“Since you weren’t active sexually prior to starting the antidepressant, you may notice increased ease in sexual arousal and achieving orgasm now that you’re discontinuing sertraline. I wouldn’t want you to be concerned or worried. Orgasm dysfunction and sexual arousal disorder are known side effects of the drug, and you have been taking it since you were a teenager.”
“I’m not a virgin, Dr. Freud,” Meghan returned dryly, studying the literature in front of her. Discontinuing the antidepressant was a major step for her, and she needed time to adjust to it before tackling the more worrisome problem of the sleeping medication she’d relied on for more than a decade. It was time she took control of her life again, while her reliable psychiatrist was still practicing.
He’d begun to make noises about retiring to a warm climate, and the thought of making the transition to a strange doctor worried her more than life without antidepressants and sleeping pills. Meghan wasn’t afraid of changes or challenges, but she freely admitted she was rather dependent on the older man she alternately called Freud and Miracle Man in her mind. She felt as if she were important to him, and that was an intimacy she didn’t share with anyone else. Certainly she wouldn’t have the same familiarity with a new psychiatrist.
He snorted at the moniker. “No, but you reported a rather lukewarm interest in those pursuits, which is uncommon in healthy young women but not necessarily abnormal. I trust that even then you were being honest about your sexual activity. I believe we even discussed the medical side effects of the pharmaceuticals as a possible cause of your lackluster response, as well as the theoretical possibilities of your inadequate lover, the difficulties of time and place as a college student and the possibility of a naturally low sexual function. It’s been several years since you’ve made any effort at sexual activity, perhaps driven by your similar lack of interest in a committed relationship. Since there’s no history of sexual trauma in your past, I just want you to keep in mind that things might be different now that you’ve discontinued this particular medication.”
“I’ll remember, Doctor.” Meghan glanced at the clock then stood. “And that’s my cue. You must have dinner plans, and I’d like to walk home before dark.”
“Of course.” Freud pinched his nose beneath his glasses in a familiar gesture and stood as well, reaching out to shake Meghan’s hand. “And, Meghan, please call if you have any concerns at all about the process for discontinuing the prazosin. Your transition off the antidepressant went well, but I’m concerned you may not adjust to life without the sleeping medication nearly so easily. Don’t jump ahead of the process I’ve outlined, and that means keep taking it for another week at least, while the sertraline finishes exiting your body. If you begin to have nightmares again and we don’t address them correctly, you could start an unhealthy downward spiral of insomnia and depression that trigger your anxiety and panic attacks associated with the post-traumatic stress syndrome. It’s important that we keep a close eye on any possible changes before they become problematic.”
Meghan accepted the handshake and smiled naturally as Freud’s lecture concluded. Perhaps his age was why she’d always felt comfortable with him, when so many men felt overbearing and overtly sexual. Or perhaps it was because he was simply an excellent physician, who was honestly concerned about her.
“Thank you for seeing me today.” She walked away easily with a friendly smile to the receptionist, who was already packing up her belongings for the day.
Meghan slipped into the street, still thinking of the doctor’s final warnings. There was a way to find out, of course. She walked directly home to her small apartment. When she arrived, she locked and chained the door behind her then left her purse in the closet with her jacket and walking boots. She still had the heels in her arm bag she’d worn at the office, and she carried those into the bedroom with her, before dumping the bag on the floor with her gym clothes, running shoes and the dirty laundry that she always left piled in the closet. Meghan rustled in the top drawer of her bureau for several minutes before unearthing the silicone beauty that she’d invested in prior to convincing herself she was more asexual than not, and she gave a disgusted snort when she pushed the buttons for nothing more than a faint wiggle.
“Damn it,” Meghan grumbled, feeling around in the drawer a second time as she searched for the charging station. It took only a minute to plug in the stand and set the burgundy-shaped vibrator in place.
“Now what?” she asked herself, glancing around the room, then down at herself. With a grimace, she stripped off her clothes. On her way to the shower, she turned off the overhead light and switched on the nightstand lamp, wondering what on earth she would think about when she finally turned on the vibrator in the secluded room.
Her college housemates had once advised her that a visual aid helped, but Meghan wasn’t convinced. Josh Hutcherson always looked too young. Heath Ledger was dead. Once upon a time, she’d thought maybe David Beckham might have done it for her, but then there had been that photo of him in his tattoos and underwear, and whenever she saw an image of him now, she just wanted to laugh. Her first attempt eight years earlier, with a poster of Brad Pitt on the wall opposite the bed, had gone horribly wrong, and she’d burned the grinning image two days later. She’d always liked Orlando Bloom best as an elf, but the pointy ears were a distraction. Ian Somerhalder was probably her favorite eye candy at the moment, but she still couldn’t imagine staring at him while touching herself.
