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 Chapter 1

County Kilkenny, Ireland

 

Dunmore Cave is too powerful for even you!

His mother’s words kept playing over and over in his mind. She would not be happy with him if she lived today. She had nicknamed him La Cuchilla, The Blade, because he had been her favorite child. Neither sibling had his gifts or understood that with great power comes great expectation.

For him, that expectation meant he would rise above all others who had come before him. By ten, he’d proven to be more deadly than the sharpest blade. His mother would whisper her special name for him when calling on the powers of her ancestors, who went back to days of the ancient kingdom of Ossory, now known as County Kilkenny in Ireland.

He used La Cuchilla as a code name these days, as none could link it to his face, but one day, once he rose to the level of the most powerful beings, that name would be known—and feared—by all.

To his core, he was La Cuchilla and no human man. He refused to fear any ethereal presence living inside this cave.

You promised, La Cuchilla!

His mother’s words hammered his conscience.

He’d sincerely meant the vow he’d given to her at ten years old when he promised to stay far away from this treacherous location.

Now, at thirty-four, he realized how naïve he’d been to utter those words. He hoped his mother would understand when they met again, because he’d been inside Dunmore cave for over an hour, waiting for staff to close the place to visitors.

That had happened ten minutes ago.

This wasn’t actually the area she’d warned him about, where all but one soldier of an army had met their end many generations ago. He waited in a part of the cave that had become a museum for humans to wander through and admire, clueless about what lurked deeper inside, behind thick walls.

Shrouded in darkness, he gathered himself for the task ahead as the staff cleaned up after another day of sightseers.

Today’s humans were curious of the past, but lacked the ability to truly appreciate stories they considered little more than myth. Most of these puny humans carried electronic devices while wandering through the cavern. No respect for those who died here.

Some came only to see if Dunmore Cave was truly haunted.

Wouldn’t you expect a place where a thousand women and children had been murdered to house a few spirits?

Allowing another minute to be sure all workers were gone, he moved quietly through security lighting, but he was invisible to any video monitoring. He’d learned how to cloak himself by the age of twelve. All three children of the famed Piri Barajas had inherited her gifts, but as the middle child he’d shown far greater ability than the other two.

He’d also worked harder than his brother and sister.

“You are special, La Cuchilla,” his mother would say.

It was true. Not ego so much as confidence.

Some might call him a warlock or sorcerer, but his mother had been the first to refer to him as a mage. He’d hidden his gift from others when necessary. His mother had taught him that showing off his gifts was to invite his death.

Moving quickly, he chose his path through the narrow walkways carefully. This place smelled too clean, too new for an ancient burial site. His mother’s voice continued to harp at him to turn back.

He had heeded her advice his whole life ... until now.

He had an opportunity to gain immortality.

That had to be worth the risk of entering the Cave Of The Damned, as it was called in hushed conversation by those in his mother’s secret coven.  

His heart hurt when he thought of how disappointed she would be, if she still lived, at him breaking his word. But she was long gone, as were his father and two siblings.

Of his two parents, his mother had possessed by far the greater power.

She’d carried the blood of the witch Seanmháthair Piritta, his Celtic, many-times-great-grandmother, who had lived during the time of the Viking raids on this land. Piritta’s village had been near this cave when the area was still known as Ossory.

Poor Piritta had been only fifteen when she arrived too late to save her child from dying with many others in here.

Piritta raced to the cave when she heard the Vikings were raiding her village. Another woman had been watching her baby while Piritta cooked. She and the other mothers had agreed that if danger came to their home and their men were outnumbered, they’d hide all the children in the defensible cavern.

With a severe downslope to the narrow entrance, the women believed they had the best chance at killing the heathens in small batches by using the cave mouth as a choke point.

In 928, hulking Vikings, both men and women, from Dublin had been on their way to attack the Vikings in Waterford. The Vikings of Ireland were not at all united back then. The bloodthirsty pagans lived for a brutal battle and to bludgeon all who were of no use to them, but they captured women and children as slaves.

Upon discovering where their future slaves hid, the Vikings decided to force the captives out of hiding by setting fires near the cave entrance.

Unfortunately, a thousand innocent women and children died of asphyxiation.

Coming upon the scene, Piritta lost her mind, screaming at the Vikings and racing out in the open to save her child.

As her captors dragged her away, she cursed them.

According to his mother, Seanmháthair Piritta eventually escaped the Vikings, married and had more children, then lived to well over a hundred.

But she never forgot her murdered child.

She spent a year perfecting a spell that pushed the King of England to slaughter young Dane males of fighting age. That campaign was now known as the St. Brice’s Day massacre, and those Danes would have been the next generation of Vikings.

The bad blood between Vikings and England lasted for over sixty years.

La Cuchilla chuckled to himself. Piritta knew how to dish out revenge.    

A bird caught inside the cave fluttered and chirped, pulling his attention up. He smiled, recalling how he’d studied many birds growing up, but his favorite would always be the Halcón Peregrine, a magnificent falcon. He’d been sad over his prized bird faltering with age until inspiration struck and he realized how his falcon would become even more valuable after death.

He’d possessed more than one peregrine falcon over the years, but the one he had now would become a truly exceptional creature if his mission today was successful.

Now was not the time to allow his thoughts to wander if he intended to survive, and he did.

In spite of archeological explorations of this cave, the spirits prevented anyone finding one particular pile of bones that lay beyond a tunnel which dwindled until it appeared to terminate.

He remembered every word his mother had shared about her ancestors. She’d passed them down only to her most powerful child, but even so, she had not told him everything. Some things he’d discovered on his own.

When he encountered a printed sign ordering him to go no farther, he slipped by and continued to the tunnel he’d waited his entire life to enter.

Deep inside, the narrow passage split off in two dark directions. Opening his hand, he whispered words and a flame appeared above his palm. Now he discerned that the arched ceiling of the left side had a dip in the center.

That was the marker.

His heart thumped loudly in his ears as he headed down the left vein. The deeper in he traveled, the lower the ceiling of the tunnel became until he was on his knees.

He kept placing his left hand against the short wall, beginning to worry when he continued to encounter no indication of an opening.

On the third try, his fingers tingled.

Taking a deep breath and swallowing hard, he killed the flame and closed his eyes, then spoke the words he’d found in his mother’s journal. She probably never expected him to translate the odd text passed down from one generation to the next.

Nothing happened.

Sweat beaded on his upper lip. He repeated the words two more times, then his fingers pushed through the wall as if it had turned into a cloud.

No going back now.

He twisted his body and wiggled his way through the ethereal opening. Energy sizzled across his skin.

Once everything stilled, he reached his arm outward. Was he on the other side of the wall?

His heart thumped so loudly the sound should be echoing in here. This place was darker than the souls of those Viking raiders.

As he stood, he called upon his majik. A glow grew around his feet and climbed toward his face, spreading slowly until the soft light reached the walls on each side of him. He glanced up to find a ceiling that soared two stories. As the light expanded and touched the upper walls farther back, he estimated this room stretched at least eighty feet.

The sound of something moving drew his eyes down to find a thin vine snaking slowly from the dark floor, which his light had failed to conquer.

Was something, or someone, blocking his majik?

The vine moved slowly toward him.

He smiled and kept his voice calm as he spoke. “I am a descendant of—“

A thicker vine shot out from behind him and wrapped his throat, choking him. He grabbed at it, fighting to pull away something with the strength of steel.

