She fought as the thing’s blood soaked into the ground, struggling to get free. The monster didn’t want to let go of her. She made it stronger, somehow. Faster and smarter.
It didn’t want to die alone.
Frantic, Nika forced all her fear into the sgath, using that emotion to propel her out of its weakened mind before it died. She was sucked back into her own body, but by then it was too late. Her blood—the blood that sgath had used to take over her mind—now flowed through a dozen more of its kind.
They all wanted her inside them, making them faster and stronger, too. She felt them pull at her, tugging at her mind as if they were trying to rip it from her. She hardened herself, fighting back, refusing to give up for Tori’s sake.
But she was too weak. She didn’t know how to fight off one, much less a dozen. Her mind cracked and splintered. Glittering shards of what made Nika who she was were cast into the night. Each of the sgath claimed its own piece, ripping her sanity from her.
That was the night Nika went crazy.
Madoc had no idea how she’d survived it—how she’d lived long enough for him to hunt and kill the things that haunted her, so she could reclaim all the fractured pieces of herself. He wasn’t even sure if what he’d done had been enough.
Tori had been the one who’d really saved Nika’s life.
The tenuous connection between the two sisters shimmered like a braid of spider silk. Over the years, it had thinned until only a single strand remained. Nika refused to let that strand break. He felt her determination to hang on to that connection even as Tori worked to sever it.
Why she would do such a thing, Madoc had no idea, but part of him hoped she’d succeed. Nothing could ever harm Nika. Not even her own sister. He refused to even consider letting it happen.
Nika was his lady now and he was honor-bound to protect her with his life, if need be. He could no longer allow her to run around at night, risking yet another attack by a Synestryn who would rip away bits of her mind. He’d managed to slay most of the sgath, but what if one of the stronger Synestryn got some of her blood? What if she couldn’t fight it? What if his sweet Nika was left damaged beyond repair, living in a nightmare, forced to remain forever locked inside the monsters while they killed?
It was her worst fear. He could see the malignant pulsing of that terror echoing through her mind, shaping her every move.
She’d rather die than go back to that world of blood and death and insanity.
Madoc was going to make sure it never happened, even if she ended up hating him for what he now knew he had to do.
Nika knew that the luceria would give her some kind of vision once she put it on—some peek into Madoc’s life. She wasn’t sure what it could show her that she didn’t already know. She’d been inside him, seen the darkness that plagued him, and bathed in the light of his soul. How could a view of what his life had been like, or what made him the person he was, top that?
But what she saw was no flash from the past, as she’d heard described. What she saw was something she’d never even considered.
It swirled around her, more a concept than a series of events. Comprised more of emotion than anything, the flow of possibilities was endless, pattering against her like hot rain. With each drop that fell, she saw another possible future.
Some were horrible, tainted with blood and death. Others were so sweet, she could almost feel the tears of joy sliding over her cheeks. She smelled a baby’s skin in one moment; then in the next, she felt the chill of Madoc’s lifeblood leaking through her fingers. The thrill of a battle won surged inside her, only to be cut short by the debilitating grief of both her sisters’ deaths.
Nika was laughing and crying, raging at the world and celebrating miracles. The barrage of emotions kept coming at her, swarming over her until a single one remained.
She felt trapped. Useless. Desperate. Defeated.
Those emotions coalesced into a vision so real, she knew without a doubt that the luceria was showing her more than simply a possibility. It was showing her her future.
She was locked inside Dabyr, a virtual prisoner. She recognized the space as Madoc’s suite, but it wasn’t the walls that kept her here. It was a vow she’d made in haste.
She’d promised him she wouldn’t get hurt and that vow had allowed him to imprison her inside Dabyr, where he thought no harm could come to her. It had allowed him to keep her there while the last connection she had to Tori winked out of existence.
At that moment, Nika knew that her sister was dead, and it had been her vow that killed Tori. Nika also knew that her failure would be the thing that killed her. The guilt would eat her whole, leaving her an angry, wasted shell of a woman.
Madoc would suffer watching it happen, being unable to do anything to stop it. The two of them would drift apart. The darkness that lurked inside him would grow.
Andra would blame herself, and Paul’s inability to fix it would gnaw at him, making him angry and afraid. Their relationship would suffer, too.
As their connections weakened, so did their magic. Battles became harder to win. More human children were stolen from their parents. Countless people died.
Nika couldn’t let any of that happen. She was meant to fight by Madoc’s side—to take the same risks he did. She wasn’t meant to be protected from her birthright.
Whatever she did—whatever promises he tried to force from her—she had to stay strong and refuse to give him that vow that would destroy the lives of so many.
“Promise me,” she heard him say outside the confines of the vision.
