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|A Blood Seduction(Vamp City #1) by Pamela Palmer|
The ride was slow though it became more manageable as the ground became less and less muddy. Apparently, last night's downpour had been fairly isolated. But as the horse moved faster, Quinn only bounced more in the saddle, until she began to wish the mud would return.
How did they know where they were going? Even after the fog lifted, the landscape rolled on in every direction, with few if any landmarks, though she did see an occasional stream or pond. And an occasional house. Houses that actually appeared to be lived in. The question was, by what?
"Who lives out here?" Quinn asked quietly.
Arturo heard her and brought her horse up closer to his so they could talk more easily. "We're traveling the wolf lands at present, though Rippers are known to haunt the Crux as well."
"Another race of vampire. They feed only on blood, not emotion. But unlike the Emoras, they lose all conscience when they are turned, all trace of humanity. They live to feed, and they do so without mercy."
Vampires that were even more dangerous than the ones she'd met. This place just kept getting better and better.
"How big is Vamp City, anyway?"
"Approximately six miles in diameter. The vampires wanted a large dark city, far larger than Washington City, so Phineas Blackstone rode to nearly the center of the ten-mile square that was originally D.C. to perform his magic. The city he created extends out approximately three miles in every direction from that spot. The Boundary Circle is where the vamps enter and exit the dark city . . . or did when the magic was intact. Most of the kovenas have strongholds near the Boundary. The unclaimed land around the kovenas we call the Nod. The large, unclaimed center, the Crux. It's a dangerous place, home to the wolves and Rippers and anyone else who longs to stay away from the kovenas and has the fortitude to survive."
"How are there wolves in V.C.? There haven't been wolves in the D.C. area in centuries."
"Oh." Shit. "Don't the wolves and Rippers kill one another?"
"All the time."
"And are we in danger of being attacked?"
"Yes, of course." He eyed her expectantly.
Quinn glared at him. "You're waiting for my fear."
He smiled that devilish smile of his. "A small morsel, perhaps."
"I thought you didn't like my fear."
"I do not. Particularly when that fear is of me."
But he'd happily make her afraid of something else. Or he was just being contrary. She rolled her eyes. "So we're not really in much danger?"
The vampire shrugged. "It is unlikely they'll attack so many of us. Especially since we follow a straight path to the Focus, the very heart of the circle, where the magic still throbs with power. All know that Cristoff alone possesses Blackstone's sons. And most wish for V.C.'s magic to be renewed. Most wolves, at least. The Rippers rarely give much thought to consequences. They seek only the kill." He nodded front. "Look ahead. You can see the Focus."
She saw only the backs of the Blackstone brothers, riding directly ahead, at first. As they crested a small hill with dead trees on either side, she glimpsed a flash of colored light ahead. And suddenly she had a clear view of what appeared to be a small aurora borealis grounded and writhing in one fixed and open spot, its colors a brilliant blend of fuchsia, orange, and blue.
"It's beautiful," she breathed.
"None but a sorcerer can walk through it."
She looked at him in surprise. "What happens?"
"If I try to breach the Focus, it will throw me back like any good science-fiction force field."
"Except this one's real."
He nodded. "This one is real."
As they neared, Quinn watched, fascinated by the pulsing, gyrating colors that appeared to form a small dome over the ground, perhaps the size of a one-car garage. Finally, they were upon it, and Cristoff's guard rode to encircle the Focus, facing out to fight off any enemy.
Arturo dismounted, then grasped her waist and pulled her down before she could even attempt it on her own. Quinn gripped his shoulders as he set her on the ground, which was, thankfully, solid.
"You're nervous," he murmured.
Always the fear-feeder. "I'm fine." But he knew the truth. He knew exactly her level of anxiety, and she was nervous. Despite having tried to push the chamber pot, she wasn't at all sure she was ready to come face-to-face with her magic again. But it was Cristoff who scared her most.
Together, she and Arturo walked to where the vamp master waited with the two Blackstone brothers, her heart rate escalating with every step. Quinn avoided Cristoff's gaze as they joined the threesome, nodding instead to Grant.
