Coming to, the deadened weight I felt was all encompassing. Mind and body.
It felt as though I was wearing someone else’s skin. Trapped in a fog I was struggling to break free from.
Never before had I experienced anything like it, but even though my eyes had yet to open, I hadn’t forgotten my final thought.
My throat was dry and I couldn’t be sure I’d even said his name out loud, so I tried again and forced out in little more than a whisper, “Claude?”
“Finally,” he huffed from somewhere behind me and then laughed, “I wasn’t sure you were ever going to wake up. The idiot gave you too much.”
Trying to stretch my arms, I couldn’t do more than shrug and finally peeled open my eyes to see I was tied to a chair.
Naked, as I had been when he’d taken me from the bed.
“Claude?” I repeated, sounding much stronger than I actually felt.
But rage worked wonders on giving me strength.
My head was dizzy and I had a thousand questions I wanted answers to.
Answers I wanted to beat out of him.
Forcing myself to focus enough to at least pop free of my bindings, I quickly realized I couldn’t. But not understanding why, I still struggled in vain, until he came to stand in front of me and smugly said, “Won’t work. Where we’re at no fairy magic will work.”
“Where we’re at?” I asked automatically, already searching for the truth of his words in my veins.
My essential spark – the ones all fairies possessed – was as tangible as any other body part. I could feel it no differently than I could feel my lungs expand with air or my heart beating in my chest.
But where it once flowed freely throughout my entire being, now it was barely a dull and distant throb in my chest.
As though it had been forced into a little box and bound tightly in a way I had no way of breaking open.
Likely seeing the struggle on my face, he said, “Don’t bother. I’m not used to it yet either, but it won’t kill you.”
“Sadly,” he added with a glare, almost as an afterthought.
We’d never gotten along. Not even as children. And he’d never hidden his disdain for me or his jealousy over the special treatment I received from Great-grandfather.
But this – whatever it was he thought to do – was beyond what I thought him capable of.
We were kin.
Apparently I had been the only one to have any regard for that fact.
But searching for my essential spark made me think to search for my bond with Eric.
Only to find it wasn’t there at all.
Unlike before when we’d been separated by the aperture between our two worlds, there was no gut wrenching pull, insisting I return to him. No pain.
Like it had never existed to begin with.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH ERIC?” I yelled, fighting against the bindings until I felt them tearing into my skin.
The pain felt good. It gave me something to hold onto when I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t already lost the man I held most dear.
“You disgust me,” he snarled and took a step closer. “You reek of him. Sex. Blood.” Then leaning forward, he put his face right in front of mine to add, “I would call you a disgrace to our kind, but then you never were one of us.”
His taunts did nothing but piss me off more. But knowing Claude as I did, I knew his ego surpassed even Eric’s at his most unbearable. He thought himself above everyone else.
Better than everyone else in all things.
But while he’d been gallivanting around the Fae realm, doing whatever struck his fancy, I had been training.
For situations – among others – like this one.
And with my mind becoming clearer, I saw a potential opening and used his hubris to my advantage by shrinking back into the chair – hoping to draw him just a little closer – and timidly pleaded, “Tell me he’s not dead.”
My concern over Eric’s safety was a very real fear, so it wasn’t hard to let my emotions shine through in my expression.
I couldn’t feel him or sense him at all and I suspected the same held true for him.
Otherwise, he would’ve already flown into the room and killed my captor.
Too bad for Eric, I planned on beating him to the punch.
I couldn’t allow myself to believe he had met his true death. I wouldn’t be able to function and do what needed to be done if I had.
For not only Eric, but – I suspected – for the entire Kingdom of Amun.
Even without my telepathy – it would’ve been no use against Claude anyway – I knew him well enough to be able to tell if he was lying.
So I focused on his face, when he took that fateful step closer and finally replied, “Her orders were to leave your abomination untouched.”
I didn’t bother to hide my sigh of relief, seeing the truth of his words on his face. But knowing he was working under the orders of a female did nothing to narrow down my list of suspects.
Claude had always been one of the girls.
