Sweat ran down the side of Casidhe’s face in spite of cool air in this dark underground tunnel. Standing in chest-deep water and facing the possibility of dying here jacked her pulse out of sight. She hadn’t left a note at the hotel for Daegan to shield him from the danger of meeting up with Herrick. She did not want a battle of those two dragons. Unfortunately, she’d told Tristan she needed some time to herself.
Daegan would be honorable and respect that, dammit.
“No whinin’,” she muttered, tired of standing in water.
She’d gotten herself into this and would find a way out. Moving her booted foot again, she wiggled it beneath what felt like a crisscross of roots trapping it.
Her routinely insubordinate sword had surprised her by finally sliding from the sheath after another obligatory begging. The blade pointed down, now glowing underwater. One would think that would illuminate the black hole, but she could see nothing past a few inches beneath the surface. All she had to do was cut enough roots to free her boot, then finish trekking the rest of this tunnel to the escape point.
Not a big deal, right?
More sweat trickled down her face.
Her backpack pulled on her shoulders as if it held big rocks when she’d only packed clothes and other necessities for traveling.
Not even a heavy book this time.
Had she made the right decision in sending her books with Tristan to a realm she couldn’t enter?
Her books were safer than her at the moment. Good point.
“Stop stallin’,” she grumbled, which did little to fill her with confidence.
If she jabbed wrong, the razor-sharp blade with a cranky attitude might slice through her boot and take her toes off.
She blew a breath upward, knocking a damp lock of hair from her eyes and poked the sword slowly around her feet. She tapped around, feeling for an opening for the tip.
Maybe she should have taken her normal escape route she’d used for years, but every supernatural person looking for her could pick up her energy trail, her scent, or whatever, to follow her. Someone with a larger body than her average size would have a tough time following the main tunnel, but it would be even more difficult to reach her here.
That’s why halfway through the main tunnel, she’d broken loose the dirt and rocks covering the entrance to this off-shoot from the primary path.
She’d told no one about this alternate route for the ten years she’d lived in Galway.
Not even Fenella.
Casidhe hadn’t hidden anything about the tunnels from her friend. The woman did not like to be in a small place and feared darkness. Avoiding conversation on it seemed considerate.
Shoving harder, her sword skipped off toward her leg.
Her leg felt intact. She took a deep breath and kept moving the tip around six to eight inches from where her boot felt stuck. Panic rattled her chest.
She could die here.
Would anyone care if she never showed up again?
Not Fenella. Maybe not even Herrick if he had decided she was disposable.
Her stomach soured with the lingering hurt of betrayal.
Fenella had been her closest friend for ten years. Her only friend.
No more. That’s why Casidhe needed to reach Herrick’s mountains before Fenella sent a message through the squire family system to him.
Fenella’s family, not Casidhe’s. She had never been part of any family. Only someone trained to do Herrick’s bidding.
Light from the sword dimmed.
Shoot. “Okay, I’ll try harder,” she pacified the sword, which had a mind of its own at times.
Taking a couple deep breaths of dank tunnel air to steady her grip, Casidhe changed her hold on the hilt and prodded around her boot with more effort. She slowly pushed her muscles, silently begging the damn sword for help.
Evidently the sword approved. Light glowed really bright beneath the surface.
If she lopped her toes off, she should be able to grab them when they floated up.
Pressure on top of her boot backed air up in her chest. What was the sword doing?
She pressed down a tiny bit and the root moved down on her boot. The sword blade must be right on top of the root. Easing the blade to her right, she tapped a couple times.
That confirmed what she thought as the tapping didn’t put pressure on her boot again.
Only one way to find out for sure.
Closing her eyes to enhance her sense of feel, she started sawing up and down over the root. After a couple minutes, it felt as if she made no indentation.
Was the root dead and petrified?
Her shoulders drooped. She could not stop now. Moving the tip around, she tried to find a place to pry the root aside so she could wiggle her foot free of the boot. Not ideal, since she would face continuing without one foot protected against the chewed-up floor of the tunnel, but that beat staying here.
A distinct sound of rocks hitting the ground way behind her stopped her motion.
She’d been focused on her task and failed to pay any attention to noises. There shouldn’t be sounds down in this tunnel except water dripping and her exertions.
She held her breath, listening.
The bare clacking of rock on rock sounded again. Was someone down here?
Her heartbeat took off like a rabbit trying to outrun a mountain lion. She tried to stay quiet while putting renewed effort into stabbing the damn sword around to free her boot.
“Cassssidhe,” sang through the air in a whisper. The voice sounded male.
