Chapter One – Queen Of The Chessboard
Growing up in Bulgaria in the 1970s, Valentina had learned that chess is an immortal game, communism lasts forever, and vampires must be bottled and burnt in glass.
Now the July air of Sofia lay hot and heavy in the dim bedroom where Valentina crouched anxiously on the parquet floor beside the bed of her dying grandmother. It had been twenty-one years since Valentina had left Bulgaria for a new life in America, twenty-one years since she’d felt the summer air of Bulgaria or seen her grandmother’s small, wrinkled face.
Baba Elenka’s eyes were closed as her crooked hand reached for Valentina. “I never thought to see you again, sweet child,” she whispered.
“Rest, Babo. I’m here now.” Valentina listened intently for the shallow breathing. She felt death burning into Baba Elenka’s lungs and glanced nervously at the flickering candles set around this shadowed room where Valentina had spent her childhood.
“Eternity approaches—” Baba Elenka laid her hands flat on her small chest under her nightgown, a cough erupting to pull her ominously backward. “The violence of the meeting.”
“No. The belladonna—it is making me shiver—give me your hands, child.”
Blinking back tears, Valentina took Baba Elenka’s crooked hands. Ancient icons of saints stared with piercing eyes down from the brick walls, while dry branches of an old walnut tree scratched the glass, trying to claw through and pull Baba Elenka to the other side.
Baba Elenka sighed, barely a breath from the pillow. “Do you want to know the truth, my Valentina? You must be prepared—”
“Babo, I came home for this.”
There was a hint of a smile on Baba Elenka’s lips, as with tears in her eyes Valentina bent to kiss Elenka’s hand in respect. “No more secrets, my Valentina,” Baba Elenka whispered. “You can handle your destiny now. It is powerful and terrible.”
Valentina’s gaze went to the window, where the setting sun burned the dark foothills of the Vitosha Mountains. “Babo, my Babo.” She traced the contours of Baba Elenka’s face with tingling fingers. “Why didn’t you tell me that you’re blind?”
“I have clarity.” Baba Elenka shook her head feebly. “I see the altered reality you are about to enter.” Baba Elenka touched the little gold cross on her chest. “Remember the nights long ago when you were a little girl? No electricity and the forest full of predators. Predators target prey with smaller brains, Valentina. Your brain is your weapon.” Baba Elenka took a breath, and her chest wheezed weakly as she squeezed Valentina’s hands. “You are special, child.” Baba Elenka’s breath was heavy with the scent of crushed belladonna. “Like fire, you burn fast and hot. Keep your enemies close, my Valentina. Remember that randomness lies everywhere—”
“I am an old soul, much older than my ninety-nine years,” Baba Elenka whispered through lips dry and cracked. “Follow God—”
“Babo, you know I don’t believe in God.”
Baba Elenka’s breathing slowed, the smell of sweat mixed with the candles, thick and saturating. “Here—” Baba Elenka fumbled at her bony wrist with the fingers of one hand. “Take my bracelet. Wear it. It will shine a light. It will give you wisdom. When she finds you, bottle her for me.” Baba Elenka paused, gasping. “For all of us.”
Valentina bowed over the nauseating flutter of fear that spread quickly up her spine. Tenderly, she reached to unclasp from Baba Elenka’s wrist a bracelet of Thracian gold studded with tiny sea shells and what seemed to be small golden hooks meant for missing charms. It felt magnetic.
As Valentina’s fingers touched the bracelet, a burst of darkness shook the room and threw her violently to the floor.
“Fear was your first experience in Tzara’s womb.” Baba Elenka’s faint whisper reached Valentina where she crouched. “Do not be afraid of fear, my Valentina. You will be reborn.”
“Babo, what is it?”Valentina crawled to the foot of the bed. “What’s happening?”
Boiling noise hissed in her ears, and she covered her pulsing temples. The walnut tree slammed into the window, cracking the glass.
“She returns—” Baba Elenka’s breathing stopped, her hand stretched out, holding the gold bracelet.
“Babo, Babo! Don’t go—”
Baba Elenka lay silent in the hot, oppressive wind that sizzled through the broken window.
