Lainey stared at the old mansion, which sat alone at the end of an unpaved road. There had been rumors about the Grayson place for as long as she could remember. Some said it was haunted by the ghost of its last owner, some jokingly speculated that it was inhabited by a vampire. The townspeople might disagree about who or what lurked inside, Lainey mused, but they all agreed there was something definitely spooky about the place.
The house had been vacant for at least ten years, and it showed. The paint was peeling off the eaves, some of the tiles on the roof were missing, several windows were cracked or broken. Trees and shrubs grew in jungle-like profusion.
It was obvious no one lived in the house, and yet, lately, passersby had reported seeing a pale blue light flickering in the third floor window. Police had been sent to investigate, but reportedly had found nothing suspicious.
It was a mystery, and Lainey loved a mystery. Reading them or writing them, it didn't matter. She'd take a good mystery over a love story any day of the week. Of course, if the mystery also contained a scorching romance, so much the better!
She also had a fondness for vampires, werewolves, and witches, which seemed at odds with her deep and abiding fear of the dark.
She also had a penchant for exploring old houses, but that, she decided, would have to wait for another day.
Taking her camera out of its case, Lainey snapped a couple of pictures from varying angles. The mansion, which was said to be over a hundred years old, was the perfect backdrop for the murder mystery she was currently writing. From its gabled roof and small round windows to its enormous front door and shadowed veranda, it reeked of mystery and danger. She could easily imagine any number of foul deeds being committed within its dark interior. No doubt there were dozens of secret doors and passageways cut into the walls and closets, she mused, and if there weren't, well, it didn't matter. She would just write a few in.
She zipped up her jacket as she glanced at the lowering sky.One more picture, and then she'd go.
She was focusing on the round turret at the north side of the house when she saw a flash of movement in the third-story window.
Startled, she lowered the camera and stared at the window, and then she laughed uneasily. There was no one there. She was just letting her over-active imagination get the best of her. Sternly, she reminded herself that the house had been vacant for years.
Nevertheless, she decided she had taken enough pictures for one day. Slinging the camera strap over her shoulder, she started walking down the driveway to the street where she had left her car, walking faster and faster until she was running.
Running as if she were being pursued by demons.
Once she was inside the car, with the windows rolled up and the doors locked, she felt like a child running from shadows. But sometimes her wild imagination overcame her good sense.
Shoving the key in the ignition, she gave it a twist.
Grimacing, she tried again, and again, but the car, always temperamental, refused to start.
Defeated, she rested her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes. Perhaps she'd flooded the engine. The word flood had no more than crossed her mind when the heavens opened, unleashing a deluge that would have given Noah cause for alarm.
"Oh, great," Lainey muttered. "Now what am I gonna do?"
She sat there for twenty minutes before she tried to start the car again. Nothing happened. Maybe it was the battery. Jim, over at the garage, had told her she needed a new one.
She sat there for another ten minutes, shivering inside her thin nylon jacket. A jagged bolt of lightning lit up the sky, followed by a crash of thunder that was so close she almost
jumped out of her skin.
Into her mind came visions of night stalkers and serial killers, all of them just looking for a lone female stranded on a deserted road.
She glanced up at the house, wondering if she wouldn't feel safer, and warmer, inside four walls.
Staring at the mansion, she felt her gaze drawn to the upper floor, felt a sudden, inexplicable urge to explore the house, to ferret out its secrets.
Before she quite realized what she was doing, she was out of the car and running up the driveway.
Breathless, she took the stairs two at a time, then stood shivering on the front porch. For a moment, she chewed on her lower lip, debating the wisdom of going inside, but another drumbeat of thunder decided for her. The door was locked, but one of the panes of glass was broken, making it easy to reach inside and unlock the door. The thought that she was committing a crime fluttered in the back of her mind. Breaking and entering. But she wasn't breaking, she rationalized, since the glass was already broken, just entering.
Thoughts of drug dealers and other disreputable characters filled her mind as she opened the door. She could hear the blood pounding in her ears as she crossed the threshold.
Closing the door behind her, Lainey stood in the entry way, listening. The sound of her footsteps echoed loudly as she crossed the black and white tiled floor to the parlor.
