"What happens then?"
"He'd have to be locked away in our dungeons," Garreth said. They should have known something was amiss with Bowen's first "mate" - since he'd still been able to carry on after he thought she'd died.... "That's why we doona change others into our kind - anyone newly made would have to learn to control the beast, a process that takes decades, if it works at all. We'd be forced to imprison them for all that time before we could even think of freeing them."
"Change others, like Rossiter."
"Exactly," Garreth said, not unmoved by the mortal's plight. "He's no' out of the game yet. Maybe he'll find his orchid - or a pretty immortal who does no' follow Lore rules...."
As the rain poured outside, they talked of other things, plotting what would happen tomorrow night when they arrived at Rio Labyrinto. With each stroke of her hair, her lids grew heavier, her expression soft and sleepy, until she finally drifted off.
Now he lay beside her with his head propped in his hand, lightly grazing his fingers up and down her sleek back. He exhaled, simply savoring the luxury of having her with him, in his bed, in his life.
But she didn't trust him. And that pained him.
When she whimpered, his brows drew together. Again, she suffered nightmares, her low cries building with the tempest brewing outside.
She was of a warrior race, and yet she was terrified, speaking in some old Norse tongue he didn't understand.
Who the hell had hurt his woman? Why did she refuse to tell him? His claws dug into his palms as he fought to control the beast within him, the beast that needed to punish any fuck who'd given her pain.
When Crom had asked Lucia to come with him and leave Valhalla, she'd eagerly agreed, though she'd known that once a Valkyrie left that plane, she could never return.
Lucia was sixteen and in love. Nothing, not her godparents' warnings or Regin's pleading, could dissuade her. She'd wedded Crom with no reservations, despite his strange customs - they couldn't touch whatsoever until after they'd been married, and they had to wed in a bizarre stone temple with robed strangers all around.
At the altar, after they'd been joined forever, she'd turned to her beloved. And he'd vanished. In his place was one of the strangers with a raised club. He'd struck, knocking her unconscious.
Too late, Lucia had learned that Crom Cruach had never even been at the portal. Instead, he'd been trapped in a fetid lair in the earth, projecting the image of the fair-haired young man.
For as long as she'd been watching the sky, Cruach had been watching her. He'd needed a bride born of gods to beget heirs on, and like so many deities, he could project illusions for women he wanted to seduce.
When Lucia had awakened, she'd been trapped in his prison with her fair-haired man standing over her. Only then had Cruach unveiled his true self to her. His beautiful face had fallen away, revealing the Broken Bloody One.
A cloven-footed monster, Cruach clad himself in scraps of metal strung together, taken from his slaughtered victims' proud shields or armor. On his massive head, stringy white hair hung sparsely around horns that jutted up like giant splayed fingers. His face was ghoulish, his eyes yellow, slitted with red and running with pus.
He was broken, his body misshapen, his bones having fractured and healed at odd angles. But even with his hunched form, he stood seven feet tall. He was bloody as well - his scaly snakelike skin seeped blood and was rotting away in places, exposing those fused bones beneath.
A line of drool had dripped from the corner of his gaping mouth when he'd smiled down at her.
Once she'd been able to scream no more, she'd learned the truth about all his lies. He had told her he'd make her mistress of his castle and shower her with gifts. His "castle" was a corpse-strewn tunnel in a seaside cliff, thick with maggots and stench.
The gifts? Dead bodies and parts of them - ragged limbs, heads with sightless eyes. He intended for her to... eat them.
The adoration he vowed? Each day, his Cromites had prepared her body with vile rituals, marking her skin with blood, drawing sinister marks from the black arts all over her.
There was no escaping him. Cromite swordsmen guarded the entrance to the lair and the tunnel ended in a cliff two hundred feet above the ocean.
Toward the end of her captivity, she'd been so starved, her stomach had cleaved to her spine. "You go hungry?" Cruach had said, waving at the pools of oily blood and gruesome limbs. "When I give you meat and wine, my love?"
Once she'd begun to sicken with fever, she'd heard someone calling her name from down at the base of the cliff and thought it a delirium.
But it was all too real. Young Regin - who'd sensed Cruach's deception and had begged Lucia not to leave - had followed her out of Valhalla. Never to return, cast out forever. Lucia had wept to hear her sister's plaintive cries for her.
"How do I reach you, Lucia? I don't... I don't know how to get up there!"
Never would she have let Regin enter that place - even before Lucia's eventual wedding night....
As she weakly screamed, his followers laid her on his altar, holding her down. When he heaved himself above her, blood spilled from his mouth, from between gritted teeth, pouring over her face, into her eyes. His organ would rip her in two - she'd known he would kill her like this.
