Lenobia’s sleep was so restless that the familiar dream took on a sense of reality that overstepped the ethereal realm of subconscious outlets and fantasies and became, from the beginning, all too heartbreakingly real.
It began with a memory. Decades, and then centuries fell away leaving Lenobia young and naïve again, and in the cargo hold of the ship that had carried her from France to America—from one world to another. It was during that journey that Lenobia had met Martin, the man who should have been her Mate for his entire life. Instead he had died too young and had taken her love to the grave with him.
In her dream Lenobia could feel the gentle roll of the ship and smell the scent of horse and hay, sea and fish—and Martin. Always Martin. He was standing before her, gazing down at her through eyes that were olive and amber and worried. She had just told him she loved him.
“It is impossible.” The dream memory replayed in her mind as Martin reached out, took her hand, and lifted it gently. He raised his own arm until the two were side by side. “You see the difference, you?”
The dreaming Lenobia made a small, wordless exclamation of pain. The sound of his voice! That distinct Creole accent——deep, sensual, unique. It was the bittersweet sound of his voice and its beautiful accent that had kept Lenobia away from New Orleans for more than two hundred years.
“No,” the young Lenobia had answered his question as she gazed down at their arms—one brown, one white—where they pressed together. “All I see is you.”
Still deeply asleep, Lenobia, Horse Mistress of the Tulsa House of Night, moved restlessly, as if her body was attempting to force her mind to awaken. But this night her mind did not obey. This night dreams and what might have been ruled.
The sequence of memories shifted and changed to another scene, still in the cargo hold of the same ship, still with Martin, but days later. He was handing her a long string of leather tied to a small pouch dyed a deep sapphire blue. Martin put it around her neck saying, “This gris-gris protect you, cherie.”
In the space of a heartbeat the memory wavered and time fast-forwarded a century. An older, wiser, more cynical Lenobia was cradling the crumbling leather pouch in her hands as it split and spilled it contents—thirteen things, just as Martin had told her—but most of them had become unrecognizable during the century she’d worn the charm. Lenobia remembered a faint scent of juniper, the smooth feel of the clay pebble before it turned to dust, and the tiny dove’s feather that had crumbled between her fingers. But most of all Lenobia remembered the fleeting rush of joy she’d felt when, in the midst of the disintegrating remnants of Martin’s love and protection, she’d discovered something that time hadn’t been able to ravage. It had been a ring—a heart-shaped emerald, surrounded by tiny diamonds, set in gold.
“Your mother’s heart—your heart—my heart,” Lenobia had whispered as she’d slipped it over the knuckle of her ring finger. “I still miss you, Martin. I’ve never forgotten. I vowed it.”
And then the dream memories rewound again, taking Lenobia back to Martin, only this time they weren’t at sea finding one another in the cargo hold and falling in love. This memory was dark and terrible. Even dreaming, Lenobia knew the place and the date: New Orleans, March 21, 1788, not long after sunset.
The stables had exploded in fire and Martin had saved her, carrying her from the flames.
“Oh, no! Martin! No!” Lenobia had screamed at him then, now she whimpered, struggling to awaken before she had to relive the horrible end of the memory.
She didn’t wake. Instead she heard her only love repeat the words that had broken her heart two hundred years before, feeling it again as if the wound were raw and fresh.
“Too late, cherie. This world too late for us. I see you again, though. My love for you don’ end here. My love for you, it never end … find you again, cherie. That I vow.”
As Martin captured the evil human who had tried to enslave her, and then walked back into the flaming stables with him, saving Lenobia’s life, the Horse Mistress was finally able to wake herself with a wrenching sob. She sat up in bed, and with a trembling hand brushed her sweat-soaked hair from her face.
Lenobia’s first waking thought was for her mare. Through the psychic connection they shared, she could feel that Mujaji was agitated, almost panicked. “Shhh, my beauty. Go back to sleep. I am well.” Lenobia spoke aloud, sending soothing feelings to the black mare with whom she had a special bond. Feeling guilty for upsetting Mujaji, she bowed her head and cradled her hand, twisting the emerald ring around and around her finger.
