She pulled back. Tears streamed down her face. "What did you say?"
"You died. Fifteen minutes after the moment from which I just took you." At her dumbstruck expression, he bit out an explanation detailing the scene, the difficulties, the incredible power of the fire. He explained her choice.
She swayed, and he caught her with his good hand. "I asked you to come back for me? I told you about my sisters?"
"Yes. I had no idea this was what you sought. Why didn't you tell me before?"
"I would have tonight! And before that, I just... couldn't." She bit her lip. "I let go?" When he nodded, she said, "I must have recognized something. Seen something that made me trust you completely." Her brows drew together. "Bastian, I didn't just trust you with my life." She caught his eyes. "I trusted you with my sisters' lives as well."
He said quietly, "I was humbled by it."
Riora suddenly appeared, perched on the edge of her altar, with a visibly emotional Scribe following, stepping on snapping glass.
"I had an interesting conversation with my champion," Riora began. "And he proved possible yet another impossibility. I alerted the vampire to the fact that once you got your hot little hands on the key, he would lose you forever. History would be changed. The future would buckle and grind to fit the past. You would never have found him, because you wouldn't have suffered the death of your sisters. And a vampire chose to relinquish his Bride rather than have her suffer that horror and guilt. To spare you pain, he chose to give you the key, even believing he would lose you forever."
"Is this true?" Kaderin asked Sebastian with a catch in her voice. "Y-you would do that?"
In answer, he rasped, "Want you happy."
Her tears ran freely.
"Why these tears, Katja?" he asked. "You will have your family back, I swear it. Do not cry."
"What's on your mind, Valkyrie?" Riora said from behind them. "Don't make me go digging for it."
On her mind? Good question. There were too many thoughts to sort through. And too many feelings. Her heart felt rent in two, choosing between her family and the vampire she was falling for.
Did she love him? She thought she might, but how did one know? Most didn't trust their own feelings anyway, much less if they were unpracticed for so long.
But Kaderin had always trusted her instinct.
She could now accept that instinct had commanded her right from the start not to hurt him, all the way back to that first morning. "I can't not know him, Riora."
"What are you saying?" he asked, seeming not to breathe.
"I don't want to have to choose."
He dragged her against his chest with his good arm, resting his chin on her head again. "For my part, if I could know for a day that I'd won you, it would be worth it."
"But you wouldn't remember winning me," she said against him.
"Wait." He set her away to give her that half-grin. "Katja, my arm is broken."
"I know!" Kaderin cried, her voice breaking. "Why do you sound so bloody delighted about that?"
"It should have been healed," Sebastian said. "I was never struck with a boulder until the serpent woke. Your crossing the cable woke it, and when you didn't cross... "
She sucked in a breath, and her eyes widened.
"Very good, vampire," Riora said. "Kaderin told you time travel would work. And you told her you can't go to the past to change the future. You were both right."
"I don't understand how this is possible," Kaderin said. "He changed the past. The present should be different. And you said he had to choose - "
"Ah, I... told a little lie. I wanted to see if it was possible for a vampire to surrender his fated Bride." She inclined her head at them. "And thank you both for your cooperation. Now. Truthfully. You can't go back and then change the future."
Sebastian's expression grew dark. "Riora, that's exactly on our agenda right now."
"Scribe! Ribbon! Shears!" In the blink of an eye, a scarlet ribbon was rolled out over the altar, stark against the marble. Scribe laid scissors into her outstretched palm. "This ribbon is time, from past to present."
She leaned down to the end of the ribbon representing the past and cut a sliver a few inches up. "I've gone back and extracted something from time, but the rest of the ribbon remains wholly unchanged. Vampire, you were absolutely right - to a point. You unquestionably cannot go back in time to change the future. That way lies madness." She frowned at Kaderin. "Really, Valkyrie, you should give him more credit. He is a scholar." She shrugged and continued, "But magic allows us to go back and nab a few things now and again. A mystical parlor trick."
"I won't forget him?" Kaderin couldn't stop shaking.
"No, not at all. But when you use the key, do not attempt to get clever with it. Time is living and fluid but refuses to allow the past to be. Thrane's genius was that he discovered doors to the past could be opened, but time would shut them immediately to prevent instability and chaos. So he created a key that would open millions of doors at the same time. Keeps a body busy closing all of them. The hope is that your door is the last to get shut down, because if you get locked out, you will fade."
Riora tilted her head at Kaderin, then turned that sharp, cutting stare on Sebastian. "Look at Kaderin's relief, vampire. For some reason, your pull on her was stronger than a blessing bestowed by a goddess" - she stretched her fingers out, examining her nails - "of no mean power."
"Blessing?" Sebastian asked. "The blessing?"
"You?" Kaderin whispered. "It was you?"
"Yes." Riora studied her. "That's why I was perplexed that your attraction to a vampire could neutralize it."
