"This 'endgame' is your end goal?" she asked. "Okay, then what is it?"
His gaze drifted as he paced. "Seven little tasks."
Sounding as if he recited a list, he said, "Find ring. Dispose of Elizabeth's soul. Turn Saroya. Kill Dorada. Take over Horde. Find and kill Serghei. Conquer Daci."
Dispose of my soul. How easily he said that! And who was Serghei? "Vampire, I hate to tell you this, but those tasks are not an end goal."
He swung around to face her. "Hold your tongue, little mortal! Or I'll have it from you."
She fell silent, on edge as he paced/traced.
Long moments later, he snapped, "What the hell were you talking about?"
"An ultimate goal should be the result, not the process of reaching it."
"Perhaps I take pleasure in the process itself."
Ellie said, "Then the ultimate goal is pleasure. The tasks are still the process."
"My ultimate goal is service to a blood vendetta. I work for that alone, have for millennia."
In a small voice, she pointed out, "Still a process."
"Ahhh!" he roared, punching the wall yet again. "Shut the fuck up!"
In as casual a tone as she could fake, she said, "Most people have goals of a fulfilling family life and a rewarding career, with happiness and pleasure resulting."
"And what do you know of happiness?" He calmed, seeming intensely interested in this subject.
"I experienced it for most of my life. And I appreciate it all the more after my recent miseries."
"How could you have been happy in that trailer, forced to hunt for food, having so few possessions?"
She blinked. He wasn't insulting her? Lothaire was genuinely curious about this. "I cherished the good times spent with those I love, and I quickly worked past the bad times. What's done is done. I never dwell on the past."
"It's not a complicated thing," she countered.
"It's an abstract one."
"And yet it can be learned. You can teach yourself to be happy. You said your killing skills were well-honed. What if you put all that effort into finding happiness?"
"Then I wouldn't have survived all these years."
"Maybe you can find it sharing interests with Saroya."
"Leave her out of this."
"She's kind of instrumental. What does she enjoy doing?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Saroya hunts, just as you used to do."
"She does not hunt like I did." The idea made her want to punch a wall! "Did you see me leaving deer carcasses all over the mountain to rot? For no reason? There is no comparison. I would never be wasteful and disrespectful of life like that."
"Touchy subject? Have I found a chink in your armor?"
"Any comparison to her riles me up. We are nothing alike."
"True, you are-"
"Oh, just save it," she interrupted. "I already know I'm her inferior in every way, blah, blah, blah."
He quirked a brow, then continued, "As for sharing interests, Saroya and I will rule together, protecting and educating our offspring."
My offspring! "I can only imagine what a goddess of death would teach her kids."
"You won't sow dissension. Your ploy is transparent."
"It's only a ploy if I'm being dishonest. Otherwise, it's an observation. And I truly do wonder about Saroya's parenting skills, not to mention yours."
He frowned, his demeanor turning contemplative.
"Lothaire, have you never thought what it'd be like to be a father?"
"It would be a risk-although few would dare harm Saroya's offspring. Certainly no vampire enemies of mine would. . . ." He crossed to the balcony and gazed out. As a breeze sifted through his hair, his shoulders tensed. "A mist rises," he said in an odd tone.
She was getting nowhere with him. "Am I done entertaining you, vampire? I'm tired. This inferior mortal needs to rest."
He turned back to her. "You'll sleep in here." At her disbelieving look, he said, "I don't exaggerate the threat to you. I'd hoped to have separate rooms-not because I wished to afford you privacy, but because I didn't want to look at you. Unfortunately, we do not have that luxury."
"Fine." She rose, retrieved a pillow and a blanket from her room, then returned to the settee.
"Do not touch me when I sleep," Lothaire said. "Do not get near me." When he held her gaze, she suddenly recalled the haunting bellows echoing from his room the last time he'd slept. "No matter what occurs."
Where am I now? Lothaire woke in the snow once more, this time during the day. The filtered sunlight on his bare chest was like a leather strop slowly rubbing it raw.
Shading his eyes, he peered around, his heart beginning to thunder in his ears. Ah, gods, no . . .
