The Last Danann by Victoria Saccenti

CHAPTER ONE

Soren’s elegant diningroom had been converted into a conference hall. Talaith stood at the threshold, amazed at the speed with which the werefoxes, under Kailen’s direction, had made the changes. The Titanian’s beautiful sixteen-seat cherrywood table and chairs had been moved out; she had no idea where. Comfortable club chairs from the strategy room upstairs had been carried here, and arranged in a semicircular fashion where everyone could see each other’s expression.

The subdued buzz of voices greeted her. Despite the softness of the sound, an underlying current of anticipation added an edge to the conversations. If she stretched out her hand, she could touch the tension. After checking her bearings, she moved around the seated participants with a light step, avoiding unnecessary and unwanted attention. She reached her assigned position at Kailen’s side and prepared to wait for Brant’s appearance. He was the last member of the successful Alaska raiding party to join the debriefing session.

In a rare departure from protocol, which required formal meetings to be held in Europe rather than in America, Lords Gustaf and Fritiof had teleported to New York without delay. Fritiof, obviously, was anxious to reunite with his rescued mate as soon as possible. Gustaf couldn’t wait to learn the latest intel and full details on the attempt on Soren’s life, the attack on Stø, Adalheidis’s kidnapping, her recovery, and all the creatures involved in the conspiracy.

Much to her surprise, Talaith had been invited. She’d never expected to be included in this meeting. After all, she had come at Soren’s last-minute request to render a service. She wasn’t a relative, a trusted member of their circle, or a lifelong ally like Kailen, Eachann, and her mentor, Khnurn.

Since Soren had honored her, she wouldn’t miss the debrief for the world. Her time in America was ending. Her mission and duty to the Westerbergs had come to a somewhat happy conclusion, and her presence would no longer be necessary. In fact, this could be the last time she saw or spoke to Kailen…

A tiny mewl escaped her throat. She swallowed, strangling it to full silence. A mental admonition followed: no outward displays of emotion.

To distract her thoughts, she returned her attention to the converted room. Kailen had been on top of every last detail, including making enough space for Soren’s wheelchair to roll in.

Everyone in the mansion knew that being dependent on a wheelchair, even for a short while, pissed Soren off no end.

The Titanian’s irritation made sense to her. Soren had been designated lead Enforcer in the island of Manhattan and the northeastern United States. He’d been declared by all magical creatures the most powerful Titanian warrior in centuries. Every ability the universe had granted the Titanian race, Soren had in spades. He’d been charged with maintaining established treaties between the races and order and peace in his territory. However, the mission in Alaska had brought his self-esteem down a notch when it hadn’t worked out so well. His mother had been rescued, but he’d been ambushed, pumped full of deadly chemicals, and nearly died. A frustrating and highly embarrassing outcome for a male used to overcoming his enemies.

Everyone involved in the operation was grateful for his phoenix mate, Maya, and her still-undisclosed extraordinary powers, as she was able to bring him home. But twenty-four hours had passed since his return, and his body hadn’t fully recovered, and neither had his spirits.

Another big problem for the alliance had been the loss of crucial information. In her hurried efforts to defend and rescue her mate, Maya had executed Sterling, the principal human conspirator, and Midrin, his elf ally. Presented with the challenging prospect of maneuvering an unconscious, almost-seven-foot-tall, deadweight Titanian through an escape portal, Maya hadn’t bothered to search the lab for notes and records of experiment. As a result, the chemical cocktail’s secret formula, which Sterling had transfused into Soren, was lost.

Kailen had worked in the dark, so to speak, healing Soren. As he fought to counteract the chemical’s paralyzing and weakening effects without a proven antidote, Talaith had stood at the Danann’s side, ready to assist with her unique healing magic. His progress had been slow. Even more exasperating was the chemical’s bewildering ability to intoxicate and kill without leaving the faintest trace.

The crowd fell silent when Maya rolled Soren to the center of the room, where he could be seen and heard by all. Talaith smiled. The couple’s mental communication had strengthened after their mating. At the moment, it was obvious they were holding a private conversation. Talaith’s powers didn’t allow her to listen in; nevertheless, whatever the Titanian was saying amused his mate. In a discreet gesture, Maya listened and covered her smiling lips.

Ah, the patience true love affords.

Talaith stiffened. The wistful thought flashed much too quickly for her to contain. Out of the corner of her eye, she stole a glance at the source of her angst and futile desires. Dressed in his usual black robe, silver brooch pinned on his collar, Kailen listened to the proceedings, his expression shuttered and impassive. The constant facade he gave to the world.

