But Samnult was asking her to give that up. To be crippled again. Crippled and stuck with Tseeveyo. If she agreed to this, she would be back where she had started, which was basically… screwed. But Hunter would be alive.
Ultimately, it wasn’t a choice.
“Do it,” she blurted. “Please.”
Sam smiled. “Hunter chose well.”
Chose well? He hadn’t had a choice, and she suddenly wondered what choice Rasha would have made if Hunter’s life was on the line.
No, she didn’t have to wonder. Rasha would have let Hunter die.
“Come, Aylin.” Samnult held out his hand. “I have something to show you.”
Hunter had had the strangest dream. He’d been riding a horse, a pinto he’d had as a child, across plains that went as far as the eye could see. Armed with a bow, he’d been following a herd of bison, but oddly, he wasn’t there to hunt. He wasn’t hungry, and the animals certainly weren’t afraid of him.
He got the strange feeling that even if he’d shot an arrow at one of the animals, it wouldn’t have been harmed.
The next thing he knew, he was at a table in a massive, noisy hall, dining with warriors who had died long ago. Music and laughter filled the room, as did the mouthwatering scents of all his favorite foods.
“It’s good to see you, my friend,” said a male sitting across from him. Soaring Jay, a human childhood friend from the Umatilla Indian tribe, held up a silver cup filled with something blue. “But you don’t belong here.”
“It’s too soon,” said a silver-haired female from Hunter’s own clan. Leaf on the Wind, whom everyone had simply called Leaf, had been killed by humans a quarter of a century ago. She sat next to Soaring Jay, their fingers entwined.
Where the hell was he?
Confused… but strangely at peace, he sat there, watching dozens – no, hundreds – of friends and family from his past as they dined and drank, sang and danced.
This is a dream, he thought. It had to be. Unless… unless he was dead.
Where is Hunter?
The voice, so familiar and yet so distant, echoed in his ears. “Aylin?” he called out. Everyone looked at him with what he swore was pity.
He still doesn’t understand.
Hunter has so much to do.
He’s lost, but he’ll find his way.
The whispers of the people in the room almost drowned out Aylin, and he couldn’t figure out where she was. He shoved to his feet and shouted again. “Aylin! Where are you?”
Damn you, Samnult. Aylin’s voice drifted to him, sounding as if it were being filtered through a tin can. If you don’t produce Hunter in the next five seconds, I’ll gut you with my bare hands!
Suddenly, he wasn’t in the weird dining room anymore. He was standing in the middle of some sort of gladiatorial arena. Stone walls rose up around him, and beyond the walls were stadium bench seats filled with people armed to the teeth and dressed in traditional Native American garb representing dozens of tribes. Human bones and skulls littered the Roman-style arena, so many it would take days, maybe weeks, to count.
Seriously, what the f**k?
The distinct grind of metal gears vibrated the sand under his feet, and then the iron gate at the far end of the arena slid open. He crouched, waiting for some sort of beast or armored warrior to burst through the opening to kill him.
Instead, a blond female raced toward him, and his heart lurched. Aylin? But why was she limping?
Didn’t matter. He didn’t care. He took off at a dead run, covering the distance between them in three heartbeats. His heart soared as she flew into his arms. If he was dead, that was fine with him. He had Aylin, and that was all that mattered.
“Thank the Maker,” she said over and over, as she kissed his cheek, his neck, his chin, and, finally, his lips.
He met her kiss with equal enthusiasm, growling deep in his throat as their tongues met and she clung to him so tightly he didn’t think a molecule of air could fit between their bodies.
“Get a room, already.” Samnult’s deadpan voice broke the moment, but it didn’t stop Hunter from holding Aylin close and burying his nose in her hair. He inhaled deeply, reassuring himself that it was her. That he wasn’t completely crazy.
“I was afraid Samnult wasn’t going to keep his word,” Aylin whispered.
She stepped back, but she kept her hands on his bare shoulders, her nails digging in so deep he suspected he’d find blood later. Not that he gave a shit. He’d wear those marks with pride.
He looked between Aylin and the demon. “What happened? Where are we?”
“You died.” Aylin’s voice broke. “You died, and I thought you were gone forever —”
“But I saved your sorry life,” Sam interrupted. “Well, Aylin did. An eye for an eye.” He shrugged. “Or in this case, a leg for a life.”
You don’t belong here. It’s too soon. All the voices crashed through his brain, and then came images of a weird flying bear thing attacking him. Of Aylin nailing it in the eye with her blade and of his chest being torn open.
He staggered backward, his mind a jumble of images and sounds and pain. Reality handed him his ass on a platter, and he realized that he hadn’t been dreaming at all. He’d been dead.
And Aylin had sacrificed the one thing that was most important to her… in order to restore his life.
“Oh, Aylin.” His voice was trashed, which was appropriate, given that he felt like she’d thrown away the only thing that might have made her life worth living.
“Yeah, yeah.” Samnult rolled his eyes. “Sacrifice is always sweet.” He made an encompassing gesture with his arm. “You asked where we are. We’re in my training center.”
Samnult nodded. Behind him, through the gate Aylin had used, a tall blond male entered, his garb similar to Hunter’s, except that he wore a leather harness loaded with deadly weapons. His boots crunched on the bones he stepped on.
“What did you think I did with all the firstborn children I take from first- and second-generation vampires?” Samnult’s gaze swept the crowd. “You probably assumed I tortured them or ate them.”
That was exactly what he’d thought.
“The people in the stands are those children,” Sam said. “The bones belong to the humans who have oppressed your kind. Who have killed, abused, and enslaved vampires.”
Aylin looked out over the crowd in awe. “You’re saying that you’ve been taking children from their parents to… what? Hold gladiatorial battles with humans?”
