Jadian the cold climbed the stairs past the guards he'd killed, stealing toward King Sigmund's tower chamber.
Though he found it distasteful to dispatch his own kind, Jadian had done it without mercy. He had to act quickly. The Valkyrie's time was nigh.
"Any word on where that little bitch is?" the king demanded as Jadian entered, not even glancing away from his glazed window. "I thought you were closing in on the Valkyrie."
"Yes, I know precisely where she will be." Eventually she would come to him. Each month, she neared, without even knowing it.
Sigmund whirled around. "Then why does she yet live?" he bellowed, slamming his staff into the floor, sending up shards of ice.
Jadian slowly unsheathed the fire blade that had slain Sigmund's queen, relishing the fear dawning in the king's eyes. Jadian had been awaiting this sight since Sigmund had stolen a throne that didn't belong to him, and plunged the Icere into a needless war with the fire demonarchy.
The war in which Jadian's own pregnant wife, Karilina, had perished. "Daniela lives, because it's your death that comes next."
Like a shot, Jadian lunged for him, forcing a hand over Sigmund's mouth as he sank the blade into his heart - Jadian needed him quiet to savor the hiss of burning skin and the futile flailing of the king.
Blood sprayed, wetting Jadian's hair and face. When he yanked the knife free, Sigmund lived still, even as Jadian began slicing through the skin and bone of his neck.
By the time he had Sigmund's head, Jadian was covered in gore, but his heart was calm.
He turned to the south. Now, now was the Valkyrie's time.
If Daniela keeps up this carving, her hands will bleed.
Did she not think about what the sight and scent of her blood did to him each time?
As Murdoch watched her, he wondered yet again what could force her to work like this. Her elven face was tense with focus, her blue-tinged lips pressed together.
Over the previous winter, she'd seemed to be rediscovering herself, exploring those elemental instincts she could scarcely explain to him - or to herself. Yet then had come the summer. What had started as a dark and cold paradise for them turned sunny and mild. Their contentment had melted away as surely as her ice.
For those months, there'd been continual sniping between them. Any accidental contact could set either of them off. But she'd refused to leave the lodge for a colder clime, as if those genetic memories of hers had ended in a cliffhanger and she wouldn't leave the book behind.
Now, fall was upon them at last. But we still aren't like we used to be...
Despite the strain between Murdoch and his Bride, things had begun to look up for the Wroth family.
Nikolai had wedded Myst, once she'd forgiven him for using that enchanted chain against her. Nikolai had ultimately realized that he'd misunderstood Myst's memories, discovering that she'd been more Fury than femme fatale, using her wiles to seduce evildoers to their downfall. Then he'd had some apologizing to do.
Sebastian had somehow won both the Talisman's Hie and Kaderin, the deadly little assassin who'd actually been dispatched to execute him.
Though his brothers' Brides were half sisters, they were as different as day and night. One was a bold redhead, legendary for her beauty. The other was a golden-skinned killer with a predilection for stringing up vampire fangs as trophies.
Mine is an ethereal ice queen. Exquisite and always just out of reach...
Murdoch and Nikolai had at last reconciled with Sebastian. Naturally, now that the three brothers were speaking again, their conversations turned to Conrad - how to locate him, where he'd last been seen. They'd all begun searching and had unearthed some leads, though they chose not to believe the rumors that Conrad was a Fallen, red-eyed assassin who drank all his victims.
They were close to finding him. Murdoch could feel it. Yes, things were finally looking up for the brothers.
But between him and Daniela... Even though they found ways to pleasure each other, Murdoch was continually tormented by how soft her skin looked. He'd never been one for open displays of affection, had never felt any sort of romantic attachment before. Now he found himself checking impulse after impulse to simply stroke her cheek or run his palm down her arm.
And to kiss her - Christ, he wanted that so much.
She felt the yearning, too. He often found her dreamily gazing at his lips while running her fingertips over her own.
Sometimes he unreasonably felt as if fate was punishing him with her for all his previous sins. Never to hold her; always to suffer this need - and to bear the knowledge that it would forever go unslaked.
