From the final velvet bag she scooped out the tiny sea salt crystals, but instead of adding them to the other ingredients, Anastasia held up her palm, which was now filled with the bay/cedar mixture. She tilted back her head, loving that a warm, fire-kissed wind that smelled of river water lifted her thick fall of blond hair, giving evidence to the fact that the elements had, indeed, joined her circle and were there, waiting, to receive and fulfill her request. As she began to speak the words of the spell, Anastasia’s voice took on a lovely singsong lilt so it sounded as if she was reciting a poem put to music only her soul could hear.
“A drawing spell is what I work tonight.
My wish is to cast clarity of sight.
With leaves of bay I will reveal the truth
Love should not be based on arrogant youth.
Cedar strength protects from the boy’s misdeeds,
Lends courage and control to fulfill their needs.”
The sea salt felt slick against Anastasia’s fingers as she added the final ingredient to her spell. “Salt is the key to bind this spell to me.” She moved over to the green candle, drew another breath, and ordered her thoughts. It was now that she needed to evoke Dragon Lankford’s name and then speak each of the fifteen students’ names in turn, sprinkling a pinch of what was now a magickally infused mixture into the earth flame, while she hoped and prayed each spell would stick and each student would see Dragon with clarity and truth and honesty.
“In this flame the magick cuts like a sword
drawing only the truth of Bryan Lankford!”
As she said his name it happened. Anastasia should have been sprinkling the first pinch of the mixture into the flame and speaking the name of the utterly Lankford-obsessed Doreen Ronney, and instead the night exploded around her in chaos and testosterone as a young fledgling burst from behind the nearest hawthorn tree, sword drawn.
“Move! You’re in danger!” he shouted at Anastasia, giving her a rough shove. Off balance, her arms windmilled, so that the magickal mixture was tossed up, up, up, as she went down, down, down, landing roughly on her bottom. Which was where she sat, watching in openmouthed horror while the warm wind that had been present since she’d opened her spellwork circle caught the magickal mixture and gusted, dashing the entire palmful directly into the fledgling’s face.
Time seemed to suspend. It was as if reality, for an instant, shifted and divided. One second Anastasia was looking up at the fledgling, frozen in the moment, sword up like the statue of a young warrior god. Then the air between her and the unmoving fledgling began to glow with a light that reminded her of the flame of a candle. It rippled and roiled, so bright that she had to lift a hand to shield her eyes. While she squinted against the glare, the brightness split down the middle, parting on either side of the fledgling as if framing his body in tangible light, and from the center of that, juxtaposed in front of the boy, Anastasia beheld another figure. At first he was indistinct. Then he took a step forward, toward her, so that the light illuminated him and he totally blocked her view of the fledgling.
He was the same general height and size as the boy. He, too, was brandishing a sword. Anastasia looked at his face. Her first thought, followed quickly by shock and surprise, was: He has a kind face—handsome really. And then she gasped, realizing what she was seeing. “You’re him! The fledgling behind you. It’s you!” Only it wasn’t really the boy. That was clear. This new figure was a grown man, a full vampyre with the incredibly exotic-looking tattoos of two dragons, facing the filled-in crescent at the center of his forehead, bodies, wings, and tails stretching down his face to frame a firm jaw and full lips—lips that tilted up in a disarmingly charming smile at her. “No, you’re not the fledgling,” she said, looking from his lips up to his brown eyes, which were sparkling a reflection of his smile.
“You drew me, Anastasia. You should know who I am.”
His voice was deep and pleasing to her.
“I drew you? But I…,” her voice trailed off. What had she said just before the fledgling appeared and managed to douse himself in her spellwork? Ah, she remembered! “I’d just said: ‘In this flame the magick cuts like a sword drawing only the truth of Bryan Lankford!’” Anastasia cut off her own words, staring at the vampyre’s tattoos … dragon tattoos. “How is this possible? You can’t be Bryan Lankford! And how do you know my name?”
