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|The Reckoning(Darkest Powers #3) by Kelley Armstrong|
“Go slow?” I whispered. “Quietly?”
A grunt. Yes.
He slid in front of me and took a step. Then another. A cloud rolled over the moon and the forest went black. We stopped. A twig cracked to our right. Derek spun so fast he crashed into me, pushing me back as I stumbled, snapping at me when I didn’t move fast enough.
As I retreated into the clearing, I could make out a dark shape at the edge. At another twig crack, Derek slammed into the back of my legs, pushing and jostling me until I was at the far side of the clearing, then prodding me into the thick brush.
“I can’t-” I whispered.
He snapped and growled. Yes, you can.
I got down on all fours and pushed into the brush, hands in front of my face to clear the way. I’d gone only a few feet when I hit a tree. Thick bushes blocked either side. I twisted to tell Derek that I couldn’t continue, but he’d stopped at the edge of my hole, his backside blocking the entrance.
The cloud cover thinned, and a figure materialized in the path. It was another wolf, as black as Derek. It seemed to roll toward us, silent as fog, slowly and steadily drifting our way.
The clouds finally passed by the moon, but the wolf was still black as night from his nose to his eyes. I noticed pale stripes along one flank. When I squinted, I saw that they were strips of missing fur, the uncovered skin pink and puckered with recent scar tissue. I’d seen those scars just a few days before.
“Ramon,” I whispered.
Derek snarled, fur rising, tail puffing, fangs flashing. But the other wolf kept coming at us, steady and relentless. Finally, with a roar, Derek rushed at him.
Ramon stopped. He didn’t back up. Didn’t even growl. He just stood his ground until Derek was almost on him, then feinted to the side and ran straight at me.
Derek tried to stop, but he’d put too much momentum into the charge and he skidded into the brush.
As Ramon barreled toward me, I scrambled to get away, but the brush was too thick. Fortunately, it was too thick for him, too, and he couldn’t get any farther than Derek had, just close enough for me to smell the stink of his breath as he tried to shoulder his way deeper into the undergrowth.
Then he yelped and flew back with Derek’s teeth embedded in his haunch. Ramon yanked free and lunged at him. Derek ducked and tore past Ramon to block the mouth of my hiding place.
For a moment, all I could see was Derek’s tail. Then I glimpsed Ramon off to the side, backing up, peering around Derek, like he was assessing the situation.
He lunged to the left. Derek sprang that way, snapping and snarling. Ramon feinted right. Derek blocked. Left again. Blocked again. It was like that evening in the playground when Liam kept pretending to grab for me, taunting Derek, laughing as he reacted every time.
“He’s teasing you,” I whispered. “Trying to wear you down. Don’t fall for it.”
Derek grunted. He tensed, like he was locking his legs. But it didn’t help. Every time Ramon made a move my way, Derek jumped, snapping and growling.
Finally Ramon tired of the game and ran full out at Derek. They hit with a bone-cracking thud and went down, biting and growling, grunting and yelping when fangs sank in.
My hand tightened around my switchblade. I knew I should do something. Leap into the fray. Protect Derek. But I couldn’t. The other day, seeing Derek and Liam fighting in human form, they’d moved too fast for me to interfere. That was slow-motion compared to this, a frenzied ball of fur and fury rolling across the clearing, one indistinguishable mass of black fur and flashing fangs and spattering blood.
I had to do something, because Derek had a serious handicap: me. He couldn’t seem to forget I was there, and every time Ramon rolled my way, Derek stopped fighting to get between us again.
I wanted to tell him to forget about me. I was fine, burrowed deep in the undergrowth and armed, and there was no sign of Ramon’s partner, Liam. But I knew it wouldn’t do any good. That protective instinct overrode reason.
I stood, reached as high as I could, and grabbed the bottom branch of the tree behind me. My stitched arm complained, but I ignored it. I clambered up. Climbing was easy. The tough part was not looking down every time I heard a grunt or a yelp.
Finally I was too high for Ramon to reach. I called to Derek, telling him I was safe. He still had to check, of course, glancing up and getting a hunk of fur ripped out of his neck. But once he saw where I was, he threw himself fully into the fight.
