Daniel’s temper flared, and for the first time in the years he’d known her, he let it loose at Quinn. “I am vampire. Senior mage of the Nightwalker Guild, and formerly primator of all vampires in this infant of a country. Tread softly before you think to issue orders to me, human.”
He felt her shock through the blood bond he’d once had to force on her to save her life. Jack started to say something, but Quinn cut him off with a raised hand. The uncomfortable truth was, the blood bond ran both ways. She could probably sense Daniel’s emotions, too. She was certainly looking at him with more than a little sympathy in her dark eyes.
“Daniel deserves our trust, Jack.” She issued a few quiet requests, and one of the humans motioned to Daniel to follow him down a dark corridor.
Quinn’s slightly raised voice stopped him. “We’re near Sedona, Arizona, Daniel. And we’re in big trouble.”
He almost smiled. “With you, what else is new?”
Serai woke as Daniel put her down on a pallet in what looked like another room in the same cavern. Same dark stone walls. Same dank stone-and-dirt-cavern smell. A small fire glowed in a corner of the room, giving off a bit of heat and light, but not enough to really help. She was shivering bone deep and felt like she might never be warm again.
Daniel sat on the edge of the narrow bed as he pulled rough blankets around her, but his hands stilled as he realized she was awake and looking at him.
“How are you feeling?”
She lifted one shoulder. “I’ve been better, but I’m alive. I’m free. There’s much to be said for that.”
An awkward silence fell, and she watched him as he looked at the blankets, around the room, anywhere but at her. Maybe he didn’t want to be around her. Maybe he’d forgotten about her long ago, and she was an unwelcome reminder of a painful past. Maybe—
His hands shot up and grabbed her shoulders, and he finally stared directly at her—into her eyes, as if the secrets of the universe hid there for him to find.
“I thought you were dead,” he said, anguish in his rough tone. “How can you be alive, all these millennia later? You’re not a vampire, but you’re still exactly the same as the day Atlantis fell and not a day older. How is that even possible?”
“Have you ever heard the tale of Sleeping Beauty?” she asked wryly.
He just looked at her, silent, and for a moment a hint of the shy boy he’d been surfaced in his eyes. But only for a moment. The hard, deadly man he’d become had no patience for whimsy, she suspected.
“They put me in stasis,” she explained, arranging the blanket around her shoulders and pulling her knees to her chest. “Maidens intended as brides for future kings of Atlantis. Not just me. There were others, many of them woken long ago, but six of us remained. We’ve been asleep since Atlantis dove beneath the seas more than eleven thousand years ago.”
He released her shoulders and stood up, impatient or disbelieving, and she felt the ache of loss as he walked away from her toward the small fire. He tossed a few pieces of the wood stacked nearby onto the flames and considered his handiwork before turning toward her, still crouched beside the fire.
“That’s not possible. What magic could do such a thing? Even Alaric, and the gods know he’s more powerful than any sorcerer or witch I’ve ever met, couldn’t do that.”
The name distracted her. “You know Alaric?”
“I’ve worked on the same side as High Prince Conlan and his warriors several times,” Daniel said. “Poseidon’s high priest often accompanies Conlan and his elite Warriors of Poseidon on missions.”
He crossed the room and motioned to the edge of the bed, as if for permission. She nodded, and he resumed his seat, not touching her this time.
“Your Atlanteans have to fight the big, bad vampires, don’t you know?” he said, mockery in his voice and raised eyebrow.
“I’ve heard about the warriors. The temple attendants gossiped enough,” she said bitterly. “And I’d prefer not to talk about Conlan. Not now, not ever.”
It was his turn to be surprised. “I’ve always found him to be a decent enough guy.”
“He didn’t leave you imprisoned in a crystal cage for hundreds of years after he learned about you. He didn’t plan to wed you, either, and then abandon you to remain in that prison after he found a human woman for whom he was willing to abdicate his throne.” She shook her head. “Trust me when I say I will never take the man’s hand in friendship.”
She finally looked up at Daniel and caught her breath. His eyes glowed a fiery red and his face had gone hard and feral. For the first time since she’d found him again, she thought about what becoming a nightwalker truly meant, and her breath caught in her throat.
“Plan. To. Wed. You?” he gritted out between clenched teeth. “You were betrothed to Conlan? After . . .”
