And let's be realistic, when would I not be in conflict with those ill-bred humans?
Severing contact with them was the wisest course. News reports held that Elizabeth had been mortally wounded in a botched prison escape. Her family would believe her dead.
"You're ceding your heart to her," Hag observed.
He gazed in Elizabeth's direction. "She is"-he paused, then admitted-"treasured. If anything should happen to me, you are to protect her. Search for a way to free her."
The fey nodded. "Speaking of something happening to you, Dorada's been felt in the South, near the Valkyrie coven in Louisiana."
The sorceress had previously lived in the Amazon; now she was in Louisiana? He'd bet the hideous mummy and her Wendigo lackeys were hiding out in the swamp basin.
"I'll go there this eve." He would trace to a bayou bar called Erol's, one frequented by scores of immortals. Perhaps Dorada had journeyed to that area because of the Lore energy. Or perhaps she'd sensed he had been there recently.
"Has Saroya risen?" Hag asked.
"Once. While Elizabeth slept." The girl had never even known.
He'd wasted no time castigating Saroya, taking out his fury at himself on her. "You knew you weren't my fucking Bride!"
"Are you so sure?"
How could he ever have been fooled? "You're not mine. I'd seek a noon-day sun if paired with you." Hadn't he told Elizabeth the same thing? He flinched when he thought of how incredibly much he'd insulted her. "You knew all along that I had no fated tie to you."
"I used your own arrogance as a weapon against you. Such a plentiful arsenal. Besides, deep down you recognized Elizabeth as yours but refused to accept it. Which is understandable in the extreme, Lothaire. Regardless, you'll forsake her for me, because you still want your crowns." She'd gazed down at Elizabeth's body with contempt. "Even though you're obviously mating with her."
"I'll find another way to get my kingdoms."
"If you discover a way for a vampire to break a vow to the Lore, do let me know. . . ."
His vows bound him like shackles, forcing him onto a path from which he could not veer.
They compelled him to search tirelessly. In order to spend time with Elizabeth, he had to resist the compulsion, but could only do so for limited amounts of time.
She returned then, showered, dressed, carrying a loaded breakfast plate. "Will you play nice with all the other little vampires when you're out searching tonight?"
He ignored Hag's inquiring look. He knew the oracle wondered what his Endgame was now.
Lothaire only wished it were as clear as it'd been for the millennia before. "Of course." He stood. "I leave now."
"At least kiss me like you'll miss me, Leo," Elizabeth demanded in a saucy tone that made him want to do nothing more than trace her back to their bed. "Else I won't think you're sweet on me."
The corners of his lips curled. He liked her accent now. Even if he hadn't started to find her mountain drawl sexy, it was an asset for her-people heard her speak and saw her beauty and underestimated her.
Just as he had. Sucker punch. But no longer. Each day with her, he was learning what a formidable female she was.
Whenever they traveled, her keen mind soaked up knowledge like a sponge. Teaching her proved rewarding, enjoyable. And experiencing those locales with her cast them in a new light, making them exciting for him once more.
She made him feel young and alive.
Elizabeth Daciano was a drug to a male like Lothaire.
So why couldn't he shake the feeling that she was drifting away from him?
He bent down to press his lips to hers, taking her soothing scent within him. "Will you worry for me when I'm gone?"
She shook her head. "But I'll pity anyone who crosses you."
His chest bowed. Like a drug, Elizavetta . . .
Reluctantly he traced away. As soon as he appeared in Erol's oyster-shell parking lot, he perceived a heavy presence. Dorada was nearby.
Rain drizzled, thunder rumbling. Music blared from inside the dilapidated shack of a bar. The scents of so many of his enemies muddled together in one place had him wishing he'd brought a mystical bomb. To eradicate them all so easily . . .
He crossed to the black water's edge, spying an old duck blind far out in the middle of a cove. Tracing to the blind, he crouched atop it, listening for Dorada.
Over the strengthening rain, he heard only expected sounds-reptiles gliding through the swamp, a stray Valkyrie shriek. He scented the wet air, perceived a faint trace of Dorada's rotted skin, but couldn't pinpoint its source.
In the past, he would have waited here until dawn, stalking his enemy, envisioning their upcoming battle in gory detail.
Now he was impatient, knowing his thoughts would grow more chaotic every moment he was away from Elizabeth.
