Dead in the Water (Gemini: A Black Dog Series Book 1) (18 page)

BOOK: Dead in the Water (Gemini: A Black Dog Series Book 1)
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Chapter 16

T
en minutes passed counted
out by my fingers tapping against my thigh.
Ten
. Some humans could hold their breath for twenty-odd minutes. The record was something like twenty-two minutes and twenty-two seconds. Nonaquatic fae had a similar lung capacity. That said, the average human only managed thirty or forty seconds before they started gasping for air.

Not that I was obsessed with drowning statistics or anything, but how would a nine-year-old girl survive such an arduous trip to the surface? If she was still alive at all. Harlow might be fast, but if the caves ran as deep as she thought they might, then pressure sickness might also be a factor. Too many variables. Too many grim thoughts circling me. I was sick of them.

“Is it safe to come out now?”

The sound of Dell’s voice eased the tension in my shoulders. “I didn’t hear you.”

“You weren’t supposed to.” Her next steps made enough noise to compensate for the previous ones. Moonlight glimmered in her hair and bathed her cheeks when she winked at me. “Stealth mode and all that.”

“The patrols haven’t turned up anything?”

“Nothing so far.” She tapped the side of her nose. “The scent from the parking lot was strong enough we all imprinted a scent memory. We’ll know the creature if we come across it again.”

“That’s good news.” As fast as news traveled among the wargs, having Dell with me was as good as wearing a headset and listening in to comm chatter. Or it would be if she heard the pack bond as well in human form as she did as a wolf. “Is everyone in place?”

“The lake is surrounded,” she assured me. “It can’t get on land without one of us seeing or hearing it, even if it casts again and we lose the scent.”

A pack of wargs could handle the kelpie if Harlow spooked it. I was more worried about what was happening under the water. The question of
what is Charybdis
hadn’t been answered to my satisfaction yet either. Were we dealing with one fae? Or two who shared a magical signature?

If a practitioner put in an appearance, we weren’t without resources. We had two witches on our side, but Charybdis was fae or at least from Faerie. His magic would be fae magic. The Garzas cast earth magic. Even with a home-field advantage, the Garzas might not stack up against the mystery fae.

“We could ask the Garzas to cast again,” Dell was saying, “but by the time they finished, this op will be over.”

A bloodcurdling scream glazed my spine with fear. The ethereal white head of a delicately boned horse parted the surface of the water. Steam bellowed from its nostrils. Its mane rippled in the still night air as though the strands were as dry as bone. Hooves stamped the water in front of it, and a massive tail whipped the water in its wake.

“Fish sticks,” Dell cursed. “I need to shift. I have to warn the others.”

An enormous silvery gray wolf with white markings on its forelegs kicked up dirt when it landed beside me. Its teeth were bared, and drool hung from its muzzle. I stumbled into Dell before my brain caught up to my feet. “Graeson?” The wolf’s hazel eyes flicked to me, and a sarcastic wag moved his tail before he lowered his shoulders and snarled at the stampeding kelpie. “You can’t take on a kelpie alone.”

The wolf, who must have been hiding in the trees all along, ignored me.

Dell cocked her head, already listening to things beyond my perception while her bones cracked and the change took her. “The others…will be here…soon.”

A vicious shriek pierced my ears. The kelpie was gaining speed, and I was a sitting duck without borrowed magic to wield. We had expected the kelpie to flee. We figured it would exit the far end of the lake, the farthest point from civilization. It must have followed Harlow’s scent trail back to the pier. It wanted this confrontation. It came looking for a fight.

“I can’t stand back and watch you two fight this thing.” I stuck out my hand. “Please, Dell. Let me help you.”

Understanding tensed her shoulders, but she clasped hands with me. “Don’t die. I’ll get in so much trouble if you kick the bucket.”

Fingers damp in her grip, I timed it so my spur pierced Dell’s palm the moment the kelpie’s front hooves struck sand. A bestial cry rang out as it hauled itself forward in graceless increments. Its tail flipped and kicked up dirt until a burst of white magic dissolved the giant fins into muscular rear legs. With all four legs under it, the kelpie charged.

Tawny fur rippled down my arm the instant the tang of Dell’s blood registered in the back of my throat. Straining, I focused on the burn of magic, directed it, and slowly the nails on my other hand blackened and lengthened to razor tips.

