He stared out with pure malevolence, as if he'd not only kill something for threatening her - he'd make it hurt. Not for the first time, she thought, Gods help any being that means me harm.
He asked, "You get the feeling we're being watched?"
She did. She'd thought it would fade now that MacRieve was on board with her, but she was definitely sensing an oppressive presence nearby.
He turned back to her, studied her face, and said, "Aye, me too. You know of anyone who'd be trailing you?"
Cruach had followers in his Cult of Death who would do anything to stop her, but they were usually human and easy enough to lose. "Actually, yes," she answered softly, and MacRieve leaned in with interest. "This jackass Lykae who can't take no for an answer is stalking me."
He drew back with narrowed eyes. "Maybe if he ever truly heard a 'no' coming from the female he was stalking, he'd give her up."
With that, he began leading her back toward the cabin. "So you want to tell me why you tensed when the Rio Labyrinto was mentioned? And unless I missed my mark, the mention of the Barão da Borracha and Captain Malaqu®™ dinna coax a smile from you either."
She shrugged. "You can suppose things all you like."
At the door, he said, "At least tell me this - did you get a read on Damiãno?"
She answered quietly, "He's a Lorean."
"Aye, but I doona know what manner of being he is. Intend to find out. Stay here, Lousha. And be prepared to answer some questions when I return. If you ever want to see your bow again." He patted the case.
All that nervousness about being alone with him, until she was nearly sick with it, and now he was just taking off? With my bow? "You're... leaving?" Had she sounded disappointed?
He grinned, leaning his tall body against the door frame. "I'll be back in fifteen minutes to see to you, beauty. Can you wait that long for it?"
"I don't... I never..." Inhaling for calm, she said, "Leave my bow, then."
"No' a chance," he said over his shoulder.
Once he'd gone, she paced the stifling cabin, her emotions roiling. Though she could see in the dark, she flipped on the bedside lamp, casting subtle light over the interior. Without the benefit of the sun pouring in, the room seemed smaller - almost cozy.
And he expects to share it with me.
She picked up her phone to call Nïx again and saw another text had arrived from Regin. RegRad: Gettng tranqued 2nite with the witches. Bet U wish U were here! LOSER!
Lucia did wish she was there - away from MacRieve, away from the temptation he presented. He was the key to her destruction, the closest she'd gotten to ruin in centuries.
But he wouldn't force her to have sex. She knew that about him. So if she could resist... The thought gave her a feeling of some control. Yes, I can control this.
Wanting information from Nïx, and needing to vent, Lucia dialed the soothsayer. Surprisingly, Nïx answered.
Lucia wasted no time. "How could you book me as Lucia MacRieve?"
In a pedantic tone, Nïx said, "When dealing with humans, you have to provide a last name. I thought you would prefer MacRieve to your real name. Lucia av Cruach."
Lucia of Cruach. That had been her identity - as his possession, an extension of him. "How long have you known?" She'd told no one but had always suspected Nïx knew. Still, it'd been a shock to hear her call him Lucia's husband.
"Since the night you jumped to escape him."
So long ago... "Nïx, my alias with mortals has always been Lucia Archer. It's on my credit cards, my driver's license."
Sounding confused, Nïx said, "But... but MacRieve is funnier."
"And a paleopathologist? What do I know about pathology, much less the paleo kind?"
"You've killed as many beings as some diseases," Nïx pointed out in a chipper tone. "Shots to the heart, and you're to blame."
"I'm going to shoot you."
"That doesn't sound patient and levelheaded, Lucia."
"And what about MacRieve? You could have warned me he'd be here."
"Oh, is he? Would you have missed him if you'd been on time, I wonder? Or maybe you need him."
"More than my archery? And right before I'm to face Cruach?"
"You'll have to show some restraint."
"That's rich, Nïx. One of the most unrestrained Valkyrie preaching this to me. Just tell me what I'm looking for, so - oh, I don't know - I might know it when I find it!"
For effect, Nïx went quiet for several moments before finally saying, "Have you ever heard the term... dieumort?"
"Is that a joke?"
"Good guess, yet actually, I believe it's a god killer."
Lucia rolled her eyes. "I am fully aware of what it is!"
"Thunder stolen." Sigh. "I already told you, didn't I?"
"Regin and I have been looking for a dieumort for years! I've been breaking my neck over the last twelve months to unearth one." Then Lucia sucked in a breath. "It's down here," she murmured, excitement drumming inside her.
