When it comes to urban fantasy, Dianna Love
is a master.
Evalle muttered, “It’s been thirty minutes and I don’t see anything to kill.” She hugged her leather motorcycle jacket tighter against the chilly night air and glanced over at Reece “Casper” Jordan.
“It’s only been twenty minutes. Patience, Sunshine,” Casper murmured.
“It’s too cold for patience. And don’t call me Sunshine.” She had zero appreciation for January in Atlanta. The sun had set over five hours ago and the temperature had to be in the low thirties by now. Intermittent snow had started accumulating enough to leave footprints. Unlike the northeast corner of the country, this city saw little snow, and a one-inch dusting would empty stores of milk and bread.
The bread companies and dairies must have cut a deal with the gods of winter.
Huffing out a frosty breath, she announced, “I’m not hanging around all night and freezing.”
She quirked a threatening eyebrow at the VIPER agent who loved to get under everyone’s skin, but he was looking away and failed to notice. Plus, she wore special sunglasses and he couldn’t see that well in the darkness anyway.
She could. Born with glowing neon-green eyes, she was capable of seeing in almost total darkness. It was one of the few benefits of being an Alterant, a half-blood Belador. But of all the strange preternaturals who belonged to the VIPER coalition, she’d never met another being exactly like her.
Sure, the other Alterants had bright-green eyes, but she knew of none who possessed her body’s deadly reaction to the sun.
Casper had lifted his chin to stare into the night at the tops of trees in Candler Park.
She’d always felt at home in this section of town. It was close to Little Five Points, where she ate at restaurants like The Vortex, a good place to chow down, and made an occasional stop at Psycho Sisters when she had a rare urge to shop.
Neither was an option tonight.
Not with a demon, or some other creature, stalking this vicinity. Evalle had fought a demon two months ago in Stone Mountain Park, up on the northeast side of metro Atlanta. Few had been sighted since then.
Maybe she and her sidekicks for tonight weren’t actually hunting a demon. Might just be someone stealing dogs. She could see a report getting blown out of proportion until it changed from dognapping to an invisible force dragging dogs away.
That didn’t sound like a demon in her book.
Tracking down a dog thief was a human law enforcement issue, but since VIPER also watched over humans, they’d assigned this to her, Casper, and Lucien Solis.
“Something doesn’t feel right,” Casper muttered. He’d just returned from scaling the tallest oak tree in this wooded section to view the area from a high point. Better him than her.
She liked her feet planted on solid ground.
But Casper had first shifted into his ghost form, then basically floated to the top. He’d once told her his ghost form couldn’t actually fly, but he could levitate above anything solid, including tree limbs.
“I’m ready to go as soon as Lucien gets back,” Evalle announced. She’d hiked all over this place and the nearby neighborhoods, hoping to catch whoever had been stealing domestic pets. “This is a crap assignment.”
Inclining his head, Casper frowned. “Agreed. I don’t see squat. Did you hear where the intel came from?”
A fair question, since she’d taken the call from her Belador superior then rounded up Casper and Lucien to join her. “Supposedly a troll reported seeing something dragging a pack of dogs into the park after midnight.”
“Aw, hell. Might be a troll stealing the dogs. They eat about anything.”
Eww. “I wouldn’t point a finger at a troll right now if I were you. That’s all it’d take to crank them up again after that mess with a warlock using trolls to power a spell to create fake demons.”
“You’re right. The trolls are still complaining that VIPER didn’t do enough.”
Since trolls weren’t members of the coalition, they had an agreement with VIPER that allowed trolls to live in the city, as long as they didn’t hunt here.
Translation: Don’t kill humans.
Some trolls were good people, but as a race they were predators and not exactly at the bottom of the food chain.
With the exception of a rare few, humans had no idea nonhumans existed and cohabitated in this world, but if demons kept popping up, it wouldn’t be long before that changed.
“This is bullshit,” Casper grumbled. “I’m with you. I’m done with being a damn dogcatcher.” He crossed his arms, then looked to his left as Lucien emerged from the darkness, seeming to do so without even disturbing the air around him.
The two men partnering with her tonight were from opposite ends of the spectrum.
Casper hailed from Texas. He had snakeskin boots and jeans to go with his southern drawl. He wasn’t overly bulked up, but at six-two he took up plenty of space and filled out a denim jacket with a mile of shoulders. Standing with his legs apart, he looked ready for a showdown.
