Authors: Nina Croft
A prophecy had been foretold that whoever sacrificed innocent vampire Raven Cold on her twenty-first birthday would achieve a great victory in the war between good and evil. Kael Hunter would do anything to stop the fire-demons who held Raven captive from winning. But rather than kill the alluring vampire himself, Kael had another plan: to prevent the prophecy by taking Raven’s virginity….
Raven had been prepared for death, not seduction! She’d had visions of Kael rescuing her for years, but she never expected to feel such overwhelming desire for him. Especially when Kael made it his mission to use their one night of passion to convince her she can have a future—and to let Kael be a part of it….
Kael Hunter stared down from his perch high above the great hall.
Beneath him, through the pall of ochre smoke, he could make out a score of fire-demons. Kael recognised their leader, Sorien, sprawled on a huge chair and standing next to him, so still that at first Kael thought she was a statue, was Raven Cole.
At the sight of her, something stirred deep inside him. The sensation took him by surprise. He’d expected to feel guilt, probably pity, but not this burning sense of recognition and longing.
She was tall, her hair a coal-black cloak around her shoulders, dark against the stark whiteness of her skin. She was naked and slender to the point of gauntness, each rib clearly visible, hip bones sharp beneath her skin. Only her breasts showed evidence of the woman she could be—full, perfectly rounded, tipped by dark-red nipples. They stood out proudly from her body, thrust forward by her arms, which were fastened tautly behind her and chained to the stone pillar at her back. Her head was bowed, her eyes closed.
Sorien stumbled drunkenly to his feet and she raised her head, her eyes flashing open. She had witch’s eyes, huge, haunting, the irises the palest of silver rimmed with charcoal. And staring down into that hauntingly beautiful face, Kael realized he was in trouble.
He had come here hoping to save her, but quite prepared to kill her if that was needed to prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled. Now, with only one short glance, he knew that her death at his hands was no longer an option. He cursed silently.
Directly in front of Raven, suspended from a hook, the body of a young man hung lifeless. Sorien stopped beside it, grabbed a handful of blond hair and tugged back the head. He swore viciously and dropped it in disgust.
“Dead,” he muttered. He swung round to face Raven. “What are you staring at, bitch?” He took a step towards her and she stood up straighter, bracing herself for the blow she obviously knew was coming.
Sorien lifted one huge fist and slammed it into her belly. The force drove her backwards into the stone pillar, but she was held upright by her chains. She hunched over against the pain then slowly straightened. She stared up into Sorien’s face and this time her eyes were not expressionless. They were filled with hate, and Kael caught his breath at the depth of feeling in those enormous eyes.
“I’m glad that he’s dead.”
Sorien had turned away. At the woman’s soft voice he swung round.
“What did you say?”
“I said, I’m glad he’s dead, he’s free of you.”
“Unlike you, my pretty.” He stroked a hand down the flawless line of her cheek, over her throat, lower until he cupped one perfect breast in his huge hand. His fingers tightened on her, the claws digging into the soft, pale flesh and he twisted viciously.
This time she couldn’t hold back her sob of pain, and Sorien smiled, his hand dropping to his side.
“What?” he asked. “Were you not pleased with your present?” He glanced again at the dead man. “We brought him here for you. He died because of you.”
Her eyes closed briefly; when she opened them they were blank once more. “You murdered him. I would that you would do the same kindness to me.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “your time’s coming. Another month and I’ll see you dead and the prophecy fulfilled.”
“Are you so sure of that?” She smiled, showing sharp white teeth. “Do you want to know what I have seen in your future, Sorien, king of the fire-demons?”
“Be silent, witch.”
“Or what?” she asked, the scorn clear in her voice. “You’ll kill me? I don’t think so. Not just yet anyway. No, I think you must listen to what I have seen in your future. It will not take long, for you have not much life left.”
She laughed softly. “Do you wish to know the manner of your death?”
Up on his perch, Kael felt a shiver of awe ruffle his feathers. It had been rumored that she had inherited the sight from her mother. But she had been only fourteen when the fire-demons had taken her, too young to have it confirmed.
“It’s going to be messy, Sorien. Very messy.”
Sorien raised a clenched fist and backhanded her across the mouth. Blood spurted from her lips, dripping crimson against her white skin. Kael saw her small pointed tongue come out and lick at the blood while her eyes remained fixed on Sorien. She smiled again.
