As soon as they entered Shilo Manor, James veered toward the parlor with Linda. Vincent shot up the stairs, while Cole headed for the study.
Forming outside the laurel crowned threshold, he threw the door wide and marched to stand before the three crystal globes. His wrists flexed of their own accord, and he sucked in a long stream of air to steady his nerves. Placing his hands on the first, he spoke the spell he had hoped he would never need.
“Triad of Power, parclainum.”
The ball glowed bright, beams shooting through the space between his fingers. He repeated the process on the next. As he rested his hands on the third, his palms tingled. Cole caressed the smooth surface of his crystal, allowing the warmth from within it to fill him. Closing his eyes, he cast the spell to call on the gods’ power to join theirs.
The light of his globe joined with the others and nearly blinded him. He turned his head slightly to control the urge to shield his eyes. They needed to be linked, to gain strength, before he used them to perform such a feat.
Rays gleamed from the shiny surfaces around the room as they reflected the intense illuminations. Magical items around the hearth sparkled, and Cole lifted his hand toward the copper memory box. It shot into his palm.
Turning on his heel, he marched out the door. Globes lifted from their plinths and followed. His feet beat the hardwood floor as he sent a pressing message to Vincent’s mind. “You’ve spoken with Elaina about this?”
“She knows,” he called from the third-floor landing.
Holding the bejeweled box in his palm, Cole tilted the lid. Ginger essence trailed behind him as he bound up the stairs. He glanced over the balustrade toward the parlor door. “James. Now!”
The command punched from his lungs and thoughts with such urgency, his determination doubled at the sound of it. He snatched at the ginger cloud with a full fist and forced it forward, fingers outstretched. Three balls of light dashed past him, illuminating the hall and washing out the portraits that lined the wall.
Steps hammered overhead and through the foyer as the others rushed his way.
Cole launched into a run.
Anna’s door swung open, and the magical items dipped inside. Her gaze snapped to his as he entered. Disheveled hair covered half her face, and the gown tugged her shoulder straps at an odd angle. Though crystal balls floated beside her, and a ginger aura filled the air, she seemed to notice only him.
Her voice cracked. “You. You chased me down the alley.”
He slowly sat on the edge of her bed. “Yes.”
Reverence mixed with confusion, and if he wasn’t letting his heart get in the way, love flowed from her emotions. “I was terrified. But you brought me peace.”
Shoving the comforter from her legs, she kicked it aside and threw her arms around his shoulders. “You kissed me and gave me new life.”
A heavy sigh issued from Cole’s lungs. “You remember very little. That never should have happened…” Unable to withhold his heart, he allowed his breath to finish his statement. “My love.”
Vincent and Elaina darted into the room, and Anna flinched at the intrusion. As James crossed the threshold, Linda pushed pass him and dove for her friend.
“Oh, Anna, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“What are you talking about?”
James set his large hand on Linda’s shoulder. “She doesn’t remember everything yet. Your support will mean a great deal. But I ask that you allow us to perform what’s necessary to undo all the harm.”
He turned to Cole and handed him a small vial. “Put that on your tongue. It will help you cope without the added emotions of others.”
The gesture couldn’t have come soon enough. Emotions swirled around the room in a torrent. Forget his worry about Kid’s anger flooding the moment. Compassion, angst and outright fear rolled off the women in force. He quickly swallowed the contents, ensuring he got every drop. As if bathed in paraffin, his mouth heated and then quickly cooled. The thin layer of comfort spread and reached deep into his throat and lungs. Anxiety disappeared.
He inhaled deeply, looking back at his love. “Anna, I gave you these small memories to awaken your mind to what’s missing in your life. Greater moments before the kiss are hidden. Some of them are full of joy and some are filled with sorrow.” He took her hands in his. “Right now, you see me as a savior of peace. Your will views me as your Keeper, your guide. That’s not life. You must be able to make your own choices.”
Anna blinked, question vivid in her gaze.
Cole stood and wrapped his hands around his brilliant sphere. Willing it to lessen in intensity, the light softened to a glow. “We are going to return these rights to you. But this isn’t going to be easy. You will see things from your past, relive experiences that will be unpleasant.”
Vincent motioned with his nod, and Elaina rushed around the bed. “But, we’ll be here to help however we can, okay?” Linda seemed determined to keep hold of Anna, so Elaina placed her hand on her arm as she sat at her side. “We’ll be right here. Whatever happens, you can count on us, okay?”
