I wasn’t normally prone to panic. Using logic – looking two, three, and four steps ahead – had been drilled into me until it was an ingrained response.
But being alone inside of myself for the first time since Eric and I had first shared blood weeks ago, I wanted to panic.
Luckily for me, there was no time for it.
Forced to run through the trees as fast as my legs could carry me, I could hear whatever the strange sounding creature was giving chase. It was gaining ground and for the first time I truly wondered about the larger part of my heritage.
Greater in size of the parts that made me whole, I’d spent my lifetime with the belief it was nothing more than a pittance of my totality.
I had a greater respect for them now.
How they managed to survive throughout time, with nothing more than their human strength and ingenuity, gave me a better appreciation for them. I had taken my magic for granted, never imagining a time when I wouldn’t have it to use at my disposal and had looked down upon those – even in my own bloodline – who didn’t possess the essential spark.
I had been a fool.
In more ways than one.
The oddly sounding roars were accompanied by the thunderous approach of whatever it was coming after us. Heavy paws or perhaps hooves hitting the ground reverberated through my own footfalls, but they were falling too quickly for me to be able to tell if it was one beast or more.
The sound of branches snapping behind us added to the cacophony, alerting me they were getting even closer. Ailill must have had the same realization because he spun around in front of me, from where he had taken the lead, and doubled back.
Watching him draw a dagger from his hip, I pulled mine as well, while he darted towards the sound now nearly upon us and scaled a huge tree along the path just in time to dive down onto the back of our pursuer.
As large as the shifter Ajamu in his African elephant form, this beast was no ordinary animal. A lion from the front, a horned head grew from its back, but I didn’t allow myself the time to gawk, seeing the puff of smoke burst from its nostrils, and ran forward.
Ailill thrust his dagger into the right side of its lion’s neck, making the beast’s head turn upwards, with its jaws snapping at him. So I planted one foot on its left paw and used the fur of its mane to pull myself up onto its back, plunging my dagger into the throat of the dragon-like head, as the flames just then shooting from its mouth were snuffed out as quickly as they’d started.
The lion roared in pain, falling onto its left side and nearly on top of me, but Ailill grabbed onto my arm and pulled me away, before he let go of me just as he was flung into a tree with a swipe of the beast’s paw.
Wasting no time now that it was prone on the ground, I thrust my dagger into his belly with both hands and pulled it down towards its hindquarters, with blood spraying out and drenching me from head to toe.
Temporarily blinded as I was, I didn’t see the snake’s head at the end of its tail poised to strike, until it fell to the ground – the weight of it glancing against my back and taking me down with it – now that it was severed from the rest of its body.
Turning to look over my shoulder, seeing Ailill now bringing his dagger back down, it was easy to deduce how it had come to be that way.
Neither one of us said anything for a long moment, with both of us seemingly wrapping our minds around what had just happened.
So when I could stand the silence no more, I tried to find a clean swath of cloth somewhere on my shirt to wipe the blood from my face, while saying, “That was different.”
Hidden as I was by my shirt, now twisted around my body to use the backside of it to clean my face, his amusement was still evident from the hearty laugh echoing around us, before he said, “I agree. I haven’t seen one in a very long time, but certainly never one as large as he.”
“Chimeras are nothing more than mythological folklore,” I contested, despite the evidence lying dead on the ground.
I may have been without my magic, but my innate stubbornness apparently came from my human side.
“All folklore is based on some form of fact, is it not?” he asked, walking forward and holding out his hand to help me up.
Being a once mythological monster from my childhood himself, I thought perhaps he might be onto something.
But still feeling more human than Fae, I ignored his offered hand and stood up under my own power.
Appearing amused rather than offended, he went on to say, “The first Chimera was the product of three Fae brothers. Still children at the time, they’d argued over which of the three beasts was the most fierce, and eventually came to a compromise by using their combined magic to form one magnificent beast.”
Chuckling at whatever memories were now stirring in his mind’s eye, he shook his head and said, “Knowing they would be punished if caught, they’d left it to wander in the human realm and their mischief wasn’t discovered until their pet had terrorized and nearly decimated half of the villages in what is now considered ancient Greece.”
The accusation was on the tip of my tongue. To call him a liar for trying to make me look like a fool for believing anything he’d said.
But the Fae couldn’t lie.
But he was no longer just a fairy.
Scrutinizing his every word led to me examining him as whole. And noticing the slight flush of his cheeks and the air he seemingly needed being pulled into his lungs in slightly labored breaths, I asked, “What is wrong with you?”