So long without food, with her heart racing with horror, she'd lost consciousness.
When she woke, he was roaring with fury, missing an eye. Beneath her claws were chunks of scaly skin. The Cromites had drawn their swords, leveling them at her.
With blood gushing down her thighs, she rolled off the altar into a pile of bodies. Flies erupted from the gore. She breathed them, hacking them from her lungs and mouth.
Somehow she made it to her feet, coughing, tears blinding her as she tried to stagger away through the line of Cromites. Knowing she was trapped, Cruach allowed her to go, snarling with rage at his pain, then laughing because he'd caused her more. "Do you think that was pain, wife? That was a mere hint! I'll teach you what misery is!"
She followed the tunnel to the very end. At the cliff's edge, she gazed out over the horizon, over the ocean. The first clean air she'd breathed in days.
Pure peace awaited her.... He couldn't pass this barrier, could never follow her down. When he yelled for her, she closed her eyes, and she leapt -
Hands snatched her shoulders, jerking her back.
No, no! That's not how it happened! She'd gotten free. Now he had her again!
She swiped out with her claws, desperate to jump... to die.
"Lousha! Wake up!" Garreth reached to comfort her, grasping her shoulders. At the contact, electrical energy seared his fingertips just as her claws shot out, raking down his chest.
"What the hell?" He leapt back. "Lousha?"
When she opened her eyes, they were fully silver, glinting with tears.
"Shh, doona be afraid." He put his hands up as he neared her once more. "It's just me."
She collapsed back on the bed once more, staring blankly at the ceiling. When she closed her eyes, tear-drops tracked down her face, making his chest ache.
He could never stand the sight of the lass's tears. "Your dreams are getting worse." She'd only been asleep for an hour, a brief afternoon nap, and yet it'd been enough to affect her like this.
"I... I'm fine. I'll be okay," she assured him, even as lightning still flared outside.
He sat at the foot of the bed. "You must tell me what you dream of."
"We've discussed this already," she said, running her arm over her face. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Is it... me?" When she frowned at him, he said, "You have no' had nightmares like this over the last year, have you? But now, every day we're together, they get worse."
She rose up, drawing her knees to her chest. "No, you're making a big deal out of nothing."
"Nothing?" He pointed out the bloody tracks across his chest. "You attacked me!"
"I'm so sorry." She dropped her head in her hands. "I didn't realize it was you."
"I doona care about that! I just want them to end."
"So do I," she murmured. "They will. Soon, I'm sure."
He swooped up his jeans and yanked them on. "It seems the more pleasure we have, the worse they get."
She gazed up at him. "What are you talking about?"
"Just as I need to claim my mate, I need to make her happy. But now, you give me your body to pleasure, and then you suffer." He raked his fingers through his hair. "Maybe the dreams are getting worse because tonight's the full moon? And deep down you fear me?"
Gods, this male was fierce. Not only when protecting her, but when experiencing anything. MacRieve felt things so intensely. "I don't fear you." He was generous, protective, thoughtful. All the things my husband isn't.
"Then what do you fear? Give me an enemy to fight, Lousha!"
That was exactly what she couldn't do. "Lots of immortals have nightmares. The years build up - "
"Bullshite! Doona lie to me."
Lucia rose to dress, slipping on her underwear. "Just drop it, MacRieve."
"Damn you, Valkyrie, it just should no' be this complicated between us. You want me, and I want you. The end."
"Well, I'm not that easy - "
"Nothing about you is easy."
"My life is complicated, whether I want it to be or not." She hastily donned a halter top and shorts and began braiding her hair over her ears.
"So many secrets, Lousha. Will they keep you warm at night?"
She slowed her plaiting. "What does that mean?" Is he breaking up with me?
"It means you need to tell me what you dreamed."
She glanced away with a shrug. "I don't remember."
"Enough with the lies!" He grabbed her upper arms. "Why will you no' trust me?"
Lightning flashed as her own anger grew. "It's not in my nature to trust!" Some secrets go to the grave.... "Did you never think that the more I like you, the less I want to tell you my secrets? And how do you really know that you want to hear them, MacRieve?"
He drew his head back, wolflike, as though he'd been presented a trap he couldn't determine the mechanics of. "I doona understand you. That's no reason to hide things from me. Own your actions."
She flung herself away from him. "Gods, I hate it when you say that!" Easy to say for someone who's never made a tragic choice in his long life!
"One of these days, woman! You asked me if I'd ever thought about giving up on you. I had no' before, but now..."
"You have to meet me halfway, or I will stop chasing you. And when I do, you'll regret the loss."
I know this!
"Will you tell me?"
