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“De luce in tenebras et veni. From the darkness shall come light.”
Liz Frost repeated the words back as instructed by the shadowed figure in front of her, the uncomfortable sense something was off gnawing at her bliss like a zombie on a skull. There should’ve been a tingle, a jolt, something to signal the ancient invocation was working, but…
She took a deep breath and forced the voices invading her head to the periphery. Since undergoing the training to become the gang’s new Oracle over the last couple of months, she’d noticed a definite shift in the strength of her powers. From her earliest memories, she’d always been able to do the normal psychic stuff—talk to the dead, astral projection, even predict the future a tad, though that was always tricky given the whole free will thing and all. But this was a whole new, terrifying, ballgame.
Jittery, she clutched the oblong green and fuchsia tourmaline pendant around her neck and waited for the next line. Maybe these things just took longer than usual. After all, she and her sister Anna were forming permanent psychic links with not just each other but the entire Blood Ravagers biker gang. A crucial step that would guide and protect the gang from their enemies.
“Pluribus unum. Many become one.”
Her agitation morphed into amusement. Liz snorted. Those words were printed on cash. Now, all she could picture was Tom Cruise frantically yelling, “Show me the money.”
At least she had on a hooded robe, which helped hide her inappropriate grin. Giggling would be a definite no-no during such a solemn ceremony she was sure.
Unfortunately, the complete inappropriateness of her mirth only made the whole thing funnier. She did her best to control herself, her shoulders shaking with the effort. This wasn’t how the Oracle binding ceremony was supposed to end. It should end with the twins becoming the new Oracle for the Blood Ravagers biker gang, connecting Liz and her sister Anna mentally and emotionally with all the gang’s members—a serious, somber, sacred thing.
Yet here she was ready to crack up at any second, but she couldn’t seem to stop. Tears flooded her eyes and her stomach ached from the effort of holding in her laughter.
One more shot at following the rules of decorum down the drain.
Finally, Anna leaned over and whispered, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Liz bit her lips and just shook her head. Opening her mouth now would be a mistake.
Where had Dante dug up this decrepit old fossil of a priest anyway? He wasn’t a member of the gang or, given his pompous attitude and habit of looking down his crooked nose at all of them, even from their tiny frontier town of Salvation, Wyoming.
“Surge oraculum ligare nos in aeternum!” The priest’s tone turned positively bombastic in the gloom of the candlelit interior of Seven. The flames flickered as the entire gang repeated his words this time. “Arise, Oracle, to bind us together for eternity!”
Yeah, not happening. To add insult to injury, her mental shields faltered, allowing the gang’s random thoughts to pour in.
My feet hurt. What is that smell? I’d like to get me a piece of that ass. My balls itch.
She lost it completely.
Weird how extreme hilarity and extreme panic could feel so similar.
Giving up any pretense of seriousness at the point, Liz pushed back her hood and exhaled slow. “Sorry, padre, but this is not working for me.”
Anna grabbed Liz and pulled her closer. “Stop it! Don’t you dare flake out on me again.”
“I’m not flaking out, sis. But this isn’t right. Doesn’t something feel off to you? There should be more fireworks or fanfare or… something. This is an important step for us and for the gang, a true commitment, and I feel nothing. Nada. Zippo. That can’t be right.”
“How would you know what you’re supposed to feel, huh? You’ve never seriously committed to anything in your life.” Anna pushed back her own hood to reveal a supremely irritated expression. She shifted her weight from one hip to the other, keeping her hands over her bulging belly. Dante had wasted no time knocking up her sister after they’d gotten married nearly eight months ago and now Anna was going on six months pregnant. While Liz was thrilled to become a new auntie, she could seriously do without her twin’s hormonal, pre-birth rants. “In fact, you wouldn’t know a true commitment if it bit you in the butt. So, pardon me, but it’s time to grow the hell up and join the rest of us adults, Liz.”
“Ofryd.” Dante stepped onto the small dais between the twins and placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Perhaps now is not the time to—”
“Stop telling me what to say or how to feel.” Anna shrugged off his hand. “Liz is my sister and I love her with all my heart. No one knows her better than me. But now you better step off, buddy. My back is killing me, I haven’t seen my feet in months and, at this moment, I would skin you alive for a vat of mint chocolate chip ice cream.”
