Ashes Ashes Chapter One Final Edit

Celina

 

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been waiting for the moment when I will die. Perhaps that is why I feel no fear as I walk through the cold, lifeless forest.

 

The whole area is eerily silent. The usual sounds of wildlife - coyotes howling, crickets chirping, owls hooting - are all absent. No living creature would dare to live this close to the castle. There is an occasional rustle of wind, the leaves playfully fluttering against the branches, but nothing more. My sister and I - apex predators that we are - are more than capable of traversing the floor without making a sound.

 

The woods are awash in a swathe of darkness. Only the occasional cracks of moonlight manage to make their way through the trees. As we travel on, a beam of this light shines upon a loose strand of my blonde hair, giving it a silvery shimmer. I quickly tuck the strand behind my ear. I know it is better not to have my vision impeded in such a place.

 

To most people, being in the woods after nightfall would be frightening. But to me, it is oddly peaceful. The gnarled tree trunks, mossy stones, and clumps of leaves are just as visible to my kind in the darkness as they are in the light - if not more so.

 

Besides, there are far more terrifying places in the world. Like my home, for instance.

 

Passing by a field of flowers, I cannot help but notice some Foxwood mixed in alongside the wildflowers. I’m itching to walk over and take a snippet, knowing it would be handy for my medical studies. But I resist the urge - I don’t wish to be chastised, after all.

 

Beside me, I see that my sister Mina is far more focused on our current quest than I am, red eyes narrowed as she peers around, searching for any markings left behind by intruders. Like me, she dons one of the period’s most fashionable gowns, her mahogany hair twisted into an elegant bun. Dressed like the noblewoman she is, though no one is around to notice.

 

“You can relax,” I advise her. “No one’s going to be camped out this close to the castle. We’re too deep within the Northern territory.”

 

“You don’t know that for sure,” she retorts, though her posture loosens just a bit. “The Order has been growing bolder lately.”

 

“Come on, Mina,” I laugh. “Lighten up. We’re finally free of that place, at least for a while. We should enjoy it while we can!”

 

Mina can’t help but smile, no doubt enjoying my carefree laughter. I’m ordinarily much more reserved than this. But I can’t seem to help myself. Now that we’ve achieved temporary freedom from our oppressive environment, my heart is racing gleefully.

 

She and I rarely get the chance to feel this alive.

 

Ordinarily, our excursions out of the palace are done without permission. Like our visit last week to the fortuneteller, for instance. Since we have to sneak out, there’s usually a time limit on the amount of time we can spend out. But now that we’re out on a mission, we don’t have to return until it is completed.

 

“You’re not still worried about what the fortuneteller said, are you?” I ask teasingly.

 

Mina huffed out a laugh, rolling her eyes. “Of course not.”

 

“Good...because it’s ridiculous. You and I both know that I’ll be killed by one of our sisters long before you will. And the idea that a Vampire Hunter will save me - hilarious.”

 

My sister’s expression sobers at the mention of my inevitable death. “Don’t say that. You still have time to develop an offensive ability.”

 

I shake my head. “No, Mina. If it were going to happen, it would have happened by now.”

 

“Why is it that I seem to value your life more than you do?” Mina asks with a sad expression.

 

“It’s not that I don’t value my life,” I explain. “But rather that I’ve accepted the inevitable. There’s a difference.”

 

Mina looks like she is about to argue when the sound of a twig snapping in the distance startles us both. A shadowed figure approaches us, the shape suggesting it’s human. Then the figure gets close enough for us to smell him.

 

Vampire Hunter.

 

Reacting quickly, Mina’s hand reaches my spine, disabling me with a wave of telepathic energy. I cannot move to defend myself as she pushes me behind a nearby bush, the thorny branches tearing into my arm as I go down.

 

The smells of dirt and fresh blood intermingle as they fill my nostrils. The skin on my right cheek feels cold and damp from where it’s resting on the muddy forest floor. I can just make out the clearing where Mina stands, the top of my head peeking out beside the bush.

 

“Sorry, Celina,” Mina’s voice echoes in my mind. “But I knew you’d want to help, and you’d just get in the way without offensive abilities.”

