Mortal Obligation (Dark Betrayal Trilogy #1)

Chapter 23

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“You're not amusing.” Shifting his feet, Paden leaned over Roland threateningly. Ree rolled her eyes at them both and folded her arms on her knees.

“Save it for the others, Paden.” Sophie's voice cut through the tension. “And quit baiting him, Roland.”

“Killjoy,” Roland muttered, and Sophie shot him a dark look.

“No one goes off on their own. Do not chase after any Dark Ones. Do not attack unless Roland or I give you the go-ahead. And first and foremost in everyone’s mind should be Ree's safety.” Sophie looked at each of them to make sure they were in agreement with her rules. “Our word is law. You do not argue at any point. Eventually, some of this will change, but for now there is no negotiation.” Everyone nodded. “Okay, let’s go.”

They all stared after her for a moment as she started a brisk pace. Roland hopped up and offered his hand to Ree. She smiled at him and let him pull her to a standing position. “Let’s go hunt the things that go bump in the night,” he said.

“Dang it. You can see my dreams, too?” Weylin's despondent voice broke the thrall that was holding them all. Ree laughed and walked after Sophie, the others taking up positions around her so she was ensconced as safely as possible in the middle.

Chapter 31

People were crowding the streets in large groups, and laughter and catcalls filled the air. It took a few minutes for Ree to realize it was New Year's Eve. Families were walking along the busy street, peering into shop windows and heading for restaurants while they waited for the fireworks to start later that night. Children grasped the fingers of adults as they stopped to look at the work of local artists or the decorations that were still up. Couples laughed as they shared pralines and salt water taffy from the candy stores. Anticipation floated in the air as everyone enjoyed the holiday. Underneath the excitement was a darkness only their group seemed to be aware of. Ree and her friends tended to stay on the less crowded streets where victims could be snatched without as much notice.

“Ree, can you sense anything yet?” Sophie asked quietly.

“What about my eyes? People will notice them.”

“You aren't pulling the power in just feeling for the differences around you. Keep it centralized in your chest.” Sophie's eyes were steady as she scanned the streets.

“What about when I need to do more than sense things?” When she let her awareness expand, the tourists and locals that surrounded them lit up like Christmas lights.

“When that happens, you will most likely not have to worry about the humans hanging around long enough to notice your eyes. And if they do, it will be the last thing they are going to be thinking about.” Sophie kept walking, her direction taking them toward City Market. Ree knew there would be a large congregation of people gathered at the Market. A lot of the city tours left from there, and famous restaurants, bars, and pubs were surrounded by specialty shops and the usual tourist traps.

“Will it be easy to find a Dark One?” Melanie's voice asked from the rear of the group.

“There is no way they would pass up this feast,” Roland replied in a dry tone. “Holidays like today are a big draw. People disappear all the time in cities like this and it gets blamed on local crime. St. Patrick’s Day is the worst, however. You can barely walk two feet without running into a stuffed Dark One. They come from all over for the entertainment, the parade, and the drunken people.” Looking over her shoulder, she saw Melanie glaring at Roland but noticed his usual smile was nowhere to be seen. Despite the nonchalance in his voice, it bothered him that all of these people were in danger.

Compared to the happy people out enjoying the festivities, their little group looked downright dreary. They hardly spoke as they walked through the dark streets while Ree concentrated with her extra sense. Despite the cold weather, the people around them felt warm, alive, and almost pulsing in her mind. When one of them came too close to their group, that person’s energy pulled on Ree like she had stepped through a spider web. As they passed a dark alley, Ree stumbled in shock and clutched at the person next to her. Juliette steadied her with gentle fingers, but didn't let go when she saw the look on her face. Somewhere down that alley a vibrant spot was slowly dying and surrounding it was a bucket of ice cold water. She shook her head to try and get a better understanding of what was happening. Tentatively, she reached out again, prepared for the searing cold she found.

Sophie had continued on, seemingly oblivious to what Ree had found, but she knew this was part of the test. For a split second she considered keeping her friends out of danger and moving on. But there was someone in that cold alley that was being murdered and she couldn't stand by and let that happen.

“They have a human,” she whispered to the others. Roland nodded to someone behind her and she turned to see Sophie give her a small nod. Then they were all hurtling down the alley.

