The Chosen – J. R. Ward

Firelight thrown from a shallow pit clawed across the damp walls of the cave, the rough rock face bleeding shadows. Outside the earthen womb, a great snowstorm raged, howls of bitter wind echoing into the throat of the shelter, joining the screams of the female upon the birthing pallet. “’Tis a male young,” she panted a’twix her contracting burden. “A male!” O’er her recumbent, straining flesh, looming as a curse upon her, the Black Dagger Brother Hharm cared naught for her pain. “We shall learn soon enough.” “You will mate me. You promised—” Her words choked of and her face squeezed into ugliness as her innards contorted to expel his progeny, and as he played witness, Hharm reflected how unattractive this aristocrat was in her laboring. She had not been thus when he had first met her and seduced her. Then, she had been proper and satin-clad, an appropriate vessel for his legacy with perfumed skin and shining, bouncy hair. Now? She was nothing but an animal, sweated and stringy—and whyever was this taking so long? He was so bored by the process, of ended that he had to attend to her. This was the work for females, not a warrior such as himself. But he was not mating her unless he had to. If this was the son he had prayed for? Then yes, he would legitimize the young through a proper ceremony and give this female the status she was calling her due. If not? He would walk away and she would say nothing, because in the eyes of her class, she was be-fouled, her purity lost as her field had been plowed. Indeed, Hharm had decided it was time for him to settle down.

After centuries of debauchery and depravity, his age was setting upon him and he was considering for the first the legacy he would leave behind. At the current, bastards abounded, fruits of his loins that he knew not of, cared not for, associated never with—and for so long, that had been an acceptable by-product of him being accountable to naught and no one. Now, though … he found himself wanting a proper family tree. And there was also the issue of a number of wagering debts, something this female’s father could readily discharge for him— although again, if this was not a son, he was not mating her. He wasnae crazed, nor willing to whore himself out for pence. Further, there were countless females from the glymera who coveted the status that came with mating a member of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. Hharm would not commit until he had a male of spring to raise properly from night one. “Oh, do compose yourself,” he snapped as she screamed again and his ears rang. “Be silent.” As with all things, however, she defied him.

“It’s coming …! Your son is arriving!” The shift she had on was dragged up to the base of her distended breasts by her twisting, fisted hands, her stretched and rounded belly put on a shameless display, her thin and pale thighs spread wide. What transpired at her core was disgusting, that which should have been a delicate and lovely entry for to accept the arousal of a male leaking all manner of fluid and discharge, the flesh swollen and distorted. No, he would ne’er penetrate that again. Son or naught, mating or not, the perversion upon his eyes the now was nothing he could unsee. Fortunately, matings of convenience were commonplace among aristocrats—not that he would have cared if they were not. Her needs were hardly what was important. “He is upon you!” she shouted as her head fell back and her fingers scratched at the earth beneath her. “Your son … he is upon you!” Hharm frowned and then widened his stare and his stance. She was not misapprised. For truth, there was a thing emerging from her interior … it was … An abomination.

A terrible, misshapen— A foot. ’Twas a foot? “Take your son from my body,” she commanded between pants. “Pull him from me and hold him upon your beating heart, know he is flesh of your flesh!” With his weapons and his battle gear latched upon his form, Hharm sank unto his knees as a second foot emerged. “Pull him! Pull him!” Blood came forth and the female screamed again and the young did not vary its position. “Help me! He is af ixed!” Hharm stayed back from the straining mess and wondered how many of the females he had impregnated had gone through thus. Was it always so unpleasant, or was she just weak? For truth, he should have let her do this on her own, but he did not trust her. The only way he could be certain that his young was male was to be at the birthing bed. Otherwise, he would nae have put it past her to swap out a far less desirable daughter for the coveted masculine of spring —of another’s loins. This was, after all, a negotiated transaction, and he knew all too well how such things were readily tampered with. The sound that next arose from the female’s open throat was of such volume and duration that it stopped his thoughts.

