Avenari - Chapter 23
“So, about that wish...”
I looked up from the short stack of Xerox copies in my hand and over to Andris lying on his stomach beside me. He perused even more copies, assisting in my search for information on my amulets. “What wish?”
His head was at my feet, so he glanced over his shoulder with a hopeful gleam in his eyes. “Well, you’re my blood partner now...so do you think you could try that wish I suggested earlier? You know, wish for your mortal lust to return? I’ve wanted to make love to you so badly for so long that I’m surprised I’m still alive.”
I frowned, mildly disturbed at his honesty. “I’ll get right on that.” Studiously, I returned to the documents at hand. After spending far too long cuddling and napping in the afterglow of the bond, I had finally forced myself to studies, and nothing, not even Andris, was going to stop me. We’d wasted too much time as it was—an entire day, in fact—though it didn’t seem so terrible when I realized that Ivanarke became an empty shell after sunrise. However, the sun had set once more, and I refused to see Yoko again until I’d gone through the material.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to be so cold now that you know I won’t leave,” he said, sitting up only to fall back against the pillows and frown up at me. “You have no idea what it’s like, to know that I have you, yet I can’t have you. My world is a convoluted, deviant place.”
Absently, I reached over with my free hand and stroked his hair. “You managed to make me fall in love with you, and I’ve taken you as my blood partner. That should help stave you off for a while, at least until I have this whole Avenari thing sorted out.”
Sighing, he rolled onto his side and wrapped an arm around my waist, nuzzling my hip and muttering in discontent, “Dammit. So close, and now I have to wait some more. I’m dying to find out what it’s like, Princess.”
“You’ll live.” His behavior was either unbearably endearing or unbearably creepy, and the jury was still out. I decided not to give in until they had their verdict.
“Cruelest of them all,” I chuckled, turning the page. “Hey, did you find anything useful?”
“Back to business, eh?” He made a disgruntled noise and hugged me more tightly. “There wasn’t anything in there that we didn’t already know—procedure-wise, at any rate. Just a few notes on the patterns and powers associated with the amulets. I don’t think your ancestors really took into account how the bloodline would cycle its power back through.”
“Patterns?” I asked, my interest successfully piqued. “What kinds of patterns?”
He shrugged. “For example, the amulets’ powers were set on a cycle. There were thirteen basic power sources—air, water, fire, earth, et cetera—a bit like Shimari triggers. It’s linked to the Shimari zodiac, after all, which is odd…but who am I to criticize the madness of sorcerers?”
“You killed them for it, apparently.”
For a while he was quiet, but when I turned to see if he was brooding again, his other arm reached up and grabbed my shoulder, pulling my onto my back. In an instant, he was on top of me, holding my wrists at either side of my head as he frowned down from above.
“Princess, you realize that such offhand remarks may seem harmless to you, but are rather painful to me, don’t you?” he said, his voice soft and injured. His hair hung down straight, like silken strands of obsidian just begging for fingers to run through them, but his eyes bore the colors of pain.
I blinked. “I’m sorry. Does it really bother you that much?”
“Of course it does! It wasn’t as if I had a choice in the matter. My thirst doesn’t like to be threatened, and refuses to take no for an answer, as you may have noticed.” He let go and simply crouched there for a moment, frowning off to the side.
Tentatively, I reached up and slipped my hand along his face and into his hair, gripping the locks at the back of his head and drawing him down so that I could hold him. “From today forward, it will have no choice but to take no for an answer, demon,” I whispered against his shoulder. “I’ll make sure of it.”
He laughed—a mix of sad and happy. “Princess, you spoil me.”
“Of course. It’s about time someone did,” I said. “You have a problem with that?”
“Not at all. Spoil your ‘demon’ a little more, if you will.” He lifted himself up to hold my face and brush a feather-light kiss across my lips, before going in deeper and turning my spine into something the approximate consistency of warm Jell-O.
Now that we were bonded, the blood on his tongue made it even harder to resist his advances—not that it had been easy to begin with. But now I could feel him stirring in my veins, his thoughts and emotions flickering like a dim bulb in my mind, his pure and—almost—innocent need to feel wanted...
But I had important things to do!
His kisses wandered down to my throat, and I shuddered, gripping his shirt and fighting the urge to beg him to bite. “Andris, we’re supposed to be researching.”
“I’d rather do this,” he said, scratching his fangs across my skin and licking up the blood.
“Please...this is important to me,” I whispered, gritting my teeth as he began to sink in.
He paused with his fangs halfway buried in my skin, considering my words, then groaned under the weight of his conscience and backed off, settling to the side to pout at me. “Although it comforts me to know that you don’t love me just because of my external endowments, it is a little bit frustrating that I can’t seduce you.”
