THE UNITED States of America called Hurricane Gert an act of a cruel and terrible God.
The Kingdom of Darkmore called the storm divine retribution for the sins of their ancestors.
The subjects of Darkmore consulted the broadcasts of American humans. The humans made preparations against the angry hurricane aiming for the Texas coast. They muttered to themselves in their common tongue that it was a shame about Port Isabel—the coastal city wouldn’t stand a chance.
A shame about Port Isabel? The declaration angered the Darkmore citizens. The furious wind and rain crippled their own capital city.
At least the storm would hit in the daylight, the humans explained in their grating voices.
Daylight was the worst possible time for Darkmore. When the citizens hunkered in their cellars and basements, any shaft of light that stabbed through the cracks would destroy them. The wind, hail, or rain wouldn’t eradicate them, but the sun waited behind the churning clouds for its moment to reach through the storm-punctured Veil to bleach Darkmore’s subjects from existence and out of America’s shadows. Deep in their bones, the citizens of Darkmore feared the sun from the moment they awakened into their lives as aisa.
“A shame about Port Isabel,” the humans croaked like bullfrogs.
Anna Maria, the king’s consort, seethed. What about us, she wanted to snarl into the sweating fleshbag’s face. What about us?
The answer crushed her. Humans didn’t know they existed.
A shame about Port Isabel.
A travesty about Darkmore. The capital city would be gutted like a rabbit, the entrails plucked by her enemies.
Anna Maria curled her slim body around the warmth of the handheld radio and listened to the static-laced broadcast. As per the radio’s instructions, she and her son had barricaded themselves in a walk-in closet. It was the safest place in the prince’s residence inside the palace walls of Darkmore. Anna Maria saw no reason to join the nobles, who were protected in the various guest rooms. She didn’t want to upset her son or take him out of his comfort zone.
Just five months shy of his fourth birthday, Prince Sevon Noel Maraté of Darkmore, curled into a kittenish ball next to her. He was heir to the throne of the most powerful aisa nation, and with the inheritance, Sevon would gain the most enemies.
Anna Maria’s belly wouldn’t stop turning itself in knots. If the storm didn’t cease, Sevon would inherit rubble and ashes.
Sevon pressed his forehead into her biceps. Anna Maria reciprocated, looping her arm over him and ruffling his dandelion puff of white-gold curls.
“I wish Jack was here,” Sevon muttered. “He’s more fun to play with on rainy days.”
Anna Maria smiled. Her heart warmed with the knowledge that Sevon had formed a deep bond with Jack, the shifter boy. It reinforced that his father had been correct in exposing Sevon to shifters from an early age to understand them better.
It touched Anna Maria when Sevon and Jack played together. Whenever Sevon tripped and fell, Jack was always there to save him from every skinned knee and to sing a shifter lullaby. Sevon did not know what made Jack different. Jack was still learning how to channel his inner beast, and his attempts were painfully embarrassing as well as adorable.
Distracted by her thoughts, Anna Maria giggled at the memory of Jack trying to roar but only succeeding in a rumbling burp—which, regrettably, Sevon attempted to mimic; they had decided to burp at each other in greeting.
“What’s a hurry-cane, Mommy?” Sevon asked, trying to sound out the word he heard on the radio as the wind roared.
Anna Maria threaded her fingers into her son’s curls, scratching gently at his scalp. “A hurricane is a storm. A really bad storm. It’s very dangerous,” she said calmly.
“Why does it have a name?” Sevon asked. “Why does the man call it Gert? Is it a girl?”
Anna Maria smiled. “Humans like to give things names. It lets them believe they can control it.”
Sevon sagged against her body. He plucked at the pillow tassel next to him. “Humans are stupid. Aisa are better,” he muttered.
Anna Maria smiled at him as the wind growled. “You’re still human, for now. When you get bigger, you’ll be the strongest aisa. You’ll be a verkolai.”
Confused, Sevon scrunched his thin blond brows. “What’s a vurr-ko-lie?”
Gert interrupted them by summoning her dominating wind and bending the trees to her will. The hurricane tore limbs from those standing in defiance of her fearsome power. A monstrous scratch clawed against the palace exterior, and Sevon shrieked.
“Mommy! Gert’s scary!” he cried, burying his face in her embrace.
Anna Maria discarded the radio, then pulled her son onto her lap. “Shh, shh, shh,” she cooed. “There’s no need to be afraid. It’s just the wind.”
Sevon warbled his anguish as Anna Maria reached for the radio, juggling the small box and her child. She pressed her ear to the speaker as Sevon sniffled. She frowned at the report of the situation.
“What is the man saying?” Sevon asked, smearing his tears away.
Anna Maria listened to the radio, then nodded. She tried to simplify for her son. “Hurricane Gert is a very bad storm. The man says it’s a Category 5, and that means it’s very powerful. More powerful than your father, the king.” She stopped and listened again. “The Rio Grande, the river on the outskirts of the city, is rising with a lot of water. People will be flooded out of their homes.”
Sevon sniffed. “Will they die?”
Anna Maria frowned. “They could, but we know there’s nothing to fear but the true oblivion.”
Sevon puffed up his tiny chest and declared, “I’ll be brave.”
Hurricane Gert howled a thunderous battle cry, scraping against the ancient bricks and mortar. The outer wall of Sevon’s bedroom squealed and was torn from the foundation.
Sevon screamed while covering his eyes as light stabbed underneath the closet door. “Light! Mommy! Light! Don’t let the light get me!” He sobbed as he smashed his back to the far end of the closet, shielding himself with a pillow.
