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|The Reckoning(Darkest Powers #3) by Kelley Armstrong|
He listened, seeing if the taunt would bring Derek out.
“He’s busy,” I said. “With Ramon. He figured I could handle you.”
Liam threw back his head and laughed. “You do have spunk. We’re gonna have fun, just as soon as I take care of your boyfriend.”
He moved toward me. I sidestepped, leading him away.
“You wanna play chase, cutie? I’m real good at it. How about we let your boyfriend and Ramon have their fun while we have ours and-?”
Something buzzed. Liam sighed, reached into his pocket, and flipped open a cell phone.
“Kinda busy,” he said. He paused, listening. I could hear a man’s voice on the other end and thought I caught Derek’s name. “Yeah, yeah. You keep calling, we’re never going to catch him for you.”
If Liam said “we,” then it wasn’t Ramon phoning. Someone from the Pack? Had Liam already promised them Derek and now had to deliver?
“Quit your moaning,” Liam said. “I told you we’ll have him by sunrise. We just hit a minor complication. There’s a reason he came out into the woods tonight-messing around with his girlfriend.”
Liam looked at me. “Cute little thing. Dyed black hair. Big blue eyes.” He paused. “Chloe? Yeah, she looks like a Chloe.”
The Edison Group? Had to be. Right now, though, all I cared about was that whoever it was, he was keeping Liam occupied, giving Derek time to Change.
“Well, see, that’s the problem,” Liam continued. “We can’t seem to separate the two. So, taking him in might mean taking her, too.” He paused, listening. “Of course, we’ll try to leave her alone, but…” Another pause. “I understand. Getting rid of the pup-one way or another-is your main concern. So you accept the risk of collateral damage?” As he listened to the answer, he smiled at me. “Absolutely. If we can’t separate them, you won’t need to worry about the girl again. I’ll make sure of that. Now, if you have anything else to say, how about texting me? I’m kinda busy.”
He hung up. “Seems some people consider you expendable, Chloe.”
He lowered his voice to a mock whisper. “Bad people. It’s a hard lesson, but the world is full of-”
A distant cry stopped him short. He turned in the direction of the thicket.
“Speaking of bad people, seems someone’s been telling me fibs. Your boyfriend’s not playing with Ramon, is he?”
I stepped in front of him.
He started to brush past me. “I know you’re eager to have some fun, but I need to get your boyfriend out of the way first. Don’t you worry, though. It sounds like he’s Changing, and, if so, this is going to be quick.”
I jumped in his way again.
His smile turned brittle. “Save that spunk for later. Right now, it’s only going to piss me off, and you don’t want to do that.”
I let him pass but stayed on his heels, struggling to think up a plan. I could hear Derek moaning. The Change might have come on fast, but it was taking time to finish.
Derek’s defenseless. If Liam finds him like that, he’ll kill him.
I know, I know.
Then do something.
I took out my switchblade, opened it, and crept forward, closing the gap between us, gaze fixed on Liam’s back. He glanced over his shoulder. I hid the knife. He stopped.
“How about you walk in front of me?” he said.
His face hardened. “Get in front of me, where I can see you.”
As I passed him, my gaze went to his cane. Like Ramon, he was wounded.
“Y-you said you’d take Derek to the P-Pack,” I fake-stammered. “That’s still the plan, right?”
He just waved me on, gaze locked on the distant spot where Derek was.
I lunged and grabbed for the cane, but he whisked it out of reach, then swung it around, hitting me in the back so hard it knocked the air from my lungs and the ground from under my feet.
I hit the dirt, gasping, injured arm burning. I lifted my head, struggling to focus as Liam continued bearing down on Derek’s thicket. Every breath felt like a white-hot knife stabbing my lungs.
Like what? I was powerless. I-
No. I wasn’t powerless. There was something I could do. The thought of it made bile rise in my throat, but it was nothing compared to what I felt at the thought of Liam finding Derek before he finished his Change.
I had to buy him more time.
