Hunter snorted. “I have that in spades.”
“We’ll see.” A slow, toothy grin spread across the demon’s face, and his eyes slid over to Aylin. “But keep in mind, Hunter MoonBound, that you are not the only one being tested.”
You are not the only one being tested.
Samnult might as well call her Aylin SecondThoughts, because she was alternately holding her breath and taking shallow, rapid breaths. Before she could pass out from either a lack of oxygen or an excess of it, the demon snapped his fingers, and suddenly, they were no longer standing in a verdant meadow under the sun.
Now they were at the edge of a narrow canyon that cut a path through parched red earth that rose up into massive plateaus in every direction. They’d gone from lush, grassy lands to a desert with no vegetation. In the distance, a breeze blew a dust devil in a wide circle, but other than that, nothing moved.
Directly in front of them, a natural stone bridge spanned a canyon that was so deep Aylin couldn’t see the bottom. On the other side of the fissure, a smooth ivory pillar, perhaps five feet tall and six inches in circumference, stood like a lone sentinel.
Then there were the bones and skulls littering the bridge. Some were bleached and cracked with age, and others looked too fresh for comfort.
All belonged to vampires.
“What is this place?” she asked.
Samnult’s skin had deepened into an inky black, and his eyes had gone crimson. Before, except for the horns, he could have passed for human.
“This is the desert region of my realm. As you can see, nothing stirs during the day. At night…” He smiled, and a chill shot up her spine. “Let’s just say that you need to do this before it grows dark.”
Hunter swung around from where he stood at the edge of the canyon, and dressed as he was in native garb, his deeply tanned skin setting off his dark eyes and hair, he looked at home in the rugged land. Good grief, he was captivating, with a commanding presence even Samnult seemed to appreciate as the demon studied him.
“Do the bones belong to those who have failed this test?” Hunter asked.
“Not this test,” Samnult said. “Besides battling for their firstborns, there are other reasons my children must participate in these challenges.”
His eyes glittered with what Aylin could only decipher as excitement. He might want them to succeed, but the risk of death thrilled him the way it thrilled humans to watch someone walk a high tightrope without a net.
“Hunter, you cross first.” The demon’s voice was as deep as the canyon, and it echoed eerily, lingering too long in the still air. “Once you reach the other side, you’ll grip the post and wait until Aylin is across.”
Hunter’s eyes narrowed. “That’s it? We cross a bridge?”
“Of course that’s not it,” Sam said. “If you release the post before Aylin steps onto the other side, you fail the test. You’ll be transported immediately out of my realm, and you’ll offer up the firstborn child of your union with Rasha. And if, at any time during any of these trials, Aylin dies or is critically injured, you can choose to continue without her. If you die, she’ll be sent back through the portal alone.”
“What about weapons?” Hunter asked. “Will we need them?”
Samnult shrugged. “Probably.” He disappeared, dissolving in a whirl of smoke, leaving Aylin and Hunter standing alone on the edge of the cliff.
“Asshole,” Hunter muttered, and Aylin couldn’t agree more.
“Well,” she said, peering across at the other side, “this doesn’t seem too bad.”
“Sure.” Hunter looked down into the endless chasm below. “Until something shoots out of the canyon and tries to eat us.” He glanced over at her. “You okay with this?”
“Do we have a choice?”
His expression turned grim. “You do. This isn’t your fight, Aylin.”
She thought about her mother, and no, Hunter was wrong. This was her fight. Her father had thought her mother hadn’t been strong enough to pass the tests, and he’d always believed Aylin followed in her footsteps. The difference was that he’d loved her mother… in his own twisted way.
He despised Aylin… in every way.
You’re a cripple. Worthless. Too f**king weak to hunt for your own food.
She’d believed him for so long, but it was time to prove him wrong.
“I’m going to do this,” she said. “Go. Let’s get it over with.”
