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The peal of a horn pierced into Venge Leidolfstopping the breath he was about to take, freezing every movement but the beat of his heart. He felt himself being swept away, his human body still standing in the human world, but his hellhound spirit traveling
following the horn's call.
He landed somewhere dark. A biting wind howled around him and shoved against his fur. He padded forward. The scent of prey, sweat and blood filled hima heady potion that urged him to run again, faster, until his feet left the ground and he flew through the clouds. Other hounds pressed against him, all hungry and driven to find whoever or whatever left the irresistible trail of adrenaline and fear they followed.
The noise stopped and the vision faded with it releas-ing Venge. His gaze darted around the human-made street, searching for whomever whatever manned the instrument, but the streets were empty. Venge pulled in a breath and waited. Waited for the call to sound again for the intoxicating mix of pleasure and pain to wrap around him, twist through his very soul. Waited because he had nothing else to do, nowhere else to go.
When it came, he was ready. This time the call was softerless demand, more offer, a promise. Venge's heart beat faster; his nostrils flared. Come, run, hunt, be free the horn whispered. The call licked at Venge, stoked his desire to give in, to follow. And with nothing to hold him, no reason to care whether he lived or died he didn't resist; he shimmered.
Venge shook his head as the last few tingles of his shimmer faded. His muscles tensed and he tried to pinpoint where the peal of the horn had led him.
It wasdaylight. The sun beat against the back of his neck, but the air was cool, crisp and clean. Not that different from the air in the land of the elves where he'd spent the last few months.
Rocks rolled under his feet and he glanced down, realizing he was standing in the middle of a gravel road. Flanking both sides of the rough street were dilapidated, weathered buildings. Many of them barely managing to stay upright. Beyond the street and buildings stood a never-ending forest of tall pines.
He breathed in deeply, let his lungs fill with the scent of the evergreens. The invigorating mountain air lured him, causing him to take another breath. He'd never been this close to the wild. His early life was spent locked in a cage, or contained some other way. And since his escape, he'd been too busy searching for a way to increase his strength, traveling the nine worlds looking for a tool or training that would enable him to defeat his father.
The sound of water flowing over a streambed drew his attention away from his thoughts. He turned, planning on finding the source, but another sound interrupted his action.
The doors to one of the buildings he'd assumed were abandoned flew open and three menhellhounds, he knew instinctivelytumbled out onto the dirt. Country music and yelling voices spilled after them.
His gaze shot to the front windows. Grime covered them so completely that any movement or sign of life within was blocked. As he watched, someone rubbed a hand over the grungy surface and peered out at the men still rolling around in the street.
His curiosity piqued, he took a step toward the building. The other hellhounds, caught up in their struggle, surged backward, knocking against Venge. One of them, a younger male with a clipped beard and an earring, grabbed Venge by the front of his shirt.
"Might as well head back home. There's already about ten too many for the hunt." The other hellhound tightened his grip on Venge's shirt and waited for a response.
Venge didn't bother to supply one.
Apparently taking Venge's silence as weakness, the other male's lips slid over his teeth, forming a grin. Shooting a sideways glance at his companions, he pulled his head back then jerked forward until his forehead collided with Venge's skull.
The crack of bone on bone echoed down the street.
A move hard to ignoreeven for Venge.
Venge's lip worked upward into a snarl. He mimicked his attacker's posture by curling his fingers into the other male's shirt and pulling him closeruntil Venge could smell the stale stench of beer on the hellhound's breath and see the tiny red lines that zigzagged across the whites of his eyes.
"Why don't I help you out by eliminating a few? But who?" Venge gave the insolent male a tiny shake as he glanced around. Looking back at the hellhound in his grip, he continued. "Oh, I know. I think I'll start with you." His eyes narrowing, Venge jerked the male toward him, letting his skull again whack against Venge's, but this time his opponent fell backward, only Venge's grip on his shirt keeping him from crumpling onto the dust.
Venge held him upright for another few seconds, long enough to murmur against his ear, "If you're going to take on an opponent, it's best to know you can beat them. They might just kill you otherwise. Or" he glanced around "discard you in the dirt, just for the fun of seeing you squirm." With that, he let the hellhound slip from his hands, until he was facedown on the gravel road. Without a backward glance, he stepped over his body and left the male to face whatever fate awaited him.
The other hellhounds let Venge pass, their muscles taut and their eyes assessing. He'd passed a testnot a planned one, but one if there were other hellhounds around he'd have to pass again and again. He'd grown up in the kennels. He knew better than most how to fight to survive. You either proved your dominance or got crushed into the dirt.
Only one hound had ever been successful in making Venge eat dirtand it wouldn't happen again. Not while there was a breath left in Venge's body.
His eyes focused on the building in front of him, he strode forward.
The familiar smell of decades of alcohol spilled onto battered wood and the sound of bottles sliding across tabletops as patrons turned to size up the newest intruder assaulted Venge as he entered. He let their glances flow over him, his eyes returning their stares until, one by one, they dropped their own back to their drinks.
Bar patrons, he was as used to dealing with them as he was with handling his own rage. But his gaze slid over the tables. These patrons were different. The normal scent of sadness and desperation was missing. Instead the place teemed with aggression, eagerness for something. For what the horn had promised, he guessed. And, even more unusual, the bar was filled with hellhounds.
Despite his best efforts to avoid such an event, Venge found himself surrounded by his own kind.
His brows lowering as he tried to figure out what all this meant, he strode to the bar. A woman possessing hair streaked with silver and a steely gaze stood behind it.
"You new?" she asked.
Not bothering to answer, Venge crossed his arms over his chest and studied her. One brow cocked, she met his scrutiny with a stare of her own.
"You drinking?" she added.
