At last count, Cindey had broken dozens of Kaderin's bones. But then, Kaderin had snapped at least twice as many of hers, cracked her brain bucket, and, rumor had it, ruptured the siren's spleen.
To the adorable-looking kobolds, a type of ground-dwelling gnome, Kaderin reached to her sword sheath at her back. She grasped the hilt, not even needing to draw it for the largest male - still standing only four feet tall - to swallow and swiftly lower his gaze. The kobolds only appeared wholesome and kindly - until they turned ravening.
Kaderin was one of the few beings alive who'd seen them as they really were, reptilian predators who sprang from the ground as they hunted in packs. She still did not find the term killer gnome hysterically funny as her sisters all did.
The crowd of entrants consisted of all makes and models in the Lore: trolls, witches, and the noble fey. Demons from many of the Demonarchies were present.
Kaderin noted the veterans who were out to win the grand prize - whatever priceless good was offered this Hie. She identified the scavengers who only wanted to snag the individual talismans allotted for each task.
And then there were the newbies. She could make them out in an instant, because they would dare to stare at her.
As a competitor - and the reigning champion for more than a millennium - Kaderin had become more high-profile in the Lore than many of her sisters. She'd garnered power and respect for her covens - and for herself. Had she been a feeler, she would have been prideful of her reputation. She couldn't believe she'd so easily risked it with her recent indiscretion.
Relative to her sisters, her fall from grace would be a nosedive -
Suddenly, her ears twitched. Sensing something in the shadows at the back of the balcony, she turned and spied a massive male, eyes glowing in the darkness. A Lykae? Now, that was unusual. The werewolves and the vampires never entered this contest.
The Horde vampires found it beneath them, and the mysterious Forbearers didn't know of its existence. The Lore found it both amusing and shrewd to keep those turned humans in the dark about their world.
Historically, the Lykae couldn't be troubled to care.
In the past, this set of circumstances had been fortuitous. The Lykae - for all their wild, seething good looks - were single-minded and brutal. And the vampires? With their ability to trace, they would be nigh undefeatable.
The werewolf moved from the shadows, approaching her, and she recognized him as Bowen MacRieve, best friend and cousin to Emmaline's new werewolf husband. He'd lost weight over the last millennium, but other than that, she sensed that he'd changed little - which meant he was still gorgeous.
"Kaderin." His golden eyes were vivid, his dark hair thick and long. He didn't address her as "Lady Kaderin," as the rest of the Lore did, but then, he didn't fear her.
"Bowen." She briefly inclined her head.
"I dinna see you at the wedding. Quite nice affair."
He'd been at Emma's wedding, and she'd missed it. "I'm curious about why you are here."
"I'm entering." His voice was a rumbling Scottish brogue.
Deep voices were attractive. An unbidden memory arose of the vampire's gravelly voice breaking between kisses. She shook herself. "You'll be the first Lykae to do so. Ever."
He leaned his tall frame against the wall, utterly nonchalant. He was as tall as the vampire, but rangier. Both were rugged, but Bowen probably would be considered more classically handsome.
Comparing him to the vampire? Lovely. As if Sebastian Wroth were USDA grade A?
"Are you alarmed, Valkyrie?"
"Do I look alarmed?" She always enjoyed asking that, since she knew the answer was invariably no. "Why now?" She'd seen Bowen fighting vampires on a battlefield ages ago - he'd been pitiless in the past, and she'd bet that hadn't changed, either.
He answered, "A friend told me I might have a particular interest in the prize." Yes, if possible, Bowen was more handsome, but the vampire's eyes were so very gray, so dark and compelling. If a woman got lost in eyes like Sebastian's, she'd want to please him in any way he desired. Bowen's eyes? One glimpse of them, and a woman wouldn't know whether to jump him or run from him.
Clearly, Kaderin's blessing was holding, because she didn't feel even a flutter of desire for the Lykae.
"You know what the prize is?" she asked, but Bowen wasn't listening. The witches had just arrived - one called Mariketa the Awaited and another woman Kaderin didn't know - and he was busy scowling at them. "If you're this easily distracted," Kaderin said, "I'll have no problems."
He bit out, "What are they doing here?"
Kaderin quirked a brow. "They're here to compete. As they do every Hie."
