It wants to mark my flesh… The full moon beat light down on a canvas of snow and barren trees, making Mariah’s hunter green dress glow as distinctly as a beacon for the beast pursuing her. Mark me with its teeth, she thought wildly as she leapt across an icy rivulet. When the beast’s frenzied roar echoed through the forest, she stumbled at the embankment. Frantically scrambling up, she continued her flight for home. Birch branches clawed at her hair and raked her cold-numbed face. As she twisted from their grasp, snow began to fall once more, blurring her vision. Another bellow in the dark silenced night creatures; the sound of her ragged breaths became deafening. Bowen, the man she’d loved since she was a girl, had warned her of the full moon, preparing her: “I will change, Mariah. I canna control it. And you are vulnerable to harm still… ” She’d insisted on meeting him this night, because she’d known how critical this time was for him—and because she was anxious to make up for denying his desires again and again. But then, at this last hour, her courage failed her. She’d looked upon the face of her beloved, and the moon had revealed a monster in his place. It had known she was horrified. Its eyes, glowing ice blue, had been filled with an animallike yearning until they narrowed with comprehension. “Run… Mariah,” it had grated in an unfamiliar rasp.
“Get to the… castle. Lock yourself away… from me.” She could hear him crashing toward her, ever nearer, but she was almost there. Reaching the edge of the forest, she saw her home in the snowy plain below her—a castle towering amidst the confluence of their kingdom’s three great rivers. So close. Mariah raced for the familiar winding path that would lead her down. As soon as she alighted upon it, movement exploded before her eyes. Suddenly the air teemed with ravens, shooting up all around her, wings batting her numbed face. Swinging at them blindly, she stumbled and lost her footing on the icy, root-strewn path. Weightlessness… falling… tumbling down the side of the ravine… The impact wrenched the breath from her lungs and made her sight darken.
Falling still… When she landed at the bottom, it was to a sickening wet sound as some force punched through her stomach. Unimaginable pain erupted through her. She gaped in incomprehension at the sharp stump jutting up from her body. No… No… cannot be. As the pain dimmed to only a chilling sensation of pressure within her, she weakly grasped the remains of an axed-down birch, felled by one of her kingdom’s woodsmen. With each breath, blood bubbled from her mouth. It dripped from her face into the snow, as softly as tears. Mariah of the Three Bridges would die in the moon’s shadow of her own home. In a daze, staring at the sky, she listened while the beast crashed toward her impossibly faster, as if scenting the blood. Before it could reach Mariah, she recognized she was no longer alone.
Just after she spied more ravens circling overhead, icy lips met hers. Emptiness and chaos seeped through her like a disease. As she writhed futilely, a voice inside Mariah’s head spoke of this night, a wintry eve brimming with purpose. “Die, ” the voice whispered against Mariah’s bloody mouth. Immediately, she perceived the stillness of her heart. Her lungs ceased their labors and the mask of pain on her face slackened. The presence faded, replaced by another. Mariah’s last sight was the beast, roaring in agony to the moon, clawing at its chest with wild sorrow. 1 Present day Tomb of the Incubi, the jungles of Guatemala Day 3 of the Talisman’s Hie Prize: Four Mayan sacrificial headdresses, each worth seven points “Stalking me, Mr. MacRieve?” Mariketa the Awaited asked the Lykae behind her without turning around.
In the dark of a corridor leading to a burial chamber, Bowen MacRieve had been following her silently. But she’d felt him staring at her—just as she had at the Talisman’s Hie assembly three nights ago. “No’ likely, witch.” How could such a rumbling Scots’ burr sound so menacing? “I only stalk what I want to catch.” Mari did turn to slant him a glance at that, even knowing he couldn’t see her face under the hood of the scarlet cloak she always wore. But by the light of her lantern hanging over her shoulder, she could see his, and used the cover to disguise her long, appreciative look. She inwardly sighed. Lykae males were notoriously good-looking, and the few she’d seen had lived up to their reputation, but this one was heart-poundingly sexy. He had black hair, stick straight and thick, reaching to the collar of his obviously expensive shirt. His body—which she’d found herself thinking about frequently over the past few days—was sublime.
He stood a good bit over six feet tall, and though the corridor was wide enough for two normal-size people to pass, his broad shoulders and big, rangy build filled the space. But even with all his many attractions, his eyes were what made him so unique. They were the color of rich, warm amber, and yet there was a kind of sinister light to them, which she liked. She was a little sinister, too. “Look your fill?” he asked, his tone scathing. Yes, he was sexy, but unfortunately, his dislike of witches was well known. “I’m done with you,” she answered, and meant it. She didn’t have time to pine after brusque werewolf warriors if she planned to be the first of her kind ever to win the Hie, an immortal scavenger hunt à la The Amazing Race. With an inward shrug, she continued on toward yet another burial chamber. This was the tenth she’d investigated over the hours she and several other competitors had been down deep inside this never-ending Mayan tomb.
