He understood he couldn't compare Kaderin to the women of his time. He couldn't even compare her to human females. His sisters would have fainted before injuring an insect. They would have fainted at the mere idea of climbing a mountain. He knew this, but it didn't make seeing Kaderin's cruelty any easier.
He feared his Bride enjoyed it.
Digging down, he found nothing. Brows drawn, he drove the shovel deeper. Still nothing.
His fists clenched the handle to splinters and dust.
The chests were gone.
Kaderin slouched in her leather recliner on the jet, satisfied with her success. The chair beside her was empty as Regin lay on the floor of the plane, legs propped up on the chair arm. They'd planned to drop Kaderin at a Rio executive airport, then fly Regin home to New Orleans.
Yes, Kaderin was satisfied. No matter what had happened, she was in the lead. Or at least tied for it, with Cindey and that sodding vampire. How, on the vampire's first Hie - on his very first task - had he scored the maximum? Insufferable. At least Bowen hadn't been there, and the next-highest task had been only a nine-pointer.
"I really can stay with you, if you need me to," Regin offered for the fifth time. "We would make the most kick-assest team ever."
"I tried teaming up for my first Hie," Kaderin answered. "Alas, my partnership with Myst ended in a difference in opinion - one that entailed her sucker-punching me in the mouth and me tossing her by her hair. Sorry, Regin, but I'll always work alone. Besides, the amulet was a good start. Twelve points out of eighty-seven."
"What if that vamp finds you again?"
If he'd been telling her the truth on that ledge, Kaderin figured that would be happening sooner than Regin thought. "I'm sure I can figure out something to take care of him."
"When did you blood him? In Russia?" When she nodded, Regin said, "Did he trace before you could kill him?"
Her face flushed. No, I was too busy grinding on him. "I didn't have my whip with me," she said, hedging while still telling the truth. She felt she might as well be wearing a scarlet letter. Or at least a T-shirt that said, "Kissed vampire. And I was digging it."
"Regin, why are you so eager to help me out? You seem very keen to get out of - and stay out of - New Orleans."
She began nervously tinkering with her iPod. "Nïx told me that... well, Aidan the Fierce is returning soon."
Regin had kissed Aidan - although she shouldn't have, because her kisses were as drugging as the most powerful mystical narcotics and just as addictive. Even after that berserker had died in battle, he'd defied death to seek her again in another life.
In fact, he'd reincarnated at least three other times, yearning for Regin so badly that he was cursed to be a Version 2.0, a reincarnate, for eternity.
"He's not my berserker," Regin said.
"What would you call him, then?"
"What would you call the fact that he perpetually finds you, remembers who he was, and then somehow gets killed fighting to win you?"
"A game we play?" Regin winced. "Did I just say that?"
Kaderin rolled her eyes. "Then shouldn't you be in New Orleans, battering up?"
Regin glanced away and softly said, "I was kind of thinking that if he didn't find me this time, he might live past thirty-five."
Kaderin didn't know what to do with this sudden seriousness from Regin, so she said, "What am I supposed to do with this, Regin?"
"You're whack, d'you know that?"
"What if Ivan the Russian was your berserker, and you just didn't know it?"
Regin studied the ceiling. "I always know him."
"Why don't you just accept him? Run into his arms?" Freya had taught the older Valkyrie that they would know their true love when he opened his arms and they realized they'd always run to get within them.
"I have my reasons." Regin put her chin up, though she was lying on the floor. "They are myriad and complex."
"Give me one."
Regin faced her. "Okay, I'll give you one, a Regin Reason Lite. With a situation like this, you have to ask yourself, is the grope worth the slap?" When Kaderin frowned, she added, "You know, is the cake worth the bake?"
"Oh. So it's not?"
"Among other things, I'm not keen on falling for a mortal and cursing every day that passes because he'll die within a blink of my life. Then to pine for him to return?" She shook her head firmly. "Not worth the bake."
"I understand. It's best to forgo a small amount of pleasure to spare yourself a lot of pain." Kaderin did understand - so why had she taken pleasure from Sebastian, knowing it would wreck her afterward?
