Avenari - Chapter 24
Thanks to the half-breeds, we made it to my room in about a tenth of the time it would have taken us to find our way on our own. Actually, it probably would have taken longer at Andris’ pace. He left a thick trail of blood the whole way back, but fortunately I was too focused on helping him to get distracted by the scent, and the half-breeds seemed immune to its effects.
He wasn’t dying, and I knew he would heal much more quickly than I could have, but the terror of what had happened with the Council still left a vivid stamp in my mind. I simply couldn’t understand how the ruling body that Simone always spoke so highly of could make such a damning decision. For decades, I had maintained a sense of pride that my Maker was a part of this system, a hope that I might one day have the chance to join those ranks, but now all I felt was disappointment. Sure, the Emperor had accepted Andris freely into Ivanarke, but I was beginning to see that his power over the Council was limited at best.
I decided to have a long talk with Simone once we were done with all of this. We had never really discussed the Shimari Empire’s power structure, but I was tired of being left in the dark. These people didn’t deserve our trust, and I needed to make sure that he understood this.
At last we reached my door, and the half-breeds bowed deeply to Andris and me.
“If there is anything you need, simply call one of us by name,” Sakura said in her usual formal tone, before the both of them turned to leave.
I frowned a little at her. “Actually, I was wondering about something, Sakura. Why did Quelos show up when he did? The timing was a little too perfect.”
She didn’t even turn to face me. “The Lightning Master already had an appointment with the Council. However, I felt it prudent to request that he leave early.”
“So you do have free will?” Andris asked, clearly surprised, though it was partially obscured by the pain of talking at all. I had a hand pressed to the wound to staunch the bleeding as well as I could, but it would probably take a while before his body could catch up to the damage. There were missing pieces he needed to regenerate.
I shuddered, forcing myself not to think about it.
“Of course. We all do. I have found myself attached to you and the Avenari, and thus decided to take appropriate action in order to prevent your imprisonment.” Briefly, Sakura glanced back, her face still blank of emotion. “It would have been a shame to lose you. Anase Quelos is rarely this lively. He will benefit from your presence. Now, if you will excuse us.”
We stared after them until they turned the corner at the end of the hall.
“She’s kind of bizarre,” I chuckled. “Though not as bizarre as you are, Andy.”
“Stop calling me that.” He gritted his fangs against pain and reached for the doorknob.
To our surprise, it turned itself before he even touched it, and the door swung open wide.
“Man, you guys are really hard to—what in God’s name happened to you?!” Nick stood in the opening, looking both horrified and intrigued all at once. Wearing an expression of utter mental derailment, he leaned down and looked at the wound in Andris’ stomach, then went paper white. “Shit...I can see your guts...and the painting on the wall behind you. Hey, what would happen if something got stuck in there, like a paperweight or a stapler or something? And who did this to you? You’re supposed to be so badass and all!”
With more effort that I would have thought him capable of after such a critical injury, Andris’ hand flew up and grabbed Nick by the hair, turning aside as he yanked him out into the hall and pulled me into the room. “I will not be your laboratory specimen!” he snapped, slamming the door in the kid’s face and locking it with a thought.
“Son of a bitch! I’ll kick your ass any day of the week!” our fledgling shouted loudly enough to carry through the dense oak. He pounded on the door. “You hear me, asshole?! Some Maker you are!”
“Try as you might, you couldn’t even do this much to me!” the ancient retorted, turning on his heel and heading for the bath, though some of the effect was lost in his limp.
I hesitated, undecided as to whether I should go pacify Nick first or tend to my injured blood partner. However, my mind made itself up immediately when Andris wavered, stopping to rest against the shoji door. “Princess, I’ll need your help, I think,” he said, wincing in pain.
“Sorry, Nick! We’ll talk after I fix Andris up, okay?” I called through the door.
Nick’s response was faint, but still audible. “Whatever. I’ll be in my room.”
The kid’s signature faded from the immediate vicinity, and with a weary sigh I let Andris lean on me to help him into the bathroom. “You didn’t have to be so cruel,” I said, frowning.
