Read Chapters 1 & 2 of Faster

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fasterfinal-fjm_are_200x300Caitlin Moore thought finding the Secret Keeper would make all her problems go away.

Not so much.

She can no longer deny the fae blood running through her veins but coming to grips with her new life as a Warder who is immune to the Gifts of other fae is the least of her worries. Kaine and Co. are still stuck in Riverview and she’d love nothing more than to get him out of her life once and for all.

The plan should be easy: find the key, use it to break the banishment spell, and send them on their way across the Veil to stop the mad High King. Only things are never so simple when the fae are involved. To key they need is an ancient sword long thought to be a myth. Even worse? They will need to use it to summon the Morrigan, a powerful goddess, and beg her to break the spell.

Caitlin and Gannon, her teacher and fellow hunter, race to find the sword but she finds herself confronted by new dangers at every turn. She must make the impossible choice between righting the wrongs of her past or fulfilling her promise to see Kaine home—no matter the cost.

 

1

There comes a time in every girl’s life when she reassesses the choices she’s made so far.

I’m talking about the big picture choices. Not the little things we mull over and obsess about every day, like “Was that skirt a bit too short for the office Christmas party?” or “Am I going to hate myself tomorrow for eating this greasy double cheeseburger with a large side of fries…and a strawberry milkshake?”

I’m talking about real choices. Those important decisions that have far-reaching consequences that you just know will come back to bite you in the ass, but you willfully ignore because you’re all caught up in the moment. Like, “ignoring your better judgment and taking home that stranger from the club because he’s just too fine to pass up a night of naughty gymnastics with” big. Maybe even “quitting your horrible soul-sucking job without having another one lined up” big.

For me, that moment came as I hung upside down in a building along the Hudson River.

I didn’t know what it had been home to in a previous life. Maybe some sort of a clothing manufacturer given the odds and ends entombed within, but that hardly mattered anymore. It was a monument to disrepair: old, abandoned, and, if the scratchy little sounds I heard in the dark below me were any indicator, likely rat infested too.

Gross.

We had found enough suspicious scraps and discarded bones to confirm that our quarry had once called the building home. Was it still in residence? That was the million dollar question we still lacked an answer to.

We had searched all three of the upper levels to no avail. Other than decomposing furniture and disgusting heaps of debris I didn’t even want to try and identify, the building appeared to be empty.

That left the basement. The staircase leading down to the lower level had fallen away some time ago. Was that the unfortunate side effect of age or a cunning move to make it impossible for intruders to stumble upon a private nest? Who knew?

Not me, that’s for damned sure and it didn’t much matter in the long run. One way or the other, we needed to take a look, meaning that lack of a staircase was a giant pain in the ass that needed to be circumvented.

The solution?

Lower Caitlin down into the dark, of course.

The cavernous space before me was pitch freaking black except for a weak shaft of light coming from the stairwell above. Even with one wall perilously close to me I was disoriented. My brain couldn’t make heads or tails of the overwhelming darkness. It didn’t help that I was gently swinging back and forth, suspended from an honest-to-God harness like some trapeze artist. The damn thing was digging into my gut in all sorts of uncomfortable ways, cutting off the circulation to my legs.

I guesstimated I was halfway between the floor above and the ground below, but it was hard to tell. Maybe it was better that way. I really didn’t need to know how far the fall to my death would be, should Gannon’s grip fail.

The whole shebang was far from my idea of fun but a necessary evil. Upper body strength and I had only recently become acquaintances, and though Gannon was all lean muscle, I had no faith in my ability to keep him aloft if our positions had been reversed. Truth be told, I hadn’t been too eager to let his strength be my sole anchor either, but what could I do? One of us had to play spelunker and see if our unwelcome guest was still living below.

Two little girls—twins who were fresh out of kindergarten—had gone missing earlier in the week. They weren’t the first and, if we didn’t find this thing, we had the feeling that they wouldn’t be the last. Of course the police were focused on tracking down the sicko who had taken them, but they were hunting for a run-of-the-mill abductor. We knew better. All signs pointed here and to a monster straight out of a storybook that needed to be stopped.