“Soon, Sorien,” she crooned. “Your end draws near.”
The fire-demon leapt for her then, punching her face, her belly, anywhere he could reach, and Kael held his breath. He had to force himself to stay immobile, to accept that at that moment he could do nothing to help. He knew, logically, that Sorien could not kill her like this. She could recover from any amount of beating, only a stake through the heart and decapitation would ensure her death.
No, she would not die. Still, he made a promise to himself that her prophecy regarding Sorien would come true and that Sorien’s death would indeed be very, very messy.
At last Sorien stepped back, breathing heavily. Raven was unconscious, her face a mask of blood, the dark bruises already beginning to blossom across her white skin.
Kael glanced out of the window; the sky to the east was showing faint traces of light, dawn was approaching. He knew they would have to remove her from the hall before the sun rose, but he had her scent now and would find her. With one final lingering glance at the unconscious woman, he launched himself from the beam and swooped out through the open window.
“Be strong, Raven. Do not give in to despair.”
Raven woke to the utter darkness of her underground cell with the words lingering in her head. A woman’s voice, a stranger’s voice, soft and low, and Raven gritted her teeth against the fury it stirred.
She wasn’t strong. And she was tired of pretending she was when her whole body was racked with pain and her first feeling on realizing she was still alive was despair so intense it twisted her guts.
She had long ago learnt to deal with the pain of the frequent beatings, had come to accept the idea of her death as inevitable. Raven even believed in some shadowy place, deep within her soul, that she deserved to die for the innocent blood she had taken.
No, it wasn’t the pain or the thought of death that tore her apart, it was the knowledge that Sorien would benefit from that death. If Sorien won a final victory, she had no doubt there would be a reign of terror on the earth beyond all imagining.
She tugged at the chains that shackled her to the wall. She hated the sense of powerlessness; she knew that however much she taunted Sorien, he would not kill her before the time of the sacrifice.
And on top of that, for the last two months she’d had to put up with a stupid voice telling her to be strong. It was advice she could do without.
Her throat was parched, but she could scent water nearby. She scrambled to her feet, reaching blindly for the bucket only to find it had been placed just out of reach. Obviously Sorien had decided to punish her further and suddenly it was too much. She threw the whole weight of her body against the chains, over and over until at last she sank down, exhausted, the sound of her ragged breathing thundering in her ears.
Something moved. A flutter of tiny wings stirred the chill air of the cell and she went instantly still, listening. A moment later the room was flooded with light.
A man stood in the center of the cell and her breath caught in her throat. He appeared to have materialized out of nothing, and her first thought was that he must be another vision. But this was no vision, it was a flesh-and-blood man, she could feel the warmth radiating from his body. She drew the scent of him into her nostrils, the warm muskiness of animal overlying the sweetness of fresh blood.
He was huge, almost as tall as Sorien but with the lithe leanness of a jungle cat. She could see clearly the swell of muscle beneath the black T-shirt he wore over faded jeans. There was a gun holstered at his shoulder and a knife in a sheath at his thigh. She dragged her gaze upwards. His face held a savage, masculine beauty: broad, flat cheekbones, a sharp blade of a nose and slanted, catlike eyes, the color of the summer sky she remembered but would never see again. His hair reached his shoulders, blond, a hundred shades of sunlight.
He was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen; it was like staring into the sun and Raven realised, with a sense of awe, that she knew him. Had seen him in her waking visions. Had long ago believed that this man would one day come to her and set her free. For a brief moment her pain faded and was replaced by a sense of wonder.
He was staring back at her. Their gazes locked and an unexpected expression softened those startling blue eyes. It took her only seconds to identify—pity. He pitied her and she felt a fierce flare of anger; how dare he pity her?
She searched his face and suddenly she knew that The Council had caught up with her at last. At the realization, her anger flared brighter. The Council had ordered her death when she was a baby. They would have killed her to prevent the prophecy if her father hadn’t escaped with her before the order could be carried out. Because of The Council, she had spent the first fourteen years of her life on the run. Because of them, her father had been killed, and she had been captured by the fire-demons.
