Unleash spellhounds book.., p.1
Unleash (Spellhounds Book 1), page 1
Also by Lauren Harris
About the Author
A Pendragon Press & True North Studios Novel
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Copyright © 2017 by Lauren Harris
Cover design copyright © 2017 by Starla Huchton
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the express written permission of the publisher.
For information address: [email protected]
PUBLISHED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND CANADA
Also by Lauren Harris
The Millroad Academy Exorcists Series
(Young Adult Paranormal Novellas)
Exorcising Aaron Nguyen
The Girl in Acid Park
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This book is dedicated to the Smoky Writers posse.
Food. Booze. Words.
No matter how many times I did it, my hands shook every time Gwydian made me kill. Never during the act. If he thought I might hesitate, he'd twitch his magic into my tattoo and force my hand, literally. Those results were never clean. So, I learned to delay my shaking and get the deed done, cold and quick. Clamp a hand around the jaw, stretch out the neck. One cut. Painless as possible.
This time, I almost refused.
The yacht’s hold was all cream leather, polished wood, and electronics blinking with LED sensors. It stood at odds with the medieval brutality of Gwydian’s ritual—the gleaming silver bowls; the ancient tome lying open on the rocking floor; the naked, senseless girl. And me, standing there ready to open her throat.
Tonight, my victim was one of the sex-trade captives Gwydian had hijacked from a boat off the keys. Her description could have been mine: around eighteen, thick hair caught between brown and blonde, too little curve to soften her sinewy muscles. She lay stretched across the table in the hold of Gwydian’s yacht, drugged into oblivion.
He’d probably chosen her precisely because she looked like me and forced me to hold the knife for the same reason. Magic wasn’t the only thing he used to control us.
I swallowed, shifted my sweaty grip on the knife’s handle, and tracked Gwydian’s movements. He knelt on the floor, chalk in his elegant hands, drawing the glyphs within the outer ring of a mandala. I’d seen members of the Sorcerers’ Guild cast spells with other drawn forms, but the mandala was the way most people favored. The biggest difference was that the Guild never spilled blood for power. In fact, it clearly went against whatever law underlay the hidden world of magic, because they wanted nothing more than to turn my master into a heap of charred viscera.
I was right there with them.
Our master was young, in his early thirties, and his gentle Scottish brogue didn’t scream “gang leader” to the average person. That was how he got you—a business deal and a joke about golf or kilts or haggis. Next thing you knew, you’d have a pair of new tattoos and a dead Cuban teenager at your feet. And Gwydian, with blood dripping from his suit cuffs, his veins glowing and flush with the power of someone else's blood...if you were lucky enough not to be the sacrifice.
The tattooed mandala on my shoulder prickled—a twitch of power from my master, priming it for use. I had one on each shoulder, though they were very different, and served different purposes. One gave the man before me power over my body, and the other…
…the other was complicated. And it itched as if the Celtic hounds circling the inner ring bristled and growled with the crash of conflicting emotions.
I didn’t want to kill this girl. If tonight's plan worked, I would never have to kill again. If I could only stall a little while, maybe I wouldn’t have to kill her either. Maybe I could save her.
My mother flicked her gaze from my hand to my face, and I looked up to meet it. She stood at the girl’s feet, there to brace her legs against the death flails. Mom was blonde, square-jawed, full of angles and lean planes, and she’d have looked delicate without the darkening bruise across her cheek.
I tamped down a flash of anger, remembering the dull impact as Gwydian backhanded her a few hours earlier. As if he’d known what we were planning, he’d commanded Mom, me, and my cousin Morgan to accompany him alone. We’d expected half the pack’s help subduing him, so the order was a wrench in the gears, but we had to go with it. We didn’t have a choice.
Mom couldn’t speak now, not with Gwydian crouching a few strides away, but her jaw tightened. She gave me a slight shake of her head, as if she knew I had rebellion on the brain.
One last time, her eyes said. Do it one last time, Helena, or Gwydian will suspect we have a plan.
That look banked the rebellion kindling in my chest. Mom had already lost so much to our master’s magic—her brother, her husband, fifteen years of her life. If anyone deserved to get out, it was her.
Somewhere out there, in the brackish black of Miami bay, the Sorcerers’ Guild waited in the waves. We should have been on deck, ready to help them aboard, but that wasn't happening without the rest of the pack.
I call us “pack” partly because I can’t bear to refer to us as a gang, not when most of us have been coerced by threats and blood magic. The rest of it was because of that second tattoo.
Gwydian stood with a grunt, stretching out his arm and dropping the little column of chalk into an ashtray. He turned his hand without lowering his arm and gestured at my mother.
“Lola, darling,” he said. “Come here a moment.”