“That’s what you get for falling in love with dinner,” I muttered, sitting up and reorganizing my papers. “I only have to deal with bloodlust, which I can still control indefinitely...and don’t make that face at me!”
“But I want to make love to you!” he argued, taking hold of my hand and squeezing tightly. “You’re the only person I’ve ever trusted with my emotions, and I want to give you everything I have.”
I pursed my lips. “I can’t tell whether you’re being barbaric, deranged, or cute. You’re just weird.”
“Barbaric, deranged, or weird is infinitely better than cute,” he said darkly, as if ‘cute’ were a disease on par with leprosy, Ebola, and Bubonic Plague.
With a flick, I rolled the copies and swiped them at his forehead, but like a phantom he vanished and reappeared two feet away, sitting against the headboard with his arms folded on his knees. He pouted at me. “Cruel mistress,” he said again, narrowing tangerine eyes.
Frowning, I snapped the copy back open and resumed my search. “Get ahold of yourself. Cripes, I’ve never met anyone as amorous as you are—even more shocking is that you’re positively sociopathic towards everyone else. If you want me to wish that badly, fine, but not right now. I’m not going to jeopardize my plans just because you have an incurable itch.”
“It’s not incurable. You could cure it just fine,” he said under his breath.
“Andris, please! I’ve got a hundred thousand things on my mind right now, and my current state puts that one particular task near the bottom of my list. I don’t need you making me even more stressed about my life.”
“It’s an excellent stress-reliever. At least you haven’t been living with the urge for millennia, without release. Ye gods, I’m shriveling away inside.”
I scowled at his melodrama, wondering why he couldn’t just help out to abbreviate his wait. “Are you really that desperate?” I demanded, baiting his ego so that he’d finally shut up.
“Yes. Yes, I am. I’ve waited damn long, and now that you are here, I would rather not wait anymore,” he said flatly. “I am this close to getting the final thing on my bucket list, and waiting even longer is tearing me apart.” He held up his thumb and forefinger, indicating an infinitesimally small distance.
Failed. This particular topic overrode his pride. There was no winning the argument, for either of us. It would just keep going until one gave up or a fight broke out.
I elected to ignore him.
I got halfway through the page before he finally realized what I was doing. “Princess? Lydian? Lynn? Cara mea? Cur te amo multō, sed me nōn amas?”
My attention was successfully diverted about when he began speaking Latin. I slowly looked up from my photocopy and simply stared at him…until curiosity finally overrode my sense of duty and forced me to ask the obvious.
“What the hell did you just say?”
“Hmm? Nothing important enough to get in the way of your studies, cara mea.” He smiled pleasantly, but there was mischief in his eyes.
“Uh-huh. If that’s true, then don’t talk. The sooner I figure out how to make the amulet, the sooner you’ll get your present.”
“May I unwrap you now?”
“Get your brain out of the ditch, demon.” I grabbed another stack and dropped it in front of him. “Make yourself useful, or no wish. Here’s all the stuff on Tivor.”
Growling in discontent, he snatched up the pile and began scanning furiously, turning the page every second or so. In no time at all, he flicked the papers to the far corner of the bed—some feet away, since the bed was twice the size of my king at home. “There. Tivor’s band is headquartered in England. There are several firsthand accounts of his activities, starting near Simone’s territory and reaching across the pond throughout Europe. There are hints that he might be operating with Vrisalte’s blessing—that’s the Western Brood Manor, if you didn’t already know—but Ivanarke’s spies have yet to find any solid evidence to substantiate it. Additionally, some think that one of the five sorcerer clans has joined his forces, but that is also unproven.”
Andris finished his summary and gave me a pleading look. “Can you make that wish now? I’m losing my mind, Princess.”
“Sorry. Busy.” I concentrated a little harder, and he made a frustrated noise.
“I’m going for a walk,” he said at last, vanishing again and reappearing at the door to escape his temptations. He’d even managed to put his boots on in that same instant. “I’ll be back in a few...hours...”
He trailed off, and I glanced up to see why.
Blocking his path out the door was yet another half-breed, this one even younger than Sakura and Kaze, with a boyish haircut and the same platinum hair and azure eyes.
“Elder, please pardon the intrusion,” she said in a tiny voice as she bowed deeply. “I am Tsuki. I have been sent by the Council and Hanarisar to secure your immediate audience.”
I couldn’t see his face at this angle, but the disdain in his voice was unmistakable. “Tell your masters that I don’t feel like going.”
She didn’t even rise from the bow to respond. “I am afraid that this is not a request. This is a direct order.”
“Order? Excuse me?” He laughed, bitterly and abruptly. “As if they have the power to force me to obey. Get out of my sight and relay to them what I’ve just told you.”
