Kaderin strode down the street, barely after dawn, having just left the beautiful passed-out vampire - and the box - behind.
She'd vacillated for an hour about whether to claim the points or not. In the end she couldn't do it, though she'd gotten as far as lifting the box to just below her heart. She supposed that part of her anatomy had been as affected as all the rest of her after last night.
Although she needed to get to the jetport to be ready for the next update of the scroll, she kept hesitating, distracted, replaying scenes from last night.
After he'd reached his end, he had continued to thrust so gently, rocking over her in the dark, brushing his lips over her face. She'd known he wanted to have her again, but he'd been very pale. When his body had begun shaking, she'd suspected he hadn't been drinking regularly. He had finally rolled over to his back, drawing her to his chest with the crook of his arm.
Now that she and Sebastian had made love, everything felt different to her. This morning, she was seeing things in ways she couldn't remember. Spring always imbued London with miraculous colors and scents, but she couldn't recall the last time she'd noticed.
She'd watched this city grow from a soggy camp to a grand metropolis. The thought made her pause. She was old. And last night also had brought into glaring relief how dissatisfied she was with her life overall. Of course, she missed her sisters, but she fully expected to retrieve them, even if she died.
Kaderin believed that sacrifice could bring them back. How many fables - which were ninety-nine percent true - told of a warrior given a chance to make up for a grievous lack of judgment? Atonement had to be Kaderin's ultimate fate. If she was to die, surely it wouldn't be for nothing? Sacrifice could restore her sisters to life, and as far as destinies went, she was honored by hers.
And besides, did she want to live forever? She had!
Before last night, she couldn't bestir herself truly to dread her upcoming death. Now, she wondered if it would be painful, and if Sebastian would be near.
She'd called Nïx on her jimmied non-traceable phone to get a premonition-of-doom update. She had imagined what she would say: "Hey, Nïxie! Uh, I remember you telling me that I, uh, was going to die and all that." Nervous laugh. "Well, did you see anything about a remarkably virile and sexy vampire coming with me for moral support?" But it had been late at night in New Orleans, and Nïx had most likely been out roaming the streets. Without answers, Kaderin could only speculate.
There were only so many ways a Valkyrie could die - beheading, sorrow, immolation, or some kind of mystical assassination. Beheading seemed likeliest.
A violent death. Kaderin had contemplated cheerier scenarios...
As she smelled the cherry blossoms, she thought of the violence she had meted out over her long life, culminating in the minefield carnage last night. She recalled Bowen yearning for his lost mate, half of his head blown off and still crawling for the box. She thought Cindey had mumbled something about a baby.
Kaderin's eyes watered, and she stumbled into someone on the street. When she glanced up again, there right before her was a butcher shop.
She bit her bottom lip, recalling Sebastian's pale face. Did she dare take him blood? She looked around guiltily, as if others could hear her thoughts.
This was a step she'd never even contemplated. She wasn't merely not going to kill the vampire, nor was she simply allowing him to live. She was considering making a vampire more comfortable after the cataclysmic sex they'd just had. She gave an amazed chuckle. How far the mighty have fallen.
Kaderin found herself entering the shop, swept up in the foreign smell of meat. She asked for her order, and without a raised brow - this was London, after all - she received a plastic container in a brown paper bag. She fished for sterling and pence from her jacket pocket, then hurried from the shop with her purchase.
Here she was late for the airport, and all she could think about was that she'd left him hungry. This was so... so domestic, and it was utterly exciting for her. As it had been with him on the plane that morning while they were dressing. Just before he told me he was going to marry me.
Back at the flat, she noticed she kind of liked seeing his things with hers. Gone was the irritation at the fact that he'd simply moved in with her. Now she suddenly wanted their belongings to be together. She wanted their things intermingled.
She stowed the blood in the refrigerator and was immediately glad she'd brought it, because, though he seemed to have moved in, he had none on tap.
After making her way to the bedroom, she crossed to the bed. She brushed his hair from his forehead and pulled the cover over him. Tenderness. I like this feeling. Quickly becoming one of my favorites. Before she left the room again, she secured a blanket over the drapes as an additional safeguard against the sun.
Take away the fact that he was a vampire. Could she ever have a life with him? She overlooked Emma's vampirism and loved her.
But it didn't matter if Kaderin could accept him. Her sisters wouldn't be able to - even if she somehow would meet Sebastian in the changed reality, which she knew was impossible, even if she lived.
If she lived, she'd have saved Dasha and Rika. Saving their lives would change history...
She'd thought about carrying a letter back for herself when she retrieved her sisters. But she knew how these conundrums typically worked. If she wrote a letter, telling herself to go to the Russian castle and fall for a sad-eyed, achingly gorgeous vampire, her past self wouldn't even recognize her changed handwriting. She'd think it was a trick by vampires, and she'd go there to kill him. Or someone in her coven would find the letter and go with the same intent.
