Morrigans cross, p.4
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.4

         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts
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  and the stones of those who’d come after them.

  “Have you forgotten all you were taught? Times change, you say. It’s more than change. Could I be here now if time was solid? Their fate is not set, nor is yours. Even now our father is dying, yet I left him. I will never see him alive again.”

  Slowly Cian got to his feet. “You have no conception of what she is, what she is capable of. She was old, centuries old, when she took me. You think to stop her with swords and lightning bolts? You’re more fool than I remember.”

  “I think to stop her with you. Help me. If not for humanity, then for yourself. Or would you join her? If there’s nothing left of my brother in you, we’ll end this between us now.”

  Hoyt drew his sword.

  For a long moment, Cian studied the blade, considered the gun in his hand. Then he slipped the weapon back in his pocket. “Put your sword away. Christ, Hoyt, you couldn’t take me one-on-one when I was alive.”

  Challenge, and simple irritation, rushed into Hoyt’s eyes. “You didn’t fare very well the last time we fought.”

  “True enough. It took me weeks to recover. Hiding around in caves by day, half starving. I looked for her then, you know. Lilith, who sired me. By night, while I struggled to hunt enough food to survive. She abandoned me. So I’ve a point to square with her. Put the damn sword away.”

  When Hoyt hesitated, Cian simply leaped. In the blink of an eye he was up, gliding over Hoyt’s head and landing lightly at his back. He disarmed his brother with one careless twist of the wrist.

  Hoyt turned slowly. The point of the sword was at his throat. “Well done,” he managed.

  “We’re faster, and we’re stronger. We have no conscience to bind us. We are driven to kill, to feed. To survive.”

  “Then why aren’t I dead?”

  Cian lifted a shoulder. “We’ll put it down to curiosity, and a bit of old time’s sake.” He tossed the sword across the room. “Well then, let’s have a drink.”

  He walked to a cabinet, opened it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the sword fly across the room and into Hoyt’s hand. “Well done on you,” he said mildly and took out a bottle of wine. “You can’t kill me with steel, but you could—if you were lucky enough—hack some part of me off that I’d rather keep. We don’t regenerate limbs.”

  “I’ll put my weapons aside, and you do the same.”

  “Fair enough.” Cian took the gun out of his pocket, set it on a table. “Though a vampire always has his weapon.” He offered a brief glimpse of fangs. “Nothing to be done about that.” He poured two glasses while Hoyt laid down his sword and dagger. “Have a seat then, and you can tell me why I should get involved in saving the world. I’m a busy man these days. I have enterprises.”

  Hoyt took the glass offered, studied it, sniffed at it. “What is this?”

  “A very nice Italian red. I’ve no need to poison you.” To prove it, he sipped from his own glass. “I could snap your neck like a twig.” Cian sat himself, stretched out his legs. Then he waved a hand at Hoyt. “In today’s worlds, what we’re having here could be called a meeting, and you’re about to make your pitch. So…enlighten me.”

  “We must gather forces, beginning with a handful. There is a scholar and a witch, one of many forms and a warrior. That must be you.”

  “No. I’m no warrior. I’m a businessman.” He continued to sit, at his ease, giving Hoyt a lazy smile. “So the gods, as usual, have given you pitifully little to work with, and an all but impossible task. With your handful, and whoever else is fool enough to join you, you’re expected to defeat an army led by a powerful vampire, most likely with troops of her kind, and other manner of demon if she deigns to bother with them. Otherwise, the world is destroyed.”

  “Worlds,” Hoyt corrected. “There are more than one.”

  “You’re right about that anyway.” Cian sipped, contemplated. He’d nearly run out of challenges in his current persona. This, at least, was interesting.

  “And what do your gods tell you is my part in this?”

  “You must come with me, teach me all that you can about her kind, and how to defeat them. What are their weaknesses? What are their powers? What weaponry and magic will work against them? We have until Samhain to master these and gather the first circle.”

  “That long?” Sarcasm dripped. “What would I gain from all this? I’m a wealthy man, with many interests to protect here and now.”

  “And would she allow you to keep that wealth, those interests, should she rule?”

  Cian pursed his lips. Now there was a thought. “Possibly not. But it’s more than possible if I help you I’ll risk all that and my own existence. When you’re young, as you are—”

  “I’m the eldest.”

  “Not for the last nine hundred years and counting. In any case, when you’re young you think you’ll live forever, so you take all manner of foolish risks. But when you’ve lived as long as I, you’re more careful. Because existence is imperative. I’m driven to survive, Hoyt. Humans and vampires have that in common.”

