The Sentinel Wars, Book Four
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They are the Sentinels. Three races descended from ancient guardians of mankind, each possessing unique abilities in their battle to protect humanity against their eternal foes: the Synestryn. Now, one Sentinel’s burning loyalty and love may prove to be her greatest weapons.
For nine years, Nika has had one goal: to save her younger sister from the Synestryn who hold her captive. Now the psychic bond Nika forged with her sibling is fading, and time is running out. But the one man who can unlock the power inside her left and never returned, leaving Nika alone to rescue a sister everyone else believes is dead.
Madoc swore to himself he would never enter Dabyr again. For his soul is nearly dead, and he fears what he might do to those he’s sworn to protect — especially Nika. If he accompanies her into the Synestryn realm, his forbidden desire for her may unleash the savage monster within him. But Nika’s need to rescue her sister is soon becomes intertwined with her passion for Madoc, while the a key to victory in the war may be within her reach…
Omaha, Nebraska, March 3
Nika wasn’t crazy, and the only way to prove it was to dig up the bones lying inside her sister’s frozen grave.
The shovel bit into her palms, rubbing them raw. A cold gust of wind threatened to rip down the hood of her heavy coat and suck the precious heat from her skin. She turned her back to the wind and kept digging. There wasn’t time to crawl into the car she’d stolen and warm up. She had to finish this before the Sentinels found her and took her back to Dabyr.
Nika was now much stronger than she had been a few months ago when she’d barely been clinging to life, but with each pitiful half shovelful of dirt, she realized she wasn’t yet strong enough to be doing this. Not alone, and certainly not in the dead of night — the only time no one would be around to see her desecrating a grave.
It was dangerous to be here in the dark. She knew that, but she had no choice. No one would listen to the crazy girl without proof, and the bones lying six feet down were the only tangible proof she could find that Tori was still alive.
Tori was out there. Nika could feel her baby sister’s presence inside her splintered mind, amidst all the other sinister, alien beings who shared the space. Tori wasn’t like she used to be — she wasn’t the sweet, innocent child the Synestryn had taken — but she was still Nika’s sister. She was still loved. She deserved the chance for freedom, no matter the cost to Nika.
Besides, if Nika could bring her home and stop the torture Tori endured, both their lives would be better. They were connected — though not as strongly as they’d once been — and Nika wondered sometimes how her sister had survived this long.
The night the Synestryn stole Tori, Nika had promised her she’d never leave her alone. Now, almost nine years later, she’d kept that promise despite the fact that it had nearly killed her more than once.
Tori was slipping away, and Nika had the feeling that her sister was doing it by choice, that she was pushing them apart for a reason Nika couldn’t understand.
Nika refused to give up on her. With or without help, she was going to find Tori and free her from her captors. Or die trying. That was definitely another alternative — perhaps the more likely one, given the way her muscles were already burning with fatigue.
If she couldn’t finish the simple job of digging a hole, how could she possibly execute a rescue mission?
After an hour of digging, she’d barely made a dent in the frozen soil. At this rate, she’d still be here come daybreak, when the authorities could see her and drag her to the closest hospital’s mental ward. She couldn’t go back there. Eight years of being restrained and questioned and tortured by doctors with their fake smiles and dead eyes was more than she could stand. If she had to go back to that life, she really would be crazy.
And even if that was not where she ended up — if she went back to Dabyr — the chances of escaping the watchful eyes of the Sentinels again were slim. She was going to have only one shot at this — one shot to prove that Tori was still alive and needed to be rescued.
Time to dig faster.
The shovel slipped in her weak grip, scraping off a layer of skin. She should have brought gloves, but hadn’t thought that far ahead. Remembering a shovel had been foremost in her mind, consuming the small space she had left for rational thought.
She’d also forgotten money and food. She had no idea how she’d get back home — the gas tank was nearly empty. She had left her cell phone at home so they couldn’t use it to track her and find her before she was done. Anything that happened after she’d collected the stranger’s bones seemed distant and unimportant.
A tugging kind of pressure pulled at her mind. Nika froze instantly, fighting it. The shovel fell from her frozen fingers. She clutched her head, knowing it would do no good.
She didn’t want to go there tonight. She didn’t want to be pulled into the mind of a monster to hunt and kill and feed. She had too much work to do.
An eerie howl vibrated the base of her skull, and it was all she could do not to lift her chin and howl along with the creature. Her own vision winked out and was replaced by another’s.
Tall, frozen grass parted along her muzzle as she hunted for her prey. The warmth of food glowed bright in the darkness ahead. Hunger roared inside Nika’s mind. The remembered taste of blood made her mouth water.
She struggled to pull from the sgath’s mind before witnessing its kill, but this one was strong. It liked having her with it. It liked knowing she didn’t want to be here, that she suffered.
Nika gritted her teeth and stopped trying to fight its pull. Instead, she focused on the feel of its limbs, the cold earth against the pads of its paws. Wind ruffled its fur, but it was warm, even in the cold.
Not for long.
She took the chill of her own body, the weakness of her own limbs, and forced those feelings into the sgath. The beast stopped moving and a low growl reverberated through it as it fought her. It didn’t like what she was doing to it. It didn’t like the cold.
