Lucia entered then. His plans for revenge immediately shifted to concern for his mate. He could see that she'd been crying, and even after all she'd done to him, and to Lachlain, Garreth's chest ached at the sight.
As Lucia descended the stairs, Garreth shot to his feet beside his brother, both standing so tall and proud. She was struck by how similar they were in looks, with the same rich brown hair, the same intense golden eyes.
Absently, she wondered if Lachlain had told Garreth about the Valkyrie's incursion yesterday at Kinevane - specifically Lucia's own actions. And she might have felt a twinge of guilt that the brothers' reunion had to be as prisoners in her basement.
"Lucia?" Garreth said, a question in his gaze.
Not wanting the Lykae to see she'd been crying, she tilted her head so her hair covered her face.
"She's no' better?" he asked.
Lucia shook her head. "Aunt Luce, am I dying?" Keep it together, Lucia!
Lachlain clenched the bars, looking to be in agony over Emma. "She heals whenever she drinks from me."
Garreth appeared stunned. "You let her...?" When Lachlain nodded, Garreth said to Lucia, "Then Lachlain must go to her."
"Annika forbids it. He's not to go near her. Emma sees things that aren't there, mumbles nonsense as though she's gone mad. Annika puts the blame squarely on his shoulders."
Garreth asked, "What does she see?"
"Emma says that Demestriu was her father, and he put her in the fire, so she killed him."
Lachlain answered, "She - did."
Both of them swung their heads toward him.
"She did. She killed Demestriu."
Lucia shook her head. "Sweet Emma? Kill the most powerful and deadly vampire ever to live?"
"Aye. He hurt her. Do none of you believe her?"
Garreth gave him an incredulous expression. "Demestriu's finally dead? Because of that wee thing? I've seen her - she's as fragile as an eggshell."
Lucia added, "Lachlain, when she finds a moth inside and tries to free it - well, if she accidentally dusts its wings, she's distraught for an entire night. I just don't see her killing this fiend on his home ground when our fiercest Valkyrie have failed to do so on a field of battle. And Furie, the strongest of us? If Demestriu could be killed by a Valkyrie, then surely she'd have done it."
"You doona know Emma as I do. No' anymore - "
"Then what does she mean when she says Furie is alive but shouldn't be?" Lucia demanded, afraid to hope....
"She's been imprisoned by the Horde. Demestriu never expected her to live this long."
Lucia swayed. Imprisoned? Perhaps trapped at the bottom of the ocean? In a smaller voice, she asked, "And when she says King Kristoff has her blood?"
"They're first cousins."
Her lips parted in surprise. "Furie lives."
"If you doona believe me, there's a video of the entire fight. I left it with Bowen, a member of our clan."
Garreth stopped gaping at Lachlain and turned to Lucia. "Go get it. For Annika to see."
She raised her eyebrows. "You want me to go to the clan?" To the compound? The kennel?
Garreth said, "Tell them I sent you, and they will no' hurt you. I vow it."
Please. "I know they won't succeed in hurting me. But you're sending me, who'll be carrying a bow, among your people. They will not thank you for it."
"I would do it myself," Garreth snapped. "But I canna since I've been put in a cage after coming to your rescue."
What if all he said was true? Then Emma desperately needed to drink from Lachlain. But Annika would never allow it without proof. "I'll retrieve and review it," Lucia said, "then give it to Annika, if it's as you say."
Lachlain growled low in his throat, straining against the bars. "Damn it, that will take too long. Can you no' just take my blood for her to drink?"
"Annika forbids it. I'm... sorry." She turned for the stairs.
Regin met her as she was hurrying toward the front door, about to haul ass to the kennel. "Where are you going?"
"Apparently I'm traveling to the Lykae compound. Lachlain swears there's a film that shows little Emma killing Demestriu. Stay here and call me if anything happens."
Once she was gone, Garreth continued to stare at the door, telling Lachlain, "Lousha will be quick about it."
"How long have you known she's yours?"
That obvious? Garreth faced his brother. "A while now."
