TEN

"Amanda believes Matthew is in love with me." I scoffed, leaning my shoulder against the wall as Gus reached with ink-stained fingers to pull shut the only curtain in his tiny hotel room. "As if a creature like him were capable of it." A bed for one, spartan furnishings, the only other room an equally humble bathroom. He didn't like fancy spaces, he'd told me. Too big and too loud. If I wanted his help, it had to be here, where he was comfortable and could focus. It was an easy price to pay.

"Even demons love," my uncle murmured.

I rolled the small quartz ball through my hands. "Demons obsess. It's a different thing. Trust me."

"You think you know something because it is known. But you do not know. You cannot. Because you are only half the creature your father is."

"Sure. Whatever."

"The prince isn't even that," Gus pointed out. "And 'love' is such a tricky shapeshifter."

I narrowed my eyes. As always, Gus took his vague prophecies too far for me to follow. I thought about venturing into his mind to seek clarification. I wrestled with the temptation, but in the end, I didn't dare to. Madness was difficult to navigate, and if my plan was to work tonight, I'd have more than my fair share of it. I'd need as clear a mind as possible.

Giddy excitement mingled with lingering trepidation I was too stubborn to heed. I needed this. If I was to be anything to the infamous Matthew Schwartz – if I were to be useful to him and live up to the burdens he placed on my shoulders – I had to be able to walk on equal terms with him.

Gus turned from the window, and with a wave of his fingers, tealights arranged in a small circle on the floor burst into life. The golden illuminations cast dancing shadows upon the walls. With each flit, Gus' chaotic presence seemed to rise until it consumed the small space with an 'other-worldly' power that even a human would sense.

"You're a pyromancer too?"

At this point, it hardly qualified as a question, but Gus gave a short nod, with his gaze focused on the ring of fairy lights. "But not like you." He took his tarot cards out of his pocket and began to shuffle them. "Your focus?"

I approached the waiting candles and rolled the crystal along my palm and into my fingers.

Gus fixated on the clear quartz for a long moment, then with a gesture towards me, he asked, "Sure you want to?"

"Memories must have been passed to me in Matthew's blood. He's been clever enough to block me from seeing them as a vampire fledgling would but–"

"–The gods will show you." Gus tapped the front of his forehead, the universal sign for the seer's third eye.

"That is my hope." I lowered myself to the floor, sitting with the ring of candles laid out before me.

The other vampire watched for a moment. I could sense his disquiet even through the chaos of his power. He was uneasy, and not at all convinced that prying into the past of Matthew Schwartz was wise. "The water runs red. Tears and murder both. Beauty is in the eye of the blind beholder. You cannot unsee what is seen."

"Will you help me or not?" I tried to keep my tone as civil as my determined excitement would allow.

Gus' lips thinned in mild irritation, but he moved to sit in the space across from me all the same. "The regret is not mine to bear." His tarot cards flew out of his hands to circle him, hovering, rotating slowly in a large seemingly endless spiral. With a gesture from their master, one of the cards separated from the others and lay itself down in the centre of the candle circle. The King of Cups.

"Water. Emotion. The heart." Gus gestured to the card laid out before us. "This one touches the divine. Diplomatic. Wise. Calculating. He brings order to the chaos of the night." He gave a small frown. "Love is his weapon. Manipulation… but also his mercy." He tilted his head, his eyes narrowing in thought as the card rotated to sit inverted. "A tempest breaks the calm of his ocean."

He gestured again, and another card fled from the carousel to settle itself across the King of Cups. The Page of Wands. "Fire. Energy. The artist." One of Gus' stained hands rose to stroke along the edge of his rough goatee. "A new spirit. A fresh perspective. He is restless, wild, and untamed." His brow furrowed with thicker lines. "There's spite in the shadow of his flames. Aggressive where water is calm. Impatient when water flows too slowly." Gus looked up at me again. "He lacks wisdom."

I arched an eyebrow. "I'm a page?"

"The page has taken only a few steps towards his destiny," my uncle explained. "The road still forms under his feet. So many directions to go. So much he could yet become." Gus tapped at the King of Cups beneath. "But he is already formed. Utterly unchangeable." Gus gestured from one card to the other. "A perfect union or a perfect disaster. No middle ground."

I leaned towards him with some urgency. "And that is why I need to see these memories."

Gus gave a resigned nod and pointed to the crystal I still clutched in my hand. "You know how?"

I reached over the candles and set the crystal atop the cards. With a will and a command, the ball froze, remaining perfectly still even as I drew my hand away. "I'll follow," I told the vampire seer.

Gus looked shocked, his aura fizzing anxiously. "What? No. Can't."

"I can't guide, Gus! I don't know what I'm looking for."

"It'll be broken!" He pressed fingers to his temple. "Fragmented. Shards. A shattered mirror!"

My fangs shifted in my mouth. "I'll make do." Reaching up, I bit into my three central fingers., I leaned over again and pressed the bloody wounds onto the top of the crystal.

A shock of wild, buzzing power whipped through me at the moment of contact. Voices echoed in my ears. A monstrous cacophony of sound impossible to navigate! I cried out, my expression wrinkling into pained horror. My eyes screwed shut. I wanted to clasp my hands to my ears, but my fingers were anchored upon the crystal.

I felt Gus' hand lie atop mine, and his influence beating back his own chaos. The masterful skill with which he made sense of his own madness was astonishing. Difficult as he found the realms of reality, this – the in-between limbo of the spiritual and the mortal – was undoubtedly his domain. Even Sarah had not wielded such power over the unseen, and she had been the most skilled seer I'd ever joined with.

