Pleasure of a Dark Prince

Chapter 17

When he drew it out, she said, "MacRieve, the arrowhead is bone! Look at those old-fashioned flights - were those feathers plucked from a dodo bird?"

"Come, then, hold it."

She reluctantly accepted it from him. And her dark eyes widened.

"You feel something with it, no? Some power?"

"I do," she admitted. "But wood and bone?"

"Trusted stand-bys for euphemisms and arrows."

"MacRieve! It'd be like Serena Williams going to Wimbledon with a flyswatter."

"Aye, but if she were as good as you are at shooting, she'd still win."

At that, Lucia gave him a coaxed smile. "You're right, werewolf. Schwag-looking arrow or not, I'll take it." She slipped it into her thigh quiver.

In a solemn tone, he said, "You chose wisely." Then he added, "I'm relieved it is no' gold. I dinna want to alarm you, but my Instinct was screaming warnings about this. Now, we can take it without waking an ancient evil. So, as far as afternoons-after go, this is looking up."

She chuckled, leaping into his arms, kissing him soundly on the lips. "We did it!"

He grunted. "Easy, lass, go easy on the ribs."

"Oh, sorry!"

She slid down, and just that was enough to make even his battered body stir. With a steadying breath, he set her away. "Let's get you out of here." On their way to the entrance, he thought he heard something and turned back to the sarcophagus. "Did you hear that?"

But she was already jogging ahead, chattering happily.

"Wait, Lousha!" He would've been right behind her... but he could have sworn he'd heard something moving.

Chapter 43

Lucia couldn't stop a grin as she exited the tomb. The arrow might be unremarkable looking - hardly the golden one of her dreams - but she'd sensed its latent power.

In fact, Lucia had never felt the like.

Last night in the skiff, she'd thought she was finished. This morning she'd lost all hope; now she was back in the game and in a better position than she'd ever been. I'm going to destroy my nightmare. How many beings had that opportunity? To rid herself - and the world - of an abomination.

At the thought, her aggression, her darkness, surfaced, filling Lucia with the need for raw violence. She wanted to kill Cruach, to hurt him.

Her path was clear: journey to the Northlands where Cruach's lair was located, meet up with Regin, then execute a god. All she had to do was lose MacRieve in Iquitos -

A vampire appeared out of thin air, not twenty feet from her.

Lothaire. Just there, standing in the canopy's shade. She'd been right - he had been aboard the Barão. Though his face was expressionless, she sensed his menace. She had her bow up and her arrow shot so fast it was a blur, but he traced out of the way with incredible speed.

The arrow whizzed off into the distance.

I... missed. Preparing for the crippling pain, she shut her eyes and awaited it.... Still waiting. She cracked open her eyes. Nothing.

Because Skathi has no hold on me -

Suddenly, Lothaire did. He'd traced behind her, grabbing her around the neck in a tight choke hold.

Getting sick of males grabbing my neck!

In his thick Russian accent, he commanded, "Drop the bow, Valkyrie. Or I'll trace you from this place."

In the blink of an eye, he could teleport her to the Horde dungeons. She unwillingly tossed her bow beside her pack. "I knew it was you aboard the Barão."

MacRieve exited the tomb just then. "Let her go." His beast flickered, his fangs lengthening. Pale blue eyes evaluated, spying for any weakness in Lothaire.

"Come closer, and I'll punish her," the vampire said, so coolly. To Lucia, he asked, "You're hunting for a dieumort?"

"Aye, take it," MacRieve bit out. "Just doona hurt her."

"I'm not here for that, but for something much more interesting. Back inside, Archer."

She resisted. "Lothaire, we're here to stop an apocalypse, a real end-of-the-world scenario."

As if she hadn't spoken, he said, "Take me to the Gilded One. Now."

She hesitated until MacRieve gave her a quick nod. "Do it."

Lucia saw no choice but to comply. With the vampire's arm a constant pressure around her neck, she headed back inside to the chamber.

MacRieve followed, a continual low growl in his throat.

"Don't you care that we're averting an apocalypse?" she asked Lothaire. "Don't you have anyone on this earth you'd prefer, oh, I don't know, not to die?"

The pressure on her neck increased. At her ear, the vampire grated, "You don't know me, Valkyrie." His voice was low, ominous. "You don't know what I care about." So chilling.

