by Kresley Cole
The French Quarter, New Orleans
“She’s . . . near.”
At his brother’s weak and broken words, Murdoch Wroth’s eyes narrowed in anger toward the one who’d brought the proud Nikolai so low.
Myst the Coveted, a female immortal with a vicious heart.
And Nikolai’s fated Bride.
“How can you tell?” Murdoch asked.
“Because I can feel her,” Nikolai said.
Murdoch adjusted Nikolai’s arm, which he’d slung across his shoulders to help his brother walk as they searched. The humans milling all around them merely assumed Nikolai was another drunk.
Proud Nikolai. He was weak from consuming too little blood, his body racked with never-ending need for a mad Valkyrie who delighted in his pain. Nikolai had lost weight, his face turning gaunt, his muscles flagging.
“Murdoch, when I find her . . . I want you to trace from here.”
He shook his head. “I’ll stay until you’ve secured her—”
“No. Don’t want you to . . . see me.” Nikolai’s weary gaze darted away from Murdoch’s. “I will lose control.”
Which would shame his stalwart older brother as little else could.
Murdoch couldn’t imagine how Nikolai would react when he found Myst. Five years ago, she had blooded Nikolai, as only a Bride could, bringing to life his dead vampire’s body. She’d made him breathe, made his heart beat, and stoked his newly reawakened lust with no intention of slaking it.
That same night, another Valkyrie had shot him through with arrows and still another had mocked his desires. Myst had fled with the two, dooming Nikolai.
A blooded vampire could only take release for the first time while touching his Bride in some way. If she wasn’t available, then he would be kept in a state of constant sexual readiness, aching indefinitely.
Which she well knew.
“Promise me you’ll leave,” Nikolai grated.
At length, Murdoch said, “I will.” If Myst was indeed here tonight, it would make sense that there’d be more Valkyrie out on these very streets. More of their deceiving, manipulative, violent kind. “But only to find another one,” he added.
He could capture one and interrogate her about the Lore—the world of not-so-mythical beings he and his brother were now a part of.
Murdoch’s knowledge of the Lore was as limited as that of any of the vampires in their warrior order of Forbearers. Their army consisted mostly of turned humans, and the Lore creatures kept their secrets well guarded from them.
“Don’t underestimate the Valkyrie as I did,” Nikolai rasped. “Else suffer as I have.”
He suffered because fate had forced this blooding on Nikolai. As if Nikolai needed another burden.
The blooding process was what Murdoch detested most about being a vampire, even more than never seeing the sun again.
Though he’d once been a rake, bedding a new woman each night, Murdoch hoped it never happened to him. To be mystickally tied to a single woman sounded hellish, especially to a woman he didn’t choose, and one who could spurn him, as Myst had Nikolai.
The pain had rendered his brother nearly mindless in his pursuit of her. Nikolai wanted retribution, but Murdoch suspected he also simply wanted her. Even after all that she’d done to him.
“Where will you take her this night? The mill?” They’d secured an old renovated sugar mill outside the city, staying there instead of the Forbearer castle while they’d scoured these streets.
Nikolai shook his head.
“Then back to the castle?”
When Nikolai didn’t answer, Murdoch said, “You wouldn’t take her to Blachmount?” The ancient Wroth estate—where most of their family had died in a single night of sickness and murder. “Why?”
“Because that’s where my Bride belongs.”
Before Murdoch could question his meaning, Nikolai went still, his eyes briefly sliding shut. Then his head swung up toward a rooftop. “It’s her.”
Above them, a redhead stood frozen, her lips parting in shock.
Murdoch had only briefly seen her all those years before, and now he studied the details of her Valkyrie appearance. She had delicate fey features—pointed ears and high cheekbones—but he also spied the tell-tale claws and small fangs.
At the sight of her, Nikolai stood fully, no longer needing Murdoch’s aid. “My Myst.”
Her face paled, no doubt at the sight of Nikolai, who now looked like the monster she’d sought to make him. His irises had turned completely black, his fangs descending in his mouth, dripping from thirst.
