“You heard me. I know I should go easy on you, seeing as how you’re just a walking bag of arthritis, but I need to learn this stuff so I can take over when the heart attack hits.”
His smile widened. “Arthritis?”
“Want me to ask Miss Mabel if you can borrow her old walker? I’d hate to see you fall and break a hip.”
Joseph shook his head, grinning. “Teenagers,” he muttered under his breath. “Get your scrawny butt over here, and I’ll show you just what an old man like me can do.”
“You sure the Alzheimer’s hasn’t made you forget?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
Nika was going to die. She was going to be slaughtered here tonight and end up breaking her promise to Tori. There was no way she could fight so many Synestryn. They were going to kill her.
Or worse. They’d take her blood and rip the last few hard-won bits of sanity from her mind, sending her back to that dark place where her thoughts were not her own, her body was a wasted shell, and death hovered over her, rubbing its hands in eager anticipation.
The nightmare flashed before her eyes, threatening to make her weak with fear. She didn’t want that. She didn’t want to go back to that place where she was helpless against the pull of the monsters, where they could rip her from her body and force her to watch the things they did, to revel in the shedding of blood, and the creation of pain and sorrow.
Dying seemed like the better of the two options. Her best chance was to provoke them into a rage so they’d kill her outright.
I’m sorry, Tori. I’m so sorry I couldn’t stay with you.
The broken promise cut her deep, slicing at her soul until it bled, but she couldn’t let the sgath have her mind again. She couldn’t.
Nika swung the shovel, bashing one of the beasts in the head. The shovel bounced off, making her arms sting with the force of her blow, but it did nothing to the Synestryn. It didn’t even knock the monster off balance.
And there were six of them, soon to be more, since she still hadn’t stopped her hand from bleeding.
A silver arc of light flashed in front of her, and a split second later the head of the closest sgath flew up and away from its body.
A massive man shoved himself between her and the monsters.
He was here. Nika’s soul cried out in joy.
She reached out and laid her hand on his broad back, touching him to make sure he was real and not a figment of her imagination.
The warmth of his body radiated out, thawing her chilled fingers. His muscles bunched beneath the battered leather jacket as he moved, fending off the Synestryn, cutting them down with his sword.
Nika closed her eyes and soaked in the feel of him, real and solid after so many months of wishing.
“Get the fuck out of here,” he snapped at her. “I’ll hold them off.”
Nika jerked back to reality. The rabid sound of the sgath fighting him rose until it filled her ears. She couldn’t see past him, but she knew fighting off so many of the beasts was going to be difficult if not impossible.
If she ran, he might disappear again. She had to help him, not leave him, so she pressed herself against the cold tree, shed her body, and thrust her mind into the nearest sgath.
It had consumed her blood somehow—likely by eating the flesh of another sgath that had also consumed her blood—and because of that, Nika was connected to it. She could reach inside its mind, take hold, and, if she was strong enough, force it to do her bidding for a short time.
Luckily, a short time was all it would take for Madoc to cut the beast down once she held it still for his blade.
Maneuvering through the thing’s mind was like wading through fetid sludge. Every step pulled at her, trying to drag her under. Nika fought it, ignored the rotten filth of its thoughts, and seized control of the sgath’s limbs.
It howled in rage, trying to violently thrust her out of its mind, but Nika refused to budge.
Through its eyes she saw Madoc swing his sword. His movements were jerkier than normal—not at all as fluid as they once had been. He was still a glowing powerhouse of strength, but there was something else she could see in him—something the sgath could sense that she could not while inside her own body. It was as if the sgath recognized part of Madoc—a dark, violent part of him that was normally hidden.
Nika was so intrigued by this new vision, she nearly forgot her task.
The sgath she possessed lunged for his throat. Nika grabbed a mental hold of the thing’s jaws and clamped them shut before its teeth could make contact. The sgath bounced off, landing awkwardly on its side.
Vertigo twisted Nika’s world as the sgath righted itself and moved in for another attack.
This time, Nika was ready. She focused her will, taking control of the sgath’s body. She forced it to remain still, to wait patiently while Madoc’s blade cut through its side.
Nika felt the sword slice into her. She felt the frantic panic that seized the sgath as it realized death was coming for it.
Madoc lifted his thick arm again and landed a death-blow, severing the sgath’s head.
Nika flung herself from the beast’s mind before it was too late—before she died right along with the sgath. Her body sucked her back in, like she’d been tethered at the end of a bungee cord. The mental whiplash made her head spin, but she was used to that. The tree at her back held her steady while she regained her balance.
