She shook herself and clutched Sebastian's protective arm to lean out from behind him. "Bowen, you're fighting in Riora's temple," she said. "If you continue this, you risk the Hie." Beneath her fingers, Sebastian's muscles were tensed from the fight, his body thrumming with power and heat. Seemingly helpless to stop herself, she inched closer to him, enjoying the hell out of his scent. Now he bent his arm back to bring her in to his body.
Why wasn't she fighting him?
"I doona understand you, Kaderin," Bowen bellowed.
She leaned to the side again. "No competition. She'll take it away."
"She would no' do that. No' over the death of a vampire."
Kaderin nodded, and strangely, Bowen's eyes went even more wide and wild, turning to the ice-blue color of his beastly form. He released Sebastian, his flattened palms shooting up. He seemed to curse himself in Gaelic.
A Lykae eager to end a fight before a kill? And while a vampire still had his throat clutched in a death grip? This was indeed a week of firsts.
"Let him go, Sebastian," Kaderin said. "You must."
"Finish this," Sebastian demanded of Bowen, biting out the words.
Bowen just wiped his face on his sleeve. "I will no'. No' now." As soon as Sebastian released him, he backed away, hands still raised.
She couldn't imagine that Bowen had ever backed down from a fight before. He was a proud alpha male, and he'd been trained from childhood to kill vampires. How much he must want this prize.
Bowen dropped back into the shadows, eyes glowing.
When Sebastian moved to follow him, she said, "No, you have to let him go."
Sebastian turned to her, and she had to stifle a wince at finding that he was insufferably sexy fresh from the fight. His muscled chest heaved with exertion and was marked with bravely earned injury.
Too bad he won't scar, she thought, sheathing her sword.
"You desire me to let him go?" With a brief glance down at his ghastly injuries, he said calmly, "I tend to punish slights like these." Such an understatement rumbled in his deep voice.
He'd held his own against Bowen. And had been ready for more.
Warrior. Immortal. I've never made love to an immortal.
Sebastian's gaze kept flickering over her, as though still starved for the sight of her. Without warning, he grasped her arm and traced her to the darkened balcony once more.
"Don't ever put yourself in danger like that again," he said to her.
She looked into his eyes, and the floor seemed to wobble. "Y-you traced me?" Dizziness. Her first trace. Trippy. "That wasn't very considerate."
"I should have warned you, Katja."
In another instant, the entire world seemed to go off-kilter - sights and sounds and even the beat of her heart were different...
Oh, gods, Kaderin was feeling again - and there was no denying it now.
She swayed slightly, but he still held her arm. Sc-sc-screwed.
As though she'd been scoured clean with icy water, the blessing was... gone. Utterly.
She released a pent-up breath, accepting what she instinctively knew was true: it was Sebastian who brought out her feelings. There was no capricious power toying with her, no new spell. It was simply... him.
And she wanted to scream to the sky in frustration, because she didn't understand why.
The Valkyrie didn't believe in chance, in randomness. So what could it possibly mean when the pull of a vampire could ignite emotions, that had been stamped out so completely, and for so long?
As she gazed up at Sebastian, she experienced her newest emotion. Dread.
Kaderin had that bomb blast look again, and he wondered if tracing had done that to her. He mentally kicked himself for not anticipating this.
Out of the corner of his eye, Sebastian spied beings easing up the stairs to eavesdrop on them. He stepped in front of her and bared his fangs at them. They scattered.
When he turned back, she seemed to be growing less distressed.
"Kaderin, never get in the middle of a fight as you did. I had that under control."
"Did you, then?" she asked in an inscrutable tone. "He's a Lykae who had not yet unleashed the beast inside him." When his brows drew together, she said, "A Lykae, a werewolf?"
"Then what would happen? He'd become a forest wolf?"
She eyed his hand until he released her. "You wouldn't be that fortunate." Then, speaking absently as though recalling a memory, she murmured, "The Lykae call it 'letting the beast out of its cage.' He would have grown a foot taller, and his claws and fangs would have shot longer and grown razor-sharp. Wavering over him like a phantom masking his body would be the image of a brutal, towering animal." She finally glanced up. "And if you refused to trace, his beast would have been your last sight before your head was sliced from your body."
