Book 4 – Fates in Shadow

Release: 27 August 2020

eBook ISBN: 9781393075325

eBook ASIN: B08GJC3QW3

ePages: Approx 450

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

A Tale of Vikings, Elves & Gods

(The Cursed Elves Series #4)

Everyone has secrets. The Fates, the Elves, and even the Gods.

But some things refuse to stay buried, and revelations explode into the lives of the Cursed Elves.

At least one relationship ends, others linger on the verge of collapse, while a couple are just getting warmed up.

The twins (Zachary and Zahrina) try to solve a monster mystery in Egypt and get help from an ancient – with full Elven ears and violet eyes – who just happens to know Priscilla better than anyone realizes.

When the past and present collide, will they embrace Fate? Or collapse under the truths hidden in shadow?

You’ll love this addition to the paranormal romance series because it stirs up trouble in every direction. Get it now!


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).

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CHAPTER 1, SECTION 1

11:00AM CET, The woods near the Stronghold, Sweden

“You’re all failures. Those little Elf companions of hers are too foolishly enamored to want her to suffer even the slightest inconvenience. But both of you are supposed to be wiser, not to mention you have information they don’t. Look at that, she’s walking around completely unaware that we’re here,” he said, still watching intently.

“There’s plenty of time, Varyn. She will learn what she needs to know,” Gaia said without shifting from her perch on the tree stump behind him.

“You shouldn’t even be here now. You know that when I’m in this realm, I’ll manage her. If I have to leave again I’ll contact you,” Amos snapped.

The tall Elf turned slowly to face them, his downward tilted eyes narrowed, almost obscuring their brilliant violet color. “Why should I trust you, Amos? So you can continue to leave her unprepared? We had an arrangement, and you’ve fallen short. Probably for the same reason all those Elves will only be a burden to her growth. None of you are willing to let her get hurt. You coddle her to death. Make her weak with your incessant need to protect her like an innocent child.”

“That’s not true. She’s been attacked by Elves repeatedly over the last few years. Recently, we even allowed her to fight Hephaestus,” Gaia explained.

“We may shelter her, but you let it go too far before you help. If you had stepped in earlier, this whole mess with the Morales family would never have happened. That’s on you! You could’ve stopped it,” Amos growled.

A shuddering ripple moved through the air around Varyn as he discarded his glamour. The already towering Elf began to look even taller in every way, revealing himself to be unmistakably other than Human. His neck, limbs, and even his fingers seemed to lengthen, and from within his silky, black hair, elongated ears revealed themselves. He made no attempt to hide the rage in his voice, “You dare bring that up again. You can never comprehend what that day cost me. Never.”

Gaia rose and stepped slightly in front of Amos, placing a hand on his arm before addressing Varyn, “That was a hard moment for us all, and we know you had no choice. Made worse by having to allow them to live all these hundred years. Thankfully, that thread of the Fates’ has finally reached its conclusion, and Clothilde was right. Priscilla was able to use her power brilliantly to devastate that family, all because she was emotionally motivated to do it.”

“I don’t care if the Fates think it was justified. They can all burn.” His eyes snapped to Gaia and his lips curled into a smirk. “And don’t act like you’re not grateful she’s been crying in your arms for years. Unless we’re still pretending she’s not your drug of choice? That you’re not compromised in your ability to allow her into danger because you’re so drunk on her energy?”

The leaves around them shook and Gaia growled at him, “My love for her is greater than anything you could ever feel about her. She’s like my own child!”

“Exactly my point,” Varyn sneered. “You treat her as such, yet she’s at least as powerful as you are. The moment she started showing that her Goddess powers were ready, she should have been training on harder and harder targets.”

“She fought Hephaestus alone,” Amos reminded him.

“Hephaestus! That’s the big risk you took? One of the most pacifistic Gods in existence, who happened to have already fallen under her spell? In a moment, when she was surrounded by nearly a dozen of Poseidon’s get? And with Poseidon nearby watching as well as Gaia? That’s what you call a risk?”

Amos frowned and barked at him, “She was still severely injured!”

“She’s immortal!” Varyn bellowed back. “These fears of her injury come from you, they’re your anxieties. I could stab her in the heart right now and she wouldn’t be dead. I could rip it from her chest and she would regrow it. You are making her weak with this infantile treatment, and I’ve had enough. I’m going to start training her again, the right way.”

