Relentless, p.25
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       Relentless, p.25
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         Part #1 of Relentless series by Karen Lynch

  Chapter 17

  “SARA, ARE YOU insane? Do you know what that is?” Roland yelled, running toward me.

  “He’s my friend!” I shouted at them. I threw up my hands to let Roland and Nikolas know I was okay. “His name is Remy.”

  Roland skidded to a stop and stared at me in stunned silence. His eyes moved warily from me to Remy and back again as if he could not believe his eyes. “That is Remy?”

  “Yes. Now back off, both of you.” I turned to Remy and took his hand in mine. “Are you okay?” Something really bad must have happened to make him come here and reveal himself to other people. I’d never seen him look this distraught.

  “Is he okay?” Roland asked in disbelief. “I nearly had a heart attack and she’s worried about a troll. A goddamn troll!”

  “Roland, shut up,” I said more harshly than I’d ever spoken to him. “Remy, what’s wrong? Please tell me.”

  Remy’s large eyes finally met mine, and I saw something I’d never expected to see in a troll’s eyes: fear.

  “Minka gone. Creah and Sinah, too.”

  “Gone? What do you mean gone?”

  He gripped my hand painfully, but I didn’t cry out. “Humans take them,” he said, bringing one of my worst fears to life. Ever since we’d sold that troll bile I’d worried that someone might track it back to my friends. The thought of sweet little Minka in the hands of someone like that made my blood run cold.

  “We’ll find them,” I promised him fiercely. “We’ll get them back.”

  Nikolas spoke for the first time. “Does your uncle have any alcohol here?”

  I shot him a puzzled look. “How will that help us?”

  “It won’t. I need a drink.”

  “I’ll help you look,” Roland added weakly.

  “You guys are not helping the situation,” I told them irritably. “Remy’s little cousins are in a lot of danger, and we have to find them.”

  Nikolas leaned against a wall, looking at a loss for the first time since I met him. “We have enough problems to deal with without going out looking for missing trolls. Have you forgotten your own considerable troubles?”

  “But this is my fault,” I said. “I have to help them.”

  “Is our fault,” Remy corrected me. “Sara warn me it dangerous but I not believe it. I need medicine for boggie.”

  “What on earth is he talking about?” Roland asked me.

  I bit my lip as I gathered my courage. “Remy has this boggie friend who was sick, and they needed a special medicine that you can’t get here. It only comes from Africa, and it’s very hard to find – and really expensive. I found someone to get it for us, but we needed it as soon as possible so Remy gave me something to trade for it… something very hard to find.”

  Nikolas straightened, and his eyes widened in disbelief. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

  I shook my head slowly, and he let out a string of Russian curses that made my ears burn even though I couldn’t understand them.

  “What? What am I missing?” Roland asked, looking between us.

  “Iisus Khristos!” Nikolas began pacing the hallway. “You used troll bile to buy the medicine? What the hell were you thinking?”

  Roland shot me a horrified look. “Oh, Sara, you didn’t.”

  “I was careful,” I protested. “I went through a guy I used a few times before for other things, and he’s always careful. He said he went through a middle man with an overseas buyer and there was no way to trace it back to me. But a few weeks later I found out that someone was posting on some of the message boards, asking about troll bile, and I got worried.” I rubbed my eyes miserably. “I never believed they would find us, let alone be brave enough to do something like this.”

  “Not brave, incredibly stupid,” Nikolas said wearily. He looked at Remy. “How long do we have?”

  “Elders meet now. I come find Sara to see if we find little ones before.”

  “Before what?” Roland asked just as it dawned on me what Nikolas and Remy were talking about. I gasped as the full seriousness of the situation hit me.

  “A rampage,” I whispered. “The elders are going to rampage.”

  “That does not sound good,” Roland said weakly.

  There was no humor in Nikolas’s laugh. “There is a reason why no one – not even a vampire – tangles with trolls. If you mess with one troll, you get the whole clan, and if you harm one of their young, you die. And if a young troll goes missing, the clan rises up to find them – or who took them. Trolls are even better trackers than crocotta, and once they are worked up into a rage, they will kill anyone who has come into contact with their missing children. And during a rampage, trolls do not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.”

  Roland blanched.

  The doorbell rang, making me and Roland jump. Nikolas opened the door to admit Chris whose good-natured smile did not falter even when he saw our grim faces. Then he saw Remy. I didn’t think I had ever seen someone’s eyes go that round before. Roland shoved a glass of Nate’s whiskey into Chris’s hand while Nikolas brought him up to speed on all he had missed.

  The kitchen was getting crowded, so we moved into the living room. I took the chair by the fireplace, and Remy sat on the ottoman beside me. Roland and Chris sat on either end of the sofa. Nikolas stood by the window looking like a sentry.

  “Your little orphan is just full of surprises,” Chris quipped to Nikolas. “Never a dull moment.”

  I bristled at Chris’s words. “I’m nobody’s little orphan.”

  Chris ignored my denial. “So, what’s the plan?”

  There was no question in my mind about what had to be done. “We’ve got to find them.” No one said anything so I said, “They’re only babies. God knows what those people will do to them.”

