Chapter 1 - Stranger
While intensely listening to the deafening silence, Aria lifted her head and sniffed the air, picking up on something in the ether. A small frown marred her brow.
The guards would soon arrive… Aria gleaned this from the slithering sensation of evil seeping through her bones and into her marrow.
The gloom always remained the same—the sensation, scent, and intensity a maddening constant. It created the illusion of time having ceased to exist within the cell’s damp interior as the darkness persisted undisturbed and impervious to outside influence.
The passage of many years acclimated Aria to her environment. When her captors inevitably escorted her above ground, the castle’s ambient light irritated her sensitive eyes and caused a throbbing ache inside her head.
Sometimes it felt like she was born in this prison, knowing no life outside it. Childhood memories of carefree, fragile bliss remained with Aria. As did the day, a curious moment of childhood whimsy ended everything. The clearest images of her past were those of her mother. Dean often looked at her with such loving affection, and her mother’s irises turned bright blue or soft violet at the mercy of her most intense emotions.
Dean was once Devon Elizabeth Declan Creed, the daughter of Wolfgang Creed. At the time, he was the high king of the twelve werewolf kingdoms. She believed her mother was Elizabeth Draganov, a vampire princess Wolfgang kidnapped, but this was a lie. She was born of Terra Pendragon, a mage birthed of Artemis’ bloodline and the source of the violet tinge in her eyes.
Artemis was born of Gaia’s lineage, the ancient protector of this world. She was a good woman, destined to become Gaia’s heir until a witch, Lillith Mordor, cast a dark spell on Artemis. It ripped the good from her soul and forged the greatest evil this world ever birthed.
Wolfgang’s forbearer, Maximus Creed, was the most powerful werewolf ever to walk the earth.
Instead of glowing yellow as a werewolf’s eyes did with the lycan present, his eyes blazed blue.
Devon, the girl Dean was before Terra transformed her into the Asher of legend, was the first werewolf in a thousand years to share this trait with the fabled Maximus.
If fate followed the path of her supposed birth, this princess would have become the first werewolf queen in the empire’s history—despite her mixed blood.
Unfortunately, werewolves and vampires cannot produce offspring without the intercession of magic.
Elizabeth hated the man who stole her from her future as King Duncan Drake’s wife.
Her bargain with Wolfgang made it impossible for her to escape his clutches without first delivering him an heir, which she could not produce.
But Elizabeth had a plan to fulfill Wolfgang’s requirement… without having to bear his offspring.
The vampire princess knew a secret that enabled her to blackmail Terra into taking her place.
Mage magic allowed for interspecies mating while bestowing upon Terra a rare gift—she could take the form of another along with their essence and memories.
Terra bore Devon while wearing Elizabeth’s form. It imparted upon the child both mage magic and, to a degree, vampire blood. She knew Elizabeth would leave as soon as the child could survive her absence. Wolfgang, being the man he was, would grow to hate Elizabeth and anything associated with her. Even the child.
When Devon came into the world, Terra bound the magic of her line along with any trace of Elizabeth to leave Devon a pureblood wolf. This gave her daughter a chance at a normal life. With Elizabeth gone, Wolfgang and his people forgot Devon’s dual heritage. She grew from child to woman, and her eyes glinted violet at times. This anomaly intrigued Wolfgang at first… since he once saw the same odd glimmer in another’s eyes. As time wore on and Artemis’ evil influence took root in him, this odd gleam caused Wolfgang to foster a growing mistrust in his daughter.
Artemis, the dark mage queen, once hunted those mages who did not bow to her will and, during her quest for dominance, Terra became her greatest rival.
This happened after the dark mage queen murdered her own granddaughter in front of her entire family by snapping her neck as if she were a deformed kitten. This was not the first familial blood on Artemis’ hands, nor would it be the last.
Phenna was Terra’s mother and, if this was not enough to make her great-granddaughter hate her, Artemis assassinated Terra’s firstborn daughter.
The secret Elizabeth used to blackmail Terra was the existence of a child the mage birthed while wearing another’s guise.
A hundred years older than Devon, Arlene grew up believing she was Queen Sonja and King Killian Amboise of the elven kingdom’s daughter.
Sonja struck a bargain with a mage to win dashing King Killian Amboise’s hand. He was the greatest warrior of their land, and she fell in love with him as a young girl. When the time came for Sonja to honor her bargain, she feared telling her husband the truth. Killian hated lies and what she did had the potential to do more than shake the foundation of their union—it would have shattered their perfect lives.