“Fine, I agree that she needs to be taught. But right now isn’t a good time. She’s happy. Really happy. She has love in her life, and she’s having her first experience as a mother raising her children. Besides, there’s no way any of the Elf companions would be on board with her leaving to fight battles and take risks right now,” Gaia told him.

Varyn laughed. “I’m not planning to ask her companions for permission. None of them are necessary, as far as I’m concerned. And yes, I know she’s a mother now and I see that she’s happy. But how do you think she’ll feel if one of the Olympian’s shows up tomorrow and kills all of them before she knows how to protect them from that kind of attack?”

Amos frowned darkly. “Obviously none of us want that to happen. But keep in mind that if you harm any of her lovers, she’ll hate you. You’ll lose her forever.”

Varyn glared at Amos. “Perhaps it’s a good time to remind you that she already hates me, thanks to you.”

Amos’ lips tightened, but he didn’t respond.

“He’s apologized for that, repeatedly. Let’s not start it up again,” Gaia said with a groan.

The tall Elf nodded. “That he has. Maybe one day, I’ll even consider accepting it.”

Amos sighed and asked, “When will you approach her about beginning the training?”

“I’ll make my appearance at some point, but I put the wheels in motion months ago. A new challenge is already coming her way.”

“What is it?” Gaia asked immediately.

“Oh, no. I know you both too well, you’ll do everything in your power to stop it. No, if my Elf is going to train properly, you’re going to have to spend some time in the dark.”