Pronto.

“Do you see anything?” Gannon’s voice was pitched low but it reverberated in my brain loud and clear, thanks to my snazzy top-of-the-line Bluetooth earpiece.

I had finally stopped swaying. My face warmed as all the blood pooled in my head, so I wanted to make the sweep quickly. I pried my flashlight from its pocket on the harness and said a silent prayer. We hadn’t been able to come up with too clear a plan on what to do if the creature actually was hiding in the deeps. I was armed with my trusty stilettos but they weren’t going to be of much use to me while dangling in mid-air. Gannon couldn’t exactly come to my rescue either, not without dropping me on my head.

I clicked on the light and shone it around in quick jerks, trying to cover as much of the room as possible without spinning myself in dizzying circles. More trash, droppings galore, and some hulking machines I couldn’t even begin to identify filled the large, high ceilinged room—but nothing moved, as far as the eye could see. “Looks clear.”

I heard him curse. It wasn’t exactly the answer either of us wanted. Hours wasted on a futile hunt pleased neither of us.

Although, I’ll admit that when nothing leaped up at me from the dark, I let out a small sigh of relief. To assuage my guilt over my cowardice, I said, “Hold on. Let me take a good look before you yank me back up.”

He grunted an affirmative. “Okay but make it quick. You aren’t light as a feather, you know.”

“Um, fuck you very much.”

Was that a chuckle I heard echoing down from above? Asshole.

I slowed my search and tried to make my sweeps methodical and even, leaving no inch untouched. I held my breath and cataloged every little sound I heard. The creak of the rope keeping me aloft. The faint drip of water hitting cement. That eerie ambient buzzing you get in your ears when things are just too damn quiet. Nothing out of the ordinary. Unless this thing was hunkered down behind something, holding its breath, I was pretty confident in my original assessment: we were the only living things left inside the building.

An indignant squeak and the scratching of tiny nails on concrete echoed from somewhere below, reminding me that was untrue.

Fine then; it was just us and the rats.

“I’m not seeing anything. Do you want to lower me down? I can do a pass on foot.” It was the furthest thing from what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have any better ideas.

I could tell he was considering it for a moment by his pause, but he said, “No. It’s too risky. I wouldn’t be able to get you back up and that harness is too tricky to manage, alone in the dark. I think we’ve seen enough. It’s not here anymore.”

Balls.

Who knew when—if—we’d pick up its trail again? The thought of those poor kids burned a hole in my gut like a double shot of Tabasco. I knew it was probably too late to save them—so likely that it was a pipe dream to expect anything else, really—but bringing them justice would have been something. Ever one to beat a dead horse, I continued to sweep the room as I was hoisted back up. Unfortunately, that gumption got me nowhere.

Once the light began to return, I was able to gage my surroundings better. The smell of marginally fresher air was a treat after spending so long in the dank cavern below. I tucked the flashlight away and reached up to grasp the rope with both hands. I managed to pull myself upright, wincing as the harness straps cut into my thighs in a whole new way. I was not a fan of the spelunking shit. I made a promise to myself to start pumping iron. Next time we found ourselves in one of these weird situations, Gannon was going to be the one taking the plunge if I had anything to say about it.

The lip of the hole loomed above me and I reached out to get a good grip on it, helping guide myself up and over before the rope went slack. I flopped back on the concrete and laid there for a moment, waiting for my bodily fluids to redistribute themselves properly. I tried not to think about all of the filth currently caking itself into my hair.

Gannon crouched down beside me and undid the locks of the harness. It was the closest he had ever been to me, save for when we were kicking one another’s asses in the training ring. A flush spread across my cheeks.

I shoved that thought away quick and focused on the matter at hand.

The whole situation really bugged me. We had come so close. The remains we had found on the upper floors pointed toward some sort of bestial fae having lived here. Who else could it have been, if not our monstrous serial killer? There had even been a few suspicious looking piles in the basement, making me wonder: where had the damn thing slept? Didn’t that old adage of “don’t shit where you sleep” apply in the fae kingdom?

