Authors: Jess Raven,Paula Black
‘Is she dead? Mac … Did I kill her?’
Ash swallowed, tears wetting her cheeks. Mac freed her hands and pulled her up, holding her close to his chest. Despite the comforting gesture, Ash had the feeling he was still restraining her. His heart was pounding almost as fast as hers. She moved to splay her palm over that rapid beat and he flinched. She looked up at him, confused to see his jaw clench. His strong fingers covered hers, carefully easing out the nails that had slipped like needles beneath his flesh. He pressed a kiss to her knuckles while rivulets of blood crept down over his chest.
‘Oh God ...’ Ash pushed at him, but he held strong. ‘You should go, get away from me.’ She strained to break the bind of his arms. ‘Please, you make it worse ...’ It was the truth, her nails would not retract, her body would not calm with him this close.
‘She’s not dead, Ashling. She’s in shock and has lost a lot of blood, but I am confident she will not die.’
She was certain he was lying to her but she stayed silent, tense in his arms. His chest heaved, his lips skimming the top of her head, voice a rumble at her ear. ‘Let’s get you cleaned up, and then we can talk.’
It was water. Bright, sparkling, clear-as-sky-blue water and she never wanted to leave it. Surprisingly warm, it fell hard from a gap in the stalactite ceiling, making music on the crystal rock floor and trickling into the small pool basin she stood in.
A shadow passed in front of the fire torch in one corner and Ash glanced around. Guards prowled the perimeter, their eyes averted at every doorway. They risked losing them if they so much as caught a glimpse of her naked. Mac had been very graphic in his threats.
She didn’t really care.
Modesty had been lost to the urge to scour herself clean, and Ash stretched up into the rain of water, letting its purity strengthen her as she abraded a rough sponge over her skin.
Red raw, that’s how she needed to be.
Her eyes caught on the blood tainting the surface of the pool and her knees gave. She was a stain on the beauty of the place.
God, that poor girl.
Ash curled her legs into her chest and let the water pound down on her head. It blurred her thoughts with its crashing noise, but it couldn’t erase the memory. She’d shredded the girl, carved her anger into the
innocent flesh until the floor ran red.
She prayed they were only surface wounds, pleaded for no lasting damage, hoped whatever primitive healers the wolves had could help her.
They’d all looked so shocked. Great muscled brutes and they’d drawn up short at the sight.
All except Mac. He leapt on the damn bomb.
She was explosive and she couldn’t find the right wires to cut to deactivate the fury. It sizzled under her skin even now, pushing, as though it was having trouble being contained by her human flesh. It itched with power.
She couldn’t even cry anymore, not for the girl she’d destroyed, and not for herself. Even her emotions weren’t her own.
I’m losing myself.
She shivered, unable to shake the suspicion that the guards were not for her protection, but theirs. Not to keep others out, but to keep
in. The way Brandr looked at her, dark eyes blazing with accusation over the mess she’d made of his plaything, had made her feel so very small.
She’d seen the violence they were capable of. If even the monsters were repulsed, what the hell did that make her?
They'd made the
orgasm. She'd made her bleed.
What were they planning to do with her? They said Connal had no control, and they killed him for it.
The crash of the water was so loud, it deafened her. So lost was she in her mire of self-pity that she didn’t hear the intruder until she was dragged from beneath the spray, her arm clamped in a cruel, metal-tipped grip. She staggered, slipping on wet rock before he hauled her to her feet.
‘Don’t you dare scream, Witch.’
Like she could. Her vocal cords were frozen in shock.
Fite held her at arms-length, green-rimmed irises shining with heat as his gaze rocked down her body. Ash curled in on herself, shielding her nakedness. That look was pure male, so focussed, she wondered if he was taking her measurements while he eye-raped her.
Just be glad that’s all he’s doing, Ash. I doubt he’s here to have a nice naked chat.
She was so tense in his grip that when he eventually released her, she stumbled, landing hard. Sprawled unceremoniously, half-in, half-out of the pool, Ash sputtered water and splashed backwards as he stalked forwards. Crab-scuttling, she flipped onto her hands and knees to avoid the snatch of his fingers, frantically crawling until her feet found the edge of the pool.
She could hear his growled breaths at her back, his thoughts beating her with images of her own body, slices of him entwined with her … cut short and ending in black. Fite closed down the impressions of desire and she didn’t feel him near until her head was yanked back in his fist, ripping her off balance and connecting her spine with his chest.
‘Calm your fucking self,’ he snarled.
Was he kidding? The
might welcome him with open legs but she was not about to
let him rape her. Her heel rammed at his instep and she was rewarded with his pained grunt.
