Saturday, October 6, 2018

Viperous Sneak Peek


PROLOGUE

The young man hadn’t smoked a day in his life, and yet a cloud still emitted from his lips as he blew out a breath. It wasn’t his fault. The same effect could be found with every last person brave enough to endure the frigid temperatures plaguing Maine’s coast. Just last week, Mystic Harbor’s weather had been quite agreeable for this time of year. No one could complain about forty-degree forecasts that guaranteed a steady dose of sunshine during the day. Without warning, however, that good fortune vanished overnight just five short days ago, and nothing suggested that it would return anytime soon. Even by Maine’s standards, the temperatures were nothing short of brutal. Last he checked, it was twenty-two below with the wind-chill. Somebody had mentioned back at the repair shop that it was currently warmer in Antarctica!
Brandon didn’t doubt it, not when the simple twenty-foot walk from his car into the bar & grill left him frozen from the inside out, his teeth chattering so hard that it hurt his jaw.
“Jenkins!” A burly arm slung over his shoulder the moment he made it through the door. He didn’t need to look to know who the voice belonged to. Clay was Brandon’s closest friend, dating all the way back to their days in the sandbox. “Where the hell have you been?”
“Just ou-out for a l-last night stroll,” Brandon muttered flatly through his chattering teeth, giving his friend a playful shove away. Where did he think he was? Some of us actually have to work for a living, he thought to himself with a laugh. Clay was one of the few Reapers in town who came from a revered trust fund family, which meant he hadn’t earned a paycheck in his entire life. Most of his days were spent skipping college lectures so he could admire himself in the mirror as he trained. Nevertheless, Brandon had to hand it to the guy. Clay may have been lazy in his day-to-day life, but when out on the hunt, he was the man you wanted watching your six.
 “Nothing that a shot of bourbon can’t cure.” Considering Clay’s mirth, not to mention the slight stagger in his steps, it seemed he had already helped himself to more than just a single shot glass.
That was never a good sign.
Neither of the young men was old enough to imbibe alcohol in public, so if a stickler like Nathan Reynolds didn’t care who he was serving tonight, far greater concerns had to be weighing on his thoughts. Hence the untimely meeting.
“Has the boss said anything to you yet?” Brandon asked over the clamor.
His friend shook his head. “Nah, but the guys all have their theories.”
The pair laughed as they made their way through the crowds, sharing in the details of the group’s craziest hypothesis. Honestly, their gossip could rival that of a sewing circle.
And apparently, Brandon hadn’t been the only one running late. Another member of the pack was still waiting on a jump after his truck stalled out. The battery had already been acting up, so it was safe to say the plummeting temperatures hadn’t helped any. The young man breathed a sigh of relief, grateful the boss wasn’t waiting specifically on him.
Brandon’s only objective now was to warm up.
Thankfully, most of the crowd had gathered around the tables situated at the front of the bar where a basketball game played on several flat screens, leaving a couple stools free at the bar counter. The famed riverfront watering hole, known affectionately as The Office, was a favorite amongst tourists and Mystic Harbor’s blue collar workers. Vintage guitars, vinyl records, and autographed paraphernalia lined the wooden walls, making the area around the counter resemble an old-school record studio. Brandon usually took the time to appreciate his surroundings, but the only thing he could focus on was the ventilation duct resting overhead, warming him instantly as he settled into his seat.
Brandon let his eyes scope out the fellow patrons, immediately recognizing all the members of his Reaper pack were seated around him when a familiar voice snapped his attention back behind the bar counter.
“Any word yet from Marshall?” Nathan Reynolds, the Alpha Regent of Mystic Harbor’s Reaper pack, stepped out of the back office, his typically stern expression pinched even more severely. Everything from his towering, muscled frame to the deep gravel of his voice commanded attention, leaving Brandon and Clay on edge as the man centered his focus on them.
Neither had an answer, at least not one their boss would like.
“What about Marshall?” Another young Reaper from a neighboring pack took his place beside the pair at the stools. Brandon had only briefly met the guy once, but he was pretty sure his name was Holden.
“We’re waiting on him to a get a jump on his truck so we can start the meeting,” Clay clarified, grateful for the interruption.
Holdon’s eyebrows furrowed. “His truck was already in the lot when I pulled up.”
“And when was that?” demanded Reynolds, doing little to hide his aggravation. The words practically came out in a growl.
“At least ten minutes ago.”
The Alpha Regent pulled out his cell, presumably to dial Marshall’s number. A good half minute passed before Reynolds cursed under his breath, clearly not getting a response as he pulled the phone from his ear. “Will one of you please go out there and see what’s taking him so long?”
Stepping away from the bar, and therefore the precious heating duct overhead, sounded about as pleasant as an ice pick to the eye. But Brandon had been the one running late, so he nodded. With great reluctance, he made his way back to the front entrance where that familiar Arctic blast sliced through him again, stealing the breath right from his lungs before he even made it out the door.
Brandon hunkered down in his jacket, leaving only his eyes and forehead exposed to the brutal wind as he scoped the parking lot. Most nights, patrons loitered about the front of the bar, smoking and laughing and sharing in drunken conversation, but unsurprisingly, not one person shared in Brandon’s company this evening. Only a fool would willingly subject themselves to this misery. Even with the heat of his car cranked on HIGH, it did little to fend off the brutal cold seeping its way inside the cabin during Brandon’s drive over.
So why was Marshall just hanging around out here?
Or better yet, how was he hanging around out here?
It didn’t take much searching to spot the truck parked in the back of the side lot, not when all Brandon had to do was follow his ears.
The sounds of “Whipping Post,” one of Marshall’s favorite songs, played over the freezing night air so loud, Brandon could hear the lyrics word for word. Even the instrumental was crisp, not the least bit muffled by the car’s interior.
Brandon approached the vehicle, rounding it to find the driver’s window rolled down.
No, not rolled down.
Bits of glass crunched beneath his boots, but a majority of it lay splattered across the driver’s seat.
The window had been shattered…from the outside.
Brandon reached through the window and pulled the handle to open the locked door. He froze, only managing to draw his hand up enough to look at what had dampened his grip. Smears of red now painted his fingers. The young man lurched back, furiously wiping off the contents onto his jeans as he spun every which way. Still, he couldn’t see anyone, and the music drowned out any other potential noise.
With a gun at the ready, he prepared to reach inside the vehicle to turn off the radio when the overhead lights seemed to flicker out for a second up ahead. Brandon reeled back, only to find the wave of darkness sweeping its way towards him. His eyes must have been playing tricks on him, because the lights never so much as dimmed. Instead, a massive shadow rushed across the gravel lot, too fast to detect any discernible shape as it raced near him.
Brandon felt a sudden gale of air press down on him, as well as a single droplet that struck the top of his head. He would have thought it was rain, if not for the fact that it was too damn cold. The Reaper patted his hair, knowing all too well the texture of the liquid was far too thick to be water. Sure enough, a small smudge of red coated the inside of his hand.
The realization sent Brandon dropping to the ground.
There was something in the sky!
Now practically sprawled across the gravel lot, he could also see the discernible trail of blood staining the pale rock fragments, leading away from the driver’s window. Had something swooped down and snatched Marshall out of his truck?
Brandon contemplated pulling out his cell, ready to demand backup, when the windshield smashed as something—or rather someone—struck it.
Any rational thought evaded the young man. Mangled arms and a fleshless face peered out at him through the opened driver’s door as the lower half of the body remained splayed across the hood of the truck. The sight sent Brandon back to his feet, charging for the front of the bar.
A sudden whoosh! was his only warning before something snatched hold of his shoulders. The boy grappled uselessly at the grip on him, kicking out at the open air now beneath his feet. A primal fear in him anticipated that he would be hoisted high into the sky. Instead, gravel scraped along the tips of his toes as he helplessly tried regaining his footing, still soaring across the lot.
Brandon didn’t bother trying to land an aim. He flung his arm back, firing blindly up at whatever it was that had a hold on him.