She might have surprised him with her curt dismissal because a moment passed before he followed her. The only sounds in the echoing space were his heavy footfalls, which he no longer bothered to muffle. The silence between them was grueling. “Who opened the stone slab to the tomb?” he finally asked, trailing far too closely behind her. “The three elven archers and a couple of demons.” The archers, two males and a female, were deadly shooters with lightning-quick speed, and the male rage demons were incredibly powerful—second in physical strength only to the Lykae. Yet even for them, the stone portcullis sealing the tomb’s entrance had been nearly impossible to budge. They’d realized the entire pyramidal structure had shifted from time and earthquakes and now rested on the portcullis, making it weigh tons. Raising it had taken all of the others cooperating—with the two demons lifting it and the archers shoving an enormous boulder under it to prop it open. “And they just let you enter after their effort?” She stopped and faced him again.
“What should they have done, Mr. MacRieve?” The others had not only allowed her to enter. Though she barely knew any of them, they had wanted to work together since there were four prizes. Cade, one of the demons, had even helped her climb down the dozen feet from the outer entrance into the first anteroom. Then they’d all split up to cover the maze of chambers and vowed to the Lore to alert the others of a find. MacRieve’s smile was a cruel twist of his lips. “I know exactly what I would have done.” “I know exactly how I would have retaliated.” He seemed surprised that she didn’t fear him, but the truth was that she didn’t spook easily—when not faced with heights or unnecessarily large insects. And she was well aware of how vicious the Hie competitors could be as they raced around the world for prizes.
This ruthlessness in the Hie was why Mari had been sent by the House of Witches to compete, even though she was only twenty-three and hailed from the shady New Orleans coven, the slacker Animal House of witches. And even though she had not yet made the turn from mortal to immortal. But Mari was not above trickery, and unlike many witches, she would not hesitate to use magick to harm another if they deserved it—and if she could manage it with her volatile powers. MacRieve closed in until nearly seven feet of seething werewolf male loomed over her. He was at least a foot taller than she was and hundreds of times stronger, but she forced herself to stand her ground. “Watch your step, little witch. You doona wish to anger one such as me.” The grand prize for the Hie was an object called Thrane’s Key, a key that allowed its possessor to go back in time—not just once, but twice. For a tool like that, she knew he was ready to take her out of the contest. So she had to convince him that it was impossible for him to do so.
“Likewise, you shouldn’t anger me.” Her voice was steady as she looked up at him. “Remember that I could turn your blood to acid as an afterthought,” she said, baldly lying. “Aye, I’ve heard rumors of your power.” He narrowed his eyes. “Curious, though, that you dinna open the tomb with one flick of your finger.” Yes, she might have managed to lift the portcullis—with concentration, an unprecedented bout of luck, and the absence of a hangover. Oh, and if she were in mortal danger. Unfortunately, her power was adrenaline-based, making it as infinite as it was uncontrollable. “You think I should use magick like mine to open a tomb?” Mari asked in a scoffing tone.
Mistress of bluf ing, working it here. “That’d be like calling you in to lift a feather.” He tilted his head, sizing her up. After what seemed like an hour, he began walking again. Mari gave an inward sigh of relief. If anyone in the Lore found out how vulnerable she really was, she’d be doomed. She knew this, but no matter how hard she worked, whenever she manifested and unleashed significant power, things ended up exploding. As her befuddled mentor Elianna explained, “Horses have powerful legs—but that doesn’t mean they’re prima ballerinas.” The ancient Elianna trained with Mari daily to control the destructive nature of her spells, because she believed the subtle magicks invoked the most fear in their enemies. And the House of Witches brokered in fear.
The corridor finally ended at a broad, high wall, covered in carvings of ghoulish faces and animals. Mari lifted her lantern high and the reliefs seemed to move in shadow. They’d apparently been put there to guard a small tunnel opening near the floor, which itself was made out like a gaping mouth with fangs dropping down. She waved the Lykae forward. “Age before beauty, Mr. MacRieve.” She sized him up again, then studied the small opening, which couldn’t be more than three feet square. “If you think you can fit.” He stood motionless, clearly not about to be directed. “Only humans call me Mr.