"We're not supposed to take any treasure or disturb the Gilded One," she heedlessly continued. "Or else we'll wake an ancient evil." As soon as she spoke the words, she cringed. Like he would care - he was an ancient evil. He'd probably think, The more the merrier.

When they returned to the chamber, of all the treasures inside, Lothaire's attention grew riveted to a plain golden ring - on La Dorada's thumb. The one on her person.

"You can't take that, vampire!" Lucia said. "If you remove anything from her body, we'll all be doomed."

"Will we?" Amusement. Never relinquishing his hold on Lucia, he reached down, snapping La Dorada's thumb clean from her body.

Lucia gasped.

"Why that ring, Lothaire?" MacRieve demanded. "Of all these riches?"

"There's no accounting for taste." He shoved the finger and gold band into his pants pocket.

"Bastard! You can't take that from here," Lucia cried, still in his grip. "You don't understand - it will set off traps. We'll all be killed."

She felt Lothaire shrug behind her. "Then it's fortunate that I can trace."

"Not if I can help it." She grabbed his arms, sinking her claws into them. "You're not taking that ring, vampire!"

"Lousha, no! Doona fight him!" As MacRieve charged for them, Lothaire's hands flew up. Lucia felt pressure, then heard an uncanny crack.

Then came darkness.

As Garreth ran for her, he saw it all as if in slow motion.

With no hint of expression, the vampire calmly gripped her chin and the back of her head and snapped her neck. The pop of bone was deafening.

Lucia's limp body dropped. With a roar, MacRieve tackled thin air; Lothaire had traced twenty feet down the corridor.

"I told you not to come closer," the vampire said. "She's been punished."

Garreth bellowed in fury, but the vampire was already gone. At once, he heard whirring gears. The traps...

"Lousha, wake up, baby." She couldn't be killed like this. She couldn't - but who knew in the Lore? He'd also never thought his cousin would marry a witch or that the Lykae queen would be a vampire!

From outside came the deep crackling sound of rocks breaking. The tomb began shaking, gold tiles raining from the ceiling. Garreth clutched Lucia's limp body, cupping her lolling head, and tore down the corridor.

Once he reached the tomb entrance, he could barely see - stone dust filled the air. The levees were self-destructing! Walls were collapsing, water shooting through. With no mortar, they'd crumble like a sand castle.

The city was about to be wiped out. About to be bombarded with water, boulders, and four-ton anacondas.

Which left him with two choices: hole up in one of the temples, trying to shelter her body from the impact, or run for it with her, leaving her completely unprotected....

Chapter 44

Howler monkeys screeching. Boulders knocking together. The very ground quaking.

In and out of consciousness, Lucia dimly perceived that MacRieve had her in a fireman's hold, spread over his shoulder, hanging upside down. He'd yelled, "Oh, fook this!" snatched up her gear, and then he'd taken off running.

With his every step, pain spiked through one spot in her neck. The rest of her body was numb.

As he sprinted down the cobbled path, the totems flanking it began to topple, giant dominoes collapsing. MacRieve ducked and sidestepped while they crashed all around them.

Then came a minefield of those huge ceiba trees exploding up from the rupturing ground, their roots shooting out like grasping arms.

Lucia could do nothing to help him.

When MacRieve leapt once, then directly again, she gaped down. Beneath them, crevasses in the earth fissured, opening and closing like gills....

At last, against all odds, MacRieve made it to the levees. He scrabbled up, scaling the rock wall even as it crumbled. Vines snapped, whipping as though alive. Every time she thought he'd gotten his footing, stones would disappear, plummeting below. On each side of them, unimaginable water pressure shot rocks like they were cannonballs. Directly above them, water jetted with a bullet's velocity.

"Just hold on, lass," he told her. "I'll get us out of this." He added in a mutter, "Somehow."

With that, she blacked out once more.

The next time she woke, he was laying her flat in the bottom of the skiff. Then she dimly heard him trying to start the engine, again and again. "Come on, fire, you little bugger!"

It roared to life - they'd be saved!

"Can you hear me, Lousha?" he asked as he got them under way.

She blinked open her eyes, squinting against the afternoon sun streaming in through branches. With a frown, she lifted her head -

Pain radiated through her neck, then down her back. "Ow!"

