A sexy, action-packed urban fantasy with the fascinating world-building author Ann Gimpel is known for…
Aislinn has walled herself off from anything that might make her feel again — until a wolf picks her for a bond mate and a Celtic god rises out of legend to claim her for his own.
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by Ann Gimpel
Aislinn Lenear lost her anthropologist father high in the Bolivian Andes. Her mother, crazy with grief that muted her magic, was marched into a radioactive vortex by alien creatures and killed. Three years later, stripped of every illusion that ever comforted her, twenty-two year old Aislinn is one resilient, kickass woman with a take no prisoners attitude. In a world turned upside down, where virtually nothing familiar is left, she’s conscripted to fight the dark gods responsible for her father’s death. Battling the dark on her own terms, Aislinn walls herself off from anything that might make her feel again.
Fionn MacCumhaill, Celtic god of wisdom, protection, and divination has been laying low since the dark gods stormed Earth. He and his fellow Celts decided to wait them out. After all, three years is nothing compared to their long lives. On a clear winter day, Aislinn walks into his life and suddenly all bets are off. Awed by her courage, he stakes his claim to her and to an Earth he’s willing to fight for.
Aislinn’s not so easily convinced. Fionn’s one gorgeous man, but she has a world to save. Emotional entanglements will only get in her way. Letting a wolf into her life was hard. Letting love in may well prove impossible.
Gutsy heroine & hot romance
an excerpt from
by Ann Gimpel
Aislinn tried to stop it, but the vision that had dogged her for over a year played in her head. She squeezed her eyes shut tight. Mental images crowded behind her closed lids, as vivid as if they’d happened yesterday. She raked her hands through her hair and pulled hard, but the movie chronicling the beginning of her own personal hell didn’t even slow down. She whimpered as the humid darkness of a South American night closed about her…
Her mother screamed in Gaelic, “Deifir, Deifir,” and then shoved Aislinn again. She tried to hurry like her mother wanted, but it was all too much to take in. Stumbling down the steep Bolivian mountainside in the dark, tears streamed across Aislinn’s face. Snot ran from her nose. Her legs shook. Nausea made her gut clench. Her mother was crying, too, in between cursing the gods and herself. Aislinn knew enough Gaelic to understand her mother had tried to talk her father out of going to the ancient Inca prayer site, but Jacob hadn’t listened.
A vision of her father’s twisted body, lying dead a thousand feet above them, tore at Aislinn. Just a few hours ago, her life had been normal. Now her mother had turned into a grief-crazed harridan. Her beloved father, a gentle giant of a man, was dead. Killed by those horrors that had crawled out of the ground. Perfect, golden-skinned men with long, silky hair and luminous eyes, apparently summoned through the ancient rite linked to the shrine. Thinking about it was like trying to shove her hand into a flame, her pain too unbearable to examine closely.
Aislinn was afraid to turn around. Tara had already slapped her once. Another spate of Gaelic galvanized her tired legs into motion. Her mother was clearly terrified the monsters would come after them, though Aislinn didn’t think they’d bother. At least a hundred adoring half-naked worshippers remained at the shrine high on the mountain. Once Tara had herded her into the shadows, her last glimpse of the crowd revealed one of the lethal, exotic creatures turning a woman so he could penetrate her. Even in Aislinn’s near-paralyzed state, the sexual heat was so compelling, it took all her self-discipline not to race to his side and insist he take her instead. After all, she was younger, prettier— It didn’t matter at all that he’d just killed her father.
…Aislinn shook her head so hard it felt like her brains rattled from side to side in her skull. Despite the time that had passed since her father’s murder, she still fell into these damned trance states where the horror happened all over again. Tears leaked from her eyes. She slammed a fist down on a corner of her desk, glorying in the diversion pain created. Crying was pointless. It wouldn’t change anything. Self-pity an indulgence she couldn’t afford.
Pull it together, the weak die.
Even though she wasn’t sure why life felt so precious—after all, she’d lost nearly everything—Aislinn wanted to live. Would do anything to hang onto the vital thread that maintained her on Earth.
A bitter laugh bubbled up. What a transition: from Aislinn Lenear college student, to Aislinn Lenear fledgling magic wielder. A second race of alien beings, Lemurians, had stormed Earth on the heels of that hideous night in Bolivia, selecting certain humans because they had magical ability and sending everyone else to their deaths.
It was a process. It took time to kill people, but huge sections of Salt Lake City sat empty. Skyscraper towers downtown and rows of vacant buildings mocked a life that was no more. In her travels to nearby places before the gasoline ran out, Aislinn had found them about the same as Salt Lake.
Jacob’s death had merely been a harbinger of impending chaos—the barest beginning. The world she’d known had imploded shockingly fast. It killed Aislinn to admit it—she kept hoping for a miracle to intercede—but her mother was certifiable. Tara may as well have died right along with her father. She hadn’t left the house once since they’d returned a year before. Her long, red hair was filthy and matted. She barely ate. When she wasn’t curled into a fetal position, she drew odd runes on the kitchen floor and muttered in Gaelic about Celtic gods and dragons. It was only a matter of time before the Lemurians culled her. Tara had magic, but she was worthless in her current state.
The sound of the kitchen door rattling against its stops startled Aislinn. On her feet in a flash, she took the stairs two at a time and burst into the kitchen. A Lemurian had one of its preternaturally long-fingered hands curved around Tara’s emaciated arm. He crooned to her in his language—an incomprehensible mix of clicks and clacks. Tara’s wild, golden eyes glazed over. She stopped trying to pull away and got to her feet, leaning against the seven-foot tall creature with long, shiny blond hair as if she couldn’t stand on her own.
“No!” Aislinn hurled herself at the Lemurian. “Leave her alone.”
“Stop!” His bottomless, alien gaze met hers. “It is time,” the Lemurian said in flawless English, “for both you and her. You must join the fighting and learn about your magic. Your mother is of no use to anyone.”
“But she has magic.” Aislinn hated the pleading in her voice. Hated it. Be strong. I can’t show him how scared I am.
Something flickered behind the Lemurian’s expression. It might have been disgust—or pity. He turned away and led Tara Lenear out of the house.
Aislinn growled low in her throat and launched herself at the Lemurian’s back. Gathering her clumsy magic into a primitive arc, she focused it on her enemy. Her tongue stuttered over an incantation. Before she could finish it, something smacked her in the chest so hard she flew through the air, hit the kitchen wall, and then slumped to the floor. Wind knocked out of her, spots dancing before her eyes, she struggled to her feet. By the time she stumbled to the kitchen door, both the Lemurian and her mother had vanished.
An unholy shriek split the air. Realizing it had come from her, Aislinn clutched the doorsill. Pain clawed at her belly. Her vision was a red haze. The fucking Lemurian had taken her mother. The last human connection she had. And they expected her to fight for them? Ha! It would be a cold day in hell. She let go of the doorframe and balled her hands into fists so hard her nails drew blood.
Aislinn walked out into blindingly bright sunlight. She didn’t care what happened next. It didn’t matter anymore. A muted explosion rocked the ground. She staggered. When she turned, she wasn’t surprised to see her house crack in multiple places and settle. Not totally destroyed, but close enough.
Guess they want to make sure I don’t have anywhere to go back to.
Her heart shattered into jagged pieces that poked her from the inside. She bit her lip so hard it ached. When that didn’t make a dent in her anguish, she pinched herself, dug her nails into her flesh until she bled from dozens of places. Fingers slick with her own blood, she forced herself into a ragged jog. Maybe if she put some distance between herself and the wreckage of her life, the pain sluicing through her might abate.
As she ran, a phrase filled her mind. The same sentence, over and over in time to her heartbeat. I will never care for anyone ever again. I will never care for anyone ever again. After a time, the words etched into her soul.
Two Years Later
Aislinn pulled her cap down more firmly on her head. Snow stung where it got into her eyes and froze the exposed parts of her face. Thin, cold air seared her lungs when she made the mistake of breathing too deeply. She’d taken refuge in a spindly stand of leafless aspens, but they didn’t cut the wind at all. “Where’s Travis?” she fumed, scanning the unending white of a high altitude plain that used to be part of Colorado. Or maybe this place had been in eastern Utah. It didn’t really matter much anymore.
