Book excerpt

Gates of Rapture

The Guardians of Ascension

Caris Roane

St. Martin's Press

Understanding
Comes in its own time.
Collected Proverbs, Beatrice of Fourth

CHAPTER 1
 

Leto Distra, out of the Eastern European tribes over three thousand years ago, was no longer just vampire, but something more, something he despised.
He was now part beast, a form that he couldn’t control and which made a mockery of his life, his philosophies, and his civilized mind. At least he had a warning when the beast was about to emerge, a vibration that traveled down his left leg.
Sonofabitch, there it was. Very faint, which meant he had time—but not a lot—before he had to remove himself from everyone he knew.
He was dangerous in his beast-state, uncontrolled.
As he walked near the warrior-games contest grounds in the Seattle One hidden colony, he held a child in his arms. The toddler had his arm hooked around Leto’s neck, a great comfort. Leto kept his right hand free for his sword. He’d been a warrior too many centuries not to sustain the basics, and for days now he’d been on edge. Something was in the wind, as though a decision had been made about the future of Second Earth and the war with Darian Greaves.
He glanced up at the blue sky. Early September in the Cascade Mountains was a beautiful time of year and perfect for the games.
A cluster of children, mostly under the age of seven, dogged his heels as he took one last tour of the contest grounds. For some reason, kids liked him, and the truth was he enjoyed their attention. They eased him. Not much did these days, not with Grace gone from his life these past five months. He missed her and he needed her. He was a beast clawing to break out of his cage.
Adjacent to the event grounds was a fair-like atmosphere that resembled something from medieval days, lots of colorful tents bearing handcrafted objects ready for sale. Other booths would soon become aromatic with food grown, slaughtered, steamed, and barbecued by the locals.
His stomach growled at the thought.
Hundreds of feet overhead, an innovative mist created a protective veil over the land that only the most powerful could see and which always confused the human mind. Anyone drawing near the dome of mist would experience disorientation and would turn to head in the opposite direction. In this manner, all the hidden colonies of Mortal Earth had escaped detection for three millennia, from the time the first colony was created.
The leader of the Seattle Colony, Diallo, had spent centuries perfecting his mossy-mist creation. He also checked the viability of the veil several times a day, especially since, only a few months ago, the colony had been breached by the enemy for the first time in its long history.
That breach, unfortunately, meant that a second attack wasn’t so much a probability as an eventuality. One day, Greaves and his merry band of death vampires would find a way in. And then what?
He glanced at Brynna. She walked beside him, on his left, and just a little ahead of him.
How we doin’? he sent. It was easy to contact her telepathically, because over the past few months they’d become good friends.
Brynna was also in constant telepathic contact with the colony’s Militia Warrior Section Leaders who were right now patrolling the external edges of the mist-dome, a thirty-mile perimeter.
She glanced at him, gave a single nod, then continued the telepathic communication. Three of the squads are inbound with more discovery.
Shit.
Exactly. This ain’t good.
He looked up, his gaze shifting across an intense blue sky above, searching for a sign of death vampires. The Seattle Colony was hidden deep in the Cascade Range well to the east of the large city. All the hidden colonies were named for the largest cities or towns nearest them.
Greaves and his minions are getting closer, Leto sent.
Yep. There’s no debating the situation anymore. Gideon said his team picked up five more little black boxes. The techs are working on them as we speak, but everyone agrees that they’re probably transmitters of some kind.
The first black box had been discovered the day before. It’s just a matter of time, then. God help us. And if Greaves can subdue the colonies worldwide, he’ll take all the refugee Seers and put them to work in his Second Earth facilities in South Africa, Colombia, and India. He’ll finally have the advantage he’s been working toward for the past fifteen years.
Hey. A little perspective here, Leto. You’ve brought the Militia Warriors up to speed in every hidden colony around the globe, and we even have reinforcements from Second. Jean-Pierre’s been bringing MW powers online, and that wouldn’t have happened otherwise for another millennium. We’re stronger than you think. We can protect our Seers from anything he throws at us.
I’ve just been uneasy for the past few days. Can’t explain it, like I can feel forces moving into position.
You are so damn negative.
Tell me I’m wrong.
I’ll do one better. I’ll tell you what your real problem is: You need to get laid.
Okay, Brynna had a point. He chuckled.
That’s better, asshole. Just remember, you built a strong force here on Mortal Earth and tied it to Thorne’s army on Second. We’re not helpless anymore. Trust in that, beast-man.