Then came the grunting, the female’s dirty, bloodied hands gripping the insides of her thighs and pulling up and out, widening the gulch at her apex. And just when he thought for certain she was dying, when he debated whether he would have to bury them both— and he promptly decided not, as the creatures of the woods would consume the remains readily— the young popped forward some distance, clearing some internal obstacle. And there it was. Hharm lunged forth. “My son!” Without another thought, he reached out his hands and grabbed hold of the slippery little ankles. It was alive, the young was kicking with force, struggling against the confinement of the birthing canal. “Come to me, my son,” Hharm commanded as he pulled. The female writhed in agony, but he gave no thought to her. Hands—tiny, perfectly formed hands—appeared next, along with the rounded belly and the chest that even in its nascent form promised great breadth. “A warrior! ’Tis a warrior!” Hharm’s heart beat hard, his triumph thundering in his ears.

“My son shall carry forth my name! He shall be known as Hharm as I was before he!” The female lifted her head, the veins in her neck standing out like coarse ropes under her toopale skin. “You shall mate me,” she rasped. “Swear to it … swear to it on your honor, or I shall hold him within me until he turns blue and enters the Fade.” Hharm smiled coldly, baring his fangs. And then he unsheathed one of his black daggers from his chest. Angling the sharp point down, he placed it over her lower belly. “I will gut you like a deer to free it quite readily, nalla.” “And who would feed your precious son? Your seed shall not survive without me to succor him.” Hharm thought about the raging storm outside. How far they were from vampire settlements.

How little he knew of a young’s requirements. “You will mate me as promised,” she groaned. “Swear it!” Her eyes were bloodshot and crazed, her long hair sweated and tangled, her body naught that he could e’er a’rise again for. But her logic arrested him. To lose what he wanted in the face of precisely the arrangement he had been prepared to make, simply because she was presenting it as her will, was not a wise course. “I swear it,” he muttered. With that, she bore down anew, and yes, now he would aid her, tugging in rhythm to her pushes. “He is coming … he is …” The young arrived out of her in a rush, fluid bursting forth with him, and as Hharm caught his son in his palms, he knew an unexpected joy that was so resonant— His eyes narrowed as he cast his vision upon the face. Thinking that there was membrane or the like masking the young, he cast his hand down the features that were a mixture of his and the female’s. Alas … it changed naught.

“What curse is this?” he demanded. “What curse … is this!” ONE MOUNTAINS OF CALDWELL, NEW YORK, PRESENT DAY The Black Dagger Brotherhood were keeping him alive, so that they could kill him. Given the sum of Xcor’s earthly pursuits, which had been at their best violent, and at their worst downright depraved, it seemed an apt end for him. He had been born upon a winter’s night, during a historic blizzard’s gale. Deep within a damp and dirty cave, as icy gusts had raked o’er the Old Country, the female who had carried him had screamed and bled to bring forth unto the Black Dagger Brother Hharm the son that had been demanded of her. He had been desperately wanted. Until he had fully arrived. And that was the beginning of his story … which had ultimately landed him here. In another cave. On another December’s eve.

And as with his actual birth, the wind howled to greet him, although this time, it was a return to consciousness as opposed to an expelling unto independent life that brought him forth. As with a newly born young, he had little control over his body. Incapacitated he was, and that would have been true even without the steel chains and bars that were locked across his chest, his hips, his thighs. Machines, at odds with the rustic environs, beeped behind his head, monitoring his respiration, heart rate, blood pressure. With all the ease of unoiled gears, his brain began to function properly beneath his skull, and when thoughts finally coalesced and formed rational sequences, he recalled the series of events that had resulted in him, the leader of the Band of Bastards, falling into the custody of what had been his enemies: an attack upon him from behind, a concussive fall, a stroke or some such that had rendered him prone and on life support. At the non-extant mercy of the Brothers. He had surfaced unto awareness once or twice during his captivity, recording his captors and his whereabouts in this earthen corridor that was inexplicably shelved with jars of all kinds. The returns to consciousness had never lasted long, however, the connectivity in his mental arena unsustainable for any length of time. This emergence was different, however. He could sense the shift within his mind.

