The Damned – Renée Ahdieh

I lie still, my body weightless. Immobile. It feels like I’m locked in a pitch-black room, unable to speak, choking on the smoke of my own folly. My uncle did this to me once when I was nine. My closest friend, Michael, and I had stolen a box of cigars hand-rolled by an elderly lady from Havana who worked on the corner of Burgundy and Saint Louis. When Uncle Nico caught us smoking them in the alley behind Jacques’, he sent Michael home, his voice deathly quiet. Filled with foreboding. Then my uncle locked me in a hall closet with the box of cigars and a tin of matches. He told me I could not leave until I finished every single one of them. That was the last time I ever smoked a cigar. It took me weeks to forgive Uncle Nico. Years to stomach the smell of burning tobacco anywhere in my vicinity. Half a lifetime to understand why he’d felt the need to teach that particular lesson. I try to swallow this ghost of bile. I fail.

I know what Nicodemus has done. Though the memory is still unclear—fogged by the weakness of my dying body—I know he has made me into one of them. I am now a vampire, like my uncle before me. Like my mother before me, who faced the final death willingly, her lips stained red and a lifeless body in her arms. I am a soulless son of Death, cursed to drink the blood of the living until the end of time. It sounds ridiculous even to me, a boy raised on the truth of monsters. Like a joke told by an unfunny aunt with a penchant for melodrama. A woman who cuts herself on her diamond bracelet and wails as drops of blood trickle onto her silken skirts. Like that, I am hunger once more. With each pang, I become less human.

Less of what I once was and more of what I will forever be. A demon of want, who simply craves more, never to be sated. White-hot rage chases behind the bloodlust, igniting like a trail of saltpeter from a powder keg. I understand why Uncle Nico did this, though it will take many lifetimes for me to forgive him. Only the direst of circumstances would drive him to turn the last living member of his mortal family—the lone heir to the Saint Germain fortune—into a demon of the Otherworld. His line has died with me, my human life reaching an all-too-sudden end. This choice must be one of last resort. A voice resonates in my mind. A feminine voice, its echoes tremulous. Please.

Save him. What can I say that will make you save him? Do we have a deal? When I realize who it is, what she must have done, I howl a silent howl, the sound ringing in the hollows of my lost soul. I cannot think about that now. My failure will not let me. It is enough to know that I, Sébastien Saint Germain, eighteen-year-old son of a beggar and a thief, have been turned into a member of the Fallen. A race of blood drinkers banished from their rightful place in the Otherworld by their own greed. Creatures of the night embroiled in a centuries-long war with their archenemy, a brotherhood of werewolves. I try to speak but fail, my throat tight, my eyelids sealed shut. After all, Death is a powerful foe to vanquish. Fine silk rustles by my ear, a scented breeze coiling through the air.

Neroli oil and rose water. The unmistakable perfume of Odette Valmont, one of my dearest friends. For almost ten years, she was a protector in life. Now she is a sister in blood. A vampire, sired by the same maker. My right thumb twitches in response to her nearness. Still I cannot speak or move freely. Still I am locked in a darkened room, with nothing but a box of cigars and a tin of matches, dread coursing through my veins, hunger tingling on my tongue. A sigh escapes Odette’s lips. “He’s beginning to wake.

” She pauses, pity seeping into her voice. “He’ll be furious.” As usual, Odette is not wrong. But there is comfort in my fury. Freedom in knowing I may soon seek release from my rage. “And well he should be,” my uncle says. “This is the most selfish thing I’ve ever done. If he manages to survive the change, he will come to hate me . just as Nigel did.” Nigel.

The name alone rekindles my ire. Nigel Fitzroy, the reason for my untimely demise. He—along with Odette and four other members of my uncle’s vampire progeny— safeguarded me from Nicodemus Saint Germain’s enemies, chief among them those of the Brotherhood. For years Nigel bided his time. Cultivated his plan for revenge on the vampire who snatched him from his home and made him a demon of the night. Under the guise of loyalty, Nigel put into motion a series of events intended to destroy the thing Nicodemus prized most: his living legacy. I’ve been betrayed before, just as I have betrayed others. It is the way of things when you live among capricious immortals and the many illusionists who hover nearby like flies. Only two years ago, my favorite pastime involved fleecing the Crescent City’s most notorious warlocks of their ill-gotten gains. The worst among their ilk were always so certain that a mere mortal could never best them.

