On the verge of her twentieth birthday, Vivien’s worries are those of a typical young woman: doing well in college, gaining more independence, and maybe managing to show Brad, her classmate and sometimes jogging partner, that she wouldn’t mind taking their burgeoning relationship to a different level.
Everything changes in the blink of an eye. Vivien stumbles into a knife fight, watches a man die in front of her, and soon listens, stunned, as Brad and his brother Aedan tell her a story of magic, vampires and a murderous ruler intent on killing a princess in hiding – a tale in which she is the princess and heir to a realm she didn’t know existed.
Vivien’s first instinct is to refuse to believe this incredible tale, even if it comes from a man she is attracted to. But when her self-proclaimed bodyguards use magic to take her to a different world, the edges of reality start blurring and Vivien has to figure out who she truly is.
In her dream, Vivien had run. Now, she remained frozen, unable to move as time flashed before her.
It made no sense.
None of it did.
The dead man, still as a rock, with a knife in his chest, blood soaking into the ground under him. The other one, his knives twirling and gleaming as he attacked Brad. Brad’s very presence on this trail when he had had no way of knowing where she would be. The knife that he, too, handled effortlessly. Or rather, knives. The killing blow had come from behind her—from where Brad had been. Had it really been Brad, the same shy man who thought dating her would not be proper, who had killed that first man? It had to be, since he suddenly pulled the knife out of the dead man’s chest to better counter his opponent.
What was going on?
Vivien wanted to run away, go home, and escape this madness. Or maybe wake up; this had to be another dream—another nightmare. The alternative was too outlandish. Yet she remained there, standing in the middle of the trail, watching sparks fly whenever Brad’s knives clashed against his opponent’s blades.
A tiny part of her, the part that remembered six years of fencing lessons, was in awe of the two men’s technique, of the speed and agility with which they handled their weapons. Silver flashed faster than her eyes could follow, but still neither of them seemed to be hurt, at least not yet. It was bordering on incredible, actually. Who could be that fast in wielding a weapon—any weapon?
All of a sudden, a thought struck Vivien, emerging from the haze of confusion. She had a phone! Why wasn’t she calling the police already?
With trembling hands, she fumbled to unzip her pocket and pulled her phone out. She had time to dial 9-1 before a strong, cold hand closed over her phone and gently tugged it out of her hands. She gasped and looked up into Brad’s steely eyes.
“Please come with me,” he said in a low voice. “You are not safe here.”
The second man was nowhere to be seen.
She hung on to the phone for a second, but when she saw the two knives sheathed on either side of Brad’s belt, the line of blood on his cheek, her mind turned blank, her fingers nerveless. He pulled the phone out of her hand and made it disappear into one of his pockets.
“Not safe?” she repeated, feeling a little numb.
“You will be, but not here. We have to go.”
He curled an arm behind her back and steered her away while barely touching her. In just moments they were out of the park.
Vivien couldn’t stop shaking. She wrapped her arms around herself, but it brought her no comfort. She wished Brad would talk to her, reassure her, explain what had happened—or say anything, really. Instead, he led her onward, his hand brushing against her back without ever settling there, urging her forward whenever she started to slow down.
“What…what’s going on?” she finally managed to ask. “Who were those guys? Why do you have knives?”
“I carry knives for occasions such as this one. Please hurry. We need to get you inside.”
The loop of images going through her mind suddenly stopped on that first snapshot: the black-clad man falling to the ground with a knife in his chest. She stilled, unable to take one more step, and stared at Brad with wide eyes.
“You killed a man,” she breathed, her disbelief shattering in front of simple facts.
Brad considered her with eyes that had never seemed so cold before. “Two. They were going to take you, so I killed them. I will do it again any time I have to, this I swear to you. Now please, I need to get you to safety.”
His arm pressed across her back, pushing lightly until she started to walk again.
Should she run? Vivien couldn’t decide if she ought to try. Brad would catch her easily if she did, but there were a few people on the street, cars driving by, houses where she could ask for help. Was it worth taking the risk?
She eyed the knives at his waist. He’d proved that he knew how to use those and had no qualms in drawing blood. What chance did she have when she had no weapon of her own?
And still, even after witnessing his fight, Vivien could hardly believe that Brad could or would hurt anyone, let alone her. Could it have been a prank? Fake blood, retractable blades, some elaborate act… The university had a very active role-playing group; she’d seen them on campus before, wearing realistic helmets and carrying swords as though they had been on their way to kill a dragon rather than off to attend a chemistry lecture. But why here, why now, why involve her?