Not needing to explain, his expression switched into one of appearing somewhat impressed, when he admitted, “I am not sure, but I believe it has something to do with the magic of this place. Not only is my Fae magic gone, but my vampire nature is missing as well.”
“What do you mean?”
Even as the question fell from my lips, my mind quickly replayed everything I’d witnessed of him since he’d burst into the cabin only a short while before.
But before I could point out the inconsistency of his claim that his vampirism was missing – Claude would certainly disagree if he was around to do so – Ailill gave voice to it first by saying, “I killed your captor with nothing more than my blunt teeth. My first instinct was still to attack his throat, but that has been true of my nature for hundreds of years now. I cannot honestly say if it was more from habit or desire, but I can say I found the taste of his blood unappetizing. I let more of it drain from the wound than I actually pulled into my mouth and right now I feel a hunger I haven’t felt in a very long time.”
Every full-blooded fairy, regardless of the cause of their death, turned to dust at their end, so I knew what he was saying could be true.
Claude could have merely bled out, like anyone with a torn open jugular would.
Replaying everything I’d seen him do in the short time I’d been in his presence, since waking in this world, I slowed down the scenes of him battling the chimera and flicked through them frame by frame.
His back had been facing me when he’d killed Claude, so I had no way of disputing his account. But I’d been in the battle with him to bring down the beast and it didn’t take long for me to realize he was right.
In my short time in the human realm, I’d faced off against enough vampire to know in the heat of the battle their fangs would come down. I would think it nearly impossible for them to hide them away when involved in any skirmish and absolutely unavoidable if they were fighting for their life.
Pausing on the still shot of him in my mind, with his dagger poised to cut the lion’s throat, I stared with my mind’s eye at his face.
Mouth wide open in what could have been a warrior’s cry I hadn’t the wherewithal to hear at the time, he’d had no fangs descending from his gums.
Nothing but the smooth line of his blunt teeth.
He hadn’t even shown any supernatural speed in our initial flight from the chimera. While faster than me – a fact I contributed to his longer leg stride than any fault on my part to keep up with him – his speed was nothing extraordinary.
No more than mine had been in my game of tag with Eric, in the woods behind his southern estate.
I was pulled from my inner musings when he moved closer to look at the freshly killed carcass lying on the ground beside us and with his eyes narrowed in thought, he asked, “How do you feel about roasted chimera for dinner?”
I wanted to tell him exactly what he could do with his roasted chimera.
It had to do with sticking it somewhere other than on a spit over a fire.
But I was hungry too. Hungrier than I really should be, given I’d been eating when I’d been overcome by drowsiness and Claude had spirited me away.
He’d implied I’d been unconscious for a length of time, but Claude had always been short on patience, so an hour would’ve felt like an eon to him.
I couldn’t have been gone from our bed for more than two to three hours at the most.
But looking over at Ailill, carving up the chimera as though it was an everyday chore made me ask, “How long have you been here?”
And then studying his face to see the truth behind whatever doublespeak he would offer me, I added accusatorily, “You don’t seem very bothered to be trapped in this magical cage.”
Because that’s what it was. A cage meant to keep us contained and at the mercy of Maeve the Malevolent.
“The Hollow,” he offered, seemingly without thought. His hands stilled, with his eyes trained on the carcass at our feet but appeared to be seeing something else, when he added, “That’s what she’d called it back then. The Hollow. A space carved out of nothing.”
Going back to butchering the meat for our dinner, he shrugged, “And what good would come of me acting out in fear or anger? I am stuck here until I – or we – can figure a way out. Until then, the more prudent course would be to do what needs to be done in order to survive. Maintaining my strength by feeding my body fuel is one of those needs.”
I hated that his words only served to remind me of someone else whose logic often overrode his emotions.
Someone who could very well wake at any given time and discover I was gone. Eric had enough to contend with, given the attack on the palace and his kingdom.
The last thing he needed was to be distracted by his missing bonded and our missing bond.
I could only hope since I felt no discomfort from its disappearance that the same would hold true for him. He would need to focus on watching his back – and, at times, his open left flank – without me there to do it for him.
While I found some solace in the fact he’d managed to survive without me for a thousand years, it didn’t take away from the fact I wanted to be there to protect him.
Now was the worst time for me to be derelict in my duties, no matter whose fault it was that caused me to be gone.
I had made a vow and now it had been broken.