His smile widened. “You are so young. I’d forgotten.” Holding her gaze with his, he swept her a courtly bow. “Anastasia, my own, my priestess, Bryan Lankford is exactly who you did draw. I am he.” He chuckled briefly. “And I have not been called Bryan by anyone except you for a very, very long time.”
“I didn’t mean to literally draw you! And you’re old!” she blurted, and then felt her face warming. “No, I don’t mean old old. I mean you are older than a fledgling. You’re a Changed vampyre. Not an old one, though.” Anastasia wished desperately that she could disappear under the altar rock.
Bryan’s laugh was warm and good-natured and very appealing. “You asked for the truth of me, and that is what you conjured. My own, this is who I will become in the future, which is why I am, as you say, old and a vampyre, fully Changed. That fledgling over there, behind me, is who I am today. Younger, yes, but also rash and entirely too sure of himself.”
“Why do you know me? Why do you call me ‘my own’?” And why do you make my heart feel as if it is an excited bird that is ready to take flight? she added silently to herself, unable to speak the words aloud.
He closed the small space between them and crouched beside her. Slowly, reverently, he touched her face. She couldn’t really feel his hand, but her breath still caught at his nearness. “I know you because you are my own, as I am yours. Anastasia, look into my eyes. Tell me truthfully what you see.”
She had to do as he asked. She had no choice. His gaze mesmerized her, as did everything about this vampyre. She stared into his eyes and became lost there in what she saw: the kindness and strength, integrity and humor, wisdom and love, utter and complete love. Within his eyes Anastasia recognized everything she’d ever imagined a man to be.
“I see a vampyre I could love,” she said with no hesitation. And then hastily added, “But you’re a Warrior, that’s obvious, and I can’t–”
“You see the vampyre you do love,” he said. Stopping her words he leaned forward, cupped her face in his hand, and pressed his lips to hers.
Anastasia shouldn’t have been able to feel anything. Later she replayed the scene over and over in her mind, trying to decide how a conjured phantom of a man could have possibly made her feel so much without actually being able to touch her at all. But then all she could do was tremble and hold her breath as desire for him, real or imagined, pulsed through her body.
“Ohhh,” she breathed the word on a sigh when he moved slowly, regretfully away from her.
“My love, my own, I am a vampyre and a Warrior. I know it seems impossible right now, but I believe the truth is, to become the person you see—the man of kindness and strength, integrity and humor, wisdom and love—I need you. Without you, without us, I am only a shell of what I should be; I am the dragon without the man. Only you can make the man stronger than the dragon. Remember that when the young, rash, arrogant version of me attempts to drive you mad.” He continued to back away from her.
His smile filled her heart. “I’m not going. I will never willingly leave you, my own. I’ll be right here, growing and learning.” He glanced behind himself at the frozen statue of a fledgling and chuckled, meeting her gaze again. “Even though that may be difficult for you to believe sometimes. Give us a chance, Anastasia. Be patient with me; we’ll be worth it. Oh, and don’t let me kill the bear. It wasn’t going to harm you. It, like me, was only drawn to you because of a spell going slightly, magickally, awry. Neither he, nor I,” he paused and his deep voice softened, “nor even my young, arrogant self, has anything malevolent in mind this night. And my own, my love, I will never allow anything to hurt you.”
As he spoke those last words Anastasia felt a chill flow through her body as if some god or goddess had suddenly poured ice water into her veins. While she shivered with an odd mixture of foreboding and desire, the adult specter of Bryan Lankford, his gaze still locked with hers, surged backward. Light blazed as he was absorbed into the younger version of himself—who instantly began to move again.
Feeling like she had just been hit by the locomotive of one of those huge, coal-eating trains that traversed America, Anastasia watched the younger version of the vampyre, whose ethereal touch still thrilled through her body. He was wiping his tearing eyes with one hand, while with the other he brandished the sword at the enormous brown bear that appeared so suddenly before him on its hind legs. It was so large that Anastasia thought for an instant it, like the older version of Bryan Lankford, had somehow been conjured by her spellwork and was really mist and magick, smoke and shadows.
