Rayne let out a slow release of breath as the train rocked to a halt in Braşov station. For too many centuries she had avoided returning to where her life had first begun. Now she was a step closer to her beginnings, and she couldn’t deny the feeling of homecoming that assaulted her.
She hadn’t expected to have this reaction to being back in Romania and she wondered if Gard felt the same. Turning to look at him, she saw his gaze peering out to the station interior as they waited for the other travellers to alight. “When were you last here?”
He turned to smile at her, a soft glow in his eyes. “Not that very long ago,” he admitted. This is where I tracked down Caleb and released Callain back into this world. He had left Annie briefly in Bucharest while he was meeting with Joshua here about his first stirrings of unease over Europe. I didn’t know who Caleb was with at the time but I know now since our trip to Scotland. They were playing at being tourists. It was quite fun to watch them thinking they were being so clever when all the while I was following them.”
“Caleb was aware something wasn’t right that far back?” She was surprised to learn that.
Her mate shrugged. “I don’t think it was anything definite at that point, just a faint tendril of speculation on his part from something a friend of Joshua’s had imparted. Nothing tangible came of their meeting, and Caleb returned to Annie none the wiser that he had met me. I have a little skill in dream walking myself though it exhausts me so much I prefer not to do it. It took me three days to recover from our meeting and awakening Callain. I had to hide my identity from Caleb’s mind until the time was right.”
Rayne arched an eyebrow at him, mock-resignation crossing her face. “And I am only just learning this now? I think I may have to teach you the true definition of what being mates is supposed to mean.” She was teasing him, enjoying seeing a flash of concern twinkle in his eyes before he realised that was her intention and he wagged a finger at her.
Her thoughts were already wandering though, and a speculative gleam entered her green eyes. “Do you think Joshua was alerted by Dante?”
Her question earned her a light chuckle. “You noticed that too then? Dante didn’t appear the least surprised to see us show up at Louis’ place. Given we managed to slip passed all the other vampires looking out for someone arriving in Europe, that could only have meant that he had been given a head’s up by Joshua.”
“And here was I thinking you were just a pretty face,” Rayne laughed, winking at his mock-outrage. “Yes, I would say Dante and Joshua are known to each other, though I don’t think Louis is in on that secret.”
The passengers had all left the train, so they rose and exited onto the outdoor platform. Rayne admired the curving rooftop, the organic shape appealing to her ascetically. Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes and let out a long slow breath. “You can smell it in the air,” she sighed, a beatific smile gracing her lips. “The sweet scent of home.”
“We’re not quite there yet,” he countered, reaching for her hand to pull her into the main building. “We still have a fair few miles to go yet, but I know what you mean. The air smells so much sweeter here. I suppose it always will.”
Rayne smiled at the excitement in his tone, turning back to the earlier conversation as they headed out of the station. “Do you think Caleb knows Dante? Joshua is someone he trusts so there could be precedence that he may.”
Gard pondered the question for a moment and then shook his head. “He would have mentioned him at some point. I think Dante is acting for reasons that only he truly understands. They just happen to coincide with our goals at the moment.”
“I liked him, and Joshua.” Rayne grinned at the narrowed glance her mate shot her way.
“Yes...I noticed. Perhaps you are the one who needs some further instruction on what a true mate should be.”
“Why, Kothari senior...I do believe you are jealous.” She burst out laughing at the dark glare he gave her, her amusement cutting off as he dragged her into a nearby alleyway and pinned her against the wall.
“Keep it up woman and I swear I’ll take you right here and now and to hell if anyone might walk past. Oh, and call me that again, and I will not only take my sweet time about it, I’ll make you beg for everyone to hear.” He sealed his threat with a hot, wet kiss that stole her breath away.
“Hmmm, yes dear,” she whispered into his mouth, giggling as he palmed her breast and gave it a gentle squeeze.
He kissed her again and then they pulled apart, sharing a glance that told the whole world just how they felt about each other. Gard looped an arm over her shoulder and they headed back onto the street.
“Do you think he’s okay?” Rayne asked after they’d walked a mile or so. Her gaze was flittering from face to face and then the surrounding buildings, but her mate knew exactly who she was referring to.
“He has to fly the nest at some point, Sarayne. Now is as good a time as any.” Though he tried to sound convincing, he knew she could hear underlying concern in his voice.
“I keep wondering what we did wrong,” she admitted, her voice low. “Did we try hard enough? Was there something we could have done differently?”
