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  New Orleans, Mardi Gras night, 2003

  "I'm so sorry, Vane. I swear didn't mean to get us killed like this. "

  Vane Kattalakis ground his teeth as he fell back from trying to pull himself up. His arms ached from the strain of lifting two hundred pounds of lean muscle up by nothing more than the bones of his wrists. Every time he got close to raising his body up to the limb over his head, his brother started talking, which broke his concentration and caused him to fall back into his hanging position.

  He took a deep breath, trying to ignore the severe pain of his wrists. "Don't worry, Fang. I'll get us out of this. "


  He hoped.

  Fang didn't hear him. Instead he continued to apologize for causing their deaths. Vane strained again against the sharpened cord that held his hands tied together above his head, secured to a thin limb, as he hung precariously from an ancient cypress tree over some of the darkest, nastiest-looking swamp water he'd ever seen. He didn't know what was worse, the thought of losing his hands, his life, or falling into that disgusting gator-infested slime hole.

  Honestly, though, he'd rather be dead than touch that stank. Even in the darkness of the Louisiana bayou, he could tell just how putrid and revolting it was.

  There was something seriously wrong with anyone who wanted to live out here in this swamp. At last he had confirmation that Talon of the Morrigantes was a first-rank idiot.

  His brother, Fang, was tied to an equally thin limb on the opposite side of the tree where they dangled eerily amid swamp gas, snakes, insects, and gators.

  With every movement Vane made, the cord cut into the flesh of his wrists. If he didn't get them freed soon, that cord would cut all the way through his tendons and bones, and sever his hands completely.

  This was the timoria, the punishment, that they were both receiving for the fact that Vane had protected Talon's woman. Because Vane had dared to help the Dark-Hunters, the soulless Daimons who were at war with the Dark-Hunters had attacked Vane's Katagaria wolf pack and slaughtered his beloved sister.

  Katagaria were animals who could take human form and they followed one basic law of nature: kill or be killed. If anyone or anything threatened the pack's safety, it was put down.

  So Vane, who had caused the Daimon attack, had been sentenced to being beaten and left for dead in the swamp. Fang was with him only because their father had hated both of them since the hour they had been birthed and had feared them since the day their preternatural powers had been unlocked by their pubescent hormones.

  More than that, their father hated them for what their mother had done to him.

  This had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for their father to be rid of them both without the pack turning on him for the death sentence.

  Their father had seized it gleefully.

  It would be the last mistake his father ever made.

  At least it would be if Vane could get their asses out of this damned swamp without being eaten.

  Both of them were in human form and trapped by the thin, silver metriazo collars they wore around their necks that sent tiny ionic impulses into their bodies.

  The collars kept them in human form. Something their enemies thought would make them weaker.

  In Fang's case that was true.

  In Vane's it wasn't.

  Even so, the collar did dampen his ability to wield magic and manipulate the laws of nature. And that was seriously pissing him off.

  Like Fang, Vane was dressed only in a pair of bloodied jeans. His shirt had been ripped off for his beating and his boots taken just for spite. Of course, no one expected them to live. The collars couldn't be removed except by magicwhich neither of them could use so long as they wore themand even if by some miracle they did get down from the tree, there was already a large group of gators who could smell their blood. Gators who were just waiting for them to fall into the swamp and provide the gators with one tasty wolf meal.

  "Man," Fang said irritably. "Fury was right. You should never trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die. I should have listened to you. You told me Petra was a three-wolf humping bitch, but did I listen? No. And now look at us. I swear, if I get out of this, I'm going to kill her. "

  "Fang!" Vane snapped as his brother continued to rail while Vane tried to manage a few powers even through the painful electrical shocks of the collar. "Could you lay off the Blame Fest and let me concentrate here, otherwise we're going to be hanging from this damned tree for the rest of eternity. "

  "Well, not for eternity. I figure we only have about half an hour more before the cords cut through our wrists. Speaking of, my wrists really hurt. How about yours?" Fang paused while Vane took a deep breath and felt a tiny movement of the cord coming loose.

  He also heard the limb crack.

  His heart hammering, Vane looked down to see one massively large gator eyeballing him from the murky depths. Vane would have given anything to have three seconds of his powers to fry that greedy bugger.

  Fang didn't seem to notice either threat. "I swear I'm never going to tell you to bite my ass again. Next time you tell me something, I'm going to listen, especially if it concerns a female. "

  Vane growled. "Then could you start by listening to me when I tell you to shut up?"

  "I'm being quiet. I just hate being human. This sucks. How do you stand it?"



  Vane rolled his eyes. It was useless. Any time his brother was in human form, the only part of his body that got any exercise was his mouth. Why couldn't their pack have gagged Fang before they strung him up?

  "You know, if we were in wolf form, we could just gnaw our paws off. Of course if we were in wolf form, the cords wouldn't hold us, so"

  "Shut up," Vane snapped again.

  "Does the feeling ever come back into your hands after they get all numb like this? This doesn't happen when we're wolves. Does it happen a lot to humans?"

  Vane closed his eyes in disgust. So this was how his life would end. Not in some glorious battle against an enemy or his father. Not quietly in his sleep.

  No, the last sound he would hear would be Fang bitching.

  It figured.

  He leaned his head back so that he could see his brother through the darkness. "You know, Fang, let's cast blame for a minute. I am sick and tired of hanging here because of your damned big mouth that decided to tell your latest chew toy about how I guarded a Dark-Hunter's mate. Thanks so much for not knowing when to shut the hell up. "

  "Yeah, well, how was I to know Petra would run to Father and tell him you were with Sunshine and that that was why the Daimons attacked us? Two-faced bitch.

  Petra said she wanted to mate with me. "

  "They all want to mate with you, dickhead, it's the nature of our species. "

  "Fuck you!"

  Vane let out a relieved breath as Fang finally quieted down. His brother's anger should give him about a three-minute reprieve while Fang simmered as he searched for a more creative and articulate comeback.

  Lacing his fingers together, Vane lifted his legs up. More pain sliced through his arms as it cut deeper into his human flesh. He only prayed his bones held a little longer without severing.

  More blood ran down his forearms as he lifted his legs up toward the branch over his head.

  If he could just get them wrapped around He tapped the wood with his bare foot. The bark was cold and brittle as it scraped against the soft topside of his foot. He cupped his ankle around the wood.

  Just a little bit More.

  Fang snarled at him. "You are such an asshole"

  Well, so much for creativity.