Alexander doubted he would ever forget the smell. Cloying, thick, and hanging heavy in the air, the stench of blood--too much blood--permeated the entire warehouse the Hunters had claimed as their own as he stepped into their stronghold.
Their spells and protections had abruptly vanished right before dawn. Realizing it might have been a trap did not stop him from entering the building, just because of the small hope that Tristan remained alive.
But after two days in the hands of the Hunters, that small flame of hope had dimmed enough to be extinguished. Hunters did not leave their prey alive. That they'd taken Tristan with them and not killed him outright spoke of darker things, some plan set in motion by Tristan's capture and Jericho's disappearance. Alexander suspected Jericho's father had a hand in this, but he had no proof, only rumors. And rumors couldn't help any of them, now.
The warehouse had been one cavernous space, but the Hunters had sectioned parts of it off into separate rooms. Most of the doors were closed. Alexander didn't open them. Instead, he followed the trail of blood and other things, some unrecognizable as once belonging to a human, until he came to the room at the back of the warehouse and found Tristan.
At first, he thought Tristan was dead as well. He lay sprawled in the middle of what could only be called a torture room, full of medieval devices the Hunters had refashioned to use on vampires. Around him lay parts and pieces of bodies; he lay in a veritable pool of blood. In the two days he'd spent in their hands, they'd hurt him badly; Alexander saw burns on his bare chest, but somehow--through some fluke, Alexander suspected, he'd escaped their bonds and managed to kill them all.
There was no clear spot on the floor to kneel, so he crouched over Tristan to check his pulse. As soon as he touched Tristan's throat, his eyes snapped open; for a moment; less than a heartbeat, Alexander saw no recognition in Tristan's gaze. And then he gasped in a breath, baring bloody teeth against the pain of his wounds--although Alexander couldn't tell yet how badly he was hurt--and he whispered one damning word: "Taken."
"Jericho?" Alexander asked, although he had little hope Tristan meant someone else.
"Taken," Tristan repeated, more urgently. He tried to prop himself up; to lever himself off the floor, but his arms didn't seem to want to work very well. Understandably so, Alexander thought, because under a liberal coating of blood, he saw the glint of metal, pockmarking Tristan's chest and stomach.
His heart sank. He had no doubt--no doubt at all--that the metal embedded in Tristan's flesh was silver.
Which meant he'd come too late, because vampires died from silver wounds.
"Taken!" Tristan insisted, then, in a whisper, "Is he dead?"
"I don't know," Alexander told him, because that was the truth.
Tristan nodded. Closed his eyes. And perhaps he would have died there, on the floor of a room full of pain and despair, but as Alexander watched and waited for him to stop breathing--Silver, his mind reminded him, it's silver, and vampires die from silver wounds--he found himself absently pulling the roll of tools from the pocket of his jacket and selecting a small pair of needlenose pliers. And while Tristan lay there waiting to die, Alexander painstakingly dug the larger chunks of metal from his chest, and then, the smaller ones.
The damage was extensive. Alexander suspected the silver had been molten when they'd poured--or dripped--it on him; it had hardened by then, of course, and since Tristan was a vampire, his body had attempted to heal itself around the wounds. But silver was poison--fatal--to vampires. Alexander did not understand why Tristan was still alive. Or, more importantly, how he'd managed to kill at least--he did a quick count in his head--a dozen Hunters while so terribly wounded. It was no wonder they'd let down their guard. They thought he'd been fatally wounded. In any other circumstance, they would have been right, but apparently, they had been wrong.
Alexander had spent his very long life repairing and restoring musical instruments. Long ago, he'd crafted them as well. In fact, he was one of the world's most respected restorers, and had never lacked for commissions.
He had, however, never repaired a person before, and he did not know if he could do so now. Vampires died from silver wounds. And yet, as Tristan lay senseless; as Alexander poked and prodded and dug out the last remaining bits of silver, unmindful of the stench around him; the arrival of one fly, then another, happy to feast on the Hunters' remains, after he watched the holes he'd made in his quest to remove the offending metal seal themselves, leaving scar tissue behind, he realized two things: Tristan wasn't dying, and that he'd lost track of time.
He'd intended to find Tristan, rescue him if he was alive, attempt to discover Jericho's whereabouts, and go after him as well, especially if he'd been taken back to the Richmond household, where he would--without a doubt--be sentenced to death, or, worse, immediately killed.
Instead, he'd spent the better part of two days digging silver out of Tristan's flesh, and as he stood, mindful that this was a Hunter stronghold, after all, although he knew there was no one left alive, he knew that he needed to move Tristan somewhere safe, and soon.
Somewhere safe, and somewhere secure, because while he wasn't dying, he also wasn't conscious, and Alexander had no idea if he'd be able to move once he awoke.
So he left the Hunters to rot, and carried Tristan out to his car, and made the long drive home without knowing of Jericho's fate. He had no one to call; he'd lived a solitary existence, for the most part, a marked disadvantage in this instance. He had no contacts in the Richmond household save for Jericho's mother, and he hadn't spoken to her in almost twenty years.
And, it was likely if he did call, he wouldn't be able to speak to her. Jericho hadn't said much about life in the Richmond household, and neither had Tristan. But Alexander knew it hadn't been easy for either of them.
Once home, he spent the next few days at Tristan's side. With a gentleness that would have surprised the Hunters, he cleaned the blood from his body; helped him drink to replenish what he had lost. And waited, ever-patient, for Tristan to awaken so that he could find out what had happened to Jericho.
On the third day--the seventh day since Jericho's disappearance--Tristan opened his eyes. They were bloodshot, but aware; he focused on Alexander, licked his lips, and whispered, "He was taken."
"Back to the Richmond household?" Alexander asked.
Bit by bit, the story emerged. After Tristan had been captured, the Hunters' questions had been about the human who had given him up to them. Who had given them Tristan's location with the caveat that Jericho would not be harmed. Although the Hunters suspected the man was not one of their own, they hadn't asked too many questions until Tristan lay chained in their room, kept alive only for the sake of their own curiosity.
