Y®¶ls®¶rk, Hungary, the pit of the Fyre Serp®¶nte
Prize: The Sworne Blade of Honorius, to win
I need your help," Sebastian had said to Nikolai after learning that tonight was the full moon. That was all it had taken to arrange every step of transportation.
"I can go with you," Nikolai had offered. "Myst is at Val Hall today." His tone grew low. "They couldn't find Kaderin, and they all are... gathering."
"You need to be there if Myst returns. Besides, it's just me against the Scot and he's weakened. I can handle this."
Just after Sebastian had chained Kaderin up, he'd traced to Riora's temple. She was surprisingly indifferent about Sebastian competing in Kaderin's stead. In fact, she was more put out that he would no longer be her knight, and hers alone. But she'd agreed.
When he'd traced back to London, a car had been waiting outside the flat to take him to a private airport. Then there was a jet to Hungary. It was still dark when Sebastian landed a mere two and a half hours later...
The truck that would take him to the pit had just arrived, earlier than scheduled, so Sebastian decided to take five minutes to check on Kaderin. He would reassure her that Riora had agreed to him competing - and convince her that he could do this.
He traced to London. To find the bed was empty and the chains broken. She was gone...
When he traced directly to her, he appeared at the edge of a chamber of fire.
The cavern that housed it was as large as an auditorium, and in the center was a roiling pit of lava. Fire wisped into the air, dissipating into black smoke. Rocks crumbled down the sides into the lava, bubbling up smaller and smaller until they disappeared.
Where in the hell is she?
Stretched above the pit was a metal cable as thin as filament that was embedded into a sheer rock face. He couldn't see where it would lead -
Kaderin appeared from the other side of the chamber, wasting no time, hopping up to the side of the pit, testing the cable with a pointed toe. When she saw him nearing, her eyes narrowed with fury. "Get the hell away from me! Enough! I need this, Bastian. I have to have it."
Palms raised, he said slowly, "Let me get it for you."
"I've won the Hie five times before. I can do this!" She hurried onto the wire - it burned her shoes.
"Goddamn it, I'll trace you."
"To where?" she said over her shoulder. "The rock's solid. It may be that you have to walk the cable to spy out another entrance below or scan for it in the ceiling." She paused and quirked an eyebrow. "Walking this won't be a problem."
He traced to her, determined to take her from this place, but she dodged him, sending him back to the same spot empty-handed.
"Bloody stop it!" she shrieked, charging farther out on the wire. "I can walk this blind! On my hands!" In an instant, he traced once more, but again she ducked, eluding him.
A lash of fire whipped up just behind her. Even with her speed, she scarcely escaped it - and him, as he traced once more. No key was this valuable - not worth the life of an immortal.
Something bubbled up from the lava beneath her.
A true monster, a being of fire shaped like a giant snake. The Fyre Serp®¶nte. The main part of its body lay beneath the surface of the lava, its tail and head rising above. The lash of fire actually had been part of its long tail, and it struck again just as Sebastian traced.
Kaderin twisted and lunged forward. Untouched.
He yelled, "Stay fucking still!"
But the fire wanted its due.
When it roared spitting balls of flame, it rocked the entire cavern. Boulders toppled over, plummeting everywhere. Fighting to reach her, Sebastian dodged and traced, but the ceiling rained them. One dropped onto his right arm, crushing it almost all the way up to his shoulder; he bellowed with pain and fury. She was barely staying balanced in the shaking chamber -
A boulder hit the center of the cable, and it snapped with a deafening twang. She dove backward, twisting in the air for the swinging line. He couldn't see from where he was... had no idea if she caught it.
He traced. Nothing. Body straining with effort. He was trapped, but almost close enough to reach the side of the pit. He lunged forward, tearing sinew and skin. Another frantic lunge, with a good, rewarding rip.
He finally reached it, and was able to see down. She had a hold on the cable with both hands and was deftly climbing up. With a groan of relief, he wound it around his left wrist for a better grip.
"Hold on, Katja! I've got you - "
The serpent slithered its tail up around her leg. She bit back a scream as the fire hissed against her skin, branding it. The thing was dragging her down.
Trapped as he was, he couldn't use his legs to pull. Couldn't put his back into the effort.
