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By REBECCA ZANETTI
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Rebecca Zanetti
All rights reserved.
The present day
Sometimes destiny arrived with the crash of a bomb detonating in the trees.
Janet Isabella Kayrs perched on a rock wall facing the tarmac as men in full combat gear loaded helicopters. A young vampire had accidentally launched a rocket into the Oregon forest, but the blaze had already been contained. Unlike the smell.
Dawn began to peek over the horizon, bringing a flash of sunlight lacking in warmth. A breeze slithered through her black silk shirt, but she'd chosen carefully, and she didn't want a jacket. Just in case she needed to fight.
Tension battled with oxygen, mingling with power. The vampires, each and every one, had a power more daunting than oxygen molecules. With destiny all but riding her, Janie fought to control her emotions. Indulging in fear would get her killed.
With a screeching protest, a heavily secured door opened to her right. She turned and forced a smile. "There's my favorite firefighter."
Garrett Kayrs, her younger brother, wiped soot off his forehead. "I helped put out the fire, but it wasn't me." He leaned back against the wall, long legs extended, worry cutting grooves next to his generous mouth. "I haven't accidentally set off an explosive since the fifth grade."
"I remember." This time her smile arrived easily. "You were playing in the armory and blew up several trucks."
"Dad was mad."
The understatement widened Janie's smile. "Yeah, but he was amused, too."
Garrett's odd gaze sharpened as he watched a missile being loaded. "I don't think you should go."
"I know." She took a deep breath and studied him. At twenty years old, the young vampire stood well over six feet tall. He'd inherited their father's broad shoulders and rugged features, but the unique metallic gray eyes were all Garrett's. She slipped her arm through his, impressed by the solid muscle. "I have to go."
He shut his eyes, the cords in his arm vibrating with a dangerous tension. "Then I should be there."
Janie leaned against him. With almost five years between them, she'd vowed to protect him at his birth. Even after he'd outgrown her when she'd turned twelve, she'd known how to make him laugh, how to ease the pressure he must surely feel as the sole Kayrs born in the new generation.
Vampires produced only male babies, and not very often. So far Garrett was the single progeny of the Kayrs ruling family.
"You're needed here to protect headquarters," she said. "And Mom."
His massive body shuddered. "I'm torn." Garrett lifted his chin. "I need to be here for Mom but want to be at the peace talks with you."
In profile, he looked just as dangerous as their father.
"I'm trained, Garrett."
"You're human, Janie." Garrett hunched his shoulders forward. "No matter how well trained you are, you're still human."
Janie nodded. The breeze whipped around them, and she pushed hair out of her eyes. When her mother had mated Talen Kayrs, he'd adopted Janie. He was the only father she'd ever known. While she loved her family, she'd never lived a normal life. "Sometimes I forget I'm human."
"I don't," Garrett said softly.
When had his voice deepened so much? She hoped to whatever God watched over them that she'd see him again. See him grow fully and become who he wanted to be in this life. For today, she couldn't leave him in such a worried state. "For as long as I remember, I've had visions of the peace talks to end the war. I'm present to play a part, and I know I have to be there."
His head slowly turned to face her. "But no visions about the outcome."
"No." She swallowed. Visions had filled her dreams her entire life, and sometimes she even saw different outcomes to different events, depending on the actions of the people involved. Free will always trumped destiny. But the last vision she'd had of her life included the peace talks about to commence so deep underground. "I've never seen past the peace talks."
Garrett exhaled. "I don't like this."
She nodded. A chill skittered down her back, and her stomach churned. For the rest of the Realm, she needed to appear calm and determined. But with Garrett, she could be herself. "I'm frightened." God, she was scared—on so many levels. What if she failed?
"Then don't go."
Why did men try to fix everything with an absolute? While she wanted to tell him everything, she just couldn't admit the horrible sense of foreboding hanging over her head and tightening her neck muscles into a headache. "We have the chance to end a terrible war that has cost us so many lives. Good lives. How can I not go?"
"Is peace worth your life?" Garrett's jaw hardened.
"Yes." She drew out the response, while truth filled her with regret and fortitude. Surely her fear of failure was coloring her entire outlook right now, although maybe not. Sacrifices were made in war, and more important, to gain peace. "I don't want to die, but if that's what it takes to find peace for our people, I'm okay with it."
She shook her head, drawing on a courage she'd stored up for a decade. "Don't get me wrong. I want to live, and I've given this a lot of thought. This isn't ego or a quest to be a hero or to fulfill any destiny."
"Then what the hell is it?"
"A chance for less bloodshed." There had been so much for nearly two decades. Vampires, witches, shifters—even Kurjans and demons, who were the enemy. Too many people had died.
Enough death, and she didn't want to be included in the toll at the age of twenty-five. "Besides, we've taken every precaution possible. Just because I don't see visions of myself after the peace talks doesn't mean I don't have a future."