Chills raced up her arms. Who was in the tunnel with her?
Heart pounding furiously, she jabbed the sword down hard. Missed her toes, but still failed to break any root.
“Cassssidhe.” The whisper gained strength.
Her body trembled and her hands jerked the sword. “Cut the root!” she hissed at the sword and shoved the tip down again.
The blade slid off the root.
She wanted to scream.
Gripping the hilt with white knuckles, she begged, “Please, please cut it.” Once more, she jammed the sharp tip down and the blade kept going into the root. Now it was stuck.
“Casidhe!” the angry male voice shouted. “Bring me my book!”
She knew that voice. Cathbad.
What would he do when he found out she’d sent his book to Treoir with Tristan?
She wiggled the hilt back and forth, trying to free the sword. It wouldn’t move an inch and wouldn’t pull straight up. Damn irritating weapon.
“Ya need to come to me, Casidhe. I know ya read the section I warned ya to not read without me. ’Tis fine by me. Now I can call ya to me.”
Could he do that?
Hell, yes. He was a druid thousands of years old.
She had to get out of here fast, which was pretty much impossible without power.
Furious, she hissed at the sword, “Either help or get out of the way, dammit.”
Light glowed brighter beneath the water. The sword yanked down hard, pulling her shoulders to the water. She strained to keep her chin dry. She couldn’t even pull her hands from the hilt.
Well, hell. She’d pissed off an ancient sword.
All of sudden, the sword eased up. She pulled it gently as she raised her body upright.
She turned her boot back and forth, working it free of the roots now that a big one had been cut.
“I am not jokin’, Casidhe. I would prefer not to bang yar head, but I have no control over how my power drags ya to me, only that it will obey me. Ya have until the count of ten to convince me ya are comin’ back, but no more. I am out of patience with everyone at the moment.”
Go to him voluntarily or get dragged by majik? Screw that.
Cathbad shouted, “One!”
As soon as the blade cleared the water, she waded forward, her boot free and foot still inside it.
Her body moved faster than she would have believed possible for slugging through the rocks and mud. Terror would do that to a person. The uneven ground tossed her off balance.
She swallowed the urge to whimper. What would he do to her? Now she could walk, but only bent over.
Her legs and back muscles burned, but she would not stop. If she felt herself go backward, she’d try to use the sword to brace her.
The sword stopped glowing.
Of course. She shoved the blade into the sheath in her backpack, leaving her arms free to pull her through a narrow opening.
Her body stopped suddenly. The blasted backpack got stuck.
Wait. What happened to six?
Wiggling out of the straps, she turned and yanked, dragging her pack through the opening. Rocks and dirt fell loose from above.
The next steps were slow and difficult through areas she had to turn sideways to pass through. The backpack needed to slim down, but that wasn’t happening. She dug in her heels and leaned back as hard as she could.
Tears burned her eyes. Fear gave her another burst of power. She leaned forward then threw her body backward toward the exit, pulling with all of her weight.
The backpack broke free.
She landed on her bum.
A cracking sound rippled overhead. Then another.
“Ten!” Cathbad roared.
Stunned, Daegan stared through Ruadh’s eyes at the gryphon village covered in piles of ice. Where was Tristan?
Ruadh blared a roar that shook the trees.
Ice exploded from one side of the village.
Tristan’s gryphon burst free and screeched furiously, answering Ruadh.
Daegan felt a jolt of relief unlike anything he’d experienced in a long time.
Hurry, Ruadh, Daegan urged telepathically.
His dragon flew a tight circle, dropping as he did until his giant wings flared. Wind from his approach blew sheets of ice crystals away, but piles of jagged ice remained.
The gryphons in human form rushed away to clear a spot for Ruadh to land.
Frozen water covered their wooden cottages and the ground. Those in human form were stunned silent. Two gryphons that had managed to fly away now returned, landing on top of the ice. They attacked chunks of ice with their claws to start clearing the cottages.
Tristan changed back to human form. Daegan clothed him in his normal jeans and T-shirt attire. Tristan turned to shove piles of ice away from where his gryphon had broken free of the ice.
Daegan shifted, clothing himself as he ran over to give aid. Tristan must have shifted into his gryphon as the ice hit and tried to protect Alterant-gryphons.
His sister, Petrina, and Bernie were not anywhere to be seen.
Tristan shoved ice piles aside with Daegan clearing more just as fast.
Daegan could have had Ruadh melt the ice, but he feared endangering anyone beneath it. “How many are buried?”
“Petrina and Bernie are right here, not far under.” Tristan used kinetics to lift a tall pile of ice now dripping as it melted. He tossed that fifty feet away in an open spot then heaved a deep breath at the site of Petrina.