Not being able to peg the female unsettled Venge. He'd traveled to four of the nine worlds in the last five years and had come to know most of the inhabitants on sight. But this woman He frowned. Despite the fact that she was behind the bar, a place he had come to associate with garm, she lacked the edge of wildness and scent of pine all garm possessed, and despite the fact the place was filled with hellhounds, she wasn't one of his kind, either. So, what was she? What other type of being would choose to serve a bar filled with hellhounds?
"If you're new, you'll need a place to stay. Best talk to Geysa." She jerked her head toward a door in the back.
"She's in the kitchen now, but she'll be out." With that, she turned her back on him and strode to the other end of the bar where the hellhounds he'd seen fighting outside had gathered.
A place to stay? Venge twisted his mouth to the side. He still didn't know why he was hereor even where here was. It was like some strange dream. Somehow he'd fallen down the rabbit hole and found himself in a twisted version of the human world's Old West. He wouldn't be shocked if the door the bartender had indicated flew open and the sheriff, six-guns blazing, barreled inside.
Instead the door edged open, then bumped wider as another woman carrying a tray laden with plates pushed against it with a curvaceous, denim-clad hip.
As he looked at her, Venge became aware of the earth spinning on its axis, but slowly. Every movement the woman made seemed emphasized, slowed down, just for his enjoyment. She tossed her head, flipping her waist-long hair out of her eyes and away from the steaming plates. A few stubborn strands of the flame-colored locks refused to move, instead choosing to cling to her lips. She frowned and pushed her tongue out of her mouth, trying to shove the recalcitrant strands away, but it was a wasted effort. The strands hung there, somehow drawing attention to the perfect bow of her upper lip and the impossible fullness of her lower.
With a sigh, she muttered something to herself and began maneuvering her way through the tables. Hellhound after hellhound stopped what he was doing and followed her with his gaze.
A surge in adrenaline and desire hit Venge like a boulder to the gut. She was almost next to him before he realized both were coming from him.
She brushed by him, barely giving him a glance, but he caught her scenthoney and spring. He inhaled, felt his nostrils flare, his eyes dilate.
He'd never wanted anyone or anything as badly as he wanted this woman. His feet shuffled forward, following her without his mind giving the movement a conscious thought. As he did, a hellhound at a nearby table surged to his feet, then another until all but a few were knocking over chairs and tables in an attempt to follow the red-haired siren.
"Geysa!" the woman from behind the bar yelled.
Geysa paused, her gray eyes flickering as she watched the males shove their way toward her. Her lips rounded into a perfect O, and the world picked up speed. The demanding desire Venge had felt just seconds earlier disappeared. He stumbled to a halt, a frown creasing his forehead as he blinked at the waitress. Still attractive, with red hair that danced around her oval face, full mouth and a body that even clothed in loose jeans and a worn T-shirt left no doubt of her gender. But that was alljust another attractive female. Not the irresistible, have-to-have object of desire she had been seconds earlier.
Her gaze wandered the crowd again, worry causing tiny lines to form at the edges of her mouth. When she reached Venge, she stopped. He could see her inhale sharply, her eyes bright, as if waiting for some response.
His frown deepened. He'd been trapped, almost unable to think of anything but this woman, and now nothing at least nothing he couldn't control. He purposely let his gaze roam her body, let her see him do itjust to show how unaffected he was.
To his surprise, instead of insulted, she looked relieved, at least until she disappeared from sight, a group of hellhounds knocking her over as they continued to brawl around her.
Without stopping to wonder at his actions, Venge leaped over the table that had fallen in front of him and kicked the top two hellhounds off the pile of bodies and onto the floor. He was struggling with a third, a male with the flat face of a boxer, when the sound of an arrow piercing the air sang overhead. Heat singed the side of his face. He shoved the boxer out of his way, wrapped his hand around Geysa's arm and jerked them both away from the fray.
Sticking out of the nearest tabletop was a flaming arrow. Venge spun the waitress away and toward the door.
The bartender dropped a bow, then, holding a four-foot-long sword, leaped onto the bar top. With an angry whack, she slammed the weapon into the bar, then stood there, her hand resting on the hilt.
"Let her go," she demanded.
It took Venge to the count of three to realize the bartender was speaking to him. He glanced to where his fingers pressed against the ivory skin of Geysa's arm. He had no reason to hold the waitress, hadn't pulled her from the other hellhounds with that intention, but for some reason, no matter that his brain said to release her, his fingers were unable to comply.
"I said" The bartender's voice took on a new edge, like the shriek of an angry hawk.
"Yeah, she said to let her go." The boxer scuttled to his feet and, chest pushed out, sauntered toward Venge. "She's mine."
Venge tilted his head to look at Geysa. "Really?" he asked.
A huff of air escaped her lips and she met his look, but her expression revealed none of her inner thoughts.
Irritation flickered to life inside him. If she wanted the flat-faced cur, he should hand her over, leave her to her fate.
His eyes narrowed; he stared at her. Was she so naive to think she could survive an encounter with the other hound?
She was tall for a woman, with impressive muscle tone, if the bicep he gripped was any indicator, but there was no way she'd be able to survive an assault by a hellhound riled to bloodlust. And the flat-faced boxer was close to such a stateVenge could smell it on him.
Venge's lips thinned, his index finger sweeping softly over the arm he held just to reassure himself he still had control.
At his small movement, Geysa tensed.
So, she wasn't as oblivious to what was happening as she would have him think. He smiled, then cocked his head toward the other male.
"I don't think so." Then, still smiling, he shoved his body in front of Geysa and grabbed the boxer around the throat. His fingers digging into the other male's skin, Venge pushed him backward until the male was pressed next to the still crackling arrow. The smell of singed hair followed.
"Heard the phrase 'finders keepers'?" he asked.