The pompous priest gave a disdainful snort, for which Liz promptly stomped on his toe. It was one thing for her and her sister to fight. It was another for this stranger to intrude. The old man howled, Anna glared, and several snickers rang out through the gang members.
Figures. They should’ve waited until after Anna delivered anyway. Liz had tried to push the ceremony off, but her sister wasn’t having it and these days Dante acquiesced to whatever his wife wanted to keep the peace. When Liz had questioned Anna about why she was in such a hurry, she’d said she wanted to just get the damned ceremony over with.
Deep down though, Liz knew the truth.
They all wanted to get things done before Liz ran again.
She shook off a niggle of disappointment. It was a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, right? Besides, she wasn’t that bad. There was nothing wrong with keeping one’s options open. Never mind the idea of binding herself permanently to anything or anyone—let alone an entire gang—filled her with bone-deep, paralyzing fear. That fear had absolutely nothing to do with this current situation. She loved Seven and loved her gang. This was where she belonged, her home now, and if there was something wrong with this ritual, well then they’d just have to fix it before proceeding.
Liz tamped down a dash of relief mingled with her rising tension. Waiting didn’t mean she would bolt or change her mind. Waiting just gave her a bit more breathing room, a chance to say a proper goodbye to her old life, her carefree, old ways, her freedom…
Dante, to his credit, remained calm as a placid sea in the face of his wife’s bluster. He looked at the priest, who was now hunched over and scowling at his sore toes encased in designer Italian leather loafers. “Why is the binding not occurring?”
“Here.” The priest thrust a crumbling tome at Dante. “Have a look for yourself.”
Liz peeked over the gang leader’s shoulder as he carefully sifted through the yellowing pages of a book that was literally falling apart in his hands. “I do not understand. This was recovered from Basher’s quarters shortly after his death. He always bragged about all the secret rituals it contained.”
“Well, he lied.” The priest straightened and shot Liz a withering stare before pointing toward the scarlet red ribbon he’d placed to mark the binding ceremony pages. “There’s a chunk missing.”
“Chunk?” Dante raised a brow.
“At least a page, maybe more.” The priest wiped the dust of disintegrating pages from his hands. “Without the missing information, there’s nothing I can do.”
He stepped down off the stage, but Dante gripped the older man’s arm tight, a tiny flare of crimson igniting in his pupils as his half-pain demon side emerged. Liz had seen that look before and almost felt sorry for the old priest. Almost.
“Yet you took our money and would have conned us into thinking it was done.” Dante snarled. “For that alone I should kill you.”
“Ah, but you won’t.” The priest narrowed his gaze. “Will you, half-breed?”
Oh, boy. Liz moved back farther, as did Anna. The gang had fought long and hard to make Seven—and the entire town of Salvation—a safe-haven for all otherworlders, pure and half-breed alike. Throwing around insults of that nature was a sure way to get a fast trip to hell.
Surprisingly though, instead of ripping off the priest’s head, Dante let him go. “Give me one good reason why I should not slay you where you stand, old man.”
“I’ll give you two.” The priest walked over to the bar and grabbed a bottle of bourbon from behind it, ignoring the glare of the gang’s bartender as he did so. Then the old guy plopped down on a stool, twisted off the lid, and took a long swig straight from the bottle. His hands shook as he wiped his mouth. “First, you won’t kill me because the Council is looking for a reason to invade this place and raze the entire hellhole to the ground. The death of an upstanding priest in their order would be just the ticket to that ride, eh?”
“Huh. And where exactly would we find such an upstanding priest?” Liz said, her voice sticky sweet.
The priest glared at her again.
Dante gave her a warning look.
Liz sighed and crossed her arms, closing her eyes to try and read the priest to discover the truth. However, try as she might, Liz couldn’t breech his defenses.
“What is the second reason, old man?” Dante walked over and snatched the bottle from the priest’s hand, shattering it against the bar top. Liquid and glass rained down as Dante held the razor-sharp, jagged edge to the priest’s neck. “It better be good, because your first reason will not stop me from slitting your throat.”
Other members of the gang pushed forward, along with Liz and Anna. There’d not been a real fight around here in quite some time and the creatures that haunted this place were itching for a good bloodletting. The air around them fizzed with adrenaline and, for the first time all evening, Liz felt a stirring deep inside—not calming, like the connection she shared with Anna. No. This feeling was much newer and stranger and infinitely more frightening. The stirring felt like something she’d longed for her whole life, something everyone else seemed to have in spades.
