I think my mom is dead.
I tested the words silently. They felt wrong, unnatural, as if I was trying to comprehend the world turning upside down or the sun rising in the west.
I drew a deep, sobbing breath and rolled onto my side, reaching for another tissue in the box that was on the floor next to the bed.
Stark muttered and frowned and moved restlessly.
Slowly and carefully, I got out of bed, grabbed Stark’s giant sweatshirt from where he’d tossed it, pulled it on, and curled up on the beanbag chair that sat near the wall of our little tunnel room.
The beanbag made that smushy noise that always reminds me of the balls in those inflatable kid party houses, and Stark frowned and mumbled something again. I blew my nose. Quietly. Stop crying stop crying stop crying! It won’t help. It won’t bring Mom back. I blinked a bunch of times, and wiped my nose again. Maybe it had just been a dream. But even as I thought the words my heart knew the truth. Nyx had pulled me from my dreams to show me a vision of Mom entering the Otherworld. That meant Mom had died. Mom told Nyx that she was sorry for letting me down, I reminded myself as tears leaked down my cheeks again.
“She’d said she loved me,” I whispered.
I had hardly made any noise, but Stark tossed and turned restlessly, and muttered, “Stop!”
I clamped my lips together, even though I knew my whisper wasn’t what was messing with his sleep. Stark was my Warrior, my Guardian, and my boyfriend. No, boyfriend is too simple a word. There’s a bond between Stark and me that goes deeper than dating and sex and all the stuff that comes and goes with normal relationships. That’s why he was so restless. He could feel my sadness—even in his dreams he knew I was crying and hurt and scared and—
Stark pushed the blanket off his chest and I could see that his hand was clenched into a fist. My gaze went to his face. He was still asleep, but his forehead was furrowed and he was frowning.
I closed my eyes and drew a deep, centering breath. “Spirit,” I whispered. “Please come to me.” Instantly I felt the element brush against my skin. “Help me. No, actually, help Stark by shielding my sadness from him.” And maybe, I added silently, you could help shield some of my sadness from me, too. Even if it’s just for a little while. I drew another deep breath as spirit moved within and around me, swirling over to the bed. Opening my eyes I could actually see a ripple in the air surrounding Stark. His skin appeared to glow as the element settled against him like a diaphanous blanket. I felt warm and glanced down at my arms and saw that the same soft glow was resting against my skin. Stark exhaled a long sigh with me as spirit worked a little soothing magick, and for the first time in hours I felt a little, tiny bit of my sadness lift.
“Thank you, spirit,” I whispered and crossed my arms, hugging myself tight. Wrapped in the comforting touch of the element I felt closest to, I was actually a little sleepy. It was then that a different kind of warmth penetrated my consciousness. Slowly, not wanting to disturb the comforting spell the element was working, I unwrapped my arms from around myself and touched my chest.
Why is my seer stone warm? The small, round stone was dangling from its silver chain, resting between my breasts. I hadn’t taken it off since Sgiach had gifted it to me before I’d left the beautiful, magickal Isle of Skye.
Wonderingly, I pulled the stone out from under the sweatshirt, running my fingers over its smooth, marble surface. It still reminded me of a coconut-flavored Life Saver, but the Skye marble glittered with an unearthly light, as if the element I had invoked had made it alive—as if the warmth I felt was because it pulsed with life.
Queen Sgiach’s voice echoed through my memory: “A seer stone is in tune with only the most ancient of magicks: the kind I protect on my isle. I am gifting you with it so that you might, indeed, recognize the Old Ones if any still exist in the outside world . . .”
As her words replayed in my mind the stone turned slowly, almost lazily. The hole in its center was like a mini-telescope. As it shifted around I could see Stark illuminated through it, and my world shifted, too, narrowed, then everything changed.
Maybe it was because spirit was so close to me at that moment, but what I saw didn’t feel anything like the mind-blowing first time I’d looked through the stone on Skye and had ended up passing out.
But that didn’t mean it was any less unsettling.
Stark was there, lying on his back, most of his chest bare. The glow of spirit was gone. In its place I saw another image. It was indistinct, though, and I couldn’t make out his features. It was like someone’s shadow. Stark’s arm twitched and his hand opened. The shadow’s hand opened. As I watched the Guardian sword—the massive long sword that had come to Stark in the Otherworld—took form in Stark’s hand. I gasped in surprise and the phantom-like Warrior turned his head in my direction and closed his hand around the sword.
Instantly the Guardian sword shifted, changed, and became a long black spear—dangerous, lethal, tipped in blood that looked way too familiar to me. Fear spiked through me.
“No!” I cried. “Spirit, strengthen Stark! Make that thing go away!” With a noise like the beating wings of a giant bird, the apparition disappeared, the seer stone went cold, and Stark sat straight up, frowning at me.
“What are you doing over there?” He rubbed his eyes. “Why are you making so much noise?”
I opened my mouth to try to explain the bizarre thing I’d just seen when he sighed heavily and lay back down, flipping open the covers and motioning sleepily for me. “Come here. I can’t sleep unless you’re cuddled up with me. And I really need to get some sleep.”
