Tomorrow I will be eighteen.
Princess Ruxandra Dracula knelt in front of the cross in her initiate’s cell. This was the last night she would spend in the small, plain, white-washed room. The cold of the stones bit at her knees through her thick woolen skirt and cloak. Winter had enveloped the convent, and the cold had wrapped itself around all the buildings, leaving the nuns and initiates huddling together for warmth. With the window and shutters firmly closed and the candle lit, the freezing air from outside still crept in, turning Ruxandra’s breath into fog as she tried to call her mind to order. She wanted nothing more than to be in her bed. Her bed warmer—a heated, towel-wrapped brick—was already spreading its warmth beneath the thick woolen blankets.
She shivered, then shook her head and closed her eyes. She had to pray before bed. It was her duty to pray.
Only, after tomorrow, it wouldn’t be her duty anymore.
Vlad Dracula, voivode of Wallachia, her father, was coming for her. He had sent word two months before. On her eighteenth birthday, he said, he would come for her and take her from the convent to assume her rightful place.
Tomorrow was her eighteenth birthday.
What is my rightful place? Will it be in his court? Or does he have someone he wants me to marry?
Probably someone he wants me to marry.
I hope he’s nice.
She knew better than to get her hopes up about love, but maybe it was possible. Maybe she would be married to someone not too much older than she. Someone handsome and kind. Was there anyone like that among the aristocrats her father would choose from?
And maybe her husband would allow her a little freedom. She wouldn’t be completely free, of course. That was impossible. But she had grown tired of the convent’s restrictive rules.
The bells rang, and Ruxandra rose. She blew out the candle and then climbed into the bed. The warmth of the blankets embraced her, bringing warmth to her chilled flesh. She pulled them over her head, letting the heat embrace her entire body.
She was nearly asleep when her door clicked open and two giggling, whispering shadows stepped in.
“Quick! Get inside,” one girl hissed.
“I am,” the other whispered.
Ruxandra pulled the blanket down just far enough to see. In moments, the two girls had shut the door behind them, stuffed something under it to block any light reaching the hall, and thrown a blanket over the shutters. A flint sparked one, twice, and a taper flared into life and lit the faces of her friends.
Adela was a short blonde whose breasts pushed against her nightdress and were the despair of the nuns’ attempts to instill modesty. Other than that, she looked demure—she had the sweetest face. She was also an heretic, which would be a scandal if anyone but Ruxandra and Valeria found out. Valeria was slim and dark, a mischief-maker whose pranks had gotten her in trouble more than once. Both of them stood above her, grinning.
“What are you doing here?” Ruxandra whispered. “You’ll get caught!”
“We had to come.” Adela turned and applied the taper to the candle before it could burn her hand. “You’re leaving tomorrow, and we have to wish you happy birthday and say good-bye, and you know the sisters won’t let us do that in the morning, so we’re doing it now!”
“We brought treats.” Valeria held up a small sack. “Dates, raisin buns, and nuts from the kitchen.”
“And we brought extra blankets!” Adela threw them at Ruxandra. “So make room!”
The two girls piled onto the bed, nearly crushing Ruxandra. They squeezed together, sitting side by side with their backs to the wall. Adela wrapped the extra blankets around their shoulders to ward off the cold of the stone behind them. Valeria rearranged Ruxandra’s blankets, and the three let their legs tangle tight together. Valeria thrust a small raisin bun into Ruxandra’s hand. She bit into it and found it to be sinfully sweet, rich with butter and herbs and juicy raisins; divine.
“I’m so glad,” Ruxandra said around her bite of bun. “I was worried I wouldn’t see you before I left.”
“We would never allow that to happen.” Adela kissed Ruxandra’s cheek, letting her lips linger. “We’re going to miss you, you know.”
“Very much,” said Valeria, putting her hand on Ruxandra’s thigh.
A thrill ran up and down Ruxandra’s spine before settling between her legs.