He fastened an arm across her chest, crushing her breasts painfully.
Her elbow beat at his ribs and her nails slashed at the restraining forearm.
‘By Balor’s cock, Woman!’ Fite released her, spewing curses. He snatched up the robe and underwear she’d dropped and shoved them at her. ‘Put them on,’ he commanded.
She obeyed, glaring as she showed him her back and drew the robe around her, tying it tight.
Fite crossed his arms over his chest and stared her down.
‘Quite the little wildcat, aren’t you, DeMorrígan?’ he said, icily.
That’s not my name.
Unease creased her forehead as she sought her voice. ‘No, I don’t understand, I ...’
‘First that stunt you pulled with the raveners, and now this. You think you’ve got MacTire by the muzzle too, don’t you?’
He was on her before she could react, metal tips puncturing the soft flesh of her upper arm so hard that tears sprung to her eyes and a whimper breached her lips.
'What are you?’ he demanded, ‘Why did she send you here?'
brought me here!’ she replied. Was he suffering from amnesia? Ash struggled, but got nowhere. Pain hazed over her vision in crimson and her head shook as a familiar edge crept up her spine and throbbed at her fingertips. Beneath her skin, something bristled.
I can’t hold on, I don’t want to hurt you.
Except it didn’t come out that way. It ended in a growl that was all feral.
Fite shook her. ‘Don’t imagine you’ve got us all eating out of your poisoned hand. I’m on to you and your witchcraft. It’s not welcome here.’
Ash lunged, her own strength surprising her as she tore herself free of his grip. Her strike caught him off guard too. Before he had time to react, she managed to get her claws around his throat. She pushed her advantage, scaling his body, snapping a snarl to his face. Her jaw ached, the points of her teeth long enough to touch her tongue. Ash watched Fite’s pupils dilate, saw crimson bleed over the irises, but he was frozen. With her talons so close to his jugular, he knew better than to react. She could rip his throat out. Hell, she wanted to rip his throat out.
‘Ashling. Let. Him. Go.’
Ice stung her skin in the wake of those thunderous words. The voice was unmistakable, but when she looked over at Mac, his anger was sniper-sighted on Fite. Not her. And Ash had never been so happy to see the bastard’s hulking silhouette. Slowly, she flexed her fingers, drawing her claws from Fite’s flesh as she backed down.
Ash shakily stepped away, allowing Mac to sweep her behind him, but not before his devil-red stare assessed her bruised knees and bleeding skin. He inhaled and Ash shrank back. Mac wheeled on Fite.
‘You attacked her?’ he growled, ‘I claimed first right. Wait. Your. Turn.’
Okay. Clearly, he’d got the wrong end of the stick. Fite was far from coming on to her.
‘Yes, you did,’ Fite sneered, ‘and how’s that working out for you, my Lord? Does she show you heaven between her thighs, or has she teeth there too?’
Hauled up and pounded into the wall, he didn’t get another word out. Mac’s forearm pinned the wolf off his feet. Fite struggled for breath but he didn’t protest the hold.
Mac’s eyes glittered with rage and he ground his arm to Fite’s throat, listening for the gagging choke. ‘I’m only asking once. What the fuck are you doing down here with her?’
‘Why aren’t you asking yourself why you’re defending a stranger over your own fucking family?’ Fite rasped. ‘She attacked me.’
Ash’s head jerked up as Fite’s gaze fell to her, and she burned in the heat of his anger.
‘Look at her!’ he spat. ‘You saw what she did to that girl. She conducted raveners from the skies, for fuck’s sake. She’s not one of us, my
.’ Sarcasm dripped from the title.
Mac’s curled lip snarled a threat to the other male. ‘The untame think otherwise,’ he said.
‘She has bewitched them, as she has you. She will poison our blood, MacTire.’
‘I am right here, you know,’ she muttered.
They ignored her.
Ash’s eyes pinged between the males like they were a violent tennis match, Fite’s total disregard for casting his insults where she could hear them the ball that kept the battle going
She made herself small. There was too much testosterone in the room and she didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire.
‘She’s just raw, Fite. She needs to be shown how to contain her strength.’
‘No,’ Fite pressed, ‘she is a feral animal that needs to be put down. The last time you granted mercy to such a creature, it devastated us all.’
‘Fuck you and the high horse you rode in on, Fite,’ Mac spat. ‘He was my brother. Would you have had me kill him in cold blood? Then again, you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?’
The look that passed between them was devoid of all recognition, making two strangers out of brothers.