At last, she stood straight, but instead of doing as he said, she looked past the door and met my gaze. “Milady Lydian, please reason with him, if you would. The Council is wary of his presence here, and would like the satisfaction of discovering whether or not he is still a threat.”
“I’ll always be a threat to those mongrels,” Andris snapped. “Tell them that, too.”
Tsuki tilted her head up to frown slightly at him. “I believe I was speaking to Milady.”
With a sigh, I set my papers aside and got up, slipping into my shoes before approaching the door. “Andris, let’s go.”
“What?!” He reacted as though I had just announced my immaculate conception.
I gave him an irritated glare. “You’re being an uptight ass. I’m going to drag you down there and set your fears aside before you end up ruining everything for me.”
“If you don’t, I’m not going to make that wish. Ever.”
He looked crestfallen, crushed, abashed—his very world seemed to be coming apart at the seams. “Princess, all they want to do is lock me up for the rest of my existence, and they won’t hesitate to go through you to get to me. I’ll bet every hair on my head that they’re going to make a preemptive strike.”
“Tough cookies. Let’s roll—and don’t you dare put your hair at risk. I’ll miss it something terrible.” Insistently, I shoved him out the door and shut it behind us. We didn’t need the entire Shimari Council to decide that we were no longer welcome—which, in turn, would hurt Simone. I was not, under any circumstances, risking Simone’s good standing just because Andris had issues with authority figures.
“This is ridiculous,” he hissed, trailing behind me. “They’ll do horrifying things to you!”
“Make sure they don’t,” I said tersely. “I’m the diplomat, and you’re my bodyguard.”
“I’ve been reduced to this?” The thought seemed to strike a mortal blow against his pride. “My powers rival those of the Hanarisar itself. Princess, you have turned me into a pet.”
I reached up and patted his head. “Good puppy.”
Suddenly, my feet left the ground, and in a blink I was looking up into citrine eyes. He didn’t even give me time to yell at him for being an idiot before capturing my lips in a devastating kiss. My body ignored my brain completely when his lips were involved.
It took a while, but at last he set me on my feet and held my hand as we continued on behind Tsuki—who didn’t seem to give a damn how far the ancient took it, so long as we were going to see the Council.
“I feel better now.”
“I’m going to castrate you.” I had to shake my head to rid myself of the dizziness.
“Oh, don’t be so negative, cara mea. You should indulge in what you enjoy.”
“Seriously. I’m going to take away your manhood. We’ll see who’s the winner, then.”
“Neither of us. I’ll have to wait to grow a new one, and you’ll have to wait to enjoy it.”
I gaped incredulously at him. “Grow a new one? What in the hell are you talking about?”
He smirked. “I regenerate my body. This right hand isn’t the one I started out with.”
Creepy, creepy bastard. “You’re one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen, Andy.”
“Stop calling me that—and you only just now came to that conclusion? My word, you’re more naïve than Simone is!”
Abruptly, I let go of his hand and folded my arms in indignation. “Ignorance is bliss.”
“That’s a flawed method for perceiving the world around you. It’s better to know definitively that monsters exist, rather than pretend that they don’t only to find yourself inadequately prepared to survive the encounter on the off-chance that you’re attacked by one.”
“I disagree. Monsters aren’t necessarily monsters. Sometimes they’re just different— you, for example.”
We walked for several minutes on autopilot, frowning at each other, until Andris finally muttered, “I’m still a monster, Lynn. The only reason why you are able to view me as anything other than a monster is because I’m a completely different person while I’m with you. If you weren’t here, I’d probably have killed a few Shimaren by now.” He frowned ahead at the half-breed. “Their Makers would have been the first to go. I can’t believe Tatsune condones this.”
“We have arrived,” Tsuki announced, seemingly oblivious to the ancient’s threat.
I bit back my reply and turned to the half-breed, who had brought us to a wide set of arching doors. It looked like the entrance to a medieval dungeon, constructed from thick, ebony planks, with red highlights tracing out geometric designs and threatening, wrought-iron hinges holding the doors in place. The hall leading to it felt cramped, painted a flat black with only a few dim gas lamps to light the way.
The argument had distracted us so badly that we didn’t even notice our surroundings.
“Walk behind me,” Andris said, instantly on his guard and stepping out in front.
Tsuki took hold of a chest-level, dragon-shaped knocker and rapped it against the wood.
The sound echoed portentously through the hall and the chamber within, before the doors gave a heavy groan and swung inwards. A moment later, the tiny half-breed admitted us into the chamber and stepped aside with a bow.
It was dark, darker than the fourth blood’s chamber had been, so dark that my eyes strained to see faint rings of candle flame flickering high above our heads, as well as the Coliseum-like seating arrangement that wrapped around the entire perimeter. It was a spacious room, not as large as the original Coliseum, but just as intimidating.
