Principal Imagine Dragon

Imagine Dragon

Año:
2018
Idioma:
english
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EPUB, 220 KB
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Imagine Dragon



Dragon Guard #32



by

Julia Mills





There Are No Coincidences.

The Universe Does Not Make Mistakes.

Fate Will Not Be Denied.





ACKNOWLEDGEMENT



Cover by Linda Boulanger with Tell Tale Book Covers



Edited and Proofed by Tammy Payne with Book Nook Nuts



Beta Read by Linda Levy



Formatted by Charlene Bauer with Wicked Bold Creations





DEDICATION



Dare to Dream! Find the Strength to Act! Never Look Back!



Thank you, God.



To my girls, Liz and Em, I Love You. Every day, every way, always.



To Felicity Taylor, Thank you again for allowing me to borrow your name. Felicity the Fairy will be in many more stories to come.





For all of you who have read and enjoyed all the Dragon Guard books so far, this one’s for you. Kayne is an ever-present, vital part of these stories and I had and absolutely BLAST bringing his story to life.

Never fear, our crazy Demi-God isn’t going anywhere. His smart-ass ways and quick wit will be around for as long as the Dragon Guard is.

Thank each and every one of you so very, very much!

You make every day a joy! I simply could not do this without you.

XOXO, Julia





TABLE OF CONTENTS



Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Epilogue I

Epilogue II

About Julia

Also by Julia





The Dragon Guard



We soar the skies

Free to a certain extent,

As long as we stay hidden

From prying human eyes.



Our scales differ in color

Our defensive weapons,

Tails, horns, talons and all,

Are never the same.



We are one with nature

We blend in with nature

The wind helps us soar high in the heavens

While the earth grants us healing strength in our hour of need.



We are one with the world

We are the guardians of our kin

When evil conspires;  to maim and hurt

We are protectors of this human race.



As majestic animals of fairytales

We share our beings with great men

They walk in honor and the grace of Fate,

Fate that we cannot deny.



Copyright © 2016 Melanie Williams

- This Poem is based on the Series, The Dragon Guard by Author Julia Mills.





Index of the Original Language of the Dragon Kin

Imagine Dragon

Mo ghrá………My love

Mo chroí………My heart

Tá tú mo ghrá eternal. Ta’ mo chroi istigh ionat……….

You are my eternal love. My heart is in you

mo Dragon……….My Dragon

Ceithre……….Four

Tá tú mo domhan anois agos go deao……….You are my world, forever and always

Mo dheartháir……….My Brother





Prologue





Following Uther and the jaguar named King, Kayne bitched under his breath as the rocks burnt through his gloves and the steam singed the tip of his nose. He knew they had to retrieve their Brethren, the ones known as the Berserkers, who were being held against their will. These brave men and women had been gone for nearly three centuries and deserved to come home, but the Demi-God couldn’t shake the feeling that something more than lost Guardsmen was buried in the depths of the mountain called Devil’s Kiss.

Climbing onto the ledge, waiting as Drago and Angus, the last of their group, joined them, Kayne bent back his head as far as it would go and gazed at the apex of the mountain. It seemed absolutely astounding that Uther had climbed all the way to the top and rescued Mara not even twenty-four hours after digging himself out of a deep, dark hole in the ground.

See? That’s what being in love will do for ya’. Make you crazy enough to scale a mountain and jump inside a volcano…

Wondering how long it would be before the lava reached its boiling point and Devil’s Kiss erupted, drenching the beautiful landscape and the clear blue sea with steaming rock and ash, a flash of light drew the Demi-God’s attention. Narrowing his eyes, he used the enhanced perception of the Dragon King with whom he shared his soul to study the billowing clouds of smoke, trying to locate what or who was insane enough to go strolling around the peak of an active volcano. Zeroing in on what appeared to be a shadow, but had far too much substance to be a mere trick of the light, Kayne poured copious amounts of his special brand of magic into his preternatural sight.

It took several long seconds, time he really didn’t have but had to take to appease his ravenous curiosity, before what had been eluding discovery finally came into view and made the golden Dragon doubt his own sanity. Immediately recognizing the elegant golden beak and gorgeously luxurious wings covered in thick tawny, dark brown and white feathers, he smiled at the Avian Princess most people thought had been extinct for thousands of years.

But we know differently. Don’t we, pretty girl?

Her eyes, yellow and round and magnificent in their ability to see the tiniest details that others missed, met his. Ailill, Kayne’s Dragon King, rumbled a deep sensual hum, lifted his head, and presented the long, thick, impressive battle horns atop his head as a type of foreplay, his way of enticing the lovely fowl.

Wondering why she was there, contemplating simply asking, the Strix beat the Demi-God to the punch. Her thick British accent and lilting tone filling his mind as she gave a single push of her wings, gracefully rising into the air. “I see you and yours have finally come to retrieve your lost kin.”

“We have,” Kayne grinned.

“Then I suggest you hurry. The one called Zared is fading fast. I have done everything I can, never had one I couldn’t heal, but this is different from anything I’ve experienced and the dark magic in the core of this monstrosity isn’t helping. Your boy had been drained of nearly all his life force. You Dragons are a strong lot, but this nasty Beastie refuses to be destroyed.”

Trying to understand what was giving the Strix so much trouble, Kayne’s heart ceased to beat as the huge mythical owl with the fantastic powers of Intuition, Foresight, and Healing that rivaled even his father’s, pointed the tip of her beak downward, and did a perfect swan-dive straight into the mouth of the volcano.

“What the hell are you doing?” Kayne bellowed.

“Your job, son of Lugh. Don’t like it? Then get a wiggle on.”

Racing into the mouth of the cave, snaking through Devil’s Kiss, sweat pouring from damn near every orifice of his body, Kayne sprinted forward, tracking the scent of his mate like a bloodhound stalking its prey. Warm, spring air and the fresh scent of sunlight filled his senses, infusing him with the need to save not only his kin, but claim the One made for him by the Universe.

Blindingly bright white light bathed every inch of the walls, floor and ceiling of the cavern to his right. The brilliant mesmerizing radiance he immediately recognized as the Strix’s was not only awe-inspiring, but just one of her many powers, both ancient and mystic, that made her his equal – something he’d never ever experienced. Picking up the pace, the scenery flying by as a blur, Kayne ignored the irritated grumble of Drago and Angus, knowing they would catch up sooner or later, and he barely noticed Uther running at his side with King, the jaguar, a new and not completely understood member of their Clan.

Damn, I wish Uther had been buried on a beach in the Bahamas with scantily clad waitresses, cases of Scotch, and a keg of beer…

“You and me both,” Uther chuckled, reading the Demi-God’s mind with little to no effort.

“But no, you had to be ornery, didn’t you, Old Man,” Kayne snickered, slowing his step as the eerie perception of a familiar evil, slithered over his enhanced senses.

Holding up his fist, an old signal he’d learned in his many different positions in the military, Kayne then raised his index and middle finger, crooking them twice in quick succession, to let his Brethren know he would be entering the cave first and on his own. Walking forward, his preternatural senses leading the way, an acrid malevolence, cold as the grave and as creepy as a spider, slid across the toe of his boot, under his pants leg and up his leg. He could feel its barbed tentacles, like little fangs, trying to burrow into his body and its violent Spirit pushing against the shields in his mind. Unable to take hold, the Abomination assaulted his ears with high-pitched squeals, hissing and spitting as the Demi-God blasted the evil glob of pestilence with well-aimed, concentrated blasts of the God-powers he’d inherited from his father.

