Seraphina’s home in Soho contrasted to Duke Hemlock’s in almost every way. It was large, but nothing compared to the size of her father’s stately house, and the modern brick building did not boast any ostentatious ornamentation. It reminded me of a simple apartment complex or office tower. The limo coasted into an underground carpark and stopped in a spot with a Reserved for Management sign.
When her door opened, Seraphina effortlessly lifted Rochelle from the vehicle and waited beside a bank of elevators. ‘This is where I live and work,’ she explained as I reached her, clutching Sheena’s hand in my own.
‘What do you do for a living?’ I asked.
‘I run a boarding house for London’s young supernatural population. Many of them are homeless when I bring them in, others come here because they are looking for a support network to help them adjust to their new life.’
I gaped at her. ‘I never pegged you for the charitable type.’ The lift pinged, opening a second later and I followed Seraphina inside.
Swiping a key card through a security panel, she pressed the button for the top floor. ‘I imagine there is much about me you do not yet know, Hayden. The truth is this place is not just for those in need. I do make money from the rent that the more fortunate folk pay, and I invite all of my clan fledglings to live here so that I can protect you while also keeping an eye on you.’
‘By “supernatural population,” do you mean there are creatures other than vampires out there?’ Sheena inquired with bright, inquisitive eyes.
Seraphina nodded. ‘We have several werewolves here. They struggle with their hunger and primal urges even more than we do. There are also newly awakened mages and changelings along with a few more obscure paranormal breeds amongst my tenants.’
‘Changelings?’ I had heard the term, but did not understand what it meant, especially in the context of this strange world I had woken up in.
‘Faeries, essentially. The fae create changelings when they swap their own offspring with human babies. The changelings grow up thinking they are human until their magic begins to surface. This often causes problems for them with their human families and friends; hence needing my support and guidance.’
‘Gosh, that’s horrible,’ Sheena remarked. ‘The fae sound like arseholes.’
‘You do not know the half of it,’ scoffed Seraphina as she led us into her penthouse apartment. The place was light and airy, with large open spaces and no clutter.
Stepping up to the large window, I gasped at the stunning view of the city’s nightlife. Thousands, possibly millions of lights danced and merged together in a vibrant display as people went about their business in London’s West End. Roller shutters lowered a moment later and I turned a questioning look on Seraphina.
‘They automatically close a few minutes before the sun begins to rise.’ She had placed Rochelle’s slumbering form on a large fawn-coloured sofa, standing in front of the lounge as she studied me.
Sheena hovered close by, gripping my arm. ‘Does that mean sunlight is a no go for us?’
‘Quite so,’ Seraphina agreed. ‘Much of what you hear about us in folklore is either false, or based on specific cases, but there are three universal truths we must accept as members of the damned: weakness to fire, vulnerability to sunlight, and a thirst for the blood of other people.’
‘Why do you refer to us as the damned?’ Sheena asked.
Seraphina sat in an armchair, motioning for Sheena and myself to take the loveseat. ‘How well do you know the Christian Bible?’
I shrugged. ‘I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, but I learned the essentials. I’m an atheist, so I paid them little heed.’
‘Do you know the story of Cain and Abel?’
‘The first murder? Yeah, I know it.’
‘According to the Elders, Cain was the first of our kind. God marked him, ensuring he would wander the Earth for eternity, and the angels cursed him three times when he refused to repent. He lived many lifetimes, creating a new breed of demon as he fed the hungry beast within. We carry the same curses as Cain and by drinking the blood of God’s children, we condemn our souls to a lifetime of torment in the pits of hell should we leave the Earthly plane.’
I snorted. ‘Sounds like a load of hogwash to me. You don’t believe that nonsense about God and hell, do you?’
‘Yes and no. I grew up in very different times to you Hayden. My family raised me to fear God. I have also witnessed enough of the sublime to appreciate the importance of keeping an open mind. That said, I have not seen any evidence of God’s existence in all my long life, so I doubt anything I say will convince you otherwise.’
‘How old are you?’ Sheena asked.
I had wanted to know that myself but had not yet asked out of some residual sense of propriety.
‘I was born in the Kingdom of Castile during the early fourteenth century, which makes me around seven hundred years old. My father and I both forgot our exact ages during our transitions and all written records burned in the fire…’ Her voice trailed off as she lost herself in the reverie of reminiscence.
‘Who damned you?’ I asked softly.
‘That’s a long and twisted story,’ she insisted. ‘Do you really want to hear it?’
Letting Sheena snuggle into the crook of my arm, I smiled. ‘Why not? The day is dawning, so we won’t be going anywhere for hours. Unless you’d rather sleep?’
Seraphina shook her head. ‘I only need an hour or two of sleep at the most.’ She glanced at something on the wall behind me, directing my attention toward the only picture to decorate the otherwise bare walls. It was a Renaissance portrait of a man that looked at odds with the modern aesthetic of the place. ‘He is my late husband, Yago,’ she explained. ‘I painted the portrait from memory one-hundred years after his death, not wanting to forget his face.’
