I felt nervous – ridiculously so – waiting for the sun to fully set, knowing its departure from the sky would bring with it the ancient seer.
Her gift of sight was legendary – even among my own kind – and although she was a vampire, she was still given a begrudging amount of respect by the Fae as well.
So I couldn’t be sure if it was the past, present, or future that I felt worried over, but something about her impending visit had my stomach in knots.
Thankfully I didn’t have the whole day to fret. Instead of teleporting Eric back to the palace, he decided we would travel back as a group, while the sun was still high in the sky. He didn’t want our sudden presence to give cause for speculation and now that he was immune to the sun’s rays, he was in no real danger if we were to come under attack on the road north.
His Royal Guard all knew of his secret, but – with the Were’s among them, at least – thanks to my gift, I knew they could be trusted to keep that secret.
Having learned of the impending war, I knew from their thoughts they all felt their best chance at survival would be with their king leading the way. His fair rule over the years only worked in his favor when it came to cementing their loyalty.
And my – perhaps – unfair advantage made sure I would find any traitor the moment his thoughts went against us.
Then I would deal with them myself.
The Were Herveaux drove the truck containing the two travel coffins that held Pam and Godric, with Eric and I seated in the backseat, while the remaining Were guards traveled with the coffins containing the other vampires in his entourage.
When the decision to leave for the palace had been made, our departure from the estate had been swift, so I didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to the Stackhouses. We’d left before they were due to arrive at the house, but it was for the best.
I wouldn’t have known what to say to them anyway.
Knowing they were my human kin still left me with feelings of confusion. While I felt some attachment to them, it was nothing like how I felt about my cousins.
Or my great-grandfather.
I wanted answers they would be unable to provide.
Answers only Great-grandfather would be able to give me.
My attachment to the girl Hadley was the strongest, even though my blood told me I was more closely related to the boy. Perhaps it was because of what she’d been through or the fact – despite his questionable intelligence – the boy seemed more capable of taking care of himself.
But it was that thought that made me leave her a note to explain our early departure and give her my promise I would one day return, so we could then resume our training sessions.
And along with the note, I left her a gift. One that would help keep her safe from harm until my return and that she too could rightfully lay claim to.
The twin of the silver bladed dagger I kept strapped to my thigh. Like my swords, they too had been forged by elven masters of their craft and made especially for the House of the Sky Fae.
And like the thousands of hands of our ancestors that joined my own, when I held the hilt of my swords, so too would those same hands join hers in wielding her blade, when she had need of them.
Having popped Eric directly to the safety of his chambers when we’d entered the palace grounds just prior to sunset to keep him out of sight of the human staff on duty, I returned to Alcide’s side in the truck to keep up appearances.
And he managed to keep my mind off of the ancient one’s visit for a few moments longer, laughingly accusing me of playing a Three Card Monty game, when I directed the staff to bring Eric’s coffin – which in all actuality contained Godric – to the receiving room of his private chambers.
He tried to explain it to me three times, but I still failed to see the difficulty in tracking a single card in a group of three or the draw of being proven an idiot by guessing wrong and paying for the experience.
It was a prime example of why humans still confused me.
And why I had no sympathy for their idiocy.
Eric had been busy preparing for her arrival and having already returned to his side in his chambers, I hadn’t been keeping track of his movements, too lost in my own thoughts.
So I wasn’t expecting his embrace from behind – not that I didn’t welcome it – as he asked, “What has you feeling so worried?”
I could feel the slight lethargy going through him, from staying awake for most of the day. I’d badgered him into resting for a few hours when the bleeds started, but he wasn’t feeling as strong as he normally would have after a full day’s rest.
So I tilted my head and offered him my neck, leaning back into his body as I replied, “The same as you, I suppose. Her gift is legendary among my kind and being vampire, I won’t be able to read her thoughts.”
His lips had automatically been drawn to my neck, with his tongue peeking out and making a shiver run down my spine.
But instead of biting, my body shook slightly with the chuckle that rumbled through his chest, before he playfully teased, “The telepath doesn’t like being kept in the dark? Shocking.”
Before I could answer – more than likely with an elbow to his ribs – he hugged me tighter in his arms and kissed the top of my crown adding, “I suppose it’s understandable, given your heritage. A Sky Fae would naturally prefer the light – or in this scenario – to be enlightened.”
I wanted to argue with him – no matter how true his last statement was – because he often likened himself to darkness.
And I preferred him above all others.
