Despite the best laid plans to get me and Vanessa out of harms way—plans that involved an amusement park and had been derailed by a car following us—we still ended up at the park. By the time Vanessa and I got to the park, our tail had disappeared, which told me we had played right into the stupid vampire’s hands. Either way, I was fuming. When Vanessa grabbed my hand and told me that Lee had texted her for us not to leave the car, I had had enough.
I got out of the car and she, loyally, followed me. It wasn’t all that hard to follow the pull that came from Michael and Scott’s energy. They were thinking about me, so I just followed the worry and magnetism.
Frustration and irritation rang through the bond like the vibrations of a gong, but I knew it wasn’t with me because it felt strange, more like we were all feeling it for the same person, or rather people, the vampires. Only, their feeling was more intense, which had me worried that negotiations weren’t going the way they’d planned. I considered suggesting that we go back to the car, but when I looked back to Vanessa, I saw glinting golden eyes watching us. When I squeezed her hand, the tension in her arm told me that she’d already seen our audience.
I swallowed. “Oi, people?” I called out and the flash of surprise followed by annoyance was aimed at me. “We’re, uh, coming in?”
I side-stepped an oversized rock and a clearing opened up before me, showing the pack standing in a pyramid formation with Lee in the front. Michael stood beside him and there was a spot where I assumed Michael was supposed to be in the fourth row, on the outside right corner. Directly opposite to them stood the vampires. The woman who’d wanted to gut me two days ago stood a few paces ahead of the rest and unlike with the pack, there was no order to the way they stood.
The way she was smiling said that she was already imagining torturing me. “I see our guests of honor have arrived. Good. I was worried that they might not be able to make it.”
I wasn’t the only one who found that vaguely threatening. A few growls rippled from the pack and I could feel the iron control Scott was exhibiting in not attacking her. I instinctively moved to hide Vanessa from view and she stayed close behind me.
“We’ve told you, Marcella, that you will not receive either girl,” Michael said, sounding as though he were continuing with a line of thought he’d been interrupted from. “We are willing to make amends for the death of your spawn, but as he attacked my mate and a member of our pack, you don’t have the room to bargain for much.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “No? My Leonid chose those two,” she gestured lazily to me and Vanessa, a hint of a threatening smile showing on her lips as the tip of one of her fangs showed. “As his, ten years ago. I doubt your claim on them supersedes his, and thus, mine.”
“He claimed two witches as prey. That goes directly against the agreement with the Collective,” Michael pointed out. “And you allowed it. You’re lucky my girl staked his ass or else you’d have had to deal with a whole lot worse than this.”
Lee gripped Michael’s shoulder and, after a moment, Michael gave him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I’m too invested.” He shook his head and pointed at Heather, who left her spot in the center of the back row and he moved to his own in the far right corner.
Lee nodded and patted his shoulder. The vampire, however, sneered. “This is what I’m dealing with? A poorly formed pack whose mediator can’t keep his own?” she scoffed and gestured back to a pair of vampires, who moved to her side with a disarming sort of ease. “Maybe I should just take what I want.”
Heather and Scott both moved to Lee’s sides, but Morgan and Tre moved back from their positions in the back, so that they flanked me and Vanessa in an obvious statement of ‘you’ll have to get through us first.’
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Heather said loftily, though she looked incredibly uncomfortable with the entire situation. She glanced to Lee, who nodded. “As Roamers, you have no right to any claims on our land. You are very much on our land right now and declaring a claim on our pack members.”
“He claimed them as his mistresses,” the woman barked, but made no move to deploy her vampires on us. “That is the equivalent of your shifters mating.”
“Not if there is a soulmate bond,” Heather said tersely. “They have a soul bond with her, which your vampire did not, considering he didn’t have any soul to bond to. Furthermore—”
“You’re going to deny my claim to her based on an unfulfilled link?” she demanded. “Their bond is not fully fleshed. There is still a joint that has not been connected. Until it has, she is as free as any.”
Michael and I both looked to Scott, and, as if knowing, he glanced back to us with a perplexed frown.
She gave a mocking laugh. “And they don’t even know whose it is. Let me help.” Her eyes cut from Scott to me and then to Michael. “The tiny one isn’t the problem. He’s fully linked. Your families aren’t the problem, the form is solidified if shaky. The problem,” she smiled. “Is the two of you,” she pointed two fingers at me and Michael.
“Shut up,” Michael snapped, shaking. Lee sent him a warning look and Michael spit on the ground, moving completely out of the formation to stand in front of me so that the vampire couldn’t see me anymore. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he muttered under his breath. I was inclined to agree with him, even if she had seemed uncannily sure and I was nearly positive that she’d read our minds. There was no way that I’d full bonded with Scott but not Michael. That didn’t even make sense.
“Irrelevant,” Heather pointed out. “What is relevant is that you’ve been in our land before and this is the first we’ve heard about it. That’s unacceptable.”
The vampire yawned. “I don’t ask children for permission to wander.”
“No, you request entrance to a pack’s land. You would do the same for a cloud or a shoal. We demand the same respect.”
Her eyes flashed and I watched as each one of the vampires behind her shifted forward. “I give no respect to those who would deny me my right as a master vampire to avenge my childe.”
“Your shade stalked two Unknowings and when they became aware, made them feel threatened. They never agreed to becoming shades themselves and so when he attacked them, it was an act of self defense. You’re lucky we don’t report you to the regional Ranger or the Syndicate. If you leave now and don’t return, we won’t do any of you any harm.”
“You’ve already harmed one of mine!” she exploded. “No. This is how this will work. You will give me the strange one,” she pointed at me, “And I will call it even.”
Scott scoffed. “Right, I’ll let you murder my mate because she killed a useless shade. That sounds equal.”
“I don’t plan to kill her.” She licked her lips, looking at me over Michael’s shoulder. “I want her.” She turned her eyes back to the alphas and sneered. “And if you don’t give me her, then I will take her and the little Seer. I’m sure I can find a use for both. And then we’ll leave you to explain to the witches how your big bad pack lost their little witchling.”
