“I have no doubt,” she said with a wry smile. “But I think it’s rare. You’re too smart to be a bastard.”
“There’s an old Cheyenne saying about how, when a man is as wise as a serpent, he can afford to be as harmless as a dove.”
She snorted. “I’d say that ‘harmless’ is the last description that applies to you. But I like the sentiment. I’ve always believed that the more power or strength someone has, the less they should use it.”
Ah, damn. He liked her. He really, really liked her. “Unfortunately, it usually goes the opposite way. Power and strength too often are given to those who least deserve them… or who least can handle them.”
Her gaze became distant, and he wondered if she was thinking of her father. Or Rasha. They were two of the least-deserving people he’d ever met, and Kars’s abuse of power was staggering.
“I hope this isn’t a sore subject,” she began, “but I’ve heard your father, Bear Roar, was as cruel as mine. Is that true?”
Yeah, the subject wasn’t just sore; it was an open, stinging wound. “He was, but in a different way. When he was calm, he was hard but reasonable. But his temper…”
Hunter inhaled, taking in fresh air in an attempt to cleanse the stale memories. Didn’t work. He remembered every gritty detail about his father’s homicidal rages, which could last for days, and when he came out of them, Bear Roar was often shocked by the swath of destruction he’d left in his wake. Now, every day, Hunter struggled with his own temper, avoiding triggers such as speaking the ancient language of the Elders and drowning his violent tendencies in alcohol and video games. He could not, would not, turn into his father.
“His temper was legendary,” Hunter continued. “He was the reason humans fear us.”
“I’m glad you didn’t follow in his footsteps.” She looked up at the endless blue sky, the tips of her hair rustling softly in the breeze. “You’re pretty reasonable.”
“I can be,” he agreed. “At least, most of the time.” And when he wasn’t, Riker put him in his place. Sometimes gently, sometimes not. But the guy could usually bring Hunter out of whatever vicious mood he was in.
Hunter had done things that still haunted him, that still shamed him. And he had no doubt that in the future he’d take many more actions that would do the same.
And as he watched Aylin lift her face into the sun and a breeze that smelled of juniper and sage, he prayed that bringing her along on this journey wasn’t one of them.
To Aylin’s surprise, she and Hunter navigated the maze for hours without incident. Which was a challenge and exhausting in itself. Who knew it took so much energy to be paranoid about what might lurk around the next corner?
To Hunter’s credit, he never once settled into complacency or got sloppy. He kept watch to the front and behind, and before they rounded any bend in the path, he insisted they put their backs to the walls and survey the route ahead before he’d allow them to continue.
By the time the sun sank low on the horizon, casting long shadows inside the maze, they were both so tightly wound up that they were seeing monsters in every murky patch of shade. Really, the lack of activity, coupled with the numerous animal, vampire, and human remains, was its own special brand of hell.
“This is f**ked-up.” Hunter hefted the leather knapsack higher on his sun-baked shoulder as he eased around a corner. “I’d rather be fighting actual enemies than jumping at every sound.”
He exaggerated; she’d not seen him jump once. But she agreed, because she had jumped a few times. The anxiety over what might be lying in wait was making her insane.
“Samnult is a sadist.” She eased the cramp-inducing grip she had on the thigh bone she’d picked up a while back to use as a club. Hunter had one, too, but he’d used a rock to grind one end into a sharp point. “I don’t know how long my heart can keep beating at a thousand beats per minute. I’m pretty sure it’s going to explode.”
He turned to her, and in the waning light, she swore his eyes glowed as he cast a long, lingering look her way. Heat flooded her, and just when she thought her heart couldn’t beat any faster, it went all kinds of crazy in her chest.
It was a blessing when he turned away, because she wasn’t sure her body could take more sudden starts and stops.
The green bird reappeared every now and then, usually when they came to a crossroads in the maze. Hunter would watch as she sent her totem dove, invisible to all but her, out to speak with it, and while she sensed he wasn’t entirely comfortable with her ability, he didn’t condemn. Even now, as the spiky bird lifted off and her dove returned to her, he merely shook his head.
