Lover Unleashed

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PROLOGUE

1761, OLD COUNTRY

Xcor saw his father killed when he was but five years past his transition.

It happened afore his very eyes, and yet even with the proximity, he could not fathom what transpired.

The night began as any other, darkness falling over a landscape of forest and cave, clouds above providing coverage from the moonlight for him and those who traveled upon horseback with him. His group of soldiers was six strong: Throe, Zypher, the three cousins, and himself. And then there was his father.

The Bloodletter.

Formerly of the Black Dagger Brotherhood.

What brought them out into this evening was that which called them to service after every sun fall: They were looking for lessers, those soulless weapons of the Omega that saw fit to slaughter the vampire race. And they found them. Often.

But the seven of them were no Brotherhood.

In opposition to that lauded, secretive group of warriors, this band of bastards led by the Bloodletter were naught more than soldiers: No ceremonies. No worship from the civilian populace. No lore or laudations. Their bloodlines might have been aristocratic, but they had each been forsaken by their families, born with defects or begotten outside of sanctified matings.

They would ne'er be but expendable flesh within the larger war for survival.

That all being true, however, they were the elite of the soldiers, the most vicious, the strongest of shoulder, those who had proven themselves over time to the hardest taskmaster in the race: Xcor's father. Handpicked and chosen wisely, these males were deadly against the enemy and codeless when it came to vampire society. Codeless when it came to killing as well: It mattered not whether the prey was slayer or human or animal or wolfen. Blood would flow.

They had taken one vow and one vow only: His sire was their lord and no other. Where he went, they did, and that was that. So much simpler than the Brotherhood's elaborate shite - even if Xcor had been a candidate by bloodline, he'd have had no interest in being a Brother. He cared naught for glory, as it held not a patch on the sweet release of murder. Better to leave such useless tradition and wasted ritual to those who refused to wield naught but a black dagger.

He would use whatever weapon there was.

And his father was the same.

The clamoring of hooves slowed and then faded into silence as the fighters came out of the forest and upon an enclave of oaks and brush. The smoke from home hearths drifted over on the breeze, but there was other confirmation that the small town they had searched for had finally presented itself: High above, on a piercing cliff, a fortified castle sat perched like an eagle, its foundation as talons locked into the rock.

Humans. Warring with each other.

How boring.

And yet one had to respect the construction. Mayhap, if Xcor e'er settled down, he would massacre the dynasty therein and assume that stronghold. Far more efficient to poach than erect.

"To the village," his father commanded. "Onward to the amusements."

Word had it that there were lessers therein, the pale beasts mixing and mingling with the villagers who had carved out plots of land and planted stone houses under the shadows of the castle. This was typical of the Society's recruiting strategy: Infiltrate a town, take over the males one by one, slaughter or sell off the women and children, abscond with weapons and horses, move along to the next in greater number.

Xcor was of like mind with the enemy in this respect: When he was finished fighting, he always took whatever he could in the manner of assets before heading off for the next battle. Night by night the Bloodletter and his soldiers worked their way through what the humans called England, and when they reached the tip of the Scots territory, they would turn and hasten themselves back downward, moving south, south, south till the heel of Italy forced them to turn about. And then it was a case of going through those many miles yet anew. And again. And again.

"We leave our provisions herein," Xcor pronounced, pointing to a thicktrunked tree that had fallen over a creek.

Whilst the transfer of their modest supplies was made, there was naught but the sound of creaking leather and the occasional snort from the stallions. When all was stowed under the flank of the downed oak, they remounted and gathered their high-bred horses - which were the only things of value other than the weapons that they possessed. Xcor did not see the usefulness in objects of beauty or comfort - those were naught but weight that bore you down. A strong horse and a well-balanced dagger? Those were priceless.

As the seven of them rode unto the village, they made no effort to mute the pounding of their steeds' hooves. There were no war cries, however. Such was wasted energy, as their enemy needed little invitation to come forth and greet them.

In manner of welcome, a human or two peeked out of doors and then quickly locked themselves back in their abodes. Xcor ignored them. Instead, he scanned the squat stone houses and the center square and the fortified trading shops, searching for a bipedal form that was as pale as a ghost and stank like a corpse coated in treacle.