It dissolved into chaos there. A few of the wolves shifted. Vampires moved forward as if to defend the woman. Lee and Scott were yelling over Heather, who was trying (and failing) to keep the peace.
“Why me though?” I whispered to Michael pulling at his shirt mostly to keep him from joining in what looked like it would soon become a fistfight. “What do they want with me? I’m not all that special am I?”
Michael snorted. “You’re incredibly rare,” he responded, without taking his eyes off of the vampire leader, who had yet to take her eyes off of me. “Not only are you a mix breed,” he ignored my indignant sound. “But you’ve got the entire spectrum of energy eating abilities. There aren’t many who are able to deal with all of the different parts of energy. On top of that, you take and give energy. Only a handful of Collective that I’m aware of have both abilities and, as far as I know, only the most powerful succubi or energy vampire can do it. Most of us just take. But most importantly, which makes you one of a kind, as far as I’m aware, and I could be wrong, but if I am, there are at most two more, you don’t have a limit.”
“A limit?” I asked skeptically. I was pretty sure that everyone kept inflating the situation when talking about me.
He gave me side eye before looking back to the vampire. “Everyone has a limit. We have our natural energy, the energy we get from food, and then energy from other living creatures. I’ve been trying to find yours, but I don’t think you have one. While I’ve known succubi or incubi smaller than Nessa who have larger limits than me, you shouldn’t.”
“I’m confused,” I admitted.
“Let’s talk more in a bit. I don’t really want them,” he nodded at the vampire who was now watching his lips, “To know this.” While we were far enough away that she couldn’t physically hear us, I had no doubts that lip reading from that distance was possible.
“But what if they get me?” I asked.
“You’ve been claimed as our soulmate and a part of Lee’s pack.” He snorted again and continued in a louder voice, “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. It’s more likely that the vampires are going to pack up and leave quietly tonight to avoid having their throats ripped out.”
I was pretty sure he wasn’t actually talking to me.
About an episode into some Spanish teen soap opera that Vanessa had started watching last week, Vanessa turned down the volume and gave me a long look. “So…”
We were comfortably packed into Vanessa and Lee’s apartment with the rest of the pack. AJ’s kids were in Vanessa’s room, sleeping, and he was guarding that window. Morgan and Tre were, the last I’d seen, smoking on the patio. Tyler, Lee, Scott and Michael were all in the living room, arguing in low voices. CJ and Chris were out, apparently doing the perimeter with Heather.
“So?” I asked back, snickering at the horrible acting.
“C’mon. Talk to me. I need to know how you’re feeling about knowing that you’re closer to Scott than Michael.”
I frowned and looked up at her. “What?”
“That’s what vamp lady said, and I’m guessing that’s what,” she gestured at me, “Means.”
“What does that mean?”
“You and those two are sharing some strange crap. Magic, I guess. It like, flows through the three of you like, blood, or something. I see it more lately than before and the only place it’s all clogged up is between you and Michael. So, how does that make you feel? I know you liked Michael more but—”
“That’s not, I mean.” I sighed. “I like them both the same. Maybe you’re reading the sight thing wrong?”
She gave me a long look. “No. And for the record, that whole weird reading each others minds things? Gotta stop.”
“What?” I asked, pausing the episode.
“Seriously? You three have conversations that are only partially spoken and respond like something was said no one else is hearing. It’s weird.”
I blinked slowly. What? I thought back, and realized that she was right. There had been things that I’d known I hadn’t said aloud but they knew. Or times when I’d just known what one of them was thinking and what to say. In fact, it started when…
I jumped off of the bed and hurdled onto the couch, cutting off the continued argument between my mates. “Can you read my mind?” I asked.
I made a face. “Well, I can sometimes read yours. Like right now, you’re thinking that the vampire bitch got to me,” I pointed at Michael. “And you’re thinking that I’m being ridiculous.”
“Is it?” I pressed. “‘cause we’ve all been doing this and not noticing it, haven’t we, Lee?”
“She’s right. It’s creepy. Stop it,” Lee said, trying to keep himself out of the conversation as much as possible.
“Wait, so when did this start?” Michael asked, looking excitedly from me to Scott and back.
“I have a good guess,” Scott and I said at the same time.
Michael looked bothered for a split second before gesturing for one of us to tell him what we thought.
“When your parents said ‘No way. Get her out,’ and we all basically gave them personalized ‘Fuck you’s.”
The two men exchanged looks and when they looked back, they both looked like absolute dopes. “So they didn’t affect the bond except to strengthen it,” Michael said excitedly.
“Yup. Now we just have to figure out how to make you two bond to finish it,” Scott added, making Michael and I both make faces.
“I really just think she read it wrong,” Michael said and I agreed. “I mean how likely is it that I’m the one who hasn’t solidified both bonds? You’re the one who’s always pissing her off.”
Scott’s eyes darkened and up I went. They were about to get into another argument, and honestly, soulmate or not, I wasn’t getting in the middle of this one.
About six episodes in, which equated to about six hours, after the fighting had died down and the guys were playing some video game (while still taking turns to check in on us and walk the perimeter), it dawned on me that I’d never gotten an answer to my initial question. Why me?
“Gimme ten. I gotta go talk to Michael.”
Vanessa rolled her eyes. “A bunch of vampires want your soul and you wanna go get laid?”
“I said talk, not fuck.”
“You always say talk and you always mean sex,” she said with a wave of her hand, starting the next episode. “I’ll catch you up when you get back.”
“Bitch,” I muttered, heading out of the room. I nearly collided with Scott when I did.
“Something up?” he asked, his eyes taking in the room, Vanessa, and the open window before going back to my face.
I shook my head. “I just need to talk to Michael.”
“About what?” he asked in a tone that sounded strangely like…he felt left out?
I shrugged, glancing back at Vanessa, who was giving us a bad case of side eye. I bet she didn’t even know her favorite character was on the screen. “Why the vamps want me. He tried explaining, but then we got caught on the whole energy shit and never really got back to it.”
