That had not just been his body? The bastard's messing with me, tricking me.
She rubbed her eyes, again and again, and saw . . .
Lothaire lay on his back, head lolling at an angle to his body. His neck was cleaved through, his spine severed. . . .
Her fingers went limp. The sword clattered to the floor.
Knees buckling, she collapsed beside his body. I . . . killed him?
More tears came as she threw herself over his motionless chest. No, no, no! He was invincible-nothing could take him down. Least of all her. What have I done?
She hadn't even been close enough to reach him. How, how, how?
Anguish replaced her rage. Even after everything, she'd never meant to hurt him like this-to . . . kill him. Just because she didn't think they could live together didn't mean she hadn't felt love for him. I wasn't anywhere near him!
"He's not g-gone," she sobbed. "He's not. C-can't be." Ellie rose up, mindlessly tearing at her hair. Her blood-filled eyes darted-
She froze. The ring. "I w-won't let him be." She shot to her feet, sprinting for the safe. "I'll bring him b-back."
"You won't be doing anything," a voice said from behind her.
Ellie whirled around. A woman with long black hair, pointed ears, and small fangs stood beside Lothaire's body. Off to the side was a hulking demon, watching the scene intently.
"Who are you?" Ellie demanded. "How did you crack the boundary?"
"The Valkyrie about to abduct you. Inside information from a soothsayer."
"Try to keep me from what I aim." Ellie snapped her fangs. "I dare you to."
With a speed matching Lothaire's, the raven-haired female charged Ellie, her fist taking her unaware.
Ellie spun on one foot, blood spraying from her mouth before she fell to her knees. The woman was upon her at once, binding her wrists, then shoving a blade against her throat.
"No! Let me go!"
"You are a former human, then? I bet that took the smug bastard down a peg." She signaled the demon. "Deshazior, now."
At once the demon traced forward, gripping Ellie's arm. He could teleport her out of here in an instant.
Away from Lothaire.
"No, don't touch me!" Ellie hissed, struggling with all her new strength, but she couldn't break the demon's hold. Now pleading to the Valkyrie, she cried, "I have to get to the ring! I'm beggin' you! I'll bargain with it, just listen to me!" The female was immovable. To the demon, Ellie screamed, "No! Don't do this-"
He began tracing with both the Valkyrie and her. Just before they disappeared, Ellie twisted around for one last glimpse of Lothaire.
The vampire she had fallen in love with. I killed the man I loved.
But I'm gonna bring him back. . . .
An instant later, the three of them appeared in front of a sprawling mansion with red-robed ghosts flying around. Lightning streaked the misty nighttime sky, shrieks sounding constantly.
Have they taken me to a Valkyrie coven? She needed to figure out where she was, and then come up with an escape plan. Got to get back to the ring before Dorada arrives.
As the Valkyrie hauled her toward the front entrance, Ellie's mind whirred with ideas. She could force the demon at sword point to trace her back! Then she could heal Lothaire, could take them back in time if she had to.
Get free. Find a sword. It isn't over. Her new claws bit into her palms until blood dripped. Have to escape! Lothaire's lying there . . . dead.
When the female began shoving her up the porch steps, the demon gave a teasing bow. "Until we meet again, Carafina."
"No!" That was her ride back! Ellie flailed against the woman's unyielding hold, but he'd already disappeared.
After matter-of-factly offering a lock of her hair to the flying ghosts, this Carafina stiff-armed Ellie, sending her sailing through the front doors.
Ellie whirled around. "Let me go, you bitch!"
The Valkyrie's eyes were violet, glimmering eerily. "I'm the only thing protecting you from my sisters now."
Inside, pointed-eared females were all over the place-gazing down from the second-floor landing, lining the walls. Though each of them was startlingly beautiful in her own way, they all had claws and fangs and moved with an otherworldly grace.
As her captor forced Ellie deeper within, one Valkyrie said, "We're allowing a leech to walk unaccosted through Val Hall?"
Val Hall-the Valkyrie stronghold! In Louisiana.
Oh, God, how can I get back to New York? More useless tears spilled, but she was able to blink them away faster. It still isn't over!
"Where did the Enemy of Old find a female vampire?" another asked. "Oh, gross, I hate it when leeches cry!"
