"That right? Then worry more about your own reaction - "
"MacRieve, I'm... immune to him."
Her eyes darted, tears wetting them. "P-please, you have to leave!"
Was he finally going to learn her secrets? "Why are you immune, Lousha?"
Seeming to bite back a sob, she whispered, "Because... because I'm his wife."
How will he react? MacRieve's expression was inscrutable. She'd put the truth out there, a shameful secret she'd dreaded his learning.
"This is what it's all been about with you," he said in an even tone. "All the fear, all the running. The nightmares." When she nodded, he said, "You called him the devil."
"He is." What are you thinking, Scot?
"But you... married him?"
MacRieve's disgusted with me. "Basically? Yes."
"Ceremony and everything?"
She swallowed. "He tricked me into it. I-I was only sixteen."
A muscle ticked in his cheek and his irises grew pale. "Then know this..."
She stopped breathing.
"Lass, I'm about to make you a widow - "
The sound of swords against scabbards rang out in the distance. She and MacRieve twisted around, found an army of robed Cromites approaching, eyes feverish with fanaticism.
"More of those fucks?"
There had to be over a hundred of them. "Please, MacRieve, let's both leave before they attack. Take me from here!"
He appeared torn. At length, he said, "I'll take you away - but I'll come back for him."
Yet more marched from the other direction, blocking them in.
"Looks like we fight, love!" Without warning, MacRieve charged them, slashing with his claws.
With her customary arrows, Lucia fired into the skirmish, dropping her mortal foes swiftly, careful not to hit MacRieve.
But they were in such close confines, and he seemed to be everywhere....
With his mind still reeling from her revelations, Garreth tore into the fray, stamping out one Cromite after another. Yet every time he eliminated one, another appeared - even with Lucia's arrows continually whizzing past him, plugging their enemies between the eyes.
"Why dinna you tell me you were married?" To some revolting god.
"I didn't want you to know - I didn't want anyone to know!"
This fuck tricked my Lousha into this hellhole? He was as good as dead!
"What are you thinking, MacRieve?" she cried, shooting three arrows at a time.
As he slashed, he figured he should be reflecting on the fact that his mate was married and that things were much more complicated than he'd ever realized. Instead, his thoughts were simple, primal.
Get past these pricks, shoot the god, and Lousha is mine, forever. Rage mingled with clarity - at least now he had an enemy to fight.
"You should have told me." He ducked under an arc of arterial blood, kicking a headless body out from under his feet.
"I was trying to prevent exactly this!"
"And all the times I asked about your nightmares?"
"The dreams are portents. They tell me when he's about to rise." Another three arrows in rapid succession. "I couldn't reveal that to you because I knew you would come here. But this is my responsibility. It has been for over a millennium."
Bodies piled up, blood spraying, Cromites screaming. Good headway.
"What are you trying to prove?" Lucia demanded.
Between strikes, he bellowed, "That you should no' have left me!"
"You were going to do it to me - don't bother denying it!" When he didn't, she said, "Then why are you different?" Another volley of arrows. "What gives you the right to risk yourself?"
He snapped, "Because you could move on if something happened to me." Then he charged for the last Cromite.
That's where you're wrong, she thought as she watched MacRieve finish off their foes.
As Lucia fought to catch her breath in the dank tunnel, he stood over his last kill, his chest heaving as well. He'd warred like a madman, slaying so many.
And now that they could leave, they needed to at once! "Scot, again, you have to listen to me - you can't confront Cruach! You'll get infected."
"Lousha," he rasped. "I want you to know something."
"Can you not tell me outside?"
He shook his head. "I need you to know this. I'm in love with you."
"And you're declaring this now...?" She trailed off when he faced her once more.
His eyes were milky white.
"No, no, no." Her heart seemed to stop; she couldn't get enough air. He was already infected with Cruach's influence, would need to harm whoever he loved.
Ah, gods, he loves me. "MacRieve, you have to fight this!" She strapped her bow back on, holding out both of her hands to him. "Come with me - let's leave this place together."
"I love you so damned much, it pains me." His words were rough. "Wanted to tell you before."
MacRieve was... lost.
Cruach's laughter sounded, echoing along the walls of dank earth, then he ordered, "Bring my wife to me, Lykae."
When MacRieve obeyed, lunging forward to grab her arms, she cried, "No, don't do this to me!" She struck out at him to free herself, but he was far too strong. "MacRieve, you have to resist this!"
