Much was on the line. Everything was on the line. Her past and her future.
Her sisters' futures.
She could bring them back. All she had to do was win this competition.
As she had the last five. Most Lore beings hadn't lived long enough even to conceive of a time when Kaderin didn't win.
The thought of Dasha and Rika back with her, back within the coven, made the corners of her lips awkwardly twitch again. It was as though her face were relearning how to smile, much as it had when she'd smiled at Sebastian.
She could teach her sisters about this new age, show them the wonders of it. They could have her room at the manor - Kaderin had one of the best views of the murky bayou. She'd give them all of the few clothes and jewelry pieces she owned. Kaderin never shopped and had a habit of filching from the coven whatever clothes struck her fancy. Now she could use the money she'd saved all these years to spoil them.
To atone. For causing their deaths.
I have to stop shaking.
All she would need was once with the key. She would give the second time to the Accord - and let them decide what to do with it.
The last time she'd seen her sisters had been when she'd buried them. To have a vision to replace that horror, she would do anything, eliminate anything that got in her way.
In the past, she'd been brutal to her fellow competitors.
They've seen nothing.
Her gaze flickered down over them, and she saw not living beings but obstacles to be removed. The vampire was an obstacle as well, confusing her and undermining her intimidation of these people, which she had always wielded like a weapon. She would strike out - but not with anger. She would unleash her chilling brand of menace.
For her sisters... anything.
She studied her reflection in her sword. If the vampire got in her way, she'd slice her blade through his neck. She wouldn't even wait to see his body collapse before she turned and forgot him.
I could enter.
Sebastian could give her something she wanted badly. He could win this competition, and in doing so, he could garner her affection.
In his mortal life, he'd been a knight but had no lady to offer his sword. Now he did.
"Then let it be known who's competing," said the pale, waxy-skinned man beside Riora.
All seemed to defer to Kaderin, and she stood, sheathing her sword behind her with one perfectly threaded stab. With her shoulders back and her voice ringing clearly, she said, "Kaderin the Cold of the Accord, competing for the Valkyrie and the Furiae."
Furies exist too? Is she part Fury?
When she sat, a black-haired female stood. "Competing for all Sirenae, I am Lucindeya of the Oceania Sirens."
So, sirens exist outside of myth as well. He ran his hand over the back of his neck. Astonishing.
From just to his right, the girl in the cloak announced, "Mariketa the Awaited, from the House of Witches."
It was one thing for Sebastian to encounter the clearly "mythical" beings. His eyes grew accustomed to them soon enough. But it was somehow stranger to hear beings who looked human stand up and so easily announce that they weren't.
When he'd been out among humans, feeling that he was a predator, he might actually have been among other creatures entirely and never known it...
Sebastian's adversary emerged from the shadows. "Bowen MacRieve of the Lykae Clan." He had a Scottish accent but didn't differentiate his clan as being from Scotland. Are all werewolves Scottish? Sebastian thought, half delirious. Well, why the fuck not?
Under her breath, the woman with Mariketa muttered, "Bowen? I hardly recognized him since he's lost so much weight."
He's been bloody bigger than this?
"Then we just got another contender. Gods, he's a ruthless one. Amazing. The blogs will go wild over this."
Who are the Blogs?
Sounding as if she barely moved her lips, Mariketa muttered back, "Why does he keep staring at me?" Indeed, the Scot was staring, scowl in place.
The woman shrugged, seeming stumped as well.
Demons of all shapes and sizes from monarchies of demons, or the "Demonarchies," announced their intent to compete. A female who resembled Kaderin's kind, with large luminous eyes and pointed ears, was representing the "Noble Fey and all Elvefolk." When she acknowledged Kaderin with a dignified bow, Kaderin inclined her head graciously.
She respects that competitor?
"Any others?" Riora asked.
Silence. They all glanced around. When he stood, Kaderin's eyes widened, and she slowly shook her head at him.
"I'm Sebastian Wroth, and I enter as well."
Kaderin briefly raised her face to the glass ceiling.
Muted hisses accompanied his announcement but fell silent wherever he glowered. Clearly, being a vampire had earned him seething hatred in this realm, but it seemed it also earned him some power.
"Which faction do you represent?" Riora asked in an amused tone.
He stared at Kaderin as he spoke. "None."
"Ah, but you must to enter. A sponsorship of sorts." When he turned back to her, Riora nodded winningly and added, "Like cotillion. Or AA." Then her eyes bored into his as if she could see into his mind.
"He's a Forbearer, Riora." Kaderin stood. "A turned human. It's against the law to teach him about this world, and he will learn much in this competition."
"Is this true?" Riora asked.
"I do not align with them." Who to represent now that he'd renounced the Forbearers? That left the Horde, which was as unthinkable an option as the Forbearers.
Then... an idea. A gamble. He turned to Riora. "I represent you."
Riora pressed her splayed fingertips to her chest. "Moi?"
