Dark Gold Chapter Seventeen

The sun was unusually large in the sky, gleaming a strange red. There was little wind, few clouds, and the ocean itself was tranquil, the surface like glass. Beneath the earth, a heart began to beat. Soil shifted, churned, then spewed like a geyser from the secret chamber beneath Aidan's house.

He lay still, his great body drained of strength. Beside him, as silent and still as death, lay Alexandria. Aidan's eyes snapped open, fury burning in their depths at the disturbance to his sleep. Outside his home, somewhere close, something evil lurked in the bright sunlight on the peaceful afternoon.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, his arms folded across his chest. He sent himself seeking outside his body and into the air itself. It took intense concentration and focus to be bodiless, completely without form. He moved upward through the chamber and passed through the heavy trapdoor. Passing through solids was disorienting, a strange wrenching of atoms and molecules, and Aidan mentally shook himself. He had experimented with this process and often found the complete separation of body and mind difficult. In the other forms he took, his body was different but still with him. With only his mind and soul, his senses were altered. Sounds were strangely distorted, as he had no ears, and he couldn't actually touch anything, passing straight through it if he tried, causing a slightly sickening sensation. As he had no stomach, the nausea was even stranger.

Yet it was imperative to stay completely focused; it was essential not to allow himself to be disturbed by the unwanted sensations. He traveled along the rock tunnel deep within the earth. It always seemed so narrow, his shoulders nearly brushing the sides, but without his body, the space was enormous, another sensory distortion.

He passed through the door leading to the basement. Already the dark, oppressive evil that had awakened him deep within the earth was filling the air with its stench.

Aidan proceeded through the basement door into the kitchen of his home, warped vibrations and tones seeming to bounce through his being before he could identify them as Joshua's laughter, Marie's musical voice, Stefan's deeper baritone. The knowledge that the three were still safe gave him a measure of comfort. Whatever was in the air, whatever was stalking those he loved, had not penetrated the safeguards of his home.

The sun blazed through the huge windows, and Aidan instinctively veered away from the rays. He had no eyes, no skin to burn, but he felt the wrenching agony all the same. When every survival instinct screamed at him to go back to the safe, cool earth, far from the burning sun, the stench of evil impelled him forward.

Over the centuries, he had often lived in proximity to humans, more so than most of his kind, yet it never failed to astonish him that they had so few warning systems, or if they did, that they completely ignored them. The air was thick with the stench, the disturbance so great it had penetrated his chamber below the rich earth, intruding on his deep sleep. Yet Marie was singing in the living room as she dusted his jade collection, and Stefan was humming as he tinkered with an engine in the huge garage, one of his many hobbies. Aidan wanted to call to him, to warn him, but in his energy-consuming formlessness, he didn't dare try. He moved through the garage and back into the house, homing in on Joshua in the kitchen.

The child was the obvious target of the madness aimed at both Alexandria and Aidan. Aidan sped toward him, the bright sunlight sapping his energy. His mind rebelled, flinching from the brilliant rays, but he forced himself through the light to reach the boy.

Joshua was playing with the puppy, his eyes dancing, his blond curls bouncing, the picture of boyish joy. He had no idea he was in deadly peril.

Even as Aidan observed, the dog ran to the door, whining softly, and Joshua glanced about, looking for Stefan or Marie, who had told him in no uncertain terms not to go outside. Snapping a leash on the puppy, he opened the door and rushed into the garden.

The heat of the sun pierced Aidan's very soul. He felt as if he were on a skewer, roasting, burning. He followed the boy anyway, putting aside the pain.

"Come on, Baron," Joshua insisted. "Hurry it up." The little boy looked around again to make sure he was alone. "Baron's a dopey name, but Stefan really wanted you to be called that. He says it will make you noble, whatever that is. I'll ask Alexandria. She knows everything. I wanted to call you Alex. That would have made her laugh."

"Joshua!" Vinnie del Marco appeared, his large frame intimidating, his arms folded, his face stern. "Weren't you given orders? Soldiers get court-martialed for less than this."

The air was thick with the stench now. Aidan could see that Vinnie felt safe in the garden as he teased the boy, the high wall around them, the security system in full force. He had no perception of the danger lurking so close. Vinnie bent to scratch behind the puppy's ears.

A rush of wind, sound, and movement displaced Aidan, knocking him sideways as a blurred mass leapt the fence. A furred, powerfully muscled beast hit Vinnie squarely in the chest, its huge gaping jaws going for his throat.

"Run, kid! Get in the house!" Vinnie yelled just before the animal tore open flesh and sinew. Blood sprayed into the air, showering Joshua and the puppy as they stood frozen to the spot.

