Armando had not imagined it. Each time he looked back, he could see a dark figure and it was moving quickly. He was certain the being following him meant to cause him harm. Even at such a great distance, there was a strong, negative aura pulsing in the woods.
Since childhood, Armando had been coming to this forested area. Until now, he had never felt such a malicious presence. There could only be one cause for such a disturbing atmosphere and the being creating it was now traveling even faster.
Out of instinct, Armando pushed Yohan, urging his red chestnut horse to remove them from the threat as soon as possible. Yet, as well as Armando knew the woods, he was still having difficulty getting out of them. He took some deep breaths to calm himself, hoping to also reduce the stress on Yohan. He was aware that he was transferring his panic to his horse.
Wondering if he’d put enough distance between him and the dangerous life form, Armando looked back again. Yohan chose that time to rear up, the tension being too much for the usually composed animal. Armando tried his best to remain seated but a low-hanging branch slammed into his chest. The reins were ripped out of his hands, the friction burning his palms. He went flying into the air. His shirt caught on a jagged section of a tree that had long ago rotted. Several points of the tree tore deeply into the flesh of his right arm; blood quickly darkening his crisp, white shirt.
With the speed Yohan had been going, the unwelcomed stop to Armando’s journey had stolen the architect’s breath. He fought for air, then, finding it, he stood. He gripped his injured arm as sharp pains shot through it. He looked around him, now even more concerned about what was pursuing him. His eyes landed on it and his heart pounded even more.
The creature was now nonchalantly leaning against a tree! Its humanoid form shimmered, iridescent, strangely beautiful; its colors belying the malevolence emanating from it.
“What do you want?” Armando demanded. He was angry that he’d had to run and angrier still that he’d been injured.
“Only you, Armando Medina,” came the reply. Then, the oppressive atmosphere vanished, as the figure disappeared.
Unwilling to see if his pursuer would return, Armando hurried the rest of the way out of the woods, thankful that the clearing was not too far ahead. When he was a good distance away from the forested area and believed he would no longer be followed, he stopped. The bleeding from the lacerations in his arm, particularly a three inch deep one, had become too much to ignore. He tore a large piece of his shirt and pressed it to the worst wound, hoping to stop, or at least slow down, the blood flow.
It took Armando about fifteen minutes to walk back to the Belford Stables, where he’d kept his horse for the past four years. When he arrived, gripping his arm and wearing a shirt that was significantly blood-soaked, Duncan, a lanky stable boy, rushed to him.
“Mr. Medina, how did you get hurt?”
“Yohan became frightened and threw me,” Armando responded, opting to avoid giving more details. Even if he’d wanted to, he wasn’t sure he could properly explain what had taken place. “Can you go find him?”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to help you first?”
“No, Duncan, someone else can. Please get Yohan.”
“He’s most likely by the brook, one of his favorite places,” Duncan said. He set off to find the horse.
Armando then spoke with Laura Belford, Duncan’s mother and owner of the stables. Providing him with basic care, she made him promise that he’d visit the hospital.
“Will you at least tell me what caused this?” she asked, as she cleaned his wounds.
“I’m honestly not sure,” Armando admitted, “Something startled Yohan.”
He could see there was still concern in Laura’s eyes; he tried his best to lighten the atmosphere.
“I’m surprised I don’t return injured more often,” he joked, “You’ve seen how I ride.” The quip had the desired effect, making Laura laughed.
By the time Duncan returned with Yohan, Armando had showered and changed his clothes.
“Whatever it was must have truly gotten to him,” Duncan commented, gently patting Yohan’s side, “I had to try very hard to convince him to come with me. He wouldn’t even let me ride him.”
“Thank you,” Armando said, ruffling the boy’s perpetually messy black hair, “Good job.” Duncan grinned up at Armando.
“Do you want me to do anything else, sir?”
“Not right now. I’ll just take a short walk around the paddock with Yohan. Then I’ll call you to put him inside for the night. I’ll return to the city and go to the hospital after that.”
When Duncan left, Armando focused on his horse.
“You’re alright now, aren’t you boy?” he asked, stroking Yohan’s strong neck. His horse threw his head, as if to respond, “Yes.” Armando smiled and strolled towards the paddock. Yohan followed.
Such a strong, delicious scent, Rasmus Terada thought, holding the scrap of Armando’s clothing to his nose. He looked down at the spot where Armando had been wounded. The blood had sunk into the wood and the ground. Staring intently, Rasmus reclaimed the drops, pulling them together into a ball. He put it into a crystal sphere, activating its powers. The sphere turned in the air and in it, he could see Armando.
