“’Tis a twisted tale I spend my days unwindin’ to understand and ha’ no’ yet woven the threads into a full tapestry. I believe there is somethin’ more powerful at stake than merely gainin’ that island.”
“And Flaevynn doesn’t know what that might be?”
He sighed. “No. She cares nothin’ for history, only for today and her immortality. I traded her another part of the curse for my Cathbad library. I ha’ never studied as much as while down here. I am piecin’ together what happened in the past in hopes of understanding the truth of what will happen in the future.”
“Why didn’t your ancestors tell you everything you needed to know when they passed down the curse?”
When he smiled, the flat planes of his face softened with human warmth that disarmed those foolish enough to be sucked in. “We Cathbads are no more trustworthy than the Medb queens. I, too, wish to see Treoir taken in my lifetime, but I will no’ make Flaevynn’s mistakes. If she would heed me, we would take Treoir Isle, the Belador power, and then kill them all once they are vulnerable.”
Kizira clutched the edges of the desk but masked the stab of pain at the possibility of killing one particular Belador. “But Flaevynn fears you’ll outmaneuver her and steal all the power, then kill her.”
“How do we get around her to free you and save this realm before she destroys all of us?”
“I do no’ ha’ that answer … yet. I keep ponderin’ on why a powerful druid would place a curse to unfold over so many years. I feel close to findin’ out.”
“What’s your guess?”
He propped an elbow on his desk and supported his head with his fingers. “I believe every generation of Cath-bad druids and Medb queens ha’ become more powerful than the one before based upon journals of former Cathbads, and that may be at the center of the mystery. But ‘tis a mystery that needs more time than you ha’ today. You still ha’ yet to tell me why you’re here besides to brighten an old man’s day.”
Kizira’s lips curved at the “old man” comment. “The hostility fog is forcing Rías to shift into their beast forms in the human world. VIPER and some paramilitary bunch are killing the beasts when they shift. I’m concerned there may not be enough Rías for an army of them when the time comes.”
“Oh, there will be more than enough,” Cathbad said with so little concern that Kizira’s skin chilled.
She had no intention of living out her life here or on an island. What if there were so many Rías turned that eventually not even the Medb would be safe in the human world?
He scowled. “But you should no’ be releasing the fog now.”
She bristled. “It’s not like I have a choice when I’m compelled to do her bidding … and yours.”
“Och, child. ’Tis better that we take the power from you to refuse our biddin’ or Flaevynn would kill you for sure if you balked. You were born with more heart than any Medb I’ve ever known.”
Her skin quivered with warning. Did he know she’d spared a life she should have taken? She might think that flaw had come from Cathbad if not for what she’d seen of his merciless side.
If anyone stood in her way they’d find out just how merciless she could be as well.
He sighed at her. “Compassion ’tis a dangerous flaw to ha’ in our world.”
Tell me about it. Kizira had waited until the last minute to conjure the myst near Atlanta, where it might have risked hurting Qu … shit. She repeated silently to herself, I don’t care what happens to anyone in Atlanta or anywhere else in that world. I have no one to protect or care for. Getting back on topic, she said, “I tried to talk Flaevynn out of releasing the fog so soon and suggested the five Alterants could be anywhere in the human world.”
“That is no’ the case.”
“The curse says those five will arise in a human land protected by a giant brown bird with a great beak and a white head.”
“The North American bald eagle?”
“That fits. Specific things must happen for us to reach Brina within Treoir Castle.” He held up a hand to stall her question. “Do no’ ask me for more than I give ya. I told Flaevynn she must wait until all five Belador Alterants were captured before she created chaos among the humans with the fog. There will be plenty of Rías, but the point is to use them in a surprise attack once we ha’ the Alterant in place who can triumph over Brina.”
“How am I supposed to appease Flaevynn when I don’t know what I’m up against or any of these rules?”
“Does no’ matter. You can no’ refuse to act when Flaevynn compels you or you die.”
True. In fact, Kizira faced the same consequence if Cathbad compelled her and she didn’t comply. She had come from seriously whacked-out breeding stock. “At least tell me what it’s going to take to pacify her.”
He lowered his arm to rest upon the desk and tapped a finger. “Flaevynn wants only to take Treoir so she can bathe in the pool of immortality that runs beneath the castle.”
“Can she swim? Maybe she’ll drown before the immortality kicks in.”
Kizira thought for a moment. “That’s why the Medb are rabid for that island. No queen has been immortal since Queen Medb herself, and even she eventually died.”
All humor fled Cathbad’s face. “But I am the one who must succeed above all when the time comes or the curse will be reversed. If that happens, we could all be destroyed.”
More riddles. No wonder she’d grown up hating puzzles.
Kizira just wanted all of this to end. She wanted the power to have a life away from the poison she breathed every day, but she’d never see that life if Flaevynn became immortal. Kizira would never have battled to earn her place as the most elite Medb priestess had she known she’d lose her free will, bound to the ruthless queen for as long as Flaevynn lived.
The queen had tolerated Kizira this long only because Cathbad had convinced Flaevynn that Kizira played a vital role in destroying the Beladors.
She just didn’t know her entire role. Yet. And she couldn’t live with herself if she destroyed Qu—.
She would not think about that. Not here.
Cathbad’s gaze swept over her with a pained expression. “I know you think I only use you as Flaevynn does in all this, but ’tis no’ true. I care about what happens to you, girl. The less you know the safer you will be.”