But I didn’t have the opportunity because Godric chose that moment to knock on Eric’s door.
I’d felt him awakening upon my return to Alcide’s side, when we’d first arrived at the palace. But there had been too many spectators, with the palace staff emptying the vehicles of coffins and their passengers’ belongings, for me to tell him of our change in location.
However, when Eric opened the door, his only response to rising in a room he had not gone to rest in was a teasing, “I’ve never traveled in a king’s coffin before. Very nice. Pam’s doing?”
I hadn’t paid much attention to it, but I knew it was ornate.
It should be.
Eric was a king.
But Eric only chuckled with his nod and said, “She’s never gotten over that time we had to go to ground in a landfill. It took weeks for the scent of methane to leave her hair.”
“She could have just shaved it off,” he chuckled softly in return. But he was already shaking his head in amusement when he added, “But then, it is Pam we’re speaking of.”
Normally I would have gotten pleasure over their carefree attitudes, but that knot in my gut was only growing larger, twisting with every second that passed by.
So I took it upon myself to remind Eric why we were there by giving Godric the information there hadn’t been time to offer the night before, once we’d returned from Zeus.
“I saw Ailill last night when we were at King Davis’s palace. He goes by the name of Peter.”
My attempt to get them to focus worked because they each stiffened where they stood. Eric, I knew, from the anger he felt even thinking about Ailill.
But I soon guessed Godric’s posture was due to something else altogether, when he spun around to face the opposite doorway of the receiving room that led to the rest of the palace.
Dropping to his knees, my mind picked up the approaching void just as she filled the doorway, with him reverently greeting her with a soft spoken, “Master.”
Shock ran through me from two sides. Both mine and Eric’s side of the bond was stunned by the revelation the Ancient Pythoness was his Maker.
I didn’t have to ask to know that Eric had had no idea.
Nor did I blame him for feeling a little stung.
Older than Eric by a millennium, he likely would’ve been released by his Maker long before Eric had ever been made vampire.
Not a resident of Amun, Godric had been under no obligation to inform Eric of his origins or sire.
But given their close relationship – one I had since come to learn was as close as any two beings unrelated by blood could be – it was no wonder this new and unexpected bit of knowledge left him feeling a little wounded.
However I couldn’t help but wonder what this newest piece of puzzling information – information that seemed to be doled out to us in bits and pieces by everyone we came into contact with – might come to mean in the future.
Having the gift of sight, perhaps the ancient one could tell us.
But even feeling completely astonished, we both automatically bowed in respect, while Eric greeted her with, “Your Grace.”
Godric had already risen to his feet and helped her cross the room, but once she was seated, instead of addressing her child or the King of Amun, she turned her milky white eyes towards me and seemed to study my appearance, despite her blindness.
Had she been witness to the exchange, I knew Pam would be relieved I’d foregone wearing denim.
We were no longer in Rome.
The room remained silent and I knew from my gift there wasn’t another being in that wing of the palace.
She had come alone.
Privacy, I surmised, being the likely motive.
I wondered what that might come to mean in the future too.
Eventually her lips turned upwards into a small smile and her voice sounded as though she hadn’t used it in centuries when she finally spoke with a sandy grit coloring her tone.
“You are nothing like I imagined and yet you are the same.”
A mixture of caution, pride, and love flowed into me from Eric, but it bounced off of the knot full of circumspection expanding in my gut at her words.
Just what kind of seer was she for me to be nothing like she imagined?
Seemingly reading my mind – or perhaps theirs – when no one verbally offered anything in return, she explained, “Near the end of the war between our two kinds, I foresaw your existence. That you would be born centuries later and bond to one the likes of Amun. I envisioned you would be a central figure in the war that would follow. However, what part you would play in it – which side you would fight for and the substance of your true power – as well as how you came to be involved at all, were never defined in my visions.”
“How can that be?” Eric asked, giving voice to the question most prevalent in my thoughts. “You were there when Brigant made his pledge to me. From that alone you would know the powers her heritage would afford her and whose side she would stand on. By your own admission now, you knew she would become my bonded, so for whom else would she fight for?”
His question had been born from the mixture of denial and incredulity running rampant through each of us.
And that same festering concoction only grew in size with her next words.
“I knew no such thing,” she replied, turning her milky white eyes towards him and seeming to ignore the edge in his tone. “I did not say I saw her bond herself to you. Only someone like you. Her true mate has always been shadowed from my sight and that remains true now, in spite of completing your bonds. It is why I have come.”
