Liria shuddered between Cyranti’s legs. The horse’s gait lengthened into a thundering gallop. The wind whipped through Cyranti’s hair, washing it back from her face. She was free. It was odd for her father to allow her to go anywhere without supervision, but she would be protected. Morough would be there, as would his wife and son. A part of elf history would be unearthed for all.
Yorin will be proud of you, Princess, Liria said softly. You are doing what he is too busy to accomplish himself.
He is always proud of me, but yes, Cyranti sighed. Hope and excitement had her heart beating faster. It almost out-beat Liria’s hooves. Father… I wish he could be there. This is bigger than our realm.
It will be—Ah!
Liria’s gait faltered. She went down hard, tumbling to the earth. Cyranti was just barely able to jump from the saddle in time to miss being crushed under her horse’s weight.
Liria! She cried for her soul-mount. The horse, her best friend, twitched where she came to rest. Sharp pains seared Cyranti’s neck. Liria!
My… My Lady… Liria’s mind-voice came weak and rough. My… Lady…
Cyranti hurt everywhere. Her neck burned hotter than fire. She had rolled several feet on the ground. She struggled to get up. Her legs wouldn’t work. On her hands and knees, she crawled to Liria and stroked her mane away from her long face. Liria…
A blade stuck out from her neck. Blood flowed. Cyranti went to remove it, but that might kill her horse. It might… Liria’s breaths were shallow. She shivered.
I’m sorry… Liria murmured. So… sorry…
Liria’s breathing faltered and with one last wheeze, stopped altogether. Cyranti jolted. Her chest caught fire with soul-searing heat, and then it was gone. She was left dazed. The electric spark she’d endured when she bonded with her mount was gone. It was gone. There was nothing left.
“Liria…” She whimpered and stroked her mount's face. “Liria, no.”
With a shaking hand, Cyranti removed the offending blade from her dead mount’s neck. The tip was blackened with a rancid gel that made her nostrils burn. Even the scent of the blood didn’t dampen the stench.
“You are more agile than I had anticipated,” a male voice said from her right.
Cyranti gripped the end of the throwing blade in her fingers. With a flick of her wrist, she sent it flying toward the voice. The cloaked elf dodged it easily with a throaty laugh.
“Why?” she demanded. “WHY?”
“The dead need no answers,” he murmured.
Fear shot through her. Scrambling to stand, Cyranti stumbled a few feet. Pain seared her back and spread. It wasn’t a knife. Cyranti knew the burn of magic. It knocked her flat. She rolled over and arched her back. Agony surged through her from that spot, drawing a low cry from her.
The cloaked man stood over her then. Silver eyes glinted in the low light. His pupils were wide from the dim of the Twilight. The flash of metal caught her attention. He flicked another throwing blade and caught it. This one wasn’t coated in poison. The shine of the metal streaked from end to tip in a fluid, unbroken line.
She tried to crawl away. Her hands and feet slipped in the dewy grass. He followed her easily. Straddling her waist, he grinned down at her and pressed his booted foot into her abdomen. He twisted his foot painfully into her gut.
Cyranti struggled against him. She couldn’t breathe. Her fists were useless as they beat against his ankle and calf. He laughed at her as he stooped to get a closer look. His hands caught her wrists as she aimed punches to his face. It was like he knew her every move before she thought of making them.
“Feisty little girl,” he rumbled. “You should fight harder.”
“What do you want?” she screeched. “What?”
“I want you to be angry.” He chuckled and dug his heel into her stomach. “I want you to be terrified.”
It hurt to breathe. Her lungs couldn’t expand under the weight of his foot. Cyranti tried to scream in pain, but he put more weight on her. It shoved all the air from her lungs in a single wheezed groan.
“I can’t have you leaving here, Princess,” he murmured. “That would be unwise for me. To suffocate you as I am, or to slit your throat? I could always use your blood. Horse blood lacks a certain appeal for my use.”
Cyranti’s already bulged eyes widened. He was a blood mage? There were no blood magi. They all died or gave up the practice. She struggled harder, but he was like stone. He rode her thrashes easily. Cyranti’s heart pounded in her chest like a blacksmith’s hammer to an anvil. The flow of her blood roared in her ears, blocking out his voice.
The moment he released her wrists, heat seared her neck. A jolt of what felt like lightning zipped from the heat upward to her head and down through her shoulder. Waves of hot liquid coated her. Her eyes closed. The weight lifted. She opened her eyes, and the man was gone.
Cyranti blinked, and another face hovered before her. He hissed. His canines elongated with the sound. He placed his hand over the wound on her neck and looked around. His eyes were dark. They lit up with night shine when he looked at her.
He was a predator, not a hunter. She was his prey. He didn’t attack, though. He trembled violently and lifted his head. He yelled something she couldn’t make out. Was he saving her for something else? Was he going to keep her alive to kill her later?
He looked into Cyranti’s dazed eyes. “Remain, girl,” he murmured, his accent thick, even in the human language. “Remain with me.”
“Fangs…” she rasped. “You’re—”
“A vampir, yes,” he whispered. “Remain. Remain with me. Be still.”
She closed her eyes and tried to relax. Everything hurt. Everything burned. It was all starting to go numb. With every beat of her heart, she felt the heat in her neck ebb. The vampire hissed again.
“You bleed out too quickly,” he said. Looking up, he yelled again in another language. Another glance down, and his handsome face grew pained. “Try… I must try.”
“Try,” Cyranti whispered.
His brows furrowed until there were deep wrinkles between them. His fangs resembled needles as he used them to slash two deep gouges into his own wrist. Angling his hand down, he let the blood flow to his fingertips and painted it across her forehead in symbols and marks. He did the same to the naked part of her chest. When he was finished, he pressed his wrist to her lips hard until she was forced to open her mouth from pain.
When she tried to thrash her head, he dug his fingers into her neck until she squealed. Magic flared from his hand, and everywhere he painted her with his blood lit up brightly in a dark red glow.
“Drink,” he growled. “It won’t work if you do not drink.”
She barely shook her head. Her eyes were blurry with tears. She didn’t want to drink. She gagged from the taste. It filled her mouth. Cyranti tried to breathe through her nose, but he moved his wrist to block her nostrils.