“Babo, not yet! Please—” Valentina leaned across the still body and slipped the gold bracelet from the small, crooked hand. Instantly, she was thrown by an invisible force onto her back on the floor, where she lay gasping for breath and staring at splashes of color building in her vision. “Babo!” Valentina gasped. “Babo!” She gripped the bracelet with tingling fingers. It was native gold, mined in Bulgaria in the land of Thrace. There were seven hooks, but only one charm, a tiny, smooth piece of glass. She wiped her face with her sleeve and tried to breathe.
Valentina had heard that in the moment before death life flashes before the eyes of the dying. However, strangely, scenes of Baba Elenka’s life now began to pulse through Valentina’s body. Every part of her flashed random pictures with ferocious speed, thousands of pages streaming, shoving, pushing through her. Some were recent memories, some from her father’s childhood, some Valentina had never seen before.
“No!” She rolled over and fought her way to the broken window on hands and knees. “I need forty days to be safe—”
Dim red lights flashed outside, the Vitosha Mountains on fire.
Valentina saw her own ghostly reflection in the tall mirror in the corner of Baba Elenka’s bedroom. “I am not ready!” Valentina shouted. “I’m still afraid.”
The rush of impressions was draining her, pumping her for patterns, leaving her trembling and weak. The rhythm of the universe pounded all around, as terror began to overpower her. A blue flash sliced the thin air, and the ceiling opened to the sky. Life evaporated through the open roof, and death slowly crawled in. It was as though Valentina were being reborn through a tunnel of light.
She screamed and unexpectedly saw a flash of herself running on a light, sandy beach with a torch. She wore a transparent white cotton dress, and she was running very fast—so fast that hundreds of years passed by.
A woman with a cloud of black hair in streaks of gold and orange scrambled to grasp Valentina’s ankle and drag her into the waves of the turbulent Black Sea. “You cannot accept your baba’s soul.” The woman’s voice was low and full of vibration. “I will make certain of that.” Her bee-colored hair wrapped itself around Valentina’s throat, threatening to suffocate her.
“Valentina—” It was Baba Elenka’s whisper. “Let me touch your soul. We will be one.” The whisper rose all around. “Remember this day—”
Heat. Puncture. Pain. Baba Elenka’s soul began to pour into Valentina through the Thracian gold bracelet, spreading shock waves and squeezing her muscles, clenching her teeth. Valentina crawled with the bracelet to a corner of the dim room in the flickering candlelight.
“You will be stronger than any of us.” Baba Elenka’s voice was suddenly firm and clear. “You will be the last vampiridzhija!”
A rush of flame spilled over Valentina as she pressed her back to the brick wall, fire crawling along her hairline. “No, Babo—” she whispered.
“Yes!” Elenka’s cracked voice echoed triumphantly.
Valentina kicked out and found herself splashing in salty water that shone crimson over her bare feet. The Black Sea was covered in blood, hundreds of burning belladonna bells floating on the surface and flying up into the sky.
“Women must not swim. It is treacherous.” A white-haired man approached along the beach, pointing to broken glass bottles washed up on the sandy shore—Valentina’s father.
“The hell they shouldn’t, Tatko!” Valentina yelled.
“Do not let her claim me—” gasped Baba Elenka.
Valentina squeezed her eyes shut and spread herself face-down on the floor to crawl toward the metal frame of the bed. With her last bit of energy, she lifted herself onto the bed and laid her body flat on her grandmother. She pressed her face to Baba Elenka’s face. She pressed her lips to Baba Elenka’s lips. She dug her fingers into Baba Elenka’s fine, grey hair, sucking in gulps with all her strength until her teeth cracked. The little gold cross sizzled on Baba Elenka’s chest between them, the smell intoxicating.
Valentina sucked harder. If she were to become a vampiridzhija, it must be done right.
The dark woman with the bee-colored hair hissed and threw herself against Valentina, but Valentina was a powerful rock cemented to Baba Elenka’s body. Valentina’s breath tingled and burned with the deadly belladonna and the sweet taste of bear-blood wine.
Baba Elenka’s soul filled Valentina as the fire retreated from her face to burn in her belly. The dark woman inside Valentina’s head screamed and disappeared, trailing her beautiful, bee-colored hair of gold, black, brown, and orange.
Peace began to spill over Valentina and the small, hard body on the bed. The bracelet of Thracian gold gleamed under Valentina’s slim wrist.
In that still moment, Valentina felt invincible.