Something flickered at the corner of her eye. Almost afraid to look, she swiveled her head to maximize her peripheral vision. Damn! No, double damn. Half-frozen muscles in her face ached, her jaw tightened. Bal’ta—a bunch of them—fanned out a couple of hundred yards behind her, closing the distance eerily fast. One of many atrocities serving the dark gods that had crawled out of the ground that night in Bolivia, they appeared as shadowy spots against the fading day. Places where edges shimmered and merged into a menacing blackness. If she looked too hard at the center of those dark places, they drew her like a lodestone. Aislinn tore her gaze away.
Not that the Bal’ta—bad as they were—were responsible for the wholesale destruction of modern life. No, their masters—the ones who’d brought dark magic to Earth in the first place—held that dubious honor. Aislinn shook her head sharply, trying to decide what to do. She was supposed to meet Travis here. Those were her orders. He had something to give her. Typical of the way the Lemurians ran things, no one knew very much about anything. It was safer that way if you got captured.
She hadn’t meant to cave and work for them, but in the end, she’d had little choice. It was sign on with the Lemurians—Old Ones—to cultivate her magic and fight the dark, or be marched into the same radioactive vortex that had killed her mother.
Her original plan had been to wait for Travis until an hour past full dark, but the Bal’ta changed all that. Waiting even one more minute was a gamble she wasn’t willing to risk. Aislinn took a deep breath. Chanting softly in Gaelic, her mother’s language, she called up the light spell that would wrap her in brilliance and allow her to escape—maybe. It was the best strategy she could deploy on short notice. Light was anathema to Bal’ta and their ilk. So many of the loathsome creatures were hot on her heels, she didn’t have any other choice.
She squared her shoulders. All spells drained her. This was one of the worst—a purely Lemurian working translated into Gaelic because human tongues couldn’t handle the Old Ones’ language. She pulled her attention from her spell for the time it took to glance about. Her heart sped up. Even the few seconds it took to determine flight was essential had attracted at least ten more of the bastards. They surrounded her now. Well, almost.
She shouted the word to kindle her spell. Even in Gaelic, with its preponderance of harsh consonants, the magic felt awkward on her tongue. Heart thudding double time against her ribs, she hoped she’d gotten the inflection right. Moments passed. Nothing happened. Aislinn tried again. Still nothing. Desperate, she readied her magic for a fight she was certain she’d lose and summoned the light spell one last time. Flickers formed. Stuttering into brilliance, they pushed against the Bal’tas’ darkness.
Yesssss. Muting down triumph surging through her—no time for it—she gathered the threads of her working, draped luminescence about herself, and loped toward the west. Bal’ta scattered, closing behind her. She noted with satisfaction that they stayed well away from her light. She’d always assumed it burned them in some way.
Travis was on his own. She couldn’t even warn him he was walking into a trap. Maybe he already had. Which would explain why he hadn’t shown up. Worry tugged at her. She ignored it. Anything less than absolute concentration and she’d fall prey to his fate—whatever that had been.
Vile hissing sounded behind her. Long-nailed hands reached for her, followed by shrieks when one of them came into contact with her magic. She snuck a peek over one shoulder to see how close they truly were. One problem with all that light was it illuminated the disgusting things. Between five and six feet tall, with barrel chests, their bodies were coated in greasy looking brown hair. Thicker hair hung from their scalps and grew in clumps from armpits and groins. Ropy muscles bulged under their hairy skin. Orange eyes gleamed, reflecting her light back at her. Their foreheads sloped backward giving them a dimwitted look, but Aislinn wasn’t fooled. They were skilled warriors, worthy adversaries who’d wiped out more than one of her comrades. They had an insect-like ability to work as a group using telepathic powers. Though she threw her Mage senses wide open, she was damned if she could tap into their wavelength to disrupt it.
Chest aching, breath coming in short, raspy pants, she ran like she’d never run before. If she let go of anything—her light shield or her speed—they’d be on her and it would be all over. Dead just past her twenty-second birthday. That thought pushed her legs to pump faster. She gulped air, willing everything to hold together long enough.
Minutes ticked by. Maybe as much as half an hour passed. She was tiring. It was hard to run and maintain magic. Could she risk teleportation? Sort of a beam me up, Scotty, trick. Nope, she just wasn’t close enough to her destination yet. Something cold as an ice cave closed around her upper arm. Her flesh stung before feeling left it. Head snapping to that side, she noted her light cloak had failed in that spot. Frantic to loosen the creature’s grip, she pulled a dirk from her belt and stabbed at the thing holding her. Smoke rose when she dug her iron knife into it.
The stench of burning flesh stung her nostrils and the disgusting ape-man drew back, hurling imprecations at her in its guttural language. Her gaze snaked through the gloom of the fading day as she tried to assess how many of the enemy chased her. She swallowed hard. There had to be a hundred. Why were they targeting her? Had they intercepted Travis and his orders? Damn the Lemurians anyway. She’d never wanted to fight for them.
I’ve got to get out of here. Though it went against the grain—mostly because she was pretty certain it wouldn’t work and you weren’t supposed to cast magic willy nilly—she pictured her home, mixed magic from earth and fire, and begged the Old Ones to see her delivered safely. Once she set the spell in motion, there’d be no going back. If she didn’t end up where she’d planned, she’d be taken to task, maybe even stripped of her powers, depending on how pissed off the Lemurians were.
Aislinn didn’t have any illusions left. It had been three years since her world crumbled. Two since her mother died. She’d wasted months railing against God, or the fates, or whoever was responsible for robbing her of her boyfriend and her parents and her life, goddammit.
Then the Old Ones—Lemurians, she corrected herself—had slapped reason into her, forcing her to see the magic that kept her alive as a resource, not a curse. In the intervening time, she’d not only come to terms with that magic. It had become a part of her. The only part she truly trusted. Without the magic that enhanced her senses, she’d be dead within hours.
Please… It was a struggle not to clasp her hands together in an almost forgotten gesture of supplication. Juggling an image of her home while maintaining enough light to hold the Bal’ta at bay, Aislinn waited. Nothing happened. She was supposed to vanish, her molecules transported by proxy to where she wished to go. This was way more than the normal journey—or jump—spell, though. Because she needed to go much farther.
She poured more energy into the teleportation spell. The light around her flickered. Bal’ta dashed forward, jaws open, saliva dripping. She smelled the rotten crypt smell of them and cringed. If they got hold of her, they’d feed off her until she was nothing but an empty husk. Or worse, if one took a shine to her, she’d be raped in the bargain. And forced to carry a mixed breed child. Of course, they’d kill her as soon as the thing was weaned. Maybe the brat, too, if its magic wasn’t strong enough.
The most powerful of the enemy were actually blends of light and dark magic. When the abominations, six dark masters, had slithered out of holes between the worlds during a globally synchronized surge linked to the Harmonic Convergence, the first thing they’d done had been to capture several human women and perform unspeakable experiments on progeny resulting from purloined eggs and alien sperm.
Aislinn sucked in a shaky breath. She did not want to be captured. Suicide was a far better alternative. She licked at the fake cap in the back of her mouth. It didn’t budge. She shoved a filthy finger behind her front teeth and used an equally disgusting fingernail to pop the cap. She gripped the tiny capsule. Should she swallow it? Could she? Sweat beaded and trickled down her forehead despite the chill afternoon air.
She’d just dropped the pill onto her tongue, trying to gin up enough saliva to make it go down, when the weightlessness associated with teleportation started in her feet like it always did. Gagging, she spat out the capsule and extended a hand to catch it. She missed. It fell into the dirt. Aislinn knew better than to scrabble for the poison pill. If she survived, she could get another from the Old Ones. They didn’t care how many humans died, despite pretending to befriend those with magic.
Her spell was shaky enough as it was. It needed more energy—lots more. Forgetting about the light spell, Aislinn put everything she had into escape. By the time she knew she was going to make it—apparently the Bal’ta didn’t know they could take advantage of her vulnerability as she shimmered half in and half out of teleport mode—she was almost too tired to care.
She fell through star-spotted darkness for a long time. It could have been several lifetimes. These teleportation jaunts were different than her simple Point A to Point B jumps. When she’d traveled this way before, she’d asked how long it took, but the Old Ones never answered. Everyone she’d ever loved was dead—and the Old Ones lived forever—so she didn’t have a reliable way to measure time. For all she knew, Travis might have lived through years of teleportation jumps. No one ever talked about anything personal. It was like an unwritten law. No going back. No one had a past. At least not one they were willing to talk about.
Voices eddied around her, speaking the Lemurian tongue with its clicks and clacks. She tried to talk with them, but they ignored her. On shorter, simpler journeys, her body stayed with her. She’d never known how her body caught up to her when she teletransported and was nothing but spirit. Astral energy suspended between time and space.