Beast-man.
He laughed. Brynna always made him laugh.
She smiled as she swept her gaze forward in the direction of the event grounds. Do you see this obstacle set? I’m going to win it tonight.
He shifted the child in his arms, getting a little more comfortable as he moved steadily forward. A stack of logs fifteen feet long, bark still on and braced by huge steel girders, climbed at a steep angle sixty feet into the air. Creating the obstacle-set had been a feat all by itself, but the Thunder God Warriors—the nickname for all Militia Warriors in any country—had outdone themselves.
The teamwork required to pull the games together had been an army-growing exercise. And if Leto knew one thing, it was how to build an army.
He stopped and stared up at the precise stack of logs. To win this set, a warrior would have to possess thighs of granite and speed, extraordinary speed, preternatural speed.
You haven’t got a chance in hell, he sent. He loved poking the bear.
She turned and glared at him. Like hell I don’t.
He merely smiled.
She rolled her eyes. If all those brats weren’t hanging on you, like you were Christ or something, I’d flip you off.
Brynna learning restraint? he sent. Impossible.
She sighed. I’m trying.
Brynna had been one of the biggest surprises of his life, and a good one at that. She was tall, six-two, and had a couple of tattoos and piercings, straight black hair just past her shoulders, and steel-gray eyes. She was a refugee Seer, having escaped from a Seers Fortress a few centuries ago. Through the future streams, Diallo had found her and brought her to the colony to escape Second Earth Seer oppression.
She liked men, and more recently she’d discovered she liked making war. She was now a Militia Warrior.
She’d suggested more than once that they take their friendship to a much more productive level, but he’d refused. Sex with Brynna would have been wrong. She was his friend. No, she was more than that. She was his best friend. As much as he wanted to take a woman into his bed, he valued all that she was in his life way too much to dilute it with sex.
But there was another reason he’d refused.
His breh had shown up in the form of Warrior Thorne’s sister: Grace Albion. Her surname was an ancient designation the family had all but dropped. Grace and Thorne’s family originally came from the British Isles. Everyone knew her simply as Grace. But oh, God, even thinking about her brought a flush rising to his skin.
He took a few deep breaths. Thoughts of Grace tended to bring on his beast more quickly. Sure enough, the vibration strengthened, so shit.
But Grace was gone. She’d been gone all these months, having left with the Fourth ascender, Casimir, to who the hell knew where. Because no one could find her in the future streams, not even Marguerite, Thorne’s powerful Seer breh, it was presumed Grace was off-dimension. He wouldn’t be surprised if Casimir had taken her to his home world, Fourth Earth. Casimir wasn’t a warrior, just some very powerful but worthless hedonist who had also caught Grace’s breh-scent and somehow enticed her to go with him.
But all of it was a nightmare starting with the bizarre fact that Grace had caught the scent of not one but two brehs: himself and Casimir. The breh-hedden alone was such a new concept on Second Earth that no one could explain why Grace had actually ended up with two.
But Grace had taken it in stride, one of her many fine qualities, even if the situation had ruined something in Leto’s heart. She seemed to have a strong intuition that her bizarre connection to Casimir was necessary, to Leto’s survival as well as her own. So instead of completing the bonding ritual of the breh-hedden with Leto, she’d taken off with Casimir, convinced she had to for all their sakes.
He was still pissed off as hell about Grace leaving, but he couldn’t exactly complain since she was better off with anyone other than his own sweet self. He had issues, maybe a hundred of them. But having served as a spy would do that to a man, split his soul deep, make him question everything. He was still recovering from that mission. Though well out of it, a century of living apart from his warrior brothers and of joining forces with a hated enemy had done a number on his mind.
That he was still alive seemed like some kind of cosmic joke. He deserved to die. He knew it, and there were way too many nights when, yeah, that was exactly what he wanted. He’d betrayed his warrior brothers and he’d betrayed Endelle, the leader of Second Earth, by building an army of two million on behalf of that bastard Darian Greaves.
Of course, he’d had no other choice. To have refused would have cost him his mission and his life. He’d agreed to become a spy on behalf of the Council of Sixth Earth because they needed a constant stream of data about Greaves in order to know when and how legally they could act in the affairs of Second Earth.
