Crimson Blaze: Retribution

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Chapter 5

On his walk back to the inn, Lukiel caught himself gradually slowing his pace. He didn’t want to leave poor Lucien alone with their “aunty,” but he didn’t really want to deal with her, either. For a moment, he considered pawning the job over to Adonai. The former hunter knew how to handle vampires, and he didn’t care if he offended anyone when he prodded for details.

As he rounded the corner onto the main road, Lukiel shook the idea from his mind. He needed to do this himself. He resolved a while ago to work on “growing a backbone,” as his partner so bluntly put it back when they first met. The memory brought a smile to his lips, if for no other reason than it proved how far the two of them had come.

Every time he thought about it, he still couldn’t quite believe it. After being turned, the vampire encountered quite a few hunters who, thankfully, never figured out what he was. Every one of them blindly followed orders. Some clearly enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, while others simply liked to have an excuse to kill something.

Somehow, Adonai turned out different from the rest. He kept his conscience and free will. Still, if anyone had told Lukiel he’d fall in love with a hunter - and a bird of fire, to boot - he never would have believed it. In many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Yet, at the same time, they were surprisingly compatible.

His thoughts returned to his current situation when he noticed Lucien had taken a seat outside at the inn’s entryway. Normally, he’d reprimand the boy for leaving the front desk unattended, but given what had happened today, he didn’t have the heart to do it.

Instead, he returned the hug when his brother sprinted from the porch and threw his arms around his waist. He could feel Lucien’s shakes, though he couldn’t tell if they came from fear or stress.

“Can I go home now?” The younger McNallie’s voice quivered a little, as if he fought the urge to break down crying.

Lukiel could guess why. Rather than draw attention to it, he tightened the embrace and leaned down so he could answer quietly. “Yeah, go home. And stay there with Adonai until I come to get you, okay? I’ll figure out what she wants.”

Lucien nodded, and then he broke away to sprint toward the house.

The vampire waited until the boy turned the corner out of sight, and then he took a breath to steady his own nerves.

Lilias still lingered in the lobby. He could smell her.

He paused at the door long enough to straighten his posture and hide away any sign of lingering unease. Lukiel wouldn’t let her know how her presence was getting under his skin. He could only guess her true intentions, so he would keep his emotions concealed. At least until she left the room.

As he stepped inside, he caught sight of her standing by the far wall where the family crest and portrait hung. Her attention was on the latter until she heard the door open, at which point she turned to face him.

She flashed what appeared to be a friendly, if somewhat timid, smile. “Lukiel. Hi. I was hoping you’d come back. Do you have a few minutes? I’d like to talk to you.”

The vampire caught himself trying to size her up. When he realized he’d gone quiet and she needed an answer, he snapped himself out of it. “Sure. I suppose I can spare a few minutes. I have some work to do, but it can wait.”

That was kind of a lie. He didn’t have much work left to do. He knew he had to hear her out, yet part of him still wanted an excuse to not talk to her.

“Oh, gosh, no. I don’t want to interfere with your work. I just - ” She hesitated and then turned to look at the painting again. “I know you don’t trust me, and I don’t blame you. I’m sure you figured out what I am the second we met. My son’s behavior didn’t help, either. And if even half of what I’ve heard is true, you’ve been through hell and back.”

Understatement.

Lilias fidgeted nervously. “I understand my appearance is sudden. I just wanted to clear the air. But it can wait if you’re busy.” She added with an uneasy smile, “I don’t want to be in the way.”

He sighed. Maybe he should have brought Adonai back with him, after all. The phoenix had a far better instinct for this.

But Lukiel couldn’t just turn around and go back to the house now. So instead, he cautiously stepped around her, his senses alert for any sign of her intentions as he took a seat at the front desk. “I appreciate your honesty. You’re right - I knew you were a vampire the moment I smelled you.”

To give himself a reason to look elsewhere, he glanced towards an outside window. The crowds on the main road had begun to clear out for the day. “You said you wanted to talk, so talk.”

He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh, yet she didn’t appear fazed. Her tone did soften, though, as she began to speak and her own gaze drifted to the floor.

“I know it doesn’t make up for what he did ... but I can’t apologize enough for Cain. He always had a hot head. One of those vengeful types.”

She bit her lip and swallowed hard. “I think that’s why he went after your father. Ever since he was old enough to understand Stephen was his dad, he ... I don’t know, I guess he hated him. I knew Cain was bitter about the whole thing, but I never imagined he would ... ”

She trailed off, and her voice started to waver. “Soon as I heard what he did, I disowned him. I didn’t raise him to be a killer.”

Lukiel took a moment to watch her body language. Near as he could tell, her words sounded sincere, and he saw nothing physical to contradict anything she said. Just the same, he wished his mom had spoken of her sister so he could get a better read on her.

Then again, maybe it was good she hadn’t. A negative preconceived view of his aunt wouldn’t be fair to her if she truly regretted what happened.

He knew all too well how it felt to be on the receiving end of such people. Adonai had shown him how simply giving someone a chance could lead to something wonderful. And if he and Lucien could reunite with what remained of their family ...