"That would remain to be seen." He narrowed his eyes. "What did you mean about a competition?"
"You don't know?" At his shrug, she said, "You'll find out soon enough." She headed back to her railing.
"He called you a Valkyrie?" he asked quickly.
She turned back, tucking her hair behind her ear. "Yeah, so?"
"Aren't Valkyrie... bigger?"
She gave him a look of disgust. "The vampire turning his nose up... ?"
"No, I didn't mean it like that - it's merely difficult to believe, since you're so small - "
"Small? I'm almost five and a half feet tall - a very good size for a Valkyrie." Then her expression became one of realization as she said, "I hate being called small."
Why couldn't he have been allotted a fraction of Murdoch's charm? "I want five minutes of your time."
"We both know you will never be satisfied with that. If I thought I could rid myself of you by giving you five minutes, it would be done."
"At least tell me why you abruptly ran from me. What brought about the extreme turn in you?"
"I realized with perfect clarity that I want nothing to do with you."
He lowered his voice. "I refuse to believe that after what happened between us."
She seemed to be just barely holding on to her patience. "Look, if you somehow found out who I am in order to track me here, then you must know enough to know that I kill vampires. Period. That's my job - that's my life. And you are a vampire. Ergo... "
"Yet you couldn't kill me that morning? Or even tonight upon seeing me? You've not done your job."
Her lips parted. "I chose to spare you - "
Now she seemed to grind her teeth - and to be struggling for an answer. Finally, she said, "Because I didn't think it would be sporting."
"What does that mean?"
"The vampires I kill usually disagree with my agenda." She reached the rail, sitting once more. "They tend to fight back," she added, drawing her sword from her sheath and laying it over her lap. "So, vampire, this runtling Valkyrie who sucks at her job is inviting you to go toss yourself - and declining further conversation."
"Toss?" A second later, he clenched his jaw. "I see."
From her leather jacket, she pulled out a diamond hone file and began sharpening the blade.
She concentrated on even strokes of her file, up and back.
No response. Her body seemed to go wooden, and she appeared lost in the movements.
In a flash, he realized two things. She found this task soothing, and for some reason, she needed to be doing it right at this moment. He knew she was done talking to him for now. He'd been completely shut out.
It was then that he noticed the murmurs about her in the gallery, her name in whispers. His hearing was much more acute after his blooding, and his ability to trace without fully materializing was improved as well. One thing was certain - she was their favorite subject, and he could learn much. After one more fruitless attempt to speak with her, he forced himself to leave her, tracing down behind them, listening for any information.
He heard elders in different factions explaining things to younger ones and discerned that they had gathered for a Lore scavenger hunt of sorts. All the people here were waiting to compete for some prize, as yet unrevealed.
He moved past a trio who spoke only in guttural stops, toward another two - a normal-looking father and a very demon-looking boy, already speaking about Kaderin.
"No one's ever seen her smile," the father said in a low voice, with a glance at her before his eyes darted away. Did they all fear her?
Sebastian had seen her smile - and it had hit him like a booted kick to the groin that he hadn't seen coming.
The father continued, "She's a mystery, that one. Drives males crazy."
I'll attest to that.
"Why's she called Kaderin the Coldhearted?" the demon son asked.
"Because she is cold. Merciless. Our people have a rule about never going after the same prizes as the Valkyrie."
Fascinated all over again, Sebastian muttered, "She is truly a Valkyrie."
When their talk turned to someone named Riora, he traced to another pair - a figure in a hooded cloak and an older woman carrying a red apple. "The Valkyrie shows up, you walk the other way, Mariketa," the woman said. "Remember that always. Some say she warns once, but I'd rather not bet on it."
He couldn't see this Mariketa's face because of her hood, but her voice sounded young. "Isn't she small for a Valkyrie?" she asked.
He realized Kaderin could hear them as well when she sat up straighter. The corners of his lips curled. He loved how small she was compared to him, how fine she was, and yet he'd been unable to express that to her. She was so elegantly built but stronger than he'd ever imagined a female could be.
"They're all small and fey. It's a biological advantage," the woman explained. "You never quite believe what they can bring to a fight. Until it's quite too late."