There had been talk about going after the man, but the Hunter who had taken Tristan had vetoed that suggestion. After that, they had set to work, intending to destroy their prisoner. They'd used silver--"How am I alive?" Tristan had asked, then, and Alexander couldn't answer him--and broken his bones. They'd left him alone after a while, content that he wouldn't be alive for much longer, and Tristan had--
"They're all dead," Alexander told him. "You tore them to pieces."
"I don't remember," Tristan whispered. For the first time, he tried to move; to make a fist, but his left hand refused to obey.
The scars were worse, on that side. And deep across his shoulder. Alexander wasn't surprised to discover damage to his nerves and muscles.
"Why am I alive?" Tristan asked again, and turned his face to the wall. His voice was a rasp; harsh and thick with unshed tears. "I should be dead."
"I don't know," Alexander said again. "I've never heard of a vampire surviving a silver wound. But you're not dying--"
"I can't leave him there," Tristan whispered. "I can't." He tried to lever himself upright. Failed.
"You need to rest," Alexander told him. "I expect it will take some time for you to recover from your injuries."
"I can't leave him there," Tristan whispered, but his eyes slid shut, despite his efforts to keep them open. "I--"
How long would Jericho's father keep him alive? Alexander tried to think of a way to save him, but the majority of his contacts now were human, mostly musicians, some from museums. He had very little to do with the vampire households nowadays. Years ago, yes, but years ago would not help Jericho now.
He'd relished his anonymity; his solitude over the years. Except in certain circles, the world had moved on without him. In certain circles, and the fact that Jericho's mother had sent him to Alexander, for fear of her son's life. Tristan's only job had been to bring Jericho back--at his father's orders, but Alexander had convinced him to become Jericho's protector instead.
And now, Tristan was horribly wounded, Jericho gone, and Alexander had been left to pick up the pieces.
Despite the fact that he knew his small number of contacts would likely not know what had happened to Jericho, Alexander reached out anyway, to the one person he thought would be able to discover Jericho's fate.
Rose Duncan, owner and operator of the Rose Emporium, a place where Alexander had spent many a happy hour rummaging among her collections, regretfully informed him that she had no contacts in the Richmond household, and, more gently, that Jericho was likely dead. "Connor Richmond has the peculiar habit of leaving those he wants dead tied--or chained--to a tree in the forest to await sunrise. Sometimes, I've heard the elves of the kingdom that borders the Richmond household are able to save them. I can make enquiries, if you'd like."
"Please do," Alexander said. "I have no contacts in Faerie, to my knowledge, at least." At one time he had, but Kian had been dead for years.
"I'll make enquiries on one condition," Rose said. "That you tell me this story--in person--someday. And that you stop being a stranger. We were friends, once."
They had been more than friends. But she'd refused him; refused the question he'd asked of her, and he had retreated so that she could live her life in peace.
"I--I rather thought you never wanted to see me again," Alexander admitted.
"I'm an old woman now," Rose replied, a trifle tartly. "And I have no regrets."
Alexander had agreed to see her, after all of this was over, subdued at the thought of Rose as an old woman; she was forever twenty-six in his mind. That was one of the reasons why he had closed himself away; why he had never allowed himself to get that close to someone again, after Rose.
When he checked in on Tristan, he found his patient lying on the floor beside the door. Somehow, he'd managed to drag himself across the room. He lay facedown; Alexander gently rolled him over.
"I can't leave him there," Tristan whispered, but what little strength he'd had was gone now; he could barely raise his head. "I can't."
Tristan had taken his role as Jericho's protector very seriously. And in his mind, he had failed; because the Hunters had overcome him; because he'd been betrayed, he had failed in his promise to keep Jericho safe.
"What if he's already dead?" Alexander asked.
"I can't," Tristan whispered.
Alexander could have done something completely out of character. He could have abandoned his solitary existence and taken over the Richmond household. Bent all of them--even Jericho's father--to his will. He could have murdered anyone who dared to object to his presence with barely a thought of the consequences. He could have done all of these things, and more.
However, he hadn't lived this long by acting like a tyrant. And while he could have taken care of the Richmonds without help, the aftermath would have destroyed everything he'd ever worked towards, because he would have ended up just as bad as Connor Richmond, in the end. And perhaps then, death by Hunters would have been fitting for such a creature as he would have become.
"I can't," Tristan said again, forcing him out of his reverie.
"I know," Alexander told him. "Be patient, please. I'm waiting on word from someone I know whose word I trust completely."
Tristan didn't fight when Alexander carried him back to his bed. But there were tears on his cheeks--in a better frame of mind, Tristan would never be one to admit that he knew how to cry at all--and he whispered those two words one last time before slipping away into sleep.
Rose called two hours later. And after her report, after Alexander realized what he would have to do, he sat by Tristan's bed until he opened his eyes.
"Jericho is to be left in the forest to await the dawn," he said. "There is a possibility that the elves who live in the kingdom that borders the Richmond household will save him."
"A possibility isn't good enough," Tristan said. "I'll go."
"You can't walk," Alexander reminded him. "And despite the fact that you aren't dying, you're still badly wounded." This did not have the effect he'd hoped for, but then again, Tristan was terribly stubborn. "I used to have a contact in that kingdom, and I intend to--"
"I will go," Tristan insisted, and somehow, managed to lever himself upright in the bed. Barely. "Please," he said, then, and Alexander said, "I had intended to go to make sure they found him. And if they did not, to save him myself."
Tristan did not say please very often. And there was a way that he could share his strength with Tristan; to mask the effects of his wounds enough for him to function so that he could be the one to rescue Jericho from certain death.
"Please," Tristan said again, as if he sensed Alexander wavering.
"It's very dangerous," Alexander said. "For both of us. You could die, once the spell has run its course."
Tristan's arms gave out on him. He fell backwards, onto the pillows, baring his teeth in frustration. "What spell?" he asked, and Alexander told him.
For a moment after Alexander finished speaking, Tristan was silent. "You trust me that much?" he finally asked.
"It's not likely you'd get far, if you intended to betray me," Alexander said. "The spell can only work for a limited amount of time. Usually half a day."
"Twelve hours," Tristan said.