That settled it, then. He would do his best to push his unease aside. Just because Lilias gave birth to a man who turned out to be a monster, it didn’t make her one, too.

He took a slow, deliberate breath. Partly to steady himself, but mostly to stall long enough to think of how to answer his aunt.

Finally, he said, “I don’t blame you for what your son did. But I’m not sure I can forgive you for hurting my mother by sleeping with my father. Granted, I know it wasn’t all you. He did have a say in it, after all.”

He rose from his seat with an intent to go into the office. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you like. Just please don’t mention any of this to my brother.”

“Right. Of course not.” She hesitated again. “I ... I don’t know if this makes any difference, but ... that whole thing with your father ... it happened long before he and Amelia got together. It wasn’t the cause of our falling out.”

That remark caught his interest. He couldn’t resist asking, “What happened?”

She gave a sad smile. “Your mom found out I was a vampire. It freaked her out. I don’t blame her for it. I’d freak, too, if our roles were switched.”

Lukiel almost told her he didn’t need the details when she became visibly uncomfortable, but she spoke again before he could. As if she needed to get something off her conscience.

“See, I was born human, just like your mom. But as a young woman, I disappeared for a little while, and I never told anyone where I’d gone. I was too afraid of how people might react if they ... ”

She shuddered. “If they found out I’d been turned. And by a pure blood, of all kinds. In those missing months, I was figuring out how to manage it without tipping anyone off. It worked for a while, but ... But then someone saw me feed on a rabbit and told Amelia.”

Lilias drew in a breath and straightened her posture. “I know my dishonesty angered her. But I think she cut ties out of fear. She was expecting with your sister when this happened, so I imagine she didn’t want her children exposed to such a thing. That’s why I ... ” Her gaze drifted to the floor. “Why I never tried to contact her again.”

Lukiel didn’t know how to respond. It didn’t seem like his aunt wanted him to choose sides, and neither did he sense any anger or bitterness from her. Provided she spoke the truth, he could at least feel relieved that his father hadn’t actually cheated on his mother.

“Thank you for telling me,” he said quietly after a moment. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to appear rude, but I have things to get done. This is a lot to process, and I need some time to take it in.”

The other vampire became a bit sheepish. “Right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have dumped it all on you at once. I’ll leave you to your work.” She gave a small bow before she turned away and headed outside.

The second she was out of sight, he disappeared into the office. He locked the door behind him and slid to the floor, completely in a daze. Unsure what else to do, he pulled his knees to his chest and buried his face while he tried to sort out what he just learned.

He could only guess how long he sat there. With all the thoughts racing through his mind, he completely lost track of time. So when a hand gripped his shoulder, he jolted back to reality so abruptly that he almost jumped out of his skin.

His eyes snapped shut against an unexpected brightness. Once his vision adjusted, he realized the room had become pitch dark. The light came from one of the front door lanterns, which Adonai now carried with him.

The phoenix didn’t bother to hide his unease. “Jeez, I’ve been yelling through the door for ten minutes. Why didn’t you answer?”

Lukiel didn’t respond, mostly because his brain hadn’t yet caught up. It seemed he’d sat here for several hours and, when he didn’t return after dark, the guys went out to look for him. Adonai must have gone through the back door after he found the office one locked.

The other man glanced around the room. Noticing the mess of unorganized papers on the desk, he asked, “You should’ve been back hours ago. What happened? You all right?”

He could only stare ahead of him and shake his head. He was far from all right.

Even in the dim light and heavy shadows, the former hunter’s concern was palpable. Adonai set the lantern aside and moved to sit next to him, wrapping an arm around him to pull him closer. “Talk to me.”

Lukiel settled against his partner’s shoulder, more than content to just sit here. He didn’t want to repeat his conversation with Lilias, but he also knew he had to tell someone. So he launched into everything he’d just heard about his parents and his aunt. The whole thing sounded so trivial to his own ears, yet at the same time, it felt like a huge deal. He wondered if he’d taken it all the wrong way and whether he even had a right to be upset.

Adonai went quiet for a moment, likely milling over the situation in his own head. When he did speak up, his words were hesitant. “Well ... I don’t know how much help I can be. I haven’t met the woman yet.”

The vampire curled in on himself. “I just don’t know what to do anymore.”

Another short silence. Then the phoenix spoke again, this time with more certainty. “What does your gut say?”

Lukiel’s turn to hesitate. “Honestly?”

“Honestly.”

He bit his lip. “It tells me not to trust her. I don’t know why, but she makes me anxious. And I’m not too keen on Luc being around her.”

“But?”

He sighed. The guy was too perceptive sometimes. “But I don’t want to assume the worst before I really know her. I don’t want to be like those people who did the same to me for so long. I know firsthand how unfair it is. But I’m just so damn torn ... ”

Adonai’s hand trailed up and down his arm in a firm but calming manner. “Then trust your gut. Wait and see what she does, but keep your guard up. If there’s one thing my years of hunting taught me, it’s that your first instinct is usually the right one.”

Lukiel mulled over the idea for a minute or two. Eventually, he nodded. He trusted the former hunter’s judgment, so that was what he would do. He’d be open to Lilias reconnecting as part of his family - but he also wouldn’t drop his guard around her.

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