Relentless, p.29
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       Relentless, p.29

         Part #1 of Relentless series by Karen Lynch
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  * * *

  I didn’t get up for school the next day, and Nate did not call for me to get up. It was ten o’clock when I finally dragged myself downstairs, bleary-eyed and feeling like my heart was encased in lead. In all the years I’d lived with Nate, we’d had our share of arguments, but he had never let us start a new day without trying to sort things out.

  His silence told me just how much I’d hurt him this time – not because of what I’d revealed to him – but because I’d been lying to him for years. Last night, lying in bed, it hit me just how much pain my confession had brought him. All this time, I’d carried the knowledge that there was more to my dad’s death and all I could think about was how I needed to know the truth for me, for my own closure. Not once had I ever considered Nate’s loss or grief or that he deserved to know the truth about his brother. I had to make things right. There was no way I could leave with things so messed up between us.

  I walked into the kitchen, but my stomach was tied in too many knots to even think about eating. Disappointment swept over me when I looked out the window and saw that Nate’s car was gone. I was hoping we could talk this morning, but it looked like he needed more time to sort through things first.

  To while away the hours until he returned, I cleaned the apartment from top to bottom. Around eleven the school called, and I let the machine pick up. I paused wiping down the refrigerator when it hit me that I was actually dropping out of school – and in my senior year. I should be thinking about college applications, prom, and graduation – normal things. But nothing in my life would ever be normal again.

  My cell phone rang a little while later. It was Nikolas letting me know he and Chris were still in Portland with some of the other Mohiri, cleaning up after Saturday night and hunting down any vampires that got away. The werewolves, he told me, had offered to beef up their patrols in town today to watch over me and Nate until Nikolas got back. He said he would be back in New Hastings tonight so we could leave tomorrow morning. I listened and said “yes” and “no” where I was supposed to. I figured I should wait until he got here to explain that I could not leave town tomorrow, not until I made things right between me and Nate.

  At two o’clock, restlessness drove me outside. I sat on the top of the stairs listening to the familiar sounds of the waterfront while I waited for Nate to return. But soon a cold, damp fog crept in off the bay and sent me back into the warmth of the apartment. Gazing out through the living room window at the gray-shrouded waterfront, I felt more alone than I had ever felt before. All I wanted was for Nate to come home so I could ask him to please forgive me and tell me I hadn’t destroyed our relationship, that there was still a chance for us to be a family.

  Half an hour later, when I couldn’t take another minute of waiting, I heard a sound at the front door. I raced from the living room to greet Nate and to beg him to please talk to me. Halfway to the door I stopped short, my stocking feet skidding on the hardwood floor when I realized I hadn’t heard his car drive up or his wheelchair on the ramp.

  The doorknob jiggled, and my heart began to hammer against my ribs. Did I lock the door?

  The answer was a soft click. The door creaked open a fraction of an inch, and I stood frozen as whoever or whatever was on the other side prepared to come in.

  I jumped as a low keening suddenly came from the door, and it took me a few panicked seconds to realize that the sound came from the door itself and not from whoever was on the other side. The noise grew, rapidly rising in pitch and volume until I had to clap my hands over my ears to block out the piercing sound. Around the door the frame glowed red, throwing off sparks like the embers in a fireplace. In the center of the door the shape of an ashy hand appeared.

  Screeching and the nauseating stench of scorched flesh filled the air as someone or something thrashed violently on the other side of the door. Seconds later the door slammed shut followed by the sound of someone stumbling down the stairs.

  Freed from my paralysis, I scrambled to pull the deadbolt and ran to the kitchen window. But all I could see was the swirling fog that obscured anything more than a few feet from the building. My whole body shook, and I gripped the counter with numb fingers. Something was out there, something that meant me harm, and if it wasn’t for the troll warding, they would be in here now. The chill creeping along my spine told me it was still out there, hiding in the mist and waiting to try again.