That separated Fite from his restraint. His silver hair lashed across Mac’s face before the king was driven back beneath a flurry of metal-clawed punches. Ash cringed when Mac took each one of them, his jaw tight with pain, just letting them come. They rained down in precise hits, quick as lightning, knocking him back. Fite was yelling, sense lost to the sound of flesh hitting flesh.
It was payback. It was deserved. Though Ash couldn’t know the reason, she could see it in Mac’s total lack of resistance. He really was letting Fite hurt him.
Maybe it was the glimmer of blood on the ends of those metal talons, or the barely audible grunt that finally passed Mac’s lips. Whatever it was, it set Ash off. The trembling in her body emanated from her centre and poured from her throat in a growl so dark it should have been visible.
Two pairs of eyes whipped in her direction, two faces frozen in open-mouthed shock.
She had to school her own surprise when they obeyed.
The males parted in a crackle of half-shifted bones and bruised knuckles.
Fite tugged his waistcoat straight and patted his hair sleek as he backed off, a lazy curl of his tongue catching at the blood staining his claws. ‘You need to get your bitch on a leash, MacTire. I won’t be responsible for what happens next time she crosses the line.’
Halfway to the exit, Mac’s voice paused him.
'It is you who has crossed a line, Fite. Know your place, or be taught it. Any varg lays a finger on her and they will pay in blood. This is the word of your King.'
A curt bow was Fite’s only acknowledgement and then he was gone, a whisper of menace trailing him like smoke.
A hand passed in front of her face, drawing her gaze from the exit to the cruelly handsome face of MacTire. ‘Come, Ashling.’
She adjusted her weight, but didn’t make a move to leave. He let the silence stretch and her words rushed to fill it up. ‘I attacked him. I did. He was angry and I just … let go.’ Ash couldn’t raise her eyes to his, spoke to his hand instead. ‘I could have killed him. I wanted ...’ Admitting she wanted to kill his brother was probably not the best thing to help her case. ‘I really hurt that girl, Mac. I’m afraid.’ The next words stuck in her throat. ‘You have to help me. I need to learn to control whatever this is.’
Mac conceded to her demand for training with an enthusiasm that worried her more than where he was now leading her. This was necessary though, whatever he could tell her, show her, that would calm and cage the thing inside her, would be a blessing. She needed to function enough to formulate an escape plan. She needed to get angry without being scared she’d rip someone’s face off. Her claws were still out, less Freddie Krueger than before, but sharp enough to hurt herself when she fisted her hands nervously.
That was a problem.
Too much had happened, with no reprieve, wearing her down until she was threadbare from all the friction. Fite hated her. No, that wasn’t quite right. Fite
her. In her heightened state of animal arousal, she had smelled it on him, and knew instinctively what it was. Hell, she was even starting to scare herself.
They walked single file, and Ash’s thoughts got sidetracked. Sure, she’d noticed the King: he was imposing and arrogant, and built. The breadth of his shoulders had never seemed so wide in the massive caverns, but down here, she wondered how he could fit without being greased up. His body took up so much of the tunnel, she had no hope of seeing around him. Huffing a strand of hair from her eyes, she had to admit he was a sight from the back. His white shirt flowed and tightened with his movements, bunched around thick arms and drew taut on his shoulders before loosening at the waist. Indented muscles were clearly defined through the thin fabric and she followed the line of his spine to an ass molded in some sort of leather.
That should be illegal.
No man that looked like him should be allowed to wear something so tight. Maybe it was a brother thing. Connal had looked just as biteable in his biker leathers.
She stumbled and averted her eyes.
No, stop seeing him where he isn’t.
‘Ashling?’ Concern deepened Mac's voice and drew her gaze up to his.
She brushed him off. ‘I’m fine. Are we nearly there yet?’
He continued staring at her, sensing the shift in her mood. When his lips parted and his eyes narrowed, she braced herself for him to push, but he only scrunched himself to the side and gestured one long arm in front of him, making room for her to pass. ‘We are here.’ She peered around him.
A wooden door sealed off the rest of the tunnel. Her curious glance was answered with a daring smile and a tip of his head. Clearly, she was to enter first. Taking a deep breath, Ash sucked in and squeezed past him, ignoring the purr in his throat and the leap of her heart when her breasts brushed his abdomen. The door, carved into knots and creatures, opened easily when she flattened her palm to it.
‘Oh, wow.’ Candles glowed on every surface of the temple-like structure; columns raised the ceiling in vining sculptures. For primitive creatures, they definitely knew how to carve. Statues sat on pedestals or were recessed into the walls. Some were hewn straight into the rock. She didn’t recognise the people they depicted, but they were beautiful, powerful.
‘Elatha.’ He made her jump and she hid the freak-out with a glare.