Meghan paused while washing herself and she shuddered. “There must be a better way,” she muttered, as the water coursed down her back. She closed her eyes, letting the steam soak into her skin. She washed mechanically with gel and a washcloth, wondering why she couldn’t lust after distant celebrities or her work colleagues with the same narrow, eager focus other women her age exhibited. It wasn’t that she found men—or women—unattractive. It was simply that they didn’t incite any level of desire, whether dressed in a power suit and silk tie, a tuxedo or nothing at all. Was it truly a side effect of medication, or could it be something more fundamental to her personhood?
She hadn’t always been dependent on a psychiatrist for a primary relationship. Like other girls her age, she’d yearned for a boyfriend, though she’d never actually found a boy she liked enough to bother to try to attract. She had a brother. Her parents had loved her, and if—
No. She couldn’t think of that, or she’d spend the night on the floor of the closet crying, instead of experimenting with her long-lost, battery-operated friend.
The dreams hadn’t all been nightmares. Once upon a time, they’d featured a hero instead of a villain. In her earliest dreams, he’d been something conjured from the legends of films—dark and striking, his beard scruffy, his eyes always a vibrant sky-blue. As time passed, he’d taken on the costume or hairstyle of her favorite movie character of the moment. He’d worn the black combat gear of elven archers and carried a sword that gleamed as brightly as a lost prince’s blade or dragon slayer’s shining harpoon. Fearsome power had rolled from his hands as he’d fought beside wizards. He’d walked beside her as a man and again as a wolf, her guard and her guide through an adventurous, fantastical landscape of ice, water, mountains, majestic castles, lush forests and wide, golden grazing lands. He’d stood on the deck of a ship, the wind whipping around him as he’d shouted orders to the crew, his cape flying majestically. He’d urged a horse across the plains, chasing her as she laughed gleefully, tailed by dimmer apparitions that had tried to emulate him but simply couldn’t, because they weren’t him.
The same hands that were so fierce in battle had also cradled an injured eagle with infinite patience and had brushed her cheek and chin ever so gently. In her dreams, it had been a fleeting sensation, one that had sent a tingle through her nervous system. Then, she’d been too innocent to spin out those fantasies into explicit detail, but now she was twenty-eight years old, and her hands were already stroking down her sides, over her hips and onto the silky skin at the front of her thighs.
They were alone when he finally trapped her steed near the corner of a paddock fence. How and why they’d left the others behind didn’t matter, but he dragged her from the horse and onto the saddle of the giant horse in front of him, wrapping her inside of the great cape that hung around him. He grumbled something against her cheek, but Meghan only smiled and slid her hands up and under his shirt, rubbing her palms over the hard muscles and hair until she found his nipples and pressed each of her palms to one.
He tightened his hold on her, rubbing her through the cotton garments she wore, even as Meghan dried herself off with a soft, thick towel. When she wrapped herself in the comfort of the old quilt on her bed, she grasped the contoured silicone device and imagined him taking them both to the grassy paddock while their horses moved obediently aside. Beside her, he brushed his hand over her pubis, pressing firmly and rubbing in a circle against the sensitive upper edges of her labia, as the blunt, flat-tipped vibrator eased against her wet skin.
Meghan shuddered. When had she ever been so wet? Her fingers ran over the buttons on the control pad, and the device buzzed pleasantly in her fist. Obligingly, his finger slipped between those same wet labia lips and pressed against her clitoral hood, even as he murmured to her about how she would always belong to him, how she could always rely on him, how she could always trust him.
She didn’t know if it was him, her imagination or the vibrator, but in the end, it didn’t matter who or what was responsible. The low vibrations spread from her clitoris to her lower back, thrummed through her vagina and finally sped up her spine into her mind.
When the bliss faded, she was alone with a silicone massager in her hands, naked, wrapped in an old quilt. He was gone, just as he’d been gone since the day she’d needed a hero. But she’d done it herself. If she could do this for herself, what else could she accomplish on her own?
Everything, she told herself. She’d start by finding Red.
Sparring could be vicious, especially when the battle-honed fighter Atlas faced off against his brother, the master. The other warriors watched, leaning against the outer walls of the basement training facility. Built to their specifications with noise-muffling technology, earthquake-resistant resonance, high ceilings and floors covered with durable matting, the space still sustained damage when the most powerful among them took to the ring. Already a crack in the mirror on the north wall reached a span of six feet, because, at full strength, the master had thrown Atlas against it. Blood pooled near the west corner where Atlas had thrown a knife that had grazed his brother’s right shoulder. The knife had pierced the master’s shoulder, but the blade was presently lodged deep into the west wall. Spatter across the mat stained their feet and had transferred to their bodies, though it was mostly invisible against the basic black outfits both wore.
