Raven's Ascent | Verso.ink

Raven's Ascent

Book 1 of Trials of Darkhaven

By Ben Blackwell

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Chapter 2
Modern times, USA, fictional city of Darkhaven

The next day, I arrived at the specified destination. It was early fall, so the sun was already low, sending warm rays of sunlight over the city and painting it in long shadows.
The meeting place turned out to be a small, abandoned warehouse. A suitable location. Inconspicuous, not in the middle of the city, and probably open enough on the inside to prevent an ambush or stealth attack.
I opened the door and stepped inside, then immediately froze as I felt a steel blade to my throat.
“It’s okay, she’s with us,” a familiar voice shouted.
The blade was withdrawn and found its way back into its sheath with one fluid motion. One look, and I identified its owner as a vampire, a member of the guard, specifically. No one else dressed like they did.
Clad in black leather armor, a dark gray coat, and solid yet versatile leather boots, he looked like a typical vampire guard on duty. In my experience, they only wore coats when they didn’t expect a fight. A good sign. His gaze didn’t leave me and his face remained stern, distrustful even. Just like his military-style haircut and boney face, he looked like a typical vampire. Their society was very hierachical, and apparently, individualism was a luxury reserved for their leaders.
The vampire nodded at me. Remembering that I was supposed to not look like a bodyguard, I shot him a fearful gaze before moving on.
Next to three other magicals, the witch who hired waited. Again, he was a little overdressed in a nice, white shirt and navy chinos, with black dress shoes to top it off. They stood on one side of an old, rusty table and argued.
I looked around, but didn’t see anyone else. No other vampires beyond that guard. Was the guard sent by the vampires to deal with this, or tasked with guarding a delegate? Either way, I was less worried about a guard becoming aggressive than some random vampire punks. And if things still escalated, I could take him.
I approached the dressy witch, whose name I still didn’t know, but respectfully kept some distance from the others. Wearing simple jeans, a black crop top, and a light brown raincoat above it, I thought I was quite passable as a witch. I had also brought my snake bracelet, but I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it. Just to be sure, I had also bought a cheap crystal necklace in some regular human trinket shop. It would never pass inspection by a magic user, but all I needed was to give the first impression of being a young witch. Of course, I still had a dagger snapped to the back of my belt, where it would stay hidden until I needed it.
“Good. You’re here, and on time, too. It seems I made the right choice. We shall start momentarily; we’re only waiting for the remaining vampires to arrive. Just stand back there, watch, and learn,” the witch said to me, pointing at the nearest wall.
Remains of the warehouse’s previous contents were standing around there, collecting dust. Some crates, a few empty barrels, collapsed racks and shelves.
“Will do. I’ll watch carefully,” I replied. I was not exactly invisible, but I would look like a young witch tasked to observe political procedures with vampires, not like a bodyguard.
The man smiled and nodded He might not have had much experience in hiring bodyguards, but he seemed to be smart enough. Half the clients who usually hired me would have already given away my supposedly secret role as a bodyguard.
I had a good feeling about this client, but the job still made me uneasy. The jobs that seemed simple always turned out to be the messiest. I would have to keep my guard up today.
As I moved to the back of the room, I studied the group of witches. My brows furrowed as I recognized them.
These weren’t regular witches—some shop owners as I was led to believe. At least one of them was a member of the Ring of Elders. I hadn’t had a lot of contact with them, but I had seen them from a distance a few times. And I was good at remembering faces.
The Ring acted as a council leading the witches, shamans, and elementalists of Darkhaven. They didn’t technically have any power, but they were chosen by their people to represent them, and thus their orders were usually followed. By working together like that, they could avoid a lot of conflict and bloodshed. If anything happened, though, I’d have to adjust my fee a bit. Protecting political VIPs would cost extra for sure.
“No, we can’t let that stand, Allard!” a slightly bigger man called out. Judging by the rune-like tattoos on his arms, he was most likely a shaman. “I know you want to make nice with everyone, but they killed a witch. Murdered her!”
