Book 3 – Storm of Wrath

Release: 05 May 2020

eBook ISBN: 9781393877349

eBook ASIN: B088694FDF

ePages: Approx 525

Also available free through your local digital library. Just request through their Overdrive system!

A Tale of Vikings, Elves & Gods

(The Cursed Elves Series #3)

In the third book of the series you will catch up with Priscilla after a short break. She’s suddenly thrown into action when one of the people she cares about the most is kidnapped and needs her help. This adventure takes Priscilla, and her retinue, along a path from Sweden, through rural New York state, into Albany, Dallas, and the familiar Houston, Texas.

Along the way, she discovers that an old nemesis from House Morales has shown up in the local area. With bad blood between them, from over a hundred years ago, she’s suspicious of the reasons for her arrival. Unfortunately, not everyone who should know about this bad blood is aware of it, and secrets kept for a century threaten to boil to the surface.

It isn’t long before threats to her House and loved ones start pouring out from all directions. Despite coping with massive bouts of weakness that no one understands, she somehow needs to protect everyone she cares about – without her growing powers drawing the attention of the Gods. 


Content Warning: This book is written for adults and contains adult content to include violence, murder, gore, cursing, sex, and adult intimacy (bisexual / gay / straight relationships and polyamory). The topic of a past sexual assault is also involved in this storyline. While it is not discussed in graphic detail, there are some who may find the content upsetting if they are not expecting it.

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CHAPTER 1, SECTION 1

A Week Ago – 9:00AM CST, Downtown, Dallas, Texas

“Let’s go. I need time to make sure the stage is set up how I like it.”

His two companions rose while he dropped cash on the table, and together they left the small Mexican restaurant, one Elf in front and the other behind him. He turned around and smiled at the building, the picture window colorfully painted with well-known images copied from Lotería cards.

“Nothing like breakfast at Camilla’s to kick off a trip to Dallas. Always makes me feel like everything’s right in the world when I see this little place is still here,” he said with a smile.

“The food was good,” one of them said.

“Large portions,” the other chimed in.

He nodded. “And conveniently close to where we have to go. Look over here.” He turned and pointed, walking toward the curb. “See that blue building across the way? That’s where we’re headed.”

“I’ll go get the car.”

“No, Evan. We’ll walk.” He crossed North Market in the direction of the blue building, expecting them to follow. “Jerome, I don’t want you to be nervous about giving your first speech on –”

Tires squealed, and an arm seized him, pulling him toward the open door of a van. Jerome immediately grabbed his other arm and yanked hard, freeing him from their grasp.

“Run!” Evan shouted, as he grappled with the two Elves pushing their way out of the white van.

While Jerome hauled him down the sidewalk in the opposite direction, his mind rushed to assess the situation. Kidnappers? In broad daylight? They’re not afraid of being seen. At that realization, he took off at a pace rapid enough to overtake Jerome in moments, his legs moving under him with incredible speed, not concerned with drawing attention from the Humans. He flew through the Lamar intersection, crossed Ross Avenue, glanced back to see Jerome close on his heels. Evan was another block behind and racing to catch up, but the van had turned around and was forcing its way through traffic to intercept them.

He could see the Griffin Street merge coming up directly ahead. He veered off the sidewalk into a half-empty parking lot and started running between rows of cars, hoping to lose them at the busy intersection. His two Elf bodyguards followed. He took a quick look back and saw the van careening over the curb and into the parking area. The vehicle slammed into Evan and one of the Elves jumped out and headed to where he lay. To finish the kill? Shit! They’re not kidnappers.

He dashed between two buildings at the end of the lot and emerged at the next intersection. Four lanes, with lots of traffic, meant he had no choice but to slow down as he made his way across Griffin and up onto San Jacinto. Jerome was running only a few yards behind him, an Elf in close pursuit. Looking ahead, he realized he’d made a mistake — nothing but parking lots lay ahead in the upcoming stretch and there was much less traffic. He could already hear the van accelerating.

Ahead and to his left, a glass skyscraper loomed a couple of parking areas over, and he saw his best chance. If he could get there, he could lose them inside. He didn’t know exactly what he’d do once he got inside, but he felt like he’d have better odds in there. He steeled himself and ran with all the strength he had left.

He widened his lead on Jerome and tried to maintain focus on that glass building. Nonetheless, he turned his head when he heard a loud thump, and saw the body of his last companion fall to the ground after the van clipped him. His pursuer immediately advanced on him and slammed a fist through his chest, a killing blow to the heart.