Murmurs erupted. The nymphlike women snickered.
Kaderin shot to her feet. "He can't represent you, Riora. You are not a faction."
"Why, my cold Kaderin, I think you are deeming it impossible."
Kaderin seemed to flinch at the word, parting her lips to argue -
"He was a knight," Riora said.
How in the hell does she know that? Suddenly, he recognized the only explanation. Because she is a goddess.
"He has pledged his sword to me, and I accept."
More murmurs. Kaderin looked as if she'd been slapped. She shot him a look of pure menace.
"Excellent," Riora said with a clap. "Two powerful newcomers to the games." Riora gave Kaderin a speaking glance. "Finally, we might have a real competition."
B y entering the Hie, the vampire had just safeguarded his life from every competitor, including Kaderin, at least until the finals.
By representing Riora - a bloody brilliant move - he'd protected himself against the most egregious treacheries from all competitors.
The infuriating vampire was proving difficult to dismiss.
Kaderin was beginning to really remember infuriating. Quite akin to frustrating. She had those two down.
She dropped from the rail once more, intent on reaching the altar to collect her scroll. She waded past obsequious beings, desiring to pay their respects to her, to the Accord, and to the great Freya and mighty WĘ«den - as if Kaderin could simply text-message two sleeping gods.
"Katja," the vampire said, cutting a path through the crowd as beings dove and cowered from him.
"That's not my name," she snapped without slowing, but he easily fell into step with her. When did it get so hot? She found herself knotting her hair up. "Tell me, leech. Did you enter to keep Bowen from killing you or to prevent me?"
"Leech?" He frowned, then seemed to shake off her insult. "We've established that you can't kill me."
She glared at him over her shoulder. "I ache to make those your last words."
"I am beginning to understand this." He was calm on the exterior, gentlemanly even, but she knew the ferocity that lurked within him - tonight she'd seen it. "If this contest is important to you, then let me help you. I could trace you to many of the places, and you could defeat everyone." He hesitantly reached his hand to her shoulder, but he saw that she was about to hiss, and he drew it back.
"I'm going to defeat them anyway."
"But why not take an easier path?"
"Okay, I'll play." She crossed her arms over her chest, and his gaze dipped to her cleavage. She snapped her fingers in front of his face.
When his eyes met hers, he scrubbed his hand over his mouth. "I apologize." But his expression said he found it worth it. "You were about to... play?"
"Have you ever been to New Orleans?"
"In the United States?" At her nod, he said, "Not yet."
"What about South America?" she asked. "Africa?"
He hesitated, then shook his head.
"Vampires can only trace to places they've already been. So, where were you planning to trace me? Around your backyard?" she asked, with a deceptively pleasant mien that faded in an instant. "Vampire, this game is for the big kids only." She glanced up at the cracked skylight to the lightening sky. Dawn would come in less than an hour. "And it's almost your beddy-bye time."
"I could travel with you, to keep you safe."
"Travel with me? Do you think I would stop and wait around every single day? To cut my time in half because you can't go in the sun?"
He looked as if he'd briefly forgotten a harsh reality and she'd just reminded him. "No, of course not," he said quietly. "I just wanted - "
"You're crowding me. Didn't anybody ever tell you that females don't like to be crowded? One of women's big three turnoffs. Not very sexy."
For some reason, that made him frown, and immediately back off. His voice was gruff when he asked, "What are the other two?"
"You're wearing out number one. How about working on that first?" She turned from him to get to the altar, and surprisingly, he didn't follow.
She passed Scribe, who'd begun cleaning the temple - though not so much as to effect order. He plucked a camouflaging tree limb off the damaged column. When he saw the claw marks, he scowled at nearby creatures, who studied their hooves.
She strode past him with a kindly greeting, addressing him as "Sacred Scribe," which always put him in raptures, and he stumbled on the limb, nervously stuttering a reply.
At the altar, Riora was speaking with two elves, saying something about the "real-time coverage of the competition online" and ordering them to "drive visitors to the site."
Still feeling the vampire's eyes on her, Kaderin hopped up, the only one in the Lore who would dare such a thing. She plucked a scroll from a pile of them and unrolled it. Every competitor would get the same list of tasks - and each list included the talismans or sought objects, the coordinates for finding them, and a brief description. As usual, there were about ten choices of tasks in any given round.
Once Riora was finished with her spate of PR, she said, "And how are your parents, Kaderin the Cold?"
Kaderin knew Riora was inquiring about two of her three parents. Kaderin's birth mother had been mortal. "They sleep still, Goddess," she said absently, reading. Gods derived power from how many prayers and offerings they received with each passing of the sun, hence Riora's Internet attempt to garner more. But there were so few who worshipped Freya and WĘ«den that the two slept to conserve their energy. "Interesting talismans this Hie," Kaderin observed.