MacRieve.” She shrugged. “I’m not a human.” Her mother was a fey druidess, and her late father had been a warlock of questionable repute. So Mari was a fey witch or a “weylock,” as her buddies teased. “So would you like me to call you Bowen, or Bowe for short?” “Bowe is what my friends call me, so you doona.” What an ass… “No problem. I have a slew of other more fitting names for you. Most of them end in er.” He ignored her comment.
“You in the tunnel first.” “Don’t you think it’d be unbecoming for me to be on my hands and knees in front of you? Besides, you don’t need my lantern to see in the dark, and if you go first, you’ll be sure to lose me and get to the prize first.” “I doona like anything, or anyone, at my back.” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned a shoulder against a snarling visage on the stone wall. She’d never seen a Lykae turn into its towering werewolf form, but knew from those who had that this male could be as frightening as any monster, real or imagined. “And you’ll have your little red cloak on,” he continued, “so I will no’ be able to see anything about you that might be… unbecoming.” “Twisting my words? I’ll have you know that I am criminally cute—” “Then why hide behind a cloak?” “I’m not hiding. ” In fact, that was precisely what she was doing. “And I like to wear it.” She hated it.
Even before her birth, she’d been predicted to be the Awaited One, the most powerful born to the House of Witches in centuries—but four years ago, it was also foretold that a male from the Lore would recognize her as his own and claim her. He would seek to lock her away, guarding her with a ferocity that no magicks could defeat, thus robbing the House of her powers. Since the prediction, she’d been forced to cover herself every single time she set foot outside her home. Needless to say, the robust dating life of her late teens had taken a hit. She sported the cloak—a red one because she was a Scarlet Letter-type rebel at heart— and as a backup, she also hid behind a magickal glamour that disguised her looks, the tone of her voice, and her scent. If a male like MacRieve did see her, he would perceive a brunette with blue eyes—when in fact she was a redhead with gray eyes—and he would have difficulty recalling anything that was the same, like her features, her figure, or the length of her hair. The glamour was so second nature that she hardly thought about it anymore. Even with all these precautions, it followed that unattached males in the Lore were to be avoided. Yet Mari had heard at the Hie assembly—a gossip fest if she’d ever seen one— that MacRieve had already found his mate and lost her more than a century ago. Mari had felt sympathy for him.
A Lykae’s entire existence centered around his mate, and in his long immortal life, he would get only one—just one—chance in an eternity to find happiness. When she saw he wasn’t budging, she muttered, “Fine. Beauty before age.” She unlooped her lantern strap and crawled in. The space was tighter than she’d imagined, but she didn’t have time to rethink her decision because he climbed in directly after her. Resigned, she exhaled and held her lantern up to light her way. The stone was cool and moist and she was glad for her cloak—until she caught her knee on the end, and the tie around her neck yanked her head down. When it happened again, she shimmied, working the material back so that it flowed behind her as she made progress forward. There. Better.
Five seconds later: “MacRieve, you’re on my cloak. Let up—” Before she could react, he reached between her knees and then up against her chest to slice the tie at her neck with one claw. Her eyes went wide and she dropped her light to snatch fistfuls of cloth, but he jerked the cloak out of her grasp. “Give it back!” “It was slowing you—and therefore me—down.” She gritted her teeth, struggling to control her temper. “If you had gone first—” “I dinna. If you want it, why no’ use magick to take it from me?” Did he suspect how volatile her power was? Was he sussing out her weaknesses? “You really do not want me to do that.” “You really must no’ want your cloak back. Come then, witchling, just take it from me.” Glamour or not, she had grown used to the physical security of the garment.
And when she realized she wasn’t getting it back from him, Mari just checked the urge to rub her bared arms. All at once, she became very much aware of how high her hiking shorts were on her thighs and how her tank top was riding up, about to reveal the mark on her lower back. She steeled herself and made her tone nonchalant. “Keep the cloak.” Though she knew he was ogling her, she forced herself to put one knee in front of the other. “It’ll be worth money one day.” After a few moments, he said, “Doona fret, witch. You’re no’ so unbecoming from my angle. Bit scrawny where it counts, but no’ too bad.” Yep, ogling.
Many adjectives could be used to describe her ass, but scrawny was not among them. He’s just making these comments and brushing up against you to unnerve you. Knowing that didn’t make his efforts less effective! “Scrawny where it counts, MacRieve? Funny, I’d heard the same about you.” He gave a kind of humorless half chuckle and finally followed. “No’ likely. Maybe you’re just too young to have heard the rumors about Lykae males. Tender wee ears and such.” No, she’d heard. And over the last couple of days, she had wondered about that rumor and if it applied to him.