"That doesn't make sense." Garrett's nostrils flared in warning of his rare temper.
"Sure it does." Unfortunately, fate never played fair. "Maybe the peace talks will change the future for all of us, and thus I can't see any outcome until after they occur." Oddly enough, the idea made sense to her.
The sun grew in brightness, and Garrett glanced down at her neck. "You think that'll bring you luck?"
Janie lifted a shoulder and fingered the silver horseshoe necklace her best childhood friend, Zane, had given her on her fifth birthday. How the shiny gift had made it from the dream world where he'd presented it to reality remained a mystery. "Luck can't hurt."
"You sure about that?" Garrett scuffed his size fourteen boot in the dirt.
"He saved your life." Janie elbowed her brother, who recently had been kidnapped by Kurjans, their monstrously creepy, white-faced enemies who couldn't go into the sun, unlike the vampires, who enjoyed the sun. Zane had rescued Garrett as a favor to Janie.
Garrett shook his head. "Yes, but we don't know why he helped me. Zane is only half-vampire, and I'm pretty sure his other half is more dominant—whatever that may be."
Janie rubbed her chin, nearly burning with curiosity. She and Zane had met in dream worlds her entire life, and she'd seen him change from a good-natured vampire into something else when he'd moved to live with his mother's people after his vampire father's death. "Maybe he's a mystical dragon who will save the world."
Garrett snorted. "There's no such thing as mystical dragons."
"Most people don't believe in vampires." Janie had no clue what genes thrived in Zane, but they had to have some good in them.
"No. My guess is that he's a shifter—a member of an outlying clan that does not align with us. That makes us his enemy, and if he wants to attack, doing so while we're preoccupied with the peace talks is great timing." Garrett softened the harsh words by sliding an arm around her shoulders.
"Zane helped you, Garrett."
"Just because he saved my life doesn't mean I won't take his. If he's a threat to you." Garrett tugged her closer.
Janie shook her head. Her younger brother should be joking about going off on adventures and meeting girls—maybe hitting the beach somewhere tropical. Definitely not talking about killing another soldier. The mantle of responsibility had landed as formidably on Garrett's head as on her own.
A shadow fell across them as their father approached. "Janie?" Talen asked.
"I'm ready, Dad." She smoothed her calm smile into place and released Garrett.
Talen looked down at them, his golden eyes softening. "I don't like this."
"Me either," Garrett muttered, standing to his full height.
"Then it's a good thing we all believe in fate." Janie hugged her brother and fought as tears pricked the back of her eyes. Clearing her throat, she pushed away. "I've already said good-bye to Mom and that I'll see her later tonight."
Talen nodded, looking beyond vampire dangerous in tactical gear and wearing his heading-to-battle expression. "We've been training for weeks. Do you understand the plan and all escape routes from the meeting cavern?"
"Yes." Janie eyed the helicopters, trying to remain calm. "We also ran simulations yesterday."
"This is a bad idea," Garrett said, facing their father over her head.
Talen nodded and clapped his son on the arm. Emotion glowed dark in his eyes, but his expression remained stoic and hard. "You have your orders. Protect headquarters in case the peace talks are just a diversion for an attack. We'll be back tonight." Taking Janie's arm with a gentle touch, he escorted her to the nearest helicopter, where he jumped in beside her.
Dage Kayrs, the king of the Realm, turned from the pilot's seat. He'd tied his dark hair back, probably in case of a fight, and his silver eyes were somber. "You ready?"
"Yes." Janie folded her hands in her lap, meeting her uncle's gaze as the sense of destiny clicked into place. "I'm ready."
* * *
Two hours later, deep underground in an impossibly dangerous cavern, Janie settled onto a stone bench, her hands clasped on the stone table. The ride down into the earth had taken forever, yet she'd arrived much too quickly at one of the four entrances, each controlled by one of the species attending the talks.
A mutation in the laws of physics made survival in the room possible, allowing them to breathe so close to the earth's core. The possibility existed that the safeguards put in place might fail, and she swallowed to keep from panicking.
The king sat to her right, looking nearly bored. He eyed the fire burning in the center. "Ever feel like we've challenged quantum physics one time too many?" he muttered.
Yes. God, yes. "I shouldn't have, but I Googled fault lines on the Internet. The one beneath this cavern connects with the Andreas Fault," she whispered.
He nodded. "If our safeguards fail, we'll trigger the largest earthquake in history. Millions will die."
Anxiety flattened her chest and compressed her lungs. She swallowed. "Great."
Behind them stood her father, at guard. He was the only person who'd be allowed to stand in the room. Everyone else had agreed to sit behind solid rock.
It was more difficult to attack from a seated position.
But Talen could stand as a concession because Janie was attending the talks. Every species on earth had prophesied her birth, and her attendance was mandatory. But fate had failed to whisper why Janie was prophesied. She had no clue what to do to fulfill destiny, and the fear of failure squeezed like a vise.