 

I silently grumble at this. But ultimately, I know Mina is right. Besides, if she gets injured, I can always heal her once it’s over.

 

Mina draws out her sword as the man approaches. He is also wielding a blade - one that is much larger than her own. Dark hair and pale blue eyes glimmer menacingly beneath the moonlight. It isn’t long before the pair of them spring into action, blades clashing together so fiercely that sparks fly up into the air.

 

My sister is the first to break the connection, jumping back to dodge the swinging thrust. It’s a wise decision on her part. Her sword, a rapier, is the right choice for her slender frame. But since it’s a much more delicate blade in comparison to the man’s broadsword, it would break easily in a prolonged clash - even with her vampiric strength.

 

To my surprise, the man does not chase after her immediately. Instead, he levels her with an assessing look, his eyes scanning his surroundings. Then he says something that sends a chill through both Mina and me.

 

“So...you must be the telepath. But where’s your sister? I heard you were supposed to be with her.”

 

Mina’s lips tighten in anger. Mine would be doing the same if I were able to move. So, one of our sisters had betrayed our location - typical of them.

 

Eventually, however, Mina’s lips soften into a passive smile. “Funny, I was just about to ask what the Second Prince of the Order was doing so deep within our territory, but I suppose you’ve spared me the effort. My sister and I split up to cover more ground.”

 

The man glares, realizing that she’s now reading his mind. Meanwhile, I cannot understand Mina’s confidence here. Jakob, the Second Prince of the Order, is famous for his sadistic cruelty towards our kind. He will not be an easy opponent to defeat, even with her gift.

 

Not willing to let Mina’s words rattle him, Jakob once again lunges forward, using both his hands to swing the sword forward in a powerful slash. Mina easily dodges this. Not only is she an expert swordswoman, but her vampire form also increases her natural agility.

 

Jakob’s sword swings into the dirt after his miss, landing feet away from my face. Particles of dirt fly into the air, nearly hitting me in the eyes. I take a moment to study his sword, noting traces of clear fluid dripping off the edge.

 

This bastard. He’s coated his sword in Holy Water.

 

Now, my heartbeat begins to race. “Mina!” I cry out in my mind, despite not knowing if she’s currently tuned into me. “Be careful! Holy Water!”

 

This is bad. While it’s true that Mina has an edge in fighting capability, all he needs to do is hit her once for things to be over. I can’t heal fatal wounds - especially not ones laden with Holy Water.

 

Luckily, Mina manages to expertly avoid each of his blows. I lose count of the number of times he swings at her, only for her to duck or to take a step back. She’s far faster than he is, with quick footwork and practiced reflexes. Her light sword is also ideal for her agile fighting style. It’s not long before Jakob’s covered in many small cuts from where Mina has managed to get several quick jabs in past his guard.

 

That being said, it’s obvious that Jakob also has a lot of skill. His broadsword is also ideal for his build and fighting style, suiting his thick frame and powerful muscles. He has the strength to pull off several devastating swings. Huge indentations are being left behind after his sword slashes the ground. If he manages to land even one strike, Mina will die.

 

As the duel rages on, there are several times when the pair fall out of eyesight. Those moments send a chill through me, as I can do nothing but listen. The clang of metal hitting metal, the grunts let out when swinging viciously, Jakob’s hisses of pain - I have no choice but to listen to them, terrified that I’ll hear Mina’s scream. It is always a relief when they move back into sight.

 

Yet even in the middle of such a fierce battle, the two still manage to find time to taunt each other. After a particularly vicious slash to Jakob’s left cheek, Mina also throws in a cutting barb.

 

“Ouch, that one’s going to leave a scar. Not that your family will mind, based on what I’ve heard. Why should they care about you when they’ve still got the true heir?”

 

The man lets out a bestial roar, lunging forward. Mina must have heard enough of his thoughts to determine that his illegitimacy is a real sore spot for him. It was a mistake though, as Jakob’s anger only fuels his bloodlust. With it, he manages to land his first blow, even if it only catches her dress.