“Jealousy? You dare show me jealousy when you abandoned me to be caged and imprisoned for eleven thousand years?”
“I didn’t know!” he shouted. “I thought you were dead. I woke up and you were gone, and they told me you had died. They took me to deal with the newness of the bloodlust, and by the time I could control it and came back for any scrap of news of you, you and your whole godsdamned continent were gone.”
A flare of something very like hope flamed in her chest, and she tried to speak but the words wouldn’t come. Not until he touched a finger to her cheek and it came back wet did she realize she was crying.
“You thought I was dead? You didn’t abandon me?”
The red flames had vanished from his eyes, and they shone a strange, almost silvery black as he stared at her. “I would never have abandoned you. But you were quick enough to leave me.”
Frustration robbed her of fluency and she dropped back into her native Atlantean. “How can you think—”
The pain crashed through her again and she cried out, doubling over as the Emperor sent a discordant slice of energy searing through her body and mind. “Someone has it. Make them stop, make them stop,” she said, almost sobbing.
Daniel pulled her into his arms. “What is it? Someone has what?”
“The Emperor. They’re tampering with the Emperor, and whoever it is will kill all six of us, if we don’t find it soon.”
“Priestess, I’m . . . I’m sorry. My skills aren’t up to this. I can’t cast a glamour that would cover us both.”
Ivy Khetta, high priestess of the Crescent Moon coven, turned away from the view that the Sinagua Indians had enjoyed for several hundred years, until nearly A.D. 1400, when the clan of vampires banished to the desert by their unforgiving goddess, Anubisa, had wiped out the native Americans. These days, none but national park employees and archaeologists were allowed to walk inside the structure that had been hand-built with stone, sweat, and adobe plaster so many centuries ago. She raised a hand to almost touch a spiral design that one of the Sinagua had incised into the plaster wall maybe a thousand years ago, just so she could feel the energy that still pulsed from the long-ago magic and passion of the artist.
She wasn’t ready to activate the vortex energy, though. Not just yet.
Ivy was definitely breaking more than a few federal laws just by stepping foot inside the castle, but nobody knew she was here and—in spite of her apprentice’s incompetence— nobody would, except those she couldn’t control. She managed—barely—to keep from looking for the vampire and his companions.
Instead, she focused on the young witch. Of course, the fledgling couldn’t hide them from the park rangers and crowds of tourists who would soon swarm over the grounds like ants on a coyote’s corpse. Ivy was the only witch in the entire state powerful enough to wield such strong magic.
After all, she wasn’t a witch at all.
She was a sorceress who specialized in the black. Best that nobody else ever learned that, though, since her particular brand of dark sorcery was punishable by death. Ugly, bloody death that not even a sorceress who could call the black arts would be able to escape. If not death, at the very least she would face eternal imprisonment in dungeons built inside the Rocky Mountains. No, it was better that nobody figured out her secret. At least until she was ready. Nobody would ever treat her like they had her mother.
Best nobody heard about that, either.
“Don’t worry about it, ah—”
“Aretha,” the witch offered helpfully, nervously smoothing her pale brown hair behind her ears.
Ivy blinked. “Seriously? I thought it was Moon Blossom. Not sure which is worse.”
Aretha blushed. “That was what I was trying on for a witch name. My mom’s a music fan, so my real name is Aretha. It was almost Madonna. Can you imagine Madonna Moskowitz?”
“Better than Lady Gaga Moskowitz.”
Aretha tittered a nervous laugh that echoed while she wandered around. “Did Montezuma really live here? I thought he lived in a gold palace, sacrificing virgins and stuff,” the young witch said, looking around in obvious distaste. “This is kind of low-rent for a big-time ruler, right?”
“Are you an idiot?”
“Uh, no. I mean, what do you mean?”
“Montezuma was an Aztec ruler who probably never got this far north in his bloodthirsty life. The idiot settlers who first arrived here in the 1800s named this place Montezuma’s Castle, since they apparently had the same mentally deficient history teacher as you did.”
“But—” Aretha bit her lip, probably wondering what “deficient” meant, and Ivy thanked the goddess again that she could afford to send Ian to private school.
