Prologue

This is where I ought to put all that bullshit crap about what this story is really about. I could write you an essay about the world’s biggest flaws and yell at you “stop posting your sympathy on Twitter or Facebook and do something about it instead”. But I won’t. I could write you the story of my life, the many facial surgeries I’ve had since I was 2-3 months old and how it fucked up my identity and sexuality. But I won’t.

Instead I wan to talk to you about pigeons.

You probably know them. They sit at every major plaza in historical cities all around the world. They’re grey, eternally hungry for bread crumbs or whatever suits their beak, and they are not afraid of humans. Seriously, they don’t know the term fear like kittens, who hear the vacuum cleaner turned on or a dog seeing the sparkle of fireworks just waiting for the crack to snap in its ears. That’s what fear is.

Fearless is the title of a Jet Li movie, but you might already know that. A fierce man battling his own pride in the search for revenge when in the end it turns out to be himself he is battling.

Inner struggles are often difficult to depict. They cause commotion in your self-perception, affecting your social skills negatively. Lack of discipline makes you an indecisive person in other people’s eyes, not strong enough to withstand the lurking temptations of this world. But what’s worst about inner struggle is that it resembles your own personality disorder and often contains division and doubt. About who you are, what your opinions are and what your actions should be. Either you chose to let society decide for you, losing your integrity to the values stated by others and not yourself. Or you develop opinions slowly, by each and every event that you encounter on your path in life, which you have to make a stand for in some way. However way you chose to act, you will always encounter doubt. Even when you think the inner struggle is over. Even when you think you did something right which in the end proves to be wrong.

But if you suddenly feel it, that surge in your guts, that shows you’re not indifferent, and you actually take a stand displaying your opinions, you stand your ground, no longer doubting yourself. Inner struggle or not, when that surge comes to you, you have found yourself. You have found what you live for and what you sense is the definite truth. Even when people dishonour you for your courage to say what you mean and feel, even when everyone turn their backs on you, you must stay strong and believe in yourself. The greatest revelation cannot be ignored, be it scientific, religious or some other sort of revelation.

The inner struggle is your first step to opposing the world and implement what you believe upon it. Who gives a flying swagger what everyone else says as long as you feel right, as long as you are happy; as long as you’ve made your peace with your demons. Then the struggle against the outside world begins. But not even the world can get you down. You are part of it, like a cancer cell transforming rapidly, and you can change it by making the right decisions. Whatever your motives, be they good or bad, you can succeed.

And you will succeed.

This is a story about opposition, about inner struggle as well as fight for justice and love. Not one person is identical, not one person fights with the same intentions. But they all succeed. In one way or the other. No one is the villain, or the hero.

No one will ever win, but they will all succeed.

Such is my story, and everyone else’s. There are no enemies in the world, only opposition and differences in the perception of values. And only when you chose to fight them, because they are different from your own beliefs, then you become the villain yourself, and not the hero that you might believe you are.

Such is my story.

Chapter 1: Destruction

In the dark, no one hears you. In the dark, no one sees you. You are all alone, you are on your own. No hand extended to help you up from the ground, no soothing voices to guide you in the right direction, no friendly encouraging words to still the hot tears on your burning cheeks.

In the dark, no one can find you and no one can discover you. No one can heal the wounds but no one can inflict new ones upon you. You are safe with your pain, as the suffocating darkness envelops you, embraces you and chokes you.

In the dark, you become part of the black, thick air. It fills you up, takes away your memories, and lulls you into a dreamless slumber. It keeps you warm and cold, keeps you steady and keeps you breathing. Your body is numb and your thoughts are far away, although you are awake. Your eyelids flutter but you see nothing. You lie on your back, accepting the numbness, knowing that this is your only escape.

Voices from a distant reality reaches you, but the darkness distorts them, turns them into dull sounds, the deep, slow purring of a contented cat. It brushes your cheek and fades away again as the darkness shields you. Somewhere above you there is movement, a window to a different world, a mosaic displaying reality. But you are safe in the dark. The voices are calling you but the darkness sings you a lullaby, and you remain down there, in the dark, while your small body is tormented for hours and finally left alone among blood sheets.

Your eyes are open, but you don’t see the room you’re in. You only see the darkness around you, and you welcome it gladly. You love it, and it loves you. Your only friend. Your darkness.

Chapter 2: Communication

It was the first time he actually had to visit him in the office. Strangely enough, he found that it was precisely the same as in the academy where-from he had just graduated, the much famed Axis Academy. Precisely the same interior, the massive mahogany desk, the bookcases along the right hand wall, the marble fireplace with the silver grey wolf skin and the two leather armchairs with the table between them in front. Everything straight out of the Victorian era. The thick, red carpet muffled even high-heeled shoes.

Aenriques had the feeling that the office in the academy and the mansion were practically the same. The only difference was the corridor outside and the view through the panoramic windows behind the tall chair on the other side of the desk. In the corner there was a cabinet with fine crystal goblets and pitchers, and a door was almost invisible to the left, beyond the fireplace. Above the mantelpiece hung a family portrait. The lord of the house, and of the entire Darklighter family, seated with his elder brother and sister, and his son, the heir to the empire, surrounding him.

