“I absolutely love Feenix and want one myself.”
This is the story of how Evalle found Feenix …
“I hunt demons, not aliens,” Evalle Kincaid grumbled under her breath. She parked her GSX-R motorcycle in the heavy shadow of an abandoned gas station in...she had no idea what this rural area was called, only that it was an hour east of Atlanta. March apparently intended to go out like a lamb with a cool breeze in the mid-sixties. Stowing her riding gear that left her in a black T-shirt and jeans, she headed over to where four men waited inside the gutted building.
VIPER team, mostly Beladors.
Not a Men-in-Black agent among them.
So why send a VIPER team to investigate this particular crime? As a coalition that protected humans from supernatural predators, VIPER handled a lot of strange things, but cow killings?
That was so...Roswell.
She took every mission seriously, but seeing two particular men on this mission ramped up the significance: Tzader Burke, who was Maistir over all the North American Beladors, and, Vladimir Quinn, who oversaw the Belador investments.
They were two of the most dangerous men she’d ever met, and her closest friends. Much as she’d like to joke about looking for little green men, she was mentally prepared for something preternatural and deadly.
That actually raised her comfort level.
Also wearing black jeans, plus a matching long-sleeved Under-Armour shirt over a ripped body that was such a deep brown he was nearly invisible in the dark, Tzader paused in talking to the other three as Evalle walked up.
She was only a few minutes late and the traffic jam hadn’t been her fault, but she felt it necessary to explain. “I would have been here sooner, but--”
Reece “Casper” Jordan piped up. “We know, sunshine. You’re a fragile Alterant, too delicate to travel before sunset.”
Of the agents here tonight, Casper was the only non-Belador. The mouthy Texan had shared his body with the spirit of a thirteenth-century highland warrior ever since he’d been struck by lightning while in Scotland ten years ago. She’d heard stories about how he’d changed into a highland warrior during battle a few times, and at times the shift was accompanied by electrical or lightning flashes. Sweet.
“Got your delicate in my boot, Cowboy.” Evalle sent Casper a wry smile since he meant no malice. Yes, she was relegated to working only at night if she didn’t want to wear heavy protective gear due to her deadly reaction to the sun, the same reason her eyes were so sensitive to light. But as an Alterant--part Belador and part unknown--she had a few extra tricks even the other Beladors didn’t possess, such as natural night vision. She could see everyone here just fine in the tar-pit darkness.
In fact, the barely-there moonlight seemed bright to her.
Having traded his signature Stetson for combat headgear, Casper had a night-vision monocular that gave him a cyborg-ish look. He wore a tactical moly vest with shell holders and had a wicked-nice customized double-barrel Stoeger shotgun hanging from a shoulder sling.
The three Beladors present--Tzader, Quinn and Trey McCree—didn’t need monoculars. They’d utilize her exceptional vision once they all linked powers, turning them into a dangerous fighting unit. Of course, that ability came with a downside.
If one of them was killed while linked, they all died.
“Everyone just got here right before you, Evalle,” Tzader said, then moved straight into the mission. “Listen up, team. We don’t know what exactly we’ll encounter tonight, but our people in local law enforcement will keep humans away while we stake out the kill zone.”
“Are they sure these cow attacks aren’t some creepy high school or college prank?” Evalle asked. She couldn’t be the only one thinking that.
Tzader nodded at Quinn who took over, speaking in his cultured British accent. “I’ve reviewed everything law enforcement has on the investigation and met with the farmer whose livestock was mutilated. He has an electric fence with a sophisticated security monitoring system around the pasture where the cows were killed.”
“Damn, son,” Casper crowed. “What kind of cows that boy got?”
Quinn merely quirked an eyebrow at Casper’s use of “son.” He was normally dressed in a custom suit--one that would cost more than Casper’s new Dodge Ram truck parked nearby--for a corporate business meeting, or in one of his many tuxedos, to attend the social event of the season.
But underestimating Quinn as nothing more than a party boy would be akin to keeping a pet pit viper.
One mistake and you’re dead.
Tonight he’d donned a dark turtleneck and sleek pants, both probably made of some hi-tech material being tested for military use.
Quinn continued, “These are quite valuable animals. They are a genetically superior line of cattle the owner has spent a small fortune raising as breeding stock for new herds. He’s lost five cows in the last thirty hours and today he moved his herd indoors until someone figures out what is killing them. Our Belador contacts in law enforcement and animal control talked him into allowing them to substitute another group of cows as bait for tonight.”
Casper scrunched up one side of his face with a frown. “Usually takes more than losing a few head of cattle to get any serious agency attention.”
“True,” Quinn acknowledged. “This became high profile--and drew VIPER’s attention--because of the way the cows were killed and the evidence left around the attacks.”
Evalle sorted through what they knew so far and played devil’s advocate. “So what if this thing we’re hunting can tell the difference between that farmer’s prize stock and a plain old cow? What’s going to make this bait work?”
Tzader answered, “We’re hoping whatever is killing the cows will come back again out of habit, and it attacked only pregnant cows. We have a lot of those in this herd. Our plan is to catch this thing before it figures out the switch.”
She understood cows were grown for food, but anything that harmed an expectant mother was evil and needed to die in misery. “I say the minute something with teeth shows up, we kill it.”
“There’s the woman I want covering my six.” Casper chuckled.
The sigh that escaped Tzader said he wished she was joking, but he’d given her the dagger she carried--that had a death spell on the blade--as a gift, and knew she didn’t use it to peel potatoes. “We need to capture this thing, Evalle, to figure out what it is and where it came from. There were only a couple footprints with deep claw marks found around both cows that were attacked.”
“Foot prints as in feet, not paws or hooves?” Trey asked in a grumpy please-tell-me-you’re-kidding voice. Short brown hair stood up in all directions on his head, especially when he raked his fingers back and forth through it like he was doing now. Some men might claim that as a hairstyle, but with Trey it was pure bed-head. When you were built like a linebacker and supercharged with unusual powers, you could wear your hair any way you wanted.
Evalle grinned at Trey and teased, “Yeah, we’re after Bigfoot now. This just gets better all the time.”
“He’s right,” Tzader cut in.
“What?” she sputtered. “Like human feet with claws?”
Tzader nodded his bald head. “The feet and toes are human in shape. From the depth of the footprint and span of where the feet seemed to hit the ground in a stepping pattern we’ve estimated it’s size at over nine feet and weight somewhere around five-hundred pounds give or take some. The claws curving off the toes are three inches long and appear razor sharp.”
“That’d gut a buffalo,” Casper reasoned. “I’m guessing this thing is coming in from the sky with so few prints to go on.”
