From the moment my consciousness had returned everything had felt off.
Unexpectedly finding myself in what Sookie had said was her ancestral home, I’d reasoned that was the cause.
But the moment I laid eyes on Pam I knew what was wrong.
The Fae may have been able to magic an exact reproduction of Sookie’s home – remove all traces of their scent and replace it with the smell I’d come to associate with Northern Louisiana – but they had no way of replicating the bond I had with my child.
The bond that wasn’t there.
Because it wasn’t Pam standing before us, but a forgery.
Everything about her appearance had been duplicated, right down to the small scar above her left brow from a childhood injury. Even her voice was identical.
My eyes and ears could have been fooled, but my blood.
My blood told me the truth.
My fangs snapped down and an animalistic roar erupted from my throat as I launched myself at the creature charading as my child, furious they were playing even more head games.
Making Sookie believe she’d somehow managed to bring us home.
Making it look as though we’d been gone for years instead of mere weeks.
Making her believe her family was gone. That perhaps she had somehow been forgotten and the world had gone on, as though she’d never existed at all.
Making me believe we might actually have the upper hand in bringing their lopsided fight into our realm where their magic was no match for our numbers and brute strength.
Something as innocuous as one lemon tree could make their entire race extinct, for fuck’s sake.
For their trickery I would make them pay.
They would all pay.
Starting with the fraud who dared to impersonate my child.
Pam was one of a kind.
They should’ve known better.
But just as I reached her, her pouting lips ticked upwards and a gleam grew behind her once desolate eyes.
Eyes that disappeared just as rapidly as the rest of her form and I registered a split second too late what was behind it all.
The same thing that made us believe we’d left their hunting grounds.
I should have known better.
But in my blind fury, I’d been blind to my actions that ended up propelling only me through the doorway and out into the open landscape.
But the landscape had drastically changed.
Because by stepping through the doorway, Sookie’s house that wasn’t really Sookie’s house disappeared, as did the front yard I’d seen beyond the open door and had barely given any thought to, leaving me at the edge of the forest where the games had first begun.
The house had disappeared.
Along with Sookie still inside of it.
But the sudden reappearance of their realm’s candy coated scent saturating the air made my eyes cross and I fell to my knees, trying to get a grip on my new and unexpected surroundings, while I desperately searched my blood for Sookie’s location.
It was faint, but it was there.
She felt hundreds of miles away.
I would’ve thought it impossible, doubting their hunting grounds were that large, but this was the Fae.
Their fuckery obviously knew no bounds.
Neither did my fury, so it was the only thing that kept me going when I realized something else.
The sun was still up in the sky in this world.
Not the one I’d marveled over during my imprisonment, but the one that burned my skin and called me to my daytime death.
So as much as I wanted nothing more than to go to Sookie – even if I had to run the entire way there now that I was hindered without my gift of flight – I did the only thing I could do.
I dug a hole in the ground and covered myself in the cool dirt, hoping she would be able to hang on until this daylight round came to an end so that I could find her.
My last thought before death took me was when I found her – I refused to fathom any other outcome – one of the first things we would do was work on completing our bond.
Not only could she use it to find her way back to me, but the last thing I wanted was for Sookie to come across my doppelganger and be fooled into believing it was me.
The moment my consciousness returned, I immediately sought out Sookie’s presence in my blood and nearly sighed with relief, finding her life force pulsing as strong as I’d ever felt it. But as comforting as it was, I wasn’t surprised.
Sookie had proven herself time and again that she was a survivor.
But she was also something else.
Even without a complete bond, she was also mine.
Having fed her my own blood so soon after I’d fed from her on the night she’d stumbled into my cell, the initial tie had been formed.
It would only take two more exchanges to become permanent.
In any other situation or circumstance, I imagine I would have been more hesitant – if not outright opposed – to doing such a thing with anyone.
Certainly not with anyone I’d known for no more than a week.
But then, Sookie wasn’t just anyone.
However, calling her mine was the only way I could accurately describe what she was to me, even if it wasn’t a completely accurate description.
But now wasn’t the time to figure out that particular puzzle piece, so I stored it away and went to work on the other pieces scattered across my mind.
While my senses told me the sun had disappeared from the sky, I’d just been painfully reminded of my lesson to not take anything at face value. The fact the lake had given every appearance – in both sight and scent – it was nothing more than clean water and yet burned our skin like liquid silver, was enough of a reason to question every bit of our surroundings.