"I wondered why you were so eager to remain," Lachlain said, examining the cell for weaknesses. "You've no' told her?"
"Lousha's tricky. And I suspect she's a runner. Tell her something she does no' want to hear and she'll disappear. And she feels no love for me. She's the reason I'm here in the first place," he admitted. "She's an unmatched archer, but suffers agonizing pain when she misses her target - that's why she's so bluidy good. Annika set a trap, baited it with Lousha missing and screaming in pain, and I ran headlong. I should have known there was no way she'd miss again. You've never seen a creature shoot as she - "
"I have a good idea." Lachlain drew his shirt aside, exposing a wound on his shoulder.
I'll bluidy kill her. She went to Scotland and shot my brother!
"I harbor no anger toward her." Lachlain fisted two bars, struggling to stretch them apart. "They've reinforced these?"
"Aye." Garreth joined him, grasping the same bars Lachlain contended with. "These creatures ally with the witches. Annika told me nothing physical can bend these."
When they both failed to make a dent, Lachlain began pacing, only stopping to punch one of the cement walls.
"I canna believe she shot you." Garreth had known she'd been gone for an entire day before Emma had returned but hadn't thought she'd been to Scotland and back. "When we get out of here, I'll - "
"No, I doona care. Especially since you seem to accept that my mate's a vampire."
Not bothering to hide his exasperation, Garreth grated, "I would no' give a damn if she was a Fury, as long as you are content with her. And it's clear you are."
"Aye, but I have to get to her." Lachlain knelt down, clawing at the floor.
"At least we're no' chained. When they open this door, we can attack."
"I'd prefer to be only chained," Lachlain said, his eyes wild. "I'd take off my hands before I let Emma suffer any longer."
Garreth studied his brother's expression. Any Lykae would do the same for his mate. But Lachlain had made that statement as if he spoke... from experience. What has happened to you out there, brother?
"Trust me, Garreth, it is no' so bad as this feeling - "
When a whimper sounded from Emma's room, Lachlain growled in answer, pounding at the bars. Then he deliberately raised his gaze to the ceiling. "I can dig through."
"Lachlain, I doona think that's wise. This house is centuries old and gets battered as you would no' believe."
"You might care that all three stories are tongue-and-groove construction. One piece falls, it'll be like a domino effect. War, hurricanes, and constant lightning have made it unsound. I doona think Val Hall can take a Lykae biting through the first floor."
"Support it while I'm gone."
"Hold the floor? If I canna, you could be hurting both our mates. This place could come crashing down."
Lachlain slapped him on the shoulder. "Be sure that you doona drop it."
Princess freaking Lucia.
Her trip to the Lykae compound had been like a bucket of ice water tossed in her face. Because the denizens there had welcomed her - as Garreth's "mate." She'd heard the whispers, the truth out loud: "That's Princess Lucia, the Archer."
He lied! I am his mate. He'd deceived her to get what he wanted. Typical male.
Now as she hastened out the door with the tape, she called Regin. "I'm walking out right now with the video - it's all true. Get Annika to let Emma drink from Lachlain! Right now, Regin! Demestriu was the one who hurt Emma, and she did truly kill him."
"You're a little late. Take your time."
Lucia froze, dread seeming to stop her heart. "Emma...?"
"Oh, no, she's bingo! Just like you said, she drank from Lachlain and healed right up."
Lucia sagged with relief, sinking onto the front steps of the kennel. Emma's going to live! Then Lucia frowned. "Annika allowed this?"
"Hell no. The wolves escaped. And then Emma the Timid bitchslapped me when I went after Lachlain!" she added happily. "I mean really hard, and didn't telegraph the move - at all. Finally, all those years training her paid off."
"What are you talking about? Where's Garreth?"
"Holding up, like, the entire floor of Val Hall while we get repairs done. Lachlain tore and bit through the ceiling over the cage to get to Emma, and now our whole house is sagging, about to fall down. Just goes to show you, Lykae are outside pets," Regin said with a snort. "And Em loves Lachlain, and they're getting married, I shite you not. Annika is freaking. I myself am torn. I mean, if Emma's going to be their queen, her first decree could be that all Lykae are the Valkyrie's bitches. She's resistant to the idea, but I'll wear her down."
