Emma spotted Kaderin behind Lachlain, sword in place. "Kaderin," she murmured. "Annika sent you?" Kaderin was a deadly, skilled, and unfeeling assassin. A perfect killing machine, she didn't get dispatched on recovery missions. "Lower your sword, Kaderin."
Regin said, "Come down, Em, and nobody has to get hurt."
"Kad, lower it!"
Regin reluctantly nodded, and Kaderin retreated into the shadows. Lachlain immediately strode up the stairs, reaching for Emma, but she gave his hand a withering glare and shook him off. He appeared dumbfounded.
Regin cast Emma a guilty smile. "Annika just wants you away from him, Em."
Emma marched down the stairs to point a finger in Regin's face. "So, Lachlain plans to forbid me from seeing you, and Annika plans to kill the man I'm sleeping with without even asking me if this is a good idea?" These people were treating her like the old Emma, with everyone jockeying for the right to control her. And that simply did not apply any longer. "I wonder what I plan."
"Tell us!" Nïx cried breathlessly.
Emma glared at Nïx. Rhetorical, here! She had no idea what she planned -
"He seeks you," a vampire intoned from the doorstep, his eyes on her.
Emma's lips parted. The Valkyrie did not believe in coincidence, only in fate. And sometimes fate didn't even bother being subtle.
Lachlain leapt for the vampire just as others appeared. Cass ran headlong into the fight beside him. Emma watched it all as though in slow motion, feeling the vampire's red eyes returning to her again and again.
Suddenly her back met the floor, her legs kicked out from under her.
Lachlain had tripped her? "Get back, Emma!" he roared, shoving her away, sending her flying far across the polished floor.
As she glanced up through the melee, she saw that the vampires kept their gazes trained on her.
Here for her. What if her father knew about her? Had sent them to find her?
Suddenly, dreams - nightmares - seeped into reality. Lachlain's memories.
An image of a golden-haired man flashed into her mind. Demestriu. Casually watching Lachlain suffer.
Everyone always says my features are my mother's, but Helen had black hair, black as sable, and dark eyes. The man in the dream is blond, with his sword sheath on his right, indicating he's left-handed.
Emma was a southpaw herself.
No. No way.
Lightning whipped outside. Fatalistic. That was it, she was simply being fatalistic, since this was the absolute worst scenario that could be. Her father couldn't have tortured Lachlain.
Like an acid bath, Lachlain's memory of the fire washed over her - torture that was now her own forever. His rage boiled within her, and she gave herself up to it - just as he had - to get through the pain...
She shuddered, couldn't stifle a whimper. Her thoughts grew dim, distant... She couldn't separate reality from nightmares. Like the way she somehow knew that, deep down in Lachlain's mind, utterly unacknowledged by him was a new suspicion that she was Demestriu's...
She recognized the monster for what he was. Father. Shaking, still on the floor, she gaped at her aunts fighting so valiantly, so perfectly, with all their innate grace and ferocity. Demestriu had taken their queen from them.
Lightning rained down again in a crowded volley.
Fighting all around, and she was frozen. Not with a fear of dying, but with grief and pain. Grief that what she'd wanted so badly - a life with Lachlain, and the love of her coven - was being threatened by the blood running, now itching like poison, in her veins.
Watching these heroic warriors fighting to protect her, when they had no idea what she really was, was killing her. She was unworthy of all of them.
A vampire slumped to the ground. Laughing in delight, Nïx flew on top of him, stabbing her knees into his back, and snatched his hair to lift his head, baring his throat. Poised for her deathblow. The vampire caught sight of Emma. He reached out.
She felt unclean; her veins burned. Unworthy.
But I could make it right. Or at least better.
Nïx caught her gaze across the floor. Winked at her.
"Will I die?" Emma whispered.
"Do you care?" Nïx countered, her words as clear in Emma's ears as if they were right next to each other.
"He seeks you," the thing gasped, reaching for her.