“I can’t stand being looked at like that,” he muttered darkly, stopping at the shower and resting against the wall. “It reminds me of the hunters. If I’m curious, I’ve got my own connections...and who the hell would put a stapler inside a man?”
I flinched a little, too concerned about his condition to really argue. I decided that it could wait. “I’m sorry. I guess we should get you out of these clothes, first. We’ll find something else for you later. Too bad about this shirt, though. It looks good on you.”
He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. The coat is all I care about.”
“You really like that thing, don’t you?” I asked, undoing the remaining buttons around the hole and trying not to think too hard on the fact that I could see pale pink entrails and pools of red-black blood where there once had been smooth, pearly white skin. My body shuddered involuntarily, but I made every effort to hide it from him.
“I like leather. I’ve worn it for millennia, and it’s damn hard to find a nice leather coat.” His voice took on a distant quality as he spoke.
I paused to look up at him, but he wasn’t all there—lost in some other place, some other era. “I’ll need you to get away from the wall for a second,” I said gently, pulling him forward to slide the black silk down his smooth shoulders then toss the ruined shirt to the side.
I couldn’t bring myself to study the jagged hole, and quickly moved on. It hurt to see his beauty marred by something so awful. Sure, it would heal...but the image alone was enough to break my heart.
“Wait, don’t,” he said suddenly, returning to the present and staring at my hands as they paused above his waistband.
“What? You can’t go in with pants. It’ll be uncomfortable if they shrink.”
“I understand that, but...” He seemed embarrassed all of a sudden, his eyes a little wider than usual, with pale pink irises. His skin didn’t blush, but his eyes did?
Somehow, I found that simply adorable.
“But...what?” I asked, carefully hiding my amusement.
He grimaced and replied hesitantly, “I’m not wearing anything else underneath.” He finally looked at me, and suddenly I was giggling, unable to hold it in any longer. “What’s so funny?!” he demanded, his irises turning a shade darker.
I shook my head, fighting a grin. “Nothing. It’s just that this is the first time I’ve seen you so embarrassed. You don’t have to be shy, especially since you’re so adamant about the wish. Besides, it’s nothing I haven’t already seen. Think of me as some jaded granny.”
“Princess, it has been millennia since a woman last saw me nude,” he grumbled. “You haven’t seen me, and that’s enough to make me hesitate. Don’t belittle it.”
“Why? You afraid I’ll laugh?”
“You’re already laughing.”
Carefully, I took hold of the button and tugged it open. “I’m not mocking, and neither do I plan on mocking you, demon,” I said, reminding myself that this was no time for playing.
I pressed a hand to the faint, silver scar above his heart, looking up into his eyes. “You’re my blood partner now. We’re practically married, and yet I barely know you. I often make irrational decisions, and plenty of mistakes, but you’re neither. The last thing I want is for you to feel uncomfortable around me, so please let me take care of you.”
“Lynn…” He leaned back to rest his head against the wall, taking care not to disturb the hole in his back as he closed his eyes with a pained sigh. “It hurts. You have no idea how much it hurts. I’m so weak that I can’t even undress myself. My pride is in agony right now, not to mention my body. Atreus shouldn’t have been able to hurt me. Dammit, I’m utterly pathetic.”
This time he didn’t even try to stop me as I slid the jeans down his legs in one careful motion. “You’ll feel better once we get you into the…bath…”
He lifted his head to frown at me, before following my gaze. “You promised,” he said in disappointment.
“That’s not it.” I shook my head insistently. “Why did you think I would laugh? You’re…beautiful.” I blinked, forcing my eyes away. “I mean...er, no hair? Is that natural?”
“You’re blushing,” he observed, chuckling softly to himself, but wincing when all the wrong muscles moved. “Ugh, but even I don’t think I’ll be of any use until around noon. A good twelve hours should do the trick, as long as that rib sets properly the first time.”
My brain chose that moment to get its priorities back in order. “I’m sorry. Come on, I’ll help you in. A shower might hurt too much, so we’ll skip that.” Ignoring the fact that he was naked, I took hold of his arm and let him lean on me as we walked the few feet to the bath. Not for the first time, I thanked my good fortune that human hormonal urges were no longer an issue. I could focus much more easily now than I would have been able to in my mortal years.
