We could have basked in the beauty of the moment for hours had Cassie not shifted us back inside.
"What the hell are you doing?" I asked laughing.
"Mircea needs you when you have a moment." She walked off muttering, "Finally."
I smiled and held Pritkin a bit tighter.
"How that vampyre knows no patience I'll never know." Pritkin ground a frown coming to his lips. I didn't like it there and smoothed it out with a finger.
"Well we could teach him some." I grinned and stood on my toes to kiss him. He readily complied but pulled back too quickly.
"It's probably about the war." He said.
"Oh. Yeah. That." I sighed and stood back on flat feet leaning against him. I ruined the moment by sneezing.
"Get changed and then join us."
"Alright. But I don't see why I can't just wear your coat it's got to be around here somewhere."
"I left it in France when we saved you. I'll see you in a minute."
I raced up the stairs to my room and quickly changed into jeans and the t-shirt I'd wanted that Pritkin had almost taken off me when we went shopping all that time ago. God had it really been that long ago? It felt like forever when in reality it was only a few months. Or, in other words, forever. I still hadn't worn the one shoulder t-shirt yet and I was willing to bet it would raise at least one eye brow in the room.
My hair was still soaked so I used magic to dry it in about five seconds leaving it slightly wavier and fuller than usual. Completely digging the look I threw some brown leather boots on that were still suitable to fight in even though they had a slight heel. I looked myself over in the mirror for a second before leaving. Dark blue jeans, Dark green top that had a low neck line and only one shoulder strap and dark brown almost black boots that laced all the way up to my knees and kickass hair. Awesome.
I took my time walking down the flight of stairs and opening the double doors to Mircea's rooms. Talk was coming from the dining room. I hadn't actually been in there and had to stop from oogling to keep up the cool appearance. Everything was gold gilded and Rafe's paintings sat everywhere, on the walls, ceilings, backs of chairs. Candles lit the table softly glowing on the plain white china and silver cutlery. The candle light caught on the gold in the decoration making the walls wink and gleam like a living entity in itself.
All the people at the table were dressed smartly apart from Pritkin who had used magic to dry his clothes and looked more casual than the rest of them but still smarter than me. There was a single place left at the table which I was gestured to by Mercia his gesture saying 'glad you could finally make it'.
"Now that we're all here," Mircea began looking round the table. Cassie was sat next to him next to who were Rafe, then Rasputin. I was at the head of the table with Jack to my right, to my left and down the other side of the table were Radu, Dory, Pritkin and Louis-Cesare. "We can outline the plan."
I'd not actually stayed in school long enough to sit in one of these types of meetings as per the syllabus. We would have all been put into groups not much unlike this one (ignoring the fact that most of us here were vampyres) and put to the test of planning out a battle. They would have done it a couple of months after I left. Now sat round the table I whished I was sat at the table with people I'd known since I was young.
I didn't let my nostalgia overcome me though and instead listened to Mircea.
"We have one week before the battle commences. You all know the plan as outlined by the Consul…"
"I don't." Dory interrupted.
"Stand there and fight until the bitter end." Louis-Cesare said in disgust as if it was the worst plan in the world, which it kind of was. "I told her it was bad. You would think she would listen to me at least."
"Louis-Cesare." Mircea said stopping his tirade. "We need now to protect against half of our allies as well. Rasputin your family are arriving in the next few days?"
"Yes," He said. "I sent word to them when Jonas was here."
"And he's going to see how many people he can gather." Radu added. "He does not know how many he can round up but –"
"Let me go." I said surprising myself. Everyone looked down the table at me, Pritkin especially disapproving.
"They tried to kill you!" he said incredulously.
"Exactly. Jonas said that he'd been told I was dead. They would have said the same at school. Me turning up, obviously not dead, would show corruption. I know a few people who definitely would join us – my class are about to graduate and I have some loyal friends. A few teachers would probably side with us. I'll tell them what's going on and give them the rough plan but tell them to openly shun me so no one would know any different. The more the merrier."
No one said anything for a long moment and I was afraid that they'd all say no until Dory said something.
"That's actually brilliant. Bet you never thought of exploiting her contacts."
"Because she doesn't have any!" Pritkin said banging his fist on the table. "She's not going out there."
"Oh shut up Pritkin of course I am. Mircea's already decided." I looked at the vampyre pointedly.
He paused for effect, pretended to think even though we all knew he'd done all the thinking he needed to. "She's going. Alone."
Pritkin would have argued if not for the glare Louis-Cesare fixed him with. After that it was just telling all of us where we would position our allies and who would take lead from whom.
