“Breathe!” Dastien screamed, but his voice sounded a million miles away.
The world shook, but I didn’t know where I was or what was happening.
Something hit my chest over and over. Each slam rocked me.
I wanted the pain to stop. I needed to breathe. But I couldn’t.
Why couldn’t I breathe?
There was cursing in French. It sounded louder than his words before.
It felt like bricks were thrown into my chest. I tried to yell for it to stop, but then I was coughing.
The world tilted and spun.
Water gushed out of my mouth.
“That’s it. That’s it. Get it out.” Dastien’s voice shook as he rubbed a hand up and down my back.
My whole body heaved until nothing else could possibly be left in me.
When I was done, I collapsed back into the sand exhausted as if I’d run back to back marathons. Every muscle ached and throbbed. My throat was on fire, and I wasn’t sure how I was still alive.
“Hang on.” Dastien disappeared for a fraction of a second and then helped me sit up. “Just a sip,” he said as he tipped a water bottle to my lips.
One sip was enough. I’d had enough water for the next year. My heart was pounding, and I couldn’t believe what had just happened. “Did I drown?”
“Yes, but you’re a werewolf. You’re hard to kill.”
Thank God for that.
I grabbed the water bottle. My hands were shaking so much that more water splashed on me than got in my mouth. The pain had left my limbs, but the terror lingered. The waves still lapped at my toes, and I wanted to move back but couldn’t.
I wasn’t sure if I should be crying right now, but I felt disconnected. Like I was floating above my body.
“You’re in shock.”
I licked my lips. “I don’t understand…” My hands still shook as I drank from the water bottle again, this time taking little sips. The fact that I’d almost died was so crazy and felt surreal. “What happened?” I asked Dastien, who was kneeling beside me. And then I realized something scarier.
I grabbed his wrist, needing a connection to him. “Why can’t I hear you in my head? Why can’t I feel—” For a heartbeat, I could feel his paralyzing fear so strong it was as if I was drowning all over again. I couldn’t breathe as his confusion swamped me. His anger raged through my veins. And guilt. Guilt so strong I—
He tightened the bond, and all his emotions dulled just enough to make it bearable. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He paused his forehead to mine, and I knew he needed the touch just as much as I did. “I don’t know what happened. All I could tell was that you were in pain and disoriented. If you never go swimming again—”
“It wasn’t the swimming—”
“Being a wolf and sw—”
“It was different.” I drew up my knees, creating space between us.
Swimming might be harder as a Were, but I was fine out there. Whatever had happened to me, it was a magical attack. I knew that much. “We’ve been here for nearly two weeks. Have I had any problems in the water?”
He was quiet because we both knew the answer.
I laid back on the sand, throwing an arm over my eyes to block the sun. My senses were on overload and I felt raw and empty. What had happened?
“I was trying to get to the island. I was fine. But then there was so much pain… My arms felt like they were being sliced apart and they locked. I couldn’t make them move. Then the same thing happened with my legs, and my buoyancy is all shit now, so I started to sink. When I could move again, I was so deep…I couldn’t make my way up.”
Where had those pains come from? Why did I lose control of my limbs? I had to focus on anything but the fact that I’d died. Not almost died. For a second there, I was gone.
Goosebumps ran up my body and I met Dastien’s glowing amber gaze as he leaned over me. “What happened?” I asked him again.
“I don’t know.” His wolf was close to the surface, itching to get free. “I took too long to get to you. I’m so sorry. I was distracted. Around the time you started freaking out, one of the Seven died and—”
“Wait. What? Who died?” I grabbed Dastien’s arm. My heart raced, and I prayed that Mr. Dawson was okay.
“Other than knowing that it’s not Michael? I don’t know.”
I quietly thanked God for that. When Dastien’s parents died, Mr. Dawson had taken Dastien in. Raised him like his own son. Losing Mr. Dawson would destroy my mate.
“I know. For a second, I thought it was Michael and I…” He rubbed his forehead as grief and fear warred inside him. “I should’ve been faster. I’m—”
“Stop. I’m fine.” But the fact that I felt pain right as one of the Seven died was really, seriously, weird. “If it wasn’t Michael, who died?”
