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“I was raised a Quaker. Do you know what that means?”

“Not really. I’ve heard of them. Aren’t they religious fanatics?”

“Some are. My family wasn’t as bad as the rest of our community. They—they loved me,” she said hesitantly, remembering. “Even though the community made them shun me after I was Marked and then Changed. But I still get letters from my mother. She sends them secretly. She still loves me. I know I’ll always love her.”

“That doesn’t seem foolish. That seems loyal and faithful and kind,” he said.

She smiled. “That’s not the foolish part. What’s foolish is that there are still pieces of me that are very much Quaker. I don’t think that will ever change.”

“You mean you don’t worship Nyx?”

“No, Nyx is my Goddess. For as long as I can remember I’ve felt connected to the earth in a special way, a different way than my family. I think that’s how I found my path to the Goddess, though my love of the earth.” Anastasia brushed the hair back from her face and continued, “What I’m trying to tell you is that when I was human I was a pacifist. I’m still a pacifist. I think I always will be.”

She saw him blink in surprise, but he didn’t release her hand. “I can’t change the fact that I’m a Sword Master. And I wouldn’t if I could.”

“I know! I don’t mean–”

“Wait, I want to finish. I don’t think me being a Sword Master and you being a pacifist is a bad thing.”

“Even when I tell you I think mercy is stronger than your sword?”

“So is love. So is hate. There are lots of things stronger than my sword.”

“I don’t like violence, Bryan.”

“You think I do?” He shook his head and answered himself before she could. “I don’t! The reason I first picked up a sword was because I hate violence.” His shoulders slumped and he continued with an honesty so raw it was almost painful to hear. “I’m short. I used to be very short. Little, actually. So little I got picked on. I was the butt of jokes. I was ‘the Earl’s middle son who was wee and soft and blond like a lass.’” He swallowed hard. “I didn’t like to fight. I didn’t want to fight. But that didn’t matter. The violence came to me whether I wanted it or not. If I’d given up, given in to it—to them—I would have been broken and hurt and abused. You see, my father was not well liked, and his smallest son was thought to be his weakest link.” He paused and Anastasia could see it was hard for him to talk about this part of his past—hard for him to go back there. “Instead of being broken, I grew strong. I learned how to use a sword to stop the violence done against me. Yes, I was good at it. Yes, I got arrogant and have probably used my sword when I didn’t have to, especially before I was Marked. But the truth is that I prefer to stop violence rather than start it.” His sword-roughened palm was calloused and hard against her smoother one, and she felt that rough touch all through her body. “A Warrior is a protector, not a predator.”

“You live by violence,” she said, but even to her own ears her words sounded weak. “You become something else when you fight. You’ve said it; others have said it. You’re even named after it.”

“I am a dragon only when I have to be and I will always protect my own,” he said. “Try to believe that. Try to believe in me. Give us a chance, Anastasia.”

Her stomach butterflied as she recognized his words. The older version of him, that vampyre Warrior she’d known she could love, had said the very same thing to her—and he had called her “my own.”

“I will give us a chance,” she said slowly, “if you promise to remember that mercy is stronger than your sword.”

“I promise,” he said.

And then Anastasia surprised herself by leaning forward and kissing him on his lips. When she and Bryan parted they looked into each other’s eyes for a very long time, until he said, “After you cast the spell tonight, would you walk with me by the river, back to the meadow?”

“If you’ll protect me,” she said softly.

“I’ll always protect my own,” he repeated. Smiling, he tucked her arm through his and then clucked for the horses to get up and go.

Her arm was still tucked into his as they walked along the cobblestone-lined levee. Anastasia would usually have gazed at the steamboats, which were lined up, one after another, stretching all the way up and down this part of the river. As with some of the luxuries found at the House of Night, she wondered if she’d ever get used to the majesty of the steam-engine boats. They were such a drastic contrast to the city, which was dark and quiet at this late hour. The steamboats truly were floating palaces, still humming with activity, their g*y chandeliers glowing, sounds of dancing girls and gamblers drifting over the water like magickal music. Usually her attention would have been occupied with peeking inside the mullioned windows.

But tonight Anastasia barely gave them a glance. Tonight she was completely distracted, and it wasn’t rehearsing the upcoming spell that was the problem. The peace spell was actually one of the simplest to cast. There were only two ingredients, lavender for calming, which would be muddled into a cup for burning by Anastasia’s favorite stone, an ajoite, the stone that had a turquoise phantom within its crystal depths and was always a conduit to peace and pure, loving energy. The spell was elementary: she muddled the lavender with the ajoite and then burned it over an earth candle as she spoke the ageless words of peace. It was easy, fast, and effective.

Then why did she feel so uneasy?

In the distance, over the sounds of revelry from the steamboats, she heard the distinct croaking call of a raven. Anastasia shivered.

“Are you cold?” Bryan pulled her closer to him. “Are you certain you don’t want me to carry your spellwork basket? I have before,” he said, smiling at her.

“I’m fine. And I have to carry the spellwork basket until after I cast the spell. I need to infuse it with my energy.” She smiled at him. “You can carry it back to the buggy.”

“Gladly,” he said.

They walked on, and Anastasia suddenly stopped, pulling him to a halt beside her. “No, that’s not entirely true. I’m not fine, and since you’re my protector, I should be honest with you. Something is wrong. I feel uneasy—afraid.”

He covered her hand with his. “You need not be afraid. I promise you that I am more than a match for any bullying human sheriff.” Bryan looked into her eyes. “Bullies haven’t threatened me for a very long time.”

“Is that confidence or arrogance speaking?”

