Wicked Deeds on a Winter's Night

Chapter 6

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"Was she doing it for someone else's benefit?" Nïx asked. Bowe thought back... The vampire had in fact been eavesdropping on her at the time. She'd bloody known it and had been feeding him information about the Valkyrie - about Kaderin! "Your friend Mariketa willfully sicced a vampire on your half sister Kaderin during the Hie. Still so ready to champion the devious little witch?" "Please," Nïx scoffed. "Kad would have plucked Mari's knees from her legs to slow her down. All in good fun. Besides, it's not just Regin and her cohorts you have to worry about. There are others concerned that you took out the future leader of the House of Witches, one of the largest factions of the Lore." She tilted her head at Bowe and said softly, "My pet, you had to know there would be ramifications from your actions." Nïx had begun calling him her pet and thinking of him as such, and he'd let her because she helped him on occasion - yet another indignity he'd endured to get to his mate. "If Mariketa is so sodding powerful, then why has she no' used her magick to escape?" "She lacks control over her volatile powers - and there are so many of them. We keep watching and waiting, but she's just too young to harness them." Bowe's patience was nearing its limit. "Then the witch should no' have entered the Hie in the first place!" "Regardless... The House demands Mariketa be delivered safely - or your head. The Lykae won't give up your head, so that means war. In that conflict, the Valkyrie will show allegiance to the House. And that means our allies must pony up some ill will toward you as well. The wraiths will happily, of course. The rebel Forbearer vampires will be pleased for a chance to show their loyalty to the Valkyrie - as will several Demonarchies, who coincidentally aren't thrilled that you've entombed the true king of the rage demons, as well as his sole heir." Bowe was well aware that Rydstrom was the true king, but damn it, he'd thought they'd find some way out. "Four mighty wizards and thirty-seven covens of witches unite and arrive here this week." Her tone grew grave. "A nest of a dozen furies rise from sleep for this," she added, making Emma swallow nervously. "Don't even get me started on who the elven archers know - let's just put it this way: Their daddy's bigger than your daddy." "They all ally with those witch mercenaries?" She nodded. "Naughty Lykae, creating an interspecies incident like this. Six immortals you trapped. This is a Charlie Foxtrot of epic proportions." At Lachlain's irritated look, Emma supplied, "Charlie Foxtrot is code for, well, a cluster ." "Why dinna you tell me this was developing?" Lachlain asked Emma. "I only knew about Regin and some growing rumblings within the House. I'm friends with the witches, but they're very secretive and keep their plans close until they're ready to act." "There's no need for this to escalate," Lachlain said, his tone calm. Bowe knew Lachlain would never reveal that he was concerned about the repercussions of Bowe's actions, but in his position he must be. "Bowe can tell me where the witch is. I'll free the six and bring Mariketa back." Bowe exhaled. Lachlain was still trying to protect him, always cleaning up after him. If he had a dollar for every time Lachlain said, "Ach, Bowe, you've ed up this time." But then Lachlain had never bailed him out of something like this. "No, I've told you. This is my problem." Bowe unsteadily stood, growing dizzy just from that. "I'll deal with it." Lachlain shook his head. "How are you going to defend yourself against six verra irate immortals?" "They should be grateful that I returned." When Lachlain raised his brows, he added, "I'll make them vow to the Lore no' to attack before I will agree to open the tomb." "Then at least eat and rest until after the full moon." Nïx clucked her tongue. "The House says Mari must call in before the next full moon to avert this. Besides, this town isn't big enough to hold so many factions. They all might be allies of the witches or Valkyrie, but none are allies with each other. Any much longer with them bumping elbows, and something will happen." Bowe swung a glare at Nïx. "Are you no' overstating all this, Valkyrie - " From outside: "You wanna over my witch? Like playing your games? Then play catch!" Something whistled overhead; the house shook - they all ducked as plaster splattered down from the ceiling. "What the bloody hell was that?" Bowe yelled. "That was Regin," Nïx answered serenely. "She threw a car over us to land on the main Lykae lodge. Lucky thing the lodge is empty. Bowen, she thought the vehicle was yours. But it's really... his." She pointed delicately at Lachlain, who scowled before flashing a meaningful look at Emma. Bowe grated, "She's throwing bloody cars?" "See? Not overstating." Nïx rose, smoothly slipped behind the curtains, then shouted