“Okay, yeah, me, too,” I said, and on shaky legs I hurried to him and curled against his side, my head resting on his shoulder. “Hey, uh, something weird just happened,” I began, but when I tilted my head so that I could see into his eyes, Stark’s lips met mine. The surprise didn’t last long, and I slid into the kiss. It felt good—so good to be close to him. His arms went around me. I pressed myself against him while his lips followed the curve of my neck. “I thought you said you needed some sleep.” My voice sounded breathless.
“I need you more,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me, too.”
We lost ourselves in each other then. Stark’s touch chased away death and despair and fear. Together we reminded each other of life and love and happiness. Afterward we finally slept and the seer stone lay cold and forgotten on my breast between us.
The human male’s flesh had been soft, pulpy.
It had been a surprise how easy it had been to destroy him—to end the beating of his feeble heart.
“Take me to North Tulsa. I want to go out into the night,” she’d said. That was the command that began their evening.
“Yes, Goddess,” he’d responded instantly, coming alive from the corner of the rooftop balcony that he’d made his own.
“Do not call me Goddess. Call me . . .” She’d looked contemplative. “. . . Priestess.” Her full lips, slick and reddened, turned up. “I believe it is best if everyone should simply call me Priestess—at least for a short while.”
Aurox had fisted his hand over his heart in a gesture he instinctively knew was ancient, though it somehow felt awkward and forced. “Yes, Priestess.”
Priestess had brushed by him, gesturing imperiously for him to follow her.
He had followed.
He’d been created to follow. To take her orders. To obey her commands.
They’d entered something Priestess had called car, and the world had flown. Priestess had commanded him to understand the workings of it.
He’d watched and learned, just as she’d commanded.
Then they’d stopped and exited the car.
The street had smelled of death and rot, corruption and filth.
“Priestess this place is not—”
“Protect me!” she’d snapped. “But do not be protective of me. I will always go where I wish, when I wish, and do exactly what I wish. It is your job, no, your purpose to defeat my enemies. It is my destiny to create enemies. Watch. React when I command you to protect. That is all I require of you.”
“Yes, Priestess,” he’d said.
The modern world was a confusing place. So many shifting sounds. So much he did not know. He would do as Priestess commanded. He would fulfill his reason for creation and—
A male had stepped out, blocking Priestess’s way.
“You way too pretty to be in this here alley so late with nothin’ but one boy keepin’ ya company.” His eyes widened, as he took in Priestess’s tattoos. “So, vampyre, you stoppin’ here to get you a little snack from this boy? How ’bout you give me that purse then you and me, we’ll talk ’bout what it’s like to be with a real man?”
Priestess sighed and sounded bored. “You’re wrong on both counts: I am not simply a vampyre, and this is no boy.”
“Hey, what you mean by that?”
Priestess ignored the man and looked over her shoulder at Aurox.
“Now you should protect me. Show me what kind of weapon I command.”
He obeyed her without conscious thought. Aurox closed on the man with no hesitation. In one swift movement, Aurox plunged his thumbs into the man’s staring eyeballs, which made the screaming begin.
The man’s terror washed over him, feeding him. As simply as drawing a breath, Aurox inhaled the pain he was causing. The power of the man’s terror swelled through him, pumping hot and cold. Aurox felt his hands hardening, changing, becoming more. What had been normal fingers became claws. He pulled them from the man’s eyes when the blood began to seep from his ears. With the borrowed power of pain and fear, Aurox lifted the man, slamming him against the wall of the nearest building.
The man screamed again.
What a wonderful, terrible thrill! Aurox felt more of the change ripple through his body. Mere human feet became cloven hooves. The muscles of his legs thickened. His chest heaved and split the shirt he had been wearing. And most wonderful of all, Aurox felt the thick deadly horns that swelled from his head.
By the time the man’s three friends ran into the alley to help him, he had stopped screaming.
Aurox dropped the man to the filth and turned to place himself between Priestess and those who might believe they could cause her harm.
“What the fuck?” The first man skidded to a halt.
“I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that,” said the second man.
Aurox was already absorbing the fear that was beginning to radiate from them. His skin pulsed with the cold fire of it.
“Is they horns? Ah, hell no! I’m outta here.” The third man turned and scurried back the way he had come. The other two began to back slowly away, eyes wide, shocked and staring.
Aurox looked to Priestess. “What is your command?” In some distant part of his mind, he wondered at the sound of his voice—how it had become so guttural, so bestial.
“Their pain makes you stronger.” Priestess looked pleased. “And different, more fierce.” She looked at the two retreating men and her full upper lip lifted in a sneer. “Isn’t that interesting . . . Kill them.”
Aurox moved so quickly the nearest man had no chance to escape. He gored him through his chest, lifting him so that he writhed and shrieked and soiled himself.
This made Aurox even more powerful.
With a mighty toss of his head, the skewered man flew into the building to land, crumpled and silent, beside the first man.
The other man didn’t run away. Instead he pulled out a long, dangerous looking knife and charged at Aurox.
Aurox feinted to the side and then, when the man overcompensated, he stomped a cloven hoof through his foot, ripping off his face as the man fell forward.