Actually…

I wondered aloud, “How would it have gotten down there in the first place, if the stairs are missing?”

He paused for half a second. Over the last few months I had learned to read my teacher well. With him, that small tick was damn near an admission of guilt. I asked slowly, “Gannon, what aren’t you telling me?”

He shook it off as he undid the last strap and stood. “Kludde can fly.”

“Fly?” I sat up. He had taken two steps away, back turned. I shimmied out of the remaining straps about my thighs. Those he had left alone. What a gentleman. Chivalry wasn’t about to make me forget the bomb he had just dropped though. The mental image of some feathered freak soaring up out of the darkness with it beak agape was emblazoned in my mind. It would probably haunt me for days. “Gee, that’s good to know. Nice of you to warn me before I went down there.”

He shot me a look that was disbelief balanced by an equal amount of thinly veiled disapproval. “Does it matter? You said it yourself earlier: one way or the other, one of us was going down there. You weren’t going to be the one hoisting me up in this thing.”

He shook the rope for emphasis.

“Yeah, well maybe I wouldn’t have been so eager to be dangled in the dark like a worm on a hook, thanks.” I shot him a peeved look, which earned me an eye roll. That was Gannon-speak for “stop being a drama queen,” which only irritated me even more. I snapped, “Don’t you think that’s some information I could have used before we turned this place over from top to bottom?”

“Perhaps.”

Perhaps?” I stressed the word. “Perhaps, he says. Every other time we hunt, I get a freaking history lesson before I’m allowed out the door. But this time? When I could have been snatched out of the air like a tennis ball thrown to an eager Labradoodle? Then you choose to hold back?” He weathered my complaining with his customary stoicism; never blinking. That just incensed me more. “Where were the dossiers you love so much? Did you just get lazy this time?”

“Would you have bothered to read it ‘this time,’ had I prepared one?”

I might have recoiled visibly if I had been on my feet. As it was, I froze with my mouth hanging open. He turned his back to me, as if he hadn’t just given me a verbal five across the eyes.

I glared daggers into his broad back. My face burned.

To say that our relationship was a rocky one would be something of an understatement. Gannon was my teacher and I was his unexpectedly capable student, but there the warm and fuzzies ended. From day one, we had run hot and cold with one another. Sometimes we were friendly, other times we were barely civil. We had found that we worked well together when out on the prowl but beyond that? The lines of communication between us were a bit… Let’s call it “strained.”

They had become even more so ever since the night we had hunted down a Black Dog, which was pretty much exactly what it sounded like: a gigantic, slavering, fae hound. I had, admittedly, acted like an ass and nearly gotten myself killed by ignoring the report he had prepared for me on the night of that particular hunt. The danger my laziness had put us in had led to one of the most severe dressing downs he had leveled upon me to date. The blow-out of that night made this snarky little tiff seem almost flippant.

So, as much as I wanted to bite back after that not-so-subtle dig, I couldn’t. Really, I deserved it. Continuing the argument would just spark another war between us so instead I tried to be the bigger woman and swallowed my pride.

Believe you me, that was hard for me.

Really, really hard.

I climbed to my feet, picked up the discarded tangle of harness, and slung it over my shoulder. It weighed next to nothing anyhow. He was on his own with the rope.

I needed to put some distance between us so I stalked off across the room, muttering uncharitable things under my breath once I was out of earshot. No one in the ‘Verse had the power to infuriate me quite like Gannon did. Even Kaine, whose princely ass remained at the tippy top of my current shit-list, didn’t make my skin itch like I was wearing a wool jumpsuit in the middle of July.

I should have been used to it by now. Ever since the Warding had manifested in my life, letting me see through fae glamours in addition to being immune to their freaky magical abilities, my life had been one giant problem after the next. You would think that I would have adjusted to being around them damn near 24/7, but; no. Navigating the ins and outs of fae etiquette was not even close to being my strong suit.

