Page 18

Elizabeth yanked her hand away from him, chin raised.

"She's a feral little human, isn't she?" Hag said.

"Elizabeth has not yet comprehended her place in the grand scheme of things." He gave the girl a measured shove toward the kitchen counter. "Sit down, shut up, and touch nothing."

She hesitated before sitting on a barstool, still bristling.

"What brings you here today?" Hag asked.

"I've come for a potion. I need to clear my mind to get to my memories." My Endgame is so close. Then he'd have everything he'd always wanted.

Then I'll finally understand the incomprehensible. . . .

"I need to focus." On something other than Elizabeth's allure.

Hag slanted doe-brown eyes at him. "Do you wish to discuss business in front of her?"

He shrugged. "She'll be gone soon. But she does need to eat until then."

Hag told her, "Go into the back room and look for a green chest decorated with leafy vines. Open the top and tell it whatever you wish to eat. Do not open the black chest decorated with spiderwebs."

When Elizabeth merely narrowed her eyes, Lothaire said, "Do as she commands. You should follow her orders just as you will mine."

Elizabeth rose with a huff, then sauntered into the back room. He heard a creaking hinge, then her enunciating, "Fun-yuns."

A second later in that country drawl: "Get the hell out!"

Over his shoulder, he ordered, "Eat something nourishing."

After a rebellious pause, she said, "Blo-berry waff-els. May-pole see-rup." Then she cried, "Hoo!" Excellent.

She returned with a laden plate and silverware, sitting at the nearby dining table. Now that she'd regained her equilibrium, she acted unconcerned by all this, but he knew the wheels were turning, could see that calculating glint to her eyes.

Yet I can't predict what she'll do.

She cautiously took a bite of her breakfast, murmuring, "Oh, my God, that's good."

Another bite, and another. She relished her meal in an almost sensual way. He wondered if she'd be like that in bed, savoring the taste of his skin. As I'd savor hers.

Hag was telling him something and he wanted to concentrate, but he kept hearing Elizabeth's fork on that plate, her little noises of enjoyment. He found himself rapt as she twirled a bite of waffle in syrup.

"Are you enjoying your vittles?" he grated to her.

"Prison grub tastes like trench foot. So, yeah, you could say I'm liking this." With a smug air, she added, "Plus, I'm enjoying the fact that I can do something you can't."

"Can't I?" He traced to the seat beside her.

With a challenging lift of her brow, Elizabeth held up a forkful of waffle. "Wanna bite?"

"You have no idea."

"Of waffle. Oh, but you're a bloodsucker." She gave an exaggerated frown.

He found it imperative to wipe that look off the mortal's face. Though he knew Hag was gazing at him in bafflement, he didn't give a damn. He grasped Elizabeth's wrist and took the bite.

At once, his taste buds screamed wrong! He hadn't masticated in ages and was clumsy with it, but eventually he could swallow the food.

Elizabeth cast him a surprised half-grin. "You've got syrup on your lip. Here." She licked her thumb and reached forward to smooth the syrup away.

The air between them was electric as he debated tapping her wrist for a drink to wash it all down-

Hag cleared her throat. "The ring, Lothaire?"

Reluctantly, he rose. "You still haven't seen it in visions?"

She made room for him to sit at the counter, stowing a pile of what looked like bird skulls. "I've had no more luck than you. It's hidden, with some very strong magics. Every time I try to uncover its location, I weaken my ability."

I can feel the mortal's gaze still on me. Which meant he was having difficulty keeping his eyes off her. He shoved his fingers through his hair. "Can you aid my concentration?"

"Possibly. But we have other concerns as well. La Dorada."

The Sorceri Queen of Evil. A few weeks ago, he'd located her slumbering in a hidden Amazonian tomb. She'd been half-dead, mummified for centuries in a sarcophagus, with the Ring of Sums on her thumb.

Though she'd had protection spells attached to her, including one guaranteed to wake her, Lothaire had ripped off her crusty thumb and stolen the ring.

And possibly he'd flooded her tomb with a tidal wave.

Perhaps I oughtn't to have brazenly stolen her most beloved possession off her body, waking her and potentially heralding the apocalypse?