Lucien’s black hair curled at the collar of his wool peacoat, just adding to the mysterious look of the Castilian who kept to himself. He spoke in a smooth voice, rich with his unusual accent. “I may have found something.”
Evalle wanted to groan.
Casper did. “I didn’t see a thing from up top. What’d you find?”
“I’m not sure yet. Every time I got close, it moved. I think whatever it is detects my power.”
“And just what is that power?” Evalle asked, not expecting an answer since Lucien shared little with his teammates. Call her crabby, but cold weather brought out that side of her.
Snowflakes sifted through the air. Again.
Great. Just great.
Lucien studied her for a moment as if sizing up his reply. “When I first met you, I had no idea what an Alterant was, other than a half-blood Belador. I know little more than that now.”
She got what he was saying.
Back before she’d learned the ugly truth about the other half of her blood, Lucien had never hesitated to partner with her on a mission, even when other VIPER members balked. Also, he’d never questioned her background, as long as she wasn’t a witch. “Point taken.”
His lips quirked with a smile and he gave a slight nod.
If he’d shared that slight smile with a room full of single women, the next sound would have been panties hitting the floor. Thankfully, she had a natural immunity to his dark and sexy allure.
She had her own hot man at home. “Then what are we doing?”
Lucien turned to Casper. “Want to see if you can get close to whatever it is in your other form?”
She and Casper had been teamed up before in the past, too. She’d often wondered if that had been because neither of them fit into the usual nonhuman categories.
They were unknown, or other.
She’d graduated to known since she discovered that she carried the blood of two sworn preternatural enemies—Belador and the Medb coven. The cowboy, on the other hand, had gained his nonhuman status by accident. Years back, during a trip to Scotland to trace his family roots, Casper had been struck by lightning.
On the plus side, he’d survived the electrical charge.
On the not-sure-how-to-gauge-it side, he now shared his body with an ancient Highland warrior, and could morph into a shadowy image. When Casper decided to hide, he was harder to locate than a flea on a Saint Bernard.
There had to be more to his Scotland story, but when pressed for details he’d give his good-old-boy chuckle and say something like, “Ya’ll don’t have time for all that. Now, let me tell you about the rodeo I won in Houston ...”
Casper scrubbed a hand over his mouth. “I’ll give it a try. This’ll be my second time changing shape in less than an hour. I don’t know how long my ethereal form will hold.”
After Casper returned from his recon on top of the trees, it had taken him almost a full minute to shift back to human. He was vulnerable to attack during the change, and this one would be even slower.
Lucien said, “I understand. We’ll stay close enough to cover you. Let me locate whatever it is again, and I’ll give you a signal for which way to move. Don’t engage unless you think your ghost form will scare it to death.”
“Roger that.” Casper lowered his arms, and his body slowly turned translucent.
Lifting her spelled dagger from where it had been tucked in the sheath at her side, Evalle nodded at Lucien. “I’ll cover the rear. Lead the way.”
She trailed far behind Lucien as he led them from the thick oak grove to the public pool she’d already searched once. Casper allowed his form to glimmer next to her.
Evalle gave him thumbs up that she had him in sight. Then his glimmer dimmed to the point that even her sensitive eyes were tested to see him as he moved ahead of her.
They kept their distance from Lucien to allow him a chance to locate the creature.
She glanced up at the unlit security lights. They’d been functioning when she’d hiked through here a half hour ago. She couldn’t inform these two about that without speaking since neither one had the telepathic ability she shared with other Beladors, and all three of them knew to be silent at this point.
When Lucien reached the first corner of a one-story building connected to the pool by a fenced enclosure, he lifted a fist as the sign for them to stop. Without looking back, he signaled for Casper to move out to the right toward the pool.
Casper’s translucent figure dissolved into the night.
Evalle moved in the same direction Lucien had gone, but she stepped very slowly. She amped up her Belador hearing until the silence became a shirring noise of snow falling and small creatures scampering around.
Then a crunching sound stopped her.
There wasn’t enough snow on the ground yet to make that crispy noise.
She looked around to locate Lucien. He was out of sight again. How was she supposed to know if he’d made that sound or if something else had?