Crossing the threshold of the cavern, his eyes went directly to the Strix. Lovely as ever, not bothered at all by the heat and pressure emitted by the volcano, she sat perched upon a ledge at least twenty-feet above his head, her eyes shimmering with unspent mysticism as she stared at the opposite wall. Following her line of sight, Kayne took a second, more intense look, forcing himself to accept the awful truth of the Fate of the Berserkers if they didn’t act quickly.

“Drago, stay back. Keep everyone with you. We are FUBAR like we’ve never been before.”

“Show me what you see,” the Commander of the Enforcers demanded, his tone leaving no room for debate.

Opening his senses wider, encompassing the Dragon known as the Assassin, the Demi-God reinforced his mental blocks, a wall of psychic energy to keep out the living, breathing embodiment of hate, vengeance and deathly intent. The black, icky goo covering not only the empty silver coffins, but an entire rock wall of the grotto, pulsed with the ravenous need to devour. Dark energy, bastardized magic, malformed spells left too long, forced to fight for its life had become the very basis of the creature’s existence. Feeling the great power of the Dragons made it pulsate and wheeze, mimicking a human heart and lungs, as its core expanded and contracted.

Revulsion coupled with the need to hunt and feed beat at Kayne’s mind and body as the Beast reached for not only him, but his Brethren outside the cave. Warm taps, like fingertips in his mind, he knew to be Drago using the Demi-God’s senses to keep apprised of the situation while pushing his own powerfully pure, Dragon magic at the horrific mass of pure evil.

Looking up, making sure the Strix was still out of the path of the hateful being, Kayne stepped back, watching in awe at the cloud of malignance forming overhead. Calling to all things dark and evil, the Beast summoned the dregs of the Earth, beckoning them to its Lair, promising the consumption of all things good and right in its bid to spread its vile supremacy across the land with its web of wickedness and deceit.

“You’ve seen this before?” Drago’s voice broke the spell created by the black cloud.

“Yeah, and you’ve heard of it, too. This is the same nasty little bastard Kyran and I fought when we rid the world of Eve. I fear that was only a very small offshoot of what we now face,” Kayne replied. “This son of a bitch is huge and a helluva lot more powerful.”

Before he could hear Drago’s response, his mate’s voice whispered through his mind, projecting images that illustrated her prophecy in vivid detail. “The smell of rancid blood and burning flesh shall cover the Earth. All creatures, magical, blessed and human alike shall be conquered. It shall consume and devour, corrupt and condemn. Once known as the Obscured, it is reborn the Conqueror, and it cannot be stopped.”

Her voice faded, but the visions continued. The blob of black goo he and Kyran and Caitlin had tried to exterminate was just a small part of a much larger, much more ominous Being that was unfortunately, alive, prospering, and propagating. The spawn that had awakened from its long, deep slumber in the shack in the woods had reached for its Mother with its thin black tendrils and slithered its way to the jungle, to the volcano, to the largest, most formidable portal to Hell.

Left in the dark for way too long, the Obscured, pushing itself towards the Conqueror, was hungry, famished, and would stop at nothing to have what it wanted – the malevolent power and dark enchantment to seek an audience with the Devil himself. Watching intently as the being’s breaths increased to pants, the huge bulbous formation in its center budding, growing, expanding, stretching its core into long, spindly fingers that reached for the Demi-God.

Shouting aloud, as well as into the minds of everyone in the cave, Kayne roared, “It’s got the Berserkers. The fuckin’ bastard has our Brethren and it intends to devour them.”





Pearl





Chapter One





Pulsing and pounding, flitting and fluttering, dancing between demanding and pleading, the Obscured wove a tail of deceit and appeal that called to the dichotomy of Pearl’s soul. Born of the day and the night, the Healer and the Warrior, the woman and the Strix had only been tempted in such a way once before in her many centuries of existence. It was disconcerting, so unbearably hard to resist the thought of giving into her dark side, the one inherited from her father felt as if it had a life of its own. But she was strong, nearly invincible and the whisper of a heartbeat, that stuttered, fading fast as it fought against all odds to stay alive became her sole focus. It pushed away the dark thoughts of death and forced the purity of life to the forefront. There were lives to save, lives that mattered to so very many, that had a purpose and a reason for being outside their own existence. That was why Pearl had been born, why she’d lived so very long, and why she’d joined Sadie and the others in their war on evil.

Allowing her vision to blur and her supernatural sight to take over, she followed the miasma of barbed tentacles and stringy gore searching for a path to the center of the maelstrom – the heart of the Beast. Carefully picking her way through seething beds of hate and scorching patches of pure evil, all brought to life a millennium ago by the Fairy Kings and Queens, the thundering hooves of the Wild Hunt invaded her consciousness. Hurdling her into the chaos of her own memories, demanding she take heed, a dark omen swept through her, the promise of death and destruction was alive and well careening its entrance into the human world.

Staccato blasts, discordant and shrill, assaulted the sleepy silence of the night sky. Icy winds tore through the trees, the frantic rustle of their leaves a distressed cry to the Mother of All that danger was afoot.

Misshapen shadows, their skeletal fingers drawn to the beat of Pearl’s heart, snatched and clawed at the hem of her long leather coat, their need to possess, to feed, a seething entity within them. Hounds and steeds, their fur the color of slate, their eyes a flaming, fiery red, obeyed only the call of the golden Hunting Horn, their answering bays and confident whinnies accompanying the manic crunch of the frozen Earth underfoot as blistering blasts of hellfire shot from their mangy muzzles, casting a bloody hue over the low-hanging crescent moon.

Calling forth the Strix, her transformation complete in a single heartbeat, Pearl pushed her billowy wings against the frigid gusts of air, instantly obtaining enough forward thrust to rise her six-foot form into the air. Circling above the horde of undead riders, warriors who even in death remained loyal to Odin, stampeding from Valhalla to Earth through the enormous vortex, she looked for the Leader.

Sifting through fields of dark skeletal riders, her gaze landed upon the Ruler of the Aesir Tribe of Deities at the precise moment his band of marauders opened their bloodless lips, their war cry roaring across the frozen wasteland. Snow-white hair and his long silver beard rippled behind him like the train of his royal robe as he sat upon his six-legged steed, a stark, defining contrast to the sea of ebony warriors surrounding him. He was Odin in the form of the God of the Wind and all would bear witness to his majesty.

With her senses creeping forward, searching for the thread to pull that would unravel the plot of the All Father, Pearl was caught unaware as faces from her past, Clanswomen and men who’d fallen in battle and the victims she’d been unable to save, raced over and around her, following the great Odin, doing as he bid.

The need to join the Hunt, to once again fight alongside her comrades was overwhelming. The pounding of her heart matched the pounding of their hooves. The blood of her father, of the last full-blooded Strix, the last bird of omen to foresee the death of a king and let its haunting cry fill the bewitching hour, pushed her to yield to her baser instincts and turn her back on the healing and light given to her by her mother.

Adrenalin fueled her need to avenge the fallen. The Call of the Hunt, its infectiously pulse-pounding beat turned thought to desire and desire to action. It was intoxicating in its devastating simplicity and something she simply could not or would not resist.