“Why did we come in through this door?” I asked, whispering over Andris’ shoulder.
“This is where they bring prisoners for trial,” he said, his voice flat as he locked down all emotion. “Executions, too.”
“Prisoners?” I couldn’t see the Council, but I knew they were there. Soft murmurs bounced off hard surfaces, growing dull wherever there were people, and coming in clear where the seats were empty.
“Seventy-six,” Andris said thoughtfully, looking around and probably seeing everything as though the sun were shining feet away. “Where are the others?”
“Not everyone trusts that you have changed, Ambri-Qis,” said a disembodied voice from somewhere ahead, in the vicinity of the highest row of seats. As if signaled by this voice, a thousand candles flared to life all around the chamber. They lined every row, as well as the circular wall surrounding us, and illuminated nearly a hundred severe visages clothed in blacks and reds. Some were female, others male—still others were harder to define. Only Tsuki was dressed in pure white, making her stand out like the moon in the night sky.
Andris took in the view with a decidedly irritated frown and said mock-pleasantly, “Nice trick.” Then his tone darkened. “How’s this for comparison, Abednego?” Without warning, he pulled me tight against his side and released his powers.
If the other times had felt like a tidal wave, then this was a pyroclastic flow. The energy flowed as though a volcano had erupted and blasted its slopes outward, faster than sound and more devastating than any landslide could ever be. Its momentum carried it right over the walls surrounding us and straight up the tiered seats, burying the Council in bone-shattering power. Candles sputtered and melted, and the Council’s collective voice rose in protest and fear. Only in Andris’ tiny bubble of icy power did it feel safe, from which I could see the shockwave’s path.
“I don’t like it when weaklings try to tell me what to do,” the Crimson hissed.
“Now!” someone shouted from directly above. As though the sky were falling in on itself, multiple dark objects dropped straight from the shadowed ceiling and landed nimbly.
“Andris!” I caught a glimpse of long, grinning fangs gleaming under the folds of black cloth, and automatically grabbed hold of my new blood partner’s shirt.
“They have pets,” he muttered. He pulled me tighter against him as he raised his other hand to direct the flow of power. Gracefully, he swept his arm out to trace a circle around us, spiraling upwards until his hand was pointed to the ceiling.
The power followed the swift movement, concentrating at the circle’s edge and accumulating at his outstretched fingertips. I could see a vermilion incandescence radiating from the heart of it, shimmering like the heat of a kiln, yet possessed of a brittle, shifting structure not much different from that of ice.
“Don’t move,” he whispered, just as the group leapt at us as a single entity.
I watched in awe as he snapped his fingers, dispersing the energy like a shotgun and striking every last figure. A unified shriek tore through the chamber, echoing from every surface and leaving a harsh ringing in its wake as gushing blood poured from their mouths to immediately cut it off. The scent diffused into the air and I held my breath while I watched nearly two dozen Shimaren collapse to the floor, convulsing as the blood left their bodies through every available orifice—mouth, nose, ears, eyes...
Something wrapped around my ankle and I yelped in surprise, but before Andris could react, my moonstone flashed white like a halogen bulb and called the power out of my blood’s core. Energy washed through me in a refreshing wave—cold and ruthless, yet so very comforting—and attacked the grasping hand.
The hand’s owner managed to scream past the blood as deep lacerations appeared all across his arm, slicing through muscles, bones, and tendons in order to render the limb completely useless. Startled at my automatic reaction, I kicked the arm away and gaped in morbid fascination while the rest of the blood left his body, leaving behind little more than a withered carcass and a dark puddle.
I scanned the chamber floor, taking a body count as the last of the shadows’ signatures sputtered and extinguished. Twenty in all.
Andris had killed twenty Shimaren in one blow, without even touching them.
Shivering, I edged behind him and buried my face between his shoulder blades, feeling his warmth and breathing his sweet scent to remind myself that I loved him. That hadn’t been all of his power. I wasn’t afraid, but still...to think that he could do this without any effort.
“Are you all right, cara mea?” he said gently, turning to draw me into his arms and let us face the Council together. “It seems you are perfectly capable of protecting yourself, as well.”
I looked up, and he was smiling sadly.
“I’m fine...just surprised, is all,” I whispered. “You’re amazing in a scary way.”
“I’ll make it up to you later for dragging you into this,” he promised. “As for the rest of you,” he added loudly, addressing the Shimari Council, “I don’t appreciate the way you are treating Lynn. If you hurt her, I will kill every last one of you and gut your entire empire.”
“This is not a game, Ambri-Qis,” growled a thickly-built Shimare to the right of the one who had first spoken. “You are not a creature we can allow to exist. Your extermination is essential to our continued peace.” He looked like a bull in human skin, and his signature whispered of warrior blood.
