Chapter 1 - Prisoner
Aria lifted her head and sniffed the air, picking up on something in the ether, while intensely listening to the deafening silence. A slight frown marred her brow. The familiar slithering sensation of evil seeped through her bones and into her marrow, alerting her that the guards would soon arrive.
Inside her dungeon’s damp, gloomy interior, the darkness always remained the same—the sensation, scent, and intensity a maddening constant. It persisted undisturbed and impervious to outside influence as if time ceased to exist.
The 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, persistent headache.
She lived outside the confines of her prison for such a short time she might as well have been born inside it. Childhood memories of carefree, fragile bliss remained with Aria. All of which ended when a moment of curious youthful whimsy destroyed everything.
Her clearest memories of the past were those of her mother. She only had to close her eyes, and her near-perfect memory would conjure images of Dean looking at her with such loving affection. She could even see the way her mother’s irises turned bright blue or soft violet at the mercy of her most intense emotions.
Born Devon Elizabeth Declan Creed, Dean (De-Ann) was King Wolfgang Creed’s daughter—the former high King of the twelve werewolf kingdoms. She believed Elizabeth Draganov, a vampire princess Wolfgang kidnapped, was her mother… but this was not the truth. She was born of Terra Pendragon, a mage able to take on the form, memories, and characteristics of another. This great-granddaughter of Artemis, the former dark queen of the mages, was the source of the violet tinge in Dean’s eyes.
Elizabeth, contracted into marriage with a man she despised, negotiated a bargain with the werewolf King—she would provide him with an heir, and, in return, he would guarantee her freedom.
Interspecies breeding between a lycan and a vampire is impossible without the intercession of magic. This knowledge drove her to search out Terra, and, having no other choice, she blackmailed the mage into taking her place. Setting a chain of events into motion she could not foresee.
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. She fondly recalled the rare times Dean flaunted the rules and used magic to entertain her, delighting her with floating lights or images from books briefly brought to life.
She loved sitting on her father’s shoulders as he walked the gardens with her mother in the evenings before dinner and longed for the safety of Darren’s presence. It took little effort to recall the slightly cooler touch of his skin and hear the baritone of his voice as he spoke to her about his beloved horses. She even remembered the scent of his hair—sunshine and forest.
Each memory was a moment trapped in amber. A piece of life Dormerac ripped from her hands, and they were her most precious possessions. Those fragile shards of the past anchored her. Kept her sane and gave her something to which she clung during the worst moments of her new reality.
Sometimes, when sadness overwhelmed her, she fondly recalled the proud, graceful but dangerous warwolf 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, and 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. Dean always knew the right thing to say or do, even under challenging circumstances.
Grief constricted her throat, and blue-tinged tears escaped down her icy cheeks. She had not cried in years and forgot how the warm, salty liquid stung the skin. It created a damp, uncomfortably clammy patch on her threadbare shift, but she did not care.
She hated imagining how Dean would have reacted if she ever learned what Dormerac’s evil influence molded her little girl into becoming. Would the love have bled from her mother’s eyes? Would disappointment and hatred have replaced her former affection? Aria shied from the thought.
No. Dean would never have turned her back on her child, and the realization somehow made everything so much worse. Her mother would have loved her… despite everything, and Darren’s fury would have been directed at Aria’s tormentor, not his broken daughter.
Dean gave birth to Aria a week before Lee delivered Melissa. Their entire family indulged the adorable duo by raising these late editions less strictly than they should have—without spoiling them rotten.
Aria’s older brother and sister and Melissa’s two brothers and sisters welcomed them with amused indulgence. These grown-up siblings ranged in age from twenty to a hundred and seventy-five. Two were engaged, and two promised in marriage. They were part of a magical world of princes, princesses, and fairy tale creatures—an enchanting realm filled with wonder and love.
Grandfather Duncan adored Aria. Her charming smile and sunny nature turned him to putty in her tiny hands.
Aria stood upright at six months, skipped crawling, and started walking. She already rode her pony before Melissa could properly crawl and spoke fluently at an earlier age than any of their siblings. She fearlessly took on the world, reading, and writing, before the age of three.
Melissa was much quieter and very shy. She developed at her own pace, worrying her family. She did not start walking until age two, nor did she really speak until she was four. The only person who could decipher her brabble was Aria. They had an instinctive understanding of each other, a link like that of twins.
Her cousin only ventured onto her pony at age four. She did not take to reading and writing until she was five, but once the written word opened to her, they lost her to it. Melissa hid out in the library for hours while Aria could barely wait to get outside in the mornings. Chomping at the bit to get out the door, wolfing down her breakfast, and needing constant reminders to chew. Only she could entice Melissa outside and rope her into playing.
Complications during birth made the adults fear that Melissa may have some developmental problems, but Grandmother Terra laughed at their concerns. It did not take long for her to prove Melissa was quite intelligent. She was just in no hurry, taking in the world, speaking when she had something to say, and keeping her own counsel.
Grandmother Terra enchanted their senses with her incredible magic. They spent hours listening to her fantastic tales of woe and wonder. Losing themselves 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 years of peace after the war ended. Time during which their people rebuilt the ruins of their kingdoms to their former glory.
For a brief halcyon period of bliss, the farms were green, the forests whole, and the darkness defeated. With their safety guaranteed and having no fears to disturb their sleep, their citizens became less vigilant, leaving them unprepared for an unanticipated future.
Shortly after her fifth birthday, while Aria played in the summer palace’s extensive gardens, a magnificent Monarch butterfly attracted her attention. 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 until it unexpectedly disappeared in a swirl of dark light, bringing her to a standstill. Startled, Aria realized she was nowhere near the castle grounds, and panic settled into her tiny chest at facing the unfamiliar forest alone.