CHAPTER 1 – WAR
As Layla Price strode through the opulent halls of the Red Letter Hotel Paris, her thoughts were on war. Though impressed at the Hotel’s transformation for the upcoming Litha Bonfire at midsummer solstice, the halls resplendent with flowers, she could hardly admire the sumptuous French Baroque Palace of Versailles this afternoon, nor its solstice decor. Moving briskly towards the Hotel Head’s office in the Administration Wing, summoned for yet another war-council by her Royal Dragons, Layla could feel the star-bright energy of the Bind pulling her towards her drakes as she moved down the halls.
Calling her forward into battle.
Wearing a burgundy lace cocktail dress and blush patent-leather heels, her sable curls pulled up in a chignon, Layla was comfortable in the midsummer heat of the Twilight Realm. Exquisite flower garlands wrapped around the Hotel’s columns; decadent blooms crowded the cupolas for the Litha Bonfire in two days’ time. Gilded braziers were ready to be lit, and bonfires had been set up in the gardens, the primary one right behind the Hotel. Gazing out a bank of windows, Layla saw the main edifice in the rose gardens waiting to burn – five stories tall and fashioned into a massive Desert Dragon raking talons at an unseen foe. Smiling, she noted her Royal Golden Siren and Hotel Head Reginald Durant’s intention.
That the largest fire of the night show their resistance against their enemy Hunter – when he came to attack them at last.
Turning in to the Hotel’s Administration Wing, Layla stepped quickly towards a glowing ember in her heart, joined by a bright coil of love. Her mate Adrian Rhakvir’s signature was ever-present inside her since they had re-Bound a week ago at Wahdi Atlamenta and he had been named the Desert Dragon King-Heir. Layla could feel him anywhere in the world now that they’d rejoined with the Star Bind, like they were standing in the same room together. It was like breathing golden fire through her entire body as Layla knocked on the Hotel Head’s office door with its ornate fleur-de-lis, then stepped inside.
Finding her Royal Dragon mates within.
This meeting wasn’t an official battle-planning session, only a progress update Layla had been summoned for just now through the Bind by Adrian. Layla and her men had been at it constantly this past week since Hunter had attacked the Hidden City of Petra and claimed many of their allies. As she entered the vaulted French Baroque office with its massive bay windows and sky-blue drapes, Layla admired how the office had been remodeled with oil paintings of krakens and sea-Dragons by the Hotel Head, her Royal Golden Siren Reginald Durant.
But it wasn’t Reginald who commanded her attention as she entered. Stepping away from the unlit fireplace, her primary mate Adrian Rhakvir came to greet Layla as she arrived. Dressed in a charcoal vest and trousers with a turquoise pocket square, the sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up to display his black, gold, and red Desert Dragon tattoos on his forearms. Adrian’s vivid Mediterranean-blue eyes pinned Layla with a sexy tension as he bent his tall, lean frame down to kiss her; his lips and dark stubble soft, his brush-cut hair the same as Layla ran her fingers through it. For a moment, everyone in the room disappeared as Adrian’s scorching cinnamon-jasmine winds devoured Layla, diving in through her lips as they rushed around her.
Rising with a hot growl in her throat, Layla’s Desert drakaina was just as eager to greet her primary mate. As Adrian wound Layla in his arms for a long moment, oblivious to everyone else, she kissed him back, passionately. Heat scorched her veins, lifting a wind of red, white, gold, and turquoise etheric fire in the room. Though it burned nothing, that wind swirled the drapes, flooding summer sunlight through the office as they kissed.
Until Adrian at last pulled away.
“Hi.” He breathed as he nuzzled her nose. “Glad you could make it.”
“Me, too.” Layla spoke as her heart hammered from his passionate welcome. “Give me more than five minutes’ warning next time though, huh?”
“Sure.” He answered as a small smile curled his lips.
But then Layla’s Royal Golden Siren Reginald Durant was moving out from behind his stout desk to welcome her with a kiss also; just as loving, but brief. Tender but succinct, Reginald was in business mode today as his deep waters churned through their Bind. Dressed in an elegant tan vest and trousers with gold pinstripes, his long golden hair was clipped half-back, showing his sharply exquisite features as he smiled at her – tense.
As her Crystal Dragon King Dusk Arlohaim moved in next, Layla smiled. Wearing a slim midnight blue Italian suit, plus diamond cufflinks and a Rolex that brought out the bright diamond-sapphire of his eyes, light refracted through Dusk’s dark hair as he enjoyed his kiss. Standing near the fireplace, Layla’s best friend and Head of the Hotel Guard Rikyava Andersen nodded to Layla next. Fighter-statuesque with her long Swedish-blonde braid pulled over the shoulder of her crimson 1800’s Guardsman uniform, Rikyava was armed to the teeth with obsidian Dragon-killing blades that glimmered violet.
