Laura Browning 

Teacher. Editor. Author.

The Guardian Gabriel

Excerpt

Anna didn’t fear the dark because it was the only thing that still existed in her world. The inky blackness
was as welcome and familiar to her as a child’s stuffed animal was on a stormy night. The darkness cloaked,
caressed, and freed her. It hid her from others and from herself. Here she could pretend nothing had
changed. If she couldn’t see her prison walls, how could she truly be confined? Her thoughts were free,
so she took full advantage. Thinking was all she had left to call her own.
In her mind, Anna visited all the places she loved. She felt again the bite of the cold air and the utter
stillness as she stood atop the peak of a snow-capped mountain and gazed off into the distance at the
seemingly endless flow of jagged, snowy Alps. They went on forever into eternity, and she stood alone,
feeling the sun warm upon her face even as the frigid air coming off the snowy peaks brought a bloom
to her cheeks and a sparkle to her eyes.
When the ache of imagining her mountains became too great, she walked once more along the cliffs of
Northern Spain and stared out over the rough, gray expanse of the Atlantic. The wind whipped her hair
and the salt spray stung her cheeks. The roll and crash of waves against the confines of the land pounded
​out a symphony all its own.
​ Her memories filled her with hope there was a world beyond Jaegersberg—a world where life was different, not filled with the terrorized, dying cries of human chattel. She licked her lips, the sound like the rasp of sandpaper. Like the darkness, her thirst had become part of her. What energy she still possessed, she preserved. She’d read of animals who hibernated, how their heart beat, respiration and body temperature all slowed nearly to the point of death. They did it to survive. She wasn’t sure why she bothered. Did she hope she could save her life? Could Peter even really kill her by starving her? Or was this simply his latest tactic to bend her to his will? She faced unknown territory. Light and food might be lacking, but she could still hear. Screams and cries filled the air. Surely it was too soon? Her tormentors had just fed, hadn’t they? But she was unsure, had lost all real sense of the passage of time. The sounds were so constant, they’d become little more than white noise to be dismissed. She tuned it out. Reality faded and she allowed herself to slip once more into the refuge of her own thoughts. She was a little girl—thin, gawky Annaliese playing in the woods beyond Jaegersberg. The shadows were deep, but not frightening, not in her refuge where she nursed stray animals, healed their wounds and pretended she could live a different life. She would be a doctor. She would heal people. Heal children. She would defy her heritage, not become like the rest of them. The woods had never frightened her. They were her sanctuary. The truly frightening things happened inside the castle, among the adults—Mutti, Papi, Peter and the rest. She did not want to do what they did when she was a grownup. Papi had told her she need not worry about it. There was plenty of time, and she had only to choose when to become one of them. The problem was Anna hadn’t truly understood. She’d thought she could choose not to become one of them. The will to survive was a strange thing. It compelled people to do things they would never do in normal circumstances. Papi had finally forced her hand, but he had also held it, helping her through the blooding, and the incredible thirst that had followed. But he could not get her past the horror. She had become a doctor before her change. Her calling was to preserve life, not take it, and though Anna hadn’t been the one to kill her prey, she had fed. She tuned out the cries, crashes and killing snarls of the present, slipping back into her isolation. She was so tired. Curled onto her side, Anna closed her eyes and ceased to breathe. It had become a burden, another action sapping what little energy she still retained. A click. A scrape. Light followed by pain. Anna cried out weakly, closing her eyes against the light, too drained to even raise her hand for protection. The light was her enemy as it had been ever since she’d been forced to become like the others. “Oh my God!” another woman’s voice cried in English. “Gabriel, there’s one in here.” “Kill it,” a deeply melodic voice responded evenly. “Gabriel.” The woman’s voice held impatience. “Look at her.” Hands touched and turned Anna. She cried out in pain and fear. The cloth on the right shoulder of her shirt was torn away. She shrank away from them, unable to prevent a whimper escaping, unable to prevent them seeing the mark. “She’s starving.” The woman’s voice was full of compassion like someone who had discovered an injured bird or a lost puppy, a kind voice, a nurturing voice. “Look at the mark on her shoulder,” the man replied coolly, objectively. “She’s one of them. You should kill her.”