There could be no doubt that the genes of this family were matched with precision. The portrait was dated ten years back, and as far as Aenriques was concerned, the faces on the canvas looked just like the faces he met in real life.

The eldest of the three, had silvery white hair, drawn behind his stout neck in a short tail. His eyes were keen and grey. The clothing reminded Aenriques of those of a rich aristocrat of the 18th century, from the silver medallion with the green emerald around his neck to the brocade of his dark green vest and the black cane with the silver knob. He was placed furthest to the left.

Next to him stood the only woman in the portrait. She looked more like a pin-up model from the 20’s or 30’s. She had curly, long auburn hair, her red dress matched the lipstick, nail polish and high-heels. A fox fur was draped around her shoulders and from her neck hung a curtain of diamonds draped softly against her bosom. All of her jewelry consisted of diamonds and silver. Her eyes were dark green, her skin olive and her curvy body well-shaped. Her face showed kindness but determination, unlike her elder brother whose face seemed cut in cold stone.

Seated in the middle of the picture sat their youngest brother, the head of the family, and curiously enough, he exuded far more authority. His face was lean and noble, marble-like, framed by waist-long black hair. He smiled a Mona Lisa smile, subtle and oddly foreboding. The only indication of age were lines of grief and experience by the icy blue eyes, his body was well kept in shape and build. He was clad in a black, simple tuxedo, a glass of red wine clenched between the long, slender fingers. Aenriques had seen him countless times and had been personally tutored by him. He would never have the courage to look the man straight in the eye.

Last but not least, stood the heir of the family. A blond, young man with emerald eyes, a face like an angel, his chin adorned by golden downs and clad in a creamy white suit. He was tall, taller than the rest, and his shape suggested a certain amount of vanity and a high level of self-preservation. His face was not unknown to Aenriques. He saw him often on magazine covers and advertisements for whatever the heart desired, not only the face but the rest of the body as well. Either he posed for a photo-shoot or he was caught red-handed in a drug bust, in a night-club. He was a careless brat, and his reputation affected the rest of the family, although Aenriques had heard from reliable sources that times were changing. On the other hand, it was not only the young-spirited heir of the family, who sullied the reputation of the Darklighters. But that was, of course, only rumours as well.

As for now he was waiting. Waiting for the lord of the house, the head of the family, Matthew James Darklighter. There were many reasons for his visit, some more obscure and secret than he could admit to his master. He threw one last glance at the portrait and was brought back to reality as the office double-door opened behind him and Matthew entered. Tall and slender as a tree, he strode in past Aenriques.

“I apologize for the delay, Aenriques, I had some arrangements to see to,” he said as he settled down by the desk and buttoned up the jacket before he looked at Aenriques, who naturally darted eye-contact.

“I heard you’re leaving the next few days, my lord, whereto?” Aenriques asked. He knew better than to ignore his master’s duties abroad. Taking an interest in them meant that his master would reciprocate the gesture.

“New Orleans, then Osaka,” Matthew replied as he piled a few documents and shoved them aside on the table before finding a small notepad and one of the golden-tipped ink pens. He gestured for Aenriques to sit in one of the chairs in front of the desk. “Family business is always tiresome when you have to go half-way around the world to solve it,” he added as Aenriques sat down.

“I see,” he said and flattened the tie. “You called for me?”

“I did. I want you to come with us,” Matthew looked sharply at Aenriques, who had a hard time deciding whether to look puzzled, surprised or flattered. He could not lie to his master, but the problem was that he did not actually know what to feel about the decision.

“I’m honoured, my lord, but am I not still too newly-educated to be given such a task?” he asked politely, folding his hands in front of him.

“If you were, you’d still be in the academy,” Matthew said, a black eyebrow curled upwards, and he rose. “I trust you know that you received the diploma for a reason and not just to please you and your ego?”

Aenriques bowed his head. “Yes, my lord,” he replied quietly before looking up at Matthew, who had walked around the desk and leant against the table-top, his hands folded as he surveyed Aenriques’ reactions carefully.

“That was always your weakness, my boy,” he said smiling thinly. Aenriques had never liked it. It was the grin of a wolf staring at its prey.

“I trust your decision to be the right one, my lord,” he said firmly. “When do we leave?”

“This afternoon,” Matthew replied. “Zacharias and Gabriel are coming as well.”

“I’ll be ready when you call for me again,” Aenriques assured Matthew. “It’s truly an honour, my lord. I don’t deserve your kindness.”

“I hope you’ll take the chance to show me that it was not a wrong decision to let you graduate.”

“I won’t disappoint you.”

“Good. Get packed. We leave at 3 o’clock from Heathrow.”

Aenriques rose and parted with the compulsory farewell-kiss on Matthew’s cheek before he left. Outside, in the darkened corridor of the mansion, he grabbed his phone, hit speed dial as he strode down the carpeted floor and finally got hold on his assailant as he reached the grand stair leading down to the entrance hall. His footsteps echoed loudly, breaking the silence mercilessly.

