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“After the vampyre’s blood feeds me,

more power for you there will be.”

“Yes! With more power I can get rid of those goddamned vampyres forever! I’ll pick ’em off one by one if I got to. And I’ll start tonight with that arrogant little bastard.” Biddle began up the narrow stairwell. Behind him the creature was still speaking:

“Do not get distracted by the boy!

With Anastasia gone he is but fate’s toy.”

Biddle plucked at his shirt, laughed to himself, and ignored the creature’s words.

“Deep peace of the gentle breeze to you…”

Anastasia’s spell drifted through the night to Dragon. He could see her silhouette in front of the jailhouse, just outside the edge of the flickering gaslights that framed the stone doorway. She spoke in the same singsong cadence she’d used for her drawing spell.

“Deep peace of the warmest fire to you…”

Dragon thought her voice was probably the loveliest sound he’d ever heard. It soothed him and made everything feel right in his world.

“Deep peace of the crystal seas to you…”

He had been worrying about the fact that Anastasia didn’t like it that he was going to be a Warrior, but as she cast her spell, speaking the words and feeding the ajoite-crushed lavender to the fire, Bryan realized he didn’t have anything to be troubled about.

“Deep peace of the timeless earth to you…”

It would be easy to convince Anastasia he wasn’t really violent. He wasn’t like he used to be. He was older and wiser. He only used his sword when he had to—or mostly only used it then. She would see.

“Deep peace of the shining moon to you…”

She would understand. Dragon let out a low, slow sigh and leaned more comfortably against the big oak. He was looking up at the sky and thinking that he’d been really smart to leave those sunflowers for Anastasia every day when it happened. One moment he was standing there, peaceful, filled with true contentment, and the next Biddle was in front of him.

Dragon stared at the man, frozen by surprise. In just the few days since Dragon had last seen him, Biddle has gone through a terrible transformation. His face was gaunt. His cheeks, hollow. The skin under his eyes was puffy and dark. He twitched spasmodically. This was what had broken up the Dark Daughters’ Ritual and run them off their island? Dragon thought he could snap the skinny human with one hand. He was obviously nothing but the pathetic shell of a man.

Dragon tried to keep the disgust from his voice when he said, “Sheriff Biddle, is there something I can do for you?”

Biddle smiled. “Yep. You can die.”

For the first time in his life, Bryan Dragon Lankford looked into the face of true evil.

Instinct had Dragon reaching down to unsheathe his sword, but he was too late. Biddle struck with a speed and strength that was inhuman. He grabbed Dragon by the throat and rammed him against the hard bark of the oak tree, forcing the air to whoosh from his body. With his other hand the sheriff knocked the sword from Dragon’s failing grip.

Biddle sneered into Dragon’s face, saying, “You blustering little braggart!”

“No!” Dragon choked, trying to struggle for air. The eerie familiarity of the sheriff’s words and actions shocked him to his core, and suddenly he was back in that stable four years before, losing his home and his family and his birthright all over again.

“And you know what,” Biddle said, pressing his mouth close to Bryan’s ear. “I ain’t gonna kill her up here and take her down there. I’m gonna do what I want. I’ll take her down there and kill her, but first I’m gonna to have me some fun with that pretty little vampyre cunny.”

Dragon’s throat was on fire, and as everything went dark for him he heard Anastasia, much too close, scream his name.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Anastasia knew something was wrong. She could feel it like the change that happens in the air before a thunderstorm breaks. She was calling on the deep peace of each of the five elements when the wrongness slicked through the night, shattering her concentration and breaking the casting of the spell.

Automatically, her gaze turned to Bryan, to see if he knew what it was—knew what they should do. Horrified, she looked in time to see the human move so quickly that her brain tried to deny her eyes. He picked up Bryan Lankford, Dragon Lankford, Sword Master of Vampyres, by his throat and held him against a tree, and then began choking the life from him.

She didn’t hesitate. Anastasia ran straight at the man who was killing Bryan. Screaming his name, she hurled herself into the man, trying to get him to let Bryan loose.