That’s when light rushed through the room and he finally saw the entire floor of skeletons covered in vines with glowing, red-orange flowers the size of his hands. The stalks had thorns as long as his fingers.

His chest heaved for a breath. He squeezed out, “I ... am ... blood kin.”

The neck vine would not let up.

Panicking, he clawed at the plant strangling him. He’d been told to never call up his majik here, but he had no choice. He had to break the living rope trying to kill him.

Squeezing out hoarse words, he fought to keep from passing out.

Smoke boiled around his face.

The killer neck vine hissed.

His eyes filled with tears and his chest wanted to explode.

The small plant at his feet lifted into view, stopping when it had grown much thicker and reached waist high. The stem divided into two offshoots.

A flower blossomed at the top of each one.

What did that mean?

Thorns sticking out just below the flower grew and extended six inches from the stem. The vine whipped back as if yanked away and came flying forward and down, hitting him square in each thigh.

He screamed in his head, because his tongue bulged in his mouth. Tears poured from his eyes.

Agony lashed up his legs and through his body.

Everything spun into blinding red haze. He could see nothing else though his eyes were open.

Then, all at once, the thorns retracted from his thighs.

He heard a hissed word being repeated, but not in a language he knew.

The pressure around his neck released just as quickly.

He doubled over, hugging himself, coughing as he slid down the wall to sit. His mother had been right when she told him that to come here was to ask for his death.

Blood trickled from his mouth.

“You are not welcome,” whispered viciously through the air, then more voices echoed the words over and over.

He blinked.

Plants rose, along with spirits, above each skeleton lying prone on the floor. The spirits stared out through huge, dark eyes and had black holes for mouths. Their filmy bodies were dressed in clothes from the era in which they’d died.

His body ached from head to ... hell, his legs felt numb. “I ... am family,” he wheezed. He coughed and spit up blood.

A small female spirit from the center of the room glided over plants that moved gently in her wake, as though she were nothing more than a summer breeze.

When the girl reached him, she said in an emotionless voice, “I know your blood. Not you.”

He caught a breath. “Please don’t kill me. I’ll explain.”

She waited there, weaving back and forth. Was this Seanmháthair Piritta’s child? Her black mouth opened with another question. “Who are you to come here?”

He cleared his ravaged throat and spoke. Giving any being of power your real name was never wise. “I am called La Cuchilla by my mother. She was a descendant of Seanmháthair Piritta, who I believe was your mother. My mother was named Piri after her.”

The small child’s head tilted in confusion.

Rather than waste this chance, he kept talking. “It’s true. I am descended of your blood.” Then he considered something they might not know. “Do you know that your mother lived long, and made Vikings regret killing you?”

The image wavered back and forth as if the child’s spirit was anxious. “How?”

That had to be a good sign, yes? He told her of her mother’s life and of the St. Brice’s Day massacre.

For a moment, none of them made a sound.

Then the most horrible howling erupted.

His ears hurt, but he feared moving and ending up stabbed or strangled again.

Hold everything. This racket was a good sign.

The spirits were actually cheering.

Moving his hands to the holes in his thighs, he covered the wounds, hoping to heal them. But when he moved his hands, thick black blood oozed and smelled disgusting. He had to stop that before his damn legs rotted off.

If they allowed him to leave soon, he could heal, but that was a big if, after the reception he’d received.

When the noise quieted, the child spirit’s voice returned to sounding flat and empty. “Why are you here?”

He’d originally thought to tell the truth, that he wanted their plant majik for his own use, but he was rethinking that plan. This group of spirits had once wiped out almost an entire army sent by a goddess. From what he knew, no one from the preternatural world had dared to visit this tomb again.

Gathering his courage, he said, “I wish to ask a favor of you.”

Hissing echoed.

He held his breath, but the small spirit lifted a translucent hand.

Once peace settled again, he continued. “Your mother made the Vikings pay in her day, but I have encountered their descendants. They do not deserve to live. I have done my best to rid the world of them, but I am not your mother. I have some gifts and only ask humbly for help in destroying the rest of your enemies.”

That eerie quiet descended again.

Could this child spirit know he lied?

She said, “I will grant you this aid one time if you do as you say.”

Fair enough.

He could find some Viking descendants and kill them to make good on his offer. “Thank you. I only require a small plant.”

More hissing. Another ghosted hand signal.

She said, “That is the same as taking a limb from one of us.”

Was she really going to give him the plant? “I understand and will not let you down.”

“The last person to steal a plant did so without giving an oath. We are stronger now and will not allow that again. You swear on the blood of our family to do as you say and also harm no female or child.”

That was not a question, but a demand.

He hated to swear anything to a supernatural being, but what was the consequence of crossing this spirit? If he asked, she’d probably refuse to give him a plant. Besides, if her reach went beyond this cave, wouldn’t she have gone after the last person to steal a plant?

She must have taken his silence as confusion. “Break your oath and you will join us for eternity.”

Once he left this place, he’d never come back here. Just standing here had his skin crawling. His plan was simple and he answered to a powerful goddess. Once he succeeded at what he had in mind, though, he’d never need this kind of magic from anyone.

He’d be immortal.

Nodding, he said, “I swear on our family’s blood to do as you request.”

“Not a request. An order.”

A sharp curse sat on the tip of his tongue for this mouthy brat, but he was too close to pulling this off. “My mistake. I swear on our family’s blood to use the plant you gift me as you expect.”

Floating back, she lifted a plant ten inches tall and carried it in her open palm. When she reached him, he took the offering.

As soon as he did, her tiny hand disappeared.

Damn, that was weird.

But he lived in the world of weird.

Ready to get out of there, he tried to push up to stand, but his legs wouldn’t work. What the hell?

He asked, “Uh, will you allow me to use my majik to heal my legs?”

“No. Your legs carry your oath.”

This might not turn out as he’d hoped after all.

“Close your eyes,” she instructed in her monotone voice.

Should he do that?

Was she jerking his chain and intending to finish him off? What could she do once he closed his eyes? How was he going to reach the door between the museum area and outside? He’d placed a spell on the door to open when he was ready to exit, but he couldn’t move his legs even to crawl.  

“Do you wish to stay with us?” the child asked, sounding genuinely curious.

“No.” He probably shouldn’t have said that so loud. “I mean, no, please. I want to go, so that I may fulfill my duty.”

When she said nothing else, he gave up and closed his eyes.

The red haze returned, but it was inside him.

He twisted and turned in a whirling ball of writhing energy that seemed to go on forever, then suddenly stopped. Dragging in deep breaths, he opened one eye to peek.

Nothing but darkness.

Had she fooled him after all and locked him in with the rest of them? His heart beat crazy and blood rushed through his ears.

Then he felt ... grass beneath the fingers on one hand.

Opening both eyes, he moved his hand again, happy to feel more natural terrain around him. He looked up to see a bare outline of clouds hiding the sliver of a moon.

“I’m outside,” he whispered in a thankful voice. He tried moving his right leg. No pain. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Calling up his majik, he created a tiny glow to keep from drawing any attention until he figured out exactly where he sat.

A hint of moonlight slipped out to shimmer across the top of the hill overlooking the cave.

“I’ll be damned.” Had the little child spirit teleported his body out here?

That was some kind of power.

“Wait!” He looked around frantically, then saw the plant she’d gifted him.

The stem moved gently, waiting patiently as a puppy, with an open flower turned to stare at him.

“Hello, baby,” he whispered and reached to stroke the petals.

The flower hissed.

He snatched his hand back and reminded the plant, “She promised you’d help me.” Drooping over, the flower seemed to sigh.

