we’re looking for. I scan the crowd, trying to do as I was taught and look at the sides of things, their outlines and shapes. The best way to spot an aura is to let your vision go lax, unfocused. I was trained that an aura reveals itself to the observer in a phosphoresce form, a slow emanation of glowing colors that radiated heat energy from its source. It shouldn’t be this hard to find him. After all, a cursed vampire emits an aura unlike any other creature on earth.
My heart beats rapidly as I make my way through the square. Time isn’t on our side. The covens are at war with each other, and the vampires have the upper hand for the first time. Exactly four days from today, the new year will be rung in by a full moon, and there might just be enough time to call upon the Order to put a stop to this war before it begins. That is, if we can find what we’re looking for.
The sun glares in my eyes, reflecting off the rooftop snow, despite it being well below zero. My long wool coat is similar to those of other women’s in appearance, but the liner was layered with a variety of protective runes. I inscribed the symbols for Elhaz and Thurisaz, powerful symbols derived from ancient times, on the wool lining that covers the vertical length of my coat. The runes are said to catalyze protection and offer regeneration and defense from the elements. I hoped a couple of them would keep me from freezing, but I was wrong. That morning, I’d tugged my blond hair up into a ponytail and regretted it every single moment I was outside. The cold was leaching down from my collar despite my hooded sweater. I pull the hood further over my face to better shield my eyes from the sun and flick my gaze over to my siblings.
My younger sister, Sam, stands several feet behind me, pretending to look into a shop window. I meet her eyes in the window’s reflection. Her pale, wind-chapped skin matches my own, though that’s essentially where our similarities end. We’re two sides of the same coin. Her chestnut hair is rich and dark, whereas mine is honey blond—though we both inherited our mother’s gentle curls. Her green eyes are electric with excitement, perhaps not fully understanding the severity of the situation. My sister can be naïve, trusting; she doesn’t understand yet what’s at stake. As I peer closer, my expression surprises me. My blue eyes are frozen in fear, more haunted than I’ve ever seen them before.
Her brown furry boots and oversized down coat give her ample protection from the cold Russian winter. Watching her now reminds me of the time when we were much younger, and I turned her into a living snowman by completely enveloping her in freshly fallen snow from a winter storm. We giggled incessantly as she tried to free herself from the densely packed ice, until she finally gave up and resorted to casting magic instead.
A frigid blast of air brings my thoughts to the present. Sam gives me the smallest nod and smiles. She bends and twists her hand before flicking a series of minute gestures at me. Ryan had spotted Anatoli. I signal the okay to her before casually striding closer to our brother.
As I move through the crowd, I hear some tourists chatting about the upcoming new year’s celebrations. Apparently, fireworks were on the agenda, though I can’t imagine for the life of me who would want to stand outside and admire them in this frigid weather.
“To the right, Alexia,” Ryan whispers, gesturing simultaneously to Sam. I can’t help my grin as he rakes his dark brown hair from his green eyes, a nervous gesture that might as well be a family trait.
“Get ready,” I mutter under my breath.
Sam and Ryan take off in opposite directions, just as we rehearsed.
I approach the mark slowly, feigning distraction on my phone, not wanting to give myself away. He’s sitting on a bench, laughing and flirting with his companion. The young woman, swathed in a dark leather bomber jacket and black jeans, crosses her legs to show off her spiked ankle boots as she speaks. He smirks at her latest joke. I’m not quite close enough to make out what they’re saying, but I can hear their indistinct voices. The choker around her throat catches my attention. The band is a deep black satin ribbon tied to a small metal disc. Engraved on the metal disc is a symbol—a row of four triangles. The outside triangles are two larger isosceles that point down; the small, inner equilateral triangles point up. I know I’ve seen it somewhere before, but I can’t remember what it means or where it’s from.
As I approach Anatoli, he looks directly at me. I pretend to be disinterested, but my nerves give me away as I can’t quite force my eyes from his. He smirks. Catch me if you can. He bows out of the conversation with the woman, before he struts out of the square. I try to check Sam and Ryan’s positions as I follow him, but all I can see is the throng of people around me. I can’t catch sight of them. If they’re not where they’re supposed to be and something goes wrong, we’ll be lucky to make it out of this alive.