With utmost care I helped him sit at the edge, at which point he was able to lower himself gradually into the water. Instantly, the blood dissolved in the hot bath, diffusing his deliciously sweet scent into the gently rising steam.
“Ohhh, I needed this,” he groaned, gripping the edge and pressing his cheek to the cold stone. “You are my angel, cara mea. You will save me from myself.”
I smiled and knelt down to take his face in my hands and kiss him sweetly. “I want to go check on Nick, but I’ll be right back,” I said quietly against his lips.
He frowned, taking hold of my wrist. “Stay with me.”
For once, there were no walls keeping me out of his mind. It was all right there, on his face: pain, loneliness, even fear—as well as desperation so obvious that it sent a proverbial stake through my heart and twisted it hard. We were blood partners now. He had so much more power over me than before.
“Okay,” I whispered, unable to deny him.
He let me go and gripped the edge again, resting his chin on his knuckles. “Would you...come in here with me? Please? I—I’d like it if you were with me.”
I didn’t even think about it. “Of course.” I couldn’t refuse. Every drop of blood beneath my skin screamed at me, ordering me not to leave him alone. Even though I’d had a general idea of a blood bond’s power, nothing could have prepared me for the real thing.
After folding his pants, throwing out the shirt, and setting a couple of towels at the water’s edge, I stripped to my skin and slipped into the hot water for the second time that day. “I’ll help you over to the rocks in the middle so you can sit down...Andris?”
He hadn’t moved an inch from his spot, and stared at me as though I were dinner.
“Hey, you all right?” I asked, moving to his side and touching my fingertips against his cheek. “Are you tired? Hungry?”
“Princess, this is the sweetest torture I’ve ever known,” he groaned, closing his eyes and laughing airily. “I need to hurry up and heal.”
I smirked and rested my hand at his elbow. “You certainly have a one-track mind. Let’s go, demon. I’m sure you’ll survive until you’re all better. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”
He frowned at the water’s rippling surface as I helped him across to the rocks. “I know that, but you’re right here, and I’m right here, and we’re both naked, and neither of us is capable of enjoying that fact right now...”
We picked one of the submerged ledges and sat down. The hot, enriched water would hopefully ease some of the pain and help speed the healing process, but I couldn’t help but smile at his so-called torture. “The longer you wait, the better it will be when you get what you want.”
He stared at me for a long moment, before leaning down and pressing his forehead to my temple. “Ye gods, I’ve never felt like this before. You’ve slain me, Princess, rendered me completely helpless. How do you tame me so easily with such simple words?”
“Because you know I’m right.” I smiled and reached around him, adjusting both of us so that he was sitting back against my breasts and his arms rested on my knees. “Besides,” I added, nuzzling the softness of his ebony hair and taking in his sweet, pacifying scent, “I’m willing to do anything for your sake. I’ve given you everything, and no power in this world can take that from you. We’ve been slated for each other since you made the decision to kill my family.”
“That is a cruel kind of fate. I thought you didn’t believe that anything had the ability to dictate your future.” His voice carried an ironic lilt to it, which made me sigh.
“Not fate. It wasn’t fate, but your decisions determined the outcome. Your attack on my clan caused my mother to run away, which led to my birth. Her death led to you discovering me. If Simone had come any later, you would have taken me. You could have taken me then, but you held back and let me have a life. My life would be so different if you had entered it while I was still young. I probably would have hated you for killing my mother and my family. Or maybe I would have found out later, after you swept me away—and then what? I hate what ifs. They’re like poison, eating at you until you can’t trust your own thoughts.
“I prefer to believe in the present, the things I can see and touch for myself. Taste, smell, hearing... a single what if can do so much damage. I fell into that hole when Mom and Dad died, but Simone saved me. That’s why I said yes when he asked if I wanted to become a vampire.”
I watched the water darken around his waist and fought off the urge to coddle him. He was over seven millennia old, for crying out loud! He’d been through much worse, yet looked as though he’d never been injured in his life. Not a scar would remain of this wound—not a scar could remain to mar his beauty, and the ones he already had only made me eager to know more.