He nodded once, then nodded out of the room, for me to follow him. “I’m taking her with me for a perimeter check,” he called over his shoulder as we reached the door. There was a quick moment when everyone got silent and looked between him and Lee, until Lee nodded. Scott nodded right back, like it was some strange ritualistic power battle between the two of them.
Actually, it probably was.
Scott tossed his arm over my shoulder and pulled me close against him as we walked down the stairs. “If something moves, tell me,” he ordered. The tone in his voice told me he had predator eyes going, so I nodded, choosing not to look at his face. “And if I tell you to run, run back to Michael’s van and hold down the horn until Lee comes down.” I nodded again, holding the keys tightly in my hand when he handed them over to me.
“Anyway,” he said as we made it to the first floor and walked out into the humid, disgustingly warm autumn night. I shrugged his arm off of me, but kept close and was, honestly, surprised that he didn’t put it back the moment I did. “You’re an Unlimited. Well, the Unlimited, since the last one died 22 years ago.”
I made sure my face was as blank as it could be so that I didn’t have to waste time asking what the hell that meant.
“I assume you two got past the obvious and were talking about how you don’t have an energy limit, since Michael decided to go into all the energy talk?”
I nodded. “I’m a Gathering-Collective ‘mixed-breed,’ which is unsurprisingly rare, a Fluctuator, which is rare according to Violet, and apparently my lack of discrimination of energies is strange.”
“And you have your own ambient magic, which is rare, even for a Fluctuator.”
I nodded as if a word of this was making any sense to me.
“None of that means a damn thing to you, does it?”
I shook my head. It was strange that he got that when Michael didn’t.
“Michael is kind of dumb when it comes to realizing other people don’t get what he does,” he said with a shrug.
“Can we come to an agreement about not reading each others minds?” I asked pointedly.
“It’s more like reading your emotions than your mind,” he countered, before almost immediately adding, “And I’m not trying to. I have to have all of my senses open to really keep track of what’s moving around here. If I dim it to you, it’ll cut off all of my energy based senses.”
I nodded like that made sense and when he laughed, I knew he recognized that I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. “Michael’s going to have to teach you how to play with energy,” he said before sobering up. “But back to you. You get the not having a limit bit?”
“Not really. I mean. I have to, don’t I?”
“That’s the point,” he interrupted before I could ask anything else. “You should. Everyone does. Even Others have limits, but you don’t. You’re the Unlimited of our time. You can hold an incomparable amount of energy and push it through you. You can take and give an unlimited amount.”
“But can’t others?” I asked. “I mean the taking and giving. I still don’t agree with the unlimited bit. But with pushing and pulling. I mean if I’m just pulling from something else and pushing it through me into something else, it’s not really me holding it, so can’t that be unlimited with any Fluctuator?”
“No,” he said point blank. We were at the playground, so he gestured for me to sit on the swing. I did it, mostly because my nerves were shot. I felt like we were being watched. I glanced at him, ready to say that, but he nodded at me, effectively telling me that he knew whatever I was going to say. Not reading my mind my ass.
“Fluctuators have their limits because even just pushing energy through you, some of it gets caught. Not to mention, funneling is incredibly dangerous. Different energies get tangled up in that and your body isn’t sure what you want it to send out unless you are incredibly careful, which I know you aren’t.” He started pushing me on the swing. “So you’re pushing out your own energy, your own magic, food energy, and outside energy all at the same time, while your body is also trying to replace it with what is coming through, which isn’t usually what it needs or wants. Michael and Morgan got really sick one time by funneling through each other.”
“It’s like this,” he pushed me higher on the swing until I was as high as it would go, then shoved me sideways so that the swing was going crazy twists and turns. I was holding on as tightly as I could to the chain, holding my legs tight to my body so that I didn’t hit the pole. He caught me against his chest after a few seconds. “Only the stop isn’t as gentle.”
I scoffed. “You clearly have never been slammed into your own body,” I countered. “Because that was anything but gentle. I’ll have bruises, thank you very much.” I hopped off of the swing on rubbery legs and he waited until I was stable to start walking again. Feeling eyes on me again, I quickly caught up with him, grabbing hold of his hand.
He paused for a moment, tensing as he looked back at me, but then he smiled. “Stop freaking out. It’s Tyler and Heather. They clearly don’t think I’ve got you covered.” He squeezed my hand gently and didn’t let go, so I counted it as a victory.
“So why don’t I go through that?”
“I just think you haven’t funneled enough for a long enough time,” he said with a pointed look. “But the not filling up is because you’re Unlimited.”
“But I am limited,” I argued. “I get food full. I definitely get my fill of people. And I get full of energy.”
“No one said you were completely unlimited. You still have a physical body that can only take so much. But I know for a fact that you don’t have a limit on energy. I can feel it when we’re screwing.”
I made a face. “Are you really trying to tell me that you know my body better than I do?”
“I’m telling you that I understand how something you didn’t even know existed works better than you. You have a mental limit, and I’m pretty sure it’s about how much you can take without killing something, not how much you can take.”
“And how do you figure that?” I countered, wanting to cross my arms over my chest while at the same time, not wanting to let go of his hand.
His eyes were gold when he looked at me. “Van. Now.”
“What is it?” I asked instead, looking around. Twin howls came from behind us and in the next second, I was finally able to see one of the pack in their wolf form. It was horrifying. Directly to my right, was an oversized black wolf with far too intelligent eyes, lips pulled back in a snarl to show intimidating and large white teeth. His—because I was fairly positive that this wolf was Tyler, not Heather—eyes were the gleaming predator gold and did I mention that he was far larger than any wolf had a right to be? He was larger than a grizzly bear and looked about as friendly.
Scott let go of my hand and shoved me back, to where the other wolf was. She was gorgeous in a way that Tyler wasn’t. With her pale brown, almost silver fur and fluorescent blue eyes, she pressed her nose against my arm and gently gripped my shirt in her muzzle, quite effectively tugging me back.