“We have to talk today.”

What’s happened?

“I’ve been put on close watch.”

Meet me at National in forty.

“Affirmative. See you.”

And the line died. Aenriques swore and cursed under his breath as he strode out of the mansion and got into the black Audi parked in front of the main building. He looked up the façade and sighed heavily before he drove away. Back in the office Matthew had reached for his own phone and dialled a number to one of the offices in the west wing.

“Adam? I need you to check up on Lynne. Send Thomas at her heels while I’m abroad, and make sure the lake is secure ground if they want to investigate it.”

He put down the phone in its stand, slipped a hand through his hair and took down a few notes for Isobel and Vladimir to stick to. Just in case. The pen clattered onto the table-top beside the note pad and he walked to the windows and looked out. The waving grassy plains of the garden stretched all the way to the lake, and beyond that, to the ring of trees, the massive, natural fence against the world, caging in what needed to be shielded from the public. The leaden clouds hung heavily overhead, reflecting his emotions very conveniently. It was the beginning of the descend down the ladder, and as high as he had climbed, he would fall just as far. But it would not be without a struggle.

Chapter 3: Obscurity

Aenriques ascended the stairs to the grandiose building of London’s National Gallery. The buzzing of Trafalgar Square slipped in with him but as the doors closed he found himself in the hushed silence of the museum. How come this was one of the places most sought out to make business exchanges between Agents, he had no clue yet, but he had been told that the place was common ground, enemy or ally. Most historical buildings were, apparently. The collective agreement on keeping the mortals out of the business of the supernatural society still held its sway. Aenriques did not complain.

He headed to the Sainsbury Wing and settled on one of the benches admiring the pieces of art surrounding him as he waited for his accomplice to show up. It did not take long until a shadow in the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned and saw the man approach with well-calculated steps, a mechanical doll or machine of sorts, made to imitate the living. His hair was a military cut and his suit neatly pressed. Silently, he sat down beside Aenriques, who corrected his tie nervously. He hated that man.

“So, we have ourselves a situation,” he said quietly. The man nodded slowly, acknowledging his statement.

“Indeed,” he replied with a light French intonation.

“Where’s she at it on this?” Aenriques asked.

“Thinking. Contemplating.” The man turned his head and looked Aenriques straight in the eye. Compared to Matthew, Aenriques did not avert eye-contact, but not because he felt equal to him, no, he felt nothing. The man was as a matter of fact not a human in his opinion, and Aenriques regarded him as a lesser being, thus enabling him to repel the gaze with some superiority, although the man gave him chills. They called themselves Crusaders; a clean-shaven business man without wares for sale. Maybe souls. It wouldn’t surprise Aenriques if that were his trade.

“Well, I need something to go on. Should I drag Petyr into this or not?” he asked.

“No. The time is not come just yet. An opportunity will be given and you will be able to strike, thanks to the humans,” the man said airily and looked away again to the painting in front of them. A group of tourists passed them by, audio devices pressed to their ears. The man looked back at Aenriques.

“You will need to stay in line for as long as possible. Until she is ready. Until the necessary arrangements have been made,” he said.

“And when is that?” Aenriques asked sourly and folded his hands.

“She’ll tell you. Trust in her ways, monsieur Darklighter. Trust and wait. You’ll be rewarded when your time has come.” The man rose with a thin smile. It reminded Aenriques about Matthew’s smile. Aenriques imitated his gesture.

“I’ll wait for your call. Just let me know in due time.”

“I will. All Her Blessings,” the man answered and he was off. Aenriques sighed heavily and left. This would be harder than expected.

Chapter 4: Preperation

There was a quiet knock on the door and Matthew looked up. He had retired to his chambers, a small apartment-like constellation of adjacent rooms. The first was his study, furnished like a living room with couches around a coffee table situated in front of a fireplace. By the window stood a desk, a smaller version than that in his office, with a laptop and a notepad and a gold-tipped pen along with other expensive writing utensils. Leather-bound books with faded writing were piled in the bookcases, and a small sideboard stood covered with fine bottles of various taste. To the right of the room there was a white, sterile bathroom and to the left a door led to the master bedroom with nothing but a king-size four-poster bed carved from oak and draped with curtains of red, heavy velvet.

He had been sitting at the desk, writing the last document for the journey. Usually, he would be in the grand office, but he had no further appointments that morning except from one, which could not take place in the grand office. Not since Shade had barged in last time and interrupted. Shade was not known for being picky about the things he witnessed while in his lord’s presence – needless to say, he had seen his share throughout the ages – but Matthew had none the less taken the necessary precautions now and moved the private appointments elsewhere.

When he wanted a quiet talk with the members of his family, he placed them outside business-like surroundings and into an environment more family-friendly. At least, that was the excuse he used to justify his actions. And although his Agents were taught to regard him as their father and him they as his sons and daughters, they were still in the category labelled ‘business’. His chambers also provided a more relaxed atmosphere. If he were to give a reprimand or the like, he would still call his herd to the grand office.