The stirring inside her felt like destiny.
With her future in the balance, she waited on a knife’s edge for the priest’s next words.
“The second reason you will not kill me”—the priest coughed, sounding like he was going to hack up a lung—“is I’m the only person who knows where you can find the information you need to complete your ceremony and save your gang, half-breed.”
“He’s up to something,” Dex MacCallahan said from his seat at a small table near the far, back corner of Seven. Nearly an hour had passed since the failed binding ceremony and the atmosphere had dissolved into a raucous party. Loud grunge rock throbbed from the jukebox and cigarette smoke billowed through the air near the ceiling. Shouts and cheers came from near the front where several gang members had moved a pool table onto the dais where the altar had once stood.
Usually serving drinks behind the bar, he wasn’t used to seeing Seven from this vantage point. The rough-hewn wooden walls were covered with rusted tin signs and buzzing, crooked neon lights and the floors were sticky with spilled drinks and food and gods knew what else. Out here, the place was a sty. Behind the bar and in his kitchen, he kept things spotless.
Behind the scenes—that was where Dex felt most comfortable these days. Still, when Dante called—one of Dex’s few friends—he had no choice but to answer. He owed the gang leader his life, after all.
Dex frowned. “I don’t trust that priest any farther than I could throw him.”
“For once, I agree with the beast.’ Reverend Walker said, straddling the chair across from Dex, his tattered black cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes and his well-worn duster coat swirling around him like a cape. Normally, wolf shifters like Dex detested bloodsuckers like Rev and avoided them at all costs. Unfortunately, Dante had recently promoted Rev to head of gang security and seeing as how Dex was Dante’s closest confidant, there wasn’t much point in avoiding the bloodsucker these days. No matter how pleasant the thought.
“We don’t even know where the old man comes from,” Rev said. “He could be a Council spy.”
“Word has it you’re the Council spy,” Dex said before taking a swig of his whiskey. “Seems you fit that bill pretty nicely, bloodsucker.”
“Watch yourself, beast.” Rev gripped the edge of the table so tight it splintered. “You know nothing about me.”
“That’s the fucking problem. No one has any record of you before you showed up here.”
“Don’t go there, beast. Especially with your heritage. I know far more about your past than you would ever want revealed.”
Hackles raised to full-attack mode, Dex shattered the shot glass in his fist. Shards sliced deep into his palm, but he barely noticed. Twenty years he’d run, twenty years he’d spent building a new identity, a new life separate from the old betrayals and still they haunted him. Warm blood trickled through his fingers. Through a haze of rage, he saw the twitch of a small muscle in Rev’s cheek, the dilation of his pupils to obliterate the icy blue irises of the vamp’s eyes.
The air around them sizzled with strife.
“Honestly, boys. Fighting at a time like this?” Liz joined them, her presence somehow banishing Dex’s tension. Her arrival always seemed to calm him, no matter how far into the red-zone he slipped.
“She is right,” Dante said. “If what the priest said is true, then we have bigger issues—”
An eardrum-splitting howl rattled the walls of Seven and all eyes snapped to Dante. Several werewolf packs roamed the area surrounding Salvation, but none of the alphas dared show their faces. Most assumed it was out of deference to Dante, but Dex knew the truth. No self-respecting wolf shifter would set paw within a hundred feet of Dex’s tainted lineage.
Tonight, however, it seemed someone made an exception.
Weapons at the ready, every gang member waited for the attack that seemed imminent. Dex did his best to keep the old horrors surging through his system under control. Eyes squeezed shut; he battled a wave of flashbacks and fought to keep his shit together. Images of a night long ago, his father, the secret meeting that would change all their lives forever. His father’s last words to him slithered through his mind like a poisonous snake…
This will ensure our place in history. This will safeguard our legacy.
His father had been correct, just not in the way he’d expected.
The howls outside disappeared as quickly as they’d started, and slowly, the gang members relaxed. Dante continued to stare at the entrance, as if trying to burn a hole through it with his intense gaze. His open-door policy for Seven had remained peaceful for about two months. Then a few rival otherworld gangs had moved into the area, testing the Blood Ravagers borders around Salvation, hoping for a shot to overthrow them and take over where Basher and the other Council-sanctioned hatemongers had left off.
