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Hostile energy swarmed Casidhe’s cottage and buzzed her skin.
Her adrenaline rush crashed, slamming into the shock chilling her. She couldn’t stop the ringing in her ears.
She’d killed a live being.
Two, in fact. Neither had been human, but still.
She clutched Lann an Cheartais with a death grip. The sword had come to her aid.
The blade trembled in her shaking hands.
What were those two dead yellow things at her feet? One headless body. She’d stabbed the second monster and ... wait! Had a hand on that one just twitched? Panicked, she whipped her sword up and chopped off another head.
Her beloved cottage, her sanctuary, would never be the same. She would never be the same. She fought for a deep breath.
The air stunk of rotten eggs, a sulfuric odor from the horrid corpses.
Her stomach twisted and tried to dump the stew she’d barely eaten. She swallowed hard at what she’d done, but she’d had no choice. Those glowing yellow beings had clawed her clothes and tried to kill her.
A wailing howl broke through her foggy mind and snapped her back into real time.
Her crazy intruder still battled demons outside. She’d lopped the head off of one that had tried to get in. Unlike the bodies stinking up her home, the demon she’d decapitated had burst into orange dust.
Move, move, move! Screamed through her mind. Stop wasting time on dead monsters.
This was her chance to escape.
Her conscience smacked her brain aside. What about the guy fighting those demons?
Leaning forward, she took a quick look out the open doorway at the stranger who had broken into her home. With shoulders wider than the door and long, powerful legs, he battled like a Spartan warrior. One massive booted foot plowed through her gorse and delphinium flower beds now splattered with blood. He swung a monster sword he’d conjured up as if he’d been born with the hilt in his hands.
That stranger clearly had everything under control. He’d survive.
She could stay here and watch or get the hell out while he was busy. First, she had to reach Fenella and warn her of two threats. Cavan plus tonight’s intruder.
Both men wanted stupid grimoire volumes.
Neither one of them were human.
Casidhe had to grab what she needed and escape. Hurry! She had seconds to make a decision and act. In her mind, she dashed around the room, but in truth she moved like a wobbly toy top.
Of all the things she’d like to take with her, she really only needed one item.
Her mobile phone.
She dodged headless bodies and searched the destruction at a manic pace. Her phone wasn’t on the side table near the door where she normally dropped it along with a small ring of keys.
That table had been shattered.
She jumped around, looking everywhere, but no phone. Damn!
A mournful howl outside yanked her head up. She stared out the window as the last demon fell and burst into orange ash.
Nothing left for the intruder to fight.
Her time had run out!
Another glowing demon emerged from the night and raced toward the cottage. Her intruder yanked his sword up again.
Casidhe cursed silently and spun to leave.
Leaping carefully over the bodies, she raced to her bedroom and laid her sword on the bed. Gripping the oak footboard, she pushed the bed toward the door. Old, but smooth, oak flooring slid apart to reveal a hidden trapdoor someone would have to know was there to find.
Grabbing her sword, she climbed down in the hole, set the blade aside, and reached for a thick rope running through pulleys. Fear gifted her with a boost of strength. She dragged the bed frame and flooring back in place. The boards made a click as they snapped together, leaving her in the dark.
She sat on the step listening to the muffled sounds of the battle. Farther away, but the darkness ramped up her fear. Felt like the battle was right above her.
Keep moving or there’d be hell to pay if a demon caught her in this pitch-black tunnel. She knew this passage well, but had no light. That meant moving slowly or catching her toe and falling on uneven ground.
She could do this. Gripping her sword, she swung the blade up to point ahead of her.
The sword began glowing.
Her heart thumped wildly. Every breath hurt. She had to stop sucking in air so hard and calm down or she’d hyperventilate.
Easier said than done with what she’d just gone through. She rushed ahead, bent over so she could clear the low ceiling. Her ears roared with blood rushing hard through her body. Halfway, she stopped short, expecting to hear the trapdoor open and something dangerous come chasing after her.