Emma was safe - healthy. And in love. "How are the others reacting?"
"They're kind of feeling that if Emma wanted the wolf bad enough to go tag Demestriu, then felicitations to them both. And Lachlain did just save her life. Also, no Valkyrie were injured in the making of their recent escape. Still, doesn't mean we want to hang out or anything."
Emma would wed Lachlain and be his queen. Now everything between the Valkyrie and Lykae would be different.
Didn't matter. Garreth was a liar - and she wanted nothing to do with him. Most of the time. Except when he was touching her.
"So what's the kennel like?" Regin asked.
Lucia turned toward the building with narrowed eyes. Before or after I get through with it?
"Do they have food bowls and chew toys all around?"
"The 'compound' looks like a Scottish hunting lodge." The whole vibe was so... normal. It'd rattled her all the more because she could see herself hanging out there. Yes, there were some claw marks on the walls, but hell, Val Hall had its own "love stripes."
"And?" Regin asked.
"What else happened?" Regin said. "I can hear something in your voice."
"I'm definitely... his mate."
Regin made a wincing sound. "Dude. Sorry."
"I've known, but I've been in denial. He even denied it." Which proved that he was a cool customer, able to control himself instead of bellowing mine as he demanded her eternity. "But to hear the reality said out loud, and to see his clan treating me like one of their own, like their princess... it was just too much."
Before, as long as it hadn't been acknowledged, she could pretend it wasn't so.
Now, the truth sunk in, her suspicions were confirmed, his lie revealed.
"He won't leave you alone. Especially not until he's claimed you," Regin said.
"I know." Lykae simply didn't give up. They were the living embodiment of obsession. Just like Lachlain with Emma, Garreth would never rest until he'd possessed Lucia completely.
"And you can't have sex. So what're we going to do?"
Since I also can't seem to deny him... "I'm going to get out of town."
"Where're we headed?" Regin asked. When Lucia didn't answer, she said, "Like I'm letting you go out into the world by yourself to let life kick you in the ass. We're both getting our asses kicked or not at all! We're a team, Bonnie and Bonnie, together forever."
Lucia's lips quirked. No one could have a better friend than Regin. "We start the hunt for a dieumort." She stood and turned back inside the compound, striding for Garreth's quarters. "Pack a bag for me - I'll be back in an hour. For now, I'm going to act out, demonstrate that some Valkyrie aren't house-trained either."
"Ooh, break something for me!"
Inside his rooms, Lucia kicked an expensive-looking lamp, sending it crashing to the floor. "Any other requests?"
"Yeah, since matehood means you own fifty percent of all his swag, then bring me home any vinyl LPs you may come across, some weapons, and of course, anything shiny."
"MacRieve'll follow us."
Yes, but Lucia would protect herself, do whatever she had to do. She had no choice. "Then let the games begin."
Lachlain MacRieve and his brother stood outside on the grounds of Val Hall, drinking a couple of rounds of longnecks before Garreth's imminent departure.
"You sure you canna stay?" Lachlain was loath to see his brother go. He'd been so panicked about Emma that he'd barely registered the time he'd spent jailed with Garreth.
"I need to follow Lousha."
Unfortunately, Lucia the Huntress had disappeared. Lachlain had heard she'd "gone on vacay" with her "partner in crime" Regin. The new lingo of this time still stumped him, but he'd gleaned enough to know that Garreth had been right about his mate: Lucia was indeed a runner.
"Aye, o' course you must go after her. But maybe you could leave after my wedding?" Lachlain was to marry Emma tomorrow. Though the Lykae considered mate-hood eternal - marriage was a bit superfluous - the Valkyrie insisted on some kind of binding ceremony. Or as Annika had choked out, "Something a little more respectable - than a bite."
More important, my lass is excited about it. In less than twenty-four hours, he'd take his sweet Emma as his wife. Those hours couldn't pass soon enough for him.
"I canna." Garreth took a swig. "No' unless you need me. To help you... acclimate." His expression darkened.
