Dark Gold Chapter Fifteen

The ocean waves rose high and raced toward the shore, spilling foam and salt spray before crashing against the rocks of the cliff and cascading back into the roiling sea. Alexandria trickled sand through her fingers as she watched the spectacular display nature was putting on. The late hour and wild winds ensured that she had the beach to herself.

She sat on a sand dune, resting her chin on her knees and watched the waves. She had always loved the ocean, but after her experience with the vampire, she'd thought she'd never be able to face it again.

Aidan had changed all that. He had brought beauty and joy to her world again. She could sit here, alone in the dark, surrounded by the wailing wind, the crashing sea, even the ominous clouds gathering overhead, and realize the magnificence of it all. Aidan was working on one of his many businesses, and she had slipped out of the house to be on her own. While part of her loved the closeness Aidan demanded, the way he was constantly slipping in and out of her mind, she was used to her freedom, used to doing things on her own. And she had needed to just sit quietly and allow all that had happened to her begin to sink in.

Aidan was unhappy with her. She could feel the weight of his disapproval. He was with her, in a quiet corner of her mind, but at least he hadn't tried to force her compliance.

I should have.

Alexandria smiled at his complaint.

It's a good thing you didn't. You need to learn I don't mind you the way Joshua does. Another one of your annoying habits?

She laughed out loud, the joyful sound carried down the beach by the wind.

Ifit isn't, I'm going to be sure to cultivate it. You are going to do exactly what I say.

His voice had dropped an octave, until it was a black-velvet caress, a blatant seduction.

She instantly felt the answering heat in her body.

Get back to work, sex fiend, and leave me alone for a while. Just for a short while. That is all the time I can manage to be without your body beneath mine. You're wicked, Aidan. Very, very wicked.

She was laughing, her head back, her heart light and filled with joy after such a long, dark journey.

Miles away, the sky lit up briefly, a white flash illuminating the dark clouds, and then she heard the distant rumble of thunder. A storm was riding the waves in, feeding the sea's playful mood. She leaned back and felt a drop of water splash her cheek, rain or sea spray, she couldn't tell. She didn't care. Her life was coming back together; she was finding her strength again. And now that she was accepting what she had become, she would find a way to deal with life again.

In the darkness a shadow shifted overhead. She blinked, sat up, and tilted her head to scan the skies. She detected no movement. Perhaps it had been merely one black cloud gliding in front of the others. Still, she felt uneasy. She was alone on the dunes, close enough to the water that she could detect the finned predators beneath the surface. And that realization suddenly unnerved her, that beneath the beautiful waves glided prehistoric creatures, forever seeking prey.

A slow smile curved her mouth. She was beginning to let anything spook her. Who would be out on a night like this? The ocean roared, slammed into the rocks, and sent plumes of froth into the sky. Her uneasiness increased with the wildness of the storm.

Perhaps it would be better for you to listen to your lifemate and be alone in the house or on the balcony rather than out in a storm.

His taunt was irritating, and she scooped up another handful of sand in defiance. Still, despite her determination, Alexandria felt a heavy, oppressive weight on her chest, and she anxiously scanned the sky, trying to remain calm enough to feel her surroundings, to detect another's presence. Suddenly, without any real reason, she was certain she wasn't alone, and whatever was stalking her was evil.

Get out of there,

Aidan commanded at once. His voice was cool and determined, and in response to the increasing strength of her instincts, she sensed he had taken to the air.

She stood, her eyes searching the immediate area. The wind tugged at her hair, whipping it across her face. She dragged the long strands away and saw a man teetering high on the cliff. The wind was vicious, and she could see he was in trouble, the edge of the embankment crumbling beneath his weight. Alexandria shouted and began to run, instinctively reaching out as if she could somehow prevent his fall.

How could she not have seen him earlier? Felt his presence? Why had she been so selfishly certain that she was the one in danger? How long had the man been up there and in danger?

What is it, cara?

Aidan's voice was calm and soothing, and he was closer now, which was reassuring.

She grabbed on to him like a lifeline. A man on the cliffs he's falling.