Her sweating body writhed in pain. She still clung to the filament, now red with blood from her ruined palms slipping down.
If he could just lose his arm, he might have a chance...
As he wrenched back with the cable and away from the boulder, he saw her studying the situation, her gaze darting over his trapped arm, then down at the fire. When she turned back, her eyes were glinting. She swallowed, gazing up at him.
A calm seemed to wash over her.
His gut tightened with dread. She couldn't be considering... He tore every muscle in his body to wrest her from its grip, bellowing with the effort.
"Bastian." He heard her perfectly over the wails of the serpent, the bubbling, popping lava, and his own heart thundering.
"No... no!" he roared. "Don't you even think it, goddamn you - "
"I'm going to let go now," she murmured. Her eyes were clear, lucid.
"Just give me fucking time! The prediction doesn't have to be!" He somehow pulled harder, snatching the cable up with his left arm and then catching it lower down, but the serpent hissed and seized her higher on her torso. Kaderin gritted her teeth against the pain.
Can't beat it like this. In a frenzy, he lunged sideways, fighting to separate his arm from his body.
"I know where the blade is," Kaderin said. "Below the cable bolt on that wall. Fifteen feet down, forty degrees to the left." Tears tracked from her eyes. "There's a cave under an overhang - I could only see it from here."
"Don't do this! Ah, God, please!... Don't - "
"Come back for me. So I can go back for them."
Eyes riveted to his, she let go. The serpent snatched her down.
The fire consumed her.
The lights of Val Hall flared sharply, then guttered out.
Lightning slashed the sky, and thunder rattled the darkened manor so hard the old house groaned violently. Myst dropped to her knees just as Nïx's eyes went wild and her hands fisted in her hair. Emma wept.
When Regin shrieked, the windows burst, spewing shards, until even the wraiths fled. As though a bomb had hit, glass shattered in a radius outward from the manor, again and again, in successive waves for miles.
The Lore creatures in the city and swamps trembled in fear and knew of only one thing that could provoke the Valkyrie like this.
They'd felt the death of one of their own.
Dead. Sebastian knew she was dead, felt it in his entire body.
He loved her. Not compulsion. Love so strong it humbled him.
He stared down into the pit long after. How long could an immortal live in that flame? How much pain did she suffer?
What did she mean, "go back for them?"
A sudden dream washed over him. Kaderin was sprinting down a hill that was covered in bodies. He heard her ragged breaths and the warning shrieks from other Valkyrie. He experienced her roiling panic.
She fought past vampires, with dirty red eyes and grotesque snarls, desperate to get to... her sisters.
Sebastian was still caught by his trapped arm - the one he hadn't been able to sever in time - but he fell to his knees just as Kaderin had done on that battlefield all those ages ago when she witnessed her blood sisters being butchered. The shock was like a physical strike, leveling her. She heard her sisters' heads hit the stony ground. She saw the vampire - the one she'd just spared - dealing the blows...
When she shrieked, it was so loud her own ears bled. The young vampire Sebastian had seen her torturing in the dream had beheaded her sisters. Now that he'd felt her rage, her loss and guilt, he wished she'd shown even less mercy, wished he could have joined her in her retribution.
"So I can go back for them," she'd told him. Them. Triplets. Her blood sisters. She had lost them both in the space of minutes. That's what this entire ordeal had been about. Not mercenary, not ego. She wanted her family back. My God, she has trusted me with all their lives. She trusted that he could win the prize for her.
And that the key could work.
Sebastian had never dared to believe that one could go back in time. Now that belief was the only thing he had. He had to get her back. He could win this cursed thing and go back for her. Just as she'd planned.
She'd just died.
She'd just fucking died.
He couldn't see the cave she'd spoken of, but he'd trace blind into the rock if he had to. Need to lose the arm first.
Just as he decided to use his teeth, he heard footsteps.
MacRieve appeared. He studied the scene, his wasted face darkening. "What's happened here?"
Only then did Sebastian notice how much blood he'd lost from his arm. He suspected the brachial artery had been cut. Once the pressure of the boulder was removed, he'd lose more in a rush. Black spots already clouded his eyes. Did he have enough blood to lose his arm completely?
