“Go! When the thing bucks, jump!”
Shit. She could barely get to her feet, let alone find her balance. The thing threw itself into the wall, and she heard Hunter’s pained shout as he was crushed between the animal and the wall.
“Hunter!” She scrambled toward him, but he waved her off.
Dammit. Using all her strength, she catapulted to her feet and nearly slipped off the creature’s back, and in a supreme stroke of badly needed luck, the animal bucked its back end. She pushed off, springing twenty feet into the air. She hit the top of the wall with her waist, knocking the air from her lungs.
Wheezing, she pulled herself onto the two-foot-wide ledge. Below, Hunter clung to the creature’s wiry hair and scales in a desperate struggle to keep from being thrown or crushed between powerful jaws. Blood ran down his leg, streaming through gashes in his shredded leggings where the animal’s teeth and claws had found flesh.
She’d dropped her club below, and she looked around frantically for a weapon, but the pockmarked wall top was clear of everything but dust and bird droppings.
Turned out she didn’t need a weapon. Leaving the bone spear impaled in the creature, Hunter scrambled down its spine, and when the thing spun to grab him, he leaped. He landed on the wall in an easy crouch, as if he rode demon animals and hurtled onto forty-foot-tall walls every day.
Too bad he landed on the wall opposite her.
The beast roared in fury and tried its damnedest to scale the wall after them. Its claws gouged long, deep grooves in the stone, but with no real purchase, it couldn’t make it more than halfway up before sliding back down.
“You okay?” Hunter asked.
“You’re the one who’s bleeding,” she said.
He shot her a lopsided grin. “It’s just a flesh wound.” For some reason, he said it in an English accent.
“No, it’s not,” she huffed. “And why are you talking like that?”
“Not a fan of Monty Python, huh?”
She didn’t even know who Monty Python was. “Um… guess not.”
“When we get back, I’m making popcorn and introducing you to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” He sounded so casual, as if there was no doubt they’d make it back. He gazed into the distance, to the awesome bird’s-eye view of miles and miles of walls that fit together like puzzle pieces. The maze seemed to go on forever, and maybe it did; the winding walls disappeared into a fog bank in the distance. “Let’s get going. We can meet up at the next dead end.”
She eyed him, assessing his wounds as well as she could with thirty feet between them. “How’s your foot?”
“I’m a second-generation vampire,” he said simply, and duh, they healed far faster than other vampires. As a third-generation vampire, Aylin would heal faster than turned vampires if her blood-clotting issue wasn’t a factor, but even then, her body wouldn’t mend wounds even half as quickly as Hunter’s did.
They met up at a dead end a few hundred yards later. Without traps and monsters, their main concern now as they negotiated the walls on their way to the exit was avoiding plummeting back into the maze. For the millionth time today, Aylin thanked Samnult for giving her the use of her right leg, because staying on top of the wall would have been a serious challenge before.
But then, they wouldn’t have ended up at the top of the maze anyway. Her leg wouldn’t have allowed her to leap onto the beast, let alone jump off of it.
They passed dozens of horrors lurking in the maze below, horrors that would have caused them a lot of trouble, pain, and maybe even death. Steaming, bubbling pools of what appeared to be acid blocked several paths, and packs of furry wolf-like canines roamed the maze, their howls ringing out both close by and far away.
Hours later, under the light of two quarter moons and inside a bank of fog, the end of the maze finally came into view. They picked up their pace, threading their way through the mist and trying not to look down at whatever was cutting a path through the even thicker layer of fog that boiled below.
“We’re almost there,” Hunter said. “But this was too easy. I don’t like it.”
Aylin didn’t, either. The terrain outside the maze had changed from desert to forest, with mountains rising up as far as the eye could see. But inside the maze, the darkness had brought out creatures so vile Aylin would forever have nightmares. Creatures with multiple glowing eyes. Tentacles. Teeth as long as her forearm. Those were the things they should have come up against, and she wouldn’t be surprised if Samnult found a way to dump them back into the arena.