His eyes were wild. He focused on her so intently that she wanted to squirm. It was too painful. She couldn’t breathe. Swallowing, she gagged. The red glow burst and dulled. She was forced to swallow again, and again the magic flared.
“Good,” he murmured. “Drink. It will work. It has to work.”
She swallowed again. The blood was foul. It coated her tongue thickly. Her stomach rolled. Bloody bile rose in her throat, but was washed back down with another mouthful of the vampire’s blood.
He pulled his hand away from her mouth. The slashes to his wrist closed before Cyranti's eyes. The blood that coated his hand absorbed back into his skin. He pressed both hands to her chest, and the magic warmed her to the core. The markings on her flared to life again, brighter than they had been before.
Another deep shadow crossed over them.
“Father,” the other said. “She is an elf, what are you doing?”
“Trying to keep her alive,” the vampire said. “Get into place.”
“This is foolish,” the other said, and knelt at Cyranti’s head. She looked up, and the most beautiful set of clear gray eyes looked into hers. “So foolish,” he whispered.
He placed his hands on either side of her head. They were warm and gentle. The magic flared brighter than before, lighting up the area in a pool of crimson. Pain flared through her. It started at her stomach and coiled outward to her limbs. The painted bloody markings burned, searing into her skin.
“How is she awake?” the son asked in awe. “She’s lost so much.”
“Her neck has healed,” the father murmured. “Adrenaline fuels her, Danatarius. Be mindful not to soak up what has spilled. She will need it back.”
“Only if it works,” Danatarius whispered. His voice was like a prayer. “Only if it works.”
The burning worsened. Her back arched into the elder’s hands. She reached out, her fingers grasped the elder’s robes at his side in an iron grip. A chain dug into her fingers. He pressed her back down and gave her a gentle look.
“It will pain you, Miss, but you mustn’t fight,” he said. “If this works, it will heal you.”
Heal? She cooked. Her muscles contracted violently. Her body tried to curl in on itself, but the vampire held her down. Her hands drew back to her core. The chain, whatever it was, fell from her fingertips as her hands flexed involuntarily. She let out a long wail.
“I cannot bear it, father,” Danatarius said, his tone pleading. He stroked his thumbs along her temples. “She must sleep!”
“No, my son,” the elder hissed. “If she sleeps, we may lose her.”
“Look!” Danatarius nodded to the area beside him. “It recedes… Her blood recedes!” Wonder tinged his voice. His eyes widened. His lips parted, and he licked the lower. “It works.”
“Do not get excited, Danatarius,” the elder murmured. “It may take days for her to complete the change, if it works at all.”
Cyranti whimpered and Danatarius stroked her cheeks. “Hush, sweet thing, all will be well.”
“Let us get her to the Fold,” the father murmured. He patted Cyranti’s chest and ran his hand down the length of her arm. “She must be tended. Tonight will be the worst.”
“I will tend her,” Danatarius offered. “You have duties. I have none for the day.”
“Get her back, then,” the father agreed. He stood and brushed the grass from his leather pants around his knees and from the long tails of his robes. “I will meet you at the Fold.”
Danatarius carefully lifted Cyranti into his arms and stood. He cradled her as if she were a beloved child. When he had her nestled against his chest, he turned and the world blurred. Wind whipped her hair back. It was hard to breathe until she turned her face into his chest. He ran so fast that it felt like her skin was peeling off. They ran so fast for so long that she wondered if they would ever stop. Then, she worried they would stop.
She feared that when he stopped, she’d catapult from his arms. However, he slowed and came to a halt as gently as he had began. She barely jarred from his movements. When she looked away from his chest, her jaw dropped.
“Where are we?” Her voice didn’t sound like her own. It was hoarse and deep. Cyranti licked her cracked lips. Her tongue was so dry.
“This is the Fold,” Danatarius said. “This is our home, your home.”
It was unlike anything Cyranti had ever seen before. There were no spires or towers. The place had an earthy look to it. There were seven stories that she could count. It sprawled to either side for what seemed like leagues. How had she never come across this in her travels?
“My home—NO! I must get back to my father,” she croaked. “He will worry!”
“Calm yourself,” he murmured as he carried her toward the manse. “You are in no shape for such outbursts.”
Tears burned her eyes and she fought to blink them away. “I can’t stay here. I have to go! Let me go!”
She was too weak. She wanted to kick and scream and punch her way out of his arms, but her limbs wouldn’t obey her. He clutched her tighter against his chest as he stood before the doors. They opened without his aid and once he passed through, closed the same way.
He walked her through endless hallways. Everyone Cyranti saw all had the look of humans, but different. Subtly different. She had only seen humans in pictures or when she had visited the Sun King in the Summerlands and viewed through his scrying bowl. But here, there was something different about them. Their eyes all shone with night shine when the light hit them just right. They were calmer, more collected. Each watched her intently, their lips parting as she passed.
Predators. They were all predators. Every one of them reminded her of a bird perched atop a high limb to watch her in her weakened state. Cyranti shrank further against Danatarius’ chest.
He shushed her with a gentle word before continuing, “No harm will come to you here. If you survive, you will be one of us.”
They entered a room, and the door shut behind them. Danatarius’ scent wrapped more heavily around her. She tried to focus, but things were blurring.
“We’re in your room,” she mumbled. “Why?”
“Yes, this is my room. One will be prepared for you if you survive the transition. Until then, you will reside with me,” he said. With care, he placed her on his bed and smoothed a hand over her hair. “What is your name?”
“Cyranti,” she whispered. “Cyranti Lorinar, House Mer’di, Princess of the Twilight.”
“Mother’s bones,” he breathed, “No… no, no, no…”
“I must get home,” Cyranti stressed. “I must get back to my father.”
Danatarius gave her a sorrowful look and sat on the edge of the bed. His hands folded in his lap, but they twitched.
“You are in a state of calm,” he said as he stared down at his fidgeting hands. “Soon, you will begin the transition. It will be… painful. So very painful. The burning will return, far worse than you had felt it during the spell. Your normal canines will be pushed out in favor of fangs that can recede into your jaw and sharpen to a needle’s point at your whim. Your eyes will itch and burn for days as they acclimate further into the night vision. The clothes you are in will feel rough and irritate you. Everything will be agony for days.”
“I’m dying,” she said, closing her eyes.