  I didn’t have to wait long. A minute later I heard a high-pitched whine downstairs followed by an inhuman howl of pain. I almost knocked over a chair as I bolted from the kitchen like a frightened rabbit. Whatever was out there was determined to get inside. The troll magic was very powerful and it would protect me as long as I stayed inside, but it could do nothing to stop the fear knotting my stomach.

  You’re safe. Don’t panic. Nikolas would be here in a few hours. Nothing would hurt me or Nate once he was here.

  Nate! What if he came home while that person or thing was outside? He wouldn’t stand a chance.

  I tore around the living room, searching for my cell phone. My hands shook while I found the number Nikolas had put in my phone yesterday and listened to it ringing on the other end.

  He knew something was wrong before I spoke. “Sara, what is it?”

  “Something outside,” I wheezed before I regained my voice. “They’re trying to get in. The ward is holding, but Nate’s not here. If he comes home and…”

  My voice broke, and I heard him swear then shout harshly at someone. “We’re coming. Stay right where you are, and do not hang up. I’m going to stay on the phone until we get there. Do you hear me?”

  “Maybe I should call Maxwell,” I told him, thinking the Knolls were a lot closer than Portland.

  “No, stay on the phone with me,” Nikolas ordered. “Chris is calling them now.”

  I heard a muffled sound then an engine starting. Nikolas’s voice sounded a little hollow when he spoke again, and I realized he was using an earpiece inside his helmet. “I’m on my way.”

  “Okay,” I said hoarsely, sinking down to sit against the wall farthest from the living room window. I pulled my knees toward me and laid my forehead against them as I prayed silently. Please, please let him get here before Nate does.

  The phone in the kitchen rang, and I jerked upright. “What was that?” Nikolas asked.

  “The house phone. Maybe it’s Nate,” I said hopefully, scrambling to my feet. I rushed into the kitchen and snatched up the cordless phone with my free hand. Please let it be him.

  “Sara Grey?” asked a thickly-accented male voice.

  “Yes?”

  “I have your uncle.”

  My legs started to fold, and I leaned heavily against the cupboard as the cell phone in my other hand clattered loudly to the counter. I could hear Nikolas, shouting but my whole body was riveted to the phone in my hand.

  “I will make a trade – him for you,” the man continued in a businesslike manner. “If you care about him, you will do this because I have no qualms about ending his life if I don’t get what I want.”

  “I’ll do it,” I cried, gripping the phone so hard my knuckles turned white. “How do I know I can trust you to let him go?”

  He laughed coldly. “You do not, but he will die if you do not come to me. I will give you ten minutes. After that his life is forfeit.”

  “No! I’ll come.”

  “Good girl. Go outside now. Someone is waiting to bring you to me.”

  The click on the other end was like a cell door slamming shut. I was trapped. If I didn’t go, Nate would die. If I tried to stall until help got here, Nate would die. If I went, Nate might still die.

  No. That is not going to happen, I swore as I laid the phone on the counter. Because I would die before I let anyone hurt him.

  “Goddamnit, Sara, answer me!” yelled a furious Nikolas.

  My hand was oddly steady when I put the cell phone to my ear again. “I’m sorry, Nikolas. I have to go,” I told
him flatly, guessing that he had heard enough of my conversation to know what I was going to do.

  “Do not leave that apartment,” he said in a tone that few people would disobey. “I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Whatever it is, we can take care of it.”

  “It’ll be too late.” I was already running upstairs to change. “They have Nate, and they’re going to kill him if I’m not there in ten minutes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I will not let Nate die because of them.”

  “Sara, think about this. They are not going to just let your uncle go once they have you. If you do this, you could die.”

  “He’ll die for sure if I don’t go. I’m not going to hide here and do nothing while he’s killed. I couldn’t live with that.” I picked up my coat and knife and went back to the kitchen. “You were right. All I do is put the people I love in danger. It has to stop now.”

  He started to say something, but I hung up. I pulled on my coat and tucked the knife in the inside pocket. My cell phone rang, and I knew it was Nikolas without looking at the number. I turned off the phone and stuck it in my back pocket before I let myself out and locked the door behind me.