Grant returned her nod in kind, then turned and headed toward the shimmering lights. "Come."
Quinn started after him without hesitation, anxious for any excuse to escape Cristoff's company. As Sheridan fell into step beside her, she turned to him. "I'm Quinn."
"I know who you are."
"And you're clearly not happy to meet me." How could a hundred-fifty-year-old man act so much like an ill-tempered teen?
He looked at her sharply, then away. "Were you expecting a brotherly hug?"
Her eyes narrowed. "And why would I expect that? Are we related?"
"How should I know?"
Fine, wonderful. Apparently all vampires were a pain in the ass, one way or another. They followed Grant the rest of the short distance in silence. Without pausing, Grant stepped right into the swirling mass of color. Quinn's eyes widened, and she followed, with a quick, mental, here goes nothing.
It was far from nothing. Like the sunbeams where the worlds bled through, she felt that strange tingling on her arms, the hair rising. But the magic here was far more dense. It was thick, like a heavy fog that clung to her skin, soaking in. No, digging in. It felt . . . strange. Uncomfortable, like fingers poking beneath her flesh.
"What's going to happen?" she asked, as they reached the center and turned toward one another.
Grant answered. "Sheridan knows the ritual but has little sorcerer's power. I have more, but not enough. We're hoping that by joining ours with yours, we'll have enough to renew the magic."
"So I don't have to do anything?"
Sheridan glared at her. "You could shut up."
Grant gave his brother a look of disgust. "Ignore him, Quinn. Everyone else does."
Suddenly, Grant was hanging two feet off the ground, his brother's hand around his throat as the younger Blackstone flashed a pair of wicked fangs.
"Sheridan!" Cristoff shouted from outside the aurora.
Sheridan ignored his vamp master for half a dozen seconds before dropping his brother to the dirt. The pair glared at one another, the animosity thick between them. Then, in that way men had of shaking off discord, they appeared to forget their animosity a moment later. As one, they turned to her, each reaching for one of her hands. Their palms pressed against hers, one human-warm, the other vampire-cool.
The second they gripped one another's hands, completing the circle, a stinging heat clawed at her palms, and she jerked away from them, running her hands down her hips, easing the ache.
"What happened?" Grant asked. They were both staring at her.
She looked at them in surprise. "Didn't you feel that?"
Grant watched her as if not entirely pleased. "What did you feel?"
"It shouldn't have. Not if you're a sorceress." He glanced at his brother, but Sheridan just shook his head, his expression mirroring Grant's. "The magic let you in. You're one of us, or it wouldn't have."
Sheridan held his hand out to her. "Shall we continue?" The hard edge of his tone challenged her to man up. Asshole.
She glanced behind her at Arturo and Cristoff standing side by side, watching her, Arturo with concern, Cristoff with a sharp look that had her pulse ratcheting as she turned back. She did not like that man . . . vampire . . . whatever.
Taking a deep breath, she once more placed her hands in those of the brothers Blackstone. Like before, the magic stung, but she clamped her teeth together and rode it out, praying that the ritual didn't take long.
Beside her, Sheridan began to whisper words, a running chant so low and quick, she barely caught half of it. As he chanted, the stinging spread from her hands into her arms, and up, like a slow, acidic burn. The pain moved into one of her shoulders a second before the other, sliding into her chest, making her gasp as it traveled down her body, through painfully sensitive parts, and into her legs and feet even as it rose up her neck into her head until she was rigid with misery. Still, the chanting continued, over and over, until her forehead was damp, her body shaking.
"I can't take much more of this," she managed between gritted teeth, realizing belatedly that she was squeezing the bejeezus out of their hands.
Abruptly, Sheridan's chanting ended. Both men released their grips and pulled their hands from hers. Slowly, the pain began to ease and die.
Grant looked at her with concern. "What happened?"
"I was going to ask you that."
"Cristoff will not be pleased," Sheridan warned.
