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Pain roiled inside her broken body. Her fractured limbs. You court my wrath, young Valkyrie. Torture my sister? Murder her? She has already survived the first and is about to succumb to the second without your aid. Lucia struggled for consciousness, labored to speak. This hold was carved into the heights of Godsbellow Mountain, shaken continually by thunder. For one so powerless and insignificant, you dare much, Valkyrie.
The girl had lost her mind. They were renowned archers, all females who underwent grueling training rituals to serve the goddess. Make sure she does not remember the way back. You little ratling! When she has been spared? You, however, will not last the hour. Meeting her fathomless gaze brought on the sorrow and fear of all her prey over the ages. It sank over Lucia like a bitter frost.
A fountain of sticky warmth coated the altar beneath her, surrounding her battered body, but it quickly cooled on the chill stone.
Each drop lost left her shuddering harder, even more desperate. The pain of her injuries maddened her. Why should I help you? The shuddering was getting worse; the altar beneath her was so cold.
Lucia barely remembered traversing the mystical forest as Regin dragged her across portals and dales for days. The Skathians fight him every five hundred years. An unequaled archer, better than them all.
When they have trained so hard? When they are pure of heart—and body? I understand why now. Had that animal bitten her? Lucia ruthlessly stamped out those visions of her captivity. She would never let herself remember them, especially not that last night. What happened in the dark. Blood streaming down my thighs. I never knew. Are you ready to pay mine? But Lucia was desperate.
Yet any time that you miss a target, you shall experience the pain you are about to suffer. You shall always remember what brought you this low and never repeat this fall from grace. That will make you a Skathian. She was so confused. Agony to sharpen your resolve like a blade stone.
Brighter, brighter. Suddenly Lucia convulsed, shrieking as her infected wounds pulled taut, purging blood and pus, her fractured bones grinding as they knit together. Her fingers clenched tight, her back arching—like a bow. Lucia was healed—but changed. A bowstring coiled around her body like a serpent.
And in her trembling hands, a black ash bow and a single golden arrow had appeared. You are now an Archer. Tonight was their yearly skins-versus-demons rugby match—a tradition for Garreth and his clan, meant to take his mind from the anniversary this day marked. Garreth was barefooted, wearing only jeans and no shirt. Rain pounded in strengthening intervals, turning this abandoned grassy airstrip in bayou country into a mire of muck and turf. Sweat mingled with mud—and some blood.
He almost felt. And that in itself was a feat. Munro flipped him off but did finally sling him the ball. He feinted left, then sprinted right around two colossal Ferine demons, shoving his hand in their faces, stiff-arming them. As he ran, with his heart pounding in his ears, he could forget. The exertion and the aggression were both so welcome, he wanted to beat his bare chest.
His brothers-in-arms were strong and ruthless contenders, as was he. The beasts inside them loved to fight, to play. The demons responded to the goal with trash talk and shoving. Like a shot, Garreth was in the middle.
Of all the sore subjects to bring up, his kingship was the one most infuriating. And on this day? He launched himself at Caliban, but Munro and Uilleam heaved him back. They swilled it straight from the bottle, each one with his own, the Lykae version of Gatorade.
Their cooler was full of fifths. Garreth swiped his hand over the back of his neck, getting the feeling that he was being watched. But then, he and all the other players were. Nymphs lined the field, oblivious to the rain, touching themselves and sucking on their own fingers as they impatiently waited for this game to turn into an orgy. He irritably gazed at the females. Did you never think that I doona like nymphs? Uilleam and Munro told Garreth that he awaited Lachlain unreasonably.
Best accept that his brother was gone, especially after so long had passed since his disappearance. One hundred and fifty years—to the day, this day. They were right. Five hundred?
I dinna see such proof with Lachlain. Garreth shook himself from his memories, swigged whiskey, then mustered to the field with his kinsmen.
Caliban bared his fangs at his opponents, a gesture Garreth returned as the teams huddled up. Quick snap. Ball in play. Passed to Caliban. Garreth saw his chance, charging for him, pumping his arms for speed. He leapt for the demon, tackling him with all his strength. Without inviting the Valkyrie? And in our territory, too? If beings were going to trespass in order to war, they should at least have the courtesy to invite the host faction to the conflict.
