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It was then that I registered the absence of Rufus and his passengers.

“Traitor!” Arron snarled in Aiden’s face. “You know what we do to traitors in Aviary, don’t you?” He cackled as Aiden struggled more violently. Then he looked down at Sofia and me as we watched helplessly. “But wait there for now.” He chuckled. As if Aiden had any choice but to wait. “I’ll deal with your insipid family first. It’s quite convenient actually. The Hawks will be in need of a hearty dinner after all these long meetings we’ve been having.”

He made his way toward me first, I assumed because he thought I was weakest—carrying a newborn in my arms. But Sofia was having none of it. The moment Arron touched down on the branch, she lunged for him. She swung herself onto his back and gripped her legs around his midriff. Then, to my surprise, sharp claws shot out from her hands. She slid them next to his throat and dug them in a little. Then she opened her mouth and as she tilted her head back, her beak and wings disappeared as fangs emerged. It was as though she was breaking through her disguise by calling upon her weapons.

“One single movement from you, bird, and I will dig deep,” she growled. I had never witnessed such intensity in Sofia. I was taken aback probably more than Arron.

She was a lioness. A lioness protecting her cub.

Sofia nodded as if to say she had Arron under control. Aiden was still dangling and grunting with pain as he hung from his wing. I began to climb up to assist him when a rustling of leaves caused my heart to pound. What if Arron already contacted other Hawks for backup?

But then Rufus landed on the branch—our three friends still clinging to him. They all had gashes and bruises covering their bodies, but at least they were alive.

Rufus climbed up to Aiden and, holding him by the waist for support, separated his wing from the tree. Aiden groaned as he closed his wing behind him. It hung disjointedly compared to the other one.

“Now what?” I said, looking at Sofia.

Time was slipping through our fingers. I had lost my watch during the struggle with Arron in the sky and I didn’t even know how much time we had left before all hope of escaping this nightmarish place would be gone forever.

It was Rufus who responded while drawing a long curved dagger out of his belt. “Reach the gate. Get out of here before it’s too late. Escape forever. And hurry.”

“Rufus!” Arron spluttered. “You dare to…”

His voice garbled and then quieted as Sofia applied more pressure. A drop of blood trickled down his throat.

“I told you, no movement. That includes speaking,” Sofia said.

“I don’t know how long I’ll be able to contain him,” Rufus continued, “or any other Hawks who might have become aware of all of this commotion…”

“Kyle and Ian,” I said, “help Aiden keep up with us. We need to reach the ground as quickly as possible.”

With that, Rufus placed his long blade exactly where Sofia had been positioning her claws.

Ben was still crying in my arms. I kissed his forehead, then tightened the blanket around me that I had formed into a carrier for him. We began the climb back down to the jungle floor.

“Careful of the snakes!” Sofia warned, pointing to one hanging about five meters away from us. Aiden groaned and grunted as he made his way down. Even with Ian and Kyle’s help, he was slow. Too slow. Anna had climbed onto Sofia’s back since she seemed to have sprained an ankle.

The air became steadily moister and the darkness increased as we descended, with less sunlight able to escape through the leaves. It seemed that we had been clambering down for at least an hour, but having no watch, I could not count.

“This journey seems so much longer than when we climbed up,” Sofia said.

“I know. We have to move faster,” I replied.

I almost cried out with relief when my foot finally hit solid ground.

“Shh, it’s okay, baby, we’re nearly home,” I whispered to Ben, who was still expressing his discomfort.

Once everyone had joined me, planting their feet firmly in the undergrowth, Sofia and I led the way toward the gate.

I scanned the area, expecting to see the black hole in the jungle floor we had emerged from. But instead I beheld a vision that should have belonged only in a nightmare.

A tall dark figure.

Long razor-like claws outstretched.

Red eyes glinting in the fading daylight.

Chapter 36: Sofia

Kiev.

A monster I’d hoped to never see again for the rest of my life. I had no idea how he could have survived being in this place as a vampire, or how and why he’d come here with my son, but none of it mattered.

He looked first at my baby cradled in Derek’s arms, and then at me. As soon as our eyes met, shivers ran down my spine. I considered that we should just attempt to run right past him and jump through the gate, but with Aiden and Anna injured, and Derek one-handed due to holding Ben, we could be slashed by Kiev’s claws if he chose to run at us with his strong muscular build.

“After I went to such pains to bring the infant here, you’re just going to take him away? Really? Just like that?” His voice rumbled through the jungle like the beginnings of an earthquake.

“Step aside now and we might just spare you, snake,” Derek responded for me.

But Kiev didn’t even acknowledge Derek’s presence, much less his threat. He took a few slow steps forward, scanning my body as though he was ravishing me from a distance. Then his blood-red eyes settled back on my face.

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