White-hot rage glowed, burning away his mind until only banked coals remained, coals ready to erupt into flame at the slightest stir of thought, of consciousness. His own yell rang out, silent and horrible in this suffocating dark, pounding at the insides of the skull he'd long since ceased to feel.
A perfect blackness had become his only reality, devoid of sound, touch, taste, smell. Devoid of life. His only awareness, the screaming rage, the endless fury.
From far away, a voice whispered, an echo of another time, another place, tormenting him with memories of what he'd lost. Memories of life, of light, of freedom. Of the Feral brothers he longed to rejoin and knew he'd never see again. His friends. Shape-shifters. Immortals. Though that was a lie, wasn't it? Immortal meant "unable to die," and he was certainly not that. None of them were. Quick to heal, incapable of aging, yes. But unable to die? No creature was that.
And his own death stalked him now.
The moment he'd realized he'd fallen into a Daemon spirit trap, he'd known all was lost. The animal spirit that had long ago marked him to be one of the Feral Warriors, one of the last nine shape-shifters that remained in the world, was being torn from him. And a Feral, once marked, couldn't live without his animal. Within days, he himself would be dead. Worse . . . much worse . . . the animal spirit, too, would be destroyed. Or trapped for eternity where it was as good as dead, unable to mark another.
The nine would become eight. No, not eight. He and Tighe had fallen into this trap together.
Seven. Seven Feral Warriors to stop the Daemons from once more rising and destroying the world.
The voice sounded closer now, no longer quite a whisper, yet indistinct, melding with others. As if they'd come to say good-bye. Or perhaps not good-bye. Perhaps the spirits of the seventeen Feral Warriors who'd been lost in this trap centuries ago had come to welcome him into their brotherhood. The brotherhood of the dead.
His soul shriveled at the prospect of spending eternity in this ceaseless dark.
Behind his thoughts, the animal within him screeched his fury, blending with the rising insistence of the voices. For a time, he'd thought the hawk spirit had left him, but he was back, raging with anger.
"Hawke." A voice broke through, his name slicing through the banshees in his mind. Kougar's voice. If he were able to feel his pulse, it would be racing. The blood would be pounding in his ears.
Was he hallucinating, now? Kougar sounded blessedly near.
"Come on, Wings." Tighe. "We need you, buddy. Come back to us."
Why would he imagine Tighe's and Kougar's voices in the same place? Unless Kougar, too, had fallen into the spirit trap. Were they all lost to the world? Were the last of the shape-shifters gone forever?
The rage that had become part of him in this place swelled, a river of fire burning away voices and thought. In his mind, he heard a snarl that sounded like his own, and felt as if his fangs were dropping, as if the claws had erupted from his fingertips in the way they did when he, or any of the warriors, went feral, a partial shift enabling them to access their wilder natures, yet fight as equals whether hawk or tiger, wolf or snake.
The growl began to vibrate in his throat, rumbling in his ears. Real. It felt . . . sounded . . . real.
Was his mind going, too?
The fury drove him to strike out, and he felt his arm move, felt his claws snag in flesh. Warm blood slid down his fingers onto his palm.
His heart pounded against his ribs, the thudding pulsing in his ears as he fought to break free of the darkness, driven by a meld of fury and desperate hope. Strong hands clamped down on his arms. He fought the restraint with all the wildness of the storm that possessed him, thrashing against his captors.
"Hawke." Kougar's voice rang with a strange note. A warmth he'd never heard in it before.
"Hawke, cease!" Lyon's voice ripped through the chaos, commanding as always.
As he'd done all his life, whenever the Chief of the Ferals commanded, he obeyed. Hawke fought to stop thrashing, his breathing fast and hard as the rage slowly receded. Sensation rushed at him from every direction - the sound of his friends' voices, the smells of Feral House - male sweat, the sweeter fragrances of the women, the warm, aged mustiness of a centuries-old house, and the rich, aromatic scents of roasting meats and fresh bread.
And finest of all, the feel of hands holding him down. Strong, but never cruel. The hands of his brothers.
Goddess, let this be real.