Lengthening and strengthening, the bones of her wings reached towards Odin, their ends narrowing to deadly claws, matching the long, deadly talons at the tips of her toes and the lethal hook at the end of her beak, each promising a sacrifice worthy of her station. No longer the formidable Strix, Pearl had become the Stringes, the fierce Battle Owl that no other but her father had ever attained.

Diving from lofty heights, her screech drew the Huntmaster’s attention as the Stringes lowered her head and dove for the center of the fray. Closing her eyes, the thrill of the Hunt upon her, Pearl jerked to a stop, her wings thrown wide, her body suspended in midair.

“Is this what you do with the miraculous gifts you’ve been given, Daughter Mine?” Morrigan, the Great White Goddess of the Celts, Supreme Warrior Goddess of Night, Magick, Prophecy and Healing, harshly inquired.

“Let. Me. Go.” Pearl seethed, fighting against her mother’s magic, the need to be part of the Wild Hunt overriding her every thought and action.

“I will not.”

The words had barely passed through Pearl’s mind before she was thrown backward through the sky, her huge body rolling end-over-end for what seemed an eternity, before she unceremoniously and bone-jarringly was dropped atop a mountain plateau. Still held tight by the iron fists of her mother’s Goddess magic, the Stringes opened her beak to scream only to find she had also been left mute.

Shrieking directly into Morrigan’s mind, Pearl spat, “Stop this now, Mother. Do not make me battle you for my freedom.”

Coarse, mocking laughter cut through her mind as the White Goddess jeered, “Do not waste your time or energy, Daughter. Just as I gave you life, I will most assuredly take it away.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

Without further provocation, in the blink of an eye, Morrigan appeared. Her long, blood-red hair flowed over her shoulders and down her back with a liquid grace that reminded Pearl of crimson silk. Her clear, haunting eyes looked directly into the Stringes’ soul as the Goddess advanced, her shield and staff at the ready. Ravens, her own special army, perched on rocks and flew overhead protecting the White Queen from what, Pearl had no idea.

Pushing the awe of her Goddess Mother away, unwilling to let go of her anger, the Stringes growled sarcastically, “Aren’t I a little old to be put in time-out, Morrigan?”

Without a word, or even a glance in her daughter’s direction, Morrigan waved the tip of her staff across her daughter’s midsection. Fire shot through Pearl’s veins. The cracking of bone and popping of tendons ushered in a fiery agony that snatched the breath from her lungs as it ripped through every fiber of her being.

Forced into her human form in the most painful way possible, Pearl struggled to breathe as her body quaked, her muscles shook, and her heart and lungs fought to nourish and heal her broken body. The burn of her mother’s eyes peering into her soul was the only warning Pearl received before an all-too-familiar ominous rumble filled her mind, “The Stringes will no longer be yours to call. You have no restraint, no ability to resist the temptation of your darker natures. Yes, we are creatures of War, but our cause must be just and our intentions pure. Following Odin as he parades his Ghouls from the depths of Valhalla is not only foolhardy, but breaks the oath you took to uphold and protect Mankind in all its forms.”

Feeling like a little girl caught with her hand in the cookie jar, Pearl slowly exhaled, letting the good judgment and light of the knowledge she’d been using as her guide for longer than she could remember to fill her mind and spirit. Looking Morrigan in the eye, she nodded, sullenly acquiescing, “Thank you for the save.” Finally, able to move, she sat up then got to her feet and stepped closer to her mother. “But if you ever…”

Pulled back into reality by the sheer severity of what she faced, the déjà vu of the situation not lost in the chaos, and true to form, when Pearl looked up she found her mother’s image floating overhead. The magic of the Goddess, ancient, commanding, and unyielding, caressed Pearl’s body, massaged her feathers, seeped into her muscles and bones, and serenaded the memory of the Stringes, enticing it to return.

Teeming with power, vibrating with the enchantment of the White Goddess, Pearl accepted the transformation from Strix to Stringes, extended her wings and flexed the razor-sharp talons that lined the tips. Throwing open her mighty jaws, her soul rejoiced as her commanding call echoed through the cave, striking fear in the monstrous mass that was the Obscured.

Taking flight, her only focus the beating heart of the Abomination, Pearl welcomed the feel of Morrigan’s power and strength flowing through her as the Goddess’ voice rang true in the depths of her consciousness, “Fly true, my Fierce and Fearless Daughter. Save my chosen Warriors. Bring the Berserkers home. Only you and your Beloved hold the key. Only together can you reign victorious.”





Chapter Two





Hitting the center of the Obscured as if she’d been shot from a cannon and there was a bull’s eye drawn on its seething mass, Pearl slid through the surface, straight into the pulsating, undulating goo. Sucked through the thick gelatinous mass as if she were a milkshake tunneling through a straw, she ignored the uproar of the Dragons on the outside and the roars of the son of Lugh inside her head, wrapping herself in a bubble of protective magic.

Following the malignant glow of the monstrosity comprised of magic, fury, and emotions much too powerful and infinitely more dangerous than anything she’d ever been up against, Pearl stopped short as Kayne’s bellow rocked the inside of her mind. “Damn you! Damn you to hell. What do you think you’re doing? Why would you…?”

“Why would I what?” She spat in return. “Why would I save your Brethren? Why would I dive into this pile of shit for people I’ve never met? Why am I even here? Is that what you’re wondering you braindead, puffed up, scale-covered egomaniac?”

A long pause, silence filled with embarrassment, wonder, and more than a little good old-fashioned male pride, flowed from Kayne to Pearl via their mating bond. She couldn’t help but smile. Her mate was nothing if not bull-headed and stubborn to the core. He was headstrong, cocksure, and possessed a wicked sense of humor. Dammit all if she didn’t love the challenge she knew the next millennium or so was going to be.

“Well…I…It’s just that…” Clearing his throat, the son of Lugh finally found his voice as he started again. “Yes, to all of your questions, but most of all, do you even have the foggiest idea what you’re doing or what you’re up against?”

Rolling her eyes, making sure it was obvious by her tone, Pearl mocked, “Naw, I just jumped in beak first, consequences be damned. I’ve only survived this long by stupid, good old-fashioned, doo-dah luck.” She stopped, seriously considering leaving him hanging and going about her business, but then decided that just wouldn’t do. “Come on, I know you’re smarter than that. I know you had to have met my father, seen what he was capable of.” Glaring into his mind’s eyes, she added with a groan, “Intuition is my thing, and even if it weren’t, I’ve got a helicopter mom in the form of the White Goddess.”

“Wait! What? Your mother’s Morrigan? How did I not know that?”

“Ummm…can we play what’s my genealogy another time? I’m kinda busy here.”

Knowing damn good and well she was being snarky and trying her hardest to feel bad about it but not able to conjure up even a speck of remorse, Pearl dismissed Kayne’s renewed tirade about why she shouldn’t be inside the Obscured on her own and why she needed him, instead switching her full attention on the rumbling and scurrying of the little Beasties right in front of her.

Letting loose of the strangle hold she had on her magic, she slowly watched it creep forward, leaving a trail of white, glowing mysticism in its trail. Unfortunately, the bits and barbs of the Obscured were damn near as fast and hell-bent on eradicating anything good. Watching the cannibalization of her magic was devastating, but it was the fact that she might actually need help that chapped her tail feathers.