"And I will kill her." Rasputin said crossing his arms over his chest. "Then I will take my rightful place as Consul." There was determination in his voice I hadn't heard before and was kind of relieved actually. So far since he'd been here he'd done nothing but accept what was happening to him and protect me selflessly. It was good to see a normal vampyre reaction for once – greed and jealousy, a desire to fight. Now he was being a proper vampyre.
His power radiated through the room making even Mircea pause for a moment and re-evaluate his opinion of him. For the first time we were seeing a leader of vampyres and the most powerful vampyre in existence. I knew what the other vamps were thinking – with Rasputin on the throne the American senate would once again be the strongest and the others would fear and respect them more than they had in a long time. They would be the ones everyone looked up to and vied to know. Yes Rasputin as head of the Senate could only be a good thing.
Mircea quickly moved back into action adjusting the plan slightly so that Rasputin was free to do what he willed.
"Ava, Pritkin, you will follow him keeping mages and other vampyres from hurting him. Rasputin some of your family will go with you. Ava, is there anyone at your school who would be willing to help?"
Anyone at my school want recognition for being the person who stopped a vampyre killing the guy who killed the traitor Consul? "Oh yeah. No shortage."
"Pick three. The best you have."
"Oh damn that means I've got to work with – Jesus fucking Christ man!" I cried, well almost screeched, and glared at Jack who had just kicked me under the table hard enough break my shin. I began fixing it and looked back at Mircea, "Sure, whatever." I said and then glared some more at Jack who was grinning wildly showing stupidly white teeth.
"It'll be your fingers next. One by one." He grinned some more.
I heard Pritkin trying not to laugh. So much for protection from the boyfriend. Alright I could fix it in a heart beat but still.
After that the rest of the plan was outlined and questions answered. Then I was sent off to get ready to go back to school. I'd be leaving first thing in the morning. I had the rest of the day to prepare but the sooner I was ready the sooner I could relax.
I wanted it to look like I'd been travelling for a while or something so I walked into Pritkin's room and found a tattered looking ruck-sack. It was a plain brownish one that may once have been almost black and had frayed bits and a couple of torn outer pockets. I'd make a story about stealing it from a Black Mage or something.
Back in my room I threw some clothes into a bag not really fussed what they were and declared myself fit to leave. I was obviously taking the jumper Pritkin still hadn't claimed back from the first time the Consul had tried to kill me because it was about the warmest jumper on the planet. Maybe that's why he'd brought it and it had saved his life a few times but I guessed I could take some liberties having kissed him and all.
"You may want to change the boots." Pritkin said having just opened the door.
"No the boots are awesome. Besides I can still fight in them if I have to."
He did have a point though I quickly realised when he pulled my kickass boots out from under my bed. I hadn't worn them in a while and was kind of surprised at how much I missed them. Last time I wore them they were just at the stage when they're the comfiest things in the world and would stay like that for what seemed like forever.
"Those boots, however, are even more awesome."
"Cassie had these." He passed me a thick pair of socks. My socks. I wondered where they had got to. "She found them in her gym bag the other day but she's washed them."
I put them inside the boots and sat on my bed.
"Do you know which ley lines to take?" he asked suddenly business like.
"I didn't get punished for two months for ley line racing for nothing. I managed to land at Dante's once actually. Interesting place." I pushed some more clothes into the bag and then picked up some potions I'd stashed away in a bedside cabinet.
"I wondered where those went." Pritkin arched an eye brow and took the vial out of my hand. "A nul net? Where did you get that?"
"From those mages who came here with my dearest father." I said the last two words with scorn and sarcasm dripping off them. "I think I have a blu-gaffer as well." I held up another potion.
Pritkin unstoppered it and sniffed it. "No that just makes people laugh until they cry with it. You put it in their drinks."
"A socialite invented that obviously." I said dryly disappointed it wasn't the stuff that made people hold their breath until they died by seeming to gaffer tape your mouth and nostrils shut.
"No. I did." He blushed. "It was an accident!" he assured me when I gave him a funny look. "I was trying to make something else and it turned out to be that. I think I only made about four vials of the stuff." He put it in his pocket and tapped it once it was in there as if it was in the safest place in the world. Considering whose trouser pocket it was in I guess it kind of was.
"So the legendary Merlyn did make a mistake!"
"I did not! I merely made something I didn't expect to."
"That's like the man's explanation of not being lost: I'm not lost I just don't know where I am. Face it you made a mistake."
"I only put too much nettle juice – " he stopped himself realising he'd basically admitted it.