  “You survive sitting alone in the dark in this little house?”

  “It’s not a house,” Cian said absently. “It’s an office. A place of business. I have many houses, as it happens. That, too, is survival. There are taxes and records and all manner of things to be gotten around. Like most of my kind I rarely stay in one place for long. We’re nomadic from nature and necessity.”

  He leaned forward now, resting his elbows on his knees. There were so few he could speak to about what he was. That was his choice, that was the life he’d made. “Hoyt, I’ve seen wars, countless wars, such as you could never imagine. No one wins them. If you do this thing, you’ll die. Or become. It would be a feather in Lilith’s cap to turn a sorcerer of your power.”

  “Do you think there is a choice here?”

  “Oh yes.” He sat back again. “There always is. I’ve made many in my lifetimes.” He closed his eyes now, lazily swirling his wine. “Something’s coming. There have been rumblings in the world under this one. In the dark places. If it’s what you say, it’s bigger than I assumed. I should’ve paid more attention. I don’t socialize with vampires as a rule.”

  Baffled, as Cian had always been sociable, Hoyt frowned. “Why not?”

  “Because as a rule they’re liars and killers and bring too much attention to themselves. And those humans who socialize with them are usually mad or doomed. I pay my taxes, file my reports and keep a low profile. And every decade or so, I move, change my name and keep off the radar.”

  “I don’t understand half of what you say.”

  “Imagine not,” Cian replied. “She’ll fuck this up for everyone. Bloodbaths always do, and those demons who go about thinking they want to destroy the world are ridiculously shortsighted. We have to live in it, don’t we?”

  He sat in silence. He could focus and hear each beat of his brother’s heart, hear the faint electrical hum of the room’s climate controls, the buzz of the lamp on his desk across the room. Or he could block them out, as he most often did with background noises.

  He’d learned to do, and not do, a great deal over time.

  A choice, he thought again. Well, why not?

  “It comes down to blood,” Cian said, and his eyes stayed closed. “First and last, it comes to blood. We both need it to live, your kind and mine. It’s what we sacrifice, for the gods you worship, for countries, for women. And what we spill for the same reasons. My kind doesn’t quibble about reasons.”

  He opened his eyes now, and showed Hoyt how they could burn red. “We just take it. We hunger for it, crave it. Without it, we cease to be. It’s our nature to hunt, kill, feed. Some of us enjoy it more than others, just as humans do. Some of us enjoy causing pain, inciting fear, tormenting and torturing our prey. Just as humans do. We’re not all of the same cloth, Hoyt.”

  “You murder.”

  “When you hunt the buck in the forest and take its life, is it murder? You’re no
more than that, less, often less, to us.”

  “I saw your death.”

  “The tumble off the cliffs wasn’t—”

  “No. I saw her kill you. I thought it a dream at first. I watched you come out of the tavern, go with her in her carriage. And couple with her as it drove out of the village. And I saw her eyes change, and how the fangs glinted in the dark before she sank them into your throat. I saw your face. The pain, the shock and…”

  “Arousal,” Cian finished. “Ecstasy. It’s a moment of some intensity.”

  “You tried to fight, but she was an animal on you, and I thought you were dead, but you weren’t. Not quite.”

  “No, to feed you simply take, drain the prey dry if you choose. But to change a human, he must drink from the blood of his maker.”

  “She sliced her own breast, and pressed your mouth to her, and still you tried to fight until you began to suckle on her like a babe.”

  “The allure is powerful, as is the drive to survive. It was drink or die.”

  “When she was done, she threw you out into the road, left you there. It was there I found you.” Hoyt drank deeply as his belly quivered. “There I found you, covered with blood and mud. And this is what you do to survive? The buck is given more respect.”

  “Do you want to lecture me?” Cian began as he rose to get the bottle again. “Or do you want to know?”

  “I need to know.”

  “Some hunt in packs, some alone. At wakening we’re most vulnerable—from the first when we wake in the grave, to every evening if we’ve slept through the day. We are night creatures. The sun is death.”

  “You burn in it.”

  “I see you know some things.”

  “I saw. They hunted me when I journeyed home. In the form of wolves.”

  “Only vampires of some age and power, or those under the protection of another powerful sire can shape shift. Most have to content themselves with the form in which they died. Still, we don’t age, physically. A nice bonus feature.”

  “You look as you did,” Hoyt replied. “Yet not. It’s more than the garb you wear, or the hair. You move differently.”

