“Who told you this?” Tessa Anndrais shoved back the hood of her satiny lavender cloak. It pooled opulently around her shoulders, highlighting her halo of white-blond hair. Her sapphire eyes sparkled. “I could make you my slave for such slander.”
Using that sort of magic drained her for days, not to mention the idea of controlling another’s mind gave her the shivers after her recent ordeal, but she didn’t have to tell Abarta that. He was known as the Trickster for a reason. He was also wickedly beautiful, though she’d never admit her guilty attraction to the bad boy causing such trouble among the Sidhe – especially now that he’d introduced blackmail into their relationship. The ridiculous Sidhe libido could be a nuisance at times, and this was one of them.
Abarta smiled, his full lips parting to show his teeth. “I didn’t come here to share with you, Tessa. I was told your magic and knowledge are worth your troublesome penchant for independence. You will serve me now.” Shadows slithered swiftly from between the trees. Inky darkness seeped into the clearing where Abarta had insisted she meet him, filling the air until the shadows stamped out the view of what lay beyond. Darkness closed in, so close she could smell its dank, putrid stench.
“Creepy effect, but I’m not so easily fooled by illusion.” Tessa held out a hand and closed her fist, tight. The shadows retreated in a heartbeat, and a nearby bird sang a bright note of thanks, which was answered by another shrill call. It was her turn to smile. “Tell me why I shouldn’t take you to the Sidhe Authority right now.”
“Easy. You don’t want to betray me. I’ve made arrangements in case I am harmed, go missing, or otherwise say the word. Do you take me for a fool? Besides, I’ve had third-party confirmation. Without my protection, your brother’s secret will get out.”
Tessa stood her ground, but her mind reeled. They’d been so careful, but apparently someone had found her family’s secret despite all their efforts to hide it. She weighed her options. She could go along with his blackmail for the time being, or at least play along to keep her family safe. She didn’t exactly disagree with his cause. She had no love for the humans. He needed a spy, and she had to admit she was well placed to get the information he was after.
But Tessa hated putting herself in another manipulative man’s power. Until recently, she’d had a good deal of faith in the Sidhe – faith that her people were wise, and while not always kind, they had a nobility that other races could only hope to emulate. Tessa’s recent lover, Bertran, had challenged those notions completely. When the opportunity to perpetuate the Blood Wars arose, he’d used her, to the extent of taking control over her body and using her as a puppet in his schemes. She’d trusted him, or at least enjoyed him, and her faith had been sorely tested. She didn’t want another man to have power over her. Not now.
Abarta seemed to read her thoughts about her ex-lover. “Tell Mikhail you need to know what’s going on after what happened with Bertran. He’ll sympathize. Tell him you want to help. Find out everything the Sidhe Authority knows about the half-humans, and bring that information to me.”
“If I help you, and you succeed, then you’ll tell me everything you know of your so-called third party.” Tessa would never be stupid enough to play along without asking for something that made it worth her while. Abarta the Trickster – with him any bargain must be worded with exceeding care. Give and take were each a part of the game.
“Making deals, making deals. You’re not exactly in the position, Tessa. Mikhail’s secrets–”
“I’ll help you,” Tessa snarled, her patience officially at an end. “But if you leak a word of that, you’ll wish you’d never heard it. You’ll wish eternally for an end to the pain I will subject you to.”
Abarta bowed his head, but she could still see his smile. “I hear you, and your self-righteousness is music to my ears.”
Tessa watched him resolutely. “What about the third party?” she pressed.
“I apologize. I cannot speak of them. Is there another prize you wish to ask?”
Tessa noted how he twined his fingers together as he asked the question. Abarta the fidgeter? What was it he didn’t want her to know? “If I help you, and you succeed, then you’ll leave my family alone for all time.”
“Done,” Abarta smiled as he gazed straight into her eyes, and Tessa stomach sank. That was too easy, and she already dreaded the bargain she’d been forced to make.
These half-humans were important somehow – obviously more important in the scheme of things than her own blood, if Abarta was so willing to trade for the chance to slaughter them.
Mikhail’s secret taunted at the edge of her thoughts, but she refused to think on that. He’d made his mistakes, but he was her brother, and she’d always looked out for him. And I’m not about to stop now, Tessa thought, setting her jaw.