I closed my eyes and concentrated, pushing past the warning alarms. I poured everything I had into the summons…and nothing happened. All those genetically enhanced powers and, when I needed them, they failed.
Then you’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way.
I tried to rise. Pain ripped through me and the forest seem to tilt, my gorge rising again. I gritted my teeth and crawled to a nearby fallen branch. I wrapped my fingers around it, steeled myself against the pain, then pushed myself up. Once I was standing, I ran at Liam. He wheeled out of my path, but I managed to swing and hit his thigh in the same place I’d stabbed him three nights ago.
He howled and staggered. I hit him again. He went down. As he fell, he grabbed for me, but I danced back, stick raised. When he tried to get up, I swung again. This time, he caught the stick and whipped me off my feet. I let go of the branch, but I was already sailing through the air. I crashed down a few feet from him, then scrambled out of the way as he twisted to grab me.
I managed to get to my feet. He started pushing up, then stopped, staring at something behind me.
Please let it be Derek.
I turned to see a partially decomposed rabbit pulling its mangled body toward me. Its ears were shredded strips of leathery skin. Its nose was a crater, lips gone, big front teeth protruding. Its eyes were shriveled raisins. The back half of its body was flattened and twisted, hind legs to one side as it dragged itself forward.
“Stop,” I said, my voice eerily calm.
The rabbit stopped. I turned to Liam. He looked at me, face screwed up. Slowly, he rose, still staring at me.
“Forward,” I said.
The rabbit lurched toward Liam. He stumbled back.
I got to my feet. The rabbit stood beside me, gnashing its teeth.
I mentally commanded it to advance on Liam. It hesitated, then it swung its head in his direction and started toward him.
He let out a string of curses, backing away slowly. Then a growl sounded behind him.
Liam turned. A dark shape moved between the trees, hidden in their shadows. I could see only the outline-the pointed ears, bushy tail, and long muzzle. Had Derek reverted to wolf? As the beast crept forward, though, I realized it was barely half Derek’s size.
It stopped under a tree, almost hidden there, only its teeth visible, lips pulled back, growl vibrating. When it stepped into the moonlight, I braced myself for a hideous undead beast. But it was only an ordinary, living dog, probably from a nearby home.
The dog advanced on Liam, still growling. Werewolves and dogs didn’t mix-I knew that from Derek.
Liam locked gazes with it and gave a growl of his own. The dog kept coming at him.
Liam drew back his foot to kick it. Then he caught sight of the rabbit drawing alongside him. He backed away. The undergrowth behind him erupted in a flurry of breaking twigs and squeals. I couldn’t see what it was, but Liam let out an oath, almost backing into the snarling dog.
The dog lunged. Liam kicked it. As it flew back, moonlight caught the dog’s flank, and I saw a hole the size of my fist, squirming with maggots.
Liam saw it, too, and he cursed and backed away. The dog threw itself at him. Liam swerved out of its path.
“Stop,” I said.
The dog did. It stood there, teeth bared, eyes blazing, every hair on end, growling at Liam.
The rabbit lurched toward him. He kicked it, and it flew into the undergrowth, only to come back out again. Something else came out with it, some kind of rodent, mostly skeleton, rattling and gnashing its tiny teeth.
“Stop,” I said.
They did. Liam looked at me.
“Yes, they’re dead,” I said. “Yes, I control them. And you can’t kill them. You can try, but you can’t.”
“Well, then, I guess I’m going to have to fight the one I can kill.”
He charged at me.
I commanded the dog to attack, but my brain stuttered, seeing Liam bearing down on me. I dove to the side. He grabbed my pajama leg and yanked. I fell onto my stomach, scrabbling to get up, fingers digging into the ground, nails tearing. I wrenched and his grip slid to my foot. I gave a tremendous heave and flung myself forward, leaving him with my sneaker.
As I scrambled to my feet, I heard a smack. I spun to see Derek-in human form-on Liam’s back. Liam bucked and threw him off. Derek grabbed him, and they went down fighting.
The dog raced toward the two. I commanded it to be still, and it slid to a stop, snarling and straining like a rabid dog on a chain. I closed my eyes and gave it another order-to leave its body.