With a lingering sense of unease on his part, Gus' presence pulled me deep into my own blood. Down into the darkest, murkiest depths. He would try, he promised. In my disorientation, it was a pledge I clung to.

We plunged deeper until, in the ocean of noise, two voices became sharper than all the others. A heated disagreement filled with agony on both sides. A sense of betrayal filled me: painful and absolute.

"You killed her? Why?"

I wrinkled my nose in disgust as the scent of burning flesh overwhelmed. Hot and oppressive smoke seemed to fill the air. I saw a flash of imagery. Caravans burning. Horses rearing in panic. Charred bodies – tall and small – lying against an ashen riverbank.

"She was going to take you from us. Seers, Michael? How could you?"

"How could I? How could you? Her parents? Her sisters? They were infants, Matthew. Infants!"

"You betrayed me. My own brother!"

"–I betrayed you because we are brothers!"

There came a sense of outrage, and for just a moment, I saw Matthew. Young. Handsome. Dressed in a loose white tunic. He was strangely unadorned. No make-up. No jewellery. His long hair was dirtied with ash. Sharp eyes brimming with hatred settled upon me. The expression was utterly devastating. My very soul wept as a realisation dawned. The murder – of whoever it had been – could not be undone. This moment – this brutal, violent act – would leave scars for an eternity to come. Instinctively, I braced myself, waiting for a pain I somehow knew was coming.

"What you want of me is an atrocity." The reflection's words crashed against me with vile scorn. His disgust reverberated through my bones, chilling me to the core. In that instant, I was shattered, never to be made whole again. I felt ice creep upon me, filling up the broken spaces. Spite came like bile in my throat.

"We are vampires," came the retorting hiss. "We are already an atrocity!"

He turned away. His glory dimmed as it faded into the fire. He did not come back, and I was far too stubborn to even call his name, let alone beg forgiveness. Instead, I cried in solitude. Tears spilt over my face in a torrent that I could not stem. My brother. My twin. Blinding, maddening darkness fell. The separation was agony. Vindictively, I prayed he suffered with it too.

"There, there now…" Fingers wiped at my face. A pair of ruby-red eyes and a Cheshire smile warped by malice glowed through the darkness. "Come tell your dear cousin all about it." He stank of wickedness. The touch of his hand was rough… but he wanted me. He worshipped my beauty. Offerings of blood and gold were poured over my feet if only he were allowed to warm my bed and the cold shards of my heart. Something inside knew from the start it wouldn't last. His obsessions were fleeting. They always were. But it was comfortable… convenient.

Sure enough, his fascination waned. Heated arguments and vicious fights left only a tattered kinship behind… and yet, he had one last gift to sacrifice at my altar. A bargain for his freedom that, in greed and selfishness, I devoured.

A woman. I felt Gus use all his guiding power to pull the magnificence of her image from the past and let it take form on a grand bed of crimson silk. Impossibly long ebony hair. Pale skin adorned with golden jewels, flowers, and veils of fine red chiffon that covered only the barest hint of her flesh. Garnet eyes held an all too familiar flame as she lifted her arms, offering an embrace I was wholly powerless against. Her touch was everything my broken soul needed. Soft skin smelled so sweet. The blood that pulsed just beneath the surface was rich, decadent, and exotic. Her hands stroked at my hair. Breath whispered such beautiful words in my ear. She spoke of eternities, love, family… and of ownership. She was mine always. My happy prisoner. My delicate, desert rose.

Years seemed to pass, and her dedication never waned. Nothing would ever be denied – no desire nor fantasy too low or debauched for her tastes. The joy she brought was unparalleled. I dared to love her. I dared to need her. I dared to free her.

With a sharp intake of breath, her skin paled, and her pulse fell still. She was immortalised. My partner in eternity together. Our home was filled with the sound of family. A grand noble house empowered further by the demonic influence of her blood. A legacy was created. My bloodline was assured. I sat as a king upon his throne, ruling over a land that bowed to the glory of the vampire.

My guide was oddly silent. I expected him to lead me on, to pull me away and show me how this kingdom had crumbled. What more could I learn from this moment? But he did not. There was something to see… Something he felt I needed to know. At his insistence, I looked again. I walked the dream-like halls of Matthew's palace: brilliant white, blue, and gold, searching for the lost detail.

A girl crossed the corridor in a sweep of silk. That…was not the wife. She was alive; her blood was so pure I was compelled to follow the intoxicating scent.

And then she was on her knees before me – black hair and purple silks drenched from the rains that beat against dark windows. She grasped my trousers, dampening the cotton with her touch as she pleaded and begged for sanctuary for her and her child.

With a scoff, I kicked her away. "Why do you think I would risk his wrath? Your burdens do not concern me." But gods, her blood smelled divine! It was almost worth the risk for a taste.

She knew it. Devious little witch. She reached for the neck of her dress and pulled it about her shoulders. Head tilted, her throat was stretched naked before me. A thick pulsing vein ran the length. The drum of her heart was so steady… so unafraid of what she offered.

My wife had not my strength. It was her hand that caressed first. "You must try a little harder." She knelt at the woman's back, peeling away clothing so that more and more of her live flawless skin was laid bare. "Beg a little more…" A wicked smile curled my bride's lips. "What else can you offer us, Lady Esturion?" Breasts were caressed by my wife's hand, and the poor mortal gasped. The sharp intake of breath was like a flinch, but she closed her eyes and rolled her head back against the wife's shoulder in complete surrender. Such beauty. Such perfection. I was powerless after all…

And then came the moment when my guide tried to pull me away. The women kissed, their touches delicate. I fought him. Matthew's wife coaxed the mistress to part her legs, to invite her husband to settle between them. I begged Gus for a moment more. There was some warning in his insistence. Something now he did not want me to see. Enraged, I stubbornly refused, clinging to the enchanting image with all the power I could muster.