Keeping him within sight, I dash through the crowd, weaving around locals and tourists alike. The plaza is expansive, but the people practically multiply the faster I try to move. He’s too swift, gliding around people and through their parties as if they don’t even see him. I spin in a quick circle, hoping to notice something that can help me find him in the mass of people.
I let my grin go slightly feral and people quickly move out of my way. Anatoli’s aura flickers a violet halogen haze that helps him stand out from the crowd as he walks assuredly through the plaza and turns into an alley. By the time I arrive, just seconds after him, he’s gone. I curse the crowd and my luck before darting down the alley too. I can’t lose him. The aura might be distinctive, but if I can’t keep him within sight, I’ve got nothing. I drag my sleeve up quickly and look down; it’s almost five. The metal of my father’s old watch hangs heavy on my wrist, a reminder of home. There’s maybe an hour at the most before the spell breaks. If I can’t question him before then, all of this will have been a waste.
At the end of the alley, I stumble to a stop, turning around furiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. A brief flash of his long green coat catches my eye as he turns down another alley. I make the turn, hoping to catch another glimpse and have the opportunity to catch up to him when, to my surprise, he’s waiting for me. I stop, wary.
“Why are you here?” Anatoli asks in a thick Russian accent. His hand shakes as he adjusts one of the metal buckles on his trench coat. His other hand lies calmly in his jacket pocket. I wonder, idly, if ravenous is so far gone that it’s attacking his nervous system, breaking down connections that may have been there for eons. Vampires don’t age, or at least not in a way we understand. His eyes, a clear gray, bore through me.
“You know why I’m here,” I say, conviction strengthening me.
“Do I?” he responds, curiosity heavy in his tone. “I know you’ve traveled a long way. You must be after something quite important, possibly even priceless.” He grins, but it’s all teeth. “You’ve broken one of the treaty’s seals,” he singsongs, as he steps backwards, drawing me further into the alley.
“You have something that belongs to us, and you’re going to give it to me,” I say firmly. My hands are fists at my side, clenched tight, but whether out of fear or anger, I’m not sure.
“I’ll be giving you nothing. You’re dangerously outclassed,” he says, his head cocked to the side as he considers me, taking in every inch of me. Anatoli’s hand covers his mouth as he coughs, and blood seeps between his fingers. He lowers his hand from his face, grinning at me with blood-covered fangs.
“If I’m so outclassed, then how did I curse you? I can sense it, you know. The spell. I can feel its power taking you. Slithering its way through you now that I’m close enough.”
Anatoli growls softly, but doesn’t take his eyes from me.
I force the lump in my throat down and stand a little straighter. I wish I knew what he was trying to find, what he was evaluating. I can’t afford to appear small or weak.
“I could reverse it, you know. There’s still time. Give me the book I came here for and you’ll go free,” I offer casually, desperately playing it cool.
He steps casually toward me and I resist the urge to back up, to put space between me and what I’ve caused to happen within him. I wasn’t lying when I said I could sense it. My consciousness is keen that I’m the caster of this spell and magic bolsters within me. It intensifies with every step he takes towards me. My heart races with conviction knowing that his very life hangs on the few precious words I uttered just three days ago. It doesn’t hurt me, but it’s this awareness of what my magic has done. I know his organs are failing, liquefying, even as his expression holds. He doesn’t give away any outward sign of fear or death. The urge to run dances in my toes, begging me to shift my weight, spin, and dash away. I stand firm, unwilling to give in to my flight instinct.
“I’m not leaving here without it.”
He scoffs and smiles, baring his teeth.
I take a chance and glance around. At least a dozen vampires step out from the shadows behind Anatoli, including his female companion from earlier. She looks at me with a frivolous grin and a cold, sharp shiver races down my spine. I count to three in my head, giving myself just a moment to shove my panic down. My magic sings deep within me, pulsing through my veins, beckoning me to cast a spell at will, and then my breath evens out. We will make it out of this. Today is not the day I fall and there’s nothing in the world that could stop me from protecting my brother and sister—nothing.
I shiver and act like I’m just shaking my hands out at my sides, when I’m really signaling my siblings, praying to whoever is watching that they’re nearby—that they catch my message.
