THE DARK was watching him. It had weight, substance. It surrounded him, held him tight, made his skin crawl and his lungs ache for air.
Tristan took in a gasping breath and realized he could breathe just fine. That deep breath not only filled his lungs with air, but coated his sinuses in something rank. He smelled earth and rot, tasted it.
There were dead things hidden in the pitch.
The wind picked up and whipped his hair into his face, stinging his skin and eyes. Instead of the wind taking the scent away, it carried it heavier with each new gust. He lifted a hand to cover his mouth when the stench made him gag and he ended up poking himself in the cheek.
“Ow!” he yelped a little too loudly, too carelessly.
Dry sounds rustled and scurried around him, like crabs on rocks.
“Hello?” he called out.
More shuffling and scraping.
“Who’s there? What is this place?”
A voice answered, carried on the wind. It was soft, feminine and definitely not human if the way it made him feel was any indication. Her words were lost to the gust and Tristan opened his mouth to ask her to say again but shrieks of fright echoed all around him.
The woman laughed.
More shrieks, more desperate this time, and the scraping and scampering faded away as the things in the dark retreated.
Tristan spun, gasping for air, his pulse choking him. Did someone just touch him? His arm felt… tingly.
Something rustled really fucking close to him, the flutter of fabric and he spun again, making a full circle.
“Who’s there?” He took a step back before he could stop himself, unsure if he’d step in a hole or off a cliff. The dark, it was too disorientating. He didn’t know where his own hands were, never mind the topography around him. He might as well have been floating in space.
“My space,” the woman said just loud enough for him to hear and Tristan gasped, stumbling away from the voice that seemed to be right in his ear.
“Who are you!” Despite the volume of his demand, his voice seemed to stop just past his lips, caught and trapped by the wind. Blocked by the wall of darkness.
That’s when the chanting started. Maybe it had been going on all along, but Tristan only noticed just then. All the hair on his body stood on end, his breath caught in his chest. There was malice and fear, anger and strife in the voices. Hundreds of harsh intonations, all crying over each other, making the words jumble together. The voices grew louder and louder, digging a knife into his brain.
Tristan grabbed his head, gritted his teeth. The pain would have blinded him had he not already been in a void. He sucked down a gasp of rank air to yell when everything came to a startling climax. The wind ceased, the smell was swept away and the voices settled into a low, raspy mantra, “It’s the death.”
Tristan stumbled as the words slithered over his body.
“It’s the death,” they chanted again, the cacophony of voices joined as one.
A shutter tore through Tristan, his skin cold but his core on fire. Sweat ran down his back, goose bumps raised across his bare arms.
“It’s the death. It’s the death!”
“Oh god,” he whispered to himself because he knew. It was him. He was The Death. He had to get away from here, wherever here was.
Without thinking, he backed up, trying desperately to get away from the noise, the pain and anger that beat against him like the heat of fire. His heart was going to give out, or he was going to asphyxiate on terror.
The woman laughed again and the chanting faltered.
Something definitely brushed his arm this time and he spun. “Shit!”
That fucking laugh again, full of satisfaction and dark needs. So close.
A hand grabbed ahold of Tristan’s wrist and he cried out, scared out of his fucking mind.
“You’re mine,” the woman said.
The world burst into light. Sickly yellow, harsh light and Tristan hissed through his teeth, throwing his free arm over his eyes. A moment later his eyes had adjusted and he lowered his arm, seeing that was standing alone in the middle of nowhere. The sky was dark, the ground was black and there was no light further than a few yards around him, like he was the light source.
The sky felt heavy… looming, as if there were a low ceiling but all around him, the terrain felt open and endless. The ground was hard, slightly gritty and fractured, like the Nevada desert.
He stiffened when he felt the presence of another person. He couldn’t say what the person was, only that he felt… something.
There was a small, condescending laugh and he spun around, coming to a stop when he saw the woman standing behind him. She was small, wrapped in layers of flowing red silks, all different shades that made her porcelain skin seem to glow. Her shiny black hair, cut like Cleopatra, reached down to the back of her knees. She might have been cute, or at least attractive, but Tristan couldn’t get past her unsettling eyes. Like the rest of her features, her eyes were of Asian descent in shape but the irises were red and her pupils were gold and slit like a snake.
