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If not for the sword held high above her head or her ability to wield it like a Samurai warrior when the situation required, River Weston knew she could kiss her ass good-bye.
But it wasn’t just her ass she was worrying about. Without the necessary skills to fight off the packs of wild dogs hiding in the shadows—beasts fondly known by the team as the Hellhounds—they’d peel her skin from her body and indulge in a late-night snack.
Of course she couldn’t forget about the demons hot on her trail either, or how delighted they’d be to separate her head from her body and wear it as a trophy.
Either way she’d lose her soul, and dammit, she wasn’t about to let that happen. Again.
River’s heart monitor gave a little blip of warning, and she took a few deep breaths to center herself. Then, with stealth and precision, she pressed her back against an abandoned concrete structure and eased forward through the shadows. Although the streets appeared deserted, she knew they were anything but. Between every vacant building and alleyway, creatures modeled after the make-believe monsters of children’s bedtime stories watched her—waiting for an opportune moment to attack. These creatures were smart, organized, and lethal, and if River wasn’t careful, she’d never make it to the Soul Man’s lair in one piece.
Sprays of light from overhead streetlamps fanned the blood-drenched sidewalk. A coppery, pungent stench clogged her nostrils, causing her stomach to churn. River lowered her sword and shifted it to one hand. So much blood, so much carnage, yet no bodies to be seen, although she knew all too well what these depraved monsters did to their victims.
Stifling a shiver she pressed herself deeper into the shadows and crab-walked forward, her eyes continually scanning and cataloguing her surroundings, searching for motion while seeking signs that her comrade, Sever, was nearby.
Beads of sweat trickled between her breasts, but she’d learned long ago to distance herself from the discomfort and concentrate only on the hunt.
Off in the distance a hound barked a warning, followed by a low growl swallowed by the night. The faint smell of smoke drifted in on a howling wind, dusting debris into her eyes. She gave a quick blink, not daring to take her trained gaze off the shifting shadows.
Her damp skin barely registered the increasing chill of the night. She drew another slow, steadying breath and noted the heavy clouds knitting together overhead, accompanied by a faint rumble of thunder. The rain would soon be here.
A bright firefly whipped past her head. With lightning speed River reached out, grabbed it with her free hand, and dropped it into the rucksack dangling from her shoulder. Even though a firefly brought only minimal amounts of energy, every bit of strength would be needed in her final battle against the Soul Man.
Making herself one with her surroundings, she moved with a practiced agility. But despite her best efforts, she feared that each tread of her military-issue combat boots on the dangerously tranquil street might give away her coordinates.
River was partial to solitude. At any other time, on any other night, she would have longed for such peace and quiet. But this solitude was different. It was menacing, dark, dangerous. Her gaze skated over the rooftops. Hellhounds were out there watching, waiting. She felt them, sensed them, and tasted them with every fiber of her being.
God, what a rush.
She glanced at the silent com-link on her wrist and orchestrated her next move. If she could make it to the movie theater—the safe house—on the other side of the street, she could rest and gather strength while she signaled Sever. She couldn’t move on to the Soul Man’s lair without him.
Suddenly, her skin prickled in warning the way it always did when demons pinpointed her location. If she didn’t get to the safe house as soon as possible, the hunter was about to become the hunted.
Gunfire rang out behind her and she picked up her pace, putting more distance between herself and the approaching demons until she could better position herself for an all-out attack.
A low growl cut through the silence and a movement in the shadows caught her eyes.
She bolted, darting across the cracked and pitted street at an inhuman speed.
Before she could make it to the safe house a pack of Hellhounds rushed at her, a frothy mixture of saliva and fresh blood dripping from their fangs.
Both hands tightened around the hilt of her sword, and using slow movements intended to distract and intimidate, River twisted, counting the Hellhounds circling her. Even she was impressed by their numbers, and felt a small twinge of pride that she warranted so many.
There was little time for self-congratulations. Violence erupted around her as one hound raced forward, hitting her with such force it would have driven a lesser woman to her knees. Dark lips peeled back to reveal razor-sharp fangs and River’s thigh ached in response. She wasn’t oblivious to the damage those fangs could inflict.
Survival instincts kicking in, River cut her sword through the air, driving the blade deep into the belly of the beast. A pained expression ripped across its muzzle as it collapsed onto the ground. Its sharp yelp, combined with the spray of fresh blood, fueled the other hounds into action.
One beast latched onto River’s thigh, zeroing in on her weakness, its fangs slicing through her flesh like a hot knife through butter. Wincing, her sword slipped from her hand and she dropped like a snared gazelle. Her heart monitor blared and the com-link on her wrist flashed a red light of warning.
Trying to see through the blinding pain, River groped for her sword. The second her hand connected with it a round of shots scattered through the air. The rapid-fire rain of bullets took down a few Hellhounds while the others scurried back to the shadows. River knew the bullets would only temporarily stun the hounds and wouldn’t keep them down for long. The only way to kill one of those fuckers was with the cold blade of a sword.
River glanced up to see Sever approaching. Intense gray eyes locked on hers.
She ripped the torn sleeve from her camo jacket and tied it around her bloodied thigh. Her heart monitor fell silent and the red light on her com-link blinked out.
“About time you showed,” she said.