"I seek him, too." Emma wanted to take his hand, but he was so far away - Suddenly, she found herself mere feet from him.
Dizzy... Had she traced? Like a vampire. For the first time...?
Nïx slowly raised her blade, and Emma crawled forward.
She heard Lachlain inhale sharply, knew he'd spotted her. "Emma," he rasped, diving for her, then bellowed, "Goddamn it, Emma, no!"
Too late. A line had been drawn, just as with Heath. No, not drawn - it'd been seared into her mind. Lightning shot down to punctuate her decision. That which she had been born to do.
She stretched out her hand. Met eyes with the vampire.
You have no idea what you're dragging home.
Lachlain roared with fury as that thing - the last one left alive - took Emma. He couldn't comprehend it. She had sought him out?
He clenched Nïx's shoulders. "Why did you hesitate? I saw you hesitate!" He shook her until her head lolled, while she grinned and said, "Wheeee!"
"Where the fuck have they taken her?" he thundered.
One of the Valkyrie punted his bad leg, buckling it, making him release Nïx.
Cass raised her sword again. "You let them in!" she snapped to Regin. "Left Kinevane unguarded."
Regin tilted her head in Lachlain's direction. "He stole a daughter from her foster mother and kept her from the protection of our family."
"Turnabout's a bitch," Kaderin added, dropping down to collect fangs from the severed heads as trophies.
"They fucking have her!" He punched the wall. "How can you be so calm?"
"I can't feel raw emotion, and they won't indulge in the luxury of feeling sorrow," Kaderin explained. "Sorrow weakens the entire collective. It will weaken Emma herself. And we won't borrow trouble."
Lachlain shook with rage, about to turn, about to kill them all -
Suddenly, some hideous noise erupted. Kaderin put her bloody fangs away and dug in her pocket, pulling out a phone. "Crazy Frog," she hissed as she flipped it open. "Regin, you are a fiend."
Regin shrugged as Lachlain grappled with confusion. Nïx yawned loudly, muttering, "This is a rerun."
"No," Kaderin said into the phone. "She went voluntarily with the vampires." She related this information as if she were reciting a weather report, even over the growing shrieks Lachlain heard from the phone.
Lachlain's hand shot out, yanking the phone away from her. At least someone reacted as they should.
Annika. "What's happened to her?" she screamed in fury. "Dog, you will beg for death!"
"Why would she go with them?" he bellowed back. "Goddamn it, tell me how to get to her!"
As Annika screeched on the phone, Kaderin gave him a thumbs-up sign and mouthed, "Keep it." Then, as he and Cass gaped, the four Valkyrie turned for their car and strolled from the castle as if they'd come over to drop off a basket of scones. He loped after them.
The bow shot up once more.
"Shoot him if he follows," Nïx ordered.
"Shoot me full of them, then," he grated.
Nïx turned to him. "We don't know anything to help you, and I think you're about to need your strength, huh?" To the three others, she said, "I told you, we are not bringing her back on this trip."
And then they were gone.
"Where the fuck did that vampire take her?" he snapped into the phone.
"I - don't - know!"
"Your Valkyrie let them into our home - "
"That's not Emma's home. This is her home!"
"No, no longer. I vow to you, witch, that when I find her, I'll never let her near you again."
"You will find her, won't you? You're a hunter who'll be after your most prized possession. I could ask for no better." She sounded calm now, even serene. He could hear her sneering. "Yes, you go find her, and then I'll tell you what. When you bring her here safe and sound, I'll scratch my new pet behind his ears instead of peeling him."
"What are you speaking of, woman?"
Her voice was pure evil. "Your brother's neck is beneath my boot right now. Garreth for Emma."
The line went dead.
Emma felt like an offering on a dark altar.
The vampire had traced her into a dim corridor just outside a heavy wooden door. He unlocked the door and opened it, then shoved her into a room with such force that she tripped to the cold stone floor. Lightheaded from his tracing, she'd lain where she'd fallen - at the foot of a towering arched window reaching at least twenty feet high. Its glass was stained obsidian, with gold inlays gracefully twisted into symbols of the black arts.
