"Ah, but now you remember his torment?"
She nodded slowly. One of them was about to die. Was she prolonging the conversation to learn answers to questions that had plagued her? Or to live a little longer? Why was he complying?
"Imagine ten thousand memories like that clotting your mind. Imagine experiencing your victim's death. The moments leading up to it when you stalk him, when he explains away a sound, saying the breeze was stirring. When he calls himself a fool because the hair on the back of his neck stands up." He gazed past her. "Some fight against believing to the end. Others look on my face and know what has them."
She shivered. "You suffer from that?"
"I do." He drummed his fingers on the desk, and a ring caught her attention. The crest with two wolves.
"That's Lachlain's ring." Stolen from his dead father's hand. My father killed his.
He studied it, red eyes vacant. "I suppose it is."
He was insane. And she knew he would talk to her like this for as long as she wanted, because she sensed that he was...lonely. And because he believed these were the last hours of her life. "Given the history between the Valkyrie and the Horde, how did you and Helen get together?"
His gaunt face taking on a faraway expression, he began casually, "I had her neck in my hands, about to twist her head from her body."
"How...romantic." One to tell the grandkids.
He ignored her. "Yet something stayed me. I released her, but studied her in the following months trying to discover what had made me hesitate. In time, I realized that she was my Bride. When I seized her and took her from her home, she said she saw something good in me and agreed to stay. She was right for a while, but in the end she paid with her life."
"How? How did she die?"
"I'd heard from sorrow. Over me. That's why I was surprised she succumbed so quickly."
"I don't understand."
"Your mother tried to get me to stop drinking blood not just from a living source but altogether. She even convinced me to eat like a human, joining me to make it easier although she had no need for sustenance. And then came news of you, just as I was about to lose my crown from Kristoff's first rebellion. In the battle, I reverted to my old ways. I kept my crown, but lost everything I'd gained with her. I'd succumbed again. After taking one look at my eyes, Helen fled me."
"Did you ever wonder about me?" she asked, sounding too much like she cared.
"I heard tales that you were weak and unskilled, having received the worst traits of both species. I would never have returned for you even if I thought you would survive long enough to freeze into your immortality. No, this was solely Ivo."
She gave a theatrical wince. "Yeouch." But it did actually sting a bit, a sting that was escalating toward spectacularly pissed off. "Talk about a deadbeat dad - oh, now, that was just awful - " She fell silent as he rose, silhouetted by the stained glass, his hair as gold as the rich inlays. He awed her. Here was her father, and he was terrifying.
He sighed, looking her over, not as though seeing a ghost or a novelty, but like he leisurely mulled an easy kill. "Little Emmaline, coming here is the last mistake you will ever make. You should have known that vampires can always cut away anything that stands between them and their prize - anything else becomes secondary. My prize is keeping my crown. You are a weakness that Ivo, or any of the others, could exploit. So you just became incidental."
Hit the girl where it hurts. "When a leech like you won't have me...I've really got nothing left to lose." She stood and brushed her hands on her jeans. "Works out for me, anyway. I've come here to kill you."
"Have you, now?" He shouldn't look that amused.
His chilling smile was the last thing she saw before he disappeared, tracing. She leapt for the unsheathed sword on the wall, hearing him behind her in an instant. She dropped down, snaring the sword, but he was tracing all around her.
She attempted it herself...unable...wasting precious seconds. Then turned to what she did best - fleeing - using her agility to dodge him.
"You certainly are spry," he said, appearing in front of her. Her sword shot out like a blur, but he easily dodged it. When she struck again, he plucked the raised sword from her, tossing it clattering to the ground.
Emma's gut clenched with the stark realization of what was happening.
He was toying with her.
Alone in a great Russian forest, Lachlain stood where it had all begun fifteen decades ago. He and Harmann had landed just hours before, then set out in a truck over the rough terrain to find the location of Lachlain's capture. When the roads became impassable, Lachlain had left Harmann behind. Both of them knew that once Lachlain scented Emma, Harmann could never keep up with him.