 

Half of Mina’s floor-length skirt is torn off in the slash, revealing the undergarments beneath. Neither of the two even seem to notice. Their focus remains on each other.

 

“You bitch,” Jakob growls out, chest heaving with exertion. “You just wait. Do you think any of that stuff matters? The order, the Northern Coven’s territory, the Golden Apple - it’s all going to become mine. Once it is, I’ll personally make sure every one of your kind dies the most painful death imaginable.”

 

“Yes, I can see those twisted, evil desires lurking in your heart,” Mina remarks calmly, red eyes frosty as she looks him over. “It’s not surprising that you get along well enough with my sisters. You’re just as willing to kill your sibling to attain power as they are, aren’t you?”

 

Instead of answering, Jakob merely lets out a demented grin. Swinging suddenly, he takes Mina by surprise, managing to knock the sword out of her hands.

 

“Mina, dodge!” I scream out in my mind, horrified at my inability to do anything to help.

 

But it’s too late. With one last mighty swing, Jakob’s broadsword slashes her across the chest, spraying them both with her black blood. A loud thud is heard as Mina crumbles to the ground.

 

By sheer coincidence, I find myself gazing into Mina’s pain-filled eyes after her body lands parallel to my own. Unbidden, tears begin to flow from my eyes, blurring my gaze. If I were able to, I’d be hyperventilating, sobbing, screaming out my grief - anything that would release the cap on the swirling emotions bottled up inside of me. But since I can’t, I continue to lie there, helpless.

 

Blood is flowing openly from the wound on my arm, but it’s nothing compared to the pain in my heart. Every limb is locked and frozen, my tears are clogging up my nose. I choke, unable to breathe since I still can’t open my mouth.

 

And then Jakob comes into view, standing over Mina's body as she desperately gasps out for air. I want to scream at him to get away from her, to at least let her die in peace. But of course, nothing comes out of my mouth. Unlike Mina, he cannot hear my silent screams.

 

I feel like Jesus of Nazareth, tied up and helpless as he is stabbed through the chest over and over again. We’re both even surrounded by the same thorns.

 

Jakob’s lips curl into a cruel smile as he looks down at her. “Well, I suppose this is goodbye, you bloodsucking bitch. I’d tell you you’re going to a better place, but we both know that’s a lie. You’ll spend the rest of eternity rotting in hell, just like the rest of your kind.”

 

Despite my grief, I can’t help but wonder why the man is merely taunting her, instead of finishing her off. Then I realize - it’s because he wants her to suffer.

 

Anger boils up inside me. No. No way. I’ll never let him get what he wants.

 

Reaching out my magic, I use it to remove all of Mina’s suffering, allowing her to die painlessly. It’s my only other skill, aside from healing. Up until now, I’ve never had much use for it.

 

After a few moments, I see the pain fade away from Mina’s eyes. Now able to focus, she sends me what I know is a grateful look. Jakob is muttering angrily as he sees her serene smile.

 

“Thank you, Celina, and I’m sorry. I know this must be painful. When I saw him walking towards us...it’s like I knew this would happen, so I wanted to protect you. To be honest, I’ve known this would happen since we visited the fortuneteller. I tried to deny it, but the instant she told me my fate...a great sense of destiny washed over me.”

 

“Mina…”

 

“It’s the same for you too, isn’t it, Celina? That means you have to find Joss, you have to save him from whatever danger he’s in. Please...I need to know that you’re going to live. I can’t die peacefully until I know that you’re safe. I love you so much…”

 

“I love you too, Mina. And I promise, from now on, I’ll do whatever it takes to survive…so go ahead and let go. Despite what that bastard says, I know you’re headed somewhere wonderful.”

 

With one final smile, the light begins to fade from her eyes. I force a serene expression until I’m sure that she’s gone. Suddenly, I can move again, her ability fading away when her soul did. But I continue to stay still, I have to wait for Jakob to leave.

 

He does so soon after, mumbling something like: “One down, one to go.”

 

But I’m not going to let him find me.

 

After he’s gone, I rush over to Mina’s side. I want to give her a proper burial, but I don’t have much time.