It took five seconds for the entire bar to come to a standstill. Even with the jukebox and television playing in the background, there was no missing the sharp blasts sounding off just outside. A single gunshot could easily be mistaken for a car backfiring. But six?
Pulse pounding, Clay scoured the bar, determined to find his best friend back inside. But he wasn’t. The realization had him on his feet in an instant, knife in hand, ready to charge outside. Behind him, he could hear Nathan Reynolds barking orders as Holden took the lead and began ushering the customers towards the back hallway. Some patrons couldn’t move fast enough while others, taken by fear, couldn’t get their own feet to work, stumbling over one another as everyone pushed and shoved.
Clay crept over to the front windows, prepared to steal a peek out into the parking lot. He got as far as poking his head around the corner when glass exploded. The young Reaper shielded his face, falling back onto his ass the moment a mound of leather and jeans smashed through the window. He watched in horror as his best friend slammed into one of the tables, the force so great Brandon’s body damn near did an involuntary somersault before he landed in an unmoving heap on the bar’s floor. Clay didn’t bother checking if the coast was clear. He scrambled over to his friend’s side and hooked his hands beneath Brandon’s underarms, dragging him across the floor until finding shelter behind the bar counter.
The bloodied man tried to speak, but an indistinguishable rasp was all he could muster. Clay could see several large shards of glass protruding from Brandon’s body, but he didn’t dare touch them. Seeing as how Reapers were descendants of angels, they healed at an extremely accelerated rate, which should have played out in Brandon’s favor. Unfortunately, two of those shards were situated right around arteries, making it ill-advised to even touch them.
Oddly enough, that seemed to be the least of Brandon’s concerns as he continued thumping his clenched fists against his legs. Realization dawned. Considering the impact he suffered going through the window, Clay could only assume Brandon’s spinal cord had been damaged, because despite writhing in agony, neither leg so much as flinched.
“You’re gonna be okay. Just hang in there.” Clay grabbed under Brandon’s arms again, desperate to drag him to the back hallway. He wanted to haul him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, but had no idea if Brandon’s body could handle the stress. One wrong maneuver, and Clay risked those glass shards either digging deeper or shifting into a more compromising position. There was no way he’d jeopardize an artery being severed, effectively letting Brandon bleed out in seconds.
Orders rang out, and Clay heard the boss bark his name, but gunfire drowned out the command. He dared to steal a look over the counter, just in time to see another body come hurtling his way. The Reaper dropped back down, hearing one of his comrades slam into the front of the bar so hard that the mahogany splintered. Whoever was attacking had clearly made their way inside the restaurant, but how? There had to be at least fifteen pack members in here, three of whom joined Clay behind this section of the counter.
Unbeknownst to your average patron, there was more than liquor stored behind the bar. The men raided the hatches, pulling out everything from rifles to daggers to swords. The ammunition didn’t seem to do them any good, because they unloaded full rounds aimed at the entrance, only to curse under their breath in horror.
Hellhounds always made their presence known, their snarls and vicious barks a dead giveaway. But Clay didn’t hear anything of the sort. Plus, knives weren’t really their thing. Hellhounds relished at the chance to use their teeth, tearing through their victims as easily as a Great White. And as far as he could discern, the only gunfire seemed to be coming from the men around him. So what the hell could they be facing that they couldn’t have already taken down?
Mages? Clay had seen firsthand the power those dark sorcerers could wield, but he’d also felt the effects of their magic. When it was in use, an inexplicable charge filled the air, like the static you might feel during a severe storm, only more concentrated. But again, the young Reaper didn’t sense that either.
Dragging Brandon to the end of the counter, Clay cursed at the remaining distance. There was still a ten-foot gap separating the pair from the mouth of the back hallway, the entire stretch left in full exposure. Clay’s pistol was in the car, and the only thing he had on him was a single bowie knife. Without the protection of the bar counter to shield them, Clay and Brandon would be prime targets. Worse yet, fewer and fewer shots were being fired, which meant only two things: either his fellow pack members were running out of ammunition, or they’d already been taken out.
Clay peered around the bend, hoping to at least get a decent look at his attackers. He swallowed hard at the thought. Who would he be fighting? And how many?
The sight sent him cowering back, his face a canvas of incredulity.
That wasn’t possible.
He leaned forward again and stole another look.
Still, his eyes did not deceive him.
It was but one man.
A large deep-set hood and a mess of dark hair obscured the stranger’s face, but the physique was unmistakably male. He struck down another Reaper in one swift blur, his movements a lethal tango composed of grace and deadly blows. Clay had never witnessed anything like it. The assailant dodged and glissaded from every attempted counterattack, executing a backflip with the elegance of an acrobat and then striking with the ferocity of a viper.
The instrument in his hands was unlike anything Clay had ever seen before. A long metal blade fashioned into what looked like a massive spearhead rested at the end of an ornate shaft. Symbols were engraved across the entire length of it, but it was impossible to read them, as the weapon only stopped slicing through the air upon landing in its intended target. Blow after blow, the spear whirled with expert precision, as if it were an extension of his own hand.
With lightning speed, the stranger drove up the spear to eyelevel, just in time for a bullet to collide with the unnatural metal. It didn’t matter how many rounds were sent his way. The man ducked and parried and deflected each shot, bullets raining down harmlessly at his feet.
What matter of man was he?
Clay wished to see his face, but alas, it was still concealed by the shadow of the hood. And even that detail screamed amiss. The assailant’s clothes appeared handcrafted, his leather trench coat so worn you’d think it had been stonewashed in a cement mixer. His style was…medieval, down to his archaic trousers and intricately laced boots. Despite the oddity, the attacker appeared by all accounts to be human. That is—until you took inventory of his hands. They gleamed midnight black, like freshly polished obsidian, the tips of his fingers curling into grisly claws!
