Ellie was about to exhale a pent-up breath when she remembered an old cops' trick. "Straight face, Hag. He's coming right back."
They're up to something.
Lothaire returned to Hag's home seconds later to catch them sharing a confidence, a look of relief. . . .
He'd made himself invisible, but he merely found the fey stirring her pot while Elizabeth continued to drum her nails on the counter.
With narrowed eyes, Lothaire returned to his task. Yes, up to something. But he didn't have the time-or the clarity-to delve.
Over the last few hours, he'd covered miles, racing outward from Riora's empty temple through an ancient forest.
Since he could only trace to places he'd previously been or places he could see, he had difficulty covering large amounts of ground. It was almost as easy to run, following the trails animals made as they fled his presence. Even other predators fear me. . . .
Though this task could help him complete his Endgame, he found his thoughts drifting to Elizabeth yet again, this time to the look of longing on her face as she'd stared at the sea.
His satisfaction over that had proved curiously less than he'd expected.
Why couldn't he stop thinking about her? Or how she'd melted for him earlier at the apartment?
Because even I look like an option.
He'd never had trouble with females before. Now two had come into his life, as if solely to plague him.
One didn't seem to desire him; the other did, but only because she'd been deprived of any male. That mouth of yourn feels so good. . . .
What would he do if Saroya still hadn't risen by tonight? Betray his Bride?
Lothaire's need to be faithful wasn't for sentimental reasons, but for logical ones. He'd studied the truly great kings and queens in the Lore, and historically, royal couples who amassed power together did not sleep with others.
The males didn't take concubines. The females didn't secretly slip into others' beds.
The pair presented a united front to the world, with no cracks in their foundation for enemies to worm their way into. Each demonstrated utter loyalty-only to the other.
Lothaire couldn't argue with facts.
He'd expected this unity with Saroya, had planned for it. But technically, Elizabeth and Saroya were one and the same. If his Bride didn't see the difference, then perhaps he shouldn't scruple over it. He could enjoy Elizabeth and still be faithful-
He tensed, catching the shifter pack's scent. He tracked it to a den entrance, then plunged inside.
Into the earth. Stay focused. Five ash vines. In. Out.
He followed a tunnel to a vaultlike cavern-their central gathering place, with offshoot passageways in all directions. Around a fire, bedding covered the ground, and stone benches lined the walls.
Roots dangled from the ceiling like grasping fingers. The earth grinding over me . . .
Block out that memory. Or stare into the abyss. Block it out. Focus!
He scented mortals somewhere deeper in the cavern. Their slaves.
The shifters began to emerge from other tunnels. Dozens surrounded him, all in their human forms, but tensed with aggression.
The largest one, the alpha, said, "A vampire dares to enter our territory, trespassing near our women?"
"There is little daring to it." Only a madman would enter a shifters' den? Lothaire was beset with boredom. How many packs had he faced and slaughtered? Incalculable. "I seek ash vines. Give them to me, and I'll spare you all."
"Who the hell are you?" the alpha demanded.
"I'm the Enemy of Old."
Alpha's eyes went wide. "You killed my father and three older brothers."
Lothaire drawled, "Never heard that before." Apparently, he'd killed so many family members that he must have significantly affected the Lore's population. Doing my part for the environment.
A burly no-necked male said, "The leech targeted an alpha's line? Now he's going to die."
"Let's leave him be," a more cowardly-or wise-shifter advised. Others murmured in agreement.
"Are you all crazy?" Alpha glowered. "There's thirty of us. One of him."
Out of the corner of his mouth, the coward insisted, "But . . . but it's the Enemy of Old." Then to Lothaire, he said, "We're out of the vines, and our supplier won't have them for weeks. I vow it to the Lore."
"Shut the fuck up!" Alpha ordered.
No vines. Lothaire should trace away, not risking his bloodlust, ensuring he didn't drink any of these animals in the heat of the fight-
"Look at that," No-neck said, "he's going to trace away, run back to his
king. Oh, wait-your king got killed, just last spring. Assassinated in
his own castle."
The king Lothaire had served. The king he'd failed.
The death I both mourned-and celebrated.
