Excerpt from Eternal Kiss
Mark of the Vampire
Nicholas Odysseus Claudius Roman did not fight. In fact, as he lay on his back, strapped down to the stone table, bare as the day he slipped from his mother’s weary body, he projected an almost eerie calm.
The leather restraints placed on his upper arms, belly, neck, and ankles by the Order sliced into his skin like dull razor blades, but he ignored the pain. It was as it must be. Inside the Tomb of Nascita, the massive hole cut deep within hundreds of layers of rock, the Order performed the morphing ritual several times per year. When a paven hit his three hundredth year on earth, he was brought to the tomb, laid out on the slab of stone, and more often than not, held his position without restraints. He was, after all, being gifted with the strength and power of morpho. But the ancient ten were a bit unsure of how the Son of a Breeding Male would react to the final strikes of the maturation ritual. After all, their body and brain chemistry were so very different than the average paven. Would Nicholas Roman’s pain override his good sense and spur on the instinct to attack, to drain, to kill? No one was sure. So imprison him they must.
“Get on with it,” Nicholas said with grave irritation, lifting his chin. “My brothers search for a way here even now.”
One of the female members of the Order sniffed her disbelief. “Surely they wouldn’t come without an invitation.”
“There is no one who wishes to incur the wrath of the ancient ten,” said the paven beside her.
Nicholas laughed bitterly. “If you think that, you’re all even bigger fools than I thought you were.”
Several low, bloodthirsty snarls sounded behind him, but one very cool head prevailed and the paven said, “We waste time with things that matter not. Prepare yourself, Son of the Breeding Male.”
There was a sudden crack, and above Nicholas, the perfectly painted night sky split apart. The sounds of day echoed all around him—birds waking one another, insects searching for a meal, and in moments the cold, happy darkness ceased to reign. The brilliant white light of a fabricated sun spilled into the stone room, its greedy fingers reaching for every dim corner and crevice.
And for the skin of a newly morphed paven.
No stranger to pain, Nicholas remained still as death, even as the hot branding iron of the false sun went to work on his forearms, carving the daggers and his true mate’s marks into his skin. It took only minutes, but when it was done and his arms smoked in the light, he cursed his ancestry as he had many times in his one hundred and fifty years. For most pavens, this would be it, the end of the physical torture, but not for Nicholas. He was a Son of the Breeding Male and his pain had just begun.
Up the heat traveled, over his chest and shoulders, up his neck, trailing his jawline in savage pursuit of its target until the blazing sunlight reached his cheekbones. A hiss escaped his lips as the needle of fire carved the second set of brands into his cheeks—the Breeding Male circles, and his true mate’s symbols within it.
As quick as the light had come, its return to the makeshift heavens was even quicker. The sounds of day died off and the ceiling fused, and once again he was bathed in darkness. Breathing heavily, his head feeling as though it had been rammed against a brick wall forty times in succession, Nicholas heard the gentle footfall and swish of the Order’s burgundy robes as they approached him. The ancient rulers, the treacherous ten, gathered around the stone table and trained their eyes on him.
Cruen, as he so often did, spoke first. “Dare has been in hiding these past months, licking his wounds, eerily silent—like a rat. But he has emerged, calling Impures to his fold—filling their heads with lies, filling their hearts with a need for freedom. Find and kill him,” he said, but through Nicholas’s mind he uttered, Or your brother will have stone at his back, leather around his extremities, and no doubt two empty circle brands on his cheeks.
Nicholas hissed and pulled at his binds, strained to get up and extinguish the pale blue light in Cruen’s malevolent eyes forever. But he was held, caught.
The image of Lucian, circle brands on his cheeks with nothing inside, no mark of his true mate because he would never have one. No love, no life—only the cries of a near-animal-like paven bent on feeding and breeding.
The possibility that any one of the Roman brothers could have the Breeding Male gene was a good one, but Nicholas and Alexander had long suspected that Lucian, with his pale features and insatiable sexual appetite, was the carrier.
It appeared as though Cruen believed so as well, and if Nicholas wanted to keep his oath, his private promise to protect his younger brother, as Lucian had once protected him—resurrected him—on the dirty, dangerous French streets all those years before, Nicholas would heed the monster before him.
“Release me,” Nicholas demanded. “Now.”
