The silver stars came at her with blinding speed. Zara dodged the first two with ease, the third she deflected with her sword. But the fourth star’s sharp edges caught her cheek and opened a deep cut. Her attempt to avoid it wasn’t quick enough.
“You’re not paying attention,” Hiro Tanaka growled a low warning. More stars chased Zara across the training room. This time she evaded all the deadly projectiles. “A light heart lives longer. In battle, the slightest moment of inattention could cost you your life.”
Zara wiped blood from her face. “Wearing the marks of my carelessness should serve as a good reminder, oh fearless master,” she said, bowing irreverently. Blood dribbled from the burning wound onto her sleeve.
Hiro’s eyes flashed with dark fire, “Staying alive is not something to joke about.” He pierced her with a searching look. His frown deepened. “You seem troubled.”
Zara held his gaze for a moment before her gaze shifted away. Hiro saw too much. “You’re right I’m a little preoccupied tonight.” Why deny it.
“Problems at the dig?” his gaze flicked to her cheek, then back to her elusive gaze.
“The dig is going fine,” she walked past him and placed her twin swords on the weapons table. “I must be more tired than I thought.”
“Hmm,” his skeptical tone told her plainly that he didn’t believe a single word. “Then perhaps this is the perfect time to train mind over body.”
“What do you have in mind?” she said, turning around.
A few minutes later she really wished she hadn’t asked. For each time Zara bested Hiro he send her tumbling to the floor five times more. There was no time to think when one sparred with Hiro. He gave no quater and she expected none. The physical exertion cleared her mind at least for the time being.
“Very good,” Hiro said, slowly rising to his feet her swords in his hands. Zara had managed to disarm him but he captured her sword hands and flipped her over his head. She flew through the air and landed on her feet several feet on the marble floor.
“I lost my swords—again” A quick smile flashed across her lips. “I’m never going to beat you.”
“You’re good enough to defeat me. Stop trying to copy my style and start capitalizing on your own strengths. The battle doesn’t go to the strong but to the wise.”
“Alright let’s have a go again,”
Zara and Hiro had been sparring with each other for two centuries. She’d never met anyone more talented in the martial arts. Training with him had improved her fighting skills greatly. Because of Hiro she came and went freely without fear of being killed by the guardians.
At the turn of the eighteenth century, Lilith moved her court from the Carpathian mountains deep into the icy tundra of northern Russia. The guardians were killing them off by the hundreds. With their numbers severely decimated it became necessary for them to set up somewhere remote and not easily accessible to the outside world, somewhere far from humans and hunters alike. Hidden from the guardians they had grown strong again.
The first time she saw Hiro he was practicing kung-fu on the ice caps outside the castle. She’d fallen in love with the grace of his movements. She’d watched him for weeks until one night he’d suddenly disappeared only to reappear behind her.
“Are you a spectator or are you a warrior?” he’d asked her.
He’d offered her a wooden pole and her training had begun. Why he’d chosen to train her when he’d turned away many others she didn’t know. But she was grateful nonetheless. In a world where strength was vital for one's survival Hiro’s mentorship was invaluable. To this day Zara’s training remained a well-kept secret. And Hiro became her closest friend and confidante.
“Practice seems to have improved your mood.”
“Having my butt thoroughly kicked seems to have that effect on me,” she joked.
“I shall endeavor to provide as much kicking as you require then.” Swipe and dodge. “Especially when it helps you focus.”
“I'm paying attention now,” she said parrying his thrust. The last half of Zara’s training went much better. Hiro didn’t give her a chance to let her mind wander. Unfortunately, she couldn’t stay in the secret underground arena forever.
Most people longed for immortality but they didn’t understand what it meant to be alone for centuries. It was a cold existence.
Zara could no longer fool herself. Rising slowly to her feet, she walked around her cluttered room. Ancient texts and artifacts lined the shelves, fighting for space. Her collection of ancient objects rivaled Lilith's, in uniqueness if not in quantity. The research she loved so much could not push away the stark, raw loneliness of her existence. The fifty centuries of her existence had been filled with study and exploration. She had read every single text on paper and on stone, traveled the world countless times. For so long Zara’s search for the blood prince had consumed her, providing solace in an otherwise lonely existence.
But they no longer did that. It only added to her loneliness and showcased the barrenness of her life. She had nothing. No one cared if she lived or died. Lilith didn't count. Not even Hiro’s quiet presence was enough. She needed so much more.
Zara felt like an insignificant drop in the ever dynamic stream of life. There was no purpose to her life. Just endless time.
Even the mystery she'd set out to solve had been a failure. Yes, fifty centuries was a cold existence.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
She had been so consumed by her thoughts the knock on her door came as a surprise. Normally she would’ve heard the approaching footsteps.
"Come in," she said.
Taegaris Lilith's assistant entered the room and stood just inside the door.
Bowing to her he said, "The queen wishes to see you immediately."
"What is it now?" she mumbled to herself. Her fingers plowed into her hair and she let out a deep breath. She didn't need Lilith's dramatics to add to her melancholy. "I’ve just arrived. I haven’t even had a chance to unpack.” Zara said indicating her travel bag.