He knelt in the middle of a forest. All around him stood trees that wept blood. Morning sun streamed between the gnarled trunks, over the seeping bark.
Again, he'd returned to a place from his past-the Bloodroot Forest flanking Castle Helvita.
I grew up within those walls. Later I knew torture in these woods.
The constant grinding pressure of dirt over him, as if the earth had fed on him, digesting him like a meal . . .
He hadn't returned here since King Demestriu had died. Now, with no king in residence, loyalist vampires held the seat, waiting for an heir with two qualifications: he had to hold the Thirst sacred, and he had to be a legitimate royal.
Led by a soldier called Tymur the Allegiant, they'd rejected all contenders.
Tymur would assassinate Lothaire on sight.
Why did I return to this place of treachery? Why was his subconscious focusing on this memory of his torture-
Cold metal kissed his neck. A real sword? An imagined threat?
He eased his head around to find two daytime sentries, a behorned demon and a Cerunno. They would've been ordered to take him prisoner, to be questioned.
The demon could teleport a retreat; the Cerunno's speed was legendary. Yet they remained.
Then they have no idea who I am.
The demon said, "Who dares to trespass on these hallowed grounds?"
Lothaire bared his fangs. I will trace with a speed even they can't follow, appearing behind the demon, whispering my name in his ear. He'll quake with fear before I wrench his head from his neck. The Cerunno will flee-until I fling the demon's sword, catching the creature in the spine. . . .
"The Enemy of Old," Lothaire whispered in the demon's ear before gripping his horns and twisting. The head came loose in a rush of frayed tendons and crackling vertebrae. "And there's little daring to it." He gazed impassively at the sentry's collapsed body.
I was mistaken. There'd been no quake of fear; instead, the male had pissed himself upon hearing Lothaire's name.
The second guard had already begun its slithering retreat, racing across the snow, around the trees. Lothaire snatched up the demon's sword and flung it at the Cerunno, hitting it in the back, crippling it.
Thoughts already on other things, Lothaire traced to the being, stepping over its twitching serpentine tail to retrieve the sword.
As he cleaved off the Cerunno's head with one swing, Lothaire realized his damaged mind was trying to tell him something by sending him here. Yet he'd likely be dead before he could interpret it.
He'd traced directly to his enemies without a weapon, only to wake disoriented in the sun. If the demon had merely swung first, I'd be dead.
At least Lothaire hadn't relived the torture he'd experienced here. He would surely fall into the abyss then.
I'd want to be insane.
Memories forever haunting him. But not a single new one of the ring. After several hours of sleep, he'd garnered no new leads.
With both opponents eliminated, Lothaire tried not to notice that the tree trunks seemed to yawn closer to the corpses.
The trees in this forest needed neither sun nor rain to live-like most everything else in this vampiric realm, they fed on blood.
He blocked out the groan of a ravening trunk, the whistled hiss of a limb. . . .
With a shudder, Lothaire traced back to the apartment. Though he still needed to sleep, to dream, he was concerned about the risk. Would he have to procure bindings that prevented tracing? Chain himself to his bed each time he slept?
Back in the dimly lit room, Elizabeth was sleeping peacefully. She was warm, soft-looking, so far removed from the violence he'd just meted.
As he stared at her, the skirmish began to blend into his memories, congealing with nearly a million nights' worth of them-each one filled with torture, war, or death. Blood up to my ankles, and endless screams in my ears.
Yes, Elizabeth was far removed, must always be so. . . .
He dragged his gaze away from her, frowning down at a dripping sword he hadn't remembered holding.
Losing my mind. With a practiced move, he flicked the blade and blood went flying.
Unsettled, he tossed the weapon away, then sat in his desk chair, lowering his head into his hands.
Madness crept ever closer, the abyss awaiting. What am I going to do? For the first time in ages, he didn't know. To be so close to his Endgame and cede control now?
He raised his gaze, narrowing it on his most complicated puzzle. Mind over mind?
A chill in the room.
Ellie had awakened, wondering if a window had been left open.