She knew the Lykae never purchased magicks from the House of Witches - the Lore's mystical mercenaries. Kaderin had heard a hundred discountable rumors why, and on occasion, she'd speculated at the truth. She couldn't imagine life without the convenience of spells - which could vampire-proof chains and trace-proof cages - any more than she could imagine life without showers. Both scenarios were barbaric to Kaderin.
Now, seeing Bowen's expression, Kaderin wondered if the Lykae eschewed buying spells simply because the witches creeped them out. "Do you know what the prize is?" she asked again.
"I doona ken exactly," he said, his attention locked on the two. "But I know enough to warn you that I'll kill for it." He finally faced her to say, "And I daresay killing you would jeopardize the Lykae's tenuous truce with the Valkyrie."
"So, because of Emma and Lachlain's marriage, I should back out? Even though this is my competition, and has been since you were a wittle puppy?"
He shrugged his broad shoulders. "I'd rather no' hurt you, all in all. I've never struck a female, much less done the damage I've heard this contest calls for. Damage like you've meted out."
"Werewolf, don't hate the player - hate the game." She turned from him, dismissing him. An early broken leg would put the dog out.
At least there wasn't a vamp -
The vampire appeared out of thin air.
Her claws scrabbled along the railing as she fought to stay upright.
How in the hell did he find me? She had marble under four claws from where she'd just saved herself from a fall.
He'd first appeared in the back of the gallery, and now she watched as he traced into a darkened corner. No one had noticed him yet - or they'd be scattering as if someone had pulled the fire alarm - because he was able to half-trace, barely visible and unscentable to the low creatures. She'd seen vampires who were able to do that clever trick, but they'd been much older.
Yet she'd seen him perfectly. And, great Freya, if he'd been handsome before, now the vampire was devastating.
Everything about him was different. He'd gained muscle in the last week, making his shoulders broader and the muscles in his arms and legs fuller. His clothing was casual but expensive, with a tailored fit that highlighted his powerful body. His thick, straight black hair was still long but trimmed.
But how in the hell did he find Riora's temple?
Her first thought was that there was a Valkyrie stoolie, feeding him information about her movements. But no, even the rogue ones she feuded with would never betray her - especially not to a vampire.
It must have been the villagers. Those little punks! Her eyes narrowed. Those little condemned punks.
A young winged demon unwittingly scampered past his leg, and from Sebastian's reaction, Kaderin knew he'd never seen beings like these. He was hiding his surprise well, which was a good habit to have, since the denizens here would home in on all his reactions, seeking out a weakness.
If he limped, their claws would be drawn to his leg. If he fell to his knees, their fangs would go for his jugular without thought. Such was the world of the Lore.
"Valkyrie," Bowen intoned from behind her. "I've something for you."
How dare he interrupt her staring? She turned and beheld... diamonds. A gorgeous diamond necklace, offered in his palm.
One of the few Valkyrie weaknesses was the fact that glittering jewels could mesmerize them. Valkyrie had inherited the need to acquire from their goddess mother Freya, and stones like these held a fatal attraction of sorts. Not just any shiny bauble - cubic zirconia wouldn't do it - but deep, vibrant diamonds.
Valkyrie trained exhaustively to be able to resist, yet Kaderin hadn't bothered in centuries. Aversion training tended to be tricky when there was no inclination to possess.
Had Kaderin been a feeler, she would have been spellbound by the dazzling stones, as he obviously intended. She might have been fascinated by the way the temple's fires illumined them, making them sparkle, or enthralled with the tiny pinprick spears of flame-red light. Glint, glint, glint...
She jerked her gaze up. Odd that she wasn't a feeler, and yet something very akin to fury was threading through her veins right now. "Very clever, Bowen. Yet your tricks won't work with me." But damn if they almost hadn't. Shake it off. Don't hand this weakness to him.
When he grinned with satisfaction, she resisted the urge to glare and made her expression blank before she turned to find the vampire again. Two of the nymphs were trailing him.
"These tricks work with other Valkyrie," Bowen said. "Do they no'?"
Without glancing away from Sebastian, she said, "Try it with Regin or Myst. Then let me know how that works out for you."
Could those nymph tramps stand any closer to Sebastian? Kaderin had never understood Myst's particular dislike of them. Now Kaderin knew Myst was right - they were a bunch of little hookers.
From behind Sebastian, one said, "I'd wear his corsage to an orgy any day," giving him the long look.
He turned, finding the nymphs in their gauzy, transparent clothing. The two didn't bother hiding their lust, and to his credit, Sebastian didn't drop his jaw the way a human male would have.