A third quipped, "Then why do you always make them do it on the battlefield?"
The group laughed.
Get back to Lothaire, get back to Lothaire. But Ellie was weakening by the moment, her mouth dry with thirst. From her tears?
"Did that bitch just check out my neck?" a short redhead snapped. " 'Cause it is on if she's ogling me for food."
When they entered yet another room, Ellie saw even more Valkyries lining the walls. A golden-eyed one sat at the head of a long dining table-with a bat perched on her shoulder. "Welcome, Ellie Ann Peirce Daciano. I'm Nix the Ever-Knowing, and I'll be your soothsayer tonight."
So this is the notorious Nix. "Why have I been brought here?"
"Cara the Fair, your Valkyrie/Fury abductor for the night, plans to ransom you to Lothaire for information. You see, he took Cara's twin sister-our queen, Furie-and imprisoned her."
Cara gave Ellie yet another shove, her violet eyes turning silver with emotion. "Your lover chained her to the bottom of the ocean so she could drown over and over till the end of time! He did this six decades ago!"
Had flames just fanned up around Cara's head?
Nix murmured, "Easy Carafina, your wings begin to show."
Wings of fire? Ellie was too distraught to care. She bit out the words, "You're too late. He's dead."
"What?" Nix cried, looking genuinely upset. "I didn't see that!"
"I-I beheaded him." Blood bubbled up from her stomach as nausea washed over her, but she choked it back down.
Someone along the wall murmured, "A vampiress beheaded the Enemy of Old? I can't decide if I should gut her or get her autograph."
Ellie whirled around with a hiss.
Cara told Nix, "He's not dead. His Bride left a sliver of tendon. Not a complete decapitation. He'll rise again."
Hope leapt in Ellie's heart. "He'll . . . he'll live?" Again her new claws dug into her palms.
"Come closer, Elizabeth, and let me see for certain," Nix said. When Ellie eagerly did, the soothsayer seemed to peer inside her mind. After what felt like hours, Nix pronounced, "Lothaire is very much alive."
"Often. Though not as much as foul-mouthed Regin. I try not to in front of Bertil." She petted the bat.
"I meant-will Lothaire live?"
For some reason, she trusted this crazy Valkyrie. If Nix said he would live, then Ellie would believe. She sagged with relief.
Cara snatched her up. "And once he heals, he will come looking for you. Until that time, you'll be kept here," Cara said. "There's no escaping Val Hall. If you try to trace from here, the wraiths will prevent you-violently."
Ellie was hardly listening. I didn't kill him, her mind chanted, I didn't kill him.
Nix added, "You'll be a political prisoner of sorts."
He's coming for me. Never would Ellie have expected to be so excited over the prospect.
Then she frowned. Would Lothaire come for her? Would he forgive her? At one point in their fight, he'd looked homicidal. And that had been before she'd nearly decapitated him. Of course he would know that was an accident.
She was his vampire Bride; he'd have to come for her. Reassured, Ellie finally gazed around at the room.
Though she was beyond relieved that Lothaire would live, she couldn't feel happiness.
Imprisoned yet again?
As if from a great distance, Lothaire heard beings murmuring in . . . Dacian?
Where am I? He'd sleep-traced again? Why can't I open my eyes? Every muscle in his body tensed, his first frantic thought for Elizabeth.
-"He's maddened enough," a deep voice said. "But his mate as well?"
-"At least the curse will be ended," a female said.
-"True, Mina, but isn't Lothaire merely a new curse?" a male said dryly. "Perhaps we should have left him in York."
-"Shall I say I told you so sooner, or simply more often?" another male said in a slurring tone. "And it's New York. Evidently, there's a difference between the two."
Blyad'! They were Daci. They'd captured him. Where is Elizabeth?
Then memories of her swept over him. The last thing he recalled was her screaming, her eyes black with rage as she'd wielded a sword. She'd swung at him.
Then the bite of the blade. She . . . she nearly cut off my head?
Gods, she'd lied to him, feigned love for him, and tried to kill him! He'd wondered how many times he could have a sword at his neck before one struck true.
He'd never thought he'd have to worry about his own Bride dealing the blow.
Again, I am betrayed.
With difficulty, he eased his hand to his throat, felt a bandage. Why would the Daci bandage him?