But now he turned his attention to the door as it was opened, and Gabriel entered. He was a spitting image of his late mother, in every aspect that Matthew could imagine. The boy was leaving his teens and had come to yield a true young man’s posture and expression. Whenever Matthew laid his eyes upon his son, pride swelled in his heart. No gift in his life had been greater than his son, however, he had failed to truly appreciate it for a long time. But that was the past. Their secret pact was physically represented by the silver ring on their left ring finger.

“Father? You called for me?” Gabriel asked as he stepped in. The hoarse, youthful voice revealed his age. Still not entirely matured but just about to. He shut the door with a nudge from his heel and approached his father, who rose from the desk at the sight of his son.

“Yes, Gabriel, come on in,” Matthew said and gestured for Gabriel to take a seat in the couches.

“Is this about the trip?” The young man seated himself and made room for his father to settle down beside him. Matthew smiled kindly, not the usual thin, threatening smile, but that of genuine love, something which only Gabriel was allowed to witness. He put an arm around his son’s shoulders.

“Actually not,” Matthew replied and the smile diminished slowly. “Remember the two girls yesterday evening?” Gabriel nodded without answering, knowing his father hated being interrupted when words were unnecessary. “Well, there’s a risk of an investigation. Thomas is on code yellow, but it might not be enough to ensure an entirely risk-free procedure.”

Gabriel straightened up in his seat and looked worried at his father. “So, you say there’s a possibility for you being arrested this time?” he asked with a light frown.

“Yes, if Thomas can’t hold her off and Vladimir and Isobel’s barriers are breached while we’re away, then it’s possible,” Matthew answered. Gabriel sighed and looked down into his hands resting in his lap.

“And I’m in charge if that happens?”

Matthew put a hand behind Gabriel’s neck and turned his face kindly insisting. “Yes, and you need to promise me not to panic,” he said quietly. Gabriel nodded reassuringly, as if to convince both his father and himself that he was up for the task.

“I won’t disappoint you, father,” he said firmly enough for Matthew to accept its conviction. He closed his eyes as a hand slipped through his short, blond hair.

“Good boy.”

Chapter 5: Away

Gabriel had never appreciated the trips abroad with his father and the family company lawyers. He found the entire matter gruesomely tiring and extremely pretentious, but he knew his father had a reputation to maintain, and travelling abroad kept the dots connected and the lines hot between the houses of Darklighters. Officially there were 250 members of the family, but unofficially it was twice the size, if not more. Each branch had its houses and smaller clans, and the head of the branch controlled the houses and clans within, but it was indisputably Matthew’s final word, in any matter, that settled whatever conflicts had arisen needing to be taken care of, by the head of the family.

Needless to say, Matthew was a busy man, and Gabriel had to follow his footsteps twenty-four seven seeing that he had begun his apprenticeship as one of his father’s Agents. He would return in half a year to the Axis Academy, finish the basic course and then advance to the Agent course, which was tutored strictly by his father himself and a few selected mentors. The Agent course was one of the hardest programs. Not even the Special Forces in the military had training or education like they had. The basic course was hard enough, but the Agent course was nigh impassable.  The most famous Agents were Matthew’s personal bodyguards, Mathieu Nathaniel from France and Shade Letoile of the Phoenix-Darklighter branch. Gabriel would without doubt advance to their level. He had attempted twice at passing the basic course, but each time he had been expelled because his aggression had cost one teacher his life and two others severe injuries. Matthew had given him one of the longest quarantines in the history of the academy, and it ended next year. Until then he had been placed by his father’s side to learn what he could as well, about the management of the family and of the family company.

It was a tiresome position, but he knew it was important if he wanted the slightest chance of advancing. He might have been born the heir of the family empire, but he was always rivalled by his cousins, Zacharias especially. Besides being Gabriel’s cousin, Zacharias was his father’s most trusted lawyer, the youngest even, as well. Zacharia’s two elder brothers, Patrick and Marek, were extremely well-educated physicists and engineers who also worked for the company. Their sister Rachel, on the other hand, was an environmentalist, freelance journalist and did everything in her power to oppose her uncle and his control of the family. Not that she succeeded, but she sure tried.

Normally, family members who tried opposing the head of the family were ostracized, but Rachel was the second in command after Gabriel in the young generation. If something should happen and Gabriel would be unable to become the heir of the family, Rachel was the one to take over, and because she was part of the Core – the members closest to the head of the family – she was too important to ostracize. Besides, her mother, Isobel, would transform into the Devil itself, if any of her children turned out to be outcasts and have the name Darklighter removed and replaced with Davis instead and be hunted by the Agents for the rest of their now short lives.

Having a Darklighter Agent on one’s tail meant a period of five to eight days left of your life. Few had managed to get away and hide. The longest a Davis had survived, was approximately 2 years. The present outcasts, who had been on the loose for the longest period of time were Cato and Angelo. They had tried to save their sister Nicola from the initiation rite, which was Matthew’s privilege when the younger girls and boys of the family came of age, thus opposing the traditions of the family. The following day of their rescue-attempt their bank accounts had been closed, their passports had been nullified and all their personal data destroyed. And then began the hunt. One or two Agents were put on the case. It was their job to eliminate all data about the outcasts. In some cases, they had acted too late and the Davises had been able to leave the country where their house resided, enabling secure escape. The Agents, who failed to follow a proper protocol and who lost a Davis of sight, were put back to ordinary paper work until they could advance again.