out the window, "Bad form, Regin! Wrong car." Immediately after, the house shook again. "Oh, much better!" Nïx assured them. "That was Bowen's!" Another violent shake of the manor. Nïx peeked out from the curtains, wearing them like a nun's habit. "Who drives a seventy-eight, Chevelle-looking - " "Nïx!" Emma said. She withdrew from the window. "The timing of all this is impeccable," Nïx said in an abruptly grave tone. "The Accession has really arrived." Emma and Lachlain shared a look. All Lorekind dreaded the Accession. Occurring every five centuries, it was a kind of mystical cull that killed off immortals. Though there wasn't necessarily a great war or determining battle, fate seemed to seed conflicts, pitting factions against each other. Bowe's father had told him fate would sow some families by bringing together mates - yet would reap from most others. "Why all this?" Bowe took uneven steps toward his closet to dress, and had to clench his jaw against a wave of pain in his ribs. "Do you no' think that a Lore war is a wee bit much for a witch having a three-week hiatus?" "A hiatus... with whom?" Nïx asked. "My pet, you've trapped a beautiful, nubile young woman with a school of incubi. Though Regin swears it's not a school of incubi, but a pod - " "Nïx, stay focused!" Emma said, and Nïx gave her a halfhearted hiss. "Incubi?" Bowe rasped, a finger of dread running up his spine. "The tomb was empty, long deserted." There weren't living incubi in there. There couldn't be. Sadness flashed in Nïx's confused eyes. "The witch fares ill after three weeks inside that lightless crypt." In a confessional tone, she added, "Seems you forgot to leave her any food or water." "I scented nothing, sensed nothing... " At Nïx's implacable expression, Bowe shook himself - he didn't need to be thinking about the implications; he needed to be doing something about them. "Lachlain, can you help me arrange transportation?" He dug for clothes, battling dizziness. "If I leave within the hour I can get there today before sunset." "Aye, then." Lachlain exhaled. "Of course, I'll help you with anything you need." Though Bowe had made it sound like a routine task, freeing and squiring Mariketa back to the States would not be without numerous difficulties. On his last trip, the "roads" had been difficult to navigate. Now that the rainy season had fully arrived, they might be impassable. Especially since Bowe would be forced to drive a stick shift with one hand and a stump. And now that he was weakened, it was possible the human soldiers teeming the area could subdue and actually contain a Lykae, even when he was fully turned. Bowe would have to evade them until he had the mortality spell removed. Raising the tomb's portcullis had been nearly impossible even when he'd had all his strength and both of his hands... but now? "I'm going to need to bring something like a pneumatic lift to help me get into the tomb." When Lachlain nodded, Emma said, "I can get you a satellite phone, too, so Mari can call at the earliest opportunity." "Aye, and I'll need more of that stuff they've been trying to feed me. The drinks and gel packs. And some kind of med kit just in case." Nïx clapped with excitement at the activity, looking as addled as ever. "I can help, I can help! I can get you a rhyme for Mariketa!" Lachlain, Emma, and Bowe briefly paused to glare at her. "You can't leave home without it!" "Anyway... " Bowe continued, "I just went two weeks without food or water. Three will no' kill her." "Incorrect." Bowe glanced back at Nïx. His voice broke an octave lower when he asked, "Why incorrect?" She squinted at him and momentarily appeared puzzled at where she was. "What's incorrect? Am I incorrect?" She buffed her nails. "I so rarely am." Barely stifling the urge to throttle the weird being, Bowe grated, "You told me I was incorrect when I said three weeks will no' kill the witch." "Oh, yes, that. How am I supposed to remember conversations from last year? I can't see inside that crypt - bad voodoo and major mojo keeps prying eyes out - but common sense says Mariketa is likely dying." "Dying? How?" he rasped, knowing Lachlain was studying his harsh reaction. "Because, pet, young Mariketa the Awaited has not yet turned. She is still... mortal." Another car whistled overhead. 