That was more like it.

He hadn’t gone through all that to get a pure Noirre plant for it to misbehave as soon as he touched it.

 

 


 

CHAPTER 2

 

Evalle felt eyes on her as she maneuvered her GSXR motorcycle slowly through a dark, wooded area off a paved road. Her crotch rocket hadn’t been designed for off road riding, but she’d taken it through worse places.

The last town she’d noted as she’d cruised southwest of Atlanta had been Whitesburg.

Dead-quiet streets, which was not that surprising for a Saturday night before Memorial Day. Some schools were out for the summer and families had headed to the beach. Might be a bit chilly down on the Gulf Coast, though, with this late cool front rolling through the southeast.

She doubted anything preternatural was going on out here in the country and so far from Hotlanta, some days known as demon central. But she had no complaint about a relaxing bike ride down back roads with temps in the low fifties.

Dry skies would be nice. Can’t have everything.

If a demon or some other predatory supernatural being really was out here harming innocents, she’d introduce it to her spelled blade. That would kick her holiday off.

Rain continued to drizzle, unable to make up its mind to get serious or quit falling.

She parked and fished a flat aluminum disc the size of her hand from her tank bag, then dismounted. The disc prevented her kickstand from sinking into the wet ground. Her black bike jacket kept her top half dry and her boots were waterproofed, but her jeans were soaked. She replaced her helmet with a black ball cap and pushed her soaked ponytail over her shoulder.

Hairs tingled on her neck again.

That feeling had stayed with her since leaving Atlanta a half hour ago.

Did she have her own private stalker?

Does he, she or it think I’m vulnerable right now?

That brought a smile to her lips.

Darkness encroached from every direction, but the moon kept slipping out from behind the scattered clouds to offer a dusting of light before hiding again.

She pulled off her special sunglasses, which protected her uber sensitive eyes from bright lights. Her natural night vision was a benefit of being a half-breed Belador, better known among other preternaturals as an Alterant.

The low rumble of a high-performance engine approached.

Evalle stilled. If she turned, the headlights washing past her body now would blind her.

The engine silenced and the lights disappeared.

She spun around as the female driver stepped out and closed the door to her badass black car that looked capable of doing a million miles an hour.

Adrianna Lafontaine wore a denim jacket and black jeans like a runway statement. Her long blonde hair had been pulled back into a single braid and covered with a black cap.

Closing the car door, she said, “I thought I was meeting Tristan. How’d you get stuck with this gig?”

Evalle grumbled, “He guilted me into it. Said his girlfriend was back in town and started pointing out that I get to see Storm every night, blah, blah, blah, whine, whine. I finally told him I’d take this VIPER assignment just to shut him up.” Giving the hot car a second look, Evalle asked, “What are you driving?”

“McLaren 720 S.” Stepping past the front of her car, Adrianna said, “I’ve been meaning to ask Daegan why we’re supporting VIPER again after they turned their backs on the Beladors last month.”

Evalle had wondered the same thing when Daegan announced that the Beladors would resume handling assignments from VIPER, an organization of preternatural beings tasked with protecting humans from their kind. Those same humans were unaware they received this security, or that it was needed, since only a very small number of them knew Evalle and others like her existed.

Sitting back on the seat of her GSXR, she explained, “Daegan thinks the bounty hunters VIPER hired to replace us when we pulled back to protect our people could end up being a threat to Beladors and our allies if we don’t step back in to hold a position within the organization.” That made sense and Evalle was glad for allies like Adrianna, a Sterling witch who wielded an ancient majik.

Evalle trusted Daegan the way she’d never trusted their last leader, a self-serving goddess.

As a two-thousand-year-old dragon shifter, Daegan had proven his ability to preside over and protect the Beladors.

“I can see his point,” Adrianna said. “Okay, what are we looking for tonight? The voice mail I got only said to meet at this coordinate to investigate a disturbance reported by a troll.”

“Right. That troll is a friend of Tristan’s who stays out of preternatural politics, but evidently is well connected inside the Atlanta troll community and beyond. He didn’t want to give the name of his informant, but said if we walk a hundred feet northwest of this location the informant would find us.”

“That sounds like a trap.”

Evalle had echoed the same thought earlier. “I’d agree, but Tristan trusts his friend and vouched for this not being a setup.”

The witch shrugged. “Fair enough. Tristan wouldn’t make the assertion knowing he’d have to face Storm if anything happened to you.”

Evalle chuckled. She could handle herself in battle and shifted into a ten foot tall gryphon, but she liked knowing her sexy Skinwalker mate had her back. He’d had her back ... and her front ... in the long shower they’d taken before she left.

Adrianna snapped her fingers. “Mind back on task. What kind of disturbance is it?”

Ready to get this done and go home, Evalle got serious. “Not sure, only that the informant said it sounds like something wild in the woods and believes it’s unnatural because it doesn’t sound like any animal he’s ever heard. Being that the informant is very likely a troll as well, we have to accept that he should know.”

“Lovely.” Adrianna had been standing with her body loose, but she became very still and slowly gazed right then left. She whispered, “Do you sense anything?”

Nodding, Evalle kept her voice down. “I’ve felt eyes on me since I left the city. Somebody must feel the need to get their butt kicked tonight.” She lifted her sunglasses and slipped them in place. “Ready?”

Adrianna opened her hand where a tiny ball of light spun above the palm. “Some of us need a little light.”

“That’s the smallest I’ve seen you contain your Witchlock power. Are you gaining better control?”

“I think so. I haven’t had any way to test it recently.”

“Let’s hope you don’t have to tonight.”

“Agreed.”

Leading the way, Evalle pushed past branches and weeds to find a narrow footpath beaten down.

That had to be encouraging, right?

She opened her empathic senses to search for anything beyond herself and Adrianna, which the witch would be doing, too. Her mate, Storm, was a powerful empath, and he’d been training her to better utilize her gift.

After a moment, she picked up on a preternatural presence nearby. While also trying not to catch a tree root with her toe and fall on her face, she focused hard and pinpointed the presence as being off to her left and behind her.

Not exactly correct. It felt as if the presence was above her.

Was it in the trees?

She didn’t hear branches rattling, but then she didn’t hear any other sound besides her, Adrianna and the rain.

That was probably the informant, right?  

When they reached approximately one hundred feet, Evalle stopped to search the area. Through the trees, she saw an opening and headed that way. When she stepped out of the thick tree cover, she stood in front of a pile of boulders fifteen feet high.

Nothing about that seemed natural since they weren’t in the mountains and these were the only big rocks she’d seen since arriving.

It was as if some giant baby had been stacking them like alphabet blocks.

She crossed her arms and remained thirty feet back to allow herself a good view of the area, but kept sending an occasional glance at the pinnacle of the rock pile.

Adrianna stepped up next to her.

They made an odd looking pair with Evalle so tall and Adrianna barely over five feet.

She didn’t care what they looked like to anyone else. She and Adrianna had started off on the wrong foot when they first met, but this witch had fought beside her in many battles.

Adrianna whispered, “Think that’s him?”

Evalle followed Adrianna’s gaze to the top of the boulders where a three-foot-tall figure now stood. If she had to guess, she’d say he was a cross between a garden gnome and a lizard troll because of his bushy beard, short tusks poking through that beard, pointy ears and gray-green skin on arms sticking out of overalls.

Rain seemed to avoid him.

She murmured, “Looks like a farmer gnome.”

