Cave of the Basilisks, Las Quijadas, Argentina Day 10
Prize: Two eggs of the Basilisk, each worth thirteen points
T he crackle of flexing scales and the sibilance of a forked tongue sounded behind Kaderin, echoing throughout the cavern system.
With her sword sheathed at her back, she sprinted, her night vision taking her from one underground chamber to the next. She'd covered every inch of this hive of tunnels dug through solid rock in antiquity.
Yet she'd been unable to pinpoint the exact position of the three beasts she'd heard stirring down here. Nor had she been able to find either of the eggs, or an alternative exit.
Each tunnel had a high-ceilinged chamber at its terminus. In the chambers were the old nests of a basilisk, a giant scaled dragon with dripping fangs the size of her forearms and a lethal tail, corded with muscle.
She had checked every nest for eggs but found none. There was another cavern system in the mountain a ravine over - the prizes must be in that one. The only things she'd found here were the ancient remains of female human sacrifices, and more recent ones from archeologists of the ill-fated variety.
The name of the area, Las Quijades, meant "the maxillary bones." Many thought the region was named after the bandits that used to run rife through these valleys, who gnawed on cow jawbones. Or they assumed the name referred to the abundant dinosaur fossils discovered here.
Neither was correct. The basilisk young killed by ripping the jaws from the heads of those human sacrifices.
The archeologists who dug here didn't understand that not all the dinosaurs were embedded in rock yet. They would explore, deeper and deeper, and then a team would be eaten, and the government would say they were lost in a flash flood -
No more scales flexing. Silence. In the lull, Kaderin's ears twitched, detecting footsteps - running, with a quick footfall but heavy in weight. Bowen. It had to be.
She'd known they would have a confrontation and had suspected the high point value of this task might attract him. But she'd been greedy for those points as well, and there were two eggs. Ah, but just to make things more interesting, Cindey was on her way here as well. Kaderin had spied her renting a Jeep in San Luis, the closest town, just before she herself had set out.
A sudden quake of the entire tunnel. A basilisk was angered and ready to kill, signaling its fury by swatting its massive tail against the tunnel walls. Each hit sent boulders tumbling, forcing Kaderin to run around them, leaping and dodging, shuffling her feet through the ancient bones.
Though basilisks were fearsome, they moved slowly in their hive, and she knew she could kill one, possibly two, at a time. But she didn't want to - she had an affinity for monsters.
Kaderin herself was a bedtime warning to low-creature young in the Lore: "Eat your grubs, or Kaderin the Cold will sneak under your bed to steal your head."
Turning back for the entrance, she sprinted past walls with ghostly cave paintings until she reached the three-way junction at the entryway. The sun was shining a welcome, illuminating a different type of cave painting there. Before being sealed in, each sacrificial victim had been given a reed filled with a type of paint. She would place her hand against the wall, blowing the paint around it, leaving the outline. The handprint was the only monument she ever received. There were thousands of them -
Kaderin caught sight of Bowen across from her.
A face-off. Time seemed to slow. He'd taken out half of the competitors, and all of the strongest ones except for Lucindeya and Kaderin and Sebastian. She knew he sought to remedy this with her right now.
His eyes glowed in the dark - just as hers did - and his expression was full of menace. A jagged cut marred his face and showed no sign of regeneration. Exhaustion seemed to weigh on his shoulders. The witch's curse. It was true.
Her head jerked to the right - the direction of her only escape.
When he began sprinting to the entrance, she recognized immediately what he intended - imprisoning her just like the others. She dug her toes into the gravel, shooting forward into a focused charge.
She was fast for a Valkyrie, but even cursed, he beat her there. In the sun once more, he glanced up. She'd be able to escape before he could bring down the rocks, she'd be able to -
Casting her a cruel smirk, he dug into his jeans pocket. Dread settled over her. He slid out that diamond necklace. She hadn't bothered to train against this...
It glittered in the desert sun, radiating sharp blue and white points of light. I revealed my weakness, handed it to him. Entrancing light, seemingly endless.
