Anna ran, a single thought ebbing, resurfacing, distorting. Curfew breakers are never heard from again.
Abstract symbols flashed before her mind’s eye, a multitude of color.
The dim lights of the silent city jeered at her with each flicker as she hastened through its empty streets. A tall palisade.
She halted and looked down the fortification. Recollection. Hope was beyond. She darted, searching for a break in the barrier. Not until she came to a crossroads, did she pause.
A gateway, hulking in size. She gazed, mollified at the mortared arch on the corner of—Simpson Drive? Arbital Street? The large stone griffin glared down at her with granite eyes. A guardian? An obstructer?
She blinked and shook her head at the scenes in her mind.
The gates were closed. She threw her gaze to them.
Misted pavement. She looked down the street. The memory was gone.
Crossing the threshold, a dark wonderland of incense filled the air—roses, lilacs, lilies.
Follow the path. Faint recollection guided her feet.
A bridge. Cross the bridge.
Mist undulated as she stepped beyond the pass-over and immediately confusion haunted her mind. She cried a desperate weep and gazed wildly around the dense shadows that engulfed the grounds.
She pounded her head with her fists and then broke into a run. Racing through the low fog, she flailed her arms, trying to ward off the provoking cover. It slowly reverted, mocking her hasty opposition.
The trail ended, and she halted again, panting with uncertainty.
A small one-lane road. Row houses hosted narrow frontages. Care-worn automobiles hugged the curb like a crutch, standing wearily, partially on the pavement.
She scanned the compacted neighborhood. Flashes of laughter, hospitality, and common ground lighted her mind and cast the feeling of placement.
Left? No right. She walked.
Half way down the hole-pocked street, a sunken doorway caught her attention. Meager bushes graced each side, and a wind chime tinkled in the small breeze. Her heart grasped the word home.
She dashed to the entrance and tugged at the rusty latch.
Fright gripped her. “Let me in!”
Scrambling behind a bush to peer into the paned window, she pressed her cheek against the barrier and looked around. A kitchen, a bar, yellow wallpaper, and a closet.
“This is my house.” She dug her fingernails into the wooden frame. Weathered sealant pierced the tender skin under her nails, and chunks fell to the sill, adding to the peeled brown paint. “My home!”
Panels lurched against the loose molds as she drummed on the panes. Focusing solely on the interior’s promise of reprieve, she pounded harder. Glass shattered, and fretted wood splintered, leaving jagged spears protruding from the casing.
She grasped the framework and pulled herself onto the ledge. Anything she could grab served as support and leverage as she scrambled through the opening.
Ivory satin ripped. Her bare arms raked against the broken wood. Heaving herself over the frame, she dragged her body across the shard glass. Piercing pain dug deep into her hips and thighs, and she gasped as she tumbled into the kitchen. Blood flowed down the yellow wall below the window. Her hands slipped on the linoleum as she threw her arms out to catch herself.
Clambering for the bar, she braced her stand. Pain gripped her lower body, but confusion overruled any thought of reason.
Her lids shot wide. Who spoke her name? She whipped around so fast nausea rushed her. The little kitchen blurred as her gaze flitted to each surface. With a quick swipe, she wiped the sweat from her face and looked beyond the bar to the small living area. The haze lifted.
A phone sat on the sofa table.
She scampered around the narrow divider and dove for the receiver. Her fingers groped it tight as she cried into the mouthpiece. “Please, help me, somebody please help me!”
A dark mist appeared in her periphery, and she caught her breath, inching her gaze toward the front entrance. It filtered through the crack beneath the door and then billowed into the form of two men.
Something deep inside told her there should be three. The thought disappeared.
As the tall slender one’s gaze swept up her body, her heart skipped. She knew him. Somewhere in her mind, she knew him and couldn’t tear her gaze away from his midnight irises.
“Oh, Gods, Anna.”
The slight tone in his whisper sent goose bumps up her arms, and as he slipped the receiver from her loosened grip, all she wanted was to take the fright from his voice.
The trance turned to shock as he grabbed the shredded portions of her gown and ripped the fabric aside. A sick growl sounded in his throat.