 

Taking one last look at Mina’s face, I gently reach up and close her eyelids over her eyes. There. Now it looks like she could be sleeping.

 

Although it is pointless, I take the time to close up her wounds. It makes me feel a little better to see her whole once more. I rip off one of my lacy sleeves to wipe away the blood. Dragging Mina’s body behind the bushes, I set to work digging a hole. I don’t think Jakob will return anytime soon, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

 

By the time I’ve gotten Mina all buried, I’m completely covered in sweat, grime, and blood. My skirt and petticoat are torn from the effort, and my manicured nails are broken and bloody. Still, I can’t bring myself to regret the time it took. Mina’s always been there for me, this is the least I can do to thank her.

 

“You were right Mina...the second I heard the name Joss, I knew. It was my first time hearing his name, but it felt more like the hundredth. It’s like my soul already knows him, even if I don’t. Thank you for everything. I’ll keep my promise to you, no matter what.”

 

It had always felt impossible for me to survive, so I never bothered hoping I could. But both my oldest and youngest sisters have now died for my sake. Despite everything, for some reason, the universe is urging me to live. I have to honor my sisters’ wishes.

 

No matter what happens from this point onward, I’m going to survive.

CHAPTER TWO

Joss

 

“Is there something wrong, Joss? You’ve been drinking a lot more than usual lately…”

 

Liam’s deep brown eyes watch me worriedly as I gleefully down my second shot of the night. As usual, the ale burns my throat on the way down, causing me pain as I suck in a breath through my clenched teeth. I slam the glass back onto the counter, motioning for the man to refill my cup.

 

“Another.”

 

He shakes his head disapprovingly, but ends up complying. Liam and I are friendly, but not exactly friends. He may disagree with my decision, but he’s not exactly going to cut me off. It’s too good for his business.

 

I can’t help but wince as the afternoon light pierces through the stained glass windows and bounces off the bottles nestled on the shelf. The glare from the sun is painful against my retinas. I probably should have waited a couple of hours instead of coming here directly after work.

 

My new life as an officer in the Royal Army is peaceful, if not a bit dull at times. Being stationed in the populated city of Astoria leaves me with little to do but stand around and guard the citizens. Most days end without any significant occurrences whatsoever. Still, it beats working yourself half to death chasing after the undead. I’ve even gotten a pretty nice tan now that I’m working during the day.

 

The Wandering Gazelle, the tavern I’m currently trying to get drunk in, is the most popular bar in town. Sitting right in the middle of the small English town, it’s the best place to go if you want a night out surrounded by other people. Which is exactly why I’m here. I want it to be known that I’m here, I want to be seen.

 

Not that it had worked any other day this week, but I’m hoping tonight that will change.

 

The tavern isn’t anything special in terms of decor. Everything - from the tables and stools to the ceilings and floors - is hand-crafted out of wood. There’s no elegance or intricacy to the designs, but everything is sturdy and well-built. It’s obvious that a lot of work went into building this place.

 

Besides, with the amount of cigar smoke and people lining the dimly lit room, it’s a wonder I’m able to make out anything about the setting at all. The people in the surrounding booths and barstools are little more than blurry outlines. Though, that may just be the alcohol finally kicking in.

 

It’s a business that’s meant more for the common folk than members of the noble class. So, I’ve dressed accordingly, not bothering to change out of my uniform. The citizens of the empire all lead peaceful and fulfilling lives, due in no small part to the protection of the Royal Army. To them, this uniform signifies that I’m a hero. I’m more than welcome here.

 

To my left, a beautiful barmaid with strawberry blonde curls gives me a wink and a seductive smile. Case in point. I return the gesture, smirking at the come hither look that graces her face.

 

I suppose I have a couple of hours to spare until night falls. A little distraction couldn’t hurt. I’m just about to walk over and seal the deal when I’m interrupted by a disgruntled scoff.

 

“Good lord…” a disgusted voice remarks from behind me. I turn towards the source and discover my half-brother, Jakob, standing there with a disapproving look. Unlike me, he has not made any effort to blend in with his surroundings, donning a three-piece suit complete with a coat and breeches. “Is this what you left the Order to do? Waste your days away getting drunk in the tavern?”