Her horrified expression almost made Murdoch pity her, but she deserved no mercy—which was good, because Nikolai would show her none this night.
Their pursuit of half a decade was . . . over. At last.
Just as Nikolai tensed to trace to her, Murdoch slapped him on the back, then teleported away as he’d promised, disappearing so quickly he went unnoticed in the morass of drunken tourists. Even if they had seen him vanish, the humans would think they’d imagined it.
Murdoch materialized in a back alley several blocks away, then walked to the Quarter’s main thoroughfare, Bourbon Street. As he moved among the crowds, a warm breeze tripped down the street, dissipating the swampy haze of the night and the fumes from food vendor stands.
Warm. In February. Good hunting weather.
Yes, Nikolai would be merciless tonight, as would Murdoch. Now all he needed was to find his prey.
The hunt is on.
I’m being followed.
Daniela the Ice Maiden furtively glanced over her shoulder once more. Again she spied nothing out of the ordinary—tourists milling, witches catcalling to human males—but Danii still couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being stalked.
Which begged the question: what creature would be stupid enough to court a Valkyrie’s wrath?
Maybe she was just spooked by Nïx’s cryptic remarks tonight. Nïx, her half sister and the Valkyrie soothsayer, often made off-the-wall predictions. But this one continued to replay in Danii’s mind.
“Sad, sad Daniela, the broken doll who wants to be fixed. Tonight she might.”
Because of Danii’s pale, freezing skin—she was part Icere—she was often likened to a porcelain doll. Well, because of her icy skin and because of what would happen to her if she grew overheated. . . .
But a broken doll? What did that mean? And fixed—for good, for bad? What would be fixed?
She’d told Nïx, “I can’t imagine what you’re talking about. I’m not broken”—my lonely existence makes me want to tear my hair out—”and I don’t know how I could be ‘fixed.'”
Perhaps by being able to finally touch another? To feel a man’s skin against her own without being burned, instead of constantly fantasizing about it?
I would give anything.
Yet the only males on earth who could touch her were the Icere. Regrettably, they also happened to want her dead.
Which meant the closest she’d ever get to having sex would be reading about it in the many tomes of erotica she kept hidden in her room or by indulging in her rich fantasy life.
She sighed. Which also meant she was the world’s oldest virgin. Merely awaiting confirmation from Guinness. And people wonder why I prefer fantasy to reality.
Her ears twitched with awareness. No, she wasn’t simply spooked; something was happening. Her senses were alert.
Hastening her pace, she carefully wound around the people on the street, negotiating the ninety-eight-point-six degree gauntlet. Even the briefest contact with another’s skin would burn her. A conundrum, because she kept cool by baring lots of skin.
When her frosty breath fogged in the warm night air, she just stifled the urge to scream, and peeked over her shoulder once more.
This time she spotted a towering male, far behind her. He was striking, looked to be mid-thirties. But there was something unusual about him.
Was he even human? New Orleans was chock-full of Lore beings. He could be an immortal, maybe even the one trailing her.
At that moment, he wasn’t looking in her direction, so she took the opportunity to duck into an alley beside a hotel. Leaping up four stories to the hotel’s flat roof, she crossed to a low ledge wall overlooking the street then crouched between two flags—one had a fleur-de-lis covered in beads, and the other said Pardi Gras!
Tilting her head, she studied the male below. He had longish dark brown hair, cut negligently, with a lock falling over his forehead. His face was fantasy-worthy, with a strong, masculine jaw and chin.
He wore tasteful clothes, a black button-down and jeans with a jacket that made her feel warm just looking at it. She herself was wearing the thinnest backless dress she could find.
He strode with an air of confidence. The male was gorgeous—and he knew it.
How could he not, with the women gaping at him? Then she frowned. He seemed oblivious to the prancing coeds in low-cut tops angling for his attention.
His body was big, muscular in a way that hinted at immortal, but what he was exactly eluded her. Considering his size, he was probably a demon, or even a Lykae—those animals had begun prowling the Valkyrie’s turf as bold as they pleased.