If only she hadn't wasted time feeling sorry for herself, for what she had become. She could have saved him. She should have been learning from Aidan, everything he could teach her. She could have moved with his blinding speed and caught the man before he hit the jagged rocks below.

I am coming. Stay away from him!

Itwas a demand, but one she couldn't obey. Though she had little hope of saving the stranger, she had to try. She ran barefoot over the wet sand, her gaze riveted on the cliff. For one moment she thought the world darkened. Then a burst of lightning danced and sizzled, and a fireball exploded through the night, heading right toward the man.

Alexandria screamed as he tumbled forward, his fall seeming to happen in slow motion, a torturous descent of forty feet or more. The wind whipped her shout back into her face like a slap. She was still a distance away and far too late, but she ran anyway. Without warning, at a full run, she hit something invisible. The impact knocked her to the ground.

Heart beating fast, she sat up, shoving the wild, wind-whipped tangle of her hair from her face. She didn't see an obstacle, the impact hadn't hurt, yet when she reached out, her hand met something solid.

How could you, Aidan?

She was bewildered that he would restrain her this way, stop her from going to the stranger's aid. She slowly got to her feet, shaken.

The fog rolled in swiftly from the sea, carried on the wild winds. Out of it, on the other side of the invisible barrier, a man began to materialize. At first he was shimmering, translucent, but then he solidified further, becoming a dark, shadowy being. He was tall, like Aidan, with the same roped muscles. His hair was as black as the night, long and held with a leather thong at the nape of his neck. His face was beautiful, his mouth both sensual and cruel, his jaw strong. But it was his eyes that captured her attention. They were pale, almost light itself, a quicksilver brilliance impossible to ignore.

Alexandria was suddenly very afraid. Aidan exuded power, but this man was power. No one, nothing, could ever defeat such a creature. She was certain he was not human. One hand crept protectively to her throat.

The stranger casually waved a hand, and the barrier was gone in an instant. She had never seen the obstruction, yet now she knew it was gone, that nothing stood between them but air. She was terrified, for herself and for Aidan.

"You are Aidan's woman. His lifemate. Where is he that he would allow you to wander unprotected?"

His voice was the most hypnotic, compelling sound she had ever heard. So pure. So enticing. No one could resist that soft, musical voice. If he told her to throw herself into the roiling ocean, she would do so. She curled her fingers tightly into fists.

"Who are you?" she asked. Silently she warned,

Aidan, be careful. There is another here. He knows I am with you, your lifemate. She tried not to allow the trembling that was seizing her body to creep into her voice.

Look at him, piccola.

Do not be afraid. I am close. I will see what you see. Keep your mind open. As always, Aidan sounded calm and in control.

The stranger's beguiling mouth curved, but there was no warmth in the slashing silver of his eyes. "You speak to him. Good. I am certain he can see me now. But he is a fool to allow his feelings for you to blind him to his duties."

Her chin lifted. "Who are you?" she repeated.

"I am Gregori. The dark one. Perhaps he has told you of me."

He is the most knowledgeable, the most powerful of all our kind, Aidan confirmed. He was very near.

He is the greatest healer our kind has ever known and my teacher. He is also a master of destruction and bodyguard to our Prince. He terrifies me. He terrifies everyone. Only Mikhail, the Prince of our people, knows him well.

"I trust Aidan has good things to say about me." He was facing her, those brilliant eyes seeing right into her soul, but Alexandria had the feeling his attention was elsewhere. His voice was so pure, so perfect, she wanted him to go on speaking.

A rush of wind stirred up a whirling eddy of sand that spun and swirled until it enveloped Alexandria, driving her backward. When she finally regained her balance and uncovered her eyes, Aidan was directly in front of her.

"Very impressive, Aidan," the stranger said with a trace of satisfaction.

"I have not seen one of my own people for many years," Aidan said softly. "I am pleased it is you, Gregori."

"Do you now use your woman as bait?" The tone was mild, but the reprimand was clear.

Alexandria stirred, furious that this man would try to make Aidan feel guilty about her independence. Aidan's fingers unerringly found her wrist behind him, closing around it like a vise.

