Setas fall a blood revel.., p.1
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       Seta's Fall: A Blood Revelation Prequel, p.1

           Crystal-Rain Love
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Seta's Fall: A Blood Revelation Prequel
Seta’s Fall: A Blood Revelation Prequel

  Crystal-Rain Love

  Copyright 2017 by Crystal-Rain Love

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof

  may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever

  without the express written permission of the publisher

  except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  SETA’S FALL: A BLOOD REVELATION PREQUEL

  CRYSTAL-RAIN LOVE

  ONE

  1803

  Rome, Italy

  “The Count will never take a whore as his wife.”

  Seta bristled, and took a deep breath, releasing the air from her lungs slowly to ward off her reflex to lash out at her mother. She knew the woman thought she knew best, but she didn’t understand the relationship Seta had with Count Roberto Garibaldi. Her mother had never been fortunate enough to have the affections of such a noble, highly regarded man. Seta’s father was a scoundrel at best, and had been long dead for many years, leaving his family to survive the only way they could, by being lowly servants.

  “Do you really think me a whore?” Seta asked as she continued to fold her toddler son’s clothing atop the dresser. She caught her reflection in the mirror above it and saw a sadness in her eyes that should not be, not on this day she’d long awaited for.

  “It is not what I think, but what others think,” her mother said diplomatically as she rose from the rocking chair set near the hearth. Rialto slept peacefully in her arms, his small angelic head nestled against her bosom. Seta watched as her mother deposited her small son into the bassinet they kept close to the fire to protect him from the draft.

  “I care not what others think,” Seta stated firmly though her hands automatically clenched with the untruth. “When I am nobility, no one will dare utter a bitter word to me.”

  “When you are nobility.” Her mother snorted, shaking her head as she tucked a thin blanket around Rialto’s sleeping form. “I do not like to hurt you, Seta, but you need to stop this foolish dreaming. Even your grandmother, sick as she was, warned you away from him.”

  “I am not dreaming!” Seta slapped a hand over her mouth as Rialto let out a tiny whimper. Her mother directed a reproachful look her way as she rubbed the young boy’s back, soothing him to sleep once more.

  “I am not dreaming,” she repeated, much calmer this time, as her mother straightened. “The Count is in love with me, and I, with him. Rialto is testimony to the love we share.”

  “Rialto is testimony to the fact that you lay with a married man and God had enough mercy on your soul to bless you with a child despite your sin.”

  That hurt. It hurt so badly the anger drained out of Seta, replaced with deep regret. She’d always been so proud of her relationship with Roberto, so honored that of all the women in Rome, he had chosen her to be with. Yes, he had chosen and wed another first, but that relationship was no more than a business arrangement, the joining of two wealthy families. Roberto did not love his wife. He despised the woman so much they did not even sleep together, which was why Rialto was his first-born. Seta may not have been first to wed the count, but she took great pride in knowing she’d been the one to gift him with his one and only son, an heir to his title and wealth. “I sincerely apologize if I have embarrassed you, Mother, but I assure you no one will dare speak ill of you once we are in the castle. You will have servants of your own, and they will all desire to be you. We will both be envied.”

  Her mother, Loma, bowed her head, and shook it side to side. “I do not envy the pain of your heart breaking when you learn the truth.”

  “I have learned the truth!” Seta’s anger started to mount once again. “It is you who chooses not to believe it.”

  “How will you ever set foot into that castle without a basket of laundry, or cleaning supplies?” Loma’s hands clenched the apron strings at her hips. “Rialto is not the key you think he is. You may be the mother of Count Roberto Garibaldi’s son and possible heir, but you will never be his wife. You will always be the Spanish servant he took in secret.”

  Heat flooded through Seta’s body and the flames in the hearth roared as they grew higher. Loma’s eyes widened and she quickly pulled the bassinet away from the hearth. “Cool your temper, Seta.”

  Seta swallowed hard, and closed her eyes against the rage furrowing inside her. There was no explanation for it, but bad things tended to happen when she allowed her temper to flare. “There is no need for concern, mother. Rialto and I are leaving now.”

  She stepped forward to retrieve her son, but Loma blocked her path. “Please think about this, Seta. You are not thinking clearly. The heart has misled many women down dangerous paths, as I am afraid your heart is doing now.”

  “Roberto loves me, and he adores his son. You will see.” She nudged her mother aside and scooped up her small son, tucking him against her body so his dark head rested over the swell of her bosom. “I will send for you,” she said softly as she turned and took up the basket of clothing she had packed for Rialto. She knew her own clothing was unsuitable for the castle. Roberto would see to it that she was properly outfitted after she and Rialto settled in. She could just imagine the servants bustling about her, taking her measurements so they could dress her in the finest of silks.

  “Seta, stop this foolishness!” Panic laced the sternness Loma projected into her voice. “I am your mother. I would not tell you an untruth!”

  “You do not know of what you speak,” Seta said calmly, trying desperately to hold back the anger inside her. She’d once set a man’s eyebrows on fire by simply wishing it upon him while mad. She didn’t want to accidentally hurt her mother in a similar way. “As I said, I will send for you once we are settled in.”

  “How will you ever be settled into a home you must share with the woman who is wed to the man you love?”

  Seta stopped just before the door, back ram-rod straight. “The countess has been ill for some time now. The Lord will be taking her soon, and I will then move into the master chambers with Roberto.”

  “I have not heard a word of this illness.”

  “You would not,” Seta responded coldly. “You are not of a high enough station.”

  “And you are? We are the same.”

  Seta stopped herself before reminding her mother she had never been loved by a man of importance, had never caught the eye of such a prize before. Despite her mother’s hurtful words, she still loved the woman and would not hurt her so cruelly. “We will laugh over this confusion at a later time, perhaps.”

  “No, we will not. Walk out that door, Seta, and you will not be welcome back through it after he casts you aside.”

  Seta turned just enough to glimpse her mother. “You would really bar me from returning here?”

  “Yes.” Loma’s chin rose defiantly despite its trembling. “If that is what it will take to make you stop and think about this. The count will not take a Spanish wife, much less a servant. Stay here where you belong, Seta. Do it for the future of your son. We can escape if it is necessary.”

  “Escape?” Seta laughed. “Roberto has never abused me, nor would he. Why would I take his son away from him? Who better to raise him into a fine man than his own father, a count?”

  “There is darkness in the man, Seta. He has blinded you to it, but I am not such a fool.”

  “Nor am I.” She straightened her back, standing tall. “It is a good thing I will not need to return to this dismal little hovel. Do not worry, Mother. Despite your bitter words, I will still send for you, if only to prove you wrong.”

  Seta left, the sound of her mother’s strangled sob following her until the do
or closed behind her, blocking the anguished sound. She did not look back as she walked away from the small cabin she and her mother had been offered in the servants’ quarters located a half-mile from the castle. They had arrived from Spain with her father, who claimed to have found work in this new land which would pay him well. They were to have a large house and a carriage. Seta was to be properly educated and married off to a man of great wealth within the year. None of those things had happened. Her father had cheated the wrong man, and his head had been taken. Seta and Loma had been forced to become servants. Seta grinned as she pressed on along the path winding through the woods. She did not regret being a servant, for if she had not been a servant on Roberto’s land, she would have not known about the lake where he had found her bathing on a hot morning. They would have never met, would have never fallen in love, and she would have never given birth to the most beautiful child in creation.

  Roberto loved her, and he beamed when he looked upon Rialto. No force in the world could break the bond between them. Rialto whimpered, and Seta shifted him higher onto her shoulder. “We will see your father soon, darling. No more shall we steal a few precious hours. We are to live with him in his castle, and one day all that is his will be yours. You are such a special child.”

  He was. The old hag in her dreams had told her. She’d started dreaming of the wrinkled old woman soon after meeting Roberto, and although she was just an image in a dream, Seta knew deep in her soul that the woman was more than a figment of her imagination. Whether she was actually a real person or not, her words rang true. She’d predicted Seta would have a boy, and had predicted the date of birth right down to the hour. With that history, Seta had no reason to doubt the dream-witch’s promise that her son would be a powerful, important man destined for greatness. The hag had told her to leave with him so she was doing just that.

  As she reached the edge of trees that would lead her to the cliff where she’d promised to meet Roberto, a sense of foreboding wrapped around Seta’s gut, bringing her to a standstill. Her mother’s words rang through her mind, a sense of loss coating each syllable. She didn’t want to hurt her mother, and she didn’t want to lose what was left of her family. Her body grew cold and she started to turn.

  Rialto whimpered, burrowed his little body deeper against her, and she knew the thin blanket her mother had swaddled about him was too thin to block the cool night breeze. “What am I doing?” She turned back in the direction of the cliff and kissed the top of Rialto’s head. “We are almost there, my sweet boy. Your father will provide you with the best clothes, the warmest blankets.” The life she would never be able to provide for him otherwise. Seta shook off the sense of doom and walked the rest of the path, emerging from the trees several yards from the castle.

  As large as it was, the structure loomed in the night, but she didn’t head toward it. She walked toward the man waiting for her on the cliff. He stood tall in dark trousers and a black short coat adorned with an ivory cravat, which accentuated the golden bronze of his skin. His thick mustache hid his upper lip, but the bottom was clearly set in a straight line. His dark, ebony eyes latched onto Rialto possessively as she approached. Except for his cloak blowing softly in the breeze, no part of him moved, not even a single dark tendril of hair on his handsome head.

  “Roberto?” Unease crept along Seta’s spine. He normally seemed overjoyed to see her when they met, but now, in this moment when his happiness should be at its peak, he seemed distant.

  He looked up from where Rialto rested to meet Seta’s gaze. “Seta.”

  His mouth turned up slightly at the corners, the aloofness he’d emitted seconds ago evaporating. Seta sighed in relief. Her mother had gotten to her. That’s why her nerves were raw, she told herself. She was sensing trouble where there was none. Roberto loved her. Wanted her.

  “I’ve missed you terribly. I could barely stand the wait.” She tiptoed to reach him and pressed her lips against his, desperate for the reassurance of his desire. He kissed back, slipping his tongue deep inside her mouth as he held the nape of her neck with his large, powerful hand, but something was off. While passionate and consuming, the kiss itself lacked the need it was usually infused with. It was all passion, no affection. Desire without substance. Powerful, yes, but controlling. Dominating.

  He let go and Seta rocked back on her heels before opening her eyes. “Rober—”

  She stilled as she caught sight of the duo who had appeared behind Roberto as they’d kissed. A stocky woman with mousy brown hair pulled back into a tight bun stood to his left, her hands clasped over her apron. To Roberto’s right, a large man, a guard, judging by his attire, watched her with narrow eyes. “Who are these people?”

  “A child needs a nanny,” Roberto replied as though the answer were obvious, “and noble blood requires protection.”

  Seta dropped the basket of Rialto’s few belongings and held him tighter. She stepped back, her gut twisting with that eerie feeling that something was horribly wrong. “Rialto does not need a nanny. He has me.”

  Roberto simply smiled. “You have done a fine job with him so far, but a child of my blood needs to be brought up properly. There are standards he must live by. He is completely weaned, yes?”

  Seta nodded, wondering again why Roberto had been so insistent that Rialto be weaned by twelve months. Most women nursed their children for at least the first two years.

  “Very good, Seta. You have served me well.” Roberto nodded toward the woman and she stepped forward, hands outstretched for Rialto.

  Seta stepped back, holding Rialto as tightly as she could without hurting him, head shaking from side to side. “I do not let strangers hold my son.”

  “He is my son,” Roberto stated firmly, his voice a menacing growl, “and he will go with the nanny.”

  Seta’s lips parted in shock. The heated glare burning from within Roberto’s eyes matched the ferocity of his tone. “I know you are used to servants caring for you, but I am not. I would rather not hand Rialto over to another for care right now. When I am settled in to the castle—”

  The guard stifled a laugh, and coldness engulfed Seta’s heart as Roberto silenced the man with a look which promised punishment. He redirected that dark look to her. “You are so beautiful, Seta. So vibrant and passionate… You are not suitable as anything other than a servant, though. Take the child.”

  The last was directed to the guard, or the nanny. Both stepped forward, intent on taking Rialto. Seta quickly blinked back the painful shock of Roberto’s statement and turned to run. They would not take her child.

  She’d barely made it three steps before large hands gripped her shoulders and yanked her backward, spinning her so she faced Roberto. He quickly latched onto Rialto, who started wailing.

  “You’re hurting him!”

  “You are hurting him,” Roberto countered, refusing to let go. “What life can you give him? The life of a servant? He is nobility, my very own blood, and he will be treated as such. Now, let him go!”

  Seta sucked back sobs and tried to focus. She’d started fires before, moved things without touching them. Surely she could do something to save Rialto. The small child screamed and Seta looked down into his face, red and mottled from the pressure being put upon him as his parents played tug–of-war with his little body.

  Pain seared the side of Seta’s head and she fell to the ground, losing her grip on Rialto in the process. Rising to her knees, doing her best to ignore the throbbing pain at her temple caused by one of Roberto’s servants striking her, she looked up in time to see Roberto hand Rialto to the nanny and order her to run.

  “No!” Seta jumped to her feet and started to chase after the woman, but Roberto grabbed her about her waist and flung her backward. She lost her footing and fell to the ground again, jarring her hip.