Cruen grinned, his red fangs—a symbol of the Order’s end of blood consumption—were pin-prick sharp. “I appreciate your eagerness. Will you be a good little paven, then?”
It took every ounce of mental restraint for Nicholas to spit out the words “I will.”
The thick leather straps around his arms, belly, neck, and ankles evaporated like boiling water, and before another word was spoken, before he could even sit upright, he was flashed from the Tomb of Nascita and dropped naked, his brands still smoking, onto the mountaintop next to the cave.
Night covered the sky, a spring mist coated the air, and his brothers stood at the mouth of the cave, matching expressions of rage on their faces.
As the blue light of day succumbed to the pale lavender of evening, a bitter cold moved over the land, shook the snow from the trees, and curled around the veana and the balas who sat on the front steps of the small credenti elementary school. The snow on the ground that had been melting just a few hours earlier now glistened under the rising moon as water quickly turned back to ice. It was nearing six p.m., and in accordance with the laws of the Order, it was time to end the labor of the day and begin the calm of night. Most residents of the credenti had left their work or schooling and had entered their homes for family meal and reflection. Kate Everborne, however, had no family to go home to. What she did have was a belief that reflection was for unthinking drones and the unwelcome responsibility of a seven-year-old balas who once again had to be watched until his mother showed up.
“She’s not coming.”
Kate glanced down at the boy. With his large black eyes and shock of white hair he didn’t blend in well. She knew how that was. “She’s coming. She’s just late.”
“She’s always late,” he grumbled.
“Give her a break, okay, kid? She’s doing the best she can.”
“She should work inside the credenti. Like you. Do what veanas are supposed to do.”
The smile on Kate’s face was tight and forced, just like the white purity bindings on her wrists and throat. The last thing in the world she wanted to be doing was living inside the credenti, or any vampire community, for that matter. And her work at the elementary school, passing out lentils and fruit during mid-meal—well, it was utter bullshit, a way to keep her in plain sight, see if she could live among society again.
But she didn’t have a choice in where she resided. Not yet.
“She dishonors my father’s memory by leaving the credenti,” the boy continued.
“You’re a good kid, Ladd Letts, but right now you’re acting like a brat.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t care.”
“Yeah, I can tell.”
“I don’t care about me and I don’t care about her.” He puffed out his lips. “Maybe I wish she’d never come.”
Kate sniffed. “Maybe she wishes that, too.”
Ladd’s eyes grew wide and balas-wet as he stared up at her, took in what she’d just said and molded it into the worst possible abandonment scenario.
Ah, shit. Kate released a weary breath. She could be a real asshole sometimes. “Listen, kid, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I’m here. I’m here.” Mirabelle Letts came running across the tree-littered play yard toward them, her feet sinking calf-deep in the heavy snow. She was a pretty veana—small, curvy, with soft brown doe eyes that did their best to exude happiness. Slightly breathless, she called out, “Sorry, Kate.”
“No problem,” Kate returned, coming to her feet. She was just relieved the veana had shown up. She really sucked with kids, wasn’t sure what to say to them, how to comfort them. Sticking her in a school wasn’t the Order’s smartest move, but hell, she wasn’t about to complain. She had two months left on her work release, two months until she could finally consider her time spent in the vampire prison, Mondrar, over and done, the debt for another’s crime paid.
Until then, she was keeping her nose clean and her fangs retracted.
Ladd jumped to his feet and waved his arms like he was landing planes, all anger gone now. “Mommy! I see you!”
Kate chuckled at the quick recovery. At Ladd’s age, it seemed that no matter what a parent did, said, or forgot, they were always a welcome sight.
Give it a few years, kid.
No more than ten feet away, Mirabelle waved back at her child as she waded through the snow. “Training went over and there was a gardening demonstration—”
Something shot out of the shadows of the trees, cutting off Mirabelle’s words. A paven, tall and dark. In under a second, he was on Mirabelle, ripping the scarf from her neck, searching her flesh. Kate opened her mouth to scream when she saw a silver flash. A knife! Oh, shit. No! Terror locked the scream in her chest, and she fought the dual urges of running to help the veana and protecting the young balas at her side.
Before she could make her choice, the paven plunged the knife deep into Mirabelle’s chest, then yanked it back out again and took to her thighs, slashing at her skin until he severed the two main arteries. Blood exploded from her legs in violent sprays.
Her attacker released her, let her limp body drop to the ground, and a piercing scream whipped through the night and jerked Kate from her horror.
