"One question though. Damiãno wasn't with you?"
She shook her head, giving him the story she and MacRieve had agreed on, amending the identity of the Barão's killers to the robed fanatics.
When he heard the fate of those passengers, Travis's pale visage grew leached of even more color. "Are you sure it was those three that did it? It could've been Malaqu®™."
"Malaqu®™ was killed, too." She thought she detected disappointment in him. Which couldn't be right.
Izabel ran in then, her eyes going wide at the sight of MacRieve. "Deus do c®¶u! Is he going to be all right?"
Lucia said, "It's just a flesh wound."
She nodded dumbly. "And where'd those creepy men go?"
"Escaped," Travis answered. "Long gone."
When MacRieve roused once more, Lucia said, "Here, help me get him back to the cabin."
With Travis and Lucia's help, MacRieve was able to make it to his feet. But when he lurched, Travis ducked under his arm, laying it over his shoulders to help him walk. "Big bastard," he said with a grunt.
Once they'd navigated MacRieve back to cabin seven and heaved him into the bed, Travis said, "We've gotta get underway right now, get him to a hospital."
Lucia gazed at the fresh blood seeping from the captain's head wound. MacRieve's not the one who needs to get to a hospital.
The captain raised his face and called, "Chuck!" He frowned when no reply came, then asked Izabel, "You've seen him since last night, right?" Travis seemed genuinely worried.
Izabel said, "He's fine."
Travis's concern shifted to ire. "Then where the hell is he?"
"Charlie's... he's..." Izabel trailed off, looking at Lucia with pleading eyes.
I can't believe I'm doing this. "Charlie was patching a hole when we came in. Looked pretty bad."
Izabel quickly added, "Capitão, your head's bleeding again. I'll put you back in bed, then go help Charlie. We'll get the Contessa under way in no time."
Lucia waited for Travis to bark that no one could improve anything. Instead, he gazed down at Izabel and muttered, "What would I do without you two?"
Izabel, in turn, looked crestfallen. And now Lucia understood why. Okay, perhaps they do have a decent-sized barrier between them.
Just then, Schecter came running into the cabin. One of the lenses in his glasses was cracked, and his cowlick had finally deflated. "Uh, there's a beam wedged against the engine room hatch."
"So?" Travis snapped, looking like he wanted to murder the professor.
"So... I think Rossiter's in there."
At once, the captain and Izabel charged out. When MacRieve cracked open an eye and muttered to Lucia, "Go. Like that mortal," she ran after them, hurrying to the engine room.
She found the captain straining to move the beam, his head bandage already saturated with red. Schecter was worthless. Izabel was gone, no doubt "looking" for Charlie.
"Here, let me help!" Lucia said. Acting as if she struggled, she wrenched the beam away, then dashed forward to open the hatch. When steaming fumes gusted out from within, she coughed, waving her hand in front of her face.
Once the miasma cleared, she saw Rossiter on his hands and knees clawing his way up the steps. He was shirtless, covered in grease and sweat, and up to his waist in water. He also looked drunk from fumes, his eyes bloodshot.
As Lucia rushed down to help him up, she spied a line of oil residue high on the wall from where the water had risen. "The water got that high?" If so, then the ship had been sinking.
Rossiter rasped, "I was singularly motivated... to keep the pumps running."
She couldn't imagine how terrifying that would have been for him - a mortal trapped with little light, the water rising, knowing he was about to drown.
Travis said, "If not for you, we'd have gone down." Over his shoulder, he added, "All because of the giant fucking caimans!"
Everyone on board hated Schecter, but Rossiter had the most reason to. Aside from his harrowing night, the doctor's mission was now finished - with no hope for finding his orchid. Schecter might just have killed him.
Once they got Rossiter back on the deck, his wild-eyed gaze landed on Schecter. With a maddened bellow, the doctor attacked.
"I haven't seen a punch like that in ages," Lucia said as she entered the wheelhouse. Chizabel was piloting the boat into a dramatic orange sunset.