These two were unquestionably among the most powerful beings of their kind. Still, his sparring partner executed a powerful kick that hit Atlas in the center of his chest and sent him sprawling across the floor. The impact into the east wall caused the entire building to shake.
“The man’s going to lose it if his vamp doesn’t show up soon.”
Enna kept his eye on the two men on the mat and grunted in response. ‘The man’ was an innocuous term to describe the master, Atlas’ brother and sparring partner, also the lord’s heir. Enna had elevated his brother to the title ‘lord’ more than two decades ago, though the master was still the heir and not yet the lord. The master’s name meant something when spoken, particularly when a blood bond existed between the two, so the warriors avoided using his name as much as possible. It was a courtesy, but also a matter of privacy—if they didn’t want the master’s attention.
Still, ‘the man’ held Enna’s loyalty and affection, in addition to being Atlas and Enna’s brother. Referring to him by that casual term grated on Enna’s notion of respect, though he understood Jeb intended nothing sinister by the comment. In fact, Jeb was making an effort not to distract the pair on the mat. Distraction during battle led to mistakes that could have generations of consequences, particularly in this world.
None knew such effects more intimately than General Enna himself.
The thought of that ancient history reminded Enna that the master needed to be prepared for any complication, even distraction. Certainly his lord was a superior warrior—born powerful and trained to use his skills ruthlessly. “Lord Valor would indeed represent us well in a true battle,” he replied graciously, quite aware that everyone in the training room would hear him, no matter the volume of his voice. Enna shared a blood bond with his brothers that had endured since their youngest years, and he’d fought and defeated all of the warriors repeatedly, creating bonds with each of them. Even without those bonds, the warriors’ senses were much more developed than a human’s would have been, especially with the enhanced gifts that had come to them with their rebirths. “Lord Valor and our warriors can indeed defend us against any raiding parties trying to enter through the portal. But what of a human army of soldiers carrying guns—or helicopters or planes with fighters dropping into our fortress? What ought we do then?”
“Follow the general’s battle strategy, of course,” the master spat out, before spinning to avoid the side kick of his opponent. “And utilize my shielding gift to give us all time to retreat into the fortifications and through the portal. It can be sealed from the other side.” He used his momentum from the spin, throwing a solid punch into Atlas’ stomach. Atlas grunted and stepped back, letting the master’s hit propel him into a backflip. His left foot caught the master’s chin as he went over. Valor didn’t hesitate, delivering a direct front kick that landed squarely on Atlas’ ass and sent him sprawling onto the mat. Atlas rolled and jumped smoothly into a low spin, his leg stretching in a beautiful roundhouse kick that caught the master in the back of his knee.
With a wild roar—a battle-cry of old—Valor sprang out of the way, performed two forward handsprings and landed two feet in the air on a balance beam, a long wooden staff racing across the room to slap into the master’s grip.
Atlas’ eyes sparkled and gleamed bright blue with the master’s use of telekinesis. Casually, he lifted a hand and drew a staff identical to the lord’s toward his own hand. It streaked across the room from the wall of practice weapons then landed in his palm with a smack as he, too, answered Enna. “For my money, if guns are in play, the general’s battle strategy ought to be to run and hide, just as the master says. I’m all for it too. Bullets hurt.”
“Surviving bullets while still standing on your feet would reveal our true nature, as surely as telekinesis,” Enna murmured, aware that both the master and Atlas could hear him. “It’s a lesson the pair of you have not learned, despite living here for hundreds of years.”
“’Tis better to live to see another day in another world than to die foolishly in this one,” the master said calmly, his eyes on Atlas’ graceful movements as the man twirled the staff in a ballet of motion. With hardly an effort, the master lifted his staff and threw it, knocking Atlas’ weapon cleanly from his lieutenant’s hands. “As for Jeb, he’s correct. I feel the separation keenly, and I sense inwardly that I have begun to age as she ages. ’Tis a dangerous thing for all of you. It is right and proper that you should all practice to defeat me, to keep me restrained, if my sanity comes into question.”
Atlas snorted then smacked his hands on the front of his thighs. “Your sanity is safe. It’s your temper we guard against.”
Enna watched as the master’s eyes narrowed in warning. “Someday, Allai”—his lord stressed the ancient name by which Atlas had once been known—“you will understand the angst that grows within me. Someday your temper will be tested.” His lips twisted sardonically. “Then I will be forced to decide if I should grant you surcease or taunt you mercilessly.”
