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A GAME OF VAMPIRES

A VAMPIRE GAMES PREQUEL NOVELLA

CAROLINE PECKHAM




PROLOGUE


A sharp wind rolled over us and the candle went out.

The smell of smoke from the burnt wick ran over me, followed by something rancid, like rotting flesh. I wrinkled my nose, feeling Jonah press me back.

Jonah, the light,” I begged and heard him fumbling for the matches.

One strike. Two.

On the third, the space was illuminated in a bright flash. A bony face was lit up before me, as white as chalk, as thin as a waif.

The match went out.

I screamed, slashing outwards with my stake.

Vampire.

I recalled the words Jonah had spoken to me once just before our first kiss. All those days ago.

I love you from the sea to the stars, Evangeline.”



JONAH


A fist swung at me from the left, clocking my ribs. I'd let him get the shot. It brought me close enough to throw a punch to his abdomen. One then two. My opponent cried out, stumbling back. Greaser, they called him, due to the way he slicked his black hair back with oil. I kept mine short for fights. No need to give my opponents more of me to grab onto.

The crowd was pressing in, barely illuminated by the gas lanterns surrounding us on the cobbled street. The coal-grey sky was bleeding sunlight by the second. The moment the sun set, it was over. Simple rules. Whoever was still standing by sundown would be the winner of five shillings. More than my monthly pay.

The only problem was, as the sun abandoned us, we were both still standing. Bloody, bruised, shirtless. My skin was crusty from the blood drying on me. My breathing was ragged. At least my face would be fine for work the next day. We didn't throw punches above the neck. But anything below the collar bone was fair game. Speaking of which...

I slammed a hard kick between my opponent's legs. It wasn't exactly foul play, just more of a gentleman's honour thing. For five shillings, I had sold my honour and potentially his ability to have children. My opponent crashed to the floor, groaning and cupping his manhood.

The crowd booed, but the referee, Billy Woodside, lifted my hand into the air, declaring me the victor.

He tugged me closer, speaking through his teeth. “That was a shitty move, Jonah.”

I never said it wasn't,” I replied under my breath.

The women in the crowd seemed more impressed with me than the men. But then they had no idea what it was like to be kicked in the gonads.

Greaser was pulled to his feet by his pals and one of them spat at me. It didn't sully my mood. I was used to being disliked. I didn't have many friends. And those I could call friends weren't the type of men most other people associated with. I was a loner by choice. Some would call me a trickster, others a con artist. A few used more colourful words when referring to me. Frankly, my motive was never to make friends. It was to make money. Friends couldn't pay for the roof over your head. Friends wouldn't buy you a boat and sail you to...well, anywhere but London.

That was why I'd been preparing my biggest con yet. I'd been working for Lord Belmont for months now. And one day soon, I was going to run off into the sunset with all his money. I just had to figure out how to get access to it first. He had a safe the size of England. One he took with him when he went abroad. He barely let it out of his sight. So whatever was in that metal cube was seriously valuable. Like buying my freedom valuable. And it was mine. I just hadn't figured out how to get my hands on it yet.

My eyes locked on a girl in the crowd, being wooed by the men around her. A peony shawl hung around her shoulders. Her dress was as black as soot, her skin olive and dewy, her hair a sea of golden waves.

Some moments shake you awake in life. That was my moment. I felt Billy nudging me, trying to make me move. I heard Greaser's friends hurling insults me. I didn't believe in love at first sight. And I guess I didn't love her. But a part of me wanted to. A strange creature had risen its head inside me, and all it could see was her.

Evangeline!” a woman crowed from amongst the crowd. She appeared beside the golden-haired beauty, grabbing her wrist and dragging her away. “You're not supposed to be out here. Your mother is searching everywhere for you.”

I wandered toward them, pushing my sweaty hair back. Perhaps I wasn't in the best shape to approach her...

Someone chucked me my shirt and I dragged it on. When I looked up, she was gone. I snatched my five shillings from Billy, swearing as I pressed into the crowd in the direction she must have taken. Someone elbowed me hard in the spine. But I didn't care. Just kept moving in the direction that God-sent angel had taken.

I spotted her up ahead and quickened my pace. She cast a glance over her shoulder and smiled to herself as she eyed me. I grinned, following her down the darkening streets until she entered a building with a red door. A brothel.

My brows drew together as I hurried after her. She was a prostitute. That was just my luck. I tended to be the jealous type when it came to women.

Inside, the air was heavy with smoke and sweet perfume. It barely covered the smell of sweat and other bodily secretions and I had to fight the urge to raise a hand to my nose.

A fire roared on one side of the room, illuminating the space in an ambient glow. Men were sat on armchairs and sofas around the room with scantily-dressed women draped over them. Not my sort of scene. But today it would be.

I hounded after the girl I'd followed, but froze in my tracks as I spotted Belmont at the bar.

I stepped back. I knew he frequented places like this. No doubt, the man couldn't get a woman to bed him unless he paid her. Probably on account of the stinking gout in his right leg. Not to mention his fat gut and the sickly scent of posies he used to tried and hide the smell of his festering leg.

His eyes fell on the girl I'd followed and he smiled, moving toward her, using his cane to steady himself. “Ah, Evangeline,” he purred.

Evangeline. The name was like heaven's bells chiming in my head.

She dipped her head in acknowledgement.

She's still too young,” snapped the woman beside her.

I could see that, too. Another reason it surprised me that she lived here. Evangeline cast another glance over her shoulder at me. I was rooted to the spot, but if Belmont saw me here, I was going to be in trouble. I was supposed to be on duty.

I'd pay a fine price,” Belmont said, taking a bag of coins from his pocket.