Even after so much time, Lachlain had been drawn to the spot unerringly. But now as he circled the clearing, desperate for a hint of her, he feared his judgment had been wrong. No one had ever located Helvita. And Lachlain had been unable to save his own brother in these very woods.
His decision to take this course could end her lif -
Wait... She was here.
The first night he found her, he'd gone to his knees to scent her again. Now he raced over miles of terrain, sword sheathed at his back, heart pounding. He rushed up a steep hill, then stared out from the height.
Helvita lay just beyond him. Desolate, sinister.
Under the watch of the sun, Lachlain took a direct path there. He swiftly scaled a sheer wall, then stalked along the broken-down battlements, moving freely along the empty walk. He entertained no feeling of accomplishment for having located it at last. This was merely a first step.
He froze when he heard her voice like a faint echo, but couldn't pinpoint the source inside, couldn't make out the words. The sheer immensity of the castle was staggering, and she was in the bowels of this foul place.
He couldn't understand what had made her come here, what would drive her to do something this mad.
Had she dreamed of Demestriu? Had she had a premonition in a dream that violent night? He fought to stay cold about this, but his mate was in this hell facing the most evil - and powerful - being ever to walk the earth. She was so gentle. Was she afraid...?
No - he couldn't think like that. He'd found her, knew she was still alive. He could save her - if he was lucid, weighing, determining possibilities.
There was a reason the vampires always won. And Bowe had been wrong about it. It wasn't because they could trace. The vampires always won because the Lykae couldn't rein in their beasts...or because they so readily surrendered to them.
Emma shot backward over his desk, just missing his outstretched claws, staring in disbelief as he slashed the massive desk in two as if ripping a piece of paper.
The wood groaned as it parted, then thudded to the ground.
He appeared behind her before she'd even comprehended that he'd traced. She lunged away, but he clawed down her side, gaining a hold on her, piercing her skin. He propped her up in front of him as easily as if she were a rag doll. The torn skin of her leg and side funneled blood from her as he placed his forearms at her neck.
To take my head.
He's shielding me.
She drew in a breath and screamed. The thick black glass above shattered like an explosion. Sunlight fired in. He went motionless as if stunned that he was immersed in light. She hunched into him, using his body as cover. When he tried to escape, she fought to keep him there, but even as he began to burn he was too strong. He traced them into the shadows.
To where the sword was.
She dropped down, snatched the sword, and sprang up behind him. She plunged it into his torso, nearly gagging as she carved through bone, then forced herself to twist it inside him as she'd been taught.
He fell. She yanked the sword clear, leapt over him for another blow, and found him staring up at her with utter shock.
He struggled to one knee, which scared the hell out of her, so she rammed the sword back in, through his heart, as hard as she could. The force sent him reeling to his back and planted him on the stone floor.
Pinned through the heart, he lay writhing. He wouldn't die like this. She knew she had to take off his head as well. She limped to the other sword, shaking as she drew it down, still disbelieving what had just happened, what was about to happen. When she returned, her face scrunched up. Blackened blood pooled all around him. She'd have to step through it.
His face was changing, softening, becoming less macabre. The tight planes and shadows dissipated.
He opened his eyes...and they were blue as the sky.
"No...mean for you...to kill me."
"Why?" she cried. "Why would you say that?"
"Hunger at bay. Memories at bay. No memories of their horror of...me."
Pounding on the door.
He bellowed, "Leave us be." Then to her, he lowered his voice to say, "Sever head. Waist. Legs. Or I can still rise... Furie's mistake."
Furie? "Did you kill her?" she shrieked.
"No, tortured. She wasn't supposed to endure this long..."
"Where is she?"
"Never knew. Lothaire saw to it. Head, waist, legs."
"I can't think!" She paced. By Freya, Furie did live.
"Emmaline, do it!"
"Listen, I'm doing the best I can!" He wasn't supposed to go all Darth Vader, not supposed to direct her how to really, really kill him. The head was one thing, but the waist and the legs? Had he truly become that powerful? "And your impatience is not helping the situation!"
