Well I'm here whet your appetites for Ashes of Reckoning. I'm going out on a limb and introducing a new character with a tortured past for you all to drool over. I hope you all enjoy a taste of Aston Cineris. Enjoy.
Aston’s heart pounded.
Blood curdling screams rang in his ears like a wailing alarm while the putrid scent of sulfur and ash burned his lungs. He couldn’t move.
“Aston, Expergiscere! Expergiscere!” His mother pleaded in their native Latin tongue for him to wake, but his eyes wouldn’t budge. The pressure of her tender fingers squeezed his flesh with horrific urgency, yet he couldn’t respond. He couldn’t move a muscle.
Paralyzed, he lay on a wool-stuffed mattress atop his marble bed as though something pinned him there, an invisible force holding him still, helpless in a time of crisis and need.
Could he be trapped in the throes of a lucid nightmare? How in Jupiter’s name could he jolt himself from such a catatonic state? Then Aston recalled the lessons in meditation taught to him and his twin brother, Vulcan. Their father had spent hours stressing the importance of control and restraint on a level to maintain their abilities without the interference of their basic nature. Remembering a particular moment from those same lessons, he envisioned his limbs as long roots, fusing with the earth until deeply planted into the rich soil. Then he snapped those roots and freed himself from the grip of the veiled danger with internal screams powerful enough to deafen the heavens. He willed himself awake with an unparalleled need to rise and defend his people from a threat he couldn’t yet see.
When his eyes sprang open, he wasn’t prepared for the sight that matched the sounds. But there was no time to assess, only to react. With the sleeve of his shirt, he wiped away the sweat beading on his brow and jumped to his feet.
Heat unlike anything he’d ever felt clung to the air, threatening his lungs with an infernal kiss. With visibility at a minimum, he sharpened his gaze and dashed from room to room in search of his parents.
The unmistakable sound of wheezing and labored breaths echoed through his house and the place he’d long associated with comfort was now doused in things he’d only ever seen in nightmares.
“Mater!” He shouted for his mother from the grand hall with the hope he’d catch a glimpse of her sable hair or sapphire eyes, but the odds were against him. As though the gods heard his plea, his mother’s most trusted handmaiden hurriedly crossed his path.
“Master Aston, what is happening?” she asked then fisted his shirt, a constant track of tears rolling down her cheeks.
He gave a gentle stroke to her arm. “I am not certain, Mariana. But I will find out, I promise you. Now, have you seen my mother?” he asked.
Mariana’s rich brown hair framed her angelic face as she gave a quick nod, but her walnut-colored gaze told a tale of horrors no one should ever witness. “Your mother made desperate attempts to wake you, my lord. After those unsuccessful efforts, she fled to the courtyard. But I fear the worst, my lord. All of those…screams.” Her trembling hands covered her ears.
He gripped her wrists tight, steadying her. “Leave this place, Mariana. I fear an attack from an enemy with whom we are unfamiliar. Run as quickly as you can and head for Rome. Take as many with you as you are able, and do not delay.” He placed a gentle kiss to back of her hand. “May the gods be with you this night,” he said then left her in search of his mother, but doubted he’d ever forget the terror in Mariana’s eyes.
Dashing into the courtyard, through the thick, choking smog, the image of destruction appeared. Mount Vesuvius burned in the distance like a beacon where intertwined veins of fire nourished the landmark with life. The path of flame led straight to Pompeii and threatened the lives of everyone he knew.
For a fraction of a second, a gust of wind cleared the air. Just long enough to spot his mother at the far end of the courtyard, near her treasured rose garden. Flashing to her side, he grabbed hold of her arm. “Mother!”
Her eyes welled with pink tears. “Aston! Oh, my son. I feared the worst when my pleas had gone unanswered.”
He pulled her close, as though shielding her from the terror would spare her further pain. “What is the meaning of all this? What is happening?”
Despite the chaos, she stood eerily calm. “A spell had been cast upon you, my son. One I could not lift, even with my ability. A great evil is at work here, Aston. An evil so powerful, it summoned the fury of the mountain.” She cast a cold gaze upon the fiery summit, her blue eyes studying the frightful sight, cursing the assailant beyond her physical reach.