Though Garreth had been utterly accepting of Emma's vampiric nature - even the fact that Lachlain himself fed her and relished doing so - he hadn't taken the news of Lachlain's decades-long imprisonment and torture well. And Lachlain had downplayed the worst of it.
"No, I can manage," he said. "Especially now with the vampire threat lessened." His wee Emma had somehow slain Demestriu, and Lachlain himself had killed Ivo the Cruel.
Garreth said, "Lessened but no' gone."
Lothaire still lived. There was something about that vampire, something that tugged at Lachlain's subconscious. A threat even greater than it appeared on the surface... "When you return, we'll strategize what to do about the Enemy of Old."
"Aye," Garreth agreed. "For now, you need to concentrate on your queen. And hup two with the bairns, old man. Tired of being your heir."
Lachlain drank deeply. "Doona hold your breath. You saw how delicate she is - will no' relish the idea of getting a babe on her."
"Delicate?" Garreth raised his brows. "The rest of the Lore, and especially the Lykae, see her as a fierce warrior queen who slew the Horde king. And you still see her as delicate."
Lachlain scowled. "First impressions are lasting. In any case, doona be concerning yourself with this - you've enough on your plate. Do you know what spooked your female in the first place?"
"Oh, aye. She found out she was my mate, though I'd lied about it."
Lachlain rubbed the back of his neck. He'd done just the same with Emma. Mates that were other didn't often find the news welcome. "How'd she find out?"
"I'd made the twins vow no' to tell anyone about her. But when they thought they were about to war with the Valkyrie to retrieve me and cover your incursion, they gave an order that Lousha could no' be hurt. Upon pain of death, she was to be spared. I appreciated the foresight, but the clan quickly figured it out."
"Where do you think she is?"
Garreth said, "I have some leads."
Nucking Futs Nïx. Lachlain owed everything to that soothsayer. She was the one who'd coaxed Emma to go to Paris in the first place. If Emma hadn't been there, then Lachlain never would've had the strength to escape the vampires - who'd imprisoned and tortured him for over a century....
Tamping down those memories, Lachlain said, "Before you go, I wanted to pass on some advice. Emma told me that to win your mate, you have to accept Regin. The two are thick as thieves. Always have been. Since they were children."
"So calling Regin a glowing bluidy freak dinna help my cause? On top of the lie? Christ, I've bollixed this up."
"But you said she's no' immune to you. You can win her."
With a firm nod, Garreth said, "Aye, then, I will. I'm off." He hugged Lachlain, clapping him on the back. "It's good to have you back, brother."
When they finally broke apart, Lachlain was choked up, clearing his throat. "Right, then."
Garreth stared down at his beer, muttering, "Got something in my eye." Turning to go, he said, "Take care of our queen."
"You just be careful." The two brothers had always been protective of each other, so Lachlain was uneasy that Garreth had no one to watch his back. "And stay out of trouble." Garreth was a hell of a fighter, but on occasion, he needed a wingman.
Over his shoulder, Garreth said, "Doona worry. Mark my words, I'll have her back in two weeks."
One year later, the Northlands
Possibly the mountains of Thrymheim Hold,
but probably not
"Is this a bad time?" Nïx asked cheerily.
"You are fully aware that this is a damned bad time," Lucia said. "Currently I'm suspended from a mountain ledge, four thousand feet in the air." She hung on to a rock cleft with the tips of her fingers - of one hand. The other she'd used to click on her sat-phone earpiece.
Sometimes Lucia wished satellite phones didn't work everywhere on earth.
"You sound awful," Nïx observed. "Have you been taking your Flintstones?"
Lucia's muscles burned. She hadn't slept in days. The games, it seemed, would not end. And Lucia was in a grueling fourth-quarter situation - with a team mate lost. "Nïx, did you call for a reason?"
"Are you any closer to finding Thrymheim?"
Lucia had relinquished her lofty goal of locating a dieumort and killing Cruach - now she'd be satisfied if she could merely keep him jailed for another five hundred years.