Mom tensed, gave me a quick glance, and walked stiffly around the outline of the mandala. From my side of the table I only saw a piece of it, and the open spellbook was tilted away. It only took me a glance to memorize them—I was one of those people—but I couldn’t guess which one it was this time. Plenty of spells had a similar set on the outer ring. Most were nasty.
I tried not to think about this as Gwydian stretched his arm around Mom’s back and drew her in front of him, facing the circle. An electric zing shot down my arms, prepping my muscles to tear that man to shreds. The sight of his hands on her elbows sent a rush of disgust through me.
“Do you know what that spell is?” he asked, his chin dipping toward her ear. “Think. You’ve seen it before.”
Mom’s throat flexed. She shook her head, but from the tension creeping into her expression, I knew she at least had a guess. Gwydian caught up one of the silver bowls beside him.
“Take this to Helena,” he said, nodding in my direction. Mom’s nostrils flared, and I watched her arm twitch, then go still. Gwydian clenched her shoulder. “Lola,” h
We were too much alike. I wanted to yell at her for doing the same damn thing she’d told me not to, but part of me was also proud at her resistance. We Martin women didn’t take well to playing slave.
Mom’s shoulder flared magenta. She gasped and an instant later, her arm shot up. She took the bowl and turned to Gwydian, stiff as a toy soldier. His smile was a little sad as he ran a finger down the bruise on her cheek. His finger dimpled her flesh, pressing too hard on the discolored skin.
She didn’t blink. Right now, she couldn’t.
“Mom,” I said, my voice sharp and a little shaky. I stretched out my free hand for the bowl, keeping the other gripped tight around the knife.
The waves slapped against the hull, disturbing the otherwise perfect silence as Mom marched around the table. When she reached me, I grabbed her hand, holding it tight around the bowl.
“Stop,” I hissed. “Stop fighting him. Please.”
Her eyes were hard edged sapphires, but they softened at my words, and that was exactly why Gwydian wanted both of us. I was her weakness, and she was mine. At last, she blinked. Her throat flexed and her muscles relaxed, and she stepped back, squeezing my wrist before returning to her end of the table.
Gwydian was watching me. His expression mild, arms loosely crossed. Outwardly, he looked so clean-cut, so normal. But beneath those sleeves, every inch of him was tattooed with mandalas and ancient glyphs, at least half of them primed and ready to go.
Drawing spells took too long in a fight, but we humans excel at retooling skills for war. Permanent spell circles got chiseled in stone, etched in metal, tattooed on skin. Provided the order of drawing was correct, all the mandalas needed was power.
He nodded at me, crystalline eyes glossy with the melting-kindness that had fooled so many people into trusting him. A shiver of revulsion worked up my back.
He licked his lip like a snake tasting the air and touched an intercom button on the wall. Without breaking eye contact, he said, “Morgan? Come down.” He released the button and nodded at the girl below me. “Shall we begin?”
It wasn’t a question.
I drew in a short breath and redirected my gaze to the girl. Abrasions across her body mapped out her struggle for freedom. She’d fought, and though she’d lost, I was proud of those bruises. I only wish the Guild had gotten here fast enough to spare her.
I fixed her face in my mind like I did all of them, then pulled the blade in a clean, powerful arc from ear to ear. She jerked and gurgled, choking on the blood filling her airway as Mom wrestled with her ankles. I dropped the knife and pressed her shoulder into the table. The flesh was hot under my fingers.
A sheet of blood sluiced down her neck, soaking into her hair before it spilled over the side of the table. It spattered my boots and slicked my fingers as I shoved the silver bowl under it. The vessel filled fast at first, pulses of bright arterial blood growing thinner, then slowing as the heart failed. Finally, only residual pressure pushed the remaining blood from her cooling body.
She was sweating. Dead, but still sweating. I gripped the table’s edge, hoping to disguise the tremors skittering up my arms. My hands shook, but I kept my mind rigidly blank.
I didn't look at Mom, though I felt her eyes on me.
The door in the hatch above clanged open, and I heard Morgan's footsteps a moment before his boots came into view.
Unlike Gwydian, my cousin looked like the kind of man who controlled a human trafficking crime syndicate with blood sorcery. He was a modern day Viking—long hair the same wild white-blond as Mom's, and eyes that matched the hunting knife strapped to his thigh. His features were impassive, tanned from days on boats and bikes, killing whoever needed it to make Gwydian’s point. He thrummed with the vicious power that stopped conversations when he entered a room, though every iota of that brutality focused on our master.
Morgan ducked beneath the lintel, sparing a glance for me as he sidestepped the table. His eyes were expressionless as usual, but he glanced at the girl and back at me with a quick nod. I'd done a good job. He never spared me the truth when it was nasty.
He continued around the table in a few long strides, passing Mom without a glance. Gwydian's gentle gaze looked almost proud.
"How's the bay tonight?" Gwydian asked.
Morgan waited a beat. "Quiet," he said. "The harbor lights are dark, as you ordered."