The boy said one word, whispered it softly like a prayer amid the ugliness. "Alexandria."

A second animal hurtled over the wall and rushed at Vinnie, and its dripping fangs closed over his leg. With a vicious twist of its massive head, it audibly snapped bone, and Vinnie's screams filled the air. Rusty charged around the corner, gun in hand, but Joshua was in his line of fire. A third animal sprang from the wall onto his back, teeth clamping tightly around his shoulder.

Aidan could hear Stefan running, but he knew the vampire had laid his trap all too well. The beasts were sacrificial pawns. Stefan would shoot them to save the two men from the crazed animals, but by then the human puppet moving over the wall had scooped up the terrified child and tugged him back over the wall. The air reverberated with gunfire, then with Stefan shouting to his wife.

"Call an ambulance, Marie, and get out here now! I need some help!" Stefan knelt beside Vinnie and tried to clamp the worst of the wounds pumping out the man's life onto the ground.

"Joshua! Where is Joshua?" Marie cried when she joined him.

"He's gone," Stefan reported grimly. "He was taken." Marie's sobs faded behind him as Aidan followed the human and child. Joshua was thrown into the trunk of a car, and the puppet walked with the characteristic jerky motions of a vampire-induced trance to the driver's seat. Aidan streamed in through the open window and hovered, but the puppet could not detect his presence. The vampire could not direct this assault while he lay beneath earth in the daylight hours, but he had implanted his orders into his minions' minds before he had sought the safety of his lair.

The car swerved along the winding road, the driver drooling and staring vacantly ahead with the gaze of the possessed.

Aidan moved away from the abomination and into the trunk. Joshua lay in a stupor, the left side of his face swelling, his eye already turning black. Tears rolled down to his chin, but his sobs were silent.

Aidan concentrated, calling on all of his strength to communicate silently with the boy.

Joshua, I am here with you. I will have you sleep. You will stay asleep until I come for you. When I say to you, "Alexandria needs to see your blue eyes," you will know it is safe to awaken. Only then will you do so. The mind meld was draining, and he had so little energy during this terrible time of the day. He also needed to cast spells, the most intricate, dangerous ones Gregori had taught him. If the vampire was somehow able to rise before Aidan could return to the boy, it would take a time to unravel the spells, and Joshua would be safe from harm and further trauma in his sleep.

Aidan wove his spells as the car moved northward, toward the mountains. Toward Gregori's new home, came the unbidden thought.

It couldn't be Gregori. Aidan wouldn't believe it. The vampire simply had no idea Gregori was anywhere in the vicinity. It wasn't Gregori. Gregori was so powerful, he would not need the deceitful tricks, the beasts, the mindless puppet doing his bidding, or even the child. Gregori would need no help. This was not Gregori. Aidan held on to that certainty while he wove the spells. Ancient, binding, dangerous to any who tried to harm the boy.

When he was finished, he rested, exhausted. He had done all he could. Once he knew the child's exact destination, he would have to make his way home. He dreaded the journey in the bright sun; there was no pain quite like it, nothing more sickening to one of his kind.

The puppet stopped the car at the entrance to an old, rundown hunting lodge with rotting timbers and overgrown with vines and bushes. Aidan knew at once that the vampire was close, most likely beneath the decaying planks of the floor. Rats scurried visibly, the sentinels for the undead. The walking marionette, the minion of the undead, already drained of his mind and free will, opened the trunk and reached in to pull the child out by his shirtfront.

The protective spell instantly sent fire racing up the puppet's arm to his shoulders and enveloped his head. The thing, no longer really alive, programmed to do one thing only, continued to try to clutch the boy even as his flesh burned.

Aidan was thankful Joshua was asleep. The putrefying stench was incredible, even to one without a nose. The blackened carcass fell to the ground, bits of charred flesh dropping away. The puppet issued a low, keening vibration, his death slow and difficult, the macabre caricature still trying over and over to drag the boy to the vampire. Aidan hated the torment resulting from the vampire's twisted schemes. But then, the undead liked his minions to suffer as much as possible.

When the thing was finally still, the last breath dragged from its lungs, Aidan inspected the remains to ensure it was truly dead and to leave no smoldering ember that might accidentally ignite any vegetation. Satisfied that he had done as much as he was able, Aidan had to leave, to travel through that terrible sunlight, back to his home.

His strength completely drained, the journey took the better part of the afternoon, and he feared that when he did reach home he might not have energy enough to rise with the setting sun and return to the vampire's lair. He was growing ever weaker, his being becoming even more insubstantial, a feather blown about in the elements. Only the thought of Alexandria sustained him. And a welcome dense, blanketing white fog eased his passage home.