His hand rested on her stomach. “I hope not. Soon, you will be Vampir. We are not dead things, Princess. We are alive.”
“You cannot be alive,” she hissed. “You are lying!”
Danatarius frowned and scooted closer. He snatched up her hand and placed it over his heart and narrowed his eyes on her. “It beats, does it not? I am warm, am I not? I eat. I breathe. I love. I hate. I live.”
His heart thumped against her palm. His skin radiated warmth from under his soft shirt. With every word, his heart sped up a step. He was agitated. She made him agitated.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He squeezed her hand and patted it. “Do not be sorry. Just know that if you live through the transition, you will not be undead. You will be alive. You will still be Cyranti, just… physically changed.”
“Why did your father do this?” she asked. Her throat felt like it was full of sand, her mouth with cotton. “How did you find me?”
Danatarius dropped her hand and went to the table in the corner of the room. He spoke as he poured a goblet of water. “We have been hunting the Architect for eras. Our arrival was no accident. You cost us time, but now we have a lead and that is not something we have had in a very long time. My father, Kordan, is our King… of sorts.”
“Of sorts?” she asked as Danatarius helped her sit up to drink.
“He is our leader for all he is worth. He is the Eldest Elder, the oldest of our kind, the first turned.” As she finished the water, he set the goblet aside and helped Cyranti to lie back down. “I am one of the lucky few who was born this way.”
Cyranti closed her eyes again. Her lids were weighted down, or so it felt. She still couldn’t move her limbs. Breathing was easier, but it was still painful. Her father’s face flashed before her mind. He would be devastated if she didn’t go home. Morough and Ka’lei would be worried when she didn’t arrive at the estate as expected.
“Few?” she asked. It was hard to think, let alone speak. With all her mental strength, she tried to focus on the conversation.
“It is hard for us to produce children,” he said, “perhaps harder than it is for elves.”
Cyranti shivered and in the next moment she was covered with a warm blanket. Danatarius tucked it around her and stroked her cheek with the backs of his fingers.
“Sleep, Cyranti,” he murmured. “Sleep, now. The transition will wake you soon enough.”
“I’m afraid,” she whimpered. Her teeth chattered.
The bed dipped and released as he stood. It dipped on the other side and moved as he crawled across the bed. Soon, the blankets were lifted and his warm body was pressed to her side. The blanket came down again and Danatarius wrapped her up against him.
“It will be frightening,” he said against her ear. “It will be excruciating if you make it that far, but know that you will not be alone. I will not leave you to fight this battle alone.”
“Any sign of her, Sol’kyr?” Morough asked.
“Not a sign, brother,” Sol’kyr sighed. “Velithor continues the search.”
Morough hissed and closed his eyes. It had been hours since Cyranti was to arrive. Her father would be furious, both at Morough and at himself if the Princess went missing.
“I told him not to send her alone,” Morough grumbled. “She has never traveled alone before.”
“Calm down,” Sol soothed. “She might have just gotten lost. You three go inside and the rest of us will search for her.”
When Morough opened his eyes again, Lin’ra stood next to Sol’kyr and she nodded. “Veli is the best scout in all four realms combined. Sol and I will take another route. We will all meet you inside with any findings.”
Morough sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Agreed. Meet here by moonrise unless you find her sooner.”
Sol squeezed Morough’s shoulder with brotherly affection and turned to mount Kormir. Lin’ra gave him a sympathetic smile. She knew all too well how protective Morough was of women, let alone those so far younger than he.
When they were off, Morough turned back to his wife and son. Ka’lei gave him a lopsided grin and held out her hand for him.
“C’mon, Momo,” she said in that beautiful drawl of hers, “we’ve got stuff to do, and you need to get your mind off that poor girl before you worry yourself into an ulcer or worse.”
Morough chuckled and took her hand, pulling her near. He dotted a kiss to the tip of her nose. “Elves do not get ulcers, as I keep reminding you.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Doesn’t mean that worrying is good for elves. It’s bad, and it makes you feel bad, so quit it.”
Laughing, Morough pulled her into a tight hug and nuzzled his face into her soft auburn hair. “I shall do my best, my one.”
She giggled and tucked up against him. “You’d better,” she said. “Any word on Sam?”
“Sam should be here shortly,” Morough murmured against her ear. “At least he is being escorted and in daylight. I feel safer for him.”
“He comes, father,” Tovran said. He pointed out past the trees. “He will be here momentarily.”
Morough looked out past the dense trees. They were thick, but Morough could see the glitter of movement from between a few of the trunks. Something in his chest eased and the tension in his shoulders fell lax. A moment later, and the trees parted for Sam. Elan was with him, as was Rynhon. They stopped a few feet short of Morough and his family.
“Glad to see you made it,” Morough said as he inclined his head in greeting. “We await another.”
“Cyranti hasn’t arrived yet?” Elan frowned.
Morough shook his head. “No, my brothers search for her.”
Rynhon nudged his mount closer. “Shall I join in the search?”
Morough took in a deep breath and closed his eyes. When he was centered, he opened them again and nodded. “I would appreciate it, Rynhon. Thank you.”
Elan stared off into the distance. His eyes were unseeing and flitted from one point to the next. He shuddered. “Mother says she is lost to us. Cyranti and her mount rode one moment, and then were gone the next. She tasted blood, and then it was gone.”
“Can she show me where she was last sighted?” Rynhon asked.
Elan nodded and held out his hand. Rynhon moved into it so Elan’s fingertips brushed across his temple. A moment later, he urged his horse forward and they were off like a lightning strike. The trees parted for him, and closed back around to conceal his departure.
Sam and Elan dismounted. Their horses milled around with their muzzles in the grass as the two elves wandered over. Morough pulled them both into hugs, dotting a kiss to the top of Sam’s head.
“It is good to see you both,” Morough said. “I am glad you could come, Elan.”
Elan nodded, wrapping his arm around his son’s shoulders. “While I trust Sam to do this on his own, I’m still leery of parting from him for such things. This place has left a bad taste even in my mouth.”
“Agreed,” Morough murmured.
“It’s not that bad,” Sam said. “Really. The scary thing about this place was Linolde, not the estate.”
“And she can harm no one in her current state,” Elan assured. “My father and I made certain of that.”