“Duck,” Ree hollered. The three in front of her dodged to the side and she threw the power ahead of her. It wasn't a concentrated enough blast to kill the Dark One, but she hoped it would knock them away from the victim.

There was the sound of weapons being drawn, and a little voice in her head wondered where the others had been keeping their cutlery. Two of their group stayed at the entrance of the alley to make sure no one accidently wandered into the fight, but the rest made a beeline for the preoccupied Dark One. Paden was the first to get there and he picked him up off the ground and threw him into an old brick wall that shook with the impact. Ree tried to not gape at the show of strength, because the man had righted himself immediately and was zeroing in on her friend. Ree watched as the Dark One hissed and hit Paden in the gut with a hard right. He barely moved; instead, he lashed out with a long curved blade toward the man’s neck but missed, so followed the move with a leg sweep. The Dark One went down in a flash of dust and trash next to Ree. She stumbled away from him as his black eyes focused on her face and he growled. Paden and one of the others grabbed him by his ankles and threw him further into the alley away from her.

Slipping on trash, Ree landed on her knees next to the unconscious body of the victim. With shaking hands she brushed the blonde’s hair away from her neck and gasped when she saw the wound on her neck. There were no neat little holes like on television; instead she could have been attacked by jackals. Blood pumped from the crater, which snapped Ree out of her study. She fumbled with the woman’s wrist and tried not to notice the wedding band on her left hand. A thready pulse bumped under her fingers, and she sighed in relief.

Quiet grunts came from further down the alley, and Ree found herself peering into the darkness in worry. Knowing that down there she wouldn’t be able to see a thing, she decided to focus on the victim. Grabbing the jacket that was on the ground, she tried to staunch the flow coming from her neck. A soft moan came from the lady when she pressed harder.

“What do we do?” someone beside her asked. For the first time, she realized someone had stayed with her.

“I'm calling someone right now. We have people on the local paramedic groups.” Roland already had his phone to his ear and started whispering quietly.

“No . . . .” The woman groaned. She wasn't much older than Ree, perhaps in her early twenties.

“She's military.” Looking through the wallet had produced a military I.D. card, which Juliette flashed at Ree.

“She's a dependent. That isn't a personnel card,” Ree hoped the woman’s husband was just deployed and not dead in a different alley. Who would have thought a warzone would be safer than their hometown?

A shout of victory echoed down toward the entrance, followed by the thud of the Dark One’s body landing a few feet away. The power flowed into her without thought and she held her hand out in front of her.

“Don't worry. Paden already got him,” Weylin said, walking back down the alley.

“He always has all the fun,” Melanie complained.

Ree looked at the man laying next her and took in the hilt of some weapon buried under his rib cage. The disconnected voice in her head noted the slower decomposition of this Dark One compared to the one she had turned to dust in front of the Civic Center. His body slowly crumbled, leaving behind a tailored suit and a gold watch.

“Why is he disintegrating so slowly?” Ree looked up at Sophie so that she could avoid the ugly site beside her.

“If he hadn’t eaten in a while he would have turned to dust much faster. But considering that we interrupted his dinner….” Roland’s voice trailed off as he glanced at the remains in disgust.

“Did you get hold of Robert or another EMT?” Sophie asked as she sheathed her dagger into the top of her tall riding boots.

“He's off tonight, but I got hold of Nick. He should be here soon.” Kneeling next to Ree, Roland handed her some newspaper he had obviously scavenged from the ground. Taking it, she tried to clean her hands of the blood. Nausea came fast and swift now that the danger had passed and the adrenaline drained away. She tried breathing through her mouth so she couldn't smell the blood, something that had always freaked her out.

It wasn't long until an ambulance pulled up at the entrance of the alley, and someone else joined the group in their little alley of horrors. Light from the old-timey street lamps glinted off of his reddish hair as he knelt next to Roland and immediately began checking the woman’s vitals.

“How long has she been down?” His hands moved deftly over the woman, checking for other wounds and injuries.