Once there, with his last ounce of energy, he made his way unerringly to his resting place beside Alexandria. The wrench of reuniting with his body contorted his very bones, his muscles contracting and locking in hard, swollen masses. Vulnerable and without strength, his great power drained completely, he lay as one dead, the cool earth closing over him. A soft hiss escaped, the last breath from his lungs.

Upstairs, above Aidan and Alexandria, Stefan could only try to comfort his wife as they huddled together awaiting the setting sun, awaiting the moment Aidan would arise. The sun seemed as if it wanted to stay up for all time, but unexpectedly a slow, thick fog began to roll in just before six o'clock. Stefan felt some of the terrible tension leave his body, though the guilt remained as he waited.

Deep below the earth, Aidan arose, voraciously hungry to replenish starving cells and sinews depleted from his earlier task. Yet his first thought was of Gregori. There could be only one answer. The Carpathian had intervened. He was great enough, powerful enough to feel the disturbances in the land even from beneath the earth itself. He had sent the fog to aid Aidan when he knew Aidan was far too drained to build it himself. And the fog remained, here before the sun set, giving him a head start on what he must do.

Aidan had studied for centuries, believing, as Gregori did, that knowledge was power, yet he could not do all the things Gregori was able to do. He would not have detected a bodiless being while sleeping in the ground, and Aidan was certain Gregori had not only done so but had also sent the fog to aid him. Aidan found himself smiling. The vampire was not Gregori.

Glancing down at Alexandria's face, he brushed his fingers tenderly through her hair before floating them upward to the underground chamber. Alexandria always went to sleep on a bed and awoke on one, but as long as a vampire preyed in their city, Aidan always brought her beneath the healing soil, where she was impossible to detect.

Wake, piccola.

Wake and look at your lifemate. He whispered the words softly, dreading her coming pain, a lump forming in his throat.

When she took her first breath, a soft sigh, it went straight to his heart. Her blue eyes opened, her gaze locked on his. At once her warmth surrounded him, seeping into the cold pores of his body. She smiled, a loving, sweet smile that was an arrow piercing his soul.

"What is it?" she asked. Very gently, tenderly, she lifted a hand and traced his mouth with a fingertip. "What have you been doing to yourself? You're gray, Aidan. You need to feed." Her voice was a soft invitation.

"Alexandria." He said her name, nothing else.

She surprised him as she always did, her eyes darkening to a deep blue, her voice a mere thread of sound, her body very still. "Is he alive?" There was no hint of condemnation, no anger that he had not kept the child safe.

He closed his eyes, unable to meet her gaze. He simply nodded.

Alexandria took a deep breath and caressed his jaw with her palm. "Look at me, Aidan."

"I cannot, Alexandria. I will face you when I have returned Joshua safely to our home, to your arms."

"I said look at me." Her fingertips were on his chin, raising it.

He could do no other than her bidding. She was tearing him up inside with her acceptance, her understanding, her gentleness. His golden eyes blazed at her. Then he felt her, merging, instantly with him, so swiftly and completely that he had no chance to hide any of it - the beasts attacking those guarding her brother, Stefan and Marie's anguish, Joshua's terror, his own efforts and pain in the sun, the charring of the human puppet. It was all laid out in front of her in stark, ugly detail. When she heard the soft whisper of her name on Joshua's lips, she made a single sound.

Her pain went so deep, Aidan felt the demon rise and rush through his body, taking control. A slow, murderous hiss escaped from deep within his throat. His golden eyes glowed with deadly intent. "How dare he try this?" His voice was as lethal as his expression. "How dare he use the boy as a challenge to bring me out into the open?"

"Shh, Aidan." She put a finger over his mouth. "You have no need to blame yourself. Come to me. Take what you need to do this thing, to get Joshua back." She was slowly pushing aside the silk shirt she wore, her slender arm circling his neck, bringing his head down to her breast.

"I will hunt. You have need yourself." He clenched his teeth against the hunger beating at him.

She moved her breasts against his skin, her scent enveloping him, a creamy invitation, a temptation impossible to resist. "You're gray, Aidan, weak. It is my right and responsibility to aid you, isn't it? I am your lifemate." Her fingertips were massaging his neck, her mouth moving over his hair, his temple. "Give me this gift, Aidan. Let me help you."

He swore eloquently, but the demon in him demanded blood, demanded strength, and his body was aroused and painfully full. Cursing his own weakness, he bent his golden head to her skin. So soft, so perfect. Her blood beckoned him with its heat, with the promise of addicting spice. His body clenched as his tongue swept over her pulse.

