The room was shrouded in darkness, the figure on the bed uttering a low groan and turning over. Strong arms reached out, blindly seeking something in the space beside him. Whatever he searched for couldn’t be found, and he settled down for a moment, before the process started once more; the lone male tossing and turning in the huge bed.
Caleb dreamed. Usually his dreams were filled with erotic moments with his Annie, fragments of their life together replaying repeatedly while he slept. Tonight was different though. Tonight the bed beside him was empty, as it had been the night before. For the first time in over a quarter of a century Caleb slept alone, and his nights were filled with restless turnings as he searched for the other half of his soul.
Last night he’d woken at 2 am, having gone to bed only an hour before. He’d remained awake, lying on his back staring at the ceiling and wondering how everything could have gone to shit so quickly and with such disastrous results. Tonight he was so tired from lack of sleep that his nocturnal restlessness didn’t wake him; instead he was sucked under to another time and place, looking through the eyes of a man he’d never met…
“Anakatrine, what are you doing?”
The petite woman with her back to him turned around sharply, lavender eyes pinning his own with a vacant stare for a moment before they cleared and a sad smile crossed her face. “Preparing, my love, as you know we must.” She turned away, closing the leather bound spell book in her hands and placing it into an ornate wooden chest.
“It is almost time, Callain. The trial of the mated panther and vampire is less than a week away. We must ensure we protect what we can, while we can.” The vampire queen turned to her brother who was leaning against a tall bookcase and waved a small hand towards the tower of chests in the library. “Take these somewhere safe, Gard. Only you must know their location. I fear if the Council finds out where they’ve been hidden, they will seek to destroy the knowledge they hold.”
Angry lavender eyes met hers, and for a moment, Callain was mesmerised as he watched his mate and her brother. One was so huge, the other so small, and yet there was no mistaking their parentage. The Guardian secured his long auburn locks at the nape of his neck while his sister piled her curls in an ornate bronze clasp at the top of her head. But it was their eyes that mesmerised him the most, the same deep lavender hue that was a mark of their royal birth. The power that shone from those eyes was staggering to witness, and vampires of a lesser birth sometimes couldn’t bring themselves to meet their gaze. It didn’t faze Callain though, for he was the third part of the power of the triumvirate; the third side of a triangle of power so strong that they had ruled the vampire nation for almost three millennia.
He could see the rage in Gard’s eyes, and it was instinctive for him to step between them; however, he knew he would earn the rough side of his mate’s tongue if he tried to intervene. Some days he was sure she thrived on the heated debates she had with her brother. Callain held his place and watched the brewing argument.
“This is an outrage! Why are you running, Ana? You are our Queen, our ruler, not this pathetic Council. Abolish it and be done with it, sister. I fail to comprehend why you ever allowed it in the first place.” It was an old argument between them, one they had nearly every other week. The result was always the same, but still the Guardian pushed for an alternate course.
“How many times must we discuss this? I’ve told you before, Gard, our people are stagnating. We are becoming so xenophobic that one day in the future we will set ourselves too far above others; we will look down on them with such distain, that we will forget what it is to love, what it is to live. We must evolve. This is the first step in that evolution.” Tired patience accompanied her words as her gaze travelled the bookcases, looking for anything of worth she may have missed.
“They are that way already. This Council you have created already believes they are above all others, including you, our Queen. There is still time to stop this, Ana. You are so powerful, more powerful than any Queen before. With Callain and I at your side, we can retake our people and teach them what is right.”
“Gard, my beautiful warrior, most beloved of brothers; there is a finite time for everything, and that includes a matriarchal monarchy. Democracy, learning to think for oneself is the way forward. I have ruled so very long. It is time to place the mantle into our peoples’ hands and pray that they are wise enough to rise to the challenge and become so much more.”
Anakatrine took his hands in hers, smiling her sad smile. “Yes, I can see that the rot is already there, brother. It has been there for a long time, only it remained hidden from our eyes as most corruption does. By the time I realised it, the damage had been done and the only thing left was to let it run its course. There will be no instant miracle. Our people will fall into a path of decadence and cruelty, but one day they will rise up again and remember the beauty of the old ways. One day we will thrive and we will be glorious once more.”
