CHAPTER 27

I'm going to miss it here. But Danii knew she couldn't stay.

She'd be relinquishing the vampire's gift for two nights of pleasure.

How could she even be surprised that he'd remained away? After all, he was probably busy mugging with mortals in back alleys. Which left Danii to be the Forbearer's forsaken one.

She reminded herself yet again that she'd dodged a bullet with Murdoch. This could have been much worse. Anything between them could never have worked out. If she threw all in with him and then got jilted, people would ask, "What was she thinking, to make a grab at a rake like that? With no warm bed to offer him?"

She sighed. Damn it, she'd liked him - and she'd liked it here.

The pressure to carve had continued to grow within her, as if she were nearing some goal and gaining momentum. It was satisfying to her, and brought into stark relief exactly how little in her life had contented her before.

Her mother had told Danii that she descended from the line of the Winter Queens, but Danii had never felt a connection to that ancestry. She felt more Valkyrie than ice fey. Of course, she didn't fit in with the Valkyrie either. Sad, sad Daniela.

Were these symbols the very first tie to her heritage? Why was she only now seeing them?

Didn't matter. Her time here had ended.

If she remained, she'd get too attached to the lodge. The longer she stayed, the longer she'd want to. And she could just see Murdoch bringing another woman here in a few years and finding Danii still inside, putzing around in her nightgown, muttering, "Oh, hai. Don't mind me."

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Danii had determined and finally accepted that Murdoch equaled misery. Unfortunately, she'd concluded this after she'd begun falling for him.

Time to leave.

Now I just need to find a ride.

"You should see the other guy," Murdoch grated from his bed.

Nikolai had already been pale when he traced into the room at Mount Oblak. Seeing Murdoch like this made even more blood drain from his face.

He knew how bad he looked. A metal brace was screwed into his leg to stabilize his crushed femur. One arm was immobilized in a cast, and bandages swathed more of his body than not. His face was lacerated from the corner of his mouth to his ear, held together only by stitches. All in all, he was lucky to be alive.

No. Not lucky.

Murdoch and Rurik lived only because Lukyan had returned directly with a full battle contingent. It turned out that Lukyan didn't like to merely fight - he liked to win.

Nikolai finally found his voice. "What has happened to you?"

"I was about to ask you the same. My God, Nikolai, you look worse than I do." His brother was always so stoical, always sure of his actions.

So what the hell was going on?

Nikolai's eyes grew dark before he glanced away. "We'll talk of my problems later. Who did this to you?"

Murdoch let the subject go for now. "Ivo has demons. Demons turned vampires. They are strong - you can't imagine it. He is looking for someone, but I don't think it's your Bride. They mentioned something about a 'halfling.'"

"How many?"

"There were three demonic vampires in his party, other vampires as well. We took down two of the demons, but one remains." Murdoch glanced behind him. "Where's your Bride?"

Nikolai hesitated. "She's at Blachmount. We're... I'm..." He ran his hand over his haggard face, then said in a rush, "Ever since I tasted Myst's blood, I've been dreaming her memories... "

It was all Murdoch could do to mask his shock as Nikolai continued talking, the words spilling out. So the memories had followed the blood. Why weren't his eyes red? Would Nikolai confess this to Kristoff?

Through these dreams, Nikolai had learned that in the past Myst had been a calculating femme fatale who'd used and discarded lovers without mercy. She'd been bent on tricking Nikolai, acting as if she wanted more with him, when she'd actually had ulterior motives.

Before Murdoch could even formulate a response to this, Nikolai delivered yet another bombshell. He'd come into possession of an enchanted chain - that controlled Myst. By owning the chain, Nikolai could make her do whatever he pleased.

This was their understanding? Some kind of enthrallment?

Long moments of silence passed before Murdoch said incredulously, "You took away the free will of a creature who has had it for upward of two thousand years. A good wager says she's going to want it back." Nikolai had dealt with war, plague, and famine all in one decade. He'd lost most of his family. And yet he'd always acted honorably. Until now.

It figured that it'd take a woman to break him.

"No, you don't understand," Nikolai said. "She's callous. Incapable of love. It eats at me, her deception, because it's the only thing that makes sense." More to himself, he muttered, "Why else would she want me?"

Murdoch weakly grabbed his brother's wrist. "All these years, I've seen you continually choose the best, most rational course, even if it's the most difficult. I've been proud to follow your leadership because you've acted with courage and always - always - with rationality," he grated, stopping for a ragged breath. "I never thought I would have to inform you that your reason and judgment have failed you, Nikolai. If she's as bad as you say, then you have to... I don't know, just help her change, but you can't order this. Get back to her. Explain your fears to her."

"I don't think I can. You saw her, Murdoch. Why would she so quickly acquiesce?"

"Why don't you just ask her?"

His brother's expression said it all. He didn't want her to know how desperately he needed her.

"And about the other men," Murdoch said. "This isn't the seventeen hundreds anymore. This isn't even the same plane. She's an immortal, not an eighteen-year-old blushing bride straight from a convent. She can't change these things, so if you want her, you have to adjust."

If her skin can't be touched, you have to adjust...

Nikolai ran a hand over his face and snapped, "When did you get so bloody understanding?"

Since I met Daniela. Since I nearly died. Murdoch shrugged, then stifled a wince at the pain in his chest. "I had someone explain a few rules of the Lore to me and learned that we can't apply our human expectations to the beings within it." Some men's Brides are untouchable.

"Who told you this?"

I can't tell you. I took a vow.

Nikolai didn't press for an answer. "Will you be all right?" he asked.

"That's the thing about being immortal. It'll always look worse than it is."

Nikolai attempted a grin - and failed.

"Good luck, brother," Murdoch said. As soon as Nikolai left, he lay back, weak from hiding how much pain he was in, and still astounded by what he'd just seen. First my father, then Nikolai, now... me. Was it Murdoch's inescapable fate to become obsessed with one woman?