My gut churned and rage grew inside me. I shouldn't have felt possessive of a woman I didn't know. But then again, I'd probably have pitied any woman of having to bed Belmont.

No,” the older woman barked, pushing Evangeline in the direction of the staircase. “Go upstairs,” she hissed and Evangeline nodded quickly, hurrying away.

At that very moment, Belmont's eyes turned to me. His gaze narrowed then he turned casually away, returning to his seat to pester some other unfortunate woman.

I raised my brows in surprise. Perhaps he didn't care I was here after all. Or maybe he hadn't recognised me on account of the blood and muck caking my body.

Hey you.”

I turned at the voice, spying Evangeline on the stairs, gesturing for me to come closer. I threw a cursory glance at Belmont before hurrying to meet her. I paused on the stair beneath hers, out of sight of the bar.

Congratulations on your fight,” she said, smiling. My heart danced in my chest. It was the most beautiful smile in the world.

Thank you,” I whispered. “Can I buy you a drink?” I lifted a brow. I'd always been good with women, but this one choked my voice box, not allowing my usual confidence to show.

I have to go to my room,” she said on a sigh. Then a mischievous glint shone in her eyes. “But I have a bottle of gin under my bed.”

She took my hand and it was as soft as a baby's. I nodded, my throat tightening once more. She led me upstairs, the sound of moans and laughter carrying to us beyond the row of doors. At the far end of the corridor, she guided me into her room.

It was a simple space, with a single bed and pale curtains on the window, but one wall was adorned with a mural of the sea, reaching up to a sky of stars.

I'm Jonah,” I said, brushing my shirt down. I hoped I didn't look too much like a street dog. But some women liked that look. Perhaps she was one of them. If God had any mercy on me, she would be.

Evangeline,” she said, and the name sounded even more beautiful on her lips.

Are we breaking any rules, Evangeline?” I asked, tasting her name in my own mouth.

Yes,” she said, smiling again.

Ah, that smile.

She took the bottle of gin from beneath her bed, sitting down and plucking the cork out of the top. “Let's break some more, shall we?”



EVANGELINE


TWO MONTHS LATER

Jonah was going to kill me. I'd promised him I wouldn't walk the streets alone at night anymore. The fog in London was like a blanket tonight, shimmering with the greenish glow of the gas lanterns. I was enveloped by darkness when I took a shortcut through an alley.

I had to see him. My love. My heart. I could have remained safe at home. If you could call it safe. The brothel was not somewhere I ever felt safe. Out in these icy alleys, I was at least free from the men's stares. My mother would not be pleased. She was the mistress of the brothel, and she always looked out for me. Kept me from losing my innocence. I'd not yet turned sixteen. But we both knew I was running out of time. No matter how many clothes I wore, how many hours I remained hidden, eyes eventually sought me out.

Jonah was saving every penny he got from his job as a Lord's servant. Working for a man who had spent more nights in my brothel than I could count. A man whose eyes had found me more than once. But mother always refused his offers, no matter how high the price. She wanted a better life for me. She dreamed of us running away together. But she only spoke of it under the influence of gin. I knew she didn't really believe we could run. What would two women do on their own in the world? How would we get by?

My innocence would provide her a huge price. And I'd once considered offering it up to pay us the money we needed to run. She'd hushed those thoughts quickly, her sparkling blue eyes promising me she'd find another way. But she hadn't. Not yet. And now I'd fallen for Lord Belmont's servant boy. We'd spend hours talking whilst Belmont drank and lay with women. Jonah was not like any other man I had met before. He was kind, thoughtful. He had brought me roses once and when they had wilted, I'd dried them out and pressed them in my journal. Our secret pressed between the pages.

I hurried to him now, gathering up my heavy skirt to free my feet. I'd seen him every night this week. We spent hours talking. Just talking. I preferred seeing him outside of the brothel, despite his protests.

Last night he had stolen his first kiss. One I had given eagerly. One that had defied all laws of what kisses should have been capable of. I had not known a kiss could be felt in every part of one's body. And I wanted more. I craved more. So now, I ran to him in the dead of night, knowing I would have to sneak onto the grounds of Lord Belmont's manor and slip through the servants' quarters to find my way to him.

I cut down an alley. Though I was swallowed by darkness, I could just make out the dim green glow of a lantern at the far end. Perhaps a hundred yards or so.

Heavy footsteps sounded behind me and I quickened my pace, gathering my shawl tighter around my shoulders. It was peony silk. The finest thing I owned. It had been a gift from my mother. It still smelt of her, like peppermint and smoke.

A shadow passed across the wall beside me. A fox perhaps? It was too dark to tell.

I would not have felt so skittish had the footsteps not sounded closer behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, spotting a figure obscured by the mist. A man, I was sure. He was tall and broad-shouldered, that much I could make out. For a moment I feared I had been followed from the brothel by one of my admirers.

I hurried onward, fixing my gaze on the light ahead.

My heart beat quickened like a galloping horse in my chest.

Not far now, Evangeline. Your Jonah is waiting.

A rush of air signalled movement behind me. A hand caught hold of my dress and I gasped, trying to pull away. His grip was firm, unrelenting. He turned me around and I met his icy gaze. Fear trickled through me like rushing water. I trembled beneath the immense man. His eyes were darkest green, his hair long and black, hanging to his shoulders. He was beautiful in a way that took me by surprise. And when he spoke, a feeling of peace doused my fears like a snuffed-out candle.

Calm,” he said and I nodded, feeling lucid as if I were in some trance. “What is your name?”

Evangeline,” the name left my lips easily. Whatever this man wanted, I knew I would give it to him. But I didn't know why. He held me gently now, his hands resting on my shoulders. I was a moth before a flame.

You will come with me, Evangeline,” he growled, his voice deep and alluring.