I kept releasing it and the other spirits, desperately trying to ignore the grunts and gasps of the fight. When I opened my eyes, the animals had collapsed, their souls freed.
Liam and Derek rolled on the ground, locked in combat, Liam’s hands in Derek’s hair, trying to yank his head back, Derek’s hands around Liam’s neck, neither one able to get the grip they needed to throw the other off.
I yanked out my switchblade as I raced forward. I hit the button…and felt the blade sink into my palm. I let go. The knife fell into the undergrowth. I dropped to my knees, digging for it.
A crack like the snap of a tree branch. I shot up. Derek lay on his back, Liam over him, Derek’s hands still around his neck. Both had gone still. Derek stared up, wide-eyed. Liam’s eyes were just as wide, but they saw nothing, fixed in an empty look of final shock.
“I-I DIDN’T…” DEREK BEGAN.
He scrambled out from under Liam. The werewolf’s body fell, limp, to the side, his head twisted, neck broken.
Derek swallowed. The sound echoed in the silence.
“I didn’t-I just-I was trying to stop him.”
“You didn’t mean it,” I said softly. “But he did.”
He looked at me, eyes refusing to focus.
“He would have killed you,” I said. “Killed both of us, if it came down to it. You might not have meant to do it, but…”
I didn’t finish. I could have said the world was better off without Liam, but we both knew the point wasn’t whether Liam deserved to die, but whether Derek deserved the guilt of killing someone. He didn’t.
“It wasn’t a fight to the death for you. But it was for him.”
Derek nodded and rubbed the back of his neck, wincing as his fingers hit a scrape.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. Just a few cuts and bruises. I heal fast. Might need a stitch or two here-”
He glanced down at the blood-smeared cut on his side…and realized he wasn’t wearing any clothing. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t realized it already. Kind of obvious. It wasn’t like he’d been going to take time out to find his clothing before stopping Liam.
Fortunately, under the circumstances, I hadn’t had time to dwell on the lack of clothing. With the fighting and, now, as he crouched, I hadn’t seen any more than I had when he was in his shorts. That didn’t keep him from turning bright red.
I peeled off my jacket and wordlessly handed it to him, and he tied it around his waist with a mumbled, “Thanks.” Then, “We should get going.”
Only we didn’t get going. We lapsed into silence, with Derek still crouched beside Liam’s body, his head down, hair hanging around his face, his back and arms covered in a sheen of sweat. He shivered.
“I’ll go get your clothes,” I said, pushing to my feet.
He caught my elbow. “Ramon.”
I blinked hard, feeling fuzzy-from shock, I guess. One of us had to kick-start their brain, and Derek seem stalled, unable to stop staring at the man he’d killed.
“We need to move him,” I said. “At least into the brush for now, to cover the body. Then we’ll have to come back tomorrow and bury him.”
I couldn’t believe what I was saying. Hiding a body? A body?
And what’s the alternative? Leave him lying in the path and hope none of the neighbors ever walks through here?
Body disposal might be something I never expected to do outside a screenplay, but this was my life now. Adjust or give up.
I stood and took Liam’s arm, giving it a tentative tug.
“I’ve got it.” Derek rose. “I’ll carry him. We can’t leave drag marks or anything, and we’ll need to bury him right away, so no dogs find him.”
“Bury who?” said a voice beside me.
I jumped so high, my heart rammed into my throat.
“Chloe?” Derek said.
I turned to see Liam walking toward us.
“Chloe?” Derek said again.
“It’s L-Liam. His ghost.”
Liam stopped. “Ghost?” He looked at me, then at his body, on the ground. He swore.
“You’re dead,” I said.
“So I see. That must make you one of those people who can talk to the dead and”-he glanced at the bodies of the dog and rabbit, lips curling-“raise the dead.”
His gaze returned to his own corpse, and he swore again.
I cleared my throat. “As long as you’re here, I have some questions.”
He looked at me, brows lifting. “You’re kidding, right?”