Aimee put her hand on Vane’s shoulder. "Go on and get a hot shower and rest for a bit. I’ll stay here with Fang until you get back."
Vane hesitated. "I don’t know."
She patted his arm and smiled. "It’s okay, Vane. I’ll call you if something changes. I promise."
He nodded glumly. The agony in his hazel eyes was haunting. She wished to the gods that she knew some way to ease the pain there, but there was nothing she could do for him except bring Fang back and right now that looked to be impossible.
Sighing, he pushed himself away and followed Dev and Alain from the room. Colt stayed behind with her while Carson returned to his desk to do paperwork.
Aimee pulled a blanket out of the closet to wrap it around Fang. She ran her hand through his soft fur, stroking it as tenderly as she could.
"I’m right here, Fang," she whispered. "Whenever you’re ready to face the world again, you won’t be alone. Vane is here and we’re here. For you."
If the words reached him, she had no clue. He didn’t even blink.
She looked up and caught Colt’s gaze.
His gaze was empty and chilling. "I know that stupor he’s in. It’s the same one I had when my sister was killed."
"I remember," she said, thinking back to the night when Colt had shown up at their door after he and his sister had left them for a year. Their mother had been an Arcadian bearswan . . . her father’s baby sister.
Colt and his sister had been born here. And alone he’d returned to them.
Family was family, and they had welcomed him back and kept him safe. He was like a brother to her too.
The funny thing was, whenever he called them cousins or cuz, people thought it an endearment. They had no idea they really were cousins.
Aimee jerked her chin toward the door. "Why don’t you go on and rest. I’ll be fine in here with him."
She nodded. "Carson will be just outside."
"If you need anything . . ."
"I know. Thanks."
Aimee waited until she was alone with Fang. Leaning over, she put her face against his neck and held him close. "Wherever you are, Fang, you need to come back to us."
Fang jerked as he heard a soft voice whispering to him. "Aimee!" he called out.
No one answered. There was darkness all around him. It hung thick and heavy like icicles, freezing him as he trudged through dismal water that seemed to cling to his body. His teeth chattering, he had his arms wrapped around himself.
Still there was no answer. Was he dead?
Was this hell?
It was the only rational explanation. Why else would it be so awful here?
"You’re not dead."
He jerked around at the voice that came from behind him.
No one was there either. "Who said that?"
He turned again as it spoke in his ear and once more, no one was there. "Who are you?"
"I am Misery."
He saw her then. A thin wraith of a being with flowing black hair that skimmed the palest white skin he’d ever seen. It was so pale, it held a grayish tint to it like ash. Her piercing eyes were dark and large. They seemed to be almost hollow.
"Where are we?"
She smiled wanly. "The Nether Realm."
Fang scowled at her answer. "The what?"
"We are caught in the place between the dead and the living. You were attacked by Daimons and they took enough of your soul that you are no longer alive. Yet you’re not really dead. A part of you still lives on in the human realm. You are now trapped in the shadows like the rest of us."
"The rest of who?"
She held her hand up and he saw legions around them. Zombielike, they stumbled and moaned, trudging through the same thick water that clung to him. "We are the forgotten souls who have been relegated here by cruelty."
He shook his head, trying to make sense of all of this. How could he be here? "I don’t understand. How did you get here?"
She pulled her arm down and the light faded. "I’m a demon who was trapped centuries ago. My family still searches for me, but they’ll never find me. I shall live out eternity here in this slime. Unable to leave without human help. Unable to sleep or to eat real food. There is nothing here but suffering and longing." She sighed. "But sooner or later, your mortal body will die and you will be freed . . . unlike me. Even if I escape, I will never really be free."
Fang shook his head again. "Bullshit. This is just a dream. A screwed-up nightmare."
She laughed. "If only it were so."
Still he refused to believe it. She was lying. She had to be. He turned away from her and slapped himself. Hard. "C’mon, Fang, wake up."
Misery followed after him. "We all go through a period of denial. But it changes nothing. We are here and here we will stay."
"Vane!" Fang shouted as loud as he could, ignoring her and her dire prediction. He focused as hard as he could, trying to reach through this realm to his brother. C’mon, buddy, hear me! "Damn it, Vane! Wake me up!"
"The Harvesters are coming! The Harvesters are coming!" Frantic voices called out from the darkness.
Misery grabbed his arm. "Come, we must hide."
"Hide from what?"
"The Harvesters. If they find you, they’ll destroy this part of you and you will be trapped here forever as their slave."
He scoffed. "What crap is this?"
She pulled him toward a murky crevice.
Fang started to tell her to stuff it, but bit his tongue. What if this wasn’t a warped nightmare? He was a Were-Hunter. Of all creatures, he knew there was a lot more to the universe than a "natural" order.
Better to be safe than sorry until he figured out exactly what was going on here.
He tucked himself deep inside the cramped, craggy space. Out of the obsidian mist he could hear something coming closer. It sounded like human gurgles or nonsensical demonic speech. Eerie and frightening to even the stoutest of heart.
Closer they came.
Closer still, until he could see the outline of their large, twisted bodies. Like Misery, their hair flowed around them. Muscled and tall, they reminded him of ogres or trolls with long, sharp nails.
They closed in on one of the zombies he’d seen. Grabbing her, they tore through her neck with their teeth. She screamed out, then went silent and limp as the Harvesters seemed to inhale her essence. They cast her lifeless body aside as they searched for another victim.
Misery placed her finger to her lips to remind him to be silent.
"What are they doing?" he projected to her.
"I told you, they’re taking a part of them and leaving them stuck in this place forever. They are now the Harvesters’ slaves and will do whatever they ask."
"For what purpose?"