Astonishingly, my demon laughed. “Peace? Spare me, Atreus. Your Council is nothing but a decadent figurehead, a club meeting for old, jaded idiots. No one gives a damn anymore about your laws. Even Vrisalte is on the brink of shattering this ‘peace’ you pretend to advocate. At any rate, you’re the most frightfully warmongering bastard I have ever had the displeasure of knowing. Don’t preach to me about peace when you are the one calling for war.”
“Insolent fool!” seethed the slender Shima on his other side, in a voice as sharp as her face. “You have had but a taste of the pain we can bring. You are trapped within this chamber!”
“I’m really not sure what you mean by that. Your little mongrels didn’t even scratch me—or Lynn, for that matter—so nothing about that constituted as pain...except in their case, of course. It probably hurt very much.” He smiled coldly. “Anyway, this isn’t a trap, Asenath. It’s just one more failure to add to your score sheet. I would have ignored the summons, but my Princess here insists that I get this over with now.”
He thought for a moment, then added, “Oh, and are you all really so stupid that you actually thought I wouldn’t know that this was a ‘trap’ of some kind?” He gave the entire Council a baffled, searching frown, as though he honestly couldn’t understand how anyone could be so ignorant.
Further left in the first row, a soft voice spoke out. “Andris, even you must realize that your power is so great that one day you’ll not return to this consciousness. We have lost many brothers and sisters in the hunt for you, but in the process have learned much about your relapses. They grow longer. Wouldn’t it be best to stop you before you became a true demon?”
“It would be best to pretend I don’t exist, Aias,” Andris replied, empty of hostility this time. “Not many know that I am real—both your side and mine help make sure of that. However, I cannot accept execution as a way to die. In fact, I refuse to accept it. If I have to die, then it will be for her sake.” His arms locked around me, pressing us firmly together.
A ripple of murmurs dispersed throughout the chamber, which fell silent when another Shima’s ringing voice rose over the din. She was by far the prettiest of them all, decked out in fine jewels and silks, with her long black hair done up in an elaborate arrangement dotted by precious stones to frame a petite face.
“We have been debating this for some time, Ambri-Qis, but we have yet to come to any definitive conclusion; why is it that you never finished your slaughter of the Ploráverim? Before you stands the Avenari, the culmination of the power which sought to join forces with your enemy and destroy you. By all logic, you should kill her. We all knew that Simone was not nearly powerful enough to fight you.”
“That should be obvious,” he replied simply. “She’s mine now, Idra. We’ve already made a permanent bond.”
I frowned up at him, irritated at his forthrightness…but he smiled back, and I looked away with a sigh. Well, he could get away with it, so whatever. Figuring that this would take a while, I settled back into his embrace and couldn’t help a little smirk. Despite the horror, he was so massively powerful that I didn’t have to worry. It was a relief. He had unlocked a door which would let me enter a completely different level of Shimari society—the VIP realm.
I could have fallen asleep right there, if it weren’t for Idra calling me out.
“Avenari, is this the truth?” she demanded incredulously, a light breeze wafting through the room with her latent aura. “The last of the Nariuvnen is your blood partner? He is not even a Shimare! How can this be?” It surprised me a little that any of them would address me directly; I was so used to the older ones ignoring me.
Andris set his chin back on my head and whispered softly, “Go ahead. They can’t hurt you if I’m here.”
“Uh, right,” I said, slightly dazed at the thought of the entire Council attacking me—and dreading the measures that Andris would have to take to protect me. I looked up at her and said with a shrug, “He’s really a nice guy, once you get to know him.”
“You have known him for barely two days,” Idra replied tersely. “That is not sufficient time to learn his true nature, even less to bond with him for all eternity.”
I shook my head, managing a chuckle. “Actually, when I first saw him, I was lying in a pool of my own blood after he smashed my head in. Then he showed me how he could kill without even touching a Shimare, after stealing my car and turning my familiar into his fledgling, of course. I’m pretty sure I know his bad side.”
“Then why...?” She seemed at a loss, completely nonplussed by my reasoning.
“Because he has a good side, too, and because I understand why he is the way he is,” I answered in all seriousness. “He used to be a monster, but now he’s just trying to be happy, and his blood was fighting him the whole way there. I can control my blood and thirst, so it works out in his favor to bond with me. Besides, he’s adorable when he’s upset.”
“Huh?” Andris gaped at me. “Princess, don’t call me that in front of the enemy!” That was the face I loved, with all of his guards down and his eyes colorful and honest.