  Roland pointed at Remy. “Can’t he track them?”

  Remy shook his head unhappily. “Only elders know tracking. If I close, I find them.”

  I pulled out my phone. “I’m calling Malloy. If anyone has heard about this, it’s him.”

  “Who is Malloy?” Nikolas asked suspiciously.

  “Buyer,” Roland offered as I dialed the number. Nikolas shot him a questioning look, and Roland grimaced, no doubt remembering his last encounter with Malloy. “Don’t ask.”

  Malloy picked up right away, and I cut right to the chase about the missing trolls. “If you’ve heard anything at all, tell me now. If we don’t find them, their parents are going to come looking, and you really don’t want that, especially after what I sold you.”

  “You got to be crazy to mess with them trolls,” he uttered in a frightened voice. “Don’t I always tell you that?” There was a short pause, and then he said, “Give me half an hour and if there is anything to find out, I’ll know it.”

  I hung up. “He’s checking into it.”

  I saw that Nikolas had pulled out his own phone and was speaking in a low voice to someone. He hung up and looked at Chris. “I called in Erik’s team. It has to be a big player to risk the trolls’ wrath. I guess we know who sent the witch, too. It had to be someone with a lot of power and influence to get one of them.”

  His words sank in, and the pieces began to slam into place like bullets sliding into a gun chamber. A big player who was able to employ a desert witch who lived in a tribal region of Africa. The man on the yacht. Tarek with his Middle Eastern accent. Malloy’s wealthy overseas buyer.

  Oh God, what have I done?

  The weight of my actions threatened to suffocate me. I’d been so caught up in all the drama in my life the last few weeks that I did not see this new threat until it was right on top of us. I’d thought I was helping Remy by getting the Baktu, but all I’d done was put his family in danger. If the trolls went on a rampage, a lot of people were going to die and that would all be on my head. “This is all my fault. I’m so sorry, Remy.”

  He laid his slender hand over mine on the arm of the chair. “It my fault, too.”

 
; I leaned toward him and gave him a quick hug. “I promise we’ll get them back.”

  We pulled apart, and I saw three pairs of eyes watching us with open curiosity. It occurred to me how strange it must look – a teenage girl with a troll friend – but I was in no mood to offer explanations. There would be time for that after Remy’s little cousins were safe.

  “Am I delirious, or do I really see a troll over there?” Peter stood in the doorway, his eyes nearly bugging out of his head. Except for the mussed hair and bloody T-shirt, I never would have believed he’d been stabbed an hour ago.

  Roland gave him the condensed version of the story. Peter listened open-mouthed, his eyes never leaving me and Remy, and when Roland finished, Peter sat on the floor with his back against the archway, not saying a word.

  Malloy called me back ten minutes later. “Now you did not hear this from me, understand?” he said as soon as I picked up. “I got nothing about those trolls specifically, but supposedly there are some very rare goods being shipped out of Portland tomorrow morning on a private jet. More security than anyone’s seen around here. Word is that it’s living cargo.”

  My pulse quickened. “That’s it. It has to be. Do you know where the shipment is now?”

  The others watched me expectantly when I hung up. I related what Malloy had told me and jumped to my feet. “Come on, we have to go before it’s too late.”

  “Chris and I will go,” Nikolas said. “I think we can handle whatever kind of security they have in place.”

  “I’m coming, too. I got them into this nightmare, and I’ll get them out.”

  Nikolas crossed his arms. “Forget it. It’s not going to happen.”

  I matched his stance. “Stop telling me what to do. I’m going whether you like it or not.” The trolls were my friends and my responsibility. How dare he try to stop me from helping them?

  A tic started at the corner of his jaw, and he took a step toward me. “Like hell. I’ll tie your little ass to that chair over there if I have to.”

  “You can kiss my – ”

  Chris jumped between us, facing Nikolas. “I don’t think this little debate is getting us anywhere.” He turned sideways, and his eyebrow rose when he looked at me. “As entertaining as it promises to be.”

  “There is no debate. She stays here,” Nikolas stated unwaveringly.

  It was time for another tactic. “Alright Mr. I-Know-Better-Than-Everyone-Else, what will you do when you find them? I bet they didn’t teach you in warrior school how to handle a bunch of frightened troll kids.”

  “Your troll friend will come with us.”

  “And who will stay here with me while you guys are on your rescue mission?”

  “The werewolves should be able to keep you safe here for a few hours,” he replied as if that settled everything.

  “Really? And what happens if that witch finds us again? Wouldn’t I be safer with a bunch of warriors, two werewolves, and a troll?”

  “Sara come. I keep her safe,” Remy vowed firmly, and I saw Roland shiver at my troll friend’s fierce face. No one in the room could argue that there was a better bodyguard in the world.

  Nikolas glowered at me for a good ten seconds. “You do not leave his side.” His tone brooked no argument, and for once I conceded without a fight.

  I grabbed my coat from the hall closet and felt the comforting shape of the Mohiri knife in the inside pocket. I really hoped I did not have to use the knife tonight, but lady luck appeared to have deserted me lately and I’d hate to be caught out without a weapon.