“Sinagua. Native Americans. You’re in a national park. Buy a book. Get a free brochure. You can read, can’t you?” Ivy carefully smoothed the sneer off her face. She didn’t want to add wrinkles to her face if at all possible. Magic kept her looking at least ten years younger, but her impatience with stupidity threatened to add it all back. Anyway, she only needed to be patient with this one a little while longer. Surely Nicholas would find her better help after this, and Aretha Moon Blossom Moskowitz could find another hobby.
“I’ll get a book, Ivy. I mean, Priestess. I will. I’m sorry.”
Ivy tuned out the witch’s babbling and raised her hands in the air, opening herself to the elements and letting the biting rush of power flow into and through her. The sun was rising, offering its heat and energy to any who could reach out and grasp it. Ivy’s hair crackled with electricity and lifted into the nonexistent breeze to float around her head as she pulled enough power through herself to try again with the gemstone.
First, though, the shield. Brick by unseen, mental brick, she built the wall of silence and cover—the glamour that shielded them from inquiring eyes and unwanted attention. All anyone would see was a shimmer of heat on a sunny Arizona day. Normal, so very normal—and fewer than five small animals had to die to give her all that lovely power. Seemed like a fair enough trade. There were certainly rodents enough out here in the almost-wilderness.
Aretha squeaked with delight as the shimmer of Ivy’s power floated around and over them. The view from the opening of the room in which they stood was now like looking through lightly frosted glass, and Ivy knew from experience that she’d succeeded perfectly. No rangers or guests were scheduled to enter the castle structure for any reason today, or so her sources had told her, and it was still well before the park operational hours, in any case.
Time for the main event.
She returned to the spiral design, etched so long ago into the wall, and took a deep breath. She’d found it almost by accident the first time, in spite of the vampire, drawn to the site by the booming waves of energy that had centered here during the last thunderstorm. She loved driving around in storms, attracted by the raw power of nature’s fury. Ian had liked to go with her when he was a baby, and the sounds of the storm had made him laugh and then lulled him to sleep. But thirteen-year-old boys rarely wanted to hang out with their mothers, and she wouldn’t want him to see this morning’s work anyway.
The results, perhaps. When she was so powerful that nobody could ever harm them. Then she would teach him. He was almost old enough to come into his own powers.
“Um, Priestess?” Aretha’s hesitant voice jolted Ivy out of her reverie. “That drawing is glowing. Is that supposed to happen?”
“Oh, yes.” Ivy carefully curved her hand to curl around the outside of the spiral and then flattened her palm to cover it. Just like last time, when she’d first found it, the heat of the power surge inside the wall felt like it was searing her skin from her hand. She’d wrenched her hand away, only to discover that the heat was magically created and had done her skin no actual harm. The gem had been almost in her grasp, but when she’d pulled her hand away it had disappeared into the wall again.
She wouldn’t make the same mistake this time. She clenched her jaw tight against crying out, in case any sound would cause a glitch in the magic. The familiar spinning feeling of vertigo channeled through chaos began to manifest ; first in her hand and then rapidly traveling up her arm and through her body in both directions. Her head started to feel wobbly, and her torso tightened as the magic pulsed and swirled, and finally—just when the nausea threatened to force her to release her hold—finally, deep in the stone of the wall, she could hear the resonance of the spell’s connection.
The sound echoed through Ivy’s bones, and dimly, as if from miles away, she saw Aretha fall to her knees. If the deep toll of a cathedral’s bell could echo through a thunderstorm, this would be the sound it created. Deep, profound, and laced with unknowable meaning. Plaster and stone became permeable and then vanished under Ivy’s hand, and the rich purple glow of the gem filled the narrow opening.
“Oh, come to Mama,” she whispered, unable to help it, as a tingle of delicious anticipation raced through her. If she was correct, she would soon be holding an object of power that nobody had touched in more than a thousand years.
The gem floated through the air toward her, and the sound emanating from it softened to a gentle humming noise, almost as if the stone itself were anticipating reaching her, too. Ivy shivered, finally admitting, if only to herself, that she was slightly afraid. She had no idea what power this stone might contain. Only the vampire’s hints of a mystical prophecy from ancient times had guided her decision to return and try again.
Well. That and his threats.
Although the question she’d left unanswered in her greedy desire to obtain the stone still nagged at the back of her mind: how had Nicholas known exactly what gem she’d been talking about?