His large companion quickly waved his hand and tiny spars of glass flew from her wounds. A shriek squelched in her gasp as nettles jetted across her body.
Dropping to his knee, the man before her gently covered a large gash in her hip with his palm. Heat pooled around the cut. When he removed his hand, the wound was gone. He passed the healing power over the intrusions in her thighs.
Pain subsided, and Anna closed her eyes, savoring the comfort.
Heaving a sigh, the tall man brushed his fingers over the smaller tracks up her arms and along her side. She looked down at his long black hair as his feather touch traveled the back of her legs.
Weariness swam alongside wonderment in her mind. Placing her hands on the crown of his head, she pulled him close to her torso.
He paused and buried his face in her skin. His hands gently skimmed up her hips and then held her waist. Hot breath bathed her abdomen and sent chills through her core. She licked her dry lips and closed her eyes.
~ * ~
Cole savored the scent of Anna’s body, holding her close as his heavy breath bathed her skin. Sweet musk from her awakening senses filled him with a longing from ages past. He brushed his lips down her abdomen and drank in the intoxicating aroma.
She wavered, and her hands became heavy on his head. A thought raced to the forefront of his mind. Too much blood loss, no one could survive.
James’ voice called him from his reverie. “Cole.”
He lifted his gaze to her pale face and then shot to a stand. Her limp body fell, into his embrace. As he gathered her into his arms, fear shot through him. “She’s lost too much blood.”
“Get her back to the manor, I’ll clean up here.”
Foregoing the pomp of a flourishing cape, he relinquished their forms and darted out the window into the night. Through the cold midnight travel, his panicked thoughts sent prayers to the gods of Cornerstone Deep.
“Arylin, Goddess of Love, grant me this my prayer. Take not again my love from me. Gryffin, Protector of Conformance, forgive my ignorance. Preserve the guiltless in mine arms. Taravaughn, Giver of Beauty and Life, restore that which was taken through despair.”
He’d never prayed to the gods who’d created this realm, and his hope was weak as to their acknowledging his plea. But his heart cried to every possibility. Her actions tore at his conscience, and he pushed harder to quicken their arrival.
His dark mass threw open the cherry-wood manor door. He ignored Elaina’s gasp and flew up the marble-capped stairs. Vincent dashed after him, and she quickly followed.
Entering a guestroom, Cole took form and gently lowered Anna onto the bed. Brushing the disheveled hair from her face, he sat at her side. The dim light from the hall bathed them in solemn silence. Gods, what have I done?
He heaved a deep breath and looked away. An apricot tree brushed against the window as if the blossoms tried to decide the fate of his love. The large wardrobe loomed in the shadow, quietly rebuking the sight. The mirror atop the wide dresser reflected their subdued forms against the glow from the entrance. Seeing his distraught face sickened him, deepening his anxiety.
Vincent and Elaina rushed to his side.
Elaina’s face paled as she scanned Anna, dress torn and blood stained. “Cole, what happened? Who is she?”
Vincent waved his hand, and the room lit. “It’s Anna.”
Cole glanced at her, realizing she’d never met her father’s employee. “She’s been hurt badly. Lost a lot of blood.”
“I’ll get the things to clean her up.” She rushed from the room.
“And water,” Vincent called after her. “She’ll need water. And a warm blanket.”
Returning his gaze to the pallid visage of his love, Cole shook his head. “I can heal wounds, but I can’t restore what’s been lost.” His heart ached, thickening his chest, and made it difficult to breathe. He swallowed hard, and his eyes stung as tears forced their way under his lids. “Kid, you should have seen the place. There was blood everywhere. The doors, the floor…”
Shock flowing from his brother only intensified Cole’s anguish. He knew Vincent was at a loss for words. He doubted any attempt to comfort or reassure would help quell his fears anyway.
Closing his eyes, tears seeped past his lashes, freeing the emotions that brimmed in his heart. He rested his head on her bosom and took her into his arms. Succumbing to grief, he wept.
