"I'm no match for your speed, unless I trace," he began, "which has always seemed cowardly to me. But since you don't see a problem with such tactics - " He traced behind her in an instant and swatted the broad side of his sword against her ass. "Point. And I believe I just spanked you as well."
You don't have to taunt her. Her shoulders stiffened just as weird lightning lit the sky outside and killed the shadows in the room. That same electricity he'd felt when he'd kissed her crackled in the air. Thunder rattled the glass doors. Valkyrie give off lightning with sharp emotion.
"Tracing." She pivoted slowly. "Thank you for reminding me of what you are."
It was as if some dam had burst. Her sword cut through the air like its own entity, reflecting light from bolts outside. She held the hilt so loosely, so confidently, and he found himself enthralled with her movements - to his detriment.
Yet her skills and technique could be beaten by focused power, and finally he began using his strength over hers. If he connected cleanly with her sword, then he followed through with all the power in his body, making her weapon quake and waver in her hands, jarring her with each brutal strike.
He feinted, catching her off-guard, just long enough to deliver a particularly punishing blow against her sword. He'd thought to send it flying, ending this, but amazingly, she somehow held on to it. Her body staggered as though she'd taken the hit to herself. She fell to a knee. Lightning exploded outside.
His chest seemed to clench. "Damn it, you weren't supposed to be able to hold that." A lifetime spent trying to avoid hurting women, and now he'd struck out at her as if she were a man?
"I don't plan to lose." She looked up at him through loosened curls. Her eyes were silver. "Can't exactly win without it, now, can I?"
But her faltering was just enough for him to trace to her. He forced himself to drive his advantage. He tapped his flat sword at her shoulder. "Point."
Her breaths were ragged. "This isn't yet finished."
"I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Only hurts for a moment." Her nonchalance disappeared when she sprang from the ground, charging once more. Their swords clashed again and again, mimicking the lightning outside. Her eyes began glowing in the scant intervals of darkness.
Then she pulled back, lowering her sword. Her brows were drawn as if in pain, and she was panting. The bolts quickened outside. In a pleading tone, she cried, "Ah, gods, Bastian, do you want me to beg you for it?"
He drew his head back in astonishment. Had he missed signals? Was she going to accept him? Her uncanny eyes called to him even as thunder exploded ominously.
Already thinking about where he would taste her first, he lunged for her -
Her blade planted just above his heart, and her eyes went dark and cold in an instant. "Point." She jabbed the tip and twisted, tearing his flesh with a menacing sneer. "I win, leech."
At the sight of his blood slipping down the center of her sword, he imagined all the others who'd bled on her blade, all the others who'd fallen for her beauty and trickery. How many had thought they were about to have her just before their lives ended? A sudden violent mix of thwarted lust and rage like none he'd ever experienced overwhelmed him.
He growled with fury, tossing his sword away as he traced behind her. He yanked her to him, his arms capturing hers against her body. She gasped, but when he pressed an open-mouthed kiss to her neck, she didn't immediately fight him, seeming to await his next move.
Good. He wanted her to surrender to him - in all ways, not just in this contest. She was close enough to feel his cock straining against her, and he wanted her to feel it. He wanted her pinned beneath him in bed, mastered by him. At the idea, he thrust uncontrollably against her soft ass. She sucked in a breath and seemed to flex her body into his. Emboldened, he brushed the backs of his fingers over her nipples. She shivered.
The storm whipped up outside, seeming to goad him. His hands caressed up from her flat belly, sliding under her bra and shirt, lifting them above her breasts. She sucked in a breath but didn't stop him. He sensed she was curious about what he would do. So was he.
He gently cupped her full breasts in his palms, groaning with pleasure. Her breathing quickened when he thumbed the peaks. She had luscious nipples, small and deep pink, begging to be suckled. He rolled and pinched them again and again, until they were so hard he imagined they ached. He saw her fingers go limp, and her sword clattered to the ground.
That was his permission. He kissed her neck, thrusting slowly against her. He wanted to do to her what her touch had done to him - stripped him down until there was no thought, only the need to have her. He wanted to make her shiver more, to wring moans from her lips.
