The streets were quiet for a Friday night in the city. Alexandra Ross clenched her collar tighter around her neck as the wind began to pick up, unseasonably cool for so early in Boston’s September. Her heels clicked along the damp cobblestones of the old sidewalks as she headed towards her apartment. She had to take extra care while walking in her four-inch heels.
Especially when she knew she was being followed.
The city had been her home for three years now, so the late-night trek home remained familiar, almost a comfort. In the now twenty-two years of her life, maintaining her independence was as much of a priority as the switchblade in her jacket pocket was a security. There was a part of her that truly enjoyed the peaceful solitude these walks could bring, but she wasn’t stupid enough to do it without protection.
She was aware he remained a short distance behind her ever since she left Faneuil Hall.
This evening was no different, except that she was celebrating her twenty-second birthday, which also may have involved too much alcohol. Perhaps it was the intoxicated appreciation of her city within the quiet of the early morning hours that distracted her from her surroundings.
Even the reflections in the familiar storefront windows she passed by reminded her of the fact she that wasn’t alone.
Either way, her attention was focused anywhere but where it belonged. It wasn’t until her heel caught in the sidewalk, and a hand grabbed her arm to keep her upright, that she realized she tripped and started to fall.
And that the one she believed to be a stalker turned out to actually be a rescuer.
His grip remained firm as his other arm wrapped around her waist to steady her on her feet. As she composed herself, trying to clear her head, her hand went towards the knife in her pocket while she glanced towards the individual who just saved her from needing a nose job.
The stranger’s hair was dark under the streetlights, side swept and held loosely in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. He was dressed casually: wearing a dark, button-down shirt over clean denim jeans and sensible dress shoes as if he, too, had just emerged from the bustling social atmosphere that brought so many to Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
His features were thin with chiseled cheekbones beneath skin too tanned to be local, but then she looked into his eyes. They were the most piercing blue she had ever seen—almost too blue, especially without the sunlight’s shining assistance. They radiated with their own luminescence; which was odd at first, but the color was as though they were refractions off of the ocean’s waves. As she continued to stare, the more familiar they seemed. Looking up and into his eyes felt as if she had stared into those eyes before—been lost within them too many times to count.
The feeling was almost nostalgic, though she was certain she’d never met him before. She would have remembered those eyes, regardless of how many cosmopolitans she may have drank.
By the time she realized she was staring, he had already released her from his grasp.
“I—” She blinked, struggling for words as her grip tightened around her knife.
“A simple ‘thank you’ would suffice.” His words purred with a foreign accent—familiar, but she couldn’t place it. Irish? Scottish? Perhaps Welsh, she thought to herself, though she wasn’t even certain if it was European at all.
“Oh,” she spoke, clearing her throat. “Thank you.” She moved to smooth out the short, black dress she wore, awkwardly running her hands over her legs, her ass—anything she could do to avoid his gaze. “I didn’t even hear you behind me.”
“I know.” He smirked. Again, that sense of nostalgia clenched at her chest, her stomach, lower. Before she could inquire further, or at least find out where he came from, he had already moved past her, continuing on his way down the street.
“Happy birthday, Alex.” He waved back to her without another glance.
How did he know?
“Hey, wait!” she called after him, her voice laced with panic, but he disappeared out of sight as quickly as he arrived.
Deciding she had had enough excitement for one birthday, Alex slowly, and far more cautiously, finished her walk home. Occasionally, she would chance a glance behind her to ensure she wasn’t followed again. He was just some creep who must have been too close for comfort while they were drinking the bar, she convinced herself as she turned the corner onto the street that led to her apartment. Or merely a lonely someone who overheard her saying her goodbyes to her friends on the way out and thought he’d get lucky.
She came to the gate that barred the walkway leading to her apartment, the skin on her neck prickled and the hairs on her arms stood on end. Something was off. The familiarity of home felt wrong, like a lost memory, just within reach moments ago, now nowhere to be found. Her hand had been stuffed into her jacket pocket ever since her encounter with the dark-haired stranger, and she continued to grip the knife tightly as she opened the gate and she headed down the final stretch.
Her apartment was situated in one of the older colonial row houses within Boston’s North End that later converted into apartments and condominiums as the years went on and the economy grew. She rented out the bottom floor of the building, with her ground-level entrance beneath the building’s main stairway barred behind a wrought-iron gate. Taking another look around her surroundings, she approached her door as her other hand managed to find her keys, but nearly dropped them as she stopped to survey the scene before her.