Whate’er had been injured had finally healed and he was back from the foggy landscape of neither-life-nor-death— and staying on the vital side. “… really worry about is Tohr.” The tail end of the sentence uttered by a male entered Xcor’s ear as a series of vibrations, the translation of which was on a delay, and whilst the words caught up to the syllables, he shifted his eyes over. Two heavily armed figures in black had their backs to him and he reclosed his lids, not wishing to reveal his change of status. Their identities were duly noted, however. “Nah, he’s tight.” There was a soft scratching sound and then the smell of rich tobacco rose up. “And if he slips, I’ll be there.” The deep voice who had first spoken became dry. “To chain our brother back in line—or help him murder this piece of meat?” The Brother Vishous laughed like a serial killer.

“Such a dim fucking view of me you got.” ’Tis a wonder we are not better aligned, Xcor thought. These males were as bloodthirsty as he. Such an alliance was never to be, however. The Brotherhood and the Bastards had been e’er on different sides of Wrath’s kingship, the line drawn by the path of the bullet Xcor had put into the throat of that lawful leader of the vampire race. And the price of his treason was going to be exacted here and soon upon him. Of course, the irony was that a countervailing force had since interceded upon his destiny and taken his ambitions and focus far, far from the throne. Not that the Brotherhood knew any of it—and nor would they care. In addition to sharing an appetite for war, he and the Brothers had in common another core feature: Forgiveness was for the weak, pardoning the act of the pathetic, pity a capacity possessed by females, never fighters. Even if they became aware that he no longer carried any aggression toward Wrath, they would not release him of the reckoning he had so rightfully earned.

And given all that had transpired, he was not bitter or angry at what was coming his way. It was the nature of conflict. He did find himself saddened, though—something that was not familiar to his makeup. From out of memory, an image came unto his mind and took his breath away. It was of a tall, slender female in the white robing of the Scribe Virgin’s sacred Chosen. Her blond hair waved down o’er her shoulders and trailed off at her hips on a gentle breeze, and her eyes were the color of jade, her smile a benediction he had done naught to deserve. The Chosen Layla was what had changed everything for him, recasting the Brotherhood from target to tolerable, from enemy to co-existable tenant in the world. In the short year and a half Xcor had known her, she had had more effect upon his black soul than anyone who had come before, evolving him a greater distance in a lesser time than he would have e’er thought possible. The Dhestroyer, Vishous’s fellow Brother, spoke anew. “Actually, I’m down with Tohr ripping him the fuck apart.

He’s earned the right.” The Brother Vishous cursed. “We all have. Gonna be hard to make sure there’s anything left at the end for him to have at.” And herein was the conundrum, Xcor thought behind his closed lids. The only possible way out of this deadly scenario was to reveal the love he’d found for a female who was not his, never had been, and was not e’er going to be. But he would not sacrifice the Chosen Layla for anyone or anything. Not even to save himself. As Tohr walked through the pine forest of the Brotherhood’s mountain, his shitkickers crunched over the frosted ground and a bracing wind hit him square in the face. In his wake, as tight on his heels as his shadow, he could feel his losses filing along with him, a grim, mournful lineup as tangible as chains.