Tristan pulled his sister free first, hugging her to him.
She gasped for a breath, heaving hard. “Bernie!”
Daegan saw a leg sticking out between her ankles. “Ya may have been sittin’ upon him, lass.” He grasped a large section of ice, breaking it free from the pocket shielding Bernie.
The Alterant-gryphon’s bright green eyes were wide open, but not moving.
Relief washed through Petrina’s face. Her deathly pallor regained some color.
She dropped down and patted his cheek. “Bernie. Wake up, Bernie.” Then she lowered her lips and blew air into his lungs.
Bernie’s arms reached for her. His mouth formed a smile.
She lifted away and chuckled. “Come on, Sleeping Beauty.” She offered him a hand, pulling the skinny guy to his feet.
Daegan assessed the damage. Those two suffered a few cuts, but Petrina held her left arm close to her chest. Wounds on Tristan’s back oozed blood through the dark gray T-shirt Daegan had given him.
Guilt slammed Daegan’s middle.
Petrina rounded on him. “What the hell was that?”
Tristan put a hand on her shoulder. His green eyes glowed brighter than usual with a promise of retribution for harming his sister. “I will deal with this.”
She pulled back and wrapped her good arm around the injured one. Water from her soaked short hair ran down her angry face. “No. This is not on you. That dragon attacked our village.”
Daegan spoke up, powering his voice so all would hear. “Petrina is correct. ’Tis my fault and I apologize to all of ya. As ya know, I’ve kept that dragon in the dungeon since we returned from Scamall with him. I would not allow him to leave until he spoke to me in person or by telepathy. That happened today and ...” Daegan shook his head. “I believed he was ready to be among people of this time. I had no idea he would mentally break and attack anyone. I assure ya he will return to the dungeon and remain there.”
Shoving wet hair off her forehead, Petrina lifted her chin. Feminine green eyes flashed with the need for vengeance. “Why don’t you let us teach him a little lesson first?”
Tristan hadn’t taken his eyes off his sister.
Daegan sympathized over the terror Tristan had suffered. It could be no less than the moment he thought he’d lost Tristan as well as the others.
Though he’d been fortunate to have Tristan at his side since coming to Treoir, Daegan still knew little about the backgrounds of Tristan and Petrina, something he would remedy once the Imortiks were stopped. Tristan had shared how he first met Petrina in what he’d called the equivalent of a foster home run by a nonhuman. Tristan had decided to protect the fierce young woman even before he became an adult, creating a bond stronger than that of blood siblings. From the anxious look in Tristan’s eyes, Daegan’s second-in-command never expected his sister to be in danger on Treoir, and she shouldn’t have been in this realm.
While Petrina did not carry the same family blood as Tristan, she had the heart of a warrior just like him.
Daegan explained, “While I would enjoy seein’ the ice dragon face all of ya to pay for his dishonorable action, I have much to deal with in Atlanta and other places. I wish to lock him in the dungeon immediately. I do not wish to leave Treoir without him secure. How badly are ya hurt, lass?”
She scoffed. “Nothing my gryphon healing won’t take care of quickly. Tell that dragon our gryphons are tougher than him.”
While Daegan was proud of her, Petrina and Bernie had blood stains on their clothes. Even with gryphon-healing, bones had to be set, plus he would not leave without knowing his people were cared for.
He started to issue orders to see the healers, but held off, allowing Tristan to handle this as he saw fit.
In Tristan’s uncanny way of knowing just what to say at times, he interjected, “Bernie, if you don’t have a broken bone, I’d like you to shift and fly Petrina to the castle healers so they can set her arm to heal straight.”
Stick-thin and gawky, Bernie might not intimidate anyone in his human form, but he held a formidable gryphon inside of him just like the others. With one look at Petrina’s arm, his bright green eyes turned murderous. “That dragon hurt you, Petrina?”
She growled under her breath, clearly not happy with lots of attention out here among her peers. “An edge of ice hit my arm. You have anything broken?”
That young man looked at Tristan’s sister as if she were the goddess of his dreams. Bernie had no intention of appearing weak in front of her.
“No, I’m fine. Let me shift and get you to the healers.”
For a moment, Petrina appeared ready to argue, then let it go. “Okay, let’s do this.” She walked off with Bernie. He shed his clothes, wrapped them up for her to hold. Then he shifted into a magnificent gray and orange gryphon with a golden head.
Daegan had been told of how the ones with golden heads, like Evalle, were considered special, but he had no idea why.
