In the catacombs of San Sebastiano near the ancient Appian Way to Rome, a man lay chained in a stuccoed burial chamber. His life ebbed away with every passing minute, but he refused to die. Alexis shut his eyes against the claustrophobic, suffocating blackness and gathered his last dregs of energy. The poison in his system still paralysed his body, but his mind had cleared and his mind was a weapon.
He had only himself to blame for his current predicament. He had broken his strict code of discipline and allowed his emotions to overwhelm him. His error might prove fatal. He was weak; at any other time he could have broken his bonds with his mind. If only his kind had evolved in the same way as their close cousins, the vampires. They were the strongest sentient beings on earth. A vampire would have snapped these chains in minutes and escaped into the dark matter flowing between dimensions.
A thin beam of light sliced through the darkness. Alexis blinked, was he hallucinating? No, there it came again. Reaching out with his senses, his heart quickened. This wasn’t his enemy coming to finish him off, someone was searching for him. He reached out again. Not Empath and definitely not human; the searcher was a vampire. Alexis’s heart pounded as the light came closer. Now he could make out the tall shadowy figure holding the torch.
“Chronus? Alexis Chronus! Where the bloody hell are you?”
Alexis’s heart soared; he knew that voice. He recognized its deep tone and English drawl. He should have guessed LaSalle’s warriors would join in the hunt. Rafe Deverill had found him. Almost. He just needed a helping hand. Alexis tried to speak, but his voice wouldn’t work, so he dived into the warrior’s mind. Rafe stopped and shook his head. Alexis focused his thoughts to draw him in.
Here, I am here. Look directly in front of you.
Rafe Deverill took a tentative step and pointed the torch. Would he be able to penetrate Draco’s shield?
“Chronus? Chronus!” Rafe shook his head again and muttered, “Shit, this place gives me the creeps. Now I’m imagining things.”
Here, I’m here.
It was no use. Alexis squeezed his eyes shut. If only Javier of Seville had come down into this hell to search for him. Javier knew how to spot an Empath shield and see through it. Rafe clearly didn’t…or hadn’t thought to look for the tell-tale giveaways. The vampire warrior stood a mere ten feet away, yet he may as well be blind. Draco’s shield had rendered Alexis invisible. As Rafe turned away to continue his search down the next passage, tears of frustration cut channels through the dirt on Alexis’s face. It would have been quicker if Draco Erebus had fired a bullet through his head, but the bastard couldn’t resist the sadistic thrill of leaving a man entombed to starve to death. Good thing he wasn’t that easy to kill.
He had one last chance left to save himself. One person who would hear him from hundreds of miles away. Alexis shut his eyes and concentrated. Almost eight decades had passed since that fateful day in Berlin’s Grunewald forest. If this didn’t work, his luck had finally run out.
Katie. Katherine Halvorsen, I know I said I’d never need you but, by god, I do. Find me. Help me. Lead them to me. I’m in a dark place surrounded by death. I’m dying and I need help. I need you.
A wave of dizziness made Alexis’s head spin. He couldn’t pass out. As long as he was conscious, the mental locator beacon he had just sent out would draw Katie to him with unerring accuracy. And where Katie went, her beloved Max followed. There was nothing he wouldn’t give to see that powerful blonde warrior right now.
Another dizzy spell. He had to stay conscious. He had no idea how long he’d been down here. It could be mere hours, but from the dryness in his mouth and his cracked lips, it had probably been days. He willed his body to move; a leg, a foot, a finger, anything. Yes, he could move his left hand. It lay jammed up against something hard and sharp. It hurt. Good, he welcomed the pain. Pain would give him something to focus on and keep him alert. He took a breath and pressed his hand against the sharp point. Pain blazed up his forearm. That was encouraging. It meant the paralysis was wearing off, starting at the peripheries of his body. If he concentrated hard, he could feel one of his toes.
Katherine Halvorsen, I’m still alive. Get here because I want you to call me every kind of fool under the sun. I’d gladly endure the lash of your caustic tongue for hours. Feel free to tell me I’m arrogant, cocky, and over-confident because it’s no more than I deserve.
Alexis’s eyes fluttered shut. He longed to drift into sleep, but he mustn’t allow himself to do that. He pressed his hand harder against the sharp stone and gratefully acknowledged the sting as his skin punctured. Press harder, grind the hand into the stone and concentrate on the pain. Stay awake. Stay conscious. Stay alive.
Alexis remembered the flippant remark he’d made all those decades ago in Venice. He’d been right. Pride was his greatest flaw and if this mind link to Katie no longer worked, it would be his downfall. He’d never imagined dying like this. A knife in his back or a bullet through his head would have been preferable to this slow, inexorable fade into death. He’d rather die with a bang than a whimper, but the truth was, right now, he’d rather not die at all. He had too much unfinished business.
He had always stayed one step ahead of his enemies. He had always been good at his job. Alexis Chronus the master spy. The chameleon. The powerful Alpha-Empath. No one had ever beaten him until now, and the worst thing was, he’d done this to himself. Mea maxima culpa. Again.
Your hubris led to this. Pride and arrogance costs lives in our line of business, Chronus.
Max von Lansdorff’s voice echoed down the decades. Hubris; Max had been right to judge him seventy-six years ago and, as his current predicament clearly showed, the warrior was still right. Alexis sighed. He had lost his grip and been out-manoeuvred by a man they had written off centuries ago. Draco of the House of Erebus had won again. Except Draco should have finished the job properly because one thing was certain; as long as he was alive, Draco wasn’t safe. The fat lady hadn’t sung and the show wasn’t over.
