Catalonia, Spain, 1859
XAVIER FLORES Prospero raced into Barcelona far ahead of his companions. He’d been in Madrid when he’d known, just known, that his Sire was dead. Every vampire on the continent would have known that someone powerful had died, but Xavier had known who it was—Vampire Lord, the Lord of Spain, Josep Alexandre, centuries old, a power beyond reckoning, and in an instant, he was gone. Xavier’s grief had been real, his fury unmatched. For if Josep was dead, someone had killed him. And that someone was now Lord of Spain, except . . . . His far-reaching sensitivity to the balance of power told him that the vampire who’d murdered Josep was too weak to rule, unable to contain the power released with the vampire lord’s death. And that left the territory leaderless, its vampires desperate and gasping for the strength and leadership they needed to survive.
By all accounts, the murderous fool had managed to escape the city before being killed himself, but the result had been utter carnage, as one vampire after another went on a killing spree in a bid for power. No one had managed to hold the territory—which encompassed all of Spain—for longer than a few days. Xavier hadn’t needed anyone to tell him the territory was in crisis. He was powerful enough to sustain himself and his vampire children without a vampire lord’s assistance, but most vampires weren’t. In every city and village he’d passed through on his race back to Barcelona—every place where one or more vampires had lived—he’d had to linger long enough to revive dying vampires, to share his blood and make them his, to save their lives.
And still the challenges and killings continued. It was a constant noise in his head, his instinct straining to forge a connection to one new ruler after another.
But he’d finally reached Barcelona, the center of Spain’s vampires because it had been Josep’s home for the hundreds of years he’d ruled. Racing down the crowded streets, Xavier ignored angry shouts and thrown objects from pedestrians protesting his horse’s thundering passage, until he pounded through the gates of Josep’s home, his mount’s hooves skidding on the polished stone in front of the dead vampire lord’s mansion.
Leaving the horse to the care of his companions, who’d been close behind him when they’d drawn even with the city and would arrive soon enough, he stormed up the steps two at a time and walked into a bloodbath.
The entrance hall, once a gaudy excess of gild and crystal, now stank of old blood and worse, much worse. The pink marble that had been imported from Italy to grace the floor was now dark red with blood stains, the grooves between the huge slabs still slick and shining. Jesu Crist, how many had died here? And why? Vampires didn’t bleed like that when they died, which meant humans had been slaughtered like cattle to feed . . . hell, he didn’t know whom. The instincts that had told him the territory was in turmoil hadn’t provided any names. It didn’t work like that.
Xavier walked deeper into the mansion, more cautious now. If vampires had been reduced to butchering humans, there was no telling what state they were in. He was confident enough in his ability to destroy anyone who dared attack him, but he wouldn’t enjoy having some feral beast of a vampire launch itself at him from hiding and sink fangs into his flesh. Dios mio, wasn’t that a disgusting thought?
He turned and found Chuy, his lieutenant and the first of his vampire children, moving slowly into the room, his expression reflecting the same revulsion that Xavier himself was feeling.
“Walk carefully, Chuy. I don’t know what’s going on here, but there are almost certainly a few mad ones lurking about.”
“Where will you go, my lord?”
“There’s only one choice, my friend. Forward.” At a grim nod from his lieutenant, Xavier strode deeper into the wrecked mansion, confident that his back was covered.
“Xavier.” A familiar figure appeared in the open doors to what had been Josep’s drawing room.
“Dênis.” It was an effort to keep the dislike from his voice, for all that he and this vampire shared the same Sire, and had lived in Josep’s court at the same time. “You’re alive.”
Dênis gave an elegant shrug. “The one who killed Josep was not a serious, or even intentional, contender for the territory.”
“What does that mean?”
“He attended one of Josep’s weekday receptions. You remember the kind. No one of significance ever bothered, but our Sire felt the need to socialize with the common man . . . for reasons of his own,” he added in distaste. “The assassin, for that’s what he was, maneuvered close to Josep and detonated some sort of magical device. It killed Josep instantly, along with several other vampires. And a few humans,” he said offhandedly.
“Magic. Are you certain?”
“Oh, yes. There was another sorcerer in the crowd. You know, the one who gained such favor with Josep when he restored Sakal’s magic.”
“Sakal?” he repeated and immediately wondered if the sorcerer was involved in this. He’d never forgiven Josep for making him Vampire. But that had been well over one hundred and fifty years ago. Had Sakal been plotting his revenge all this time? “Was Sakal at the reception that day?” he asked Dênis.
“No, he left two days prior for France, with Josep’s permission.”
“And where were you?”
Dênis chuckled. “I didn’t hire the assassin.”
“But you didn’t try to stop him, either, did you? Why did you not protect our Sire, as I would have?”
“You were always his favorite, Xavier. The one who had free access to the most beautiful women, the best horses and accommodations. Did you ever consider what it was like for the rest of us?”
“You let him die.”
“And now Spain is mine.”
“Do you believe you can hold it?” Xavier sneered. “Against me? There was a reason that Josep favored me.”
The other vampire’s expression hardened. “You’ll bow to me before the end. I might even make you kiss my feet.”
He snorted his opinion of that. “How many challengers have you killed so far?”
“More than I can remember. It’s amazing the weaklings who think they can hold power.”
Xavier stared at him lazily. “Yes, it is.”
Dênis growled, fangs bare. “Leave or challenge, you bastard.”