10 Bowe's machete hacked through a braid of woody liana vines as he pushed forward through the brush. The trail to the tomb that had been cleared just weeks ago had already grown over. As he'd predicted his last time here, the conflict between the two human armies had since erupted. Bowe had had to ditch his truck miles from the tomb because soldiers were planting mines all along the roadways. He burned with urgency to get to Mariketa, but his body could do only so much in this state and burdened with his pack - which weighed over three hundred pounds with the gear he'd been forced to bring. Earlier, the action of gathering supplies and hastily readying for the trip had helped Bowe keep his mind occupied, but during the flight down, he'd wanted to claw the walls of the plane in frustration. From his bag, he'd snatched Nïx's missive addressed to "Mari the Awaited." He'd ignored the Valkyrie when she'd insisted repeatedly that he bring it, until she'd become so furious that lightning had begun to spear down all around them. It had grown so violent that even Regin and the witches had backed off, spooked. Alone on the plane, he'd ripped open Nïx's black wax seal and read the bizarre contents - a rhyme about mirrors and whispering and secrets. The words had inexplicably given him chills. And reading it had only killed moments of the wait. With nothing to do but think, he'd wavered between hating Mariketa and fearing for her life. Bowe despised what she'd done to him - and what she was - but he did not want her to die. Another blister gave way against the machete handle, but Bowe ignored it. Wasn't like he could switch hands. The odds were against her being alive, yet Bowe had hope. The scarred demon Rydstrom was a brutal warrior, but he was also honorable. And Bowe knew Rydstrom and Cade had younger sisters. If Rydstrom had decided to protect the witch, she might have a chance of surviving starvation - and the incubi. And then there had been the unsettling interest that had flickered in Cade's eyes. The mercenary might be moved to protect her... because he wanted her. The thought made Bowe swing the machete harder than necessary, slicing clean through a sapling. Damn it, what in the hell had that little mortal been thinking to enter the Hie? Even as he'd cursed the idiocy of her actions, he'd marveled at her courage, especially since she was so young. He'd suspected she was, but Bowe had since found out that Mariketa was an astonishing twenty-three years of age - chronologically. Not only hadn't she made the transition into immortality, she hadn't passed even a third of an average mortal life. If Bowe had thought Emma, at eighty chronologically, was too young for Lachlain, then Mariketa was a damned bairn. And a witch - Ear-piercing screams sounded. From the tomb? Bowe sprinted as fast as his wounds would allow, leaping over fallen trees. He ran headlong through the brush instead of cutting, ignoring the pain as vines snagged his neck and arms and abraded till they burned. When he finally crashed through the tree line surrounding the perimeter of the tomb, he heard what sounded like a war inside. White light glinted up through new cracks in the stone. The entire edifice rumbled. He heard Rydstrom roar with pain while the female archer shrieked. Bowe didn't hear the witch. Was it already too late? How the was he going to quickly raise the stone portcullis? To set up the lift with one hand... too much time. Could he possibly raise it himself? He was a thousand times weaker than before. He didn't have a propping stone to lift from. He didn't have two hands. No way - Bowe finally heard Mariketa's cry - weak, reedy. There was no time to analyze the consuming sense of relief he felt that she still lived. He knew she was badly hurt, knew she needed protection. Bugger the lift. He shoved his hand under the edge of the portcullis, claws digging down, wedging under for a good grip. When he heard another of her cries, he strained every muscle in his body. Nothing. Damn it, if she'd truly been his mate, he would have been able to lift it. Which meant it was still possible even when she wasn't his - he could do this! No longer did he hear her. Sharp fear stabbed at him... he heaved with all his might, yelling out. The stone began to budge. An inch higher, then two... He'd lifted it only a foot when a limp body was shoved out from the fray. Mariketa? Yes, though he scarcely recognized her without her glamour to cloak her looks. As Bowe grappled against the weight, he jerked in surprise when the Instinct rang inside his head, strong and clear. - Yours. - Why would it return now, after so long? Why would it make him feel as though he recognized her as his own? No, this was merely her spell, tricking him. Even knowing this, he had to fight panic when he comprehended how battered her body was. He focused his hearing on her heartbeat and found it erratic. Her lips were pale and chapped, her cheeks hollowed. Blood tracked from the corners of her mouth. Just as it had on Mariah when she'd lain dead in the snow. He couldn't hold the stone much longer... needed to drop it... but the witch's leg was in the way. As he struggled to reach his boot to the side to shuffle her out of the way, the battle continued inside. "Duck!" "Bloody shoot them!" "I'm out of arrows!" Out of arrows? The archers had mystical quivers, said never to empty. "Me as well - Run!" The female elf screamed for Cade to help her. A second later, she was launched from the interior, her bloody bow strapped to her back. Then claws scrabbled up as Cade and Rydstrom crawled out. They didn't