He was unhearing, forcing her past the fallen Cromites toward Cruach's chambers.
Just like before. When she'd been a terrified girl. Now she was a terrified woman, reliving the dread, the dawning realization of how doomed she was.
He dragged her into the ghastly main chamber of Cruach's jail, a larger space with higher ceilings - and bodies strewn all around. Wiggling maggots dotted the corpses stacked high against the seeping walls. Women, children, no one had been spared. The concentrated stench made her gag, her eyes watering.
First, she spied four Cromite altar keepers who'd remained with their god. Then her gaze fell on the altar itself, still moist from his last sacrifice. Her heart thundering, she pleaded, "MacRieve, take me from here! Please..."
Then she saw him. Nothing had changed - Cruach was still the same nightmare that had haunted every day of her long life. The horns, the misshapen body, the hideous yellow eyes. His scaly skin was decomposing, rotted through in places, down to his bloodstained, broken bones.
"Ah, wife, I've been dreaming of when you would return to me." He motioned for her to come to him.
"No! No!" When she shook her head, digging in her heels, MacRieve forced her closer. "Let me go!"
"If this is how you wish to proceed, Lucia, then so be it," Cruach said. To MacRieve, he ordered, "Chain her down."
MacRieve snatched her into his arms, crushing her in his brutal grip. Already, the god was driving him to harm what he loved.
Though she struggled against him, MacRieve slammed her down upon the altar with so much force that her head cracked against the stone. Her vision wavered and her breath hitched. The bow at her back gouged into her skin. Still, she fought when the robed men seized one of her wrists. MacRieve easily closed a manacle around her other.
"Please don't do this! Garreth!"
As she flailed and clawed, they chained her to the altar she'd prayed she'd never touch again.
She lay prone, defenseless, as Cruach limped over to her. "What do we have here?" With a lustful gaze, he groped his gnarled hand from her knee upward.
She shuddered, bile rising in her throat.
But he stopped at her thigh quiver. "Was the huntress planning to make me her prey once again?" he asked, his meaty fingers wrapping around the arrow she'd brought to kill him. Leisurely drawing it out, he said, "Ah, a dieumort. My bride came to make herself a widow."
He raised the arrow over her, but no matter how strong she was, nor how frantic, she couldn't break the manacles. "Garreth! Help me!"
Yet instead of stabbing her with it, Cruach snapped it in two, dropping it on the ground. Crushing it beneath his feet, he pulverized it to dust. "What will you do now, Archer? Try to shoot me with that."
"No, no..." Not the arrow. There wasn't even a fragment left to drive into his heart. All the work, all the sacrifice in the Amazon.
Now two evils could be loosed on the earth.
"Fair Lucia, all's not lost. You've pleased me with your offering," he said with a wave at MacRieve, who stood motionless, staring straight ahead. "Luring into my jail such a fine slave as this one. Especially since my followers were so worthless, so mortal. It was good to be rid of them." He grinned at Lucia, exposing blistered gums and rotting fangs. "And I bet their meat is tender."
Cruach could force MacRieve to serve him forever. To stay in this hell with Lucia. Panic surged through her until she felt like choking on it. "You have me. Let him go! He means nothing to you!"
"Nothing?" Cruach's repulsive countenance suddenly changed to an expression of utter rage. Bloody saliva dangled from his bottom lip as he yelled, "He cuckolded me! He despoiled my bride." His voice pained her ears, echoing off the walls. "For so long you'd kept yourself pure for me, but now I smell him all over you. I want no wife such as you!"
She screamed back, "Then what do you want?"
Seeming to calm himself once more, Cruach said, "I want the sacrifice of a powerful huntress - offered up by someone who loves her. A sacrifice like that, committed in my name, will make me strong enough to break free, to become incorporeal and invincible forever." He motioned for MacRieve, who joined his side without hesitation. To Lucia, he said, "I want the one who sullied you... to punish you. And free me for eternity."
MacRieve was unseeing, his eyes blinded to reality. When Cruach handed him a Cromite sword, he accepted it.
The robed men began chanting, "To him we sacrifice, for him our cherished... to him we sacrifice..."
"Take her head, Lykae," Cruach intoned. "To me you sacrifice, for me your cherished."
"No, MacRieve!" She strained against the bonds, ignoring the pain as the rusted metal cleaved into her skin. "Fight this! I'm Lucia - you don't want to hurt me!"
With a chilling smile, Cruach added, "I bet we'll find your meat is tender."