“Van,” Scott said again, only this time it was to the wolf, not me. She whined in the back of her throat and I apparently wasn’t the only one to be surprised when her whine turned into a growl. She let go of me and shoved me, with her enormous head, back into Scott, who scowled at her.
His golden eyes turned molten. “I outrank you, pup. Both of you, van, now.” A slender hand landed on his cheek, its black nails scratching his flawless skin where they touched.
Somehow, I had a feeling that he’d misunderstood Heather.
She launched herself at the creature touching my mate when it came into full view. Of course, it wasn’t a vampire. Those I had somewhat been ready for. No, it had to be those creatures that had been stalking me and Vanessa. It took feeling for it to realize that sometime during the past 12 hours, I’d lost the ring Violet had given me.
“Don’t let them scratch you!” I yelled.
“Them?” Scott demanded, gripping my waist as I shoved away from him to watch Heather take the creature to the ground. With unsurprising ease considering her jaw was the size of my torso, she ripped the thing’s head right off. Then she stomped on the body until it disappeared into glass, broken glass that got into her paws. She let out a painful whimper and I tried to rush to her, but Scott tugged me back as Tyler approached her.
“Them?” Scott demanded again.
Remembering that there were more important things—as completely selfish as that sounded— to worry about than Heather’s injury, I looked around. Where there was one, there were more.
“How does your cheek feel? Is it burning yet?” I asked as I scanned. There were three coming, though it was slowly, as though they were unsure about attacking. They should be.
“Do you know what these things are?” a young female voice asked. I turned back abruptly, only managing not to have a more volatile reaction by Scott’s grip on me. Now on Tyler’s back, her feet bleeding was a silver-haired teenager who definitely wasn’t Heather and I assumed to be one of the wolves’ family. Tyler was careful moving with her, coming to Scott’s side.
“Kind of not really?” I responded. “But they’re super rude and super persistent. Oh no. Nestle.” I fumbled for my phone. If they were here, coming at me, I could only imagine what they were doing to her.
Apparently, that was some kind of signal for the bitches to bum rush us.
They came at us with their nails, using them as weapons. And considering I knew exactly how potent a weapon they were, I did my best to stay out of the fight. Scott shifted an arm so that it was veiny and absolutely ripped and while his other arm stayed around my waist, it shifted to a snake tail and kept me where I was, as out of the way as possible while still being at his hip.
Tyler moved as well as he could with not-Heather on his back and the girl did her part, clutching his fur to keep from falling off and kicking when she could. She had to have amazingly strong legs, because the creatures flew through the air when she kicked them. Luckily, there were only six, or maybe they ran after six were ripped apart. Either way, my phone managed to get snatched from my hand and broken. So maybe they were just a diversion.
That thought absolutely terrified me.
“Nestle!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, hoping that she could hear me, even though we were three parking lots away. I could see Lee’s bedroom window though and while I didn’t have her vision, a blind person could have seen the mass of shadows roiling around the window.
“Fuck no,” I whispered, trying to rush to the apartment. Scott didn’t let go of me, but neither did he hold me back, following me. He didn’t change his snake arm back and used it like a leash, which I chose not to comment on. Tyler and not-Heather went ahead of us, going around the apartment, undoubtedly to get to the patio. And here I’d been wondering how they kept ending up on the patio without coming through the front door. They were fucking jumping it. Vanessa and Lee lived on the third floor. They were that big.
“Is your cheek burning?” I demanded, turning back to Scott, to see him eyeing me with this strange detachment. “Let go of me,” I said, backing up to the van.
He didn’t. In fact, the arm-tail-thing tightened around me.
“How long did you think you could keep it a secret?” he asked. There was a whisper behind his voice. A voice that wasn’t his. Damnit. They were in.
“I didn’t keep anything a secret,” I argued, trying to remember what Violet had told me would help me if I had to deal with this. Oh wait, she hadn’t because she’d told me to keep the ring on. How had I lost it?
“Didn’t you?” he pulled me in close to him, close enough to kiss. I leaned as far back as I could, staring at the cuts on his face. There were eyes looking out through them. If hands came out of his skin to touch me, I was going to pass out. I knew it right then, right there. “I don’t remember you telling me that you had a run in with Other Messengers.” His voice was a purr, but it rubbed my skin the wrong way.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said as honestly as I could. Who were the first messengers if these were the others? I figured I probably didn’t want to know. And more importantly, who was trying to give me a message and why didn’t they try it in a nicer, more obvious way? They could have e-mailed or texted me. I would have replied by now.
“Don’t lie to me,” he roared, squeezing me tightly.
I squeaked. “Scott. Break out of it,” I pleaded. “You’re hurting me. A lot.”
There it was. He stopped squeezing me, but continued to look at me with that same expression. “I bet you told My Kaul.”
“I wouldn’t tell Michael and not you,” I swore, thinking that I was beginning to get the gist. When I had been poisoned and mad at Vanessa, I had been thinking primarily about things that actually bothered me. The way our friendship had ended, the way she only seemed to come back to me when her new friends all went away and life was getting strange. I had gotten out of it because Violet had taken my ass out and inoculated me. Well, I didn’t have an inoculation, but I did have a nice, strong bond and a pretty good ability to maybe tell him what he wanted to hear.
“You like him more. You tell him plenty of things you don’t tell me,” he hissed. I could see his teeth sharpening. I had no plans of finding out what he planned to do with those.
“I have never told him anything that I didn’t tell you. Nothing. I might not tell you at the same time, but you’ve heard all the same things.”
He gave a bitter laugh.
“In fact, here’s something I haven’t told him. And had no plans of telling either of you, but especially not him.” He frowned, loosening his grip on me. Focusing on the muted bond since I wasn’t really sure how to open it again, I felt his emotions waver. The strange, dark thing was losing control. I had to say something to shock him enough that he had a genuine, completely positive reaction. Something he would believe and have absolutely no negativity towards.