Rev removed his cowboy hat and scrubbed a hand through his long, scruffy, black hair. “I don’t know how they got through the wards and enchantments around the perimeter.”
“Unless they had help,” Dex mumbled.
Deep down, he honestly didn’t think Rev was a traitor, but it was fun getting the old guy riled up. Hell, if the rumors were believed, Rev was older than dirt and more lethal than a silver bullet to the brain. Word said he used to work for the Council as a top assassin. Then one day he’d mysteriously left their employ. An all but impossible feat since no one in the otherworld left the Council behind. No one.
He, of all people, should know.
“For the last time, beast. I. Am. Not. A. Traitor.” Rev snarled.
“Tell it to the Council.” Dex said, unsheathing his claws for battle. Seemed a day wasn’t complete without the two of them going for each other’s throats at least once. “They seem to consider you otherwise.”
“Don’t speak to me of the Council, coward. Tell me again how your father was their lapdog, doing their bidding?”
“He was never their lapdog.”
“Not what I heard.”
“Enough!” Dante glared at them both before striding to the bar and grabbing a fresh bottle of scotch. He unscrewed the lid then took several long gulps before setting it down again in the center of their small wooden table. “At this point it does not matter how the intruders got in. The point is they did and we need to fix the holes in our security, sooner rather than later.”
“What about the missing information the priest mentioned for the ceremony?” Liz asked. “The gang won’t be secure until Anna and I complete the ceremony, right?”
Dex took a deep breath and slumped in his seat. Beneath the overhead lights of Seven, the wild-child half of their new Oracle looked pale and small and shaken to her core, no matter how brave she tried to act. He itched to pull her into his arms and keep her safe from all harm. Which was ridiculous. He’d long ago come to terms with the fact he was destined to live his life alone. Alone was safer. Alone meant security. Besides, he didn’t deserve happiness or affection after the travesty that had occurred in his father’s pack.
A loud hiccup sounded through the room and they all turned to look at the drunken priest, now three sheets to the wind, tipping precariously on his stool at the bar.
Dante sighed. “There must be another way to get the information.”
Dex exhaled slowly and squinted at his bottle of beer. Uncomfortable as stepping into the limelight made him, he felt obligated to mention what he knew. He considered this gang his adopted family. Dante had taken Dex in when no one else would and for that he would protect them all with what was left of his worthless life. “I might know a way.”
“How?” Rev scowled. “You never step foot outside this place.”
“Yeah, how?” Liz crossed her arms, interest lighting her pretty face.
Truth was, in the two decades after his pack’s demise at the hands of the Council and his father, Dex had roamed the earth, visited every cesspool of humanity, all in the hopes of making amends and there weren’t many places around the globe where he hadn’t made connections. But it had taken him years to accept that some broken things could never be repaired. Not when the same traitorous blood that had run through his father’s veins, also pumped through Dex’s. There was no getting around it, no escaping it.
These days, he lived in constant fear of repeating his father’s mistakes.
“There’s a creature legend says holds the key to all the knowledge of the otherworld,” Dex said, nervously swiping the back of his hand over his mouth. “They call it the Historian.”
“Legend is right.” Dante grabbed his wife’s hand as she passed by and pulled Anna into his side. “No one has seen this thing in decades. Even if it does still exist, our chances of finding the creature are remote at best.”
“Great,” Liz said, her tone flat. “How are we supposed get the missing details for the ceremony then? Ask crusty old Father Time back there?”
The priest snorted and raised his glass to her, mumbling under his breath.
“What’s he saying?” Dex asked, frowning. “Sounds like a poem.”
He got up and moved closer. Yep. Definitely some kind of a rhyme.
“Get me something to write with,” Dex said, motioning toward Liz. She handed him a pen and paper and he scribbled down the priest’s words.
The first key lies
In the city of the mile-high.
Tucked in Belladonna’s dusty nook
Number twenty-seven’s the place to look.
“Do you think it’s a clue?” Liz asked.
“Not sure.” Dante scowled at the verse.
“I’ll see what I can make of it tonight,” Rev said, slipping the paper into his pocket. “And let you know what I find in the morning.”
“If this turns out to be a quest then we must send out a search party before our rivals decided to attack,” Dante said. “The trip will be dangerous, with our enemies stalking our every move.”
Dex glanced at Liz, the sinking feeling in his stomach intensifying. His wolf instincts said she was about to do something radical and chances were high he wasn’t going to like it.