Hellfire. Dark, vicious, all-consuming. It tore through the memory, destroying it in the blink of an eye. The living woman vanished as though she were never there. My beautiful bride blistered and broke, her skin flaking away to ash as she screamed in agony. The air was filled with shrieking, crying, the terrible wail of children in the darkness. My children! A paternal instinct I was unfamiliar with screamed and writhed as it realised there was absolutely nothing that would save them. I had to stand, listening to that gods-awful sound, feeling their lives ebbing away into oblivion until all that remained was dust and ruin. I could barely comprehend it. I stood in mute shock as everything I'd ever built was snatched away and crushed into fine sand.

Gus tried urgently to remind me that the memory wasn't mine. But it was too late. A storm of anguish broke, and I drowned under the tears that fell. I was deafened by his screaming. I scratched and beat at myself, certain that my body would come apart from the agony alone.

Names were echoing in the smoky darkness: monotonous, cold, as if read from a list. Each was another sword sliding through my ribs. Mother. Father. Son. Daughter. Granddaughter. Niece. Great-nephew. Wife… Twin. Gone. An ancient house destroyed in a single moment.

Emptiness took the place of her embrace. A fortress of ice rose up from the ashes to cage and guard a dead heart. The will to live, to love, to exist, was crushed out until only endless black remained. I slumped against the walls of the chilly prison and fell to the void. My guide's voice seemed so far away, his presence, his reasoning… lost.

I saw a room form slowly as the momentary years continued to pass. Dust and cobweb spun on every ornament and furnishing. Grandeur once the envy of all was slowly fading away: a moment both forgotten and preserved. And there, in the centre of it all, I was a withered corpse lying upon a couch, like a puppet with cut strings. It was not happiness. It was not heaven. But it was a kind of warped peace.

Then there was a nudge. Small at first. Just an irritating flicker of presence on the edge of broken consciousness. It was easily ignored, and easily infuriated. Steadily, the shadow grew ever colder: more demanding, more enraged at my stubborn refusal to work its will.

'Kill me, then,' I dared the creature.

It tried to reason with me. When that failed, it tried to bribe.

"You can have it again." A promise with a touch of divine assurance. A dark goddess with all the demanding of a mother.

But what was promised would be a piss-poor replacement. Nothing would match the splendour of the first. How could it?

"You can have more!"

There was not enough gold in existence to pay for her blood.

She was baffled. A reaper that would not reap? Death that longed to die? It wasn't meant to be like this! Her presence filled with despairing wrath that crashed against my belligerence.

Something in that passion was familiar. It clawed through me, filling the spaces left vacant by the absence of love. Fury and anguish whipped like a storm, and my finger twitched. Jaw clenched. Ash-filled eyes hardened to diamonds.

My beloved goddess smiled. I felt the delight as she whispered her last promise: "Vengeance." Now, that was more like it.

Inner ice cracked. Piece by piece the fortress disintegrated. The faded luxury of that room fell away and all at once I heard Gus' panicked rambling in my ear again. He grabbed hold of my presence the moment he found it, and yanked me away, pulling me free of the void that snapped at my heels.

We seemed to fly upwards, and I knew Gus meant to end the quest, to bring us both back into the safety of reality. But it was a long climb, and I was exhausted: just dead weight in my guide's arms. I watched more memories flitter about below me. Faces. Places. Some I knew and some I didn't. They passed by me, empty, uninteresting.

I was gazing at myself. It took me a long moment to recognise my own mortal face. Most of it was hidden behind long locks of dark hair. I tried to hide the evil in my eyes, but he saw it. He felt it. My heat. My flame. It beckoned him close, the promise of warmth and comfort to his angered, shattered soul… just as my father had once been. Would I worship him as Regus had? Or adore him the way Jasmine once did?

My heart leapt with horrified alarm. The shock of the implications threatened to undo my grip on the moment, but I clung, forcing Gus to pause that I might hear the rest.

I felt Matthew's calculations. I heard the thoughts as he quickly considered every risk. I was young. I was mortal. I was male. Men were worse. We lacked subtlety. We clung to the primal, animalistic lust for the most corrupt of darkness. We took pleasure in our perverse natures and had an almost vampire thirst for violence and pain. If I could not be tamed, I might turn on him… just as Regus had done.

I caught another alarming image. A monstrous black dragon flying over a grand house and bathing it in unforgiving flames. For a moment, I heard again the haunting screams of children.

Still, the almost angelic beauty of my face called to him… tempted him. Could he do it? Did he dare? It was a challenge indeed, yet the more he dwelled upon it, the more enticing I became. He watched me live. He watched me fight. He delighted in everything I hated about myself. It was all potential to him. I watched him nurture it. I watched him pull all the strings from the shadows, manipulating my life before I even knew of his existence. He forced me to change, to grow and become what he wanted. He dreamt of us standing together.

Women were such fragile things. But men? We are strong. We are powerful. We are forces of darkest nature. I didn't need to lean on him. I could protect us both. Everything he had suffered before… never again!

xXx

I paced the small carpet space as sunlight trapped me and my 'uncle' in the tiny hotel room. "He fucked my father…" Of everything I'd seen, this stuck to the forefront of my thoughts. Images kept trespassing into my mind's eye. Involuntarily, I envisioned my Matthew wrapped around the demon man I'd seen in London. My fists clenched. Fangs clashed together in seething jealousy.

"Yes," Gus confirmed needlessly.

"He wanted to fuck his own brother!"

"He did."

I turned a stunned gaze on Gus.

"Once," the seer illuminated. "Michael didn't like it. It ruined them."