Although, he wasn’t always so detached. Gods, she remembered… Her chest rose as her breathing picked up speed.

On two occasions, she was certain Kailen would confess his true emotions. Once, before he teleported to Juneau chasing after Hagen. And the second time, when he gave her his final instructions to defend Soren’s home. His fathomless, water-colored eyes had flickered. An intense light had emerged from their depths, and her heart had skipped a beat in anticipation of emotions she knew he’d declare.

He did not. The raiding party took off. She was left behind to guard the mansion’s protective rings, and the moment passed.

Her short-lived hope had scattered on that gentle summer breeze. Forgotten. Lost to her as it should be. She was a utilitarian creation. Indulging in such tender feelings was not included in her raison d’être.

Lord Fritiof’s deep voice rumbled, and Talaith snapped to the present. He’d been speaking to Kailen and Maya. She caught the end of his comments.

“My deepest gratitude, Maya and Kailen, for saving my son’s life.” Fritiof was visibly moved.

“No thanks are necessary, Lord.” Kailen bowed to his old friend.

All eyes turned to Kailen, and consequently to her. Talaith made an extra effort to control her facial muscles. She had only a few hours to continue this I-don’t-give-a-damn charade, and continue she must. If anyone guessed her feelings for the warrior—Maya being the most intuitive—Talaith would be mortified.

She tried to close herself off to the conversation, but Gustaf’s continued pressure on the phoenix mate kept her mind in the room.

“So, you killed them both… How? Your hands were bound…”

The Titanian was behaving like a bloodhound after picking up the scent of its quarry. Something crucial was being kept from him. His fighter senses didn’t want to let up.

Would Maya buckle under his scrutiny? Reveal her amazing ability?

“A new creation bears investigating.” Gustaf’s tone dripped with condescension.

Furious for Maya, Talaith seethed. She glanced at the phoenix mate. Her friend was a mountain of patience. Her expression didn’t move.

“We will.” Maya’s answer was calm, controlled. She waved the notebook discovered after the ambush at the Manhattan bar. “I’ve leafed through these pages. There’s actionable information, material we can use. With Talaith’s help, we can get a clearer picture.”

Oh, no.

Now, they wanted to bring her into the conversation and discuss the female drone. They couldn’t pull her in like this. No one had shown her the items found in the bar or had asked her to study them. She shrank a little, making herself small, hoping they’d think her unimportant.

Her natural shyness and fear of attention squeezed her lungs. The air became dense, and she struggled to breathe.

She leaned close to Kailen. “Forgive me, I must step out. Need air.”

He answered with a soft grunt. She slipped around him, left the room, and sped down the hallway before Maya turned the discussion her way.

The door she chose to exit the mansion led her to a forgotten section of the rear yard. Here, grass flourished. Only the lightest mowing kept it under control. Summer flowers, their petals untouched, bloomed at will. Residents and guests usually passed through Soren’s lovely conservatory on their way to the front garden, where they could stroll at their leisure.

She glanced at the horizon, where low dark clouds blocked the distant peaks of the Catskills with a promise of powerful thunderstorms. At the moment, a thin yet insistent drizzle fell. The precursor of what would soon drench the land. She donned her hood and continued strolling with no specific direction. The silence and absence of creatures soothed her. Even better, the atmosphere was cool and invigorating. Her lungs relaxed.

A sudden wave of power enfolded her. The intensity of his presence at her side was impossible to miss. His magic had a physical quality, almost solid, close to a protective layer around him. She glanced over her shoulder. Khnurn’s ethereal form hovered inches above the ground.

“From miles away, I sensed your distress, child. I warned you, keep your emotions safely tucked away.”

“You did, Master. The heart knows no command or forbiddance. It feels, that’s all.”

“Indeed, the heart is a rebellious entity. One can spend an eternity trying to subjugate it to one’s will and fail in the attempt.”

“Speaking from experience?”

“Don’t be flip. I’m here to congratulate you.”

The radiant aura holding the mage aloft changed from a shimmering white to a burnt gold, similar to his leonine gaze.

“I’m pleased with you, Talaith. You’ve demonstrated patience, wisdom beyond your level, and talent. You’re ready to tackle bigger game.”

“Do you have a new assignment for me, Master?”

“It’s possible. I must confirm the magical signature first.”

She stopped walking. “A new creature?”

“No. Quite the opposite. It’s ancient and took me by surprise when it surfaced.”