He smirked and turned her to face the largest statue: a giant prince of darkness with hair that shimmered with strains of gold. It wasn’t plated. The colour was in the rock. Blue glittered in the sculpted sea, silver shone from the boat he stood in. It would have been angelic, if not for the limp raven dangling from the man’s fist.
‘This is Elatha. Our ancestor, our God.’
‘Damn, Great-Great Grandpa was a real animal lover, huh?’
‘The raven is a representation of the Morrígan,' Mac explained. 'Their falling out has been at the root of all our evils.’
Big Mac was deadly serious, but his gravitas did little to calm the hysteria in her blood.
‘Can’t beat a good ‘ol family feud,’ she quipped. Her family tree was starting to sprout some bizarro branches. Maybe being an orphan wasn’t so bad after all. ‘So, if my grandmother is rotting away in a nursing home,’ she asked, ‘does that mean the Dublin Bird Strangler is on the loose somewhere too?’
He clearly didn’t appreciate her humour.
‘All that remains of Elatha’s earthly presence is the red fog that gives us life during full moon,’ Mac replied.
Earthly presence? Ash wasn’t sure she wanted to know what other plains these ‘Gods’ dwelt upon. Her head was already spinning. She shrugged Mac off on the pretense of moving closer to the shrine, but really, the heat of his hands through the thin sheath of her robe was too much.
A dark pool at the foot of the statue seized Ash’s attention. No … Not a pool at all. A doorway. A conduit.
conduit. Connal had told her as much in the forest. The black waters were channels to the surface. Escape from this godforsaken place was just within reach ...
‘Not a wise move, Ashling,’ Mac interrupted her thoughts, ‘it’s days yet until the full moon.’ Reaching around her, he took a bowl from a stone niche and carefully poured its thick, liquid contents into the water. Red fog shimmered up from the surface and overflowed, lapping their ankles with a soft fragrance.
‘Elatha’s essence lives on in the black waters,’ Mac said, by way of explanation.
It was sweet, musky. Ash inhaled hard and sighed as her muscles loosened and the tension under her skin eased. She tried very hard not to think about breathing in some ancient deity’s essence, but there was no denying it was good shit. It made her all warm and fuzzy.
She’d get back on board with her escape plans, just as soon as her head got off this tilt-a-whirl intoxication. ‘Where are we?’ she asked.
‘We are in the Sanctum of the Thegn Masters.’
Right, because that explained everything. Mac wasn’t being very vocal and it scared her. These short answers did nothing for her confidence.
Irritated, she spun away from him, taking in the majesty of the place, the sanctuary. ‘Are we going to pray?’ She quirked a brow. ‘Because I’m not the type to scrape down on my knees to anyone, not Gods ...’
‘And not Kings.’ Mac laughed, finishing her sentence. ‘Your rebellious spirit excites me, Ashling,’ he reached out and twined his fingers in a lock of her hair, rubbing the curl against his skin, ‘more than it should. The way you went for Fite back there … utterly fearless.’
The awe in his tone left her breathless. She pulled away. ‘We’re here to train.’ Not a question, she wanted his head back on track because hers was getting fogged. She tried to convince herself it was the smoke.
‘And so we are, my impatient one.’ Mac peeled the shirt over his head in one lithe shift, and Ash gaped. Magnificent. Revealed in all its chiseled, muscular glory, the King’s torso was spectacular. Lightly dusted in fine hair, his abs rippled in slo-mo as he tossed the shirt aside. Muscles danced and tendons flexed and her eyes may have been a little glued. She was female after all. Gold rings glinted through his nipples, winking at her in the candlelight. Ash blushed, desire suddenly riding her hard in spite of all her mental chiding.
‘Whoa there, big guy,’ she protested, ‘we can train with our clothes on!’ Her hands went up, warding off any further removals.
He ignored her, popping the fasteners on his trousers, unselfconscious and oblivious to the havoc he was wreaking in her head. ‘Clothes are precious in Fomor. My men die to bring them here.’
‘I’ll pay for the dry-cleaning if I get blood on you, ok?’
Blood, or drool.
Damn it, she was affected by him and he wasn’t helping her by taking things off. Her eyes shut, her hands clenched. Ash aimed for a resolute, no nonsense tone, trying to hide the lusty hum in her blood. ‘Seriously, you start doing the Full Monty, and I’m out of here, Mac.’
He was so blasé about stripping, it unnerved her, but he made no more moves to lose the trousers. Instead, his head canted, smirking as he looked her over. ‘Get comfortable with nudity, woman.’
Seriously, did he just ‘woman’ her? A protest bubbled on her lips, only to be silenced by the bomb he dropped next.