Stopping, Gard ignored an angry mutter from a passer-by who almost barrelled into him. He gathered his mate close, kissing the top of her head, as he ran a soothing hand down her back. “We have loved our son with everything that we are, Rayne. We have protected him as best we could and been there whenever he has needed us. There isn’t anything else we could have done differently than to love him as we have. He will find his way, my heart. His journey may just be a bit rockier than most others.”
He had told her the same thing countless times and she could only hope that it was the truth. It was so hard not to wonder, not to worry about the beautiful son she had brought into this world though. She ached for him to be happy, for him to one day find that other half of his soul and never be alone again.
“Come on, the sooner we get this mission over with the sooner we will be back home with Kothari.” Gard released her but retained hold of her hand, pulling her along the busy streets towards their goal.
After a while, Rayne came out of whatever thoughts had been dominating her mind, a perplexed look crossing her face. Ahead of them were scores of people all dressed in black gothic attire, all heading in the same direction. “Is there a convention or something on in the city?”
Gard laughed, genuine amusement shining in his eyes. “Ahh those are the vampire groupies,” he chuckled. He pointed to a building up high, thick trees and bushes at its base, its red brick rooftops and steepled tower glistening in the sunlight. “They’re headed to Bran Castle to see where Vlad the Impaler was purported to live.”
His amusement rubbed off on her, shaking away her gloomy thoughts. “Seriously? They genuinely believe that Dracula lived there out in the open among humans?” No self-respecting vampire would ever have allowed humans to know of their existence, even in centuries gone past. Although, she supposed maybe back then there hadn’t been a whole lot of options available to Gard’s people.
“No vampire ever lived in that Castle,” her mate answered, a smile still playing across his lips. “Doesn’t hurt tourism though to let people think that he was real and foster the myth Bram Stoker created with his book. The Council had a long talk with the vampire who revealed our existence to the author back then. They decided to let him off with it after the way the myths and legends grew and covered our tracks.”
Rayne laughed, shaking her head. “If only they knew what they were seeking was actually walking beside them right now,” she whispered, as they skirted around particularly large group of tourists.
“They’d wet their pants,” Gard growled, causing her to laugh louder.
A few people turned to look at them, quickly turning away again and hurrying forward towards the fabled Castle. Gard and Rayne turned in the opposite direction, heading further away from the seat of civilisation.
“There are no trails where we’re going anymore,” Gard said, his eyes drawn to the Southern Carpathians that were looming ahead of them. “The trees and vegetation have overgrown everything so we’ll have to take to the skyline to get there.”
“If it’s so difficult to reach now then is it the place we’re looking for?” Rayne asked, a frown marring her brow.
“It’s difficult for humans to reach, even possibly Weres, but not to vampires. We’re lucky you’re a cat and like climbing trees. I think a wolf would have a devil of a time trying to get through the underbrush.”
The smugness of his tone had her laughing. “Yes, you were very smart to pick a panther for your mate,” she agreed.
He shot her a grin, picking up his step as anticipation washed over them. Now they were so close to home, it was impossible not to rush forward. “Come on, let’s go. I’m suddenly very antsy to see what’s left of the Palace.”
A few hours later, and far off the beaten track, a sleek black panther sailed from one treetop across to another, closely followed by a redheaded vampire. The cat expertly dug claws into a branch, drawing its hind legs up to balance on the thick limb. Gard hadn’t been kidding when he said the trail was overgrown. It was nigh on impossible to continue by foot as they wound their way higher and higher up the Carpathians.
Rayne uttered a small purring sound as her mate ran his hands down her back, inwardly smiling at the sheer joy on his face. The closer they came to their goal, the more charged he became, his excitement rippling down their mate bond.
“We’re close,” he breathed out, his lavender eyes almost glowing with anticipation. “Only a few more miles now, but we need to head east. Can you make that tree over there or do you want me to carry you?”
The tree in question was quite far even for her panther to leap, but she was reasonably confident she could make it. She’d only had to shift back to human form twice so far when the distance had been too great for her panther, and that had only been because Gard had refused to take a minor detour.
“You just like rubbing your body against mine and being the knight in shining armour,” she answered telepathically, injecting humour into her words. “I can make the jump but you go first just in case I need any assistance.” There was no harm in being pragmatic.
“You’d better not,” Gard growled, eyeing the waiting tree to their right. He dropped down a few branches beneath her, and then sprang forward.
