The figure slipped silently into the room. The deep gray cloak it wore covered most of its body; the hood shielded its features as it moved with inhuman silence. But it was not inhuman; Gideon was reminded of that fact by the solid beat of its heart, and the alluring scent that pricked his appetite. But this human, especially this one, was completely off limits if he was to keep his life. Although he couldn’t see the features, he knew that it was female, knew who it was by the sweet aroma she emitted. No, no matter how hungry he may be at the moment, he would not touch this one. He valued his life far too much to do such a thing. He’d eat rats first. She stopped before his desk, her head bowed as she inhaled a small breath. Slowly, ever so slowly, she lifted her head and drew back the hood. Her dark auburn hair was the color of blood in the candlelight that flickered over it. Her features, though pretty, were not stunning, especially not under the pallor that now marked her normally healthy hue. Her hand trembled, but there was a steely resolve about her that Gideon couldn’t help but admire. “I spoke with Jack and Ashby.” Gideon froze for a moment, his hand tightened around the pen he was holding.
“I see.” Her mouth was pinched, her eyes steady despite the tumultuous fear and anguish he sensed rolling just beneath her seemingly calm exterior. “I understand what needs to be done.” Gideon let go of the pen before he snapped it in half. He didn’t care about the instrument, but he was far too meticulous to have ink coating him. “You do?” For a brief moment tears shimmered in her eyes before she blinked them back, thrust out her chin and nodded firmly. “I do.” “He cannot know about this.” “He won’t.” Gideon was silent for a long moment.
“The bond cannot be completed.” She winced as a flash of grief struck her like lightening. For just a moment her composure seemed to crumple. “It won’t,” she whispered. Gideon didn’t know what to say, he hadn’t known what to expect from her or how she would react to what Jack and Ashby had to say to her. He realized now that he should have known this was the path she would take, that she would not shy away from this. She turned away from him, but her step wasn’t so sure, or as silent, as she made her way to the door. “You know what this may mean for you?” he inquired before she could escape. She stopped in the doorway, her head turned back to him as she studied him over her shoulder. She swallowed heavily as she managed another stiff nod.
“If we are unable to dilute his blood in me my death may be the only solution to separating us for good.” He was immobile, struck by the fact that this young girl was able to see what the others refused to. “And you accept this?” “It’s what I came to you for,” she breathed. That answer didn’t surprise him either, he was the only one she could turn to in order to ensure such a thing was carried out. “No one else can know about this.” “They won’t,” she vowed. He realized he’d just made a deal with the devil as she slid the hood back over her head and slipped from the room. CHAPTER 1 The Barrens. The place where horror stories were born, cautionary tales were exchanged and people were frightened by the mere thought of entering them. They were desolate, somehow cold, even with the sun relentlessly pounding the earth around them.
There were few people that had entered The Barrens and ever come back. The ones that did often ranted of strange creatures, monsters that hunted within the sand, appeared out of nowhere, and were even more vicious than the vampires. Few believed the extent of the stories, but even fewer wandered into The Barrens after hearing them. And now they were here, preparing to jump head first, straight into hell. They had traveled hundreds of miles through her forest to this godforsaken land of sun and sand. The supposed new home of the vampires that had at one time been some of the most spoiled aristocrats. They were the aristocrats that had stood against the king during the war, and fled the palace when it became clear that they were not going to win and their lives would be forfeit. Aristocrats that Braith now sought to gain support from for this upcoming battle. That was, if they could ever find these mysterious vampires amongst the vast expanse of emptiness that unraveled beyond this last border town. The town was frightening enough, the lands beyond were overwhelming.
Aria wasn’t used to such emptiness, not after being surrounded by trees and caves for most of her life. Anxiety twisted within her belly. Sweat trickled down her back as she kept her head bowed and the hood pulled low over her brow. She could feel the curious stares burning through the dull gray cloak of the servant’s class covering her. Braith was stiff beside her, his shoulders squared as his body thrummed with tension. She didn’t know what to do with her hands as they walked silently down the street. She ached to reach out and touch him, to somehow connect with him but it was a move she knew she couldn’t make. She had to fight against the urge to look up. She itched to see the town they had entered, to take in the details of it, but she had been told repeatedly not to make eye contact. No matter how badly she wanted to look, she wasn’t about to endanger the men surrounding her by disobeying.
She started as Braith suddenly grasped her upper arm, swallowing it within his massive hand. Immediately her skin heated to his touch, and though they were in this awful place a low sigh of pleasure escaped her. Her heart leapt in her chest, longing spread through her as her toes curled in her battered shoes. “Keep your head down.” Braith seemed to have sensed her wish to look around. Her shoulders slumped, her gaze focused on the dusty, pitted road. Beside her, she could feel William’s growing resentment at being ordered around and having to maintain a subservient demeanor. From the corner of her eye she could see more people moving to the side of the road. Well, at least some of them were people. The others, they were something else entirely and not at all who Braith and Ashby were looking for.
