He flashed a grin. Until he heard “—wolf is back! What should we do?” The speaker was Jennifer. Through magic, they could watch anyone at any time. Why the hell hadn’t he thought of that?
“The slaughter will have to wait,” he said. “Grab your stuff. We need to leave. The witches are watching you.” And he needed to do something to stop them.
“Okay. Yes.” She was pale and trembling as she unfolded from the bed, but her bag was already packed, the same backpack she’d left home with, so the moment she slid her feet into her tennis shoes, she was ready.
They were racing into the night a second later.
Tucker, the bastard, followed them. “You’ll need me,” he said, smug again. “If you want to succeed.”
“Like you did such a good job before,” Riley snapped.
No arguing with that.
“Zip it, both of you,” Mary Ann said, exasperated. “We can yell and threaten each other when we’re safe.”
He heard her unspoken question: Would they ever be safe? Truly safe? He wanted to reply but zipped his lips as ordered and shifted back to wolf form, the sheet falling away.
He’d make sure she was safe. Whatever he had to do, he’d make sure.
WHEN ADEN FINISHED PLAYING fetch with the beasts, he asked them to return to their hosts. They snorted and groused, but ultimately they obeyed, wanting so badly to please him. After that, he ordered his people to go about their business and no one—no one—was to disturb him.
After that, he spent a few hours walking the grounds (pristine), the house (immaculate), listening to gossip (boring) and ignoring the councilmen, who obeyed his edict to leave him alone but who purposely cast their voices his way as they argued about his future marriage plans (not gonna happen).
They also discussed his coronation ceremony having been canceled because he’d been missing, and then picked a new date, agreeing they could have everything ready in a week. Which, miracle of miracles, was nearly the same date as the ceremony they’d canceled, but whatever.
He was king, and he didn’t need a coronation to feel the part. Nor did the people need a coronation to follow him. Not after they’d seen what he could do with their beasts.
And now…now he was weary. He found a shirt, pulled it on and spent the rest of the night in the throne room, the power wafting from the wards woven into the carpet quieting the buzzing in his head, comforting him but not reassuring him. At least no one tried to enter, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
He wondered where Victoria was and what she was doing. Fine. He didn’t care about either. He just wanted to know who she was doing whatever it was with and kill the guy.
Victoria was his girlfriend. Right? So, warning other males away with violence was his prerogative. Right?
He massaged the back of his neck. Something is wrong with you, Riley had said. Victoria had agreed, and now Aden did as well. He was uncaring, cold and murderous, his emotions dying before they had a chance to grow, his thoughts traveling dark, dangerous paths he didn’t understand.
More than that, he knew things he shouldn’t. Like the names, faults and strengths of vampires he’d never met. Like how blowing the golden horn would summon his allies. Or Vlad’s. He knew his way around this home. Every secret passage, every forgotten hidey-hole. And his desire to start a war with anyone and everyone who opposed his rule? That topped the list of weird.
He had become someone else.
How was he supposed to fight this when part of him actually liked the changes?
By the time the sun rose, he hadn’t yet come up with a decent answer. He was tired, but still too restless to try and sleep. Good thing, too. Being vulnerable in a nest of vipers wasn’t wise. On top of that, his meds were wearing off, and the souls were murmuring inside his head. Nothing distinguishable yet but enough to assure him they were with him still.
Mostly, he was hungry. Not for pancakes or cereal or even a bagel, but for blood from a living host. Something else he should care about but didn’t. All he wanted was to feed. And he wanted to do it before the souls woke completely and decided to comment about his new eating habits. Although they might understand and accept, considering what they’d witnessed inside the cave.
He stood, his bones creaking from the hours of disuse, and finally strode out of the throne room. He waited, expectant, but the buzzing never started up again.
Two wolves stood sentry at the double doors, one the pure white of a snowflake, the other a rainbow of golds. They followed him as he walked, not even trying to hide their purpose.
Nathan and Maxwell, Riley’s brothers. Undoubtedly his new guards. He’d met them before, so it wasn’t strange that he knew them. They were good guys, if a bit irreverent.
One of his feet knocked into the other. See? Those weren’t his thoughts. Nathan and Maxwell were good guys, yeah, but Aden had never considered them irreverent before.
