Baris had everything…a wife he worshipped, a child he adored, a life of comfort and security. But it changes suddenly and dramatically, with no explanation. Anika, his wife, shuns him and orders him to leave her side. His child claims that his mama is not really his mama. And Dierdre, a devastatingly beautiful young woman slides into Baris’ life, seduction on her mind.
When Baris attempts to take his wife to the Lair to be healed, she flees, leaving him alone with his child and Dierdre. To add to his agony, the child is bitten by a poisonous snake and Baris takes him to the Lair to save his life. Once reunited with Dierdre, the pair set off in search of Anika. But as the days turn to weeks with no sign of his wife, Baris must accept that possibility that she does not wish to be found.
As his life grows increasingly entangled with Dierdre, he makes the mistake of feeding on a young man who is addicted to a powerful drug called Hack. Baris is soon addicted as well, and now must struggle to reclaim everything that he once held dear. Or die.
ISBN: 978-1-920972-96-7 ASIN: B003Z0D2BQ Word count: 58, 131
Baris lowered himself to the boulder in the meadow. He stared out over the vast expanse of grass and flowers, taking in the riot of colors that tumbled down the slopes toward the river. Sunlight caught the wild rapids, sparkling like golden flames. It was a scene he had longed to be a part of, had been until now. Now, everything he loved, everything he held dear, was threatened by something he could not explain and didn’t want to accept.
A cool breeze played over his cheeks and hands, and his dark gaze wandered to the small village nestled near the river’s edge. Smoke curled from several chimneys, lazing into the morning air. Sheep and goats grazed nearby, tended by several sleepy clan members. Most of the village children were still asleep, snug in their beds, safe and secure under their parents’ watchful eyes. But not his son. If Baris knew Thale, the boy was already up and investigating his world as only a two-year-old could. Thale, with Anika’s blue eyes and pale complexion and his father’s penchant for introspective moodiness. Mere thoughts of the energetic toddler broadened Baris’ smile and, at the same time, drove pain deep into his soul.
With a wistful sigh, he rose. He was an imposing figure, lithe, well over six feet tall, with the pale skin, dark eyes and raven-black hair of the true Vector. His appearance set him apart, so it was rare for a Vector to be able to retain a true appearance in public. Instead, they usually shapeshifted to something a little more humanlike.
Yet, this was one of the reasons Baris felt so comfortable in this village. Here, he was allowed to be himself, to appear as he wanted, without repercussions. And, more importantly, here he was allowed to satisfy his requirement for human blood without having to either seduce victims or hunt them down. And he owed it to Jaeger and his wife, Rhiannon.
Four years earlier, Rhiannon, and by extension her entire clan, and the Vectors had established a relationship. The clan were Bleeders; their bodies produced abnormally high levels of iron that could prove fatal if it were not bled off. But they were also witches, which proved a hazardous combination. Use of their magic only increased the already high content of iron in their blood, making the need to be bled even stronger. Many witches had died trying to bleed themselves. A partnership with the Vectors had been sought in desperation. Vectors needed blood. Bleeders had the blood to give. It was an equitable situation for both parties.
However, falling in love with Anika had been a delightful bonus. Baris had never expected more than a business relationship. In fact, he had never expected to find love in the true meaning of the word at all.
Like most Vectors, Baris was a product of careful planning. His father had been the Vector Sovereign; his mother had done nothing more than donate her egg. The embryo they created was given into the care of a Chosen, one of a special kind of Vector that carried, then implanted fertile embryos in human women. The one who carried, then bore, Baris had not survived long after his birth. Her sacrificial blood belonged to the Chosen who had impregnated her. And to the child she had carried.
As a child, Baris was raised in the Vector’s Lair, a vast underground system of caverns nestled deep within a towering mountain range. He had many guardians and teachers but no true parents. It was the Vector way and Baris had accepted it. At least, he had until he had finally ventured from the Lair. It was then that he had seen the way humans related, how they paired and mated. Eventually, he had witnessed the deep love and commitment between Rhiannon and Jaeger, her husband. He couldn’t explain the yearning that witnessing such love and devotion between two people had created in him. It was something he decided he wanted for himself.
Yet, he had never allowed himself to expect that it could happen to him. It was a part of his heart that he had shut off. Until Anika.