Or could he be . . . a vampire?
She trained her gaze on his chest, watching for the rise and fall of breaths. Seconds passed. Historically, the vampires shunned Louisiana. Yet on this night her Valkyrie coven had heard that members of both warring vampire armies, the Horde and the Forbearers, would be out on these very streets.
But what they didn’t know was why.
His chest is still. Bingo. Vamp.
Since his eyes were a normal gray and clear—not crazed and red with bloodlust—that meant he was a Forbearer, one of an army of vampires who didn’t drink blood straight from the flesh.
Vampires who didn’t kill. At least, that was their mission statement.
The Lore was still waiting to see how that worked out for them.
Though Danii knew she needed to report back on this sighting, she couldn’t take her gaze off him.
What was it about this vampire? She was aware of only two Valkyrie who’d ever been with his kind. One still lived. Danii knew the danger; so why this attraction?
Yes, he was breathtakingly cocky, with his leading-man face and broad shoulders, but she’d never been so absorbed by a male. Not a real one, anyway. Broken-doll Daniela . . . wanted. Him. A vampire.
When he was almost directly below her, she noticed that he seemed burdened, preoccupied even. Hardly the expression of someone who’d been stalking her.
But if he hadn’t been, then who—
The unmistakable twang of bow-strings sounded behind her.
She dove for cover, and a swarm of arrows sliced the air where she’d been standing. A second volley skittered against the brick where her head had just been, ricocheting off the low ledge wall.
She recognized the creosote-like scent of the arrowheads. Poison on the tips, fire poison. Which could only kill ice creatures like her. Oh, gods.
Without looking back, she vaulted over the side of the roof. When she landed in the alley below, she immediately tore off at a sprint.
The bows, the burning arrow-heads—this wasn’t a Lykae threat. Not a vampire attacking.
Icere assassins were hunting her. My mother’s people. How had they found her?
No choice but to flee, knew she couldn’t remain to fight. These assassins traveled in bands, and the number of arrows indicated at least half a dozen.
Even as she raced directly toward the mortal gauntlet, her mind rebelled. She hadn’t seen another of her kind in centuries. I thought I’d be safe from them here.
Her only hope was to outrun them, yet she knew how fast they would be. Like her, they were born of the fey—
She dashed right in front of the vampire, nearly knocking him over.
Murdoch had just rubbed the back of his neck, then peered upward, convinced he was being watched.
He’d spied nothing, started on his way again . . . And almost ran over a small blonde in a skimpy backless dress.
With lightning speed, she darted in front of him, sparing him the briefest glance. He caught a glimpse of high cheekbones and alarmed silvery eyes before she sped across the main thoroughfare toward another alley. A pointed ear had peeked out through the wild spill of her long fair hair.
Pointed ears, silver irises, running too fast to be a human.
An immortal—possibly one of them.
That glimpse of her was all it took, and the chase was on. He hurriedly followed her into the alley, then traced, vanishing and materializing ever closer to her.
Though small, she was swift as she navigated through a maze of shadowy alleys, heading toward the river. He was barely gaining on her.
What kind of being could run as fast as a vampire could trace?
As he neared, he made out finer details of her appearance. Her legs were taut and shapely under her short dress. Her bared back and arms were slim. She wore silver bands above her elbows, and elaborate braids threaded her long hair.
She seemed foreign, unusual. Like women from faraway lands in olden times. I can’t wait to get a better look from the front.
That thought threw him. Since the night he’d been turned into a vampire three hundred years ago, he’d had no interest in women, no need for them, just as he never reacted to the scent or sight of food.
Why would I give a damn about what her front looks like? He would wrest information from her. He could do little else.
His body was deadened. And he preferred it that way.
Just then, she glanced over her shoulder as she ran, and he caught sight of her elven face once again.
Those pointed ears . . . several factions in the Lore had them, at least that he knew of. Valkyrie were among them. He was becoming more and more convinced he’d found his quarry.
But she seemed to have lost sight of him altogether, focusing in another direction.
With each minute that passed, they traveled deeper into a decaying labyrinth of abandoned warehouses and stacks of railcars.
