Blackness receded in a rush as air filled her lungs, pushing the heavy water up. Lungs too full, strangling -
She opened her eyes. Malkom's mouth was pressed to hers? She knocked him out of the way, hunching over to hack up the seawater.
As he rubbed her back with his big hand, she wheezed on the stone-laden beach. Sand gritted in her eyes, her teeth chattered around rattling breaths, but she was alive. "R-ruby? Wh-where is she?"
Ruby rushed into Carrow's arms. The girl was conscious, safe.
"Are you okay, Crow?"
Carrow held her tight, shuddering with relief. Over the girl's shoulder, Carrow met Malkom's gaze. "Malkom, you kept her s-safe." She mouthed, "Thank you."
He gazed away, looking uncomfortable with her gratitude. Then he tensed, his eyes going black and fangs lengthening.
The surviving ghouls had begun loping ashore.
Malkom rose to his full height, roaring at them until her ears hurt.
Amazingly, they cowered, scuttling back into the waves. She remembered that the ghouls in Oblivion had been afraid of him, too. Never in her life had she met an immortal who could frighten them.
The monster that monsters feared.
She and Ruby both gaped up at him. Ruby whispered loudly, "He scared 'em away, Crow."
"I-I saw that, honey."
Ruby was shaking, soaked through. Though Carrow could scarcely imagine getting to her feet, she knew she had to. They had to keep moving. I've got a little girl to protect.
But where to take her? Carrow swiped her forearm over her face, s"uinting through the persistent rain at their surroundings. The rocky beach was part of a small cove. The forest bordered it. Mountain peaks soared in the background.
"She n-needs shelter and a fire," Carrow told Malkom. "She'll grow too cold. Will you help us again?"
A sharp nod.
As ever with things concerning the witch, Malkom's thoughts were in turmoil.
She'd asked him to get them somewhere safe, but he knew nothing about these lands. Falling back on habit, he'd begun heading for higher ground, had led them for more than an hour.
He glanced over at her now. She was petting the girl's damp hair as she murmured reassuringly to her. The child looked like a tiny Carrow, a doll in her image, a deela.
Though he'd offered to carry both her and the girl, Carrow insisted on holding her, saying that she would be shaken.
Shaken? He was still shaken from seeing Carrow lying lifeless, with her face so pale. Her heart had been still in her chest. She hadn't been breathing, until he'd given her breath.
The least he could do, since she'd first given it to him.
Earlier, when he'd realized that Carrow hadn't wanted to betray him, he'd been so damned relieved. His rage had been like a noose around his neck, easing its bite.
But now that he'd had time to come to grips with everything, he wondered how he could ever trust her again. Although he understood why she'd done what she did, the fact remained that she'd led him to what could have been his death. And his rancor over that had begun to grow.
A drop of water splatted him in the face. This place she'd taken him to was an alien world of green and water. The stories had been true. Yet even faced with all these new wonders, Malkom's gaze wouldn't stray long from the witch.
She looked exhausted, but she was putting on a smiling face, chattering to the girl. "Do you think your posse will believe that there were sharks?"
Sharks. Those powerful beasts in the water. He'd asked Carrow if there were creatures that strong on land, and she'd told him that there should be only Lore creatures from the cages. When she'd added that he would be more powerful than any of them, he'd nodded in easy agreement.
He could protect the two witches from any of those beings - unless those creatures joined forces.
The girl whispered at Carrow's ear, "Why can't he swim? Everybody can swim."
Carrow stumbled a step, knowing he could hear a whisper from a mile away, much less from three feet. "Um, he comes from a place where there's very little water. So no need to learn."
The girl yawned, the subject forgotten. "Are we going to go home now?"
"We're going to do everything we can to get back. I promise you."
Home. Back to the child's father? It struck him then that Carrow had a man, a sire for her offspring.
'Twas one thing to know that she'd been with another male, but this reminder that one had planted his seed within her was too much.
Jealousy scalded Malkom, and his claws drew blood from his palms. He wanted to hate this other man's get.
But couldn't. The child reminded him too much of Carrow when she'd been young.
Have I rescued them only to turn them over to some other man? One who hadn't protected them from this Order in the first place? One who'd given Carrow the baby she obviously adored?
The male would want them back.
Malkom's fangs sharpened. The male would die.
Once the numbing cold of the water had worn off, Carrow's battered body and injured fingertips had grown agonizing. Her waterlogged boots were weights on her feet and her legs were like jelly. Still, Carrow carried Ruby while trying to keep up with Malkom.
The girl had started drowsing against her shoulder, waking up in a rush, then falling back asleep.
In the distance, the war continued with explosions of light and sound, the ground still vibrating beneath their feet. Bands of creatures passed too close for comfort, running or galloping, probably bent on marauding.
