For Bretaigne E. Black, college teammate, instigator of toga
wedding showers, organizer of "wine & sign" book signings,
and dear, dear friend.
Don't know what I'd do without my Bebs.
My deepest thanks go out to three amazing ladies and very talented authors: Gena Showalter for all her incredible support, Caro Carson for always being there for me in a pinch, and Barbara Ankrum for her eagle-eyed critiques and encouragement. And thank you to Richard, my wonderful husband, for confirming the times of sunrises and sunsets all over the globe and for verifying the travel and transportation logistics in this book.
Blachmount Manor, Estonia
Two of my brothers are dead, Sebastian Wroth thought, staring up from the floor as he fought to keep from writhing in pain. Or half-dead.
All he knew was that they'd returned from the battlefront... wrong.
Every soldier came back changed by the horrors of war - he himself had - but Sebastian's brothers were altered.
Nikolai, the eldest, and Murdoch, the next eldest, had finally returned home from the Estonian-Russian border. Though Sebastian could hardly believe it, they must have left behind the war that still raged between the two countries.
An angry storm boiled, lashed inland from the nearby Baltic Sea, and out from the torrents of rain, the two strode into Blachmount Manor. Their soaked hats and coats stayed on. The door remained open behind them.
They stood motionless, stunned.
Before them, spread throughout the main hall, was the carnage that used to be their family. Four sisters and their father were dying of plague. Sebastian and their youngest brother Conrad lay battered and stabbed among them. Sebastian was still conscious. Mercifully, the rest weren't, not even Conrad, though he still hissed with pain.
Nikolai had dispatched Sebastian and Conrad home to protect them mere weeks ago. Now all were dying.
The Wroths' ancestral home of Blachmount had proved too tempting a lure to marauding bands of Russian soldiers. Last night, the soldiers had attacked, seeking the rumored riches here as well as the food stores. While defending Blachmount against dozens of them, Sebastian and Conrad had been beaten and then stabbed through the gut - but not killed. Nor had the rest of the family been injured by them. Sebastian and Conrad had held the soldiers off just long enough for them to realize the home was plague-stricken.
The invaders had run, leaving their swords where they'd plunged them...
As Nikolai stood over Sebastian, water dripped from his long coat and mingled with Sebastian's congealing blood on the floor. He cast Sebastian a look so raw that for a moment Sebastian thought that he was disgusted with him and Conrad for their failure - as disgusted as Sebastian himself was.
And Nikolai didn't understand the half of it.
Sebastian knew better, though, knew Nikolai would shoulder this burden as he had all others. Sebastian had always been closest to his oldest brother, and he could almost hear Nikolai's thoughts as though they were his own: How could I expect to defend a country, when I could not protect my own flesh and blood?
Sadly, their country of Estonia had fared no better than this family. Russian soldiers had stolen harvests in the spring, then salted and scorched the earth. No grain could be coaxed from the soil, and the countryside starved. Weak and gaunt, the people had easily succumbed when plague broke out.
After recovering from their shock, Nikolai and Murdoch drew away and conferred in harsh whispers, pointing at their sisters and father as they debated something.
They did not seem to be discussing Conrad, unconscious on the floor, or Sebastian himself. Had the younger brothers' fates already been decided?
Even in his delirium, Sebastian understood that somehow the two had been changed - changed into something his fevered mind could scarcely comprehend. Their teeth were different - their canines were longer, and the brothers seemed to bare them in fury and dread. Their eyes were fully black, yet they glowed in the shadowy hall.
As a boy, Sebastian had listened to his grandfather's tales of fanged devils that lived in the nearby marshes.
They could disappear into thin air and reappear at will, traveling easily that way, and now, through the still-open doorway, Sebastian spied no sweat-slicked horses outside, tethered in haste.
They were baby snatchers and blood drinkers who fed on humans as if they were cattle. Or, worse, they turned humans into their kind.
Sebastian knew his brothers were now among those cursed demons - and he feared they sought to damn their entire family as well.
