Soul of a Hunter

scroll down for excerpt               Book 5 in the Heart & Soul series

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One savage night, and the rest of Sabra’s life was spent with vengeance
burning in her soul. She knew the killer, but who were the extra players
in a growing mystery?

One cold, bloody night, and he’d found her again.  Given a second chance, could Cam convince her to exchange vengeance  for love?

 

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Too quickly. Suddenly uneasy, Sabra looked up at the second floor. All was quiet. Where were the tavern whores that had been standing up there? Looking across at Alen, she saw him shift position, no longer slouching against the bar but standing upright. Belmos on the other side of the room had his headed tilted. Harld was scanning the room sharply. So she wasn’t the only one to sense that something wasn’t right, that something had gone wrong.
“Well, well. Bounty hunters. Looking for me?”
Terribly wrong. She looked straight up the staircase and into mocking green eyes. The handsome face was sardonic, framed by waving chestnut hair that brushed the billowing-sleeved white shirt. The lean body was encased in tight black pants and knee-high boots. A laser was aimed straight at her heart.
“Darcus,” she whispered.
“Don’t anybody move!” He barked out when the hunters started for their weapons. “My crew have you all covered. Just look around if you don’t believe me.”
They did, seeing the pirates appear from behind the bar, through the side door, and above them on the balcony. The bar patrons pulled out daggers, proof that they were pirates dressed in plain clothes.
“So it’s true. You missed me, my little Sabra.” His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “If I’d known you’d grown into such a pretty bit, I would have come looking for you.”
“Come down and face me.” Hatred boiled inside her, the longing to slice his smile clean off his sneering face making her palms quiver in anticipation.
“After all the trouble you went to searching for me, I’m surprised that you don’t appear happy to see me.”
Cormac moved up beside her. “Our business is with you only, Darcus.”
He laughed. “Is it now? And why is that? Let me guess.” He pursed his lips. “Oh, I know! I killed your father!”
Her heart started to thunder. “This is between you and me. Send your men away and the hunters will leave, too. Face me alone, you bastard.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” He smiled at Miklar as she drew level with him. “I’d advise you to seek your room, my darling. Things are going to get a little messy around here.”
Sabra looked at Cormac. Reflected in his eyes was the knowledge she’d already concluded. Darcus did not mean to let them go alive.
“So, pirate.” Cormac returned his attention to the man leaning gracefully against the banister. “Is this a showdown?”
“A showdown?” He burst out laughing and his crew echoed him.
The bounty hunters watched warily, their nerves strung taut yet steady. Waiting.
“Such a sense of humour.” Darcus wiped his eyes. “I could have done with you in my crew, hunter. No, this isn’t a showdown.”
“Then what is it?” Sabra grated.
“It’s a slaughter.”
“With lasers? Stupid, don’t you think, knowing that the blasts go straight through one person and into another? You’ll kill as many of your own men as you will us.”
“Nobody said it was lasers, my pretty. We fight much better with machetes and daggers, and all sorts of lovely little things. Don’t we, lads?”
A rumble sounded from the pirates and more seemed to pour into the room. With dismay Sabra saw that the hunters were outnumbered by at least six to one. It was indeed going to be a slaughter.
“There seems to be no point in killing the others, Darcus. Take me only. They are no threat.”
“Oh, come on! Even I know that these hunters will be back if something happens to you. No, my dear, I’m afraid negotiations aren’t going to work here. You have, to state it clearly, reached the end of the line.”
“Then I see no point in waiting any longer,” Cormac said calmly and in one lightening move, drew his laser.
The room exploded, pirates swarming towards the hunters. Belmos managed to pull his laser in time, but the other hunters only had time to fend off the first of the pirates.
Sabra drew her own laser and fired straight up at Darcus, but he wasn’t there. Looking up, she saw that he’d disappeared back into the shadows, and she started towards the stairs. Her way was blocked by several leering pirates and she cut them down quickly, but no sooner had she done so than more appeared to take their place.
A beefy hand came from the side, grabbing her wrist in a crushing hold, and forcing her to drop the laser. A fist connected with her jaw, then the sensation of something sharp and cold across her shoulder, followed by a wet sensation. Blood. She’d been cut.
Furiously she rallied, swinging deadly chopping motions through the air, catching one pirate in the throat with the side of her palm, another in the eye. A third pirate’s nose she slammed up, breaking it and forcing bone to jar up into his brain. Drawing a dagger from her boot top, she slashed from side to side, cutting flesh, hearing curses and shrieks.