 

I merely give him a lazy smile in response. My grin only widens as his right eye twitches in annoyance. “Good evening, brother. Won’t you take a seat?”

 

His eye twitches once more, but he sits down beside me nonetheless. Liam makes his way over when he notices the new customer.

 

“What can I get you?”

 

Jakob doesn’t even blink. “Water,” he responds, confusing the bartender.

 

“He’ll have a shot of whiskey,” I interrupt, answering on his behalf. As Liam begins pouring the drink, Jakob levels me with a heated stare. I can’t help but roll my eyes. “It’s a tavern, brother. You have to order a real drink.”

 

“I don’t think that’s a rule…” he mutters underneath his breath, reaching up to ruffle his dark hair with annoyance. Jakob may have the same deep blue eyes as the rest of the family, but his hair was just a few shades lighter than ours. Dark brown tresses instead of pure black.

 

Lifting his shot glass, Jakob gives me one more dubious look before bringing the glass to his mouth so he can down the entire thing. He shudders at the burn but manages to finish it in one gulp. “Revolting,” he says, slamming the glass back down onto the counter.

 

I give him a hearty pat on the back for his achievement. Jakob may be kind of a stick-in-the-mud, and a little too fixated on his job, but he’s my only brother, and I love him. Besides, those are relatively minor character flaws. He could certainly be a lot worse, with everything he’s been through.

 

“So,” I give him a cheeky grin as I down another shot of my own. “What brings you here? You haven’t bothered to keep in touch since I left.”

 

“You haven’t been answering the Order’s summons,” he responds. “Don’t you know about our Father’s illness? Why haven’t you been by to visit him yet?”

 

Shit. Of course, that’s the reason, I should have known. “I thought you’d be happy I haven’t come by. Surely it only makes you look better by comparison.”

 

“I don’t need your help to look better,” he snaps angrily. Ooh, touchy. I must still be the favored heir, even now.

 

“You know what I mean,” I give him a half-hearted shrug.  “I have no interest in being the heir, but you do. So, anything that makes that more likely to happen is better for both of us.”

 

Jakob gets very quiet after that, no doubt stewing in his anger. I know he doesn’t want to win this way, that he wants to prove he’s the better choice instead of being handed the position, but that’s just too bad. I have no interest in fighting for the right to be the next head of the Order.

 

“Is it that fun?” he suddenly asks.

 

“Pardon?”

 

“Is being an ordinary officer that much more fun than being a Vampire Hunter? I can’t understand your way of thinking. Either way, you’re still fighting for a living. But, as an Order member, your battles are a direct mission from God. So, why would you turn your back on your divine purpose?”

 

Sighing, I give my brother a pitying look before responding. This is exactly why I have no interest in my heritage as a Vampire Hunter. All the members of the Order are so obsessed with their work, it’s like they have no lives outside of it. They may be okay living like that, but I am certainly not. I’ll carve out my destiny even if it kills me.

 

Still, I should be careful about how I respond. Jakob especially can be a little obsessive about the Order. It wouldn’t be a good idea to provoke him.

 

“I’ve never once seen myself as having any kind of divine mission,” I answer slowly, carefully. “Just like anyone else, my heritage just happened to be the circumstance I was born into. I believe we’re all given free will for a reason because we’re meant to choose what we want to do with our lives. So, I’m acting accordingly, living life how I want to live it.”

 

“You’re wrong,” Jakob replies. “Other people may get to choose what they want to do with their lives, but not us. We have a specific purpose. If you turn your back on God’s plan, he will punish you for it.”

 

I shrug. “If that’s what you want to believe, go ahead. I’m not too worried, though.”

 

A terse silence follows my reply. Not concerned with his thoughts on my behavior, I simply return to my drink. Eventually, he seems to realize that I’m never going to agree with his way of thinking, and gives up. He interrupts the tranquil silence that has fallen between us.

 

“You know, you never answered my question.”

 

I give him a blank stare. “What question was that?”

 

“Why haven’t you been to visit Father yet?” he asks. “Even if you don’t believe in our divine purpose, surely you still love our Father? Why are you refusing to be by his side as he dies?”