I smiled innocently and reached up, grabbing his hair and pulling his lips to mine in a brief, sweet kiss. A moment later, I turned back to the Council while he froze up in confusion. “See? He’s a sweetheart. He has a short temper, but he’s no monster, and I won’t let him become one. May I go now?”
The murmurs had grown louder during the kiss, and when I looked at Idra her scarlet mouth was open in shock. “Impossible,” she whispered.
“Besides,” I added. “Your laws state that punishment shall be exacted so long as the charges are valid. In Andris’ case they’re not valid at all. The only reason why he killed your people is because they attacked first, and as the last remaining descendant of the Plorávero clan I have the power to pardon his actions against my family, which I do.
“His feeding habits are negligible as well, seeing as how you really don’t care about what goes on outside of the Brood Manors unless it threatens the secrecy of our existence. If he killed humans out in broad daylight it would be a different matter, but he doesn’t. Also, since killing him may kill me—we are bonded, after all—my bloodline would never close.”
“What of the regressions?” Abednego, the first to have spoken to us, asked. “When his mind is subdued by blood and thirst, he kills without remorse. It is entertainment to him.”
“Well, then that’s temporary insanity, and it won’t be happening again on my watch. He clearly wasn’t himself when he did those things, so in a way he’s being framed.”
He frowned. “I see. You know our laws well, Lydian Theyer Plorávero, fledgling of Simone and Avenari of the Ploráverim.”
I shrugged, a little thrown by the long epithet. “Simone made sure I learned.” At last, I had something to contribute. It was a good feeling.
“Then he has taught you well.” Abednego turned to Atreus and they conferred briefly. It was obvious that Atreus disagreed with my logic, but the former seemed impressed. I relaxed a little into my demon’s embrace, and he gave me a gentle squeeze.
When they finished, it was Atreus who spoke.
“You make a good case, Avenari. However, we cannot overlook the truth that he is a direct threat to our world. He is a pureblood Nariuvne, capable of killing us as we rest. His power exceeds that of our five strongest Elders, at the very least. Thousands of our people have lost their lives to him.” Atreus grinned, suddenly and viciously, and I felt my heart crawl into my gut. “Regrettably, we cannot allow him to live.”
Andris glared at Abednego, and the Elder lowered his gaze. “I am sorry. You are not a Shimare; our laws cannot protect you.”
“What?!” I cried.
By the time I finished that one word, Atreus had materialized only yards away, radiating power like heat from the sun. He didn’t even give us a warning before lunging in for an attack.
Quicker than I could follow, Andris grabbed me and flickered out of the attacker’s sight, setting me beside the door.
Then both of them disappeared.
The speed at which they moved was phenomenal. My spatial sense reached out to read Atreus, finding that his triggers were earth and fire, and that he was at least five millennia old. If I strained, I could see swift blurs zipping around like frenzied specters. Atreus had some sort of sword, which left explosions of sparks and dust in its wake as my demon dodged every attack.
“Oh, you have to be better than this,” Andris laughed, his voice coming from everywhere at once. “Whatever happened to the battle-hardened warrior you once were? Did the Council make you soft, I wonder?”
“Die, you miserable abomination!” Atreus roared in reply, followed by an explosion of rock and sand at the far end of the chamber floor.
They both reappeared, then. The warrior stood before a crater in the coarse granite wall, covered in dust and debris as he spun a thick, double-edged blade in one hand. Andris was on the opposite side, about twenty feet away and looking as pristine as ever. He had his arms folded, smirking coldly at the Elder as though this were all just an amusing game, rather than a serious threat. The other Council members didn’t seem to care about assisting their comrade, and sat silently, watching with eerie intensity as the two began to circle each other.
“I’ll tear your limbs off and burn you!” the warrior said, his voice thick with power and poison. Underneath his robe, I could hear plates of armor clink as he moved.
“Fire doesn’t do a thing to me, and I can grow my arms and legs back just fine,” the Nariuvne returned, his smirk broadening. “I’m sure you have better methods. Go ahead and try your best. It’s been a while since I last had a worthy opponent.” I wanted to yell at Andris, to make him stop goading the dangerous Elder, but I simply couldn’t find my voice.
“Choke on your insolence!” Atreus growled in hatred, launching another attack.
Without warning, I felt a presence beside me. There wasn’t enough time to even blink as Atreus’ arm coiled around my neck to keep me from running, like a pliable steel girder. My heart faltered in fear when he spoke.
“Give up or I will kill her, Ambri-Qis,” he spat, having already spotted the one flaw in Andris’ plan. His rippling muscles were as cold as the blade pressed against my back, both of which were ready and willing to rend me in half. “She is far more breakable than you are.”
“A-Andris,” I whispered, shaking my head as well as I could. “Don’t.” I could feel the moonstone pulsing against my shirt, protecting me from Atreus’ powers with a shell of cold energy, ready to react to an attack, if necessary.
