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Novel Excerpts

The following is an excerpt from my book Legend of Zodiac – Fall of Darkness.

1. EDINBURGH

 John was angry with himself for arriving moments too late. Not for the boy’s sake. He’d seen the shocked, pleading look in his eyes when he first arrived and there wasn’t anything he could have done for him anyway, even if he’d wanted to. But he didn’t feel that particular need. He never did.

He lifted his gaze from the alley below and looked across the rooftops of Edinburgh. The storm clouds hanging low with rain and thunder over the ancient city were unleashing their fury.

Crrraccckk!

A streak of lightning danced across the sky striking the steeple of the church of St. Andrew creating a cascade of sparks.

He scanned the sky to see if his quarry had taken refuge there but his keen eyes didn’t detect any movement in the darkness. No surprise. Only a fool would be up there on a night like this. The One Bloods were many things but foolish wasn’t one of them.

Leaning forward, he stepped off the edge of the roof and glided down the forty feet to the ground below, landing right beside the body. Where the boy’s throat had been only a trickle of blood remained, running towards a small stream of rain water winding its way to the sewer.

John felt a slight burning pang in his throat but he knew it would pass. There was a time early on when he would have considered such a waste unforgivable but he didn’t give it much thought now.

When he first broke away from the One Bloods, he had to learn to curb his natural instincts to nourish himself on human blood. Even for a warrior used to denial and hardship it had been torturously difficult. It was the memory of the pain and sacrifice as much as his pride that had kept him on his path. It had been a long time since he had tasted human blood and he wasn’t about to go back now.

He crouched low over the body and wrinkled his nose to pick up the scent.

Ah!

He’d definitely met up with this one before. He stood up and swiftly strode down the alley, hanging back in the shadows to peer out into the street.

Half way down the block a few kids in line for an underage club event were getting soaked as a bouncer took his time checking each of them for alcohol. The dead boy in the alley was probably meeting friends there, thought John. The pounding bass from inside the club meant that nobody would have heard him scream for help, assuming he had time even for that, although John thought it was doubtful.

He sniffed the air, ignoring the overwhelming desire to wretch. For vampires, the sense of smell is more enhanced, more reliable than sight and the hard rain bouncing off the pavement and walls released a putrid array of city smells. In this case sewage, exhaust, garbage, urine, the smell of human bodies and the One Bloods who fed off of them.

He could barely pick up a trace but it was enough. John couldn’t see him but he knew his quarry must have ducked down the alley across the way only moments ago. He crossed the puddle filled street in a few strides hugging the fronts of the buildings.

Cocking his head slightly to one side, he slowly edged forwards into the alley. Back to the wall, eyes scanning for movement, senses fully alert, half way down he stopped. Small creases of a smile appeared briefly at the corners of John’s mouth. There. Just past the dumpster along the opposite wall. A chimney stack jutted out just far enough for someone to hide behind – unseen but not un-smelled.

He didn’t need time to put together a plan. There was only one option when you wanted to take down a vampire; speed and, if you were very, very lucky, surprise. Faster than an eye could detect he covered the fifteen feet to the dumpster and leaped on top of it.

Crouched down against the wall amongst bags of mistossed garbage, his quarry flashed his teeth venomously. Very slowly he got to his feet, bringing himself to his full height which John reckoned had to be closer to seven feet than six. Like John, his skin was almost translucent and he had dark circles around his eyes. This one had definitely been hungry.

Furtively he cast his eyes around looking for an avenue of escape. John smiled. He had already checked and other than up the wall there wasn’t any.

The vampire emitted a deep throated growl, detached himself from the darkness and took a step forward. He intended to put up a fight. Good, thought John. He loved this part, lived for it really.

A similar deep rumble of a growl emanated from John’s chest. Muscles tightening, lips curled back over his teeth, he began to move forward.

Without warning an arm thrust out of the wall beside the vampire’s head and wrapped itself around his neck, slamming him backwards hard against the wall. The vampire wrenched furiously at the arm around its throat just as a second disembodied arm emerged clutching a silver rod that it drove deep into its chest.

A piercing scream filled the darkness followed by the smell of burning flesh and a small plume of black smoke that rose from the wound. Suspended by the arm around its throat, the vampire’s body jerked and twitched then went limp like a rag doll.