It was only him now. Eyes forward, focus. Get to the building!

He made his feet carry him faster, then suddenly there was a blaring noise from the right and he spun quickly to avoid a car driving down the street, stumbling to the ground in the intersection he hadn’t even noticed crossing into. Another horn rang out twice, as a large truck barreled down North Field Street toward where he’d fallen. Pushing his Elf reflexes for all they were worth, he rolled out of the way and scrambled back up, cutting across the last large parking lot before he would reach the glass building.

Footsteps. Too close! How did they catch me? I fell. Lost time. Run! He glanced back to see three Elves weaving through the cars, spreading out to cage him in, but the van had turned down North Field and headed toward Ross Ave. To block your path to the building. Fuck! He tried to race around another car but felt a sudden impact at his back, taking him down, and then a huge weight pinned him to the ground. He twisted, trying to fight off the Elf, but by then another one had arrived. They held him while the third one walked up, waving the van over as he approached.

“I demand you release me! You don’t know who you’re dealing with, I have Elves who will look for me, you can’t expect to just get away with this,” he snarled, fighting the hold the two Elves had on him.

The third Elf laughed. “You’ve had your freedom longer than we wanted, those days are over. My Lady is finally ready to dole out judgement, James Forester.”

~~~

CHAPTER 1, SECTION 2

Present Day – 6:45PM, Forester Headquarters, Stockholm, Sweden

Priscilla followed Mitchell inside the elevator and they rode back down to the parking level in silence. She knew he was too tactful to mention the lack of work waiting for her after a month-long absence from the Stockholm headquarters, nor that it had obviously upset her. It wasn’t that the others in the office were so efficient, merely that nothing much happened in Sweden. Finding only an empty desk, and no urgent cases, had hammered home exactly how unneeded she was.

Inside the parking garage, they signed for the new vehicle and Mitchell took the keys from the attendant. As he opened the driver side, she automatically snatched the keys from his hand and slid down into the seat. However, she missed the fraction of a second it had taken him to reach over and steal them back — until her empty hand rose to insert the key.

Mitchell jingled them between his fingertips. “I haven’t been allowed to drive for a month, and we’re only back because you think I’m perfectly fine now. It’s high time I returned to my duties, m’Lady.”

She quirked an eyebrow at his boldness, but knew he was right — she needed to stop treating him with kid gloves. He was a full Elf now, as his display of speed reminded her, and still chose to retain his position as her Guardian protector. She had to let him do his job, because if there was one thing she understood too well, it was the urge to feel useful. Priscilla pulled her legs up toward her chest and scooted over the center console to settle in the passenger seat.

An hour later they were coasting along on the familiar ride up the E4 highway, heading away from Stockholm after a quick pit-stop to pick up hamburgers. Stealing another french fry from one of the many bags of fast food bearing a well-known crown logo, she asked, “Any change in how you’re feeling?”

“Still fine,” he said with a smile.

“Good, tell me if that changes.”

Every day since performing the ritual to effect his transformation from half-Elf to full Elf, she’d prayed to Gaia that he would be fine, and continued to hope that each time she asked if he was OK, the answer would be the same. Her worry persisted despite having taken every precaution they could think of. They’d had all the Eklunds, plus Raymond and Christopher, on hand in case she needed help with the ritual. They used the underground of the Stronghold to contain him afterward, with a rotation of ancient Elves available to both restrain him and answer any questions. While it might have been easier to use one of the modern wakening rooms at an Elf medical unit or headquarters, it was a secrecy issue. No one could know she had gradually transformed a regular Guardian, who was originally fully Human, into a full Elf.

Mitchell had endured significant isolation in the underground, stress tests, daily blood draws, personality assessment, and that was just the precautions they took after the ritual. He’d been very proactive in his own preparation. Focusing on the things which had been difficult for him changing from a Guardian to a half-Elf, he’d wanted to prepare for the sensory overload he had struggled with the first time. He even bought hearing amplifiers and slowly boosted the volume until he could tolerate the level of hearing that full Elves had. He forced himself to wear more unpleasant fabrics to desensitize his skin, increased the seasoning in his food to get used to how it would be later, and treated the entire lead up to the ritual as a marathon.

