Authors: Jess Raven,Paula Black
‘He left me for …’ She hesitated. ‘No. You’ve got to be suffering from some sort of head trauma to even think Connal would leave me. Where is he?’
He paced out the end of the bed, the thick, blond braid grazing the bare muscles of his ass as he moved with the prowling grace of a tiger. ‘You were brought here to save your life.’
The naked caveman was really freaking her out now.
‘Brought where?’ Panic-large eyes scanned the room, cataloguing the flicker of fire in the wall sconces. It was a cave painting come to life. There was nowhere else she could really be.
‘Who in Hell are you?’ And it
Hell, complete with a rock cavern and a crudely carved bed covered in furs.
‘I am MacTire.’ His arrogance said it should be obvious. Shoulders set at right angles, jaw kicked high, he was showing off the physical credentials to go with the title that meant nothing to Ash. ‘King of Fomor. He spoke not of me?’
. Connal spoke not of you.’ Her tone was mocking, building up a front from the tatters of her dignity.
He cut her the kind of boot-trembling glare that would have sent a saner person ducking for cover, but anger and shame crept in to melt the ice of her terror. Watching him carefully, Ash braced herself and ventured the question she both craved and dreaded the answer to. ‘What happened to him? To Connal?’
He delivered the blow devoid of emotion. ‘The traitor is dead.’
Denial ripped through every fibre of her being. Grief tore her vision to red, a roar in her head and in her throat dictating the vicious strike of her hand to the face of her captor. His flesh gave way to the rake of her nails. No alley-cat scratches, his face bore the jagged stripes of a razor-clawed attack.
razor-clawed attack. Black talons, inches long, protruded from the ends of her fingers.
MacTire hissed, low and menacing. He dragged the flat of his hand down his cheek and it came away bloodied. Brows low, the corner of his jaw clenched tight and eyes, blacker than night, bore into her.
Caveman had a temper.
His huge, naked body shook as he backed away. An accusing finger stabbed in her direction, and the cruel twist of his lips parted as though to speak, but no words came out.
His eyes fell on the claws at the ends of her trembling hands and MacTire’s mouth curved into a smirk. ‘Well well ...’ He swallowed back the gravel in his voice and those dark irises glinted crimson in the torchlight. ‘The she-wolf likes to play dirty?’ As his tongue stroked down one long canine and dragged a sheen across his full lower lip, he left her in no doubt as to the direction of his thoughts.
On cue, her cheeks flushed with the shameful memory of where that mouth had taken her only moments before.
‘Brave, taking on the Master at his own game.’ Fingers traced the slashes down his cheekbone. His hand paused on the door and he cast her a look that was equal parts lust and admiration. ‘You should know that I am accustomed to unconditional submission in
facet of my rule.’
The hard-on he sported and the deepening husk in his voice left her in no doubt. He was getting off on her defiance. ‘Oh yes,’ he purred, ‘you will be worth the wait.’
A cold smile touched his lips as he threw something in her direction. Small and silver, it arced through the air and thumped against her chest, falling into her lap. ‘I am no liar,’ he said.
She did not raise her eyes, only blinked stupidly down at her knees where the object shone.
The heavy door shut behind him and the clunk of a turning key sealed her inside his bedchamber.
She didn’t even hear Mac leave. The thing he’d hurled at her captured her attention like no words could.
The small disk chimed against the rings that dangled along the length of cord, each quiet, metallic clink a strike to her heart as she ran it through her fingers. His flesh would have been ripped to remove the rings she’d once played with. No one would have got close enough if he’d been alive. Mac hadn’t been lying. Tears built in her throat as she brushed the coin that had once rested on Connal’s skin.
He was dead. No one could have taken that from him.
She wavered, imagining she could still feel his skin beneath the necklace, the warm pulse of his blood as she fisted his nape. Eyes scrunched shut, she locked herself in her head, let memories wash over her. Through the salty drip of her tears, she figured she could still taste him.