“That’s what we figure, too,” Tzader confirmed. “The bite marks on the bodies where the flesh was torn open were ten inches wide and indicate a double row of teeth that could rip through muscle and snap bones.”
Lovely. Evalle muttered, “Carnivorous Bigfoot with wings. And you want us to catch that before it eats something?”
She had no doubt that Tzader had heard her with his exceptional hearing, but he kept talking as if he hadn’t. “Here’s the plan.”
Tzader explained the layout of the pasture, which backed up to the woods behind the abandoned gas station, then added, “The new herd was fed a few hours ago, and recon says they’re bedded down near the end of the pasture where we’ll exit the woods. That’s where we should find them. Since no humans are involved, everyone is authorized to use their powers tonight, but we need this thing alive...unless the decision comes down to your life or a team member’s.”
Evalle would follow Tzader into any battle without question, but she didn’t get why they had to capture this thing. They destroyed demons and other dangerous dark creatures all the time, the point being to rid the world of supernatural predators.
Before she could ask, power surged into Evalle’s mind when Tzader addressed all the Beladors telepathically. It’s time to link with Evalle so we’ll all have night vision.
No reply was needed. Belador warriors followed the orders of a Maistir without question.
Evalle lowered her mental shields and energy surged into her, feeling like a blast of adrenaline from all the powers linked, but it settled down just as quickly. She looked over at Casper. “We’re linked and using my vision.”
He nodded, moving his fingers up to his monocular.
Trailing behind Tzader, Evalle entered the woods, having forgotten how noisy crickets and frogs could be outside the city. She kept her thoughts to herself while she climbed over a rusty wire fence and pushed her way through thick underbrush, rattling branches in the wake of Tzader’s quieter moves.
Something squawked and flapped, diving from somewhere above her.
Evalle swung her hands up, prepared to use her kinetic power against an attack, but Tzader shouted in her head, Don’t! Just a couple turkeys.
Close behind her, Casper muttered, “Never taking you hunting, that’s for sure.”
She released a stream of air that came out as a hiss of frustration and put her hands down. Back when she’d first been brought into the Beladors, she’d had survival training in a frigid climate. Her experience in southern rural settings had been minimal.
Catching up to Tzader, she asked him privately mind-to-mind, Hey, Z, what does VIPER expect to learn from taking this thing in alive?
He had to turn sideways and lift his arms to squeeze through an opening in a patch of blackberry bushes that snagged Evalle’s jeans when she passed through behind him.
Just another reason to stay out of the boondocks.
Put her in the middle of any metropolitan landscape and she was pure stealth, but right now she was making more noise than Quinn, Trey and Casper together.
Trey and Casper she could understand since they both had grown up in the country, but Quinn surprised her. She hadn’t expected him to be so fluid and silent out here.
Tzader finally answered her. One of the people I know up the food chain in the government has reason to believe that someone has been doing secret testing on strange animals in a private facility. This attack fits their intel. They need to know if this creature is a result of someone’s experiments and where it came from.
You mean they think someone created this thing we’re after in a lab?
Considering that implication, something more significant struck her. She’d always been told never to expose her powers to a human. But I thought the humans and the government aren’t supposed to know we exist.
You know we have Beladors in national security positions...this is coming down from those offices. The concern in his voice said there was more at stake than a few cows.
What do you mean, Z? They think this thing could cause a national disaster or something?
Worse than that. One reason VIPER was formed was out of concern over preternatural creatures being used in terrorist operations. Our people in Washington need a definitive answer that someone is or is not developing creatures like the one we’re hunting, and if so, why? Plus, they need to know quickly, because the president is making a campaign stop here this week. That’s why we can’t just kill this thing and risk another one popping up unexpectedly.
She wanted to ask more questions but they’d reached a fence that looked like the normal white-board, three-slat fencing in rural areas until she stepped up close. A laser beam ran between support posts. On the inside of the fence, wires had been stretched through two-inch metal support tabs and power hummed from the wires. A warning had been stamped on the outside of each wood section that read: NO TRESPASSING: ELECTRIC CHARGE - DANGEROUS.
Tzader’s orders to the team filled her head. Trey, give Casper a hand so he can make it over the fence, then we’ll follow him on our own.
She turned around as Tzader gave Casper hand signals.
Casper had the ability to shift into a shadow that could attach to a surface or move like vapor, but sending him over the fence in his human form was more efficient right now.
Standing with his back to the fence, Trey wove his fingers together to make a step support for launching Casper. Leaning forward, he bent one knee to support his arms.
Casper nodded at him then took several long strides and stepped into Trey’s big hands. With the boost of Trey’s kinetics, Casper flew up and over the fence in an arc fifteen feet off the ground, flipping in the air and landing on his feet.
Grinning, of course.
Evalle and the other Beladors used their kinetic powers to take a high leap over the fence on their own, landing well inside a shorter electric “hot” wire fence meant to keep the cattle away from the higher-voltage rails. As she sailed across the barriers, the evening breeze was flush with the odor of cow manure and grass. Once inside the pasture, Tzader directed the team to move across the field to where a small herd of cows had bedded down for the night beneath the half moon. The cows chewed their cud and made soft mooing noises as the team approached.
Evalle had never had a pet and knew zero about farm animals, but as she got closer she saw a field of bellies obviously swollen with baby calves.
All the cows were pregnant?
She could not sit here and watch those animals attacked, but before she voiced her concern, Tzader gave a hand motion and communicated silently to the Beladors. Surround the pregnant cows. Stay at least fifty-to-seventy-five feet back.
As they created a perimeter, Evalle said to Tzader, We could use a tracker who can follow something preternatural. This would be a good time to have that tracker you keep telling Sen we need.
Sen acted as a liaison between VIPER agents and the ruling Tribunal body...when he wasn’t acting like an A-hole. But he saved the majority of his obnoxious personality traits to use on Evalle.
He considered Alterants a genetic blight on the rest of the world.
Sen could take his opinion and shove it where he kept his head most days.
Tzader cut off her wandering thoughts when he said, Sen claims he’s found a potential tracker who’s coming in soon. A Navajo shaman.
Evalle said, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Don’t know that it would matter in this case unless the shaman could follow something with wings.
Tzader had a point.
Evalle found a place to flatten close to the ground where she wouldn’t end up with her face in fresh cow poop. She was just getting settled when she caught a movement in the woods a hundred yards away on the opposite side of the cow she was nearest.
The way the men were positioned like hour marks in an oblong circle around the herd, she was the only one who might have noticed the movement.
She slowed her breathing to listen, but everything was quiet. Silent, in fact.
No chirping or croaking.
