The vision came quick and strong and Rhiannon Castle’s heart beat so hard her chest ached.
She dropped to her knees on her apartment floor and tried to breathe as the vision swam before her eyes.
Ceithlenn. The evil goddess from Underworld.
Her hair literally flamed and her eyes were a deep red. She had fangs, claws, and huge leather wings.
The goddess was terrifying and fascinating all at once.
Rhiannon felt the force of Ceithlenn’s hunger as if it were her own belly that rumbled painfully. The knowledge that Ceithlenn hadn’t fed in the three days since she’d left Underworld flowed into Rhiannon through the being’s thoughts. Darkness was Ceithlenn’s friend as she swooped through the San Francisco skyline searching for a victim or two.
The goddess dropped silently in a crouch behind a man with a pink Mohawk. She watched him for a moment, perching on the cracked sidewalk with her clawed hands resting between her thighs. In Underworld there had been no humans to dine on . . . and they looked delicious.
Rhiannon’s stomach churned.
Ceithlenn extended her sharp claws as she moved her hand to the side. She slowly scraped her nails across the cement, a deep, ominous sound.
It came to Rhiannon, then. Ceithlenn was waiting for her victim to acknowledge her. She wanted to experience the delight of the man seeing death staring him in the face. She studied her prey intently and swiped her tongue between her lips before giving a low roar like a tiger.
The moment Ceithlenn growled, the guy came to a stop. From out of his jacket sleeve he flipped open a switchblade and whirled to see what or who was behind him.
His eyes widened at the sight of the goddess. “What the fuck?”
With one flap of her great wings Ceithlenn leapt onto the man, slamming him to the concrete.
His knife skittered across the sidewalk. He started to shout but she sank her fangs into his throat before a sound could leave him.
Rhiannon nearly screamed as blood spurted. She felt the warm fluid in her mouth; experienced the thick, metallic taste as it flowed down her throat. She sensed Ceithlenn’s thrill as she dined on the human’s flesh.
And then power. Ceithlenn sucked up the dying man’s soul, drawing it into her until his final death rattle. The potency of absorbing the human’s soul was electrifying. The burst Ceithlenn felt in her magical strength was unreal.
As realization dawned so did her delight . . . she could absorb a human’s soul and magnify her own powers. That was something she had never been able to do with any other living creature or being.
Rhiannon trembled and almost threw up as the vision held her captive and Ceithlenn dined until filled. Until all that was left were bones with bits of meat clinging to them.
Rhiannon felt the goddess’s satisfaction and triumph—and the thrill of her discovery.
Souls. She needed more human souls.
For a moment Ceithlenn scowled. Looked around her, then sniffed the air.
Was Ceithlenn feeling Rhiannon’s presence?
Ceithlenn scowled again then took to the air, flapping her great leather wings. Rhiannon felt Ceithlenn’s rush of ecstasy as she circled the city. Sated for now and satisfied with her discovery, the goddess headed to her lair.
Ceithlenn glanced over her shoulder, as if she were looking directly at Rhiannon, and growled.
Rhiannon felt the darkness then, the recognition of the Shadows buried deep inside her—
And knew that the goddess recognized it, too.
Rhiannon cried out as she jerked back to reality. Her eyelids popped open to see that she was in her own apartment.
Her sight blurred and she could hardly breathe. Bile rose in her throat as she tried to ignore the tastes still in her mouth, but she couldn’t handle it any longer.
Rhiannon scrambled up from the floor of her living room and fled for the bathroom. She fell to the linoleum, hit her knees, and puked into the toilet until nothing was left. It felt as though her stomach would come up her throat.
She spit the acidic taste from her mouth and found she no longer felt or tasted flesh and blood on her tongue. But the thought caused her to dry heave so that her sides ached from it.
When she stood to rinse out her mouth in the sink, she caught a glimpse in the mirror of her moon-white face. The usually pale scars slashed across one cheek by the queen of the Fomorii demons stood out like red trails. Sweat on her forehead glistened in the bathroom light. She looked away from the mirror, washed her face, swished water in her mouth, and brushed her teeth.
Her mind was a jumble as she staggered from the bathroom into her bedroom.
Had Ceithlenn seen her?
Worse yet, had the goddess seen the Shadows?
Before Rhiannon reached her bed, she dropped to the carpet, and passed out from exhaustion.
Keir laced the leather ties of his breeches as Lise lay curled up on the bed, watching him. His Pleasure Partner’s elbow pressed into the mattress, her head resting in her palm. She gave him a sultry and satisfied smile, telling him she wanted more.
Keir had far more pressing matters to be concerned with than the beautiful, naked woman on the bed.
