When all three of them are in position, Jaxon looks at Xavier and me. “Ready?” he asks.
Not even a little bit. I don’t say that, though. I can’t. So instead, I just nod before shifting into my gargoyle form. It’s past time to get this show on the road.
Xavier, Jaxon, and I walk through the craggy rock entrance to the beast’s oasis like we own the place—partly, I think, to shore up our own nerves when it comes to being bait and partly because it never hurts to look more confident than you feel.
“What do you think it is?” Xavier asks as the path we’re on winds past the hot springs.
“I’m less concerned about what it is right now than where it is,” Jaxon answers as he sweeps his head back and forth, checking out every single hiding spot we can find.
Thank God the water is glowing so brightly, or we’d be fighting this monster in the pitch dark. And most likely all about to die.
Stop! The voice inside me is growing more insistent with each step I take toward the Unkillable Beast.
It’s creepy as fuck, and I can’t help wondering if my gargoyle knows something I don’t. If its senses are picking up on the danger I know is here but can’t quite pinpoint yet.
Unlike my gargoyle, Hudson is oddly silent. He stopped asking me to reconsider right about the time we got everyone in position, and I thought at first that he went away to pout the way he sometimes does.
But I can feel him inside my mind, senses on high alert as he looks out at the world through my eyes, trying to spot the beast, too. Trying—I know, even though he won’t admit it—to help Jaxon and me any way that he can.
Which is the dichotomy of Hudson and always has been. He’s capable of doing such horrible things that his own brother wanted him dead—or human—but now he’s here, doing his best to defend Jaxon against a threat he doesn’t even think we should be facing.
“You shouldn’t be facing it,” he tells me. But he doesn’t say it with his usual snark—for once, he’s not trying to pick a fight. Instead, he’s quiet. Sad, almost, like he knows what’s coming and has given up any chance of stopping it.
A sudden noise cuts through the night air, a clanging of chains that has all three of us freezing in our tracks.
“What the hell was that?” I ask, whirling toward a sound I think is coming from behind the waterfall.
“Sounded like chains to me,” Xavier answers, his werewolf ears working overtime.
The clang of chains comes again, more enthusiastically, and this time it’s very obvious where it’s coming from.
“Chains?” I murmur to Jaxon. “What’s that about?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
The voice inside me is screaming now. Go back, go back, go back!
It’s beyond scary, has me pausing for several seconds to draw in a shuddering breath as panic takes root deep inside me. But it’s too late now. We’re here and the clock is ticking away. We need to get this done.
So we exchange one long look among the three of us before squaring our shoulders and heading toward the cavern, where the clanging continues to grow louder and louder.
Not going to lie, I’m terrified. Terrified of what awaits us in that cave—I mean, what kind of monster uses chains to fight?—and terrified of what we have to do. I’ve never deliberately killed anyone or anything in my life (I even relocate bugs outside when I see them), and the idea of coming all the way up here to kill this monster and take a heartstone it clearly doesn’t want us to take—when it has done nothing to me or any of my friends—doesn’t feel right.
But what’s the alternative? Leave my friends to continue alone? There’s no right answer here, nothing to do but forge ahead and somehow hope that everything turns out okay, though I don’t know how that’s possible right now.
Jaxon looks at me questioningly, but I just nod. And then the three of us walk toward the cave and the Unkillable Beast, whatever that might be, heart pounding in my chest. Palms sweaty. And a sick feeling growing in my stomach that something truly horrible is about to happen.
The cave is dark as we approach, and we’re all on high alert, waiting for something to attack us. But the closer we get to the cave, the harder it is to ignore the clanging sound, to not focus on that to the exclusion of everything else.
Add in the low, husky growls that have started coming from deep inside, and it takes every ounce of courage I have to keep going—and that’s before I look down at the ground and see the plethora of bones lying around. Some long and in perfect shape, others broken clean in half, but all recognizable as human bones.
People, I can only imagine, who had come before us and failed to do what we have to do.
When we get to the entrance, Jaxon holds a hand up to stop Xavier and me, then takes the first step into the cave himself. The chains go wild, but nothing else happens. Even the growls seem to have quieted.
Jaxon takes another step into the cave. I follow right behind and Xavier follows me.