"Your mother died of sorrow...because we couldn't make it stop. You can end this."
With a deep breath, she stood over him, choking up on the handle. Yes, like baseball. Never played baseball, freak. Oh, yeah. Kaderin always holds her swords loosely, wrists fluid. I am so not Kaderin. Think like the vampires. What is standing between you and the one you love and your family? Three clean chops. Just three swings.
The more beseeching he appeared, the harder this became. His eyes were clear, his face rid of the twisting menace from before. He didn't look evil now. Just a creature in pain. She dropped to her knees beside him, heedless of the blood. "What about some kind of, like, rehabilitation - "
"Do it, daughter." He snapped his teeth at her, sending her scrambling back. More pounding on the door. "They can't trace into my lair, but they can break down that door...And when they do, they will catch you and hold you for food...until you die of sorrow. Or Ivo will make you kill and turn you."
Oh, hell, no.
"I will feed and...heal. Turn again and never stop until I've killed...the Lykae. Slaughtered his...clan."
That's my clan, too. The door was bowing now, wood splintering. The Instinct whispered, Protect it.
"I'm really sorry to have to do this."
A shadow of a smile, then he grimaced in pain. "Emma the Unlikely...the killer of kings."
She raised the sword and took aim, tears pouring from her as quickly as the blood from her leg wound.
"Wait! Emmaline, the head first...if you please."
"Oh, my duh." She gave him a sheepish, watery grin. "Good-bye...Father."
He shut his eyes and she swung. She got through enough to knock him out, but sadly, this sword blew - so dull she had to hack three more times at his neck to sever it. Then his waist took forever. She was streaked with blood before she even reached his legs.
The Mob was dead-on to call this stuff wet-works.
Just as she finished with the last of him, the door burst open. She hissed.
Ivo. She remembered him from Lachlain's memories. She lifted her sword again. Hey, as long as she was in the neighborhood...
Why was he looking at her that way, red eyes glued to her? As though he adored her for her kill. It was chilling. He asked in an unsteady tone, "Are you truly Emmaline?"
When more vampires crowded the door behind him, she realized one assassination might be enough for the day. She ripped Lachlain's ring from Demestriu's finger, then put her shoulders back. Myst always said, "It's not if you castrate an entire Roman legion, it's if they believe you did. Perception is everything."
In a voice ringing with strength she didn't have, she said, "I am Emma." Own it, own it. "The king killer."
"I knew you would be like this." He crossed toward her. "I knew it."
She raised her sword that totally sucked as if it were Excalibur. "No closer, Ivo."
"I've searched for you, Emmaline. Searched for years, ever since I heard rumors of your existence. I want you to be my queen."
"Yeah, I get that a lot," she said, wiping her face on her sleeve. There were two options. Into their hands, or out the window into the sun. "But I've already accepted a position elsewhere."
Maybe she could trace - hadn't been able to during the fight, but damn it, she'd done it once. She could disappear before she even hit the ground outside. In theory. But she was weak from Demestriu's attack. Couldn't go to Lachlain. Blood running freely. You only went a few feet last time - not around the world...
One for two in terms of tracing. Didn't know if she could. About to bet the farm... But when they charged, she hissed weakly and jumped.
Flying! Tracing! No...
Landing on her ass in a bush. Spitting leaves in the sun. She leapt up, running for cover. She closed her eyes to the pain and thought of the bayou... Still thinking. Bayou! Coolness. Wet.
Her skin caught fire.
One of his eardrums had ruptured from her scream even as he fought to follow the sound. Then, in a last echo through the castle, it was gone. His heart had seemed to stop with it, but he'd sprinted on in the same direction, following the winding stairs. Lachlain remembered that Demestriu's rooms were located high in the castle, and he charged ever upward.
Now he heard only his own ragged breaths. He tried to scent her, but the odor of copious amounts of blood drowned all other smells.
At the landing of the top floor, he slowed to stalk in the shadows. The kill was imminent. He was almost at the door. He would save her, take her from this place -
He scarcely comprehended the sight. Demestriu lay butchered.