Nika opened her eyes and looked down at Madoc. Blood ran down his chest. His naked body was shining with perspiration, his muscles knotted with fear.
He gave her a little shake. “Promise me you’ll do whatever it takes to stay safe.”
That was the trap the luceria had warned her about. Her vow given to him now would ruin her life and the lives of so many others.
“No,” she whispered, even as the desire to give him anything he wanted burned inside her. “I can’t promise you that. I won’t.”
Madoc rose to his feet to loom over her. His face was dark with rage, and she could feel the subtle vibrations running through his muscles as if he were holding himself back. “Why the hell not?”
Before she could answer, a hard pounding rocked the bedroom door.
“Nika, are you okay?” asked Helen, her voice tight with worry.
“Out of the way,” came Drake’s deep voice; then he barged into the room, his sword drawn. He came to a dead stop, staring at the naked couple in front of him.
Madoc let out a warning growl and ripped a sheet from the bed, draping it around Nika’s body. She clutched at it, capturing his arm as well to hold him back.
“I tried to tell them you were busy,” said Logan.
Drake averted his eyes but did not put his sword away. “Logan, you know I don’t trust you any farther than I can toss you off the end of my blade.”
Helen put a staying hand on her husband’s shoulder. “We need to get back outside. Their blood will be drawing company here.”
Drake nodded and looked at Madoc. “Get yourselves cleaned up; then get outside and lend a hand. We’ve already saved your ass once tonight. Helen’s tired.”
“I’m fine,” she said, tossing her twin braids back over her shoulders.
Drake’s eyes followed the motion before sliding over her breasts. “Yes, you are. Let’s go.”
The pair of them left, but Logan remained in the doorway, his pale eyes cautious. He looked at Madoc. “Did it work? Did she get to you in time?”
Madoc’s hold on Nika’s body tightened. “Guess we’ll see. If my lifemark buds again, we’re safe. If not ...”
“It will,” said Nika, letting every bit of her faith flow through her tone.
Madoc cupped her cheek, his touch so gentle she had to blink back tears. “You and I have a lot of things to talk about.”
She knew what he meant. He wanted to wrap her up and tuck her away somewhere where her life would have no meaning. That wasn’t going to happen.
But now was not the time to argue about it. Right now they needed to wash off the blood before they were all trapped inside this house, sitting ducks for every Synestryn within miles.
“Later,” she told him. “After we’ve showered.”
Something inside Madoc had definitely changed since Nika had put on his luceria; he just wasn’t sure it was enough to turn him back into the man he used to be. All the violent feelings he thought would go away were still there, pounding inside him, demanding release. He wanted to kill Drake and Logan for looking at Nika’s body. The only difference was that now he also felt bad about it.
Drake was his friend. He shouldn’t have wanted to kill the man for taking the time to see if Nika was okay. He should have thanked him for caring enough to look in on her.
He knew that; it simply didn’t change the fact that if the man did it again, it might be the last thing he did.
That wasn’t right. That wasn’t the way Madoc wanted to feel for his brothers. And it sure as hell wasn’t the way he wanted to feel toward Nika.
He wanted to be gentle with her. Loving. Or at least not scare her and hurt her like he had.
Madoc started the shower, testing the temperature so it wouldn’t burn her skin. Once it was right, he stepped away so there was room for her to get in.
She shed the sheet, letting it fall to the floor. Her back was to him, but the feminine lines of her back drew his eyes down to the prettiest ass he’d ever seen. She was pale and smooth and so mouthwatering he had to grip the counter to keep himself from shoving her against the wall so he could take her from behind.
She peered over her naked shoulder. “Are you coming in with me?”
Hell, no. If he got in that shower, he was going to fuck her again. It didn’t matter that he’d made her bleed a few minutes ago, or that he was sure she had to be sore. All that would matter was the slide of hot water over her skin and finding a position where he could take her deep and hard without slipping and bashing both their skulls in.
“I’ll wash up in the sink. I need to get out and help Drake.”
Her blue eyes narrowed. “You’re still afraid of me.”
“Hardly. Afraid of what I might do to you? Absolutely. You should be, too.”
“You still don’t get it, do you? I’ve known from the first moment I saw you that you would never hurt me.”
“I’d say the proof of how stupid that idea was is smeared all over the insides of your thighs. I made you bleed.”
“Only a little. And it’s not like it could have been helped. Any man would have done the same thing.”
The idea of another man taking her made his vision go red around the edges. That killing rage was back, blasting inside him, making him wish for something he could beat into a slurry. He had to take several deep breaths to calm down enough to unclench his jaw.
Nika held her hand out to him. Her slender fingers were wet. Water sluiced over her breasts and down her belly, making her skin turn pink from the heat of the shower.