Another Reaper sprang forward, slashing a sizeable blade at the man—if you could call him that. The attacker dropped to the floor, averting the strike. It took him not a second before he rolled onto his back and kicked his legs up towards his head, jack-knifing effortlessly back to his feet. The Reaper hurtled towards him with his sword in hand, and the stranger parried each attempted assault. They almost seemed to enter into a ballet of sorts, their every move composed and tactical with rhythmic steps and hits.
The dance ended abruptly, however, as the hooded man caught hold of the Reaper’s arm. Hyperextending the appendage, the stranger slammed his hand down above the elbow. The arm snapped at the most unnatural angle, broken bone piercing through the skin. Without pause, the stranger whirled. In one fluid motion, that ancient spear plunged into the Reaper’s gut. The hooded man wrenched the weapon upward, carving the Reaper from his navel up to his ribs.
Clay barely caught sight of the movement fifteen feet to his right. With silent, feline precision, Holden emerged from the back hallway, gun readied and aimed. The deafening blast was music to Clay’s ears as the bullet landed flawlessly in the back of the attacker’s skull. The man’s head jolted from the impact, bringing him to a standstill. The pair waited for the sweet moment when he’d collapse to the ground, only…he didn’t.
The stranger merely rolled his shoulders, craning his head from side to side, as if the bullet wound was nothing more than a stiff neck. The entire room had gone silent, awakening another wave of terror inside Clay. Where was Reynolds? Had his boss not survived? Clay ducked back down behind the counter as the stranger at last turned to address the offender.
Slow, steady footsteps came closer and closer as Holden’s face paled. The young Reaper relinquished round after round, but that booted gait continued onward without hesitation. Armed with nothing but a dagger, Clay recoiled from the end of the counter. The bar wrapped around the room in the shape of an L, allowing him to duck around the other side. Only, he wouldn’t have enough time to drag Brandon with him out of view.
But maybe he wouldn’t have to.
The other Reapers may have cleared out the stash of weapons stored behind the bar, but there was still a full arsenal at Clay’s disposal. Slinking over to the other bend, Clay surveyed the specialty liquor Reynolds kept out of sight beneath the counter (for good reason). Bingo! The lovely little green bottle of absinthe was exactly what the doctor ordered.
A lone scream filled the room, followed by a sickly snap! To Clay’s horror, he welcomed the sound. It was the only thing granting him the chance to tear off a small section of his shirt without giving away his location. Dousing the rag in alcohol, he forged a cloth wick out of it and prepared to light it. Sure, his homemade Molotov Cocktail wouldn’t be as strong as one made with, say, kerosene, but it would still get the job done. Clay didn’t need it to explode. All he needed was for the fire to distract the attacker long enough so that he could haul Brandon and himself outside. Hell, his car was parked literally right outside the front entrance. Give him one minute, and he could not only carry Brandon out there, but also load him up into his car. No way was he leaving here without him.
Any relief Clay found in that scream died as red splattered the wall beside him, followed by a mess of brown hair that quite literally rolled into view, along with spare pieces of…vertebrae.
It—
It was Holden’s head!
Clay fumbled for the lighter in his back pocket, striking…striking…striking…
The damn thing wouldn’t light! His hands were shaking too badly, his thumb clumsily slipping off the ignition wheel.
What was wrong with him? Clay had gone out on a hundred missions, minimum. He’d seen colleagues hurt, and even a couple who died. How is this any different? he asked himself.
Because this attack had been on his home turf…
Because for once in his life, he hadn’t been prepared for something like this…
Because he had never seen someone decapitated before!
All sounded like reasonable justifications.
Willing his fingers to steady, Clay flicked the lighter once more. The fourth time appeared to be the charm, because a small flame ignited inside his shaking hand. He didn’t need to look over the counter to know the assailant was heading his way. The footsteps strolling over were indication enough. Clay held the flame to the doused rag, watching as the fabric ignited. He pounced up from behind the bar, arm already drawn back. The instant the hooded assailant was in sight, Clay hurled the bottle.
As predicted, the liquor didn’t make the so-called cocktail nearly as explosive, but it served its purpose no less. The bottle struck the stranger, the glass combusting on impact. The contents splattered all over that peculiar trench coat, kindling the flames from the burning rag to ignite the splashed absinthe. Sure enough, the fucker lit up like a Roman candle!
Clay rounded the other side of the counter, trying to ignore the carnage splayed about the floor and back wall. It didn’t work. One look down at Brandon’s bloody frame, and Clay’s eyes instinctively drew to the carnage, at Holden’s headless corpse lying in a heap not four feet behind his friend. Swallowing down the vomit now burning his esophagus, Clay grabbed Brandon by the feet and began dragging him back towards the front of the bar, careful not to touch the shards of glass protruding from him. When he got to the end of the counter, however, he didn’t have much of a choice.
Clay couldn’t drag Brandon through the bloodbath and bodies and severed limbs now loitering the ground. He bent down and prepared to haul his friend over his shoulders when out of the corner of Clay’s eyes he saw the flames growing taller over the edge of the bar counter. Fire consumed the leather trench coat. Only—
There was nobody inside of it.
The jacket lay tossed on the counter, unoccupied.
His brain barely had the chance to process the image when cold, unforgiving metal seized Clay’s throat. The young Reaper was pried up, up, up until his six-foot-one frame dangled clear off the ground.
Those claws hadn’t been claws at all.
As the grip on Clay’s throat tightened, he could hear the clinking of metal scales as the medieval gauntlet adorning the stranger’s hand flexed its repurposed fingers, the tips fashioned into massive, armored talons.
If Clay could have screamed, he would have. The face that loomed in front of him was not from Hell.
But somewhere much worse.
They said the Angel of Death was the most horrifying thing a human could bear witness to before he died.
They were wrong.
For the face of the handsome, murderous angel was a mercy to the creature who stood before him.