A disquieting thump rattled her bones. Bones. I have bones again… That must mean… Barely conscious of the walls of her home rising around her, Aislinn felt the fibers of her grandmother’s Oriental rug against her face. She smelled cinnamon and lilac. Relief surged through her. Against hope and reason, the Old Ones had seen her home. Maybe they cared more than she thought—at least about her. Aislinn tried to pull herself across the carpet to the corner shrine so she could thank them properly, but her head spun. Darkness took her before she could do anything else.
* * * *
Not quite sure what woke her, Aislinn opened her eyes. Pale light filtered in through rough cutouts high in the walls. Daytime. She’d been lucky to find this abandoned silver mine with shafts that ran up to ground level. It would have drained her to constantly have a mage light burning.
Is it tomorrow? Or one of the days after that? Aislinn’s head pounded. Her mouth tasted like the backside of a sewer. It was the aftereffect of having thoroughly drained her magic, but she was alive, goddammit. Alive. Memory flooded her. She’d been within a hairsbreadth of taking her own life. Her stomach clenched and she rolled onto her side, racked by dry heaves. Had she swallowed any of the poison by accident?
A bitter laugh made her cracked lips ache. Of course she hadn’t. It didn’t take much cyanide to kill you. Just biting into the capsule without swallowing would have done it. She struggled to a sitting position. Pain lanced through her head, but she forced herself to keep her eyes open.
The world stabilized. She lurched to her feet, filled a chipped mug with water that ran perpetually down one wall of her cave, doubling as faucet and shower, and warmed it with magic. Rummaging through small metal bins, she dropped mint and anise into the water. Then a dollop of honey, obtained at great personal risk from a nearby hive. When she looked at the mug, it was empty. Her eyes widened in a face so tired any movement was torture, and she wondered if she’d hallucinated making tea. Since she didn’t remember drinking the mixture, she made another cup for good measure.
Liquid on board, she started feeling halfway human. Or whatever she was these days. As she moved around her cozy hobbit hole of a home, her gaze stole over beloved books, a few odds and ends of china, and her grandmother’s rug—all that was left of her old life. By the time she had developed enough magic to transport both herself and things short distances, most of the items from the ruins of her parents’ home had been either pilfered by someone else or destroyed by the elements. She’d come by her few other possessions digging through the rubble of what was left of civilization.
Aislinn sighed heavily. It made her chest hurt and she wondered if the Bal’ta had injured her before she’d made good on her escape. She shucked her clothes—tight brown leather pants, a plaid flannel shirt, and a torn black leather jacket—and took stock of her body. It looked pretty much the same. The long, white scar from under one breast catty corner to a hipbone was still there. Yeah, right. What could have happened to it? There might be a few new bruises, but all in all, her lean, tautly muscled form had survived intact. Before the world had imploded, she’d hated being a shred over six feet tall. Now she blessed her height. Long legs meant she could run fast.
She wrinkled her nose. A putrid stench had intensified as she removed her ratty leather garments. Realizing it was her, she strode to the waterfall in one corner of her cave and stood under its flow until her teeth chattered. Only then did she pull magic to warm herself. It seemed a waste to squander power on something she thought she should be able to tolerate. Besides, despite sleeping, she still hadn’t managed to totally recharge her reserves. That would only happen if she didn’t use any more magic for a while. Aislinn thumbed a sliver of handmade soap and washed her hair, diverting suds falling down her body to clean the rest of her.
Something threw itself against the wards she kept above ground. She felt it as a vibration deep in her chest. It happened again. She leapt from the shower and flung her long, red hair over her shoulders so she could see. Soapy water streamed down her body, but she didn’t want to sacrifice one iota of magic drying herself until she knew who—or what—was out there. Mage power would alert whatever was outside to her presence, so she snaked the tiniest tendril of Seeker magic out, winding it in a circuitous route so no one would be able to figure out where it came from. Seekers could pinpoint others with magic. That gift was also useful sorting out truth, but it wasn’t her main talent, so it was weak.
She gasped. Travis? How could it possibly be him? He didn’t know where she lived. Had her Lemurian magelord told him?
“Aislinn.” She heard his voice in her mind. “Let us in.”
Us no doubt meant his bond creature was with him. When Hunter magic was primary, humans had bond animals. His was a civet with the most beautiful rust, golden, and onyx coat she’d ever seen. Should I? Indecision rocked her. The reason her cave meant safety was no one knew about it. No one who would tell, anyway. She dragged a threadbare wool shift—once it had been green but there were so many patches, it was mostly black now—over her head and shook water out of her hair.
A high-pitched screech reverberated in her head. It sounded like something had pissed off the civet. Travis shouted her name again. He left the mind speech channel open after that. Locked it open so she couldn’t close it off. Edgy, she wondered if he was setting some sort of trap. Aislinn thought she could trust him, but when it came right down to it, she didn’t trust anyone. Especially not the Old Ones. The only thing that made working with them tolerable was that she understood their motives. Or imagined she did. She still hadn’t forgiven them for killing her mother. Poor, sick, muddled Tara.
“Aislinn.” A different voice this time. Metae, her Lemurian magelord. The one who’d made it clear two years before that, magic or no, they’d kill her if she didn’t come to terms with her power and fight for them. “Save your comrade. I do not know if I will arrive in time.”
All righty, then. Aislinn wondered if it would be possible. The civet yowled, hissed, and then yowled again. Travis made heavy, slurping sounds, as if at least one lung had been punctured. Dragging a leather vest over totally inadequate clothing, Aislinn slipped her feet into cracked, plastic Crocs, and took off at a dead run down a passageway leading upward. The Crocs gave her feet some protections from rocks, but not from cold. She veered off, trying to pick an exit point that would put her behind the fighting. When she came to one of the many illusory rocks that blocked every tunnel leading to her home, she peeked around it. No point in being a sacrifice if she could help it. Travis wasn’t that close of an acquaintance. No one was.
A hand flew to her mouth to stifle sound. Christ! It couldn’t be. But it was. Though she’d only seen him once, that horrible night in Bolivia when her father had died, the thing standing in broad daylight had to be Perrikus—one of six dark gods holding what was left of Earth captive. Bright auburn hair flowing to his waist fluttered in the morning breeze. Eyes clear as fine emeralds one moment, shifting to another alluring shade the next, were set in a classically handsome face with sharp cheekbones and a chiseled jawline. His broad shoulders and chest tapered to narrow hips under a gossamer robe that left almost nothing to the imagination. The dark gods were sex incarnate, which was interesting since the Old Ones were anything but. Promises of bottomless passion had been one of the ways the dark ones seduced Druids and witches and all those other New Age practitioners into weakening the gates between the worlds.
Heat flooded Aislinn’s nether regions. She wished she’d paid better attention when humans who’d actually run up against the dark gods had told her about it. Something about requiring human warmth to feed themselves, or remain on Earth, or…shit, her usually sharp mind just wasn’t there. She couldn’t focus on anything except getting laid.
Her groin ached for release. One of her hands snuck under her clothing before she realized what she was doing. No! The silent shriek told her body to stand down, damn it. Now was not the time…and Perrikus definitely not the partner. Her body wasn’t listening. The next parts to betray her were her nipples as they pebbled into hard points and pressed against the rough wool fabric of her hastily donned shift.
Wrenching her gaze to Travis—and her mind away from sex—she was unutterably grateful he was still on his feet. Wavering, but standing. The civet, every hair on end, stood next to him, a paw with claws extended, raised menacingly.
“You know where the woman is,” Perrikus said, voice like liquid silver. Aislinn heard compulsion behind the words. Hopefully, so did Travis. “I followed you here,” the dark mage went on. “I heard you call out to her. So, where is she? Tell me and I’ll let you go.” The civet growled low. Travis spoke a command to silence it.
“I’m right here.” Aislinn stepped into view, glad her voice didn’t tremble, because her guts sure were.
“Aislinn,” Travis gasped. He lurched in a rough half circle to face her. “I’m so sorry…”
“Can it,” she snapped. The civet hissed at her, probably since she’d had the temerity to raise her voice to its bonded one.
“Okay.” She leveled her gaze at Perrikus. “You said he could go. Release him—and his animal, too.”
That lyrical voice laughed. “Oh, did I say that? I’d forgotten.”
“Let him go and I’ll, ah, give you what you want.” Should buy me a couple minutes here. “Just turn off the damned libido fountain. I can’t think.”