These were the more lawless vampires, and therefore more unpredictable than those living within and around the palace, even though these vampires still lived under the king’s laws here. She had seen far too many of these beaten and broken towns with their battered and starving occupants lately. Sometimes she feared that they would never find what Braith and Ashby sought, and that perhaps the legends and rumors of the surviving aristocrats were just that, legends and rumors. Though it felt like they’d walked forever, it had in fact only been two days since they had turned the horses loose at the edge of The Barren’s. Aria refused to bring the animals with them if there was no guarantee they could feed or water them, so after riding for two weeks, they had been forced to walk. If she was honest with herself, two weeks wasn’t that much time, she had spent far more time away from home than this. It only seemed so awful because she was never given a moment alone with Braith, they were never allowed to be on their own as either William was standing protectively close, or Ashby was quick to intervene. Aria understood her brother, it annoyed her, but she understood his determination to stubbornly try and protect her virtue. It was actually a little amusing coming from William, the man that had left broken hearts in every corner of the forest. However, Ashby’s interference was beginning to grate on her last nerve.
It was most certainly annoying Braith as he’d completely lost his temper with Ashby when he had unapologetically followed them into the woods yesterday. It had only been Aria’s interference that had kept Braith from completely losing control. He hadn’t even had a chance to feed from her since they’d left Ashby’s rambling tree house. Aria ached for the renewal of the bond, ached to establish that connection with Braith again. She hoped that once they arrived at their destination they would finally be rewarded with some time alone again, but until then she was well aware that her two guard dogs, as she now thought of them, were not going to be shaken. Oh well, there were many things she wished were different right now. She missed her father; she’d barely had time to speak with him before they had been separated again. He had been uneasy and somewhat uncertain as to what was going on between her and Braith. Her father seemed to want to believe that she really did love Braith, and that Braith did in fact return that love. However, she worried that a part of him still believed that the bond they had forged was only due to her time spent as Braith’s blood slave.
She may be almost eighteen, but her father had still been wary of letting her go with Ashby and Braith, had absolutely refused to let it happen until Braith had finally relented and agreed to let William come along with them. Even then, her father was still hesitant to let them go. However, this mission was necessary to try and gain some much needed vampire support for a war against the king, and there was absolutely no way that Braith was going to leave without her. The whole situation nearly turned into a debacle that had threatened to unravel the tentative plans they had formed to overthrow Braith’s father. Cooler heads had finally prevailed, mainly Jack’s and surprisingly, William’s. Her father had wanted Jack with them on this journey, he trusted Jack, but so did many of her father’s followers in the rebellion. If any of the people in the rebellion were going to believe that the vampires were willing to ally themselves with humans, then her father would require Jack’s help to convince them. Jack would also be essential to help convince the young vampire girl’s village, and other vampire villages, to possibly aid them in their quest. Her brother Daniel, as their father’s second in command, had also been needed to help gather human forces. And Max, poor Max, well he hadn’t been able to get away from her fast enough.
Tears clogged her eyes and throat. Max had sacrificed himself to try and save her when she had been taken as a blood slave, and now he hated her. So much, in fact, that Aria was terrified he would never forgive her. That he would despise her and everything she was, for the rest of her life. She loved Max and this whole situation broke her heart. He had been her first crush, her first kiss, her best friend and confidante when she’d been so alone and broken by the revelation of Braith’s engagement to another vampire. Max had understood what she had endured as a blood slave, even if it was nowhere near as hideous as the torture and abuse he had suffered. And now he didn’t understand or even tolerate her existence at all. He saw her love for Braith as a betrayal, one that she didn’t think he’d ever forgive. Braith’s sister, and Ashby’s bloodlink Melinda, had reluctantly agreed to return to the palace to be their inner eyes and ears.
Aria had understood Melinda’s pain as she and Ashby embraced and touched and cried with each other. She knew how they felt; she couldn’t bear the thought of being apart from Braith for so long, even if it was for a good cause. Ashby had agreed to come with them knowing that if they succeeded in their goal, he and Melinda would never have to be separated again, or risk their lives in order to see one another. Ashby was almost as determined as Braith to overthrow the regime. That was if their plan succeeded. If they could somehow convince these possibly half crazed, half starved aristocratic vamps to aide them in their quest. She hoped they weren’t crazed, hoped that a hundred years in this land of sweltering heat hadn’t fried their brains. More so, she hoped like hell that the four of them weren’t walking right into a death trap. She didn’t mean to do it, but without thinking her head rose slowly to Braith. She needed to see him, needed the reassurance of his presence.
