Masquerade This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

The nightmare had haunted her all day as she moved about the large manor home, watching them prepare for the party that would be held in a few hours. She was to be crowned that night as the Queen of the Vampires, at the last stroke of midnight during the New Year’s Eve countdown. They were holding a masquerade ball in her honor as well, and she was due to be getting ready at that moment.

Instead, Catherina found herself sitting at the small fountain as the center of the labyrinth of hedges that made up part of the gardens of the manor. Her pale fingers trailed along the rippling surface of the pool of water at the bottom, her skin tingling slightly in the sunlight. Much longer out there and she’d be on fire.

She was trying to assure herself that it had been nothing but a dream. Artem was dead, and there was no chance of him coming back. The royal guard had made sure that after Artem had murdered the Vampiric Royal Family - save for her - that he died a violent, harsh death. His last words before they’d cut his head off had been a promise to return one day and come to kill her. Her entire family had betrayed him, and he wanted his revenge.

Catherina didn’t have much time to dwell on it any longer, as her royal guard came to get her some time after that to escort her back upstairs so she would be ready in time. Her dress and everything was laid out for her - traditionally, she was in a white ball gown. It was almost old fashioned looking, with the bustle backing, however it lacked any sort of straps and had feathers along the top and bottom of the dress, matching the feathers at the top of her gloves and on her glittering mask. She would have preferred to wear anything but white, but it was tradition, and she wasn’t going to break it then.

After a quick change, she moved to stand in the lobby, greeting her guests as they arrived.

The grand ballroom on the ground floor of the manor was already full of people - she could hear them on the other side of the double doors as she paced nervously outside of them, waiting for when she was supposed to enter. The party had been going on for at least two hours by then, and now, they were just waiting for her. She’d remained in the lobby the entire time, not able to enter until her time. At five until midnight, she would make her entrance.

“Are you ready, Princess?” One of the men at the doors asked and she nodded, blinking behind her elegant mask. The doors swung open, and she faced the crowd of people - they were all there to see her. She put on a brilliant smile, striding forward through the path they had made for her up to the front of the room. Some looked at her proudly, others with resentment, but she could see the look on all their pale faces were saying the same thing - even with the masks it was easy to read: She wasn’t cut out for the job.

At least she was going to try her hardest. No matter if Artem was after her again.

A man in red robes stood at the front of the room on a raised platform, holding the silver crown that had once graced her mother’s head. He would perform the ritual on her. Catherina reached him, kneeling at his feet, the layers of her gown spreading out around her. He placed the crown along her head before taking her left hand between the both of his.

“Do you, Catherina Petrov, daughter of the late Nikolai and Alexandra Petrov, solemnly swear to govern our race in a fair and just manner, just as your ancestors have done before you?”

“I solemnly swear so to do.”

There was a sharp burning sensation in her hand, wrapping up and around to her shoulder. Catherina shut her eyes tightly, letting the feeling subside before opening them again. A dark, very black tattoo now wound it’s way up her arm, starting in a spiral on the back of her hand. She remembered her parents both having the same marks that now adorned her own arm.

“Stand.”

She did, and faced her guests, staring our across the sea of colors and masks.

“Presenting, Caterina Alexandra Petrov, Queen of the vampiric race.”

Applause erupted and then died down as one by one, each of them bowed or curtseyed, honoring her. She gave a curtsey in return, then let out a soft laugh.

“Let us celebrate!” She grinned, raising her hands, the black mark along her pale skin prominent. One of the waiters passing nearby handed her a crystal glass of wine—or at least, it appeared to be. The rustic smell of blood wafted from the goblet instead. “To a new year!”

“To a new year!” The crowded echoed, raising their glasses to her. Laughter and music started up again as couples began to make their way to the dance floor again, becoming a swirling mass of colors. They were fading back into the masquerade party. Catherina pulled her mask up from around her neck and replaced it on her pale face as she sat her glass aside, smiling the entire time. A masked man came up to her and extended a hand in a silent gesture to dance and she took it, sliding her gloved hand in his. He swept her onto the dance floor, swirling her as they stepped into the waltz that had already began to play.

Above them, something suddenly shattered. Glass shards flew everywhere as ghostly, bat-like creatures broke through the high arching windows, landing with a horrible screech on the wooden floor within the guests. Screaming, several vampires among the crowd turned into similar creatures and took off for the shattered windows, which were now allowing a warm summer breeze to waft through. Catherina stood there, frozen, staring.