While each of us reeled, she seemed to ignore that too, as she added, “As for predicting the powers of hybrids, if all human descendants of the Fae had magical powers, you yourself would have been able to wield magic before you were turned. But that is not the case. The hybrid must be born with the essential spark of the Fae. She has it. You do not.”
Swaying where I stood, my knees barely withstood the shockwave surging through our bonds on both sides, culminating into an explosion that rocked us both. Like a tidal wave crashing into a rock face, I was overcome with Eric’s mixed feelings learning we were more alike than we’d previously known.
And his confused apprehension, hearing we were less predestined than we’d previously thought.
His jumbled emotions left mine in a tangled mess as well.
All the while Godric remained a stoic figure at his Maker’s side, while our world as we’d known it was tilted on its axis. So I knew the ancient one hadn’t been the only one with knowledge of Eric’s heritage or the fact our presumed preordination perhaps hadn’t been so certain after all.
If and when that fact occurred to Eric, I couldn’t be sure he would forgive his oldest friend for withholding the information.
I knew I wouldn’t.
Unable to don his own mask of stoicism, she tilted her head in Eric’s direction, showing a bit of incredulity in her expression as she followed up her least distressing news by asking, “Did it never occur to you – given your Maker’s near obsession with you – there was an instigating factor for his fixation?”
Feeling Eric searching for the fortitude to respond – rocked once more, hearing any reference to his Maker and any inference of whatever he’d been forced to endure because of him – I pushed every ounce of resilience I had into him through our bond.
We had never discussed the vampire who turned him, but we didn’t have to for me to know he didn’t mourn his loss.
Anytime the role of Maker had been brought up in conversation – both in casual and formal settings – an immediate flash of bitterness and animosity tinged our bond, disappearing just as quickly as it had come.
Getting his bearings, in time Eric replied in an unemotional tone, “He was sadistic. The cause for his brutality never mattered to me.”
Hoping a change in topic to one that normally brought him an immense amount of satisfaction, a small amount of smugness colored my tone when I interjected, “I was born with the mark of Amun. Your gift might not have shown you Eric would become my bonded, but I was always meant to be his.”
Of that I was certain.
“The mark of a feather, yes?” she questioned.
Rhetorically, I soon learned and I no longer felt as certain of anything, when she then added, “Do you know the symbol marking the family crest of the one married to Queen Maeve prior to her marriage to Brigant?”
The knot in my gut turned in on itself, with a shiver of fear running down my spine, hearing her refer to Ailill without the mention of his name.
But I didn’t let it show and answered, “No. The only evidence of his existence at all in my world are his twin offspring – the products of his joining with the queen – and to serve as the protagonist in stories told to children, meant to be a cautionary warning of what happens to traitors of Queen Maeve.”
His children, Neave and Lochlan, were especially vicious – a trait I knew at least their mother had – but I had never been given the opportunity to face-off against them during my training.
Great-grandfather had forbidden it.
And I suppose it had been an oversight on his part to not exclude his wife – their mother – from my teachings.
But I came to learn many things both from and about Queen Maeve. And in spite of every scar I now wore on my skin because her, she came to learn many things about me as well.
Predominately, my stubborn refusal to inform my great-grandfather of her chosen method of instruction, using nothing but her whip and scornful words to teach me my place in her world.
I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of showing any weakness by tattling to him.
Those lash marks lining my back only made me stronger, but I soon felt anything but strong when the ancient seer answered her own question.
“A phoenix marks his family crest.”
In spite of evidence to the contrary, it felt like all of the air had been sucked out of the room, at the very same moment she’d exhaled her words.
Or rather that one word.
The symbol of death and resurrection, the bird would burst into flames upon its death and be reborn from its own ashes. Endowed with a nimbus of seven rays, its magical powers were linked to the sun.
Not for the first time, I couldn’t help but make the comparison.
Because upon hearing the word, I was immediately thrust back into the past – back to another place and time in another world – when I had uttered the same word and spoken of the same similarity.
It wasn’t long after the accident. My body was still healing, but I’d been tired of lazing about and snuck outside, just to feel the sun on my face and breathe the fresh air into my lungs. I’d never had so much idle time on my hands and didn’t know what to do with myself when my body was forced into a state of perpetual repose in order to mend.
My foolish pride hadn’t yet been mended either and seeing Colman and Claudine walking hand in hand in the distance, then sharing what was likely their first kiss, something snapped inside of me.
