Standing on the ramparts, an icy cold breeze was blowing briskly, creating goose bumps on my exposed skin. I’d chosen this spot on purpose, away from the carnage which had occurred outside the gates. I didn’t want to witness the body recovery, knew there were innumerable of them. Our people were working even now, collecting the dead and returning them to the city in preparation for cremations tomorrow. The bodies of the youngling vampires were being cremated on massive bonfires. Despite the brisk wind, the acrid scent of blazing wood reached my nose along with the sickening stench of burning skin.
Marianne stood at my side, had been close since our return from the woods. She’d healed the wounds on my back from Archangelo’s Katchet but I’d refused assistance for my wrist. It pulsated with pain but I wanted the pain, needed the pain – it was taking the edge off the anguish compressing my heart.
I’d shut down everything. The spirits were hidden away, banished while I dealt with a grief which encompassed every part of my being. I doubted the immediacy of another assault and even if we did come under attack, what good did the spirits do? They would give us a few minutes warning at most, a few minutes to prepare for more carnage. In all honesty, I couldn’t bear to hear them. If I opened myself to the spirits, I would be subjected to hearing Lucas and Conal.
No, I wouldn’t listen to the voices. Couldn’t listen to the voices. If I heard Lucas and Conal in my mind, I’d leap from the ramparts, throw myself to the ground below. Death would be a welcome release.
Culpability for their deaths lay squarely at my feet, nobody could be blamed for their loss but myself. Remorse coursed through my veins like demon toxin. Regret filled my heart, my soul. If I hadn’t rushed off as I did, Conal and Lucas would be alive. They would be here now – with me. I was being selfish, thinking only of myself, but I couldn’t get past the idea of being abandoned by the two people I needed the most. How could they leave me? They should be alive. I should be dead.
“Would you like me to check on them?” Marianne asked, pressing a reassuring hand to my shoulder.
I shook my head, squeezing my wrist more tightly against my breast, deliberately pressing to make it hurt. Trying – and failing – to overwhelm the gut-scourging pain in my chest. When Matt brought me back to the city, we’d gone to the hospital, waiting for an eternity outside the room where Jerome and the hospital staff worked feverishly on Conal and Lucas. It seemed as if we’d stood there for days, waiting for news, wishing for somebody to come and say what was happening. When nothing was forthcoming and the guilt became too overwhelming to bear, I’d walked out, knowing they were both dead or close to it. Marianne, bless her heart, followed and stood on the ramparts beside me, standing sentinel as I wallowed in thoughts, analysing what had gone so terribly wrong.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I desperately tried to shut out every thought, every second of misery. Each time I closed my eyes they appeared in horrifying detail. Conal lying on the ground, his body reverted to human. Blood pumping from multiple stab wounds in his chest and abdomen, pouring onto the mossy ground underneath his body. I was convinced he was dead, he’d reverted to human and that only happened when werewolves died. Jerome was undoubtedly going through the motions in an attempt to resuscitate him, but I knew he was dead. I’d seen it too many times before. It happened on the battlefield and it happened there in the woods. Conal was lost to me and I’d never hear his husky southern accent again. He’d never again call me Sugar, never grin and flash his dimples when he teased me.
Lucas. I squeezed my eyes tightly, picturing him lying motionless against the tree. There’d been no movement, not a single indication to suggest he was alive. When he’d been lifted onto the stretcher, his eyes were closed and his body remained limp.
After Epi portalled Lucas and Conal to the city, Matt and Marianne had escorted me back to Zaen, my father’s hand warm against my bleeding back. He’d spoken along the way, yet I didn’t have a clue what he’d said. Words of encouragement, perhaps. Maybe he’d been offering reasons why this wasn’t my fault, I didn’t have a clue. All I knew was the two most important men in my life were dead. I might as well have killed them myself. If I hadn’t run after Archangelo, if I hadn’t left the battle and their protection…
A tormented sob burst from my throat. Marianne rested her hand on my shoulder, enough pressure to assure me of her presence, that she shared my anguish.
How could I go on without them? What point was there to all this if I had nothing left in life? The men I’d loved with every part of myself were gone. The men who’d loved me with every part of themselves were lost forever. They were intertwined, Conal and Lucas, joined together in a heart which had splintered and broken in my chest.
Marianne’s grip tightened against my shoulder and I turned to find her gaze fixed on the three men walking towards us. Matt walked slowly, his brown eyes filled with heartache. Ben walked beside him, his clothes still covered in blood. And Nick – returned to human and dressed, but dried demon blood still clung to his hair and skin.
I stumbled backwards, desperate to avoid them, unwilling to have Lucas and Conal’s deaths confirmed. Marianne’s arm slipped from my shoulder to wrap around my waist.
“No… no, no, NO!” I moaned, holding my hand up as though the insignificant movement would prevent them from telling me. I didn’t want to hear the news, refused to listen to it. I squirmed and wriggled, escaping Marianne’s grip and stumbling blindly across the ramparts.
Matt caught me, wrapping his arms around my body as I pummelled my fists against his chest, sobbing and moaning. “Charlotte, baby. Shhh. Shhh, now.”
“NO! NO! I don’t want to know, don’t tell me. Please, don’t tell me. I can’t bear it, I can’t!”
Matt’s voice was strained when he spoke, his skin haggard with anxiety. “Charlotte, listen to me. You have to listen.” He met Ben’s eyes, silently pleading for help. I could see the emotions rippling across his face, knew he didn’t want to break my heart so completely that I would never recover.
Ben stepped forward and I vaguely noticed Nick, his grey eyes stormy. Matt held me close against him and I buried my head against his chest, trying to close my mind and senses to what was to come.