"You speak in riddles as usual." Helen had stabbed her sword into its sheath with an exasperated thrust. "He's a pathetic parasite. I would die of sorrow if I was ever connected to one such as him."

But they had spared him, and the golden-eyed Valkyrie had furtively dropped coins for him as they'd ridden off on their white steeds.

An age had passed before he'd met Nix again. Both of them had sought to capture a sorcerer whose castle was under siege by an invading army of stone demons, one of the more brutal demonarchies.

Nix had planned to save the sorcerer's life in order for him to fulfill some undisclosed role in the future; Lothaire wanted to drink his blood and steal his legendary knowledge.

The two of them had decided to work together. They would let the demons defeat the sorcerer's army and break into his mystically protected hold. Then Lothaire and Nix would swoop in to snare the sorcerer for themselves.

As he and the Valkyrie had lain in wait on an outcropping overlooking the clash, Lothaire had worked on a ring puzzle, listening to the Valkyrie's chatter, surprised that he agreed with everything she said.

She'd praised the sorcerer for taking no wife, spawning no offspring, and developing no friendships. "He has no weaknesses. The stone demon king will have no leverage to force magics from him."

Lothaire preyed on those very vulnerabilities. Which was why he himself garnered no friends. A choice, not a lack . . .

With a claw-tipped finger, Nix had pointed out soldiers in action, giving commentary. "Idiot. Larger idiot. One-horned idiot." He'd grunted in agreement. "Oh, watch this! Watch this one," she'd said from time to time, predicting a particularly gruesome slaying on the battlefield.

Soon they'd begun conversing, mainly about how foolish immortals could be, until their talk had turned personal.

"Have you no mate, female?" he'd asked, intrigued with her, though she was his natural enemy.

"I was betrothed to Loki for a time. Which did not proceed smoothly for obvious reasons. So for now I am an unrepentant manizer." At Lothaire's blank look, she'd said, "That will be amusing in the twenty-first century."

"If you're a soothsayer, tell me my future."

"I cannot. I still see nothing on you. Very few render my foresight completely blank."

In the hour before dawn, Lothaire had said, "I grow weary of waiting, Phenix. Stay if you like, but I will tarry no more."

Her eyes had gone hazy. "Patience, Lothaire. You must learn patience."

He'd drawn himself to his full height, furious that she'd dared to scold him. "The day I take orders from a madwoman who begets lightning will be my last." With a mean laugh, he'd tensed to trace away.

Just as he began to disappear, he'd spied a demon vaulting the overhang, sword at the ready. Leave the Valkyrie to her fate, Lothaire had told himself. She means nothing. She's an enemy!

Yet he'd hesitated. Perhaps he'd been less jaded then; perhaps he'd had nothing better to do. For whatever reason, he'd returned to her side to slay the male-just as the castle boundaries fell. . . .

In the coming years, they'd stalked common foes, growing to trust each other, at least enough to watch each other's backs when on extended hunts. But Lothaire had never learned patience, and his obstinacy put them at odds on occasion. Her lucidity continued to dwindle.

Still, they'd had much in common, and a grudging respect had grown. He remembered once confessing to her, "Phenix, you are the only one-"

"Lothaire!"

He jerked his head up. "What?"

Elizabeth was frowning at him. "You and Nix?"

He shook himself from his reverie. "We belong to different Lore armies, the Pravus and the Vertas. She is guiding the Vertas, and I side either with the Pravus or with no one-whichever suits my Endgame."

"Why didn't you ever kill her? That's what you do to your enemies, right?"

A difficult question to answer. At length, he said, "Though a foe, Nix is the only one I know who matches me in age and knowledge." In madness and weariness. "We have a history." And so his life would be altered without her in it. "I decided long ago that I could always kill her, but I could never bring her back."

"I see." When Elizabeth took another drink, condensation from the bottle dripped to her chest, meandering down. As his gaze followed, his mind easily turned from the past to this very enticing present. "I believe I answered your question." He raised his brows at her top.

With a huff, she tugged the material aside more. "Do you think about me when you're away?"

"I think about how you're soon to die. A fine sacrifice for Saroya."

As she pulled over her top, Elizabeth asked, "How much time do I have left?"