"Uh-huh. They're rare - like Amphitrite's-tears rare - but a dieumort is in Rio Labyrinto."
A god killer exists, and Nïx knows where it is! "Is it an arrow?"
"Dunno what form it's in," Nïx said. "But I figured we could off Cruach with it."
"Off Cruach? Like exterminate, forever?" Lucia gripped the phone hard.
"Forever and ever. Alas, the gods, or at least the ones I'm in contact with, are against this plan. They don't want any knowledge or weapons - or other - brought forth. They think they'd rather deal with Cruach. This is a mistake," Nïx said simply. "In any case, more than the Cult of Death will be coming to stop you. Immortal assassins and mercenaries have likely already been dispatched. And this time, they'll be emissaries of the gods."
So to kill one would be punishable by divine power. "How would those gods 'deal with Cruach'?" In case I fail.
"They expect you to return to your hubby and appease him for a time, to stall while they come up with a way to destroy him."
Lucia nearly retched. Appease him? She'd die first. The blood spilling through his teeth, the maggots and carnage...
Nïx continued, "The apocalypse has already begun, you see. Just a smidgen of Armageddon so far. Still fixable, but not for long. Ticktock."
"How could it have started? He's not free." If Cruach were already free, then it was already over. He could only be harmed - or killed - within his jail, his lair. Only there did he take corporeal form. "I'd know if he were about to escape." I always know. Her nightmares had proved uncannily accurate harbingers.
"He's not free yet, but he's been receiving help from his followers."
The notorious Cult of Death worshipped him as their deity, the members calling themselves Cromites. They were robed swordsmen, tattooed with Cruach's mark - a symbol in the shape of his twisting, gnarled horns.
"The cult has grown," Nïx said, "and they're performing continual sacrifices in his name to make him stronger so he can rise."
Cold fear suffused Lucia. Gods derived strength from the amount of worship they received over any given day - Lucia could deal with the cult coming after her, but she couldn't stop their grisly rituals. "What else, Nïx?"
"Honestly, all I know is that a dieumort is in Rio Labyrinto."
"How do I find the river?"
"Everything you need will be on that boat."
"Nïx, you have to tell me more!" Lucia cried. "Why do you always parcel out information?"
"I'm an oracle. It's what we do," she answered. "Now, do I really need to fake the static again?" Click.
Lucia paced the small cabin once more, stunned by all she'd learned - and hadn't learned. Was this a wild goose chase? Was Nïx even lucid? The soothsayer had been improving mentally over the past few months but still had hellacious lapses. Like the month she spoke in nothing but ancient Babylonian or the weeks when she would only answer if addressed as P!nk.
As Lucia gaped at the sat-phone, another text arrived from RegRad: Jst kdding. Ur not loser. I shld B there w/ U. Kinda miss U.
Lucia's brows knit. I kinda miss you, too.
Pacing, pacing... A bead of sweat trickled down her forehead. She wiped it away, but another appeared. She felt grimy, and her legs were still sticky from her earlier contact with river water.
Making a snap decision, she grabbed her toiletries from her backpack, then hurried into the bathroom. Hastily stripping, she hopped into the small shower stall. The water pressure was nil, the temperature less than lukewarm, but it was enough for her to rinse off her body and wash her hair.
After she redressed, she sat on the edge of the bed, but just as quickly shot to her feet to pace some more, glancing at her phone clock. MacRieve should've been back by now. What was he doing?
She crossed to the little balcony and stared out at the river. The Contessa was chugging along at a steady clip and apparently would motor all night.
The water was muddy, like the Mississippi, the air as sultry as summers in New Orleans. Though she'd just taken a cool shower, her skin was already heated. She wound her hair up and rubbed her nape.
What was taking MacRieve so long? Since Lucia was hyperaware of the Scot's nearness, she was also keenly feeling his absence.
He'd told her he had questions for her. She had some for him as well. How'd it feel to lose your crown? She'd known he loved his older brother and was overjoyed at his return, but to go from king of all Lykae back to the Dark Prince had to have affected him.
How'd you keep from attacking me when the moon was full? She'd feared he'd had other females brought to him on those nights to work off the overwhelming lust he'd had to suffer. So what would keep him from attacking now? In ten days, the moon would be full.
But mainly she wanted to ask, Over the last year, did you ever consider giving up on me?
Lucia stared down, nearly hypnotized by the swirling eddies. Staring at the water... memories arising. All the talk with Nïx about Cruach forced Lucia to remember. How naïve she'd been, how bright her future.