CHAPTER 1
Please Don’t Go

The air ripped right out of my lungs as my body slammed into the ground. Night after night, it was always the same. He lunged on top of me as my ravaged limbs attempted to fight back, but he was too strong.  And his features…
They were all wrong. The kindness I’d grown accustomed to finding in Reese’s amber eyes had long vanished, and his soft lips now only pulled into a vicious sneer. “Poetic, isn’t it? The bastard and the bitch die together, yet again.” And just like the night before, the lethal steel of my father’s angelic Sanctus blade appeared in his hand. “Sanguis quia sanguis.”
I choked on a volley of sobs, not just at the sight of that hideous sword, but at the mangled remains lying off in the distance, at the black hair and lifeless blue eyes I would never see again.
“I love you! Please, Reese, don’t do this!” I cried.
His voice became unnaturally calm, almost sensuous as he peered down at me. “Awww, I love you, too.” The harsh line of his lips pulled into the cruelest sort of smile, revealing every bloodstained tooth. My mate’s blood. Reese took his time, reveling in the conquest as he plunged the blade into my awaiting heart. “I just happen to hate you a whole lot more.”

My entire body heaved as I vomited into the toilet. Every night I shared in the exact same dream, and every night I awoke, bolting from my bed for the bathroom. Blind panic left me breathless, and tears clouded my vision, only adding to the disorientation. I wanted to scream, so certain that the ache lingering in my chest would send blood pouring from my pierced heart. It was only after I emptied the contents of my stomach that I could finally see through the tears well enough to know that it was nothing more than the remnants of the dream.
Once more, I collapsed against the side of the bathtub, unable to control the tremor quivering through me. The room was already brisk, and the cold porcelain tiles beneath me didn’t help any. My fingers intuitively gripped my left forearm as pale blue light emitted lowly from the black metallic runes tattooed to my skin. The energy remained restless, as it had for the past six days. Even now, a part of me kept expecting to hear Blaine’s voice in my head. But the bond between us had gone silent since that night.
In the desolation of the early morning darkness, his absence was palpable. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent this many nights in a house alone. In the past, I always had my parents or more recently my aunt. Now, with only the low rumble of thunder outside keeping me company, I felt more alone than ever.
And if I didn’t know any better, I would have thought I was falling ill. Supernatural beings healed incredibly fast, but like any living creature, you still required sleep to fully regenerate. It felt like a jackhammer had taken up residency in my skull. My head pounded so fiercely as I retched, I thought my brain might explode. When Val checked in on me yesterday morning, only to find me with my arms hugging the toilet yet again, he asked if I might be “expecting.”
The only answer he received was the toilet paper roll I chucked at his face.
After six days and a combined total of ten hours of sleep, I would have traded in my nightmares for just about anything short of that, anything to erase the hell hidden behind my eyelids and the internal vice gripping my skull. Sleep deprivation was a funny thing, in the fact that it wasn’t funny at all. I had already been running on fumes before that fateful night with my father. Add six more days of that unrest, I was a train wreck, desperate to fall asleep and yet equally terrified to. Even with the constant intake of coffee throughout the day, I still dozed off on occasion. And anytime I did, I’d startle awake at random sounds—sirens blaring, someone yelling, gunfire—only to realize that I had hallucinated them all. 
Yep, I was officially going crazy.
Hours came and went as I sat restlessly on the floor, and by five o’clock, I surrendered to the misery of a new day. Turning on the shower, I climbed in, letting the hot water cascade down my face. The sensation left goose bumps invading every inch of my skin, so relieved to finally feel some much needed heat. It was below freezing outside, and that same chill seemed to have settled into my bones. I could still hear the unnatural, cruel amusement of Reese’s laugh echoing in the back of my mind, and the thought made the once black metallic ink on my arm blind me as a pale, bright blue light exploded into my vision. A rune had full-on ignited, vibrating my arm so hard that it ached. Not surprising, since the magical symbols tattooed to my skin were triggered by emotions.
But it wasn’t just any rune.
It was Wrath.
Now, that I could work with.


***

My fist continued pummeling into the man’s face, his mouth fixed into a permanent scowl. The skin on my knuckles was already chafed from my previous beatings, but I didn’t care.
“You might want to take it easy,” suggested the familiar voice behind me.
I ignored the Mage, still unable to rid myself of the waking nightmare.
“Seriously, take a breather.”
Too late. Three separate runes on my arm flared to life just as my fist slammed into Bob’s nose. His armless torso jostled backward, caving into the momentum before he toppled onto the floor. I barked out a curse, prying the protective boxing wraps from my hands.
Val just clicked his tongue, sauntering across the training room over to the pair of us. “Can’t say I didn’t warn you.”
I flexed my fingers, immediately regretting it. The effort only further stretched the torn flesh running across the length of my knuckles. “I need to train.”
“No, you need to heal, first and foremost. Then you might want to try conditioning. Things like this require baby steps.”
“I don’t have time for ‘baby steps.’”
“And what do you think you’re accomplishing by beating your fist into a pulp?”
I scowled at him, but the towering male moseyed past me to my fallen adversary. He hauled up “Bob,” a.k.a. the Body Opponent Bag, and propped the training mannequin back onto its stand.
When I didn’t answer, he just shook his head. “Give it a rest, at least for today. Raelynd will be coming to pay us a visit after we get back from the hospital, and I’d really rather avoid having to explain myself to the Boss why the Princess-to-be is beaten and bloodied.”
I dropped the boxing wraps in my hand. “We?”
Val’s lopsided grin pulled into an outright smirk. “Oh, did I not mention it? Our boy’s coming home today.”

***

The revelation proved sufficient enough to get me to follow the ruffian upstairs. We exited the underground training facility and made our way back up to the ground floor of the Victorian mansion, heading into the massive kitchen. I slid onto a bar stool parked at the center of the island and rested my throbbing head on the countertop as Val prepared breakfast. It wasn’t anything fancy. Just a simple serving of eggs and toast.
 Supernaturals healed so quickly, because our bodies worked harder than your average human, which meant we required far more sustenance—far more often. Having expelled all contents from my stomach earlier, I should have been starving. But as the Dark Mage slid a healthily piled plate my way, the mere scent of it had my stomach twisting with such unbearable nausea that I had to cover my hands over my mouth and nose.
Val rounded the island, coming to rest the back of his hand against my forehead. He sighed. “You don’t have a fever. And if you were sick, it would’ve only lasted a day at the most.” He proceeded to grab my hand, noting what I already knew. “If anything, you feel cool.”
I merely groaned.
Of all things, Val smiled. “You sure you don’t want me to pick you up a test?”
“A test?”
He shot me a knowing look, and I rolled my eyes, despite the ache it sent into my skull.
“I’m not pregnant.”
That ridiculous grin didn’t lessen any. “You sure? I mean, come on. Nausea, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, aversion to food—”
I glowered back at him. “I haven’t been with your brother, if that’s what you’re insinuating.”
That little admission seemed to do the trick, because Val’s smile instantly vanished. I could have let him stew in his new train of thought, but it would have required energy to be that cruel—energy I did not currently have.
“I haven’t been with Reese either,” I grumbled. “Or anybody else for that matter.” I really, really didn’t feel like having this conversation with him, but the affirmation was the only thing that helped lessen his unease. Unfortunately, the implication had left me bothered. It wasn’t the first time the subject had popped up the past few weeks. “Why would that matter anyway?”
He just shrugged.
“Don’t give me that,” I mocked, imitating his gesture with a fair deal of exaggeration.
Val chuckled. “What? You don’t want your own little bundle of joy?” I grimaced, and his smile once again faded. “Really?”
“Really.”
“Dare I ask?”
“No.” I rested my head back on the countertop, mindlessly pushing the food around my plate. I really wasn’t in the mood for sharing, and after what Blaine had told me about his brother’s past, I didn’t want to risk offending Val.
“Ahem.”
I snapped out of my mental fog long enough to see Val gesture to my left.
“Your phone’s ringing.” Curiosity seemed to get the better of him, because he leaned over the counter to observe the screen as my cell vibrated. Val instantly brightened, plucking up the device. “Hello, my blonde beauty,” he answered.
No doubt Carly. Only my best friend could warrant such a reaction from him.
“Hey!” I mouthed in mock offense, curling a lock of my own pale blonde hair around my finger.
“She means nothing to me,” he mouthed right back, sharing in my silent laughter as he winked. What a goof.
Some snippy words greeted him on the other end of the line, but it didn’t seem to deter the ruffian, considering his smile only broadened.
“Always lovely speaking with you too,” Val chimed back, oh-so sweetly before handing me the phone.
“Hey, Car,” I answered, hearing an exhaustible sigh from the other end of the call.
“Did you look in the trash?”
“Excuse me?”
 My best friend groaned. “Not you. Mark.”
“Why would he have put it in the trash?” I heard my other friend bark in the background.
The two began bickering, forcing me to pull the phone away from my ear as their voices only continued to grow louder. Between the arguing and the thick wave of static overwhelming the call, it was next to impossible to understand Carly or Mark amid their ranting.
“Everything okay?” Val mouthed.
I could only shrug.
A minute passed before I finally got the opportunity to interject. “What the hell’s going on?”
Everything suddenly fell silent.
“Carly?”
“We can’t find it.”
Well…
Shit.