Rayne watched her mate glide effortlessly through the air. She could tell he’d used all of his supernatural reflexes for his push off the lower branch to counter the loss of momentum he had from stopping. That didn’t bode that well for her if he’d had to use all his resources. Though, he did almost overshoot the Oak tree so perhaps it wouldn’t be as bad as she first thought.
Gard had deliberately placed himself lower down on the waiting tree. If she failed to make the jump then she would start to fall downwards and he would want to be lower to enable him to react in time if needed. He was a smart male and she couldn’t help grinning with pride.
“Panthers are so not supposed to smile, Sarayne,” he called across the expanse. “It’s downright creepy.”
Shaking her head, she judged the distance to the branches above him, her hind legs coiling ready to spring. Rayne pushed off with all her strength, arching her back to increase her forward motion. She knew instantly that she wasn’t going to make it but she didn’t panic. Instead, she made her body as aerodynamic as possible, giving herself as much of a chance as possible.
Gard’s furious yell echoed through the trees as she began to plummet downward. Her stomach lurched and her front paws began to scramble in the air for purchase that she knew wasn’t there. She shifted in mid-air, knowing her panther’s body was much heavier than her human form. At least this way she would fall at the slightly slower pace, and it would be easier for Gard to catch her.
If she hit the ground it was going to hurt and there was a good chance it could kill her. There were far too many branches out there that could take her head at the velocity she was falling. For the first time ever, Rayne considered the possibility that she might actually die. Gard would murder her if she let that happen though...the fact that she would already be dead being a bit of a moot point.
Pain rattled through her side as a moving object crashed into her halting her fall. The pain increased as she was suddenly propelled sideways at such speed she caught a thick branch to her midriff, her breath cutting off at the hard impact. It hurt to breathe; it hurt to move, but she was alive and draped rather inelegantly face forward over a branch.
“Ouch!” She shrieked as a hand connected with her upturned backside. “I’m injured here!”
“You’re damned lucky to be alive, woman,” Gard retorted, fury lacing his tone. “I’ve a good mind to spank your bottom harder and for at least a week. I swear you just took a thousand years off my life.”
Despite his ire, she could hear the concern and relief in his voice. She could only imagine what he must have gone through seeing her fall like that. “You’re immortal,” she snorted, pulling herself up so she could straddle the branch facing him. She needed a few moments to allow her body to heal, and from the look on her mate’s face, he needed a few to calm his racing heart.
Looking up, she realised just how far she’d fallen. It was a miracle Gard had managed to get to her in time. Turning her gaze back to his ashen face, she reached out to place a hand on his chest. His heart was racing so fast it was a wonder he wasn’t hyperventilating. “I’m fine, Gard.”
“Only because I caught you in time,” he growled, a faint trace of panic still shining in his eyes. He pulled her into his arms, his hold so tight she thought he would crack a couple of her ribs. “Don’t you ever do that to me again, Sarayne. I swear I will make you regret it for at least a millennia if you do.”
She hid her smile in the crook of his neck, sending love and reassurance down their mate bond and allowing him to threaten her with whatever dire retribution he needed. If it helped to calm him anxiety levels down she could put up with it. “I’m fine,” she reiterated, rubbing her lips against his neck. “I’m safe.”
She kissed up his jaw, sighing when he turned his head and plundered her mouth in a kiss so desperate it brought tears to her eyes. She returned his kiss, allowing him to ground himself in her touch until his heart finally began to slow its erratic beat and his touch gentled.
“I love you more than life itself, Sarayne,” Gard whispered against her lips. “I am nothing without you, my heart. Please don’t ever scare me that way again.”
“I promise I will do my very best, my darling, but we are living in dangerous times. Please don’t hold it against me if I can’t keep to that.” She would never lie to him or give him empty reassurances. He wouldn’t want them from her anyway.
Gard lowered his forehead against hers, a rueful smile crossing his handsome face. “I guess that is the best I can ever hope for,” he sighed, his hands slowly trailing down her back, his fingers tracing her spine. “Are you healed?”
“Good as new,” she answered, smiling to lend weight to her words. He would be giving himself a hard time that he’d hurt her while rescuing her and she needed to divert him before he went down that path. “Though you and I are going to be having a discussion about you hitting me, Mister...”
It had the desired effect, his lavender gaze turning resolute. “You deserved that spanking.”