They were about to respond, but suddenly the surrounding shadows drew close together and Varyn disappeared into them.

~~~

CHAPTER 1, SECTION 2

11:05AM CET, The Stronghold near Lulea, Sweden

Priscilla walked back into the house and couldn’t help but immediately smile at the sound of giggles echoing through it. She passed through the kitchen and leaned against the doorway, watching the three children chase each other around the great room. Unfortunately, a minute was all she dared to risk because Itta sat in the far corner and would see her any moment. Silently, she slipped back into the kitchen and busied herself gathering ingredients to make a platter of sandwiches for lunch.

Resentment bubbled to the surface, but she forced it down. Itta was still refusing to allow Priscilla around Erasmus, but she had yielded to his need for friends. She would let him play with Sylvi and Viggo, so long as their mother wasn’t there. Another round of giggles and laughter broke out, and something clattered to the floor. As she slathered bread with mayonnaise and mustard, her strokes of the dull knife were angry and a deep furrow of frustration settled on her brow.

She wouldn’t be the one to separate the children. The way Itta leveraged the bond between the three toddlers sickened her. Everyone had tried talking to her on Priscilla’s behalf, and it had enraged Itta to the point that she had begun packing up and prepared to leave with Erasmus. Whether part of her manipulation, or a very real threat, Priscilla stepped in and spoke with her — unwilling to come between the Eklunds and one of the only descendants they had. They crafted a plan to keep their movements in the house separate and she agreed to stay away from Erasmus while the children played.

While she prepared the food, her mind tried to imagine what was taking place in the other room, as it so often did. She inserted herself into the fantasy, pretended to be a part of it, standing there, smiling and laughing as they played. In the beginning, Jarl had tried recounting it all for her, but when he’d seen the tears it brought he’d stopped. They began to fill her eyes as she finished up the pile of sandwiches, and she settled the glass cover over the tray and left them on the counter, then hurried out the back door again.

Priscilla moved quickly past the yard into the trees, deeper and deeper into the hundreds of acres of woods. Finally she reached a massive, smooth boulder she frequently sat on. Her own private spot in the middle of nowhere. There was a cabin out on the property, but in a different direction so there was little risk of encountering anyone. She settled on her rock and let the tears come.

Her dual nature came forth, angry and vengeful and hurting. Her skin glowed gold and the same color rippled through her hair until it became streaked with heavy bands of ivory. Eyes became white with emotional overload, and gold tears streamed down her face to land on the boulder, while heaving breaths and cries left a cloud of shimmering gold in the air around her.

She felt the other pull coming and didn’t try to fight it, not that it ever helped if she did. It had taken a while, but she finally realized after accidentally pulling people into her memories, that she had been manifesting a piece of a real memory for years. So many hundreds of years. But now, knowing that she had the ability to fully step into her memories, to interact with them, the temptation was nightmarishly hard to resist. But resist it she did, and instead she waited for what she needed to happen.

The warmth started running through her chilled body, almost like someone else was there inside her. She sensed his touch along her arms, his lips on her brow, his scent filled her nostrils as if he was truly there with her. But she didn’t open her eyes because she knew he wasn’t real. After the first few hundred times it had happened, she never opened them again, searching for the source of the feeling was hopeless when it was only a memory.

Soon the voice she was waiting for murmured softly by her ear, “I believe in you, Pris. In this cold, unforgiving world, all you need is one voice with complete trust in you. With that, you can slay any dragon, overcome any challenge, suffer any hardship, and you will survive it all. Have faith, my beloved, you will make it through.” Then he bent to kiss her lips, and she stiffened because she knew it was almost over. A moment later his hands released her, and she was alone again.

There were a few more words after that, but she had long since omitted them because they weren’t true now, though they had been at the time. He had said, ‘and I will be standing here, waiting for you,’ but that wasn’t reality anymore. Of course, none of it was reality. She waited several minutes before opening her eyes again; sometimes facing the present was the hardest part of it all. Once open, she tried to keep them focused on the trees in front of her, but as usual, she gave in to the temptation to scan around her just in case. And like clockwork, the rush of shame followed immediately.

He was her dirty little secret. These memories, phantoms of feeling, strange moments of connection, seconds when she was certain he was right beside her again. It was a truth she had kept hidden for hundreds of years because, rationally, she recognized that indulging in this fantasy was unhealthy. It would probably be so much more normal if he was dead.

Still, the memory had done what she had needed him for, so she pulled herself up and began walking through the woods back to the house. She couldn’t cry to Jarl, he was under enough pressure to keep the peace as it was and she wouldn’t make him choose between her and his family. If she tried to talk about it with Martine and Jonah, they’d just want to try talking with Itta again or they’d yell at Jarl to do something. Hephaestus couldn’t help — Jarl had already tried getting him to talk sense into Itta and she’d refused to listen, and Hades had just asked if she wanted him to lock Itta in a cage for a while.

She cast a glance back at the woods and a small chuckle escaped her lips because she knew what her phantom would say without a doubt. He would have listened to her story, then he’d shrug and ask, “Why do you allow it to happen?”

Her response would be, “Because I want to keep everyone happy.”

“Except you,” he would say back.

“I can take it,” she imagined herself responding.

“Then stop whining. Either accept your choice, or change it.”

“There are no good options! It’s not like I can kill her or lock her up.”

“Ah, now we’re getting to the choices you actually prefer,” he would have said with a tiny smile.

She would glare at him because he always forced her to acknowledge her own truth, but that smile he would reward her with made her heart race.

It seemed particularly hard to disconnect from the memories of him today, so Priscilla glanced at the Stronghold in the distance and used it to anchor her mind into reality. Nearly no one alive knew about their time together, at least not from her. The few who knew anything at all, had little details. Perhaps she would have shared the story of their relationship and these memories with people if they only happened rarely, but that wasn’t the case. And while he slipped into her thoughts most often when she was depressed, it was far from the only time. There had been plenty of intimate dreams over the years and, even more embarrassing, the occasional times when the memories of him would join her while she was with another lover.

She sat on the bench near the outdoor firepit, and pulled out her cell phone. Her thumb rolled over the edge, considering, and then she made a choice and tapped a contact programmed into her phone with no name attached. A number she knew by heart. The phone at her ear, she listened to it ring with increasing anxiety. She knew he wouldn’t answer it, he never did. But he would play her message, and do whatever she needed. He always did.

The voicemail instructions began and then a beep sounded. She cleared her throat and sniffed slightly, then tried to make her voice sound clear and strong, “Hi, it’s me. Just wanted to check to see if everything is going fine with the surveillance on Raymond and his children. We haven’t had any success tracking down James yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as we hear anything.” She paused, overlong, thinking of what else to say or how to end the call. In the end she decided on the thing she wished she could tell him about what he’d just helped her with, and hoped he assumed it was about helping with Raymond. “And I wanted to thank you, Vyn. You’ve made everything easier.”

She ended the call immediately, and stuffed the phone in her pocket. Then her last words echoed in her mind again, and she gasped at herself. “Crap.” She’d called him Vyn, and Varyn hated that nickname. Worse, he knew very well that she used it when she was annoyed with him or she’d been stewing over something he’d said or done. Which meant she’d just inadvertently revealed that she’d been thinking about him, because nothing else in the call was a reason for being irritated with him.

“Wonderful,” she grumbled and stalked back in the house.

