The warlord wants foreve.., p.1
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       The Warlord Wants Forever, p.1

         Part #1 of Immortals After Dark series by Kresley Cole  
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The Warlord Wants Forever
Chapter One

 

  The Origin of the Valkyrie

  Into the blood-splattered snow, the lone warrior fell to one knee and shuddered with weakness. Still, an arm shot out to raise a sword against the oncoming legion.

  Her dented breastplate swallowed her small form.

  The winds howled, whipping her hair, but she heard the twang of the bowstring unleashed. She screamed in fury; the arrow punctured the center of her armor, the blow sending her flying back.

  The arrow had pierced through metal, then barely through her breastbone, just enough that her heart met the point with each beat. The beating of her own brave heart was killing her.

  But her scream had woken two nearby gods sleeping together through a brutal, wintry decade. They stirred and looked down upon the maiden, seeing in her eyes courage burning bright. Bravery and will had marked her entire life, but the light ebbed with death and they mourned it.

  Freya, the female god, whispered that they should take her courage and preserve it for eternity because it was so precious.

  Woden agreed, and together they gave up lightning to cleave through the ether and strike the dying maiden.

  The light was violent and slow to fade and made the army tremble.

  When blackness cloyed once more, the healed maiden woke in a strange place. She was untouched, her human mortality unchanged. But soon an immortal daughter would be born from her - a daughter who possessed her courage, Woden's wily brilliance, and Freya's mirth and fey beauty. Though this daughter enjoyed the power of lightning for sustenance, she also inherited Woden's arrogance and Freya's acquisitiveness, which merely endeared her to them more.

  The gods were content and the maiden adoring of her new baby. Yet after an age had flickered past, the gods heard another female call out for courage as she died from a battle against a dark enemy. She wasn't a human, but a Furie, one among the Lore - that strata of clever beings who have convinced humans that they exist only in imagination. Scarce moments had the creature - in the freezing night her breaths were no longer visible.

  "Our halls are great, yet our family is small," Freya said, her eyes sparkling so brightly a mariner in the north was briefly blinded by the stars and almost lost his way.

  Grim Woden took her hand, unable to deny her. Those surrounding the dying Furie saw lightning rent the sky once more.

  And it would strike again and again in the coming years, continuing on well after female warriors - be they human, demoness, siren, changeling or any brave creature from the Lore - knew to pray for it as they died.

  Thus the Valkyrie were born.

  Chapter One

  Five years ago

  Mt. Oblak Castle, Russia

  If the overgrown vampire didn't stop staring at her face, even his wicked talent with his sword wouldn't keep his head upon his shoulders.

  The thought made Myst, an immortal known as the Coveted One, grin as she curled up in the windowsill of her cell. Leaning against the reinforced bars, she watched the two vampire armies battle below as she might a rumble from the back of bleachers.

  The poor warlord with his broad shoulders and jet-black hair was about to join a legion of other males whose last sight on earth was her smiling face -

  She frowned when he ducked and ran through his enemy. He was a big male, at least six and a half feet tall, but he was surprisingly fast. Tilting her head, she studied him. He was good. She knew fighting and liked his style. Dirty. He'd cut with his sword then strike out with his fist, or duck a parry then throw an elbow. It amused her to watch, but what she wouldn't give to be down there fighting. In the middle. Against both sides. Against him.

  She fought dirtier.

  His gaze continued to stray to her, and once he'd even killed while his eyes were still on her. She'd blown him a kiss, sincerely, choosing to see it as a tribute.

  He found time to glance back even as he thundered orders and gave commands to the army of vampires around him, showing brilliance in strategy. She examined it all as though watching Decisive Battles on A&E and grudgingly noted the effectiveness of his army's acid grenades and guns.

  The creatures of the Lore scorned human weapons like these. The only ones such weapons could kill were humans, which was beyond nonsporting. Yet that was the thing about bullets - aside from ruining perfectly good couture, they hurt and could immobilize an immortal for precious seconds. Long enough for a dirty fighter to take your head. Done enough times, they could help take an "untakable" castle like Ivo the Cruel's.