“Yeah, but crazy lady is still there,” Ka’lei pointed out. “We need to see if we can make that permanent so no one else can screw it up like Linolde did.” She grinned and folded her arms across her chest. “I wonder how she’s doing after seven years in the dark…”
“Be prepared for stink,” Sam said, wrinkling his nose. “I can only imagine the smell.”
“Indeed,” Morough grinned at him, “however, she would have stopped excreting after the first few spans, I’d imagine, so the smell may have dissipated.”
“Unless she has open sores,” Ka’lei said with a moue of disgust.
“That may not factor in,” Elan said. “The spell seems to preserve its components.”
Ka’lei nodded and looked back to the estate. The spell that turned it visibly into ruins had been lifted so that the estate was visible from the outside in its full glory. “We should go in. The boys and Lin’ra know to come in when they find Cyranti.”
Morough wrinkled his nose. He didn’t enjoy the thought of going inside, but it was a necessary thing. The doors were unlocked as he depressed the latch and pushed it open. Inside was immaculate. The building was timeless with the magic that surrounded it still. Light stones still glowed. Fire stones in the hearth still cast a comfortable warmth into the room. Not a single mote of dust marred the polished marble, fabric, or teak floors.
He sighed and took a look at his surroundings. Everything needed to be searched, but that was for another time. Now, they had a specific mission, and that was to make the Twilight a permanence.
“I wanna show you guys something,” Sam said at Morough’s elbow. “It’s this way.”
He nudged Morough with a hand at his back, then slipped past him to lead the way. They headed through the maze of carpeted halls to a simple study with an apothecary chest. When they stopped at a bare patch of wall, he pointed to the wooden paneling.
“It’s there,” Sam said. “A mage needs to touch it to make it into a door.”
Ka’lei perked a brow, but went over to touch the wall where Sam indicated. The moment her finger contacted the wood, the paneling warped and expanded to become a framed door. Morough blinked and frowned. Why would anyone need such a chamber?
Sam headed inside, and Morough followed closely after.
“This is the Well of Souls,” Sam said as he went to a bowl of water. He then pointed to the opposite side of the room. “Over there is a secret passage to a bunch of spell things that whoever used to live here collected. It’s where I found the vaciroth heart for Linolde’s love spell for dad.”
Ka’lei grinned and raced for the secret room. She was ever the curious woman. Such exploration made her absolutely giddy, and she giggled as she figured out the locking mechanism and raced down the steps that appeared.
Morough and Elan headed for the Well of Souls. Sam touched the water with the pad of his finger and looked into the bowl. His eyes were wide and unblinking.
“Grampa?” he asked.
The water swirled and turned black as pitch.
“No, child,” a man’s voice came, his tone mournful. “No, child, he rests with Mother now. He is at peace and happy.”
Sam blinked rapidly and frowned. His shoulders drooped. Elan rubbed his back and pulled him into a tight hug.
“Oh, Sam,” he breathed. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s—” Sam let out a shaky sigh. “It’s okay. If he’s happy, I don’t need to take him away from that.”
“You are a good grandson,” Morough said. “I am sure Kennan’s soul swells with pride of you.”
“Thanks,” Sam said, giving him a watery smile.
“Now, the question is, who is in the well?” Elan asked, peering into the black water.
“My name is Kirith Kortim,” the disembodied voice spoke. “Sam was unfortunate enough to see me in my final moments and watched me die at Linolde’s hands.”
“You are my ancestor, then,” Morough said. He crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. “House Cul’na.”
“That is correct,” he replied. “I am your great-great-grandfather. I was incarcerated in the bowels of this estate before my son was old enough to speak. My wife died in the Dividing War, as I recently learned.”
“How am I not a Kortim, then?” Morough asked.
“The second generation adopted a new dialect, and thus many changed their names to fit with their growing language,” he explained. “It was a way of making certain that blood magic was completely abolished. If the younger generations could not find the books, that was a blessing. If they could not read the books if they found them, that was even better.”
“Then how did Linolde read them?” Sam asked. “It took her a while to figure them out, but she was able to read the book that gave her the love spell she used against dad.”
“The old language could have still been passed down, Sam,” Elan pointed out. “Some of the families did not enjoy the thought of losing their heritage, though most did through forgetfulness, anyway.”
Sam shuddered. In truth, Morough wanted to, as well. Moving back, he leaned against the wall. There was much to process. So much. Closing his eyes, he sighed. “Is there a way to make the spell permanent to keep the Twilight from rising to the sun again?”
“I do not know,” Kirith murmured. “I was an unwilling participant. I was one who fought against the Divide. The Architect captured me and created the Twilight to end the war. He is the only one I know of who could complete the spell to make it permanent. He was the creator of blood magic, and as far as I am aware, he is the only true master of it.”
“What’s his name?” Ka’lei asked from the stairwell. “The Architect must have a name. I read in some books in the human world that names have power, and can be used against someone in magic spells. If elves got into human folklore and stuff, maybe that’s true, too.”
Kirith went quiet. After a long moment, he sighed. “Arlindal, though I know not his birth name. That name has been lost to the ages. However, I believe you may encounter him soon.”
“What makes you say this?” Morough asked. He opened his eyes to study the bowl of water.
“The disruption of the spell, I believe, was his entire design,” Kirith explained. “I cannot be certain, but he may wish to keep you from making things permanent.”
“Then he knows,” Morough sighed.
“I do not know,” Kirith stressed. “I do not know his mind. I can only make educated guesses. However, he built this estate. He is the one who caused the Twilight. Proper reasoning would state that he would know all that transpires within these walls.”
“Makes sense,” Ka’lei said as she leaned against Morough. He wrapped an arm about her. “Is there a way we can keep Mr. Architect out while we look for stuff?”
“I do not know,” Kirith murmured again. “Your magic differs from what I know so greatly, and I do not know the books in this library.”
“Is there anything you do know?” Sam asked.
“I know that you are all wasting valuable time,” Kirith said. “Get to the library and see what you can find.”
“I will work on keeping out unwanted persons,” Tovran said from the doorway. “Mother can look through the books.”
“That’s my little bookworm,” Ka’lei teased. “Right. Get on it, Tovran. I’ll snag Elan to help me with the books.”
Morough nodded. “I will go down to check on Linolde.”
Sam looked from one elf to the next and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “The library would be boring. I can’t help Tovran, so I guess I’ll go with Morough, if that’s okay.”
