“What a lovely couple you make,” Sam said as he walked toward them, his black jeans rasping, his cowboy boots kicking up dirt.
For once, he looked completely human from head to toe, and wasn’t it strange that she actually preferred it when he was sporting horns or claws? There was just something unsettling about a demon not looking like a demon.
“What do you want?” Hunter growled.
Samnult’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s a fine thank-you for repairing Aylin’s leg.”
“Thank you,” she blurted. “Is it…”
“Permanent?” he finished. “Yes. You’ll need to be in top form to survive these next two quests.”
Hunter gazed out at the sandy landscape. “Which are?”
Samnult waved his hand, and a rumble shook the land. As Aylin watched, a massive wall rose up out of the ground, stretching as far as the eye could see. Several openings lined the wall, revealing more walls and more openings.
“It’s a maze,” she breathed. Straight from the children’s books she’d read so often.
Samnult nodded. “You and Hunter must find your way out.”
“Sounds easy,” Hunter said. “So what’s the catch?”
“There are many,” Samnult admitted, with a little too much relish. “As soon as you cross the maze’s threshold, the clock will start. Move your ass to the exit. You have forty-eight hours to do it, and of course, there are beings in there who will try to stop you.”
“Still sounds too easy.”
“Yes,” Sam purred. “It does.” He gestured to one of the archways. “Inside you’ll find a pack loaded with supplies. Your time starts now, so I’d get moving. Forty-eight hours isn’t enough time for most, just FYI.”
Samnult dematerialized in a smoky puff. Hunter turned to her. “You ready?”
She was. Even if she died in that maze, she’d die with a functional leg, and that, she thought, was a far better death than she’d ever hoped for.
You belong to my sister.
I despise your sister.
But that doesn’t change anything. You’re still hers.
The conversation moments ago rang through Hunter’s head as he and Aylin headed to the next challenge. He probably should be thinking about the dangers ahead, but dammit, he was still reeling from the kiss. It had been spontaneous. Pure. A meeting of more than mouths.
With all other females before her, kissing had been about lust. The first step in the journey to na**d bliss. But what Aylin had done to him in those charged minutes before Samnult had showed up had changed everything.
She’d kissed him because she was happy, not because she wanted sex. He’d been startled at first and then eager to let her show him true joy. He’d taught her to kiss; she’d taught him to rejoice in the miracle of life.
It had been the best damned kiss in his two hundred years of living.
She’d asked why he’d kissed her, and he’d said he didn’t know, and he didn’t. He was finding it more and more difficult to believe she was part of a ShadowSpawn plot, but he still knew he couldn’t get involved with her.
You belong to my sister.
Mother. Fuck. He’d been okay about mating with Rasha – or at least, he’d been resolved about it. But Aylin had gotten under his skin, and for all his experience fighting enemies, he had no defense against a female whose strength humbled him, whose voice soothed him, and whose touch drove him wild.
Damn Samnult and his Portal of Bonding Orgasms.
Way to blame someone else for your attraction to Aylin. You’ve been aching for her since she fed from you at the cabin.
Yeah, well… whatever. Samnult and his portal still sucked.
Real mature, Hunt. Real f**king mature.
Cursing silently, he stepped beneath the maze archway. Aylin stopped next to him, but instead of checking out the endless walls before them, she stole glances at her leg.
“It doesn’t hurt, does it?” he asked.
Wispy strands of blond hair whipped her cheeks as she shook her head. “I just keep making sure everything is still straight. Silly, I know.”
“Not at all.” He could only imagine how horrible her life had been because of her birth defect, and this was a huge development, one that could shape her future in ways that could only be good.
He just had to make sure she survived long enough to enjoy it.
She looked over at him, and he didn’t like the lingering coolness in her eyes. He’d hurt her when he’d told her he didn’t know why he’d kissed her, but maybe it was what they’d needed to douse flames that shouldn’t be burning.
“Are we doing this?” she asked.