A moment later a head appeared through the wall and looked at the  figure slumped in its grasp. The arm around the vampire’s neck relaxed its grip and the body-less head watched as it slid to the ground.

“Fancy meeting you in a place like this, John. Another date gone wrong is it?” said the head looking up at him.

The torso and the legs belonging to the disembodied arms and head emerged through wall and stood over the body.

“Ah look, it’s another blood sucker, just like you.”

John shot him a contemptuous look.

“Nothing like me, Gillon,” John spat as he jumped off the dumpster.

“If you say so.”

“What are you doing here anyway?”

“It’s a new neighbourhood watch initiative. You know, looking out for criminals, ne’re do wells, vampires, that sort of scum,” he said with a casual sarcasm.

Gillon looked up the alley then back down at the corpse at his feet.

“I’m guessing whoever he attacked can’t be too far away,” he said.

“He’s in the alley across the way,” said John.

“Well, that’s the third vampire attack in two weeks. You know, I think I’m beginning to spot a bit of a trend here, aren’t you? Your old friends are definitely getting bolder,” said Gillon waspishly.

John’s eyes narrowed dangerously and he bared his teeth letting out a low hiss. They weren’t his friends and he hated the implication, especially coming from Gillon.

Gillon threw him a malicious grin. “Well, I’ll leave you to clean up then, shall I?” he said, making his way up the alley.

“I’m guessing Cornelius won’t be very happy about this,” Gillon called out as he turned on to the sidewalk and disappeared as quickly as he had arrived.

John watched him go then set to work. He shoved the body into the dumpster where it landed with a dull thud and leapt in after it. It only took a few minutes for him to finish destroying it, then he took a small bottle from inside his coat and emptied its contents into the bin. He hopped over the side and struck a match.

A bright orange flame erupted from the dumpster that briefly illuminated the entire alley. As he emerged onto the street, he noticed the line-up outside the club was gone. The only sign of life was the lone car that sped past him barely slowing down as it wheeled around the corner.

John looked up at the sky deciding whether or not to risk it. There was a flash and a low rumble of thunder that echoed off the buildings. As if on cue, the rain lashed down even harder than before. He pulled up the collar of his overcoat around his neck and walked up the street in the same direction as the car. Gillon was right; Cornelius wasn’t going to be pleased in the slightest.

*  *  *

Gwen watched the driver of the hansom cab rein his horses and jump down from the seat to open the carriage door for his passengers. A woman wearing a green crinoline dress with a high collar and long sleeves emerged. She was followed by two girls dressed similarly to their mother and a boy, the youngest of the three, wearing a blue pinafore.

A porter followed them into the train station pushing their luggage on a two wheeled hand cart. Gwen’s eyes followed them as they made their way to the platform behind her where a waiting train belched large quantities of smoke and steam.

In the middle of the Edinburgh station stood a large round white faced clock sitting atop a tall black tapered pillar. A mute sentinel whose face could quicken the footsteps of even the most baggage laden traveller.

Leaning her head back against the wall, Gwen squinted then focused her eyes on the clock. She could see the large ornate hands quite clearly. The numbers were equally large, designed to be seen from either end of the station. Yet it was the numbers that were the problem. She couldn’t read them. They shimmered, formless and indistinct, as if she were trying to read a newspaper in a dream.

She squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose but when she looked again it was still the same.

The visions always came without warning but they had been happening for so long now that she was used to them. Now that she was older, she understood what was happening even if she didn’t know what any of it meant.

Looking around the train station only one thought came to her mind. When am I now?

Women wearing bustles and men dressed in vests with coats and top hats or bowlers entered and left the station at a steady rate. She assumed they couldn’t see her because undoubtedly she would have drawn stares and scandalized looks. Whenever this happened to be, teenage girls most definitely didn’t wear jeans.

She did consider the possibility that they did see a version of her dressed like they were. But it seemed as if her visions were more like a one way mirror than a window but she didn’t know for sure.

At the far end of the station Gwen watched a young woman enter through a doorway. She walked a few feet inside the entrance then stopped and looked around. She was carrying something small in her hand which she glanced at quickly before scanning the station once more. Gwen felt slightly surprised when their eyes met. The young woman smiled and started walking towards her.