I couldn’t think of anything for a second and knew that time was running out, because the longer I took, the less he believed me. I took a deep breath and looked him directly in the eyes. “He has the absolute dumbest hairstyle I have ever seen in my life.”
His mouth twisted in the corner of his mouth and I could tell that Scott was winning over the creature when I felt a blossoming of humor through the bond. I could also tell that it wasn’t enough, so I kept going. “I mean seriously. He literally just wakes up in the morning with his hair all over the place, doesn’t comb it, thinks ‘cause it’s curly no one will know. Well, I know. I know and I judge. While we’re at it. I’m pretty sure that a lot of what he says is crap. Like that thing about polar bears going sledding with penguins in Alaska? Really? Who does he think he’s kidding? Polar bears live in the South Pole. In Antarctica. They are not chumming up with their dinner in Alaska.”
He snorted that time and I knew I had him, but I kept going.
“And I’m not gonna tell him, but you probably should, that his deodorant doesn’t work for two days in a row. He can suck up all the sex magic he wants, but a sweaty pit is still gonna smell like a sweaty pit. For fucks sake, use some Secret or Dove. What do you use? You smell beautiful. It better not just shifter pheromones or I’m gonna have to take your gallbladder or wherever pheromones come from and like, eat it or something. That’s how that works, right? I trust you to tell me this type of stuff more than him. He gives me weird theories that make about as much sense as an elephant ballerina.”
He was laughing so hard that he couldn’t look at me, doubled over, his hands on his knees. His hands. Both hands. He no longer had a snake arm holding me.
I breathed a sigh of relief, tentatively poking at the bond to find that the darkness was all gone.
“You,” he burst into laughter again. “You could’ve, should’ve stopped at the ‘I know and I judge.’ I,” he choked back a laugh. “I had control then. I was just trying to keep myself together.”
I snorted. “I had some things to get off my chest,” I claimed, glancing to the apartment. The shadows were gone from the window and I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. It either meant that the creatures were gone or that they were in the apartment. I was really hoping for the prior.
He swallowed back a few more laughs before looking to the apartment as well. “I don’t hear anything coming from there, but since I didn’t hear those things until they were on us the first time, it doesn’t mean much.”
I nodded. “We need to go in and check.”
“You,” he said pointedly looking at the van, “Need to get in the van and stay there until I come back for you.”
I gave him a pointed look right back. “If those things come back, I can assure you that if they see me in the van, the windows will be broken and they will be inside with me, probably eating my heart or something.”
“We’re going to have a talk about you and the Other Messengers,” he promised before heading into the apartment. I stayed right behind him, following.
“I can’t feel Michael,” I whispered as we got closer. It was a strange feeling, not being able to sense our other mate and it bothered me that I hadn’t noticed it until now. How long had I not been feeling him?
“Which means that something is blocking us. Can you feel anything?”
“You,” I replied instantly, clutching the back of his shirt like a safety raft. Instead of rolling his eyes, like I expected, he nodded slightly before carefully opening the door.
I don’t know why we were surprised when one of the Mirror Maidens jumped at us.
Luckily, he was ready. He grabbed her head with one arm and her shoulders with the other, shifted to muscle arms, and ripped her head right off. He let go just in time to not be caught by the falling glass, but we didn’t have time to appreciate his speed. Before the glass had finished falling, another one was on us. While he took care of it, another appeared and without any other way to fight, I caught it between the front door and the wall and slammed the door as hard as I could repeatedly. It took a few tries, but it fell to glass.
“My Kaul?” Scott called out.
“Scout?” Michael’s voice replied from the bathroom.
“Is everyone alright?”
“As good as we can be locked in this bathroom with Zooey bleeding from her feet, Nessa freaking out about long nailed creatures, and Lee starting to act weird.”
“Was Lee scratched?” I called.
“Yeah, but I couldn’t find what did it.”
I exchanged glances with Scott. How could we see them but he couldn’t?
“You need to get Lee away from everyone else. He’s about to go super homicidal and the only person likely to stand up to his bossy ass is out here.”
“I doubt you can stand up to a full grown alpha,” Michael replied. I could hear the eye roll in his voice.
“Scott. I meant Scott. He is right here. He does the Alpha wrangling. I just stand and look pretty.”
“And kill demons with doors. You can’t forget that bit,” Scott added, ripping the head off of another one that had managed to appear.
“Just come out here. We’ve taken care of all of them, I think,” I said, looking around. I couldn’t see any more and the door to the bathroom seemed clear. “Unless you’re all scratched. Then you can stay in there ‘til I get Violet.”
“They only got Lee and Heather. Zooey’s got something new,” Vanessa’s voice called out, sounding closer than the bathroom. “Are you good? No effects from the last time?”
“I’m fine,” I said as the door swung open. Vanessa ran at me, hugging me. “They tried to fucking distract us. I was scared that they had you.” I hugged her back, eyeing Lee over her head as he eyed the two of us with that same detached glare I was learning to hate. I took a few steps back, pulling her with me as subtly as possible.
He had yet to say anything and Heather stood to his side, eyeing us with the same look before turning her attention from us, to the not-Heather who was apparently Zooey. Scott and Michael were doing a strange touching thing and being completely oblivious to the way Lee was fucking hunting us.
“Scott,” I sang out and received no response. I glanced away from Lee to see the other wolves attention on Heather, who had launched herself at Zooey. They were restraining the woman from the teenager, but what was scary was the look of absolute glee on Zooey’s face.
I glanced back to Lee and he was only a foot away. Squeaking, I tugged Vanessa with me back to the front door. If I had to run backward down the stairs, I would. I would make that frenzied drive again and if I had to run over a giant wolf-man, I would do it.
“Nestle, I need you to—” I didn’t even get the words out before I felt something grip my ankle. When I glanced down, of course there was another Vanessa. She was hiding under the loveseat with my necklace clutched in her hand. Surprised, I felt at my neck, but it really was no longer hanging there. She had the most frightened look on her face that I didn’t even have to ask which one was real. I shoved the fake Vanessa away and it hissed when it hit the wall.
It was a vampire.
