What happened to all the noise? Where were the jets and that loud helicopter?
Casidhe sat with her knees drawn up to her chest and arms wrapped tightly around them, rocking. Daegan said he’d come back. He wouldn’t leave her alone on a mountain in Spain.
An unbearable silence pressed on her chest. Had Daegan survived the satyrs chasing him? Had he shifted into his dragon?
She stopped rocking. His dragon couldn’t survive jets and missiles. What was going on? She grabbed her head, trying to keep the pounding from cracking her skull open. How would she know what happened? She wouldn’t. Not if Daegan failed to return.
She couldn’t sit in this dark hole forever. Daegan had been gone an hour, maybe more, since shoving her into their hidey hole. He promised to come back.
The sun hadn’t risen yet, but it would soon. Maybe. She had no mobile phone or watch to use for obsessing over the time. Her crappy watch had not survived all the near-death moments since returning to this mountain last night. How long should she wait?
Bigger question was how would she return home to Ireland if Daegan couldn’t make it back?
That would only happen if he died.
She’d never depended upon anyone to keep her safe, but she believed in him. That dragon shifter had been at her side through the crazy turmoil of reaching the oracle and going after the grimoire inside a hidden realm. Even when satyrs chased them around that world, Daegan had found a way to escape.
At some point, she started to believe he could do anything. Human military weapons could blow up even Superman. Shifting to his dragon would have been suicidal. A dragon couldn’t outfly a jet, right? He must have stayed in human form and ... what?
She closed her eyes and fought to calm her breathing.
He had to be alive.
She didn’t know what satyrs could have done to Daegan, but she’d seen the results of a missile blowing up a towering building the size of twenty dragons.
Daegan promised to return. Then he kissed her.
When he’d held her, she remembered every fleck of silver in his eyes and how his gaze had locked on her as if he couldn’t tear himself away, then he’d broken something loose inside of her with his kiss. She’d avoided men for so long, always focused on her duties. One kiss and he ruptured the tidy life she’d convinced herself fulfilled her needs. Maybe mentally, but not emotionally.
He’d made her feel and want. She couldn’t go back to being alone and living only to read another ancient journal.
That man kissed with more passion in one frantic moment than she’d ever experienced. She touched her lips and closed her eyes, reliving all the crazy emotions that swamped her at the touch of his lips. She’d been kissed before, or so she’d thought. Now, she lived for the moment to feel that again. He just needed to survive.
Oh, shit. Maybe that kiss had been a message?
Had Daegan been saying goodbye?
Her heart thumped wildly.
A fist of anxiety punched her chest, but she shook it off. Now was not the time to give up.
Dried leaves crackled nearby.
Casidhe sat up quickly, heart racing, and alert. What was that? She whispered, “Daegan?” No answer.
Where was he? She struggled to breathe and her heart beat as fast as a scared rabbit. She needed air. Now.
Moving her hand around in the darkness, she checked on the backpack for the hundredth time. Still there. She crawled out on her knees, pushing low hanging branches away from her face, and paused to listen before emerging.
Nothing. Just bleak silence.
Not even a noisy jet or helicopter. She had no one to call and no phone even if she did. Her heart fluttered fast as the wings of a tiny fly caught in a spider web. Not much of a family guardian now. She folded her arms over her chest and bit down hard, to keep from making the sound of a trapped animal. She stared at nothing in the thick darkness, fighting to keep her head together.
The sounds of nature trickled in, soothing her until she could catch her breath and think calmly.
Herrick did not raise a quitter. She’d fought to survive while a street kid on her own before he found her.
Do the same thing now. Live one minute at a time, then the next minute, and so on.
She ran cold fingers over her face, wiping her damp eyelashes. Time to buck up and face today. Not tomorrow. Just right now in this moment.
She drew in one cleansing breath after another. She could do this.
A soft glow peeked above the horizon, gifting her with the ability to see the outline of trees.
She pushed up to walk around and stretch her legs. Thick forest covered the steep slope sweeping away from her all the way down to terracotta roofs on bright white Mediterranean-style homes. Boats floated in a still cove beyond the picturesque village. Too far away for anyone to see her at the top of this mountain.
Time to think strategically and not about Daegan, who might be just fine. She should be figuring out how to save her own butt if he didn’t return. She wouldn’t be in this emotional state if she hadn’t kissed him. What kind of fool got so personal with her family’s enemy?
