by Y.B. Cats

Heat hung in the air like a prophecy, Amber thought, assuring that even though this blistering summer
day waned, a scorching one lay ahead.  Holding the refrigerator door open, she leaned into cool wafts of
air and took a long, slow breath.
"Babe, would you get me one too?" Alan asked from the other room.  Sighing, Amber grabbed the necks
of three bottles with one hand and reluctantly shut the refrigerator door with the other.  She walked
slowly back to the dining room where her friends sat.
"Thanks, Hon," Lindsey said as she reached for a bottle without taking her eyes from the playing cards
she held in hand.  Amber took a seat at the small card table, grateful as the rotating fan behind her
stirred air at the base of her neck.  Alan, also intent on his cards, didn't look up when she set his drink
beside him.  Her gaze shifted furtively to Stefan as she picked up her cards and settled into the seat.  He
smiled leisurely and reached across the table to pick up her bottle.  With a quick twist, he opened it, and
winked as he set it down again in front of her.  She smiled in thanks, put it to her lips, and glanced at
Alan to see if he noticed.  He didn't, and she looked again at Stefan as she took a sip.  The heat didn't
seem to bother him, even as moist skin caused her top to stick to the small of her back.  He sat
comfortably in t-shirt and jeans as he watched the others study their cards.  Amber knew he was going
to win, again.
"Ok, how many do you want?" Alan asked her.  Amber held up two fingers.  Lindsey also took two, but
Stefan preferred the cards he was dealt.  Alan gave himself three new cards, and his eyebrows rose in
happy surprise.  Amber and Lindsey folded during the betting round.  Amber could see Alan anticipated
victory.  If he did win, it would be the first time he beat Stefan, and she half-hoped he would pull it off.  
"Now its show time," Alan said.
"Are you sure?" Stefan teased.  Alan snickered.  Stefan shrugged and set his cards down, nonchalant.  
Amber stared in astonishment at the perfect arrangement of face cards on display.  Alan let out a loud
exhale, then shook his head and opened his drink.  He took a long swig and tossed his cards down with
contempt.  Lindsey laughed in astonishment at what had happened.  She grabbed and rubbed Stefan's
arm with delight.  He chuckled, glancing at her and then smiling playfully at Amber.  She shook her head
in amusement at his continued luck …or ability.
"Alright, that's it.  I think we're done – it's late.  Thanks for the drinks, Stefan," Alan said as cheerfully
as he could, gesturing for Amber to follow as he stood to leave.
"Wait, wait, just one more hand," Stefan said.
"They're tired of this game, let them go.  I'll play with you," Lindsey said, giving Amber a mischievous
look as she sat back and lifted her hair up off her neck.
"No, wait.  I have another game – a better one.  You will like this," Stefan said, rising from the table and
heading to his bedroom.  Amber hesitated as Alan relented and took another draw from his bottle.  
Stefan returned with something in hand.  "Sit, sit," he insisted.
"Alright, I'm good for one more game.  We've got to go afterwards," Alan mumbled, sitting again.  
Amber sat too.
"That's fine.  You'll like this one," Stefan assured, revealing another deck of cards.  As he dealt them
out, Amber noticed the cards were different from any she had seen.  She glanced at Stefan, curious.
"What kind of cards are these?" Alan scoffed.
"They were given to me by my grandmother, who picked them up during her last vacation to Romania.  
There are 32 cards instead of 52," Stefan explained.  Amber admired the cards as Stefan spoke.  "Leave
the last card I deal face down.  The suits are hearts, bells, leaves and acorns."  Amber noticed roman
numerals seven through 10 at the top of the non-face cards.  "The cards that look like Queens are
actually Aces and represent the four seasons.  The four Kings are the ones holding scepters, and there
are two sets of cards that look like Princes."
"These are cute," Lindsey said, winking at Stefan.  Amber watched her friend try to entice Stefan with
her grin, but he was more intent on explaining rules of the game.  As he did, it became clear that players
partnered with the person sitting across from them, and it was her and Stefan against Alan and
Lindsey.  As the game began, Lindsey tried again to capture Stefan's attention.  "Where did you learn
this game?"
"My grandmother taught it to me.  She learned it from her grandmother, and so on, so she says, for
quite a few generations.  It was first taught to a member of our family, Katarina Benicka, in 16th century
Transylvania by Countess Elizabeth Bathory."  Stefan said the latter name casually, but the significance
was not lost on Amber.  Her eyes widened, but Lindsey was quicker with a verbal response.
"You mean the Blood Countess?" she asked, choking on a sip of her drink.  "I thought she was just a
legend."
"No, she was a real person," Stefan said coolly.
"Wasn't she the one who killed a bunch of women and bathed in their blood?" Alan asked, bored.
"That part of her story is legend.  That she murdered many women – that part is true."
"Didn't she murder hundreds?" Lindsey asked, aghast.
"Witnesses at the time said yes, but she was only convicted of 80 counts."