  “Rialto is my child, Seta. He will be raised as my heir, the son of my wife and I.”

  “Your wife is dying!” Seta struggled to stand, pain shooting throug
h her body. “You do not love her. You do not even lay with her.”

  “Ah, the young. They believe everything.” He smirked. “My wife is very well, just barren. We decided it best I choose a servant to give me what she could not. Of the four I chose, you were first to produce a son.”

  Of the four. Seta’s rage intensified. She had been so stupid to believe his lies. She’d thought he loved her, but he’d used her along with three other women, used them as cattle to breed his heir. Now, her son, the child she would give her life for, was to be raised as another woman’s child. Over her dead body. “You will not have my son.”

  “I have already taken him.” He angled his head sideways, studied her. “You are young, Seta, with plenty of time to have another. Let this one go and I will allow you to go about your life. I can see to it that your duties are lightened.”

  He sought to buy her off? Seta curled her hands into fists and growled. “I will get him back. I will not stop until I do. You will have to kill me.”

  She lunged at him, striking him in the jaw before raking her fingernails down his face in a fit of fury. The guard grabbed her under her arms and pulled her off, held her to allow Roberto to backhand her across her face.

  “Have it your way. As much as I hate marring such beauty, you have left me no choice.”

  He punched her stomach and waited for the guard to let her go, allowing her to fall to the ground before he kicked her with his heavy foot, covered in a leather boot. Seta tried to suck back in the air his punch had stolen, her mind racing as she tried to call upon whatever it was that caused fire to erupt. Roberto kicked her again and she heard the popping sound of her ribcage breaking as pain shot through her torso like a flaming arrow.

  Fire, fire, fire….. She thought frantically of the element but it did not appear. Roberto continued to pummel her with fists and booted feet as she cried for her son, her poor, beautiful son who would not be loved by anyone as strongly as she loved him.

  “Rialto is mine.” Roberto straightened as he backed away from where she now lay on the ground.

  With every last ounce of strength she could muster, Seta pulled herself up, hissing as pain ricocheted through her limbs. She managed to rise to her knees and look up at the brutal man she’d foolishly fallen in love with, seeing him now for the devil he really was. “I will never leave him. As long as a part of my spirit remains, I will be with my son, and I will see that you pay for what you have done.”

  Eyes glazed in madness, Roberto backhanded her again, whipping her head to the side, before hoisting her onto his shoulder. She screamed from the pain as he walked toward the ledge, each step jostling her broken body.

  “There will be no pieces of you left,” he said as he lifted her from his shoulder and tossed her over the cliff’s edge.

  She fell quickly, her screams shrill in the otherwise quiet night as she plummeted, Roberto’s arrogant face fading from view. Her body hit jagged edges of the steep cliff, but did not impede her fall. Terror welled up as air escaped her lungs and she found herself suffocating. Before her lungs could cease completely, her head hit something hard and darkness enveloped her.

  “Dream Teller, what have you gotten me into?” Eron asked as he watched the dark shape hurtle toward him. The old witch from his dreams had ordered him to this exact place at this exact time, instructing him that he was to save the woman now falling toward him in the way only one of his kind could save a person.

  He winced as he heard the crack of bone against rock, and braced himself for the impact. Arms outstretched, legs locked into place, he caught her before she hit the ground and stumbled under her weight, nearly backing off the ledge he’d been waiting on.

  Quickly recovering, he glanced up, pleased to see no one currently peering over the edge. He’d heard enough to know the woman had just had her child ripped from her arms by the boy’s very own father. He closed his eyes and allowed his nostrils to flare, letting the fury work its way through him. Any other time, he would have intervened and saved the child and the woman, but he’d been ordered not to. The woman was valuable, and once he saved her she would not be able to care for the boy. The child was best off with his father… for now. Even if Eron didn’t like it.

  He glanced down and sucked in a breath, a low growl erupting from his throat as he took in the extensive damage. How any man could do this to a woman and still call himself a man was beyond his ability to reason. “I have you now, little one, and I will mend you.”

  He lay the woman down on the ground as gently as he could, aware of her broken bones. Unconscious, she made no sound. His conscience twinged. In his many years he’d never created a fledgling, and didn’t care for the idea of creating one who didn’t have enough awareness to give permission.

  The Dream Teller was wise, though, and if the witch had ordered the changing over, it had to be done. Eron placed two fingertips to the woman’s throat and grimaced at the thready pulse. So slow, he couldn’t even hear it. “Please do not let her wake consumed by madness,” he prayed as he quickly took action to save her life.

  He extended his fangs and sank them into her mottled neck, digesting all the blood he could take in until she hovered just over death. As she lingered in that plane of near-death, he cut his wrist with one of his fangs, careful to keep his saliva away from the gash, and held the wound over her mouth. Her nostrils flared, sensing the powerful life-saving nectar, and her bruised lips parted. Eron gently slid his wrist between her lips and she clamped down to suck greedily at his vein.

  He allowed her to drink until he felt lightheaded, and then extracted his wrist. He licked the wound, allowing his saliva to close the gash, and sat back on his haunches to watch as the least severe of the woman’s cuts healed. By morning, she would be healed completely of the physical injuries the man had inflicted upon her.

  It was the mental injuries he feared her struggling with when she woke into her new form. Humans who were turned into vampires while their minds raged with fury often woke into madness and had to be destroyed. He prayed the Dream Teller hadn’t made an error in sending him to change over the woman as he lifted her from the ground.

  “Rialto,” she murmured in her sleep. “My precious baby.”

  “Think of that love, Seta. Hold on to it.” He glanced down at the woman in his arms, entranced by the sheer beauty of her. Caked in blood and still showing evidence of abuse, her delicate, exotic face and voluptuous, yet small body stole his breath. “Hold on to the love of your son and focus on it. Do not make me have to kill you.”

  TWO

  Eron sat in the hard wooden chair at the small, round table, keeping vigil over the fledgling resting on the cot. He’d found the small abandoned cabin the night before, knowing he would need someplace to bring the woman after changing her over.

  He’d never witnessed it before, but he’d heard stories, horrible tales of mortals turned in the heat of anger. They woke in a fury, with a bloodlust so deep there was no rationalizing with their tortured minds. They sought only to kill, to massacre every living thing within reach. They had to be put down like animals.

  He would have never changed over Seta on his own volition, not with the knowledge of what had happened to her so shortly before, but the Dream Teller was a powerful witch, far more knowledgeable than he. Eron prayed that the old witch hadn’t lost her wisdom.

  Seta lay on the cot, her crimson lips parted slightly. The thick fringe of her dark lashes cast shadows over her high cheekbones as moonlight through the small window highlighted her. The pale, silvery light made her look ethereal, like an angel tossed from heaven. He wondered if she was. Maybe that drop from the cliff was her descent into hell, a world of preying on others to survive only to live in a world where someone else raised her son. Maybe death would have been kinder to her.

  Eron felt the slight stir in the air, and, with his mind, opened the cabin door before his longtime friend could knock. “She has not awakened yet,” he spoke softly as Christian’s foots
teps sounded behind him.

  “I see.” The door closed and soon after wood scuffled across the floor as another chair was set next to his. Christian folded himself onto the chair, his gaze on the fledgling before them. “She is quite exquisite.”

  “Yes.” Heat rose in Eron’s gut, and burned behind his eyes. Gritting his teeth, he realized he was angered by Christian’s notice of his fledgling’s beauty. He shouldn’t be. The woman was beautiful, that could not be denied, but she was not changed into a vampire in order to serve as his lover. His job was to guide her, mold her into the weapon she was born to be.

  As he let his gaze roam over her abundant curves, made all the more enticing by the trim little waist which helped give her the perfect hourglass shape, he squashed all thought of claiming her as anything more than a fledgling under his protection.

  “She was thrown off a cliff?”

  “Yes,” Eron answered. “And badly beaten.”

  “The man who did this to her was the man she loved and trusted?”

  “Yes.” That burning sensation reappeared in the pit of Eron’s stomach.

  “She will be very fragile, this one. We must take great care with her.”

  “If not kill her,” Eron murmured. “I followed the Dream Teller’s orders. I fear I should not have.”

  “Have faith,” Christian responded in his usual, assured way. “The Dream Teller knows of what she speaks.”

  “We will find out soon enough.” Icy cold fingers of fear traveled the length of Eron’s spine as he sat patiently, waiting for the fallen angel before him to awake and reveal herself as either a warrior or a monster.

  Invisible flames licked at her body as she struggled to break free of the dark pit she had been thrown into. Pain erupted in her stomach and burned its way up and down the length of her limbs as she writhed in agony. Fire burned behind her eyes, which for some reason would not open. Still, she could see clearly. Seta watched helplessly as the scene of her death played over and over.

  Roberto had killed her. The man she had loved, trusted… The man she had foolishly believed in. He had beaten her and thrown her to her death, discarded her like waste. Had stolen her precious son.

  Rialto!!! In her mind, she screamed the name. How could she exist without the sweet smell of his skin, the beautiful sound of his garbled words, the sparkle in his dark little eyes? What fate would be so cruel as to leave her conscious in hell knowing that her son had been ripped from her arms and placed into another woman’s? A woman who he would call Mother.

  Seta screamed and this time the sound emerged.

  “She is not taking the change well.”

  Who was that? Seta fought to open her eyes and see who spoke so near her in purgatory, but could not manage the feat. She saw only Roberto behind her closed lids, the fury on his arrogant face as he abused and cast her away. She saw the tears in Rialto’s eyes as he cried, his little hands reaching out to her as he was stolen away.

  “One of her kind has never been changed over before.”

  Another voice. Another man. Who was with her? Surely she was in hell. The heat in her body was far too intense for her to be waiting in purgatory, and heaven would not seem so horrible. Heaven would not allow her the horrific memory of having her child taken from her.

  “And there is a reason for that. Her kind is not supposed to be changed.”

  “The Dream Teller would not have given you the order to change her unless she knew the woman would survive.”

  Survive what? Dream Teller who? Seta opened her mouth to ask, but only another deafening scream erupted. Her body bucked as the ghosts of thousands of tiny pins and needles attacked her skin. Fire shot through her torso to explode in her mouth, seeming to char her gums as they swelled. Her body rose from the soft surface it rested on only to be pushed down and locked in place by strong, iron bands.

  All the while the image of her death flashed furiously through her mind. Her blood boiled as she gazed into Roberto Garibaldi’s dark, soulless eyes, reveling in the fact that he would one day soon look upon her again, those dark eyes open wide in terror as she ripped his heart from his chest. Wherever she was, whether it be purgatory or hell itself, she would crawl out and seek vengeance upon the count before retrieving her son. Nothing would separate her from Rialto, not even death.

  “The change is never this violent! She should have rested peacefully and woken from her slumber at least an hour ago.”

  Who was that?

  “Her own power is melding with the gifts she has received from the turning. Two entities of such strength surely would not blend easily,” the second voice said.

  Two men. Two men holding her down, Seta realized as she tried to evade the steel bands pressing upon her. Demons, they must be, pressing down upon her with their filthy hands. Were they there to torture her?

  Rage built up inside Seta’s body, flowing through her veins, hot like burning kerosene. Her stomach burned with hunger she chose to ignore. She had already been beaten and brutalized by one man. No other man—demon or not—was going to harm her this night. Growling from low within her throat, she summoned all the strength she possessed, and felt something powerful and hot stir inside her as she forced her eyelids open.

  Her gaze collided with eyes of the deepest green she had ever seen. For a moment she could only see the face above her. Perfectly sculpted cheekbones accented thin lips, but not so thin as to be undesirable, a proud, straight nose, a strong jawline, and those hypnotically emerald eyes that seemed to shimmer with pure power as they gazed down at her from below thick eyebrows the color of burnt umber. But the most remarkable thing about this demon-man was the unique color of his hair. As if his eyes were not stunning enough, his hair appeared to be a blend of gold and red with hints of copper thrown in for an even more startling effect. He was quite possibly the most beautiful piece of artwork Seta had ever laid eyes upon.

  She raised her hand, desperate to touch the creamy white skin providing the canvas for such a mesmerizing face and feel if it was as silky as it appeared. Another man stepped into her line of sight, this one handsome as well, with dark wavy hair and nice blue eyes, but unable to draw the same response from her as the first. Instead, he reminded her of the moment she’d noticed the guard standing near Roberto. Her heart instantly revved as the urge to fight or flee took hold.

  Seta quickly accessed her situation. She appeared to be on her back, lying in a bed as one man leaned over her, caging her. The other stood over her, ready to grab her should she run. There would be no fleeing. She had to fight. Adrenaline and fear mixed together, heating her blood and breaking away at the ice that had formed along her spine.

  “Relax,” the beautiful one said softly, a strange lilt to his voice making it sound as if he were singing to her. “You are safe. You must make a choice now.”

  Yes, she must. She chose to save herself. Gathering all the courage she could scrounge from inside her, Seta lunged forward, cracking her forehead against the man’s jaw.

  She ignored the sharp burst of pain ricocheting around her skull and the man’s growled oath as his head snapped back. The other man stepped closer, but Seta was already barreling toward him, bent over. Her head connected with his stomach and propelled him backward. Using her momentum, she jumped over him as he fell and made a dash for the door, barely registering the small cabin she’d been brought to. Her surroundings did not matter. She needed out, as far away as possible.