"It’s not my place to ask questions,” Taegris said quietly. He didn't bother to answer the latter question. Everyone knew that what Lilith wanted Lilith got. Zara’s lips compressed into a tight line. Sometimes she felt like leaving this place and never coming back.
"Perhaps lord Gregori and his hunters have brought news," he added.
"Gregori?" Zara's brows climbed up almost to her hairline. Gregori was captain of Lilith’s hunters. "What kind of news could he possibly have for Lilith?"
"The guardian stronghold in Scotland has been overtaken. Gregori's hunters have been working to eliminate the rest of the guardians."
Zara stumbled back her hand flat against her rapidly beating heart. The guardians were the vampire’s bitterest enemies. Countless centuries ago, long before Zara was made, the guardian's ancestors had taken sacred vows to exterminate all vampires from the face of the planet. Custos castle in Scotland was their headquarters. Protected by strong ancient spells it had never been breached until now.
“Well,” she said on a shaky breath. “We may as well go down and...ahh hear the news.”
Zara and Taegris descended the tight spiral staircase to the ground floor in silence. Zara was still reeling from the news Taegris had imparted.
“How did they do it?” she asked.
“The details are known only to the queen and Gregori. Suffice it to say the guardians are on the brink of total annihilation.”
“It’s unbelievable!” Zara exclaimed. Taegris nodded in agreement. Zara imagined her face was just as shell-shocked as his. It would take some time for any of them to ever get used to a world without the guardians. To feel safe, day or night.
“So much has happened lately,” Teagris said. “Everyone is talking about it. This is a turning point in our history. Imagine we can move away from this icy hell and back into the world. No more hiding in the shadows. The world will be at our feet!”
Zara leaned forward brows raised, "Did anything else happen while I was away?" The fall of the guardians changed many things. But world dominance? Even without the guardians humans still had the numbers and sophisticated weaponry to wage war on vampirekind and win.
“Very few people know this,” Taegris said. His voice lowered and his eyes darted about making sure they were alone.
“Tell me,” Zara prompted more than a little curious.
"The bearer of the sigil has been found!" Taegris shared with relish.
"Hold on...What?!" Zara stopped so suddenly Taegris nearly ran into her from behind.
“It’s true,” he gloated. From his tone, one would think he’d left Lilith’s side and pegged the bearer himself. “The bearer is as good as ours.”
"I must admit it has been a particularly interesting fortnight," Taegris confided. "You should stay home more often," he admonished her in a self-righteous tone.
"I was only gone for a month." Zara snapped. “No more than usual.”
"Be that as it may, your place is here serving beside the queen," he said.
"The queen has been doing very well without me for centuries," she snapped, starting to walk again. She barely stayed at home and when she did she preferred her own company to that of Lilith’s courtiers. "The queen doesn’t need me when she has loyal subjects like you to serve at her feet."
"That's not the point," Taegris said clearing his throat. "I’m sure the queen would be delighted to have you pay more heed to court matters."
"You said the bearer of the sigil has been found?” Taegris nodded and she continued. “But he or she isn’t in our custody yet?"
“There is a small delay,” he shrugged.
“And how is Lilith dealing with the delay?”
"Not good at all I’m afraid," he sighed. "The first group of hunters she sent out was unable to recover the girl. It did not go over very well. But I'm sure the second group will be motivated to do better."
Zara rolled her eyes at the understatement when things didn't go according to Lilith’s plans that usually meant blood and death. By now they were in the corridor leading to Lilith's grand receiving room. More hunters lined the walls. She'd counted eight as they passed the corridors leading there. They came across another pair before they reached the last corridor.
"Security has been beefed up since I was last here," she observed. Another hunter emerged from a corridor to their left. The hunter bowed to them as they passed.
"Ever since the guardian stronghold fell the queen feels certain an attack on us is eminent." Taegris acknowledged the hunters bow with a curt nod.
“The guardian’s have never found this castle. With their leadership gone they’re less likely to find us here,” Zara said.
By this time they had arrived at the huge double doors which a pair of hunters pulled open for them. The room’s occupants turned to look curiously at the newcomers as they entered. Zara took note of the black-clad hunters mingling with the elite. Lilith was seated on her magnificent throne-like chair talking to Gregori in hushed tones when they entered. They both looked up when the doors opened.
A joyful smile broke on Lilith's face. Zara's steps picked up until she was nearly running. Her smile was just as large as Lilith's. For all her grumblings she loved Lilith with all her heart. Lilith wasn't just Zara’s sire. Their bond was as strong as that shared by a mother and her child. Lilith met her on the bottom step lifting her from the floor in an exuberant embrace. They laughed, wept and laughed again. To a casual observer, it would have appeared as if Zara hadn't been home in decades.
"How I've missed you!" Lilith put her back on her feet and took a step back to examine her from head to toe. "You look—” Lilith’s smile died and her eyes narrowed on the pink line marring Zara’s cheek. Normally Zara would have put on some make-up to cover the still pink cut but Teagris’ news had blindsided her.