Chicanery was as abundant as the glowing fruit dangling from the tree limbs in this realm. It was one of many things on my swiftly growing list of items I’d wanted to discuss with Sookie, but there hadn’t been time.
I’d been too focused on getting us to safety – on finding us shelter – not knowing how precious little time we would have together before – as my blond Valkyrie had said – everything had gone to shit.
Sixty-one days in captivity felt like a lifetime in comparison to the sum total of one hour I’d had in her presence since the start of the games.
Not knowing if I was being fooled yet again – perhaps waking at high noon thanks to some magical fairy alarm clock, instead of at sunset – I didn’t rip myself from the ground as I truly wanted to and instead, I merely poked through the dirt covering my body until I could see for myself there was no light.
Satisfied at the darkness that greeted me, I slowly – carefully – dug my way free, until I was once again standing at the edge of the forest.
There was no light from any moon in the sky, but my enhanced vision allowed me to see the tree limbs I’d used to camouflage Sigebert’s hastily dug grave had been moved aside. And a quick check of the grave itself told me he had survived the night.
Of course that told me nothing of how our next interaction would go the next time I saw him.
But with the sting of the Fae’s newfound fraud still throbbing across my metaphorical skin, my desire to unite whoever was left in this wasteland and take on those callous cunts was at an all-time high.
However my desire to find Sookie superseded everything else, so I set off on a high speed course towards her location.
The distance between us was much shorter than when I’d first been forced into my daytime rest and while I was grateful for small favors, feeling her distress only drove me to move faster.
She was frightened.
But I had no way of knowing the cause of her fear and with my body being forced to heal – twice – from being burned by the sun, I wasn’t moving as fast as I normally could. I hadn’t fed since the night Sookie had come to me after defeating Wybert, so I was lagging.
So it was twice as hard to ignore everything else my senses had picked up along the way.
The scent of a wolf I thought I recognized as belonging to Herveaux and a human companion, wafting towards me from the east.
The scent of a bear that wasn’t familiar to me at all, also with a human nearby, not much further beyond them to the northeast.
The unmistakable scent of Andre, coupled with the sound and scent of an angry tiger I surmised he was facing off against, further into the woods to the west.
As much as we would need every fighter on our side if we had any hopes of fighting our way free as a whole, Andre was a liability.
Innately sadistic, he wouldn’t be able to see past his own wants and his grief at losing his Maker.
If the tiger didn’t put him down, then I would.
I hadn’t forgotten the path he’d chosen at the start of the games had set him on a course towards Sookie.
I wouldn’t take any chances he could be trusted in her presence.
As I continued to run in the direction my blood told me I could find Sookie, my tie to her grew stronger, alerting me to the fact I was rapidly closing the gap between us.
And while I could tell she wasn’t very far away, my feet came to a stop of their own volition, when I heard an unfamiliar voice call out, “Northman!”
Narrowing my eyes in the direction of the sound, I saw another of my kind step out into view.
Statuesque in build, with red hair framing her face, I didn’t recognize her. A fact that didn’t seem to sit well with her because she smugly declared, “I am Freyda.”
It sounded as though she believed her name was synonymous with one of those elusive fucks to be found in the Fae Realm.
Unlike chicanery and glowing fruit, finding a fuck to give around here was a rare thing.
They were undoubtedly a scarce resource.
But I only had one fuck to give and it was for Sookie.
Both in the figurative and literal sense.
Figuratively, no matter what happened in these games or how many – if any – allies we could muster to our cause, I had every intention of seeing the two of us out of this hellhole.
Literally, I would be more than happy to partake in every delight her body had to offer, be it before or after the games were no more.
After all, sixty-one days constituted a lifetime now.
I was damn near a born again virgin.
So it was thoughts of my future bonded – among other more carnal thoughts where she was concerned – that had me nearly taking off once more.
But once again, I stayed my feet when she added, “I am the Queen of Oklahoma and your betrothed.”
“My what?” I choked out incredulously, wondering which one of us was so obviously high on fairy scent.
Her for believing her words to be true.
Or me, for believing she had actually uttered them.
Because there was no way in hell she was my anything.
She wasn’t even my monarch.
I’d never stepped one foot inside of Oklahoma.
There was something about an entire populace referring to themselves as ‘Okies’ that was off-putting to me.
The name alone evoked images of dried up shriveled fruit, long past their Sell By date.
I nearly twitched from the shiver that wanted to work its way down my spine at the thought, but I felt more than a shiver running through me hearing her say, “Your Maker is Appius Livius Ocella, is he not?”