“Not gnome,” he corrected in a rich baritone, which didn’t fit the image.

Adrianna murmured, “Maybe a miniature troll?”

He snapped, “Not troll!” His gaze switched from Adrianna to Evalle. “Which one Tristan?”

Evalle started explaining, “He’s not here, but I’m—”

The little guy’s eyes got wide. He took a step back and pulled a tiny sword out of somewhere on that outfit and pointed it at her. “Is trap!

That sword might be little, but Evalle knew better than to discount any weapon in the hands of a supernatural being.

Holding up her hands with palms out in a non-threatening way, she said, “Not a trap. Please, wait. We’re Tristan’s friends. He couldn’t come and asked us to help.”

Adrianna hadn’t moved a muscle and Evalle now realized the witch had doused the Witchlock power ball at some point. Good thing or the little guy would be freaking out over that, too.

He moved another tiny step back. Skittish, but at his size she might be just as wary.

What could she say to convince him not to run? “Otto will vouch for me.” She had no idea if Tristan’s troll friend would do such a thing, but bluffing was all she had.

The little guy kept a grim expression parked on his face and gave her a long look.

She was not the people person of the two and gave Adrianna a how-about-a-little-help glare.

Offering the irritating little guy one of her signature sexy smiles, Adrianna asked, “What’s your name?”

“Why?”

Evalle almost laughed at the grumpy reply instead of the tongue-dropping male reaction the witch usually received.

Undaunted, Adrianna said, “I like to know who I work with on a job. My name is Adrianna and this is Evalle.”

“Otto vouch you, too?”

Evalle held her breath, but Adrianna said, “Of course. Think about it? How would we have found you if Otto had not shared this location?”

The not-a-gnome scratched his gray beard. He made the sound of a quick inhale and stared at them as if he’d replied.

Was she supposed to infer his reply from any of that? Evalle asked, “What does that mean?”

He sighed and shook his head, muttering something, then said, “Ja. I said ja.”

When had he spoken the word ja?

Adrianna offered, “His intake of breath is how they sometimes say yes. It’s ingressive phonetic speech.”

He nodded with another quick inhale.

Unbelievable. Evalle mentally cursed Tristan. Was she supposed to interpret miscellaneous sounds as words? Getting tired of staring up in this drizzle, she tried to be conversational in hopes of getting him to talk.

“I’ll make a wild guess that you’re from Sweden.”

He nodded this time. Was he running out of air for his ingressive whatever?

Done with meet and greet, Evalle suggested, “Why don’t you tell us what the problem is so we can take care of it and move on?”

“Much screaming. Three nights. Not natural.”

“Where?”

Using his thumb, he pointed behind him, which could be on the other side of the rocks or ten miles in that direction.

“Have you gotten close enough to see anything that would help us determine what it is?”

“Why I do that?” He pointed at his chest. “Not VIPER agent. Not killer. Your job. I pass word to troll. He tell Otto. He tell your kind. Is enough.”

Our kind?” Evalle asked in disbelief. As if he was any more human than her? At least she looked human.

Irritated at being labeled unfairly, she straightened him out. “If you mean Beladors, we’re not killers.” Her mind was jumping around with frustration, which caused her to drag up a bad memory of trolls and Sweden. “We only kill to protect others, not like those cold-blooded assassin Svart Trolls who came to Atlanta from your country.”

His face registered shock when she mentioned the Svart Trolls. Huh.

She asked, “Hey, is that Svart bunch friends of yours?” She seriously doubted it since he was adamant about not being a troll, but she wanted to push a button that might result in more than choppy and vague answers.

He lifted his little hands and grabbed his head as if this whole line of discussion was giving him a migraine. Growling as he answered, he said, “Not friends. I hide and travel here with them. Nothing more.”

She hadn’t seen that coming. “Let me get this straight. You’re not a troll, but you traveled with that bunch of assassin trolls. Why would you associate with them?”

Frowning, Adrianna asked, “What does it matter?”

“Because he could be setting us up for some trap. Tristan trusts Otto and Otto must have trusted the troll this guy talked to, but that could mean Otto might not even know about this guy.”

“You’ve got a point.” Adrianna arched a no longer friendly look up the tower of rocks at the informant. “Enough of this dancing around. What’s your name and why should we believe you?”

Crossing his little arms, he sent an equally stubborn look right back. “No name. I give message. Is enough.”

“Fine.” Evalle shrugged. “Good luck with whatever is terrorizing the woods here and finding anyone else to help you once we leave. The minute I get back, I’m informing my people there’s a Svart Troll supporter in these woods.”

No!

She gave it a moment then said, “Tell me why I shouldn’t.”

“I have family. Is why I need beast killed.”

There were more not-gnomes?

Keeping her voice calm, but full of warning, Evalle said, “I have family, too. Svart Trolls tried to kill me and people important to me.” Rain slid over the brim of her cap and down her face in a stream. She didn’t want to leave a beast of some kind running loose in these woods, but neither would she let this little guy off the hook without finding out his tie to the Svart Trolls.He muttered something, shaking his head and kicking at a tiny bit of gravel. Finally he said, “I am born to troll father and nisse mother.”

“What’s a nisse?” Adrianna questioned in a gentle voice while flashing a cut-him-some-slack glance at Evalle.

“Is small people in same homeland as Svart. Live in secret on farms.” He raised his chin and pushed his chest out. “Help good humans many generations.”

“Small people like you?”

Now he looked insulted by Adrianna’s question. “Me big. Like father.”

Evalle rolled her eyes. Men.

That explained the tusks and leathery skin of a troll, though. She said, “I’m still confused. You have troll blood, but you claim to not be friends with the Svart.”

“No.” His voice turned sad. “Trolls hate me. Father’s family try to kill me many times. I find nisse wife and we leave.”

Adrianna pointed out, “You still haven’t given us your name.”

He strutted back and forth, clearly deliberating then turned to them. “Only if swear to keep secret.”

Evalle arched an eyebrow at him. “I am not swearing anything to a nisse-troll.”

“Not troll! Must keep name secret.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” she snapped. “I give you my word that if you harm no humans and none of our kind who don’t first threaten your life, that I won’t share your name. That’s it.”

Adrianna gave the same agreement and added, “We keep secrets all the time. We have no reason to share yours unless you give us reason to do so. What’s your name?”

He studied his hands, muttering again, then raised eyes ringed in misery. “Misstag.”

“Huh?” Evalle looked at Adrianna who hadn’t gotten it either.

“Is name,” he whispered, sounding embarrassed. “Mean mistake. I am mistake. Not nisse. Not troll.”

Well, hell. Evalle had a soft place for outcasts, having been one since birth. She groaned out a sigh and glanced at Adrianna.

The witch cut her eyes at Evalle. “Sounds believable, but a good lie always does.”

“No lie,” he argued. “Why lie? You send more killers.”

“We’re not killers, dammit,” Evalle snarled.

He did that whole raise his arms in exasperation thing and stomped around. This time he spoke more clearly in what Evalle guessed to be Swedish.

Probably cursing.

Evalle just had to be the nice person and take Tristan’s place tonight. “Never mind, Misstag. Just please get to the point. Tell us everything you know, such as the exact location where you heard this screaming. Anything that would help us.”

He scrunched up his wrinkled little face at her. “Is long walk that way.” He pointed over his shoulder again. “Rip deer in pieces. Rip us or human next.”

Showing more patience than Evalle felt, Adrianna pecked away at their informant. “What makes you sure it’s not natural?”