“I’m not sure what else could happen to me that we haven’t tested for or anticipated,” Mitchell added, finally breaking the silence.

“You’ve been mostly at the Stronghold, whether in the underground or out on the property. Sensory overload in the outside world is still a possibility,” she answered vaguely.

“I was fine driving around the city, not even a little stressed. All the noise preparation seems to have done the job.”

“Sound isn’t the only sensation. But you’re right, there’s not much else to worry about at this point.”

Mitchell frowned slightly. “What other sensations are you concerned about?”

“Sexual arousal, for one. I don’t want you losing control when you’re faced with it in the outside world. I only hope that, with how well you’ve adapted to your new Elf nature, any additional challenges will be easier for you to handle.”

He shook his head and snorted softly. “As if I haven’t faced that every moment of each day I spend around you.”

Priscilla gave a playful gasp. “Mitchell Cortez! You haven’t even flirted with me in a million years.”

“I may have behaved, which I think is appropriate given my position, but I didn’t die.”

“No, thank goodness, you didn’t,” she said with a smile.

Highway signs alerted drivers they were nearing Uppsala. Mitchell took an exit before then, guiding the car through the twists and turns that landed them on a long road, in an expanse of woods near Lake Ekoln. He headed down a private drive, past a series of outbuildings bordering the water, before stopping in front of the three-story manor they called the Lakehouse.

The home design was far more contemporary than what the Eklunds liked, but it had the unique history of being built atop the ruins of an old castle. While the family had many properties throughout Scandinavia, this one was closest to Stockholm and Priscilla’s work, which was why Jarl had moved them all to it a year and a half ago. Still, he and his siblings preferred the remoteness of the far North, and had spent most of the last summer up in the family Stronghold.

When they got inside, Priscilla was unsurprised to find Jarl, Raymond, and Christopher stretched out on the large sectional in the den. It was a favorite spot, and she smiled at how much her ancient husband loved his modern toys — like the giant flat screen television currently tuned in to an American football game. Raymond and Christopher seemed particularly engaged.

“Who’s winning?” Priscilla asked as she came in.

Christopher grinned aside at Raymond. “Saints. Kicking Cowboy ass, of course.”

Raymond frowned and countered, “Barely.”

“Hungry?” Mitchell asked rhetorically as he walked in carrying an armload of food bags.

“Yes!” Raymond immediately grabbed the remote and pressed pause on the live feed, then ran over to Mitchell and snatched a couple of extra bags from his arms. “Taste of home, thanks for stopping off to get it.”

“Not a problem,” Mitchell reassured them. “Jarl’s probably the only one who doesn’t suffer the cravings of American food.”

“I like it, some of it’s really tasty, but I just don’t go insane the way all of you do over it,” Jarl admitted from his spot on the couch.

“It’ll grow on you,” Priscilla said as she bent over the back of the couch and pressed a kiss to his lips.

Jarl glanced at her empty hands. “You’re not eating?”

She gave him a lopsided smile. “I ate in the car.”

Jarl grinned at her, then looked over at Mitchell. “I’m sure you’re looking forward to a night in your own bed again.”

Mitchell laughed. “I am, so very much. The underground room was as nice as I could hope for, but being constantly monitored drove me stir-crazy. This will be the first night I get to sleep entirely alone without someone watching me.”

Jarl nodded in understanding. “That part would be hard for anyone, best to just jump right back into your life where you left it. Why don’t you get yourself a beer and come watch the end of this game with us?”

“Yeah… that sounds good. Let me just find Nathan and give him his food also,” Mitchell said and strolled off toward the kitchen.

Jarl smiled up at Priscilla. “I imagine you’re glad this has all worked out so well.”

“I am, and I’ll admit to feeling just a little bit proud of myself.”

“You should be. What you’ve done for him is very special.”

She smiled at her husband and pressed a light kiss to his brow. “Finish your show, I want to get changed.”

Jarl dug into his takeout bag as she walked away and switched the football game into action with a flick of the remote. Priscilla passed through the adjacent dining area and toward the master bedroom, but stopped short of the door when Nathan walked in.

His greeting was immediate, “My Lady, I thought it was you. Jonah’s called twice. For whatever reason, he didn’t want us to call you on your cell or at work.”

She frowned slightly. “Did he leave a different number for me to call him back on?”

“No, it’s his normal one.”

Priscilla could feel a trickle of anxiety creep up her chest, but she forced it back down. “Then he only trusts our house line. I’ll call right now.”

