Crimson Dahlia (Svatura #3) – Chapter 1
Lila couldn’t get warm in the damp, cold space where their captors held them. She assumed they were underground, given the rough stone walls and floor and the constant smell of damp earth and rock. A harsh fluorescent light in the hallway filtered into their cell through the barred window in the door. The constant hum of the bulb, which drowned out the more peaceful sound of trickling water, had become a minor form of torture.
“Ugh,” a male voice groaned beside her. “I can hear your teeth rattling in your head. If I promise not to think impure thoughts, will you swallow your darn pride and get over here and snuggle with me?”
“F-f-f-fine,” Lila said. The words would have sounded grudging if she could speak around her chattering teeth.
She scooted across several inches of uneven floor and sidled up to Marcus. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her in closer. After a few moments, the heat from his body started to seep through the thin layer of her clothes and into her skin. Her cotton tank top and khaki shorts, which had been perfectly suited for the jungles of Brazil, did little to warm her now. He was at least wearing jeans.
“Thanks,” she said when she could form words again.
“It’s a miracle. You know how to say thank you,” Marcus teased, his gravelly voice laced with a Cajun accent she’d always found sort of sexy.
“Hardy. Har. Har.” Lila inwardly cringed at such a lame response. She was just too scared, tired, and cold to think of anything wittier at the moment.
“Ha. It took us a whole year to get you to warm up to us. When you finally do, we discover you’re a sarcastic little thing. Even when you’re imprisoned in a hole in the ground.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a beacon of sweetness and light,” Lila deadpanned.
Marcus rolled his eyes. “How’s the head?” he asked. He angled toward her and brushed her matted honey-blonde hair away from the gash at her temple.
“It’s all healed. I’m still pissed that guy bashed me when I wasn’t looking.”
“Well, you did bite him, chère.” Marcus chuckled.
“He deserved it. No one tries to kidnap my friends—or me for that matter—without a fight. My powers may be passive, but that doesn’t mean I can’t kick serious butt.” Or at least try to. Not that she’d been exactly effective.
“How long do you think they can hold us here? It has to have been at least a month by now,” Lila wondered out loud, asking one of the questions she’d been holding back all this time. She’d been traveling with the Louisiana tribe of Svatura when they’d been attacked. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that Maddox was behind their capture. They’d been working against him for the last year, trying to convince other Svatura, like them, that Maddox was not the ally he claimed to be, but he was, in fact, the enemy. She’d woken in this pit. Time was hard to count without sunlight to tell them when days were passing but best she could tell, it’d been at least four weeks.
“Indefinitely, I’d say,” Marcus answered, grim acceptance underlying the words. “Their blocker is strong. With him keeping all of our powers in check, there’s not a ton we can do.” He must have mistaken her guilty frown for concern because he gave her a squeeze. “Not that we’ll stop trying.”
“That’s the problem. I don’t think we’ll get past him.”
She cringed as Marcus went from reassuring to suspicious. “You say that like you know something.”
“Selene was kidnapped by Maddox once and he used a blocker to prevent her from leaving.”
Marcus was familiar with the Queen of the Vyusher, a tribe of wolf metamorphs, and her abilities. “I thought Selene was able to turn off powers at will?”
Marcus apparently got the message, this blocker was strong enough to hold Selene off. “But she got out?”
“Yes, with some help from Ellie, after days fighting against his hold.”
His lips flattened in a thin line. No one in their group possessed a gift remotely similar or as intense as Selene’s, which gave them little to no hope now.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“As the leader of your tribe, you should know what we’re up against.”
“I see. And why now?”
She looked away. “There was no reason to destroy all our hope at first. I know I should have said something sooner, but I thought we would be rescued by now. The longer it takes…”
“The more unlikely that becomes.”
Marcus shifted into a more comfortable position, pulling her in a little closer rather than pushing her away. She glanced at him. Unable to access her ability to sense emotions, she was having a hard time reading his reaction. “Are you angry?”
He let out a long breath. “No. It explains how the bastard has managed to hold the nine of us in this cell—plus the others—with all of us constantly trying to use our powers.”