Her love was dead and she had fucking claws that only grew as her breath turned rough with waves of encroaching anger. Ash was volatile. Bones cracked and she cried out. Joints popped and her spine arched. She was dying. Something had broken inside her heart and her body was playing out the agony. When pain ripped through her back, Ash fell forwards on a raw scream. Suffocating, her forehead hit fur.
Breathe, Ash, breathe...you’re not really breaking, nothing is breaking...
breathe.’ Bringing the sheets around her nakedness, Ash swung her legs over the side of the bed, Connal’s coin clutched to her heart. She had to get out, but when she stood, her head swam and shame burned her cheeks as she swiped between her thighs. As though that could erase the reality of what she’d done. What she had allowed to be done. However she tried to fix her thoughts into believing it had been forced pleasure, a mere biological response, Ash couldn’t shake the fact she’d enjoyed it.
She dug her nails into her palms, hard, tried using the sensation to curb the disgust crawling bile up her throat. It didn’t work. Panic was settling in her chest like lead. She was locked in, and from what the myths said, so far underground that time itself stopped. A living stasis. A Neanderthal cave for her cell.
‘I need to get out of here …’ Forcing her limbs into action she stumbled around the spartan surroundings. The air had been sucked from the room by MacTire’s revelation and she hunted it, out onto a large, rock-face balcony. It spread out beneath her, suspended and reaching into the vast landscape of Fomor.
Hell, for sure.
As far as she could see, a red sea spread, waves lapping grotesquely against a shingle beach. Jagged mountains, black and twisted like termite mounds, rose up in the distance. Curiosity carried Ash towards the edge, the dizzying height dropping her to her knees in a crawl. The same termite-mound structures were her neighbours, reaching for the pitch skies with gnarled peaks. Beautiful as only death and despair could be, it was a wasteland of limited colour.
She was well and truly lost.
Wind rushed up from beneath the ledge, howling at her, pummelling her back into the rock wall and tearing at her breath.
Its cease was as sudden as its start, a knife popping her bubble and letting the air roar into her lungs. Utter silence reigned, save for the harsh rasp of her breath and the click of her nails on the stone. Except she wasn’t moving, her hands were buried in her hair, holding her head together.
Oh shit ...
There was something here with her.
The clacking came closer and she glanced around. Nothing. There was a rustle, a shuffle of … wings?
If it was a ravening beast come to devour her, it could damn well choke on her.
A beak, curved and wicked, hooked over the ledge. Wings, giant and black arched out to block the skyline, showing every feather tip to be taloned. And the face … the face was nothing she’d ever seen. It was feminine, she thought, something about the angles not right to be male. A skull under a black, leathery skin, waxy and hairless, with deep pits for eyes. Eyes that watched her as an eagle watched its prey before dropping out of the air to devour it. A raptor, the likes of which shouldn’t exist.
Ash screamed and the thing returned it, opening its jaw on a howling shatter of noise. It was a thousand sounds echoing through a base screech that chilled her soul.
Burrowing her spine back into the stone, she had nowhere to go as the one monster was joined by its ugly brethren. The one closest to her moved and Ash flinched, her arm shooting out to ward off its advancing as it stepped in that tell-tale click of talons to rock.
The word was out of her, not at all authoritative, but the giant bird-thing halted, cocking that weirdly human head at her. The others mimicked it, silent, watching. She shooed it again, but this was no pigeon to fly when you got too close. This thing leaned
her touch, craned a vulture-like neck so the tip of its beak could rest on the back of her fluttering hand. When her arms drew back, the creature hopped forwards on feathered legs, its torso hunched, the same dark skin drawn taut over a skeletal form. Ash held her breath when the others swarmed in around her and braced herself for an agony that never came.
They were still, inches from her, waiting for something. Expectant.
Her fingers shook as they tentatively reached out to brush feathers, careful not to catch on the razor tips. How did she end up in these situations? She couldn’t help herself, whether it was burying her hands in Connal’s fur, or his dreads … pain choked her, was swallowed down … or fisting handfuls of these feathers, Ash knew she would always be drawn to touch a thing of dangerous beauty. It was a weakness she hadn’t known she had.