As she drew nearer the entire station seemed to shimmer and fade. Then a large hum, like the sound of hundreds of bees inside her head, drowned out all the noise around her. She squeezed her eyes shut once more and seconds later when she opened them the sound had stopped and everything looked normal again.

“Gwendolyn? Gwendolyn Carson?”

Gwen looked up at the girl with light brown hair done in a chignon who spoke to her in a soft Scottish brogue. Her green eyes moved from Gwen to a photograph she held in her hand and back again. Gwen thought she had a pretty face with her soft fair skin and mildly prominent cheek bones. She looked about Gwen’s age though there was a maturity to her looks that would have made it easy to mistake her for someone in her mid-twenties. Beneath her pink blouse and chinos she had a lithe figure that an A-list actress would have killed for.

“Yes, that’s me,” Gwen replied.

She was suddenly self-conscious of the contrast she made with her bulky sweater and slightly askew shoulder length dark hair tied in a ponytail. She knew she had the unmistakably crumpled look of someone who has spent almost a full day travelling on airplanes and trains.

“I’m Aileana Stuart. I hope you haven’t been waiting too long. You were probably expecting your Uncle Cornelius but he’s unavoidably detained by his work and asked me to come instead. I hope that’s alright.”

She stood up and noted that Aileana was a few inches taller than her five foot five.

“Please, call me Gwen. Everyone else does.”

“Alright then Gwen, shall we go?” she said warmly.

She reached down and picked up one of Gwen’s suitcases and turned towards the exit directly across from them. With her other two suitcases in hand, Gwen followed closely behind.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t park closer,” she said as they arrived outside, “but we’re just down there across the road.” She nodded towards a place Gwen had difficulty making out clearly through the rainy half light.

It was more out of absentminded habit than anything that as they reached the curb Gwen cast a quick glance the left to look for any oncoming cars and began to cross over. The sound of the horn from the car coming in the other direction was so unexpected she screamed and felt a hand yanking her back to the curb. She nearly tumbled backwards and one of the suitcases fell from her hand and skidded across the sidewalk.

The car slid to a halt right where she had been standing. The driver, a man in his early thirties, threw a nasty scowl in their direction before slowly and deliberately easing forward.

“Are you alright?” asked Aileana, releasing her grip on Gwen’s shoulder.

“Yes, sorry about that,” Gwen said sheepishly.

“Keep that up and you’ll get me into trouble. Cornelius said to deliver you in one piece and you’re not making it easy,” she said with a grin. She walked over to retrieve the errant piece of luggage. “Come on.”

Gwen followed Aileana’s lead across to the parking lot. It was a deep blue coloured Audi that looked brand new.

“Cornelius said this is your first trip over here, is that right?” she asked as Gwen lifted the two bags she was carrying into the trunk.

“First trip anywhere outside of America,” she said, walking around to the side of the car.

Gwen stood facing Aileana who looked at her with a curious expression. It was as if she were about to say something but decided against it.

“Is everything alright?” Gwen asked, sounding as confused as she looked.

“Do you want to drive?” she asked, holding up the car keys.

Gwen cast a quick glance down at the car then back to Aileana.

“Uh—what? This? No. I mean I’d love to but no, that’s fine really,” she stammered. “Besides, if I can’t even cross the road without risking my life then I probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel of any car right now.”

Gwen pulled the door open and sat down. In front of her was the steering wheel and pedals. She’d gotten in what back home would have been the passenger side.

“Right, other side then,” she said, turning a bright shade of pink. She was sure now that any hope she’d had of making a good first impression was dying an agonizing death.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it soon enough,” laughed Aileana as Gwen walked to the other side of the car mumbling something about jetlag.

As Aileana pulled into traffic, Gwen fought to tell her brain that they weren’t on the wrong side of the road. It wasn’t until several cars had safely passed against them on the right that she finally began to relax.

The windshield wipers shuddered quietly on the windscreen as they made their way through the winding, narrow city streets. They passed countless blocks of centuries old buildings that reminded Gwen of scenes from the movie A Christmas Carol. In the pressing darkness of the storm only the ancient Edinburgh Castle stood out, illuminated like a massive monument, in the centre of the city.

The only other thing that caught her attention was a sudden flash of light outlining a man emerging from an alley. It was so sudden and illuminated the alley so completely that at first she thought it was lightning. But there was no crack of thunder and they had gone past it before she could get a good look.