“Surprised, you? Unthinkable.”

“This presence disappeared centuries ago. Most of us believed the creature had passed to the afterlife. But…the universe enjoys throwing its mysteries on the proud and unaware, and I’ve committed both sins. If my reading is accurate, the signature’s return is an event of high importance. So monumental, it will alter courses and change many of us. I can’t wait to find out where it’s been.”

“Can you tell me more?”

“I hate to say too much before I’ve confirmed… It’s kind of an old superstition of mine. I don’t want to jinx my suspicions. Suffice to say, the energy is female. That’s all you get.” He jutted his chin toward the mansion. “How is Gustaf handling the briefing? Has he gone after Maya? Did he get a whiff of a cover-up?”

“I left when he started grilling her. Maya is no one’s fool, and with Soren’s mind-to-mind guidance, she won’t be tricked into revealing the Simurgh lightning.”

“Wise decision on their part. I’m glad I didn’t have to intervene in this matter. Maya’s unique power should remain hidden for a while longer. We can’t reveal our advantages to the enemy.” Khnurn’s ethereal presence hopped twice forward, then pivoted. His gaze narrowed. “Astarot is seething. His screams shattered the serenity of my abode. The defeat in Alaska has driven him insane, and he wants revenge. A new conflict will explode before long. The Simurgh lightning will be crucial at that time.”

“How may I help you?”

“You’re good and getting better, but some areas need further development. If you’re going to assist me in this battle, your magic needs sharpening. Especially if I’m defeated and perish. Because if that happens, you’ll have to take over the reins.”

Stunned, Talaith allowed her horror to show. “No, Master! Don’t say that.”

His image rolled so close to her, she forgot it was only a mirage and reached to touch him. He smiled when her hand slipped through his form.

“Easy, child. I’m not ready to give up the fight yet. But we’ll be facing Dubtach.”

“Who is he?”

“He’s Astarot’s high mage, although he’s a bit weakened because he’s in hiding from his lord. It’s an interesting development I never expected to see. Nevertheless, he’ll be a formidable foe when encountered. One must always be prepared for the worst, especially with Dubtach. He practices death magic. You must come with me and resume your training.”

But Kailen…

Her stomach clenched. “Now? So soon?”

Khnurn frowned. “Hmm, you need to work on that too.” He waved at her distressed expression. “Keep your facial expressions locked. Never show your hand. It could save your life. Why linger here? The job’s done. He’s not ready to give you what you want. The longer you stay, the harder the separation will feel.”

“May I have a few more hours? I have this sense he’ll need me again.”

“All right, child. I’ll give you until Venus appears in the evening sky, no more. I’ll return then. And…”

“Yes, Master?”

“Should you wish to leave sooner, send for me.”

“I will. Tha…”

She stopped midword. Khnurn’s image had whirled and disappeared.

Talaith tightened her cloak and pulled down her hood, covering every loose tendril of hair. Rain was falling harder. She couldn’t bring herself to go inside because actions and seconds went hand in hand. In her illusion, the more she did, the faster the hours passed. Her precious time with Kailen would tick to its inevitable end.

“Get on with it.” Seeking courage, she murmured to herself and walked back inside the mansion.

Taking her spot at Kailen’s side, she rejoined the ongoing debriefing just as Maya was explaining her final actions at the lab in Alaska. Gustaf continued his aggressive questioning. Unruffled, the phoenix mate stood her ground.

“After the explosion, no one bothered to search my pockets.” Maya glanced at her jeans. “While the males argued whether or not to use venom on Soren, I cut my bindings with the switchblade Kailen had given me.”

“Remarkable.” Gustaf spoke to Kailen. “What prompted you to give Maya a blade?”

“I gave switchblades to both mates.” Kailen cocked an eyebrow as if that was the most logical action. “Ginny had one as well. A humble weapon of last resort with many uses. Effective, as you heard. Deadly in personal combat.”

“Yes, well…” Gustaf blinked at Kailen’s sarcasm. “You’ve always had your methods, Kailen.”

Fritiof laughed.

Kailen bowed his head and didn’t elaborate. He moved a little closer to her. His warmth surrounded her, and Talaith soared with wild elation. Her heart thumped hard against her chest. When she thought Kailen’s gesture would thrill and overwhelm her with joy, Khnurn’s advice rolled over her. She reined in her foolish happiness. Distant Talaith returned.

To the world, she now was a tower of concentration, glued to every word in the fast-moving, head-hopping discussion between Gustaf and the Titanian cousins. Especially when they covered the last bits of information about Alaska.