Do not, he warned. She subsided immediately, sensing danger thick in the air.

"This one, this betrayer to our people." Gregori nodded toward the man lying so still on the rocks where he had fallen. "He sought to take her from you."

"He could not have done so," Aidan said softly.

Gregori nodded. "I believe that to be true. Still, she takes a risk that should not be permitted." A network of iridescent white veins lit up the sky, sharp, brilliant, a powerful display. The arcing lightning cast a peculiar shadow across the dark, handsome face and flashing silver eyes, making Gregori look both cruel and hungry.

The fingers around Alexandria's wrist tightened even more.

Do not move, do not speak, no matter what, Aidan cautioned softly in her mind. "Thank you for your assistance, Gregori," he said aloud, his voice gentle and true. "This is my lifemate, Alexandria. She is new to our people and knows nothing of our ways. We would both consider it a great honor if you would accompany us back to our house and tell us the news of our homeland."

Are you out of your mind?

Alexandria protested silently, horrified. It would be like bringing home a wild jungle cat. A tiger. Something very lethal.

Gregori inclined his head at the introduction, but the refusal to join them was clear in his silver eyes. "It would be unwise of me to join you indoors. I would be a caged tiger, untrustworthy, unpredictable." His pale eyes flickered over Alexandria, and she had the distinct impression he was laughing at her. Then he turned his attention once more to Aidan. "I need to ask of you a favor."

Aidan knew of what Gregori would speak, and he shook his head. "Do not, Gregori. You are my friend. Do not ask of me what I cannot do." Alexandria felt Aidan's sorrow, his distress. His mind was a turmoil of emotions, fear among them.

The silver eyes flashed and burned. "You will do what you must, Aidan, just as I have done for over a thousand years. I have come here to wait for my lifemate. She will arrive in a few months to do a show, magic show. San Francisco is on her schedule. I intend to establish a house high in the mountains, far from your place. I need the wild, the heights, and I must be alone. I am close to the end, Aidan. The hunt, the kill, is all I have left."

He waved a hand, and the ocean waves leapt in response. "I am not certain if I can wait until she comes. I am too close. The demon has nearly consumed me." There was no change in the sweet purity of his voice.

"Go to her. Send for her. Call her to you." Aidan rubbed his forehead in agitation, and his obvious upset alarmed Alexandria more than anything else. Nothing ever seemed to get to Aidan. "Where is she? Who is she?"

"She is Mikhail and Raven's daughter. But Raven did not prepare her for what was to come on the day of the claiming. She was but eighteen years. When I went to her, she was so filled with fear, I found I could not be the monster I needed to be to claim her against her will. I did not press her. I vowed to myself to allow her five years of freedom. After all, joining with me will be rather like joining with a tiger. Not the most comfortable of destinies."

"You can no longer wait." Alexandria had never heard Aidan so agitated. She stroked her thumb in a small caress across his wrist to remind him he would not have to face the future alone.

"I made a vow, and I will keep it. Once she is joined to me for all eternity, her life will not be an easy one, so she runs from it, and from me." Gregori's voice was so beautiful, so clear. There was no trace of bitterness, no regret.

"Does she know what you suffer for her?"

The silver eyes flashed at the implication of his lifemate's selfishness. "She knows nothing. This was my decision, my gift to her. The favor I ask is that you do not hunt me alone, if such becomes necessary. You will need Julian. He is of the darkness."

"Julian is like me," Aidan instantly protested.

"No, Aidan," Gregori corrected in his mesmerizing voice. "Julian is like me. That is why he seeks out the high reaches, why he is always alone. He is like me. He will help you defeat me should there be need."

"Go to her, Gregori," Aidan pleaded.

Gregori shook his head. "I cannot. Promise me you will do as I have requested. You will not attempt to hunt me without Julian."

"I would never be so foolish as to hunt the most wily wolf without the aid of another. Stay strong, Gregori." There was real sorrow in Aidan's voice.