  She’d barely flung the door open and taken one step into the evening air when she ran straight into a solid wall. Bouncing back, her jaw slackened in surprise as she looked up into crystalline green eyes. “How did you…”

  “I move very fast,” the beautiful man said sharply, “and you will find that you do as well, once you adjust to your new existence.”

  He stepped closer and Seta stepped back in reflex. The hair along her nape rose as she sensed the other man drawing near from behind her. “What new existence?”

  The
brutal beating she had received from Roberto’s hands and her descent over the cliff flashed through her mind and she looked down, holding her arms out to examine. No wounds, cuts… no mars whatsoever to her golden skin. Not even a bruise. “Why am I not broken and bleeding?”

  She’d felt the pain from every punch and kick, had lost her breath from the impact. She’d heard, in addition to felt, her ribcage snap. Blood still stained her torn dress. How had her body mended from such an assault? Who were these men? In all the stories she’d heard of hell, it was a world of fire and brimstone. She stood now in a small cabin with minimal furniture. No red creatures with arrow-tipped tails, pointy horns, and forked tongues surrounded her with pitchforks aimed for her head. Only two men, two unusually attractive men, stood near. Men with the power to appear before her out of thin air after having just been knocked down. Men who must have used some sort of magic to heal her. “Did you trade your soul for your power?”

  The green-eyed man’s mouth curved upward. “It feels like that some days…but I did not. Nor did Christian.” He tipped his uniquely hued head toward the man behind her. “Christian is the Godliest acquaintance I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. You have no need to fear us.”

  Seta swallowed hard, the gulping sound loud in her ears, yet not loud enough to drown out the beat of her heart. If only it were easy enough to believe what the beautiful man said. She’d believed Roberto was an honest and noble man. Look where that had gotten her. No, she couldn’t trust them. She bowed her head and made another attempt for the door.

  The beautiful man’s hand snaked out and caught her effortlessly.

  “You can not go out into the night until you make your choice,” he said, gently pushing her back until she stood before him.

  “What choice?” She looked between him and the other man, Christian, who’d walked around to also stand before her. “I only have one choice, to get my son, and that is not a choice at all. It is what I have to do and I will go through you to do it.”

  “When it is time to retrieve your son we will not impede you in any way,” the man said.

  “When it is time?” She squared her shoulders. “Are you mad? I am getting my son right now.”

  “How will you care for him if you must sleep so many hours during the day? How will you care for him while running from slayers?”

  Seta stilled, doing her best to ignore the growing hunger building in her core as she studied the men, trying to comprehend their message. The one called Christian looked genuinely sympathetic, the beautiful one was harder to read but he didn’t carry himself as she imagined a deranged man would.

  “Why would I have to do that?”

  “Look at yourself, Seta. Do you recall what the count did to you, to your body?”

  She looked down at her hands, raising her arms to again inspect her condition. She’d been cleaned, obviously, but soap and water could not close gashes. She remembered blood. She remembered the feel of her body hitting jagged edges as she fell from the cliff.

  “How did I heal so quickly?” She looked over at the cot she’d awoken on. “How long have I been here?”

  “Roughly twenty-six hours,” the man answered.

  “This is not possible. No medicine or herb is this strong.”

  “I healed you,” the man answered, “when I gave you new life.”

  A chill skated down Seta’s spine as she looked into his eyes. “What are you?”

  “The same as you, if you choose.” He paused, looked at his friend, and then returned his gaze to her. “You would have died last night if the Dream Teller, a wise witch who watches over us all, had not sent me to catch you. I was to allow you the decision of life or death but you were unconscious and fast approaching death. I saved you by drinking your blood then filling you with mine.”

  Seta reflexively placed her hand over her stomach, nausea now warring with the hunger growing inside it. “No.”

  “Yes, Seta. I am Eron, and I am a very old vampire tasked with the duty of saving you so you may reunite with your son again when he is of age to care for himself. I am sorry to have given you this life without your consent. You may still choose. If you accept, I will take you to feed and complete the process. If you reject this life, I will … take it back.”

  “You will kill me.”

  “If it is what you wish. There is no doubt you have heard horrible tales of our kind, and I will not lie and say there are no evil ones among us. Christian and I are of a different breed. We do not kill for reasons of greed, nor do we inflict this life on others easily.”

  “We do not want you to die,” Christian spoke. “We do not want you torn from your son. We will help you in any way you need. It must be your choice.”

  “Do you accept this life?” Eron asked. “You will not be able to care for your son in his early years and I am truly sorry for your loss. You will be reunited with him in time. You do have something to live for.”

  Did she? Seta recalled her mother’s last words to her as she’d left their small home. “My mother told me I was not welcome back. Roberto did not want me. I have no home.”

  “You have a home with us,” Christian advised her. “I can imagine how it must hurt to have been cast out by your family, however it is a blessing. You could not go to them anyway. As a vampire you must live in shadow.”

  “What life do I have if I can not hold my own son?”

  “A life in which you wait on the day you can.”

  “He will not know me.” She curled her hands into fists, aching to wrap her fingers around the countess’s throat. “He will know that wretched thief as his mother.”

  “Have faith,” Christian urged. “This is all for a reason.”

  “What reason?!” She yelled. “What did I do to deserve this? He told me she was dying, that he never loved her. Was my sin so great it cost me my only child and my ability to have another? Am I not dead inside? Have you not taken from me my ability to conceive?”

  Eron looked down, avoiding eye contact. “You will not be able to conceive another child. I am sorry for this pain I have caused. I do promise you have not lost your son. I beg your patience and your forgiveness.”

  He raised his head, looking at her with true regret. Her anger simmering under the weight of emotion in his eyes, Seta turned away and walked the few steps to the cot. Sitting down, she sighed.

  She’d been warned. Her mother had warned her from the beginning, her grandmother had warned her, no one had encouraged the relationship except for the hag from her dreams. “You said The Dream Teller sent you to save me?”

  “Yes.”

  “This was her plan all along.”

  “She saw what was to happen and sent me to save you from the death she had seen.”

  But she could have stopped it from even beginning. Seta seethed in silence. These men seemed to think favorably of the hag. She did not and did not need them standing in her way for she had a plan of her own for the old troublemaker.

  Her stomach rumbled and she placed her hand over it reflexively. “I am hungry. You said I have to feed to complete my … new existence?”

  “Yes. My blood started the change in you. To complete it, you must drink the blood of another.”

  “Why?”

  “You can not live on your sire’s blood alone.”

  Seta narrowed her eyes, studying the man before her. The thought of drinking blood didn’t faze her. She contributed that to whatever change her body was going through. However, the thought of having someone lord over her ignited a spark.

  “You think you will control me.”

  Eron’s eyes widened. “I beg your pardon. Did I say something to that effect?”

  “You are my sire. You think of yourself as my creator. What exactly is it that I owe you for this grand gift of life you have given me?”

  “You do not owe me anything.”

  “That is correct.” She stood. “It will serve you well to remember that. I will not
bow to you. You may have saved a life, but you did not save the foolish girl who blindly followed and believed in the lies spewed forth from men of power. That fool did not survive the fall.”

  “Who survived?” he asked as he and his friend stood stiffer, on guard. “Who did I awake from that fall?”

  Seta squared her shoulders, tipped her head back proudly as if she wore the finest silk gown instead of the torn, ragged servant’s dress still covering her.

  “A woman who bows to no man, mortal or immortal.”

  THREE

  The cool night air blew against Seta’s skin, soothing the fire simmering beneath her flesh. She no longer knew if her temperature were a direct result of the change her body had to go through to complete the transition to vampire or if the heat came from her rage. Whatever it was, it burned steadily.

  “How much farther must we travel?” she asked, more out of concern for her son than any fatigue. She didn’t feel the slightest bit tired despite the fact they’d walked for two hours straight, but she would not go much farther away from her son.

  “The village is just up ahead,” Eron answered.

  He and Christian each flanked one of her sides, as if they feared her escape. They were wise to fear it as she didn’t completely trust them, but she wasn’t ready to face the world on her own just yet, not without fully understanding what had happened to her. She’d heard of vampires, as had everyone, but she’d never had proof they were real. She knew very little about them, other than their need for blood. She did know they could be killed and she could not die, not until her son was grown and she had made sure of his safety.

  “We would have saved time had we rode.”

  “Horses, and animals in general, are not always welcoming of our kind,” Eron explained. “They sense the predator in us and they react to it.”

  “We frighten them?”

  He nodded. “Yes. A horse can be tamed by a vampire, however, it takes a great deal of time. Fortunately we have a lot of that.”

  “Yet you have no horses.”

  “The cabin we brought you to was abandoned. We would prefer no one to know we have taken shelter in it. It is easier to remain hidden without horses outside, alerting others to our presence. We have paid to have our horses kept at a stable in town until we depart.”

  “You hide wherever you go?”

  “It is essential to remain alive.”

  “You said you paid to have your horses kept. How do you earn money to pay?”

  He smiled. “Our charms.”

  Before she could ask him to clarify, they reached a cliff overlooking a small village. The silvery blue moonlight shone upon the village, highlighting the small clusters of cottages dotting the circular layout. Its luminance highlighted the fact that nearly every window was dark, not a surprise given the late hour.

  Seta imagined the inhabitants sleeping inside the darkened homes, cuddling with the ones they loved, completely unaware of the fact three monsters watched them from above.

  It hit her fast and hard. She was one of the monsters.

  She stepped backward, dizzy with nausea.

  “Seta?” Christian reached out for her.

  Seta batted his hand away. “Do not touch me! What have you done? What am I to do? You brought me here to kill someone?”

  “We brought you here to feed,” Eron said, grabbing her arm to hold her in place. He deftly grabbed the other arm when she swung at him. “Whether you kill or not is your choice. It is the same choice which decides whether you survive this night or die right here in this village.”

  His meaning sank in as her stomach growled with growing hunger.

  “You said earlier you would kill me if I rejected this life. If I do not kill someone tonight, I die.”

  “We never said you had to kill anyone. We have a pact, Seta. We never take more blood than we need to survive, unless it is to rid an evil.”

  She frowned. “What does that mean?”

  “We drink from the bottom of the barrel when given a choice,” Christian explained. “Rapists, murderers, men who beat women and children.”

  Seta perked up at this news. “Men like Roberto Garibaldi?”

  “Yes,” Eron answered, his voice tinged with exasperation. “You are not to go near him, Seta. It is too dangerous. He is guarded heavily.”

  “I do not care,” she growled. “He stole my son.”

  “His son as well, and right now he is the only parent the child has who can protect him during the day. We have discussed this.”

  Filled with renewed rage, Seta shoved Eron away from her and turned, prepared to run all the way back to the cliff she had been thrown from, and to the castle beyond.

  “Stop!”

  Her body jerked to a stop.

  “Turn around and return to me at once.”

  Her body did exactly as Eron commanded, obeying his command while completely ignoring the direct order from her brain.

  “I did not wish to do that,” Eron advised as she stopped before him. “I am your sire and I do have the ability to control you if I press my power to do so. I would prefer you not make me.”

  “I hate you,” she said between clenched teeth as she struggled to hold back the fiery tears burning the backs of her eyes.

  “Not as much as you will, I am afraid.” He sighed, studied her a moment, then turned to point to two small homes near the right edge of the village. “We have studied the village and there do not appear to be any real criminals or unsavory perverters of goodness here. You can not kill, but you can feed. Between those two homes is a man. He is mad, but not a danger. He simply lives in his own world. You can feed from him with no fear of any villagers believing him if he tells them of what has happened.”

  “How do I feed?”

  “Your instinct will take over once you near him. Your instinct is savage after freshly turning. Do not lose control and drink too much.”

  “I know. You will kill me.”

  “Unfortunately.”

  Seta took a deep breath, unsure if she even needed oxygen anymore, and started descending the narrow, rocky path leading down into the heart of the village. Her captors stayed behind. The heavy burn of their eyes upon her let her know she was still tightly held in their fists. Her blood boiled with anger at their arrogance. No, Roberto Garibaldi was arrogant. These men exuded confidence and power. True, magical power.

  She hadn’t felt power like that since she’d last seen her maternal grandmother. She’d been left in Spain when her father moved them to Italy. She’d warned them trouble would find them in this country, but her father had not listened. Nor had she when her grandmother started appearing to her in dreams, warning her that her heart would lead her to her own demise. Not even the letter her grandmother had written her from her deathbed had altered her decision to lay with Roberto. She’d never feared for anything or allowed anyone to control her because she could feel a sliver of her grandmother’s power running through her veins. She was unstoppable.

  Now here she was, a predator stalking innocent prey under the cloak of night while her master stood watch. All because she hadn’t listened to the warnings. Her son was gone. She made a choking sound in her throat as tears threatened to escape. She would not allow them. Tears were weakness. She’d been weak when Roberto beat her, unable to draw the power she knew resided in her. She’d summoned it before.

  She would not cry. Sadness was not allowed. Only rage.

  She felt Eron’s watchful eyes burn through her as she reached the village and glided across the open area toward the small cottages he’d directed her to. She growled, recalling how he’d stopped her with only a command, and knowing he could do it again. She was chained to him.

  “At the present moment,” she whispered, unsure if he would hear her. Maybe he could read her mind. She didn’t care. He had the upper hand now, but she had felt her grandmother’s power inside her. He would not control her forever.