While he had been training more Tuatha D’Danann warriors, he had not been to the San Francisco Otherworld for three months. Time had run out and now he must return with his warriors to the city come morning.
The blond curls between Lise’s thighs matched the shade of her long hair. Her lush breasts with their large pink nipples were tempting enough that for a moment he considered climbing back into bed with her.
Pleasure Partners like Lise willingly chose to serve in Pleasure Houses designed to fulfill the fantasies and needs of all comers. Keir did not mess around with fantasies. What he wanted when he came to a Pleasure House was a good fuck.
“Sure you are not ready for another round?” Lise said in a voice that came out in a purr. She pushed herself to a sitting position and lightly ran one of her fingers down his biceps as he yanked on one of his boots. “I want to take you again, warrior.” Obviously Lise had decided to drive him out of his mind by bringing his cock back to full attention. But he did not have time to indulge in bedding her again.
“I have business to attend to, woman,” Keir said gruffly, yet it did not deter Lise.
Her warm vanilla scent wrapped around him as she pushed his shoulder-length black hair aside and pressed her lips to his neck while he pulled on his other boot. “Your reputation as a lover was not exaggerated. Despite your show of roughness, you are one of the most incredibly passionate partners I have had. It is no wonder all the women in this Pleasure House would willingly spread their legs for you.” She sighed. “Bastard son or not, any lady, from highborn to Pleasure Partner, would love to have you between her thighs.”
Keir scowled, feeling the familiar rise of anger at the mention of his parentage. Not that anyone but the man who fathered him cared about Keir being a bastard. Between Keir and his half-brother Hawk, he had definitely not been the favored child—as his stepmother was quick to remind him. It had created a bitter rift between him and Hawk—the son of a true union. A rift that had lasted to this very day, centuries later.
Keir had learned as a boy not to form sentimental attachments of any kind. Even his blood mother had abandoned him.
The only ones he trusted were his D’Danann warrior brethren. He trusted them in battle and with his life. It was ironic that Hawk was counted among the brethren.
“You are a mystery. A puzzle to be solved,” Lise said.
He jerked on his leather tunic, forcing her to move away from him. Before she could touch him again, he stood and strode to a chair where he had flung his weapons belt before taking the Pleasure Partner to bed. The room was too frilly for his taste. Pastels with wildflowers and white furnishings—a woman’s room. Vanilla-scented candles flickered on every surface, and the smell mingled with the scent of their sex.
Keir fastened his weapons belt around his waist and did not bother to look at Lise again. They had gone three rounds and yet she was begging for more. The thought should have given him some measure of satisfaction, but as usual he felt nothing more than the easing of his needs and the desire to go back to the training yards.
“I wonder what kind of woman it would take to tame you?” Lise said casually.
The comment caught Keir off guard and he cut his gaze to Lise. Her lips were pursed and she looked as if she truly was interested in her own question.
Keir did not bother to answer. No woman would tame him.
He pulled more than enough coins from a pouch in a pocket of his breeches and dropped them on a table beside the bed. The coins clattered across the surface and one rolled to the edge.
Lise caught it with a delicate sweep of her hand and closed her fingers over the gold. “Trust me,” she said with a quick grin. “One day you will meet that woman and she will have you on your knees.”
Keir gave a slight bow from his shoulders. “Madame Lise,” he said before turning away. His boots thumped on the wooden flooring as he headed out of the bedroom and closed the door behind him.
He would need to return shortly to San Francisco with the younger Fae warriors he had been training in the skills needed to defeat Fomorii demons. Unfortunately, none of them could be trained to fight Ceithlenn until the D’Danann were able to discover her weaknesses. And Keir would be damned if he did not find a way to determine what those weaknesses were.
Keir strode from the well-kept Pleasure House toward the training yards. Dust swirled around his boots on the dry path and sunshine warmed his bare arms. The clang of swords rang through the air, becoming louder as he approached the yards.
Word had come to him only yesterday that Silver Ashcroft, a witch and Hawk’s mate, had scried with her cauldron that Ceithlenn was, as feared, in San Francisco. Another witch he had not met had experienced a vision that spoke of foul deeds this evil goddess had already committed.
When Keir reached the yards he noticed with satisfaction that his new warriors looked fit and ready for battle. He would only be taking ten more D’Danann with him to fight the Fomorii and Ceithlenn, but this contingent would have to be enough. They would join the other warriors currently stationed in the city. The Chieftains would allow no more to pass through the veil. As it was, their leaders did so grudgingly, since crossing to an Otherworld like San Francisco required the aide of Elves or those with Elvin blood.
Prejudices between the Elves and the Fae ran deep, and it was a wonder that any form of agreement had been reached for travel between worlds. The rivalry extended back over millennia.