A long silence fell as Hunter stared at her. Nothing in his expression gave away his thoughts, so she was shocked when he lifted his hand to her face. He skimmed the backs of his fingers over her cheek, and deep inside her chest, something stirred.
“You’re not what I expected.” With that, he strode to the bridge.
“Be careful,” she blurted, as if he needed a reminder. He halted at the first step and shot her a look dripping with confidence so intense it stole her breath, and she suddenly had no doubt they’d make it through this.
Hunter stepped onto the bridge, his leather moccasins barely making a sound. Pebbles fell from the ledge as he walked, but aside from that, his trip from one side of the canyon to the other was uneventful.
Which meant that Aylin’s journey across wasn’t going to be as easy. Or maybe the challenge was in the post Hunter was supposed to hold while she crossed.
“Wait!” she yelled, as he reached for it. “What if it shocks you or something?”
He eyed the post and shrugged. “Then hurry!” he shouted back.
“Oh, gee, good idea.” She rolled her eyes. “I would never have thought of that.”
His laughter rang out, echoing in the quiet air. As the sound faded, so did his smile, and suddenly, they were reminded that they were in a demon realm, weaponless, and in a fight for their lives.
Talk about a reality check.
She held her breath as Hunter’s hand hovered over the post. He closed his fingers around it, and when he didn’t keel over and no giant monster appeared out of nowhere, she relaxed. At least, she relaxed until it was time for her to cross the bridge.
“Don’t go until you’re ready,” he said, but Aylin didn’t see any reason to put this off. How could she prepare for the unknown?
She stepped onto the bridge. Nothing happened. Another step. Nothing. Calming enough to unclench her teeth, she took another step. Suddenly, a rumble started beneath her feet.
Oh, crap, oh, crap…
A fracture appeared in the center of the bridge ahead, dividing it in half.
“Run!” Urgency cracked like a gunshot in Hunter’s voice.
Aylin didn’t argue. She sprinted as fast as she could go. Her right leg hindered her, nearly buckling several times as her foot came down on the uneven, trembling expanse. As she neared the halfway point, the bridge bucked, tossing her to the ground. Ahead, the fissure became a ragged, foot-wide gap, expanding rapidly as bits of earth and stone fell away into the chasm below.
Sharp rocks bit into her knees and palms as she tried to scramble to her feet, but the rolling ground knocked her down over and over, and her dress restricted her movement. Hunter’s voice became a drone that blended with the pulse pounding in her ears and the deafening roar of the upheaval surrounding her.
Desperate to cross the divide before it became impassable, she crawled, sometimes dragging herself on her belly when the bucking became too intense for her to remain on her hands and knees.
“I can do this,” she murmured to herself.
You’re a cripple.
Aylin uttered a breathless “Fuck you, Dad,” and hauled herself to the very edge of the fissure. A giant chunk of earth broke out from under her, and she screamed as she rolled away, barely avoiding plummeting into the void.
“I’m okay,” she rasped, although she wasn’t sure if Hunter heard her. She could barely hear herself.
“It’s getting wider!”
She was well aware of that. Inhaling deeply, she gathered her feet beneath her and launched. Her right leg, far weaker than the left, might as well have been rubber, and her body went off course. She twisted awkwardly in the air, striking the other side of the bridge on her left side. The violent collision concentrated at her hip, and she cried out as she clawed for purchase, her legs dangling over the edge.
“No!” Hunter’s deep scream rose above the other sounds of chaos, and she risked a glance at him as she strained to pull herself onto solid ground.
Hunter was barely gripping the post, stretched to the limit as he reached futilely for her.
“Don’t let go!” she cried out.
Damn him, he was going to do it. The need to save her glinted in his dark eyes. She couldn’t be the reason he and Rasha would give up their child to Samnult – or the reason he refused to have children in the first place.
Gritting her teeth, she marshaled every drop of energy and determination, and with a cry, she hauled herself up and came down heavily on the bridge. The ground crumbled beneath her, and before it gave way, she dragged herself away from the crack. Her right leg screamed in pain, but she ignored it, pulling herself on shaking arms until they collapsed.
