night was black, much darker than normal, the moon and stars blotted
out by the ominous swirling clouds gathering overhead. Threads
of shiny black obsidian spun and whirled in a kind of fury, yet
the wind was still. Small animals huddled in their dens, beneath
rocks and fallen logs scenting the mood of the land.
floated eerily out of the forest, clinging to the tree trunks
so that they seemed to rise up out the fog. Long wide bands of
shimmering white. Swirling prisms of glittering opaque colors.
The mist gathered, curling droplets of vapor within moving like
comets. Gliding across the sky, weaving in and out of the overhead
canopy, a large owl circled the great stone house built into the
high cliffs. A second owl, then a third appeared, silently making
lazy circles above the branches and rambling house. A lone wolf,
quite large with a shaggy black coat and glittering eyes, loped
out of the trees into the clearing. A dark shadow shimmered for
a moment, nearly transparent, solidifying slowly into a man.
of the darkness, on the balcony of the rock house, a second figure
glided forward, looking out into the night. He opened his arms
wide in a welcoming gesture. At once the wind began to move, a
soft, gentle breeze. Insects took up their nightly chorus. Branches
swayed and danced. The mist thickened and began shimmering, forming
many figures in the eerie night. The owls settled, one on the
ground, two on the balcony railing, shape-shifting as they did,
the feathers melting into skin, wings expanding into arms. The
wolf was contorting as it leapt onto the porch, shifting easily
on the run so that a man landed, solid and whole.
the voice was beautiful, melodious, a sorcerer's weapon. Vladimir
Dubrinsky, Prince of the Carpathian people watched in sorrow as
his loyal kindred materialized from the mist, from the raptors
and wolves, into strong, handsome warriors. Fighters everyone.
Loyal men. True. Selfless. These were his volunteers. These were
the men he was sending to their death. He was sentencing each
of them to centuries of unbearable loneliness, of unrelenting
bleakness. They would live out their long lives until each moment
was beyond endurance. They would be far from home, far from their
kin, far from the soothing healing soil of their homeland. They
would know no hope, have nothing but their honor to aid them in
the coming centuries.
heart was so heavy, Vladimir thought it would break in two. A
warmth seeped into the cold of his body and he felt her stirring
in his mind. Sarantha. His lifemate. Of course she would share
this moment, his darkest hour, as he sent these young men to their
gathered around him, silent, their faces serious, good faces,
handsome, sensual, strong. The unblinking, steady eyes of confident
men, men who were tried and true, men who had seen hundreds of
battles. So many of his best. The wrenching in Vladimir's body
was physical, a fierce burning in his heart and soul. Deep. Pitiless.
These men deserved so much more than the ugly life he was giving
them. He took a breath, let it out slowly. He had the great and
terrible gift of precognition. He saw the desperate plight of
his people. He had no real choice and could only trust in God
to be merciful where he could not afford to be.
thank all of you. You have not been commanded but you have come
voluntarily, the guardians of our people. Each of you has made
the choice to give up your chance at life to ensure our people
are safe, that other species in the world are safe. You humble
me with your generosity and I am honored to call you my brethren,
was complete silence, the Prince's sorrow weighing like a stone
in his heart and, sharing his mind, the warriors caught a glimpse
of the enormity of his pain. The wind moved gently through the
crowd, ruffled hair with the touch of a father's hand, gently,
lovingly brushed a shoulder, an arm.
voice, when it came again, was achingly beautiful. "I have
seen the fall of our people. Our women grow fewer. We do not know
why female children are not born to our couples, but fewer are
conceived, carried to term and even fewer live. It is becoming
much more difficult to keep our children alive, male or female.
The scarcity of our women has grown to crisis point. Our males
are turning vampire and the evil is spreading across the land
faster than our hunters can keep up. Before, in lands far from
us, the lycanthroscope and the Jaguar race were strong enough
to keep these monsters under control, but their numbers have dwindled
and they cannot stem the tide. Our world is changing and we must
meet the new problems head on." He stopped, once again looking
over their faces. Loyalty and honor ran deep in their blood. He
knew each of them by name, knew each of their strengths and weaknesses.
They should have been the future of his species, but he was sending
them to walk a solitary path of unrelenting hardship.
of you must know these things I am about to tell you. Each of
you weigh your decision one last time before you are assigned
a land to guard. Where you are going there are none of our women.