“Plus we didn’t want to neglect your education.” Adela pulled out a small book with a plain, unmarked cover. “So we brought this.”
Ruxandra peered closely at it. “What is it?”
“A gift from my fiancé.” Adela grinned and opened the book.
Ruxandra’s eyes went wide, and her cheeks flushed bright red. She clapped her hands over her mouth. “Oh my… oh my God!”
The page Adela had opened to showed a woman on her hands and knees, gazing over her shoulder at the man whose enormous penis was shoved deep into her sex. The opposite one showed a man on his back, the woman squatting over the top of an equally large penis, hand on the tip, ready to guide it inside her.
“I think he drew it himself,” Adela said.
“They aren’t really that big,” Valeria said.
Ruxandra’s eyes went wider. “How do you know?”
Valeria flushed. “Marin.”
“Who delivers the vegetables? When?”
“Last week, after I helped him unload. He took me in the wagon.” She pointed at the girl on her hands and knees. “That’s how he started, but that’s definitely not where he finished.”
“What?” Ruxandra’s flush rose higher. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe this?” Adela asked, turning the pages until she reached one with a woman on her knees, the man’s sex in her mouth. Ruxandra mouth fell open in shock. Adela turned some more pages. “Or this?”
The woman in the picture was bent over a barrel. The man stood behind her, his groin pressed against her backside.
“That,” Valeria said. “I felt it for three days.”
“Why…” Ruxandra stared at the picture. “Why would…”
“So you don’t get pregnant.” Adela turned the pages again. She landed on a picture of two women touching each other’s bodies, their mouths wide and their tongues intertwined. Valeria smiled at it and ran her hand higher up Ruxandra’s thigh. “Now that looks familiar.”
“Doesn’t it though?” Adela cupped one of Ruxandra’s breasts. “You didn’t think we’d let you get away without saying good-bye properly, did you?”
“Oh.” Ruxandra gasped.
“Try to be quiet.” Valeria turned the page. A woman lay on her back with her legs apart; a second woman knelt between her thighs, tongue on the other’s sex. “Because I’m going to try that on you.”
Ruxandra stayed quiet as they took off her nightdress, kept her gasps silent as their hands caressed her and they took turns kissing her mouth and neck and breasts. When Valeria knelt between her legs, Ruxandra grabbed Adela’s hand and put it over her mouth to muffle her cries of passion.
The door slammed open.
Sister Sofia, a candle in her hand and her eyes wide and blazing, glared at the three naked girls. “You dare profane the Lord’s house with this obscenity! Shame! Shame on all three of you!”
“Please, Sister.” Ruxandra sat up. She was the one leaving. If she could take the blame… “It was my fault. I seduced them. They were just coming in to celebrate my birthday, and I—”
“Do you think me stupid?” Sister Sofia’s harsh voice cracked like a whip. “I have seen the way you three look at one another, have watched you steal away from your chores to engage in your carnal pleasures.”
“And you never joined us?” Adela rose, her large breasts jutting out toward the nun like a dare. “You should have.”
Sister Sofia’s hand slammed into Adela’s face, making her fall back and cry out. The nun strode forward and grabbed the girl’s hair, pulling her off the bed. “Be silent, you harlot! Ruxandra’s final night at the convent should be a time of reflection and prayer. And by God, I will see that it is!”
“You will all come with me now. And since you chose to be harlots, you can leave your clothing behind and show everyone your shame.”
She forced Adela down into a half crawl and dragged her from the room. Ruxandra and Valeria, naked and shivering, followed them down the hallway to the door of the novice’s building. Two other nuns stood by the door, disapproval stamped on their faces like black ink.
Sister Sofia pointed at Valeria. “Open it. Now.”
Valeria swallowed hard but did as she was told. A blast of wind threw snow into the building, driving pins of cold into their skin.
Sister Sofia dragged Adela into the freezing night. “Follow!”