When she raised her hands behind her to thread her fingers through his hair, he closed his eyes in bliss, groaning, kissing, kneading.
She froze just as a sudden jolt of ecstasy shot through him so much sharper than before - as if fire coursed through every vein in his body.
Her blood had touched his tongue.
"Bastian? Did you... bite me?"
Can't deny it. He was shuddering, and his eyes were rolling back in his head as he squeezed her. He'd accidentally grazed her neck in his frenzy, taking the merest drop.
She shoved his hands away from her, yanking her clothes in place and struggling to be freed. He finally managed, "I didn't intend to. I didn't plan to - "
When he released her, she turned, casting him the expression he'd hoped never to see again. Seeing that betrayed look in her silver eyes was worse than he could ever have imagined.
Her hurt was swiftly overcome by fury. "You had no right!" The doors at the balcony flew open as the spray of ocean and rain punched inside. With the wind tugging at her long hair, she screamed, "You've stolen more than my blood!"
She sank down, snatching her sword, then charged him, slashing. He traced to his sword to block her. She feinted a forward parry, then twisted to swing backhanded at his torso, putting all her strength into the blow. He traced back at the last second, or she'd have cut through him.
"I'm sorry," he rasped, leaving her.
Back at his castle, he sank into the bed, staring at the ceiling. He'd taken her blood, the smallest drop, and the taste of her had pleasured him so profoundly he knew he was changed forever.
He'd rather not know exactly what he could never have again.
Kaderin was right - it was more than just blood. But why did she think it so? What more had he stolen?
It had been an accident, but how many times could he continue to use that as an excuse? Intent, or lack of it, rarely erased the offense, anyway. This he knew.
He'd taken straight from the flesh. A true vampire. He remembered Murdoch had told him, "There are dangerous side effects to drinking from a source. You could turn evil."
"And then I might be in danger of losing my soul?" Sebastian had sneered.
He could no longer be a Forbearer, should he have chosen that road for himself...
Hours passed as he analyzed this eve. He recalled every word, every look, struggling to make sense of what had happened.
When he finally fell into a deadened sleep, Sebastian dreamed of a foreign land, inundated with rain.
The sun shone through the deluge, that bright intense light found in the northern lands. Kaderin was there, blinking against the rain. He saw it all as though through her eyes, and he knew it was very long ago.
She and others of her kind were trying to sleep on the bare ground on a hill. Only on an incline would the mud and water run down and not soak them any more than need be. They wore armor, breastplates of gold that were dented.
Kaderin's beaten armor cut into her ribs if she slept on her back and the undersides of her breasts if she slept on her sides. Ants crawled underneath the metal, stinging relentlessly, and sand trapped inside abraded her skin like sandpaper. She tried to ignore the discomfort - her cadre had not slept in seven days, and they needed the sun as their sentinel against the vampires they battled each night.
When she switched positions from her back to her side, the mud sucked down, making it difficult to move. "I vow to the gods," Kaderin said in a foreign tongue, tugging on her armor, "if we live through this, I will never sleep so confined again."
He should not understand her language, what sounded like a mix of old Norse and old English, but he did.
"Save your vows, Kader-ie," said a grinning young woman beside her who resembled Kaderin. "We all know we're not living through this one." Several around her chuckled. Kaderin laughed, too - because it was likely true.
And what else could one do with the knowledge of imminent death?
The dream changed to the actual battle they'd awaited. Sebastian had been in numerous battles, but he had never seen anything as grisly as this. In a night bright with lightning, metal rang against metal. Shrieks and thunder were deafening. All around Kaderin, vampires slashed at and beheaded Valkyrie who looked no older than girls.
Kaderin fought three at one time and couldn't break free, even when just beside her, a vampire lifted a Valkyrie's small body and brought it crashing down over his knee to break her back. Kaderin was close enough to hear the bones cracking but couldn't get to her.
From the corner of her eye, she saw the vampire's head drop to the girl's neck, then twist like a beast's as he pulled free the front of her throat. Just as Kaderin's sword sliced through one of her opponents, the crouching vampire lifted his head and smiled at Kaderin with flesh still in his mouth and blood spilling from his lips...