  Peter called shotgun, and I glared at him when I was forced to share the back seat with Nikolas. Remy refused to go anywhere near the car and said he would follow us on foot.

  I looked around for Chris, and Nikolas said, “Chris will follow us.”

  A tense silence fell over the car as we headed for the interstate. I looked out my window, intending to ignore Nikolas the whole way to Portland. So much for the olive branch I’d offered him the night of the storm. The whole damn tree was going up in smoke now.

  Peter lasted a whole ten minutes before he turned in his seat to fix me with a “don’t you think you have something to tell us?” look.

  “What?”

  He shook his head. “Really? That’s all you have to say about the troll who was just sitting in your living room?”

  I felt Nikolas’s eyes on me, and I saw Roland darting glances at me in the rearview mirror. “I met Remy not long after I moved here to live with Nate, before I met you guys. I used to go exploring down by the old lumber mill, and one day he saw me and just decided to show himself to me. He was only a year older than me and pretty adventurous for a troll.” What I did not tell them was that Remy had spied on me healing a squirrel with a broken leg and he was so curious that he’d watched me for a few weeks before he finally decided to introduce himself.

  “Weren’t you scared?” Roland asked. “I would have wet my pants if a troll walked up to me in the woods when I was that age.”

  Peter snickered. “You still would.”

  A smile broke over my face as I remembered that day. “I was scared at first. Even back then Remy looked pretty fierce. But he knew some broken English, so we were able to talk and I found out he was as nervous as me. It was a… pretty hard time for me. I’d just lost my dad and moved to a strange place, and I was lonely. Remy was my first friend here.” My chest tightened. It was the first time I’d ever talked to anyone about those dark days when I first came to New Hastings.

  “But trolls don’t like anyone, especially humans,” Peter protested. “They kill anyone who gets near their young. Weren’t you afraid of the adult trolls?”

  I laughed. “I didn’t know any better at first and Remy didn’t tell me. He was a lot of fun to be with. I taught him English, and he taught me all about the real world. He was the one who told me that vampires really did exist and most likely killed my dad. By the time he took me to meet his family, I didn’t know I was supposed to be afraid of them. They weren’t happy, but they didn’t threaten me either. Maybe it’s because I was a little kid or maybe they knew all along I wasn’t human – I don’t know. Anyway, I don’t see them very often. Usually, it’s just me and Remy.”

  “Okay, you are officially the most badass girl I’ve ever met,” Peter declared. “To think we were worried you’d be afraid of us when you found out what we are.”

  After that, Roland and Peter peppered me with questions until I threw up my hands and said no more. Nikolas remained silent throughout the entire conversation, but I felt his gaze on me the whole time. It took a lot of effort not to sneak a glance at him to see what he was thinking. He was probably wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into.

  I hadn’t been to Portland since that night at the Attic and I thought it would bother me, but I was too worried about Remy’s cousins to feel anything but worry for them. My hands clenched painfully in my lap while Roland drove around looking for the address Malloy had given me, and there were fingernail impressions in my palms by the time we found the gated estate. We drove by once to check it out then parked the car in a new development a street away to avoid detection.

  Remy ran up to me as soon as I climbed out of the car. “Little ones close!”

  “I thought you couldn’t track them,” Roland said.

  “Not unless they close,” Remy explained. He touched his chest. “Feel them here.”

  A spark of hope lit in my chest. “Malloy was right.”

  Chris joined us a few minutes later after he did a bit more surveillance. He described what he’d seen to Nikolas. “The place is heavily guarded but nothing we haven’t dealt with before. I’d say a dozen or so armed men on the perimeter with more inside the house.”

  Nikolas turned to us, his eyes on me as he spoke. “Chris and I will go in and neutralize their defenses. Once it’s safe and we have located the young trolls, we’ll come back for you.”

  “You expect us to stay here?” Roland asked,
waving around at the empty lot. The look on his face told me he had been looking forward to getting in on the action. But now that I knew we were close to Minka and the others, I was happy to let Nikolas and Chris handle the threat. I’d never admit it to Nikolas but I was still shaken from the attack earlier, and the thought of facing more dangerous men scared me more than a little. And werewolves or not, I wanted my friends here with me out of harm’s way. I had seen Nikolas fight vampires and crocotta, so I was confident he could handle a bunch of armed men.

  “You can shift and be okay, unless those men are packing silver ammo, but what about Sara?” Nikolas said to Roland. “Are you willing to put her in that kind of danger?”

  Roland started to say something then shook his head. “No.”

  Satisfied, Nikolas said, “There will be several layers of security. Whoever orchestrated this will not take chances with so valuable an asset and will expect trouble. If you hear gunshots or other commotion, stay here out of sight with your heads down. We can handle this. Is everyone clear on that?”

  “Yes,” I said for all of us. Nikolas nodded, and he and Chris began to arm themselves with weapons from the bag on Chris’s motorcycle. When they were ready, Nikolas looked like the warrior who had walked out of the shadows in the alley. The churning in my gut eased a little because I knew that if anyone could make this right, it was him. I trust him. The acknowledgement took me by surprise because trusting people did not come easily for me. But then I thought about all the things he had done to earn my trust even though I had fought him at every turn, and how time and time again he jumped into dangerous situations just like this because of me.