Leto’s handler, James, had assured him that despite the army Leto had built for Greaves, all the information he’d gathered would more than compensate for his work as a spy. Leto wasn’t convinced, but he had to trust that James, and all his Sixth Earth wisdom, would be able to shape the future in a way that prevented an annihilation of the innocent.
Maybe one day he’d know whether or not the horrendous things he’d done would be justified by lives saved in the future. He sure as hell hoped so, because right now his conscience was killing him.
He glanced at Brynna once more. She helped keep his head on straight. He owed her a lot. And when he went beast, which seemed to be happening more and more often, she made sure he got to the basement of his cabin so he couldn’t accidentally hurt anyone.
One of the kids walking beside him said, “I’ll be the champion of the warrior games one day.”
Leto looked down at the boy, who was maybe seven years old. He held his shoulders back as though trying to measure up to warrior status. His eyes had a certain glow, a familiar light. Leto had been that age when he knew that what he wanted from life was to be the best warrior of his tribe. From the first, he longed to join the warriors on their hunts for food and in revenge assaults against their enemies.
The boy looked up at him and met his gaze. “I’m going to be a warrior.”
Leto smiled and nodded. “And so you will be.”
The boy smiled in return, then set his lips in a grim line and his face forward, into the future. Yes, he’d be a warrior.
He felt another vibration, stronger this time, like a nerve going haywire down his left leg from his hip to the sole of his foot. He took a deep breath. Tried not to panic.
A second tremor followed down his right leg.
So it had begun, and now he had a little over six minutes to get some shit done before heading to his goddam basement. Worse, he’d gone beast, as he liked to call it, only two days ago, which meant the frequency of the episodes had increased. But why was the question he couldn’t answer.
Nor did he understand why he went beast in the first place.
He’d been helping to train the colony’s Militia Warriors when his first real beast episode had occurred. He’d been working out in his basement, thank the Creator, when the whole thing had begun: the tingling down his leg followed a few minutes later by a transformation that bulked up his muscles an impossible forty pounds and increased his height another two inches. He’d been crazed during that time, unable to fold out of the basement, unable to leave because there were no doors. He’d built the damn thing as a private space, something he could only fold in and out of, but it had become a prison. In the end, he’d passed out. And when he woke up, he was back to normal.
After that, he’d suffered about every two weeks with the same episode. He had no clear idea what brought it on, but he was convinced that the beast he now endured was connected to his use of dying blood for the past century.
There had been an earlier hint that something was wrong during the time he’d tried to reintegrate back into the Warriors of the Blood five months ago. He’d been at the Awatukee Borderland, battling death vampires, when he’d lost his mind and torn a death vampire to pieces with his bare hands, even breaking apart the rib cage to get to the heart.
Luken, now the leader of the Warriors of the Blood, had sent him here to the Seattle hidden colony to begin the long process of recovering from so many decades under Greaves’s control and from the results of his long addiction to dying blood. For the most part, the assignment had worked. He was more himself than he’d been in a long time, despite his beast issue.
Brynna, he sent.
She turned toward him. I can feel it, Leto. The change, I mean. Basement time?
He nodded.
Aloud, she said, “We’d better get to HQ. Gideon will want to report in before you take off.”
“Absolutely.” Once he went beast, he could be out for hours.
He set the toddler down. The mothers and caregivers trailed at a distance. He turned to them and nodded.
They hurried forward and took over. Everyone knew of his disability and forgave him. The fact that they valued him made it all one big acid-on-skin experience.
A few moments later he and Brynna folded to the hidden colony’s military HQ.
*   *   *
Grace stood on the balcony of Beatrice’s floating palace, overlooking Denver Four half a mile below.
Everything had changed since her arrival five months ago with Casimir. Today, in just a few minutes, she would be leaving Fourth and returning to Leto. But how to say good-bye to both Casimir and Beatrice?
She held her spine straight, a reflection of her new determination. The hour had come for courage, and she meant to rise to the challenge. For her entire two thousand years of ascended life, she had kept herself apart from the war against Greaves. She had never wanted to engage in something that had hurt so many people she loved, most especially her brother, Thorne.
But today, all that changed. Today, she would begin her own campaign against Darian Greaves by returning to Second Earth and taking her place as the blue variety of obsidian flame. She had no idea whether she would bring something formidable against Greaves or not, but it didn’t matter. He was the monster that had required Leto to take dying blood for a full century in order to prove his loyalty to Greaves’s Coming Order. He had created a continual supply of death vampires to bolster his already massive army. Of course death vampires needed to be fed, so naturally Greaves had perfected the process of enslaving women to serve as blood slaves, an efficient method of creating dying blood through a process of killing the women off once a month then bringing them back to life with defibrillators. Heinous. Monstrous.