***

This couldn’t be happening.
Due to the protective wards covering the remote, forested property, Haven Crest Manor was the only safe place I could stay around here, considering almost every Reaper on the eastern seaboard wanted me dead. Apparently, you couldn’t even see the estate unless you were of the demonic variety, and it was impossible to enter without an express invitation from either Blaine or me. Val had run reconnaissance in and around the hospital, finding more than its fair share of Reapers lurking about. He didn’t want to risk someone trying to snatch me up, so I’d been banned from visiting Blaine, even after he’d woken up from his medically induced coma.
And since I had been confined to the inside of the manor, it had been up to Reese, Mark, and Carly to recover the Bloodstone amulet Doctor Madsen received shortly before he was killed—an effort that was evidently failing. Apart from the Sanctus blade, it was the only thing we knew of that could remove a hex from someone. After my bastard of a father had his deranged henchman brand the Blood Binding sigil to Reese’s neck, it was only a matter of time before its perverted magic would begin slowly warping his mind. No one knew how long Reese had before the hex would enact, and the more time that passed, the harder it would be to use it on him.
The amulet worked with blood magic, and the power from such a stone could rip out the blight from any hex. The only problem: hexes grew stronger the longer they were imprinted on someone, making the magic root itself deeper inside the host. And the deeper it became, the deadlier it was to remove. If enough time passed, it could very well kill Reese just attempting to use it. But if my visions were anything to go by, the hex would eventually brainwash him into killing both me and Blaine.
And now we couldn’t find the damn thing.
With only the relentless ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway to keep me company, I paced the downstairs again and again and again until I could swear I was wearing a hole through the floor. Val had left over an hour ago, and I still hadn’t heard back from Mark or Carly yet, but that was hardly surprising as of late.
“Come on. Answer!” By the twentieth ring, I finally chucked my phone aside.
It hadn’t escaped anyone’s attention that cell service had become considerably worse since that fateful night on the field, and right now was no exception. Most of the time, no one’s phones even rang when you called them, and it never went to voicemail. The damn thing would just keep ringing and ringing. And even if you were lucky enough that the person answered, static usually drowned out the call. I was still surprised Carly had even gotten through this morning.
Resigning myself to the confines of the living room, I crashed onto the sofa, groaning as the ache in my head worsened with every movement. I’d barely eaten more than a couple spoonfuls of egg earlier, and I still couldn’t shake the wooziness wreaking havoc with my balance. I needed to get something in me, but the very thought of food only made me more nauseous.
Where the hell could the amulet be? Had my father’s henchman found it when he was sent to kill Doctor Madsen? Had he taken it? What if—
This couldn’t be happening…
Another thirty minutes passed, and the walls were damn near suffocating.
I knew Val wouldn’t have been too fond of me borrowing the Mercedes in the garage, since it was actually on loan from Raelynd, but it wasn’t like I had much of a choice.
The luxury vehicle barely squeezed through Haven Crest’s front entrance as I floored it down the lengthy driveway, not bothering to wait for the gates to draw completely open. I wanted to kick myself for not letting the car at least warm up first, considering the plummeting temperatures, but it thankfully only took a few minutes for the cozy shingle-style beach house to come into view as I headed down the remote coastline street. Better yet, a familiar rust-bucket pickup truck was parked in the upcoming driveway alongside Mark’s Camaro. At least I wouldn’t be stuck waiting in the cold for everyone to drive back here.
Carly’s parents owned the two-story abode, but they rarely checked in on the property this time of year, making it idyllic for us to have a little privacy. Even before I reached the front porch, Carly yanked open the door, looking as grim as I felt.
The girl prided herself on always looking her absolute best, so her outfit spoke volumes. Gone were the playful tops and miniskirts. In their place, an old pair of yoga pants and a lumpy sweater that swallowed up her elegant frame. Even her sleek butterscotch hair was pulled into a lumpy, haphazard ponytail.
Arms ensnared around my neck, and despite how slender she was, the girl pulled me into a bone-crushing hug. She murmured something into my hair that I could only suspect was, “How’re you holding up?”
As always, I slapped on a pathetic attempt of a smile and assured her I was fine before she shut the door behind us and escorted me into the family room at the back of the house.
Our other friend, Mark McDowell, lounged on the sofa in the far corner, dressed in his typical preppy getup that even included his Belleview High varsity jacket. “You here to watch Car pace some more?” he drawled flatly, not bothering to look up at me as he continued flipping through the channels on the TV.
The blonde beside me ignored him, settling on the armrest of the nearest sofa. Carly’s restlessness didn’t keep her there long. In under a minute, she began pacing the length of the room again, only making Mark groan as he kept trying to peer around her to see the flat screen. Car had a tendency to be a bit neurotic, but I’d never seen her quite like this before.
“Did something happen?” I asked, taking a seat on the nearest couch.
“You mean apart from Reese being branded with an evil hex that’s doomed to brainwash him into becoming a psychotic murderer? No.” She furiously brushed the blonde bangs from her face. “What if someone else took the amulet? What if the police confiscated it from Madsen’s office? What if he had it on him? What—”
“For the love of God.” Mark rolled his eyes, thumping the remote against his head. “You hear less questions asked on Jeopardy.”
Carly yanked the device from his hand and muted what appeared to be a Spanish soap opera. “This is serious! What other choice do we have? We need to find this thing, soon!”
At least I could take comfort knowing I wasn’t the only one freaking out over this. Carly looked about ten seconds away from pulling out her hair, and I was right alongside her. 
“What else do you expect us to do? We already checked Madsen’s apartment, and there’s no way we’re getting into his office at the college. The place is still swarming with cops,” said Mark, snatching the remote back. “And even if it wasn’t, it would be closed for Winter Break.”
I only sank deeper into the sofa at the mention, though it hardly came as a surprise, seeing as how Whitmore University was now an active crime scene after Madsen was murdered there.
Vibrations danced up my arm at the very thought as several runes threatened to ignite.
All of this was his fault. The Angel of Death. My father.
Samael wanted me dead, and in his quest to do so, he chose to hurt everyone I cared about. His crazy Irish henchman had been following my father’s orders when he killed Dr. Madsen, and then again when he branded that fucked up hex on Reese’s neck. Tears only further burned the back of my eyes as I tried to shake away the image of my father giving Mr. Reynolds the order to execute Blaine. I took as deep of a breath as I could muster, trying to wrangle in my building fury. “Should I even ask how you guys got inside Madsen’s apartment?”
“We told the landlord that Carly was his niece and that she needed some materials for the funeral. You should’ve heard her attempt his accent.” Mark actually laughed. “She sounded a little less Danish and a whole lot more like Dracula.”
She shot him a dirty glare, and I knew it was only a matter of seconds before another squabble broke out between the two, forcing me to interject. “More than likely, the amulet is in Madsen’s office with the rest of his research materials. As soon as Blaine feels up to it, I can get him to take me up to the college.”
That seemed to do the trick, because Carly finally stopped pacing, freezing mid-step. “What are you talking about?”
“If the police are there, he can just use his powers of persuasion on them to get us inside,” I clarified. Despite inheriting Blaine’s abilities, I still hadn’t learned how to harness that particular gift yet.
I would have asked Val to accompany me, but he’d ask too many questions. Besides, he had been far too preoccupied lately. Today was the first time this week that he’d hung around the manor for more than fifteen minutes, and I suspected it was only because he had been waiting for the confirmation to pick up his brother from the hospital.
My comment didn’t seem to help curb Carly’s concern, or Mark’s for that matter. They just stared at me, both wearing an expression that said I was a few clowns short of a circus.
“You can’t tell him,” they both declared in unison.
If anything, Carly looked like she wanted to slap some sense into me. “The only thing keeping you from being with Reese is the hex placed on him, and that’s all Blaine needs. So long as Reese is a threat to your life, you can’t be with him. And the mating hex that bleached blonde bastard put on you is just the icing on the cake. Blaine’s not going to risk losing that advantage. All this is for him is a waiting game,” she sneered, glaring down at the intricately woven ink wrapped around the base of my left ring finger. The mating bond. “Eventually, that hex will go into complete effect. The moment you’re fully brainwashed, he’ll be having you, any way he damn well pleases.”