"The Harvesters trade their collected parts to demons and their ilk in exchange for borrowing the demons’ bodies so that they can escape from here for a time. They run us into the ground so that they can barter us. But they’re not the only ones to be wary of. There are other demons who will try to enslave or torture you. This is a dangerous place for all of us."
Fang didn’t move until long after the Harvesters were gone. Misery climbed out first. Hesitant and fearful, she reminded him of a timid rabbit. "They’re gone, I think."
Fang was baffled by all of this. "I don’t understand how I can be trapped here. I’m a Were-Hunter."
"And I’m a demon with powers far greater than yours, wolf. This is the vortex between dimensions. A hellhole of unimaginable cruelty."
"Then why are you helping me?"
She gave him an insidious half-smile. "Misery loves company."
"You’re not funny."
She laughed as she danced around him. "Don’t worry, Were-Hunter. Now come, we must be out of the main thoroughfare before the Harvesters return."
Fang wasn’t so sure he should follow her, but he had no reason to doubt her. She was right, he knew nothing about this realm or its dangers and inhabitants.
"There has to be a way out of here."
Misery laughed. "Ever hopeful. I like that. But all the hope in the universe won’t make a door appear when there’s not one. Trust me."
He wished he could. But he wasn’t naive. He’d never been. Following her warily, he tried his best to see through the darkness. It was oppressive.
Finally, they came to a hole that was cavelike and yet it curved upward toward the dismal black sky. Fang paused at the opening. "What is this place?"
"I call it home. Come, wolf."
Against his better judgment, he entered.
Misery laughed again as she flounced ahead of him. She reminded him of a child as she skipped and danced to a beat only she could hear.
Fang wasn’t so enthusiastic and as he topped the narrow walkway, he finally understood his sixth sense. There below were hundreds of demons.
Misery turned to face him with a beaming smile as a large, ugly demon manifested by her side. "Look, Ceryon. I brought lunch!"
Fang tried his best to turn into a wolf, but couldn’t. This was so not good, but there was nothing he could do.
Fine. Human he was and human he’d fight if that was all that was left to him. But they were about to learn the one truth where he was concerned.
No one got the better of Fang Kattalakis. Ever.
"Let’s dance, punks." He tried to blast them back.
His powers weren’t working.
Oh, shit . . .
Misery laughed. "This isn’t your realm, wolf. Here you’re just a person . . . one with a life force that can feed us all."
Fang tsked at her. "Baby, I’m not worth the indigestion. Trust me." He slugged the first demon to reach him. The demon staggered away. He caught the next one with a blow to his chin that sent him reeling.
But he was seriously outnumbered.
Overwhelmed by the sheer size of their group, he was brought down hard on the cold, wet ground. Cursing, Fang did everything he could to break free.
It wasn’t enough.
They pulled him deeper into the cave and strapped him down to a slab of stone.
"That’s right, wolf. Fight us with everything you have." Laughter rang in his ears an instant before something hot pierced his thigh.
Fang cried out in pain.
More laughter filled his ears.
Misery came forward to look down at him. "The more you suffer, the stronger we become. We feed on pain. On misery. So give us your best."
A male stood beside her. "It’s been a long time since we had one this strong here. How long do you think he’ll last?"
"I don’t know . . . it should prove interesting and, given his nature, it should be enough to break us out of here and into the mortal realm." She took the dagger from his hand. "In the meantime . . ."
She plunged it down through Fang’s stomach.
Did he eat?"
Vane swallowed at Mama Bear Peltier’s question and shook his head. Fang hadn’t eaten a bite since the bears had taken them in two days ago.
His brother was dying, and just like with Anya, there was nothing Vane could do to save him.
Impotent rage filled him and he wanted blood for what had happened to them. Not just to Anya, but to Fang as well.
Mama Bear smiled kindly at him. "If you need anything, ask."
Vane forced himself not to growl at her.
What he needed was his brother to be whole again. But the Daimon attack had left Fang without any will to survive. They had taken more than his brother’s blood, they had taken his dignity and his heart.
Vane doubted if his brother would ever be normal again.
Mama turned into her bear form and ambled off. Vane was only vaguely aware of Justin padding by outside in his panther form, followed by a tiger and two hawks. All were headed for their rooms where they could spend the day in their true animal bodies, safely locked away from the unsuspecting world.
If only he could do the same.
"It’s a zoo, isn’t it?"
He looked up at Colt’s voice coming from the doorway. Standing six foot four, Colt was one of the members of the Howlers. Like Mama and her clan, Colt was a bear, but unlike them, he was also an Arcadian.
Vane was amazed the bears had tolerated one in their midst. Most Katagaria packs killed any Arcadian on sight.
He would have.
But then, Mama Lo and Papa Bear weren’t the usual bunch.
"What do you want?" Vane asked.
Colt crossed his arms over his chest. "I was thinking . . . you know it would be a lot safer for everyone at Sanctuary if there were two Sentinels protecting the Peltiers."
Vane sneered at that. "Since when does a Sentinel protect a Katagaria clan?"
Colt gave him a droll stare. "That from a Sentinel who’s stroking a Katagari wolf’s fur?"
Rage darkened Vane’s sight at the fact that Colt could see what he’d always kept hidden from everyone else. If it wasn’t for the fact that he needed to stay here for Fang’s welfare, he’d be lunging for Colt’s throat. "I’m not a Sentinel and I’m not Arcadian."
"You can’t hide from me, Vane. Like me, you’ve chosen to hide your facial markings, but it doesn’t change what you are. We are Sentinels."
Vane cursed him. "I will never be a Sentinel. I refuse that birthright. I won’t hunt and kill my own kind."