The Lykae could move the boulder. "A quake. Rocks," Sebastian told him, not daring to utter that Kaderin was gone, even if he hadn't been set on using the Lykae.
"Where's the Valkyrie?" the Lykae asked. "She ought to be here - not you."
"I'm here in her stead."
MacRieve began scanning farther into the chamber.
"You can't reach the prize," Sebastian told him. "It's across the lava, and the cable snapped."
As Sebastian had expected, he surveyed the pit, then said, "I could free you to trace me across. Then... an open contest to take it."
Don't look too eager. "I could double-cross you."
MacRieve narrowed his one eye. "No' if I've got a hold of your good arm."
Sebastian forced himself to hesitate, then said, "Do it."
The Scot crossed to the boulder and shoved at it, seeming confounded when it didn't immediately go. He muttered something that sounded like "Bloody, goddamned witches." Putting his back into it, he asked, "Where exactly are you tracing us?"
Sebastian explained, "Below the cable, there's a lava tube, a cave."
"I doona see anything," he gritted out.
"It's there. You want the prize? Then you're just going to have to trust a vampire - "
The boulder toppled over, and MacRieve grabbed his left arm. Sebastian gaped at what remained of his right arm.
"That's got tae hurt." MacRieve sneered.
"Have you looked in the mirror lately?" Sebastian snapped.
"Aye." He hauled Sebastian to his feet. "And I plan to kill you for that. After this competition. Right now, I doona have all day."
Sebastian just prevented himself from rocking on his feet. His sight was blurred. He struggled to focus on the spot she'd described. Stay sane. Fuck, did she mean forty degrees to my left?
MacRieve jostled him. "Are you even going to be able to do this - "
Sweltering heat, steam, smoke. Solid ground beneath them. Made it. Flames with no seeming source burned erratically, but Sebastian couldn't see the blade.
Suddenly, the Scot dropped his hold on Sebastian, sprinting deeper into the cave, but Sebastian traced blindly ahead. There, on a waist-high column of rock, lay the blade, gleaming in the light of more fires and wet with steam.
Sebastian got there first, snatched it with his good hand, tensed to trace -
Like a shot, MacRieve lashed a whip, coiling the length around Sebastian's wrist. He yanked down, preventing him from tracing. "I'll be taking that now."
The bastard only had one whip. Sebastian simply transferred the blade to his right hand to raise it. But that ruined arm hung lifeless.
"Canna quite make it to your heart, then?"
Sebastian bared his fangs savagely. "I'll gut you before you get this."
"That equals the life of my mate."
"I've the same on my mind," Sebastian bit out.
"The Valkyrie died?"
Sebastian shook his head. "Not for long."
Bowen must have seen something in his expression. He had the advantage, and yet he offered, "We could share it, vampire. The key works twice."
Blood everywhere. Weak. Kaderin had asked something of him. Finally given him a chance to help her... "I need both of those times for her." Can't raise my right arm over my heart. My left arm is trapped. But the blade had powers MacRieve likely didn't know of.
According to Riora, it never missed.
The knife he held was nowhere near the Lykae's whip hand, but Sebastian concentrated on his intention to cut him at the wrist and made the merest motion toward the end, all he could manage with that wasted arm.
Suddenly, his arm shot up. The blade rose as if of its own accord and flashed reflected firelight as it struck.
Blood spurted. The Scot's severed hand dropped. Freed from the whip, Sebastian traced the distance across the pit.
"I will fucking kill you for this, vampire," the Lykae bellowed with rage. "I will eat your goddamned heart!"
Sebastian steeled himself for the jaunt to Riora's temple. But he couldn't leave. Leaving made Kaderin's death real. Stay sane. This key has to work.
From the now unseen cave: "Mark me. So help me God, I will hunt you and the Valkyrie over the earth - "
Sebastian disappeared to the sound of the Lykae's roar - not of pain but of loss.
When Sebastian returned to the temple, Riora greeted him once again with Scribe in tow. "You have won, Sebastian. The first vampire to do so. Congratulations."
"This is for her. Always for her." His body wouldn't stop shuddering.
"Then sign the book of winners, and take your prize."