Finally, I had a name. The dressed-up witch, Allard, raised his hands in defense. “I agree, we won’t let them get away with it. I just don’t want to let this escalate into more bloodshed, Lazar.”
This Lazar character was the loudest, but judging by the tone, all three were above Allard in rank. Not just one, but three Elders I was protecting. I felt like I was hired as a mall cop, then suddenly tasked with protecting the major.
“I’m with Lazar on this one,” the older woman said. Her flowery top and colorful earrings reminded me of a cheerful teacher, but her eyes were stern. “They killed one of ours. They will look down to us us around until we stand up for ourselves.”
I shifted my attention away from their discussion to scan the warehouse. Wide open, with few places to hide. An ambush seemed unlikely. The opposing side was dimly lit, but I thought I could make out a second door. Locking us in here was still a possibility, though.
Based on the bits I overheard from their discussion, a witch had been torn apart in her shop in an attack so brutal, no human or witch could have done it. Since the werewolves of Darkhaven preferred to stay outside the city, vampires were the top suspect.
Just like Allard said, only a few minutes passed until there was activity on the other side of the warehouse. The council fell silent and straightened up, and I followed suit. Seconds later, three vampires entered the warehouse and marched toward the witches. Two of them were from the guard, the third one was probably an emissary.
Judging from the way he walked, he was most definitely a vampire, probably somewhat influential. Then again, even the lousiest of vampires acted arrogant and overconfident while around other supernaturals or humans. But this one was no ordinary vampire, and not only because he was wearing a custom-tailored suit. With his brown dress shoes, the silver watch, and the confident strut, he might as well have been a Wall Street banker or politician.
But his insignia and crimson red tie said something different. “Crimson Fang,” I whispered in surprise. One of the Elite guard.
This changed things. If they sent him, the matter must be more important than I thought. Also, I thought of myself as a pretty talented fighter, but I wouldn’t dare take on a Crimson Fang. Sure, I might win—but I wouldn’t bet on it. Even without a weapon, I would say he had a 50:50 chance of taking me down. And I enjoyed living too much to take that chance.
But while there was often tension or even hostility between supernatural communities, especially between vampires and others, the presence of a Crimson Fang meant that this was a political meeting. The worst I now expected was an open insult. The Crimson Fangs might have been the meanest, baddest boys in town, but they were also smart enough not to start a war by attacking the Ring of Elders.
So I expected them to remain civil, the only attacks they might make would be with words. And it was not my job to make them behave, so I could stay back and watch. Overall, I thought this development boded well. Higher stakes, more important players, but less need for me to get involved in any fighting. I was almost sorry I hadn’t brought popcorn—watching this could be interesting.
The Crimson Fang opened the meeting without hesitation. “I’ve heard a witch was murdered in her shop. Supposedly by a vampire. Judging by the way the young lady was ripped apart, I agree it looks bad,” he stated calmly, letting his gaze wander over the council members. “But let’s not jump to conclusions. I’m here to make sure we find the true attacker. Do not assign blame to us on hearsay. We don’t want this incident to lead to a series of retaliations.”
“Agreed. We don’t want to throw around accusations, but we will not rest until justice has been served,” one of the witches, the man, responded. “But the way she was attacked, her wounds—”
“It was a vampire, that much is clear,” the woman interrupted. “There was no evidence this was a werewolf attack, and what else is feral enough to attack like this, huh?”
The vampire raised his hands, but before he could say anything, the shaman and the two witches burst out with more complaints and accusations.
“It’s always like this! You always—”
“—and every time a witch—”
“—if we so much as think about speak back to a vampire!”
“People, please!” The non-Elder, Allard, tried to calm them down, but they barely even noticed him.
After only a few minutes of arguing, I got bored of it. What had looked like a potentially interesting encounter quickly turned out to be political blah blah, tiptoeing around each other without getting to the point, and badly veiled jabs and accusations. Still, I watched dutifully.
It could have been worse, though. While I was not a big fan of vampires, the one in the suit was not too bad to look at. His hair was about an inch long and dark brown, trimmed neatly, matching his clean-shaven and angular face. And while the expensive suit gave him a sophisticated look, I could still see the body of a warrior underneath.