My nose wrinkled in disgust. "What the hell is wrong with him?"

"Incest common among vampires. Fledglings and sires. Bitten siblings–"

"–Bloodlines! Not mortal lines!"

"The prince was raised in that culture. The mortal line is his bloodline. Why would he know the difference?"

I laced furious hands into my hair. It was an irritatingly fair point. "Regus knew the difference."

"Demon." Gus shrugged. "Knew and didn't care." He let out a surprising snarl. "And Regus is a particularly disgusting deviant. Rapist. Sadist. Murderer."

With a frown, I looked up at him. He spoke with too much emotion to be purely textbook. "You've met Regus?"

"Yes. Next time, I'll kill him."

I scoffed and threw myself down to sit on the floor, with my back bracing against the wall. "Popular man." I slung my arms over my knees as rage slowly began to ebb. Matthew was centuries my senior. Was I going to fly into a rage about every lover that had ever taken his fancy? I supposed I should take this revelation as assurance. I was certainly his type if nothing else. "He's attracted to demons…"

Gus looked puzzled. "Regus?"

"Matthew."

"Oh… Yes." My uncle perched on the edge of his bed. "He admires the black-hearted. The vicious and the cruel… it sings to him."

"Why?"

Gus tilted his head, his eyebrow arching. Apparently, my question was a stupid one. "Because he bleeds." Gus pointed to his chest. "Too much empathy for someone destined to spill so much blood, so he envies you."

"He wants me to do it for him…" I mused aloud. "All the dirty work. The intimidation… He always was more the seducer than a monster."

"Yes."

"Then, Amanda was right? He is afraid?"

"His enemies are numerous and far more vile than you. But… perhaps… not as powerful. We shall see."

"Shit." I rubbed my hands against my face. Exhaustion was starting to creep over me. The curtain protected me from the sun, but the room brightened enough to show colour. Matthew would be in bed by now. Was he angry with me for skipping out on him? Undoubtedly. Would he throw things at me when I got back? Maybe. Would he forgive me for what I'd done here tonight? Perhaps if I begged. "Bethany was right too…"

"Always."

"I don't desire him any less."

Mystery mistresses. Incestuous affairs. Even deals with notorious demons. My sire was hardly a model citizen even by vampire standards. The celestial radiance of his illusion magic wore off. But the demon in me was enraptured by the beast behind Matthew's façade. He had greed for power that was matched only by his vindictive nature, and he had strength enough to survive anguish that should have broken him forever.

"You love him."

"Yeah." I rested my head against the wall in defeat. "I am so completely fucked up."

Gus found that amusing. His lips quirked. "Join the club." My uncle reached behind himself and grabbed one of the pillows from his bed. It was thrown unceremoniously at my head. "Sleep now. Lovers spat is scheduled for later tonight."

"Great." I took the cushion and tossed it onto the floor. "Gus…"

The other vampire paused in taking off his thick coat to glance towards me.

"Why did you agree to help me?"

He slung his coat over the foot of his bed and shrugged. "Maybe for a nephew. Maybe for the world. Probably both." He cast another odd smile at me. "He won't say so, but he needs you… and the gods chose him. Even Bethany Illusia knows it, and she hates both your kind."

From what I could gather, Gus had ulterior motives of his own. Whatever they were, they seemed to be in line with mine and Matthew's – at least for now. I watched him flop on his bed, then positioned the donated pillow under my head as I curled up on the floor. At least carpet was warmer than stone.

xXx

I took a car back to the penthouse. It gave me time to think – to mull over everything I'd seen and learned. Perspective shifted and the image I had of my sire finally sharpened into something real. It was painfully ironic that I should finally glimpse behind the curtain of his false perfection and fall even harder for the man hiding within.

And he was hiding. Amanda had been right all along. He was terrified of 'the nights to come'. Why wouldn't he be? The last storm that had blown through his life had cost him literally everything. Every possible wealth. Every shred of power. He'd left Zenros with only the clothes on his back and built from that an Empire ready… for what?

Something was coming. Something that frightened him into choosing me of all men to stand beside him as his heir. The rage I'd seen in my visions? The tipping of the balance? What was so terrible it could scare the Harbinger of death? My third eye tingled, and I got the sense of divine hands playing cards: a brutal game that our mortal world was caught in the middle of.

With a stubborn pursing of my lips, I leaned back in my seat and crossed my arms over my chest. Painful cliché though it was, they'd have to fight their way through me to hurt Matthew – gods or no. I still adored him. I always would. He was my maker, my saviour, and my beautiful, deadly muse.

The car pulled up to the main doors of the casino. I got out, stepping onto the damp pavements and feeling the first drizzle of rain splash against my face. Glancing up, I took in the splendour of his palace and sensed his presence within. I wasn't so nervous about confronting him anymore. His threats to banish me were empty – just something he knew would hurt… the only thing he knew would hurt. A wicked smile curled my lips. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to taste my own value.

The other vampires in the region had begun to sense it too. I felt the buzz of excitement and trepidation echo over them as I passed through the VIP lounge to the elevator at the back of the hall. Their eyes watched me. Their lips muttered open secrets. I was to be promoted and become their new regent, or I was to fall entirely from grace. Some minds were filled with jealousy and hatred. They were convinced sleeping with the boss had given me undue privilege. Others, however, recognised my greatness. They clamoured to it. They dared to wonder if I might be the better lord, should Matthew and I be unable to reconcile. I stepped into the lift with a smirk. Madmen. All of them. I wanted no crown. I barely shouldered the one Matthew had already put on my head. But it gave me undeniable power and filled me with confidence.