Greaves needed to be destroyed, and Grace had finally decided that she wanted more than anything to be part of that process.
She glanced down. Low clouds had begun to dissipate from around the dwelling so that she could finally see all of the city below. Many of the wealthier denizens of Fourth had homes built in the air, tethered to the earth by the sheer preternatural power of the owner.
In the same way that some Second ascenders could create and sustain microclimates in their gardens through the use of personal power, so Beatrice could keep her home floating in the air. The white marble palace literally floated in a fixed position above the earth, as did the attached land for the gardens and her rehabilitation pools. Even drastic changes in weather couldn’t budge the airborne estate.
To the north, another mansion was preparing to launch in a few weeks. Grace had hoped to see the event, but the time had come to put into effect a plan she had been forming for the past several months.
“Come sit with me for a few minutes,” Beatrice called out. “I would like to finish these last two skeins of yarn, if you are willing.” Beatrice enjoyed knitting and other needlework.
Grace turned to her, wondering how much Beatrice already knew about Grace’s intention to leave Fourth today. The woman had tremendous power, so perhaps she had known it from the first day of her arrival with Casimir.
She left her post by the balcony and strolled back into the well-appointed marble receiving room. “Of course I’m willing to help. And what will you make this time?”
“Probably another meditation shawl.”
Beatrice was a woman of endless good works, atoning for a terrible decision she had made to allow her young son to be fostered two thousand years ago. The tradition on Second Earth at the time was for all children, once they reached the age of five, to be sent to other tribal homes for care and raising. The result had been disastrous: The foster father had sexually abused and physically tortured the boy for years, ultimately releasing on Second Earth the psychopath known as Commander Darian Greaves.
To the sound of Bach and the delicate tinkling of a gentle nearby water fountain, therefore, Grace took her seat on an old-fashioned needlepoint footstool across from Beatrice. The large familiar round shape of the woman’s eyes still startled her, even after five months of living in Denver Four. They were the same eyes that belonged to Greaves.
As Grace slipped a loop of soft lavender mohair yarn over her arms, Beatrice picked up the growing ball, and the fluttering of fine mohair began.
“You’ve been very quiet all morning.” The woman’s voice was a lovely contralto, resonant, gentle, kind. Come to think of it, Greaves spoke like that as well, as though speech patterns and word choices, despite his despotic nature, had been transferred on a genetic level, from mother to son. Two ascenders could not have been more disparate, though, in terms of motive, intent, and general kindness.
Beatrice was a healer and philosopher, a collector of ancient proverbs and poems, a woman of great spiritual insight, a woman of love. She was one of the finest women Grace had ever known.
Her son was a sociopath tyrant.
Grace’s gaze fell and settled on one of the fine folds of light green silk of Beatrice’s gown. Beatrice always dressed formally and wore her thick red curls in elegant waves separated by strips of gold. Her appearance was very Mortal Earth Grecian. Even her house had a Mediterranean feel, made as it was from all that marble. She was quite wealthy and served on the Council of Fourth. She was one of the most distinguished citizens of her world, honored in particular for the development of her redemption program that had the power, once completed by the participant, to absolve and transform even the most hardened criminal.
Though Beatrice had never stated her original purpose in designing the program, Grace believed she hoped above all things that her son might return to her and begin the series of excruciating baptisms in her five graded pools. Each pool forced the participant to face his or her crimes, to experience an almost intolerable sensation of remorse, to plan extensive future acts of atonement, and ultimately to be completely changed and made new.
Grace sighed.
“And now a sigh.” The contralto blended seamlessly with the water, the music, and the light, but for a sudden moment Grace wanted to scream at all this perfection. What good was such a place on Fourth Earth when Greaves still lived, still continued to breed death vampires who in turn killed countless ascenders and mortals alike?
“So when are you leaving?”
Grace lifted her gaze to Beatrice. “Then you know?”
“I have felt it coming for days, and now you seem very much at peace yet removed at the same time.”
“I intend to leave after Casimir completes his immersions today.”
“You are changed, Grace, more determined than I have ever known you. I have also felt that you intend to go after my son. Is this true?”