But if they succeeded in keeping the Davis within the borders, the game was set for a terrible hunt. The Agent was practically invisible. The Davis, on the other hand, was defenceless and unable to find shelter of any kind from the danger lurking close by. Each branch was safely monitored by three or four Agents and when one or more members of a branch were ostracized, they took up arms and began the hunt.

Gabriel looked around in the compartment of the airplane. They were somewhere over the Atlantic. A calm journey so far. As a matter of fact, he had no real clue as to why he did not like the trips. He knew he had to act modest and give off an impression on the houses they visited to keep the daughters interested. Not that he wanted to, but it was his job. They had to have the possibility of becoming the next lady of the family when he took over. It wasn’t that hard. His looks did it for him, but his heart lay somewhere else.

He glanced down at the silver ring.  Only the Core knew. He knew Rachel or Deirdre were potential candidates for his official spouse when the time came, they were the only two of his cousins he held a vague sort of affection to, enough to father a child or two and to care for them and their mother, but no more than that.

He heard his father end a conversation with Zacharias, and he approached Gabriel’s seat where he settled down, leaned back and sighed heavily as he closed his eyes.

“Trouble?” Gabriel asked and put a calming hand upon his father’s. Matthew turned his head with one eye open to look at him before returning to his previous state.

“James is giving me a headache,” he answered and massaged his temples.

“You could’ve sent Isobel or Marcus instead…”

“No, I have to be there to take care of this myself, to make them stop their bickering,” Matthew replied sharply. Gabriel nodded understanding. “I’m tired of always hearing about their disputes. It’s once a month now. The Tarleys and Beauregards can’t seem to find one moment’s peace. The tiniest chance and they stir up the entire Mississippi.”

Gabriel shrugged. “Maybe they’ve got liable reasons,” he said. “You know how it is with immortality. Feuds can go on and on and practically never stop until one of them greets the sun.”

“Terry and Alex would rather be ostracized than greet the sun,” Matthew growled annoyed, but a kiss on his cheek from Gabriel erased some of the strain. Their fingers slipped in between each other.

“Don’t worry, father,” the young voice spoke clear as a ray of sun through stormy clouds. “Everything is going to be just fine. When you show up there won’t be any more of their childish prattling behind their backs and everything will return to normal. I can’t believe they force you to go through all this trouble to settle their affairs.” Gabriel looked away and out of the window. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”

Matthew laughed which caught Gabriel slightly off-guard. He looked inquiringly at his father whose laughter stilled and only his eyes showed amusement.

“And I can’t believe you’re troubling yourself with this for my sake,” Matthew said lovingly. Gabriel turned away his face but he could not help smiling.

“I’m just saying we could be at home now, instead of here,” he suggested and looked back at his father. They smiled at each other, no words needed.

“But now we’re here, and we have business to take care of, darling,” Matthew answered, the smile waning to a thin line. Gabriel nodded again.

“Unfortunately, yes,” he said sighing heavily.

Chapter 6: Prosecution

Like everything else in the house, the round, subterranean courtroom was nothing to brag about. Not compared to his own home, Gabriel thought as he, along with his father settled down at the upper seat, the seat of justice, Shade and Nathaniel behind them and Zacharias and Aenriques just below them. The silence was instant among the onlookers and the small jury consisting of five persons. No more were needed, no more could be found in the area. The granite walls dripped with moisture, the stone tables and benches were draped with dark red cloth and torches hung on the walls. As if taken out of medieval times, Gabriel thought.

They had arrived in New Orleans late at night and had been received at the Nathaniel Residence, the home of the head of the Darklighter branch in North America, James and his wife Carolyne and their three children, Walden, Jane and Marilyn en parade in the noble but humble entrance hall of their house. The place was an old plantation, and the Nathaniels had settled down there many hundred years ago and made a living of exportation of many different crops and especially textiles throughout the ages. There was still work to do on the property, but most of the labour had been outsourced or radically mechanised. But none the less, the goods gave a reasonable profit in the family company’s annual review.

Gabriel had stayed in the background as his father had greeted their host and taken time to study the young inhabitants of the house. Both Walden and Jane had been initiated a few years back, but Marilyn was still too young. In a few years it would be her turn to enter his chambers. Gabriel had seen the sheen in his father’s eyes of anticipation. A wave of anger had curled up inside his stomach, but he knew he could not change the traditions.

As for now, he turned his attention to the present matter of the courtroom. On the left of the seat of justice, sat the Tarleys, and on the right sat the Beauregards, both families were Houses in the same conclave in and around New Orleans. The Nathaniels were the rulers of all matters in the entire North America, James being their Prince of State, and when dealing with affairs without plausible solutions they called in a Core member of the Darklighter family to settle the score. Nobody argued with a Core member. When they arrived, the disputes seemed to settle into lesser conflicts than previously, because nobody wanted to publicly challenge the court, now led by the Core member in question.