The lift opened on the long corridor of the penthouse. I walked the red carpet and peered into the hall from the grand arch. Matthew sat on a white armchair in the sitting space, framed by the twinkling beauty of the night-time cityscape. He was dressed entirely in black. An open dinner jacket contrasted brilliantly with a tantalising strip of pale flesh beneath. Straight white hair had been pulled over one shoulder, and he sat, one leg folded over the other, with his pad upon his knee and a crystal glass of burgundy wine in his long hand. I made no secret of my presence as I approached him, but he didn't trouble himself to look up.

"You return..." His tone was casual but for the slightly icier note clinging to the edge. "I wasn't certain that you would."

"Where else would I go?" I paused behind the seat opposite him and rested my hands on the back cushions.

"You're resourceful." He took a sip of his drink then let his wrist balance on the arm of his chair. "And there are plenty of people of note that would be only too thrilled to have you, I'm sure. Randell. Einen…" For a split second, his cold, impassive eyes flickered towards me. "Regus, perhaps?"

"You underestimate the power you have over me."

He tapped a few times on his screen. "And yet you take delight in vexing me."

Rage brewed beneath the calm surface. I recognised it from his outburst in London and braced myself to vanish into the shadows should his temper get the better of him again. "That's rich, coming from you."

My sire finally turned the full force of his glare on me. One elegant eyebrow arched slightly. "I beg your pardon?"

"I've seen your memories," I told him shortly – boldly. "The ones I was supposed to inherit in your blood." My lips pursed, and I shook my head a little. "I'm not going to play your games anymore. If you want me to stay and be your protector, then the least you can do is unblock our bond and treat me like the family you've declared me to be."

For a moment, he simply stared at me, eyes uncharacteristically wide in a display of shock. I saw a mountain of careful calculations rush through them. Angles were considered. Plans were bent and remade… and then he smiled with spiteful amusement. My stomach dropped, and I felt that first twinge of delayed fear. He was livid.

Matthew leaned forward and deposited his glass and his tablet onto the coffee table. "My, my… We do think highly of ourselves tonight, don't we…?" He pushed himself onto his feet. "You glimpse one or two fragments of a five-hundred-year life and think yourself an expert?" Cruel laughter escaped him. "Who do you think you're dealing with? I am no wilting flower, no damsel in distress, and, even if I were…" He braced his hand on a sharp hip and glared me down. "You are no Prince Charming! My protector indeed!"

"You wanted it from your brother," I argued. "You even went to my father–!"

"–Yes, they came first! I sought in them what I have tried to build in you. But I have never required a bodyguard!" He threw his hand out in a sweeping gesture. "I have hundreds, thousands, of subordinates lining up to die for me, worshipping me. I need no more of it!" He stopped himself just short of snapping completely. I watched torment pass over him, my brow furrowing in confusion as I tried to keep up with his thoughts.

Matthew rubbed his fingers against his forehead in exasperation. For a moment, there was a strained silence hovering, thickening the air between us. My sire shook his head and looked away, unable to meet my eye. It was a strange, uncomfortable thing, to see him suddenly so uncertain. "I have not the capacity for the fairy-tale love you so desperately crave from me. I am too cynical a person for true romance, and you are too clever to be fooled by the theatre I present to my prey."

"Then I was right…" Reality sank in with the bitterest of disappointment. My heart gave a feeble wail. "You were playing me. Right from the start."

"You still dream like a mortal," Matthew criticised sharply. "It was the easiest part of you to manipulate. But…" His tone slowed on the single word, drawing out into something soft and seductive.

I looked up again, my brow quirking in puzzlement at the enticement I found mounting in my sire.

He drew closer. "There is another side to you, Nathan. One that I admire…" His fingers came up to brush along the lapel of my jacket. "Respect…" My jaw was caressed with a cold touch. "Need…" Blue eyes caught mine and flashed with unmistakable intent. I caught a glimpse of desire mounting behind the icy exterior and swallowed hard.

My heart leapt. Blood drained from my face and headed south as my every nerve came alive in response to his call.

"I am the Harbinger of Obsidia." He stood close enough that I could feel the movement of his lips against mine. "I need no protector. What I seek in you, mae ameran, is a partner… a confidant…" He smiled. "A consort." Fingers ran through my hair and over my face, tilting me ready for a kiss. "Could you be that for me, Nathan? Would that satisfy you?"

Perspective shifted the final fraction as I finally began to comprehend my place – as I glimpsed what it was that Matthew wanted of me, and as though a key had been turned in a lock, the realisation brought the walls on our blood bond crashing down.

A cacophony of sound rushed through my ears as the broken bond repaired, and then, music: a concerto of deep, reverberating passion and wild, untamed power. The raw energy that Matthew and I could create between us. A perfect, blissful harmony of fire and ice. We were so similar, and yet startlingly opposite. Two sides of a coin. Two halves of a whole. I found that he was absolutely right. There was no need for such childish idealism or romanticising. What we could have went beyond all petty, mortal notions of unity. It was an old instinct, primal magic that bound us, and at that moment, I wanted to drown in it, to touch and have and claim.

My fingers went into his hair and pulled him for the kiss he teased me with. His lips were strong, as feisty and demanding as my own. His tongue invaded, plundering my mouth with an urgent, inflaming passion. Gods, he was perfect! The beastly part of me moaned and begged to be released.

I yanked on his white locks and tore his mouth from mine. With a few short strides, I backed him up so that his back slammed against the window. He didn't chastise me. There was no revoke in his eyes. Just determination. Eager anticipation – as though he had waited eagerly for this moment. Someone bold enough to dare…

"Is this what you want?" Lust for him burned through my muscles, but I held it back for one last moment.

"Do you truly require a written invitation?" Matthew drawled, his expression threatening frustration.