A quiet rage simmered inside Lothaire. His mind grew tunnel-visioned. Everything around him slowed until even their racing heartbeats sounded ponderous, like clocks ticking in oil.
The alpha will slash with the claws of his dominant left hand. I'll slice off his arm with my right, use my left to sever his jugular. Coward will hesitantly attack from behind. A kick backward will connect with his chest and crush his rib cage. No-neck will snatch up a stone bench, swinging while I punch through his chest and remove his heart.
The rest will react uncontrollably, shifting and attacking as a pack.
"You've erred for ill." Lothaire bared his fangs. "Now you all get to die."
So what's my reward for saving your fey ass?" Ellie asked when Hag returned to the kitchen.
Shortly after Lothaire's last suspicious pop-in, Hag had excused herself, saying she needed to check on something. Now that she'd returned, she stared at Ellie with a strange intensity.
"Go to that bookshelf." Hag pointed out a rickety set of shelves. "Look for a very old tome entitled The Living Book of Lore. It's a self-updating encyclopedia of our world."
"Encyclopedia?" Score! Ellie found it, cracking open the musty pages. The words were handwritten in an old-style script, but legible.
"If Lothaire returns and finds you with it, I'll deny pointing it out to you."
"Ten-four." Moments later, Ellie reclined with the book on a deck lounge chair under the nearly full moon.
At once, she searched for a "goddess of blood" or "Saroya" or "soul reaper," but came up empty. Discouraged, she turned to the Vampires entry. Now there was information for the taking! She began reading intently about the vampire factions.
Lothaire had sneered to her, "I couldn't expect you to understand the political machinations of vampires."
Therefore it was imperative for Ellie to understand them.
The Forbearers were a relatively new army of turned humans led by a natural-born vampire named Kristoff the Gravewalker. They'd vowed not to drink blood straight from the flesh-to forbear. Their eyes were clear, their minds strong. Kristoff ruled them from his castle on Mt. Oblak.
The Daci were supposedly another faction, thought to be the first vampires. They were rumored to exist in an underground kingdom-with a fabled black castle that no one in the Lore could find. Nor could any prove their existence.
The Horde was the main vampire kingdom, populated mostly by the Fallen-red-eyed vampires like Lothaire who'd killed as they'd drunk their prey. They were led by Tymur the Allegiant, so called because he served whatever king sat upon the throne.
Even if his previous master had been slain by his new one.
Since King Demestriu's death the year before, Tymur and other loyalist vampires had held Castle Helvita, the royal seat, as they waited for the next heir to come forward. They would only accept a legitimate royal heir who held sacred the Thirst-the need for vampires to drink from the flesh.
Lothaire certainly had no problem drinking from others. So was he illegitimate?
From what she could gather, he was probably interested in either the Horde or the Dacian throne-or both. But how could he be sure the Daci even existed? Her eyes widened. Was he a real-live Dacian?
Ellie memorized all she could, repeating facts in her head.
Forbearers. Kristoff. Oblak. Forbear from the flesh. Clear eyes.
Horde. Tymur. Helvita. Comprised of the Fallen, red-eyed killers.
Daci. Fable? Castle in Dacia. The first vampires. Eyes unknown.
Next, Ellie perused all the vampires' species-wide traits. Natural-born vampires did in fact get sick if they lied. I'll be analyzing Lothaire's deflection techniques. They could trace over the entire world, but couldn't teleport out of certain mystical traps, chains, or even from the grip of a stronger opponent.
Male vampires usually froze into their immortality in their late twenties or early thirties, becoming the walking dead-until each male found his Bride and she blooded him.
Which meant that Lothaire had gone thousands of years without sex.
After studying every word on the subject of vampires, she turned her search to another entry. Hadn't Lothaire said that Hag was a fey?
The Fey of Grimm Dominion were masters in the art of poisons. Check. They had their own mystical realm called Draiksulia. Yet Hag settled in North Carolina? They usually warred with vampires and various demon monarchies, or demonarchies.
So why was Hag working for Lothaire?
Next Ellie flipped around, reading about nymphs, ghouls, and Cerunnos-massive snakelike creatures that could talk. She swallowed at the hideous illustration of a Wendigo, feeling a grudging respect toward Lothaire for defeating so many.