“It’s about time we’ve met.”
Tristan jumped so violently at the sudden words that he almost fell over. “Who are you?”
She lifted her chin, considering him. “You know.”
Tristan’s stomach turned into knots. Oh god, he really didn’t but had a pretty good fucking idea. “Mother…”
She only smiled with half her mouth, looking cynical and pleased all at once. Tristan wasn’t sure if he could take that for a yes or no.
“What do you want from me?”
The other side of her mouth lifted to make a full smile. “You know.”
He started to take a step towards her, but stopped when she laughed. The creatures of the dark answered with wails. Tristan slapped his hands over his ears as her laughter and their cries of pain reached a crescendo of intolerable noise.
“Stop!” he screamed as he dropped to his knees and tucked into himself with his hands over his ears, desperate for the clamor to stop.
There was on final howl of laughter and then the woman burst into a mass of writhing bugs and tiny crawling creatures. Tristan gasped, throwing himself backwards, away from the mess and fell onto his ass. The bugs gathered and converged on him in a large scurrying, dark mass.
Tristan let out a yell and gasped, freezing mid-motion when he saw he was no longer in that dissolute place where the dark had eyes. He was home, in his bed, gasping and shaking, and covered in sweat.
Then the sound of retching had him scrambling out of bed, tangled with the sheets and rushing towards the ensuite.
She looked up from where she sat on the floor, her legs under her at an awkward angle as if she threw herself at the toilet, desperate to reach it. Her complexion was a bit on the grey side and her bright blues eyes were dulled and heavy with exhaustion.
“Jesus,” Tristan whispered and went to one knee next to her. He reached out and pushed a few stray strands of damp hair from her face. “It’s time Ash. We can’t pretend anymore. We need to know for sure.”
Ash met his eyes, her own full of wonderment and fear.
“We need to confirm if you’re pregnant, one-hundred percent. Ignoring what I felt—what we felt doesn’t make it go away.”
Ash frowned and swallowed hard. “You’re one to talk.”
He’d only been back home in Maryland for less than two weeks, but already a ton of shit had gone down. He reunited with his old friends, people he considered family and had pushed away when things got too hard. He met and befriended a real live lycanthrope—the very same one that caused the car accident that killed his parents and should have killed him. That same lycan was now their live-in, helping to take on the bulk of care for the muddled barn girl Desmond nearly killed.
Then Tristan learned that not only did Ash have a biological daughter but that the girl was also Ash’s only scion. The girl hated Ash and had abused her under Malik’s tutelage—She was a big part of why Ash had trouble agreeing to bite Tristan, to be the one to change him so irrevocably. Oh right, and he had that angry, estranged daughter’s eye now in place of the one she carved out of his face in a fit of revenge rage.
Well, Ash bit him anyway, and it was the night that they finally completed their bond and he drank Ash’s blood that they discovered something peculiar—two extra heart beats. At first he thought maybe it was an echo of his and Ash’s, but the new beats were faster and quickly fell out of sync.
If it was true, Ash, a fucking vampire, was carrying his babies. They’d carefully avoided the subject since the night they’d discovered the abnormality, but it was becoming apparent that ignoring it wasn’t going to work anymore.
Tristan sighed, trying not to take her anger personally. She was scared. They both were. “I’ll try to reach Eric again.”
He’d been trying since he pushed Gillian away—just to make sure the couple was okay. Tristan’s guess, Gillian told Eric… God knew what since she refused to believe the truth of what happened to her at an angry vampire’s hand, and now they were both pissed at Tristan.
Which was really okay with him. He’d rather them be angry and avoiding him than caught up in his mess again. Because of him poor Gillian was abducted and abused. She may never have children after what Pollux did her and that was on Tristan. He’d never be able to atone for that. But the sad truth was, he needed Eric now. He needed Eric’s professional skills. He didn’t trust anyone else. Not with this.