The snow-covered stones burned Ruxandra’s feet as she walked. The air sent chills through her naked body and numbed her skin. Her nipples were so hard they hurt. She thanked God for the high walls around the convent that kept the worst of the wind from them. Even so, it was awful. Beside her, Valeria looked no less miserable.
Sister Sofia strode onward, ignoring Adela’s swearing and cries of pain. She led them to the small penance chapel where those who had sinned could pray for forgiveness. Sister Sofia stopped in front of it and threw Adela to the ground. The girl grabbed at her hair and whimpered.
“On your knees, slattern. Facing the chapel. You too, Valeria. Arms out.”
Adela slowly rose to her knees, extending her arms in a shivering parody of the crucifix. Valeria knelt beside her. Sister Sofia grabbed Ruxandra’s arm, marched her in front of them and turned to face them. “Kneel. Arms out.”
Ruxandra did. The other two nuns had followed. And now they took up positions behind her two shivering friends. As one of the nuns raised a pair of long straps, Ruxandra bit her lip.
“I cannot punish you properly, Princess,” Sister Sofia said, disgust dripping like slime in the last word. “Not with your father coming tomorrow. But by God, I will punish your friends, and you will witness exactly what your disgusting sins have wrought.”
“Please, Sister,” Ruxandra begged. “Please don’t—”
Sister Sofia grabbed Ruxandra’s hair and twisted it, making her cry out. “Begin the Prayer of Repentance. Now.”
Tears burned in Ruxandra’s eyes. She blinked them away. She wouldn’t cry. Not with her friends about to be beaten. Instead, she forced a deep, steadying breath and then began reciting. “O Lord, my God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed.”
The two nuns swung their straps, and the thick leather bit into the freezing flesh of Adela and Valeria’s backs. Both girls screamed and convulsed.
Ruxandra forced her voice to stay steady. “I have also omitted to do what your holy law requires of me.”
The straps swung again, and blood spattered against the snow beside Adela.
“But now with repentance and contrition, I turn again to your love and mercy.”
Again more blood. More screams.
“I entreat you to forgive me all my transgressions and to cleanse me of all my sins.”
The nuns swung the straps again, and blood stained the snow beside each one of them.
“Lord, fill my heart with the light of your truth. Strengthen my will by your grace.”
“Enough!” The mother superior’s voice rang through the yard. She strode across the yard—a small, wizened woman who radiated power and strength. She pointed a finger at the two nuns with the straps. “You, get those girls to the infirmary at once. Immediately!”
“Mother.” Sister Sofia stepped forward, her voice shrill. “These girls—”
“Are my responsibility.” Mother Superior’s tone brooked no argument, and she gave Sister Sofia a hard stare. “Go into the chapel. Pray for what you have done, and know that I will see you in the morning to discuss this matter at length. Princess, come with me.”
Ruxandra pushed herself up, her knees still cold and aching from the freezing stones. She watched Adela and Valeria being dragged across the yard by the nuns. Neither looked at her. Ruxandra bit her lip and followed the mother superior into the chapter house. The warm air surrounded Ruxandra the moment she stepped in, making her freezing skin burn. A nun stood in the doorway, waiting.
Mother Superior nodded at her. “Take the princess to the kitchen. Clean and dress her.”
The kitchen was warmer than the front hall. The nun made Ruxandra sit at the table, wrapped in a blanket, as she stoked the fire, put a large pot of water over it, then brought in an even larger tub. Ruxandra pulled the blanket tighter around her body, wishing Adela and Valeria were with her.
The water took a long time to heat, longer still for the nun bathing Ruxandra to be satisfied with her appearance. By the time she was clean and dressed once more in the robes of an initiate, the bells for Orthros—morning prayers—pealed. The nun inspected Ruxandra once more, then led her to Mother Superior’s office.
The mother surveyed her, nodded, and then dismissed the other nun. “Your father will be coming for you shortly.”
