The Box

 

The Box

I am sorry.

Ambrea Woald was going to die before she found the male she was destined to be mated with. As the home she shared with her six sisters shook apart around them, she clung to the youngest sister and tried not to weep.

She knew he was out there somewhere. And that he had been looking for her just as long, longer, than she had been looking for him. She was one hundred twenty years old. She had been looking for her Rajni, her destined mate chosen by her goddess, for a long, long time. And thanks to whatever evil was rising beneath her home, she would never find him.

“Get outside!” she yelled. She was the oldest, the leader, the one the others trusted most to get them out of dangerous situations. But though she sometimes saw things, she had never predicted this. “Hurry!”

She scooped up Alleah, the youngest at eight, and tried to run for the stairs. The stairs cracked beneath her feet. She swung her baby sister, the one she’d raised, into her sister Kellis’s arms. Just in time.

Kellis pulled Alleah out of the way. Riv and Jume, both barely in their thirties now, grabbed for Ambrea.

Together the seven sisters hurried back to the bottom of the stairs. That’s where they’d been told to go during demon attacks. To the bottom level of their home.

But that was the worst mistake they could have made this time.

Because something beneath the ground was rising.

And it was far too late for them all.

Kulea screamed when a green cloud erupted from the cracks in the wall nearest her. Alaun raised her hands as rocks rained down around her. Rocks that had once been their sitting room floor.

This stone hut was a far cry from where they had lived on a crowded street in Dardanos, Colorado, just over a year before. It was practically medieval. And bad things happened in medieval times.

Really bad ones.

“Come here!” She grabbed for her sisters. She knew it was too late. They weren’t getting out of this. All they could hope for was that they weren’t crushed too badly. If they didn’t bleed to death they would survive.

They were Dardaptoans, after all. And only blood loss was a guaranteed way to kill them quickly.

If they didn’t bleed, there would be hope.

As she held her sisters close, she sent him one more message.

I am sorry. Please! Come for me!

As darkness closed around her, it was all she could say.

As the hours passed, with her and her sisters locked beneath the earth, it was all she could say. Come for me.

***

Rix jerked to the left when he heard the female calling to him. But there was nothing for him to see. Just destruction. He had seen the creature rise from the ground, but he could not identify it. And his sword had been useless against what was an ephemeral cloud of evil.

But her voice…she had been calling for him. Just Come for me.

He did not know who she was, or where she was. But in his heart…he knew. He just knew…

It was his female calling him, needing him, in her greatest hour. And he did not know her name. Or where to find her. But she was near.

He was an Adrastos, of the greatest family of warriors that the Dardaptoan bloodsuckers had ever seen. Legendary, some of his own ancestors had inspired the human myths of vampires. Strong.

Yet he felt weak and useless and powerless because he could not get to her. Nor could he call to her within his mind for her to give him something to go on.

All he could do was search.

A full quarter of the city had been destroyed. There had been deaths.

Two sources of evil had risen from the ground near each other. Houses had been destroyed, some even obliterated. Right in the center of the small family they had just moved into that block recently.

The house of Woald had suffered enough. There were one hundred and ten Dardaptoan tribes that had once been spread out amongst the Gaian world. The world of the humans. Those ten tribes had been further divided into Houses. At one point it had been thought only ten tribes remained, but upon relocation they had learned differently. Many tribes had splintered into smaller ones. The House of Woald was one of—if not the—smallest of the Houses. They only had about three hundred Dardaptoans in their entire House. It was led by his brother’s mate, Iahanna.

Her people had just recently moved into this area—so that they would be protected by those that had targeted them. The females of the Woald had been gravely mistreated—at Rix’s father and grandfather’s directive. No one yet understood why, but he and his brothers would.

The females of the Woald had not deserved any of it. And they didn’t deserve to be at the center of this.

Come to me. Hurry. I can’t…I have been bleeding …Hurry. Help them…

Terror filled him at her broken words. She was bleeding? Their Kind died so easily from blood loss, especially the females. He could not lose her. Not now.

A shout went up, and he turned. His brother was there. Many of his brothers were there.

And there was a stone cottage completely destroyed.