“Taunt him mercilessly,” Enna interjected immediately, watching carefully to see if his master’s eyes wavered even for a moment away from his opponent. Atlas was attempting to use the strategy Enna himself had suggested, by distracting the master from the battle. “Why have you not tested his mental shields and forced him to your will, my lord?”
“I need to practice my fighting technique without resorting to mind games,” the lord returned, still studying his opponent. “And Atlas refuses to shield his mind from me for any reason, even to practice. It leaves him at a disadvantage, of course, because even without taking control of his mind, I can anticipate his actions.”
“He never lets down his mental shields for me,” Enna muttered under his breath.
“You’re neither my master nor my lord,” Atlas grunted, his eyes still on the lord, moving from side to side in a low, fighting stance. “I’d lower them for Mother too—just not you.”
The others snickered, and even Enna had to smile.
Valor had uncommonly strong instincts, even among the Vampire. In a sudden, silent leap, he flew across the room, catching Atlas in the shoulder and taking advantage of the instantaneous moment when Atlas’ thoughts had been with their parents, instead of on his opponent. The pair crashed to the floor as Atlas fought back, but the momentum was clearly on the master’s side. They rolled so quickly that even Enna could not follow the twisting bodies, and Atlas grunted.
It was over as soon as the master’s fangs pierced Atlas’ throat. He submitted immediately, lying back on the mat as Atlas’ lord and master crouched on the balls of his feet beside the prone body and followed him down, taking only enough to strengthen the pair’s blood bond. Although it was within his rights to take as much as he wished, even to the point of draining Atlas, Valor never risked his soldiers in such a fashion, let alone his brothers. He wanted Atlas to be strong, should he need to defend himself or be needed for a mission at any moment.
Enna sighed. “One of these days, he’s going to reveal himself to the masses via a fucking security camera or a cell phone. Then what are we going to do?” he muttered.
“Go to war,” the warrior Deda contributed stoutly, watching the lord closely.
Around them, the others snorted, parrying suggestions that grew more outrageous by the second, at least until the master raised his head, his eyes gleaming, even as his fangs retracted and Atlas sat up. “Some causes are worth fighting for, warriors,” he stated, command leeching through the words and involuntarily freezing every one of them. It was a small demonstration of the authority he wielded when required, a power he’d been developing and strengthening for centuries in anticipation of the day he would rule their homeland. He was not the master because he was the eldest son or because he was the favorite. He’d fought his brothers for the right, and each had submitted to his bite rather than fight to the death. “Some humans are worth fighting for. Never forget. Your vamp is out there, just as mine is—or someday she will be. Do not dishonor her or our people. If that means letting it be known what we truly are, then so be it. You have managed the consequences before, and we could face them again if required. But keep yourself honorably for her.”
Enna stared at Lord Valor, unable to look away from the raw agony and command in his master’s voice. When the presentiment of danger and death that his master experienced washed over the warriors, Enna shuddered.
* * * *
In the still silence of the moonlit chamber, Valor freed his mind to reach out and search for her. The wide windows were bare, the panes open to allow the lunar light to fill the room with its sympathetic magic. Valor stretched on the wide softness of his bed, over the wealth of silk and cotton, closed his eyes and loosed his spirit to seek even the smallest evidence of his vamp.
Valor hunted her every night, every time he lay upon the bed he’d always intended they would share. He would recognize even the smallest whisper of her as he combed through the millions of dreams and minds that filled the world. Years before, Valor had experienced the magic of her life beginning, one faint heartbeat at a time echoing inside him. He’d fallen to his knees and thanked the power of life—Vitam—which had finally brought her into existence. Mere months later, Valor had rejoiced when her soul broke free from the protection of her mother’s womb, and she’d come into the world. His unusual mastery of the mystical powers of the mind, particularly over Conscientia, made it possible for him to find her mind, even in its infancy. Then he could comfort her when she was distressed, despite the physical distance between them, even as her parents cared for her young body. As she aged and her conscious Anima developed, he’d carefully cultivated a relationship with her Conscientia, preparing for the day when she would be mature enough and ripe for him to hunt.
Humans knew little of the power within the multitude of minds in the universes, but Valor was a master, even among his own kind. Still, he was subject to the same natural laws as all others like him. Once his vamp was born, Valor’s sanity had come to rely wholly on his vamp’s Vitam, despite Atlas’ claim otherwise. Even physically hidden from him, Valor could detect the faint reflection of her lifeblood pulsing within him, not strong enough to track but enough to assure him she still lived. He was painfully aware that he clung to this knowledge, that the presence of her Vitam in the world held his mind to rationality.