  Myst hardly cared that Ivo, her jailer and tormentor, was about to have his ass handed to him by this warlord with his forbidden modern weapons. Her situation would not change, for these rebels, turned humans known as the Forbearers, were still vampires. A blood foe is a blood foe is a blood foe. . .

  An explosion rocked the castle, and sparks and bits of debris wafted down from the roof of Myst's cell. The low creatures in the dank holds down the corridor howled with impotent fury, increasing in urgency with each successive blast, until it was. . . over. Silence. An aftershock here and there, a muted whimper. . .

  The defense of this castle was no more, its inhabitants having disappeared - by tracing, as the Lore called teleporting - leaving no more than an airy draft and the burned records of their Horde.

  She could hear the rebels searching the bowels of this place but could've told them they wouldn't find any of their enemies. The denizens here had not been a fight-to-the-death sort, more of a he who fights and runs away, lives to run away another day type.

  Shortly after, she heard heavy boots clicking on the stone floor of the dungeon and knew it was the warlord. He crossed directly to her cell and stood before it.

  From her perch, curled in the window, she examined the vampire up close. He had thick, straight black hair that hung over his face in uneven sections, no doubt from where he'd sheared it off with his blade months ago, and never thought to cut it since. Some hanks were kept from his field of vision with those small ravel plaits like the berserkers used to wear. He had scars on his hands, and his big body was powerful and cut with muscle. She wanted to purr - because apparently central casting had just sent down the consummate virile warlord.

  "Come down from there and show yourself. " Deep voice. Russian accent, moneyed, aristocratic.

  "Or what? You'll lock me away in a dungeon?"

  "I might free you. "

  She was at the bars before he'd had time to lower his gaze from the window. Had his squared jaw slackened just the smallest bit? She listened for a quickening of his heart, but found none because there was no heartbeat whatsoever. So the vampire was single? His eyes were clear of the red haze that marked bloodlust, which meant he had never drunk a being to death. But then a Forbearer eschewed taking living blood through the flesh altogether.

  When he saw her face up close, the key wasn't immediately in the lock as it usually would have been, but his lips parted, exposing his fangs for her to see. Of course his would be sexy - not too prominent or even much longer than a human's canines.

  When she saw the short splendid scar that passed down both of his lips, lightning struck just outside, but he didn't flinch at the bolt or even glance up - he was too busy staring back at her.

  Scars, any external evidence of pain, attracted Myst. Pain forged strength. Strength begat electricity. This one could give it to her.

  It was possible he was even missing an eye under a thick hank of hair.

  She stifled a throaty growl as her hand shot out to brush his hair back. But he was quick, catching her wrist. She curled one finger in a beckoning gesture, and after a moment he released her, allowing her to reach forward. She brushed his hair back, revealing a hard-planed, masculine face covered with grit and ash from the battle.

  He was still in possession of both of his eyes and they were intense. Gun-metal gray.

  When her hand dropped, his brows drew together, perhaps at her blatant interest, or perhaps at her fingers already stroking the bars in invitation as she stared at his mouth. She was surprised by how carnal she found it, especially since the vampire could use it to hurt her.

  The smooth gold chain that she'd worn at her waist for millennia now felt heavy on her.

  "What are you?" he asked in his pleasingly low voice. She realized then that his accent wasn't Russian, but from that of neighboring Eesti. The general was Estonian, which made him a kind of Nordic Russian, though she was sure he wouldn't appreciate that description.

  She frowned at his question and pulled back her hair to show him her pointed ear. "Nothing?" She parted her lips and tapped her tongue against her smaller dormant fangs. No recognition.

  Apparently, the rumors were true. Here was a leader in this army, a general most likely, and he hadn't a clue that she was his mortal enemy. He would think she was fey or a nymph. She'd prefer fey because she'd cringe to be confused with one of those little hookers -

  She shook her head. As long as he didn't know she was Valkyrie it worked for her.

  Killing the unwitting Forbearers would be easy for her and her sisters. Too easy. Almost like being your own secret Santa.