Anna Maria leaped to her feet and secured the door. She yanked Sevon’s clothes from the hangers, then shoved them into the cracks of daylight. She craned her neck toward her frantic child. “Cover yourself!” she commanded. “Blankets. Pillows. Clothes. Pile them all on top of you!”
Sevon ripped clothes off the hangers and gathered the bedding around himself in a heap. The mound of finery and silk pillows shivered like a pudding. Anna Maria never told her son that because of his humanity, the sun was not the same threat to him as to his father. She wouldn’t compromise the primal instincts instilled in him from being raised in darkness.
Anna Maria’s fingers bleached white while holding the door. She refused to let go. If the bitch of a storm wanted the door, Gert would have to take her with it.
As the walls breathed with the storm’s breath, Anna Maria prayed. “Please, Louis… please, come for us….”
IN THE northern wing, Gert squealed against the thick handmade panes of glass. The storm wailed her siren song, luring all to their destruction. King Louis Maraté defied Gert’s howling wind to personally oversee the palace security. Herculean limestone encased the palace like an impregnable fortress. Louis had insisted the nobility take shelter within the sturdy walls instead of remaining in their own estates. The palace had more than enough room to accommodate the nobility. Caring for the various staff members of each house was a bit of a tight squeeze, but the palace staff made sure to compromise.
His royal pupil scampered no less than three feet behind him. Colored like creek water and crowned by long, ragged layers of brown hair, the scrawny urchin of a child had only one name—Jack—as his people didn’t believe in overcomplication. Louis had taken a shine to the boy, and Jack followed him like an attention-starved cub.
“Are you scared of the storm, Jack?” Louis asked as they navigated the maze of torchlit halls.
“No, sir. No, no, no, sir!” he said once he’d caught up to Louis. “If the king isn’t afraid, then I won’t be afraid either. My brother, Kaltag, is a legionnaire, and he says courage is a good quality.”
Louis smiled, patting Jack’s head. “Your brother is very wise. You should teach my son your bravery.”
Jack gasped at the proclamation. “Really? I won’t disappoint you, sir.”
Louis scanned the halls as the nobles settled in for the daytime storm. Absently he acknowledged Jack again. “Maybe one day we’ll arrange for newly awakened aisa to visit your land.”
“Absolutely,” Jack said. “And his highness too. I think he would enjoy meeting my family.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Louis said as they found the temporary home of Lord Albrecht and Lady Francisca.
“It will be my honor to escort the prince in Priagust,” Jack said from behind Louis’s waist.
In the Blue Room, which was named for the aquamarine drapery and water features, Lord Albrecht consulted his ledgers by lantern light. His wife, Lady Francisca, skimmed the pages of Ulysses as she gently swayed in a rocking chair.
“My apologies about the accommodations,” Louis said. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Jack shyly peeked into the room from behind Louis. Albrecht winked at Jack, and his handlebar mustache wiggled into a catlike smile. “On the contrary, Your Majesty. You are most charitable by seeing to our safety. We’ll make an effort to be gracious guests.”
Louis smiled and tossed an inky lock from his eyes. “Did you secure the stockyards?”
Albrecht nodded. “I pruned the sick and old from the herds and let them go. Let the humans experience a bit of freedom before the storm takes them to whatever god they worship. The young are secure enough.”
“What are… humans?” Jack asked, and all eyes settled on him, since he had spoken out of turn.
Albrecht grinned and crouched to Jack’s level. “What’s your name, child?”
“Jack,” he said timidly but then seemed a little braver. “I’m an ungati from Priagust.”
Albrecht brightened, and Louis smiled. “Oh my,” Albrecht said and ruffled Jack’s hair. “Aren’t you a sturdy boy?”
“Y’sir,” Jack said, and tried to put his messy hair into less of a mess. “What are humans?”
Albrecht glanced at Louis, who nodded, and then he explained, “Humans are food. Like a pig is for you. They’re our livestock, like your cows and chickens in Priagust.”
Jack blinked, and Louis rested his hand on the boy’s head. “Did that satisfy your curiosity?” Louis asked.
Jack nodded quickly. “Y’sir.” He stepped away from Albrecht.
“I do have a small request….” Francisca turned her yellow eyes upward from her book.
“Anything, Lady Francisca,” Louis encouraged her.
She smiled and demurely dipped her head. “Perhaps some new reading material? I rather like those tawdry human National Geographic magazines.”
Her husband blanched and pleaded with Louis, “Forgive my wife, Your Majesty. She has simply dreadful interests.”
Louis laughed, holding his palms up in surrender. “No apologies needed. I’ll see if my Armiger captain, the Lady Bianca, is willing to spare some from her personal collection.”
Albrecht’s round shoulders relaxed, and his wife’s spindly fingers pressed to her thin lips to suppress a giggle.
Louis nodded his farewell, and Jack scampered down the hall. “See you at nightfall,” Louis said, then continued on his way. Once out of earshot, his shoulders slouched in disappointment. “It’s 1987, Albrecht,” he muttered. “It wouldn’t hurt to open your mind about humans….”
The barometric pressure caused Louis’s sinuses to throb. He pinched the bridge of his nose and stumbled over the stone floor. In the distance, the palace shivered. Louis’s attention darted in the direction of the east wing—the prince’s residence. The hair on the back of his neck prickled when his wife’s pleas for help echoed into his mind. The sickly sweet scent of his son’s fear stabbed his senses.
Louis scurried past Jack and into the network of halls, heading toward the trouble.
Jack scrambled after him. “Sir!” he called, his sandals slapping the tile floor. “Sir! What’s wrong?”