  “I’m not what I was, and that you should remember. Our senses are heightened, and become more so the longer we survive. Fire, like the sun, will destroy us. Holy water, if it’s been faithfully blessed, will burn us, as will the symbol of the cross, if held in faith. We are repelled by the symbol.”

  Crosses, Hoyt thought. Morrigan had given him crosses. Part of the weight eased from his shoulders.

  “Metal is fairly useless,” Cian continued, “unless you manage to cut off our heads. That would do the trick. But otherwise…”

  He rose again, walked over and picked up Hoyt’s dagger. He flipped it in the air, caught the hilt neatly, then plunged the blade into his chest.

  Blood seeped out on the white of Cian’s shirt even as Hoyt lunged to his feet.

  “Forgot how much that hurts.” Wincing, Cian yanked the blade free. “That’s what I get for showing off. Do the same with wood, and we’re dust. But it must pierce the heart. Our end is agonizing, or so I’m told.”

  He took out a handkerchief, wiped the blade clean. Then he pulled off his shirt. The wound was already closing. “We’ve died once, and aren’t easily dispatched a second time. And we’ll fight viciously anyone who tries. Lilith is the oldest I’ve ever known. She’ll fight more brutally than any.”

  He paused, brooded into his wine. “Your mother. How did you leave her?”

  “Heartbroken. You were her favorite.” Hoyt moved his shoulders as Cian looked up into his face. “We both know it. She asked me to try, to find a way. In her first grief, she could think of nothing else.”

  “I believe even your sorcery stops short of raising the dead. Or undead.”

  “I went to your grave that night, to ask the gods to give her heart some peace. I found you, covered with dirt.”

  “Clawing out of the grave’s a messy business.”

  “You were devouring a rabbit.”

  “Probably the best I could find. Can’t say I recall. The first hours after the Wakening are disjointed. There’s only hunger.”

  “You ran from me. I saw what you were—there had been rumors of such things before—and you ran. I went to the cliffs the night I saw you again, at our mother’s behest. She begged me to find a way to break the spell.”

  “It’s not a spell.”

  “I thought, hoped, if I destroyed the thing that made you…Or failing that, I would kill what you’d become.”

  “And did neither,” Cian reminded him. “Which shows you what you’re up against. I was fresh and barely knew what I was or what I was capable of. Believe me, she’ll have cannier on her side.”

  “Will I have yours on mine?”

  “You haven’t a prayer of winning this.”

  “You underestimate me. I have a great deal more than one prayer. Whether a year has passed or a millennium, you are my brother. My twin. My blood. You said yourself, it’s blood, first and last.”

  Cian ran a finger down his wine glass. “I’ll go with you.” Then held that finger up before Hoyt could speak. “Because I’m curious, and a bit bored. I’ve been in this place for more than ten years now, so it’s nearly time to move on in any case. I promise you nothing. Don’t depend on me, Hoyt. I’ll please myself first.”

  “You can’t hunt humans.”

  “Orders already?” Cian’s lips curved slightly. “Typical. As I said, I please myself first. It happens I haven’t fed on human blood for eight hundred years. Well, seven hundred and fifty as there was some backsliding.”

  “Why?”

  “To prove that I could resist. And because it’s another way to survive—and well—in the world of humans, with their laws. If they’re prey, it’s impossible to look at them as anything more than a meal. Makes it awkward to do business. And death tends to leave a trail. Dawn’s coming.”

  Distracted, Hoyt glanced around the windowless room. “How do you know?”

  “I feel it. And I’m tired of questions. You’ll have to stay with me, for now. You can’t be trusted to go walking about the city. We may not be identical, but you look too much like me. And those clothes have to go.”

  “You expect me to wear—what are those?”

  “They’re called pants,” Cian said dryly and moved across the room to a private elevator. “I keep an apartment here, it’s simpler.”

  “You’ll pack what you need, and we’ll go.”

  “I don’t travel by day, and I don’t take orders. I give them now, and have for some time. I have a number of things to see to before I can leave. You need to step in here.”

  “What is it?” Hoyt poked at the elevator walls with his staff.

  “A mode of transportation. It’ll take us up to my apartment.”

  “How?”

  Cian finally dragged a hand through his hair. “Look, I’ve books up there, and other educational matter. You can spend the next few hours boning up on twenty-first-century culture, fashion and technology.”

  “What is technology?”

  Cian pulled his brother inside, pushed the button for the next floor. “It’s another god.”

