"Don't hurt, vampire!" She brushed pale hair back from his forehead.
What was wrong with him? What was wrong with her? She felt the need to take away his pain, and she didn't understand why.
"Lizvetta?" he rasped, beginning to calm somewhat.
She caressed his heartbreakingly beautiful face. "I'm here." More of his tension ebbed.
The vampire might think he could do just fine without her; she wasn't so sure about his prospects. He could scorn her all he liked, but clearly he did need her.
And realizing that affected her. As she continued to pet him, she again imagined what it'd be like to be loved by Lothaire.
If he'd ever stop planning to kill her, she might be tempted to find out.
Ellie shook her head hard. Best not be dreaming of things that will never be.
Then she frowned down at her hand. He'd begun slowly disappearing. "Oh, no, no!" He'd said he could be killed if he traced in his sleep. "Wake up!"
The survivor in Ellie thought, Send him off, girl. But some other part of her-one she didn't know too well-made her grab his shoulders and shake.
No response. "Lothaire, don't go!" Ellie knew she should abandon him and save herself.
She shook harder.
Yet instead of bringing Lothaire back to her, all she'd done was ensure she went into the unknown with him. Her last thought: Dear God, what is his nightmare about . . . ?
Stay sane, Lothaire commanded himself as earth weighed down on him. How long since his father had buried him here in his eternal pit?
How many centuries since he'd been left to rot within a forest of bloodroot trees? His punishment for attempting to assassinate Stefanovich.
The attempt that failed. Because I was betrayed. By the only friend he'd ever known.
Chains bound him here in the ground. He was unable to trace from them, too weak to break the links. Unable to die from sunlight or a swift beheading.
He could tell another root had met his skin, had begun probing. Soon it would burrow through him, seeking any regenerating flesh, any drop of blood from the husk of his body.
Roots threaded all his limbs; worms forever feasted.
He burned to yell in agony and frustration, but he was trapped fast, couldn't move any part of his body. Not even to open his jaw or part whatever was left of his lips.
How long since his father had punished him thus?
One parent had buried him to save his life, the other to torment him-
Movement from above?
He could sense vibrations. Sometimes Stefanovich would slit a mortal's throat over this grave, soaking the dirt with blood-so close Lothaire could smell it, but it never reached him.
Always out of reach. Losing his sanity, surrendering it hour by unending hour. The surface always out of reach-
Did he hear spades rending the earth above?
No, no one is digging. How many times had he imagined just such a scenario?
Who would dig for him, who the hell would care enough to? His friends, family? Lothaire had none he could count on.
At every second, his torment reminded him that no one in this entire world gave a damn that he suffered.
Yet then he felt some of the pressure above him ease. Could that be tension on the manacle around his neck?
Like a shot, he was hauled upward, the roots violently ripped out of his body, stripping scabbed flesh from him.
On the surface at last? Too bright, too bright! After darkness for so long, even the starry black night pained his sight. He tried to hiss, tried to cover his decayed eyes with what was left of his arm.
Fyodor? My uncle?
"I have been searching for you."
Saved. My uncle is come to save me. If Lothaire had possessed any blood to spare, tears would have tracked down his face. I did have someone out there, someone loyal to me.
"Six centuries I've searched."
Six hundred years! In the ground that long? I never imagined. . . .
"And now, Nephew, I'll free you from your bonds. On two conditions."
Conditions? Lothaire wanted to rasp, "Anything! Will do anything!" but his lips and tongue had been eaten away. He would bargain for damnation-it could not be worse than his current plight.
"Otherwise, I will plant you directly back into the ground, never to return."
Uncle, how can you say that to me? The betrayal . . .
"My brother did you ill these centuries, Lothaire. But you should not have faced Stefanovich until you were stronger. I will help you heal from this, will teach you how to become powerful enough to defeat him. All I ask for in return is your fealty-and his head. I am Stefanovich's royal heir. The Horde will accept me because he has no legitimate son. I will find a way to leave you the throne if I die."
He frees me only to hunt his brother, loosing me from my cage like a creature from hell.
Fyodor gave Lothaire blood to heal, pouring it into his crusted mouth, just enough that he could speak once more.
"Do you vow your allegiance to me, your future king, until the day I die?" Fyodor said.