"Damn it, stay put!"

She couldn't move her head without pain, could only look straight up. Probing her neck, she cried, "That hurts!"

"Then stop doing it. Just lie still for a bit."

"Are we safe yet?"

"Uh, no, no' as such."

She could hear the propeller churning, could smell the engine smoking, and yet the branches overhead weren't moving. The boat was staying in place? Ah, gods, the river was equalizing, and they were caught in the current. "We're about to be sucked back into the necropolis, aren't we?"

"Oh, aye."

Come on, come on! Garreth inwardly commanded. But how much more could this engine take?

She'd been quiet for long moments. "Now are we safe?"

Just as he'd muttered, "No' yet," the current released them at last. The boat shot forward, freed. He briefly closed his eyes in relief.

"MacRieve, you're going to have to narrate. I can only look up."

"We're out of danger for now - and on our way back to the Contessa." If the ship's even there.

"How did you get us out of that back there?" she asked.

Sheer luck. "Great skill. How's your neck?" Though it was such a devastating injury, the actual break would be small and quick to regenerate. "If it's hurting, then it's healing."

"Then I'm definitely on the mend. I think I can sit up soon," she said. "I can't believe Lothaire gave me the neck adjustment from hell. Strike that - I can totally believe it, but I'm shocked he was right there at the tomb. Makes one wonder how long he'd been watching us."

Doubtless the leech watched me claiming her. Bluidy vampires!

"When did Lothaire get so freaking strong?" Lucia asked.

"He's an ancient, the Enemy of Old." And immortals grew stronger with every year.

"What do you think he wants with that ring?"

"Doona know. It was the simplest piece of gold in all of the chamber. It must have some powers that we doona know of."

"Do you think he'll be back?"

"I think he's long gone from this place." Like we should be.

"What are we going to do about the great evil getting her finger broken off? Also, I'm going to go out on a limb and say we probably got water in there on the watchers. Three out of three house rules broken."

And I'd already heard something moving within. "I doona know that anything could have survived that impact. The city was razed and then submerged." But if they did survive... Wendigos were rapacious killers. And then La Dorada - who knew what she was capable of? A warrior as strong as Damiãno had feared her.

Lucia grew quiet for a moment, then asked, "What do we do if the Contessa left us? Or, um, sank?"

"Paddle this boat for double the amount of days it took for the Contessa to motor here. Or attempt to fix the Barão." A ghost ship. Filled to the brim with hacked-up bodies. "Let's just hope they dinna."

She stretched her hand out to him. "Help me up."

"Lousha, it's too soon."

"I won't move my head." When he grudgingly tugged her upright, she looked stiff and hurting, but not too bad. "See."

"Aye, then. So tell me, what's the last you saw of the passengers and crew?"

"Travis was injured. He head-butted the wheelhouse and was knocked out cold. Schecter was urinating on himself in fear, Rossiter was in the engine room, manning the pumps."

"What about Izabel and Charlie?"

"You mean Chizabel?" At his frown, Lucia explained what she'd seen. How Izabel's body had morphed - much like a shifter's would - from female to male.

"You saw Izabel change into Charlie?" Garreth asked.

"Right before my eyes."

"No shite?" Then his brows drew together. "You dinna change your swimsuit in front of Izabel, did you?"

"Only a couple of times."

"Bluidy hell. Charlie's seen my woman naked," he said in a surly tone. "I almost liked him better when I thought he was a machete murderer." He steered around a log. "You need to find out what his - and her - story is. Sate my Lykae's curiosity for me."

"So what are we going to tell everyone when we get back?"

"Partly the truth. We tell them that Damiãno attacked with a machete last night. So we got in the skiff heading for the Barão. But he'd already killed all the passengers there. Then we say the motor got fouled up and we drifted until I could get it working again."

"Sounds good to me," she said, with a shrug, then winced at her aching neck.

"Easy, lass. You have to give that time. Coincidentally, we have some to burn...."

For hours, they traveled upriver, praying that the Contessa would still be there. Toward late afternoon, he said, "It should be just around the bend." Then he proceeded to hold his breath....

"They waited for us!" Lucia gave a relieved sigh when they saw the ship, still anchored. "And they're afloat! I don't know whose decision it was to wait, but they're my new best friend. I need a dry bed and a shower."