He provoked me for the last time. I felt the final thread of my control snap and damn the consequences.

With scraping fingers, I grabbed his jacket and yanked it over his shoulders. The buttons tore open and the fabric was discarded to the floor. Skin was laid out before me. Naked. Flawless. Tantalising. I ran a gentle touch along the slender lines of his chest, watching in momentary fascination as he quivered and squirmed, before taking a harsh hold on his neck.

Matthew's eyes flew open, wide, hopeful. His tongue darted out to wet blackened lips. He didn't need to breathe. I didn't need to be overly careful with my grip. I squeezed, watching his face for signs of his limits, and paused when a pained expression flashed over his features. There. He was pinned against the cold glass, utterly at my mercy. The monster that resided in me let out a growl of perverse satisfaction. I thought about hitting him. I thought about scratching, leaving marks on pale skin. I thought about making him scream. Maybe one day he'd let me. Maybe one day, we'd find that kind of trust. For now, I kept a hold on his neck and revelled in his discomfort. I drew a finger down his chest – admiring the softness of his flesh – to toy with the elastic waistband of velvet trousers. My touch dipped into the fabric and found him growing hard beneath.

Matthew's eyes went wide. His hands flew up to take a grip on my wrist. His hips bucked forward, seeking contact.

"That's it…" I stroked him with deliberate slowness, watching the torment rise in his face. "You like this, I think. You enjoy being at someone else's mercy for a change." A cruel smile curled my lips. "Is that why demons get you so hot? Because you can't control us…?"

He closed his eyes in something that looked thrillingly close to shameful defeat. I tightened my grip on his growing arousal in reward and watched as he drew his bottom lip in between his teeth.

I let go of his neck and turned him abruptly. Matthew's chest hit the glass in front of him. His short hiss became something closer to a purr as I leaned the heat of my body against his back. He was mine, writhing and keening beneath me. A shock of thrill jolted over my flesh. I let out a moan and buried my face into his shoulder, taking in the crisp scent of his cologne and the silky texture of his hair. Gods, how long had I lusted for this? How many days had I lain awake, dreaming of this moment? His music sang in my mind. His power filled my world and was a caress against my own. I rained kisses to his neck and savoured the taste – the feel of his blood so close.

Matthew had not my patience. Tilting his head back against my shoulder, he ran his tongue over the edge of my jaw and ground his hips back against my own. Pleasure rippled through me, taunting and demanding.

I ran my fingers down his body and slipped the band of his trousers down. They fell to his knees, revealing that he wore nothing beneath. With an elegant twist of his legs, they crumpled to the floor where Matthew discarded them with a smooth kick of glittering feet. And then he was naked against my clothes, apparently delighting in the sensual scrape of fabric against his bare skin.

I ran a groping hand along the inside of his thigh, lifting his leg, bracing his knee against the window. With a more delicate touch, Matthew took hold of my unoccupied fingers and drew them deep into his mouth.

I licked my lips, enchanted by the erotic dance of his tongue against my digits and the lustful gleam in half-closed eyes that I could see reflected in the glass. I felt a tremble of his pleasure echoing through our reformed blood bond. My fire infected him, warmed him, provoked him – just as he did to me.

He abandoned the wetness of my fingers. I wrapped my arm around his waist as I prepared him well as I could. I had so little control left. I needed this… I needed him: as a human needed air, as a vampire needed blood. I turned my hand inward to free myself from the confines of my clothes, even took a moment to yank open my shirt so that I could feel his skin against mine – so that he could cool me where my fires raged too hot.

My sharp thrust had him crying out against the window. His fingers clawed at it, his nails scraped, looking for a grip that wasn't there. Pain filled his face. Bloody tears of shock gathered in his eyes. Another heated thrill shuddered deep in my bones. Gods, I loved this… I loved him. My hand reached down from his waist to grasp him, finding – to my surprise – that he had lost none of his potency.

Such a violent conquest, yet he found ecstasy in it. He thrived on my desire for him. He fed on it like a beast. I drew out all that was monstrous – all that was strong. I reminded him with every demanding, desperate thrust of my hips that he was my god.

I braced my hand atop his on the window, our fingers alternating against the glass. A sound caught onto the edge of my hearing. Looking up, I found it. I watched as I took him, fascinated – amazed – as crystals of ice formed, spreading outwards from his hand. The heat of my fingers interrupted the patterns, melting them. The droplets ran down along the window until they'd gone far enough to freeze over again.

Fresh want invaded my thoughts: something I had always longed for but never had the chance to take. Matthew was my first zenronian partner, my first magic-bearing lover.

I took his hand from the window and twined our fingers together before balance forced us to slam back onto the glass for support. Matthew had sensed my intent. He turned his face towards me, and I caught a glimpse of a small smile playing about the corner of his mouth before he settled kisses upon my cheek and neck.

I dug deep into my own power, drawing out the raw magic and channelling it towards our joined hands. I felt him do the same. The frost on the window thickened even as heat radiated from my arm, and then… unrefined magic, mine and his, sparked between our palms.

Pleasure overwhelmed me. Every nerve in my body came alive as the untamed energy rippled over our skin. For a moment, I swore I heard my heart beating, thrumming wildly in my chest. Time slowed, the second stretched out, prolonged, as much tortuous as it was divine. I felt him. His skin, his mind… the very soul of his being linked to mine for one incredible moment that seemed to last a lifetime.