“Return here when I call.” He gestured around the glade amid the Middleworld forest, where he’d directed her for this meeting. “You may go now,” Abarta told her.
Tessa scowled at him. Who was he to order her around? “I will return as my duties allow after I receive your call.”
“You’re a librarian. Is your schedule that full?”
“My rank is Curator of the Texts, and I’ll not justify my availability to you. As my duties allow.”
“Why are you still arguing with me? Get out of here.”
Tessa had wondered the same thing, but she wasn’t about to lose an argument with Abarta. He would fear her, or Mikhail’s secret was lost.
Nathan Jeffries was not a morning person. As he stirred his first cup of coffee in a window-side booth at the Red Hen Diner, his dark sunglasses were the only thing saving him from the harsh light of day. He took a sip of his heavily creamed and sugared brew, and sighed in relief. The. Best. Coffee. Ever.
Taking a break from work to write his thesis back home in Laurens, South Carolina, at his mother’s old house, had seemed like a good idea at the time. He hadn’t realized how much his schedule kept him on track when he was working. Without that anchor, he got lost in the minutia, and hours – hell, days – seemed to fly by in a rush as he avoided work on the very project that had drawn him back here.
His thesis on the differences in breeding habits between subspecies of hawks in North America had seemed like a good fit for his rural South Carolina roots. Growing up he’d seen many a hawk soaring over open land, and diving for their prey. They’d always struck him as noble. He loved the way they rode the air currents, with minimal movement. They just soared.
For some reason he had trouble finding his bearings since he returned. Maybe it was because the work that drew him to his hometown this time was so opposite of the reason he’d lived here last. His mother’s battle with colon cancer had pulled him back to town for almost a year before she died. He’d itched for campus the entire time, feeling constrained by the small town and the slow pace of life while caring for his ailing mother.
Right after her death he put everything but the furniture in storage and signed over management of the property to a local company. He moved out, and re-enrolled in graduate school. He thought he would mourn better on his own terms, but he still wouldn’t say he was over her death.
Since returning, he’d been going through his mother’s things and setting them straight after his two-year break from the reality of her death. She was never coming back, and now he had to decide what to do with all of her things, not to mention the house itself. The housekeeping didn’t help either. Apartments definitely didn’t take this much work. And despite the fact he’d had a property management company checking up on the place and renting it out when they could, the long-term vacancy had left a lot of repairs waiting for him. It was peaceful to pick up his tools and set to work on something tangible, something that showed him results at the end of a hard day and left his muscles aching from effort instead of tedious deskwork.
Nathan hated deskwork. He was a wildlife biologist because he loved the wild. He was drawn to the outdoors, to doing, to feeling with his own two hands and knowing the world with his own senses. So on the thesis end of things, he’d already wasted nearly a month of his six-month break.
Nathan took another swallow of his coffee, and thought of his desk at home, covered with books all run through with sticky notes and highlighters. Then he looked down at the worn satchel he carried with him. He was drafting his thesis in longhand, because he hated being stuck at the computer. This way he could carry his work with him and jot down the next line or a new train of thought as they occurred to him. This morning he just didn’t feel up to it. He itched for activity, and the woodland trail he’d often hiked as a kid sprang to mind. Maybe observation of the subject of his thesis would turn his mood around.
Nathan bought a sandwich before he left the coffee shop, and walked back home. He grabbed just a few more things. His camera and extra batteries, a water bottle, and a Gerber knife multi-tool. He drove the ten minutes to Laurens County Park and walked a quarter-mile over the grassy fields before he chose a spot close to a copse of oaks and beeches.
He sank to the ground and pulled his notebook out, hoping inspiration would strike. The early December day was partly cloudy and almost sixty degrees, much warmer than he’d grown used to for this time of year. He’d left the house in a dark gray Henley, worn jeans and his favorite hiking boots. No jacket necessary.
The nearly naked trees made it easy to spot his hawks. He could see three from where he sat, at opposite ends of the field, scouring the grass for their next meals. As he watched, the hawk at the north took off from his perch at the top of a beech tree and rose until he was a speck, before diving back into a soar above the field. He dropped again, fast, this time to snatch some small creature from the grass with his talons. The bird retreated to the woodland to enjoy his snack.