At sixteen she'd had no idea how good she'd had it in the immortal plane of Valhalla. She'd spent much of her time at the exit portal of the plane, longing to leave. She'd found Valhalla dull.
Now she knew it'd been a land covered in mists, full of beauty and endless peace.
But the outside world had been so clear, so sharp, so exciting. Lucia had wanted to lie on her back and stare up at the bright stars that she could only scarcely see from her perch. She'd longed for adventure but mainly for romance. She'd wanted her own hearth and family - a husband and eventually a dozen children.
Let her half sisters deal with the Valkyrie's duties - choosing the slain and fighting battles. She'd had no interest in death.
Lucia had wanted love....
One night, a stranger had appeared at the other side of the portal. A man - just there, like a dream, as if she'd conjured him. He'd had curling bright hair and blue eyes the color of the cloudless daytime skies she'd glimpsed, but always at a distance. Never had she encountered anything as compelling as the man's angelic looks.
"What's your name, fair Valkyrie?" he asked.
"I'm Lucia the Maiden. What is yours?"
"I'm called Crom. I'm the man you're soon to marry."
She laughed, delighted. "Are you, sir?"
"I will make you mistress of my castle. And shower you with gifts and adoration."
"I do like gifts."
They flirted until she heard Regin calling her for dinner. As young Valkyrie, they still had the need to eat, still were mortal until they were fully grown and had frozen into their immortality. After casting a quick glance over her shoulder, Lucia told him, "I have to go, but will you return to see me once more?"
"I'll be here tomorrow night, eagerly awaiting you," he said. "And the night after and after again. Until you agree to wed me..."
That'd been the only promise he'd ever kept.
The cabin door opened.
Garreth found her on the balcony. At once, her slim shoulders stiffened.
As he crossed to her, he marveled again that she was in his keeping at last. He'd pursued her for so long, he had a hard time believing it.
Tonight, he hadn't wanted to let her out of his sight, but his Instinct had been screaming that his mate was in danger.
He'd just confirmed how much.
Joining her outside, he leaned his forearms on the rail, gazing out at the nighttime scene. With the dense forest closing in all around them, they might as well be in a canyon - a green-walled canyon. Low storm clouds were back building, only adding to that claustrophobic sense.
How he remembered this place. How he'd hoped to forget it.
Finally she turned to him, with her lovely face wan, her expression strained.
"When was the last time you slept?" he asked. After the previous punishing year, he felt like arse. He couldn't imagine how she felt or how she pushed herself like this.
"A week ago, I think." Immortals could easily go a couple of days without sleep, but a week was rough. He knew this well - he'd been up for nearly a dozen days.
She'd showered and washed her hair. Now it smelled faintly sweet, like jasmine. "Showering without me, Valkyrie? Last night that will be happening." And she'd dressed fully again. "Do you think a few extra garments will keep me from my aim?"
"I think I'm not going to be awaiting you in my skimpy lingerie."
"Maybe no' yet." Before she could protest, he said, "You need to tell me about whatever little mission you're on. Because you're being followed. Seems quite a few Loreans doona want you to reach whatever you need to 'attend to.' So now it's time for you to answer my questions."
"Forget it, MacRieve."
"You'll blindly ignore that you're in danger?"
"Because you say so? Oh wait, how did you put it in the meeting? We're in danger because we're in the Amazon. Wow, that specific? Really, I better protect myself from... the rascally Amazon."
"Lousha, I slew two demon assassins just today in Iquitos - they had their swords raised in an alley you were about to sprint by." He'd nigh missed this boat because of all the beheading he'd had to do in town.
"Then all the better that I'm on the river."
He gave a harsh laugh. "No' quite. You see, I'll be forcibly removing you from the vessel at the earliest opportunity."
"What?" Visibly making an effort to calm herself, she said, "MacRieve, let's be reasonable about this. What threat on board has you acting like this?"
"For one, there's Dr. Clarence Ogilvie Schecter - "
She raised a hand to stop him. "And how would you know his middle name?"
When he hiked his shoulders, her face lit with an expression of dawning realization. "You've got to be kidding me. You snooped through their things?"
He'd do that and more to keep her safe. "Aye, while they were upstairs drinking beers." Turning to the bed inside, he dropped his body and the case atop it. "I dinna want you to feel that you were being singled out for my invasions of privacy." At her glare, he added, "I'm a Lykae - if I get curious, I investigate. It's what we do. So anyway, ole Schecter told us he's no' studying megafauna?"
