Two big dudes broke out of the brush, one armed with a machete, the other with a baseball bat, and both carried pistols. Hunter spun, taking out the machete guy with a kick to the throat. He whirled again, narrowly missing having his head bashed in with the bat. He threw a right cross and knocked out a few of the bat-wielding bald guy’s teeth.
As he grabbed the guy by the collar, a metallic snap echoed through the trees, followed by a bloodcurdling scream.
Hunter wheeled around, tossing the bald dude against a mossy boulder hard enough to knock the guy out. Several yards away, Jaggar was clutching his leg and groaning in agony as he writhed on the ground. A massive leg trap, built either for bears or specifically for vampires, was clamped around his lower leg, its vicious spikes shredding flesh and likely breaking bone.
Hunter ran toward Jag as Riker and Baddon took down two more humans. Another shot thundered through the air. Riker jerked and clapped his hand over his bloody shoulder.
“I’m cool!” Riker shouted, and with a nod, Hunter scrambled next to Jag.
The trap, coated in Jaggar’s blood, was slippery as shit, but Hunter managed to pry it open without damaging Jag’s leg any more. Hissing in pain, Jaggar yanked his leg free, and when he was clear, Hunter let the metal jaws snap shut.
“Hold on, buddy.” Hunter ripped a thick strip of fabric from his T-shirt and hurriedly tied it around the gaping wound and the exposed bone in Jag’s leg just below the knee.
Once the makeshift bandage was tied off, he hooked Jaggar under the arms and hauled him to his feet, but getting him back to clan headquarters wasn’t going to be easy. Jag’s leg was mangled, definitely broken.
Riker and Baddon had the last remaining human against a tree, and while Hunter was aware that there were more of them deeper in the forest, he and his boys had no choice but to make a break for home.
Quickly, he threw Jaggar over his shoulder. “Let’s go!” he shouted. “Bring the human.”
“Roger that!” Riker shouted back as Baddon flipped the poacher around and punched him hard in the head, knocking the guy out. The dude crumpled to the wet forest floor with a satisfying thud.
Baddon effortlessly mirrored Hunter and tossed the human over his shoulder before jogging ahead to scout the path. Riker fell in behind Hunter, protecting his back. A hundred yards from the scene of the battle, two MoonBound warriors, Takis and Aiden, joined them, bows drawn.
“We heard a fight,” Takis said, eyeing Jaggar. “Hunters?”
“Stake Reapers,” Baddon growled.
“Shit,” Aiden breathed. “You guys okay? Rike?”
Riker cut a sharp nod at Aiden. “I’ll be fine. We need to get Jag help.”
They moved faster now, with Aiden and Takis clearing the way, and had no more trouble. Still, it was unsettling that the Stake Reapers had set their traps so close to clan headquarters. MoonBound’s mystic-keeper had warded the area to passively repel humans, but either the wards had been destroyed or the Stake Reapers possessed some ability that rendered the wards useless.
Either way, the clan could be f**ked. Their headquarters was concealed by ancient magic, so if the wards could be neutralized, it was possible that the invisibility spell could be, too.
“Baddon.” Hunter shifted Jaggar’s weight to relieve the pressure that was making his right arm go numb. “See if you can do some more digging into the Reapers. If they can neutralize our wards, your theory that they have a vamp in their ranks might be dead-on. Riker, I want extra patrols assigned for the next few days, and tomorrow I’ll personally meet Rasha’s party at our territory’s border.”
Baddon gave a crisp “Yes, sir,” but Riker glared. The guy would no doubt give Hunter an earful about how it was too much of a risk for him to leave headquarters, but Riker’s efforts would be wasted. Hunter wasn’t going to take any chances with his future mate. He didn’t like her, didn’t want this, but if something happened to her inside MoonBound clan’s territory, her father would mount every MoonBound vampire’s skin on his walls.
So yes, he would make sure his future bride and his clan were safe.
His fate, however, was very much up in the air, and as they covered the final miles to headquarters, the voice of the demon who had come to Hunter two months ago rang in his ears.
Before the winter ends, you will be dead.