And yet, even knowing how unattainable a future was with him, before she left once more, she jotted a quick note for him.
And mentally tallied one for herself: Idiot, sucker, fool. Mysty the Vampire Layer? She's got nothing on me.
She wasn't in the bed with him when he awoke that afternoon.
Sebastian sat up, wanting to find her, but instantly fell back, arms and legs deadened with fatigue and splayed across the bed.
Staring at the ceiling, he tried to sort through what had happened.
He'd spoken in Estonian and she'd responded in kind. He grated a curse. The things he'd said... He groaned, throwing an arm over his face.
But he'd been out of his mind. And what man wouldn't be while experiencing the act for the first time - and in such a manner? Much less knowing she was enjoying it.
And then... sinking inside her.
The most incredible experience in his entire life.
He ran his fingers through his hair as reality set in. With Kaderin, he might never experience any of it again. He wanted a loyal bond between the two of them; she'd already left without a word. This was only physical for her, like the quick release she'd craved in the cave, when he'd wanted to touch her for hours. His heart sank as he realized nothing had changed between them, just as she'd warned him before he'd taken her. And the last time they'd spoken of the future, he'd vowed that he wouldn't be in hers -
He glanced up, spying a note on the bedside table. He snatched it like a drowning man cast a lifeline.
There's blood in the refrigerator. Will be in sun today, so call me when you wake up - I put my number in your phone.
His jaw slackened. Though the letter was short, he found himself rereading it. It was like a note a wife would leave for her husband, and so he couldn't wrap his mind around it. They'd resolved nothing last night and still had the same angers between them.
Is she playing with me? Is this some sort of cruel jest? Do I have a phone?
Confounded, he scuffed naked into the kitchen to the refrigerator, taking a deep breath as he grasped the handle. There, the only thing inside - a plain paper bag.
She'd brought him blood. Why would she do this? Is it poisoned? He took the bag out and tossed it onto the counter, but as he turned, he saw the box from the minefield. She'd left it.
He shut the refrigerator door and repeatedly knocked his head against it.
Congo River Basin,
Democratic Republic of Congo
Prize: One jade jaguar pentacle, altar tool for demonolatry, worth thirteen points
When Sebastian traced to her and found himself in a sweltering brush, he recognized which prize Kaderin had chosen.
She had navigated the jungle - the equatorial jungle - from the low lying riverside to these highlands of the Virunga Massif. Nearby was a pounding waterfall, and beside it lay an ancient grave. The prize was buried there in the rich, dark earth.
Though the canopy was dense, he was still burning, avoiding shafts of light as though they were spears raining down. But it didn't matter, he had to do anything possible to help her... since she'd given up the box.
He carried it in his jacket pocket and ran his finger over it, wishing the prize weren't expired.
Was he pleased that she didn't want that between them? Without question. But now, all he could think about was the incredible number of points she'd sacrificed toward a win that she'd obviously kill for.
Where the hell is she? He couldn't spy her out through the thick growth and the waterfall's mist, but he couldn't remain much longer -
A branch cracked behind him. He whirled around - to catch the flat of a shovel with his face.
The metal clanged against his skull, reverberating... until... blackness.
When he awoke, he was being dragged. The Scot? His face is wasted. Too weak to trace. Try again. Blackness wavered once more.
"To some of us, leech, this is no' a game," MacRieve said. Sound of waterfall nearing. Steam thickening. Can't trace. "No' merely a way to impress a Valkyrie, so that she might deign to fuck you."
Dragged to the edge.
"For your stunt at the minefield, you're going for a swim, and your wee Valkyrie is going for a dive."
How high is the drop? Won't matter. The sun...
"I doona think you'll die, no matter how much you might want to."
MacRieve punted him in the ribs, sending him flying over the edge.
Tortuguerro Beach, Costa Rica
Prize: A tear of Amphitrite, preserved into a bead, worth eleven points
W alking a bit bowlegged there, siren?" Kaderin asked lightly, though she was seething at this visible reminder that Cindey had obviously screwed the very endowed Nereus when that option had returned on the scrolls. She and Cindey were now almost tied. "Nereus must be slumming."
"Speaking of slumming, where's your vampire?" Cindey asked. "The nymphs said they heard him forsake you. I didn't think that was even possible."
"Do I look like I care?" She'd always enjoyed asking that question, since she knew the answer was invariably no -
"Yes, Kaderin, you do." Cindey sounded amazed by this fact.
Kaderin casually hissed at her, hoping to cover her dismay, because it was true that she'd been vampire-free for forty-eight hours. Sebastian hadn't called, he hadn't traced to her, and she felt like a nailed-and-bailed idiot.
Good money said she'd... come on too strong?