“Smell scent. Not human. Not animal.”

Evalle perked up at some decent intel. “Demon?”

“No. Smell odd.”

And she was back to getting better answers out of a toadstool.

Misstag ordered, “Call Tristan. More men. Not good for you.”

Evalle started to argue that only minutes ago he’d called her kind killers. She quipped in Adrianna’s direction, “Listen to that. He’s worried about us and thinks we should call in some great big men to back up us women. What do you think?”

Adrianna met Evalle’s gaze for a brief moment before they started laughing.

The witch said, “Oh, yes. That’ll be the day when you and I call in reinforcements to investigate something like this.” Wiping her eyes, she told Misstag, “We’ve got this. Show us the way and you can go back to wherever you live.”

He vanished without a word.

“Are you kidding me?” Evalle shouted.

Misstag stepped from behind the stack of boulders, but on the same level with them. He had his hands over his ears. “Too much mouth.”

Adrianna found that hilarious.

Misstag took off, not allowing Evalle a chance to counter his insult. She caught him immediately, “Slow down so Adrianna can keep up.”

That made him happy.

Whatever stroked his ego for the moment.

They trudged through trees, over a creek, up a hill, down a hill and back through more trees, then stepped out into a wide space of gently rolling ground. With a little grooming, it would be a pasture.

Wasn’t this area near the Chattahoochee Bend State Park?

“See?” Misstag said, stepping to the side then pointing at the ground.

Evalle told him, “No, I’m not Superman with x-ray vision. I can’t see through dirt and rock.”

She got a pint-sized glare for that. He pointed harder and ordered, “Look.”

Giving in, Evalle and Adrianna moved closer to Misstag, who pulled out his sword and made a circular motion with it above the ground.

A circle of light an inch tall glowed around a two-foot diameter area.

Inside that, Evalle now saw a footprint she seriously doubted anything natural had made. Whatever it was had some wicked claws, and ... crud. That looked suspiciously like her beast footprint before she evolved into a gryphon.

She suggested, “Misstag, can you track that—”

Her voice faded as she turned to find the spot where he’d been standing empty. “Misstag? Misstag?”

“He abandoned us,” Adrianna groused.

“You hear that?” Evalle murmured.

“Hear what?” Adrianna asked. The witch opened her palm and Witchlock swirled, growing to the size of a grapefruit as the witch powered up the ball of majik.

“Silence?” Evalle replied. The trickle of concern climbing her neck was not due to Misstag having obviously left them on their own, but the sudden stillness of the woods.

Just as quickly, the dead quiet gave way to something large crashing through the woods ... and coming in their direction.

“Get ready,” Evalle snapped.

“Can’t get much more ready than this.”

Evalle glanced at the glowing ball of Witchlock. “Why isn’t it any bigger?”

Louder pounding approached.

Adrianna scowled. “I can manage this size. Things get hairy when it gets twice as big.”

“We may need hairy if that thing coming this way is Misstag’s monster. It sounds the size of an elephant.”

“You can’t handle an elephant?” Adrianna challenged, splitting her attention between the spinning ball of energy she held and the noise in the woods.

“Maybe not if the elephant is jacked up on demon power,” Evalle shot back. She prepared for an attack and raised her hands to wield her kinetic ability.

A tree thicker than her body snapped and fell straight at them like it had a rocket booster.

 


 

CHAPTER 3

 

Evalle shoved Adrianna ten feet away and fell backward to the ground with her hands up.

She flashed up a load of kinetic power seconds before that massive tree trunk crushed her. If not for keeping Adrianna safe, Evalle would have used her Belador speed to outrun the tree.

She hoped she hadn’t broken any bones on the witch, but injured was always better than dead.

Struggling to keep the tree far enough above her so that what was left of a jagged, broken branch didn’t impale her, she strained even more when something caused the weight to bounce up and down.

Slapping branches, Adrianna complained, “Can you get this thing off us?”

“No, what about you?”

“I can do it, but with hitting something so close I might set the tree on fire. I’m pinned in between two branches.”

Gritting her teeth and grunting, Evalle pushed her way up to a sitting position. The minute she did, the creature made a hideous roaring noise and stomped on the tree trunk again.

Evalle’s arms shook.

Misstag had been right.

That was no natural animal or she could have pushed it off by now.

She told Adrianna, “It’s standing on the tree. I’m going to give it a good push, which is probably going to piss it off, so be ready to move if I can get you clear.” Evalle pushed her power hard and shoved the invisible field up. Something crashed when she did that and the tree got lighter. “Can you get out now?”

For all her primping and put-together look, Adrianna was a solid combat partner. She twisted around and got on her knees then started pushing through the mass of branches surrounding them. There had to be more than one tree down for them to be covered by this many tree limbs.  

Evalle was starting to get to her feet when the tree suddenly lifted up.

That would seem like a good thing, but she knew better.

“Look out, Adrianna, its ... ” Evalle shoved her hands back up as the tree crashed back down with more force. She fell to her knees, bent backward and straining every muscle.  

Adrianna said, “I’m out. Hang on and I’ll ... umph.”

Evalle fought for air. “Adrianna?”

What had it done to the witch?

“What are you doing?” an angry female voice yelled.

That was not Adrianna.

The creature roared and stomped on the tree again. Dammit.

Evalle had to do something, because if that was a human she’d heard, the woman would end up dead. Sucking in one last chest full of air, Evalle yelled at the stranger, “Run! Get out of here!

“Is someone under that tree?” the voice demanded again and this time Evalle thought she recognized it.

The creature grunted something.

Misstag failed to mentioned an insane human out here.

The female voice said, “Move it. Now!”

The tree lifted another time and Evalle held her arms up. She might not be able to survive one more time of being hit with a tree.

Thankfully, the thick trunk and all the branches still on it continued to lift away, then were dropped to the side where the tree got caught between two others that were still standing.

That blocked Evalle’s view of the woman and the beast.

Since the creature had obeyed the woman, Evalle turned to check on Adrianna who was out cold with blood seeping from her head.

“Adrianna?” Evalle scrambled over to her just as the witch opened her eyes. “Are you okay?”

“No. I got knocked over like a pin by a Fred Flintstone bowling ball.”

Evalle helped her sit up.

“What are you two doing here?”

Evalle and Adrianna turned to see Kit Nyght climbing over debris to reach them. Behind her stood a ten-foot-tall monster with claws curled from four fat fingers on each hand. Shaggy, gray-black hair covered its body below a slick head with jaws wide enough to snap off a human head.

At one time, Evalle had shifted into something just as hideous, but her eyes glowed green, where this monster had human eyes as dark as two coal pits.

Kit stormed up to them, face covered in worry lines. “You’re bleeding, Adrianna. Do you think you have a concussion?”

“If I do, I’ll live.”

Kit swung her harsh glare at Evalle. “What were you doing wandering around out here? He could have killed you.”

Why do I feel like I’m in trouble? Evalle explained, “We got a call to check out an unnatural threat in this area, which clearly there is ... wait a minute. Is that ... Jasper, the Rías?”

“Yes. He would not have hurt you, but you probably scared him.”

“We didn’t scare him,” Adrianna argued, then grimaced and held her head.

“You didn’t mean to, but I told him not to let any nonhuman get a jump on him.” Kit frowned. “Actually, it’s my fault he hurt you. I’m sorry. Let’s get you fixed up. He’ll apologize as soon as he shifts back. I know he feels bad about hurting you.” She offered Adrianna a hand, which she took.