“To train them to kill humans.” Samnult snapped his fingers, and the bones disappeared. The blond man stepped next to the demon… and bared his vampire fangs at Hunter. “War is coming. And these children I’ve taken will lead the charge.” He patted the newcomer male on his scarred shoulder. “Aylin Redmoon, this is your brother, Pale Wolf.”
Aylin stared at the male in front of her, his blue eyes, blond hair, and skin tone identical to hers, his square jaw, cruel mouth, and broad nose clearly belonging to her father. Their father.
His dispassionate gaze took her in with about as much interest as one might have upon seeing a cricket on the ground.
“I… um… hi.” She offered a tentative smile, but his expressionless mask didn’t change. At all.
“I watched you.” His deep, gravelly voice was nothing like Father’s, which, she supposed, was a good thing. “During the trials, I watched you.” He whipped a blade from his weapons harness and presented it, hilt first, to her. “Your spirit sings, little one. Your heart is bigger than the challenges you’ve faced. I’m honored to call you sister.”
Eyes stinging, she accepted the blade. The hilt, carved from some sort of ivory, fit her palm as if made for her. “I don’t know what to say.” She really didn’t. What did one say to a brother she’d never met but who clearly knew more about her than she knew about him?
“Enough,” Samnult said, and suddenly, they weren’t in the arena anymore. Aylin, Hunter, and Samnult were where she and Hunter had begun the journey.
At the portal.
Bittersweet memories ricocheted around inside her skull. They’d made love without intercourse, exchanged lifeblood, and bonded in a way that Aylin would hold on to forever.
And yet, even after she’d saved Hunter’s life, they could never be together.
With a brutal shove, she locked down those thoughts and brought herself back to the present. “Where’s my brother?” she asked the demon.
“You’ll see him again,” Samnult said. “Soon.”
Aylin wasn’t sure she liked the sound of that. As much as she’d love to get to know the brother who was taken before Aylin was even born, she had a feeling that the next time they met, it wouldn’t be under the happiest of circumstances.
Then again, neither was their first meeting.
“Are we done here?” Hunter glanced over at the stone circle that defined the portal, and she wondered if he also had to suppress the memories of going through it the first time. “Did we pass the tests? Or did my… death cause us to fail?”
Samnult’s black eyes turned glassy, as if he was reliving the moment… and maybe savoring it. “You passed. You killed the creature. The fact that it killed you, too, is unimportant.”
Aylin figured Hunter would disagree. “So what now?”
“Now?” The demon cocked an eyebrow. “Now you leave. But first, you can each ask a question. Anything you want.” He held up his hand. “And the next thing out of your mouth had better not be ‘Anything?’ Because that’ll count as your question. Also, don’t ask about predictions. I don’t know the future.”
Aylin exchanged glances with Hunter, wondering what he would ask.
Finally, Hunter spoke. “I’m curious about imprinting and how it happens. What’s the purpose, especially if it isn’t voluntary and is one-sided?”
“Ah, yes. Good question.” Samnult braced himself against a tree that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Aylin couldn’t wait to get back to the real world, where trees didn’t move. “The imprint is a mark of genetic compatibility,” he explained. “When a male imprints on a female and gains the mate mark, the chances of conception for the couple are vastly increased. The bond itself ensures that the male physically desires the female, therefore increasing the odds that children will be born of the union.”
“Does that mean that there are multiple females in the world whom a male could potentially bond with? Not just one?”
“That’s another question. But I’ll answer. Yes. The idea of there being only one female in the entire world whom a male can imprint on is ludicrous. And I will say this: a male won’t always imprint on a female he’s compatible with. Timing is everything.” He studied his nails with exaggerated casualness. “And I might have a hand in it.”
“So you’re saying I’ve been with compatible females before? That if the timing had been right, I could have imprinted on them? Who?”
“I’ve already answered your one question. Besides, you know the answer already.”
Hunter frowned, and then he gave the demon a withering stare. “The mothers of my dead children. Had the ‘timing’ been right, I would have imprinted on them?”
“I won’t answer more questions from you,” Samnult said, a clear warning dripping from his words. “But keep in mind that those females are either dead or gone. Imprinting on any one of them would have destroyed you, so keep your anger to yourself.” He turned to Aylin. “Have you got a question for me?”
There were millions of things she could ask, and all her life, she’d wanted to know why she was born with a twisted leg. But recent events had changed things. It no longer mattered – what was done was done. “During the third challenge, my totem animal was killed,” she began, her voice hoarse, and Hunter pivoted around to stare.
“That’s impossible. Our animals are spirits. They can’t die.” He glanced over at Samnult. “Right?”
The demon made a game-show loser buzzer sound. “Wrong. In my realm, everything can die.”
“Do I get a new animal?”
“No. But the humans have an annoyingly appropriate saying about one door closing and another hitting you in the ass. Or something like that.” He sniffed haughtily. “The portal just opened up behind you, so be on your way. You’ll get out the same way you got in. Naked and feeding. See ya.”
With that, the demon disappeared.
“I’m sorry,” Hunter said. “Losing your spirit animal… fuck. That can’t be easy.”
Not easy at all. There was a void inside her that she couldn’t describe. “I feel empty,” she admitted.
“I’m so sorry,” he repeated. “This is all my fault. You lost your spirit animal, and then your leg…” He looked like he wanted to touch her, to hug her, maybe, but a strange awkwardness sat heavily in the air between them now that they were heading back to the real world. The real world where Rasha would be part of his life, and Aylin would be nothing but a spectator.
“We’ve talked about this. It was my choice to come with you. I knew the risks.” Well, losing her dove was a shock, but she’d expected to die, so the fact that she was alive was a bonus. “And my leg shouldn’t even be part of the equation. I came with it like this, so I didn’t lose anything.”READ MORE >>