But most fascinating were his eyes. When he smiled at the witches and shamans, his warm blue eyes reminded me of a politician, making you believe that everything will be good in the world. But when he disagreed, his eyes turned cold and piercing. Still, he seemed unusually diplomatic, charismatic even. Good manners and social skills did not tend to be a strength of most vampires in my experience. I had only ever seen Crimson Fangs as guards or in battle, where they were ruthless and brutal. This one made me wonder whether they were more than that.
My thoughts were interrupted when the door I entered through ten minutes earlier suddenly swung open. Just like me, the vampires became alert immediately. Two moved a few steps toward the door, covering their leader.
Then, a figure walked through the door. She looked like an ordinary woman, but smelled intensely of magic, even from where I was standing. Something about her was off, though. Her smell was a bit flowery, but also… rotten. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I readied myself to move or fight if needed. My instinct flared up, pumping adrenaline into my body.
The room was completely quiet for a second, until the two vampire guards sprung into action again. “Halt!” one shouted, and both put their hands on their swords. The third remained with their leader.
The Crimson Fang looked toward the Ring of Elders, one eyebrow raised in an unspoken question. I couldn’t see their faces, but when they shook their heads, looking at each other in confusion, it was obvious that none of them was responsible for this intrusion.
As the witch moved closer, walking with a slight limp, the vampire guards fanned out and began closing in on her.
The witch moved like a drunk lion on the hunt—uncoordinated, but ready to jump. Not that I had ever seen a drunk lion, but that was exactly how I imagined it. She swayed left and right as she walked, her head bobbling slightly. Her hands twitched without a clear goal. But it didn’t explain why she moved like a predator—witches weren’t like that—or why she moved like a drunk. Had she been day drinking?
My heartbeat quickened, my muscles tensed. Whatever was about to happen, it would happen soon. I could feel the air fill with tension. The vampires were waiting to strike. My breath was short as I watched them carefully.
But it wasn’t the vampires who struck first. With her hands stretched forward like claws, the witch jumped the bigger one of the two vampires, slashing at his face. She was abnormally fast, faster than any non-vampire I had ever seen.
She was on him before he could even pull his sword, despite his preternatural speed. A moment later, he was lying on his back, the witch on top of him. Her hands kept slashing at his face, her nails leaving red marks all over it. Blood splatters hit the floor left and right.
I wanted to move, but my body was still in shock. The distance between the crazy witch and the ones I had been tasked to protect was about fifteen feet. About twice as far as I was away from them. But after seeing that jump, I was not about to take a chance.
As I quickly moved closer to the Elders, the downed vampire finally managed to turn the situation in his favor. He grabbed the witch’s arms and rolled over, pinned her down under his weight.
He clasped her throat and pushed her down onto the ground, building himself up over her. She might have been aggressive like a rabid dog, but she had no chance against the vampire’s strength. She continued hissing at him, tried to hack at his face with her hands. Then suddenly, her arms went limp and her head fell to the side.
The shorter vampire had been standing next to his comrade, either too shocked or too afraid to help. He visibly relaxed and let out a sigh as the other vampire ended the threat on his own.
The room was absolutely quiet as the vampire guard slowly got up. He exchanged a worried glance with the Crimson Fang, then looked at the other vampire guard. In one fluid motion, the bigger vampire snarled, drew his sword, and slashed the timid one’s throat in one clean swing.
I couldn’t see the expression on the attacker’s face anymore, but the expression of betrayal and terror in the other vampire’s face made my skin crawl. I had seen vampires brawl before, and there were often conflicts between smaller clans, but I had never seen a vampire kill a clan mate like that.
My body was still frozen in shock when the vampire turned around, his dark grey coat covered in blood and his face a grimace of rage. Without hesitation, he jumped at the loud shaman, Lazar.
Finally, my instincts took over. With a quick waving motion with my left hand, I pulled up a magical barrier between them and the rabid vampire. I could only pull a bit of magic in, not enough for anything reliable, though. Not a second too late, as he crashed against it with full force just a moment later. I could feel my barrier shatter, its power used up.