I nodded, feeling no resistance to that fact. But a small voice inside me screamed Jonah's name. This was not right, and yet I felt that it was my choice. That I would willingly go wherever this man wished to take me.

He took my hand, guiding me back in the direction I had come. Beyond the alley, a black carriage awaited us. The driver barely glanced at me, but I drank him in. He was young, barely eighteen at a guess. And his hair was fairest blonde. As my escort opened the door, my eyes fell upon two other girls, their eyes glazed. They seemed as docile as me. As if they too were under this strange man's charm.

The man guided me inside, remaining beyond it a moment as he spoke to the driver. “Three from London, as requested, Ignus. Now give me my payment.”

You will wait until we are at sea,” Ignus, replied.

If you will have me ride with them, I shall not be able to resist. Especially that last one...” My captor glanced into the carriage, his eyes roaming from my face to my neck.

Still, I felt no fear, though I was certain I should have.

Oh Jonah, what is happening? I have two desires carved inside me now. One to be with you, and the other to do anything this man says.

She is quite the beauty,” Ignus replied. “Especially with those golden curls. I believe she will make us good money. So if you drink from her, Varick, I will ask my father's permission to punish you.”

My captor, Varick, made a low growl in his throat. “Your father will be most displeased to hear you kept me hungry at the risk of hurting his contestants.”

Contestants?

A tense pause passed between them then Varick caught a small bottle as Ignus threw it to him. He didn't utter another word, climbing into the carriage and slamming the door. The candle inside the carriage illuminated the red liquid inside the bottle. As he uncorked it, a metallic smell filled my nose.

He drank it down, his eyes wild as he did so. He shut them momentarily as a sigh of relief passed his lips. A line of red dribbled from the corner of his mouth.

Is that blood?

But surely not. What monster was this man? And why did I not feel the terror that should have gripped my soul at the sight?

Ignus shouted, “Yah!” and the stallion pulling us took off. We rocked and swayed, my shoulder bumping Varick's as we moved.

The other girls gazed at him, their eyes glassy. Both were true beauties, but neither were dressed too well. They had a look of the poor about them, thin and pale. Something in their faces told me they were related. Both had dark hair and full lips. Maids, I guessed.

Where are we going?” I managed to say the words, despite the dream-like feeling sweeping through my body.

Varick did not look at me, his gaze turning to the candle as if he wished to avoid my eye. “To your graves, most likely.”


JONAH


Bags,” Lord Belmont demanded.

I'd been so distracted by the view of the colossal castle high up on the cliff, that I'd forgotten my duty. The frozen air clung to my bones. Perhaps I wouldn't have felt the chill if I'd been as well-dressed as Belmont in his moleskin...

I hurried back onto the boat where the rest of the servants rolled their eyes at me. They had never taken to me well. Bastard son of a bankrupt lawyer. But that was not the reason they despised me. It was my dreams of grandeur and wealth the provoked them. I saw myself growing as rich as Lord Belmont one day. Richer perhaps.

Remember your place, boy,” one of the cooks said, her eyes fierce. Mrs Redford had the look of an old crow with her feathery black hair and pointed nose. She made it her personal mission to make my life as miserable as possible. “And don't cause trouble on this island. Or Lord Belmont will have you fed to a Vampire.”

Vampires. I clucked my tongue at that. Such a thing was nonsense. Lord Belmont was somewhat obsessed with dark, mystical creatures. He had a fondness for the strange. Which had somewhat drawn me to his employment initially. That and the enormous wealth he was blessed with. But he had no time for his house staff. We were to be seen and not heard. And I'd spent my younger days running my mouth, bartering and selling potions for an old alchemist. Being quiet wasn't my forte. Since the alchemist's death, I'd lost my passion for the trade, turning to cons instead. He had been one of the few people in my life to encourage my ideas of greatness.

You will be a king amongst men, if only you want it enough,” he had told me the day before his passing. His liver had rotted in his gut. He had sworn that a particular mix of gin and botanicals, was the cure to all disease. An excuse to drink daily from morn til dusk, more like. I had never been blind to the delusion we'd been selling. The potions were mostly water, riddled with herbs so the patient truly believed they were drinking something of worth. The worse tasting, the more they seemed to believe it did them good. Fools. I would not be tricked so easily. So when the other servants had spoken of the Vampires on this island, I was skeptical to say the least.

I had been most reluctant to leave my dear Evangeline behind – I'd not had a chance to say goodbye. Belmont had sprung this trip on us at the last moment. But I would only be gone a week. Then I would return to her arms. I would buy us freedom one day. But time was running out before she would be forced to give up her virginity. I couldn't bear the idea of her innocence being stolen by some lech like Belmont. Someone who didn't appreciate her.

I saw what other men did not. I saw her kind soul. I'd recently watched the way she'd cared for the pregnant cat her mother kept to chase mice. The fatter it had grown, the more useless a hunter it had become. But Evangeline had made sure it was fed and let it sleep upon her bed at night until it had its kittens. She was no less than an angel in my eyes. And I would find a way to the money that would free us one day.

I'd been slyly stealing jewels and trinkets from around Belmont's house for weeks. But that wasn't my end game. No, Belmont had plenty of value that I wanted. Including an emerald broach belonging to his late wife. And whatever was in his safe. A safe which was currently onboard the boat. I'd recently figured out that the only way I could get inside it was with a key. A key which hung around his thick neck. But once I set my eye on a prize, I had to possess it. No matter how difficult that feat might be.

I gazed up at the moon, carrying two large bags and another stuffed under one arm. The other staff were equally laden. Why Belmont insisted on bring half of his house with him for one week in this place was a mystery to me.