Mitchell caught up to them, his concern obvious. “I’m going to run the perimeter and recheck the surveillance systems. Be back in a bit.” Then, like lightning, he was out the door.

“Do we have a problem?” Jarl called from the other room. As with Mitchell, his Elf hearing had picked up every word spoken between her and Nathan.

“Not sure yet. I need to call Jonah to find out what’s wrong.” She walked to one of the house phones, looked up Jonah’s number in her cell, then punched it in.

“Jonah speaking.”

“You called twice. What’s wrong?”

“Priscilla, ma petite. I’m glad you called back. I’m afraid I have to move our date. I know we had plans for you to come into town next week, but do you think you could find your way over sooner?”

A deep frown marred her face at the confirmation that something was very wrong. Not only did Jonah never, ever, call her Priscilla, but only Martine used French pet names with her. On top of that, she knew very well that they didn’t have any plans for her to go see him next week. She needed to answer carefully, even if the speakerphone wasn’t on, Elves had excellent hearing and if he was being actively threatened, they would hear her side.

“It’s no problem, my love. How soon were you thinking?”

“Can you catch a flight out tonight? If you think you can sneak away from that jealous husband of yours.”

Another clue that he wasn’t talking as himself — he knew that Jarl had no jealousy of her relationship with him. But this was an opportunity to give herself a slight advantage by choosing the location. She forced a laugh and said, “Tonight? I’ll make you a deal, darling. Ever since we had that chat a couple of years ago about that barn we stayed in that once, I’ve been thinking of revisiting that tiny town again. How about you meet me at the closest B&B to there, and I’ll avoid Jarl long enough to get on a plane?”

The phone went silent for a moment, and she assumed he was having to confirm her plan with his kidnapper. When he returned, there was the slightest amount of relief in his voice, “I can do that. And just for fun, I think I’ll register the room under that name we created.”

She smiled, genuinely, as she remembered that. “Marvelous. I haven’t played his counterpart in a long time.” She paused, then dropped one last hint to let him know she understood. “I’ll even dress up for you, and braid my hair in a crown the way you like.”

“That’s perfect, you know exactly what I want. Are you going to be able to slip away from Mitch also?”

She nodded to herself. The crown wasn’t a way she did her hair, although she’d do it that way for this trip. It was a code word for what she called her protective energy shield.

“He’ll be no trouble at all. Don’t worry, you’ll have me all to yourself. I’ll leave as quickly as I can get a flight out.”

“Thank you, Priscilla. See you soon,” he said before the phone clicked off.

Not only was it concerning that someone was actively holding Jonah under threat, but he didn’t want to leave a message for her at headquarters. Didn’t even want to call her over there. The only good reasons she could think of were if he felt that HQ had been compromised, or if his captors were part of their own Forester House. Either way, she would take the hint and stay off the radar — easier said than done, considering the technological reach that headquarters had. In fact, it was best to assume that if there was concern about HQ being infiltrated, that it was probably safest to act as if they were already under surveillance.

Her work for the family over the years hadn’t always been straightforward, and there had been plenty of inter-family espionage along the way. Martine, Jonah, and even Nathan were all veterans of having to use underhanded tactics to prevent a power play from another Elf House. More recently, her decades long relationship with a member of the Thornton House had been about information gathering. But after the attacks two years ago, she had upped her readiness game.

If she was going to confuse HQ, she needed an identity they didn’t know about and a look different from her everyday appearance. Priscilla rushed to her closet, pulled out a small black duffle and a smaller pink carry-on, then she put the smaller one inside the larger and began filling it with an outfit she would change into on the plane. Next, she opened the safe and extracted a wallet containing one of her lesser used identities, then took a modest portion of American hundreds off a larger stack and slipped them into the billfold.

Identities were often hard to come by for Humans, even those in governments and intelligence agencies. The same was not true for Elves. They had every advantage, from being able to mind-control Humans to remember whatever they were told, to the ability of some Elves to create an energy projection glamour which would alter their appearance.

“Nathan!” she called out as she tossed the wallet into the inner bag.