The stranger. Demons. Glowing yellow beings.
Any and all made her crab walk faster.
What had caused those hideous yellow beings to attack? One looked like a troll, but she doubted trolls normally lit up as bright as caution lights.
With every step, she chastised her inability to think clearer under stress. She should have grabbed her backpack, clothes, food ... so many things.
There had been no time.
Her intruder must have finished off the last demon by now.
In fact, he was probably searching everywhere for her.
Her heart thudded at pissing him off. There would be a price to pay for that, but he had to catch her first.
Cool air did little to stop sweat from streaming down her face. She clamped the sword hilt tighter in her damp hands, glad for the blade’s glow or a slug would outrun her. This weapon had been made for Herrick’s sister, Shannon, another dragon shifter who had died in the Dragani War.
Would she be pleased or angry an adopted nobody now held her sword?
During Casidhe’s time with Herrick and even in college, she’d been trained to swing an average sword one-handed.
Not this one. Lann an Cheartais required all her strength to wield the blade with any accuracy.
She’d like to ask Herrick if Shannon had used two hands.
She’d like to ask Herrick a thousand questions right now.
As she reached the end of the tunnel she’d traversed many times over the years, she slowed and turned to her left. Three steps in, she swung the sword down and changed her grip so she could carry it with one hand as she climbed.
At the top step, she unlatched the metal covering and waited, listening.
The tunnel had been created centuries ago and ran a hundred meters away from the cottage. Rocks stacked along the walls had been there so long they were settled and tight. Low ceilings allowed women and children to escape as husbands fought off an attack. If a large male enemy followed, he’d be crawling.
That would allow even more time for the vulnerable to flee.
Much as she appreciated the forethought of an escape route, she hated to feel vulnerable.
A demon would crawl that length fast as a rat after cheese.
She pushed the cover up slowly and peeked through the opening. No boots, feet, or unnatural sounds. Lifting the lid out of the way, she climbed out beneath the cover of darkness and stretched her sore back.
Pain zinged in muscles strained from remaining in one position for so long. She clamped her lips tight to trap the groan climbing her throat.
No time to complain. The physical challenge would only get more difficult from here.
Quieting her breathing, she searched the dark forest for any sound of threat.
Nothing but a soothing cricket symphony.
Black shadows surrounded her in every direction, even with the sliver of a moon trying to spear light through the trees. The sweet scent of heather blooming rode on a pleasant summer breeze.
She sucked in a deeper breath and exhaled to wash away the stench from those dead beings.
Hair flicked her face. Propping the sword next to her leg to free her hands, she pulled her hair back into a snug ponytail. Better.
She felt more in control.
Time for a plan, now that she could think for a moment. She’d heard no one tracking her through the tunnel, but that didn’t mean her late night intruder couldn’t find her.
Deep in her gut, she had a feeling that stranger had abilities beyond the majik he’d used to produce a sword.
And how had he entered her cottage without making a sound?
After dropping the trapdoor back in place and rearranging the weeds until the area appeared undisturbed, she took stock of her situation.
No money. No clothes. No phone.
She had Lann an Cheartais, which had stopped glowing.
Did that mean the blade had gone dark to shield her position in the woods or that the cranky weapon had returned to slumber mode?
Shaking off worry over things she couldn’t change, Casidhe started walking in the only direction that made sense.
To Fenella’s farm.
Getting the woman she considered a sister as much as a best friend to safety was her one priority at the moment. With no bicycle, she’d have to walk fast to reach Fenella’s farm twenty-seven kilometers away. She did a quick calculation and estimated it would take her almost four hours, less if she could make up time jogging the flat ground.
What if that stranger who broke into her cottage got to Fenella first?
He’d mentioned seeing Casidhe’s friend leave the ancestral research centre yesterday. What if a demon or yellow thing had followed this stranger ... then Fenella?