~ * ~
Cole kept a steady watch on Anna’s colorless face. He barely breathed as his empty lungs refused further relief.
A soft tap came at the door, and Elaina tilted her head, compassion vivid in her countenance and the emotions flowing from her. She set a tray with a pitcher of water, a cup, and cleaning material on the bed stand and then repositioned the thick comforter in her arms.
Cole sighed and reluctantly stood. Elaina placed the blanket at the foot of the bed and sat at Anna’s side.
Feeling displaced, Cole tugged a corner wingchair near and sank into the cushions. He stretched his longs legs in front of him and rested his forehead on his hand.
Monotonous ticks from the clock on the bed stand filled the room as Elaina sponged Anna’s body clean. He peeked through the tops of his lids as she stood and withdrew a gown from the folds of the comforter. She glanced at him, and he lowered his gaze. Nothing would make him leave Anna’s side, modesty-minded nursemaid or not.
Elaina tucked a heavy comforter around Anna with the care of nestling a baby in a crib. “I’ll get more water, Cole, but she really needs a hospital.”
He kneaded his tightened brow with his fingers. “They can’t know she’s up here.”
“I could take her in. They don’t need to know she’s staying here.”
“You don’t understand the situation, Elaina.” He sighed at having to explain. “Where’s Vincent?”
She motioned to the door. “In the study, talking with James.”
He glanced at her, sending a disgruntled gaze her way. “He needs to be talking with you. It’s his place to calm his woman’s fretting.”
She flushed red and blinked at him. Turning for the door, she quickly left.
Cole released a breath of frustration and dragged his hand over his face, knowing how harsh he’d sounded. He had enough to deal with and another woman’s concern was the last thing he needed.
With all his efforts focused on freeing Anna, he never stopped to think that she would panic in such a way. Her deep wounds and pools of blood showed bright against his eyelids every time he closed them. Regret deepened each time he rested his eyes.
Exhaustion washed over him with nauseating force, and he took a deep breath to waken his fatigued mind. He felt James’ concern, and he glanced to the door.
“How’s she doing?”
Cole shook his head and didn’t bother to hide the resignation in his voice. “James, how was I supposed to know she’d dive through a window to get to something familiar? I only touched on her memories to make her recall the need to run.”
James stepped into the room and leaned on the wall. “Don’t beat yourself up. You couldn’t have known. We should have scryed for her sooner.”
“Blood was everywhere.”
“I took care of that. Nobody will be able to tell anything happened.”
That wasn’t what he meant. But by the compassion emitting from his brother, he realized James was only attempting to fill the void. How could anyone know what to say to make things right? For that matter, how could anyone make things right? There was a strong possibility Anna wouldn’t pull out of this. He knew it, and he knew his brothers knew it.
Cole shifted in his seat as the thought ate at his gut. In her case, if her life ended, so did her soul’s progression. Completely. “She can’t die, James.” He swallowed the thickness in his throat. “Not now.”
James sighed and looked at the vial in his hand. “I can’t gather lost blood. Purity is compromised when I do. But, I think I might be able to help with the production.”
Cole peeked through the miniscule opening between his lids. “You can’t duplicate a person’s blood.”
“I’m not talking about copying blood and conducting a transfusion.” He held out the small container. “I haven’t told anyone, but I did an essence trace on Sarah.”
Cole looked at him. Of course, he knew this.
James pursed his lips. “She’s very ill. I thought at first it had to do with an inability to produce sufficient blood. So, I’ve been working on a potion to accelerate its production.”
A chill swept Cole’s heart, and he lifted his head, realizing what his brother’s words meant.
“Her name is Tiffini now.” James smiled a little. “But she has a disease that’s far too advanced to correct. She doesn’t have long to live.”
Cole held his anticipation, waiting for the right moment. “I’m sorry, James.”
James nodded. “It should work on Anna.”
As Cole grasped the small bottle, unmitigated relief flooded his soul.
“She needs to drink it. Even if it’s a little at a time, see that she swallows it all. And pray.”
A hush fell over Cole’s face. “I’ve already done that.”
James set his large hand on his shoulder. “As have I.”