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He spat out blood and pushed to his hands and knees. He would not quit. He would not die, especially since he hadn’t yet revealed his ace in the hole.

“What…”

His father’s word was lost in the sudden gale force wind that fluttered their souls.

A smile curved Kieran’s swelling lips.

“They will fight for you because they want to, not because they have to,” he said, struggling up to his feet. “They will risk everything for you because you would do the same for them.”

The battle on the beach, so clearly stacked in his father’s favor, slowed. People clutched at their chests and howled in agony. A few broke away, like the shifters had done the other day, trying to escape the onslaught.

She had come.

The sea of black and red dotted with blue and green opened up down the middle. A glowing woman dressed in black battle attire walked down the center, her arms held wide, her hair blowing from a wind every soul on the beach could feel. His mark had perfectly accented her magic’s effects. She was a sight to see, hauntingly beautiful. An angel of death.

Warriors clad in black and red fell without warning, their lifeless bodies collapsing to the ground.

Behind Alexis lurched and jerked her army of dead, fearsome creatures with exposed bones, crooked jaws, and empty eye sockets. Even Kieran’s men reeled back from them, except for four. The members of his Six who fought on land peeled away from the battle and jogged to her side, bloodied and dirty. They filled her flanks and headed up her army, cutting through the enemy like a sword through silk.

His heart ached. Alexis had faced her biggest fear. She’d embraced everything she was out of love for him. He didn’t deserve it, but he was beyond grateful.

“A Spirit Walker,” his father said softly, as though out of breath. He rubbed at his chest, like he was trying to wipe away a piece of dirt. “You’ve found a Spirit Walker.”

“A poor nobody, as you said,” Kieran replied, willing his body to heal faster. He pulled the water around his feet and up to his knees, soaking in its energy while his father was distracted.

His father’s face came around slowly, and pride and envy warred in his expression. “I was wrong. You did well—she is worthy of a mark. A talent like that must be claimed. I hope you took her blood so as to control her.”

“She’s not the kind of lady who can be controlled.” He swept his hand to the beach to prove his point.

The bodies that lay to either side of her began to jerk on the ground. A few started trying to get up. She was bringing them back from the dead in order to direct them. The sight was as gruesome as it was terrifying, and the enemy troops pushed away from her, terror-stricken.

“And if she’ll ever forgive me for what I’ve made her do,” he said, “I’ll make her my wife.”

Kieran blasted his father with his magic and fist both, pushing him back. Using Alexis’s magic, he slashed through his father’s chest.

“How…” His father grunted in surprise and fell back into the rising waters.

“When you show respect to those around you, and put others above yourself, they reward you in ways you could never imagine.”

The waters rose around them before crashing down. His father took off like a shot, heading for the deep. Kieran had no choice but to follow, hoping the people he’d left behind could withstand Valens’s army.

Hoping he could hold his own against his father. This was the part of the battle he’d always dreaded.

The part, he knew, his father would force him to do alone.

37

Alexis

“Where is he going?” I screamed as anxiety and fear dumped into me through the soul connection. I sprinted to the water’s edge, watching Kieran disappear into a crashing wave.

Zorn grabbed me around the waist and ran me up the beach. Another wave came in, and then another, huge and violent. They crashed down not far away, surging up the beach and around our waists. Another one crashed, right on top of the first two. Kieran and his father had kept the waters back, and now the ocean was resuming its normally scheduled program.

“I got her,” Donovan yelled.

Before he could lift me with his magic, a corpse appeared beside me and wrapped its spindly arms around my shoulders. Lights and colors flew around me and my stomach fell through my feet, as though I were falling from a great height. A moment later, my feet hit sand and I stood in a pocket of empty space, looking at the resuming fight.

“Mia, no! I need to get out there to help Kieran!”

Lights and colors filled my vision again, and this time I found myself in an empty space just up from the natural water line. The small collection of souls I’d snatched and shoved back in bodies fought Valens’s horde. The tales of yore had been exaggerating, it turned out. I didn’t have the energy to steal the souls and reanimate the bodies of a large horde unless I did it one by one.