He leaned against the ridiculously oversized Uzi Nick had insisted on designing for him. “Been busy.”
River grinned, happy to see him. “That’s a smart mouth you’ve got there.” She made a mental note to adjust his attitude when this was all over.
Her gaze panned over him, taking pleasure in a well-muscled man in face paint and battle fatigues. Sever was the picture of perfection. The ideal man, straight out of her fantasies—or rather, her imagination.
“You hurt?” she asked.
His answering grin was a mixture of sweet honey and determined grit. He shouldered his gun. Weapon or no weapon, this man was a trained warrior. A hunter. A predator. And was never to be underestimated.
“I’ve been better.”
Sever held his hand out to her. As she reached for it, a spray of bullets ricocheted off the towering buildings above their heads. Grenade fire followed. A horrendous explosion erupted inside an old warehouse. What she could only assume was C-4 tore one building from its roots.
It seemed the demons had found them.
Sever grabbed her hand, maneuvering his body to protect hers, and hauled her to her feet. “Let’s go.”
Protecting her back was Sever’s job, although River was of two minds about that. Strategy, however, was all hers.
The Wizard or the Soul Man’s lair?
Thunder crackled in the air overhead, accompanying the first flashes of lightning. A few fat drops of rain splattered her cheeks and bare arm.
She had to get to the safe house first. Then she needed a few more moments to think.
The safe house was only two doors down in the abandoned movie theater sporting boarded windows and a crazy, tilted neon sign that flashed an ad for Spaceballs. Under cover of Sever’s return fire they made it inside without further injury to themselves, although River thought she heard three demons fall behind them.
Three wouldn’t be enough.
River jammed the blade of her sword into a panel on the side of the building and the door to the safe house swung open. They darted inside, the door hissed shut behind them, and silence fell.
She spun in a circle, examining the room carefully in the unnatural, filtered light. She knew the room by heart, although its contents were never quite the same. What she’d find inside depended on what she’d collected in the outside world.
A few scraggly weeds crept through the cracks in the stone foundation of the safe house and twisted up the walls. Disappointment dampened her initial thrill at making it to the house alive. There weren’t enough plants to give her the power she’d need to successfully complete the mission. She tapped the weeds with the dull edge of her sword, drawing as much power from them as she could, as she tried to make up her mind what to do next. Her sword’s blade strengthened, but only slightly.
“Hurry it up.” Nick’s impatient, tinny voice blared through her com-link. “You’re over by about five minutes and I want you out of there.”
Sever stood by impassively, his weapon slung over his shoulder and his arms folded across his broad chest, waiting for her to make up her mind.
Door number one summoned the Wizard. Door number two led straight to the Soul Man’s lair.
River glanced at her com-link, considered the amount of time Nick would likely allow her, and decided what the hell, she might as well live life on the edge. She hitched her rucksack higher on her shoulder.
Door number two it was. “Come on.”
Sever followed close on her heels as she stepped through the door.
The Soul Man’s lair never failed to astonish her. It resembled a long medieval hall, its low ceiling supported by a tunnel of carefully pillared archways crafted from chiseled stone and crumbling mortar. Deep, smoke-blackened fireplaces, large enough for several big men to stand within, lined the walls to the left and the right.
Their footsteps echoed eerily against the polished granite floor as they moved forward into an unnatural stillness. The damp coolness inside the lair wrapped around her and chilled her bones. River fought to steady her breathing and keep her heart rate down to an acceptable level.
Sever, of course, looked as if he was out for nothing more than a casual stroll. Most of the time she enjoyed his calm steadiness. At other times, like now, it annoyed the hell out of her. She tossed her rucksack into one of the empty fireplaces out of harm’s way, but close enough for her to retrieve if necessary. Its contents were sparse, but every little thing she’d collected had a purpose, however minor.
A low whine rent the air and she ducked as the first fireball shot past her left ear. It caught Sever on the shoulder, but he shrugged it off.
River lifted her sword, its slightly curved steel blade glinting blue in the flashes of light from the unleashed fireballs, and deflected the next three.
The Soul Man stepped from behind a pillar, robes billowing around his long legs as he hefted more fireballs in thin, bony white hands, letting River know he was toying with her. A cowl covered his head and hid his face.
River’s heart monitor let out a sharp beep.
“Careful, River,” Nick warned on the other end of her com-link.
That wasn’t good. When Nick started fussing about vitals, it meant he was serious. He was going to pull her out.
“Relax,” River said, reluctantly making a decision that might buy her more time. Disappointment curdled the pit of her stomach. “I’m going to let Sever handle this one. I’m just going to observe.”
As the Soul Man lifted his hands to release his next round, Sever stepped in front of River. He grunted as a fireball glanced off his chest, a direct hit.
Each time one of those fireballs hit him, it was going to do him more and more harm, and River knew Sever wasn’t going to make it. She had to put the little time he bought her to good use.
She pulled her gaze away from Sever and the Soul Man, needing to find out more about his lair and the dark, deadly secrets it held.
A slight smell of sulfur and hot plastic stung her nostrils, and the faint ring of thunder through the thick stone walls told her the storm outside must be almost directly overhead.
Excerpted from Game Over by Taylor Keating. Copyright © 2010 by Taylor Keating. Published in November 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.