She was heat and light and the promise of paradise. His hands moved over her hips, her tiny waist, her narrow rib cage. Her breasts filled his palms with their softness. "Cara mia," he whispered against her creamy skin, "I love you."

His tongue touched, caressed, sending a tremor through her. Her arms tightened around him.

Please, Aidan, do it now, she whispered in his mind, her lips in his hair.

I need to make you strong again. I need to take away your pain. And she did. Alexandria knew his every moment in the terrible sun, what he had suffered for her, for Joshua. She had never needed to do anything more in her life than supply him with nourishment, to show her overwhelming love and support for him.

She cried out, her head thrown back, her body arching into his as his teeth pierced her breast. Tears came to her eyes as she cradled him to her. He was unbearably gentle, holding her with love and tenderness, as if she were the most precious treasure in the world. She could feel her strength waning even as his grew. She could feel it in his mind first, then in the beating of his heart, in the ripple of power in his muscles and sinews. It was an incredible feeling to provide Aidan with such strength and purpose. Her entire body clenched and protested when his tongue lapped across the wound in a rough caress, closing the link between them.

He dragged her into the circle of his arms. "That is enough, cara." His hands stroked her hair. "I must go now. I am counting on you to soothe Stefan and Marie. Stefan always blames himself when he cannot stop whatever a vampire sends against us."

"I have to go with you." She clutched his arm. "It's me the vampire wants. How do I find him? Tell me what to do, Aidan. I'll do anything to get Joshua back, anything at all." There were tears shining in her eyes, but her chin was up courageously. The nightmare had caught up with her all over again. Little Joshua in the hands of a cold-blooded vampire.

"I will get him back," Aidan quietly assured her.

"No, I won't take chances with either of you. He wants me. I'll go myself. See if he'll exchange Joshua for me," she said desperately. "This isn't your fault any more than it is Stefan's. This isn't your responsibility. I will go to him."

Aidan looked down at her then, his face cold. "I will not allow you to take such a risk. This is my fight," he vowed.

"How can you say that? Joshua is all I have. He's my brother, my only family. I have every right to defend him."

He brushed back her hair, his hand gentle. "Joshua is also my brother, my family. You are my lifemate. There is no question, cara mia, who will take care of this problem. You will stay here in this house and do as I say. I will not argue with you about this."

His voice, black velvet and tender, could turn her heart over, but she would not be seduced this time. Alexandria tilted her chin. "No, Aidan, I'm going with you. If you can save only one of us, it will be Joshua."

His eyes caressed her even as he shook his head. "You will give me your word that you will do as I say, or I will send you to sleep until I return. And if you are sleeping the sleep of the immortal, you will be unable to aid me should I have need of it. I must go now. I am wasting valuable time, time Gregori earned for me at great cost to his own strength, I am certain." His mouth brushed hers. "What shall it be? Do you sleep while I go? Or will you remain here awake to aid me should it become necessary?"

Alexandria shifted away from him but nodded her compliance. "It isn't as if you're leaving me a lot of choice, Aidan," she said softly. "Go then. But nothing had better happen to you, or you'll see what a human woman can do when she's good and mad."

"Former human woman," he corrected.

And he was gone. Just like that. One moment he was solid and real, the next he was a rainbow of light streaking through the narrow tunnel of rock upward toward the fog-shrouded sky.

Alexandria sat for a long time, her hands folded in her lap. Aidan would be all right. He would have to be. And he would bring Joshua home to her. She believed it because she had to believe it. When she tried to get to her feet, she found herself shaky, her legs weak. It took determination to find and pull on her jeans. It was difficult to believe that just last night Aidan was making love to her, and now he was out fighting a monster.

She made her way slowly along the tunnel, holding on to the wall, her hand trembling as she opened the entrance leading to the kitchen. She could hear Marie's quiet weeping, the low murmur of Stefan's voice as he attempted to comfort her.

The couple was on the sofa in the sitting room, Marie's head on Stefan's shoulder, his arm around her. They both looked older somehow. Alexandria knelt in front of them and put a hand over their linked ones. "Aidan will bring Joshua back. He knows where he is and managed to weave some kind of protective spell for him. We both think another hunter is in the area and will come to Aidan's aid if need be." Her voice was pitched low and was compelling. "I believe in Aidan, and you must, too. We won't lose either of them tonight."

She could feel the power of what she had become rushing through her. Despite the fact that she was weak and pale and needed to feed, she still felt the power. Her mind was strong, and she had assets she had never dreamed of before. They could be used for good, as now, to ease the suffering of the loyal older couple. Stefan and Marie had grown to love Joshua, and both believed themselves to be in some way responsible for his abduction.