Should she say something to the others? No way. Not until she determined what she’d seen was more than just a turkey.
Bending her arms at the elbows, she slid them close to her body and pushed back on her knees, staying low, but prepared to move the minute anything tried to attack one of the cows.
She scanned the tree line filled with pine trees and old hardwoods. Wouldn’t something in search of a meal come out and maybe even circle one time to scope out his attack point?
If that was the case, the team should be able to intervene before--
All at once a huge black shape with wings burst from the top of a massive oak tree thirty yards beyond the men hunkered down between her and the tree.
Fifteen-feet of wingspan flapped in a mad rush toward the cows.
It’s coming! she yelled telepathically and shot up first, rushing to reach the cow closest to her in time to shield it.
Based on the angle the creature was heading down at a fast clip, it was going to overshoot most of the others and land near the edge of the herd.
On the cow closest to Evalle.
Just peachy. How lucky was she?
When moonlight brushed across the creature’s body, she could make out human arms and legs with fingers and toes sporting claws Satan would envy. Mangy-looking skin covered its body, a thin sheath over bone and muscle.
Everything happened in a matter of seconds.
The men had gone into motion at the same time as her, but none were going to reach the cow that creature wanted before Evalle.
Claws extended and curved into attack mode as the creature’s wings folded to land on top of its prey.
Evalle realized she wasn’t going to make it in time to cover the cow with a protective kinetic field of energy either. She took two long strides and lunged into the air at the creature. Just before they collided, she tossed a kinetic blast forward, hoping to knock the beast away.
Which sort of worked.
The creature was blown sideways, hitting the ground face down and sliding away from the cow that started mooing and kicking, scrambling to get up.
Evalle’s momentum took her over the cow and down in an angle that had her going straight for the creature. At least the blast of energy seemed to have stunned it...until Evalle landed on its back.
The thing heaved up off the ground, screeching and crying out, sounding almost like a human that had been hurt.
She reached around its neck with both arms to get a chokehold and gagged on the nasty odor she inhaled. The mottled skin smelled as if it was decaying, plus this thing had plowed through fresh cow patties.
When she felt the body lift up and the wings unfold, Evalle kicked her legs out to each side to stop it from flapping.
Tzader yelled in her head, Get off before it kills you! We can’t throw any power at it without risking you.
She could feel the fury raging through the half-human thing. Her own budding empathic abilities were a new discovery these past few weeks--one she hadn’t had a chance to explore--and they picked a fine time to manifest. If she let go, the creature would probably turn on her or one of the others. Tzader would be forced to kill it, defeating the whole point of this operation.
He’d never risk an agent’s life to capture this thing.
But allowing it to escape could have deadly consequences if the national security guys were right.
She was in the best position to stop it from flying and protect the team.
She told Tzader, I’ve got a good hold on it and I don’t think it can bite me. Give me a minute to see if it settles down and we might just catch it.
Sprigs of hair stuck off the deformed head that spun sideways trying to get at her. Yellow eyes glared at her--so human in shape they stole her ability to think, until the lipless mouth opened and a double row of pointed teeth snapped at her.
What the heck was this thing?
Tzader was foregoing telepathy for Casper’s sake, and was yelling orders for the Beladors to form a kinetic net above the creature. Trey, Tzader and Quinn would overlap an invisible covering to prevent it from flying off, but if the creature made a sudden move straight up it would crush Evalle between it and the solid layer of power they were holding overhead.
She kept her head out of biting range and felt relatively safe until its tongue came out and slapped at the skin on her arms. Instead of soft tongue flesh this felt like a flexible serrated blade that slashed her forearms.
It’s freakin’ tongue was a foot long and sharp enough to slice her throat, which seemed to be the creature’s intent, as it swiveled its head back and forth.
Evalle was so busy keeping out of range of that tongue she almost forgot about the kinetic net when the creature arched and bucked again, trying to get her off...then it shoved off the ground trying to get lift.
She yelled out loud, “Forget the net. Grab the wings. Now!”
The creature made a super-strong push straight up and flapped its wings half way, catching air. The movement forced her outstretched legs further apart, her thigh muscles screaming in pain.
She couldn’t see the men, but could feel them struggling to stop the wings by the way she was jerking from side to side.
Now was the time to jump if she wanted to dismount before it flew off with her.
The bottom fell out from under her.
She dropped then bounced against the creature when it--and she along with it--were jerked to the ground.
Tzader and Trey wrestled one of the wings down and climbed on it while Quinn and Casper struggled to get the other wing contained.
The creature’s muscles quivered with strain. It kept snapping its teeth and tossing its head back.
Tzader spoke between ragged breaths. “Quinn...can you do...anything?”
Quinn had a rare gift of being able to mind lock, which allowed him to maneuver inside a person’s brain and, if necessary, control or crush a mind.
Evalle had never seen him use that power on an animal, but was this thing animal, human, demon or what? It was making garbled distress noises, much like an insane person off their meds.
The extra second Quinn took to answer worried her when he said, “I’ll try.”
What if this creature could harm Quinn’s mind?
In the next few seconds, the body stopped jerking and kicking. No more insane noises. If it hadn’t still moved with each labored breath, Evalle would have thought it was dead.
Speaking softly, Quinn said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s not entirely human, but parts of that brain appear human.”
Trey asked, “What’d you do to shut it down?”
“I’ve taken control of its mind for the moment, but I can’t promise that will last long. I basically put it into a comatose state so I could search its memories for something that will explain its origins. I found images of a house, an antebellum looking place...and images of other creatures.”
“More creatures like this?” Trey asked, also breathing hard after the fight.
“Possibly, but there is a being there that this one actually fears.”
Evalle unwound her arms from its neck and sat up, grimacing at the ache of pulling her legs over its back as she dismounted. “That’s not promising. A house with other creatures. Good thing we caught it, eh, Z?”
When Tzader scowled at her she winked at him.
His worried voice came into her head. Next time, don’t take the place of the bait.
She shrugged. I couldn’t stand by and watch a mama cow and her baby get sacrificed.
Better them than you. Your arms are cut to hell.
I’ll live. Her wounds weren’t deep. Beladors healed faster than humans so her arms would probably heal in a few days. She used the edge of her shirt to wipe blood off her skin, telling Tzader, You were right. Sounds like someone is creating these things. We have to find that person.
He met her eyes and nodded before asking Quinn, “Any chance you can figure out where the house is located?”
Quinn pondered a moment, stopping long enough to quiet the creature again when it stirred. “I don’t think this thing comprehends words verbally or written so I don’t believe there’s information of that nature to retrieve.”