What had those winged-crazies been thinking? Nearly a million bits and pieces of magic, some that had been good, parts that were bad, and even pieces that were merely indifferent had been shoved together by every member of the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Then as if they hadn’t already screwed up enough, when the result of their spell was a fucked-up Abomination, they’d locked it away and denied it the one thing it needed to remain somewhat neutral – magic.

And now, I get to play clean-up…

Watching the blobs and globs stretching and scampering to latch onto one another, Pearl had to take a beat. It was far worse than she’d been led to believe. These little assholes, along with the huge asshole that was only the Gods knew where, were cognizant. The fuckers could not only think, but much to her chagrin, they communicated and worked together to protect what she could only imagine they saw as their ‘greater good’.

Son of a bitch! The Beasties are building a wall to keep me out. Not cool…really, not cool.

Completely shutting the door in her mind where her mate, the most handsome jerk she’d ever met, was still bitching and complaining, Pearl took a deep breath, held it in, and listened for heartbeats. It took several seconds, time in which she began to doubt her own sanity, but ultimately, she heard signs of life.

One…two…three…

Three separate heartbeats were all she could hear and the last one, the one she knew belonged to Zared, brother of the Guardsman who was also an Enforcer by the name of Uther, was little more than a sluggish, stuttering whisper. How could there only be three? When she’d picked the information out of Kayne’s mind, she’d found the names of thirteen, along with the supposition that there were others who’d become Berserkers at a later date.

And, I forgot to ask dear, old mom about the whole ‘turned after the fact’ thing. Why am I not surprised that she didn’t give me the whole story?

“Because that is not information you need right now?”

“Oh hey, thanks for stopping by, Mom,” Pearl sassed. “Wanna lend a hand, or just checking to be sure I do everything to your satisfaction?”

“I am here to give you the assistance you require. Were you not listening when I told you that you AND your mate were essential to saving the lives of my Warriors?”

“I was listening,” Pearl grimaced. “I’m just not ready to play nice with that Dragon.”

“You have no choice. Now, is not the time to be stubborn. You have had decades to prepare yourself to meet the One the Universe made for you. Have you lost sight of your visions? Are you doubting your inherent gift of prophecy? Are you turning your back on what you know to be true?”

Understanding why so very many humans ignored their parents with such determination, Pearl thought about simply shutting Morrigan out of her mind. But then, blocking a Goddess with whom she shared blood would be damn near impossible and require a level of concentration and magic that she simply couldn’t spare considering what was squirming quite nearly in her face. Therefore, she sighed and answered, “You know I doubt none of my abilities. I simply want to do this myself.”

Pushing forward, using the camouflage Morrigan’s presence provided, Pearl looked for a point of attack as she added, “And while you’re here, do you care to explain why I can only hear three heartbeats? Where are the others?” She stopped, shuffled through her most recent visions, and when she found no mention - one way or the other of the remaining Berserkers - she regrettably asked, “Have they already passed away?”

Time slowed to a crawl, seconds and moments that Pearl was forced to use to formulate a plan while waiting for her mother to get her shit together and answer. Finally, ready to strike and tired of lingering, Pearl asked, “Do you…?”

“It is my belief that only one of my chosen warriors has gone to the Heavens, but not here...” Morrigan interrupted. Her answer veiled with conjecture Pearl simply had no time, or the will, to unravel. “The others are scattered about and must find their own way home. That is the will of the Universe.”

Waiting for more, her body poised to attack, adrenalin streaming through her body, Pearl could wait no longer as she countered, “A fat lot of good that does me. What a shock.”

Pushing forward, her wings stretched over her head, the sharp talons adorning the tips of their skeletal frames leading the way, she elongated her body and sliced through the tar-like sludge with deadly accuracy. Puncturing the pulsating miasma at top speed, Pearl was flung backward as the glowing red nerve center burst into flames, spewing caustic black plasma in every direction.

Refusing to be bested, the Stringes dug her claws and talons into the gloopy walls of the art of the Obscured all around her, reveling in its otherworldly squeals of pain and fury. Pushing farther into the meaty flesh of the Beast, she finally stopped all backward motion, immediately changing direction, and with all the power she could muster flew directly into the roaring flames.

Shoving healing magic into her burning feathers and scorching flesh, Pearl ignored the throbbing agony. She’d never been beaten, and there was no way in Heaven or Hell some stupid freak of fucking nature was going to take her down this time.

Supreme magic, a perfectly powerful blend of light and dark, warm and cold, male and female wound around her, seeped into every cell of her body, and fueled her need to get to the other side of the monstrous mass. Sparks, bolts of pure white enchantment and dynamic intent, struck in every direction filling the air with the acrid scent of burnt Obscured and rotten eggs.

Closing her eyes against the caustic fumes, Pearl extended her other senses, using the Berserkers’ heartbeats as her beacon. Bursting through the last of the flames, dropping her feet onto the hard, cold stone of yet another alcove, her eyes popped open as she swung her wings in deliberate semi-circles, making sure the area was clear of adversaries.

Looking to her left and then her right, she searched for the Dragons. The beat of their hearts reverberated all around the tiny cavern, making locating their exact position impossible.

Spinning to the left as the sound of another battling through the glutinous muck reached her ears, Pearl shoved her back against the wall behind her and threw her talons to the front. Beckoning the magic of her kin at the precise moment that a brilliant flash of lightning filled the grotto, she was momentarily blinded and shocked immobile.

Refusing to be a sitting duck, rapidly blinking her eyes to clear the black spots impairing her vision, Pearl once again spread her mighty wings and swung their twelve-foot span in deadly semi-circles to both sides of her body. No sooner had the scratch of talons on stone reverberated off the walls then she was firing blasts of magic in every direction, hoping to stun the aggressor before she herself was attacked.

Scrambling, clawing, and inventive cursing was quickly followed by a screeched, “Whit tae hell, Pearl. Ye tryin’ tae burn me feathers off?” The flap of heavy wings, an ominous rumble of thunder, and yet another bolt of lightning shook the rocks as the voice once again roared, “Tis tae last time Ah’ll be savin’ yer arse! Of dat, ye kin be sure.”





Chapter Three





“Gwendolyn? Gwennie? Is that you?”

“A coorse, who tae hell else woud it be?” The Thunderbird scoffed. “Nae yer fancy man Dragon, dat’s fur sure.”

“Stop,” Pearl laughed. “He’s not that bad.”

“Dat’s no whit ye were sayin’ tae other day. Ye had us all laughin’ sae hard Ah were sure Ah’d piss me pants.”

Watching one of the six women she thought of as Sisters waving her long black and gray wings up and down was really disconcerting, especially when she was horribly out of focus. Then there were the ebony and stark white feathers of the crest atop her head standing at attention and the soft gray downy around her chin and covering her neck fluffed out like a cat’s tail when he’s seen a charging dog, and Pearl was finding it hard not to laugh out loud.

But the icing on the proverbial cake was Gwennie’s contralto voice complete with thick Scottish brogue coming from the Thunderbird’s granite-colored, hooked beak. Pearl’s disconcerting situation slipped into freaky and that made her blurt out, “You look like you have an owl’s face on an eagle’s body and those feathers sticking up on your head look like you fell outta the wrong side of your nest.”