Gwen watched the rain splatter on the windscreen and let out an audible sigh as her mind flickered back to the train station. So it happens here too, she thought to herself.

The first vision was the car accident when she was eight. Her mother had run out of the house as Gwen screamed about the young girl lying in the street. From the confused look on her face Gwen knew her mother had no idea what she was talking about. She walked back inside after telling Gwen to stop daydreaming.

The sound of the impact of the black Mercedes crashing into the minivan two hours later was unmistakeable. By the time her mother had come up from the basement Gwen was standing in the kitchen with the blood soaked doll in her hand that she had picked up from the road.

From the look in her mother’s eyes she knew it wasn’t the accident but Gwen’s vision that seemed to terrify her. That’ when Gwen knew she was different and she suddenly felt very alone. Without saying anything she dropped the doll on the floor and went up to her room. They never discussed her visions after that.

The only other person Gwen confided in about them was Martha, after they moved to Santa Fe. She counted Martha as the only true friend she’d ever had. They did everything together that summer, spending almost every waking hour in each other’s company.

Gwen confided her greatest secret to Martha the week before school started. Martha didn’t really say much but to her relief at least she didn’t laugh.

Nothing was said about it gain until January when a teary eyed Gwen informed Martha that her dog Marvin would be killed soon.

But nothing happened the next day, nor the next nor the next. However, Gwen noticed Martha had begun avoiding her and whispering and laughing with other friends when Gwen walked by.

Two nights later Marvin was killed in the driveway when Martha’s father came home from work.

They never spoke again and soon rumours of Gwen’s visions began making their way around the school. The low point came in June when someone wrote ‘Joan of Arc’ on her school locker. That year was the only time she was glad she and her mother were moving again.

Including Portland, they had moved eighteen times in seventeen years. It got to the point where ‘home’ was simply a catchphrase, a reflex word Gwen used the same way people said ‘like’ and ‘um’ in conversations.

She never fully understood the sentimentality attached to the word the way she had noticed was the case with many of her school mates. Portland was just the latest in a string of ‘homes’, nothing more and nothing less.

But as of yesterday it wasn’t home any more.

As that thought played out in her mind, she ran her fingers over the silver pendant on her necklace. It was a crescent moon with three stars between the points on the open side. Her mother wore it when she died and it was the only thing she owned that Gwen had decided to keep.

The only other keepsake she had was a photo that her Uncle Cornelius had sent with a letter the week after her mother died. In the photo Cornelius was standing beside her mother who had Gwen cradled in her arms.

Even in the photo it was easy to see he was a big man. In his mid-forties, his fierce, dark eyes were set above ruddy cheeks and stared out defiantly beneath a set of thick, dark eyebrows. Wisps of grey appeared at his temples. With his arm wrapped around her mother’s shoulders she looked even more diminutive than usual.

It was hard for Gwen to believe that her mother was the same age she was now when the photo was taken. Gwen looked a lot like her with her long straight dark hair, fair skin, hazel eyes and a thin smile. But her mother’s eyes showed the weary strain of a single mother trying to raise a newborn daughter.

There was nothing in the letter Cornelius had sent that was news to Gwen. She and her mother had discussed what would happen to her since she was still a minor. She told her that she had agreed to Cornelius’s request that Gwen be sent to Scotland since he was her closest living relative. The reluctant tone in her mother’s voice made Gwen think she had serious misgivings about her going, but if she did she never spoke about them. 

Perhaps it was that tone that made Gwen sure Edinburgh wasn’t going to be home to her any more than Portland, Alamogordo, New York or any other city had been. Edinburgh was just another transit stop before her next destination. She was certain it was only a matter of time.

Gwen let go of the pendant when the car jolted slightly as they ran over a manhole cover. The sign High Street was momentarily caught in the car’s lights as they turned on to a two lane road and pulled up in front of a three storey house.

It looked old. Like many other buildings in the city it was tall and narrow, covered in light coloured field stones and contained several cross latticed windows. The high black slate roof was steeply pitched and the front of the house gave the impression of being a façade, much like Gwen had seen of buildings in some towns in movies set in the old west.

“Here we are. You grab your bags,” she said, indicating the back seat, “and I’ll open the boot.” Aileana opened trunk and removed the remaining bag and led her to the front door.