Just then the bear roared, making the very air around her vibrate, and Anastasia knew this was no illusion.
Lankford’s eyes were clearing quickly, and he was moving with deadly intention toward the creature.
“Don’t hurt it!” Anastasia shouted. “The bear was accidentally brought here by my spell—it has no malevolent intent.”
Bryan stepped back, out of immediate range of the huge creature’s claws. Anastasia watched him studying the bear. “Do you know this through your magick?” he asked without taking his eyes from the animal.
“I do! I give you my word on it,” she said.
Bryan glanced quickly at her and Anastasia felt a strange jolt of recognition in that look. Then the fledgling blinked and said, “You had better be right.”
Anastasia had to press her lips together to keep from shouting at him: The grown-up version of you wouldn’t have said that!
She doubted he would have heard her shout. He’d already turned his entire attention back to the bear.
The big creature towered over the boy, but Bryan simply reached down, grabbed the candle nearest to him from the altar, and held it up before him. The flame of the red candle blazed like a torch. “Ha! Go!” he shouted in a voice that held more command than she would have expected from someone who wasn’t even a vampyre. Yet. “Get out of here! Go on! This whole thing was an accident; the priestess didn’t mean to draw you.”
The bear flinched back from the brilliance of the candle, huffing and growling. Bryan moved a step forward. “I said go!”
With a huge sense of relief, Anastasia watched the beast drop to all fours and, with one last huff at the fledgling, trot sedately away toward the river. Acting purely on instinct, she got to her feet and rushed toward Bryan.
“Okay, you’re all right; you are safe, now. Everything is under control—,” he was saying as she ignored him and took the still-flaming red candle from his hand.
“Don’t break the circle. This spell has too much power to waste,” she said sternly. She didn’t look at him—she didn’t want to be distracted. Instead Anastasia covered the flame with a protective hand and carefully placed the candle back in its place at the easternmost position on the altar, before she turned to face Bryan Lankford.
His hair was blond, long and thick and tied back, which made her remember the older Bryan’s hair, which had also been the same light color, long and thick, but had fallen free around his shoulders, framing his kind face. Had it been just a little gray at his temples? Somehow she couldn’t remember, though she could remember the exact color of his beautiful brown eyes.
“What is it? I didn’t break your circle. The candle never went out. See, it’s back right where it was before.”
Anastasia realized she’d been staring at him without speaking. He must think I’m completely daft. She opened her mouth to say something that would explain a little of the strangeness of the night, and then she really looked at him, the young Bryan before her. He had salt scattered all over his face—crystals of it were caught in his eyebrows, and his hair was covered with bits of bay leaves and cedar needles. Her sudden giggle surprised them both.
His brows went up. “I risk my life to save you from a wild creature and you laugh at me?”
He was trying to sound stern and offended, but Anastasia could see the sparkle of humor in those brown eyes.
“You’re wearing my spellwork, and, yes, that makes you look funny.” It also made him look boyish and quite handsome, but she kept that part to herself. Or at least she thought she’d kept that part to herself. As the two of them stood there, staring at each other, the sparkle in Bryan’s eyes seemed to become knowing. When his lips began tilting up, Anastasia’s stomach gave a strange little lurch, and she quickly added, “Although I shouldn’t laugh, no matter how funny you look. My spellwork all over you means I’m going to have to remake the entire mixture.”
“Then you shouldn’t have thrown it on me,” he said with an arrogant flip of his head.
Anastasia’s amusement began to fade. “I didn’t throw it on you. The wind blew it into your face when I fell because you shoved me.”
“Really?” He held up a finger, as if testing the direction of the breeze. “What wind?”
Anastasia’s frown deepened. “It must have blown itself out, or maybe it has calmed because of the interruption of my spell.”
“And I didn’t shove you,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “I moved you behind me so that I could protect you.”
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