Series: Dead Beautiful Trilogy
By Yvonne Woon
FROM THE DEPTHS OF THE LAKE
I couldn’t remember how I had gotten there or how long I had been standing alone in the snow. A lake of ice stretched out before me, its water frozen into dark blue ribbons. The buildings of Gottfried Academy loomed around it, crooked and deserted. All was quiet save for a strange thudding. It echoed up through the ground as if something buried deep beneath the earth were trying to break free.
“Dante?” I called out. The winter air sucked his name from my lips before my voice made a sound.
I searched the horizon for him, but the snow was clean and unsullied by footprints. “Dante?” I said again, but I couldn’t feel his presence.
Had the Monitors caught him, those gifted graduates of Gottfried Academy, using their special ability to sense death? Had they hunted him down, just like my grandfather had ordered? Had they buried him?
A dog barked in the distance. A deep voice echoed through the trees. “He’s here! This way! I can feel him.” It was my grandfather, the headmaster of Gottfried.
I turned towards the woods. Was he talking about Dante?
The thudding grew stronger until the ground seemed to tremble. I felt the earth vibrate beneath my feet. My gaze returned to the frozen lake. The sound was coming from beneath the surface. I inched towards it, watching the brittle ribbons of ice quiver.
The dogs were approaching, their barks sharpening, their feet scuttling through the snow. “Hurry!” my grandfather bellowed, his voice closer.
I covered my ears as the thudding grew louder, more desperate. The surface of the lake bulged. Dozens of tiny faults splintered towards the shore in jagged seams. Another thud, and it buckled. The air pulsed with each tremor until a sharp crack rang out through the cold.
The ice shattered. Then all went still.
I lowered my hands from my ears. My grandfather was closer now; I could hear him approaching through the snow, the footsteps of the Monitors following behind him, though I didn’t dare turn. The black water pooled through the crack in the ice. It rippled. A pale hand reached up from the surface of the lake.
A boy’s presence wrapped itself around my legs in a thin strand of cold air, beckoning me to move towards him. Water sloshed from the gash in the ice. His slick body rose from the depths, his lips a bruised purple, his auburn hair matted to his temples. He dug his fingers into the ice and dragged himself out. His eyes snapped open as the lake spilled off of him. He looked at me, his mouth forming my name. “Renée.”
Noah. He was Undead.
I bolted awake, his name on my lips. I pressed them shut before the sound left my mouth, and sat up, the room coming into focus. I could almost smell the dried flowers bundled on the side table; could almost hear the water dripping off the icicles outside. Everything else – the lake, the thumping, the Monitors – had been nothing more than a dream. Noah hadn’t burst through the ice, nor had he pulled himself out, his eyes rolling in his head as he faced me. Or had he? It had felt so real that his presence still seemed to coil around me – a stream of cold air tightening, pressing the air out of me – begging me to follow it back to that day, and relive Noah’s death again.
I sank back into the cushions. How long had I been wandering through the woods? I thought back, trying to discern each grey morning from the next. Ten days since I had taken the train back to Gottfried Academy with Noah. Ten days since he had dived into the lake to retrieve the chest that the ninth sister had hidden at the bottom. Ten days since the Undead had surrounded us and dragged Noah back into the frozen lake, his palm pressing against the underside of the ice as the life left him. Ten days since I lost Noah, one of my only friends at Lycée St. Clément in Montreal, where my grandfather had sent me after the closure of Gottfried. It feels like another life now; the place where I could have fallen for Noah...
But for Dante. And now – ten days since Dante had whisked me away just before one of the Liberum pressed his hollow mouth to mine to take my soul.
The Liberum. They were an Undead brotherhood so elusive, so insidious, that many Monitors considered their existence a mere legend. There were nine of them, their faces shrouded with hoods, their bodies so gaunt they looked inhuman. They had been alive for centuries, taking the souls of innocent people to keep the decay of their bodies at bay. All for the sole purpose of finding eternal life and becoming human again.