He tossed it in her direction. Just to touch it... When it was still in the air, her gaze locked on it, following it down until it landed at her feet on the loose gravel. She froze, transfixed, dropping to her knees as though praying to the stunning necklace. Something so fine couldn't be left in the dirt. Not this. She scooped it up with both hands, running her thumbs lovingly over the stones.
She could hear Bowen straining outside, cursing in Gaelic, could hear his claws scraping down boulders to dislodge them. But she couldn't pull her eyes away.
Not until the cave went dark in a series of deafening booms, and the glittering ceased.
That morning, Sebastian had left Kaderin sleeping peacefully. Then, as usual, he'd traced to her flat to shower and drink.
As he dressed, he'd reflected that he'd made no discernible progress with Kaderin over the last week. If for no other reason, he needed to go to Blachmount because he was ignoring a resource he badly needed - his brother was wed to a Valkyrie. One who was blood-related to Kaderin. Which meant information there for the taking.
Once he'd forced blood down, he traced to Nikolai's shuttered office, finding him perusing papers. Though usually so reserved, Nikolai didn't bother hiding his pleasure at Sebastian's arrival. He quickly stood and said, "Sit. Please."
Sebastian took the seat he indicated, but being back here again made his shoulders knot with tension.
"We've heard you entered the Hie," Nikolai said, taking his own seat once more. "The first vampire ever to do so. We were quite astonished."
"Myst goes on the computer each day and checks the results. She has a half-sister in the competition. Is she your Bride?"
"Yes," he admitted. "Kaderin."
"Myst has told me Kaderin is - how did she put it? - 'gorgeous to a near freakish degree.' And a stalwart fighter." His tone hopeful, Nikolai asked, "Do you love her?"
"No. But I recognize that she is mine. And that I am meant to protect her."
"It's enough. More will come with time," Nikolai said. "We've wondered what made you decide to represent Riora."
Sebastian shrugged. "I align with no one, and she demanded that. It was a gamble."
"You could have said the Forbearers or King Kristoff."
Sebastian felt his expression tighten. King Kristoff. Sebastian had never been able to understand how Nikolai could have died at the hands of Russians, then, on the same blood-wetted battlefield, sworn allegiance to Kristoff - who was a Russian, vampire or not.
"It was only an observation. The invitation to join us is always open." Nikolai added, "Every single time I kill a red-eyed vampire, I am glad that I did."
"You've encountered them?" Sebastian asked.
"I've warred against them. We are gaining momentum." Nikolai steepled his fingers. "Sebastian, I've always respected your intelligence. We would welcome your counsel gladly. After the Hie, naturally."
After experiencing Kaderin's dreams, fighting against the Horde began to have distinct appeal, but Sebastian planned to take Kaderin somewhere away from constant war and death. The last thousand years of her life might have been hellish, but he'd be damned if he'd allow the next thousand to be. He said simply, "Don't plan on my participation."
Nikolai nodded, but Sebastian knew this was far from over. "About this competition, and the rumored prize," Nikolai began. "Have you thought about using it to save our family?"
Of course, Sebastian had. Even after all this time, the guilt was unrelenting. When called to protect his family, he'd failed - five successive times. "I don't believe it will work," Sebastian said. But if it would, if he could somehow undo the past...
It wasn't reasonable to blame himself, it wasn't logical, but he couldn't seem to stop. Conrad had felt the same - before he'd lost his mind, at least.
The aristocracy of Sebastian's culture was raised to revere the military and to fight. Yet fate had given him an invisible enemy bent on wiping out his family, for which there was no defense, no battle. He'd had to sit, watching impotently, as everything he loved died.
Sebastian had been a favorite big brother to four younger sisters. He'd been nearly old enough to be their father and was essentially more of one than their own preoccupied father. With each of their little crises, they'd run to Sebastian. He'd plucked splinters and dried tears. He'd taught them science and astronomy.
When they fell sick and their young minds had comprehended they might actually be dying, they'd looked to him to fix it.
And seemed bewildered when he couldn't. As if, instead, he wouldn't.