Jaws wide, the gray wolf at my side lunged for the kelpie’s throat. Popping noises and soft whimpers told me Dell was mid-change. I circled around the kelpie, claws flexing, waiting for an opening. Graeson slung his head back and forth, ripping flesh and exposing the beast’s windpipe. His nails dug into its fur and gave him leverage to clamp his jaws deeper in the delicate skin.

The scent of raw meat made my stomach rumble. Must be the wolf blood, because I was a well-done kind of girl.

Graeson’s assault left no room for me. The hindquarters were too dangerous. The front end wasn’t much better. The throat was its weakest point, and the warg necklace the kelpie wore was stripping tendon to the bone.

A groan turned growl preceded the golden wolf who positioned herself between the fight and me. Head low and tail dragging the ground, Dell rumbled in her throat. The motion drew the kelpie’s eye, and its slimy gaze raked over me. The beast trumpeted a shrill whinny. Its black pupils expanded until only crystalline voids remained where its eyes had been. Their emptiness sucked at the edge of my consciousness, lured me forward and made my palms itch with the need to caress the kelpie’s silky hide, to run my fingers through its flowing hair. For a moment, the world spun in orbit around me, and the unforgiving fabric of the universe spread as far as my eyes could see. There was peace in death, and the creature offered it to me. Its vision enveloped me, and the surcease of pain was such a welcome relief that my bones melted with promise.

In the distance, miles away, light-years from me, the sounds of Graeson’s feasting rent the air. Another sound, a whine accompanied by the insistent nudging of a furry head against my thigh, yanked me from the kelpie’s trap, and I gasped as the world rushed back into focus.

A nicker passed the kelpie’s lips before it twisted, slinging Graeson off his feet. Graeson hung on by the tips of his fangs. When the horse let him touch down, it nailed him in the stomach with the sharp edge of a front hoof. Blood slicked his fur. He was hurt. Badly.

Seeing its opening, the kelpie stomped on Graeson’s tail and reared back its head, shredding its own throat as it tried ripping the warg off. Its feet stamped, eager for the chance to crush the wolf beneath them. It was my cue. I couldn’t wait another second. I rushed forward with Dell bounding two strides ahead of me.

The beast rotated its torso to the right, and Graeson slung free, his body splashing into the water. It spotted Dell and pivoted on its front feet, bucking wildly and clipping her on the chin with its rear leg. Her head snapped back. She hit the water and didn’t move. I ran to haul them out before they drowned.

“A little help would be nice,” I yelled to the wargs who had yet to materialize.

I bolted for Dell, but the kelpie cut me off. It didn’t charge. It didn’t move. Maybe it couldn’t now that it had expended so much energy on attacking the wargs. It stared me down while its life drained away in bluish fluids that slicked its chest. I didn’t have time to waste. Already prickles raced up my arms. Splitting the magic across two limbs was costing me. I swung my arm and raked furrows across the kelpie’s snout. It reared on its hind legs and screamed. I swung again, swiping its chest. It planted its front feet and whirled its hind legs. When it kicked out, air whistled over my head, but I ducked under its vicious hooves. I wasn’t fast enough to dodge its second strike, and the next thing I knew I was flying.

I hit the water. Hard. I gritted my teeth and gasped as the warm liquid closed over my head and the sound of my frantic pulse hammered in my ears. My body sank fast and so far, I thought I would never stop dropping. My frantic mind conjured Lori floating beside me, hand extended, encouraging me to let her guide me into the deeps where she had gone.

The bitter tang of fear and blood filled my mouth, and a second, more desperate change swept over me as Lori waited out my oxygen with an eager smile curving her lips. It was as if the wavering apparition had possessed me, ready to relive her death. The arms grasping for the surface were now slender and pale. My hands were small, and a kitten bandage covered one of my knuckles.

Childish laughter tinkled in my ears. The sea boiled and frothed. Waves pelted me, sucked my feet from under me. My back hit the sand. My ears rang. Water rose up my chest, fizzled over my neck until it crested over my head. One heartbeat, two. It retreated in a dizzying rush, nursed my toes and tried to draw me out to sea with it. Salt made my face sticky. Tears or ocean water, I wasn’t sure.

A thick arm wrapped around my waist, and I cried out as reality splintered the memory. The remaining air in my lungs expelled from the pressure. I blinked through murky waters and found Graeson’s human face inches from mine. His eyes glowed in the low light, wild and furious.