The bleeding hadn’t stopped, but he seemed to have plenty left. Would his thirst hold up? My blood said yes, but his dark side was still an unknown element to me.
That was the only remaining what if …
Ugh, stupid brain.
As if sensing my thoughts—entirely possible—Andris’ hand slid from my knee and up my thigh, a gentle caress which carried enough meaning to dispel my worries. “I love you,” he whispered. “I do. I’ll never abandon you to this world, the way you’ve been abandoned before. I took away your universe, so I can only hope that I am enough to make up for it.”
My arms tightened around his chest as I leaned over his shoulder and kissed his neck. “More than enough.”
Glancing at me from the corner of one emerald eye, he sighed, “I wish I could fall asleep like this. I think it would be very peaceful.”
“You don’t have to sleep,” I said, leaning my temple against his and closing my eyes. “Just rest and get better. We’re not done here. I still have to make the amulet, get the dirt on Nick’s meeting with the Elementals, take care of Tivor, and make it so that you can have both my blood and my body.”
“I hope I’m not really last on your list,” he said in mock-annoyance.
That made me smile. “Nope, you’re definitely number one. Anyway, even though I can’t want you physically at the moment, the thought of getting that part of my life back is still a little bit exciting, so hurry up already. Get well now.”
He stifled a laugh to avoid disturbing the injury. “As you desire, my mistress.”
The hot water was so marvelous, but the weight of Andris’ body pressed to mine made it simply divine. I closed my eyes and sighed in contentment. All my fears subsided in his presence, and even my blood felt exhausted in their wake.
* o * o *
Normal sleep did wonders for my tired mind.
Dreams floated through, pertaining to nothing in particular. They were just fragmented thoughts and ideas to act as my mental pillow, catching me and making sure that I didn’t slip unwittingly into rigor mortis.
But there were things which hid in the back of everyone’s head; things most people shut away in order to move on and live normally. Though the hole remained—gaping, raw, and painful—it hid behind drapes of clever shadow.
I saw my home again, distant and dark while the rain fell in thick drops all around me. I stood in my backyard, heard the stomping of hooves. I knew what waited at the other end.
I ran into the darkened woods, past saplings and ancient oaks, losing the trail almost immediately. I didn’t know my destination, but I knew that I didn’t want to go back. Above me, the bitter rain relented and the clouds began to break, allowing shafts of warm sunlight through the branches.
I saw a clearing ahead. Someone in black stood over a blue figure lying on the ground.
Nervously, I hid behind a tree just outside the clearing and almost cried out.
There was my mother, dying.
“Don’t hurt my…daughter…” she whispered as the life faded from her eyes.
A deafening silence filled my ears, so complete that I could hear my heart as it hammered away in my chest. Andris turned away and took a few steps nearer to the edge of the clearing, towards a rifle and an unconscious old man hidden in the shadows. Were these his memories? Had he given them to me as we made the bond?
Mom wore the same dress I remembered them burying her in, though it wasn’t the one she had been wearing when she died. It was the blue, flower-embroidered sundress she wore outside when it was sunny—her nicest. I could hear the tune she used to hum, playing over and over in my head until it was an eerie, empty echo in my brain. She looked so peaceful...
I looked up at her killer, my new love, and winced when I noticed him staring at me. He took a step towards me and I cautiously left the supposed safety of the trees.
“Andris?” I said in a hush, glancing down at my mother’s body.
“I—I’m sorry,” he whispered. He was trembling.
Suddenly, he gave a violent shudder and gasped, then slipped to the ground and lay there motionless. The way he fell, so smooth and graceful...it was perverse.
“Andris!” I rushed to his side. My senses told me what I didn’t want to hear, that he was dead, but I wouldn’t believe it. He had to be alive. He was my mother’s murderer, yes, but he was also my gentle demon, my one doorway to a new life. Mom had forgiven him. Wasn’t he supposed to make up for all the pain he had caused me? What about all those promises?
He lay still, as perfect as fresh-fallen snow, and behind me was my mother’s body, peaceful even in death. Death wasn’t supposed to be beautiful like this. This was horrible!