Grant took Quinn's arm. "Does it hurt when I touch you like this?"
Grant led her back out of the aurora, and suddenly Cristoff was in her face, grabbing her jaw with a cruel hand. "The magic attacked you. What did you do to make it attack you?"
"I don't know. Believe me, I didn't enjoy it."
He smiled. "I did." He released her suddenly and swung away. "Perhaps you need a bit more persuasion to accept the magic and save our world. I believe you have a brother?" He grabbed Grant's left hand and lifted the three-fingered appendage. "It's extraordinary what a bit of familial persuasion can do."
His meaning slammed into her, draining the blood from her face. Zack. He'd hurt him, maim him just to force her to cooperate. And she didn't know how! Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Arturo staring off into the distance, his expression closed. He'd told her he'd never come between her and Cristoff.
Grant was the one who came to her aid, jerking his hand free of Cristoff's hold. "Her magic is untapped. Trying to call it forth on a null day was precisely as successful as I predicted it would be."
Cristoff glared at the Slava with ill-disguised dislike, but he turned and started back for the horses without another word.
Quinn turned to Grant, gratitude in her eyes, but he walked past her without a glance. Sheridan met her gaze, his own cool, before turning to follow his brother. She felt like a first-class failure. If only she had some idea of how to do what they asked. It was one thing to refuse, another entirely to be inept. Heaven help her if Cristoff got his hands on Zack.
With a shuddering breath, she started after them. Arturo fell into step behind her, but cold fury had her turning away. She longed to tell him to go to hell and leave her alone, but she needed his help to get out of this place in one piece, and she knew it. Damn him. If Cristoff ordered Arturo to find Zack and cut off his fingers in front of her, he'd do it. He'd do it!
Arturo said nothing, not even bothering to attempt an apology. In silence, he helped her mount, then led her horse back the way they'd come, following the others, as before. Several of the vampire guard in front turned toward the west, and she followed their gazes. Her breath caught at the sight of six large wolves sitting on the rise beneath the trees, watching them depart. Holy shit. From this distance, they looked just like wolves, if big ones. Werewolves.
Quinn shivered, but the wolves made no move to attack, and the vampire procession passed them without incident. She ought to feel relieved, she supposed. Instead, she felt beaten and bruised from the magic's attack, and cold in the pit of her soul at the thought that her love for her brother might end up destroying them both.
The one vampire who could possibly help her would never do so. He'd turn his back on her, betraying the strange connection between them all over again.
Arturo's temper simmered the entire ride back from the Crux, frustration like an itch beneath his skin he couldn't scratch. When they reached Gonzaga Castle's courtyard, he swung the sorceress off her mount, gripped her arm, and hauled her inside and downstairs, back to her room before Cristoff demanded her attendance . . . and subjugation. Before he himself lost control and began railing at her for all to see and hear.
She quaked beneath his hand, her fear not a sweet bright burst in his mouth but a cold, tasteless misery he wanted nothing to do with because the fear wasn't for herself. Not an ounce of it. It was all for that damnable brother of hers.
He unlocked her door and shoved her inside, keeping hold of her so she wouldn't fall. Honey hair swung, sending sunshine warmth into the air even as frosty green eyes turned to glare at him, accusatory. Hurt.
He rued the day he'd found her. No, he didn't. If he hadn't shown up when he did, Quinn Lennox would be dead, and he didn't wish that. But he could heartily regret that he'd been the one to save her, to become entangled in her fate. To become enchanted by her beauty and strength, and heartily exasperated by her obstinate, unbending, single-minded insistence on finding her brother.
Slamming the door behind him, he grabbed her by the shoulders, resisting . . . barely . . . the urge to shake her. "You are strong, cara. Strong as steel, yet you allow your feelings for another to make you weak."
"He's my brother!"
"He has no future!" The words were harsh, but she had to understand. "He is dead, Quinn. Perhaps already. Perhaps in the Games this week. Both would be a blessing, for if Cristoff brings him here to use against you, he will suffer more than you can possibly imagine. And it will destroy you."