Anna glanced at her. “I don’t understand.”
James grasped his crystal. “Humanity wasn’t meant to be controlled by another. You should grow, learn, experience.”
Linda placed her hand on Anna’s cheek, guiding her friend to face her. “Anna, you want to remember your parents, don’t you? And you used to be one of the most sought-after artisans in the city. My father owes you much more than he pays you.”
Elaina laughed, but it came out like a nervous squeak.
Anna slowly nodded as she gazed into her friend’s eyes.
Cole watched the compassionate conversation, glad he couldn’t pick up on Anna’s feelings. The potion, however, couldn’t silence the soft words she spoke as she looked back at him.
“But…will I still love you?”
The words hung in the air as the brothers looked away.
“Anna,” Cole’s voice cracked. He’d assumed every reaction from her had been instinctive, an answer to his bid. Perhaps to this point it was. With the summoning of short-term memories, could her heart truly have surmised that emotion for him?
Setting aside his feelings, he motioned for Vincent to take hold of his globe. The youngest sentinel reached for the bright ball, and Cole sent him mental instruction on how to dim it. It followed Vincent’s command.
Balancing his globe in his left hand, Cole lifted his right toward Anna. He spoke the words to allow her recollection, lighting memories to her mind and heart as gently as he could. “Visola compe. Amoria conecho threshjanan.”
He paused as particles burst from his palm and rained on her like silver confetti.
Anna’s eyes brightened. “I’m an artist. A stained-glass artist. I used to plaster colored paper on my wall and pretend they were grand windows of a cathedral.” A puff of laughter passed her lips. “Mr. Cantrell thought it was a lousy example of my work, but he liked the style.”
“Yes!” Linda’s face beamed. “And there are a lot more things to remember.” She looked at Cole, blonde brows raised and tear stained cheeks pressed tight with her smile.
James looked at him with a stern gaze, and Cole grimaced. He knew he’d have to reveal deeper experiences but couldn’t bear to begin the whole revelation with loss. Heaving a sigh, he shifted his gaze back to Linda.
“Linda, I want you to hold Anna tightly.” He softened his tone. “Please.”
Linda’s smile faded, and she cuddled closer, wrapping her arms around Anna’s shoulders.
Elaina held to her arm and grasped the headboard with her other hand. Her forehead tightened, pressing a deep crease over the bridge of her nose. The apprehension in her eyes was clear, and Cole couldn’t blame her one bit. He’d done this only a few times before, by request of the Lords whose clients didn’t comply to their taste. Then, there had been no emotional attachment. Strictly duty.
How could he have been so devoid of compassion for them? For that matter, how could he have put them in that situation to begin with?
Closing his eyes, Cole recited the incantation as memorized so long ago.
Screams pierced the air, and his lids flew open. He held his hand steady as a dark mist issued from his palm and then swirled, forming into loose images. Distorted faces bulged, ebbed into brick patterns, morphed into tattered clothes. Linda inched away as they encased Anna’s legs and spread to entrap her body. Anna clung tighter, kicking at the phantoms. The comforter tumbled from the bed, but the demons remained, soaking into her skin.
Elaina gasped and jumped to her feet, backing against the wall.
As the apparitions soaked into Anna’s skin, she shoved Linda away and thrashed across the bed. She grasped at her stomach and rolled to her side. Her face turned crimson as she spewed black purge. Traces of diamond-like glitter sparkled in the sick. Immediately, disgorge took on life and encircled her again.
Elaina threw both hands to her mouth and then buried her face in Vincent’s back.
Linda’s shrill voice drowned Anna’s painful cries. “What’s happening?”
James’ soft tone answered her. “She’s refusing her past. Until she accepts it, the process will continue.”
A heavy ache throbbed in Cole’s heart as he held his ground. The thickness in his throat refused to shrink. Time seemed senseless. Uncontrollable, uncaring. Impatience puffed a scoffed past his lips. He should be holding her, comforting her. Instead he was locked in his stand of authority, causing his love to relive every loss, pain, moment of fear. He inwardly thanked James for his offering of emotional silence. This was unbearable to watch.
Anna released another sparkling heave of bile. Demons from her past attacked her once again.
A soft prayer punctuated the din as Linda cried to her god. “Have mercy. Taravaughn, God of Life, have mercy on your child.”