“Get the girl!” One of the creatures shouted, pointing at her. In less than two seconds she was surrounded by most of them.

“Don’t touch me!” Catherina said and attempted to turn into her own bat form, but one of them darted forward and grabbed her, snapping some bracelet around her wrist. It sent an electric jolt through her arm and she winced. The creatures let out another terrifying screech before they morphed back into a human form, all of them in robes of black, staring at her with malicious smiles on her face. Some of them moved to push the crowds back against the walls of the ballroom.

The only one who did not move, was the pale man she had been dancing with.

She was still trying to get the bracelet off when he laid a hand tightly on her shoulder. Her head snapped up.

He let out a low chuckle, seeing the look on her terrified face as he ripped away her mask and knocked away her crown.

“Hello, little Catherina.”

A chill ran down her spine as he reached up and tugged his own mask off. It was Artem, staring back at her with dark red eyes, heavy lidded and glaring. He swept her hair aside and ran a long nail down her cheek. Growling, she moved to smack him, but he grabbed her wrist before she could touch him.

“I think not. Didn’t your parents ever teach you manners?” He was toying with her now, and she jerked against him, pulling away. As she stepped back at a slower pace, she fought to get the bracelet off again, knowing it was preventing her from changing forms and escaping. Around the edges of the room her guests looked on with terrified faces, most of them easily readable behind the masks. The vampires Artem had brought with him were playing with them, lunging at them to keep them distracted—and so they wouldn’t get any ideas about coming to help her.

“You killed them, so no, they never had the chance.” Catherina muttered cheekily at him and he chuckled again, flashing gleaming white fangs in her direction. She was nearly at the platform from earlier now, and stepped backwards up onto it, raising herself above the others.

“You’ll be with them quite shortly. Don’t worry.” He assured her, but that in no way assured her. She didn’t want to die. She had her entire race to take care of now, and being murdered would only lead to Artem taking over and effectively destroying them all.

“I’d say it would be you that would be with them shortly, but when I kill you, you’re going to Hell.” Catherina said and he narrowed his eyes.

“You and what army, Your Highness?” Sarcasm dripped from his voice and she snarled.

“Just me. And you. You think I was raised not knowing how to defend myself?”

“I didn’t doubt it. Are you sure you can handle a fight? You might break a nail.”

Without warning, Catherina launched herself at him. He sidestepped her with ease and she landed right where he had been standing previously. Her arm came up to punch him and he grabbed it, twisting it behind her back and shoving her forcefully away. She hissed and rounded, her foot slamming into his gut as she kicked him. He stumbled back and she punched him in the mouth, her other hand hitting his nose at an upward angle—something cracked beneath her hand.

“I can see they’ve taught you well enough.” He muttered, twisting his nose as it healed itself. He scrunched it a few times before walking calmly back toward her. “But not better than me.”

He ran at her and she was halfway across the room before he even noticed, slamming hard into the platform, sending splintering wood flying. Several vampires recoiled, and she picked up one of the pieces of sharp wood that had been splintered off. Catherina moved forward toward him, her improvised stake in her hand threateningly. He made a mock face of terror as she attempted to plunge it into his chest. He grabbed it and twisted her arm again, keeping her from doing so. The piece of wood skidded across the floor as his arms locked hers in place behind her back.

“You can’t win.” He hissed furiously in her ear. Her elbow came up and nailed him in the face, sending him flying back across the room, falling out one of the windows. This was ridiculous. She was fighting the man who had killed her entire family in a formal dress, and it seemed quite unreal. Shaking her head, she ran toward the window.

A pale hand reached up and jerked her out. She screamed as she tumbled into the bushes that had been below the window. Artem’s figure loomed above her, about to pounce, and she quickly rolled away, landing back on the ground.

She took off toward the gardens, toward the labyrinth. She knew her way through it flawlessly, but Artem did not, giving her an advantage, for now. She ducked into the hedges, taking unneeded gasps of air as she swerved this way and that, not risking moving toward the center of the labyrinth until she needed to—Artem would be able to see her if he looked over the top of the hedges, if she were in the center with the fountain. No doubt he was already waiting for her there.

If she were lucky, this would all be a dream. She’d wake up at any moment in her own bed back at the manor, having imagined it all.

She rounded a corner—two vampires of Artem’s stood there, blocking her way. She turned and ran back the other way. Her next path was blocked as well. The only way left would be toward the center. They were herding her.

Lifting her skirts again, she emerged into the open center of the labyrinth. Artem stood on the edge of the fountain along the concrete lip of it. Everything was still lit up in bright white lights, giving an eerie backlight to Artem’s figure. She stood there, raking hair out of her eyes as she stared at him.

