Home > Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(15)

Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(15)
Author: Kresley Cole

Raum bit out a curse. "Gourlav."

Mutters sounded in the crowd.

-"That's the Father of Terrors."-

-"He's a pre-demon, a primordial."-

-"If a drop of his blood hits the ground, a monster will spring up."-

Looking furious, Raum said, "For once, the rumors have it right."

"I don't understand? What will happen?"

"If anyone so much as nicks one of his veins, he'll spawn hideous new creatures bent on annihilating anyone who thinks to harm their 'father.' "

Cas was about to be caged in-with that nightmarish being? "Can't we kick the primordial out? Why wasn't he in the procession?"

"The procession was just a formality. Someone signed a proxy contract to enter him. There's no way to expel him, no barring entry to any Lorean."

Raum's craggy brow furrowed, sending a chill of unease through Bettina. This was the first look of regret he'd evinced over the tournament.

He'd been so positive that this was the right course-good for commerce, "good to show other Loreans that we're a free and open kingdom." He'd waved away all her concerns, and the concerns of the people; Bettina had overheard him assuring his cronies that a demon of some kind would have to prevail.

They'd surely never expected a demon of the primordial variety.

As the gate clanged shut behind Gourlav, Bettina's stomach lurched. There was so much danger to Cas. Over all their years together, he'd been a lifeline, a mentor, a guide, and a protector. Now Bettina wanted to protect him.

But couldn't. No amber light boiled up from her palms, no destructive sorcery.

She reminded herself how skilled Cas was, how quick. He's safe from Daciano. . . .

"Might as well get this over with," Raum muttered. He gave the signal.

At once, the great horn sounded. The crowd's roar grew deafening.

Many competitors charged for weapons, and within seconds the clang of steel rang out.

Then came . . . chaos.

Blood sprayed as if from moving fountains; bone cracked. Yells of agony carried over the drum of the crowd.

The Volar demon flew above, then dove to strike a fire demon, its razor-sharp talons slicing through flesh. So reminiscent of the Vrekeners . . . She flinched and gazed away.

The smaller Cerunno had used its meaty tail to spring up to the top of the cage, coiling around the bars to suspend its body upside down. Swinging like a grotesque pendulum, it snatched an unsuspecting foe up to his death.

Caspion had seized a razor whip, using it to lasso a centaur's neck. Though the creature kicked and reared, Cas used all his considerable strength to tighten that noose.

"Come on, Cas!" Bettina yelled.

Tighter, tighter . . .

Suddenly the centaur's head popped off, neck spurting arterial blood. Abaddonae yelled with delight.

And with that one kill, Cas had just become more powerful, a death demon collecting strength.

The Lykae slashed and mauled, biting the throat of its opponent until head and body no longer connected. The pyromasters hurled balls of flame; competitors screamed as their skin sizzled.

The scent of roasting flesh increased Bettina's nausea. Any lingering fog in the area evaporated away in the heat.

The other vampire seemed to have Daciano in his sights, but the Lykae began stalking the red-eyed lord, keeping him on the run.

Gourlav? He squatted near one side of the cage, running a knife under his claws, casually cleaning them. Everyone gave him a wide berth.

With cold, precise moves, Daciano methodically cut his way toward the larger Cerunno, which had a crocodilae shifter coiled in its serpentine tail. Though the shifter heaved its body in a death roll, it couldn't get free.

The Cerunno widened its jaws and struck. Fangs the size of blades sank into the shifter's thick hide over and over, puncturing its neck until the Cerunno simply pulled the creature's head free, like a joint of tender meat.

It gave a short victory hiss up to the sky. Mistake. Daciano used that brief second to trace behind it.

The vampire's sword flashed out so quickly, Bettina didn't actually see the blade slicing through the air.

The creature whirled around to attack Daciano.

But the movement made its head slide from its sheared neck, tumbling to the blood-soaked ground. Daciano's sword cut was as clean as a laser incision.

Raum patted her shoulder, startling her. "There, m'girl, that should make you feel better! A Cerunno down. See, I told you this would work out. And look at Caspion." Cas was easily winning a hand-to-hand skirmish with another demon, and actually looked to be . . . enjoying himself?