Evalle leaned past Kit to look at Jasper-the-monster who stood with his head hanging. She got to her feet. “You’re lucky he didn’t hurt you, Kit.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it. I’ve been training him.”

“Now I really have a headache,” Adrianna muttered. “Have you forgotten how Isak freaked out when you and the twins were captured by those pseudo-Beladors?” Kit started to speak, but the normally reserved witch wouldn’t allow Isak’s mother to get a word in and kept ranting. “Because I still remember Isak clearly saying he did not want his mother around any of our kind, as if we’re all a bunch of killers threatening humans. How can he be such a hypocrite to let you come out here with something that shifts into a ten foot tall ... danger?”

Kit had given up trying to talk and stood there with her arms crossed. Since she was just as short at Adrianna, they were having a glaring contest at eye level.

“Are you done, Adrianna?” Isak’s mom asked.

Evalle had never seen Adrianna lose her cool like that, but Isak had really hurt Adrianna when he’d said those words specifically to her. Until that moment when he warned all of them to stay away from his mother, Evalle had been pretty sure those two had been swapping spit, if not more.

Sounding chagrined, Adrianna held her head and said, “Sorry, Kit, but this blows my mind. I’m trying to figure out how he’s going along with this.”

“He’s not.”

Evalle and Adrianna gaped at her.

“Close your mouths.” After that order, Kit explained, “My son would pop a vein if he knew I was out here with Jasper, which is why he doesn’t.”

“Really?” Evalle questioned. “Isak has the largest human intel network I’ve ever known about. He probably knows more than Santa Claus.”

That pulled the start of a smile from Adrianna.

Kit’s eyes lost their worried mother look and twinkled. “He’d like to think he is all knowing, but I’ve been around a lot longer than he has and I’ve owned this property since before he was born. He doesn’t know about it.” Kit turned to Jasper. “Your clothes are where I always leave them. Want to go shift and change?”

He nodded and made a soft grunting sound.

“Good boy,” Kit praised.

When Jasper pounded away, Kit returned to their conversation. “We held Jasper in nice quarters after he shifted and attacked Evalle in the warehouse, but it’s still a jail cell when you have no freedom.”

“Jasper attacked you once before?” Adrianna said to Evalle. “When did that happen?”

“It was the first time I went to the Nyght headquarters. Jasper was working on a forklift and he had no idea he was a Rías until that moment. Remember when that funky energy cloud came over cities around the country and forced Alterants and Rías to shift, even if they’d never shifted before?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right.”

“Jasper was just another unsuspecting soul during that time.” Evalle said to Kit, “I still don’t understand what you and Jasper are doing. How have you trained him not to attack?”

“I spent a lot of time talking to Jasper. He almost shifted once when he got upset talking about how he turns into a monster. That’s when he told me I should go ahead and hit him with one of our demon blasters, because he didn’t want to hurt anyone. I refused and he asked me to not come into his quarters again. He said the longer he stayed in there, the more upset he got and he might not be able to keep from attacking me the next time.”

“He sounds like a good guy,” Adrianna said.

“He is,” Kit confirmed. “A wonderful man, but Isak couldn’t get past the fear that Jasper would hurt me. I suggested asking Evalle about training him and that set my son off. So Jasper and I came up with a plan. The next time Isak was gone with his men, I helped Jasper escape and brought him here where he’d have plenty of room to move around when he shifted.”

“We could have been hunters or hikers who ignored the restricted area signs.”

“They would have been safe. Jasper won’t touch a human, but he fears nonhumans after Evalle blasted him.”

“Sorry.”

“He knows you were only protecting everyone, but it got his attention. He kept obsessing about a nonhuman finding him and attacking because he can’t communicate in that form. He didn’t want to shift until I agreed to carry one of our Nyght weapons set on heavy shock. The first time he lost control, I hit him with a blast that knocked the starch out of his shorts.”

“Poor guy,” Adrianna sympathized.

Kit sighed. “Yes, because it took about eight times for him to begin gaining control.”

“You used shock therapy and it worked?” Evalle couldn’t believe it, but more than that she was thrilled to think there would be a plan if they found more Rías. Getting shocked hurt, but in her beast form she could have handled it.

Given a choice between that or being caged or killed, she would get trained with a blaster.

Kit sounded sad “It did work, but it was killing me to zap him.” She took a deep breath and let it out, sounding relieved to be at this point. “He hasn’t lost control since the last time and that was ten days ago.”

Scratching her head, which was covered in leaves and dirt, Evalle said, “Okay, I think that’s amazing, but why are you training him? You can’t keep him at Nyght headquarters around Isak, can you?”

“I’ll answer that,” Jasper said, walking up to them in a gray T-shirt and jeans, just as wet as everyone else. He had a friendly voice. “Sorry about attacking you two. As for the training, Kit wants to hire me as her personal nonhuman bodyguard.”

Kit grinned and gave Jasper a loving look that a mom would cast. That Kit took everyone under her wing, including the twin nineteen-year-old boys living in Evalle and Storm’s building, was a testament to the strong woman she was, who called her own shots.

Isak’s mom was both a born nurturer and tough as nails.

Adrianna brushed dirt off her sodden clothes. “Why would you need a bodyguard when you’re not allowed to be around nonhumans anymore?” That had come out sounding disappointed.

“To quote a favorite line of mine, ‘Isak is not the boss of me’,” Kit replied. “But I understand his fear of losing both parents to nonhumans. A demon killed his father years before and an Alterant killed his best friend. When Isak saw me captured by that crazy bunch of bad Beladors, he snapped. He’ll come to his senses, Adrianna.”

Kit’s comment about bad Beladors referenced the Laochra Fola, warriors that were part of the original force of Beladors created by the god Belatucadros.

Evalle had picked up Belador background from time to time after joining their warrior force as a teen, but she’d never been given the entire history. The Goddess Macha, former ruler of the Beladors, had been tight-lipped about everything before Daegan showed up to boot her off of Treoir Island. She’d been stingy when it came to giving aid when needed. Like when Kujoo warriors from thousands of years ago carried forward a grudge, traveling to Atlanta through a portal opened by a witch just to battle descendants of Beladors. Macha and the Kujoo god Shiva had known each other. She could have helped when today’s Beladors battled the Kujoo, but the goddess showed up only when she had no other choice.

Daegan knew things, though. Evalle made a mental note to ask him about the Belador past and how Macha and other deities played into all of it. That information would have come in handy recently when someone gathered that small army of Laochra Fola warriors and secretly brought them into Atlanta.

They’d captured Kit and the twins.

Evalle read between the lines on what Kit had just said. Isak’s mother did not want Adrianna to give up on Isak.

Still probably too hurt to give an inch, Adrianna replied, “I seriously doubt Isak will back down from his stance against nonhumans, Kit, but for your sake I hope so.”

“I’d like to think it would be nice for you, too.”

Shaking her head, Adrianna said, “Whatever was going on between us in the past is over with and I’ve moved on.”

Kit arched an eyebrow at the witch that said she didn’t believe her.

Rain started coming down in earnest. Evalle made a decision. “I’m going to report that it was a demon and we disposed of him, but you’ve got a snitch out here.”

“Who?” Kit looked around like a general hunting for a private to ream.

“He’s a little guy who came over from Sweden with his family to hide from persecution. They evidently live somewhere on this property and he sent word through the trolls about a monster out here.”

“I want to talk to him.”

“Not sure that’s possible. We had a hard time having a conversation with him. He’s ornery as all get out, does not like to be called a troll and is unreasonable to deal with.”