"Exactly! It's just self-preservation. No one in the coven gets it. They only want me to live in the moment. Nïx advised me to 'find and bang my berserker.' " She exhaled wearily. "But that brings a question to mind. Are you going to get a male now that the curse is lifting? Word around the coven is that you haven't had a little some-some in a thousand years."
Kaderin saw no reason to deny it. Even before her blessing, she'd been so cautious about trusting that she'd had few lovers. "I'm not so selfless that I would give 'a little some-some' when I get nothing out of it. I don't feel desire like that." Liar, liar, liar.
"Maybe not in the past," Regin said with an exaggerated wink-wink. "So, what's your type? Or was? Do you even remember?"
What was her type? Kaderin flushed, denying her first thought. "I was always defenseless in the face of swineherds."
Regin laughed, and when Kaderin chuckled slightly, she exclaimed, "This is so weird! You were all freakishly unemotional before I was even born. I've never known you any other way." Regin gave her an appraising glance and declared, "You're kinda cool when you're not mystically lobotomized."
Sebastian's coins, his gold, all the wealth he had in the world, had disappeared.
His head shot up, fangs sharpening. Nikolai. It had to be. What was left of the shovel handle dropped to the ground. Clenching his bleeding fists, he traced inside Blachmount, stalking from room to room, scarcely noticing the changes throughout. Sebastian found him striding through the main hall - where Sebastian and the rest of his family had died.
Nikolai appeared stunned to see him - even before receiving the first crushing blow to his face.
"Where's my goddamned gold?" Sebastian bellowed, with another punishing hit.
"I retrieved it." Nikolai dodged - or took - the blows without striking back. "I was keeping it safe."
"You had no right! You did it so I'd be forced to confront you."
"Yes," Nikolai said simply.
Sebastian struck out again, then lunged forward to shove Nikolai into the wall, pinning him there with a forearm under his chin. All of this reminded him too much of the night he'd risen, bringing back the pain with it. "You want a confrontation? Just like before?" Nikolai had refused to fight him, just as he was doing now. That night, if Murdoch hadn't forced his hands away from Nikolai's throat, Sebastian might have killed him.
He remembered that time through a haze, remembered being alive but dead, with no heartbeat or breath, trapped in twilight. He'd been so weak, waking with a frantic thirst - one that could be quenched only by blood.
He'd been cursed, because his brother had ignored his desperate wish to die with his family. He punched the wall beside Nikolai's face. "You made me an abomination."
"I saved your life," Nikolai bit out.
"And then immediately wanted me to pledge it to your army. A mortal life of battle after battle wasn't enough - you wanted me and Conrad to fight in a never-ending war."
"It's worth fighting."
"It's not my war."
"Do you still hate me so violently for my deeds?" Nikolai demanded. "Is that why you've never returned here?"
Sebastian released him. "I don't hate you," he finally said, surprised to find this true. "I don't care enough about anything to hate. No longer. Three hundred years took care of that." He backed away. "I just want you to stay out of my life."
"Do you want my apology? I give it."
"I don't want your apology - because I know in the same situation, you'd do it again... " Sebastian's attention was distracted when a female entered the room.
"Nikolai?" Her gaze took in Nikolai's face, then she turned to Sebastian. "Apparently, he won't hit you back, but I will."
Recognizing her features, Sebastian asked, "Valkyrie?"
"How do you know what I am?" She faced Nikolai. "His heart beats. He's blooded."
Nikolai had always been aloof and possessed of a rigid self-control. So it was even more unexpected when he glanced from the Valkyrie back to Sebastian, and his eyes went wild. Nikolai's first hit connected before Sebastian had time to tense.
Nikolai bellowed, "Is it her? Did she make your heart beat?"
Sebastian struck back, connecting squarely with Nikolai's jaw. "No," he bit out.
Nikolai lowered his fists and backed away, inhaling deeply. "You found your Bride before you came here?"
Sebastian glowered, running his sleeve over his bleeding lip.
"I am... sorry... I thought... "
"Just tell me where my gold is."