Grace nodded. “And I will bring him to you if I can.”
“What made you come to this decision?”
As the yarn kept disappearing from around her hands, Grace said, “Many things, I suppose. Primarily that I can no longer ignore my obsidian flame power. It calls to me every day, like a burning flame in my soul. But I have watched so many suffer because of Greaves’s ambitions and manipulations. I thought that if I join Fiona and Marguerite, who each bear the obsidian flame power, then maybe the triad can bring him down at long last.”
Beatrice’s fingers moved swiftly over the ball of yarn. “So you will finally embrace your obsidian flame power. Good. It is the right thing to do on many levels.”
Grace nodded. “But it’s not my heart’s desire. I would prefer to stay here.”
“But not necessarily with Casimir?”
“No. That part of our relationship is at an end.”
“Have you even talked to him about leaving?”
“Not yet, but he suspects.”
For the first two months upon arriving on Fourth Earth, she had joined Casimir in his bed and become his lover. She had savored his practiced lovemaking, his beautiful mulled wine scent, and his soul that she could see so clearly, a soul so different from the self-absorbed life he had led.
Oddly, neither she nor Casimir had felt compelled to complete the breh-hedden ritual in which the sharing of blood, body, and deep-mind engagement occurred at the same time. He had felt unworthy of her, and she had a second breh in Leto who still had a role to play out in her life.
Then he had entered Beatrice’s program of redemption and her purpose in his life became clear to her. Casimir had needed to be redeemed, again for reasons she sensed would soon be revealed to her, but not here on Fourth Earth.
Beatrice had applauded her courage for leaving Second Earth with so notorious a figure as Casimir when everyone else would have condemned him as worthless.
Through one of Grace’s strongest gifts, she had seen his soul. She had seen the wonderful man he would have become had earlier parts of his life not been riddled with sexual slavery. He had shared so many things with her, horrifying things, about how he was used during the first millennium of his life. What else could he have become except a careless hedonist?
When she had left Leto to be with Casimir, she had experienced a profound prescience that Casimir was destined to die and that if she didn’t leave with him, Leto would die as well: To not love them both would be to lose them both.
She had no proof, just her ascender’s powerful intuition.
Casimir had understood this to be his truth as well: that his future was tied to Leto’s and in that intertwined fate, Casimir would surely die.
For that reason, she and Casimir had approached Beatrice about finding a way to prevent Casimir’s impending demise. Beatrice had taken their request seriously, and after praying and meditating for several days, she had returned with the firm conviction that the only way Casimir could prevent his death was by entering the redemption program. “But you must see it through,” she had said, “to the end, otherwise I can guarantee nothing for you. Do you understand?”
So Casimir had begun the program, hoping to alter his future.
But a surprise had followed, for from that first immersion into the initial graded baptismal pool, Grace had lost the ability to scent him and he could no longer smell what he called her meadow scent. At that point, she felt she understood something of the purpose of the breh-hedden between Casimir and herself: that she was the vehicle by which he could come to Fourth Earth and enter the redemption pools.
Grace had taken great comfort in this turn of events because leaving Leto behind had weighed down her heart. Her time with Casimir, despite how necessary it seemed to be, had been a betrayal of Leto. She could look at it no other way.
Yet in order to save them both, she’d had to align with Casimir first. Would Leto ever understand? Ever forgive her?
The process of being redeemed, however, had become a personal nightmare for Casimir. It involved a continual life review, and an exploration of every sin. Atonement was called for at each stage, and dear Creator, Casimir had so very much to atone for.
He had shaved off his beautiful dark curls as well, a sign of his determination. He was now bald and had tattooed his skull with Grace’s name, as well as the names of his children, Kendrew and Sloane, in an elegant dark blue script.
Almost as quickly, therefore, as the affair had begun, it had ended, and all Casimir’s energy had turned to the process of redeeming his life. Yet even though her desire for him had ended, still she loved him. She understood his worth and hoped that in time, he would at last be the man he was meant to be.
“In all of this,” Beatrice asked, intruding on Grace’s reveries, “what is your greatest concern?” Her fingers grew very still as she met Grace’s gaze.
Grace removed one hand from the loop of yarn and pressed it against her chest. “That even though I have set for myself such strong goals, like returning and participating in obsidian flame and going after Greaves, I still don’t feel real in my life, fully present.”
“You’re restrained,” Beatrice said. “It’s a very old habit of yours but not necessarily a bad one.”