The dark energy stirring beneath my skin roared, clearly not appreciating the accusation. Flexing my fingers, I took a deep breath, summoning it to calm down. The moment I’m fully brainwashed.
Fully.
Yeah, the word choice wasn’t lost on me. Neither was everyone’s demeanor anytime I was around.
After everything that happened back in October, being labeled as Mystic Harbor’s pariah, I was no stranger to awkward silences, but over the past six days I’d become a master. Whispers always circulated when I was near, and anytime I entered a room, everything came to a deafening standstill. Carly, Mark, and Reese all had their own opinions, but nobody would dare air them around me.
They didn’t need to. I knew what they were thinking.
What a fool.
What a poor, gullible, pathetic, brainwashed fool.
Kat had the golden opportunity to be free, and she blew it.
She had a chance to let Blaine face justice for everything he had done, and she got in the way.
He was literally bleeding to death, and this incontestable idiot saved him.
I could see every last testament written on their faces. And even if I couldn’t, it would have been impossible to ignore each distinguished scent wafting in the air. Another gift from Blaine. With the ability of clairsentience, I could sense and even smell people’s emotions. And apparently, Blaine’s sacrifice still hadn’t won him any favors with present company. If anything, they seemed to blame him even more.
“If that bastard learns about the amulet, he’ll make sure to get his hands on it before any of us do, and destroy it.” Carly did very little to hide her disgust. She’d already hated Blaine before, but since she found out what the hex would do to Reese, that sentiment had swiftly shifted into downright loathing. Just having to say his name made her visibly ill. “When’s he getting released from the hospital anyway?”
“Val’s picking up Blaine right now,” I murmured, rubbing my throbbing temples.
My friends collectively blanched.
“What?” I asked.
“Why didn’t you say something sooner?”
“Because…I just found out this morning.”
“Where are you going to stay?” Carly further insisted.
Where was I what?
“Inside, preferably.” I laughed, hoping to ease some of the tension. It didn’t work.
“You’re seriously considering living with him?” Mark visibly shuddered.
“Babe, I know you’re…going through a lot.” Carly’s teeth gritted, but her tone was slow and unnaturally sweet, like a frustrated parent trying to talk to a young child. “But do you really think that’s a good idea?”
“I’ve already spent the past week at his place,” I pointed out. Why would this be an issue now?
“No offense, but eight days ago we were all in this very room plotting how to kill Blaine,” Mark interjected.
I chilled at the very thought.
How could I forget?
Though Doctor Madsen had acquired the Bloodstone amulet, the only truly safe option for removing the mating hex placed on me was with a highly rare Sanctus blade. There were only seven in the world, one of which we suspected to be in Blaine’s possession. It had been our plan that I would find a way to seduce him into giving it to me. Then I’d use it to sever the bond…and then use the blade on him.
“You spent a whole day and a half with the guy. Next time we see you, you’re fighting alongside him,” Marked continued on. “You can’t tell me that sounds right to you. Not to mention, Car told me about what happened at the hospital.”
My best friend couldn’t even bring herself to look at me. Instead, Carly’s eyes were wide, jaw tight, as she cast Mark her own fiery look. A silent, “Shut up!”
But he just rolled his eyes. “What? You said it yourself, the way Kat was acting after she woke up was beyond weird. It was fucked up.”
I bristled at the mention.
After Mr. Reynolds had slit Blaine’s throat, I tried desperately to save my mate the only way I could: by transferring my energy to him. By Val’s account, I damn-neared drained myself to the brink of death before I’d blacked out. Next thing I knew, I’d woken up in the hospital, with Reese and Carly watching over me. But no Blaine. So certain that I’d failed to save him, I remembered collapsing on the floor and weeping until I couldn’t breathe.
“Whatever hold Blaine’s hex has on you, it’s only going to get worse. And Reese…” Mark’s thoughts seemed to have strayed down the same path we’d been contemplating last week. “We have no way of knowing how long the guy’s got before his own hex takes over. Without the amulet, we don’t have another choice. We need the Sanctus blade.”
My gaze continued drifting back to the front of the house, still seeing the rusted frontend of the pickup truck parked in the driveway. Considering the atmosphere in the room, the sight and its assurance was the only thing keeping me here. “How is Reese?”
I had tried calling him repeatedly, but with cell service being so bad these past six days, we’d only gotten to talk once. To make matters worse, I hadn’t seen Reese in person since our meeting with the Sagax. The moment I told everyone what I saw in my premonition, Val yanked me away from Reese so hard that he nearly tore off my arm. Apparently, when you have visions depicting how your almost-boyfriend is going to kill you and your mate in cold blood, it tended to leave some people on edge. Go figure.
“He’s doing about as well as expected,” Car grumbled. “He really misses you.”
Mark nodded. “Seriously, the dude’s the human equivalent of Eeyore.”
I couldn’t ignore the ache in my arm as a rune gently—but steadily—vibrated. I expected to see the one for Sorrow ignited, only to find my…Omen rune alit.
What the hell?
Every last symbol tattooed to my arm and hand always lit up with a bright blue light, with the exception of the Omen rune. That particular one ignited a fiery red anytime I was in danger. Yet, looking at it now, it was suddenly illuminated in pale blue. Sure, the runes triggered by specific emotions generally did this when I was feeling a certain way, but Omen didn’t work like that. Either I was in danger or I wasn’t.
I could hear the questioning tone in Car’s voice, but I couldn’t digest the words as my gaze was once again transfixed to my arm. “Huh?”
“You okay?”
“Oh…yeah,” I said on default. But…
Was I?
The moment the conversation diverted from Reese, the Omen rune petered out back to its natural black ink. My fingers kept brushing over the skin, but as the minutes ticked by, the symbol didn’t light up again, not even quivering with a hint of a vibration.
The oddity really seemed to have taken me aback, because when I tuned into the conversation again, Carly was talking about her plans for Christmas. I did a mental tally, only now just realizing that the holiday was a little more than a week away.
Considering Mystic Harbor’s social scene this time of year, Carly was freaking out. Rightly so. At least one soirĂ©e, fundraiser, or gala was held each night during Winter Break, and most days were spent in preparation for said events. We all needed to continue searching for the amulet, but if her experience was going to be anything like mine had been in the past, she’d be lucky to get even ten minutes of free time.
“We’ve gotta get that blade.” Carly continued pacing. “In the meantime, you can stay here, if you want. Or you can stay at my parent’s place in town. With how busy they are, they probably wouldn’t even notice you were there.”
What could I say to that?
Thanks, but no thanks. I’m fine living with the resident sociopath’?
That was clearly how they saw Blaine, and defending him proved pointless. If anything, it only dug me a deeper hole.
Slow, monotonous footsteps ambled through the kitchen, setting my spine stiff as I whirled.
The dual-swinging door pushed open, and the sight nearly sent me cowering backward.
Reese was still adorned in his distinctive Victorian-era inspired clothing, waistcoat included, but it was the only thing remotely familiar about him. His skin was ashen, making the bruising beneath his eyes even more noticeable. Even his lips seemed pale. And his typically sleek, razor-cut coffee brown hair was wildly disheveled. Worse yet, his pristine clothes were riddled with deep-set wrinkles. The guy didn’t just look sleep deprived. He looked hung-over, fucked up, and like he’d just been hit by a bus. Reese was now a ghost of the sarcastic, affectionate boy I’d fallen for…until his eyes met mine.
The light in that amber gaze instantly brightened as the exhaustion seemed to peter out enough to soften his features.
There he was.
Despite his unkempt state, all it took was one simple expression to blot out any defect.
“Hey, Princess.” Reese’s smile was as sweet as ever — adoring, dimpled, and as inviting as the day we’d met.
There was no way this boy, so beautiful and loving, could ever hurt me… He just couldn’t. Not when he was staring at me like I was a waterfall in the desert, his salvation and dream incarnate.
Val had made himself expressly clear that he wanted me nowhere near Reese, a request that I’d begrudgingly kept up until today. The dark energy beneath my skin roiled at the mere sight of him—a silent warning—but my Omen rune remained off. As of now, Reese posed no threat. And seeing him in that minute, inhaling the sweet aroma of honey and musk as his arms wrapped around me, I felt sick for not having faced him sooner, for not having savored every embrace…while we still could.
A shiver clawed up my spine at the very thought.
How long did we really have?