It could be any one of them.
I hoped it wasn’t one of his sisters. I’d thought myself close to both Claudine and Claudette, at least before I’d left our world for the one I’d always been meant to live in.
But I could no longer rely on my previously rose colored view of my kin.
The blinders were decidedly off now where my family was concerned.
Claude had seen to that.
But now that I had a goal to work towards – getting back to Eric – I hoped he would get lost in his inevitably rambling tirade by asking, “Why?”
While I wanted to know all of it – the who, what, when, where, why of it – at the moment what I wanted most was for him to be distracted.
And nothing was more fascinating to Claude than Claude himself.
“He will do our work for us,” Claude sneered. “With you missing he’ll tear the world apart in his search for you. Vampire. Were. Human. None of them will be spared by the monster you call master.”
As he spoke I’d taken surreptitious glances around the room we were in. There were boarded up windows on two sides and only a single door. The walls were composed of wooden logs and the floor, wooden planks. The ceiling had exposed beams, showing the roof up above and led me to believe the entire dwelling consisted of this one room.
The only light to be had came from lit candles in various sconces hung on the walls and there was a fireplace along one wall, but it was left cold and dark.
I couldn’t hear anyone else, so I assumed he was my lone guard and briefly spared a thought that whomever he worked for had severely underestimated me.
Now that I had a plan in place – kill Claude and everyone else that stood in my way – I looked up at him through my lowered lashes and said lowly, “The King of Amun is not the monster you should be worried about.”
It was my only warning before I jerked forward and bashed my head against his. Growing up, he’d spent more time with a hairbrush in his hand than a sword, so he wasn’t prepared for the pain shooting through his skull.
During the infrequent sparring sessions we’d had as children, his mantra had always been, “Not in the face.”
I’d gotten a better feel for my bindings, while he’d been regaling me with what amounted to his treason, and noted his only aptitude for tying knots came from lacing his tunics and trousers.
He’d left both those and mine loose enough for a little wiggle room.
My legs weren’t bound at all – because Claude was an idiot – so I swept both of my legs out to take his feet out from under him and stood up. Forced to remain hunched over from the ropes binding me to the chair, I sprung upwards and dove forward into a somersault, flipping in the air, so that I landed on my back on top of his body.
The wooden slats of the chair broke away and I quickly wriggled free of the ropes, while Claude struggled underneath me now that I’d knocked the air out of his lungs.
Finally freed, I grabbed the rope and hooked it around his neck behind me, rolling over in the same second and pulling it taut, as I braced my feet against his upper back for leverage.
Claude was bigger than me by at least eighty pounds, but I’d been trained in hand to hand combat from the time I was a child.
He didn’t stand a chance.
Grabbing one of the broken wooden slats, I hastened to fasten a knot around it and used it as a better handhold to tighten or loosen the rope around his neck, with a turn in either direction.
Deciding now was the time to get some answers to the questions I had, I started off with the most important one.
“Where are we?”
I needed to know where I was if I was to find my way back to Eric.
My only hope was that he was still at rest and hadn’t yet noticed I was missing.
Still struggling for air, his hands flailed behind his head to try and grab ahold of either me or the rope, so I pushed my feet harder against his back, while tightening the noose a little more and repeated, “Where?”
Tears were leaking down his face, which was turning a lovely shade of red, and his hands moved to uselessly clutched at the rope around his neck. But instead of answering my question – or even pleading for his life – he laughed.
I wasn’t amused.
So I tightened the rope some more and when his face was well on its way to turning a mottled purple, I loosened it enough for him to take a breath and repeated, “Where?”
“I don’t know,” he finally gasped out.
“How do you not know?” I berated. “You took me here!”
“I only took you,” he corrected. “We were taken here.”
I could run for miles before tiring out and could navigate my way with the stars in the night sky. I didn’t want to, but I wouldn’t be left with any other choice when I didn’t have the use of my powers.
Which led me to my next question.
“How was my magic bound?”
Noticing his face was regaining a more normal hue, I found that completely unacceptable.