In fact, she had first approached him. He had tried to be professional, businesslike, although he was at once taken with her beauty. Her eyes in particular. While his were the almost black of a pure Vector, hers were the most incredible blue he had ever seen. They reminded him of the summer sky, something he had come to love after so many years in the Lair. And she was like a breath of summer herself, a new life that beckoned to him, called to him. Still, he held her away, sure that her interest in him was only one of business. He told himself repeatedly that she could never have any other interest in him. Then she began coming about more frequently, sought him out over other Vectors when she needed to be bled, and slowly chipped away at his resolve. It was a monumental, and frightening, day for Baris when he realized that he indeed loved her. He was terrified that his love would not be returned. But Anika had assuaged that worry with one, long, lingering, passionate kiss. A kiss Baris had returned with his heart. The last four years had been filled with happiness and contentment such that he had never experienced before. Now–
A movement caught his eye and he turned toward the young, brown-haired woman climbing the slopes toward him. He moved to meet her as she reached him with a smile.
“You wanted to see me?” she asked, dark eyes glowing.
Baris studied her for a moment before nodding. He had known her for only a short time. She had returned to the village six months earlier after living for many years in a neighboring city. She had been a great support to him in the last several months while his life fell apart around him, and although the words were painful to say, Baris felt she should know what he had planned.
“Yes, Deirdre. I wanted to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye?” She looked up at him in surprise. “You’re leaving? Why?”
“Anika has asked me to leave,” he said quietly. The words drove daggers of hurt through his heart.
A small gasp escaped the woman and she laid one hand on his arm. “Oh, Baris, I’m so sorry. Did she say why?”
“No. I questioned her but she didn’t seem to have any reason.” He paused, trying to quiet the tremor in his voice. “She just demanded that I leave. Now. I am abiding by her wishes.”
“But where will you go?”
“I have thought hard about that. I am going to seek out Vail. He may have an answer to this change in behavior. I must know what I have done to cause this.”
“Perhaps it was not you at all, Baris,” Deirdre said. “You have been nothing but kind and gentle with Anika. I would place the blame on her and her alone.”
Baris looked down at the slight woman before him. Dark curls fell in tangles well past her shoulders, framing a face the color of moonlight. Her brown eyes were almond-shaped, ringed with long dark lashes that brushed her cheeks when she looked down. She was emotional, warm, caring and genuinely concerned about him. Perhaps more so then she should have been. She was beautiful in every way but she did nothing for his heart. That belonged to Anika. He had to find out what had caused her change in affection and Vail might have the answer. The problem was finding him.
Baris clearly remembered his last visit with Anika’s young cousin. It had been on this very spot, where just six months ago he had felt firsthand Vail’s own pain at a failed relationship.
* * *
“So, you’re leaving?”
Vail shrugged. “What point is there in staying? It’s clear that Rachael isn’t interested.”
“I’m sorry that things didn’t work out.”
Again, Vail shrugged. “That’s life, Baris. I could use the Vector ‘charm’ Jaeger gave me, but, like he once said, I would rather that she come to me on her own.”
Baris smiled. He remembered how Jaeger had given Vail some of his own blood to save the young man’s life. And he remembered Jaeger’s anguish over what it would mean to Vail. “You’re a wise man, Vail.” He lifted his head as another young man arrived in the meadow. “Ah, Baul. You are accompanying Vail on his travels then?”
The young Vector nodded. “We can keep each other company. And keep each other healthy as well.”
Baris laughed and clapped Baul on the shoulder then shot a sidelong glance at Vail. “Are you sure you’re all right with this?”
Vail blushed. “I am. I realize that I will still need to be bled and Baul here is very good at doing so. Besides, he’s great company. And we have a lot in common.”
“Oh?” Baris looked at the two young men in turn. One was a Vector, one a human. One six feet tall, the other barely over five. “How so?”
They grinned together. “We both like women!” they answered in unison.
Baris laughed again. “I see. And that’s what you’ll be searching for on this great journey?”
“Of course,” Vail replied. “What better?”
“What better, indeed,” Baris answered. “Well, take with you my blessings and good wishes for a happy outcome.”
“Thank you,” Vail said. “Time to do that shapeshifting bit, Baul. I don’t intend to walk.”
“Oh, perfect,” Baul grumbled. “You have just enough Vector blood in you to seduce the women, but not enough to share the rigors of the journey.”
Vail grinned. “Blame Jaeger for that. He’s the one who gave me the blood in the first place.”
Baul scowled teasingly at Vail and shapeshifted to a horse. Vail groaned.
“A horse! I was hoping for a dragon or something like that. I’ll be too sore to seduce anyone if I have to ride half the country on horseback.”
Baul snorted and tossed his head.
Baris chuckled. “I think you’d better be happy he’s doing this much,” he told Vail. “Keep complaining and you’ll be walking.”
Vail grimaced. “Fine, fine. This will do.”