"You did make a mistake!" I grinned. "I guess the universe went out of balance that day. Was there, like, a tsunami that day or something?"
"Alright, so I made a mistake, doesn't everyone?" he asked defensively and slightly louder than he meant to. "I need coffee." He left the room leaving the door open behind him.
I grinned glad to finally have my Pritkin back. I looked round and packed a few hair ties and then followed my man into the kitchen.
I was just getting ready for bed when Pritkin knocked on my door. As I was going to dive head first into the hornets nest tomorrow I had decided on my favourite flannel pj's to wear – red ones with black flowers. I was about to change out of them when he opened the door a little and poked his head round.
"Hi, Pritkin." I said nonchalantly. I sat on the bed and wondered what he was doing here. "Um, come in."
The door closed leaving us in darkness except the little light that was coming through the window. I was for once back on a day light schedule and loving the fact I was going to sleep in the dark without the need for black out blinds.
"You should also take this." He said holding a dagger out to me.
"Are you working on irony now?" I asked with a raised eyebrow looking at the blade he was holding. The one he had almost killed me with.
"I'm giving this to you so that it my repay my debt and protect you forever more and be not a reminder of shame but a promise of hope." He said with a far way look.
"Al-righty then." I said taking the weapon. "Are you feeling alright Merlyn?"
My use of his true name snapped him out of it and he flashed me a glare that had me shaking in my boots. I gulped and looked at the floor a blush flushing my face.
"I – I'm sorry." I stammered chancing a small look up at him and quickly looked back down.
"No." he said. "No." he then took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Soft footfalls sounded on the carpet. I smiled realising this was how he walked when he was in a fight trying to sneak up on someone. For half a moment I entertained the notion of jumping up and making a funny face to diffuse the tension but thought better of it. Even with me he's never opened up that much and I knew he was about to and didn't want to waste that chance to be trusted with another piece to intricate puzzle that was John Pritkin.
Kneeling down his shadow passed over me. The touch of his hands on my chin was a surprise but then this man was full of mysteries and I never really knew what he was going to do. I comforted myself with idea that I'd figure him out eventually.
"Look at me, Ava." He whispered.
Tentatively I looked up and my eyes met with his. A gentle something passed between us.
"I am the one who should apologise. Not you."
"I won't call you that again." I said.
"Thank you. And I'm sorry." He pulled me into his arms for a moment and then pulled away. "Do you want to go over tomorrow – "
"No." I laughed. "Every time you ask it will be the same answer as it has been all day. I'm not caving that easy. Besides I kind of want to go to bed."
"Alright I'll leave you then." He got up and began walking away.
"Um…" I began and looked at the floor. What was wrong with me tonight? I was never this… bashful. I looked up and Pritkin was standing there looking at me. Again I wondered what he saw, a kid needing protection or a woman doing her best to get by when one of the most powerful vampires was out to kill her.
"Well…?" he asked raising an eyebrow. I knew that he knew what I was asking and my reasons behind it but there he was trying to make me say it out loud.
"You are a sick, sick man, John." I smiled. "Stay with me?"
"Alright." He smiled and came back towards me. I got under the covers and then looked back a Pritkin.
He was already shirtless and what a sight it was. I hadn't seen him without a shirt yet, alright his rain soaked one earlier went completely see-through but it wasn't the same. This time I knew I'd be touching those muscles and his bare skin would be right under my hand and I could rest my head against it. He was truly perfect. Blonde hair dusted his chest and although we'd joked that it was a turn off at school it looked more than gorgeous on him and I couldn't wait to touch him.
His skin was lightly tanned and every muscle toned to perfection. Even though he was just stood there waiting for me to finish my appraisal I felt like I was being teased.
"Well?" he asked.
"Yeah alright I suppose." I shrugged. "You sleep in your trousers?" I then remembered why. He hadn't discovered boxers yet. "Uh… you can go and get something comfier if you want."
He muttered something under his breath and then climbed into bed without preamble. I gaped at him for half a moment and wondered if he was feeling alright. Seriously was this the same man I had come to know? Was he the same incredibly private John Pritkin who had come to rescue me like the damsel in distress I had been back in England?
I chuckled at that thought. Damsel in distress. And here I was in a bed with a man out of those same legends. I really was living a dream. I was lying in the arms of a guy older than time and I was the one who was allowed to love him. It really didn't get much better than this.
Then I realised I still hadn't moved. Nor had my completely shocked expression at his casual movements.