She thought he was in deadly earnest. He's giving me a choice... and I don't want to lose him.
Damn it, when had he gone from enemy, to necessary evil, to someone she didn't think she could live without? "MacRieve, I - " She swallowed, imagining how she'd tell him. I have a husband. I married the devil. I'm his wife. Lucia av Cruach. Shame made it nearly impossible to breathe, much less talk. She'd begun to care what he thought of her, and his knowing the truth wouldn't make a difference anyway! Her fate was woven -
"We've got company!" Schecter cried from above. "Another ship."
At once, the engines slowed to idling. They could hear running on the deck above them.
"Oh, bluidy hell," MacRieve muttered.
"Why's everybody running? Couldn't it just be another research vessel?"
"This far out? No' a chance." He yanked on a T-shirt. "Pirates, mercenaries, or worse."
Seizing her hand, he dragged her out of the cabin into the rain. Over his shoulder he said, "This is no' over, Lousha!"
When they reached the observation deck, four of the men were already there, scanning the river. Schecter stood under an umbrella, binoculars crammed against his glasses. Travis peered out with his weary gaze more alert and a shotgun in his hands. Rossiter was at the rail, unshaven, his light brown hair disheveled.
Charlie's hazel eyes were fierce as he stood by his captain, and a machete hung from a strap around the young man's wrist.
Yet there was nothing to see, nothing but a curtain of rain and the jungle closing in all around them.
MacRieve turned to Schecter. "What the hell, man?"
"Give it a second. There's a ship coming around the bend about a mile to the north. They've been trailing us."
Everyone fell silent as they waited. Then Charlie quietly said, "It's Captain Malaqu®™'s ship."
Indeed, sailing up through the rain was... the Barão da Borracha. The ship that potentially carried a vampire and supposedly sailed the other way.
The one Nïx warned me about.
When Malaqu®™ decreased his speed just after that bend, Lucia said, "Why are they slowing?"
"Did they make a find?" Rossiter asked in an overly innocent tone.
MacRieve turned to Travis. "Does Malaqu®™ ever go this route?"
The Texan looked like he had murder on his mind. Those two definitely had a history. "No, we never go the same way."
Like the Contessa, the Barão was a restored rubber boom ship. That was where the similarities ended. Malaqu®™'s ship was spotless, meticulously trimmed. A shining smokestack jutted proudly, fresh with black paint. Even the lines were coiled at even lengths on the deck.
But no passengers were stirring in the dwindling rain. Only the captain could be seen, hanging out from the wheelhouse.
My first look at Malaqu®™. He was above average height with slick black hair and a glaring red tattoo covering his forearm. The right side of his face had been maimed - four deep scars sliced across his cheek, as if he'd been attacked by an animal.
He gave her chills. Here was a man who took passengers out, yet again and again they didn't return. What was he doing with - or to - them?
For all they knew, he could be feeding tourists to an insatiable jungle demon.
When Travis and Charlie hastened to the wheel-house to get the Contessa going once more, MacRieve muttered to Lucia, "Malaqu®™'s pure evil. Whatever we've suspected of him - he's more than capable of it."
"How do you know?"
"My Instinct's telling me."
The beast inside MacRieve was recognizing a prospective foe. In a low tone, she asked him, "Do you scent a vampire?" For some reason, she couldn't get past the idea that Lothaire was on that ship.
"They're downwind," MacRieve answered. "But aye, I think so. Whatever Nïx sent you to retrieve, someone aboard the Barão either wants it or wants to stop you from getting it."
"This makes sense, then. Nïx told me to beware of two cryptic things - a guardian and a rubber baron. Confirmation on the second. And before you ask, I have no idea what a guardian is."
"The soothsayer warned you of the Barão? Then I'm going to take heed."
"If they follow us for the rest of the day, then I'll disable their ship at the earliest opportunity."
"Aye. When they anchor for the night, I'll scuttle her." At her questioning look, he said, "I'll swim over, dive underneath, and yank off the propeller. Simple enough."
"Get in the water - at night?"
Just before moonrise, Lucia and MacRieve stood on the platform in the drizzle. She plucked on her bowstring as he readied for his mission - by stripping off his shirt.
At sunset, the Barão had dropped anchor just upriver from the Contessa, within the very same bend - which, as far as MacRieve was concerned, was a declaration of war.
Nothing she could say would dissuade him from his plan.
She was beset with nerves, and for more than one reason. Tonight the moon was full, and though Lucia trusted the witches' power in the cuff, spells that went against the course of nature had a way of going awry. Like if Fate wanted her way, she'd figure out how to get it.
Plus, Lucia was uneasy about MacRieve being in the water at night. "Just take the skiff, werewolf."