I was old enough for who my Maker was to not be widely known, so the fact she knew who he was, wasn’t sitting well with me.
And at the confirmation she must have seen behind my eyes, her own oozed satisfaction when she explained, “He has promised me you in payment for a debt he owes. I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw you at the start of the games, but together we can…”
That was as far as she got before she was oozing once more.
But I was the only one feeling any amount of satisfaction because it was her bloody remains that were oozing from my hands, when I’d thrown her to the ground and clawed right through her neck with one, while the other ripped her heart straight out of her chest.
If she was my betrothed – as she’d claimed – then her heart was mine by all rights to take.
For all I knew she was yet another way the Fae were fucking with me and no such deal had been struck.
But even so, I stared into her lifeless eyes and snarled, “Here I have no Maker to command me.”
Ocella was the least of my worries.
In any case, I’d just cancelled out any debt he owed Oklahoma.
But getting up from the ground and wiping the blood from my hands, I realized I’d once again allowed my emotions to get the better of me.
She could have been an ally just as much as she could have been yet another trick being played before my eyes.
And while she hadn’t evaporated into thin air the moment I’d reached her, I knew the magic in this realm was very strong.
If they managed to find a way to fool my blood, I could have just as easily been fooled into killing Sookie.
We needed to bond.
So I held stock still upon hearing my name being called again.
In a whispered voice I recognized all too well.
Moving much slower this time, I carefully moved through the tangled brush growing from the forest floor, with my senses heightened to the point I nearly startled hearing their heartbeat.
It pulsed in time, matching the pulse of my blood in her veins, but when I laid eyes on her again, I didn’t make any moves towards her.
I knew my eyes could deceive me.
So seeing her trussed up, with her hands and legs bound by hastily twined vines fashioned into a rope, tore at my insides. But it was something else tearing at what I knew of Sookie thus far that made me warily ask, “Why haven’t you popped yourself free?”
She simultaneously frowned and glared at me before showing me over telling me.
By popping herself three feet away.
Still bound by the vines, she grimaced, “They come with me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m touching them or because I’m just an idiot, but I figured I would be better off waiting for you to find me.”
Then her eyes turned – hurtful? Jealous? – when she added, “Your fiancé said she was going to look for you.”
Looking like we were merely having a leisurely conversation over drinks, her nose crinkled while her eyes looked everywhere but at me, when she added, “She’s pretty.”
“She’s dead,” I smiled, taking a step forward and smiling wider when her shocked eyes met my own.
So I held up my hands, adding, “If you had bothered to look at me, you would’ve already seen the evidence of her demise. I am – how do you say – caught red-handed.”
“You could have just called it off,” she scoffed, trying to look horrified while my blood told me she was only pleased.
Considering our initial encounter, I knew Sookie wasn’t a cold blooded killer.
She was kindhearted to the point of risking her own life to save mine.
A complete stranger to her then.
I didn’t know what to make of the changes in her, be it from the situation we were now in or from the feelings she now had for me.
But she wasn’t feeling any amount of remorse I was no longer betrothed to another.
So I clued her into the fact of the matter by saying, “I did not ask for her hand. I did not know her before this night and I do not know if her words were true or false, but she claimed my Maker had promised me as payment for a debt he owed her. In any case, she had promised me her heart, so I took it.”
“Thanks for letting me know how literal you take those things,” she murmured, with a slight blush tinging her cheeks.
With everything I’d been feeling – hunger and lust and bloodlust – seeing the blood blooming just underneath the surface of her skin had my fangs throbbing in my gums.
I wanted – among other things – her blood.
I wanted her to have my blood.
Among other things.
But I still needed confirmation she was actually my Sookie, so I reasoned had the Fae been able to surveil us all along, they wouldn’t have fallen for my lies when Neave and Brendaen had come looking for Sookie in my cell after she’d struck down Lochlan.
We’d had no interactions prior to our arrival in this realm to fall back on, so I hung my proverbial hat on that to then use our first interaction when we were both lucid enough to carry on a conversation.
“When you first woke up in my cell, you asked me what was wrong and said I was tense. When I didn’t respond right away, what did you then say?”
A first in my one thousand years, I would never forget what she’d called me.
And I hoped like hell she hadn’t forgotten either or else this situation was going to get messy.
Narrowing her eyes in thought, I crossed my proverbial fingers and then sighed out in relief when her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “What’s up, Buttercup?”
Never in my one thousand years had I been so thankful for being called something so ridiculous.
Ripping the vines free from her body, she was soon bound by my own wrapped around hers.