If "faint heart never won fair lady," then the opposite should hold true. Murdoch had meant it when he'd said he would do anything to have her - anything but risk her safety. He needed gates to storm, an enemy to fight and defeat. Instead, he could do nothing but covet what was already his...
At that moment she nicked her forefinger. Rich blood beaded, and he clenched his jaw at the scent. Never to drink her, though I dream of it more and more.
On occasion, she'd caught him staring at the alabaster skin of her neck, but she still stayed with him. Which meant she trusted him not to hurt her.
His gaze fixed on the small welling of crimson. With each day, he wondered how much he trusted himself.
"Nix, is that really you?" Danii cried. When her phone had rung, she'd expected Murdoch or even Myst again.
"In the telephonic flesh," the soothsayer replied.
"I've called you repeatedly!"
"Then I must've not wanted to talk to you."
Danii pursed her lips. "What are you doing?"
"Just chillin' since you gave us the cold shoulder - huzzah! Somebody stop me! How's the vamp? Too hot to handle? Because I could do this all day!"
"Ha-ha." Today Nix was playful. Which unfortunately meant she'd probably be forgetful as well. "And I'm not giving you the cold shoulder. You knew why I had to go."
"Did I? Guess I forgot. Mental note: stop telling people that Danii's gone missing. Cease hinting feral koi to blame."
Danii sighed. Nix could be incredibly useful. And incredibly frustrating. "What's that noise in the background?"
"Your room. No one can figure out how to turn off the freezer."
Danii swallowed. "Why would you want to turn it off?" All my ice!
"Because Soloflex and litter-box storage wait for no one?"
"You're acting like I'm never coming back."
"Are you?" Nix asked.
"You tell me, soothsayer," Danii said, but her words were breaking up. Nix's call waiting kept clicking.
"Who keeps calling you?"
"Not the same person. All different. Everyone wants a piece of Nixie," she said, a hint of weariness in her tone. "Lemme block them. There. Speaking of calls, Myst said she's tried to contact you several times."
Danii hadn't picked up. "Look, I know what she'll say to me -??that I can't possibly keep Murdoch from straying and we'll never work out in the long run." Pressure building... time passing.
Instead of arguing that point and reassuring her, Nix only made a noncommittal sound.
"How is Myst, anyway?" Danii asked.
"Even more insufferably ravishing, with the glow of a female who's well loved," Nix answered. "Married life suits her."
I want to be well loved. Would kill to be. Instead, Danii lived in an increasingly untenable situation, blinders firmly on as she strove to build a life with him. Like building a house of tinder atop a powder keg.
And Murdoch had never mentioned marriage.
"Don't forget fierce Kaderin!" Nix added. "Sebastian's turned her into an amorous Kiddy Kad. So, Kaderin and Myst are both freaky, naughty minxes who get it on with vampires. Just like you, Danii! They both wear their bites proudly, bragging to everyone how orgasmic it feels."
"Orgasmic?" Great, yet another thing to fantasize about with Murdoch. "They, uh, like it?"
"I know, right! The coven considers them bite bores. But Sebastian did use Thrane's key to whisk Kad's two sisters back to the future, and he saved Kad's life. Plus, Nikolai tried to sacrifice his life for Myst's. Not that she'd needed him to. So some Valkyries have stopped overtly plotting to massacre the two brothers. Though Murdoch and Conrad are still fair game," she concluded brightly.
"Conrad? I knew he was alive!" Danii said in a rush. "Are the rumors true - is he fallen? Will they ever find him?"
"He lives. Dunno if he's fallen. And yes, eventually the brothers will locate him. I've been helping Nikolai, you know."
And only Nikolai. Nix refused to meet with Murdoch or Sebastian. "I know you have. Murdoch keeps me up to date about everything."
"Indeed? Did he tell you that the Goddess of Impossibility gifted Sebastian with another turn of Thrane's Key? So he could go back in time and bring his own sisters and family forward? Obviously Riora grew quite enamored of the studly scholar."
Murdoch hadn't told her that. But why? This was huge! Instead of answering Nix, Danii demanded, "Why are you meddling in this? You don't even really like vampires."
"How can you say that?" Nix asked in a scandalized tone. "I have never in my life meddled."