  “Be careful,” I told them, but I was looking at Nikolas when I said it. He smiled confidently, like he was heading off to a rugby match instead of going into battle.

  Chris smirked at me as he turned to leave. “Careful, Sara, or people might think you care.”

  Left alone, the four of us were subdued as we waited for Nikolas and Chris to return. Roland and Peter paced the lot, stopping often to listen for sounds of fighting. I sat on a stack of plywood with Remy, clutching his hand.

  “What will happen after we get Minka and the others back? Will the Elders still be angry?”

  Remy hung his head. “I tell them about bile and they very angry. I think they will say we no longer friends.”

  “No!” Remy was one of my dearest friends. He was going to be there when everyone else I knew grew old and died. I couldn’t lose him. I couldn’t.

  “Maybe not forever but for long time,” he said sadly. “Elders not forget easy.”

  I swallowed back my tears. I had messed up so many things, but I never imagined destroying my friendships. What else would I ruin before all of this was over?

  “Where are they?” Peter fretted after ten minutes. “Shouldn’t we have heard something by now?”

  “I don’t know.” Roland’s voice was uncertain. “We’ll give them a few more minutes and – ”

  Remy shot to his feet, nearly knocking me over, his eyes wide and luminous in the darkness. “Little ones very frightened! Something bad happen.”

  Roland and Peter came running over to us. “What is it?” Roland asked.

  “Remy said something’s wrong with his cousins.” I refused to think what that could mean. “We have to go in.”

  Peter rubbed the back of his neck. “What about the Mohiri? Shouldn’t we wait for them?”

  “There’s no time. The trolls need us.” I strained to make out their faces. “Remy and I are going.”

  “Okay, hold on for a minute,” Roland said. “It’ll be better if we shift first.”

  He and Peter disappeared behind the structure and two large dark shapes returned in their place. I’d forgotten how ferocious they looked in wolf form, and my breath caught when they walked up to flank me. Standing on their hind legs they towered over me, making me feel very small and insignificant next to their powerful bodies.

  “Don’t crowd me,” I chided, shoving at them until they gave me a bit more breathing room.

  We left the lot, moving stealthily through the quiet neighborhood until we were within sight of the gated entrance to the estate. I studied the locked ten-foot tall gate and wondered how on earth we were going to get past it.

  Roland tugged at my arm, leading me away from the gate and into the woods around the estate. I pulled out my knife and followed him with Remy at my side and Peter taking up the rear. The woods and grass were wet from an earlier rain, but I was too worried about not making any noise to care about the dampness seeping into my jeans and sneakers.

  Halfway around the estate, we found a small gardener’s gate hanging slightly ajar, and I knew this was where Nikolas and Chris had gone in. That became even more evident when we slipped inside and saw two men unconscious on the ground. At least I assumed they were unconscious; I wasn’t about to check. I didn’t believe in senseless killing, but I had no sympathy for people who would steal or hurt children.

  We crouched behind a shed and surveyed the broad expanse of lawn dotted with large trees and carefully tended flower gardens. There was no sign of movement between us, and the well-lit house so we set off across the grounds, running from one tree to the next for cover. Adrenaline coursed through me, and my heart pounded so loud that I thought anyone within ten feet of me would hear it.

  Remy stopped abruptly and let out a low growl that set my hair on end, and in front of us, Roland made a similar sound. Remy pushed me up against a tree with a finger to his lips and took up a protective stance in front of me as my two werewolf friends dashed off into the darkness. The night was suddenly filled with snarls and the sounds of violent fighting. My palms scraped against the rough bark of the tree as I imagined horrible things happening to my friends.

  Remy’s head swung toward our left, and he made a rumbling sound deep in his chest. Before I could speak, he disappeared in a blur, leaving me alone and trembling beside the tree. Somewhere in the darkness I heard hissing and more sounds of combat, and my heart felt like it was about to explode from my chest.

  “Thump, thump goes the little rabbit’s heart,” drawled a cold inhuman voice.

  I let out a muffled scream when the vampire appeared in front of me. Tall with ebony skin and short spiky dreadlocks, his white fangs almost glowed when he smiled at me. “Hello, little rabbit.”

  Before I could react, a breath of wind heralded the appearance of a second vampire with upswept blond hair and a hungry leer.

  Vampires here, working with humans? Impossible.

  Brandishing the knife, I shrank against the tree. “Stay back!”

  The black vampire’s soft laugh was like ice water on my skin. “Such a big weapon for a little girl.”

  “Haism did not tell us snacks would be provided,” said his companion, drifting closer.

  The first one advanced. “Just remember, I saw her fir – ”

  There was a blur of gray followed by a horrible gurgling sound, and I felt warmth spray across my face and in my eyes. Something hit my legs as the black vampire slumped to the ground. I stared in shock at the corpse and then at the severed head near my feet and felt my gorge rise.