"He's waking at last."
When Lothaire managed to lift his lids, he found himself in bed in some palatial room.
The scent of fresh blood carried on the air. Light streamed in through the open window and fanned over his arms, but he didn't burn. Blurred figures stood by his bed.
He tried to rise. Couldn't.
As his vision adjusted, he saw three tall, dark-haired males, all similar in looks, and a short, fair-haired female. Each dressed in old-fashioned clothing.
Another massive vampire sat at the desk, boots propped up on it. He was drinking from a flagon-what smelled like alcohol-infused blood. His appearance was more modern than the others', his eyes a glacial blue. As mine used to be.
The Dacian from the Bloodroot Forest! "Where am I?" Lothaire grated, his throat burning as if he'd swallowed a poker.
"Castle Dacia," the seated one said. "I'm Prince Stelian. Standing are the Princes Trehan, Viktor, and Mirceo, as well as Mirceo's sister, the lovely Princess Kosmina."
She nervously gave a formal curtsy.
"A female vampire?" Lothaire hadn't seen a full-blooded one in centuries.
"Ours have been safe from the plague here."
Lothaire narrowed his gaze at Stelian. "You were at Helvita that morning."
"That is correct. We were endeavoring to save our queen from Tymur's men. Since you had-what's the modern term?-dropped the ball."
"Queen?" Dizziness rushed over Lothaire.
"Welcome to your kingdom, my liege. You are our ruler now. Newly restored." He raised the flagon in a mock toast.
"How? I've conquered nothing, have waged no war on you."
"The royal family has chosen you to be our ruler. Almost unanimously, only one holdout."
"Why would you do this?" Lothaire demanded, coughing blood. "Why not take the throne yourself?"
"Here, Uncle Lothaire," the female said, rushing forward with a jewel-encrusted chalice. "Drink this. It has healing herbs-"
Lothaire backhanded the cup against the wall, splattering scented blood. "Uncle?"
Stelian exhaled. "Technically, you are our cousin. But the younger Mirceo and Kosmina call us elder cousins 'Uncle' in quaint tradition."
"Answer my question!"
Trehan said, "As Ivana the Bold died, she cursed her family to war
and backstab until you were made king, until we all vowed allegiance to you."
"My mother was no witch."
Stelian waved that away. "Perhaps she played on the intrigues already at work. This was before our time. In any case, six generations were wiped out by assassinations and civil wars. Finally we decided to investigate you, to see if you would make a good ruler." He swigged, saying under his breath, "Before we all killed each other."
The three standing males shot looks at Stelian. He merely shrugged. "Lothaire will find out all eventually."
Viktor said, "We studied you, but decided you were too crazed to rule anything."
At Lothaire's scowl, Mirceo hastily explained, "You insisted on appearing at the outskirts of our kingdom, half-dressed, bellowing for someone to 'fucking fight you.' "
Kosmina gasped. "Language!"
Patting her hand, Mirceo continued, "And you also challenged Serghei, who's been dead-"
"Dead!" My vengeance is no more?
Mirceo nodded. "For more than a millennium."
All these years Lothaire had wasted, hell-bent on delivering retribution. To a male who no longer existed.
Trehan said in a measured tone, "Not to mention the fact that you looked as though you intended to consume that Horde leader in the forest. Yet then you settled in with your Bride, and you grew more lucid. We decided to vow allegiance to you and your queen."
Lothaire tensed even more. So Elizabeth had been the key to his throne. Hag's prediction had proved correct. Too bad Elizabeth had tried to lop off his head. "Where is"-that bitch-"she?"
He'd throw her in the dungeon of this castle, condemning her to yet another jail.
Blyad'! Why didn't the thought give him pleasure?
Solely because she was his Bride?
He despised that fated tie to her! And now they were blood-bound as well.
But even with that union, Elizabeth had felt nothing for him-had been violently intent on getting away from him-while he'd lowered his guard. . . .
"After the attempt on your life," Stelian said, "she was captured by a Valkyrie named Cara the Fair."
So Carafina took my Bride. Elizabeth was within the walls of Val Hall. Those lightning fiends would terrorize her worse than he ever could. His female had wronged him, and now she would pay.
Lothaire wanted to laugh.