And as Layla finished greeting everyone, she saw who was making them all irate today in the Hotel Head’s office. The Master Vampire Barone Quindici DaPonti – who gave Layla an elegant nod from where he stood before Reginald’s desk.
“Layla. Good to see you.”
“Quinn.” Layla blinked as she returned to Adrian and he wrapped an arm around her. “I didn’t know you were coming to help with the battle.”
“Reginald asked for my help. So I’m here.” Tall and regal, Quindici DaPonti was an enigma; Layla still didn’t understand him even though she’d trusted him often enough. As he turned to her, his short waves of dark russet hair were expertly styled, his onyx eyes penetratingly intense, a flash of red-copper blazing in both as he stood in the sun’s rays. Dressed in a charcoal jacket and slacks with a black shirt, he wore a blood-crimson pocket square along with a plethora of gold men’s rings. A dark nimbus of power flowed around him, devouring the light. As Quinn glanced to Reginald, returned behind his desk, Reginald lifted a straight golden eyebrow at him. From the firm set of Reginald’s jaw, his eyes a frosty blue, Layla could tell her Royal Golden Siren wasn’t liking this discussion.
Whatever it was about.
“I asked for you to organize Guard reinforcements for the upcoming battle, Quinn.” Reginald spoke now, continuing their conversation from before Layla’s arrival. “Not bring your entire Dark Haven of Florence here like you did when you arrived last night.”
“My Dark Haven Vampires make up the bulk of the Florence Hotel’s Guard, Reginald.” Quinn addressed Reginald now, returning to what was apparently an argument between them. “I have arranged for a number of Guardsmen from other Hotels to arrive in the next few days before solstice, but on such short notice, you get what you get. My Florentine Vampires are tremendous fighters. Are you saying you would refuse our aid?”
“No, I’m not saying that.” Reginald spoke sharply. “But I’ve seen how your Guard operate.”
“Yeah, brutal is putting it elegantly.” Rikyava snorted as she crossed her arms, staring Quinn down.
“Are you saying my Vampires are too brutal to have on your Hotel’s grounds?” Quindici spoke dangerously to both Rikyava and Reginald as his dark aura swirled around him. “Because you know I have my younger brethren well in hand, Aldo. They are not Revenants.”
“I know, Quinn.” Reginald passed a hand over his eyes now in a gesture Layla had never seen from him, frustrated and irate. “It’s just that Rikyava and I are already receiving complaints from allies who have remained to fight that your Vampires are terrifying them almost to the point of abandoning the Hotel and going elsewhere to wait this out.”
“Some of them are my own Guard.” Rikyava spoke up again with a severe eyeball at Quinn.
“It’s not my fault your Paris allies lack courage. Or your Guard.” Quinn spoke with a cutting edge now as he glanced to Rikyava, a scathing tone in his voice before he looked back to Reginald. “Love is war, Aldo. The Florence Hotel has never allowed perfumed weaklings in its ranks.”
“Yet we at the Paris Hotel uphold that love is love, Quinn – not war.” Adrian spoke up now from where he and Layla stood. “The original tenets of the entire Hotel organization.”
“An organization we’ve discovered was begun by Hunter.” Quinn turned his ire upon Adrian as he raised a caustic russet eyebrow, his dark aura cool as it licked over Layla’s skin. “An experiment to unite the world, but why did Hunter abandon it? Because he knew love is weak without dominance behind it.”
“You can believe that if you want to.” Adrian spoke back, matching Quinn’s dark iciness with a power of his own. “But Reginald and I and everyone else who work here at the Paris Hotel don’t see it that way. Love becomes stronger when we all work together – and power does, too. Domination only leads to fracturing in the ranks.”
“As we’re already seeing with your Vampires intimidating everyone else here in just a scant twelve hours.” Rikyava snorted again, though Reginald held a hand out to her now.
“Domination gets things done.” Quinn spoke with the deep chill of the grave as he looked back to Reginald. “It is efficient.”
“Domination is the tactic Hunter uses, Quinn.” Reginald spoke quietly now, fiercely intense. “And if you want to work that way… then we don’t need you.”
Layla held her breath at Reginald’s sudden ultimatum against their longtime ally, watching her Royal Golden Siren and the Florentine Master Vampire stare each other down. Suddenly, she understood why Adrian had summoned her, as Reginald’s powers contested with Quinn’s in the bright afternoon. A drowning swirl of Reginald’s golden Siren-energy crashed against Quinn’s dark nimbus; for a moment, Layla actually saw the two powers fight in the room with a shining swirl of water and a dark flare of energy.