Casper had pulled off his headgear, scratched his head and put the gear back on. “The house must be where this thing lives, or lived if he escaped.”
“Probably,” Quinn agreed.
“If that’s the case,” Casper went on, thinking out loud. “Maybe he would go back there. Like a homing pigeon.”
Tzader interjected, “You want me to just turn this thing loose and hope it goes home?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Casper said. “Just trying to come up with an idea. Can’t sit on the damn thing all night long.”
Quinn stared off as if thinking through possible options, “That actually might work if I knew how to tell it to go home.”
Evalle took in what everyone had said and snapped her fingers. “Did you see other images, Quinn?”
“Maybe food, like the cows it killed?” Which was an icky visual to bring to mind.
“Yes, I did.”
“Can you flood this thing’s mind with images of the house then maybe add the suggestion that pregnant cows would be there, sort of like home is where the food is?”
Quinn thought for a moment, his collar-length blonde hair disheveled from the battle to ground this thing. “That might work, but I’m not sure how long it would hold in his mind once he flew away.”
Deep frown lines carved Tzader’s forehead while he thought on something. He asked Quinn, “Think you could hold control of its mind and keep feeding those home and food images if we followed it close enough while it flew?”
No hesitation when Quinn answered, “Yes. I feel certain I can hold the mind lock as long as I have it within sight.”
She hated to be the one to throw a logic bomb into their planning but Evalle pointed out, “One flaw with this plan, boys.”
“What’s that, sunshine?” Casper asked.
Ignoring his usual jab at her nocturnal lifestyle, she turned to Tzader. “How do we follow something that flies if I’m on a motorcycle and you all came in vehicles?”
Tzader flipped out his cell phone, punched in several keys then closed it. “Not a problem.”
“Why? Who’d you call?”
“Got a bird waiting in the next pasture.”
Tzader was wrong. A helicopter might be a huge problem.
Her palms got sweaty any time she faced being over twenty feet off the ground.
It was amazing what a person would do when confronted with peer pressure and humiliation.
Evalle gripped the edge of the leather seat in the back of the helicopter. She couldn’t appreciate the way the men had talked about how quiet an MD-902 could be.
She didn’t care about the noise level. Flying closer to the ground would have rated higher on her value scale.
One look at her face when they’d taken off and Tzader had asked silently, Are you afraid of flying?
She’d answered, I don’t know. Never done it.
When he’d paused then said he’d have the pilot let her off if she wanted, she’d refused. There was no time to bring in another agent and she wouldn’t abandon any team in the middle of an op.
She’d survived much worse.
But she doubted she’d have lasted much longer than the eighteen minutes and twelve seconds it took for the flying human-like creature to find home. Sweat had trickled down the back of her neck while the helicopter half flew, half hovered along behind the flapping creature, keeping just within visual sight for Quinn. Finally it glided down toward an antebellum house with a long driveway that tucked the mansion back from the road and casual observation.
She watched Quinn who sat in the co-pilot’s seat, holding her breath until he said, “This looks like the place I saw in its mind.”
Through sheer force of will, Evalle shoved the contents of her stomach back down her throat. She fumbled with her seatbelt, ready to get out the minute the chopper touched ground, asking, “Where are we?”
Tzader turned to answer her. “Close to Social Circle, east of where the cows were attacked. Trey’s downloading intel now.”
The VIPER pilot landed less than a quarter mile from the house and just outside the regal wrought iron fence surrounding what had to be ten acres of lush landscaping that gave way to miles of pecan orchard. Someone with deep pockets had purchased this isolated residence.
Evalle jumped down into the wash from the props that were slowing and ducked her head along with the others as they moved away from the helicopter. Holding hair off her face, she took a deep breath of fresh air and commented, “Doesn’t look like the home of a mad scientist, does it?”
Trey had exited the chopper with his smart phone in hand. “Might not be. You’re not going to like this, Z.”
Tzader stepped closer. “What’s wrong?”
“This property is listed under the name of Wenton, Beaker and Associates, Sar Bendelen’s personal legal counsel.” Trey lifted his gaze from his smart phone.
Tzader sounded tired when he said, “So this could be one of Bendelen’s properties.”
Evalle kept up with the news as much as she could with her erratic schedule, but she couldn’t place this name. “Who’s he?”
Leave it to Quinn to know a person insulated by a legal fortress. “Highly respected trauma reconstruction specialist who has donated a billion dollars over the years to programs for burned children. He’s a recluse. Rumored to be the only surviving member of a fire that destroyed his family, but little is known about him personally. Only that he inherited a fortune as a child and grew up in Poland.”
Shaking his head, Trey offered, “That thing might have flown to this place the first time on its way to the cows. We may have just sent a predator to this guy’s house.”
Besides the fact that Evalle didn’t like doctors, donating money to good causes did not mean this man hadn’t created a flying monster. “Maybe this doctor’s been experimenting with genetics.”
“Genetics?” Casper echoed. “That thing we just followed here wasn’t made purely from genetics. Someone with preternatural ability created it.”
Tzader cut off all conversation. “Regardless, we have to go in fast in case Trey’s right and that doctor’s in danger.”
After determining there were no dogs or security cameras--which in itself looked suspicious to Evalle--Casper changed into a shadow. She didn’t know how he altered his molecules, but watching him shift into vapor-like mist was a thing to behold.
She’d like to ask him how that felt when they weren’t busy hunting something deadly.
Casper slid between the vertical black fence rails then shifted back to solid form.
She used her kinetics to scale the ten-foot-tall fence and dropped silently next to Casper, as did the other three.
When they reached the house, Tzader sent Trey and Quinn to scout all the sides and told Casper to go up the mountain of steps to the veranda and find out how to get inside without triggering alarms. By the time Trey and Quinn returned to report nothing unusual about the house and no sign of anyone inside, Casper had shadowed his way under the door and merely turned the deadbolt to open the front door for the team.
No alarm. Even more suspicious.
Evalle strode in with the men, not surprised to see antique tables and flowers in the foyer that reminded her of homes from the movie Gone With The Wind.
And still she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was not right.
Tzader had them fan out and search the house. Every room was more beautiful than the next, adorned with deep maroon-and-gold brocade drapes on tall windows and furnished with elegant eighteenth century heirlooms. Evalle felt guilty walking across the thick rugs in boots that had been through a cow pasture.
What had the hairs on her neck on end, and was sending warning signals to her brain? Was her empathic side getting more sensitive or was there an unfriendly spirit in this old mansion?
She’d just reached the large parlor with twelve-foot ceilings where the team hovered around Casper. He’d found a computer and was tapping on the keys when she stepped through the doorway and the room started changing.