She nodded. “But my family has to know we’ve disappeared. They’ll assume Maddox has us, and will use every power at their disposal, including the full force of the Vyusher, to hunt for us. Selene will keep her promise to you, Marcus.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Lila didn’t say anything. Thinking about her family and Selene meant thinking about Ramsey. She didn’t want to think about Ramsey.
The clunk of the heavy locks being slid back was their only warning that they weren’t alone. By unspoken order, everyone in the room shifted positions. Lila now had eight Svatura sitting in front of her hiding her from whoever was about to come through the door. Marcus shoved her down behind him and she narrowed her eyes at his back.
“I can feel you glaring at me,” he whispered over his shoulder. “But we’re not going to stop. If Maddox gets his hands on you—”
He didn’t finish the thought. The door swung open with a rusty creak and, just as had happened every other time they’d had a visitor, pain stabbed through the occupants of the room. Lila held her stomach and tried not to writhe in agony as the sensation of razors being slashed over her skin racked her body. The metallic bite of blood filled her mouth as she bit down on her lip to keep from crying out. Marcus was right, Maddox couldn’t find out that he had her. She forced herself to keep her eyes open, needing to see where their assailants moved among them. She dared a quick glance down at herself and, like all the other times, was shocked blood wasn’t gushing from her skin.
The anguish was debilitating, and she knew that was the point. While they were all prostrate on the floor in pain, one of them would be dragged away with zero resistance. Lila vaguely registered a brief struggle to her right. Then the door closed followed by the shunk of the bolt being slid back in place. As fast as it had started, the pain disappeared.
Marcus leapt to his feet and looked around. “Who’d they take?”
A moment of confused panic reigned as everyone took stock of the people beside them, all dreading to see who was missing from their ranks.
“Dane,” a voice cried out. “They took Dane!”
Lila choked back the bile that threatened to rise up her throat. She’d come to like Dane over the last year. He had the ability to morph into a massive grizzly bear, but with her, he’d always been a big softy. He was also the third of their group to be dragged away by Maddox’s people, and none had returned. Now only eight of them were left in the cell. They had no clue what had happened to those taken, but Lila had a decent guess, and she tried to not let her alarm show. Survival was the name of the game. She knew her family would be desperately trying to find her, so she pushed her fears down deep inside and waited for rescue…or for her chance to fight back.
A disheartened silence fell over their small band. What more was there to say or do? Marcus returned to her side where they slumped against the rough rock wall, and he wrapped his arm around her again. They sat, unspeaking, each lost in their own thoughts.
“Marcus?” Lila whispered.
“Have you noticed that the three they’ve taken so far have the toughest powers?”
Marcus was quiet for a moment. “Jeez. You’re right. Dane—our biggest, strongest metamorph. Seamus with his lava bombs. Ariel’s nerve control.”
He was silent for a long moment before his body stiffened and Lila had a feeling he’d reached the same conclusion she had.
“Now that I think about it,” he muttered. “They took Ariel first, and that’s when the pain started.”
Lila grimaced. “You think they’re already using her nerve control on us?” she asked, needing to be certain.
He lifted a shoulder, jostling her with the movement. “Makes sense.”
She nibbled at her lip. “If they’re taking out the strongest of us first, who’s next?”
“Either James or Sylvie,” Marcus said after another thoughtful pause.
Lila nodded her agreement. James was a particularly talented telepath, and Sylvie could conjure tornadoes out of thin air. Not that either of those skills had done a darn thing with the blocker keeping them under wraps.
“Don’t mention this to anyone yet,” Marcus murmured. “We can’t do anything about it, and it’ll just make the terror worse.”
“Okay.” She pursed her lips, deciding if she should keep voicing her concerns. “Um, Marcus?”
“You’re awfully chatty today,” he murmured.
Lila rolled her eyes. “What do you think they’re doing with them?”
She felt Marcus’s chest rise and fall in a silent exhale. “Well, if they’re not dead, and our suspicions about Ariel are right, then it’s something much worse.”