A scream got stuck in my throat as Roth cursed.
Rising about three feet in the air, LUDs were like rats that walked on two legs. Their long snouts gaped wide, revealing mouths full of shark teeth. Beady red eyes gleamed in the shadows. Clawed hands outstretched as their tails smacked off the ground.
“Good God,” I whispered, backing up.
“This is about to get real ugly,” Roth said, all kinds of Captain Obvious.
A LUD sprang into the air, launching straight at Roth. He darted to the right and the furry creature smacked into the wall. It hit the floor, its little legs flopping and arms failing as it tried to get back on its feet.
Okay. Obviously they weren’t the smartest creatures, but what I didn’t understand was why they were attacking us. They were from Hell, and didn’t Hell want us to find the Lesser Key? And even if they were being controlled by the demon responsible, why would he want to stop us at this point? If he didn’t know what the incantation was, the information was in the Lesser Key. It didn’t make sense, but it wasn’t like I could press Pause and ask any questions.
Roth sent a LUD flying into the nearby wall with a sickening crunch. Another landed on his back. He bent over, tossing it back into a cluster of other LUDs. There were dozens of them, snapping at Roth’s legs and arms as he whirled around, kicking out. One ripped a jagged tear through his jeans.
There was no way we could fend them all off. Not with our backs to a dead end in the form of the heaviest door in the world. We were trapped.
My gaze swung to the torches.
Pushing away from the door, I ran over to the wall and stretched up, grabbing the slimy base of the torch. A smaller LUD grabbed hold of my leg, climbing up. Letting out a high-pitched shriek, I shook my leg until the damn thing lost its grip and fell onto its belly.
It sprung up and spun toward me, hissing like a cobra. I swung the torch around, wincing as the first of the flames licked the creature’s furry body. It was like holding a match to gasoline. Flames covered the LUD. The bitter smell of burnt hair rose swiftly.
The LUD let out a piglike squeal and ran in little circles until it slammed into the wall and fell to the floor, collapsing into reddish-tinted ashes.
Roth grabbed the LUD shooting toward his throat and slammed it into another one jumping into the air. They were swarming him, biting and grabbing ahold of his clothes with their claws. Two were on his back.
Rushing to his side, I held the torch back as I grabbed one of the furry freaks by the scruff of its neck and pulled it off. The thing wriggled and snapped at air. I threw it aside and caught the other one before it made it to his head. Tossing it to the floor, I shuddered and was in desperate need of some antibacterial solution and intense therapy.
Roth sent me a grateful smile as he grabbed the torch from me. “Thanks.”
Dipping down, he shoved the torch out. The flames jumped to the nearest LUD. Squealing, the LUD flailed and knocked into another. From there it was a chain reaction. They kept running into each other, spreading the flames like a virus.
He turned back to the door. “Hold this and keep them back while I try to get it open.”
“Got it.” I followed him to the door, keeping an eye on the squealing mass of furry bodies and ashes. My gaze shot to Roth, quickly checking him over for injuries. Blood dotted his white shirt. My stomach twisted. “You’re hurt.”
“I’ll be fine.” He grabbed the steel bar. Muscles in his back bunched as he lifted the bar. “Just keep those little bastards back.”
Swinging back, I grimaced. “I don’t think they’ll be a problem. They’re all dead.”
“Until more come.” He grunted as he got the bar out of the latch. “Jesus. What is this thing made of?”
I stepped back, giving him room as he dropped the bar on the floor. The impact resonated through the tunnel, cracking the floor. A moment later, the clicking sounds began again.
“Ugh,” I muttered.
“Come on.” Roth grabbed my free hand as he pulled the door open. A wave of frigid air blasted us as we stepped inside. Letting go, he slammed the door shut a second before bodies hit the other side of the door. “God, they just keep coming.”
Swallowing hard, I turned to see another freaking tunnel. At the end was another door. We rushed toward it, and I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting the LUDs to take down the door behind us. Roth lifted another massive steel bar and dropped it, causing me to jump when the sound pierced the tunnel. He ripped open the door.
Shadows swarmed out of the door. No—not shadows. Wings beat the air. Roth whirled and grabbed my arm. Startled, I dropped the torch as he pulled me into a small enclave, pressing me back against the wall with his body.
“Bats,” I whispered against his chest, gripping his sides.
He nodded. “Lots of bats.”
They squeaked and their wings flapped like a disturbing chorus that sent shivers down my spine. The sounds went on for what felt like forever, but eventually I became aware of something else. Roth’s body was pressed against mine so tightly I couldn’t tell where he ended and I began.
His hands dropped to my hips, fingers sliding up under the hem of my sweater. His thumb traced idle circles against my skin as the fluttering continued in the hall and picked up in my chest.
He made a sound deep in his throat. “Forget the Key. Let’s stay right where we are.”
“You’re so bad,” I said.
His deep chuckle rumbled through me. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
I tilted my head up and his mouth landed on mine. I wasn’t prepared for the intensity in the kiss, but I quickly caught up. My lips parted as the piercing slipped inside, dragging across my lower lip. A strangled, needful sound rose up to break the silence.
Roth lifted his head, breathing deeply. The hall had quieted. When he stepped back, I willed my heart to slow and followed him out of the alcove. It took a few seconds to form words. “Where did the bats go?”
Roth lifted his chin. “My guess is they went through the crack in the ceiling.” Picking up the forgotten torch, he moved toward the open door.
I followed him through the opening. It was a small, circular chamber dimly lit by torches. Toward the back of the chamber was an archway leading to another tunnel. Roth held his torch close to the wall, casting light on strange carvings etched into the cement.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The old language,” he said, moving the torch farther along.
“Latin?” The words covered the entire chamber, from ceiling to the floor.
Roth snorted. “No. This predates Latin. The Key has to be here.” He turned to the center of the room and knelt. “What do we have here?”
I peered over his shoulder. A square about three feet wide in diameter was cut into the floor. In the center of the square were two handprints. Both roughly about the same size, and something about the prints reminded me of a Warden’s hands. The fingers were long and slender, palms wide.
Just like Roth’s hands in his true form.
Roth placed the torch on the floor and glanced up at me. “Put your hand in one of the prints.”
I got down on my knees beside him and watched him stretch out and place his hand in the one on the left. I thought about what the seer had said about a Warden and demon working together to hide the Key. I fitted my hand to the print. Mine was much smaller.
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