"Rainier?"

No answer. Nothing but a strange, gray blankness.

"Rainier!"

An aural shield must have been triggered, one that not only blocked out ordinary sounds but also prevented communication along psychic threads.

Had the gong sounded? She’d been too preoccupied to notice. Had Rainier heard it, or was that sound also blocked by the aural shield?

Leaving the unlit candle on the table, she took the poker and the ball of witchlight. The first door on her right was a bathroom. A narrow space with no room to maneuver if she had to fight. But it might have clean water, and that was something she needed right now.

“Wounded because I didn’t shield and got separated from my escort,” she said as she warily entered the bathroom. “Lucivar is going to beso pissed.”

Interesting. Why was the witch so concerned about the opinion of a male who wasn’t there? It wasn’t like she was ever going tohear what he thought of her mistakes.

Yes. That was a thought. Those pointed ears would make a fine trophy. Something to remember her by when she was absorbed into the spells of this house.

And then she wouldn’t have to worry about hearinganything.

Somewhere in the house, a gong sounded twice.

"Surreal?"

No answer. Nothing but a strange, gray blankness.

"Surreal!"

Rainier held his position. Waiting. Listening. Then he wove between the children and stopped at one of the hallway’s openings and held out the lamp, trying to get a better look at the room.

Not a room. It was the front hallway.

He looked at Kester, then tipped his head to indicate the other children. “Stay here. Keep them together.”

No sass from the boy. No arguments. No comments. Maybe it was finally sinking in that the children needed to do what they were told in order to survive.

He moved toward the front staircase. Could Surreal still be downstairs?

“Surreal?”

He peered over the banister. No sign of light down below.

The gong had sounded twice. One time would have been for the witchfire she needed to create in order to light the candle. The other?

She’d sensed something. Or someone. The second time the gong had sounded. Was that for a weapon or a shield?

Should have shielded when they first realized something was wrong. They had gambled on the degree of danger they were facing—and had underestimated their enemy.

She’d been coming up last, watching their backs. Should have been the safer position, since they’d already checked the kitchen.

Should have been.

What had changed in that moment between the last girl’s starting up the stairs and Surreal’s following her?

The last girl.

Rainier turned toward the opening leading to the back hall. Seven children had come up the stairs with him. But there shouldn’t be seven anymore. The fourth girl. The last one to come up the stairs. She wasn’t one of the children who had come into the house with them.

“Mother Night,” he whispered.

He rushed to the back hallway and stopped at the opening when he saw four children clustered around a closed door that Kester was trying to force open by slamming against it with his shoulder.

No sound. No warning of trouble. The girls had their mouths open and were probably yelling or screaming. The front hallway wasn’t that big. He should have heard Kester trying to break down the door.

As soon as he crossed the threshold, he heard the screams.

Hell’s fire.

“Get back!” Rainier shouted. He kept moving, building momentum with every stride. Kester saw him at the last moment and dove out of the way as Rainier turned the last stride into a leap and kick.

The door crashed open, revealing a room emptied of furnishings…but not empty.

For a moment, he froze at the sight of the burns and scars on the stranger’s young body. An illusion spell must have hidden those injuries, just as it had hidden her ripped, dirty clothes. He felt sickened by what he saw—and even more sickened by what the girl had done.

The stranger wore openwork metal gauntlets, a kind of lethal jewelry witches sometimes wore. The fingers ended in razor-sharp talons. The ones on the girl’s hands dripped with blood.

Her mouth was smeared with blood. It ran down her chin like juice at some kind of primal feast.

She wascildru dyathe now. A demon-dead child—and a deadly predator.

Ginger lay on her back on the dirty wood floor, her neck, chest, and arms ripped to shreds by the talons.

No sound from her.

No hope for her.

Thecildru dyathe sprang to her feet and ran toward the back of the room.

Rainier sprang after her.

She fumbled at the wall, the talons on the metal gauntlets tearing the old wallpaper as she searched for something.

In the moment before he reached her, he was nothing but a Warlord Prince on a battlefield and she was nothing but an enemy. When he swung the poker at her back, it carried all his strength and fury in the blow.

He heard bone break.

She fell, no longer able to use her legs. Sufficiently Blood to becomecildru dyathe , she didn’t have the skill in Craft to use what power she had in order to get up.

He stood over her, looking at wounds that indicated torture. Looking at the madness and hatred in the girl’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“You’re just like him,” she said, her voice harshened by her hatred. “You’re just like him.”

“Who?”

She laughed. “I’ll tell you once you’re dead. I’ll hook my pretty claws into your chest, and you’ll have to carry me. Be my legs since you took mine. Hook my pretty claws into your eyes too. Just for fun.”

Was that madness talking, or was that a reflection of who the girl had been?

He took a step back. Took another. Then he turned and walked back to Ginger.

So much blood, he thought as he knelt beside the dying girl. Too much damage. There were not enough moments left in her to even try a healing. There was not enough he could do for her with the basic skills he had to make a difference.

Her eyes stared at him but didn’t see him.

Did landens have some place like Hell? They didn’t become demon-dead. When their bodies died, they were gone. But did their spirits have a place where they spent some time before they were truly gone?

He didn’t know, had never asked. And right now, he really didn’t want to know.

“Her name was Anax,” Kester said. “She lived at the orphans’ home. She ran away a couple weeks ago.”

Had she run away or had the people in charge of the orphans’ home assumed that because Anax had disappeared? Someone had tortured the girl and killed her, leaving her in here to become one of the predators who hunted the “guests” trapped in this house.


Tags: Anne Bishop Books The Black Jewels Series Books Science Fiction Books
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