Her gaze slid to Daciano again. Sheathing his sword, the vampire traced once more, dodging a spear jab to the back, then attacked one of the storm demons, the one who'd called out those vile things earlier.

With what looked to be a practiced maneuver, Daciano seized its horns; the armored male bellowed and thrashed.

To capture such a warrior in his hold . . . Her lips parted. The vampire's strength was unimaginable.

Then Daciano cast her a steady, questioning glance, as if to ask, A boon to be rid of this one too?

Her temper got the better of her as she recalled the demon's disgusting words. I'm only here to plow the princess! Feeling not an ounce of regret, she gave a nod.

Arm muscles bulging beneath his shirt, Daciano shifted his grip. Without so much as a sound-or even a change of expression-he twisted the demon's head on its neck. One rotation. A second. Then he ripped it free with his bare hands.

Before the demon's head had bounced beside its fallen body, the vampire had already seized a second demon competitor. Another questioning glance at her.

So that was what he meant about expanding their arrangement!

Bettina bit her lip, peering around. How bad could these boons be? Daciano wouldn't hurt her; he'd proved that last night. She was his Bride, so he'd want only what was best for her, right?

And he might die in tomorrow's bouts, or even momentarily! How many boons could he collect on before he got killed?

Or maybe she was simply drunk on this power?

Another nod; one instant later, the male was dead.

As she watched Daciano fight-no, fight wasn't the right word; as she watched him ruthlessly execute his opponents, she fully comprehended why Caspion had been certain he would die.

Trehan Daciano's trade was killing. And he was a master of his trade.

Yet as long as he was doing her bidding, he was like an extension of her-a weapon to be utilized. Oh, yes, the power!

Daciano grabbed the repulsive pus demon-who'd actually made a kill-and flashed her an expression that said, Well?

She got greedy. Another nod to the vampire . . . then another.

Before she'd realized how deep in she was, she'd agreed to five boons. I won't agree to any more. That's it!

But then she saw Caspion besieged by enemies, teaming up to take him out. Assuming he was a kingdomwide favorite? Daciano hadn't needed to point that out after all.

One Ajatar had lashed Caspion's leg with a whip, preventing him from tracing. A second raised a handful of fire, readying to bomb Cas with it.

She turned to her godfather, begging under her breath, "Raum, the horn!"

"Caspion will pull out of this. He must! If I end it now, everyone will know why. He will lose the respect he's earned."

"Please! He could die."

Raum couldn't be moved. "Might maketh right, Bettina."

Only one thing could save Cas now. Help him, Daciano! she inwardly cried. Gods, she would do anything, would agree to any number of boons to save Cas.

As if he'd heard her, Daciano glanced up with a scowl, then to Cas and back. He held up five fingers.

She nodded instantly, not even pausing to consider what this would mean in the future.

At once, Daciano traced in front of Caspion, his sword slashing out with breathtaking speed. With one swing, he cleaved through the waists of the Ajatars-and the whip holding Cas. Another swing, and Daciano's bloody sword took the pair's four heads.

Cas staggered back in confusion, no doubt wondering why Daciano hadn't slain him as well. Only then did Raum give the signal to end the melee.

Just as the great horn began to sound, Daciano vanished, reappearing once more before the Horde vampire.

Slash.

The red-eyed vampire's head toppled as the horn's blast faded. . . .

At least three dozen others had fallen-although the melee had lasted not ten minutes. Even the bloodthirsty crowd had quieted, gaping at the carnage.

Gradually the remaining contestants dropped their weapons, backing away from each other. Most began limping toward the sanctum entrance. Their eyes burned with emotion-rage, fear, even excitement-from the hell they'd just endured.

But not Daciano. His eyes were a steady, compelling green-and locked on her.

Raum counted the fallen then announced, "So concludes the first night! Congratulations to the one hundred and ninety-two survivors. Tomorrow will commence the one-on-one, randomly drawn bouts. Each contestant may bring one cold weapon into the ring-a sword, a lance, a club, a mace, and so on. The bouts begin at sunset. Good eve!"