“Wait. We need to make your outfit more functional for fighting.” He went down on one knee next to her, gripped the hem of her dress, and ripped the side seam up to mid-thigh. His knuckles brushed her creamy, smooth skin, and a shiver of awareness shot through him. “Turn around.” His voice was humiliatingly hoarse, but she complied, and he did the same thing to the other seam.
Great Spirit have mercy, her legs were spectacular. Even before Samnult healed the twisted leg, they’d been beautiful – long and lean, the left a little more built-up from doing more work than the right. Now they matched perfectly, and he itched to span her thighs with his hands as he worked his way up to her feminine place.
He let his fingers stray, just for a moment, on her outer thigh. Beneath his fingertips, her toned muscles flexed and quivered, and unbidden, indulgent fantasies of leaning in and replacing his hands with his lips wrapped around him like a satin sheet.
He’d kiss her, right where her exposed expanse of flesh peeked through the gap in the torn dress. Slowly, seductively, he’d lick his way up until the material got in the way – and then he’d rip it with his teeth all the way to her waist.
Stop it. She’s not yours.
Something wild and primitive growled at that. Mine.
Reluctantly, angrily, he stood, clenching his hands into fists at his sides to keep from reaching for her again. She was forbidden fruit, and he dared not sample.
More than he already had, anyway.
He didn’t meet her gaze as he stepped across the maze entrance’s threshold. She joined him, and once they were both inside the maze, a soft whoosh stirred the air. The maze had sealed shut. Sealed so well that there weren’t any lines in the walls to suggest that there had ever been an opening.
“Damn,” he muttered. “Guess we’re in it for the long haul now.”
Aylin gave him a funny look. “Did you have any doubt?”
“No, but I’d hoped we at least had a way out if we needed it.” He studied the forty-foot-high walls surrounding them, knowing there was no way to climb over. Not unless they grew about fifteen feet in height and developed springs for legs. A few grotesque, pulsing vines hung like tentacles from the wall tops, but the thorns that spiraled along the viny ropes promised pain. Or worse.
“Hey.” Aylin tugged at his arm. “Over there.”
He narrowed his eyes in the direction Aylin had indicated. Near a bend in the maze, he spotted the outline of what appeared to be a doorway. As they approached, the lines became clearer. Definitely a door. And at its base was a leather bag. The supplies Samnult had mentioned, he guessed.
“Do we dare open the door?” she asked as he crouched to inspect the contents of the bag. “Or should we stay on the main path?”
“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” He dug through the bag, finding four packaged pints of human blood – two O-positive, one AB-positive, and one superbly rare B-negative. At least Samnult had good taste in blood. There were also two bottles of water, six pemmican bars, and two slabs of dried venison. “What’s your gut say?”
“That we open it.” She bit her bottom lip in doubt. “Or maybe it’s a trick. Maybe we’re supposed to stay on this path.”
Standing, he slung the bag over his shoulder. He figured they had an equal shot at survival either way, so they might as well go with Aylin’s gut. Bracing himself for anything, he placed his palms in the center of the outlined rectangle and pushed. The grind of stone accompanied the opening of the door, becoming obscenely loud in the otherwise quiet landscape.
Before the door fully opened, he put his back to the wall and craned his neck to get a view of what lurked beyond the doorway. Nothing. Just more maze, creepy vines, and the rotting carcass of one of the lizard things they’d seen during the first challenge at the stone bridge.
Cautiously, they moved through the twists and turns, their moccasins whispering over the stone and earth pathway. Bones littered the ground, some animal, some vampire. And, as he found when he crouched next to a femur and tibia connected by withered threads of tendon, some were human.
“I’d say this is creepy,” Aylin murmured as they skirted a sprung trap of razor-sharp spikes on which a vampire had been impaled, “but I’ve seen most of this at ShadowSpawn.”