Mark headed into the kitchen, returning a moment later to hand each of us a soda before cracking open a can of beer for himself. “There’s no way Blaine’s gonna hand over the one thing that’ll let Kat be with Reese. If the guy’s got that blade you’re looking for, there’s no way in hell he’s going to risk losing the upper hand here.”
“I don’t think it’s going to take much convincing,” I said, taking a seat beside Reese on the nearest couch. “That risk seems like a pretty reasonable alternative to being brutally murdered.”
Mark snorted back a laugh. “I’m sorry, but you’ve met Blaine, right? The guy’s the freaking Crown Prince of Lust—the living embodiment of greed and desire. And you, Kit Kat, are his Holy Grail. Speaking on the behalf of men everywhere, trust me when I say this: when a woman’s involved, we stop using the head above our shoulders.”
“Enough that you’d be willing to die?”
“He marked you to be his mate against your will, infected you with a demonic virus, made you the prime hunting target to every Reaper and Angel on the planet, and put a hex on you that will inevitably brainwash you into thinking you love him.” Mark eyed me like I was a special kind of stupid. “Yeah, Blaine’s particular brand of crazy is waaaay past the point of shameless. The guy is obsessed.”
“Blaine didn’t put the mating hex on me. Someone else did. Probably his boss.” As an upper-level demon, Raelynd hardly struck me as the kind of guy who would risk freewill getting in the way of his scheming, and he needed Blaine and me to be together for his master plan to work.
Car just rolled her eyes, throwing her hands up in the air, exasperated. “What on God’s green earth would make you think that?”
“Blaine told me it wasn’t him.”
My friends again shared a knowing stare.
“What?”
“I’d be inclined to believe that,” Mark interjected with a smirk, “if not for the fact that Blaine could have done this teeny-tiny little thing you may have heard of called lying.”
“He wasn’t.”
“How do you know?”
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce the general consensus of the room. I was fighting a losing battle. And feeling Reese’s stare burning through my profile, I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the sofa, wishing the damn thing would swallow me up whole.
Despite still not having an appetite, I excused myself and headed into the kitchen. There was an abundance of snacks and take-out containers to choose from, yet my stomach flipped at the very sight of even my favorites. When pizza of all things didn’t look good, I knew I was ill.
Brushing the hair from my face, I abandoned the effort and headed over to the coffeemaker and prepared to pour water into the reservoir for a fresh batch when Mark’s voice boomed across the downstairs.
“Holy shit!”
I nearly dropped the carafe in my hands, barely steadying it on the kitchen counter before I bolted back into the family room.
Mark was at full attention, practically on the edge of his seat as he openly gawked at the television. “Get a load of this.”
Channel 5’s correspondent Rebecca Weathers appeared onscreen in a purple blouse that could easily be deemed as inappropriate for younger viewers, but it was hardly a surprise. It wasn’t like Mystic Harbor was a hotbed of newsworthy activity, at least not that the general populous was aware of, so the local outlet made sure to play up the reporter’s finest assets to ensure male viewership. The woman was nothing short of gorgeous, but her show of cleavage was hardly worth the mild heart attack I was surely suffering from.
Carly seemed to share in the sentiment, because she chucked a nearby coaster directly at Mark’s face.
“Owww! What the hell?” he howled.
Seriously? You scared the shit out of us for that?” She swiped up another coaster and whipped it at his chest.
Mark rolled his eyes, flipping the volume back on. “Read. The. Bottom.” He said it as if we were idiots, but as we both looked back at the television, Carly and I realized he may have been right.
“10 Dead, 7 Injured,” declared the caption.
One look at the background, and my knees damn near gave out beneath me.
“Eye witnesses say they heard what sounded like gunshots just outside the front of this riverside bar late last night,” declared the reporter. “Local businessman and owner, Nathan Reynolds, was able to lead most of the customers safely out back, but the danger was far from over for those who remained inside.”
The footage cut away to a clip, which based on the evident lack of sunlight must have been filmed either sometime last night or very earlier this morning. Cameras swarmed Mr. Reynolds on all sides. Whatever had happened, he’d apparently gone back inside the bar, because an enormous bruise stained the right side of his face, and his hand was clumsily wrapped in bandages that were now more red than white as blood trailed down his fingers. He was also limping, quite considerably. The Reaper didn’t bother to address any of the reporters who continually howled questions at him, taking his bloodied hand and shoving it into the nearest lens to get it out of his face.
“Details are still coming in, but from what we can confirm, nine men were pronounced dead at the scene, and a tenth victim later died from injuries after being rushed to Saint Joseph’s Hospital. Out of the remaining seven survivors who were inside the bar at the time of the attack, four are in critical condition, and no official statements have been released by authorities—”
“Do you think the victims were all Reapers?” asked Mark.
I suddenly couldn’t stand.
It wasn’t from shock. I physically couldn’t stand on my own two legs.
Vertigo hit me so hard that I actually toppled sideways, barely managing to catch myself on the end table next to me so I didn’t hit the floor. Reese said something, but I couldn’t understand him. It was as if he was trying to speak to me underwater. Everything sounded so muffled. Even my vision was darkening.
You just need to eat something, I told myself. You’re fine. It’s just your blood sugar crashing.
But a low, dark laugh echoed behind me, the voice unflinchingly clear. I tried to whirl around, but the momentum sent me to my knees as the dizziness seized control of my body. Blinking, I looked up.
Nobody.
It was only then that I realized everything else had gone quiet. The broadcast, my friends, even the howling wind outside… It had all gone silent.
“Did you hear that?” I murmured.
Reese didn’t answer. Neither did Mark or Carly.
I peered over my shoulder, only to find the entire downstairs suddenly empty. Even the television was turned off. And that’s when I realized it. My vision hadn’t darkened. The outside had. It was barely eleven o’clock in the morning, and yet it looked like dusk, the sky painted in a faint, sickly green. The kind of green that only came with a vicious storm.
Sure enough, the sky lit up with a sharp crack as lightning struck close enough that I heard the impact. Most likely a tree. Or at least, that’s what I hoped… The silence was decimated as a thunderous rumble shook the very foundation of the house not a second later. The only light fixture on in the room went out, leaving me shrouded in shadows. I called out for my friends again, but the only answer that came was another streak of lightning, highlighting a silhouette standing on the other side of the glass door from the back porch.
I screamed, trying to scramble away, but my body wouldn’t obey. That strange laugh filled the room again, locking every inch of me into place. I tried to regain focus, but the very air seemed to ripple around the figure. The outline was unmistakably female, but with her back turned from any source of light, I couldn’t make out any distinct features except the long matted mess of hair pooling down her shoulders.
Though, something about the woman’s clothes seemed…off. The overcoat draped around her body looked tattered, but it was more than that. Holes singed the fabric, the edges charcoaled in a way that it looked like the jacket may have been badly burned. The same effect could also be seen in the shredded skirts of her ankle-length dress, the frayed material catching the wind, revealing every tear.
The stranger pressed a gloved hand against the sliding door, and I watched in dismay as frost teased against the glass, spreading out around every one of her fingers.
“Tisk, tisk, my pretty pet. Love your Prince, and it will be your death.” The unknown voice purred melodically, the very sound setting ice into my veins. No one else stood in the room, and yet the cool feminine voice echoed all around me, as clear as day. “Choose the boy, and your soul will part. Covet your mate, and he’ll eat your heart.”
The frost only further expanded until it covered every inch of the door. To my horror, I could hear the glass contracting under the growing cold, and with the simplest press of her fingers, cracks formed and splintered, cutting across the entire door until the glass exploded into the family room. Flecks rained down on me, but my damned limbs refused to work, weighted down by the stranger’s unseen stare.     
“Run, run, run, you lovely little beast. Break his heart, and he’ll have his feast.” The melodic tone dissipated into a serpentine hiss, a cruel laugh lacing each word. “Wear the crown, and lay your soul bare. Confide in him, and he’ll take your heir.”
The instant she strode through the shattered entryway, a searing pain sliced through my chest. I collapsed onto the floor, unable to scream as agony stripped the air from my lungs. It still didn’t mask the acrid stench that accompanied her presence, a sickly combination of sulfur and something almost…metallic.
“Run, run, run,” her voice echoed, just as my vision went black.