He saw Ivo lunge, reaching into a shaft of sunlight as though he'd dropped a treasure from the window. "No!" Ivo bellowed. "Not into the sun!" He leapt back out of the light. "Traced away!" He visibly sagged with relief as he rubbed his skin, then his blinded eyes.
Ivo turned to his two henchmen. "She lives. Now, get the video! I want to find out everything about her."
Lachlain was stunned. She couldn't have jumped into the sun...
He charged into the room, diving for the window, but saw only the empty field. She had truly disappeared. His mind was in turmoil. Had she killed Demestriu? Had she traced to safety? To Kinevane?
Behind him, Lachlain heard a sword being drawn.
"Back from the dead?" Ivo asked pleasantly.
Lachlain turned in time to see Ivo glance at the door to the adjoining room, through which the others had apparently exited. To get a video? Lachlain had learned there were surveillance cameras that were capable of secretly filming. "You spy on your king?"
"Of course. Why ignore the benefits of the modern age?"
"But now you're alone." Lachlain bared his fangs with pleasure. "You've got to fight me on your own. No' with the help of a dozen. Unless you want to trace from me?"
Lachlain burned to rush home, but Ivo, he realized, posed a considerable threat to Emma. She might not have needed Lachlain to kill Demestriu - she apparently had done that - and there was no need for rescue. But seeing the fanatical look in Ivo's eyes, Lachlain knew he would never stop sending out his minions to hunt her.
Ivo raked his gaze over Lachlain's injured arm, appraising his opponent. "No, I'll stay and fight for this one," he said. "I heard you think she's yours."
"There's no doubt of it."
"She assassinated my nemesis when no one else could, and is the key to my crown." Ivo's voice was low, thrumming as though in wonder. "That means she belongs to me. I will find her. I don't care what it takes, I will find her again - "
"No' while I live." He gripped his sword hilt in his left hand and charged, striking at Ivo's head. Ivo blocked and their swords crossed, ringing.
Several more charges, each parried. Lachlain was out of practice, especially with his left hand. He sensed the other two returning and growled in fury, blocking a stroke from the back and slashing out with his claws, dropping one of the henchmen.
The other two put Lachlain between them. Before he could even register what had happened, Ivo traced to mere inches from Lachlain, slashing out with his sword, then tracing away. The blow ripped across Lachlain's shoulder and chest, sending him spinning to the ground.
Damp ivy. Oak trees. Home. She'd somehow made it.
Or at least to the grounds of Val Hall. But her skin still smoked, and she was weak as a babe from her injuries. How much blood had she lost? Had she made it so far just to die at dawn?
She tried to roll over in order to crawl, but failed. The effort made her vision go blurry. When it finally cleared, she spied a massive, black-haired man peering down at her. Brows drawn, he scooped her up into his arms, then began walking up the long drive to the manor. Emma thought this was the drive. She could also be mistaken that it was a man.
"Easy, girl. I know you are Emmaline. Your aunts have been worried." Deep voice. Strange accent. European and moneyed. "I am Nikolai Wroth."
Why did that name sound so familiar? She squinted up at him. "You are a friend of my aunts?" she said, her voice sounding faint.
"With one. And it seems only one." A short laugh with no humor. "Myst is my wife."
"Myst married?" Was that where she'd been? No, no way. "That's funny."
"The jest's on me, I'm afraid." As they reached the manor, he bellowed, "Annika, call off the goddamn wraiths and let me in."
Emma stared up at the sky, seeing swirling red swaths of ragged cloth circling the house. Occasionally she spied a gaunt, skeletal face, but it would change to beauty if you met its eyes.
The price for their protection was hair from each of the Valkyrie within. The wraiths wove each lock into a massive braid, and when it grew long enough, they bent all living Valkyrie to their will for a time.
"Myst hasn't returned yet," someone called from the house. "But you know that, or else you'd both be naked and fornicating on the front lawn."
"The night's young. Give us time." To himself, he murmured, "And it was a field a mile away."
"Don't you have a tanning appointment to go to, vampire?"