~~~

CHAPTER 1, SECTION 3

1488 Near Marseille, France

“Where are we going to go? Do you even have a plan?” Renata asked, her voice elevated.

“Away. We’ll start by riding out the gates toward Marseille,” Priscilla snapped as she continued to pack clothing into burlap sacks.

Renata strode to her and grabbed her by the arms, shaking her. “Tell me! What happened? Why are you doing this all of a sudden? Did someone hurt you? Threaten you?”

She shook her head quickly, then bent forward and started sobbing against Renata’s shoulder. “I just cannot suffer it anymore. It’s been more than a year, and I’ve tried so hard but every time I see Martine it hurts all over again. I need some distance, I won’t move past my feelings for him if I have to see him this often.”

There was a deep sigh from Renata, then she began to stroke the young Elf’s hair. Her voice was concerned, but firm when she spoke, “You’ll survive this. I know it’s hard, but running away is no solution.”

Priscilla shook her head and raised her tear-stained face. “It’s crushing me. I’m not like you, Mother. You got over Jonah so much better, even can be friends with him now. I don’t know if it’s my Banshee or just me, but I can’t do it the same way. We won’t go away forever, just long enough for me to get stronger.”

“Then let him be the one to leave, you shouldn’t have to suffer like this and leave your home as well. I’ll talk to him, and I’ll make sure he leaves.”

“No! Don’t you see? I can’t watch him leave me again. I have to be the one to go this time. I need to be strong enough to walk away,” Priscilla said, then burst into a fresh round of tears.

Renata pulled her close and squeezed her tight. “All right, my love. All right. We’ll get away for a while. See the world, have an adventure, and get your mind off that Elf who’s too foolish to understand that he made the biggest mistake of his life.”

“Really?” she murmured hopefully.

“Yes, I’ll take you away,” Renata said softly. “But, we have to make more of a plan than just walking out the gate. Trust me to arrange it, and we’ll go for a long while.”

Priscilla pulled back and nodded. “Of course I trust you. But I’d like to be gone long enough to have my next birthday somewhere else.”

“Mmm, I guess this is probably a bad time to tell you we were planning on a big gathering for your thirtieth birthday.”

“That’s why I mentioned it. It’s only half a year away, and I don’t want to have to dance and pretend to be happy around Martine. Where can we go, do you think? What places can we see?” Priscilla asked excitedly.

“Well, there’s still a lot of fighting going on in many places around here. But if we’re careful, if we mind-control a male companion, we’ll blend in fine. I hear things in England have gotten better under this new Henry Tudor of theirs, perhaps we should visit and see for ourselves.”

“Which Henry is this? They’ve had so many, why not another name?”

Renata laughed. “The seventh, I believe. And I have no understanding of why these people wish to use the same names over and over.”

“Do we have any Forester family in England?”

“Plenty. All of old Britannia is full of Foresters. I’ll arrange for us to have a safe path through France to England, and we’ll explore.”

Priscilla beamed at her. “Thank you! I’m so glad you’ll come with me.”

Renata remained good to her word, and less than a week later they were riding out of town in their covered rocking carriage, headed toward the Northern coast. She had explained to the new Elf that the less time trapped on a boat the better, and instead made a plan that allowed them to visit many cities in France. Priscilla was content enough with that, given that they had done very little traveling since moving to their home in a little hamlet not far from Marseille. As they made their way along the road toward their first stop, the Papal city of Avignon, she reflected on why she had seen so little of the world in her twenty-nine years.

When she was six years old, they had discovered her orphaned in the Forest of Sénart, and brought her back home to Avon with them. However, the situation there fell apart the moment they arrived. Jonah’s wife had tried to kill her, and through some bizarre twist of Fate, ended up killing their own many times great-grandchild instead. Shortly after, a Warlock murdered his wife, and in the same event, Martine’s last remaining close relative was killed.

All told, it was too much for them to bear remaining in that town. They had pulled up roots and gone east to notify Martine’s family about the death of his cousin Jean, then rode as far south as they could get and set up new households. Martine and Jonah had gone into seclusion, choosing a home in the port city of Marseille and rarely leaving it. Renata had been sent out of Jonah’s service as his Guardian, and ordered away to care for Priscilla along with another Elf, Lodovico. They had chosen to live in the smaller town nearby. Vico, as Lodovico insisted on being called, and Renata had become her parents.

