Rowan slipped out into the dark hallway and padded silently past gilt-framed portraits of MacInneses past. Just glancing at them, she knew they were all dark-haired, strapping men with intense eyes. Alphas, as Gabriel had called them. A position Gideon would hold someday, being the elder son. Did it bother Gabriel, she wondered? She hadn't even asked him what he did, how he made his own living. There was doubtless money in the family, from the looks of the estate, but a man like that was too vital to simply sit still and wallow lazily in what good fortune heredity had seen fit to impart. He would need to make his own way.
And wondering about it wasn't going to get her down the stairs, Rowan thought with an exasperated sigh, speeding up as she turned the corner at the end of the hall and quickly descending the narrow steps. Past the kitchen, through the door, and out into the night Rowan flew. When the night air enveloped her she took a deep breath of the wild, sweet fragrance of the wood. She headed in the direction of the chapel rains, relying on memory to take her to the place where the all-important Stone rested.
She had known the moment she'd laid eyes on the smooth black piece of rock that had brought her and Bastian to the lost arukhin; this was to be her way back to her own realm of Coracin. Her brother refused to accept her help keeping the Andrakkar out of Earth, so rather than taking his obstinacy as defeat, she'd simply reassessed and decided the best thing would be to go back, find as many of the scattered Dyadd as she could, and fix the problem at its source.
She had resolved on the night of the fires to kill both Lucien and Mordred Andrakkar. And so she would, falling upon them when they would least expect it. Where they would least expect it. In their own home- the Black Mountains. And though it might mean her own death, ridding Coracin of such a scourge would be well worth it.
But first she needed to get to the gateway stone.
It took no effort at all to locate the hidden passage to the chamber, though it was well covered. A human would never find it, Rowan knew. But she could feel the power flowing upward through the ground as strongly as her own heartbeat, and with a quick wave of her hand, slabs of heavy stone slid aside to reveal a passageway lit by torches that would never extinguish.
Her breath came fast and shallow as she descended, as the realization of what she was about to do hit her full force. She was, after so many months of exile, going home. She didn't know how much there was to go back to, but it had to be better than wandering aimlessly in this crowded and alien place where she did not belong. Down and down, her feet barely touching the cold stone floor, Rowan raced. At last she reached the massive wooden door that swung easily inward at her barest touch, revealing a large circular chamber, its walls awash in flickering light from the heavy iron chandelier suspended from the ceiling. And in the middle of the room, the sleeping Stone, black as night but etched with golden letters in a language so ancient even she did not understand.
The hair on her arms and the back of her neck stood up as magic wove through her. Rowan approached slowly now, feeling pulled. As though it sensed her, the golden letters began to glow, and the Stone emitted a soft, musical sigh. She stopped, uncertain, then forced herself to take the last few steps to reach it.
The Stone sighed again, a strange and longing sound. Rowan raised her hands, relying on instinct now rather than any true knowledge of how to go about this. The gateway stones had been crafted by the Drakkyn in the time when the gods and goddesses still walked among their people. So many of the secrets of that time had been lost. But the Stone recognized her blood. And Rowan knew without a doubt that it would do as she commanded.
An odd shiver of foreboding rippled through her in those last seconds before she laid her hands on it, a sudden cooling of the air around her even as the words etched into the Stone grew flame-bright. She could turn back, her slightly panicked voice of reason insisted. She could turn away, wait for Bastian as he had wanted. Stay, and only increase her longing for a man she was always going to have to leave.
Or she could begin to seek the revenge that was her right.
Rowan stiffened, drawing her shoulders back. It was time the Andrakkar remembered the wrath of the Goddess. In her mind there was suddenly a whirl of screams and smoke, and the unmistakable smell of burning. All because of her. She had chosen to defy the dragons.
Now she chose revenge.
Rowan slammed her hands down atop the Stone, which came up slightly higher than her waist, and felt a quick shock at the connection. The Stone, surprisingly warm, awoke at her touch. Power roared through her like a great river. Her skin lit like a candle, glowing bright white against the dark, and Rowan didn't think she could have removed her hands if she'd wanted to.
Not that she did. Because at that first touch, she'd felt just how close she was to home. She'd actually felt the ripple of the cool forest breeze through her hair, smelled the rich scents of wood and earth. It gripped her with a longing she hadn't expected, so strong she barely cared what happened to her, as long as she could breathe the sweet air of the Carith Noor once again. She opened her mouth to speak the words that would open the portal.