In the past, sharpening her sword had been a kind of ritual to focus her thoughts. She'd begun now because she'd never been more confused in her life.
Why was she feeling? Why him? Why now?
But there was no need to panic, she assured herself yet again. The blessing had to come back. As it had before. Certainly, it would. If the vampire's presence acted as Kryptonite for her blessing, then she just needed to lose him.
She spied him skulking from group to group. Of course, she heard them whispering about her down in the gallery. And Sebastian was listening to it all, unnoticed. He half-traced very easily, too much so. In that state, vampires were too insubstantial to be killed.
Yes, he was learning about her, but then, no one knew enough to indicate weakness. Her history was shady. She worked to make it so. She saw him narrow his eyes to hear her called "Lady Kaderin." "Lady" was the Lore creatures' attempt at erring on the side of caution, and they were right to do so.
Then Kaderin heard this little gem from a demoness: "For some reason, Kaderin has lost a lot of her humanity. She's been existing on animal instinct for a while now."
She said this as if living by animal instinct were a bad thing. Just as Kaderin was about to drop down and go a-torturing, an elf in a robe crossed to the altar at the back of the gallery - the altar that was off-center. Kaderin recognized him as Riora's scribe, aptly named Scribe.
He scratched his head. "I say, where is everyone? My goddess will arrive shortly."
The beings went silent in anticipation. It wasn't every day that one kept company with a goddess. That mouthy demoness licked her hand and smoothed her boy's hair around his velvety new horns.
When Riora appeared, Scribe announced, "The goddess Riora." The newcomers and the less jaded immortals stared in wonderment. Scribe fell back, looking enormously proud to be a servant to such a divinity.
Riora was resplendent, as goddesses tended to be, clad in a diaphanous gold robe, cinched tight under breasts so ample that many mistook her for a fertility goddess. Her wild raven hair flowed and waved as though in a constant swirling wind, and suddenly Kaderin wished Sebastian had never seen Riora.
Feigning nonchalance, Kaderin tilted her sword and picked up his reflection. She wouldn't care if he was staring slack-jawed like most of the other males. She wouldn't at all.
Yet, in the glow of one of the most ravishing female forms in this reality, Sebastian's gaze was locked on Kaderin. She tucked her hair behind her ear, oddly flattered, then scowled at herself. Tucking her hair? That was a gesture she used to make - in antiquity - whenever she grew flustered. Who are you these days, Kad?
"Greetings, Lore," Riora began in her throaty voice. "Tonight commences the Talisman's Hie, a contest that has not changed since its inception. The rules remain the same and are tedious to repeat" - she waved her hand dismissively and rolled her eyes - "every... single... two hundred and fifty years. So I'll give you the lowdown.
"You go all over the world and retrieve for me the talismans, charms, amulets, jewels, and other magickal gear that I want. Some of the tasks I've chosen have multiple items available at the end, and some have just one. All are designed in order to force you beings to fight. Which is fun. For me. I'm told not so much for you."
She frowned, shrugged, then said, "Each item is assigned a point value based on the difficulty in reaching it and the number available. When you reach a talisman, simply hold it steady above your heart, and it will find its way to me."
She raised her pale arm, and Kaderin thought for a moment she'd snap her fingers and drop her knuckles to her hip. "It was once observed to me that this mode of teleporting is amazing," Riora mused, tapping her chin. "I do not find that so. What is amazing is that all of you actually can boast hearts of some fashion, cold though they may be." She flashed a look at Kaderin, who raised an eyebrow, then continued, "The first two competitors to reach eighty-seven points go to the finals. The reason for this number is that there's no reason. After that, it's head-to-head for one last prize."
Riora perused the crowd - doing a double take at the vampire - before she went on to say, "There aren't that many rules, but I'll give you the biggest three. Number one: No outright killing of competitors until the final round. Though maiming, debilitating, and mystical or physical imprisonment are, of course, all acceptable." She nodded eagerly as she added, "And encouraged." She held up two fingers. "Number two: Only one prize per customer for each task. In other words, you can't clean out the stash and leave nothing behind for everyone else. And last: Do not commit any act that will draw human attention to the Lore. This has become more important than ever in this day and age. You will be disqualified immediately and be subject to my... displeasure."