The rivalry stemmed from arguments on whether travel or contact to old Otherworlds should be allowed, and the Fae believed the access points should be sealed. Being more neutrally aligned, the Fae had always been more clannish and territorial and less “for” traveling to old Otherworlds.
On the other hand, the Elves had always been more arrogant, less territorial, more for freedom and remaining uninvolved. They were also neutrally aligned, however, and on occasion would step in on the side of right and justice.
The Elves were ultimately responsible for the whole mess in Otherworld. If not for them, the access points would all have been sealed, and no being could have gone to the San Francisco Otherworld. Now that they had created the mess, the Elves had not even stepped up to fix what they had caused.
Keir folded his arms across his chest as he watched two of his warriors spar. The pair battled at the center of a small circle of D’Danann Enforcers who cheered them on. Rhona was lighter on her feet and quicker with her sword, but the young man Tegan was gifted with the speed of flight.
Rhona and Tegan clashed swords and for a moment were locked in a battle of power and will. She whipped her sword around his and shoved Tegan away. In a beautiful display of strength and agility, she performed a quick backflip, landed in a crouch, and swept her sword at Tegan’s knees. Tegan had already unfurled his great gray wings and rose to easily dodge her blow. He attacked from the air, but Rhona rolled on the dusty ground, out of his reach, sprang to her feet, and released her own pair of beautiful russet wings that matched her hair.
Pride filled Keir’s chest at the sight of his warriors.
These days, the D’Danann Enforcers rarely left the Sidhe, usually only to answer calls for aid from other beings in various Otherworlds—if approved by the Chieftains. Now that the damned Fomorii demons had escaped their purgatory, it was the duty of the D’Danann to take them out.
Fomorii were demons from Underworld that could kill a human by taking over his or her body. The demon then became that person—at least in appearance—and took over that individual’s life. Fomorii could morph from demon form to human form at will. Most of the demons had infiltrated the city’s government and several wealthy individuals.
But before those beasts could even be routed, the D’Danann and the San Francisco witches had an entirely new threat to deal with.
The goddess who had been imprisoned in Underworld with her husband Balor all those centuries ago. This time Ceithlenn’s evil soul had taken over the body of a young, powerful, female warlock.
Keir had seen it for himself during their last battle, before the door to Underworld had been shut. The threat was unmistakable, yet it was unknown how the D’Danann and witches would fight this new being.
Rhona and Tegan continued to spar in the air, a perfect dance of power and grace. But not fierce enough to suit Keir. He had to ensure they would be prepared to battle anything they faced. The loss of even a single life was one too many, and he would not see one of his brethren fall if he could help it in any way.
He spread his great black wings at the same moment he unsheathed his sword and in two wing thrusts was at the center of the mock battle.
“You must be ruthless,” he growled as he blocked sword blows from both Rhona and Tegan, who now worked as a team against him. “The Fomorii will not spar with you.” He drove his sword at Rhona’s midsection. She barely blocked it, and the power of his stroke was so great that she grunted with the effort.
“With one swipe of their claws,” Keir continued as he spun in the air to parry with Tegan, “the demons will bring you down. Never forget that many of the Fomorii tip their claws with iron now, making them poisonous to Fae.
“Show them no mercy.” In two swift blows, Keir had both Rhona and Tegan dropping from the air to land on the dirt of the training yard. “You can expect none from them.”
The two warriors looked chagrined as Keir touched down between them, sheathed his sword, and folded his wings away. Rhona’s and Tegan’s hair were plastered to their foreheads, the sides of their faces glistened with sweat, and they were breathing heavily as they folded their wings away as well. They must have been sparring for some time before Keir arrived because it was difficult to exhaust one of the D’Danann.
“Come.” He slapped both Rhona and Tegan on their backs. “It is time for food and ale. In the morning we go to war.”
The other warriors laughed and began joking with one another good-naturedly, and Keir felt a strange warmth in his chest. The D’Danann warriors were his family. The only real family he had ever known. He respected them, relied on them in battle, and had confidence they would watch his back. No matter his rivalry against his brother, Keir trusted Hawk in war.
Outside of war and training, Keir tended to keep to his own, but not when these warriors needed him to be the glue in their camaraderie and in battle. They were young and required the spirit of teamwork in every way.
After a fine meal of fresh cornbread drizzled with honey, roasted chicken, spinach, potatoes, and bread pudding, Keir made his way to his cabin in the woods outside the village.
Rather than living in the barracks with many of the D’Danann warriors, or in a treetop home, and certainly unlike members of the court who resided in their great mansions, Keir had long ago chosen a simple cabin in the woods. It was difficult to be away from all the other D’Danann, but he chose to ignore the Dryads, Pixies, Faeries, and any other beings that might be nearby.