Sheets of metal slid from hidden spaces in the walls, snapping into position to create an interior metal shield around the room.
“What the hell?” Casper stopped typing.
Tzader ordered, “Battle positions.”
All five moved into a circle, shoulder to shoulder, facing out, hands on their weapons.
Since Trey was the strongest telepathic of this team, Evalle spoke to him mind-to-mind. Can you call in back up?
No. I just tried reaching out telepathically and I got smacked in the head. Something is blocking me and I doubt it’s the metal.
That sucked big time. But it appeared they could at least speak to each other inside here, for whatever good that would do.
One of the metal panels opened to expose the center of the house...and the creature that had led them here.
Or was it?
No, this one was bigger and had a misshapen head, but the same yellow human-looking eyes, arms and legs. Thick hair covered this one from the neck down and it had no wings, but did have claws on its feet. Each hand had three stubby fingers on the top with three opposing ones below, where a human thumb would be, and two-inch spikes on each finger, forming a mouth-like shape full of claw “teeth.”
When it charged forward, Casper yelled, “We’re killing these, right, Tzader?”
Casper lifted his customized double-barrel shotgun and blasted the creature dead center. This thing must have thicker skin than the one they caught in the pasture because the blast didn’t faze the creature.
The next shot hit the creature in his eye, which exploded and blasted part of its head away, but that still didn’t stop it.
Evalle could see through the opening in the wall to where steps went down to a long hallway with doors.
One of the doors opened and another creature came out, turning toward them, too. Evalle stomped her boots to release hidden blades and flipped her dagger from its sheath.
Tzader ordered, “Trey and I’ll put up a field of energy. The rest of you cover us.” They threw up a massive kinetic wall to halt the first creature’s attack, but the minute they did, energy bounced through the room, ricocheting against the walls and ceiling. Sparks of heat struck Evalle in the back and across her shoulder.
Grunts of pain indicated she hadn’t been the only one hit before the men dropped the energy field.
Even the creature paused, throwing its hands up in defense.
Crud, their kinetics were back-lashing in here.
“Are we linking?” she asked.
Tzader didn’t hesitate to say, “No. Too dangerous with no kinetics and no idea what we’re up against.”
The first creature headed for them again.
Tzader pulled out his sentient blades and sent one flying at the creature’s throat. The thing tried to bat the blade aside but the blade split down its length and turned into two razor sharp pieces that cut like scissors, lopping off fingers.
The creature screamed and fisted its hands, sending the blade flying across the room without touching it.
“Damn thing has kinetic powers that actually work in here,” Casper yelled.
Evalle searched the ceiling and corners for any sign of a possible beam of power that was affecting the VIPER agents, but there was no laser unit or camera or evidence of any high-tech equipment in use.
The second creature entered, snarling and screeching...with a third hand growing out of its chest. Eww.
Quinn swung silver three-sided discs shaped as razor-sharp Belador Triquetras and struck the second creature in the head with both, but it kept coming.
How thick were their skulls? She shouted at Quinn, “Can you get inside their heads?”
“Trying to. Keep getting shoved out. All I can see is rage and the need to kill.”
Evalle fought off the second one with her death-spelled dagger, which would kill a demon if she struck it between the eyes. But these things didn’t appear to be demons. She kicked her feet, cutting a deep gash in the monster’s leg. “You can’t explode its brain?”
Quinn sent another series of blades spinning at the creatures, but the discs skipped away as though blocked by kinetics. “Can’t stay inside long enough to gain control. I’ll try zapping them in short bursts. Might slow them up.”
Tzader called out, “Evalle. Casper. Get ready. Quinn, Trey and I will draw them to the side. You get past. Find who’s controlling this and stop him.”
“Got it.” The minute the fight shifted to Tzader’s side of the room, Evalle and Casper rushed behind the creatures into the hallway lit with yellow security beams.
The minute they stepped into the hall, the metal panel access to the parlor slammed shut.
Evalle mentally echoed Casper’s sentiments. She signaled to him that she would go ahead and he nodded that he’d cover her back. They had to find the operation center, but rushing through here could get both of them killed, which would not help Tzader, Quinn and Trey.
She moved quietly down eight steps and into a chilly six-foot-wide hall with sallow lighting. The place had a sterile feel with concrete walls and steel doors, but it smelled like a septic tank that had been backed up for months. She had to run a close second in the stink department with cow manure smeared on her shirt and pants.
A series of rooms ran along both sides of the hallway with over-sized doors of thick steel. Each had a small square observation opening protected with sturdy vertical bars, but no doorknobs or keyholes. Her gaze traveled down to the dry-erase panels beside each door.
The first one she reached had a handwritten note: Level Three.
Leaning close, she peered through the bars of the observation window to see what was inside the dark room.
Another part-human-looking creature lay curled on the filthy floor, which was ankle deep with what had to be its own excrement, sleeping from what she could see.
No wonder the place was rank.
Who could have created these things? A witch or a mage?
At the next room, she eased up to the observation window and looked into the black hole, not seeing anything until a face slammed the bars.
She jumped back. A tongue slapped at her through the bars, then yellow eyes glowed out of the darkness. When she got out of here, she’d have nightmares about those eyes.
Continuing on, she found something similar in most of the rooms, with notes of Level One, Two or Three beside the doors. All except for two empty rooms where the notes read, “Failed Kill Test – Approved for food.”
She stood in front of the second empty room. That notation had to mean the critter inside had been used as a meal for the others.
What sick bastard was doing this?
Dismissing the cell as vacant, Evalle stepped forward toward the next doorway. Then she heard a gurgling noise from the empty room.
She leaned back. Even with her exceptional vision, she had to squint at the unnatural darkness in the cell until she could make out the shape of a small creature in the far corner. Maybe two feet tall, with bat-like wings that were tucked protectively around its short, fat body. It’s head was bent down. When the thing lifted its head and looked at her, it had orange eyes and smoke curling from its snout.
The glowing orange eyes were...sad.
She tried to tell herself it was an evil creation, maybe even a demon with those two little horns sticking up out of its head, but the decidedly non-human eyes staring at her blinked once and widened a little in curiosity...or want.
Her heart did a weird flip.
Casper touched her shoulder, letting her know he was ready for her to move. She continued on, feeling sick over that last little creature. It reminded her of how she’d hidden in the corner of a dark basement every day of her childhood until she’d escaped at eighteen.
Humans feared monsters.
But the monsters in her life had been humans.
At the end of the passageway they dropped down another twelve steps to where she found a door with an actual doorknob.
Casper leaned close to her ear and whispered, “I can get under the bottom.”