The Liberum travelled with a group of Undead boys, who flanked them like an army. Many Monitors had spied the boys, but only a rare few had laid eyes on a Brother. Even fewer wanted to, for every Monitor knew that if you saw the Liberum, it was because they had been searching for you first. Their blue lips would be the last sight your eyes would see. I was the exception. Because of Dante, I was able to escape just before the Liberum took my soul, though that kind of luck wouldn’t happen again. The Liberum had been searching for a way to become human for years, and now that they knew I had the chest of the Nine Sisters, which was supposed to contain the secret to eternal life, they would stop at nothing to find me and take it from my grasp.
Every so often, I thought I could feel their vacancy snaking through the mountains, moving towards us. Or was it just the winter chill? We had thrown them off our trail days before, and were spending nights wherever we could find shelter, Dante leading our escape. An abandoned trailer, a deserted rest stop, the State Park Visitors’ lodge, an empty campground. Now we were in a cabin somewhere in the mountains between Maine and New Hampshire, navigating through the maze of icy ridges that belonged to no state or person.
Ten days. That was the amount of time it took for a person to reanimate. Maybe my dream had been real. Maybe Noah had reanimated.
I blinked, taking in the dusty sofa beneath me. I was sitting in the living room of a cabin that Dante and I had stumbled across while stealing through the White Mountains. A thin quilt was tangled around my legs. Instinctively, I reached for my bag. I had taken to sleeping with it for safe keeping, but when I patted the cushions I realized it was gone. I kicked off the blanket. The other side of the couch, where I had last seen Dante before I’d fallen asleep, was now empty.
Through the curtains, I could see the first hint of dawn peeking through the pines. “Dante?” I said.
“I’m here.” His voice was so close that it startled me. He was hunched over the desk just a few feet away, his broad shoulders jutting out beneath the thin cotton of his shirt, his body so still it looked lifeless. And technically, it was. Dante had died seventeen years before in a plane crash, on the same day that I was born. His body had been lost at sea. Because he was never buried or put to rest, his body had reanimated ten days later as an Undead, pale and numb to all sensation. His soul had been reborn into a new person, from whom he could take it back with just a single, fatal kiss. Me.
His presence crept over me like frost blooming on a windowpane. With each day his face seemed to change, his handsome features sharpening and aging far too quickly for me to memorize them. His skin was still smooth, yet his face looked gaunter, paler; his eyes were still a rich brown, yet I could already see a cloudy haze creeping over their edges, threatening to engulf them in grey.
“It sounded like you were having a nightmare,” he said.
I wanted to tell Dante about my dream. But how could I explain that although I loved him and my soul ached for him even when we were standing side by side, it also ached for Noah, and for what I had done to him? Why had I let him come with me to Gottfried that night? I felt responsible for Noah’s death. Whenever I looked at Dante trudging ahead of me in the snow, I almost couldn’t bear the shame of it – that we were still here and Noah was gone.
“You’re lucky you never sleep,” I said.
“No, I’m not,” he said, pushing a strand of hair from his face. “The worst kinds of nightmares are the ones you have while you’re awake.”
My bag sat slumped by his feet. The chest that had been inside rested on the desk in front of him, its lid ajar, as though he had been studying it. It seemed to suck up all the air in the room, leaving Dante and me in a silence that never used to exist between us. I realized then that I didn’t want to look at it. I preferred to pretend that we had never opened it, that its contents were still a source of hope.
“Did you find anything?” I asked.
Dante traced his hand around the rim of the chest. “Not yet.”
It was made of a dark metal that was worn and uneven, as if it had been hammered into shape. Pinned to the underside of the lid was a preserved canary, laid flat as if
in flight. Its plumage, though aged, had a golden lustre; its tail feathers were long and sharp, two brilliant yellow streaks. Of all the creatures on earth, the canary was the most difficult animal for a Monitor to sense when it was dead. This was why the ninth sister had pinned it inside the chest before she hid it in the lake at Gottfried: so that only the most gifted of Monitors would be able to find it.