But the cold had come from Lothaire as he'd reappeared from some mysterious trip, with snow still caked around the legs of his pants and a bloody sword clutched in his fist.
She'd kept her lids cracked, her breathing deep and even, watching him as he'd stared at her with an unreadable expression. Finally, he'd sunk down into his desk chair.
Then he'd given one of those puzzles a challenging look, as if he would defeat it or die trying.
Now she watched as he seemed to be making progress, placing a block here, turning the structure to insert a triangle.
She was enthralled as his pale fingers worked. Though tipped with black claws, they were long and elegant. Like she imagined a surgeon's would be.
Yet Lothaire used his hands not to save, but to destroy.
When those fingers abruptly ceased their work, tension radiated from him, escalating like a ticking bomb about to explode. His eyes fired red-
With a bellow, he flung the puzzle across the room, so hard that pieces skidded along the floor and embedded into the far wall.
God, he's so strong. She held her breath. Apparently, one of the strongest.
But this wasn't enough destruction for the vampire. While she stared in astonishment, he crushed furniture, tossed lamps. He ran his forearm across his desk and swept all the puzzles to the floor.
He stilled, his brows drawing together. Regret? He clearly couldn't stand seeing his beloved puzzles in disarray. Heaving his breaths, his eyes glowing in the dark, he dropped to his knees.
Maybe I should help him, to sway his affections. "What's the matter, Lothaire?" she asked, gathering her courage to join him on the floor.
"So simple before," he said absently, studying a block from all angles. "Child's play."
She knelt in front of him. "It's okay. Shh, vampire," she murmured as she began gathering similar pieces in like piles, then placing them on the desk.
He lifted his head to face her fully. His eyes were definitely out of focus. He seemed . . . vulnerable. Even with his fangs and black claws, his fiery irises. Even though he'd surely just ended a life minutes ago.
"We will never live near the blood forest. The trees cry blood, drinking deep. Never near them again." His words were the ramblings of a madman, his accent as marked as she'd ever heard it.
Though she wanted to demand what that meant, she said, "Of course not. Why were you in the . . . forest?"
"I trace when I sleep. Trace to enemies. How long will fate let me get away with that? How many times can I have a sword at my neck-before one cleaves true?"
"Can't you prevent the tracing?"
"With chains. Hate being chained. Caught fast in anything."
"I do too."
"When I was a boy, I was caught in a net." He gazed past her. "Couldn't trace from it. The metal was cold and heavy on my skin. They dropped down to collect my head and fangs."
"Look at the lordling leech in rags," he sneered, imitating another's accent. "He must be hungry." A long exhalation. "I was spared. But to what end . . . ?"
Without warning, he laid aside his puzzle and drew her into his arms, tracing them to the bed. He sat up against the wall, curling her in his lap, gazing down at her. "When I take the castle, I'll chop them all down."
"Um, every last tree?"
That seemed to mollify him some. "Yes, beauty, I knew you'd agree," he answered, brushing a lock of hair from her forehead.
The room darkened even more as rain began to fall outside, seeming to cocoon them from the world. Would he even remember this conversation? Maybe she could delve for information. "Lothaire, tell me of your blood vendetta. How do your seven tasks fit in?"
"I'll avenge my mother's death." He raised his gaze, seeming to stare at something Ellie couldn't see. "She died for me; didn't have to. Serghei could have saved her."
"And Serghei is . . . ?"
"Her father. The one who allowed her to be raped by dozens, then burned to death."
Ellie just kept her jaw from dropping.
In a distant tone, Lothaire murmured, "No boy should hear those things. The Daci forsook her, returning when she was no more than scattered ash. But I will make them pay."
He'd been nearby when his mother had been raped and murdered? Why had Ivana's father done nothing to save his daughter, to spare his grandson?
Doesn't matter, Ellie. Lothaire's past doesn't concern you. No matter how tragic.
"How does the ring come into play?" Ellie knew that Lothaire planned to use it to turn Saroya into a vampire-and get rid of me-but how did that serve his blood vendetta? Shouldn't acquiring his female have been on a different task list? "What does the ring do?"