When she came upon the battlefield, Lucia canted her head to the side. Clash of the Loreans, she thought as she beheld modern gladiators—not at war, but at play. Immortal rugby. Winds whipped along the mile-long field, and lightning flashed above them, mirroring the intensity of the contest.
It was like a ceremony celebrating. Lucia easily recognized the horned players as demons, and she suspected their shirtless opponents were Lykae. If so, then the rumors were true. The werewolves were in fact encroaching on Valkyrie territory. She was surprised. Congregating at the sidelines, Nymph spectators trembled with excitement, likely seeing this as no more than a mud-wrestling match between brawny heartthrobs. A ruthless hit on the field made Lucia raise a brow.
Not at the violence—she was a shield maiden after all—but at the unthinking violence. Though these Loreans all trespassed, they were oblivious to an Archer in their midst, one who could inflict serious damage—very swiftly and from a great distance. Never had. Another brutal hit.
Lykae and demons were two of the most brutal species on earth. Though mud splattered his torso and a shadow of a beard swathed his lean face, she still found him handsome in a rough and tumble way. His eyes were a burnished gold color with rakish laugh lines fanning out from them. Tension radiated from his body, anger blazing off him. When those golden irises flickered a bright ice blue, she confirmed what he was.
A Lykae. A werewolf. An animal. His handsome face masked a beast, literally. His accent was Scottish, but then most of the Lykae were Highlanders—or they used to be, before homesteading southern Louisiana.
Go fook yerself! Probably had. The Lykae were considered a menace in the Lore, with little control over their ferocity. In fact, they seemed to revel in it. One hundred percent unadulterated male, alpha to the core. And still he was making her. As the game continued, Lucia waited for revulsion to drown out her attraction.
And waited. Yet with each pitiless blow the male gave—and took—and with each of his growled threats and taunts, it burned hotter. Her breaths shallowed and her small claws went from straight to curling, aching to clutch a warm body to her own.
She dragged her gaze from his antics and surveyed the nymphs frolicking on the sidelines. Lucia had once been like them—hedonistic, serving no higher purpose. Am I still to be like them?
No, she was disciplined now; she had a code. With a hard shake of her head, she forced herself to focus on her mission—dispatching the kobolds. To the naked eye, they appeared cherubic, but they were actually ground dwellers with reptilian features. And when their populations went unchecked they tended to snatch human young, which jeopardized all of Lorekind.
The pair had split up, one of them fleeing deeper into the swamps, while the other hid behind the wall of nymph spectators, assuming itself safe in this crowd. Lucia absently fingered the flights of the barbed arrows strapped to her thigh and savored the comforting weight of her bow over her shoulder.
Her prey assumed wrong. The Archer never missed. Rain pelted him as his speed increased. This would be an easy score, taking him nearly the entire length of the field. Finally the demons pursuing him gave up, slowing one by one, hailing curses.
As he inhaled deeply, he isolated a new, exquisite scent from a thousand threads of them—the coppery smell of lightning, cut blades of grass, the swampy bayous all around them. Sensations overwhelmed him, racking his muscles as he slowed. My mate. She was downwind but close enough that he detected her. His head swung around in the direction of the scent.
A small female stood alone off to the side of the field. At his first sight of her, his breath was lost, his Lykae Instinct roaring to life within him. Take her. She had pouting pink lips and flashing amber eyes. Wee pointed ears poked out through her mane of long dark hair.
Yes, mine. Gods, she was as exquisite as her scent— Wham! The demons tackled him with the force of a freight train, flattening him on the field, piling on top of him. His left shoulder popped from its joint. A knee to his jaw wrenched three back teeth loose. He growled, not with pain but with frustration, punching the still-hitting demons with his one good arm.
As he battled to free himself, he sucked his teeth into his windpipe. The twins ran to help him, finally peeling the demons off him. Garreth struggled to his knees, futilely coughing, hacking as he watched the strange female.
Suddenly, in a laserlike movement, she readied her bow, nocked three arrows from her quiver, and drew the bowstring to her cheek. What the hell? Everything happening so fast. Aiming for the nymphs? No, not them. A kobold cowering among them. Never hit it from so far away. She was poised, motionless, for a shot. Though rain and wind whipped her hair over her cheek, she never blinked, never took her eye from her target even after she released that bowstring.
A fantastical shot. Yet she appeared bored with the result. Garreth struggled to his knees, futilely coughing, hacking as he watched the strange female. Suddenly, in a laserlike movement, she readied her bow, nocked three arrows from her quiver, and drew the bowstring to her cheek.