“I suppose at times restraint has advantages, but sometimes I feel like a ghost in my own life.” She slipped her arm through the skein once more.
“What a strange thing to say. And yet I believe you are right. But are you sure you’re ready to return to Leto?”
Grace felt her desire for him flow through her, a tender wave of sensation that ended with her heart beating a little harder. “Yes. I have missed him so much.”
Beatrice smiled. “I believe you have loved him for a very long time. Centuries perhaps.”
Grace thought it possible. Leto had been the true desire of her heart, even when she’d been in the Convent. During those decades when she’d been a novitiate, she had written hundreds of erotic poems with him in mind, as though her soul had been calling to him all those years.
She had been in the Convent when her obsidian power had first emerged and led her to Moscow Two. She had experienced the strangest sensation and had actually split into an apparition-form that had carried her straight to him. That he had been able to see her had been a miracle all in its own, for even Greaves, who was there, hadn’t been able to see her.
She had saved him from certain death that night. Greaves had intended to kill him then and there. But Grace, in her apparition-form, had brought him safely back to the Convent. Later, she had taken him to the Seattle hidden colony. She then spent the next several days just keeping him alive by offering him her blood. Because Leto had been taking dying blood, at Greaves’s insistence, he was in a profound state of withdrawal that threatened his life.
Only when given Havily’s blood, which mimicked dying blood, did Leto finally begin to recover. Though the process remained a complete mystery, Havily’s blood had cured his addiction to dying blood.
Beatrice’s hands remained in her lap, her graceful fingers curled over the large lavender ball.
“You want to say something to me,” Grace said. “I have sensed it all morning.”
Beatrice’s shoulders dipped. “It is so cliché, and I’m embarrassed at the choice of proverb. I’ve searched my mind a thousand times for better words, but cannot find them. And there is my greatest vanity; I always wish to appear wise.”
Grace laughed, even though her heart was breaking. Her decision to leave had suddenly become very real, and she would miss both Beatrice and Casimir. She could feel change washing toward her, a break of endless waves that would not stop just because Grace wished it otherwise. “Just say it.”
Beatrice sighed. “Be true to yourself. There. Now you may mock me for my lack of originality.”
Grace wanted to laugh. “I want to do just that but I don’t understand who I am?”
“Understanding comes in its own time.” Beatrice put a hand to her chest and breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, that is much better. Don’t you agree?”
“You are quite absurd, my friend.”
“Yes. And I am vain. That I will admit. I am terribly vain. My greatest flaw. Something I am certain I passed on to my son.”
Grace laughed again. She might even have asked how she could know herself better, but at that moment she heard the tinkling of a bell, which meant that one of the apprentices was moving at a quick, levitating pace up the long marble hall. Everyone on Fourth moved with advanced levitation. Very few walked about as Grace did. Her own levitation powers were minimal compared with others’ on this world. But as the bell drew closer, Grace could sense that something was wrong. No one ever hurried as they moved about Beatrice’s home.
Casimir was in trouble. She could feel it now. She released a heavy breath and drew in an even deeper one. He was still at the pools.
Grace rose just half a second before Beatrice. The ball of yarn slipped from her forearms to drop to the marble and bounced off to Beatrice’s right.
The apprentice appeared, a petite black woman with diamonds laced through her braids.
“What is it, Eugenie?” Beatrice called out.
The woman put her palms together, her hands slanting toward the floor. “Forgive me, mistress, but Casimir says he must speak with Mistress Grace.”
Grace wanted to run to him. Her lover, her former lover, was in such agony, day in and day out. By Casimir’s account, the process was like having molten lava poured over his soul one minute out of every two.
“Where is he?” Beatrice asked.
“On the deck beside the third pool.”
“The third pool,” Beatrice cried. “Foolish vampire. He should not have done so. He had not even completed the proper sequence of baptisms for the second pool.” She nodded. “We will come to him at once.”
“Thank you, mistress. He … that is, we had to use the restraints.”
Grace repressed the tears that rushed to her eyes. She wanted to run to him, to fold to him. She even started to, but Beatrice held up her hand. “You must calm yourself. More is gained in situations like this with a tranquil spirit.”
Grace drew back then took yet another deep breath. Beatrice was right. She had learned one thing while sitting at Beatrice’s knee: As restrained as Grace was, and as much as some of that restraint had to leave, there were times when it was necessary.
Grace nodded.