I hurried along the wooden pier. Other boats were docked there too, but none as fine as ours. A motorised vessel, the most modern on the market. Belmont may have been an old kook, but he was a damn rich one. One of the wealthiest men in London as I understood it.

What time is sunrise?” I called to one of the maids.

She laughed, sharing some secret joke with the others. Belmont had evidently heard me, standing tall at the end of the pier, leaning his weight on his fine cane of gold. A cane, which I knew had a secret blade stashed beneath its jewelled pommel. One twist and the knife came free. I had sharpened it on more than one occasion.

Ignorant boy,” Belmont addressed me. “We are in the Arctic Circle. The sun does not rise here for another six months.”

My gut twisted at that. I didn't much like the dark. It was one of those fears I kept hidden from people. From everyone but Evangeline, of course. When I'd told her of it, she hadn't snickered at me, or jested. Especially once I'd explained why. As a toddler, I'd had to sleep in a dark cupboard in my mother's room. She'd had no money for a larger living space. I knew that. But the cupboard had left its mark on me. Especially the nights I'd called out to her and she hadn't come. When she'd been selling her body to make ends meet. I didn't blame her. She'd done what she'd had to for us to survive. But it was her death sentence in the end. One of the men had refused to pay and when she'd demanded the money, he'd beat her to death. The old alchemist who lived next door had heard her screams, but it was too late. He'd taken me in. The first and last kindness I'd ever received from a stranger.

Belmont led the way up a myriad of stone steps, winding toward the towering castle up on the cliff. The moon bathed its walls in a milky glow and stars peppered the black canvas beyond it. As we drew closer, a chill crept up my spine. I had not ventured beyond England before, and the tingle in my veins spoke of my anticipation. This castle seemed fit to house Frankenstein's monster. I couldn't imagine what awaited us inside its cavernous walls.

As we crested the hill, with Belmont panting heavily, I caught sight of a dark courtyard ahead, lit with fiery stakes in the ground surrounding a stone fountain. The contorted bodies of the beautiful effigies within it were almost erotic and I naturally averted my gaze as we gathered in the yard. A slit of light cast across our group as two immense doors parted before us. A shadow stepped into the amber glow and a fiercely large man with broad shoulders appeared. The light cast a halo behind his head, illuminating his starkly blonde hair. His eyes were as blue as sapphires, and no warmth transpired from them until they rested on my master.

Welcome, Lord Belmont. Do come in out of the cold.” He ushered us forward and I followed obediently with the other servants.

Abraham Van Helsing,” Belmont said in his gravelly tone. “You look as well as ever.”

The games always serve to invigorate me, Belmont. As you well know.”

Quite, I have anticipated my return for many months.” Belmont moved to Abraham's side and we followed them down a hall of grey flagstones, lit by torches set into brackets on the walls. The eyes of ghostly portraits followed me; all marked with the Helsing name, the final of which pictured Abraham himself, set onto the wall beside a woman of golden hair and a face so fine it could have belonged to a goddess. The woman herself appeared at the far end of the corridor, her appearance even more striking in real life. I dipped my head as Belmont bowed his own. But my eyes crept up to absorb her once more. She was near-regal in a dress of gold satin and jewellery that would have made Queen Victoria herself rife with envy.

Madam Helsing.” Belmont took the woman's fair hand, laying a kiss on the back of it.

Please, do call me Katherine,” she answered. “My mother-in-law is Madam Helsing.”

Abraham chuckled softly, looping an arm around his wife's slim waist. They looked hewn from stone, too beautiful, too perfect. It unsettled me and it took a moment for me to understand why. I had been a master of deception most of my life. And it struck me that this alluring couple were not what they seemed. This was an act I'd played well, to sell the alchemist's fraud potions. No doubt, these Helsings were hoping to grow more familiar with Belmont's money than they were with him.

Varick will show you to your rooms.” Katherine snapped her fingers harshly and from the shadows of a nearby stairwell, emerged a man. My heart pattered unsteadily in my chest. This man was not like any I had ever seen. His hair, though clearly long, was tied back with a dark ribbon. His skin was pallid, almost translucent beneath the amber glow of a nearby torch. He was tall, broad-shouldered and thick with muscle. But none of those things frightened me quite so much as his eyes. Eyes of molten glass. Bottle green. They spoke of a hunger that had nothing to do with food. More like murder.

I felt some of the servants shrink back behind me, but I kept my shoulders squared toward him, my head tall. I would not let him see me frightened. It was a tactic I was more accustomed to employing with street dogs, but something in this man's manner told me he was as rabid as one of them.

Belmont cleared his throat. “Is he quite obedient?”

Abraham laughed in a deep, rolling tone. “He is as placid as a rabbit until I tell him to be otherwise. Aren't you, Varick?”

Varick's eyes slid slowly from Abraham to Belmont. “Yes, sir.”

Katherine smiled, her eyes narrowed on Varick as he gestured for us to follow him. Belmont led the way forward, somewhat reluctantly.

Varick took a torch from the wall, heading into the dark stairwell. A winding stone staircase led us up several floors and we emerged in a grand corridor of wooden floorboards and a thick red rug running across its centre. Gas lanterns illuminated the place better than the floors below, giving this part of the castle a more homely feel. Especially when we were led into a grand room of Georgian décor. It was tastefully done, the large four-poster dripping in soft blankets and pillows. I didn't imagine the servants' quarters would be so fine.

We placed Belmont's bags down and the maid, Julie, started unpacking them. She was often appointed to organising Belmont's personal space, whether at home or away.

When do the festivities begin?” Belmont asked Varick as he drifted toward the door, clearly meaning to leave. His eyes were fixed firmly on Martha as she worked, that hungry look returning to his gaze. He turned his head to face Belmont, his movements slow, concise, as if he had all the time in the world. “The ball will begin in two hours. You will have a chance to meet the girls and place your first bets.”