Still, as big as Derek was, he was no match for an experienced adult werewolf. When faced with Liam, Derek had run the other way, admitting he was outclassed. There might be a streak of arrogance in Derek, but there wasn’t any bravado. If he couldn’t win a fight, he had no problem running.
This time, though, he couldn’t run.
I clutched the knife and wiggled out along the branch until I was over the fighters.
Speaking of bravado…
I stopped, feeling a prick of guilt at even thinking of something so stupid. If I dropped onto them, I’d be lucky if I didn’t get Derek killed trying to protect me.
I hated cowering there like a helpless heroine. Yet I was helpless against Ramon. I didn’t have superhuman strength or superhuman senses or fangs or claws or magical powers.
Stop whining about what you don’t have. Your brain still works, doesn’t it?
Under the circumstances, I wasn’t too sure.
Just use it. Think.
I stared down at the fight, racking my brain for a plan. As I watched, I realized I could tell which one was Ramon by the scars. If I could-
I leaned down as far as I dared.
“Derek! His side! Where he’s scarred…”
I struggled for a way to explain without giving away the plan to Ramon, but I didn’t need to say another word. Derek twisted and clamped down on Ramon’s flank. Without fur for protection, Derek’s teeth sank in easily. Ramon yowled. Derek wrenched his head back, ripping out a big chunk of Ramon’s flank.
Blood gushed. Derek pranced back out of the way and dropped the hunk of flesh. Ramon charged, but his rear leg faltered. Derek dodged around Ramon and bit his flank again.
Ramon roared in pain and fury, and wheeled, tearing himself from Derek’s grip. Blood spattered as he tore around fast and grabbed Derek by the scruff of the neck. They went down, Derek struggling and clawing until one of those claws scraped across Ramon’s opened flank. A yelp from Ramon, and Derek was free. Derek backpedaled toward the stream bank. It was at least a fifteen-foot drop and I called to warn him, but he kept backing up.
Ramon lunged at him, bristling and snarling. Then a whistle cut him short. Liam. Ramon checked his charge, threw back his head, and began to howl. Derek leaped on him. Ramon cut the howl short and threw Derek off, then kept advancing on him, driving him back toward-
“Derek! The cliff!”
This time, his gaze swung up, meeting mine. But he didn’t stop, just kept going, gaze once again locked with Ramon’s.
At the last second, Derek veered left, circling and hitting Ramon square in his wounded flank. Ramon sailed off his feet. Derek pounced on him. His fangs sank into that mass of shredded flash. Ramon let out an unearthly howl of agony.
Ramon managed to scramble up, his back to the cliff. Derek lunged at him. Ramon backpedaled. At the last second, he saw the looming drop and started to twist out of the way, but Derek head butted him in that wounded flank, sending him flying over the edge of the embankment.
I climbed down and ran over to Derek, poised on the bank, looking at Ramon, who was still conscious, struggling to get up, one foreleg twisted at an ugly angle.
The whistle came again. Derek turned sharply, banging my legs, then prodding me with his nose, telling me to get moving.
“Is it Liam?” I asked.
He dipped his muzzle in a nod.
As for why Liam would be in human form, I wasn’t stopping to wonder. He was still a formidable threat. The only advantage was that if he wasn’t a wolf, tracking us would be slower.
“It came from near the house,” I whispered as we ran. “We should head for the road. Do you know where-?”
He answered by barreling past me. We ran for a few minutes, but I kept falling behind. He raced back to take up the rear.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I can’t see and I keep tripping-”
He cut me off with a grunt. I know. Just go.
I took the lead, letting Derek tap the back of my legs whenever I started heading off course. Finally, I could see lights through the trees. Derek prodded me toward them and-
“Making a helluva racket, ain’t ya, pup.” Liam’s Texas drawl echoed through the forest.
Derek knocked me flying. I hit the ground hard, chin scraping the earth, dirt spraying into my mouth. I tried to rise, but Derek was standing over me. I ran my tongue over my teeth, making sure I hadn’t lost any.
Derek chuffed and prodded the back of my neck. I was going to interpret that as an apology, whether it was or not.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Liam sang.