The birth of his vamp years earlier had meant, then, that his days of wandering the mistral plane and the pantheon of known worlds in search of her were over. His unmated brothers, aimless and drifting from their own fruitless hunts, had rallied around him, anticipating the day when Valor would be united with her. Under his leadership, they’d constructed a fiercely guarded, luxurious compound near enough to her. With a relatively secure outpost constructed in this realm, Valor had submitted to his father’s wishes and established a government over the Vampire who came to and from this world while vamp hunting. Improving the safety of his people here and the defense of the portal into the mistral plane became second only to Valor’s primary mission—securing his vamp as his own.
Valor had constructed their fortress far enough from her home so she could enjoy her childhood without sensing his power or influence acting upon her. He was well aware of how intensely her mind would conform to his stronger one if she spent any time in his presence as an impressionable child. If she was within his orbit, he could not help but direct her emotions and constrain her attention in his direction. It would be no childhood for her to live with his expectations—his need, his power—hovering over her. Still, Valor chose a site close enough that he could execute an immediate rescue mission if he sensed she needed his protective presence. He did not begrudge the time of waiting, the years of childhood and adolescence and growing maturity, not as long as he used the time to prepare for their future together. She was safe, with her heart and happiness undimmed. Still, the nights came one at a time in silent, secret relief for him, when he could again visit the dreamscape where her abnormally powerful Conscientia, fated to be a match to his, dominated her young conscious Anima. Only in the dark stretches of night could he enjoy the sweetly innocent child her parents had lovingly raised.
Staying away physically was difficult, and his warriors had at times been forced to keep him from sneaking off to spy on her. Intellectually, Valor had known better than to approach her, or even her parents, before she’d matured. Her instinctive response to him would have tainted what he was determined would be an adult relationship, with some twisted form of girlish adoration.
Some of the less powerful Vampire males craved, even needed, such dependence from their vamps, but there was no mistaking these female-children as ever being anything more mature than early adolescents in grown female bodies. These men, particularly those from the less civilized clans, seized their female as soon as she was identified. A few hunters had been known to subsume a vamp’s entire mind in infancy, cultivating their mates as mindless pets, creatures existing solely for the pleasure and sustenance of their masters.
Such practices were not forbidden to Valor, but after his vamp’s birth, he’d discovered the mere thought of robbing himself of his natural partner had been utterly abhorrent. His parents, his clan and all the Tuatha—the clans that depended upon the Dannans as masters and lords—had long disapproved of such choices. The Tuatha philosophers concurred that children born of such unions were likely to be less powerful and less disciplined, as they had only half the parenting that a Tuatha child experienced. In addition, Valor’s mother and mate were both of Earth, and it was particularly unsuitable and reprehensible to females from this world to enslave other humans, whether by physical or mental entrapment. While Valor had not asked his vamp if she wished to think independently or if she preferred an eternity of accepting his dominance over her mind, his mother had an unequivocal opinion on the question.
Valor had seen the power of Conscientia and Anima grow among the female population of Earth during his centuries among the Earth-born humans, and he admitted to being influenced by their developing minds. This world had always birthed women who were potentially intelligent and confident enough to stand against the mental strength of Tuatha warriors, but in the last century, the numbers of these women had swelled on every continent, a change that statistically improved the likelihood that vamps were being born in the world.
At least, a portion of the human population was advancing. Others seemed inclined to move the entire planet back into its caveman days, when the hunters—both Tuatha and Vampire from other clans—had first stumbled into this world from the Sidhe, the mistral plane. They’d roamed freely among the human population for more millennia than Valor had lived, but the challenges of modern human life had become too much for many hunters in the last five decades. Unable to cope with rapidly advancing technology on Earth, many had retreated to other worlds, where blending was easier, and their conquests were less likely to be challenged by the native populations. If they’d once been the most powerful beings in the world, they were now the maligned subjects of myths and legends, hiding in plain sight from modern medicine, government oversight and big data.
Nevertheless, the Tuatha had been pleased when the ruling clans had signed a treaty, essentially leaving Earth to the Tuatha and their Dannan rulers. As Master of the Tuatha, Valor required a female of uncommon courage and character as his vamp, and one with a mind that could withstand any attempt he made to dominate her while in extremis. Tuatha warriors were domineering and powerful by nature, but Valor possessed a natural gift for mind games, enhanced by his rebirth as Vampire. With that power came unmistakable arrogance and intensity, matched only by his father, grandfather and a future son. The Dannan females, his mother in particular, insisted that his vamp would be his match spiritually, physically and emotionally, or he would crush her spirit with his will, his nearly obsessive possessiveness and his passion.
