She fled back to Lothaire, pumping her arms, running as she never had before. They were on her heels, grunting, slavering. Into the bedroom she scrambled.
Eyes wide, Lothaire held out his hand for her, but didn't move, didn't try to protect her. She darted behind him anyway.
"She's controlling me, Elizabeth! Told me not to move. I'm trapped as I stand."
Dorada pulled out Lothaire's desk chair, taking a seat with a casual air. But her movements were sluggish.
"How did you find this place?" he demanded.
The sorceress held the band up to the lamp's light. "An old acquaintance told me." She slipped the ring onto her thumb, then waved for Ellie. "Come, girl."
She shook her head slowly.
"Come, or I'll make your vampire drink you to death."
Lothaire gripped her wrist-until Dorada commanded, "Release her."
He did at once.
Seeing how much control the sorceress had over him, Ellie crossed
the room to stand before Dorada. Will she kill me? Turn me into one of those things?
With no other choice, Ellie did.
The sorceress scrutinized her with that one eye. "Is that Saroya the Soul Reaper buried deep within this mortal, Lothaire? Was the goddess of vampires the Bride you sought? Perhaps you wanted to make this human host into an immortal with my ring."
He remained silent.
"Do you guard the body so vehemently to preserve Saroya? Or is the girl yours?"
"Did you come here to insult me? You know the answer to that question." Lothaire-speak?
Dorada raised her good hand to touch Ellie's forehead, commanding, "Face me, Saroya."
Ellie recoiled, resisting Saroya with all her might.
"No, sorceress!" Lothaire yelled. "Don't do this!"
"I know you can sense me deep down, goddess," Dorada said, ignoring him. "Now rise!"
The female's gold plates seemed to vibrate as power infused the room. Ellie could feel Saroya skittering wildly in her chest, but still she fought.
Lothaire too strained against Dorada's control. "This has to do with more than my crimes against you. What do you want from Saroya?"
Ellie remained silent, grappling to hold the goddess back.
"For what?" Lothaire grated.
"Why do you think I was in that tomb, vampire?" Dorada said. "Because Saroya's assassins hunted me down without cease! In desperation, I turned to the ring, but she was too powerful for it to vanquish. So I wished never to be found by her killers, to be freed of her torments. And the ring made sure I was forever out of her reach-by having my other enemies trap me in that tomb for ages." She stared off with her sole eye for long moments, then turned back to him. "Until you came along, waking me. At once, I sensed Saroya's lack of godhood. I refused to let you use my own ring to empower her in any way."
"This makes no sense, Dorada. Saroya would have no reason to assassinate you. Who were you to a goddess?"
Ellie's vision wavered. She was losing ground, couldn't hold on much longer. . . .
Dorada frowned at Lothaire. "You don't know about the prophecy?"
"What are you talking about?" he bit out. "What prophecy?"
Amusement. "Hmm. Just know that it's about to be fulfilled."
With that, Ellie gave a cry, collapsing as her sight went dark.
Saroya felt herself compelled to rise, blinking open her eyes. She was in Lothaire's room? Hand to her forehead, she rose to her knees . . . and found herself surrounded by Wendigos.
Facing her old nemesis.
The foretelling! Fear surged within her, seeming to swell inside her throat. But Saroya would bluff as if she still had power. "Dorada," she sneered. "It's been ages."
The Gilded One grinned, revealing rotted teeth among gleaming white ones. "You're no longer the cat-eyed goddess," she said, speaking staticky English through some kind of translation spell.
"You're no longer decent to look upon. Fitting that you keep the company of drooling beasts."
"Regeneration." Dorada shrugged. Her customary adornments were nearly blinding, gold plates so heavy they looked like they'd crush her putrefied form. "Your male harmed me quite thoroughly. I wanted revenge on Lothaire. I had no idea I could mete it out to you as well."
This couldn't be happening. It is foretold . . . It is foretold . . . Dread inundated Saroya, but she forced herself to give a dismissive wave. "What can you do to me?" Am I sweating from fright? "I am a goddess."
"You have no powers. And you're pure evil. Easy for me to control. Shall I do as was divined so long ago?"
Saroya swallowed. "If you attempt this, you will fail. And then I
will smite you with a god's wrath."