  My eyes met the blond vampire’s stare as his own shock turned to fear then rage. In my mind, a voice I’d thought dead, whispered, Move now. Fear blocked out all but the Mori’s instincts, and I felt my body shift sideways with a speed that left me dizzy. The air beside me swirled as the vampire rushed at the spot where I had stood a split second ago.

  Wield the blade, the demon said calmly, and I raised the knife just as the vampire came at me again. We both gasped in surprise as the blade sank into his chest. It missed his heart, but the silver burned and he shrieked in agony as smoke poured from the hole in his chest. His clawed hand reached for me. Desperately, I pulled the knife out and drew back to plunge it in again.

  The vampire suddenly fell away from me, his snarling mouth going slack as he flailed against the pair of slender gray ha
nds around his throat. My eyes found Remy’s, and he nodded with grim intent. Moving forward, I grabbed the knife in both hands and shoved it into the unprotected area above the vampire’s heart.

  There was no death scream, no bursting into flames. The vampire gasped and shuddered, then folded to the ground like an empty suit. I stared at the knife in my hands, christened with the blood of my first vampire kill and felt a surge of exhilaration unlike anything I’d ever felt before. The Mori gave a sated sigh.

  “Come,” Remy urged, taking my hand and pulling me away from the two dead vampires.

  “What about Roland and Peter?” I whispered hoarsely, trying to look behind me for them.

  “Wolves strong. Little ones need us.”

  I let him lead me toward the house, using my sleeve to wipe most of the vampire blood from my face. My friends were vampire hunters, trained for this; I had to trust they could take care of themselves. And I was as safe with Remy as with anyone else at this point. I still could not believe humans and vampires were working together in this. What could the humans have promised them in exchange for their help and risking a war with the trolls?

  Remy did not speak, and I followed him with something akin to awe. In all the time I’d known him, he had been the gentle friend who used his knowledge to help other creatures. I knew trolls were deadly fighters, but I could never imagine him that way until now. He was my age and he’d taken out that vampire without blinking. I shuddered to imagine what an adult troll could do. It made it even more urgent to find his cousins and return them to the clan before the elders came looking for them.

  We stopped at the pool area where there was no more cover. The pool deck was bathed in light, and I saw that a glass door at the back of the house was open. I wondered if Nikolas and Chris had gone in this way. Or were they still out here on the grounds fighting vampires? Or maybe they didn’t make it. I shook off that horrible notion as soon as it popped into my head. I refused to believe that vampires would get the better of the two warriors, especially Nikolas.

  No one tried to intercept us as we ran around the pool, and I saw why when we came across three unconscious men. Through the door I saw two more crumpled shapes, which turned out to be more dead vampires. Jesus, the place was crawling with bloodsuckers! I shivered, never so happy to have Remy close by. A knife protruded from the chest of one of the vampires, and I smiled in grim relief when I recognized the handle. Nikolas’s calling card no doubt. At least I knew they’d made it this far.

  We passed through the door and emerged in a large entrance with marble tiles, and the highest ceilings I’d ever seen hung with a row of glittering chandeliers. An elegant staircase curved up to a second floor landing where a large window overlooked the grounds. Past the staircase there was a hallway with several doors.

  “Where to?” I asked Remy, relying on his unfailing senses to lead us to his cousins.

  “There.” He pointed down the hallway. “That way.”

  The house was as quiet as a tomb as we moved swiftly down the hall, and the silence scared me more than anything else. As heavily guarded as this place was, there should be some noise, some sign of the inhabitants. Where was everyone? Where were Nikolas and Chris?

  We reached the first closed door and pushed it open to find an empty library. The next door opened to reveal a game room with a massive pool table. Third time’s the charm, I thought as I cracked open the third door. A cool breeze touched my face. The cellar.

  “Down there,” Remy whispered behind me. It was all the confirmation I needed, and I started down the stairs with him close behind me. At the bottom, we found ourselves in a rectangular room with stone walls and floor and an arched doorway on either end. I listened for guards, but more silence greeted us. This is too easy, I thought nervously. If Remy’s cousins were down here, this cellar should be crawling with security.

  I turned to the doorway on my right but stopped when I heard clicking sounds from the other direction. I shot Remy a fearful look as the clicking grew louder and faster, mixed with strange snuffling noises. The first thought that came to my mind was crocotta, and I froze at the terror those images created.

  Remy yanked me toward him as two massive black bodies burst into the room, snarling. My troll friend bared his own teeth and let out a growl that brought the beasts skidding to a stop. I had never seen dogs like this. Their bodies were muscled and stocky, and I might have thought they were Rottweilers if they weren’t the size of small horses with frightening red eyes. Their snouts were longer and wider than a normal dog’s, and I could see long top and bottom fangs protruding from their snapping jaws. Their coats were coarse and black, and I couldn’t help but think they were beautiful in a monstrous kind of way. I would have appreciated them more if they weren’t looking at me like I was on the menu.

  “What are they?” I whispered to Remy as the huge dogs paced back and forth, looking for an opening to get past the equally menacing creature in their way.

  “Fell beasts,” he replied calmly, his eyes never leaving them. One of the dogs tilted its head eerily as if it understood Remy’s words.