I shine the flashlight on my phone around the darkened cave, but I don’t see anything—and neither does Xavier or Jaxon, apparently, because seconds later, their flashlight beams follow mine.
We look around, though there’s not much to see. I don’t know what I was expecting, but not this barren cavern. There’s nothing here, just rocky walls and bones scattered all around—skulls and leg bones and rib cages still intact.
“Where is it?” I whisper, because there are no rocks in here, nothing at all for a monster to hide behind.
At first, I’m afraid that there are more rooms, that the cavern extends the way the Bloodletter’s does. But more sweeps of our flashlights reveal that this is it. This one room, with rocky, bloodstained walls and a rough dirt floor.
And huge, thick chains anchored into the ceiling and the back wall.
“I don’t understand,” Xavier says. “I know the noise came from here. I know it did. So where the hell is this thing?”
Finally, another low growl sounds, and we spin into a protective circle, our backs together as we sweep our flashlight beams all over the cavern.
The voice inside my head warns. Leave, leave, leave.
I can’t leave! I tell it. It’s too late.
Way too late.
Seconds later, another, louder growl sounds as the chains in front of us start to clank. And the wall itself begins to move.
Heaven on My Mind
“What the fuck!” Xavier exclaims, stumbling back, as the wall seems to come alive.
It growls once, long and low and loud, and the chains all but scream as it launches itself straight toward us.
Jaxon grabs me and shoves me behind him as he blasts out with every ounce of telekinetic power he has. It stops the thing—whatever it is—in midair, for a moment or maybe two. And then it just keeps coming, landing on all fours in front of us.
As I get my first good look at the beast, I can’t help thinking it’s like something out of a fantasy novel straight from hell. It’s huge—the hugest creature I’ve ever seen in my life—and made entirely of craggy rock that’s sharp and broken in a ton of different places, moss growing haphazardly all around.
Its eyes glow red and its teeth are vicious in a mouth that looks like it could swallow all three of us whole in one gulp. And it’s advancing on us, one slow step at a time.
Jaxon lashes out again, throwing everything he’s got straight at the monster. But all that does is make it angry, and it retaliates by striking with one massive hand (paw?) and sends him flying against a stone wall so hard that the cavern shakes.
“Jaxon!” I scream, grabbing Xavier and taking to the air as the thing turns and takes a swing at us as well.
I manage to dodge it, but the ceiling isn’t high enough for me to get out of its reach, so on its second swing, it catches Xavier and me, and we go flying toward the opposite wall.
We hit hard, so hard that my teeth rattle and my brain feels like it’s going to explode right out of my stone skull. I’m a little dazed, a little out of it, but Hudson is in my head, screaming at me to get up. Screaming at me to move, move, move.
I do, one second before a giant fist comes down, right where I had just been lying.
“Xavier!” I scream, but he’s already up and in wolf form, jumping straight over the monster’s shoulder and landing next to Jaxon, who has also gotten back to his feet.
The beast roars and charges straight at them. As it does, I notice for the first time that the chains aren’t its weapons. They’re shackles, keeping it tied to the wall.
“Run!” I yell to Jaxon. “If we get out of the cave, maybe it can’t reach you.”
But this is Jaxon Vega we’re talking about, and there’s no way he’s leaving his mate behind with this monster, something that I’m both grateful for and infuriated by at this moment when I need him to save himself.
Instead of lashing out and trying to blast the monster back like he did the first time, though, Jaxon focuses his power straight into the ground. A giant earthquake hits the cave, causing rocks and bones to fall from the walls and the very floor beneath our feet to buckle even as it rises up.
The creature screams, low and loud and agonizing to hear, and as it reaches out and picks Jaxon up, I’m sure that this is it. I’m sure that this is where it crushes Jaxon into dust right in front of me.
But it doesn’t crush Jaxon. Instead it throws him straight at the cave entrance, so hard that Jaxon flies right out of the cave and keeps going until I can’t see him anymore.
“Go, Grace!” Hudson screams at me. “Get out now, while it’s distracted.”
But I can’t get out, because the thing distracting the beast is Xavier, and he’s heading straight for him.
“Hey!” I yell as loud as I can. “Over here! Come get me over here!”
The beast ignores me, laser focused on Xavier, who has hopped onto one of the rock formations in the wall, waiting—I think—for his chance to leap past the beast.