"You can't go into the past to change the future," Sebastian said absently. "Not without creating chaos." Part of him had wanted to believe in the key even though it flew in the face of reason, and even though the goddess had no evidence that time travel was possible.
But if Sebastian allowed himself to believe he could get his family back and then had his hopes disappointed... He didn't think he could take losing them twice. To this day, he couldn't bear to remember the night they'd died. Seeing the despair in their eyes, and then, when he and Conrad had fallen, to hear their faint, terrified cries.
Both he and Conrad had wanted to die that night with their family. The country was in shambles, wracked by plague and famine. They were done. They'd fought, they'd done their best. They should have been allowed to die.
And their sisters? They'd been as delicate and fair as the four older brothers were dark and fierce and would have starved before they voluntarily tasted blood. They couldn't even have contemplated it. "Why did you try to turn the girls?" Sebastian asked. He had no anger in his tone, but now that he was steady and rational, he wanted to hear Nikolai's reasoning. He wanted - for the first time - to understand it.
"I had to," Nikolai bit out, averting his gaze, but not before Sebastian saw his eyes had wavered black. "The thought of them dying so young tormented me."
"They might have been frozen into perpetual childhood, never to see the sun again."
Nikolai faced him. "We do not know that they wouldn't have aged to adulthood, as natural-born immortals do. It was possible."
"And our father?" Sebastian asked. Their father had been longing to reunite with his wife from the day she'd died in childbirth eleven years prior.
Nikolai's expression grew weary. "I've never been noble like you, Sebastian. Survival and living are what I revere. They might have lived - to me, the rest is incidental. And after all this time, I see we still disagree on that subject."
Sebastian stood to leave. "We do."
Nikolai stood as well. "Think about the order, Sebastian."
Sebastian supposed he should get this out of the way. "I can't join your order." He shrugged nonchalantly. "I didn't quite forbear, as it were. I've tasted blood from the flesh."
W ith the blessing gone, Kaderin had been helpless to move, to attack Bowen, to flee, only wanting to behold the stones and faceted lights. Even now, as she petted them, her heart ached to see them shining again.
The basilisks' hissing, wet roars made her shake herself. The beasts were miles down, far away from the bright entrance, but clambering toward it now. They'd be in no hurry, though, likely thinking that Kaderin was a sealed-in sacrifice.
With a shuddering exhalation, she forced herself to toss the necklace away, then rose and surveyed her predicament. The bastard had done a fine job of barricading the entrance.
Even with her strength, she couldn't budge the boulders. She ran into them, tackling them, shoving her shoulder against them. Nothing. She couldn't use her sword. It was not thick and weighty like Sebastian's. She'd have to dig.
She figured she'd lose her claws with every four inches she dug into the rock. She would grow them back within a few hours. The top boulder's diameter was at least sixty inches.
Ergo... let's do the math... I'm screwed.
Worse, the chamber's darkness had begun weighing heavily on her - the way one felt when saddled with a ponderous hex. She gave a bitter laugh. She was now officially a vicious Valkyrie assassin - who was scared of the dark.
The wraiths had never creeped her out, she found the basilisks kind of endearing, and she could be thrown into a cage with a thousand contagious ghouls and not blink an eye - as long as the cage wasn't gloomy and oppressive.
If she had action, she could ignore her fear, but simply sitting here with nothing to do but contemplate it...
She had two alternatives. She could wait for the vampire, hoping he ignored her last irate demand that he leave her alone. But even if he did come to the rescue, he wouldn't be able to trace her where she needed to go - which was mere feet beyond these boulders. She'd wager that Sebastian hadn't previously visited any Argentinean cave entrances.
Besides, how long could she wait for him to save her? Sooner or later, the basilisks would make their way to the surface.
Her second alternative was to begin digging. These rocks are the only thing standing between me and that prize. She dropped to her knees once more and stabbed her claws into the rock. Two inches down, she lost her first, then another. Damn it, this was futile. A wasted effort in a dark, foul place. She was about to lose those thirteen points.