Gripping her shoulders, he freed her from the distraction and lowered his gaze to hers. “You need to flee the city, mother. Pompeii will be lost. I will remain to see as many townsfolk as possible make safe passage to Rome. Find father and leave at once.”
She brought a gentle hand to his face, her skin as soft as a newborn always bearing a hint of lavender. Even now, in the wake of an apocalyptic event, he found her touch comforting. “Aston, you are an honorable man, always eager to fight for Pompeii and your people. That is a noble trait and I pray it remains with you always. I only wish your brother had not left with such hatred in his heart. Please tell him how much your father and I loved him, even when he believed otherwise.”
Realization settled, seeping into his heart like a painful toxin. His brow creased at what her words meant. She was saying goodbye. “You mean to stay here and fall with the city. I will not allow it, mother and as a defender of the city, I will force you to exit if need be,” he said.
If only Vulcan were there to stand beside him and talk a lick of sense into her, but his identical twin brother grew stubborn, bitter, and left his family in anger because of what he couldn’t have…the ability to walk in daylight.
In Vulcan’s defense, they weren’t completely identical. Yes, they were each other’s exact physical copy, but while Vulcan was born a vampire, Aston walked in the sunlight as something else entirely, and he carried the burden his entire life. He muttered a curse onto the night air. Gods, he could use his brother’s assistance now, providing a distraction while he carried his mother out of the city. Instead, Vulcan had a grudge to harbor.
He sensed her hand glide away from his cheek as she stood evenly beside him, peering out upon the grim horizon. “Aston, I am not simply remaining behind to fall with the city. I stay to stand beside the only man I have ever loved. For several millennia I have walked this realm, cursed with an immortal existence, devoid of emotion. I thought all hope was lost and prayed for death to take me. Then one day I met your father, a human who accepted me for everything I am and by some divine intervention, I birthed his children. When he asked to become vampire so that he could be by my side for eternity, I refused his request. But in his stubborn nature, he persisted and I could deny him very little for everything he has given me in return. You must understand, Aston, I am not giving up. I am dying beside my soul mate. Because if I had to endure thousands of years without him, the world would suffer for my loss and I would never recover.”
Shaking his head, his brow creased. He couldn’t believe his ears. “Are you saying goodbye?” he asked, his eyes blinking rapidly in an attempt to keep the threat of tears at bay.
She faced him, casting a warm smile. “I fear this may be the final time we see one another. My only regret is that we took great care to hone your abilities slowly and you have not yet realized your potential. You wield great power, Aston and I hope you discover your gifts over time.” She gripped his hand, placing a gentle kiss to his skin, her hold so tight, he was certain she meant every word. “But my greatest wish for you is that you do not have to walk through eternity alone as I had for so long. Once you find your one true companion, hold on with everything you are and never let go. That is a rare treasure worth more than all of the gold and gems on earth,” she said, releasing her grasp.
Last words. Were these the wishes of a dying mother? He couldn’t accept that, wouldn’t accept it. Just then, a gust of searing heat blasted through the city and scorched his skin with temperatures beyond measure. Crouching low to the ground, he quickly shielded his mother, sucking a sharp breath through clenched teeth as pain engulfed him. When the flare passed, his flesh healed and he rose to his feet, searching for answers. Blood curdling screams echoed for what seemed like miles and they only intensified with every investigatory step.
Thick showers of ash fluttered from the sky in resemblance of a snowfall absent winter's chill, blanketing the earth with its silent treachery. He scanned the area through the smoke and ash, when out of the dismal conditions, shadowed figures approached. “Something else is out there, mother. And it swiftly approaches.”
“Yes. This foe is a familiar one, and I apologize in advance for the actions I must take in the name of all that I hold dear,” she said.
Amidst the darkness, her eyes grew bright, glowing like the lava veins of Vesuvius. But as the figure drew near, her gaze softened. “Daeus, I was infinitely worried, my love.” She wrapped her arms around the man’s neck.