“I volunteer,” she said, “to go on the mission.”
“C’mon, sis.” Anna chuckled. “Be serious. You can’t find your way out of a wet paper bag, let alone clear across the country.”
“Funny,” she said, though she didn’t smile.
Dex caught a flicker of pain in her eyes and wondered at the cause. To all the world, she appeared carefree and full of life and zest. But perhaps there was more to the gang’s beautiful, free-spirited psychic than met the eye.
“There’s GPS and Google Maps and I’m sure Dante will assign a beefy guard to take me wherever I need to go.” She looked back to Dante, her expression imploring. “Please.”
“No.” Dante scowled. “To send you on this journey would only endanger your life and the lives of everyone in the Blood Ravagers. Oracles are rare and finding the two of you was a miracle. Losing either of you is a risk I am unwilling to take.”
“But you won’t have a true Oracle until we complete the ceremony, right?” Liz sighed, her gaze narrowing on Anna’s pregnant belly. “This Historian creature. We have no idea what it is or where it lives. Could be in this realm, could be in another. Someone who can travel on the astral plane could come in handy. Last I heard, there are only two of us in the gang with that special talent and one of us is indisposed.”
Dex stifled an unexpected smile. Clever girl. She had a point.
Dante cursed and looked away. He was silent for several minutes, his expression dark.
Bright pink color blossomed in Liz’s cheeks and Dex suddenly had the irrational urge to trace the pad of his thumb over her skin, to see if it felt as soft as it appeared, to part her lips then taste them, discover the sweet flavor of her, hear her moan his name in ecstasy as she came apart in his arms…
Shaking himself out of his impossible fantasies, Dex met Dante’s resigned gaze, that sinking feeling in his stomach turning into a full-fledged freefall.
“There is only way this is happening,” Dante said, pointing to Dex. “You must accompany Liz.”
“Me?” The word squeaked out of Dex’s constricted throat, several octaves higher than his usual baritone. “I, uh, I can’t.”
The last thing he needed was to be caught out on the open road right now with Liz Frost.
“You can and you will,” Dante said, his crimson-tinged gaze narrowing. “Are you disobeying a direct order?”
Dex fiddled with the peeling label on his beer bottle, searching in vain for an excuse that would get him out of this predicament. Each full moon brought on a rut cycle for wolf shifters—a time when he had to mate with a willing, chosen partner or risk sickness. This month, however, was doubly bad due to the rare blue moon. He’d planned to head into Cheyenne to deal with his needs and sate the insatiable hunger, the only way to prevent his cravings from devolving into certain insanity and death. Abstinence wasn’t an option.
No way would he subject Liz to such primal, fierce needs. He couldn’t. He shouldn’t. But if they were stuck together twenty-four-seven, chances were high he wouldn’t be able to stop himself. When the hunger grew too strong and his animal side took over, all bets were off. Given her anything-goes reputation and the moon at first quarter already, they’d never survive.
He shook his head and scowled. “There must be a better choice.”
“Are you questioning my judgment?” Dante’s voice boomed off the walls of Seven, shaking them anew.
Fuck. Seemed every time Dex opened his damned mouth tonight, he dug his grave a little deeper. “No. There are extenuating circumstances that may keep me from performing my duties as ordered.”
“Such as?” Dante leaned back and crossed his arms.
My cock. My past. My father’s failure, which haunts me every day of my life.
Dex glanced at Rev.
The vamp raised a challenging brow, leaning back in his seat and crossing his arms, a small, knowing smirk on his lips. Fine. Let the bloodsucker tell Dante his secrets—of his rut, the taint in his blood, the curse of deception he could never escape.
It would almost be a relief after hiding all these years.
“I volunteer to keep tabs on them, monitor their progress. I’ll make sure they complete the mission as ordered.” Rev picked up his cowboy hat and shoved it back on his head. “Will that do?”
Stunned, Dex shoved to his feet, his chair toppling backward. This wasn’t the way he’d wanted thing to go. “Wait! I—”
“Fine.” Dante smacked his hand on the table. “My decision is final. Dex, I trust you to keep Liz safe, under pain of death.” Dante’s tone brooked no argument. “The two of you will find this historian and obtain the information we need to complete the binding ceremony. Rev will provide backup as needed and track your journey to make sure everything goes to plan. You will leave tomorrow morning at daybreak.”
End of Excerpt