A pregnant woman lay in the muck of a back alley in a small village. Torchlight flickered over her supine form and illuminated the bright blood erupting from her torn throat. The red, pulsing fountain pooled and mingled with her equally red hair.
A hooded and cloaked figure held the torch and leaned over to examine a dusty pile next to the dying woman. Light rain began to fall which caused the torch to gutter for a moment. The rain coupled with the blood gradually turned the dust, or more accurately ash, to mud. As it did, four elongated sharp teeth emerged to gleam in the torchlight.
“Interesting,” the hooded female said. “The fangs survived.”
She started a bit when the dying woman grasped her ankle. “Damn! You aren’t dead yet?”
“B-belladonna, help m-m-meee.” The woman’s voice came in a faint burble. “W-water. Heal.”
Belladonna shook her grip loose and stepped back out of reach. Even though she could see the blood flow slow, the prone woman’s grip had been strong. “You should not have come to my territory, sister. I have always been free. I don’t need your mate here. You knew he would follow you.”
“Won’t . . . leave . . . because . . . I’m . . . dead.”
“We shall see, Marala.”
Silence reigned as Belladonna watched her sister die. Finally, the blood flow stopped completely.
Belladonna shoved the lit end of the torch into the muck and left it there. Along her walk through the village back to the seashore, she dropped her cloak on the ground, as well. She walked naked to the end of a pier and dove into the salty water. Within moments her legs transformed to a shark-like tail, and she headed for the open sea.
Storms raged from one end of the Mediterranean to the other for seven months straight. Hurricane force winds crushed any ships that ventured forth. Enormous maelstroms formed where none had been before, and tidal waves drowned coasts which had always enjoyed moderate weather in the past.
Sirens did battle.
The male took the form of a great sea dragon. He raged against the female responsible for the murder of his mate. He cared nothing for the death of his unborn offspring, however. The three before it had been male, and he had slaughtered them at birth. He only cared about the pleasure his mate could give him.
Human females always seemed too fragile to him, although he found their flesh quite flavorful. They rarely survived long into the mating. Their bodies took too much damage well before he felt ready to finish.
No, only a female siren could hold her own with a male in the pleasure bed.
He determined he would have the one who’d stolen his mate from him. First he would punish her insolence; then he would make her his new mate.
Belladonna took to land to avoid her foe. Although he could take human form as well, she knew the transformation took him considerably longer. She hoped to have time to hide.
She didn’t anticipate the ambush. Five female vampires, all over two centuries old, pounced on her faster than she could react. She fought against them; a few gained vicious slashes from her talons. If there had been only two, or maybe three, she might have escaped. The siren was a match for nearly any vampire in strength and speed.
Apparently, her captors knew that and planned for it. They subdued her by sheer numbers.
Belladonna shrieked: a shrill ultrasonic and subsonic blast of sound. The vampires only hissed and growled. She realized then that these creatures were not vulnerable to such an attack. Had they been human, they would have been reduced to mindless meat puppets.
“Hold her steady!” A sixth vampire said as she stepped from the shadows. Silently, the others obeyed. Belladonna found she could not move.
The vampire stood before her and regarded her for some time before she spoke again.
“You are the siren responsible for the deaths of two of my kind seven months ago.”
“I needed them to kill my sister. She tried to hide from her mate in my territory.”
“Siren blood is deadly to my kind.”
“I did not know that at the time.”
“And now that you know?”
Belle tried to shrug, but found the motion impossible while still restrained. “It matters nothing to me.”
The vampire tilted her head and tapped her lower lip. “What to do with you, then? We cannot drain you for obvious reasons. You should be punished for your crime against vampires, yet . . .”
The siren held her silence. She allowed her muscles to go limp in the hope it would lull her captors into believing she accepted defeat. The ones who held her never moved or eased their tension.
“We will not kill you. You unintentionally did me a service.”
“Oh?” Belle said. “You have an odd way of showing gratitude.”
The vampire smiled. “You are an impressive predator; easily as crafty as one of my own. What say you, sisters; shall we initiate her into our sorority and make her a Daughter of the Dragon?”
Belladonna sneered. “I am already a Dragon’s Daughter.”
“Different type of dragon, siren,” another of the vampires said. “I agree, sister; she should be one of us, since she did our job.”
“Yes.” The other four agreed.
“So be it.” A small breeze buffeted them as she departed at blinding speed. Moments later, she returned. In her hand, a branding iron with an intricate serpentine design glowed bright red, verging on white hot.
She bared her shoulder and showed the same pattern tattooed there. “Our marks are tattoos, but I do not believe that method would work on you. There is also the matter of capturing you again every few decades to renew the ink. However, I do know that your kind cannot fully heal from fire.”
Try as she might, Belladonna could not squirm away. “Hold her firmly! I don’t want the pattern marred,” the lead vampire instructed.
The odor of burning flesh and screams of pain soon filled the night.
Hours later, the siren reached a secluded cove. The vampires had released her and vanished back into the night shortly after branding her. The burning pain on her shoulder blade made her left arm useless. She knew salt water would ease the pain and allow her to partially heal.
She also knew how dangerous it would be to enter the sea in her vulnerable state. Her adversary would sense her current weakness and use it to his advantage. The pain and wound severely hampered her ability to defend herself.
Even this cove, far removed from any human habitation, felt too exposed.
At that thought, a thick fog formed at the mouth of the cove. Belladonna eyed it with trepidation. Although she could do so, she had not called it. She scented the air, but the magic did not carry the flavor of the male she battled with.
Despite the aching pain in her shoulder it caused, she emitted a subsonic thrum to feel what lay hidden by the strange fog. Rather than a creature, the receptors in her sinuses told her a landmass had appeared where none had been before.