What a crock.

“His father is too powerful,” I yelled at Zorn above the sound of battle and crashing waves. “Kieran has always been worried about facing his father at sea.”

Zorn motioned for Donovan to grab me.

“Men are never worried,” Donovan said in my ear, trying to pull me up the beach. “Though we may be slightly troubled from time to time. Come on. We’ll get a boat.”

“You get a boat. I need to help fight.”

“You also shouldn’t make a man spell out his weaknesses.”

“I don’t know what that means.” I took a few steps forward as three people broke free from the fighting and charged at me.

Before I could react, a rage-filled howl rose up, turning my bones brittle. Thane, the Berserker, crashed through a line of enemy, flinging them to the sides. Topping the crowd by four feet and swinging enormous arms packed with muscle, he was the super-sized version of the Thane who’d terrorized my backyard.

He lurched forward and grabbed one of the men running my way. With a swing of his shoulders, he flung the guy at a woman who was also charging me. They both went down in a tumble. Thane ran forward, so fast despite his size that I couldn’t help taking a few startled steps backward. He smashed his fists into the people on the ground before grabbing up the remaining attacker.

“Go!” Donovan said, shoving me. “Hurry! Sometimes he gets confused and turns on his own.”

I knew he was talking about Thane, and I didn’t need to be told twice.

“You shouldn’t make a man spell out his weaknesses,” Donovan repeated, yelling over the roar of the battle as he steered me away from Thane, “meaning I need you to help me get up the beach and to some boats. I can’t make it through this crowd on my own.”

“Men have…such prickly…egos,” I yelled.

The corpses filed in front of us. I used my magic to cut a path through the enemy as we made our way through, just barely noticing movement out of the corner of my eye.

“Incoming,” Henry yelled, filing in behind me. “It’s Amber.”

A sleek body dressed in leather hurtled something. Donovan flung up his hand as a small ball whirled in our direction, spraying liquid as it came. Friendlies and unfriendlies alike jerked back, screaming and clutching body parts as the ball reached us.

It stopped mid-air, caught in Donovan’s magic. Zorn pushed me to the ground and a few droplets of liquid flew over us.

“She’s an Acidic,” Henry said as Donovan lowered the ball into the sand. “She can create acidic saliva. Clearly, she made a slow-releasing ball of some sort to distribute it.”

“She took off,” Donovan yelled, yanking me up. “Come on. That was a distraction. She’s getting out of here.”

“She’s not going to stay and fight for her boss?” I asked, running behind him.

“Yeah right,” Donovan said, magically lifting someone dashing toward us and throwing him to the side. A corpse barreled into a cluster of three fighters, one of ours against two enemies. Now it would be a cluster-fuck of body parts, some of them squishy. “Valens’s people are highly intelligent, and their loyalty only goes as far as the blood oath he made them give. Those with loosened bonds will get out of here as soon as they can. Clearly, she has more freedom than most.”

“Is the blood bond the reason you’re still here?”

“No. And it’s also not why we’re going after Kieran when he told us to stay behind. We pledged an oath because we wanted to, not because we were forced to.”

We neared the steps to the parking lot and had to slow as the corpses behind us stumbled and fell trying to keep up. Many of them still had very little working knowledge of the bodies they inhabited, and sand wasn’t easy to traverse.

A group of fresh warriors, all in black, ran along the walkway above the barrier. I glanced back at the large host in black and red still standing their own on the beach. I’d severely helped, yes. Maybe I’d even turned the tide. But I hadn’t come close to winning the battle for Kieran.

“Look!” someone said.

A large gray wolf with an odd spot near his left eye, one I’d come to know well, slipped around me and leapt over the stairs to the sand. It landed gracefully as another wolf followed. Then more. People behind me cheered. My blood ran cold.

“Mordecai, no—”

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