So Valor had carefully bided his time and energy, monitoring his vamp’s happiness and health from afar. For the first eighteen years, she had unknowingly prepared herself for the role she was destined to play. At night in her dreams, her subconscious mind showed him how she spent her days. She’d swam, sailed and trailed her brother over the island where she lived, learning about the tides and the ecosystem of the Great Lakes, about the dragonflies, the birds, the turtles and the other wild creatures of the land. She’d read and memorized poetry with her mother and had listened to the legends of Ireland her father retold on winter evenings. Valor delighted in her simple joys, her curiosity and her endless desire to understand the world around her. While his days had been filled with the concerns and welfare of his warriors and the travelers that passed into Earth and back again into the Sidhe, his heart and soul had been renewed nightly by the trust she—at least her Conscientia—had placed in him.
As she’d matured from a child to a vibrant girl that hinted at the woman she would become, he’d seen that she’d held tight in her heart a dream that one day she would be loved as fiercely as her gruff, gentle father loved her quietly dignified mother. Valor had watched that dream root and blossom as her soul aged. He’d waited silently in the shadows as her dreams changed, waiting for the moments when her mind had been relaxed and vulnerable enough for him to approach her Conscientia without her Anima remembering. Unable to immediately step in and claim the honored role of her warrior without breaking his vow to protect her, even from himself, he’d silently brooded, fretted and worried. At night, Valor hadn’t been able to help but step into her dreams and play the part of the hero she would someday love, making a clear case to her Conscientia that no pale imitation of a local boy could compare to him. “Wait for me until you’re grown,” he’d whispered to her, relieved when her Conscientia had agreed. Instead, he’d defended her against nightmares and had comforted her heartaches, few as they were. Her parents had loved her. Her brother, a strong-willed boy called Red, had been devoted to her, though in those latter days she’d missed him desperately. He’d become a soldier, a boy she believed had the heart of a hero warrior, and Valor had been able to see her fear for him mixed with pride when his youthful countenance appeared in her dreams. She’d been at peace, hopeful for the future and nearly ready.
Foolishly trusting that she’d be as safe with her family as she’d ever been, as she believed herself to be, he’d arranged a visit home to his parents. He’d known it was a risk. Crossing the Sidhe meant losing his connection to her Vitam and her Conscientia. Not even Valor could preserve the bond between them from a parallel realm, but with their bond incomplete, he could be away from her Vitam for short periods without losing his mind. He’d desired to consult his mother, and he could tolerate the wrenching loneliness when surrounded by his parents and the close-knit extended family that surrounded them. Thus, as she’d slept a dreamless night that had followed her family’s celebration of her eighteenth birthday, Valor had entered the portal into the gray Sidhe and had lost his connection to her. Doubts and worry had beaten at his mind, urging him to return, but he’d steeled himself against the dependent inclinations, had settled himself into his father’s home and had formally requested his father’s permission for an audience with the Lord’s Vamp, Valor’s mother.
Once in his mother’s solar, seated on the floor before the wide chaise where she was elegantly draped, Valor had asked his mother what the proper age would be for him to hunt and capture his vamp.
A thousand years earlier, fourteen would have been old enough to take a human girl and keep her within a circle of protection, until she was prepared to mate. His mother had been sixteen and already a vibrant beauty on the cusp of an arranged marriage to another when Valor’s father had found and seized her. Even two hundred years earlier, sixteen years of age would have been considered grown by the Tuatha—and many humans too. Fifty years earlier and he could have easily hunted her at eighteen, even if he’d waited to exchange blood and mate with her. His mother, however, pointed out that it was no longer the 1080s, the 1780s or the 1980s. By Valor’s own word, the women of Earth were strengthening as a species because they had been allowed to mature until their natural adulthood before mating, even with other humans. His mother hadn’t left his father’s lands for more than a thousand years, and she had visibly wearied in only the last fifty, but she’d asked him wisely when his mate would finish her education.
Valor’s answer had been grudging. Twenty-two. Twenty-five. He’d only known what he could see in her mind as she slept, but it was enough to know that she planned a university education. She’d excelled in school. She thought analytically and had been developing skills in critical thinking and reasoning. She wished, Valor had explained, to study the ecology of her world—to learn its animals and their habits, to understand why they acted as they did, to search for the biological reasons behind their curious behaviors.
His mother had advised waiting until his vamp finished school. After all, she would one day bring her knowledge to the world of the Tuatha to TirNa Og, and her education would enrich her experience of the dramatic ecosystems, which were similar but so very different from Earth.