  “What?” I croaked. “You mean hellhounds!” Vampires and now hellhounds? Who on earth were we dealing with here?

  I looked at the bloody knife in my hands and wondered if silver even worked on hellhounds. I took a deep breath. I had never harmed an animal in my life, but the pair of hellhounds looked ready to rip us to shreds. They stood between us and the trolls, and I’d fight them if I had to.

  “No,” Remy said softly, laying his hand over mine that held the knife as if he’d read my mind. “You talk to them.”

  “Are you crazy?” I asked out of one side of my mouth, afraid to take my eyes off the beasts. “These are hellhounds, Remy. You know – beasts from hell.”

  A small shrug was his only reply.

  Great. I was in the bowels of a mansion crawling with vampires and God only knew what else. I had no idea if my friends were okay, and I was facing down two of hell’s own. And all Remy could say was “talk to them?”

  “Okay, but if we get eaten, don’t blame me.”

  I eased down to a cross-legged position on the cold floor with my back against the wall and my knife on the floor beside me. The hounds watched me intently, but neither of them made a move for me. I was pretty sure that had more to do with their uncertainly about Remy than anything else.

  “I guess you guys are wondering what I’m doing, huh?” I said in my calmest tone, not looking either of them directly in the eye. Words didn’t mean anything to animals; it was your voice and your movements they responded to. I really hoped that applied to hellhounds.

  The closest hound lowered his head and let out a long, low growl.

  “Alright, so you’re a little pissed that we invaded your turf. I get that. But is all this snarling and foaming at the mouth really necessary?”

  Both dogs bared their glistening fangs. This was going about as well as I’d expected.

  Reaching inside, I unlocked my power, letting its golden warmth flow through me. I opened my wall and let a stream of energy seep into the air around me.

  One of the hounds stopped growling to sniff the air, then took a step back, his hackles up. I let more power escape. The second hound made a small whining sound then resumed growling.

  “I’ve never met a hellhound before,” I continued softly as a gentle flow of power moved outward from me in waves. “I gotta say, you’ve got the scary image down, but I don’t think you’re as bad as everyone says. And if you give me a chance, you’ll see that I’m actually a nice person.” And I don’t taste good at all.

  The growling petered out as one dog then the other lay on the floor, whining and still watching me warily.

  “I always wanted a dog, a big one like a Great Dane or German Shepherd. I never imagined one as big as you, though.” I let myself imagine one of these beasts living in our apartment and laughed softly. “I’d like to see Nate’s face if I brought home something like y
ou.”

  One of the great black bodies shuffled forward a few inches. I looked down at my lap, pretending to ignore them. I focused my power, and it filled my voice. “I wish you understood that we only want to find our little friends and take them home. I know you’re just doing what you were taught to do, but you don’t have to hurt anyone anymore.”

  Nails scraped on stone as the closest hound moved. I held my breath as a heavy black head laid itself in my lap. Biting my lip, I raised a tentative hand and touched the creature’s wide forehead. The hair was thick but softer than I’d imagined, and I pushed my fingers through it, amazed by the texture. “What a beautiful beast you are,” I said as my fear gave way to wonder.

  The hound let out a shuddering sigh as my hands rubbed its powerful jaw and thick neck. Whimpering nearby made me look up at the second dog that had ventured closer, but hadn’t yet decided whether or not to trust me.

  “It’s okay,” I crooned. “I know exactly how you feel. I have trouble trusting people, too.”

  The second hound inched forward until his nose rested on my ankle. I continued to pet the huge head on my lap while directing more calming power at his brother.

  “A most interesting picture,” said a heavily accented voice I’d hoped to never hear again. “A tamer of trolls and the devil’s beasts. So many gifts you have, young one. Such a curiosity. It is no wonder so many seek to possess you.”

  The Hale witch stood in the doorway to the room we were headed for before the hounds arrived. The white around his dark pupils stood out in sharp contrast to his dark skin, and his white tattoos seemed to shift in the dimly lit cellar. He looked well recovered from our last encounter, but he did not instill the same fear in me this time.

  “Are you as curious as you were a few hours ago?” I challenged, and I saw in his eyes the remembered pain of our earlier showdown. The head in my lap lifted at the edge in my voice, and I scratched it soothingly. Remy stood silently beside me.

  The witch’s lips twisted into a small smile. “Curious, yes. Foolhardy, no. I see now that there is much more to you than I was given to understand.”

  “Pretty words, but forgive me if I don’t believe you.” I scoffed. I was suddenly grateful for the two hulking beasts between me and him.

  He stepped into the room, and the hound at my feet growled. “See? Who am I to provoke one who commands the devil’s own?”

  “I don’t command anything.” I ran a hand through the thick fur of the dog’s neck, and he gave a rumbling sigh. “They’ve never known kindness before. I just showed them how it feels.” I realized I had stopped using my power the moment the witch arrived. The hellhounds were under no one’s influence but their own.

  The Hale witch stared at me with open fascination. “Compassion and kindness are powers unto themselves if wielded correctly. Look at these beasts – they will serve no other master now. Yusri al-Hawwash will not be happy to lose two valuable servants along with his cargo.”