“You take good care of yourselves,” Baris said. “And be careful. There are those who do not take kindly to Vectors. Or witches.”
Vail nodded, swung astride the horse and they rode off.
* * *
Now, Baris wished Vail hadn’t gone at all. He didn’t feel comfortable talking to other members of the clan about his floundering relationship with Anika. Except for Deirdre. For some reason, she brought out the words, the emotions, the pain he was harboring. She had become a safe haven for him lately, although he had not really gone looking. He still couldn’t fathom why he seemed so loose-lipped with her. It was as if he had known her all of his life. And yet, they had met only six months ago.
“What do you think Vail could do?” Deirdre asked him, interrupting his moody thoughts.
Baris shook his head. “I don’t know. But I’m not willing to simply walk away from Anika, or my son. I need to know what has happened to her…to us.”
Deirdre tightened her grip on his arm, her gaze wistful pleading. “I could come with you.”
He started. “Why? Your family is here, Deirdre. You just returned to them. Why would you leave them so soon?”
“My family? They wouldn’t stand in my way. I know that much. Besides, you’re going to need a–helper. I can do that. Please, Baris, let me come along.”
Baris considered. What she said was true. As a Vector, he needed blood daily. Still, since his marriage to Anika, he had tasted no other but her. He didn’t know if he could. Feeding was linked to a sexual response in him at his age. He had only come into his Growth three years ago and he still hadn’t adjusted completely. There were very few times that he didn’t become sexually aroused when he fed. Thankfully, Anika didn’t seem to mind in the slightest. Baris was not willing to risk a sexual arousal with Deirdre even though he knew it would be a purely physical reaction.
He shook his head. “It might be too dangerous, Deirdre. You’d be better off staying here.”
“I have nothing here, Baris. I would love to see the world but I probably never will just because I’m a woman. I feel so tied down here.”
Baris couldn’t help but smile. “From what Anika told me, you’ve spent the last ten years exploring the world.”
Deirdre pouted. “Not really. I was but a child when I was sent to the city. I wasn’t allowed to do much of anything except attend my schooling. But, Baris, I want to see new things, go new places, meet different and exciting people. I’ll never get the chance to do that the way things are going. If you’re going to travel, I would like to join you. We could help each other along the way. Please, at least say you’ll consider it. Please?”
Baris hesitated. He knew what it was like to feel trapped, imprisoned by what you were. He was a Vector, trapped by rumors and frightful tales of what he was capable of. She was no less trapped inside a body that assumed a particular lifestyle for her. Yes, Baris could well empathize with her need to escape her shackles.
Taking his silence as consent, Deirdre rushed on. “When were you planning to leave?”
“As soon as I can get a direction. I need to have someone scry for Vail.”
“I can do that!” Deirdre cried. She tugged on his arm. “Come to the river with me. I can do it right now.”
Baris glanced at the village, at his house. He could see smoke coming from the chimney now. Anika was up, preparing breakfast for Thale. He should be there as well, helping her. But she didn’t want his help. She had made that quite clear the previous night. He sighed and nodded.
They walked down the gentle slope to a spot on the river that ran calmer than the rest. Baris settled down in the grass at the water’s edge while Deirdre prepared to cast her spell. It didn’t take her long, though Baris saw no image in the water at the angle he sat from her. He moved forward to get a better look, but the image had disappeared. Deirdre looked at him with a smile.
“He’s to the north of us, near the mountains,” she said. “There is a sizeable village there.” She giggled. “It looked like he and Baul were having a good time together. They were surrounded by women.”
Baris smiled, wondering if the young men were using their Vector magic to charm. He rose, brushing the dirt and grass from his breeches. “Then, it looks as if I go north.”
Deirdre looked up at him. Baris drew a long, slow breath, unable to resist the silent pleading he saw in her dark eyes. “All right, you may come along.”
She leapt to her feet, wrapped her arms about him, then stood on her tiptoes and kissed him soundly on the cheek. “Thank you, Baris, thank you so much! I’ll go home and pack straight away.”
“Deirdre!” He caught at her arm. “Perhaps it would be best to keep our traveling arrangements to ourselves. If others know we are traveling together, it might start gossip.”
She frowned. “But it will be obvious, Baris. We’ll both be leaving at the same time. Better to be honest about it.”
Baris grimaced. “I suppose you’re right,” he murmured, though he had no idea how he would break the news to Anika. He released his hold on Deirdre. “Go then. I’ll meet you here in an hour’s time.”
She nodded and hurried away, her excitement rushing over him like a warm gush of air. A shudder of trepidation ran through him, but he brushed it aside and descended the hill. As he neared his cottage, he slowed, wondering how he would be received this morning. Thale met him just outside door. At least the little boy was happy to see him.