“What happened to your cheek?"
“It’s nothing,” she said rubbing the offending cheek.
“You should stay closer to home where I can protect you,” Lilith chided her softly. Zara was relieved when Lilith assumed the injury was done by someone outside the castle.
“I promise to be more careful,” Zara said. She scrutinized Lilith much in the same way Lilith had her. There was nothing modest about Lilith's dress, a magnificent red creation any queen would die to wear. The deep red color was a perfect foil for her raven locks. She was as beautiful and unchanged as the night Zara first met her all those centuries ago. "You look ravishing as always."
"Come! Come!" Lilith said, leading her up the raised dais. "I have the most delightful news. Something guaranteed to keep you away from those dusty books you love so much."
Zara smiled. Though she’d dismissed Taegris’ comments about Lilith wanting her at court she knew without a doubt it was true. Unfortunately for Lilith Zara’s only interest was in dusty old books and ancient myths. She took a seat on the less grand chair on Lilith's right. Gregori was seated on Lilith's left side, a privilege he must have earned when he overthrew the guardian stronghold.
Gregori brushed his too long wheat yellow locks from his eyes and offered her a dimpled smirk. She narrowed her eyes in warning causing his baby blues to darken with amusement.
"Gregori," Zara snarled his name.
"Hey gorgeous," he replied with a leer. Zara rolled her eyes and endeavored to ignore him. If Lilith noticed their interaction she didn't comment.
"Taegris has already filled me in on what’s been going on," Zara said moving her chair closer to Lilith’s. "However did you manage it? Was it even us?"
“Argh, curse your wagging tongue.” Lilith glared at Taegris who quailed in a corner of the room. “Did it not occur to you that I wanted to share the news myself.”
“I apologize, my queen,” Taegris prostrated himself at the bottom of the steps. Lilith disdainfully waved Taegris’ groveling form away refocusing her attention on Zara. Taegris slithered away relieved his faux pas hadn’t resulted in a greater punishment. Knowing Lilith it might have been worse, she wasn’t the forgiving kind.
“Really Zara what a silly question. Who else is formidable enough to challenge the guardians and win?" she said with relish. "The werewolves can barely hold it together between full moons. The witches and wizards are too wrapped up causing mayhem to worry about anything else. We couldn't attack them from without so we poisoned them from within."
"You infiltrated the guardian ranks?" Zara sputtered in disbelief. Lilith's first attempt to recruit a guardian was a catastrophe. The vampire created on that one attempt had gone on to become the most feared guardian in vampire history. “But how?”
“I offered what all men want,” Lilith said.
“And what is that?”
“Power and wealth beyond imagination,” Lilith replied.
“You offered Kyle the same things and he refused,” Zara countered. In her quest to eradicate the guardians Lilith had had Kyle Mcguire turned vampire in the sixteenth century. Instead of turning on the guardians Kyle turned out to be a scourge on their kind. As a human, he’d been a good hunter but as a vampire with all their gifts, he was unstoppable. It was Kyle who had singlehandedly forced them into hiding.
“Without the guardians support Kyle will no longer be a threat to us,” Lilith’s nostrils flared and her gaze grew cold. “By stealing the bearer of the sigil he has signed his own death warrant.”
Zara gasped, “He has the bearer?”
Lilith’s lips tightened further, “Not for much longer. Plans are already in place to acquire her.”
Zara nodded, “And the rest of the guardians?”
“The guardians are finished,” Gregori said, joining in on their conversation. “The few that remain are being wiped out by my hunters as we speak."
Zara’s gaze shifted from Gregori to Lilith. “We’re really free at last?”
“After millennia of cowering in the shadows vampirekind will rise again,” Lilith’s eyes shone, the crimson tint more pronounced. “No one will stand in our way. We will rule the world as is our right. All who resist us will die.”
“The world has changed. Even without the guardians to protect them humans have grown strong,” Zara reasoned.
“Their own advancement will be their enemy. To them, we’re nothing more than a myth. A story made up to scare children. When the slaughter begins they will look to their science for answers. They will blame enemies beyond their borders first before suspicion falls on us. They’ll fight amongst themselves. By the time they realize what is happening we will be in complete control.”
“There are some who still believe the myths.”
“And who will believe them?” Lilith challenged. “They’ll be ridiculed. Never has there been a people more advanced yet so blind in all the centuries I’ve lived. Defeating them won’t be a challenge. My friends assure me it has been done before.”
“Friends?” Zara asked. As far as she knew Lilith had no friends. She wasn’t the only one who found this interesting. Gregori sat up straighter his head tilted towards Lilith.
Lilith’s eyes glided over the room’s occupants. Eyes skittered away and everyone made a studied effort to appear occupied. Zara realized belatedly that they had gathered quite an audience.
We will speak later.
Zara acknowledged Lilith’s mindspeak with a slight nod.
“We have much to celebrate,” Lilith said. "I wanted to share the news of our victory with you but that is not why I summoned you."
Zara's eyebrow hiked up. What could be more important than the downfall of the guardians?
"I have found you a mate!" Lilith dropped her bombshell. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
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