Dorada smirked, her face drawn into a repellent mask. "I believe I will risk it."
Saroya turned to Lothaire. "Vampire, do something!"
His muscles were knotted, his expression strained, but he remained unmoving. Dorada clearly had him under her thrall.
"Don't take Saroya, sorceress. There must another way to settle this!"
Comprehension hit her. Lothaire was acting as if she were his Bride, because he knew that Dorada would cast her out to punish him.
Sure enough, he'd discovered a way out of his vows. "Dorada, I am not his Bride! If you seek vengeance against Lothaire, then you must kill-"
"Why do you deny me now, Saroya?" Lothaire yelled.
Dorada raised her hand, her splayed fingers directing mystical energy at Saroya. The gold jewelry on her body reverberated, her sole eye glittering. The Wendigos howled as the air grew electric.
"No!" Saroya shrieked. "Do not do this!"
"I never would have harmed you, goddess, never would have targeted you, had you not beset me with your assassins. Fool! You turned me onto this path. You fulfilled this prophecy."
"You will pay, Dorada! My sister-"
"Sends her regards." Dorada shut her eye and snatched closed her fist.
Blackness spread before Saroya, the prophecy repeating over and over as her consciousness began to dim.
It is foretold that La Dorada, the Queen of Evil and of Golds, a sorceress of great power, will destroy Saroya the Soul Reaper, Goddess of Divine Death, condemning her to the Ether that spawned her, forever as formless as the chaos whence she sprang. . . .
Foretold. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Dark. Silent. Cold.
Saroya's last thought: My actions had a consequence.
Elizabeth collapsed to the ground, her body limp. Hours seemed to tick by as Lothaire-and Dorada-waited for her to wake. Waiting . . .
At last, she rose, shooting upright in a rush, anxiously patting her chest. "Saroya's gone?" Elizabeth faced him. "Ah, God, she's gone!"
Lothaire's jaw slackened as he gazed upon her, taking in her radiant skin and vivid eyes. Those lips shaped like a bow . . .
Before, her allure had tantalized him. Freed of Saroya, his female was irresistible.
The being inside Elizabeth must have diluted his need for her. Now it was as if the fierce desire and protectiveness he'd felt for her had been multiplied exponentially.
Then injected straight into his heart.
My Bride. This was what everyone spoke of.
Elizabeth's face . . . as if a stained-glass window had shattered to let pure light shine in; she was ablaze with utter beauty-
"Kill her, Lothaire," Dorada said.
Fighting her control, he made his tone scornful. "Why would I bother? You've taken Saroya from me."
"In case this mortal is your actual Bride."
Before, his own vows had chained him-now that he was freed of them, he felt more powerful than he'd ever been. Elizabeth was a beacon focusing everything inside him. "I will never harm her. And you know I can't lie."
"I suspected she was your Bride. Now I command you to kill her."
"I don't give a fuck, sorceress." The only thing stronger than Dorada's hold over him? Elizabeth's hold on me. "You can't compel me to hurt her. You're not fully healed, and you've just debilitated yourself to kill a goddess. I will fight you till neither of us has any strength left to hurt Elizabeth."
"I will make this simple," Dorada snapped. "You kill her. Or I will force you to kill yourself."
He laughed. "Then make it slow for me, suka. I like foreplay."
"Slow, Lothaire? I have all the time in the world to watch you peel your skin from your body."
"No!" Elizabeth rushed to stand protectively in front of him. "Please don't do this, Dorada!"
The sorceress didn't even acknowledge her. "I want you to remove your flesh like a shirt, vampire. I'll make one of my beasts wear it till it rots from his body."
"You are the one who dresses them in . . . skin?" Elizabeth swallowed repeatedly, like she'd be sick.
"Start with your neck, Enemy of Old," Dorada said. The Wendigos eased their ghastly bodies to the floor, settling in for a show-and his remains.
He found his own claws slicing his skin at his neck. Can't stop myself. . . .
"Wait!" Elizabeth cried. "Why not bargain with us?"
"You dare address me?" Dorada swung her creepy one-eyed gaze on Ellie.
"We have something you want," she said, having no idea what she was doing.