Andris’ eyes were like drops of ice glittering with the intensity of stars. Devastating power sat at the ready, just behind that frozen, calculating glare. “You realize that if she dies, then the power chain will never be closed, don’t you?” he muttered.
“I am willing to take that risk.”
My demon’s gaze narrowed to slits as fiery red began to bleed in. “So be it.”
I wasn’t sure how exactly it had happened, but I was suddenly free. Just feet away, Andris had the blade in hand, set hard against the Elder’s throat as the he pinned Atreus on his back with both knees.
“Do not threaten those whom I have decided to protect,” the Nariuvne snapped. His power spilled out in a wash of blistering heat, converging on the enemy and making him cry out.
In response, Atreus’ power struck out, and he jerked off the floor and threw Andris backwards. He snatched his blade back in the same instant, and lunged forward just as my blood partner hit the wall. There was a disturbing crunch when steel met flesh, and in horror I realized that Andris had been run through. The blade lodged tightly in the wall, and Atreus let go to step back and admire his handiwork.
Andris stared ahead momentarily, then looked down at his stomach and realized what had happened. “Ugh...dammit, I hate getting stabbed,” he muttered as if it were a mosquito bite.
“Idiot!” I screamed, ignoring my tears and speeding to his side. I stopped short when he held up a hand. “Andris...you’re—you’re bleeding.” There was a crimson puddle forming around his feet, running in thick rivers down his legs and soaking into his clothes. It shivered and moved on its own, gathering deep as though intent on running back up to the wound.
“This can’t possibly kill me,” he laughed, wincing at the pain and lightly touching the hilt pressed tightly to his abdomen. He looked like a pinned butterfly, beautiful and sad. “I’ve been through much worse, Princess.”
“Until now,” Atreus growled, pulling a silvery, intricately wrought dagger from the folds of his robe and pointing it at him. “I captured this little toy from a hunter clan. It should do a good job of finishing you off.”
The smile left my demon’s face, replaced with wary recognition. “No, I’ve seen that before, as well. Not the same one, but not far off, either.” He gripped the sword’s hilt and pulled, grimacing at the pain, but only able to wedge the blade out millimeters at a time. He was bleeding so much that the scent made me lightheaded. “Damn. I need better leverage.”
Atreus stepped forward and struck the pommel with his fist, ramming the sword back into the wall and making Andris gasp. A moment later, one enormous, beefy hand was wrapped around the Nariuvne’s slender wrists, pinning his arms to the wall as the Elder held the dagger to my demon’s throat. It took every ounce of self-control I possessed not to get between them.
Andris glanced down at the blade with a puzzled frown, and then smirked a little.
“Die, abomination!” Atreus growled.
“No,” my demon said with a defiant grin.
I was torn between doing as Andris said and trying to stop this stupidity, and would have ended up jumping into the tussle if it weren’t for the doors suddenly busting open.
“Nani yatten da, temeera?” said a familiar, irritated voice. “Eh? Andris?”
I turned from the enormous Elder, confused but relieved. Quelos stood just a few feet away, frowning at the spectacle and looking rather annoyed.
“Hey, you’d better let him go,” he said, as though the only thing wrong with this scene was the fact that he hadn’t been invited to the party. “Kuso-jiji wants his help for the Tivor thing, and I need the backup.”
“It is the Council’s decision to kill him!” Atreus snapped back, pressing the dagger harder against Andris’ throat. “Elementals have no power over our decisions, and neither does Emperor Tatsune.”
Andris sighed and glanced over to me. Don’t you dare even think that you can get me out of this. It’ll be fine, so stop crying. Please? Look, he’s not even using it properly; it has to go through my heart, remember? He gave me a tender smile, and I stubbornly wiped at my face with a sleeve.
Jerk. You can’t die until you get your wish.
Of course I can’t. I refuse to die until I’ve had both your blood and your body at the same time. I already have your heart, so I’m searching for fringe benefits at this point.
Jerk, I repeated, frowning hard at the blade in his stomach.
Quelos chuckled as if this whole thing were simply an elaborate prank, before all amusement disappeared from his face. He held a hand out at about chest-level, and there was a crackling sound as bright yellow sparks began leaping between his fingers. They intensified until a hissing, snapping ball of lightning sat within his hand.
“See this?” he asked blandly. “I’ve got about a million volts right here. Let go of him or I’ll fry you like karaage.” His golden eyes took on a flickering glow, not unlike his lightning. He wanted the Elder to say no!
“Know your place, Elemental,” Atreus growled in reply. “An attack on me is an attack on the Council itself!”