“Stop being so foolish,” Lenobia told herself firmly. “It was just a dream. I am safe. I am not back there. What happened then cannot hurt me more than it already has,” Lenobia lied to herself. I can be hurt again. If Martin has come back—really come back—my heart can be hurt again. Another sob tried to escape from Lenobia, but she pressed her lips together and forced her emotions under control.
He might not be Martin, she told herself firmly, logically. Travis Foster, the new human hired by Neferet to assist her in the stables, was simply a handsome distraction—him and his big, beautiful Percheron mare. “Which is probably exactly what Neferet intended when she hired him,” Lenobia muttered. “To distract me. And his Percheron is just an odd coincidence.” Lenobia closed her eyes and blocked the memories that lifted from her past, and then repeated aloud, “Travis might not be Martin reincarnated. I know my reaction to him is unusually strong, but it has been a long time since I have taken a lover.” You have never taken a human lover—you vowed not to, her conscience reminded her. “So it’s simply past time I took a vampyre lover, even if briefly. And that type of distraction will be good for me.” Lenobia tried to busy her imagination with considering and then rejecting a list of handsome Son of Erebus Warriors, her mind’s eye not seeing their strong, muscular bodies, but instead envisioning whisky brown eyes tinged with familiar olive green and a ready smile …
“No!” She would not think of it. She would not think of him.
But what if Travis could really hold Martin’s soul? Lenobia’s errant mind whispered enticingly. He gave his word he would find me again. Perhaps he has. “And then what?” Lenobia stood and began to pace restlessly. “I know all too well the fragility of humans. They are too easily killed, and today the world is even more dangerous than it was in 1788. My love ended in heartbreak and flame once. Once was too much.” Lenobia stopped and put her face in her hands as her heart knew the truth, and pumped it through her body and soul, becoming reality. “I am a coward. If Travis is not Martin I do not want to open myself to him—to take a chance on loving another human. And if he is Martin returned to me, I cannot bear the inevitable, that I will lose him again.”
Lenobia sat heavily in the old rocking chair she’d placed beside her bedroom window. She liked to read there, and if she couldn’t sleep her window faced east so she could watch the rising of the sun and look out at the grounds beside the stables. Though Lenobia appreciated the irony, she couldn’t help but enjoy the morning light. Vampyre or not, at her core she would eternally be a girl who loved mornings and horses and a tall, cappuccino skinned human who had died long ago when he had been far too young.
Her shoulders slumped. She hadn’t thought of Martin so often in decades. His renewed memory was a double-edged sword—on one side she loved recalling his smile, his scent, his touch. On the other his memory also evoked the void his absence had left. For more than two hundred years Lenobia had grieved for a lost possibility—a wasted life.
“Our future was burned away from us. Destroyed by flames of hatred and obsession and evil.” Lenobia shook her head and wiped her eyes. She must regain control over her emotions. Evil was still burning a swath through Light and goodness. She drew in a deep, centering breath and turned her thoughts to a subject that never failed to calm her, no matter how chaotic the world around her had become—horses—Mujaji, in particular. Feeling calmer now, Lenobia reached out again with that extra special part of her spirit that Nyx had touched, and gifted with an affinity for horses, the day sixteen-year-old Lenobia had been Marked. She found her mare easily, and instantly felt guilty at the mirrored agitation she sensed in Mujaji.
“Shhh,” Lenobia soothed again, repeating aloud the reassurance she was sending through her bond with the mare. “I am only being foolish and self-indulgent. It will pass, I give you my vow, sweet one.” Lenobia focused a tide of warmth and love on her night-colored mare, and, as always, Mujaji regained her own calm.