"I'm not sure that would be long enough for you to find him," Alexander told him. "The Richmond household is a three-hour drive from here. And you would have to hide your trail from anyone who might follow you; I can't imagine that they'd just leave him there without a guard. And I don't know if the elves will act if there is one." Now that it was out in the open, Alexander saw all the potential issues with that specific spell. "You won't be at full strength. If you have to fight someone for him, you'd be at a disadvantage. If you have to cast a spell, you'll already be running on a deficit--"
"I'll go," Tristan said, as firmly as he could, considering. "If I have to beg you, I will. Let me go. Please."
"I'll drive you, then," Alexander said. "And I will wait for you to return to me, with or without Jericho. The elves are likely to have a Healer; he'll need their expertise. I am no Healer. I will defer to your judgment whether or not to leave him in their hands."
"If I find him," Tristan pointed out.
"You will find him," Alexander said, because he couldn't imagine Tristan giving up the search. "And I will extend that spell as long as I am able, if needed."
"Thank you," Tristan said. His eyes slipped shut; he forced them back open. "How long do we have?"
"Not long enough," Alexander told him. "Take my hand."
Tristan extended his hand. It must have hurt; he bit his lip and briefly closed his eyes. Not for the first time, Alexander wondered at the wisdom of allowing Tristan to do this. There was no guarantee that sharing his strength would make Tristan able to do anything, especially since he was so badly wounded.
But then he thought about what Tristan would do if he didn't cast the spell, and what he might attempt to do, and he knew without a doubt that he truly had no choice.
So he cast the spell. And for a moment, he felt nothing, no sign of weakness, no sense that it had worked, and then Tristan's hand tightened in his grasp. He gasped in a breath, opened his eyes. And sat up, almost convulsively.
"Oh--Oh my," he said, and shivered. Bared his teeth. Took a deep breath. "Oh--"
"Can you stand?" Alexander asked.
Tristan swung his legs over the side of the bed. Eyed the floor as if it were too far away to contemplate, then slowly stood with Alexander's help. "It's--I can still feel it," he said, his voice sounding almost normal now. "The pain. In the background. It's distracting." He took a step, still holding Alexander's hand, and then, greatly daring, released it. His other hand had strayed against his chest, as if cradling the scars that now were the only physical reminders of his wounds.
"I can stand, and I can walk," he said, but Alexander saw a struggle in his gaze, as if he wasn't quite sure he would make it all the way into the forest to rescue Jericho. But then he pushed the doubt away, and faced Alexander with some of his usual confidence. "And I will find him."
"I have faith you will," Alexander said, and offered him his hand again.
Tristan hesitated. "You need strength too," he said.
"And you need to be able to protect yourself," Alexander told him. "I have plenty of strength to spare." Even so, sharing that much; holding so much of Tristan's pain in check was distracting, at the least. And potentially damning, if Tristan ran into trouble. But despite the risks, he knew he had no choice. Not if he wanted Tristan to find--and save--Jericho.
Tristan took his hand. Drew in a sharp breath, then let it out in a wavering sigh. "I'd almost forgotten," he murmured, and clenched his left hand into a fist. "I'd almost forgotten what it felt like to be whole."
"You can't--" Alexander began.
"I know," Tristan whispered. "I know. I won't fight. When you take it back. I promise. You have my word." He paused. "But I'd be lying if I said I didn't consider fighting you for even a little of your strength." His gaze was bleak, but only for a moment. "It's not going to be easy, is it?"
"No," Alexander said. "It won't be easy. But I have faith you will survive, and I have faith you will recover."
"Thank you for that," Tristan said, his voice hoarse.
"We should go," Alexander said.
Tristan nodded. He curled his left arm against his chest again. Took a deep breath, and followed Alexander out of the room.
Later, after Tristan had vanished into the forest and Alexander settled down in his car to await his return, he had to give in to the thought that he might not see either Jericho or Tristan ever again. With that thought in mind, he took out his cell phone and dialed a number he hadn't dialed for almost thirty years. After Kian's untimely death, he had never thought to call on this particular castle again. And since it had been so long ago, he had no idea if the number he had would still work, but it rang. And, eventually, someone picked up.
"I thought this line had been disconnected," a familiar voice said in his ear. "It hasn't rung in years."
"I wasn't certain it would still ring," Alexander admitted.
"So it is you."
The voice on the other end of the line belonged to Nefir, the king of the kingdom Tristan would trespass through to find Jericho. The Veil ran right along the road here; Alexander had no doubt he was under surveillance, perhaps by the small folk who lived in the forest. He had decided not to hide his vehicle; just in case something went wrong.
Nefir had been Kian's lover, among other things. When Kian had died, he'd offered all of his tools and equipment to Alexander, who had been Kian's teacher--and friend. Alexander still owned one of Kian's violins, one of three that had ventured past the Veil.
"I am in need of a favor," Alexander said before Nefir could start on mundane questions. "It's--rather urgent, and involves the Richmond household."
"A favor expects repayment," Nefir said, businesslike now. "I think we know each other well enough not to need favors, don't you?"
"You might not agree when I tell you what I need."
"I imagine it has something to do with Jericho Richmond," Nefir said easily. "I've heard the story, or parts of it. I know something happened a few days ago--"
"He is slated to be left out in the forest to await the dawn," Alexander said, not really surprised that Nefir was aware of Jericho. Nefir had always been--fascinated by the Richmond household and their cruelty. "I trust my source."
"And you called me because--" Nefir began, then immediately added, "I'm not going to beat around the bush with you, Alexander. I'm not going to play games. Are you planning to rescue him?"
"I've sent someone," Alexander said. "Or, rather, he insisted, despite his injuries. I--I don't want to lose them both."
"And you cannot come yourself?" Nefir pressed. When Alexander did not reply, he said, "I know that it's not your preference. But for Jericho?"
"And what," Alexander said, speaking his argument aloud, "would happen if they discovered my presence? Do you truly believe I would be lucky enough to escape without killing them all? I do not want their deaths on my conscience." He paused. "Perhaps it was in error that I called you."
"No," Nefir said. "It wasn't. We were already aware of Jericho's fate. And it is not our preference to be seen by any guards; we do not want a war on our hands, after all."
"Meaning what?" Alexander asked.