“Have you seen this vision, my Queen?” Callain voiced the question he frequently asked, silence usually being the standard answer. Today his beautiful mate turned her gaze on him, some unknown emotion shadowing her eyes.
“I have seen it.”
Caleb groaned, kicking off the covers as he rolled over and buried his face in his pillow. Moonlight shone in the window, bathing his sweat-slickened body in its light as he was sucked down once more into a time long past.
Dark tunnels, slick with dampness and mildew were no challenge for the cloaked figures silently marching through them. It mattered not that there were no lights shining. A vampire could see in the dark, and these three better than most.
The trio halted at the barred cell, its steel so thick it would have taken a dozen Elder vampires using all their supernatural strength to break though. Inside the rancid room, a panther in human form cowered in the corner, her arms wrapped protectively around her babe as her vampire mate growled at the intruders.
“Hush, Gaston. It is I.”
Tears gathered in the bedraggled male’s eyes as he immediately knelt, his filthy blond hair falling forward as he bowed low. “Forgive me, my Queen. I feared you were more of the same we have endured for the last half day. They come and taunt us. They abuse my mate and torture us with how our precious Sarayne will be rendered limb from limb at tomorrow’s execution.”
Callain bristled at his words, outrage firing his blood lust. Was the rot already so ingrained in the hearts of his people that they took pleasure from thoughts of murdering an innocent child? He could feel his mate’s rage just as strongly through their mate bond.
“Forgive me, Gaston. I tried to temper their judgement but I fear my voice holds no sway anymore. Now there is so little time, and even less I can do.” Anakatrine touched the thick steel bars and incanted under her breath. For a moment, there was no discernible difference and then the bars parted as if they were made of the softest metal.
The were gasped, venturing closer from her hiding place as freedom beckoned. Gaston’s eyes lit up as he shuffled forward to bow even lower at his Queen’s feet.
A muffled sob escaped Anakatrine’s lips as she bent down and pulled him upright. “Please, old friend, do not abase yourself before me. I do not deserve it. I cannot free you this night. This is not the reason we are here.”
He met her gaze before looking past her at Callain and Gard, the two most fearsome warriors of their people. If his Queen could not free them, then why were they here? His confused eyes turned back to Anakatrine. As he noticed the tears tracing down her face at her inability to save them, denial of her pain rushed through him. Even knowing he was facing his death, and that of the two women he loved, he hastened to reassure her. “Do not weep for us, my Queen. If death is the payment for the love we have shared, Sara and I will accept that. If we had known the outcome of being together beforehand, we would have still chosen the same path.”
“Your courage shames our people, Gaston. Your mate’s love shames our people. You are the essence of all we have lost, dear friend; it is my honour to mourn you and your panther mate, though I know her not.” Anakatrine swallowed hard as she beckoned the woman closer. She had been sheltered her entire life from the animal shifters, but she could see the love in Sara’s eyes for her mate and her child.
“I cannot save you fore they would hunt you to the ends of the world to find you. You would never be safe; we all know that to be true. There is one thing I can do, however, if you will trust in me.”
“I can save your babe, but we have little time. I have used powerful spells to keep us hidden from everyone. More of my strength was used to soften these bars and I will need to solidify them. I fear I have used up almost all my reserves, Gaston. What remains can conjure up one illusion and it can only be a small one. My magic can create an image of your child that looks and feels so real they will truly believe they are executing her by your side. Gard will take her and hide her until it is over; then, as your child grows, we will keep her safe and tell her of how strong and courageous her parents were.”
“Please, my lady, take her,” the panther cried, rushing forward so quickly, Callain and Gard moved forward to block her.
“Stand aside,” Anakatrine sighed in a vexed tone. This was no time for their over-protectiveness.
“Please!” Sara held her babe up, the tattered blanket surrounding the youngling so dirty it was hard to see the hidden child. “Save my Sarayne. She is innocent, lady, just a helpless babe. I know we are not of your kind, but my mate has told me of your compassion. Protect her. Please.”