Lenobia closed her eyes and released a long breath. She could envision her mare, black and beautiful as the night, finally settling down, cocking a back leg, and falling into a dreamless sleep.
The Horse Mistress concentrated on her mare, shutting out the turmoil that the young cowboy’s arrival at her stables had caused within her. Tomorrow, she promised herself sleepily, tomorrow I will make it clear to Travis that we will never be more than employer and employee. The color of his eyes and the way he makes me feel, all of that will begin to ease when I distance myself from him. It must … it must …
Finally, Lenobia slept.
Even though the feline was not bonded to her, Shadowfax came willingly at Neferet’s call. Thankfully, classes were over for the night, so when the big Maine coon met her in the middle of the field house it was dimly lit and empty—no students were about; Dragon Lankford himself was also absent, but probably only temporarily. She had seen only a few red fledglings on her way there. Neferet smiled, satisfied at the thought of how she added the rogue reds to the House of Night. What lovely, chaotic possibilities they presented—especially after she ensured Zoey’s circle would be broken and her best friend, Stevie Rae, would be devastated, grieving the loss of her lover.
The knowledge that she was assuring future pain and suffering for Zoey pleased Neferet immeasurably, but she was too disciplined to allow herself to begin gloating before the sacrificial spell was complete and her commands were set into motion. Though the school was unusually quiet tonight, almost abandoned, the truth was anyone could happen into the field house. Neferet needed to work quickly and quietly. There would be ample time to revel over the fruits of her labors later.
She spoke softly to the cat, coaxing him closer to her, and when he was near enough she knelt to his level. Neferet had thought he would be leery of her—cats knew things. They were much harder to fool than humans, fledglings, or even vampyres. Neferet’s own cat, Skylar, had refused to relocate to her new Mayo penthouse suite, choosing instead to lurk in the shadows of the House of Night and watch her knowingly with his large, green eyes.
Shadowfax wasn’t as wary.
Neferet beckoned. Shadowfax came to her, slowly closing the last bit of distance between them. The big cat wasn’t friendly—he didn’t rub against her and mark her affectionately with his scent—but he came to her. His obedience was all that concerned Neferet. She didn’t want his love; she wanted his life.
The Tsi Sgili, immortal Consort of Darkness, and former High Priestess of the House of Night, felt only a vague shadow of regret as her left hand caressed the long length of the Maine coon’s gray tiger striped back. His fur was soft and thick over his lithe, athletic body. Like Dragon Lankford, the Warrior he’d chosen as his own, Shadowfax was powerful and in the prime of his life. Such a shame he was needed for a greater purpose. A higher purpose.
Neferet’s regret did not equate to hesitation. She used her Goddess-given affinity for felines and channeled warmth and reassurance through her palm and into the already trusting feline. While her left hand caressed him, encouraging him to arch and begin to purr, her right hand snaked out and with her razor-edged athame, she quickly, cleanly, slashed Shadowfax’s throat.
The big cat made no sound. His body spasmed, trying to jerk away from her, but her hand fisted in his fur, holding him so close that his blood sprayed, hot and wet, across the bodice of her green velvet dress.
The threads of Darkness that were always present around Neferet throbbed and quivered with anticipation.
Neferet ignored them.
The cat died faster than she’d imagined, and for that Neferet was glad. She hadn’t expected him to stare at her, but the Warrior cat held her gaze even after he had collapsed into the sandy field house floor and could no longer fight her, but lay breathing shallowly, twitching silently, and staring.
Working quickly, while the cat was still living, Neferet began the spell. Using the blade of her ritual athame, Neferet drew a circle around Shadowfax’s dying body, so that as blood pooled around him it poured into it, and a miniature moat of scarlet was formed.
Then she pressed one palm of her hand into the fresh, warm blood, stood just outside the circle, and lifted both hands—one bloody, one holding the scarlet-edged knife, and intoned:
“With this sacrifice I command
Darkness controlled by my hand.
Aurox, obey me!
Rephaim’s death it will be.”