His hypnotic gaze latched onto hers. “Why would I do that, human? You like how it feels. I smell the heat from between your legs.”
“Bastard. I liked it a whole lot better when I thought you were just a comic book character.” Aislinn wondered how much juice she had. This was one of the gods. Even if she was at her best, she didn’t think she’d be able to prevail in anything that looked like direct combat. “What do you want with me?” she asked, still trying to buy time to strategize. It wasn’t easy with what felt like a second heart pounding between her legs. She wanted to lay herself at his feet and just get it over with.
“What do you think?” He smiled. Fine, white teeth gleamed in that perfect jaw. “Children. You have power, human. Real power. And you’ve only now come to our attention.” He walked toward her, nice and slow. Sauntered. His hips swung with his stride. She saw he was ready under those sheer robes. Unfortunately, so was she, but she clamped down on her craving.
Aislinn ignored the moisture gushing down her thighs and reached for her magic. Travis limped over, joining hands with her. The civet wedged itself between them, warm against her lower leg. She felt the boost immediately. Even the sexual hunger receded a tiny bit. Enough to clear her mind. “On my count of three,” she sent. “One, two…”
“No. Do just the opposite. He won’t be expecting it. Pull from air and water. I’ll blend fire. Aim for his dick. It’s a pretty big target just now.”
Power erupted from them. Even the civet seemed to be helping. Since she’d never worked with an animal before, she wasn’t certain just how the Hunter magic worked. Aislinn concentrated hard to keep the spell’s aim true. Travis was injured, so she took more of the burden.
Perrikus chanted almost lazily. Maybe he was drunk on his own ability, so egotistical he wouldn’t guard himself. Her spirits soared as soon as she realized Travis’s gambit had worked. Perrikus was using the counter spell for air and water. He hadn’t counted on the tenacity fire would give their working. Moments later, a muffled shriek burst from him and he grappled for his crotch.
“Bitch.” No honey or compulsion in that epithet. He lunged for her. Aislinn sidestepped him neatly, letting go of Travis. In half a crouch, she trained all her attention on their adversary. Hands raised, she began a weaving she hoped would unbalance him. Air shimmered at the edges of her vision.
“I am here, child. Take your comrade to safety. He carries an important message from me.”
“Do not speak my name aloud. Go.”
The shimmery place in the air sidled in front of Perrikus. Fiery edges lapped hungrily at his nearly transparent robes. Not waiting to be told a third time, Aislinn shooed the civet into Travis’s arms, draped an arm around him, and pulled invisibility about the three of them. The last thing she heard as she guided them toward the warren of passageways leading to her home was Metae baiting Perrikus. “I was old before you were hatched. How dare you spread your filth?”
“W-where are we?” Travis’s voice gurgled. It had taken time to help him cover the half-mile back to her cave. The civet made little mewling noises as they walked, sounding worried about its human partner.
“About two hundred feet below whatever’s happening up there.” Aislinn flung a hand upward. “Do you have Healing magic?” She pushed him through the thick tapestry that served as a door to her home and caught the civet’s tail between fabric and rock. It hissed at her, and then ran to Travis, light on its feet.
“Use it on yourself. It’s not one of my strengths.” Aislinn knew she sounded surly, but couldn’t help herself. She’d never wanted anyone anywhere near her home. And her body, ignited by Perrikus’s execrable magic, screamed for release. Nothing she could do about that so long as she had company. Not much privacy in the one room she called home.
“Make a power circle around me.”
Grateful for something to do, Aislinn strode around him three times, chanting. She felt Travis pull earth power from her as he patched the hurt places within himself. Satisfied he had what he needed, she retrieved her mug, got one for him and made tea. In addition to goldenseal, she added marigolds to the decoction. Both were supposed to have healing qualities. By the time she finished brewing the tea, his color had shifted from gray to decidedly pink. His eyes were back to their normal brown. Moss green was his power color. She wondered if it was sheer coincidence the civet’s eyes were the same odd shade. She understood her Mage and Seeker gifts. The other three human magics—Healer, Hunter, and Seer—remained shrouded in mystery.
Aislinn looked hard at Travis when she handed him the tea. Dirty blond dreadlocks hung halfway down his back. He was well past six feet, but thin to the point of gauntness, his skin stretched over broad shoulders. A leather belt with additional holes punched in it held baggy denim pants up. Battered leather boots, split along one side, and an equally worn leather vest over a threadbare green cotton shirt made him look just about as ragtag as she always did. No one ever had new clothes. She just patched what she had until the fabric fell apart. Then she looted amongst the dead, or possessions they’d left behind, for something else she could use.
“Thanks.” He took the tea and shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “You have books.” Surprise burned in his tone. “How did—?”
“You didn’t see them,” she broke in fiercely, thinking that’s what happened when you had people in your house. They saw things they weren’t supposed to—like books banned by a Lemurian edict.
“Okay,” he agreed. “I didn’t see a thing.” He hesitated. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”
“Did you fix your body?” Aislinn grimaced. Gee, that didn’t sound very friendly. Pretty obvious I’m trying to change the subject. “Uh, sorry. I’m not used to entertaining.”
He dropped his gaze. “Yeah, I’m better. I’m not used to being anyone’s guest, either.”
“How’d you find me?” she blurted. Not all that polite either, but she really did want to know.
“Metae and Regnol, you know, my Lemurian magelord, told me to give you this yesterday.” Scrabbling inside his vest, he drew out an alabaster plaque. It was about the size of a domino and contained an encrypted message. “I tried to make our rendezvous on time, but everywhere I turned, something went wrong.” He paused long enough to take a breath. “I won’t bore you with the details, but it was past dark when I made it to the coordinates. You weren’t there, but I knew you had been. Traces of your energy remained.” He ground his teeth together. “I also sensed the Bal’ta. Because I feared the worst, I called the Old Ones—”
“What?” she broke in, incredulous. “We’re never supposed to—”
“I know that.” He sounded dismayed. “I was desperate. They’d told me not to bother reporting back in if I didn’t get the message to you. Anyway, they didn’t even lecture me for insubordination. Metae told me where to find you. And a whole bunch of other stuff about how she’d wanted to tell you herself, but couldn’t break away from something or other.”
Aislinn gulped her tea. It was hot and made her mouth hurt, but at least the lust that had been eating at her like acid, ever since Perrikus had turned those gorgeous eyes on her, receded a bit. Maybe it might, just might, leave her be. She’d even been wondering about a quickie with Travis—after he’d healed himself, of course. Heat spread up her neck. She knew she was blushing.
“What?” He stared at her. The civet had curled itself into a ball at his feet, but it kept its suspicious gaze trained on her.
“Nothing.” She put down her mug and held out a hand for the plaque. “Let’s find out what was so important.”
Nodding silently, he handed it to her before sinking onto one of several big pillows scattered around the Oriental rug. The cat followed him. “Do you mind?” He pointed at a faded Navaho blanket folded in one corner of the room.
“Thanks.” He unfolded it and draped it around his shoulders. “Takes a lot of magic to do Healings. I’m cold.”
With only half her mind on him, Aislinn held the alabaster between her hands. It warmed immediately and began to glow. She opened herself to it, knowing it would reveal its message, but only to her. The plaques were like that. The Old Ones keyed them to a single recipient. Death came swiftly to anyone else who tried to tamper with their magic. Metae’s voice filled her mind.
“Child. Your unique combination of Mage and Seeker blood has come to the attention of the other side. They will stop at nothing to capture and use you. The Council has conferred. You will ready yourself for a journey to Taltos so we may better prepare you for what lies ahead. Take nothing. Tell no one. Travel to the gateway. Do not tarry. Once you are there, we will find you. You must arrive within four days.”
“What?” Travis had an odd look on his face, as if he knew he shouldn’t ask, but couldn’t help himself.
She shook her head. Alone. Destined to be alone—always. Sadness filled her. Images of her mother and father tumbled out of the place she kept them locked away. Memories of what it had felt like to be loved brought sudden tears to her eyes.
“Come here.” Travis opened his arms. “You don’t have to tell me a thing.” The civet growled low. He spoke sharply to it and it stood, arched its back, and walked to a spot a few feet away where it circled before lying down.
Mortified by how desperately she wanted the comfort of those arms, Aislinn dropped to the floor and crawled to him, taking care to give his bond animal a wide berth. The blanket must have helped because when she fitted her body to his it was more than warm. The sexual heat she thought she’d moved beyond flared painfully in her loins. When he cupped her buttocks with his hands and pulled her against him, she wound her arms around him and held on.