Ash nodded, looking thoughtful for about five seconds before she turned away to puke again. Everything that came out of her was tinted pink. If she fed earlier, well, there wasn’t much left for her to expel.
“Jesus Christ,” he hissed. “Is there anything I can do?” He winced at her scowl. “Have you tried eating crackers?”
Ash’s complexion shifted a shade of horrified he’d never seen on her and she balked. “You cannot be serious.”
He shrugged. “You’re not supposed to be pregnant—you’re a vampire. But what if that spell back in Greece, what if it messed something up in you? Maybe you are different and just don’t know it, despite what Netty said.”
Netty had bitten her, tasted her soul. He said she was just a vampire. Tristan wasn’t so sure. Not with all the pythia bullshit going around lately. Seemed like every time he turned around there was some rare spell being tossed at him and those he cared about.
“The idea of putting food into my mouth—” She turned away to heave again.
Tristan sighed, rubbing circles over her back. “Yeah, I know, babe. I know.”
He kissed her on the head and stood, blocking the view into the bathroom when he felt the vampire with the aura tinged by green come into their room. Desmond knew better than enter without knocking but Tristan stopped himself from bitching the man out when he saw the bleak look on his face.
“Phone,” Desmond grunted, holding out the house cordless between two fingers like it burned.
“What? I didn’t hear it ring—Who is it?”
Desmond stared at him a moment before finally muttering, “Yukihime.” That he didn’t call her Master was really fucking telling. There was trouble in paradise. Not his problem. Not right now.
“Awwwwww, fuck,” he moaned and Ash chuckled at him. Desmond still looked morose as fuck—maybe because Ash was on the floor vomiting and the big vampire knew it but not why.
Tristan didn’t want this to be a serious phone call. He’d had about all the serious he could handle for a lifetime.
From downstairs, there was a bark that the house’s open plan managed to amplify. It was a deep bark, the kind that a very big dog with very big lungs made. Or a lycanthrope in wolf form.
There was a crash followed by a squeal. Tristan sighed, wondering what broke this time. Without bothering to even hear out Yuki, Tristan hung up on her before passing the phone back to Desmond.
“Will you tell those two to knock it off already? God, how many times…”
Desmond took the phone from him, looking horrified and nodding but didn’t say anything as he left. Tristan turned back to Ash, trying hard not to frown himself.
“Are you okay?”
Nodding, she moved to get up and tumbled back down. Tristan helped her stand on unsteady legs and pulled her tightly to him. He took in a breath, opened his mouth and shut it again with a groan when there was another crash followed by a louder squeal.
“What the fuck,” he grumbled. Ash released her hold on him and Tristan went into the bedroom, saying over his shoulder, “Barely two weeks in our new place and shit’s already needing replacing.” Like a whole damn barn that Castor burned down.
Ash followed him into the room and slumped on the end of the bed, watching Tristan as he retrieved his cell. “Are you calling Yukihime?”
He laughed. If he didn’t know she wasn’t feeling well before, that did it for him. “No. Eric.”
“Oh,” she said, slumping.
There was no answer and Tristan groused under his breath. He made a face and shrugged as he ended the unanswered call without leaving a message. On whim, he tried Netty again too—they had shit to talk about. He didn’t even get voicemail this time. He wasn’t sure if he was worried or not. Like so many older vampires, Netty didn’t seem too keen on tech, so it was very possible the man hadn’t even charged the phone. Or even knew how to use it.
“Try again later,” she said softly.
“Yeah,” he sighed and pocketed his phone. “Yeah. I just—” He shook his head. He did this. He pushed Eric and Gillian away, again. For good fucking reason, yeah, still it hurt that he was being refuted by one of his best friends. “Maybe we should make an appointment with… whoever.”
“Yeah, I can look up local doctors—midwives? Or whatever, and make an appointment.” He really didn’t want to but what other options did he have?
Ash frowned at him. “I doubt you will find one that works late hours… after dark. I can be awake during the day but they would have to come to me, equipment and all.”
Tristan deflated. “Oh, right.” He sat next to Ash and she leaned against him, dropped her head onto his arm. “What do we do?”
