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I stared at the surrounding forest on Rich Mountain, one hand braced against the trunk of a leafless hardwood tree at my side, my too-quick breaths making puffs of fog in the afternoon air as the feeble sun edged beneath the winter-stripped branches of the tree line. The air was smoky, acrid with the false promise of comfort from the chimney of a cabin several yards behind me, which I was struggling to ignore during my few blessed minutes of solitude outside.
It should have been perfect . Tristan and me and a remote log cabin with a crackling fireplace nestled on a west Arkansas mountain in December. No Clann or vampire council nearby to bother us. No more rules or secrets to keep us apart. No more risk of accidentally draining and killing Tristan with a kiss.
Instead, it was all wrong, and I was staggering under the weight of what we now faced.
We weren't alone here. My dad had come along, not for Tristan's safety or even my own, but for anyone else who might come too close and trigger the bloodlust within Tristan. If not for Dad's holding him back last night, Tristan might have slaughtered his own family in the Circle, the Clann's clearing and primary meeting place in our hometown woods where so much Clann and vamp blood had been shed only hours ago.
Just the memory of how Tristan had looked therehis once soft emerald eyes turned white-silver with need, his normally full lips stretched thin and baring newly formed fangs as he snarled with rageforced a shudder to ripple through my body. Until that moment, I'd never seen a vampire lose control to the bloodlust. Now that I had, I would never forget it.
Coming to this isolated cabin hadn't been optional, and staying here promised to be anything but fun or peaceful. We'd had to load up Dad's car last night and come here immediately after the battle in the Circle just to get Tristan away from all humans before the bloodlust drove him crazy. Even stopping for gas had been a nightmare. Thank heavens Jacksonville, our East Texas hometown, was only a day's drive, so we hadn't been forced to stop often. Now that Tristan was a full vampire, his strength was far beyond my own thanks to his years of playing football and strength training before being turned. The one time we had stopped, I'd had to fill the gas tank so that Dad could hold Tristan inside the car and away from the humans in the gas station.
And afterward, the new mind connection had made it all so much worse, allowing Tristan to pick up my every thought while I silently struggled not to freak out.
Before I had turned Tristan, the ESP between us had been a one-way street and I hadn't had to worry about his hearing my every thought. Because vampires and Clann were natural-born enemies, mental blocks had evolved in both the vamp and Clann species so that neither side could read the others' minds. But because I was a dhampirborn from a human mother and a vampire fatherI could read both sides' minds yet was shielded from their reading mine.
Unfortunately now that Tristan was half Clann and half vampire like me, we suddenly had zero trouble reading each other's every thought. This would have been great if there had been some sort of off switch to the ability. But for now, at least, there didn't seem to be one, turning the new ability into more of a curse. The only way we could block each other's thoughts was to be in separate rooms. Walls with closed doors and windows between us thankfully seemed to cut off our brain waves from each other.
It used to make me feel so alone, this ability to read but not be read by all the open minds around me. But now that Tristan had become the one person on this planet who could read my every thought as soon as it formed, I realized how spoiled I'd become by having the freedom to think anything I wanted. I had no idea how to discipline the panicked, guilty chaos inside my head while around him. And because of my lack of mental self-control, I was hurting him over and over.
Which was why, after Tristan had fallen asleep inside the cabin still hurt and confused by my reaction to him at the gas station, I'd snuck out here to the woods to catch a breath. And to finally give in to the thousand and one worries I had fought so hard not to think when he was awake.
What had I done to him? To us?
I wrapped an arm around a nearby tree and leaned against it, allowing it to hold me up. I was so tired, but my mind refused to shut off and let me rest.
The cabin door creaked out in warning, and another chunk of tree bark crumbled under my fingers as I twisted to look back over my shoulder.
Dad walked over to join me, and my shoulders sagged under a wave of relief. I'd almost forgotten that I wasn't alone in this. Thank God I had Dad to turn to for advice on how to train a fledgling, because I was completely clueless here.
"Come to get some fresh mountain air?" he said.
