Dependable intel made the difference between walking away from a dangerous situation alive . . . or not.
Evalle Kincaid stared down the rocky slope in the North Georgia Mountains at bad intel.
She’d dug up one slim lead in forty-eight hours of racing to find Tristan. He was an Alterant like her. Similar powers and the same glowing green eyes, except he hadn’t been gifted with her natural night vision, an ability she’d needed to hike up this mountain in the middle of the night.
Disgusted, she muttered, â€œThat’s no coven meeting.â€
â€œNo,â€ Storm agreed. Squatted next to her, his breath puffed white clouds against the chilly October air. â€œLooks more like a midnight festival for all things strange and dangerous.â€ Coal black hair grazed his shoulders and blended into his black leather jacket. Soft hair Evalle loved caressing. The coppery skin and sharp angles of Storm’s cheekbones had been handed down through a mix of Ashaninka and Navajo genes, as had his Skinwalker ability to shift into a deadly black jaguar. That meant he also had preternatural night vision and saw just fine in the dark.
Evalle leaned forward where they hunkered down behind an outcropping of boulders, and searched the area a hundred yards away where moonlight cascaded across a valley. At least twenty peopleâ€”mostly nonhumansâ€”had gathered, and more were coming. â€œYou see any female in that bunch that might be a witch?â€
Storm shook his head. â€œOnly male human forms so far. Not even sure what some of those things are that have both animal and human parts.â€
One creature with an eight-foot-tall orange lizard body, two sets of human arms and a vulture’s head skulked through the crowd that parted like the Red Sea in front of him. Most of the beings meandered around the edge of a thirty-foot-wide circle created by torches stuck in the ground.
A ceremonial circle?
Whatever it was, Evalle wanted the show to get rolling soon.
As if sensing her concern, Storm asked, â€œThink the goddess’ll extend your deadline?â€
â€œAgain? Not a chance. I was amazed when Macha gave me four more days.â€ That had been two days ago, and Evalle had been given that reprieve from losing her freedom only because she’d defeated a demonic Svart troll before it killed everything in its path.
Opportunities like that didn’t come along every day.
Good thing, too, or she’d stay in perpetual traction.
But gaining two extra days of freedom from Macha had balanced out getting beaten to a pulp by the Svart. Macha was goddess over all the Beladors, a race of powerful Celtic warriors who protected humans. She’d offered sanctuary in her pantheon to all Alterants who swore fealty to her.
With a catch.
Evalle first had to deliver the origin of Alterants, who were part Belador and part unknown. Since Alterants changed from human form into beasts that could kill even very powerful beings, Macha wanted that unknown part cleared up before giving carte blanche freedom to Alterants.
And Tristan had that information.
Unfortunately, while helping Evalle escape a deadly enemy last week, Tristan had been captured. Evalle didn’t want to think about the hideous ways he might be suffering. Freeing him was her first priority.
All she had to do was find a witch called Imogenia, who was rumored to have information on Alterants, Tristan in particular, and the location of TÃ… µr Medb, home of the Medb Coven of deadly Noirre majik practitioners . . . and the place where Tristan was being held captive.
Imogenia was supposed to be attending this event in the valley tonight.
A sick ball of regret rolled around in Evalle’s stomach every minute the witch didn’t show. Evalle had left Atlanta two hours ago with Storm to hike up the side of Oakey Mountain. She wouldn’t have gambled the time spent coming here if she hadn’t trusted her Nightstalker source. Generally, Grady was a dependable ghoul.
â€œDamned ghouls,â€ Storm grumbled, his deep voice ending in a growl.
â€œAre you sure you aren’t reading my thoughts?â€ she asked, still unsure of everything Storm could do.
â€œI’m not telepathic.â€
But he was a powerful empath who picked up on her anxiety, which probably explained his comment. â€œDon’t blame Grady,â€ she said. â€œHe can only repeat what he hears.â€ Evalle shifted on the cold ground to find a comfortable position. She knew Grady’s limitations as a Nightstalker, a homeless person who’d died years ago on the streets of Atlanta.
These days he was her best source of intel. Usually.
A muscle played in Storm’s jaw, the only sign of his frustration. â€œWhen we do find Tristan, I want ten minutes alone with him before you hand him over to Macha.â€
â€œI need him alive,â€ she reminded Storm, though she knew he didn’t mean to kill Tristan, but those two couldn’t stand in the same zip code without the threat of blood being shed. â€œI need every Alterant I can find. As it is, Macha’s insulted that none have come forward to accept her offer. I have no idea where I’m going to come up with another Alterant besides Tristan and, hopefully, his sister.â€ She released a long breath, aggravated. She’d been so sure this would be the break she needed.
