Runa doubled over, panting, though he suspected her respiratory issues had less to do with exertion than with her impending change into a warg. “What was all that about? The shaking.”
“The Bathag … they have control over earth and water. They can cause tsunamis, earthquakes, all kinds of shit if they’re riled. She was pissed.” Angry shouts interrupted, sending him into his own bout of spastic breathing. “We gotta go, babe. I’d love to stay and play, but it seems like this stupid bond has brought out some seriously protective instincts.”
“I can take care of myself.” Her voice was soft but infused with steel. Just like her gaze.
He took her in, aware that time was running out, but not wanting to deprive himself of this moment. She had a warrior’s soul, a fighter’s resolve. It called to him, overriding his common sense.
He grabbed her around the waist and tugged her up against him. At the same time, his skin tightened and his blood flushed hot. He wanted to take her right then and there. Hell’s fires.
“I know you can. But I can make sure you don’t have to.”
Knowing the smart thing would be to leave her here to get herself killed, he cursed the bond, took her hand once again, and dragged her toward the forest.
Runa kept up with Shade, welcoming the stitch in her side and the way her lungs burned with every breath. She was free, and the fresh, crisp evening air ignited an urge to run, howl. Hunt.
He stopped so suddenly she nearly ran into him. “Roag?”
She inclined her head toward the horizon, where a sliver of the day’s last light peeked through the curtain of mist. “Night. I’m turning.”
“Where do you usually go?”
“Does it matter? We’re thousands of miles away from the United States.”
“I can get us anywhere in minutes. Now, where do you go?”
She had a comfortable cage on the Army base, a secret installation beneath Washington, D.C., that ingeniously used the pentagram and hexagram layout of the city to its advantage. The symbols of Masonic significance, mistakenly believed by some to be satanic in nature, provided protection against evil while enhancing defensive magic.
Obviously, she couldn’t tell Shade about it or take him there. Civilians weren’t allowed anywhere near the operation. Demons were, but only if they were restrained, part of the R-XR program … or dead.
“My house in New York. I have a setup in the basement.”
Not that she’d been there in months; she’d been too busy working with the Army to go home. Who’d have thought there were so many were-creatures in the world? She spent most of her days traveling the globe to were-beast hot spots, mostly coming back to D.C. only for the full moons. She loved the travel, the challenge of tracking down others like her, most of whom were tagged and left unharmed. The military seemed to think that in the event of a battle between humans and demons, weres and shapeshifters could play a vital role, and the military wanted them fighting on the side of humans.
Shade shook his head, but his alert gaze never ceased scanning the area around them. His muscular body sang with restrained power, and his sharply defined tribal dermoire lent an uncivilized, predatory quality to him. Amongst the haunting, untamed landscape, he fit right in. All he needed was a broadsword, and he could have been an ancient warrior, built for two things—fighting and sex. She shivered in a primal, feminine response to the image of Shade claiming a victory in battle, and then claiming her.
“Roag might know who you are,” Shade said. “I don’t want the Ghouls finding you.”
Panic flared, making her heart thunder violently in her chest. Or maybe the tight, strung-out feeling inside was just the werewolf wanting out. “We have to do something. If I change …”
She trailed off, not wanting to voice the problems that could come from changing into a slavering, murderous beast that would probably kill Shade and then run off in search of human victims.
“I know.” Shade lifted his face to the sky, as if he wanted to let loose a howl. She knew the feeling.
“What are you doing?”
“Probing for a Harrowgate. Roag wouldn’t base his operation far from one.”
Harrowgate. An underworld transportation system. The Army had been trying to figure out how they worked for years.
“Got it. This way.” He started moving in the direction from which they’d just come.
“We’ll be fine. Once we’re inside the gate, we’ll transport to an exit near my place.”
They slipped quickly through the trees. Shade moved like a cat, all sleek grace and light steps, and if his injured foot troubled him, he gave no sign of it. Her own steps grew heavy as her body tensed, preparing for the change. Part of her wanted to give the wolf side free rein, a danger for every warg.
Once a month she battled the desire to become a beast and run free, killing at will and for pleasure. This was the monster she’d become thanks to the bastard who had bitten her.
And thanks to Shade—something she’d do well to remember.
Runa peered into a glimmering space between a boulder and a crumbling stone wall. She’d seen similar curtains of light before, but she’d written them off as a trick of the eye.
Less than a dozen yards stood between them and the gate. But something wasn’t right. The air had gone unnaturally still, as though evil had leashed the wind against its will.
Shade must have sensed it, too, because they weren’t moving, and he’d gone motionless, except for his eyes, which seemed to be taking in everything at once.
“The gate is being guarded,” he murmured.
“I don’t know.”
The rapid thump of multiple footsteps carried to her ultrasensitive ears, and she knew they were out of time. “We’re going to have to risk it. Bad guys, eight o’clock.”
They dashed toward the gate. Something rose out of the ground, a nebulous, smokelike creature, and they skidded to a halt, mere feet from the entrance. White wisps of mist wove together, slowly taking form as a beast about twelve feet tall, with gaping jaws and sharklike teeth. Red slits formed its eyes. It had no legs that she could see, but what it lacked in legs it made up for in claws the length of her arms. Runa had no idea what it was, but it smelled like feces and rotten fish. And it was scary as hell.
“Not good,” Shade grumbled.
“Aren’t you the king of understatement.”
Behind them, three Keepers and the Bathag crashed from out of the brush. Shade leaped into action, taking one of the Darquethoths down. The Bathag leaped on Runa, her face morphing into something horrible and vicious, with a mouthful of sharp teeth and a forked tongue. Runa had trained hard with the Army, and while she was no Special Forces commando, she could hold her own. More or less.
Less, in this case.