"Meaning we intend to find him and rescue him if we possibly can," Nefir told him. "But if you've sent someone already--"
"I'm not certain he'll succeed," Alexander said quietly. "I shared my strength with him to combat his wounds, but--"
"Ah," Nefir said. "That explains why you aren't with him."
That wasn't the entire reason, just one of them, and not a very good one, in truth. But Alexander did not disabuse Nefir of that thought, because it made as much sense as any other excuse he could invent.
"I have Healers," Nefir said, then. "Do you?"
"No," Alexander admitted. "I do not."
"And if Jericho is beyond any help you can give?" Nefir asked. "My Healers will not release him quietly; they will fight me if I try to hand him over to you. They're very opinionated, Healers."
"I recall," Alexander said, thinking of happier times, knowing Nefir spoke of his sister Muirghen. He remembered her, from his trips to the kingdom, back before Kian's death. She would be older now, too. The elves had very long lifespans, but they weren't immortal. "I will defer to your Healers' judgment."
"And the one you sent?" Nefir asked. "Will he?"
"Yes," Alexander said. "He will."
"This is Tristan, I presume?" Nefir asked, and Alexander had to wonder how he managed to get his information. Unlike everyone else Alexander knew, apparently he had a contact in the Richmond household.
He almost asked, but in retrospect, he wasn't absolutely certain he wanted to know. "Yes," he said instead. "He was sent to bring Jericho back, but became his protector instead. According to Tristan, they were betrayed to a Hunter nest, who then captured him and tortured him while Jericho was brought back to the Richmond household."
"Captured him and tortured him--and he's still alive?" Nefir asked in surprise.
"He--he killed them all," Alexander said. "I'm still not certain how." Reluctantly, he added, "They used silver. He should be dead."
"I've heard rumors that not all silver wounds kill vampires," Nefir told him. "It's rare, and not something that can be replicated according to my sources, but it has happened before. But you said he killed them all? Before or after he was tortured?"
"After," Alexander said. "He does not remember killing them, but they were all dead."
"And he will not attack me or my searchers?" Nefir inquired, almost too casually.
"No," Alexander said with certainty. "He won't."
"Then I'll look forward to making his acquaintance," Nefir said. "If he shows himself to us."
"He may not," Alexander told him.
"I know," Nefir said. "But we are, after all, on the same side in this. We both want Jericho to be rescued so that he can heal from whatever his father has done to him."
If he can heal, Alexander thought, but did not say that aloud. "Yes," he said instead.
"I can contact you on this number?" Nefir asked, and gave him a different one; apparently the king had embraced cell phones as soon as there were spells to make them work in Faerie. It had been difficult enough, long ago, just to have a landline.
"Yes," Alexander said. "I'll be waiting for Tristan to return, with our without Jericho."
"In your car?" Nefir asked in surprise. "Along the road?"
"It's well-warded," Alexander said. "And there are no roads into Faerie, unless something has drastically changed."
"He won't be able to return to you until dusk," Nefir pressed, as if he wasn't certain Alexander would realize this.
"I know," Alexander said.
Nefir was silent for a moment; something most unlike him. "We'll find him," he finally said, as if he realized he wouldn't be able to talk Alexander out of his vigil.
"I trust you will," Alexander told him, and disconnected the call.
It began with a length of chain padlocked to a tree, and a puddle of blood soaked into the snow, shockingly--sickeningly--red.
How the prisoner--a vampire--had managed to free himself after losing so much blood was the curiosity. Where he had gone was the question.
Celeste had seen no one near the little house she'd moved into two years before. Nefir had finally convinced her to return to the kingdom, and she had done so with a fair amount of regret, since she'd become fast friends with the Walker household over the past fourteen years and had grown used to both werewolves and vampires. Her minor talent for healing had also come in handy more than once; while she was, quite literally, a phone call away, it seemed that she'd moved to a different country, not just past the Veil.
Ethan had yet to visit, although William had spent the night a few times. She'd visited Ethan, however, and Nefir still had strict orders not to bother either Ethan or the Walker household.
As far as she knew, the Richmonds had kept him busy enough to obey.
She still wasn't certain why Nefir had called her out of bed. The prisoner was, unfortunately, likely deceased. Even if he'd managed to escape on his own and somehow cover his trail, he'd lost enough blood to stumble past the Veil and immolate himself. She wouldn't have been surprised if they'd found a pile of ash instead of a body. Or, worse, a half-burned vampire that they would have to kill themselves.
That had happened once, according to Lark, who stood in the midst of the bloody snow, eyes narrowed, staring at the stark whiteness without blinking once. Nefir had claimed he was trying to find a trail. Celeste, seeing nothing remotely obvious, suspected he was just stalling before admitting defeat.
"How do you know they didn't take him back?" she asked the obvious question, considering the only trail headed straight back to Richmond territory, two sets of footprints coming and going. They'd even followed that trail back to the edge of the forest, finding nothing.
"They've never done that before," Lark said, and crouched down, still squinting. Celeste wondered if he'd even be able to see, once they declared defeat and retired to their houses. "They've also never chained someone out here in the dead of winter. Whoever this was--" He reached out, brushed a spattering of snow off the nearest tree trunk.
"Could this person have escaped on his own?" Celeste asked.
"Unlikely," Nefir said from the other side of the tree. He wasn't attempting to find a trail. He was watching Lark.
"There's too much blood," Lark said for the third time.
Celeste frowned. "Then he--or she--had help."
"Do we have a name?" Nefir inquired of Lark, who had moved on, studying the branches of a spindly pine. His question was almost deliberately casual, as if he were testing Lark's acquired knowledge. Celeste narrowed her eyes at him. He ignored her.
"No," Lark said. "A young man, as far as my source could tell." He glanced up. Met Nefir's gaze. "Apparently it was difficult to tell." He took a step forward, and then another. "They went this way--two of them, one dragging the other--but the trail's faint enough to be invisible. The rescuer has to be a wizard. And they did not head back to the Richmond household."
"Can vampires freeze to death?" Celeste asked, because while it wasn't horribly cold with the sun shining down on them, the temperature dropped swiftly once the sun set.