I might've left her thumb. . . .

"I've seen Dorada in visions, have sensed her," Hag continued. "The Queen of Evil will stop at nothing to punish you."

A "Queen" was a sorceress who wielded more control over something than any other sorceress. When Dorada was fully regenerated, she could control evil beings-including Lothaire.

But he hadn't been concerned about her power, figuring that with the ring he could defeat her easily enough. Yet just when he'd been about to slip it on his finger, he'd been captured by Declan Chase.

"I'll deal with her once I've found the ring," Lothaire said. "We've got some time. Just seven days ago, I managed to cast her into a fiery chasm." When all hell had broken loose-or rather, when all the immortal prisoners had broken loose from the Order's holding cells-her zombie Wendigos had attacked him as a pack.

He'd defeated all of them, a particularly noteworthy feat considering he'd been starving, recovering from torture, mystically weakened, and unable to trace. Then he'd turned his hate-filled gaze to Dorada. . . .

Hag fiddled with a smoking flask. "The sorceress is already coming for you."

"Risen so quickly, has she?" After dispatching the Wendigos, he'd leapt over a crevasse to reach Dorada, casting her down. But she'd caught his leg. As they'd dangled, he'd done what anyone would in his situation-booted her in the face until her skull caved in and an eye popped out.

In the end, she'd plummeted into an abyss hundreds of feet deep.

"Yes, Dorada is rebounding from the injuries you inflicted-and from her mummified state. Lothaire, if you barely prevailed against her last time, and she is regenerating now . . . ? Her control over all evil creatures will be absolute in a matter of weeks, maybe even days."

Then she could command him to greet a noonday sun in an equatorial desert, which would kill even him.

Elizabeth coughed, hiding a grin behind her fist.

"Why are you amused?" he demanded.

"Sounds to me like you almost got your ass spanked by a chick. I don't know who this Dorada is, but I'm wishing her all the luck in the world."

Hag gasped. Lothaire slammed his fist onto the stool beside him, smashing it, splinters flying.

As he and Hag watched in astonishment, the mortal calmly picked them off her plate and out of her hair, then ate another bite of waffle.

Chapter 18

Several realities had become apparent to Ellie as the immortals had talked in front of her like she was an oblivious toddler in a high chair.

One: Lothaire was having difficulty finding the ring that equaled Ellie's death.

Two: His concentration suffered when he went round the bend.

Three: Ellie needed to make him go round the bend as often as possible.

Four: She risked dying with every attempt. And that was okay. Win-win.

Yet now his forbidding expression was doing a number on her courage. To bolster it again, she reminded herself that she was already as good as dead.

Ellie had once read an article about wartime post-traumatic stress disorder. She remembered one particular army officer would tell new front-line soldiers, "You died the day you signed on for this war. You're already dead. So why not be brave now?"

I died the day Saroya landed in me. So why not take Lothaire's sanity down with me?

His voice vibrating with rage, the vampire said, "I'd been tortured and deprived of blood for weeks before I faced Dorada."

Ellie gave him a look as if she was mildly embarrassed for him. "But wasn't she still a mummy or something? Regenerating and all? Sounds like you're the flyweight to her heavy."

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Hag's jaw drop.

Lothaire traced in front of her, clenching his fists so hard blood began to drip from them. "The sorceress had a dozen Wendigo guards that I defeated."

"I don't know what a Wendigo is. Could be a Lore bunny. But it sounds like you consider that feat a big deal."

Hag intervened. "Wendigos are ravenous zombies, contagious even to immortals, lightning fast, with claws and fangs as long as blades. In the past, one has been enough to decimate an entire species of immortals. Much less a dozen."

In a chipper tone, Ellie asked her, "You're sweet on Lothaire, ain't you?"

Now Hag strode toward her with undisguised malice.

In a disbelieving tone, Lothaire grated, "Your insolence-"

"I'm just funning with you two chuckleheads. But in all seriousness, Lothaire, you should defeat Dorada before you worry about the ring."

Hag said, "If you won't shut your mouth, I'll seal your lips for you."

Elizabeth shrugged. "Guess you don't want my advice."