The architect was walking with his horse, speaking to it in quiet tones. Rasmus could even hear the words. He watched intently as the man’s lips moved, wondering how the architect might taste. After admiring Armando for a moment longer, Rasmus took out a vial and most of the blood entered it. He took out another smaller vial and the remaining liquid made its way into the container. The larger vial would go to Dagmar Havad, as he’d made a request for Armando’s blood. However, the smaller one, as well as the piece of Armando’s shirt, now belonged to Rasmus. Smiling, the demon walked deeper into the forest, pleased to have fulfilled the first part of his task—and to have gained an unexpected reward.
“What happened to you? Did you finally anger a demon enough to get knocked around?”
Armando smiled dryly at being his partner’s source of humor. Then, he recounted his tale, explaining everything, except the figure that had followed him and briefly spoken to him. He’d edited the explanation to say that “something” spooked Yohan.
“And to think you left the busy capital to have a relaxing time in the country,” Jonas teased.
His body still aching from the fall, Armando settled himself into his chair. He scowled at his friend but didn’t comment.
“You don’t have to pretend that you’re not in pain, great warrior,” Jonas continued, “I’ll have Felicia send you some of her herbal tea. It does wonders.”
With banter out of the way, the two architects began their work. The sun was setting, its glow subsiding to that of the moon when they put aside their project for the day.
Before Jonas left, they discussed the progress they had made. Armando’s creative concept, sparked by the feather from the hawk, had given the design a much-needed boost. The idea had propelled the project far during the week and now they could see just how useful it had been. It added a touch of intrigue to the already riveting features.
“Soon, we’ll be able to show this to Preva University’s Board of Trustees,” Jonas said, “I think by the end of this month, we will have the final adjustments approved.”
“Do you think we’re being too optimistic?”
“No,” Jonas replied, as he put on his coat, “Thank the hawk when you see it.” Armando laughed softly, leaving the office with his friend.
As Armando drove home, he thought about the hawk. Where exactly was it? Armando had not seen it for over three days. Could it have left permanently? Armando felt his heart sink a little. He’d gotten quite used to his feathered visitor.
The vial of Armando’s blood that Rasmus had saved had proven to be quite useful. When he’d returned home, he had placed the vial in a large sphere. Now, he could easily watch Armando and his household.
On a day when Rasmus was analyzing his target’s habits, he learned that he was not the only one interested in Armando. Apparently, Izdahl Amasi, disguised as a hawk, was fixated on the architect. Realizing how intent Izdahl was on watching Armando, Rasmus decided he could use this to his advantage. He had never particularly liked Izdahl, finding him to be arrogant and disliking the power the Amasi Clan had.
Rasmus’ chance to begin capitalizing on what he had learned came a week later. He smiled when he saw a boy walking home from school. He bewitched the child, turning him against the bird.
“Stupid bird,” the little boy shouted. He picked up a rock and threw it, the force and direction of it propelled by Rasmus. When the stone met its mark, the hawk cried out loudly, lost consciousness and fell to the ground.
Letting go of his mental hold on the boy, Rasmus laughed, his blue eyes narrowing in malice. Then he returned to his research, determining how to handle the rest of his client’s task. But he was not finished with Izdahl Amasi or Armando Medina.
When Izdahl regained his senses, he found that he was too weak to move. Without enough power, he could not change to his usual form. He waited, concentrating and hoping that soon, his strength would return and he could get himself out of his predicament. He faded out again and when he awakened, he was still in the form of a hawk, unable to change. Even more problematic was that he was now in Armando’s house; the architect was peering at him.
“What happened to you?” Armando asked.
Izdahl’s wings flapped feebly and a weak cry came from him.
“I will take care of you,” Armando said in a quiet tone, hoping his voice would soothe the hawk. The reassuring words, after being repeated several times, began to take effect.
Izdahl gave into his desire to be close to Armando. Over the next week, Armando cared for him, speaking to him in soothing tones. Despite his enjoyment of Armando’s attention, Izdahl knew that sooner or later it could lead to trouble. Armando simply wasn’t ready to engage with him in the form Izdahl preferred. He realized that the longer he stayed, the more likely it was that Armando would feel a sense of betrayal if he learned what Izdahl was doing. With that in mind, Izdahl decided he would leave, now that the majority of his strength had returned.
When Armando left to run some errands, Izdahl returned to his usual form. He groaned with pleasure as his wings, spanning roughly 12 feet, unfurled. Closing his eyes, he located Viktor in the house and then telepathically contacted him. Viktor came to him, kneeling and acknowledging Izdahl, as he had not been able to do with Armando present.
“Master Izdahl, I am glad you are well…”
“You’ve done an excellent job seeing to his needs, Viktor. Thank you. Did you get the information I wanted?”