A group of jubilant young Abaddonae had already surrounded Cas, but Daciano remained amidst the bodies, blood splattered over his clothing, rivulets of it running down his grim face as he gazed up at her.

He'd killed so ruthlessly, yet so . . . calmly. Bettina had never seen anything like him.

And she owed that dangerous male her favors.

He'd taken out five competitors just for her and had saved Cas. But not for long. If Cas faces Daciano, he is as good as dead. A small sob escaped her lips.

Daciano simply stared at her, as if there were nothing else on earth worth beholding.

Trehan was up to his ankles in blood, viscera, and writhing corpses.

Freshly slain bodies of all species would often twitch, but immortal corpses and body parts clung tenaciously to life. Severed hands still clenched and unclenched. Mouths opened on soundless screams. The faces on severed heads changed expressions before freezing into grimaces of pain.

He supposed it was fitting that Bettina see him like this, without shadows to conceal him, his true nature exposed. This is what I bring to you.

If you need a protector, this is what I offer.

Her lips were parted, her eyes wide behind her mask. He inclined his head to her, acknowledging for whom he'd fought.

Tonight he'd been Bettina Abaddon's champion. And zeii mea, it'd felt good to kill for her!

When he started for her, she gasped, turning to Raum, who was now waylaid by outraged delegates, each demanding his champion's release from the blood contract.

-"I never would have entered my son if I'd known Gourlav would be in the lists."-

-"Not to mention the remaining vampire! Who the hell is he? What is his line?"-

-"The word contest indicates a fighting chance, demon!"-

Apparently those idiots hadn't realized that Raum was not to be ordered about. The grand duke's chest was bowed even more, his horns straightening with hostility.

Bettina wisely turned from that group without a word. She glanced at Caspion, who was surrounded by a throng of admiring demonesses, which clearly irritated her.

That wastrel had a female like Bettina wanting him. But he was too stupid to see what was just before him.

His loss. If it's the last thing I do, I'll make sure of it.

Chapter 16

The vampire was coming for her. So naturally, Bettina had chosen to flee.

Of course the one time she'd hoped for Morgana's intrusiveness in her life-if anyone could devise a way out of a bargain it would be the wily sorceress-her guardian had left. Raum was busy, Salem nowhere to be found.

Cas was . . . occupied.

Bettina glanced over her shoulder. Vampire still nearing. She peered around for anyone to talk to, but suspected Daciano wouldn't be stopped anyway.

When he traced in front of her, she drew up short. Snared.

"We've ten favors between us," he grated, taking back the coat she'd forgotten she still held. "Are you prepared to pay what you owe?"

She parted her lips to answer, only to fall silent as she peered up at him. "Your eyes were green the entire time."

"Why is this noteworthy?"

"All that killing and blood, all those screams and flames, and you're unaffected." In a way, he reminded her of . . . of gold-a noble metal that didn't react to most other elements.

"I'm accustomed to death and all its faces. But when I think about last night, I'm utterly affected." At once, his eyes flooded black.

In turn, she grew breathless, flushed, that awareness redoubling. The more she tried not to think about last night, the more images arose in her mind . . . his big hand between her legs, his hot mouth on her ni**les.

Voice gone husky, he murmured, "Your irises grow lighter, female. I'm not the only one who enjoyed what happened between us."

She swallowed. "Because I thought you were another." She glanced over at Cas. A horde of females cooed over his slight injuries, jockeying to fondle his muscles. Bettina wondered if she had any place at all in his thoughts.

Daciano gripped her upper arm, drawing her attention back. "I ask you again, will you pay what you owe?"

She raised her chin. "Up to a point."

"To a point? That wasn't one of the terms of the deal."

"I'm still a lady-a princess! I expect to be treated as such. And I'm still embroiled in this tournament. As soon as this farce began, I knew I'd be held to certain . . . standards." By ancient law, Bettina could be stoned to death for breaking the terms of the contract. "I won't jeopardize my life by sleeping with you."

"Meet me in my tent at midnight, and I promise you," he said, his voice dropping even lower, "that I will treat you like a lady." Such innocuous words, but the way he said them . . .

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