“I’m not the bastard here, Dênis,” he said. “Shall we do this in the courtyard? This building stinks of old blood.”
“Those refined senses of yours too delicate for a little blood?”
“Not as long as it’s yours.” An instant later the defensive shields he’d created from the power of his blood alone sizzled to life, as he deflected the spear of pure energy aimed at his chest. But it hadn’t come from Dênis. He swung his gaze to the right and caught a flash of blond hair. Sending a focused rope of his power to wrap about the fleeing vampire’s throat, he dragged the attacker
back into sight.
The vampire emitted a high-pitched whine, struggling to grip the invisible rope around his neck, his eyes rolling white with terror as he silently begged Dênis for aid. Xavier could have told him no help would be coming. Dênis had never cared for those who looked to him for protection. Not even when the one seeking help had risked his life to help Dênis.
“It was a foolish move,” Xavier told the whining vampire. “Did Dênis tell you it would work? That your pitiful attack would be the distraction that gave him the kill? That you’d earn his favor and reward after he was made vampire lord?”
The pathetic vamp had pink tears running down his cheeks, when his gaze switched to Xavier, pleading for his life.
“Will you save him, Dênis? Please, proceed. I’ll wait.”
Dênis’s gaze filled with furious hatred for Xavier. Without so much as a glance, he flicked a hand at the begging vampire. A moment later the pleading vamp fell to the floor, blood soaking his shirt an instant before he fell into a greasy pile of skin and bone that betrayed his youth.
“And that,” Xavier said, pointing at what was left of a vampire who’d been loyal enough to risk his life for his master, “is why you will never be Lord of Spain.”
Dênis’s grin was a vicious baring of teeth. “No. That is why I will wade through your dust to the throne.” A crackling sword of flame shot from his hand as he moved with vampire speed, appearing so close that when he swung the blade, it would have taken Xavier’s head had he not snapped his shields up.
“You never did have a sense of honor,” Xavier said almost cheerfully as he formed his own blade, this one burning blue and gleaming like the finest carbon steel. “Don’t worry. You’ll be too dead to crawl.”
They fought blade to blade at first, fire against steel, heat against ice. Xavier could have taken his opponent in the first few minutes, but it had been a long ride to get there, and his muscles needed warming. And so he fought until he saw sweat beginning to roll down Dênis’s face, until he noted the strikes coming a little slower, carrying a little less force. Until he saw the knowledge in the other vampire’s eyes. Death was imminent, and so unnecessary.
“You should have fled in shame after permitting our Sire to die,” Xavier said.
“O diabo te leva,” Dênis snarled.
Xavier laughed. “The devil? It’s not me he’s after.” In an instant, he’d shifted from the almost comfortable strike, parry, strike they’d been exchanging. Knocking Dênis’s fiery blade aside with a casual blow, he spun the length of his own gleaming weapon in midair, sliced through his enemy’s neck, and stepped back to watch as the vampire’s gaze recognized his own death, then disintegrated into dust.
Xavier took the wet cloth Chuy offered him. Dênis had been old enough that his death was fairly tidy. But he’d been a big man—not tall, but thickly built—and Josep’s mansion had always been drafty. The dust that had been Dênis floated through the air.
“What now?” Chuy asked, taking the cloth and throwing it aside. This room . . . hell, the entire mansion, was so wrecked that one more piece of debris would hardly matter.
Xavier sighed. He’d hoped to rest in Josep’s basement quarters, but though he hadn’t yet made it downstairs, he doubted it was safe for anyone—human or vampire. “We’ll try my townhouse. It’s been some time since I was in this city. It may have escaped notice. The others?” he added, referring to the two vampires and one human who’d accompanied him to the city.
“Waiting outside, my lord. They have your horse.”
“Good. Let’s go. There’s nothing here for anyone.” It made him sad to realize that was true. He hadn’t cared anything for Josep’s riches. But seeing all this destruction somehow brought the loss home to him, made it real. His Sire was forever gone. And he would miss him.
The trip across the city to the townhouse where Xavier had lived for years, before his growing power had forced him to leave Josep’s city, was mostly uneventful. One misguided vampire chose to confront him, stepping out from a narrow and dark alley to issue his challenge. Xavier was tired and more than a little sad, but he stepped off his horse, handed the reins to Chuy, then confronted the foolish vamp. Without ceremony, and certainly without any resort to his vampire magic, he took two steps, pulled the excellent, but very ordinary, sword from the tooled, leather sheath at his hip and ran it through the challenger’s heart. The vampire’s eyes went wide in surprise, and a little betrayal, Xavier thought. Had he expected a magical battle, rather than cold steel? And had he believed he could win?
He sighed, took back the reins from his lieutenant, and mounted his horse. He wondered sometimes at the foolish arrogance of so many vampires, the ones whose Sires seemed to have taught them nothing of the world. Vampirism gave them a bounty of gifts—greater strength, enhanced senses, virtual immortality. But it bestowed those same gifts on every vampire. And as with every creature in nature, the strong would always triumph over the weak.
He was relieved, when they arrived at the townhouse, to see it undisturbed and intact. He paid a local retainer to see to it, but when one was absent for months at a time, all manner of destruction could occur.
As the sun rose and he drifted into his much needed daytime rest, he thought about the future, and knew two things. He would face more challenges in the coming days, but in but in the end, he would triumph and become the new Lord of Spain.