"I will hold out as long as I am able," Gregori replied, "but in the waiting, there is much danger. I will be unable to destroy myself should it become too late. I will be too far gone. You understand, Aidan. The burden of this decision could fall on your shoulders, and for that, I ask your forgiveness. I always thought it would be Mikhail, but she is here, in the United States. And she will be here, in San Francisco, when my vow has been honored."

Aidan nodded, but Alexandria could feel the tears burning in his mind, in his heart. She made an effort to comfort him, to send him warmth, but she remained as still as he had asked her, not completely understanding what Gregori was saying but knowing it was grave.

"I will attend to this one, destroy all evidence of his existence." Gregori gestured toward the body at the bottom of the cliff. "But, Aidan, he was not alone. There was another. I thought it best to stay and protect your lifemate rather than hunt him down. So close to turning myself, I did not want to chance two kills in one evening." The soft, musical voice could have been discussing the weather.

"Gregori, I thank you for the warning and the help. You need not worry over the betrayer. That is my job, though I admit I have been attending to other things than hunting recently."

"As you should have," Gregori acknowledged with a gentle smile. "A lifemate comes first in all things."

"Why is it you fear yours will not have an easy life?" Aidan asked.

"I have hunted too long to ever stop. I am used to my own way in all things. I have waited too long, fought too hard, and suffered too much to allow her the freedom she will desire. Her life will never be her own, only what I make of it."

Aidan smiled then, and Alexandria could feel him relaxing. "If you do as you believe, put her before your own comfort, you will have no choice but to allow her freedom."

"I am not like Mikhail or Jacques or, it seems, you. I intend that her protection come above all else." Gregori's voice held an edge.

Aidan grinned at him, laughter spilling from his golden eyes. "I can only hope I have the chance to see you, Gregori, under the spell of your woman. You must promise that you will bring her to meet us one day."

"Not if I end up like you or Mikhail. I will not have my dangerous reputation destroyed in such a way." A hint of humor seemed to creep in and then was quickly gone, as if the wind had carried it away.

"I will see to the vampire," Aidan said. "You should avoid confronting death."

"I killed him from a distance. You will find it... unsettling," Gregori warned.

"You are even more powerful than I remember."

"I have acquired much knowledge over the years," Gregori conceded. His pale eyes rested thoughtfully on Aidan's face. "You will find your brother much changed, also. He is a fast learner, that one, and unafraid of reaching too far into the shadows. I tried to tell him the cost, but he would not listen."

Aidan shook his head. "Julian always said rules were made to be broken. He has always gone his own way. But he did respect you. You were the only real influence in his life, maybe the only one he ever listened to."

Gregori shook his head. "He could not listen any longer. The wind called, the mountains, the far-off places. I could not hope to stop him. He was dark inside, and nothing would ever satisfy him."

"You call it darkness. But it was that quality in you that made you open the world for us. It made you seek out the healing techniques that you have passed on to me, to others. It allowed you to perform the miracles that you have performed for our people. It has done the same for Julian," Aidan replied softly.

The silver eyes paled to steel. Cold. Bleak. Empty. "It led both of us to things that should never have been learned. In the acquisition of knowledge comes power, Aidan. But without rules, without emotions, without a concept of right or wrong, it is far too easy to abuse that power."

"All Carpathians are aware of that, Gregori," Aidan argued. "You, more than most, know the concept of right and wrong. And so does Julian. Why have you endured, resisted wrong, when others turned? You fought for justice, for our people. You had a code, and you have always lived up to it, as you are doing now. You say you have no feeling, but what of the compassion you felt for your lifemate when she was so frightened? You cannot turn. Every moment is an eternity for you, I know, but you have an end in sight."

Gregori's cold eyes seemed to impale Aidan, but the younger Carpathian did not flinch. He held Gregori's gaze until Alexandria could have sworn she saw a flicker of fire, a flame, springing from one to the other. Gregori's hard mouth softened slightly. "You have learned well, Aidan. You are a healer of both body and mind."

Aidan inclined his head in acknowledgment of the compliment. The wind howled, the waves crashed, and Gregori launched himself into the dark, roiling clouds. A black shape spread across the sky, an ominous shadow staining the heavens, and then it moved north and faded away as if it had never been, taking the storm with it.