She kept her voice soft, too. “But I can’t cover you from this side if you aren’t able to open the door.”
“You hear that music?”
Listening, she said, “That atonal noise?”
“Guess whoever’s in there likes heavy metal from the 90s. I might get in unnoticed.”
She still didn’t like the idea of letting him go in without backup.
The scream of a human--being tortured--on the other side of the door was all she needed to wrench the doorknob that was...not locked.
They both rushed in, then stopped just inside the door. The room was two stories tall, and the first thing that hit Evalle was the sharp antiseptic smell. This was a lab. Refrigerated units stood against one wall. Microscopes and assorted bottles of fluid and test tubes sat on laminate counters.
But that’s where the image distorted.
Music blaring from a stereo system in the shelves on her left had been cranked to bleed-your-ears level.
Mixed in with the antiseptic taint was the stinky body odor and cow manure smell of the creature she’d fought in the pasture, and the sickening smell of blood. In the next few seconds, she scanned the room for any additional threats and possible exits.
The flying creature they’d followed in the helicopter had been chained on the far side of the room to the foundation of metal steps that led upward to a landing and another door.
A man with a bald spot in the crown of his bark-brown hair and wearing a white lab coat, stood facing the creature whose mottled skin had been flayed open.
So there was a human in this house of horrors.
The man swung a cat o’ nine tails whip, striking the creature and shouting, “You were Level Three! Level threee!”
The creature screamed in pain. Then it sobbed.
Really, it sounded like a human bawling.
Evalle reached over to the white cabinet and turned off the music then ordered, “Stop. Right. Now.”
The crazy lab guy turned around, clearly surprised that someone had entered his domain unscathed. “How’d you get past my guardians to this point?”
“Is that really important right now?” she asked. “Who are you?”
He ignored her question, staring at her with an expression of disbelief. He put two fingers to his temple as though sensing something, then shook his head. “The guardians are still alive...I don’t understand.”
That meant he had some sort of telepathic connection to the creatures fighting in the parlor. So what was this guy? There was nothing remarkable about him. He had bland skin, a basic nose, short hair and wire-framed glasses over gray eyes. But those gray eyes lacked any humanity. They were cold and flat.
Casper told Evalle, “Looks just like the photo Trey had on his phone. He’s Sar Bendelen.”
Evalle had the urge to point out that she’d been willing to suspect a doctor of evil, but admitted it wasn’t fair to all the decent ones who helped people. “Call off your monsters, Sar.”
Sar’s eyes went from surprised to perfectly calm. “Or what? I’m someone you’ll regret having crossed.”
She couldn’t believe this guy was acting as though the police had entered his home uninvited. “The longer you allow your guardians, as you call them, to battle our agents, the better chance you have of answering for this with your life.”
“Me? I’m not bothering a soul out here on private property,” Sar emphasized. “And you come busting in. I’m within my rights to protect my home.”
“Not with those nine-foot tall--” She pointed at the thing whimpering. “Monsters or whatever that is you’re creating.” How powerful was this Sar? Tact wasn’t her first language, but it had to work better than making threats she wasn’t sure she and Casper could back up. “Call off the ones in your parlor and we’ll talk.”
Sar appeared thoughtful then his eyebrows jumped with amusement again. “I don’t think so.”
If she knew what she was up against, she’d hit this guy with a kinetic blast that would pin him to the wall while she found a way to get Tzader, Quinn and Trey away from those guardian creatures. But after what had happened in the parlor with Tzader’s kinetics, she couldn’t attack without putting Casper, and possibly the rest of the team, in more danger.
Casper exchanged a look with her that said until they knew what they were up against he didn’t have an idea of how to overpower this guy either.
Evalle asked Sar, “Are you a witch or something?”
Sar looked insulted. “Do you really think a mere witch could do this?” He gestured at the creature moaning behind him. “But you have piqued my curiosity. Now I want to know what you are. Your visit is timely. I’m at the point where I need to test my guardians against preternaturals. We’ll see how you fair one at a time against two of my best specimens in my basement training pit.”
This was like playing a game of chess without knowing which piece was the queen. Evalle had met some seriously strange people since accepting her destiny as a Belador warrior, but most of them had enough survival instinct to recognize her and Casper as a potential threat.
Sar didn’t. If anything, he appeared pleased.
And if he wanted an example of her powers all he had to do was try to lock her in any basement. Key word being try.
Thinking out loud, Casper said, “He’s got to be a wizard or a--”
“Oh, please. I’m a sorcerer,” Sar corrected as though Casper had denigrated him. “A Dalfour,” he added as if he’d just admitted being of royal descent. As if that hadn’t been enough to impress them, he spread his arms wide and bragged, “The only one left and the only one who could have accomplished all this.”
Dalfour meant nothing to Evalle, but her empathic senses picked up what she’d been missing. This guy had been too calm. If he was a sorcerer, why hadn’t he tried to attack them? She’d assumed it was because he was sizing her and Casper up to determine how big a threat they were.
But now she realized Sar didn’t see either of them as a threat at all...because he was certifiably insane.
In Sar’s private universe he was the most powerful being. Which he might actually be, especially when you added the element of insanity to a powerful sorcerer. That combination totaled up to one unpredictable badass.
He was enjoying himself right now, but what would happen the minute he stopped having a good time?
Could he just zap them out of here and into a basement pit with two of these creatures?
She gave Casper a small hand signal to keep this guy talking to give her a chance to look for controls that might open the metal panels in the parlor. If she found those, she might be able to use her kinetics to turn a lever or flip a switch that would open the shielding and allow the Beladors to escape. There was only so long the three of them could hold out against those guardians and Sar might release more.
Evidently Casper was up on his sorcerer history when he prodded the crazy doctor by saying, “Thought the Dalfour family died off a century ago. Weak genetics. Some sickness, right?”
“No illness would have ever harmed us!” Sar said, clearly put out. “We were attacked by Svart Trolls who were supposed to deliver my father to a Noirre witch who wanted my family’s secrets. But the trolls killed him in a battle and burned our house to the ground, claiming my father burned his family rather than go with them.”
There wasn’t a place in the room that even remotely resembled a control panel to Evalle.
Casper caught the small shake of her head as Sar said, “Much as I’ve enjoyed having guests, it’s time to feed my guardians. I just have to decide who gets the woman. They like females.”
Evalle curled her fists, preparing for battle when Casper asked Sar, “So how is it everyone else died and you lived? I’m having a hard time believing you escaped Svart Trolls--the most dangerous black ops mercenary trolls in existence--on your own. Death is their only acceptable reason for failure.”
