Just after she'd somehow stuffed her swollen, pulpy feet back into her boots, she spied a blur of motion in the smoke beside her, heard a thump. Something had landed a couple of feet away, and it wasn't moving.
What now? Exhaling irritably, she leaned over.
Sightless eyes stared up at her. She scrambled back, tumbling off the stump onto her ass. There lay the head of one of the ghouls from the night before, its throat slashed, slime still oozing from serrated arteries.
She gazed up, s"uinting through the miasma, detecting a large form on the cliff above her. The demon.
Why would he do this? Was it some sick kind of warning?
Her temper ignited, melting away any fear of him. "What is wrong with you?" She leapt to her feet, ripping open every remaining blister on them. I am so over this!
She was exhausted and battered, her temples beginning to pound. Her feet felt like someone had poured acid on them. Her pierced neck was in the itching, reddened stage of healing. "That slime got on my boot! Disgusting demon!"
The last twenty-four hours had been the worst of her entire life. And he was going to keep at her? "You think a decapitated head will scare me? You think it'll cow me into accepting you? Your 'attentions'?"
She snatched a softball-sized rock from the ground and flung it in his direction, heard a grunt. "I've had stalkers before, you asshole!" Some really demented ones, too. One of them had strangled Mari's cat, leaving it on the front porch at Andoain. Mari had tried to resurrect the poor animal, but the process had devolved into Pet Sematary territory, or as Mari had sniffled, "Tigger came back ... wrong."
To make Mari feel better, Carrow had cursed the stalker to fall in love - with cacti.
When I get my powers back, demon...
The thought made her hesitate. Why would she ever expect to get them back here? Everything was just as miserable as she was. Hell, diddling the freaking vemon was her best hope for energy.
No, she wasn't there yet, wasn't ready to accept Slaine's "claim." There had to be another way to save Ruby.
Carrow listened for a response, heard nothing. "Whatever you're going to do, do - it - now!"
Again, no reply. As long as she was utterly vulnerable, maybe she shouldn't antagonize the mythical abomination.
She gave a start when he dropped down just before her, crouching beside the head. She braced for another assault, but he merely watched her, calmly appraising.
His eyes were blue, not an enraged black. Instead of the mindlessness of the night before, there was intelligence burning in them, an animal cunning that kept her on edge.
No imminent attack? Could she be so lucky? She let out a shaky breath. Maybe he'd just wigged out because of his vampire blooding?
Able to see him more clearly now, she surveyed his appearance. He'd braided some hanks of his hair as warriors did in olden times, but the rest hung down, covering a good deal of his face. His hair and horns were so sand-coated, she couldn't determine their color. She was going with darkish for both.
There were bands of something like greasepaint streaked across his cheeks, reminding her of the camouflage the special-ops boys used on missions. Maybe that was why the vemon had seemed invisible last night?
His jaw and chin carried stubble that couldn't decide if it wanted to be a beard or not. She wished she could see his face clean-shaven - or hey, just clean. His nose was crooked, probably from an early break that hadn't healed right. It made him look like a bruiser.
Of its own accord, her gaze dipped to his mouth, a harsh slash with barely noticeable fangs. For some reason those fangs made Carrow think of the women she knew back home who loved being bitten....
On the whole, she didn't believe Slaine was hideous, but he wasn't hot by any means. Except in the body department. Again her gaze dipped. She grudgingly admitted his physi"ue was magnificent.
While his hips were narrow, his shoulders were broad, real doorway wreckers. His chiseled torso was a masterpiece of flexing ridges, one lean side inked with that flaring black tattoo. The worn leather of his pants encased muscular thighs, and dark leather cuffs circled his brawny forearms and wrists.
She noticed his chainmail and chest had been cut in several new places - and that his left nipple was pierced with a small silver bar. Surprisingly, she found that aspect of the dirty demon ... sexy. In fact, everything about him from the neck down was.
Her breaths a thread shallower, she met his gaze, then tilted her head. His eyes really were an arresting shade of blue.
Just when she was about to deem one more thing semi-handsome about him, he shoved the head at her and it rolled to her feet.
"Really. Really? You crazy - ass - demon ..." She trailed off, craning her head as he rose to his full, towering height.
He held out his hand, palm up, and grated, "Minde ara, alton."