Lucien appeared far to her right and Casper’s glimmer caught up to him. They raced off into the darkness.
Seriously? What the heck did Lucien want her to do? Working as a team meant communication, dammit.
Releasing a pent-up breath, she eased forward another step. Might as well give this place one last thorough look.
The sound of a door opening at the other end of the building turned her around. Had something drawn Lucien away, then it backtracked, thinking no one had stayed behind?
Evalle turned slowly, taking in the huge tree overhanging that end of the building, and crept up to the corner that was smothered in darkness.
She started to move around the corner but froze at a sound she couldn’t identify. Sounded like someone had crossed a bullfrog with a cricket. The thing made a low, rumbling frog noise that ended in a smothered chirping. If not for powering up her hearing a moment ago, she would have missed it.
A flash of movement on top of the building drew her gaze upward.
The clouds had parted, and with a half-moon shining now, Casper’s translucent form picked up just enough light for her to discern his outline. When had he returned?
He motioned that he was staying up top to keep an eye out.
At least one teammate kept her informed.
Evalle made it around the street-side end of the structure and stuck her neck out barely enough to look past the corner, then ducked right back.
Crap. Right around the corner, a door stood ajar.
That would be a clue, Sherlock.
Leaning out further this time to look inside the room, she counted at least eight dogs huddled in a tight group. Something invisible corralled them. There might actually be more than eight animals. It was so dark inside there that, even with her vision, she could only separate the light-colored ones.
Crud. So much for Casper’s theory about being relegated to freakin’ dogcatchers.
Something was holding those animals, but what? And what about that strange noise? If the gods were in a good mood, it was nothing more than a mutant bullfrog with no fear of freezing.
As she strained to see into the corners of the room, the animals became agitated and began moving around, howling and barking. The sound wasn’t loud even to her ears. Weird. Their invisible constraint apparently also deadened the sound. Whatever held the dogs in place had muffled the noise to where no human security or maintenance person would hear it.
Checking over her shoulder and scanning the surrounding yard, she held her breath, listening for anything else.
Nothing. But the rest of the area was now pitch-dark. Even her exceptional night vision failed to penetrate it. What had happened to the moonlight? The clouds were still AWOL, so the moon should be right above her.
Heading around the corner, she’d made one step toward the door when the pack of animals backed away as far as they could, still huddled as a group.
Not one of them made a sound now.
That couldn’t be good.
Hair stood up along her arms. She turned slowly to search around her again. A cold breeze ruffled her hair, but the chills racing up her spine were no longer driven by temperature.
She didn’t see anything at first, but then her eyes focused on a dark shape waaaaay too close to her, blocking the moon. She looked up, up, up until she could make out just enough of a long snout shape, ten feet off the ground, to call that the head.
What was that thing? The rest of its body was just a dark blob.
So far, nothing that resembled any demon she’d ever seen.
It hadn’t noticed her. Its head was tilted toward the roof, focused on something.
Could it see Casper?
She looked back around for Lucien. Still no sign of him, but she needed some room to deal with this sucker. Looking down, she could see where its feet had actually sunk into the frozen ground. It probably weighed as much as an elephant. She had no idea what she was up against. Backing up would give her a chance to size up her opponent and come up with a plan for fighting it.
This is what I get for complaining about being a dogcatcher.
The most she could do from this position would be to stab it in the side of the leg, which was pretty much guaranteed to piss off something this humongous. That would get her squashed by a foot she couldn’t see to avoid.
She moved back toward the corner, taking a step, then another step, keeping her eyes on the creature. Another couple feet and she’d have some room to move.
Her next step dropped her foot into a hole as deep as her knee and just wide enough to trap her boot, jostling her backwards. She flailed her arms to keep from falling and breaking her leg. Once she caught her balance, she listened for any movement.
Had Sasquatch noticed?
Yanking her gaze straight up, she found two bright yellow eyes staring at her from the biggest horse head she’d ever seen. It was stuck on top of a giant, hunched-over human body.
Shock registered a moment before his huge hands lunged for her.
She shoved up a hit of kinetic power to block him.
He slapped the invisible force. Vibration jarred her teeth. Growling, he started beating both fists on her kinetic shield.
With only one foot for support, she was off balance and bending further back with each blow.
She yelled, “Hey! Little help!”