Terror had her moving faster. She took off jogging with determination.
After two short rest breaks and sweating a bucket of water, she had one last hill to cross before reaching the quaint farm she loved to visit. She gave herself an attagirl for running most of the way. That should be the current time between one and two in the morning.
Sparing a moment to catch her breath, she pushed again to make it up the last incline. In fairness to her aching legs, she hadn’t stretched before running this distance. The limited lighting allowed her to find her footing and reach the crest of the hill quickly where she paused to enjoy the moment.
Her tight chest muscles eased.
She’d reached Fenella’s home in time.
Her friend’s white farmhouse and barn stood out against the dark night.
Casidhe had always wanted to find someone to paint a picture of this wonderful place. It would make a great gift.
How many times had she visited here in ten years? Fenella would greet her with a smile and make her sit for a piece of pie and milk, then they’d visit all the farm critters.
New energy pushed her to rush down the slope, smiling the whole way. She’d been switching hands while carrying the sword as she jogged and her arms were turning into rubber, but she’d get a break soon. She’d suffer any discomfort to keep her friend safe.
As Casidhe neared the house, she looked up, blinked, and looked again. The relief she’d enjoyed spun away as fast as the last water swirling down a drain.
Something was wrong, very wrong.
Daegan killed the last demon. He watched it turn into orange dust as he took a breath. His heart pounded his chest, but he’d survived and the lass was safe. What must she think after being attacked by Imortiks? In fact, where was she after being in his way earlier?
The silence tipped him off.
He took off running to the open door on the cottage and rushed inside. “Casidhe Luigsech!”
Dropping his head back, he roared with fury.
The walls shook.
How had she escaped without him seeing her? She’d admitted the only door to the house had been the front entrance. That door had never been out of his sight.
Standing inside the cottage, which had been tidy and smelled of coconut when he’d first teleported in secretly, now looked like a bloody battleground. He wiped Imortik and demon blood from his sword on one of the bodies no longer glowing yellow, but the place stank of sulfur.
He raced around searching the cottage, opening every cabinet and closet door, hoping to find Luigsech hidden somewhere in the small structure. Nothing.
He shouldn’t be surprised she’d escaped.
The woman who had pulled an ancient sword from a hiding place behind a bookcase and wielded it in panic might have been terrified at first, but she’d also decapitated Imortiks. She hadn’t broken down into tears or run away screaming.
She’d swung that sword with the fury of female warriors from his time.
The minute he’d been distracted killing the demons, she’d slipped away.
He hadn’t threatened her.
Ruadh made a sound he took as a snort. You scared woman.
Maybe he had.
Regret washed through Daegan, because he had intimidated her about Cavan. She’d met with the mysterious being in the village not far from the ancestral research centre where she worked.
Who the devil could that Cavan be?
Why had he captured Tristan?
Without Luigsech, Daegan had no way to find Cavan.
He needed Cavan to get Tristan back. First, he had to track down the Luigsech woman.
What a mess. He’d come here to find a grimoire to protect all of his people the glowing-yellow Imortiks threatened. More pressing even than that? He had just two days left to save one of his Beladors back in Atlanta from execution by Sen and a Tribunal. Both would face Daegan’s red dragon if they killed Devon.
But retribution would not bring Devon back.
He had no time for regret. His honor drove him to take care with any woman, but he’d be damned if he’d lose even one follower. When in battle, succeeding to protect his people came first. When Daegan found the Luigsech woman this time, he wouldn’t allow her to escape so easily again.
No dancing around when it came to answering his questions either.
She would give him the information he needed and tell him how to find Cavan.
After one more thorough search of the cottage, Daegan limped back to the main room, favoring the leg an Imortik had clawed. His leg ached and his head throbbed just like he’d experienced after the first Imortik attack in Atlanta.
Those bastards shoved venom into him.
How long before he ended up with two much venom to overcome?