What the hell? Everything happening so fast. Aiming for the nymphs? No, not them. A kobold cowering among them. Never hit it from so far away. She was poised, motionless, for a shot.
Though rain and wind whipped her hair over her cheek, she never blinked, never took her eye from her target even after she released that bowstring. A fantastical shot. Yet she appeared bored with the result. Heaving, choking, Garreth saw her casually wend her way through the stunned nymphs. Once she reached the two pieces of kobold, the archeress chucked them into the nearby swamp.
When she realized all attention was on her, she slowed. He reached a muddy hand toward her, but she frowned with disdain, then disappeared into the brush. Finally Uilleam kicked Garreth in the back, and his back teeth flew from his windpipe like Chiclets. Between labored breaths, Garreth clambered to his feet. Munro looked incredulous; Uilleam, jealous. How long had they both been waiting? But she looked like she might be. Be quick, man!
He was shirtless, well on his way to being drunk, and filthy with blood and mud. Vow it! The second they popped his shoulder back in, he took off at a sprint. On this day, the fates still refused to surrender Lachlain.
As he charged forward, excitement welled within him, followed by overwhelming relief. Now he was on her trail. Yet at the line of moss-curtained cypresses—the entrance to the most remote section of the swamp—he slowed. Somehow her scent was emanating from four different directions.
He decided on one to follow, then thrashed through the brush, hurdling streams and bogs. When he reached the source of the scent and there was no sign of her, he turned in place. Then gazed up to find one of her arrows lodged in a tree, so deep only the flights showed. Clever girl. But he would follow each to the end, tracking her for as long as it took. And I was born to find her. Terrain passed beneath his feet for half an hour before he located her true trail.
With the innate stealth of his kind, he prowled closer, hunting this huntress in the now drizzling rain. The swamp made it easy for him to approach her undetected. There were a thousand shadows to conceal him, with animals constantly creeping about to distract her. Once he spied her again, he just stopped himself from sucking in a breath. She had to be a Valkyrie, one among a species of women both notoriously beautiful. Her features were stunning—high, bold cheekbones, plump lips, and a slim, pixie nose—but her coloring made her beyond compare.
Her skin was golden and smooth, her eyes the color of Scots whiskey. She was of middling height and curvy, wearing a wet white T-shirt that hugged generous breasts. Khaki shorts fitted tightly over her pert arse and displayed shapely legs. Her hair was long—a dark mane, heavy with rain. On her right hand, she wore a leather shooting glove.
A long leather forearm guard stretched from her left wrist to her elbow. Who knew archery gear could be so sexy? His female would wear her leathers when he took her curvy wee body tonight. At the thought, his shaft hardened in his damp jeans, and he almost growled. But all the while she would freeze, jerking her head back in his direction, her pointed ears twitching.
Without warning, she leapt up into a waterlogged oak, crouching there as she resumed her shooting stance, nocking another arrow. From a distance, her short bow was unassuming, a recurve bow with the ends arching away from her, and a thickened grip in the middle. Typical, if old fashioned. But as he neared he could see there were etched gold markings in the polished black wood. Her weapon was as fine and proud as its owner obviously was. Did she plan to hit it through the earth?
Lucia knew the kobold had gone underground, scurrying for its life. From this angle in the tree, she could shoot into the ground, piercing her arrow straight into the tunnel beneath. Just as Lucia always did.
And then what? When the nightmares came. For now, kill the kobold, go home. His interest had disconcerted her. Lucia shook her head hard, refocusing, inhaling a breath.
The ancient inscriptions on her bow seemed to glow. She released the string. With a thunk, the arrow punctured the ground, boring deep, all the way to the kobold burrowed below. A muffled shriek sounded. Target hit. Lucia swung her bow back across her body, then leapt down to finish off her immortal prey with a swift beheading. She sighed. My cross to bear. Three tenets comprised the Skathian code: honesty, chastity, and humility.
She managed honesty—mostly—and chastity totally. When she neared, the creature scurried in the tunnel beneath her feet, making the arrow shaft dart frenziedly in the mucky ground, which amused her. This was her greatest pleasure—the hunt. When she was out like this, she felt less like an imposter, filled with shameful secrets.