“There,” he crooned, moving a hand to smooth her hair out of her face. “There, now. Let’s take comfort where we can, eh? There’s precious little to be had.” He laughed, sounding a bit self-conscious, before adding, “Even I could feel Perrikus’s spell. Got me going, too.
He closed his lips over hers. She kissed him back, too aroused to be ashamed of her need.
The gateway to Taltos. How the hell was she supposed to find it all by herself? Travis was long gone, making a journey jump to wherever he lived. At least that’s where he said he was going. Aislinn blew out a breath, feeling guilty. She hadn’t exactly asked him to go, but she’d hinted strongly that she needed time to herself. Travis was sweet—and a surprisingly adept lover. A reluctant smile tugged at her lips. She hadn’t expected him to be so skilled. Or so attuned to what she needed, which had been rough and tumble sex without much in the way of seductive undertones.
The smile vanished abruptly. Ever since she lost her family, she’d made a point of staying away from anything that could turn into an emotional entanglement. It hurt too damned bad when you lost someone you loved. She could go the rest of her life without that kind of pain again, thank you very much. Doesn’t matter, it will be months before I see him again. If then.
Relegating her tryst with Travis to the infrequent dalliances she’d given in to when need outweighed reason, she gazed about her cave. It wasn’t much, but it was all the home she had and she was loathe to leave it. Aislinn shrugged off her ambivalence about the upcoming journey. Since her instructions were to take nothing and tell no one, she sure wouldn’t be wasting any time in preparations. Only problem was she really did need to figure out where she was going. She closed her eyes and sifted through Lemurian memories that had been embedded within her at the time of her initiation. She kept two fingers centered in tattooed marks—black ink in the form of ankhs and stars—on her opposite arm as she concentrated.
Rather than a map of how to get to Taltos, what filled her mind was the Harmonic Convergence of August, 1987 and its globally synchronized surges. The Surge three years ago had been the last one as far as she knew, though there’d been many prior to it. Resentment filled her and she ground her teeth together. Of course it had been the last one. The dark gods had used it to leapfrog their way to Earth. They didn’t need to mastermind any more of them since they were already here.
Her parents had taken her to a remote location in the mountains of Bolivia during that last Surge. There’d been a surprising number of people, given it had taken several hours of strenuous climbing on slippery, muddy trails to get to a sundial supposedly placed by the Incas. Or, maybe it had been the Aztecs. She couldn’t exactly remember. She’d been tired and not listening especially carefully to her father lecturing about the history of the Convergence as they made their way to the ancient shrine. He talked about it all the time. It was his life’s work, he and Doctor José Argüelles. They’d spent over twenty years tracking every aspect of it at power points all over the world. This wasn’t the first time he’d taken her and her mother to some remote location to view a Surge.
While the trek had begun in thick jungle, they’d climbed beyond the line where trees grew to an arid, high plain, pocked with huge craters and the ruins of primitive dwellings. Small scrubby plants dotted the landscape. Herds of llamas grazed nearby. Aislinn had been fascinated by their huge, liquid eyes and long, graceful necks. When she reached out to touch one, her father had called her back telling her they weren’t nearly as friendly as they looked. The journey had taken most of the day. Light was fading when they reached the sacred power point. Her father told her about dozens of such spots scattered around the globe. “People are gathering there, too,” he’d said with a knowing smile.
Her parents offered her cocaine leaves to chew. They’d given her a mild high. When the ground around the sundial began to undulate, she’d chalked it up to the drug. The rest of the crowd had rushed forward, though, chanting something in a guttural language. A vast hole had formed in the earth and two naked alien beings had swarmed out of it. Several of the worshippers threw themselves at the feet of the things, chanting fervently.
The creatures had been so horribly inhuman, with eyes that radiated infinite power and colors shifting and changing under golden skin—Christ! An army of zombies wouldn’t have looked any more terrifying—or shocked her more. Danger rolled from them in waves, setting her teeth on edge and making her stomach ache. Though she hadn’t known it then, one was Perrikus, the other D’Chel. That had been the beginning of the freaky part. And her world had unraveled right along with it.
With a despairing look on her face, her mother had whispered in Gaelic so garbled it was tough to follow, telling her and her father to fade into the shadows behind nearby ruins. They’d begun a surreptitious retreat when one of the things materialized right in front of her father. One minute, he’d been behind them, the next he was in front of Jacob Lenear, blocking his way. Jacob stood six foot four, but the glowing figure, was at least half a foot taller. Up close like that, multi-hued eyes glowed menacingly. Shiny black hair hung past his waist. The colors flowing into one another under his skin had a hypnotic quality.
“Where do you think you are going, human?” The last word sounded like a curse.
“It’s late,” her father began, spreading his hands in a placating gesture. “And—”
Those had been his last words. The thing reached out quick as lightning, wrapped a long-fingered hand around Jacob’s neck, and snapped it. It happened so fast the only part Aislinn remembered clearly was her mother screaming. The humans who had welcomed the abominations began to chant something like, “Kill the unbelievers. Bring on the New Age. New Age. New Age. New Age…”
A woman had stepped forward then, and tugged at the other alien being’s arm. Dark hair blew in her eyes. She was half-naked, her small, conical breasts painted with runic symbols. “I am Amaya, queen witch of this coven. Where are the others? I was told six of you would emerge.”
The thing smirked at her and shoved reddish-gold hair over broad shoulders. “If you ever speak directly to me again, it will mean your death. Depending how closely your kin followed orders, our brothers and sister are already here. This is not the only power point in this world.”
Looking mildly shaken, Amaya lowered her hazel gaze and slunk backward. She joined hands with several others. They raised their voices in a song that only partially muffled Aislinn’s mother’s wailing. Draped over her husband’s body, red hair dragging in the dirt, Tara Lenear’s Irish heritage came to the fore as she shrieked a wake for her beloved. Aislinn tried to join her, to hug her father one last time, but in what was one of her last sentient moments, her mother had stopped screaming and hustled them off the mountain.
It was only later, after the madness took root, that Aislinn realized it would have been far more merciful if Tara had joined Jacob that day. Her mother hadn’t been the only one to lose her mind in the face of the invasion—the six dark gods hadn’t lost much time creating gateways for their hell spawned minions to scare the crap out of people—but Aislinn had needed her mother, goddammit. It didn’t take long for the truth to sink in: she’d lost both her parents on that South American mountain.
Then the Lemurians had shown up with their own brand of alien power. While they’d dealt fairly with her, Aislinn knew it was because she was gifted. The chilly indifference with which they’d dispatched humans who were either crazy or without magical ability still felt like an affront. She’d been raised to believe all life had intrinsic value. The first time she’d floated that idea to a Lemurian, he’d laughed for a good thirty minutes. She hadn’t brought it up again.
Aislinn’s face twisted into a grimace. Even three years later, the memories horrified her. She shut her eyes, squeezing them so tightly colors flashed behind her lids. Her father and mother were dead. They couldn’t help her anymore. There was no percentage in thinking about either of them. All it did was make her sad.
Pressing harder on the tattoos, she asked the Old Ones how to find Taltos. When the answer came, she understood she’d known all along. It was part of the embedded memories, but she’d been so upset by Perrikus—and thinking about her parents—she’d been at cross-purposes with herself.
Confident the gateway would show itself to her, assuming she survived the journey, Aislinn wondered about her invitation. Insofar as she knew, other than the brief indoctrination she’d gotten once she’d accepted her magic and agreed to help the Lemurians, no additional training had been offered to any other human. Had any of them ever been invited into the Old Ones’ domain before? Was she the first? The thought excited and frightened her at the same time.
“Let’s see.” She ticked off on her fingers. “Mage, Seeker, Seer, Healer, Hunter.” The spectrum of human powers. She had both Mage and Seeker talents. Her Mage gift gave her facility with spells. Most humans had only one skill. It was unusual, but not unheard of, to have two. Travis, for example, was a Hunter, but he had Healing talent also. Why would the Old Ones suddenly take such an interest in her? So what if one of the dark ones planned to rape her? It wasn’t any different than they’d done with countless human women. A harsh laugh escaped. Actually the Old Ones and the enemy had one thing in common: a blatant disregard for human life. Aislinn figured the Old Ones were simply using her and others like her as pawns in their million-year-old battle against Perrikus and his cronies.