"Do not do this thing," Sebastian whispered.
Nikolai heard him from too far across the room and strode to him. Kneeling beside him, he asked, "You know what we are now?"
Sebastian nodded weakly, staring up in disbelief at Nikolai's black irises. Between gasping breaths, he said, "And I suspect that... I know what you contemplate."
"We will turn you and the family as we were turned."
"I will not have this for me," Sebastian said. "I do not want it."
"You must, brother," Nikolai murmured. Were his eerie eyes glinting? "Otherwise you die tonight."
"Good," Sebastian rasped. "Life has long been wearying. And now with the girls dying - "
"We will try to turn them as well."
"You will not dare!" Sebastian roared.
Murdoch cast a look askance at Nikolai, but Nikolai shook his head. "Lift him up." He made his voice like steel, the same tone he had used as a general in the army. "He will drink."
Though Sebastian struggled, spitting curses, Murdoch raised him to a sitting position. A sudden rush of blood pooled from Sebastian's stomach wound. Nikolai flinched at the sight but bit his wrist open.
"Respect my will in this, Nikolai," Sebastian grated, his words desperate. He used his last reserves of strength to clench Nikolai's arm and hold his wrist away. "Do not force this on us. Living isn't everything." They'd often argued this point. Nikolai had always held survival sacred; Sebastian believed that death was better than living in dishonor.
Nikolai was silent, his jet eyes flicking over Sebastian's face as he considered. Then he finally answered, "I can't... I won't watch you die." His tone was low and harsh, and he seemed barely able to maintain control of his emotions.
"You do this for yourself," Sebastian said, his voice losing power. "Not for us. You curse us to salve your conscience."
He could not let Nikolai's blood reach his lips. "No... damn you, no!"
But they pried his mouth open, dripped the hot blood inside, and forced his jaw shut until he swallowed it.
They were still holding him down when he took his last breath and his sight went dark.
And none will hear the postman's knock
Without a quickening of the heart.
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
- W. H. Auden
Castle Gornyi, Russia
F or the second time in her life, Kaderin the Coldhearted hesitated to kill a vampire.
In the last instant of a silent, lethal swing, she stayed her sword an inch above the neck of her prey - because she'd found him holding his head in his hands.
She saw his big body tense. As a vampire, he could easily trace away, disappearing. Instead, he raised his face to gaze at her with dark gray eyes, the color of a storm about to be unleashed. Surprisingly, they were clear of the red that marked a vampire's bloodlust, which meant he had never drunk a being to death. Yet.
He beseeched with those eyes, and she realized he hungered for an end. He wanted the death blow she'd come to his decrepit castle to deliver.
She'd stalked him soundlessly, primed for battle with a vicious predator. Kaderin had been in Scotland with other Valkyrie when they'd received the call about a "vampire haunting a castle and terrorizing a village in Russia." She had gladly volunteered to destroy the leech. She was her Valkyrie coven's most prolific killer, her life given over to ridding the earth of vampires.
In Scotland, before this call to Russia, she'd killed three.
So why was she hesitating now? Why was she easing her sword back? He would be merely one among thousands of her kills, his fangs collected and strung together with the others she'd taken.
The last time she'd stayed her hand had resulted in a tragedy so great her heart had been broken forever by it.
In a deep, gravelly voice, the vampire asked, "Why do you wait?" He seemed startled by the sound of his own words.
I don't know why. Unfamiliar physical sensations wracked her. Her stomach knotted. As though a band had tightened around her chest, her lungs were desperate for breath. I can't comprehend why.
The wind blew outside, sliding over the mountain, making this high room in the vampire's darkened lair groan. Unseen gaps in the walls allowed in the chill morning breeze. As he stood, rising to his full, towering height, her blade caught the wavering light from a cluster of candles and reflected it on him.
