Authors: Ann Gimpel
by Ann Gimpel
Copyright © Ann Gimpel, 2014
All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher.
This e-book is a work of fiction. While references may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are from the author’s imagination and are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental.
4815 Iron Horse Trail
Colorado Springs, CO 80917
Issued by Musa Publishing LLC, February 2014
This e-book is licensed to the original purchaser only. Duplication or distribution via any means is illegal and a violation of International Copyright Law, subject to criminal prosecution and upon conviction, fines and/or imprisonment. No part of this e-book can be reproduced or sold by any person or business without the express permission of the publisher.
Editor: Angela Kelly
Artist: Kelly Shorten
Line Editor: Jenny Rarden
Interior Book Design: Cera Smith
Taking a book from raw ideas to polished perfection is truly a team effort. Many thanks to Angela Kelly, a great content editor, and to Kelly Shorten for her wonderful covers! Jenny Rarden is a most excellent line editor. I’m also grateful to everyone else who read this manuscript in its various stages and offered valuable feedback.
ionn tumbled through a gateway and leapt to his feet. Something was decidedly wrong. The wolf and raven were right behind him, but he’d lost all sense of Aislinn’s presence in the traveling portal. It made him half-crazy with fear, but there was nothing he could do until the spell spit him out. Mouth dry, heartbeat thudding in his ears, he waited to see who would follow him out of the ragged hole he’d left in the ether.
For the love of the goddess, please let me be mistaken about this.
Rune emerged. A howl split the still air.
“Where is she?”
the black and gray timber wolf demanded. He reared up and plunked his paws on Fionn’s chest.
“What happened to my bond mate? I cannot feel her anywhere.”
He howled again. It was a mournful sound, full of grief.
Fionn wrapped his arms around the wolf, but Rune dropped to the ground, apparently not interested in comfort.
“Yes, where did Aislinn go?”
Bella demanded, bouncing forward with her awkward avian gait. Ever cantankerous, the raven was bonded to him, so Fionn was used to her moods. She spread her large wings, took to the air, and cawed her displeasure.
He stared after her and struggled to manage a mounting sense of panic while balling his hands into fists. Both bond animals knew the truth: Aislinn had disappeared somewhere between Ely, Nevada and wherever they were now. He barked a word to close off his magic. The place they’d rolled out of shimmered and disappeared.
He loosed a string of Gaelic curses. “What the fuck went wrong?” he muttered. Fionn drew magic to augment his night vision and gazed wildly about for clues. They were in the midst of rubble that could well be Salt Lake City, so at least that part of his casting had been true.
an inner voice corrected him,
I doona know that. This could be anywhere.
He shoved straggling strands of blond hair out of his eyes and sent his magic spinning outward to gather data. His heart beat a worried tattoo against his ribcage.
The air to his right took on a pearlescent hue. Bran and Arawn leapt through a portal in a flash of battle leathers, the snug-fitting garments indistinguishable from Fionn’s attire. Arawn barked a command, and their gateway winked shut. His midnight gaze scanned the small group. “Why is Gwydion not here?” he demanded. “He left afore any of us.”
Rune threw his head back. Another desolate howl split the night.
Bran’s coppery eyes narrowed. “Aye, and where is the lass?”
“And that Hunter scum, Travis,” Fionn growled. He spread his hands in front of him. “I havena felt Aislinn since a few moments after we entered the portal. Join your magic to mine so we might figure out what has happened.”
Bran nodded curtly. “Aye, Travis must have lied to us, but to what purpose?”
“To save his own sorry hide, what else?” Fionn snapped. “Or mayhap because he wanted Aislinn for himself.”
The air took on an iridescent waviness. Gwydion stumbled out of the odd-looking place. Tangled in a welter of blue robes, he clutched an intricately carved staff; blond hair swirled around him. “Be gone, I say—Wait, what happened to—?” He took in the tableau as he lurched unsteadily to his feet. Fionn almost heard wheels turning as Gwydion tallied who was missing. The warrior magician pounded the end of his wooden staff into broken asphalt. Lightning crackled from the end of the staff, betraying his annoyance.
Something snapped in Fionn. Bright, brittle anger lanced through him, and he launched himself at Gwydion, driving the other Celtic god to the ground. “Bastard,” he screamed. “Ye were in charge of Travis. What? Ye couldna control a simple human? Look what your slipshod seeds have sown!” He raised a fist and drove it into the side of Gwydion’s face. It was more satisfying than using magic. Closer and more personal.
Rune jumped into the fray and sank his teeth into Gwydion’s leg. Bella cawed her disapproval. She tangled her talons in the mage’s long hair and pulled as she pecked at him. Gwydion bellowed in pain. The air thickened and developed an electric quality as he reached for his magic.
Fionn had just cocked his arm back to hit Gwydion again—before his fellow Celtic god shielded himself—when strong arms closed about him and dragged him back. Magic surrounded him, forming a barrier.
“That willna help,” Arawn, god of the dead, revenge, and terror said, his voice stern with command.