"I'm fine." I said earning a weird look from Pritkin. Huh, so he hadn't asked if I was alright out loud. "Nothing." I muttered and lay down on the bed only I had my back to him as I liked to sleep on my side. I went to turn over but he gently told me not to.
We just lay there in silence for a few moments, not awkwardly exactly but not exactly comfortable either. Well I wasn't.
Pritkin had noticed her look of surprise when he climbed into her bed so he didn't curl up next to her right away even he was tempted to. The last time he'd shared a bed with a woman…the last time it had all ended in disaster. Last time he'd killed her. This time… well this time they'd both be alright. They both survive the night unless she had a nasty habit of kicking in her sleep. That he'd probably throw her out of bed for. If there was one thing he didn't like it was people disturbing his sleep.
He simply watched her for a while as she gently breathed. Some of her hair had come lose of the pony tail she'd put it in and lay out across the bed just urging him to touch it. He did in time. It was as soft as he remembered from all those times when it had brushed against his arm in practice.
Contentness filled him for the first time in years and he knew that it was because of Ava. When she was around everything around him seemed to slow and become more light and beautiful. For along time he hadn't taken any pleasure in the world, but now that Ava had come into his life slowly the world's beauty had seeped back to him and he was able to wonder at everything anew. The grass seemed greener and the air sweeter. He began to long for England once more. He longed for the moorlands and the bluebells of the forests and the chirping of sparrows.
Already asleep Ava rolled over her. Her hand landed on his chest and she sighed in her sleep. Pritkin pulled her closer and remembered how in training he used to hold her against him in a choke hold. Her warmth and spread through him just the same then as it was doing now, intoxicating and brilliant.
"Oh my God I fell asleep." I sat up my hand landing on something squishy and warm. I looked round and saw Pritkin looking up at me with slight amusement in his eyes.
He was a sight to behold in the morning. His hair wasn't quite doing as it was told and something almost gentle crossed his features. I smiled a little.
"I didn't mean to fall asleep."
"You needed it." he said brusquely.
I knew what he was doing. He was preparing himself for what was to come today. For what I was to encounter today. He got out of bed and pulled his t-shirt on and then his coat over that.
I grabbed the clothes I was wearing yesterday and ducked into my bathroom to change. When I got back into the room Pritkin was sat on the edge of the bed looking intently at the floor.
"You'll be alright?" he asked.
"Half left." I joked. He smiled.
Stinky bounded into the room meaning Dory was close by. I turned to see her standing closer than I thought she was.
"Take this." She said passing me a small sphere. "It's a dislocator and this is something a mage I met gave me." she passed me a cube of back rock. "It'll um… well I'm not sure what it'll do but he was a hard core mage. Emphasis on the was."
"Uh, thanks." I said, uncertainly stuffing the cube into a pocket. As a rule I preferred only using weapons when I knew what they were but from the sound of it the guy who had given it to Dory had known his stuff and going into the devils lair required fire power to keep you company. Besides I could feel the destructive power emanating from it. Even though I didn't know what it was I felt a bit safer having it with me.
"Don't be scared."
"I won't. I'm only going back to the place where I twice saw my mother die and where they tried to kill me and where I probably killed a good friend. Only happy memories at that place."
"Wait. Saw your mother die twice?"
"Yeah time travel. Messes with your head. Seriously. If Cassie asks you if you want to go say no."
"Yeah. Well you've got to go. That's why I came."
The ley line I was going to take ran right over Mircea's gardens. On the way over there people joined us. Mircea, Rafe, Rasputin, Louis-Cesare, Cassie, Pritkin. As each person joined us I felt my apprehension growing. What I had on my side was that people there knew me and I knew the surrounding area like the back of my hand. I was well aware that my plan could easily backfire and I was dreading that happening. What if the officials had already spread rumours about me in case I ever did come back meaning I was no longer trusted? What if I had a 'kill on sight' sign above my head?
Scratch that what would people do for the bounty that was above my head like a proverbial grave?
I pushed those thoughts aside and took a deep breath. I had hoped I could just come out here alone, jump in the ley line and have done with it. Now I had all those people watching me, stood there hoping I was going to help save them. I opened the line and was about to step in when Mircea wished me luck. Now I would have to turn round and face them all. Damn.
"I'll be fine." I shrugged. I looked from face to face and got smiles from Rafe and Louis-Cesare. Cassie gave me a brief hug.
"This will help you." Rasputin said. "Seeing us will give you more strength. If we didn't think it would help we wouldn't have come." He didn't hug me or put a hand on my shoulder, just the look in his eyes was enough to give me strength. Then I turned to Pritkin.