Wonderful,” Belmont answered, rubbing his hands together. “Is there a good haul this year?”

As always,” Varick remarked. He blinked slowly, his gaze shifting to me. It seemed as though cold hands were slithering around my throat. “I will wait in the corridor. When your servants are ready, I will show them to their rooms.” He headed out of the door before Belmont could ask another question.

Vampires,” Belmont muttered, starting to unbutton his moleskin. John rushed forward to take it from his shoulders.

I laughed and Belmont straightened, his attention wheeling to me. “Something funny, boy?” I'd been working for him for nearly six months, but he liked to pretend he didn't know my name.

Vampires?” I questioned rather boldly. “There's no such thing.”

Julie shot me a look through her dark ringlets.

Belmont looked amused for a moment. “Go and ask Varick yourself, if you don't believe me.”

The other servants looked to me, daring me to do it. I puffed out my chest, walking out of the room, appearing much braver than I felt. Vampires? I was no fool. I wasn't going to fall for Belmont's misguided beliefs.

Varick was standing across the hall, his arms folded. His shirt seemed much too thin for an icily cold place like this island. Even with the fires burning about the place, they didn't rid the chill in the air. But that didn't make him a Vampire.

He sucked in one cheek as he eyed me, his eyes seeming bloodshot up close. He didn't say a word, evidently waiting for me to speak first.

I cleared my throat, shoving my hands into my pockets to stop my fidgeting as I approached. “There's some strange tales about this place,” I said, trying out the tone I'd used on customers in the past. Chatty. Friendly. Charming. I had the gift of the gab. It appeared this man did not agree as he simply gazed at me with a coldness in his expression that ate at my insides.

I pressed on, moving closer still. “Lord Belmont seems to be under the impression there are Vampires living here. And that you are one of them.” I started to laugh, but at Varick's narrowing gaze, I fell quiet.

His mouth curled up at one corner, twisting into a cruel smile. “It's almost embarrassing how little most humans know of the world. But I suppose I was like you once...” He glanced away, seeming to be done with the conversation already.

I took another step closer, tilting my head in a mocking kind of way.

He raised a brow, taking in my expression. “I can't decide whether you are truly ignorant, or simply a fool.”

I'd rather be neither,” I said quickly, affronted. But I wasn't done hunting for my answers yet. I needed him to deny Belmont's foolish beliefs so I could have some peace of mind. Admittedly, I was having doubts myself right then, looking into the cold eyes of a man who, it was hard to deny, did look rather hungry. But for blood? Surely not.

Say it, go on. Tell me you're a Vampire.” A chuckle was forming in my throat but Varick seemed the least bit amused.

I am a Vampire,” he drawled, standing upright.

I was tall, but this man was unnaturally so. I gazed up at him, a lump forming in my throat.

Liar,” I dared, barely a breath of a word.

At speed, he gripped my throat, twisting sharply around and throwing me back against the wall he'd just been stood against. He pressed himself close to me, opening his mouth and baring fangs. Actual fangs, glinting and sharp.

I recoiled. His strength was phenomenal. I gripped his wrist which was as cold as ice. My street fighting skills would prove me no good against this man.

Varick's upper lip curled back. “I am ordered to offer courtesy to the Helsings' guests. You are just a lowly servant, and I am hungrier than you can imagine. If you wish to keep your blood in your veins, do not address me so impertinently. This is not a place to make enemies. Least of all with me.”

I nodded wildly, realising my feet were nearly an inch above the ground. My breath was being choked out of me second by second. “Y-yes – yes,” I managed under the pressure of his grip.

He released me and I hit the floor on my arse. As he stepped aside, I heard snickering, spotting the other servants gathered in the doorway across the hall. The door was half-closed and as Varick turned his gaze their way, they slammed it shut.

Varick released a growl, turning to me and yanking me to my feet. I brushed down my coat, shame flowing through me, my pride badly wounded. I never took to losing very well.

I dipped my head to Varick, muttering an apology before walking back across the hall.

I will show you to your room,” Varick spoke before I made it to the door. “Your party sounds rather busy making fun of you.”

I gazed toward the door, unable to hear such a thing myself, but Varick's expression assured me he could detect it. Another Vampire trait, I supposed.

I was still in shock from the truth. Vampires? How was it possible? Such creatures defied the natural order of things.

I cleared my throat, gesturing for Varick to lead the way. He took a torch from the wall, heading back into the stairwell, and down, down, down we travelled until we were surely beneath the castle. The air was frigid now and I clung in vane to the heat of the torch Varick was carrying, gathering my thin coat tighter around me.

Varick glanced over his shoulder, his brows lowering. “Your master did not prepare you for this place. That is perhaps a cruelty in itself.”

Well...maybe you can enlighten me?”

Varick's mouth twitched as if in amusement, but the mirth was gone as quickly as it had arrived. “I already have the job of explaining it to the girls. I do not wish to do so twice.”

Then I shall remain blind?”

It depends if Lord Belmont allows you to attend the game. If he does not, you shall leave this place as ignorant as you are now. A blessing, I assure you.”

I do not see ignorance as a blessing,” I muttered, not intending him to hear.

You will,” he answered smoothly. “If you are truly inquisitive by nature- and judging from your behaviour thus far, I have reason to assume you are- then you will do well to keep your nose out of things here.”

My behaviour? What is that supposed to mean?” I demanded as we arrived in a corridor of what seemed to be cells, hidden behind plain wooden doors. Surely I wouldn't have to stay here? I'd freeze to death before tomorrow.

It means you are a questioner. That you will not let things simply be.”