They'd passed none of the witches' allies.
The air around them was crisp and laden with fog. The air between Carrow and Malkom remained brittle and tense. What is he thinking about all this?
His shoulder muscles bulged with tension beneath his black T-shirt. Earlier, she'd noticed that he was dressed in new clothes, and his horns had almost grown back. Now his injuries had faded.
Beautiful, heroic male.
He'd mentioned her promise of sex. Would he expect it later tonight?
Carrow knew that she and the demon wouldn't just automatically go back to the way they'd been. But she'd hoped that once he understood why she'd had to betray him, his resentment would ease.
It seemed to have been buried deep, simmering beneath the surface.
Ruby finally fell asleep and remained that way. Her arms went limp, her face slack as it pressed against Carrow's shoulder.
Carrow waited a few minutes, then murmured, "Thank you again, Malkom."
At length, he grated in rough English, "You should have told me."
"How? Besides, I had no idea how you'd react. If you'd refused ..."
"You knew how I felt. About you. Likely, I would have done anything at that time."
Felt. At that time. Past tense. "I never wanted to hurt you, but Ruby's life was on the line. Some things you just can't risk. If it makes any difference, they'd promised to release us." She met his eyes. "And I'd vowed to come back for you."
"Should I believe that?" He looked like he wanted to.
"Believe it or not, I wouldn't have stopped until I'd gotten you free."
He gazed away. "Why did those mortals want me?"
"I guess because you're uni"ue in the Lore."
"And their aim?"
"They want to war with our kind, to stamp out immortals. We know very little about them. I was captured only three weeks ago."
"You told the child you would try to take her home. Where is it?"
"A place called New Orleans. Which must be very far from this island."
"Island," he repeated thoughtfully. "Water all round. How big is the water to cross?"
"Thousands of times bigger than your mountain."
He slanted her a disbelieving look.
"It's true ..." Hearing what sounded like a small plane taking off, she gazed up, holding her hand over her forehead to shield her eyes from the rain. She caught sight of a prop plane, and her heart fell. There goes a way home -
Winged demons attacked it in the air. Dozens of them, all members of the Pravus, tore at its fuselage. The craft nosedived, crashing in the distance into a ball of flames.
"Well, scratch that escape route." She worried her lip. And they absolutely had to escape.
Although she felt safer with Malkom, there were still threats out here. He could defeat several opponents at a time, but maybe not a dozen demons, especially if they could trace. In other words, they were as much in danger now as when they'd been locked up.
And the Order would doubtless send in reinforcements. From what Fegley had said, this organization of mortals was more far-reaching than she'd ever suspected. They weren't going to merely hand over their island.
Worse than all this? La Dorada could still be here. Carrow absently muttered, "We've got to get out of here."
"Will your people not come for you?"
"Maybe. If they can find us here. I think the facility, maybe even the entire island, has been cloaked," she said. "But with this much power flowing and this many immortals active in one place, maybe the coven can pinpoint the location."
"Why do you and the girl still wear your collars?"
"Ours didn't come off. Only those of our enemies did. Anyone evil. And then yours, for some reason. Maybe because you're a vemon. I don't know."
"So certain I am not evil?"
"Yes. I am."
He narrowed his eyes. "You had your collar in Oblivion. Why were you able to do magic?"
"They turned it off while I was there."
"Of course they did," he said, his tone seething.
"Malkom, again, I want you to know - "
He raised his hand to "uiet her, saying under his breath, "I smell food cooking."
Suddenly Carrow was ravenous.
"Come." He followed the scent, leading them downhill closer to the water than they'd been before.
Soon they saw light in the distance. An old-fashioned cabin stood on a wooded cape, nestled among the trees. Smoke curled from a crooked stone chimney.
Did the property belong to the Order? Some kind of auxiliary structure?
Through a dirt-caked window she could see shapes moving within. There appeared to be three beings who had taken up residence.
"Await me here." Malkom stalked inside. As Carrow watched in amazement, he simply evicted the occupants - what looked like two shapeshifters and a nymph. He tossed the shifters bodily from the cabin, and the nymph tore outside after them, fleeing.
All three were naked, likely going at it before they'd been interrupted. Though Malkom had probably gotten an eyeful of naked nymph, he looked unaffected as he stood on the covered front porch, motioning for Carrow to join him.
As she hurried toward the inviting shelter, she again thought, I could get used to having a demon around.
The aged exterior was cedar shake, with rusted metal tools and tongs dangling from the ceiling of the covered porch. A harpoon hung above the low doorway. A whaling cottage?