She thought he'd said, My female, come. Ah, Hekate, he wanted his female, his mate - to claim. She swallowed. He would consider her his property. A warrior like him, in a world like this ... soon, he'd just dispense with the chitchat and take what he wanted. "You jump me again, and I'll tag you in the ballbag just like last night."
His gaze was intent on her face, but not in an admiring way. He looked as if he was anticipating her next move.
Which he could never discern ... because she had no idea what she would do. Ideas surfaced and resurfaced, decisions and plays analyzed and discarded.
Was the demon her best chance of getting herself and Ruby home?
He was brutal in all ways. He'd thrown a freaking head at her. He'd bitten her, gorging himself on her blood.
Could Carrow actually surrender herself to him, allowing him to claim her? The night before when he'd been in the throes, he'd broken her wrist in seconds.
The idea of her body naked and defenseless for his use sent chills through her. Chills of fear. Only fear.
There had to be another way to save Ruby without getting herself mauled by an abomination.
When he began circling her, she pivoted to keep him in sight.
Think, Carrow! There might be another option besides Slaine. She'd "uickly encountered other denizens of this plane - perhaps more were nearby? Possibly less hostile than Asmodel's gang? She was on a hell plane with knowledge about a scheduled opening into a relative heaven - maybe she could tempt some demons to join her "uest.
She could tell them, Riches and territory can all be yours. Basically selling them lots in the burbs. Have you dreamed of a better life with your own backyard?
The Order wanted her back at the portal with the vemon in tow? Then she could show with an army of plundering demons heaven-bent on a new life in paradise. We can take over the portal, the entire facility!
If there was one thing Carrow excelled at, it was creating chaos. She would figure out a way to lose this freak for now, then give herself a day to find other demons.
Growing impatient, he shoved out his hand again. "Alton, ara!"
"Come, female?" She crossed her arms over her chest. "You expect me to go with you when you tore my neck with your bite! Should I just forget that you, you nutted on me?"
She knew he couldn't understand her words, but it felt good to vent. "Remember that while you were all like" - she imitated his husky groan as he'd had his orgasm - "I was all like" - she whimpered and cradled her hand. "Do you understand me?"
A glimmer in his blue eyes said he might.
"So just stay the hell away from me!" She managed the smallest glow in her palms.
He snarled at them.
"I'm not afraid of you, demon." She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin.
His growl faded and he frowned, taken aback by her reaction.
Standoff. Then he made a play, presenting to her a potential game changer.
Her canteen. He'd had it looped over his back, and now held it out to her with a calculating look in his eyes.
"Give it to me." Instead, he uncapped it and took a swig. She rushed forward. "That's mine, demon." She made a grab for it, but he held it above her head. "Give it back!"
He lowered it enough that she made a futile leap for it. "Oh, fine! What do you want from me?"
Before she could retreat, he cupped the back of her neck, easing the canteen to just before her lips. Apparently, he wanted to hand-feed her the water.
She didn't trust the demon, didn't like him. He was brutish, possibly a hardened murderer. She was tempted to tell him where he could shove that canteen, but she needed the contents too badly.
Humans could die after three days without water - indoors. Carrow had been in hell for more than a day, mostly running, and she was feeling it.
"Very well." She parted her lips, and he pressed the opening against them. Water flowed, hot and metallic. Never had she tasted anything as good.
As she drank, she could feel the li"uid already hitting her system, the effects washing over her with the force and speed of a drug rush. Her eyelids slid shut.
Within moments, her headache and twinges ebbed.
He drew the canteen away, but only to let her breathe for a second. "So good," she murmured.
He hastily pressed it back to her lips. She peeked at him, saw how he stared at her, his gaze hooded. He was probably growing aroused by how greedily she hit that canteen.
But she couldn't worry about that. Water ran down her chin and neck, wetting her halter over one of her breasts. Doesn't matter.
What was wrong with her? She was being manipulated by a demon, was captive to his whims. He could bite her at any time. And I can barely keep my eyes open.
He pulled it away much too soon, his eyes glued to her sodden top. He got a sinful look in his eyes ... then he poured water over her other breast. She jerked back, out of his hold, gasping, "Stop that!"
In the middle of a place like this, purposely spilling water seemed extravagant and wicked. She couldn't contain a shiver, and her nipples hardened beneath her halter, right before his transfixed gaze.
He gave a husky growl, emanating a weird sense of happiness. Like awe. Like wonder.