She’d been a fool. No, make that a super-sized fool. Actually, she’d behaved as a classic Casidhe-sized super fool once again around a man. Hadn’t she learned anything from her one relationship back in college? A wise woman would have shut down that kiss the second his lips touched hers, or shoved him away, or yelled at him for daring to touch her so intimately.
Anything but standing there like a schoolgirl who had never been kissed.
A result of not having been kissed in a long time. Years. That didn’t excuse losing her mind. She’d been mesmerized like a mouse entranced by a stalking cat right before being gobbled up.
Guilt tapped along her shoulders. What if Herrick had seen her kissing Daegan?
That would have been ugly.
She had to stop being a fool over a kiss. That’s all it was and unworthy of angst.
Cool wind off the ocean rattled the leaves, drawing her to attention.
She’d never been one to sit still when she had books to read. Sounded like a great way to pass the time and not dwell on stupid actions she would not repeat.
Turning toward her hiding place, she stilled at the sound of a jet cruising the coast.
Not far behind, a large military-looking helicopter followed.
She picked her way to a higher point where she could see the lights of more aircraft silhouetted against the brightening sky. The helicopter moved slowly, sweeping a beam of light over the water just beyond the cliffs.
If Daegan had shifted into his dragon, she hoped that dragon was as badass as she’d been led to believe by those who taught her the Treoir history. She hoped he outmaneuvered all those jets and technology capable of tracking a fly.
But if he didn’t return ... nope, she would not go down that dark path again when she’d just climbed out of her head to a better place. Focus on the positive. They’d survived climbing a mountain, entering a tunnel where the ground fell away, and meeting with a spooky oracle. All that before they figured out a majikal code for passage into a hidden world.
Daegan now possessed the bronze box containing one-third of the grimoire pages.
She had the scepter the oracle expected for payment.
Mission accomplished, but at what cost? First Fenella vanished after walking out of the ancestral research centre. Now, Daegan had disappeared.
She slapped her head. Stop dwelling on things out of her control.
Once she’d fought her way back through the low-hanging branches again and scooted around until she had a place to sit against an uneven rock wall, she dug out her tiny LED light on a keychain.
She stuck her hand in the backpack. Her fingers landed on the scepter, a twenty-two-inch staff from the French Crown Jewels of the seventh century. She ran her finger over the enameled gold and pulled the staff halfway out to study the fat bird on top holding a man. Someone had stolen this from the tomb of King Dagobert I in Saint Denis Basilica.
Not a human thief, as many suspected, but a supernatural.
Leaning back, Casidhe pulled the scepter against her chest and held it close like a comfort stick. Could she wish on this like a majik wand and end up at home in Galway? That might be her best hope with only a driver’s license in hand, no passport, and a rare artifact in her possession. Not to mention her powerful sword.
She might find someone in the coastal village below to help her, but she’d likely draw unwanted attention from law enforcement.
The sounds of the woods drew tension from her shoulders. Her eyelids drooped. She shook her head and blinked fast. What if the satyrs showed up and she didn’t hear them?
What if Daegan returned?
She had to be vigilant. A soft breeze rustled the leaves. But it felt so nice to relax for just a moment. Her eyelids weighed a pound each. They fluttered closed. She shook herself awake again and lost her balance, falling sideways against her backpack.
Opening her eyes really wide, she tried to force herself to sit up.
Her body didn’t cooperate.
She blinked again, murmurring, “Don’t fall asleep. Don’t … close … eyes.”
Sleep pulled her under.
“Where are you, Daegan? Casidhe called out in the dark fog surrounding her. She heard a noise like someone groaning and walked in that direction. The fog billowed and shifted away from her until she saw a shadowy figure. She couldn’t see his face, but the figure had broad shoulders like Daegan’s.
She kept walking. The distance seemed endless. The figure turned to her.
Light touched his face. It was Daegan. His lips moved, but no words came out.
Her heart beat with the power of a war drum. “What, Daegan? I can’t hear you.” She took a step closer, thrilled to see him, but concerned. Something wasn’t right. She tried to read his lips. Why couldn’t he talk?
Panic pushed her to take another step.
He struggled to move toward her as if his muscles weren’t obeying him. He was only ten feet away.
Her body slowed down. No. Keep going. She could barely move her legs. They felt wooden and heavy.
Darkness clouded her vision of Daegan again. She panicked and slashed her hands in slow motion to clear away the dark fog.
All at once, his face and body came into view again.
She could feel him close to her and started forward. Power hit her, like an explosion had suddenly detonated in her stomach, rocking her. What was happening?
“Where are you, Daegan?” she cried out.
