Uphold my vows and die.
Or break my vows and die?
Evalle Kincaid had faced death more than once in the past five years, but never with these odds. If she had a one percent chance, it would be a miracle.
A citric odor burned her lungs, confirming that Medb majik shrouded the rock walls, high ceiling and dirt floor of her underground prison. It was the stench of her worst enemies.
She still couldn’t believe that one of her own, a Belador, had betrayed her.
Not just her.
Anger over the betrayal and being tricked into falling for this chewed at her insides. But she pushed it down, knowing it wouldn't do anything except weaken her more. And right now, she needed her full sense and bearings.
Peeking carefully from beneath lowered eyelashes so that no one would know she was awake, she took in the other two captives--male Beladors--also held upright by invisible constraints.
A human would be blind in this black hole, but her vision thrived on total darkness. Natural nightvision that allowed her to see in a range of monochromatic blue-grays. One rare perk of being an Alterant, a half-breed Belador, unlike those two pure bloods with their backs against the glistening red-orange stone wall.
Did those men know each other?
Did she really care? They were either allies or enemies. And until she knew more about them, they were definitely enemies.
Similar in height and size, they were different as night and day in skin color and the way they dressed. The one with nothing on but jeans had been conscious when she'd regained her wits twenty minutes ago. Completely still, he hadn’t made a sound since then--like a snake lying low until it saw an opportunity to strike. Arms outstretched and legs spread apart, his gaze now cut sideways at a rustle of movement.
The fair-haired guy on his left struggled to reach lucidity.
Being imprisoned with two Beladors would normally fill her with hope for escape, because of their ability to link with each other and combine their powers. When that happened, Beladors fighting together were a force only the upper echelon of preternatural creatures could touch. They were damn near invincible.
But linking required unquestioned trust. And right now, she couldn’t offer trust so easily. Not after a Belador’s telepathic call for help had lured her into this hole--into the hands of Medb warlocks. Her tribe had fought this bunch for two thousand years.
Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice...
Die with pain.
Even so, could she refuse to help these two warriors--members of her tribe--if there was a chance to save them? Beladors were a secret race of Celtic people connected by powerful genetics and living in all parts of the world. She’d only met a few.
Never these two.
But every member of the tribe had sworn an oath to uphold a code of honor, to protect the innocent and any other Belador who needed help.
If a warrior broke that vow every family member faced the same penalty as the warrior, even the penalty of death.
Evalle had no one who would be affected by her decisions. The only person she’d had was an aunt who’d died that Evalle didn’t mourn. Not after what that woman had done to her.
But even without having someone to worry about she’d upheld her vows since the day she’d turned eighteen. Not because she had to, but because she wanted to. And--until now--she'd always supported her tribe without question.
If only she knew which side of the lake those two across from her swam on. Hers or the Medb?
She had one chance to answer that question correctly.
Live or die...
What else was new?
“Anyone know who called for this delightful little meeting?” the fair-haired male grumbled in a smooth voice born of enhanced genetics and a hint of British influence. The sound matched the urbane angles of his European face, which could be Slovak or Russian. He straightened his shoulders as if that would smooth the creases in his overpriced suit, obviously tailored to fit that athletically-cut body that James Bond would envy. She’d put him in his early thirties and at close to six-foot-three.
Bad, black and wicked next to him might be an inch shorter, but he balanced out the difference with a pound or two of extra kick-your-ass muscle.
“Introductions appear necessary...unless you two know each other.” The blond guy looked in her direction then at the other male, but she doubted he could see a thing in this blackness.
Then again, who knew what powers he had as a Belador? That thought sent another chill down her spine.
Evalle fought a smirk over pretty boy’s dry tone and well honed nonchalance. She’d never met a Belador male who wasn’t alpha to the core. But she had no intention of jumping in first to answer after deceit had landed her here.
One of these two could very easily be a Medb surveillance plant.
Tonight’s betrayal had put a serious damper on her “team” mentality and it burned raw inside her.
“I suppose I shall have to open,” pretty boy continued, undeterred by the rude silence. “I’m Quinn.”
The other prisoner still hadn’t twitched since being hauled into the cave by four Medb warlocks and slammed against the wall. He’d been the last one captured. Blood that had trickled earlier from gashes in his exposed chest had dried...and the gashes were gone. Rumors had surfaced that a few of the more powerful Belador warriors could self-heal some wounds overnight, but she’d never heard of one healing so quickly. Odd.