He did let Bryan loose so that he could knock her to the ground. Head reeling, fighting to clear the specks of light from her eyes, Anastasia crawled over to Bryan, reaching for his hand.

“Bryan! Oh, goddess, no!” He was so still, and his throat looked wrong, like it had collapsed. He wasn’t breathing. She could see he wasn’t breathing at all.

“Leave him be,” the human growled. He grabbed for her, but Anastasia scrambled around the tree, avoiding his praying mantis reach.

“Want to play you a little hide-and-seek, do ya?” The human chuckled. “Well, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with a little foreplay. Biddle is comin’ to get ya…” And he started to stalk her around the tree.

Anastasia looked into the man’s eyes and saw that the fledgling High Priestess in Training had been right. Biddle was utterly mad.

She knew she only had seconds, so instead of trying to avoid the creature called Biddle, she crouched, put one hand on the thick bark of the tree. The other she placed gently on Bryan’s throat. Anastasia closed her eyes and thought of the earth below the tree—the rich, timeless, living strength that she believed with all her soul to be there. She envisioned it as a green fountain shooting up through the ground, to the tree’s roots, into the tree itself, and from there flowing into her, through her, and into Bryan.

“Come to me strong, wonderful earth;

a healing intent is the magic I birth!”

Instantly, heat surged from the tree trunk, into her hand, though her body, and into Bryan’s neck.

“Time for foreplay to be over. Let’s us get to the good stuff. Come on. I never had me no vampyre,” and so saying, Jesse Biddle reached down, took her ankle in a grip that was like a blacksmith’s metal press. As if she weighed no more than a child’s doll, he dragged her from Bryan and toward the dark rear entrance of the jailhouse. Anastasia watched to see if Bryan made any movement at all—even the smallest hint of breath lifting his chest again. She saw nothing but his crumpled, still form before Biddle tossed her inside the building and slammed the door shut behind them.

“Sssshe is not dead!”

Anastasia stared at the thing in the cage. It wasn’t bird. It wasn’t human. It didn’t even appear real. Except for the glow of its scarlet eyes it seemed unsubstantial, ghostly—something made of nightmares and shadows.

“Not yet she ain’t,” Biddle said. “I’m gonna have me some fun before I drain her.”

“Using her wassss not part of the plan,” the creature hissed.

“There ain’t no plan! There’s just me feeding you her blood so’s you’ll give me more of what I want. What happens before to her don’t matter.”

Anastasia looked from the creature in the cage to the sheriff. “What is that thing?”

“Don’t rightly know,” Biddle said as his hand slid up from her ankle to her calf. “Just ignore it—it ain’t real anyway.”

From where he’d thrown her on the dirt floor Anastasia kicked out, trying to break away from him, but his rail-thin body was deceiving. The strength in his bony hands was incredible, and with a single pull on her leg he jerked her back to him.

“No! Leave me alone! Don’t touch me!” She struggled against him.

“Aw, come on. Everybody knows about you vampyre women. Y’all have lots a men. So, don’t act like you’re some kinda virgin.”

Cold fear filled Anastasia, freezing her. She stared at the human who loomed like an animated skeleton above her.

He smiled. “That’s right. Just be still and it’ll go easier fer you.”

Keeping one hand clamped around her ankle, Biddle began unbuckling the belt to his pants with the other.

It was then Anastasia knew the truth—this human was going to rape and kill her.

Oh, Nyx! Please help me! I don’t want to die like this, she prayed frantically.

Then, through the shock and chill in her blood, she felt the warmth of the ajoite crystal that she’d shoved in her pocket as her spell had been broken, and beside it was the heaviness of a velvet bag filled with salt crystals.

As Biddle reached into his pants, Anastasia reached into the pocket of her skirt. She scooped a handful of salt out of the velvet bag and threw it into the human’s face.

Biddle cried out and jerked back, blinking hard and wiping his tearing eyes. “You bitch!” he yelled.