He shook his head. "I have to get in anyway. And I doona want to be seen. If I stir the vampire I scented, he could attack you while I'm over there."
"It's too dangerous," she insisted.
"Well, I'm no' too keen on leaving you here with Damiãno, either."
Today MacRieve had told her that Damiãno was a jaguar shifter, one of a powerful species known for their strength, agility - and dirty fighting.
"If that gato comes near you, I want you to drill him between the eyes."
She had her new quiver at her thigh and her bow ready to shoot, but close quarters - like those on a ship - were an archer's most disadvantageous combat zone. "I'll do what I can."
He gazed at her anxious expression. "You're truly going to be worried about me?"
"Just because I don't want to tell all you my secrets doesn't mean I don't like you."
"Aye, we'll be talking about your secrets later."
After the Barão's sighting, they'd seemed to enjoy an unspoken truce for the last few hours. "You can't just let me have them?" And keep your wolf's nose out of my business?
"My Lykae curiosity demands answers. And now I've remembered how I can coax you to tell me anything." He reached out and cupped her breast.
"Wolf!" She slapped his hand away. "You're just trying to distract me from my worry."
"Aye, and I merely wanted to touch your bonny breasts."
"Can you be serious? I don't have a good feeling about this."
"Lousha, you've seen me almost completely turned - do you no' think the things in the water should fear me?"
Good point. "Wait... almost completely turned?"
He chucked her under the chin. "Relax, this is a cakewalk. What's the worst that can happen?"
As if on cue, the skies opened up, pouring rain.
"Just be careful," she whispered as he slipped into the black water, beginning his silent swim to the Barão.
As she impatiently waited, she tried to analyze this worry. Nearly two weeks ago, she would've been overjoyed that he was leaving her behind. Now? She feared she was falling for him, her rough-and-tumble Scot. Which could only be a disaster.
MacRieve could never be satisfied without sex. Hell, she could never be. The last ten days had turned into bout after bout of sensual torment -
She heard something moving on the decks and tensed, her ears twitching. Seconds later, she let out a breath. Just Schecter, activating his lure. Every time he hauled it out of the water, her ears registered the frequencies anew. Noise polluter.
Though Lucia didn't know where Charlie or Damiãno was, she could hear Rossiter pacing as usual. And Izabel was with the captain in his cabin, discussing something with him in a low voice.
Lucia sighed. Those two had it so easy as a couple, with just two minor barriers between them: Izabel's twin brother was in love with the same man, and Travis was still in love with his late wife.
If so little stood in the way of Lucia and MacRieve, she'd have reeled him in and never let him go.
Try a marriage to the devil, a chastity-based power, and potentially the end of the world....
Once Garreth reached the stern of the Barão, he drew a breath and dove beneath the ship. Barely able to see in the muddy water, he felt his way around until he could locate the propeller shaft.
After bending the metal out of shape, he surfaced for another breath. Just before he returned to mangle the rudder, he hesitated.
Blood. He smelled it, coming from within the Barão.
Ignore it, get the job done, and get back. But why was it so quiet inside? He didn't hear a single passenger. Not a soul was moving about.
And he still scented vampire.
His Lykae's curiosity got the best of him, and he leapt to the gangway, soundlessly landing.
Again he listened, hearing nothing but ship sounds, the eerie kind one hears only in the dead of night - the anchor chain scraping the windlass, wood settling, ropes tightening as a breeze picked up.
Dripping water, he stole into the main salon. The room was unsettling to Garreth, reminding him of a Victorian-era funeral parlor, overly gilded but somber.
He'd known the ship was a refurbished rubber boom trawler - the vessel's very name meant the rubber baron - but he hadn't suspected the Barão would be a time capsule from the rubber boom days.
And some of those days had been dark indeed.
As he moved farther within, he spotted a pair of reading glasses crushed on the plush floor rug. Atop a serving table, afternoon tea had been set out some time ago - now the cakes were crusted, the cream spoiled. When he spied a teacup with lipstick on the rim and a plate of half-eaten cake beside it, the hair on the back of his neck stood up.
Something had gotten these passengers - unexpectedly.
And a trail of crimson spatter led out of the room in the direction he'd detected the vampire's scent. Garreth followed the blood down a dimly-lit and narrow companionway, past one empty cabin after another. Wood creaked behind him, and he twisted around. Just the ship settling once more.
The trail ended at the door of the last cabin. Locked. Tensing for a fight, Garreth broke the polished brass knob. Inside, a coffin lay. An eerily simple casket - wood, no varnish or sets of pallbearer handles. Of course, the vampire wouldn't likely be carted around in it.