"No. Just needing some space to worry about Tristan. He can hear my every thought now, whether I want him to or not. But he doesn't remember anything except the memories he got from my blood. He's so lost and confused, and he doesn't understand why I'm freaking out." My voice was rising. I took a breath and struggled to bring it down to a murmur so Tristan wouldn't hear us. "How are we going to tell him about everything?"
Dad had said the biggest danger for all fledglings was in the first few months after they'd turned, when the human mind struggled to adjust to the vampire DNA. During this phase, he said the brain tended to react as if after a concussion, shutting off the memory center and operating solely on the baser levels of senses and instincts. The memory would return in time, but it could take several months.
In the meantime, Tristan might be highly emotional and possibly even irrational sometimes, and it would be hard for him to concentrate for long periods of time. In addition, he would have the impulse to feed on humans with no understanding of why he felt such cravings, and he'd have the speed, strength and reflexes of a full vampire.
"We cannot attempt to hasten the recovery of his memories in any way," Dad said. "We must be patient and allow his memories to return to him on their own. Telling him what he has forgotten will only stress and confuse him still further. He will never truly believe what he does not remember himself, and right now he is in much too volatile a state to handle all the ramifications of our current situation. You will have to continue to protect him from your thoughts as much as you are able to."
Easier said than done.
"What if he never remembers it all? What if I'm not strong enough, or smart enough, or we don't train him right or fast enough ?"
Dad rested a hand on my shoulder. "Now you know all that I have gone through with you. Becoming responsible for another's continued existence is the heaviest responsibility there is. But it does grow easier with time."
Time. How much did we even have? "Will the council try to find us out here?"
He shook his head. "They trust me to be truthful in my reports to them by phone. The Clann, however "
I frowned in confusion. "Tristan's mom is leading them now. Why would they be a problem?"
"We both know how she feels about our kind."
And Nancy Coleman blamed me for turning her only son into the very thing she feared the most in life.
"Okay, so she might hate my guts," I said. "But if she'd wanted to take me out, she could have done it last night in the Circle."
"With such a mixed audience of both Clann and vampire councilmen present?"
Hmm. I saw his point. A chill spread over my skin. "Still, she's Tristan's mom. She knows he needs me to help train him now."
"Unless she decides you and Tristan are too great a threat to the Clann after all. Especially now that you have proven your blood can turn descendants where no other vampire's has been able to before."
My stomach twisted. I took a slow and careful breath. "She wouldn't do that. Not to her own son. She adores Tristan, no matter what I've turned him into."
"For all our sakes, let us hope you are right. Let us also hope that she gains control over the Clann quickly before any descendants can decide to take matters into their own hands and seek retribution against you for turning their leader."
"Tristan was only their leader for about two minutes."
"Even still, he was their leader. And now he is cast out and all but dead to them. You turned him into that which they fear above all else in this world. It is not likely that they will forget that fact soon."
I stared at the seemingly endless miles of surrounding woods now turning to shades of gray in the fast growing dusk. "Even if the Clann comes after us, they can't find us out here. We didn't leave a trail, and no one knows about this place. Right?"
"They do not have to know about it. If the Clann is determined to find us, the odds are in their favor that they will. Do not forget, they have both spells and the Keepers to aid them."
Oh, lord. I had forgotten about the Clann's alliance with the Keepers, a group of families also originally from Ireland who, in the old country, had agreed to have a shapeshifter spell placed upon them that spanned generations. Once they shifted into the form of giant black panthers, the Keepers could read both Clann and vampire minds, including mine and probably still Tristan's, too. My best friend's boyfriend, Ron Abernathy, was one of a long line of Keepers.
Could the Clann force Ron and his family to help them hunt us?
I swallowed against a growing knot in my throat. We were buried deep in the woods two states away from the Clann's Jacksonville headquarters. How would the Keepers scent us downby following the smell of our car exhaust?