Lightning forked out above, momentarily setting the bayou aglow. The reflective eyes of Lore creatures flashed all around the water. None were his prey.
Where are you, Dorada? He didn't have time to pursue her-
His head jerked around as he caught that scent once more. He lunged into a trace, landing at the perimeter of the bayou, spinning in place. The smell seemed to come from all around him.
Then I'll scour every inch of this godsforsaken mire. Half tracing, half sprinting, he began to cover ground, dematerializing through thickets of briars, then charging around trees.
The winds began to howl, sheeting the rain sideways, dispersing the scent. Still he ran, his thoughts growing as tangled as the underbrush. Find Dorada. Slay her. Then nothing will distract me from the ring.
He'd considered forgiving the Blademan's debt in exchange for Webb's location. After all, Chase surely hated Webb; the commander had gone behind his back and had Regin "studied."
But Lothaire knew the Blademan would tell him nothing. He despised Lothaire even more than he did the man who'd ordered his female cut open-while she was conscious.
Navigating a dense stand of cypress, Lothaire ducked under a limb,
startling a pack of crocodilae shifters and the nymphs who slummed with them.
The beings beheld him, screamed with fear, then scattered in all directions.
He didn't spare them even a hiss. That scent . . . why couldn't he run it to ground . . . ?
No, there'd be no negotiating with the Blademan; tapping into Chase's memories was Lothaire's only hope of reclaiming his ring. Yet instead of dreaming them, he'd continued to experience his own.
His last? Lothaire had relived the night he'd finally captured Stefanovich for Fyodor, ages after Lothaire's torture had ended.
In a mindless rage, Lothaire tortured Stefanovich for hours-days-reveling in his father's pleas for mercy. Once Fyodor gave the order, Lothaire raised his sword for the deathblow, steadying enough to comprehend that the king's heart was beating. "Blyad'! He's been blooded, Uncle."
Fyodor looked aghast. "Then he might have sired a secret heir." He pressed his own sword edge against Stefanovich's throat, beginning to slice it back and forth. "Where is your Bride?"
"Dying," Stefanovich grated with difficulty; he was scarcely alive himself. "Like the others."
Female vampires had been afflicted in number by some kind of plague. King Stefanovich considered this such an embarrassing sign of weakness-immortals succumbing to sickness!-that he'd kept the tragedy secret, disseminating wild rumors. . . .
"And where is your heir?" Lothaire asked, preparing for another round of torture.
"Where you'll never find him, bastard."
But Lothaire had.
Moving like a shadow, silent as death, he loomed over a cradle. A fair-haired infant gazed up at him, grasping his finger with a tiny hand. . . .
Why see this scene again? What was his consciousness telling him?
When dawn neared, he eased his unrelenting pace, lurching to a stop. Sweat poured down his back and face to mingle with the rain.
He cast an accusing look at the lightening sky. Lothaire had uncovered no signs of Dorada. That heavy presence had faded to nothing.
Yet another wasted night. Will this be the one when my mind fails me for good? He squeezed his head in his hands.
Though he'd given only passing thought to his crowns, his apprehension for Elizabeth was ceaseless, grinding him down, as the earth had once done centuries before.
Want her so much! What the hell am I going to do?
Eventually, he would find the ring. Then three scenarios would open up before him.
He could wish to go back in time, erasing his vows completely. While there, he'd cast out Saroya, then take time to court Elizabeth, treating her like a queen.
Or he could wish to go back, yet be denied-the vows themselves might prevent him from using the ring in that fashion. He'd made an oath to do everything in his power to transform Saroya into an immortal and to extinguish Elizabeth.
Which meant that any attempt to do otherwise would be met with opposition.
If all else failed, he could leave Elizabeth in Hag's care, then burn himself to ash in the sun.
To seek my own death, after surviving so long . . . ?
But attempting suicide would also break his oaths to Saroya. Would it even be possible to withstand the compulsion-and pain-long enough to die for Elizabeth?
All three scenarios would mean he had indeed retrieved the talisman that could destroy his Bride.
The risk . . .
He could tell no one about his predicament, could ask for no help, without breaking his pact with the goddess.
He couldn't even warn Elizabeth to leave him. Not that it would matter. The ring would work no matter how near or far she was.
In a deadly maze of his own making, he could determine no escape.