She needed Skathi, or more accurately, she needed one of Skathi's arrows, but Lucia couldn't even locate the goddess. "If it's not at the top of this peak, then this range is a bust."
Lucia had been so sure this was Godsbellow Mountain. Now she grew increasingly doubtful. She vaguely remembered an ever-ascending path to the peak. She could find no path. So she was climbing. "Don't suppose you'll finally tell me where the temple is?"
"I thought if a Skathian was pure of heart, she could always find her way back to the goddess."
Pure of heart? Not in the least. Though Lucia and MacRieve had never shared more than those two nights together, she couldn't stop thinking about him, lusting for him. Whenever she touched herself, it was his body she fantasized about. "I'll find my way back, Nïx. One way or another." Push on, Lucia! What choice did she have? She leapt for another handhold.
"Well, actually, that's why I'm calling. Now, I know your to-do list is varied and important. Finding Skathi, preparing for your five-hundred-yearly confrontation with the revolting Cruach, the epitome of pure evil, et cetera."
Speak of the devil - literally. Though the Broken Bloody One was a hideous abomination, he could disguise himself with a face so beautiful... it made me weep.
The modern idea of Satan originated from him.
He was the being she would be forced to confront. And soon. She always knew when.... That night so long ago when she'd been about to depart Thrymheim as a new Skathian, Lucia had asked the goddess, "What do you want me to do?"
"Just before he rises, you'll go to his lair, and shoot him in the heart with the arrow I've given you. Every five hundred years, I'll provide you with another."
Return to his lair? Never. "How will I know when Cruach will rise?" So I'll know when to run.
Skathi's face had been impassive. "When the nightmares begin."
The first time Cruach had risen under Lucia's watch, she'd been plagued by nightly visions so harrowing, she'd been driven to face her worst fear.
Now, just as before, her nightmares were becoming more frequent, more punishing, which meant time was running out....
"Yeah, Nïx, I'm a little swamped right now."
"And on top of everything you have to evade your Lykae."
"I'm not evading him." I'm totally evading him. "And he's not my Lykae." Had those two passionate interludes been enough to blind Lucia to the sanctuary at Thrymheim? No, no way - she still had her abilities.
"After all you've done to MacRieve, I'd be running, too."
And all I continue doing to him. His pursuit had been relentless, so she'd protected herself - and her chastity - often in ruthless ways.
But she'd never shot him, not since their initial meeting. She knew he wouldn't even try to dodge the arrow for fear of what it'd do to her.
Nïx said, "Regin bragged to the entire coven that you two had him trapped in a river canyon in logging country with an eighteen-wheeler full of trees parked on the rise above him. You shot the fastenings with arrows and a pile of logs rolled over him." Nïx chuckled. "If that wasn't enough, you and Regin then threw the eighteen-wheeler on top of him!"
It was all true. He'd been nipping at their heels for days. "Just tell me how Reege's doing." Since Lucia had been forced to leave her behind - after only their first four weeks on the lam.
"Badly. She's acting out, getting high, picking fights with beings bigger than she is. She's furious that you 'abandoned' her 'like last year's wardrobe.' Especially when she was sleeping off an intoxispell hangover."
Lucia had the text messages from screen name Reg-Rad to prove all of the above. Months of emotional rollercoaster-y texts.
Nïx continued, "She teamed up briefly with Kaderin the Coldhearted for the Talisman's Hie, but Kad booted her. I've been assigning her busy work, inviting old nemeses to New Orleans to try to kill her and such. But nothing keeps her down. She has been taking her Flintstones, incidentally. We all eagerly await the time when you can finally return to deal with her."
Lucia climbed higher, leaping for a taunting overhang. Got it. "You know why I've been forced to travel all over the world." For months, Lucia had dreamed of a dieumort arrow, envisioning a gold and flawless one like Skathi's - but imbued with the Banemen's power, the one-time power to kill a nightmare incarnate. She'd failed to locate it.
And now that she'd decided to settle for one of Skathi's arrows, had planned to return and grovel to the goddess, Lucia couldn't locate her either.