The New Orleans conclave was troublesome, but Gabriel and his father had never gone there. Isobel usually settled matters in North America, but Matthew had decided to deal with this affair himself, allowing Gabriel to get out and witness some administrative cases and prepare for his training. The pressure was building, the expectations high. What if he did not succeed? What if he failed miserably and never advanced to become what he had to in order to be ready to follow in his father’s footsteps and become the Lord himself? He let the worries drop for the time being and focused on more important matters as he sat down beside his father and watched the two houses of the conclave entering the courtroom.

Matthew rose. He had no need to call on order; there was an instant hush on the crowd and everybody fell silent turning their attention to him.

“I call upon the heads of Tarley House and Beauregard House. Terry Tarley and Alexei Beauregard, present yourself to the court.”

Dark patches of blood could be seen where sentences previously had been carried out seconds after they had been announced. The two men advanced the jury, which sat in front and beneath Matthew and Gabriel’s seat. The Prince of State, James Nathaniel Darklighter, rose and turned to them.

“Your Highness, Protector of Justice and Righteousness, I give to you the dispute of the houses of Tarley and of Beauregard,” he read from a paper, his South American accent rang shrill in Gabriel’s ears. “The matter consists of a disagreement about the land between the two houses’ dens. The surrounding land has been in the families for centuries. Last winter, Alexei Beauregard gave his sons orders to raise a barn closer to the Tarleys’ den than was agreed upon when the land was originally divided. No documents state, however, the distances, which were agreed upon, the argument Mr. Beauregard brought up in the initial phase of the dispute.”

“What was the purpose of the barn?” Matthew asked.

“Housing of cattle,” James answered and folded the paper. “Mr. Tarley contacted Mr. Beauregard at the construction site and a fight broke out when Mr. Beauregard refused to cancel his project. The dispute culminated last week when one of Mr. Beauregard’s servants, Anthony Brickens, was found dead in the nearby quarry on Tarley’s land.” He sat down. “In both cases I see the possibility of penalty, but in my heart, I don’t know which sort of penalty.”

Matthew sat down, his fingers drummed on the armrest of the cold chair.

“A deliberate action, Mr. Beauregard, how would your regard the action, if your neighbour raised a barn on your premises?” he asked. Alexei Beauregard raised his head. He was a proud nobleman of the 17th century.

“Your Grace, Lord Darklighter, The One, Prince of Darkness,” he said firmly. “The surrounding area of my den, the Beauregard Plantation, has been in my family since my ancestors arrived by ship in 1522 and established the plantation. We are proud of our willingness to share the grounds with the House of Tarley, whom we welcomed around the year of 1600, but my family owns the land. We lend it to the Tarleys, we take it back from the Tarleys, whenever we need to.”

“Is that correct, Mr. Tarley?” Matthew directed his gaze to Beauregard’s opponent, who glanced sourly at Alexei.

“No document states that either,” Terry Tarley replied before he took a step forward and looked up at Matthew. “Your Grace, My Lord, Highest and Holiest, my family has resided in the Tarley Residence for centuries, just like the honourable members of the house of Beauregard have resided in their plantation. We only discovered that we shared almost the same land years after our settlement had been established. Whoever came first can never be documented. Our eldest, the only who remembered the exact date, was hunted down two winters past.”

“A coincidence?” Matthew raised an eyebrow and glanced at Alexei, who pursed his lips grimly without answering.

“He was found in a ditch near the Tarley Residence, or rather what was left of him after he apparently had been burned,” James added. “The circumstances were never uncovered and the local authorities gave up the search for any assailants few months after the incident.”

“You call it an incident?!” Terry Tarley turned outraged towards the Prince of State. “Aaron Tarley, my father and maker, bless his soul, was in perfect health and shape when he left that evening to go hunting. My wife found him before dawn!”

“So it was a crime and not natural death?” Matthew tilted his head, surveying the angry man on the floor.

“I can’t see why it should be anything else than a crime,” Terry Tarley replied firmly, stiff with hate from head to toe. “It’s not like we go playing with fire of our own accord, is it? We’re wiser than that!” he glared at Alexei, who remained surprisingly calm although the very air around Terry seemed sultry.

“So,” Matthew leaned forth and looked at James, “this event was prior to the construction of the barn, I take it?”

“It was,” James nodded.

“I see.” Matthew’s gaze swept between Terry Tarley and Alexei Beauregard. “Both of you have not committed crimes against your houses according to the dispute of the barn, and land can be owned according to the present law here in Louisiana, over which I have no authority. The death of servant Anthony Brickens is not a punishable crime, but in the matter of Aaron Tarley’s death, I want a clear answer to uncover the circumstances surrounding his death. Mr. Beauregard, look me in the eye and tell me: did you arrange his death to avoid the trouble of an elder’s memories when you began planning the construction of your barn? A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will do.”