“Remember those words when I turn them back around on you one day,” she countered, moving away to look at the next grouping of trees. “I think you forget that I am Vârcolac sometimes, Gard, and so very much stronger than you when I want to be.” She gave him a saucy wink.
Throwing his head back, he laughed loudly. The sound startled some nearby birds and sent them fluttering into the evening sky. “Bring it on, woman. I’m not afraid of you.” He rose beside her and examined their route. The distance between trees appeared fairly uniform.
Glancing to the side, he captured her gaze. “We should get a good run at this last section, our forward momentum making the jumps easy. Is there anything that concerns you?”
She shook her head, in full agreement with him. Her panther shouldn’t have any issues, but she didn’t want him to be second guessing her abilities. “Just for the sake of your piece of mind, why don’t you go first and I’ll follow at five second intervals? I’m sure my panther can make each jump but there is no harm in being cautious.”
His answer was to smile and nod his head. “That was just what I was going to suggest.”
It was Rayne’s turn to laugh now and she rolled her eyes. “Men...” she muttered under her breath, but her vampire was already leaping into the next treetop and it was time for her to shift back to panther form and follow his lead.
It wasn’t long before she could detect a break in the treeline up ahead, a sign that they were closing in on their location. A handful more leaps and then Gard was waiting for her as she reached the last tree.
“We’re here,” he breathed softly, reverence in his tone. “We can continue on foot from here.”
It was easier for her to make her way down the tree in panther form, so she waited until they touched down on the mossy ground before she shifted back to human. The trees and foliage were still relatively thick where they’d come down so she made sure her clothing was sufficient for the terrain so her skin didn’t get too nicked. Her long black hair she quickly plaited down her back, so it wouldn’t get in the way.
Gard was retying his dark auburn locks at his nape with a leather thong, his gaze alert as he surveyed the area. “I don’t see any obvious signs of disturbance,” he mused. “Might not be a bad idea to check a little further afield before we head deeper in towards the Palace.”
Rayne didn’t recognise this part of her former homeland. She had been found on the western side of the Palace and had lived most of her younger life in two of the villages leading away from the vampire court. From what she could remember, most of the Romany settlers had moved as far away from the court as if they could sense the danger that was brewing at that time. Any folklore that they may have had about this area, had been carefully wiped out of existence within two generations. She was probably the only person outwith the Triumvirate who still remembered any of the history of this place.
“I’ll take the left,” she answered crossing to his other side.
“You were already on the right side,” he grumbled with no real heat in his tone.
“I know; I just felt like taking the left side. Sue me.”
“Some days I think you just like teasing me, woman.”
“Of course,” she laughed, “Isn’t that my job?”
He grinned back at her, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation, before his expression turned serious. “If you see anything even remotely suspicious don’t investigate it on your own. Come and find me.”
“Ditto,” she shot back, giving him a broad smile. “Meet back here in half an hour?”
Gard nodded, stealing a quick kiss. “Don’t do anything foolish,” he breathed against her lips, causing her to laugh once more.
“Like I said...ditto,” she quipped back, turning to head into the closest treeline.
Gard watched her go before he turned to his path and vanished into the waiting trees.
Rayne alternated between both her forms to traverse her section of the mountain forest. Sometimes it was simply easier to be a panther to get through a particularly densely packed area. She completed her sweep, her innate ability to tell time alerting her to the fact she had to head back. She didn’t encounter anything out of the ordinary so she was relaxed as she returned back to her mate.
“All clear my end,” she announced as she exited the trees to where he was waiting for her.
“Same here,” he answered, his gaze already sliding from hers as if irresistibly drawn to the hidden structure waiting for them. “Time to go home,” he murmured, and she followed him forward towards where the Vampire Queen had once held her court.
The decay of thousands of years couldn’t diminish the beauty of his former home. Everywhere Gard’s gaze fell, he remembered another time and the magnificence that was his Queen’s Palace. As he and Rayne threaded their way passed thick foliage into the clearing that had once been the Palace’s great courtyard, he slipped back in time to see the breath-taking vision it had once been.
They halted by a crumbling wall that was now at mere ankle height, however his mind’s eye saw the gracefully curving crescent moon construction that had been three feet high and made of the palest limestone. In a hushed voice he spoke, bringing to life an era long passed to his silent mate. “The crescent moon was our family’s crest. All who saw it knew it signified the Royal House of Ardweni, our great grandmother, and the first of the Vampire Queens. It was the symbol of all that was right in our world, of all that was good about our people.”