Inside was bright and warm with the front hallway leading back towards a kitchen. A spacious living room with a widescreen TV set above a fireplace, a sofa and chairs and several paintings was off to the left. A wooden staircase on the right led to the upper levels.

“I’ll show you to your room,” said Aileana, climbing the stairs. The first upper level had two bedrooms, a washroom and a door at the end that Gwen assumed must be a closet.

“This bedroom used to be your grandmother’s and mine’s there,” she said, pointing across the hall before setting down the suitcase. “Why don’t you take some time to settle in and I’ll give you the rest of the tour later,” she said before turning and disappearing down the stairs.

Gwen sat down on the blue floral patterned duvet that covered the bed and took in the room. Its light blue walls and white trim made it feel cooler than downstairs. Aside from the bed with its metal framed headboard, a night table with a lamp and an old lace doily covered dresser were its only furniture. There was a mirror above the dresser and only a few small pictures on the walls depicting pastoral scenes gave it any sort of homey feel.

She strode over to the lace curtained window and pulled it aside. Aileana’s car was parallel parked on the street below and, except for two people under an umbrella who ran up to a doorway then  disappeared inside, the street was empty.

Weary from travel and with her mind feeling full of wool from jetlag, Gwen took only what she needed for the night from her bags and got ready for bed.

As she was about to climb between the covers she noticed a stone box on the far edge of the dresser that she had overlooked earlier.

Bringing it over to the bed to examine it, she saw that the outside had various ornately carved stars and moons arranged in random pattern. The lid contained a large symbol in the middle—a triangle with stars in each corner and a line from each star that joined in the middle of the triangle.

Gwen removed the lid and peered inside. It contained only a few items including a blank piece of torn parchment, a thin round stone disc about the size of her hand and a lock of hair tied with a red ribbon. Her grandmother’s mementos. They didn’t strike Gwen as the sorts of things that anyone else would find particularly useful. Replacing the contents and the lid, she put the box in the drawer of her bedside table and turned out the light.

She lay awake for several minutes listening to the hypnotic sound of the rain falling against the window. For one brief moment as she felt herself falling into sleep’s darkening depths, she thought she heard the distinct sound of footsteps running on the floor above. It was that final and strange thought that carried her off into a deep sleep.


2. A NEW BEGINNING

From the outside, Cornelius Carson’s home looked stately with its tall windows, well tended garden and elaborate stone driveway. But if Gwen had any doubts about its nature, the inside removed them completely.

The floor inside the front entranceway was made of polished black granite tile with flecks of grey and pink. Inlaid around the edges was an intricate design of intertwined red and white roses.

Several ornate objets d’art adorned many of the other rooms on the first floor including paintings from famous Dutch, French and Italian artists. Several pieces of Louis XVI furniture with carved arabesque and Etruscan motifs rested on plush carpets.

An elegant wrought iron chandelier hung down over a winding wooden staircase with intricately carved balusters that led to the second storey. A large white marble sculpture of a reclining naked woman sat at the foot of the staircase.

Without a doubt it was the sort of home that was meant to impress friends and intimidate enemies, and for a man of such wealth, both always seemed to be in steady supply.

“Cornelius is upstairs in his study and he said to have you go straight up,” said the housekeeper, closing the front door behind Gwen and Aileana.

“Thank you, Mrs. Tavistock. Lael should be here soon. Please send him up as well,” replied Aileana as they stepped inside and hung up their coats.

As they ascended the winding staircase, a bad case of nerves overcame Gwen and she began to have sudden reservations about meeting her uncle. She hoped he wouldn’t fuss or try to take on the role of a parent or father figure. She’d never known her father and wasn’t looking for someone to fill that part of her life. She was certain that if that’s what Cornelius had in mind she would be measuring her stay in Edinburgh with an egg timer.

They walked towards a room at the back of the house and Gwen could clearly see an oak desk with two large windows on either side. Cornelius’s large frame filled one of them.

He stood staring out at a number of large elm and oak trees behind the house. His hands were resting on a small orb attached to the end of his dark wooden walking stick.

Floor to ceiling bookshelves covered both end walls and several paintings and various other objects from Africa, South America and Asia were set around the room.

