It wasn’t until I read back over this last Nightkeepers story that I realized I had written you into it. David is you—he’s positive, dedicated, open-minded and generous, and he has a huge heart that’s just waiting to find his match. And when he does, watch out, because (like any good fisherman) he’s not letting her get away!
So this one’s yours alone. Thank you for being mine, and for making me hope that the world continues on for a long, long time.
My heartfelt thanks go to Deidre Knight, Claire Zion, Kara Welsh, Kerry Donovan and others too numerous to name for helping me bring these books to life; to J. R. Ward for being my sounding board; and to my family, friends, and many e-friends for always being there for a laugh or (cyber)hug. And most of all to my husband, Greg, for showing me that soul mates, spontaneous combustion and true love do exist, and that they’re so very worth waiting for.
Finally, as we reach the finale of the series, thank you, dear reader, for being part of the Nightkeepers’ world!
SPECIAL PREVIEW OF SUMMER AT MUSTANG RIDGE
In three weeks, the barrier that separates the earth and underworld will fall and the vicious Banol Kax, lords of the underworld, will emerge from millennia of torture and damnation with one goal burning in their blackened blood: to destroy mankind. Our only hope rests with the Nightkeepers, a group of magic-wielding warriors who live among us in secret and who have—maybe, hopefully—enough skill, power and conviction to defeat the Banol Kax and restore the barrier between the earth and the underworld.
With their numbers decimated, the last dozen surviving Nightkeepers and their allies have managed to defend the barrier so far. Now, though, they are at a crossroads . . . and the strongest and most unpredictable among them has done the unthinkable: in a world of magi who draw their greatest powers from bonding with the other halves of themselves, he has cruelly betrayed his lover. In the end he sacrificed himself to save her, but that has put him in the demons’ clutches and destroyed his magic.
As the days count down and he suffers the tortures of the damned, the Nightkeepers widen their search, hoping for a miracle . . .
Three weeks until the zero date
Somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico
Red-Boar had always said that someday Rabbit would get what he deserved . . . and it turned out the old bastard had been one-hundred-per-fricking-cent right. Shit, Rabbit could practically picture his father standing in the arched stone doorway, glaring from beyond the grave with a big-assed “See? I told you so” plastered on his mug.
Then leather whipped through the air and the brined lash cracked across Rabbit’s back, laying open another bloody ribbon. The image exploded into white-hot pain, and he twisted against his shackles as if it was the first time he’d been whipped rather than the thousandth. He might even have screamed. Maybe not, though. He wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure of much these days; his world had gotten condensed down to the circular stone prison, and Phee, the pale-haired bitch who kept tormenting him, torturing him, trying to make him give up something that was already gone.
“Turn him around.” At Phee’s order, talons scraped on stone and he was hit with a foul stench as claws swung him on his chains, and he went from having his battered face pressed against the putrid wall to staring into the equally putrid visage of a camazotz.
Nearly eight feet tall, with the body of an overendowed man and a face cursed with ratlike red eyes, a smashed-in nose and a triangular mouth that held way too many fangs, the bat demon was ugly from a distance, and really fucking gnarly up close. It kept its ragged wings and barbed tail curled around its body in the narrow confines of the cell, but the oily drool and the way its beady-assed eyes went over Rabbit’s body said it was thinking about taking what little was left of his skin for wing patches.
Earlier in his captivity—a month ago? two months?—he would’ve told it to fuck itself, and maybe even described the process. Now all he could do was groan as his spine grated against the stone.
“Back off,” Phee said from behind the creature, and the camazotz ducked its head and gave way, returning to its post beside the door with a hiss that was its version of Yes, mistress. Anything you say, mistress. Which left Rabbit with a view that—to him, at least—was worse than a chorus line of camazotz doing The Pirates of Penzance.
He didn’t know what the demoness’s natural form looked like—the Banol Kax could take on many shapes, from humans to three-story-tall winged monsters that breathed fire. This one appeared to be a woman in her twenties, with light, almost colorless hair, high cheekbones and blue-gray eyes that were unnervingly like his own. She had the trefoil mark of a dark-magic user on the inside of her right wrist, and wore a long silvery-white robe.
All that was the same as it had been before, when she had slipped through the protective wards around Skywatch to speak to him in visions. Back then, though, she had seemed ethereal and ghostly. Now she was flesh and blood, or at least pretending to be.
It was all a lie.
As she approached, he forced a sardonic smile through split lips that hadn’t even bothered swelling, as if his body had given up on any hope of repair. “Hello, Mother.”
She wasn’t, of course, but she had played the hell out of the role, getting inside his head and offering him what he’d most wanted: a mother who had loved him and a reason to think that his old man had given a shit at one point in time. She had sold him on the fantasy of having a real name—Rabbie—and a real family. She had cooed over him, coddled him . . . and then she had turned him, gradually and irrevocably, until he believed with every fiber of his twisted being that she was his only ally and all the others were his enemies. Even the one person who had loved him.
“Rabbie . . .” Phee tutted sorrowfully. She stayed in character even now, with him imprisoned and the charade unnecessary. He had a feeling she liked the pretty shell. She might not be able to get inside his head anymore—his mental powers had vanished along with his magic—but she had to know it was a bitter reminder for him to see her like this. Cruel enjoyment gleamed in her eyes as she leaned in close, brushed her fingertips along his swollen jaw, and whispered, “My poor, poor Rabbie. Why are you making me do this? You’re hurting us both, you know.”