“Yes, Mother.” Ruxandra swallowed. “Please, Adela and Valeria—”
“Will spend the next two weeks eating only a slice of bread in the evening and drinking only water. They will spend their days on their knees in the chapel in prayer, to think better on what has happened. You will not see them before you leave.”
The mother superior rose from her seat. She was shorter than Ruxandra but had a power of presence that made the princess feel small. “You are a child of the voivode. You have a duty—to your father, to your husband-to-be, to the people over whose lives you will rule—to be better. You must serve as a guide and inspiration and lead by example. When the nobility fails to judge the cost of their actions, other people suffer for them. When you, Ruxandra, fail to judge your actions, others suffer.”
Ruxandra nodded, unable to speak.
“Go to the penance chapel, my child, and pray until your father comes. Pray that God gives you the strength to be a holy and just woman. Pray that you may help guide your future husband to better himself and the lot of the people around him. Go now.”
The penance chapel was cold and dark. Ruxandra knelt on the floor, ignoring the bruises on her knees, and then prayed, first for her friends to be healed soon and not suffer more at the hands of Sister Sofia. She prayed for herself, that she not fall into temptation again and to serve as a better example to all.
The door to the chapel opened, and a nun said, “Princess, Lord Dracula has come.”
Vlad Dracula, voivode of Wallachia, was a tall man. His steel helmet shone bright in the morning light, as did the chains of his armor where they peeked through his thick red surcoat. His horse wore armor too, with thick pads to keep the cold of the metal away from its skin. Mother Superior stood beside him, so tiny in comparison. Two dozen men on horseback sat at attention behind him. They were knights of renown. Ruxandra had been told in the letter her father had sent, they were men chosen for their skill and courage. They wore the same armor as her father, and most were young and handsome beneath their shining metal helmets. And yet Ruxandra could not take her eyes off Vlad Dracula.
She had been eight the last time she’d laid eyes on him. He’d spent little time with his daughters. Mostly, he was away at war, or in council, or supervising his sons’ training for war. The few times he did see her, though, he had been kind. There had been sweets once and a small doll. And he’d always had a thoughtful expression on his face, as if he weren’t quite sure what to make of her.
Now a thick beard hid most of his face, except the sharp glitter of intelligence in his brown eyes, the same rich chestnut as hers. He slowly looked her up and down.
Ruxandra curtsied deeply. “Father. Welcome.”
Vlad’s eyes bored into hers, but he said nothing. Instead, he turned to Mother Superior. “Have you followed all my instructions in regard to raising her?”
“We have. In every way.”
“Then she knows how to ride?” Dracula asked.
The riding lessons had been a surprise to Ruxandra. Most ladies rode in carriages and wouldn’t be seen on the back of a horse. Ruxandra loved it even if she’d only been allowed to ride around the inside of the convent once a month. It had been fun.
Lord Dracula raised a hand, and one of his knights rode forward, leading a light brown palfrey with a sidesaddle. The knight dismounted, then knelt before her, his hands cupped together for her to step up. Ruxandra looked uncertainly to her father, then to Mother Superior.
“Mount, child,” the old woman said. “And think fondly of us in the years to come.”
“Yes, Mother.” Ruxandra stepped into the man’s hands and let him raise her up to the saddle. With a few adjustments, she had her leg properly hooked around the saddle post. “Please say good-bye to Adela and Valeria for me.”
“Of course. And please, remember what I said last night. Pray, my child: for virtue, for strength, and for guidance.”
“We ride,” Vlad Dracula said. “Come.”
The men turned their horses and then rode back out the gate. Lord Dracula followed them without looking back. Ruxandra stared in surprise. Her father had not said a single word to her.
“Go, child,” Mother Superior snapped. “Quickly!”
Ruxandra went, snapping the reins on the horse’s neck. It trotted forward, easily keeping pace with the soldiers’ heavier warhorses, with their burdens of armor and knights. She urged it faster until she rode just behind her father. She thought to call to him, but the man’s straight back was nearly as imposing as his horse and armor. It was a wall against which she didn’t dare throw her words for fear they would be thrown back at her. So she rode in silence.