“And yer coovered in god-awful goo. So, hush yer mouth.”

“Dammit if I don’t just love you,” Pearl chuckled before turning her focus back to the Berserkers.

“Yeah, ye say that noow, but there’s a cranky Dragon comin’ to sweep ye off yer feet.”

“Yeah, whatever. Let’s talk about my love life later,” the Stringes answered over her shoulder as she stepped forward while changing the tip of her right wing to her human hand.

“Whatchee doin’ over there?”

Running the tip of her fingers along the stone wall looking for an opening or a hidden passage to the Dragons, Pearl didn’t answer Gwendolyn, instead asking, “How did you know where I was?”

Chuckling as she mimicked Pearl’s actions and transformed her wing to her human hand, Gwendolyn tested the opposite wall and teased, “Ah followed yer scent. Ye reached oout tae me, but when Ah tried tae respond ye slammed the door shut. Ah figured ye needed me, so here Ah am.” Moving farther away, closer to the corner, the Thunderbird added, “And Ah see ye gotten yer big bad Stringes back, lucky you. Were the arse kissin’ ye had tae giv’ yer mum painful?”

“Naw, I didn’t even ask, but I have a sneaky suspicion it’s one of those limited time only deals my mother’s so fond of throwing at me.”

“Aye? Why’s dat?”

“It’s a mother versus daughter thing,” Pearl sighed before quickly apologizing, tired of thinking about her mother’s motives. “Sorry for shutting you out. It was done unconsciously. Did I call for anyone else?”

“Aye, ye did.” Gwennie’s response was little more than a whisper, making the Stringes cringe. “Th’ others are out wit’ tae Dragons.”

“Even Sadie and…” Stopping midsentence when her hand sunk into a mass of ooey, gooey, smelly Obscured guts masterfully disguised as stone, Pearl shrieked, “Gwennie! Gwennie, come here!”

At her side and fully human, Gwendolyn instantly shoved her hand into the fake wall alongside Pearl’s then spat, “Give tae all ye’ve got, me girl. Dis Beastie’s tryin’ tae close us oot. Lose tae feathers, less fur ‘em tae grab a hold tae.”

Changing from Stringes to her smaller human form faster than she ever had before then allowing herself to be pulled through the magical façade, Pearl took hold of Gwendolyn’s arm, dragging her along. Falling into yet another alcove, both Ladies landed on their knees, covered from head-to-toe with what could only be described as stinky, gummy afterbirth.

Struggling to her feet while still holding tight to her sister, Pearl was forced to push more enchantment into her preternatural sight to see anything in the total darkness. Searching the long narrow niche, the breath was stolen from her lungs as her eyes landed on the most horrendously grotesque sight she’d ever witnessed.

“Good Goddess in the Heavens, is th-that…is that them?” She stammered, tugging on Gwendolyn’s hand while frantically pointing with her free one. “How c-could that…”

“Holy shite! Whit tae fook has been done tae him?” Gwendolyn spat, pulling Pearl along as she stormed across the long length of the room, stopping just inches from the atrocity.

Stuck like a marionette who’d been trussed up in his own strings, hanging on the wall of the cave like a ludicrous macabre work of art was the Berserker Zared. Emaciated and sallow, his skin hung off his bones like dried out leather. His stomach sunken so deeply each and every notch in his spine stuck out like a perfectly stacked carton of a child’s Lincoln logs. Fighting to breathe, his lungs scarcely inflating against the cage of his ribs, his death-rattle wheeze brought tears to Pearl’s eyes.

Starting at his feet, refusing to look away until she’d assessed every inch of his body, her rage and fury burned bright, flaming within her as she took in the thick, muscular tentacles burrowed as deeply as they could go into either side of his neck. Constricting and expanding, a sickening sucking sound, reminding her of a child slurping soup, made her skin crawl as she watched the muscles in the Dragon’s neck falling to pieces right before her eyes.

Reaching forward in unison, Pearl and Gwendolyn each wrapped their hands around one of the rippling, slime-covered appendages and working in tandem without uttering a single word, the Ladies pulled with the magnanimous sum of their tremendous strength. Sickening gurgles accompanied ear-splitting howls as foul-smelling liquid and bits of rancid gore flew from the sprawling mouths of the animated trunks. Tossing them aside as she forced magic into her nails changing them to the talons of her Strix, Pearl tore at the knotted and barbed vines covering Zared’s torso while Gwendolyn ripped away the ones holding his legs.

Battling the ever-moving, constantly self-repairing organism while avoiding millions of sprawling mouths and sharp, deadly fangs, Gwendolyn growled, “Tis no workin’, Pearl. Tae wee bastards ere too fast.”

Stepping back along with her sister, the Strix raised her hands and pushed her palms towards the squealing, squirming mass. Throwing back her shoulders and planting her feet, she called forth the God-fire inherited from her mother, and taking careful aim, incinerated the pod of the Obscured spawn, leaving Zared completely untouched.

Racing forward, grabbing the Berserker in midair as he fell from the wall, she lowered him to the floor. In a flash, Gwendolyn appeared at her side, fell to the ground and began working to keep the Dragon alive. Shoving the remnants of burnt viscera and scorched slurry off his ashen skin, the Ladies laid their hands over his heart and together flooded his system with bursts of healing power and bits of their own life’s essence, forcing his heart to beat once again.

Tenuous moments ticked by as both Pearl and Gwendolyn worked and monitored, praying to Morrigan and the Goddess of All that Zared would live. Almost giving up hope, the Strix felt the presence of her mother a split-second before the caw of a Raven echoed through the alcove. As if a switch had been flipped, the Berserker’s heart was jumpstarted, beating strong and steady as his breathing deepened and evened out.

Getting to her feet, Pearl looked down at her sister, watching as Gwendolyn continued to blanket the Dragon with healing magic before announcing, “Hold down the fort, I’m going to get the others.”

Turning back towards the wall where they’d just released Zared, she took several steps backward, winked at Gwendolyn, and pushed off the opposite wall. Sprinting at full speed, diving through the remains of the Obscured, Pearl’s feet hit the ground on the other side running, just as Gwendolyn’s voice sounded in her mind, “Watch ye arse. Tae Beasties an’ their momma will be lookin’ fur vengeance.”

Beasties? She fucking said Beasties, as in more than one. Yeah. Sure. Why not? It’s been a blast so far. The more the merrier. Son of a bitch! This is the last time I EVER listen to my mother.





Chapter Four





Running down one tunnel then another and another, traveling closer and closer to the throat of the volcano, the craggy rock reservoir that was quickly filling with molten lava. Sweltering heat beat at her skin, blasts of searing steam burst from every crack, crevice and hole of the stone walls blistering her skin and singing her long platinum ponytail, but still she pressed on. The compulsion to heal and the pounding of their heartbeats in her ears simply could not be denied.

Speeding around a menagerie of huge stalagmites jutting from the floor like some kind of misshapen obstacle course, she zigged and zagged, around and around until she ran straight into a fork in the tunnels. Focusing left then right, picking up signs of life down both corridors, all she could do was follow her instincts and hope for the best. Walking instead of running, pushing her senses as far as ahead of her as they would go, she searched for what she now knew to be a male and female Berserker.