In the past, Kaderin had always gone after the closest talismans first. Now, with more than one real contender, she would devise new strategies, shake them all up. She would go for the far-flung points and the more difficult tasks at the outset.
"I thought so," Riora said. "Pity I'll only get about half on that list. You know, because of all the accidental deaths."
Kaderin nodded in sympathy. Then her gaze landed on the option for the highest points offered in this interval: twelve points to retrieve one of three mirror amulets. The most she'd ever gone for was a prize worth fifteen points. This task wouldn't be so much about life-threatening peril but more about logistics. Whoever could arrange to get there first - won.
Though the destination fell outside the Accord's network, Kaderin had other resources, and for the first time in a Hie, she was going to ask her coven for help. Just please don't let Regin answer when I call...
Kaderin heard helicopters outside, engines humming louder as their bows dipped to surge forward. Strike hard, strike fast. Yes, that one. She rolled the parchment up and dropped down.
Before she could leave, Riora asked, "You disapprove of my vampire knight?"
Kaderin faced her. "I'm well aware that you couldn't care less about my approval. Or my extreme and absolute lack thereof." Why was Riora studying her so closely? Kaderin flushed under her scrutiny. Riora had always seemed to take an unaccountable interest in Kaderin, but this was intense.
"You seem different."
'Cause I can freaking feel! "New haircut," Kaderin mumbled instead. Could Riora sense her new emotions - most particularly, her shame over her attraction to the vampire? Her gaze darted to Sebastian.
"So, the interest flows both ways, Lady Kaderin? How inconvenient."
Riora tilted her head and perused him. He leaned against a wall, staring at Kaderin with his arms crossed over his muscular chest above his injuries. "Of course, if one were to be interested in a vampire, that one you could almost justify."
"Riora, I never said I - "
"I'm merely saying it appears as if some gods blessed my knight in form."
Kaderin felt her expression tighten. "Did they bless your knight with a raging appetite for blood?" she snapped, shocking even herself.
"Watch your tone, Valkyrie." The flames hissed and swayed. "This isn't a coffee klatch." Behind them, Scribe leapt back, swatting when his sleeve caught fire.
Kaderin ground her teeth, then said, "Yes, Riora."
She sighed. "Go." Her tone gentled. "If you win the race, you can bring back your sisters."
Kaderin's eyes narrowed. "You know about them? I've never told you of my loss."
"I already knew of you when they were killed."
"If you understand how important this is, then would the incandescent Riora like to bestow some tips on the race?"
Riora gasped, playful once more. "You treat me as if I'm a one-nine-hundred chess helpline. I feel cheapened." She regarded her nails. "I've blinded men for less." Scribe was again busy behind them, more tentatively dousing the last of the fires, but he paused to nod, as if he'd definitely seen that one happen.
"I'm sorry. I should have known," Kaderin said. "Everyone says it's impossible to get information out of you."
"You'd best step lightly, Valkyrie," she warned, but she was amused. She glided forward to put her arm around Kaderin, startling her. Riora's touch was warm and soft, as she shepherded her to the side. Then, in a low tone, she said, "Here's a hint. If you come across the blade of the blind mystic Honorius, know that he charmed it never to miss its target."
Before Kaderin could ask her more about this cryptic hint, Riora turned abruptly. "Oh, here comes your vampire. He can't stand it anymore."
Kaderin tried to deny that he was hers, but Riora spoke over her. "Look at him watching you so greedily! And how arrogant his stance! What thrilling hubris - and broad shoulders." She gave a growl in her throat. "Shall I stall him while you leave? It won't be a chore."
Kaderin pressed her lips in irritation, then felt ridiculous. She couldn't be jealous over a vampire. "I'd appreciate that. Though I don't think it possible to stall him for more than a few hours."
"Cheeky, Valkyrie," Riora said, her gaze never wavering from Sebastian. "You have a day."
"Vampire," Riora murmured as Sebastian strode by. "A word with you."
He impatiently turned to her but continued glancing at Kaderin as she crossed the length of the temple. She met the werewolf near the arched doorway, and they had a terse exchange.
"Relax - yes, she's getting away from you. But then, nothing has changed since five minutes ago, when she never wanted to see you again. So, who carved you up? Was it that naughty red-clawed Lykae presently threatening Kaderin?"
Sebastian was going to kill him. "We had an altercation," he said absently, beginning to stride to Kaderin. "I must go - "
Riora appeared in front of him. "How did you find this place?" she asked, her voice becoming more forceful. "I don't recall sending you an invitation, neither does Scribe here" - she snapped her fingers, and the man dropped his candle snuffer to hurry to her side - "and I'm not certain I appreciate you crashing my party."
"I traced here." He had to remember he could reach Kaderin at any time. And that he had better not anger the deity who had given him the favor of competing.
"You couldn't ever have been here."
Finally, the Lykae loped away. Kaderin gave the Scot a vulgar hand gesture behind his back, then stared in obvious bafflement at her own finger.