The canary’s brittle body cracked as Dante unpinned it. When he set it aside, the bird’s outline was still there. Engraved on the underside of the chest’s lid was a constellation of five points: one at the head, one at either wing, and one at each of the two tail feathers. An elaborate collection of lines and shapes was etched into the metal around them, tangling into a strange sort of landscape.
Inside the chest sat a small black box, no larger than a bar of soap. It was such a little thing, so unassuming, and yet the mere sight of it gave me pause. It was carved bluntly out of a dull metallic rock. The shape of a canary was etched into its lid, along with the words: Pour l’Amour Vrai. For true love.
I lifted it from the recess, feeling its familiar heaviness in my palm. It had an unnatural gravity; its weight pulled away from me as if it didn’t want to be held.
I turned it around in my palm, trying to see something I hadn’t seen before. It had no latch or keyhole or hinge, not even a seam, and yet I could feel its contents shifting like dust. We still hadn’t figured out how to open it; nor did we understand what the chest and the markings on its lid meant. They were supposed to contain the secret to eternal life – yet all I could see was another question mark.
“The answer is probably staring at us,” Dante said. “We just don’t see it yet.”
I was about to respond when a dog’s bark rang out through the woods. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” said Dante, reminding me how muted his senses had become.
I crept to the window, hoping I had imagined the sound. A flock of crows scattered from a tree nearby. Behind it, the snowy mountains glistened in the early morning sun. All was still. Too still. Where were the rest of the birds? I cracked open the window, listening as the wind carried the sound of dogs barking, followed by a shout, so distant it could have been from my dream.
“Monitors,” I whispered. But how had they found us? We had lost them over a week ago, the snowfall masking our footprints, the woods so quiet that it felt like we were the only ones for miles.
The chair scraped the floor as Dante stood. “We have to leave.”
I stuffed the chest, the canary, and the small black box into my bag, then followed Dante to the back of the cabin. A white gust swept through the room as he opened the door.
I sank up to my shins in the snow. The cold shocked my lungs. Trees filled the landscape around us, making every direction I turned look the same, but Dante seemed to know the way. He set off towards where the brush was thickest. I stole into the woods after him.
The sound of the dogs grew closer. The echo of their barking clapped against the trees. The metal chest thudded against the back of my ribs like a second heart as I ran in Dante’s footprints. They were larger than mine, and spread so far apart that it was hard for me to keep up. Reading my thoughts, he turned around, his gaze the only trace of warmth in the woods. He said nothing – neither of us did – but as he continued onwards through the woods he slowed, shortening his gait until I was right behind him.
The tags of the dogs clinked behind us, growing louder, louder. I could hear their feet crunching in the snow, their panting heavy as they emerged through the trees. I glanced over my shoulder and they were almost upon us, leaping through the branches in a snarl of fur and teeth and saliva. Two, three, four German shepherds, their mottled coats caked with ice.
“Stay in front of me,” Dante shouted, slowing until I passed him.
The dogs snapped at the air, skidding to follow us as we took a sharp turn through a thicket of trees. Breaking a branch from a tree, Dante swiped at them while we zigzagged through the woods, shouting at me to turn left, then right. But the snow was too thick; I couldn’t run fast enough. Behind me, I heard Dante’s footsteps slow.
“What are you doing?” I shouted.
“Go,” he said. When I hesitated, he spoke louder. “Go!”
He turned to face the dogs just as they leaped through the thicket, their breath reaching out to him in clouds of fog. I looked back only once, just in time to see him swing his branch through the air and strike one of them aside by the muzzle.
The branches of the pines whipped against my arms. I ran, listening to the scuffle behind me: a growl, jaws snapping at wood, an animal thrown across the snow; a whimper. Then I heard feet padding over the ice. I glanced over my shoulder to see a dog break free from the others, its lean body bounding through the brush towards me. My legs sank so deep that I stumbled. The ice stung my cheeks. Picking myself up, I backed away and searched the pines for branches thick enough for me to climb, but they were all too thin or too high.