Having been a druid in the Treoir realm for many centuries, Garwyli had warned Daegan the rift in the hidden death wall imprisoning Imortiks would crack in other areas of the world. When new cracks occurred, Imortiks that escaped would be drawn to the venom still inside his body.
Daegan tested his power. He teleported the two bodies, along with the disembodied heads, heartened to see them reappear on the ground outside when he stepped from the cottage.
Pointing his finger at the bodies, he called up his dragon fire. Flames burst across the cadavers. Their nasty odor of sulfur and burned skin rose with the smoke as the corpses sizzled in the fire.
To clear his head of that smell and try to find Luigsech at the same time, he teleported around the area surrounding the cottage. He made a wider circle each time until he’d reached a mile out in all directions.
Every time he teleported, it took him longer to reappear.
More frustrated than before with no result, he returned to the cottage.
Tristan’s last telepathic words to Daegan haunted him. His second-in-command seemed to have only an instant to shout that Cavan had him. But recalling the sound of Tristan’s agony gripped his heart and twisted his insides into a mangled mess.
Daegan’s dragon rumbled, angry and ready to break free to hunt Tristan. His dragon had accepted Tristan’s gryphon flying with them and recognized the young man’s loyalty.
He had to calm his dragon. I want to find our friend, too, Ruadh. When we do, the one who kidnapped him will pay. Until then, we must focus on huntin’ the Luigsech woman.
The silence that answered burned his chest.
There had been a time when Daegan would have known who had captured his people. A time when he would have shifted into his dragon form and flown to the enemy’s hold. Just the sight of the feared red dragon of Treoir bearing down on a castle would have been enough to hand over any captives.
Daegan ran his hand over his hair, gripping his head.
One day, his enemies today would know the penalty of touching his people. One day, the red dragon would be enough to hold peace again.
He could do nothing about finding the grimoire volumes or locating Cavan without that woman. Night had dragged into early morning with his circular search around the cottage. Daegan had no choice but to teleport to the ancestral research centre and watch for Cavan, who was to meet Luigsech there this morning, according to her.
With a last look at the house, Daegan flicked a finger to shut the door. Then he teleported to the village in County Galway, a small place on the outskirts of the larger city. He returned to the very spot he and Tristan had teleported to less than a day ago.
With daylight approaching, no one stirred as yet in the quaint community. Daegan cloaked himself and settled in where he could observe the ancestral centre.
Swinging his gaze down the narrow street bordered by attractive buildings, Daegan recalled Tristan’s first question upon arrival and smiled.
“Are these buildings really old, boss? Like 1500s?”
Daegan had chuckled at him. “1500s ’tis not old.”
Where was his friend?
By the time daylight broke, Daegan noted how the villagers smiled and chatted with one another. It reminded him of the people who had lived on his father’s land. He longed to see their faces again, to remember a happier time.
The sound of someone knocking on the door of the ancestral centre pulled Daegan from his musings. Sunshine slowly burned away the early-morning mist and shadows began to lighten.
A boy of thirteen or fourteen stood there. He carried an armful of newspapers and knocked again. “Miss Fenella? Hello, Miss Fenella?”
Appearing confused, he stood there another minute then left a rolled-up paper beside the door and continued down the street. His next stop was the grocery building where Daegan had observed Cavan talking to Luigsech yesterday.
That boy had expected a woman named Fenella to be at the ancestral research centre this morning. That must be the woman Daegan and Tristan observed yesterday, too, who left not long after Luigsech showed up.
Daegan called telepathically to Tristan again. Tristan, say anythin’, any sound, to let me know ya live. Once again, his words met with the same disappointing result.
At separate times, two shopkeepers from nearby stores knocked on the door of the ancestral centre. Both also called out to Fenella. The female shopkeeper walked away, muttering, “Don’t be blamin’ me when ya don’t get yer hot turnover this mornin’.”
She must be the one baking up heavenly smells nearby.