Yes, he'd said things, expressed sentiments and promises when she'd been kissing him. But how much weight could she put on those words? He'd been out of his mind with pleasure.
How could she not be his favorite girl at the time?
And really, what had they settled? Other than that the interlude was most definitely, unequivocally supposed to be meaningless sex? And exactly why had she been so adamant about that?
She had absolutely refused to call Myst to ask about Sebastian. That stance had lasted about six hours before she broke down. But Myst and Nikolai hadn't seen him or heard from him at all in two days.
Third major turnoff? Not calling. Especially after a gymnastic round of immortal sex.
Giving in to her insecurities in this new situation was better than the alternative: acknowledging that he would be here - unless he was injured. Or worse.
She figured that since her emotions were still so changeable, she might as well try them all on like new coats. And she liked the look and feel of angry and indignant so much better than worried and fearful.
None of this mattered. Once she went back for her sisters, none of this would have been. She had to remember that.
Since the morning she'd left him the letter - and left her prize behind - she'd competed at three tasks. At each one, she'd had the misfortune of meeting up with Lucindeya and Bowen.
Bowen remained gruesomely injured from the minefield, showing no regeneration whatsoever. He was still missing an eye and the skin over half his forehead. Blood had been seeping from the wound at his side, soaking his cambric shirt. The young witch's curse was not to be shaken.
Kaderin almost felt sorry for him - the way she'd feel sorry for a mindless wolf caught in the teeth of a spring trap. She'd freed them before, and they always appeared bewildered, eyes wild, having no idea why they'd been chosen to feel such pain or how to end it.
Bowen reminded her of exactly that. But, in the end, the wolves always snarled and snapped, and though he was cursed, Bowen was still a force to be reckoned with in the competition.
She'd slogged through a quicksand jungle to retrieve a jade pentacle. She'd thought she was so fast and had believed she had a chance against Bowen because he was still injured. But he'd flown over the untamed terrain as if renewed. He'd dusted her to that prize, leaving her panting and robbed of points.
He'd scrutinized her, even took a menacing step toward her. Then, as if he'd made a weighty decision, he'd turned from her.
In Egypt, Kaderin had answered a riddle of staggering complexity that left the Sphinx - and the Lykae and the siren - wondering how she'd done it. Secretly, she'd wondered herself. She'd earned the single golden scarab for ten points and had narrowed the gap on Bowen and taken a slim lead over Cindey.
But just last night in China, Bowen had been the first to the sole Urn of the Eight Immortals, leaving her and Cindey completely out for all the effort to get there. He'd reached his eighty-seven points, securing his spot in the finals.
Kaderin had seventy-four points. Cindey had seventy-two.
It hadn't escaped Kaderin's notice that she was thirteen points shy of the finals - the exact value of the prize she'd relinquished.
Today, the instructions were to swim out ten miles until a whirlpool portal appeared and brought them down to the prize - Amphitrite's tear, a bead said to heal any wound.
As twilight crept closer, competitors continued to line the beach. These entrants would be new ones - the veterans would have taken one look at this task, an eleven-pointer, and known some catch awaited them. Kaderin's first clue what that catch might be occurred when she'd spied cows' heads bobbing in the water just off the shore.
And that was before she even saw the first fin.
With a quick jog down the beach, she found a rivulet flowing steadily into the ocean, carrying the heads. Far upriver, a meatpacking plant must be churning out the refuse.
"Sharks!" Cindey cried when Kaderin returned. "Bloody sharks." She faced Kaderin. "You going in?"
"If you do, I won't have much choice, will I?" Cindey snapped.
The Lore beings and low creatures had taken great pains to get here, lured by the idea of a healing agent, and likely were wondering why the older ones weren't getting into the water. Then they spotted the fins, too. Not one of them talked of swimming. But Kaderin was in a desperate position.
She'd given up that damn box. Silly, silly Valkyrie.
"Screw this," she muttered, yanking off her sword.
"Kaderin's going to do it!" someone whispered. Others pointed.
Shrugging from her pack and jacket, she collected her sword, slinging the strap over her shoulder. She backed down the strand of beach and took off in a sprint, diving at the last possible moment, gaining yards out into the sea.
With smooth, even strokes, she swam freely through the sharks. This isn't so bad. Ten miles was nothing. If she wasn't bleeding or thrashing about, she should be fine -
An aggressive bump nearly knocked the breath from her. Ignore it. Swim.
Another purposeful knock.
In seconds, the sea was teeming with them, making it impossible to swim without hitting one with each kick. She knew no one had ever seen or documented anything like this. The meatpacking plant was, in essence, running a shark farm on the side.
Her sword would be useless in the water.
One shark was worse than the others, the bull of them all, giving her yet another violent shove -
Teeth sank into her thigh. She shrieked with pain, shoving her fingers at the flesh around the rows of teeth, prying the jaws apart.