The dog leaped at me, its eyes sharp and yellowed, its jowls wet with spit. I steadied my arm, ready to strike, but just as its whiskers grazed my neck, Dante burst through the woods, his body colliding with the dog’s in a tangle of fur and ice and blood. They fell to the ground, a flurry of white billowing up around them. All I could hear was panting and the guttural growl of the dog as it struggled, digging its feet into the snow. Through the flurry, Dante’s outline hardened. He kneeled over the dog, pressing his knee into its chest to hold it down. His hands gripped its skull, ready to snap its neck. The dog whimpered beneath him.
“Don’t!” I shouted, as the crack rang out through the trees.
Its head fell limp in Dante’s arms. All went still. The lifelessness of the dog crept towards me, the air rearranging itself until the forest felt hollow.
A lock of hair dangled in front of Dante’s face as he looked up, his eyes clouded and cold, void of the deep brown gaze that belonged to the boy I knew. His cheek was smeared with blood. As he took me in, his eyes came back into focus; the haze over his irises receded. The muscles in his face softened, his shoulders relaxing, until he was back to the Dante I had come here with. The Dante who was gentle and kind, who had never killed anything in front of me before.
He hesitated before walking towards me. He must have seen the fear in my eyes. “Are you okay?”
I nodded, willing my lips to stop quivering. I reached out to his cheek, but let my arm drop. “You have blood,” I said. “Here.”
He wiped it away. “It’s not mine.”
Though of course, I already knew. Dante healed too quickly to have left such a brazen trace of red.
The snow fell around us in thick clumps, like shreds of cloud falling from the sky. It clung to his hair, his shoulders, preserving him in white as he trudged towards me. Gently, he brushed the snowflakes from my eyelashes, sending a prickle up my skin. At his touch, I could suddenly smell the sharp pine of the trees around us, the wind whistling through the branches in a melancholy key.
The first time I had felt the prickle of his touch it had frightened me; now, though, it was a comfort. The Undead have only twenty-one years to roam the earth, their bodies decaying, growing hungrier and more desperate until they die again for good.
Feeling the cold tug of Dante’s presence reminded me that he was still here, that we still had time; though how much, I wasn’t sure. He had four years left as an Undead, but how many as the Dante that I knew? How long did we have until he succumbed to darkness? Until his skin withered and the hunger within him surfaced, the hunger that would urge him to take my soul? He had already begun his decline; I could see it in the coldness that came over him when he was angry. He could barely hear the dogs until they were upon us. He couldn’t feel the slick of blood on his cheek, or any other sensation except for my touch. He couldn’t smell the woods around us unless I was close to him, nor taste anything but the salt on my skin, nor hear music – to Dante, everything was noise, except for the sound of my voice.
With every day that I lived, Dante was dying.
I tried to imagine what it would it be like when all of this was over, and we could walk down a snowy street hand in hand, like any other couple – never having to worry about who might see us, or how much time we had left together. A muffled shout brought me back to the woods.
“This way – he feels stronger than any other Undead I’ve ever known!”
My body went rigid. I recognized the deep intonations of my grandfather.
“They’re coming,” I said, and turned to Dante, confused. “They can feel you more than any other Undead.”
But why? Dante’s presence couldn’t be that much stronger than it was weeks earlier. I knew that the presence of an Undead grew more potent as he aged, but my grandfather had been hunting Dante for months, and had never had this response. Something must have changed in the past ten days, but what? My hand tightened around the strap of my bag. “The canary,” I said, feeling its subtle tug on my back. Could its presence be somehow heightening Dante’s vacancy? I had never heard of such a phenomena. It didn’t make sense – the canary was supposed to be the most difficult corpse to find – but nothing else did either. “Maybe...maybe it’s drawing the Monitors closer?”
Dante didn’t question me. “We have to leave it behind.”