Sometimes that was not so easy to do.
Tonight, though, he thanked the gods the Pixies were not up to mischief around his home, decorating it with flowers or some odd nonsense. Not one of the mischievous Fae had dared to enter his sanctuary, but they had no compunctions about the area around his cabin.
Wood scraped wood as he opened the door and then slammed it shut behind him. The three-room cabin was large and airy. He didn’t require much . . . just an open-beamed great room, a bedroom, a place to take a piss and a bath. All the furnishings were large, comfortable, and made for a man.
He strode to his bedroom and grabbed his haversack, intending to pack some of his own supplies. The last time he was in the San Francisco Otherworld, he had been forced to use the perfumed soaps and shampoos of the witches.
The moment he opened his pack, a tiny Faerie poked her head out.
“Godsdamnit, Galia.” Keir scowled and opened his pack wider, releasing her lilac scent.
The blond Faerie rose out of his haversack with a mischievous expression on her perfect face. Pink Faerie dust sparkled in the air from her wings. She was no longer than his hand from the tip of his middle finger to his wrist, and her long blond hair reached past her knees, covering both her naked ass and her bare breasts. “What in the Underworlds are you doing here?”
She fluttered up to his eye level and grinned. “I thought I would come for a visit.”
Keir turned away and stomped to his bath chamber. “Out of my home.”
Her laugh was like tiny bells. She darted ahead of him and landed on a cake of soap. It slipped and she giggled as she skated on the soap the length of the wooden shelf. She wove in and out of his bath items, barely missing his body gel and shaving gear, but knocking off the brush he used for his teeth. When she reached the end of the shelf she placed her palm out and threw up a shield to keep herself from sailing off and onto the floor.
“Galia!” He jabbed his finger in the direction of the doorway. “Out!”
After coming to an abrupt stop, the Faerie hopped off the cake of soap. “Are you going back to that Otherworld? The one called San Francisco?”
“In the morning.” Keir grabbed the brush from the floor and jammed it and the other bath items into his bag. “Now, leave.”
She fluttered after him as he packed extra clothing and weapons. Pink Faerie dust glittered wherever she flew, and she darted just about everywhere, exploring his cabin despite his orders for her to leave.
When he finished shoving items into his haversack, he tossed the bag by the front door. He yanked the door open and pointed out into the growing darkness. “Back to your Sidhe. Now.”
Galia fluttered up to his face and startled him as she kissed his cheek with a feather-light touch before using her delicate wings to back away. “Such the big, bad warrior. You need to have a little fun.”
“Out,” he growled when for some reason he wanted to smile. That thought had him scowling again.
The Faerie giggled, then swooped out of his home and into the twilight, pink sparkles and the scent of lilacs following in her wake.
Keir shook his head. Galia had teased him often outside of his cabin, but like other Fae she had never been in his home. What made her trespass today? Apparently her desire to go to the San Francisco Otherworld.
Pink dust. Damn. It would be weeks before he got the female-smelling lilacs out of the air.
But he had far more pressing matters to be concerned with than one of the mischievous Fae.
Keir was tempted to rouse his warriors and head to the San Francisco Otherworld tonight, but his men and women needed at least one good night’s rest before they went to war.
After removing his weapons belt and setting it on a table, Keir went to a small corner of the great room to a chair positioned by the window where carved wooden figurines perched on the sill. Among the small figures were an elk, a squirrel, a hawk, and a raven. Keir settled into the chair, leaned forward, and reached for the box where he kept his tools.
When he was but a boy, a Dryad had shown him how to bring the creatures to life that “lived” in the wood. No one, save for his Dryad teacher, was aware of his aptitude for this art form. It was simply something he chose to do to relax.
Keir removed a large piece of cedar from a pile of assorted wood the Dryads had given him, grabbed one of his carving tools, and slid the metal into the cedar. He concentrated on bringing it to life.
Only this time, for the first time, it was not an animal he carved, but a face. As the features formed he found himself shaping the head and shoulders of a woman he had never met.
He couldn’t seem to stop himself. It was as if the face had to be released from the cedar before he left in the morning.
When Keir was finally finished, the wood polished until the features shone in the dim candlelight, it was late into the night. He blinked his tired eyes and stared at the face for a while. He stroked the cheek with his thumb, the polished wood as smooth as a woman’s skin.
Why had he carved a face? The face of a woman he did not know?
He shook his head, put away his carving tools, and set the face on the windowsill before heading to his bed. Despite the urgency he felt, he needed what rest he could get before leaving come morning.
They were going to war.
Copyright © 2007 by Cheyenne McCray. All rights reserved.