He arrived in moments and took in the state of the room — the go-bag, open safe, change of clothing, and he sighed. Priscilla was bent over her desk, writing something on a scrap of paper. She glanced at him when he walked in and raised a finger to her lips, then she approached him and pressed the note into his hand.

Doubt all security. Be careful what you say out loud.

She stepped away toward the closet and dug through it. “My dear, I have to dash off to the airport, but it’s a bit of a secret. Do you think you could get Mitchell to drop me off?”

“Right away, My Lady.”

Priscilla re-emerged from the closet with two activated burner phones, each with a phone number taped to the back. He glanced at the phones, then zipped off to find Mitchell. She went back to the paper again, pulled the homemade label off the back of one of the phones and stuck it on the paper. Under that number she wrote:

Use the other one to text me.

Might want to evac to Stronghold, use judgment.

Jarl, don’t worry.

Just as she was finishing up, they returned, and she smiled up at Mitchell. “My sweet Guardian, do you think you could sneak me away to the airport? I don’t want my Viking getting all jealous.”

He raised an eyebrow at her.

She nodded to him, encouraging him to play along.

“Of course, m’Lady.”

She handed the paper to Nathan again and stuck her chosen phone in her pocket.

“Then let’s go,” she scooped up the duffle, zipped it, and they strode toward the garage.

Jarl was on his feet when she walked by, noticed the duffle, and asked, “Where are you going?”

“Just going to go see a friend, she’s having a rough night,” she spoke over her shoulder.

He followed them as they were loading into the car and backing out of the drive. She watched as Nathan handed Jarl the first note she had written, then the second. A moment later he was shaking his head and she could almost hear his sigh before the vehicle turned around the curve in the drive and they disappeared from view.

“So, what’s really going on?” Mitchell prompted her on the drive out of the property.

She shook her head and motioned to the interior of the car, hoping he understood that she didn’t trust the vehicle not to be bugged. He frowned in response, but nodded. She answered him in a carefree voice, “Oh, nothing really. I just want to visit someone without my husband finding out.”

Mitchell’s lips drew into a grim line and remained that way as they rode the entire way in silence. After he pulled up to the curb at the airport entrance, she took the additional passport from her second bag, put a finger to his lips, and showed him the name on the passport: Emmaline Legrand. He nodded, then she replaced her finger with her lips, giving him a gentle kiss goodbye. But he was still in the Elf transition phase and he responded more than he intended, kissing her back firmly, and when she gasped in surprise, he was already deepening the kiss. She recovered and kissed him back until Mitchell pulled away and peered at her closely.

Priscilla’s eyes were twinkling with amusement, “My, my, you are embracing your new nature.”

He frowned at her and leaned close to her ear, whispering with the faintest of breath, “I don’t want you walking into danger.”

She squeezed his arm gently. “I’m going to have plenty of fun. Don’t worry, I’ll call when I need to be picked up.”

He sighed irritably. “Have a safe trip.”

She nodded once and slipped out of the car. A short while later Priscilla made her way, ticket in hand, to the departure gate, and settled into her seat just in time. A quick glance at her phone showed she already had texts waiting.

Cilla, what the hell. Are you there? Answer me!

She sighed, Jarl was such a worrier.

I’m fine, just got on my flight. Seems like someone has Jonah, he’s in trouble. Doesn’t trust HQ. Make sure the house is secure if you stay.

It was the second flight she had been on today, the first one had been a quick hop from the Stronghold in the North down to Stockholm. Jarl, Raymond, and Christopher had dropped them off at headquarters straight from the airport, only to discover that she didn’t have any work to catch up on. This flight would be a lengthy one, and since it was already late in the day, she decided to sleep. While she adjusted her seat into a bed, the phone buzzed again.

  1. Where are you going?

Right now, Montreal. Make sure Mitchell doesn’t overload with worry.

He’ll be fine.

Going to sleep.

Stay safe and call when you can.

Priscilla smiled at his message and closed the phone again, then scooted around until she got comfortable with her provided pillow and blanket. The Scandinavian Airlines System flight would take over eleven hours.

One perk she had always enjoyed about international travel, outside of the states, was that everyone else had much nicer planes. Some Asian airlines were particularly nice, but the ones in the North were still very good. Her business class seat included a nook that acted like a private room and contained the full sleeping space.

She put her phone into the charging station on the little desk and fell asleep in minutes.