Alexis blinked into the dark. He needed to focus. Could he still recite pi to a thousand places? It was a favourite strategy he’d used many times to relieve the boredom while undertaking some tedious surveillance. Let’s see…3.141592…the minutes ticked by…118548…more minutes, where were they…9631859…death was coming for him…195778…he’d let Flavia walk away…321712…she’d gone and he hadn’t bothered to fight for her…661119…it was his greatest regret-
“This way, he’s down that passage. Yes Max darling, of course I’m sure.”
A woman’s voice, waspish and impatient. Katie von Lansdorff’s American accent was the sweetest music Alexis had ever heard. The cavalry had arrived. A powerful torch beam cut a swathe through the oppressive darkness.
“But Rafe checked down here barely an hour ago. Are you sure, Katie?”
Relief made Alexis’s heart thud. He wasn’t going to die today. Gabriel was here too.
Katie look, look carefully. Here, I’m right here.
“Gabriel, he’s here. I know it. He’s right here. Right here. This is the place.”
Alexis blinked as the torch’s beam dazzled his eyes and made them water.
“Hell, see that disturbance in the light? Look, there it is again. It’s an Empath shield. Concentrate and you’ll be able to see through it. Katie’s right, he’s here. Chronus, hold on! Gabriel, switch on that halogen lamp.”
Alexis forced himself to keep his eyes open as harsh white light flooded the tomb. He’d give anything to answer Max’s shout. Seconds later he looked into Katie’s dark-green eyes.
“Alexis! Oh dear god, what the hell happened to you?”
Alexis wished he could answer. A tear of sheer relief trailed down his cheek and Katie wiped it gently away before smoothing back his hair.
“It’s okay. You’re going to be okay. We’ve got you.”
“Katie, move over and let me get him out of there.”
Katie shuffled aside and Max’s strong hard features and sapphire-blue eyes replaced her beautiful face.
“Shit, Chronus. You’ve ruined your suit, you annoying Empath. As if we haven’t got enough on our plate without having to dig you out of a hole. Gabriel, alert Hera, we’re going to need her. Full med kit, rehydration, tox screen, everything. He’s been poisoned.”
Max’s terse, flippant words were the exact opposite of the dismayed shock and compassion in his eyes and in his emotions.
“Should we take him back to Venice?” asked Katie.
Not Venice. Please. Too many people. Too much. I can’t cope with Venice right now.
“No,” said Gabriel, “I think the tranquillity of his Tuscan house would be better for him. Hera says when Empaths are ill, they find it almost impossible to filter out the barrage of emotions coming at them. There are too many people in Venice. It might drive him over the edge.”
Full marks, Gabriel Bathory. Go straight to the top of the class.
“Tuscany it is, then. Chronus, hang on, I’m going to get you out, understand? If you can hear me, blink.” Max acknowledged his blink with a quick nod. “Good. I don’t know if you’re in pain, but I’ll be as quick and as gentle as possible. Don’t damned well die on me now. It would cause a tricky diplomatic incident and I’m far too busy to deal with all the paperwork. And it would upset Katie and I’d hate you to upset my Katie because then I’d have to hit you.”
Alexis braced himself for pain. Max kept up his torrent of gentle insults and jibes as he extracted him from the shelf-like tomb and laid him carefully on the stone floor. The three vampires had come prepared. A couple of quick snaps with a bolt-cutter and his chains fell away. Nobody mentioned the state he was in. They didn’t need to. Their emotions filled the burial chamber and told him everything he needed to know and more. Katie’s eyes shimmered with unshed tears and even Gabriel Bathory looked rattled. Alexis blinked. He must be at death’s door.
“Get him back to Tuscany. I’ll fetch Hera and the medical kit and shift straight over.”
Gabriel disappeared in a black flurry. Alexis felt no pain as Max lifted him up in his powerful arms as easily as if he was lifting one of his children.
Katie took his injured hand gently in both of hers and smiled. “You’re doing great, just hang on a little bit longer, okay? I know you can, you stubborn Empath. Hera will have you fixed in no time. Now, shut your eyes, we’re shifting out.”
Alexis obeyed. He’d always hated the way vampires travelled through space, but this time, he welcomed the roller-coaster ride between dimensions. He hung on. Time lost all meaning. Sounds and images flashed in and out of his drifting consciousness in bursts.
His bedroom in Tuscany.
Acantha’s quickly suppressed wail as she caught sight of him.
His favourite Canaletto painting on the wall opposite his bed, which depicted his waterfront palazzo in Venice.
Deft, capable hands undressing him and tucking him into bed.
Soft, smooth, cool linen sheets scented with lavender from the linen cupboard.
Hera’s beautiful, compassionate, turquoise eyes.
Dehydrated…the sharp prick of a needle in his arm…saline drip…poison…purge…urgent whispered words in the corner of his bedroom.
A hand rested on Alexis’s forehead and deep, all-encompassing calm flooded through his system. He felt warm, warmer, burning hot as Hera’s healing energy circulated inside his body. A wave of comfort and reassurance replaced the heat as it dissipated.
“Alexis, you’re going to be all right. You can let go. Sleep. Sleep long and deep. You’re safe, we’ll stay right here by your side.”
Sleep meant death. Alexis struggled to stay awake, to resist Hera’s mind, but she was a Super-Alpha Empath. The only Super-Alpha Empath, and powerful though he was, his eyelashes fluttered shut as she sent him into a dreamless sleep.
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