What’s a girl to wear to spend eternity in prison?
Evalle Kincaid would rather fight a pack of demons alone than face the Tribunal at midnight.
Seventy-two minutes from now.
She might walk free tonight…if the Tribunal took into account that she’d spent the last forty-eight hours protecting humans from an eight-hundred-year-old warlord instead of mounting her defense.
Like it was her fault she’d been born a half-breed Belador? An Alterant. The only one not dead or caged. The others had killed humans. Taking the Belador oath at eighteen had kept her free of persecution…until now.
One thing at a time, like getting dressed. She had to show up in more than a bra and panties.
She pulled out her favorite cotton shirt, a vintage piece, from her antique chest of drawers. Stepping into jeans and boots, she shoved a couple of lug nuts in her pocket and froze.
Her apartment was too silent.
Not a lot of noise reached two levels beneath downtown Atlanta when you lived in the equivalent of a concrete bunker.
But this stillness was a something-must-be-up quiet.
She headed out to investigate and had just reached the hallway when a harsh blowing noise roared in the kitchen.
It sounded like…a giant blowtorch.
Grace be to Macha, no!
She broke into a run and swung through the kitchen doorway as another blast rocked the air. “Feenix!”
Her two-foot-tall pet gargoyle stood facing the open oven with fire shooting from his snout. He stopped blowing flames and cut his big round eyes up at her in a sly “who me?” innocent look. “Ye-eth?”
If she laughed right now he’d never learn that he couldn’t shoot flames in the apartment. But she kept her voice calm and curious. “What are you doing?”
That must have been the right question. He turned to face her and started dancing from side to side on fat little four-toed feet. “Thurrr-prithe! Peetha. Peetha.” He clapped his pudgy-clawed hands and chortled.
She stepped further into the kitchen and bent down to see one of her frozen pepperoni pizzas charred beyond recognition on one side.
He’d cooked for her.
Her heart climbed into her throat. How was she going to live without him if they locked her away? He was the reason her heart sang every morning when she opened her eyes. She’d find him plopped on the bed next to her with his pet alligator tucked under his arm and a gap-toothed grin on his face.
She closed the oven and smiled at him. “It’s perfect. Thank you for cooking me dinner.”
Feenix flapped his wings, flying up to eye level. Two little overbite fangs pointed down past his lower lip. She opened her arms and he floated into them, tucking his wings, which were soft as bat skin.
But it was the sweet way he said “Mine” that threatened to fold her at the knees.
She couldn’t let on how hard it was going to be to leave him tonight or he’d fret the entire time she was gone. Fear of losing her might cause him to regress into the fire-breathing little animal who hadn’t even been able to communicate when she’d first brought him home. If she didn’t return after tonight, and he got out, someone would kill him for sure. He deserved better after escaping the crazy sorcerer who’d created, then tortured, the poor thing.
No way could she lock him away somewhere.
She wouldn’t do to him what others wanted to do to her.
Nothing would stop her from coming back to Feenix…except two of the three Tribunal deities ruling against her. Even then, she wouldn’t go down without a fight. She didn’t care if they could smoke her where she stood.
That left her one choiceâ€”to gamble on her chances of convincing the Tribunal she would not shift, involuntarily or otherwise, into her Alterant beast form and kill humans.
Vegas would laugh at her odds of winning.
She swallowed the lump threatening to choke her.
Feenix leaned back. “Peetha?”
“You bet, baby.” She hugged him, inhaling his warm, leathery smell, then lowered him to sit on the island counter.
The uncharred half of the pizza tasted better than it looked. And she’d have made all the same ooh and ahh comments even if it had been a mud patty.
“Nutth.” He opened his mouth wide.
She tossed him the two lug nuts from her pocket.
He caught the steel snacks with his tongue and chomped them like M&M peanut candies.
She eyed her watch. Time had a grudge against her.
Delaying the inevitable wouldn’t make walking out that door any easier. And arriving late for a Tribunal meeting would be considered an insultâ€”a guaranteed thumbs-down. She washed her hands. “I have to go out for a while, so don’t cook anything else while I’m gone, okay?”
“Yeth.” He watched her from his roost on the kitchen island, eyes beaming pure happiness.
“You’re the best.” She touched his wide nose with her finger, smiled, and headed for her bedroom.
The sound of Feenix’s wings flapped behind her.
Ten-foot ceilings allowed him to fly over her head in the hallway and reach the bedroom before her. When she strode into the room, he was perched in the center of her bed.
Feenix said, “You come back?”
The million-dollar question, but he asked the same thing every time she left. “As soon as I can.”
“What ith thoon? One, two, five, theven, eight?”
