Nïx approached the bed, tilting her head. "There's a blue tinge to her lips." She turned Sabine's arm over.
Streaking down the pale skin was a jagged red injury, like a burn. It ran all the way to her palm, where it made an X.
Nïx abruptly dropped her arm, wiping her hand on her pants. "She's been condemned."
"Condemned? What the fuck are you talking about?"
"This is the morsus, the crudest poison-because it causes inconceivable pain upon the withdrawal. Sabine would have had to take a regular dose of this poison to keep it at bay."
"Ah, gods, she'd been trying to get back to Omort days ago. I . . . stopped her."
"Then he's the one who has done this to her. It makes sense that he'd use this to control her for all these years."
"What will happen to her?"
"Have you touched her skin? Did you feel that pain?" When he nodded, she said, "You're experiencing pos­sibly a percent of what Sabine is. There's supposed to be
no greater agony. It feels like being scalded and stabbed, as if your skin is being pincered from your body. Demon, this will get a thousand times worse. The pain will become so great, it will prove a shock to her body, so intense that her heart will stop."
"It already has!" Inhaling deeply, he tried to calm his tone. "What can I do?"
Nïx shook her head sadly. "Absolutely nothing help her. The only person who can save her is the one who poisoned her. Rydstrom, you need to prepare your­self. Sabine will have one heart attack after another
"No! No, someone has to be able to help her," he said, his voice breaking. "Tera, Mariketa-" "Will only confirm what I've said." "What about Sabine's sister-she's saved her
"Ah, Melanthe, the potential Queen of Persuasion. Healing another is one of the hardest processes to effect. And her power is weak, only manifesting itself in unpredictable fits and spurts."
Rydstrom rested his forehead against Sabine's, des­perate to take this pain from her. "There has to be something I can do for her." He gazed up at the Valkyrie, unashamed to beseech her. "Nïx, please ..."
"There is something you must do. Rydstrom, if you care anything about Sabine," she said, "you will kill her now."
In between fevered waves of agony, she'd heard Ryd­strom speaking to her.
With his voice growing thick, he'd pleaded, "Cwena,
fight this forme." He'd threatened, "What am I supposed to do without you? You can't leave me like this! I'll fol-low you to the gods damned grave, Sabine."
And when another wave had crashed down and she'd thrown back her head and shrieked, he'd roared with his own pain and confusion, clutching her so tightly, until her screams died down....
Sometimes, she heard other voices. The brother was
often here. Two females came and went.
Now she perceived Rydstrom sitting beside her on
the bed, stroking her hair. But another wave was build-
ing.... building . . . And each one was worse than the
"I'm here, Sabine." He kissed her palm, then rubbed
his face into it. "I'm right here."
"Kill me," she begged as residual pain seared through her body. "Please..."
His dark eyes were frantic. "Never!"
"You say . . . you care about me," she whispered. "But if you did ... you would kill me."
"I don't fucking care about you! I'm in love with you, Sabine. You told me I needed you," he said desperately. "I do. Freely, I admit it." He held her face, seeming to grit his teeth against the pain of the contact. "We'll fight this together."
"You . . . love me?" She'd known, had felt it every minute with him. But to hear him say it. . .
"Ah, gods, cwena. You have my heart. Anything that I possess is yours. Just heal. Just feel no pain."
"Then let me go." Damp tendrils of red hair framed Sabine's pale face. "Please . .. I'm begging you ..."
He couldn't hear these words, couldn't imagine the pain that would drive her to speak them-
She seized again, her back arching, more blood gur­gling from her lips as she screamed again and again. Nïx and Cadeon rushed inside just as her body fell limp.
But her eyes were open.
They were sightless, staring at nothing.
Nïx said, "She takes no breath, demon. She's gone."
"No!" Rydstrom roared, clutching Sabine's shoulders shaking her.
"Rydstrom!" Cadeon gripped his arm. "She's gone, brother. She wants you to let her go."