“Both.” He smiled. “Come, let’s finish this so we can move on to better things tonight.” He pointed to a small park-like area just ahead of them and to their left. “The jailhouse is the square stone building on the other side of the town green.”

“Good, yes, let’s do get this done.” Anastasia hurried forward with Bryan, ignoring the dark feeling that had been shadowing her since the Council Meeting. It’s nerves, that’s all, she told herself. My House of Night is counting on me, and I’m being wooed by a charming fledgling. I just need to focus, ground myself, and do what I know I must.

“What is it you need me to do?” Bryan asked as they walked through the little park and approached the dour stone building.

“Actually, the less you do the better.” He looked at her quizzically and she explained. “Bryan, I know you’re here as my protector, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re a swordsman. You represent the opposite of a peace spell.”

“But I–,” he began, but she stopped him. “Oh, I know your intention is good, peaceful even, but that doesn’t change your essence, your aura. It’s that of a Warrior.”

He grinned. She frowned.

“I didn’t mean that as a compliment,” she said, ignoring his grin. Then she studied the stone building as she reasoned through the steps of the spell aloud. “I’m going to place the candles and cast the circle around the jailhouse itself. The front faces the river, which means it faces east. That’s good. I would usually burn the lavender over the earth candle because I feel most closely allied to earth, but I want this spell to be carried throughout the city, so I’d already decided to use the air candle this time as a catalyst for the spell. I like that the entrance faces air in the east—it’s a good omen,” she said brightly, trying to ignore the nagging feeling of unease that simply would not leave her be.

“That sounds good—logical,” he said, nodding. “So, I’ll walk with you, but stay outside the circle?”

“No,” she said, already prodding around in her basket, being sure the small, brightly colored tea light candles she’d brought were in order. “Just stay here in the park.”

“But I won’t be able to see you when you’re on the rear and far sides of the building.”

“No, but you’ll be able to hear me,” she said absently, already beginning to ground herself and focus on the spell at hand.

“Anastasia, I don’t like that you’re going to be out of my sight.”

She glanced at him. “Bryan, this is a peace spell. From the moment I begin crushing the lavender, peace and calm will soothe from me. I know you’re here to look out for trouble, and I’m glad you are, but the truth is, it is very rare, almost unheard of, for a priestess to be attacked during the casting of a spell such as this.” Anastasia knew the words she was saying were true, but they felt wrong, as if some outside presence was weighing them and finding them lacking. She shook her head, more at herself than at Bryan. “No, you cannot follow me during the spell.”

“All right. I understand. I don’t like it, but I’ll stay here.” He pointed to a shadowy area at the edge of the park, well outside the meager gaslight illumination of the front of the jailhouse. “You know there is very little light around the building.”

She raised her brows at him, “Bryan, I’m a vampyre. I only need very little light, and it’s a good thing it’s so dark here. It’ll keep my spellwork from human eyes, remember?”

“I didn’t mean–I’m just saying that–,” he started twice, and then sighed, walked over to the area he’d pointed to, and said firmly, “I’ll be here. Waiting for you.”

“Good,” she said. “This shouldn’t take long, but I do tend to get caught up in my spellwork.” Anastasia walked past him purposefully, giving his arm an absent pat.

“I know,” he muttered, and then called to her, “You wouldn’t even notice a rampaging bear.”

“It wasn’t rampaging,” she called back, laughing.

He’d lightened her mood a little, so that she whispered Nyx’s name with a smile on her lips and, feeling more confident and serene, Anastasia placed the first candle—yellow, in the east for air—and called the element to her circle. Concentrating completely on the spell to come, she reached into the velvet bag that held the binding salt, and as she moved clockwise around the jailhouse, inviting the elements to create a circle, she sprinkled the salt in an unbroken line over the well-trod ground, whispering:

“Salt I use this spell to bind,

to seal intent, peace on my mind.”

Foreboding pushed aside, Anastasia moved around the jailhouse, casting her circle and thinking calm, serene, happy thoughts. And, though she had decided to set the spell with the air candle, as she worked she automatically visualized reaching down deep into the soil below her and pulling up rich earth magick to help ground the spell and reinforce her intent.

As it had been doing since she’d attempted her first fledgling spell, the element responded to Anastasia, and strong, steady earth magick awakened beneath the jailhouse and began to flow.

The creature of Darkness and spirit that crouched in the basement felt the earth surge in answer to the gentle request of the young priestess, and it knew the time had come to do its master’s will. It began a whisper of quite a different sort.

The human, who had taken to pacing back and forth, back and forth before the silver cage long into the night, paused and listened.

“For the cold fire to survive

the vampyre Anastasia must not be alive.”

“Yes! Yes, I know.” Biddle snarled the words at the creature. Compulsively, his head twitched and he kept plucking at his shirt, as if to rid himself of imagined insects that crawled over his skin. “But I can’t get to her in the middle of that vampyre nest.”

“Tonight she is near.

Kill her above, then bring her here.”

“You mean she’s outside? Alone?” Biddle didn’t seem to notice that the creature’s voice had changed, gone from a halting serpentine whisper that was barely human to a deep melodic chant that was far too seductive to be human.

“Her protector is Dragon Lankford,

but cold fire can conquer his sword.”

From inside the cage the shadowy creature opened its maw wide and, with a terrible retching sound, sticky threads of blackness spewed forth from it, slithering to Biddle, who came forward eagerly to meet them. As if greeting a lover, he moaned in pleasure as Darkness wrapped around his legs and seeped beneath his skin, filling him with a power that was as addictive as it was destructive.

Swollen with borrowed might, Biddle pulled out the long knife he’d taken to carrying since he’d caught the creature—since he’d been feeding it blood.


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