I COLLAPSED THE MOMENT THE chains released my wrists from the overhanging branch and my knees hit hard on the dry, unforgiving soil. Hunched over, I took several deep, ragged breaths as the blood rushed back into my arms.
The heavy chains around my shoulder and chest slowly unraveled and I knew it was too late for my Ink . . . I felt the emptiness. The engraved tattoo was still there, but what lived within was dead. Starved. Broken. Trapped for days beneath the chains, unable to release from my body with my call. It was the first part of a Scar that died when close to death.
My brother, Holden, lightly touched my arm and I jerked away. “Wasp, let me—”
I held up my hand, while keeping my head down, eyes closed. “Don’t. Fuckin.’ Touch. Me.”
The image of her broken body tossed in the shallow grave like a rotten piece of meat kept repeating and cracked the fragile sane pieces I had left in me. I hadn’t been strong enough to fight them.
When my limbs were functional again, I crawled toward the spot they’d buried her and stared at the disturbed soil. My palms flat on the ground, pressed into the earth. Emotions hit me like bolts of lightning. She couldn’t be gone. I couldn’t have done this.
I snapped as a wild frenzy took hold and I curled my hands into the soil and started digging.
Tore at it and tiny granules shoved up under my fingernails.
It was desperation as my sanity crumbled into fragments of the man I used to be.
I had to find her.
Protect her. I hadn’t protected her.
The ice-cold wind clutched at my naked skin, but I barely noticed. I was numb to the elements after hanging by my wrists for what felt like weeks. The days had been the worst as the sun beat down on me, a carcass dangling in the heat.
Then the nights came and the relief from the sun didn’t last long. I shook so violently from the cold that the chains rattled constantly. But I’d suffer far worse if only I could get her back. Save her from them.
Faster. I had to dig faster.
They buried her here. I saw them. They had held my head up and forced me to watch as they tossed her limp lifeless body into the grave in front of me.
“Help me, damn it.” I meant to yell the words, but my throat was so dry from lack of water it came out a scratched muffled sound.
A hand came down on my shoulder and squeezed. “Wasp . . . Jasper.” The tone was barely audible, but being a Sounder, I could hear the snap of a twig or the flutter of a butterfly’s wings a mile away.
Blocking out sounds was crucial to learn as a child or the chaos would drive a Scar Sounder insane. My hearing was ordinary except when I focused and used my unique ability.
But the vampires made me so weak I couldn’t control the sounds. They hung me here, naked, fighting against the unbreakable chains, shouting until my throat was so inflamed it bled.
They knew I’d hear everything they did to her before they killed her.
They got off on hearing my screams. Her screams.
But when they brought her to me . . .
A sob caught in my throat and I dug harder. Faster. Soil flung into my face and I tasted the grit as some landed in my mouth.
I heard the voices of Holden and his best friend, Guise, along with a couple others, around me, but their words were muffled as my mind reeled into the darkness of what I was scared to find. It was descending, the reality trying to leak into my insanity of what I thought I could do—save her.
I did this.
She was mine to save and I’d been too late. I’d told them what they wanted too late and they killed her anyway. If I’d told them sooner maybe . . .
Unrelenting hands on my arms pulled me away. “No. Leave me the fuck alone.”
I wildly fought against them, the roar in my chest pure agony. I kicked and punched, not knowing who I was hitting or fighting anymore, just that they were keeping me from getting to her. I heard a loud grunt and the grip on my right arm loosened. I yanked free then swung around and punched the other person holding me.
My fist connected with his jaw and for a second after the impact, I hesitated as my vision cleared. Blood ran from the corner of his lip and it matched the tears that streaked his cheeks.
My brother stared at me like I was a ghost, eyes wide and filled with grief. I caused that. I put that look in his eyes.
“Jasper. She’s gone.”
“No! A Healer can bring her back.” I knew it was crazy, that somewhere in me my words didn’t make sense, but it was as if I was gasping for air and the only way to breathe was to bring her back.
“It’s too late. Jasper, look at me.”
I shook my head back and forth, the soil that clung to my hair pitched in every direction. “No, a Healer . . . a powerful one . . . Lillian . . . Lillian can bring her back.” I scrambled toward the grave, but my legs buckled and I landed on my side. “She was ten. She was only ten and I killed her.” The words ripped from my throat in a haunted voice I didn’t recognize.
I knew my brother and the Talde were watching, but they didn’t try to stop me this time as I dragged my broken body back to the grave and pulled at the soil again. I dug until the sun dropped and the moon rose. I couldn’t stop. I had to keep trying. But I was so weak I could barely move handfuls of soil.
I finally collapsed onto my back and stared up at the starlit sky. The moment I stopped digging—there was a loss of who I’d been. And maybe that was why I tried for so long to get to her because I sensed as soon as I gave up and let the truth in . . . I’d never be the same man.