I couldn’t do anything to stop it. All I could do was cry, and as I did I saw that my tears were clear. No blood tainted them...
“He deserved it,” a cold, familiar voice muttered above me.
It felt like looking into a mirror. Standing before me was the vampiress I had become, and around her neck hung a silver chain with a large, dark stone at the end. An amulet.
“What?” I asked my doppelganger in a hoarse whisper.
“He deserved to die. He took our mother’s life, and the lives of everybody we might be able to relate to in this world. Because of that monster we have no family.”
“Who killed him?!” I demanded.
“I did. I could, and I did, and so shall you—if you know what’s good for you.”
“But why?” I stood up, clenching my frail fists and gritting my human teeth. “What are you trying to tell me with this dream?!”
She frowned, faltering at last in her confidence.
* o * o *
I was suffocating, desperate for the air of reality, reaching for the nearest anchor to pull my mind out of the darkness.
My hand immediately groped out, searching for evidence that this was the real world. Water engulfed me. Were there monsters in its depths...?
“Princess, are you okay?” Something pressed to my hand, and I paused.
“Andris?” I whispered, my vision clearing as the last wisps of the dream faded. Suddenly, I was crying, reaching up, pulling him into my arms. This skin, this hair, this scent—all of it belonged to him, my demon, my love. “Don’t die...don’t ever die, understand?” I begged against his hair, cherishing every strand for its softness.
Strong, gentle arms wrapped around my waist as he tilted his head up and pressed his lips against my throat. “Cara mea, what vision did you see to make you so upset?” he murmured, binding me with a voice like velvet shackles. It put me at ease in an instant, and the crying subsided enough for me to speak more or less rationally.
“I killed you,” I croaked, my voice desolate and afraid. “There were two of me, and I saw Mom die, but you were sad about it, and then the other me killed you...”
He sat up a little and brought his forehead to mine while I stared into the fathomless, shadowed world just beyond his gaze. His eyes were black again, but I could see the phantoms of color just beneath, flickering like shapes beyond a tinted window. “You will never hurt me,” he said, his resolution unshakable. “I will never hurt you, never leave you. I am yours forever, and nothing will ever change that. I am here for you, for eternity.”
I watched his eyes for a long moment, lost in their sincere love. My ruby tears fell for different reasons now. “The sun...and your wound...?”
“The sun rose an hour ago, and I’ve stopped bleeding,” he replied, “but it still looks bad and hurts rather substantially. Normally, I would just force it to heal, but regenerating missing flesh takes a lot longer than knitting bones and muscle.” I could see his smile, but I could feel it too—in my blood and against my skin. So this was what it meant to bond blood. He was a part of me now, wrought so tightly with my own being that I would always feel his presence.
“I don’t want to wait anymore.” Carefully, I reached up for a handful of his hair and brought his lips tightly against mine in a deep, insatiable kiss. I wanted him in every way I could have him. His words, his skin, his blood, his heart—I wanted all of him for myself.
Princess, you’re torturing me, groaned his silent voice. I can’t do anything as I am. Make your wish after I’ve healed.
I want to want you, I said urgently, gripping his hair with my other hand now and letting his warmth inundate me, hotter than even the bath water. No one else made my blood writhe in sweet ecstasy like this. His taste made my heart ache and my mind whirl, caught up in obsession and hunger. I’m scared that something might happen to you, that I won’t be able to give you this.
Don’t be silly. I’m not going anywhere. Delicately, he took hold of my shoulders and pushed me back with a strained smile, freeing himself to speak. “Cara mea, I understand that you’re worried, but you don’t have to be,” he assured me. “Today, before sunset, you will get what you want. I will kill a thousand of Tatsune’s dogs before I allow anything to keep us from that. However, you must wait so that we can enjoy it properly.”
…He was right, and I was a hasty idiot.
Sighing, I hung my head and leaned forward to press it against his shoulder. “Promise?”
“I swear on everything I am.”
“I guess it can’t be helped,” I muttered, locking my arms around his neck to bring him back to me. “I can still kiss you though, right?”