Tristan’s gryphon did not have that unique head color, but every gryphon here would follow him into battle.
As Bernie’s gryphon flew away with Petrina, another gryphon named Ixxter walked up. He had a bruiser’s voice. “What about all this ice?”
Daegan surveyed the area. “Everyone move back from the heavy sections of ice. When I shift, my dragon shall melt it.”
Every member of the village backed up quickly from the ice as if it were a bed of vipers, but more as a show of respect for Daegan’s dragon.
Tristan moved to stand next to Daegan’s dragon.
Ruadh lowered his big head close to the ground and huffed out short bursts of fire. Ice melted and ran through the land to a creek running alongside the village.
With the gryphons taken care of, Daegan spoke to Tristan telepathically. I shall return as quickly as I am able.
Tristan nodded and started issuing directions for cleaning up the village.
Ruadh hunched down and pushed up, flying toward the area where they’d left Skarde’s dragon. Once Daegan realized the ice dragon intended to attack the gryphon village, Ruadh had blasted Skarde’s dragon, knocking the beast away from the village. Then Ruadh drove Skarde’s dragon down, shoving it into the tops of sturdy trees.
One tall evergreen with a sharp stub where the top had broken off had impaled the ice dragon’s wing.
That would not be healed by the time Daegan found him.
Ruadh located the ice dragon’s body among smashed trees and told Daegan, Ice dragon not ally. Deserves death.
Daegan understood his dragon’s uncomplicated thinking when it came to those considered enemies, but Daegan could not be so cut and dry when it came to killing any being while injured. He argued, I may need this dragon to negotiate a truce with Brynhild.
Both ice dragons dangerous.
Daegan agreed to a point, but if he could convince them Ruadh had nothing to do with starting the Dragani War, he would not have to battle those two dragon shifters constantly.
If Brynhild realized she had family, she might want a future where they did not have to fight the red dragon.
Daegan told Ruadh, Skarde and Brynhild are not allies yet, but if I kill Skarde I shall have to battle Brynhild again. This time to the death. Peace reigned before because dragons worked together. I wish for the chance to have peace again. To have fewer enemies, not more. Maybe even to have more power to call upon with these Imortiks.
Ruadh said nothing more as he circled the broken silvery blue dragon trapped in the forest.
Daegan said, ’Tis time to free the ice dragon’s wing from the tree.
Gliding around the spot with slow wing flaps, Ruadh found a place to land. He walked through the dense forest, breaking tree limbs as his huge body forged an opening. When Daegan noticed the base of the tree staked through Skarde’s dragon wing, he waited to see if Ruadh had a plan.
Ruadh burned the lower half of the tree.
Skarde’s dragon groaned a loud noise filled with pain and misery, then sprayed ice water to prevent the fire from climbing the tree.
The tree trunk dropped down and sideways as the lower half turned into ashes. What was left toppled over, crashing against other trees.
Skarde shouted curses in Daegan’s head.
Daegan ordered, Silence. We must pull your wing free.
Ruadh used his snout to lift the ice dragon’s wing high enough to clear the broken stub. With one look at the ripped-up wing, Daegan saw no way the dragon could heal that damage soon.
Speaking through Ruadh, Daegan ordered out loud, “Shift, Skarde.”
The ice dragon flopped over with bones sticking out at odd angles from the wing and shifted. Skarde’s human body was covered in a patchwork of bleeding wounds, but nothing as awful as his mangled arm.
Skarde sagged and gently held the top of his arm against his body. His pain-filled eyes lost their arrogant glare from earlier.
In the wake of Ruadh pushing through the wooded area, they now had a clearing of sorts.
Daegan shifted into his human body, ready to verbally rip Skarde to shreds for harming his people. He clothed the man with a pair of jeans.
The sound of flapping wings drew Daegan around.
Tristan’s gryphon flew in fast.
Daegan expected Tristan to return to his human body as soon as he landed, but the gray gryphon with clear scales hit hard, shaking the ground and emitting snarling sounds. The gryphon started forward with all focus on Skarde.
Daegan intervened with a bump of his shoulder, startling Tristan’s gryphon.
Speaking telepathically to his second, Daegan said, Do not kill him, Tristan.
The giant gryphon head swung low to him. Petrina could have died! Not just her, but all of the gryphons still in human form.
No, Daegan. This dragon has no conscience. He doesn’t deserve your understanding. He doesn’t deserve to live. Time to make him pay.
Ruadh spoke in Daegan’s mind. Agree with gryphon.
Tristan’s gryphon flapped to leap over Daegan, screeching a war cry at Skarde, who took a step back. The gryphon flapped enough to stay in the air with claws out.
