The treaty between the Fallen and the Brotherhood has been broken, and war between the immortals seems imminent…
We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Renée Ahdieh’s The Damned, the second installment in The Beautiful series—available July 7th from G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books.
Following the events of The Beautiful, Sébastien Saint Germain is now cursed and forever changed. The treaty between the Fallen and the Brotherhood has been broken, and war between the immortals seems imminent. The price of loving Celine was costly.
But Celine has also paid a high price for loving Bastien. Still recovering from injuries sustained during a night she can’t quite remember, her dreams are troubled. And she doesn’t know she has inadvertently set into motion a chain of events that could lead to her demise and unveil a truth about herself she’s not ready to learn.
Forces hiding in the shadows have been patiently waiting for this moment. And just as Bastien and Celine begin to uncover the danger around them, they learn their love could tear them apart.
Not long after I lost my sister and my parents, Madeleine told me that whenever I was on the cusp of losing control, I should close my eyes. Breathe in through my nose. Exhale twice as slowly through my mouth.
Though I know it is an exercise in futility, I turn to this approach once more. This final gasp of my humanity. I close my eyes. Focus as I breathe.
A slew of scents floods my nostrils. The citrus wax used to polish the furniture; the rose water in Odette’s perfume; the expensive myrrh oil Hortense smooths through her long hair; the sharp brass of Nicodemus’ walking stick; even the musty smell of the dust collecting above the velvet drapery. But one aroma rises to the forefront, winding through my mind, ensnaring all my senses, beckoning me forward in a trance. Something warm and salty and… delicious.
Before I can think, I blur toward the windows facing the street and tear back the heavy indigo curtains, without a thought for safety.
Thankfully it is dusk, the last rays of sunlight waning in the distance. On the pavers across the street, a boy of no more than five is sprawled across the stones after tripping on his overlarge shoes. He looks to his mother, then proceeds to wail as if in the throes of death. Bright crimson drips from his scraped knee, trickling toward the grey stones at his feet.
The smell of it bewitches me. Sears all else from my mind. I am Moses in the desert. Jonah in the whale. It is not redemption I seek. Lost souls do not seek redemption.
My mouth waters. Otherworldly energy flows beneath my skin. Something inside me begins to take shape. A monster I cannot contain. Incongruously it is like fighting for breath. Like clawing to the surface of the sea, every second all the more precious. My teeth lengthen in my mouth, slicing through my lower lip. My jaw and fingers harden to bronze. If I had a pulse at all, it would be hammering in my chest like a Gatling gun.
I press a palm to the glass of the mullioned window. It begins to crack under the force of my touch, splintering from my fingertips like a spiderweb.
Boone flashes to my side and takes hold of my arm. I snarl at him like an untamed beast. With a thin smile, Boone digs his hand tightly into my biceps, to root me to the earth. “Brother,” he says in a soothing tone. “You have to control the hunger before it consumes you.”
I tear my arm from Boone’s grasp with a force that takes him by surprise. He shifts half a step back before grim determination settles onto his face. Again he reaches for me, but I snare my brother by the throat and slam him into the wall beside the window, causing a gilt-framed portrait to crash to the floor.
Dark blood falls from the back of Boone’s head, two drops staining his pristine collar before the wound heals, the sound like the rending of paper. Though he appears nonchalant, I cannot miss the shock that flares across his face, there and gone in the blink of an eye.
Even I am taken off guard. Injuring an immortal like Boone is no mean feat. I am… strong. Stronger than I first realized. My anger has become a creature too large for me to contain. I should let him go. Apologize.
Instead I tighten my grip, the rage unfurling over my body like a second skin.
Apologies are for sheep. Let them all see what I’ve become. Let them fear me.
Something stirs at my back.
“No,” Madeleine demands. “Stay where you are, Arjun. A blow like that could kill you.”
“I can help,” Arjun replies carefully. “At the very least I can buy us some time.”
“You can try,” I whisper without glancing toward the half fey.
It’s foolish for me to bait an ethereal. Arjun’s touch could immobilize me. Leave me at my siblings’ mercy. But I am more focused on what will follow, should he bother to make the attempt.
They cannot corral me forever.
“I know you think yourself unafraid,” Arjun says. “That we should all fear you instead.”
I say nothing, though a twinge knifes through me.
“My mortal father used to say that anger and fear are two sides of the same coin,” Arjun continues. “They both make us behave outside our nature.”