Did The Council know of her capture? If so, they must have been hunting desperately for her as her twenty-first birthday approached, knowing that then she would be sacrificed, and the fire-demons would gain the great victory promised by the prophecy.
Now it looked as though The Council had finally found her and sent someone to carry out the sentence of death they had passed so long ago. Regret flooded her mind. She was only twenty, it seemed unfair that she should die before she had even had a chance to live. She shook her head in disgust; only children believed that life was fair and she was no child.
At least this way she would get her greatest wish; Sorien would never fulfill the prophecy, would never win that final victory. With that knowledge, a warm wave of relief flooded her. A feeling of peace and acceptance suffused her mind. He had come to set her free after all, in the only way still possible. He had come to kill her.
She relaxed then, closed her eyes.
Why didn’t he do what he had come to do? Raven wondered. It was one thing to accept your death. It was quite another to wait agonizing seconds for the blow to fall. She heard a noise, not one that she expected, and opened her eyes.
He was still watching her but had taken a satellite phone from his back pocket. He punched in a number.
“I’ve found her.”
He listened for a moment. “She’s alive, that’s all that matters. Don’t worry, I’ll do what’s needed.”
He slipped the phone back into his pocket. Raven wanted to ask who he had spoken to, what was ‘needed,’ but when she opened her mouth her lower lip split and she winced at the sting of torn flesh. She licked her lip, tasting her own blood. His eyes watched the movement then wandered down over her naked body. She held her head up and stared him in the face. It obviously amused him and his lips twitched slightly. She scowled.
“You’re a mess,” he said.
The words took Raven by surprise and she felt a flare of anger. She’d like to see anyone look better after being beaten up by an angry fire-demon.
She swallowed, forcing herself to speak. “Would you pass me the water?” she asked.
He frowned but picked up the bucket, putting it down in front of her. She lowered her head and drank deeply. She looked up to find him watching her and was swamped by shame. That anyone would see her like this, drinking like an animal. But wasn’t that exactly what she was? What Sorien had reduced her to? She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, clumsy in the chains.
He turned from her and glanced around the cell. There wasn’t a lot to look at, just a bare cot and four stone walls.
“Have you been put here for punishment?” he asked. “Because of what happened in the hall?”
She shook her head. “This is how I always live. Since I was fourteen and…” She trailed off. She didn’t know who this man was, what he knew. “Who are you?” she asked. “How did you get here?”
He didn’t answer; instead he unbuckled the shoulder holster and dropped it and the gun onto the small cot. He reached down, clasped the hem of his T-shirt and peeled it from his body. Raven felt a shiver of fear, a coldness in the pit of her stomach. She had seen enough of rape in the great hall, both men and women, but she couldn’t look away.
Her eyes were drawn to the vast expanse of honey-gold skin. His arms and shoulders were satin-smooth, his chest lightly furred, his belly flat and ridged with muscle. She waited, her breath locked in her throat. But he didn’t undress further, just crouched down in front of her. He dipped the T-shirt in the bucket of water, squeezed it out then reached towards her.
Raven held herself immobile as she felt the first stroke of the cool material against her face, gently wiping away the blood. When her face was clean he rinsed the shirt and started on the rest of her. He hesitated at her breast and Raven glanced down to see him staring at the marks—deep, red crescents where Sorien’s claws had broken the skin.
“Did you really have a vision of Sorien’s death?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Pity,” he murmured.
He carried on with his cleaning. Raven closed her eyes. She didn’t know why he didn’t kill her straight away. Maybe he was a vision after all, but the stroke of the soft material against her bruised skin felt real. It had been nearly seven years since anyone had touched her with anything approaching tenderness. It made her feel strange. Strange but wonderful, and Raven couldn’t understand the need to cry that she felt welling up from somewhere deep within her. She swallowed it down. She never cried. It was one of the rules of her existence.
He finally stopped and Raven opened her eyes. He was still crouched in front of her, the pity in his eyes making her steel herself against him.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
“This,” she nodded at the T-shirt in his hand. “Why don’t you do what you came to do and let it be over with?”
“And what would that be?”
She frowned. He was playing with her. “Kill me.”
He shook his head. “I’m not here to kill you. I’m here to get you out.”
The words made no sense to her. “Who are you?” she asked.
“My name’s Kael Hunter. Your father, Darius, sent me.”