He’d given her all the time she needed. Anastasia scrambled backward as she lifted the bag of salt and the fist-sized ajoite, a crystal infused with phantom magick from deep within the earth. Since ancient times, priestesses had been using it to bring peace through clarity of spirit, and now Anastasia, a priestess dedicated to peace and the earth, reached deep within her spirit and connected with the element on which she crouched. With a single motion she whipped the open bag of salt around her so that it surrounded her with a crystal circle, saying:

“Binding salt, of you I ask,

link me to earth as your task.”

Then, holding the ajoite like a dagger, she plunged it into the dirt, crying:

“Earth below, filled with might, grant me protection this dark night!”

She felt the surge of power come from below, as if a dam had broken free. Like a thunderstorm on the prairie, green light sizzled all around her. Pressing her palms flat against the element that had just gifted her with an affinity, Anastasia was weeping tears of happiness and thanksgiving when Biddle tried to cross the circle of salt. He recoiled with a cry of pain just as the creature in the cage shrieked, “No! The green light! It burnsss me!”

“Shut up, you!” Biddle kicked the creature’s cage and the thing of spirit quieted to a keening whimper. Then he began to circle the glowing shield. “What is this? What have you done, you damned witch?”

“I’ve called my element to protect me. You can’t hurt me now.” She lifted her chin and met his gaze. “I’m not a witch. I am a vampyre priestess with an earth affinity, and you can’t hurt me now!” she repeated.

“It won’t last! It won’t last!” Biddle said, nervously plucking at his shirt. “When that light dies, so do you.”

Anastasia shook her head. “You don’t understand. The earth is protecting me. It’s not going to die or fade or fail. And I’m going to sit right here and wait for my High Priestess to find me. I promise you, she will. The House of Night knows I’m here. They’ll find me and Bryan.” Her voice started to break, but she pulled more power from the earth below her and continued, “And then you’ll answer for what you’ve done tonight.” Her gaze went from him to the pathetically whimpering thing in the cage. “And you’ll have to answer for whatever you’ve done to that poor creature, too.”

“Don’t nobody care about vampyres or ghost things,” he said.

“That’s not true,” Anastasia said, and as she spoke she felt the rightness of her words. “There are good people in St. Louis. They trade with us. They even become our consorts. They won’t like what you’ve done, what you’ve turned into, or what you’ve trapped down here.”

He paused and she saw a flash of something that might have been a spark of sanity in his eyes. “You know I’m right,” she said. “Just leave here. Go, before anyone else is hurt.”

Anastasia saw understanding or even regret in his eyes, and then there was the awful wet, violent sound of a sword being plunged through a body. Biddle’s eyes widened as he stared down at the blade that had suddenly gone through his back and sprouted out of the middle of his chest. With surprising gracefulness, the sheriff dropped to his knees and then lurched sideways in a growing puddle of blood as Bryan pulled his sword free of him.

The fledgling stood over Biddle, breathing hard, his throat no longer crushed but still cruelly bruised and battered. His lips were pulled back to expose his teeth in a feral snarl, and Anastasia saw that he was completely the dragon then. The sweet fledgling was gone, as was the kindhearted, handsome Warrior. As she watched him breathe in the heady scent of blood that lifted around them, she knew when he crouched beside Biddle that he was going to slash the human’s throat and drain him as he died.

The sense of foreboding that had been shadowing Anastasia all that night flooded her, and she knew then that her intuition hadn’t simply been warning her about Biddle’s plans. There was more, much more to it than that. Reaching deep to pull more earth magic to her, the priestess whispered, “With earth’s might cut like a sword—reveal the truth of Bryan Dragon Lankford.”

With a green flash of light an image appeared before Anastasia. It was Bryan, a fully Changed vampyre. He was on a battlefield, and again, he was completely the dragon. She gasped as she saw who he was slaying: brother vampyres.

What you see is what will be if his strength is not tempered with mercy.

The words were in her mind, but they weren’t her own and though she’d never heard the voice before, Anastasia knew the Goddess, Nyx, was speaking to her.

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