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Anastasia also knew what she had to do.

Bryan had drained Biddle dry of blood and, swollen with power and victory and violence, he was descending upon the creature of spirit in the cage with his sword raised.

“Bryan, stop!” Anastasia cried as she stood and stepped out of the protective circle to stand between him and the thing in the cage.

“Step aside, Anastasia. I don’t know what it is, but it was allied with Biddle. It must die.”

She held her ground and said, “Bryan, it’s in a cage. Biddle was keeping it prisoner.”

“I don’t care!” Bryan practically snarled at her, his breath smelling of blood and hate. “It needs to be killed!”

Anastasia repressed the shudder of fear she felt at the sight of the base, violent being he had become. It is him. It is still Bryan, she reminded herself. Moving slowly, she reached out to cover his bloody sword hand with her own. “You don’t care about that creature, but do you care about me?” she asked softly.

He hesitated. Through his hand she felt the tension in him release just a little. “Yes,” he said. “I care about you.”

“Then listen to me. There has been enough killing tonight. I’m asking you to let mercy win. Be stronger than your sword. Become the Warrior I know is within you.”

Their eyes met, held, and when he finally sighed and lowered his sword Anastasia saw her future, her Bryan, within them.

“Yes,” he said, touching her cheek gently. “I choose to become the Warrior you believe is within me.”

Anastasia was stepping into his open arms when his face twisted in pain and, with a terrible cry, Bryan fell to the ground at her feet.

Frantically, she dropped to her knees beside him. “Bryan! What has–”

And then she broke off as he raised his tear-streaked face to her.

“Oh!” She breathed a long, awestruck breath. “They are so beautiful.” With a trembling hand, she reached out and traced the new tattoos of the fully Changed vampyre beside her.

“What are they? What do they look like?” he asked.

“Dragons,” she said. “They look exactly like dragons.”

“Dragons!” he said, laughing. And then almost immediately he sobered and took both of her hands in his. He cleared his throat and on his knees beside her said, “Anastasia, I want to be your Warrior. My lady, will you accept my pledge of my heart, body, and soul as your protector?”

“Only if you add one more pledge to that. Bryan Dragon Lankford, if you are pledged in service to me, you must give me your oath that from this moment on you will temper your strength with mercy.”

With no hesitation he responded, “I do so pledge my oath to you.” Bryan fisted one hand over his heart and bowed his head to his priestess.

He helped her to her feet and Anastasia’s gaze went from him to the indistinct creature of spirit and darkness that crouched watching them from within silver bars of Biddle’s cage. “Please, show mercy to it,” she said simply.

“Then let my first act as your Warrior be a merciful one.” He strode over to the cage. “Creature, I know not what you are, but I warn you, if you mean harm to us, I will protect my own.”

“Freedom…,” the thing said with its strange, whispery voice.

Holding his sword at ready, standing between the ghost thing and his priestess, Bryan reached down and opened the cage. There was a flapping sound, and then the creature faded completely away, hissing, “It is finisssshed…”

“Thank you, Bryan,” Anastasia said.

Her Warrior took her in his arms, saying, “Come to me, my lady, my own,” and Anastasia happily and naïvely stepped into what she truly believed would be their happily ever after.

At the same moment in the bowels of the earth a winged prisoner stirred and through the scarlet eyes of the creature Dragon Lankford had just released, Kalona began to hunt for another piece of the puzzle that would align the fates and bring to fruition his desires for the future.

EPILOGUE

Present-day Oklahoma

“No!” Though tears tracked down his face, Dragon Lankford’s voice was like stone as he stared into Jack’s funeral pyre. “I can never forget or forgive. That thing I allowed to escape—it was the spirit of a Raven Mocker, the creature who, given a body, murdered you. Had I destroyed it all those years ago, my own, my love, we might have avoided this fate, this future.” He shook his head and repeated, “No, I can never forget.”

Then, with cold, perfectly controlled movements, Dragon fisted his hand around Anastasia’s locket and pressed it over his heart, bowing his head and saying, “I no longer have a priestess. I no longer am bound to my oath. Without you, Anastasia, I am only the dragon, and a dragon does not temper strength with mercy.” He opened his fist and held the locket up before him, kissed it, and then threw it into the burning pyre.

Green flames blazed from the pyre and reality divided and opened, curtain-like, to reveal a ghostly vision of Anastasia. She was sobbing and her voice, echoing eerily, came to him.

“You have cut my heart with your sword, Bryan Dragon Lankford.”

He fell to his knees in despair, reaching toward the flames as if he could pull her spirit to him, and cried:

“Your death has broken me; the dragon is all I have left to be.”

The apparition was fading, but her voice drifted over the crackle of the fire:

“If you are not my mate, kind and true, how will I ever again find you?”

As his hungry eyes stared at her, Anastasia, still weeping, turned from the rent in reality and stepped into the arms of Nyx. The Goddess pressed a palm to her forehead and light cascaded into the priestess’s soul.

“Nyx!” Dragon cried. “Let her remain with me!”

The Goddess’s gaze was infinitely sad.

“You must be brave to find the peace that you crave.”

The curtain to the Otherworld shivered and closed, cutting off Dragon’s vision of his mate and the Goddess.

“Brave!” he shouted. “That is your only answer for me before you steal away my mate? How can you be so cruel? I deny you, Nyx! I found Anastasia once on my own. I’ll do so again, but only after I have exacted revenge for her untimely death. Thus I do swear on my sword—my oath as Dragon Lankford!”

Dragon stalked away into the darkness, and the sickly white flanks of an enormous bull caught the reflection of the moon as the beast, pleased, turned away to pursue other pleasures.

In the Otherworld, Nyx gazed down at Anastasia’s fallen Warrior and wept.

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