By her hand, I will die. And he couldn’t deny it. His precogs were never wrong.
And in the flesh, she was even more beautiful. More compelling, she had her long, dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Strands that had come loose during her capture and escape curled around her face in an attractive mess that begged him to sink his hand into it and see if it was as soft as it appeared. And even though she was well muscled for a woman, she was tiny. The top of her head barely reached the middle of his chest.
Just like in my dreams.
Still, even knowing that she would eventually kill him, he couldn’t bring himself to harm her. Not while her sweet scent filled his head. There was something about her that appeared soft and delicate. Fragile.
Or so he thought until she narrowed those dark eyes and lunged at him with an object in her hand.
Reacting on pure instinct, he fell back, allowing her to unbalance herself when she didn’t make contact with his body. He clamped down on her wrist with enough pressure to control her attack, but not enough to harm her. And as he held her immobile, he realized she was hurt and bleeding.
He would have admired her bravery and spirit even if she wasn’t wounded. The fact that she fought when others would be on the ground, crying, said a lot about her character and resolve.
"I’m not going to let you kill me," she snarled in his face.
He opened his mouth to respond, but before he could draw a single breath, her eyes rolled back in her head and she passed out.
Ren barely caught her before she collapsed. Swinging her up in his arms, he debated what to do. He’d ventured here in his crow form. It’d been so long since he’d last tried to teleport someone from one realm to another that he wasn’t sure if his powers would work or not. And then there was the small matter that it was a lot harder to teleport dead weight than someone whose conscious energy he could use for a power source. Not to mention, his brother had drained a good portion of Ren’s strength to summon the Na’ha Ala to pull the woman from the human realm into this one.
I hate you, Coyote.
But it wasn’t productive to focus on something so negative. Especially not while another Na’ha was entering their small haven … and it wasn’t alone.
A large group of hairy, smelly friends had decided to join it.
Like it or not, Ren didn’t have a choice.
Either he tried …
Or they died.
Hoping for the best, he summoned every bit of power he could and forced himself to take a very rare leap of faith. His head buzzed as he felt the surge.
Light flashed and he felt his body shift, but not how he wanted it to.
He didn’t go far. In fact, he went toward them instead of away.
Only I have this kind of luck. Thank the Spirits that the woman was unconscious and couldn’t see his incompetence. It was bad enough he was awake to witness it. All he needed was for her to laugh at him.
You’re worthless, Makah’Alay. I weep for the day you were brought into this world to be a hindrance to us all….
He flinched as he heard his father’s acerbic voice across the centuries. Would you die already, you bastard? I had enough of you while you lived.
But sometimes dead just wasn’t dead enough.
Pushing those thoughts away and forcing himself to concentrate on only the positive, Ren tightened his grip on the woman.
With a savage hiss, the Na’ha came at him, fangs bared, claws gleaming in the dim light.
Ren twisted at the waist so that the creature would hit his spine and not the woman. Then, he tried to at least teleport them back to where they’d been a moment ago. The Na’ha’s hot breath scorched his neck as it clamped a clawed hand onto his biceps.
That pain boosted his powers as he cried out and rage took hold of him.
This time, with that boost, it worked.
One second they were in the cave, the next he was in his living room….
With the Na’ha’s hand still attached to his arm.
Curling his lip at the grisly sight, he moved to lay the woman on his couch so that he could tear it free and throw it into his fireplace where he’d left a fire burning. While his journey had seemed to last only a few minutes, time here passed differently than it did there.
Here, it was already night and his small house was silent and empty. Except for the sound of the fire popping and destroying the physical remains of something he’d hoped would never be able to breach the gate to this world. Things he’d hoped to never face again.
Bastard. Rat. Asshole.
Son of a belly-licking rodent’s backside.
Ren cringed at the smell of burning demon flesh, which triggered memories he’d spent eternity trying to forget. But some wounds went far deeper than the bones. Some went all the way to the soul, and they stung even after he’d sold that same soul for peace.
Or, more to the point, war.
Trying not to think about it, he returned to the woman and lifted her shirt so that he could see her injury. Yet all he really saw at first was her smooth, tanned skin. Skin that looked as soft as the hair he really wanted to bury his face into so that he could inhale her delicate scent.
God, it’d been so long since he’d last slept with a woman. Felt her breath and hands on his skin as he lost himself to absolute pleasure.
For many reasons, he’d done his best to stay away from women as much as possible. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust them.
He didn’t trust himself.
After enslaving himself to the last woman he’d been with and allowing her to completely and utterly control him against all sanity, he had no desire to surrender his will or body again to any female. Not even long enough to scratch a base urge.
It wasn’t worth it.
And that succeeded in reminding him why he didn’t need to think of this one as an attractive woman in the least. She was just another stranger who would be out of his life in a matter of days.
No more. No less.
In the back of his mind, he saw an image of her stabbing him. But that, too, he pushed aside. He knew to watch out for it. So long as he kept his guard up, there was no chance of her harming him. He was too lethal a warrior for that. He wasn’t the same man who’d allowed Windseer to take control of his hatred.
I am the Thunderbird. The fiercest of all legends. The deadliest of predators.
The only thing that had ever defeated Thunderbird was the Thunderbird when he’d allowed himself to be tricked by Raven.
And that will not happen to me.
His thoughts finally where they should be, he narrowed his gaze on the deep gash that ran along her rib cage. It looked painful and terrible. Having received more than his fair share of wounds, he knew how much such a thing stung. It amazed him that she’d lasted as long as she had before passing out.
Heaven knew, Coyote had never been so strong.
Tasting the bitterness on his tongue brought up by that particular memory, he pulled his T-shirt off, over his head, and used it to apply pressure with one hand while he called Talon with the other to let his friend know that he’d found their target.