He could hear the voices of females trapped within. “Help! Hurry! Help us!”

Rix ran. He was the closest. And he knew. She was in there. And she needed him.

He investigated the collapse quickly. A large slab blocked the only entrance. It would have to be moved first. Either by magical forces or by might.

He looked at his closest brother. Marous was there, Marous and his female Meghan. She didn’t need to be out there. But she was.

“We need ropes and every warrior we can find,” Rix shouted at him. “Do what we can until Nalik arrives. A Laquazzeana might be able to get the largest slab quicker than we can break it apart.”

It took too long. Finally, though, they were able to open a space large enough for the trapped to lift out a small girl of only eight or nine. Rix wrapped his arms around her gently and pulled her free.

The stone shifted. Rix looked in to the darkness. There was just enough light for him to see the first female.

She looked right at him, hope on her pretty face.

“Help! My sisters are hurt! Hurry! Ambrea’s bleeding and we can’t get it stopped.”

“We are coming for you. And the Laquazzeana Nalik is on his way. He will move these stones and we will pull you all to safety. How many of you are there?” his brother asked from right next to him. Rix kept working on removing more of the stone. He needed to get a bigger opening. Even if he ripped his hands raw, he was getting to her.

“Seven,” the female answered.

Seven, and they’d removed one already. That left six. And Ambrea was bleeding. Ambrea. It meant sun in Dardaptoan. Bright sun.

“How many injured?”

“Two. The rest of us are just bruised. But you have to hurry. None of us are healers, and our youngest is just eight. And she hasn’t woken since the wall fell on her. It hit her in the head.”

“They are already taking her to the healers. Iahanna is there. She will be in good hands. Stand back. I’m coming in.” Rix lowered himself into the opening, feet first. It was eight feet up from where the females huddled.

He used the glowing rocks the demon guards had given them when the relocation had first occurred to set up light for him and the others to work by. “We need to get you out of here, so we can get her.”

One female, smaller than the others, shook her head. “We can’t. We can’t leave her down here. She goes first.”

“No. I need the rest of you out of the way.” On that he was firm. Whether she was his or not, they had five females in front of him that were in relatively decent shape. They had to take precedence.

Five females strong enough to birth healthy babes must be protected at all costs. It was the Dardaptoan way never to risk healthy females. They had five males out there waiting for them; mates who would die if anything happened to them.

He understood the law in theory—it was better to lose two mated Dardaptoans, then to lose ten by trying to save two.

“Go. Move quickly.”

He grabbed the small female with a sword. She wasn’t the smallest, but it was damned close. “You first. Go.”

One by one, he lifted the five sisters into his brothers’ waiting arms. The rubble was so small he had no way to get one of his brothers down there to help. So he lifted them quickly.

And then it was her turn. His female. He knew she was his.

He leaned over her and sliced open his wrist. He pulled her closer to him, inspecting her for injuries. Her head still bled. He rubbed his own blood over her lips. “Drink, Ambrea. Drink so that we both may live. I have come for you. I have finally found you.”

***

She heard him. On some level she knew someone was holding her. She felt herself being lifted. Ambrea opened her eyes, though it was difficult. There was a strong male holding her. And he was holding his wrist to her mouth so she could…

She drank. She needed it. Her sisters had been keeping her supplied while they were trapped, but they had not had enough to give. Though Kellis had tried to get her to take more.

Ambrea drank all that she could.

And she knew. The instant she tasted him she knew her male had come for her. Like she had always trusted he would.

She closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest as he carried her out of the rubble.

She did not drift off again, though her body was telling her to. That she was finally safe.

***

Rix lifted her to his brothers, then hurried out after her. He ripped the turquoise blue hasha scarf off his waist and folded it so that the cleanest portion of it could cover her injured head. Her bright sunshine-colored hair was soaked with blood. As was the Woald yellow vestis she wore. He had to get her back to the healers. Quickly.

She felt so fragile in his arms.

Marous was twenty yards ahead, the small girl in his own arms. Rix hurried to catch up with his brother.

Marous looked at Ambrea. “I recognize her. She helped me find Meghan. I owe her a great debt. I can carry her, if your arms are tired.”