"Never!" More shaking . . . "You come back to n Sabine!"
Sabine's lids twitched, her muscles visibly knotting.
"No . . . no more," Sabine moaned in despair, real' izing she hadn't died. She gave Rydstrom a look of utter betrayal then fell unconscious in his arms.
"You've only saved her until the next wave hits," Nïx said. "Demon, next time, you must let her go."
No, there is another way. "There won't be a next time." He narrowed his eyes at the Valkyrie. "You knew this would happen. You knew all those nights ago when you asked me if I could pick one, which would' I choose-my kingdom or my queen. And you asked for a reason. I can sacrifice all hope for one to save the other."
"You answered your kingdom so easily back then. I was amused."
"Whoa, whoa," Cadeon said. "What the hell are you two talking about?"
Rydstrom asked Nïx, "How do I get to Tornin tonight?"
"It's being, uh, taken care of."
"If you've seen all this, then tell me-will she live?"
Nïx gazed at the ceiling, then back. "I don't know about her. But you might want to have a talk with your successor here and let him know what's about to hap­pen."
Rydstrom nodded, accepting death-or worse.
"Yeah, let me know what's going on!"
"I'm going to Omort for the antidote. The sorcerer will likely kill me this time," he said matter-of-factly. "Cadeon, you're my heir. Nïx said this was my last chance to claim my crown. She didn't say you had no chance."
"What-the-fuck?" Cadeon thundered. "No way! No goddamn way!"
"This will happen, brother," Rydstrom snapped. "I wasn't asking you-I was informing you."
"Okay, then, so we make this a trap," Cadeon said, plainly wrestling with his temper. "You can't go there without a battle plan."
"You told me Groot hit at your mental blocks like a sledgehammer. Omort will demand I open my thoughts to his probes. I have to be utterly free of conspiracy, else I risk her."
Cadeon ran his hand over his face. "If you do this, you'll be committing suicide."
"I understand. If I can save her from this pain . ." Then mine was a life well lived.
"Nïx! Tell Rydstrom this is a suicide mission."
She sighed. "If he wants to go all Asian the Lion on us, who are we to stop him ?"
"I won't let you do this!"
"It's done," Rydstrom said. "Nïx, tell me how to get to Tornin."
"The way to get to Tornin is already on her way to New Orleans. And she's pissed."
So how are things with Mike Rowe?" a woman's voice said.
Consciousness gradually returned to Sabine, and she found herself between waves of pain-in that harrowing lull between remembering agony and anticipating it.
"Mike Rowe? Who exactly are you talking about, Holly?" another female answered. Is that Nïx speaking? Yes. What is she doing in my dream? Or am I waking?
"The actor?" this Holly said slowly. "From Dirty jobs. Who took out a restraining order against you?"
A pause, then Nïx said, "Ah! Yes, well, Mikey and I broke up after I finally got him to fool around with me."
"In the week since I saw you last?"
"Yes, last night if I recall correctly," Nïx said. "He was quite adroit for a human, very tempting. But then I had to forget the phone number he pressed on me."
As if she couldn't help himself, Holly asked, "Why's that?"
"I remembered I'm a rake."
Sabine blinked against her hazy sight and spied Nïx in the sitting area of the bedroom. Sabine squinted at the Valkyrie's T-shirt. It read, born to blossom, bloom
The other female, this Holly, had glasses and a prim demeanor. She looked to be folding clothes?
"Besides," Nïx said, "I needed to break it off with Mikey, since I'm leaving town."
"What do you mean you're leaving?" Holly-demanded, folding and refolding the same towel. "I still don't know my way around this world, and you're taking off-yet again?"
"Cadeon can show you about."
"Where do you have to go that's so important you can abandon me?"