Anna rolled onto her back and threw her hands to her face, bitter sobs punching from her lungs. “I…don’t…understand.”
Recognizing the final steps of acceptance, Cole freed a heavy breath. “Anna.” Their gazes met, and his heart sank. Oh, that he could go to her. He cleared his throat to gain control of his senses. “This was your life. Every joy and disappointment. It’s what has made you who you are.”
“My Keeper, please help me. Tell me what to do.”
He shook his head. “That’s not how it should be, Anna.”
With trembling hands, she reached for him as if beseeching his returned adoration. “But I love you. I want you.”
A chill traveled down Cole’s torso. “What?”
She leaned her head to her shoulder, causing her tears to trail into her messed hair. “I want you. Don’t you want me, too?”
She wants? How could that be? At this point, a bound soul should have no such depth. He looked at James who mirrored his surprise.
“Anna.” His voice rasped as his mouth dried. Licking his lips, he dropped his gaze to the foot of the bed to regain composure. “At this point, your will is bent. When you were selected to serve under a lord’s care, you inhaled a spell that would ensure compliance to his wishes.” He glanced at her as she lowered her arms. “Removing this spell will enable you to think clearly. I may not be your…choice.”
Pain shadowed her blue eyes, and a small sob caused her nostrils to flare.
Averting his gaze, he solemnly spoke the incantation that would remove her from his keep. A fine mist erupted from his palm. White powder lighted on her and then disappeared as her skin drank it in.
Cole watched from his periphery, expecting her to jump from the bed, attempt to escape, when she realized she’d been held against her will.
Anna’s gaze stayed riveted on him. He flushed. “Anna?”
“You’re not my keeper.”
“I don’t need a keeper.”
“I have my own will and my wants aren’t influenced by anyone.”
“Then why do I still want you? Our kiss was the one right thing in my life. And you want to pretend it never happened.”
Cole’s brow furrowed. It couldn’t be possible. All rules of ancient magic pointed to the fact that a kiss following the administration of a spell sealed it. In cases that affected the will, it also merged the soul with the body, binding them together in death. As a result, basic instincts take over to protect when the soul fails to provide guidance. When the keeper isn’t present, fears overwhelm, just as she’d reacted the nights she was alone at Dressen’s.
Anna shook her head, looking every bit that she’d lost love.
Lowering his hand, he peered back into her teary eyes. There it was again. The call, a beckoning, and he wanted more than ever to set aside every thought and go to her.
James’ voice called him from his trance, and he pulled his gaze away to look at him. Repeatedly, James had been the voice of logic, offering better advice than his own heart-following head. Damn potion. What were his brother’s feelings on the matter? If she could ascertain the thoughts and feelings of want and voice her own concerns…
“The process must be completed.”
Cole threw his confusion to James’ mind. “What if her soul wasn’t bound, James? She’s not acting like it was bound. I removed the bending of will. I’m not her anchor anymore. She should be filled with fear right now.”
Stepping to his side, James placed his hand on Cole’s chest. As Cole stepped back, James eased into his place and set his hands at his waist. His cloak blocked Cole from Anna’s view.
A gasp sounded, and the headboard banged against the wall. “You,” cried Anna. “You chased me down the alley! How could you… What did you do to me?”
Linda’s voice followed quickly. “It’s okay, Anna. It’s only James. You know, James.”
Cole’s senses hardened at the reality that played out. The love that joined us through the ages anchored her, not the spell.
James sent his gaze over his shoulder. “For her salvation, Cole, for what you truly want, this process must be completed.”
Clenching his jaw, Cole set his determination and stepped to the side of her bed. Anna released a quick breath and dove for his arms. Sweet relief filled him as he wrapped her in his embrace. Hot puffs of air warmed his shoulder where her cheek rested. Her tangled hair brushed his lips, the scent of roses and sweat lingering on the strands. If only that moment could last.
Gently gripping her upper arms, he pulled away. “Anna, your soul is in danger. Please allow us to complete the procedure that will free it from its bonds.” He brushed disheveled locks from her face. “I’ll be here through it all. I’ll be here when it’s over.”
With a slow nod, Anna shrank onto the mattress. He raised his crystal, and James and Vincent join him with theirs. The white globes pulsed, and arches burst forth, connecting the three with thin bands, creating a Triad of Power. Conviction burned within him as innocence peered at him from the bed.