I knew we had much to discuss. Where she had ended up when I’d tumbled through the door and out into the sun, along with everything else on the never ending list of things growing in my mind.
But before she could somehow be ripped away from me again, I looked into her eyes and ticked off the select few at the forefront of my mind.
Looking into her surprised eyes, I asked, “Have you consumed anything since the start of these asinine games? Food or water?”
For all I knew the water would taste exactly as it appeared.
But trusting nothing, I couldn’t be sure if it was a way for us to be poisoned by feeding from anyone who had consumed it.
“No,” she replied in an instant and then added, “There hasn’t been any time. When you disappeared – with whoever that was – I ran out the door after you and found myself here. I guessed it was a trick when the house disappeared, but I barely got my feet under me when your fiancé got the jump on me. She must have knocked me out, but it couldn’t have been for very long and when I came to, she already had me tied up.”
Rather than reiterating she wasn’t my fiancé or explain who Pam was to me, I smacked away yet another puzzling piece of information – how I’d ended up in sunlight, but Sookie somehow didn’t come through until it was nighttime, which had to have been the case if my betrothed was up and about – and moved on to the next topic.
“I want us to bond.”
“Because you don’t think what we’re going through now isn’t enough to bring us together?” she asked, with her brows hitting her hairline.
While I appreciated the fact she too saw us as a whole – a team, if not more, based on her dislike of the idea I’d been promised to another – it had nothing to do with what I was speaking of, so I explained, “I want us to form a blood bond.”
“Like pricking our fingertips and smooshing them together?” she questioned, looking amused by the idea.
I, however, was feeling anything but amused.
Having her in my arms and her scent engulfing me – the sound of her heartbeat beating in my eardrums and against my chest – was making it difficult to keep my head.
My upper one.
My lower one was doing its damnedest to take over my control.
So I tried to keep one, while appeasing the other by running the tips of my fangs against her neck before placing my lips at her ear and explaining, “I have already told you I am able to feel you in my blood because you have fed from me. If we exchange blood – feeding from each other at the same time – twice more, it will form a permanent blood bond between us. You will be able to feel me as I can feel you.”
While I could sense she was turned on by my actions, I could also sense my words had given her pause.
So I forced myself to pull away and look into her eyes, admitting, “The apparition that came through the door earlier by all rights looked every bit like my child, Pam. But it was my blood that told me what I was seeing was a lie because I had no sense of her in my blood. I am hoping the Fae cannot conjure that kind of magic, so if we were bonded, neither one of us would have to question if it was truly the other in our midst.”
She might not have known what a blood bond was before then, but she was certainly wise enough to understand the meaning of the word permanent. Anyone in their right mind would want to take a moment before making such a life altering decision.
So she managed to surprise me yet again, when the words had barely left my lips and she was already nodding as she said, “Okay.”
“Okay?” I repeated, wondering once more if perhaps I was high on fairy scent.
At the very least, I thought I would have to reason with her over accepting the concept.
Appeal to her sense of survival or perhaps admit to my fears over being fooled into killing her.
But she unexpectedly answered every unasked question going through my mind by saying, “When I was taken away from you in the cell, Preston – he was the one that took me – when I woke up, I woke up to you. He made himself look just like you. But in my head – from my curse – I knew he wasn’t you.”
“You can tell the difference?” I asked and added, “I thought you couldn’t hear my thoughts.”
Not that I cared at this point.
If anything, her being able to read my mind would be a boon with what we were facing.
“I can’t,” she quickly answered and I knew from our tie she was telling the truth.
It was also how I knew she was worried when she admitted, “That thing you said looked like your child, Pam? It felt like a void in my head, which is what you feel like to me. I don’t know how that happened or if they somehow figured out I can tell the difference, but I don’t want to be fooled into thinking you’re not you or that someone else is you. For all we know, we won’t make it out of here alive, so forever isn’t something I’m concerned about. If we make it home, we’ll deal with it then. Right now, it makes sense.”
I had so many questions.
I knew she did as well.
But knowing how quickly everything could go to shit, as she had so eloquently put it earlier, I didn’t waste another second.
Pulling the dagger from the sheath at her hip, I used it to cut a gash into the side of my neck and brought her lips to the wound, with my hand on the back of her head, as I said, “Drink.”
Then preparing her neck for my bite, I was in no way prepared for what happened next, when I finally sunk my teeth into her flesh.
Because as soon as her blood hit my tongue, with the newest influx of mine already working its way through her system, it felt as though the entire world had fallen away.