Alexei quivered like a leaf in a wild wind as he raised his gaze to meet his Lord’s. He swallowed hard and sweat broke on his forehead. Clearing his throat, he nodded before he looked away, shameful of the dishonour he brought upon the family name by admitting to the crime.

“Yes, Your Grace,” he said.

“Do you amend your crime, Mr. Beauregard?” the tone was sharp, like a sword carving out pudding.

“I do, Your Grace.”

“Seeing that the murder of an elder was part of your scheme to construct your barn, I demand it burned, along with any cattle living in it,” Matthew leaned back. “And you will serve seventy years coffined and meanwhile your household will be given over to the Tarleys to do as he pleases, residence, servants, children, brothers, sisters and yours and their spouses. When you emerge, they will be redelivered to you, as will your home.” A note was scribbled down to state the sentence. Matthew looked at Terry who smiled slyly. “And you, Mr. Tarley, have the responsibility to see to Mr. Beauregard’s household, to keep them out of harm’s way and to take care of them as if they were your own.” Terry’s smile diminished within seconds but none the less he nodded firmly. “Deliverance of mercy will be yours to judge, if they should not comply with your will, but remember,” Matthew’s eyes narrowed, “a good leader weighs power and deals out judgement in portions according to the crime committed and not what pleases him the most. And twenty years is but a short intake of breath, so keep in mind that I will not look upon this as mercifully as is the case at the moment. If Mr. Beauregard accuses you of abuse of his household while he’s coffined, you will be next to sleep in the wooden bed, not your enemy, no matter how much hate you may hold against him.” He looked over the crowd and nodded. “Sentence announced. Next matter on the agenda.”

Alexei Beauregard was dragged out of the courtroom by two dark-clad guards; he did not say a word, and Gabriel watched his exit as a broken man leaves when a righteous death sentence has been dealt upon him for his crimes. The crowd buzzed as they settled down again and a person was presented to the court, shackled and trembling nervously, a frail excuse for a man, but his yellow eyes glowed fiercely and he held his head high despite the condescending cries from the audience.

“Order!” James called out and Matthew rose.

“Milo Carmenos, am I right?” he drew out a pair of reading glasses and glanced at the sheet of paper brought to him before he had entered the court room. The man nodded, perhaps trying to answer with a feeble voice, but no discernible words emerged; the audience laughed scornfully.

“Silence!” Matthew’s voice was like the crack of a whip and the crowd obeyed instantly. “Mr. Carmenos, you were caught trespassing the Nathaniels’ property a week ago, killing poultry and a horse.” He folded the glasses into his breast pocket, put down the paper and looked inquiringly at the man. “Is that true?”

“Y-yes, Your Highness,” the man answered.

“Emergence from the underground is a crime punishable in itself for you and your kin. Does your acquaintances and next-of-kin know you’re up here?” Matthew raised a slender eyebrow, his gaze never leaving the trembling figure.

“N-no, Your Highness. I’m here… of my own accord. I was cast out of my tribe,” the man explained. “I had nowhere else to go unless I wanted to risk death by the hand of my tribe. We are not many in the underground here in Louisiana.”

“I see,” Matthew nodded slowly. “But you must have come far, the nearest underground exit is south of Jackson.”

The man fell to his knees and looked pleadingly around. “I had no idea. I had wandered for days, getting lost until I found the animals!” he cried; he was shaking all over and tears began flooding his eyes.

“But have you killed other animals on your way down here?” Matthew asked.

“N-no… Well, I tried not to, and I stayed away from civilisation as much as I could,” the man explained. “I had no idea that I was trespassing.”

“There was a breach in the fence north of the Nathaniel Residence,” James noted and glanced at Matthew. “The wire had been cut or torn apart.”

“So you did that?” Matthew asked the poor man who shook his head furiously.

“No! No, it was already damaged when I reached it. I was… confused because I hadn’t passed another fence, but… I was too tired to think any of it,” he looked from James to Matthew, extending his hands pleadingly, the shackles clinking from his tremor. “Please… I did not know! I beg you…” his voice died away in sobs and he lowered his gaze to the stone floor.

“Milo Carmenos, judging from the straight line you seem to have taken from Jackson and to here, just south of Hammond, I dare say you must have followed the interstate, and there is civilisation along that route. So when you claim to have kept away from it, you must either have been sleepwalking or… you’re simply lying to me,” Matthew smiled thinly. “Which one do you want me to believe the most?”

“I…” the man croaked; his throat parched by fear.

“And seeing that I have friends in the underground, I could have spared myself the trouble of questioning you and contacted your elders. But,” Matthew sat down calmly, “being a man of my position, and merciful nature, I wanted to hear your story before I began pulling the strings. And if I pull and discover a loose end which you have not told me about, you’ll be in more trouble than if you just tell it to me now.”

The spindle shoulders trembled as the man began sobbing helplessly, but he was unable to reply.

“Answer the Lord, Mr. Carmenos,” James commanded. “Are you lying to the court, you filthy ground-dweller?”