"Why?" Kaderin demanded. "Why did you do it?"
"You blamed yourself for your sisters' deaths, and yet you were too strong to die. Your sorrow was debilitating the Valkyrie covens."
"Why numb everything? I haven't felt joy, humor, love."
Riora delicately coughed, clearing her throat. "That was a bit unintentional." She turned to Sebastian. "You, and you alone, have freed her to feel. And it is time she should."
"This explains much," Sebastian said, then rocked on his feet.
"We've got to get you bandaged up." Kaderin leaned into him to help him stand, alarmed at how pale his face had grown. How much blood had he lost?
"Kaderin, he's bleeding all over my temple," Riora said. "And by the way, Valkyrie, you owe me for a skylight." Riora turned from her. "Scribe? Where are you? Scribe!" And then they were gone.
"Are you going to be able to trace us?" Kaderin asked.
"Of course," he grated, but he was barely able to get them back to her flat.
Stubborn vampire. He's been hiding how weak he is.
In the bedroom, his legs gave out. When she helped him to the bed, he fell back but clenched her wrist. "You're not going without me."
"Your sword arm is injured. You won't be able to defend yourself in a battle."
Sebastian said, "You've waited a thousand years, you can wait two more days."
She shook her head. "I'd be taking you into a war where you are the enemy."
"I'll take that chance, Katja. Do not do anything until I heal."
She hesitated, then said, "I won't go until you're healed."
He nodded, then passed out immediately.
She meant what she'd said. There was no way he could accompany her. A vampire on a battlefield with an army of Valkyrie? Not going to happen. Her own sisters would likely try to kill him.
But she was not leaving him when he needed her. For the last two nights, when not chaining her up, he'd been a hero to her. He'd salvaged the competition for her, given her the finals, and then won the key. Not to mention that he'd saved her life.
And then, when faced with the choice of her happiness over his own, he'd chosen hers.
At every turn, he made her feel protected, cherished. And she would respond in kind.
Her relief when she'd found out she wouldn't forget him was staggering. What did that say? What did it mean that she was as delighted about that fact as she was to be going back for her sisters?
Before she used the key, Kaderin would contact the coven and let them know she was okay, though she was sure they'd already felt her return. She would see Sebastian mended, giving him as much blood as he could drink.
She'd waited a thousand years. Two or three days wouldn't matter in the great scheme of things, would it?
Sebastian woke feeling incredible.
A warm, sleeping Valkyrie was draped over his chest, and he clutched her to him, amazed by all that had occurred. Memories trickled in from that hellish haze after he'd lost her, but he pushed them away.
Because he'd gotten her back.
All that mattered was that he had Kaderin safe with him.
He'd gotten her back.
When she didn't wake, he slipped from the bed to go shower and to examine his arm. He stood, waiting for the black dots to cloud his vision but saw none. The bones in his upper arm and elbow felt as though they had already started to knit, and he could tell the shredded skin and muscles were connected, at least. He might not even need the sling she'd fashioned for his arm.
When he returned, showered and dressed, she was awake.
"I'm going to be healed by tomorrow," he told her. "We can go for them at sunset."
"Sebastian, once we get close enough to my sisters, they could kill you themselves." She looked away. "They would not hesitate as I did."
"I'm going with you. There's no question of it. What if you don't make the door? Then I definitely will lose you."
"Even if we wait for you to heal, you can't defend yourself without risking one of my kind."
He drew his head back. "I would never hurt them."
"I know that," she said quickly, "but they'll want you dead."
"I'm going, Katja. It must be so."
She studied his face for a long moment, then exhaled with a subtle nod. She turned her back to him, drawing her hair over one shoulder, baring her beautiful neck. "Then you have to be strong."
He swallowed tightly. "You're inviting me to drink you?"
She said over her shoulder, "You have been for a day."
And I've missed it? He joined her in the bed, turning her to face him. "No wonder I feel so damned good."
She glanced up from under a blond curl, and said in a throaty voice, "How good?"
He stilled. "Remarkably." Even with his body so beaten, his cock swelled in anticipation. "Tremendously."
"We'd have to be creative," she said, with her eyes already flashing silver. "So we don't hurt your arm." Her idea of creative was to strip off his shirt that she'd slept in, then lay back at the foot of the high bed, positioned for him with her shining hair spread out, and her nipples already hard.
"I like creative," he rasped, ripping off his own clothes. His hands itched to touch her in a million different ways and places. He wanted to kiss her for hours.
"This should work, don't you think?" she asked. "Are you sure you're ready?" The look he gave her made her say, "Okay, okay! Just checking - "
Her words died in her throat when he crouched down and eased her legs open. He loved kissing her between her thighs and would take any opportunity to taste her. She cried out at the first touch of his tongue to her wet flesh, and moaned when he languidly suckled her.
