“Here,” Avon said, kneeling beside the path, the gloved fingers of his left hand lifting a broken blade of corngrass. “And here.” His hand circled above something in the dirt.
Kaid squatted beside his brother, vibrant blue eyes searching the ground. “Aye,” he said, nodding as he looked up at his sisters, and then turned his head to meet Avon’s gaze. “They passed this way, but how many? And how long ago?”
Ly’essa knelt beside her brothers, pulling a water flask from her belt and taking a long swallow. “At least we know we’re on the right track,” she said, pushing a stand of dark hair behind one ear. “And they’re apparently on foot.”
“There will be at least half a dozen,” Tiggy said, coming to stand beside her sister and reaching for the water flask. She took a long swallow, and then continued. “Probably more. These rogues hunt in large groups.”
“Aye,” Kaid said softly, pushing to his feet. Humans had taken to actively hunting Lycan and Vampire alike, and the vigilante groups traveled in packs. But if that was the case, they should see more signs of their passing, he mused, dark brows furrowing as he turned to scan the clearing around them.
“Tis a booted foot made this,” Avon said, standing and brushing dirt from the knees of his black, body-hugging leather pants. “My guess is human, but tis rare for humans to venture this close to Barkolak’s lands.”
Kaid looked down at the footprint again. Avon was right. There was the possibility it was a lone Vampire or Lycan, in human form, but gut instinct told him that was not the case. In a desperate attempt to protect themselves, human royalty had placed a staggering bounty on the heads of any Lycan or Vampire brought before them–preferably dead. Consequently, large groups of humans roamed the countryside and forests, armed to the teeth and laying traps. That one such group of rogues would venture this close to Lord Barkolak’s castle was surprising and warranted investigation.
It was why Kaid and his siblings had been sent to scout the area…well that, and the fact that they had a human army gathering at the base of the mountains that Barkolak called his own. Their coven was being targeted…and their foster-father needed intel. Kaid glanced around the clearing one more time, noting the darkening shadows. Night would be upon them soon. Though it had always been the plan that Barkolak would one day turn them to vampire, they were not yet creatures of the night. It would not be good to be caught out after dark.
As if reading his thoughts, Avon said, “We need to return to the castle. We canna be caught out in the open at night.”
Both Ly’essa and Tiggy nodded in unison. “We have not yet been turned. Surely if the ones we are tracking are human, they would not harm us,” Tiggy said, her tone turning the statement into a question.
Kaid looked at his sister, not sure how to answer. By rights, they were human and should be safe from the bounty hunters, but all in these parts knew of the four human twins taken and raised by the vampire, Lord Barkolak, and his mate. Kaid doubted they would be spared should they fall into the hands of a hunting party.
“Most know we call Barkolak father,” Avon said, his words mirroring Kaid’s thoughts. “We best head home.”
They’d just turned toward their mounts, when a soft whimper brought them all to a standstill.
“Did you hear that?” Ly’essa asked brows furrowing and eyes narrowing as she searched the clearing around them yet again.
Tiggy’s head tipped to the side, as if listening to something only she could hear. “It came from there,” she said, pointing to a patch of open ground several dozen paces from where they stood.
“Leave it,” Avon ordered, his alpha personality coming to the fore. “We need to get back to the castle.”
Though Avon did not say as much, Kaid could almost read his thoughts. He suspected a trap, and they were alone and all but helpless should they be set upon now. He turned to obey his brother’s directive when the whimper came again. There was no doubt this time where it originated from. Ahead of them, just around the bend in the path, and there was also no doubting that the whine had come from a human throat.
“Someone is hurt!” Tiggy said, her eyes beseeching as she searched one face after another.
“We can’t, Tiggy,” Ly’essa said gently, reaching out to cup Tiggy’s cheek with one hand. “We’ll tell father. He will handle it.”
“No,” Tiggy said, her large violet-blue eyes pleading. “If we wait, they could die. We should at least look…try to help if we can.”
“Wait here,” Kaid commanded his sister. “I’ll go.”
“WE’LL go,” Tiggy shot back, already moving ahead of Kaid.
They’d barely covered half a dozen paces, just rounding the bend, when they saw the woman. A human. Beaten and bloody. Tied to a sapling tree.
“Oh!” Tiggy gasped, one hand coming to her lips and eyes going wide at the sight. “She’s hurt!” Without a second thought, she began moving forward, intent on helping the injured woman.
“Tiggy, wait!” Kaid cried, seeing the trap in the same instant Tiggy moved. The straw and large Cammarin leaves scattered near the woman should not have been there. In fact, Cammarin were native to swamps, not mountain forests.
Kaid darted forward, grabbing Tiggy’s arm, but it was already too late. He’d misjudged the full scope of the trap, only realizing that fact when the ground beneath his feet crumpled under his weight. He heard Tiggy’s scream, even as he felt himself falling.
In the next heartbeat, he felt fire-hot pain slam through his body. The agony was so intense, it ripped the breath from his lungs and set his stomach to pitching. He didn’t dare move, but he didn’t have to look to know he’d been impaled. He could see the bloody tip of a sharpened pole protruding from his gut and knew another had punctured his left thigh.
Nearby, Kaid could hear Tiggy’s gasps and groans, and knew without looking that she was in no better shape. There was no doubt in his mind that this was a human trap, set for Lycan or Vampire. He also knew they were all but dead. When the humans ventured back to check this trap, they’d kill them–if they managed to survive that long. He didn’t think they would.