“Stay here, Jack,” Louis said. “It’s safer for you to stay back. I can’t have your people in an uproar if one of their own is hurt.”
Jack slowed to a stop as Louis pulled away. “Okay,” he said, crestfallen. He caught the scent of baking bread and followed the buttery aroma toward the kitchens. He skipped down one hall and took a right at one of the many T-junctions.
A ball of shimmering birch leaves tumbling on a torrent of wind rushed past him, and he flattened himself to a wall, watching the strange magical occurrence in awe. When it vanished around the corner, he pounced after the pretty leaves.
IN THE recent decades, Louis had become too weak to walk through the shadows. His worry and lack of gifts urged him into sprinting.
He skidded around a corner and clung to a hanging tapestry of his forefathers to keep from tumbling. The threads stretched and snapped under his weight. Outside, Gert howled across the roof as the hurricane clawed at the eaves. Louis dashed down the labyrinthine halls, and his thick human-made boots squeaked on the floor. To his right, a stream of red glimmering birch leaves drifted on the breeze, keeping pace. The leaves collected into a ball, and after a brilliant flash became Lord Dominic Ravensgrove, Louis’s sworn champion.
Dominic ran alongside Louis. His black hair whipped like an agitated scorpion tail. Taller than Louis by a respectable foot and a handful of inches, Dominic towered over him. The old Roman who had served as Dominic’s Chrono, awakening him into immortality, had rescued him from a bloody life in the gladiator arena. Dominic’s Chrono specifically chose him to be Louis’s protector because of his brawny size and strong back. In times of crisis, he would be there to lift his verkolai liege up to victory. Even in such a desperate time under Gert’s wrath, he came to lend his strength.
They had their differences, and Dominic had atoned for many transgressions against the Crown. However, Louis never lost faith in him.
He smiled at Dominic’s support.
“Your Majesty,” Dominic said. “We need to talk.”
Louis kept his attention straight ahead. “Now’s not the time, Ravensgrove. My wife and son are in danger!”
Dominic swiped his right foot into Louis’s knees. Before Louis could register the attack, he found himself on the floor. He rolled onto his back, gulping air into his atrophied lungs. His foggy vision cleared, and Dominic loomed over him with the point of a malachite sword uncomfortably close to Louis’s nose.
“We. Need. To. Talk,” Dominic repeated in a hateful hiss.
Jack came around the corner, out of breath and on wobbly legs. All sound died in his throat when he saw the blade pointed at his tutor. Petrified, he shrank back to hide in a corner. In his anxiety, tiny brown claws emerged from underneath his human fingernails and dug into the stonework. Jack bit his lip, watching the events unfold.
Though disturbed by Dominic’s outburst, Louis remained calm. He smelled the acrid sting of Dominic’s anger. “You have my attention, Lord Ravensgrove,” he said as the support beams of the roof creaked.
“You have something that belongs to me,” Dominic snarled. The sword gleamed in his grasp.
“What on earth, Brother?” Louis asked, uncomprehending, and tried to sit up.
Dominic stomped on his chest, pinning him to the floor. Louis’s head cracked against the stones.
Jack slapped his hands over his mouth, holding back the urge to cry out. He fell back on his rear, kicking his feet in a feeble attempt to escape the horrific scene.
“I’ve watched you grow up,” Dominic growled, “be the savior of an entire race…. I watched my Chrono fawn over you.”
The sword wobbled in anticipation. Louis narrowed his eyes as Dominic trembled over him. “Are you drunk on spiced blood? Now is not the time to bring up the Chrono.”
“Shut up,” Dominic growled. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” He crushed a palm to his forehead, snarling. “I’ve watched you grow old and weak. Watched your gifts burn out. And that shifter bitch, Anna Maria, bear your child.”
It had been centuries since Dominic had been this enraged. Louis had had no choice then but to take action for his threats. He’d imprisoned Dominic to avoid any danger to his wife. Anna Maria was his advocate, and he couldn’t ignore the threats against her. But time changes a man, and after Sevon was born, Louis believed Dominic had served enough penance. He believed Dominic could be better.
Eyes deranged, Dominic pinned Louis to the cold tiles. And Louis came to the damming realization that Dominic hadn’t changed at all.
A prickle of fear inched into Louis’s features. “Dominic—”
“Shut up!” Dominic bellowed.
Behind them, Jack huddled in the corner, hugging his knees and hyperventilating with soft cries.
“You had your pick of consorts, and you chose an animal.” Dominic snorted. “After all we’ve been through, you sided with those creatures. Now… now, it’s coming back to you for your betrayal of us all. It’s perfect, don’t you see?” Dominic grinned and dropped into a crouch while straddling Louis’s chest. He grazed the tip of the malachite sword in crooked swirls over Louis’s cheek.
Louis grunted as his flesh sizzled.
“With this storm, you’ve corralled all your allies into one place,” Dominic said, his eyes wild and unhinged. “But you’ve corralled your enemies with them. When night falls, there will be no evidence of our bloody coup.”
The bending timbers of the roof snapped in echoing crackles. Wind stabbed into the dissolving roof, and Gert’s rage shrieked into the hazy gray day. The piercing light along with the pelting hail smoldered into the flesh of the king and his betrayer. Louis and Dominic fought to withstand the smoke rising from their bodies.
“Dominic!” Louis screamed over Gert’s demonic roar. “Think of my son!”