"I'm sure our safeguards will hold. You okay?" Dage asked quietly, his gaze remaining on the roaring fire in the middle of the stone tables. The fire was necessary both for light, and because somehow the element assisted the quantum physics protecting the occupants.
"Yes," she lied. "Just ready to get started." Another lie. Why did the Kurjans and the demons have to arrive last? It was as if they wanted to make a big entrance. Enough with the waiting. She glanced around the tavern.
To her left sat the three prophets of the Realm. While they advised the Realm, they stood as the true spiritual leaders of the immortal world, and all species respected them. Prophet Lily sat regal in a flowing gown, her blue eyes sparkling like a lake in the peace of summer. The ancient Prophet Guiles wore a brown overcoat and had dark bags under his eyes. As a traitor to the Realm who'd tried to aid the Kurjans, he was fortunate to be breathing.
And finally, Prophet Caleb, Lily's mate, looked pissed off and ready to hit anybody at any time. It was his normal expression, so Janie wasn't alarmed.
Lily looked toward Janie and winked.
Misplaced humor bubbled up from Janie's stomach. "Lily's trying to calm me."
Dage nodded. "I hope she can keep us all calm."
Calm would be good.
Dage cleared his throat. "If something goes wrong, you run for the lift behind your father. Don't hesitate."
"I understand." They'd been over the plan many times.
Frustration twisted Dage's lip. "I can't teleport from here. You know that. We're too deep in the earth."
"Yes." Janie patted his arm. Vampires had extra abilities, but Dage was the only vampire she'd ever heard about who could teleport from one place to another. Probably because he was the king and from the ruling family.
Janie glanced past the prophets to the two men representing the shifter nations in the talks; they'd shared the vampires' entrance to the cavern. Jordan Pride, head of the lions, and Terrent Vilks, head of the wolf nation, both sat without moving, attention on the openings in the rock where the Kurjans and demons would enter.
When shifters remained motionless, things were about to blow up.
Janie exhaled and counted to ten, trying to slow her heart rate. Immortals could sense fear, and she had to be a beacon right now. To keep her mind occupied, she glanced past Dage to the witches sitting regally at their table.
Vivienne Northcutt, the leader of the witches, sat at proper attention, waiting with no expression on her intelligent face. Next to her sat Moira Kayrs, Janie's aunt, and a witch enforcer. Moira's curly red hair had been pulled back, and her green eyes flashed five shades of plasma electricity. Deadly and ready.
They were to continually monitor the quantum physics keeping the group safe, so the meeting didn't set off the worst earthquake in human history.
To their right, on a sharply cut stone edge, lay the Prophecies of Arias. A book bound in worn green leather, an ancient text sought by all species. The witches had possessed the volume for at least two centuries after having stolen it from the demons. Janie had dreamed about the book for years, but she still couldn't see inside its pages. As she watched, the book began to glow.
A rustle sounded, jerking Janie's attention to one of the vacant openings. Tall and whipcord thin, a Kurjan she didn't recognize entered through the detector that would immediately vaporize him if he dared bring a physical or chemical weapon. Seven feet tall and dressed in all black, the white-faced predator had the typical Kurjan red hair with black tips ... and purple eyes. He took his seat, obviously weaponless.
Kalin, the current leader of the Kurjans, entered next, his odd green gaze immediately seeking her out.
Her smile came naturally.
His arrived with a flash of fangs. He bowed. "Janet. It's good to see you again."
"You too," Janie said, even though Dage stiffened next to her. She'd met Kalin in dream worlds since childhood, and they'd formed an uneasy, unlikely sort of friendship. He was a butcher, and he killed easily, but he'd also saved her life once. Maybe they could find peace together in order to save their families.
He took his seat, his black hair and slightly darker skin a contrast to the Kurjan soldier sitting next to him. With a bit of makeup, Kalin might appear human.
Janie said a quick prayer that Kalin really wanted peace. The Kurjans had created a deadly virus, Virus-27, which attacked the chromosomal pairs of vampire mates as well as witches, and Janie's mother had the illness. Hopefully Kalin had a cure to share.
"Now we just need the demons," Moira muttered. "Are they still dressing, or what?"
Dage growled low.
Janie swallowed. Suri, the demon leader, had captured and tortured Dage's youngest brother for nearly five years. Janie wanted Suri dead as badly as Dage did, because it had taken Uncle Jase years to recover.
How were they ever going to find peace?
Power permeated the air when Suri stepped into the cavern. Broad and tall, the demon had presence. White hair and black eyes showed his purebred lineage. He glanced around the cavern, and his chest puffed out.
Dage shifted his weight next to Janie.
She kept her gaze on the enemy. Whatever demon soldier he'd brought with him didn't matter. Only this man did. If he would agree to peace, no more blood would be shed.
Excerpted from Marked by REBECCA ZANETTI. Copyright © 2014 Rebecca Zanetti. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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