Of course, she knew the reason for the lack of travel was rooted in fear. Priscilla had to be protected as a half-Elf until she was old enough to undergo the ceremonial transformation which would bring her into being a full Elf. Once that happened, she would be far more powerful than any Human and would be much safer. Although not invincible. Vico had been an Elf, but he had died on a trip a couple of years ago, having gotten himself caught up in a battle between the French and Italian armies, and Renata had left to fetch his remains from some friends who had fled the area with the Swiss.

That had been the worst month of her life. Not only had she gotten the news that her father was dead, but she was terribly worried about whether her mother would survive the trip back with his remains. While she was gone, however, Priscilla had faced her own trials, almost dying in the process. The injury caused Jonah and Martine to urgently perform her coming over ceremony, and then only weeks later Martine had ended their engagement of more than ten years. The only good things that had happened in that time were that her mother had returned home safely, and that she was now a full Elf.

“Are you all right, dear?” Renata asked her.

“Yes, why?”

“You are making an awful face, I thought perhaps you weren’t feeling well.”

Priscilla chuckled, her mother was nothing if not blunt. “I’m fine. I was just thinking of the past and all the reasons why we haven’t traveled much.”

Renata nodded. “It will be a nice change for me as well.”

“I don’t want to question your plan, but I was not excited that we would be stopping in Avignon. While I expect that the Papal Palace is very impressive to look upon, my recent experience with a priest trying to purge me of my Banshee has left me somewhat averse to walking into their religious lairs.”

She laughed. “Not to worry, we are only here to meet a friend and then we will be away again. As we discussed, a male companion would make the travel easier. But I prefer someone I know. Through Jonah, I’ve arranged to borrow the services of another Guardian.”

Her mouth tightened slightly. “You told Jonah we were leaving.”

“Of course. Did you think we should disappear in the night and leave no word? Vanish and let them all worry? Don’t be childish. He won’t tell Martine until we’ve been gone a few days, and I have not divulged our travel plan, only told him that I will write now and again so he knows we are safe.”

“This Guardian works for the Catholic Pope?”

“No. We had a dispatch sent to him in Lyon the day after you and I discussed leaving. He should already be waiting to meet us in Avignon. I asked that he meet us there, because if he arrived in Marseille then Martine may have found out and become suspicious. He has you followed, you know.”

“What?” Priscilla gasped.

“You shouldn’t be so surprised. I pointed out the ones he’s had watching you for years in our little hamlet. Really, you must be more observant.”

“But why?” she sputtered. “It was one thing when he was keeping an eye on the safety of his half-Elf betrothed. But why would he continue to do it?”

Renata shrugged. “I know not. Perhaps he wished to reassure himself you would not do anything extreme.”

Priscilla snorted. “Extreme. You mean like kill myself? I may be angry and hurt, but I’m more likely to kill him.” She sighed. “So, after Avignon, where will we go next?”

“Since it is nearby, I thought we could stop off to visit la Principauté d’Orange,” The Principality of Orange “then we can explore the Dauphiné region some. Up to Valence, then east to Grenoble. You’ll love seeing the mountains there.”

She grinned with excitement, and looked out the open curtains of the carriage. “I can see a walled city in the distance, the trip didn’t take very long.”

Just as night was truly setting in, they rolled into the town through the gates, and continued down a road toward the inn and further past. A few more houses down, Renata instructed their driver to stop, and nearly leapt out of the door as it was flung open. She was scooped up into a hug and Priscilla climbed out on her own to stand witness to the tall Guardian embracing her mother.

“Oh, Renata. It’s been too long.”

“It has, it really has. You look well,” she smiled at him.

He noticed Priscilla over her shoulder and his eyes widened. “This can’t be little Prisca? Last I saw you… well, you’re all grown up into a beautiful Elf now.”

Priscilla shook her head unsurely. “I don’t remember —”

“Of course you don’t, it’s perfectly fine. You were very small still, maybe only ten, last I visited.”

Renata smiled. “Priscilla, I’d like to reintroduce you to Guardian Lance of House Forester. He was with us the day we first came across you.”

Her lips parted in surprise. “Oh! No, I’ve heard the stories so many times. Mother used to have to tell me every night, just so I could fall asleep. I know all about how brave you were! How you toppled the cannon and fought off the soldiers, and helped rescue the King by floating him down the river.” She extended her hand and grasped his arm excitedly. “It’s so good to meet you!”