“You have a mole in your household,” Soren said.

Gustaf frowned. “So you said.”

“It’s a fact! Hagen took off without telling anyone here. He called you, though. And he was ambushed on landing. There’s no better proof.” Soren rolled his chair forward. “And until you find the mole and any accomplices, we can’t divulge new intel. I won’t tolerate another betrayal.”

Gustaf scowled. “I hope you’re not insinuating that I…”

“Never,” Soren said. “You’ve been infiltrated, Uncle. That’s my meaning. You have a traitor, maybe traitors, in your midst. They must be found. The existence of creatures and humans alike is at stake.”

“The blunder was mine,” Hagen said. “I’m accustomed to working alone. I didn’t appreciate or understand Soren’s need for caution. I believed it was exaggerated, so I jumped the gun. I wanted to show off to Father that I could be as great as my older brother.” He stared at the ground.

“Brother…” Soren started to speak.

Hagen gestured for silence. “No, I don’t get a pass. My actions endangered everyone, even Mother, and Father by default.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Soren murmured.

“Uncle, I agree with Soren. You have a traitor,” Hagen continued. “Your communications system is state-of-the-art. The moment I called, the listener plotted a trajectory and landing point. I jumped when the jet’s missile approach sounded the alarm. Lieutenants were waiting to grab me. They were quite methodical too. I watched them blast the jet’s tail and a hangar and kill two humans, then set the field on fire and manufacture a crash landing.”

“Is there anyone back in Alsvåg you trust implicitly?” Soren asked. “Tell them to check every household phone and system’s usage and get prints too. Do it right now, before the mole wipes the trail.”

Gustaf had paled listening to Hagen. To his credit, he stopped arguing and reached for his phone. “Beatrix, listen to me. Go through the houses. Search as I give you instructions.” A series of hurried spoken commands followed.

Talaith was about to explain that she could attempt a memory trace of Gustaf’s phone, when Woody and Zola, panting for breath, barged into the room.

“Help!” Woody exclaimed. “I’m sorry, Soren. James has been stabbed.”

“We have this.” Kailen stepped forward, pointing at Soren. “Stay here. We need you healthy. Brant, with me.”

A sharp pang hit Talaith’s chest. At this critical moment, when her magic was needed the most, Kailen had gone past her and had asked Brant, of all people, to help. The Titanian was strong and brave, but his magic was a personal power. He wasn’t a healer.

The room emptied in a flash. Not a single debriefing participant remained. She was left alone, regretting her decision to stay when Khnurn had offered to take her. A little wobbly on her feet, she grasped the backrest of a club chair, steadying her balance.

Swallowing her disappointment, she stared at El Greco’s “View of Toledo” hanging on the opposite wall. Somehow, she knew the stunning piece came directly from the master’s hand.

A warm hand touched her. “Talaith?”

She turned. Zola’s face was as pale as when she ran in pleading for help.

“What can I do, Zola?”

“Kailen is asking for you. Will you help him?”

“I’ll do my best.”

Zola pivoted. Talaith followed her, even though she could find the emergency room within the mansion with her eyes closed. She’d been instrumental in putting together equipment and supplies before the mission to Alaska.

For her sanity’s sake, she’d already entered the good-bye phase, in which sweet memories and warm thoughts must be discarded. She refused to take anything that would delay or impede her progress under Khnurn’s teachings. That included everything she’d helped create and fix while in New York, and the one her heart had fallen for.

They reached the entrance to the emergency room at the same time an exhausted Soren rolled out. Pale and haggard, he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. He gave her a polite nod and moved on.

Talaith stepped in, giving the situation a quick scan. James was on a stretcher. Using a clean cloth, his brother, Woody, wiped his smudged face. She changed direction, and her stomach roiled in disgust. A handsome male of indeterminate age lay on the floor. Brant knelt at his side, examining the pockets of his rumpled shirt and pants. Death hadn’t been kind. An ugly grimace twisted features devoid of color. White foam had bubbled out the corner of his mouth, and a thin trickle ran down his cheek.

Brant glanced up. “Suicide pill.”

The explanation was unnecessary. She shrugged with fake dispassion and moved away from the body. Gustaf had walked around to lift the shifter’s legs while Brant grasped the shoulders.

“I don’t understand,” Gustaf murmured. “I cared for Max, opened my home, trusted him. Gave him every opportunity.”