Blood began streaming from her wrists. She could almost... almost squeeze one hand out of a manacle.
MacRieve crossed over to the altar, standing at her shoulders. Positioned there, because he was going to cut off her head.
"Don't do it, MacRieve - you can't do this to me!"
"Do it, MacRieve - you must do this for me!" Lucia was gazing up at Garreth, pleading for him to end her.
Trying to reassure her, he told her again, "I'm in love with you, Lousha."
Her eyes were filled with dread, tears spilling over. "If you love me, then why won't you end my suffering?" She feared he wouldn't? "End me."
"Aye. I will." Crom Cruach was bestowing power on him, filling him with the strength to do what needed to be done.
"Do it, Garreth!" she said more urgently, nearly screaming.
He raised the proud sword over his head. It would land directly across her delicate neck. And her suffering would end. "I do this for you."
She was writhing with anticipation, eyes wide, screaming, "Now, MacRieve! Yes, please!"
"Love you." The sword came down, slicing clean.
"MacRieve!" she screamed, watching helplessly as he drove the sword into his side - the sword that had been aimed so fixedly for her neck. In midair, he'd changed his grip, shoving it into himself instead of her.
He staggered back, dropping to his knees, the blade still planted inside him. With his body visibly shuddering, he yanked the sword free, throwing it across the cavern. Then with his hands squeezing his head so hard she thought he'd crack his skull, he roared in agony.
"That was... fascinating," Cruach said, staring at MacRieve. "I could control him, but not the beast inside him - the one that would rather die than harm its mate. Still, the damage is done. I'd already implanted in his mind the memory of your execution. The memory of his killing you." The fiend laughed. "Right now he believes he's rocking your headless body, feeling your skin cooling against his as your blood drains away."
"Lousha, doona leave me," Garreth rasped, his breaths ragged. He reverted to Gaelic, uttering anguished words. So sorry... love you... joining you. His voice wretched, he pleaded for her to come back to him. "I'm beggin' you, lass."
Tears ran from her eyes as she choked out the words, "Garreth, it's not real. Not real."
He was unhearing, beginning to dig his claws into the dirt around him.
"Oh, now your Lykae's turning," Cruach said. "The beast is rising, roiling in horror and confusion, gathering the... pieces of you to his body. How touching."
"Cruach, I will kill you for this!" Lucia lifted up against the chains. "You'll never leave this place! You belong here." When Cruach closed in on her, she screamed, "You're not a god - you're a worm in the earth, a parasite!" She spat at his face.
His long tongue darted out and collected the spittle from his chin. Ignoring her words, he murmured, "What to do with you? I could reclaim you or dine on your flesh." He leered down at her with those yellow, slitted eyes. "I know. I will do both. At the same time. Take from you as I give." He stepped back, signaling the four robed Cromites to approach the altar. "And since you've become such a slattern, you won't mind if I share."
The Cromites neared, their eyes covetous, as depraved as their god -
Suddenly, black claws appeared, projecting from the front of Cruach's throat, then slashing to the side. Cruach yelled, gurgling, trying to hold his head to his neck. As she gaped in bewilderment, his blood spewed over her, into her eyes.
MacRieve had stabbed through Cruach's neck from behind? Cruach's slitted eyes were dilated with shock as he stumbled toward the altar.
The remaining Cromites wailed, then drew their swords to attack MacRieve. Cruach lurched ever closer. He was gravely injured, but the wound wouldn't be enough to kill him.
If she could just free her hands, she could try to get MacRieve out of here. Her gaze darted for something, some tool to help her -
Wait, what the...? Struggling for comprehension, she blinked at her quiver.
Inside it was an arrow just like the dieumort, with old-fashioned flights. She swallowed. Another dieumort? How... Why...?
Oh, Freya, the never-emptying quiver! Was it giving her another chance, providing one more shot at Cruach? The arrow had been replicated. But would the Banemen's awesome power follow?
How to reach it? An idea.... The skin on her wrist was now serrated all the way around. So she took a fortifying breath - then yanked her arm back with all the power she possessed. She screamed in agony as she skinned her hand, peeling it clean to her fingers like a glove.
But she'd freed that arm.
As MacRieve faced off against the Cromites, she gritted her teeth and forced her ruined fingers to close around the new dieumort. Once she'd drawn it free, the same power as from the first surged through her.
When Cruach fell to his knees before her at the altar, her arm shot out, planting the tip right into his black heart.