Sebastian woke in a rush. He gazed around the room, confused to find he wasn't on that field of battle. The dream had been that lifelike. He'd heard her heart thundering in her ears, and experienced her rage as distinctly as he'd felt the hot blood from a vampire's severed jugular spraying her. It had gotten in her eyes and marred her vision.
How could he dream these things with such clarity? What if this had really happened to her? He recalled her comment from earlier in the night: "You've stolen more than my blood!" This must be what she meant. The dreams were real. He didn't understand how it could be possible, but he'd experienced... her memories.
Her lack of humanity, and her "history" with vampires, which Riora had mentioned, had just become clearer. Because somehow he could see it. He raked his fingers through his hair. The armor and weapons of that battle had been from antiquity. "What if I told you I was very old indeed?" she'd asked.
She must be well over a thousand years old.
And Sebastian feared her life had been a series of battles like in the dream. Why would she ever give him a chance if she believed he would turn into one of those fiends?
After tasting her blood, would he?
The vampire stayed away for two days, then returned every night thereafter.
For the last week, he would trace to Kaderin, assisting her in whatever task she'd committed to, or taking a chair in whatever hotel room she'd stayed in for the night. If she went out into the sun or traveled by plane, he would vanish, spending the day who knew where or how.
Though she'd railed at him, ignored him, been caustic to him, nothing could prevent him from returning again and again - and there was nothing she could do about it.
But she had to admit she was less stressed that she would die when he was around. She had a massive warrior shadowing her each night, ensuring that nothing assailed her.
In their first conflict with multiple combatants, she'd drawn her sword and strategically put her back to the wall. In the second conflict, she'd unconsciously backed to him - and he was quick to point that out as they fought side by side.
Whenever he was near, she studied him, trying to uncover some hint that he regarded her differently after tasting her blood. Kaderin knew what happened when a vampire drank straight from the flesh. Her blood could possibly give Sebastian her memories. It might make him want to attack others for more.
The brief sympathy she'd felt that night when she'd learned that he'd been forced to become a vampire had evaporated when he'd taken her blood. Did she think it had been by accident? Yes, but that didn't change the fact that it had happened. Did she believe she was partly responsible? Yes, she'd allowed him to kiss her neck, and castigated herself for that daily.
Yet that didn't mean she should continue to be around him when his mere presence made her unthinking, restless, even occasionally... wanton.
So far her game hadn't been too affected. They'd each already earned forty points, fairly easily, but then they had not encountered Bowen - who might frown on their growing tally.
In fact, she'd heard from Regin that the Lykae had taken out most of the competitors who'd gone up against him. In just one task, two of the demons, the young witch, and the elven hunters had all gone missing, rumored to be imprisoned somehow.
Bowen hadn't been disqualified, so they couldn't be dead, but the competition was lost for them.
Kaderin also had heard that Mariketa had managed to fling off a curse at Bowen - one of the worst for an immortal. If true, then Bowen would cease regenerating from injuries.
Kaderin knew she'd face Bowen soon enough, and when she did, she would strike first. For now, she needed to stay focused. She simply couldn't get used to Sebastian's care of her, couldn't get used to his watching over her as she slept.
One night, she'd awakened, blinking up at him. "Why do you keep coming back just to sit beside my bed?"
Seeming surprised by the question, he'd answered in a gravelly voice, "This is... satisfying. To me. I find it deeply so."
Before she'd turned onto her other side, she'd studied his face, trying to understand him, but only became convinced she never would.
Then, last night, she'd had yet another nightmare. She seemed to be plagued with them, as if compensating for her eternity of dreamless nights.
She definitely could not get used to his enfolding her in his warm, strong arms to soothe her, rubbing her back, rumbling, "Shh, Katja," against her hair.
Though Kaderin didn't yet know this, Sebastian had basically moved into her London residence, since she never traveled there, preferring to sleep on her plane or in hotels.
Showering in her flat was more convenient and had other advantages, such as the water not being melted snow. Sebastian enjoyed sleeping in her bed, imagining her there with him.