"Hawke, you're safe," Kougar's voice assured him.
As the last of the fight left him, the red haze receding from his mind, he blinked, his eyelids heavy, as if he'd been asleep for weeks. Slowly, his vision focused on the three men hovering over him, holding him down. Lyon. Kougar. Tighe.
"You're real." His voice cracked with disuse.
Tighe smiled, flashing a dimple. "We're real."
"Welcome back," Lyon said, his voice thick.
Hawke's gaze swung slowly to Kougar and found the usually emotionless cougar shifter with a smile in his eyes that Hawke had never seen. Kougar extended his hand, and when Hawke lifted his own, Kougar slapped forearms with him in the traditional greeting of the Ferals and pulled Hawke up.
The room shifted, and he found himself sitting on a pallet on the floor, a temporary dizziness swinging through his head, then abating as he eyed the blessedly familiar floral wallpaper and the chandelier hanging above the massive table.
He lifted a single brow. "I've been sleeping in the dining room?"
Lyon clapped him warmly on the back. "The Shaman recommended we keep you within the heart of the house and activity. We'd hoped our voices would eventually pull you back."
His gaze shifted to the wall of windows beyond the long table and the woods behind the house. The trees had leaves, but the leaves were thin and still the bright green of spring. "How long?"
"It's been two weeks since you fell into that trap," Lyon told him. "A week since we got you out."
Hawke's gaze swung to Kougar. "How? No one escapes a spirit trap." Somehow he knew his escape was Kougar's doing.
Hawke's gaze shifted to Tighe. "Did I imagine you went down with me?"
The haunted look that entered his friend's eyes was answer enough. "Delaney kept me tethered as best she could, but it was close, Wings. It was close." The shadows evaporated, a look of pure joy taking their place. "We're going to have a son."
Hawke blinked. "You're going to be a father?"
"Again." Tighe's gaze momentarily unfocused as if he were pulled by a distant memory. "Finally." Tighe shook his head with a grin, clasping Kougar on the shoulder. "I'll let Kougar share his own news. Oh, and the new fox shifter should be here by the end of the week. He's flying in from Poland."
Hawke laughed, the sound little more than a rough burst of air. "I'm beginning to feel like Rip Van Winkle." The man of human legend had supposedly fallen asleep for a hundred years and awoken to find that the world had passed him by. "We're going to be nine once more? No one's . . . been lost?"
"No one's been lost." Lyon rose to his feet but continued to watch him with a small smile and eyes filled with deep relief. "We'll be nine again soon. And it's a good thing. We've detected some strange activity in the Daemon layer of the earth's energy. We don't know what it means yet, but it can't bode well. The Mage are clearly trying yet another way to free the Daemons."
The anger, so temporarily banked inside him, sparked, then flared. The damned Mage. Daemons would rampage and torture, terrorize and kill, destroying life by the thousands - humans and immortals alike.
His fangs dropped, his claws erupting. He snarled. "Those f**king idiots."
"Hawke, easy buddy."
But Tighe's entreaty sank beneath the rising roar in his head as his frustration exploded into fury, erupting into a firestorm of rage. Pulling him under.
Drowning him, once more, in darkness.
"Hawke!" Lyon tried to hold his friend, but it was too late. Reason had fled Hawke's eyes, replaced with a snarling, spitting anger. "Hold him down!" he ordered even as Hawke lashed out with his claws.
But as the three men tried to contain the thrashing, violent warrior, Hawke shifted into his animal in a spray of colored lights. As one, they pulled back. "Kkkeeeeer." The red-tailed hawk took off on a wild flight through the dining room, flying at the windows, crashing through the glass.
Kougar ran for the window. Lyon followed, certain the bird had shredded his wings. But if Hawke had done himself any damage, Lyon couldn't tell. The hawk soared above the treetops and disappeared. When the Ferals shifted, they retained their human minds, able to control the animal bodies as they did the human.
Hawke wouldn't have taken off like that if he'd been in control. Lyon feared his friend was lost to the wildness inside him.
"I thought he'd be okay once he came to." Tighe took a step toward the window, glass crunching beneath his boot.