The already cracked windshield had been no match for caiman attacks, and now as the wind streamed in, her long black hair flowed behind her. Izabel was so feminine; you'd never know she was half-man.
"And then when Doc Rossiter kept beating Schecter?" Izabel said. "I never knew the expression beating the piss out of someone was literal."
"I meant to step in and break it up sooner. Really I did," Lucia said. "So where's Travis?"
"Capitão's sleeping in his cabin. Rossiter shot him up with some morphine."
The doctor had wanted to examine MacRieve as well, but Lucia had insisted his wounds were superficial, assuring Rossiter, You'll see him up and running in no time.
"Is MacRieve still alive?"
"He's resting, too." The Scot had been passed out again but was regenerating nicely. "Prognosis is good."
Izabel raised her brows at that. All the humans had thought he was surely at death's door.
Lucia guessed she and Izabel would dance around the subject of her being part man a little longer. So she stared at the sun over the water. As distraught as she'd been just this morning, Lucia was now filled with hope.
In her possession was a dieumort, which moved her one step closer to freeing herself from Cruach. And one step closer to a future with MacRieve, the Lykae who'd somehow gone from enemy to lover to love of her life.
But she wasn't prepared for MacRieve just yet. Earlier, on the ride back to the Contessa, Lucia had feared he would ask her to marry him. Though it wasn't necessarily the Lykae way, he'd told her she'd be his wife one day. And if he'd proposed, what could she have said? Rain check? Let me get back to you when I'm a widow.
Now, in a matter of days, she could return to the Scot - free at last. Free of Skathi and Cruach. "How much longer until we get back?" Lucia asked.
"Four days. Max."
"You know the way?"
Izabel glared. "Better than anybody on this river," she answered. "So Capitão told me about your night. Damiãno really attacked you? I knew he was louco!"
"In a big way."
"Travis said the robed men were religious fanatics after some relic you and MacRieve found."
"That's it exactly. I'm just glad we made it out alive." Lucia pulled up another stool. "So, last night was revealing in a lot of ways." Rossiter was a hero, Schecter a criminally irresponsible scientist, Izabel part... guy. "You want to tell me what's going on? Are you human?"
Izabel gazed around as if she were being pranked. "Uh, yes. I am. Is there another option?"
Lucia answered with a question: "So do you know why you're... like you are?"
"I was cursed by what I can only figure was an evil woman. Voodoo, Santeria, who knows?" She frowned. "How come you're not freaking out?"
"I was rattled at first. But I've always believed in the supernatural, so I got over it soon enough," Lucia answered. "So when did Izabel Carlotta became Isabel and Charlie?"
Izabel sighed. "Two years ago, I'd just gotten dumped by my first love, and I was drinking and wished with all my heart that I knew why men thought the way they did. This strange, mesmerizing woman told me she could answer my question. The next morning I woke up hungover. Oh, and a man."
Evil sorceress, had to be.
"I came to the Amazon, hoping to find a cure or an explanation."
A cure wasn't likely. Sorceress spells tended to stick, unless lifted by another one of equal or greater power. Lucia knew a witch - Mariketa the Awaited, a party-hearty mercenary of the Wiccae - who could possibly nullify it, but she'd had her hellacious powers bound for fifty years, until she could better handle them. Izabel was doubtless stuck like this for the duration.
"Can you switch back and forth at will?" When Izabel nodded, Lucia asked, "Are you going to tell Travis? It's only a matter of time before he figures it out."
Izabel's eyes watered. "He'll never understand. I'm leaving as soon as I get him to the hospital."
Poor girl. Before she would've been thrilled that Izabel was leaving Travis. Now Lucia resented the fact that the girl felt she had to.
What's with all the sympathy I'm feeling for humans? Maybe Lucia should open up a stray shelter for mortals. Feed them kibble. "Iz, you need to give him a chance. He might surprise you."
"It's not that easy. You see, 'Charlie' needs love, too. And Travis... there's just no way."
"If you can change back and forth, then just stay in your female form."
"It makes me sick when I don't change into Charlie enough and vice versa."