So I tightened the rope again when he didn’t seem willing to answer, only loosening it a little when he eventually choked out, “I don’t know.”
Feeling my toes digging into his back in warning, he quickly added, “It’s this place. It blocks our magic. She made it this way.”
“She who?” I bit out in frustration.
“She made it this way,” he repeated and then sounded almost taunting when he added, “For him.”
I didn’t have the time to question him any further because Claude reached around and took hold of the rope at the nape of his neck before using his upper body strength to surge forward. With my feet still dug into his back and my hands locked tightly onto the stick, I ended up flipping over his head and he landed on top of me a second later, producing a dagger from a sheath I hadn’t noticed at his hip.
His face was nearly unrecognizable. Not from his prior struggles, but from the absolute hatred coloring his features.
Barely a second had passed since our positions had changed, but the dagger in his right hand was already swinging down in a wide arc, headed right for my chest, when the door burst open and a blur entered the room.
A loud rumbling growl accompanied it, knocking right into Claude and throwing him into the far wall.
He let out a blood curdling scream that soon turned into a choked gurgling sound.
Even from several feet away, I was sprayed with a fine mist of the blood quickly leaving his body. It landed hot on my bare skin, but I ignored it in favor of trying to figure out who my savior was.
It took another moment for me to recognize the vampire in my midst wasn’t just any old vampire.
He was also a fairy.
I sat there dumbfounded, watching him drain my cousin and sparing no thought to the fact pure fairy blood drove vampires mad.
He could have turned on me at any moment and done any number of things in his madness, but I didn’t move.
I didn’t think to.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to because he merely drained Claude dry, until my cousin disintegrated into a pile of fairy dust at his feet.
Even then, my eyes only saw Ailill.
Taking stock of his appearance, I noticed parts of his clothes were torn and bloodstained across his back and on both arms.
Scratches and bites, if I had to guess based on the shapes of the tears.
If they bothered him, he didn’t let on and only stared down at the remnants of my kin for a moment. Eventually, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before reaching down and grabbing hold of Claude’s tunic and pants.
Shaking them free of fairy dust, he turned towards me as he handed them over, thereby reminding me I was still naked, and greeted me with an almost affable, “Princess.”
“Ailill,” I huffed out in return, not hiding my displeasure at his insistence on using the inaccurate title he afforded me.
And it had nothing to do with my new station as a queen.
Instead I only gave him more evidence of my agitation by snatching the clothes from his hand, with him chuckling at my ire.
I still wasn’t amused.
Pulling the tunic on first, I ignored the way his eyes had seemed to be trained on my birthmark and used Claude’s dagger to cut the length of his trousers, so that they fell to the middle of my calves. Then cutting a suitable length of rope, I used it to cinch the waist.
All to Ailill’s obvious amusement, given the smirk on his face.
Just because he’d saved me didn’t mean I wouldn’t kill him later on. But for now he didn’t appear to be a threat and I desperately needed an ally if I wanted to find my way back to Eric.
If that’s what he was.
He had remained silent, as I’d made the necessary changes to my wardrobe that would in all likelihood cause Pam to have a coronary if she could see me in my too big and bloodied clothes.
I’d bet she would never again spout off her displeasure about denim.
But I highly doubted I was in Rome – Italy or Oklahoma – so when I was finished dressing and had nothing left to distract myself with, I finally looked up at him and asked, “Do you know where we are?”
With no thanks or acknowledgement of any kind from me over his actions, he didn’t appear to be expecting any.
Which was good.
Because I wasn’t going to give it to him.
I refused to believe any world – magically binding fairy powers or not – existed in which I could not best Claude in a fight to the death.
I would have worked my way out of it, even if he hadn’t shown up.
Mentally chewing over my very succinct words for a moment, his shoulders sagged just a hair and his smirk was replaced with a more thoughtful pursing of his lips.
Then moving past me towards the door, he gestured for me to follow and said, “Come and see for yourself.”