“We've been here for fifteen minutes or so,” Roland said quietly. He was watching the young EMT as he began placing bandages on the woman’s neck. Nick turned and motioned to the mouth of the alley and someone came, pushing a stretcher over the cobblestones. After they had maneuvered the victim onto the stretcher, they placed her in the ambulance and the dark-haired woman climbed into the back and began hooking the victim up to the equipment. Nick closed the doors and turned to Roland.

“We'll take it from here.” Roland held out his hand to shake Nick’s. There was the slightest pause before Nick returned the gesture, his eyes blank as he nodded at Roland. When he turned to climb into the driver’s seat, Ree noticed the large scar on the side of his neck. It was terrible looking and Ree had to bite her lip to keep from gasping. It looked like something had gnawed on him, but not in just one place. The scar started just below his ear and traveled down under the collar of his shirt.

As the ambulance drove away the others joined her at the entrance of the alley. It wasn't until that moment that she realized why they had been hanging back in the shadows. A large gash started at the outside of Paden's eye and ran the length of his cheek bone. She sucked in her breath and moved next to him without thought. Her fingers moved toward his cheek but hesitated when she remembered that her hands weren't clean.

“Oh my god. Why didn't you let Nick look at your face? What happened?” His warm hand grabbed her fingers and squeezed them in reassurance.

“I'm fine,” Paden chuckled. “I had a lot worse while we were training.”

“What?” He let go of her fingers and she took a step back. “How is that possible? I never saw any of you hurt.” She rubbed her hand into the palm of her other hand.

“We heal, Ree. Very quickly,” Melanie said with a smile. “We all got banged up this past week, but most of it was gone within hours, if not minutes.”

“Yeah, I took some serious hits out in the woods, but they were gone by the time we got back to the house.” Unperturbed, Paden touched his hand to his cheek and smiled at Ree.

“He won't even get a cool scar out of it.” Weylin laughed.

“Okay, guys. Don't get cocky. There are more out there that need to be removed.” Stepping out of the alley Sophie looked over her shoulder, her face was in shadow as the light shined from behind her. “Let's go.”

Chapter 32

It soon became apparent that Roland had been correct in his prediction. Dark Ones were out in force to enjoy the easy pickings. Most of the victims or would-be victims were drunk and oblivious to the danger they faced. It was also evident there were more out hunting than even Sophie had anticipated. Her face never betrayed the tension Ree could feel emanating from the older woman, but she could feel it wafting off of her in waves. It was difficult to ignore the people working with her but she needed to focus on what was going on around her.

When she felt a large cold spot ahead of her she motioned for everyone to slow down. She had a feeling there were several Dark Ones working together and she wanted to make sure the others were prepared. Sophie moved closer to Ree and nodded for her to say what she was thinking.

“I'm not sure, but I think there are several Dark Ones up there.” She nodded toward a side street. “Can you tell how many there are?”

Sophie shook her head. “No, the power does not always work the same way for me that it does for the Alastriana. I wasn't meant to have it, and it isn't always very clear to me what it is trying to say.”

“There’s a cold spot around that corner, but it’s larger than the other ones we found tonight. I think it’s a group working together.”

Sophie said, “Okay, we move in carefully. Paden, how do you want to approach this group?”

Paden's eyes widened when everyone turned to look at him. “Split up?” He relaxed a little bit when Sophie nodded. “I think we should send the two fastest around to head them off from the other side.”

Melanie held out her fist to Bryce while Jules shook her head, irritated.

“I will go with these two if we are splitting up.” Roland moved to stand with the other two. “I promise to keep up.” He gave Melanie and Bryce a teasing smile, and, to everyone's surprise, Melanie held her fist out for Roland to bump. For a moment his smile froze, and his face took on a more sincere quality when he returned her gesture.

“Okay, let's get to it.”

The group split and the others disappeared before Ree even realized they were leaving. Once again, the frustration of being the only human in the group rolled over her and it took a great deal of restraint to keep from kicking at some trash that blew across her path. Tucking her hands into her jacket pockets, she decided to at least be at the front of their party so that she could give them any information she picked up. When she pushed up to the front, Paden didn't try to get her to hide in the middle. Instead, he nodded his head in understanding and turned his eyes back to the street before them. When they rounded the corner they could see what appeared to be three college kids walking a short distance behind a small family.

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