He gave a mildly surprised laugh. “This is the first time you’ve tried to seduce me. It’s a pity that I can’t just ravish you right here.”
“I don’t mind. I’ll wish right now, if you want.”
He shook his head, still smiling, but giving off a sober air. “Please be patient. This will be my first time in far too long, and I will not allow an injury to dampen my fun. My pride would bleed more than my body ever could if I ended up disappointing you.”
I frowned and dropped my arms obediently, looking away as I brought my legs up to hug my knees. “Fine. Sorry.”
Sighing, he reached for my hand. “That doesn’t mean you can’t touch me. The stone is passable, but you are still as soft as a mortal. You might think the balance is off because you’re a fledgling, but there are things about fledglings that are more appealing than ancients.”
“I happen to love ancients—well, one in particular.”
“How fortunate for this old vampire among vampires,” he chuckled.
I drew him against me once more and held him tightly. This time, I wouldn’t sleep. Who knew what horrors awaited behind that veil?
“Andris?” I ran my fingertips through his soft hair, hooking my free arm around his neck.
“Yes, cara mea?”
“You were lying to me before, weren’t you?”
He hesitated. “About what?”
“Well, you said that you had never been here, but you still knew all those Council members by name, as though you once interacted with them on a regular basis.” I cast a shrewd glance at his expression, wondering if he would shut down.
On the contrary, he let out an uncertain laugh, like a kid caught in the act of stealing cookies. “Well, yes, I lied,” he said. “I’ve been here twice, actually. The first time was nearly five millennia ago. I could sense the barrier—I shouldn’t have been able to, but it hadn’t been tuned to avoid my senses so I knew that something was there.
“I waited at the entrance for almost a month, wondering when someone would come out and explain it to me, and fortunately the wait paid off. An envoy was leaving for the west, intent on making preparations to build the manor that is giving them so much trouble today. Shimaren knew the world much better than the mortals back then.
“That envoy was Asenath, the angry one who sat beside Atreus last night. At that time, she was less than a hundred years old. She knew that I was different, so she brought me in and had me meet with the Emperor—not Tatsune, though. He didn’t take over until after Rome fell.
“Anyway, I stayed awhile, letting them learn about me in exchange for knowledge about their highly organized world. I had grown accustomed to living alone and seeing only mortal empires, but the Shimaren had created a hidden society as vast as the world, all under Ivanarke’s rule. It was so different from the scattered, disorganized hunter clans, and for once I felt like I might be welcomed somewhere.
“They taught me how to use whatever powers I had that were similar to theirs, including my triggers and spatial sense. In exchange, I told them everything that was different about me: my immunity to sunlight and fire, my ability to regenerate, the changes I went through when the sun rose...and the fact that I only gained strength from Shimari blood.
“That last made them wary. They thought it absurd that anything existed in their self-made universe which held a position higher than theirs on the food chain. However, they also realized that I was the one who had been killing the people they had sent to investigate stories of a greater monster. As a result, I was studied, taught, and then released. They didn’t want me around to put their fledglings at risk, and I understood their feelings on the matter, so I left without argument. It stung to be turned away, but I was much more reasonable back then.”
“Fledglings aren’t usually allowed here,” I pointed out.
He laughed and nuzzled my cheek, licking a bead of water from my skin and making me squirm. “Princess, the Shimaren were still fairly new to the world, and their system still held human values. They wanted families and created them accordingly. Had I known that it could be done, I might have brought friends with me when I changed.”
I frowned, wishing that I had been there for him. “I’m sorry you were alone.”
“I have you now, and it was worth the wait,” he replied sweetly. “Anyway, I have never seen another Nariuvne. There are ancient legends from around my time, but no witnesses to corroborate the stories, so I can’t be absolutely positive that there even were others like myself. For whatever reason, I was born this way, and I’m almost certainly alone on my summit.”
“Not anymore,” I said stubbornly, tugging his hair in irritation. “Accept it.”
“I do, Princess. With gratitude and awe, I accept it,” he murmured.
My heart faltered, but with dogged determination I pressed for more details. “Anyway, if that was your first time in Ivanarke, what happened the second time?”