My being the last known Warder left in either world—mine or theirs—proved that there was some fae blood swirling around in the waters of my gene pool, but I was still just a little human fish in a big fairy pond. All I wanted was to protect myself and those I loved from the more savage fae who were slowly invading my world, but to do that I had to throw my lot in with the exiled prince and his buddies. From day one, Kaine had made the hoighty-toighty royal decree that I not hunt without Gannon—his loyal Guardian, resident badass, and huge pain in my rear. That was just one more complication in my quest to save humanity from the monsters.

It wasn’t like we had exactly been chums before the Black Dog debacle, but his snide reminder cut me deep all the same. I had done him and the rest of the coterie a huge solid by finding them their Secret Keeper, but that hardly seemed to matter. The Lynx’s solution to ending their banishment hadn’t proved to be a quick and easy fix. Instead, it had put a further strain on our relationship.

None of that was my fault but; whatever. I hadn’t given their bat-crap crazy High King nearly omnipotent powers, had I? I didn’t have anything to do with his having tossed their asses out of Tír na nÓg on trumped up (i.e. fake) treason charges, leaving them to rot in my world either. I certainly hadn’t been the one to break the news to them that petitioning a scary goddess with some near-mythical fae artifact was their only shot at breaking that exile. That was all on them, their crazy relatives, and the Lynx; thank you very much.

I snarled silently and kicked at a piece of plaster, likely fallen from the crumbling ceiling above. Just thinking about it made me want to scream. I had thought I would be free of them as soon as I lived up to my end of the original ill-gotten pact with Kaine to find the Lynx.

Instead I had realized that I couldn’t walk away from them any easier than they could from me. Until I saw Kaine returned home to usurp the throne from his crazy brother, there would be no stopping the bestial fae from crossing into my world to feed on humans.

Forging another blood-bond with that smarmy, identity hiding royal bastard had been the only way to ensure my safety and that of the human race in general—but that tied to them until they found that stupid sword and made it back home, come hell or high water. Finding the damn thing was proving to be another wild goose chase of a nightmare.

Ugh. My life was a hot mess.

I heard the rustle of the rope being wound up on the other side of the room. I wanted to keep as much distance between myself and Gannon as I could until my temper cooled so I chose to get some fresh air—relatively speaking. The door to the street was more propped up than closed; a rusty length of chain still slung across it from the outside. If it was meant to keep out intruders it had failed miserably. Neither of us had had a hard time bypassing it. Not much of a surprise for my five-foot-four frame but Gannon was a head and a half taller; lean but wiry with muscle. Personally, I thought we should have taken bolt cutters to the thing, but he had insisted we leave as little evidence of our search as possible.

Whatever. Just another small way he annoyed the shit out of me.

I shimmied through the crack and emerged outside on the dilapidated front stoop. A few crumbling stairs headed down to the deserted lot below; the ground cracked, weeds sprouting up where employees had once parked their cars. The sun was shining bright in the sky and it made me squint. I was used to late night hunts; covert shit under the cover of darkness. We had risked the complications of seeking the kludde out during the day to make the most of its nocturnal habits. Catching it asleep in its lair would have been much easier than tracking it at night. Had it still been calling this place home, of course.

Nocturnal and flying. Geez. How was that for a one-two punch?

I paced in small circles, too jazzed up to stand still. Just thinking about that thing still being out there at large made my blood boil. Having found no trace of it stuck in my craw even worse than Mr. High and Mighty’s passive-aggressive bitchiness.

I could hope that it had moved on but, if those missing kids were any indication, it was still calling Riverview home. I didn’t like the thought of something that dangerous residing in my city. Who knew where it would strike next? When it would swoop down and grab another unsuspecting innocent, flying them off to be devoured in its new nest?

Fly.

I looked skyward. A bird was lazily winging along above, riding a nice breeze. All of a sudden, it clicked.

Son of a bitch. We had been looking in all the wrong places.

I spun around and craned my head back, shading my eyes with one hand as I scanned the side of the building. Sure enough, there was a rusty, rickety-as-hell-looking ladder jutting up from somewhere on the third story and leading to the roof above.