"Ara, minde jart," he finally said, hitting his hand against his chest. His voice had gotten hoarse.
"Female, my ... heart?" Again, he tried to make her understand that she was his. So he thought that was the only reason she hadn't surrendered to him? "Yes, I know I'm 'yours,' but I'm a witch. And that means that I'm not going to feel about you the same way."
In a patronizing tone, she said, "Fate doesn't force witches to like people who will only hate them. Oh, why am I even bothering trying to explain this to you?" But it occurred to her that if he were as deranged and violent as his folder said, then why was he still attempting to convince her instead of just forcing her? Why not just tie a rope to her collar and lead her away?
If this was truly a pitiless hell plane where one was either owned or a master, then had she just found the sole demon male who would try to win her?
Huh. For the first time since she'd arrived in this plane, she didn't feel like death was imminent -
An enormous creature sprang through the air, landing mere feet from them. She peered up in horror.
Spiderlike eyes, pasty gray skin, a yawning, fang-filled mouth. From its carapace, eight thick limbs protruded, stretching twice as long as its body. All over its bumpy skin, parasitic creatures had attached, bloodsucking and bulbous with their harvest.
Its antennae were as long as its limbs, flicking like bullwhips, rippling toward her.
One sliced the air in front of her face. Before she could move, the demon knocked her to the ground with a stiff-armed shove to her chest. She clutched her sternum, hacking for air as he faced off against the thing.
The demon roared at it so loudly that pain spiked her ears. His formidable body tensed to attack, his muscles rigid under his chainmail. He was turning demonic, fangs sharpening and horns straightening.
As she sucked in breaths, he fearlessly launched himself at the gigantic beast, maneuvering the battle away from her. Again she marveled at Slaine's strength and speed. No wonder the Order wanted him. He was by far the most powerful male she'd ever seen.
Wait ... why was he not tracing? Though many demons and nearly all vampires could teleport, he'd run to her rescue and wasn't tracing now.
Just as one slime-filled limb splatted beside her on the ground, the demon glanced over his shoulder at her, his expression wild. His eyes were turning black, the calm blue gone.
Not good for the monster ... not good for her.
The thing went on the offensive with uncanny "uickness. She'd never seen, or heard of, anything like this, this monster X. The demon had demonstrated his prowess against the gang last night, but could he defeat something so colossal and fast as this?
She wouldn't be sticking around to find out.
Still gasping, she clambered to her feet, then fled headlong - from both of them. Half-blind in the smoke and clumsy with fright, she tried to ignore the pain in her sternum.
Thoughts tangled in her panicked mind. Run! Has he broken my breastbone? What was that creature? The head had been like a spider's, the body resembling a praying mantis's. Tick-like insects had covered it as they might a mammal.
Are there more of monster X?
The terrain was growing rockier, the brush thinning around larger bone trees. Had she lost them?
Her heart went to her stomach just as her feet left the ground. She screamed until the sudden movements stopped and she could take stock of where she was.
This isn't happening, this isn't...
When she felt a hempen rope digging into her right ankle, she accepted that she was indeed caught upside down in a rope snare, swinging from the branch of a tree. Her hair streamed down, and her skirt had hiked to her waist.
The dusty wind kissed the cleft of her ass.
"The last straw!" she screeched as blood rushed to her head. This had to be one of Slaine's infamous traps. "Ugh!" Hate him.
All around the edges of this clearing, bones lay scattered. Did the demon just leave his victims here to rot away? When she craned her head up to assess the damage, she felt a chill. The rope around her ankle was stained with old blood.
Need to get free, stat. If she could grab hold of the lead rope above her, she could release the tension on her ankle and get it loose. The rope in her sights, she did a sit-up, stretching ... "Got it," she said as she wrapped her fists around -
She dropped back down with a whoosh. What the hell? The bastard had greased the rope. That demonic, vampiric bastard. If she couldn't get hold of the rope above her, then there was no escape. Which he obviously knew.
She hung limply, swaying from her momentum, cursing Malkom Slaine's very birth, until she felt her ring slipping down her finger. "No!"
But it was gone, helped along by the grease on her hands. "Damn him!" She heard a ping. Following the sound down, she swiped her hair from her eyes with her greasy hands -
Her ring had just beaned a second monster X in the head. Another one of those things was directly below her, gazing up with its mouth wide, its body crouching to spring.