And she could briefly forget what would soon befall her in the approaching Accession. Shaking away that thought, she crouched to dig free her prey, hauling it out by the ankle in a rush of mud and roots.
Still in cherubic form, the kobold squirmed frenetically, her arrow jutting from its throat. She dropped it to the ground and plucked free her arrow, taking half its neck with those barbs. The creature transformed, growing reptilian, with snakelike eyes and scaly skin.
When it snapped its now elongated fangs at her, she turned the arrow lengthwise, pressing the shaft down over what was left of its neck. As blood sprayed up her arms, she grinned. Lucia had just beheaded the thing when her ears twitched with awareness yet again. She leapt back to her feet, eyes darting as she drew free her bow and nocked another arrow. Something close. The male. She sensed it was him—but how had he gotten the drop on her? She peered into the shadows and almost gasped when golden eyes glowed back.
On occasion, she acted as a negotiator between factions because she was so patient and levelheaded—or so everyone thought. Perhaps he sought her help to solve some grievance. The male stalked closer to her, ignoring the natural path, heading directly for her.
A Lykae had made her the object of its interest.
Never a good development. The mud had washed clean, revealing the perfection of his still-bare chest and torso and all the strong planes of his face. His chin was stubborn with a hint of a cleft, his skin tan, with those faint laugh lines etched beside golden eyes. Rain spiked his lashes. His thick hair was wet and dark, whipping across his lean cheeks. His gaze met hers for long moments before he leisurely took in every feature of her face.
She frowned as a sense of awareness seemed to tingle through her every nerve. When his gaze dipped to her body, he raised a shaking hand to run over his mouth, clearly liking what he saw.
Act reasonable and serious. Above all things be rational. They began circling each other. Had the corner of his lips briefly curled? I did something entirely different with him. She stifled the memories that had begun to surface more and more often.
The black ash wood was polished to a sheen and carved with elaborate inscriptions. In a long-dead language, it was written that Lucia was a servant to the goddess Skathi. But to marry talent and beauty such as yours as well?
Hardly sporting to other lasses. Her hair was drenched. Her clothes were boring—a serviceable pair of shorts and a plain T-shirt. She wore no makeup or jewelry, but then, she never did. A celibate in plain clothes. A shadow in the background.
Unfortunately, the two species resembled each other with their elven features. That was where all similarities ended. What are you talking about? Valkyrie are notoriously difficult to seduce. No talk of a date, of courting, just sex. Not to mention that you smell of mash and distillery. Be still my heart. As if she were jealous. A spark of disquiet arose in her. You have a darkness in you, Lucia, Skathi had warned her eons ago. You must constantly be vigilant against it.
Yes, vigilant. Lucia needed to get home, away from this rumbling-voiced werewolf. A face like his had been her undoing once, a handsome face that had concealed a monster. So surreal. They lobbed the pieces into the murky water. Her task done, she brushed off her hands and turned for home. He followed. And my kind considers yours little better than animals.
What a way of putting it. Tell me your name. With his thick Scottish accent, the werewolf pronounced it Lousha. She just stopped herself from shivering. She had no business responding to him. Which she could never give—even if she wanted to—without disaster. So why was her gaze descending along his damp chest? Her eyes followed the trail of hair from his navel down to the low-slung waist of his worn jeans, then lower.
She realized he must have been doing the same perusal of her—because the bulge grew. Her nipples were straining against the wet material of her shirt, and he was staring hard at them as if he wanted to remove her top—with his mind. When their eyes met once more, his flickered blue again, reminding her anew of why interacting with him was unwise.
Though I might wish it otherwise. When I mean you no harm? So she shot him in the heart. Or four inches to the right, having decided at the last second to vary her aim by a degree. The arrow landed in his solid chest, drilling through his muscles until only the flights were visible. What a wild, mad Lykae. She schooled her features. You were saying? Now three wounds marred his gorgeous body, three trails of blood tracking over the rises and falls of rock-hard muscle.
You doona want to kill me, which is a good sign. Maybe this is your way of flirting? Damn it, he kept coming for her. Unless they had it coming. If I help you remove them, will you leave me alone?
He reached behind him, now able to just snag the tip. Clenching his jaw, he threaded the arrow through his chest, the flights disappearing beneath the surface of his skin as he pulled it out from his back. While she gaped at his resilience, he cast the bloody arrow aside, then started on the next, repeating the process.