"Aye, and coffee and food for me. Seems like our luck is turning."

The Contessa appeared to have taken on some water, but she wasn't listing - a good sign. The old girl had more in her than Garreth had ever imagined. Her generator was still working, the water pumps humming.

Of course, the ship looked like shite. Most of the railings were gone, and the windows were shattered. The sole air-conditioning unit dangled precariously from a sagging window frame.

All over the decks, river vegetation dried, and twenty-foot arcs of mud sprayed over the ship's sides, most likely from caiman tails digging down as the creatures attacked.

"I bet the ship can make it back to port in half the time." He motored on. "We'll be running with the current, and with all the rains, the water's moving," he said, adding silently, And once I have you tucked somewhere safe, I'll go take care of this Cruach business. Alone.

"Oh, gods, look at that," Lucia said, pointing out a dead giant caiman hung up on a nearby log. Her arrows still jutted from its eyes. Flies swarmed the bloated carcass from above - piranhas from below. The fish were fighting over it, tearing at it so viciously, the caiman's limbs and tail jerked as if it were still alive.

"Rain forest garbage disposal," Garreth said. "It'll be picked clean in seconds." Giving the piranhas a wide berth, he steered them to what was left of the Contessa's platform. Once he'd tied the skiff to the ship, he carried Lucia aboard, setting her on her feet so gingerly.

"Stop treating me like crystal, MacRieve. I'm all healed up."

He wrapped an arm around her waist. "As am I. So we can be all healed up in the shower together."

"It's a date, but first thing's first. Let's find everyone."

Garreth called out, "Travis?"

No answer.

"I think Travis will probably be out of commission," Lucia said. "That hit he took would stagger even an immortal."

"Anybody here?" Garreth yelled, sniffing the air. No vampires, no Damiãno, no Loreans... so why was he uneasy? When he heard sounds coming from the salon, they headed up.

Izabel and Schecter stood within the room, their faces pale.

Lucia asked, "What's going on?"

Only when Garreth and Lucia had entered did they see three robed men behind them in the salon, covered in dried blood, with guns drawn.

Chapter 45

"Cromites," Lucia sneered. That was why the Contessa hadn't left them. These bastards had been lying in wait with hostages.

All three had eyes glazed with fanaticism and bloodstained robes. Though they brandished guns, their customary weapons were holstered at their hips - swords with Cruach's horned symbol on the hilts, and more blood smeared on the blades.

"You're the ones who killed the Barão's passengers," Lucia said. Not Damiãno.

The eldest Cromite, clearly the leader of the trio, answered, "All were sacrificed in his name."

The shifter had merely picked up the machete that Izabel had dropped. Of course, then he'd been quick to shove it against Lucia's neck.

"And you brought guns?" MacRieve scoffed. "Did you come here to tickle me?"

"Give us the dieumort," the leader said. "Or we'll kill these two."

MacRieve shrugged. "So be it."

Schecter gave a cry, seeming to go weak in the knees, grasping Izabel's arm. The girl flung him away.

"Are you crazy?" Schecter said. "Just give them whatever they came for."

"You canna comprehend the shite day I've had." MacRieve's expression was thunderous. "I will no' be giving anything to anybody!"

The leader said, "I'll shoot you."

"At your bluidy leisure." MacRieve's beast was already stirring. "Let's do this - "

"We don't actually care about retrieving the dieumort. We only want it destroyed." The leader motioned to the youngest-looking one, and the man opened his robe, displaying a belt laden with explosives. He raised his shaking fist, his thumb just above a red button on a detonator.

MacRieve muttered, "You've got my attention."

"Don't give it to them!" Lucia said. "They're going to try to kill us all anyway. They'd love to sacrifice themselves."

MacRieve shook his head. In a low tone, he told her, "This could actually kill you." His eyes flickered pale blue as he gazed at her face. "I canna risk it - "

Suddenly, a deafening boom sounded. The bomb man's head burst, blood splattering the wall map behind him.

Lucia jerked around. Travis sagged against the wall just outside the salon doorway, with his shotgun smoking and his head bandaged. "Run, Izabel!" he yelled. "Go!" She and Schecter were already darting through the doorway.

The remaining two Cromites turned to their dead comrade. And aimed their pistols.