Did he mean minutes or hours? He’d just learned to count to eight. Time was a whole other concept. She was thinking more in terms of years, but rather than stretch the truth any further, she changed the topic. “How’s your counting coming?”
“Count for me.”
He bent his legs and leaned over to count each toe around his potbelly. “One, two…”
She picked up her dagger off the nightstand and slid it inside her boot. She didn’t walk the streets unarmed.
When Feenix stopped counting at eight, because he had eight toes, she told him, “Thought we were working on nine and ten this week.”
“What ith nine ten?” He looked up at her with big orange eyes full of curiosity.
“I’ll tell you on the way to the door.” She headed to the door in her living room that opened into the exit tunnels.
Feenix needed a reason to count more than his toes. She told him, “Your horns are nine and ten.”
He grunted unintelligible happy noises as he thumped down the hallway at her heels.
When she reached the door she turned around. “Are you going to practice?”
His eyes rounded as he realized he had new information. “Yeth, dammit.”
“No cursing.” She wanted to blame Quinn, one of her two closest friends, for irritating her to the point she’d said that word in front of Feenix, but the fault was hers.
“Thorry.” He smiled, tongue poking out one side of his mouth.
“That’s okay. I know it was an accident. Promise to be good and practice counting while I’m gone and I’ll get you a hubcap.”
His scaly forehead wrinkled with confusion.
She explained, “A hubcap is like a silver pizza.”
He waddled in a circle, clapping and fluttering his wings, making happy sounds. She’d make sure Tzader, the other person she trusted most in this world, brought Feenix a hubcap if she couldn’t.
She could if the Tribunal cut her some slack tonight and treated her equal to everyone else.
Was that asking too much?
Just one time she’d like to be judged on her own merit and not her tainted blood.
She had to go now or she’d never leave. Bending down, she gave Feenix one tight squeeze and said, “Where’s your gator?”
He looked around and spied his favorite stuffed toy, then flew to his beanbag. After settling into the cushy bag he cuddled his stuffed alligator.
That was the picture she’d take to her grave.
“Bye, baby.” Shutting the door quickly, she hurried through the concrete hallways to her garage area. No point in taking her GSX-R motorcycle out tonight. She had almost an hour to make the twenty-minute walk to Woodruff Park, where she’d get teleported to the meeting.
She hated teleporting almost as much as she disliked Sen, the liaison who would escort her to the Tribunal, but that was life in her world.
Walking across the garage, she used her kinetic power to access the elevator that took her up two floors to street level. She stepped out and scanned the pitch-black area through special sunglasses that protected her ultra-sensitive vision even at night. Similar to looking through night-vision goggles, she’d been born with vision that perceived the street and surrounding area in shades of blue-gray. Her strange DNA had gifted her with a deadly reaction to sunlight as well.
Sunshine wasn’t an issue this close to midnight, but preternatural creatures could hide in the dark jungle of steel and concrete she’d have to traverse between here and Marietta Street. Quinn owned her building and didn’t like charging her rent, but she insisted. She’d live life on her own terms.
Independence meant something different to everyone.
Unless someone had lived trapped in a basement the first eighteen years in this world, she doubted they could understand what independence meant to her.
She paused. Had she felt energy skimming through the air?
Or was she just jumpy?
Nothing stirred this late on a Thursday night except weeds withering in the August heat. Patchwork concrete and gravel stretched ahead of her, running beneath the street-level parking deck that fronted CNN. Tourists rarely wandered down here, where a ten-foot-high chain-link fence protected parked cars from vandalism.
Prime area for something nasty to wait for prey.
Bring it. I’ve got time to wash blood off my boots.
Or at least she’d die doing something for the greater good versus dying because of being born part Belador, part beast.
She swept a suspicious gaze from side to side and kept moving toward the dimly lit area, but not even a roach crawled in this sweltering weather. Sweat trickled along her cheek. Loose tendrils from her ponytail clung to her neck.
She’d miss Atlanta if she didn’t return, especially being able to ride her motorcycle throughout the winter.
Would the Tribunal send her somewhere hot or…
The humid air skimming her arms changed with a prickling of awareness. Her boot heels tapped softly across the rutted pavement. No other sound filled in the gaps.
She opened her empathic senses…then wider.
Another presence moved toward her.
Human? She didn’t think so.
If someone or something tangled with her right now it had better have a death wish. Tzader and Quinn would be waiting at the park to see her off, and she wanted to see them.
A male voice close behind said, “You’re hard to find, Miss Kincaid.”
Definitely not human.
Evalle swung around to face her stalker. “I’m not hard to find if I want to be found. How’d you know where I live?”