“Aye, it willna get your lass back,” Bran agreed. God of prophecy, the arts, and war, he often had a gentler approach than the other Celtic deities.
Gwydion rolled to a sit, looking dazed. He placed his hands on the wolf and raven, muttering in Gaelic. After a time, both animals retreated. He touched the bloodied places on his thigh; the flesh mended quickly. The master enchanter and god of illusion did not make any move to get to his feet. He settled his blue gaze on Fionn, bowed his head slightly, and said, “I am most sorry. Ye are right to be angry with me. The lad came at me flanked by Lemurians. I never even knew how many. When I sent my magic spiraling out to find Travis, he was gone beyond my reach.”
“Why didn’t ye tell me?” Fionn growled.
“How?” Gwydion countered, sounding weary. “Communication isna possible in the portals.”
Fionn groaned inwardly. He knew that. Where were his brains?
Taking a wee holiday,
a sarcastic inner voice suggested. Fionn jerked against the magic holding him. “You can let me go now,” he told Arawn and Bran. “I’ve returned to my senses.”
He stepped forward and extended a hand to Gwydion, who grasped it. “I am sorry I lost my temper.”
Something sparked from the mage’s blue eyes—compassion laced with pity. Gwydion stood and then brushed off his robes; dust flew in all directions. He bent to retrieve his richly carved staff. It glowed blue-white when he touched it, and he arched a brow at Fionn. “See, the staff knows battle lies ahead. The important thing is what we do now. A good start would be not tearing one another to bits.”
Though Fionn agreed, he secretly wondered if Gwydion might have tried harder were it not for the bad blood between them over Tara, Aislinn’s dead mother. As a MacLochlainn, Aislinn was bound to him, just like her mother had been. But Tara had loved Gwydion. To avoid marrying Fionn, she’d given herself to a stranger and run away to America, effectively severing an age-old bonding. Tara MacLochlainn had been an Irish queen. Under laws of blood and dynasty, she should have belonged to him, Fionn MacCumhaill, Celtic god of wisdom, knowledge, and divination…
Guess she had other ideas about that. What a fankle. Mayhap one we are still paying for.
Fionn forced his mind to stay in the present. No point in dragging old bones out and chewing them half to death. Rune’s large black and gray head rammed his side. The wolf bared his fangs and growled.
“I understand.” Fionn settled his blue gaze on Rune. “We have to find her. And we will.”
“Let us go over what we know.” Bran stepped closer. Blond braids were tucked into tight-fitting battle leathers. He had a dreamy look about him, but Fionn wasn’t fooled. The god of prophecy’s mind was sharp as a whip.
“Good idea,” Arawn echoed. Dark hair cascaded down his leather-clad shoulders. Looking as grim as the dead he commanded, his face etched into harsh lines. Eyes, so dark that iris and pupil were indistinguishable, flashed fire.
“Let us ask the goddess’s blessing,” Fionn intoned. A weight like a cold stone settled into his guts. They couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. Aislinn’s life depended on them getting this right the first time.
And my life right along with it.
Fionn thought about the next thousand years without the only woman he’d ever truly loved, and his soul shriveled. He cursed his immortality. Life without Aislinn wouldn’t be worth very damned much.
Gwydion began a Celtic chant. The other three joined in at proscribed intervals, punctuated by Bella’s shrieks and Rune’s barks, whines, and howls. Night yielded to a sickly orange sunrise as they sang.
“I believe we are ready,” Gwydion murmured.
“Aye, I feel a goddess presence,” Arawn spoke reverently. “’Twill provide a balance point against all our male energies.”
“Let us return to cataloging what we know.” Fionn gestured impatiently. Though he understood the wisdom of securing divine assistance, he wanted to get moving before something lethal happened to Aislinn. A vision of her being tortured—long limbs splayed over a rack—rose to taunt him. He muffled a cry, but his mind wouldn’t clear. Blood ran down Aislinn’s face and blended with the red of her hair. Her golden eyes were glazed with pain. He bit down hard on his lower lip, feeling powerless. Adrenaline surged, leaving a sour taste in the back of his throat.
Bran nodded. “We are, indeed, ready.”
Fionn latched onto the sound of Bran’s voice and let it pull him out of the black pit his mind had become. He crooked two fingers. “Talk, goddammit.”
Bran inhaled sharply. “The Hunter, Travis, sought us out. I dinna try verra hard to test his words, but there was enough truth in his tale to satisfy me.”
“And I, as well,” Gwydion agreed. “So mayhap his small group of humans truly was set upon by Lemurians—”
Fionn snapped his fingers. “I have it. That putrid poor-excuse-for-a-human cut a deal to save himself. Mayhap part of it was designed to wrest Aislinn away from me since he was in love with her, too. She told me—” The words curdled in his throat. He couldn’t bear the thought of Aislinn fucking anyone else. She’d been with Travis once.
If she was telling me the truth… Mayhap she was with him many times and softened the telling to spare me.
