I expected the gigantic doors to creak open with one of those Hammer Horror type screams, but strangely they seemed to emit nothing but a low hiss of air as they swung open; or maybe it was just that the noise of my hammering heartbeat was masking any other sound, so loud it was as it echoed through me. Michael still gripped my hand in his and I felt somewhat comforted by the touch of his cool palm, despite knowing I was about to step a very shaky foot into the lion’s den.
The council chamber was even more cavernous than the hallway. The ceiling must have stretched up about fifty metres above our heads and it was probably twice as wide, yet oddly sparse for such a large room. I wasn’t sure what I had expected. Maybe something akin to my father’s opulent room in the Exodus den; with its luxurious furnishings and plush carpets. Yet much of this room was bare, except for the flaming torches which hung on the walls; an atmospheric touch I thought strange considering the electricity that had run through the rest of the underground den. There was a carpet; a long red one that marked the path we were to take as we approached the lions awaiting us.
It was uncomfortably warm in here for such a large room so far below ground and I looked around for another heat source, doubtful that the torches could create warmth that immediately conjured up the sweat which now covered my back in a thin sheen. In fact, the closer to the centre of the room we got, the warmer it became.
In the middle of the room on the floor was a huge stone circle, made up of intricately carved stone slabs patterned with some strange design and wording that could have been Latin. On the far side of the circle stood a large semi-circular table that looked as if it were carved out of the darkest marble, with faint silver-grey veins threading across the surface. Behind the table stood nine high-backed chairs, the centre chair was slightly larger than the rest and each chair was spaced exactly the same distance apart. And each chair was occupied, not by lions but by something far more predatory.
The Cerberean gestured for us to stop just at the point where the carpet ended and the stone circle began and they moved to flank us, five on Nathaniel’s side and the other five next to Michael. Malloy and Juliette stood behind us and I saw with dismay that more of The Cerberean stood behind the great table, almost acting as personal bodyguards for those seated there.
And all the time, the Nine regarded us with interest; their shrewd eyes covering every inch of our skin; skin that I knew should be burning right now, organs boiling from the inside out until Nathaniel and I lay curled up in spasms on the floor. And they knew it too. I could sense the surprise in them and I realised that the wait had been for that reason alone.
They had been waiting for the sensors to fall and we had not.
There were five men and four women seated at the council table and they were probably so far removed from what I had imagined, that I was slightly stunned at the sight of the Nine. I had pictured nine Monty’s sitting in front of me; nine older, greying vampires except without Monty’s gentle nature and devoid of the kindness that always warmed his eyes. I was right about the eye thing, for theirs were like cold, unyielding stone and as hard as the slabs beneath my feet, but that’s all I was right about. They weren’t old. Well, at least, they didn’t look it, although of course I’m sure they were as old, if not older, than Monty, yet here sat nine vampires, some of whom looked barely older than me.
But I didn’t need to see ageing skin and greying hair to tell me that these vampires were Elders. I did not need to be brought to my knees in torturous submission to feel the power that they clearly held. It emanated from the Nine, like some strange aura that encapsulated them, radiating out and eclipsing us as we stood in front of them, awaiting our fate.
“Come closer,” said the Elder seated in the largest chair. He appeared to be in his late-thirties, with long blonde hair swept back from his face and tied neatly into a ponytail. Despite the size of his chair, I could see that he was very tall, probably over six-foot, and he sat poker straight up against the high back of the seat, with his hands on the table in front of him, palms flat and face down. His clothes; a black wool frock coat and red brocade waistcoat over a stiff, cotton white shirt, had a Victorian feel about them. His cheekbones could have rivalled Damien’s chiselled features, but whilst Michael’s friend was clearly model-handsome, I could see none of the same in the Elder’s face. Maybe it was his alabaster skin, almost as white as his shirt, or the venom in his stare, but there was something about this one that repelled me so much that I wanted to look away, as if direct eye contact with him might shrivel me into nothing but dust.
We stepped forward tentatively and he raised an eyebrow and curled one long index finger, beckoning us to keep going. When he had decided we were quite close enough, despite still being about fifteen metres away from the table, he raised his palm to indicate we were to go no further.
A wave of nausea rippled through me, so sharp and so sudden that I automatically took a small intake of breath and Michael’s grip instinctively tightened and I forced myself to focus on suppressing the sickness. Unfortunately, Michael wasn’t the only one who had noticed my slight waver and to my alarm the tall, blonde vampire stood abruptly and with quick, languid strides he walked around the table and crossed the stone circle until he stood directly in front of me. I noticed how the rest of the Nine seemed to suddenly stretch up in their chairs, their interest awakened even further by one of their own making the move to approach us. I had no doubt this was something very new to them.
The Elder was a good foot taller and I felt myself shrink back as he loomed over me. Even the touch of his shadow felt icy cold on my skin and I dreaded the touch of those long, spindly fingers even more.
Please don’t touch me. Please.
Thankfully he didn’t and to be honest I think he was just as repulsed by me, as I was by him. His eyes poured with malice, but under the hatred that seemed to drip from every pore, there was an undisguised interest that reminded me of a scientist examining a lab rat. If I’d had a tail, I think he would have picked me up by it and dangled me in front of his face, watching intently as I struggled and twisted to free myself from his grasp.
He looked from me to Nathaniel, who fared no better under his gaze and then cocking his head to one side, he reached out a hand and then he did touch me, placing his palm flat against my chest, directly over my furiously beating heart.
I gasped and felt Michael flinch.
“Be still, true-born or she’ll be dead within seconds,” said the Elder, never taking his eyes off of me for a moment. He never raised his voice, nor did he growl his warning, in fact there was a surprisingly lyrical quality in the way he spoke, but the intent was clear and could not have been more menacing. And I was under no illusions that he probably could kill me within seconds, and more to the point, clearly wanted to.
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Copyright (c) Lindsey Clarke 2013