***

My body thrashed, wrenching me awake. Carly and Reese’s faces lingered in front of me, and my reaction must have startled them, because they both stumbled back a step. I flew upright, finding myself sprawled across the sofa.
“Jesus, Kat! Are you okay?” Car asked.
Dizziness still plagued my balance, but the effect seemed to lessen a little as my eyes refocused.
The glass door was intact.
Not only that, but the television was back on, and it was day-time again. “What… What happened?” I murmured.
“I thought maybe you could tell us,” Reese admitted softly. “You really freaked us out. One moment you were fine, the next you were out cold.”
“And your eyes rolled back in your head,” added Mark, appearing beside Carly to offer me a glass of water. “Not to mention, you started, uh…how would you put it? Levitating?” he offered.
“I what?” I’d only ever done that once before, the week after the car crash that had killed me.
“Yeah, you went full-on Exorcist there for a minute. You actually fell and hit the floor once, so we moved you to the couch,” Mark further clarified. “Figured if you started doing it again, landing on cushions would be a lot softer.”
Their stares may have been uncomfortable when talking about Blaine, but they paled in comparison to the ones I was currently receiving. Mark and Carly were both eyeing me like I was a caged animal, each taking a healthy step back as I tried to stand. Everything in my vision seemed to tilt slightly by the effort, making Reese usher me back down on the sofa.
“Did you hear or see anything else when this happened?” I asked. “Another voice, or a figure perhaps?”
They all shook their heads.
My heart still thundered so hard, I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears, but my Omen rune hadn’t ignited. At least I could take what little comfort there was in knowing I wasn’t in any present danger.
Any composure I regained was obliterated though as a sudden swell of heat hit my chest.
I wasn’t sure if I was breathing…
“Kat?” Clearly by the look on my face, Carly knew something was up. “What’s wrong?”
That invisible pull rooted deep within me yanked my body up, and I found myself being led out to the main hallway. Just as I reached the foyer, tires could be heard sweeping over the wet pavement outside, slowing to a stop right out front. Mark said something from the back room, but the words were lost on me as that inexplicable tug continued hauling me forward until I was yanked over the threshold.
The car had pulled up no more than ten seconds ago, and yet, I already found a figure waiting at the bottom of the porch landing as I opened the front door.
“Hello, lovely,” was all Blaine said, so breathtakingly soft as he peered up at me.