Even though his eyes were shaded by his dark glasses, she knew the moment when they latched onto hers. Her heart lurched; she could barely breathe beneath the weight of that stare. He was magnificent, and he was hers. She knew he wanted to tell her to look away, to look down. She saw it in the tight pinch of his mouth, in the muscle that jumped in his cheek. He remained silent though, his eyes locked onto hers and for a single moment it was just the two of them. His hand stroked her arm as he pulled her a step closer. “We’re almost there,” he murmured so quietly that she barely heard him. “Please Aria, look down.” Ashby quirked an eyebrow but refrained from saying anything.
It was strange to hear the prince say please to anyone, let alone her, a human, a blood slave, a rebel. She was still surprised to hear him call her Aria, as he had always used her full name, but being around people that didn’t use it had finally started to rub off on him. She sighed and reluctantly did as he asked. The tension in his body notched up a level; she knew he was struggling not to grab hold of her and run out of this town. To run would only attract more attention though, and possibly entice the thrill of the hunt. And there would be no more running, not anymore. Aria shifted uncomfortably. She hated the coarse wool and dull color of the servant’s class cloak she wore; she despised even more what it represented. She had resented the golden chain that bound a blood slave to their master but this cloak was worse. At least the chain had marked her as a fighter, someone not to be trusted, someone that had rebelled and been made to pay for that rebellion.
As far as she was concerned, the cloak signified a coward and a traitor that had bowed to the vampire race. More legs gathered by the side of the road and whispers began to spread through the crowd. These outer vamps weren’t used to strangers and they were wary and distrustful of them. Though they had not encountered any problems so far, Aria doubted they would be so lucky all the time. The vampire’s that lived here were hungry, and so were the people. They were poor, and strangers offered them a new opportunity for fresh blood, perhaps even money. If Braith didn’t emanate such an aura of power and dominance, she was sure they would have been jumped before this town, even with Ashby at their side. The whispers grew louder; they grated against her skin as harshly as the coarse cloth covering her head. Dust drifted up around them, it stuck in her nose and throat. It was cloying, awful.
The town smelled of blood, body odor and death. The woods weren’t like this. Though they held the smell of decay, it was the earthy decay of leaves and dirt. Fresh air was what she required, freedom, and Braith. Braith suddenly grasped hold of her hood and jerked it forward. Aria had been so entrenched in her thoughts that she hadn’t realized it had slipped back to reveal her hairline, and some of her features. It wasn’t that anyone would recognize her, they were far more likely to recognize him, but Braith was adamant that she stay as covered as possible. He thought her blood was too big of a lure, Aria felt it was only a lure to him, but she wasn’t going to argue just in case he happened to be right. She wasn’t in the mood to be a snack for a pack of blood thirsty vampires, none of them were. She moved to adjust the hood but he grasped hold of the hand exposed by the movement and pulled it smoothly down to her side.
“Remain covered Aria.” This time it wasn’t the touch of him that caused her heart to leap and her chest to constrict, but the tone in his voice. She was frightened by what might be unleashed if she looked up. A tremor worked through her. Braith was strong and powerful, but the circumstances of the past two weeks had forced him to feed from animals instead of her. And though animals sustained him, human blood was better, and her blood strengthened him even more. She had a strange effect on him, she empowered him in ways that neither of them had ever imagined possible. And now, when he needed that strength most, he was being denied it. And they may all be about to pay for that if the increasing crush of bodies around them was any indication. “Are you willing to sell one?” a loud voice inquired.
Braith raised his arm, pushing it against her chest as he halted her beside him. It went against everything she was, but somehow she managed to keep her head bent and her appearance demure. William took two more steps forward before Ashby, in a far less graceful manner than Braith, jerked him to a stop by the collar of his robe. Though Ashby remained expressionless, his bright green eyes twinkled with amusement as William grunted slightly. The two of them had gotten along well enough, but they tended to pick at each other, sometimes to the point that Aria became exasperated with their delight in tormenting each other. William bristled against the highhanded treatment, but thankfully her hot-tempered twin managed to keep his calm. There was a moment of silence as the town became hushed in expectancy of Braith’s answer. He didn’t know these lands, didn’t know the people or the etiquette that prevailed here. In their land servants were not sold, they were not owned and traded like the blood slaves. That may not be the case here.
“They are not for sale,” Braith finally answered. A pair of legs stepped forward, separating themselves from the crowd. The clothing on these legs was of much higher quality than the ones surrounding it. Even with the sand swirling around them the shoes somehow remained black and shiny. “You look hungry,” the legs stated. “I will make a trade. Two for one.” Her heart was in her throat, goose bumps tickled her skin. “Why would you make such a trade?” Braith demanded.