The world spun as they rolled down an incline and crashed into a stone fence. Runa grunted and plowed her own fist into the demon’s face. Teeth scraped her knuckles, and Runa sucked air.
“That hurt.” Runa hooked her leg over the demon’s back and flipped her. The female’s snarl broke off when Runa struck her in the jaw.
The demon froze, momentarily stunned. Runa dragged herself to a thick, dead branch. The sickening crunch of something hard striking flesh, followed by Shade’s pained curse, breathed new life into her fight. She leaped to her feet and swung the branch like a golf club.
“Runa! Don’t kill her!”
Too late, the crack of wood on the Bathag’s skull rang out, and the thing went limp.
Runa couldn’t spare a single tear for the bitch, but she did spare a second to feel for a pulse. Nothing. Why would Shade want the Bathag alive? Wiping her bloodied hands on her jeans, she looked toward him, but he was fully engaged in battle again. She raced to the crest of the hill, found two dead demons, and Shade, taking down the last Keeper. Behind him, the smoke-creature snarled, but it floated back and forth, unwilling—or unable—to attack.
It was shocking, seeing Shade fight like that, a mass of hard muscle and tats spinning like a tornado. Her impression a minute ago was right; he was built for battle. Battle and danger and trouble all in one powerful package. He crunched a kick into the Darquethoth’s back. It went down, a boneless puddle.
Shade didn’t miss a beat as he turned to her. “The Bathag’s dead?” She nodded, a weird sense of foreboding falling over her when his expression turned grim. “Damn. You ready?”
He took her hand. “We’re going to make a run for it. The vapor wraith is bound to the Harrowgate, and it’s male, so I can’t seduce it.”
She eyed the thing, straining to get to them but pulling up short, as though it was tethered to an invisible leash. “I thought you said that since we’re bonded, you can’t do that anymore.”
“I can’t go all the way with another female, but I still have an excess of incubus charm.”
“Charm?” He had to be kidding.
Now, that she believed. “Why would the vapor wraith be bound to the Harrowgate? Are all gates protected?”
“No. This is Roag’s handiwork. To prevent his captives from escaping, and to prevent enemies from finding him.” He squeezed her hand. “How are you doing?”
She knew what he meant, and almost as if his words reminded her inner werewolf that it should be starting to shift, her joints began to pop in excruciating bursts of pain.
“We have to go,” she gasped. “But how?”
“We run right through it.”
Voices rang out in the fog. They were out of time. She was out of time. She might think that running headlong into one of the scariest-looking demons she’d ever seen was a bad idea, but she’d have to trust Shade if she wanted to live.
“Whatever you say,” she breathed.
He cocked an eyebrow at her, and then they were running. Shade threw out his arm as though to push the thing out of the way, and his dermoire began to glow. They hit the beast, and the sensation of a million jellyfish stings exploded all over Runa’s body. She fought the urge to scream in both terror and agony. Tears burned her eyes, and she stumbled. Shade caught her, held her upright against the solid wall of his body.
The vapor wraith screeched, and suddenly they were past it. Shade dragged her inside the Harrowgate. Darkness closed on them, the pitch black broken by glowing symbols and maps etched into the smooth obsidian walls surrounding them.
Pain still rolled through her body, and beneath her skin, her muscles stretched tight, tugging on her joints as her body began to morph into her beast form. Hurry, Shade.
“What happened to the demon?” Her voice sounded rough, guttural, and she knew she was speaking through a half-formed muzzle.
“I used my gift to scramble its insides. Didn’t kill it, but it stunned the creature enough to get us through.” He cast her a sideways glance. “Oh, hey … let’s not do that yet. Sit. Stay.”
Oh, he was hilarious. She was going to bite him as soon as the transformation was complete.
Shade tapped some etchings. A heartbeat later, the gate opened, and they stepped into a wall of heat and humidity. A jungle. Instantly, the sense that she was going to explode out of her skin faded. Her blood tingled with the upcoming full moon event, but the immediacy of the change had vanished. Best of all, her body parts had popped back into place.
“Um, where are we?” A cacophony of sounds surrounded them, bird calls and insect buzzing, as well as unidentifiable creatures screaming in the treetops.
“You know of another Costa Rica?”
Smartass. She jumped at the sound of something hissing. This place was going to give her a heart attack. Bad enough that demons were after her. Now she had to worry about poisonous snakes and hungry jaguars.
“Will those demons follow us?”
Shade shook his head and started moving through the brush.
She hurried after him. “What about Roag?”
He halted, his dark eyes scanning the surrounding jungle. “It’s difficult to track someone through Harrowgates unless you can sense them. You need a hellhound.”
“Okay, so why here?”
“You’ll have a few extra hours of daylight. And,” he added, “my second home is here. Roag doesn’t know about this one.”
Well, color her stunned. “You never told me you had a second home.”
“It’s not someplace I take humans.”
Lovely. She pictured him bringing his demon sex partners here, to this steamy jungle where they probably rolled around like wild animals. All the reasons she hated him came roaring back, along with hackle-raising anger. That, combined with the premoon jitters, made for one caustic mood.
“It’s not someplace you’re taking me, either,” she snapped.
“You have a better idea?”
“You can do what you want. I’ll move in with my brother until this thing with Roag blows over.”
Displeasure wafted off him in waves. “Out of the question. You stay with me.”
“Think again.” She crossed her arms over her chest, trying to ignore the trickle of sweat running down her back as the tension between them grew thicker than the sticky air. “I’m not the naïve, spineless little twit I was when we were dating.”
“I liked you a lot more when you were spineless,” he muttered.
“Yeah, well, I liked you more then, too.”
“Dammit, Runa. The thing with Roag won’t blow over. You killed his female. He will stop at nothing to get at you. And once he has you …” Shade’s hands fisted at his sides, and he swallowed hard.