A throbbing filled her skull as she fought the sgath. She whispered to it that it was too tired to hunt. Too cold. It needed to sleep.
The sgath roared into the darkness and thrust Nika from its mind, shutting her out.
She landed on her butt, hitting the pitiful mound of frozen dirt she’d managed to scratch from Tori’s false grave. Fatigue kept her glued to the spot as she tried to catch her breath. Her chest burned as the cold air filled her lungs over and over again, coming out in silvery plumes. Her body trembled with cold and weariness.
How could she keep going? How was she going to dig all the way down and open the casket lying below? Why had she thought she could do this alone?
Why had Madoc abandoned her? She hadn’t seen him in seven months.
Her older sister, Andra, said the distance was for the best — that he was too angry and dangerous for her to be around him. Everyone seemed to be blind to the truth: He was in pain and he needed her to make it stop. It was so glaringly obvious to her, but no one else seemed to see it.
And that, in a nutshell, was the story of her life. She saw things no one else did, and no one believed her.
All that was going to change as soon as she had the bones. The Sanguinar would be able to tell they weren’t Tori’s, and if they couldn’t, DNA tests would. One way or another, she was going to make the people around her listen.
If she lived through the night.
Already she could feel more sgath clawing for her attention, trying to suck her into their minds. They sensed her weakness. Even though there were fewer of them than there had ever been before — thanks to Madoc’s quest to make them extinct — those that were left were stronger and smarter than the rest. They’d evaded Madoc’s blade, hidden from him, learned from the mistakes of the others.
Most nights Nika could resist their pull, but she was weaker tonight, outside the magically enhanced walls of Dabyr, which had apparently helped protect her. Her escape from Dabyr had been nerve-racking. The drive here had been terrifying. All that combined with the effort of physical labor was too much for her.
She wanted to be stronger than this. She wanted to be healthy. She wanted to be normal.
Wishing wasn’t going to get her or Tori anywhere, so she pushed herself to her feet, brushed the dirt from her hands, and picked up the shovel. It was time to get back to work.
Nika let the cold have her. She let the wind drag her hood from her head, stripped out of her puffy coat, and put the thought of her chilled fingers and aching legs in the front of her mind. Any sgath who wanted to have her along for the ride tonight was going to end up freezing its furry butt off.
* * *
“What the fuck do you mean, Nika’s gone?” Madoc growled into the cell phone.
Rage was always close to the surface, spurred on by his constant pain, bubbling, waiting to be let loose. His soul was nearly dead, and hiding that fact was getting a lot harder as each day passed. He needed to finish killing all the fuckers that had taken Nika’s blood before it was too late and he no longer cared whether or not they ate the crazy chick’s mind.
Joseph sounded tired. “She stole one of the cars in the garage and left.”
Something suspiciously close to fear wriggled inside of him, making the pounding pain in his chest swell. He needed some relief. Now. All those fucking hours of meditation he’d just finished hadn’t done jack shit.
“Where the hell was her sister?” he demanded.
“Andra and Paul are up north searching for a lost kid. I tried to call her, but couldn’t get through. They’re probably deep in the bowels of some cave, out of cell phone range.”
“If she was gone, then who was supposed to be watching Nika?” He was going to have to find the person responsible and beat the hell out of them. No help for it.
“No one. I keep trying to tell you that she’s better now. Stronger. She’s an adult and doesn’t need a keeper.”
“Obviously you were wrong,” snarled Madoc. “You should have had someone babysitting her.”
“You can have the job anytime you like,” said Joseph.
“Not interested.” If he got near her he’d hurt her. He knew he would. He didn’t normally go for scrawny chicks, but there was something about her that turned him on and made him feel violent all at the same time. Not a healthy combination — especially not for Nika.
“So you’ve said. Too bad you’re the closest to her — or at least to where her car stopped. Nicholas tracked the car to Omaha, and since you’re nearby, you’re volunteering to go check it and see if she’s still in it.”
“Send someone else. I shouldn’t be anywhere near her.”
“Why? ‘Cause she seems to have a thing for you? Wish I had such problems.”
“She doesn’t have a thing for me. She’s crazy. That’s why she refuses to stay away. Chick’s got issues.”
“Don’t we all. Listen, just go find her, okay? Nicholas will text you the info so you can find the car. If she’s not in it, you’ll have to track her down. And hurry the hell up. I don’t like having her out there alone at night. Who knows what could happen.”
Joseph hung up, leaving Madoc writhing in frustration and fear. For her. The last place on the planet he wanted to be was near Nika, and yet the thought of her alone in the dark, weak and helpless, was more than he could stand.
“Fuck.” He flung the curse out into the night, sheathed his sword, and stomped back to his truck. The nest he had been ready to cut into would have to wait. Nika couldn’t.
* * *
Nika’s plan had worked. The sgath hated the cold, and every time they brushed up against her mind, they flinched back in anger.
Of course, the flip side of her brilliant plan was that she was freezing to death. Her body shivered, and she could no longer feel her fingers or toes. The shovel kept slipping, but at least she couldn’t feel the blisters forming on her palms anymore.