Feeling confused and vulnerable—and angry that her compliance with Metae’s orders was a foregone conclusion—Aislinn mapped out her journey. She needed to get to a sacred mountain in northern California. It was about a thousand miles from her current location, so it would take several jumps and at least two days. Maybe even three because her magic would need time to recover.
Take nothing—that’s ridiculous. I have to take food.
No, she argued with herself, I can hunt. Probably better to follow Metae’s instructions exactly.
A familiar voice broke into her reverie. “Aislinn.”
“Travis? Didn’t you go home?” She winced. He’d been kind to her. He deserved better. “Uh, sorry. Didn’t mean to be rude.”
He chuckled. “Yeah. I went home. Just wanted to tell you I hope I see you again.”
Sudden tears sprang to her eyes. She brushed them away. “Damn it, Travis,” she hissed, mind voice almost a growl. “Do not start caring about me. I don’t think I could stand it.”
“We’ve all lost a lot, Aislinn. Don’t let it blind you to the rest of your life.”
She began to answer, but he severed the link. She sent magic spinning out to resurrect it, but pulled it back almost immediately. Travis was a complication she did not need right now. What she needed to do was get moving. On her feet before the thought was done percolating, Aislinn stripped off her shift, then dressed carefully in layers, snugging into long underwear and wool pants that used to be black, but had faded to gray. A red flannel shirt—it clashed with her hair, but so what?—topped by a leather vest and her torn black leather jacket completed her usual mercenary for hire outfit. She glanced down at herself and laughed. There’d been a time when she’d actually cared what she looked like. Now the only thing she cared about was if her clothing was warm and functional.
Eying her boots, she shook her head. She needed to be on the lookout for a replacement pair. She tossed a battered rucksack over her shoulders to hold some of her clothes in case it was warmer than she thought it would be, made sure she had a water bottle and her cook pot, and held a westerly location in her mind.
Aislinn arrived at her planned destination easily. Under the watchful eye of a weak sun trying hard to put out a little warmth, she patted the walls of a deserted tin mining shack a couple hundred miles from her home. Compared with her last journey, the first leg of this one had been easy. The next few should be, too, at least until she traveled into terra incognita. When she couldn’t picture her location, she wasn’t sure quite what she’d do. Coming out in unknown terrain was always risky.
She’d been to the tin shack a couple of times before. Once when her mother was still alive, and later when she was first teaching herself how to use magic to travel. The miner who’d built the humble structure had left a diary about losing his wife to cancer. His pain, splashed across the grime-streaked pages of a journal, had pierced her heart. She thought about going inside to see if the journal was still there, but resisted. She didn’t really have time to spare. Aislinn reached out cautiously with her magic to see if any threats were near. And froze.
She wasn’t certain what she sensed, but it had wrongness stamped all over it. She hadn’t expected to run into trouble so soon and it rattled her. Silent in her cracked leather boots, she faded into the hut through a door hanging half off its hinges. The diary was right where she’d left it, tucked into a clear, plastic bin so rodents wouldn’t chew it to bits. Drawing power, she looked through the walls of her shelter.
Ghost army. Had they seen her arrive? Shades of human dead, robbed of life far too soon, roved the countryside in packs. They holed up in what was left of the cities, too. Not unlike feral dogs, they refused to leave. Enough of them could suck the life out of you, which was how they swelled their ranks. Aislinn ground her teeth together. While easier to fool than instruments of the dark, she couldn’t afford to take chances. Dead was dead and shades would kill her just as eagerly as Bal’ta. Her corporeality was an affront to them.
Because they weren’t magical, they shouldn’t be able to sense her. If she just sat tight, she could wait till they moved on, but that might make her late. The alabaster had given her four days’ time. It seemed like enough, at least if everything went smoothly. She peered at the ghost army again with magic-enhanced senses. As she watched, one of them pointed a bony finger her way. She sat up straighter. Shit. They must have seen her flicker into being after she’d first arrived.
She girded herself for moving on, pulling magic, visualizing a location, when the shades closed in. They slithered through the walls and surrounded her. When she reached for her magic, a barrier stood between her will and the reservoir that held her power.
What the hell? They’re not supposed to be able to do that. The reek of long-decayed flesh pricked her nose. She stifled a gag. Skeletal fingers with strips of flesh hanging off them reached for her. A high-pitched, wavering howling filled the air. Chills ran down her back. The shades sounded hungry. Aislinn forced herself to really look at the remnants of humanity surrounding her. “Did this shack belong to one of you?” she asked, her gaze scanning the group.
“Aye. What’s it to you?” One of the men stepped forward. Even dead, with flesh peeling off him in strips and a caved-in place where it looked like someone had buried an axe in his skull, it was obvious he’d been a big, powerfully built man.
Aislinn met his dead, brown gaze. “I read your journal. I’m sorry about your wife.” She hesitated. “I know what it is to lose someone you love.”
“Do you now?” he snarled. Half-eaten away lips drew back from teeth with exposed roots.
“Yes,” she said simply. “Both my parents were killed. And all my friends.”
The man stepped closer to her. Raising a hand, he ran it down her arm. Then, more familiarly, cupped a breast. “Warm,” he breathed, showering her with rancid breath. “So warm.” His hand tightened on her, pulling her close.
Swallowing revulsion, Aislinn laid a hand over his. “Don’t you want to see your wife again?”
He tossed his shaggy head. Long gray-flecked dark hair crawling with maggots swatted against her body. “Stupid girl,” he brayed. “If you’re going to give me some prattle about heaven, don’t waste your breath. Stopped believin’ when Betty died.”
“Doesn’t matter what you believe.” Aislinn met his gaze. “Spirits of the dead live on, but you have to pass the light to know that.”
He was kneading her breast now, rubbing the exposed bone of his fingertips over her nipple. “And how would you know, missy?”
She wasn’t certain, but Aislinn thought she saw hope flicker behind his dead eyes. “Because I have to believe I’ll see my parents again one day. Either I’ll be killed in battle, or after I’m through fighting for the Lemurians.”
He dropped her breast as if it burned him. A hissing sibilance passed his lips, spraying her with spittle. “You’re one of them. Turned by the other side.” Outraged shrieks battered her ears. The dead closed in on her.
“Grab her,” one of them shouted.
“We need her.”
“Lemurian magic might bring us back.”
“Oh no, it won’t,” Aislinn countered, swallowing pity and fear. “They’re the ones who killed most of you. Remember?” She hurried on, “If you keep on killing the few of us who are left, who will avenge your deaths?”
The remains of a plump woman sidled close. She stroked Aislinn’s hair, sending ice chips into her guts. “Warm,” she mumbled. “I remember what it was to be warm.”
The miner shoved his body between them. “Go,” he hissed at Aislinn. “You do devil’s work. We will let you leave, but you must make me a promise.”
“What?” Aislinn wondered if she’d have to lie.
“Fight those who killed us. I want revenge.”
We all do. Sucking in a deep breath, and letting it out, she decided to take a chance, hoping the Lemurians weren’t in her head to listen. “Once the dark are defeated, if that’s even possible, I give you my word I will do what I can to see that the Old Ones return to Taltos and remain there.”
The man turned to the rest of the ghost army. Aislinn hadn’t been paying attention, but when she looked it seemed most of them had crowded into the miner’s shack. Bodies merged into bodies in one stinking, gelatinous mass. “What do you think?” he demanded.
“She spoke true,” one ventured.
“Aye, I thought she’d lie to save her sorry hide,” another spat.
Realizing her jaws were clamped together so hard they ached, Aislinn opened her mouth. Some of the dead were determined to keep her, while others argued one more life couldn’t possibly help them. She reached for her magic again, inhaling sharply when she didn’t sense the barrier anymore.
May as well be ready, she reasoned and started the spell to take her away from this place.
The miner grasped her wrist. “We did not release you.”
A wry smile split her face. “You let me access my magic. It’s pretty much the same thing.” She held her breath.
He smiled back at her, ghoulish with almost non-existent lips and snagly teeth. “Maybe it is. Go, human. Never forget what you are.” He made shooing motions toward the door.
Aislinn didn’t wait to be asked again. Swallowing down bile, she raced outside, hungry for air not tainted with the reek of dead meat. What the hell? She stopped in her tracks as soon as she’d cleared the lintel. Sitting on its haunches, staring at her with amber eyes, was the most intelligent looking wolf she’d ever seen. It cocked its head to one side. Gray fur, streaked with silver and black, gleamed in the sun.