The vampire had abandoned her with only the warning, "Do not try to escape. No one traces into or out of his rooms but him," then he locked the door once more.
She shivered, dragging her eyes from the window, and rose dizzily to her knees to examine the room. A study, a working one - with papers atop the desk - though it was dank and redolent of the scent of old blood.
Screams sounded from somewhere in the bowels of the castle, and she shot to her feet, turning in wary circles. What in the hell had she done?
Before regret could overwhelm her, memories of the fire returned. The scene was as clear as if she'd been there.
Lachlain's lungs had filled with fire, and he'd reacted more violently to that than even the skin burning from his legs as the fire grew. He'd never given them the pleasure of hearing him roar with pain. Not the first time he died, or the second, or any other time over the next fifteen decades when he'd burned and woken into a fresh hell. His hatred was the only thing that kept him remotely sane, and he'd clung to it.
He clung to it when the fires abated. He clung to it when he realized his leg alone kept him from her, and when he forced himself to snap the bone, and then when he...let the beast rise up so he could...
She hung her head and retched. He'd clung to it until he'd found her - the one he'd sensed on the surface, the one who was supposed to save him...
Then he'd fought it for their sake.
She wondered how he hadn't killed her, how he hadn't given in to the confusion and hate that mixed with his need to claim her and find oblivion. How had he not taken her savagely when his skin still burned?
He hadn't wanted her to know about his torture, and she understood why. She'd known she would have to tell him about the dream memories, but what could she say about this? That she had an apocalyptic case of TMI? That she finally knew the nature of his torture, and she was certain it was the worst any being had ever been subjected to?
How to tell him that her father had done it to him?
Malevolent, filthy parasites that belong in hell.
She almost threw up, but choked it back. She didn't think Lachlain could hate her for this, but it would burn, seethe like a tiny drop of acid on the skin. Always wearing away. Her father had destroyed almost his entire family, a family that he'd clearly loved.
Now that she knew everything Lachlain had been through, knew his thoughts, his vows for retribution, hot shame suffused her for fighting him about his revenge.
Especially now that she was about to take it from him forever.
Her resolve was, well, resolved. As she lay on Kinevane's cool floor amid all that carnage, her mind had raced. Her bitter shame had been beaten down by the notorious Valkyrie pride and sense of honor that had finally roiled within her. Unworthy. Frightened. Weak. Emma the Meek. No longer.
Because - and here was the baffling thing - now that her emotions had stabilized and she could think more clearly, she would still do the same thing.
It frightened her how determined she was about this. Yes, the old Emma still lurked in the background of her mind, squeaking about how stupid this was: Hey, how do you like my new meat pants? Now, where is that tiger cage?
True, it was foolhardy.
But the new Emma knew she wasn't too stupid to live; she was too ashamed to care. She needed to do this to make things right with her coven and with Lachlain.
Lachlain. The bighearted king she had fallen helplessly for. And for him, she'd fight relentlessly.
Her father, her burden. She'd come to slay Demestriu.
For the hellish hour it took Harmann to drive him to the private airport, Lachlain fought to keep from turning, never quite able to pull back from the razor-thin boundary - or to reason as clearly as he needed to. Vampires had Emma, and the Valkyrie had Garreth.
The curse of the Lykae. The strength and ferocity that they carried into battle was a detriment in all other scenarios, and the more they cared for something, the more the beast wanted to rise up to protect it.
He was gambling that they'd taken Emma to Helvita, back to Demestriu, though it could have been to Ivo or even this Kristoff. He'd dispatched Cass to find Uilleam and Munro and as many Lykae as they could readily assemble to travel to Kristoff's castle. Lachlain knew she would do it. She'd taken one look at his eyes after Emma was gone and finally understood.
But what if Lachlain was wrong about where they'd taken her? What if he couldn't find Helvita this time either? He couldn't seem to think now that the full situation had hit him.