‘Clothing doesn’t survive the shift,’ he said.
Her voice shook. ‘You’re going to turn beast?’
‘Yes, Ashling, and if we do this right, so shall you. Trust me.’
Oh God. It was one thing seeing Connal change, he’d been injured, but coming face to face with one of the creatures that murdered her mother? Hell, if what he said was true, she was
one of those creatures. She wasn’t ready. Panic cranked up with the quickening beat of her heart.
He held her in his dark eyes, mesmerising, fingertips sliding the robe from her shoulders and letting it pool at her feet.
Frozen by his revelation, she allowed it, letting the drugging incense flood her veins. Nervous fingers picked at the lace trim of her tank top and she squirmed as his gaze roamed her head to toe. Not much protection in a vest and panties.
His voice was seductive as he circled her. ‘Do you know that the she-wolf is bigger and more powerful than the male?’ he said as he drew her hair back from her shoulders. The pad of his thumb stroked her pulse and it skipped for him. ‘It allows her to handle a branded pair, and to protect her young.’
Damn if that wasn’t one hell of an image. The coiled energy within her purred. ‘You’re saying I could hurt you?’ She spoke quietly.
‘I can handle you, Ashling.’ His arrogance was like a scent.
‘What I did to that girl was accidental, but it’s stronger around you.’ Ash hid the tremor in her voice with a growl. ‘I don’t want to hurt anybody else.’
Mac hummed, as though tasting words before he spoke them. ‘Would it ease your mind if I restrained you? For my protection.’ A smirk played on his mouth. ‘It’s true, you don’t yet know your own strength. I can summon the ouroborus roots to restrain you.’
Ouroborus? Wasn’t that a snake symbol? Oh shit.
Mac raised his palms and the walls came alive. Writhing vines reached out to wrap her ankles and slither up her body, coiling around her wrists.
Her body thrashed instinctively, claws extending in defense as the bindings tightened. She’d asked for this, why was she fighting? Ash took a breath, allowing the roots to collar her throat. Another growl escaped her lips and she couldn’t swallow the tremulous warning.
‘I swear, if you try any funny stuff, none of your little vines will be able to contain my degree of pissed off.’ Ash couldn’t put her finger on where the surety came from, but she knew it was truth. The energy inside her could break free, if he pushed.
Mac made no indication that he’d heard her, he just watched, coal-black eyes fixed on her every breath, intensely aware of her reactions.
Heart rate elevated, breaths panicked, skin coated in a fine sheen of sweat and Ash knew she probably looked as freaked as she was trying not to feel. She was being provoked.
Just breathe, Ash. Maybe he knows what he’s doing … hopefully he knows what he’s doing.
Cloth dabbed at her forehead, snapping her thoughts front and centre.
‘Your beast strengthens by the hour, Ashling. I can feel your quickening in my own blood. You must contain it.’
Terror roared over her careful control. ‘But how?’
His face was so sympathetic, it hurt to look at it. She didn’t trust his concern. ‘For this to work, you need to relax. Breathe deep.’
Ash complied shakily.
‘Taste the smoke in your lungs, it will calm you.’ He took up pacing around her once more, his eyes searing where they lingered.
A warning rolled from her throat.
He cast her an admonishing look but continued. ‘From childhood, we were sent to the Thegn Masters for instruction. They taught us to transcend emotions, to diffuse our triggers, by diverting their energy.’
‘Negative stimuli: fear, pain, anger, grief … lust.’ He prowled around her and even the words bristled something primal in her. ‘Jealousy, I believe we have established.’
From behind her, Mac’s voice was low with amusement. She could sense the damn smirk. ‘You must learn to cool the rage in your blood, control it, before it consumes you.’
When he next came into view, he was playing something through his fingers. It was a goddamn whip. Fear flooded her blood with adrenaline and flipped her switch from warily compliant to frantic. She reared away from him. Her curled lip was a nod to the leather he stroked tenderly over his palm.
‘Back up there, Wolf-Boy. I signed up for your creepy meditation, not flagellation. You are not BDSM-ing me with that.’
He snapped it out and she flinched back on a snarl as the thin, singular fall cracked the ground beside her. Mac was baiting her, and it was working. Ash’s hackles were up.
‘You see? I haven’t even touched you, and already you’re set to detonate. You wield power you are not equipped to handle, Ashling, like an assault rifle in the hands of a child. If you cannot rein it in, you will be disarmed.’
She caught the threat but bit back the growl. He was right.
Mac secured the snake whip under his arm and dipped to catch her eyes with his. There was a promise there, a warning, and as he drew a strip of silk from his pocket, Ash knew he was giving her the opportunity to fight against it.