Moving at an angle downward, the floor of the mountain shook under her feet as she moved closer and closer to the magma chamber. This wasn’t the first volcano Pearl had been unfortunate enough to be inside of, but she damned sure hoped it was the last.

Sensing a darkness, a presence she hadn’t felt before and most certainly wasn’t thrilled to notice now, she pushed her Strix to the front of her mind almost immediately groaning when her alter ego instantly identified the intruder. Taking a single step forward, Pearl commanded, “I know you’re there. Come out of the shadows.”

A fine mist, ominous but at the same time somehow beautiful in its perfect mix of ebony and silver, floated across the corridor and flowed up the walls, creating a hauntingly spectacular backdrop as the Goddess of the Underworld appeared from within the vapor. Hel, the ruler of Hel - appointed by the God Odin as ruler of a realm of the same name, located in Niflheim, the daughter of Loki and the Giantess Angiboda, stood head and shoulders taller than Pearl’s five-foot-nine height. Hypnotic in her appearance and grace, Hel’s eyes, one shimmering, swirling gray with fire in the pupil and the other nothing but a milky white sphere, stared at Pearl, the power of her gaze a not unpleasant weight rolling over the Strix.

Waiting for the Goddess to speak, Pearl took a perusal of her own. She’d always heard of the Norse Goddess of the Underworld but had never seen her in person. It was not so much shocking as it was mind-bending to look at a woman who appeared to have been made from two equal parts of two others.

Split right down the middle, one half a fair maiden with flowing blond hair and all the attributes of a true beauty shoved up against its direct opposite – an old haggard crone. Hair as dark as night hung in long tangled clumps, her face, hand, and foot skeletal, and her robe tattered and torn. Hel was a true dichotomy of the best and worse in mankind and the realm which she ruled.

Holding out her maiden hand, her voice a hypnotic blend of scratchy and melodic, Hel softly inquired, “What is it you seek, Strix?”

“The lives of the Berserkers.” Pearl’s answer was quick and direct, met with an uncontrollable, instantaneous flair of reprimand that disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

I think I touched a nerve…

Retaining the façade of grace on the softer side of her face, Pearl couldn’t help but notice that the darker side of Hel was battling to remain control, her yellow and rotten teeth grinding in anger. There was something the Goddess wasn’t saying, something she was trying to hide, and Pearl simply didn’t have time to play diplomat.

Taking an aggressive step forward, letting the image of her Strix superimpose over her human form, the Demi-Goddess stood tall with her shoulders back, exuding all the confidence she could muster and challenged, “Is that a problem, most gracious and honorable Hel?”

‘Most gracious and honorable Hel’, my well-rounded, feathered backside, but Gwennie always says. ‘Ye git more flies wit honey’…

Eyes trained on Hel, Pearl watched as the Goddess slowly turned to the left, completely hiding her maiden and let her crone side answer, “Not a problem for me, little daughter of Morrigan.”

Hearing the unspoken ‘but’ at the end of Hel’s retort, Pearl took another step forward while letting the snap of her magic dance in front of the Goddess. Pausing for dramatic effect while sweat poured down her back, arms and face, she slowly nodded, “So what will the problem be for me, Goddess Hel?” She leaned forward and smirked, “And can we leave my mother out of this? As you can see, I’m all on my own.”

Throwing back her head, Hel’s maniacal cackle filled the tunnel, “You are just as I was told, brave and posturing with the brains and brawn to back up your words, but I wonder…”

It was hard for Pearl not to scream for the Goddess to continue as Hel stood sneering while tapping her fetid teeth with the tip of the bone of her index finger. Working hard not to move, not to blink or even breathe, the Strix’s muscles shook with the need to lash out and remove Hel from her path.

If only…

“Don’t do anything stupid. I’m right behind you.” Kayne’s voice whispered in her mind. “Keep Hel busy. I’ve located Zaira and Arie.”

“But…”

“But nothing.” He asserted. “Do as I say and run when I tell you to run.”

“I’ll do what I like when I like you arrogant…” But he was gone, had severed their connection. The jerk was absolutely exasperating and overbearing, and Pearl hated that she actually liked it.

Ignoring the effect her Dragon had on her, she instead countered Hel’s unasked question. “What do you wonder, Goddess Hel? What must I do for you to grant favor on my request?”

Turning so quickly Pearl saw only a blur, Hel spoke with a pleasant, almost calming tone from the maiden side of her face. “And humble, too. You are a most pleasant opponent, Pearl, daughter of Morrigan. Your mother has much to be proud of.”

Knowing when she was being baited but still wondering what Hel was up to, Pearl relaxed her posture and bowed her head in faked reverence. “Thank you, Goddess Hel. My mother will be pleased to hear your compliment.”

“I didn’t say to kiss her ass,” Kayne scoffed.

“You didn’t say not to, either,” Pearl countered. “Besides, you were supposed to stay with the others.”

“Yeah, fat chance.”

Once again, her Dragon was silent, and Pearl was able to give Hel, who was once again talking, her full attention.

“I think a challenge would be nice. We, the gifts from the stupid Fairies and myself, have after all had these Dragons, the ones you call the Berserkers, for such a long time. They are, how do you say, thought of as members of the family.”

Whipping to the other side, once again showing the old hag, her voice gravelly with the unholy rasp of the undead, Hel continued, “I could not just let them go.” She strummed her skeletal fingers on the shaft of her staff made of the backbone of a giant. “This is a crucial time in the children of the Obscured lifespan. Nourishment is most important.”

Right then and there, Pearl had confirmation of what she’d already been sure of, Hel was not going to let the Dragons go, and if she got her way she was going to keep Pearl as well. The prophecy she’d seen when first entering the cave was the machination of the Goddess of the Underworld. It had been her plan all along to use the Obscured and its nasty little Beasties to tunnel her way into Hell, into the heart of the Devil’s Lair, and to somehow join forces with the Fallen One and bring death and destruction to the world.

There had to be something Pearl could do. Had to be a way to stop Hel and the Obscured. She was a Demi-Goddess for fuck sake. That at least meant she could keep Hell busy for a minute or two. Maybe it would be the time Kayne needed to get the other two Berserkers and that Gwendolyn needed to get Zared back to his brother.

Removing the lid she’d put on her magic and letting it fill every fiber of her being, Pearl continued to talk to Hel, trying to keep the Goddess unaware of her plans. “So, your plan is to have me battle one of your warriors for the right to save the Dragons and if I win, your man becomes dinner of the Obscured, but if I lose I’m the Beastie Chow?”

Cackling once again, pounding the bottom of her staff against the stone floor, Hel nodded, “You are a smart one, little Strix. Do you agree to my terms?”

“Noo, she does not agree tae anythin’, ye daft hag.” A deep Scottish brogue and a whip snap of powerful magic flew through the cavern. “Tis ye whoo shall feel tae cold steel of me blade.”

Appearing on yet another blast of mysticism that damn near knocked Pearl on her ass, Arawn, the Celtic God of the Underworld, Terror, Revenge, and War, and also her uncle in a weird, roundabout way, made his grand entrance. Standing between Pearl and Hel, facing the Goddess, his seven-and-a-half-foot frame blocked everything from the Strix’s sight.

The horns jutting from either side of his gleaming helmet cast wicked shadows in the glow of the volcano’s flames with his long black hair flowing from his muscular frame like a cloak. Fire danced in the silver of his armor, but it was the blade of his sword, forged by Giobhniu - God of Weaponry – infused with the power to never miss a target that made Pearl smile.