Casper was of no battle use as a ghost, but that didn’t stop the cowboy from dropping to the ground. He began changing to his human form, slowly.
Thankfully, he made almost no noise while his body worked through the transition.
Besides, the monster was focused on her right now. It lifted a foot the size of a table and stomped her shield.
Her arms threatened to give out under the pressure. She shoved harder, calling on all her power to push back, but her arms started to shake with strain.
The thing weighed as much as a car.
Casper stopped changing in half-form and started shouting at the monster, drawing its attention.
“Casper, no!” she shouted.
Too late. Sasquatch swung away from pounding on Evalle’s kinetics to go after Casper.
She had no way to stop the monster.
It would kill him.
Evalle couldn’t get traction from her awkward position to do anything more than throw a new kinetic hit at the creature determined to smash Casper.
She slapped a blast at its thick head, shoving the creature sideways. Its dark body flickered and the head came fully into view, complete with a bushy mane. Grayish-blue skin didn’t look any more alien on Sasquatch than the wild-eyed horse head snapping at Casper. The hunched-up body was narrow and covered in a map of tight muscle. Tiny black pupils floated in its yellow eyes. The bottom half of its body kept fading in and out from a dark shadow form to reveal snippets of a human-like body.
Was it wearing a glamour?
Snow sucked up off the ground beside Evalle, and started spinning into a sphere the size of a laundry basket. The spiraling snow continued to take shape as it lifted higher and flattened out. In the next second, it turned into a thin horizontal disk five feet across, and made a high-pitched whine.
What. The. Hell?
She didn’t have time to think about it. The monster jerked back around to her. She stabbed her hands down onto the hard ground, and shoved up, trying to free herself. Bones in her ankle were close to snapping.
Sasquatch kicked at her.
Dammit. She fought for balance and threw up a new kinetic wall, but it lacked the power of her first one. His kick jarred all the bones in her upper body.
A high-pitched whine screamed near her. She glanced around to find the snow disk spinning closer.
“Drop your kinetics, Evalle,” Lucien ordered.
Was he kidding? She twisted further to see that, yes, Lucien controlled the snow Frisbee. “That all you’ve got?”
Lucien ignored her and moved his wheel higher in the air, just as the monster turned and drew back a fist to swing at Casper again.
“Do it!” Lucien demanded.
Evalle killed her shield and shouted, “Hit the ground, Casper!”
The cowboy dropped fast. His human form finished taking shape in mid-fall, just before he slammed the hard surface with a grunt of pain.
The bright, spinning disk shot upward and sliced across the creature’s throat without any resistance.
Sasquatch froze, then reached up for his head as it tipped over and fell to the ground. His body tumbled next ... heading straight for Evalle.
She pushed up one more time, using what power she had left to block him from crushing her, but her arms wouldn’t hold long. Blood spewed from his headless neck and splashed her through cracks in her kinetic wall. Warm liquid splattered her skin and clothes. Ick.
Soft howling and barking sounded from the side of the building as Casper got to his feet and shook his head. “Man, that body change screws with me.” He took in the headless corpse. “Damn, son, you do that with snow?”
He got a quirked eyebrow from Lucien for that.
“You two want to make yourselves useful and get this thing off me?” she grumbled.
It took both Lucien and Casper to drag the body to one side.
She dropped her arms and sucked in deep breaths, waiting as Casper and Lucien dug a trough wide enough to free her boot. No small feat with the ground frozen. She accepted Casper’s offer of a hand up and hissed at the sore ankle, but she could walk without limping.
“You’re the only agent I know who could find a gopher hole while fighting a monster, Sunshine,” he quipped.
She gave up correcting him on how to address her and said, “It’s a talent. Anybody know what that thing is?”
Lucien studied the body. “I don’t think it’s a demon.”
“Huh,” Casper grunted. “What then?”
“With that hunched body shape and horse head, it might be a tikbalang from the Philippines.” Lucien glanced toward the whining and yipping still coming from the back. “But I don’t get why it was hoarding dogs instead of killing them, or what it’s doing here. Something’s not right about this.”
As if anything was ever easy in their world?
Evalle glanced at the lifeless eyes staring up at the sky. The eyes were flat black now instead of yellow.
Mission accomplished, right? Why did Lucien have to make her think there was more to this than just life in the underworld of Atlanta’s nonhuman community?