"Possibly a week."

She gazed away, taking another swig of beer as she adjusted the material. The next shift would bare one impudent nipple. "At any time, were your thoughts tender toward me?"

He'd mused on destroying Elizabeth's soul, and he might have felt a whisper of something. "Do I look like the type of male who would have tender thoughts, girl? Now you're being ridiculous."

When her eyes widened slightly, he snapped, "What?"

"Nothing."

"If there's to be no more tat, then let's get to the tit."

"Hmm. Maybe I've changed my mind." She ran that sweating beer bottle down her cleavage. Just where he'd thrust his shaft a week ago. "Don't you wish you could see-and touch?"

"I've spent the last seven days wishing I could touch. Now I plan to." Before she could react, he'd traced to her in the light, grabbing her before he burned, then returned with her to the apartment.

He could smell the sun in her hair, could see new freckles on her nose. Golden skin, wicked tan lines . . . her skin was hot.

"Let me go!" She shoved against his chest. "What do you want from me now? Maybe there's a quarter inch of my skin somewhere that you haven't spunked yet. That it?"

"These days away from me have made you bolder. Foolishly so. But I'll bring you to heel."

She thrashed against him. "I hate you!"

"Feeling's mutual," he grated with difficulty, the rana burning. Blyad'!

Of course he hated her.

She was a mortal, ignorant even of the danger he presented to her. His hand wrapped around her throat. "I could throttle you so easily. Squeeze the life right from you."

"Do it!" she screamed, her eyes fierce. "And stop talkin' about it!"

"You won't incite me to kill you," the vampire said. "So cease trying. If I were going to do it by my own hand, I would have by now."

For the briefest second, Ellie thought she saw him frown, as if he'd just realized that was true.

Can't lie, huh? When he eased his grip on her throat, she stumbled back. "I'm not screamin' at you because I want you to kill me, I'm screamin' because you make me sick! You're supposed to be some kind of Lore brain-iac? But you're fixin' to choose Saroya over me? Why are you too stupid to see what's just in front of you?"

"In front of me? You mean the mortal shrieking at me in a thick hillbilly accent? The ignorant human with no accomplishments? Perhaps I'm smart enough not to lower myself to a creature like you."


"I'm not ignorant. I have a degree!"

He raised a blond brow. "Assuredly. It says H.S. after it. In any case, there's more to knowledge than a degree. You've never been outside of your own state, never encountered any kinds of people but your own."

"Because I'm young! I've been in prison since I was a teenager. You have no idea what I would've done if that bitch of yours hadn't hijacked my body. You can't have it both ways-you can't ridicule my ignorance when you had a hand in shaping it!"

"No idea what you would have done? I'd wager you would have lived in a squalid trailer with wailing brats clinging to your apron while you watched TV all day."

He'd just done Lothaire-speak. "You don't think that's what I would've done. You don't believe that at all."

Double take from the vampire. But he recovered, saying in a bland tone, "This grows tedious, Elizabeth. Shut up and undress."

"Get Saroya to do it! Or maybe she finds you as hateful as I do!" A muscle ticked in his jaw, warning her that she'd pushed too far. Don't care. Already dead.

"You court my wrath because you've never truly witnessed it. I'll remedy that right now."

He yanked her against his chest. "Let's take a trip."

"You said your enemies would find me!" To be a demon's whore . . . ?

"I'll cloak us. Again, the one you need fear most is me." In the space of a breath, he'd traced her into a cave. But he hadn't fully teleported them; they stayed in some kind of hazy twilight.

Still she could scent musty earth and rot, could hear flies buzzing. Once her eyes grew used to the dim light, she saw corpses.

The savagely beheaded bodies of young men. Dozens and dozens of them.

Gore, severed limbs, crushed skulls. Splatter on the dank cave walls.

She would've vomited the contents of her stomach, if she'd been of weaker constitution. Or if she hadn't beheld a similar scene in her own home five years ago.

When she could trust her voice, she asked, "You did this?"

"Ah, Elizabeth, now do you see what I'm capable of? Slaughtering an entire pack in their own den bored me. My heart never even sped up, my bloodlust never quickened. I yawned loudly when I worked one's head free. The last thing he ever heard was me tsking over my impoliteness. You'd do well to fear my fury, to understand that my very name strikes fear in the hearts of those who know me-for a reason."