Knowing it was useless, she flicked the light switch inside the arched doorway. Nothing. In the rapidly waning daylight, she could see a high-backed sofa and a couple of chairs crouched before a massive stone fireplace. Sheets that had once been white, but were now threadbare with age and thick with dust, covered the furniture. To her fanciful mind, the furniture looked like beasts of prey ready to pounce on unwary strangers.
Standing with her arms folded over her chest, she stared at the fireplace, wishing she had the means to start a fire, when she felt a warm breeze caress her cheek, and the next thing she knew, there was a fire crackling in the raised hearth.
Lainey blinked at the flames, certain she was imagining things. But there was nothing make believe about the heat radiating from the fireplace. She stood there for a long moment, wondering if the shivers running up and down her spine were caused by the fire's seemingly magical appearance, or her apprehension. For a moment, she considered going back outside to sit in the car, but the warmth of the fire was irresistible.
Slipping out of her wet jacket, she spread it over the back of a chair to dry, then stood in front of the fire, toasting first her front and then her back.
The warmth of the fire made her drowsy. Removing the sheet from one of the chairs, she shook off the dust, then sat down, the sheet spread across her lap, and stared at the dancing flames.
How odd, she thought. Here she was, sitting in the dark in front of a fire that had started as if by magic, and she wasn't the least bit afraid.
Listening to the sound of the rain as it splashed against the windows, she had the strangest feeling that she wasn't alone, that there was an unseen entity hovering nearby, watching her every move through curious, unblinking eyes, but even that didn't shatter the peculiar sense of well-being that was slowly engulfing her, wrapping her in a cocoon of contentment.
Perhaps the place was haunted, she mused. But it didn't feel haunted. Enchanted, then. That would explain her sudden lethargy. But even the thought of being under some mystical spell lacked the power to frighten her as she drew the sheet up to her chin and closed her eyes.
The Isle of Mikos
He had spent his whole life in a cage. As a child, he hadn't questioned it, it was simply the way things were, the way they had always been.
He had learned to crawl, then walk, then run, on the hard cold stones.
In truth, it wasn't a cage at all, but a large square room made entirely of rough-hewn gray stone except for the door, which was built of wood reinforced with thick iron straps. There were two beds, two chairs, a table, a shelf filled with scrolls that contained the learning of the Kenn - scrolls that were changed each year. A single, iron-barred window was set high in the east wall.
The days passed slowly. His mother, Isobele, read to him for hours at a time. She was the center of his world, his life. He had no contact with any one else save the guards who brought them food and water. The guards never spoke to Navarre, never made eye contact with him. Only on rare occasions did they speak to his mother.
As Navarre grew older, Isobele taught him to read and write and cipher.
Once, he heard her mutter something under her breath, something about it being a waste of time to teach him to read and learn his numbers.
"Why, mother?" he had asked. "Why is it a waste of time to teach me these things?"
She had knelt down to face him, her expression filled with kindness. "What do you mean, Navarre?"
"I heard what you said. Why is it a waste of time for me to learn to read, to write?"
"I didn't say that."
"You did!" He had stared at her, wondering why she was lying to him. She had never lied to him before.
"No, Navarre," she had insisted, not meeting his eyes, "you must have misunderstood me."
He hadn't argued with her, but later that night, when she thought he was asleep, he had seen her standing at the window, the moonlight casting silver highlights in her long blond hair. The sound of her muffled sobs had brought tears to his eyes.
Sometimes she held him up to the window so he could look out. As a child, he had spent hours imagining what it would be like to run through the tall grass, climb the trees, play in the clear blue river. Far in the distance, like a castle in a fairy tale, stood a gold-domed building made of sparkling white stone known an Stone Hall Keep.
Sometimes men clothed in long gray robes came to the window to stare in at Navarre, their pale blue eyes filled with curiosity and a strange kind of awe that bordered on fear.
"Why do they look at me like that?" he asked one day.
"They stare at you because you're such a handsome boy," Isobele replied. She turned her head, but not before he saw that there were tears in her eyes again.
"Oh, yes," Isobele said. "You look just like your father."
"Father?" Navarre knew what a father was, of course, from the scrolls he had read. But he had never realized he had one.
Isobele nodded. "He was a very handsome man, your father. He had blue-black hair, just like yours. And his eyes were the same shade of smoky gray. You'll be tall, just as he was," she said.