“She is my female.”

Marous nodded. “She is in my prayers, brother. We will get her to Iahanna as quickly as possible. She will be well, I am certain.”

Rix just nodded.

If she wasn’t, he was fully prepared to follow her to the next world that awaited. Without question.

He could not live without her.

***

The healers were waiting when he and Marous ran in. It had been a long few days. The healers showed their exhaustion. But they came running. Barlaam took the girl first, and one of the lesser healers ran to get what he needed.

Iahanna came to Rix. “Dear Goddess, what has happened to her? Ambrea, can you hear me?”

“You know her,” Rix said. Iahanna was the head of her House. She would know them all.

“She is the daughter of my eldest uncle. Her sisters?”

“Should be near. None others except the child were injured. But all were trapped for two days. Ambrea is my female,” Rix said. Iahanna shot him a look of compassion. Her hands were gentle on her cousin.

“Ambrea stayed with me, after my brother was arrested and killed. And after my eldest brother abdicated. She made me realize that I have people still dependent on me. It was Ambrea that taught me how to lead.”

Iahanna loved her, too.

It seemed like hours before they had her settled into a bed, and the bleeding stopped. They had discovered a glue of a sorts in the demon world that acted as a coagulant. It had been just enough to stop the bleeding, thank the goddess.

But Iahanna had told him the odds. They weren’t good. Infection could take her easily. Unless they found something with the demon healers that could fight it.

He sat by her bed and prayed.

Until her eyes opened.

One of her sisters was there; they had been in and out. Pale, young, vulnerable. Terrified.  He wished he had the energy to even look at them, to reassure them. It was too hard. Rix kept his eyes on Ambrea.

Until her eyes opened. And she looked at her sister. Gave her orders to retrieve something from the house they had nearly died in. A box of some sort.

And then she looked at him. “You are him.”

Emotion threatened to choke him. “I am him. “

***

Ambrea just stared at him. Never would she have imagined her male would be an Adrastos. Adrastoses had caused her family nothing but heartache since the relocation.

“How do you feel, my love?”

 “Weak.” Ambrea closed her eyes. “But you are an Adrastos. His son. I do not wish to be mated to an Adrastos…” She said more, but she didn’t remember what it was.

His hand was on hers. The feel of her male, her male, threatened to overwhelm her.

He said something, about sending his brothers with her sister to fetch…the box.

But it was important. She knew. Alaun had to go alone. Or it wouldn’t work the way it was supposed to. “No! An Adrastos cannot be trusted with this. Only a Woald. Only Alaun. Go, Alaun, before they stop you.”

Only Alaun, because it was Alaun’s destiny. Destiny was coming for all of them.

Hers was…her destiny was right next to her.

Ambrea forced her eyes to open as she heard the door close after her sister.

And she finally focused on him.

She didn’t know his name.

But she knew him. “You are quite beautiful.”

He smiled. “No. You are the beautiful one. Tell me, why do you fear the Adrastos so?”

She held up a weak arm. To reveal the eight-inch scar. “Keagin. He didn’t like me near his father’s new fields. But…we had to eat and they’d thrown out the grains anyway. He cut me when I wouldn’t give up the basket…or…take off my clothes…”

Ambrea’s eyes wanted to close again, but she forced them open. “He…is a monster. He and his brothers, cousins. They almost killed Alaun.”

“Alaun? The little one who was just in here.”

“Yes…Iahanna barely stopped them in time. Adrastos…nothing but pain.” Her eyes finally won the battle and drifted closed again. “Except you…I knew you would come for me. But I did not know you’d be an Adrastos.”

She felt a light brush of his mouth against hers. “I will show you, Rajni, that not all Adrastos are the evil that Keagin and his ilk have painted us to be. I will show you.”

She smiled, even though her eyes didn’t open.

She just knew he spoke the truth. “I know…I do not mind being mated to an Adrastos…provided he is you.”

He laughed. Kissed her again. “Sleep. We can speak again in the morn…I will be right here next to you when you wake. And no matter what the future brings, this Adrastos, will be right by your side.”

And he was.