Lothaire Read online

Page 24

Page 24


  "This endgame is your end goal?" she asked. "Okay, then what is it?"

  His gaze drifted as he paced. "Seven little tasks. "

  "Tell me. "

  Sounding as if he recited a list, he said, "Find ring. Dispose of Elizabeths soul. Turn Saroya. Kill Dorada. Take over Horde. Find and kill Serghei. Conquer Daci. "

  Dispose of my soul. How easily he said that! And who was Serghei? "Vampire, I hate to tell you this, but those tasks are not an end goal. "

  He swung around to face her. "Hold your tongue, little mortal! Or Ill have it from you. "

  She fell silent, on edge as he paced/traced.

  Long moments later, he snapped, "What the hell were you talking about?"

  "An ultimate goal should be the result, not the process of reaching it. "

  "Perhaps I take pleasure in the process itself. "

  Ellie said, "Then the ultimate goal is pleasure. The tasks are still the process. "

  "My ultimate goal is service to a blood vendetta. I work for that alone, have for millennia. "

  In a small voice, she pointed out, "Still a process. "

  "Ahhh!" he roared, punching the wall yet again. "Shut the fuck up!"

  In as casual a tone as she could fake, she said, "Most people have goals of a fulfilling family life and a rewarding career, with happiness and pleasure resulting. "

  "And what do you know of happiness?" He calmed, seeming intensely interested in this subject.

  "I experienced it for most of my life. And I appreciate it all the more after my recent miseries. "

  "How could you have been happy in that trailer, forced to hunt for food, having so few possessions?"

  She blinked. He wasnt insulting her? Lothaire was genuinely curious about this. "I cherished the good times spent with those I love, and I quickly worked past the bad times. Whats done is done. I never dwell on the past. "

  "Thats simplistic. "

  "Its not a complicated thing," she countered.

  "Its an abstract one. "

  "And yet it can be learned. You can teach yourself to be happy. You said your killing skills were well-honed. What if you put all that effort into finding happiness?"

  "Then I wouldnt have survived all these years. "

  "Maybe you can find it sharing interests with Saroya. "

  "Leave her out of this. "

  "Shes kind of instrumental. What does she enjoy doing?"

  He narrowed his eyes. "Saroya hunts, just as you used to do. "

  "She does not hunt like I did. " The idea made her want to punch a wall! "Did you see me leaving deer carcasses all over the mountain to rot? For no reason? There is no comparison. I would never be wasteful and disrespectful of life like that. "

  "Touchy subject? Have I found a chink in your armor?"

  "Any comparison to her riles me up. We are nothing alike. "

  "True, you are-"

  "Oh, just save it," she interrupted. "I already know Im her inferior in every way, blah, blah, blah. "

  He quirked a brow, then continued, "As for sharing interests, Saroya and I will rule together, protecting and educating our offspring. "

  My offspring! "I can only imagine what a goddess of death would teach her kids. "

  "You wont sow dissension. Your ploy is transparent. "

  "Its only a ploy if Im being dishonest. Otherwise, its an observation. And I truly do wonder about Saroyas parenting skills, not to mention yours. "

  He frowned, his demeanor turning contemplative.

  "Lothaire, have you never thought what itd be like to be a father?"

  "It would be a risk-although few would dare harm Saroyas offspring. Certainly no vampire enemies of mine would. . . . " He crossed to the balcony and gazed out. As a breeze sifted through his hair, his shoulders tensed. "A mist rises," he said in an odd tone.

  She was getting nowhere with him. "Am I done entertaining you, vampire? Im tired. This inferior mortal needs to rest. "

  He turned back to her. "Youll sleep in here. " At her disbelieving look, he said, "I dont exaggerate the threat to you. Id hoped to have separate rooms-not because I wished to afford you privacy, but because I didnt want to look at you. Unfortunately, we do not have that luxury. "

  "Fine. " She rose, retrieved a pillow and a blanket from her room, then returned to the settee.

  "Do not touch me when I sleep," Lothaire said. "Do not get near me. " When he held her gaze, she suddenly recalled the haunting bellows echoing from his room the last time hed slept. "No matter what occurs. "

  Chapter 26

  Where am I now? Lothaire woke in the snow once more, this time during the day. The filtered sunlight on his bare chest was like a leather strop slowly rubbing it raw.

  Shading his eyes, he peered around, his heart beginning to thunder in his ears. Ah, gods, no . . .

  He knelt in the middle of a forest. All around him stood trees that wept blood. Morning sun streamed between the gnarled trunks, over the seeping bark.

  Again, hed returned to a place from his past-the Bloodroot Forest flanking Castle Helvita.

  I grew up within those walls. Later I knew torture in these woods.

  The constant grinding pressure of dirt over him, as if the earth had fed on him, digesting him like a meal . . .

  He hadnt returned here since King Demestriu had died. Now, with no king in residence, loyalist vampires held the seat, waiting for an heir with two qualifications: he had to hold the Thirst sacred, and he had to be a legitimate royal.

  Led by a soldier called Tymur the Allegiant, theyd rejected all contenders.

  Tymur would assassinate Lothaire on sight.

  Why did I return to this place of treachery? Why was his subconscious focusing on this memory of his torture-

  Cold metal kissed his neck. A real sword? An imagined threat?

  He eased his head around to find two daytime sentries, a behorned demon and a Cerunno. They wouldve been ordered to take him prisoner, to be questioned.

  The demon could teleport a retreat; the Cerunnos speed was legendary. Yet they remained.

  Then they have no idea who I am.

  The demon said, "Who dares to trespass on these hallowed grounds?"

  Lothaire bared his fangs. I will trace with a speed even they cant follow, appearing behind the demon, whispering my name in his ear. Hell quake with fear before I wrench his head from his neck. The Cerunno will flee-until I fling the demons sword, catching the creature in the spine. . . .

  "The Enemy of Old," Lothaire whispered in the demons ear before gripping his horns and twisting. The head came loose in a rush of frayed tendons and crackling vertebrae. "And theres little daring to it. " He gazed impassively at the sentrys collapsed body.

  I was mistaken. Thered been no quake of fear; instead, the male had pissed himself upon hearing Lothaires name.

  The second guard had already begun its slithering retreat, racing across the snow, around the trees. Lothaire snatched up the demons sword and flung it at the Cerunno, hitting it in the back, crippling it.

  Thoughts already on other things, Lothaire traced to the being, stepping over its twitching serpentine tail to retrieve the sword.

  As he cleaved off the Cerunnos head with one swing, Lothaire realized his damaged mind was trying to tell him something by sending him here. Yet hed likely be dead before he could interpret it.

  Hed traced directly to his enemies without a weapon, only to wake disoriented in the sun. If the demon had merely swung first, Id be dead.

  At least Lothaire hadnt relived the torture hed experienced here. He would surely fall into the abyss then.

  Id want to be insane.

  Memories forever haunting him. But not a single new one of the ring. After several hours of sleep, hed garnered no new leads.

  With both opponents eliminated, Lothaire tried not to notice that the tree trunks seemed to yawn closer to the corpses.

  The trees in this forest needed neither sun nor ra