When Scribe handed him the book, he actually looked as though he respected Sebastian.
Kaderin's dead. Sign the book. Stay sane.
He saw his Bride's proud signature on every line above his own, so far back the lettering had changed. Over time, her handwriting had become harder, more angular. Stay sane. He signed his name with his left hand in shaking letters, stamping the page in blood.
Riora handed him a metallic key. He gripped it so hard it dug into his palm. "Tell me this works."
"It works, Sebastian. Though you may end up cursing it."
"How can you say that?"
"You know why Kaderin sought the key?" Riora asked.
He nodded slowly. "She wants her sisters back."
"If you give her the second turn of the key, she will return for her sisters and never see their deaths. She will be spared one thousand years of guilt and nothingness and instead enjoy contentment with her family."
"I want this!"
"Yet in this case, Kaderin will never be driven to journey out of her way to kill you. She will have her sisters" - Riora's eyes bored into his much as they had that first night - "but you will not have her."
He'd experienced Kaderin's memories of their deaths, of collecting her sisters from the battlefield. Burying their heads, their bodies, then clawing at her hair and skin.
If he could save her from that... to spare her a millennium of guilt?
As a mortal, he'd been a knight with no one to whom to pledge his sword. He'd claimed Kaderin for his own, and that meant protecting all she held dear. He lowered his head. "She will have her sisters." The flames flared as if to punctuate his words.
"Very well. The key unlocks a door for approximately ten minutes. It allows you to go back and to be in the same time as a previous self."
"How will the key know where to open?"
"In the end, the key is a facilitator," she explained. "You hold a tool of unspeakable power, Sebastian. Hold it out in your palm, and it will know what you must have and act to that end. But I warn you, if you get stuck in the past when the door closes, one version of you will fade, ceasing to be."
He saw Scribe in the background, his pale, waxen face showing his sorrow. He gave Sebastian a nod of encouragement.
Riora murmured, "Bring her forward, vampire."
He gave her a pained bow. "Goddess."
Kaderin made her way through the darkened tunnel.
She knew she was close to the Fyre Serp®¶nte's chamber, could hear the echoing space just ahead. She also knew that if Bowen wasn't already here, he'd be right behind her.
As would Sebastian.
Her ear twitched at a sound like a sucked-in breath. Not Bowen? She whirled around, and her eyes narrowed with fury. Sebastian. "Get the hell away from me! Enough! I need this, Bastian. I have to have it."
She trailed off at her first close look at him. His arm was shattered, his face blistered on one side. His shirt had been white but was now slashed and wet with crimson. Her lips parted. What could have happened to him since he'd left her in chains?
Recalling that hardened her resolve. She was so close. She didn't have time to ask. If he'd had his way, she'd still be fettered to a bed.
But, gods, had she ever seen a being in such turmoil? His eyes were fully black and seemed to glint with moisture. His hands shook. Blood dripped freely, though he seemed unaware of it.
"I thought you were gone," he rasped. "Kaderin, we have to leave this place."
"What are you talking about?"
"Take my hand." He stretched out his left hand, palm up.
"Go to hell," she snapped. "Conveniently, it's located just up the tunnel."
He rocked on his feet, and his head lolled forward. He was fighting to stay conscious?
As if fearing he soon wouldn't be able to, he snatched her wrist - and traced her before she could resist. He took her away from the prize, to Riora's temple.
Kaderin shrieked in fury, the sound echoing throughout. The dome skylight began to crack, the thick sound ominous, like a fracture splintering out over a frozen pond.
Sebastian cupped her face with one hand. "No, Katja. Ah, God, let me see you."
"Have you lost your mind?" she cried, shoving him away. "How could you do this? I have to get back! Bowen was right behind me - "
"Must tell you something." He shook his head. His face was so pale.
"There's no time!"
"The key has been won - "
"Bowen!" Lightning fired all around them. Tears filled her eyes. "He took it? No... no!" she screamed, exploding the skylight.
With his good hand, Sebastian yanked her close, hunching over her, covering her with his body. As the glass rained down, he murmured against her hair, "We won it."
Her breaths were ragged. "I-I don't understand," she finally said once the glass had fallen.
"Katja, you... died."