“Impressive. My totem bear would be as likely to eat that bird as talk to it.” He skirted soccer-ball-sized purple bushes growing in the middle of the path and waited until she’d cleared them. The bushes could jump three feet into the air and spit acid, as the hole in the shaft of her boot could attest. “He’s a grumpy son of a bitch.”
She stared at him in astonishment. Special abilities and totem animals tended to be private things, rarely discussed, but she was learning that Hunter wasn’t exactly a typical born vampire with pure American Indian breeding. Unlike her, a vampire with mixed human breeding, Hunter had instincts that would be deeply ingrained, woven into the fabric of his very soul. And yet he was by no means defined by his background.
It was… refreshing. She wondered if his openness extended to talking about his gifts.
A minefield of acid bushes lay ahead, and she fell behind to follow in his footsteps as they wove between the plants. As they forged ahead, she couldn’t help but admire his bare back and the play of powerful muscles under his skin. And then there was the view of his ass, his bare cheeks flashing under the buckskin breechcloth every time he crouched to study a sprung trap… or something he suspected to be a trap.
“Hunter?” She cleared her throat of the lust that had lodged in it. “Can I ask you something?”
A row of acid bushes blocked their path, quivering and rattling in excitement as she and Hunter neared. He jabbed his bone spear into the center of one, and the thing shrieked before shriveling into a fist-sized ball of straw. They quickly stepped over it, and Hunter narrowly avoided being sprayed by another agitated plant.
“Okay.” She cleared her throat again, preparing to enter forbidden territory. “You know what my gift is, but I know nothing about yours.”
The set of his shoulders became taut, and she hoped she hadn’t made a mistake. “You know, most people don’t discuss this. You never want to give away your secret weapon.” He cast her a pointed look over his shoulder. “Or your forbidden skill.”
“Trust me, I’m aware of that,” she muttered.
He spun his bone club around and whacked a vine slithering across the path. “Who besides me, and I’m guessing Rasha, knows that you can communicate with animals?”
“My father probably suspects, but he’s never said anything.” She leaped over the writhing vine, marveling at how her once-twisted leg didn’t shake or ache. Strangely, she was tempted to be extra careful, for fear that injuring herself might reduce her to the same shameful state she’d been in her entire life. She couldn’t return to that. She’d rather die. “I’m sorry if I offended you. You don’t have to talk about it.”
He shrugged. “I can read the weather, and if I try hard enough, I can manipulate it. Nothing wide-scale, but I can force a strong breeze or stop the rain from falling in a fifty-yard radius.”
“That must come in handy,” she said, feeling a little let down. With his background, he should possess far greater powers, like her father, who could project his voice into clan members’ minds to give orders from a distance. His gift had delivered ShadowSpawn a major advantage during several battles they might otherwise have lost.
“Sometimes,” he said with a shrug. “But I – fuck!”
Blood shot up from the earth in a fine spray – at least, she thought it had come from the earth, until she saw the wooden spike drilling up out of the top of Hunter’s foot. Lunging, he ripped his foot free and hit the ground in a messy sprawl.
“Hunter!” Dropping her bone club, Aylin went to her knees next to him, slapped her hands on both sides of the puncture wound, and lifted his leg onto her lap for elevation. “Lie down. We have to stop the bleeding.”
Hissing, Hunter eased onto his back. “Son of a bitch,” he bit out between clenched teeth. “Didn’t see that one coming.”
“The blood,” she said, gesturing with a nod to the backpack lying at his side. “You need to drink it.”
He shook his head. “Later. I don’t want to waste —”
“Now!” she snapped. “I don’t deal well with macho bullshit. You need to heal, and the blood will help. So open that pack, and down a pouch of O-pos.”
Surprise flashed in his pain-filled black eyes, followed by a ghost of a smile. “Yes, ma’am.”