“You can’t hide from me.” He began, stepping down off the lip of the fountain toward her. She remained still, straight, rigid, and regal looking.

“And you’ll never be able to take over this monarchy.”

“Naïve little child. I only want to kill you. You and your family betrayed me, and every single one of you must pay the price.”

“You were the one who was embezzling the money from us. We trusted you, Artem. You were my brother, and now you deserve the horrible fate you’re going to meet.” She said, narrowing her eyes at him. “It’s your own fault for everything. My family didn’t deserve to be murdered!”

Artem glared, and was suddenly right in front of her. He grabbed her by the hair, pulling her closer with a sneer.

“No, Catherina. Your family kicked me out. They kicked me out, like nothing, onto the streets. It should have been you.”

“You tried to take over the throne after you tried to steal all of my family’s money.” She said flatly. He growled and gave her a questioningly look. “I saw you and father fighting about it. You knew I used to sneak into his study.”

“Well, what a smart girl you are. I was never treated fairly. I was supposed to take over. Not you. But father thought you would be better. Pretty Catherina, who played with her dolls while her big brother was out learning to be King. So I did what I had to do.”

He shoved her back roughly with a growl and she stumbled, nearly tripping.

“You don’t want to kill me. I helped you.” She whispered. Artem let out a laugh. His vampires began to appear, blocking the entrances to the center of the labyrinth.

“Quite wrong, baby sister. In fact, the opposite. I want to kill you very much. You were the one who destroyed me.”

She was starting to panic now, but tried not to let it show, her face smooth. She had been taught to remain regal and stoic in any situation, even one where she was about to be killed.

“I can guarantee your safety if you stand down your men and surrender to me. I will protect you.” She offered quietly. She had been taught to be forgiving, and even if Artem had killed her parents, she did not wish the death that awaited Artem onto him.

Artem stared at her.

“No.”

Catherina sighed heavily, glancing up. Artem followed her gaze—vampires dressed entirely in black with sunglasses over their eyes suddenly appeared on the tops of the hedges around the center of the labyrinth. More entered through the maze, tackling Artem’s vampires to the ground. Artem watched, unfazed.

“Don’t move.” Three of the royal guard that had stepped in now came toward Artem. He chuckled.

“Too late.”

He lunged at Catherina, tackling her to the ground. His fangs ripped into her throat and she screamed, trying to fight him off. They dragged Artem off of her and wrapped thick iron chains around him as she thrashed on the ground, her neck bleeding almost violently. Two of the royal guard came toward her, and began to work. One of them bent to her neck and carefully kissed the place Artem had bitten her, sealing the wound almost instantly with his venom. He wiped away the extra blood.

“Are you okay, your highness?” He asked quietly and Catherina managed a weak nod, exhaling a long breath.

. . .

Just before dawn, she and the others gathered in the shaded courtyard of the manor. Artem was being dragged to the end of the courtyard, the only part the sun touched when it rose. Light rays were shooting across the sky—sunrise was approaching.

“Artem Petrov.” Her voice rang out as she stepped forward. “You have been sentenced to death for the murders of Nikolai and Alexandra Petrov, and the attempted murder of Catherina Petrov, all of the royal family. Do you have any last words to say before you are executed?” She watched as two of the royal guard latched him to a metal pole that ran from one side of the courtyard to the other, several feet off the ground so that his arms would be above his head.

He flashed her a mad grin.

“I’ll be back again, little Catherina. I can promise you that. I’m not taking the blame for you!” He said and let out a loud laugh that rang across the courtyard.

The two guards stepped back into the shadows with Catherina and the gathered crowd as the sun inched higher in the sky. The first rays began to appear along the courtyard, nearing Artem almost instantly.

The minute the first ray touched him, he screamed.

More and more rays touched him until he was bathed in sunlight. His clothes began to smoke, his skin charring. Catherina watched, nearly crying. He was still her brother.

The next instant, he had burst violently into flames. She shaded her eyes, staring at the charred marks on the ground.

“Dawning of a new year . . . .” She whispered, then turned to her guests. “Come! Let us return inside and enjoy this first morning of a bright, new year.” Catherina held a smile as she ushered them back inside, the royal guard flanking her on either side. She paused, glancing back at where the chains that had held Artem now hung limply from the pole.

“Tell mom and dad I’m sorry for killing them. You were always a better accomplice than a murderer, brother. ”





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