~~~

CHAPTER 1, SECTION 3

10:30PM, The Lakehouse near Stockholm, Sweden

Jarl glanced at the clock on the burner cell, half past ten, then stuffed the phone back in his pocket. Priscilla’s flight was just taking off, but since they’d arrived in Stockholm around four hours ago it was almost a guarantee that his pilot had already taken the jet back up to Lulea. That trip only took an hour and, considering the time, the pilot was likely on his way to bed. While he had no urge to make the twelve hour drive up to the Stronghold, there was no rush for him to bring the jet back tonight. Besides, they had yet to establish if there was a security threat to worry about.

Not that he knew what was going on except that Priscilla thought Jonah had been kidnapped, and they didn’t trust their own Forester House headquarters. Now that he had time to think, some of the parts were falling into place. Jonah was in trouble, someone ‘had’ him she said, but they let him call Cilla? His mouth tightened in anger as he realized Jonah must have been leveraged to get to her, and she knew it and went alone anyway.

No. That’s all wrong. Jonah would never risk her life. He took a deep breath and shook his head to clear out his frustration. If Jonah had allowed himself to be used to get her there, he didn’t feel the danger to her was significant.

“Could you help me in the kitchen?” Nathan popped in to ask.

Jarl nodded and when they entered he was surprised to see Raymond and Christopher already sitting at the breakfast table.

“This floor is clean of surveillance, but I haven’t checked the rest of the house so keep your voice down,” Nathan explained.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Jarl asked Nathan.

He shook his head. “Not really. Jonah didn’t want to call her at headquarters, so that’s obviously a warning sign. The clothes she had in her bag were pink and white, which are far from her normal preference, so she may use another persona while she’s gone. I haven’t looked in the safe, so I don’t know for sure which passport is missing, but I can hazard a guess because there are only a couple that HQ doesn’t know.”

“Aside from allowing us to track her down better, does knowing the specific identity tell us anything more about the situation?” Raymond asked from the table.

Nathan shrugged. “I can’t see that it would. She was concerned about being able to trust local HQ and was worried about this house being under surveillance. I think we should work on solving that mystery first.”

“Do you have another of those things?” Christopher asked with a gesture toward the security wand Nathan had left sitting on the counter.

“Unfortunately, no. I only have the one here, which means it will take me some time to go through the rest of this house. Of course, all of you have hearing ten times better than mine — you might pick up small electrical noises if you’re very quiet and in contained areas like the outbuildings. Not to mention your Elf vision should make checking the property far easier for you, especially since it’s night.”

“Why would anyone want to bug an outbuilding?” Raymond mumbled to himself.

Nathan rolled his eyes and snapped, “I don’t know. Maybe they have a serious interest in our garden supplies. It doesn’t matter, they have to be checked regardless.”

Raymond leaned back in his chair, holding his hands up. “Hey, now. It’s a reasonable question. Checking the outbuildings seems like a waste of time.”

Jarl already knew where this was going, he’d seen it a few dozen times and wasn’t in the mood for babysitting their disagreement right now. But what Nathan had said about hearing and vision reminded him of something. He slipped out of the kitchen and headed upstairs to Mitchell’s bedroom. Unfortunately for him, there was no shutting off his Elvish hearing when he wanted to, so the argument followed him even though he left the room.

Nathan spoke loudly, “You mean a waste of YOUR time. Why should I be surprised? Forget it. I’ll check everything and when Mitchell returns he can help me.”

The scrape of chair legs against the floor, then Raymond hollering, “That is NOT what I said! I can’t even question anything or you turn into the child who wants to take his toys and go home!”

“How dare you call me childish, when you’re the most self-absorbed, infant–”

“Stop it! Just stop it!”

The unexpected shrieking from Christopher seemed to render the others quiet. Good job, Chris. Jarl was impressed because the healer Elf didn’t usually get into arguments, and since he thought the world of Raymond, he rarely censured him in any way at all. Clearly today was a step too far for him, and Jarl wondered why. He stopped digging through Mitchell’s drawers and listened closer. The conversation dropped in volume, but Jarl could still hear and made a mental note that the walls of this modern built house were far too thin.

Christopher whispered, “Priscilla has run off into danger and is counting on us to do this. Maybe if we do it quickly enough and discover something, we can text her and help her be more prepared for whatever she’s going to face. Just stop making it about either of you.”

So it was worry over Cilla that had made Chris finally snap. That was a reason he could get on board with, and it made sense. Cilla had gotten Chris away from his abusive father, and before that he’d been living in some pretty extreme poverty in Louisiana. Plus she’d given him a brother, so to speak. Not literally, but she’d been the one to track them all down, and through a variety of actions she’d taken, they were all inextricably linked. Still, he wondered why they were even bothering to lower their voices again after all the yelling. At this point, they just had to hope the house wasn’t bugged.

Nathan gave a noisy sigh. “I’m sorry, Ray. I shouldn’t have reacted that way.”