Finally she was slowing. She stumbled in a puddle, then tripped on the corner of a shipping pallet.
He stopped tracing and began running toward her. He was close enough to hear her heart drumming, her gasping breaths.
The Valkyrie his brother had encountered had known no fear of vampires. Maybe in the last five years they’d learned they had reason to flee from one. The thought made him pursue her with even more excitement. His vampire instincts rushed to the fore. The thrill of the chase overwhelmed him, and Murdoch played with her, letting her lope until she tired.
Just as he decided to end this, he turned a corner after her, running into a four-way crossing.
There was no sign of her.
Danii crouched on the second floor of a storm-ravaged warehouse, struggling to catch her breath and shuddering from heat.
She still couldn’t believe the Icere were here. She’d thought she was safe living in such a warm climate, believing they’d never look for her this close to the equator.
Like the Icere, Danii didn’t sweat. Unlike them, she could go into thermal shock if she grew overheated. But she was more accustomed to the temperature here than they were. And she knew every twist and turn of these downtown streets. As long as she didn’t catch a fire arrow, she could handle the Icere.
The vampire was another matter entirely. When she’d seen him tracing after her, she’d gaped in disbelief that yet another pursuer had joined the chase.
A clear-eyed vampire, a true Forbearer.
Though hidden, she could still see him from this vantage. With a narrowed gaze, he turned in circles below, determining her direction.
Any superficial and misguided attraction she’d felt for him was drowned out by annoyance. If this male would just move on, the Icere likely wouldn’t find her here.
Otherwise, he was going to get her killed.
The assassins would separate and try to trap her, driving her with the threat of those poisoned arrows. They wouldn’t lob their notorious ice grenades at her—they’d lose valuable cold and she’d simply take the impact with a smile on her face as she soaked the chill into her.
But those arrows . . .
Tipped with a poison that ravaged through and ice being’s veins like liquid fire.
I would know. This wasn’t the first time a faraway Icere king had dispatched killers after Danii, the rightful queen of the Icere. . . .
Instead of leaving, the vampire called out in a deep voice, “I know you’re here.” His words were thickly accented. Russian? Perhaps Estonian. “You’re a Valkyrie, are you not?” He stilled, listening for her. “If so, you’ll want to know that my brother just captured Myst the Coveted.”
Myst. Danii loved all her half sisters equally, but she owed Myst.
Wait . . . a Forbearer’s brother had taken her? There was one Forbearer—an Estonian— who wanted Myst above all others: Nikolai Wroth, the Overlord. He’d done Myst wrong, but then she had definitely retaliated.
And the Overlord had brothers.
Danii had to find out what had happened to her sister. If Nikolai alone had her, then Myst probably wouldn’t be in danger, since she was his Bride. But if Nikolai had surrendered her to the Forbearer king . . .
I have to know. Danii could trap the male below in a cocoon of crushing ice, then question him, but how much more cold—and time—could she stand to lose?
“Why do you cower?” Anger blazed off him. “A true Valkyrie would face me.”
True Valkyrie? His taunt struck home, like a jab at an exposed nerve. She wanted nothing more than to be like her half sisters. To enjoy all the things they took for granted. Broken doll . . . She rose unsteadily, crossed to a gap in the wall, then stepped out.
At once, his gaze locked on her, following her down. His lips parted, revealing barely visible fangs, but he made no move to close the thirty or so feet between them.
Had she truly thought the gray of his eyes was normal? Recognition seemed to flare in them. Recognition? But how? She’d never seen him before—she’d definitely have remembered.
His gaze was focused . . . predatory. Then his irises turned black. Black in a vampire meant intense emotion. Yet his earlier fury seemed to be fading.
As they stared at each other, all other sounds—the eerie thrum of barges churning the river, the distant screech of streetcars—were drowned out.
“My brother warned me that your kind are vicious.” His voice went even lower as he frowned. “I cannot see you as so.”
“Where is my sister, vampire?”
“I can take you to her, Valkyrie.”