Louis squirmed against the brilliant light and beheld something in Dominic’s face akin to a moment of horrific clarity. As Dominic’s skin boiled, he considered his hands, then lifted the sword and turned his palms upward in reception of salvation. Dominic’s hesitation ended with sharp determination. He had said Louis had something that belonged to him. His kingdom? His wife? His title? Louis’s mind ran scattershot over the ideas in conjunction with the certainty that he would meet his end.
Dominic made his declaration. His lips moved, but the sound was torn away from his mouth into the violent sky. He repeated the words, like a mantra, an incantation to kill.
Louis couldn’t hear over the rumbling roof tiles and the screams of the dying down the hall. His inner ear popped and sizzled. The sun drained all the strength from him.
Dominic whipped the sword backward over his head, and Louis swallowed. He refused to close his eyes, making Dominic understand he met his oblivion without fear.
As the malachite sword gouged into Louis’s heart, splitting it open in a meaty red wound, he heard Dominic’s decree.
“Sevon belongs to me!”
Louis’s life melted, pulsing from his limp fingertips. Dominic’s charred fingers forced the sword into the burning king’s chest cavity and ripped Louis’s heart into scraps.
While Gert churned her black hateful violence, the remnants of the ceiling creaked and ripped apart, as insignificant as paper. Gert wanted the roof of the king’s lovely palace, and she would have it. If it so pleased the Lady Hurricane, she would cast it aside into the hedge maze and tear the neatly manicured rosebushes into gaudy confetti.
Dominic planted his feet as the roof peeled away. As he withstood the layers of ashen skin flittering off his face into the wind, he released the king’s corpse. Louis’s scorched body rose into Gert’s windy grasp and whipped aside with the roof.
Through the wind, Jack caterwauled in anguish. On his first decree from a fair and just king, Jack had already failed. His only chance to make it right was to find the prince and consort before Dominic, but finding cover took precedence. He fled the murder scene, willing his little legs faster and faster still. Gert raced with him, tearing away the roof in his wake. Bricks rained down, rocketing overhead. The support beams shrieked with the wrenching pressure and shattered. Jack tripped and rolled down the stone stairwell, each step bludgeoning him on the shoulders and shins. He flopped onto the scullery floor and clawed toward the collection of water barrels. He wedged in tightly between three of them and pulled his knees to his chest.
As Gert screamed, Jack wept.
SEVON WAILED while clinging to his mother underneath the mess of blankets. The roof disintegrated inch by inch. Only two and a half of the walls, along with a segment of the closet ceiling, protected them.
“Mommy! Mommy, I’m scared!” Sevon cried, as hail scraped his cheeks. As Gert expediently tore the blankets away, Sevon’s flesh didn’t redden or ignite.
Anna Maria cradled Sevon close, shielding her tiny son. “Hold on. I’ve got you!” she called through Gert’s anger. She gasped, as if she suffered a stab straight to her ribs. She buckled with Sevon in her arms, fumbling her hold on him.
“Mommy?” Sevon asked her over the howl of the wind. “Mommy, are you okay?”
Anna Maria felt her heart collapse in on itself. Louis’s soul had gone silent in her mind. She swallowed down the pain and knew with certainty her true love was no more.
When Lord Dominic Ravensgrove clapped an iron grip on her shoulder, Anna Maria almost jolted out of her skin. She squinted against the hail, trying to comprehend his presence and charred skin. Her head filled with the fuzzy tingle of confusion.
Dominic’s broad shoulders heaved through the bloodstained silk shirt, and his exposed skin was dappled with snowy ash. Patches of his long dark hair had been scalded away, but his face remained intact. He had to retreat from the sun as much as Anna Maria and Sevon needed to get out of Gert’s wind.
“Louis is dead!” Dominic roared in competition over the bellowing storm. “The storm took him. We have to get Sevon to safety.”
Anna Maria’s heart filled with the ash of true oblivion. She had known the moment it happened. Her beloved husband was lost to Gert’s fury, and she understood the gravity of the implications. She had to remain capable for the moment. Grieving would wait for a more convenient time. She bobbed her head in agreement. “We need to get away,” she answered firmly.
Dominic took both mother and child against his burning body and steadily pushed them out of the ruined closet into the bedchamber’s threshold. Struggling to lift his hand into the ruined limestone hallway, he concentrated on summoning a safer passage. All the muscles in his body tightened, and he flicked his fingers outward, beckoning a lane of illuminant birch trees into existence.
Sevon blinked, and the tunnel of trees stood as if it had always existed in that very spot, growing for decades between the crumbled columns. Gert’s screeching wind, booming thunder, and crackling lightning did not exist between the two neat rows of trees. Puffs of ghostly blossoms wafted lazily from the boughs that stretched into the infinity of the darkness of night. All was still, calm, and warm.
Anna Maria set Sevon upon his tiny feet. Sevon sucked on one of his fingers and then wrapped the fingers of his other hand around his mother’s thumb. Dominic ushered the royal family through the lane of ethereal trees and between the banks of neatly raked, velvety red leaves. Anna Maria smiled at Dominic as his dead skin flaked away, reforming into new, supple, bronzed flesh.
“You’ll be protected from the storm. The tree lane is a passage to my home in Dubois Blanc,” Dominic said. “By following the path, we are crossing the Atlantic into the safety of France.” He grinned. “I will be able to get us back once the storm passes,” he said, gesturing to the alabaster great hall of the noble house at the end of the tree tunnel, welcoming them from nature’s rage. The delicate fingers of the fire danced in the arched hearth, washing light on two high-backed chairs upholstered in raw green silk. A sideboard to the left offered a collection of fruits and a bowl of almonds along with a crystal pitcher of refreshment. It appeared inviting. Safe. Stable.