"Oh, aye. He's hunting a goddamned megacaiman."
"What is that, and what does it have to do with me?"
"Schecter plans to trap a four-ton caiman with this rickety old bark - no' merely to document one. He's got that 'sonic lure' - patent bluidy pending - and enough tranquilizer to make even your glowing sister happy."
"Now, that is good to know," she said, tapping her chin. "But it's still not enough to worry me."
"Ah, but what about Rossiter? He says he's hunting for cures, but he's only interested in one - for Fatal Insomnia Syndrome."
"What is that?"
"From what I could tell from his papers, it's an extremely rare genetic disorder. Basically, you lose the ability to sleep. You stay awake until you eventually die."
"What does this have to do with me?"
"Doc Rossiter's studying it - because he's dying from it. So he's out here with nothing to lose. He's completely rogue, searching for some rare orchid he believes will hold the cure for the disease."
"First of all, isn't it always an orchid? And second of all - so?"
"So what do you think he'd do if he discovered immortality existed? If he determined that we can potentially live forever - or that I could possibly make him immortal?" Not that Garreth ever would. Of all the species in the Lore, the Lykae turned others the least - because of the devastating side-effects.
"And what about Damiãno?"
"He's got doctored medical records. Definitely no' human."
"Then what is he?"
"Maybe a shifter or warlock? Or a demon? If he's into shamanism, he could be a bluidy witch doctor for all we know."
"Do you think he lied about what he's here for?"
"Doona know what his real aim is - but if it's truly to stop the oil companies, then we're already being followed. They've got mercenaries cruising up and down the river, scanning CBs and sat-phones. A basin-wide intelligence net. Any uncontacted tribe would cost them billions. No one will be reporting a sighting," he said. "Lousha, those three all know this is dodgy. It's why they're on a shite boat like this, hiring a drunk captain who's ruled by the dollar. So unless you give me a damn good reason to allow you to stay aboard - "
"Aye. Second lesson about the Amazon? Might makes right out here."
"I have to be on this ship. This one in particular." At his unbending look, she said, "This isn't about me and you. This is much, much bigger. End of the world big."
"Then tell me," MacRieve said, "and I'll help you."
Seeing no way around it, she decided to reveal some. "Fine, let's make a deal. You keep my cover, and no more ordering me to strip - "
"Which you loved and were aroused by."
"Do you want to know or not?"
He held up his palms. "Agreed and agreed."
"And we won't be having sex."
"Disagreed. You're acting like you have some bargaining power - I can force you from this ship."
"Don't put my back up against the wall, MacRieve. I might strive to be reasonable, but you have no idea what I'm capable of when cornered."
"Ah, but what are you capable of without drawing human attention? Tomorrow morning, we're gone."
"Very well! I'll tell you," she said, beginning to pace yet again. "You've met Nïx, I'm sure."
"Oh, when I was locked in the Valkyrie dungeon? After you trapped me?"
She pursed her lips.
"Go on, then."
"She contacted me just a day ago, told me the world was on the verge of apocalypse. I was to find Rio Labyrinto. The river would hold the answer to our salvation. And before you ask, I don't know much more. Nïx won't divvy the details. You don't know what she's like."
"I doona? She would no' tell me why I had to be in Iquitos at precisely three. All she'd say is 'Do you want to see your mate or no', werewolf?'"
"That's how you got here so fast!" Rotter! "No, she wouldn't."
"We both know she would and did."
Nïx had planned for Lucia and MacRieve to meet. The soothsayer had done him a favor. Why? Nïx might be mad, but she could also be calculating.
A niggling suspicion had been building in Lucia over the last few months. The three-thousand-year-old soothsayer had begun telling people she would soon be a goddess. And that wasn't just an insane musing - it was actually a possibility.
Nïx had been born of gods, and she'd attained the requisite age - ancient. But most importantly, she was collecting lifelong loyalties, which doubled as worship.
If gods derived strength from the number of worshippers they acquired, then Nïx was growing more and more powerful. Here was Garreth MacRieve, another being who owed Nïx a favor, who'd be thanking her daily for the rest of his immortal life for her help. Like a prayer. Humans might thank God - MacRieve would thank Nïx.
Nucking Futs Nïx a goddess? Lucia wondered if she'd be a benevolent one.