“My father’s dead. I saw him die.”
Kael shrugged. “These things are not always as they seem.’
Could her father have survived? She had been so sure he was dead, killed in the attack when the fire-demons had taken her. She didn’t want to hope; it was dangerous and led to despair, but she felt the first flicker of real interest. “So what did he do?” she asked.
“He came to The Council for help.”
She shook her head. “I don’t believe you,” she said, not trying to hide her scorn. “My father would never have gone to The Council. They betrayed him. They were the reason we were on the run. The reason the fire-demons found us.”
He shrugged again. “Maybe he knew The Council were the only ones who could help.”
“Who are you?” she asked again.
“I told you, my name’s Kael. I’m a friend of your father’s.” He paused briefly. “And the head of The Council.”
A surge of hatred threatened to engulf her. She stared at him, her hands clenching into fists at her side. This man was responsible for everything that had happened. Her father had told her, warned her to beware The Council and especially its leader.
“So you’re the one who demanded my death,” she mused. “Yet now you want me to believe that you’ve changed your mind and actually want to save me.”
“I made a mistake.” His tone was harsh.
“I was furious with your father, but you were an innocent. It’s The Council’s place to protect, not to kill. But by the time I cooled down your father was gone.”
She didn’t believe him. It was some trick. She shrugged. “So rescue me then.”
“Not yet.” She gave him a scornful look, and he continued. “It’s too great a risk to try and move you in daylight, and besides, we can’t escape the castle without help. It’s too well-protected. I have an army under my command. They will attack after sunset tonight. I’m here to keep you safe until then and make sure you are away from the fighting.”
“Why didn’t my father come?”
“There are other…” He paused as if unsure of how to go on. Instead, he reached out a hand and ran it gently over her lower lip. “You should be healing faster than this. When did you last feed?”
Her eyes flickered to his face. So he knew what she was. But of course he did. He knew her father, after all
“Last night.” She swallowed down her revulsion at the memory, but he must have seen something in her expression. He looked at her closely, comprehension dawning in his eyes.
“The man in the hall?”
She nodded reluctantly. “Once a month they take me from here to the hall, and I feed.” She shook her head, she didn’t know why but she felt an overwhelming urge to explain herself. “I have no choice, I’m weak and the blood-thirst is too strong. I never take much, just enough to stop the craving.” She took a deep breath. “Once they brought a child. I couldn’t, I refused then. They killed her anyway.” She closed her eyes briefly at the memory of that death. “I tried to end my life, but they found me and ever since I’ve been kept like this.” She raised her arm, rattling the heavy chain. “The next time they took me I fed.” She finished. She didn’t want to look at him and see the revulsion that must be in his face.
“Jesus,” he muttered. He closed his eyes, seemingly lost in thought. When he opened them he appeared to have come to a decision. He reached behind him and drew a blade.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“You need more blood, you have to feed.”
He drew the knife across his wrist. Raven watched in fascination, breathing in the rich scent of fresh blood, sweet and heavy. She felt her own blood quicken in response. She licked her lips and saw him watch the movement. Then he slowly extended his arm toward her.
She ran her tongue across her sharp canines, felt the prickle in her gums as her fangs elongated. She couldn’t believe this was happening. That he should offer his blood to her. She knew she should be wary of him, but couldn’t resist. It was richer than anything she had ever tasted, and she realised then that he wasn’t human, for magic coursed through his blood. She fed, the strength flowed through her and she sighed against his skin.
Kael gazed down at the dark head locked against his arm and felt the same twist in his guts as when he had first seen her. He hadn’t meant to do this; his kind had always found the vampires’ kiss too seductive. That first lick of her small catlike tongue had sent shivers spiraling down his spine. The mouth at his wrist tugged at places deep within his body. He felt the heat coiling low in his belly and his cock hardened inside his jeans. He shifted and she glanced up from her concentration and caught him in the gaze of those strange eyes. She continued to feed as she watched him, and he saw that she was healing as she fed. The bruises were fading from her skin, leaving it white and perfect as new-fallen snow. His head fell back and he knew he needed to stop her.
But for a moment longer he allowed himself to enjoy the sensations coursing through his body. Allowed himself to think, at last, of what he had come here to do. His body hardened further at the thought and he closed his eyes and savored the feeling.