Anna Maria shook her head in a slow swivel as she looked down the tree lane. “I don’t understand. If you could do this, why not save everyone else?”
Dominic sighed and hung his head. “The nobles were already dead. It was Louis’s wish I save you and the young prince.”
She watched Dominic and arched a brow. Her nose twitched, catching the acrid scent of a burned aisa body. She looked away as Dominic’s charred skin continued to flake away and bloom with new flesh. Sevon was still young, and while he had been exposed to so much, there were still things about aisa culture that she didn’t want him to see until he was ready to understand. An aisa’s regeneration process was one of them. And Anna Maria definitely did not want him getting ideas to try it.
Sevon released his mother’s thumb and quickly toddled ahead. Unafraid and excited by the picturesque home, he laughed and scampered forward.
Anna Maria lunged to recapture him, but Dominic clawed a blood-crusted hand on her shoulder. She startled at the demanding force on her petite frame.
Dominic whispered in her ear, “Now, now. The prince just lost his father. He’s far too young to understand what he’s now inherited. He must be taught how to be a proper king. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Anna Maria’s lips parted with comprehension. She shot a challenging glare at Dominic, growling in a husky whisper, “The smell of my husband’s death will never leave your skin.”
Dominic curled his hand tighter to encourage bone-crushing submission. “You’re mine now, Anna,” he declared.
Anna Maria whimpered and nodded hesitantly. She gaped helplessly at Sevon, holding out his tiny hands to the massive fireplace, obliviously happy as the warmth slipped through his fingers.
Sevon giggled, chirping to his mother, “Come on, Mommy! It’s nice here! I’m going to stay up all day and look for hidden treasure in Dominic’s pretty castle!”
“Don’t hurt my son,” Anna Maria pleaded as Dominic jerked her to his chest.
He smirked and stroked her cheek. “I wouldn’t dream of it. He’ll be quite useful when he blossoms into a fetching young man.”
WHEN THE survivors emerged from their basements and cellars to survey the damage of the once glorious aisa capital, the tears, screams, and all-consuming anguish swallowed the devastation. Estates of the nobility and homes of the commoners alike lay scattered in thin splinters underneath the clear, starry sky. Roofs decapitated from their support beams and pristine tree-lined lanes reduced to mangled twigs splayed across the cracked streets.
The aisa shambled in a daze. Some of them showed signs of starvation, with their silvered skin and gaunt faces. The others who were near frenzy staggered to and fro and bared their fangs, their maws dripping with drool. All were depending on the chance to feed tonight. Lord Albrecht’s once-profitable stockyards lay crushed under rubble.
Jack squeezed through the debris of the palace and popped into the clear night from where the scullery had once stood. A circle of lurching aisa smelled the living blood within him. He stumbled backward, fell on his rear, and hissed at them. An aisa swiped at him with bony, clawed fingers, and Jack rolled to the left, out of reach. He shot to his feet and scampered over the mound of palace ruins. When he reached where the king’s study had once stood on the far side of the palace grounds, he found no trace of Louis. Reality crushed Jack, and he crumpled with grief. Louis wasn’t coming back.
The distant sounds of Sevon’s babbling intrigued him. Did Prince Sevon not know the truth? Jack had to tell him. Dominic had to be stopped before everything inevitably spun out of control.
Jack frowned when he saw Lord Dominic Ravensgrove and Sevon alongside Sevon’s grief-stricken mother. They passed by him without any scrap of acknowledgment.
Dominic stepped onto the waiting chaise carriage and held Sevon in his arms. The carriage had been protected in the basement level of the palace, along with other necessities. Sevon wiggled as Dominic settled onto the cushions. Dominic exchanged words with Anna Maria. She responded in as few words as possible and then pressed her lips together. The Armigers, who stood at the ready, sprang into action when Dominic gave the word. The eight Armigers each lifted a post through the carriage’s base and loped away with Dominic and Sevon.
Anna Maria hastily wiped her face and clenched her fist.
Jack cautiously approached her. “Psst, Lady Anna,” Jack called from behind her.
Anna Maria startled and looked down at him. “Jack? You’re all right?”
Jack nodded, pressing his fingertips together. “Yes’m,” he said and then frowned. “Lord Ravensgrove did something terrible!”
Anna Maria’s lip trembled, and she blotted her eyes with the heel of her palm. She kneeled down to his level and cupped his cheek. “Shh, shh, shh…. I know what he did. No one can know you do too.”
Jack searched her features for clarification. “Why? We have to stop him!”
Anna Maria shook her head. “Jack, you need to run. You need to go back to our world. To Priagust. If Lord Ravensgrove knows, he’ll kill you too.” She squeezed his small hands. “We’re not strong enough to stop him. Not yet.”
“What?” Jack yowled in panic. “But the king told me to protect the prince. I have to protect the prince!” he babbled.
Anna Maria gripped Jack by his shoulders and sternly said, “Jack. You’ll be safer back home with your people. We need time. Only time will save us now.”
Jack croaked, “What about the prince? The king made me promise.”
Anna Maria smiled brokenly. She brushed a shaggy lock from Jack’s eyes and hooked his chin. “If you make sure to pray for his safety, he’ll be okay.”
Jack hastily wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Can I come back? When Lord Ravensgrove is gone?”
Anna Maria nodded once. “I hope so,” she whispered. “Now run. Run as fast as you can. The palace conservatory pool is still visible in the rubble. The Veil is the weakest there and easiest to traverse while….” She swallowed.
“The king is dead?” Jack filled in for her.