Emma stiffened. Vampire? But his eyes weren't red. "Did you follow me?"
"No, I was awaiting Myst's return from shopping and sensed you trace into the woods."
A vampire waiting for Myst? He'd said she was his wife. She sucked in a breath. "You're the general, aren't you," she whispered. "The one Myst had to be pried from?"
She thought the corners of his lips quirked. "Is that what you heard?" At her solemn nod, he said, "It was mutual, I assure you." He glanced away down the drive, as if willing Myst to return, and said almost to himself, "How much lingerie can one female need...?"
Suddenly Annika was shrieking, running for her, vowing to kill him ever so slowly.
Amazingly, his body was still relaxed. "If you do not cease trying to take off my head, Annika, we will have words."
"What have you done to her?" she cried.
"Obviously, I clawed her, bloodied her, and burned her, and now, oddly, I offer her up to you."
"No, Annika," Emma said. "He found me. Don't kill him."
Through heavy-lidded eyes, Emma saw Myst returning then, dropping shopping bags full of lace - and leather - to run toward them in all her heart-stopping beauty. Gaze locked on Myst, the vampire finally tensed, and his heart sped up, beating loud like a drum.
Then Emma felt a very decisive yank as she went from his arms to Annika's.
"I was on fire," Emma told her. "I slew Demestriu."
"Of course, you did. Shhh, you are unwell."
When Myst reached them, she pressed a kiss on Emma's forehead.
"Myst, he found me," Emma said. "You shouldn't kill him."
"I'll try to refrain, my sweet," Myst answered in a wry tone. Curiously, no one raised a sword against this vampire.
The others gathered round until she was surrounded by her coven. When Annika stroked her face, Emma succumbed to the blackness.
Lachlain hauled himself to his feet, then sagged against the castle wall, still holding his sword out.
"Perhaps I shouldn't have pushed so hard to have you tortured," Ivo said. "But I can't tell you how many nights have been gladdened by the thought of your skin cooked from your bones."
He was baiting Lachlain, stirring up the beast to render him thoughtless.
"I can't let you leave here alive. A Lykae after his mate..." Ivo tsked. "Annoyingly tenacious. You'd keep coming long after she's forgotten you. And she will forget you. I'll force her to take necks until you're a distant memory."
Trying to enrage him. Vampires always sought to trigger the beast.
"Now that I've found the key to turning demons, I can turn her fully as well. A true vampire - a true killer. She was made for it."
Stir the beast. Why not give him what he wanted?
Ivo smirked, so confident. "The first neck she takes will be my own."
Lachlain cast his sword at the henchman like a dagger, nailing him through the neck. Then, with a mindless roar, Lachlain charged Ivo. As he'd known it would, Ivo's sword shot out for a killing blow. Lachlain struck it down with his fist, sending it plunging into his own thigh. He left it wedged there, pleased, and let the beast free. The sounds of cracking, tearing... Through the haze, Lachlain saw Ivo's long, sadistic existence end with horror in his eyes.
Lachlain growled with satisfaction and dropped his body. He worked Ivo's sword free of his leg, and then his own sword from the remaining henchman's neck. "Video," he snarled.
The vampire clamped a hand to his neck, scrambling to a small computer in the adjoining chamber. When he handed up the video, Lachlain rewarded him with a quick death. Several more vampires had crowded at the opened door, but Lothaire, an enemy of old, was at the front and appeared to be blocking it, keeping them out. How long had he been there?
Lachlain could guess. Long enough to allow Lachlain to destroy Ivo. He asked Lothaire, "You know about her?"
A tight nod.
Lachlain narrowed his eyes. Lothaire couldn't take the throne, because he wasn't a blood heir. Lachlain knew of no one who could except for Kristoff - unless they went after Emma.
He bared his teeth at Lothaire. "Follow their fates if you follow their actions. I guard her ruthlessly."
Lothaire's lips subtly drew back from his fangs in answer.
No, Lothaire would never get Emma, so the Horde would surrender to the rebel king or descend into chaos.
Unless Kristoff had a sister.