Derek nudged me into a thicket so small we had to crowd in together and I got a mouthful of fur. When I tried to give him more room, he growled at me to be still. I sat down and he pressed against me, getting the rest of his bulk into the thicket, until he was practically on my lap.
He lifted his head to sample the wind. It was coming from the same direction as Liam’s voice, meaning he couldn’t smell us.
I closed my eyes to listen better. I could feel the pounding of Derek’s racing heart. Mine must have been beating just as hard, because he nudged my arm until I opened my eyes and met his, dark with concern.
“I’m okay,” I whispered.
He shifted, trying to take more weight off my legs. As he moved, my hand brushed a patch of wet fur. I drew back to see my fingers sticky with blood.
He cut me off with a grunt. I’m okay. Now, shhh.
I tried to see how badly he was hurt, but he shifted again, this time keeping me down.
We sat there, silently listening. His ears swiveled, and every now and then they’d twitch, like he’d caught a noise. But instead of tensing, he began to relax.
“He’s moving away?” I whispered.
I settled in. It was hard to be afraid for your life when there was a two-hundred-pound wolf on your lap. It was oddly comforting. Between the heat of his body, the softness of his fur, and the beat of his heart I found myself blinking to stay awake.
“Is he gone?” I whispered.
Derek shook his head.
“How long should we stay-?”
Derek stiffened. I peered into the night, but when I glanced at Derek, he didn’t have that pointer-on-a-scent look. His head was still down. His eyes were wide, and he held himself completely still.
Then I felt it. His muscles were twitching.
“You’re ready to Change back,” I whispered.
He grunted, tense, worry seeping into his eyes.
“No problem. It always takes a while after the first sign, right? We’ll have time to get you back to the house. You can Change there-”
He convulsed, his front legs shooting out. He collapsed on his side, all four legs going rigid, head jerking back, eyes rolling wildly.
“It’s all right. This is better anyway. Just let it happen.”
Not like he had a choice. I crawled over him, getting out of the way of those flailing claws. Crouching behind him, I rubbed his shoulders and told him he was doing fine, everything was okay.
His head lowered, then flew back with a bone-cracking snap. He let out a yelp, ending in a snarl as he tried to be quiet, but the convulsions kept coming faster and a whimper escaped with each fresh spasm. When he finally stopped, everything around us stayed silent. But I knew Liam had heard.
I leaned over Derek, whispering encouragement, hoping to block any sound of Liam, keep him from panicking. Soon, though, Derek’s head shot up and I knew Liam was coming.
Derek was well into his Change now, his muzzle shortening, ears moving to the sides, hair growing as his fur retracted. I leaned down to his ear.
“Just keep going, okay? I’ll look after it.”
He stiffened and made a noise that I knew was a no. I rose. He tried to do the same, only to be hit with another convulsion.
“I’ll be okay,” I said, pulling out my knife. “I won’t do anything stupid. You’re almost finished. I’ll distract him until you are.”
“No,” his voice was garbled, guttural.
I turned to go. He grabbed for my leg, but his fingers were still knobby stubs and I easily pulled away. Without looking back, I ran from the thicket.
I RAN, GETTING AS far from Derek as I could. Finally I saw the figure of a tall, lean man with light hair, limping through the forest, cane in one hand. Liam. The limp explained why he wasn’t in wolf form. If Changing was as painful as it seemed, I could only imagine how bad it would be if you were injured. That injury also meant he had a grudge to settle. With me.
I took a deep breath, trying to calm my galloping heart. It didn’t work. Too bad. I couldn’t let him get close enough to see or hear Derek Changing.
I ran as close as I dared, then pulled up short in his path. He stopped and smiled.
“Hello there, cutie,” he drawled. “I thought I smelled you.”
“How’s the leg?”
His grin turned a little less friendly, more bared teeth than smile. “Hurts like a son of a bitch.”
“Sorry about that.”
“I bet you are.”
He stepped closer. I stepped back.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I forgive you for the leg. I like a little spirit in my fillies.” His look sent a shiver through me. “Makes them more fun to break. Now where’s that big ox of a boyfriend?” He raised his voice. “This is a coward’s ploy, pup, sending the girl out to distract me. About what I’d expect, though, considering how fast you ran away last time.”