The wing arch ran like silk through her fingers, those eyes on hers slumberous and calm. A leathery head drooped onto her shoulder and her throat closed up with a heart-hammering fear. It was a purely physical response, a reflex, because somewhere in the calm that settled on this surreal encounter, Ash's mind had disconnected from the fear.
The power of the creatures was undeniable. And yet, here she was, stroking death, and taking comfort in it. Tears stung her eyes and her hands buried deeper into the inky plumage. Brushing up against her own mortality somehow made her feel closer to him. To Connal. Because he was dead. And she wasn't entirely sure she didn't want to follow.
The lock clicked open and Fite waited, head cocked, listening. She could be sleeping but he doubted it. From the state of MacTire, she was up and armed. He knocked. There was no answer.
Balancing the tray on one hand, Fite stepped inside. Locking the door behind him, he scanned the room for hidden spaces where she could lie in wait. MacTire would skin him if the female got out before he was ready for her.
She’d thrown the King a curveball and it had struck him dead in the face. Fite chuckled silently. It was a rare sight to see their leader get his fur ruffled. MacTire was hiding in the safety of his throne room, licking his wounds, and Fite had to be the fucking one to go in and feed the crazed female.
Setting down the tray, his muscles tensed as whispers of sound reached his ears. Soft breaths, a ragged-beating heart. The little female was hiding. He stalked her. She’d been exploring; her scent lay in heavy trails until it thinned, aired out and drifting towards the balcony.
She hadn’t … she wouldn’t ...
He was praying she hadn’t jumped when the sight before him drew him up short.
She hadn’t plummeted to her death, but the reality wasn’t much better. Neck deep in raveners, the strangely subdued creatures clustered around her hunched form. One wrong move and she was birdfood.
Miss Ashling …
He projected the words in her direction as he wall-hugged his way closer. Scared eyes snapped to his. Pulled from the terror that had held her immobile, she scrabbled on the rock.
Don’t, don’t move, it’s ok. You’ll be ok.
Fite let the impressions touch her mind.
Her chin dipped in a tight nod, eyes shadowed in confusion and fear, but she was responding.
He was going to distract them. And he was going to have to be quick about it.
Inching along the rock-face, arm outstretched, the raveners caught his presence, their loose necks turning to pin him in a death-glare. His body went taut as a live-wire, muscles strung into bunches by the buzz of wild adrenaline, but the creatures made no move to attack.
Fite gripped her wrist and snatched her behind him.
The raveners rose up on a shriek of outrage, a tsunami of beating black wings, talons outstretched, reaching for what he protected.
They would destroy him, but not without a cull of their own.
Lips pulled back in a snarl, Fite’s claws tore through the metal tips of his gloves as he stood ground against the sea of fury.
They raged at him, only lithe speed keeping him from their snapping jaws. Fighting a dance of feathers and claws, he pushed back, trying to maneuver Ash towards safety.
She stubbornly refused.
Her claws flexed into the bare flesh of his biceps and he hissed. He could feel her heart thudding against his back. She had every reason to feel threatened, but he couldn’t calm her now.
‘You’re provoking them,’ she said. She tugged on his arm, ducked under it, laid her weight against him in a hard shove. Christ. Males were hard-wired to protect the females of their race, and this one flung herself into the path of enraged raveners.
The momentary distraction was enough. The sky-piranha’s jaws clamped into his thigh and he bellowed. ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?' he growled. 'Get inside before you get us both killed.’ He grabbed a hold on the rock as the creature yanked, trying to shake him free. He was fucked. Couldn’t hold out against its superior strength.
‘Let him go!’ The she-wolf railed at the attacking creature. Bright eyes tainted red, she flung out her arms. He expected to see nothing but bloodied stumps when he looked back, but the damn thing obeyed her, releasing its hold.
The raveners were off the attack, weaving like cobras to the sound of the flute.
