Her fight to keep from grinning ended when he said, "I'm sorry, Bride. I have to trace you from here."
She snatched her hand from his pants and his from hers, then rolled away.
"I can fight them while you push the rocks." Back on her feet, she retied her pants, then unsheathed her sword.
The largest basilisk edged closer, no doubt thinking them trapped. Basilisks had a waddling gait that was completely misleading - a biological advantage that served to make prey docile. The tunnel wasn't wide enough for more than one to pass, but when they got into the chamber, they could charge them at once.
Sebastian stood as well. "That is not how this will work."
"I freaking kissed you! If I get into trouble, then you can trace me, but just try the rocks. Or you break our deal."
"For another kiss, then. Later. We need to finish what we've started here - "
"You're curb-boosting me?"
He clearly didn't understand the term. "You want out, then you'll agree to get to somewhere dark within an hour after you get that prize."
Who was this new ruthless vampire? "Fine." Very uncool. "You have a deal." I'm lying like a rug. "Now, get your ass in gear and push."
With another shake of his head, he rose, surveyed the basilisk's unhurried but steady progression, then set to the rocks.
She should have been readying for a battle, scouting the lead basilisk's crimson scales for weaknesses. And yet all her desire-saturated mind could think about was how utterly delicious the muscles of his back looked, bulging with strain, threatening to rip through his shirt. She wanted to squeeze them, scratch them, lick them.
She should be worrying about the siren, about the contest, or, hey, how about the dragons?
The beast slowly pressed down on them, and she could make out a second's eyes peeking out just behind it. As soon as the rocks went, they'd spring in attack.
She kept jerking glances over her shoulder. Regin had asked her what her type was. As he turned to push with his back, displaying chiseled abs beneath his sweat-soaked shirt, Kaderin admitted it to herself.
She apparently fancied black-haired, grave-eyed vampires of the excruciatingly gorgeous type. With scars and rough hands. She bit her bottom lip. And if she continued staring at his powerful, sculpted body, she was in danger of spontaneous orgasm.
"Bride, I never thought I'd ever say this to you, but you must focus."
The way she was staring at him, little fang pressing against her plump bottom lip, eyes flashing silver, was making him crazed.
"O-of course." She faced forward. "I've got this one down." One last glance over at him, and she muttered a curse. "Lookit, the instant the rocks go, these three will attack. Fast. You've got to trace immediately."
"They look slow."
Without turning, she said, "They want to look slow. You trace, and I'll dive out, okay?"
"Will they chase you outside?"
"They won't be able to see in the sun very well."
"The rocks are about to go," he grated. "Get back - "
Sunlight shot in like a beam. Luckily, it was late in the day. He lunged back, leaving her room to leap for the hole. She shimmied out. But the basilisks charged with phenomenal speed, all three reaching the chamber and leaping with claws bared.
The largest crashed through all the rocks after her. Dust and rubble exploded into the air. Sebastian couldn't see her, only heard snapping jaws, then spied her as she ducked. Jaws slammed shut just over her head.
Sebastian dove for her into the sun, swallowing a bellow of pain, snatching her ankle. Just as he was tracing them, she kicked him in the face and scrambled away.
Before he could stop, he disappeared without her, then sent himself right back into the fray. Even half-tracing, he could barely see in the light. His skin burned as though splashed with acid.
The basilisk had disappeared? Kaderin was on her tiptoes at the very edge of the cliff, arching her back to keep from falling. Before he could get to her, she'd righted herself, skipping along the edge. She'd tricked it into falling?
The smallest one and the other were venturing out, blinking and hissing at the light. He dodged swiping claws to trace back into the dark at the other end of the cavern, then yelled for them.
When they sprang back inside the tunnel, he dropped onto his back beneath the larger one and thrust his sword up at its belly. A death blow, planted between scales as big as plates. Gutted. He yanked the blade back, rolling out of the way.