Stefan's large frame shuddered. "I'm sorry, Alexandria, we let you down. The attack was so unexpected, but I should have been with Joshua, kept him by my side."

"I thought he was safe while he was in the house," Marie moaned softly, lifting her apron to cover her face.

Alexandria pushed the apron down and circled both of them with her slender arms. She could hear the blood pumping through their veins, the ebb and flow of life. The scent of nourishment beckoned, but she knew now that she could control herself, trust herself. "No one is to blame for this, Marie. Not you and not Stefan. We'll get through this thing together, as a family. You two and Aidan and Joshua and me. There can be no blame."

Stefan's hand came up to touch her hair. "Do you mean that, Alexandria? It's what you really feel inside?"

She nodded. "Joshua belongs to all of us. It was wrong of me to try to hold him to myself. Now, when he is in danger, we all blame ourselves. Aidan does, because he thinks he failed me. I do, because somehow I let all this happen. You do, because Joshua is a little boy and didn't do as you instructed. The truth is, what happened just happened. And Aidan will bring our boy home to us." She said it with absolute conviction.

Stefan's faded eyes held hers steadily. "And if... if something goes wrong?"

She felt the blow in the pit of her stomach but didn't visibly react. She kept her sapphire gaze locked with his. "Then we will all deal with it together, won't we?"

I will not fail you, cara.

Aidan's voice in her mind, the reassurance, brought her a measure of comfort.

Don't think about me right now, Aidan. Be careful. I will be here, merged with you, if you need to draw on my strength. And she meant to monitor the skies for him. To ferret out any trap the vampire had laid. Aidan would not be alone in this. If something went wrong, he would not carry the load on his own shoulders as he had done for so many centuries. She was determined to share it with him.

"You're very weak, Alexandria," Stefan said softly. "If you're to help Aidan, you must have something to..." He trailed off.

For the first time, Alexandria smiled. "It's all right, Stefan. I'm not going to be so silly as to fling myself out the door again."

"I would willingly volunteer," he offered.

She was already shaking her head when a black fury swirled in her mind. Aidan's resistance to the idea had more to do with jealousy than with his vow never to use those who served him, she realized. Alexandria tucked that knowledge away for examination at a better time. "I could never, Stefan, but thank you."

"Aidan keeps emergency supplies. He gave you some once. It is not as good, but it would help."

She shook her head. "Not that yet, either. If there is great need, I will take it. For now, tell me of the others, the guards. Aidan is quite worried about their well-being." She had picked it out of his head, his anxiety for Vinnie and Rusty.

"Vinnie was hurt badly and lost a lot of blood. He had well over a hundred stitches in his neck alone. Rusty fared a little better, but both will be out of commission for a long while," Stefan answered. "I saw to it that they obtained the best doctors available, including a plastic surgeon for Vinnie. I assured both men we would pay the medical bills and compensate them handsomely for their lost time."

Alexandria squeezed Marie's hand gently. "Thank you both. You make things so much easier for us." She slowly got to her feet and made her way to the recliner, where she curled up, drawing her knees up to rest her chin on them. She closed her eyes and allowed the room to fall away so that she could merge herself completely with Aidan. It was where she wanted to be. Where she belonged.

Aidan was well cloaked in the fog Gregori had produced. The dark healer had such an impressive command over nature. The heavy mantle of fog blocked the sun's rays, enabling Aidan to travel without discomfort and to gain an advantage over the vampire still underground until sunset. Most of all, a terrible weight had been lifted from his heart. Alexandria was with him, accepting of him, of all of him. She could clearly see the beast roaring for freedom, struggling for control, and she didn't back away from him in horror. She didn't blame him for the vampire's desperate challenge or the way Joshua had been abducted. She was afraid for Joshua and for him, but she was not falling apart. She had done as he had asked and tried to reassure and comfort Stefan and Marie. Alexandria was becoming his partner, truly his partner.

As he sped through the fog, he realized he loved her unconditionally, too. He had never known such a deep, passionate emotion. She had crawled so deeply into him, he was totally lost. He was hopelessly, completely, shamelessly in love. In his wildest fantasies, he had never imagined it would feel this good. He sent up a quick prayer that everything would go as he planned, that the safeguards he had woven around the boy would hold until he could destroy the vampire.

Aidan was moving swiftly, attempting to race the setting sun. The fog had given him a fighting chance, a head start, and he was determined to make full use of it. He streaked through the sky, streaming through the clouds, disturbing a flock of birds and sending them wheeling sharply away from the iridescent light. Gray shaded the trees below, indicating he had only minutes before the sunset. The old hunting lodge was in sight now, deep in the shadows of the tall pines.
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