  The space between the
two cottages was narrow and dark, much of the moonlight obstructed by the roofs. Her eyes seemed stronger than ever, able to pick up things she would normally miss in the dark, like the man sitting on the ground, his back leaning against the wall.

  “I expected you to be taller,” he said as she neared, his voice a hoarse croak.

  Seta froze, her throat dry as she turned, looking. No one had joined them in the alley.

  “You were expecting me?” she asked, turning her gaze upon the man again. She took a moment to study him. He was thin, the kind of thin that comes with regularly meager meals. His clothes were dirty and frayed, his hair slicked back, styled with its own grease. He had a sharp, pointy nose, and a broad chin. A stubborn face with tired eyes that no longer dreamed of seeing more.

  “We all expect the angel of death to knock eventually,” he answered, slowly pulling himself up to a stand. He looked her straight in the eye, tightening his hand around the bottle of liquor held in it, determined to bring his drink with him into the afterlife. “Do what you must. You will find no fight here.”

  The steady staccato of his heartbeat drowned out his words. Seta ran her tongue along her lips, the hunger in her belly growing more ferocious as the man’s blood called out to her. She gazed upon his throat and swore she saw the jugular vein right through his skin. She pictured herself biting into it and as the image filled her mind, she felt pressure in her gums. She touched the tip of one fang with her tongue and instinct took over just as Eron had promised.

  She was on him before the man could blink, one unusually strong arm holding him up as she sank her fangs into his flesh and greedily slurped the sweet, intoxicating nectar from his neck. Images flooded her mind as the liquid feast filled her mouth.

  He’d had a family once, but he could never please his wife. He could never buy her the fine things she wanted or move her into a nicer home. Just how poorly she thought of him became painfully evident when he came home in the middle of the day to find her in their bed with another man. In a rage, he attacked, but he lost. She laughed at his bruised and battered body as she stepped over him, collected their baby, and left with the wealthier man.

  She took everything and he never bothered to earn any of it back.

  He went to work each day, ate dinner, slept, ate breakfast, went to work, and continued following that routine until he could no longer bring himself to work for wealthier men than he. They had taken everything from him. He became the village bum, a sad, lonely man with no hope left in his soul.

  And on this night he was filled with relief. Death had come to take away all his pain.

  Seta broke away from the man, allowing his weakened body to fall to the ground. She licked the droplets of blood left on her lips and fought the urge to take more from the man. “I am not Death. I did not come to take you away from this life.”

  “You must.” The man, now slumped against the wall, reached out for her. “I have lost everything. I lost my child. Save me.”

  Tears welled in Seta’s eyes. “I know your pain. My love stole my child out of my very arms, beat me, and left me to die.”

  “You know this pain. You must find mercy and end it for me. How can you let another suffer as you suffer?”

  The yearning in the man’s voice, the complete desperation in his eyes tugged at her heart. To be betrayed by the one you loved was painful, but to lose a child was the greatest tragedy of all. Death would be a sweet escape from the misery that followed a parent grieving a lost child. How easy it would be to give this man the gift of freedom from emotion. He would no longer feel, no longer know.

  She kneeled before the man, wiped a fresh tear from his cheek. He was so weak after her feeding, yet willing to allow her to take more. She wouldn’t have to fight him. She wouldn’t feel any guilt. He wanted her to drink him dry. Her stomach growled, enticed by the opportunity to be truly filled. His blood had given her power, filled her limbs with strength. It didn’t take away her pain, her knowledge that her child was being held in the arms of another woman who could never love him as much as she. Not even death itself would stop that degree of pain.

  “I am not Death. I was not sent to kill you.” She stood. “He who gave you this life will decide when it ends.”

  She turned away, prepared to return to Eron, when another image slammed into her. She saw the man bring the bottle down on top of her head in a fit of rage before using the sharp, broken edge to slice his throat open.

  She spun around, power building in her body, just as the man rose to his feet and raised the bottle. Before she could do anything to defend herself, a strong gust of wind blew past her side, nearly toppling her over, and collided with the man, taking him down to the ground.

  Christian rose, bringing the man up with him, his throat tightly wrapped in his hand.

  “Do not hurt him!”

  “He would not,” Eron said, approaching from behind. “Watch.”

  She did. She watched Christian hold the man against the side of a building in silence. She watched as colors swirled around the man’s body. Amidst the various shades throbbed a dark blue.

  “Be in peace,” Christian spoke softly, and the dark blue twisted, undulating like a turbulent sea until it faded into a softer shade of blue.

  He released the man and he slid to the ground, calm, as if he had not been attacked at all.

  “What did you just do?”

  “I took the sharp edge of his pain,” Christian answered, “so he may function in society and stop wishing for his own death every hour of the day.”

  “How?”

  “We all have gifts.” Christian fixed a button that had popped loose on his long coat and looked at Eron. “Well?”

  “Why did you command Christian to stop?” Eron asked.

  “I thought his intent was to hurt the man.”

  “The man sought to attack you, yet you wished him no harm?”

  “He was not a bad man. He was simply filled with a horrible sadness and it ravished his mind like a cancer. He did not deserve violence due to that.”

  “Wonderful. You have succeeded this night.”

  “My prize is my life? How fortunate.”

  Eron’s eyes narrowed as his complexion reddened. “It is. You will see in time.”

  “We should get on,” Christian interjected. “No sense giving the sun the advantage.”

  “Yes, we should go,” Eron agreed. “First we need to gather new attire for our new acquaintance. It appears her beloved ruined her dress and left her with nothing else.”

  Seta gasped. “How dare you mock me! I did not ask you for this alleged gift you decided on your own to bestow on me.”

  “You would prefer to never see your son again? You would prefer another woman raise him and he not know the truth of his birth at any time? It is you who needs to bite her tongue. I have given you a life with him. It is not my fault you lack patience.”

  “In death I would have slept,” she snapped. “You have given me a prolonged stay in hell, a life of knowing my son is with the man who murdered me and his scheming wife. You have given me pain and suffering.”

  “Pain is a blessing, Seta. It means you are here to feel it, and that you may give it in return when the time is right. You will be avenged as I have promised. You must stop directing your anger at those who would help you and hold it for the day it can be unleashed on your enemies!”

  Seta turned away, warring within herself. She knew even in death she would ache for her son and there was no guarantee the pain would not be as great. Someone had to pay for what had been taken from her and they would not allow her to storm the castle and take what was hers.

  “Let us go,” Christian spoke softly, gently placing a hand on her shoulder to turn her in the direction they would go.

  Her first impulse to shrug his offending hand off quickly dissipated as his brief touch calmed her.

  Christian took the lead, leaving her and Eron to follow behind, shoulder to shoulder. “How did he
take away the man’s pain? Can we all do that?”

  “No. Christian is a very special vampire. I imagine he was special before he turned.”

  “You did not know him before he became what he is now?”

  “No. I found him shortly after he had been turned and abandoned by his sire. It was my first instruction from the Dream Teller. Like you, he met a cruel fate and the Turning gave him a second life.”

  “Is he more powerful than you?”

  “I believe so. He offered his blood to me once in a dire circumstance. His blood nearly knocked me unconscious.”

  Seta studied the two men. If a vampire ceased to age after being turned, and Eron had found him shortly after he had been changed over, Eron had to be more powerful. “But you are older than him. Should you not have greater power? You can control him as you control me, correct?”

  “I can no better control him as I can control the air, and I may look to be his elder, but he is far older than I.”

  Seta compared the two. Both tall and fine looking men, but Christian’s complexion definitely showed him to be the younger upon their change into this new life. “How is that possible? He is clearly younger.”

  Eron shrugged. “Someday I would very much like to know the truth. I imagine it will be fascinating.”

  “There are dresses in this one,” Christian announced, pointing at the darkened windows of a small shop.

  “It is closed,” Seta advised. “They all are at this hour.”

  Eron smiled as he approached the door and pushed it open.

  “They do not bar their doors? Anyone could walk right in and take what they want!”

  “Including vampires,” Eron said as he entered the shop.

  Christian stood outside and gestured with his hand for her to follow Eron. “I will keep watch outside.”

  “I am not a thief.”

  “Neither is he.”

  Frowning, she stepped inside, finding Eron sifting through swatches of fabric on a long table. “Do you prefer to make your own?”

  Seta ran her fingers over the velvet bodice of a dress on display. “We could only afford to make our own,” she answered softly. “Servants do not get to wear fine things. Senseless to, really. Fine gowns would only be ruined after just one day of cleaning.”

  “Take what you desire.”

  “I have no money.”

  “I do.”

  She let her hand fall from the dress as she sized him up. He stood straight, hands clasped behind the small of his back, exuding power and authority. His clothes were not as fine as the count’s but they were not that of a poor man either. “And how do I repay the debt?”

  His nostrils flared. “This is not a debt owed to me. You have only the clothes you now wear and your dress is bloody and torn. You have no means to pay. I do. It is all very simple.”

  “I have never been given anything without a cost nor have I met a man who would not take some form of payment.”

  “I do not like what you are implying, Seta. I kill such men.” He stepped away from the counter, folding his arms before him as he looked out the store window. “The sun will kill us if we do not get to safety in time. Please hurry. You have the rest of eternity to insult me.”

  She angrily looked through the premade dresses, choosing the ones she knew would cost the least amount of money. She also selected a change of undergarments and quoted a fair price to Eron.

  “Very well.” He took the items from her and placed them in a dress box. “Go to Christian. See if we have any hindrance.”

  Seta watched him long enough to make sure he left enough money for the shopkeeper, then left to check with Christian.

  “Are we safe for travel?”

  Christian nodded, looking far into the direction they had come from. “I have seen no movement. We should have a peaceful walk back, as long as we move quickly.”

  “Let us leave then,” Eron said, emerging from the shop with the boxed dresses. He took the lead and Seta followed behind him, Christian at her side.

  “Will the man be well now?” she asked.

  “He will be better,” Christian answered softly. “He can now live with the pain.”

  “Can you take my pain?”

  She noticed Eron still ahead of them, only for a split second before moving forward at a quicker pace.

  “I can not take your pain, Seta. The love you have for your son is purer than that man’s regret. There is no way I could ever take the pain you feel away.”

  “I can not live with this pain.” Tears burned the backs of her eyes. She bit the inside of her jaw until she tasted blood, desperate to not give in to the urge to lie down and cry. “I am mostly numb now. My head is full of words, oaths and promises of vengeance. My heart is iced. This night is not real to me. The moment everything becomes real to me, the pain of it will consume me.”

  “You were chosen to be saved due to your strength, Seta. You will survive this loss and you will be rewarded for it. You will have your son back.”

  How long? Her chest hurt as she tried to imagine how much time would pass, how many nights she would endure without her sweet child in her arms.

  “Take my pain,” she whispered. “Try.”

  Christian’s cool fingers entwined with hers. “I can not. The pain is a gift. As long as you love you will feel pain. As long as you love you will beat back the darkness fighting to claim your soul. Keep fighting, Seta. Fight for Rialto. Fight for the world.”

  “What does the world have to do with this?”

  “The world is why you are not dead, why The Dream Teller sent us to save and guide you. This is a war we are fighting and it will take every bit of love you have to win.”

  “What if I can not fight?”

  “Then we will lose to the darkness and all will suffer.”

  FOUR

  She was falling without sound into an icy cold abyss. Above her, Roberto Garibaldi laughed, his eyes calling her a fool as Rialto’s tiny arms reached out for the only mother he’d ever known. Her body felt no pain from its many breaks and lacerations. It only felt the chill air closing in around her. She should be screaming. Maybe she couldn’t. Maybe he’d stolen her voice too. Maybe she didn’t fear the fall. She knew someone waited at the bottom of the abyss to catch her and deliver her into a hell no mother would ask for. She closed her eyes, hoping to hit the ground and shatter, no longer able to feel her loss. She hoped to become nothing.

  “Foolish.”

  She opened her eyes, and found herself looking up into a cerulean sky lit by a pearlescent blue moon. She sat up, her body able to perform the task without complaint. She was not shattered, and she was not at the base of the cliff.

  She sat in a forest, everything tinged blue by the moonlight. She was not alone. She’d heard the voice. It did not belong to Eron. It was old and withered. Female. She’d heard it before and naively, had listened to it. She’d believed it was there to help her. She’d been wrong.

  “Show yourself, Dream Teller.”

  The air five feet before her shimmered as the old, leather-faced, hunched over woman crept forward, her milky white eyes seemingly focused on her. A rope of coarse white hair peeked out of her hooded cloak.

  Seta picked herself up from the pine needle covered forest floor. She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to block some of the chilly air. It had always been cold when she’d found herself there before, but not this glacial. “It was never this cold when you came to me before.”

  “This is the dream realm, and it presents itself differently to each visitor, although most do feel extreme cold. It picks up on your emotions. Fear is a chilling emotion.”

  “I am not afraid.” Seta lowered her arms, balling her hands into fists at her sides. “I fear nothing.”

  “Of course you do. You are a mother. You fear for your son every moment you are away from him. You fear for his safety. You fear for his soul. You fear that you may never see him again. Fear not, Seta. Unfist your hand
s. There is no need for false bravado here, no use in lies. I know what is in your heart and what battle rages in your mind. Fear not, young one. You will see him again. I assure you of this. Your life was spared for that very reason.”