"Auntie Nixies taking a TO. I'm heading to Buda­pest, to investigate this band of immortal warriors," she explained. "They're called the Lords of the Underworld. If that doesn't make you want to mate ..." She growled and clawed at the air. "Anyway, they're supposed to be excessively hawt."
"And by investigate, you actually mean do."
Nïx made a scoffing sound. "Holly, how else is one supposed to investigate a male? Really?"
Holly sputtered, but Nïx talked over her. "Just between us-if they can handle what the Nixanator's bringing, I might not ever leave. . . ." Her vacant gaze skittered over to the bed, and her eyes widened. "She's awake."
Nïx strolled over to the bed with Holly following. "Remember me? Nïx, the Ever-Knowing? And this is my niece, Holly." Nïx indicated the pretty blonde who gave her a weak wave. "She's Cadeon's wife."
Nïx put a glass of water to her lips, but Sabine turned away to gasp out the words, "Where's... Rydstrom?"
"We finally peeled him away from you. We'll be your sitters this eve. Rydstrom, Cadeon, and myriad demons are out searching for your sister, so they can poach her portal." She laughed abruptly. "I'm sorry, this is not a funny situation, but 'poach your sister's portal' really sounded raunchy."
Holly rolled her eyes.
"He's bringing Lanthe back here," Nïx finally con­tinued. "And then he intends to take you to Omort and beg for the antidote."
Sabine's heart stuttered-this time from emotion. "He can't... go through with this!"
Nïx said, "He's decided to sacrifice himself for you."
"Omort will kill him this time . . . will read his mind ... discover any of his plans of attack-"
"There won't be any," Nïx said quietly. "Rydstrom's counting this as a one-way trip, sorceress."
Sabine shook her head sharply. "You can't let... him do this!"
"You try stopping a nearly seven-foot-tall demon who's hopelessly in love."
"Nïx," Holly murmured, "Sabine needs some clean sheets. They're dirty with all the blood . . . blood-" Her hand flew to her mouth, her face paling even more.
"Are you having morning sickness again?" Nïx asked. When Holly darted from the room, she called, "My gods, Holly, way to steal Sabine's thunder!"
To Sabine, Nïx said, "I'll be back shortly. Yell if you need anything." She heard Nïx mumble at the door, "Poach her portal. So going on a T-shirt."
Sabine lay quaking and stunned. Rydstrom planned to sacrifice everything for her.
An idea arose, a plot. Could it work? She had little time before the next wave hit-did she have the
She would find the strength, because if he was going to save her, she was going to protect him. Or at least give him the means to protect himself.
Gritting her teeth, she rolled off the bed, collaps­ing onto the plush rug. She could hear Holly retching in the guest bathroom and Nïx running water for her. Sabine had no strength to hide herself with illusion, but as long as she could hear them, she'd be clear.
She crawled on her belly from the room, sometimes digging her nails in the carpet to pull herself forward, When she reached the hall at last, it looked intermi- | nable, the distance to his study impossible.
So weak . . . But she pressed on through the pain. One elbow in front of the other, her legs trailing use-
lessly behind her.
Ever listening for the Valkyrie, crawling, crawling. Only her love for that demon kept her going.
She spit up blood, choked back a cough, crept another foot. Just a few more to the study door . .. then finally inside.
She'd made it to the armory! With effort, she craned her head to gaze up at the combination lock she'd have to reach. From her place on the floor it looked as attain­able as the moon.
Rydstrom will die if you don't do this!
With that thought spurring her, she wobbled to her knees, then began dragging herself unsteadily to her feet. Have to reach it. She was about to crumple to the floor. Can't . . . cant do this.
A shadow loomed behind her. Sabine twisted her head around. She cursed fate to find Nïx standing behind her.
"Did you need something, sorceress? Hmm?" She had blankets thrown over her shoulder and was fiddling with something in her pocket. A weapon! "Perhaps a Vicodin?"
Sabine felt like weeping. "What do . . . you want?" She' d been so close.