He stared down at his chest in disbelief. Extending out from the arrow, ash began to replace his scaly skin, spreading like a poison through his monstrous form.
Crom Cruach was dying... truly dying.
As she beheld the end of her nightmare, she sneered, "Do you feel it, husband?"
He faced her. With his last breaths, he grated, "The beast... saved him from me" - blood bubbled at his lips - "and will forever keep him... from you."
Just as MacRieve finished the last of the Cromites, Cruach collapsed, his eyes as lifeless as the corpses' all around them.
His hulking body disintegrated, becoming a layer of ash atop the blood pooled on the floor. The Broken Bloody One is no more.
With his death, MacRieve's infection would eventually burn off. He could be saved - from this. But could Cruach have been right about the beast?
"Garreth, I'm right here!" she cried, yanking on her other hand. "Scot, come back to me!"
MacRieve had told her, The beast rises too much, maddening its Lykae host forever. Now his eyes flashed from that white to the palest blue and back. And he never saw her.
Was it already too late?
"MacRieve, I'm alive! You have to come back to me!" Her voice broke on a sob as she cried, "Garreth, I need you."
He gazed back at where he thought her headless body was. As a tear tracked down his blood-splattered face, he dug his claws into his chest, ripping through his own skin.
Though she screamed for him, he ran from this place, yelling from deep within his lungs, a deafening roar of misery.
When Lachlain and Bowen finally spied Garreth in these bleak woods, he was raging, clawing himself. As they closed in on him, Lachlain stared at his brother in shock.
Blood covered him and his tattered clothes. The flesh of his chest was maimed. His eyes were an opaque white and wet. With tears?
"Grab his arms!" Lachlain told Bowen. "Garreth, stop this! What has happened?"
In a harsh beastly voice, Garreth muttered, "Begged me... to leave... said I wasn't strong enough... her head." He bellowed with pain, thrashing from their grip.
"Where is your mate?"
He roared, "Dead!"
Bowen hissed in a breath. "Oh, Christ. I know this well. We have to get him out of here."
"No, this canna be right," Lachlain said. "He's been maddened. Look at his eyes. Garreth, why do you think she's dead?"
Garreth choked out, "Slammed the blade... through her neck. Ah, gods, her head!"
"Who did this to her?" Lachlain's own beast was stirring to avenge his brother's mate.
Bowen's eyes were turning as well. "Tell us who!"
"Me! I cut off her fucking head!"
"Ah, Garreth, no!" Fear for his brother gripped Lachlain, like a hand wrapped round his throat. "You could no' hurt her."
"I killed... my Lousha." With a yell, he flung himself free from their grip, clawing at his chest again.
"Damn you, Garreth, stop this!" But he wouldn't.
The beast wanted to rip out its aching heart.
As they grappled with him, Lachlain saw the milky white of Garreth's eyes turn to the palest blue.
It's taking over. "Fight it, Garreth! You have tae fight this."
He gazed up at Lachlain. Just before Garreth turned irreversibly, before the beast claimed him for good, he rasped, "Brother... I'm lost."
Into the desolate woods Lucia had run with her bow, her hands still flayed and dripping blood from escaping those bonds.
She'd left behind that lair forever, running from a forsaken past into her future - with MacRieve. If I can find him... and bring him back.
For two days, she'd searched this forest, tracking him. He'd run in a frenzy, with no rhyme or reason. She might have lost his trail if it hadn't been for his claw marks on trees.
Lucia couldn't fathom the pain and loss he was feeling, the confusion. At repeated intervals, her eyes would tear up, and then she'd berate herself for being weak. He needed her, needed her to be strong.
Now, at last, a break - his footprints in the muddy ground! And beside them, the prints of two shoed men, two big men, as towering as Garreth was.
In her mind flashed the memory of Lachlain standing tall next to Garreth in that cell.
The tracks changed. The shoed men had dragged him away.
Garreth had once told her, My brother used to get me out of scrape after scrape. If the witch Mariketa had given Bowen and Lachlain the coordinates to this place, they could have found him....
Her eyes narrowed. The Lykae had taken Garreth.
They'd taken him home.
Kinevane Castle, Scotland
Lachlain and Emma gaped at the security feed of the mystically-protected front gates of Kinevane. Realization had just dawned on both of them that the rain-drenched female who'd been frantically banging on the impervious gates was -
"It's Aunt Luce!" Emma cried. "I told you she was alive! We would've felt it if she'd died."