He breathed deeply, closing his eyes as he let it out slowly. “This wall here used to stand three feet high. It curved towards the main door to the palace and was flanked by urns full of the most beautiful flowers to scent the air. Many a night Anakatrine and I sat on that very wall, mapping out the stars above, as night bled into early dawn.”
His lips quirked in an affectionate smile, reliving memories long passed but still greatly treasured. “Ana was fascinated with the sky above us, she couldn’t get enough of it. She used to lament often that she couldn’t soar through the skies like a birds above, and I had to often remind her that it would be considered unseemly for a Queen to frolic in the air.”
Rayne laughed quietly, threading her arm through his and resting her head on his shoulder. “How old was she at the time?”
“She was six.” He sighed as he said it, a trace of sadness in his voice. “It was after our mother had passed and Ana had ascended to the throne. I was barely a man at the time, and yet I had more freedom then than she would ever have again. I tried to give her as many moments where she could be just a child, but often my role was always to remind her she was a Queen. She did not have much of a childhood.”
“I’m sure whatever childhood she had with you was treasured, my love. She would not have turned out to be one of the greatest living Queens if that had not been the case. I am sure that even at that young age she was aware that she was speaking flights of fancy. That you would sit with her and listen shows that you were the perfect Guardian for your young Queen.”
“I loved to hear her laugh,” he admitted, smiling down at her. “If only you could have known her, Rayne, and heard her laughter. That one day when you did meet, Ana was so full of sorrow at what was to come. You would have loved her and she you, I am certain of that.”
When she merely smiled, his gaze turned back to the courtyard. “You can just about make out the grid pattern the mosaic tiles were set in leading up to the main door.” He pointed to the ground and she could almost make out what he meant though time had done too much damage to get a clear picture.
“The tiles were blues and greens with accents of silver and golds,” he continued. “Each tile was a mini image in itself but grouped together they created an underwater vista of what life must have looked like beneath the waves of the sea. In those days our people were very artistic.”
“It sounds amazing.” For some unknown reason Rayne found she couldn’t speak in anything above a near whisper. The expression on her mate’s face was so full of awe it touched her heart that he was sharing this part of his life with her. It seemed out of place to talk normally and she didn’t want to break the spell he was weaving all around them.
“There were two great pillars beside the entrance into the hallway. The Roman’s adopted the same style later on, but I’m sure there was a vampire at the heart of that architecture.” Gard was standing by a crumbled wall so decayed it was hard to see there had ever been a doorway there. He walked forward, onto a large expense of moss that was growing unevenly.
“Beneath our feet were more limestone tiles in fractal patterns. They were shades of reds, pinks and purples. Visitors often stood in the hallway for hours at time just admiring the many different hues. Our mother eventually placed seating in the hallways for those guests who took their time appreciating the beauty that surrounded them.”
His hand swept to the left, to the largest shell of wall that still remained standing. “The staircase ran up the left wall, to the Royal suits. It was always guarded fore none could ascend without express Royal permission. Each tread was of the shiniest white marble, a lavender runner lining the middle so no one would accidentally fall down them. Ana loved to sit at the very top peering down at Mother’s guests as they arrived. She was impossible to keep in bed when she was a child.”
Rayne could see the vista in her mind’s eye, a mental image of a little redheaded girl so full of excitement as exotic guests arrived at her home. The wealth of love in Gard’s voice was unmistakable, and she was now beginning to understand why he had searched so long for his beloved Anakatrine to be reborn.
He appeared to shake himself out of his reverie for a moment, turning to smile at her and gather her close to his side. “Come, the throne room was this way.” Gard led them forward into another overgrown moss area, only this time the walls on either side of them appeared to be more stable.
“Have those walls been pointed?”
Her mate’s smile broadened, happiness exuding from his big frame. “When I first awakened Callain I came here,” he breathed softly. “I knew Anakatrine would return soon and I longed for our old life together. I started rebuilding the throne room one brick at a time. I wanted her to have her home back once more.”
Silence hung around the open room as he stopped talking and Rayne let her eyes sweep across the huge area. “You didn’t finish your task though. Why did you stop?”
For the first time since they’d arrived a shadow crossed Gard’s face. “I realised that though Ana had returned, she was but an echo of a time long past, and I was holding onto memories that would never come again. Annie isn’t Ana, they just share a body and mind. She doesn’t want to live up here in the ruins of a Palace long buried, and why should she? Annie’s life is with Caleb and the pack. It was wrong of me to presume that she would ever want to stay here.”