  Seta stared into the woman’s eyes and only saw a sea of white. “How can sightless eyes see that my hands are clenched?”

  “I may be blind, but that does not mean I can not see. I see it all, often before it happens.”

  “You saw my death before you saw Rialto’s birth.”

  “I saw them at the same time, many years ago.”

  Seta rushed forward and wrapped her hand around the old woman’s throat, sinking her fingernails into the crepe paper folds. “You could have prevented it! How could you encourage me to have a child I would lose?”

  The Dream Teller disappeared, leaving Seta holding a handful of nothing.

  “I told you to leave with him. You did not listen. Still, you did not lose him.”

  Seta turned, but did not see the woman. She stood alone in the blue forest. “Where are you? Show yourself! Answer for what you have done!”

  “This was not my doing.”

  “You told me I would have a son. You encouraged my relationship.”

  “I told you to leave with him.”

  “I did! I left my mother’s home to take him to the castle where I believed he would be safe. You did not tell me to take him away from Roberto.”

  “I did. Your heart would not allow you to hear me correctly.”

  “Lies! You know you tell lies. You hide now because you know you have done a horrible thing to me.”

  The Dream Teller appeared before her again, far enough that she was out of grabbing distance. “I hid to avoid violence. This is not a place to fight. This is a place to learn.”

  Seta scoffed. “You are to be my teacher now?”

  “I am to be your guide. She is to be your teacher.”

  “Seta,” a familiar voice said from behind her.

  Her heart tightened in her chest as a flood of emotion washed over her. Turning, Seta locked eyes with the woman her family had left behind in Spain.

  “Grandmother? We had received word you had passed on.”

  “My body left the land of the living,” the small woman with features similar to her own said. “My spirit can not rest until I give you back the knowledge your mother begged me to take from you, and give you the lessons you were meant to have.”

  “I do not understand.”

  “A born witch skips a generation. You inherited my magic, the magic your mother wanted nothing to do with. I started to train you in secret. Your mother found out and threatened to take you away if I did not stop and erase what I had done.”

  Seta shook her head, trying to comprehend what she was being told. She knew she had power. She felt it even if she’d never known what it was. There had been accidents, unbelievable incidents. The visions. “I am a witch.”

  “Yes.”

  “Witches are evil.”

  “Only if they choose to be. Was I evil?”

  Seta tried to remember. They’d left Rosa behind when traveling to Italy but she’d lived with them prior to their departure. She remembered spending time with her, cooking, cleaning, and taking walks together. She did not remember any magic or talk of it yet she recalled always sensing power in the woman.

  “No. I do not remember you doing magic.”

  “I made a deal with your mother. If I would erase your memory of magic she would allow me to live with you. I worked a spell to remove every spell I taught you, and every bit of magic you saw me perform.”

  “We still left. We moved to a different country.”

  “Yes.” Rosa looked down, sighing heavily. “I erased your memory of magic and stopped teaching you. Still, you left. However, there is no spell to turn a witch into a non-magical being. You still had power, even if you did not know it. You still saw visions. You still created power in your body.”

  “That is why we left?”

  “You left for Italy because your father thought he could make a better life in a new country. I told them not to leave. I saw his death. Your mother never accepted my abilities and refused to listen. She did not think I did my best to take away your knowledge of magic and thought my warnings were an effort to keep you near. When I persisted my warnings, she left me behind and took you to Rome.”

  “That is why she did not speak of you often.” Seta recalled the times she asked of her grandmother and did not get lengthy answers. Often, any mention of her would be quickly changed, and any correspondence received would be read by her mother before given to her, even if she were the only name listed as the addressee. “She dismissed my visions as daydreams.”

  “I know. I am sorry you have spent these years not knowing your true ability. I have been allowed this time to undo the disservice I was persuaded in doing to you. I will give you back the training that was erased as well as bestowing all my knowledge to you.”

  “Why?” Seta looked between The Dream Teller and her grandmother. “It is not that I am unappreciative of this gift, but why are you being allowed to do this?”

  “Fate is fixing a grievous error,” The Dream Teller answered. “Your power is your gift. It was not your mother’s to take away or discourage, no matter her reason for doing so.”

  “Losing my son was a grievous error. It was the most horrible error to have ever occurred. Is fate going to fix that?”

  “Yes. In time fate will return your son to you.”

  “I want him now. I did nothing so evil as to deserve this loss.”

  “You conceived him with a married man,” The Dream Teller reminded her. “The lies he told you do not erase that sin. Your ignorance gives you some understanding, but no full pardon of the offense. Despite this, if you seek forgiveness it will be granted. Despite this, you will get your son back. This is not a punishment, no matter how it may feel.”

  “Seta,” Rosa interjected, “I know the loss of being away from my family. It is hard but it can be survived. I understand the pain that tears you inside but if you truly think with your heart, you know he is in the best place he can be. You are now of the night. You will be hunted and so would he if you kept him near.”

  “Can I not protect him with magic?”

  “The best gift you can give him now is to let him be raised with his father until he is of age to be returned to you.”

  “How long must I wait?”

  “Until he calls upon you,” The Dream Teller answered, “of his own free will.”

  “He will not know me. He will think the countess is his mother.”

  “The truth always comes out,” The Dream Teller said with a smile. “In its own time.”

  Seta fell to her knees, the hopelessness inside her too heavy to carry. “What good is having power if it can not give me the one thing I want? What good is eternal life if I can not even hold my child?”

  “Your power and the extra years you have been given will allow you to be joined with him again, and to have him far longer than you would have,” Rosa said as she kneeled before her. “It seems impossible now but I promise you this, you will have far more time with him than without him. The time that passes in between will be but a blink.”

  “Is there a spell to end the torment?”

  Rosa held her chin in her hands, forcing her to look into her eyes as she smiled serenely. “You are stronger than you know. I must leave you now but you will have all my knowledge with you. Always do good with it and you will be rewarded.”

  Rosa kissed her forehead before placing her hand over the spot her lips had warmed.

  Seta felt warmth spread from her grandmother’s palm. It worked its way through her body, starting at the head and warming her down to her toes. Images flashed before her, lost memories of training with Rosa back in Spain. More words than she could count filled her mind, as if she were reading a thousand books at once, the information pouring into her brain. She
gasped as the sheer amount of spells and history passed down through her family overwhelmed her. She was drowning in it. She reached out to steady herself when a blinding white light exploded and she felt her back connecting with the ground.

  She opened her eyes to find she had been knocked flat on her back. She sat up easily, surprised to find no pain in her body, just a hum of electricity coursing through her veins. Rosa was gone. To her left, she found The Dream Teller watching over her.

  “Where is my grandmother?”

  “She gave you all she had left,” The Dream Teller explained. “She has moved on from here, satisfied she has corrected what she considered to be her gravest mistake. Now it is up to you to honor her gift and use it well. You have been given a second chance at life, Seta. Do not abuse it or the power you have been trusted with.”

  Seta opened her eyes to find the blue sky replaced with the dark ceiling, the light of the moon replaced with the soft golden hue emitted from the oil lamp burning on the nearby table.

  She sat up, the cold chill of the dream realm falling away from her body, to find herself being watched over by a man sitting in his own soft gold shadow, his aura she had not noticed earlier.

  “Christian?”

  “Good evening, Seta.”

  “Did you sit there watching over me the entire time I slept?” She didn’t bother hiding the irritation in her tone.

  “Of course not. I needed sleep as well. Eron and I took shifts, making sure no danger came upon us, particularly you.”

  “How chivalrous.”

  “You will be weaker in the day and when the deep mending stage of sleep has you, you can not defend yourself. It takes time for a new vampire to build up the ability to wake during the day. The deep sleep is also longer for you. It is best that we watch over you as you transition into this new way of life.”

  “Best for you to keep danger out or to keep it in?”

  “I will not lie,” he answered. “We watch for enemies outside and we watch you to ensure you do not do anything dangerous out of desperation. I do not like doing so. I do however, prefer it to losing you. You are with friends, Seta, not dungeon guards.”

  Hooves pounded the ground outside the cabin, growing louder as they neared. Christian crossed over to one of the windows and pulled back the covering.

  “Eron has arrived with the horses. We will see how they react to you. They have accepted us. You are new. They may resist at first.”

  Alarm settled in to Seta’s chest. “How far will we be traveling that we need horses? We walked to the next village last night and returned before dawn.”

  “We can not continue to seek nourishment in the same village, and we do not own this cabin. We have no idea when the owner will return to it. We have to keep moving.”

  Seta stood, the newfound magic inside her growing, threatening to burst. “You mean to move me farther from my son. It is not enough I have been told to relinquish him to a woman who could not possibly love him as much as I, now you want me to leave him behind?”

  Christian stood, eyes cautious as they studied her. “In order to care for him you must care for yourself. We will be hunted here if we continue to feed.”

  The door opened, allowing Eron entrance.

  “Her power has increased,” Christian warned.

  “I felt it as I neared,” Eron advised, removing his gloves to place in the pockets of his long coat. “You have visited The Dream Teller, Seta?”

  She looked between the two men, noting the wariness in their eyes, the apprehensiveness in the set of their jaws. The difference in auras. Where Christian’s was a soft gold with splotches of blues and grays, Eron’s was dark shades of gray and blue with hints of pale yellow snaking through.

  “Was this something else you were forewarned about? Is there any part of my life I can expect to be private?”

  “I knew you were a witch,” Eron advised. “After meeting you it was fairly obvious you had not been trained. Now it is obvious you have. A witch can not be trained to the degree of power I feel from you in one night without equally powerful means. It is not a stretch for me to question The Dream Teller’s involvement, particularly when she was the witch to send me to save you.” He stepped closer, careful to still retain a safe distance, his eyes focusing on her hands, where she felt the static electricity of magic crackling through her fingertips. “Do you feel better after meeting with her? Has she alleviated your mind?”

  “Do you really think anyone could alleviate my mind? I am a mother without a son. That pain does not just go away.”

  “No, I imagine it does not. There are ways to survive it, to strengthen from it rather than suffer each day you are apart.”

  “What do you know of it? Have you a child?”

  “I had one.” Pain flitted through his eyes before they warmed with anger. That too drifted away on a sigh as his aura flashed a stormy sea of blues. “Be thankful your son is alive and you have a future with him. Some of us do not have such gifts. We will be outside with the horses when you have finished dressing.”

  The angry magic pulsating in her fingertips subsided as she caught the slump of Eron’s shoulders as he collected all but one dress box and left the cabin. Christian barely glanced her way as he followed suit, leaving her alone in the small cabin with her regret.

  She’d spent so much time focusing on what she’d had and lost, she’d never once thought of the men caring for her. They weren’t born vampires. They’d had lives before as normal men. They’d had families. They’d had loss. Or had they? The image of Roberto tossing her off the cliff taunted her as she changed her damaged dress for one of the new ones Eron had bought her, a simple pale, yellow Empire style dress. Simple, yet finer than anything she had worn in years. Oh what a fool she had been to believe he had loved her. She was just a poor servant and he had simply used her services to provide him with a child, knowing all along he would be taking her child from her. Did men feel anything at all? Did they care about anyone as long as they got what they wanted?

  She looked in disdain at the old dress as she walked out of the cabin with it held tightly in her fist. Each rip, each blood stain seemed to laugh at her.

  “Seta?”

  She glanced over to see Eron feeding a carrot to one of the large horses tethered to a small carriage. His eyes registered concern. She had been wrong about what she’d seen in a man’s eyes before.

  She used the cache of magical knowledge her grandmother had passed on to her to ignite the dress and flung it to the ground.

  “Seta! That is dangerous for our kind!” Eron rushed forward, genuine fear in his eyes. Behind him, the horses whinnied and rose up on their back legs, scared by the dancing flames suddenly appearing so close to them. Christian grabbed their reins and whispered soothing words, attempting to calm them.

  Seta put the fire out with a simple wave of her hand before Eron could reach her. “I was in control of the fire.”

  “Why did you burn it?”

  “It needed to be burned.” She turned toward the horses and slowly approached, one hand raised, palm out.

  “Careful, Seta. Animals can react negatively to us.”

  “You do say?” She smiled smugly as the horses calmed, one lowering its head to nuzzle her hand as she ran her other hand through its silky mane.

  “That was easier than we had thought it would be,” Christian commented.

  “Much,” Eron agreed, his eyes narrow as he studied Seta.

  She held her head high, refusing to squirm under his heavy judgment. “Where do you intend to take me?”

  “Not across the country,” Eron answered. “We need space from here, at least for a while. This accommodation fit our needs to save and turn you. Now we must seek a more suitable shelter where we will not be easily found.”

  “Everyone tells me I will be reunited with my son. Nobody tells me when, and you are telling me now I must leave the area.”

  “I am not being deceitful with yo
u, Seta, nor am I intending to talk in riddles. I was told you would be reunited. I was not told when. I do know, based on our lifestyle, it will not be immediately. I know long stretches of years for a mortal are but blips in time to us. It will take a little time, but you will adjust. You have to give it a chance.”