"I took every precaution possible during our trip," Dad said. "And we will stay away from the surrounding towns to lessen the humans' knowledge of our presence here. Nevertheless, we must remain cautious. If you sense any sort of magic being used, you must let me know at once. They may try to use a spell to track us down if they become truly determined."
Oh, great. I hadn't thought of that, either.
Like all Clann descendants, I had the ability to feel when magic was being used nearby. It would hit me as a sensation of pins and needles stabbing the back of my neck and arms. But I was still new to using my Clann abilities and, as an outcast of the Clann since before my birth, I was also completely self-taught. There was so much I didn't know about magic. How far away could it be used on someone? Would I feel that spell if the user was physically far away from me?
Then I remembered who I was talking to and froze.
Both the Clann and the vampire council had demanded my mother and grandmother never teach me how to use magic. But I'd broken that rule and secretly learned how to anyway. Until last night, I'd worked especially hard to keep my growing Clann abilities a secret from my dad, because the vampire council could read his every thought.
This was the first time Dad had openly acknowledged he knew I could use magic.
He must have seen me throwing defensive spells last night in the Circle. The council members probably had seen it, too. During the heat of the battle while blocking and returning spells, hiding my new abilities had been the absolute last thing on my mind.
I didn't know whether to be relieved that my final secret was out, or even more worried. "Has the council said anything to you about my new um, skills?"
He shook his head, his mouth set in a grim line. "I suspect they are waiting to see how Tristan's training turns out first. It would not be strategically wise of them to risk upsetting the only two vampires in the world who also have magical abilities, especially when one of them is currently so unstable and the treaty with the Clann is in question. But eventually I do expect them to call both of you in for a discussion."
Great. The last time the council had summoned me to their headquarters in Paris, they'd kidnapped Tristan and used him to test my ability to resist the bloodlust for Clann blood, the most powerful temptation to any vamp alive. I'd passed the test, but barely.
I had zero desire to see how a ticked-off, newly turned Tristan would react to facing the council in their headquarters.
I pressed a shaky hand to my pounding temple. One crisis at a time. First we had to stabilize Tristan, make it safe for him to be around others again. Then we'd deal with the council.
"So about Tristan's training," I said. "You've got a plan, right?"
I turned to stare at him. "You're joking, right? You're over three hundred years old. You've probably trained tons of fledglings by now."
"You are my only fledgling still alive."
"What happened to the ones who came before me?"
"There was only one. In the first hundred years of my immortal life, Gowin was busy with his many other fledglings and I became lonely and disillusioned by my existence. I foolishly attempted to turn a dying friend so that I might have a companion, someone to speak with about our unique trials and tribulations."
My heartbeat raced. "What happened?"
"I failed to help him overcome the initial hurdle of the bloodlust."
"So the council ?"
"My fledgling was out of control despite my best efforts, and ultimately I could not argue with the council's decision to put him down."
Put him down?
Oh. He meant they'd killed his first fledgling.
And since I was a dhampir instead of a full vamp, my version of training probably didn't count toward Dad's true track record as a vamp sire. Which meant Dad didn't know what he was doing, either.
"Why do y'all have to call it that?" I whispered, trying not to picture Tristan facing the council's wrath if Dad and I failed to teach him self-control. "They're not animals to be 'put down.' They're people."
"When the council decides to end a fledgling's existence, believe me, it is not because that fledgling is exhibiting any higher form of civilized traits. They are animals, driven by nothing other than the base need to feed. 'Putting them down' is the only apt way to describe it. It is an act of compassion made with the understanding that the person that fledgling once was can never be brought back in any shape or form, thus hopefully saving both the fledgling's soul along with all the souls of the lives they would otherwise take from this world."
I stared at my dad, sensing both the quick buzzing quality of his emotions in the air between us and hearing his thoughts. I'd never seen him so wound up like this, both afraid and desperate and ashamed all at the same time. Ashamed of his previous failure, fearful that we would fail again and this time it would be my fledgling who would face the council's ultimate punishment.
But my dad was a three-hundred-year-old vamp and a former member of the council. He was supposed to have all the answers.