“Or perhaps they simply distill us down to our essence. Maybe this is my nature now.” I glower at Boone, who raises his arms like Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.
“I don’t believe that.” Boone’s voice is hoarse, but gentle. “Not for one minute.”
Madeleine blurs closer, pausing to my left. “Sébastien.” Her tone is laced in warning. Her teeth begin to lengthen, commanding me without words to stand down. “Don’t do this, mon enfant.”
Mon enfant. My child. Madeleine is the closest thing to a mother I have known since my own mother perished ten years ago. Nevertheless I ignore her, the bloodlust raging through my veins. The desire to kill and consume of utmost importance.
Tulle rustles to Madeleine’s right. “Écoute-moi, mon petit diable,” her sister, Hortense, commands in the singsong of a medium conducting a séance. “Nous ne sommes pas vos ennemis.”
“Listen to her, brother,” Boone says, his hands inching toward his temples. “Our enemies are real. If we waste time squabbling among ourselves, there’ll be nothing left for the true fight to come.”
The rational part of me knows Boone is right. But I respond by tightening my grasp until he can no longer speak. The plaster around his head starts to powder, causing a shower of white dust to descend on his cherubic curls.
Another flicker of movement. “Let him go,” Jae demands, taking hold of my right shoulder. Each of his words is the point of a dagger at my back. “Now.”
“Do you still think me afraid?” I level a cool gaze at the assassin. One meant to convey nothing but contempt.
His scowl deepens.
It is all a lie. Everything I’ve done or said to this point is for show.
I am afraid. Deathly afraid. From the moment I first understood what had happened to me. But fear cannot be all I know. I will not let it be all I know.
Jae remains silent. My fear threatens to eclipse all else. I stoke my anger until it burns everything else away. The color leaches from Boone’s skin, the ink in his eyes swirling, spreading until the whites are completely black. His fingers turn into fists.
I know he is preparing to fight back. I should release him before the situation worsens. But the wrath continues flowing down my arms, surging through my stomach, burrowing into my bones. It makes me feel powerful. As if I am in control. I do not want to lose this feeling. I cannot be afraid. I cannot be weak.
What kind of beast surrenders to its basest nature?
The kind with nothing to fear.
So be it.
I squeeze tighter, feeling the bones in Boone’s throat begin to splinter in my grasp.
I don’t see Madeleine move until she has shattered my wrist with a single swipe of her arm. I roar and fly backward, slamming into the far wall. My body lands in a position of defense, crouched like a panther. Toussaint coils at my feet, his fangs bared, daring any of my siblings to tread closer.
I clutch my injured hand, feeling the crushed bones knit back together like torch fire through tinder. The sensation should feel marvelous, for it is further proof of my indestructibility; instead it only emphasizes my monstrousness. The utter loss of my humanity.
All the while, no one moves. Madeleine stands guard before a fallen Boone, who grips his throat and coughs, blood spewing from his lips. His eyes flash as Madeleine bares her fangs at me and hisses through her teeth.
Beside her, Arjun waits with his hands in his pockets, his monocle swaying from its gold chain. Hortense hovers behind Madeleine, her lips forming the beginnings of a smirk. Jae stares at me, his expression like that of a disapproving father. Odette looks… sad.
“It is as I suspected,” Nicodemus says. A casual observer might believe he is troubled by this turn of events, but I know my uncle far too well. He did nothing to stop me from injuring Boone, nor did he attempt to intervene when the rest of his progeny moved against me in force. There is a gleam in his amber eyes. One of supreme pleasure.
Nicodemus wanted to see what might happen. I suspect he is thrilled to witness how strong I am. How invincible his immortal blood has made me.
With Nicodemus Saint Germain, everything is a test.
I ignore the world around me, squeezing my eyes closed.
In through the nose. Out through the mouth.
The smell of the blood beyond the window taunts me again. Surrounded as I am by other vampires—my brothers and sisters—I know I cannot break free and sate my hunger. Though I have attacked one of their own, still they take on the mantle of responsibility. Still they fight to save me from myself.
Even though I almost crushed Boone’s throat in my fist a moment ago.
I look around the room. I search within me for something more. I find nothing. It is not gratitude I feel for my immortal brethren. Only despair.
Choking through a haze of bloodlust, I recoil. My chest heaving, I settle my sights on my uncle, who has not moved from his position beside the burl-wood table. Who continues to watch the scene unfold with a disconcerting gleam.