"I don't know," Lark said, and started forward, following a trail that did not seem to exist. Nefir followed him. With one last glance back at the tree, the blood, and the chain, Celeste brought up the rear, wondering, not for the first time, about Lark.
Not only was he relatively new to the kingdom, he held the completely puzzling position of 'border guard', something Nefir had invented while she'd been gone. Considering the kingdom's border stretched both far and wide, one single border guard was about as useful as a badly motheaten blanket against the cold of winter.
He lived in a treehouse not far from Celeste's own little house--and not far from the edge of the Richmond territory. Celeste suspected Nefir had put him into place to keep watch over the Richmonds and not the actual border.
Nefir claimed he was an excellent tracker. If he truly followed a trail now, Celeste could see why he would be useful, because she still saw nothing but snow. And the blinding glare had given her a headache.
But of course a headache wasn't worth complaining about, considering what they'd found at that tree.
Lark stopped under a spreading pine whose branches had blocked most of the snow. Here, at last, was a trail, or the start of one; they'd walked at least half a mile by now; perhaps the rescuer hadn't expected anyone to come this far, or know which way to search in the first place. Here, a bloody depression in the drifts of pine needles. Here, scraps of some sort of cloth--perhaps a blanket--that someone had used to try to staunch the prisoner's wounds.
Vampires healed very quickly. Remarkably so, in fact. But that was not entirely a blessing. If a wound healed wrong--a broken bone, say--then to force it to heal correctly, the bone would have to be rebroken, and quickly set. For someone who did not have the proper training or a talent for healing, this was a very difficult thing to accomplish quickly enough.
Depending on how long ago this had happened--Celeste thought she knew why Nefir had asked her to come, now. If the prisoner still lived; if they found him, then she would have a lot of work to do.
Too much work, in fact, for her minor talent. Muirghen would have been the better choice, if this vampire was as wounded and broken as she now feared.
"Why isn't Muirghen here?" she asked as Lark followed the more obvious trail now; footprints and the marks of something--someone, she thought--being dragged through the snow. If they'd traveled in sunlight, she had to wonder what the effect had been on the rescuer; for someone used to darkness, the sunlight in Faerie was both disorienting and frightening, at first.
Had the rescuer planned to take the prisoner back to the Richmond household and hide him away somehow? Or was there another plan, one already finished, and they would find nothing but bloody snow and the evidence of their passing?
The trees looked familiar here, she thought as she followed Lark and Nefir. They were still skirting the edge of the Veil, perhaps a mile now, and suddenly, she knew exactly where the rescuer had been headed.
"I know where they're going," she said, and stopped.
Nefir paused. Lark continued walking, then realized no one was following, and stopped, glancing back.
"Muirghen isn't here because we're supposed to bring any survivors to her," Nefir said. "If there are survivors, this time. I thought you might be able to help with any immediate needs, if the one we seek is still alive." He patted the bag slung across his body. "And I've brought supplies as well."
"Where are they headed?" Lark asked.
"There's an abandoned cabin not far from here," Celeste told them. "On the very edge of the Veil and Richmond territory. One of the Richmond children claimed it a dozen years ago; Jericho, I think his name was. He had a talent for music." She said this carefully, because of her brother and Nefir, and the reason why she'd left the kingdom, so long ago.
"A dozen years is a long time for an abandoned cabin to remain standing," Lark said. "But if it still stands, that would be an ideal place to hide."
"The prisoner is likely to need a Healer's attention," Nefir said, not mentioning Kian or the guitar he'd given Jericho Richmond. "If he still lives. If it's that close to the Veil--"
"I'm assuming that a vampire rescued him," Celeste said. "They may both need help, by now."
"We will aid anyone willing to accept our help," Nefir said. "As we always have."
"How far is this cabin?" Lark asked.
"Not far," Celeste said. "On the other side of that hill." Right where the trail led. But she didn't mention that. She pushed past a sudden reluctance to find out if she was right, and wondered if either the prisoner or his rescuer were still alive. They would have smelled woodsmoke from a fire, although magic could mask that. But no one could manage everything forever without using too much strength and risking collapse, which might have been the reason why the rescuer had abandoned the elaborate mask of their trail once they'd reached the pine.
For all they knew, the rescuer was also wounded.
When they reached the top of the rise and saw the cabin below, half-hidden by a stand of trees; one broken window glittering against black and rotted wood, they waited for a moment for any sign or signal of life--in vain, because the forest was silent here, and still.
At one point, there had been a porch, whose floor had rotted long ago. The front door gaped open, hanging on one faltering hinge. Half the roof was gone, crushed by a large limb, but Celeste suspected the trees that had grown up around the cabin blocked the sunlight for most of the day.
Even so, it was past the Veil, in Faerie, and not in Richmond territory.
Borne by some invisible breeze, she heard the faintest snatch of music, and her heart grew cold.
"A radio?" Nefir asked. "Out here?"
It would have been impossible to sneak up on a vampire in any normal circumstance. That no one appeared at the door as they slowly made their way down the hill was not a good sign of what they would find inside that dark and dismal cabin. Celeste half-expected Lark to try to order her to stay back, but he did not. Perhaps Nefir had told him what a terrible idea that would be.
But Lark took the lead, and Nefir followed, and as she walked across what would have been the front yard, she saw something glitter against the side of the building. It almost looked like a spell. Covering something, or hiding something. She almost left rank to investigate, but then she saw that Lark had stopped still in the doorway, staring at what lay beyond the door.
So she abandoned investigation, and stepped up beside him to look through the gaping hole beside the door.
The music was clearer now. She saw a small radio sitting on the dirt floor, playing classical music. What looked to be a pile of blankets against the only solid wall resolved itself into a form lying amid the blankets--red blood and pale, pale skin.
He seemed to be only a boy, lying there, so still and broken. The smell of blood and despair in the air broke her heart. She stepped past Lark, who abortively tried to stop her, but she brushed past him and went directly to the boy. Closer, she realized the boy was more of a young man, at least twenty, but he was so broken; so wounded that she couldn't begin to tell what he looked like before this had happened to him.