Beatrice rose a foot above the polished marble floor and began to move in that same form of levitated flight, but very slowly.
Grace, lacking the power to achieve the same kind of movement, walked beside her in a measured maddening cadence. But not for a second did she lose that terrible urge to run to him.
*   *   *
Leto sat in his executive chair in the Seattle Colony’s Militia Warrior HQ at the far northern end of the narrow valley. The tremors were increasing. He had a little over four minutes.
Gideon stood in front of his desk wearing blood-spattered flight gear that also had bits of feathers and other debris stuck to it. He spoke quickly. He knew the drill with Leto. Everyone did. There weren’t many secrets in the relatively small community.
“The death vamps are getting closer. We ran into a couple of squadrons and took care of business. We offed eight of them. Big motherfuckers. We collected several more transmitters.”
Leto wanted to know more, but he spasmed deep in his gut and held up his hand. Thank the Creator that Gideon fell silent. This change was coming fast.
Leto rested his forearms on his chair and breathed through the agony that flowed within his veins, the latest turn in his splintered life. The addiction to dying blood was gone, at least the part that was like knives slicing up his intestines. When he had served as a spy and in order to sustain his mission, he took dying blood at Greaves’s insistence. For decades, Greaves had turned numerous members of the ruling council of Second Earth, known as COPASS, into hypocritical versions of death vampires. Greaves provided the dying blood so that his followers wouldn’t actually have to do the killing of mortals or ascenders themselves. He also provided the antidote, which served to halt the physical changes that dying blood created in the individual, even if the searing addiction remained.
A few months ago, when he’d been at the point of death, Leto had taken Havily’s blood, which had miraculously cured him of his addiction. Havily was Warrior Marcus’s breh, and the sharing of her unique blood with Leto had been a great kindness for which he would be forever grateful.
But something terrible remained, an incomprehensible residue that lived in his body. When the morphing occurred, he became like a tiger pacing the jungle floor, restless and starved, ready to attack.
He breathed again, but his shoulders strained forward and his spine arched.
The section leader wiped his forehead, which did little more than smear blood into his sweaty hairline. Gideon was a Militia Warrior operating at Warrior of the Blood status, thanks in part to his vampire DNA but in more recent months to Warrior Jean-Pierre’s newly acquired ability to channel warrior powers.
Everything was changing.
Finally, Leto was able to speak again. He looked up at Gideon once more. “Give me details,” he said, clenching his fists. He had maybe three minutes.
Gideon’s nostrils flared. “We tracked them into the mountains. The mist-dome seems to be holding. At every juncture within ten feet of the dome, the detail would turn away, but each time they did, another one of their group, observing at a distance, would lay down another transmitter.” He tossed the small black box onto the desk.
Leto stared at it. His cheeks cramped as a round of nausea swept over him. Still, he persevered. “Do we know exactly what this is yet?”
“The techs think it might be some kind of satellite mapping technology. We tried to get them all, but this is a huge perimeter.”
“Shit,” Leto muttered. “They’re mapping the location of the colony through negative space.”
“That’s what it looks like. Maybe they can’t see the mist, and maybe the mist turns them away, but laying out these transmitters will eventually create a map.”
“It also means we’ve run out of time.” He wasn’t even sure they’d get through the three days set aside for the warrior games.
Gideon seemed to settle into himself as he said, “Agreed.”
Leto turned the box over in his hand and breathed through another heavy vibration. This news wasn’t good, but his current physical situation right now was even worse. His vision had started the paring-down process; soon he would see everything through a black tunnel.
Brynna sent, You’ve got two minutes.
Got it.
He turned back to Gideon. He was really feeling the change coming. His lips parted and he started breathing through his mouth. He leaned forward in his chair. Could he even get the next set of words out?
“You and your men get cleaned up and double the patrols. Let’s get as many of these transmitters as we can. That should buy us some time.”
Gideon nodded, turned, and left the room. Thank God.
His breathing grew rougher, heavier. This one had come on so fast.
Shit.
“Get up,” Brynna said. “Now.”
He pushed up from the chair. Sweat popped all over his body.
By the time he stood, he was hunched and shaking. “Get me out of here,” he said, between clenched teeth.
He felt her palm on his shoulder. He cursed long and loud as the slide through nether-space began. He didn’t know why, but it hurt like a bitch to dematerialize when the transformation started.