His father rode up to him and smiled with a vicious edge. "Mayhap afterward we shall enjoy the fruits of the gardens herein."

"Mayhap," Xcor murmured as his stallion tossed its head. Verily, he wasn't much interested in bedding females or forcing males to submit, but his sire was not one to be denied even in whims of leisure.

Using hand signals, Xcor directed three of their band to the left, where there was a small structure with a cross atop its peaked roof. He and the others would take the right. His father would do what he pleased. As always.

Forcing the stallions to remain at a walk was a chore that challenged even the stoutest of arms, but he was used to the tug-of-war and sat solidly in his saddle. With grim purpose, his eyes penetrated the shadows thrown by the moonlight, seeking, probing -

The group of slayers that stepped free from the lee of the smithy had weapons aplenty.

"Five," Zypher growled. "Blessed be this night."

"Three," Xcor cut in. "Two are but humans as yet - although killing that pair ... 'twill be a pleasure as well."

"Which shall you take, m'lord?" his brother-in-arms said, with a deference that had been earned, not granted as part of some birthright.

"The humans," Xcor said, shifting forward and bracing for the moment he gave his stallion its head. "If there are other lessers about, that shall draw them out further."

Spurring on his great beast and melding into his saddle, he smiled as the lessers stood their ground in their chain mail and weaponries. The two humans beside them were not going to remain as steadfast, however. Although the pair were likewise kitted for fighting, they would turn and run at the first flash of fangs, spooking like plow horses from a cannon blast.

Which was why he abruptly bore off to the right no more than three strides into the gallop. Behind the farrier's cottage, he hauled up on the reins and threw himself free of his steed. His stallion was a wild cur, but was obedient when it came to a dismount and would await -

A human female burst forth from the back door, her white nightgown a brilliant streak in the darkness as she scrambled to find footing in the mud. The instant she saw him, she froze in terror.

Logical response: He was twice her size, if not three times as large, and dressed not for sleep, as she was, but for war. As her hand rose to her throat, he sniffed the air and caught her scent. Mmm, mayhap his father had a point about enjoying the garden ...

As the thought occurred, he let out a low growl that galvanized her feet into a panicked run, and at the sight of her fleeing, the predator in him came to the fore. With bloodthirst curling in his gut, he was reminded that it had been a matter of weeks since he'd fed from a member of his species, and though this lass was but human, she could well suffice for tonight.

Unfortunately, there was no time for the diversion the now - although his father would surely catch her afterward. If Xcor needed some blood to tide him over, he would get it from this woman, or another.

Turning his back on her escape, he planted his feet and unsheathed his weapon of choice: Although daggers had their doing, he preferred the scythe, long handled and modified for a holster that strapped upon his back. He was an expert at wielding the heavy weight, and he smiled whilst he worked the vicious, curved blade in the wind, waiting to play net to the pair of fish who were sure to swim -

Ah, yes, how good it was to be right.

Just after a bright light and a popping sound broke out from the main thoroughfare, the two humans came screaming around behind the smithy as if they were being pursued by marauders.

But they got it wrong, did they not. Their marauder was waiting here.

Xcor didn't yell or curse them or even growl. He lunged into a run with the scythe, the weapon balancing evenly between his two hands as his powerful thighs ate up the distance. One look at him and those humans skidded in their boots, arms bowing out for balance like the flapping wings of ducks landing on water.

Time slowed down as he fell upon them, his favored weapon striking in a great circle, catching them both at neck level.

Their heads were severed upon a single, clean sweep, those surprised faces flashing and disappearing as what had been liberated went nose over forehead, blood spooling out to speckle upon Xcor's chest. In the absence of their cranial crowns, the bottom body halves fell to the ground with curious, liquid grace, landing inanimate in a twist of limbs.

Now he yelled.

Wheeling about, Xcor planted his leather boots in the mud, drew in a great breath and released it on a bellow as he worked his scythe in front of him, the crimsoned steel hungry for more. Though his prey had been mere humans, the rush of the kill was better than an orgasm, the sense that he had taken life and left corpses behind streaming through him like mead.