“My guess is Muraco. He was fading, but I know what you’re thinking and I don’t know why you felt what you did. He would’ve died peacefully. So, it must’ve been a poorly timed coincidence. But we both feel the same about those.”
I pushed my long, wet hair out of my face. “Is it usually painful when one of the Seven dies?”
“I’ve only been alive for one other death in the Seven, so I can’t say for certain, but both times were painless for me. I didn’t feel any pain except yours.” He paused. “Don’t you remember when Ferdinand died?”
“Honestly, no. I don’t.” I tried to think back. The last thing I remembered about Ferdinand was Donovan saying that he was sending some guy named Mal to find him, but I hadn’t followed up with it. I’d been so focused on dealing with Luciana that I’d kind of forgotten all about Ferdinand. Which was probably a bad thing. “Ferdinand died?”
“Yeah. A few days after the chapel in Santa Fe there was a little ripple along the pack lines, and I knew that one of the Seven had died. That’s when Michael joined the Council.” He sat back on his heels as he thought for a second. “Today, it was the same thing. I only felt a ripple along the pack bonds. And when Donovan left a couple weeks ago, it was barely noticeable.”
“I didn’t notice that either.” I knew he’d left, but I hadn’t felt the exact moment when he broke the bond. I guessed I needed to pay better attention.
“Honestly, I only noticed because I was waiting for Donovan to leave, and I would’ve blown it off as something else, but Michael texted me about it.” He paused for a second, and I could feel him reading my confusion. “The Seven are linked to all the pack Alphas, which means they’re linked to every werewolf in every pack, but unless you’re the Alpha of a pack—which you’re not—the bond is pretty thin. I have no idea why you were in pain today, but I don’t think it means anything good.”
I licked my lips. “You really didn’t feel any pain? Not even a little twinge?”
“No. I promise. The only thing I felt was through our bond.”
This made no sense. “So, what the hell happened? Why did I almost die?”
“I don’t know. We have to call Michael.” His jaw ticked as he stared off into the distance.
Anger burned hot. It was eating him up, but I couldn’t figure out what he was so pissed off about without digging into his head more, and he was still holding back. “Why are you so mad?”
The glow in his amber colored eyes faded a bit as he cupped my cheek. “I’m mad for a lot of reasons. At Michael. Why didn’t he call and let us know that there was a problem? But mostly I’m mad at myself. Why the fuck didn’t I check in? Disconnecting was my idea, and it nearly got you killed.”
No. He couldn’t take the blame for this. I wouldn’t let him. “This wasn’t your fault. I wanted time alone together as much as you did, but now we just have to figure out what’s going on. And I really, really want to know which member of the Seven died today.”
“Me, too.” Dastien’s sorrow made tears well in my own eyes.
I stood to brush sand off my leg, but gave up. Sand caked the whole back of my body. Only a shower was going to fix it. “Come on. Let’s go back to the house.” I grabbed up my bag and towel, and started off toward the house.
I couldn’t believe I’d drowned. I couldn’t believe one of the Seven was dead. And if I was right and I’d been feeling their death, then whoever had died was murdered. Brutally.
Which meant the Seven were down two members. What did that mean for the werewolves?
Three, Dastien chimed in, correcting me. They’re down three members.
“Three? Donovan and whoever just died. Who am I missing?”
“When Ferdinand was killed after his attempted coup, Michael was chosen to take his place. There’s a ceremony involved to become a full member, which he hasn’t done yet. Until he does that, he’s just a stand-in, and his bond to the Seven is weaker than the rest.”
“Wow. I had no idea.” I thought for a second. “And then Donovan broke his bonds with the Seven the day after his and Meredith’s Full Moon Ceremony.” My heart started beating too fast. Oh shit. I wasn’t sure how Donovan leaving the Seven was connected to the demon attacks at St. Ailbe’s, but they had to be related somehow.
Now a third member had been murdered.
I’d had no idea that the Seven was in shambles.
Add to all that my visions being off?
I was wrong. Something wasn’t coming. It was already here.