“No! Why can’t this be one at a time?!” I yelled, immediately gaining the attention of my mates just in time for them to see me go down under 200 lbs of wolf. Because of course he had shifted into a wolf to attack me. It wouldn’t have been a fair fight otherwise.
I was just happy he’d turned into the normal sized were instead of the giant wolf. I went down hard, feeling his paws on my shoulders and his hot breath on my face as he growled.
Now, I couldn’t speak wolf, but was pretty sure he was saying something along the lines of, “This is all your fault! Everything was fine until you showed up!” I mean, he wouldn’t have been wrong if it was what he was saying. I was starting to wonder about it as well.
I did the only things I knew how to do. I screamed incredibly shrilly. And I shoved absolutely every last dreg of energy from my body into his. It didn’t seem to do anything but to make him angrier. I pushed at him with my hands, but he didn’t budge. On the plus side, he also didn’t begin to eat my face or rip my throat open. So I couldn’t really complain.
“Submit to him,” Scott said, crouched near my head. He wasn’t touching Lee, which both pissed me off and confused me. I knew for a fact that he could shift any part of his body into being stronger than Lee’s, so why he wasn’t doing that made no sense to me.
Apparently, the bond between us was still going strong, because he answered my thoughts without me having to say a word. “Getting him off of you right now won’t help in the long term. Submit to him. He needs to know that he is still in charge here and that you’ll stop endangering his pack.”
“I’ll stop endangering?” I demanded, shoving more energy into the stupid wolf. He twitched this time. “I haven’t done a thing. Ask those stupid Scratchers what they want! Make them submit to your dumb ass!”
I tried shoving him with both a slam of energy and my hands and this time he growled quite viciously at me.
“I swear to God, Charlize, if you make me have to physically stop him, I will beat your ass.”
“Maybe you should kick his ass!” I yelled. The wolf showed me all of his teeth. I looked away and instead was able to look at Vanessa again. She still looked terrified, but she wasn’t looking at me, Scott, or Lee. She was looking beyond us.
I tilted my head back to try to see where she was looking, but only managed to stretch my neck back until it couldn’t go any farther. When I did, I felt this gross snuffling on my throat and flinched. I tried to snap my head back upright, but the heavy snout and muzzle drooling on my neck kept my head back. I wasn’t submitting, damn it!
The hissing coming out of my vision made me flinch. I closed my eyes tightly, imagining that it was the hissing of a cat, or ten. Cats wouldn’t hurt me. Hell, I’d even take snakes at this point. The problem was how the hissing sounded. There was the hissing of animals, which tended to be softer, a warning, and then there was the hissing of vampires, which was threatening and mocking.
There was a long moment where everyone froze, but then a familiar golden glint in Lee’s eye came and he got off of me. He turned slowly, scarily from me, and to the vampires and the rest of the pack just fell in line. Heather, although she looked ready to attack the teenager at any moment, no longer needed to be restrained because she took a stand directly behind her cousin and all of them stood in front of me. A moment of confusion later, Vanessa crawled from under the couch and to me, still holding the gleaming red stone of the necklace.
“Where’s your ring?” she whispered, and I had no answer for her. Instead, I played with our friendship bracelet, watching as the two groups had a stare off. I’d always hated this part in movies. Why didn’t they just attack? What was solved by staring at each other? What were they waiting for?
“There are more Scratchers coming,” Vanessa whispered, and I supposed that was the answer.
“What are we going to do?” I wondered aloud.
“You aren’t going to do anything but stay out of the way,” Lee snarled, and I flinched back into the door. “We’re going to exterminate this problem.”
The vampires parted as soon as he said that and the vampire queen walked forward, smiling condescendingly. “I’ll give you one last chance to end this,” she stated. “Give me the girl and the rest of you will live.”
“We’ll live either way. Leave or we will tear you to pieces. We might anyway, just for the hell of it. At least one way, some of your cloud might live.”
Michael and Scott were both nervous about Lee’s declaration and them being nervous about their ability to take the approximately two dozen vampires in front of us made me uncomfortable. So, just for safety’s sake, I slap-snatched the woman quicker than the thought occurred to Michael. She was the only one I was really worried about. I’d seen her move and she was faster than my friends. She dropped before she could even smirk at Lee.
I hadn’t actually expected over half of the vampires to fall with her, though I supposed it made sense, since they were the ones whose energy was coming from her.
The ones whose energy had been going into her backed away. “We will leave tonight if you allow us to take Marcella with us,” one said.
This seemed rather anti-climatic, so I looked questioningly to the wolves, who looked as perplexed as I did. The vampires, on the other hand, shifted to take control of the situation.
“And you will keep her away from here,” Morgan stated more than bargained.
“We will ensure that she has no memory of what transpired here.”
“I’m not sure that’s good enough,” Tre added in, looking to Morgan for permission to say more. Morgan nodded. “I believe a lesson needs to be taught here. She was not the only one who decided to come here repeatedly without permission, to hunt on our lands, or to poach our pack. She’s not powerful enough for that.”
Morgan nodded, looking to Lee. “Marcella is just the figurehead. If we let them go, it’s possible they will just come back with a better plan.”
Lee nodded. “And if we don’t?”
Tre and Morgan exchanged glances. This was all so strangely political. The vampires weren’t saying anything to try to get the pack to change their minds or threatening or anything. It was all rather simple.
“The Syndicate will undoubtedly get involved, deem us within our rights because they attacked us first through the girls and then again, here, and they will deal with them.”
Lee looked to the group. “Who is the true master here?” he demanded.
Vanessa was nervous by my side. “The Scratchers aren’t coming. The call is gone,” she said, though I was focused too much on the vampires to pay attention to her.
They shifted for a bit, but then another woman stepped forward, this one the textbook definition of vampire. I mean it was her picture in the encyclopedia next to the word vampire. Not really, but figuratively. Her long black hair was curled and pulled up, her skin was icy pale, hooded eyes black, and her lips were painted a deep, blood red. She also had energy going from her to each and every one of the vampires. I wasn’t sure what the significance of that was, but it was unsettling.