Arawn cocked his head to one side. “Even though ye stopped midstream, what ye did say made sense. Travis agreed to serve as bait in exchange for his life—and mayhap the life of his bond animal, as well. If he had his eye on the lass afore all this, well, the pot would have been all the sweeter.”
Fionn waved him to silence. “Ye say ye felt Lemurians?” He looked at Gwydion, who nodded. “Well, then, she must be in Taltos. Where else would they take her?” Relieved to have a destination and something to do, Fionn pulled magic, intent on leaving immediately.
“Hold.” Gwydion put up a hand.
“What?” Annoyed, muscles strung tighter than a bow, Fionn locked gazes with him. Blue eyes sparred with a nearly identical set.
“Ye canna go off half-cocked. There are not enough of us.” Gwydion hesitated. “As the god of wisdom, knowledge, and divination, Fionn MacCumhaill, I would think ye would know that without me having to tell you.”
Frustration fueled rage. Fionn opened his mouth to tell Gwydion what he really thought of him. “Why you sanctimonious—”
“Never mind that,” Bran spoke up. “We need a strategy.”
“And mayhap more of us,” Arawn added.
“Aye, and what about Dewi?” Ignoring Fionn’s bitten off words and the challenge beneath them, Gwydion furled his brows.
Fionn blew out an impatient breath; his anger receded. The others were right. Dewi, the blood-red Celtic dragon god, was linked to the MacLochlainn women. She’d also spent centuries in the tunnels beneath Taltos, spying on the Lemurians. Yes, they definitely needed the dragon.
“All right,” he ground out through gritted teeth. “I get it. I agree we need Dewi and probably more of us as well.”
“We must return to Marta’s house. As soon as we can.”
The wolf’s voice startled Fionn. He turned to look at Rune. The wolf padded closer.
“I have been to Taltos both ways,”
the wolf reminded him, growling low.
“It is much easier and more direct if we enter through the portal in Marta’s basement. That way we maintain the element of surprise. The Mount Shasta gateway is akin to going to their front door and ringing a bell.”
Fionn kicked himself.
Even the wolf is thinking more clearly than I am.
Rune had been bonded to Marta and knew her secrets. She’d been onto the Lemurians, delving deep into the extent of their lies. Before they’d killed her, she’d managed to figure out that the war against the dark gods was a sham. The Lemurians were actually in league with the dark. They were the ones who’d masterminded cracking the veils between the worlds to allow the dark ones access to Earth. An ancient race, the Lemurians understood they were dying. They’d needed an infusion of magic, so they’d cut a deal. Access to Earth in exchange for—
Fionn filled his lungs with air, blew out a breath, and did it again. He had to get hold of himself, or he’d be less than useless hunting for Aislinn.
That will not happen. Focus, goddamn it. Pull it together.
Fionn pushed the ache in his heart aside and buried it deep. He couldn’t afford emotion. Or mental forays into Lemurian treachery. Not now. When he’d met Aislinn, she’d been a foot soldier in the Lemurian army, branded so she couldn’t use her magic against them.
Voices flowed over him. When words fell into coherent patterns again, he heard Gwydion ticking off a plan on his fingers. Apparently one the others had formed without any input from him.
How dare they?
Anger flared hot and bright. Fionn welcomed it like a drowning man might grab a spar. He needed the energy to find the woman he loved.
“…agreed, Bran will hunt for Dewi. Arawn will return to the Old Country to muster as many of us as he can find. Fionn, the bond animals, and I will return to Marta’s house. We will sneak into the tunnel a time or two to see what we can discover, but we will not move to rescue the lass until you arrive with reinforcements.”
Gwydion nailed Fionn with his blue gaze. “Aye, and ye have returned to us. Did ye hear—?”
“Aye.” Fionn cut off Gwydion’s next words. “Let’s get moving.”
The master enchanter inclined his head. “As ye will.”
Fionn looked at him and wondered if it were mere coincidence that Gwydion would end up babysitting him. He decided to test those waters. “I really would be fine with just the bond animals. Feel free to join either Arawn or—”
“Pah!” Gwydion interrupted. “Not on your life. I know you, Fionn MacCumhaill. If ye returned alone, ye would turn Taltos upside down to find your lady love. Then the rest of us would have two to search for.”
Arawn moved forward and laid a hand on Fionn’s arm. “Remember,” he said, “the Lemurians came from Mu. They may still have a way to retreat there. If they do so, we will not be able to follow. Or they might strike a deal with the five remaining dark gods and go to one of their worlds if they feel threatened. We can travel to the border worlds, but it isna pleasant. Nay, if they have truly taken Aislinn to Taltos—and we do not know this as a fact—it is imperative they remain there. So, doona do anything foolish.”
“I understand.” Fionn clamped his jaws shut. Thoroughly chastised, he felt like a child again. He hadn’t considered either of the alternatives Arawn had just outlined. Apparently they’d come up in the part of the conversation he’d missed while wrestling with himself.