“Yes, I will have the files sent to you.”
“Have you notified my family about why I’ve been away?”
“Yes Master. Sir Syrik had some interesting comments to make about it.”
“I’m sure,” Izdahl remarked dryly. No doubt his brother would take the opportunity to mock him when he attended that week’s family dinner. He smiled, looking forward to the sparring. Then, he turned his focus to more important matters.
“Has Armando’s mindset about Nitelge made any significant changes?”
“Hmmm…You know, I feel badly about all of this deception, having you here with him but secretly working for me.”
“You’re only doing it out of concern,” Viktor reminded Izdahl, “It was a wise choice on your part.”
“Yes…” When Izdahl became lost in his thoughts, Viktor coughed to get his attention again.
“Do you need me for other matters?” the servant asked. Izdahl responded that he didn’t at the moment; Viktor bowed. Before leaving, he joked, “I saved these in case you’d like to keep them,” He held up some of the feathers Izdahl had lost during his healing process.
“Watch it or I’ll turn you into something despicable,” Izdahl laughed, giving his servant a mock scowl.
When he was alone again, Izdahl thought about his situation, hoping that sometime soon he would be able to be with Armando in the way he truly wanted. His mind was still on the architect when the subject of his fascination returned home. Izdahl changed again to bird form. He allowed Armando to hold him for a short while and then flew out of the architect’s arms. He pecked at one of the closed windows in Armando’s bedroom and frantically beat his wings.
“I suppose this means you’re better now. I’ll have to let you go.” Reluctantly, Armando opened the window and the hawk flew out. He watched until it disappeared, hoping that it would find its way to him again.
“I see my younger son has been able to grace us with his presence,” Jaxon Amasi remarked, looking pointedly at Izdahl.
The Amasi family had come together for another weekly dinner and Izdahl was finding himself the focus of attention at this particular one.
“I apologize for missing the last time,” Izdahl said.
“I would hope that you’d be more careful, sweetheart,” Hadil Amasi admonished. Her amber eyes, the centers accented with green, searched his face for any signs of distress. Though he had said he’d fully recovered from his injuries, she was still concerned.
“I’m fine, Mother,” he told her, resting a hand on hers.
“Perhaps your interest in Armando is too strong,” Jaxon stated. His steel gray eyes probed his son’s face; he wondered if Izdahl had left out additional details regarding his absence. “After all, had you not been so preoccupied with him, you might have been able to sense the negativity surrounding you and avoided injury.”
“Father I have been discreet in all of the relationships I’ve had. I have not brought shame to the family. I beg of you to respect my choice and not be so critical. I once again apologize for what happened, especially since it caused me to miss a few days at the firm.”
“I just want you to make choices that are wise for you, Izdahl,” Jaxon pressed, “There are many others who are interested in you. Yet you continue to fixate on Armando.”
The color of Izdahl’s eyes, which he’d inherited from his mother, were now darkening with annoyance. For years, in one form or another, he had been hearing this kind of comment from his father.
“I wish for him to be my life partner, Father,” Izdahl said quietly, “You know this. Surely you do not expect me to give up on him. Did you give up on Mother?”
“Your mother was—and still is—a special case. She is of the Ziyad Clan and I had long known of the stubbornness of her family. I knew how to counteract it. Clearly she has passed down that trait to both you and Syrik.”
Hadil laughed at her husband and slapped his hand.
“Well, do you deny it?” he questioned.
“No,” she responded, laughing harder, “Nor do I feel sorry about it. Now, we’ve been quite rude. Syrik and Kiana have barely said a word and it’s just not like them.” She looked expectantly at her eldest son and his wife. “What’s going on with you two?”
“We are having a lovers’ argument,” Kiana explained, “It’s about the names of our future children.”
Hadil and Jaxon looked at each other and smiled.
“I remember those kinds of discussions,” Jaxon said, “It was easy to name Syrik. Izdahl, on the other hand, almost had another name, and a girl’s one, in fact.”
“Really?” Syrik asked, raising an eyebrow. He sensed yet another opportunity to tease his younger brother. Even after all these years, it was still a pleasure to bother him.
Seeing the confusion in Kiana’s eyes, Hadil began to explain about a tradition of her culture.
“Well, you have to understand, we were told we would be having a daughter. We gave Master Farco, one of the Elders who has since passed away, the honor of using his psychic powers to tell us the gender of our second baby. We do have advanced medicine for that but…well, some traditions we just enjoy so we still embrace them.”
“Mother, I hate to rush you,” Syrik began, “However, can we get to the part that’s most embarrassing for Izdahl?”