She was fighting for her life now. With sodding sharks.
There came a brief thought that surely Sebastian would trace to her again and might find her remains - if there were any.
Kaderin had believed she'd die a violent death, but she'd be damned if she'd be food. She dove down, slashing out with her claws, biting them just as they sought to bite her. Outrage filled her, and red covered her vision.
She sank her claws into the bull's fin, yanked herself into it and bit down as hard as she could. Blood darkened the water, red bubbles and streams everywhere. Impossibly, more sharks came. She spit, then bit again.
I might actually die here. An immortal could die from a shark attack, if the head was severed from the neck.
Another swipe of her claws connected down the sleek side of the bull, but she couldn't fight them all off.
She swam down, determined to hide in a reef. She could hold her breath for extended periods of time.
And she couldn't die of drowning. Just ask Furie.
Before she could escape, the bull latched on to her leg, thrashing as it propelled her back into the fray.
Frantic slashing. Pain. When she clawed against the grain, the sharkskin abraded her fingers, tore at her claws. Twisting bodies, the power in them...
She kicked up to the surface, gasping air to return -
One seized her other leg above the knee, forcing her down in erratic yanks. The water swallowed her scream.
Sebastian jerked awake, then immediately collapsed back, wincing at the pain thundering through his head.
He cracked open his eyes to a starry nighttime sky. A warm breeze brushed over him as he lay unmoving on a stony riverbed. He eased up once more, struggling to determine where he was, squinting as memories from the jungle bombarded him.
That fucking wolf had tossed him into a raging river. Each time Sebastian had been dragged under was salvation from the sun, even as he sucked water into his lungs. After what seemed like days, the water had finally calmed. With his skin burning in the light, and his blood from a head injury gushing into his eye, he'd been sure he would die.
But he'd hauled himself to the shore - because he hungered for his future, with Kaderin in it. Before he'd passed out, he'd made it into the brush until only his legs were exposed. For the rest of the day, he'd burned, too weak even to move to avoid the pain.
How long had he been out? The entire day? He was thirsty, exhausted -
MacRieve threatened Kaderin. He bolted to his feet, tracing to her. When the dizziness hit from standing and he rocked on his feet, he was already on a tropical beach somewhere just at sunset.
Which meant he was now on the other side of the world. Again.
Dozens of competitors from the Lore gazed breathlessly out at the sea. Sebastian followed their attention, and spied a churning in a darker ring of water. Shark fins sliced through the water, then slipped back down.
Something was dying out there, and no one bothered to lend a -
A hand shot through the surface.
His stomach clenched. Kaderin.
An instant trace. Under the murky water with her. Impossible to see. Blood - hers - and tissue, pieces of shark thick in the water. He struck out, fighting past the coil of sharks to reach for her shoulders.
Missed her. One had her leg, twisting her from Sebastian's grasp, yanking down in a frenzy.
Sebastian fought with all the strength he had. He hit and connected, slicing his hands on teeth, ignoring his own wounds, clearing a way to her.
His hand closed in a fist over her upper arm...
Fucking got her.
He traced back to the beach, tumbling to the ground, twisting her atop him so he didn't crush her.
She wasn't breathing. He jerked up, flipping her to her side. She coughed, choking up water. He rubbed her back as she spit into the sand. When she'd caught her breath, he took her in his arms, rocking with her.
What if I didn't wake when I did?
She'd be... dead. He shuddered. They couldn't be parted again.
Even if he had to lock her away.
When he gently held her by the shoulders so he could see her eyes, she muttered, "You look white as a ghost."
"You were seconds away from being eaten alive!" he roared, his gut-wrenching fear for her turning to fury in an instant. "Or drowning."
"I did drown." She frowned dazedly. "Twice, I think."
"This displeases me. What if I hadn't gotten here in time? What if I hadn't been around to save your life?"
"Don't you get it?" she snapped. "For more than a millennium, I have won this contest handily. Then you come along, forcing me to alter my strategy." She sucked in a breath to continue. "And to take risks that I wouldn't have had to before. I wouldn't have been moved to this desperate an act if I hadn't given up the box."
"I didn't want you to give it up."
She eyed him. "Yes, Sebastian. You did."
"Not if this was the alternative." His voice was hoarse. "Do you know what it was like seeing you in the middle of that? To watch you going down before I could even react? I was watching you... die." He smoothed back wet, sandy hair from her cheek. "What will make you desist from this?"
"Nothing," she said, her expression obstinate. "Nothing on this earth will prevent me from winning the prize."
"Maybe your death would."
"It's been a long time coming."
In a seething voice, he said, "Bride, you have a bit of shark on your chin."
She wiped it off with the back of her arm, her mien defiant.
"You bit them?"
"They bit me first! And I didn't have much of a choice."
"You saw there were sharks, and you didn't think to wait for me?"