“I am,” she said in a husky voice. Her eyes shifted from Lee to the fallen vampires and then back to me, an intrigued look in her eyes. “I am Lilith, and I deeply apologize for our…mishap. Marcella has been running around on her own lately, making new shades. We were truly here to attempt to gather them all up, but then the problem with your witch and…” she raised an eyebrow pointedly, waiting for someone to tell her what I was.
“Charlize,” I supplied instead of a race.
Her lips quirked in a small smile and I really wanted to kiss her. “And your Charlize made things difficult. Marcella made a deal with some Other who wants your witch.”
“What?” Lee demanded, and it broke me from my haze. I was halfway to the vampire and Michael’s hand was on my wrist, on the friendship bracelet.
“What do you mean?” she asked, batting her long, dramatic eyelashes. I took another step forward, but Michael pulled me back.
“Stop luring my mate to you,” he snapped, making everyone look to me. I flushed and looked away from the woman.
“What?” she asked innocently. “I haven’t done anything to her. If she’s attracted to me, it’s all on her.”
“Or, you know, the drawing trinket,” Morgan said lazily, running his hand up my arm. I immediately jerked away from him when Michael let go of my wrist. Morgan tugged the friendship bracelet right off of my wrist, making the tiny conch shells fall to the floor. The moment they did, I stopped feeling so attracted to the vampire. Not that she got any less attractive, no, I just no longer felt as though I had to go to her. That and my mother’s bracelet turned a fiery red and started smoking.
“What Other gave you that?” Morgan asked, eyeing the broken bracelet with disgust.
“Gave me?” she laughed gently. “You misunderstand, sweetling. I did no dealing with the Other Marcella found. I have no need to. If I wanted any of you, I wouldn’t need a bracelet to do that. No, I would bet that was supposed to be attuned to Marcella, but fell to my power instead.”
She was so cocky that I had no doubt she was telling the truth. “Now, if you want to know more about this Other, you’re going to make a deal of safe passage for me and my cloud, including Marcella.”
“This is my birthday,” Vanessa whined, eyeing the mausoleum. For the third time this week, we stood outside of it, staring at the door. It had a new lock and shiny chains, all loose. It looked like a trap waiting to be sprung.
On the plus side, we weren’t alone this time. The entire pack had followed us and were keeping a good (if they wanted us to be dead) distance to keep Piney from getting suspicious and doing anything drastic. Though how they genuinely thought Piney didn’t know they were here, I honestly didn’t know. It wasn’t like they were hiding very well, or the cemetery was crowded at 8 PM.
“They’ve got Scratchers following them,” Vanessa muttered, fingering the black pendant of my necklace. I had given it to her to wear for this, thinking it might help her feel a bit safer. So far, it seemed to do the trick. I was just worried that it was still black.
I texted Michael her warning, almost immediately receiving the response We know. CJ n Heather got them. Go in. Rite bhind u. Nervously, I stuck my hands into Scott’s hoodie’s pocket and called Michael’s phone. Once the call was connected, I took a deep breath, smiled reassuringly at Vanessa and walked into the mausoleum. The plan was for me to keep them on the line and the moment it sounded bad, they would be there.
Fiddling with the phone as I took another step and then another into the building, listening as Vanessa followed behind me, I tried to calm myself. It was a good, solid plan. We were just bait. Bait that was going in, unprotected, into the enemy’s lair. Because that always ended well. As I reluctantly headed for the crypt, I felt something in the pocket that wasn’t Scott’s phone. I hesitated for a moment, but since I would have looked at a gum wrapper to put off going into that dark hole, I pulled the hard object out.
For a moment, I had a terrifying moment of relationship fright, because it was a diamond. There was no doubt about it. It was a medium sized rock, too big to really fit comfortably on one finger, but small enough to lie comfortably in the palm of my hand. My initial, horrified thought was Oh shit, no, please don’t let him be getting ready to propose. But almost as soon as I thought that, I heard a whisper on the wind, reminding me that it was from Zaza. It was supposed to help me defeat Piney, though I didn’t know how.
Vanessa cleared her throat and I looked to her. “Shouldn’t we be, I dunno, heading down?” she suggested.
I started to answer her, clenching my hand into a fist around the diamond, but something stopped me before I even made it to her side. “Shari?” I heard a young voice calling from the crypt.
Vanessa and I exchanged worried looks.
“Shari, is dark,” the voice continued. “Scared.”
“That’s Dominick,” Vanessa whispered, stating the obvious.
Or maybe not so obvious. “Is it?” I countered, squinting into the darkness. I would have sworn that I saw eyes looking back at me. “I’m not so sure,” I told Vanessa, who gave me a disgusted look.
“And you’re not going to check to make sure?”
“What if it’s a trap?” I hissed.
“And what if it isn’t?” she hissed back, poking me in the chest.
I took a step back and she shook her head in disgust. “Dominick loves you. If there’s even a chance that that is him down there, how could you not go?”
Because there was a chance it wasn’t him down there.
I didn’t have to say it, my answer must have been on my face because when I opened my mouth to suggest we get our reinforcements in, she scoffed and went right down. Knowing better than to call her name in case someone was listening, I just went after her. I scurried down the steps, wishing that I could use the phone as a flashlight without chancing having it taken or broken.
By the time I made it down into the crypt, I could no longer hear her footsteps. I turned in a circle, stubbornly keeping my mouth shut, and listened for anything. After a moment, I heard breathing, scared and labored. I opened my eyes and saw a path lighting the way for me. I took only a second’s worth of hesitation before I followed the path.
And landed right into a trap.
Lee’s little sister had been giving me the creeps all night, and now I knew it was about more than her being a tiny version of her brother. I didn’t need Vanessa’s Sight to know that Zooey wasn’t herself when I stepped into the candlelit cavern to find her waiting. Her disgusted expression was worth a hundred words. Her spikey-headed shadow was worth a million.
“I should have killed you a long time ago,” were the first words out of her mouth, and coming from a girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old, it was jarring.