She worked for another hour without interruption and was smugly pleased with herself. Until she heard the first hungry cry of a sgath hunting nearby. This time, the sound wasn’t inside her mind; it was in her ears. It was real, and it was close.
They’d found her.
Panic gripped her by the neck and choked the air from her lungs.
How had they found her? She’d been so careful to drive only during the day, when they were all asleep and couldn’t read her thoughts. And tonight none of them had tried to pry from her where she’d gone when she left the safety of Dabyr. They couldn’t know where she was.
Tentatively, Nika sent her mind out, searching for any nearby Synestryn. Their alien thoughts and uncontrolled hunger would be easy to find among the humans nearby. Their thoughts were bleak, festering spots of darkness among the bright, clear human thought patterns.
If there was only one Synestryn and it wasn’t too strong, she could probably control its mind long enough to kill it with the shovel. If she was lucky.
Her body fell away as she went seeking into the night, searching for the source of that eerie cry of hunger. She found one Synestryn slinking through the darkness less than a quarter mile away. It was small — the size of a large dog — and it was weak with hunger. That hunger gave her the edge.
She could take it.
Nika had just begun to whisper into its mind to come her way when she felt another Synestryn nearby. Then another. There were three, then four, then seven. They were closing in. They smelled blood. Her blood.
Before they could trap her within them, Nika pulled back into her own mind and scanned her body for signs of blood. There was a smear on the leg of her jeans, muddy, but definitely blood.
She looked at her hands. Sure enough, the shovel had scraped off several layers of skin until she bled. The Synestryn smelled it and were moving in to feast.
The car was parked outside the metal fence several hundred yards away. As cold and weak as her legs were, she wasn’t sure she was going to make it to the car before they made it to her, but she had to try. She couldn’t let them get her blood. Thanks to Madoc’s recent killing spree, she was just now regaining the pieces of herself that had been taken the night her family was attacked. She’d spent almost nine years living inside a nightmare, unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t, and she refused to go back to that hell.
She’d rather die than let them have her mind again.
Nika grabbed the shovel, knowing it was the only weapon she had to hold them at bay, and sprinted for the fence.
Behind her a loud chorus of rasping howls rose up into the night as the Synestryn closed in.
* * *
Madoc found the stolen Volkswagen Bug outside a cemetery, but Nika was not inside the car as he’d hoped. Intense pressure rolled through him in a painful wave, growing until he was sure it would tear him apart. He sucked in huge gulps of frigid air, but it did little good.
He needed to be killing or fucking — bleeding away some of the pressure — not chasing after a girl who was too crazy not to go running off alone in the dark.
Clearly, what he wanted had no bearing on reality.
Madoc fought the pain back with a snarl, slammed his truck to a stop, rammed the gearshift into park, and left the engine running.
One way or another, this wasn’t going to take long. If she wasn’t nearby, then he’d call Joseph and tell him to send someone else to search for her. If she was, he was going to shove her in the Bug and follow her ass all the way back to Dabyr, where she belonged. No more joyrides. No more scaring the shit out of him. She was grounded.
But first he had to find her.
He leaped the fence and landed with a thud as his heavy boots hit the frozen ground. The wind had picked up, tugging the front of his leather jacket open.
If Nika was out here in this wind, she was going to be freezing her bony ass off. Not that he cared. Served her right for leaving home, where she was safe and warm.
They want to touch me. I don’t like it, Madoc. It hurts when other men touch me.
She’d begged him to take her with him last time he was home, to get her away from the male Theronai who came from the four corners of the world to see if she could channel their power and save their lives. That had been seven months ago, when he’d gone home in a moment of weakness, needing to see her again. Unfortunately, watching her flinch away from those men — seeing pain pinch her features — was more than Madoc could stand. He’d hit the road and hadn’t been back since.
Best decision he’d ever made. Being on his own was safest for everyone. Besides, he had plenty of hookers to keep him company. That and a pile of nasties to kill was all he needed.
A high-pitched, feminine cry ripped through the cold night air. Fear shimmered inside the noise, and with it came instant recognition. That was Nika’s voice. He’d heard her cry out in fear too many times not to recognize it.
Madoc spun around toward the sound, releasing his sword from its sheath with an almost inaudible hiss of steel on steel. He raced over the ground, letting free the rage that was bubbling barely below the surface.
Whatever or whoever had made her afraid was going to die.
He cleared the top of a rise, saw Nika, and nearly came to a dead stop. Half a dozen sgath surrounded her. Her back was against a thick tree. Moonlight shone off her stark white hair, and she wielded a shovel like some kind of war club, batting at the Synestryn that dared to inch closer. Her blue eyes were wide with fear — a familiar sight — but the snarl of rage twisting her mouth was new and completely startling.
She swung the shovel, hitting one of the sgath in the head. There wasn’t enough force behind the blow to do any good, and it bounced off, shaking her entire body. She looked unhurt, but that wasn’t going to last for long if he didn’t step up and take over.
Madoc closed the distance, lifted his blade, and let out a battle cry.
Immediately, six pairs of glowing green eyes turned toward him. A slow smile stretched his mouth. Playtime had finally come.