Whistling through his teeth, he called forth his stallion, which bolted to him at the command. One leap and he was up into the saddle, his scythe aloft in his right hand as he handled the reins with his left. Spurring hard, he threw his steed into a gallop, shot down a narrow, dirt vantage way, and emerged into the thick of the battle.

His fellow bastards were in full fight mode, swords clashing and shouts peppering the night as fiend met foe. And just as Xcor had predicted, half a dozen more lessers came barreling forth upon well-bred stallions, lions flushed to defend their territory.

Xcor fell upon the advancing cadre of the enemy, securing his reins on his pommel, and brandishing his scythe as his stallion rushed for the other horses with teeth bared. Black blood and body parts flew as he carved up his adversaries, he and his horse working as a single unit in their attack.

As he caught yet another slayer with his steel and sliced it in half at chest level, he knew that this was what he was born to do, the highest and best use of his time on the earth. He was a killer, not a defender.

He fought not for his race ... but for himself.

It was over all too soon, the night mist swirling around the fallen lessers that writhed in puddles of their oil-black blood. The injuries were few among his band. Throe had a gash on his shoulder, rendered in his flesh by a blade of some sort. And Zypher was limping, a red stain running down the outside of his leg to coat his boot. Neither was slowed or concerned in the slightest.

Xcor pulled up on his horse, dismounted, and returned his scythe to its holster. As he drew his steel dagger and began his stabbing rounds of the slayers, he mourned the process of sending the enemy back to their maker. He wanted more to fight, not fewer -

A pealing scream drew his head around. The human woman in the nightgown was tearing down the village's packed dirt road, her pale body in a full bolt, as if she had been flushed out of a hiding place. Tight on her heels, Xcor's father was astride his stallion and riding hard, the Bloodletter's massive body hanging sideways off his saddle as he came upon her. Verily, it was no race a'tall, and as he flanked her, he caught her with his arm and threw her over his lap.

There was no stop, nor even a slowing after the capture, but there was a marking: With his stallion at a full gallop and the human flopping about, Xcor's father still managed to strike her slender throat with his fangs, locking on to the woman's neck as if to hold her in place by the canines.

And she would have died. Surely she would have died.

If the Bloodletter hadn't first.

From out of the swirling fog, a ghostly figure appeared as if it had been formed of the filaments of moisture that rode upon the air. And the moment Xcor saw the specter, he narrowed his eyes, and relied upon his keen nose.

It seemed to be a female. Of his kind. Dressed in a white robe.

And her scent reminded him of something that he couldn't quite place.

She was directly in the path of his father, but she seemed utterly unconcerned about the horse or the sadistic warrior that was soon to come upon her. His sire was entranced with her, however. The instant he took notice of her, he dropped the human woman as if she were naught but a lamb bone he'd already chewed the meat off of.

This was wrong, Xcor thought. Verily, he was a male of action and power, and hardly one to shy away from a member of the weaker sex ... but everything in his body warned him that this ethereal entity was dangerous. Deadly.

"Oy! Father!" he called out. "Turn about!"

Xcor whistled for his stallion, who came on command. Bolting into his saddle, he spurred his stallion's flanks, pitching himself headlong so that he could intersect his father's path, a strange panic driving him.

He was too late. His father was upon the female, who had slowly crouched down.

Fates, she was going to leap up onto the -

In a coordinated rush, she went airborne and caught his father's leg, using it as a way to vault onto the horse. Then, latching onto the Bloodletter's solid chest, she sprang off to the far side and took that male with her as one unto the ground, the mighty lunge defying both her sex and her wraithlike nature.

So she was no ghost, but flesh and blood.

Which meant she could be killed.

Whilst Xcor prepared himself to plow his stallion right into them, the female let out a yell that was not feminine at all: More along the lines of his own war cry, the bellow cut through the thundering hooves beneath him and the sounds of his band of bastards gathering themselves to counter this unexpected attack.

There was no immediate need to intercede, however.

His father, over his shock at being taken down from his saddle, rolled onto his back and unsheathed his dagger, the snarl upon his face like an animal's. On a curse, Xcor reined up and halted his rescue, for surely his sire would take control: The Bloodletter was not the kind of male you aided - he had beaten Xcor for it in the past, lessons that had been hard learned and well remembered.