“Papa!” Thale shouted in delight. He rushed toward Baris, his chubby little legs moving as fast as he could make them.
Baris caught him just as he stumbled and pitched forward. “Here now,” he said gently. “You need to be careful. You’ll hurt yourself.” He hugged the child to him, breathing deeply of the scent of innocence.
“Where you were?” Thale demanded.
“I went for a walk. Where’s Mama?”
“In.” Thale pointed toward the house.
Baris again drew a deep breath, then carried the little boy into the house. It was dark and warm inside, the only light coming from the fire. The shutters were still closed, though daylight attempted to sneak past them. Baris set Thale down and opened the shutters while he sought out Anika.
She was lying on the bed in the adjoining room, her face pale and drawn. She winced and turned away from the light. “Why did you open those?” she whined.
“It’s morning, Anika. Are you not feeling well again?”
“I’m fine. I’m just tired. It would have been nice if you had stayed to light the fire and get Thale’s breakfast. Where were you?”
Baris went into the bedroom. “I went for a walk. I’m sorry about the fire. I thought I had put on enough wood before I left. I’ll fetch more.”
“Don’t bother. I already got it.” Anika drew the covers up around her neck as if she felt chilled, though the room was quite warm.
Baris approached her warily. He could smell iron. The scent hung like a heavy blanket over the room. Anika hadn’t been bled for almost a week and she was building up toxic levels of iron in her system. Still, she had refused to let Baris help her. He full well knew the consequences if she did not rid her body of the excess iron.
“You need to be bled,” he said softly.
“Leave me alone!”
He dropped down on the side of the bed and reached to touch her shoulder. She shrank away from him.
“Go away, Baris.”
“Anika, you need to be bled,” he said again. “If you don’t want me to do it, then find someone else. But, please, for Thale’s sake, it must be done. You cannot care for him if you are ill.”
“I can care for him just fine!” she snapped, turning to face him.
He was struck with her pallor, the dark circles under her blue eyes. She had lost weight and her cheeks were sunken and bony. His heart broke looking at her, feeling her disgust of him.
“You’re sick, Ani,” he whispered. “Please, let me help you.”
She was silent for a moment in which tears suddenly welled in her eyes. “Baris, I…” She broke off, wincing as if in pain. The hardness returned to her face, her tone. “I thought I asked you to leave. I want you to go, Baris. Just leave. Thale and I can manage quite well on our own.” She pulled the covers up again and turned away.
Baris’ heartache turned to anger. He would not let her do this. He would not let her destroy herself like this. No matter what she thought of him, she had Thale to consider. She couldn’t care for him if she was so ill. Baris leaned back and peered into the front room. Thale was sprawled on the floor, teasing the cat with a bit of string.
Baris looked back at Anika, then without another word, he pulled her up, embracing her tightly. She gasped in surprise and tried to wrest away. For the first time in their relationship, Baris allowed his Vector magic to surface. He stared deep into her eyes, seducing her with his power. Her struggles ceased as she was swept into his hypnotic spell.
Baris quickly pushed her dark hair aside and bit into her neck. She let out a little cry but did not try to stop him. He fed ravenously, not having done so for over a week. As usual, his body began to react to her closeness, her scent, her taste. One hand tangled in her hair, while the other slid along her back.
Anika pressed against him, her breathing quick and shallow. Her hands caught at his shirt, pulled him closer. For a moment, it looked as if she might also succumb to her desires. Then, with a violent shudder, she fought her way clear of him. Pain and anger clouded her features.
“Go away!” she screamed, tears again flooding her eyes.
“Mama?” Thale appeared at the doorway, his small face puzzled and scared.
Baris stood and scooped the little boy into his arms. Anika shot from the bed, reaching as though to snatch Thale away from him, only to sway unsteadily.
“What are you doing? Put him down!” she demanded.
“No,” Baris said quietly. “I cannot leave here without him. You need time alone, Anika. Time to recover from whatever is troubling you. I will take Thale to stay with Jaeger and Rhiannon for a few days.”
“No!” She started forward again, then staggered and fell to her knees. Thale began to cry and clung to his father’s neck. A sharp rap on the front door interrupted and Baris backed away from Anika, keeping one eye on her, while he answered it. Deirdre stood on the front step, a pack in her hand, excitement in her dark eyes.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
Baris frowned, annoyance picking at him. “I asked you to meet me at the river,” he murmured.
“What’s she doing here?” Anika demanded.
