Rituals were generally more fun when they weren’t binding you to an arrogant, gold-digging crown whore.
A circle of lit candles flickered around me as a soft breeze tickled through the shadowy canopy above. Shards of moonlight peeked between the leaves, reflecting off my sleek silver gown.
I stood facing my betrothed. He was smiling smugly. I did my best to keep my features void of disgust. Our hands were clasped together and bound with rope and roses, an outward display of how trapped I felt on the inside.
I all but hated this man, Dominic, but my parents wouldn’t listen. He was too perfect for the crown to be refused. I couldn’t convince them otherwise. He was young, handsome, and came from a long line of lords who were loyal to our throne and lethal at slaying our archenemies—vampires.
What more was there to love?
A scream suddenly tore through the trees, immediately halting our ceremony.
“Thank God,” I muttered under my breath.
The voice had come from a considerable distance away. There were campgrounds nearby. Any number of things could have startled a sleepy camper—bears, raccoons, hell, even a wood spider climbing the tent. But for some reason our royal guards immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was vampires.
Dominic and I shared a curious glance before I called on my magic and burned the ropes tying us together.
He was a vamp hunter and wanted in on the action.
I was a sheltered princess and wanted to finally see for myself what went down on these hunts. Though, honestly, I already knew what I’d see: killing. Lots of it.
The guards went sprinting through the trees, legs carrying them faster than I’d ever seen a mage move. It was hard to keep up. I kicked off my shoes in order to gain some much-needed speed.
The light of a campfire came into view on the horizon and I at least had a destination to aim for. When I arrived a hundred feet or so away, I was distraught to find there really were vampires involved. But there was no way of knowing whether their presence at the campsite was entirely unlawful or not. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Vampires were required to have permission before feeding off humans. It wasn’t even that damn hard, given the current attractive climate toward supernaturals—humans thought we were all sexy as hell, vampires in particular. They practically lined up down the block to feel for themselves how erotic a bite was.
As for us witches and mages, we were sought out a little less for our sex appeal, and more for our extreme usefulness. Looking into the future? Check. Altering the future with spells and potions? Check. Physically altering your environment with magic? Check. Of course, our magic was heavily governed as well. It was illegal to dole out a love potion without a special license. We were also required to submit a very hefty amount in taxes to the human government.
Not that anyone seemed to give two shits about the law here.
They were human-made laws, though. I supposed that was the entire root of the problem.
Physical altercations involving magical beings were illegal, too. If the aggressors were caught, they might even face jail time. But no one was ever caught. It was considered cowardice and treachery of the most appalling kind to report an act of violence between supernaturals.
The humans at the campsite scattered, screaming. As soon as they were out of sight, the witches and mages of my royal guard attacked the vampires with crossbows and magic fireballs. The brush beneath the trees caught fire, licking flames across the night. Shadowed fighters painted the backdrop, just black silhouettes on the burnt orange horizon.
I had no idea where Dominic had gone, nor did I particularly care. Except that I now felt horribly alone and afraid. I was literally the only witch out there with zero vamp-hunting skills. My parents had always tried to push it on me, but I’d never once caved. It was something I didn’t care to learn. I was a firm believer that we could somehow settle the issues between us diplomatically. This wasn’t the dark ages anymore; it was the twenty first century. Even humans accepted our presence in this crazy world; why couldn’t we accept each other?
It was a well-known fact that witches and vampires hated one another. We were constantly battling it out over the stupidest of things. I didn’t get it. My parents saw each minute indiscretion on a vampire’s part as a personal attack on our kind. One that merited retaliation. Nothing would change their minds.
Not even me. Their only child.
I watched the shadows clash with a hammering heart. I had no idea where the hell I was. In the dark, every tree looked the same. Every shadow looked menacing. So I hid, covering my ears over the sickening sounds of death and brutality.
It went on for hours… each side fighting tooth and nail. And for what? Bragging rights? To tell the government they’d caught the other group doing wrong first? Ridiculous. It was nothing like I’d imagined, though I had no idea why I’d ever hoped for anything different.
By the time dawn began to break, the silence was absolute. It was so quiet, the only sound I heard was an exaggerated ringing in my own ears.
I peeked around the tree trunk I’d been hiding behind. My muscles were sore from staying still for so long, but I managed to stand without buckling.
Bodies littered the forest floor. Blood covered the grass and fallen leaves. It appeared no one had survived but me. Either that, or the living had long ago cleared out.
A selfish, awful thought crossed my mind. If everyone was dead, and that included Dominic, maybe I wouldn’t have to marry the asshole after all?
Then I heard a rustling in the brush.
Chipmunk? Squirrel? No, they’d be too small. Rabbit? Fox?
A pained hiss entered the airspace to my right followed by a groan that suggested a very serious injury. One of my guards? No. The hiss basically threw that theory out the window. It had to have been a vampire.
I turned back around and pressed my body against the tree.
What the ever-loving hell was I supposed to do now? Let the poor creature die? For all I knew he’d had permission to be there and my people had attacked him unjustly. Or even if he had made a mistake, did that mean he deserved to die for it?
My parents thought I was too soft. That I was naïve. I happened to think that kindness in the face of cruelty and injustice was a sign of strength.
Making up my mind then and there, I stepped around the tree and squared my shoulders. The path to the vamp was clear of any bodies, thank God. I clenched my fists at my sides to give me courage and keep me from chickening out.
But when I saw his bruised and bloodied body, all fear drained out of me. He was pinned to the ground by an arrow to the chest, and the veins in his skin were turning a strange shade of purple.
I gasped and covered my mouth. “A potion.”
An illegal one, if I had to guess.
We were just as guilty as they were. Maybe even more so.
Too scared to remove the arrow entirely, I pulled it out just enough to release the tip from the ground, allowing me to move the poor guy to a safer location. It was nearly morning. The only thing keeping him from bursting into flames out here was the thin canopy of leaves overhead.
Quickly I grabbed him under the armpits and dragged him what felt like hundreds of feet to a nearby cave. In a few months bears would be settling down in caves like these to peacefully hibernate the winter months away, but for now it was still very early fall and it felt much more like summer. The heat was sweltering. I had sweat trickling down my spine by the time we breached the cave entrance.
I dragged him deep inside to where the ground was cold and damp and the light was almost completely absent. If any witch or mage saw him on our turf, it’d be an immediate death sentence. And who knew what would happen to me? Not killing a vamp on sight was probably just as damnable as being a vamp on site.
I lit a fire in my palm and studied his face. Even under a layer of gore and grime, it was obvious that this man was handsome. Gorgeous, even. I suddenly wanted to know what he looked like when he smiled. What color his eyes were. Who he was when he wasn’t caught in the middle of a centuries-old war.
He subconsciously gritted his teeth, and a bead of sweat dripped down his forehead.
I touched him with my free hand. He was burning up. Whatever potion they’d tipped the arrow with was working fast. I’d have maybe an hour to find an antidote—wherever the hell that might be—and administer it before this beautiful stranger turned into nothing more than a pile of ashes.
I couldn’t let that happen.
Exiting the cave, I gazed at the horizon. The castle loomed mightily above the trees about a mile away. Running against time, and as fast as my bare feet would carry me, I returned to the kingdom’s capital city of Delphina to begin my desperate search for a cure.