Her lip trembled. “Y-Yes. His control hasn’t completely faded yet. You’ll be able to get through.” She pushed him away. “Go. Go! Let no one see you.”
Jack jogged six paces away and then called behind him, “I’ll pray for the prince. Every day!”
He hurried through the devastated landscape, and he didn’t spare a moment to understand what had happened. Jack didn’t look back at Anna Maria, a woman he had considered like his own mother. His heart raced with the regret that he couldn’t rescue Sevon. “Not yet,” Anna Maria had said. Jack would have to watch, wait, and worry.
He hadn’t thought of what he’d tell his brother, Kaltag, about what he had seen and endured on Darkmore’s darkest day. Would Kaltag believe Jack once he returned to Priagust? Kaltag wouldn’t willingly let him return to Darkmore, not with Dominic now in power. Not the very man who had killed their Supreme Alpha in their legends.
Jack wouldn’t give up. He wouldn’t give up on Sevon. He couldn’t let himself. He had sworn his life to Louis as Sevon’s protector.
He ran faster.
SEVON CURLED in contentment against Dominic while they rocked in the chaise carriage.
The Armigers stood at attention, their expressions stoic. But it was their eyes that told the truth. Their captain, the Lady Bianca, stood shoulder to shoulder with her second-in-command, the swordswoman Chaney. Bianca wore the mask of bravery and professionalism, but Chaney’s vermillion eyes screamed the threat of tears. Bianca laced fingers with her beloved second and squeezed tight.
Dominic snorted. Bianca and Chaney’s centuries-long affair hadn’t been any secret. Chaney had been Bianca’s Chrono and had awakened Bianca into their world. Now, as her second-in-command, the idea was that Chaney had always been Bianca’s lover, and Dominic sneered in revulsion from the gut-churning concept. Dominic would be sure to eliminate them when the time came. They could die with the rutting pigs. It would be best suited for whores like them.
Bianca and Chaney, along with their other guardswomen, never made a sound of dissidence. They carried Sevon, the toddler king, on his four-posted carriage, while Dominic held him close. Dominic smiled with warm satisfaction as Sevon stared at the scene, boredom in his dull, murky-blue eyes.
Sevon yawned and leaned into Dominic. “Where’s Daddy?” he asked sleepily, suckling on a finger.
Dominic exhaled, and the tension in his body eased into the cool night. “The storm took your father away, Your Highness. That means you’re king now,” Dominic cooed and kissed Sevon’s warm forehead.
Sevon giggled at Dominic’s cold breath in his hair. His blond brows knitted in confusion. “I don’t know how to be king,” he said and clung to Dominic’s linen shirt.
Dominic chuckled, petting Sevon’s gossamer curls. “I’ll teach you. You’ll be a great king. You’ll be the best king Darkmore has ever had.”
Sevon screeched in laughter. “Where’s Jack? If I’m king now, I want Jack as my other king.”
Dominic wrinkled his nose and groaned. He contorted the note of disdain into one of amusement. “Oh, my little king. Jack still has a lot of learning to do before he can be a king.”
“Jack’s smarter than me, though.” Sevon held up his hands. “He can count to this much a bunch of times.”
Dominic pushed his hair from his eyes. “I doubt anyone is smarter than you,” he said in a singsong tone.
Sevon giggled again, and Dominic relaxed with a grunt. He hoped Sevon would shift his focus elsewhere.
The Armigers carried the weight of them both, hiding their grief while witnessing the loss of all they knew.
Dominic would create a new world, a new kingdom, a new destiny. When the time came, the Armigers would have to choose. Bow to him or die under his boot.
The once-extravagant city fountain lay shattered into pebbles. The elaborate hedge maze had been mauled into a shredded skeleton of sticks. A sob caught in Chaney’s throat, and she swallowed it down when she saw the ruins of the home Bianca had been in the process of building for the two of them. Bianca squeezed Chaney’s hand again but kept her expression void of emotion. It wouldn’t do for the Armigers to cause a fuss. Dominic wasn’t capable of eliminating them from the equation. Not yet, anyhow. Chaney knew the tortures he could dream up as fitting for her, Bianca, and all Armigers; Dominic would no doubt contemplate what would inflict the most pain and crushing despair.
The Armigers meandered around the perimeter of a mass grave. Survivors lumbered awkwardly with blood-slicked bodies and severed limbs and then tossed them into the deep sandy pit. Dominic took note that Sevon seemed to watch the stars in his childish wonderment instead.
“Do you think Daddy went to heaven?” Sevon asked.
Dominic bristled but kept his smile intact. “Where did you hear of such a thing as heaven?”
Sevon fiddled with the hem of his tunic. “Mommy talks about heaven. She says everyone goes there. It’s really nice.” Sevon flapped his tunic over his legs and huffed with an impatient puff of the cheeks. Finally he asked Dominic, “Can we go to heaven? Can we see my daddy?”
“Sevon….” Dominic kept his tone even, hiding his annoyance. “Your daddy is gone. The storm took him away. I told you that.”
Sevon’s lip trembled.
Dominic realized he didn’t approve of the answer.
“I want my daddy,” Sevon croaked, tears welling in his eyes. “I want my daddy!”
Dominic cradled Sevon to him and stroked his hair as he wailed. He cooed with a nonsense lullaby, soothing Sevon into a nap.