"Bastian, please," she finally whimpered. "I need to feel you inside me."
He pressed a kiss to her thigh. When he stood, her knees fell even wider apart in blatant invitation. For him. This was still so new to him - to have this beauty asking him to be inside her was still unbelievable.
He gripped his shaft and positioned himself at her entrance, then reached forward to cover her breasts with his palms. She arched, pushing into his hands until he squeezed and groaned at the feel of her soft flesh.
As the head of his cock pressed deeper, filling her, she moaned with each inch. When she took him as far as she could, his knees went weak, but from pleasure.
With her legs locked around his waist, she undulated her hips, slowly at first, but soon she was so frantic he thought he might come just from her working her sex on his shaft. "More, Bastian!"
I'll always give you more, he remembered vowing that first day. Until I die. He had to hold on...
He leaned down and licked her stiff nipples, one and then the other, but when she threaded her fingers in his hair and arched her back, it made him want to come even more.
He rose, about to pull out and take her with his mouth again. But she grasped two of his fingers and softly sucked the tips into her mouth, wetting them. She placed them against her clitoris, showing him exactly what she desired.
Shuddering, he strained every muscle in his body not to spill that instant. When he stroked her there, lightly pinching, she went wild, twisting and writhing on the bed.
"Drink, Bastian," she said between panting breaths. "I need you to."
Need me to drink? He never thought he'd hear those words, and his fangs ached in response.
Still thrusting, he clutched her slim shoulders, brushing his lips against her neck. When he pierced her skin and sucked, she cried out, and his eyes rolled back in his head. He growled against her flesh when her body tensed in a shuddering orgasm.
He withdrew his fangs, throwing his head back. Her blood raced through him, burning and pulsing, making him mad with lust. Her sex squeezed him, demanding, hungry. A haze seemed to cover his vision. He felt as if something inside him had been unleashed, and knew he'd need to take her hard.
When he pulled out and turned her around, she gasped in surprise and shivered. Clasping her to him with a hand over her front and the other cupping her sex, he pulled her bodily back, then bent her over the bed, her breasts pressing into the mattress. Readying. Positioning her.
He clenched her hips, pinning her in place to receive him as he eased his shaft back inside her. He withdrew slowly, then returned in agonizing strokes, soon finding a driving rhythm that made her moan.
"Harder. Please!" When he heard the thunder drumming outside, he plunged fully into her.
Building, faster, until he was slamming into her, his skin slapping hers, using his whole body to take her. He couldn't believe he'd bent her over the bed like this. Couldn't believe each time with her was more pleasurable than the last.
The headboard was banging against the wall, and still she demanded more.
With a brutal yell, he gave it to her. He held nothing back, fucking her with all his strength as her cries grew louder.
When he reared back, he could see her face turned to the side, her lips parted, her eyes silver. Her arms were stretched out, tensed in front of her. "Bastian," she cried softly, stunned as well. Her reactions and the lightning outside were his permission.
"I'm going to be inside you all night. Drink you all night."
"Yes!" she cried. "Anything, Bastian... "
Anything. No constraints. Utter freedom. He gave himself up to it. Years of doubt evaporated. The past grew dim against a future with her. "You need this?" he grated.
"You need me?"
"Oh, yes, yes!" She stretched her arm back, offering her wrist to drink from as he continued to buck against her. When he pierced her flesh again, she instantly came with an anguished cry. He could no longer resist the pressure welling inside him, so he took as he gave, drawing her blood from her body as he emptied his seed hotly into it.
Once he could come no more, he stretched over her, still thrusting slowly.
His breaths ragged, he rasped at her ear, "You're mine now, Katja. And I will never let you go."
T he first Lore battle Sebastian would ever experience would be a clash that had occurred a millennium in the past, and was one of the most notoriously brutal ever seen.
Tonight he and Kaderin would retrieve her sisters, fully expecting to land in the middle of that war.
They'd strategized about where to use the key, deciding on the flat, mainly because the coven would try to kill him at Val Hall. She wasn't too keen on being in the city, though, in case the two didn't "travel forward well."
Kaderin was nervous about seeing them after so long and had endeavored for an hour to find clothing that didn't look too modern. As he'd waited, he'd sat back against the headboard, watching her dress, thinking over the last two days while his arm had healed.
"We're going to need more time," she'd told him after the first night.
He'd grinned. "I trust my nurse."
During that time, when he hadn't been inside her, they'd talked about everything. She'd told him what her sisters had been like, and he'd revealed what had happened with his family. He felt he could tell her anything, and that she had completely opened up to him as well.
He was learning all about her - and learning how satisfying it was simply to live with her. At his leisure, he got to kiss her ears just to make them twitch. He could study her delicate hands for what seemed like hours, enclosing them completely with his own and running the pads of his fingers over them. He got to watch her sleep - that is, when he wasn't exhausted beside her. His Bride was as insatiable as he was.