I’m not a Hunter. Why would it come to me? Those with Hunter gifts had animal sidekicks, like Travis’s civet. Following instincts, fueled by her magic, she reached toward the wolf and asked in mind speech, “You want something of me. What is it?”
Feeling foolish, after all her hunches were sometimes wrong, Aislinn glanced sidelong at the wolf and she readied herself to leave. It wouldn’t do to tarry in case the shades changed their minds.
“I’m coming with you.”
“I am not a Hunter. You have made a mistake.”
The wolf rose lazily to its feet, lush tail swishing. “I never make mistakes. Include me in your spell. If you do not, the Hunter Covenant gives me the right to kill you.” The wolf stalked over to her. She saw it was male. Aislinn culled through her memory banks for what she knew about Hunters and their animals. Humans with Hunter skills were the most adept at finding the enemy—and killing them. Somehow the blend of animal magic boosted whatever the human brought to the table. She couldn’t remember what happened to humans who refused an animal bond. Who knew, maybe rejection did give the wolf the right to kill her.
Covenant or not, it didn’t pay to get off on the wrong foot. She’d never tolerated being bullied and wasn’t about to start now. “Now see here.” She hunkered down so their gazes met directly. “No threats.”
He just looked at her, tongue lolling.
“Great,” she muttered and expanded her casting to bring wolfie-boy along. “Ghost army, talking wolf. What the hell else will I find between here and Taltos?”
She brought them down in the ruins of Salt Lake City—an asphalt nightmare. Aislinn had been aiming for her old neighborhood and the bomb shelter her father and some of his friends had hogged out under their home in the nineteen nineties. She was tired and knew she needed food and sleep before she could travel again. So far wolfie hadn’t been any trouble, but it took almost double the magic to move both of them. She’d felt power from the civet. If wolfie had any, he was doing a good job hiding it. She did some quick calculations. The four days that had seemed generous, now seemed as if they might not be quite enough.
The wolf morphed into being next to her and made a whuffy noise, midway between a whine and a snarl. “Where have you brought us? Nothing to hunt here but corpses.” He wrinkled his nose in lupine disgust.
Ignoring his question, she asked, “Do you have a name?”
He gazed at her with interest. “Why?”
“So I can have something to call you besides wolfie?”
“Rune will do.”
She rolled the name around in her mind. It chimed sourly. Raising her eyebrows, she looked at him. “That’s not your name.”
“Names have power. Even you should know that, human.”
Biting off a sarcastic retort, she said, “Just make sure no one follows us.”
Feeling thoroughly chastised, and by a wolf no less, she trotted in the direction of the house she used to live in, leading them across a rubble filled alleyway, through a culvert and finally underground down badly decomposed steps. Many were missing. She stumbled a couple of times, catching herself on what was left of the handrail. The doorway was still in place, right along with the punch code lock. She keyed in seven-seven-four-three and the door swung inward.
Aislinn stepped inside with Rune at her heels. As soon as his tail cleared the door, she pushed it shut and sank into a dusty chair. It was dark as pitch with the door closed, but she didn’t need to see. The smell in the small enclosure reminded her of her father and tears rose, threatening to spill over.
“Your pack lived here.”
Wondering how he could possibly know that, but too weary to puzzle it out, her eyes fluttered shut.
When she opened them, she knew she’d slept, but not for very long. She was hungry and thirsty, and rested enough. Rune had curled his body around her chair. She felt his fur, soft against her ankles, and the heat rising off his body. For some inexplicable reason, his nearness brought a smile to her face. Now that her eyes had adapted to the dark, she could see threads of light filtering around the door where it no longer fit tightly in its frame.
“Time to hunt?” he asked, stretching out one paw at a time once he’d gotten to his feet.
She nodded, rising. “There used to be food here. Let me look.” She called light—a glowing rose orb—into being. It followed after her like an obedient puppy.
Since the combination lock had been a decent deterrent, quite an array of canned goods remained. Most likely all of them. Beckoning her light closer, she peered at a can of Hormel corned beef hash. Then she laughed. “Use by September nineteen ninety-nine, huh?” She poked at the can. It seemed intact. The lids on either end weren’t pooched out like they’d be if botulism had set in. Returning to the cans, she got peaches, green beans, Vienna sausage and the can of hash. The can opener still hung by its hook on the side of the cabinet. She grabbed it, too.
Rune was waiting by her chair, ears pricked forward. She waggled the can of hash at him. “Interested?”
“I don’t think so.” He wrinkled his nose. “Whatever’s in there died a long time ago.”
“Well, try some. It will save time.” Using the opener, she removed the lid and upended the can on the packed dirt floor. The wolf nosed it, shrugged his furry shoulders, and began to eat. Hesitant at first, once he’d taken a couple of bites, he snarfed down the rest.
She went to work on the beans and sausage, eating with her fingers. Everything tasted okay. She saved the peaches with their sticky syrup for last. “Go capitalism,” she muttered, popping the last peach into her mouth. The canned good manufacturers probably underestimated the shelf life of their products on purpose to make people buy more. She looked around the twelve by twelve subterranean space. It had been underneath their kitchen. In addition to the faded, corduroy easy chair, there was a card table with four chairs, shelves built into every wall and hooks for a kerosene lantern. Her father hadn’t been sure there’d be enough ventilation to use it for very long, but two five gallon tins of kerosene sat in one corner, along with their battered Coleman lantern and a supply of mantles she was certain had long since turned to dust.
Her family. This was the last of what was left of them and their home. Not very fucking much. Resisting an urge to sift through the rubble above to see if she could find anything else left, she set the peach can on the floor. The bomb shelter had been built before she was born. She remembered playing down here on hot summer days when the temperature climbed into the nineties in Salt Lake.
“I thought we were in a hurry, human.”
Rune’s voice broke into her memories. “Yes.” She shot out of the chair as if the wolf had bitten her, disgusted with herself for her unauthorized trip into yesterday-land “We are.”
“Where are we going?”
She pulled the door open, withdrew the magic supporting her light and cocked her head to one side. “Can you help when we travel?”
“Certainly. You did not ask.”
Certainly, her inner voice mimicked. As if I knew I had to.
“Well,” she ventured, aiming for a neutral tone, “I’d really appreciate it. We have a long way to go.”
“I need to know our destination.”
“I can’t tell you.”
Rune, who’d started up the stairs, whipped his body around. Golden wolf eyes glared down at her, glinting amber in the low light. “I am your bond animal. There are no secrets between us.”
“I shouldn’t have a bond animal,” she argued, pushing past him up the steps. “I already told you, I’m not a Hunter.”
“Yes,” he insisted, “you are.”
They were still quarreling when they emerged into daylight. Realizing too late she should have been more cautious, she sent magic scattering in a full circle, seeking threats.
“I already checked,” Rune informed her haughtily. “If there had been danger, I would not have allowed you above ground.”
Aislinn rolled her eyes. Not only did she have a talking wolf who was convinced he was bonded to her. Now the wolf had decided he was her guardian angel. Ignoring him, she began setting up her magic so they could leave. Spell mostly in place, she whistled for Rune. He was facing away from her sniffing something about fifty feet away. He didn’t turn around. “Rune,” she hissed, struggling to contain the spell. It tugged at her, ready to launch itself. “We’re ready.”
He swiveled his head to look back at her over one shoulder. “Oh,” he inquired caustically, “are we?”
“Fine.” She threw up her hands; her spell lost its punch. Christ, but she hated to waste magic. “Did you decide you’re not coming?”
“I don’t know.” He turned to face her.
She opened her mouth to answer, then it fell open. “You just answered me,” she sputtered. “And not in mind speech.”
“All bond animals can talk,” Rune informed her. “But only to our bonded one or others with the Hunter gift.” His voice was deep and rumbly, sort of like a friendly grizzly bear.
Aislinn sank to a convenient piece of concrete. “Look.” She held out her hands. “I have no training in Hunter magic. Zero. Zip. Zilch. I’m a Mage with weak Seeker ability. At least that’s what I thought I was. Also, I’m used to working alone. I like it that way. That doesn’t make me very good partner material.”
Rune walked a bit closer. He hung his head. “You probably should know my last human was killed in a Bal’ta raid led by Tokhots. I tried to protect her, but she did not listen to me. I killed all those godless whelps that murdered my bonded one, except Tokhots. He vanished as soon as the first few Bal’ta died.” The wolf’s lower jaw quivered. He threw back his head and one long, low, anguished howl burst from him. “You were the first Hunter I came across since her death. I listened outside that cabin when you bargained with the dead. I liked what I heard.” The wolf hesitated for a long time before his next words. “If you truly do not want me, I will seek another. I do not want a forced bond. Even though the laws say I could kill you for refusing me, I would not do that.”