“Cornelius, we’re here,” said Aileana, knocking lightly on the open door.

Cornelius turned and beamed. A look of surprise appeared on Gwen’s face. He didn’t look any different than he did in the photograph taken when she was a child.

“Come in, come in,” he said in a resonant baritone voice as he laid his walking stick on top of the desk.

“Gwendolyn, it’s so good to see you. I hope you journeyed well,” he said approaching her.

“Hello, Uncle Cornelius. Yes, I did, thank you,” she said looking up at him.

“Uncle sounds so formal, please call me Cornelius,” he said.

“Okay, as long as it’s Gwen.”

“Certainly, Gwen. It’s been so long, let me have a look at you.” He put his large hands on her shoulders and surveyed her.

“I can see so much of your mother in you, the hair and the eyes,” he said warmly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t meet you at the train station. I’m sure Aileana told you,” he said casting a glance over to her.

“No, it was fine. Aileana found me without any trouble,” said Gwen.

“Ah good,” he said looking at her. “Please, come sit down.”

He motioned them over to a couple of chairs and a leather sofa positioned in front of a fireplace. Gwen and Aileana each took a chair and Cornelius sat hunched forward on the sofa.

“I’m sorry about your mother, Gwen, she was taken from us much too soon,” said Cornelius. He stared at her for a brief moment as if gauging her reaction to his comment. “We’ll do everything we can to help you settle in here,” he said.

Gwen nodded.

“As you know, your mother and I spoke over several months and I’m sure she told you what arrangements were made but I wanted to go over them with you just so we’re clear.” Cornelius leaned back and draped his arm across the back of the sofa. “She insisted that you be given space to live as independently as is practical which is why I have arranged for you to live with Aileana and Lael in your grandmother’s old house.”

Cornelius paused briefly before continuing.

“Since you’ve just finished high school, I wanted to know if you had considered what you might like to do next.”

Gwen shrugged.

“Not really. I thought about attending college but I didn’t see the point in finishing my applications after I found out I was coming here. I suppose I’ll look for work until I decide what I want to do.”

Cornelius managed a soft smile and nodded. “Yes, your mother had mentioned that you have quite an interest in the study of art and art history if I’m not mistaken. Well, perhaps this will give you something to think about.”

He pulled an envelope out of his shirt pocket and handed it to Gwen. “Go ahead and open it.”

Gwen looked at the envelope. It had her uncle’s address but was addressed to her. The crest on the top corner showed that it was sent from the University of Edinburgh.

She looked up at Cornelius curiously then ran her finger along the seal and opened it. It was a letter from the registrar of the university saying that she had been accepted into the art history program beginning in the fall term. Her face expressed the confusion she felt.

“How is this possible? I didn’t apply there,” she said in a surprised tone.

“I know but I requested your grades be sent over so that the application could be processed,” he said.

“But it would have required my signature on the application.” She began to feel slightly annoyed at this meddling in her life and fought against her natural reaction to dig in her heels in protest.

“Well, I happen to know one or two of the administrators there and they were willing to overlook your not having sent it given your current personal circumstances,” he explained.

A furrow creased Gwen’s brow as she stared at the letter then looked up at Cornelius. “But I don’t have nearly enough money for this, and to be honest I’d rather get in on my own than as a charity case,” said Gwen with a slight edge for which she immediately felt guilty.

“Actually, aside from sending it in, I had very little to do with your acceptance. They were quite pleased with your grades and didn’t really think twice about taking you in from what I understand,” said Cornelius carefully. “And as for paying for school, I would be happy to arrange a loan for you at an agreeable interest rate to be paid back once you graduate and have secured a job,” he added.

“Oh, well I—,” said Gwen in a slightly sheepish voice.

“However, I don’t think you need to worry about the cost as that’s covered on the second page of the letter which is, yes, there behind the first one.” He reached across and peeled the corner back for her to see.

Gwen read the second part of the letter stating that the university was extending a grant to cover her first year of study. It finished by saying that subsequent extensions in funding would be contingent on her grade point average.

“Look, it’s entirely up to you what you choose to do. If you decide not to go that’s fine, I just wanted you to have some options,” he said, once again leaning back on the sofa.

She looked over at Aileana who smiled. “It really is a great opportunity and from what I understand they have a wonderful program.”