"MacRieve!" Lucia screamed. "They'll shoot the bomb!"

He was already diving in front of the fallen man, intercepting the bullets, his pale blue eyes locked on the ones shooting.

Knowing the carnage to come, Lucia shoved the door shut in Travis's ashen face, slamming the bar lock in place.

Under a hail of fire but still shielding the bombs, MacRieve lunged for the two Cromites, slashing out at their throats with his claws. The two crumpled to the floor, one nearly decapitated, the other futilely clamping his hands over his severed jugular.

Dashing to MacRieve's side, she cried, "Ah, gods, look at your chest!" It was riddled with bullets.

"Reminds me... of our first date."

"You crazy Lykae." She pressed her lips to his forehead.

"He wants you, Lucia," the last living Cromite gurgled, making her entire body tense.

She leapt up, reaching the mortal, then gripped his bloody head. Broken neck day, paying it forward.

"Wants Lucia av - "

She twisted, gazing at the ceiling as satisfaction rushed through her. Every time she slew one of these followers, she imagined the Broken Bloody One felt the pain.

And that was just a hint, husband. I'm about to teach you what misery is....

With effort, MacRieve turned to her. "We could've used him for information."

"My temper got the best of me. Sorry," she said, returning to his side. She hated lying to MacRieve, but she was so close to keeping her secret buried forever. And somehow her motives for secrecy had shifted from concealing her shame to protecting her Scot.

"Lousha... think one o' these bullets is inching to my heart. Might pass out for a bit. You stay out o' trou - " He went unconscious.

Banging sounded on the door, and Travis yelled, "I'm about to blow this fucker down!"

"You'll hit us," Lucia called. "Just give us a second. We're fine."

Yes, fine, yet with gored bodies to get rid of. Can't get discovered now! She was already in enough trouble. How to get rid... how to get rid...?

Her gaze fell to one of the busted windows. Rain forest garbage disposal. She hastened to the lead Cromite's body, maneuvering it to the opening. Then she tossed it over the side.

Floating, floating.

Travis began assailing the barricaded door with what sounded like the butt of his shotgun. He'd break through soon.

Come on, fish!

She exhaled in relief when the piranhas boiled up in a feeding frenzy to consume the man. Two more Cromites to go. She made fast work of them, carefully extracting the bomb belt from the last one before dumping him to the fish.

"Clever girl," MacRieve rasped, opening one eye.

She whispered, "So what do I do with the bomb?"

"Sink it... weigh it down."

She peered around for something heavy to tie it to, coming up with nothing... Then she narrowed her eyes on the second busted window, on the air-conditioning unit drooping from it.

Lucia hauled it back into the salon, then punched the center out. Digging out the guts of the machine, she cautiously buried the bomb inside. Then she lobbed the whole contraption into the river, watching it sink with satisfaction.

By the time Travis broke down the door shortly after, Lucia was kneeling beside a semi-conscious MacRieve, having just tied the embroidered coffee-station tablecloth around his chest to conceal the worst of his wounds.

As the captain's weary gaze took in the scene, Lucia glanced around, trying to see it from his eyes. His late wife's embroidery now served as a bandage. Air conditioner parts littered the floor. Copious amounts of blood had spurted from the Cromites' jugulars when MacRieve had attacked. Yet there were no robed men to be found.

"I think I need a drink," Travis drawled, sinking down on his stool. "Every damned trip gets weirder than the last."

Oh, if he only knew half the weirdness aboard his ship.

"Where the hell did those men go?"

"They escaped," she lied baldly. "Darn them!"

Nodding slowly, he said, "The one without his head - did he make tracks too?"

"They took him with them. Madcap fanatics!"

"What did they want?"

"An artifact we own. It had a religious meaning to them. End of the world, doomsday type of stuff."

"I saw MacRieve catch at least two bullets before you shoved me out," Travis said, "but he looks like he's just taking a nap."

"Scottish men are... hardy?"

The captain rubbed his hand over his face. "See, what I think happened is this - "

"Travis," she interrupted in a steely tone. "You've got a head wound, you're a drinker, and if no one ever hears about what you think happened, then I'll pay for all the repairs to the boat. A lump sum."

After a hesitation, he narrowed his eyes, "Quadruple it, and you'll see my memory go real fast."


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