Dominic kept his attention on the bodies that fell into the massive pit. He nodded to Kerrigan, one of his best men, as he hauled the bodies of Lord Albrecht and Lady Francisca. The brawny Kerrigan dragged the two by their ankles without any dignity. Francisca’s tattered gown bunched around her chest, scandalously exposing her daring garters and stockings. Albrecht’s eyes rolled in two different directions, his mouth frozen with the utterance of his final words. The lord and lady tumbled into the pit. They bounced and rolled against the bloated, broken bodies.
“Be sure the right bodies are going into the grave,” Dominic called to Kerrigan, while Sevon shuddered and hiccupped. “Nothing but the best for Louis’s people.”
“The absolute best for Louis’s people,” Kerrigan answered with a conspiratorial grin. “We’ll be incinerating the bodies.”
Dominic smirked. “A fine send-off for Louis’s allies,” he purred, then added, “Meet me at the precinct wall. We need to reestablish the Veil before dawn, or we’ll all be shadows and dust.”
Kerrigan wiped his brow. “How do you intend to do that? With Louis dead, his power over the Veil is shattered.” He cast his attention to the skies above. “I don’t think I’ve seen the stars this clearly since before the Veil.”
“Which is why we need to restore the Veil before dawn,” Dominic said sternly. “We will die here with the city destroyed.”
Kerrigan tilted his head in a way that seemed like he was doubting Dominic’s plan.
Dominic gritted his teeth, and Sevon sniffled. “We have the prince. He’s one of the verkolai line. I’m confident it will work.”
“Will he survive? He’s not even awakened,” Kerrigan said. There was concern in his tone that Dominic did not appreciate.
“Are you questioning me?” he accused him.
“No,” Kerrigan said firmly, looking away.
“I’m out of options.” Dominic then patted Sevon’s back. No one would ever know he didn’t have a backup plan.
Would Sevon survive?
This was his first true test, and the child had no choice but to succeed. Dominic wouldn’t tolerate failure.
THE GENTLE, chilly wind wandered across the hard, baked earth of the desert that surrounded the capital city in all directions. In the distance, the salty air of the Gulf of Mexico gave a bitter taste in every mouth. The flat stone altar lay in the middle of four alabaster pillars. There had been stories of sacrifices taking place on the marble altar. Many had considered them old aisa tales to scare newly awakened into obeying their Chronos.
Directly south, the ruins of Darkmore stood on the horizon, and the purple haze of dawn approached in a steady creep. Even the aisa in the city understood that if the ceremony failed, they couldn’t run from the sun’s cruelty.
“I want my mommy,” Sevon whined as the priests in dark robes surrounded him. “I want my mommy.” He tried to push past their knees and protested his entitlement as the priests stripped him and redressed him in a white commitment robe. He pouted, then scratched at his arm. “I want my mommy, now,” Sevon growled.
The circle of priests didn’t budge and placed a crown of white carnations on his head.
Sevon scratched at his arm again. “It’s really itchy,” he fussed, his lip trembling.
The towering circle of men parted, and Dominic slipped between them.
Sevon brightened. “Dominic, tell them to let me see my mommy. Tell them I’m king, and they have to do what I say!”
Dominic shook his head and picked up Sevon. “Your mommy wants you to be a big boy and do as you’re told.”
Sevon groaned and slapped his little hands into Dominic’s broad chest. “You said I could do what I wanted to do. You said I was king. You said so!”
Dominic frowned and shushed him. “Sevon,” he said firmly. “As king, you have to do your duty first. Right now, you have to restore the Veil. If you don’t, we’ll all die at dawn.”
Sevon’s mouth dropped into a barking sob. He crushed his face into the nook under Dominic’s chin. “But I don’t know how,” he wailed. “I don’t want everybody to die. I want my mommy!”
“Shh… shh… shh…,” Dominic whispered and patted his back. “I’ll show you. We’ll do it together, okay? Once you put the Veil back, you can be with your mommy. You would like that, right?”
Sevon nodded against Dominic’s chest, moaning something that sounded like an agreement.
Dominic’s attention flicked to the robed priests. “Do it.” Dominic eased Sevon into the holy men’s arms.
Each of the four withered men wrapped their long, clawed fingers on a quadrant of Sevon’s little body. Two supported a shoulder each, and the other two supported the hips. They turned him to face the sky and kneeled to lay him on the stone table.
Sevon concentrated on the sky while poking his fingers together.
Dominic frowned. “Hands at your sides, Sevon,” he commanded.
Sevon sighed, slapping his hands to the marble surface. “Okay. Are we done?”
“Not yet,” Dominic said.
Kerrigan stepped toward Dominic and held out a long green lacquered box. Dominic lifted the lid with a soft click and then pulled out a long malachite sword. The slithering pattern of the blade snaked like an inanimate serpent. Jade spidery veins crawled through the blue-green malachite, and Dominic tested the weight in his hand. He ran his finger over the edge, savoring the hints of the king’s blood that had stained it hours earlier.
He acknowledged the priests. “Begin.”
At the four sides of the stone table, the priests linked bony hands and tilted their heads back to the heavens. Their grayed, watery eyes blindly gazed upon the nothingness of space.
Bianca and her Armigers stood by, uneasy, and Dominic scowled at their hands resting on their sword hilts and pistol holsters.
Chaney whispered to Bianca, “We have to stop this.”
Bianca squeezed Chaney on the shoulder. “We have to let this take its course.”
“By doing nothing, Bianca?” Cassandra, the Armiger berserker, snapped.
“Stand down, all of you,” Bianca commanded in a low growl. “We have to let this take its course.”
“Where is his mother?” Cassandra asked, and Dominic narrowed his eyes as he listened to them chatter. He paced toward the sacrificial altar.