A shower helped clear my head, but I needed a nap. Near death must’ve killed a royal fuckload of calories because I was seriously dragging. I threw on a pair of pajama shorts and a tank top and managed to clip my hair up before calling it done. The fact that I was alive was good. Better was the knowledge that Dastien was arranging our travel home to Texas. I’d had an amazing time on our honeymoon, but we couldn’t stay when our friends were in trouble. It was time to get back to reality. Something bad was happening and we had to get home.
Dastien smiled at me as he paced around the house, talking to the water taxi people. I left a snack for you on the coffee table. Please try to eat.
Thanks. The polished concrete floors were cool against my feet as I ambled through the living room and settled down on the faded, navy couch. It was covered in a million fluffy pillows. Every time I laid on the couch it was like getting swallowed by a cloud. The air conditioning was blasting, so I grabbed a cozy, plaid blanket and cuddled into it. A massive flat screen took up most of the wall in front of me and a pack of Bimbo pound cakes—literally the best thing ever—sat on the coffee table with a glass of milk and my phone.
I stared at the cakes. Just the idea of reaching over to grab them seemed like a lot of work.
The shower had helped calm me down a little, but the terror was still lingering, hovering underneath my skin. My body felt like it was filled with Jell-O, and emotionally, I was hanging on by a thread. I couldn’t believe I’d had such a close call. My hands were still trembling as I finally reached for the cakes. Food wouldn’t solve all my problems, but it would give me back some of my strength.
I usually loved the little pound cakes, but today they might as well have been filled with sawdust. I forced myself to chew and swallow small bites as fast as I could. I tried to think of what my next step was, but beside wanting to get home, all I had were questions. I needed to call Claudia.
My phone started vibrating. I jumped, knocking a sea of pillows to the ground. Claudia’s picture and name popped up on the screen.
I froze, watching the answer button blink. I dropped the cake on the floor as I fumbled for the phone, swiping my thumb across the screen. “Claudia? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, but I’m worried about you.”
I spun to Dastien. When did you call her?
“One sec.” I stepped outside and closed the glass door behind me. Somehow Dastien could pay attention to multiple conversations at once and still converse coherently. I couldn’t. Listening to Dastien make travel plans while trying to give Claudia my attention wasn’t going to go well.
I walked past the patio table and chairs, a few loungers, and an infinity pool to the railing overlooking the water. The ocean was still peaceful, even though I’d died for a second out there. Whatever had happened out there was magic-based, and I wasn’t about to let it ruin paradise. The sun was getting lower, and we’d have to cook dinner soon, but I was glad Claudia had called. I really needed to talk to her.
Through our bond, Dastien’s voice was now just a faint hum. Good enough. “Hey. You still there?”
“Are you really okay?” Dastien felt pretty certain that whatever happened to me was an isolated incident, but it seemed pretty convenient that she was calling me this evening when I hadn’t heard from her in weeks.
“I’ve been off lately, but…” She sighed. “It’s not important. Not after what happened to Muraco. That’s why I’m calling.”
I froze. “What happened to Muraco?”
“I’m sure you felt him pass. I hear all wolves should’ve, but…it was bad.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “He didn’t just fade?” I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear it from her.
“No. He didn’t. Someone murdered him.”
I was pretty sure I already knew the answer to this, but I had to ask. “Earlier today I was out swimming, and I got this searing pain in my hands. It felt like someone was slicing through my knuckles, very quickly one by one. It was weird. And then the pain was in my wrists. And my elbows and then—”
Her high-pitched gasp came through the line. “Your shoulders. Toes. Ankles. Knees. Hips.”
I swallowed. “Yes.”
“You felt his murder.”
“If that’s how he died, then I think so?” The question came out as a high-pitched squeak.
“No. I wasn’t asking. That’s how he died. No one knows but a few of the wolves from Lucas’ pack. It was a ritual killing. He was placed in a circle of his own blood. There were candles. And each joint was severed—from his knuckles to his knees and toes—in one clean cut.”
I sat on the balcony floor, threading my legs through the rungs of the railing, and stared at the waves crashing on the shore. “Did Lucas feel his death?” If anyone else had, the Alpha of Muraco’s pack had to have felt it. Please, don’t let it just be me.