In the throes of puberty – with my hormones and childish notions of childhood sweethearts that were never meant to be – still ruling my head and my heart, witnessing them together triggered the first manifestation of my most powerful gift.
Bolts of fiery light shot out of each of my hands – the visible proof of my silent rage – with all those around me forced to bear witness to.
Both unexpected and unwieldy, I scorched everything around me – to include myself – when I was showered in the flaming embers from the tree I’d been using to hide my presence from my cousin and her eventual husband.
Everyone came running – to include Colman and Claudine – with Great-grandfather leading the pack. But with my already weakened state and the rapid depletion of any energy I did have now gone – along with it, the pity fueled anger I’d felt moments earlier – I ended up laughing out loud at what I’d done.
Smugly reveling in the fact I’d gained yet another tactical advantage.
One I had never heard of another possessing, until I’d forced myself to my feet and stared proudly into Great-grandfather’s eyes. With my clothes still billowing smoke all around me, I let him know I was well with my teasing words of, “I am like a phoenix, rising from the ashes.”
He did not find my teasing humorous. Nor did he seem proud of my newest accomplishment.
Instead, he grabbed onto me and popped us back to my room, where he put his face millimeters from my own and softly warned, “You will never say those words again. You will never again liken yourself to anything other than what you are – a Brigant by blood and royal member of the House of the Sky Fae.”
It hadn’t made any sense to me at the time, but given his tone and demeanor, I knew better than to ask any questions.
His word was law.
Now, however, I wondered if I’d just gotten the answer to my unasked question nearly a decade later. But it only gave way for more questions to come to mind.
Questions Eric must have formed as well because he asked, “Are you saying the birthmark on my bonded’s skin marks her for another?”
Another’s name again left unspoken.
Our bonds – both fairy and vampire – were constricting between us. Like being ensnared in a python’s grip, with every exhale of breath, they each seemed to tighten their hold on us.
Not unlike the ancient seer’s gaze staring back at us.
So perhaps it wasn’t only her age that gave just cause for her to be named the Ancient Pythoness.
Nothing she’d said thus far had given either one of us reason to relax.
A trend that continued when she replied, “I am merely pointing out there is always more than one path to be taken. More than one answer can be true for any given question. As I have said, I only foresaw her existence. Neither her purpose, her motives, nor the path that would lead her to where she will ultimately be were visible to my sight.”
Refusing to believe any path I could have taken wouldn’t have led me straight to Eric, my defiance was clear in my tone when I argued, “I was always meant to be here. With. My. King. Whether or not we’d bonded in any way, my entire life was geared towards the purpose of being by his side. There was no other path to be taken.”
Even if I could have stayed in the Fae realm, any life I could have had would have been a solitary one. With the exception of my family, I was ostracized by everyone else for being a hybrid. It made no difference how skilled I was in combat – how learned I’d become on any given subject – the human blood running through my veins meant I was less than every other.
Had I not been known to be the chosen one to repay our debt to Eric, I probably wouldn’t have even been acknowledged by anyone outside of my family.
Had I been left in the human realm, well…
I shuddered recalling the image that had come to mind, when I’d once had similar thoughts, before shoving it out of my mind just as quickly.
Because the idea a Brigant would be serving drinks and greasy food to the disgusting humans in a Shifter’s bar was completely preposterous.
But being a seer, she perhaps saw my thoughts because she looked at me and replied, “Raised as a Brigant in the Fae realm, your path had been decided for you. But even now your future is unclear to my sight, so the path you are on now is still undecided. However, had your life been left to play out on its own here in this world, with your choices your own to make, there is no telling if you would be bonded to this vampire king.”
And then everything seemed to go still, with even the air in the room feeling like a glass wall encasing me.
Because with her next words it felt like my entire history was somehow being rewritten in a language I couldn’t yet comprehend. And as much as I hated myself for once again making the comparison, the fiery charge now blazing through my body and across my bonds with Eric could either be construed as dying on a flaming pyre or being resurrected in the ashes.
Both were likely equally as painful.
But the pain radiating through both Eric and I was nearly unbearable, when she stared back at me and said, “Your fate wasn’t to be the mate of a vampire royal. Your fate was to be the mate of a royal vampire. The kingdom they rule is of no consequence, only that they be of Fae descent. And there are two of those in this world – the King of Amun and the King of the Sun Fae.”