There was a piece of paper pinned to his chest. Celeste gently removed it, and read the note aloud. "'My name is Jericho Richmond. My father did this to me.'" She gasped. Glanced back at Nefir. "Nefir--"
"I heard you," Nefir said. He pulled a sealed bottle out of his bag. Stepped inside the cabin. "Will this help?"
"No," Celeste said. "No, absolutely not. His wounds will heal like this, Nefir. Have healed like this." She gently lifted Jericho's hand, or tried to; his hand was so twisted and bent that she could barely lift it up. "Muirghen needs to be here. Right now. Go get her. Now."
She wasn't certain where to begin; he was so wounded. His face seemed to be the only thing not affected, and someone had tried to straighten out his left arm, using twigs as support to hold the bones in place. His rescuer had tried, but he had been racing against the clock.
Vampires healed very quickly. Without a healing talent to slow the remodeling of the bones, they would begin to heal, in whatever position they were in at the time. Feeding a wounded vampire only made it worse, since the healing would accelerate.
"Someone tried to help him, but they ran out of time," Celeste said. "I need Muirghen here, Nefir. Please. Don't argue. Just go. Both of you. And bring Muirghen here."
"I'll stay," Lark said immediately.
Celeste remembered the sparkle on the side of the cabin. "No. Both of you go. I'll need a stretcher, splints, and as many bandages as you can bring. Bring more than you think we will need. He's not stable enough to move right now; we'll have to do this here."
"Read the rest of the note," Nefir said quietly.
"'There is a possibility I might recover from this,'" Celeste said. "The rescuer wrote 'he' first. 'Please take good care of me.'" She paused. Just in case, she raised her voice. "I helped a vampire who was in a car accident in Ethan's household. He was trapped in his car for three days. His injuries weren't as extensive, but he's okay now. He can walk. He limps a little, but he can walk. And he's fine now."
"We'll go," Nefir said, as if he'd picked up something from her tone.
Lark looked as if he wanted to protest, but he followed Nefir out the door with only a glance backwards.
Celeste gently touched Jericho's face. "Muirghen and I will help you, Jericho Richmond. I promise."
The voice wasn't entirely unexpected. But Celeste sensed something wrong; as if the speaker's strength hung by a thread of pure will. He stood right behind her, in the doorway, blocking the sun.
She started to turn around.
"No," he said, sharply. "Concentrate on Jericho."
"What about you?" Celeste asked.
"Forget about me," the rescuer suggested. "How can you help him?"
"You tried to help him," Celeste said softly. "But you were working against time. I have a small talent for healing, and I can slow his healing and make sure his bones heal correctly. Muirghen, who is a true healer, has a powerful talent. If Jericho has a chance, we can give him that chance."
"How do I know I can trust you?" the rescuer asked.
"Do you have a choice?" Celeste asked. When he didn't answer, she asked, "You've heard of the Healer network?"
"They are neutral, and will care for anyone placed into their care," the rescuer said.
"Even vampires," Celeste said. "And Nefir, the king here, will not turn him out. He will be safe here, for as long as it takes for him to heal."
"And if he doesn't heal?"
"Then he can stay in this kingdom for as long as he wishes to say," Celeste said. "And we will take care of him."
"And if he cannot voice his wishes?" the rescuer asked, relentlessly pessimistic.
Celeste kept one hand on Jericho; feeding enough of her talent into his body to stabilize his heartbeat; his breathing. She turned towards the doorway, but the glare of the sun showed her no features; no details.
"I said concentrate on Jericho," the rescuer grated, and started to move away.
"The sun's too bright," Celeste said. "I can't see your face."
He paused. One hand rose to touch the fractured door.
"You need help, too," Celeste said gently. "I can tell; I'm a healer, remember?"
"I'll take one of those bottles your king left," the rescuer said. "As long as they're sealed and you promise they're not tampered with."
"Help yourself," Celeste said. "They've not been tampered with." She turned her attention back to Jericho, who seemed to be resting more comfortably, despite his injuries. "His father did this to him?"
"I shouldn't be talking to you," the rescuer said.
"I'm saving your friend's life," Celeste reminded him.
"My friend," the rescuer said thoughtfully. "Jericho isn't my friend. But yes, his father did that to him."
"I thought Jericho Richmond had escaped," Celeste said, her voice soft. "I thought he was safe. I thought he'd become a musician, far beyond his father's reach."
"It's my fault this happened to him," the rescuer murmured. His voice hitched. "It's all my fault." He hit the side of the door with his fist, hard enough to shake that leaning wall. And then, "They're coming back."
"They must have used a portal," Celeste said. "For speed. Since we weren't sure how far we would need to track you, we didn't want to do that." Now it was her turn to pause. "You're tracking them? You tracked us?"
"The entire way," the rescuer said. "I had to know your intentions. I needed to know I'd leave him in good hands. I removed the spell I used at the pine; it seemed silly to hide the trail at that point--" He stopped, listening to something Celeste could not hear. "Don't tell them I was here." A pause. Then, reluctantly, "Please."
He had claimed Jericho was not his friend, but he obviously cared for him. And Celeste had to wonder if he'd ever said 'please' before in his life. Or, perhaps he was used to others obeying his every word, and not having to ask for favors himself.
"Tell me two things first, before you hide yourself again," Celeste said. "And I won't tell them you were here until we're gone from this place." She paused. "That's the best I can do."
"It depends on the two things," the rescuer said after a moment of silence. "Some of this I cannot tell." He glanced over his shoulder again. "And some of this isn't mine to tell in the first place. I don't have much time left."
That sounded more permanent than Celeste would have liked. "What do you mean?" she asked before she could stop herself. "Is there anything I can do to help you?"
"That was two questions," the rescuer said wearily. "Are those your two things?" He was wheezing slightly now, as if this had taken nearly every scrap of strength he possessed.
"No," Celeste said. And then, because she couldn't help herself, "You're hurt. Is there anything I can do to help you?"
"Come dusk, if I'm still alive, I only have to reach the road and I have someone arranged to pick me up," the rescuer said. "If I miss my ride, then--then I have until dawn before I'll be much worse off than before and might as well be dead by then, regardless." Almost to himself, he added, "At least Jericho will be safe."
"You could be safe, too," Celeste said.
"No. I borrowed someone's strength for this. And he'll need it back. And he will care for me, after."