With a wet roar, it pitched backward onto the small one, trapping it. Sebastian shot to his feet, tracing to the last basilisk. As it scrambled to get free, claws frantically digging into the ground in front of it, Sebastian raised his sword over its neck.
It froze, then slowly turned its head to blink slitted eyes up at him. There was fear there.
Kaderin probably would have killed it already - and would likely see him as weak if he didn't.
"Oh, bloody hell," he muttered, leaving it behind and tracing for her.
Damn it, he would not return later and free it.
Then, into the sun once more, swinging his head back and forth to find her as his skin threatened to catch fire. The pain was grueling. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a cave above the ravine. He traced in, doing his best to half-appear.
Even though he watched from the edge of the cave, the sun still reflected off the sand and rock, killing Sebastian's already damaged eyes, but he could tolerate it for a minute, maybe two, in this form.
He spied the largest basilisk twitching at the bottom of the ravine, with its head exploded against a rock. Kaderin was still on that ledge. Just as Sebastian was about to bellow at her in fury for kicking him, her gaze locked onto something in the ravine. Her face grew cold. A predator. That's all his mind could come up with to describe her.
Kaderin began pumping her arms for speed, sprinting until she became a blur. Blinking against the light, he didn't quite believe his eyes when she dove into the same ravine as the dragon.
He traced down, scouting another overhang, just in time. In front of him, twenty feet away, the siren gave a cry of surprise - just before Kaderin landed on her back, audibly knocking her breath free of her lungs. Kaderin had her knees dug into Lucindeya's shoulder blades, an arm tightening around her neck.
Just when he'd decided to brave the sun and trace Kaderin from there, Lucindeya jabbed up with an elbow. Somehow, Kaderin ducked around and missed it. She eluded any defensive move the siren had. She needed no help.
All around Kaderin, heat boiled up from the rocks. As he watched her through the haze, he realized he was awed by her, by the power in her graceful body.
And even by her sheer viciousness.
Kaderin yanked the siren up by the hair, swinging her around by it, gaining momentum until no part of the woman touched the ground. Kaderin finally released her grip as though with a bola, her fingers splayed.
The cliff face crumbled under the blow of Lucindeya's crashing body, rocks plummeting onto her back. Kaderin didn't wait to watch her being completely buried, but jerked her head up to the next mountain. She ran, leaping at the rock face, digging her claws in for a good start, scrabbling up to a high cave.
That cave at the top - that darkened cave - must hold the prize. And Sebastian could beat her to it. He pressed his sleeve against his cut lip, tasting his blood from where she'd kicked him.
Kaderin would be meeting him after all.
And the terms of the deal had just changed.
K aderin staggered into the cave, panting with exertion from the climb. When her vision adjusted, she found the vampire casually tossing the prize up from his palm.
The eggshell had pale striations of color twining around the width and was so fragile it was transparent.
"Now we're going to do things my way, Kaderin."
Her eyes followed it as he tossed it up and down. "Just give me the damn thing."
"You never intended to meet with me." He looked infuriated with her. The sun had blistered his forearms and one side of his face. "And you kicked me." A trail of blood had eased down from the corner of his bottom lip.
"I kicked you in reflex." That was true. The basilisk had just burst through the rocks as if they were packing-peanut fillers and was on her heels. "For future reference, don't grab my ankle from behind when I'm being chased by things with long, prehensile tongues."
No matter what had happened between her and Sebastian, she wouldn't have tried to knock him out. Not to be a dragon's dinner or to burn in the sun any longer, although... "In any event, you deserved to be booted. You changed the terms of our deal when I was under duress! Not very gentlemanly."
"I feel less and less like a gentleman with you." The very delicate egg was flipping end over end in his palm.
"You could break that." She could scarcely breathe. "It's the last one." She was easing closer, tilting her head, studying for a way to seize it.
Something dangerous flashed in his expression. "Do you think to take it from me?" He dared her to.