She wiped ick off anywhere she could. Storm was going to pitch a fit when she showed up bloody. “Do you think the Medb could have brought it in, or maybe made this thing?” she asked.
“They could,” Lucien said, not committing to his answer. “But this doesn’t fit for any of the covens, even the Medb. This took serious power to control, and I’m not seeing the reason for it even being here.”
Casper added, “Yeah. Dog theft? What’s with that?”
Lucien said, “No idea.”
Evalle still liked her worst enemy as the culprit. “Maybe the Medb coven is behind this, and they just wanted to annoy VIPER because of the sanction. Create havoc. I don’t know.”
Lucien looked as if he considered that. “I forgot about the Medb getting sanctioned for that rogue warlock in November.”
“Not all of them were sanctioned,” Evalle clarified. “Just the queen and Cathbad. That doesn’t mean those two wouldn’t order their warlocks to find a creature like this and use it to screw with us.”
Casper grunted. “It’d be same day, same shit for that coven. They probably sit around laughing about this, because you know they can scry damn near anything and they try constantly to watch this stuff.”
Lucien and Evalle exchanged a look then raised their eyes to search around the area, as if they could see someone watching them via a scrying vessel.
Howls and barks grew louder from the room on the other side of the open door.
Lucien opened the door wide, exposing the animals that had moved forward again, but were still clustered too tightly to be free. He lifted his hands over the invisible enclosure and whispered something.
Evalle pushed loose strands of hair from her eyes, trying to make sense of all this. “What was the creature doing with all these ...”
“Watch out,” Casper yelled, dancing sideways the second Lucien freed the dogs. Four-legged beasts shot out in all directions.
Lucien stepped out and looked around. “Guess that takes care of figuring out what to do with them.”
“Lucien! Don’t turn them loose. We need them for proof that our assignment’s completed, and the local authorities can’t get them back to the owners if we let them go.”
Lucien spit out something angry, which she took to be a curse in Spanish, then raised his hands and did that whispering thing again.
Howling erupted in the distance and grew louder as the dogs ran back toward them.
The chain-link fence attached to one corner of the building circled a pool, then connected at the other side. A locked gate opened all by itself as the dogs ran straight for it. When the last one ran through, the gate shut and locked again.
“Satisfied?” Lucien asked.
“Yes, thank you.” Evalle raked a hand over her head. She’d poke at Lucien’s weird powers again, but right now she just wanted warm and clean. “We’ll have our people inside Fulton County Animal Services come over as soon as we’re done and pick them up.”
That strange bullfrog grunting started up again, inside what Evalle had thought was now an empty room. A loud cricket chirp punctuated the weird noise, which could be heard easily now that the invisible enclosure no longer stifled the sound.
They all turned to look as a shaggy little critter stepped out of the room. It was the size and shape of a bichon frisé, but with salt-and-pepper hair and large owl eyes that were sunshine yellow. Really bright yellow.
If the eyes hadn’t clued her in that this was not a recognized breed, then the unicorn horn sticking up four inches from its forehead would do it.
Lucien backed away.
Mr. Build-A-Monster-Killing-Saw-From-Snow retreated?
A little doggie thing bothered him? “What’s the matter, Lucien?” she asked.
“I’m not getting near that thing.”
Casper found this amusing too. “Why?”
“It’s a witch’s familiar. I want nothing to do with it.”
The cowboy asked, “How do you know that’s what it is?”
“I just do,” Lucien said with finality, dismissing any future questions.
“White witch or dark witch?” Evalle asked.
“I don’t know that.”
Evalle took in the little critter’s sad eyes. They reminded her of Feenix, her pet gargoyle, who was only two feet tall himself. She leaned over and called to it. “Come here, baby. Let’s get you back to your owner.”
The critter stood up on its stubby, thick hind legs. It waddled forward.
“Evalle, I don’t think you un—” Lucien started.
That half-croaking, half-chirping, bullfrog noise started again. The fluffy critter stopped long enough to bare its fangs in Lucien’s direction.
Lucien’s dark expression warned that he would answer any challenge.
Evalle lifted a hand at the men. “Give me a minute.” She patted her knee and the little doggie thing walked upright all the way to her, then leaped unexpectedly into her arms.