  She looked toward the direction of the castle. Although miles away, she could see the cliff where she had lost her son, and lost one life to gain another. Beyond the cliff, sat the castle and within its stone walls, her precious son rested his small, innocent head. Or did he? Did he cry now, missing her? Did he feel abandoned? Would that pain stay with him or would he forget? Was it right for her to worry about him forgetting her when forgetting her might be the only way to give him peace? The tears she’d held inside since waking up childless broke free, her will no longer strong enough to dam them in. This was the second night without her son and it was the first time she’d thought about what he was feeling over her own need to be with him.

  “I deserved this,” she said on a gasp for air as her knees gave out and she fell into a cocoon of arms.

  “I will stay with her,” Christian advised as he lifted her into his arms and gathered her inside the carriage.

  He placed her on the seat, one arm wrapped protectively around her shoulders as Eron closed them in. Shortly after, they were in motion. Seta burrowed into Christian’s side, absorbing the warmth that seemed to come from his aura.

  “Why is a question that can lead to madness,” Christian said softly, using his fingertips to push a wet lock of her hair from her cheek before drying the wet skin with his thumb. “I have no knowledge of a life before I became what I am now. Eron lost everything and everyone he loved. If we allowed ourselves to dwell on the why of it all we would be entirely different people. We would have probably given in to the darkness of our nature a long time ago.”

  “How do you not?” Seta asked, drawing some strength from his presence. “How do I let go of it?”

  “The first thing you do is not blame yourself. That is far worse than dwelling on the why. When there is no clear answer we can not assume one.”

  “I lay with a married man and gave birth to his illegitimate son. Am I not deserving of punishment?”

  Christian sighed. “I will not say what you did was right. I know our God is a forgiving God. He would not take a child away as punishment. Furthermore, there is no mortal or immortal who has not sinned. I can tell your mistake haunts you. You need to ask forgiveness, which you already know, but you need to forgive yourself as well.”

  “Will that make the pain go away?”

  “No. It will give you the strength to survive it, which is all you can do. Pray for direction. Everything happens for a reason, part of a plan we may or may not know we are part of. I was once lost as you are now. Everything will be easier once you find your path.”

  “My path is not with my child.” She wiped her eyes in effort to regain composure.

  “Not yet. The thing about paths is they intertwine. You spent nineteen years on a separate path than Eron and I, yet here we are, as we were meant to be. Right now you are at a fork in the road. When the two loops come together again, you and your son will find each other once more.”

  “Do you really believe that?” Seta searched his eyes, seeing only compassion.

  “I do. I know with my heart and soul it is true.” He squeezed her hand. “Your son is safe, even if he is with a bad man.”

  “Perhaps. I realized tonight I have spent this time obsessing over my pain, my need to be with him. I have been waiting for the opportunity to get to him, to retrieve him and keep him with me. Before tonight I did not think of what he is going through. If I can not be with him, he can not be with me. I should have thought of his pain, not my own. Perhaps I am not the—”

  “Are they not the same?” He gave her hand another squeeze. “I will not pretend to know what it is like to be a mother, to carry a life inside me and have to release it to the world. The constant worry, the fear you feel every waking moment. I do not see how his pain is different than your own, or how desiring to have him is any different than having concern for what he is going through. It is an easy thing for Eron and I to tell you that he is safe and you need to be patient. I am not such a blind fool as to believe actually doing it is the least bit easy for you. Our intention is not to make you feel he is better off without you. Right now, he is safer behind the castle walls. When he becomes a man he will need his mother to ensure he is a better man than his father. Do not look at this as he being taken away because you are unworthy. I truly believe he was taken away now because you are a good mother, and this has all happened so you can save him when it matters most.”

  Fresh tears slid down Seta’s cheeks. “I want to believe that.”

  “Then believe. Have faith, Seta. Have faith in God’s plan for you and have faith in us. We were not sent to save you in vain. Lean on us in your times of doubt. No matter how heavy your burden is, Eron and I will not let you fall.

  FIVE

  Seta reflexively covered her stomach with her hand as it tightened painfully. It was the fifth pang in the last ten minutes they’d been traveling.

  Christian glanced at her middle from where he sat on the other side of the seat. “With age, you will be able to go longer periods of time between feedings. Eron is aware of your hunger and he will see to it you have blood soon.”

  “You are sure?” She rubbed her sore belly.

  “He is your sire. He feels your hunger. He will stop when he finds something.”

  “You mean someone.”

  “If there is someone available, yes. We can also feed on animal blood if need be. It is not nearly as appealing, but it preserves our life which is the most important thing.”

  Seta scrunched her nose at the thought of feeding from an animal, however the absurdity that she did not find human blood revolting was not lost on her.

  A woman’s cries rent the air as their carriage picked up speed.

  “What was that?” Seta asked as Christian pulled back the thick covering over the window and peeked outside.

  “A woman is being attacked.” He looked back at her. “It would appear your dinner has arrived.”

  The carriage came to a stop and Christian threw open the door, leaping out in one fluid motion before extending his hand to her.

  Seta placed her hand in his and allowed him to pull her free of the shelter the carriage provided. The night had grown darker but the full moon allowed clear visibility for the ten thieves to see the lone woman traveling by carriage. Seta saw Eron effortlessly toss one of the men into a tree before turning to punch another.

  Seta locked eyes with the small, pale woman as she clutched the top of her dress together, as Christian left her side to assist Eron. Tears covered the woman’s face as she lay next to her carriage.

  Seta quickly covered the distance to the woman’s side, swiping out with her arm as one of the attackers tried to stop her. He flew backward as if hit with a battering ram but Seta barely felt a thing.

  “How did you do that?” the woman asked as Seta kneeled before her, eyes wide.

  “It does not matter,” she answered, checking the woman for signs of injury. “You appear unhurt, except for your dress. Did they force themselves on you?”

  “That one tried.” She pointed to a large, bearded man lying on his back, groaning. “Your driver pulled him away.”

  “Get into your carriage and fix your dress,” Seta directed her as her blood heated. “Do not come out until I say it is safe.”

  “You must join me!” The woman gripped her arm. “We must let the men protect us.”

  “I will be fine,” Seta promised. “Now do as I said.”

  She helped the woman into the carriage and closed the door, turning in time to see the bearded man approaching her, a lascivious smirk plastered across his oily face.

  “You will find I am not as easily cornered as she,” she warned the man, smirking
herself as she likened him to Count Roberto Garibaldi. “Come closer and you will not see another night.”

  The man laughed. “You have fire. I like fire.”

  “Truly?” Seta conjured a powerful green flame in her hand, succeeding in what she had failed while under Roberto’s attack, and launched it at the man’s face.

  His screams filled the air as he swatted at his blazing beard.

  Seta quickly took stock. Christian and Eron had defeated most of the men, leaving their broken bodies along the dirt road. They now each faced off with one opponent each, leaving her with only the burning man and a stomach growling for attention.

  “I suppose you are it,” she murmured as she waved her arm forcefully, creating a magic wind to snuff out the fire she’d created.

  The man fell to his knees, crying in agony as he continued to feel the burn along the blistered, red skin covering his face. “What are—”

  “I am angry,” Seta answered, cutting him off as she grabbed a fistful of long hair and yanked his head back, exposing the wide column of his throat.

  She felt her fangs descend from her gums as she lowered her head to sink them deep into the man’s neck. His rich, hearty blood slid over her tongue, its flavor intoxicating as it rolled down her throat, quieting the raging hunger within. As with the man in the alley, she saw images of this man’s life. She saw the innocent people he had cheated and stolen from for years, the women he had battered and violated, women just like her. He had left a trail of abused women in his wake, discarded as easily as she had been tossed off the cliff outside Roberto’s castle. The more she saw, the hungrier she became. She drank furiously until the man quit struggling, quit making sound, until he lost his spark.

  She withdrew, allowing him to fall to the ground as sloppily as he had his own victims and looked up to see Eron standing before her.

  “I will not apologize for not sparing his life. He has taken many.”

  “I will not apologize for taking theirs,” Eron replied, casting a glance beyond her.

  Seta turned her head to follow his line of sight to where Christian dragged a body from the road into the tree line. “You killed them all.”

  “I did. I pulled this one off of the woman before he could rip off her pantaloons. The others were either cheering him on or rummaging through her carriage.” He kicked the man’s body aside to step closer and ran his thumb over the corner of her mouth. “We protect humans. In order to do that, some of them need to die.”

  Seta watched as he pulled his thumb back, exposing the blood he’d wiped from her mouth, and wrapped his lips around it, tasting her kill. She was mesmerized by the action, the way his lips wrapped around his thumb, the way his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. She’d noticed immediately that he was a beautiful man, the most beautiful she’d ever seen, and a powerful one, but she hadn’t seen him as anything more than a captor before this moment, a vampire who had made her like himself without her consent. Another man doing as he pleased with no regard to the feelings of others. Now her mind grew clouded as she tried to understand what he was to her. A sire, yes, but more. She found herself gazing at his lips with a longing she didn’t think she would ever feel again after Roberto had crushed her spirit.

  “We are not far from our destination and the night is still fairly young,” Christian said, coming up behind, pulling Seta back from the hazy, confusing place her mind had gone. “Let us clean this last one up and I will see the woman safely to shelter. You continue on with Seta.”

  Eron nodded and helped Christian lift the man she’d drank to death. “Inform the woman she will be safe with Christian. She will trust you. Christian has a calming way about him, yet he is still a man. I do not think she will be so trusting of him otherwise.”

  “Yes.” Seta nodded her head in agreement and allowed the men time to remove the last evidence of what she had done before she knocked on the carriage door and announced herself to the frightened woman inside.

  “Whoa.” Eron pulled back the reins, bringing the two horses to a halt and gazed upon the large cliff face that would shelter them far better than the small cabin they had chosen in haste. Many months had been spent building the shelter, carving it out of the cliff in a way that made it nearly invisible to the naked eye. The area was remote so the danger of it being found was minimal. Safety was the priority, yet he found himself worried Seta might not like it. He wanted her to feel at home there. He wanted her to feel at home with him.

  “Fool,” he chastised himself, remembering all too well how caring for someone could bring the greatest pain. He’d had love once and all the blessings that came with it, only to have it ripped away in the vilest of ways.

  He was Seta’s sire, not her lover. He was her teacher, her guide, and he would protect her as any sire would protect his fledgling. He would give no more, no matter how desirable a woman she was.

  It had been so easy at first to get past her beauty. She’d been afraid, weakened by her fear and loss. She’d been no different than the hundreds of other damsels in distress he’d saved over the centuries, even though he’d known all along great power rested within her, waiting to be ignited.

  And then it had. She was no damsel in distress standing over the body of the man she’d drank to death that night. She was strong, fierce, and unstoppable, yet he knew she could still be broken. Even the horses knew. He had never seen them take so easily to a vampire and she was not just a vampire. She was also a witch. They should have protested violently the moment she’d stepped out of the cabin, but animals were smart, sensitive. They felt her sorrow. That sadness inside her, the way she felt emotion so deeply, cared so much, was her weakness and it would be his too if he allowed himself to fall.

  Knowing he could not put it off any longer, he stepped down from the perch and opened the carriage door.

  She was a vision of beauty in the pale yellow dress, her tan skin practically glowing after her first kill, her ample bosom swelling above the low cut of the empire dress. Eron swallowed, afraid he might drool, before extending his hand to help her down from the carriage.

  A soft gasp left her as she set foot on the cliff and Eron cursed himself.

  “I am sorry, Seta. We were told we would find you near and we needed shelter. We built this dwelling in the cliff face so as to remain hidden. We were given little information and did not know how much protection we would need. When one is told he will be rescuing a witch, he imagines being hunted. I did not know the exact location I would find you until shortly before.”

  She closed her eyes and appeared to take a deep breath, one hand covering her stomach. Eron tried not to notice the way her breasts heaved, lest he forget the fragile state she was in.

  “It is fine,” she said softly, before turning toward the cliff face. “You say this is shelter?”

  “Yes.” He guided her along the cliff face until they reached the narrow opening hidden by a jagged edge. “Go inside and explore while I put up the horses. It is safe.”

  He quickly settled the horses in to the stable area also built into the large cliff face, but kept separate from the living area. He spread hay and filled their trough with water from a nearby spring before exiting their enclosure, the opening of which was wider than the residence area to allow them more air, and moving a heavy boulder in front to prevent their escape while still allowing air through the top of the opening. Content they were cared for, could not escape, and no mortal could remove the boulder to steal them if by chance someone did find their location, he walked across the wide ledge to the narrow opening in the cliff face where he had left Seta.

  He and Christian had worked tirelessly carving a narrow tunnel out of the hard rock which led to two rooms. He walked down the narrow entrance tunnel, moonlight spilling in through subtle holes carved near the top to ease his way despite his superior night vision, and entered the first room. An oil lamp burned on a small table in the center of the room, and two candles cast shadows from the mantelpiece they were p
erched upon. Two cots rested in the corner and chairs lined the table. Otherwise, this small room was empty.

  Eron crossed the room and entered the second area they had carved out to find Seta standing next to the bed, running her fingers along the duvet covering it.

  “I assume this is my room?” she asked, having noticed the feminine touches like the lacy duvet, armoire with a floral design embellished in the wood, and vanity from which a large candle burned.

  “Yes. Christian and I will sleep in the entry room. We felt you should have a private place, as private as we could make for you.”

  “You made this shelter yourselves? With your own hands?” She continued looking around the room, admiring the work.