Then there was adrenaline thundering through my ears, a rush of heat followed fast by shuddering cold crashing down over me. I grasped Matthew, holding him tightly as I felt him follow me down. All at once, our bodies separated back into two beings. It was almost empty. The solitude might have been crushing if I could keep enough of my wits to feel it. As it was, I found myself exhausted, drained of everything I had to give. I closed my eyes for a moment… for just a moment…

xXx

Long fingers were brushing at my hair, the gesture soothing: far gentler than any touch I had become accustomed to. I lay for a minute, enjoying the rare sensation. I was too tired to muster enough energy to care about anything else. Then, little by little, memory betrayed me. A sobering shock had my eyes snapping open even as the beginnings of shame coloured my cheeks. "Fuck!"

Matthew gave a soft chuckle from somewhere behind me. "Relax, Ameran, you're hardly the first man – demon or otherwise – to pass out after his first joining." I felt him lean over and kiss my cheek. His long hair dusted over my naked chest. "And you were most accomplished regardless. It has been a long time since I felt the magic of another."

We were in his bedroom, tucked under the silken covers of his bed. He must have used the shadows to bring me here, and even gone to the trouble of undressing me. I pressed a hand to my pounding head. Another 'hangover' feeling, almost as bad as the evening I'd woken after the esris-laced girl.

Matthew was touching me still, running his hand from my hair, down my neck, and along my arm. His nails scraped ever so slightly, enough to make my skin prickle. He repeated the same path once or twice, then took a detour, slipping under the covers to caress my chest and take a southward direction.

I caught his hand, snatching at it and bringing it up to kiss his fingers. "Believe me, my stamina is usually more impressive, but I'm going to need dinner before we go again."

Matthew gave a small sound of agreement, pulled my hair back with a tug, and kissed my cheek again.

I glanced up at him with a small, suspicious frown. "You're being unusually affectionate."

"No, I'm not."

I arched an eyebrow at him.

Matthew rolled his eyes and drew back slightly. "I enjoy the feel of your body and delight in touching it." He smacked my arm lightly. "Now shut up before you ruin the mood."

A short laugh escaped me. A bubble of unprecedented bliss rose in my chest. Contentment was an alien feeling, and yet there was nothing I would change about this moment.

"You're hungry," my lover announced. "What's your pleasure? I have several expensive escorts on call. Or we could enjoy Woolsey's dependant since he won't need him anymore."

I ran a hand through my hair. "Mm, I should probably call Amanda. She was upset when she left last night."

Matthew narrowed his eyes at me then tutted and rolled onto his back. I felt his irritation. I frowned at him for a long moment, chasing that frustration back down a blood bond still healing but no longer severed. Eyes widened as I got a flash of his thoughts. I propped myself up on my elbows in my alarm. "You're jealous of her!"

"Don't be ridiculous. She's human."

I scoffed, amusement infecting my shock. "No, you are! I can see it in your head. You think she could replace you. Gods be damned, Matthew, she's your fucking stand-in!" I raised a hand to my head, almost laughing. "That's why you were so pissed off when I made her a dependant. You thought I wanted to turn her… leave you for her."

Matthew actually pouted. He folded his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes with petulant frustration. Gods! This was… For a moment, I thought perhaps I had crossed over into an alternate universe. But no, the insecurity was there, sitting deep in his head, clear as moonlight.

Leaning over, I claimed his lips in as gentle a kiss as I could manage. "There is no replacing you, Matthew." I knew he could sense my sincerity, but somehow that didn't seem to be enough to erase the doubt and hate completely. I frowned, casting my thoughts around, looking for some solution. After a moment, it dawned on me.

With a smile, I reached out and brushed Matthew's face, forcing him to look at me. "I would let you drink from her."

Matthew narrowed his eyes. I saw the suspicion in his head. I was still very young. Did I know what I was offering? Did I know what it meant? Vampires struggled to trust one another at the best of times, and we were, by nature, a very selfish people. To share the flesh and blood of a dependant was culturally symbolic of finding some shred of a deeper unity. It was to share that which we held in most value. Blood – the hunt, and the creation of the next generation. Matthew could not be bonded to Amanda, but he could still take an influential roll in her 'vampiric upbringing'.

"And you would consider that?" he asked dubiously, still not certain I understood my own proposal.

I leaned down and kissed him again. "For you? Always." I settled myself a little more comfortably on the bed. "When I bound Amanda to me, I meant for her to be of use to you."

"She is quite devoted. I doubt she will be pleased with such an arrangement…"

I scoffed. "Why does that matter? I own her."

Matthew looked away again, his lips thinning slightly. There was fresh disquiet in his thoughts, a feeling that squirmed in a very similar rhythm to my own burning shame from earlier. "I… cannot drink from the unwilling," he confessed. "After my primal period, there is frailty in my heart. My mind mastery is at such a point that during the intimacy of the feed I can no longer fully block my victim's thoughts and emotions. Should a victim be in distress, it can…'trigger' me." His frown deepened. "I am forced back into a primal state until I can find it in myself to recover." He turned and met my gaze. "That is why I must always have the love of my prey, Nathan. It is not mere vanity."

It made such sense that I scolded myself for not considering the possibility before. But then, why would I? Matthew was always flawless in my eyes. The idea that he could have such a debilitating, 'un-vampire' weakness would have been absurd to me.

He looked back at his light. "Naturally, this is not widely known. I believe only yourself, Bethany, and Heather are now aware of the fact."

"Your secret is safe with me," I promised. "As for Amanda, she has a weak mind – plenty of insecurities and desires to play upon. I found it quite easy to twist her. I'm sure I can 'persuade' her to take a liking to you."

Matthew was surprised I did not use this information to taunt him. I saw the thought flit through his head before he smiled. He turned to me again, a spark behind his diamond gaze. "I would like that."

A jolt of excitement shot through my chest. A heated smile spread over my lips. "Then… I'll call for her."