  Myst had just confirmed rumors in the Lore that whispered of asses and elbows and this Horde's inability to differentiate between the two.

  ***

  "What are you?" Nikolai Wroth demanded again, surprised his voice was steady.

  When he'd seen her in the light, he'd felt like exhaling a stunned breath - if his kind respired - for she was strikingly lovely, with a beauty only hinted at from the distance of the battlefield. He'd been attracted to that face to his reckless peril.

  Though she had expected him to recognize her kind, all he could determine was that she wasn't human and that he hadn't a clue what she might be. Her ears said fey, but she also had the smallest fangs.

  "Free me," the creature said. Flawless skin, coral pink lips, flame red hair. The eyes that flickered over him appraisingly were an impossible green.

  The way she held the bars was suggestive - everything about her was. . . suggestive.

  "Swear fealty to my king, and I will free you. "

  "I can't do that, but you've no right to keep me here. "

  His brother Murdoch passed by then, raised his eyebrows at Wroth's discovery, and muttered in Estonian, "Sweet Christ. " Then he walked on. Why was Wroth unable to do the same?

  "What's your name?" He wasn't used to his questions going unanswered.

  Another stroke of the bars. "What do you want it to be?"

  He scowled. "Are you a vampire?"

  "Not the last time I checked. " Her voice was sensual. He couldn't place her accent, but it was drawling, honeyed.

  "Are you innocent of malice against us?"

  She waved a dismissing hand. "Oh, good God, no! I love, love, love to kill leeches. "

  "Then rot in here. " As if she could kill a vampire. She was scarcely over five feet tall and delicately built - aside from her generous breasts showcased in her tight shirt.

  Just before he turned, he saw her eyes narrow. "I smell smoke," she called after him. "Ivo the Cruel burned his records before he fled, didn't he?"

  Wroth stilled, clenching his fists because he'd have to return.

  "He did," he grated at the cell once more.

  "And this new king's army is full of Forbearers - turned humans? It matters little. I'm sure the king is very knowledgeable about the vampire Horde's extensive list of enemies within the Lore. He wouldn't need this castle's millennia's worth of records. In fact, I'm positive that that is not the reason you chose this stronghold over the four others, including the royal seat. "

  How did she know their agenda so well?

  Wroth could plan battles and sieges - he'd earned his rank by this victory alone - but he knew nothing of this new world to advance the army. Unfortunately, he wasn't the only one.

  The blind leading the blind. When they'd found the records reduced to a smoldering heap of ash, that's what Kristoff had muttered.

  "You think to bargain for your freedom? If you do happen to have information, I can get it from you. "

  "Torture?" she asked with a laugh. "My first piece of information I'll divulge to you? I wouldn't recommend trying to torture me. I dislike it and grow sulky under pincers. It's a fault. "

  The things in the cells, many of which he'd never even heard of, never could have envisioned, howled and grunted at that.

  "Now let's not quarrel, vampire. Free me, and we'll go to your room and talk. " She offered her fragile-looking hand out to him. A smudge of ash was stark against her alabaster skin.

  "I don't think so. "

  "You'll call for me. You'll be lonely in your new quarters and will feel out of sorts. I could let you pet my hair until you fell asleep. "

  He drew in closer and lowered his voice to ask in all seriousness, "You're mad, aren't you?"

  "As - a - hatter," she whispered back conspiratorially.

  He felt a hint of sympathy for the creature. "How long have you been in here?"

  "For four long. . . interminable. . . days. "

  He glowered at her.

  "Which is why I want you to take me with you. I don't eat much. "

  The dungeon erupted with laughter again.

  "Don't hold your breath. "

  "Certainly not like you, Forbearer. "

  "How do you know what I am?"

  "I know everything. "

  Then, if true, she had a wealth they didn't.

  "Leave her," Murdoch called at the gateway of the dungeon. His brows were drawn, no doubt puzzled by his brother's interest. Wroth had never pursued women. As a human, they'd either come to him or he'd gone without. He'd had no time in wartime. As a vampire he had no such need. Not until he could find his Bride.