She froze, having no wish to tangle with a vampire while keeping the egg whole. "But you have to hurry," she said desperately. "When Cindey gets here, she'll sing, and then you'll give it to her."
"I don't believe she'll be moving for some time after what you did to her."
"She's immortal. She'll shake it off. And she's hurt me far worse in the past. But she could reach us very soon. One pure note out of her pipes, and you'll be her slave forever." At that thought, Kaderin inexplicably craved kicking her again. Or a really well-placed bitch-slap. At her larynx.
"If you believe that, then you won't mind striking yet another bargain to get this prize."
"I've told you I will never sleep with you." A bead of sweat trickled down her neck, then between her breasts. His gray eyes followed it greedily, then flickered with black. Storm over water. She shivered in the heat.
Even though his face was burned on one side and his hands as well, she was attracted to him and still aroused from earlier. Coldhearted? Once. Hot-blooded? He made her so. He alone could. And not just with sexual passion.
She'd enjoyed kicking Cindey's ass, and for some reason, she'd enjoyed that he'd seen her doing it.
"I want to spend a night with you, touching you," he said, his voice low. "That is all. However and wherever I choose."
She raised her brows. "So it'll be all about me? You say that now, but I know you think to seduce me to do more."
"No, I won't expect you to touch me whatsoever. I won't expect sex."
"The altruistic vampire. And you're just going to be doing these things to me and not reacting?"
He ran his free hand over his mouth. "No, I believe I will be reacting quite a bit. Let me worry about my reactions. You have my word. No more. No less."
She tilted her head. "And then I get the prize?"
"When I'm done with what I plan."
She didn't like how his words shot a spike of desire through her. "You might break the egg. Give it to me first."
"Not likely. I'll keep it safe, and you know you'll get it after. Unlike you, I keep my word."
"You won't go dental on me?" At his nonplussed look, she said, "No biting. Or I swear to the gods, I will bite you back, and you won't like it."
This seemed to amuse him for some reason. "No biting. I vow it, though I've always suspected you capable of checking me like that."
How could she do this? How could she not? For the prize, she could.
For her curiosity, she... must.
What would it be like to be a slave to his touch for one whole night? When she acknowledged her answer to herself, she glanced away and muttered, "I'm flying across the Atlantic tonight." She flushed, already imagining him in that lavish stateroom bed on the jet with her. "You could accompany me."
He was doing that hesitant-stepping-forward thing again. "You want me to go on your plane with you?"
"If you want to take your payment in the next twenty-four hours."
He crossed to her until they were toe-to-toe. "Why not let me trace you back across the Atlantic?"
"You can only go to places you've been before, and I'm betting you've never been where I'm going," she answered, gazing up at him. "Besides, I take flying time to rest."
She swallowed nervously when he rasped, "I wouldn't count on resting this evening."
Hours later Kaderin paced in the main cabin of the jet, furious over more things than she could process.
The first: Because of the Lykae's stunt, she was being forced into this situation with Sebastian. And she'd left the diamonds. Silly Valkyrie.
The second: Two of her half-sisters, her coven mates, had been wed, and she'd heard of it after the fact. They are so not getting gifts from me. Were her sisters that averse to her presence at weddings? Am I that dismal?
The third: As if she weren't already nervous about Sebastian coming over, now she kept thinking about his past. As in all wars, the Valkyrie had had a correspondent in the field covering the Northern War, and they'd learned that the Wroth brothers were brutal warlords known for their skill and ferocity. The brothers had bought their people a decade of freedom against a force much greater in number.
No wonder Sebastian had known how to fight so well.
The eldest - Myst's husband - was the most well known, but Kaderin had definitely heard of Sebastian as well. He'd been a master strategist, a harsh commanding officer, and a ruthless warrior.
She'd seen that authoritative officer side of him today, had heard it in the tone of his voice. And the way he'd eyed that trickling bead of sweat, his eyes so intent, let her know he was going to be ruthless with her tonight.