The full situation. Garreth had been taken, too. Somehow captured. Somehow? After palpable demonstrations of Lucia's skill, Regin's strength, Nïx's speed, and Kaderin's single-minded malice, Lachlain knew he'd underestimated an enemy.
"They have Garreth," he'd told Bowe, calling from the car as Harmann sped down foggy Scottish roads. "Get him back."
"Bloody hell. It isn't as easy as that, Lachlain."
It was that easy. Lachlain wanted Garreth free. Bowe was a powerful Lykae known for his ruthlessness. "Free - him," he'd growled.
"We canna. I dinna want to tell you this, but they have goddamned wraiths guarding them."
Garreth, last of his blood family, behind the guard of an ancient scourge, in the hands of an insane, vicious being.
And...Emma had left him.
Purposely left him. Made the conscious effort to forsake him, and crawled to a vampire's fucking outstretched hand to do it.
No, need to fight it. Again and again he struggled to examine everything he knew about her, looking for a clue as to why she would do this.
Seventy years old. College. She'd been hunted by the vampires. It was her they wanted all along. For what purpose? Which faction? Annika's her foster mother. Emma's blood mother was of Lydian descent, she said. Helen. That's where she got her looks from.
As they neared the airport, the sun rose. Lachlain roared with frustration, hating it, wanting never to see it rise again. She was out there without him to protect her, could be staked to a field at this moment. His palms were bloodied from his claws digging into them, his arm wound unchecked.
Think! Replay anything he'd learned about her. Seventy years old. College...
He frowned. He'd met Lydian women before. They had pale skin like Emma's, but dark, dark hair and eyes. Emma was fair-haired, her eyes blue.
Then her father would be as well -
Lachlain froze. No.
"What if he's my father?" Emma had asked.
And Lachlain had answered...he'd answered that Demestriu's issue would be malevolent, filthy parasites.
Even if his mind could assimilate that she was the daughter of Demestriu, Lachlain couldn't accept that she was in his power right now, could have been pushed there by his careless words.
Pushed to go to Helvita, to Demestriu, who would tear his own daughter limb from limb while she begged for death, and never blink his red eyes.
If Lachlain didn't reach her quickly...Now he had to not merely find Helvita, but find it fast. He'd hunted and tracked through that region of Russia with no success. He might have gotten close to it last time, just before he'd been discovered and beaten bloody by a dozen tracing vampires.
He would fly to Russia and get that close again -
The memory arose of her beneath him just yesterday when her head had thrashed on her pillow, sending him awash in the exquisite scent of her hair. He would never forget her scent, had taken it into him forever from the first night he recognized her. The memory came as a reminder for him to use it.
He could find her. He had before. Put him anywhere in her vicinity, and he could track her straight to Helvita.
She was meant to be found by him.
A deep voice in the shadows said, "So let's see what my general's been after."
Her eyes followed the direction of the sound. She knew she'd been alone as of a second ago, yet now she spied him sitting behind his large desk even before he lit a lamp. The light glinted off red eyes.
Tension seemed to radiate from him, and he stared at her as if seeing a ghost.
She'd been forced to wait alone here in this eerie castle, with the screams from below erupting every so often, until hours after sunup. In that time, she'd gone through a type of catharsis, her thoughts calming, her resolve sharpening till crystalline. She felt the way she imagined her aunts did before a great battle. Now she waited patiently to end this one way or another, and knew only one of them would leave this room alive.
Demestriu summoned a guard. "Do not let Ivo in when he returns," he commanded the vampire. "Not for any reason. Do not speak of finding her. If you do, I'll keep you years without viscera."
Well. She'd grown up hearing the threats so popular among the Lore - the ones that began with if this action does or doesn't occur, and ended with then you'll suffer this consequence - but this guy was good.
Demestriu traced to the door to bolt it behind the guard.
So...no one can trace in or out, and now no one can walk out either?
When Demestriu returned to his seat, any surprise he might have shown was gone. He studied her with dispassion. "Your face is exactly like your mother's."