Though Lothaire wanted to howl with fury, to tell his uncle to do his worst, he couldn't. "I-I vow it"-gasping, vomiting dirt and new blood-"t-to the Lore." I will never forget this betrayal, Uncle, never.
"Then welcome back to life, Lothaire, to a new beginning."
Against the blinding white starlight, Lothaire had squinted past Fyodor and seen the one he'd once called friend, secretly watching from the woods. . . .
Shaking off the remnants of the dream, Lothaire clawed at his bare chest, sinking to his knees within the Bloodroot Forest once more. As he bellowed to the night sky, moisture tracked from his eyes.
I can't keep living like this. The abyss stared back. Finally, I topple over the edge.
He knelt before the towering tree he'd grown, gazing up in horror at the bark, the weeping blood.
My blood. He fucking wanted to plunge into the abyss!
Sanity wrought only pain. He gave a crazed laugh, relieved as he felt himself falling . . . falling-
"L-Lothaire," he heard Elizabeth weakly call for him. Was he dreaming her memories?
He scented her fear, shot to his feet.
No, no, she cannot be here. This wasn't real.
"P-please . . ." she cried.
He whirled around but didn't believe his eyes. She was on her hands and knees in a snowdrift, crawling toward him.
Elizabeth was here. Her lips were pale, her expression stricken. "T-too cold."
Madness must wait. "Lizvetta!" he yelled, tensing to trace-
Enemies appeared beside her. A sword at her throat stopped him cold. Tymur the Allegiant's sword.
Tymur's gang of demons, Cerunnos, and vampires surrounded them.
To take her from me. All bent on taking her from me.
"Ah, Lothaire, I believe I have something of yours," Tymur said, his scraggly beard dangling all the way to his chest. "If you trace away or resist us, you'll never see her again."
More of Tymur's henchmen closed in on Lothaire. Demons whaled blows to his head and his back, stabbing him with short swords. He could do nothing to protect himself-could do nothing to reach her.
His vision clouded. Blood all around my feet? Mine? Black blood, from his black heart. Consciousness wavering, Lothaire fought to keep his gaze trained on Elizabeth.
Tymur shoved her to her knees, twisting a length of her hair around his meaty fist.
Her soft cries. Can't get to her. Her terrified gaze met Lothaire's.
Clarity struck; recognition sang within him, coursed through his every vein.
It was her. His Bride.
Dear gods, it was . . . Elizabeth. You're going to realize what you had too late.
Was it too late? His woman, captured by the deadliest beings in the Lore. I allied with them. Am worse than they are.
"This is rich." Tymur's eyes reddened with satisfaction. "The scourge of the Lore paired with a mortal? You could have no greater liability. So difficult to keep this species alive."
Around a mouthful of blood, Lothaire choked out, "Harm her and I will visit an unspeakable wrath . . . on your house . . . your descendants.
I will live for nothing else!"
How many times had he been in this situation, but reversed? How many times had he placed his sword at the throat of a female, smirking at her male's frenzy to reach her, his animal need to protect her.
But I bargained with them.
Elizabeth raised her hands over her ears, muttering, "Not real, not real."
"What do you want, Tymur? The bounty?"
"Though it's tempting, I plan on keeping the lovely human. And every night that my men and I drink from her thighs, we'll toast the Enemy of Old, the unwanted bastard who thought to rule us."
"You won't fucking touch her!"
A Cerunno bent down to Elizabeth, its forked tongue flicking along her cheek as its tail coiled around her knees. At that, her gray eyes went chillingly blank. Her lips parted, her arms collapsing limply. She stared at nothing.
"No, Lizvetta!" Panic filled him.
"Oh, dear, her mind's breaking." Tymur clucked his tongue. "It happens with them. A shame. She won't know what she's missing. As for you, I'm going to plant you back in the ground, let your tree feed from your blood some more. I believe it missed you."
Lothaire shuddered, even as sweat broke out over his body.
"How long were you buried last time?" Tymur asked in a contemplative tone. "Or perhaps you can give me your legendary accounting book. The girl in exchange for the book, Lothaire."
My thousands of debts to save her? After all those years of toil?
Part of him burned to yell, "The book is yours, just let me have her back!"
