Burned, Page 2P. C. Cast
“Yes!” The word was a moan torn deep from his throat as Kalona yielded himself to the greedy Darkness.
When Neferet continued, her voice was magnified, swollen with power. “It is your own choice that I have sealed this oath by blood with Darkness, but should you fail me and break it—”
“I will not fail.”
Her smile was unworldly in its beauty; her eyes roiled with blood. “If you, Kalona, Fallen Warrior of Nyx, break this oath and fail in my sworn quest to destroy Zoey Redbird, fledgling High Priestess of Nyx, I shall hold dominion over your spirit for as long as you are an immortal.”
The answering words came unbidden by him, evoked by the seductive Darkness, which for centuries he’d chosen over Light. “If I fail, you shall hold dominion over my spirit for as long as I am an immortal.”
“Thus I have sworn.” Again Neferet slashed her palm, creating a bloody X in her flesh. The copper scent wafted to Kalona like smoke rising from fire as she again raised her hand to Darkness. “Thus it shall be!” Neferet’s face twisted in pain as Darkness drank from her again, but she didn’t flinch—didn’t move until the air around her pulsed, bloated with her blood and her oath.
Only then did she lower her hand. Her tongue snaked out, licking the scarlet line and ending the bleeding. Neferet walked to him, bent, and gently placed her hands on either side of his face, much as he had held the human boy before delivering his deathblow. He could feel Darkness thrumming around and within her, a raging bull waiting eagerly for his mistress’s command.
Her blood-reddened lips paused just short of touching his. “With the power that rushes through my blood, and by the strength of the lives I have taken, I command you, my delicious threads of Darkness, to pull this Oath Bound immortal’s soul from his body and speed him to the Otherworld. Go and do as I order, and I swear I will sacrifice to you the life of an innocent you have been unable to taint. So thee for me, I mote it be!”
Neferet drew in a deep breath, and Kalona saw the dark threads she’d summoned slither between her full, red lips. She inhaled Darkness until she was swollen with it, and then she covered his mouth with hers and, with that blackened, blood-tainted kiss, blew Darkness within him with such force that it ripped his already wounded soul from his body. As his soul shrieked in soundless agony, Kalona was forced up, up, and into the realm from which his Goddess had banished him, leaving his body lifeless, chained, Oath Bound by evil, and at the mercy of Neferet.
The sonorous drum was like the heartbeat of an immortal: never-ending, engulfing, overwhelming. It echoed through Rephaim’s soul in time with the pounding of his blood. Then, to the beat of the drum, the ancient words took form. They wrapped around his body so that even as he slept, his pulse allied itself in harmony with the ageless melody. In his dream, the women’s voices sang:
Ancient one sleeping, waiting to arise
When earth’s power bleeds sacred red
The mark strikes true; Queen Tsi Sgili will devise
He shall be washed from his entombing bed
The song was seductive, and like a labyrinth, it circled on and on.
Through the hand of the dead he is free
Terrible beauty, monstrous sight
Ruled again they shall be
Women shall kneel to his dark might
The music was a whispered enticement. A promise. A blessing. A curse. The memory of what it foretold made Rephaim’s sleeping body restless. He twitched and, like an abandoned child, murmured a one-word question: “Father?”
The melody concluded with the rhyme Rephaim had memorized centuries ago:
Kalona’s song sounds sweet
As we slaughter with cold heat
“. . . slaughter with cold heat.” Even sleeping, Rephaim responded to the words. He didn’t awaken, but his heartbeat increased—his hands curled into fists—his body tensed. On the cusp between awake and asleep, the drumbeat stuttered to a halt, and the soft voices of women were replaced by one that was deep and all too familiar.
“Traitor . . . coward . . . betrayer . . . liar!” The male voice was a condemnation. With its litany of anger, it invaded Rephaim’s dream and jolted him fully into the waking world.
“Father!” Rephaim surged upright, throwing off the old papers and scraps of cardboard he’d used to create a nest around him. “Father, are you here?”
A shimmer of movement caught at the corner of his vision, and he jerked forward, jarring his broken wing as he peered from the depths of the dark, cedar-paneled closet.
His heart knew Kalona wasn’t there even before the vapor of light and motion took form to reveal the child.
“What are you?”
Rephaim focused his burning gaze on the girl. “Begone, apparition.”
Instead of fading as she should have, the child narrowed her eyes to study him, appearing intrigued. “You’re not a bird, but you have wings. And you’re not a boy, but you have arms and legs. And your eyes are like a boy’s, too, only they’re red. So, what are you?”
Rephaim felt a surge of anger. With a flash of movement that caused white-hot shards of pain to radiate through his body, he leaped from the closet, landing just a few feet before the ghost—predatory, dangerous, defensive.
“I am a nightmare given life, spirit! Go away and leave me in peace before you learn that there are things far worse than death to fear.”
At his abrupt movement, the child ghost had taken one small step backward, so that now her shoulder brushed against the low windowpane. But there she halted, still watching him with a curious, intelligent gaze.
“You cried out for your father in your sleep. I heard you. You can’t fool me. I’m smart like that, and I remember things. Plus, you don’t scare me because you’re really just hurt and alone.”