“What if we need it?”
“Need it for what?” Dante said. “It was probably only pinned inside the chest so that you could find it.”
I hesitated. “I’m not sure.”
Dante had no answer. “If you’re right that it’s adding to my vacancy, and we keep it, there’s more of a chance that they’ll find us. If that happens, they’ll bury me. And there will be no use for the chest at all.”
In the distance, I could hear the muffled cries of the Monitors.
“Okay,” I said, and fumbled through my bag until I found its brittle body. Before I could change my mind, I tossed it far into the woods.
A swirl of snow followed us as he led me deeper into the white woods. It was a place where everything looked alike; one tree seemed identical to the next, until I felt like I was running in circles. Everything had an eerie hollowness to it here, as if the forest around us was sleeping, waiting, watching. All the while, the sound of the Monitors crept up on us, their footsteps crunching in the snow, their voices carrying on the wind like the murmurs of ghosts.
“Hurry!” my grandfather said, his baritone voice silencing the others.
I slowed. “It didn’t help,” I said, realizing then that I had been wrong – the canary had never been the problem. “They can still sense you more than ever before.”
Dante stopped in his tracks. “It’s because we’re together,” he said, the realization making his face drop. “We feel stronger to them. That’s how they were able to find us so quickly...” He met my gaze, his eyes already apologizing for what he was about to say. “We have to split up.”
I shook my head, already knowing my answer. I had only just found him; I couldn’t lose him again.
“If we stay together, they’ll be able to follow us wherever we go. Our only chance is to go in separate directions, and hope that they can’t sense me as strongly. Once we gain some ground, we’ll find each other.”
The thought of leaving him made my insides collapse. “No,” I said. “I can’t leave you.” But he slipped his hand from mine.
“Then you might as well bury me now.”
My grandfather’s voice cut through the woods. “He’s killed the dogs!”
Dante’s eyes implored me. Please, they seemed to say.
What choice did I have? I lowered my bag, my fingers nervous and clumsy as I unlatched the hinges on the chest and took out the small black box within. I felt its weight pulling away from me as my fingers closed around it. I thrust it into his hands.
“Take this, then,” I said. “So I know I’ll see you again.”
My eyes stung in the wind. “I won’t leave until you take it.”
He nodded and tucked it inside his coat. “Now, go.” He pointed up to the two mountains that rose above us. “In the valley between them is a town. You should be able to make it there in a few hours. There’s a bus station and an inn, which should be safe. They mind their own business.”
“And then what? How will I find you?”
“Meet me tomorrow night in Pilgrim, Massachusetts. When you get there, you’ll know where to go.”
“What?” I asked, unable to hide the desperation in my voice. “But how—”
Through the trees, I heard the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow.
“Trust me,” Dante said. “Now, where are you meeting me?”
“Pilgrim, Massachusetts,” I whispered, my voice cracking. “Tomorrow night.”
He nodded. I love you, he mouthed, and disappeared into the white.
You have 0 of these in your Basket.
Dante and I are inseparable…and we are dying. Time is running out. Our shared soul cannot sustain us and our love threatens to kill us both.
Our only hope lies in messages from a mysterious benefactor, leading us on a journey across Europe in search of the secret of eternal life. But we are not alone. The Brotherhood of the Undead is tracking us - and getting closer.
I fear I will lose Dante... I fear I will lose everything.
Can our love survive to be reborn? The mesmerizing conclusion to the bestselling Dead Beautiful trilogy.
Yvonne Woon grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, in an old stone colonial house surrounded by woods. It was here that she first developed a taste for the macabre, and she has been writing mysteries ever since. Yvonne attended the prestigious Worcester Academy prep school in Boston, where, like Renée, the length of her skirt was routinely measured. She first began thinking about Latin and the Undead while studying in the library of Colunbia University, New York, where she obtained a Masters of Fine Arts in fiction. Dead Beautiful is her debut novel.
Visit www.yvonnewoon.com to find out more.