"That's why Charlie was often pale." Now that Lucia thought back, she recalled both twins had dressed in the same plain T-shirts and cargo pants. Iz had worn baggy clothes in case she'd had to transform into him without notice. "Can you change into Charlie right now?"
"Yes, but I don't take requests," she quipped, wiping her nose on her sleeve. "You won't tell Capitão, will you?" She looked utterly distraught at the idea of him knowing.
Lucia raised her brows. "You really think he'd believe me?"
"No, not in um milhão de anos, a million years," she answered. "So are we still... friends?"
"Yes, we're still friends, Chiz. Though I'm not going to change in front of you anymore or anything."
Izabel gasped. "Oh, like Charlie would have your skinny ass, skank!"
"No, because Chuck digs the drunk dudes like his low-hanging-fruit sister."
Izabel choked out a laugh, her expression startled. "First time I've ever been able to laugh about this!"
Then my work here is done. "Listen, if you're ever in New Orleans, I want you to look me up. There's some crazy stuff in that town, maybe we could find someone who knows what happened to you."
Her eyes went wide. "Do you mean that?"
"Yeah. I'll get you my number before we make port...."
As she exited down the companionway steps, Lucia met up with Rossiter. He'd showered and dressed - and still hadn't slept.
"I was just looking for you," he said. "Are you sure you don't want me to see to your husband?"
"I could examine him."
"Oh. MacRieve. He's fine. It truly was only a graze. But thanks for the offer. And thank you again for keeping the ship afloat."
He gave a rueful grin. "There was an element of self preservation at work."
If he'd ever needed to rest, it'd be after that hellish night he'd just spent. But for him, there would be no succor in sleep, no oblivion. Again, sympathy rose in her. "Look, I'm sorry this expedition didn't work out for you."
With a shrug, he said, "Hey, I'll live." Then he almost stifled a grimace.
No, he wouldn't. I don't like humans, I don't like humans.... As much as she inwardly chanted that to herself, she still had the mad urge to help this one.
Before she did something she'd later regret - like telling him Psst, you wanna become a myth like us? - Lucia said, "Um, got to go make a call." Then she brushed past him.
As she headed for the stern deck, she dialed Nïx - and actually got her. She found the soothsayer lucid. Mostly.
"Nïx, I have some good news and some really shitty news," Lucia said. Then she explained everything that had happened, finishing with, "So, uh, a jot of water might've gotten in the tomb."
"Now who did you wake up?" Nïx asked in a confounded tone.
"The great evil. Gilded One. Ringing a bell?"
"We'll worry about that later," Nïx said. "For now, let's stop at least one apocalypse. Aren't you on the books for an attempted assassination soon? Where is that Post-it...?"
"Yes, Nïx, I'll be back to port in four days. I need transportation, warmer clothes, jeans, and boots."
"I'll have a helicopter standing by in Iquitos, then a jet to the Northlands fueled and waiting with clothes and gear for you. Assuming I remember any of this."
"Oh, oh, I do remember this one bit. You have to get the dieumort and get away from MacRieve."
"I was already planning on ditching him, but why do you say so?"
"Because he's intending to do just that to you. To go face Cruach - without you."
"No, he wouldn't!" He didn't even know of her involvement. She'd thought if she could keep it hidden, she'd prevent something like this.
"Oh, but he would."
Probably for some stupid noble reason like keeping her safe! Bastard! Besides the fact that this was her fight - and she'd waited a long time to destroy the Broken Bloody One - Cruach could infect MacRieve.
A plan arose for how to deal with the Scot. In fact, he'd been the one who'd given her the idea. I just have to break into Schecter's cabin in the next four days....
"Nïx, put Regin at the ready," Lucia said. As per usual, it would be Regin with the assist and Lucia shooting for the goal.
Not some werewolf with high-minded ideals. When all this was over, Lucia would come back to him and explain... something.
"Sadly, Regin's going to have to rain-check the god killing and after party," Nïx said. "Seems she's just been abducted."
"What?" Lucia stumbled. "Who would - who could - take her?"