“Am not!”

Everyone turned to look up at a tree limb fifteen feet off the ground where Misstag sat with his arms crossed.

“Who are you?” Kit asked.

“No name.”

Evalle groaned. “Can we not go through this again? This is Kit and Jasper.”

“Monster.”

Jasper said, “Troll.”

“Not troll.”

Jasper pointed at himself. “Not monster. I have not hurt you and, if you act right, I’ll keep your family safe.”

That shocked Misstag. “You protect us?”

“Depends on if you’re going to be nice to Kit or not. I’m her bodyguard and she owns the land you’re homesteading on.”

Misstag leaped to the ground, landing lightly on his feet. He walked over to Jasper and lifted his hand. “Friends.”

Jasper smiled and using three fingers, shook hands with the not-troll.

Then Misstag extended his hand to Kit. “Friends.”

Kit didn’t accept his offer right away. “I’m your landlord.”

Misstag lowered his hand. “No money to pay.”

“I don’t want money. I want you to keep any eye out for anyone trespassing and alert Jasper when he’s here. When he’s not, I’ll set up a communication where you can reach me. Agreed?”“Yes. Yes, I can do,” Misstag said, looking as relieved as he sounded.

Smiling now, Kit extended her hand. “Friends.”

The little guy wrapped his fingers around three of Kit’s to shake.

Evalle asked Adrianna, “You ready to get some ice on that?”

“Absolutely. Let’s go.”

“Wait,” Kit said. When Evalle turned back, Kit swallowed and asked, “Are the twins okay?”

Offering an understanding smile, Evalle told her, “They’re doing just fine, but they do miss you.”

“Tell them I’ll see them soon. They can take that to the bank.”

“I will.” Evalle had seen Kit in action and not even Isak could stop her when she had her mind made up. The woman had taken it on herself to train a Rías. Evalle wanted to be her when she grew up.

A great idea hit Evalle. She would check with Daegan about Jasper visiting Treoir to train with the other two Rías.

Once Evalle and Adrianna left, they found a gas station where Adrianna fashioned an ice pack from a scarf. The witch would heal quickly just from possessing the Witchlock power, and she could probably do it in seconds if she didn’t have reservations about experimenting with the power so close to humans.  

Evalle got a text from Storm that he’d tried calling and was worried about her.

Adrianna spouted off. “You’ve got that stupid-in-love look on your face.”

“You’re just jealous,” Evalle quipped and regretted the joke when Adrianna said nothing. Seeing Kit had probably brought up all those hurt feelings about Isak again.

“Anything important?” Adrianna asked, clearly shifting the topic as she leaned against the front fender of her car.

Evalle perched on her motorcycle seat. “Got the text ten minutes ago. He was worried because he couldn’t reach me by phone. Wanted me to know he was heading out to track a suspicious being that was last seen around Woodruff Park. Quinn asked him to look into it. That’s like five minutes from our place if you walk slowly. Said he should be home when I get there. I sent him a text ... ”

Pausing to check her phone, Evalle said, “Huh. The text hasn’t sent yet. Stupid cell service.” She looked at her calls and muttered, “No missed call. I must have been in an internet black hole.”

“It’s nice he lets you know. I’m glad you two worked out,” Adrianna said with sincerity.

“Thanks.”

“You still got the tracking stone on your chest?”

Evalle laughed, touching her shirt where the smooth stone rested beneath it. “The emerald chakra stone? Yes, but not for much longer.”

“Are you saying Mr. Overprotective is giving up that connection to you?”

“Yep. He explained that although we’re mated, we’ve never gone through the bonding ceremony of his father’s people. I’m okay either way, but he’s determined to do the ceremony. He said he should have handled the mating better.”

“Like telling you he’d taken you as a mate,” Adrianna said with a teasing smile then frowned when water from the melting ice leaked down her face. She swiped it off and adjusted her makeshift ice pack.

Evalle agreed, “I think it still bothers him that he didn’t ask me before he claimed me, but let’s just say he was ... distracted at the moment it happened.” Her face heated at the memory of their first time making love.  

“I get the picture,” Adrianna muttered, trying to sound annoyed, but failing miserably when she sighed and chuckled. “How much more can you two be bonded than you are now?”

“Storm said it would make more sense when he could show me how this works, but he told me a little for now. He said he doesn’t want me obsessing about it, which we both know I will.” She laughed. “What we have now is sort of like level one mating. Once we do some ceremony, we’ll have a much deeper connection where we can actually find each other. I’m not sure how that works or if I will be able to find him the way he’s always been able to find me, but once we bond I won’t need the emerald to give him a sense of comfort.”

Adrianna shifted the ice pack. “When are you planning to do all this?”

“As soon as Brina and Tzader have their wedding at the end of this week.”

Adrianna moved the pack from her head to reveal a nasty gash that was swelling. “They’re finally going to get married before she pops out a baby Treoir heir?”

“Yep. Tzader is trying to be cool, but he stays in our world as little time as possible, then gets teleported back to Treoir Island. He’s always there if Daegan is gone.” Evalle snapped her fingers. “That reminds me. Brina wants me to ask you to attend the wedding. It’ll be at Treoir Castle. She said she won’t be able to send out actual invitations since no one except the inner circle knows what’s going on as a precaution against attack.”

Adrianna looked a little pleasantly surprised to be invited. “Please tell her I said yes and thank you for inviting me. I’m flattered to be included.”

“Seriously, Adrianna? Brina and Tzader both appreciate your friendship with me, Storm, the Beladors and Daegan. You’re either family with them or not.” Evalle added, “Daegan would be disappointed, too, if you weren’t there.”

She arched an eyebrow at that. “That dragon? We tolerate each other. Nothing more.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Evalle rolled her eyes and laughed. “Okay, back to what I was saying about my plans with Storm. Once those two get married, I’m asking for a week off so we can go to the Navajo home of Storm’s father.”

“Why does it have to be there? I didn’t think he had anything to do with his father’s people.”

Evalle shoved her phone into her back pocket. Probably not a good idea since her jeans were soaked, but it would be a good test of its durability around her. “Storm told me he’s been in touch with his uncle. His father didn’t hate his brother or anything like that, he was just disappointed when Storm’s uncle built a casino and had bigger plans. As to the reason we’re going there, Storm said the power he inherited from his father would be strongest on his people’s land, which would allow him to form a bond that will last through eternity.”

“Wow. That’s ... ” Adrianna murmured, then looked off into the distance. “That’s amazing. You’re very lucky.”

“I am. I don’t know how I got this lucky, but he is all I could ever want. I want this bond.” To ease the sad look on Adrianna’s face, Evalle quipped, “Besides, I’m so over having a rock majik-glued to my chest.”

Adrianna grinned at that even though they both knew Evalle would happily wear that emerald for the rest of her life and beyond.

Adrianna’s phone dinged at the same time as Evalle’s, which meant an all-agent alert. Evalle waited for the witch to read her message. No point in pulling out her phone when they were both getting the same message.

The witch put her icepack down and said, “Something is going down at Five Points.”

Alarmed, Evalle said, “That’s where Storm was headed. Who sent the message? What’d they say?”

She shouldn’t worry, since Storm shifted into a massive black jaguar and had majik to boot, but this sounded like more than checking out a suspicious character.

“It’s an all-agent blast from VIPER headquarters.” Adrianna scrolled as she shared the information. “All they know is two nonhumans are dead, five more seriously injured, and they’re battling to keep it shielded from the humans.” Standing away from the car, Adrianna grabbed the icepack. “Sounds like chaos. I’ll try to reach someone on the way and get more information.”