Neferet paused, allowing the sticky threads of cold blackness to brush against her and gather all around the circle. She felt their eagerness, their need, their desire, their danger. But above all else, she felt their power.
To complete the spell she dipped the athame into the blood, and wrote directly into the sand with it, closing the incantation:
“Through payment of blood, pain, and strife
I force the Vessel to be my knife!”
Holding an image of Aurox in her mind, Neferet stepped inside the circle and plunged the dagger into Shadowfax’s body, pinning him to the field house floor while she loosed the tendrils of Darkness so that they could consume their feast of blood and pain.
When the cat was thoroughly drained and absolutely dead, Neferet spoke, “The sacrifice has been made. The spell cast. Do as I command. Force Aurox to kill Rephaim. Make Stevie Rae break the circle. Cause the reveal spell to fail. Now!”
Like a nest of seething snakes, the minions of Darkness slithered into the night, heading away from the field house and toward a lavender field and the ritual that was already underway there.
Neferet gazed after them, smiling in satisfaction. One particular thread of darkness, thick as her forearm, whipped through the door that opened from the field house to the stables. Neferet’s attention was pulled its way by the muffled sound of breaking glass.
Curious, the Tsi Sgili glided forward. Being careful to make no noise, and cloaking herself in shadow, Neferet peered into the stables. Her emerald eyes widened in pleased surprise. The thick thread of Darkness had been clumsy. It had knocked one of the gas lanterns from its resting place on a peg that hung not far from the piles of neatly stacked hay Lenobia was always so meticulous about choosing for her creatures. Neferet watched, fascinated, as first one tuft of hay caught fire, sputtered, and then with a renewed surge of yellow, and a mighty whoosh! it fully caught.
Neferet looked down the long line of closed, wooden stalls. She could see only the faint, dark outlines of a few of the horses. Most were sleeping. Some were lazily grazing, already settled down for the approaching dawn and the rest the sun would bring them until it set and students arrived for their never ending classes.
She glanced back at the hay. An entire bale was engulfed in flame. The scent of smoke drifted to her, and she could hear crackling as, like a loosed beast, the fire fed and grew.
Neferet turned away from the stable, closing the thick door between it and the field house securely. It seems likely that Stevie Rae may not be the only one who will be grieving after tonight. The thought satisfied Neferet, and she left the field house and the carnage she’d caused there, not seeing the small white cat who padded to Shadowfax’s motionless body, curled beside him, and closed her eyes.
The Horse Mistress awakened with a horrid feeling of forboding. Confused, Lenobia rubbed her hands over her face. She’d fallen asleep in the rocking chair near her window and this sudden awakening seemed more nightmare than reality.
“This is foolishness,” she muttered sleepily. “I must find my center again.” Meditation had helped quiet her thoughts in the past. Resolutely, Lenobia drew a deep, cleansing breath.
It was with that deep breath that Lenobia smelled it—fire. A burning stable to be specific. She clenched her teeth together. Begone, ghosts of the past! I am too old to play these games. Then an ominous cracking sound had Lenobia shaking off the last of the sleep that had clouded her mind as she moved quickly to the window and drew aside the heavy black drapes. The Horse Mistress looked down at her stables and gasped in horror.
It hadn’t been a dream.
It hadn’t been her imagination.
Instead it was a living nightmare.
Flames were licking the sides of the building and as she stared, the double doors just at the edge of her vision were thrown open from the inside and against a backdrop of billowing smoke and consuming flames was the silhouette of a tall cowboy leading a huge gray Percheron and a night black mare from within.
Travis let loose of the mares, shooing them into the school grounds and away from the flaming stables, and then he ran back into the flaming mouth of the building.
Everything within Lenobia came alive as the sight extinguished her fear and doubt.
“No, Goddess. Not again. I am no longer a frightened girl. This time his end will be different!”
Copyright © 2012 by P. C. Cast and Kristin Cast