As they passed a group of humanoids with sharp teeth and black-tipped claws on their elongated hands, a screech rang out from somewhere behind them. Aylin swung around. There, maybe fifty yards behind them, a form took shape. A man. No, a snake.
“Fuck me,” Hunter whispered. “Buweti.”
Ice filled her chest cavity. She’d been raised on tales of the legendary snake man who appeared every fifty years to slaughter entire clans and gorge on their innards, but she’d never taken the fable seriously.
Time to reconsider the validity of all the legends.
“It’s on top of the wall —” She didn’t have a chance to say anything else. Hunter lifted her off her feet and swung her around so she was in the lead as they raced toward the maze exit.
Aylin ran as fast as she could, resisting the urge to look back even as she heard the pounding-slithering of the Buweti getting closer.
The snake man’s hiss sounded just feet away.
Closer. She swore she heard its panting breath.
Suddenly, Hunter grunted. She put on the brakes, wheeling around as Hunter went down, the hideous, scaly thing with the body of a man but the scales, fangs, and cobra hood of a snake landing on top of him. Its fangs sank into his shoulder, and its claws ripped gashes in his arms as he struggled to keep from going over the wall.
“No!” Aylin attacked, kicking the thing in the face with all her strength. Blood spurted from its nose, and a powerful jab of her heel smashed it hard enough in its reptile eye that she felt the crunch of bone.
The Buweti released its bite and shrieked, blood and drool dripping from its nasty teeth. She kicked it again, right in its mouth, cutting off its scream and knocking it backward. In a heartbeat, Hunter was up and on top of the thing, his fists slamming into its head until it was nothing but a pulpy mess.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement, and with horror, she watched as a dozen more snake creatures took shape in the distance.
“Hunter! We have to go!”
They’d lost the backpack, but neither of them gave a shit as Hunter kicked the Buweti’s body into the maze below, where various other monsters tore it apart before it even hit the ground.
That could have been us.
It still could be if they didn’t get the hell out of here. Like, now.
They sprinted, reaching the perimeter wall at the end of the maze in an uncoordinated rush. The pack of snake people had taken a wrong turn, buying Aylin and Hunter a few moments. Hunter crouched, gesturing for Aylin to do the same. Keeping one eye on the enemy behind them, she went down on her haunches, amazed at how easily she could do it now. And how much it didn’t hurt. Great Spirit above, being normal was awesome.
“There’s the exit.” She pointed to an archway to their left. “Should we jump into the maze and go through it or jump down on the outside?” The fact that she was talking about leaping forty feet below would have made her giddy if they weren’t in a life-or-death situation.
“I don’t know,” Hunter said gruffly. “What do you think?”
She froze. No one had ever asked for her opinion on a tactical matter. Actually, no one but Rasha had asked her opinion on anything, and even then, Rasha had been looking for a sounding board, not real advice.
Aylin thought back to an old warfare tactics book she’d read once, and while she couldn’t remember the author, she remembered the battle. A Navy SEAL team had been pinned down on top of a building, and their choices had been to enter the building and fight their way down or to rappel down the side of the structure, exposing themselves to enemy fire from surrounding buildings. They’d chosen to go inside, where they’d been trapped. Only one had survived.
What if they jumped into the maze and the exit that was wide open right now suddenly closed?
“Hurry, Aylin,” he said. “They’ll be on us in thirty seconds.”
“Outside,” she said. “Something might come out of the woods and attack us, but the same thing could happen inside the maze. At least this way, we won’t be trapped inside.”
Hunter inclined his head in a sharp nod. “Then let’s do it.”
No hesitation. No questioning her. He simply took her hand and gave her a look that dripped with confidence and readiness.
Aylin was pretty sure that someday she’d look back and realize that this was the moment she fell in love with him.
Rasha, you bitch. You have no idea what you’re getting.
“On the count of three,” he said. “One… two… three!”