Kaderin didn't believe that, as a whole, the nymphs were more beautiful than the Valkyrie, but everything about them screamed, Easy lay! When you don't want to work for it! And curiously, many males found that more appealing than the Valkyrie's Do it and die, simian.
"Mmm, hmm, mmm," said the smaller of the two nymphs. "As good from the front as he is from the - "
"No... " The first paled and whispered, "He's not a demon. He's a vampire."
The other shook her head. "His eyes are clear. And he doesn't smell like one."
Kaderin saw Sebastian's brows draw together; no doubt he was wondering, What do vampires smell like?
The first screamed, "Vampire!"
When the two blended into the temple's oaks, Sebastian looked as though he'd just prevented himself from taking a step back. All around him, beings became aware of him and scattered. Most turned humans would be delirious after this show. If anything, Sebastian stood straighter and looked even more arrogant than when he'd first appeared. With narrowed eyes, he scanned the area.
She could imagine his thoughts. Yes, this situation was confounding, but he was here for a reason.
To find his Bride. Because vampires who'd found their Brides didn't tolerate losing them.
Sebastian glanced up, and found Kaderin perched on the balcony railing above.
She was here. By Christ, he'd succeeded.
He'd traced to her.
He almost exhaled heavily in relief, but he stifled the urge, keenly aware that all around him were beings - from nightmare and fantasy - and every eye was on him. When his relief turned to smug satisfaction over his feat, he hid his smirk.
Then he realized what she was wearing. Clad in a sinfully short skirt, a leather jacket, and sleek half-boots, she sat with one bared leg hanging down, the other stretched out in front of her. Infuriated by the display, Sebastian glowered at the males in the motley assembly.
He'd never been a jealous man before. He had never found anything he wanted solely as his own. Now jealousy ate at him, made his fangs sharpen, and made him want to bare them. She was his. And he didn't want to share the merest glimpse of her body.
She turned away, ignoring Sebastian, to talk to a large male with a wild cast to his eyes - who was standing much too close to her.
Sebastian had known he would be the pursuer in this relationship, the one with the most to gain. But after the morning they'd had, he'd at least expected an acknowledgment when she saw him once more. Or even a reaction? Perhaps her lips had parted, and maybe a tinge of pink flushed along her high cheekbones.
What was she doing here with all these other beings? If he even let himself think about what he was seeing all around him, he might go mad. Again. So he tried to ignore them, and any additional appurtenances - horns, wings, multiple arms - they might possess.
Never had he felt more unsure of himself - he felt alternately like a baffled human and like a monster. He hadn't missed that those females who'd disappeared into the trees believed vampires were worse than demons in this world. Sebastian almost cursed Nikolai yet again for forcing him to become something reviled - even to these creatures - but reminded himself that if not for his brother, Sebastian wouldn't have lived to find Katja.
Channeling all the aristocratic arrogance that had been instilled in him from birth, he strode up the stairs toward her. "Katja," he began, and just when he thought she would completely ignore him, she finally turned. As he passed a rotting log on the stair landing, he heard a whisper from within: "Did he just call her Katja? Cover the pups' eyes. This will be messy." A glance back found the log stuffed with troll-like creatures. He'd never even seen them.
At Sebastian's approach, the wild-eyed male she'd been speaking with sank back into the shadows.
"It's important that I speak with you," Sebastian told her.
"He wants to talk to her," came another whisper from the log.
"Were you invited to this place?" Kaderin asked.
She tilted her head. "Then how did you trace to a place that's not on any known map? I know you haven't been here before."
"It wasn't that difficult," he said, for some reason deciding not to reveal his feat. "I must talk to you about what happened."
From the log: "What happened with Lady Kaderin and a vampire? What sodding happened?"
"Then you've wasted a trip. I've nothing to say to you."
When the man in the shadows gave him a killing look, Sebastian did bare his fangs then - it felt satisfying. He clenched his hands into fists to think that man had been sidling so close to his Bride. But who wouldn't when she was clothed in such a manner? "Why are you dressed like this?"
"Oh, no, he didn't."
She quirked an eyebrow at Sebastian, then parted her red lips to give a casual hiss in the direction of the log. They fell silent instantly.
Down in the gallery, the nymphlike women smirked and whispered about Kaderin "slumming" with a vampire, "just like her sister." Kaderin's dark eyes widened as if she were amazed by their temerity. She feinted as though she was about to jump down, and they fled back into the oaks.