Fate was following Aylin Redmoon like a wolf on the trail of an injured deer. With every step closer to MoonBound clan’s territory in the rugged Cascade Mountains of Washington State, the sense of impending doom grew.
Very soon she was going to be mated to a brutal male, her virginity taken against her will, before being cast aside as garbage.
But first, her twin sister was to be mated. And unlike Aylin’s future mate, Rasha’s was handsome and respected by his clan members, and he believed in bathing more than once a year. Aylin had never seen Hunter up close, but she’d heard the chatter, which, if it was to be believed, made him out to be some sort of vampire Adonis.
Patches of melting snow from last night’s storm crunched under Aylin’s hiking boots as she and her sister made their way along a winding riverbank. Rasha’s boots didn’t make a sound.
Aylin cast a sideways glance at her twin. Rasha’s blond hair was pulled into a severe ponytail, while Aylin’s waist-length locks were bound lower and looser with a leather thong, but aside from that, they were identical. Even their clothing matched, but not out of some silly twin-sisterhood thing. No, Aylin had been set up as a decoy so that Rasha, the firstborn and ShadowSpawn heir, would have a better chance of escape in the event of an attack by humans or a double cross by MoonBound.
As they walked, Aylin was careful to stay behind her sister and to the right, the submissive position she’d been taught to take with every male and some females in her own clan. It didn’t matter that she was the daughter of the clan chief; her status as second-born twin ranked her below all males, and her physical flaw automatically made her inferior to healthy females.
But that didn’t mean she didn’t sometimes “forget” her place. She always paid for it, but those few minutes when she mouthed off or outwitted one of her “superiors” were worth it.
A deer bounded across the trail a few yards in front of them, its nimble steps lending to a nearly silent run through the trees. How Aylin envied that deer its freedom and agility.
Rasha moved just as gracefully, every step deliberate and soundless, one gloved hand clasped firmly around her crossbow, the other poised over the hilt of the dagger at her hip. Her blue eyes scanned the forest ahead, cataloging every windblown leaf, every bird flitting from tree branch to tree branch. Rasha was in calm, cool warrior mode… even though she was on the way to mate with the enemy.
“Aren’t you nervous?” Aylin asked.
“Why should I be?” Rasha signaled one of their six escorts to range out ahead. They should be coming across MoonBound’s warriors at any minute, and they wanted no surprises. “I’m about to be mated to the leader of one of the largest and oldest vampire clans this side of the Rockies. I’ll be a queen. And Hunter is f**king hot. I could be mating an ugly monster with a harem of females.”
“Like I am?” Aylin looked up at a squirrel scolding them from the branches of a tree.
You should be hibernating, buddy.
The squirrel didn’t hear her thoughts, of course. But deep inside, like shadow wings fluttering against her soul, Aylin’s totem animal, her mourning dove spirit guide, awakened, preparing to deliver the message to the little rodent if needed.
“Exactly.” Rasha leaped across a narrow in the river, but Aylin had to use a fallen log to cross. “I know it’s not what you want, but you need to make the best of it. Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?” She cast Aylin a teasing grin. “It’s annoying, isn’t it?”
Aylin tossed a pinecone at her sister. They had an easy relationship when they were alone and Rasha wasn’t being scorned for being nice to her crippled, cursed sister.
“Telling you to make the best of mating with Hunter is a little different from you telling me to make the best of mating with Tseeveyo,” Aylin pointed out. “You actually want to mate with Hunter.”
“For the good of our clan.” Rasha swatted a branch out of her face. “But he doesn’t want me.”
“And Tseeveyo only wants me because he needs our father as an ally.”
Rasha averted her gaze. They both knew there was another reason Tseeveyo wanted Aylin, but neither wanted to go there. “You need someone to take care of you, Aylin. You’re lucky Tseeveyo wants you, and at least this way, you get to be a clan chief’s mate.”
One of his mates. “I can take care of myself.” She definitely didn’t need a male whose evil deeds had given birth to the Hopi legend of the child-eating ogre known to many as Cheveyo.
“Really.” Rasha cast a skeptical glance at Aylin’s crooked right leg, which nearly buckled as she stepped off the log. “You can’t hunt, and you can’t compete with other females. Without me at ShadowSpawn, it won’t be long before you’ll be shoved to the fringes of the clan and begging for scraps. And if something ever happens to our father, your last line of protection will be gone. The clan will either shun you or kill you.”