Still, he dismounted and readied himself on the periphery in the event there were others of this Valkyrie's type in and amidst the forest.

Which was why he heard her say clearly a name.

"Vishous."

His father's rage segued into a brief confusion. And before he could resume his self-defense, she began to glow with what surely was an unholy light.

"Father!" Xcor yelled as he raced forth.

But he was too late. And contact was made.

Flames burst out around his sire's harsh, bearded face and they o'ertook his corporeal form as if on dry hay. And with the same grace with which she had taken him down, the female leaped back and watched as he frantically sought to beat out the fire, to no avail. Into the night, he screamed as he burned alive, his leather clothing no protection at all for his skin and muscle.

There was no way to get close enough to the blaze, and Xcor skidded to a halt, raising his arm afore himself and bowing away from the heat that was exponentially hotter than it should have been.

All the while, the female stood over the contorting, twitching body ... the flickering orange glow illuminating her cruel, beautiful face.

The bitch was smiling.

And that was when she lifted her face to him. As Xcor got a proper view of her visage, at first he refused to believe what he saw. And yet the flames' glow told no lies.

He was staring at a female version of the Bloodletter. Same black hair and pale skin and pale eyes. Same bone structure. Moreover, the same vengeful light in her near-violent eyes, that rapture and satisfaction at causing death a combination Xcor himself knew all too well.

She was gone a moment later, fading into the fog in a manner that was not as his kind dematerialized, but rather that of a waft of smoke, departing by inches and then feet.

As soon as he was able, Xcor rushed to his father, but there was nothing left to save ... barely anything to bury. Sinking to his knees afore the smoldering bones and the stench, he had a moment of deplorable weakness: Tears sprang to his eyes. The Bloodletter had been a brute, but as his only claimed male offspring, Xcor and he had been close.... Indeed, they were one of another.

"By all that is holy," Zypher said hoarsely. "Whate'er was that?"

Xcor blinked hard before he glared over his shoulder. "She killed him."

"Aye. And then some."

As the band of bastards came to stand about him, one by one, Xcor had to think of what to say, what to do.

Stiffly rising to a stand, he wanted to call for his stallion, but his mouth was too dry to whistle. His father ... long his nemesis and yet his grounding, too, was dead. Dead. And it had happened so fast, too fast.

By a female.

His father, gone.

When he could, he looked at each of the males afore him, the two on horseback, the two on foot, the one to his right. With weighty realization, he knew that whatever destiny lay ahead, it would be shaped by what he did in this moment, right here, right now.

He had not prepared for this, but he would not turn away from what he must do:

"Hear this now, for I shall utter it but once. No one is to say a thing. My father died in battle with the enemy. I burned him to pay homage and keep him with me. Swear this to me now."

The bastards he had long lived and fought with so vowed, and after their deep voices drifted away on the night, Xcor leaned down and raked his fingers through the ashes. Raising his hands to his face, he streaked the sooty marking from his cheeks to the thick veins that ran up either side of his neck - and then he palmed the hard, bony skull that was all that was left of his father. Holding the steaming, charred remains aloft, he claimed the soldiers before him as his own.

"I am your sole liege now. Bind yourselves unto me at this moment or thou art mine enemy. What say you all."

There was nary a hesitation. The males set upon bended knee, taking out their daggers, and bursting forth with a war cry before burying the blades into the earth at his feet.

Xcor stared at their bowed heads and felt a mantle fall upon his shoulders. The Bloodletter was dead. No longer living, he was a legend starting this night.

And as is right and proper, the son now stepped into the soles of his sire, commanding these soldiers who would serve not Wrath, the king who would not rule, nor the Brotherhood, who would not deign to lower themselves to this level ... but Xcor and Xcor alone.

"We go in the direction from whence the female came," he announced. "We shall find her even if it takes centuries, and she shall pay for what she hath wrought this night." Now Xcor whistled loud and clear to his stallion. "I shall take this death out of her hide myself."

Springing up onto his horse, he gathered the reins and spurred the great beast into the night, his band of bastards falling into formation upon his heels, prepared to go to the death for him.

As they thundered out of the village, he put the skull of his father in his leather battle shirt, right over his heart.

Vengeance would be his own. Even if it killed him.

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