Unease crawled up Daegan’s neck.
Had Luigsech met with Cavan somewhere else?
If so, why wasn’t Fenella here?
Daegan stood from where he’d leaned against a tree, still cloaked to prevent from being seen. He called telepathically to his Belador Maistir over North America. I need your help, Quinn.
Yes, Daegan. Where are you?
County Galway in Ireland.
What do you need me to do?
Daegan explained, ’Tis close to daylight here. Tristan and I arrived yesterday. We observed a bein’ who calls himself Cavan, but he wore a glamour. Tristan and I split up. He followed Cavan and I followed the Luigsech woman we had been watchin’ who works at an ancestral research centre. Cavan captured Tristan. When Tristan called to me telepathically, all I heard was that he had been captured and what sounded as if he tried to tell me the identity of Cavan.
Then we may know this Cavan? Quinn asked.
I feel ’tis a strong possibility.
What else can you tell me about him, Daegan?
Not much. Daegan explained how he and Tristan had followed Luigsech when she left work and her encounter with Cavan, who cloaked their conversation as well as his identity.
Quinn grumbled, We definitely need more. What can I do right now?
First, how are things in Atlanta?
Humans are frantic over monsters in the city. Fights have broken out at UnVeilCon, because they mistook someone in costume as one of us. Law enforcement has been handling those situations. Quinn paused and made a sound like a sigh. Three more Beladors have disappeared, but the Medb have also lost five warlocks and witches. If this is due to Imortiks, which we have to assume as much until finding out differently, it appears they are not just hunting Beladors.
Every time Daegan lost even one Belador or those who allied with him, it felt as if a piece of his soul had been chewed away. But he had to keep moving forward. He could do no more back in Atlanta than Quinn or the rest of his Beladors.
At the moment, Daegan needed his Maistir here more than there. First thing, Quinn, I need ya to assign someone to take your place as Maistir until ya return, and for that person to coordinate the teams with Trey.
Quinn sounded ready with a plan. I say we put Evalle in that position. She’ll have Storm and Adrianna as backup.
Good thinking, Daegan agreed. He paused as someone walked up to the ancestral centre, but they didn’t stop.Next, I would like for ya to bring Reese here, but only if she comes voluntarily. She might be able to help me by usin’ her remote viewin’ gift. If askin’ her is a problem, say so now. I will not think less of ya for your honesty, Quinn.
After a short silence, Quinn said, It’s her choice. I would not make that decision for her, nor would she allow me. I need an hour or so to locate Reese and my daughter, Phoedra, then make arrangements. I’d like to send Phoedra to Treoir where she’ll be safe while we’re both gone.
Daegan walked around to loosen his stiff joints. Of course. Your daughter is welcome to shelter in Treoir as well as any others ya feel are vulnerable.
Thank you. I would also like to send my cousin, Lanna, to be with Phoedra.
Daegan had no issue with that and agreed with his thinking. Quinn would be more at ease here with the young ladies safe from any supernatural threat. Brina will be happy for the company of them both.
Quinn’s voice picked up energy. Excellent. Once I have Evalle and our Beladors set, I’ll send Phoedra and Lanna on their way, then I’ll let you know when I’m ready to teleport with Reese.
Daegan suddenly recalled Reese becoming ill last time when she used her gift to track a bounty hunter as they hunted Evalle’s kidnappers. Either that had made her sick or some other reason. Guilt pushed at him once he’d remembered the incident. He added, Please make sure Reese knows I will understand if she does not wish to do this after her physical reaction last time.
Quinn replied, She might say no if only I asked her, but I seriously doubt she will refuse a request from you.
When Quinn's presence disappeared out of Daegan’s mind, he felt his first flicker of hope.
Reese had an unusual ability of visual projection, which had allowed them to track someone if Reese could sit in the last spot where that person had sat, stood, or fallen.
The Luigsech woman only thought she’d escaped.