Just as Sabine heard the front door opening, Nïx said "Rydstrom's back with your sister." . He'd already returned? "Nïx, I .. . need ..."
"And he's about to find you out of bed-"
"Sabine!" Rydstrom's voice shook the walls of the mansion.
Sabine's heart was about to seize again. She collapsed to the floor, dazed.
"Do you want the sword, sorceress? Isn't that what you came here for?"
Speechless, Sabine gave a weak nod in answer.
Nïx pulled a giant syringe out of her pocket, holding it up. As Sabine stared in astonishment, Nïx blinked at it, as if she didn't understand where it had come from.
The Valkyrie scratched her head with her free hand. "Ah!" She smiled, her face lit with realization. "I knew that I'd come here tonight to do one of two things: shove this into your heart or to play Wii. And I forgot my Wii!" She shrugged-
Then plunged the syringe directly into Sabine's chest.
Eyes wild, Sabine sucked in a desperate breath, grasp' ing at the needle jutting from her chest-gaping at Nïx as she busily worked the combination on the armory.
"The adrenaline will keep you conscious for a few more minutes, but not much more."
Just as fits of energy began flowing through Sabine's body, Nïx unlocked the armory and whistled in a breath at the sword.
Panic was about to overtake Rydstrom as he tore through the house, yelling for Sabine.
Lanthe was trailing him, crying, "You lost my sister!"
His breath rushed out when he found Nïx in the main hall upstairs with Sabine in her arms. The Valkyrie blinked at him. "What? A sorceress can't go check her mascara?"
He was about to yank Sabine from the Valkyrie, but Nïx said, "Easy, demon. She's hurting. Don't squish her all up."
With a nod, he took Sabine, gently cradling her.
Sabine gazed up at him. "Rydstrom, please don't-"
Nïx interrupted her. "Enough of that. He wants to take you. Count yourself fortunate, Sabine."
"Ah, gods, Abie!" Lanthe rushed to her side.
Sabine weakly reached for her sister, then drew back her poisonous hand. "Lanthe . . . stay beside me ... no matter what Omort says."
Lanthe shook her head. "But he'll make me leave."
"You can be ... persuasive."
For some reason the sister went wide-eyed. Rydstrom didn't have time to consider her reaction because another wave was building in Sabine, and she stiffened in his arms, her eyes sliding shut.
"Lanthe, we've no time to spare," he said. They'd lost hours before they'd found her wandering the streets, looking for Sabine. "We leave for the portal right now."
At the front door, Cadeon was waiting with Holly, his wife, who Rydstrom only saw briefly before. Ryd­strom was reassured to see that she gazed up at Cadeon with concern and obvious love in her eyes.
Cadeon moved to block Rydstrom's way. "Let the sorceress's sister take her. There's no reason for you to risk yourself like this."
"I've told you," Rydstrom said, "that I will not be separated from Sabine."
"I've got my crew meeting here in just minutes. We're following you in."
It struck Rydstrom that he might not ever see Cadeon again after this. "No. That's not the mission for tonight," he told him solemnly. "Cade, you can take up the fight in the future."
"This could be a trick-the sorceress can make us see things. She's trapping you for Omort. Again!"
Lanthe said, "She's dying! Can't you smell the blood?"
Cadeon ignored her. "Rydstrom, give me the com­bination to the armory. I'll use that sword tonight!" At his unbending expression, Cadeon said, "Then you take it. Conceal it-"
Nïx impatiently said, "That won't work. Omort will know if Rydstrom is hiding anything."
Cadeon shook his head. "There has to be another way."
"Put yourself in my shoes," Rydstrom said. "Imagine if this were Holly, about to die from pain."
At that, Cadeon clenched his jaw. With a harsh curse, he stepped aside, slamming his forearm against the doorway in frustration.
Heading to the drive, Rydstrom looked back over his shoulder. "You'll be a great king."