The vampire Queen reached out, carefully taking the silent child in her arms. She had to bend forward, her gaze settling on Gaston’s mate. The wealth of love was evident in the panther’s eyes, as was the willingness to sacrifice herself for her child. How could her people fail to see the beauty of the being before them? How could they fail to see their future?
“Your child will live, Sara, mate of Gaston. You have my word as the vampire Queen, and you have my word as a woman who has been proud to have you grace her family for this briefest of moments. Sometimes the brightest lights shine for the shortest of times, but their warmth lives on forever.”
She turned from the couple, placing the child in Gard’s arms. “Run my brother, run faster than you have ever run before. Take this child and keep her safe. No matter what you hear, no matter what you feel, do not falter. She is yours to protect until such time another can take up that burden. Give me your word, Kothari, Guardian of the Queen, Defender of the Weak.”
Callain could see Gard longed to refuse his Queen. It was written in his eyes as well as in the stiffness of his body, but she had invoked his birth name and he knew there was no way the Guardian could disobey her.
“You have my word, Anakatrine, but know I resent this task.”
Tears glistened in her eyes as she pulled his head down and brushed her lips against his mouth. She kissed his closed eyes as he held still to her touch. Her mouth brushed across both cheeks until her breath grazed his ear. “There are so few I can save, beloved brother. Save this one child for me.” As she slowly pulled away, she incanted silently, her lips unmoving as she brushed his once more.
“As my Queen commands.” Without another word, Gard turned away, disappearing along the tunnels with the child.
“Stand back while I close the bars.”
Gaston pulled Sara into his arms, holding her as they silently wept tears. He knew they would die on the morrow, but their Sarayne was safe and that was all that mattered.
Anakatrine incanted again, solidifying the steel once more, before taking a weary step back. Callain moved, placing his arms around her from behind, sending his strength down their mate bond as she recovered some of her flagging energy.
“Remember, you must act as if you would if you truly held Sarayne in your embrace. Do not give them cause to doubt, or all of this will have been for naught.” With no further words, Anakatrine began casting; she called up a spell so old it had been long forgotten by most, as had most of the other spells used this day.
The couple in the cell were suddenly joined by a third; a blanket covered a small babe, so real in appearance that if Callain hadn’t been privy to what had happened, he would have sworn it was Sarayne.
“It is done,” Anakatrine sighed softly, shifting in his embrace to face him. “We have no time left, my love.”
She reached up as she had with her brother, brushing his lips first, then his eyes, his cheeks and finally his ear. Her lips trembled infinitesimally and for a moment, he thought he heard the words of a spell; but then she was kissing him once more, hard and passionately as if it would be the last time their lips would ever touch.
“We must buy Gard time, Callain. He must be far away before he feels the first blow.”
“Ana?” Fear flowed through him at her words and at the tears that slowly dripped down her cheeks.
“I used the last of my magic creating the illusion, my mate. There was never going to be enough to do everything that needed to be done. Forgive me, my love. I saved the few that I could, and I knew you would never leave me.”
The fear grew, turning into a deep dread. All around them were voices and the sounds of booted feet coming ever closer. In that moment he understood; his love for his Queen blazed so brightly, his amber eyes shone. His knuckles caressed her soft cheek as the sounds came ever closer. “No, I would never leave you, my heart. I love you, Anakatrine, heart of my heart, breath of my breath, forever and always.”
Another tear fell, her smile shining radiantly as they turned together to face the first vampires flying down the long tunnel. “I will hold you to that, my most glorious mate. Death will never keep us apart.”
Callain spared one last moment to glance quizzically at her, but she was already moving forward, fangs bared, talons clicking loudly as she cut a swathe through the first unfortunate wave of vampires to encounter her wrath. He was beside her in an instant, protecting her as he cut down vampire after vampire. No one would harm a hair on her head, not as long as he lived…
Caleb cried out, twisting on the bed. His fist crashed out as he rolled over, his body drenched in sweat. The wood headboard split as he thumped it hard. He was neither aware of the noise nor the brief pain in his hand; instead, he was swirling under, drowning in the memories of the man he used to be…