Of course, her excitement was short lived when Kayne’s shout cut through her mind a second before she was hurdling through time, space, and stone. “Change of plan. You’re coming to me.”





Chapter Five





“You have got to be kidding me.” She jumped to her feet, doubled up her fist and swung it at Kayne’s head. Sadly missing the melon she was now sure contained no brain at all, she continued to scream. “You had the ability to teleport us all the whole damn time and waited until now to use it?”

Ignoring her as he grabbed her hand and dragged her into a long thin room that could only be described as a mausoleum, Pearl tugged at her hand, slapped and punched his back as she ranted, “And now you’re manhandling me. What. Is. Wrong. With. You?”

Stopping short, dropping her hand and spinning around, he grabbed her by the shoulders, picked her up, and shoved her in front of him. Refraining from kicking him in the crotch, she fought to pay attention when pointed forward and demanded, “Shut up and look.”

Dumbstruck, everything she’d just seen, heard, and thought running on rewind through her mind, Pearl started to slowly shake her head as everything suddenly became vividly clear. “There’s more than just the Dragons in here?” She pointed at the rows of holes cut into the stone, sadness filling her heart, as her next whispered question floated through the sweltering air as she looked left and then right, unable to fathom the sheer number of compartments lining the wall in front and behind her as far as the eye could see. “Every one of these has someone in it?”

“Sadly, no longer,” came Kayne’s abrupt reply. “But they did.”

Mourning the loss of his touch as he lifted his hands from her shoulders and took a step back, she spun around, took hold of her frustration and anger with both hands, and poked her Dragon in the chest. “Are your Berserkers in here? Are there any others we can save? What are we waiting on? Do you just like sweating your ass off? What the hell is wrong with you? We gotta move.”

Watching the shit-eating smirk Kayne had been wearing every single time she’d laid eyes on him spread across his supremely handsome face both infuriated and excited Pearl, but when he waggled his eyebrows and chuckled, “Whoa, Babe, give a guy a chance to speak,” Pearl once again happily entertained the idea of punching him in the nose as he continued to smile.

However, before she could come up with a witty retort, she remembered where and how she’d left Gwendolyn and once again poked him in the chest as she snarled, “And what about Gwennie, huh, Hot Shot? Did you just zoom right past and leave her to deal with your dying kin on her own? Leave her to the mercy of the fucking Obscured?”

Doing an about-face, Pearl made it exactly three steps before Kayne whooshed by and stopped right in front of her effectively blocking her path and stopping her grand exit. Returning his hand to her shoulder as his cocky grin turned to a seriously unhappy frown, he retaliated with more than a little disgust in his voice. “Of course, I didn’t leave her. What kind of asshole do you think I am?” He shook his head before continuing, “Damn, woman, you sure know how to crush a man’s spirit.” Sighing with so much emphasis his shoulders rose and fell before he continued, he rolled his eyes, “She’s important to you and therefore, important to me. Ya’ gotta know that. Besides, Sadie, Phryne, and the rest of your Sisters would’ve skinned me alive. They had the look of a lynch mob gleaming in their eyes when I said I had a plan to get you and the Berserkers out of here.” Stepping so close her senses were overwhelmed with the scent of an open fire and fresh morning sunshine almost making her forget she was thinking of skinning him alive, the Demi-God teased, “And, believe me, Pearl, my lovely mate,” the sound of her name on his lips did awful, horrible, wonderful, magical things to her heart. “I need all that skin for when I finally get you alone.”

Listing forward, her libido kicked into overdrive and her body wholeheartedly made plans to betray her. Looking into Kayne’s deep blue eyes, watching the way his long blond hair caught the light of the flames, and the feel of the electricity of their connection zipping and zapping its way through her body, all thoughts of saving anyone was pushed from her consciousness as she dreamt of kissing her mate until neither one of them could remember their names.

“Darlin’, you keep looking at me like you’re gonna gobble me up and I might just let you.”

BAM! The door of her arousal slammed shut. Her Strix shook the confines of her mind with an ear-splitting screech of extreme disappointment. It felt as if a huge bucket of icy water had been thrown over her head. And to make matters worse, Kayne was once again smirking, his sheer pleasure at her embarrassment dancing in his eyes.

I feel like a teenager caught mooning over a hot footballer…

Refusing to give her Dragon the satisfaction to be ashamed of her feelings, Pearl marched away. The feel of his eyes caressing her back and settling on her ass made shivers run up and down her spine as she called over her shoulder, “So, how do we do this. Time’s wastin’, Dragon man.” Then added, much more softly, “And thanks for the save back there. I’ve never run into Hel before.”

“No worries,” came her mate’s breezy reply. “I’ll always have your back. Besides, Arawn owed me one and when I said it was for you, he came running.” Walking past her, he winked, “Nice to have family in high places, huh?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Stopping a few feet in front of her, Kayne’s expression went from carefree to stubbornly determined in the blink of an eye. “All we have to do is hold hands, reach for one another through our mating bond, and by combining our powers, I’ll transport them and us out of here.” He reached for her hand, adding, “At least in theory.”

Jumping back as if she’d been shocked with a hundred volts, Pearl screamed, “In theory? Did you fucking say in theory?”

Sadly, she didn’t get to hear his answer as at that very moment, the Devil’s Kiss decided it had had enough. The ground shook, great blasts of boiling stream shot from every hole and orifice of granite and stone, and a groan that sounded like a few hundred giants snoring the night away rendered Pearl momentarily deaf.

Barely staying on her feet, she reached for the wall at the same time she reached for Kayne. Feeling his fingers slip through hers right before she fell flat on her ass, Pearl’s head slammed into the rock wall as she screamed, “Watch out!”

Fighting to get to her feet but settling for her knees, Pearl scampered as quickly as she could towards the unmoving body of her mate. Dodging flames, falling on her face more times than she cared to count, every inch of her body being battered by falling rocks and massive chunks of hardened lava, she finally reached Kayne and had just pulled him onto her lap when an otherworldly howl cut through the cacophony, shaking the rafters almost as much as the erupting volcano.

Slapping Kayne’s face as she poured every bit of magic she could muster into his body and soul, Pearl looked behind her just in time to see a massive fissure in the rock rapidly snaking its way towards her and her mate. Sliding out from under Kayne, she jumped to her feet, slipped her hands under his arms, and moving as quickly as she could tried to outrun what was swiftly become a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon.

Tripping over her feet and going down hard, Pearl was forced to admit the inevitable, there was nothing left to do but prepare for one hell of a fall. Covering Kayne with her own body and holding on tight, she murmured, “Hear me and hear me well, you bloody arrogant Dragon, if we make it out of this alive, I swear to all that’s holy that I’m gonna kick your ass into the next millennium.”





Chapter Six





Falling farther and farther into the pit, closer and closer to the flames of the Underworld while being forced to listen to Hel’s gloating chortles of glee washed every speck of fear, leaving behind a whole lot of pure, seething rage. Holding on to Kayne as tightly as she could, screaming for her mother, his father, and damn near every other deity in the universe, Pearl called to the Strix with whom she shared her soul, begging, “Come on, Old Girl, let that Stringes free. We need to get the hell outta here before we become the main course of one of Hel’s baddies.”