Arms folded, Kailen scowled as Gustaf and Brant carried the dead werefox to the door. “One spy is out of the way, Lord. Finding his collaborators is imperative.” He shifted his attention to Talaith. “Why didn’t you come sooner? Would you check James?”

Sooner?Holding her angry retort in check, Talaith changed her focus to Woody. She clasped his shoulder. “May I take a look?”

Woody nodded and slipped aside. His stricken expression broke her heart.

Holding James’s wrist, she counted heartbeats. His pulse was slowing, but it was still too fast. A trace amount of poison remained, and his system was struggling against its harmful effects. A light touch of magic would do the trick. She gave Woody an encouraging smile. “Atropine slowed the poison, and Kailen’s healing powers worked. He’s going to be fine. I’ll use one of my enchantments, and by tomorrow, he’ll be as good as new.” She patted Woody’s hand, then tossed her cloak on a table nearby.

“I need the room.” She rolled up her sleeves.

“You want us out?” Kailen asked.

Woody’s ruddy eyebrows shot up.

“Yes. This is between James and me. Close the door when you leave, please. You can’t interrupt or come in until I call you in.”

A doubtful Kailen gestured at Woody. As soon as the males left, she turned to James.

“It’s a good thing for you they trust me,” she murmured more for herself than for the unconscious shifter.

Whispering the ancient words, she unbuttoned James’s shirt and moved it out of her way. Palming his chest, she spread her fingers wide, waiting for the poison to rise and seep through her skin.

The burning tingling began, and she closed her eyes, commanding her immune system to stand down and accept the killing substance until the proper time.

This was a dangerous transfer in many ways. In addition to absorbing the poison, the ritual placed the sorcerer in a vulnerable position. Ages ago, when word of the spell spread from one realm to the next, enemies of the victims attacked the magic wielders during the healing act. From then on, the enchantment was performed in strict privacy, whispered from generation to generation, and everyone in the craft guarded its secrets. Only a select few in magic circles could perform the life-saving spell and tolerate the ensuing pain the healing sacrifice produced. The process—in which the magician took the blackness of death deep within and morphed it to light and life—was an unsung act of ultimate kindness.

She spoke the words louder, faster. Her hands glimmered, showing the toxic substance the path out. Mouth agape, James panted as her illumination and healing permeated him. In turn, her veins darkened, conveying the poisoned essence to her core, to the miraculous furnace within her, where heat cleansed and purified the deadly substance.

When James at last stretched out in peace, she pressed her fists to her heart, holding back the rush of acute conversion pain. The final step would end soon.

Moments later, it was all over. The cleansing and exchange had been less excruciating than usual thanks to Kailen’s quick actions.

Talaith opened the door. Kailen waited, but Woody had gone. She moved out of his way when he rushed in.

“Where’s Woody?”

“He went to get Zola. She should be here when James wakes up. How are you?” Kailen’s direct look unnerved her.

She held her ground. “I’m well, and so is James. The treatment wasn’t bad. A little coaxing and the poison dissipated.” She donned her cloak and buttoned it closed at the neck. “See his color?”

“Much improved,” he said. “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere yet.”

“Why the cloak? It’s warm in here?” He grasped her wrist, determined eyes boring into hers.

“This kind of enchantment makes me very cold.”

“You’re not telling me everything.”

“I am… Well, as much as I’m allowed to divulge to an outsider.”

“Outsider? Explain.” He didn’t ask, he demanded.

Kailen slipped his hand up to her elbow. Gazing at her with his bottomless clear gaze, he tightened the hold, preventing her from escaping as he moved closer.

Dazed with his nearness, her head swam. Flames reignited within her, and while some of the ritual’s cold aftereffects diminished, a slow simmer remained. It only took his slightest touch, and she’d rise to the boiling point. Sighing, she almost let go and allowed herself to lean her needy, aroused body against his. Begged him to touch her. Explore her with his warm, caressing hands, make her feel alive…

What would he do…accept or reject her? Insidious doubt closed her throat. Even though her soul screamed for action, she couldn’t utter a sound.

She fought for words. “Your… Your healing magic is Tuath Dé, a gift from Dian Cécht. You’re not part of the druid line. That’s all…I meant.”

“Hmmm… Whatever you say.”

Kailen released her. Her skin chilled without his touch. What if she bantered or said something witty? Would he hold her again?

Too late. He’d already moved on. He was feeling James’s forehead.

“He’s cooled. Fever broke.” He studied the sleeping werefox.

“Yes. As I told you, he’ll be up and about tomorrow.”