“Me too. You just wanted to be thorough, and it’s the right way to do it. I’ll start checking them so you can work on the house.”

“Thank you,” Nathan said, then paused before asking, “Where’s Jarl?”

“He walked out when you two started arguing.”

Raymond groaned loudly. “Shit. I’m going to the outbuildings. Chris, you want to start at the docks and work your way slowly around the inner edge of the property and the treeline?”

“Sure.”

Nathan added, “I’ll get back to work on the rest of the house.”

Jarl moved on to checking the adjacent bathroom and sighed when he saw the hearing amplifiers laying on the counter next to his toothbrush holder. He muttered to himself, “Guess I should’ve looked here first.”

He scooped the small devices up and put them in his pocket, then left the bedroom and rounded the stairs to the attic. This time he didn’t need a lot of searching. He crossed to the cabinet mounted on the far wall, opened it up, and smiled. He wasn’t one to get caught dawdling, but there was always something so impressive about the first glance inside a collection of well-kept and neatly arranged weapons. Jarl reached in, picked out a hefty pair of tactical night vision binoculars, and hung them around his neck. Next he dug past the variety of extra winter blankets in a nearby wooden chest until he found the dark brown one he was looking for.

Finally, he crossed to the window at the end of the attic space, opened it up, and shimmied up onto the roof. He slung the blanket around himself, and nodded as he decided it was a close enough color in the dark to match the roofing tiles. Jarl found a good vantage point and settled in, then he put on one of the hearing amplifiers, tucked himself down into the blanket and brought the binoculars up to his face.

Like most Elves, his night vision was significantly better than Humans, but it wasn’t perfect and he had no problem using a little technology to boost what he could do on his own. He began scanning the forest edge, and for the next twenty minutes he saw nothing out of place. Then he heard the familiar, but amplified, sound of tires crunching down the drive. Mitchell was back, he realized. Suddenly, there was a flash of movement in the corner of his vision and he turned to see heat signatures bounding through the woods, then they disappeared and his ears picked up sounds of a vehicle driving down the back path toward the neighboring property.

“Jarl? That you?” Mitchell yelled up at him, and the hearing amplifier soaked up the close voice, making his ear ring. He hissed and snatched it out of his ear before tossing off the blanket and standing up.

“Yeah. Was checking the woods. When you drove in I saw a couple, maybe three, heat signatures scramble to get in a vehicle. They took off down the back way to the neighbors. You see anything on your way in?” Jarl asked as he walked to the edge of the roof to speak with Mitchell.

“Nothing, but we have confirmation that someone has been watching now. That’s something. Do you want to go search the area you saw them or see if we can catch up with them?”

“I doubt they’re dangerous, but we might get some information. Elves wouldn’t have needed to get that far inside the treeline just to monitor the house, which means they’re probably Guardians sent to observe and just got spooked.”

“I’ll try to catch them where the neighbors road comes out,” Mitchell said as he jumped back in the driver’s seat.

Jarl watched as the car spun around in the driveway and tore off back up the road. He gathered up his things and crawled back down into the window, closing it behind him. Abandoning the blanket on the wood chest, he kept the rest on hand while he jogged down the stairs to the second floor. Nathan was doing a bug sweep of the den, passing the long wand slowly around as he checked for electronic surveillance.

He stopped by him on the way to the door and came up close to his ear, then whispered, “We had visitors in the woods, took off in a car. Mitch is trying to intercept, I’m going to check where they were in the trees.”

Nathan nodded in understanding, and Jarl made haste out the front door, running toward the area he’d identified in the trees. It took him less than a minute to reach the vicinity, and he began moving slowly as he wasn’t sure of the exact spot they’d been in until they started running off. Suddenly, a vile smell hit him, and he reeled back from it. He frowned and looked around for a dead animal, or Human, or… he didn’t know what the smell was.

After a good scan of the spot, he saw no bodies but found their tracks. It definitely was two people, not three, and from the size and depth of them, he guessed one of the Guardians was a hefty guy. He pushed through the trees slowly, following the tracks toward where they must have had the vehicle parked. Cautious, even though he knew they were gone, his progression to the road was slow. He came to a full stop when he heard an odd clinking sound in the branches he had just passed through. Jarl examined them more closely, and noticed a glimmer of metal in the moonlight.