Grateful to see his father, Aston closed his eyes tight, thanking the gods. “Father, what do you know?” he asked, staring into the blue eyes that matched his own. Dark hair framed his father’s youthful face, but his usually bright eyes grew dark and the melancholy expression made Aston’s heart sink. “Apologies, my son. But I dare not speak of this sort of betrayal aloud and chance the whisper of my fears reaching the heavens. I will stand and fight for as long as I can hold them back, but you must leave, Aston. The world will speak of this night through the ages as a historic tragedy, recalling destruction from a terrible act of nature. But you will know the truth of this moment. You will ensure history is not doomed to repeat.” He placed a firm hand upon Aston’s shoulder.
Bowing his head in realization of the moment, at truth he couldn’t escape, Aston looked to his father for advice in a time of darkness. “Father…I—”
Before he could finish his words, his father arched backward, eyes widened in horror as the tip of a rival blade protruded from his chest. “No!” Aston unsheathed his father’s short sword, gripping the pommel, poised to attack, when Daeus fell to his knees and revealed the enemy.
Vulcan, the brother he believed long estranged, stood proud with erupted fangs, possessing an indescribable fire in his eyes that matched the fury of the mountain. Then, in that moment, he knew exactly who stood responsible for the destruction plaguing Pompeii. Bending his arm at the elbow, Aston slashed at his brother with all the strength he possessed and sliced a deep wound into his forearm.
Vulcan howled with laughter. “Oh little brother, your fury renders me proud. But I’m here for one thing, and if our lovely mother refuses to grant me the gift of walking in daylight, I’ll just as soon take it for myself.” Vulcan then wrapped a hand around Aston’s throat, raising him from the earth, his feet dangling helplessly beneath him just out of ground’s reach.
Aston clutched his brother’s wrist, attempting to free himself from his powerful hold. “Brother,” he choked out.
The lack of oxygen seared his lungs and the pressure from Vulcan’s strong hold reminded him of the slow pierce of a thin dagger. Though the pain wouldn’t kill him, it didn’t hurt any less. How could this monster be the brother he’d once laughed with, loved? They were raised together, played together, shared joys, sorrows and a secret no one could ever know. But the man threatening Aston’s life, his family, was unrecognizable.
In an instant, his brother screamed in agony, releasing the grip on Aston’s throat, dropping him to the ground with an audible thud. Eyes widened in terror as his father’s gleaming sword penetrated Vulcan’s side, his brother hissing between clenched teeth at the obvious pain. Reaching around to the hilt of the blade buried in his back, Vulcan effortlessly pulled the sword from his flesh.
Vulcan tossed the blade to the ground and started for his mother. Aston lunged for the man he no longer knew, but instead of attacking Vulcan, his mother stepped between them.
With gentle hands, she cradled Aston’s face. “My son, see me now. Look into the depths of my eyes and know that I have adored you since before you were born. When life stirred in my womb, I know I’d protect you both so long as I possessed the power. I will be with you through the ages, Aston. I promise.” A single pink tear rolled down her cheek.
He shook his head violently. “No. Don’t do this. Do not take leave and say your goodbyes,” he begged.
She offered a smile then, just as angelic as he’d always known. “I need for you to do something for me now. Think of those buildings in Rome. Do you recall the majestic structure erected in the center of the city? The beautiful creation we set eyes upon when last we visited? Set thought to that very structure and never return to Pompeii, for it will never appear the same again,” she said.
Peering into the eyes of his mother, a sense of calm washed over him. And in an instant, he stood on a busy Roman street instead of the familiar courtyard in his native city. “No!” he shouted to the heavens.
Tears burned his eyes and his heart broke into what seemed like a thousand shards inside his chest as he tried everything within his power, everything his parents taught him, to return to Pompeii and offer aid. But despite his efforts, his attempts failed and he feared he’d never set eyes upon his home or family again.
He muttered a curse then prayed Vulcan met his end in the fires of Pompeii, because if he discovered his brother survived the catastrophic event and dared to show his face to threaten anyone Aston held dear, may the gods help him.