Sar puffed up his scrawny chest, all pompous now in spite of his drawn out sigh. “My parents hid me, my sister and brother, which saved us from the attack, but I inherited my father’s skills and managed to escape. It was fortunate that I was the sole surviving Dalfour, as I have proven to be the most gifted and carry on our legacy of making the impossible a reality. Creating new and powerful races who serve only me.”
If Evalle couldn’t find a way to open the shields in the parlor, she needed to know how to stop the monsters. Taking her lead from Casper, she played to Sar’s ego. “Your guardians are impressive. How’d you make them and why?”
“As if I’m going to tell you any of my secrets? Why? To protect me when I make that Noirre coven pay for what they did to my family. They’ll never get through my guardians...once I figure out how you got past them. Time to put you in the pit.” Sar lifted his hands and Evalle searched for anything to say to stop him.
“If you can control them.”
That made Sar pause. He put his hands down and said, “Of course I can.”
“How do you communicate orders to them?”
Sar smiled, not as easily tricked as she would have liked.
This was going nowhere.
Maybe if she took Sar hostage and dragged him back to the parlor she could force him to bring his monsters under control. That might have a snowball’s chance in hell of working if she was facing a demon, but had her doubts about forcing a sorcerer to do anything.
Casper nodded at the bloody creature now lunging at Sar, bouncing off the end of its chain, with hate in its creepy human eyes and pointed out, “Your training doesn’t seem to be working.”
Sar seemed oblivious to the way his guardian was trying to reach him, focused completely on him with deadly intent. “Everything takes time and you’re imposing on mine. I’ll say goodbye now.”
He was a ballsy bastard. Still grabbing at any way to stall him, she asked, “Think telling us goodbye is going to work? VIPER has an attack team closing in on this place.”
“What’s VIPER?” The first sign of worry crossed Sar’s face.
He really was a recluse to not know about VIPER.
“VIPER is an army of people like us, some who are even more powerful,” Evalle said, wishing her threat about a team on the way hadn’t been a bluff.
Tzader came into her head. What have you got, Evalle?
We found Sar and he made these creatures, but he’s an insane Dalfour sorcerer.
A Dalfour? Ah, hell. Quinn’s hitting the minds of these things in short blasts but we’re losing ground and Trey’s hurt. I told our pilot to call for back up if we weren’t out of here in twenty minutes. He should be calling now but the closest team is fifteen minutes away. You can’t wait. Dalfours were serious head cases. Get out of there now!
Not without Tzader, Quinn and Trey.
Seeing the first crack in Sar’s confidence, Evalle tried once again to reason with Sar. “You’re out of moves, Sar. Call off your monsters and let’s talk before VIPER gets here.”
“I don’t think so. I have a better idea.” As if directing a command, Sar pointed a finger at the counter between them. A panel slid aside and the control center Evalle had been looking for appeared, complete with a monitor showing a video of the fight in the parlor. “I’ll send all my guardians to the parlor and if your people win, I’ll go quietly with you. If my guardians win, you get a chance to fight them. But I should mention that I keep my pets hungry.”
Well, crud. He was calling her and Casper’s bluff and putting them on the spot to prove they could stop him.
When Sar moved his hand to touch the button, Evalle threw a blast of kinetic energy at the panel, preventing his hand from reaching it.
No backlash from the kinetics down here. Excellent. It must have been the metal panels in the parlor. A high-tech alloy maybe.
Sar looked surprised, and amused, then whipped his hands back and forth, sending dark blue bottles of liquid off the counter and flying at Evalle and Casper.
She used her free hand to throw up a shield of energy. The liquid splashed against her shield, sizzling like acid as it slid down.
The sorcerer pointed at Casper and the cowboy lifted off the ground then flew backwards. Casper roared in mid-air and flickered with the image of his highland warrior counterpart. Lightning sparked off his body. When he hit a tall cabinet filled with more blue bottles of liquid, the electrical energy shooting off his spirit image struck the cabinet and it exploded into a ball of fire.
Casper shifted into a shadow as fire from the cabinet climbed the wall of the lab.
Sar froze, staring at the flames, terror overshadowing the crazy haze in his eyes. If the bastard’s story about his family and their deaths was true, fire had to be his worst fear.
Evalle didn’t waste her opportunity to reach that panel. She had to release the kinetic energy she was using to shield the control panel from Sar to redirect her power.
His shocked gaze cleared a second too soon.
Just as she threw a kinetic hit of energy to shove him back from the controls, Sar slapped the silver button, laughing.
But lost his smile when he flew backwards into the arms of his chained guardian.
The creature grabbed the sorcerer in its curled claws and bit off the top half of Sar’s head.
His eyes remained wide open with horror.
Casper had resumed human form and slammed the heavy steel door to the hallway shut, then threw the deadbolt. Good thing, since two seconds later the creatures Sar had released from their cells screamed and pounded on the door to the lab. They were either hungry, as he’d said, or they wanted their own bite of Sar. She couldn’t blame them.
Evalle hoped those things couldn’t reach Tzader, Quinn and Trey, but she and Casper had only one way out now.
Smoke filled the room and burned her eyes.
Casper appeared next to her, weapons in hand. “Can you open the shields on the parlor?”
“I can’t find anything marked on this panel. I’m afraid I’ll send those things to the parlor.” She choked on her next smoke-filled breath and started coughing.
“Sure as hell can’t escape through that hallway. Let’s go upstairs and find a way out then we’ll figure out how to help Tzader and the others.”
These half-human creatures would be burned alive.
She had a moment of regret over the little orange-eyed guy with the bat wings, but she had a team to save. Besides, that little creature might be just as dangerous as the rest of these. Though some voice deep inside her argued that everything deserved a chance.
Using her power to form a shield between the two of them and the chained monster, she and Casper rushed up two flights of stairs to the door on the top level. Fire nipped at their heels and sucked the oxygen from the room. At the upstairs door, Evalle rushed inside a room with a wall of monitors. Smoke clouded the images, but she could make out the hallway between the parlor and the lab. She got a glimpse of Sar’s creatures attacking one another just before the picture turned completely gray. Images on the monitors fuzzed and one by one they went blank. Was the fire racing through the building, destroying wires?
Searching the room, she found a wall plate with a series of numbered buttons marked House Shields.
Casper said, “How the hell do we make sense of that without knowing which rooms the numbers correspond to?”
“We can’t. I need to warn Tzader.” Evalle lifted her hand, letting Casper know she was reaching out telepathically.
She said, We’re out of the lab and it’s on fire. Can Trey run?
Tzader answered, Yes. He’s got a shoulder wound.