Oh, god. What do I do now? The wolf’s distress was so palpable it seared her, but he was proud, too. She could see it in the determined set of his shoulders. She’d never wanted to hurt anyone. In that moment, she understood on a visceral level that she’d chased away the possibility of support—and love—to shield herself. Aislinn was ashamed. What was it Travis had said? We’ve all lost a lot…Something like that. She’d used her losses as an excuse to check out of life. Drifting from assignment to assignment, she’d never let herself think too deeply about anything. Guess I thought I’d be killed sooner or later—
Scooting over, she hunkered next to Rune and held out a hand to him. “If you go into this knowing you’ll have to help me because I don’t know shit about being half of a bond pair, well, I’m willing to give it a whirl.”
“You don’t have to,” he said stiffly, still not looking at her. “I didn’t tell you about losing Marta so you would pity me. I told you so you would understand.”
She stifled a bitter laugh. “I don’t pity you,” she said. “I pity me. I lied to you just now. It’s not that I prefer working alone. I’ve chosen to so I don’t have to feel responsible for anyone else’s death. If you still want me for your bond mate, I’d be honored.”
Rune looked at her then. Really looked at her. It felt as if he was sifting through her soul. At length, he shut his eyes and whuffled softly. “You still have not told me where we are going. I must know if I am to help boost your magic.”
Aislinn let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. This was the first time she’d offered anything touching the core of herself since her parents died. Granted it was only a wolf— No, a stern inner voice kicked in. He is far more than a wolf and you know it. He is love and risk. And vulnerability.
“I am going to Taltos,” she sent in shielded mind speech. “I do not know if they will let you in.”
What he said next shocked her. “They may not exactly welcome me, but I’ve already been there.”
She was a little show on the uptake because she was well into pulling their traveling spell together when it dawned that if Rune had been there, he must know how to find it.
“Of course,” he said, obviously having read her mind.
“You know my thoughts?” For a second time that afternoon, her spell drifted away on the winds.
The wolf nodded. “You should know mine, now I’ve dropped my shielding. It is part of the bond gift.”
She smiled at him, liking this new development, even though it felt scary. It would be like having a twin where each knew the other’s innermost feelings. She’d always wanted a brother or sister—
Her head snapped upright about the time she heard Rune’s voice in her head. “Back down the stairs, human. Get that door open. Do it now.”
The old Aislinn would have hesitated, wanting to see exactly what it was they faced. Today’s Aislinn dove for the stairwell, trusting Rune’s hyper-tuned senses. She was only about twenty feet from the break in the earth leading downward. Because she knew where the damaged steps were, she made the bottom in seconds and entered the code from feel without drawing magic for her light. Rune nosed her forward as soon as the door opened.
Aislinn stood in the dark, the harsh sound of the wolf’s panting loud in her ears. “What was out there?” she whispered, loathe to use any magic in case something with Seeker or Hunter ability lurked above them.
“Can you still sense it?” She hesitated. “More importantly, can they sense you?”
“Yes and no.”
“Why are you invisible to them?” She was curious. Maybe she could borrow from his skills. That would be a handy one.
“Because I do not need magic to smell and hear things.”
Aislinn felt stupid. Of course he didn’t. Lupine senses were far more sensitive than her own. Feeling for the chair, she sank into it. And waited. At least half an hour ticked by. “I think we should face whatever’s out there,” she said softly.
“Well, we can’t stay here.”
“Why not. There’s food and plastic bottles with water.”
“Because I have to be at the gateway in three more days.”
“Or they may not let me in.”
In the faint light filtering in from around the door, she saw Rune shift from an alert sit to his feet, tail pluming behind him. “I will go.” He nosed at the door. “Open it for me.”
“Now just a damned minute.” She rocketed to her feet and buried a hand in the thick ruff of his neck. “We can be partners, but I won’t have you fight my battles for me.”
He turned and met her gaze. “I will not lose another bond mate.”
Shit, he’s more like me than I realized…
Hunkering down, she wrapped her arms around his neck, breathing in the animal scent of him. He smelled like the forest and wild things. It was a good smell. Clean and bracing. “None of us can predict the future. I will do my damnedest to stay alive and so will you. We can help each other, but no matter how hard we try, one of us might die.” She blinked back sudden tears. “It’s not the life I was born to, and I don’t like it very much, but it’s the way things are. I say we go out there together.”
His body stiffened under her touch. She stroked his coat from shoulders to haunches again and again. Finally, he said, “It would not be my first choice, but we can leave.”
“Do you know what kind of creature we face?”
When he didn’t answer, she sent out the finest spindle of Seeker magic. It came back almost immediately. She blew out a breath. “Only wargs. And not that many of them. We should be able to mow our way through them and be gone.”
“They are my blood. I would prefer not to kill them if there is another way.”
His answer stopped her dead. She thought about wargs—wolves turned by the dark and infused with their insidious magic. Like all creatures of the dark, they had lost their will. “You feel sorry for them?” She was incredulous. It had never occurred to her to feel anything but anger for men stupid enough to sell their souls to the dark gods.
“No, I still hold hope they will come to their senses.”
Rune’s compassion for his kin filled her with embarrassment. Ever since that night in Bolivia, all she’d wanted to do was inflict pain on the ones who’d been irresponsible enough to invite disaster to Earth. The power of their chanting at multiple weak spots between the worlds had opened gateways for the dark.
“Well,” she said, “we can try to leave from here. It’s always harder traveling from underground, but if you help…”
He shook his head, still held in her arms. “No, you are right, human. This is a battle to the death. For each of their foot soldiers we vanquish, they have fewer to launch against us. Come. Let us do what we must and be gone from this place.”
“There are ten,” she told him, “feeding on the dead. There must have been fighting here recently. We have the element of surprise. I will pull fire from the earth. Do not get between me and my targets.”
“I will start with the ones on the right.” He growled; hackles rose along his spine.
“Fine. I’ll start left. We’ll meet in the middle. I want to test out this Hunter magic you think I have.”
Using two hands, she opened the locking mechanism silently. Rune went first. When he gathered his rear legs under him and sprang out of the hole in the earth, she was on his heels, power blazing from her hands. Whatever she targeted fell before her. Aislinn blinked in amazement. Could it be that Hunter magic meant she never missed? Christ! Wish I knew more about this. It wasn’t that she couldn’t be overpowered, but her aim was always true. Once she sent magic after something, it couldn’t escape the death that flew from her hands. Son of a bitch, maybe I’m a Hunter after all…
Amidst yelps and howls, three impossibly large, gray wolves fell before her. Then two more. She didn’t have time to look Rune’s way. Snarling and snapping suggested he was well engaged. She pulled power to send it spiraling after another wolf when her target, apparently sensing his imminent doom, turned tail and ran. She could still kill it, but it didn’t feel fair somehow to nail an enemy in full retreat. Now who’s the bloody bleeding heart?
Her gaze sought Rune. Two wolves lay dead. He battled with a third, powerful jaws closed around its neck. When she looked closely, she saw the pain in his eyes. The last wolf turned and ran after the one she’d let go, tail tucked between its legs.
Once she jockeyed with her perception, she could hear Rune’s thoughts. He and the wolf beneath him were talking. Rune agreed to withhold the deathblow if the wolf would leave. He stepped back, gaze trained on his adversary. For a moment it seemed as if the other wolf—coal black with shiny green eyes—would keep his end of the bargain. He even half turned in the direction the other two deserters had taken.
Out of nowhere, with a tremendous spring, he twisted his body in the air and landed atop Rune, burying his teeth in Rune’s neck. Aislinn loosed a battle cry and sent a killing blow straight to his head. The other wolf toppled into the dirt.
She ran to Rune and flung her arms around his neck. Harsh panting filled her ears. Warm liquid gushed under her hands. She realized the lying, cheating sack-of-shit wolf who’d welched on the kindness Rune offered had punctured a major vessel. Ignoring an inner voice that reminded her she wasn’t a Healer, she closed both hands over the wound. A chant she’d never heard before rose from her throat. She imagined the damaged tissues beneath her hands and what would need to knit itself together so Rune didn’t lose any more blood.
“Help me,” she urged, not knowing who she asked. Tears ran down her face. She would not lose him. Not now. They’d just found each other. So what if she wasn’t a Healer. The wolf would be her friend. If she could just keep him alive.
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