Flames beside her altar flared, lighting her menacing expression. Kaderin was among the few who knew that this seeming mask, so wild and feral, was in fact Riora's true appearance.
The fires fluttered as if from a breeze, and her façade grew pleasant once more. "For each competitor, I have a scroll at the altar with my shopping list. In any given one- or two-day period or so, the lists will update themselves at 7:43, Riora Standard Time, which means that could be a jot irregular. With each update, you'll be given a new slate of tasks to choose from to be completed in a specified time frame. When the new tasks appear, the old ones are rendered worthless. Be aware, though, that some prizes and tasks will repeat, if I really want them or am amused the first time you attempt them."
One of the nymphs in the back muttered, "Nereus, for one." Nereus, the obscenely endowed sea god who took flesh in payment for his talismans, was a Hie regular.
Scribe scowled; Riora ignored them. "Now, would you like to know what you're competing for?" Everyone drew in. The temple fell silent. "The grand prize, as always, is priceless and powerful." She paused for dramatic effect, and Kaderin tilted her head, curious about what she would be dragging back to her coven this time.
She'd scored armor that couldn't be pierced and a battle ax that could kill Lore beings without having to behead them - the usual way for immortals to die. But both had been given in tribute to the Valkyrie's stalwart allies, the Furies. She'd won a choker that gave its possessor the siren's song, but that was kept by the New Zealand coven. She'd earned an armband that made its wearer feel overwhelming sexual desire. No one knew where that one was, and that made more than one Valkyrie nervous.
Riora's gaze passed over her once more. Kaderin felt the weight of the moment, pressing down on her...
"This Hie, you will compete for Thrane's Key."
Kaderin's cold heart stopped.
At the gasps, Sebastian turned to ask what Thrane's Key was, then remembered none of these beings would speak to him.
Finally, Riora explained, "The wizard Thrane dabbled with time travel, and his key unlocks a door through time, enabling its possessor to go into the past. It is theoretically the most powerful weapon on this earth."
Sebastian was still much the human he once was, unversed in things from the Lore, but he was certain that the elemental traits of the earth were not different no matter who - or what - inhabited it. Physics was not different. Tracing, for instance, was possible by the laws of physics; time travel was not.
"How many times will the key work?" the Scottish bastard asked.
The gathering erupted in noise once more. Was this competition a scam of some sort? Why were they so quick to believe the female at the altar who spoke of time travel so blithely? Was this Riora truly a goddess? She seemed otherworldly, to be sure, but so did Kaderin.
He traced back toward the woman with the apple and the girl Mariketa. The others seemed not to notice him. The Scot kept him pinned and Kaderin ignored him.
The woman murmured to Mariketa, "The Valkyrie wants the key. Badly."
Kaderin looked the same to Sebastian - her face calm, her measured strokes on her sword never varying.
"How can you tell?" Mariketa asked.
"Cold Kaderin's giving off lightning. Valkyrie produce it with strong emotion."
Was that true? He glanced up through the glass dome and saw bolts painting the sky. The morning at his castle, he'd been so absorbed with her, so focused on keeping her there, that he'd noticed little else. Now, thinking back, he recalled thunder had been rumbling on a crystal-clear morning. He stared in awe. Did he find the lightning more fascinating because it was hers?
"She will be even more vicious than before," the woman continued. "We'll stay clear of her."
He dropped his gaze to Kaderin once more. He'd experienced her violence already, but vicious? She could not appear less so. Her blond hair curled gently over her slim shoulders. Her fingers were fragile-looking, deft. So fair and delicate, Sebastian thought.
Yes. Fair and delicate. His eyes narrowed. Even as her file smoothed up and back over her weapon until the razor-sharp edges glinted.
The key. To go back in time.
Kaderin's sword hand shook wildly. Keep it together! Yes, she'd just received life-changing news, but she could never let anyone know how dearly she needed to win this prize. She needed to be cold.
She balled her hands into fists. Through the observatory skylight, lightning could be seen forking across the sky. Furtive glances were cast her way.