“Okay.” She caught the animal, careful to stay clear of the horn. Smiling, she looked at Lucien and Casper. “See? No problem. We’ll just take him, her, it to—”
Lucien was shaking his head. “There is no we. It’s you.”
She lost her smile and thought about baring her teeth. “I don’t have any idea how to find its owner tonight, and I can’t take this little guy home.”
Casper suggested, “Give it to Sen and let him find it a home.”
Lucien said, “Bad idea. The white witch council is having issues with VIPER. If that beast belongs to a white witch, handing it to Sen would light a powder keg of trouble.”
Lucien and Rowan, a powerful witch, were chummy, even though he claimed to hate witches of any type. Actually, from what Evalle had seen the last time those two were within spitting distance of each other, steamy would be a more accurate description than chummy.
She told Lucien, “Then why don’t you take this critter to Rowan and let her figure out who owns it?”
That seemed a perfect place to start looking for the owner, since Rowan led the white witch council.
“No. That’s not my responsibility,” Lucien stated.
The Castilian had always been a bit distant, but he’d never backed away from helping on any assignment in the past. Why now? Evalle shifted her heavy armful and said, “I thought you were friends with Rowan.”
“We have an understanding, which includes me not dealing with her gaggle in any way. Besides, that creature being out on its own is a bad sign. Witches do not lose track of their familiars.”
“Well, duh,” Evalle smarted off. “We know it was dognapped or whatever.”
“No. There’s more to this, and I want no part of it.”
What did he mean by ‘more to this’? She’d ask, but he had a not-budging look on his face. “Fine.” She turned to Casper. “Would you take this to Rowan?”
“Sure.” He reached for the little unicorn mutt, but it bared its sharp fangs at him. Its jaw unhinged wide enough to snap off a person’s head.
Casper snatched his hand back, then waved her off. “Nope, that one’s all yours, Sunshine.”
“How am I supposed to take this to Rowan?”
“I thought you drove Storm’s Land Cruiser tonight.”
Oh, that’s right. I left my motorcycle at home. “I did bring his truck, but not to use for animal control,” she argued. Weak, but that was all she had.
Casper shrugged. “Don’t know what to tell you.”
Should she take it home and call Rowan in the morning? Evalle envisioned this little terror around Feenix, who could be an even bigger terror. Plus, Storm would have to deal with the whole screwed-up menagerie. Her life was complicated enough.
She needed another option. “I can’t take this home. I don’t even know what it eats.”
Lucien said, “Probably anything it wants, and I’m talking live food.”
Not what she’d wanted to hear. “How did that tikbalang thing capture this familiar if he’s that dangerous?”
Glancing around the dark room, Lucien speculated, “The familiar might have been hiding here if...” he hesitated, then shook off whatever he was going to say. “I don’t know, but if someone with power was controlling the tikbalang, they might have sent it to capture the familiar. The tikbalang could’ve even brought the dogs to use as bait for the familiar, and shoved them in there when we showed up.”
Evalle wanted to know what Lucien held back, but no one was pulling a word out of him if he didn’t want to share.
“Why would anyone want a witch’s familiar?” This from Casper.
Lucien shrugged. “I have no idea. Just throwing out possibilities for why it would be here with the dogs.”
Evalle smiled at Casper. He’d been with her through a lot of missions, after all.
Casper crossed his arms. “No use wastin’ those rare pearly whites on me, Sunshine. I don’t have any majik mojo for containing that critter. You either take it with you or turn it loose.”
Crud. If she turned this critter loose it might get lost forever or eat everything in its path. “Fine. If I’m stuck with this miniature land piranha, then you two can deal with Sen.”
Sen served as the liaison between VIPER agents and their Tribunal, a ruling body of three deities who made decisions and passed judgment on nonhumans living in the human world. If humans had a clue what actually went on, they’d probably run screaming, which was why VIPER kept nonhuman activity hidden. Even Sen had to follow that rule.
He hated Evalle with a passion that she’d never understood, and she didn’t like him any better because of it.
She wasn’t alone in that club.
As a testament to just how much Lucien did not want any part of the witch’s familiar, he nodded. “We’ll handle this and Sen.”
Casper added, “I’ll get in touch with our people in animal control.”
Evalle realized something else. “I don’t have Rowan’s new number. Maybe you could just call her...” Her voice trailed off as Lucien fished out his phone and punched in numbers.