I could tell through the open doorway it was nearing twilight, with the green grass turning into muted greys, and I tried and failed to once again reach for Eric through the bond I could no longer feel.
He would be furious.
And I worried Claude’s predictive ramblings would come true.
Eric needed to keep his head in order to watch his back and restore order to his kingdom.
Not take the head of anyone he came across.
I was fine.
Safe even, in spite of my unwanted company.
I just had no way of relaying that fact to him.
The only thing keeping me sane was the knowledge that Eric had managed to survive for a thousand years on his own before I had come along. He only needed to keep doing that until I could find my way back to him.
And I would find my way back to him, if it was the last thing I did.
Giving in, I finally followed Ailill out the door. The grass was cold and damp on my bare feet, but that wasn’t what caught my attention.
“Is that…” I stuttered and stopped.
Because what I was seeing told me I was far away from Eric.
Very far away.
Shaking my stupor free, I forced myself to finish giving voice to what my eyes were telling me was real, no matter what the rest of me felt.
“Two suns in the sky?”
“So I’m not seeing things?” he asked in a teasing – albeit subdued – voice.
Ignoring his question, I asked another by saying, “Do you know how you got here?”
Inhaling deeply – I had no idea, given his unique existence, if he even required air – he let it out in a long drawn out sigh before turning to me and saying, “You call me Ailill, so you know of me. My history.”
Not posed as a question, I nodded my response anyway.
All fairies knew of Ailill, whether he was aware of that fact or not.
“Then you know there were twins.”
“Neave and Lochlan,” I automatically responded, but it took a moment longer for me to connect the dots.
I hadn’t been the only one betrayed by my kin.
Staring out at everything – or perhaps, nothing at all – there was no inflection in his tone when he stated, “They overestimated their abilities or underestimated mine. Without the use of magic to rely upon, I was able to kill the boy fairly easily. The girl was injured, but managed to escape into the wilderness before I could give her the same fate as her brother.”
It explained the state of his clothes, but the fact he’d used such impersonal words to describe them led me to believe it had been anything but an unemotional experience for him.
A small part of me almost felt sorry for him, but the larger part of me still didn’t trust him.
For all I knew he was complicit in my being brought there.
Because the fact was he’d shown his interest in me before, so I had no way of knowing if it was all a part of some ploy to earn my trust.
Slowly walking forward, I watched him reach out and run his fingers over the leaves of a nearby tree and in the distance I could hear what sounded like crashing waves of water.
Had it not been for the two red orbs in the sky, one sitting a fraction higher and to the left of the other, I could have been fooled into believing we were on nearly any coast.
On any continent.
Instead we appeared to be in another universe.
“She told me once, about a place not unlike this,” he began in a soft voice, seemingly speaking to the leaves at his fingertips before turning to face me.
“Back when things were still good, she told me she was making me something special for when the war was over. A place we could go to where there would be nothing to distract us. A paradise, she’d called it, where we wouldn’t – couldn’t – be bothered and where we could spend our days and nights just enjoying each other.”
Taking another look around, he turned to glance back at me and said, “I believe this is that place.”
I no longer had to wonder who she was.
She was behind all of it.
In the next moment a loud screeching howl, not of any world I had been a part of, could be heard in the distance and my hand automatically fell to Claude’s dagger, now on my hip, with my eyes darting back to him.
But his eyes stared off towards where the sound had come from for a long while, before he eventually said, “But I also believe she has transformed the landscape to suit her altered intent.”
“We’re meant to die here.”
The words fell through my lips right as they formed in my mind, with the memories of every encounter I’d ever had with Queen Maeve flitting through my thoughts.
She hated me.
From the time I’d been born.
And like Claude, she even seemed to harbor some jealousy over the affection Great-grandfather bestowed on me.
I had the scars on my back to prove it.
But more than her station, she was a powerful fairy in her own right. If her magic had been used to somehow manufacture the world we’d found ourselves in, we were in very real trouble.
And I had to wonder if this universe was indeed out to get me when no sooner had I had the thought than another beastly howl sounded off in the distance.
Only this time, much closer than the one before it.