And why should I?” My backbone had been reinstated since Varick's recent attack. I wasn't sure why I was pushing him, especially considering we were now alone in a quiet part of the castle. Perhaps I was a fool after all.

Varick rounded on me, gazing down his nose. “You may wish to change the things you see here. Help those who appear in trouble. But you cannot. There are two types of people who walk into this castle. The living, and the dead. To remain amongst the living, you must keep your flapping lips sealed.”

Why are you helping me?” I narrowed my gaze.

He spat a dark laugh. “I am giving you the warning every servant gets in this place. Eyes down, mouth shut. Unless you want to know what it feels like to have all of the blood in your veins drunk. Many of my victims stay awake until the very last second.”

I backed up, my spine hitting the cold wall.

His lip curled back in a snarl. “This way,” he growled, heading past the cells.

A girl's voice rang out from behind one of the doors. “Hello? Is someone there? Please – help me!”

I halted, fear trickling into my blood. Varick gave me a look that reminded me of his warning.

Eyes down, mouth shut.

I hesitated a moment longer as the woman started to beg, louder and louder. Then other female voices joined her. Many English, but some were foreign. French, Spanish. I even detected some Latin prayers.

Varick surveyed me, and I suspected he'd planned this, taken me here on purpose. A test of my cooperation.

I dropped my eyes, pressed my lips together and kept walking. But my soul ripped in two as I did so, as if God himself had smote me for my cowardice.

Words surged inside me. Full of shame and hate. I would bend them into a letter for Evangeline when next I had a moment's peace. Words were becoming like comfort food to me. She had encouraged me to express my emotions through ink, but sometimes they were so powerful they may as well have been written in blood.

Varick led me up a stairwell and we finally arrived in the servants' quarters. He gestured to a wooden door and I headed inside, finding a series of bunk beds laid out across the room. I would have to share with the other men in Belmont's entourage. Not something I would enjoy. I despised most of them.

I sighed, taking one of the bottom bunks and dropping my bag onto it, glad to be free of Varick's presence as he shut the door. I took out some rolling tobacco and papers, needing the sweet release of nicotine. Three smokes later, I had started to write a letter to my dear Evangeline.


I fear putting my true thoughts into words, dearest Eve. I cannot tell you much of this place I am visiting with Lord Belmont. But I will tell you of the biting cold, the echoing corridors and the screaming wind. Sometimes it is not the wind which cries. But I daren't write about that. I have been warned by a man more fearsome than a hangman's dog. And yet, it is not he I fear most in this place. It is the beauty...the money. It almost has a smell, my Eve.

It comforts me some to think of you at home, wrapped in cotton sheets, safe from harm. I will yearn for your company until my return.

From the sea to the stars, I love you.


It was a little saying Evangeline and I had come up with once. Based upon the mural painted in her bedroom. The sea splashed across the curb, the stars speckling the ceiling.

How far do you think it is, from the sea to the stars?” Eve had murmured as we sat side by side at her window.

Very far indeed, I'm not sure a man could travel there alone,” I'd replied, boldly reaching out to trail my fingers over her glossy hair.

Then perhaps we can travel together one day,” she'd whispered, her lips like two red shells, one atop the other. We'd laughed softly. I recalled the way her breath had sent a heated trail across my neck.

I'd leaned in, closer and closer still. I shouldn't have. It was wrong of me. A gentleman did not steal kisses. But even now, I had not an ounce of regret in me for it. I'd memorised the moment, scorched it into my skull, knowing I would possess it until the end of time. The first feel of her full lips against mine. The racing of my heart. The heat spreading through my veins like melted candle wax.

I love you from the sea to the stars, Evangeline.”

Truly? That far?” she'd asked, her eyes as bright as two fires.

Yes, and perhaps a little further, too.”

I rolled onto my back, folding up the letter and pushing it into my breast pocket. I couldn't send it, so I'd keep it close until I returned to England. I'd watch as she read the words, her eyes sprinting back and forth across the page. She devoured books like they were peppermints. I didn't have the gift of such things. It took me weeks to complete a novel, but not Evangeline. She was keen-eyed, curious, bright. And Lord knew, I was glad she would never step foot in a place like this.

The room slowly filled and I knew I'd be sick of the men's company by the time this trip was over.

Belmont wants a companion to carry his shit whilst out on the island tomorrow,” Gareth said from across the room. “I ain't doing it.”

Nor me,” Adam said from the bunk above me.

That leaves you, new boy,” John said, kicking the foot of my bed. “Belmont's already asked for you anyway.”

I'd been working for Belmont for months now. I was hardly the new boy. I glanced at John with a shrug. “Beats lying around here all week.”

John laughed, dipping his head to look me in the eye. He irritated me almost as much as Gareth. They both made it their personal mission to make sure I had the worst jobs in Belmont's household. I knew it was their way of testing me. But they didn't know what I did. That I was not going to be around long enough for it to matter. I was going to run off into the sunset with as many of Belmont's prized possessions as I could. And take my beautiful girl with me. I was happy to let them think of me as a weak link. That was how I played out a con like this. Pretending to be the victim type, the sort of man no one suspected of anything. Until it was too late. They didn't know of my street brawls. Of the way I could choke a man into submission with one arm.

Those Vampires are hungry for young blood,” John taunted. “Kid like you won't last five minutes out on that island.”

Kid? I was nineteen. John was barely a year older than me and had nothing of the muscle I possessed.

Leave him be,” Adam's voice sailed from above. “I don't want him shitting himself in his sleep and waking me up with the stench.”