He fell into musing, and then said after a bit, “Three millennia later, I met Simone.”
He nodded. “We met in Rome, the center of the world at that time. He was getting ready to leave for Ivanarke after taking care of some trivial thing for the Lord in Vrisalte. Like Asenath, he knew that I wasn’t a normal Shimare, and asked me to come with him. I can only assume that he hadn’t known about my previous encounter with Ivanarke.
“In my time away, I had come to better understand exactly how much I differed from the Shimaren. My powers grew much more quickly, and my physical appearance changed as well. My black hair was beginning to turn white during the day, and my eyes had become more colorful, so I spent almost all of my time among them with my emotions hidden.
“A massive gap was forming in age, as well. I think I might have been the oldest active ancient at that time. However, Simone was convinced that I had potential, so he asked on my behalf that they give me a seat on the Council—the Hanarisar, to be more precise. There are eight seats on the Hanarisar, and they act as the wise men in the hierarchy. I was older than all of them, and more powerful than everyone combined, so to the Shimaren it made sense.”
“They would rather have had you as an ally than an enemy, right?” I asked, beginning to see where this was going. “They wanted to use you.”
He nodded, his expression morose. “They gave me the seat, on the condition that I only fed on Shimaren who were sentenced to death. I was their executioner. At first I didn’t mind—it saved me the trouble of hunting my own prey, but after a while I started to regret the decision.
“Their methods bothered me, the fact that they spent all of their time in safety while they sent younger Shimaren to fight their battles for them. These Shimaren had no choice, either. They had been created for that exact purpose, much like what Tivor is doing right now.
“The last straw, however, was when Simone’s fledgling was set free.”
“Wait, what? Simone had a fledgling before me?”
“Yes.” He looked at me, searching my eyes. “Simone never told you?”
I shook my head, stunned. “Never. I always thought that I was his first.”
“If it’s any consolation, his first choice was an utter failure. This one was a disaster on legs, hunting in plain sight and leaving kills all over the place in low-population areas. During his trial, he pleaded that his thirst was too strong, that he couldn’t control it, and the Council let him go. By that time, they had developed an imperious attitude towards the weaker race, so crimes against mortals were considered lesser charges, even if the victims were children. Simone didn’t agree with this, but he wanted to protect his fledgling so he never did anything about it.
“However, I knew that everything the fledgling had said was a lie. He enjoyed killing, and when he began killing children, I decided to step in and remove him from the picture.
“It was a quick, easy death, nothing as bad as what he had been doing, but the Council threw the proverbial book at me for getting personally involved, and Simone resented me because of it. There was no leeway in my case.
“Council members who betray the laws are immediately eliminated, and overnight I became their prisoner. They didn’t know how to kill me, so they had me restrained and put in solitary confinement.”
“How did you get away?”
He smirked, leaning his head against mine, and chuckled, “They can’t hold me, Princess. Not now, and not then. My powers were so far advanced compared to theirs that I had no trouble breaking my binds and destroying those who got in my way. I fed. I killed.
“I was so angry at all of them that I decimated the Council itself before leaving the barrier forest and making my way back to the outside world.” He sighed, tilting his head back to my shoulder and turning to my throat. “They’ve been after my head ever since. It’s no surprise that they went this far to hurt me. I’m like an ink stain on their spotless record.”
“It’s my fault that you got hurt, then,” I groaned. “Not only did I make you come here, I forced you to meet with the people who tried to kill you. I’m sorry I’m an idiot.”
“Don’t blame yourself,” he said gently. “I certainly don’t blame you. Besides, it was actually a little bit exciting. Atreus is number six in the power ranks, so a battle against him is always exciting. He’s gotten better, too!”
He grinned and I pursed my lips. “You certainly seem happy about getting stabbed.”
The grin turned into a grimace. “Now, now. I never said that. I should have been more careful. A clean stab wound heals in an hour or so, but pulling the whole hilt through? Ye gods, that was a stupid move.”
“At least you took him out before he killed you.”
“You underestimate me, Princess. He could have hacked me to pieces, and I would have lived. Of course, the pain would be unimaginable, and it would take weeks or months to heal, but something like that would never kill me.”