I’ll bet. Yes, the male before her was a Forbearer, which meant that he was clueless among the Lore.
He’d have no idea how dangerous Danii in particular could be.
A living, breathing Valkyrie stood before him. And she was so stunningly beautiful. . . .
Murdoch’s view of her front had proved far more rewarding than he’d imagined.
He shook himself. Was she one of those who’d shot Nikolai? Had she been there to laugh at the idea of his brother’s agony?
For some reason, he couldn’t imagine her like that. He knew she was an enemy—one among an army of females who sought the annihilation of all vampires—and Nikolai had just warned him not to underestimate them. But this one looked even more fragile than Myst.
Though her features and lithe body were perfection, her blond locks were tangled around her pointed ears, and dust smudged her cheeks. Her face was feverishly red, and she was subtly swaying on her feet. She looked sad and miserable.
Chasing a female who feared him sat ill. Nikolai had sworn they were taunting, sadistic warriors who delighted in torment. Yet this creature had hidden from him—after fleeing as if her life depended on it.
“Listen, Valkyrie, I don’t want to hurt you. I just have some questions for you to answer.”
She raised her hand, but lifted no weapon. Instead, she flattened her palm just below her lips as if to blow a kiss good-bye. The breath that left her body looked like a cloud of frost, surging forward, surrounding him.
Ice flash-froze around his boots. He couldn’t move his legs. Couldn’t break free. “What the hell is this?” Her breath continued to surround him, ice growing up past his knees, climbing to his thighs.
Then she coughed, bending over and rocking on her feet. The buildup stopped, leaving him fettered by this bizarre binding.
He strained against the ice, which seemed stronger than any he’d ever known, but he was unable to break free or trace from it. “Take—this—away.”
She stalked closer. “Who has Myst now? Nikolai or the Forbearer king?”
“How do you know my brother’s name?”
“Nikolai or the king?”
He spied the points of her ears twitching, and her gaze darted past him. Just as she hissed at something behind him, he heard movement and twisted his upper body around.
There stood half a dozen men, large Viking-looking warriors, with swords at their sides and arrows already nocked to the strings of their raised bows.
Their breaths smoked in the warm night air and their ears were pointed.
She hasn’t been fleeing from me—
Arrows darkened the air around him, whizzing past his head. They’d aimed for her.
But somehow she was twisting her body to dodge the onslaught. Whirling around in the air, she turned to dart into another alley, her speed incomprehensible.
Then she was gone.
His hands shot down to claw his legs free, his fingers swiftly going numb. Just as the males behind him ran after her, Murdoch heard more fighting.
There are two groups. They’re organized, flushing her out. Can’t get this fucking ice off me.
Suddenly, her small body came flying out of the intersecting alley before him.
Thrown. She’d been thrown.
The force of her landing sent her skidding across the pavement. As she stabbed her claws against the bricks to right herself, a cloud of arrows followed her.
The momentum took her out of his field of vision.
Then the scent of something—a smell almost like blood—swept him up. Though his vampire instinct told him it was indeed blood, his mind rebelled.
Never had it smelled so exquisite. So irresistible.
At last Murdoch broke free, tracing to intercept her. When he reappeared, every muscle in his body instantly tensed.
She was kneeling in a pool of her own blood, her chest full of arrows. One of the males was holding her up by her hair, speaking in some foreign tongue. In his other hand, he held a glowing red blade.
She gazed up at Murdoch as blood streamed from her wounds to the dirty street.
They’d done this to her?
What had you been about to do to her? His vampire instincts warred with memories of the man he’d been. . . .
—I would never have hurt her.
—She was my prey. They stole her from me. My prize.
Just . . . mine.
At the thought of those men loosing their arrows at her, the idea of her pain and fear, rage erupted in him. The need to protect her, to destroy those who sought to harm her, burned within him.
Two realizations struck him.
This strange female belonged to him alone. And these killers would die before they relinquished her.
Her gaze held Murdoch’s, and she weakly extended her small hand. With tears running from her silvery eyes, she spoke, a whisper directed to him, loud above all sounds.