Her concerns about her father’s behavior fell into the background of her thoughts. They rode swiftly through the convent grounds and into the countryside beyond. Ruxandra had not seen the world outside the gates since her eighth birthday, when her father brought her to the convent. It had been just as cold then, and staying at the convent seemed like a great adventure. No one had told her she would be there for ten years.
Father, I was angry with you. I’d forgotten.
She stared eagerly around her. The trees were no different than those on the convent grounds, the fields no more or less covered with snow. But each one she passed reminded her that she was going to a new world, a new life. She wondered if she would get to see her mother again or if she would be taken straight to her husband or to her father’s court.
The thought of her mother—tenderness, a hand on Ruxandra’s cheek, soft gray eyes—made her heart ache. She thrust the memory away, like she had done a thousand times before. It had been hard in the early years. Now it was second nature, just like the prayers and the hard discipline of mind and body the nuns had instilled in her.
I was so angry at you, Father.
Ruxandra’s stomach made an alarming gurgling noise. She prayed no one else would hear it over the sound of the horses. She had not eaten since the raisin bun and wondered when they were going to eat. Her father would surely not let her starve.
They rode through the morning without stopping. The high road had been swept clear of snow by the wind, allowing them to make good time through the forests and fields. The last of the snow clouds had passed, leaving a clear blue sky above. Ruxandra delighted in the sun on her face and shoulders, even the winter sun. Most of her time in the convent had been spent indoors, studying, praying, learning the womanly arts of sewing, needlepoint and weaving. The riding lessons had been the wonderful exception.
When the sun reached its zenith, Lord Dracula barked an order. His knights reached into their coats and pulled out small loaves of bread, which they began to eat without slowing their pace. One of the men rode up beside Ruxandra and extended a loaf.
She took it gratefully. “I thank you, sir.”
The knight nodded. He was handsome, she decided. He had a strong jaw with a tidy beard and hazel eyes that had lingered ever so briefly on her before he rode away and resumed his place in the line. Maybe he was a young lord, serving in the ranks of the voivode’s army. Maybe he was even the young lord her father wanted her to marry.
She amused herself with the fantasy as they rode farther and farther away from the convent. Away from the life she had known. The sun began trekking lower through the sky, and Ruxandra grew cold. The air was still frosty, and her breath formed clouds that streamed past her as they rode. She supposed the men in their armor were much colder than she, but they were trained knights, inured to such simple discomforts. Even so, she wished they would stop at an inn or some other place of rest. She would prefer an inn. She’d never stayed in one before, that she could remember.
There might even be music!
They kept riding as the sun turned the sky red and gold with the promise of night soon to come. It grew darker until she could barely see. At a barked command from her father, the men lit torches, sending a warm orange-yellow glow onto the snowy woods around them. The heat from the closest ones reached Ruxandra’s face, giving a little warmth in the cold dark. Her stomach rumbled again, but she said nothing. There had to be a reason they were riding so late into the night. She would have to wait and see.
Eventually her father would speak to her. She was sure of that.
“Halt!” Her father’s voice rang through the column of men. “Bring the princess forward!”
The handsome knight reached over and took the reins from her hands. He kicked his horse in the ribs and then led her through the ranks of men. Lord Dracula had already dismounted. Looking down on him from her horse, Ruxandra found him almost too tall to be real. The knight stopped his horse and hers a moment later.
Her father raised his eyes, made black by the dim light. “Dismount, daughter.”
Ruxandra did, swinging down as gracefully as she could manage with no support or help. She just managed to keep her balance when she landed. He held out an arm for her to take and placed her hand in the crook of his elbow.
He nodded his satisfaction. “Men, dismount and make camp. I will rejoin you in the morning. Daughter, this way.”