Aidan sank into the sand, his head bowed, his shoulders shaking, as if he was trying to control some great emotion that had overcome him. Alexandria circled his head with her arms. She could feel sobs tearing at his throat and chest, yet he made no sound. Only a single, blood-red tear marked his great sorrow.

"I am sorry, cara, but he is a great man, one our people cannot afford to lose. I could feel his bleakness, the inner demon waiting to devour him. To have to honor my promise to him, to have to hunt him..." He shook his head. "It is such a disservice to one who has dedicated his life to our people, to our Prince."

Alexandria's breath caught in her throat. She had thought Aidan invincible. Capable, even, of hunting vampires and triumphing over their evil power. But Gregori was a different proposition. Even with two hunters such as Aidan, it didn't seem possible that he could be defeated. "Can't you contact this woman, the one who could save him?"

Aidan shook his head regretfully. "He would continue to honor his vow, and her presence would only make things worse."

She touched his hair with gentle, loving fingers. "As I made it worse for you." She rubbed her chin thoughtfully against his hair. "I can understand that girl's being afraid. You scared me. You still do. But Gregori, he's terrifying. I would never want to be tied to such a being. And she's only a child."

"Why would you still be afraid of me?" Aidan lifted his head and touched her face reverently with his fingertips, with a tenderness that turned her heart over.

"Your power. Your intensity. Maybe when you teach me a few things, I won't be so nervous of it, but now it seems you have too much power for any one person to wield."

"Your mind holds the same powers as mine. You simply have to think of what you want, Alexandria. If you wish flight, you simply hold the picture in your mind, and your body is light, and you float."

His arm circled her waist, and they rose slowly into the air. "Merge with me. See it for yourself. There is no need to ever fear me." He set them gently back to earth.

"Tell me about the 'claiming' he was talking about. What did he mean? And who is Mikhail?"

"Mikhail is the oldest of our people, our Prince. He has led us for centuries. Gregori is only a quarter of a century younger, so in our terms, they are nearly the same age. Our people have been persecuted over the years, driven into hiding, and many were massacred. Our women have become so few, the men cannot find lifemates to bring light to their darkness, and more and more turn vampire. Though no one has yet discovered why, the few children born to us are male, and most do not survive the first year of life. Those women who give birth and lose the child grow despondent and refuse to try after a time. So the men without lifemates are lost, without hope. They either greet the dawn and perish or succumb to the demon within. Become vampire, true predators."

"How terrible." She meant it, sorrow filling her mind and heart.

"Mikhail and Gregori have been trying to find a way to avoid the inevitable, the extinction of our race. They discovered that a small group of human women possessing psychic abilities were capable of bonding chemically with our males."

"Like me."

He nodded. "You did not find human men physically attractive. For some unknown reason, you were not born into our race but were made for me specifically. Your body and mine have a need to be one. Your heart and soul are the other half of mine. Mikhail and Gregori believe that those psychic women of human descent are capable of producing female children, and that those children will also be capable, or at least more likely to produce female children. So you see why you are so treasured."

"What is the claiming?"

Aidan let his breath out slowly. "Alexandria..." There was hesitation in his voice.

She stepped away from him, her chin rising. "I guess there's a lot you haven't told me. Am I expected to have a child? A girl? What are the odds that my child will live?"

He reached out, framing her face in his large hands. "I do not want you for a breeder for my race, piccola. I want you for myself. I do not know the odds that our child will survive. Like you, I can only pray. We will have to cross that bridge when we come to it."

"So we have a girl, she survives her first year and grows up. What happens then?" Her sapphire eyes were steady on his golden ones.

"All female children are claimed on their eighteenth birthdays. The males come from all over to meet the girl. If the chemistry is right, she is claimed by the male."

"That is barbaric. Like a meat market. She has no chance at living any kind of life for herself." Alexandria was shocked.

"Carpathian women are raised to know they hold the fate of their lifemate in their hands. It is their birthright, as is bearing the children."