  Remy made a threatening sound at hearing his little cousins referred to as cargo. I reached over to pat his leg, and he laid a hand on my shoulder.

  Our interaction didn’t go unnoticed by the witch. “And did you show the troll kindness as well to gain its allegiance?”

  “No. His kindness gained mine.”

  Muffled thuds upstairs and faraway sounds of shouting made us all look at the ceiling. It was the first sounds of other people since Remy and I had entered the house, and it reminded me that we had no time to dawdle down here. I had no idea if it was the Mohiri or my werewolf friends fighting up there or what could come down those stairs at any moment.

  I gently pushed the heavy head off my lap and got to my feet with my knife in hand. The hounds stayed on the floor, looking up at me expectantly.

  “We know the trolls are down here, and we’re going to get them now,” I said.

  The witch put up his tattooed hands. “I will not stop you. I came here to fulfill a debt, and it has been repaid. My part in this is done.”

  “I heard that your people never work with vampires, that you hate demons. Why are you helping them?”

  He scowled. “I do not work with demons. I had to honor my debt. But as I said, my debt has been paid.”

  “So you won’t try to stop us?”

  “Were you alone, I might try,” he answered honestly. “You are a mystery to me. Your power runs deep and mostly untouched, and yet you have no desire to explore it. I would like to see how deep it really is, but I think that will have to wait for another day.”

  To prove it, he stepped aside and waved us toward the room behind him. I took Remy’s hand, and we backed along the wall to the doorway. The dogs watched us, and I put out my hand and said, “Stay.” I had no idea if they could understand the command, but they did not move.

  At the doorway, I said, “You said others want to possess me. What did you mean by that?”

  He laughed, and the sound echoed chillingly off the cellar walls. “That I cannot say. I am still bound by an oath of silence. But I will tell you what I know that they do not, what my far sight shows me. Those who hunt you will ultimately give you the power to become the thing they fear the most.”

  I scowled at his cryptic words. “That tells me nothing.”

  “Then I have not broken my oath.”

  “Well, maybe you can answer another question for me.” He raised his eyebrows, and I asked a question that had been niggling at me for a few days. “You set those rats on us at the marina so you had to know where we were. Why didn’t you tell your friends we were under the dock?”

  His white teeth showed when he smiled. “You intrigued me when you pushed me out of the rodent’s mind. I had never met someone who could best me, and I wanted to take you on myself, to see if you were as worthy an opponent as you seemed to be. It felt… disrespectful to let you be taken by brute force after such a display.”

  His answer surprised me, but this was neither the time nor the place to ponder it. Maybe when all of this was over, I would speculate about why I was able to challenge the witch’s power when Nikolas said that even a seasoned Mohiri warrior was no match for a Hale witch. Right now though, my little troll friends needed me.

  Remy went under the arch, and I followed him, colliding with his back when he stopped abruptly. I peered around him and gasped.

  We were in a wine cellar with empty wooden racks covering the walls and a small shaded light in the center of the ceiling. In the middle of the room on a raised glass platform sat a glass cage that measured about three feet by four feet. The glass bars appeared to ripple as currents of red light moved through them like electricity. The hairs rose up on my arms as if the air in the room was charged, and I felt the power in the cage from where I stood.

  Three tiny bodies huddled together as far from the sides of the cage as possible, and their frightened whimpers tore at my heart.

  “Minka?” I called, and the little trolls lifted their heads to stare at us. One of them moved too far, and I heard a painful screech as red sparks flew from one side of the cage. Fresh sobbing filled the room.

  Outrage swelled in me. What kind of monster did this to children? I rushed forward until the blazing power running through the cage would let me go no farther. “We’re here,” I called, backing away from the cage. “We’ll get you out of there.”

  I turned to Remy to see him staring at the cage in fear. “Remy, come on. We have to get them out.”

  “Yusri al-Hawwash spared no expense on this endeavor,” said the Hale witch, and I spun to face him. “Trolls do not have many weaknesses, and the sheik knew he would need a way to control his bounty.” He swept a hand toward the cage. “Demon fire. A legion of trolls could descend upon this place and not one of them could touch this cage. Only a demon can touch it.”

  It hit me then why the house had been so quiet, the cellar unguarded except for the hell hounds and the witch. The people behind this knew the cage was all the security they needed. It also explained why they
were working with vampires. Protected by their demon side, vampires could freely handle the cage and move it when it was time for transport. It was brilliant really, sick but brilliant.

  From somewhere in the house above us I heard what sounded like gunfire before a blood-curdling howl rent the air. My heart leapt into my throat. My friends were up there fighting for their lives. I had to do something and fast. I searched the room for something I could use even as my heart told me there was nothing here to help me. What I needed was a demon. I let out a desperate laugh. Where were all the vampires when I actually needed one?

  “Sara.” Remy’s voice was filled with despair. “Help them… please.”

  “I don’t know what to do,” I cried. I’d barely gotten within two feet of the cage before the demon fire had driven me back. I was as helpless as Remy.