“You forget that VIPER hired me as a tracker?” Storm asked.
No. She just hadn’t thought about him using that skill to find her apartment. She should be annoyed at his invading her privacy, not secretly thrilled at seeing him before she left.
Silly, but she was glad he’d shown up unexpectedly.
She’d only known Storm for the few days he’d been assigned to be her partner at VIPERâ€”a coalition of powerful beings who protected humanity against supernatural predators. But the time they’d spent together had been intense while they’d hunted the Ngak Stone, an ancient and powerful relic. She’d fought demons and Kujoo, enemies of the Beladors for centuries who had escaped their cursed life beneath a mountain and traveled through a portal to Atlanta with apocalyptic plans.
She still nursed wounds from those battles.
Storm stood three steps back with thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his nicely broken-in jeans. A casual stance to those unaware. What lurked beneath that tranquil pose could change into a deadly black jaguar. Not a lycanthrope but a Skinwalker. Straight hair the color of midnight fell around his shoulders with rebel intent. His open-collared shirt blended with the obsidian night. Brown eyes with thick lashes took in every whisper of movement and punctuated a face cut of sharp cheekbones and a square jaw.
He’d been brought into VIPER for his ability to track supernatural energy.
She had one thing in common with Storm. He was a mixed bucket of powers, too, part Navajo and part Ashaninka.
Cocking her chin up in question, she asked, “What’s up?”
“Came to tell you something,” Storm murmured, distracted.
He stepped closer to her. His gaze roamed over the side of her face where a bruise was just getting ripe at twelve hours old. His eyes lifted to hers. “Too bad we sent the Kujoo back eight hundred years. I’d like another shot at that warlord.”
“I could have done without him coming here the first time.”
If she hadn’t been busy fighting the Kujoo, she wouldn’t be facing the Tribunal empty-handed. She made a show of checking her digital watch. “If this is about agency business, save it for later or email me.”
“This isn’t about VIPER, but it’s important. I know you’re on a tight schedule. That’s why I’ve been waiting out here for over an hour.”
Storm had waited an hour to talk to her?
She could afford a few minutes to find out what he had to say and still make it to the park on time.
He eased forward, reducing another slice of space between them. His dark eyes stirred with interest that would cause another woman with her sordid history to retreat.
Not her. She cowed to no man and, deep inside, she believed Storm wouldn’t try to harm her. And she wasn’t a vulnerable fifteen-year-old girl anymore but a twenty-three-year-old woman with Belador powers.
He hooked one long finger under the string of leather tied around her neck. “You’re still wearing the amulet.”
She blinked at his change of topics and looked down to where a silver disk the size of a half dollar hung from a leather thong tied around her neck. An intricate pattern had been inscribed inside the pentagram center. Nicole, a white witch friend, had placed an invisibility spell on the amulet before loaning it to Evalle for Storm to wear during a mission.
Even though the spell had run out last night, this thing had to be valuable.
“Glad you reminded me,” Evalle said. Dipping her head down, she reached up to untie the leather thong. “I need you to return this to Nicole.”
Storm’s fingers curled around her wrists, heating her skin.
She froze at the contact. Her pulse rocked with awareness that excited her…and raised nervous hairs along her arms. No matter how strong she’d become in the past five years, some things from her past would haunt her forever.
Without moving a muscle, she met his gaze with her unyielding one. “Don’t.”
He swore softly and released her wrists, muttering, “When are you going to trust me?”
Not in this lifetime.
Storm deserved someone’s trust and had earned a little from her in the past few days, but she didn’t know how to give it freely to men other than Tzader and Quinn who wanted nothing but friendship from her. Her biggest problem with them was when they acted like overprotective brothers.
She couldn’t fault Storm for stirring an unnatural reaction born of hideous memories.
Was she attracted to him? Yes.
Was she comfortable with that attraction? No.
His next words came out as a vexed sound pushed through gritted teeth. “I’m not taking the amulet.”
That ticked her off, and she could deal with anger better than desire. She retied the leather thong, dropped her arms and raised her head until their noses were an inch apart in a battle of wills. “Why not? You could tell Nicole thank you while you’re at it, since this kept you from being seen in public last night as a jaguar.”
“The only reason you want me to take that now is because you think you won’t be coming back after the Tribunal meeting. And, as far as Nicole goes, I sent her flowers and a thank-you note.”
Really? I’ve never gotten flowers. She frowned and backed up two steps before she could stop the reaction, a ridiculous one at that because she appreciated what he’d done for her friend.
Storm missed nothing. Like now, when he studied her as if he’d just noticed something that surprised him.