We probably should have paid more attention to what had happened with her and the glass. Or at least taken Vanessa’s comments seriously about something being wrong with her. Either way, it was too late and now I knew who the messengers were from. Piney was a giant pain in the ass.
I took a step back to find that there was stone at my back and the entrance I had used had disappeared. Looking to her again showed the entrance behind her. She didn’t move toward it, like I had expected. Instead, she took several steps toward me, taking advantage of the fact I couldn’t move any farther with my back literally up against a wall.
She reached out to touch me and I pushed energy into a slap-snatch, but she back handed me before I could even begin to push. My head hit the wall with a hard thud, but since it wasn’t a sickening crack, I forced myself to look at her.
“Probably,” I tried to smirk, but doubted it came out as anything more than a grimace. “Now you’re living to regret it.”
“I’m not living yet,” she responded, brushing flyaway hairs to my bun. “But I will be soon,” she whispered into my ear, biting the tip before moving back.
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” I countered, pushing myself toward her and away from the wall. She pushed me back.
“You don’t.” She waved her hand and I hit the wall again, this time with enough force to make me lose my balance. I slumped to the ground.
She groaned and clutched at her body for a few moments, before letting out a shriek of pain that made my hair stand on end. She stood up straight again after a few seconds and eyed me with distaste. “I wanted my seer,” she snarled. “But between that dreamer and wolf, I was forced to lure her here. And then, then I had to make a deal with a vampire to get as close as I did.” She gave a growl that was wholly werewolf and flicked with her hand to slam me into the wall again. This time I was ready for it and absorbed the power, getting to my feet instead. She snarled at me.
“But you have been a thorn for far too long. I didn’t think you were a threat the first time, and I was right. What you are is an annoyance. I tried to use gremlins to get rid of you. I tried to use vampires to get rid of you. I even tried to lure you away from my little witch using that child, yet somehow, you messed even that up. So it’s time for some pest control.”
“Yeah, against you,” I snapped, holding up the diamond right as she slammed an impossible amount of energy my way. It didn’t do a thing. I slammed back against the wall, my head making the dreaded crack even as I opened myself to take in the energy. It wasn’t Piney’s. It wasn’t the dark, addictive energy that I associated with the shadow people, but the woodsy, fuzzy energy from werewolves. And not only just one wolf’s energy, but the entire packs energy. I felt all of the wolves flowing into me and wondered, for a moment, if their energy was connected in a similar way to how the vampires had been connected to the beautiful vampire.
It was just a moment, though, because she was forcing more energy into me before I could even begin to adjust to accommodate what I already had. There was a bad, broken taste to this energy, something I wanted to check out, but I didn’t have time, because she was still pushing energy into me.
When I tasted Scott’s energy I fought back. I greedily collected his energy in a separate place where I knew it would be safe and get back to him. I wasn’t sure how, but it was as if it were part of my bloodstream, part of that link that went through my body and back into theirs.
Push it out, a whisper suggested to me and that was a good idea. Right before I started, the whisper came back. Not into her. Out. Make her use her own.
Pushing into someone was a lot easier than just pushing energy out into the atmosphere. I wasn’t even completely sure I could until I did. It hurt. It was like being reprogrammed. It was as if every synapse had gone off and screamed of fire and pain, because I was letting out this energy that had somewhere it wanted to go, and instead drawing it away from its preferred host and shooing it. It didn’t want to go. It was like telling molten lava that it wasn’t allowed to roll down the volcano and forcing it into the air.
But I did it. I was on my knees, panting, covered in sweat by the time I had pushed off everything. Piney seemed to think she was winning this battle, because she smirked down at me. The evil look on Zooey’s innocent face made me sick.
“You hold more than I thought,” she crooned, moving to me and pulling me to my feet using my bun. Once I was staring her in the face, she smiled evilly. “But methinks you’re at the limit, no? I was only going to destroy you, but now I think I’ll take what I can of your essence. It reminds me of what mine used to be.” With that, she started pushing into me again, only this time it was that black energy that I liked. I couldn’t spend too much time enjoying it, however, because as she pushed, she pulled much harder and I felt myself growing faint.
Press the stone into her chest, the whisper told me. Without a second thought about it, I jammed the stone so hard into her chest that if there hadn’t been bones, it might have gone into her. As it was, she let out a horrible noise in time with a slurping sound that definitely came from the jewel. She let go of me and tried to grab at the jewel, but it didn’t budge, no matter how much she scratched at her chest. I, also, couldn’t move no matter how hard I tried. My hand was stuck holding the rock at her heart while she struggled, and it only got worse when she dropped Zooey’s body.
At that moment, I stood face to face with a shadow somewhat shorter than me if I didn’t count the spines on its head. The eyes were glittering, but obsidian and so filled with hatred that if looks could kill, I would have been dead a hundred times over. Unlike with Zooey, the diamond was actually inside of Piney, a pulsing object where her heart would have been. As we stood there, locked together, I thought I saw a flash of who she might have been in life. A handsome woman with strong features and wild hair, her dark eyes glittered with mirth and her energy was pure golden light and sparkling glitter. That energy flowed straight into me, stronger than the black energy and filling me up, feeling like my own but concentrated.
But it was just a flicker of difference before she was gone and the diamond stopped its pulsing, now a cloudy black where it had before been clear and shining. It felt prickly in my hand as the energy I’d been filled with turned sour, turning into the black energy. Hide it, the whispers told me and I hesitated before hearing voices.
“Charlize!” Vanessa was calling from one direction. “It wasn’t Dominick! We need to get out of here!” No dip, Sherlock. I could have told her that.
“Charlize? Nessa! Where are you?!” Michael’s voice was calling from another.
I struggled to stand up, placing the stone in my back pocket before I pulled out Scott’s phone to use it as a flashlight. Glancing at the lit up screen, I saw that the call had never connected, that there were missed calls, and that, of course, there was no signal down here.
“Guys? I’m in here! I’ve got Zooey!”