The sense he was being pursued by his dead made him think about all those paranormal TV shows, the ones that tried to pin down whether ghosts actually existed. What a load of bullshit that was. The human hysteria around supposed misty entities floating up stairwells and making old houses creak with disembodied footsteps was so characteristic of that self-absorbed, drama-creating lesser species. It was one more thing Tohr hated about them. And as usual, they missed the point. The dead absolutely fucking haunted you, running their cold fingertips of remember-me up the back of your neck until you couldn’t decide whether you wanted to scream from missing them … or from wanting to be left alone. They stalked your nights and prowled your days, leaving a minefield of sorrow triggers in their path. They were your first and last thought, the filter you tried to push aside, the invisible barrier between you and everyone else. Sometimes, they were even more a part of you than the people in your life that you could actually touch and hold. So yeah, nobody needed a dumb-ass TV show to prove the already known: Even as Tohr had found love with another female, his first shellan, Wellsie, and the unborn son she had been carrying when she’d been murdered by the Lessening Society, were never further away from him than his own skin.

And now there had been yet another death in the Brotherhood household. Trez’s mate, Selena, had gone unto the Fade mere months ago, passing away from a disease for which there had been no cure and no relief and no understanding. Tohr hadn’t slept properly since. Refocusing on the evergreens around him, he ducked down and pushed a limb out of his way, and then sidestepped a fallen trunk. He could have dematerialized to his destination, but his brain was banging around so violently in the prison of his skull that he doubted he could have concentrated enough to go ghost. Selena’s death had been one big-ass fucking trigger for him, an event affecting third parties that had nonetheless grabbed his snow globe and shaken it so hard that his inner flakes were whizzing around and refusing to settle. He had been down in the training center when she had been called unto the Fade, and the moment of death had not been silent. It had been marked by a sound torn from Trez’s soul, the audio equivalent of a gravestone—and Tohr knew that one well. He’d done it himself when he’d been told about his own female’s death. So, yeah, on the wings of her love’s agony had Selena been carried forth from the earth unto the Fade— Dragging himself out of that cognitive loop was like trying to pull a car from a ravine, the effort required tremendous, the progress made inch by inch.

Onward through the forest, though, through the woods, through the winter night, crushing what was underfoot, with those ghosts of his whispering behind him. The Tomb was the Black Dagger Brotherhood’s sanctum sanctorum, that hidden site where inductions occurred, and secret meetings were held, and the jars of slain lessers were kept. Located deep within the earth, in a labyrinth created by nature, traditionally it was off-limits to anybody who hadn’t gone through the ceremony and been marked as a brother. That rule had had to bend, however, at least with respect to its quarter-mile-long entrance hall. As he came up to the cave system’s inconspicuous entrance, he halted and felt his anger surge. For the first time in his tenure as a brother, he was not welcome. All because of a traitor. Xcor’s body was in there on the far side of the gates, halfway down the shelved passageway, lying on a gurney, his life force monitored and kept going by machines. Until that bastard woke up and could be interrogated, Tohr was not allowed inside. And his brothers were right not to trust him.

As he closed his eyes, he saw his King shot in the throat, relived the moment when Wrath’s life had been slipping away along with his red blood, recast that scene as Tohr had had to save the last purebred vampire on the planet by cutting a hole in the front of his throat and sticking tubing from his Camelbak into that esophagus. Xcor had ordered the assassination. Xcor had told one of his fighters to put a bullet through that male of worth’s flesh, had plotted with the glymera to overthrow the rightful ruler—but the motherfucker had failed. Wrath had lived in spite of the odds, and in the first democratic election in the history of the race, had then been appointed the leader of all vampires, a position he now held by consensus as opposed to bloodline. So fuck you very much, you sonofabitch. Curling his hands into fists, Tohr easily ignored the creak of his leather gloves and the constriction along the backs of his knuckles. All he knew was a hatred so deep it was a mortal disease. Fate had seen fit to take three from his and his own: Destiny had stolen from him his shellan and his young, and then taken Trez’s love. You want to talk about balance in the universe? Fine. He wanted his balance, and that was only going to come when he snapped Xcor’s neck and gouged the fucker’s warm heart out from between his ribs.

It was about time for a source of evil to be taken out of commission and he was just the one to even the goddamn score. And the waiting was now over. As much as he respected his brothers, he was done cooling his jets. Tonight was a sad anniversary for him and he was going to give his mourning a special little present. Party time.

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