“Rest now,” one of the new vampires says, casually touching Anatoli’s shoulder as he slowly steps forward. His eyes are black as stone, and he wears a smug smirk. He doesn’t make any unnecessary motions; everything is planned, precise. Each movement is firm and grounding.
Anatoli sinks to his knees at the other vampire’s touch, his face immediately distorting in agony.
“Marat,” Anatoli growls softly, as he lets go of his control and gives into his death.
“Wait! The book . . . where is it?” I demand.
I can see the spell’s final progression as dark, thick blood drips from his mouth and ears. Anatoli’s aura flickers uneasily, colors shifting as the crimson shade of ravenous overcomes him.
The cross street behind me isn’t blocked, but other than turning tail and running, I don’t have a lot of options. Even if I did try to make a run for it, I am easily outnumbered. The new vampire, Marat, keeps me in his peripheral vision as he circles his fallen comrade.
“This spell you did, I can almost taste its power,” he says as he inhales deeply. “It hungers and searches for more even as it devours him whole. It’s never been satiated,” Marat rumbles, his voice as dark and smooth as his hair. “You’ve mastered it quite well. Surprising for someone your age, but I wonder, at what cost?”
I’ve heard rumors of older vampires having powers—heightened senses, telepathy, telekinesis. I wonder how much of what he’s saying is true and how much is theater.
“I guess I’m just stronger than I look,” I say flippantly.
He raises an eyebrow. “Did you really think you could just come to Moscow, to our city, without us knowing?” Marat asks quietly, his eyes still on the dying vampire.
As blood oozes out of Anatoli’s tear ducts and drips from his nose, I can’t bite back more of my sass. “Well, yeah, actually. That’s exactly what I intended to do.”
Marat faces me fully for the first time. I don’t hesitate.
With a wave of my hand, the alley fills with a thousand miniature glowing suns, each particle no greater than a grain of salt, bursting all around us in a dazzling display of light and shadow, blinding the vampires’ sensitive eyes. The cosmic firework show is impressive, even if it only last a couple of seconds. I turn away from them in time to see Ryan slip out of another vampire’s grasp and sprint toward the freedom of the crowd in the square. The effort of the spell begins to take its toll on me and my head swims for a moment. The alley spins as I try to get my bearings. I can’t help but think I’m not going to be able to stop them, not going to be able to get away or protect my siblings. For a brief moment, my vision grays out and slowly returns to focus. What I see next sends my heart into my throat.
Marat’s hand is wrapped around Sam’s neck, as her feet dangle inches above the floor. Sam’s mouth tries to open, but his grip is so high she can’t move her jaw. Her nostrils flare, but the pressure of his fingers prevents her from drawing air into her lungs.
I spend what seems to be an eternity watching Sam suffer, and no more than a second later, I’m pulled from my mind and slammed back into reality.
“You’re not getting away with this,” I say as I struggle to keep my voice clear and calm. Sammy! No, I’m not going to lose my little sister. I won’t.
Marat watches Sam with a strange fascination as she starts to turn purple. His fingers loosen for a brief second and she gasps raggedly.
“The only reason you’re still alive right now—both of you, for that matter—is that I’d like you to deliver a message for me.”
“Give her to me and I’ll deliver any message you’d like if it harms no one.”
“I only need you to tell the covens what has happened here.” There’s the slightest twitch of his lips as he says, “I’ll be keeping this one for now.”
I nod, knowing if I speak I won’t be able to stop my voice from quivering. A moment of weakness right now could get us killed, no matter his intent. Some vampires are like dogs—run and they chase. If you act like prey, they’ll eat you up with a smile in their slowly beating hearts.
With that, Marat spins on the balls of his feet, twisting and turning my sister to tuck her close under his arm, before he disappears into the shadows.
The other vampires fade out of the alley after Marat has left. I wait a few moments longer. Soon, the urge to run and panic leaves me and I know it’s safe for me to turn my back on where they last stood. I stifle a hysterical laugh as I realize what’s just happened. Not only do the vamps have the upper hand, but now they have the book and a witch of its line.
Ryan, I think. I hope he’s okay. I whistle a birdcall and after a moment, hear it echoed back to me—he’s safe. Then it hits me—the book! I can’t help but feel like I rolled snake eyes after going all in.
Worse yet, my parents are going to kill me when they find out just how wrong all of this went.