“You are perfectly welcome to come with me, as always, Sam,” Morough said. “Lead the way to the library, and then we shall see what there is to see with Linolde.”
Sam sighed and nodded. He led the group through the halls to the library, and when Elan and Ka’lei began looking through books, he backtracked to take another route. On a seemingly plain bit of decorated wall, Sam opened a door that masterfully hid a tunnel.
“The catacombs are creepy,” he muttered. “Linolde made me look through crypts. I don’t ever want to see another dead person’s feet again.”
Morough chuckled and squeezed Sam’s shoulder. “I shall not make you search the crypts, then. Let us head down and see how Linolde is doing.”
Sam relaxed at the squeeze and nodded. He led the way down through the near endless stairwell. When it emptied out into the vaults chamber the boy shuddered. Morough pressed against his back and hugged him.
“I’m with you,” Morough murmured next to his ear. “It’s all right.”
“It smells worse than I remember,” Sam whispered with another shiver.
“You were human when you were here last,” Morough explained. He squeezed the young man again. “Your senses have heightened with Mother’s gift.”
“Yeah, I just wish I could turn my nose off like a light stone.”
Morough chuckled and gave Sam another squeeze. “Let us get this over with for now, and we will go get some fresh air.”
Sam turned in Morough’s arms and pressed his face into his chest. He took in a deep lungful of air and shuddered one last time before he broke away. Without a word, he turned and headed through the central passage and unerringly found the row that led to the sarcophagus entrance.
“Someone put the lid back together,” Sam breathed.
Morough squeezed the boy again. “That was probably your father. No dark thoughts. They serve no purpose here. Not yet.”
Sam nodded and with Morough’s help, got the lid hefted to the floor. The stairs lit up under the glow of the light stones that lined the walls. Morough got up and in first, then helped Sam in. The fright in the young man’s eyes was saddening.
“You do not have to go with me, Sam,” Morough reminded him. “I am not forcing you to come.”
Sam’s eyes went wild a moment, and then turned to crystalline blue stone. “I gotta see for myself that the bitch is still there. I gotta know she won’t hurt dad again.”
“You are a brave man, Sam,” Morough said. Reaching out, he took Sam’s hand and started down the stairs. “She will never see the light of day again. We will make certain of it.”
The stairs went on for so long that Morough wondered how close to the Highdark they were. When they finally made the landing, he paused and took in the sight. Sam pressed tight against his back and shook.
Before them, Linolde laid in the center of the bloody ring. The blood had long since turned almost black. Her head lolled to the side to look at him. She grinned. Her cheeks were sunken in. All of the fat had melted away long ago. She resembled a skeleton with the skin stretched too tight over her. Muscle tone was a thing of the past. She was so emaciated that her toes no longer pointed to the sky, but hung limply toward the stone floor.
“So long since I had a visitor,” she rasped. Yellowed eyes skated over Morough and closed. Her dry tongue flicked out to lick across cracked lips. “Come to save me, my King?”
Morough let out a humorless chuckle. “Hardly.” Sam peeked around his shoulder from the bare gap between him and the wall. Morough stepped aside so that Sam could stand beside him. “We have come to make sure no one has lifted your sentence.”
“You’ve come,” she snapped. “You have seen. Now leave.”
Sam snorted and leaned against the wall. “Are you ever not a bitch?”
Linolde let out a loud, harsh laugh that crackled and wheezed. “Are you ever not a petulant child?”
“Point taken,” Sam replied. “I think we can go now. You, uh, head up. I want to talk to Linolde for a moment.”
“Don’t you dare!” Linolde growled. “Take the child with you.”
Morough nodded to Sam and glared at Linolde. “I will be waiting for you at the sarcophagus, Sam.”
With that, he squeezed Sam’s shoulder and ascended the stairs. When he was out of sight, he heard Sam’s low voice.
“I figured you’d be insane by now,” he murmured. “Then again, I guess you were insane from the get-go. Mother tells me even if you do one day die, your soul will never be welcomed to her.”
Linolde barked a laugh that sounded painful. “You say these things as if I care! Mother never cared for me. She gave my love to a human.”
“Yeah, and now we’re all elves,” Sam retorted. “She cared for you. She loved you. She hoped you would stop being dumb, but—”
“Silence,” she hissed.
Morough sighed and ascended the stairs. He didn’t need to hear more. He did not want to. When he reached the top, he climbed out of the sarcophagus and stretched. The stairwell had made him feel cramped. The catacombs were oppressive as well, but not quite as much.
He peered out into the velvety blackness of the catacombs. He didn’t bother with a light orb. There was nothing to see. Resting against the wall, Morough closed his eyes. The sound of moving stone got his attention.
Clapping his hands, a ball of light appeared above his head. “Sam?” The lid to the sarcophagus slid across the base. “SAM!”
He rushed over and tried to push the lid back. It resisted and continued on its course. With a resounding boom, it shut. A hiss sounded as it sealed. Morough’s heart thundered in his chest. He pried at the lid with all his strength. It wouldn’t budge.
Looking around, he sought something, anything to break the lid, but there was nothing. He reached to his side and drew out his dagger. With deceptively steady hands, he tried to work the blade into the seal. It slid inside a finger’s width. The lid slammed down, and the blade shattered. It shattered.
Morough looked at the ruined blade as if it were a broken toy. He turned it around in his hand and hammered at the lid with enough bone-jarring force to crush the jewel that adorned it, but the sarcophagus didn’t even chip.
“SAM!” he screamed. “Sam!”
“Morough?” Sam’s voice was barely there, like a dream. “Morough! Lemme out!”
“I will get help, Sam,” Morough yelled near the lid. “Do not panic. I will get help!”
“Get me out!” Sam cried. “Please, get me out!”
“The lid closed on its own, Sam. I cannot move it. I will come back with help. Rest easy. I will get you out as soon as I am able.”
“Okay. Quit talking and go! It’s creepy down here without light! The light stones all went out when the lid shut!”
“Your father taught you the light wisp spell, correct?”
“Oh, yeah!” Sam crowed. “Okay, it’s on. I’m okay for now. Go get dad and get me out, please!”