Danii gave a harsh laugh. "You even got the House of Witches to sell Nikolai, a vampire, mystical goods." If Conrad was indeed fallen, the brothers planned to capture him to keep him from killing again. Nikolai's first purchase had been unbreakable manacles that prevented the wearer from tracing.
"Gold got those mercenaries to sell to him," Nix countered. "I merely brokered the deal. Would you rather I not help? Hmm. You seem irritable. Usually when I speak to shacked-up Valks, they sound cheerier."
"Bet they can make skin-to-skin contact with their co-shackers."
"Is that the only reason for trouble in paradise? Tell, Nixie, tell. You know I'll just forget."
"I think he's... avoiding me. He spends night after night away, following leads about Conrad. That's where he is tonight."
"Do you think he would avoid you if you two could touch?"
"No, I don't. This situation has to be tormenting for him." Because it is for me.
"I was thinking about Mariketa the Awaited," Nix said. "She's finally begun to come into her powers. In another fifty years, she might be able to help you."
"Truly?" Mariketa was supposed to be the most powerful witch ever born to the House of Witches. "I've been waiting for this since she was a girl!" No one in the Lore had known how long they'd be awaiting Mariketa to attain her full strength, which could've taken anywhere from years to millennia.
"Mariketa's taking deposits, escrowed of course. You could sign up on her waiting list."
Danii could, and until the time came, maybe another less-powerful witch could put her and Murdoch to sleep, hibernating like Woden and Freya. When Danii and Murdoch woke, they'd be able to be together.
Yet she almost didn't want to tell Murdoch about this idea. Fifty years would still sound like an age to him. Besides, it was in no way certain.
"I don't suppose you know of any way that might predate the fifty-year wait?" Danii was aware of other immortal competitions with outrageous prizes, as well as those extensive Lore bazaars where magics were peddled. Both tended to be held around the Accession.
Could there finally be a magic out there that would allow her and Murdoch to touch? Without exacting a devastating - and potentially scaly - penalty?
"I'll have to see into the future on that and get back to you," Nix said. "But for now, let's gossip!"
For half an hour, Nix filled her in on Lorean current events, such as the marriage between Emma and Lachlain MacRieve, her were-wolf protector. "Told you so about Lykae inlaws," Nix chirped.
And she related how Kaderin had set about acclimating her medieval sisters to this time: "Video games can be deeply enlightening to the uninitiated."
"What about Regin?" Danii asked. "Surely, she's drummed up some kind of trouble." Regin the Radiant was the coven's resident prankster, hopelessly immature and proud of it. Her "superhero identity" was The Fellatrix, and she was prone to snicker and say things like "The song 'Come On Eileen' doesn't have a comma after on... "
"She's been skirting nuclear meltdown since her b.f.f. Lucia went scarce without her."
Surprisingly, brash Regin and level-headed Lucia the Huntress were inseparable best friends. Her past shrouded in mystery, Lucia was an archer who'd been cursed to feel indescribable pain if she missed a shot. At least, that was one of her curses. "Why would Lucia do that?"
"She's gone on walkabout, with her own Lykae admirer hot on her heels... "
While she and Nix gabbed, Danii endeavored to explain her obsessive carving and the arcane symbols, but the soothsayer revealed nothing, saying only, "Your ways are not like our earth ways."
"Oh!" Nix suddenly exclaimed. "I almost forgot, I'm sending you a pressy."
"When?" Danii liked gifts! As did every Valkyrie. "How will you know where to send it?"
"As if I don't know exactly where you are! Now, I must go. I have mayhem down at five o'clock and Survivor at eight."
"Will you tell everyone that I said hi, and not to steal the clothes I left behind?"
"The second of those requests has already been rendered moot. Literally a free-for-all."
"One last thing, do you remember those pesky dempires?"
"Do I ever," Danii said. Murdoch had barely survived his encounter with them. "Want to say you told me so about them as well?"
"No, no, I just wanted you to know that they're mewling cream-puffs compared to Conrad Wroth. And when I said that his brothers would eventually locate him? Eventually is tonight. Ciao!" Click.