Within the Lore, there were power factions, such as the Valkyries, Lykae, and the House of Witches. Sure enough, Wiccans were mystical mercenaries who sold their spells to the highest bidder. Apparently, their leader's hand would grow back.
Vampires weren't the only species with regenerative powers.
Hag and Lothaire had also talked about La Dorada, a sorceress Queen of Evil, so Ellie thumbed past Sand Devils, Sasquatch, Shifters . . .
Sorceri. Most of the sorcerers had the ability to control matter or living entities in varying ways. A sorceress was known as a Queen if her particular power was stronger than any other sorcerer's.
So Dorada truly could control evil.
Unable to help herself, Ellie looked for Aliens. Instead she found Accession-a mystical phenomenon that occurred every five hundred years, compelling factions to war while bringing together mates.
The Accession acted as population control for the undying. And one was under way right now. . . .
When the sky began to lighten, she glanced up with dismay. The sun would rise soon, and she hadn't even scratched the surface-
Suddenly the book was slammed shut, wrenched from her hands. "What do we have here?"
Lothaire. Standing before her. Covered in blood and bits of . . . skin. His eyes blazed as he clenched the book.
When he traced inside, she quickly followed.
Lothaire waved the book in Hag's face. "Why did she have this?"
Ellie quickly said, "I saw it and snagged it. I just wanted to learn about this new world."
In a seething tone, he said, "You won't be in it long enough to
"She's impossible to contain, Lothaire," Hag said, calmly stirring a
brew on the stove. "As you know, she's cunning. Tell me, did you find the vines?"
He shook his head. As if he could feel Ellie studying him, he whirled around on her. "What?"
"You're covered with . . . skin and gristle."
He glanced down at himself. "So?"
She tsked. "Sandbox fight, Lothaire? Did you play dirty with the other little vampires?"
"Poshyol ty. Fuck. Off. Has Saroya tried to rise?"
"She's down deep, all but hibernating. Not even a shiver. Which means she won't be coming round anytime soon."
At that, fury fired in his eyes. He seized Ellie's upper arm, tracing her back to his apartment bedroom-with the book still in hand.
When he released her, she cringed at her sleeve. "You got skin on me!"
As Lothaire began to pace, she snatched one of the crumpled letters from the floor to wipe the gore off. Though tempted to run and take a shower, she had to at least try to get the book away from him.
"I wasn't done reading that."
He frowned at the book as if he hadn't remembered that he held it.
"You should let me read it, Lothaire. I was actually more impressed with you once I saw an illustration of a Wendigo. Almost like you'd bagged a thirty-point buck."
He swung his gaze on her, his expression saying, Who are you? Then, with a scowl, he traced to his safe, locking the book inside.
When he returned, she said, "You can't be this pissed off just because I read some musty old book-or because you had to play dirty with other little vampires."
"They were shifters!"
"I didn't get to read about shifters yet, so I can't appreciate the tussle you must have had. But I'm sure you consider it a big feat."
He traced before her, looking positively insane. He clasped her throat, putting just enough pressure to tell her he was to be taken seriously.
She acted unconcerned. "Or maybe you're pissed because Saroya didn't rise." Considering the heated encounter between Ellie and him earlier, she'd figured he wanted to get busy with Saroya, but then rejected the idea. Surely, he wouldn't be this hard-up hours later.
Again, he'd gone half a decade without a glimpse of his mate.
"Lothaire, why were you so positive that Saroya would rise? She usually doesn't. Especially if there's no one to kill or maim."
He released her with a muttered oath and shrugged out of his soiled trench coat.
"Is there something dire you have to discuss with the goddess? A murder to plan or some evil to check off a punch list . . . ?" Ellie trailed off, words failing her, and sank down on the couch.
Because she could now see his blatant erection straining against his pants.
So there's the fire, vampire.
When she finally stopped gawking at the sheer size of it, she dragged her eyes upward. His shoulders were tense. Blond brows drew tight over hungry red eyes.
The vampire did need to get busy! And Saroya was nowhere to be found.
This all came down to lust? Not murders or plots?