He banded his arms across her chest, dragging her back. Hisses rattled up the raveners throats, their swaying halted, focussing with predator-precision on where he held her. Wings pounded the air, their shrieks tearing at Fite’s eardrums until Ash shoved him back, separating them.
‘Don’t touch me,’ she gritted out, ‘don’t you see it sets them off? Just wait.’
She reached out, soothing her fingers to leathery skin. ‘He won’t hurt me ...’
‘You should go,' she said to them, 'Wolf-boy is getting antsy, I don’t want him to hurt you.’ Ash motioned them away and a whining song rose into the air with the steady whump of wings. Reluctantly, they left, great spectres in the sky, dark blots against a darker canvas.
Fite slumped, the tension wiring his body dissolving into relief. Adrenaline put his back to the wall, confusion narrowing his eyes on the little female.
She’d dismissed the raveners.
The fearsome raptors, commanded away by a creature they should have seen as prey. She was an anomaly. He just couldn’t fathom if that was a good thing, or something very dangerous. Fite gathered his features, settled his racing heart and took her elbow, silently steering her into the safety of MacTire’s rooms. There was no resistance and, as she stepped through the gap before him, Fite couldn’t resist looking over his shoulder, fearing the threat at his back.
Ash ignored him. She was shaken, her whole body on a fight or flight program she couldn’t shut off. Half of her was frantic, raking up her insides with terror of the things she’d so calmly petted, and yet the other half? It liked them, accepted them, thought them more budgie than harpy. Her knees hit the end of the bed and Ash collapsed into its support, hands limp in her lap.
‘That was some magic trick you pulled out there.’ The mattress dipped beside her, taking Fite’s weight. ‘We should have been torn to pieces.’ There was humour in his voice, but she couldn’t manage a smile.
‘Are you ok?’ she motioned to his ragged thigh.
‘Just a flesh wound.’
‘What are you doing here?’ She wasn’t in the mood to entertain a train of studs.
‘MacTire wanted you fed and clothed,’ he said, pulling the tray of food closer. ‘It wouldn’t serve you well to disobey. If you don’t eat, he’ll feed you.’
Piqued, her emotions changed and her body flexed to contain something that wanted to break out. Claws lengthening, a growl lodged in her throat.
A hand covered her own. ‘Just breathe. In time, you will be able to master your triggers.’
His smile was gentle as he took her hand, turning it palm up.
‘What are you doing?’ Ash tugged, but he didn’t let go. His thumb feathered in her palm, circling a small crescent scar that she didn't remember incurring. He was more intent on studying the black talons sprouting from the tips of her fingers.
‘It’s been hundreds of years since I’ve seen a she-wolf’s claws, I’d forgotten how delicate they could look.’
They kept calling her that.
. She growled, hand swiped away as his laughter rang out. He was teasing her.
Curling her fingers, Ash was hypnotised by the movement. They seemed to retract when she flexed them, disappearing under the skin.
Her voice dropped to a whisper. 'I'm not turning into one of them? Those girls ...'
. 'The ones you call
. Am I?'
It was insane, but a tiny part of her wanted to scapegoat the sexual arousal she'd felt with the brutish stranger who'd woken her with his mouth between her thighs.
Fite shook his head, the bars of his silver moustache lifting in a smile. ‘Far from it. This?' He drew her hand towards him and brushed again over the scar she bore. 'This is a mating mark. The brand of a wolf.'
A flush crept up her throat.
She studied her strange, new nails, hair falling to hide her burning cheeks. Her mind was whirring, turned so far inwards that she didn’t catch his movement until it was too late.
‘Ow!’ She turned on him, startled, probing the pinprick of pain in her scalp. ‘What the hell did you do? Was there a grey hair or something?’
He held up a strand that was far from grey. It was a brilliant red, silky with a copper sheen that caught the firelight when he twiddled it before her eyes.
What the … ?
He just frowned and tucked it away.