I clawed at my throat, couldn’t breathe. So much water. In my eyes, my nose, my ears. Crushing me. Graeson was strong, but he was injured, one leg shattered by the kelpie. He struggled to haul us both to the surface.

Lori’s pale hands fisted his shirt. The gods weren’t so cruel as to let her die the same way twice, were they? Hadn’t I been punished enough? Or did I have to follow in her footsteps as I should have done that night so long ago?

Graeson scissored his legs and pinned me to him with one arm while he swam with the other. Pressure lessened. The pain banding my chest became bearable. Our heads burst from the water, and I gasped and choked until my throat burned. I shivered so hard my teeth chattered even though the water was as warm as the last shower I had taken.

“Hold on,” he panted. “I’ve got you.”

I clung to him, wrapping my legs around his waist and my arms around his neck until he made a gurgling noise. He twisted in the water so I rode astride his chest as he paddled backward toward the shore. In a day or two I would be mortified. Right now I was too damn grateful to be alive. I propped my chin on my shoulder to keep my face out of the water. Graeson’s nose barely breached the surface, but his heart thumped steady against my chest.

Helping hands hauled us ashore next to the partially devoured kelpie corpse. The pack must have finished it off while Graeson shifted and came after me. “Bring us a blanket,” he ground out between his teeth, pain lowering his voice a register.

I ought to let go. Supporting my weight had to have been agony for Graeson with his busted leg, but I couldn’t release him. My muscles were locked. He was a safe harbor, and I wanted so much to remain in the shelter of his arms.

“Is that the Tanner girl?” One of the wargs opened his arms to receive me. “It’s all right, darlin’. I won’t hurt you.”

Graeson’s snarl reverberated through my bones.
“Mine.”

The warg’s expression slipped, confusion knitting his brow until he leaned forward and inhaled. His eyes widened in recognition. “Agent Ellis.” The sound of my name ramped up Graeson’s anger. The warg held his hands up, palms out, and started walking backward until the beta calmed. “Call if you need anything.” He was looking at Graeson when he said it, not in the eyes, but at chest level, a height that wouldn’t instigate a challenge for dominance, but a wary inflection in his voice convinced me he was talking to me.

“Leave us,” Graeson grumbled then turned on his heel, not waiting to see if the other warg obeyed him, before walking into the shelter of the pines where he sat with me on his lap. Unseen hands wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. Stuck flush to him as I was, it made a heavy cocoon for us.

I rested my face against his neck, each breath drawing in the comforting scent of his skin. As my nerves calmed, prickles coasted down my limbs. His arms held me tight while my body juddered, and I lost my grip on Lori. Panting through the cocktail of panic, fear and hurt, I swallowed hard and pushed against his chest.

“I should…” Stand up, walk away, ask questions, anything but sit there and let him hold me like he cared I had almost died. The kelpie was dead. I had to touch the beast to confirm the magical signature before the wargs polished off the corpse. I shoved away from him, toes brushing the ground, but then Dell was there, and she put her hand on my shoulder.

“Stay.” The pressure of her fingers was enough to coax me back against Graeson. “His wolf needs to accept you’re safe.” His arms eased when I complied. Dell patted me. “Give Cord a minute to rein him in.”

Her warning drew my gaze upward. His eyes shined like golden beacons, with all the warmth of lighthouse torches. Now that I was myself again, his nose buried against my throat, under my ear, putting his teeth close to my pulse. I swallowed and let him drag my scent deep into his lungs. A long time later, his grip loosened enough for me to clamber off his lap.

Dell offered me a hand up and inched between us when Graeson growled like she had stolen a raw New York strip out of his food bowl. “Cam is not pack.” Her voice trembled. “You can’t hold her if she doesn’t want to be held.”

“Mine,” he warned her in a voice that was more beast than man.

“No,” Dell told him, stronger this time.

Graeson looked over as if leaving the matter up to me to decide. I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to risk sticking my foot in it. He had claimed me when the Fury threatened my life. I fought him then, and it had done no good. His wolf wasn’t a fan of the word
no
. He had been protecting me from Letitia at the time, so I didn’t take the possessiveness too seriously. I was weaker than a warg, and Graeson’s inner beast was the next best thing to an alpha. Protecting those weaker than himself was instinct. It wasn’t personal. It was reflex.

BOOK: Dead in the Water (Gemini: A Black Dog Series Book 1)
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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