“Mind your manners, Syrik,” Hadil scolded, “You’ll never be too old for me to punish.” Kiana laughed when a contrite look passed across her husband’s face.
“Now then,” Hadil continued, “Izdahl’s name was going to be Aiska, after the oldest living member of my clan. Once he was born, however, we obviously had to change his name. We affectionately joked with Master Farco about that mistake.”
“I’ll be reminding you of all this sooner or later,” Syrik informed him.
Izdahl sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Yet, he was glad that the topic of discussion had shifted away from his interest in Armando.
After dinner, Kiana motioned to Izdahl that she wanted to have a private conversation with him. The two disappeared, going into the courtyard of the Amasi home.
“Izdahl, I’m glad you were able to spend more time with Armando,” Kiana said.
“So am I, even if I still had to be a hawk.”
“You really care about him, don’t you?”
“Sometimes, I don’t know how you do it. He remains stubbornly against seeing me. I went to him with the intent to reconcile. I even asked him to our wedding. He threw my words back in my face, the ones where I told him I didn’t ever want to see him again. It has been almost a year since Syrik and I married. Izdahl, I had really hoped that Armando would be forgiving and appear at my wedding.”
“It might take him longer to embrace these changes but I think he will. It might help if he finds out…”
“…that he’ll be an uncle soon.” Kiana patted her stomach, which was close to showing the signs of her pregnancy.
“Are you and Syrik ready for the baby?”
“Almost. A more fun question is are you ready to be an uncle?”
“Of course. I’m not the slightest bit worried. When your child behaves badly, I’ll give him or her right back to you.”
“Any children I have will be perfect angels.”
“You ruined your chances of that by letting Syrik be the father.”
Kiana laughed, hitting Izdahl on his shoulder. He smiled down at her. She linked her arm through one of his. The two walked in silence for a while. Then Izdahl realized that Kiana’s hold had tightened. He halted their progress and looked at her face. There were tears streaming out of her eyes.
“I miss him so much,” Kiana said. Izdahl hugged her closely, trying to sooth her.
“Stay hopeful Kiana,” he suggested.
“As you have? How long have you been interested in him? The closest you’ve gotten to him is when you were injured as a bird. I mean really, is it even healthy for you to be as hopeful as you are?”
“Ouch. Do you have to be so cruel?” Izdahl gave her an exaggerated glare.
“I am so sorry,” she said, smiling through her tears, “You’ve been very nice to me, telling me how he’s doing when you go by his place, listening to me whine…”
“Maybe you should go and see him,” Izdahl suggested.
“Yes. Construction on his project for Preva University has begun. You could use that as a reason to go by and congratulate him, then get a deeper conversation going. It’s a start.”
“I think I will but maybe…not um, not right away,” Kiana said, knowing how timid she sounded. Izdahl laughed and gave her a hug.
It took Kiana over a month to work up the courage to again reach out to her brother. After a lengthy discussion over the telephone, she was able to convince him to see her. When the phone call ended, Armando let out a sigh of relief. He was glad that Kiana had contacted him. The truth was that he had missed her so much yet, until she had called today, he hadn’t been able to admit this to her.
Armando paced, nervous about seeing his sister again. It had been over a year since she’d left and he wasn’t sure how their reunion would go. He did feel optimistic because, fortunately, Kiana was not as hard-hearted as he.
Viktor interrupted Armando’s thoughts, informing him that he had a message; Kiana would be a little late.
“Is everything alright?” Armando asked.
“Yes,” Viktor assured him, “She said that she just has to make a quick stop.”
Soon Kiana arrived, carrying two surprises with her. The smaller one was a box of chocolates from the Gérard Chocolatier Company, which made and sold the finest chocolates in the country. It had been Kiana’s habit to bring a box of these for him on occasion. He realized he hadn’t eaten any of them in over a year. He had passed by the store many times but it seemed to him that the candy would not taste as sweet considering the circumstances.
The second surprise was one that momentarily froze Armando. He discovered it when he was giving Kiana a welcoming hug.
“Kiana, are you…”
“Pregnant, yes. I’m just beginning to show a little.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Well, you know now, don’t you?”
“Yes but I mean tell me sooner. You must be nearly six months along.”
“Five and no, I’m not sure if it’s a boy or girl.”
“And you thought it would be easier to tell me all of this if you brought some chocolates?” Armando asked.
Kiana twisted her mouth and put her hand on her hips. It was a gesture he’d often caused his sister to do. Seeing it wiped away the remaining tension. Armando laughed and hugged her.
Late into the night, the two sat and spoke of what had gone wrong between them, apologizing for the false steps they had taken, making plans for the future. In the end, Kiana was able to persuade Armando to take a major step, to join her for a meal with Syrik.