My brows launched skyward. ‘You were married in your former life?’
‘Yes. Like most women of my time, my family had arranged the marriage, but I grew to love Yago. He was a good man and a wonderful father.’ Her gaze drifted back to the picture as she continued her story:
Duke Ambrosius Hemlock, originally named Ambrosio Huerta, was the favourite bastard son of a Castilian count and a Moorish slave girl. Even though he could not inherit anything from his father, Ambrosio did receive a considerable income, ensuring a comfortable life for himself. Even during his human years, he had been a violent and passionate man, abducting my courtesan mother Rosa, subjecting her to every deviant act you could think of and then some. My grandfather, a regular client of hers, rescued her from Ambrosio’s clutches, intent on keeping her for himself as a concubine until he discovered she had fallen pregnant during her months of captivity. Rather than discard her like most men would have, he decided to punish his son for his indiscretions by forcing a marriage. If Ambrosio had refused to wed my mother, my grandfather would have ceased providing for his extravagant lifestyle. Mamá gave birth to me six months after their wedding.
My eyes grew wide as I listened to her tragic story. ‘I didn’t think I could hate him more than I already do, but you’re proving me wrong, Sera.’
Frowning, she nodded her agreement. ‘I have not even got to the worst part yet.’
I suffered years of abuse at my father’s ill-tempered hand until my grandfather caught wind of it. He took me under his wing and gave me a place in his own household, much to Ambrosio’s delight. I think Abuelo had a soft spot for me because he had always admired my mother, even when he could no longer have her. When I came of age, he married me off to Yago, a young vassal who managed a small portion of his land.
Seraphina rose and poured herself a stiff shot of whiskey and threw it back before fixing herself another over rocks. ‘Help yourselves.’ She gestured toward the assorted bottles sitting on her bar.
Accepting her invitation, I rose and looked down at Sheena. ‘You want something?’
She smiled and nodded. ‘Straight scotch, please.’
My lips quirked. ‘A woman after my own heart.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Well, someone’s gotta keep that dead lump pumping.’
Her smart mouth made my dick twitch. It’s working plenty, thank you. I poured us each a double shot of quality single malt and returned to my seat beside Sheena. Observing the way Seraphina stared into her own glass affected the muscle in my chest in an entirely different way. ‘You don’t have to continue if the story is too painful to tell.’ Trips down memory lane for a centuries old vampire were bound to wind up in some unpleasant destinations.
Her eyes met mine, glowing intensely with a hint of moisture. ‘It is okay. I just needed a moment to gather my thoughts. I was still nursing my baby Ismael when the feud started and Mamá told me what transpired:
During one of Ambrosio’s week-long debauchery benders, she found comfort in my grandfather’s arms. Apparently, they had been seeing each other on the sly for years, ever since his own wife passed away, and I could hardly blame Mamá. My father was the worst sort of husband; either too attentive when drunk at home, or too absent when sharing another woman’s bed. Like a lot of men of the time, he had double standards, so when he returned home to find his wife missing, he lost it. He must have had his suspicions for years because he stormed my grandfather’s castle, an easy feat when he was friends with half the guards.
My mother woke to the sight of Abuelo’s face turning red, and then she noticed Ambrosio’s hands around the man’s neck. She screamed, alerting the guards who pulled him off my grandfather in time. They might have ended his life then and there if Abuelo did not order them to stand down.
‘I will forgive your madness this once,’ he told Ambrosio. ‘But the next time you disrespect me or your wife, I will have you hung, drawn, and quartered.’
‘How dare you speak to me about respect while my wife still warms your bed, you perverse old man.’ Ambrosio turned his attention to Rosa. ‘And you!’ he spat in her face. ‘Return home with me now, or I will charge you for your crimes.’
Trembling and sobbing, she clung to my grandfather.
‘You no longer deserve the love of this woman!’ Abuelo announced. ‘Leave now before I throw you in prison myself.’
Ambrosio smirked. ‘Do not push your luck Padre. Your men are less loyal than you might think. I will ask one last time. Return my Rosa or risk my wrath.’
Abuelo gestured for his guards to seize Ambrosio, which they did, but they never locked him away. Fearing the threat of a coup, my grandfather sent word to the duke, requesting aid. He did not expect the duke himself to come, especially not alone… in the middle of the night. According to my grandfather, one moment he was alone in his sitting room, the next he jumped out of his skin at the sudden appearance of the duke.
‘I can help, but it will cost you,’ the duke warned.
‘I will do anything to protect my home and my beloved.’
‘Even risk damnation?’
‘What do you mean?’ Abuelo asked.
Within the blink of an eye, the duke appeared a hair’s breadth away, baring his fangs. ‘I offer you inhuman strength, stealth, and speed.’
Abuelo gasped. ‘You are a demon of the night?’
The duke nodded.
‘What happens if I refuse your offer?’