His head was completely bald, which added a lethal edge to his face. Ripped muscles curved along his arms. All that body flowed down to the narrow waist of his jeans. He cleared his throat and even that sounded dangerous. “I’m Tzader.”
“The Maistir?” Quinn’s gaze walked up and down the other warrior, sizing him up.
Truth or lie? Evalle had never met Tzader Burke, commander of all the North American Beladors. If he was Maistir that might explain why he was here. He would be a coup in any Medb's career.
She slashed a look at the self-appointed cave host, waiting on Quinn to make the next move.
He shifted his head in Evalle’s direction. “I can see another faint aura glowing across from us. A woman I presume from the look of it.”
How come other Beladors could see auras, but not her? What had she done to tick off the aura fairy?
When she didn’t pick up the conversation thread, Quinn asked, “You would be?”
“Pissed off.” Evalle opened her eyes all the way.
He smirked. "Love the name, darling. Should I refer to you as simply Pissed?"
She ignored his sarcasm. “No offense, I'm going to need a little more information before I’m ready to buddy up to anyone. Especially two who could be lying to me.”
First again to keep the ball rolling, Quinn nodded. “I had assumed only Beladors answered the call, but your aura is--”
“--not Belador,” Tzader interjected.
Quinn’s moment of hesitation spoke louder than his words. “I see.”
Snubbed again. What else was new? Even though she’d heard the traitor’s call for help telepathically just like this pair of full bloods had and felt the sizzle of their tribe’s connection on her skin, they still didn’t consider her one of them.
Raw fury roiled through her veins. What would she have to do to be considered one of the group? Too bad their hazing wasn’t as simple as eating a few live goldfish. But then why was she surprised or even hurt? Her own family had wanted nothing to do with her. Why should anyone else?
Still, she refused to be discounted so easily. “You two may be able to see auras, but I doubt that either of you see anything else in this pitch dark. Not like I can.”
“That explains it.” There was no missing the disgust in Tzader’s tone.
“What precisely does that explain?” Quinn allowed his annoyance to come through that time. Not the happy cave host after all.
“She’s an Alterant.” Tzader stared her way, studying on something. “The only one not in VIPER protective custody.”
Evalle released a sharp stream of air from between clenched teeth. “Right. Protective custody sounds so much more civilized than being jailed, which is what really happened to the other four Alterants. I’m not there because I don’t deserve to be there and I refuse to live in a cage--just like you would if you were me. So deal with it.” She'd been there, done that and burned the T-shirt reminder, and it would take more than the entire Belador race to put her back in one.
And she had no doubt how he’d vote if she shifted into a beast in front of him.
Thumbs down. Hang the Alterant.
Yeah, the pendulum was buried on the side of them being her enemies.
Tzader frowned. “You work for VIPER?”
VIPER--Vigilante International Protectors Elite Regiment--was a multinational coalition of all types of unusual beings and powerful entities created to protect the world from supernatural predators. Beladors made up the majority of VIPER’s force, and if that really was Tzader Burke across from her, he’d know that the only free Alterant worked with VIPER. Might as well cop to it. “I’m in the southwestern region.”
Quinn cleared his throat. “I’m with VIPER as well and was on my way to investigate a Birrn demon sighting in Salt Lake City when I heard the call. What about you two?”
“Meeting an informant in Wendover,” Tzader replied, mentioning the small gaming town at the Utah-Nevada border. “What were you doing in this area tonight, Alterant?”
Following a lead I have no intention of sharing with you... dickhead.
When she didn’t answer, Tzader chuckled in a humorless way that brushed a ripple of unease across her skin. “Listen, sweetheart. We might have another couple hours, or we might only have a couple minutes. The Medb don’t ransom. They trap, plunder minds, use bodies in hideous ways and toss the carcasses into a fire pit. I could reach Brina even this far below ground, but I can’t get through the spell coating these walls. So there’s not going to be a Belador cavalry charging in to save us. You either join up and help us find a way to escape, or prepare for the worst death you can imagine.”
As if she didn’t know the stakes...
And hadn't already lived through a fate worse than death. They had no idea who and what they were dealing with.