Her intuition had been correct. She’d been needed and had accomplished one last job. Now she’d run out of excuses to stay. Kailen didn’t need her anymore. She made a move for the door, preparing for a quick, no-long-farewells exit.

But he stood, effectively stopping her getaway. “I had to send Zola to find you. Why?” His probing gaze burned.

Evasion offered escape. A shameless coward, she took it.

“I’m not sure what you mean?”

In two strides, he stood before her. His devouring eyes sent a maelstrom of messages she didn’t have the guts to accept or, conversely, dare reject. He loosened the top button of her cloak. The collar opened, exposing her skin.

“Ah…but you do.”

His fingertip brushed the hollow of her neck. She trembled. Heady desire swelled through her, demolishing all hesitation and pretense. She dropped her head back in full offering…

“Answer me.” He leaned forward. His scent crashed into her senses. Resistance evaporated when his lips hovered above hers.

“I… I thought…y-you didn’t—”

“Want you. Is that right?” His lips caressed hers.

Excitement sparked. She was a live wire as an electric current surged through her mouth, connecting every part of her and ending in that delicious, intimate spot between her legs.

“You asked Brant, not me.”

“Ah, a reproach.” He smiled. “I thought we were a team. Together in peril and need, that sort of thing.”

“Yes.”

Kailen stroked her temple with his jaw. An eternal up-and-down caress that took her ability to breathe and melted her soul. The feel of his whiskered skin delivered potent sensations she’d never felt before. She gasped. Desperate to bring him near, she reached to hold his neck…

“Hey. Oops!” Brant walked in the room. Woody and Zola followed.

She froze halfway. Kailen didn’t react.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Brant whispered.

Heat ravaged her face. “You didn’t.” Lowering her gaze, she stepped away from Kailen while buttoning her cloak with shaking hands.

“Talaith, stop,” Kailen commanded, then looked to Brant. “What do you want?”

“Uh, I may have dropped my phone when we took Max out. Can’t find it.” Brant searched the floor area, under and around the legs of James’s stretcher. He checked a desk and the tabletops, rummaged through shelves.

He shrugged with a blank look. “Nothing.”

“Maybe it’s in the dining room,” Kailen said. “Did you check your chair?”

“I didn’t. Good idea.” Brant bolted out of the room.

Kailen turned his attention back to her. If he extended a hand, she’d jump into his arms, offering her passion, want, and that other emotion she refused to name.

A last-minute flash of reason cooled her ardor. Kailen was out of her reach, his station in the natural order was way above hers. A more deserving female, someone worthy, perfect, and untainted, awaited his arrival to make him happy. Talaith’s heart pumped hard against her chest. She had to do it now, before he spoke and she lost the restraint she’d worked so hard to keep.

“Khnurn is coming for me.” She braced for his reaction.

Kailen cocked an eyebrow. “Why?”

Her eyes widened. She hadn’t expected this calm response. “He needs to further my training.”

“Because?”

“An old signature has appeared on his radar. Someone with extreme powers, a creature he believed was dead.”

“Really? Why would that involve you?”

“I don’t know his reasons or have all the details. He assured me a major conflict is coming, and I must be ready.”

“Is that right, another battle?” He studied her. “With daemons, I’m sure. What did he say, exactly?”

“Well… Astarot’s high mage is on the run. He’s hiding from his lord on the earthly plane.”

“Did he mention a name?”

“One. Dubtach.”

Kailen’s right eye twitched. The gesture would be imperceptible to anyone else. Not to her. She registered and held on to all things Kailen. The question flew out of her lips. “Do you know him?”

He smiled, the epitome of cordiality and nonchalance. “Not quite sure. Rings a distant bell. When’s Khnurn coming for you?” He walked to the doorway. “Let’s have tea in the sitting room while we wait. Shall we?”

During her time with Kailen, Talaith had learned two important details about the Danann. A small gesture equaled a huge reaction, and a switch in topic meant dangerous territory loomed ahead. A significant event, and not a good one, had transpired between Kailen and Dubtach. He’d never tell her. But if she did her best to convince him, maybe Khnurn would.

Kailen stood in place waiting for the glimmering portal carrying the two travelers inside to collapse and fade from view. The last ripple of air dissipated, and he exhaled a sharp breath. Talaith was departing the same way she’d reentered his life: escorted by a man of great power.