  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I stepped outside, but it wasn’t the eerie quiet that greeted me. There was no sign of whatever had tried to get past my wards, except for a few black drops on the landing that looked like burnt blood. I turned away from it, shuddering violently.

  The fog was still thick but already starting to lift, allowing me to see a black Escalade with a dented bumper in front of our building. At the bottom of the stairs I took a deep breath to calm my racing heart before I approached the SUV. As I drew near, the door opened and the muscled blond man from the marina got out. He did not speak as he opened the rear door for me. I noticed bloody bandages on his hands, and I held back a smug grin. Is that your blood on my doorstep? I hope it hurts like hell.

  I slid into the cool interior, and he returned to the passenger seat up front. I felt someone watching me, and I looked up to see a pair of angry, dark eyes in the rearview mirror. The driver turned his head toward me, and I sucked in a sharp breath when I recognized the man who had attacked me yesterday at the rest stop. Tarek’s face bore the bruises from his fight with Peter, and his eyes told me he was itching for payback. Instead of speaking to me, he muttered something in Arabic to his companion, and they both laughed. I wrapped my arms tightly around me and stared blindly out the window. Part of me wanted to take one last look around, to drink in the picture of the place I had called home for most of my life, but a bigger part did not want to accept that this was the last time I might ever see it. I was willing to trade my life for Nate’s, but that did not mean I was giving up yet. I’d survived too much these last few weeks to go down without a fight now.

  It took us less than five minutes to reach our destination, and I was surprised to find us outside an empty three-storey building with a “For Rent” sign in the window only two streets away from mine. The Escalade parked on the busy street, and the blond man turned to me before he opened his door.

  “Do not make a scene if you value your uncle’s life,” he said in halting English.

  I nodded, and we got out. He led the way into the building where I had to strain to see through the dimness. Before my eyes could adjust, he took my arm. “Haism is waiting for you,” he said, leading me toward a lit doorway at the back of the building.

  “Nate!” I cried as soon as I saw him in his wheelchair beside a large metal desk. I broke away from the blond man and ran to kneel in front of Nate. “Are you okay? Did they hurt you?”

  “I’m okay.” He held me away from him and gave me a searching look. “Sara, what is going on? How do you know Mr. Bakr?” he asked in a lowered voice.

  “Mr. Bakr?”

  “Haism Bakr,” said a familiar voice with a crisp Middle Eastern accent. I straightened and faced the hawk-nosed man I’d seen on the monstrous yacht at the marina. He was sitting behind the desk with his hands clasped in front of him and a scowl on his face. His dark eyes glittered with rancor as they swept over me. “My employer is very displeased with you, Miss Grey.”

  “You work for that sheik.” I could not keep the disgust out of my voice.

  His scowl deepened. “You have robbed him of something he went through great trouble to obtain,” he growled.

  My hackles rose. “That something was little children.”

  “Those creatures are not children,” Haism spat. “The sheik is a powerful and important man. What are the lives of those things compared to his?”

  “Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” Nate exclaimed. He turned to Haism. “What does my niece have to do with you and your employer, and why are you holding us here like this?”

  “Remember what I told you about the man who took the trolls? Haism works for him.” My mouth twisted in disgust. “You used that whole oil exploration thing as a cover to snoop around here, didn’t you?”

  Haism shrugged. “It made our presence here more believable. I do whatever is necessary for my employer.”

  I bit my lip to keep from saying what I thought of his employer. I wasn’t going to help Nate by antagonizing this man. “I came as you asked. Please let my uncle go now.”

  Nate jerked forward in his chair. “What are you taking about?”

  Haism’s smile did not reach his eyes. “Do you really think you are in a position to negotiate, little girl? You have caused me nothing but headache, and because of you I have to go back to my employer empty-handed.” He stood and came toward me. “In my country, a female is beaten for interfering in the business of men.”

