running scared-Page 30

Through the trees, he could see the new woman walking along the wall, trailing her fingers over the stone. He hadn’t yet met her, which was a small blessing. It was easier unleashing Zillah’s beast upon a woman he didn’t know.

Whatever was in there had been pawing and hissing, scratching at the wooden box nonstop. It never slept, never rested. That alone was enough to alarm Connal, but even worse was the fact that a few moments ago, one of the creature’s black claws had finally made it through the wooden cage.

Connal could feel it watching him. He could feel the compulsion Zillah had somehow infused the woman’s blood with, forcing him to obey. He couldn’t fight it any longer. He had to let the creature out.

It wasn’t that Connal wished any of the Theronai harm—he simply could no longer take the torture of constant hunger. Zillah fed him. The Theronai refused. To Connal, that aligned his loyalties more clearly than honor ever could.

And now the Theronai were going to pay the price for their stinginess. Whatever was in the box would hunt the few women here down and incapacitate them. All he had to do was follow behind and drink his fill before taking their bodies to Zillah.

Lexi made her way all the way around the giant wall until she was back to the place where she’d started. The gaping hole in the stone was ten feet wide and she could see the subtle difference in the construction—the variation in the gaps between the rocks—where another ten feet of rock wall had been repaired.

Whatever had broken through here had packed one hell of a wallop.

And yet this place still stood.

A ridiculous smile tugged at her mouth. If the kind of power that could do this much damage didn’t bring this place down, the few bricks of C-4 in her trunk weren’t going to even make a dent.

Not that she’d ever use them. Not now that she’d seen all the human men, women and children here. There was no way she could blow this place up, even if she did think it was the right thing to do. Which she didn’t. Not anymore. Dabyr was a place of safety and refuge. It was a home to hundreds of people. No way could she screw that up. A home was a sacred place. She could no more destroy that than she would spray paint over the Mona Lisa.

Lexi’s hand ran over the rough stones where the repair had been done. She could sense a low vibration seeping out of the rock. It felt warm and clean, like sunlight in the middle of winter, and there was something else there—something powerful and elusive she could almost touch.

She closed her eyes and pressed both hands against the repaired section of wall. Fatigue. Weariness. The wall was tired.

Lexi pulled away, feeling her heart pounding against her ribs. How the hell could she feel that? And how the hell could a wall be tired? It made no sense.

Then again, not much of anything had made a lot of sense in this place. Especially Zach. He didn’t want to have sex, but he wanted to read her mind? What kind of fucked-up logic was that?

She’d been asking herself that for hours and still had no answers. All she had was the beginnings of a headache and a rumbling tummy. She needed dinner.

Lexi turned to go back inside where she’d seen the dining room, and for the first time noticed she wasn’t alone.

Several large men stood guard around the opening in the wall. They hadn’t been there before, but the sun was starting to set, and she’d bet money they were here to keep the monsters out.

One of them turned toward her, and she saw his shimmering luceria glisten around his thick neck. He had dark blue eyes and a tall, lean build. His face was narrow, but handsome, and he had a way of moving that was almost hypnotic.

When he saw her, he stepped toward her, making Lexi’s body go tense. She didn’t want another repeat of what had happened in the exercise area when all those men had closed in on her, making her choke on her panic. She was weaponless, and Zach was nowhere to be found.

The man must have seen her anxiety, because he stopped in his tracks and held up his long hands. His voice was as soft as the fading daylight. “I don’t mean to frighten you, my lady. I only wanted to give you my vow.”

Lexi didn’t know what he meant, but it was one of those things that she was probably better off not knowing. “No, thanks. I’m good.”

He frowned at her. “You prefer to wait for the ceremony?”

“Yeah, I’m not really into ceremonies much, but I’m sure you’ll have a good time without me.”

A half smile lifted one side of his mouth. “The ceremony is for you, my lady.”

Why did he keep calling her “lady”? He must have been old like Zach, and not quite up on the way modern people talked. “No need to make a fuss.”

He stepped closer without looking like he’d moved. His body just kind of slid over the ground.

The other men were watching now, and they, too, came closer, their intense expressions and looming body language showing way too much interest in her for her peace of mind.

A ripple of unease fluttered down her spine. “I need to get going. Catch you all later.”

She backed away until she was well out of reach, then walked as fast as she could without looking like she was running away. She ducked into the trees and peeked over her shoulder to make sure none of them were following her.

She walked about thirty yards into the woods, back where the cabins stood nestled in the trees, isolated from the rest of the grounds.

The wind shifted, and suddenly Lexi felt like she was being watched. The past several weeks of outrunning Zach had taught her that feeling well. But this was different. It was more . . . malevolent, as if whatever watched her hated her.