He groaned a sound that stopped her. So much pain! Her stomach squeezed into a tight ball. She screamed, “Daegan!”
He moved forward from the shadows.
She reached for him.
His face twisted in agony. His entire body glowed bright yellow, the sickening color of the monsters.
She yanked back.
He shoved his face right up to hers with wild eyes a brilliant yellow. The pupils elongated and fangs dropped into sight. He screamed, “Ruunnnn!”
The drone of large helicopter blades whined as the craft picked up speed, flying Daegan to some unknown location. Humans in black military-like uniforms surrounded him.
The cabin stank of sweat and fear.
No matter the weapons they carried, mortals feared the unknown.
He held his body still, no different than he had when they’d secured his wrists behind his back and shoved him inside the helicopter after the pilot had found a place to land near the cliffs.
He’d left the Luigsech woman behind, hidden high above, too far to have seen what happened to him.
Not the Luigsech woman, but Casidhe. He could no longer see her only as a Luigsech female, keeper of the Treoir history. She’d become important to him. He had to return to her. He’d accept his unknown fate if he knew she would be safe.
Had the satyrs returned to the hidden world they’d chased him from once he dropped the grimoire box at the cliffs? Or had they gone after her?
No, the satyrs had chased him because he’d taken the bronze box. He only recalled shifting into his dragon as he fell from the dropoff. Ruadh had been ready to battle, but his dragon had never faced a human weapon capable of destroying the earth, as Daegan had been told. Had Ruadh not shifted to save them on the way down, then landed on the cliff and immediately handed Daegan back the human body again, they might not have survived.
He’d had no hope for escape after the satyrs had spewed slime over the back of his body, which currently dried tough as a turtle shell and continued to spread.
Casidhe waited for him.
His chest ached with knowing she sat there watching for him.
She’d trusted him to come back for her. Every minute and mile of flying away from her gutted him. He should have had a plan to protect her no matter what happened.
He shouldn’t have kissed her, but he would not take back that kiss for anything. He’d been driven to kiss her and now he felt her deep inside him where he’d never felt anyone else. Why would fate send him this woman now when he had no right to want more from her?
He didn’t care about his needs. He wanted her off that mountain. He wanted her away from dangerous beings. He ... wanted her.
How could he survive letting her down? He’d fought alongside Beladors against powerful enemies over many generations, always there to keep them safe.
But he could not protect one wee lass right now.
His skin pulled tight across his back from the coating as it hardened. Before these humans had shoved a black sack over his head, he’d seen the coating on his arm taking on the same color as his skin. Tiny fibers crisscrossed, weaving into a rigid bond.
If they uncuffed him now, his arms would not bend.
At the rate the coating crept around his body, it would cover him in a day. Maybe less. Once the coating circled his neck and tightened as if shrinking, he’d have no way to survive even if these humans turned him loose.
Ruadh rumbled dangerously inside him.
Daegan had failed his dragon, too. Captured again.
One of the men sitting nearby whispered to someone, but Daegan’s supernatural hearing allowed him to hear the words over the helicopter noise. “Think that guy knows how to call up the dragon?”
“I don’t know. Did you see that damn thing?”
“Hell, yes. Scary monster. I wouldn’t want to be out there in the ship with a dragon in the water.”
Fools thought his dragon went underwater when they couldn’t find Ruadh. They had been ready to kill his dragon, but they were someone’s men following orders who believed they were doing their duty.
What about the Beladors? They had no one to protect them if he died.
The deadline to save Devon, a Belador facing execution from the Tribunal, had to be coming down to minutes. Daegan had no hope of escaping in time. He was gut-sick over the people he would let down. Beladors locked up in VIPER would be executed all because Daegan had not returned in time to meet with arrogant deities demanding he attend a Tribunal.
Innocent Beladors being judged unworthy to live because Imortiks had attacked them and slid inside their bodies. Those men and women now had less than two weeks before the Imortiks could take full control. A week Daegan had hoped to save them by finding all three volumes of the Immortuos Grimoire.
Here he sat helpless to protect his people and Casidhe, dammit.
Fury boiled his blood.
Ruadh banged around inside him.
Another male voice nearby said, “Hey, do you feel something weird? Like a pressure building in here?”
Frightened grumbling followed. Someone made a click noise, probably activating a weapon.
Daegan forced himself to settle as much as he could. Crashing this aircraft would not save anyone and he’d kill humans who had not given him reason to take a life.
The pungent smell of fear lessened, leaving a strong wave of cigarettes in its wake.