Their bedroom door was thicker than the normal mass production door you’d pick up from any home improvement store. The doors, a dense slab of African Blackwood, according to Ash, were antiques from a time when the now endangered wood was far more abundant and infinitely harder to work.
Apparently, they first belonged to a revered author of horror, but she only smirked knowingly when Tristan asked who. Anyway, the doors were heavy as shit and equally as dense. Their main job was to be hearty and noise proof. But even those massive doors couldn’t keep out the manic giggles and deep barks of a not-so-right-in-the-head girl and lycan playing fucking tag in the house.
Ash turned her face into him, forcing him to lift his arm. She snuggled against his side, pressed her face to his chest and sighed, slumping. “You’re right. We need to know for sure. I will…” She sighed again. “I will ask Lance to help.”
Tristan cringed. “That’s good in theory n’ all, but we can’t trust him to not tell Yuki. I mean, I get he’s not a snitch, and he can block out most of his thoughts but he’s so fucking loyal that he can’t lie to his Master.”
Ash agreed with a soft hum and a nod. “True. But Yukihime will know, not matter what. She might already. Desmond… suspects.”
Tristan harrumphed and hugged her tightly. As much as he hated the idea of everyone knowing their business, he knew she was right. That manipulative little shit always knew. She was more a part of the clusterfuck that the First Pythia, Iason, was causing than she’d let on. Tristan was eager to get to the bottom of the vampire’s role in Iason’s grand tragedy.
Smiling, Tristan drew her in for a kiss. Ash happily went, deepening the kiss, giving the soft tissue of his mouth a tiny nick. He should have known the minute he kissed her they’d end up naked and breathless—they just couldn’t seem to help themselves anymore. Ash tugged at his shirt and he moved back, letting her lift it over his head and toss away.
“Tristan, your arm!”
“What the fuck,” he bit out, staring at it.
“They look like fingers--Tristan. What happened?”
He shook his head. “Not sure. I mean, I just had this really fucked up dream. Some woman grabbed my wrist.”
“Woman? What did she look like?”
He thought about it, hard, but couldn’t recall her face. Shaking his head, he said, “I don’t know.” He sighed and reached for his shirt. “Maybe we—”
There was a soft knock on the door. Tristan scowled, knowing who it was.
Yanking open the door, he flinched at the noise from downstairs, taking a step back. “What?”
Desmond furrowed his brow at him and held out an envelope.
“Were in the mail…”
“You got my mail?”
Desmond slapped the envelope against Tristan’s chest. “It’s Lilith’s handwriting.”
“What?” Ash asked, coming up behind him.
The envelope was midnight blue with Tristan’s name written in silver cursive. Ash reached out to touch it but pulled her hand back.
He balked. “What?”
“It’s spelled so that only you may open it.”
“Explains why it sodding burned,” Desmond muttered.
Frowning, he turned the envelope over in his hand. He felt… something, but nothing like that ward on the onsen where Malik had taken up residence. In fact, it felt a little bit the way Ash’s spell book felt under his hands. Tingly.
“Open it,” she urged. “With your blood.”
Glancing at Desmond, Tristan slipped his finger under the flap. Tried to. It didn’t give but he managed the papercut he was aiming for. The moment his blood seeped out, the flap released, cleanly opening as if it had never been sealed. There was a single sheet of very thin, delicate paper inside with four lines written in careful, deliberate cursive.
“Oh,” he said, after he’d read it twice.
“Oh?” Ash asked.
After a hard look from Tristan, Desmond left them to it. When it was just Ash and Tristan standing on the landing, Tristan read the note aloud.
“The Raven is a murder; The Mother is a pact; The Father is a slumber; The Rest live with that.”
“Oh,” Ash said, mirroring his earlier dismayed tone.
“What does it mean?”
Ash shook her head. Tristan shut his eyes and ran a hand through his hair, frustrated with Lilith’s cryptic message. And all the fucking noise. There were happy growls, yips and breathless laughter. And another crash.