He had better-developed empathic senses than hers plus the ability to tell a lie from the truth. No point in wasting her time trying to convince him she believed differently about her chances with the Tribunal.
“Okay, fine.” She’d give Tzader the amulet when she saw him at the park. “So why’re you here?”
“Two things. Firstâ€”do you know about the latest Alterant attacks?”
“No.” Was this her week or what? More attacks would not aid her case one bit.
“One in San Francisco this morning. Three more up the West Coast in Portland yesterday.”
“Four? What theâ€”” She stopped short of cursing, since Brina, the Belador warrior queen, hated for her Beladors to curse and Evalle wanted Brina in an accommodating mood tonight. She would need Brina’s help to swing the Tribunal’s decision in her favor. But what was up with so many Alterant attacks in just twenty-four hours? She’d thought the last two in less than a month had been unusual. “How’d you find out?”
“I talked to a VIPER agent earlier tonight who had caught a few details. He said our agents on the West Coast heard about a family of five found slaughtered around their campsite and the authorities couldn’t figure out what had attacked them, because it hadn’t killed like a bear, a mountain lion or a wolf. They’re waiting on a bad fog to lift before they try tracking.”
Evalle felt sick. An Alterant had killed a family. Anything that murdered deserved to die, but she asked, “Did they capture the Alterants?”
“By the time VIPER’s team found the beasts another group had them surrounded. Five human men in black-ops-type camo gear were closing in on three Alterants. Casper said the beasts attacked the men as if out of their minds.”
“And the men in camo had megaweapons they used to blast the Alterants to pieces,” Evalle finished.
This only got better.
Four more Alterants. Multiple attacks in less than a day.
Storm cocked his head, thinking. “You know who those black ops guys are?”
Sounded like Isak Nyght’s men, but she didn’t want to get into that right now. “Maybe. Have to tell you about it later when I’m not in a hurry. What about the Alterant in San Francisco?”
“Killed a man and his wife on a pier. Authorities have no idea what happened because the only thing they found besides the mutilated and half-eaten couple was the nude body of a man floating in the water nearby. The nude guy had chunks of human flesh in his throat.”
Gross. “So the Alterant maybe fell into the water, drowned and shifted back to his human form?”
“That’s what VIPER thinks. They stole the body and disposed of it. I hate to give you bad news going into this meeting,” Storm said, “but I didn’t want you blindsided either.”
She nodded, noticing the concern behind his words. “Thanks. I’m not in a hurry to face the Tribunal, but I can’t show up late, so what else did you have to tell me?”
“I need you to do something for me,” Storm said.
Was he serious?
But Storm had helped her last night by shifting into a jaguarâ€”a form he hated takingâ€”to track someone for Evalle. He’d also brought an army of Beladors to where the Kujoo had held her captive.
And had rushed into battle, wielding a sword to free her.
She pointed out, “I’m not in a position to be of much use to anyone right now.”
“Hear me out. I left South America six months ago to find someone, and that trail went cold two months back. That’s when I had a vision that you could help me find this person.”
Storm had visions about me? “Who are you looking for?”
“It’s not safe to speak her name.”
Her? A flare of jealousy that was as unexpected as it was uncomfortable jolted Evalle.
Storm’s gaze glinted with a hint of surprise that vanished in the next blink of his eyes. A smile touched the corner of his mouth.
If she survived the Tribunal meeting, she was going to start playing cards with Tzader and Quinn to improve her poker face.
Men. “I’m a little busy to help you find women, Storm.”
“Talking to you is more challenging than petting a porcupine.” He lost his smile and scrubbed a hand over his face, then seemed to regroup. “This is serious and I’m only asking you to help me find one woman, who’s responsible for my father’s death. And she has something important that belongs to me.”
Oh. Add socially inept to my list of flaws. Evalle didn’t care for the porcupine comment, but she’d let it pass this time. “If I come back, I’ll try to help you.”
“There is no if to it.” Storm’s jaw hardened with determination. “There was another part of the vision where I’m tracking you after the Tribunal meeting.”
“Are you insane? If they lock me away and you come after me”â€”which sort of made her happy when she thought about itâ€””Sen and the Tribunal would fight over who could kill you first for daring to defy them.”
“I won’t defy them.”
She rubbed her forehead, pulling away fingers damp from perspiration as she tried to process what he was saying. Pacing helped Tzader think, so she started walking in a short circle and muttered, “I don’t understand.”
“To be honest, neither do I, but I trust my visions because they led me here…to you.”
She stopped walking and turned to face him. “What?”
“Yes. The vision I had two months ago showed me working with a woman riding a motorcycle, but I couldn’t pinpoint her location. I could only tell it was in a city in the United States. When I got an offer to work with VIPER I knew it would lead me to her. I started having visions again the night we met. You may be my only hope to find the woman I’m hunting.”