This puzzled her. She’d never encountered a magic like it before. She felt compelled to investigate.
To her relief, the blistered burn healed over to shiny scar tissue the moment she immersed herself to swim to the island. The fact she had to struggle with the swim frightened her, however. For the first time in her existence, her body failed to revert to its true form on contact with seawater. She didn’t know if this was because of the unfamiliar magic or the fresh burn. She’d never had a wound caused by fire before, either.
Finally, she floundered to the mysterious shore. It took her a few moments to catch her breath: yet another new experience for her. She began not to like new experiences.
She spotted a glow over a low rise. Even though it signified fire, which raised an instinctive dread, she felt compelled to go toward it.
What she saw over the rise and down in the bowl-like depression made her try to turn around and flee. Some force held her in place. An ancient, dark-skinned man sat on a rock near a driftwood fire; across from him stood the male siren. He, too, seemed apprehensive about the flames.
“Come closer, girl,” the old man ordered. “We have to sort out this little spat the two of you have been having,”
Belladonna shook her head. She moved her right hand to the new scar and shot a fearful glance at the fire.
“You will not be harmed, Belladonna. Come here,” he said.
Against her will, she felt her feet move forward. Finally, she stood by an adjacent rock to the one the old man sat on.
“How did you know my name? Why did you give it to him?” She jabbed a finger toward the male siren standing opposite her.
“I am Zeke the Elder. I know quite a few things. If it will make you feel any better, he is Xandricus.”
“You had no right to tell her that!” The male siren snarled.
“Quiet, you,” Zeke said. Xandricus opened his mouth to protest, but no sound emerged. He extended talons. Zeke pointed a finger at him. “Sit.” Xandricus dropped unceremoniously to a rock at the command.
Belle took notice of the power display. She decided to be cooperative. She sat on the rock near her without coercion. She then turned a questioning look to the strange old wizard.
“Now then,” Zeke said, “you two have caused quite a bit of chaos with your little lovers’ spat these past few months.”
“Pardon, Elder, but we are not lovers, nor have we ever been,” Belle said.
He quirked up a corner of his mouth. “You speak respectfully, Belladonna. You learn fast. I know you are not lovers. I even know what caused this quarrel. However, I cannot allow it to continue.”
He turned his attention to Xandricus. “Withdraw your claws, sea dragon. You have no need for them here.”
The male siren obeyed.
“You arrived here on Hell’s Breath first, so I will ask you first what you will accept to end this feud.”
Xandricus glared at Belladonna. “She shall replace her sister as my mate. She shall submit to me and cede her territory to me,” he stated his demands.
“No.” Belle glared back at him. “I have always been free. I intend to remain free.”
Zeke turned to her. “What will you accept to end this conflict?”
“He shall leave me and my territory in peace and never return.”
“Unacceptable,” Xandricus said. “My mate is dead because of her.”
“That is not entirely true, sea dragon,” Zeke corrected. “Your mate would not have entered her territory had you not slaughtered each of your offspring upon birth. She tried to hide to protect her unborn from you. Belladonna destroyed them both in the hopes of driving you out of her territory.”
He turned his attention back to her. “Of course, that raises the question: would he have left you in peace if you had turned your sister over to him?”
She shook her head. “It is not in the nature of the males of our species. He would have tried to make me part of his harem and taken my territory. He would deal with any offspring in the same manner: if it were male, slaughter; if female, potential incest once she reached sexual maturity.”
“Do you deny this statement, Xandricus?”
“It is my right as Dragon.”
Zeke stared into his fire for several minutes. When he spoke, it held a tone of finality. “This is my decision. Belladonna shall cede her territory to Xandricus. He shall be bound to that territory and shall not expand it further.”
Xandricus grinned and eyed Belle with a proprietary leer. His expression soon changed, however.
Zeke continued, “Belladonna shall retain her freedom and not return to her territory.”
Xandricus frowned, but said, “Very well, I accept.”
“I do not!”
“You have no more say in the matter, either of you,” Zeke declared.
The fog manifested and obscured everything from sight. Just as quickly, it cleared. Xandricus no longer could be seen.
Zeke looked square at Belladonna. She fumed, but held her silence. She had not forgotten how powerful he was.
“You have your freedom, for now, siren,” he said. “Do not bemoan the loss of your territory. The Mediterranean is small compared to the oceans.”
“And if I try to reclaim it?”
“If you return to your old territory to reclaim it, you shall fall prey to Xandricus and be bound to him until his death. I will not permit the chaos the two of you caused to happen again.”
“But I am free to swim and hunt in any other sea or ocean?”
She tilted her head. “Very well.” She turned to walk away.
“Not so fast, girl; I’m not through with you.”
She turned, but wasn’t quite able to hide her snarl of frustration. “You said I had my freedom.”
“For now,” he added the qualifier. “A day will come—I don’t know when—that you will bind yourself to a male and will be bound to him for the rest of your life, or his.”
She sneered. “I have no intention of ever doing that, and if I ever find myself in that trap, I’ll just make sure his life ends quickly.”
He chuckled at her. When his laughter wound down, he said, “You say that now; but you’ll sing a different tune when you finally meet the One. Now, let me see that nasty burn those vixens gave you.”
Obediently, but to her puzzlement, she turned to show him the brand. She felt an odd tingle as he waved his hand over it.
“What did you do?”
“Although it will feel like it, I did not remove it. I hid it. No one needs to know about it.”
Before she could thank him, the fog manifested. When it cleared, she found herself alone in an unknown body of water. To her relief, her tail formed immediately.
She quickly dismissed the old wizard’s forewarning. She would worry about that when the time came, if it came. For now, she needed to hunt.
Not until over two millennia passed did she finally encounter the One of whom Zeke spoke.