  Remy’s tortured eyes met mine, and he placed a hand over my chest. “Demon in here.”

  I shook my head and backed away from him. “No! I can’t do that. I-I don’t even know how.” All my life I’d struggled to control that side of me. Before I ever knew what it was, I knew it was dark and ugly, something to be kept locked away. The thought of releasing my hold on it now terrified me. What if I couldn’t restrain it again? What it if took over and I went insane like those other orphans Nikolas had told me about? What if I hurt one of my friends?

  “Sara!” cried a small plaintive voice from the cage.

  Tears spilled down my cheeks. The trolls were in danger because of me. If I didn’t save them, I could never live with myself. “I’m coming, Minka.”

  I heard noise on the stairs and growling in the other room, and I knew our time was running out. God only knew what was going to come through that door.

  Come on, I told the Mori hovering in the shadows of my mind. I need you. I had no idea how to do this so I just dropped the wall that held back the demon. At the same time, I closed off the well of power at the center of my being. The demon was afraid of my power, and it would not emerge unless I promised it safe passage.

  The demon shifted and stretched and inched forward hesitantly as if it could not believe the barrier around it was gone. Like a moth emerging from its cocoon it pulsed and spread its wings joyfully. My body shuddered as a new consciousness invaded my mind, rapidly spreading until my head felt like it would explode from the pressure inside.

  I cried out and fell to my knees, holding my head in my hands. “Stop!” I screamed as the demon moved through me, filling me, boiling beneath my skin. I tried to push it back, but it was too late. I could no longer tell where I ended and the Mori began. It was strong, so much stronger than I ever realized. It was consuming me, and I was powerless to stop it.

  My legs moved and I found myself on my feet, walking toward the cage. Dimly I waited for the blast of scorching heat. It never came, and I knew the demon owned this body now. I watched as hands that looked like mine grasped the glass bars and ripped them apart like they were toothpicks. Through a haze, I saw the smallest troll throw her arms around the neck of the demon that looked like me, felt it lower her impassively to the stone floor and turn away as the two remaining trolls jumped from their glass prison.

  “Sara?”

  The voice came from a long way off. The demon whirled to face the man filling the doorway, and my shrinking consciousness gasped at the powerful primal connection that stretched between the two of them like an elastic band pulled too taut. The band began to shrink, drawing the man and demon toward each other.

  “What happened to her?” the man demanded of the troll as he strode toward us. The troll said something, but I did not hear it. The man stopped in front of us and took the demon’s face in his hands with gentle firmness. “Look at me,” he commanded. The demon sighed at his touch, and we looked into the man’s stormy gaze. I felt a tug at my dwindling consciousness, but no name came forth.

  “Sara, it’s time to come back now. Your friends need you. Roland needs you.”

  Those names meant nothing to us. The demon blinked and stood with its arms at its side. I took one last look at those demanding gray eyes and began to slip away into the endless cavern of the demon’s mind. I sensed rather than felt the slap against the demon’s cheek and its head snapping back as the man shook the demon.

  “Goddamnit! You will not do this. Do you hear me?” The words were faint, but the furious tone stirred a glimmer of recognition. I felt the demon twist violently as it struggled to break free of the arms that encircled it like bands of steel. I heard its roar of frustration when a voice began to speak incessantly into its ear. The words reached me like echoes in a vast room, and there was nowhere I could turn to avoid them.

  “You were right, Sara; you are not weak. In fact you are one of the strongest, most infuriating people I have ever met. You fight monsters, you befriend trolls and beasts, and you face horrors that would break a lesser person. And you walk headfirst into danger to protect the ones you care about. You are loyal, stubborn, and foolhardy and, though you don’t believe it, you are a warrior.”

  The demon stopped moving, and I floated closer to the man’s voice. A name floated just out of reach and I knew it belonged to the man whispering in our ear. Nikolas.

  “Few Mohiri could have done what you did tonight, giving up yourself to save those trolls,” Nikolas said with quiet conviction. “You did what you had to do, and now you have to come back to us. To Roland.”

  The name conjured an image of a smiling face with warm blue eyes. “Roland?” I was not sure if it was me or the demon who spoke.

  “That’s right. Your friend, Roland. He needs you now.”

  Memories burst across my mind – my life, my friends, Nate – it all came rushing back. Roland needed me? I struggled against the demon, but it was too strong. The Mori settled back, enjoying its new freedom and the feel of the strong young body it possessed.

  Desperation filled me. I reached for the power I had closed off when I released the demon. The Mori knew what I was going to do, and it fought me, trying to force me into the same place where it had been contained all these years. But I was gaining strength, enough to nudge open the gate. The Mori was strong, but it was no match for the tide of power that swept upward, pushing it back and forcing it into its previous state of sullen watchfulness. No fair, it whined as the barrier shot back up.

  Sounds filled my ears: people talking and shouting, someone crying. My eyes focused, and I found myself looking at Nikolas’s worried face. For a moment, I was disoriented until it all came back to me slowly. Then I remembered Nikolas’s words, and the world slammed back into focus.

  “What happened to Roland?”

 

 
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