  I heard Nate’s sharp intake of breath as his hand gripped mine. Drawing strength from his touch I replied, “In my country, a man who does not keep his word has no honor.”

  Haism scowled darkly but stopped his advance on me. “I serve my employer. That is where my honor lies, so do not talk – ”

  A cell phone rang, and he pulled his from the front pocket of his pants. Something like fear flashed across his face when he looked at the screen. His eyes met mine as he put the phone to his ear.

  “It’s done.”

  The caller said something to which Haism replied, “Not so fast. My employer made a contract with you, but I am not so foolish as to trust you. I will tell you where to pick her up after my people and I are safely away.”

  My heart plummeted to my stomach. Her? He meant me. I thought he was taking me to his employer because they’d learned I could heal, but he was going to hand me off to someone else.

  Haism let out a short laugh. “You have waited this long, vampire. A few more hours will not matter. I will call you and tell you where you can find her.”

  He hung up and tapped his chin with the phone. “For one so young you have drawn a lot of attention from some powerful… people. I do not know what you have done to bring this upon yourself, but what is done is done.”

  I barely heard his taunt because of the fear gripping me. Black spots floated before my eyes, and I gripped Nate’s hand so hard he grunted in pain. After everything I’d been through, all the escapes and being watched around the clock, I was going to end up in Eli’s clutches after all.

  Nate pulled me closer to him. “What kind of people are you?” he demanded fearfully. “She’s just a child.”

  Haism looked like he was going to answer, but then he turned away. He said something in Arabic to the two men flanking the door, and they nodded then took up positions just outside the door. Then he began to walk out of the room without a backward glance.

  He’s going to let them have Nate, too. The realization almost sent me to my knees. No, I won’t let that happen.

  The idea came to me out of sheer desperation, and I clutched it like a lifeline. “I want to make another trade,” I called after Haism.

  “You have nothing of value to me,” he replied dismissively without looking back.

  “How about the sheik’s life?”

  Haism
stopped mid-stride and spun to look at me with narrowed eyes. “What did you say?”

  “You heard me. How much is your beloved sheik’s life worth to you?”

  He stared at me, and I said, “I know he has Alzheimer’s. It must be terrifying for such a powerful man to know he’s going to slowly lose his memory, his mind before he dies.”

  He strode back to me, stopping inches away, his face contorted in fury. “Do not speak of him!”

  I laughed coldly. “Or what – you’ll kill me? Get in line. But that won’t save your employer.”

  He studied me, trying to see if I was lying or trying to stall him. I stared back confidently, and he blinked first. “What do you have?” He could not disguise the hope in his voice, and I hid my triumph.

  “Not more trolls if that’s what you think,” I said, reading the question in his eyes. “But I have the next best thing.”

  He stared at me blankly until realization finally dawned. “You have troll bile.”

  “Three whole ounces. Enough to keep your evil boss alive and kicking for many, many years.”

  There was no mistaking the hunger on his face at the prospect of redeeming himself in the eyes of his beloved sheik. “Where is it?” he hissed.

  “Yeah, not so fast,” I scoffed, determined to make this work. “First, we make a deal.”

  “Name it,” he replied way too easily. Like I was going to trust him a second time.

  “First, you let Nate go. One of your goons takes him home, and once he is safely inside he calls me to let me know he’s there.” There was no way Haism’s men could get past my wards; their mauled hands were proof of that. The only way to assure Nate’s safety was to get him inside our building.

  Nate pulled me closer to him, his eyes wide with fear. “Sara, I’m not leaving you here alone with these people.”

  I squeezed his hand. “I’ll be fine. Once I know you’re safe, I’ll take them to the bile and they’ll let me go. That’s all they want.” It was probably the last lie I would ever tell him, so I might as well make it count.

  “How do I know I can trust you to do this once I safely deliver your uncle home?” Haism asked.

  “You don’t,” I replied, and his mouth tightened as his earlier words came back to him. “But can you afford not to?”