I sat up and made to push aside the covers but was interrupted by the abrupt arrival of a frantic presence. With a frown I gazed at the bedroom door, my power reaching out to identify the unexpected intruder.

"Bethany," Matthew answered, sitting up beside me. All gentleness was closed off in a millisecond. Concern flitted into his expression before straightening out into the cold, impassive mask I was so accustomed to.

"Shouldn't she be resting with the elves?"

Matthew gave a short nod, his brow furrowing slightly. "She must have seen something of consequence." He pushed himself onto his feet and took his silken robe from a hook by the bed.

"Why not just call?"

He gestured to where my clothes were folded over his trio of tall mirrors. "Dress." Matthew feared danger. Bethany being attacked in his own home had unnerved him far more than he had cared to share openly.

I had just buttoned my trousers when the seer girl burst through the bedroom door.

Red-faced and breathless, her heart raced wildly. It was strange to see her out of her smart blouse and skirt combo. Instead, she'd adopted a pair of scruffy blue jeans and a green T-shirt. Her hair was bundled into a messy bun on the back of her head. Taking a moment, she hung on the door handle, doubled over, pressing what looked like a newspaper to the place where she'd been wounded. Once she'd caught enough air, she lifted the paper and let it unfurl in her hand so Matthew and I could see the main headline. "You have a big fucking problem," she gasped.

'House of Horrors' the bold headline read.

I arched an eyebrow at her. This was what all the fuss was about? A human newspaper article? Didn't we have people for that? I opened my mouth to ask what the hell her problem was but was cut off by the duel chime and vibration of Matthew's mobile phone.

My sire claimed it from the nightstand and sneered irritably at the name lit up on the screen. He still took the call, however. "Heather." He turned as he spoke and swept past me into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.

I turned to Bethany. "What the hell is going on?"

Bethany waved the newspaper a little. "This is not mortal murder. That much blood, but no body? 'Occult symbols' painted on the wall…?" She shook her head. "You felt it last night, didn't you? All that fury? The emerald flames raining from the sky? A shift in the damned balance itself?"

"You think this has something to do with it?"

Bethany frowned at me. "Really? You're still not seeing the big picture? Are you blind?"

I folded my arms over my chest, my spike of offended irritation crossing into my expression. "So? Spell it out for me, then."

"Nicklaus Faustus, the Harbinger of Pyrenus, god of wrath – the one who's meant to be hiding from whoever slaughtered his family, the one that Matthew is desperately trying to protect – has just declared himself not only alive but seriously pissed off!" She managed to straighten up properly and folded the paper back into her hand. "Nick was turned vampire illegally by Heather Rees, Matthew's double agent." She rested her free hand on top of her head as she leaned against the door frame, her exasperation at having to fill me in showing openly on her face. "Nick is in Torsk with Heather. If he's discovered in the wrong place by the wrong people, it could expose Heather as a traitor to Einen, which may spark a war between him and Matthew. Matthew is already facing off against whoever it was that murdered the Faustus and Gray families in the first place, and because it was the Faustus and Gray families, the sorcerers are just desperate to get involved."

Events fell into place in my mind like dominoes, one choice after another laid out before me. "It could spark a zenronian war the likes of which the Earth-Realms has never seen."

Bethany nodded her agreement, a grim expression in her eyes. "A shift in the balance is going to get everyone riled up. Every seer in the Earth-Realms would have sensed something of it. There's no way we can keep this quiet now."

I glanced towards the bathroom door. "Then… what's our next move?"

"That's for Matthew to decide."

As if answering my question, Matthew's angry voice echoed from the room next door. "If you cannot control him, then I will. Bring him to the West Midlands, immediately!"

My brow furrowed. "He's bringing the Harbinger of Pyrenus here?"

"It makes a kind of sense," Bethany mused, her aura shaking in unexpressed concern. "If anyone can cure and wake Madeline Gray, it's Nick, and he and Matthew are open allies, as long as Matthew can hide who sired the boy. That will be the tricky part."

"Madeline…" I scoffed to myself. "Is it bad that I forgot she was even here?"

Bethany gave a small smile. "You've had your own problems. Besides, Matthew has taken measures to disguise her presence here. As far as anyone knows, Madeline is dead with her family." Her smile fell into another frown. "I don't think even Nick knows of her survival. That's going to be a shock."

"Hopefully a good one, since they're family."

"Well, we've been lucky so far, I suppose." Bethany heaved a sigh and turned away. "I better start making arrangements for his transportation and accommodation. I wonder if he'll come alone. It seems unlikely that Matthew would move Heather from Torsk…"

"Because she's spying for him? Surely this is more important than her backwater post in Torsk."

Bethany looked over her glasses at me. "Don't underestimate the value of Torsk," she warned. "The best place to hide jewels is in the last place anyone would look."

My frown deepened. "What are you suggesting?"

I sensed a spike of fear in her: a concern that she'd already said far more than Matthew would approve of. She shook her head and turned away, closing the door after herself as she took her leave before I could force my way into her mind.

With a tut of frustration, I perched on the edge of the bed. I ran a hand through my hair, my brow furrowing as I considered the situation for myself. Bethany was right. We had a big fucking problem.

Matthew emerged a little while later, fully dressed and made up.

"We're expecting company?"

"Get dressed," he commanded shortly. "There are errands I need you to run."

I scoffed to myself and pushed back onto my feet. "So much for the honeymoon period."

"Vampires don't get fairytale endings."

I grasped his waist as he tried to move past me, stopping him in his tracks. He looked up angrily, meaning to protest or scold me, but I caught his lips with my own, silencing him. "I didn't say I wasn't happy." I stepped back and took my shirt and jacket from the top of his mirror. "Where do you need me to go?"

FIN


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