Unraveled, p.28

Unraveled, page 28

 part  #2 of  Intertwined Series

 

Unraveled
 



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Page 28

 

  She spoke as if her father’s desertion didn’t bother her, as if the man had done her a favor. “What about Victoria?”

  “What about her?”

  “He didn’t wash his hands of her?”

  “We don’t share the same mother, and he didn’t care to make hers happy. So no, there was no washing. ” Stephanie rolled to her side, peering over at him, her hands tucked under her cheek. “He pushed her to be his next Lauren. If she laughed, she was punished. If she disagreed with him, she was what? Punished. ”

  No wonder Victoria was so serious. No wonder she rarely relaxed. Aden was suddenly glad the man was dead.

  Something about that thought disturbed him, causing the fine hairs on the back of his neck to rise and his brain to ache. Every time he thought about Vlad, he felt this way. Why?

  “So what are your plans for us?” Stephanie asked. “For all the vampires?”

  “To find you a new king,” he answered honestly. “Before that, though, I don’t know. ”

  Her eyes widened, her expression pure puzzlement. “You don’t want to be king? Really?”

  “Really. ”

  “That’s just… I mean, wow. Who doesn’t want to rule the best vampires on the planet?”

  “Me. ”

  She popped a bubble. “That’s wise, I guess. I mean, you’re just a human. But in the meantime, if you make it to your coronation, I have some suggestions. ”

  “Wait. Remind me when the coronation is taking place. ”

  “Twelve days, my friend. Twelve long, long days. ”

  Long? When time was ticking by so swiftly and so unmercifully he could barely keep track? Still. Once he’d dealt with the witches, he’d have…roughly a week to find his replacement. That was doable. He hoped.

  “Meanwhile, you’re the man in charge, so your word is still absolute. So will you listen to my suggestions or not?”

  “Let’s hear them. ”

  “First, no more black robes. You didn’t pitch a fit when I dropped mine, haven’t said anything about my lack of proper dress now, and I thank you for that. Anyway, we need color. Lots and lots of color. Not just me, but all of us. Only, everyone else is too afraid to risk punishment to act without approval. ”

  “Color. Done. ” He knew Victoria secretly loved pink.

  Stephanie clapped. “Excellent. I’ll spread the word when I return. Now. Second suggestion. ” Another of those high-pitched screeches rang out, this one closer, and Aden sat up. So did Stephanie. “Uh, maybe we should move our blanket closer to the ranch. ”

  A third screech echoed, this one even closer. They hopped to their feet, but not before Aden fisted his daggers. A few feet away, leaves and branches rattled. As he moved in front of Stephanie, a small, deformed man burst through the thicket, heading straight for Aden, as if pulled by an invisible rope.

  “Goblin,” Stephanie yelped.

  Not a man, then. The misshapen creature was the same height as Aden’s kneecaps. He had pointy ears, yellow skin and eyes of red fire. Worse, his teeth were like sharpened sabers. Though the goblin wore clothing, the material was slashed to ribbons, revealing a gaping hole where his heart should have rested.

  Great. Not just a goblin, but a dead goblin.

  “Julian,” he muttered. If the soul was close to a dead body, that dead body awoke. Always. And then, of course, that newly awakened corpse attacked Aden, hungry for his flesh. Again, always.

  My bad.

  Aden had fought corpses a thousand times before and knew removing the head was the only way to stop them. Only, he’d never fought a nonhuman one before. Would decapitation work this time? Guess he’d find out.

  When the creature reached him, he arced one of his blades toward the thing’s throat, but just before contact, the goblin ducked and bit into his kneecap.

  Aden howled, fire instantly sparking in his leg and spreading. Adrenaline pumped through him, too, quickly dousing the flames and keeping him on his feet. He punched the creature’s temple, dislodging its teeth—ripping his own jeans and flesh in the process—and sending the little fiend flying to his side.

  The goblin lay there a moment, chewing the bleeding hunk of Aden’s skin, ecstasy filling those red eyes—along with hunger for more. Aden swooped in and slashed, using both his blades, crisscrossing his arms like scissors. The goblin rolled out of the way, fast, so fast, escaping the deathblow.

  Get him! Julian cheered.

  You can do it, Caleb said. Maybe.

  Steady, Elijah added. If you can stall him—

  The goblin leapt at him. Aden spun and the creature darted by, hitting the ground before jumping back to his feet. He jolted forward, closing the distance, daggers once again raised. He would succeed this time. Nothing would stop him.

  Or maybe something would.

  A dark wolf burst from the trees, flying past him and slamming into the goblin, chomping at his midsection. That didn’t slow the goblin down, however. The creature scratched and bit, angry, hungry, uncaring about pain. Corpses never cared. Perhaps they simply didn’t feel.