She tricked Terra into taking her place for a week or two… but her task kept her from home for almost two years. During this time, Terra gave birth to Arlene.
Twice, the mage carried a child within her womb, while knowing full well she would probably not see its first smile or step. She had to live with the knowledge that she would not hear her daughter’s first words.
She had to make peace with never getting to experience the terror of her child’s first skinned knee, crush, or love. She had to maintain the lie while fearing her child may never meet her or even know about her. The situation forced her to accept that she may not see her daughter reach her potential and become the person fate destined.
It tore Terra up inside as she silently struggled with her sorrow. For a while, she held her children to her heart, fed them, loved them with all she was and, inevitably, she had to leave them behind when their “mothers” arrived.
Leaving Arlene with Sonja and Killian, who were such loving parents, nearly killed her… but leaving Devon with Wolfgang nearly destroyed Terra.
The centuries she spent trapped in the mage’s prison world tortured her less than the thought of her daughter at Elizabeth and Wolfgang’s mercy.
Her sacrifice allowed Devon and Arlene to grow up, and her influence kept Artemis at bay.
However, even when the dark mage queen could not directly attack Terra’s offspring, she found ways to destroy both their lives while also working toward her goal of ruling all four kingdoms.
Terra stood against Artemis in the first Great War—when Artemis created vampires and werewolves to fight the mages, but her plan did not work since the mages corrupted her influence.
The vampires, werewolves, elves, and humans banded together to defeat Artemis.
This drove the dark queen to even greater evil as she created the dark fae, but something intervened once more, producing both dark and light fae.
Even as Artemis used her evil to build an army and abused her magic to create monsters, Terra’s children grew up. During the war between the fae and vampires, a twist of fate forced them to assume new identities. This involved magic that mixed their essences and turned them into hybrids—wolf and elf with a touch of vampire.
They only learned their change was made possible by Terra’s mage blood after the war had ended.
Heracles, Artemis’ uncle and the greatest seer the world had ever seen, predicted their transformation and victory more than a thousand years before their birth.
He called these impossible creatures Ashers. They were mage, wolf, elf, and vampire—both the guardian and the beast.
Arlene became Lee after her transformation in honor of her distant past as a bandit. She confronted her uncle, King Verne Amboise, for using King Wolfgang to murder her family and capture her. He attacked her in his maddened fury and died during their struggle, making Arlene the ruling monarch of the elves.
Devon became Dean after her transformation, in memory of Maria, who could not say Devon as a child.
She confronted a maudlin Wolfgang for killing one of her pack members and challenged him for his crown. She prevailed against his halfhearted attack and took his place to become the ruling monarch of all twelve werewolf kingdoms, taking back the destiny he stole from her with his failed execution.
Terra finally found something to defeat Artemis after millennia of searching—a crystal that contained the good in Artemis.
When the dark queen became whole, Artemis was broken, defeated, without magic or the will to live… but still immortal.
King Duncan married Terra, who was now free of her obligations to the mortal world and abdicated after ruling the vampire kingdom for a thousand years.
Prince Darren became King in his stead, while his union with queen Dean (pronounced De-Ann) united the vampire and werewolf kingdoms.
Aria missed her parents. Dean’s quirky smile haunted her dreams while the warmth and safety of her mother’s love always remained with her. Dean sometimes even used magic to entertain Aria. She delighted the toddler with floating lights or made images from books briefly come alive.
Aria remembered sitting on her father’s shoulders as he walked the gardens with her mother in the evenings before dinner. She only had to close her eyes to feel the safety of his presence, the slightly cooler touch of his skin, and hear the baritone of his voice as he spoke to her about his beloved horses. She could even recall the scent of his hair—sunshine and forest.
Each memory a moment trapped in amber. A piece of life Dormerac ripped from her hands and her most precious possessions.
Those fragile shards of the past anchored her. It kept her sane and gave her something to which she clung during the worst moments of her new reality. When sadness overwhelmed Aria, she fondly recalled the proud, graceful but dangerous war wolf into which Dean often shifted.
Although it was as gentle as a lamb with Aria, it turned fierce as a lion when protecting her. Dean was her hero. The person she wanted to be when she grew up. Not just because Dean was a mage, an Asher or even a queen—her mother’s wisdom, kindness, love, loyalty, and compassion influenced Aria the most. Even under challenging circumstances, Dean always knew the right thing to do or say.
Grief constricted her throat as blue-tinged tears escaped down her icy cheeks. Aria hadn’t cried in years. She’d forgotten how the warm, salty liquid stung the skin. It created a damp, uncomfortably clammy patch on her threadbare shift but she didn’t care.