“How would you know?” I said, disturbed at the thought of him being cut apart like that.
He didn’t answer right away, but in the end replied, “My blood doesn’t crystallize when exposed to air. Instead, when I’m seriously injured, it returns to my flesh, binding it together and reassembling my body. Surely you’ve seen it moving on its own.”
“Huh?” No other response seemed adequate. So that was what his blood was doing?
His eyes narrowed at me in curiosity. “My, that’s a fascinating expression. That aside, you don’t need to be so surprised. I’m not a Shimare, remember? It’s only natural that my limits are a little different.”
“I don’t think ‘a little different’ quite describes your situation,” I managed. “What if someone buried the pieces in separate locations across the world?”
He raised a hand, holding up one finger. “There are two possibilities. One, my blood overrides my powers and uses them to gather the pieces by force.” He stuck out his thumb. “Or two, the largest piece of my brain will reconstruct a whole new body, exactly the same as the original, and allow the other pieces to disintegrate like a normal corpse.”
“Tried it?” He sighed, smiling in exasperation. “Well, that’s a little difficult to carry out without assistance, but I’ve done a few experiments. I’ve tried hundreds of methods to end my life, but my blood won’t let me die. I’ve even jumped into the mouth of a volcano, but all I lost were my clothes. My triggers did that one—all without my permission. I sat there for three days! Honestly, what does a man have to do to die?”
Before I knew what I was doing, I yanked his hair and shoved my knee against his healing exit wound, forcing a yelp of pain out of him, as well as a long string of unutterable curses—in several dead languages. So…he knew Sumerian?
In retrospect, it was probably a cruel idea, but at the time I couldn’t stop myself.
“Oh, you wanna die that badly, eh, pretty-boy? Well guess what? You’re mine now, so don’t you go around trying to off yourself, capiche? Sweet sanity, Andris, death isn’t worth all that work! Why not just live for the sake of finding your niche?”
“Augh! I’ve found it! I’ve found it! Please stop!” he cried out.
I stopped and pulled him back into my arms, kissing the back of his neck. “Sorry.”
“Sorry?” he panted, gripping my knees as the pain faded. “Lynn, that was just mean.”
“Serves you right,” I muttered. “If you had died back then, I wouldn’t have you today. I would have lived a happy oblivious life with my parents, then married Ivan, then had kids and eventually died at the ripe old age of dementia.” Disgruntled, I buried my face against his wondrous hair, breathing his scent and feeling his presence. I couldn’t imagine a life where I would never hold him in my arms even once. It would be like dying and finding that there was no such thing as heaven.
He was mine and I would never give him up. If he wanted to die so badly, then I would just have to give him a reason to live. It was that simple.
“Princess,” he said, his tone laced with the barest taste of amusement, “it isn’t as though I want to die anymore. I haven’t even made love to you yet. I would at least like to do that before I die…and even then, just once won’t satisfy me. Maybe after a million times.”
I huddled against his back, shamelessly coveting every inch of his skin. “I know…I know, but I just dreamed that I killed you. Maybe it was a sick Freudian slip, or maybe Murphy’s trying to speak beyond the grave and scare me…but I killed you in there. I can’t lose you so quickly. I can’t lose you, ever.”
“Then you won’t. Believe that you won’t, and don’t ever let me lose you, either.” Carefully, he pulled away and turned around, drawing me into his arms and holding me tightly.
I reached up to touch his cheek, “I would never allow that.”
“I love you, Lynn,” he whispered, his expression darkening as he stared into my eyes. I could hear his heart rate increase, sense his human needs overcome the blood’s call. “I want you—all of you, not just your blood. With you, I feel like I’ve finally found a home.”
“Your home will always be at my side,” was my soft reply. “Heal, demon, and then I’ll make that wish for you.”
He sighed happily and rested his head on my shoulder. “You’re too sweet to me. I’m going to pleasure you senseless.”
I laughed. “We’ll see who does the pleasuring around here.”
“Oh, really? It’s a challenge, then.”
He sounded far too serious, and I couldn’t help an exasperated grin. “Challenge accepted, demon.”