Get ready to run the minute I start pushing buttons to release metal shields, because all the creatures are loose. I have no way to make sure I don’t let them into the parlor.
She started flipping buttons.
The floor beneath her rocked with an explosion.
Casper grabbed her arm. “Got to go or we’ll be fried.”
She flipped the last lever and raced out behind Casper through several doors until they found an outside terrace thirty feet off the ground.
Evalle turned to Casper. “Can you get down as a shadow?”
“Sure, but what about you? That’s a helluva drop.”
“Just go. I’ll get down.”
She ignored the wave of nausea she always felt from being that far off the ground.
Once Casper disappeared, she climbed up on the ledge and jumped, landing with her hands out, ready for attack.
Casper appeared next to her. “Come on, sunshine.”
Tzader yelled in her head, We’re out.
Evalle had started running toward the front of the house and almost stumbled with relief. Great. We are too. You’ve got to stop those monsters from getting loose. The two you faced weren’t the worst of Sar’s creatures.
We’re on it.
She and Casper raced around the corner of the house to find Tzader and Quinn on the front lawn using their kinetic powers to destroy the front of the manor as a last-resort attempt to stop the creatures advancing toward them. A truckload of bricks and beams crashed down on the howling monsters. Apparently with the sorcerer dead, and his magic gone from the house, the creatures became more vulnerable.
She hated seeing any living thing destroyed, except demons, but Sar’s creatures had been created for nothing but cold blooded murder.
Black smoke boiled out from the bottom of the house, leaking through breaks in the brick piles.
Fire was overtaking what remained of the old mansion.
Evalle ran up to Tzader as he and Quinn lowered their arms. She looked over at Trey who sat on the ground, holding his shoulder that was bleeding from where it had been gouged. But he gave her a nod that he was fine.
Quinn squatted down next to Trey, rubbing his head, but didn’t appear seriously harmed.
Tzader’s face showed the strain of what they’d been through. “What happened with Sar?”
Evalle told him everything, finishing with, “I don’t think there’s a threat to national security.”
“No, we dodged a bullet with this one.”
Their helicopter pilot called over to Tzader who walked toward the chopper that sat in perfect view now that a fifty foot section of the wrought iron fence had been flattened for access. Casper followed Tzader to where another helicopter full of VIPER agents was just touching down.
Relieved to see her team safe, Evalle turned to look at the beautiful old home, now a pile of ruins.
A movement at the bottom of the rubble caught her attention.
Something small crawled out through an opening where the base of the porch met the house. She started to point it out to the others, but they were physically spent and she could handle one of Sar’s creatures weakened by the fire and out here where she knew her kinetics worked just fine. Walking toward the house to determine what was trying to escape, she grimaced at the heat rolling off the burning pile.
Easing closer, she realized the little thing dragging itself away from the fire-engulfed structure had bat-like wings. The two-foot tall creature had survived?
She reminded herself that Sar’s goal had been to create dangerous killing machines, but when this creature raised terrified orange eyes to meet hers, her conscience argued that this one had been marked as a failure.
Intense heat baking her skin forced her to wait as the creature put his head down and kept crawling toward her.
When it was within a few feet, she squatted down, ready to react at any hint of danger, but all she felt coming off the little critter was fear. Her empathic flashes were stronger and more frequent when her emotions were stirred up, like right now.
Sometimes you had to trust your gut.
One of the men yelled, “Something’s escaping!”
That’s when the little creature looked up, eyes rounding in terror. It started shaking.
Footsteps pounded toward her from behind.
Evalle stood up and swung around, putting herself between the little creature and the VIPER agents.
One of the agents she didn’t recognize lifted his hands to attack but halted, face in shock when he saw Evalle obviously standing between him and the creature. He yelled, “Get that crazy Alterant out of the way!”
Evalle put her hands on her hips. “Touch this little guy and I’ll hurt you.”
The critter crawled into her peripheral vision and tucked up close to her legs, then did the most amazing thing.
He hooked his arm around her leg and looked up at her as if she was an angel there to save him.
She was no angel, but he was safe next to her.
Tzader came charging up with Quinn, but Tzader was the one who said, “Have you lost your mind? That...that gargoyle looking thing could kill you.”
It was a good description, really. He--if this critter was a he--did look like a gargoyle.
She could feel the poor thing against her leg, trembling hard as a leaf in a hurricane. Then he patted her leg, as if trying to convey that he was no threat. Crossing her arms, she shook her head. “He’s not going to hurt me.”
Quinn argued, “Based upon what evidence, considering the things we just fought in that place?”
“Just because the rest of them were killing machines doesn’t mean he is. His door had a notation that marked him as food because he failed a kill test. I don’t think Sar would have destroyed him if he had any hope of being dangerous.”
There was only one way to convince everyone not to kill this poor thing.
Taking a breath she hoped wouldn’t be her last considering the smoke that floated from his snout, Evalle reached down and hoisted the heavy little critter up into her arms.
Tzader and Quinn shouted, “Don’t!” at the same time and now stared at her as if she needed to be put in a straight jacket.
The gargoyle had tucked his wings around his body, but when she picked him up he lifted his head to watch her with worried eyes the whole time. He smelled sooty and stinky, but what could you expect from something that had been kept locked in a hole and climbed out of a fire? He’d clean up just fine.
She smiled at him, but her words were for Tzader and Quinn. “He just needs some TLC.”
That set off Quinn. “Oh, good Goddess, you have to be joking. It has probably never been out of a cage. You don’t know what it will do.”
At that moment, her little critter smiled, exposing two small fangs.
She knew in her heart she was right to protect him. “I had never been outside of a cage until I was eighteen, and the Beladors didn’t know what I would do when that druid brought me in.”
With one look at Quinn and Tzader’s faces, she knew they understood what she was saying. A lot of people would have destroyed her if they’d realized she was an Alterant from the beginning. “I’m keeping him.”
The pair of growling sighs that followed told her she’d won the battle.
She didn’t know if this little gargoyle creature could comprehend what she was saying, but he understood when someone would not hurt him and dropped his head down on her shoulder, making gurgle that sounded to her like happiness.
Tzader shifted around and waved off the team, then turned back to Evalle. “There’s no way the pilots will let you on the helicopter with that.”
“Great news, because there’s no way I’m climbing back on either one of those freaking machines.” She grinned as Quinn muttered something and flipped open his cellphone, no doubt calling a driver for her.
For once, she’d let Quinn spoil her with a driver and car because she had to get her new baby home in as calm and gentle a way as possible. She felt four fingers patting her shoulder, content. “We’re going to have to come up with a name for you little, guy. Something suitable for a phoenix that fought its way out of the flames of hell.”