"Only 80," Alan chuckled.
"So how did Katarina, your ancestor, know her?" Amber inquired.
"Katarina was one of four of her closest servants.  The other three were executed for their part in the
murders.  Because it was believed Katarina had been bullied into cooperating by the other three, she was
sentenced to life in prison.  The Countess was also sentenced to life in prison – she escaped execution
because her family ruled Transylvania at the time."
"What happened to the Countess?" Lindsey asked.
"She was sealed – bricked – into her castle where she remained imprisoned for four years before she
died.  It is said her time of death is uncertain because there were several plates of uneaten food found
with her body."
They continued to play the game quietly for a few moments.  Amber pictured a satisfied countess
presiding over unspeakable evils, pleased as screams of innocents echoed down her halls.  Alan's voice
broke through her daydream.
"We've won," he said, making his final play while Lindsey smirked and set her cards down alongside.
"You haven't won yet, we have to turn over our face-down cards.  If Amber or I have the Countess'
favorite – the Ace of Hearts, we'll have enough points to win.
Stefan turned his card over expectantly, but it wasn't the Ace.  Lindsey turned hers over slowly, holding
her breath.  She exhaled when she saw it wasn't the Ace.  Amber's turn was next.  She looked across
the table at Stefan, who watched her intensely.  When she turned her card over she saw the plump face
of a young girl surrounded by dark-red hearts staring up at her – the Ace of Hearts – the card
representing spring and eternal youth.  Alan moaned irritably and rose from the table.
"That was a good game, Stefan, but I'd rather play it with someone other than you."
Amber admired the card before gathering the rest together and handing them to Stefan.  She stood and
followed Alan to the door as Stefan walked them out.  Alan said a quick goodbye and walked to his car.  
The night sky offered little relief from the heat, and a wind like the breath of a furnace tousled Amber's
hair as she turned to face Stefan.
"Did Katarina and the other servants play your card game?" she asked.  Stefan nodded, dark eyes
exploring her face.  "What did the winner gain?"  Stefan leaned in close to whisper.
"My grandmother says they played for a chance to pick the Countess' next victim."  He paused, seeming
to consider his next words carefully.  "There was another reason why Katarina was spared from death –
her lover, Paul, was the Countess' son.  If he had not intervened to save her…"  Stefan shrugged as his
words trailed off.
Amber nodded, impressed.  She watched Lindsey busy herself with clearing the card table behind him.  
She smiled her goodbye and walked to Alan's car, reaching it as he unlocked the driver's side door.
"You should let me drive," she cautioned him.
"I'm fine," he said, before getting in and unlocking the door for her.  She sat and gazed out the window
at Stefan, still standing in his doorway, as she pulled her seatbelt across her chest.
A dark, two-lane road framed by sparse desert landscape encouraged Amber's mind to wander as the
car's air conditioning cooled her cheeks.  It was almost too late when she realized the car drifted across
the divide and onto the opposite shoulder.  She yelled and grabbed the wheel, wrenching it to avoid
colliding with a utility pole.  Alan cursed as he was startled awake and the car spun around once before
screeching to a stop in the middle of the road.
"Let me out!" Amber screamed, scrambling at the door.  Alan tried to stop her, but she shook him off.
"Get back here!" he yelled.  She shook her head, standing awkwardly in the road.
"Let me drive, or leave me here!" she exclaimed.  To her surprise, Alan scowled and reached across the
car to shut her door.  Was he going to leave her in the heart of nowhere?  Incredulous, she took a step
back as the car pulled away.
Another vehicle struck Alan's car with such force that Amber was thrown from where she stood.  She
soared for what seemed an eternity until her body crashed against the desert gravel and her surprise
abruptly ceased.
Amber was troubled by images of a desert flashing red and blue.  The skin on her face and arm felt raw
and burned as people moved and restrained her.  She became aware again as she looked around and
saw she rested in a hospital room.  Feeling her face, she found bandages on the side which bore the
brunt of impact.  A cool touch caught and moved her hand from the injured cheek.  Blinking to clear her
vision, she slowly focused on Stefan as he stared down at her with a concerned smile.
"You are in a hospital, Amber, remain still," he whispered, squeezing her hand gently.  She looked at him
in confusion.
"You were in a car accident – do you remember?" he asked.  She nodded.  "You were found 100 feet
from the scene.  Your survival is incredible."  Amber struggled to find her voice.
"I got out – out of the car," she whispered.  "Where is Alan?"  Stefan looked at her warily as he
answered.
"Alan… they… they're both gone," he said.  Amber was bewildered, and Stefan continued.  "Lindsey left
my house shortly after you did.  It was her …her car in the collision.  They're both gone."
Amber blinked a few times before what Stefan said made sense.  He leaned down and pressed his
forehead to hers, then carefully kissed her lips.  He tasted like the salt of her tears and she shuddered
as realization dawned like the harsh desert sun.
Card of a
Countess