The light from a nearby street lamp shone on the damage that had been done. The gate was bent in a fashion that looked as though a gorilla took a bar in each hand and spread them apart. Through the warped iron, she could see the lock to her apartment had been destroyed, the surrounding door blown apart with it, shattered beyond easy repair.
“Fuck,” she whispered, taking a step back to as she glanced to see if there was anyone around, but not a soul was in sight. With a shaking hand, she reached for her phone. Did she call the police on the off-chance her father’s colleagues would report back to him and have to hear another lecture from her about the horrors of living in the city? Or hell, ensure the potential of seeing any of them the next morning while she was at work, having them remind her of her over-exaggerations while she served them their overpriced coffee?
No. No, she did not. So, she rang her best friend instead.
“Hello?” Crystal answered on the third ring.
“Crystal!” Alex whispered harshly into her phone. “Someone’s broken into my apartment!”
“So, call the police,” Crystal reminded her lazily, her tone muddled by the evening’s inebriation.
“You know I can’t do that,” she snapped. “Besides, what if they’re already gone? It would be a waste of time and effort.”
“And your pride?”
“What if they’re not?” Crystal queried. “Your father will be pissed, and your mother—”
“You are no help; do you know that?”
“You’re the one calling me, thinking someone broke into her house!”
Before Alex could continue to interrogate her friend, the slightest sound of movement from the other side of the door caught her attention, and her knife was out of her pocket and at the ready, her heart pounding.
“Crystal, I’ve got to go,” she murmured into the phone.
“What? Wait—” Alex hung up before Crystal could finish her sentence.
Reaching the warped gate, she slowly pushed open the ruined door that led into her apartment. She listened again, waiting for a repeat of movement, and quietly stepped through and into the mudroom once she decided it was safe to do so. Everything was dark and quiet, just as she left it, which gave her even more cause for concern. Whoever was there, whether they remained or not, they weren’t there with robbery as their intention…not that she had much to steal, anyway, beyond an expansive collection of epic fantasy books and Harlequin romance novels.
Liquid courage—that was stupidity. At least that’s what she convinced herself as she tiptoed through the kitchen, her ears still perked when she heard a subtle creak of a floorboard and she tightened her grip on the knife. Peeking around the corner, she noticed a dull light emitted from her living room, appearing as though a flame flickered in the darkness.
Except Alex’s fireplace was only decoration and never once actually contained a fire.
Despite the nauseating curiosity that gripped her and tightened her stomach into knots, she approached the living room, lingering just outside the entryway. The flickering light made it difficult to adjust her eyes to the darkness, but she was certain she could hear bits and pieces of a conversation within an unknown language between two individuals whose voices she didn’t recognize.
Holding her breath, Alex glanced into the living room. Crouched before the fireplace was a figure in black with its back turned to her. Male in appearance, he was too focused on an orb floating before him to notice her. The swirling red flames neither burned nor emanated heat as they hovered over the ground, and her attention was caught upon their pulsating beat as it communicated with her apartment’s intruder, like the blood flowing through her veins.
And the foreign language, unfamiliar to her in every possible manner, resounded through her like a jolt—as though a part of her memory had been previously locked away, and hearing it again was the key. No different to her mind than English, she could understand every word they were saying as if it was her native tongue.
“You are certain you’ve secured the perimeter?”
“Yes, my Lord,” the figure spoke into the flame-less conflagration. “There’s been no sign of the Empress. She will be none the wiser that the Key is in place.”
“You best hope so, for where she will be, the Prince will follow. The Empress must be in my possession before he can make his next move.”
“Of course, my Lord, but what shall I do in the meantime?”
“Be patient. Be vigilant. And so help me, when the Empress returns, do not allow her to leave that apartment.”
“And the Key?”
“You will wait until it activates within the next moon cycle. Until then, remember that she will be your only way home. Do you understand me?”
The figure bowed his head. “Understood, my Lord. And should the Prince interfere?”
Alex could almost feel the simmer through whatever allowed such a floating object to exist, and a shiver trickled down her spin as she watched the dark figure finally stand and turn in her direction.
Red eyes glowed in the darkness, like dying embers fighting to remain lit. Being distracted by the earlier conversation, she hadn’t noticed how far she stepped into the room. Whatever courage she may have had before entering her apartment dissipated as those red eyed focused on her. She tried to take a step back, but hit the wall, jarring her elbow in the process and hissing of pain at the impact.
“Well, it appears my job just became a hell of a lot easier,” he slurred in English, though drawling with an accent both foreign and familiar.