"No wonder the poor girl ran away. Can you imagine facing a life with that man at such an early age? How old is he? To her he must seem ancient. He's a man, for heaven's sake, not a boy. He's tough and probably cruel, and evidently he knows more about every subject under the sun than anyone alive."

"How old do you think I am, Alexandria?" Aidan asked softly. "I have lived over eight hundred years now. You are irrevocably bound to me. Is it such a terrible fate?"

For a moment there was silence. Then she was smiling at him. "Ask me again in a hundred years. I'll tell you then."

His eyes burned a liquid gold, molten, sexy. "Go home, cara mia. I will finish my work here and join you."

"I brought the car," she said. "When my Volkswagen wouldn't start, I took the little sporty-looking thing that no one ever uses. Stefan said it would be all right."

"I knew, and you did not hear a complaint. There is nowhere you go and nothing you do that is not known to me. We are one, piccola." He ruffled her hair as if she was a child because his body was starting to make demands, and a vampire's remains were but a few yards away. "Drive home, and I will meet you there."

As he walked her to the car, she fit beneath his shoulder, so that his body was sheltering her. Alexandria was ashamed of herself for liking the feeling it gave her. She was determined to hold on to her independence with both hands, especially in light of what he had told her might be the fate of her daughter. She had to be strong enough to stand up to Aidan, if she wanted a daughter who was able to choose her own way. She had the feeling Carpathian males had never caught on to the twentieth-century women's liberation movement.

Aidan watched the taillights of the little car disappear around the curve leading up to the main road. He shoved a hand through his thick mane of hair and turned to face the mess on the rocks. Several weeks earlier, five vampires had arrived in the area. They had moved across the United States on a killing spree, believing no hunters would follow them so far from their homeland. Still, it was known among their people that Aidan Savage resided in San Francisco. Why had they chosen to come here, to take such a risk? Was it because Gregori's woman was coming? But that was months away. What then? What had drawn the vampires to one of the few places in the United States where a true hunter resided?

He walked across the sand, his strides long and fast. Had they sensed Alexandria's presence when he had not? Was something else drawing them to San Francisco? He knew several renegades had chosen to go to New Orleans because the city had such a reputation for debauchery, for being the murder capital of the United States. Los Angeles, too, drew them because its frequent violence would hide their handiwork. He hunted there, though, when he recognized their doings.

When he reached the vampire's body he found it blackened and singed, the hair smoldering. It gave off the unmistakable stench of evil. If this one had stalked Alexandria, no doubt their home was being watched. He looked up at the night sky and sent his challenge. Clouds raced forward, dark and ominous, heralding retribution.

Come for me. You sought out my city, my home, my family. I am waiting for you. The wind carried his words over the city, and somewhere, far off, like a distant clap of thunder, a bellow of anger answered him, the frenzied barking of dogs adding to the din.

His white teeth gleamed like a predator's as Aidan sent his silent laughter winging its way to his adversary. The challenge made, he bent over what remained of this vampire. Though he had spent much time with Gregori, he had never seen anything like this before. The vampire's chest was blown away, but his tainted blood had not seeped out because the wound was cauterized by the blast. The heart had turned to black, useless ashes. He shook his head. Gregori was nature at its most lethal.

Aidan stepped back from the abomination with a sense of sadness and inevitability. He had known this fallen creature, had grown up with him. This man was nearly two hundred years younger than he, yet he had turned. Why? Why did some of them hold out and some give in so quickly? Was it strength of character in those who endured? A loss of belief in any future for those who turned? Mikhail and Gregori struggled endlessly to bring their race hope, yet this man was proof they weren't succeeding. Too many of them were turning. The numbers increased with every passing century. It was no wonder Gregori was tired of hunting, of fighting the demon that was always within him. How did one hunt former friends, century after century, without becoming as hopeless as those he pursued?

Aidan had to go home. He needed Alexandria's arms around him. He needed her warmth and compassion. He needed her body burning around his, telling him he was alive and had not become death. But he had become death to many of his kind, those who had turned, those he had hunted, and he knew it.