“No, my Prince, I’m not… at least…” the man looked up. “I chose to go south because… I was told if I went down here and wreaked a havoc on the property of one of the Houses of the conclave, I might…” he swallowed hard, “I might be welcomed back, you see. In my tribe, that is.” He glanced from James to Matthew again. “Please, Your Highness, forgive me! I-I… I just wanted to get back! My whole tribe cast me out and… and I had a chance to win it back! Nobody was s’posed to know that they wanted me down here.”

Matthew’s fingers drummed on the armrest again, clearly annoyed with the new turn of events. He glanced at Zacharias, who sighed heavily and leaned up.

“Uncle, we need to find out who’s behind this before we leave for London again,” he whispered. “If the elders of his tribe really were planning a stealth attack, using this ostracised member as bait, who knows what else they may be planning?”

“My Lord,” Nathaniel stepped up behind Matthew. “Gestur would never allow a tribe to take control of their own actions. I can send for him in no time and get this conflict over with. Our words are no use in their underground territories. Their realm is too different from ours, and their hate for us is stronger than the winter winds of Siberia.”

“Do it,” Matthew nodded and Nathaniel left with a final bow in his Lord’s direction. “Call for Gestur. And let him know what’s going on. I do not like these wile dogs attacking my minions, especially without just cause.” He straightened up. “Milo Carmenos, you have done what anybody in your position would have. I sentence you to a year’s service in the Nathaniel Darklighter household, where you will be treated with the amount of respect that you deserve for still being loyal to those who cast you out, and for telling all of us the truth about your surface venture. I pledge of you to swear fealty until your sentence has been carried out, and to remember the mercy with which your actions have been judged.”

The man broke into convulsive cramps from the sobbing and collapsed on the floor. “Yes, yes, my Lord, I will! Thank you! Your Darkness bless you!” he mumbled gratefully before the guards took him away under a shower of outcries from the audience. Matthew rose and calm settled in.

“I hereby summon for six agents of the New Orleans conclave to go to the underground passage in Jackson and find out whether more have ventured out these past days,” he said. Six men stepped forward on the court floor. James surveyed them before nodding to the clerk beside him, who began scribbling down.

“Eric Raynor, Gary Monroe and George Bosworth of the household of the House of Tarley, Maynard Lavender and Carl Pretsman of the household of the House of Beauregard and Mark Rooney of the household of the House of Moranis,” he said and dismissed the men who all left the court.

“This is serious,” Matthew gritted his teeth as he looked around. “If any of you have heard or seen anything which might give us more detailed information about a coming conflict, do not hesitate to contact me, my agents or the members of the Nathaniel Residence. You are all witnesses; you have all got a responsibility to stay the ways of madness, should an evolving feud break out. I will be in the Nathaniel Residence for the remainder of my stay in New Orleans, and I implore you to seek audience with me, should you have the slightest knowledge of what is happening in the underground. Court dismissed.”

There was a scrambling of feet against the stone floor as the audience rose to leave the court. The jury followed suit, but Matthew held James back, and they remained in their seats to watch the crowd slowly dissolve. An opposing movement caught Matthew’s eye and a young woman with red hair and a spindle figure appeared in front of them. She dropped a courtesy, head bowed, but apparently she was not well trained, and she stumbled insecure.

“Your Grace,” she greeted Matthew and bowed to James as well. “Ma Prince.” She straightened up.

“What’s your name, my love?” Matthew asked.

“Ginger Harrison, o’ the Moor house,” she replied, her fingers fiddling with the seams of her skirt.

“Another house?” Matthew glanced at James who frowned.

“There’re no houses around here by the name of Moor,” he said. “The last one I heard of was in Cleveland, but they were dissolved five years ago. The only houses left here are Tarley, Beauregard and Moranis.”

“I kno’, ma Prince, but we’re new ‘round ‘ere,” Ginger shrugged. “We’re actually an ol’ fraction o’ the Cleveland house and we’re headed west for a while, but then we thought, why not come to the New Orleans conclave and help a bit ‘ere, righ’?” she smiled mildly, the smile of an innocent girl walking deliberately into a lion’s den.

“And what can we do for you then, miss Harrison?” Matthew leaned forth, his eyes scanning her thin figure. She could not possibly have been more than thirteen at her turning.

“Well, Your Grace, me and ma da’, and some o’ ma da’s friends were all up in Jackson some while ago, and we ‘eard talks of a war brewin’, almost like, y’know, a new Great Hunt. Only this time it’d be them earth-dwellers who’d do the hunting and not us,” she answered.

“When was this?” James asked.

“Last month, I guess,” Ginger replied. “Not sure tho’, them days are awfully alike.”

“Ginger, darling,” Matthew rose and descended the stair to the floor where he stopped in front of her and took her small hands in his. “Would you be so kind as to find your mentor and bring him to the Nathaniel Residence? I should very much like to speak with him.” He forced the gentlest of gentle smiles upon his lips and watched how she melted inside at his touch and words.

“Anything for his majesty, Your Grace,” she bowed again and skipped out of the courtroom. Matthew turned and looked at James.

“Let’s go to your office,” he said. “The flock will be more inclined to seek out council in less darkened surroundings.”