  “Yes.” Eron’s chest swelled with a small amount of pride, pleased she seemed impressed. “I am sure you have noticed your strength is unmatched by mortals now. Christian and I together were able to create this in a few months’ time, working at night. It may not be fashionable, however it provides safety. Our path here is off trail and one does not expect to find anyone living inside a cliff.”

  “The candles lit as I entered,” she said, shivering as she wrapped her arms around herself, “and it is impossible to have carried this furniture through the narrow passageway, even if you brought it in piece by piece.”

  “You can feel it?”

  “The magic?” She looked him in the eye. “I am not the only witch you have kept company with recently.”

  “No, there was another.” Eron sighed. “She was a good woman. She used magic to place the furniture inside, cast a spell to light the candles whenever a vampire enters, and to keep animals and insects out of this area. We may not have doors, however we do have a shield. If anyone unwelcome attempts to enter, we will know.”

  “Once alarmed, we will pick them off as they try to sneak in through the narrow tunnel?”

  Eron smiled. “You already think like an immortal who will stay that way.”

  “You speak of the witch in the past tense.”

  “Suspicions grew about her, forcing her to leave Rome. I believe she is in England now.”

  Seta’s expression grew dim. “I will eventually have to leave Rome.”

  “We will stay as long as we can, but yes.” Eron crossed the room to take her hand. “I wish I could tell you otherwise. Unfortunately, we will always be hunted. Staying in one place too long is daring death itself.”

  Seta looked at where their hands joined and pulled hers away, rubbing her fingers together as if to remove residue. With a nod, she moved around Eron and left the room.

  He stood in place for a moment, pondering on the action. She seemed more accepting of her fate but still felt pain. He’d seen the bloodlust in her eyes after she’d killed the thief and had hoped it would give her the strength to move beyond her mourning. Already the bloodlust appeared to be burning out, leaving her to wallow in grief.

  On a sigh, he left the room to find her. Not in the entry room, he made his way out to the ledge to find her standing at the edge, looking down to the sea below.

  “Seta!” he cried out, overtaken by alarm. Surely she would not attempt to end her new life so quickly.

  She looked back at him, a wry smile on her face. “I am no expert, however I am quite sure a vampire can not jump to her death.”

  “No. She can jump to several broken bones and an extreme amount of pain.” Eron advised, taking a few steps forward, slow as to not spook her until he was certain of her intention. “She would have a hard time making it to shelter before the sunrise that way.”

  “Ah, but if she is also a witch she might find a way.” Seta flexed her wrist, creating green fire in her hand. She watched it dance upon her palm. “I tried to create fire when Rialto was taken from me. I had done it before without meaning to. At the moment I needed it most, I was incapable of bringing it forth. Now, it is as simple as breathing.”

  She flexed her wrist again, and the fire went out.

  “Perhaps it was not then that you needed it most.” Eron stepped forward cautiously, halting when Seta took another step closer to the edge, the tips of her toes now hanging over the ledge.

  “Do you think I could fly?” she asked.

  “No, I have not heard of a witch capable of that,” Eron answered, struggling to keep the fear out of his voice, to remain a calming influence. “I think you can learn to live with your pain. I know you are strong.”

  “I do not believe I am strong enough to leave Rome.”

  “You do not have to leave today. Please step back, Seta.”

  “Where did you leave?” she asked him instead, not moving. “Where did you call home?”

  “Ireland.”

  “And what did you leave there?”

  “Everything.” Eron swallowed past the ball formed in his throat. “I left everything I had, everything I was. I left my heart and soul in Ireland, and I survived it.”

  “Does it not make you angry?”

  “It did,” he answered honestly. “I felt cheated, horribly wronged and abused. I have seen things I would have never seen since then, things that have given me perspective. I have saved more people than I lost. I have realized I was given a chance to be something, someone greater than I was. If not for what had happened to me, you would be dead and your son would never know his mother. I now can look forward to the day he does.”

  “Yes. You caught me.”

  “Seta, I would have protected you had I known what was to happen. The Dream Teller gave little notice, just a location and an order to go immediately and save the witch I would find in that place. The location given to me was the bottom of that cliff, not the top. I would never stand by and watch a man lay his hands on a woman, you must believe that!”

  She turned and to his relief, moved away from the cliff’s edge to stand before him. She placed her hand along his jaw, looking into his eyes, only a breath between them.

  “I know.”

  She moved around him, dropping her hand. Eron missed her touch immediately, coldness invading where he had just felt great warmth.

  “What did you leave in Ireland?”

  “I told you.” The ball found its way to his throat again and he swallowed bitterly. “Everything.”

  She tilted her head to the side and crossed her arms, waiting.

  “Seta …”

  “What did you leave?”

  He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. It had been so long since he spoke of his great loss, not even to Christian, yet something about the woman before him demanded he tell her what she asked. The idea it could be witchcraft flitted through his mind, but no other witch could make him dig up his darkest memories. This witch, this woman, held a greater power over him than any spell. “I lost everything and everyone I loved there. All I left behind were memories.”

  “What was taken from you?”

  “My wife.” Maeve’s stunning pale face flashed before him, framed by her long curls, black as midnight. With her full lips and bright green eyes, she had been a vision, the most beautiful in their village. He took another breath. “My daughter.”

  Seta stepped closer once more, resting her hand along his arm. “What was your daughter’s name?”

  “Clodagh.” His voice cracked as the name he had not spoken in over a century left his lips and her sweet, cherubic face filled his mind.

  “What happened?”

  “Vampires.” He said the word from behind clenched teeth. “They came in the night and ravaged the village, feeding like gluttonous pigs. Once they had their fill of blood in their stomachs, they did not stop. They killed everyone. Except me.”

  Seta gasped softly. “Why?”

  “I fought back. I tried to protect my family. I failed.” Eron closed his eyes as horrible images of that night passed through his mind, scorching his heart in the process. “They were stronger than I. They beat me down, drank enough of my blood to weaken me until I was useless. The monster who sired me made me watch as he…”<
br />
  Seta placed a finger over his mouth, stopping him from rehashing the horror of that night, a painful tragedy that nearly two centuries of time could not heal. He drew comfort from her touch until she moved her finger away. “How do you get past the pain and live again?”

  “You forgive yourself,” he answered, opening his eyes to look down into hers. He wrapped a lock of her ebony hair, black as Maeve’s, around his finger. “You do good things to cleanse your blackened soul and find good people to protect, to make up for those you could not. You love to keep your heart from rotting, and to stay the person those who loved you knew. It hurts. You suffer. Embrace it, Seta. It keeps us human so we can save others from our pain.”

  Her mouth crashed into his. The action was unexpected, yet not. He’d been drawn to her from the start, to the power he felt inside her, power she had not even been aware of. He’d known deep inside that this would happen, that he would give in to taste the fire burning inside her. He just hadn’t expected her to make the first move, and not so soon.

  Despite the warning signals coming from his brain, Eron grabbed her waist and pulled her tighter into his body, lifting her small frame to fit better against his larger size. When she wrapped her arms around his shoulders instead of pushing away, he drove his tongue deeper inside her mouth, kissing her with a desire he hadn’t felt since his wedding night over a hundred years ago, a desire he had never felt so strongly if he were being honest with himself.

  A throat cleared nearby, startling him out of the passionate moment. He withdrew, lowering Seta to the ground to find Christian watching them reproachfully. Seta seemed to shrink inside herself, her hand flying up to cover her kiss-swollen lips.

  “The woman has been delivered to shelter safely. The sun will be up soon. I imagine you are already growing tired,” he said to Seta, never removing his gaze from Eron.

  “Yes, I am, thank you,” Seta said, a slight shake to her voice as she gathered her skirt and quickly covered the ground to the cliff entrance, removing herself from the scene as fast as she could.

  “Eron.”

  “I know.” Eron sighed. He was far too old to be scolded, and far too upset with himself to discuss the matter.

  “She may be powerful,” Christian warned, “However she is still very fragile, and you are her sire.”

  “I know.”

  “She needs you to be her guide through this hard time.”

  “I said I know.” Annoyance slipped through to his tone despite his effort to hide it. “She is my fledgling. I feel what she feels. I did not intend for this to happen.”

  “She has grown an attraction to you.”

  “Yes.”

  “And you to her.”

  “I will be careful with her. She is mine to protect.”

  Christian studied him a moment longer before turning to enter their shelter.

  “Be careful,” he said before disappearing inside.

  Eron turned and looked out to the sea, running his hand through his hair. He could feel Seta inside, feel the desire she felt combined with guilt, sorrow, and to his dismay, anger. She may have wanted what happened between them, but she was not happy about it.

  Eron turned his gaze up to the sky, watched its colors already start to lighten, and decided to wait as long as he could before going inside. Newly turned, she would fall asleep before the sun rose, saving him from feeling her bitterness as she longed to be close to him again.

  SIX

  Seta sat alone in the corner of the dark tavern, watching shadow figures dance along the walls as people moved about. It was the third night in a row she’d been staking out the establishment, waiting to see if the man who had attacked three women in the three weeks prior would show.

  Christian sat along the opposite wall, talking to the prostitute who’d tried relentlessly to offer her services to him the past two nights. She’d finally given up and now sat next to him, crying as she spilled her problems to him. He looked uncomfortable, but offered her words of advice and from what Seta overheard, was currently telling her it wasn’t too late to turn away from her sins.

  Eron was stationed somewhere outside, away from her. He said it was to keep the outside covered in case the man they sought did not go in to the tavern, but she knew why he was outside and Christian, poor Christian who looked extremely uncomfortable and out of place in such an establishment, was inside with her. Eron didn’t want to be near her any more than possible. He’d been keeping distance since that kiss three weeks before. They never spoke of it, the three of them maintained an awkward silence about it. She caught Christian shaking his head at him sometimes and didn’t know if he thought ill of Eron or of her.

  She supposed she could say something, but she had done enough, kissing him so brazenly. It was not the least bit ladylike and even if she were a vampire, was she not still a lady? Maybe she wasn’t. She’d slept with a married man and bore his illegitimate child. They both knew it. Maybe Eron kissed her back in the heat of passion, but having slept on it, decided she was beneath him. He’d had a wife he cared for very much, no doubt a fine woman who would never do what she had done. Why would he want someone with her past? He’d saved her because he’d been sent to. He was her sire, nothing more. He may have told her to forgive herself and he may have even meant it. That did not mean that he himself would not judge her. Seta sighed as the backs of her eyes started to burn. Closing them, she gritted her teeth together until the urge to cry passed.

  One man had already stolen her purity and ruined her. She would not let another cause further damage. There was enough pain in her heart from being away from Rialto. She didn’t need to add any other type of sorrow.

  The tavern door opened, cool night air breezing in, but it was not the air that sent a shiver down Seta’s spine. An alarm bell rang in her head as a trio of large men entered, their presence seeming to fill the room.

  The two men bringing up the rear would not have earned a second glance, however the man leading them awakened a thirst for revenge deep in Seta’s heart. Count Roberto Garibaldi’s guard laughed boisterously as he swung an arm around one of the men’s shoulders and walked his group over to a vacant table. They practically flung themselves into the chairs before he slapped the table top and demanded drinks for his brothers.

  Blood brothers? Seta looked closer, paying special attention to their facial features. The noses were the same, two of them had identical eyes, but his eyes were different. The eyes of a man who could and would help a man steal a woman’s child. How would he feel if she stole his brothers before ripping out his throat?

  Seta? Eron’s voice sounded in her mind. What is wrong?

  Seta cursed under her breath. Eron was her sire and could feel her emotions. She did not know if he could speak in Christian’s mind as he could in hers, but if he could, Christian would stand in her way. If he could not, he himself would stop her. She had to do what needed to be done before he could rob her of her chance.

  Seta rose from her seat and crossed the bar, her gaze locked onto the man who had helped steal her precious child away from her, who had stood by obediently as his employer cast her over a cliff.

  His gaze rose, meeting hers as she approached. His eyes widened in horror, inducing her smile. She imagined what he must think, seeing the woman he’d watched die appear out of the shadows, knowing he was partly to blame for her death.

  “You … you …” he stuttered, pointing at her. “You went over the cliff. You could not survive the fall!”

  “I did not land as hard as you thought,” Seta said as she wrapped her hand around the large column of his throat and pulled him to his feet, effortlessly. “Did you think you would get away with what you took from me?”

  She flung him across the tavern, sending his body into the wall. She heard bones break over the sound of his brothers’ chairs scraping over the floorboards as they sprang to defend him.

  She spread her arms wide, fire shooting from each palm, setting both men ablaze wi
th bright green flame. Screams erupted through the tavern as men and women ran out in terror.

  Christian approached her, his eyes wary. She felt Eron closing in.

  “Seta, stop this,” Christian pleaded.

  She cast him a warning glare. “Do not interfere. I do not wish to harm you, only my enemy.”

  The guard now stood, having used a chair for leverage as he pulled himself up. “I had orders,” he said. “I had to.”

  “You had to steal a child?” Seta asked, stepping closer. “What kind of man takes such an order?”

  “The child is the count’s heir,” he replied. “You should not have fought.”

  Seta’s eyes burned with tears of fury as she processed the man’s words. That was his defense? She should have not tried to keep her son, her only child?

  “You should have chosen the other side in this battle.” She sped across the room and placed her hand on the man’s chest, feeling his heart beat beneath. With a powerful thought, she felt it seize as the man’s mouth gaped open in a silent scream.