"Where is my father? What was his name?"
"Your father is dead," Isobele said. She took a deep breath. "You are named after him."
She nodded, a faraway look in her eyes.
"How did my father die?"
Isobele felt the color drain from her face. She had always known she would have to answer his question one day, but, even so, she was not prepared. How did one tell a child that his father had been sacrificed to a heathen god? How could she tell her son that he was destined to meet the same cruel fate?
"Mother?" He looked at her through eyes far older than his years as he waited for her answer.
"Do we have to speak of it now?" Isobele asked. She glanced out the window. "Look, the vixen is outside, playing with her babes."
"How did my father die?"
"He was sacrificed to the goddess Shaylyn."
Navarre frowned. "Sacrificed? I don't understand."
"Please, Navarre," she pleaded. "Let us not speak of it now."
"When you're older."
"When you have seen thirteen summers."
Another year, he thought. Certainly he could wait another year.
In the meantime, there were other questions crowding his mind, questions he had never considered before. It was as if his first query had unleased an avalanche.
"Why do we live in this place? Why can't I go outside?" Suddenly restless, he began to pace the room. "Where do those other people live, the ones who come to stare at me?" He glanced down at his hands. "Why is their skin so light when ours is dark? How long will we have to stay here?"
He looked at his mother, eager for answers, only to find her staring at him, her face drained of color, her dark blue eyes filled with sorrow that seemed to have no end and no beginning.
"I'm sorry, Navarre," she murmured, her voice thick. "So sorry. I didn't want this for you. I tried to kill myself, but they stopped me. Your father..." She took a deep breath. "He tried not to touch me, but they drugged him..."
"What are you saying?"
Isobele fell to her knees before her son. Her hands shook as she clasped his. "Forgive me, Navarre, please forgive me."
"I don't understand."
He was looking down at her, looking at her through eyes exactly like his father's. How could she explain? How could she make him understand?
"We're kept in this place because we're prisoners, Navarre. Your father was born here, just as his father before him, and his father before that."
"Were you born here, too?"
"No." She released Navarre's hands and sank back on her heels, her thoughts turned inward. "I was kidnapped by the Kenn when I was sixteen. We were imprisoned until the day of your birth, and then your father was taken to the Temple of Shaylyn and sacrificed to the goddess."
Isobele closed her eyes, the memories she had sought to keep at bay flooding her mind as she related the story to her son. It was the way of the Kenn, to sacrifice a living male to the goddess Shaylyn every five and twenty years in the belief that such a sacrifice would insure the goddess' continued benevolence, but the sacrifice must be a man who had proven his virility by siring a male child.
Since time out of mind, the Kenn had raised men who were destined to be sacrificed. Men who were pure in heart and mind and body because they were never exposed to evil.
For a year, she had been locked in a cage across from Navarre's father. They had been able to see each other, to speak to each other, but never allowed to touch, until the year he was four and twenty.
Aware of what the future held for him and any child he sired, Navarre had refused to bed Isobele, but the priests of Shaylyn had drugged him with a powerful aphrodisiac. She had been horrified when they brought him to her. His deep gray eyes had been glazed with lust, his body ready. She had been frightened of him then. That night, he had not been the gentle man she had grown to love, but a stranger, a man who had no regard for her virginity, no thought at all save to appease his drug-induced lust.
Her protests had fallen on deaf ears, and he had possessed her over and over again, every night for the next fortnight, until his seed had taken root, and then she had been taken away, never to see him again.
He had been sacrificed to the goddess the morning after their son was born.
And now his son was destined to meet the same fate. When Navarre became of age, he would be mated to a virgin and then, when his son was safely born, Navarre would be sacrificed to the goddess Shaylyn.
Isobele opened her eyes to find her son staring down at her, a look of horrified disbelief on his face.
"They are going to sacrifice me, too, aren't they?"
She couldn't say the words, but he read the truth in her eyes.
"How?" he asked. "What manner of sacrifice is it?"
Isobele shook her head. "I know not, Navarre. All I know is that they took me away and I never saw him again."
Navarre thought of what his mother had told him all night long, more and more questions crowding his mind. But he had no chance to ask them.
The next morning, when he woke, his mother was gone, and he was alone in the cage.