His grave face was lean with harsh planes, and other females would consider it handsome. His black shirt was threadbare and unbuttoned, displaying much of his chest and sculpted torso, and his worn jeans were slung low at his narrow waist. The wind tugged at the tail of his shirt and stirred his thick black hair. Very handsome. But then, the vampires I kill often are.
His gaze focused on the tip of her sword. Then, as if the threat of her weapon were forgotten, he studied her face, his eyes lingering on each of her features. His blatant appreciation unsettled her, and she clutched the hilt tightly, something she never did.
Honed to masterly sharpness with her diamond file, her sword cut through bone and muscle with little effort. It swung perfectly from her loose wrist as though it were an extension of her arm. She'd never needed to hold it tightly.
Take his head. One less vampire. The species checked in the tiniest way.
"What is your name?" His speech was clipped like an aristocrat's, but held a familiar accent. Estonian. Though Estonia bordered Russia to the west and its inhabitants were considered a Nordic breed of Russian, she recognized the difference, and wondered what he was doing away from his own country.
She tilted her head. "Why do you want to know?"
"I would like to know the name of the woman who will deliver me from this."
He wanted to die. After all she'd suffered from his kind, the last thing she wanted to do was oblige the vampire in any way. "You assume I'll deliver your death blow?"
"Will you not?" His lips curled at the corners, but it was a sad smile.
Another tightening on the sword. She would. Of course, she would. Killing was her only purpose in life. She didn't care if his eyes weren't red. Ultimately, he would drink to kill, and he would turn.
They always did.
He stepped around a stack of hardbound books - some of the hundreds of texts throughout the room with titles imprinted in Russian and, yes, Estonian - and leaned his massive frame against the crumbling wall. He truly wasn't going to raise a hand in defense.
"Before you do, speak again. Your voice is beautiful. As beautiful as your stunning face."
She swallowed, startled to feel her cheeks heating. "Who do you align with... ?" She trailed off when he closed his eyes as though listening to her were bliss. "The Forbearers?"
That got him to open his eyes. They were full of anger. "I align with no one. Especially not them."
"But you were once human, weren't you?" The Forbearers were an army, or order, of turned humans. They refused to take blood straight from the flesh because they believed that act caused bloodlust. By forbearing, they hoped to avoid becoming like crazed Horde vampires. The Valkyrie remained unoptimistic about their chances.
"Yes, but I've no interest in that order. And you? You're no human either, are you?"
She ignored his question. "Why do you linger here in this castle?" she asked. "The villagers live in terror of you."
"I won this holding on the battlefield and rightly own it, so I stay. And I've never harmed them." He turned away and murmured, "I wish that I did not frighten them."
Kaderin needed to get this killing over with. In just three days, she was to compete in the Talisman's Hie, which was basically a deadly, immortal version of The Amazing Race. Besides hunting vampires, the Hie was the only thing she lived for, and she needed to confirm transportation and secure supplies. And yet she found herself saying, "They told me you live here alone."
He faced her and gave a sharp nod. She sensed that he was embarrassed by this fact, as if he felt lacking that he didn't have a family here.
He hiked his broad shoulders, pretending nonchalance. "A few centuries."
To live solitary for all that time? "The people in the valley sent for me," she said, as if she had to explain herself. The inhabitants of the remote village belonged to the Lore - a population of immortals and "mythical" creatures kept secret from humans. Many of them still worshipped the Valkyrie and provided tributes, but that wasn't what made Kaderin travel to such an isolated place.
The chance to kill even a single vampire had drawn her. "They pleaded for me to destroy you."
"Then I await your leisure."
"Why not kill yourself, if that's what you want?" she asked.
"It's... complicated. But you save me from that end. I know you're a skilled warrior - "
"How do you know what I am?"
He gave a nod at her sword. "I used to be a warrior, too, and your remarkable weapon speaks much."
The one thing she felt pride in - the one thing in her life that she had left and couldn't bear to lose - and he'd noted its excellence.
He strode closer to her and lowered his voice. "Strike your blow, creature. Know that no misfortune could come to you for killing one such as me. There is no reason to wait."
