The dark shadows reached out to me, sinister and foreboding, as a maniacal cackle echoed through the ancient halls of the austere castle. My linen pants were baggy enough to ease my movements—an obvious choice for my mission. I’d opted for no shirt, relying on the magical runes and spells I’d painted over my chest and arms that granted me enhanced stealth and silence. I risked a quick, careful glance into the gloomy hallway beyond, shifting the feathered headdress I wore so that my vision was unobstructed. The long cape of feathers trailed down my back, tingling with magical power that gave me a heady, euphoric sensation. It was paramount that I escaped this hellhole with the powerful shamanistic artifact before the enemy caught me.
The future depended on it.
I gripped my only weapon in my left hand—a sleek compact bow. Well, my other weapons were always at my disposal, but attack magic in this place would set off alarms and ruin my chances of escaping with my prize. The bow and arrow were silent and sneaky. I was down to three arrows, having exhausted the rest of my quiver taking out patrolling guards on my way into this cursed place.
A loud crack-crack-crack erupted from the shadows and a trio of bullets careened off the wall a few inches from my face. I reeled back on reflex, sucking in a breath. Shit! I’d been spotted. Stealth was no longer an option and standing still was death in this cursed place. I bolted out into the open, racing as fast as I could. My leather moccasins whisper-slapped against the cold marble floor as I ran, risking everything to escape with my prize. I was so close to safety that I could no longer entertain caution.
Do or die.
I dropped to my ass and slid beneath a long wooden table just as more bullets ricocheted past my ear, hammering into the ancient furniture. I grinned wolfishly at the near misses, chuckling under my breath at the flood of adrenaline that coursed through my veins as I nimbly danced the line between life and death. I cleared the table but bumped into a chair, knocking it over with a loud crash. I heard a triumphant shout behind me as the noise helped my hunter locate me. I shambled to my feet and lobbed a small burst of magic at the ground, creating a dense cloud of thick fog that filled the room, hopefully masking my precise location.
No alarms went off at my subtle use of magic and I let out a breath of relief.
I heard a muttered curse that let me know I had succeeded. Rather than pausing to gloat, I took off again, aiming for the grand staircase ahead. At the base of those stairs was safety and my only escape. Air rushed through my lungs as I poured on the speed, faster than I’d ever moved before. My muscles strained and screamed, burning like fire, but it was a pleasant, victorious source of pain, and I realized I was grinning from ear-to-ear at my approaching triumph.
I heard the sounds of pursuit behind me as my hunter caught onto my ruse, spotting my mad dash to freedom where my thievery would be rewarded.
More bullets cracked through the halls, zipping past me like a swarm of bees. I zigged and zagged, bobbing and weaving as I ran, careful to make sure the ancient Native American headdress didn’t fall off in my haste. If I lost that, this whole thing would have been for nothing. I would never get a second chance to steal it for my Armory. It wasn’t simply a headband with feathers. No. This was the real deal with feathers trailing down to my lower back like a hoodie with no jacket or sleeves. I couldn’t wait to get it to Grimm Tech for further study.
The hallway opened out onto the wide, open-air balcony overlooking the floor below. Priceless paintings hung from the walls, featuring the grim visages of generations of the royal bloodline of this thieving wizard family. My victim was an asshole, so I felt no regrets. Robbing a thief was virtuous.
All around me was more proof of the family’s centuries of success as robber barons. The banister overlooking the floor below was made of rich carved and polished white wood, the metal posts supporting the banister were hand forged with painstaking detail and gold filigree, and the floors of swirling marble had been imported from Europe hundreds of years ago. Stolen, most likely—just as everything else here had been. Ornate wooden statues of deadly, winged, nightmarish beasts lined the halls like I was racing through a museum of antiquities.
Some of them had come to life and now sported arrows in their sides, necks, and foreheads from my earlier trek through the halls. I’d been able to kill them from a distance without raising an alarm, but the moment I’d grabbed the fabled headdress, the top hunter in this temple had been too experienced for me to avoid.