"The details are unclear, but I've narrowed it down to about fifteen suspects, among them: aliens, a boy band, the CIA, and a berserker."
As the rain poured outside the Contessa, Garreth dragged Lucia across his chest, her body relaxed from hours of sex. "It's hard to believe we're nearly to Iquitos," he murmured. He'd gotten all his strength back - just in time. They'd arrive in port at first light.
"I'm almost sad to leave this ship, even after all we've been through." She lazily traced her fingers over his mended chest. "And I already miss my butterfly."
Though he'd assured her he could figure out a way to keep it, she'd gotten a strange look on her face. "I think Lucia Incantata needs her freedom."
"I'm partial to this ship, too, lass," he said. "I've spent some of the best nights of my life on this boat. And in this bed."
She nodded against him. "Most definitely in this bed."
He sifted his fingers through her hair, so wrapped up in her that he almost forgot his plan. Garreth intended to take her so long and hard this night that she'd pass out toward dawn, slipping deep into that near comatose state. Then he'd go to take care of business. "But you've been pensive for the last four days." And the nightmares had been as bad as ever. He needed to help her and couldn't.
She shrugged. "Probably just nerves over the upcoming battle. Plus, I'll rest easier once we use the dieumort. I worry that more will come after it."
In their hands was an archaic secret - kept hidden for millennia in a previously impenetrable site, guarded by creatures of legend - and now they'd brought it forth out into the world.
Each Lore faction had its own seers to direct them to a weapon like this, not to mention the assassins sent by the gods.
Garreth was more than ready to use it, too. This afternoon, he'd called Lachlain to make sure Bowen's witch could scry for this god. Lachlain had been thrilled that Garreth had finally claimed his mate after so long, and had found the dieumort as well. Lachlain had been less thrilled that his younger brother had nearly been eaten by a snake.
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Garreth!" he'd bellowed. "I'm goin' with you on this mission. Bowen, as well."
"No' a chance." After all the two of them had been through in the last year, Garreth refused to lay more trouble on their doorsteps. "Can the witch find my target, or no'?"
"Aye, she can still do many of the easier magicks. But you doona plan to deprive Bowen and me of a fight?"
Garreth had answered, "So as to no' piss off a vampire queen and the most powerful witch ever to live? Oh, aye."
"What are you planning?"
"Steal the arrow from Lousha, sneak off, shoot the god. Then I'll come back with a present and an apology, promising she can shoot the next god." Garreth had sounded far more confident than he actually was. He couldn't predict if she'd forgive him - or if she'd disappear again.
But he didn't feel like he had much of a choice. He could never risk her. Just having the weapon in their possession was a danger. He had to go, and he had to hope. Maybe if he could get some kind of commitment out of her....
"Things will change when we return, Lousha," he said now. "But I trust no' too much." Cupping her face, he pressed kisses to her forehead, her eyelids, the tips of her ears. "I know you Valkyrie fancy marriages and such. So if you wanted to be my wife..." When she stiffened against him, he added in a surly tone, "Or no', then. Only asked because my brother wed his mate."
"Can we table this for now? And talk about it as soon as this killing is done - "
A man's scream ripped through the air.
Lucia said, "I recognize that scream."
Schecter. "He must've found another lizard in his cabin," Garreth said. "He's terrified of anything cold-blooded now. Almost as much as he's afraid of Rossiter."
The mortal Rossiter had seemed stoically resolved to his fate until Garreth had mentioned that another crew would likely go right back out to salvage the rich Barão and retrieve the bodies. If the doctor could hitch a ride, he'd only lose a month total. Only. For a mortal, a month was a long span. For a dying mortal, it was eternity.
Lucia sighed. "Okay, so maybe there are some things I won't miss about the Contessa." She leaned forward and kissed Garreth's chin. "But I meant what I said, Scot. I want to talk with you about the future, just not yet."
Hell, that was more than he'd expected. He relaxed once more, drawing her over his body. "I can wait. For now," he said, talking a big game; Lucia was worth any wait.
She felt him hard against her and gasped. "Again?"