She was running out of time, and every step of the way MacRieve had hunted her, no matter how far-flung her destinations had become. She also suspected he'd been protecting her. Even now. Even after all she'd done to him.
She'd seen him in a village in the Northlands just two nights ago. What would he do to her if he caught her? She wondered this constantly.
"Nïx, is this why you called? About Regin?" Lucia asked. "I can try to talk to her."
"Actually, I called because there's this pesky little apocalypse brewing. I need your help."
Sweat dripped into Lucia's eyes. She irritably wiped it away, gazing up at the peak above her with yearning. Deep down, you know it isn't Thrymheim, Lucia. "Why me?" There were dozens of other Valkyrie as strong as or stronger than Lucia. "Why not Cara or Annika?"
Nïx answered, "You're the Valkyrie's greatest hunter."
"Yes, I know this," Lucia said, immodest as ever. "But what's the mission?"
"What's what mission?" Nïx said softly, then with growing enthusiasm, "Am I to go on a mission?"
"Nïx, the apocalypse! Come on, snap out of it!"
Silence for a long moment. "Oh, I remember," she sniffed huffily, as if Lucia had broken her sunshine. "Yes, I have all your deets right here - where you need to be and what you need to do. All the specifics already foreseen. Basically you have to be on a particular boat in the Amazon jungle by three sharp tomorrow afternoon."
"The Amazon? That's thousands of miles from where I am. Besides, I'm a hunter - not an explorer. Find someone else," she grated as she maneuvered another dozen feet higher. Her fingertips were on fire.
"Ah, but would anyone be as qualified as you? You see, the source of this apocalypse is... Cruach."
Lucia felt like her stomach dropped the four thousand feet to the ground.
"Yes, I thought you'd want to take care of this one," Nïx said in a thoughtful tone. "Since he's your husband."
Fifteen hours later...
Lucia sprinted from the heli pad through the remote river-port town, her senses bombarded by scents and sounds: the smell of hot peppers and green bananas in the market stands; the incessant horns from motorcycle rickshaws; street vendors hawking their wares, unaffected by the on-and-off drizzle of rain.
Though already exhausted from the last few weeks and wiped out from the constant travel over the last day, Lucia adjusted her backpack and travel bowcase to run even faster.
The time was a quarter after three.
Breakneck flights had gotten her out of the North-lands, then even more connections had followed to get to South America and into Iquitos.
She'd logged seven thousand miles in the last day.
Weary to her bones, she again cursed the instigator of this disaster - Nucking Futs Nïx.
She couldn't have seen a freaking apocalypse sooner? To give Lucia time to buy a damned mosquito net, and maybe an Amazon river guidebook!
Lucia was almost to the water - not difficult, since Iquitos was encircled by the Amazon and two other tributaries. The sun peeked through lowering clouds, spawning a vibrant rainbow that seemed to end on the far banks of the Amazon.
Soon, a red clay shore came into view. Just at the water's edge, a neighborhood of thatch-roofed houses floated on balsa platforms. A few large riverboats were lined up beside them, beached on the muddy banks.
As she ran headlong, she recalled the rest of that fateful conversation with the soothsayer:
"Nïx, how can Cruach bring about an apocalypse?"
"Apparently, he's no longer your personal domestic problem. It's foretold that he'll start a plague of human sacrifices."
Cruach's other name was To Him We Sacrifice. He had the power to infect beings, engendering a mad need to kill whomever the victim loved most. "A plague?"
"Before, he could only afflict one with his madness by direct contact and only once he escaped his lair. But soon his influence could potentially be spread like a disease, passed from one person to another."
"How? Black magic, the help of another god - "
"The countdown has begun. Ticktock, ticktock."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Go to the docks. I've got you booked on a ship called the Contessa. For weeks, you'll travel into the jungle, to the deepest, darkest part of the Amazon where no other boats dare to go. Find the Rio Labyrinto - a mystically hidden tributary. Have you heard of it?"
Lucia had exhaled a stunned breath. "Yeah. No one comes back when they go looking for it. Not even immortals."
"Are ya feelin' lucky, punk?"