Part of him was still . . . Lothaire. He told himself that he could trace from here, then find Elizabeth in the future, could retrieve her from his enemies.
But by all the gods, I want her now!
"Give me your decision. . . ." Tymur trailed off as a sudden mist blew in. The gang grew uneasy. He ordered, "Check the perimeter-"
Four males appeared-massive, pale-skinned swordsmen, each with his weapon raised.
Lothaire disbelieved his eyes. They'd come from the mist. Dacians.
When the demons and Cerunnos launched an attack, the Daci began cutting through them coldly, methodically. Fighting without emotion, only lethal accuracy.
And they were battling their way to Elizabeth.
"Seize the mortal," the largest Dacian ordered. "Return her to the castle."
Neither Lothaire nor those swordsmen would be able to reach her before Tymur traced her away from this place. Away from me.
As Lothaire thrashed against his captors, the vampire snatched Elizabeth by the hair once more, hauling her to her feet. She evinced no reaction.
Yet when Tymur tried to trace, nothing happened. Lothaire chanced a glance around. None of the demons or Horde vampires could trace in the mist.
That leader of the Daci neared Tymur, neared Elizabeth.
If the Dacian swordsman took her back to his hidden realm, Lothaire might never find her.
Panic redoubled. With all the strength left in his body, he surged against the demon guards' clutches, finally freeing himself.
He slew three foes, four . . . Only the Daci, Tymur, and two other guards remained.
Tymur pivoted to defend against Lothaire, releasing Elizabeth; she sank into the snow, her gaze still vacant.
What if she never recovered? Fury lashed him like a whip. "You've erred for ill, Tymur." Bloodlust boiled forth. "Now you get to die." Lunging into a trace, Lothaire plowed into the vampire, heaving him away from Elizabeth.
Bone-crushing impact. Tymur wailed in agony. Lothaire wrested his weapon free.
The vampire stared up at Lothaire, knew death had him; when Lothaire eased his lips back from his fangs and tossed the sword away, Tymur cowered.
"You'd make my Bride a blood slave?" Lothaire's voice . . . crazed, unrecognizable. "My female?"
My Elizabeth? Mindless with rage, he slashed his claws over Tymur, punched his fists through the male's mauled torso, collected handfuls of viscera. He bellowed with pleasure when arcs of blood sprayed across the snow.
When at last he wrenched free Tymur's bludgeoned head, Lothaire peered up through the haze.
All enemies had been felled but the cold Daci. They circled Lothaire and Elizabeth, their gazes watchful but inscrutable.
Bloodlust tolled within him, the ravening need for carnage. He locked his gaze on the blood still spurting from Tymur's savaged neck. Licked his lips for that steaming font.
The body flailed in death throes, exciting him. Lothaire groaned, claws sinking into the head he carried.
Would the Daci watch him fall upon his prey in a frenzy? Bloodlust, a fever undeniable-
Soothing . . . like waves. Like a beacon. Vision clearing, he saw her delicate form-amid the butchery he'd wrought.
He dropped Tymur's head, crouching in front of her to face off against the Daci.
The leader had eyes the color of glacial ice, and just as merciless. The color my eyes used to be.
In Dacian, he said, "So close to losing her forever, Cousin." He narrowed his gaze on Elizabeth's blank stare, on her blue-tinged lips. "You might still."
Cousin? With a brutal roar, Lothaire traced Elizabeth away.
She heard Hag and Lothaire arguing, their voices indistinct.
But Ellie couldn't respond.
When she'd disappeared with Lothaire, she'd suddenly found herself transported to a freezing land, then abandoned amidst black, leafless trees that seeped blood. The "blood forest" he'd rambled about? Off in the distance, she'd spied the most haunting castle she'd ever imagined.
Then horned demons and Cerunnos had surrounded her. It was one thing to read about walking serpents, quite another to be captured by them.
The things she'd seen . . . things that couldn't be right.
And the things she'd heard, the hints about Lothaire's torture.
He'd told her he'd been buried alive for six hundred years. When in the grip of a grueling nightmare, had he unconsciously returned to his . . .
She'd only meant to recede a bit, to let Saroya suffer that horrible scene. But when the goddess didn't rise, Ellie had fallen into this stupor. She remembered little after that, had only remotely perceived yells, swords clanging, Lothaire's unholy roars.