She was abandoned, free with her body, and gave him anything he wanted, anything he'd ever fantasized about. When he'd admitted how little experience he had, she'd seemed determined to give him everything he'd missed.
In the end, their time together confirmed what he'd known from the beginning. He never wanted to part from her.
The only obstacle to his happiness was the knowledge that the key did, in fact, work.
Of course, he was relieved that Kaderin would have her sisters, but he couldn't help thinking about what it would have been like to go back for his own family and see them once more. Maybe if he had done things differently, he and Kaderin both could have had the opportunity...
"Are you ready?" she asked, finally dressed in jeans and a longer jacket, with her sword strapped over her shoulder.
He nodded and rose to collect his own sword. When he crossed to her, she held up the key with raised eyebrows. "You sure you want to go? It's going to be intense."
He put his shoulders back. "I was on a battlefront for a decade, remember?" He tucked her braid behind her ear.
She didn't look convinced. "Don't trace in front of my sisters, please. And try not to open your mouth much." When he raised his brows, she said, "Your fangs. I don't want them to see your fangs. They really will try to kill you."
"You're beautiful when you're nervous." He gave her a brief, deep kiss.
In a breathy voice, she said, "You've got your sword ready?"
His lips curled into a grin.
"Just... just don't get killed, Bastian." She swallowed. "Okay?"
He took her free hand, pressed his lips to her palm. "I'll endeavor not to."
As he'd done before, she offered up the key. A portal opened. They met eyes, then stepped through, hand in hand.
As though in a quaking black dome, thunder like cannon fire shook the earth. He'd seen it in her dreams, but nothing could prepare him for the reality. Lightning slashed across the sky. All around them, Valkyrie shrieked and pried heads from vampires. Vampires ripped the throats out of any they could overpower.
He'd never seen a Horde vampire in person. They were worse than her dreams. Red-eyed, insane.
"I see them!" she yelled, starting for them in the valley below.
But he was aching to save a Valkyrie from a vampire twice her size who had beaten her down. Kaderin must have seen the look in his eyes. "I know, Bastian! But it won't change a single thing - except that you can die. Or we won't make it back to the door with them both."
He nodded. "I'm right behind you." He still traced and beheaded the vampire from behind. Kaderin frowned at him, but he knew she wasn't displeased. Then they hurried to the flatlands where her two sisters clashed with vampires, battling with long swords, blood splashing up their legs.
When Kaderin stopped and stared at them, swallowing, Sebastian recognized that they were similar versions of her, though one was taller and one shorter. And their coloring was different. One had reddish blond hair, while the other's was darker brown.
Kaderin's eyes were glinting, her breaths shallow. He curled his fingers under her chin, coaxing her to face him. "Let's get them back."
Kaderin nodded, caressing the side of her cheek against his fingers. Then she turned to them and called in their mother's tongue, "Rika, Dasha, come!"
They both looked to her, then back at the fray. "We cannot leave!"
Rika's eyes widened at her command, and Dasha's narrowed, but they did hurry to her. Kaderin had to remember that she had been sweet to them, gentle with them -
Just before they reached each other, a vampire charged toward Kaderin. Sebastian met him, striking viciously, clearing the way for them.
When Kaderin stood before her sisters, at last, she couldn't find her voice. With a trembling hand, she reached out to cup Dasha's stubborn chin, then brush Rika's glossy dark hair from her eyes. "I-I missed you two so much," she finally managed to say as her tears began to fall.
"Missed us?" Dasha said. "When did you dress differently - and so strangely? And who's that male?"
"There's no time for that, Dash." Kaderin forced herself to be blunt. "The two of you die in this battle. In ten minutes, a vampire takes your heads. And it is my fault."
Dasha opened her mouth to interrupt her, but Kaderin raised her hand. "We must make this fast. I live one thousand years in the future now, and I'm taking you forward to my time tonight. And I'm so sorry, but you're going to lose those years. Forever."
Without blinking an eye, ever-practical Dasha said, "Seems to me that they will be lost as well if we are dead."
Rika put her hands on her knees, bending over and coughing blood. "Kader-ie, I don't understand." She'd already been hurt worse than Kaderin had ever known. "How is this possible?"
"You know extraordinary things happen in the Lore - we've seen them before. We've experienced much stranger than this," Kaderin said. "You're just going to have to trust me now because if we don't get through a certain door, very quickly, I could cease to be."
"If we leave the battle, how could we show our faces again?" Dasha asked. "We'd be known as cowards. You could think us cowards."
"No," Kaderin said. "You would be remembered as dying valiantly in battle."
"No one would curse our names?" Dasha asked.
"Never, I vow it."
Dasha turned her attention to Sebastian. "And the man?"