“I quite agree, love,” Quinn added. “I can understand your resistance to trusting anyone after being caught in this trap. I, too, want that traitorous Belador’s head as a hood ornament on my Bentley, but none of us will have any chance to discover his identity if we don’t survive, and that endangers all our people.”
Evalle would give him that, but hanging here manacled to a rock wall by majik didn’t exactly instill a sense of camaraderie in her. More like, it brought back memories that made her seethe.
She held the key to possibly overpowering the Medb--a physical ability to shift into a more powerful form that might afford the three of them the combined energy to fight their way out of here. But using that ability would expose the secret she’d shielded for five years and give the Tribunal, the ruling body of VIPER, all the reason they’d need to lock her up.
Adult Alterants did not get a second chance for any infraction. The four male Alterants with unnaturally pale green eyes like Evalle’s had shifted into hideous beasts over the past six years and killed humans--and Beladors--before being imprisoned.
When she'd turned eighteen and an old druid had appeared and informed Evalle of her destiny to be a Belador warrior, Evalle had explained how the dark sunglasses she wore constantly protected her ultrasensitive eyes. By the time the Beladors had realized her eyes were the pale green of an Alterant, she hadn’t shifted or posed a danger. For that reason alone, the Belador warrior queen Brina had asked the Tribunal to allow her warriors to train Evalle with the understanding by all parties of what would happen if Evalle shifted.
They would cage the beast if it ever made its presence known.
These two Beladors in the cave with her had taken a vow to uphold the Belador Code of protecting humanity--which also meant reporting any Alterant who shifted.
Evalle had almost changed into a beast once.
Even now, she didn’t know if she could do it and maintain control. Which meant she could shift and the Medb could still kill her.
So her only real option for escape depended on trusting these two men enough to link so the three of them could use their cumulative natural abilities to defeat the Medb.
Her choices narrowed by the heartbeat, and Quinn had a valid point. She couldn’t find the one who had betrayed her and make him pay if she died in this underground prison.
“I’m Evalle. My reason for being in this area tonight is personal.” She shot her attention to the one who would clearly lead a charge against the Medb. “Got a plan, Master T?”
“Working on it. They must have used water from Loch Ryve to coat the walls and hold the spell. That’s the only substance I’ve ever known of that can drain Belador powers. I don’t know how long we’ve been down here, but it’s probably been working on us for awhile--”
“Not my powers,” she corrected, enjoying a moment of satisfaction over another unexpected difference between her and the pure bloods. “I’m at full strength.”
Tzader paused for a moment, then nodded. “Good. That’s one plus for us, but we’re losing power, right, Quinn?”
“Correct. I’m probably at half strength, which is why we must strike soon while we’re still capable of battling.”
Evalle looked across at both men. “Either of you have an idea how many we have to fight to get out?”
“Best I could tell, there were five Medb warlocks and the one traitorous Belador.” Tzader’s deep voice hardened on the last word. He was either just as pissed off as her or a very convincing liar. “Didn’t get a good look at the fifth Medb, but he wasn’t big and wore a priest’s robe. This is a war party of hunters. If they were taking us to someone higher, we’d be gone. They plan to torture information out of us or maybe use us to bait another trap. I want blood from that traitor, too, but I won’t let the Medb hurt another Belador regardless of what that bastard did.”
Tzader’s immediate concern for his tribe struck a note of guilt in Evalle, making her realize she’d been more worried about getting out of here alive than protecting her tribe. She’d fought alongside Beladors until she was bloody and spent to defend the tribe...
And to prove she was worthy.
Refusing to help another Belador now would destroy what trust she’d gained from some and give voice to the ones murmuring that she was little better than a trained animal.
Quinn shifted. “I agree with Tzader.”
Before she had a chance to say yea or nay, Tzader started strategizing. “Let’s do a quick check of resources. Since she’s wary of us, I’ll start. I’ve got kinetic, telepathic and energy forc, plus two sentient blades they stripped from me with my body armor. If I can get out of here, I’ll call them to me.”
Quinn went next. “Ditto on the kinetic, telepathic and energy force, plus I can mind lock.”
Evalle had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you mean by mind lock?”
“I can reach into another mind remotely, lock into their brain waves and see through their eyes. I can guide them as well...if they don’t realize I’ve invaded their mind and resist. Then I’d have a battle on my hands.”
“I thought the spell coating the walls was blocking us from reaching anyone. How can you access someone’s mind from here?” She hadn’t lived this long by accepting anything at face value.