“I don’t know what to say except thank you. I didn’t expect something like this and I’ll certainly consider it,” she said, staring down at the letters.

“Very good,” said Cornelius happily. “I know from your mother that you have a strong independent streak and I didn’t want you to think that—well, you’ll be eighteen soon and you can make your decisions.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that,” said Gwen softly.

“So where does this love of art come from, Gwen? Did you get it from your mother?” asked Aileana.

“Yes, I suppose so. The first time I fell in love with it we were living in New York and she took me to the Guggenheim one afternoon. As we walked around she explained the different paintings and their history. She made each one come alive with stories that were as fascinating as the pieces themselves.” Gwen’s voice grew with excitement. “It all seemed so magical, like someone had created a painted world of colour and imagination just for me. I knew right then I didn’t want to do anything else except be involved with art.”

Cornelius stared at her for a moment and gave an imperceptible nod as if he was processing what Gwen had just said.

“Well, it’s refreshing to see someone your age take an interest in something other than music and movies. It’s that sort of independence of spirit that you’d be hard pressed to find in many people today, let alone many seventeen ,year ,olds,” said Cornelius firmly.

Gwen blushed and she turned her head and gazed around the room looking for something that would move the conversation away from her. Her eyes drifted over to a red violin in the corner and above it was a photograph of an orchestra. Cornelius followed her gaze.

“Do you play?” asked Cornelius.

“No, I was just wondering if you do,” said Gwen.

“Occasionally but not as much as I used to.”

Gwen stood up and walked over for a closer look. “Were you in this orchestra?”

“That’s the London Symphony Orchestra and yes I was in the first violin section several years ago,” said Cornelius, turning around to get a better look at it.

“You seem to have quite a few accomplishments to your name,” said Gwen, noting several other photographs nearby with celebrities that included the billionaire Branson and some heads of state.

“Well, when you’ve been around as long as I have they do tend to add up after a while I suppose,” he said.

The phone on Cornelius’s desk began to ring and he got up to answer it. “Excuse me for a moment, I must take this.”

Cornelius picked up the phone but didn’t say anything and after several seconds he hung up.

“If you’ll excuse me, I need to go downstairs for a few minutes. Aileana, could you come as well, please? I’m sorry, Gwen, we’ll just be a moment,” he said.

After they left Gwen wandered around the room and began examining the various objects that ranged from the rare to the unusual. In the corner was an old large globe on a stand with drawings of early North America. On the bookshelves were several rare books including, among others, first edition copies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Above the desk was a very old sword encased in glass that looked like it might have once belonged to a medieval knight.

“Rumour has it that Cornelius used it to cut the heads off two former business partners who double crossed him.”

Surprised to find she was no longer alone, Gwen turned quickly to see a boy about her age standing in the doorway.

“What?” she said with a surprised and curious expression.

“The sword, I presume that’s what you were looking at.”

“You’re kidding right?” said Gwen doubtfully looking up at the sword.

A slight smile creased the corners of his mouth. “Yes, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who would tend to believe that it just might be true.”

Gwen turned to look at him again. His sandy brown hair and deep brown eyes with their dark circles stood out against the unusual pallor of his skin. But the way he stared at Gwen gave her the impression that he seemed to be looking through her not just at her and it made her a little nervous.

He clearly enjoyed nice clothes, although Gwen was sure that with his physique he could have worn the drapes and still pulled off the look. But more than his physical appearance there was something unusual about him. He had a presence, the sort of presence some people possessed that made them stand out in a crowded room.

“You must be Lael,” she said.

He nodded. “And you’re Gwen.”

For reasons she couldn’t fully understand Gwen felt herself unable to pull he eyes off of him. It was several minutes before she was able to gather her wits and realized that neither of them had spoken.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean —” she said as her cheeks turned a bright shade of pink. She felt at a sudden loss for words and turned again to look at the sword but not before she saw another flicker of a smile appear on Lael’s lips. Out of sheer embarrasment she felt an immediate and intense desire to melt into the carpet. But before she had a chance to consider how she might accomplish that she was saved by the return of Cornelius and Aileana.

“Ah, I see you’ve met,” said Cornelius, putting his hand on Lael’s shoulder. “Gwen, my apologies again but I’m afraid I have a meeting that I need to attend to. Lael will take you home.”