The vampire stumbled back in surprise. The barrier was gone, but before I could create another, the vampire jumped again.
I put all my anger and, if I was honest, quite a bit of fear into it, drew in a lot more magic. I let it rush through my outstretched arm and focused it with my hand.
The magic blast hit him in mid-air, maybe five feet away from his target. It looked almost comical as the feral, bloodstained vampire was thrown across the room like a doll. He bounced off a metal wall on the other side, then crashed into a pile of crates, turning them into rubble.
I felt like I should chase after him, finish the job, but my legs wouldn’t move. I had fought vampires and werewolves before, but I had never seen anything like that. Something so unpredictable and primal, even more aggressive than a regular pissed-off vampire. I also felt the Crimson Fang’s presence pressing down on me. I didn’t want to deliver a killing blow without knowing where he stood in this.
When the crazed vampire got up again, my body stiffened. But a heartbeat later, he rushed through the back exit. Relief washed over me. A blast like that could’ve killed a normal human, at the very least broken a few bones. This thing didn’t even slow down. Vampires healed fast, but not that fast. Whatever it was, there was no way in hell I was going to fight it alone.
Silence descended on the warehouse once again as the witches and the shaman looked at each other in fear and shock. Even the cold, reserved face of the Crimson Fang looked shaken, unsettled by what he had just seen. His eyes were glued to the dead vampire guard lying in a slowly expanding pool of blood.
“What the hell was that?” one of the witches finally uttered.
I studied everyone’s faces carefully, hoping to get some insight into what had just happened. A rogue, mad witch seemed unlikely, but either no one in this room was behind this attack, or they were excellent actors, because the confusion in this room was so thick, it was almost tangible.
But then another sound broke the silence. The witch, or whatever the woman was, had started moving again. I reached for my dagger, the other hand outstretched readily, but then I relaxed again. Whatever had possessed her before seemed to have faded. Her movements were still shaky, but the rotten smell was gone.
The last remaining vampire guard stepped forward, sword drawn at the ready, but his hands were shaking with fear. Before he could take another step, the Crimson Fang put a hand on his shoulder.
“Let me,” he said with a calm but assertive voice. He looked relaxed on the first glance, but as I watched him walk over to the witch, I could see controlled rage in every one of his movements. I did not envy the person about to face that anger right now.
“Who are you?” the vampire demanded.
“I’m… Lyla?” the witch stammered. She looked just as confused as the rest of us. “What happened? Where am I?” She let her fingers run across her neck, dark with bruises, and inhaled sharply.
The Elders exchanged glances like they were thinking the same thing. The shaman then walked to the witch, lightly touching her shoulder. “What’s the last thing you can remember, Lyla?”
The woman looked between the shaman and the vampire towering over her. Lazar looked friendly, I thought. He might have been the loudest before, but as he spoke to the witch, there was nothing but compassion in his voice.
“I… I was shopping,” the witch stammered. “At the market.”
The Crimson Fang took a few steps back when she kept looking up at him in terror. She relaxed visibly, turning to the shaman who now kneeled next to her.
“I was… buying a pumpkin, for dinner, when someone bumped into me, quite hard. That I can remember. I dropped my pumpkin. But… I don’t know what happened next. Wait, uhm… he didn’t seem sorry, I think. I remember being annoyed about that.”
She looked around and seemed to take in her surroundings. Her face paled visibly when she noticed the vampire guard lying on the ground next to her in a puddle of blood.
“Was… that…?”
"No, don't worry about it," the shaman said quietly, offering her a hand to help her up. "We don't know exactly what happened, but it seems you were the victim of a spell, maybe a curse. Apparently, one that transferred to the other vampire when he tried to stop you.
Her eyes were wide open as she stared at Lazar, her hands still trembling.
“Go home,” the female Elder said, walking up to her, “and don’t worry about it. We’ll take over from here.” She smiled and touched the scared woman on the arm.