Adrenaline surged through me. I sprang forward and shoved myself back through the crack, nearly colliding with Gannon on the other side.

He stumbled back. “What the hell—”

I grabbed a fistful of his t-shirt and damn near spun him in the direction of the stairs leading to the upper stories, pointing excitedly. “The roof! We didn’t check the roof!”

He gaped at me for a moment before the light bulb went on. A manic grin broke out on my face. I saw that excitement mirrored on his face; crackling to life in his pale blue eyes. Harness and rope were dropped by the door as we sprinted toward the stairs. We took them two at a time, sling-shoting ourselves across each landing to bound up the next flight. There were no words to describe the vicious excitement that flooded my veins.

Elated.

Primal.

Maybe even a little bit bloodthirsty.

This hunt wasn’t ready to be called a bust just yet.

We slowed our pace as one when we hit the third floor. No sense in alerting anything that might be lurking above. I had to admit it: we were one hell of a team.

The door to the outside was bolted shut; the lock rusted into a solid hunk of metal. He tried to shoulder-slam it into submission but it wasn’t giving. I sacrificed the sleeve of my shirt to clear through the thick layer of grime on one of the window panes nearby. Outside I could see a small ledge spanning the length of the building, hardly wide enough for two people to walk side by side. It had likely been a service walkway in its former life, long forgotten. An ankle deep layer of decaying leaves and God only knew what other matter awaited us.

Gross.

Hunting was far from being a glamorous job.

I looked around and found a hefty looking piece of wood among the debris surrounding us. I picked it up and tested its weight. It was on the light side—likely hollowed out by decay—but I had the hunch it would be enough. He had stepped back, arms folded. He didn’t have to ask. He already knew where this was heading. I really wanted to use my newfound weapon to knock the sly look of his face; devilishly high cheekbones and all. Instead, I took a deep breath and swung at the glass. The pane shattered with a satisfying shriek.

So much for keeping things quiet.

It took us a few minutes to clean out the frame and work our way through but we got there. The foul reek of rotting vegetation greeted us outside. He climbed through first. I heard the muffled snap of what I could only hope were rodent bones being crushed underfoot, lost among the rubbish. He reached in and helped me through, hoisting me over the windowsill so that the rough edges of the glass wouldn’t snag on my clothes.

Such a gentleman.

The ladder leading up to the roof looked no more stable up close than it had from the ground. The metal had long ago turned the red-brown of something rusted beyond repair, though it still seemed to be securely bolted to the wall. I slipped on the pair of thin leather gloves I kept tucked in my back pocket. I didn’t know how much they’d protect me but getting a tetanus shot wasn’t high on my to-do list. Better safe than sorry. I hoisted myself up and let the bottom rung take my full weight. It groaned and trembled a bit beneath my feet, but it held. I clambered on up, as quick and quiet as possible.

I hopped over the lip at the top and moved off to the right, giving him room to follow. I crouched and scanned the area. It wasn’t very impressive. The surface was paved in gravel, though much of it had worn away in the years of disuse. Squat little chimney stacks popped up at regular intervals, each capped with a rusted metal hood. A cluster of metal towers and pipes dominated the far left corner, likely the remnants of the building’s air conditioning system.

I couldn’t see what hid in that labyrinth, but my gut told me we were close. As soon as he was up and over the edge, we crept forward. A few feet in, he stopped me with a hand thrown out in front of my chest. I followed his gaze to the ground. There was dried blood spattered among the gravel.

A lot of dried blood.

I drew my blades.

The world was scary silent, with the building below us long dead. The wind sounded larger than life up on high, blocking out everything else. Even the traffic from the busy city streets below was muffled. My blood hummed with anticipation.

We were only a few feet from the first of the shed-like structures when I heard the rustle of something moving on the other side. We both froze; weapons drawn, and—personally—heart hammering. I realized in that moment that I probably should have asked what, exactly, a kludde was earlier instead of getting my panties in a twist over my past mistakes.