Then the ghost of the girl child crossed her arms petulantly over her thin chest, tossed back her long blond hair, and disappeared, leaving Rephaim just as she had named him, hurt and alone.
His fisted hands loosened. His heartbeat quieted. Rephaim stumbled heavily back to his makeshift nest and rested his head against the closet wall behind him.
“Pathetic,” he murmured aloud. “The favorite son of an ancient immortal reduced to hiding in refuse and talking to the ghost of a human child.” He tried to laugh but failed. The echo of the music from his dream, from his past, was still too loud in the air around him. As was the other voice—the one he could have sworn was that of his father.
He couldn’t sit anymore. Ignoring the pain in his arm and the sick agony that was his wing, Rephaim stood. He hated the weakness that pervaded his body. How long had he been here, wounded, exhausted from the flight from the depot, and curled into this box in a wall? He couldn’t remember. Had one day passed? Two?
Where was she? She’d said she would come to him in the night. And yet here he was, where Stevie Rae had sent him. It was night, and she hadn’t come.
With a sound of self-loathing, he left the closet and his nest, stalking past the windowsill in front of which the girl child had materialized to a door that led to a rooftop balcony. Instinct had driven him up to the second floor of the abandoned mansion, just after dawn, when he’d arrived. At the end of even his great reservoir of strength, he’d thought only of safety and sleep.
But now he was all too awake.
He stared out at the empty museum grounds. The ice that had been falling for days from the sky had stopped, leaving the huge trees that surrounded the rolling hills on which sat the Gilcrease Museum and its abandoned mansion with bent and ruined branches. Rephaim’s night vision was good, but he could detect no movement at all outside. The homes that filled the area between the museum and downtown Tulsa were almost as dark as they had been in his postdawn journey. Small lights dotted the landscape—not the great, blazing electricity that Rephaim had come to expect from a modern city. They were only weak, flickering candles—nothing compared to the majesty of the
power this world could evoke.
There was, of course, no mystery to what had happened. The lines that carried power to the homes of modern humans had been snapped just as surely as had the ice-burdened boughs of the trees. Rephaim knew that was good for him. Except for the fallen branches and other debris left on the roadways, the streets appeared mostly passable. Had the great electric machine not been broken, people would have flooded these grounds as daily human life resumed.
“The lack of power keeps humans away,” he muttered to himself. “But what is keeping her away?”
With a sound of pure frustration, Rephaim wrenched open the dilapidated door, automatically seeking open sky as balm to his nerves. The air was cool, and thick with dampness. Low around the winter grass, fog hung in wavy sheets, as if the earth was trying to shroud herself from his eyes.
His gaze lifted, and Rephaim drew a long, shuddering breath. He inhaled the sky. It seemed unnaturally bright in comparison to the darkened city. Stars beckoned him, as did the sharp crescent of a waning moon.
Everything within Rephaim craved the sky. He wanted it under his wings, passing through his dark, feathered body, caressing him with the touch of the mother he’d never known.
His uninjured wing extended itself, stretching more than a grown man’s body length beside him. His other wing quivered, and the night air Rephaim had breathed in burst from him in an agonized moan.
Broken! The word seared through his mind.
“No. That is not a certainty.” Rephaim spoke aloud. He shook his head, trying to clear away the unusual weariness that was making him feel increasingly helpless—increasingly damaged. “Concentrate!” Rephaim admonished himself. “It’s time I found Father.” He still wasn’t well, but Rephaim’s mind, though weary, was clearer than it had been since his fall. He should be able to detect some trace of his father. No matter how much distance or time separated them, they were tied by blood and spirit and especially by the gift of immortality that had been Rephaim’s birthright.
Rephaim looked up into the sky, thinking of the currents of air on which he was so used to gliding. He drew a deep breath, lifted his uninjured arm, and stretched forth his hand, trying to touch those elusive currents and the vestiges of dark Otherworld magick that languished there. “Bring me some sense of him!” He made his plea urgently to the night.
For a moment he believed he felt a flicker of response, far, far off to the east. And then weariness was all he could feel. “Why can I not sense you, Father?” Frustrated and unusually exhausted, he let his hand drop limply to his side.
Unusual weariness . . .
“By all the gods!” Rephaim suddenly realized what had drained his strength and left him a broken shell of himself. He knew what was keeping him from sensing the path his father had taken. “She did this.” His voice was hard. His eyes blazed crimson.
Yes, he’d been terribly wounded; but as the son of an immortal, his body should have already begun its repair process. He’d slept—twice since the Warrior had shot him from the sky. His mind had cleared. Sleep should have continued to revive him. Even if, as he suspected, his wing was permanently damaged, the rest of his body should be noticeably better. His powers should have returned to him.
But the Red One had drunk of his blood, Imprinted with him. And in doing so, she had disturbed the balance of immortal power within him.
Anger rose to meet the frustration already there.
She’d used him and then abandoned him.
Just like Father had.
“No!” he corrected himself immediately. His father had been driven away by the fledgling High Priestess. He would return when he was able, and then Rephaim would be at his father’s side once more. It was the Red One who had used him, then cast him aside.