It gave me great pleasure to prove them wrong. But I have never betrayed my family. And I had never been betrayed by a vampire sworn to protect me. Someone I loved as a brother. Memories waver through my mind. Images of laughter and a decade of loyalty. I want to shout and curse. Rail to the heavens, like a demon possessed. Alas, I know how well God listens to the prayers of the damned. “I’ll summon the others,” Odette murmurs.

“When he wakes, he should see us all united.” “Leave them be,” Nicodemus replies, “for we are not yet out of the woods.” For the first time, I sense a hint of distress in his words, there and gone in an instant. “More than a third of my immortal children did not survive the transformation. Many were lost in the first year to the foolishness of immortal youth. This . may not work.” “It will work,” Odette says without hesitation. “Sébastien could succumb to madness, as his mother did,” Nicodemus says. “In her quest to be unmade, Philomène destroyed everything in her path, until there was nothing to be done but put an end to the terror.

” “That is not Bastien’s fate.” “Don’t be foolish. It very well could be.” Odette’s response is cool. “A risk you were willing to take.” “But a risk nonetheless. It was why I refused his sister when she asked me years ago to turn her.” He exhales. “In the end, we lost her to the fire all the same.” “We will not lose Bastien as we lost Émilie.

Nor will he succumb to Philomène’s fate.” “You speak with such surety, little oracle.” He pauses. “Has your second sight granted you this sense of conviction?” “No. Years ago, I promised Bastien I would not look into his future. I have not forsaken my word. But I believe in my heart that hope will prevail. It . simply must.” Despite her seemingly unshakable faith, Odette’s worry is a palpable thing.

I wish I could reach for her hand. Offer her words of reassurance. But still I am locked within myself, my anger overtaking all else. It turns to ash on my tongue, until all I am left with is want. The need to be loved. To be sated. But most of all, the desire to destroy. Nicodemus says nothing for a time. “We shall see. His wrath will be great, of that there can be no doubt.

Sébastien never wanted to become one of us. He bore witness to the cost of the change at an early age.” My uncle knows me well. His world took my family from me. I think of my parents, who died years ago, trying to keep me safe. I think of my sister, who perished trying to protect me. I think of Celine, the girl I loved in life, who will not remember me. I have never betrayed anyone I love. But never is a long time, when you have eternity to consider. “He may also be grateful,” Odette says.

“One day.” My uncle does not reply. ODETTE Odette Valmont leaned into the wind. Let it buffet her brunette curls about her face and whip her coattails into a frenzy. She reveled in the feeling of weightlessness as she stared down at Jackson Square, her right hand wrapped around the cool metal spire, her left boot dangling in the evening air. “Ah, it’s just you and me again, n’est-ce pas?” she joked to the metal crucifix mounted above her. The figure of Christ stared down at Odette in thoughtful silence. Odette sighed. “Don’t fret, mon Sauveur. You know I hold your counsel in the highest esteem.

It is not every day that a creature such as myself is fortunate enough to count you among her dearest friends.” She grinned. Perhaps it was blasphemous for a demon of the night to address the Savior of mankind in such a familiar fashion. But Odette was in need of guidance, now more than ever. “I’d like to think you hear my prayers,” she continued. “After all, when I was alive, I made it a point to attend Mass regularly.” She tilted her ear toward the cross. “What was that?” Laughter bubbled from her pale throat. “Mais oui, bien sûr! I knew it. You embraced the sinner.

Of course you would welcome me with open arms.” Affection warmed her gaze. “It is why we will always be friends, until the bitter end.” She paused as if she were listening to a reply intended for her ears alone. “You’re too kind,” she said. “And I would never fault you for the sins of the men who have turned your pure words and generous deeds into instruments of power and control.” Once more, Odette whirled around the spire. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!” she sang, her eyes squeezed shut, a gust of wind rushing toward her face. Odette took in the world of the Vieux Carré far below, her attention catching on the cameo pinned beneath her throat, the creamy ivory surrounded by a halo of bloodred rubies. Her fétiche, which served two purposes, much like the two sides of her life.