“Chigeeyo. Not if you’re being an idiot.” He squeezed his fingers around the ball, and it protested with loud screeches and sizzles. “If you don’t let him go...zettee korosuzo.” He grinned, baring pearly fangs in anticipation. “Warui na.”
Electricity in small quantities could do little to hurt a Shimare, but a million volts and Atreus would burst into flame more easily than paper soaked in kerosene. Was he really threatening a Council member with death? Exactly how powerful were the Elementals?
The Elder apparently knew the answer to that question, because with a frustrated growl he put the blade away and released Andris’ wrists.
“You could pull this out, too, you know,” the Nariuvne muttered, indicating the still-protruding hilt. “I won’t object.” In a flash, Atreus’ fist swung around to smash him across the cheek, but without much effort at all, Andris brought a hand up and stopped the blow.
“Next time, Lynn won’t be here to distract me,” whispered my demon, suddenly grabbing the arm and jerking forward to land a punch straight into the middle of the Council member’s surprised face. The blow sent him streaking back against the opposite end of the ring. He crashed into the wall, creating yet another crater and kicking up a cloud of dust and blood. He didn’t get up, and the rest of the Council apparently had no inclination to assist their fallen brother.
On our end, however, Andris’ momentum was so great that he followed his fist, wrenching the hilt through his stomach and out his back with a disturbing, squelchy noise. Groaning, he fell hard to his knees.
“Andris!” I yelped, finally hurrying forward now that Atreus was out of the picture. Quelos stood back, perhaps keeping watch with lightning at hand—but most likely hoping that someone would try him out for size. Andris would be okay, I knew, but at the moment I couldn’t help fussing over him, pressing on the wound in his back and asking how he was feeling.
“Ouch,” was all he said, reaching for my hand and pulling me into his embrace. “Kiss it better, Princess.”
“This isn’t the time!”
Sighing, he rested his head on my shoulder and nuzzled my neck. “You’ll probably yell at me for saying this again, but I truly don’t deserve someone as wonderful as you are to me.”
“Shut up and concentrate on recovering!” I snapped.
“Ah, I’m psychic,” he chuckled.
“I hate to break up your touching moment, but Sakura is waiting to take you back to your rooms,” Quelos interrupted, nodding towards the open doorway. “Fortunately, Andris won’t need medical attention, so I suggest a nap or something. Chotto yasunde hou ga ii ze.”
“I don’t sleep,” the Nariuvne groaned as he forced himself to his feet. Worriedly, I held onto him, wrapping an arm around his waist. Warm blood soaked through my shirt.
“Nani? You don’t sleep? At all? Ever? Uso!” This obviously fascinated the Elemental. Even the lightning ball in his hand sent out sparks of energy in response.
“I don’t know what the hell that means, no, nope, never, and I don’t know what the hell that means, either—respectively.” Andris set his arm across my shoulders and smirked. “I’ll take a bath or something. Lynn will be there, so you don’t need to worry about your new weapon.”
Quelos made a face. “Dou demo ii. Anyway, you’ll make an excellent weapon. Now go and get your ass fixed up, bokke. The sun will rise before you’re ready for your test, so I’ll come for you tomorrow night. In the meantime, I’ve got a Council to tell off.” The prospect of yelling at the Council seemed to make him unreasonably happy.
I shook my head, still unable to figure out his motives, and helped Andris out the door. “Thanks, Quelos,” I called over my shoulder. “We owe you one.”
“You owe me more than that, ojou-chan,” he muttered, casting an odd look our way. “Also, your fledgling has been returned to his quarters. Itterasshai.”
“Stop saying crap we don’t understand!” I repeated for the nth time.
Sakura and Tsuki closed the door behind us. The two half-breeds looked almost exactly the same, though Tsuki had shorter hair and a tinier frame. Had they been chosen for their appearances, or had someone made them to look so similar?
Ivanarke had always been a sort of aspiration for me, but now that I’d arrived, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think about it—even the people were nearly impossible to comprehend. The Emperor, the Elementals, the Shimari Council, half-breeds...it was all so new. New was good, but new was scary, too. I hadn’t expected it to be a playground, but I also hadn’t expected people to suddenly attack us. Simone always seemed so proud of his work. However, seeing it now, I couldn’t help but worry about his involvement in all of this.
I glanced up at Andris. He knew all about it. Contrary to what he had told me, he had been here before, at some point in his eternal life. He knew the Council members by name, knew their personalities and histories. He knew what my family had been dealing in when he’d decided to kill them. Andris was my only link to Ivanarke and my bloodline, the only one who could teach me all the tricks and secrets to prepare me for what lay ahead.
But that could wait for later. At the moment, I just wanted him to heal. Then after the sun rose, and once he was as good as new...
I leaned my head against his shoulder. Well, I did owe him, after all.
He was worth one more frivolous wish.