"Thank you. My aunts have often said so."
"I knew Ivo was up to something. Knew he searched and that he'd lost dozens of our soldiers - three in Scotland alone. So I thought to take from him whatever he'd gotten close to. I didn't expect him to be after my daughter."
"What's this guy want with me?" she asked, though she had a pretty good idea - now that she'd realized her freaking pedigree.
"Ivo's spent centuries plotting, eyeing my crown. But he knows that the one thing the Horde holds sacred is its bloodlines. He knows he can't rule without a royal tie, and he just happened to find one. In my daughter."
"So he thought he would just kill you off and force me to marry him?"
"Precisely." A considering pause, then he asked, "Why have you never sought me out before this?"
"I just learned you were my father about eight hours ago."
Some emotion flickered in his eyes, but was so fleeting she thought she'd imagined it. "Your mother...didn't tell you?"
"I never knew her. She died right after I was born."
"So soon?" he asked in a low voice, as if to himself.
"I was searching for information about my father - you - in Paris," she said, irrationally trying to make him feel better.
"I lived there with your mother. Above the catacombs."
Any impulse to kindness vanished at the mention of the catacombs from which Lachlain had clawed his way free.
"Look at your eyes fire silver, just like hers." His red gaze flickered over her appraisingly for the first time.
Uncomfortable silence. She glanced around, struggling to remember the training Annika and Regin had forced on her. Beating up Cassandra was one thing, but this was a monster before her.
She frowned. If he's a monster, then I'm a monster, too.
Hey, I don't have to live. She'd known only one of them was leaving this room. Now she knew that was at the most.
Weapons on the walls. Crossed swords hanging upside down. The ones in the sheaths were actually more susceptible to rust. Rust meant weakness. Gotta get the one without the sheath.
"Sit." When she reluctantly did so, he held up a pitcher of blood. "Drink?"
She shook her head. "Trying to watch my points."
He gave her a disgusted look. "You speak like a human."
"If I had a dollar..." she sighed.
"Perhaps you just drank from the Lykae you'd been with?"
Even if she could, she saw no reason to deny it, and put her shoulders back. "I did."
He raised his eyebrows and regarded her with new interest. "Even I refused to take from an immortal like him."
"Why?" she asked, leaning forward, curiosity ruling her now. "That was the one instruction my mother gave my aunts when she sent me to them - that I never drink straight from a source."
He stared into his goblet of blood. "When you drink someone to death, you take everything from them - down to the bottom of their soul. Do it enough, and soon the pit of a soul can be quite literal. You can taste it. Your heart turns black and your eyes redden with rage. It's a poison, and we crave it."
"But drinking from a source and killing are two different things. Why wouldn't I be warned instead not to kill?" This was so surreal. They were sharing a conversation, asking and answering questions even with the grueling tension between them, like Dr. Lecter and Clarice in that jail scene. Courteous and responding to courtesy..."And why do I get these memories?"
"You have that dark talent?" He gave a short laugh that had no humor. "I've suspected it's passed down through the bloodline. I think that's what made our line kings in the first chaos of the Lore. I have it. Kristoff has it. And has given it to every human he's turned," he added with a sneer. "But you inherited it from me?" He raised his eyebrows, as if still not quite believing her. "Your mother must have feared you would. Drinking beings to death makes you mad. Drinking and seizing their memories makes you mad - and powerful."
She shrugged, not feeling mad. Yes, she'd almost crumbled a castle in her sleep, but..."I don't feel that way. Will something more happen to me?"
He looked aghast. "The memories aren't enough?" he said, then composed himself. "To take their blood, their life, and all that they have experienced - that is what makes a true vampire. I used to seek out immortals for their knowledge and power, but I also suffered the shadows of their minds. For you to drink one with so many memories...you play with fire."
"You have no idea how right you are about that."
He frowned, thought for a moment, then said, "Did I put the Lykae in the catacombs?"
"He escaped," she said smugly.