Your lives will consist of hunting and destroying the vampire
in the lands where I send you. There will be none of your countrymen
to aid you, to be companions other than those I send in groups
or pairs. There will be no healing Carpathian soil to offer comfort
when you are wounded in your battles. Each kill will bring you
closer to the edge of the worst of all fates. The demon within
will rage and fight you for control. You will be obliged to hang
on as long as you are able and then, before it is too late, before
the demon finds and claims you, you must terminate your life.
Plagues and hardships will sweep these lands, wars are inevitable
and I have seen my own death and the death of our women and children.
The death of mortals and immortals alike."
brought the first stirring among the men, a protest unspoken,
but rather of the mind, a collective objection that swept through
their minds linked together as they were. Vladimir held up his
hand. "I do not know the time or place, but there will be
much sorrow before our time is finished and those coming after
us will be without hope, without the knowledge, even, of what
our world has been and what a lifemate is to us. Theirs will be
a much more difficult existence. We can only do what we can to
ensure mortals and immortals alike are as safe as possible."
His eyes moved over their faces, settled on two who looked alike.
and Gabriel. Twins. Children of his own second in command. Already
they were working tirelessly to ensure all that was evil was destroyed
from their world. "I knew that you would volunteer. The danger
to our homeland and our people is as great as to that of the outside
world. I must ask that you stay here where the fight will be brother
and against brother and friend against friend. Without you to
guard our people, we will fall. You must stay here, in these lands,
and guard our soil until such time as you perceive you are needed
twin attempted to argue with the Prince. His word was law, and
it was a measure of his people's respect and love, that they obeyed
him without question. Lucian and Gabriel exchanged one long look.
If they spoke on their private mental path, they didn't share
their thoughts with any other. They simply nodded their heads
in unison, in agreement of their Prince's decision.
Prince turned, his black eyes piercing, probing, searching the
hearts and minds of his warriors. "In the jungles and forests
of far off lands the great Jaguar have begun to decline. It is
their way of life. As with all things, if you do not work to preserve
your species, you are soon extinct. The Jaguar are a powerful
people with many gifts, great psychic talents, but they are solitary
creatures. The men find and mate with the women and leave them
and the young to fend for themselves. The Jaguar men are secretive
and refuse to come out of the jungles and mingle with humans.
They prefer the superstitious to revere them as deities. The women
have naturally turned to those who would love them and care for
them, see them as the treasures they are. They have, for some
time, been mating with human men and living as humans. The blood
is diluted and fewer and fewer exist in their true form. Within
a hundred years, perhaps, two hundred, this race will cease to
exist. They lose their women through lack of knowing what is precious
and important. We have lost ours through nature itself."
The black eyes moved over a tall, handsome warrior, one whose
father had fought beside him for centuries, whose father had died
at the hands of a master vampire.
warrior was tall and straight with wide shoulders and flowing
black hair. A true and relentless hunter, one of so many he would
be sentencing to an ugly existence this night. This fighter was
proven many times over in battle, was loyal and unswerving in
his duties. He would be one of the few sent out alone, while the
others he was sending to larger countries would be in groups or
pairs to aid one another. Vlad sighed heavily and forced himself
to give the orders. He leaned respectfully toward the warrior
he was addressing, but spoke loud enough for all to hear.
will go to this land and rid the world of the monsters our males
have chosen to become. You must avoid all confrontation with the
Jaguar. Their species, as ours must, will either find a way to
join the world, or become extinct as so many others before us.
You will not engage them in battle. Leave them to their own devices.
Avoid the werewolf as best you can. They are, like us, struggling
to stay alive in a changing world. I give you my blessing, the
love and thanks of our people and may God go with you into the
night, into your new land. You must embrace this land, make it
your own, make it your home. After I have gone, my son will take
my place. He will be young and inexperienced and he will find
it difficult to rule our people in troubled times. I will not
tell him of those I have sent out into the world as guardians.
He cannot be weak and rely on those much older than he will be.
He must have complete faith in his ability to guide our people
on his own. Remember who you are and what you are. Guardian of
our people. You stand, the last line of defense to keep innocent
blood from being spilled."
directly into the gaze of the young warrior. Do you take this
task of your own free will? You must decide and none may think
the less of any who wishes to remain as the war here will also
be long and difficult."
warrior's eyes were steady on the Prince. Slowly he nodded acceptance
of his fate. In that moment his life was changed for all time.
He would live in a foreign land without the hope of love or family.
Without emotion or color, without light to spare him the unrelenting
darkness. He would never know his lifemate and he would spend
his entire existence hunting and destroying the undead.