His face flushed red with embarrassment, and he cleared his throat. “Well, it wasn’t quite so heroic if you were there in person.”

The young Elf’s eyes widened in excitement. “You must tell me everything. I’d love to hear it all from your perspective.”

Lance cast a helpless look over at Renata, but she only laughed and said, “Come. Let us gather his gear and horse so we may continue the trip through the night. You’ll have plenty of time to question him on the ride, my dear.”

~~~

CHAPTER 1, SECTION 4

11:10AM CET, Hotel Room, Lulea, Sweden

“Did another earthquake precede the attack?” Zachary asked the caller.

“On the outskirts of Alexandria, it was strong but very localized. There is structural damage to a few buildings, but no deaths this time.”

“Is there anything significant about the people who were attacked this time?”

“Not that we’ve found yet. The remains are so minimal that it’s hard to tell anything except that it looks like two males and two females, all of them Human. We found a motorbike parked nearby, a local model, so we think at least one of them was probably native to the area. We also found a purse with a British identification card in it. She’s the first one we’re going to try to match or exclude.”

“I’m surprised the bike and purse were still there when you got on the scene,” Zachary said.

“You didn’t see what it looked like. The smell alone was awful, but the bodies were stripped down to bone. And that blood mucus mix was all over everything in the alley again. Disgusting.”

“Yeah, we saw our share of that when we went over there. But then nothing. I wonder why it went quiet for so many weeks. Speaking of which, is the family calling us back or is this just an update?”

“A little of both. They want you back, but since they’re worried that the attacks won’t be confined to Humans, they called in a favor from PSC. The head of Perpetual is coming personally, and he’s stopping by to pick you up on the way.”

Zachary frowned. “Are you serious? Come on Micah, that’s pretty extreme, don’t you think? We’re good at what we do, we don’t need some security firm getting involved.”

“Look, I get it. It feels like you’re being brushed aside, but it’s partly because of the rumors going around. Apparently, some of the families are concerned that the attacks sound like the old stories of Apep.”

He groaned. “We heard rumors like that when we were there before. But Apep was a forty-foot snake that was locked away in the time of the Pharaohs. I think someone would have noticed if it was running around again.”

“Regardless, it’s causing anxiety. I’m afraid you’re stuck working with the security firm until you can resolve the situation. He’s already on his way to Lulea, I just texted you his number,” Micah said.

“All right. What’s his name?”

“Varyn. And since I know how much you love the weather here, let me just remind you to bring appropriate clothing.”

“Fuck. Egypt in the damn summer. Zina’s gonna be livid.”

“Even Apep couldn’t outrun Ra forever,” Micah said, chuckling to himself.

“Been hanging on to that Sun God joke, haven’t you?” Zachary smirked.

“What else do I have to do? See you soon, Kary.”

The call ended, and Zachary tossed his phone on the couch with a groan then dragged himself up and walked into his sister’s bedroom. She was asleep, half sprawled under the blanket, half hanging off the side of the bed. He walked over and flopped down hard on the empty side of the bed.

She groaned loud. “I’m sleeping.”

“They called us back to Egypt.”

“No.”

“There’s been another killing,” Zachary said.

“Don’t care,” she mumbled.

“It was decided for us. They called in a specialist from a security firm to take charge of things, he’s coming to pick us up.”

She flipped to face him and pushed herself up on her elbow, frowning. “How dare they! As if we can’t be trusted to take care of this? What company did they call?”

“PSC. Apparently it’s important enough to them that they actually pulled strings to get the owner involved personally,” Zachary said.

Her eyes widened in surprise and she sat up the rest of the way. “No kidding? That’s the guy Janey couldn’t stop going on about a few years ago. Remember?”

He stared at the ceiling for a minute, trying to remember. “The one she called ‘the Dreamboat’ or something stupid like that? I don’t remember much else.”

“She talked about him constantly! She was so upset because she wanted it to be something more, but he wasn’t interested in anything serious.”

Zachary shrugged. “You know how it is, some are just unable to commit.” He cringed, then quickly said, “Please don’t take that as a challenge.”

“I’ve never even met him!” Zahrina protested. “Besides, I kind of like some of the Elves we met at the Stronghold.”

His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Did someone approach you there?”

She huffed at him. “I have eyes and I’m perfectly capable of approaching Elves that interest me all on my own.”

“Which ones?” he prompted.

“I’m not telling you so you can go scare them off. But if we’re going to go on a hunt, perhaps we should ask them if any of their trackers want to come along? That new one probably hasn’t gone on a major hunt yet.”

Zachary scrunched up his brow. “Chris? Are you really up for babysitting, in addition to the heat and this guy from PSC too?”

She shrugged. “I’m going to spend as much time in the air conditioning as possible. If the Dreamboat wants to take over, he can do it.”

“Apparently his name is Varyn, and according to Micah, he’s probably already on his way. I need to text him and figure out when we’re meeting.”

“Fine, but I don’t want this to become months or years. We’ve only had a few weeks with the new twins. If it weren’t for that insufferable bitch, we’d be staying there the whole time,” Zahrina said.

“I know. Itta has done everything possible to suck all the enjoyment out of what should have been a wonderful time. I don’t know how Priscilla puts up with it, I’d probably kill her.”

“It’s her husband’s sister. What can she do?”

“Kick him out of the bedroom, for starters. At least until he does something about his crazy sister,” Zachary suggested.

She tilted her head. “Would you do that? If your wife asked you to get rid of me.”

He snorted. “Well, this hypothetical wife would never ask, because you would never do what Itta is doing. And if you ever did, I’d chain you up somewhere until you came to your senses.”

She laughed. “Good. I’m going to take a shower, find out when we have to leave.”

“This is going to be so miserable,” Zachary groaned.

“Yep. You should’ve refused,” Zahrina said from the bathroom.