Breathing hard, Aurox stood over the bodies of his vanquished enemies. He turned to Priestess.
“Very good,” she said in her emotionless voice. “Let us leave this place before the authorities descend.”
Aurox followed her. He walked heavily, his hoofs gouging furrows in the dirty alley. He fisted his claws at his side as he tried to make sense of the emotional storm that flowed through his body, taking with it the power that had fueled his battle frenzy.
Weak. He felt weak. And more. There was something else.
“What is it?” she snapped at him when he hesitated before entering the car again.
He shook his head. “I do not know. I feel—”
She laughed. “You don’t feel at all. You’re obviously overthinking this. My knife doesn’t feel. My gun doesn’t feel. You’re my weapon; you kill. Deal with it.”
“Yes, Priestess.” Aurox got in the car and let the world speed past him. I do not think. I do not feel. I am a weapon.
“Why are you standing here looking at me?” Priestess asked him, staring at him with eyes of green ice.
“I await your command, Priestess,” he said automatically, wondering how it was possible to have displeased her. They had just returned to her lair at the top of the magnificent building called Mayo. Aurox had walked to the balcony and simply stood there, quietly, gazing at Priestess.
She blew out a long breath. “I have no command for you at this moment. And must you always stare at me?”
Aurox looked away, focusing on the lights of the city and how they glittered alluringly against the night sky.
“I await your command, Priestess,” he repeated.
“Oh, by all the gods! Who would have known the Vessel created for me would be as mindless as he is beautiful?”
Aurox felt the change in the atmosphere before Darkness materialized from smoke and shadow and night.
“Mindless, beautiful, and deadly . . .”
The voice rang in his head. The enormous white bull formed fully before him. His breath was fetid, yet sweet. His gaze was horrible and wonderful at the same time. He was mystery and magick and mayhem together.
Aurox dropped to his knees before the creature.
“Get off your knees. Get up and go back there . . .” She waved her hand in a dismissive gesture toward the shadows that edged the far recesses of the rooftop.
“No, I’d rather he stayed. I enjoy gazing on my creations.”
Aurox didn’t know what to say. This creature commanded his attention, but Priestess commanded his body.
“Creations?” Priestess put a special emphasis on the last part of the word as she moved languidly toward the massive bull. “Do you often make gifts like this to your followers?”
The bull’s laughter was terrible, but Aurox noticed Priestess didn’t flinch at all—that instead she seemed to be drawn closer and closer to the creature as he spoke.
“How interesting! You are actually questioning me. Are you jealous, my heartless one?”
Priestess stroked the bull’s horn. “Do I need to be?”
The bull nuzzled her. Where his muzzle touched Priestess the silk of her gown shriveled, exposing smooth, naked flesh underneath.
“Tell me, what do you believe is the purpose of my gift to you?” The bull answered Priestess’s question with one of his own.
Priestess blinked and shook her head, as if she was confused. Then her gaze found Aurox, still on his knees. “My lord, his purpose is protection, and I am ready to do as you bid to thank you for him.”
“I will accept your lush offerings, but I must explain to you that Aurox is not simply a weapon of protection. Aurox has one purpose, and that is to create chaos.”
Priestess inhaled a deep, shocked breath. She blinked rapidly, and her gaze went from the bull to him, and then returned to the bull.
“Truly?” she asked in a soft, reverent voice. “Through this one creature I can command chaos?”
The bull’s white eyes were like a sick, setting moon. “Truly. He is, indeed, one creature, but his power is vast. He has the ability to leave disaster in his wake. He is the Vessel that is the manifestation of your deepest dreams, and are they not for utter and complete chaos?”
“Yes, oh yes,” Priestess breathed the words. She leaned against the bull’s neck, stroking his side.
“Ah, and what is it you will do with chaos now that it is at your command? Will you take down the cities of humans and rule as vampyre queen?”
Priestess’s smile was beautiful and horrible. “Not queen. Goddess.”
“Goddess? But there is a Goddess of Vampyres. You know that all too well. You used to be in her service.”
“You mean Nyx? The Goddess who allows her minions free choice and a will of their own? The Goddess who will not intercede because she believes so strongly in the myth of freewill?”
Aurox thought he could hear a smile in the beast’s voice, and wondered how that was possible. “I do mean Nyx, Goddess of Vampyres and Night. Would you use chaos to challenge her?”
“No. I would use chaos to defeat her. What if chaos threatens the very fabric of the world? Would Nyx not step in and defy her own rules to save her children? And by doing so wouldn’t the Goddess rescind her edict that grants humans freewill and betray herself? What would happen then to her divine reign if Nyx changes what is destined to be?”
“I cannot say, as that has never before happened.” The bull snorted as if in amusement. “But it is a surprisingly interesting question—and you know how much I enjoy being surprised.”
“I only hope that I can continue to surprise you over and over again, my lord.”
“Only is such a small word . . .” the bull said.
Aurox continued to kneel on the rooftop long after Priestess and the bull had departed, leaving him discarded and forgotten. He stayed where he had been left, staring up at the sky.