Aidan, come home to me. You are not deadly. You are gentle and kind. Look at you with Joshua. With Marie and Stefan. Gregori has made you melancholy. So many of my people are lost, he mourned.

All the more reason to fight, to keep going. There is hope. We found each other, didn't we? Others will, too.

She sent him an image of herself, of her sweater floating to the floor of the third-floor bath, the master suite steamy from the frothy Jacuzzi.

He began laughing softly, his spirits rising as quickly as they had plummeted. Alexandria was waiting for him, sexy and sweet. Light to his darkness, a beacon to guide him home.

That's not all I am.

Her voice was provocative. A wisp of lace floating to the floor filled his mind. Her breasts were bare, full, enticing. She was smiling, a siren's invitation.

You're keeping me waiting. Show me.

Holding the picture of her in his mind, he moved away from the scarred corpse and began to rebuild the storm's intensity.

Her hand went to the fly of her jeans. With infinite slowness she slipped each button from its hole. His breath caught in his throat as she hooked her thumbs in the waistband and inched the denim over her hips.

Come home and see.

There was need in her voice, a little catch that sent his blood surging hotly. He lifted his face to the heavens, sent clouds whirling and darkening at his command. Like the roar in his blood, the waves leapt and slammed into shore, dousing the cliff with spray and foam. Thunder rumbled ominously, and veins of lightning flashed inside the clouds.

Come to me, Aidan.

She was temptation. She was light while he created the darkness.

Lightning flashed to the ground, lit the sand with a shower of sparks, red tongues of flame licking at his very feet. He could feel her moving in his mind, her mouth on his skin, the sensation taking away the pain of death, the death of an old friend. Losing so many of his people nearly drove him mad.

Aidan raised a hand higher and began to gather the sparks into a fireball. He lifted his face to the wild winds. He could not fathom ever doing this to Gregori. Even if he could defeat Gregori, he could not do this. Yet how many times had Gregori been forced to hunt a friend? A relative? A childhood playmate? How many such stains could one's soul bear before there was no redemption?

I am with you, Aidan.

Alexandria's voice was a breath of fresh, clean air, untouched by the evil in front of him.

Your soul is not black. I can see it, feel it, touch it with my own. What you do, you do out of necessity, not out of desire. Your friend fights to save himself. If his soul was black, he would not have stayed to protect me. He would have gone after the second vampire for the joy of the hunt, the kill. He stayed, Aidan. And he has gone to be alone where violence cannot touch him, where he has a chance to wait out his vow. That vow alone should tell both of you something. He is no selfish vampire, not even close to becoming one. He thinks of her. Finish your task, ugly as it is, and come back to me. Think of me. I will often have to come to you with blood on my hands.

There was a small silence. Then he felt the brush of her hand and was astonished that she had reached out to him when she had never been trained. Her fingertips lingered on his jaw and trailed down his neck, conveying tenderness.

I have been in the hands of a vampire, Aidan. You forget, I know the ugliness of evil. It is not in you, as you seem to think You hunt because you must, not from a need to kill. Perhaps at one time those who became vampires were good men, but the men you once knew are long gone from this earth. Perhaps Gregori and you give them peace.

Aidan allowed her words to rinse the sorrow from his mind, the terrible fear and dread that her very presence in his life had allowed him to feel. He shook his head over the irony of that. He had felt no emotion for so many centuries, and now, because Alexandria had come into his life, he knew the terrible burden, the sorrow of the hunter.

He sent the ball of fire racing toward the dead vampire, his attention now focused on his task. The ball entered the mined chest, and before his eyes the betrayer blackened, withered, became the ash of the earth once again. His gaze on the ashes, he built the wind with one hand. The gust came not from the sea but from the land, scattering the ashes into the waves that would carry them out to a fitting resting place. Aidan whispered an ancient chant to cleanse himself as well as his fallen friend. Squaring his shoulders, he stood tall and straight, then turned to face the direction of his home.

He could hear the sound of water, Alexandria's murmur of pleasure as she stepped into the sunken tub. He could smell her scent, beckoning him. Smiling, he took to the air, feeling it move over his body, cleansing him.
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