What Rasha was saying was true, but that didn’t mean Aylin wanted to hear it. “Thanks for the breaking news,” she muttered over the incessant squirrel chatter.
Rasha looked completely perplexed. She never had understood that she shouldn’t say every little thing she was thinking. “I was just being honest.”
“You were reminding me where my place is in the clan.”
“Because you never learn,” Rasha said, glaring up at the squirrel. “You’re always bucking the system, and believe it or not, I don’t like to see you punished. If you’d just accept your place in society, your life would be so much better.”
“If I accepted my place, I’d be dead, and you know it.” How often had she heard not only clan members but her own father say that she should have been drowned before she took her first breath? Aylin wondered what offended everyone most – that she was the second-born, the “cursed” twin, or that she’d had the audacity to be born with a deformed leg in a survival-of-the-fittest world.
Rasha sighed. “Just, please, will you behave with Tseeveyo? I know he’s a bastard, but if you lie low, follow orders, and do what he says, it’ll be okay. Just do your best —”
“Enough!” Aylin bit out. “The last thing I want to talk about is how I’ve been sold to a clan that is, somehow, worse than ShadowSpawn. So will you shut up about it, already?”
No one else in the world could have said that to Rasha. Not if they wanted to walk away with their teeth intact. But Rasha, for all her faults, hadn’t physically harmed Aylin since they were children. Not seriously, anyway. No, Rasha had other, more effective ways to put Aylin in her place, and Aylin had learned long ago never to let her sister know what was important to her. Rasha knew too much about Aylin’s soft spots as it was… as she proved now by raising her crossbow and taking aim at the noisy squirrel. “That thing needs to shut up.”
“No!” Aylin struck out, slamming the weapon up as it fired. The bolt went wild, and the squirrel skittered into a hole in the tree trunk.
Rasha snarled, baring her fangs. “Dammit, Aylin. Animals are food, not pets.”
“Spare me,” Aylin said, starting toward MoonBound’s territory again. “You weren’t going to eat the squirrel. You were going to kill it to hurt me.”
“Not to hurt. To help. Do you see what I mean about you not learning your lessons? I do these things for your own good. I wish you’d see that.” Rasha shoved past Aylin to take the lead. Aylin nearly fell over, her bad leg shifting awkwardly as she tried to regain her balance, but Rasha’s hand snapped out to catch her.
Aylin shrugged out of her grip. “Oh, I learned very well not to keep a pet.” At ShadowSpawn, compassion for animals was considered a weakness. “I was only going to ask that squirrel what brought it out of hibernation. I think it was trying to tell us something.”
Hissing, Rasha rounded on Aylin. “Shut your mouth,” she whispered harshly. “If any of the warriors had heard you —”
“They didn’t.” Aylin bent to tie her bootlace. “And I’d have been careful.”
“It doesn’t matter. Communicating with animals is forbidden, and you know it.”
Of course, she knew it. Every vampire was gifted with a special skill or two, but Aylin’s talent of using her totem spirit to talk to animals was considered taboo for reasons Aylin had never understood. But then, much of what went on in the ShadowSpawn clan didn’t make sense to her. And because of that, because she questioned the ideology of the Way of the Raven, the other clan members thought she was either stupid or a troublemaker. Usually both.
They continued through the forest in uneventful silence. Then, as they dropped into a valley that bordered MoonBound territory, Benito, one of their young scouts, stumbled out from the shadows, his face streaked with blood, his black clothing shiny with wet splotches.
“Fucking… humans,” Ben gasped.
He coughed, spraying pink mist as he collapsed onto the fern-covered ground. A thick wooden handle rose from between his shoulder blades, and it took Aylin’s brain several precious moments to realize a hatchet was lodged in his back.
Suddenly, the woods exploded with movement and the sounds of battle.
Rasha spun in a blur, and Aylin felt a sharp sting in her right thigh. Rasha’s blade slipped silently into its sheath; Aylin hadn’t even seen her sister remove it.READ MORE >>