Daegan ignored his dragon and lifted his hands to stop Tristan’s gryphon from getting past him. Wait, Tristan. I share your feelings. I feared losing ya and wanted to kill Skarde, too.
Why didn’t you? Tristan had never sounded so raw and ready to rip an enemy apart.
Please. Come back down, Tristan. Daegan more than understood, he wanted justice as much as his second. Guilt would stay with him for a long time over the mistake he’d made in judgment today. One that his people had paid for. He struggled even now to see the bigger picture in spite of arguing with Ruadh.
Tristan’s gryphon landed, but stomped from side to side making angry chuffing sounds.
I am sorry about Petrina. I know ya want to kill Skarde and I share that feelin’, but we may need him.
Tristan’s gryphon swung his head at Skarde, who stood still, watching for an attack. We don’t need him. He’s a coward.
I shall not argue that point. I wish to not add to my list of enemies and ask him questions about the time after Queen Maeve captured me. This may be my only chance for information. ’Tis selfish of me, I admit, but I have few other ways to gain this.
After a brittle silence, Tristan replied telepathically, I won’t kill him. Not right now. Please step aside, Daegan.
When Daegan complied, Tristan’s gryphon opened his wings wide and moved forward in a threateningly posture, towering above the ice dragon shifter.
“Daegan,” Skarde demanded quietly, never taking his eyes off Tristan’s gryphon. “Get your gryphon under control.”
“’Tis my second-in-command. Ya owe him blood for harmin’ his sister.” Daegan would allow Tristan to put some fear into the ice dragon shifter if Skarde failed to show contrition and humble himself with an apology.
Skarde spoke louder, showing a total lack of concern for his future. “Your gryphon is no match for my ice dragon once I heal. I do not fear him.”
Why would he goad Tristan?
Daegan needed to knock some serious sense into this one.
Tristan’s gryphon released a loud battle cry, then blew fire out horizontally above Skarde.
Shocked, the ice dragon screamed. When the smoke cleared, Skarde had no hair or eyebrows and bloody patches on his head.
He stumbled backward, his mangled arm still clutched against his chest. He stared up in horror at the gryphon.
The gryphon shifted, leaving Tristan in human form.
Daegan clothed him immediately in jeans and a gray T-shirt once more. He remained silent to allow Tristan the moment to have his say. That was the least Daegan owed his friend after bad judgment on his part had resulted in an ice dragon flying freely in Treoir.
Veins stood out in Tristan’s neck when he shouted at Skarde, “What the fuck is wrong with you? What kind of worthless piece of shit harms innocent people? Including a woman! You’re disgusting.”
Skarde’s eyes glowed bright blue with anger and tears. His voice shook. “You do not know what my life has been—”
“News flash. I don’t give a flying fuck what your life has been like.” Muscles in Tristan’s neck bulged. He curled his hands into thick fists. “My life sucked for a long time, but I have never hurt an innocent being and I never harmed a woman. Only a spineless coward does that.”
“I am an ice dragon,” Skarde shouted back. “Don’t you dare call me a coward!” His body trembled, probably from shock as much as anything else.
“Words mean nothing. Actions tell the truth.” Tristan blew out a harsh rush of air, hooked his thumbs in his front jean pockets, then spit on the ground in Skarde’s direction. “What are we doing with this piece of crap, boss?”
Skarde shouted, “You have no say—”
Daegan roared, “Shut! Up! He has far more say than ya. I agree with his words. I gave ya a chance to fly and ya attacked my people. Ya are fortunate my dragon did not burn ya to ashes as your dragon’s wing was pinned on a tree.”
Skarde stood there vibrating. His face turned deep red and he yelled, “Go ahead. Kill me!” Misery loaded in those four words.
“I’m all in on that,” Tristan tossed back at him with a negligent shrug.
“Not you. The red dragon.”
Tristan sneered at him. “Why should the red dragon waste any energy on killing something no more important than a tick?”
“This tick buried your village in ice!”
That snapped Tristan’s tight leash on his control. He roared and punched Skarde, knocking him on his ass. “You’re screwed in the head, Skarde. I bet you can’t even heal that broken nose.”
Skarde lay there moaning and clutching his damaged arm. Blood poured from his crushed nose. He muttered unintelligible words that ended in a curse.
Daegan felt time pressing on him constantly. “At the moment, ya may be of use, Skarde, but if it turns out ya no longer hold a value ... ” He lifted his shoulders. “Then I shall grant your wish. I have no reason to continue feedin’ someone who is a danger to my people.”