The rock dust made her eyes water. Yes, the rock dust made her tear up -
"Well, well," a rumbling voice said from behind her. "I'll wager you are happy to see me right now."
Sebastian. Kaderin whirled around. Though the space was pitch black, she knew he could see perfectly, because he was studying her expression. Then his gaze fell to her claws before she eased them behind her back. There was no hiding that she was shaken.
"Clawing free, Kaderin?" He strode to her, and helped her to her feet. "How long have you been trapped in here?"
She brushed her knees off. "A couple of hours."
"How did this happen?"
"Bowen pulled down the rocks when I was inside."
"MacRieve?" Sebastian clenched his fists. "I will kill him for this."
She shrugged. "Promise? Because that would eliminate two competitors."
"Is he still near?" Sebastian narrowed his eyes, clearly hoping he could face him now.
She shook her head. "He'll have collected his egg and be long gone. He's done what he set out to do with me, and he's already removed several of the demons and all of the fey from the competition completely. Anyone who faced him is out."
"All we know is that he's trapped them somewhere."
"What about the young witch?" Sebastian asked. "Surely MacRieve wouldn't have hurt the girl."
"He got Mariketa as well, but she managed to curse him first," Kaderin said. "He seems to be weakening and not regenerating from injuries." She jerked her chin in Sebastian's direction. "Bowen will come after you next. As of yesterday, I was tied for the lead with him - "
"As expected - "
"And also tied with you. He'll attempt to take us out one by one."
"I look forward to facing him. I'll relish killing him for trapping you here."
Her answer was another shrug. Sebastian fell silent, and she knew he was waiting for her to ask him to trace her out. She drew in the gravel with the toe of her boot.
"Damn it, ask me to take you from here," he grated.
"You'd rather rot in here?"
"I was making progress," she said.
"Obstinate female. Is it impossible to admit you're relieved I'm here? That I could save your hide right now?"
"No," she said simply. And she didn't elaborate, making him look like he wanted to throttle her.
She had to assume Bowen had collected his prize in the next ravine over, but Cindey could still be beaten. If Kaderin got out of here soon.
"Very well, I'll leave you to your progress." He turned to trace, and she hurried forward, touching his arm.
"Look, I don't want to be traced to your backyard. The prize must be in the next cavern system over, and it's just across a ravine." She crossed to the rocks, and pushed with frustration. "I need to be directly on the other side of these, and I know you can't trace there."
"Because you assume I haven't been there before?"
She piped her lip and blew a curl out of her eyes. "Do you often visit Las Quijadas, Sebastian?" At his blank look, she added, "Argentina."
"No, I can't trace there. But... " He studied the boulders, then pushed against one until it began to move.
When she gasped, he stopped. "Seems I could free you, after all."
She gave him a tentative touch on his chest. "What would it take to get you to finish moving those?"
"What are you offering?" he asked, his voice rougher.
"Money? Would you take money to push these free?"
"I've plenty of my own. More than enough for both of us."
She scowled at that. "What do you want, then?"
"I want" - he ran his hand over his face - "to... touch you. Not here, but tonight - "
"Not going to happen." She crossed her arms over her chest, and his gaze landed on her damp cleavage. As he had that night on the coast, he looked like he was considering throwing her over his shoulder and tracing her back to his bed. "I do so wish my breasts would stop staring at your eyes."
His head jerked up, and he had to clear his throat to rasp, "Kiss me. Kiss me, and I'll free you."
"The last time that happened you bit me, and you could do it again." Kissing Sebastian always seemed to lead to more. Last time, it had led to his taking her blood.
And possibly her memories.
"I never bit you. I grazed your skin. Accidentally."
"Then tell me you haven't contemplated doing it again."
"I" - he exhaled heavily - "cannot. The pleasure was too intense to ignore."
She was shocked by his honesty and didn't bother disguising that fact. "Then I'm betting in the same situation it would happen again."
"I would vow not to."
"Unless, of course, it happened" - she curled her fingers into air quotes - "accidentally. Since I can eventually dig my way free, that kiss doesn't seem worth the risk."