‘You will forget what you have seen, and I will leave you to fight your own battle. This is a family issue, after all. It is hardly worth raising an army over.’
‘May I think on the matter?’ Abuelo asked.
‘I will give you twenty-four hours, but you must not speak to anyone in this time. I cannot risk my secret getting out.’
My grandfather agreed to the duke’s terms and locked himself away in his bedchambers. Not understanding his need for solitude, my mother grew anxious and restless, roaming the castle grounds and making herself vulnerable. One of Ambrosio’s men took advantage of the situation and kidnapped her, delivering her to the devil himself.
When the duke delivered this news to Abuelo, he begged the man to rescue my mother, but the demon refused to tangle himself up in the sordid love life of a lowly count, so my grandfather accepted his initial offer.
As soon as the sun set that night, Abuelo left the castle, hungry for Ambrosio’s blood. One of his spies approached him on route with word that my father was hiding in the local church. No matter, he thought. I may have lost the element of surprise, but I still have my new gifts. Altering his course, he reached the church in a matter of seconds thanks to his new abilities. The moment his foot crossed the threshold onto consecrated ground, it began to burn. Jerking it back, he doused the small flame and watched in awe as his skin instantly healed. After trying a second time, the reason for Ambrosio’s hiding place dawned on him. Enraged by my father’s insolence and hungry for blood, he reacted without much thought. Smoking Ambrosio out seemed like a good idea at the time while he went about setting the church on fire. He even sniggered when he heard Ambrosio screaming within, or at least he thought he did.
‘Wow! You really are going to hell now, demon,’ Ambrosio hissed behind him.
Abuelo spun around to face his son, gobsmacked to see the man outside. ‘I thought…’ He attuned his sensitive hearing to the burning building behind him. There was definitely a man screaming inside, but he was not alone. There was also a woman and… a baby started crying. ‘Where is Rosa?’
‘Tucked away safely,’ Ambrosio assured him. ‘I can’t say the same for your granddaughter or her offspring.’
Forgetting the sanctified barrier, my grandfather turned and ran to rescue us, cussing when the flames sparked. Ambrosio’s laughing only angered him further, and he turned on his heels, charging his foe. Ripping into his throat, he drank him dry. As soon as my father dropped dead at his feet, Abuelo glimpsed a few of his men standing around aghast. ‘Rescue my innocent family,’ he demanded, pointing to the fire. ‘Or face the same fate. Trust me, it is more than you turncoats deserve.’
They rushed inside, reappearing moments later to lay out three burned bodies before him. The pain of seeing me dying was too much for him to bear and the grief consumed him as he dropped to his knees beside me. Recalling the duke’s explanation regarding the reviving properties of demon blood, my grandfather pierced his wrist and fed me his lifeforce. When he moved on to Yago and Ismael, he found they were too far gone, so he instructed his men to bring them home for a proper burial. He carried me home and placed me in my old bed.
‘She won’t rise again unless you drain her blood,’ the duke explained, once again materialising out of nowhere.
‘But that will kill her!’
‘It is too late to save her human life, but you can make her one of us.’
‘Why do I have to drain her? Won’t she rise anyway? I already fed her my blood.’
The duke shook his head. ‘It is not that simple. You must complete the mystical connection my taking her own blood. Or I can do it, but that will divide her loyalties among the two of us and I am certain you have had enough of that to last at least one lifetime.’
‘I cannot condemn her,’ Abuelo argued.
‘Even as a demon, you are spineless Padre,’ Ambrosio scoffed behind him.
Abuelo stared at my father in disbelief. ‘You were dead! I killed you!’
Ambrosio laughed. ‘Have you learned nothing?’ A microsecond later, he held a blade to my grandfather’s throat. ‘I intercepted your message to my friend here and formulated my own plan. Perhaps you should have looked for help outside this kingdom. Now you get to watch the duke turn your precious little angel into a monster like us.’
‘Are you sure you do not want the honours?’ the duke asked as he perched beside me.
‘Quite. I don’t want to feel any sexual urges for my own daughter. She is all yours, Your Highness.’
The duke drank my blood and I rose a few hours later.
Seraphina drained the last of her scotch.
I scratched my head as I processed her story. ‘Wait, does that mean both your grandfather and the duke damned you? Are they both your benefactors?’
‘Similar deal. The duke fed blood to my father as an insurance policy.’
I shivered as a disturbing thought occurred to me. ‘Please tell me you didn’t get down and dirty with your grandfather.’
She winced. ‘It never came to that. We both felt repulsed by the unnatural attraction to each other. Fifty years later, he slipped into the eternal slumber. The life of the damned did not suit him.’
‘What about the duke?’ Sheena asked. ‘Did ya bump uglies with him?’
A grin formed on Seraphina’s face, disappearing a second later when her phone rang. ‘Hello Baldric… What? No, send him up… Thank you.’ Springing to her feet, she ushered me and Sheena to join her. ‘Ambrosius is here.’