Life Cycle (The Preternaturals Book #4)
Author: Zoe Winters
Immortality can be a bitch…
Tamara has lived nearly two thousand years, trapped by a spell of her own creation. Hunted by her enemy and former lover, she knows there is only one man strong enough to release her from the curse. But will Cain honor her death wish, or keep her for himself, whatever the cost?
Two ancient souls. Two weary fighters, torn between love and hate, forced to decide if the other could be worth living for.
Heat Level 3 of 5. Some sexually explicit content and innuendo.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Though Life Cycle is book 4 in the Preternaturals series, it can be read out of order with no problem.
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123 A.D. A hidden cavern near the waters of the Blue Grotto in Italy.
Tamar shivered with her twelve companions. They were about to attempt their most daring incantation. An opening at the top of the cavern allowed the light from the full moon to shine down on them, illuminating their secret gathering and adding its own power to the unfolding ritual.
Salt water splashed on her from a waterfall in the nearby pool. They’d searched for the water of immortality, a legend that had spread since before her birth. Far and wide, people had spoken of water that could make a person eternal and young.
But it wasn’t the water that conferred immortality. It was the creatures that lived inside the water. They were transparent and hard to see, with spongy tops and long tendrils on the bottom that could sting if you got too close. They didn’t die. Instead, they could age backward, reaching the end of their life, and then, without dying, start over again.
“We’ll freeze to death if you don’t hurry.” Tamar glared at the man in the middle of the circle. The irony of freezing to death while seeking immortality caused her to stifle a dark laugh.
“The potion must be altered with other ingredients unless you want to come back as a newborn each time. You’ll find that frustrating,” Jacob said. He was their leader and the best with potions.
Tamar made a face, but huddled closer to her sister, Naomi, for warmth. A circle of salt had been poured around them. Candles were already lit. A large stone had become a makeshift table upon which the coven leader worked. The sea creatures had been pulverized and added to an iron pot. He poured the herbal infusions into the potion.
Jacob passed a sharp knife to the person on his left. “Each of us must contribute blood to the potion or it will fail. The magic is in this creature, but they have no blood. Our blood must bond with this animal if we hope to succeed.”
“Are you sure that’s necessary?” Naomi asked. Tamar nodded her agreement. Cutting themselves and mixing their blood seemed extreme. What would be the consequences of linking together eternally?
“I am sure,” Jacob said, losing patience with their squeamishness. Magic like this had a price, and they all knew it. But the consequences always showed themselves when it was too late.
One by one they sliced the center of their palms with the ritual knife and added their blood. Jacob stirred the concoction with a wooden spoon; it smelled like death. When he was finished, he dipped a silver goblet into the brew.
“We each drink and then we chant,” he said, passing the goblet.
Tamar couldn’t help feeling pride at the chant she’d written. When they’d all drunk, they clasped hands and turned their faces up to the moonlight. The cavern echoed their words back to them. “Da immortalitatem. Renatus sine oblitus. Numquam moriens. Da immortalitatem. Renatus sine oblitus. Numquam moriens...”
And then they all died.
Tamar jolted as oxygen flooded into her body. Something felt very strange. Had the spell worked? She glanced around at her companions, each of them coming back to life one by one.
“We’re all children.”
Golatha Falls, Georgia. The Present.
Tam perched on the bar stool in her kitchen, still as death. Her third cup of Earl Grey tea cooled on the counter, ignored. Normally the warm brew calmed her nerves, but nothing would comfort her today.
She’d read her tarot cards, tea leaves, and scried with a bowl of water and sea salt. Everything she tried gave her the same morbid story. The death card glared back at her, mocking, and though she’d told many others—sometimes truthfully, sometimes not so much—that the death card didn’t always mean death, she knew this card said her number was up.
Jack—as Jacob was called now—was back, and he was after her. She fought to keep the tremor out of her hand as she raised the tea to her lips. He wouldn’t offer her a quick death. It would involve a cold stone slab, bleeding to death, and having vital organs removed. Ritualistic, because ritual was how you got the most effect out of stealing a fellow magic user’s power.
Tam had considered herself a cycler since the night she was reborn in that cavern nearly two thousand years ago. True to Jack’s word, each time they died, they came right back in their own younger body, looking for all the world to be about twelve years old—an inconvenience to say the least. Tam had been shuffled from orphanage to orphanage each time she began a new life cycle.
This last time she’d gotten lucky and been adopted by a well-to-do family who had taken her in and put her through a good school. The thought was nice, though pointless, given how many times she’d already suffered through school.
Cyclers kept their memories, their sense of continuity. They were effectively immortal, just like the rare breed of jellyfish they’d discovered so long ago.