Another of the birds had disappeared while he watched the successful hunter. The third watched him from the east. No one else was around, and the day had taken on an uncharacteristic stillness. Suddenly, the hawk leaped from its branch and descended, but where a hawk should have landed, a man appeared instead.
Nathan jumped back, wondering if short sleep and a house haunted by memories of his mother had driven him to hallucinations. Maybe the man had been there all along, and he was just now noticing him. There was something about his eyes, though. Something wild, and all too akin to the hawk who had just been watching him from his oak-top perch.
“Nathan,” the man spoke. “I need to speak with you.”
“Did that really just happen?”
The wild-eyed man took him in, silent. He chose not to respond to the question, and instead said, “You have a special affinity for birds, do you not?”
Nathan nodded, bewildered.
“It is your nature to take to the skies, to the branch. You must join me.”
“What are you talking about? Who are you?”
“I am Nemglan, Lord of the Skies. Your father.”
Nathan took another step back. Nemglan was tall and lean, much like Nathan, with dark blond hair and deep brown eyes – it was like looking in a mirror. “What do you mean, my father? My father died when I was a baby.”
“That’s what your mother told you. The truth is – well, honestly, the truth is complicated and we don’t have time to get into it right now. Follow me.”
“I’m not going to just follow you.” Was he crazy?
“Nathan,” the man burst out in frustration, “Do not argue! You must run! You must join me. Now!”
“I don’t know what you mean. What do you mean join you?”
“You know what you saw. Do I have to speak it?” Nemglan looked over his shoulder, his features stretching in fear.
Nathan felt something break in the air; it felt charged like the silent minutes before a big storm, despite the clear weather.
“RUN!” Nemglan seemed to hover a few inches above the ground, and where he’d been there was suddenly a hawk, the transition too rapid for Nathan to catch, despite the fact he was looking straight at the man (or hawk) who claimed to be his father. And suddenly the hawk Nemglan swooped toward him, nipping his upper arm savagely. Nathan felt something change at the bite, at his resulting fear. He snapped, and suddenly he knew.
Darkness had filled the woods beneath the canopy, as if the branches restrained it from taking over the afternoon. It stretched toward them, and an inky blackness began to seep into the field at its eastern edge.
Nathan cried out. He convulsed and felt his body – change. Then he was flying, everything happening too fast, the hawk chasing at his tail, forcing him on insistently.
They dove into the cover of the woodland at the other end of the field, where the darkness had not yet filled the space between trunks. Nathan’s stomach dropped as they soared between the interwoven limbs of two oaks. He hit the ground and rolled, wing over wing, colliding with the trunk of a tree and coming to rest.
Nemglan appeared in front of him.
Nathan couldn’t speak. He could only thrash his wings, confused that he had wings to begin with. He still knew himself as a man, yet this bird form didn’t feel wrong. He opened his beak slightly in threat. He didn’t trust this man who claimed to be his father, even though the last few minutes told him Nemglan’s claim was probably accurate.
“Don’t worry. You’re through the portal. We lost him. The threat is over, for now.” Nemglan spoke softly, obviously attempting to calm him. His shoulder was dripping blood in a lazy stream; it smelled shockingly appetizing to Nathan, his senses changed and new.
Nathan wasn’t sure what to think. He flapped some more and let out a “caw” that didn’t feel proper at all. When would he change back? Would he change back? He strutted, fretfully, keeping an eye on Nemglan, who stood several paces away, clutching Nathan’s bag.
“I know what you need.” Nemglan’s eyes glittered in the twilit forest. “You need to feel safe. Well, we’re a long way from home, but I do know one place we could go.”
“Is that all you’re going to eat, Mikhail?” Tessa asked as her brother shoved aside his plate. He’d barely touched it.
“I ate not long ago. You worry too much about me. How about you? Are you okay after what happened with Bertran?”
Tessa felt her heart freeze over, her typical response when someone got too personal and she wasn’t prepared. Ice. Turn to ice. “Bertran is no longer any concern, is he? The witch took care of that.”
“It wasn’t Alise, exactly.”
“I know the facts, Mikhail. I know the goddess Morrigan inhabited the witch’s body, much as she did in times of old, and I understand why Bertran died.” Tessa shrugged, trying for calm, or at least the outward appearance of calm. Bertran’s spell had taken her will – he’d commanded and controlled her actions for several days. She could only be thankful he hadn’t had the opportunity to use her skills, as he’d most likely planned. She was powerful, and controlled a library full of tomes on the magical arts. At his command, she could have been an efficient killing machine. “I can’t believe what he did to me, or that I was fool enough to let him do it.”