It worked as a talisman to protect her from the light of the sun while also serving as an ever-present reminder of her past. The sight of it sobered her. Along with the slew of remembrances gathering in its wake. New Orleans’ high society believed Odette Valmont to be the carefree sort of jeune fille who thrived in the company of others. A young lady whose greatest joy was standing center stage in a roomful of people, their gazes rapt. “But who wouldn’t adore the attention?” Odette asked. “Am I to be faulted even for this most human of emotions? After all, beauty such as ours is meant to be admired!” It was one of the things that made vampires such dangerous predators: their beauté inégalée, as she liked to call it. With this unparalleled beauty, they drew their victims into a lasting embrace. But not long after the appreciative sighs faded, Odette would don her favorite pair of buckskin trousers. She would climb the back of the cathedral under cover of night, her fingers and toes sure as they clawed their way up the center of the edifice to the tallest of the three spires, the dark gift coursing through her veins.

Once she reached the tower’s apex, she would glory in the silence of solitude. In the splendor of being alone, under the watchful eyes of her Savior. It always struck her as odd, how people believed exciting things were bound to happen at parties with loud music, raucous laughter, and flowing champagne. This surety was what drew them to such events in the first place. Odette thought the most exciting space was the one within her own mind. Her imagination was usually much better than real life. With a few notable exceptions, of course. Like her first real kiss. The taste of spun sugar on Marie’s soft lips; Odette’s mortal heart racing in her chest. The way their hands trembled.

The way their breaths quickened. She turned toward the young man on the cross. The Son of God. “Is my love a sin?” she asked him without flinching, as she had on countless other occasions. Again he gave her the same response. Odette nodded with satisfaction and repeated the mantra. “Your message was one of love. And hatred should never prevail over love.” Once more, her memories wavered at the edges of her mind. She recalled her first brush with death, the day her father was led to the guillotine, jeers accompanying each of his steps.

How he still wore his powdered wig, even when the blade fell. The slick sound of his blood splashing across the stones, which brought to mind her first kill, the night after welcoming her maker with open arms. The thrill of holding such godlike power in her grasp. Odette’s fingers turned white around the metal spire. Contrary to popular opinion, she was no longer angry. Not at the bloodthirsty men and women who’d left her a shivering orphan. Not at her parents for being unable to fight back. Not at Nicodemus for stealing Odette away from the dregs of her former life. Not at Marie, who had broken Odette’s heart in the way of so many first loves. “Because of everything that happened, I’ve learned to love myself more,” she said.

“And is that not the best gift any trial in life can give you? The power to love yourself today better than you did the day before.” Odette angled her chin into a violet sky spangled with stars. The clouds above shifted like feathers of mist in a passing breeze. Nigel used to say the skies over New Orleans were filled with the smoke of the city’s misdeeds. The lapses in judgment so often celebrated by the Vieux Carré’s well-heeled tourists, who helped make New Orleans one of the wealthiest cities in the entire country, despite the recent War Between the States. Whenever Nigel would sit down to share his most salacious bit of weekly gossip, his Cockney accent would deepen with prurience. Something clenched around Odette’s dead heart. This time, she hesitated before glancing toward the metal cross in her periphery. “I know I have no business thinking of Nigel Fitzroy with anything resembling warmth,” she whispered. “He betrayed us.

” She swallowed. “He betrayed me.” Incredulity flared across her face. “To think this happened only one day ago. That the rising and setting of a single moon has changed all our lives in such an irrevocable fashion.” In that single night, Odette had lost a brother she’d loved for a decade to a bone-chilling kind of treachery. This loss was keenly felt, though she dared not mourn it in the open. To do so would be une erreur fatale, especially in Nicodemus’ presence. The loss of a traitor was no one’s loss at all. And yet .

She’d cried in her room this morning. She’d drawn the velvet curtains around her fourposter bed and let blood-tinged tears stain her ivory silk pillows. No one had seen hide nor hair of Boone all day. Jae arrived not long after sundown, his black hair wet, his expression somber. Upon returning to Jacques’, Hortense took to playing Bach cello suites at inhuman speed on her Stradivarius, while her sister, Madeleine, wrote in a leatherbound journal nearby. In short, every member of La Cour des Lions mourned in their own way. On the surface, it had been business as usual. They exchanged stilted pleasantries. Acted as if nothing were amiss, none of them wishing to give voice to their anguish or breathe life into the worst of Nigel’s offenses, the proof of which was soon to follow. Nigel’s worst offense?

.

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