Lyon shook his head, his expression grave. "He's damaged." The question was, just how damaged? He prayed the answer wasn't beyond repair.
"Faith, look! A rainbow."
Maria's cry of pleasure had Faith pushing herself off the sagging mattress to join the teen at the cracked window of Faith's small apartment.
"Lame," Paulina muttered from the bed where she sat, bent low, drawing on her palm.
Sure enough, a rainbow glistened above the tenements across the street in one of the worst sections of Warsaw, Poland, a neighborhood virtually untouched in more than a century - beautiful old buildings derelict and crumbling, their art nouveau façades nearly hidden beneath decades of grime, wrought-iron window rails rusting and bent as if they, along with the city's people, had suffered the Nazis' bludgeoning and the communists' iron fist.
Shoulder to shoulder with Maria, Faith smiled. "It's a beautiful rainbow."
"You're both lame."
Faith turned to the dark-haired girl on the bed with a shrug. "I like rainbows."
"You like everything."
"Not everything. Just things that make me happy."
"Like me?" Maria piped up.
Faith laughed. "Especially you."
Maria turned back to the window with a wistful sigh. "I wish I could follow the rainbow to its end, to see where it goes."
"Maybe we should do that." Faith hadn't known either girl long, but she'd quickly become fond of them. They'd become her latest projects, or more accurately, getting them off the streets had become her latest in a lifetime of such missions.
"I couldn't leave Stanislov," Maria said mournfully. "He needs me."
Faith bit down on a sound of frustration and the words she longed to voice - that Stanislov wasn't Maria's lover, he was her pimp. That he only needed her for the money she brought him. But Maria didn't see it that way. A year ago, at just thirteen, Maria had been orphaned by an alcoholic mother and left to fend for herself. Stanislov had taken her under his wing, fed her, and made her feel loved. That he pimped her out was a small price to pay in the young teen's mind, Faith knew that. She also knew it was only a matter of time before Maria wound up on drugs or too dead inside to be rescued.
As Maria returned to the bed, running her fingers over the cover of the worn Second World War history book sitting on the crate that served as a bedside table, Faith pulled three small containers of orange juice from her rusted refrigerator and joined them, sitting cross-legged. Maria tore into the drink as if she'd been given the greatest of treats, but Paulina merely laid hers on the bed beside her and resumed her drawing. Even if she'd been as anxious to taste the sweet fruit juice as Maria, she'd never show it. That she came to the apartment at all told Faith just how desperate she was for company - safe, female company.
At sixteen, Paulina had already been on the streets two years. A couple of weeks ago, in an unusually open mood, she'd confided to Faith that her stepfather had raped her, and her mother had accused her of seducing him and thrown her out of the house. The girl was smart and tough, with a significant artistic talent. But she was also a bitter girl, hard beyond her years. So far she'd managed to avoid both drugs and alcohol, which gave Faith hope she'd eventually find her way to a better life. With a little help. If she'd take it.
To anyone else, Paulina and Maria were just a pair of young Polish hookers. But when Faith had arrived in Warsaw a few months ago, she'd recognized in these two the cleverness and character it took to escape this life. After years of helping street kids, she knew how to get past the barriers so many of them threw up. They didn't trust easily, especially not adults. Fortunately, Faith didn't look much older than the girls. She could pass all too easily as one of them - another runaway, or throwaway. With her blue-tipped hair and the silver studs circling one ear, Faith worked hard to foster that illusion. Whenever she moved to a new country, a new city, a new neighborhood, she told the girls she met that she was eighteen, that she'd been abandoned by her family at fifteen.
The last part was true, at least. She had been abandoned at fifteen. But not three years ago. The last time she saw her own mother had been the summer of 1914.
Faith was immortal. A Therian.
Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, all Therians had been shape-shifters. Not any longer, not unless they were marked by one of the nine remaining animals. Not unless they became one of the legendary and revered Feral Warriors.
But that wasn't her world anymore and hadn't been since she was a girl. This was her world. The rough city streets, whether in her native Belgium, here in Poland, or any of the two dozen European cities where she'd lived in between.