He'd be arriving within hours, but that fact hadn't sunk in until she'd told the pilots to delay their takeoff from San Luis until twenty minutes past sunset - and not to disturb her for any reason during this trip...
All of this was Bowen's fault. What in the hell was he even doing competing and why was he so determined to win? He was as unwavering as she was. A sinking suspicion came, and she rang Emma's sat phone, hoping to catch her in Scotland.
"Kaderin! It's so good to hear from you!" Emma said, sounding delighted. "Regin told me you were feeling again. Congratulations, Kiddy-Kad! That must be so cool, I've got so much I want to ask you about that, and, oh, oh, did they tell you - get this - I got married!"
"I heard, sweet. Congratulations. Emma, I'd love to talk to you about all that, but first, tell me, do you know of a Lykae named Bowen?"
"Sure," Emma said, then asked, "Why do you want to know?"
"You're not following the Hie online?" Yes, they were honeymooners, but still...
Show Kaderin some love.
Kaderin had her answer when she heard the sounds of teeth snapping and fabric being ripped. Emma cried, "Lachlain! Oh! I'm running out of clothes!"
"Buy - more," came a muffled growl.
Kaderin assured herself she was not jealous that Emma was seventy years old and already had found a gorgeous, mondo-rich king. Oh, and one who had proven he would die for her and was at this moment ripping off her clothes with his fangs. Emma was everything that was sweet and lovely, and after her trials - and near death - she deserved her new life as Lachlain's queen.
Still, Kaderin sighed, unable to help feeling very old and very alone. Then she recalled that she wouldn't be alone for long. She had a man coming over this very night... to do things to her. She shivered, then shook herself. "Emma, about Bowen... "
"Oh, Bowe. Sure, I know him. Know he's supercali hot." A male sound of displeasure had her covering the phone and saying, "Not as hot as you are!"
So Emma's new werewolf husband was the jealous type? Kaderin rolled her eyes.
"Yeah, Bowe's got that tortured, brooding thing going on. He lost his mate in the eighteen hundreds, and he's done nothing but search for a way to reunite with her ever since."
The breath left Kaderin's body, and she sank onto the bed.
"Kaderin, I-I kind of have to go. Can you call me later?"
"Sure, Emma. Have fun," she said absently, then hung up. At least now I know what I'm truly up against. In Bowen's mind, this win equaled the life of his mate. But how would he know to enter? Who was the friend he'd referred to who'd alerted him to the contest?
Her dismay rapidly turning to ire, Kaderin dialed the coven, calling for Nïx.
For once, Kaderin found it fortunate when Regin answered. She wasted no time on pleasantries. "Any reason you didn't tell me Myst married a general in the Forbearer army, more specifically a vampire?"
"Lookit, I didn't want to distract you from your job," Regin said. "This Hie is your Big Thing. And I know when I first found out, I was seriously, fucking, shrieking distracted. I mean, I knew you would never get freaked out - well, at least, you wouldn't used to - but I thought it would be prudent to just hold off a few days. It was my idea, not Myst's."
"This connection might have been nice to know in certain situations, Regin. For instance, that vampire in Antarctica that you almost killed is now our brother-in-law!"
"No way! Nikolai Wroth's brother?" A pause. "But does that matter? Can't we still kill him? I wouldn't have told anyone if you wouldn't have. What happens in the South Pole, stays in the - "
"Regin, if you keep something like this from me again, I will annihilate you. You know I'm stronger than you are."
"Ah, but I'm wily."
Kaderin exhaled. "How can Myst be certain he won't turn?"
"I'm not exactly speaking to her."
"Then just let me talk to Nïx."
A second later, Nïx said in a jovial tone, "Kiddy-Kad!"
"Nïx, why is it that Bowen MacRieve - a Lykae who lost his mate - would know to enter this competition to retrieve her? Let me add that I know Bowen attended Emma's wedding, as did you - a soothsayer."