His father, sharing Valor’s fate as a Vampire male dependent on a vamp, had recommended Valor hunt her as soon as her sexuality awoke. The girl, said Lord Valiant, could go to this university under Valor’s direct supervision—or at least within the protection of a carefully selected cordon of Dannan sentinels over whom Valor had dominion. Vamps destined as Dannan mates rarely experimented with men before they were claimed, though if Valor had come to Earth and recognized her when she had been twenty or thirty years of age, he would have easily ignored any man who had preceded him as insignificant. But Valor had not been searching aimlessly in other realms, and his mind was so supernaturally powerful that he’d known her from the moment her Vitam came into being. He had been already waiting for her and had partially bonded his soul to her wellbeing, so when his father had spoken, Valor had known instantly that he could never sit by while she pursued an intimate relationship with any other male.
That night in a high chamber of his father’s austere palace, Valor had decided he would hunt her when she finished high school. The young woman had already turned eighteen, and in a few weeks she’d forever finish her time at the high school where she’d studied. She could continue her education at a university if she wished, even if she went away to school and lived under the supervision of his sentinels and servants. He would refrain from touching her if she objected. But she would be safe—and she would be his.
Valor had managed to remain in TirNa Og a full month, knowing well that his life would soon change with the coming of late spring in Michigan. He’d been away from his ancestral lands for decades, and many had called upon him to seek his favor or his service, or they’d wanted to renew old friendships and entertain him with the hope of calling upon him in future years. The hunt for his vamp would begin shortly after his return, and after that, it might be a decade or more before he brought her into TirNa Og.
He’d entered the Sidhe and returned to Earth on the thirty-first day.
At the moment he’d stepped out of the portal, he’d felt her Vitam still resonating faintly in his blood and his mind, but it had been painfully distant. Having never touched her body, Valor had had no power to call upon her Anima. He’d fought back the panic, but that night, his dreams had been empty, even when she should have been asleep and most open to him. Her Conscientia had been an empty void, despite an exhaustive search in every direction. At dawn, sleepless from helpless fury, he’d taken his closest warriors and his brothers and stalked to the place where she lived.
That morning, Valor had stood on the shores of Blois Blanc and had known she was not there. He’d known he would not find her, even if his warriors searched behind every blade of grass and sucked the life of every living soul on the island. He’d uttered a single howl of agony and devastation that had split the air in a concussive reverberation that rivaled a sonic boom, but such displays of rage were unproductive. They’d left the island as quickly as they’d come, before Valor had succumbed to raging violence and massacred the population for no better reason than grief. Instead, he’d battled his brothers. For days, he fought Atlas, Enna, Nuada and Lugh. Once, he’d brought the entire training facility down on their heads with his anger. His cousins Dagda, Oghman, Jeb, Len, Indai, Micah, Lir and Nemain had banded together to keep him bathed and in clean clothing, as he refused to sleep in his lair or even the Residence. He’d prowled his empty compound for weeks, and he’d lashed out at any who dared cross his path.
His cousin, the healer Dean, had finally braved Valor’s fury and come to him as he slept beneath the flowering jacaranda trees in his garden, forcing Valor to look closely at what haunted him.
She had been concealed from him by some unnatural method or physical incapacitation. If the family had moved far away, Valor had sufficient power and skill to seek out her mind and place her geographically—to hunt her Conscientia in the ancient method of the Masters who had long ruled the Tuatha. Neither had she died. Though he couldn’t reach out and caress her mind and find her, her lifeblood had still sung to him and would keep him sane. When Valor had calmed and focused, he’d felt the same hum of life inside him that he’d felt on the day of her birth and every day since. He’d kept that fact close to his soul and had treasured it, even on the days when his mood was blackest.
Dean had carefully explained the details of modern human medical advances. Any number of human inhibitors could keep his vamp’s Conscientia concealed, even when she’d remained defenseless in her sleep—certain medications that relieved anxiety and other mental diseases, sleeping pills. She might be in a coma. Just the mention of these options had sent Valor lunging for Dean’s throat, but Valor’s own sentinels had defended Dean zealously, and Valor had eventually calmed enough to offer a rare apology.
Afterward, he’d locked himself in his chamber and stayed there for a week. Thereafter, he’d spoken of the matter rarely, even with his brothers. Enna had been right to raise it earlier that day. Valor needed to be prepared for any distraction, even one unintentionally caused by his vamp.
He’d find her again, eventually, and no creature would keep him from what was his and live. He wanted—needed—to capture her, and his instinctive possessiveness rabidly resisted the idea of calling upon his brothers for help or advice. Dannan males hunted alone, seized alone and guarded their vamps zealously. What was true for any Tuatha was amplified in the ruling Dannan clan and exacerbated almost to the ridiculous in the master and lord of each generation.