“Optimi opres, Anna Sinclair, ganton revite.”
Rays streamed through the gaps between their fingers, and brightness washed out Cole’s vision. He squinted his eyes to control the intensity. Sparks of red ash littered the air. “Queltahj emorous. Queltahj emorous.”
Arcs of deep crimson formed within the haze and then jutted from the globes. Anna screamed. The bed shook with the rustle of sheets.
Linda’s plea rode the commotion. “Have mercy. Taravaughn, God of Life, have mercy.”
Glass shattered. Gusts thrashed at the curtains and they whipped from the windows, whirling through the room. Paintings banged against the walls and then rammed into the dresser and armoire. The corner chair tumbled across the floor.
A tall funnel formed to Cole’s left, and he blinked, trying to decipher the activity. Before he could acknowledge Taravaughn’s presence, Anna released a wail from deep within her chest.
A voice of thunder shook Cole’s soul. “Cease this act!”
Shock burned deep, and Cole immediately threw his globe across the room, breaking the Triad of Power. It lodged deep in the wood wall.
His attention shot to his love, and every nerve stung at the sight: Her pale face, her arms twisted around her torso as if for support, her legs pulled to her chest in a fetal position. Blood seeped from the corner of her bowtie lips and dainty ears.
He dropped to his knees and drew his fingers along her constricted body, afraid to touch her and cause more pain. Hot tears forced themselves past his eyelids. His heart cut into his throat.
Taravaughn raised an ethereal hand, and the remaining crystal globes flew to opposite sides of the room. The air about him condensed to form a rocky mane, deep fire riding the waves of lava that wove through his stony hair. His fury filled Cole’s heart.
“I will not permit such savagery. You have defiled that which is sacred. No Meridian shall cause my child’s death without promise of rebirth.”
Cole’s sorrow punctuated every word he spoke. “Taravaughn, please, deliver her. I know not how to rectify this wrong.” He gazed at the closed eyes of his eternal companion. “My love,” he cried, “my soul for thine.”
Taravaughn’s teeth flashed indignation. “Gryffin, I demand justice!”
James and Vincent stood silent.
Cole’s hair clung to his tear-streaked face like webs of containment. Taravaughn had every right to call upon Gryffin for justice. Every part of Cole’s grieving soul wanted the great God of Conformance to end him with a single strike of his sharp beak. No price he paid would be enough for what he’d done to Mianna’s soul.
Lowering his head, his whisper fell to Mianna’s bosom. “Just save her, I pray thee.”
Thick ambrosia waves undulated through the room, and in a swift sweep, rose. Long ivory robes flowed and then settled to adorn the Goddess of Love from the band of silver above her breasts. Trails of golden hair fell past her hips to her knees. Feathers adorned her shoulders and upper arms, each as supple as the sheer silk that clothed her. Her dark blue gaze lowered to Cole.
A voice as melodic as love itself sent cherishment through his soul.
“His offense is not savagery. Ancient devotion, a highly praised deed, is the cause. I call upon mercy, Gryffin. Withhold thy judgment for a time. The gift of love may offer salvation. Allow the rest of her natural life before vengeance is decreed.”
Taravaughn lifted his square chin and peered at him. His nostrils flared.
A shrieking cry pierced the warmth of Arylin’s succor, and Cole gazed around the room, watching for Gryffin to join the others in their spiritual presence. Linda followed his regard, though he knew she’d see nothing aside from their solemn countenances and the destruction the harsh wind caused. His quick scan revealed that Elaina had fainted, and Vincent had covered her with the discarded comforter.
Vincent glanced at her without moving his head and then looked back at Cole. He was sure Kid’s emotions were on high volume.
Light shifted, morphed into beams directed toward the east wall. Shadows gathered, thickening to form the depths of an outlined spirit. Eight-foot wings spanned from an arched back and curled to accommodate the width of the room. The head of an eagle rose until the tall crown of feathers tipped the ceiling. Severity flashed in Gryffin’s deep-set eyes as he lowered his gaze to Anna and then swept it to Cole.
Cole bowed his head as shame caused his breath to hitch.
Gryffin’s voice penetrated his soul. “Actions with eternal consequence must face verdict. You are to serve her for the rest of your soul’s life. Love’s gift of one heart remains in the balance. It will determine further judgment on this matter.”