Like I don’t have enough riding on my shoulders? Evalle doubted Storm was searching for just a human female. “If you can’t tell me her name, then what is she?”
His gaze trailed past her shoulder as if he was working something out in his mind, then he gave a shake of his head. “I’ll tell you more when the time comes, and I won’t let her or anyone else harm you in the meantime.”
“I can take care of myself but I don’t think I can help you, Storm.”
“Because you don’t expect to come back?”
Like she needed to be reminded of that? Again. “That’s a distinct possibility. And you don’t need to come after me.”
He made a sound that came out part growl and part frustration. “The Tribunal is judging you unsafe because other Alterants have shifted into beasts and killed humans. Are you willing to spend the rest of your life locked away for a sin you haven’t committed?”
That struck at the heart of what she’d been trying to avoid thinking about. Day after day, year after year, she’d lived in a twenty-by-twenty underground space as a child. The aunt who’d “owned her” had used the threat of sunlight harming Evalle as an excuse to lock her in a basement with no windows because she’d hated Evalle, her own brother’s bastard child.
Living imprisoned again would be a death sentence.
If Evalle lost her case with the Tribunal, the Beladors had to stand by that decision. Any retaliation or failure to support the ruling would breach the agreement between the Beladors and the VIPER coalition. If the Celtic goddess Macha, who ruled the Beladors, backed out of the VIPER coalition because of Evalleâ€”okay, cue up wild laughter at that possibilityâ€”Beladors across the world would become enemies to be attacked without retaliation. Bloodbaths would erupt between pantheons, and the world would turn into the battleground Beladors had spent hundreds of years trying to prevent.
No one would go to war for an Alterant.
But if she could prove VIPER needed an asset with her powers she might earn a reprieve from what she considered a death sentence.
Evalle conceded Storm’s point. She would not willingly accept being put away for a sin she hadn’t committed. “You’re right. I’d rather die than live out my life in a cage, but your life would be forfeit as well if you try to find me.”
“My life was forfeited a long time ago. It’s my father’s death that matters.”
She couldn’t untangle what he meant by that statement, which was clearly Storm’s intention. He wasn’t sharing a thing with her yet that he didn’t have to, and he didn’t give her a chance to question him on it when he threw a new worry at her to juggle.
Storm said, “If the Tribunal locks you away, you do realize Tzader and Quinn will not stand by quietly either. Do you want them to come after you?”
“No.” She hadn’t considered that. “They’d have to break their Belador vows to go against a Tribunal ruling. That would be suicidal.” She could never live with either of them paying the ultimate price for her. She’d do the same for them, but Tzader was the Maistir who led the North American Beladors, and Quinn had family, plus he was one of the financial geniuses that managed the holdings of Beladors around the globe.
They were needed. She was not.
But Storm was right yet again. Tzader and Quinn were born to protect others and would not leave her locked away.
They knew she had no one else in her corner.
Except Storm, it seemed.
And he must have a major reason for putting such a low value on his life. That didn’t mean she could live with his death on her shoulders either, even if he did have a personal agenda. “I don’t want anyone coming after me.”
“You don’t have a say with me. If you aren’t back within two hours after you leave, I’m tracking you down.”
“Time in the Nether Realm runs at a different speed than here. The last time it took me five hours to get back.”
“Two hours. That’s my deadline. I’m coming for you whether you help me or not.”
She wished she had time to consider how that warmed her heart, but Storm couldn’t go against the Tribunal and win. “No matter how you paint it, coming after me will end in your death.”
“That’s my decision to make and I’ve already made it.”
She couldn’t stand here and argue anymore. If Storm wouldn’t be deterred, she might as well find out what he had in mind. “How would I help you?”
“By making it easier to track you.”
She shook her head at his lack of logic. “I don’t see how you can do that. Sen will teleport me from the park to the Tribunal meeting and wherever they send me after that. You said you couldn’t track someone’s energy through teleportation. How do you expect to find me?”
“I have a way…but you have to agree.”
“Agree to what?”
“To let me use my majik on you.”
Use majik on an Alterant? Who knew what might happen? “I can’t do that. If I lose control and shift into my beast form, the Tribunal would have all the evidence they need to bury me.”
He gave her a steely look that accepted no excuses. “You’re out of time, Eve. You have to get off the fence and make a decision. You don’t trust the Tribunal to give an Alterant a pass and you won’t put Tzader or Quinn at risk. It’s me or them, because they will come for you. And when that happens, I’ll still find you. What’s it going to be?”