  He glared at me, his eyes inky pools of hate. Haism was a man used to getting what he wanted, and he wanted what I had. He was also a very proud man, and I could see it rankled him a lot to not have the upper hand. However, it did not take long for his need to please his employer to overpower his pride. “We have a deal.” He called to the blond man. “Gerhard, you will return Mr. Grey to his home. When it is done, I will tell you where to meet us. Tarek, you will come with me.”

  He looked at me again. “If you think to stall here until your friends find us, you are mistaken. We will take a ride until your uncle calls. Then you will take us to the bile.”

  Nate clung to my hand. “No. I’m not letting you do this, Sara.”

  I kneeled in front of his chair again and took both his hands in mine. “I know what I’m doing, and I’ll be okay.” I had no illusions about Haism willingly letting me go once I brought him to the bile, but this was the only way. I had a better chance of escaping Haism on my own if I didn’t have to worry about Nate’s safety.

  A tap on my shoulder made me look up into Gerhard’s unsmiling face. I stood and gave Nate a quick hug before the big blond man started to push the wheelchair out of the room. I fell in behind them with Haism and Tarak following us. Nate didn’t say much until we reached the exit where he tried again to talk me out of it. Nothing I said to him convinced him I would be alright, and his face was drawn and fearful when Gerhard lifted him into the Escalade. My chest ached at the thought that this might be the last time I ever saw him, and I wanted to run to him and hug him one last time. But Haism kept a firm hold on my arm and I could only smile reassuringly at Nate as they drove away.

  Haism led me to a white Cadillac sedan and told me to get in the back seat. He climbed in beside me, and Tarak got behind the wheel. He said a few words in Arabic to Tarak who started the car and began driving with no apparent destination in mind. Haism did not try to talk to me, and I was happy not to talk to him.

  I thought about Nate and the vial of Ptellon blood still hidden in my room. If only I had given it to him yesterday, none of this might have happened. It wouldn’t have helped, I told myself. Ptellon did not work against humans. I’d thought to protect Nate from monsters, but I forgot they came in human form, too.

  It felt like an eternity had passed before Haism’s phone rang, and I held my breath as he answered it then handed it to me. I saw my home number and exhaled deeply.

  “Nate?”

  “I’m fine. I’m home, and that man is gone.”

  “Good.” My throat closed up in relief, and I could barely manage that one syllable.

  Nate’s voice shook. “Sara, he tried to come inside and he couldn’t. Why?”

  I shot Haism a glare. I’d suspected Gerhard had been ordered to deal with Nate once I thought he was safe. Getting what he wanted wasn’t enough for a man like Haism. He needed to control everything. Not this time.

  “I’ll explain it when I get home,” I replied, proud of myself for keeping the tears at bay.

  I hung up and practically threw the phone at Haism. I won’t cry. I would not let this man see me break down.

  “My part of the deal is done,” said Haism, his eyes glittering with anticipation. “Now you will do your part.”

  Nodding, I gave Tarak directions, and he immediately turned the car and headed south of town. It usually took me twenty minutes by bike to get to where we were going. It took five in the car. We turned off on the narrow dirt road that led to the abandoned mine, and branches whipped at the car as we passed. Soon we reached the spot where I usually hid my bike, and I told him to stop. “We have to walk from here.”

  Haism stared around suspiciously then fixed me with a hard look. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. I pray for your sake you are not trying to deceive me.”

  “You think I’d hide troll bile at my house, or maybe in my school locker?”

  He did not respond to that. We stayed in the back of the car until Tarak got out and came around to my side. They were obviously not taking any chances with me making a run for it.

  “Check her,” Haism said harshly, and I gasped as Tarak pulled me from the car and started to pat me down. My mouth went dry when his hands felt the weapon concealed inside my coat. He yanked open my coat and pulled out the silver knife to show Haism.

  Stars exploded before my eyes and pain shot through the left side of my face as a fist came out of nowhere. My ears rang, and I staggered backward and would have fallen if Tarak had not caught me. Blood dribbled down my lips from my nose, and I dabbed it away with my sleeve.