Reaching into the twisted nest of thin branches and leaves, his hand came back with a necklace. A simple piece, fashioned from cord instead of chain, but the attached pendant resembled a fisherman’s hook. He frowned and brought it up closer to examine. That smell hit his nose again, faint but lingering in the fabric of the cord. It couldn’t be the whole source of the odor he got hit with earlier, that was much more powerful, but this was the same scent and he could only assume the smell came from the wearer. He stuffed it in his pocket and decided to figure it out later, then continued until he found the place in the woods where they’d parked.

Jarl frowned down at the tire tracks. He knew they’d have to have gotten inside a fully closed vehicle, not like a typical ATV, because their heat signatures had dropped off massively before they drove off. He noticed that the space available was narrow, yet the tires were very wide. Some kind of utility vehicle, maybe? He couldn’t identify it immediately, and jogged further down the road until he reached the neighbor’s property. It was obvious they weren’t in residence. The house was dark, and there was no sound coming from it at all. No rumbling of a running heater, nor the normal hum of electronic noise from an occupied home. However, the gate on this side was hanging open as was the main entry one.

He jogged closer to the house, and saw a two-seater, enclosed farming vehicle parked right near the front driveway. When he opened the door he was hit with a strong wave of that smell again. They had clearly been squatting here at his neighbor’s house, but now they’d abandoned it and escaped in whatever car they’d originally arrived in.

Jarl decided that he was done trying to track down these Guardians and headed back to his own property, hoping Mitchell had returned with better results. As he neared the Lakehouse, he saw that they were all gathered out in front and there didn’t seem to be anyone else with them.

“Any luck on your end,” Mitchell called out when he saw him.

“Yes and no. I figured out that they were staying at the neighbor’s house, and using their utility vehicle to get access. But when I arrived, they’d already left in whatever car they had parked there. I should have just followed my nose. Those Guardian’s stink of something awful, almost like a dead body.”

Raymond frowned in confusion. “They smelled bad enough for you to notice? You’re serious?”

Jarl gave him a look of annoyance. “You want to go stick your nose in it? Look, it’s probably something that Humans would overlook, but there’s a lingering smell you can’t miss.”

“That’s strange. What could be wrong with the guy to make him smell so bad? A Guardian would heal from an injury, but I guess one of them could be Human. Chris, you think you could figure it out? You’re the one trained in healing and tracking.”

“I can try. If it’s some kind of sickness, I might get a clue from it,” Christopher suggested.

Jarl shrugged and pulled the necklace out of his pocket. “Here, I found this where they were in the woods. There’s a bit of the scent on it, not much, but maybe enough to identify it. If not, go smell the little vehicle at the neighbors. The pendant looks like something a fisherman might make.”

Christopher brought it up to his nose and laughed. Then he examined the necklace, and an odd smile crossed his face. “I know what this is, but I don’t know why it’s here.”

“Well, what is it?” Mitchell prompted him.

“This thing hanging off the cord? That’s called a gator grabber, but it’s been bent in so the hooks don’t grab anymore. This part on the bottom is just a fishing weight.”

“That is strange,” Jarl said.

Christopher shook his head. “This is made stronger and a little different because gators are so powerful. Well, maybe deep-sea fishermen might use something similar. And the stink… that’s gator bait. Gators prefer their meat rotten. Really, really rotten. So when you make the bait, it’s a mix of extra rotted meats and fats, but it’s hard to wash out because you mix it with oil to make it waterproof. Someone probably wore it like a charm, you know, like a lucky hook. Which makes sense given the smell, but I have no idea why they’d be in the woods.”

“How do you know so much about this?” Nathan asked.

“I’m from Louisiana,” he said with a shrug.

Jarl nodded slowly. “Sooo, we had someone send gator hunters to monitor us. I guess that’s flattering in a way. But I can’t imagine any Elf wanting to be near Guardian’s that smell like that.”

“Maybe they’re rogue ex-Guardians for hire,” Mitchell suggested.

Christopher shrugged. “Or they brought their hunting camo to hide in the woods. Like I said, it’s super hard to get the smell off, even if you wash and wash. And our noses are sensitive enough to notice.”

Jarl nodded. “Could be. But I don’t expect them to return. I think we should fly back to the Stronghold, and I’ll have Ari call our security company — they can send out a team of Guardians to sweep the entire property for us. At least they’ll be able to handle the smell.”

“You want me to call over and have the pilot come back?” Nathan asked.

Jarl shook his head. “Let him sleep. Just book us something commercial, it’s only an hour flight to Lulea, it won’t kill us.”

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