Pleasure of a Dark Prince, страница 1часть #9 серии Immortals After Dark
Thrymheim Hold, the Northlands
Home of Skathi, goddess of the hunt
In ages long past. . .
Lucia the Maiden cracked open her eyes and found herself atop an altar, staring up at a furious goddess. Somehow her younger sister, Regin the Radiant, had found Skathi's temple and had brought Lucia here.
From one altar to the next, she thought deliriously as her fever raged. Pain roiled inside her broken body. Her fractured limbs. . . never had she imagined such agony.
"You deliver this into my sacred place," Skathi the Huntress of the Great North said to Regin, "and desecrate my altar? You court my wrath, young Valkyrie. "
Regin - all of twelve years old, with Lucia's blood covering her glowing skin - said, "What can you do? Torture my sister? Murder her? She has already survived the first and is about to succumb to the second without your aid. "
"I could murder both of you. "
In answer, Regin pursed her lips, looking as if she were sizing up Skathi's shins for a good kicking.
Lucia struggled for consciousness, labored to speak. "Don't hurt her, please. . . my fault, my fault. . . " But her words were drowned out by a rumbling boom. This hold was carved into the heights of Godsbellow Mountain, shaken continually by thunder.
Skathi asked Regin, "Why bring her here?"
"Because you're both neighbor and nemesis to the one who did this. "
Had interest flickered in the goddess's eyes? "The Broken Bloody One?"
Canting her head at Regin in an appraising way, Skathi said, "You're not even old enough to be a true immortal yet. For one so powerless and insignificant, you dare much, Valkyrie. "
"For Lucia, I dare this and more," Regin answered proudly. "Best be forewarned. "
"Regin!" Lucia gasped. The girl had lost her mind.
"What?" She stomped her foot. "What'd I say?"
Instead of smiting Regin, the goddess impatiently gestured for her guards, the legendary Skathians. They were renowned archers, all females who underwent grueling training rituals to serve the goddess. "Take the glowing one down the mountain. Make sure she does not remember the way back. "
When Regin charged toward her, Lucia cried, "Nay, Regin. . . leave me!"
The Skathians snagged Regin around the waist, forcing her out as she flailed and shrieked, biting them.
Lucia heard one of them say, "Ow! You little ratling!" And then they were gone.
Skathi regarded Lucia's battered face impassively. "You worry for her? When she has been spared? You, however, will not last the hour. "
"I know," Lucia whispered. "Unless you help me. " She caught Skathi's gaze as she pleaded - a mistake to look directly upon the great and terrible goddess. Meeting her fathomless eyes brought on the sorrow and fear of all her prey over the ages. It sank over Lucia like a bitter frost. "Please. . . . " When Lucia held up her crimson-stained hand in supplication, the wound across her torso she'd been holding welled with blood, flowing over her sides. 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.
"You made your decision, Valkyrie," the goddess said in answer. "And reaped what you sowed when you disobeyed those you were born to obey. Why should I help you?"
Because I've only lived sixteen years, Lucia thought, but she knew that wouldn't sway Skathi, a timeless being who could scarcely comprehend death - or youth.
"Because I'll do. . . whatever you ask of me," Lucia said at last. The shuddering was getting worse; the altar beneath her was so cold. "P-pay any price. "
"If I saved you, I would impart my essence to you. A being like you would bear my mark of favor and be tied to the bow forever," Skathi said, strolling to an opening overlooking her mountain, guarded by miles of deadly woods that swallowed unwary travelers. Lucia barely remembered traversing the mystical forest as Regin dragged her across portals and dales for days.
"Lucia, I'm taking you to Skathi!"
"She will. . . not help. "
"She will! The Skathians fight him every five hundred years. . . . "
Thunder boomed once more, the sound seeming to soothe the goddess. "Where my followers have sacrificed to become expert markswomen, you would simply be gifted with my hunting skills. An unequaled archer, better than them all. Why do you think you're worthy of that? When they have trained so hard? When they are pure of heart - and body?"
The Skathians lived by an ascetic code - and despised men. I understand why now.
"They are not tainted as you are," Skathi continued. "As you willingly offered yourself up to be. "
Dim memories arose of her last nine days as prisoner of Crom Cruach - the Broken Bloody One, a monster with the face of an angel. Had that animal bitten her? She refused to look down at her body, but she suspected he'd gnawed at her skin once she'd blacked out. And that she'd fought him before she'd mindlessly jumped from his lair - chunks of scaly flesh were still embedded beneath her claws.
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 didn't know. . . . I never knew. " Regret washed over her. "I'll s-sacrifice anything, Skathi. "
"Gifts from gods always come with a price. Are you ready to pay mine?"
Lucia nodded weakly. "I can become. . . p-pure hearted. And I'll shun men. " She must know I'll never be fooled again.
"Virgin from this day forward?" After a long moment, Skathi said, "You escaped the Broken Bloody One this time - courage, or cowardice, making you leap - yet Cruach will come for you in the next Accession if he escapes his jail. "
Yes, but by that time I'll be truly immortal. I'll run farther, faster.
"He shall merely do this again. Unless. . . you fight him. "
"I want to fight him. " She never wanted to see his hideous visage again.
"Every five hundred years, he would become your bane and you his jailer. "
"Let me live to face him. " Lying to a goddess? But Lucia was desperate.
Skathi's face took on a thoughtful mien. "Yes, I have decided to heal you and make you an Archer - so long as you remain chaste. 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. "
Dizziness overwhelmed Lucia. She was so confused. "About to suffer?" This torment could not be worse?
"Yes, pain to hone your mind. Agony to sharpen your resolve like a blade stone. " As she placed her milk-white hands over Lucia's torso, Skathi murmured, "Ah, young Lucia, in the end, I believe you shall wish I'd let you perish. " The goddess's palms began to glow with blue light.
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.
"You'll be my weapon," Skathi cried, her face becoming a frenzied mask. "You'll be my instrument!"
On and on, the light burned, until abruptly there was none. 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.
"Welcome back to life - to your new life. You are now an Archer. " Skathi met her eyes, and Lucia felt the weight of overweening dre
"Munro, you daft git, pass the ball!" Garreth Mac-Rieve yelled at his kinsman over the thunder and howling winds.
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. . . not numb. And that in itself was a feat.
Munro flipped him off but did finally sling him the