She ignored the way her heart clutched at his claim of caring when she had no doubt he’d play her like a favorite instrument. And she’d be compelled to dance to the music.
The Medb Coven was no place for the vulnerable or the meek. She asked, “Where’s the logic of keeping me in the dark all the time when I’m the one being sent in to face Alterants, Beladors and every other being out there with a grudge against the Medb? And don’t tell me it’s for my safety.”
“Right. Flaevynn just stuck me with me a deadline to find two of the Belador Alterants in forty-eight hours. That’s two days or she’ll lock me up down here! The best shot I had at catching one Alterant this morning slipped through the fingers of bounty hunters I hired. How am I supposed to find two anytime soon?”
He sat quietly, thinking on something, then whispered, “’Tis dangerous to care deeply for someone you fear losin’.”
“I learned that at my mother’s knee when she found my pet rabbit and gave it to the cook.” Anxiety rippled across her neck again, but no one knew who she protected. She repeated silently, I have no one to lose. I only care about serving the Medb. I have nothing that matters to me.
“So you have no one to protect?” he asked in a way that challenged her to lie.
Panic flared, threatening to take hold.
He couldn’t know.
She flooded her mind with everything from happily serving the queen to thanking the day she’d been born Medb. “No, I have nothing to protect except you, and you have more power than me.”
He slapped his knee and grinned. “Alright, now. I know who can help you locate three Alterants.”
Kizira perked up. “Three? Really? Who?”
“The Belador you saved when you were eighteen.”
Her chest muscles constricted and her grip on the desk tightened. He couldn’t know about Quinn. If he did, that meant he knew …
Cathbad’s brown eyes narrowed with shrewd understanding. “You know the Cathbads are gifted with sight. I saw you meet him in a vision. Saw how you stopped our warlocks from killing him, then this Belador risked his life to save you from the warlocks. ’Tis why I think your heart is soft.”
Oh, no, no, no. That was exactly what had happened when she’d met Quinn. She’d been sent out on her first task to prove she was worthy of becoming a priestess. Her Medb warlocks had attacked Quinn so quickly that he’d had no chance to defend himself. But when the warlocks had started torturing him instead of taking him captive, she’d intervened to stop them.
And they’d turned on her, accusing her of high treason by protecting an enemy—an immediate death sentence for any Medb.
Badly wounded, Quinn had struggled to his feet. He’d used his powerful mind and the element of surprise to kill the warlocks.
Cathbad knew … but he’d obviously not told Flaevynn. Kizira asked, “Why didn’t you tell the queen?”
“Because she would no’ ha’ understood that even a Belador plays a role in fulfillin’ the curse. If you wish to hand the queen at least two Alterants in forty-eight hours, you will need this Belador’s help … and mine.”
She’d seen Quinn only in rare situations since that initial brief affair, and every time they’d been adversaries. There was no way he’d help her locate the Alterants, especially Evalle, whom Quinn watched over like a younger sister.
Kizira shook her head. “That Belador will not help me capture the female Alterant Evalle.”
“He will once I tell you how to persuade him.”
“What if I can’t persuade him?” She wouldn’t put Quinn at risk, no matter what. But if she didn’t play this out with Cathbad he’d know he could use Quinn against her.
“Then you risk Flaevynn learnin’ the truth behind this man.”
She stared silently. He could not know everything.
He nodded and answered, “Oh, but I do know everything. I know you care for him, which is why you will do as I compel you if you wish him to live.”
Welcome to life as the lowest pawn in a deadly game.
Evalle stumbled forward, tripping over a bulging root covered in ferns. Her vision cleared from teleporting.
But not the urge to upchuck the pizza she’d eaten.
She held her forehead for a few seconds until the nausea passed, then she turned slowly to assess her surroundings.
It looked like she’d been dropped in a jungle that smelled of damp earth and decaying vegetation constantly composting. Water drizzled over her face and streaked her sunglasses.
If not for her unusual optics, she’d have been blind in this almost-total darkness. That meant her twenty-minute visit to the Nether Realm hadn’t lasted five hours in the mortal world this time, or she’d have been facing sunshine.
But how long would a day or “more than a day” in the Nether Realm translate into human time?
Or had Loki meant one day in the human world?
Who knew, but she had to get back to Atlanta—with three escaped Alterants in tow—and help stop an Alterant massacre.
At least she could offer the three Alterants she took back a chance at real freedom.
She used a finger to squeegee water off her forehead.
Warm water soaked her shirt. Glancing up, she couldn’t even make out cloud cover through the thick canopy of hardwood trees and tropical palms. Hidden somewhere up there were critters that chirped, screeched and chattered.
So this was where Tristan lived, if she’d landed in his spellbound prison. When she’d first met him in Atlanta, he’d said his cage was in a South American jungle, but not the specific location.
And that had been when they’d been on speaking terms, before she’d used the Ngak Stone to return him to captivity.
A tingling warmed the skin on her chest. She looked down.
The amulet still dangled from her neck.
Thank the goddess she hadn’t lost it. She always worried about losing some part of her clothing or her sunglasses in transit, but she instinctively put a hand on her glasses to hold them when she teleported. If the leather thong holding the amulet had come loose while teleporting, would the necklace have landed at her feet or ended up in another part of the world?
She didn’t know. Now the thing was heating up even more.
Just like it had before she’d been ambushed in Atlanta.