At the last second they died in her throat. The image of Gabriel's soft green eyes rose in her mind, along with a whisper full of an emotion she both yearned for and feared. She had a sudden wild urge to tear her hands away and race back to the house, to whatever awaited her there
"Stay with me."
Magic pulsed through her, home close enough to touch, only a simple word away. So why was she suddenly so uncertain? Rowan shook her head, trying to clear it, that strange foreboding pricking at her nerves again. She'd made her choice. Arukhin protector or no, Gabriel was not an option, not in any sense. It had been too long since her kind and his had been intertwined. He would doubtless try to bend her to his will, deny her the freedom she required. He was strong, yes. Too strong. She didn't want anyone who was capable of harming her and hers.
She didn't want anyone at all, Rowan told herself firmly.
And if it rang a little false even to her, well, she was certain that would change with time and distance.
Her decision made, she forced out the word she knew she must speak.
And as the chamber was plunged into darkness, the light snuffed with a single, sinister breath, Rowan was filled with the sudden terrible knowledge that she had made a horrendous mistake. Very likely, her final mistake.
"I've been waiting for you, my love," murmured a soft, deep voice.
"No," Rowan choked out, feeling an icy lethargy stealing over her. With her last ounce of strength, she threw herself backward, as far away from that familiar voice as she could.
"You may beg me all you like later," Lucien replied, his tone full of dark anticipation. "But we have an eternity for that. Now come to me. Come to me ... and come home."
Lucien Andrakkar stood before the churning darkness of the Tunnels, deep in the bowels of the mountain his kind called home, hardly daring to believe the vision that stood before him was real. He blinked once, then again, but she didn't vanish. His beloved. His intended. His beautiful tormentor.
He'd come here this night, to the place most men avoided unless they'd been dragged, to do nothing more than brood. Days had passed, and he had received only one irritatingly vague missive from that wretched Jagrin. He knew that he might go weeks before the daemon would decide to toss him another meager scrap of information. Still, he could do nothing, say nothing that did not remind him of his promise, or his woman. Or his fate should no arukhin present itself at an opportune time. So he had come here, knowing himself to be a fool for what he had done, and more foolish still because he would not change it. He had also, for the first time in a long time, said a silent prayer to the great Drak, god above all, master of the serpents. He asked for a way to have everything, for a way to find Rowan on his own. For the strength to unlock the secrets of the Tunnels. Now.
He had not expected to receive an answer.
And yet there she was, standing before the same gateway stone that had once brought him so much trouble. But tonight it had somehow brought him Rowan. His thoughts must have called to her just as she touched the Stone. Perhaps, he thought with a dark thrill, she had been thinking of him as well. He stared through the opening of one of the whirling cylinders at the beauty who looked less than pleased to see him.
This was fate. It had to be. After all, the Tunnels, a nexus at the boundaries of worlds, were not known to bend to the wills and whims of any mortal. Not even the mighty Andrakkar had ever been able to control them.
Lucien smiled serenely, though inside his heart beat so quickly he thought it might burst. His irritation with Jagrin, and daemon-kind in general, evaporated as he looked at the missive he'd received just this morning in an entirely new light. It had contained little of interest to him, true. But he now possessed information that his reluctant witch was going to find quite ... motivating. He was sure of it. And in seconds she would willingly take his hand to be pulled through the portal that had opened. How could she do anything else? They would be bound. And in finding Rowan purely through his own power, he would no longer be held hostage by the bargain with the daemon.
"Come to me," he repeated, reaching out until his fingers brushed the rippling surface of the portal. It was like water, and he knew that he had only to reach through the surface to pull her through. If he could just get her close enough.
"Why can't you just accept my refusal and leave me alone?" she snarled, curled on the floor like an exotic cat ready to lash out with claws and teeth.
"You are my choice," he replied, drinking in the sight of her like a parched man led at last to endless water. Again, as always, there was that strange pull, that sense of familiarity. It was as though this woman possessed some secret part of himself, though that could not be possible. "That hasn't changed, no matter where you run."
She glowed in the darkness, her vitality fully restored since the last time he'd seen her. She must have fed, and recently.
Lucien fought back a surge of violent jealousy. He wanted so badly to feel her teeth on his own skin, to have her open the door to all the sensations his wretched life had so long denied him. And entwined with that jealousy was a slow burning rage that even now, confronted with such beauty, he could not truly want her physically. As though all the years of deadened emotion had robbed him of the ability to bond with a mate in the most fundamental sense. And yet he knew, from the tales of those dragons who had experienced it, that to touch her for any length of time should awaken all his absent desire. Lucien clenched his fists, hoping with all he had that it would be so. And fearing that he would feel nothing at all.