“You can’t blame yourself. Except maybe for being involved with a creep like him to begin with. Really, Tessa. You can do so much better.”
“We’ve seen where that sort of thought gets me, Mikhail.” Tessa glared. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
“Ian is married. You’d better get over it. Get over him.”
“I’m there, little brother. Don’t lecture me. I invited you for another reason entirely. How is the investigation going? Have they found the half-humans?”
Mikhail didn’t even ask about her sudden curiosity, and Tessa felt a twinge of guilt. Her brother was too trusting with her. His superiors at the Sidhe Authority would not be pleased. “None of them have arrived yet, but each family has taken responsibility for reaching out to their own. That’s a step in the right direction. Abarta hasn’t been seen.”
“Tell Ian I’ll help any way I can. Let me know if I’m needed.” Tessa told him, sincere in her offer if not in her intentions. Let him think she offered to make nice with her childhood sweetheart. She hated to betray him, but hopefully he’d never know she’d been the one to pass Abarta information. She would save him the pain of having his secret revealed to their entire community. To allow it to come out would be a worse offense.
“I’ll tell him. Now I have to get back to work, Tessa. You’ll call me if you need me, right?”
She would never call him in need. He knew that. She was older, and had always been the rock. That was her role. Besides, she’d never been much for crying or sniveling. Good old-fashioned work to take her mind off her problems was much more her style.
Tessa got to it when her brother had left, cataloguing recent arrivals for the library. She hadn’t gotten far when a chime sounded throughout her home, seconds before a knock on her door. The ward let her know when someone approached, and had proven useful time and again, most recently when scheming Abarta had called on her. Too bad it hadn’t given her enough time to avoid their little chat. He’d invited her for a walk in the chill of a new-fallen night, and she’d accepted, ignoring her misgivings. That’s how well her last visit had turned out.
Sighing, she rose from her work and answered the door. “Nemglan?” Her old friend stood on the doorstep. She hadn’t seen him in years, but they’d studied magic together and knew each other well.
“Hello, Tessa. I trust you’re well?”
Tessa smiled, and waved him in, only to realize he was dripping blood from a cut high on his shoulder. With an apologetic look, she did what came naturally. She burst apart, reforming in the shape of triple doves. She sang a bright series of notes and chirped, amused, when he dropped to the ground, in a deep sleep. She flew to her old friend and hovered, all three of her doves, above his wound. She cried healing tears into his wound and watched it close almost immediately – an ancient power passed down to her along with the triple dove shape.
Tessa burst apart again and gathered her Sidhe form, fluidly casting the spell to clothe herself as she changed forms, a practice shifters quickly became adept at. She examined the wound she’d just healed. It wasn’t that bad, and hadn’t taken long to close. In fact, she might have overreacted a little. Maybe she shouldn’t have put him to sleep.
She finally noticed the bird that hopped and strutted just outside her door. It jumped her threshold and squawked, an uncomfortable sound.
The noise brought Nemglan around, and he rose unsteadily to his feet, watching the hawk.
“Is it hurt?” Tessa reached for the hawk, looking for an injury, unmindful of the beak that could take a chunk from her finger. But despite Nemglan’s sharp intake of breath, the hawk didn’t bite Tessa. It hopped right onto her hand. She winced, and Nemglan went into action, grabbing a throw from a nearby reading chair and wrapping her other arm in it. The bird obliged, hopping to her protected limb, and puffing up the feathers on its neck. It closed its eyes serenely.
“Yes, you do feel safe here, don’t you?” Nemglan asked the creature. The hawk gave no reply.
“Is this a hawk I have here, or something else?” Tessa asked. Nemglan was Lord of the Skies, and took a hawk shape himself. Could it be…?
“My son. I’m sorry to intrude, but it felt necessary at the time. I didn’t have time to explain any of this…” he gestured to the hawk, as if that clarified it, “…gently. He didn’t know of his parentage. His mother was human. You know of the threat facing the half-humans? The assassin has Nathan’s name. I could not let him find my son unprepared.”
“Of course not,” Tessa said slowly. That didn’t tell her how they’d landed on her doorstep.