As if Quinn’s dark power was trying to wrestle Reginald’s bright seas into submission, both magics heaved up in a wrathful contest, and Layla felt an old feud in it. For a moment, she felt how intensely strong Quinn was. But drawing upon the steady energies of Layla, Adrian, and Dusk, Reginald suddenly overcame their feud. And with a hammering sweep of the Bind, Reginald’s vast etheric waters rushed out.
Surrounding Quinn and confining the Vampire’s darkness.
“You master me at last, thanks to your Bind.” Quinn’s smile was cold as he stared Reginald down, and only then did Layla realize she’d been watching a battle of wills and mind-magics as the Master Vampire and Royal Siren engaged. Something Adrian had anticipated and wanted her here to help with when he’d summoned her just five minutes ago. “Fine. I will command my Vampires to be less overbearing with your people. But we are not the monsters you think us. I hope someday to impress that upon you.”
“Indeed.” Reginald spoke, easing his etheric magic around Quindici like a tsunami rolling back now. “We will have a conversation about all this once Hunter’s threat is over. In the meantime, I thank you for your efforts on behalf of the Red Letter Hotel Paris.”
“I do this for you, Aldo. Never think otherwise.” Quinn spoke bluntly then, staring Reginald down as his dark nimbus gave one last impressive swirl. And then he turned, nodding stiffly to Adrian and everyone else as he flowed to the door and moved out, closing the door so firmly behind him it was nearly a slam. A dark aura permeated the space for a long moment, as if Quinn had left some of his black mood behind to drain all joy from the day. But with a wash of sea-gold energy, Reginald banished the last of the Vampire’s power. Taking a deep breath, Reginald looked over as Adrian curled Layla to his side.
“Thank you. All of you.” Reginald spoke softly as he watched Layla, Adrian, and Dusk. “It’s not easy for me to face Quindici sometimes, and be strong with him.”
“No problem.” Adrian spoke back, as he and Reginald shared an accord that was new between them since Reginald had pushed Adrian at Wahdi Atlamenta to show his true power.
“Well, I suppose that was a win.” Rikyava spoke with a snort now, one hand resting on her rapier as if she’d wanted to use it. “Who knows what Quinn getting his Vampires to be less overbearing means, but at least maybe it won’t drive our allies off before the fight in two days.”
“So what’s up Quinn’s butt?” Layla asked, having never seen him so irate.
“The fact that he wants me but can’t have me.” Reginald spoke succinctly, though his voice was decidedly warmer now as he came out from his power-position behind the desk. Moving over, Reginald stroked Layla’s cheek with his knuckles, then kissed her lips far more tenderly than when she’d first arrived. “Quinn has desired me a long while, Layla. But he does not see himself as a person who can have true love, only dominate others, and so it frustrates him that I am no longer submissive to him. I have discovered true love with you in the Bind, whereas Quinn doesn’t understand that equal sharing of hearts.”
“But he’s helping the Paris Hotel because he wants you back,” Layla understood suddenly.
“Yes, Quinn does nothing without personal motivation.” Reginald spoke as he brushed one of Layla’s sable curls back from her face. “And while I appreciate his help, there is no room in the Bind for someone like him, who believes only in dominance and not true love.”
“Just like Hunter.” Layla spoke back with a sigh, knowing what Reginald was getting at, yet hating that every conversation turned back to their enemy these days.
“Indeed.” Reginald replied as he smiled.
Just then, a knock came at the doors; breaking the moment as Layla felt a deep wave of silver-dark oceanic energy flow through the room. As her Royal Silver Siren Fury Durant entered, Layla was mesmerized for a moment by Reginald’s twin, just as elegantly beautiful as his brother though more sensually moon-dark. With his long silver hair braided loosely over one shoulder, he was intensely poetic, dressed in a dove grey three-piece suit with a midnight blue tie and pocket square that matched his dark blue eyes. As he entered, the massive power of Fury’s oceanic Siren-drake washed him to Layla for a deep kiss before he turned to the others.
“Layla, everyone. I’ve received an update from our sister Leni just now over the phone.” Fury spoke in his musical voice, lovely as the deepest currents of the ocean.
“What did Leni say?” Layla asked, blinking to break her trance at Fury’s ridiculous beauty. Reginald and Fury’s half-sister Leniana Morregain was Queen at their clan-home of Deep Harbor in the North Sea, helping to hide non-fighters through the battle with Hunter.
“She’s found space for all our non-combatants in the Siren’s underwater grottoes.” Fury continued with a soft smile now, knowing the effect he had on Layla. “They’re being protected by her best warriors, though she says it leaves few people to send us for the fight on solstice. But as of now, innocents from Château de Chambord, Deep Harbor, the Scandinavian Blood Dragons, Manadora, and the Paris Hotel are safe undersea. As for our allies, Storm Dragon fighters from France and the British Isles have already departed from Deep Harbor. They’re en route here – though Rhennic’s making one last stop at Chambord to leave instructions for his Lightning-Strikers defending the palace.”