“I’m sure one day Annie would love to come here, Gard. She would come for Anakatrine so the vampire Queen might one day relive her life here with you.”
He shook his head, his smile turning resigned. “No, that life has passed now. I am content with the life that I now live. How could I not be? I have the best of both worlds.”
The kiss he gave told her how much he loved her and that he meant everything that he said. When they broke apart, they shared a smile and then her gaze turned back to the room before them. “Tell me of the throne room. Is that a tapestry I see over there?” Rayne truly did want to hear more of the world her mate had loved so much before they had come to know each other.
Gard’s smile was once more that of excitement, lighting up his face and making him more beautiful if that was humanly possible. “All the great vampire houses had their own banners. This one is all that remains and it’s of the Royal house of Ardweni. I was astounded to find it still in existence after all this time. Ana must have placed a preservation spell on it though it appears to have faded.”
Leaning down they stared at the faded cloth. “Can you see the crescent moon shape at the top?” he asked, his fingers hovering a bare inch above the fabric. “Behind the two thrones was a wall of clear glass. Above them was a skylight shaped in the crescent moon. To either side of the audience chamber, the seating also curved in that same crescent moon shape. It was the emblem of the Royal house and just about every area within the throne room echoed with that design.”
Rayne gasped, startled eyes flowing to meet his. “The Council chambers...its seating is in the same design...”
Gard laughed, a soft sound echoing through the crumbling walls. “You see what thousands of vampires have never seen despite looking at it each day.” His voice was warm with approval and more than a hint of pride. “Yes, my heart, they are unaware but they still hold to traditions of long passed. The vampire nation still bows to the Royal House of Ardweni though they are unaware.”
Rayne laughed with him...it was hard not to as she imagined some of the more traditional, hidebound vampires sitting there with all their pomp and arrogance. In their ignorance, they were completely unaware that they had retained a symbol of the most precious thing they had ever lost, their Queen. “Do you think they will ever learn the truth, Gard?”
He was silent for a long moment and then he shrugged his shoulders. “I have no idea what Anakatrine’s plans are, though I am fairly certain she has one. She always did know far too much than any one person ever should have. It was what made her the greatest ever vampire Queen and why our people never deserved to have her grace our world.”
Rising, Gard let his gaze swing around the room once more and then held out his hand. “While reminiscing is fun, it’s not getting the job done we came here to do. Come on, let’s check out the area behind the Palace.”
“It doesn’t look as dense out there,” Rayne mused, scanning the area quickly. “Is that normal?” If Gard had been visiting from the main entrance, which would be the norm for him as that would be the route he was used to entering the site; possibly he may not have approached from the rear.
It appeared her train of thought was echoing in his mind because he tensed a little, a frown on his face. “On the contrary, it should be more overgrown,” he muttered, starting to walk forward. “Stay close, Rayne.”
She wanted to roll her eyes and make a smart quip about being overprotected, however his tense demeanour dampened down any words she may have uttered. There was a silence about the mountain that didn’t feel natural, as if the animals knew something was out there that shouldn’t be. Following his lead, she stepped back out into the forest, moving to the left as he signalled his movement to the right.
“Keep in touch at all times. Alert me the instant you see anything that doesn’t feel right.”
“Maybe we should stay together? If you’re so concerned.” She didn’t asked the question because she was afraid, but more because she knew his focus would be split if he was worrying about her safety.
“We’ll cover more ground this way,” he answered telepathically.
It made sense so she concentrated on her surroundings, looking for any signs of tracks that would indicate anyone had visited the site recently. Rayne had made her way a circuitous route of about a mile from the Palace when she noticed the first indication of trees having been chopped down. The trees had been removed a good fifty or so years ago but given the remoteness of the spot, it was still highly suspicious.
“Gard, I have evidence of someone being here.” She expected an instant response and held her breath when all she received was silence. “Gard?”
Again, there was nothing but silence and shiver of unease trickled down her spine. Gard would never leave her alone, especially when what they were tracking was a direct threat to everything they held dear. Had something happened to him and that was why he didn’t answer? He’d given her no warning that anything was amiss.
More unease overwhelmed her as she was struck by a sudden thought. Their failsafe! She had to check it was still in place. Turning her thoughts inward, she searched for the great tree she’d placed at the very forefront of her mental defences, and what she found brought her feet to a dead halt. It was gone! In its place was barely a mark that it had ever existed.