“We came through the oakgate portal. You’re the nearest friend, and with Nathan in this condition…I don’t think he’s ever shifted before. He seems confused. When he calms down – most likely when he sleeps – he’ll return to his Sidhe form.”
“His human form, you mean?”
“Does this offend you? I didn’t realize you held your prejudices closer than your friends.” Nemglan shamed her without hesitation.
Tessa could understand. You did what you had to when it came to family. Again her thoughts touched on Mikhail’s secret. Maybe she should have just told her brother what Abarta knew, and how he was using the information.
Nemglan cleared his throat. “That was uncalled for. I’m sorry.”
“No, I was just thinking that I understand your situation. Will you stay here with your son?”
“Actually, I want to go help track down Abarta. Am I inconveniencing you?”
“I don’t know what to do with children.”
Nemglan regarded her carefully. “You misunderstand me. My son is grown.”
“His human blood must run strong if he hadn’t shifted until now,” Tessa pointed out, just to needle him.
He gritted his teeth and then forced a smile. “You may be right. I have no idea. We only met today. I guess you’ll have to see for yourself. So you’ll look after him for a few days?”
“Why not? I’m just cataloguing books. I’ll see that he’s comfortable. Return when you can. I’m sure he’ll have questions, and I don’t have any answers for him.” Tessa hoped she wasn’t making a mistake. Now she had one of the half-humans her blackmailer was looking for right under her roof. The solution to her problem had just dropped in her lap – or onto her arm, as the case seemed to be. She didn’t think she could betray a friend, though, even to save her brother’s secret. Having too much information and being unable to use it was enough to turn Tessa’s mood sour.
“Thank you. I will return as soon as I can.” Nemglan handed her a bag she guessed was his son’s and left quickly, sparing only a glance for the hawk. Maybe it was better that way. It obviously hadn’t been a smooth introduction.
Tessa sank to the floor, the hawk still perched on her arm. “What shall we do now, my feathered friend?”
The hawk looked at her, as if in reproach. Then it hopped to the floor and walked in the opposite direction, shunning her.
“That’s just as well. You make yourself comfortable. I’ll just be over here.” Tessa returned to her work, but dire thoughts plagued her.
She’d tried so hard not to focus on the subject of her brother’s secret…but her present company brought her mind back to it again and again. It seemed every sign today told her it was time to face facts. Her own family was just as affected by recent turmoil among the Sidhe as Nemglan’s.
Mikhail’s secret was a half-blood daughter of his own, a three-year-old girl whose mother was half-human and half-Fomorii. Tessa had seen the girl, and neither she nor her mother were monstrous. That was a blessing. Yet the blood was there, an ancient enemy embraced in the dearest way. Her brother shared a child with that race that had attempted to invade Underworld just a few months ago. If it came out, Tessa didn’t know what would happen to her brother’s career. Their family would be eternally stained by such a connection.
Tessa ground her teeth together in fury. How could Mikhail be so stupid? She sure hoped it had been worth it, because now the news of this child threatened everything they held dear, one way or another.
Her choices were grim. She could let it come out, the news of their mingled blood, or she could go along with Abarta. If she gave him the bird boy…
Tessa’s gaze found the hawk, now standing on one leg in the corner, his neck feathers still ruffled. As she watched, his form shifted; it was like watching the aura separate from the body, then snap back into place, with the body in a different form. She’d expected an adolescent, and was shocked to instead see a grown man.
The man huddled on the floor, his hands pressed to his temples. His eyes were still closed in an attractive strong-jawed face. He had the characteristic high cheekbones that gave him a look of the Sidhe, but she would have taken him for a human if she hadn’t known his heritage, just a particularly nice-looking one. When his eyes snapped open, he retained the piercing element of the hawk in brown eyes flecked with amber.
He stared, unspeaking, and Tessa didn’t know what to do besides stare back. Her peevish mood flashed to angry for a moment. She’d offered to help, and minutes later this ignorant half-human was dropped off for her to babysit. What was she supposed to do with him? Tessa was a solitary creature by nature, and this situation was likely to test her last nerve. She should just take him to Abarta, he was exactly what the blackmailer was after.
Except that her lofty morals and soft heart seemed to be getting the best of her.
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***Series intended for an adult audience due to some smokin' hot scenes.***