He would not have allowed himself to be captured if not for the satyr coating and Imortik venom in his body shutting down his ability to move, shift, or teleport.
Or to reach one of his Beladors telepathically. No one answered his calls.
“You think he doesn’t understand English?” one of the men asked.
Another one answered, “I have no idea. If he’s one of those supernatural things, they may have their own language.”
Daegan had taken on the only defense he could when these men dropped out of the sky to surround him with weapons raised to fire. They kept asking, “Where is that dragon? What did you do with that flying beast?”
Daegan had answered them with a blank expression.
They’d tried different languages on him.
He knew many languages, but remained mute. Let them think he did not understand their words. He had greater concerns.
As bad as the unknown situation he faced, he had no grimoire box after all he and Luigsech had gone through to find that and the stolen scepter.
Not Luigsech, but Casidhe.
She’d been Luigsech to him when he’d been angry over her secrets, angry about Tristan being captured, and angry over Imortiks attacking every time he turned around.
None of that had been her fault.
If Daegan were honest, none of that had been the true reason for using her last name to keep distance between them. He’d battled an attraction to a woman he hadn’t trusted at first, but there had been more to it. Just breathing in Casidhe’s scent had chipped at the wall he’d built to survive thousands of years locked in captivity.
He’d judged her to be a nonhuman stranger when they met. A dangerous mystery.
She’d become more than a stranger.
More than a resource.
But she could never be more than a friend to him. He clenched his hands, struggling not to roar in fury. For the first time in too long he was drawn to a woman whose energy called to his. His energy came to life around her, but he could not act upon the desire.
He’d never have a mate.
Dragons couldn’t mate just any nonhuman, which had been the reason for arranged marriages long ago.
Maybe he should have accepted Brynhild when her father offered her to be Daegan’s mate. That union would have built an alliance between their families, but he’d been arrogant enough to think he’d find a love match.
And to be honest, he’d never much liked Brynhild as a young woman.
She was nothing like Casidhe. He missed his little termagant so much it physically hurt.
Would she be safe all alone on that mountain?
When he closed his eyes, he could see her in his mind standing firm in the face of Imortiks, demons, and satyrs with her sword raised to do battle.
The whine of the helicopter blades changed. He felt them descend, but to where he had no idea. His best guess was they’d been flying for one or two hours. Based on where they’d picked him up on the northern coast of Spain, they had to be flying east or south. Would it be daylight yet?
Would Tzader or any Belador find out he’d been captured? Tzader had to know Daegan would have done all in his power to make the deadline to save their three Beladors from execution.
Death or capture were the only two reasons he’d fail to arrive on time. Since Tzader would expect Daegan to escape an enemy, his friend might believe him dead.
Only on the inside for now.
Someone must have opened a door. Blessed fresh air buffeted the interior. Men talked to each other in low tones, discussing how to move the prisoner from the helicopter.
Grief and disappointment clawed Daegan’s chest. If he survived this, how would he face his people again after failing to prevent the deaths of innocent Beladors?
That damn coating on his skin kept digging in with tiny claws as it moved across his body and tightened. That hard covering inched forward from the back of his neck. Soon it would reach the front to form a collar around his throat and suffocate him.
Muscles across his back, arms, and legs drew taut as if they were being twisted and shortened.
Daegan picked up shouts from outside the helicopter somewhere below. Probably the landing spot. Men moved around inside, making noises about having weapons ready and who would exit first.
This military team reminded him of Isak Nyght’s black ops soldiers in Atlanta, a human ally of the Beladors. Deadly fighters with weapons created by Isak’s company to stun and kill nonhumans.
Voices buzzed with energy, both excited and apprehensive.
No one mentioned the name of their destination.
The helicopter settled with a hard thump. The sound of boots clomping around outside were joined by those jumping down from the cabin.
Daegan readied himself to be moved. Where would they take him? Some sort of confinement.
He and Ruadh had suffered thousands of years in TÅμr Medb. He’d never intended to allow that to happen to them again.
I am sorry, Ruadh, he whispered telepathically.
Ruadh sent back, Humans terrified. Air filled with sick smell of fear. We will kill them if they attack. We will escape.
His dragon did not make empty promises and did not care if a human or nonhuman imprisoned them, but Daegan couldn’t shift with the coating binding his body.
Still, Ruadh’s words were meant to remind him they would not go down without taking others with them.
Daegan twisted his hands to give the raw skin on his wrists some relief. A futile effort, but at least his wrists moved.