"That is the reasonable one?" It was Garreth's mate. If nothing else, Lachlain recognized the bow slung over her shoulder.
"Let me the hell in!" - two rapid kicks - "I know he's in there!" With a boxer's jab, she punched the proud Lykae seal in the center.
Lachlain let out a stunned breath. "She lives."
Emma hit the intercom button. "Two seconds, Aunt Luce!"
"Aye, it's freezing outside, so let's get her the hell in - " Emma had already disappeared; Lachlain hated it when she traced without him.
Exactly two seconds later, Emma had returned with her sodden aunt.
Lucia wasted no time. "Where is he?" There was a wild glint in her eyes, a dangerous one, and Lachlain felt the tiniest spark of hope for his brother.
Though I know better. There was no record in their clan's thousands of years of annals of a Lykae ever coming back from this state. And Lachlain had already had Bowen bring Mariketa, the most powerful witch in existence, to Kinevane. She'd tried to help, but with her magicks bound, she could achieve nothing.
For two days, the only thing Lachlain had been able to do was watch as Garreth continued to regress further and further. "We have him here," Lachlain told Lucia. "He's safe. But he's... gone."
Emma added, "Aunt Luce, it's bad." A maid rushed up with a towel, handing it to Lucia, then bustled away, likely afraid of the wild-eyed Valkyrie.
Dropping the towel without interest, Lucia said, "Explain to me what happened."
Lachlain related how they'd found him in the woods. "He was maddened. For some reason, he was certain that you'd died. He thought he'd killed you."
"In his mind he did," Lucia said. "An evil god made him believe that - made him see it."
Lachlain's beast stirred, and he asked slowly, "What god did this to my brother?"
"A dead one. Now take me to Garreth."
As he and Emma walked with her down to the dungeon, Lachlain said, "He will no' likely understand how you're here. Just seeing you will no' bring him back. Our kind... we doona return once gone this far."
How would Lucia react when she saw Garreth? When she saw the claw marks up and down his body from where he'd torn at himself? They'd drugged him, but for some reason, he readily shook off the effects.
The three hadn't even reached the dungeon's outer door when Garreth scented his mate and roared.
The sound of his pain made Lucia's façade of strength waver, tears threatening again. Lachlain gave a low growl in answer, so clearly desperate to help his brother.
Inhaling a steadying breath, she followed them in front of the cell. Inside, a cot lay mangled. A pallet was tucked into a corner of the floor. Darkness shrouded most of the spacious area.
From the shadows, Garreth's eyes blazed, just as they had the first time she'd met him. But now, they glowed the palest blue. She could see his muscles were bulging, his fangs glinting, his black claws so long. The beastly image that usually flickered over him was so strong it concealed the man beneath. He wore only jeans, and they were in tatters. He'd dug his claws into himself and all the brick walls around him.
The pale gaze that had been locked on her face now turned away. He refused to look at her and kept to the back wall of the cell, as far away from her as he could be.
Emma whispered, "He doesn't think you're real."
She couldn't imagine his misery, was wishing she could bear it for him. "Then I'll have to convince him."
Lachlain said, "It's no' just the turning at this point - the beast is so entrenched it's like a madness."
Lucia was only half listening.
"The drugs have worn off again. I need to dose him."
She shook her head. "No, I need him awake. Just let me in."
"Verra well, then." Lachlain exhaled. "You must stay behind me - "
"I need to be alone with him." Lucia would do whatever it took to get Garreth back.
Could get ugly. Just look away, Lachlain, this doesn't concern you....
"Damn it, Valkyrie, I canna guarantee your safety. And Garreth would expect me to protect you if he could no'."
Lucia could tell he didn't dare hope that she could save his brother. He was tempted to let her try but torn by his sense of responsibility.
I'll make it simple for him. Drawing her bow free, she said, "Where do you want it this time, Lykae?"
"You doona ken how strong he is in this condition!" Lachlain snapped. "I'd be sending you into the lion's den. He could hurt you in his confusion, could think you're a spirit sent to torment him. And considering he's a male in his prime with his mate, he'll likely..."
"Understand me, Lachlain. I came here for my man, and I'm not leaving without him. If I have to live in there with Garreth, I will."
"You might just. There's no' a single record in our history of a Lykae returning from this state."
"And there was no record of anyone fighting the evil he just fought. Garreth won't hurt me now."
Emma softly asked, "Aunt Luce, would you bet your life on that?"