The fact Ailill hadn’t answered the first half of my question wasn’t lost on me. But shelving it for the moment – his answer would ultimately change nothing – I silently studied the man before me. Without my magic – my essential spark – what I now knew was my telepathic gift to not only read human thoughts, but sense the presence of supernaturals was gone as well. The only insight I could gain now was through the use of my other senses, so I watched, looking for anything that could possibly give away his true self.
Was he an ally?
Was he my enemy?
With the way he was situated on the ground, my eyes were able to roam over his back and, while – like me – he was covered in the blood of others, I could now see the cuts on his skin through the holes in the back of his shirt.
Still sluggishly oozing blood, he wasn’t healing, like a vampire or full-blooded fairy would.
At the moment, he seemed even more human than me.
My incredulous sounding words were likely more from the fact I’d made the observation aloud, than from the fact he seemed so…
Unlike the monster he’d been made out to be in my childhood.
“Is that what that is?” he chuckled and turned to try and get a better look at his back over his shoulder. Either unable to see the cuts or uninterested in their existence, he soon turned back to look at me, eying me in much the same way he had the animal carcass.
Like he was deciding where best to begin dissecting me.
But before I could do or say anything, he spoke up and unnecessarily declared, “It is this place. Without our magic, we are both vulnerable, but given your heritage, you perhaps, more so. You should take care, while we are here. If you were to become injured, I don’t know that my blood could heal you.”
“I would not take your blood,” I automatically spat out with all the venom I felt at his insinuation and just as unnecessarily reminded him, “Of all of the ways in which I am bound to Amun, I bonded to him in blood first. To take another’s would be the ultimate betrayal.”
Ruefully shaking his head, he ignored my obvious seething and turned back to his work without another word. But silent or not, I could see the argument taking place behind his eyes.
One he eventually could no longer silence when he stood up to glare down at me and bit out accusingly, “Do you even hear yourself? Are you so brainwashed to believe it is more honorable to die for nothing more than foolish pride or is Amun so overbearingly jealous that he would choose your inevitable death over being healed by another’s blood out of necessity?”
It made no difference that his point was moot, given the blood in his body couldn’t even heal itself, much less be used to potentially heal my own.
I never took being challenged well and there he stood, waving a metaphorical red flag.
With no warning, I took a single leap towards him and arced my body, while pulling my limbs into a tight spin, so that my left foot caught the top of his left thigh to lift me up, with my right leg coming up and swinging around over the back of his shoulders, my intent to take him down from his lofty perch where he was so much better enlightened than me.
It wasn’t that I’d forgotten how good of a fighter he was.
I just didn’t care.
Even so, it wasn’t all that surprising when Ailill automatically dropped the dagger he’d still been holding and moved his body in the direction of my forward momentum, bringing his arms up and grabbing ahold of my own as he spun, simultaneously lifting me from his shoulders, while taking us both down onto the ground.
What was surprising was the care in which he placed me on the ground.
Even more surprising was feeling his body on top of mine. His hands pinned each of mine on either side of my head, while he used the strength of his legs straddled over my thighs to keep me from moving.
It wasn’t in any way sexual and yet it felt intimate just the same.
Not quite as tall or broad as Eric, Ailill was different in every way. Where Eric was light – light blond hair and clear blue eyes – Ailill was dark. But the biggest contrast was how warm he felt.
If I’d had any doubts before about his claim of having lost his vampire nature in our magic prison, this would have done away with them.
No longer angry, his eyes were somehow more intense as he stared into my own and said, “This world has stripped us both to our basest most fundamental selves. With vampire magic no longer fused to your blood, your bond to Amun is no more. Without your essential spark, your Fae bond no longer exists. Here, in this world meant to bring me heartache and pain – and of that I have no doubt for why else would she willingly sacrifice our own children, knowing I would be left with no choice but to kill them – Maeve has unwittingly given me the greatest gift. She has given you free will.”
I wanted to be angry – a part of me still was – but I was having a difficult time building my ire back up in the face of his calm approach.
Instead I felt my lips tighten in response, poised to sarcastically tell him he’d left out the bond of holy matrimony – nothing magic about a signed piece of paper! – I swallowed the sentiment and my surprise when he went on to pointedly add, “I know you saved Amun’s life within a week of your…arrival. You have fulfilled your vow. You have fulfilled your great-grandfather’s debt. There is no dishonor in moving on and living your own life. You owe no one anything.”
His words were far too close to the ones spoken by Eric not long after I’d saved his life.