Her phone played the default jingle.
While her phone continued repeating the jingle two more times before quieting, Lucien said, “Now you have her number.”
She’d never seen Lucien so unwilling to touch something. In fact, Trey said that Lucien had once drawn a dark energy out of Rowan after a powerful Kujoo magician who answered to a Hindu god had found a way inside her mind. Rowan was one of the most powerful witches Evalle had ever seen, so anything capable of controlling her mind would have to be badass. Trey had been impressed by Lucien’s abilities, and considering all that Trey had seen as a Belador warrior, it took a lot to impress him.
Evalle couldn’t stand around and debate this any longer.
She told Lucien and Casper, “In that case, I’m off duty.” She struck out for Storm’s Land Cruiser parked two blocks away.
Should she just go home and see what Storm thought?
No. She was not bringing anything home that might shake the fragile truce Feenix and Storm had been working under for more than a month.
Feenix had stopped eating anything silver that belonged to Storm, and Storm had been using his majik to animate toys for her pet gargoyle.
Life was in balance most days.
She gave the shaggy critter another look and decided he was a male until she learned differently. “What am I going to do with you?”
The mutt-familiar showed his fangs, but made no sound.
She took that to mean he had no answers either.
With a little luck, this critter would belong to a white witch Rowan knew. Problem solved. If not, Evalle would have to report it to VIPER, which would then make it her duty as the Belador-Medb liaison to contact Queen Maeve to find out if it belonged to any of their coven members.
That would probably require being teleported to TÅµr Medb.
Wouldn’t that be just what Queen Maeve wanted? To have Evalle trapped inside her kingdom?
By the time she reached Storm’s truck, Evalle had come up with a second option that might save her from having to visit Rowan or deal with the Medb queen.
She put the mutt on the passenger seat and dug out her cell phone. She had Adrianna Lafontaine on speed dial. At one time, Evalle had wanted nothing to do with the Sterling witch, but that had been before they went through near-death experiences and got to know each other. Since then, they’d formed an unlikely friendship that had benefitted both of them in the recent past.
Adrianna answered, “Tell me you’re not calling for anything witch related.”
“That narrows our conversation to hello and goodbye.”
Adrianna sighed audibly. “What do you need?”
“Stop sounding like I’m asking you to bloody your manicure.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time that happened with you.”
Evalle let that dig pass. “What’s got you so cranky?”
“I’m getting constant calls from VIPER agents asking about my Witchlock powers.” Adrianna’s voice changed to mocking. “How does your new power work? Are you going to start a coven? Are you advising the new witch council? Will you be meeting with the dark covens?” She took a breath. “I expect to hear from Oprah next.”
Grinning, Evalle said, “It’s tough to be a celebrity.”
Had Adrianna just growled? The witch grumbled, “I even heard from the Sterlings this week.”
“Really? What’d they want?”
“I have no idea. I disconnected the call immediately.”
“Can’t say I blame you for that.” A lot of bad blood ran between Adrianna and her Sterling coven family. She’d disowned the lot of them, and for good reasons. Evalle could commiserate. The aunt who’d raised Evalle had kept her locked in a basement and knowingly allowed a man to abuse her as a teen.
To lighten the mood and get back to the problem at hand, Evalle said, “I didn’t call for an interview or to ask about Witchlock. I have a lost familiar and just want to know if you could identify the specific witch who owns it.”
“I haven’t even told you what it looks like, Adrianna.”
“It wouldn’t matter. The only way I’d know anyone’s familiar was if I socialized with the witch, and we both know that doesn’t happen.”
There had been no emotion in Adrianna’s words. She’d been raised a dark Sterling witch, but she didn’t associate with either dark or white witches. That alone made her the best person to possess the ancient power of Witchlock, which could rule all witches. Rule a lot of other powerful beings as well.
Evalle had helped Adrianna fight Veronika, a crazy witch who had intended to use Witchlock to wipe out nonhumans who refused to serve her and force weaker witches to be her slaves.
Veronika lost that battle, and now resided in a cell beneath the mountain housing VIPER headquarters.
Evalle couldn’t hide her disappointment. “So you can’t help?”
“What’re you doing with a witch’s familiar anyhow?”