She nodded quickly, glanced toward the Crimson Fang one last time, then rushed out the door.
The Crimson Fang looked at the witches and shaman, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “So you’re saying someone cursed her to kill us? A common witch, against four armed vampires?”
“And then the curse moved on.” The female witch nodded.
The vampire squinted at her.
“What if it wasn’t a curse, though?” the shaman added. “Curses don’t move from person to person. What if they were mind controlled, or possessed, perhaps?”
“That would explain the behavior and memory loss,” the other witch agreed, his brows furrowed. “But we didn’t have curses like that in years!”
The discussion quickly turned into a chatter that I couldn’t follow. I knew the basics of witchcraft, but not enough to follow such a heated argument on the intricacies of dark spirits and mind control. I wasn’t particularly interested either, not unless they were going to talk about how to kill it. But that didn’t seem to be on their minds right now.
“Enough!” the Crimson Fang eventually interrupted them. “You can try to figure out what exactly happened and where it came from later—right now, we have a highly aggressive vampire on the loose that we have to deal with.”
The witches and shaman looked at each other, then hesitantly turning toward the vampire. “What do you suggest, then?”
He scoffed. “Going after him? Preventing a murder spree? We can cover up a single death, but if a possessed vampire starts killing humans, we’re in trouble.”
The Elders exchanged glances again for a few seconds, like they were waiting for anyone to bring up a different plan.
“Alright,” the shaman finally said. “Then our goals align for now. A public slaughter like that would bring too much attention to the supernatural world, and we can’t have that.”
“We shall assist you with whatever resources we can,” Allard added. “I know a witch who is an excellent tracker, and our friend here will be happy to accompany you, I’m sure,” he continued, pointing at me.
I looked at him in surprise. “Me?”
Allard came closer, his voice quiet. “You’ve done an impressive job so far, and we need to make haste if we want to catch that thing. You’ll be compensated, of course.”
“I don’t think I—" I protested.
“Please,” he interrupted. “Evie was probably murdered by the same attacker. Her wounds fit—"
“Evie?”
“Oh, yes, the owner of the magic shop, sorry,” Allard explained. “We can’t let this thing go on a—"
I cut him off with a quick gesture. “I remember Evie. If that thing killed her, I’m in.”
Evie was the first person I somewhat trusted after my mother was killed. When I first stumbled into her store, wounded by some low-life’s poisoned dagger, she’d treated me and let me crash on her couch. I didn’t really get close to people, but when someone messed with one of the few people I liked and admired, I made sure they paid for it.
A smile spread on the witch’s face. “Marvelous. I knew I picked the right person for the job. Good luck on the hunt, and please contact me when you find anything,” he said and pulled a card out of his jacket, handing it to me.
I took it with a frown on my face, then laughed after inspecting it for a second. “You have a business card?”
“I’m not an Elder, but I coordinate many matters for the Ring. Being easy to reach is important for maintaining peace and keeping things civil,” he explained with a shrug.
“Makes sense, I guess,” I said, still not convinced. But I had more important matters to address for now.
I nodded at Allard, then walked past him, stopping right in front of the vampire. “You ready to go, or are you worried you might ruin your pretty suit?” I heard myself say, sounding way cockier than intended.
My heart skipped a beat as the vampire, a head taller and about twice as heavy as me, looked down at me with a mix of irritation and confusion.
“Let’s go, then” he replied, eyebrow raised, before turning around and strutting toward the exit without hesitation.
At that moment, I recognized him. I hadn’t noticed from a distance, but seeing him up close and smelling his scent made me remember. We’d met before. And not exactly in a pleasant way.
“Shit,” I whispered before running after him.
This was about to be one of the more interesting jobs I’ve had so far.

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About Ben Blackwell

Ben Blackwell loves bringing characters to life, and giving them an equal mix of magic and problems. They become heroes not because of the powers they have, but because of how they rise above their own struggles to face a challenge greater than themselves. Also, romance. Because what would life be without love? He writes Urban Fantasy with kick-ass heroines, deadly vampires, quirky witches and other powerful magical creatures.

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