“Hey!” Tristan shouted as he leaned over the railing above the atrium and couldn’t help but laugh a little when Ellie got caught up in a long, snorted laugh that took her breath away. She was annoying him but, dammit, she was adorable. “What’d I say about Were-tag in the house?”
A blur of tawny fur shot out of the TV room below them and through the atrium, brushing the plants and tree leaves in passing. Kiba came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs, looking up them with bright amber eyes. His row of earrings clanked a few times before settling and he plopped his ass down, smiling all toothy with his doggy smile.
Trevor the human was average in height and weight but those same attributes translated to his wolf size, making Kiba the animal the biggest damn wolf Tristan had ever seen. And, despite what Kiba had done to Tristan in the past—been ordered to do—they were good friends. Tristan trusted the man, the werewolf, not to hurt him or anyone he loved. Still, he needed things to be crystal clear between them.
“Kiba, goddammit. You know Elinore’s not right in the head. I don’t want you playing tag as a wolf. What if you accidently bite her like that, huh? She doesn’t know when to stop. You’ve got to be the adult here.”
The wolf lowered his head and whimpered. Sorry, you know it’s a compulsion for my wolf. Something runs, I have to chase.
Tristan still flinched every other time he heard one of the other shinwa’s thoughts so clearly. Nearly two weeks of being a fully awoken Uruwashi with his Master’s blood fueling his transformation and he still couldn’t believe the things he was capable of. He spoke telepathically pretty damn well, if he said so himself, but it wasn’t something he was sure he’d ever get used to. Twenty-three years of being--believing you’re a certain way… well, some habits were hard to break. Tristan’s worst habit? Carrying on like he’s human.
Ash squeezed Tristan’s arm before turning away and descending the steps. She sat on the bottom step and motioned to the huge wolf. Head still lowered Kiba shuffled forward to accept her affection. It was strange, everyone knew this dog was really a man, but the compulsion to pet and cuddle him like a beloved family pet couldn’t be denied. Tristan was the one that ended up cuddling the man-beast the most.
Tristan smiled at the wolf, unable to help it. “Yeah, I know. Just be careful, is all. That’s all I ask, you know?”
You know I’d never hurt her.
“Yeah, dude. I do know. But I still worry.”
Ash nodded and whispered to him, “Of course we know you love her too.” She looked at him lovingly, deep admiration in her eyes. Everyone loved Kiba, but for Tristan it was a compulsion. From day one he put far more trust into the man than he needed to. Kiba, being completely humble, said it was something to do with the bond between lycanthrope and pythia. They were like PB and jelly—Kiba’s analogy, not Tristan’s. He almost seemed guilty about it, like he was sorry Tristan couldn’t help but like the man who killed his parents.
Eli came tromping into the room laughing and gasping like Kiba was still chasing her. She was thin and lanky with thick brown hair, big brown eyes and a mess of freckles. She was cute and delicate the way Liv Tyler was cute and delicate, only not quite as pretty. Or smart. But that was Desmond’s fault—one the vampire undoubtedly felt shame for.
Tristan came up behind Ash in time to watch Ellie trip on her own feet and face-plant hard on the tiled floor. He cringed, sympathizing with her.
“Banana!” she exclaimed and then giggled, rolling onto her back.
“Don’t you mean, “ouch”, sweetheart?” he asked.
Kiba left Ash’s embrace to loom over Ellie. He nuzzled at her torso, making the girl laugh even as she cradled her knee to her chest.
She was giggling and gasping for air but still managed to get out, “Ouch--ouchies!” and continue carrying on with her hysteria. Then she farted and managed to laugh even harder, eliciting Kiba to bark at her.
“I think she’s getting dumber,” Tristan mumbled.
Ash turned on her seat on the step and smirked half-heartedly at him as Ellie rocked back and forth on the ground with her kneed pulled her chest and Kiba jabbing his nose into her belly, making her laugh harder. If they weren’t careful, the poor thing would do a lot worse than fart laughing that hard.
“She is,” Ash agreed, completely deadpan. Maybe even seriously.