Someone had been inside her mind and tampered with her defences. He or she had to be powerful to breach them, and also very close by. Had they gotten to her mate yet, or was he still safe? If Gard tried to reach her and couldn’t find her he’d come looking and then they’d be in serious trouble. Spinning on her heels Rayne took off back the way she’d come only she didn’t make it two steps before something bit her on the neck and her feet stumbled over a tree root.
She fell forward as her legs gave out, barely able to stop her forehead smashing off the ground as she landed in a heap. Her vision began swimming in an instant, and the strength in her arms gave out as she tried to pull herself up from the ground. “Gard, run!” she screamed in her mind, because her voice wouldn’t work despite how hard she tried to make it.
“Trap!” She tried again, knowing that she was close to losing consciousness and he most likely couldn’t hear her. Blackness descended though she fought it every step of the way, her heart hammering wildly as she tried to reach her mate. “Run, Gard...run...”
Something wasn’t right, he could feel it with every step he took. The area he was traversing was too pristine, too devoid of all tracks. There should have been animal droppings, some indication that something had travelled over the ground and yet there were none and their lack was every bit of a warning sign than if he’d detected footprints.
Gard was certain no one had actually stepped foot on the Palace site but the further he walked towards the rear the more sure he was that someone had visited the area in the last century. He wanted to kick himself for not checking this far back the last time he’d been there but then he supposed he’d had no call to at the time. Now, all he could think about was getting back to the Palace and his mate. They were far too vulnerable up here on their own when they knew nothing of what may be waiting for them.
“Sarayne, head back to the Palace.”
He took a couple of steps backwards and then he froze on the spot. “Sarayne!”
Gard spun to his left and took off at supernatural speed. It was the fastest route to her last known location. Dread filled his soul, fear clogging his throat as he ran. There was no way in hell she wouldn’t answer him when he called. Something had to have happened to her.
“Sarayne! Answer me!”
Total silence greeted him, and he realised that he could barely feel their mate bond. It was as if someone or something was muting the bond but he knew that was an impossibility. Only they could do that, or Rafe, and their Alpha was thousands of miles away. “Sarayne, where are you?”
All contact with his mate cut off a split second after something stung him in the neck. The huge vampire fell forward with a loud crash, a branch spearing him in the shoulder as he fell. Gard roared out in fury as he toppled forward, fear for Rayne the only thing he could think of. They had been ambushed, of that he was now certain, lulled into a false sense of security at finding the Palace site and front entrance completely undisturbed.
Darkness was descending and he shook his head to try to clear it. He couldn’t pass out, not here and now, not when Rayne needed him. “Rayne...Rayne...” Gard lost his fight to stay conscious, inky blackness claiming his last thought of his missing mate.
A cloaked figure entered the cave, his tall frame concealed by the charcoal grey garment. Outside were close to a hundred elder vampires. Inside, were two prone figures bound in chains so thick it would have taken all the assembled vampires to break them. The figure stood peering down at their prey, his lips stretching in the rictus of a smile. It was the only part of the male that could be seen, his hood concealing the majority of his face.
“You have done well,” he said telepathically to the lone vampire in the cave with him.
The formula you provided made the task easy, Master,” the bald-headed male replied, bowing low.
“It certainly did work to subdue them; however I will test to ensure that it dulls their magical abilities too. All this will be pointless if the toxin is ineffectual against that.” Hunching down beside the bound couple, the Master danced inside their sleeping minds, his psyche flowing down the pristine corridors within until he found the area he was looking for.
The girl’s abilities were of the lesser in offensive terms, but he still placed a block around her ability to shadow and shapeshift. As long as she remained dosed with enough of the toxin he’d formulated, she wouldn’t be able to break through his block.
Next, he turned his attention to the male, reaching out a gloved hand to brush away a lock of auburn hair that partly obscured his face. He had seen this one around over the centuries and knew that he was a force to be reckoned with. “Well met, Guardian,” he whispered tracing a long finger over a chiselled cheekbone. “Long have I yearned for this moment, though I did not expect it to be so soon. I am not yet ready to play my final hand, old one, though I will enjoy watching the chaos your disappearance engenders.”
It was the first time the vampire beside him had heard his Master’s true voice, and it caused tears of adoration to flow down his face at the sheer beauty of its tone.