Jack had only been actively hunting the other cyclers for a few centuries. He’d gone power hungry, convinced he could stop the cycle altogether and achieve true immortality by draining the power of his coven. Magic users aged differently—the more magic, the longer they could live. But it wasn’t just that. She knew him. He had an angle—something more than a personal quest for immortality.
If murder was his new hobby, his purpose for gaining all that power couldn’t be good. If he was going to get her anyway, suicide seemed the smarter option. It would free her to be reborn the normal way and keep her safe from a more brutal death at Jack’s hands.
But it wasn’t so simple. There were two ways she could die for real—and two ways only: at the hands of another cycler, or through magical means by a very old preternatural being, such as a demon or vampire at least a few thousand years old. Those were hard to come by, and their killing methods were usually too creative for Tam’s taste. She wanted to break the cycle, not be tortured.
Either way, she’d managed, through this latest cycle, to stifle the suicidal urge. Until now.
The image of the demon she’d chosen formed in her mind. Cain. The very first incubus. If he couldn’t kill her, nobody could. And he hated her. It should be simple enough to get him to agree, assuming she could find him. She’d dropped him in front of his badass pals a couple of times already with energy balls. He was probably plotting her death at this very moment.
Anna might know where to find him, since she was mated to a demon, but Tam hadn’t seen her best friend in three months. It wasn’t as if Tam had directions to the demon portals or a way to get through to their dimension even if she did. If Anna surfaced in the human dimension, Tam could do a spell to locate her, but who could say when that would happen? And would it be before Jack reached her?
Deep in her gut, she knew she was going to die—either by Cain’s hand or by Jack’s. As arrogant as the bastard was, Cain’s methods would at least be pleasurable. Bleeding out and organ removal versus orgasms. Gee, how do I decide? They both sound so glamorous and exciting.
Cain snarled as he passed through the portal point into Cary Town, Washington. The filmy dimensional doorway shimmered and then fizzled out of existence as he moved through the forest away from it. He couldn’t believe he’d allowed himself to be summoned by the vampire king. Half-breeds.
He’d thought his business with Anthony was finished when Cain had delivered his don’t mess with us again or there will be a war speech the last time they’d met. But now there was a bigger evil brewing, something that risked the living standards of all the factions—and possibly their lives.
Even his newly turned succubus and her werewolf mate would be at the meeting, which was going to be awkward to say the least, given that they all hated Anthony. And the feeling was mutual. How this was going to go with everybody in one room, he couldn’t say. Officially, the werewolf pack was banished from Cary Town. If someone saw them slinking through the night to Anthony’s penthouse, things would get entertaining.
The demon nodded at the guardian in the lobby of the Cary Town Luxury Apartments. This meeting was being kept on the down-low. The Preternatural Council had been shut out. Even most of the vampire king’s coven didn’t know he was fraternizing with the enemy and holding a secret meeting in his former penthouse residence. Cain stepped onto the elevator and pulled out the key he’d been given to gain access to the sixth floor.
The door at the end of the hall was answered by a vampire who looked more like a butler. “They’re on the roof by the pool, sir.”
Cain took the stairs two at a time. His presence announced itself as the metal door clanged against the brick. All eyes went to him, and he smirked.
“Well, well, looks like the gang’s all here.” And what a motley crew they were.
Anthony stood at one end of the table beside an overhead projector and portable screen that had been plugged into an outlet embedded in the brick.
At the table were several familiar faces. Beside Anthony was his human mate, Charlee. Coming around the table was Cain’s brother, Luc, and his annoying mate, Anna. Then there was Jane, the new succubus who was mated to Cole, the Cary Town werewolf pack alpha. The rest, he didn’t know.
“You’re late,” Anthony said, bristling. “We’ve been waiting, and Charlotte needs her rest. The baby takes a lot out of her.”
Cain’s eyes cut to the vampire’s mate. She was so pregnant she’d pop any day now. If this meeting was about her and her spawn, heads were going to roll. If he didn’t care about a half-breed, he sure as hell didn’t care about a quarter-breed.
“I was detained. These things happen. Lovely little school teacher. I made some third graders very happy today. Or they’ll be happy tomorrow, anyway.”
Cole growled from his seat beside Jane. “You killed a woman, you mean.”
Cain chuckled. “My god, man, what is it with you and this obsession with killing? Which one of us is the demon? Perhaps amongst your kind third graders are happy when their teacher dies. She’s… just a little spent. She’ll have to take a sick day tomorrow.”