The way turned out to be a path, barely wide enough for the two of them to walk abreast. It had been cleared of snow recently, and the brush on all sides had been cut back. He led her—without looking at her—down a long, slow slope to the bottom of a valley. She was dying to ask where they were going but knew better than to open her mouth. The hut of a small woodsman or hermit, perhaps? Not big enough for the whole group? It made little sense, but she couldn’t imagine another answer.
Trees surrounded them on all sides, making it impossible to see more than a few feet in either direction. They walked for nearly half an hour. Then the night was split by the orange glow of two torches planted in the earth on either side of a cave mouth. He took her hand off his arm, gripped it hard, and led her inside.
She expected the cave to be darker than the forest. Instead, candles had been placed down the length of the long, narrow tunnel that led into the earth. She gripped her father’s hand tight. Unable to keep silent longer, she said, “Father, where—”
She closed her mouth.
The tunnel opened wide into a large chamber. Dozens of candles were placed along the walls, giving a bright yellow glow and heating the room. For the first time all day, Ruxandra felt warm. She pulled back her hood. It was a very strange but maybe comfortable place for the night. I am indeed on an adventure. If only Adela and Valeria—
“Is this she, my lord?”
Ruxandra turned. There was another chamber, deeper than the one she stood in. Four men walked out of it. All of them were large, with armor on their bodies and swords at their sides, just like her father. They sized her up then turned their eyes back to Vlad Dracula.
He nodded. “Is everything prepared?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good.” He let go of Ruxandra’s hand and put his own on her shoulder. Then he shoved her hard, propelling her forward into the four men. “Strip her.”
Ruxandra barely had time to understand what he was saying before she stumbled into the waiting hands of the four men. The first yanked her cloak over her head, leaving her caught in the dark material. One man grabbed her arm and shoved at it, trying to push it back inside the cloak. Ruxandra tried to pull away, but his grip was like iron. Another set of hands grabbed her from behind, shoving the cloak up her back. One of the hands rubbed against her backside on the way up, making her scream.
This can’t be happening to me! I’m a princess!
She struggled, whipping her body, trying to kick with her legs but not able to see anything. The men around her were quiet, save for the grunts of effort as they tried to tear away her clothing. Then the cloak slipped off, and she could see again.
Her father stood on the other side of the room, watching her with no expression. It was a shock, as if the world had turned sideways.
My father doesn’t care.
The man behind her caught both her arms and another grabbed her legs. The other two pulled out long, sharp daggers. Ruxandra screamed and tried to pull away as they began cutting away her dress and shift. Her legs were naked first, then her groin and backside. She struggled to cover her body, but the man behind her kept her hands pinned behind her back. The other two kept cutting, pulling away the last of her dress and shift, leaving her breasts bare for them all to see. With nothing else she could do, she screamed again and again, letting all her rage and helplessness out in her voice.
How she wished Mother Superior had been there. She wouldn’t let this happen.
Her father’s hand, hard and fast and unforgiving, slapped into the side of her face. “I said be silent.”
He slapped her again, hard enough to make her head spin. “Raise her.”
The man behind him held her arms tight. The ones on either side grabbed a leg and pulled her feet from the ground. She screamed again and bucked her hips. The fourth man grabbed her around the waist to keep her still. The men on either side pulled her legs apart. Her father stepped forward.
“No. No, please, Father. Please,” Ruxandra begged as he raised his hand. “Please, no. Please. What are you doing?”
“She is intact,” Vlad Dracula said, his voice cold and hard. “Take her in.”
The four dragged her into the other chamber. The light was dim, coming from the flickering flames of candles spaced out along the walls. A pentacle, painted in red, took up the middle of the floor. It was easily twelve feet across. At each point sat a human skull with an unlit black candle atop it. Ruxandra tried to understand what she was seeing but had no time. They shoved her down onto the floor and pinned her arms and legs. One man grabbed something out of her sight, and a moment later cold metal clamped down on her wrist. The man on the other side did the same thing. Then all four worked to pin her legs to the ground and spread them wide so they could chain them too. She lay spread-eagle on her back. The ground was cold and hard, and the chains would not give, no matter how much she pulled on them. Her face grew hot with shame that overcame her fear. Her breasts, her legs, even her sex was on display for the five men in the room.