Undone by my own arrogance, by my insatiable need for vengeance. Will my flaws literally be fatal ones?
All those blood vows he'd collected could do nothing to help him shirk his own. His hope-or his Bride's doom-lay with the ring.
Just as he tensed to trace back to Elizabeth for the day, to lose himself in her body and scent, he heard a Valkyrie shriek carry over the dwindling patter of rain.
Could it be Nix's? As treacherous as she was, she did always seem to understand him. Perhaps she would grant him one boon; he deserved no less from her.
His embattled mind on the verge of breaking, he decided to swallow his pride and call on the one person who might discern his bind.
He traced to Val Hall, standing in the fog, awaiting.
Moments later, Nix strolled out onto the front porch, proffering a lock of black hair to the circling wraiths.
The hair was their negotiated toll. Lothaire knew that when the Scourge collected enough to make a braid of a certain length, they could bend all Valkyries to their will for a time.
The mighty Valkyries would be enslaved. He could hardly wait.
Nix sauntered toward him in the drizzle, her demeanor nonchalant. In the past, she'd told him he defied her foresight.
Fitting, since she defied his insight.
But now he was betting on her ability to all but read his mind-basically having the powers of a goddess.
Yet she carried a fucking bat on her shoulder? Her pink T-shirt read: Why can't we be friends?
Subtle, Nix. Real subtle.
She stopped mere feet before him. They stood wordlessly, appraising each other.
Her long sable hair was damp and wind-tossed, her wide-set golden eyes inscrutable. Her flowing skirt was tattered at the hem.
Just weeks ago, he'd seen her on the prison island; since then, she appeared thinner, fatigued. She'd always been petite, but now she seemed smaller.
Even so, she was blessed in form, as fine physically as she was damaged mentally.
She tilted her head then, as if she could spy inside his own.
He silently urged her to see-to know-what he needed so desperately. Help me from this bind. With difficulty, he bit out, "Nix, I must have Elizabeth." He could say no more, could explain nothing. Even that statement tested the boundaries of his vow; simply remaining in Nix's presence drained his strength.
She smiled, her gaze vacant. "Black king seeks white queen's aid, then?" Lightning flashed above, harshly illuminating her face. Her comely features sharpened, her visage foreboding as she whispered, "Lothaire, you've been mistaken about something. The abyss doesn't stare back. It winks."
Then she turned on her heel and left him.
Disbelief. She was past the wraiths before he found his voice. "You fucking bitch!" he bellowed, while thinking, I am lost. . . .
That day as he slept, with Elizabeth clasped in his arms, Lothaire dreamed of the ring.
Chase's memories of the ring's location had been chaotic and confused. Which meant Lothaire had been right at home with them, using them to trace directly to Webb's hideout in the Canadian Rockies.
Never would have guessed Canada.
Earlier, when Lothaire had awakened, he'd acted as if nothing was amiss, dropping Elizabeth at Hag's.
Though once he'd started kissing Elizabeth good-bye, he'd found it hard to stop.
Now he surveyed the front of a nondescript ranch-one surrounded by some of the most high-tech security on earth.
And more, Chase had been familiar with every safeguard, which meant Lothaire was, too. He circumvented them all, easily breaching the structure's defenses.
Making himself incorporeal, Lothaire half-traced down dimly lit halls. Invisible to mortal eyes, he entered Webb's private quarters. The man's safe would be behind a wall within these chambers, the ring inside.
He found Webb seated at his desk, in the middle of a phone call, his shoulder muscles bunched with tension. Lothaire could hear both sides of the conversation.
Webb was speaking with the Blademan, Declan Chase.
"I can't tell you how much it means to me that you called," Webb
"I've no wish to resume communication with you," Chase said in his thick Irish accent. "But to repay you for saving my life, I've decided to give you a warning."
"The Enemy of Old drank my blood on the island. He has my memories, which means he'll eventually dream of your ranch's location, your security, everything. He'll be coming for you. And the ring."
Already here. Lothaire just stifled a laugh. Time is of the essence, Chase.
"He won't have the combination, and there are countermeasures in place," the commander said. "But I'll move out at once, hiding it from him this very night." A weighty pause. "Unless you want to do it. Come back into the fold, Declan. We need your strength. There's still work to be done to stop the tide of immortals from taking over the earth. From enslaving us."