Not far down the street, there was a bookstore and a butcher, and both stayed open after dark. Not to mention that the flat had a refrigerator - which was convenience itself - and remote controls. Beautiful things. He was really enjoying this new time now that he was immersed in it. Even the Lore in general was growing on him - because it was her world.
Each sunset, he traced to her. A couple of nights, he'd found her asleep with her sword. As ever, she would sleep fitfully, as though in pain. Other nights, he caught her nearing some prize. If she ran into difficulty, he would swoop one up for her, then go back and take one for himself, just so another couldn't have it.
He would be patient. This union was supposed to be for eternity - it followed that their courtship would be extended. He wasn't a patient man, but he could do whatever it took to get what he wanted.
Wondering what he would find tonight, he traced to her, arriving in yet another hotel room. But she wasn't in the bed, nor did he hear her in the shower.
The room's balcony doors were opened, overlooking a valley lit by a half-moon. He crossed to them and found her unconscious. She was lying on her front, one arm stretched out for her sword, which was covered in mud and blood. He lifted her gingerly, but she moaned in pain. He realized with a surge of fury that she'd just made it inside.
Damn it, what is it about this prize? Why would she continue to risk herself like this? He'd asked her repeatedly, sure to voice his opinion of the key. "Why do you want it so badly?" he'd asked. "The key won't do as it's purported. So is it just winning the competition? For ego or for posterity?"
"Posterity?" she'd answered with a quirked brow. "Do you mean in the progeny sense or notoriety after death? Because neither is forthcoming."
Now he flinched, wishing he could take the pain for her. When he wet a washcloth and wiped her down, she moaned again. Dark, mottled bruises marred her skin all over. Gritting his teeth with anger, he dressed her in his shirt and put her to bed, sitting beside her in the room's one chair.
He found himself feeling as if they were married already. He didn't know if this was a symptom of the blooding, but he found himself thinking of her as a wife - one who despised him, wouldn't share his bed, and, worse, wouldn't allow him to protect her.
And he continued dreaming about her each night, staggeringly vivid dreams.
In many dreams, Kaderin spoke in an old language he had no knowledge of, yet he understood her. He heard her thoughts, felt her fears. Once he'd dreamed she was on a battlefield, absently marking the severed heads of vampires she'd killed, carving an X with her sword as she sought her next fight. He now knew she was marking them to come back for their fangs later.
The more of her memories he garnered about the Horde, the more he instinctively knew he would never join their number. Since he'd taken Kaderin's blood from her body, he'd never experienced even the slightest urge to drink another. He'd been around humans since then and hadn't even thought about it.
Near dawn, when he saw she was sleeping soundly, he finally nodded off, swiftly becoming immersed in a scene from her past.
He could tell from Kaderin's clothing that it was in the early nineteen hundreds. She was hastening after a raven-haired female named Furie - their half-Valkyrie, half-Fury queen. Furie was setting off to battle the Horde's king, because a Valkyrie soothsayer named Nïx had told her it was her destiny.
"Nïx told me you intend to fight Demestriu," Kaderin said from behind her. "But all she knows is that you're not coming back. I want to go with you and make sure that you do."
Furie turned. Overall, she resembled Kaderin's kind - delicately built with feylike features - but Furie had more prominent fangs and claws. Her eyes were striking but odd, with dark rings around irises of a vivid purplish color. She could not have passed as a human as Kaderin could. "You can't feel, child," Furie intoned. "How will you help me?"
Can't feel? Yes - he'd dreamed Kaderin experiencing a deep, wrenching sorrow, but it hadn't lasted long. One morning she woke... changed.
"It makes me cold," Kaderin said calmly. "It makes me good."
Something like affection might have glimmered in Furie's uncanny eyes. Then she said, "I'm fated to go alone."
"Change fate." Kaderin knew Furie would consider her words blasphemous. The Valkyrie didn't believe in chance. For them, everything happened for a reason.
"Have you lost your beliefs along with your emotions?" Furie's anger was building. Kaderin could sense it like animals sense storms, but it didn't deter her. "Only a coward would try to escape her fate. Remember that, Kaderin." She continued on.