Between the Wendigos, this mummy lady, Lothaire's confession, and Saroya's exorcism, her mind was so opened it'd nearly cracked wide.
Still she was trying to hold it together to save her vampire. "Lothaire's accounting book of blood debts. Just stop with the mutilation for a minute, and let me tell you about it."
Dorada waved at Lothaire to stop, then addressed her. "Explain."
"There are thousands of debts. He's worked forever on this. In exchange for lettin' both of us live and troublin' us no more, we'll give you . . . half of the book."
"And who is in debt? Lorean dregs?" Dorada unraveled a length of gauze, peeked at the seeping wound beneath, then sighed. "Weak-willed immortals?"
Ellie shook her head. "We've got kings, queens, gods. Good ones too-the ones you've got no hold over." Making her voice stern, she said, "But you can't be forcin' Lothaire to hand it over just because he's evil and you can control him like a Muppet. This has got to be an even trade."
Dorada blinked her eye. "Why must it be?"
Good question. Think, Ellie, think! "For you to collect on these debts, they have to be willingly, uh, bestowed upon you." That sounded logical. "If you take away his free will and steal the blood vows, they won't be worth the paper they're scribbled on."
To Lothaire, Dorada said, "You may speak. Does this book exist?"
Ellie had expected him to roar over this, refusing to trade his life's work.
Instead, he's gazing at me as if with . . . awe.
"The book is exactly as my Bride says." Lothaire-speak. The book part was, but the free-will part wasn't.
Dorada canted her head, sending glossy waves of hair tumbling over lifeless strings. "I would choose my own debtors, decide the division."
"If you grant me the use of the ring," Lothaire said, "I'll give you the entire thing."
Ellie gasped. "That ring is nothin' but trouble. It's dangerous!"
"You have no idea," Dorada muttered. "I bear it, but I use it no more."
"Then there's no reason not to lend it to me, sorceress!"
Ellie shook her head sadly. "No, Lothaire."
His voice rising in volume with each word, Lothaire said to Dorada, "Now that we're in negotiations, and you have the ring-I'd like to be able to fucking move again!"
Another wave from Dorada, and he was freed.
He grabbed Ellie's arms. "I must have this power. Lizvetta, you must be made a vampire. And though I'm elated that Saroya is gone, the Horde crown disappeared with her. I'm not going to shelve my ambitions like a goddamned board game."
"Please, we'll figure that out together," Ellie said, but he was unmoved. "What if there are more vows you're hiding that I don't know about?"
"There are none. Trust me on this."
"I've been trusting you, and I've almost died twice tonight because of you."
He winced. But still he told Dorada, "Allow me the use of the ring until tomorrow at midnight, and the book is yours."
Dorada briefly closed her eye, going silent. "Bring it to me," she finally told Lothaire. "If it is as your mortal says, then I will bargain with the ring."
On the periphery of the room, the Wendigos chuffed, as if pissed they wouldn't get a kill.
Overriding Ellie's further protests, Lothaire retrieved the book from his safe, displaying it for Dorada. The sorceress's eye lit up. The two of them made their vows.
Lothaire's ledger, freely given, would buy twenty-four hours with the Ring of Sums. After which, she would return for the ring here.
With a pointed expression, Dorada slipped it off and handed it over. "This time I'll keep my thumb, Enemy of Old."
And when Lothaire surrendered his priceless accounting book to Dorada, he did it without a second glance.
Because his gaze was rapt on Ellie.
How does it feel to be free of Saroya?" Lothaire asked. He'd just gotten through showering off his healing flesh and redressing; the smell of smoke that had lingered on him seemed to particularly bother Elizabeth.
He hadn't relished the reminder of his repeated, crazed suicide attempt either. But now everything was falling into place, the pressure of the last few weeks lifting at last.
"I promised her I'd win the war against her," Elizabeth said. "Still, I can hardly believe she's gone, her and Dorada. I can't believe all that is over."
"Because of you." His cunning Bride had yet again surprised him. "You bargained with Dorada, bullshitted the Queen of Evil. I couldn't be prouder of you, Lizvetta."
She blushed, self-consciously tucking her hair behind her ear. He could tell she was pleased with-but surprised by-the praise.