She didn't quite understand, but perhaps she didn't have to. "What is your name?" she asked. "And when Jericho asks about you, what should I tell him?" When he didn't reply, she added, "Those are my two things."
After a moment, the rescuer said, "My name is Tristan. And if Jericho asks about me, tell him--tell him this is all my fault." His laugh sounded more like a sob. "I should have expected this to happen. I shouldn't have grown so complacent that we were safe."
"Will you tell me what happened?" Celeste asked.
"There's not enough time," the rescuer--Tristan--whispered. "I was--there were Hunters. I--" He spun away from the door, abruptly. Vanished around the side of the cabin. Celeste waited for a moment to see if he would return, but then she heard voices, at the top of the rise.
And then, no time to guess where Tristan had hid himself, or what would happen to him afterwards, because Muirghen had arrived with Nefir and Lark, and they spent the next few hours preparing Jericho for transport back to Muirghen's house. Celeste explained what needed to be done; Muirghen did not disagree in any way.
Throughout all of this, Celeste found herself faintly aware of a presence, listening from the other side of the wall, but no one else seemed to notice. When they finally lifted Jericho onto the stretcher; when Muirghen finally deemed him stable enough to move, Celeste found herself hesitating to leave, even as Nefir and Lark carried their patient out of the cabin.
"We have a lot of work to do yet today," Muirghen said gently, and perhaps she'd sensed something as well, because she raised her voice, ever-so-slightly. "By the time the sun sets, I want those bones to be reset."
"Yes," Celeste agreed, and followed her out the crooked doorway, leaving the cabin behind.
And it took hours, and both of their talents, to do what was needed for Jericho Richmond, but by the time the shadows started gathering beneath the trees, they had done what they could to help him heal properly. And while he lay quiet and unresponsive in Muirghen's spare bed, bandaged and bathed and safe now, Celeste took her leave of their patient and returned to the cabin, alone.
She found Tristan inside, sprawled against the wall, eyes closed, seemingly asleep--although he awoke quickly enough at her approach. For a moment, she thought he would order her away, but something shifted in his gaze; perhaps the bottle of blood she'd stolen from Muirghen's house helped convince him that she meant no harm.
"You shouldn't be here," he whispered, and pushed himself upright.
"You said you had an appointment at dusk, and I didn't want you to be late," Celeste said. "What would happen if you weren't there to meet your ride?"
"He said he would wait until dawn to take back his strength," Tristan murmured. "He would wait until then. And give me up for dead if I'm not there to meet him."
He was a Richmond, she thought, with the same coloring as Jericho; close enough to almost be brothers, in fact. But Jericho Richmond's brothers were young, as far as she knew, and his sister just barely a teenager.
"This will help," he said, and drank directly from the bottle. "Thank you." 'Thank you' seemed to come easier to him than 'please'.
She saw the scars, then, angry and red, across his upper chest where his shirt had pulled away. And she suspected from the way he held himself that they were quite extensive--and obviously painful.
What would scar a vampire like that?
He saw her staring. "Silver. Molten silver." The bottle, now empty, still in his hand. He seemed more aware now; less on edge; with only a little effort, managed to climb to his feet.
"But silver kills vampires," Celeste said.
"I know." A small smile flew across his lips. "And yet because of--someone's persistence, I live." He drew in a ragged breath. "I should leave now, if I'm to make it to the road by dusk."
"I'll walk with you," Celeste offered before she could stop herself.
He hesitated, his hand on what was left of the doorframe. "How is Jericho?"
"Resting," Celeste said. "His bones are mending. His other wounds have healed. He's likely to be unconscious for a few days, at best. Is there a way to contact you to let you know--"
"No," Tristan said before she could finish. "I--I trust you will do the best you can for him." He measured out those words, as if he wanted to say something completely different. Quietly, he added, "I will likely not be mobile, after this. For a long time. It would be best if he thinks I am dead."
"If he cares about you as much as you care about him, that might not be a good idea," Celeste said.
"I don't--" Tristan began, then glanced at her, eyes wide. "When he fled, I was sent to retrieve him."
"But you did not obey your orders," Celeste said, because she knew he had not brought Jericho back in disgrace.
"No, I did not," Tristan told her. "I--I shouldn't be talking to you. Thank you for what you've done for him. I should go."
"Can you make it to the road by yourself?" Celeste asked.
"You mentioned Ethan before," Tristan said, ignoring her question. "Ethan Walker? Of the Walker household?"
"Yes," Celeste told him. "I consider him a friend."
He swayed, ever-so-slightly. Righted himself, and closed his eyes. Exhaustion screamed from every inch of his body, and yet he remained upright. Stubborn. Would Jericho be so stubborn in his recovery?
"I--I would wish to make it to the road," he finally said. "I would wish not to die out here, alone. But I don't think I can walk that far right now."
"Can you walk that far with my help?" Celeste asked gently. "As repayment for rescuing Jericho from that tree?"
Tristan shuddered. "I promised I would keep him safe," he whispered. "I failed in my promise."
Celeste offered him her arm. After a moment, he took it.
The road lay at least two miles west. By the time they reached it, Celeste was almost supporting his full weight, and Tristan's eyes were slitted in concentration, his bottom lip trapped between his teeth; agony plain on his face.
A dark colored SUV idled beside a deserted stretch of road, nearly blending in with the oncoming night. The tinted windows showed her nothing, and there were spells around the vehicle, mostly for protection. As they stepped out of the forest and onto the grassy berm, Tristan tried to speak; a name, perhaps. With the greatest of efforts, he managed to straighten. To stand, although not quite on his own.
The driver's side door opened as they crossed the road. A man emerged--a vampire, Celeste thought; but an odd one; he wore glasses, for one, as if to make himself seem harmless. He stood still for a moment, watching them, and then he asked, quietly, "Did he succeed?"
"Jericho is safe, at a Healer's house past the Veil," Celeste said. "I'll be helping with his recovery."
"You are, too, a Healer," the vampire said.
"I have a minor healing talent," Celeste told him. "But I've had experience--I lived near the Walker household not long ago and they called on me often." She hesitated. "Tristan said you saved his life." He had, of course, said no such thing, but Celeste sensed something between them; a connection she could not ignore. "He said there were Hunters. And--and molten silver."