"He told you to shut up."

But Lothaire raised his hand. "Occasionally my new pet does tricks." To Elizabeth, he said, "Speak."

"If Dorada can control all evil creatures, then you better get while the gettin's good with that one." She held his gaze. "I'm keenly aware that there's no fighting someone when they have complete power over you."

"If I find the ring I seek, then I could defeat her with it."

"You told me it might take a month to find it?"

"Unlikely. Yet possible."

"Dorada will be at full strength in a fraction of that time. You should always attack the time-sensitive task first."

"A reasonable deduction, but you don't have all the variables. The ring's location might change. If I don't reach it, I could lose it forever."

"And that would be a shame?"

Just when Ellie decided she'd pushed too far-and met her goals-he told her, "I will talk with Hag privately now."

"Where exactly do you want me to go, Lothaire?"

"You wanted to see the ocean?" he said in a cryptic tone. "It's just outside. Go. Behold."

Excitement trilled through her. "Truly?"

"We're in the Outer Banks."

Ellie leapt to her feet, racing to the front door.

Lothaire murmured, "In five, four, three . . ."

"What are you talking about?" Hag asked.

"The mortal's about to run face-first into the-"


"-boundary." He smirked.

"You don't usually torment your prey, Lothaire."

"Yes, I do," he corrected. "And besides, my prey doesn't usually start it."

"Is her mind faulty? Mortal minds break so readily."

"She wants to provoke me, to goad my madness, so I'll attack and kill her."

"She's taking advantage of your greatest weakness so soon? Then she's surprisingly clever, is she not?" Hag added an envelope of green crystals to a flask, and it briefly fizzled. "Are you certain she's not your Bride?"

"Careful, Hag," he warned her, seething that she would even consider Elizabeth for him. "Your past employers might have forgiven your impudence; I will not."

"I never predicted your female would be Saroya."

"In so many words, you did. 'A great and fearless queen beloved by vampires, who will secure your throne for you,' " he said. "Ellie Ann, late of Appalachia, just isn't going to inspire Hordely, vampirely love."

Elizabeth was not a royal, not a noble, not a vampire. Not even one among the lowest of the Loreans.

Saroya was a deity.

Hag's lips thinned. Still unconvinced? How could she be? Of course Lothaire's Bride was a goddess.

He intended to start a dynasty with her that would last for eternity. The mother of that dynasty could not be an ignorant mortal peasant.

"Do you remember when I first found Elizabeth?" he asked. "How I came back and told you there'd been an error? I railed and denied your vision, until I found Saroya and everything made sense. It was like an epiphany. And you do recall that I was never blooded until I saw Saroya."

"I could roll now. Find out for certain."

"You might as well roll to find out if the sky is blue. To waste your power on that, when you can barely eke out enough to aid me as it is? Among other things, you were supposed to have located the Valkyrie queen. But to no avail."

When she opened her mouth again, Lothaire cut her off. "Goddess of blood trumps mortal trailer trash. Period. To even entertain the alternative is ridiculous." He leveled his gaze on her. "I will never-and can never-forsake Saroya. Raise this subject again in any fashion, and I'll slit your throat to your spine. Understood?"

She muttered, "Understood."

At least one female knew when to back down before him. Not that Hag was cowardly, but above all things, the fey female excelled in picking her battles. "Now, in regard to Dorada. I don't want to use the ring to defeat her."

He'd planned to use it no more than three times. Though the Ring of Sums was simple to utilize, it was one of the trickiest talismans in the Lore. The ring could make almost any wish come true, but the more one used it, the more it chose to misinterpret the wishes.

In the past, he'd heard of two different possessors. One man's first wish was for a fortune in gold. Chests of it had appeared outside his front door. Another man's fourth wish was for the same. Gold had fallen from the sky, burying his family.

And the ring allowed no wish to be reversed.

Lothaire could either put Dorada on hold and risk the ring's misinterpretation later, or face her now and risk that the ring would be moved from Webb's compound.

The logical move would indeed be to seek out the sorceress. "Find her for me," Lothaire said, "and I'll face her."

Hag nodded. "I'll be on the lookout as much as my visions will allow."

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