He dropped into a chair at the end of the table where he could most easily glare at and annoy Anthony. Since Cain wasn’t killing him right now, annoying him would be the second best thing. He didn’t like that Anthony was in charge of this meeting. The vampire king was practically a child next to Cain’s eight thousand years. It should be seniority rule.
The vampire cleared his throat. “Sitting next to you is Father Hadrian who is one of mine… And over here is our resident sorcerer, Dayne, and his lovely werecat, Greta.” Anthony leered at the brunette beside the sorcerer and Greta gripped Dayne’s hand tighter.
“Therian, not werecat! You know I hate that term,” Greta hissed.
“Whether you like it or not, it’s accurate.”
“Really, Anthony?” Charlee said, an irritated expression on her face at her mate’s goading.
The vampire chuckled. “What? Is it my fault your friend is so easy to mess with?”
He took a clear plastic sheet with writing on it and placed it on the overhead projector. “I apologize for being so vague as to the purpose of this meeting. Half of you are officially enemies, but if I go to the Preternatural Council with this, my vampires will all know, and I’m not prepared for it to go public yet. We can go back to hating each other after we’ve eliminated the threat.”
Anthony flipped on the light of the projector, and an electric buzz filled the silence. “I had this letter reproduced onto a transparency for our purposes. In case the context doesn’t spell it out to you, we’ve been contacted by Jack the Ripper. He’s still alive, and he’s one of us.”
“You couldn’t just use a computer program?” the werewolf asked. Cole was the most tech-savvy of the group.
“Don’t try, it won’t get you anywhere,” Charlee said.
I’m back. You didn’t take the threat seriously last time. Shame on you. Did you not understand my joke? It wasn’t for the common people. It was for the others. Was “from Hell” not a big enough clue? It’s where we all are, after all.
When I’ve killed the other cyclers, I’ll change the world. There are 13 of us, a perfect coven. The first kill was an accident, the second an experiment. Whitechapel was only three. You were wrong. It wasn’t five. Those and others were copycats all wanting Ripper’s glory.
Since then, there have been four more, but I’ve been quiet as a mouse, giggling at my funny little games. With you in power, I thought I’d make this interesting. Only three left to kill; catch me first or Hell is mine.
Don’t mind the new trade name. The old one was stale, and this one will give you something new to chew on. A new mystery to solve. Do better this time. The stakes are higher now.
P.S. Have fun when the human media gets this letter. I’ll give you a head start. Tick, tock.
Cain read the letter on the projector once, twice, and then a third time. “Why did he send this to you? And addressed the same as the original letters? And what the fuck is a cycler?”
Anthony seemed annoyed by Cain’s tone, but he answered anyway. “I believe I’ve met him before. At previous points in my history, I’ve chosen to blend with the humans, exploring various ways of living to satisfy my boredom. During the Whitechapel murders, I worked for the London police department under an assumed name. But a few decades before that, I owned a small fish shop. All my other employees called me by the name I was using at that time, except one. He just called me “Boss.”
“There was something off about him. I suspected he was a magic user, but it was more than that. The way he gutted a fish… it was so clean. Surgical, almost. Even being a vampire, this guy gave me the creeps. But I never realized he knew I’d joined the London police or that the letters might be for me. He must have discovered what I was. He was playing games then; now I think he’s ready to end this. Which brings me to your other question. Does anybody besides Hadrian know what a cycler is?”
There was a consensus of head shaking.
“Father Hadrian, perhaps you could tell us about your experience.”
The priest poured a glass of wine from a bottle on the table and took a leisurely sip. “When I was turned in 1955, my first meal was a blonde witch—maybe in her twenties. Her name was Tamara. I left her corpse and went to hunt for more. When I returned to the church, there was a young girl, maybe eleven or twelve or so with the same blonde hair and the same eyes, wearing the same dress as the woman I killed. She told me she was a cycler. She was powerfully magical, much more so than I thought even a woman in her twenties should be. Magic users do age differently, so I can’t be sure of her age before I killed her.”
The hair on the back of Cain’s neck stood up. There were millions of women with that name, and probably plenty of blonde witches with it as well, but his experience with Tam had always been one of confusion over how she could take him down so easily with a flick of her wrist.
The demon glanced at Anna, wondering if she’d made the connection, but the idea that Father Hadrian was speaking about the Tam they both knew hadn’t penetrated for Luc’s mate.
“Anna, do you understand yet why this involves you?” Anthony asked.
Her eyes widened but she maintained her denial. “No… I… Why would it involve me?”
The vampire laughed and shook his head. “I forget how recently you were introduced to our world. Your friend has been keeping a monumental secret from you. Tam is the woman Father Hadrian met in the fifties.”