As if this were a matter of conscience! It wasn't. It couldn't be. She had no conscience. No real feelings, no raw emotions. She was coldhearted. After the tragedy, she'd prayed for oblivion, prayed for the sorrow and guilt to be numbed.
Some mysterious entity had answered her and made her heart like ash. Kaderin didn't suffer from sorrow, from lust, from anger, or from joy. Nothing got in the way of her killing.
She was a perfect killer. She had been for one thousand years, half of her interminable life.
"Did you hear that?" he asked. The eyes that had been pleading for an end now narrowed. "Are you alone?"
She quirked an eyebrow. "I do not require help from others. Especially not for a single vampire," she added, her tone growing absent. Oddly, her attention had dipped to his body once more - to low on his torso, past his navel to the dusky trail of hair leading down. She imagined grazing the back of one of her sharp claws along it while his massive body clenched and shuddered in reaction.
Her thoughts were making her uneasy, making her want to wind her hair up into a knot and let the chill air cool her neck -
He cleared his throat. When she jerked her gaze to his face, he raised his eyebrows.
Caught ogling the prey! The indignity! What is wrong with me? She had no more sexual urges than the walking-dead vampire before her. She shook herself, forcing herself to remember the last time she'd faltered.
On a battlefield, an age ago, she had spared and released another of this ilk, a young vampire soldier who had begged for his life.
Yet he had seemed to scorn her for her very mercy. Without delay, the soldier had found her two full-blood sisters fighting in the flatlands below them. Alerted by a shriek from another Valkyrie, Kaderin had sprinted, stumbling down a hill draped with bodies, living and dead. Just as she'd reached them, he'd cut her sisters down.
The younger, Rika, had been taken off-guard, because of Kaderin's panicked approach. The vampire had smiled when Kaderin dropped to her knees.
He'd dispatched her sisters with a brutal efficiency Kaderin had since emulated. She'd like to say she started with him, but she'd kept him alive for a time.
So, why would she repeat the same mistake? She wouldn't. She would not ignore a lesson she had paid so dearly to learn.
The sooner I get this done, the sooner I can begin preparing for the Hie.
Squaring her shoulders, she steeled herself. It's all in the follow-through. Kaderin could see the swing, knew the angle she would take so that his head would remain on his neck until he fell. It was cleaner that way. Which was important.
She'd packed her suitcase lightly.
A s a young man, Sebastian Wroth had desired so many things from life, and having grown up wealthy among a large and supportive family, he had expected them as his due.
He'd wanted his own family, a home, laughter around a hearth. More dearly than all the rest, he'd longed for a wife, a woman to be his alone. He'd been ashamed to admit to this female that he'd managed none of those things.
Now all Sebastian wanted was to gaze at the fascinating creature just a little longer.
At first, he'd thought her an angel come to set him free. She looked it. Her long, curling hair was so blond it appeared almost white in the candlelight. Her eyes were fringed with thick black lashes and were dark like coffee, a striking contrast to her fair hair and wine-red lips. Her skin was flawless, light golden perfection, and her features were delicate and finely wrought.
She was so exquisite, and yet she carried a killer's weapon. Her sword was double-edged, with a ricasso, an un-sharpened area on the blade just above the guard. A skilled user would loop a finger over the guard for better control. She confidently carried a sword not made for defense, not made for battle.
The creature carried steel forged to deliver quick, silent deaths.
Fascinating. An angel of death.
He'd considered it an undeserved blessing that hers would be the last face he would behold on this earth.
Yes, he'd thought her divine - until her smoldering gaze had strayed lower, and he'd recognized she was very much flesh and blood. He'd cursed his useless, deadened body. As a turned human, he had no respiration, no heartbeat, no sexual ability. He could not take her, even though he thought... he thought this beauty might actually receive him.
The loss of sexual pleasure had never bothered him before. His experience as a human had been limited - very limited - by war, by famine, by the need merely to survive, so he'd never felt that his turning had deprived him of much. Until now.