She’d never experienced anything quite like it before, and it left her feeling edgy and nervous. Especially now that the sun had set and darkness came swiftly within the thick growth of trees.

She looked over her shoulder, peering through the trees, searching the deepening shadows for whoever might be there. She saw no one. Not even movement beyond the occasional swaying of leaves in the breeze.

As much as she wanted to tell herself she was being foolish, Lexi had learned to listen to those instincts. Someone or something was out there, and it was watching her. It was time to go back inside.

Lexi turned to go back to the main building when something streaked from the trees and lunged at her.

Instincts honed by years of dodging spilled food and avoiding near collisions with other waitresses allowed her to dodge the black streak.

She hit the ground hard, but a deep sense of panic exploded inside her, numbing her body and making her fast. She scrambled to her knees just as it scurried into the undergrowth.

A low growl vibrated the leaves, way too deep to have come from something about the size of a house cat. That feeling of being watched intensified until she was shaking with its malevolence.

That thing—whatever it was—wanted to kill her.

Lexi pushed herself up to her feet and backed away as fast as she could without stumbling. She didn’t want to turn her back on it for a second. It was way too fast for her to outrun.

Right now, she would have given anything for Zach to be here with that lethal sword in hand, standing between her and the monster.

From somewhere far off, she heard a bellow of outrage. It resonated in her mind, strong and defiant.

A black streak of movement shot out from the thing’s hiding place, right toward her face. Lexi flattened herself to the ground, but felt a tug on her sleeve. She looked down and saw the scalpel-precise cut in her shirt.

If it had hit her skin . . .

Lexi wasn’t going to wait to see what would happen then. She grabbed a stick lying on the ground and pushed to her feet.

This time, she didn’t waste time watching her back. She just ran.

A whistling hiss of air warned her a millisecond before the next attack came. She dove to the left, landing hard on her shoulder. The stick jerked back and hit her head, shocking her for a split second.

An angry growl sounded nearby. Too close. Her poor landing had jarred her, making it hard for her to tell where the thing had gone.

Before she could make it all the way to her feet, the streak flew at her again. Instincts lifted the stick into its path and the wood cracked in half, sending the top part of her weapon flying.

Now all she had was a stubby foot of wood, and if that thing got close enough for her to hit it, she was in serious trouble.

Lexi hadn’t even gotten to her hands and knees before the monster rushed her again, whistling toward her. She held up her feeble weapon, cringing against the blow she knew she couldn’t evade.

The singing sound of metal on metal filled her ears, and before she could open her eyes to see what it was, Zach had jumped between her and the monster.

His sword was bare; his stance was violent in its intent.

Lexi hurried to stand, staying close to Zach. She didn’t even bother to brush the dirt and grass from her clothes.

“Did you see where it went?” she asked.

“No.” That single word was full of rage. His body vibrated with tension.

“What is it?”

“Dead. As soon as I see it.”

Lexi scanned the surrounding area, trying to see through the building darkness enough to locate the thing.

That eerie growling hiss rose up from behind her. Lexi whirled around. Zach shoved her back behind his body with one hand.

A flurry of movement exploded from the underbrush, shooting bits of leaves out with the thing as it shot toward them.

Zach’s blade sliced through the air and a scream of pain split her ears, too high and metallic to be human. A wet thump hit the ground to her right.

The creature had been sliced in two, and each half had already begun to dissolve into a pile of writhing black maggots. They wriggled, burrowing into the earth.

Lexi’s stomach heaved.

The heavy pounding of boots echoed nearby, growing louder. Lexi couldn’t look away from the ugly sight. Whatever it was, it had wanted to kill her. If Zach hadn’t shown up . . .

“Finish it off, Andra,” ordered Zach in a tight voice.

“Cover your ears,” she warned.

Lexi was still too shocked to move, but strong, warm hands cupped over her ears, protecting them from the boom of Andra’s magic.

Dirt and squishy black bits flew up, splashing against the inside of an invisible bubble. That bubble full of ick rose up, leaving a perfect semicircular crater in the ground.

Lexi watched as Andra somehow moved all that weight over the wall several hundred yards before letting it fall.

“I think that’ll do it,” she said, dusting off her hands. “But I’ll stick around, just in case.”

“Thanks, Andra,” said Zach, a little too loudly, as if the boom had messed up his hearing.

Lexi turned toward him, letting relief flood her. She clutched his shirt, burying her nose against his chest. He smelled of spice and warmth and safety. She breathed him in, letting his comforting scent calm her scattered nerves.

His wide hands slid around her body, moving up and down her back in a comforting rhythm.

“Are you okay?” he asked. His mouth moved against her hair. His warm breath soaked into her scalp, easing away the last remnants of fear left skittering inside her.

“Yeah,” she responded. Because he’d saved her. “Are you?”