~~~

CHAPTER 1, SECTION 5

4:10AM CST, Priscilla’s House, Houston, Texas

“Can’t sleep?” Mitchell asked when he saw Raymond sitting on a couch in the den.

Raymond shrugged. “I got a few hours, just anxious about today.”

“What’s worrying you the most?” he asked, settling down across from him in a chair.

“I guess I’m wondering what happens if one of them tries to walk away from it all. And the lengths I’ll go to in order to make sure they don’t.”

Mitchell nodded. “So we need to do a couple of things really well today. First, we need to make sure that I scare them. And then we need to make sure they fall in love with Martine.”

Raymond laughed. “OK, well I know why you want to scare them. But why Martine?”

“Think of him as advertising, he’s the perfect poster for Elfness. He’s handsome, strong, sensitive, and ancient. He’s rich and connected, and every gender and species throws themselves at him. We don’t necessarily need them to fall in love with him in a personal way, but we definitely want them to aspire to be him.”

“Do you think Nerissa will get the same response? I mean, she’s kinda hardcore.”

Mitchell grinned at him with amusement. “You know, there are plenty of females who would love to be able to kick ass the way she can. And lots of us guys who find powerful ladies very sexy. I’m guessing between the two of them, we’ll cover most reactions.”

“You seem to have this all figured out. What do I do in your plan?” Raymond asked.

“Stand there and get beat on. Hopefully, you’ll represent themselves in their minds. They’ll identify with you the most, and every hit you take is another reminder that they’re in danger and something they need to learn to protect against. The injuries you get are part of scaring them.”

Raymond groaned. “I’m gonna really wish Chris was here, aren’t I?”

“If you don’t think it’s a good —”

“It’s a good plan,” Raymond interrupted. “I just wasn’t aware I was going to be a punching bag.”

“I figured I’d clue you in at some point,” Mitchell said with a wink.

“So who’s going to be on healing duty then?”

“Nerissa. Martine’s healing is just way too painful. Speaking of which, I think it would be good for him to throw you around a bit with his energy.”

Raymond cringed. “Just so long as it’s not the shredding skin off bones thing he does.”

“Don’t worry, we won’t kill you. If we have an emergency, we’ll use Martine’s energy to heal you. It’ll hurt like hell, but it’s strong enough to fix anything. In the beginning, I want you to fight back while we’re going through a basic demonstration. That way later, when you’re not defending yourself, they’ll be wanting you to use what they know you can do. And hopefully, that urge for you to protect yourself will transfer to themselves as well.”

“You sound like you’ve done this before.”

“No, this situation is unique. But the core motivations that make someone want to either become a protector of others, or to protect themselves, are pretty straightforward. I’ve studied fighting technique and combat mindset for a long time, it always remains fairly close to the same concepts.”

Raymond frowned. “OK, but what if one of them doesn’t want to learn how to fight? What if all the violence scares them? What does that mean for how they’ll respond?”