Shit. “Then why the hell did I feel it?” And what did it mean?
“I don’t know.” Her words were a whisper, like she didn’t want to say it too loud or else it’d be true. “But I’m pretty sure the spell and the cuts drained him of his power.”
It felt as if all the air had been sucked out of me. I couldn’t breathe. “Does it look like—”
“No. It wasn’t the same magic that Luciana used to take your power, but it’s similar. Too similar.”
Chris’ email came to mind. I couldn’t fathom it, but I still had to ask. “Do you think Luciana’s back? That she’s somehow still alive?”
“No! How could you even think that?”
“I got an email from Chris about the demon activity around St. Ailbe’s. He asked me if I thought it was possible, and—”
“Wait a second. What did you say?” Claudia’s voice grew cold.
“Yeah. I felt the same way when I heard,” I said. “We’re heading back in the morning. Apparently, after Meredith’s ceremony, demon attacks started amping up at St. Ailbe’s and no one told us.”
“I know that every Alpha handles their own pack, but if there was demonic activity in the area, someone should’ve told me. I might not be ready to take up the coven, but that’s my land. My responsibility.” Her tone was deeper than normal with outrage, and I was glad I wasn’t the only one a little pissed at being kept in the dark. “It can’t be a coincidence that demons are showing up where Luciana did her magic.”
“My thoughts exactly.” I was glad we were on the same page. It made me feel more confident.
Claudia was quiet for a second. “When I went back to the compound after the Weres burned it down, the land felt evil. I did some clearing magic, but it wasn’t working. I tried everything I knew. Eventually I gave up. I assumed the land would be tainted forever and it didn’t seem worth the trouble to cleanse it. The land is in my name now, and I’m not going to let anyone build there again. So I didn’t think it mattered if evil lingered on that land, but what if I missed something? What if Luciana left some magic brewing somewhere that didn’t burn? I didn’t—” A hiss came through the line as she sighed. “I couldn’t force myself to step into the rubble of her house to make sure it fully burned.”
“But Luciana herself can’t come back, right? I mean—the idea of zombie-demon Luciana coming after us is the stuff nightmares are made of.”
Claudia laughed for the first time. “No. That’s not happening, but I love your imagination, prima. You can let that particular worry go. Luciana’s dead. Really, she was dead before we saw her in Santa Fe. The demon had full control of her by then.”
“So you’re saying you’re sure it’s not Luciana.” I barely killed her the first time, and if I had to do it over, I wasn’t sure what I’d do differently. Dead was dead, as far as I knew.
“Sí. Por seguro. Where she went, there’s no coming back from.”
“That’s excellent news.” But it left a huge question. If Luciana didn’t murder Muraco, then who did? Or maybe the better question was—what killed him? “Do you think it’s the demon that was possessing Luciana? Could it have come fully through to our realm somehow?”
“Possibly. Or she could’ve let other demons out. Or maybe even another witch that she’d been teaching? And I haven’t found the black mages in Peru yet. The ones who taught Luciana. That’s another very real possibility.”
“Well that’s fan-fucking-tastic news.” I chewed on my lip as I thought about whether or not to bring up my visions, but I had to tell her. Everything was connected. I wasn’t sure how yet, but Claudia might be able to help figure it out. “There’s one more thing.”
“My visions have been off. Until today, I hadn’t been able to see anything at all for a couple weeks. And then earlier today, all I saw was black. Like there was nothing. And I felt fear and despair and pretty much every other horrible emotion.” I paused for a second. “What do you think that means?” It couldn’t be the future, could it? Was I seeing the end of everything?
The Bimbo cakes I’d eaten were threatening to make a reappearance and I swallowed hard.
“I don’t know what it means,” Claudia said. “But it can’t be good. I just…”
I pressed my forehead against one of the balcony rails and waited for her to finish. She was quiet for a while and I checked the phone to make sure the call hadn’t dropped, but she was still there. I could just barely hear her footsteps as she paced around the room.
“I should never have left without fully clearing the compound,” she said finally. “I’m such an idiot.”