Before she could make up her mind to run, it was already too late. They had reached an apartment building, and Brad guided her to a first-floor apartment. He reached to open the door, and as she watched his wrist when he turned the key in the lock, she realized it was all even worse than she had thought.
The skin on the inside of his wrist was pale and clean, free of any tattoo.
It wasn’t Brad. This man—this killer—had Brad’s face and voice, but he wasn’t—couldn’t be—Brad. Were they brothers? Twins? Or was it only a mask? An extraordinary coincidence?
It didn’t matter.
She jerked back, finally knowing what she had to do, if not what was going on. The only reason she had followed this man was because she had thought she knew him, and part of her had believed him when he said he had been protecting her. But if he wasn’t Brad, how could she believe anything he said?
She turned around, finally ready to escape, and gasped when she almost ran straight into Brad. Or was it someone else who only looked like Brad? Needing to know, she took hold of his hand and turned his wrist upward. The familiar tattoo gleamed under the hallway lights. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Brad’s gaze flew between Vivien and his doppelganger.
“Inside,” the other man grunted, at the same time as Vivien said, “Help me! He killed two men!”
Brad’s reaction was nothing Vivien could have expected. His hand twisted in Vivien’s grip so that he captured hers and pulled her in through the open door.
“Only two?” he asked the other man. “Are there more coming?”
Never before had the sound of a closing door seemed so ominous.
“Probably. He sent us to get her, but knowing him, he sent another unit as back up.”
Stunned, Vivien let herself be led to an old, battered sofa that had seen better days. Her knees all but gave in under her and she sat, clutching her hands in front of her, watching the two men standing in front of her like mirror images of each other. Brad reached for the other man’s face and rubbed off the dried blood on his cheek with his thumb. The cut underneath was little more than a pale line, as though it’d been healed for days.
“Do you think they’re vampires, too?”
Vivien frowned, now certain she had heard wrong—either that, or it was all just a big game. Not-Brad never even cracked a smile at the word ‘vampire.’
“Probably. A unit usually has two vampires and a channeler. You did shield—”
“This place? Of course. With all the Quickening I could gather. She’s safe here. But if they’re looking for traces of channeling, they’ll find us fast. We should get her home and soon.”
At that, they both turned to look down at her. Yet again, Vivien was struck by how similar they looked. Still…something in the way they held themselves set them apart. Brad seemed more relaxed, while his double stood straight, his shoulders squared. He seemed ready to jump into action at a moment’s notice. And then, there were their eyes. Brad’s eyes were a pale blue, like a bright sky. The other man’s were blue-gray, almost metallic looking.
“What’s going on?” Vivien breathed. She hated how much her voice trembled, and tried to firm up her words when she said, “If this is all just a joke, I swear—”
“Vivien, no.” Brad stepped closer and sat on the sofa near her, his body angled toward her. “This is not a joke. You are in danger, and Aedan—” He nodded at the other man, who had retreated to stand by the wall. “—and I want nothing more than to keep you safe.”
“Safe from who?” She shook her head. “Who is he?” she gestured at—Aedan, was it? “Why did he kill those men rather than just call the police?” And speaking of the police… She held her hand out toward Aedan, palm up. “I want my phone back.”
Aedan didn’t move. His eyes were on her, as cold as ever, but he didn’t seem to have heard a word of what she said. He was as immobile as a statue, his hands at his side close to the knives. He was so still, in fact, he didn’t even appear to breathe.
“Safe from a very powerful man called Rhuinn,” Brad said, drawing her attention back to him. “He’s the ruler of our world. Aedan is my twin. He killed those men because they were after you and the police couldn’t have done a thing to stop them. And that is also why we are not going to call them.”
Annoyance coursed through Vivien, chasing away what remained of her fear. He had answered each of her questions, and still he hadn’t explained anything. She closed her hands into fists and stood. At once, both brothers tensed.
“You’re not making any sense,” she said as calmly as she could. “I’m going home.”
Without a word, without even a sound, Aedan slid three steps to the right to stand in front of the door. Brad sighed softly and took Vivien’s hand, holding on to it even as she tried to pull away.
“Please, Vivien. There are things you need to know. I tried to convince Anabel that she should tell you, but she wanted to wait for your birthday. I’m afraid we can’t wait another three weeks.”
Vivien’s heart jumped inside her chest as though trying to break free. Her knees weakened, and she sat down again—or rather, she let herself fall.