  He shook his head at the insane, fey creature, then forced himself to walk on, though he thought he heard her whisper, "Call for me, General," making the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

  He followed his brother to Kristoff's new antechamber and found their king gazing out into the clear night from a generous window - that would be shuttered in the few hours till dawn. When he turned to them, his gaunt face looked weary.

  Wroth suspected it had been difficult killing other natural born vampires, his own kindred, no matter how crazed they'd become, and no matter that they followed his uncle Demestriu, who'd stolen his crown centuries ago. Wroth had no such compunctions. He was weary but only from injury and his sword arm being overworked as he hacked through them.

  "Were any of the records salvageable?" Wroth asked with little hope. If the vampires of this castle had spent as much energy fighting as burning, they might have kept Oblak. To his disgust, they'd fled. He didn't understand it. When defending your home, you defend to the death.

  He had.

  Kristoff answered, "None. "

  Without the records, their own ignorance would kill them. Kristoff, the rightful king, had been raised by humans far from Demestriu's reach. For centuries, he had lived among them, hiding his true nature yet learning little of the Lore. His army consisted of human warriors he'd turned as they died on the battlefield, so they knew nothing. Before Wroth had seen Kristoff standing over him like an angel of death, offering eternal life for eternal fealty, Wroth had thought vampires were mere myths.

  The rules of this new world were complex and often counterintuitive, and their order knew little more than conjecture and what had been learned by painful trial over centuries. They were trapped in a kind of twilight - not human and yet universally shunned by all the factions of the Lore. Those beings hid in the shadows, fleeing from whatever land Kristoff's army occupied, working together to always be one step ahead. Wroth's human experience said they should have been able to get information by now, but the reality was that this was a different plane altogether. The same effort that went into hiding the Lore from humans for ages went into keeping Kristoff's soldiers in the dark as well.

  "Any sign of Conrad or Sebastian?" Kristoff asked.

  Wroth shook his head. He hadn't seen his brothers since shortly after they'd been turned, but he'd heard they'd been in a skirmish with natural born vampires. Though he and Murdoch hadn't expected to find their brothers here, they had hoped the two might be in the dungeons of the castle they'd strategically needed to take.

  "Perhaps the next Horde stronghold. "

  Wroth nodded, though he doubted it. He sensed his youngest brother Bastian was dead and suspected the mind of the next oldest, Conrad, was unreachable even if he could be found. The two had not appreciated the eternal life their older brothers had forced on them.

  Murdoch examined a gouge in his arm, seeming unconcerned with this blow, but then he generally seemed unconcerned about everything. Though they shared similar looks, he and Wroth couldn't be more different in personality. Wroth believed in Kristoff's cause, seeing many parallels to his own past, and wanted to continue to fight. Murdoch didn't particularly care. Wroth suspected his brother fought only as a favor to him - or because they had nothing else now.

  "Wroth found a being in the dungeon," Murdoch said. "She seems to have extensive knowledge of the Lore. "

  "What kind of being?"

  Wroth answered, "I have no idea. She appears fey, delicate, with sharply pointed ears. But she has these small fangs and her fingernails were more like. . . claws. She's not vampire. "

  Kristoff frowned at that. "Perhaps she's born of more than one species?"

  "Perhaps. " More speculation. Wroth was sick of it. He wanted to know the rules of the game so he could dominate it.

  "Find out everything you can from her. "

  "She won't talk. I've interrogated enough to know she'll hint but never truly divulge. And she hates vampires. "

  Kristoff pinched his forehead. "Then tomorrow night if we haven't gotten information from the rest of the prisoners, we treat her as the Horde she hates would. Torture her for the information if you can't get it any other way. "

  Wroth nodded, but the idea sat ill with him. As a human he'd been merciless to his enemies, but he'd never tortured a woman. She wasn't truly a woman, he reminded himself. She was a female among the Lore, and their army's survival could depend on the knowledge she held.

  Perhaps he'd never tortured a woman because he'd never needed to.

  The creature had been right, Wroth thought as a guard showed him to his new chambers. He was going to call her up to him.

  To do what with her, he didn't know.
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