“Tonight, you will go with Jae and Boone to hunt,” Nicodemus says as if he were prescribing a tincture for a common cold. “They will teach you how to mark your victims. Then they will show you how to dispose of all traces, so that you do not put any of us at risk with reckless behavior.”
“No,” I reply. “I am not going anywhere with any of you.”
“If you refuse to learn our ways, then you will be forbidden from leaving this place,” Nicodemus counters without missing a beat. “I cannot risk you causing a scene.” Disgust grips me for a moment. My uncle is more concerned with me drawing attention to our coven than he is about the plight of the humans in my vicinity. I could kill every last one of them and he would not care, provided I cleaned up after myself.
I make my decision without even considering it. “Then I will remain confined here.”
At least at Jacques’—ensconced in the tri-storied building my uncle owns on Rue Royale—I will not be a threat to any of the hapless mortals unfortunate enough to wander too close. Were I left to roam the streets of the Crescent City, that boy and his mother and every person nearby would be killed before I wasted a single breath reflecting upon the consequences.
Nicodemus’ cheeks hollow. He arches a brow. “And what will you do for food?”
I almost blanch. “Bring me what I require to survive. Nothing more.” If I sound imperious enough, perhaps he will not argue.
Anger clouds his expression. “That is not the way of it, Sébastien.”
“It is now.”
“The bloodsacs below should not—”
“Never call them that again in my presence,” I interrupt, incensed by the slur. One he never before used in my presence.
His eyes narrow further. “And what will you do then? You are only beginning to understand what you are. Will you crush them in your arms? Listen to them scream and beg for mercy? Or will you learn our ways and subdue their emotions, never forgetting to stay to the shadows?”
The revulsion in me grows. Already I am being taught to see mortals as lesser beings. Only last night, I wandered among them, a young man with the promise of a future filled with light. A boy with a soul. Now I am demon of the shadows, subsisting off stolen blood.
I don’t want to be reminded of the price paid for my immortality. The price Celine paid. The price I paid. “Keep them away,” I say. “If they don’t know what I’ve become, I want them nowhere near me.”
Nicodemus takes a step closer. There is danger in the way he grips the roaring lion carved into the brass handle of his walking stick. He thinks me weak.
Nevertheless I refuse to cow beneath his scrutiny.
“I can bring him blood for the time being,” Odette interjects. “It is no trouble to me. First thing tomorrow, I’ll put in an order for a new case of the Green Fairy’s finest.”
I glance her way, puzzled.
“A capful of absinthe prevents the blood from becoming too thick to drink,” she explains. “When blood grows cold or is left standing too long, it congeals.” She speaks in soothing tones.
Of course. A detail I never had occasion to consider. Nicodemus looks to Madeleine.
She nods in turn.
“Very well,” Nicodemus says. “But I will not permit this accommodation for long. You will learn our ways, no matter how much you may disdain them.” He points the end of his walking stick at my chest. “And you will obey your maker without question, as your brothers and sisters do, or you will be banished from the city.” With that, he exits the room in a swirl of darkness.
After a time in stilted silence, Odette sighs. Then a bright smile cuts across her face. “Charades, anyone?”
Jae grunts. “You are… tiresome.”
“And you are an incomparable wordsmith, Jaehyuk-ah.” Odette simpers.
“Don’t bait him,” Madeleine commands before their bickering can continue, her expression weary. “We’ve had enough of that for one evening.”
Odette crosses her arms, her lips pursing. “Le chat grincheux started it.”
“I was hoping to appeal to your better nature,” Jae says.
“Silly boy,” Odette snaps back. “You know I don’t have one.”
“Enough!” Madeleine says. She looks to me. “Sit, Bastien. You are due for a lecture, tout de suite.”
Hortense yawns. She throws herself on the closest chaise, pausing to cross her bare ankles on the edge of a carved tea table. “Ça sera un grand ennui,” she sings to no one.
“I am in no mood for your lecture,” I say.
“You damn near took Boone’s head off, old chap.” Arjun’s British accent rounds out his words. “Learn from today’s mistakes so you won’t make them again tomorrow.”
“I have no intention of making mistakes today, tomorrow, or any day thereafter,” I retort, biting back the taste of my own blood. The hunger that thrashes in its wake. “I suppose I need only to accept”—I stare at my hands, my fingers still curled like bronze talons—“this fate. My new future. No matter how much I might wish it were not the case.”