But that would have been the reasonable thing to do and reasonable things never entered Caitlin Moore’s mind until it was too late. One day I really was going to have to get a handle on that smart-ass gene.

Gannon’s hand grazed my forearm. When he had my attention, he jerked his head to the right and pointed straight ahead of us with his sword. I nodded, veering off on a path opposite of his. It was the luck of the draw to see who got the head end this time. I knew my luck. Something told me I was about to play bait once again.

I pressed my back up against the shed when I rounded the corner, stilettos at the ready. Each step was carefully placed, my eyes never leaving that bend; that space where that monster might appear.

Until I stepped down on something that snapped with a loud crunch.

Until I remembered that the kludde could fly.

 

2

I never got a good look at the bone that betrayed me. In the space of the breath I drew in to curse, the situation went from tense to all-out shit show. There was a rattling clatter as something large leaped on to the roof of the shed at my back, followed by a horrible sound that was somewhere between the bay of a hellhound and the screech of a bald eagle, all against the backdrop of metal letting loose a tortured squeal.

My gaze shot upwards and the profanities dried up in my mouth.

Hot staggering fuck.

The thing looming over me was something straight out of a nightmare.

My memory shot back to the huge, shaggy Black Dog that had nearly killed me a few months ago. This thing looked like its nastier, eviler second cousin—but it had the Dog beat in the freaky-ugly department by a long shot. Its body was wolf-like, though it was so emaciated beneath its matted grey hide that it looked half-starved. Giant, hook-like talons sprouted from its meaty paws. The roof beneath them sported deep gouges from where the beast had landed. It rose back on its haunches—far too bipedal looking for my comfort—and the massive pair of leathery looking bat wings jutting from its back snapped out to their full ten-foot length, cloaking me in shadow.

The eyes that locked on mine seemed to glow a sickly green. Its lips drew back from yellowed fangs with a snarl. I was nearly bowled over by a wave of warm, carrion-scented foulness. Emaciated or no, that thing was far from starving. It smelled like the worst kind of predator.

Even worse?

I had just become the prey.

I recognized the feral glint in its eyes half a second before it lunged, barely managing to dive out of the way. I desperately wanted to be one of those cool spy movie villains; diving and rolling and coming up packing heat. I had gotten better at the whole fae-hunting vigilante bit, true, but I wasn’t quite there yet. My brain might have been given to entertaining delusions of grandeur, but my reflexes weren’t quite in line with those aspirations. Instead of looking slick, I went down on one shoulder and grunted, biting back a yelp as pain radiated outward from the impact. At least I had managed to keep a grip on my knives.

The kludde hit the ground in front of me like a sack of mangy, snarling bricks, spraying loose gravel into the air as it spun to face me. Its hackles were raised; its wings spread. It was obviously pissed that I had dropped by during lunch time and there I was, flat on my back with only two dinky little knives to protect me. Safe to say, it probably felt I’d make a good intermezzo.

I was really starting to re-think Gannon’s “no guns” policy.

In fact—where the hell was he? Why was that pain in the ass never around when the shit went down?

I scrambled up into a crouch, feeling a familiar flush wash over me. My blood pumped harder. My skin seemed to tingle. Every muscle was tensed, every nerve on edge; waiting for me to make a move. Call it what you like—excitement, blood lust, the thrill of the hunt; whatever. Might as well call it Caitlin’s Failure of Common Sense. It was the reason I could barely look my normal friends and family in the eye anymore. Most rational people would have given into the flight urge when faced with something so big, so scary; so impossibly alien. Not me. I was ready to fight.

The kludde hadn’t made a move forward. Instead, it snarled and pawed at the ground like a bull about to charge. I doubted that it was afraid of me. It was much likelier that it was just playing with its food—but in any case, I had its attention. I wasn’t about to waste it. Maybe I’d get an earful for taking on the bad guy on my own again later but the thought of those kids having met such an unspeakable end, made me see red. I wasn’t waiting for the cavalry to arrive.