Every night for ten years he’d settled onto the cold, lonely bed intended to bear both of their weights and searched, passing over millions of minds in the dark nights, sensing enough of them to pass them by. Valor knew well that even roaming North America wouldn’t help. He could be standing next to her in a crowded subway and not know her, if her mind was closed to him by some inhibiting drug. Instead, he closed his eyes and reached out with both his Conscientia and his Anima to hunt her. No master in the timeless history of the Tuatha had failed in the quest to capture his vamp. Valor wouldn’t accept defeat either, not now that she was twenty-eight years of age or even if she were seventy. In the long stretches of the night until he fell in the battle against sleep, he would press forward on his quest to find her.
This night, the moonlight was so bright on the painting over the fireplace that the gold straw in Brigid’s cross and the chains linking Fand to Li Ban and their flock of guardian seabirds glowed. The breeze blew softly over Valor’s face, until he slept. Even slumbering, Valor’s Conscientia darted through the inky blackness, pushing in all directions, seeking her.
When he heard the soft gasp in the darkness, Valor’s mind stopped short. Waking suddenly, he directed all of his Conscientia and Anima in her direction, searching desperately among the millions of slumbering human minds. The wonderment she was experiencing was as innocent as when she’d been a child discovering her dream world, but he still could only probe blindly in her direction. She was not close, not nearly close enough, and her Conscientia wobbled in the darkness, as if she was only half aware that she had come into being. She was simply too far away, and her mind too weak to reach back to him, even when he called for her.
She was no longer completely secreted from him.
Valor wanted to exult and dance and shout to the world that he’d found her, but he’d been anxious and worried for far too long. He had not found her. He had not seized her. He had not secured her. A celebration would wait until she was safely behind the inner walls of his fortress, at ease and blissful in his lair, in his bed. He understood now the urgent desire to secure a vamp with leashes and shackles, even a cage. Indeed, he felt a new sympathy for the tribesmen of the rival clans, who inked vamps with permanent markings so their mates might be returned to them if lost or escaped. His very survival depended on her now.
Of course, Valor would set aside any of those barbaric urges to make her happy, but as the long hours of the day passed and he waited for nightfall, he couldn’t help but think of them.
All the next night he lay awake, hunting, able to hear only her steadier breathing and sense her heightened awareness. Her mind asserted control of itself once again. The third night he seized control of his Anima and Conscientia, stalked firmly to the southeast, and he worked himself slowly toward her, taking steps in the right direction, only to be frustrated by the distance and the deadened wariness of her subconscious.
It was the first time Valor had ever achieved astral projection, even if he hadn’t exactly found her. The experience was too new to know if it would become a gift he could master or if it were simply a stretch of his skills demanded by the hunt. He knew it was possible, of course, to develop such a gift, given his ability to dreamwalk, but he’d never thought it a skill that might be brought to him by his vamp.
On the fourth night, he realized she was afraid. Her mind clung to the shadows because she feared her dreams, but not because she hid from him or from her destiny. She sought to sleep dreamlessly and effortlessly, so her Anima was vigilant in its mistaken attempt to guard her Conscientia. She would not be resting well. He ruthlessly forced back his frustration in order not to terrify her, and he shed his usual mental dress of knee-length black leather jacket over a black cotton Henley, nearly knee-high boots and black denims for a less threatening moss-green T-shirt and stonewashed blue jeans. Barefoot, he treaded closer and closer to the breathing, until he could sense her heartbeat more rapidly as he approached.
“Upon my honor and that of all my brethren, I vow to watch over you this night,” he whispered to her sleeping mind.
She remained still and silent for a long time in her sleep, but Valor remained grimly patient, staying back so as not to terrify her with his strength or any show of power. She remained wary as he waited patiently, sensing her more than seeing her. Still, eventually she whispered back in a voice full of desperate longing, “Upon your honor?”
“I pledge to you all of me, in defense of your lifeblood, your spirit and your soul,” he vowed in translation of the ancient Tuatha oath, and he held out his hand.
To his surprise, she looked at it for a moment and tucked her hand inside his. For hours then, they sat in the black, empty world of her dream and were simply together, linked tenuously where their Conscientia held anthropomorphized hands.
When her Anima, her conscious mind, began to wake, her Conscientia withdrew.
“Tomorrow night,” he whispered. “I’ll come back tomorrow night. I’ll keep away the bad dreams.”
After a silent moment, she answered, “I’d like that.”
The exultant thrill Valor experienced at her acknowledgment of him and her hesitant words was unlike anything he’d known before.
Still, he was not content to simply wait more days, to patiently woo her from so far until she revealed enough of herself to disclose where she was. She was physically distant, her Conscientia was weakened—without the confidence her spirit ought to have—and she’d been hidden from him for far too many years. She was either unhappy or in danger, and if there was one skill at which he and his warriors were expert, it was extracting vamps from dangerous situations.
It was time to let the others know that she had been found and that he would hunt her.