Isla lingered in the shadows, her right shoulder pressing against the dark stone wall of the building beside her in the middle of the large town in the free realm of Hell, a place that many species called home.
Her blue eyes remained fixed on the towering creamy yellow walls across the expansive square in front of her, never moving from them. She used what senses she had to track those who passed between her and her point of focus, ensuring no one dared anything while she studied the fort that was home to the First Legion of the Preux Chevaliers.
And their captain.
The town had grown since she had last been here, almost a century ago, continuing to spread outwards with the fort at its centre, becoming a bustling hub thanks to the sheer number of people who came to seek the aid of the Preux Chevaliers. She had passed more inns than she could count during her journey from the nearest portal, and walked along cobbled streets packed with stores selling everything imaginable. The people of the free realm were certainly entrepreneurs, taking advantage of the popularity of the mercenary vampires to line their pockets with coin.
Two vampires emerged from the arched entrance in the golden wall of the fort and she tracked them for a moment before returning her gaze to the barrier before her.
She wiped her palms on her blue leathers and took a deep breath to steady her shaky heart, exhaling it hard in an attempt to expel her nerves.
Inside those walls stood another town, a cluster of yellow rendered buildings that were more at home in Italy than they were in Hell. She smiled as she recalled the first time she had set eyes on the bastion of the First Legion, and how Grave had reacted with horror when she had pointed out that it was strange for a vampire to choose such a sunny colour for his home.
Gods, how many times had she teased him with that word after that?
She had slipped it into comments on everything from his palace to his disposition, and every time he had reacted so beautifully, turning horrified pale blue eyes on her that had gained a ring of crimson around the outside of his irises, a warning she had pressed his buttons again.
Her smile faltered and then died as she reminded herself that those days were long gone, and she was the one who had destroyed them.
Maybe if she had realised before completing her plan and leaving him that everything had been real, including the feelings in her heart, things might have been different. Maybe if she had been braver, had found the courage to return to him despite knowing how angry he was with her, how deeply he wanted to kill her for what she had done to him, she might have been able to fix things.
She looked down at her hands.
She definitely wouldn't have been fading if Melia was right and the bond between them needed to be periodically strengthened in order to keep her corporeal, and him with her.
Those hands shook and she lowered them to her sides and clenched them into fists.
Her gaze returned to the walls that looked so innocent, belying what was beyond them, tricking her into thinking it was a place of peace, not a haven for close to two thousand vampires of the most dangerous degree.
Including one vampire who wanted her dead.
It was only the morbid display of power that stood outside the gates that gave any hint of what the bastion contained.
She eyed the six tall rusted metal spikes that were set into the flagstones at a forty-five-degree angle and the corpses that had been impaled on them, dangling high above the ground. A warning to any who saw them.
Her stomach turned.
Some of them were demons, including one she recognised as being from the Fifth Realm. There was a bear shifter too, still in his animal form, and on the far right was what looked like a sorceress. The other three had rotted too much for her to tell what they had been.
The First Legion had been busy.
Pools of crimson lay below the fresher corpses, and empty shallow dips were beneath the rotten ones, a sign of how often the spikes were occupied, so frequently that the blood that dripped from them had worn down the black stone.
She pulled down another deep breath to quell her nerves and stepped out into the main square.
A passing vampire male eyed her and her courage failed and she slinked back into the shadows of the alley. She couldn't do this. She hadn't seen Grave in the flesh in decades and she wasn't strong enough to face him now.
Isla gritted her teeth and scolded herself.
She was strong enough. She had to do this. Both of their lives were on the line.
Thoughts of how he would react rushed through her mind, none of them good, and she shook as she took another step back, away from the fortress.
He hated her. Wanted her dead.
She closed her eyes and steeled herself, using the same mantra she had since leaving him.
He had deserved it.
He had killed her sister's beloved, leaving their son fatherless.
She had only done what any phantom would have in her position. She had taken revenge on the man who had destroyed her sister's world.
Isla kept telling herself it but the conviction she normally felt when she chanted it was nowhere to be found today. The cold remained, the sense of shame that lurked inside her heart still there despite her efforts to expel it.
She had only meant to use her corporeal form to tempt Grave into her trap, seducing him so he would fall foul of the effects of kissing a phantom, an act that would condemn him to becoming incorporeal. A phantom's kiss was their most devastating weapon, one used to turn someone of the opposite sex into a phantom too so they could mate with that person. Some phantoms chose to devour the soul of that victim afterwards, and others left them to drift through eternity incorporeal and unable to touch anyone.
Her stomach rumbled at the thought of eating and she pushed her hunger aside, unwilling to use the excuse of finding a suitable soul to feed on in order to escape facing Grave. She would feed afterwards.