Morough rested his head on the stone lid and closed his eyes. His heart pounded so hard within him that he grew dizzy. Fighting to keep control of his breathing, he focused on trying to calm down. Sam needed him. A child needed him. His friend’s son needed him.
With that last thought, he gathered his strength and righted himself. The ball of light preceded him as he ran through the catacombs and up the next winding set of stairs. Each step felt like slow motion as he raced through the halls. When he reached the library, he stopped and rubbed his face to calm himself.
“Elan…” he murmured. “I need your help.”
Elan turned around, as did Ka’lei. Both gasped and stared.
“Morough, you are pale as milk,” Elan fussed.
“Sam is trapped in Linolde’s chamber,” Morough began. “He wanted a moment alone to speak with her, so I headed upstairs. The moment I was out, the lid closed. I cannot remove it.”
“Calm, my friend,” Elan said. His face was drawn, a frown creased his mouth. “Let’s go to him.”
Ka’lei put the book down that she was reading and headed for the door behind Elan. “No way in hell you boys are leaving me behind. This place is creepy.”
“Agreed,” Morough said. “If this place will trap a child, I would further lose my mind if you were trapped as well.”
Once the two were at his side, Morough led them through the estate to the sarcophagus. Elan frowned deeply.
“It was near shattered when I last saw the lid,” he muttered.
“Sam commented on that,” Morough groaned. “I thought you had repaired it.”
“No, not I,” Elan said.
“Dad?” Sam’s voice came from under the lid, muffled and barely audible. “Dad!”
“I am here, Sam,” Elan shouted. “Stay calm, my son. Back away from the entrance.”
Elan’s hands glowed a vibrant gold. Morough suddenly felt helpless. Being magically defunct meant he was less than useless at that moment. He watched from the entrance of the alcove as Elan surrounded the lid with his magic and tried to force it off.
No matter how Elan strained himself, the lid would not budge. Sweat beaded on the Sun King’s brow and upper lip. His muscles strained with tension, rather than physical exhaustion. His hands trembled.
Ka’lei helped from the other side. Her soft blue magic swirled with Elan’s bright gold to create a vision of a cloudless sunrise. Both of them worked tirelessly for a few moments, but neither could move the lid.
“There has to be a spell on it,” Morough murmured. “Do not exhaust yourselves. Ka’lei, see if you can find the threads of magic that keep the stone sealed.”
They both ceased. Ka’lei went to the lid, her hand still aglow. Feeling around the lid, she closed her eyes and worked. A frown creased her brow and turned her lips down at the corners. Morough shifted his stance against the wall. The last time she had to do such a thing, she yanked his father’s soul into her own body. Over a thousand years had passed since that day. He had to believe in her progress now.
Elan stood to the side and watched Ka’lei work. His hands clenched into fists at his side. His jaw was set, teeth clenched so hard Morough wondered how they did not break.
“I can feel something,” Ka’lei sighed. “It’s resisting me hardcore. There’s something about it that my magic isn’t able to hold onto it. It’s like trying to grab a greased pig with a rocket strapped to its back. It’s faster than I am and slippery.”
Elan trembled until Morough gripped his shoulder. “We will find a way to get him out, Elan. We will find a way.”
Pain woke Cyranti from a restless sleep. It started as a dull throb in her face and stomach. Her eyes opened. Everything was blurred. She closed her eyes again and groaned. Arms tightened around her and she stiffened. She couldn’t remember where she was. Who was holding her?
“Shh,” a familiar voice shushed her, “I am here, Cyranti.”
The pain radiated from her face down through her body. It built in her belly and flared. She let out a low whine. She squirmed, but ceased that immediately. Every move she made shot fire through her muscles. It crept up on her. Every breath brought pain. Every twitch of her fingers burned.
The man hugged her again. Danatarius. His name was Danatarius. He rubbed her arm. Her traveling leathers burned her skin. Everywhere he touched sizzled. The leather rubbed against her side, making her scream. Her back arched. Her hands came up and clawed at the bodice.
Her frantic clawing was stopped with hands on her wrists. She fought to free them. Screeching, Cyranti writhed on the bed. Danatarius straddled her waist. He pinned her down, shoving her hands to either side of her head.
Where the elder had painted her skin pulsed with searing heat. Every pulse sent a wave of torment through her. She screamed so hard that she tasted blood. It was everywhere. All around her. Flecks coated her tongue. She smelled it in the air.
Cyranti’s back arched off the bed. Her legs kicked. She bucked, but Danatarius rode her easily. He cooed soft words of encouragement, remorse and apologies to her.
Her mouth ached. Pain shot through her upper jaw. It radiated up into her sinuses and behind her eyes. Stars shot across her vision, painting the backs of her eyelids with white.
The pain in her jaw worsened. Her teeth ached. She opened her mouth for another scream. Her jaw locked. Her canines throbbed. The pressure built until her entire head felt like an open wound.
When she thought her face would explode, two hard objects fell into her mouth. Gagging, her jaw unlocked and she spat them out. Blood trickled into her throat. She frantically licked her teeth. Her canines were gone. There were gaping holes where they used to be.
Panic welled in her chest, worse than before. Danatarius held her wrists and torso down with an iron grip. No matter how hard she bucked or twisted, she couldn’t dislodge him.
Danatarius continued to murmur soft words to her. She didn’t want soft words. She wanted the pain to end. Every bloody scream that left her begged for it. Death. She wanted to die. The dead couldn’t feel pain.
The throbbing turned to piercing agony. She licked her teeth again, and cut her tongue on sharp needles.
“Your fangs are coming in,” Danatarius murmured. “A little longer. Just a little longer…”
The pain in her gut flared brighter. It was as if someone stabbed her over and over again. She curled her body. Her knees connected hard with Danatarius’ back. He groaned and leaned forward. His weight pressed Cyranti’s wrists further into the mattress.
Cyranti’s face slowly stopped throbbing. Her teeth dulled from their sharp points. The ache ceased. Now it was just her body on fire. With her head no longer feeling raw and bursting, the rest of the pain was almost bearable.
Tears streamed down the sides of her face. Her breath hitched with sobs. Her body shuddered and trembled. Danatarius released her hands and moved to the side. He gathered her up against his chest and rocked with her. He smoothed a hand over her hair.
“It’s almost over,” he whispered against her forehead. “You’ve done well.”
“I want my father,” she wailed.