Nikolai ran his fingers through his hair. "This isn't how I've imagined this meeting would be, Sebastian. I regret hitting you. I lose my head with her. But you understand now that you've been blooded."
You don't know the half of it.
"Sebastian, this is Myst."
"We've been searching for you," she said, with the same accent as Kaderin's. Though their coloring was completely different - Myst had red hair and green eyes - their features were similar. "I've heard a lot about you."
He gave her a quick jerk of his chin in greeting, then turned to Nikolai. "My - gold."
"Very well." Though Nikolai evinced no expression on his face, Sebastian knew him well enough to discern his bitter disappointment. "If you'll follow me."
As Nikolai led him toward their father's old office, Myst followed, eyeing Sebastian warily, as if she considered herself a little guard for Nikolai. If she were half as vicious as Kaderin, she'd be tremendous at it.
The office that the three of them entered was being renovated, and shutters had been placed over every window. "I can't believe you're restoring Blachmount," Sebastian said in a disgusted tone.
"We plan to live here. Of course, you are always welcome to stay here," Nikolai said, but Sebastian scowled at that. "And you can trace to this specific room at any time if you need shelter in a hurry," Nikolai added. "These windows will be shuttered during the day without fail."
As if Sebastian would ever want to be here voluntarily. "How did you find my crates?" he demanded.
"I thought I sensed you the other night out on the property, so I scoured the grounds for some hint of you. I hadn't been optimistic about locating you again, especially not... recently." He cleared his throat, and a look passed between him and Myst. "Discovering the shovel and freshly dug earth was a great relief - "
"Take me to my gold."
Nikolai's lips thinned, but he crossed to the back wall to unlock a small wall safe. The bricks around it were new, as if repaired where someone had recently yanked it from the wall.
"How did you know what I am?" Myst asked him, drawing his attention. "Most mistake the Valkyrie for nymphs." She shook her head, then murmured to herself, "Hate those little hookers."
"I've seen your kind before," he said.
"Where?" Nikolai asked, retrieving a case from the safe.
"Around." Sebastian's eyes narrowed when Nikolai set it on the desk.
"I see," Nikolai said. "I've exchanged most of your gold for cash, and it's been invested. In this briefcase, you'll find the investment portfolios and information on your bank accounts. There is a laptop, a sat phone, a temporary Estonian identification card - though you'll need to get a photograph soon - and credit cards. You are as established as a human would be."
Sebastian was seething. Nikolai was doing what he did best, which was whatever the hell he wanted. "You had no right."
"I'd hoped to assist you. You couldn't have been dealt with fairly for these riches. You and Conrad are wealthy men."
"You know where Conrad is?" He'd lost track of his brother after they'd left Blachmount as vampires. If Sebastian had rapidly gone out of his head with hunger and confusion, Conrad had fared much, much worse.
Nikolai's face fell. "No. I have searched for both of you. Have you seen him recently?"
After a hesitation, Sebastian shook his head. He hadn't seen Conrad since just weeks after their turning. That last day, Conrad had spoken cryptically of things he'd left undone as a mortal, tasks he could now complete as an immortal. At dusk, he'd disappeared and never returned. "What of Murdoch?" he asked, curious to know if he'd lived or died. How many brothers did he truly have?
"I can take you to him right now. He's at the Forbearer stronghold."
Sebastian cast him a black look. "A place I will never go - even if I had any inclination to see him."
Myst walked between them to break up the tense moment. "Why are you so angered over the past? Seems you'd be grateful to Nikolai. Without his actions, you'd never have your Bride."
I don't have her now. "I wonder if that might be a blessing." He took the case and traced away.
At the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, in a secluded villa on the beach, Kaderin lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling in misery.
She needed action, but she was forced to wait for the scrolls to update. Yes, action, or she needed sleep.
Normally, she required only about four hours in a twenty-four-hour period, and she could go for days without when pressed, but she wanted to be at one hundred percent after the Antarctica trip. She was sore from her climb - and descent - and soon she would really start to rack up the injuries.