Younger vampires wandered in every direction, blood-slaves trailing behind them, worship glazing their eyes. That could have been me. In the cave, he’d craved Victoria’s bite more than anything in the world. Had wanted to bite her even more than that.
The way his gums throbbed and his teeth ached in a sudden chorus of oh, please, now, he still wanted to bite her. Her, and no one else. And he could do so. He was her king. He would bite her. He had only to find her.
Or not, he realized next. That’s what minions were for.
Maybe…maybe the only way to fight this strange new part of himself was to do the opposite of what it wanted. He nodded. That made sense. The first hurdle, of course, was Victoria. He yearned to feed from her, therefore he couldn’t feed from her. The second hurdle would be telling her they couldn’t spend any more time together.
Telling her would require seeing her. A tingle of anticipation swept through him. Deep down, in the part of himself that he did know and did understand, he would cut off an arm to see her.
“Take me to Victoria,” he commanded the wolves. There would be no sending minions. Not for this.
Nathan’s ears perked up. Maxwell chomped his teeth at him. Then the pair of them bounded in front of him, a silent demand for him to follow. He did and soon found himself in the backyard. The sun was brighter than usual, and despite the chill in the air, he experienced a rush of burning bristles against his skin. Not enough to send him back inside but just enough to annoy him.
Aden? Is that you? an unsure male voice asked. Julian, alert at last.
Aden should have been happy—the soul sounded like himself and hadn’t changed like Aden. Yes, he should have been. “It’s me,” he said, and the wolves stopped to look back at him. He waved them forward.
Comprehension dawned in their gazes, and they obeyed. Aden wished he could think his replies to the souls, but his inner voice was always lost in the chaos.
Dude! The uncertainty fell away. We’re back with Aden, Julian whooped happily. Are we here to stay, E? Come on, Great Oracle of Doom, and help a guy out. Tell me what I want to hear.
Elijah must still be sleeping. Caleb, too. Lazy bums.
The wolves stopped, their spines stiffening, their hair standing on end. They looked around, growling at— Aden followed their line of vision through the surrounding forest—nothing but air. Did they sense a threat he couldn’t see? He waited, but no one stepped from the trees, and not a single leaf swayed from nearby motion. Had some of his—or Vlad’s—allies arrived yet? Would they even come?
The horn was bespelled and had been for over a thousand years, ever since several vampire factions had agreed to aid each other whenever necessary. And yet, not one of those factions had ever used their horn. Would they remember what the summons meant? Would they care?
The growling intensified a split second before a woman danced her way into the metal circle that designated the crypt. Aden was hypnotized by her. She wore a black robe like all the vampires here, but a hood draped her head, concealing her features. Still, he could see the long length of hair, black as night and cascading like a waterfall over her shoulder.
The wolves didn’t stop growling, but they didn’t attack her. They must have been as transfixed as he was.
There was something familiar about her, something that lit Aden up inside, even as it dragged him down. Whoever she was, she raised the same emotions Mary Ann did. An urge to hug, followed by a need to run.
They quieted as they looked over their furry shoulders.
Using minions wasn’t a bad idea, really. “Bring Victoria to me,” he said absently.
We should stay with you. Nathan’s voice echoed inside his head. There’s danger here, my king.
Wolves could speak into the minds of those around them. Something Riley had done to him before, so he wasn’t startled. And neither was Julian, who probably couldn’t hear the new voice. “From this woman? No. Now go get Victoria and bring her to me.”
They shared a confused look before nodding and clomping off.
He sat down, right there, in front of the circle, watching the woman. She didn’t seem to notice him. Her graceful, twirling steps never faltered. Twirling, twirling, a ballerina on ice, her arms outstretched, one leg lifted behind her and bent. Twirling and twirling.
Who was she?
A cough inside his head. Hello, Aden, Elijah finally said, then yawned. How are you feeling?
So are we here to stay or what? Julian demanded, practically jumping up and down.
O-kay. That was a first.
Explain yourself, please, Julian huffed. Elijah sighed. I just woke up. Do we have to do the heavy stuff—
You are such a child. But fine. Aden’s path has been altered so much lately, I can no longer see a clear future for him. He was supposed to die, and that was supposed to be the end of us all. But he didn’t, we didn’t, and now I can’t see what lies ahead.