  This world, this time, was full of wonder. Hoyt wished he had time to learn it all, absorb it. There were no torches to light the room but instead something Cian called electricity. Food was kept in a box as tall as a man that kept it cold and fresh, and yet another box was used to warm and cook it. Water spilled out of a wand and into a bowl where it drained away again.

  The house where Cian lived was built high up in the city, and such a city! The glimpse Morrigan had given him had been nothing compared to what he could see through the glass wall of Cian’s quarters.

  Hoyt thought even the gods would be stunned by the size and scope of this New York. He wanted to look out at it again, but Cian had demanded his oath that he would keep the glass walls covered, and he would not venture out of the house.

  Apartm
ent, Hoyt corrected. Cian had called it an apartment.

  He had books, so many books, and the magic box Cian had called a television. Indeed the visions inside it were many, of people and places, of things, of animals. And though he spent only an hour playing with it, he grew weary of its constant chatter.

  So he surrounded himself with books and read, and read until his eyes burned and his head was too full for more words or images.

  He fell asleep on what Cian had called a sofa, surrounded by books.

  He dreamed of the witch, and saw her in a circle of light. She wore nothing but the pendant, and her skin glowed milk-pale in the candlelight.

  Her beauty simply flamed.

  She held a ball of crystal aloft in both hands. He could hear the whisper of her voice, but not the words. Still, he knew it was an incantation, could feel the power of it, of her across the dream. And he knew she was seeking him out.

  Even in sleep he felt the pull of her, and that same impatience he’d sensed from her within his circle, within his own time.

  It seemed for an instant that their eyes met across the mists. And it was desire that pierced through him as much as power. In that instant, her lips curved, opened, as if she would speak to him.

  “What the hell is that getup?”

  He came awake and found himself staring up into the face of a giant. The creature was tall as a tree, and every bit as thick. He had a face even a mother would weep over, black as a moor and scarred at the cheek, and surrounded by knotted hanks of hair.

  He had one black eye and one gray. Both narrowed as he bared strong white teeth.

  “You’re not Cain.”

  Before Hoyt could react, he was hauled up by the scruff of the neck where he was shaken like a mouse by a very large, angry cat.

  “Put him down, King, before he turns you into a small white man.”

  Cian strolled out of his bedroom, and continued lazily into the kitchen.

  “How come he’s got your face?”

  “He’s got his own,” Cian retorted. “We don’t look that much alike if you pay attention. He used to be my brother.”

  “That so? Son of a bitch.” King dropped Hoyt unceremoniously back on the sofa. “How the hell did he get here?”

  “Sorcery.” As he spoke, Cian removed a clear packet of blood from a locked cold box. “Gods and battles, end of the world, blah blah.”

  King looked down at Hoyt with a grin. “I’ll be damned. I always thought half of that crap you told me was, well, crap. He’s not much for conversation before he’s had his evening fix,” he said to Hoyt. “You got a name, brother?”

  “I am Hoyt of the Mac Cionaoith. And you will not lay hands on me again.”

  “That’s a mouthful.”

  “Is he like you?” both Hoyt and King demanded in unison.

  Wearily Cian poured the blood in a tall, thick glass, then set it in the microwave. “No, to both. King manages my club, the one downstairs. He’s a friend.”

  Hoyt’s lips peeled back in disgust. “Your human servant.”

  “I ain’t nobody’s servant.”

  “You’ve been reading.” Cian took out the glass and drank. “Some vampires of rank have human servants. I prefer employees. Hoyt’s come to enlist me in the army he hopes to raise to fight the big evil.”

  “The IRS?”

  In better humor, Cian grinned. Hoyt saw something pass between them, something that had once only passed between himself and his brother.

  “If only. No, I told you I’ve heard rumblings. Apparently for a reason. According to the gossip of the gods, Lilith of the Vampires is amassing her own army and plans to destroy humanity, take over the worlds. War, pestilence, plague.”

  “You can jest?” Hoyt said in barely suppressed fury.

  “Christ Jesus, Hoyt, we’re talking about vampire armies and time travel. Bloody right I can joke about it. Going with you is likely to kill me.”

  “Where are you going?”

  Cian shrugged at King. “Back to my past, I suppose, to act in an advisory capacity, at least, for General Sobriety there.”

  “I don’t know if we’re to go back, or forward, or to the side.” Hoyt shoved books over the table. “But we will go back to Ireland. We will be told where we travel next.”

  “Got a beer?” King asked.

  Cian opened the refrigerator, took out a bottle of Harp and tossed it.

 
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