â€œGrady said this was the place?â€
â€œYes. Said he heard that Imogenia had a meeting in the valley north of Oakey Mountain when the clock strikes between Friday and Saturday.â€
â€œHow specific was he on this information she supposedly has about the Medb?â€
â€œThat’s where Grady got vague. He said while he was eavesdropping, he started losing his corporeal form, which caused him to miss parts of her conversation. He did get that she mentioned something about Alterants and was going to deliver it to the Medb, plus she mentioned Tristan’s name specifically.â€
â€œIt. Hmm. Maybe she’s here looking for more information she can sell to the Medb.â€
Evalle considered that possibility. â€œI just hope she shows up and, if she does know anything about other Alterants, that I can convince her to trade with me instead of the Medb.â€
â€œThink you have enough to outbid them?â€
â€œI don’t know. Somebody in Imogenia’s Carretta Coven wants to take over by using Imogenia as a blood sacrifice. A dark witch like her should be willing to sell her mother’s soul to get that name.â€ She checked the valley again. Something about the gathering sent bony fingers of anxiety clawing up her spine. What was going on? Evalle opened and closed her fisted hands, grumbling, â€œWhen we first showed up, I knew this location didn’t look like somewhere witches would meet, not in an area this exposed.â€
â€œTrue, but I had hopes.â€
â€œYou’re really wanting that ten minutes with Tristan, huh?â€ Evalle teased.
He shifted around, using a finger to turn her chin to him. â€œYou’ve been running on no sleep, little food and pure frustration for the past two days straight trying to find one lead on Tristan. This is it, and digging up this tip was tough. I want to get that witch’s information tonight and find Tristan as much as you do.â€
â€œReally? Butâ€”â€ She caught herself. Why are you questioning him? Storm couldn’t lie without enduring pain, a downside of the gift he possessed that allowed him to discern immediately if someone else lied.
He chuckled darkly. â€œDon’t misunderstand me. I still don’t give a rat’s ass about Tristan. He can rot in hell for all the times he’s let you down, but if there’s a chance Imogenia has any information on Alterants, we can’t leave until we know for sure she’s not here.â€
â€œAgreed.â€ Between the frigid air and being immobile, Evalle was losing feeling in her legs and butt. â€œBeing still would be easier if it wasn’t so freakin’ cold up here.â€
â€œThis isn’t cold. You’d like it if you were doing something fun like camping or hiking.â€
â€œNo way.â€ She grumbled, â€œAnyone who’d hike up a mountain in the winter for fun would go to hell for a picnic.â€
â€œIt’s not even winter yet.â€ He tugged her around onto her knees and snaked an arm inside her jacket, pulling her to him.
She snuggled up close, welcoming the heat that surged off of his powerful body. The man was a natural furnace and smelled like the outdoors and . . . male. Very male. He cupped her face and kissed her as if he had every right to do so.
As far as she was concerned, he did.
His lips played with hers, teasing, inviting her to do things her body wanted to go all in on. Her heart kept yammering at her to take that leap with Storm. Make a decision.
But her mind had not climbed onboard with her heart yet.
He had more patience than a man should need. And to be honest, she was sick of letting her past rule her future. But she had good reason to hesitate even though she knew Storm would be an amazing lover. Her worry stemmed from fear of losing control, which might end with her killing him.
A very realistic fear for an Alterant like her.
His fingers curled around her neck, softly massaging her tight muscles as he kissed her ear and chin. â€œStop stressing over the small stuff, sweetheart.â€
His endearment spawned a silky swirl of heat in her stomach, as if he’d planted it there with his kiss.
When he pulled away, he dropped his forehead against hers, his deep voice rumbling against her skin. â€œI miss having you wrapped against me in front of my fireplace. I want you back, and rested. I’m getting damned tired of sharing you to help a renegade Alterant, but I’ll do this to get Macha off your back. And when we find Tristan this time, he is coming in to meet with Macha if I have to drag his miserable carcass all the way there.â€
That sounded more like the Storm who’d clashed with Tristan since their first encounter. To be fair, Storm only told the truth . . . if you looked at Tristan’s past actions in strictly black-and-white terms.
But her job often required dealing with the gray areas in between.
Such as right now, when everything about this situation had taken an unexpected turn. From the looks of that group below, this had trouble written all over it in bloody ink. She’d asked Storm to come with her only to use his exceptional tracking skills to follow Imogenia once the coven meeting ended, not to put his life at risk to help someone he barely tolerated.
How was it right for her to always accept the comfort and support he offered when she couldn’t even meet this man halfway to the bedroom?
A place any woman would rush to for someone as considerate, attractive and sensual as Storm. Raw masculinity that women ogled everywhere he went.
Like she was doing right now. Mind back on business.
There’d be time for exploring that next step when they got back in front of his fireplace. After she’d met Macha’s demands.
She broke the contact, twisting around to scan the growing crowd in the valley. He did, too, and stroked his fingers lightly across her shoulder.