I had taken down the Black Dog single-handed, after all. It had been a close call, but I had done it, and that furry bastard had to have had an easy sixty pounds on this one. Surely that massive brute had been more of a menace than this freak.

Wings notwithstanding, of course.

I stood, daggers ready at my sides, and tried to project every ounce of badassery I had in my body. “I hear you like picking off defenseless little kids. Big, scary beast like you? That must not be much of a challenge. How about you grow some balls and try me on for size, you ugly fuck!”

The kludde was not impressed by my posturing. It was bigger, it was badder and—dammit—it knew it. In response to my taunting, it unfurled its wings again and stretched its neck out, letting loose another long, low bay that made the hair on my neck stand on end. I had no idea how intelligent it was, but I took that to be kludde-speak for, “Bring it on, bitch.”

I needed a better position and I needed it fast. I turned and bolted, damn near flinging myself around the corner of the next vent in the row. I went down in a homerun slide, thankful for the snazzy leather pants I was wearing. I could feel the gravel scraping against my leg, its roughness blunted somewhat. I mourned the loss of another hunting outfit, but at least it wasn’t my skin getting torn up by those rocks.

Lurching to my feet, I pressed my back up against the cold metal and held in a deep breath; straining to hear its next move. Would it give chase on foot? Or would it take wing and land above me, ripping my head clean off my shoulders?

Why didn’t I ever stop to consider these things before I engaged the bad-guy?

Luckily, I didn’t have to listen too hard. Graceful the kludde was not. As it scrambled after me, I closed my eyes and prayed I hadn’t let my rage goad me into making a huge mistake. The thud of feet landing on the roof at my back nearly sent me sprawling. The scrabble of claws coming up short on gravel signaled the kludde’s rough stop.

What the—?

“Now, Caitlin!”

I acted on instinct at Gannon’s shout and lunged around the corner, one blade leading the way. His arrival had confused the kludde just as much as it had me and I used its slow reaction to my advantage. With a primal scream of my own, I surged forward, aiming for an eye. The beast reared back as I closed in, throwing me off my mark. My blade drove deep into the muscle where shoulder met chest. It screamed and whipped its head from side to side, drowning out my rage with its pain.

I could feel the rictus of vicious glee that had spread across my face, but I didn’t care. The fucker deserved it. I darted in for another strike and was knocked back by the swing of one surprisingly solid wing. My face took the brunt of the impact, and I stumbled back, clutching at my stinging nose; eyes watering.

It faced off against me on three feet, favoring the leg I wished I had at least severed, and it was only then that I realized how close I was to the monster. When it snapped and snarled at me, warm spittle landed on my cheek. I could see those finger-length fangs too keenly for my comfort and it was not nearly injured enough for my liking—something about that had to change, and fast.

“A little help here would be nice!” I spat, not daring to take my eyes off the kludde long enough to spear Gannon with a disapproving glance. It bristled, hackles raised, and looked to be gearing up for another lunge—one that might take my head clear off in such close quarters—when my partner finally decided to get down and dirty with us. His leap from the rooftop was pure grace; his superhero landing behind the monster sure and steady; his drawn sword perfectly angled.

Show off.

Again, his arrival was just the distraction I needed. When the kludde’s head swung to the side, I dove forward and fell to one knee, my remaining stiletto griped tight in both hands. I jammed the blade up beneath the monster’s jaw with all I had, stabbing into the tender flesh of its throat. Blood flooded over my hands. Another hellish shriek filled my ears. The blade was torn from my grasp as the creature backpedaled and I scuttled back in the opposite direction, feeling gravel crunch beneath my gloved palms.

Both of my weapons were lodged in it, yet it was still standing. I gaped up at it, mind blown. Did the damn thing not have a jugular? A normal creature, be it animal or human, would have been taken down by a jab like that! Why were all the freaky fae also freaky strong?

It stopped thrashing and focused its gaze on me. I saw madness staring down at me. Whatever primal, predatory rationale it had was gone; thrown clear out the window once I started poking holes in it. Now, in addition to being hungry and pissed off, it was hurt. It shook with rage, the hilts of my blades quivering with each movement. I wasn’t sure if it was smart enough to realize that it was bleeding out but, either way, I was pretty sure that it was determined to take me out with it.