The interior was cobwebbed and rustic, seeming from a bygone era. In front of the stone fireplace lay a moth-eaten rug. The earlier three s"uatters had left their clothes strewn over it. What looked like a roasting hare sizzled over the flames on a spit. She guessed they'd gotten bored waiting for dinner to cook.
"Malkom?" Where'd he go?
She found him in a compact back room adjoining the main area. Inside the chamber were a dusty rocking chair and two spartan beds, positioned against opposite walls, with their mattresses removed. Instead of wooden slats, rope nets stretched across the bed frames.
Malkom had already spread a blanket over one net, motioning for her to lay Ruby down. He'd set the feys' opened pack against the wall.
She turned to thank him, but he'd already left. "Okay," she said with a sigh, laying Ruby down. The girl was still shivering. Gotta get her out of these clothes.
Carrow had just finished changing her into the short fey's baggy sweater when Ruby woke.
"Where are we?" She glanced around with a groggy frown.
Lacing her voice with enthusiasm, Carrow said, "Our own cabin in the woods. Right on the beach." She dusted off the back of the rocking chair, hanging Ruby's clothes to dry. "We're safe as kittens here."
"Where's the demon?"
"He's just outside."
That seemed to reassure her.
"Are you hungry, honey?"
"Just really tired. Will you stay here while I go to sleep?"
Carrow wanted only to curl up next to her and get unconscious for two days. But she forced herself to plaster on a smile. "I will," she said, removing her own soaked boots and hose. "And I won't leave this little cabin until you wake up."
"I'm glad you came back to get me in the tunnel." Ruby offered her hand.
Carrow took it in her own. "Ruby. Of course." The fear Carrow had experienced this night had been worse than any she'd known before. To leave Ruby behind amidst all that danger?
The hardest decision she'd ever made.
As Carrow had run, she'd thought, This is what parents do. Sometimes they were forced to make potentially life-or-death decisions for the children they cherished most in the world. Even though it might be horrifying to do so. "But don't forget, the demon helped us."
"I don't like him," Ruby whispered loudly. "He can't swim, and he talks really slow and weird."
Yes, he did speak slowly, but Carrow thought his Demonish accent was sexy. "I didn't like him at first either. Give him a chance. Remember, he saved both of our lives."
"Did he really marry you?"
"Did he mention that?" At Ruby's nod, she said, "It's complicated, honey. Besides, even if we were, he wouldn't want to be any longer."
"But if you're married, then Ember's right. He's my stepdemon, and I'm going to have to live with him, too." She pouted, which was totally understandable, all things considered.
Of course Ruby would be nervous about her future. With so many "uestions that I don't have the answers to. "How about this - you know that house on the corner just down from Andoain, the one that can't be sold because of all the noise and fumes coming from the coven?"
"Uh-huh. It's got the big trees."
Carrow had been scoping it out because it had a pool and she was tired of sneaking dozens of witches into King Rydstrom's New Orleans pool house and residence. Plus, he'd busted them that last time. "I'll buy it, and it'll be our own clubhouse-slash-pad." It was conveniently located only a few houses down from Mariketa and Bowen's place. "You can decorate your room any way you like."
"What about the demon?" Ruby asked suspiciously.
"We could invite him over." Would he accept Carrow's invitation? Just now, he'd looked like he couldn't stand the sight of her. "We could teach him what movies are."
Her lips parted. "He doesn't know?"
Shaking her head, Carrow slowly said, "He's probably never tasted ice cream."
Ruby seemed to be giving this possibility serious consideration - until her eyelids slid shut.
As Carrow watched her drift off, her own lids grew heavy. Again, she thought about how much she wanted to join Ruby in sleep. Or to lie on Malkom's solid chest, with the steady drum of his heart beneath her ear. Carrow nearly moaned at the prospect of being close to him again.
But she had to get something settled with him tonight. They needed a plan. And I need to explain to him that I never wanted to hurt him -
"She sleeps?" he said from behind her.
Carrow jumped. "How did you get in so "uietly? Never mind. Yes. She's got to be exhausted."
"I will get more wood for the fire."
"You're going back out there? Malkom, can't it wait?" She gently extricated her hand from Ruby's, rising to stand before him. "We need to talk."
He shrugged, turning toward the other room, and she followed.
"Sit." He motioned to the stone hearth. When she sank down in front of the fire, he used a purloined knife to cut a hunk of meat from the hare. "Eat."
For some reason, like Ruby, she was no longer hungry. "I'm fine. You take it."
He gazed at the bite mark on her neck. "You need it more."
So she leaned forward to nibble off his knife, but he simply handed it to her. The hand-feeding days are so over.
He stood once more, pacing the length of the room and back. Looking just to the right of her, he grated, "Where is her father, Carrow?"