“With five kids, that’s likely. Old school fight or flight; chances are good at least one of them is a flight response. I should be able to pick out the ones who have that reaction. So we teach them about defense. We let them experience how fast Elves can run, and climb, and display our enhanced hearing so they understand that it’s hard for attackers to sneak up on them. Emphasize that running to survive or heal isn’t a weakness, with Elves it’s a skill. Plus, they’ll probably lean on the ones who are good at fighting back. From what I saw in my time as a Guardian, the ones who tend to find causing damage the least appealing often end up as dedicated healers.”

He nodded. “I trust you to handle it, Mitch. You have the experience, and I’m too worried to be much help anyway. Standing around as a punching bag is probably the best I can do right now.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll need you to train them to fight other Elves one day. And they’re not the only one. I’ve only been sparring with Elves for a few months, and I’m still a long way from beating you in a fight,” Mitchell said with a chuckle.

Raymond laughed and shook his head. “You’re an amazing fighter. You’re so much better at the moves and technique than I am, and you know so many different kinds of fighting. But I’m not sure if I can teach you how to beat me.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I don’t plan or follow a technique. It’s just reflex most of the time. But the one thing I’m really good at is recognizing patterns. When I see someone do something they’ve done before, I remember what comes next and anticipate it. Most people I’ve fought have at least one combination where they always use the same order or movements. That’s my opening to land a crippling shot.”

Mitchell nodded. “So defensive tactics and feints are probably good concepts to try with you.”

Raymond shrugged. “I don’t know. Like I said, I just fight. You’re the expert.”

“Well if one of your kids turns out to be a natural fighter like you, I think that’ll be pretty lucky.”

“Here’s hoping they all do,” Raymond gestured with his orange juice.

“You should pour a little Elvish brandy in that and try to get more sleep, we still have a long time before they’re supposed to show up for the weekend.”

~~~

CHAPTER 1, SECTION 6

11:15AM CET, The woods near the Stronghold, Sweden

Varyn stalked away from the meeting in shadow form and held that form as he sped through the woods, invisible to all in this space in-between. Humans, Elves, and Gods. None of them could reach him here, but he was able to watch and listen. Technically, there were a couple of glaring exceptions to that rule, one of whom was nearby. Suddenly he heard a cry he knew instantly.

Rushing through space he followed the tether that bound them, not even trusting his exceptional hearing to guide him in a forest full of echoes. He ran until he crashed to a halt the moment she came into view and he realized she was alone and not under attack. He pulled back behind the trees, painfully aware that she was one of the only beings in existence who could see him within the shadow space.

He watched in agonized frustration as she cried out her misery, unable to approach nor make himself leave. Then suddenly he felt their connection bloom and he knew she was reaching out to him. He peered at her closely, trying to see if she had noticed him, but her eyes were completely shut — hard to miss given the fact that they were just glowing white orbs. He placed a hand over his chest and closed his own for a moment, enjoying the feeling of connecting with her. Then he returned to watching.

Focusing on her face, he strained to see every detail so he could understand what she was doing. Her expression shifted from miserable to irritated, then calm, and he saw her tilt her head in an unmistakable way. He knew that movement, from so many memories and dreams. Whatever she was thinking of, he had just kissed her. Then the link between them weakened and he saw her tense and watched the tiny ridge deepen on her brow. She didn’t want to lose the connection.

Neither did he, but in the next moment it was gone. While she kept her eyes closed he vanished through the trees. Rushing away through shadow, farther and farther until he realized he’d reached the little nearby town of Lulea. There he pulled back into the woods, lingered in the shadows and growled, wanting to tear Amos apart all over again for ruining everything with his lies. But a few minutes later, his mind cleared and he realized something far more important than his rage toward Amos.

She didn’t hate him anymore.

Something between them had helped her get through her emotional pain, and that meant he was still important to her. He couldn’t allow himself to dare the thought that she still loved him, but their connection had felt as strong as it ever was… for a moment. It was enough. Enough to build on.

His cell phone began to ring, and when he pulled it out and saw the caller, he nearly dropped it. A fingertip danced over the ‘answer’ button, as he found himself tempted to rush into whatever was next for them. But he couldn’t let himself do it. He waited, impatiently, until the notice arrived that he had voicemail. As he listened to her final words, he laughed and leaned back against the closest tree, smiling up at the canopy. She was cross with him because the memory made her feel good. He had arrived in these woods today with anger, and found the one thing he didn’t expect.

Hope.

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