Storm tensed, leaning forward. â€œThat’s got to be her.â€
Evalle searched the odd mix of figures milling around for someone who matched the description and zeroed in on the new arrival. Torchlight reflected off a gold mask that adorned the face of a woman of medium height, with white hair. Not silver, not blond, but white curls that fell past her shoulders. â€œAt least the description I was given appears to be sound. But what has she got chained that’s standing next to her?â€
â€œI’m thinking demon with its head covered and the metal collar, but I don’t understand why a witch would need to chain something if she has it under her control.â€
Evalle fingered the top of her boot where she kept her dagger, the one with a spell on the blade she’d used more than once to kill demons. â€œDoes seem odd, since he, it, whatever, looks puny. He can’t be six feet tall and a skinny sucker, the way his clothes hang off his body. Think he’s a sacrifice?â€
â€œNo.â€ Storm rocked back on his heels, the movement shielded from the gathering below by the rocks they hid behind. â€œI need to stretch.â€ In one fluid move, he was on his feet, offering her a hand that she took. He walked backward, drawing her into dark shadows created by a stand of pine trees. â€œThis changes the plan from observe and track.â€
â€œWhy? We can still wait for her to leave and follow her.â€
â€œThat was when we thought this was a group of witches getting together. Imogenia has been impossible to find up to this point andâ€â€”he paused, nodding toward the bright pocket of torchlight and the strange group below themâ€”â€œthat’s not a meeting of her coven, people she’d trust. With that many dangerous beings in one place, she probably has a way to disappear once she leaves so that no one can track her. Maybe not even me.â€
That was saying something. Storm had tracked Evalle to South America when no one else could find her. With the exception of hunting someone who’d teleported, Storm could follow a majik trail anywhere across the globe.
Evalle assessed the scene again. â€œAnd you don’t think this is some sort of sacrificial ceremony?â€
â€œThen what’s your guess?â€
â€œDon’t need to guess. I know what’s going on.â€ Storm leaned forward against a tree, stretching his calves.
â€œYou do?â€ She would have been glad to hear his decisive answer if not for her own budding empathic sense picking up on a sudden shift in Storm’s calm demeanor to one of tense anticipation, as if he expected trouble. â€œWhy didn’t you say so earlier?â€
â€œBecause I didn’t figure it out until just now. Take a look.â€
She flicked another quick glance down the slope and did a double take.
Two males with humanlike bodies had entered the circle of torches. One had skin a putrid shade of green. He wore nothing but a sheath of gray material wrapped as a groin cover, and he sported a tail that dragged on the ground. His shorter opponent’s camo-green vest and brown pants were pulled tight over a squat bodybuilder physique bulging with muscles. He was the most human looking of the two with his scraggly brown hair, except for the two short horns sticking out of the top of his head.
Well, that and red glowing eyes she could see even from this distance.
â€œDemons,â€ Storm said without any question, and she agreed.
The two demons circled each other, bodies hunched forward and arms raised, ready for attack.
She shoved her hands in the pockets of her jacket. â€œWhat’re they doing?â€
â€œIt’s a Beast Club.â€
Her face must have shown her confusion when she looked at Storm to see if he was serious.
He explained, â€œThink illegal fight club, but with nonhumans.â€
Now it all started to fit. People were crowded around the ring, already shouting like she’d seen on television when humans wrestled or boxed. â€œI’ve never heard of a Beast Club. How do you know what it is?â€
â€œThey had these in South America. The only way you found out was by being a sponsor . . . or a fighter.â€
She wanted to ask more about when he’d lived there, but there wasn’t time for that now.
The hurling scream of something in mortal pain echoed across the mountains.
Evalle snapped around in time to see the green-skinned demon rip the head off the one in camo, silencing his opponent. She hadn’t expected the beefy guy to loseâ€”at least not so quickly.
Rubbing her neck muscles, she struggled to come up with a new plan. â€œI have to inform VIPER.â€
â€œYou contact them and they’re going to order you to sit tight and wait for them to raid this. If by some small chance that valley is owned by a person with diplomatic immunity from VIPER operations, the owner is technically within his or her rights to host the fight. By the time VIPER finishes busting up the party, your witch will be gone.â€
As an agent with VIPER, a coalition of powerful beings who protected the world from supernatural predators, Evalle would be in trouble if this did turn out to be an illegal operation and VIPER found out that she knew about it but failed to report it.
Caught between her responsibilities to VIPER, her promise to bring Tristan in to Macha, and her commitment to the Beladors, Evalle’s duty to the Beladors and Macha came first, which meant saving her own hide came last, as usual.
But that still didn’t solve her problem of talking to the witch if they couldn’t track her. â€œCrap. What’s the possibility of getting to Imogenia now?â€
â€œPretty good, actually. If she’s got a fighter entered, she can’t leave until her demon, or whatever it is, fights.â€
â€œThen we need to get to her soon, but how?â€
â€œThat part’s easy. We just walk in.â€
Evalle didn’t like the I-already-have-a-plan-in-mind sound of that. â€œThey aren’t going to notice a couple of uninvited people?â€
â€œYou don’t need a formal invitation to a beast fight like that one. All you have to do isâ€â€”he paused, locking his hands behind his head and twisting, stretching his shoulders and chestâ€”â€œshow up as a fighter or with a fighter and you’re in.â€
Grace be to Macha. Evalle figured out what he was proposing. â€œNo. I watched you almost die once. I’m not going through that again.â€
He dropped his arms and stepped close, pulling her against his chest and whispering into her ear. â€œI don’t know why there’s a Beast Club in North America, but now that I do and that witch is involved, I know better than to risk leaving here and you hunting for her later without me. I’m going down there to find Imogenia now. You can be my sponsor, or you can wait up here.â€