The humans had not seemed to notice the thin layer of slime. Probably too distracted by losing sight of Ruadh to pay attention to Daegan’s human form.
A hand clamped his arm.
Burning streaked across Daegan’s skin.
Ruadh roared a vicious sound.
The hand disappeared. “What the fuck was that sound?”
Refusing to say a word, Daegan stood and turned toward the open air he could smell, but could see nothing beneath the black sack.
“Get back. He’s coming out,” someone outside the helicopter shouted. “Weapons up.”
Daegan eased forward on his bare feet until his toes bumped the edge of the opening. He’d only been able to call up a pair of jeans to cover him when he shifted back from dragon form.
Remembering the height when he’d entered, he bent his head to avoid hitting the metal frame.
He tried calling out telepathically again. I am Daegan of Treoir. Any Belador hearing me must tell Brina and Tzader I am captured.
The sound never left his head, rolling around like a wooden ball banging the inside of his skull.
Barely bending his knees, he leaped out and dropped hard on a gritty unnatural surface. Pain shot up his legs and knees. He breathed through clenched teeth.
Someone ordered, “Turn to your right and walk straight ahead.”
No one but his father had ever given him orders.
Every cell in his body wanted to revolt, but that would only cause Ruadh undue stress. Plus, he had no choice unless he wanted to die here with his eyes covered.
Following the order, Daegan took short steps, all the leg movement allowed by the coating.
Footsteps surrounded him and fell in behind him.
He waited as something in front of him made a whooshing noise.
When Daegan complied, his feet touched cold metal. The whoosh happened again, closing off his fresh air. Probably an elevator.
Tristan had shown them to Daegan in Atlanta, but he’d preferred to avoid being locked inside the metal box. He sensed two humans with him as the unit descended slowly. The thumping of their hearts raced to see which one would beat the fastest.
If only he could reach Tzader, Brina, or Tristan telepathically, anyone who could rescue Casidhe.
Alone inside the dark covering over his head, he replayed her face, her eyes, and her lips in his mind. He could still taste her. The kiss had been impulsive, but one he would not regret.
Right or wrong, he longed to kiss her again.
He’d wanted for little early on in his life, but he’d never felt this crushing need for a woman as he did for Casidhe. He’d never had any woman affect him the way she did. In foolish moments, he imagined keeping her with him to find out more about this attraction.
Casidhe’s fear-drenched gaze would haunt him for whatever time he had left to breathe if he failed to send her help. She would know by daylight that something was wrong when he did not return. She was no shrinking female.
Lovely, resourceful, and tough, she might find a way home, but she had no phone and little money.
She did have the scepter they retrieved from the hidden world, but she had to hand it over to the oracle as payment for helping them find the grimoire box.
The box he’d lost going over the cliff.
One failure after another.
The grimoire could save his people, all nonhumans, and humans. They needed Daegan and that box to survive and force the Imortiks behind the death wall.
Please let Casidhe be safe from supernatural beasts. She could hold her own with humans and very likely best any who went up against her ancient sword.
“You think he really does not understand us?” one of the men asked quietly. He spoke English, but his words had a clipped Latin accent.
“Hell, I don’t know,” another man answered with an accent similar to that of Casper, a Belador ally from Texas. “Even a deaf mute will say somethin’ when he gets hungry. If he don’t talk then, not our problem, John. Our job is only to capture and deliver.”
“You saw the red monster, did you not?” John asked nervously.
“Well, yeah. I’m sure one of them fighter jets probably filmed that beast.”
“Then where do you think this ... dragon went?”
“Don’t know, man. Heard someone say it dove in the water after two jets passed it. Must still be down there.”
The elevator slowed and stopped. More whooshing noise and a sterile unnatural smell met him, reminding him of being inside buildings in Atlanta.
Daegan sighed at the endless orders, patience the only weapon in his arsenal at the moment.
Bootheel clicks echoed, sounding loud as if he walked through a tall space with hard walls. The elevator had descended longer than he would have expected to be one or two levels down.
“Hold up. Who are you?” a man on his right called out.
With no idea what was going on, Daegan stopped and listened for any hint of what might be happening.
Another set of footsteps approached from the opposite direction. A new male said, “I am to accompany him the rest of the way, corporal.”
That voice sounded smooth with an odd accent, but what lifted the hairs on Daegan’s head had nothing to do with the man’s speech.
Daegan had caught a brush of energy.
Ruadh pushed hard under his skin. Enemy.
Daegan asked his dragon, Which enemy?