 

“Because I’m not going to let him die,” I reply with determination. “I’ve decided that, rather than waiting around and grieving pointlessly, I’m going to go find the one thing that can save his life. I’m going to go search for the Golden Apple.”

 

There is a beat of silence as Jakob tries to determine how serious I am. When he finally realizes I mean in, he immediately bursts out laughing.

 

“You? You’re going to be the one to find the Golden Apple. The artifact that both we and the Vampires have been searching for hundreds - no, thousands - of years?”

 

“Yep,” I nod, not even slightly deterred by his mockery. “I am. I even have a pretty good idea on where to start looking.”

 

This stops his laughter almost immediately. “Where?”

 

I shake my head. “Don’t worry about it. Just make sure to keep Father alive while I’m gone.”

 

He narrows his eyes at me. “You’re bluffing.”

 

“I’m not,” I confidently reply. “I’m only letting you know this so you don’t all start panicking when you realize I’ve gone missing. Trust me, no matter what you hear. I have a plan.”

 

Jakob sighs. “Whatever. If you want to spend your remaining time with our Father going off on a wild goose chase, who am I to stop you? As you said, it only makes me look better.”

 

I give him a cheeky wink. “Now you’re getting it.”

 

Jakob leaves soon afterward, paying off his tab before he leaves. I try to convince him that I’ll pay in his stead, but he won’t even hear of it. Buttoning up his jacket, he gives me a final warning.

 

“You should head back home before night falls. If you’ve been reading our letters, then you should know why. But, just in case you don’t: I killed one of the Northern coven’s daughters a few nights ago, so they’ll surely be out for revenge. You’ll be considered a prime target for them, so don’t act rashly.”

 

I have to fight to keep myself from smiling. If only he knew. “I’ll keep that in mind, but I’m not too worried. Don’t forget, I’m not one of you anymore, so they have no reason to target me. Besides, you know I’m more than capable of defending myself if I need to.”

 

He sighs, shaking his head. “Suit yourself. It’s your funeral.” This time, he walks away for good, muttering to himself the entire way. He was whispering something along the lines of: “Why did I even bother. This is exactly why…”

 

Grinning to myself, I decide it’s time to get my plan back on track. Cheerfully raising my hand into the air, I order another drink.

 

“Hit me with another one, Liam.”

 

 

It is almost midnight by the time I finally stumble out of the tavern. My feet are shaking beneath me as I drunkenly lean on the old, stone wall to keep my balance. I wonder what Jakob would say if he saw me now. Surely, he’d be furious at how flagrantly I’d disobeyed his direct warning.

 

I can’t help but laugh at the thought.

 

Soon after my brother had left, I’d been joined by a group of fellow officers. Unlike me, they’re the type to go out drinking like this every night and had seemed quite amused by my already inebriated state. I’ve been known to indulge on weekends from time to time, but nothing like this.

 

Seeing as it was always more fun to get drunk with others, I’d quickly agreed to their suggestion to join them. The four of us had had a pretty great time together, drinking and chatting all night long. I’d even gotten that attractive barmaid’s number, though I don’t think I’ll ever get the chance to use it. Eventually, however, they’d had to go home. Most of them have an early shift tomorrow - though I suppose I do too.

 

...I may end up having to look for a new job.

 

Have I finally stayed out long enough? Surely, someone must have seen me out and about by now. This was the fourth night I’ve done this, I’m impatiently waiting for some results.

 

I take a longer route home, weaving through many dark, unpopulated alleys to get there. The light from the street lamps lit just enough of the alleyways for me to see the cobblestone paths in front of me. I couldn’t at all manage to avoid all the trash and other debris that littered the way.

 

Everything is quiet as I take the final turn onto my street. It’s obvious why - everyone must be asleep by now.  I slow down my pace as I reach the stone steps leading into my house, finally feeling the burn of angry eyes glaring into the back of my neck.

 

I drunkenly turn, anticipating the attack. But it’s too late for me to do anything more. The last thing I notice before everything turns black is the searing hot pain of something cracking open my skull.

 

They got me.