Everything was just…too.
Everything at every turn ever since I’d woken up naked and tied to a chair felt like a betrayal to Eric.
That I’d let that idiot Claude take me to begin with.
That I’d aligned myself with Ailill from the very start.
That I so passively allowed myself to remain pinned underneath him and listened to anything he had to say.
Passive or not, pinned as I was I knew it would take quite a bit of effort on my part to get out from under him, if he chose to try and keep me there. But knowing how that usually turned out whenever Eric and I had fooled around in the past, it felt like yet another betrayal was just waiting in the wings for me to make another dumb move.
Like telling him of the ancient seer’s words that he and Eric were essentially interchangeable as far as her milky white eyes were concerned.
Instead I took a deep breath and used a calm tone – not unlike his own – and said, “I want to get up now.”
He couldn’t seem to stop talking about my free will, as though it was some new invention, so I was curious as to how easily he would give in to my very specific wishes.
I wasn’t curious for long.
Ailill stared back at me for another brief moment before a lopsided grin stole over his face, just as he rocked back onto his feet, with his hands still clasped onto mine pulling me up with him.
Giving each of my hands a gentle squeeze, he released them and quietly went about gathering wood to start a fire.
A fire that I personally thought was a bad idea. It was dark out now and both the sight and scent would only draw more predators.
My rumbling stomach kept my mouth shut and before long, he had the meat roasting over the flames, but neither one of us had said another word.
I told myself I was just being logical. He’d done nothing but protect me – had saved me even from myself when I’d thrown myself at him to childishly bring him down a peg – so choosing him to be my ally in this hellish world was a tactical decision.
I could hear the rushing water of some type of tributary not far from where we were, but while I wanted to get clean, knowing Neave was still on the loose, I didn’t think it would be wise of us to separate.
No matter how much I wanted to be away from him at the moment.
For some reason, I couldn’t seem to stop stealing glances at him, so I told myself I would be an even bigger fool to not watch his every move. Human-like though he may be at the moment, his nature was still that of both a fairy and a vampire.
He could turn on me at any moment.
I knew because I was fighting off the urge to turn on him.
Or maybe I just wanted to turn tail and run like a coward.
As if sensing my eyes on him, Ailill’s hands soon slowed to a stop from where he’d been turning the meat and he looked up at me in a way that made my stomach twist, with something other than hunger.
It was a look I’d seen before.
Reverent was how I’d thought of it on him.
I refused to even think about it, much less give it a name now seeing it on Ailill’s face.
Breaking our mutual stare, I looked anywhere but at him and vowed I would ignore all things Ailill, until I heard him say, “In answer to your earlier question, I suspect I’ve been here nearly as long as you. I only parted from your company at Zeus’ palace maybe an hour at most before I happened upon the cabin you’d been kept in. When were you ta…”
“What?” I breathed out.
That had been two days ago.
Thirty-six hours at the very least.
Seeing the panic I normally wasn’t prone to that I could clearly feel running through my veins, he stood up and asked, “What is it?”
“I…you…this place…” I stuttered, trying to force the jumble in my mind to unravel enough to make sense.
Then settling on the path of least resistance, I forced out, “Two nights ago.” And taking another deep breath, I managed to exhale, “That was two nights ago.”
His shoulders visibly slumped and his eyes took on a faraway look, trying to work my words into the reality he’d believed until that moment.
A chill ran through my bones hearing him finally say, “When Maeve spoke of this place she’d often said time would stand still. Perhaps she’d meant it more literally than I’d taken her words to be at the time.”
How long had we really been gone?
Using every ounce of willpower I had, I forced the panic I wanted to give into away and closed my eyes, musing aloud, “For you, you last saw me only an hour before arriving at the cabin. For me, two nights had gone by. Thirty-six hours at the very least.”
Looking over at him, I wanted to use his next answer as a barometer to my own internal clock and asked, “How long has it been since we left the cabin?”
We’d been dodging our dinner for a while before we’d eventually taken it down in order to become our dinner. Then with the butchering, the fight that wasn’t a fight at all, and the talk I was pretending we didn’t actually have, I guessed it to be around three hours.
Which Ailill then confirmed.
If he was right and had only been there for an hour in this world to my thirty-six in the one we belonged in, then that meant…
At best, I’d been away from Eric for four and a half days.
At worst, well…I didn’t actually know how long I’d been unconscious before I’d woken in the cabin. Claude had complained I’d been out for a while.
So I could only imagine how much worse it might actually be.