Talon didn’t answer.
Frowning, Ren tried Choo Co La Tah next. When Choo didn’t pick up … that made him nervous. Don’t panic. They’re not back in this realm yet. That’s all it is. Hard to get cell phone service when you’re beyond the reach of cell towers.
It could be true. They’d each gone to different realms where the woman could have been taken. Since his friends didn’t know he had her, they would keep searching for a while.
Which meant he was stuck with her until their return.
It’s not the same as before. He wasn’t the same.
And she definitely was not Windseer.
Yeah, but look what that got you. A quick kick in the teeth and crotch, and a gelding would have been far superior to Windseer’s treachery and abandonment.
It was why he didn’t want to be alone with this woman.
I can resist anything except temptation. But at least he knew that about himself and he accepted it. He now understood what to guard against. It was why he was a recluse to the worst extent of that word. Why he, unlike the majority of other Dark-Hunters, didn’t have a human servant to look after his affairs.
The fewer people around him, the better. For centuries only Choo Co La Tah had been trusted as his friend. And a hundred years ago, after Buffalo had been reincarnated and then slain, Ren had taken his one true friend under his wing to protect him.
He didn’t need anyone else in his life.
But as he tended her side and the warmth of her skin caressed his, he remembered a time when he’d wanted so much more than this barren existence. A time when he’d craved being a part of the world. Having friends and family to share his fire with.
Why? He had no idea. The world had never welcomed him. His family damn sure hadn’t.
Prove to me that you’re at least worth the grain it takes to feed you. Protect your brother. At all cost. Even if it means your own life. That had been his only use to any of them.
Bleed for others.
And it was still his sole reason for living. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Grinding his teeth, Ren pushed all those thoughts back to the place of darkness where they belonged.
If only they would stay there.
Angry at himself for a weakness that shouldn’t exist, he finished cleaning and binding her wound, then got up to put away his bloody shirt and get a fresh one.
As he stepped away, lightning flashed brightly and was followed by a clash of thunder so loud, it jarred his entire home.
At midnight, the Reset would officially begin. A ten-day festival of counting down to the opening of the gates. The first day of fun would be violent storming. Followed by tornadoes, floods, and hail so severe only a fool would venture into it. And with the dawning of every day, Windseer would be one step closer to release.
Once she was out, then she would set free the Grizzly Spirit.
And then, they would come for him.
Ren ground his teeth as he remembered the day Windseer had taken him before her master. At first, Grizzly had appeared old and withered. It’d only been when their gazes met that Ren understood the power of the immortal bastard. What it would take to restore the ancient being to health.
"Release me and I will make all your dreams a reality."
The Grizzly had required a blood sacrifice from a child of the Stars. His heart filled with utter hatred and contempt for the world that had kicked him in the teeth one time too many, Ren had gladly performed the ceremony and restored the Grizzly Spirit to the human realm. And just as gladly, he’d welcomed Grizzly to use his body as Grizzly’s own.
In blood and sweat, Ren had been reborn a new man. But not a better one. Strange how he hadn’t really found his humanity until after he’d sold his soul to Artemis. Only then had he learned what mattered most in life.
Only after he’d lost absolutely everything.
I’m coming for you, Makah’Alay. I can’t wait for our reunion. The Grizzly’s voice was getting louder and stronger.
And the only thing that could stop one of the oldest, deadliest creatures to ever walk the earth was a tiny slip of a woman who slept on his couch. If it wasn’t so pathetic, he’d laugh.
From the doorway, he glanced back at her. Her features pale and relaxed, she breathed so lightly that she didn’t even appear to be alive. How could someone so small stand against a creature who made Ren appear dainty and frail?
Grizzly would eat her alive.
It didn’t matter how strong she was. If the Guardian didn’t return to battle Grizzly, there would be no hope for any of them. Even if she reset the calendar, it would change nothing.
Evil would not be denied. Having once served it, he knew that for a fact.
With a heavy sigh, Ren went to clean up.
* * *
Dressed all in white with an eagle’s feather tied in her dark hair, Kateri followed a path through a dense forest. The scent of pine hung thick in the air, stinging her throat. She didn’t know why, but she’d never cared for that smell.
"Because your father told you to fear it when you were a baby. Though you don’t remember him, you remember his words of warning."
She paused at the sound of her grandmother’s voice. "Grammy?"
Her grandmother stepped out of the woods in front of her. "It’s so easy to lose your way, child." She gestured to the trees around them. "When you’re in the middle of something and you’re surrounded by so much that overwhelms you, it’s easy to focus on the wrong thing."
"I don’t understand."
Instead of answering, her grandmother rushed forward as a wolf ran at Kateri.
Gasping, Kateri fell back.
Without hesitation, her grandmother drove the wolf off until it was just the two of them again.
Her grandmother faced her with a stern glower. "Now do you see?"
Yes, she did. "But this is just a dream."
"Dreams are the mind’s way of dealing with reality, Waleli. It’s why they’re so important, and why we need to remember them." Her grandmother started away from her.
Follow me. The voice was in her head and didn’t come from her grandmother’s lips.
Kateri rushed forward until her grandmother stopped at the edge of a field. There she saw a strange stone building in the middle of a thriving, ancient town. Though different, it reminded her of a Mayan pyramid. It was cut at a sharper angle with a more rounded top, and had things that appeared to be windows in it. Never had she seen the like. Fernando would be impressed to see this.
The people moving around it looked to be Native Americans, but their clothes were unlike anything she’d ever seen before. They were more stylized, and dyed bright colors with exquisite beadwork. Many of the people wore feathers either for jewelry or hair accessories. And while the women had no makeup whatsoever, the men who appeared to be warriors had their faces heavily painted.