Okay, it wasn’t so funny anymore and when Desmond came into the room again, looking grim as fuck… Yeah. It was an accident, Elinore’s mutilation was happenstance of circumstance. Another life ruined in the orbit of Tristan’s fucked-up world, even if it wasn’t by his own hand for once.
Ash huffed and stood, moving up the two steps to stand just below Tristan. She reached up for his face and he leaned down to accommodate her. He knew what she was going to say but let her do it anyway. “Stop that.” Elinore’s happy and healthy. It’s the best we can hope for considering what happened to her.
He nodded, not in the mood to argue, not with so much else on his mind.
Ash gave him a tight smile and a kiss.
He was just considering taking her back to bed to thoroughly worship her when his cell rang in his pocket. He was startled by the ID and showed it to Ash. She nodded and motioned for him to answer.
He went back into the bedroom and answered the call. They spoke a few moments and when he was done, he hung up with a sigh, returning to Ash. They needed to do this—find out what was up with Ash, but he wasn’t as ready as he thought for the truth and now there was no way out of it.
“Let’s go,” he said softly.
“Yeah, just… We need to go.”
Whether she understood intuitively or by picking up his thoughts, she nodded. She went downstairs and to the fridge and pulled out a sandwich and bottle of water. When Tristan joined her a moment later, she shoved them into his hands.
He sighed at her, but took them, promising to actually consume them. Since he’d been bitten, he’d had trouble with food. He used to love food and eating, now it was just way to stay alive. Though, he wasn’t convinced he needed to eat anymore to live. Still, Ash insisted he eat a little something in the solids category every day since he did seem to feel a bit more enlivened after he ate something tangible.
“Going to Master’s?” Desmond asked. There was no emotion in his tone and Tristan couldn’t read him. The vampire was blocking hard.
Ash turned to look at him where he leaned against the side of the fridge. She couldn’t read him either if the look on her face meant anything. “No. We have other things to tend to.”
Desmond scowled at her, obviously picking up on the fact they were keeping a secret.
“Can I go!” Elinore chirped as she tromped into the room, limping a little with Kiba plastered to her side, ready to catch her.
“No, sweetheart,” Tristan answered. “Not tonight.”
Ellie let out a long moan, slumped and lip pouted out.
In hopes to placate her, he added, “My car wouldn’t start yesterday, remember? And Ash’s car only has two seats. But Desmond will see if Sacha or Simon want to come over and play.” He glanced at the man and Desmond nodded. Ellie would stay with the vampire but he made her super nervous. The poor girl just didn’t know why.
“Yay, Simon!” the girl cried, throwing her hands up in the air and turned tail, running off. The wolf was hot on her heels.
“Hey, no running in the house!” Tristan called after her.
Kiba yipped and Elinore shouted back, “’Kay!” followed by more laughter and doggy noises.
“I’ll erm…” The others turned to look at Desmond as the man faltered. “I’ll watch the wee girlie.” His jaw tightened a moment. “And the wolf. I’ll see if Wren will come by too, he’s a micht better with the lass.”
The vampire had his mind locked up tight but Tristan could feel his unease and wondered what the man was so worried about. And when Desmond’s eyes flicked to Ash and back to Tristan again all so fast he wasn’t sure it’d even happened, Tristan felt keenly sick. He did suspect. Maybe he even knew… Jesus, they didn’t even know.
They had no idea and had walked around the past two weeks with their minds locked up tight and their mouths shut. In fact, aside from the several-times-a-night sex, he and Ash had interacted very little. He was scared, she was in denial and they didn’t even know for sure that she was pregnant. Never mind, how.
“I’m sure Wren can use some company of the vampire variety.” Tristan grinned. “And lucky for you, Wren loves dicks.”
Not even a snicker. Wow.
Desmond stared off at nothing for a moment before he seemed to remember himself and flinched. He frowned at the others and left the room.
“Shit,” Tristan hissed under his breath as he watched the vampire walk away. “Never thought I’d say it, but I’m kind of worried about Desmond.”
Ash heaved a tired sigh. “He—” She shook her head, seeming to change her mind. “Come, we have more important matters to worry about tonight.”
Yeah, like making history by confirming a vampire pregnant.