Evalle’s heart clenched.

Which nonhumans were dead?

Something odd hit Evalle. “Why hasn’t Trey contacted me by telepathy?” As a Belador powerhouse telepath, Trey could probably contact her in outer space.

“They said no telepathy. They think that’s how someone in the preternatural world set up those early responders and were able to kill the nonhumans.” Adrianna paused. “Evalle, Storm is fine. You know he’s powerful and smart. He isn’t going to fall into anyone’s trap.”

“I know.” The problem was her heart wouldn’t buy what her head was trying to sell. She started to call Storm, then realized he was very likely either in animal form or fighting. She would not distract him. She sent a quick text she knew wouldn’t interfere then put her phone away.

Opening the door to her car, Adrianna tossed in the icepack. “They’re looking for anyone and everyone. I’ll put my text on speaker in case I get another update.”

“Good. I’ll follow you then,” Evalle called over her shoulder, already mounting her bike. She had no way to access her texts or phone calls while on the motorcycle. That had never been an issue, but after this she might consider outfitting her bike helmet with the voice-operated technology.

Storm would be fine.

She kept telling herself that, but the words wouldn’t slow the panicked beating of her heart.    

 

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

Evalle hung close to the black McLaren driven by a witch who could hold her own against professionals on a Grand Prix track. Chilly wind that had buffeted her hard on the ride back into Atlanta, backed off as she leaned into the curve to exit the eastbound interstate. That dropped them into the south side of downtown.

She had to admit her legs were feeling warmer now that the wind had dried her jeans.

No matter how many distractions riding provided, she couldn’t stop thinking about Storm.

He had to be safe.

She wanted that full bonding more than ever now.

He had the emerald on her chest to keep him assured that she was safe, but she had nothing to reassure her. Although she knew in her heart that she’d feel it if he ... died, she’d feel better with more information.

Plus, his spirit guide, who had helped Evalle locate Storm once in the past when he’d been trapped in a demonic realm, would know if anything happened to him.

She’d definitely let Evalle know.

Nodding to herself as she followed Adrianna, Evalle murmured, “See? No reason for this gut wrenching worry.”

Adrianna drove efficiently, slowing for traffic lights and speeding ahead as soon as they changed to green.

The usual late-night human activity moved in pairs and singles along the streets, but not so many groups. She caught the occasional flicker of nonhuman energy in dark spots.

That would be the harmless Nightstalkers, which were ghoul informants of the preternatural underworld.

The closer she and Adrianna got to their final destination, the fewer people she passed. It might be a holiday weekend, but this city should be busier during prime rowdy hours before midnight.

She lifted her gaze to the tops of buildings, looking for any sign of smoke. The throaty sound of her GIXXER’s muffler drowned out many human noises, but she should be able to hear sirens.

Had the problem been contained?

It figured that she’d worried for nothing.

Maybe Sen had shown up to lend a hand.

Heh. Maybe he’d apologize for being an asswipe the entire time she’d known the VIPER liaison.

Neither one of those was happening.

If Sen happened to be on site, things had gone really bad and he would be his usual roaring-pain-in-the-ass self over having to clean up someone else’s mess.

At the next corner, Adrianna took a right onto Peachtree Street—the famous road running through the middle of downtown, not one of the many other thoroughfares with a similar name.

Evalle leaned to take the next turn smoothly, staying a half block behind Adrianna when she wanted to race around and get to the scene faster. But the witch had her phone on speaker and might be getting updates.

At one time, Evalle wouldn’t be as willing to wait, but they’d come a long way and she now trusted the Sterling witch with her life.

Approaching an intersection near Kenny’s Alley, the traffic light flipped from red to green.

No yellow?

When riding a motorcycle, she never complained about a green light, but she’d be careful going through in case it was a glitch.

Adrianna put her foot on the accelerator and zoomed ahead.

Ready to get to Storm, Evalle caught a lower gear and rolled on as Adrianna’s car reached the intersection.

Blocked from view by a building on the left, a car shot out from that side as if it was being chased and plowed into the rear of Adrianna’s car.

Stunned, Evalle watched for two seconds as Adrianna’s car spun wildly and crashed into a building headfirst.

That bastard!

Rolling hard on the accelerator, the front of her bike lifted up for twenty feet then dropped down as Evalle rode beneath the still-green stoplight to reach Adrianna.

A white blur on her right snatched her attention in time to see a huge white van speeding forward.

The van hit her broadside.

Instead of skidding across the pavement, she and her bike went airborne.

The handlebars slipped out of her grasp. She had the thought to tuck her body to roll upon landing ...

One arm wouldn’t work.

Her body slammed into the side of a brick building. The sound of metal bouncing over the pavement, then crashing into the building followed. She heard bones pop and break. Pain slammed her. The helmet saved her skull, but her head spun with vicious vertigo. Her eyes rolled up in her head.

Blurred sounds reached her.

She tried to grab her head to slow the spinning, but couldn’t pull that off. Where were her fingers? She couldn’t feel them.

Her body had gone from pain to numb. Shouldn’t it hurt? She fought to keep from blacking out.

Someone unsnapped her helmet and yanked it off. Her head hit the hard ground.

Ow, dammit.

He shouted, “Hurry up... seconds ... get the damn thing.”

What did they want?

Maybe he was shouting for an ambulance.

Her thoughts came and went.

Hands grabbed under her arms from the back and lifted her halfway up. Pain showed up now in a brutal wave.

She hurt everywhere and moaned, “No, don’t ... ”

Her shirt ripped open.

What the ...

Evalle tried to open her eyes. Warm liquid pooled in them. Blood? Maybe the helmet hadn’t survived the crash.

A deep voice snarled, “What the fuck?”

Get. It. Off. Now! We’re out of time.”

Claws dug into her chest around the emerald stone and ripped it free.

She screamed, out of her mind with pain like nothing she’d ever suffered. Someone shoved a rag in her mouth, cutting off her scream, but the howling went on in her head. She reached for her chest with the only arm that worked and it got yanked back.

Next, a sack was jerked over her head.

Agony tore through her, forcing all thought from her mind except making it stop.

An invisible force levitated her body into an upright position until she stood on her feet. She made a muffled cry of pain. Both legs had to be broken. Her body was raised a tiny bit more so that her feet didn’t touch the ground, but her arms were locked against her sides by the same invisible force.

Tears ran down her face every time she took a breath. Her chest had been ripped apart and she could feel blood soaking whatever was left of her shirt.

Anger boiled with her misery. Her mind fought to clear. She was a powerful Alterant. She tried to call up her beast to heal her.

Nothing. No sign of her power.

She reached out telepathically to Trey. It’s Evalle. I’m being captured. I’m ...

The words blasted back inside her head.

Who was doing this? What did they want?

Were they kidnapping Adrianna, too?

Not that she wanted her friend captured, but the possibility gave Evalle hope. Once she healed, she and Adrianna would put the mother of all smackdowns on this bunch.

Her mind wanted to black out, anything to get away from this raging pain. She had to stay awake even if she couldn’t see.

Then she inhaled the stinking scent of limes. The worst smell of Noirre majik smoked around her, as a slimy, crawling feeling slid over her entire body. She struggled, trying to push out kinetics wildly from her fingers.

“Make her stop that,” someone ordered.

A fist hit her in the wound in her chest.

She stopped breathing.

 

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