The room seemed to seethe with bodies. Tables broke, chairs were flung. The laser fire stopped abruptly, but the fighting didn’t.
Seeing Cormac go down beneath three thugs, Sabra whirled around and tried to slash a path through to him. With fleeting fear she realized that she couldn’t see the other hunters, nor hear them. But she couldn’t worry about that now, she had to get to Cormac, had to fight beside him—
Suddenly her arms were grabbed on each side and she was rushed backwards. Twisting, she was unable to break the brutal holds, and glancing back over her shoulder, saw where they were aiming to take her. The huge front barroom window loomed closer and closer and suddenly she was hoisted up and thrown backwards through it.
It exploded around her but she was protected from the shards by the thick jacket. Hitting the sidewalk, she ploughed down into the snow. No sooner did she come to a stop than she sprang to her feet, swaying and slightly disorientated, but determined to hurtle back into the fight.
“Don’t try it.”
She looked up to see Darcus standing on the sidewalk, laser in hand.
“Your friends are dead, Sabra.”
“Nay.”
“They are. Dentil, throw them out into the snow. Let her see.”
Numbly she watched as bodies were thrown haphazardly out of the window to lie in broken heaps on the sidewalk. The blood running down the bodies was already slowing, soaked up by the thick clothes and cooling in the chill breeze.
Harld, Belmos. The others. And there – oh God. There was Cormac at the bottom of the heap, his face covered in blood. Gaping cuts showed through the torn jackets and shirts. Part of Belmos’s face was cleaved in.
Her stomach lurched, agony gripping her heart. She looked up to meet mocking green eyes.
“Oh, does poor little Sabra cry? I like little girls that cry.”
A cold hand clutched her heart. Those words, the same he’d spoken to her all those years ago. After he’d killed Mother and Father… “You bastard.” The words came out an agonized whisper.
Snow fluttered around her, the cold grey light heavy with doom. Her breath came out in cold puffs. And then she moved fast.
She hadn’t taken two leaps before the laser crackled and her knee gave out beneath her, burning pain exploding from the shattered kneecap. The cold snow puffed beneath her as she fell into it, landing on her hands to brace herself. Gasping with the pain, the stench of her own burnt flesh seared through her.
“Giving up so soon, hunter? Do you kneel before me then, admitting that I have beaten you?”
The words echoed in her mind, pushing past the barrier of pain to the discipline she’d learned from the bounty hunters. Her dead friends. Time had taught her to never give up while she still breathed, to never show the enemy you were down—or afraid. To do so was to give them satisfaction. The jeers of the pirates resounded in her ears.
Taking a deep breath, and gritting her teeth, she pushed upward awkwardly, hobbling on one leg, gaining balance with her arms outstretched until she stood again to face him. Sweat ran icily down the side of her face at the agonized effort. “You haven’t beaten me, scum. You will never beat me.”
Darcus looked down at her. Regardless of the pain from her wounded knee, she stood proud and full of hatred. It angered him. Where was the fear? “Beg for your life, Daamen.”
“Screw you, you bastard!”
“Nasty. Let’s see just how tough you are, Sabra.”
The laser crackled once more and unable to move quickly enough, she felt the burning in her side as the beam seared through her jacket and shirt to gouge a sizzling trench across her lower ribs. Flinching and staggering slightly, she desperately kept her attention focused on him as she felt the blood welling against the inside of her jacket.
“Tough enough to take you on, Darcus,” she rasped.
Several pirates hooted, but most of them were eyeing her speculatively. Bloodied and wounded, she was nevertheless a force to be reckoned with. It was being proven already. She still stood, where others would be lying on the ground.
“Is that so?” Darcus raised the laser and took slow, deliberate aim. “How about matching sides?”
Even before the laser crackled, she knew what he meant to do, the burning on her other side merely confirmation. Now she wavered and swayed, but iron will kept her upright. She wouldn’t fall. Wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Blood was flowing now from her sides and knee. How long she’d be able to remain standing was debatable. Not long, if she was to continue to bleed like this.
“I’m going to kill you. I should have done it a long time ago.”
“That’s what your mates said when I led them to the gallows.” She swallowed against the nausea rising in her throat, and the agony beating at her senses.
“That I should have killed you?”
“Some. Mostly they just begged like the scum they are. Like you are.” Her eyes narrowed painfully. “Like you will when you face the gallows.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “No gallows for me, girlie. You’ll not live to see me swing.”