Yet she couldn't fall asleep. Her T-shirt was too confining over her breasts and driving her crazy. She loathed sleeping with anything over her torso, but tonight she had to prepare for the possibility of company. And even the fine bedclothes in this lavish rented residence were like burlap compared to her Pratesi sheets. Worse, the bedroom was large and echoing and dark. Too dark.
Though fearless in battle, the Valkyrie often had secret weaknesses. Lucia the Archer was terrified of missing her target, since she'd been cursed to feel indescribable pain every time she did. Nïx feared foreseeing the death of a Valkyrie so much that, to this day, she never had. Regin, always the first to run screaming a war cry into the fray, was afraid of... ghosts.
And Kaderin? When alone, she had once suffered from lygophobia, the fear of dark or gloomy places, even though she could see near perfectly in the dark.
By the way she was eyeing the bathroom light switch, she apparently had the fear once more. Yet another weakness from before the blessing, rearing its ugly head. She rose to flip on the light, then returned.
The sinister Valkyrie with the nightlight - that was her.
It was uncomfortably quiet here, just as it'd been at her London flat. She'd grown used to living in her coven at Val Hall, amid the reassuring shrieks of her half-sisters and the thunder rattling the manor. All night, Valkyrie pushed in and out of the groaning oak front doors.
She turned to her side in a huff, glaring at her regular bedmate - her sword. Another huff had her back to it. She was... lonely. She still hadn't shucked his loneliness from that morning in his wretched castle.
Why not just think about him? Allow herself to mull over the vampire and be done with it?
For instance, she could contemplate why he wanted to die. Had he lost a loved one? A woman? It made sense. He was in his thirties, and would likely have been wed. If Kaderin had lost a husband, she'd probably see the appeal of becoming a hermit. She might even consider dying if she thought she could rejoin the one she loved.
But if he'd been married, then why would he seem so oddly unsure about kissing her at first? Of course, it'd been a while for him, but there was something so hesitant in his demeanor.
Then he'd quickly gotten back in the saddle.
She'd found herself thinking sometimes about his consuming kisses, reliving them and that entire morning. Worse, whenever she thought about the details of what she'd done with him, she didn't feel only shame. She recalled riding his huge shaft, and an answering wetness came between her legs. Her breasts grew swollen and achy. Her claws curled to clutch him to her.
The changes, these shifts in her personality, couldn't be explained. She believed a god or some power had blessed her with numbness. A mere spell wouldn't have lasted this long, and the Valkyrie weren't very susceptible to spells, anyway.
No, she'd been blessed by a tremendous power.
A power that could be neutralized by her attraction to a rumbling-voiced vampire?
His bottled-up ferocity had a way of calling to her own previously deadened sense of it. Perhaps that was why she was so attracted to him. Because they were alike.
But why did she have to recover desire now, when so much was on the line? Inconvenient did not begin to describe this timing. She turned to her back and skimmed her hands inside her shirt, but her palms felt too soft against her breasts. His hands had been so enticingly callused, and as hesitant in the beginning as his kisses.
Rough hands, delectably firm lips, intense eyes. Everything about him was made for decadent dreams of sex, except Kaderin didn't dream, not since the blessing.
But she did fantasize, and easily called up a memory of his muscular body. She bit her bottom lip. The truth was that there was a lot of him to like. She'd never accepted many lovers - even when she'd been a feeler - because it was hard for her to trust, and of the handful she had welcomed to her bed, she'd never had an immortal one. None had possessed even half of her strength.
The vampire was stronger than she was.
She would never sleep with him.
If he's coming, then where the hell is he?
For hours, Sebastian sifted through all the forms and paperwork in the briefcase, attempting to discern if he had wealth. But his mind was completely preoccupied.
He knew she couldn't go after another prize until the scrolls updated, so he didn't believe she'd be in danger. And yet, at sunset, he finally gave in and traced to her.
He found himself standing in a spacious bedroom, in what seemed to be a private residence. The clock said it was just after 4 A.M., which meant he was on the other side of the world. A bed sat in the center, and he traced to the foot to glance down.
His Bride was sleeping in the center of it.