"Again." The things I do for the sake of the world. "As many times as you'll have me. I canna get enough of you, love."
"MacRieve?" she murmured.
Her hand shot forward, an oversized syringe in her fist.
Before he could react, he felt the sting in his neck as she injected him. "Lousha! Why?"
As he fought to keep his eyes open, she whispered, "I'm choosing you."
"Bluidy hell," Garreth muttered. "No' again."
Moments before, he'd awakened, barely, and found Lucia was gone. Memories from last night flooded him. She'd tranqued him - likely with Schecter's stash. She'd been plotting against him the whole time Garreth had been making love to her - as part of his plot against her.
He sniffed the air. This ship was in port. But she was long gone, departed maybe two hours ago. He snatched up his phone, calling Bowen. "Need a favor from your witch."
"Good to talk to you, too, Dark Prince. Hold on."
As he waited for Mariketa to get on the line, Garreth dressed and loaded his pack, intending to set out at once.
"I need you to scry for Lousha," he said. "You told me once that you could."
"Yeah, I can get you in her vicinity."
Garreth had taken Lucia's scent into him and could find her from miles away. "That'll work." Witches could come in handy, he supposed.
"But I don't do gratis."
Garreth bluidy hated witches! "Charge me what you will! Just give me the fucking coordinates."
In the background, he heard Bowen say, "Mari, never let it be said that I doona support your extortion - "
"Entrepreneurial-ness," she corrected.
"But a family discount, love, would no' be amiss."
"The whole family? Fine," she said. "I'm scrying." While Garreth waited, she groused about how extended the "MacRieve pack" was.
Suddenly she sucked in a breath. "Garreth, I don't know why Lucia's going to this particular place, but it's a confluence of evil. Great evil."
"Aye, I ken that," he snapped, then added impatiently, "Home of an evil god I'm off to murder. So be quick with the details, witch!"
A woman's severed leg.
It'd been left at the entrance to Cruach's lair - as if in greeting.
Yet when Lucia had arrived at twilight two hours ago, she'd found no Cromites there to battle, and everything about the situation had screamed, "Trap!"
Now as she awaited Cruach's rising, pacing in front of the cave with her bow strapped over her shoulder, her mind raced, flitting from memory to memory: the look on MacRieve's face just before the tranquilizer took hold, her mad dash out of Iquitos, the interminable plane ride to these cold Northlands.
All of that had culminated in her hike through these barren woods to Cruach's lair. The forest here was a fitting precursor to his cave. Filled with shadows and petrified trees, it was separated forever from the cleansing ocean by Cruach's foul mountain.
She'd never had difficulties finding this place even after so much time had passed. Nothing ever grew around the yawning opening, and old, bleached bones were perpetually strewn before it.
Pacing, thoughts flitting... Lucia was beset with worry about Regin, who was still missing after five days. After unsuccessfully calling Nïx again and again, Lucia had begun harassing Annika.
Annika had already warped past aneurismal straight into action, dispatching search parties and hiring witches to scry. Neither had turned up a trace of Regin.
Who'd abducted her? Surely it was the berserker, Aidan the Fierce, reincarnated once more. But Aidan had never taken Regin before.
Well, at least not without witnesses.
Lucia needed to get this killing over with and return to locate her sister. She yearned for this to end. And yet she knew how risky it would be to do anything before Cruach made his move....
In the past, the longest they'd had to wait for him to emerge was two days - Lucia's nightmares had proved chillingly accurate. So as bad as they'd been the last few nights, why was he not coming forth?
From her thigh quiver, she drew the dieumort out once more, gazing at the wooden shaft and ancient feathers. It was so unlike Skathi's perfect golden arrows, and yet Lucia was more confident in her weapon than she'd ever been. On the plane ride here, she'd noticed the finest inscriptions near the arrowhead and had again sensed the latent power.
She'd begun to suspect the arrow had been carved from an enchanted world tree, a tree of life. There were fewer than a dozen in number scattered all over the earth, but one was rumored to grow in the Amazon.
What better way to defeat a being that reveled in carnage and death?