“My Crystal Dragon non-combatants are in our caverns also,” Dusk spoke up briskly now, adding to Fury’s report. “Our cities are emptied except those left to protect them; my mother Sky Arlohaina is coordinating the underground. And as of this morning, Adrian’s and King Lethou Mathii’s Desert Dragon non-combatants are also in our care, in caverns near Wahdi Atlamenta.”
“Good.” Adrian nodded. “Riad Rhakvir and Wahdi Atlamenta are emptied now, except for a few protectors. King Mathii and his Black Spear Dragons arrived this morning, along with Rachida, Emir, and my best Wind-Warders from Morocco.”
“My uncle King Huttr Erdhelm and our Scandinavian Blood Dragons got in last night.” Rikyava added now. “And Jenna Ostlheim and Lars Kurs in Concierge Services have rooms ready for the Storm Dragons when they arrive.”
“Good.” Fury nodded to Rikyava with a flash of silver in his dark blue eyes, the look of his Siren-drake. “I’ll contact Rhennic and let him know when we’re finished here.”
“Sure ’nuff hot stuff.” Rikyava winked back, and Layla watched them share an accord. The closer they got to battle, the more Rikyava and Fury had both become almost viciously cavalier, as if both were looking forward to the fight ahead. Dusk shared their battle-ready eagerness, and as Rikyava slapped Dusk’s shoulder, she glanced to him and Fury. “Hey. We’ve got a breather this afternoon. You two wanna practice fighting down in the Guardhall? We could work with blades again, make it some really fun trouble.”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” Dusk grinned back, though Fury only gave a nod, his eyes shining silver.
“Wait. Forbidden blades?” Holding a hand out, Layla stopped Rikyava. “The fuck? You’re going to practice with Dragon-killing weapons on my men, Rikyava?”
“Chill, Layla. We’ve been practicing with them all week.” Rikyava winked at her now, teasing but not at all apologetic. “Dusk and Fury can each withstand ten strikes per hour now. Pretty baller.”
“Dusk, Fury, why didn’t you tell me?” Astounded that they’d been doing such dangerous combat-training recently, Layla blinked incredulously at her mates as a hot wash of protective anger surged up inside her from her drakaina. As a wave of scorched bourbon-orange scent seethed from her skin, Dusk corralled her around the waist, pulling her away from Adrian. Holding her close, he sent a soothing rumble into her.
“Easy, Layla.” Dusk spoke as he smiled tenderly. “We’re doing fine. And if Hunter Binds any of the Desert Dragon King Lethou Mathii’s Black Spear Dragons against us, we’ll need to know how fast we can recover from poison. Don’t worry, we’re holding back enough that we have strength to heal.”
“I know, just…” Layla protested as she smoothed her hands down his lapels. “I worry about you. All of you.”
“We worry about you, too.” Dusk smiled sweetly as he kissed her lips. “But you’re a ball-busting powerhouse of a drakaina and we’re ovary-busting powerhouses of drakes. You’ve got to let us flex our muscles for battle, Layla.”
“Just as we trust you to do now, too.” Fury spoke up also, pinning her with his bright silver eyes.
Even though she didn’t like it, Fury had a point; and taking a deep breath as Dusk held her, Layla absorbed it. Nothing was assured in this upcoming battle at solstice; and no one’s life was, either. If they were going to fight Hunter, they had to bring it – and Layla knew everyone practicing close to their edge right now would make their Bind stronger when battle came. Still, her drakaina gave another roar of fire through her veins with a scorched bourbon-orange scent, worrying about her drakes fighting with deadly poison. But Hunter and his army of Royal Dragon Binds were deadlier yet; and as her Bound men’s energies smoothed through her with a deep, loving support now, Layla cinched an arm around Dusk, reaching out to clasp Adrian’s hand. As she looked to Adrian and Reginald and then back to Fury and Dusk, she saw a dire knowledge in them all.
That they all had to bring it when Hunter finally came for them – or die trying.
“We’ve got to bring our A-game at solstice, huh?” Layla spoke with a wry smile.
“Good thing we have an A-Team to do it with.” Dusk grinned tenderly down at her.
But even as Layla smiled back, soothed by her drakes, she suddenly felt a massive roar hit her through the Bind. Reeling, her fingers clamped hard upon Adrian as all her men staggered from that roar. And as a vision opened up through them all, Layla saw it was her Royal Storm Dragon Rhennic Erdhelm far away in the Loire Valley who had roared through them. A view of a storm-dark sky suddenly filled them; Rhennic rushing up fast into his massive Royal Storm Drake with another terrible, thundering roar.
As Dragons of all kinds suddenly came flooding out of a black rift in the sky over Château de Chambord, home of the Storm Dragons of Europe.