"There were," the vampire said, nodding.
"Vampires die from silver poisoning," Celeste said.
He smiled, briefly. Helped Tristan into the car, then turned to face her. Up close, he seemed no less harmless; it was almost as if he projected harmlessness; mildness; she realized, then, that he was very old. But ageless.
"My name is Alexander Ross," he said. "I mean no one harm; I came across Jericho before Tristan was sent to bring him back."
"You convinced him not to return," Celeste said in sudden understanding.
"I convinced him to allow Jericho to play his music; he fashioned himself as Jericho's protector. I believe he had a similar role in the Richmond household." Alexander Ross gently closed the passenger side door. Tristan was slumped against the seat, his eyes closed, his strength gone. "It took me a long time to gain Tristan's trust."
"And Jericho's?" Celeste asked.
"Jericho has a remarkable talent for music," Alexander Ross said slowly. "I've never seen anything like it before. He had a guitar--"
"My brother gave him that guitar," Celeste said. "But I've not heard him play, since then."
"Kian was your brother?" Alexander asked. "I knew him, long ago."
"I thought you might have," Celeste said. "But I don't believe we met, back then." Kian had been busy living his life at the castle, crafting the instruments he would have been famous for, in certain circles, if he hadn't died.
"What did his father do to Jericho?" Alexander asked with such doom in his voice that Celeste inadvertently found herself stepping back.
"Crushed nearly every bone in his body," she said, not knowing how to make it sound any better. "He seemed to spend a lot of time destroying him--I can only hope that Muirghen and I were able to put him back together well enough to erase his father's fury."
"Will he--" for the first time, Alexander Ross hesitated. "Will he play again?"
"I don't know," Celeste said truthfully.
"He has a truly magnificent talent," Alexander said, almost sadly.
"Time will tell," Celeste said. "And we can give him as much time as he needs."
Alexander nodded. "Then I'll leave him in your capable hands," he said. "And I will care for Tristan."
"Vampires die from silver poisoning," Celeste said again.
"That is what I've always heard," Alexander said. "However, I thought it best to try to save him, when he did not immediately perish."
"What you did--he said you gave him your strength," Celeste said. "That has to denote trust--"
"Aside from Jericho, and perhaps you, I am the only person Tristan trusts," Alexander said. "And I would stay to speak with you and your Healer, and look in on Jericho, but I believe I should take Tristan away from here and allow him his rest. He shouldn't have come to begin with."
"He insisted," Celeste said, remembering that horrible stubbornness.
"Yes," Alexander said. "He insisted. Quite vehemently. He couldn't walk; could barely raise his arms, but he managed to make it to the door of his room before I found him. He refused to leave Jericho to die."
"And yet he is not Jericho's friend," Celeste murmured. "Or so he says. His brother, perhaps? Despite the fact that I know Jericho Richmond's brothers are younger, and his only other sibling is a sister?"
"I'm not certain," Alexander said thoughtfully. "I'm not sure Tristan knows, himself."
"Is there a way I can contact you?" Celeste asked. "To let you know about Jericho's recovery?"
Alexander handed her a business card. "I restore musical instruments," he said. "Mostly antiques; the ones you tend to see in museums. I restore them so that they can be played again, as their makers intended."
"That must take a lot of patience," Celeste said. "And talent."
"Talent, no," Alexander said. "More that I've learned a lot over the years." He smiled. "And it was always something that interested me. I repair broken things."
"As Tristan was broken," Celeste said, understanding where he was headed with his analogy.
"Still is broken," Alexander said. "Call me if you need any help with Jericho."
"I will," Celeste promised. She stepped away from the car, then asked, "What would you have done if we hadn't found them? Tristan said you would have given him up for dead."
Alexander paused on his way around the front of the car. "I would have searched for them, I promise you. And if I had found them together, I would have taken them both back with me." He hesitated. "If I did not believe Jericho was in good hands, I would still take them both back with me."
"You only have my word," Celeste said, surprised that her word was enough.
"I know of your king," Alexander admitted. "And I know what he has done for others left to die by the sun. And I knew--I hoped--that if Jericho was sentenced to that fate, he would be rescued. Tristan did not wish to surrender Jericho's life to chance. Since he feels he broke his promise to keep Jericho safe, how could I refuse him?"
"That was a very noble thing to do," Celeste said.
"A very un-vampirelike thing to do, you mean," Alexander said, his voice grave.
"You'll receive no judgment from me," Celeste said seriously. "I think what you did was wonderful."
"Thank you," Alexander said.
Celeste retreated to the edge of the road, and watched as he slipped into the driver's seat. He made sure to buckle Tristan's seatbelt, then started the car. She watched them drive away, then turned to walk back to the Veil, wondering if there was something else she could have done. Wondering if Jericho would ever be able to play again.
"No change," Muirghen said when she returned. "Go home. Come back in the morning, if you'd like. I think we'll know more then."
"I think I'd rather stay," Celeste said. "If you don't mind." She'd tucked Alexander's card in her pocket; she pulled it out now. "Did Kian ever mention an Alexander Ross?"
"Nefir would be the one to know," Muirghen said. And then, when Celeste did not reply, she added, "You should talk to him on the subject of your brother sooner or later, you know. You're both dancing around the issue, but neither of you wish to engage."
"I don't want to cause him more grief," Celeste said.
"Mmm," Muirghen said. "You were gone for a long time, Celeste."
"I know," Celeste said. "I thought it best to leave when I did."
"Because you blamed Nefir for his death," Muirghen said.
Celeste sighed. "I don't want to talk about this right now."
"Very well," Muirghen said. "Would you like to take turns sitting with him?"
"Of course," Celeste said. "I'll take first watch."
Muirghen nodded. "Then I will retire," she said, but she hesitated at the door. "Nefir is my brother, Celeste. You understand why I am concerned. I would hate to see what is left of our family fractured irreparably."
"That's why I came back," Celeste said. "Because I don't want to see what is left of our family fractured irreparably, either."
"I'm glad of that," Muirghen said, and left her, then, to watch over Jericho's sleep.