I kicked off my shoes, grinding my jaw. I forced myself not to bite back at them. I could probably have taken on all three of them in a fist fight. The scars on my chest proved it. Some posh twat had once thrown punches at me with a signet ring on his finger whilst his buddies held my arms behind my back. Coward. I might have deserved it, considering I'd sold his wife a dodgy batch of beauty elixir that had made all of her hair fall out. But I'd played weak then, too. Slumped in their arms, pretending to be unconscious. When they released me, I beat the living daylights out of their ringleader.

I rolled over, ignoring their jibes, reminding myself that I was going to lead the life of a king one day. And they would be left wiping Lord Belmont's rear end until the day they died.

JONAH


Belmont was a paranoid kind of man. That was why he wanted one of his servants to accompany him out onto the island for the first round of the 'V Games'. I hadn't been told much of what to expect. But I was given warm furs to wear by the Helsings' staff, finer than anything I had ever owned. I spent half the morning wondering if I could get away with stealing them.

The spectators were gathered in the games room which was located off of the main hall. Poker tables filled the cavernous space. The ceiling arched above us, carved from grey stone with impressive curving struts holding up the roof. Hardwood floors, hand-carved tables. Staff stood in all corners with silver trays filled with gleaming chalices. Beside me was a breakfast table that spanned the length of the room. The salty smell of eggs and cooked meat reached my nose. I drifted closer to it, sliding my hand behind my back as I grasped a lump of bread that crunched softly in my hand. My mouth watered. When was the last time I'd had fresh bread?

Amongst the spectators was Belmont, his chest puffed out as he shared some joke with a group of the men. Twenty six in total, all dressed in clothes that put my borrowed furs to shame.

None of the other men had servants with them. I carried a bag filled with a flask of water and food I'd collected from the kitchen that morning. Belmont didn't consume anything his own servants hadn't prepared. And it satisfied me to know how much trust he'd laid in me already. When the time came, stealing from him would be easy.

One of the maids had told me Belmont had been poisoned a few years ago. Apparently he had some old feud with his brother over their inheritance. They had been mortal enemies ever since. And after he'd survived the attack, paranoia had bled into all parts of his life. A fact which had made this con drag on longer than I'd have liked. Getting close to his assets had proved a tricky task. But I wasn't done trying yet.

Abraham entered the room through the large wooden doors, a fine, blood-red cape draped around his shoulders. He resembled a king in all his finery. A silver clasp held his cape in place in the shape of a fanged skull. A symbol which could be found in most parts of the castle, it seemed. The Helsing family crest portrayed it, too. A hundred of those fanged skulls mounded into a triangle, atop which a beady-eyed raven perched.

Power emanated from Abraham as he strode through the room, the men falling silent as they noted his presence. I spotted a young girl peering through the door behind him. Blonde, like Abraham, her eyes azure and sparkling. She was surely his daughter. And as she caught my eye, she giggled then scurried away.

Good morning!” Abraham boomed, clasping his hands together. “You shall soon be escorted onto the island. I hope you enjoyed the viewing of the contestants last night?”

A few of the men chuckled and some muttered filthy comments that made me grimace. From their murmuring I gathered the 'contestants' were female. A strange idea. What sort of game would they be playing for these men's entertainment?

The door opened again and Varick stepped into the room in a dark robe lined with fur. The men hushed at his arrival, his presence emitting danger. I didn't much like the man, but quickly adjusted my stance into one of casual disinterest. I buttered the bread in my hand, taking a large bite. All thoughts of the games abandoned me as the salty butter melted across my tongue, the ripeness of the bread making me release a little groan of satisfaction. It was the food of royalty. And I devoured the slice in mere moments, hungering for more.

Jonah,” Belmont hissed, clicking his fingers sharply. I trotted to his side, swallowing the final bite of bread.

Varick will show you to the cable cars,” Abraham announced. “You will have the finest seats imaginable.”

What of the Vampires, sir? Will we be safe?” a young man asked. He had a bead of sweat on his creased brow. Apparently, he was as new to these games as I was.

The excited chattering in the room made me fearful. Many of these men had evidently attended these games before. They knew something I didn't.

You will be quite safe, I assure you,” Abraham said. “So long as you adhere to the rules Varick outlines for you.” He gestured for the group to follow Varick and a few of the more confident men led the way forward. I fell into step at Belmont's side whilst he chatted with another spectator. Abraham followed at the back of the group, his loud voice carrying to me as he spoke with some of the men.

We have a fine selection of women this year, do we not?” he asked.

True beauties, indeed. But that rarely predicts their ability to win,” one of the men answered.

Who did you bet on?” Abraham asked.

The Spanish girl. Fiery blood, those Spaniards. I believe she will make a fine little fighter.”

Fighter? What would these girls be expected to do? I had never come across a female boxer in all my years of fighting.

The golden-haired English girl is my favourite,” another answered.

I glanced over my shoulder as we exited into the main corridor, spying his thick grey hair and weathered features. His companion nudged him, laughing. “That is only because you wish to bed her. Which you can only do if she wins. And a delicate flower like her won't last five minutes out on that island.”

The pretty ones have won before,” the man replied with a smirk.

I wrinkled my nose, turning away.

Varick led us through the castle toward the main entrance. The excitement in the air grew palpable as he opened the front door. We marched through the stone courtyard, the half moon glowing down on us. A path was lit by fiery torches and Varick led us along it, guiding us away from the vast stone steps which led down to the dock.

We headed into a dark forest just as snow began to fall, the little flakes floating and dancing around me in the breeze. I pulled my furs tighter around me, shivering against the violent cold. I had thought England was freezing in the winter months, but this was something else entirely.

The path opened out and a stone building emerged from between the boughs. The wind blew and the trees seemed to whisper warnings with their rustling leaves. I glanced at Belmont whose eyes were bright with excitement. It only served to concern me more.