"No, I'm going with you," Kaderin insisted, hurrying to her side.
Furie turned and tilted her head sharply. "To keep you here" - she snatched Kaderin's wrist, twisting her arm back behind her - "and to ensure you always remember what I said... " With one brutal yank she snapped Kaderin's arm - her sword arm - then released her.
Kaderin stumbled back to face her, but the heel of Furie's palm slammed into her upper chest. Something else snapped. Kaderin flew a dozen feet back, the force rendering her unconscious before she hit the ground.
He never got a chance to see how hurt she'd been, or how she'd recovered, because another scene arose.
Kaderin's boots clicked as she sprinted down foggy back alleys. The rookeries she passed were filled with Lore beings, their deadened eyes staring out of the mist. It was London in the eighteen hundreds.
Her sword was strapped securely over her shoulder, and her thin shackles were tucked into her belt at her back. She was tracking two vampires, brothers, and her ears twitched when she sensed them. She drew her sword, but they were fast as they suddenly traced around her. One delivered a crushing blow to her head from behind, the other dealt a hit to her temple that nearly blacked her vision completely. A trap.
They let her stumble away for a goddamned block. Playing with her.
Tired. I just want to sit, she kept thinking in a daze. Just for a second. She finally collapsed, falling to her back.
The vampires returned, one holding her down, the other raising his sword above her neck. And she felt not even a trickle of fear. As they bent over her, their eyes became more apparent to her dimmed vision. Red, dirty eyes, staring down at her. No, she didn't feel fear, no revulsion - just nothing.
Another vampire materialized, likely wanting to see the momentous kill. The brothers' attention was drawn away for an instant. It was all she needed. Earlier, she'd fallen back onto the shackles. Without warning, she whipped them out and cuffed their wrists together. They struggled to break free, but somehow the metal held even with their obvious strength. They tried to trace in different directions and couldn't.
As she rose, the third vampire fled. She tilted her head at the two, and murmured, "I told you I'd kill you," then let instinct take over -
He bolted awake at the sound of her shrieking, the loudest he'd ever heard, and clamped his hands over his ears. When the windows began to crack, he lunged for her and forced his hand over her mouth. Her fingers shot out, claws bared to snatch at his heart, but he caught her wrists in his free hand.
She was staring at him but seemed unseeing, her pale face lit by a series of lightning strikes just outside. He pulled her into his arms until she finally stopped fighting. But then she began softly weeping. His whole hand pressed the side of her head to his chest.
As he sat back in the chair with her in his lap, his dreams came over him in a rush. For ages in the past, Kaderin hadn't felt?
And now she clearly did.
No wonder she'd been so confused the morning they'd met. He didn't understand how this could have happened to her, but he'd experienced her lack of emotions. He couldn't imagine how difficult it would be to recover them.
"You've made me feel," she'd hissed at him that first morning.
Could I really have had something to do with this?
Her shoulders shook, and his shirt grew wet with tears, and it was killing him. "Brave girl," he murmured against her hair. "You are safe." No wonder she was vicious. She'd had to be to survive. "It doesn't have to be like that anymore." Eventually her breaths grew quick and light as they did when she slept.
He'd begun to recognize that although she was perfect on the surface, his Bride was wounded, scarred inside, and now he knew why.
And he'd seen only a few nights in her life.
He knew she feared at every hour that he would become like those who had toyed with her in a filthy back alley and had savaged her army of young Valkyrie. She dreaded seeing his eyes turn red.
When she clutched his shirt in her panting sleep and nuzzled his chest, realization hit him sharply. Staring out over her head to the valley below, he suddenly knew that he was meant to be here at this very moment, to comfort her, to protect her.
All the choices he'd made to direct his life - and all the choices that had been taken from him - had conspired to bring her to him. His seemingly endless years at the castle, though he'd been alone and weary, had been a worthy sacrifice to ultimately have her.
Sebastian was meant to call her his own. The good and the bad. She'd been made for him, and he for her.
Tomorrow, Sebastian would face Nikolai again. He could no longer deny that Nikolai's decision for him had been a fated one.