  “Sharmoota!” Haism shouted, his spittle spraying my face. “You think you can trick me?” He reached for me again, and I flinched, waiting for the next strike. Instead he pulled a plastic cable tie from his pocket. He wrenched my arms painfully and tied my hands behind my back. When that was done, he bent down and pulled off my sneakers and threw them into the woods.

  “There. Try to run away now,” he jeered. He took the knife from Tarak and flung it after the sneakers, then barked an order at the black-haired man. Tarak nodded and took up a lookout position near the car.

  Haism grabbed my arm and pushed me so hard I stumbled and almost fell again. Jerking me upright, he shoved me forward. “Which way? And do not try anything. I will think nothing of breaking your neck and leaving you here for the animals to feed on.”

  I nodded in the direction we needed to go. “That way.”

  Walking over uneven terrain with my hands tied behind my back was difficult. Doing it with no shoes was excruciating. Within five minutes, my socks were bloody from the rocks and sharp sticks jabbing me mercilessly. The left side of my face had gone numb, and my eye had swollen
and half closed up, making it harder to see where I was going. Haism yanked me forward viciously every time I faltered, and I pressed my lips together to keep from crying out. I would not give him the satisfaction.

  “I am curious,” he said as he waited for me to step over a fallen tree. “These trolls are savage creatures, even vampires fear them. You must be quite valuable to the vampires for them to willingly risk themselves to capture the young trolls.”

  “Is that a question or a statement?”

  He scowled at me. “How is it that a human girl is able to befriend such beasts? How did you get your hands on the bile and live to speak of it?”

  “You would never understand.” In truth, there were very few people who could comprehend my relationship with Remy. I certainly wasn’t about to explain it to the person who would terrorize children and who was about to hand me over to a vampire.

  “Then perhaps you will tell me why that vampire wants you so badly. He is most determined to have you.”

  Just the mention of Eli made me stumble, and bile rose in my throat. “He tried to kill me and I got away. I guess he doesn’t like it when that happens.”

  Haism barked a laugh. “All of that for a meal? I think not. He has worked too hard to possess you to end it that quickly.”

  My stomach churned. How could he talk about my death so casually? He had to know what Eli would do to me. Terror rose up, threatening to suffocate me, and I bit the inside of my cheek so hard I tasted blood. The sharp pain sliced through the dizzying fear so I could think a little clearer.

  I’d known from the beginning that Haism had no intention of letting me go after I gave him what he wanted. His sheik had a deal with Eli, and Haism was going to deliver me as promised. His tone told me he actually enjoyed the idea of the horrors that awaited me. Even with a demon inside me, I was more human than the monster walking next to me.

  The woods were somber and quiet, except for the occasional birdcall. Walking like a prisoner to my execution, it was hard to believe I’d spent so many happy hours in this place. There would be no Remy now to scold me or little Minka sneaking up to ambush me in a fit of giggles. The trolls could be watching me right now, and none of them would come to my rescue. It didn’t matter that I had saved the little ones last night; to the elders I had only been righting the wrong I had done to them. I might have stopped a rampage, but I wasn’t even close to earning their forgiveness. I was truly alone now. No one was coming to save me this time.

  It was time to help myself. I took stock of my situation. I was shoeless, weaponless, and bound; there was no way I was running away from Haism like this. But we were headed for the cliffs, and I knew them better than almost anyone. And Haism would have to untie me to retrieve the bile. There had to be a way to escape him at the cliffs – because there was no way I’d let him turn me over to Eli. I swallowed hard as I made my decision. If I could not escape my captor, there was another way out and one leap was all it would take. One leap, a few seconds of fear, and then nothing. I would die on my own terms before I let Eli touch me.