“Even if that meant you had died the true death?” Odette’s voice is small.
I do not hesitate to respond. “Yes.”
For a time, none of them says a word.
Then Jae moves forward. “It does no good to dwell on things we cannot change.” The muscles in his jaw work. “And you should learn the ways of a vampire sooner rather than later. The rules are clear, Sébastien. If you cannot rein in your appetites—if you draw undue attention to us with indiscriminate violence—then you will be banished from New Orleans. Our peace is paramount.”
Boone feigns a cough, as if to clear his throat. “Can’t have a repeat of what happened in Dubrovnik or Wallachia hundreds of years ago, when so many of our kind were lost to superstitious mayhem. Why, I even recall when…”
I let his words fade into a drone as I stare at the cracked window across the room and the damaged plaster beside it, noting how the hem of the blue velvet curtain continues to sway like a pendulum. I let it lull me into a trance. Out of habit, I shift my fingertips to the side of my neck to check my pulse, an action that always served to remind me of my humanity.
The absence of a heartbeat rocks through me like a blow to the chest. I turn in place and retreat into the recesses of the chamber. In my periphery, the edges of a gilt-framed mirror glisten in the glow of the candlelight. I stride toward the silvered glass like a mortal, one foot in front of the other, my fingers flexing at my sides.
“Don’t, mon cher,” Odette warns, trailing in my shadow. “Not today. Give it some time. Un moment de grâce.” She smiles at our shared reflections, a suspicious shimmer in her eyes. “We could all stand to be a bit more forgiving of ourselves, n’est-ce pas?”
I disregard her. Something about her sisterly affection grates my nerves like it never has before. I take in my appearance, refusing to turn from the mirror, no matter how disturbing its truth. My canines shine like ivory daggers; my eyes burn lambent, suffused with an otherworldly light. Thin rivulets of blood trickle from my lower lip where my fangs pierced through my brown skin.
I look like a monster from Hell. A creature from a Grimm fairy tale, come to life.
I… hate what I have become. Despise it as I have never despised anything before. I want to shed this new reality like a snakeskin. To leave it in the dust so that I might stroll in the sunlight and breathe in the air with the lungs of a mortal man. I want to love and hope and die with all the limitations that make such a life worth living.
What I wouldn’t give for a chance to be a mortal boy again, standing before the girl I love, hoping she will take my hand and walk with me toward an unknown future.
Bitterness seeps through to the marrow of my bones. I let the bloodlust fill me again, watch my eyes swirl to obsidian, my ears lengthen into points, and my fangs unfurl like claws, cutting through my flesh once more, until the wet crimson trails down my neck to stain my collar.
“Bastien,” Madeleine commands over my shoulder, her expression like stone. “Too many newborn vampires lose themselves to the hunger, drowning their sorrows in blood, destroying all sense of who they were in life,” she says. “Rarely do they survive a decade before walking into the sun or being obliterated by their elders. Turn away from this path of destruction, no matter how tempting it might be.” She leans closer to the mirror, watching me all the while. “The best among us never forsake their humanity.”
“The higher hatred burns, the more it destroys,” Arjun says. “My father is proof of that.”
“Feel your anger, but do not succumb to it,” Madeleine continues, “for it will be your end.”
“And what would you have me embrace in its stead?” I ask my reflection, my words a coarse whisper.
Odette gestures to the handful of immortals gathered before me. “We would have you embrace love.”
“Love?” I say, gripping the edges of the gilt mirror in both my hands, my eyes blacker than soot.
“This is not a love story.” My fingers fall from the mirror, leaving dents in the gold filigree. I want nothing more than to rage about like a demon unleashed. To defy the moon and the stars and all the torments of an infinite sky.
But most of all I want to forget everything I’ve ever loved. Each of the immortals standing guard around me. My cursed uncle for bringing this blight upon our family. Nigel, for betraying us and leaving me to drown in a pool of my own blood.
But mostly I curse her. I want to forget her face. Her name. Her wit. Her laughter. How she made me hope and want and wish and feel. As far as I am concerned, Celine Rousseau died that night in Saint Louis Cathedral. Just like I did.
A true hero would find a way back to her. Would seek a path of redemption for his lost soul. A chance to stand once more in the light.
There is no such path. And I am no one’s hero. So I choose the way of destruction.
Excerpted from The Damned, copyright © 2020 by Renée Ahdieh.