His face contorted with panic, he tried to run to his mother, but Kate caught him in her arms and held him back.
The dark-haired male suddenly glanced up, locked eyes with Kate, and grinned. Fuck. It was there in his eyes, in his smile—hunger to spill blood. He was going to take her out and the kid too if she didn’t run or fight him off.
The butcher paven started toward her and Ladd, his movements graceful, catlike. Knowing she couldn’t outrun him, not with the boy, Kate shoved Ladd behind her back, opened her arms to the evil coming at her, and flashed her fangs. Come and get it, then, asshole. His smile widened, the moonlight catching the tips of his fangs. Then suddenly he stopped, lifted his chin, and sniffed the air. With a growl of annoyance, he turned around and ran back across the field, into the trees.
What the hell?
Kate sucked in the bitterly cold air scented with blood and screamed, “Help!” Silently praying that Mirabelle was still alive, she raced to the female’s side, Ladd at her heels. The veana’s eyes were open, but her quick, shallow breaths signaled how close to death she was. Kate dropped down in the snow and pressed her hands to the gaping wound in the female’s chest. Forcing up the healing energy all Pureblood veanas possessed, she blew on the wounds in Mirabelle’s thighs—back and forth, back and forth, each breath a show in pure determination and desperation. But the cuts were so deep, the femoral artery calculatedly severed. Red death seeped between her fingers, over the veana’s chest, spilling out onto the pure white-powdered floor.
“Goddammit!” Kate screamed. “We need help here!” Darkness had come. Where were all the selfless, community-first, pious bastards when one of their own needed them?
Ladd laid his head on his mother’s belly and howled in misery.
Mirabelle’s eyes were glassy as she hovered somewhere between this world and the next. Her gaze flickered toward her son, then back up to Kate. “Take him,” she uttered through short gasps of breath.
“Don’t talk,” Kate said.
“Take him. Please. He can’t be tested.”
Lifting her head again, Kate yelled into the frigid air, “We need help!”
“No!” Mirabelle rasped. “Please. Before they come . . . take the balas.”
She was delusional, had to be. Kate shook her head. “He’ll be okay. Don’t worry.”
Mirabelle whispered something.
“I can’t hear you . . .”
Kate lowered her head, her ear to the female’s mouth.
“He will be . . . caged if they find out.”
“Find out what?” Kate uttered, keeping her ear close to the female’s lips.
In the last seconds before her death, Mirabelle revealed not only her secrets, but her desperate plea to save her son’s life, all to the one vampire on earth who, if she wanted to gain her freedom, could do nothing for her.
The steady beats of the Impures’ hearts beckoned.
They always did.
Ethan Dare was one of them and yet the males that hovered so near within the Vermont credenti woodlands would be hard-pressed to see his merciless destruction of a Pureblood veana as a sacrifice to the cause. No. They’d been raised to serve, protect, and defend their Pureblood masters, not rebel against them. And when Ethan had finally left the vicinity, they would run back to their quarters and squeal to the very ones who had once upon a time turned them over to the Order for blood castration. Yes, even taking away an Impure’s ability to breed or even enjoy sex could not spur the inferior class into running away.
Ethan closed his eyes and flashed out of the woods.
According to the Order, his Impure brothers and sisters of the credenti were sterilized for the good of the Breed. Keep things nice and pure. Well, the Order could keep their precious purity. After a slow recovery from the bullet wounds he’d suffered at the hands of Alexander Roman, Ethan and his recruits had begun anew, and soon he would be coming back to the Vermont credenti just as he’d done in the Maine and Pennsylvania communities to offer each Impure a new life.
From frosty air and heavy snow to arid, oppressive heat, Ethan touched down on the iridescent sand of the Supreme One’s existence. His partner in the Uprising could command time, place, mood, and, much to Ethan’s irritation, temperature. The paven got off on heat—intense, land-of-satan kind of heat—and for a male who had a hard time regulating his body temperature as of late, it was a real pain in the ass for Ethan to take a meeting there.
But he never complained. After all, he would always go where the power meal was.
Sweating like a whore in church, Ethan trudged down to the water’s edge. His arms hung at his sides, empty. They should’ve held the balas, but his attempt to get Ladd Letts hadn’t been successful. Not that he really gave a shit, but the one who fed him, the one who gave him power did, and Ethan knew he was in for a fang-lashing.