By the time her world had stopped spinning, Madoc had finished slaughtering the last sgath and had turned to face her.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, his blunt features tightening into a mask of rage. His green eyes were darker than she remembered, or maybe it was simply the lack of light out here in the cemetery.
Nika’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. She was breathing hard, shaking from her efforts tonight, and nearly unable to stand. Words seemed unimportant.
Instead, she pushed herself up, slid her arms inside Madoc’s open jacket, and snuggled against his body. Instantly, his heat soaked into her, driving away some of the chill in her bones.
Madoc’s body went utterly still. “Don’t touch me.”
Nika pressed her cheek against his chest, reveling in the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear. Against her breasts, his muscles clenched hard. Her nipples tightened, but she was too lost in his warmth to be embarrassed by her body’s reaction to him.
His voice shook, sounding strained, as if it was difficult for him to control his words. “You shouldn’t fucking touch me. It’s not safe.”
Safe or not, she wasn’t pulling away from his delicious heat anytime soon. “I’m cold,” she told him so he’d leave her be to enjoy herself.
But he didn’t. He disengaged her limbs from around his body, stripped off his coat, wrapped it around her, and took a long step back. “Stay away.”
His scent clung to the leather, filling her lungs every time she breathed in. His warmth surrounded her, soaking into her chilled skin. Nika slipped her arms into the sleeves and hugged that warmth close.
The dizziness had faded, and although her body was weak from the physical exertion she’d done tonight, her mind felt strong. Solid. Whole.
Whenever Madoc was near, the sgath left her alone. They didn’t try to drag her away from her body and show her all the horrible, violent things they could do. They knew better than to try to hurt her when he was around. They were smart enough to fear him.
In fact, everyone seemed to fear him, at least in some small way. Except her.
Maybe they all saw that darkness the sgath had seen in him, and she was the only one blind to that dangerous side of him. Maybe when it came to Madoc, Nika was crazy.
She reached for him and he stumbled backward, trying to get away from her.
“I won’t hurt you,” she told him, letting her hand drop.
“No, but I can’t say the same. You need to get in that car you stole and drive your ass back to Dabyr.”
“I can’t leave. Not until I have the bones.”
“The bones of the stranger lying in my sister’s grave.”
A frown gripped his blunt features, forcing his brows low over his eyes. “Tori’s bones?”
“No. Not Tori’s. My sister is alive.”
Madoc let out a heavy, long-suffering sigh. “We’re back to this, are we?”
“We never left this. The fact that no one listens to me does not change the truth.”
“It’s too damn cold out here for you to be playing in the dirt. Go home.”
He wasn’t going to listen. None of them ever listened to her. Crazy Nika, all soft in the head. Poor, delusional girl.
Nika picked up the shovel and started back toward Tori’s grave.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“To dig. I’d appreciate it if you’d stay. I’m bleeding a little, so I’m sure we’ll have more company any moment.”
Madoc grabbed the back of the leather jacket she wore and pulled her to a halt. “Bleeding?”
“Only a little, but enough that they can smell it.”
The way he said it—laced with thinly controlled rage—made Nika hesitate. “Why? It’s not as if you care.”
“Fine. Whatever.” She thrust out her hand, and Madoc actually flinched away before he caught himself. He didn’t touch her. He leaned over her palm to inspect the damage.
“Fuck,” he snarled. “Now we have to get you patched up.”
“Not until I’m finished here.”
“Oh, you’re finished. Those bones can wait.”
“Why? Are you afraid to fight the things my blood will draw?”
His green eyes narrowed. “I’m not afraid of anything, little girl.”
Just to prove he was wrong, she reached for him. Madoc lurched backward, nearly falling on his butt to avoid her.
“Except me, apparently.”
“Don’t touch me,” he snapped.
Nika ignored him and kept walking toward Tori’s grave. “You’re going to have a hard time stopping me if you’re afraid to touch me,” she said over her shoulder.
She heard him mutter a caustic curse before she felt him getting closer.
He stepped into her path, his mouth tight with determination. “We’re doing this my way.”
Nika lifted a brow. “Not unless you make me.”
“You really shouldn’t push me. You won’t like what happens.”
“How do you know?” she asked. “You won’t stick around long enough to have any idea about what I like or don’t.”
“I’m protecting you from yourself.”
Nika rolled her eyes. “My hero.”
“So am I. I’m digging up those bones with or without your help.”
Rather than argue, Madoc simply leaned down until his shoulder was level with her stomach, reached behind her to steady her body, and stood up, flipping her over his back.
Her head swam with the sudden movement, and she had to grab onto his shirt to steady herself. “What are you doing?”