Garreth crouched beside the coffin. With fangs bared and flared claws raised to strike, he tore open the lid.
But then another scent impression teased Garreth. He rose, exiting the vampire's room, tracking it farther into the boat until he stood before the freezer. Drawing a breath, knowing what he'd find, he opened the door.
All the passengers were inside. Dead. Their bodies had been butchered into pieces and stuffed within.
Among the limbs, he spied Captain Malaqu®™'s glaring tattooed arm. When Garreth had seen the man just this afternoon, had Malaqu®™ already known the others were dead? And that his time was nigh...?
The vampire was missing, with a trail of blood leading to - or from - his cabin, and all the people aboard had perished. Should be easy to deduce what had happened. Yet these people had been hacked at.
What weapon could have done this? A sword, an ax?
His eyes narrowed. Charlie had had a machete this morning. I knew something was off....
"Lousha!" Garreth twisted around, sprinting for the water.
"What the hell is MacRieve doing?" Through the pounding rain, Lucia had spotted him boarding the Barão! "Why would he go..." She trailed off.
The Contessa had just seemed to ripple beneath her feet before stilling once more. "That was weird." She'd no sooner spoken than the entire vessel shuddered, moving sideways, straining against the anchors. Wood groaned from the pressure. She hunched down, her eyes darting.
From his cabin, Travis barked, "What the hell was - "
Like a shot, the Contessa reared up, briefly tilting to the side, sending Lucia skidding to the opposite side of the deck. As she scrabbled for purchase, her mind tried to grasp what could do this - what would be big enough to do this.
And how much more could the Contessa take?
When the boat was hit again, rising up off its hull before settling, Schecter shrieked from the port side of the boat.
Lucia's eyes narrowed as a suspicion arose, and she clambered around the pitching decks toward him. Once she'd reached the side, her jaw slackened at the scene.
Schecter. Hanging on for his life to a splintering railing. Directly beneath his dangling body, an immense caiman peered up, about to strike.
Her lips parted around a shocked breath. The creature was colossal, with red eyes the size of basketballs. And it wasn't alone. The water all around the boat churned with eddies.
MacRieve had told her that there were in fact giant caimans - but that they lived in Rio Labyrinto, not anywhere else!
Wait... the ship was only a few hours from there. Dear gods, was Schecter's lure actually working, drawing them here from the hidden tributary?
Lucia readied her bow, stringing two arrows. The creature's hide would be plated thick, so she aimed for the red eyes - big enough targets.
When she nailed the caiman in both sockets, it thrashed twice, sending up copious waves of water and mud that splattered the side of the boat. Then it disappeared.
Lucia strapped her bow across her body, then dove across the deck for Schecter, snagging his wrist. "What have you done?" she demanded. "What is this?"
He replied in hysterical gibberish - so she feinted like she was dropping him. "What was that, Schecter?"
"Where is it?" She couldn't hear the contraption, which meant it was still underwater.
"I don't know! Got jostled, caught in the anchor line," he answered, looking so petrified that she believed him.
She'd just swung him back on solid footing when Travis and Izabel stumbled out onto the deck.
"What the hell's going on, doc?" Travis snapped. The big Texan was wielding his shotgun.
Izabel herself had a machete. "Wh-what could do this?" she cried over the rain.
"Ask Schecter!" Lucia turned, but he'd already disappeared.
Rossiter staggered out from the cabin area. "Somebody want to tell me what's happening?"
"Schecter's lure worked. We're surrounded by giant caimans," Lucia said, but no one believed her - they couldn't see in the dark.
When lightning flashed, illuminating the creatures swarming the boat, Rossiter's jaw slackened. "Schecter did... this?"
Travis's eyes went wide. "I'm going to kick his worthless ass."
"Can that wait?" Rossiter gazed around uneasily. "We need to get under way, stat!"
"Might help if I could find my fucking deckhand!" Travis said with a scowl. "We're taking on water - we've got to get the pumps going before I can crank the engines."
"I'm on the pumps!" Rossiter yelled, running at once for the engine room.
Gazing toward the bow, Lucia said, "The lure's still working. I'll try to find it, get rid of it."
"Wait, Lucia," Izabel said, "where's Mr. MacRieve - "
Another lurching hit to the ship sent Lucia tumbling across the deck, her claws like grappling hooks over the wood. From a distance she saw Travis and Izabel launched into the galley wall; Travis hit head-first, the blow knocking him out cold. Looking dazed but unharmed, Izabel dropped her machete to tend to him.
The next rock of the boat loosed a weighty beam above the two. It plummeted toward the captain's motionless body, but little Izabel caught it, straining to hold it over her head.