With no further words, he entered the Guardian’s mind, finding his place of magic and bolting the door firmly shut. It would be disastrous should the male be able to unlock the door while in captivity. His wrath would be like none other and should he escape his bonds...the Master would lose many of his followers should that occur.
He would have to ensure that didn’t happen, and made a mental note to stay close until he could determine how long the toxin would keep the couple unconscious.
“No one enters the cave,” he instructed the vampire at his side. “No one speaks to them, no one interacts with them. And most definitely no one who has a key to their bonds comes within a hundred feet of this cave. I will remain for another few hours but then I must leave this place. After that, you are in charge of the prisoners, Heathen. Should they escape, your life will be forfeit. Are we clear on that?”
The vampire fell to his knees, fierce determination shining from his mind. “Yes, Master. It will be as you instruct. No one will enter the cave except to administer the toxin.”
The cloaked figure stifled down a grimace of disgust at the zeal in the vampire’s mental tone. Weaker minds were much easier to subdue but they burnt out faster than he would have liked. He would have to cultivate another to take Heathen’s place if the vampire continued down his current rate of decay.
Sweeping passed the kneeling male, the Master stode out of cave and into the early evening air. A hundred vampires all knelt as one, his love and approval bathing them where they knelt. This was as it should be. This was as it always should have been. Soon now, it would be his time, and the world would quake in fear at his very name.
Thousands of miles away a deep male voice cried out, frantic brown eyes opening in a gasp of pain.
“Rafe?! What’s wrong?” Lacey sat up beside her mate, her hands automatically coming around to clutch at her abdomen.
“Gard....Rayne...I can’t sense them anymore, Lace. I can’t feel them down my Alpha bond!”
“No!” The word choked out, tears filling Lacey’s eyes as she stared at her mate. “Are they...?” She couldn’t say the word that filled her soul with dread.
The huge Alpha turned anguished eyes to meet hers, unshed tears brimming in their depths. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “I just know I can’t feel them anymore. Something has gone wrong in Europe, something terrible has happened there.”
Throwing her arms around him, she wept against his shoulder, her tears coming out in loud sobs. The impact this would have on the pack was devastating. The impact it would have on Annie was catastrophic. “What can we do, Rafe?”
He was already gentling prising her arms from him, climbing naked from their bed. “We need to let Caleb and Annie know, and someone needs to check in on Kothari. I don’t know if it’s just my Alpha bond that’s been cut or if it’s his familial bond too. If he senses they’re gone...I have no idea what he’ll do, Lacey. He was barely in check earlier when I had to come down on him over his fight with Liam.”
She was getting up too, hastily pulling on jeans and a sweater while he dressed. “Kallum’s still up at the Praetorian compound. Kothi’s close to Dara, maybe it would be best to have her check in with him?”
Now that the initial panic was starting to wear off, Rafe tested his Alpha bond with the Vârcolac, his big frame relaxing a tad. “Kothari is sleeping and his bond feels calm,” he told her, sighing with relief as he spoke. “He doesn’t appear to be aware of anything at the moment so it looks like we have some time in hand. Let’s contact Annie and Caleb first before we disturb anyone else’s sleep. Maybe they’ll have an idea on how best to support Kothi through this crisis.”
It made sense if the danger point wasn’t with them at the moment, and yet, Lacey felt uneasy about not being more proactive. There was no telling when Kothari might become aware that something had happened to his parents. They should have a contingency plan in place for that moment. “Are you sure, Rafe?”
It wasn’t often that she questioned her mate on pack decisions so he took a moment to think through the issue. “We need to try to have answers for him when he becomes aware, Lace. If he suspects we have no idea what to do, he’s more likely to go off half-cocked and we will have no way of countering his reaction. Let’s take the time that we have to be as prepared as we can be.”
Lacey nodded her agreement, following Rafe from their bedroom. They had a few hours in hand. With luck, they would have a plan of action that would satisfy the erratic Vârcolac and all hell wouldn’t break loose, as she feared it would.
Rafe was hitting the speed dial on his phone as he entered his study and Lacey headed to the kitchen to get some coffee brewing. “You know...?” she heard him saying before his voice was cut off, and her heart went out to his sister on the other end of the phone. Losing Gard would crush Rhianna, and most probably bring out Anakatrine in all her fury. While they had been discussing Kothi’s reaction to what had happened, neither of them had considered what reaction the vampire Queen would have to the news...
To be continued...