Not unlike her would-be stalker-savior’s.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she announced as she pushed off from her spot against the wall, remembering the knife in her hand and willing her fingers to steady themselves as she pointed it at the head of the intruder. “But I think it’s time you removed yourself from my apartment.”
“The Empress?” The voice from the flames sounded pleased, and the orb’s size and power intensified as it emitted an almost demonic chuckle.
At the words of whatever master presided on the other side of that communication device, the intruder rose to his full height as he turned around to face her fully. The amplified light from the orb finally displayed his features. Other than his eyes, there was nothing extraordinary about him. Pale in the pulsating red light, with a shock of black hair and thin lips. He wore unremarkable clothing—a black shirt over black pants that could have come from anywhere—but still it was his eyes that held her attention, creating an otherworldly presence about him.
He paused his approach, however, when he saw the knife, cocking his head to the side as though in silent challenge. Instinctively, she sliced it through the air in his general direction, and the unexpected action seemed to surprise him as much as it had her. Taking a reflexive step back, his legs hit a side table next to her couch, knocking a lamp to the floor.
The orb ceased its laughter at the commotion.
“It’s a pleasure, Empress Alexstrayna,” the voice said while the intruder continued his retreat, falling into the fireplace as if the orb would give him protection or a quick escape out of the room.
Alex rolled her eyes at the intruder’s pathetic attempts to escape through a brick wall, though her attention was caught at the greeting from the orb. It wasn’t her name, but it was close, and she didn’t want to know how or why. Before she could inquire, the voice behind the floating ball of flame seemed to realize he was losing his local support, and the fire erupted once again. “Where the hell do you think you’re going? The Prince is following her. Find him before he finds you first! Do not let the Empress out of your sight!”
The flaming orb allowed his threat to linger as its flames continued to rant and rave, all while the intruder composed himself and again began to approach her. The orb’s light now reflected off of claw-like talons extending from each finger on both hands of the intruder, and his teeth grew into a predator’s fangs. Every bit of his deadly intention was focused solely on her.
Alex felt the sweat form on her brow as her heart beat with a terrified fury. Even as she held the knife up to defend herself, it shook between her fingers. The intruder merely gave her a knowing smirk before he reared back on his legs and leaped into the air with feline grace, lunging across the room with his claws extended, aiming directly for her over-exposed chest.
Frozen in the spot where she stood, Alex’s eyes were wide as she watched death approach. She remained where she was even as a sudden bolt of cold, blue flame shot over her shoulder, knocking the attacker hard against the wall next to the fireplace. The plaster splintered on impact, causing the intruder to crumple to the floor, unmoving once he hit the ground.
Alex thought her heart was going to pound through her ribcage; she made herself take one deep breath, and then another before she looked over her shoulder toward the direction of the flash. In the lingering blue glow stood the stranger who helped her in the street. Those same cold flames appeared to grow from his right hand as he was poised in a battle-ready position, preparing for another strike as his attention focused deeper within the room.
Following his glance, she saw that the intruder remained still and motionless, remnants of the blast that sent him there the only movement coming from his body. She wanted to say something—perhaps she should thank him? Too many questions began to cross her mind as she shifted towards him, needing to know more, that same pull of nostalgia almost drawing her in. No sooner had she opened her mouth than did the red orb cease its ranting to greet the new arrival.
“I was wondering when you were going to show your face, Treyan. Unfortunately, you’re too late. My Key is in place, and come the next moon cycle, the Empress will rightfully be mine.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Reylor, but my Key has been in place for years.” Treyan walked forward, outstretched his right hand where again blue flames sprung from it, this time engulfing the red orb. Not a moment later, it was extinguished. Without delay, he turned towards her and began to approach her. “I am sorry about all of this, Alex—”
“You!” She raised her knife between them, the point hitting his chest before he could move another inch. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Sighing, he brought his hand to the blade, his blue flames warming the metal to the point of nearly burning Alex’s hand, forcing her to drop the knife. She moved to run, but he grabbed hold of her forearm and he pulled her face to him.
Alex caught herself getting lost in his blue eyes again and he watched her with an enthusiasm that was unwarranted given their sudden meeting. It was a feeling of intense warmth throughout her body, akin to the comfort of a lover’s embrace. A feeling she had met him before but knew their paths had never crossed before in her life. And yet, some part of her knew him, or knew of him, and that terrified her.
Who are you?
Unfortunately, the question never left her. Before she could break his intense stare and begin to protest further, he brought a hand to her face, gently cupping her cheek, and after a few murmured words, Alex’s world fell to darkness.