Their time together had gone by so quickly…

Letting go of his rigid control, he allowed the memory to rise. He returned to that late spring evening out in Soren’s garden, when a child he’d once met in tragedy, now an exquisite female, had emerged from a portal behind the Titanian. The flashback took over…

Shy and reserved, she’d gone to him to pay her respects. “Greetings, Master.” Her sweet voice had enchanted him.

He’d requested the help of an experienced sorceress and had expected Anna, Maya’s godmother to appear in the portal, so the switch to Talaith had been a total surprise. More importantly, seeing her had shaken and bewildered him in strange ways. Following his operating mode, he’d pretended complete indifference.

“Greetings, Talaith,” Kailen said. “Master is unnecessary. Kailen is fine.”

“As you wish.”

She bowed and, keeping her gaze low, moved to the periphery, away from the conversation between him and Soren. An interesting behavior for a lady in the modern world. Evidently, Khnurn had raised her according to the ancient ways of magic wielders. Novices on the path to knowledge were stripped of all ego as they learned to respect and defer to those with power, experience, and age.

He studied her with more care. He was allowing the long-ago vision from Khnurn’s hut to alter his perception. This was no child, and if Khnurn had sent her to assist in making and bolstering wards and security shields, she had to be powerful already. This shy reserve had to be an innate trait rather than one ingrained.

Moving on to more important matters, he set the conundrum of Talaith aside as he’d urged Soren toward the greenhouse. “Let’s go inside. I’m sure you’ll enjoy some refreshments…”

He smiled, thinking about the moment when Talaith had displayed the first hint of her extraordinary abilities…

In a brazen, unexpected attack, daemons had breached the mansion’s weakened security rings, which forced Soren to whisk his mate out of harm’s way to Scotland. During the invasion, the beautiful glass conservatory was destroyed. Kailen had fixed it while Soren was away. Now the beveled glass edges sparkled in the afternoon sun.

Soren expressed his admiration. “You’ve been busy.”

Kailen did his best to make light of it. “All of us got a little excited that night, the werefoxes included. They helped with the repairs.”

“No one would guess anything had happened,” Soren insisted.

Talaith interrupted. “I see the damage. Partial destruction. It hasn’t been long enough to dissipate the image. Shock, fear, and resolve still hang in the air. Oh, something else. Unconditional love.”

What’s this?Kailen stared at Talaith. She was displaying signs of memory magic, a rare power most mages debunked as myth. Soren eyed him with obvious shock. Although he was as bewildered as the Titanian, he shrugged. He couldn’t allow anyone, least of all Talaith, to know she’d surprised him.

The next show of power came a while later.

Kailen insisted on reinforcing the security loop dedicated to protecting the mansion right away, before they lost daylight. This circular shield was the last line of defense if all others failed.

By the time they went outside, the mansion’s front double door had already plunged into darkness. The sun, on its descent, had tilted to the west. The barest illumination hit the manor’s facade. Kailen hoped she would see it.

“The loop dedicated to protect the home is angled up there.” Kailen pointed at an indistinct location above them. He knew what to look for, the faint shimmer of a light teal semicircle. A stranger, even a supernatural, might miss it.

She nodded.

Delighted, he continued, “All right, Talaith. I want you to hit that circle with all your power. Demolish the ring.”

Talaith glanced up and extended her arm. Her black sleeve slid back, revealing her translucent ivory skin and pale blue veins. A sight he found appealing and…sexually exciting?

Kailen pushed the odd response aside and returned to the urgent matter before him. She mumbled under her breath. Words streamed out soft and steady almost like a prayer in a language he’d never heard before.

Out of nowhere, a roiling mass of sparks slammed the circle and traveled through it. The electric roll began slowly, then picked up speed. The sparks turned into short lightning bolts as angry zaps and buzzes sounded all over. She raised her other arm, murmured again, and flames roared out of the circle.

Kailen allowed a small smile of satisfaction to curve his lips. His work was proving more than effective. The electric strike hadn’t worked. She’d switched to fire, and thus far, the protective loop remained intact. Talaith’s hood fell behind her head. She frowned with intensity, her ruby lips making a small circle as she slapped her palms together. Within the ring, an ominous black mass formed. As it rumbled, the amorphous shape pulled within itself the electric and fire attacks she’d sent. A moment later, the mass exploded, vomiting everything it had ingested. The ring remained untouched, pretty teal and all.

This time, Kailen grinned. “Not bad. Good show, Talaith. Although I suspect you’re holding back.”

She replaced the hood over her head and nodded respectfully. “The magic used is excellent. The protection is solid. I will hit it once more with Khnurn’s spell. If the loop holds, you should be confident no other mage will break it.”