“Shh, I know,” Danatarius murmured. “He cannot help you now, though. The pain will soon fade.”
Cyranti didn’t believe him. She swallowed the blood that lined her mouth. Her throat felt like glass shards were stuck in it. Pain coursed through her body in waves. Danatarius held her tighter.
The pressure started to comfort. The gentle rocking had her closing her eyes. He pressed a kiss into her hair. He rubbed her back. Her traveling leathers no longer felt as abrasive. Her bodice no longer constricted her breathing. Her gasping sobs sent fewer and fewer waves of irritating tingles through her skin.
Danatarius stroked the hair back from her face and peered down at her. He smiled. There were tears in his eyes. Relief shined in them like stars. Tension lines slowly eased in his handsome face. Color came back to his skin, lending a golden glow where he had gone pale. How could he care so deeply for someone he had only known a few hours?
“You survived,” he whispered. “You survived.”
Cyranti’s stomach growled and she whimpered, “I’m hungry.”
“I know,” he replied. “Give your body a few more moments to adjust, and we will get you something to eat. Right now, you’re still too volatile and anything you eat might come back up.”
She shuddered and nodded. Vomiting did not sound like a good idea. Not with how raw her throat felt. Lifting a hand, she rubbed her neck.
“That will heal soon,” Danatarius said as he tapped her rubbing hand. “Give it a few moments. You screamed so hard that blood vessels in your throat ruptured.”
“It feels like I swallowed glass and sand,” she croaked. Her voice was hoarse and raw. “So thirsty.”
“We will quench your thirst in a moment,” he said. “We should go over a few things while you heal.”
She looked up at him with a frown. The tone of his voice made her nervous. “What things?”
“You can never go into sunlight,” he began. “It will burn you to death.”
Cyranti frowned and sighed. “That’s not so different than what I am used to.”
“I can imagine.”
“What about… blood?” she asked. “I—I don’t—”
“Shh,” Danatarius shushed. “It is necessary, but not all the time. It sustains us and fuels our magic. We eat normal food as well, drink what we like. Blood, however, you will crave soon enough, and it will taste sweeter than the finest elven wine.”
“Everything else?” She searched his face for answers, but all she saw was relief and compassion.
Danatarius chuckled and stroked her face. “Everything else you can learn as you go. If anyone treats you badly, you tell me.”
“How will I find you?” she asked.
“You know my scent,” he said and lightly tapped her nose. “You will be able to find me no matter where I am in this manor. It may take some practice, but your senses are so heightened now, that you are—”
“A predator,” she whimpered.
“Yes,” he agreed, “that is one of the many things that we are.”
“I want to go home,” she whispered. “When can I go home?”
“Try not to think about that now, Cyranti,” he soothed. “How are you feeling? …Other than hungry and thirsty.”
“The pain is going away. I just feel… weak,” she admitted. “And tired.”
“Ah, yes. Both are to be expected.” Danatarius shifted her on his lap and sat up. He crawled across the bed with her and easily moved off the edge to his feet. “I think it might be good for you to walk some of the weakness off. We can walk to the dining room so you can fill your belly.”
With care, he set her on her feet and steadied her as she teetered. When she was stable on her own legs, he kept a protective arm about her waist and led her to the door.
“Our people will look at you strangely,” he said. “Do not allow it to bother you. You… are the first elf in existence to ever turn into one of us. The others never survived the change.”
“You did this to other elves?” Cyranti glared at him, and he shrank back from her.
“I did not personally, no. However, if we find someone dying, and that is the only way to help them, we try,” he explained. “As humans are now endangered on earth, turning them has become forbidden unless they are dying and there is no other course. It surprised me greatly when I saw Kordan turning you. No one has tried to turn an elf in thousands of years.”
“I have to get to the Summerlands,” she said as they headed down the halls. “My friends are in danger. The man who killed my…” she paused.
Liria was dead. Her best friend was dead. Danatarius stopped. Her distress must have shown because he wrapped her up against his chest.
“The man who attacked me,” she went on when she was able to speak again, “I have a feeling he will try to hurt my friends.”
He hugged her warmly and urged her to keep walking. Again, his arm wrapped protectively about her waist. “Kordan follows him. He will do all he can to protect your friends, so long as he can stay out of the sun’s light.”
“You mentioned the Architect,” she murmured. “Elan, the Sun King, was able to help right a spell that was set by the Architect. They go to see if they can make it permanent so that the Twilight never fades again. It was powerful blood magic.”
Danatarius hissed and held her closer to him as they walked. “So that is why the moon graced us. Several of our people were severely injured in that time.”
“Just be glad the Sun King and his children were so quick to get it righted before the sun rose,” she pointed out. “Now, I fear that the Architect may harm them. Both the Sun King and the Black King are there with their sons and the Black Queen. I was to be there, as well.”
“You will go nowhere near the light,” he growled. “Nowhere near. You are a newborn.”
She let out a bitter, pained laugh. “No, I’m a prisoner.”
“I keep you for your safety!”
“You and your father turned me without my permission!” she screamed. “I did not want this!”
“You would rather have died?” he asked, his voice low, eyes narrowed.
“Than be unable to ever see my father or friends again? To never see the light again? To never see my soul-mount again?” her voice cracked with the last. “YES! I would rather have died than become this. To be forced into this.”
“Ungrateful bitch,” a woman snorted. “Dana, surely you know how to choose your children better.”
“Quiet, Zita,” Danatarius warned. “You will be civil, and you will apologize.”
Cyranti glared at the woman. “I am not his child!”
“No, you are not,” Danatarius confirmed. “You are Kordan’s child.”
“No! I am not!” she yelled, beating his chest with every word. He wouldn’t let her go. “I am Yorin Lorinar’s child, Princess of the Twilight!”
“Ha! Not anymore, you are not.” Zita laughed. “Listen to your brother, girl. Here, you are nothing but a child, a newborn. You will learn your place.”
“That is enough, Zita,” Danatarius barked. “Apologize. Now.”
“Hardly,” Zita spat, rolling her eyes. “She is spoiled. I will not tolerate her hissy fits. Nor should you.”
“What I will not tolerate, Zita, is one of my own children verbally abusing my new sister,” he growled.
Cyranti looked up at him then. The color of Danatarius’ eyes had gone from clear gray to a violent red. Zita shrank back and bowed her head. Her shoulders curled inward.