  “Seta, stop at once!” Eron’s voice boomed through the tavern as he stood in the entry. “I command it!”

  She started to curse, then realized she still held the guard’s life in her palm. Eron’s command did not work. Her rage-filled magic was too strong.

  “Seta, I said stop!”

  “He helped steal my child. You said it yourself. In order to save humans, some must die.”

  “Did they have to die?” He nodded his head toward the charred bodies lying on the floor. “What role did they have in your son being taken from you?”

  A pang of regret arced through her chest but she shook it off. “They were his brothers. They would have done the same thing.”

  “You do not know that.” Eron approached her. “Let this man go, Seta. A righteous kill would have been at the time of the theft. This is just murder.”

  “I do not care.” She turned her attention back to the guard, whose eyes had rolled into his head. One more thrust of her power and he would collapse, never to breathe again. It was less of a tragedy than he deserved, but it would do.

  “Seta, no!”

  She lost her footing as Eron crashed into her, breaking her concentration. They rolled on the floor, but she rose first, knowing he would overpower her if she gave him half a chance. She did not want to use her magic on him, her feelings for him ones of love and compassion, not violence, but she feared what he would do to her. She had learned what men could do to you if you foolishly gave them your trust.

  “I am sorry, Eron.” She reached out her hand, the tingle of magic dancing across her fingertips. It fizzled out before she could use it.

  “What?” She attempted to inspect her hand but could not move it.

  “Took you long enough,” Eron muttered as Christian reached down, helping him up.

  “I did not want to use it unless I absolutely had to.” Christian looked at the small sack in his hand. It looked like an ordinary coin purse but Seta could tell what was in it was not ordinary in the least.

  “You have magic.”

  “Witch’s Net,” Eron explained as he pulled his own little sack from the inside of his coat. “It is an entrapment to prevent movement or magic when catching a witch. It will wear off soon. This is a very light strength. We knew that if the time came for us to use it, we would not need you detained long.”

  Fear rose inside her, to be quickly banked down by anger. “You are killing me now.”

  “No, Seta.” Eron sighed. “The only killer here is you. This was wrong.”

  “He helped Roberto Garibaldi take my son!”

  “He had a part in it, yes. These two men did not. You killed them like they were nothing. Beyond that, you exposed yourself to everyone who was in this tavern tonight. Word is spreading now. Come morning, you will be hunted.”

  “Let them hunt me. You seem to think I need punishment.”

  “Your punishment will come on its own when your anger clears and you realize what you have done.” He stepped closer, stopping before her. “You have to leave now, and we will not be with you.”

  “You turned me into this. Now you treat me like a monster.”

  “I turned you into a vampire. Anything else you become is your own doing.” He reached into the little bag and extracted a fine, silver powder. “I am truly sorry, Seta. I hope you find peace.”

  He blew the dust into her face.

  A large group of dark-skinned men stood before her, holding long sticks with sharp stones above their heads, ready to strike her. They dressed unlike anything she had ever seen, some in brightly colored woven designs, and others in what appeared to be animal skins. Some men had no shirts and their legs were exposed. They adorned themselves in feathers and beads. Their eyes were wide in surprise and they all spoke at once in a strange language. Despite not understanding the language, Seta could tell they were shocked and confused, as was she.

  Drawing from the knowledge her grandmother had gifted her with in the dream realm, Seta spoke the necessary spell to allow them to understand each other. “Speak as you hear, hear as you speak.”

  Who are you?

  Where did you come from?

  The spirits sent her!

  White man’s witch!

  The wolf! The wolf!

  The cries of wolf grew louder, increasing her confusion. The rest of their words made sense as she had literally appeared before them in this strange, arid land with its red soil and large mountains she saw in the distance, but nothing about her would cause someone to call her a wolf, unless they somehow sensed the predator she was.

  A low growl behind her explained everything.

  Seta slowly turned her head to see a large wolf trapped between her and a wall of mountain rock. Mostly hidden in shadow, its eyes reflected the moonlight as it bowed its head, snarling at the men hunting it.

  She closed her eyes, breathed deep, and willed her power to reach out to the animal. It shrank back as far as it could, its snarls turning into a whine.

  “Why have you hunted this beautiful creature?” she asked the men, returning her attention to them.

  Their eyes widened again, realizing they could understand her.

  “This wolf hunts our sheep at night, killing them as we sleep,” one of the men answered. Seta understood him perfectly despite the fact he still spoke in his native tongue as did she. She approached the wolf and ran her hand over its head, shushing it until its whimpers turned to silence.

  “Go away now and hunt elsewhere.”

  The wolf ran right through the men whose shock at seeing a woman calm a wild beast enabled it to get past them unharmed.

  “She speaks to the wolves,” a man with long black hair spoke. “The spirits have sent her.”

  “Or she is a witch,” the man in front said, his voice not sharing any of the other man’s awe. He was heavier set than the slender men around him, shirtless but wearing a heavily beaded chest piece. His long, black hair, longer than her own, did nothing to lessen his masculinity. “We will take her to the Elder. He will know what to do with her.”

  The man gestured for her to walk. She looked at the group, studying them in the moonlight. She had no idea who they were or where she was at. It definitely was not any part of Italy, or Spain for that matter. Her parents had traveled prior to her birth and had told her of a land where the people were savages. Hunters and gatherers, they dressed in animal skins and the men believed their hair held power so they did not cut it. When the people they were with fell under attack from these savages, they fled. Seta feared these were the same people, and considered summoning her power to take them all out in one big fireball, but she was alone in what looked like a deserted land with no shelter from the sun. She needed them for now. If they turned on her, she would destroy them then.

  They walked what felt to be an hour before small patches of grass started to appear on the ground. During that time, Seta saw several mountains but no people, no bui
ldings. No signs of life whatsoever.

  They took a turn which appeared to place them between two mountain ranges, and followed that trail until they reached an opening. People who looked like the men escorting her stopped and stared as they walked through. She noticed small structures that looked like domes all around and after seeing a few people appear from inside them, realized these small hut-like dwellings were what these people considered shelter.

  Due to the late hour, she did not see children, and few women. The women she did see were beautiful, some with hair down to their knees. They either wore it long and free, or braided in different fashions. They also adorned themselves in beads and some jewelry of a blue she had never seen before.

  Further on, they passed a large herd of sheep before stopping outside one of the small dwellings she’d seen upon entering the area.

  An old man stood outside of it, peering intently at her. “Atsidi, what have you brought to me?”

  Atsidi? Seta understood through her spell that the name meant Hammer or Silversmith. Looking at the large man, she felt the first meaning fit.

  “Hastiin Sani,” Atsidi greeted the elder man, bowing his head with respect. “This strange woman appeared before us just as we cornered the wolf who has been killing our sheep. She spoke to it and sent it away. She can understand us and we can understand her but we speak different languages.”

  “Leave her with me,” Hastiin Sani, which Seta comprehended to mean The Old Man ordered.

  The men bowed their heads and departed, obedient to the other man. Only Atsidi and two other men stayed behind, a short distance behind them, protecting the elder man.

  For a man so heavily wrinkled, Hastiin Sani moved well as he walked over to a brightly colored mat next to a small fire. He gestured with his hand for Seta to sit.

  “You are safe here,” Hastiin Sani advised when she remained standing, “no harm will come to you as long as no harm comes from you.”

  Deciding she couldn’t argue with that policy, Seta sat on the mat as ladylike as she could, curling her legs underneath her. Hastiin Sani joined her, sitting in a cross-legged style she had never seen. She was thankful he wore the same odd animal skin breeches as the other men rather than the shorter, leg exposing flaps some of the others wore, fearful his position might reveal more than just his legs. She had never in her life been near so many barely dressed men.

  “You have magic and great power,” Hastiin Sani said, his tone neutral. “How did you happen to appear before my men in this place and time?”

  “I am not sure,” she answered. “Magic was involved though not my own.”

  He studied her, undoubtedly as curious about her dress as she was his. “Do you know where you are?”

  She shook her head. “I have never seen land so red, or people of your … fashion.”

  He grinned. “We are the Navajo. You have trespassed on our land, as many who look like you. The question is why. If not by your own magic, by whose?”

  “My … traveling partner,” Seta answered, catching herself before she revealed too much. The older man did not seem particularly loathsome of her magical ability, but to admit to vampirism was a different thing. She was a predator and when she’d appeared before his men they were preparing to kill a wolf for killing their sheep. They would treat her no differently if they suspected she may kill their people.

  “Why?”

  “He and I had a disagreement. He cast me away.” Seta looked down at the space between them on the mat. It sounded disgraceful but she couldn’t think of anything else to say with Hastiin Sani watching her like a hawk. She had a feeling he would notice a lie the second it slipped through her lips.

  “He? Your traveling partner was a man. Did he talk like a song?”

  Seta looked up, meeting the old man’s wise gaze as she thought about the melodic lilt to Eron’s voice.

  Hastiin Sani smiled. “I have a power too. I see many things that are unseen. I see you are the same as a white man who visited here long ago when I was just a child. I know he has not aged as you will not age.”

  “You know Eron.”

  “Eron is a friend. He fought with us. He honored my people.”

  And he sent her to them? As a gift? Were they to kill her because he and Christian could not?

  “He did not cast you away, as you say, because he does not care.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “I see the unseen. I see you are of the people who invaded our land, killed our people, and stole our home, forcing us to fight for what little land we cling to now.” He reached out and held her chin, tipping it up. “I see in your skin you are not pure. Within your blood you are with us.”

  “What do you mean?” Seta asked. She knew she was not as fair-skinned as her mother and father, and others had commented on it before. She’d caught her father looking at her with derision sometimes after people would comment on her darker hue and she had tried to deprive herself of the sun’s harm as much as possible, struggling to be the beautiful pale her father and other men adored in their women, but she always kept a soft golden bronze despite her best efforts.

  “Someone in your line was of our people. I see it and feel it. You are of this very tribe.”

  How? Her mother had visited this land before, but with her father. Her mother spoke of the natives as if they were brutal warriors. She never mentioned any relatives or even friends among the people.

  “Your Navajo blood is part of why you are as powerful as you are. I see the great magic in you. I see the strength.” He smiled, his chest filled with pride as his gaze rove over her. The smile slackened and turned downward with compassion as he spoke again. “I see your pain. Your journey here started with great loss.”

  Seta nodded, too much emotion in her throat to speak.

  “You lost someone, not to the spirits, but to man. This is why Eron sent you here.”

  “You can get my son back?” Seta struggled to rein in hope, fearful of the pain it would cause if there was nothing the people could do.

  Hastiin Sani shook his head, laughing. “You never lost him!”

  He stood and reached down to help her up. Seta accepted his hand, marveling at the agility he still possessed at his age, and eager to learn what he meant.

  His laughing eyes grew stern. “Eron was not of our blood but he came to share our spirit. He protected us and we in turn protected him. There are rules.”

  Seta straightened her shoulders and listened intently, knowing she was about to be told how to behave if she wanted the tribe’s protection.

  “You drink no blood that is not offered to you freely or given in battle.”

  Her eyes widened.

  “Yes, I know what you and Eron are. You have more gifts than him. You should be trusted less but you are our blood. You belong here and we will accept you as long as you do not give us reason not to. We expect you to only use your power to aid us, not to harm.”

  “Of course.”

  “You may stay as long as you like. When you do choose to leave you take none of my people with you. You leave them all as they are.”

  She nodded, understanding what he said. She was not to change any of the tribe into a vampire.

  “Come.”

  Hastiin Sani led her away, speaking to Atsidi with his eyes. The large man followed behind them without a word, easily understanding the older man’s unspoken command. They wove a path past the dome shaped shelters she had seen on their way in and took a turn at the area where she’d seen the sheep. They walked right through the herd, the bright white animals keeping a safe distance away from them.

  “They feel what you are, as will the wolves. Your presence will keep them away.”

  Seta cast a sideways glance to Atsidi, wondering what he thought of Hastiin Sani’s words. The large man looked straight ahead, either indifferent or simply not comprehending the implication.

  “You said you could help me get my son back.” This, Atsidi responded to, his ear
s perking up as he gave her the briefest of glances.

  “I said you never lost him,” Hastiin Sani corrected her as they reached a domed shelter on the edge of the fenced in area where they kept their sheep. The elderly man disappeared inside.

  Seta glanced back at Atsidi who merely raised his eyebrows and gestured toward the doorway.

  Realizing no formal invitation was coming, Seta stepped inside. The structure was tall enough so no stooping was required and wide enough to allow movement inside. She placed her hand on the wall and studied it, her newly acquired night vision allowing her to see it was made of many sticks and mud. There were no real furnishings inside it, just a bed-sized woven mat on the floor, some blankets, and several clay pots of assorted sizes.

  “This hogan will be your home while you are with us. Your presence will keep predators away from our sheep and no one will bother you.” He picked up a heavy blanket and fastened it above the doorway. “Not even the sun will dare shine on you.”

  “And my son?” Seta asked, thankful to be given shelter but desperate to reconnect with her child. She felt the sun rising and knew she did not have much time left before it rendered her dead to the world.

  “It is time for you to rest.” Hastiin Sani smiled and pulled back the blanket to allow himself to exit. “You will be brought blood at sundown and you will be shown the way back to your son then.”

  SEVEN

 
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