"I understand that you're scary, sick, and perverse! I understand that the Enemy of Old and Saroya the Soul Reaper are absolutely perfect for each other. Two broken puzzle pieces jammed together."

Again, her words struck a nerve. His hand tightened on her arm, his expression promising pain.

"Is this what your life is like?"

He sneered, "Most nights for millennia."

"Then I feel sorry for you. That's right-Elizabeth, your pet, the peasant you scorn, 'the body'-pities you." She gazed at his face. "Uh-oh, we've got that muscle tickin' in your jaw. Spells trouble for me! What's the matter? You can't take it when someone tells you like it is? I'm probably the first person to do so in centuries."

Was there a flicker in those red eyes?

"Like it is," he grated. "And how is it that you could possibly pity me?"

"I'm twenty-four years old. I've spent more than twenty percent of my life on death row. And I've still known more happiness in my short life than you have in your unending one."

Chapter 31

That Elizabeth would fucking dare! "As usual, you speak about things your mind can't even comprehend!"

"Me? I bet you don't even know what happiness is!"

Lothaire wanted to snap, "Of course I do!" But he . . . didn't.

He believed he'd known it as a child with his mother, but he couldn't remember those early years vividly, not after eons had come and passed, not after his life had become devoted to revenge.

And he couldn't resurrect whatever he'd felt then, because he hadn't felt anything approaching it since.

He often spied on others, studying their ways. He'd watched two Sorceri sisters snickering over wry jokes. He'd observed Lykae roughhousing, then laughing so hard they'd had to hold their sides. They experienced happiness; Lothaire did not.

He knew he was different from others. And yet, he couldn't ascertain if he was unhappy-since that would mean he could recognize the opposite.

"Well, do you know what it is?" Elizabeth demanded.

Can't lie. Contentment, happiness, satisfaction-all these things were unfathomable to him.

One of the reasons he fought so hard for his Endgame was that he'd surely be content once all his vows had been fulfilled. Once his toiling had finally ended.

She gasped. "You don't know. How ignorant am I? I've sat in my 'squalid trailer,' experiencing something your mind can't even comprehend!"

"I might not kill you, but I could hurt you, break your fragile bones!"

"You would. You'd hurt the one person who could teach you to be happy!" She grasped her forehead. "Oh, God . . . now?"

Saroya rises? "Elizabeth, you do not recede. You finish this with me!"

She narrowed her eyes up at him. "Just keeping the terms of our

deal. If Saroya wants her turn, then I'm supposed to get out of the way, right?"

"You little bitch, don't you run from this!" His voice boomed in the cavern.

"Uh-oh, here I go. . . . Whoa, whoa, receding right before your eyes. Red Rover, send Saroya right over. See how happy the Soul Reaper can make you!" And then she collapsed.

Lothaire yanked her to him, catching her just as Saroya said, "Where am I? I sensed blood and violence."

He gave a furious yell. Elizabeth had mocked him, gotten the last word, then receded purposely! Fucking throttle her!

"Lothaire, what is wrong with you?" Then Saroya scowled, fighting to stand on her own. But he left his hand on her arm, keeping her cloaked. "Why am I dressed thus? Oh, my skin!"

Get control. Before he crushed Saroya in fury. Inhale. Exhale. "The mortal proves . . . vexatious." And confounding. She continued to astonish him at every turn.

"You can't handle a human girl?" Saroya peered around at all the carnage. "But look at this splendid slaughter! Yours?"

Elizabeth had been disgusted. Saroya not only accepted what he was, she exulted over it.

"Are there no more lives to take? All of these are completely spent. Selfish Lothaire." She toed a severed leg. "Why have you brought Elizabeth here? Does this have something to do with the ring?"

"I make progress on that score."

"So you have no ring to give me and no lives for me to take-though I haven't killed in years!" She kicked a decomposing head, then winced in pain at the contact. "Are you always so selfish?"

"Yes," he answered absently. They couldn't remain here any longer. He could only half-trace two people for so long. In an instant, he returned them to his room in New York, releasing her.