No sympathetic breeze caressed his face as he drew nearer the water, just incessant blasts of wet heat. The Supreme One’s reality was a massive one-room beach setting, open to the elements, dressed with plant life and flowers, and three white walls adorned with Hockney miniatures. As Ethan passed by a stand of palm trees, he took in the sight of his human female, lying on a beach chair sunning herself. Pearl McClean’s eyes were closed and her hands were on her round belly. She was a “guest” of the Supreme One’s. Instead of staying with Ethan at his new compound, which had been given to him by a Hollywood actress with a penchant for males with fangs, the master had insisted she remain with him. The sweet, stupid little thing had happily agreed before he’d even had a chance to persuade the paven otherwise.
Poor Pearl. She had no idea she was collateral.
Ethan kept walking until sand gave way to sea. Over the water, lying in a hammock supported by nothing at all, the Supreme One reclined, his gnarled hand passing back and forth over the blue water, manipulating the speed of the waves as they rushed to the shore. Slowly at first, then a bullet train of salt water crashing against Ethan’s thighs, followed by the ever-popular freeze in midair trick.
Ethan sighed. Oh, the drama.
When he reached the Supreme One, he inclined his head. “It is done, my lord.”
The Supreme One dragged his gaze from the water and narrowed it on Ethan. “You’re certain?”
“Her blood ran like sweet wine into the snow.”
“And you saw the mark? The eternal kiss?”
“It was on the back of her neck, as the genealogist claimed.”
The Supreme One grinned. “Nicholas Roman’s true mate extinguished.”
“Yes, sir.” It was a bizarre partnership, Ethan thought, wiping the sweat from his face and neck. The supposed ancient Pureblood teaming up with an Impure who was hell bent on the destruction of the Pureblood race—but they both had much to gain, it seemed.
“And the boy?” the Supreme One said. “Where do you have him hidden?”
There it was. The dreaded question. Ethan forced out his chin. Fucking up was one thing, but he must never appear the weaker to this paven—even if they both knew he was. “I couldn’t get to the boy.”
The Supreme One sat up. “Fool!”
“There was a veana with him, and Impures close by, watching. I didn’t want the whole of the credenti on my ass.”
“Of course you didn’t,” the Supreme One muttered with undisguised sarcasm. “Impure coward.”
Ethan sniffed. Impure coward indeed. Though the Supreme One had great and awe-inspiring power, he had revealed to Ethan the truth about his own blood—the drops of Impurity that lay dormant in his cells, his secret lineage—a male on his father’s side who had been born of a human woman. The Supreme One hated his Impurity, even as he had given his support to the uprising.
“I will get to the boy,” Ethan assured him. “I just need to rest, gain more strength. Perhaps if you had fed me more regularly during my recovery I could have remained and fought—”
Ethan shot into the air, flew forward and slammed headfirst into the water. A light thread of panic jumped in his blood and he tried like hell to lift his head out of the rushing current, but his neck refused to give. He couldn’t move. Not even a fingertip. He knew better than to criticize the Supreme One.
Holding his breath as long as he could, he whimpered his exhaustion, his eyes scanning the empty sea floor. Then his lungs gave out and he inhaled, swallowing the salty water in gulps. Pain surged through him, an empty ache. Recognizing he was in the moments before death, Ethan conjured an image of the child he’d created yet would never see. He barely felt the force yanking him up out of the water and tossing him onto the sand.
Choking on the water in his lungs, weak as a balas, Ethan tried to sit up. He clutched his skull and whimpered as stars played on his eyelids.
“Open your eyes, Impure.”
Ethan forced his lids back.
The Supreme One still lounged in his hammock, a soporific smile on his lined face. “You want your feed, do you?”
Ethan could only nod. What he would give to make the Supreme One choke, just once.
“You may have it.”
Once on his knees, Ethan tried to capture a clear breath, then attempted to stand.
“Remain,” said the Supreme One.
Ethan lifted his eyes. “My lord . . . ?”
“Remain on your hands and knees and crawl to me.”
Because he had to, for now he had to, Ethan did as he was told, inching toward the master—a dog looking for a scrap—as his human female watched from the sanctuary of her lounge chair, her eyes losing a thread of their admiration.
Someday he would be the one who controlled all. Someday he would make the Purebloods—and the paven before him—crawl.
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