She cleared her throat and studiously avoided eye contact with Lael.

“No—no that’s fine,” she said regaining her composure.

“I hope nothing’s wrong. You seem—”

“No, it’s—I’m fine,” Gwen said. cutting Cornelius off.

“I think Gwen was simply curious about the history of your sword. Cornelius. I tried to fill in the main points but my memory is a little fuzzy on the details,” said Lael.

“Ah, well it’s a long story. Perhaps another time,” said Cornelius. “Anyway, Gwen. I’ll drop by in the next few days and we can chat some more.”

Gwen picked up the letter from the table and followed Lael downstairs. She felt an immediate dread at the prospect that the awkwardness she had just experienced with Lael might be drawn out even longer. But behind that she sensed something else, something intangible that made her nervous simply by being in Lael’s presence.

She followed him to the front door as he picked up an umbrella and held the door open.

“What’s that?” asked Lael, indicating the envelope in Gwen’s hand, as they walked towards the gate at the end of the driveway.

“It’s a letter of acceptance to the university.” She held it up for him to look at but he barely glanced at it.

“Congratulations,” he offered.

Gwen laughed wryly. “I guess,” she said as they stopped at the bottom of the driveway. It suddenly struck her just how quickly her nervousness had disappeared.

“You don’t sound pleased,” said Lael.

“I’m not used to people going out of their way to be kind like that,” said Gwen, looking up at him.

“That’s certainly not very Blanche duBois of you.”

Gwen smiled. “A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s one of my favourite plays,” she said.

“Well, I’m sure Cornelius had good intentions doing what he did,” said Lael.

“I suppose, but if you ask me, he tried a bit too hard to make an impression.”

She folded the envelope and put it in her pocket.

“You’ve just seen his house. Do you think Cornelius does anything in half measures?” asked Lael.

Gwen rolled her eyes. “I guess I’m going to have to try and get used to that, aren’t I?”

“Probably,” replied Lael.

“So where did you park?” asked Gwen, looking along the street but there weren’t any cars parked there.

“I don’t have a car, so we can either take the bus or we can walk back,” said Lael.

“Don’t you drive?” said Gwen, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t find it as convenient for getting around as other people do,” he said.

“Okay, then let’s walk, it’s a nice enough day,” said Gwen, looking up at the sun shining through the scattered clouds. “Just as long as you don’t expect me to know where we’re going,” said Gwen.

“Don’t worry, I’ll try to not get us lost,” said Lael as they turned down the sidewalk. Lael popped open the umbrella and held it over the both of them.

“You’re being a little pessimistic, aren’t you? It’s a beautiful sunny day and they said only a slight chance of showers.”

“I have a rare skin condition that reacts to sunshine,” he said, leading her down the street. “Besides, I wouldn’t want the UV rays to mess with this sort of perfection.”

“Hah! You seem to have a nice opinion of yourself,” said Gwen.

“Actually, I was referring to you,” said Lael in a matter-of-fact tone.

Gwen felt her cheeks grow warm and she turned her head.

“That’s, uh, that’s—” stammered Gwen.

“Don’t mention it,” said Lael.

*  *  *

Cornelius stood at the window and watched Gwen and Lael disappear around the corner, then turned and walked towards his study.

“How did it go?” asked John, who was standing beside the desk.

“As good as could be expected,” replied Cornelius as he sat down in the chair.

“How much does she know?” asked John.

“Nothing and I want to keep it that way until we see she’s ready.”

“Cornelius, I’m not sure we can afford to keep her in the dark for very long. So much depends on her knowing who she really is and what she has to do. Will she be ready in time?” asked John.

Cornelius swivelled his chair and stared out the window.

“She will be, but our priority right now is to ensure she remains here and remains safe.”

“But Lael is ultimately responsible for her protection, even the One Bloods acknowledge that,” said Aileana.

“Given the attacks the last few weeks, I want you to be on your guard constantly and give him whatever support he needs.”

“Are you worried about Lael?” asked Aileana.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. It isn’t that I don’t think he’s up to it, I just hope—” Cornelius let his words hang for a moment.

“That history doesn’t repeat itself,” said Aileana, finishing his sentence for him.

“Just keep an eye on him, Aileana. Our survival might depend on him as much as it does on Gwen.”

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