As promised, the next day she’d used the full force of Khnurn’s spell against the loop, and to Kailen’s pleasure and hidden pride, the shield circle held.

“Thank you,” he said to her. She’d shown great magical ability. More powerful than anything Anna would have done. “And, if you’re up to the task,” he continued, “I have three more rings to test, plus I want to create one additional ward.”

The plump ruby lips, so distracting to him, pursed…just so. “I’m at your service until you have no further need of me.”

Gods,a million ideas had rushed through his naughty mind… None of which he’d expressed. Not even before the attack to the lab in Alaska, when his chances of not returning had been great…

The sound of footsteps on grass came from behind, and his memory faded.

“What troubles you, my friend?” Soren’s voice confirmed the identity of the trespasser.

Feeling better with every passing minute, the Titanian had managed to walk outside with Maya at his side, ready to help.

“Do I appear worried?”

“More like deep in thought,” Maya said. “If I were to guess, I’d say Talaith’s departure is on your mind.”

“Well, ah…” Kailen sent Soren a quick side glance, hoping the Titanian would understand and help him change topics. He never discussed personal matters with anyone, and he didn’t want to come off as being rude to Maya. His feelings for the sorceress were no one’s business.

“Right. Well… Looks like Khnurn’s unexpected visit sent your thoughts to some distant place,” Soren intervened, returning the conversation to the original track. “Your mind’s been churning since.”

“I wish Khnurn had come to me directly.” Frustrated, he kicked loose pebbles on the ground with the tip of his suede boot. “The crafty bastard managed to avoid all my questions when he told Talaith what he should have discussed with me. I hope you’re ready for this, but Dubtach has escaped Astarot’s exile realm. He’s hiding somewhere on the earthly plane.”

“But that’s impossible.” Soren started. “How?”

“I don’t have that information yet. Damned old wizard is keeping huge secrets.”

“Astarot? Who’s Dubtach?” Maya wrapped her arm around Soren’s. “Any history between you two?”

“An old blood debt stands between us,” Kailen grated. “I intend to exact my due from him.”

Soren frowned. “I thought you’d put the matter behind you.”

“Never. He’s been out of my reach in the daemon realm, that’s all.”

“Come on. I don’t know this story,” Maya insisted.

“The debt goes back to the fifteenth century and the daemon uprising,” Soren said.

“Right. Dubtach and Oras, both high daemon wizards, led Astarot’s armies…” Kailen paused. In his mind, Soren’s peaceful garden had changed to mountainous Svanetia. A kaleidoscope of green, red, and golden beams flashed and swept all around him at breakneck speed. Shrieks filled his ears. A fresh wave of pain struck his heart. The ice of hatred hardened in his veins. He wobbled, and the Titanian grasped his shoulder, steadying him.

“No, my friend. I can tell her,” Soren murmured. “It happened at the beginning of the encounter, sötnos. Our joint forces had pincered the minion army from the southeast and the northwest. Unfortunately, a wolf had fallen at the perimeter, and Brant hurried to help. Two lieutenants of the horde took advantage and attacked. Kailen, always watchful, noticed Brant’s dangerous situation and came to his defense. In fact, had it not been for his timely action, Brant would’ve perished. Kailen eliminated one lieutenant, but the other fired at him.” Soren took a deep breath.

“And?” Eyes wide, Maya pressed for more.

“Disaster,” he continued. “Nadrine, Kailen’s lovely mate and talented sorceress, sent a bolt of lightning eliminating the lieutenant. Sadly, one of the wizards, we’re not sure which, saw the magical response and fired at her—”

“Killing her instantly,” Kailen grunted.

“Oh, no,” Maya whispered.

“Yes. And now that Dubtach’s come out of the realm, I intend to make him pay.”

“But what if he’s not the one who killed Nadrine?” Soren asked.

Kailen sneered. “Are you implying he’s innocent?”

“No… I mean, I’m sure you want to get the one responsible.”

“The way this shakes out”—Kailen glared—“doesn’t matter if Dubtach fired that bolt or not. He and his friend Oras came to annihilate our forces. Dubtach is guilty by association and purpose. When I discover his hideout, he’ll tell me where to find Oras. And once he does, I’ll kill him.”

“But Khnurn took Talaith without revealing Dubtach’s whereabouts. How will you do this?”

“I have my methods, and I know a few people.” Tucking his arms into his wide sleeves, Kailen walked toward the house.