She swallowed hard as she faced the palace beyond the grand white marble fountain.
It was as beautiful as she recalled, the same colours as the other buildings within the fortress, but different in style. The façade stretched across the huge square, three storeys high, with rectangular black-shuttered windows only two metres apart, the white stone casings that surrounded them a stunning contrast against the yellow render. Between each window, a white flat stone column stretched the height of the floor, appearing to hold up the matching pale stone band that ran across the top and bottom of each level.
Words carved in Latin decorated the band across the top of the ground floor, centred above the arched entrance.
Isla made her way past the fountain, focusing on the gentle sound of the water to calm her rising nerves, and strode towards the entrance. Vampires passed her but none of them stopped her from advancing. In fact, most of them didn’t look at her at all.
She wasn’t sure that was a good sign.
Was Grave luring her into a trap, or did he really want to see her?
She passed under the arched entrance of his palace and her pace slowed again as the four sides of the building towered above her in its bare courtyard. The inside was darker, with the two upper floors painted in a more sombre shade of yellow that was closer to grey, and the casings of the windows, the bands that delineated each level and the flat decorative columns all made of black marble.
The ground floor was different too, set back under the building, with rows of narrow arches supporting the upper floors and thick black columns between them.
She kept an eye on the guards who loitered in the shadows under the arches, aware of their eyes on her.
Her nerves started to get the better of her as she crossed the courtyard, her body and mind responding exactly as whoever had built it had intended. It was a building made to intimidate, to unsettle the visitor and set them on edge.
It captured the nature of the one who had ordered it perfectly, creating a vision of power and importance, but elegance too.
Isla rubbed her damp hands on her leathers as she stepped up onto the raised path that ran beneath all the columned sides of the building and through the double-width black-framed doorway. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness on the other side, but she kept moving forwards, afraid that if she stopped she would run away.
Oil lamps flickered around the square entrance hall, illuminating the huge gold-framed paintings hanging on the black wall and the imposing white marble staircases that ran up both walls to meet in a curve at the first floor.
A second set of curved marble staircases ran from beside the top of the first ones, sweeping back towards the wall behind her to join with the second floor, and high above her an enormous chandelier hung in the open space between the two floors.
Isla kept an eye on it as she passed under it, her boots silent on the white marble tiles. She never had trusted it. It seemed too large and weighty to hang from such a slender chain.
She walked straight ahead, through another double-width doorway beneath the staircase, and her steps slowed further as she entered the corridor between the entrance hall and the audience room.
Isla turned her gaze towards the black marble floor, keeping her eyes off the grotesque display of mounted heads that lined the obsidian walls. She had dared to look at them once, had been horrified when she had found herself somewhat captivated by the gruesome collection and the way the light from the oil lamps flickered across them, a dancing of shadows that made them come alive.
Another trick meant to intimidate, designed to strike fear into the hearts of those who desired to make a pact with the vampire mercenaries of the Preux Chevaliers and their infamous leader.
Isla lifted her head as she cleared the corridor and her heart almost stopped in her chest.
Grave lounged on his ebony throne on the raised black platform opposite her in the pale-walled room, his scarred chest bare between the two open sides of his black dress shirt. A crystal goblet hung from between his long fingers and he raised it slowly, bringing it to his lips. He lazily sipped the blood, painting his firm lips crimson, his ice blue eyes on her the entire time.
She fought to find her voice as she stood before him in the bare room, but it wouldn’t come as he stared at her, cold and silent, as grim and dark as Hell itself.
His malice rolled through her, his hatred filling the room.
Scarlet ringed his frosty eyes.
The silence seemed to stretch into forever, thickening with each second that she stood in it without saying anything. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to break the silence.
What could she say?
There were a thousand things but nothing at the same time.
The longer he stared at her, the stronger a feeling within her grew, until she was close to looking away from him, unable to hold his gaze as her insides churned.
The man before her was so different to the one she had tricked into kissing her, so much darker, and it was her fault. She was responsible for the changes that had taken place, turning a passionate and attentive vampire into a powerful, dark and deadly monster.
And now she had to ask the monster she had made for a sliver of compassion, for his help.
She didn’t deserve it, but she still dared to hope that he would give her the help she needed because he would fade too if they didn’t do something about their bond.
His eyes narrowed on her and glittered with ice as he lowered the goblet to rest on the arm of his throne.
“Come to finish the job, Isla?” His voice darkened as he eyed the handles of the two blades strapped to her lower back. “I can see no other reason you would crawl back to me.”
The phantom instincts she tried so hard to contain got the better of her and she took a hard step towards him. “You deserved what you got.”
“Did I?” He chuckled mirthlessly, a bitter hollow sound that she didn’t like, not when she had heard him truly laugh with joy. “I seem to always get what I deserve.”
She wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but the distant look in his eyes and the feelings she could sense in him said it wasn’t directed at her. Something was troubling him. She glanced at his chest, at the fresh healing scars on it, and the ones on his handsome face too. He had been in a battle again. Had something happened there?
He idly swung the goblet back and forth, his pale eyes locked on it as the blood sloshed side to side.
“It is nice to still be able to hold things.” His gaze slid towards her and darkened, his voice little more than a snarl as he glared at her. “Would you not agree?”
She fought the urge but her eyes still dropped to her blue boots.
“We have a problem,” she whispered.
“No, I have a problem. More than one but let us focus on the one that stems from you.” Grave’s grim tone had her lifting her head again, pinning him with a look she knew conveyed every ounce of curiosity running through her blood because he scowled at her in the way he always did when daring her to say something when he wanted her silent. He stood sharply and the goblet in his hand came flying at her so fast she barely had time to dodge it. It exploded against the wall behind her and she flinched. Grave growled. “You get to go back to being the phantom you are. I fail to see how that is a problem for you, Isla. You can lure more men to their doom with that pretty smile and those wicked curves. You must have grown bored of being stuck in this world, bound to one male… unable to get your fill of—”
“We will not become phantoms,” Isla interjected, unable to bear any more of his barbs.
He fell silent, stood there before his throne staring at her again, staring right through her in that way he had perfected, reducing her back to the meek female she hated with all of her heart but couldn’t seem to stop becoming in his presence.
She looked down at her boots.
“If we do not become phantoms… what do we become?” His calm and collected tone sent a shiver through her, a warning that she was treading on thin ice. “What will this do to us?”
This male was at his most dangerous when he was like this, outwardly unaffected by anything, but inwardly churning with anger, with darkness that ruled him and began to show in his eyes as the scarlet gained ground against the pale blue.
Fire and ice.
Grave was made of them. A beautiful contradiction. Two elements that shouldn’t be able to live together but somehow he made it work, harnessed both to his advantage.
Isla tipped her chin up and faced her fears head on, because all he could do to her was exactly what was going to happen to her anyway if he refused to help. “It will kill us.”
His handsome face turned sombre, lips flattening for a moment, before his expression darkened and eyes narrowed on her.
“And I am meant to believe this?”
Isla frowned back at him. “Believe what you want. It is the truth, Grave.”
“Do not speak my name,” he barked, so loud that it echoed around the room and she tensed, instinctively took a step back towards the door as his rage poured over her and shone in his scarlet eyes. “You do not have the right to speak it. Not anymore.”
Isla lowered her eyes and they caught on his chest, on a chain around it and a pendant she could see now that he had stood, causing it to fall from beneath the sides of his black shirt.
The delicate silver Celtic knot nestled in the valley between his pectorals.
The ancient symbol was one of protection, designed for a loved one.
A phantom symbol.
A gift that she had given him.
A spark of hope ignited in her chest.
Grave lifted his hand, slipped his fingers beneath the pendant and raised it, drawing her eyes up with it. They jumped back to his face when the pendant reached his chin and she searched his eyes, aching for a sign that whatever feelings he’d had for her still existed somewhere inside him and that he would help her.
“I wear this,” he said in a low voice, soft and almost tender as he gazed at the symbol of her affection. “I wear this to remind me of your lies… a reminder of what you did to me, in case I am ever foolish enough to forget it… to relinquish my mission to make you suffer.”
The spark of hope inside her stuttered and died.
His face blackened and he curled his fingers around the pendant as he scowled at her, the red bleeding from his eyes, leaving them icy cold blue again.
“If death is the price you must pay for what you have done, so be it, Isla.” He turned away from her, stepped off the platform and walked towards the open door in the back right corner of the room.
Isla took swift steps towards him, panic rising to swallow her as he stepped through the doorway.
Her entire body tensed when he slammed the dark wooden door in her face.
Her knees wobbled but she refused to collapse, forced herself to stand tall.
She had been a fool to hope Grave would help her. She never should have listened to her sister. Melia didn’t know him like she did. Now she had wasted another day in which she could have been hunting for a phantom mage.
But worse than that, she ached more than ever for Grave.
Isla pressed her right hand to her chest and closed her eyes, focused on the mark on her back between her shoulder blades, near her heart. It warmed, tingling on her skin, but then the connection that had been opening slammed shut in her face just as the door had.
She turned away from it, lifted her chin and let her hand fall away from her heart.
If Grave wouldn’t help her, then she would track down a phantom mage alone. She would do all in her power to stop what was happening to her, and to Grave.
She would save him somehow.
She owed him that much.
She couldn’t undo what she had done…
Or could she?