“That’s not possible. I mean… we grew up together. Since we were kids…”
“Since you were about twelve?”
Anna shut her mouth and looked down at her hands.
“That’s what I thought. She must have died and started a new life cycle right around that time. We’re still not sure exactly what that means.”
The vampire king turned to the sorcerer and werecat. “Dayne, Greta, did you do the research I requested?”
Dayne nodded. “I might have a theory. Since magic users are human, we’ve always been a wild card. Up until now, we’ve kept ourselves mostly secret from normal humans and considered ourselves part of the preternatural world, but if Jack gets enough power, he could sway magic users to his side. I think he wants to expose the preternaturals and fight. He’s absorbing power from his kills to make it easier.”
Greta interrupted. “I don’t think anyone considered there could be magical and ritual significance to the way Jack the Ripper was killing. The killings got more complex, but if he was experimenting with the most potent methods for power absorption, that would happen. He could become unstoppable if he kills the other cyclers.”
“He’ll also be a true immortal,” Dayne said. “The more power a magic user has, the more slowly they age. Considering the nature of what he is already, my suspicion is that he’d become unkillable. He wouldn’t have to start over in a younger human body like what Hadrian observed with Tamara.”
Cain stared at the table. He squeezed his eyes shut as images flashed in his mind of Tam being ritualistically and gruesomely murdered. He didn’t know why it pissed him off so much.
“Cain?” Anthony said.
The demon looked up, startled at being included in the discussion. He tried to maintain a bored mask, but he couldn’t stop his hands from balling into fists or the heat from the glow in his eyes. “Yes?”
“We need you to protect the witch in your dimension. It’s the only place we’re guaranteed she’ll be safe. This affects everybody. If he kills all the cyclers, and magic users come out of the closet, they’ll band together, which risks your demons as well.”
Magic users were a demon’s one weakness. Demons were exempt from death and could heal any injury—true immortals, but they could still be trapped by a curse. They could still feel the weakness and suffering of starvation. They could still be hurt.
All eyes were on him, waiting for his response. He didn’t know how he felt about the little blonde witch, but if anybody was killing her, it was going to be him, not some cheesy magical serial killer with a world domination plot, and not one of Anthony’s thugs, either.
“I’ll protect her,” Cain said, avoiding eye contact with the others. This was killing the shit out of his reputation. There were dramatic gasps and whispering, but he ignored it.
“Of course, killing her would be more expedient... if you could find a way to make her stay dead.” The vampire king’s tone was bland.
“No!” Anna said.
“Anthony!” Charlee said.
“I said I’d protect her,” the demon snarled, finally meeting the eyes of everyone at the table. He dared them to start something with him.
“We’ll also need you to get her to tell you everything about being a cycler. We still don’t understand how or why they exist or the extent of their powers,” Anthony said.
Cain growled. “Watch yourself, half-breed. I could take you out without blinking. I’m sure you want to survive to be a daddy.”
Charlee’s hand went protectively over her pregnant belly, as if the child were in danger instead of the cocky vampire standing beside the projector screen.
Anthony glared. “Don’t forget, I have magic users in my employ. I have a coven of vampires that stretches across North America and contacts with vampire leaders all over the world. Our numbers are far greater than yours. Let’s not make this personal. We’ve got a bigger enemy to fight.”
Cain was bored now. “Are we done here? I’ve got a witch to collect.” He stood, already turning toward the door.
“Cain…” It was the first word Luc had spoken since Cain had arrived. “Take Anna with you. She knows where the witch lives.”
That would make things easier.
Luc’s mate recoiled, gripping tight to his arm. “What? No! Come with me,” she said.
“I should stay for the rest of the meeting. My brother can’t harm you, remember? You can’t hold a solid form without me,” Luc said.
When she’d given her soul and became a demon’s mate, she’d had to die first. It made her existence somewhat ghostly. Only her mate could give her a full, solid form. Gradually, she would gain the same powers as Luc, but it was a lengthy process—centuries. Anna looked from Cain to Luc a couple of times. She finally sighed and let go of her mate.
Cain headed for the door. He didn’t bother waiting for her, assuming she’d follow. And if she didn’t, he’d just have to find the infuriating witch on his own.
Life Cycle excerpt
Used with Permission.
Copyright 2012 Zoe Winters
Zoe Winters writes quirky and sometimes dark paranormal romance (and dark fantasy). Her favorite colors are rainbow and clear. For updates on new releases and opportunities for contests/giveaways sign up for the newsletter by sending a blank email to: email@example.com (As a thank you, you’ll receive a free copy of the debut novella in the Preternaturals series: Kept.)
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