Cadeon faced him with his eyes wet. "I don't want to be bloody king! And I don't want to lose my brother, just when things... just when you don't hate me."
"I never hated you." Rydstrom gruffly added, "I love you, brother. And I'm proud of the man you've become."
With Sabine in his arms and Lanthe trailing him, Ryd­strom stepped through the smooth portal directly into the court of Tornin.
Immediately, he spied Omort upon his throne.
"What is this, Melanthe?" the sorcerer snapped.
The court was nearly empty-and even more revolt­ing than it had been before. Bodies were piled up, flies buzzing in the stench. The walking-dead revenants lined the walls.
Rydstrom forced himself to ignore it all; only one thing mattered to him. Without hesitation, he strode toward the dais. Sabine writhed in his arms, her fingers clenched in pain.
But Omort halted him with a flick of his hand, freez­ing him where he stood. "The demon comes to me?" Omort smiled, his eyes maniacal. Then to Lanthe, he said, "You leave! Now!"
"Brother, look at her!" Lanthe sobbed. "She's dying. You can't let her die! Please!"
"Her heart has already stopped," Rydstrom said. "She'll perish in minutes-"
Omort leaned forward in the throne. "Open your mind to me, demon. Now!"
Rydstrom did, willing the sorcerer to see the truth- that all he wanted was for Sabine to be safe. "I'm told you have an antidote that will heal her. That's all I seek."
"You truly have no plan? There is no trick. You merely want your littlefemale to be well. Because you're in love with her?" He gave a bitter laugh. "I could not have punished you more, since loving her has brought me nothing but misery."
"If you love her, then help her-"
"Wait . . . there's more in your mind. Sabine, open your eyes." After a moment, she blinked them open. "You've been dealt treachery from one sworn never to give it. The demon tricked you. You are not wed. He lied about the vow. Instead of swearing to protect you, he swore to hurt you."
Sabine gazed up at Rydstrom, bloody tears gathering.
"By the look on your face, sister, I think he kept his word."
Rydstrom wasn't denying it.
Ah, gods, no! She wanted to be his wife. . .. And she wasn't?. He'd lied?
No, focus, Sabine!
She would deal with this grief later. Right now she was in deep with a plot, and another wave of pain was
coming. Once the shot wore off, she wouldn't be able to hold on much longer.
Sabine knew this wave would be her last....
Omort continued, "Your treachery's fitting, demon, since Sabine was going to murder your babe. Her own child. Weren't you, Sabine? She and I planned to sac­rifice it to the well to unlock its power. That's why she was working so tirelessly to seduce you."
"I don't believe that," Rydstrom said. "And you'll never convince me of it."
"Omort, we can do this later," Lanthe cried. "She needs the morsus now!"
"And I'll give it to her when the demon's dead and you are gone! Now leave before I finish you."
Lanthe's tears ceased. Her eyes went cold. "No."
"What did you say to me?" His words were dripping with malice.
"I said . .. use-no-sorcery."
At Lanthe's command, Sabine silently begged, Please let this be the time. Everything rests on this . . .
Sabine's amazement matched Omort's-because when he raised his hands to punish Lanthe, his palms were cold.
Rydstrom tensed against her.
"What is this?" Omort bellowed, that vein pulsing in his forehead. His eyes darkening to a metallic yellow, he stalked after her. "I will make you burn, Melanthe!"
"Come no closer to me."
Omort stopped abruptly, staring at Lanthe in bewil­derment. "Guards!" he called for the mindless rev-enants. They marched from the perimeter as one, surrounding them with swords raised.
Lanthe faced them, and with her voice ringing out, she said, "Fight only each other."
When they began engaging each other, clashing swords all around them, Lanthe ran for the double doors of the court, barricading them with their locking bar, buying time.
Sabine thought, That's my sister. . . .
"No!" Omort yelled. "Demons!"
"Don't call them!" Lanthe hissed, and Omort fell silent.