“Says who? I’ll be watching, wherever I am. Never doubt that somewhere, somehow, I’ll get you, Darcus. Even death won’t stop me.”
A murmur swept through the pirates. Superstition ran through their veins, a legacy of strange things they’d seen in their wanderings, especially in the middle of the Outlaw Sector, and a jumble of beliefs brought by each of them to their ships and crew-mates.
Hearing the uneasiness, Darcus’s eyes narrowed. He’d teach this lot of superstitious fools that no one, especially a bounty hunter and ex-victim of his, threatened him and lived to tell of it. “We’ll see about that, Sabra.”
The laser blast caught her in the chest, flinging her backwards several feet before dropping her into the snow. Lying on her back, gasping, she stared up at the sky. A face filled her vision, dark in the waning light.
“You’ll die soon, Sabra,” Darcus said conversationally. “Loss of blood combined with cold are a good mix. I’m going inside to enjoy a warm brew, then I’m off home. I’m afraid you’re going to have to do this dying business alone.” Leaning down, he pressed a hand to her chest and ground the heel of his palm against the wound cruelly.
She nearly blacked out as excruciating pain clawed at her.
He laughed. “Any last wishes? Not that I promise to grant them. Probably won’t, in fact.”
“How did you know we were coming?”
“Surprised you, did we?”
“We scanned the tavern before leaving the ship. You weren’t there when we arrived.” She bit her lip against a wave of pain.
“We entered the settlement in time to see you disappear into the tavern. Miklar, dear heart that she is, sent a message several hours ago that you were coming. A lovely friend of hers from Kyros notified her of your intent to seek me out. I just had to come and greet you.”
“How did you get in?” She coughed, a trickle of blood staining one corner of her lips. “We did not see you.”
There was no threat in the woman knowing. Darcus eyed her easily. She was dying. Let her die knowing he’d bested her. Again. “We came under the tavern in a hidden tunnel, entered through the cellar door, went up the back stairs, and came out on the balcony. Several of my crew waited outside.”
“The patrons…”
“Were pirates, too. They were already in the settlement awaiting my arrival for a very big assignment I have planned, and agreed to await yours as well. So nice of them, don’t you think?”
Black dots danced before her eyes and she blinked them away rapidly. “I will see you dead yet, Darcus. I swear it.”
He shrugged carelessly. “Goodbye, little girl. I’ll remember you most fondly. We did have a good time together, didn’t we? But I won.” His face sobered. “I always win, Sabra.”
Then he was gone. The sound of boots on the sidewalk, the slamming of a door. Silence. The pirates were gone, retreating into the tavern. Leaving her here to die.
After a vain attempt to lift her head, she raised her hand gingerly to the wound in her chest, feeling the charred skin and blood bubbling out hotly. She was going to die. This wound was more serious than the others. This wound would kill her. Snow fluttered down, seeming to tenderly caress her face before melting almost immediately to run down her cheeks like tears. Wearily, her hand dropped to her side. Strength was fading fast, disappearing with her life.
It was lonely, this dying. Somehow, even as a hunter facing ruthless outlaws, she’d never thought she would die like this. And nearby were her poor, dead friends. Murdered savagely. How could everything have gone so wrong so quickly? How could it have all ended like this so swiftly, so brutally?
It was getting darker. And colder. The snow beneath her was melting, wetness seeping through the thick jacket, icing her body. It was so cold. Blinking, she peered up at the darkening sky. She wanted to cry for her friends, for the futility of it all, but somehow she couldn’t. A strange calmness had fallen over her and she thought how odd it was. Shouldn’t she be frightened or something?
A cold wind traced across her cheek and she wondered if it was Death’s icy touch. She didn’t know how long she lay there, only that early evening was giving way to dusk and the snow was coming down faster, half covering her bleeding body, and it was becoming harder to breathe… All feeling had left her. No one came near her, no voices sounded on the street. It was quiet. Even the noise from the tavern had abated.
She closed her eyes and when she finally opened them again, it was to find a dark shape filling her vision, blocking out the weak light that shone from the broken window of the tavern. Puffs of white came out from the darkness of the hooded head. Death had come to claim her at last and hazily she was aware that Death was big. Huge. He wore a heavy cloak and hood, just the way she always thought he would. Crouched over her like the grim angel of death he was. One big gloved hand reached out for her.
A surge of sudden, desperate strength allowed her to reach up and grasp the thick wrist, feeling the slippery leather of his glove. Holding his hand away from her, she whispered, “You cannot take me now, Death. I have unfinished business.”

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copyright Angela Verdenius