Baris drew a slow, controlled breath, his gaze shifting momentarily to his wife then back to Deirdre. “Do me a favor, Deirdre. Take Thale for a short walk. I need to talk to Anika alone.”
Deirdre gave a slight grimace but she placed her pack on the stoop. Baris handed her the little boy, who whimpered and wriggled until she had to either set him down or drop him. Baris hunkered down before him.
“Go with Deirdre,” he commanded gently. “I need to get your clothes packed. Uncle Jaeger and Aunt Rhiannon will be so happy to see you. And what of your cousin? You always like to play with him.”
Thale pouted, his gaze moving to the inside of the house. “Mama come, too?”
Baris hesitated. “I don’t know. We’ll see. Go along, now.” He gave the little boy a gentle shove, then stood and closed the door.
Anika had managed to get to her feet and was standing in the bedroom doorway, staring at him in obvious shock. “You’re going off with Deirdre, aren’t you?”
Baris shook his head. “I am not ‘going off’ with her. In fact…” He approached her slowly, warily, “I don’t wish to go at all.” He stopped before her then took her hands in his. Hers were cold and clammy, limp in his grasp. “Please, Anika, please tell me what is wrong. Let me help you.”
She looked up at him, tears again shining in her eyes. “Baris, I…I don’t…I just don’t feel well. Something–” She trembled, averted her gaze and pulled her hands from his. “Don’t take Thale away from me,” she pleaded in a whisper.
The words drove into Baris’ heart. “I won’t,” he said, his resolve strengthening. “Because you’re coming as well. Perhaps Jaeger can figure out what is ailing you. If not, I’ll find your cousin. And if he doesn’t know, I’ll take you into the Lair.”
He thought she would protest, was astonished when she only nodded weakly. He seized the moment. It didn’t take him but a few moments to gather blankets, dried foods, water, and anything else he thought they would need in their journey to Nowles, where Anika’s cousin, Rhiannon, and her half-Vector husband, Jaeger, lived. He pushed thoughts of his promise to Deirdre aside. He would have to leave her here. He could shapeshift into a dragon large enough to hold Anika and Thale but carrying three might be more than he could handle.
He helped Anika dress in her long woolen skirt and linen blouse. He didn’t bother with brushing out her hair, just gathered it up and slipped it beneath a linen bonnet, then tied her cloak about her shoulders. All the while, Anika stood, limp and lifeless, not helping, not protesting his actions, although her face was a mask of hard concentration. He took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes.
“Baris,” she murmured, leaning against him, exhausted. “Help me.”
The words were unexpected but welcome. He hugged her and guided her from the house. Deirdre waited in the small patch of grass outside. Thale ran to him the moment he left the house.
“Deirdre, there’s been a change of plans,” he said, lifting the child. “I’m taking both Thale and Anika with me to Jaeger. Maybe he can help her.”
“But what about me?”
“I can come back for you if you really desire to see the world, Deirdre. But I must take care of Ani and my son first.”
Deirdre shot Anika a glance. “And how are you planning to get to Jaeger’s? Anika doesn’t look like she will be able to stay astride a horse for very long.”
“I am not going on horseback. I am going to shapeshift to a dragon. I can carry both Anika and Thale that way.”
“But how will Anika be able to hold onto Thale?” Deirdre asked. “She looks so weak. What if he escapes her grasp and falls?”
The thought hadn’t occurred to Baris, but now it presented with a very real horror. He looked at his small son, then at Anika. She looked barely able to stand. There was no way she could hold onto a squirming two-year-old and keep her seat on a soaring dragon at the same time.
“If you could carry all of us,” Deirdre suggested reasonably, her gaze locked on Anika’s, “I could hold Thale. Maybe even help hold Anika on as well.”
Anika glared at her. “No,” she said stiffly. “I can hold my own son.” She abruptly straightened. “As a matter of fact, I don’t even want to go. And I don’t want Thale to go either.” She made a move as if to pull the little boy away from Baris.
He moved out of her reach. “No, Ani. We’re going. It’s settled. You need help. I don’t know what kind but it’s obvious I can’t do anything for you on my own.”
“I don’t need help!” Anika snapped, then rubbed at her head. “Why can’t everyone just leave me alone? I just want to be left alone.” She turned back toward the house but Baris stopped her.
“We’re going to Jaeger,” he said firmly. “If he can find nothing wrong, then I will leave you in peace. I promise.”
Baris looked at the little boy. “He is also my son, Anika.”
Her face darkened with anger. “If you take him from me, Baris, I will hunt you down,” she snarled. “I swear it. I will hunt you down and I will do whatever it takes to reclaim my son.”