“It’s not by choice.” Evalle shared her night, including the snow-power disk that Lucien had used as a guillotine. “Here’s the kicker. This little familiar might weigh fifteen pounds and doesn’t even come to my knees. After killing the weird dog-thief monster, Lucien double-stepped away from this familiar as if it was a lethal disease.”
“It might just be.”
“If it belongs to a dark witch, the only way she’d allow anyone to touch her familiar would be if she were dead. As for white witches, it may be the same, but you’ll have to ask Rowan to be sure. With the Medb coven infiltrating the city, it could belong to one of their group.”
Evalle hoped not. “Any other time, I wouldn’t lose sleep over one less Medb witch or warlock, but VIPER is actually sending agents out on security details for the Medb because the Medb are claiming harassment.”
“You had to see that coming. The minute VIPER accepted the Medb into the coalition, the first strategic move I expected was something that would put all the non-Medb on defense, especially Beladors. VIPER should have anticipated these problems.”
“Agreed, but this goes beyond harassment if one of theirs is dead,” Evalle conceded.
“Exactly. If you show up with a familiar, and it belongs to the Medb, you’d better hope the witch died of natural circumstances or that you find the killer quickly. I’d start looking for a killer. If a witch or warlock died naturally, someone in the coven would know and would have come for the familiar, which means Queen Maeve can use this as grounds to demand restitution from the coalition.”
Evalle made the leap to where Adrianna was headed. “Like handing over a gryphon.”
“More like handing over you,” Adrianna pointed out. “She wants any and all gryphons, but getting you would be a coup. Everyone knows you’re on the top of Queen Maeve’s wish list. A Tribunal might even suggest giving you to them as compensation.”
True. “This timing sucks.”
“I can’t imagine it would ever be a good time to cross a powerful dark witch coven,” Adrianna noted in a wry tone.
“Now is really bad, though. A Tribunal is supposed to finally vote on acknowledging the Alterant-gryphons as a free race this week, but I have a feeling it’s been put off again. No one has confirmed the meeting. The deities are already jacked up about the constant conflict between Beladors and the Medb. If this familiar belongs to a Medb witch, things would turn far worse.”
“True. How much time until the vote?”
“It’s supposed to be tomorrow, but ...” Evalle shrugged. “The only ones with a vested interest in this vote are the gryphons. I have some degree of freedom and a life. When the vote doesn’t happen, I’m the one who will have to tell them.” How am I going to do that, then return home to Atlanta with a clear conscience? I can’t.
“That’s ... unfortunate,” Adrianna consoled.
“Tell me about it. Every time Quinn asks Sen for information on the vote, Sen just smiles and shrugs. It’s not like Macha will raise a fuss over it on our behalf.” Still, Evalle had hoped for a quiet week leading up to the Tribunal meeting, just in case it did happen. Adrianna was right. Queen Maeve would turn this into an opportunity to go gryphon shopping.
At that point, it wouldn’t be just Evalle’s future at risk. There were the other gryphons to consider.
But beyond that, Storm, Tzader, and Quinn would get involved in a bloody way.
“Good luck,” Adrianna offered. “I’ll be interested in hearing how this turns out.”
Me, too. “Thanks, I’ll let you know.” Evalle ended the call and glanced at the furry bundle in the passenger seat. Nothing to do now but contact Rowan. She texted a quick message to the witch, then cranked the engine to warm the cab while she waited for a reply. Nothing came back.
She drove away, determined to leave this little guy with someone tonight.
Evalle would rather have her fingernails ripped out one at a time than take this familiar to VIPER, but she’d end up hauled into a Tribunal meeting the second someone got wind that she’d failed to inform everyone of what she’d found.
She rubbed her head. No easy answers.
Not with her best friend and former Belador Maistir, Tzader, out of pocket at Treoir Castle. In Tzader’s absence, her other best friend, Quinn, was doing his best to carry out the duties of Maistir over all North American Beladors. Added to that, Quinn was dealing with a boatload of personal grief over the death of the woman he’d loved in secret for years.
When Evalle pulled up to a stoplight, she turned to her silent companion. “So tell me, do you belong to a good witch or a bad witch?”
Big gold owl eyes looked up at her, clearly not getting the pop culture reference.
“Ho-kay. Plan B.” Just as soon as she came up with one.