“You have my apologies, Miss,” she murmured.
“I am Cyranti,” she replied, her voice wavering. “You apology… is accepted.”
Danatarius hugged her to him in a gentle squeeze. “Thank you for upholding my wishes, Zita. Cyranti will need friends here beside Kordan and I. I wish you to be one of them—not because I ask you to, but because I know you are kinder than you have shown yourself to be this day.”
Zita’s shoulders sagged more and she nodded. “Of course.”
Cyranti wrinkled her nose. “She does not have to if she does not wish to. I don’t enjoy having people forced upon me, either.”
Zita looked up and gave her a devilish grin. Her eyes flickered to Danatarius and back. “We will see what can become of the two of us.”
“She has undergone the worst of the change,” Danatarius informed her. “She may still go through residual changes.”
“Of course. It took me a fortnight to fully complete my change,” Zita said, straightening her posture again to its regal state. “However, an elf is an unknown… an anomaly. We shall see just how quickly she takes to the Fold.”
“At this moment, I would like to see just how quickly my belly can be filled,” Cyranti said nervously. “My throat and mouth feel full of sand and wool.”
Danatarius chuckled and kissed Cyranti’s temple. “Yes, of course. Zita, would you do me the favor of setting up a room for Cyranti, please. I highly doubt she would want to sleep with me more than she has had to.”
Blood rushed to Cyranti’s cheeks at that thought. It took all of her strength of will not to hide her face. Zita giggled softly and nodded.
“As you wish. Is there any preferred color, Cyranti?” Zita asked.
“In my experience,” Cyranti said cautiously, “I have been happiest with the results when I allow people to make such decisions for themselves. If they gain joy from it, it shows.”
“You truly have no preference, then?” Zita asked, her eyes wide.
“Anything you do, if I am to stay here for large amounts of time, will be adorned with my own personal touches anyway,” Cyranti replied. “I would like to see what you come up with, with me in mind.”
Zita’s smile grew and she inclined her head. “I will try not to disappoint you, Princess.”
Danatarius tightened his hold on Cyranti briefly. “You did not even flinch calling her that. There is something wrong…”
Laughter bubbled from Zita and she shrugged. “This is the Twilight, Dana. She cannot be consumed by the sun’s rays between here and her birth home.”
Hope bloomed within Cyranti and she looked up at Danatarius. “I can see my father again?”
Sighing, Danatarius pinched the bridge of his nose. “I would advise against it, Cyranti. Truly. You remember the reaction you had to me. Imagine your father’s reaction to you when he sees your change. It will not be pleasant.”
“I do not care!” Cyranti cried. “I at least want him to know that I live!”
“Hush now, child,” Zita said, far more gently than she had spoken before. “Such things can be discussed when you are fed and Kordan returns home.”
“I agree,” Danatarius said, his tone final. “Thank you, Zita.”
With a nod of her head, Zita continued on her way in the opposite direction. The tension in Danatarius’ arm eased and he led the way toward the dining room. His whole demeanor changed. The red drained from his eyes to leave them their normal crystal gray. The muscles in his jaw no longer twitched and jumped. His shoulders eased.
“Why were you afraid?” she asked him.
“Afraid?” He perked his brow at her and offered a lopsided smile. “What do you mean?”
“You were tense as a drawn bow and slightly terrifying,” she said with a nervous chuckle. “You are just now starting to relax.”
“Zita is one of my more… interesting children,” he said. “She is not fond of elves.”
“Jealousy,” he said simply. “Elves are born with eternal life. She was once human, and her eternal life came at the price you just paid.”
“And elves get to frolic in the sun for eternity if they are born in the right realm.” She let out a heavy sigh. “I have only seen the sun four times in my life. I envy her for having lived beneath its rays as a human.”
“Perhaps, then, that is something you two can discuss when you are found alone,” Danatarius suggested.
“Perhaps,” Cyranti agreed.
As they neared, heavy double doors opened and the smell of fresh food washed over them. Cyranti’s stomach growled loudly. Many tables were strewn about the room, each with chairs circled around them. She stared, her mouth open.
“Where is the dining table?” she asked. “You eat separated?”
“We find it is more intimate this way,” he said, grinning. “This is a trick we learned from the humans. It helps to foster a community and enables us to sit with a close group of friends, while politely avoiding those we do not get along with.”
“But you said you are a family…”
“We are all from human roots, Cyranti,” he said softly. “Not every human gets along with everyone else, and it is sometimes the same with family. Instead of forcing tense relationships that can explode into violence, we allow simple freedoms to foster friendships and other relations where we are able. The main thing we elders demand from the Fold is respect for everyone, whether that person is liked or not.”
“Which is why you became frightening with Zita,” Cyranti said as the realization dawned on her.
“Correct. She showed blatant disrespect, and that is not tolerated.”
They seated at a table near the far corner where the smell of food was the strongest. The door opened and a menu was placed before them. Danatarius slid it across the table to Cyranti.
“What is this?” Cyranti asked.
“It is a menu,” Danatarius replied. “Pick what you would like from the choices, and it will be made for you. The menu changes daily.”
“But, there is already food prepared! I will be happy with whatever is put before me.”
“Ah, but humans are fond of choices,” Danatarius chuckled. “That is something that the turning does not stamp out. However, trust me in that nothing ever goes to waste here.”
She looked over the menu. Curiosity piqued, she read each word slowly as it wasn’t her usual written language, and her stomach grumbled again. Each choice sounded more delicious than the last. Finally, she whimpered and dropped the menu.
“Anything… I will take anything!”
The cook let out a rumbling laugh and patted her shoulder. “You will get over this,” he said in a deep, accented bass. “I bring you something tasty.”
When he left, Danatarius smiled like a contented cat.
“What is that look for?” she asked. “That is a suspicious look if I ever saw one.”
“I think you just made Aleksei’s day,” he mused. “Not many people give him the choice other than planning the menu.”
“It seems I am giving many people choices today,” she said, looking down at the cloth covered table.
“That is a good thing,” Danatarius said softly. He reached across the table and took her hand in his. “Why do you seem so sad about it.”
“I give others what I want for myself.”
He squeezed her hand and sighed. “And that shows your incredible courage. It will also be rewarded. Soon, I think.”