Varick led us into the stone building and a roaring fire lit the place, warming me down to my toes. I barely noticed it in comparison to the other sight in front of me. A golden cable car sat before us, suspended on a thick cable which led out of a large hole in the roof above. A red streak ran around the outside of the car beneath a ring of windows. I held my breath as Varick approached it, opening the door.

Five men in each,” he growled, gesturing for us to step closer. Some of the more eager men went first, hurrying inside.

Varick stepped after them and I watched, unable to hear him as he spoke to them. A moment later, he reappeared, pulling a huge iron lever near the wall. The car jerked forward then rose above our heads, sliding up the cable before disappearing through the round hole in the wall.

I jumped as another car appeared through a hole in the wall opposite, sliding smoothly down the cable before coming to a stop before us.

I'll go with the next group,” Abraham said, moving through the crowd and leading the way into it. The men he'd been speaking with followed and two more joined them. When their car had departed, the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention.

Belmont seemed in no hurry to depart, chatting idly with two of the men. One of them was fingering a silver blade. “Silver cuts right through their skin. I wasn't coming anywhere near this place again without being armed.”

Belmont lifted his cane, twisting the end to reveal the silver blade inside. “I always come prepared, too.” They chortled together.

Another two cars departed before just five of us were left. Including Varick. I prayed he wouldn't be accompanying us, but that wish was doused as he followed us into the car, flicking the lever as he did so. He slid the door shut and I nearly lost my footing as the car jerked upwards. The space was large, filled with red velvet seats by each of the windows, facing outwards. An open wooden box was packed with food and wine, enough to feed a whole village, it seemed. I dropped onto a seat, gazing out of the window directly before me.

Rules,” Varick announced, seeming bored. “No jumping, no rocking the car, no shooting, no opening the door, no exiting the car at any times during the ride. Oh and most importantly, no talking back to me. You can omit talking to me entirely if you prefer. It will not bother me in the slightest.”

Belmont and his friends nodded vaguely, ignoring him, but I couldn't help but eye Varick curiously. He unsettled me even more now I knew what he was. But it was still hard to accept the truth.

We ascended from the station and the forest dropped away below us. The moon cast enough light to see far over the canopy, but it was illuminated tenfold as spotlights came to life beneath us, shining down from the base of our cable car. I could see the bulbs beneath the car up ahead, lighting up the forest below.

Ah, electricity,” Belmont said. “I have just had it installed in my own home.”

Varick ignored him, his back pressed to the window at the front of the car. He didn't seem interested in the view, his gaze focused on us. Some of the other men indulged Belmont, but everyone seemed fixated on the view beyond the panes.

Water.” Belmont snapped his fingers at me and I produced the flask from my bag. He took it, swigging down a large gulp before passing it back without looking at me. Varick eyed the interaction impassively.

We're approaching the first game zone,” Varick announced and all eyes turned to the windows. The car sailed over a thick forest before climbing up above a vast plain of land that ran toward a line of steep cliffs. In the distance, I could make out a lighthouse, its bright beam swinging in a wide arc over the black sea.

There – there!” one of the spectators jumped out of his seat, pressing his face to the window. The others mimicked him, gazing down at the land below.

I frowned, following suit, spotting a girl running out of the trees in the direction of the lighthouse. A dark blue cape fluttered out behind her. As she ran under the lights of our car, she glanced up at us, squinting. A white stake was gripped in her hand. Her eyes were wild with fear as she turned fully to face us, starting to wave her hands.

Belmont laughed. “She thinks we're here to save her.”

The other men guffawed and my gut plummeted. What the hell kind of game was this?

The girl jumped up and down, waving her arms madly. Two shadows flew in her direction, barely visible with how swiftly they moved. They collided with her and she was dragged to the ground. Blood spewed around her. I gasped, stepping back, shaking my head as I watched. They were eating her. Two haggard men, pinning her to the ground, her blood spilling everywhere as they tore into her throat.

I continued to step back, the blood draining from my face. “What is this?” I demanded, unable to bite my tongue.

Belmont glanced over at me. “Sit down and shut up.”

I didn't listen, reaching the other side of the car and pressing my back to it. Screams tore through the air and horror gripped my heart. They were just girls. Young girls all being cut down viciously by...Vampires.

I hardly dared believe it, but I'd seen the truth with my own eyes. I glanced at Varick who gave me a hint of a smile. And there were his own fangs as clear as day.

I grew panicked. I didn't want to be in this car with one of those things.

I ran toward the door, ripping it open and the icy air flew around me. Varick caught my arm and I turned in alarm, trying to tug my arm free of him.

Get away!” I roared, throwing a punch. He dodged it with such speed, I barely saw him move. Then his hand was around my throat, dragging me further inside.

Good God, Belmont. Didn't you tell your man what to expect?” one of the spectators asked, his eyes on me.

Belmont shrugged.

I fought against Varick and no one in the whole cable car seemed to care what was happening.

Let go of me, vile beast!” I punched him again, but his skin was as tough as stone, causing a wave of pain to flare up my arm.

Varick shoved me back and I stumbled, falling into a seat. He stepped closer, his shadow falling over me.

A lump rose in my throat as I glared at him. “Get away from me.”

The men started cheering. “Go on, my beauty! Get to the lighthouse!”

No chance, she's a goner.”

She's going to make it!” Belmont cried. “Come on, girl. Go on, my sweet Evangeline.”

My blood turned to ice. That name made me pause. Made me forget my fear. But it couldn't be the same girl. Just a coincidence.

All the same, I stood and Varick leered at me as I moved to the window. I gazed out across the field. Some of the cars up ahead illuminated the field in patches of light. A girl was running flat-out toward a narrow piece of land that led to the lighthouse. She wore a sea-green cape that fluttered out behind her. Her hair was as golden as my Evangeline's.


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