One of the beastly guards turned to look at me and I let loose with two arrows in quick succession, not slowing down in the slightest. One arrow struck it in the eye but the other went wild, sailing over the open railing to the floor below. The beast didn’t make a sound as it died. I paid no more attention to the rich surroundings because I’d seen all of it on my painstakingly slow, stealthy invasion to acquiring the coveted headdress. All that mattered now was my escape. I refused to die here. The world was relying on me for the upcoming Omega War. I leapt into the air and planted my ass on the railing to more speedily descend the wide elegant staircase. I slid down the railing in a blur, the feathers of my headdress whipping and cracking behind me as if cheering me on.
I hefted my legs up at the end of my ride so that I didn’t spill out onto the base of the stairs in a tumbling crash. My moccasins struck the marble as lightly as a deer leaping a bush to flee a pack of ravenous, bloodthirsty wolves. But a sudden flare of light ahead drew me up short. I lifted my bow, nocked an arrow, and drew down as I shuffled laterally in hopes it would make me a harder target for my foe, who had somehow managed to materialize ahead of me. Damn this place!
My hunter stood at the end of a shadowy hallway, exactly where I needed to go to safely open up my Gateway out of this cursed temple. The figure slowly advanced, emerging from the shadows. Her heels struck the rich marble floor with the resounding thud of wood, followed by a metallic chiming sound. Cowboy boots. Made of ink-black leather, and spurs. My eyes trailed up from the boots and were rewarded with the darkest of temptations because this cowgirl wore skin-tight booty shorts. As alluring as it was, I knew it was only one of the many deadly weapons in her arse…
Arsenal, I corrected, mentally dousing myself with a bucket of cold water.
The black leather gun-belt crookedly hanging off her hips sported two gleaming revolvers.
But she had two other cannons aimed my way and the safeties were obviously off—because she wore no shirt. Her hands hung loosely at her sides, ready to draw down on her revolvers and end my adventure for good. She wore a black cowboy hat that shaded her face, but her dual-colored eyes—one green and one blue—sparkled in the ambient light. She held a clove cigarette in one hand and slowly lifted it to her lips to take a dramatic puff.
“I got you now,” the sheriff drawled, exhaling a cloud of the sweet licorice smoke into the air between us.
“You’re a daisy if you do,” I murmured back, struggling to focus on the danger she represented rather than the cup size of her assault rifles. I managed to focus, barely, feeling the blood coursing through my veins in anticipation of the fight ahead.
“Say when,” the sheriff murmured in a lazy drawl. The corner of her lips curled up in a taunting smirk as she mirrored my movements, side-stepping in a slow, steady shuffle. Click-clack, scrape. Click-clack, scrape.
I stared into those eyes, feeling the dance of death creeping up over me. Freedom was just beyond the sheriff. We continued circling each other, glacially slow, like two stray cats in an alley.
I released my arrow between steps, hoping to catch her off guard. She leaned to the side, impossibly fast, dodging the arrow as she drew a revolver and fired. It struck me in the arm with a flash of searing pain and I recoiled instinctively, gritting my teeth. I was out of arrows, so I dropped my bow to the ground and clutched my throbbing, wounded arm.
She aimed the pistol at me, thumbed back the hammer, and then pulled the trigger. The gun clicked on an empty chamber and she slowly lowered it to her side before dropping it to the ground. The air was tense. Was her other gun loaded or was it also empty?
“You gonna’ do something, or just stand there and bleed?” she asked, taking another puff of her clove cigarette.
Rather than continue on with the Tombstone references, I smirked. “Oh, I’m gonna do something, honey,” I drawled, calling up my magic. No need to hold back now. I was already caught, and you had to cheat like a bastard to win like a king. “I reckon I ain’t got no reason to be discreet no longer, sheriff—”
A faint fluttering sound whispered to life behind me, and my mouth clicked shut as my instincts kicked on. My senses exploded like a fire doused with oil and my playful demeanor evaporated. My sense of smell instantly latched onto the thick, cloying scent of fresh, lush vegetation and my skin pebbled at the sudden proximity of lethal magic directly behind me. Almost forgotten memories of old battles and swarming enemies took over, superimposed over my current surroundings. I growled and spun to face the new threat, feeling as if a great leviathan had taken over my body.
My Wild Side. My Fae instincts.
The land of do or die, win or lose, dominate or be dominated.
And Wylde Fae never lost a fight.
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