“I can’t reach beyond this facility, but I feel air movement. The Medb must have air passages running between the caverns or we’d have already died of asphyxiation. I can access anyone in another space connected to this one by even a thin gap in the rocks.”
Tzader perked up at that last bit. “Can you destroy their mind while you’re inside a person’s head?”
Where his question had been asked purely for battle strategy, Evalle wanted to hear the answer for another reason. Could Quinn tamper with her mind if they linked? She didn’t like the thought of that at all.
Quinn’s pause indicated he’d given Tzader’s question some thought. “Yes, but I won’t. Not without our warrior queen’s approval.”
On the other hand, Evalle had hoped he’d share something no one knew about him, a secret that would make Quinn as vulnerable as she was if she had to shift.
Fat chance either of these two men would make that mistake.
“Are you...dressed, Evalle?” Quinn asked that with sincere concern that surprised her. He thought they’d stripped her?
“Yes. I’m in jeans and a shirt.” The dark brown cotton shirt hanging open over her tshirt was one of the two changes of clothes she owned- she preferred to live her life unencumbered by anything, even wardrobe. She’d twisted her shoulder-length hair up beneath a frayed ball cap to spend a night of surveillance in Wendover. Lost the cap when she was captured.
“What about your powers, Evalle?” Tzader clearly wanted all the weapons laid out so they could make a solid plan.
“I have exceptional vision, similar to infrared illuminated night-vision optics. I have kinetics, telepathy, energy force...and the Medb failed to remove my boots, which conceal blades.” And I might be empathic, but that was a recent surprise and unimportant right now.
Quinn gave a low laugh. “Can’t wait to get a look at you.”
“Your optics are another plus.” Tzader’s eyes stared her way. “The next step’s gonna take some trust. You willing to link with us so we’ll have your full power and night-vision?”
Not if Quinn could overpower her mind.
“Evalle, I sense hesitation on your part after learning I have the capability to take control of your mind.” Quinn’s voice was smooth, as though he’d lifted her thoughts. Could he? “But do realize that I could have already done so and locked onto your vision if I’d so chosen.”
He was right.
She considered her dwindling options and had no choice but to relent. “Linking is our only chance, but first I want an agreement from both of you.”
“On what?” Suspicion filtered into Tzader’s commanding voice.
“That no matter what we have to do to get out of here you vow that we keep any secrets shared between us. You swear on the life of our goddess Macha.”
“You get a head injury when they caught you, woman?” Quinn lashed back, not sounding quite so cultured as if he hid a less-than-polished background behind that suave voice.
“Swearing on Macha’s life’s a good way to see the last of yours.”
“You think that’s any crazier than me making a leap of faith with you two after one of our tribe tricked me?”
“Our tribe?” Quinn asked.
“Yes.” Evalle was tired of always being doubted. “I swore the same oath you did. I’ve put my life on the line many times for other Beladors, even though--” She bit off her last words, stopping before she finished with even though I’m treated like some mutt with tainted blood. Never let them know how much their biased stares and constant spying slid under her defenses.
Beladors might tolerate an Alterant, but any trust she’d received in the past had been an uneasy alliance in tense times. She’d admit that the tribe had reason to be suspicious of Alterants after the last male who’d shifted two months ago had killed nine Beladors trying to contain him. But she’d proven herself for five hard years and deserved respect.
Too bad they didn't see things the way she did.
“No deal.” Tzader’s unmerciful gaze arrowed through the dark in her direction with the intensity of a lightning bolt.
“I think not as well,” Quinn concurred.
Now what was she going to do?
The stretch of curved wall on her left that ran between her and Tzader began to fade.
Evalle tensed. She had no offensive edge. Not until she either linked with the two men or was released from the shackles so that she could shift. Both options twisted her stomach into a sick knot of terror.
When the rock disappeared, leaving a hole big enough to drive a small automobile through, a diminutive Medb figure wearing a pale gray robe entered. Light glowed from inside the hood. Where were the four brutes who had hauled Tzader into this chamber?
“You shouldn’t be here.” Quinn’s soft voice was full of tender feelings.
Evalle glanced at him. Was he talking to that warlock?
The person in the robe moved toward Quinn as though floating across the floor. Evalle debated the risk of linking with Quinn and had just about talked herself into helping him when the hood fell away from the Medb’s head. Not a warlock but a stunning witch, with hair so bright it had to be the color of a flame in natural lighting.