Hoping to avoid a similar fate to the poor vamp’s, Hunter paused to study the trap’s mechanism. The spikes had shot up from the ground, closing on the victim like a Venus flytrap’s jaws. At least a dozen two-foot-long barbs had skewered the vampire, who appeared to have been dead for a few weeks.
“Have you seen a trap like this?”
Aylin rubbed her arms as if chilled. “No. My father would use fewer spikes. You know, to cause the greatest amount of suffering.”
A green bird the size of a bald eagle, its feathers looking more appropriate for a porcupine than a bird, landed high up on a wall. Its golden eyes seemed to size them up, and then he swore it chirped at Aylin.
She ignored him, her concentration fixed on the creature. The bird cocked its head as if listening to something, and a moment later, Hunter he felt the whisper of wings brush his ear.
But there were no other birds in the air. Still, the porcupine-eagle began to chatter, its gaze following something invisible that seemed to be flying around it. Aylin stood silently, her gaze flitting between the bird and the empty air. The bird squawked at her, and she nodded as if understanding it.
Realization dawned. She did understand the creature. Which meant she was a mystic-whisperer. His gut twisted.
Mystic-whisperers are dangerous. Kill them. Kill them all.
His father’s voice clanged around inside Hunter’s skull. He didn’t follow the Way of the Raven, but even the Way of the Crow preached wariness of those with the ability to either communicate with or become animals. Followers of the Raven believed that the animal-based gifts were evil, and while Crow followers weren’t so rigid in their views, they still considered mystic-whisperers and animal shifters to be high-risk individuals in any clan setting. The animal-based gifts came with powerful animal instincts that often overrode rational thought. Hunter had seen it happen, and it wasn’t pretty.
Aylin turned to him, but she didn’t meet his gaze. “We should go. But not straight ahead. I think doubling back to the crossroads we just passed is our best bet.”
“What makes you say that?”
Still not meeting his eyes, she shrugged. “It’s a guess.”
“A guess based on what that bird had to say?”
She flinched, just barely, but enough for him to know he’d struck his target. “How would I know what the bird said?”
“Because you’re a mystic-whisperer.”
She hissed. “That’s forbidden —”
“Fuck forbidden,” he snapped, annoyed and shamed by his own initial reaction to realizing she was an animal whisperer. “You should know by now that I don’t run my clan the way your father runs his. I’ve only banished one person because of an animal-based gift, and it wasn’t necessarily his gift that got him in trouble; it was what he did with it.”
The mystic-whisperer, Lobo, used to belong to the clan but now roamed the forest with his wolf. The male had been so in tune with the animal world that he’d distanced himself from other vampires, and eventually he’d grown vicious, impossible to trust.
“What was his gift?”
“He was a skinwalker, so powerful that he could shift into people instead of only animals.”
Aylin gasped. “That’s… I’ve never even met a skinwalker, let alone heard of one being able to take humanoid form.”
“Exactly. He used his ability to shift into another clan male in order to seduce the male’s mate. If I hadn’t sent him away, the female’s mate would have killed him.”
“Talking to animals seems pretty tame now,” she muttered.
Maybe, but the more he got to know Aylin, the more he realized she wasn’t as tame as she appeared. She was fierce but subtly so, her stubborn determination to survive permeating every fiber of her being.
“Never be afraid to reveal yourself to me, Aylin. I’m not your enemy.”
He looked up at the porcupine-eagle and started back the way they’d come. “I don’t think you do.”
She fell into step beside him, and he resisted the urge to smile. She no longer followed behind, no longer hesitated to walk next to him like an equal. “Things would be so much easier if you were an ass**le,” she said.
He laughed at that, but she was right. He could be a class A ass**le, but sometimes he wished he could be even better at it. Nothing would bother him. Regrets wouldn’t plague him. And he could wipe Aylin from his mind and pretend that the upcoming mating with Rasha wouldn’t eat at his soul.
“Trust me,” he said. “I can be a bastard when I need to be.”READ MORE >>