  As soon as I made my resolve, a sense of calm acceptance settled over me. It was soon followed by sadness over the things I might never see or do and regrets for the unfinished things I was leaving behind. My biggest regret was Nate and all the time I’d lost that I could have spent building a relationship with him. He didn’t deserve what I’d put him through, and if I didn’t come back he would have to carry that with him for the rest of his life. My only comfort was that I’d been able to save him at least. I had made so many mistakes, and people I cared deeply about had been hurt because of me. Saving the trolls and Roland’s life might have redeemed me if I hadn’t put them in danger in the first place. Scott, too. He was a jerk, but I’d never wanted him to get hurt. He was just one more victim I’d left in my wake.

  A phone rang. Haism pulled out his cell and rushed to answer it. He spoke in Arabic, and something in his submissive tone and posture told me it was the sheik. Haism appeared to explain something to him. Then his voice took on an apologetic, almost groveling tone. It was clear the sheik was not happy. I could hear his voice as he shouted at Haism, and I watched my captor’s face grow pale and slack from the verbal lashing.

  Haism slanted a look at me as if he realized for the first time that I was witnessing his castigation. His mouth twisted, and he pushed me roughly to the ground. I cried out as I landed in a heap with my arms twisted painfully beneath me. With great effort I scuttled backward until I was half-sitting with my back against a tree. The rough bark cut into my hands, and a low branch snagged my hair, making tears spring to my eyes. I was a mass of scrapes, cuts, and bruises, and I hadn’t even been turned over to my real tormentor yet.

  “Stay,” Haism commanded sharply like he was talking to a dog. His frigid gaze swept over me before he walked a small distance away, now pleading with the man on the other end of the line.

  To distract myself from my discomfort, I thought about Nate, Remy, Roland, and Peter and tried to remember a happy time with each of them. It surprised me to find myself thinking about Nikolas too, though in a way it made sense to think of him now. For the last month, almost everywhere I went he was there, jumping in to save me, stalking me, protecting me, scolding me. I remembered his teasing laughter that night at my place and the look in his eyes whenever he was furious with me. We were like two magnets constantly pushing at each other, and as much as he aggravated me, I had grown used to having him around.

  I could almost hear him saying “I told you so” at the mess I’d landed in this time, and I could only imagine how angry he was at this moment because I hadn’t listened to him – once again. Was he at my place now, trying to figure out where I was? He was pretty serious about this protection thing. How long would he search before he admitted I was lost this time?

  A pang of sorrow stabbed me at the thought of Nikolas giving up on me and moving on with his life after everything we’d been through. My Mori stirred and gave a mournful sigh. I know, I consoled the demon. He kind of grows on you.

  Consumed by my sorrow, I barely noticed the fleeting movement against my hand. It came again, and I held my breath as something warm touched my skin for a second. A mouse maybe. Animals were not afraid of me; it wasn’t unusual for one to come up to me.

  Another touch came, but this time it was not warm. This time something cold caressed the back of my hand. I sucked air in sharply as I heard a snip.

  The cable binding my hands fell away.

  Not daring to move, I shot a glance at Haism to see if he noticed anything. But he was still talking agitatedly into his phone and barely looking my way. Slowly I turned my head to look over my shoulder.

  Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t a pair of owlish eyes in a small brown face partly hidden by a mass of untamed yellow hair. I almost fell over at the sight of the surly little creature I’d healed weeks ago. “Nog?” I whispered.

  The goblin did not speak as he bent down to press something in my hand. I recognized the shape of a knife, my knife. My heart swelled with the knowledge that I wasn’t alone out here after all. I raised my eyes to his again. He stared at me solemnly, and I wanted to say something, to thank him.

  I blinked, and he disappeared.

  The knife was still there, and I wrapped my fingers possessively around the handle that fit my palm like it was made for me. Made for a warrior.

  I looked at Haism, who had his back to me now, speaking fervently in low tones – as if I could understand a word of it either way. He was distracted, gesturing with his free hand and pacing.

  I might never get another chance. I flexed my aching arms and got soundlessly to my feet.

  Then I ran.

 

 
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