The last time I had seen him was this morning. I'd been curled up in his arms and had sleep in my eyes from the perhaps overly fitful sleep I'd had. For a moment after waking neither of us moved except for the tightening of his arms around me. I'd felt safer than I ever had and never wanted it to end. We'd memorised everything about each other in those couple of stolen moments. I remembered his smell and the soft hair of his chest, the way his chest rose and fell as he breathed, the warmth of his hands on my waist and the fire where his skin touched mine. He was full of hard packed muscle that was more than good to look at and drove me insane when I saw him using it.
Now as I looked at him I felt more sorrow than I ever had before and I could tell he was feeling it too. We'd only just got passed our petty argument and now, because of me and my big mouth and stubborn head, I was walking into one of the most dangerous places I could. For all we knew we'd never see each other again. I didn't know what to say so I just kept looking at him.
He looked torn up, wanting to say something but unable to with all the people around. Then he put a hand on my cheek and I moved into it loving the way the rough patches on his skin soothed my own and the look in his green, green eyes was more than enough to make me believe in myself.
"How are you getting there?" he asked his voice rough with emotion. It was like a balm to my skin but broke my heart the rest of the way at the same time. John Pritkin was strong and nothing could hurt him. Except me. Or me dying. If this is what love did to you was love really worth it?
Of course it was worth it. Worth it a thousand times over.
"I figured I'd just strengthen my shields or something." I shrugged and looked at my boots. Someone had scuffed them up for me so they looked travel worn but it was all cosmetic. They were still as strong and comfortable as when I last wore them. I had a feeling I'd owe these boots my toes lives before the end.
"No. Take this." He pulled a softly glowing sphere from his coat and put it in my hands.
I'd seen this device just once before when I asked him about how MAGIC was destroyed. It was only just big enough to need two hands to hold it and the magic inside it was a swirl of orange and gold. Pritkin's treasured prize.
"Pritkin I can't…" I lamely began.
"Take it." he said his voice unusually soft. "It'll protect you. Remember take the second left of the green one, not the first left of the purple one."
"Yeah. Elementary mistake that was." I said with a small laugh. I looked up into his eyes for a moment and then reached up and kissed him briefly on the lips. He kissed me back and then whispered in my ear.
"Stay safe, play hard."
I stepped away from him and then turned back to the ley line.
"Wait!" Pritkin blurted.
I turned back to him reluctantly. I'd been ready to go and everything.
"Take this." He passed me a vial.
"You're giving me the mistake potion? I bet laughing is going to be a major distraction for fully trained mages." I smiled a little. "Thank you." I kissed him on the cheek and turned back to the ley line.
I paused before I opened it and then I was zooming away through the sky inside a tiny bubble of safety. I quickly figured out how to stay in the middle of the road, in the smoother stream. The hardest thing was keeping concentration and not looking too much at the landscape smudging passed. A couple of times I almost lost it to go falling to my death. After the yellow one I was on I had to take the blue one that took me over MAGIC and then a purple one, remembering not to take the first left, which then bled into the green one where I took the second left. Before I knew it England was below me.
The line I was in swept way over the lines that serviced England and the Channel Islands. Below was not only England but the lines that dipped into the streets and soared with mountains and ran alongside rivers in varying hues of red, purple, fuchsia, blue and pale green. A small red one opened out in Stratford-upon-Avon, almost directly over the river. I navigated my way towards it and entered with ease. Five seconds later I was at my stop.
Getting out was always harder than getting in. It required more concentration and skill. And I managed to stuff it up getting caught in the current as I was getting out meaning I was flung over the river as I exited. Fortunately a canal boat was passing under as I fell. I landed on the roof which appeared to be weakened with age. I fell through landing in the kitchen, half on the counter half off.
Abruptly standing up as per my training was perhaps the worst thing in the world to have done at that particular moment and I was faced with something no person ever wanted to see – to people in the middle of a very good time – and they tumbled on the floor landing at my feet. Okay so maybe getting up was a good thing otherwise they would have landed on me, but having working eyes wasn't.
The man yelped and the woman reached round for a sheet.
"You do know you're moving don't you?" I asked with an arched eyebrow.
They both cursed and grabbed the first clothes that came to hand and rushed out side. Half laughing I walked out behind them and grabbed hold of the branch that was passing over head. I didn't want to be around when they realised there was a whopping great big hole in their boat. From my vantage point I quickly got my bearings and headed to the bridge up river and crossed to the other side. From there it was a five mile walk to school. Instead of wasting time I got a taxi.
Karen Chance owns both the Cassie Palmer and Midnight's Daughter series.