“How…how do you know Anabel?” Her words barely seemed loud enough over the thumping of her heartbeat in her ears. “How do you know when my birthday is? What on Earth is going on!”
The smallest of smiles flickered on Brad’s lips, as though she had said something amusing. He soon regained his gravity, however, and proceeded, again, to answer each of her questions in turn—and raise a dozen more with each word.
“Anabel and I have the same duty: to protect you. Sometimes we disagree on how to do that best. I know when your birthday is because I’ve been waiting for you to turn twenty to finally bring you home to Foh’Ran. But it looks like Rhuinn decided he wouldn’t wait for you to come and challenge him for your birthright. He sent his guards to snatch you. If Aedan hadn’t been there, they might have done just that.”
Still trying to process his words and order her thoughts, Vivien let her gaze drift between the two brothers.
Standing still against the wall, Aedan asked, “Why were you not with her, anyway? I told you he was getting restless.”
Embarrassment drifted over Brad’s features like a shadow, reawakening Vivien’s own. Had it been hours ago that she had asked him on a date? It felt like a lot more time had passed, but that might have been an effect of how confused she felt.
“I lost her at school,” Brad muttered before looking back at Vivien. “It would have been easier if I could just have told you, but Anabel was dead set against it, and she made me promise not to say a word to you until she did. She was mad at me for even talking to you.”
These words, at least, seemed to make sense. From the first time Vivien had mentioned Brad, Anabel had bristled at the mere mention of his name. It wasn’t too difficult to accept that they did know each other. But the rest…
“I don’t understand,” Vivien said. She twirled the ring on her thumb round and round, keeping her hands busy while her mind tried to piece things together. “Why would anyone want to hurt me? Why would you want to protect me?”
Brad’s gaze was too strong for Vivien to hold, his eyes narrow and intense as though he were willing her to believe him. She lowered her eyes and noticed he was rubbing his fingers against the swirls of the tattoo on the inside of his left wrist.
“Aedan and I are both part of the QuickSilver Guard,” he said in a low, vibrating voice. “We swore to protect the true heir to the throne of Foh’Ran from the usurper king.”
Vivien looked up, holding her breath. She had a feeling she knew what he would say next. And indeed, his words turned solemn when he intoned, “We swore an oath to protect you.”
“I’m nobody’s heir,” she protested. “I’m just a girl. My parents died in a car crash.”
Aedan’s voice rose, slow but strong. It was the first time he addressed Vivien since Brad’s arrival.
“Your mother was Eleoren Te Celden. She was the ruler of our world, the seventh in the line of Celden rulers that began with Lahien the Great. She did not die in a car crash.” He sneered at the words. “She was murdered for being too favorable to vampire rights four years after she sent you to the Otherworld for your own protection.”
Vivien stared at him. He had recited those names as though they meant the world to him, as though she was supposed to trust every word he said when all she knew about him was that he was a killer.
“This is crazy. Why should I believe you?”
Aedan didn’t bat an eyelash, but his eyes seemed to gleam with a metallic reflection. “Whether you believe me or not is irrelevant, Dame Vivien. You are safe. You will remain safe. That is all that matters to me.”
“Aedan,” Brad said, the word heavy with reproach. “If she doesn’t believe us, how can she ever trust us?”
“Our vows said nothing about trust. Once we Pass Through, she’ll have no choice but to believe. We should go now.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Vivien said. “Not until you start making sense.”
To her own ears, her voice sounded plaintive. This was all too much, too strange.
“I know it’s a lot to take in all at once,” Brad said. “I’m sorry, I wish I knew how to make it easier on you.”
He patted Vivien’s hand where it lay on the sofa between them. A few feet away, his brother shifted, crossing his arms. It was the first time he had moved since planting himself near the wall. Vivien looked straight up at him; his foreboding frown sent a shiver down her spine, and her gaze dropped to the knives at his waist.
This man, supposedly from a different world, had killed, again supposedly to protect her from would-be kidnappers. He and his twin brother—that, at least, Vivien could believe; the only differences she could see between them were the lack of tattoo on Aedan’s wrist and his strangely colored eyes—claimed to have sworn to protect her because she was some kind of princess…
No. Just, no.
Kallysten’s most exciting accomplishment to date was to cross a few thousand miles and an ocean to pursue (and catch!) the love of her life. She has been writing for fifteen years, and always enjoyed sharing her stories and listening to the readers’ reactions. After playing with science fiction, short stories and poetry, she is now trying her hand, heart and words at paranormal romance stories.