But none of them spared her a glance.
The four men took places at one corner of the pentacle, each one standing just outside the circle that surrounded the five-pointed star. Her father walked around it, lighting each of the black candles in turn before taking a place at the top of the star, above Ruxandra’s head.
“Father,” Ruxandra begged. “Please, Father. What is happening? What are you doing to me? Have I offended you? Please!”
“Let us begin,” Vlad said, not looking at her. He raised his left arm and took out a knife. With a single, swift cut he opened up his palm. A moment later, blood dripped from his hand into the circle. The other four men did the same, and blood pooled in small puddles in front of each.
“Let the circle be sealed by our blood,” Vlad said. “Let it be our bond and our protection, that the one we summon will hear our call and obey our demands.”
“Let it be so,” the other four said in unison.
“Let the girl be our sacrifice. Let her virginity be our offering. Let it appease the one who is to come,” Vlad continued.
Again the other four spoke as one. “Let it be so.”
“No,” Ruxandra thrashed on the floor, desperate to break the chains that held her. “Please, no! No! I don’t want this! No!”
Her father’s voice rose over hers. “Let the chant commence, and let us bend our will to the darkness that it may aid us in the days to come.”
“Let it be so!”
Ruxandra screamed, long and loud, as the men chanted. The words were Latin and Greek and other, more guttural languages, all jumbled together to make a deep, dirty singsong sound, with a rhythm like a gravedigger’s shovel scraping against rocky earth. The men kept their dripping hands held out, their eyes forward, and spoke the words over and over and over again. Ruxandra’s screams faded to tears and wails. No one would come to help her. No one would save her. She tried to pray, but fear jumbled the words, making a strange tangle.
The five candles in the corners flared up high—higher than should have been possible. All five men stared in surprise but did not stop chanting. The flames changed color from bright yellow to deep red, as if the blood on the floor had been turned into light. They flickered and danced, though there was no wind, and threw monstrous shadows that waved and crawled over the walls of the cave. The room grew darker.
From the ground around Ruxandra came a thick, black smoke that stank of sulfur and rotten meat. It made her cough and choke. The lines of the pentacle began to glow the same deep red as the candles. The men’s voices rose, higher and louder, and the chanting grew faster and faster. In the midst of it, her father’s voice bellowed out.
“Dark One, I command thee! Come forth!”
A terrible noise, like rock tearing itself apart, echoed through the chamber and shook the cave walls. In the midst of the pentacle, inches above Ruxandra’s body, a black tear opened up. It oozed darkness and drowned out the red light of the candles and the glow from the pentacle. The air turned so cold that it froze and burned at once, leaving Ruxandra’s flesh blistered.
Lightning, as black as the hole itself, spewed forth, bouncing off the ceiling and echoing around the chamber. The force of the thunder that followed sent the five men flying through the air to slam into the cavern walls. Thunder rolled through the room, shaking the ground hard enough that its convulsions slammed into Ruxandra’s back, bruising and battering her. There was another clap of thunder and more black lightning that nearly blinded Ruxandra with its blazing darkness.
A tall, naked, black-winged woman stood above her.
The creature’s white skin shone against the darkness. A waterfall of black hair fell from her head to her backside. Her breasts were large and as pale as the rest of her, with white nipples that pointed out hard, like diamonds. Her eyes glowed red, ringed with ebony lashes. Her mouth opened wide, revealing a row of long, pointed teeth. Her fingers ended in golden talons that looked capable of tearing a man’s head off with a single swipe.
She was a nightmare of beauty and ferocity, with a perfection of feature and line not found on earth. Ruxandra was stunned out of fear for a moment. That such a creature could exist—that the stories, the nuns’ embroidered tales, were not only true but were a bare, pathetic truth next to the real thing. This demon. This queen.