After she had seen him and begged him to do the right thing and help her.
After she had seen him.
Gods. She shivered at the thought of being in his presence again, at the thought she would finally be close to him once more, able to smell him and see him with her own eyes, to feel him near her.
She should have left after kissing him, should have made her escape that night as planned.
She had tried, but Grave had been too addictive, weaving a spell that had held her captivated by him.
His savage beauty, his lethalness that was countered by how attentive and tender he had been to her, all of him enchanted her. Every facet.
There wasn't a part of him that she hadn't fallen in love with.
His spell had been thorough, and she believed that perhaps she had cast one upon him too. Not the spell she had meant to cast, one solely to make him suffer as a phantom, but the same spell he had cast upon her.
Had he loved her?
Was there any part of him left that still felt something for her or had she destroyed it all?
The months she had passed with him had been bliss, but the birth of Tarwyn had been a reminder the phantom part of her hadn't been able to ignore. When she had held the babe in her arms the first time, had gazed down at his face and seen Valador in him, and how devastated Melia had been by the birth of her son when she should have been happy, should have had her mate there with her, she had been filled with rage and had directed it at Grave.
The way he had reacted when she had told him she was a phantom and it had all been a lie designed to turn him into a phantom too fuelled the belief that he had felt something for her, his hurt so phenomenal she had experienced it too, hadn't been able to breathe because of it.
But that hurt had quickly morphed to fury and a terrible rage of his own, a determination to make her suffer. He was slowly taking his own form of revenge on her, and now there was a part of her that couldn't blame him for it.
Even when a small fragment of her, her deepest phantom instincts, took pleasure in how he still suffered with the knowledge he would become a phantom too, that his actions on the battlefield had a consequence and he was paying for taking Valador from her sister.
Isla stared at the grand archway in the wall, able to glimpse the elegant sandstone flags of the courtyard through it and a hint of the corner of one yellow building.
How many times had she wanted to see him again?
Now she stood on the threshold of his home, knew he was there because the black flag of the Preux Chevaliers stood proud at the top of the pole above the gates, signalling the First Legion were in their barracks.
She stood on the verge of seeing him again, and the part of her that feared him was slowly losing ground against the part of her that ached for him.
Their decades apart had been cold and lonely, filled with that constant ache in her heart, a need to be close to him again.
Whenever that ache grew too fierce, she found herself reaching for him, forcing open the connection between them so she could see him, could know what he was doing and spend time with him in her own way. She knew he didn't like it. He had told her that countless times, looking in a mirror at his reflection and cursing her.
The sensation that had come over her shortly after she had taken up position opposite his fortress grew stronger, and she knew he was aware of her and she wasn't welcome. The bond between them relayed it to her, but she clung to the tattered shreds of her courage, determined to see this through.
To face him.
If he didn't have his men turn her away at the gates anyway.
She palmed the smooth wooden hilts of the two curved short blades strapped to her lower back, snug against the blue leather of her corset, and courted the idea of fighting her way in if they tried to deny her entrance.
Probably not a wise idea.
She wanted Grave to listen to her, and harming his men would only give him more reason to kill her.
The two guards outside the gates changed with another pair dressed in fine black knee-length jackets, tight trousers and riding boots.
Gods, Grave had looked so good in his uniform, the material fitted closely to his body and accentuating every inch of it.
She shook that image away and pushed off, crossing the expanse of black stone flags between her and the gate before she could lose her nerve again. Her heart accelerated as she neared the arched entrance, thundering against her ribs.
The two vampire males at the gate eyed her but didn't stop her from passing.
Isla let out the breath she had been holding and slowed her pace as she crossed the threshold and entered the home of the First Legion. On the left and right sides of the elegant square, yellow plastered buildings with terracotta roofs and black shutters formed a line, and through the gaps between them, she saw similar buildings beyond them.
Ahead of her.
She swallowed hard as she faced the palace beyond the grand white marble fountain.
It was as beautiful as she recalled, the same colours as the other buildings within the fortress, but different in style. The façade stretched across the huge square, three storeys high, with rectangular black-shuttered windows only two metres apart, the white stone casings that surrounded them a stunning contrast against the yellow render. Between each window, a white flat stone column stretched the height of the floor, appearing to hold up the matching pale stone band that ran across the top and bottom of each level.
Words carved in Latin decorated the band across the top of the ground floor, centred above the arched entrance.
Isla made her way past the fountain, focusing on the gentle sound of the water to calm her rising nerves, and strode towards the entrance. Vampires passed her but none of them stopped her from advancing. In fact, most of them didn't look at her at all.
She wasn't sure that was a good sign.
Was Grave luring her into a trap, or did he really want to see her?