“It’s best she doesn’t see,” Bianca whispered.
Dominic stood over the boy, and Sevon sucked in large gulps of air.
“I don’t like this anymore,” Sevon croaked and wiggled against the altar. Dominic’s hand was at the ready to halt the boy from sitting up. Sevon relented and lay down once more. “Dominic…,” he whimpered.
Dominic ignored the terrified boy and raised the blade to the sky. “By the Ancients of this land, we commit this child to the earth,” he called to the stars. “May his blood fortify us and protect all we hold dear,” he rumbled, centering the blade tip at the notch of Sevon’s collarbone.
The priests shifted their stance and then bent forward to hold Sevon’s hands and feet still. Sevon’s chest heaved with panic, but he stayed still enough.
“No… no,” Sevon muttered, and Dominic pressed his blade into the child’s skin. Sevon shrieked when the cold sword slipped into his flesh and glided effortlessly down the center of his chest. He tossed his head back and bellowed, “I want my mommy!” His robe sopped up the red of his blood like a starving aisa, and the priests held fast to his limbs, preventing him from flailing. Sevon screeched as his blood dripped onto the stone table. The crimson fluid winked with light, then shimmered into liquid gold.
Dominic barked a laugh of victory. “It’s really happening.”
The gold peacefully twinkled as it dribbled in thin trails down the carved edges of the altar. When the droplets settled onto the ground, within two heartbeats, the blood boiled into molten orange. A pulse later, the whisper-thin white-hot trails raced over the ground in random geometry, digging ley lines over the clay earth. The Armigers scuttled to the left when a bolt of Sevon’s power sped toward them and onward to the horizon. Sevon ceased crying and succumbed to unconsciousness.
The web of Sevon’s blood traced over the desert, mesas, and their ruined city. The glimmering lines converged at the tip of the palace steeple and then flashed into brilliant nothingness. The air-pressure adjustment in the inner ears of those present told them all it was a success.
While Dominic celebrated, a horse and rider sped toward the group. The black Friesian snorted his hot breath, and his hooves pounded shallow craters into the dry desert. The rider’s snapping blonde hair revealed her identity: Anna Maria.
Before the stallion had come to a full stop, she leaped from the creature and tackled Dominic to the ground. “What have you done to my son?” Anna Maria snarled, cracking her fist into Dominic’s jaw. “What were you thinking?” she howled and punched him again.
Dominic’s jaw crunched with her primal strength. He shoved the crazed Anna Maria off him, and she tumbled back. He kicked up to his feet, spitting blood. “You should thank me, you ungrateful cow. I just saved us all!”
Anna Maria scrambled to stand, letting out a bellowing roar. Her eyes blazed with the shift from human blue to the amber tiger eye of the beast within her. This was just the chance Dominic needed to see her lose her control of her filthy animal instincts. All he needed was the evidence that she had wronged him.
“He is three years old,” she snarled. “Do you know how he’ll suffer?” With a flick of her fingers, blackened claws emerged from her fingernails. She charged for Dominic, and he caught that murderous glare. His skin tingled, aroused with the same sense of hatred he had felt for Louis for countless centuries.
Dominic smirked with a casual head tilt. She had unknowingly signed her death warrant by coming at him. He would elaborate later how he feared for his life.
“Oh, how I’ve waited for this.” In a smooth motion, he pulled the pistol from his back. He chambered the silver bullet, and Anna Maria tried to reverse direction. She leaped to the left, and Dominic tracked her movement as easily as scanning a clay disk.
It was over in seconds.
The terrible bang didn’t register until Anna Maria dropped to the earth, face-first. She held her stomach, and the red flowed between her fingers. She gasped and jerked as her body seized.
Dominic had only used silver bullets once before. The beautiful ammunition had been powered with fine silver shavings. The powder seeped into the veins, damning the shifter to a slow, excruciating death.
“You forget your place, my la—” Dominic managed to say before Bianca’s fist collided with his chin. The uppercut sent him sailing back into the arms of Cassandra. She smiled sweetly before shoving him to the ground. Xo joined Cassandra as Dominic fumbled for his footing. Together, they kept him down with a swift kick to the ribs. He flopped gracelessly onto his back, staring up at the rippling iridescence of the newborn Veil. He chuckled and then spit a gob of blood. “Do you think… this outburst will… bring your pathetic king back?” he asked, panting.
“Come!” Bianca called the others. They left him as they dashed to the altar.
Dominic staggered to his feet, smirking with satisfaction as Bianca and her motley crew of whores headed to snatch Sevon from the stone table. It made no difference to stop them. They wouldn’t succeed in escaping with his toddler king.
It was a split second before any of the Armigers could get even a foot from the table, and then the blast from the corona of power still surrounding Sevon flung them away like leaves. Dominic clapped in glee as they all landed outside the border of the thin Veil.
Bianca shot to her feet, and Dominic stood by as she charged forward. She pounded her fist on the Veil, screaming in rage. She yanked her pistol from her holster at her hip and emptied the clip point-blank toward Dominic’s head.
But it was all for naught, as the Veil kept Dominic safe, and the bullets evaporated into the membrane.
The Armigers gathered behind her, like a pack of mangy dogs.
He smirked, satisfied. He had defeated them, and he recognized the failure in the faces of Louis’s warrior whores. The victory over them alone on the grounds of their ignorance made it even more sweet.
But his long-awaited triumph over Louis wasn’t complete, not yet.
He gazed upon the stone altar as Sevon incubated in his own power. “Oh, sweet child,” Dominic said in a whisper. “May these dreams be the last you will ever have.”