They jumped. A split second of terror gave way to exhilaration. Cool air swirled around Aylin as she plummeted toward the ground. Her stomach leaped into her throat, blocking her shout of absolute euphoria. This was freedom. This was what it meant to be a vampire, to use the natural strength, speed, and skills inherent to a healthy individual.
This was life.
They hit the ground in tandem thuds, and even though the impact was jarring to every joint in her body, Aylin reveled in it. She wanted jarring impacts. She wanted to leap from high places.
“We have to keep going,” he said, glancing up at the wall. “The Buweti —”
“Won’t harm you now.” Samnult’s voice rang out, and sure enough, the snake men stopped at the edge of the maze, their furious hisses making her skin crawl. “And bravo.” Samnult materialized from out of the forest, walking toward them on two hooved feet and clapping theatrically. Aylin wondered if he would ever appear to them the same way twice. She wished he’d settle on one. His multiple personas freaked her out. “No one has solved the maze so quickly.” He looked up at the wall. “But I guess you didn’t solve it as much as you bypassed it.”
Hunter’s smile was part amusement and part in-your-face smugness, and if the wounds in his shoulder and arms left by the Buweti hurt him at all, it didn’t show. “Pissed that we beat your little rat race?”
“No.” Samnult’s lips peeled away from yellowed, sharp teeth. “I’m pissed that you cheated.”
Cheated? How could you cheat when you were fighting for your life? “We didn’t cheat,” she replied. They’d improvised, something she was used to doing to make up for her lack of physical ability. “You never said we couldn’t get to the exit on top of the walls.”
A deep rumble ripped up from Samnult’s throat. “A mistake I won’t make in the future.” He clenched his hands into fists, and she wondered if he was having fantasies of wringing their necks. “But the maze did what it was supposed to do. Hunter, you’ve demonstrated your intelligence and resourcefulness.”
Hunter snorted. “Without Aylin, I couldn’t have done it.”
“Using her spirit animal to talk to the bird was a good trick,” he said, and Aylin swallowed hard. He knew? She shouldn’t be surprised, she supposed, but she didn’t like it. She’d spent too much time trying to keep it a secret. “But you didn’t condemn her for it, which is smart. Because your ways of the f**king big black birds are f**king ridiculous.” He grimaced. “Well, I’d be wary of skinwalkers. You got that right with your Raven and Crow crap.”
Huh. It hadn’t occurred to her that Samnult, who had created the vampire race, would have strong opinions about the lore vampires had developed to explain their origins. She wondered if the god who created humans viewed all the various religious dogmas the same way.
Apparently, Hunter’s thoughts echoed Aylin’s, because he glared at the demon and said, “You know, maybe if you showed yourself to our race and told everyone the truth, they wouldn’t be living by bizarre lore that revolves around a raven, a crow, and two chiefs who never even met in real life.”
Samnult smiled, but it was a cold one that chilled Aylin to the bone. “In time. For now, you’ll continue to lead your flock the way you have been, and so will everyone who knows the truth. But first, you’ll have to survive the next challenge.”
Samnult snapped his fingers, and suddenly, they were inside a cave lit with smoky tallow candles. Silver moonlight streamed through the opening, bringing with it a cool breeze. Neat blanket rolls, food packets, piles of wood, and bottles of water sat on the floor of the cave, and along the back wall, a crystal pool bubbled softly, its surface nearly hidden by a layer of steam.
“Hot springs,” Sam said. “If you wish to bathe.”
Hunter and Aylin exchanged confused glances. “How is this a challenge?” Hunter asked.
Sam laughed. “This? This isn’t the challenge. The second you step outside the cave, the test will begin. But it’s night, and trust me, you want to wait until the sun is up. I’ve healed your wounds in preparation for the challenge, but what you’ll truly need is good luck.”
With that, he disappeared. Somewhere outside, something growled. Something big.
Aylin had a feeling that daylight was going to come far too soon.
As Samnult poofed away, Hunter cursed. Sure, a night’s rest would be great, but more than anything, he wanted this to be over with. The sooner he was back with his clan, the better.READ MORE >>