Angling her chin at him, the witch stood a head shorter than Quinn. Without saying a word first, she lifted up on her toes and cupped his face with her hands, then kissed him sweetly on the mouth. Quinn didn’t just let her kiss him, he joined in until she finally pulled away. “When my men described the three Beladors they’d caught I didn’t want to believe what I heard. I had to see for myself. What are you doing here?”
“Protecting my tribe.” Quinn’s heavy sigh bulged with regret. “Leave before your men find you here.”
“I don’t know how to help you,” she whispered desperately.
“You can’t. If you do, they’ll kill you for treason, regardless of your being a priestess.”
“You shouldn’t have been caught in this trap,” she whispered. “They weren’t looking for you--”
“Who do they want?” Quinn’s tone sharpened.
The witch shook her head. “They’ll take you last. I’ll come up with a way to free you. I have to go.” She turned to leave.
When the witch turned around, Quinn softened his tone again. “Don’t try to save me. I’m bound to my tribe and will die with these two if they can’t also be saved.”
“Ever the fool.” She shook her head. “You should not have protected me that day.”
“I must uphold my oath of honor in all situations.”
Quinn’s reply renewed Evalle’s hope at gaining an ally in keeping secrets. If she had to shift to escape, would either of these two be willing to say she’d done so with honorable intent?
The Medb witch visiting Quinn lifted her hood back into place and started to leave, then hesitated. “Your time nears.” She vanished, and the wall was solid again.
The tight muscles in Evalle’s chest relaxed after that bizarre scene. Quinn was friends--more than friends--with a Medb priestess. Not kosher in the Belador world, but she couldn’t fault him if he’d acted out of honor and spared an enemy rather than kill without thought as their bloodthirsty ancestors had. Their goddess would respect that, but Quinn had a secret to protect as vigorously as Evalle shielded hers.
Now, if only Tzader had something to hide.
But he was a warrior who would die before exposing any vulnerability. She’d bet he hadn’t shared all his powers either.
“Want to explain that visit, Quinn?” Tzader asked.
“Sorry, chap. Rather not.”
Evalle smiled. “Maybe you should both reconsider my offer to hold each other’s confidence in order to escape.”
Quinn gave a quick shake of his head. “I won’t ask either of you to put yourself in jeopardy with Brina or Macha. Not for me.”
Damn. Damn. Damn. What was with these two? Why couldn’t they bend an inch? Evalle wouldn’t admit defeat, but winning their freedom wasn’t looking too promising either. The witch had said they were running out of time.
Quinn narrowed his eyes. “I’m roving mentally through the tunnels for a mind.”
Evalle was starting to like this guy in spite of his being cozy with a Medb. He knew his ass was in a sling if word of his association with a Medb made it to Brina, but he was still determined to help. Maybe she could trust him.
Tzader, on the other hand, had yet to get her vote.
“Got one...don’t think he’s the leader.” Quinn’s voice changed to a monotone. “He’s listening to one of the other warlocks...they can’t wait on the spell to drain the Beladors...Kizira arguing they should wait...Beladors dangerous even one at a time...leader says...” Quinn’s head jerked back. His shocked eyes swung toward her. “You’re the one they want, Evalle, and you don’t want to know what they plan to do to you.”
“Bring it,” she said with more arrogance than she felt capable of backing at the moment.
Quinn’s eyebrows tightened, his eyes staring at nothing as he concentrated. He sucked in a breath. “I hope you can take on four warlocks alone, because that’s what’s coming for you... Right now.”
The warning in his voice spiked chill bumps along her arms.
“Link with us, Evalle. Now!” Tzader’s tone brooked no argument or questions.
She had seconds to make up her mind. Tzader and Quinn couldn’t link unless she lowered her mental shields. “How do I know you aren’t lying just to trick me into linking?”
“You don’t.” Quinn shrugged. “Just like I don’t know what I’m in for when I link with an Alterant, but I’m willing to trust you for a chance to escape.”
The wall to her left started fading again, slowly widening as though to accommodate more people this time.
Grace be to Macha, it was time to decide if she’d live or die.
As the cave wall disintegrated under Medb majik, Evalle realized she only had to answer one question. Could she let even one Belador die after vowing to protect her tribe?
The answer was an unfortunate one for her...