Shit. I was out of tricks.

Gannon came to the rescue. He was a blur that bore the beast down to the ground, wings thrashing. A muscular arm forced itself beneath the kludde’s maw, jerking its head high as a flash of silver careened around its neck. The sword found a home in its throat, finishing what I had started—but in a much more spectacular fashion. A geyser of blood sprayed into the air, cascading over me like red rain. I squealed and brought an arm up to guard my face but it was a futile effort. I was splashed head to toe with gore.

When it was over, I couldn’t do anything but sit there, arms out, hands dangling; dripping. I gritted my teeth against the urge to gag. I stank of death. “Really, Gannon? Really? Was there no other way to do that?”

The monster was on the ground, lifeless, and the bastard in question had his back to me. He wiped his blade clean on its stringy pelt, offering me only the most sardonic of glances over his shoulder. “What? Would you have preferred I let it take a bite or two out of you first?”

I climbed to my feet, shaking like a dog that had come in from the rain. My nose wrinkled at the smell wafting off of my ruined clothes. Something slimy oozed down my cheek. I looked down, twisting to and fro. I was itching to wipe my hands—and face!—clean but I couldn’t find a suitable scrap of cloth to do so on. “A warning might have been nice, is all.”

Something soft and warm hit me in the face. I brought my hands up just in time to catch it. For a split second I stared at the ball of black fabric in bewilderment. It was only when I looked up and saw Gannon’s bare back that I put the pieces together. I could feel the furnace blast radiating outward through my cheeks. My jaw dropped open in a little o of surprise as I devoured the sight of those sleek muscles.

Completely unintentionally, of course.

Lucky for me my flush was well hidden by the red mask I was already wearing. I used the shirt to wipe away the worst of the slime. The warm, musky scent of masculinity intermingled with some fresh, watery smelling variety of cologne sent my brain to places much dirtier—and much more enjoyable—than the kill sight we were occupying. I inwardly chastised myself for getting all girly over something so silly as yummy man smell. Especially since it was Gannon’s scent, of all people.

I sternly reminded my libido that Mr. Perfect and I were barely friends. Such thoughts had their place, and that place was deeply repressed with the key thrown to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

“Thanks,” I said, belatedly. He didn’t respond but I hadn’t really expected him to. I wiped down my arms and turned the shirt inside out to make a second pass. I got the worst of the residue off of my hands, quickly covering that poor t-shirt in all sorts of horror film grossness. My hair would just have to wait. I didn’t even want to think of the terrible things I’d be plucking from my shower drain later.

I say again: glamorous the hunter’s life is not.

By the time I had cleaned myself up, Gannon had arranged the body as neatly as he could within the confines of the ductwork maze. I could smell the biting sting of the kerosene that soaked the kludde’s pelt. I wasn’t crazy at the thought of setting the corpse ablaze in the middle of the day, with a good deal of foot traffic below, but we didn’t have many options. Carrying away bones would be much easier than hauling a body down the side of a building. I covered my mouth and nose with one hand and took a few steps back. This was my least favorite part of the hunt: the disposal. My stomach churned at the thought of the stench to come.

“Ready?” He turned and appraised my enthusiasm, one eyebrow raised in that challenging way he had.

I hated those stupid eyebrows, but they were the least of my worries. I had to work really hard to look nonchalant and not stare at the chiseled rows of muscle that ran down his center, like a damn arrow pointing to the one area I really didn’t want to be caught looking at. This whole horny-as-hell-after-near-death thing was getting old. Clearing my throat, I gazed up at the clouds above and nodded. “Go for it.”

I didn’t watch as the beast went up in flames. I kept my eyes on the sky and willed myself not to gag when the flames began to consume it. My heart already knew the bitter truth, but I heard myself asking, “Gannon… Those kids…?”

His silence was answer enough.

I blinked back tears and pretended they were from the fumes.