acknowledge Bowe, just dropped their swords and weakly attempted to keep the stone raised until the last two archers shimmied out. The strings on their bows were stained by blood from where they'd pulled them again and again. What exactly had they faced? As if in answer, just as Bowe was about to drop his burden, a hand shot out from the tomb as some being with matted gray skin, dead skin, reached blindly but unerringly to the witch. Its claws sank into her ankle - she didn't react. Another hand darted out from the tomb, its fingers clenched around... one of the gold headdresses? "Drop it," Bowe yelled, and the three released the stone, severing the hands. As Bowe fell back against the sealed entrance, struggling to breathe, Cade lunged to Mariketa to pry the claws from her ankle. Her skin there was bloodied, marked again and again. Bowe knew in an instant that she'd been dragged like that repeatedly. He squinted his eye at the other gruesome hand. Why offer a headdress? Once Bowe raised his gaze, he faced the killing looks of five powerful immortals, promising retribution. "Forget him for now!" The female archer hurried to cradle Mariketa's head. "She's in shock." The others gathered around her, except for one of the archers, who twitched his pointed ears, then raced from the clearing. When the witch began to shudder, Bowe dropped to his knees beside her. "Water!" the female elf screamed at him. "We're losing her!" He hastily unwound the canteen over his shoulder and handed it over. "What's happened to her?" They all ignored him. "Damn it, tell me what's happened!" The witch went still beside him, seemingly at his raised voice. Her eyes opened dazedly as she moaned; white light flashed from them into the sky and boiled up from her limp palms. Her lips parted around her ragged breaths. Without warning, she was on her feet, her eyes glittering with fury, and riveted to Bowe. As though in a tempest, her red hair swirled all around her bloodied face. Leaves and sand circled her body. "You." "I - " With one flick of her hand in his direction, she tossed Bowe back against the tomb, crushing the contents of his pack. She pinned him there by his neck as he futilely writhed and fought for breath. In the midst of his struggles, he realized the toes of her boots were turned down - because she was no longer touching the ground. Her body was too frail... too small to conduct this power - unimaginable power. Never in his long life... never had he seen anything like this. The witch smiled with ghostly lips. "You came back," she purred as the pressure increased around his neck. She was horrible. She was awing. And he knew he was about to die. 11 "Mariketa, no!" Rydstrom bellowed. "Let me deal with him!" Mari could barely hear him. Magick tolled in her ears and danced through her veins, pure and perfect for the first time in her life. It feels delicious. She tightened her hold around MacRieve's throat once more, vaguely noticing his missing hand, the bandages on his face. "Give him to me!" Tierney had drawn his blade. Cade and Tera closed in on MacRieve, each wanting the pleasure of killing the Lykae for what he'd done. Mari wouldn't give up her catch. Not until his head had left his body - A sharp pop like a gunshot sounded in the near distance. She heard it even over the din inside her head. "Mariketa," Tera began in a wary tone, "drop him and run. Now." Wary? After what they'd just lived through? More pops - definitely gunfire. She'd sensed Hild had raced from the clearing, and now he returned. "Two guerilla armies engaging in the brush a mile to the west," he reported between breaths. "Each with at least two hundred humans. They've got rockets, mortar. We actually might have to consider them in our decisions." Bowe saw it all unfolding but could do nothing. Frustration welled in him, matching the torture of her strangling grip. The force was pinning his back against his bag, pulverizing the contents. Then the witch's eyes changed, becoming a shade of silver - one color, unbroken - shining brilliantly. As he stared in incomprehension, he could see... could see they were... mirrors. Nïx's strange rhyme flashed in his mind, even as Mariketa was killing him. With her other hand, the witch emitted a pulse of energy at Bowe - a beam that made him feel as if he'd had a transfusion of acid. Turn your blood to acid, she'd told him. Rydstrom grabbed her wrists and moved to draw her magick from Bowe's direction, then frowned that he hadn't budged her thin arms. With both hands, he heaved back and finally got her to aim away from Bowe - toward the tomb. Freed of her hold and the scalding pain, Bowe sucked in air, scrambling away. As he rubbed circulation back into his throat, her beam battered the stones. The entire structure trembled. The first rumble shook the trees growing over it. The second rattled them, stripping bare their swaying branches.

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