‘What’s happening to me?’ Her voice was plaintive. ‘How did I get here?’ Hands bunched nervously in the sheets. ‘Last thing I remember, I was in his bed.’ She toyed with the coin secreted away in her bed-sheet dress, and sorrow rippled up her throat. ‘He’s really dead isn’t he?’
Fite stiffened. ‘That bast ... that man doesn’t deserve your tears, Miss Ashling.’ His hand twitched, but those steel-tipped claws were not made to comfort, and clearly, neither was he. ‘Connal Savage was a liar and a traitor, a murderer of innocent women and children. He manipulated you.’ The intensity of his green-rimmed irises threatened to mesmerise her into believing him. ‘He used you, and he bit you, aboveground and outside of the full moon, knowing full well the
in his bite could kill you.’
‘No.’ She shook her head in denial.
‘The truth hurts, but don’t fester romantic delusions about that twisted fuck.’
Her vision was swimming with tears when she met his hard expression. ‘He wasn’t like that.
I set him up to bite ...’
‘You what?’ Fite’s lids flared. ‘Why would you do that?’
‘Because! I thought I’d become
, or go insane from it. Then you animals wouldn’t want me anymore. You’d have given that little boy back to his poor mother.’
‘Then he didn’t bother to explain all the possibilities,' Fite frowned, 'like you might actually
one of us, and would suffer and die as we do without the full moon.’
‘No,’ she was adamant now, ‘he refused to bite me. I had to force him. I bit him first, I gave him no choice.’ Ash rubbed absently at her throat, brow furrowed. She never considered the greatest side effect:
Never thought she’d end up like that blue mess she witnessed, expiring in her backyard. But obviously Connal had. His refusal made so much more sense. ‘Oh God, was I like that?’ she asked.
‘Decaying and blue?’ Did that make her one of them? Ash couldn’t deny the clawed proof. The white-haired, porn-tashed hunk of Viking warrior clearly believed it.
Fite fell silent.
‘I saw what happens,' she pressed, 'how am I not dead?’ Her head wasn’t wrapping around it. There were fractions of her memories missing, a black void that came after explosive ecstasy and agonising pain. She couldn’t shed light on them herself.
‘Connal brought you here,’ Fite conceded. ‘He pulled some mouth-to-mouth stunt on you to keep you alive until you got to Fomor. Weird shit, like he was transferring his immunity to the curse through his own breath.’
‘What?’ She was in shock. Connal had brought her into hell, so that she could live. Knowing that he wouldn’t. A growl bladed her words. ‘He saved my life, risked his own to bring me here, to bring me to you, and you
him?’ Every word was a match, her anger gasoline, waiting for the flame to hit. Something raked under her skin. Her fingers gripped into the sheets and fabric shredded.
‘The Savage had it coming, many times over, and he knew it. Have you any idea how many of us your precious saviour murdered?’ The calm, sea-green rims his eyes were eclipsed by a bleed of crimson. ‘When he took you to his bed, did he whisper that he was the reason we are damned to this fucking hellhole? Did he brag to you that we are on the verge of extinction because he ripped the heart out of every woman and child of our kind? Or that he sold his soul to that bitch, Morrígan, in exchange for his own ticket to freedom?' He bared his teeth in a sneer. 'No, I didn’t think so. Not exactly sweet pillow talk to charm a lady out her knickers, is it?’
‘You bastard!’ The fire caught hold, spinning her into a fury of talons. It was instinct to swipe at him, to silence the words that hurt, that drove doubt into the well of her love and muddied it. Ash had never been party to the full truth of Connal’s past. She defended him the only way she could, with violence.
As her claws struck across Fite’s mouth, Ash knew the wealth of her anger wasn’t directed at him. If not for her playing on Connal’s instinct to bite, she never would have been at risk, he never would have had to hand himself over to the mercy of his enemies to save her. He never would have died if she’d left him to his plans.
killed him. Delivered him over to god-only-knew what brutality before they executed him. Fite’s hatred alone enforced her belief that it wasn’t a quick death.