And what better way to get myself killed? she thought as she replaced the dieumort amid her regular arrows. She was uneasy safeguarding such a weapon - one of the most powerful ever to exist. It was only a matter of time before some enemy came after her, and after this prize. She wanted to use the arrow as soon as possible, to extinguish it - and Cruach - forever.
A chill wind blew, and she pulled her jacket closer, wishing she was back in the sultry warmth of the Amazon with MacRieve. Instead of waiting at the gates of hell. Which was no exaggeration.
She couldn't imagine a more gruesome place. Decorated with piles of rotting bodies and infested with vermin, the cavern was a fitting hovel for the monster within. She remembered how Cruach would drink from a goblet and blood would dribble down his chin and out from his rotting cheeks. She remembered how he would feed.
But the smell was the worst. Right now, the stench oozing out from the lair was so thick, it seemed visible, diffusing into the cleaner air outside.
Damn it, how much longer could she wait? Eventually, MacRieve would find her, somehow; that was what his kind did. Regin needed to be located and then rescued from her obsessed berserker. And with each hour Lucia remained, she risked Cromites returning, or enemies seeking the dieumort.
If she faced Cruach, he'd be no match for her speed, not with his hunched and broken body. She had a weapon in her quiver that would exterminate him. The sooner she completed this kill, the sooner she could return to MacRieve.
I want to start our life together. She could ask the Scot to help her find Regin -
Cruach's voice rang out then, echoing through the tunnel. "Come to me, fair Lucia. For I was soon to come to you."
Her fists clenched. Fair Lucia. More memories bombarded her. The gristle-covered altar, the lecherous robed ones, the... pain. Her rage toward him had always been seething, buried deep within her. Now it welled like a font; she needed raw violence, wanted to mete out her wrath.
After a thousand years, she craved destroying the Broken Bloody One.
The huntress would slay the bear - in his cave.
Taking a deep breath, she readied her bow, prepared to pull either the dieumort for Cruach or a regular arrow for one of his guards, then started into the passageway. As she went deeper within, the ground grew soggier, making a sucking sound with each step. It was a pulp of decomposing flesh and blood. Dotting the walls were torch lights made from the bones and clothing of his victims.
She hadn't been back inside here since the first time. And it was so much worse than she remembered. How could I have been fooled by this fiend? Thank the gods that MacRieve would never find out she'd wed this monster -
"Imagine running into you here," a voice said behind her.
Lucia whirled around, gasping. "What are you doing? H-how did you find this place?"
"I have ways," he answered with a choked cough. "Gods, the smell."
"Mariketa scried, didn't she?"
"Oh, aye." The witch had gotten him in the vicinity, but still Garreth could scarcely believe he'd found this tunnel. The stench coming from within had made scenting Lucia difficult - and paining. "For a price, witches can be accommodating."
Yet he feared there'd be a downside to asking the witch for this. Bowen and Lachlain might meet up and follow Garreth here.
"How are you still standing?" he asked. "The smell nearly felled me coming in. Next time, get Nïx to find you a less revolting god to off." He wiped his sleeve over his face. "I mean, have you ever smelled anything this bluidy awful before?"
At that, Lucia's face seemed to pale even more. "You have to leave!" She kept glancing over her shoulder.
"I'm no' leaving you - as you did me. Why did you take off again?"
"This is too dangerous. You d-don't understand." She looked like she was about to hyperventilate, the closest to panic that he'd ever seen her.
"If it's so dangerous, do you think I'm just going to let you go in there?"
She shook her head hard. "You can become infected!"
"No more than you could be."
"MacRieve, I will never ask you for another thing as long as we live. But right now, I'm beseeching you to leave this place."
"In what universe would you think I'd be leaving without you?"
"I've told you - Cruach can make you see things that aren't so, can make you feel things. He will take over your mind! The longer you're in here, the greater your chance of infection."
Garreth curled his finger under her chin. "Lousha, do you think there's any power on earth that can make me harm you?"
"You're not strong enough to fight it." She shrugged from him, backing up a step. "No one is!"