Gwydian was nodding, already redirecting his attention to Mom. He beckoned again, and I tensed. Unease zipped down my spine—I didn't like that expression. It was too close to triumph. Very little gave him that much pleasure.
Mom's jaw tightened, but she approached him.
"And Helena," he said.
I wanted to drop the bowl. Actually, I wanted to fling it in Gwydian's face, grab dad's gun, and fire a couple bullets into his skull. But I would never get that far. He'd take control of me before I even lifted the gun. I didn't want to think about whose blood he would make me drain instead.
I didn't look up until I stood right in front of him. My work boots put us at eye-level. His, hazel and deep with fondness. Mine, amber-gray and, no doubt, burning with hatred.
He reached up and tweaked my chin. "Cheers, love."
I didn't say, "You're welcome.” He wasn't.
The bowl lightened in my grasp as Gwydian hefted it. I sprang away, the hair on my neck standing, lip curled as if I were about to growl. Mom's fingers closed around my arm, tugging me against her side. She was strong—shorter than me, which I still wasn't used to, but what mass she had was honed from years of desperate fighting. She tilted her head to whisper at me.
"What spell is it?"
I tensed, keeping my eyes on Gwydian as he dipped his fingertips into the dark liquid. I waited for the veins in his hand to light up, glow traveling up his arm to his shoulder, and across his breast to his heart. Soon enough, it would pump through his whole body. He wouldn't notice me.
I glanced beside me at the mandala on the floor, getting my first good look at the intricate spell circle.
Fear jolted down my spine. It took a second for my brain to regurgitate the memory of that spell circle, and where I'd seen it before.
"Mom..." my voice shook. Her fingers tightened around my arm.
"Run, baby." In an instant, she shoved me toward the stairs and went for dad's gun. My heart leapt into my throat, and I lunged for the table where I'd left the dead girl, and the knife. Before I got my hand around it, a powerful arm lashed around my neck and hauled me backwards. Morgan held Mom in one arm, me in the other.
The tattoo on my shoulder flared. It was like every limb filled with lead. I couldn't move my legs, couldn't strike out at Morgan or even wipe my bloody hand on my shorts. I was a marionette in Gwydian's control, just like Morgan. Like all of us.
Gwydian tsked. Morgan released me, walking with Mom to Gwydian's side. I, however, stepped right into the center of the spell circle. Fear shuddered up through me, images and sounds replaying in my head with picture clarity. Dad, writhing in pain, his muscles growing, splitting open his skin until it hung in rags. Mom, screaming. Blood and magic, everywhere.
Mom moaned, and Gwydian released enough control for that moan to form words. "No, no, please—not her." Her eyes glittered. I watched, almost as horrified by the sight of her tears at the thought that, in minutes, I would be like Dad. Twisted into something horrible, and forced to kill until my body gave out.
Gwydian extended a hand, and those glowing veins seemed to extend from his fingers, shooting into the edge of the mandala. Violet spilled first around the outer edge, then spreading like fire to each progressive ring. I willed my legs to move. The muscles strained and pulled and I gritted my teeth against the resistance. We had been so close.
Gwydian chuckled, wagging a finger at Mom. "How long has it been since I had your husband on a mandala just like this? Four years? It doesn't seem like that long ago, but
He waited, as if she might respond. I sensed the surge of energy an instant before his face shifted. He backhanded her. Mom crashed into the wall. Hatred flashed through me, sharp and hot.
He seized her hair and all trace of kindness vanished as he tilted her head back. "Didn't I!?"
A choked whimper flooded up my throat. My foot moved another centimeter. I wanted to pin him down and use that knife to carve out his heart.
He stroked the tears from her bruised cheek, leaving smears of orangey blood on her face. "You should have known it would end up like this. What's that?"
He must have relaxed his hold on her enough to hear her speak.
"M-me," she said. A shaking hand took Gwydian's. "Me. Please…."
"Take you instead?" He tilted his head toward me. "Oh, poor Lola. The parent, sacrificing all for the child—so noble, yet so cliché. I suppose it's a cliché because it happens. Still, that goes against my purpose, which is teaching you what you failed to learn last time. There will be no defying me, no helping the Guild hunt me down and put a bullet in my head. You think I don't have ears in the Guild? I do. And they listen."
"Well, that's good to know. I'll bet it's Anderson," said a new voice.
Gwydian's head snapped toward it just as something heavy slammed into my back.
We landed hard, and wiry arms closed around my body, hauling me into a roll that brought us under the table. Gwydian gave an angry shout, and the next second Morgan's boots thundered past us. Bright spell flashes painted the underside of the table, even as I realized Gwydian had dropped the threads of power connected to my tattoo. He'd focus all his magic on a shield mandala—one of his many tattoos.
I twisted around, panic thrumming through me. Mom—was she safe? Where was she?
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