Sebastian's attention returned to focus on Kaderin -
There was no time even to tense for the attack.
Bowen lunged from the shadows, barreling into the vampire. As Kaderin watched his furious charge, she only wondered why it had taken Bowen so long to attack, since the Lykae were at war with the vampires. Maybe Sebastian's clear eyes had thrown him, or perhaps the fact that Sebastian didn't smell like blood and death had confused Bowen.
In a tangle of flying fists and claws, they both slammed into a wall, shaking the solid marble temple all around them. A crack surfaced in the dome's skylight.
Sebastian shoved Bowen off and lunged for his throat with one hand. His other was a fist shooting out. Bowen hit at the same time - they smashed each other's face.
Kaderin didn't see this winding down anytime soon. They were attractive, well-built warriors - there were worse things to watch. She settled in, expecting to observe with typical cool dispassion.
Punishing blows continued to connect from each. Sebastian was somehow holding his own with Bowen. The gallery was abuzz with surprise. True, Bowen looked as if he'd lost a stone of weight since the last time she'd seen him, but still...
Merely shaking off a Lykae's punch to the jaw was unheard of.
They crashed over the railing just in front of Kaderin's seat, plummeting to the ground below. Sebastian didn't trace, instead taking the impact. He was fighting a member of the most physically powerful species in the Lore, and if he didn't start sparing himself these blows, Bowen would easily kill him.
On their feet again, they circled, eyeing each other for weaknesses, striking out in intervals. Yes, Sebastian was taking the crushing blows, but he seemed to be ambidextrous, hitting as squarely with his left fist as his right, cleverly aiming and spacing his own as well.
Bowen had his deadly claws and speed, but Sebastian was skilled. Very skilled, she determined, and he wasn't even using his key advantage.
His lips were drawn back from his fangs in fury. His irises turned black, and his body tensed, seeming to grow even larger. Immortal male... powerful male... She caught herself leaning forward.
He was stronger than she'd ever imagined. Which meant he was more attractive than she'd ever feared.
An image flashed in her mind of his massive body covering hers that morning. How tightly his strong arms had wrapped around her as he rocked his hips into her...
She shivered and stared down in puzzlement when gooseflesh rose on her arms. That's new.
Bowen lashed out with his flared claws. Sebastian leapt back; Bowen's claws rent through the thick marble column as easily as through talc. Sebastian's fist shot out, breaking Bowen's nose, just as Bowen slashed with his other hand.
He carved four deep furrows in Sebastian's torso. Blood poured from both warriors.
Murmurs began in the gallery:
"They desecrate Riora's sacred temple! She will be enraged."
"Oh, gods, look at the marble. We are all beyond doomed."
"Somebody put a plant in front of it!"
Kaderin sighed. And this was the world she belonged to.
Soon louder protests sounded. Riora was a diva who made Mariah Carey look meek. Taking away the competition for spite wouldn't be beyond her.
One of the new competitors asked, "But who could possibly break up a fight between a Lykae and a vampire?"
All eyes fell on Kaderin.
"The witch could do it." Kaderin's tone was studiously bored as she flicked her hand at Mariketa the Awaited. Mariketa was supposed to be one of the most powerful born into the House of Witches in generations and apparently was here to compete even though she couldn't be more than twenty-two years old or so.
Not that you could tell her age from her appearance - she wore a hood and a cloak and a glamour spell so thick it seemed shellacked on her. Which made Kaderin wonder what kind of visage she was hiding.
The girl answered, "I can't practice in another's temple."
Without the Hie, half of Kaderin's life's purpose would disappear. She sighed wearily, then drew her sword from the sheath at her back as she dropped down. She sauntered casually to the fight and dived down, springing up between them with her arms outstretched, her sword pressed into Bowen's chest, her claws positioned at Sebastian's throat.
Bowen snarled, pressing forward into the point. "Get the fuck out of the way, Valkyrie. Clear eyes or no', do you no' ken what he is?"
Sebastian traced out of her grasp to her side, then shoved her behind him. He kept his arm back and against her, leaving himself exposed to Bowen. She was so surprised by the gesture that she allowed it, hiding a frown behind his broad back.
But then Bowen lunged, clenching his hands around Sebastian's neck to twist his head off. Sebastian used his free arm to go for Bowen's throat, refusing to remove the arm at her side.
Which made her want to crack a grin.
A male guarding her. How... novel.