She hated imagining her mother’s reaction if she ever learned what her little girl became at Dormerac’s hands and under the influence of his evil. Would the love bleed from her mother’s eyes? Would disappointment and hatred replace her former affection? Aria shied from the thought.
Dean would never turn her back on her child, and it somehow made everything so much worse. Her mother would love her… despite everything.
Dean birthed Aria a week before Lee delivered Melissa.
Their entire family indulged both girls by raising the adorable duo less strictly than they should have, without spoiling them rotten.
Their older brothers and sisters accepted these two late editions to their extensive family with amused indulgence.
Aria had two older siblings, a brother, and a sister, while Melissa had five older siblings, two brothers and three sisters.
They were part of a magical world of princes, princesses, and fairy tale creatures—an enchanting realm filled with wonder and love.
Not even grandfather Duncan resisted Aria’s smile for long or her sunny nature. It turned him to putty in her tiny hands, and then there was Grandmother Terra’s incredible magic with which she enchanted their senses.
They spent hours listening to her fantastic tales of woe and wonder, completely lost within the lands and kingdoms of her imagination without even realizing the lessons she taught with each story.
Aria’s wondrous world disappeared in an instant and, with it, the two hundred years of peace that followed the end of the war.
During those years, their people had rebuilt the ruins of their kingdoms to their former glory. And, for a brief halcyon period of bliss, the farms were green, the forests whole, and the darkness defeated.
With their safety guaranteed and no fears to disturb their sleep, their citizens became less vigilant, leaving them unprepared for an unforeseeable future.
Shortly after her fifth birthday, Aria played in the summer palace’s extensive gardens.
A magnificent Monarch butterfly attracted her attention, and she followed it with youthful enthusiasm.
The silky wings were an amazing dazzling blue that led her to disobey Dean’s cardinal rule—never wander into the forest alone.
The critter remained out of her reach, almost close enough to touch before eluding her again.
Aria happily skipped after it, moving further into the woods without recognizing the danger.
It unexpectedly disappeared in a swirl of dark light, bringing her to a standstill.
Startled, Aria realized she wasn’t anywhere near the castle grounds.
Panic settled into her tiny chest at facing the unfamiliar forest alone.
The towering trees made Aria feel insignificant while flowering shrubs and wild-growing plants stretched in both directions with a sameness that provided no clue to lead her home.
Even the dense undergrowth revealed no path, just as the thick carpet of leaves retained no imprint of her small feet.
The shadow she often saw in her room and inside the castle appeared near her.
It was a familiar harmless presence that stirred her curiosity, and Aria did not fear it until it gained solid form.
The little girl watched as the elegant face of a stranger took shape, and although she never saw him before, he seemed strangely familiar.
Something in his expression alarmed Aria.
The adults often warned them not to rely on the kindness of strangers and urged them to remember not all friendly people were nice.
Aria was always more sensitive to people than her siblings, and she discerned something threatening in his manner before he ever took a menacing step in her direction.
Fright pushed adrenaline through Aria’s veins as terror froze her limbs. Pinpricks of alarm shot through her body, while dread settled in her midsection like liquid lead.
Grandma Terra’s tales, meant to illustrate the threat posed by strangers and other dangers, had no meaning for Aria until then. With her heart racing, legs shaking, and tummy unsettled, she wanted to run… but it was far too late.
The terrible expression on his coldly handsome face and the burning hatred in his ruby-red eyes would haunt Aria forever. She was too little to understand its meaning, yet it still frightened her. The older version of her would get to know it well and even learn its origins.
He spoke harsh incomprehensible words into the air to freeze Aria in place like the castle fountains in the dead of winter. There was no running from him, despite her desperate desire to escape and hide. Terror did not immobilize Aria this time… his magic did. Even as little as Aria was, she realized the power of this stranger might equal Terra’s own. Something she did not think possible—no one was as powerful as grandma Terra.
He easily lifted her to his hip, and his cruel grip hurt her ribs, not even allowing her room to squirm as he stalked away with her. In between one of his long strides and the next, a swirl of darkness surrounded them like oblivion. It terrified Aria when the forest’s light disappeared, and Aria shut her eyes with terror.
The feeling of being on solid ground replaced the sensation of falling into a vacuum, and Aria fearfully opened her eyes again.
She needed to see where she was and panicked when absolute darkness greeted her. As her pupils slowly adjusted to the gloom, panic choked the breath from her.