It was her turn to be surprised as he fumbled with the pack’s buckle. He might suffer from macho-itis now and then, but he was clearly smart enough to get over it when necessary. Or when scolded. Good to know.
He jammed his hand into the pack, but before he could retrieve a bag of blood, he froze. The fine hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and a heartbeat later, her ears picked up a sound that filled her with dread.
In the distance, but growing louder with every passing second, was a chuffing noise, the distinct sound of a large animal taking in scents. Tracking them, maybe.
The sound seemed to come from every direction, rendering all of their options down to a roll of the dice. They could go back the way they’d come and run into the creature, they could take the path to the left and run into it, or they could go down the curvy path to the right and still run into it.
Suddenly, a flutter of wings accompanied a wash of air across Aylin’s cheeks. The green spiny bird swooped down to land on the wall, gripping with sharp talons. Oh, damn, this couldn’t be good. Urgently, she sent her dove to talk with the creature, and when it returned, melding with her to become part of her again, the images it transmitted scared the ever-living crap out of her.
“Aylin.” Hunter’s voice dropped, low and harsh. “What is it?”
“It’s big,” she breathed. “Really big.” She glanced down at his injured foot, where blood still seeped between her fingers. “Can you run?”
Hunter didn’t hesitate. In one smooth motion, he snatched up the backpack and his bone weapon and leaped to his feet with the nimble grace of an athlete. Although he grunted when his punctured foot hit the ground, he didn’t favor it at all.
She fisted her club, but if the images her dove gave her were accurate, her weapon would be as effective as a toothpick against a tiger. “The path to the right.”
He grabbed her hand, and together they sprinted blindly down the curving path, running into dead ends when they took wrong turns. Naturally, the green bird hadn’t given any directions other than an insistent flee, which had been pretty obvious, and the equivalent of bear right. After that, they were on their own.
A roar vibrated the air in a tangible wave that struck them from behind.
“It’s close!” Hunter spun on his heel, and in a move so fast Aylin didn’t see it until it was over, he slung her behind him just as a horror-movie monster wheeled around the corner.
The tank-sized beast looked like a cross between a lion and an iguana, but its serrated teeth were pure shark.
And it was coming right at them.
“Can you jump?” he yelled.
Confused, she yelled back, yes, she could jump, but —
The creature screamed like a banshee and lunged for Hunter. Just as she was sure he was going to be swallowed whole, he wheeled to the side and grabbed the beast around the throat. Jerked roughly off his feet, she thought he was going to be flung into the wall, but he twisted his body, flipping up onto the creature’s shoulders.
Was he crazy? The thing bucked like a rodeo bronco, leaping and twisting as it tried to dislodge the vampire clinging to its neck.
“He’s insane,” she whispered to herself, even as she charged at the beast. It swung toward her, snapping its jaws. She skidded to a halt, throwing herself to the ground and barely avoiding being bitten in half.
She looked up in time to see Hunter double-fist his weapon and punch it, sharp end first, between the animal’s shoulder blades. The thing screeched and twisted, striking at Hunter with claws and teeth.
Go! Now! Aylin dove for its hindquarters, finding purchase in its scraggly, wiry hair. She slipped as the thing spun, but when it fell back onto all fours, she managed to jam her foot into its knee and shove off, propelling herself onto its back. And dear Great Spirit, the thing reeked. Foul odors of rotten eggs, putrid meat, and voided bowels made her eyes water and her gag reflex kick in. She couldn’t even care that her dress had hiked up to her hips, leaving her exposed and na**d below.
Hunter yanked the bone spear out of the animal’s flesh and replanted it at the base of its skull. Its roar of pain and fury tore through the air and, very nearly, Aylin’s eardrums. Pain throbbed in her ears, but she didn’t have the luxury of giving in to it.
“The wall!” Hunter shouted.
What the hell was he talking about? Digging deep into the creature’s scaly skin to hang on as it bucked and whirled, she glanced at the wall. Hunter didn’t want her to jump up there, did he?READ MORE >>