Why did the very thought of it cause such a curious ache within him? Ignoring the feeling, he raised his face to the familiar sky. He hadn’t wanted this Imprint. He’d only saved her because he owed her a life, and he knew all too well that one of the true dangers of this world, as well as the next, was the power of an unpaid life debt.
Well, she had saved him—found him, hidden him, and then released him, but on the depot rooftop, he had returned the debt by helping her escape from certain death. His life debt to her was now paid. Rephaim was the son of an immortal, not a weak human man. He had little doubt he could break this Imprint—this ridiculous byproduct of saving her life. He would use what was left of his strength to wish it away, and then he would truly begin to heal.
He breathed in the night again. Ignoring the weakness in his body, Rephaim focused the strength of his will.
“I call upon the power of the spirit of ancient immortals, which is mine by birthright to command, to break—”
The wave of despair crashed over him, and Rephaim staggered against the balcony’s railing. The sadness radiated throughout his body with such force that it drove him to his knees. There he remained, gasping with pain and shock.
What is happening to me?
Next, an odd, alien fear filled him, and Rephaim began to understand.
“These are not my feelings,” he told himself, trying to find his own center within the maelstrom of distress. “These are her feelings.”
Rephaim gasped as hopelessness followed fear. Steeling himself against the continued onslaught, he struggled to stand, fighting the waves of Stevie Rae’s emotions. Resolutely, he forced himself to refocus through the onslaught and the weariness that tugged relentlessly at him—to touch the place of power that lay locked and dormant for most of humanity—the place to which his blood held the key.
Rephaim began the invocation anew. This time with an altogether different intent.
Later, he would tell himself that his response had been automatic—that he’d been acting under the influence of their Imprint; it had simply been more powerful than he had expected. It was the damnable Imprint that had caused him to believe that the surest, quickest way to end the horrible wash of emotions from the Red One was to draw her to him and thus remove her from whatever was causing her pain.
It couldn’t be that he cared that she was in pain. It could never be that.
“I call upon the power of the spirit of ancient immortals, which is mine by birthright to command.” Rephaim spoke quickly. Ignoring the pain in his battered body, he pulled energy to him from the deepest shadows of the night, and then channeled that power through him, charging it with immortality. The air around him glistened as it became stained with a dark scarlet radiance. “Through the immortal might of my father, Kalona, who seeded my blood and spirit with power, I send you to my—” There his words broke off. His? She wasn’t his anything. She was . . . she was . . . “She is the Red One! Vampyre High Priestess to those who are lost,” he finally blurted. “She is attached to me through blood Imprint and through life debt. Go to her. Strengthen her. Draw her to me. By the immortal part of my being, I command it so!”
The red mist scattered off instantly, flying to the south. Back the way he’d come. Back to find her.
Rephaim turned his gaze to look after it. And then he waited.
Stevie Rae woke up feeling like a big ol’ pile of poo. Well, actually, she felt like a big ol’ pile of stressed-out poo.
She’d Imprinted with Rephaim.
She’d almost burned up on that rooftop.
For a second she remembered the excellent season two True Blood episode where Goderick had burned his own self up on a fictional roof. Stevie Rae snorted a laugh. “It looked way easier on TV.”
“Sweet weeping puppies, Dallas! You nearly scared me spitless.” Stevie Rae clutched at the white, hospital-like sheet that covered her. “What in the Sam Hill are you doin’ here?”
Dallas frowned. “Jeez, settle down. I came up here a little after dusk to check on you, and Lenobia told me it’d be okay to sit here for a while in case you woke up. You’re awful jumpy.”
almost died. I think I have the right to be a little jumpy.”
Dallas looked instantly contrite. He scooted the little side chair closer and took her hand. “Sorry. You’re right. Sorry. I was real scared when Erik told everyone what had happened.”
“What did Erik say?”
His warm brown eyes hardened. “That you almost burned up on that roof.”
“Yeah, it was really stupid. I tripped and fell and hit my head.” Stevie Rae had to look away from his gaze while she spoke. “When I woke up, I was almost toast.”
“Save that load of crap for Erik and Lenobia and the rest of ’em. Those assholes tried to kill you, didn’t they?”
“Dallas, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” She tried to take her hand from his, but he held tight.
“Hey.” His voice softened and he touched her face, pulling her gaze back to his. “It’s just me. You know you can tell me the truth, and I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
Stevie Rae blew out a long breath. “I don’t want Lenobia or any of them to know, especially not any of the blue fledglings.”
Dallas stared at her a long time before he spoke. “I won’t say anything to anyone, but you gotta know I think you’re makin’ a big mistake. You can’t keep protecting them.”
“I’m not protectin’ ’em!” she protested. This time she held tight to Dallas’s safe, warm hand, trying through touch to get him to understand something she could never tell him. “I just want to deal with this—all of this—my own way. If everyone knows they tried to trap me up there, then it’ll all be out of my hands.” And what if Lenobia grabs Nicole and her group, and they tell her about Rephaim? The sickening thought was a guilty whisper through Stevie Rae’s mind.