"Um, I dunno. Dumb luck?" Nïx said. Kaderin could just see Nïx twirling her silky black hair, trying to appear innocent. Which reminded Kaderin... sometimes tasks repeated.
"Cut off all your hair," she said, her tone seething. "Then shear it every day thereafter until I tell you to stop."
"Go from Katie to Sinead? Well, I am sassy enough to pull it off - "
"Just do it!"
"Angry, Kaderin? How unlike you."
"I'm livid, as you well know. Nïx, why would you do this to me? Why tell Bowen about this? You had to know he will fight to the death to bring back that mate."
"Oh, yes, especially since she died fleeing him! It's been killing him slowly, making him crazed. He hardly eats or sleeps and hasn't glanced at another female since then."
Kaderin put her forehead between her thumb and forefinger. "He'll be unstoppable. They live for nothing else."
"More unstoppable than a guilt-ridden two-thousand-year-old Valkyrie who, incidentally, keeps winning these things? I was thinking it'd be a wash."
She exhaled, striving for calm. "Since you gave him information, now help me. Why am I feeling now?"
"Because it's time for you to."
"Oh, since you explained it that way." Kaderin rolled her eyes. "Will I win the Hie?"
"Lemme check." She hummed, and Kaderin could almost see her peering at the ceiling in concentration -
The phone dropped.
A chill crept up Kaderin's spine just before Nïx's screams erupted.
"Nïx!" Kaderin snapped. "Nïx, what's going on?"
A minute later, Regin had the phone. "What the hell did you say to her?" In the background, thunder boomed in a deafening succession like cannon blasts. Nïx sobbed hysterically.
"I just asked her if I'll win the Hie! Why? What's happening?"
"I don't know - I've never seen her like this! She's white as a ghost and mumbling incoherently." To Nïx, Regin said, "Calm down, sweet. What's upset you?"
Kaderin heard Nïx's voice, heard her desperate ramblings, but couldn't make out the actual words. "What is she saying?" Kaderin demanded.
"Oh, Kad," Regin whispered, all her temper gone. "She said... " Regin swallowed audibly. "She said that... in the competition, before the next full moon... you're going to... die."
Die? Kaderin frowned in confusion, wringing her hands around the phone. How should one respond to that? I can't imagine. Her inane reply: "Oh."
Regin, fired up once more, said, "Get out of the competition now!"
"You know that won't help," Kaderin murmured. "When your number's up, it's up."
"Yeah, but you can still freaking duck."
"Regin, how can you say something like that?" Kaderin demanded, even knowing she herself had once said much the same. The memory of Furie lashing out at her was as clear as if it happened yesterday. For her own heedless words, Kaderin had had her arm broken and her skull and sternum fractured.
"Where are you right now? We'll come get you, guard you in the coven."
"Nïx could be mistaken," Kaderin offered, surprised to find her eyes had watered in a rush. "Or she read the premonition wrong." But she said that only for Regin's benefit. Kaderin knew Nïx was never wrong. And she'd never seen the death of a Valkyrie before.
"Nïx is presently rolling on the floor. Something is happening."
"Oh." How brave Furie had been to go meet her destiny, how stoic.
Kaderin could aspire to that.
"Damn it, Kad, tell us where you are!"
"Regin, only cowards don't meet their fate. If I'm to die in this competition, then that's the hand I was dealt. I'll play it out."
"You're talking crazy. You shouldn't be alone right now, not with this news."
She tilted her head, staring out the window. "I... won't be." Because dusk was in a couple of hours. "I'll be fine, Regin. I'll check in later," she added, then hung up, turning off the ringer.
Kaderin knew that in the days leading up to the full moon, her coven would fight to find her, calling incessantly, trying to track her movements through her phone and credit-card use, as well as through the Accord's network. But Kaderin knew all the tricks, and if she didn't want to be found, then she wouldn't be.
She shook. The sun continued to set, and she had a vampire coming over.