“I’m okay.” She swallowed dryly… and realized the ground was no longer moving beneath her. Was the worst of the challenge over? Pushing herself awkwardly to her knees, she looked back at the path she’d taken so far, and holy shit, the entire half of the bridge she’d just crossed was gone.
Hunter’s white-knuckled grip on the post eased, and although he no longer stretched his bones to the limits to reach toward her, he was still tense, his body coiled to break free.
“Come on,” he urged her. “Only about twenty yards to go.”
As Aylin studied the remaining distance, twenty yards looked like twenty miles. Grimacing at the ache in her leg, she shoved to her feet and started toward Hunter.
The uneven ground and loose pebbles left her stumbling with humiliating frequency. Rasha would have been able to leap nimbly over the mounds of earth piled on the bridge, and she’d have had no problem zigzagging between the stones that erupted spontaneously out of the earthen bridge for no apparent reason other than to scare the crap out of her and make her fall into the endless chasm below.
This challenge seemed almost tailor-made to cause Aylin problems, and she uttered a few nasty curses as she hurriedly picked her way across what remained of the bridge.
A harsh screech startled her out of her internal musings, and she looked up to see a fiery red lizard-like thing skitter up the cliff that loomed beyond Hunter. About the size of a beagle, it caught a tangle of tree roots and flicked the six-inch-long stinger at the end of its tail. The little animal seemed so out of place in this odd desolation.
What a strange sound it made. Aylin opened herself to her gift, preparing to let her mourning dove fly, but the lizard screeched with sudden urgency.
She had no idea what the creature was saying, but its alarm screamed through her as if she’d been jabbed in the spine with its tail stinger. Aylin put on a burst of speed, but when she brought down her right foot on what looked like stable ground, the earth gave way, and she slammed to her knees in a heap of pain.
Son of a —
Aylin yelped as a claw-tipped hand, blackened and oozing with pus and blood, burst out of the ground and snared her around the ankle. The giant hand yanked, and she heard a snap, felt the agony of her bones breaking. She heard a scream, realized too late that it was hers, and as the world swirled around her and her vision grew dim, all she could think about was Hunter.
Don’t let go of the post. Don’t… let… go…
Hunter’s stomach plummeted to his feet as Aylin went pale with shock and her shriek of pain died out.
“Aylin!” Gripping the post with one hand, he lunged, the ridiculous futility of his action leaving him feeling like a helpless fool.
No, not helpless. He could let go of the post and go after her. His sweat-slicked fingers nearly slipped free of the ivory post as he called out to her again.
“Talk to me, Aylin!”
“Don’t,” she slurred. “Don’t let go.”
She kicked at the giant arm with her good leg, but the thing held her tight. What the hell did that giant, clawed hand belong to? He wasn’t sure if he should be grateful or disturbed that the entire creature hadn’t surfaced. But then, he supposed it didn’t matter, because as he watched in horror, it began to drag Aylin into the sinkhole around it. Blood streamed from her leg, churning the dirt into mud.
“That rock next to you!” he yelled. “Use it! Crush the bastard!”
Still kicking at the creature but hindered by the restrictive nature of her dress, Aylin fumbled for the football-sized stone. She finally got a good grip, and with speed that surprised Hunter, she smashed it into the back of the creature’s hand. The thunk of rock meeting flesh rang out. Aylin struck again, and a god-awful rumble vibrated the air, seeming to originate from somewhere far below in the canyon.
The hand flung backward, taking Aylin with it and slinging her like a broken rag doll. She slammed into the ground, and the crack of her skull as it hit the hard-packed earth was like a physical blow to Hunter’s own head. He roared in frustration and anger at his inability to help.
Except, he could help. He could let Aylin die, continue the quest, and protect his firstborn child. Or he could save Aylin, fail the quest, and never have children with his mate.
He’d also never forgive himself for letting Aylin die.
“I’m coming —”READ MORE >>