He arrived in the basement of his cabin. He’d built his home deep in the forest, at the edge of the mist-dome, to keep what he went through as private as possible. He collapsed on the hard stone floor, laid and mortared by his own hands. He curled up in a fetal position, trying to stop the process.
“You gotta let go,” Brynna said. “Stop holding it in. Just let go, you idiot-bastard.”
He huffed a laugh. “I … don’t want … this.”
“I don’t know why not,” she said sarcastically. “You look so comfortable on the floor sweating like a pig.”
“Now get out of here. You know what happened last time.”
“Hey, the scars are almost gone.”
Again, he chuffed a laugh. Brynna was a powerful vampire. She’d stayed once, they’d fought, he’d cut her up some but she’d healed within an hour.
“Leave.”
“Fine. Just don’t soil yourself again.”
He coughed and laughed at the same time. “Bryn, you’re such a prick.”
“Thank you. Best compliment ever. Adios.”
As she dematerialized, he felt the faint movement of air over his boiling skin. The shaking started.
He breathed hard.
During the past few months, he’d tried everything under the sun to get over this condition, including weeks of therapy with Alison and even a blood transfusion.
When the shaking built so that he felt like every joint in his body would come apart, he let go of any hope that he could stop the process. In the hopelessness, however, came a kind of release, and he gave himself over to the change.
The shakes diminished as he pushed himself to his feet. He stripped off his clothes. They would be no good to him anyway in the next few minutes. They wouldn’t fit. He’d learned that much—to get rid of his clothes before the change ripped them to shreds.
He bent over slightly and felt the inordinate swelling of his shoulders and arms, as though in an instant he’d packed on forty pounds of muscle. His thighs expanded and he grew from six-six to a powerful six-eight. Even his cheekbones spread slightly, giving him the look of a predator.
He tore the cadroen from his long black hair. His hair moved around his head in powerful emotional waves, settling at last to hang beside his face.
He was something greater, more powerful, yet more animal than he’d ever been. He hated this man-beast. He was a demonic version of the warrior he’d been and the opposite of the vampire he’d cultivated in himself for millennia. Warrior he might have been, but like Antony Medichi he considered himself a gentleman, with fairly refined tastes, a preference for an excellent port, long games of chess, and discussions of philosophy and religion.
That his centuries of service had led him here, to this beast-state, humiliated and infuriated him.
The next stage began, a vibration in his chest and throat, a new round of humiliation ready to come forth.
He chuffed. He even tried to restrain himself. But an image of Grace, folding away with Casimir and disappearing from his life all those months ago, streaked through his mind like a bolt of lightning. She was his woman, and she had left with that bastard, Casimir.
The ensuing roar came from so deep in his chest that he felt the sensation into his testicles. With his knees bent, he roared at the low basement ceiling, over and over, but this time the sound was different, full of a kind of resonance that had never been there before.
He felt as though he were calling from the distance of tens of thousands of years ago, when humans were swamp-creatures and battled in small territorial tribes. Was this what he was, a throwback to ancient times? Was this the result of the slavery to dying blood that Greaves had forced on him as a sign of his loyalty?
That he could form coherent thoughts was a complete mystery and an equal punishment, since he couldn’t always act on those thoughts. And once he was well into the process, he wouldn’t be able to fold.
His brain seemed to be split so that while he observed his conduct as if at a distance, the rest of him was locked into this barbarous state and equally barbarous feelings.
His right hand flexed, longing for his sword. He wanted to kill, but not in a general sense. His desire was more specific. He wanted to kill Casimir, to slay him for having taken his woman, having lured her with his scent and his power, having stolen her from him.
He moved in an oval in the small, dark basement. There was one ground-level window at ceiling height with steel mullions. He couldn’t fit through the window, though God knew he’d tried to escape his self-imposed prison more than once during his episodes.
The healing of all the bruises and cuts had taken a couple of days. He’d even tried to tear through the stone and mortared walls so that his fingers were bleeding and torn down to the bone.
He was a beast.
Throwing his head back, he roared long and loud, sending shudders through his house and a trembling through the earth.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Caris Roane

Caris Roane has authored over fifty published Regency romance novels and novellas under the name Valerie King.  In 2005, the Romantic Times honored her with a Career Achievement award for her Regency work. This is her first paranormal romance series. Caris lives in Phoenix with her two cats, one of which is named, Sebastian, after a favorite vampire.  When she gets a third, he'll be called Jean-Claude.