  The wolf raked sharp claws over the goblin’s face. Flesh sizzled, actually burning, and black blood squirted.

  “That’s not going to stop it,” Aden shouted, racing forward.

  The wolf tossed him an irritated glance. Dark brown and golden fur was matted to its face, and one of its eyes was nearly swollen shut. A growl of warning sounded.

  Move away!

  The hard male voice reverberated through his head, unfamiliar…maybe.

  “Hold him down. ” Though Aden suspected the wolf, whoever it was, would attack him for interfering, he raised his blade and struck. Finally. Success. The goblin’s head detached from its body and rolled away. That body twitched, then stilled.

  Aden was panting as his arms fell heavily to his side.

  “Good job, boys,” Stephanie said, skipping over to them. “For a minute there, I thought we were all goners. ”

  The wolf turned pale blue eyes on Aden—Nathan, Aden suddenly realized, Riley’s brother—before focusing on Stephanie. A moment passed in silence.

  She paled, shook her head. “No. ”

  The wolf uttered another growl.

  One step, two, she backed away. “But I’m supposed to be here. The councilmen told me to—”

  More silence. Another growl.

  “Fine,” she snapped, and vanished, there one moment, gone the next.

  Okay. What had just happened?

  Nathan turned his heated gaze to Aden. I killed the thing, yet it came back to life a few minutes later. How?

  The wolf was speaking inside his head, he realized. He didn’t like the extra noise, but he wasn’t going to complain. “I did it,” he admitted. “I wake the dead, but only when I’m close to them,” he added in a rush. “So if there are any more dead goblins in the forest tonight, I’d get rid of them quickly if I were you. ” Nathan nodded. Thank you. For protecting the princess. The praise was offered grudgingly.

  “My pleasure. But, uh, what did you say to her to get her to leave?” He knew the wolf had said something. He just didn’t know why the vampires kept deferring to the wolves when the vamps were supposedly the ones in charge.

  You’ll find, Your Majesty, that wolves are the most feared creatures in the land. Even by their allies. Now, please. Leave the area. Just in case. With that, Nathan bounded off.

  “He’s right. ” Riley’s voice suddenly echoed around him. “Our claws produce the same je la nune contained in your ring. That’s why vampires are careful not to anger us. That’s also why we try not to use our claws on other creatures. Try being the operative word. We don’t want them getting their hands on the poison. ”

  Aden turned. Sure enough, Riley, Victoria and Mary Ann were striding forward. All three were frowning. Riley with urgency. Mary Ann with fear. And Victoria with…concern? “And yet you serve them,”
he said.

  “Yes. ” Riley offered no further explanation. “Now, come on. ” He waved Aden over before he could ask why. “Enough dawdling. We’ve got work to do—and it’s not kidnapping a witch. Lauren already bagged one. ”

  THIRTEEN

  VICTORIA TELEPORTED EVERYONE to where the witch was being held. First Mary Ann, who begged to be left behind rather than be “thrown across the world like a rag doll. ” Then Riley. Finally, only Aden remained. When she reached out to take his hand, he stepped back, out of range. His shredded knee screamed in protest, but he allowed no hint of his pain to show.

  “I want to talk to you first,” he said.

  Talk? Kiss her first, then talk! Caleb beseeched.

  Give the boy some breathing room, Elijah countered.

  Aden would have thanked him for supporting his cause, but the psychic finished with: So he can tell her about Dr. Hennessy.

  Hell, no. There was a mood-killer for sure, and they had more important issues at the moment. Dating issues.

  “We’re not safe here,” she said.

  Behind him, amid the trees, a wolf howled. Nathan. Letting him know he and Victoria were, in fact, properly guarded? That there were no dead bodies nearby? He hoped so, but if not, if the howl was to send him running because other corpses would soon rise, he wouldn’t have cared. This was too important. He’d fight anyone or thing for the opportunity to finally hash this out with Victoria.

  “We’ll be fine. ”

  “Well, there isn’t time for this,” she said then, waving her fingers at him to motion him closer.

  I’m with Caleb. Kiss her, Julian piped up.

  Stubborn, Aden leaned against a tree trunk and crossed his arms over his chest. The movement, slight though it was, shot another bolt of white-hot agony through his knee. He’d been bitten by a corpse, something that had happened a thousand times before, so he knew this was only the beginning. This corpse had been a goblin, sure, but corpse saliva, no matter its source, was always the same. Poison. And even now, that poison was working through him, burning him.

  Tomorrow, he’d wish he were dead. Again.

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