"Doona be angry with the soothsayer," he said. "If she had no' helped me, I would've eventually caught you anyway."
"You sound confident. Makes me wonder why you hadn't before."
"I had an ace in my pocket that I had no' yet played." Before she could question him about his ace, he asked, "So did Nïx happen to give you any directions to Rio Labyrinto?"
Lucia shook her head. "She said I'd have everything I needed aboard this ship."
"That so?" he replied thoughtfully. "Then she must've meant that you'd need me."
"Why on earth?"
" 'Cause I've been there, lass."
"But no one comes out of Rio Labyrinto alive," Lucia said.
Garreth lifted his chin. "No one - but me."
Her eyes went wide. "Then tell me about the river! Where is it?"
"First, you tell me what else you know about the apocalypse. You ken you will no' get a word from me otherwise." That wasn't true. If she ever used her wiles on him, he'd likely be putty in her hands.
She paced, worrying her plump bottom lip - the one he wanted to take between his own teeth to nibble on. After exhaling a breath, she asked, "Have you heard of the god... Crom Cruach?"
He had. But the way she'd uttered, or barely uttered, the god's name with a flash of sorrow in her eyes made his hackles rise. "Maybe some scattered tales," he lied. "Canna remember."
She cast him an expression that said she didn't know whether to believe him.
"Gods are no' really my area of interest. Rugby? Now that I pay attention to."
After a hesitation, she said, "He's evil to the bone. His primary power is to make people feel a mad need to sacrifice whoever they love. Only now, that need will be contagious - the lust to slaughter in Cruach's name - passing from person to person. In the past, he's been jailed in a lair, but with each Accession, he grows powerful enough to break from his prison. Every five hundred years someone has to send him back there. Nïx dispatched me to do this."
After Lucia's explanation, he sensed that she knew far more than what she was telling him.
And that she might be about to snap. Let the information unfold. "With all the creatures in the Lore that owe the soothsayer, she chose you for this?" He was impressed, and didn't bother hiding it.
"Yes, me." She tucked her still damp hair behind her pointed ear. "Nïx told me there might be a way to kill him. To finally end the cycle."
"A weapon. Called a dieumort. It's a - "
"God killer. I've heard of them. And she thinks one's on Rio Labyrinto?"
Lucia nodded. "That's what she said. Now, I've told you my part - tell me about the river. How did you find it?"
"Purely by accident. I'd been chasing game along the riverside, and I saw it disappear right before my eyes. But I could still scent it. I followed my nose straight through the portal."
"And? Tell me more!"
"Also known as the River of Doom and the River of Doors, it's a watery maze of channels and cutouts." He paused for effect. "And it's rumored to be the gateway to El Dorado."
"El Dorado?" Lucia's eyes went wide. "The Lost City of Gold?" Maybe the dieumort was the golden arrow of her dreams? "Where? Where is it?" Lucia had already been reeling from the fact that MacRieve knew where Rio Labyrinto was - everything you need will be on that boat - and now this?
"As though I'd reveal the location to you?" MacRieve scoffed. "I think no'. I like you dependent on me and my good will."
Apparently she wouldn't be taking her bow back from MacRieve and ditching him. "I told you the nature of the apocalypse."
In answer, he gave her a look as if he knew she was holding back.
"Don't you understand? It's critical for me to find a way to destroy Cruach!"
"So if I allow you to stay on the boat, you're at risk from a thousand different perils, and if I take you from here, you're still in danger from an apocalypse?"
He exhaled wearily. "Verra well, we'll stay. But we're going to establish some guidelines for our time aboard this ship."
"In other words, you intend to give me rules to obey? MacRieve, just tell me where it is - I can do this on my own."
"The full moon's coming! Have you thought about that, werewolf? It's only ten days away!"
"You know the dates as well as I do, then?"
"You won't be able to control yourself. You'll attack me. I know what your kind does."
"I'd never put you in harm's way. As long as I'm wearing this" - he pointed to the silver cuff on his arm - "I will no' lose control of myself."
"What does that do?" She eyed it suspiciously. "Where'd you get it?"
"The... witches." He seemed to have just stifled a shudder. "The inscription on the cuff makes it so that I will no' change involuntarily."
"I thought you told me you'd never ally with the witches."
"My cousin has since married one, and I approached them about this. I did it for you."
Against her will, she felt herself softening. She knew what that must have cost him. "How long have you had it?"
"About ten months. Why?"
"How'd you stay away from me during the first two full moons?"