“No. If that’s true, then I shouldn’t have left either. I never even thought about going back there to check on it.” The place burned, Luciana was dead, and I never wanted to step foot back on that land. Both of us had earned a honeymoon, damn it. “You said yourself that you tried everything you could think of. You couldn’t know that this would happen.”
Dastien slipped out of the house. He sat behind me, threading his legs through the rungs next to mine. He rested his chin on my head, and I relaxed back into him, taking comfort in his closeness. “If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll go by the compound and try clearing it when I get back. I can find anything left in the ruins of Luciana’s house just as well as you could.” I couldn’t believe I was offering this up, but if she was that worried, then I had to check it out.
“I don’t know. I think anyone digging in there is a bad idea, especially you.” She sighed. “This is a mess. And I still can’t believe that someone got to Muraco…”
“Yeah, but Muraco was old,” I said. “He couldn’t have been that hard to kill. Don’t you think—”
Dastien stiffened at my words at the same time Claudia cut me off. “Muraco wasn’t an easy target.”
“He wasn’t?” He’d always looked frail to me.
No! Dastien said.
“No,” Lucas’ voice came through the line. “He was old, yes. But when he wanted to fight, he could fight. He was choosing to fade because his mate died, but he could’ve stopped that at any time. Whatever killed him was powerful.”
A powerful alpha getting killed by something mysterious. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard something similar. “Are you sure it wasn’t that fey beast?” I asked just in case we were tying things together that really weren’t related. “The one that was attacking the Irish pack? Because I heard that guy ripped his victims apart and—”
“No,” Lucas said, and my hope for an easy solution dwindled. “From what I heard, the fey beast didn’t leave remains to identify a body. Muraco was in a circle formed of blood. He was laid on the ground, arms and legs stretched wide. Precisely one centimeter spacing between each severed joint.” The more he talked the rougher his voice got. Lucas was one pissed off Were.
“It was a ritual killing. So, it has to be another witch gone bad,” I said.
“Or a demon that she released,” Claudia said.
I winced. “That sounds a lot worse.” I couldn’t believe I was at a point where I was crossing my fingers that the bad guy was an evil, possibly demon-possessed witch.
“That’s because a demon strong enough to do this would have to be extremely powerful. And now—who or whatever killed Muraco—has an even bigger power boost,” Claudia said.
“Motherfucker,” I muttered.
“Exactly.” She was quiet for a second. “We have to go prepare Muraco for burial, but I’ll give you a call tomorrow. Buena suerte, prima.”
“You, too.” I ended the call. “I wish we had some better answers.” I also wished my visions were working.
Wishing wasn’t going to make anything happen. “What time do we leave in the morning?”
“Took agreeing to double their regular fare, but the water taxi will pick us up at four a.m. We’ll meet a car on the mainland that will take us to the airport, but it’s a seven-hour drive, even with cutting across the bay. As long as we catch the right ferry, we should make our flight tomorrow evening.”
I groaned. Four in the morning? That was going to be brutal. “It’s been really nice. Being in your home in France. Paris. Meredith’s wedding—”
“Whatever.” I elbowed him. “But I think my favorite has been this beach.”
“I thought maybe you liked the club in Paris the best,” he said.
Even with all the gloom and doom hanging over our heads, I couldn’t help but grin at the memory. “That was fun, but this has been better. I definitely want to come back.”
“We can do that. Michael doesn’t use this house much, and he won’t mind if we visit again.”
I slid out from between the balcony rungs so that I could fully face Dastien. If I couldn’t feel the worry in him, I wouldn’t have known it was there. His small smile wasn’t deep enough to reveal his dimples and I needed to change that. “We can’t do anything until we get home, so let’s enjoy tonight.”
He pressed his forehead against mine, and I leaned into him.
“I don’t want what happened today to taint our honeymoon,” I said.
He pulled back. “That will never happen. This has been everything. Nothing could ever taint it.” He brushed a feather-light kiss against my lips. “Nothing.” One more kiss. “Not ever.”
When he brushed a third kiss against my lips, I couldn’t stand the teasing. I wrapped my arms around his neck and sank deep into him.
Tomorrow would come. Then I’d have to face the demon or evil witch or whatever was coming for us.
For now, I had Dastien and the quiet, and I was going to savor every second I had left.