Feeling the mysticism of the ages welling up inside her, her muscles relaxing and her joints beginning to elongate, she breathed deeply welcoming the transformation. Envisioning the giant owl in her mind, compelling the mighty creature to hold onto their mate as she made the change, Pearl let out the breath she’d been holding and whispered into Kayne’s mind, “We’re gonna get…”

Stopping in midair, stuck between woman and Stringes, her transformation halted, her body shaking with the need to be one being or another, Pearl opened to her mouth to curse only to find she couldn’t even speak. Hanging for what seemed like forever, but was actually less than a second, she once again found herself hurdling through time, space, and huge chucks of rock and lava, still clutching her mate.

Gritting her teeth as her butt landed with a thump and a thud on what had to be six solid feet of concrete, Pearl reversed her unfinished transformation and jumped to her feet. Stepping over her mate, feeling the presence of another she couldn’t tell was friend or foe, she struck out with a blast of magic while her vision was still little more than blurry swipes of light and dark. Turning in complete circles, letting her magic fly wildly, she roared, “Whoever the fuck you are, get the hell away from me and mine!”

Discharging one final, massively destructive bolt of her magic, knowing she’d hit her target by the grunt, groan, and snarled, “Son of a bitch!” It took barely two seconds for her to hold up her hands in surrender and quickly apologize, “Oh damn! I am so sorry, Uncle Arawn. I thought you were Hel, or Gods forbid, another frikkin’ piece of that bloody Obscured.”

Stepping backward until the back of her ankle touched Kayne, still lying where she’d left him, Pearl rapidly blinked her eyes, trying to clear her vision while holding her hands out in front of her as a sign of surrender. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Arawn, exactly, it was just that, well, …he was the King of the Underworld, a God of the Celtic Pantheon, and most importantly to the Strix in that moment, the brother of one of her mother’s forms – the Crone.

Praying that Arawn had saved her and her mate from certain death to return to them to the land of the living and not some deep dark hole in the Pits of the Underworld, Pearl quickly apologized, “Oh shit! I am so sorry. I didn’t know it was you, Uncle Arawn.”

Reminding him that we are related couldn’t hurt, right?

“Are you okay?” Rushing forward, still seeing three blurry visions of the very big, very scary, not known for his ability to forgive, God of Hell, she aimed for the center one, reaching out for his arm, and shoving healing magic into him as quickly as she could. “If I’d have known it was you, I would’ve…”

“Kicked me in the balls instead?”

Unsure if that was a joke either from his tone or the blank expression on his face, Pearl started laughing as hard as she could, even slapping her leg for emphasis, but it wasn’t until Arawn grinned and pulled her into a bear hug that she really actually breathed. Ignoring the pinch and poke of his steel armor, she delicately extricated herself from his arms, looked him in the eyes and sincerely apologized, “Seriously, Arawn, I am so sorry. I have no excuse for not using my senses to see who you were. All I can say is that it’s been a helluva a day.”

“No shit,” he sniggered. “You even pulled out the ‘Uncle Arawn’ to be sure I didn’t blast your ass to Hell and back.”

Laughing along but keeping her guard up, Pearl admitted, “Yep, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, and I’m never sure who mom’s pissed off. You know I have to play ‘Cover My Ass’ where she’s concerned.”

“That I do.” His wide-eyed expression said that as per usual, the siblings were not on good terms. Thankfully most of the Gods and Goddesses knew that Pearl was her own person and didn’t hold her responsible for her mother’s misdeeds.

One of the advantages of being a couple thousand years old…

Changing the subject, Arawn pointed over her shoulder asking, “What about loverboy over there? Need me to call Lugh? I really don’t want to argue with that guy if I can help it. He has a really bad habit of blinding me with a ray of sun and then hitting below the belt.” Shaking his head, the Lord of Hell added, “I know he just does that shit because he can, pretty much the same reason I enjoy blasting his uptight ass with hellfire, but still.”

“No, I got this.” She rotated to the side so she could see Arawn and Kayne with little more than a turn of her head as she went on, “Now that I don’t have to fight Hel and her nasty Beast, I’ll get him up and moving.” Sidestepping towards her uncle, Pearl laid her hand on his forearm. “By the way, thanks for that, too. I have no clue what she had planned for me, but damn am I glad you showed up.”

“No problem, just don’t tell all your mother’s offspring. Let’s face it, they’re all wastes of space. You’ve always been the one with any potential at all.”

Shocked by Arawn’s unsolicited compliment, Pearl smiled as she patted his arm as she mumbled, “Thanks. That seriously means a lot.

“Yeah, well it’s the truth.” The King of the Underworld took a step back, ran his chainmail-gloved hand through his long dark hair in the first and only sign of nerves she’d ever seen him express before continuing, “I left Hel alive only because I had to. She’s got her place in this crazy universe just as you and I do, that fuckin’ Abomination She’s protecting has got to go.”

Leveling his gaze and furrowing his brow, Arawn added, “I’m leaving that shit to you and Lugh’s boy. Make me proud.”

Opening her mouth to ask if he knew exactly how to get rid of the Obscured, Pearl suddenly remembered Gwendolyn and the Berserkers and blurted out, “Oh my Heavens, you have to put me back in there! I have to get Gwennie and the Dragons.”

Holding up his hand and shaking his head as Pearl was literally freaking out, Arawn ordered in a low ominous tone, “Stop! Take a breath.”

Halting midstep and staring at the God of the Underworld, Pearl felt as if she was going to hyperventilate, have a coronary, and lose her mind all at the same time. Gasping for air when Arawn finally spoke, she let her foot hit the ground as he explained, “I got ‘em all. They’re down there,” He pointed over his left shoulder, “on the banks of the Amazon.”

Putting his helmet back on his face with his fingers on the face shield, he added, “You should probably get down there too before Devil’s Kiss blows.”

“Sure. Yeah. Thank you so much.”

The words were barely out of her mouth before Arawn simply disappeared. Looking one way and then the other before turning a complete circle, Pearl finally got her bearings, realized that she and Kayne were atop a neighboring mountain. Walking to the edge, she located her Sisters and the Dragons exactly where her uncle had said, before heading back to her mate.

Kneeling down, trying to decide if she was going to carry him down the mountain or let her Strix come forth and carry him, Pearl shrieked in surprise as Kayne rolled over, flashed her a dazzling smile, and snickered, “Whatcha say we get the hell outta dodge?”





Chapter Seven





“You…*slap*…Stupid…*slap*…Pain in the ass…*slap, slap, slap*.

Recognizing the look in Kayne’s eyes, and absolutely refusing to go twisting and twirling through whatever magical portal, vortex, or whozeywhatsit he was about to call up, she grabbed both his hands, looked him right in the eye and snarled, “Hold it right there, Chief.”

Using the death grip she had on his fists to jerk her towards him, Pearl was helpless but to fall forward and happier than she wanted to admit when her lips met his. Pulling his hands from hers they were instantly in her hair, on her shoulders, running down her back, and grabbing handfuls of her well-rounded ass.

Granting him entrance the moment the tip of his tongue touched the seam of her lips, Pearl was transported to another place and time, somewhere she’d always dreamt of, but had been pretty sure she would never find. Arousal thickened in every fiber of her being, growing exponentially with every drugging swipe of his tongue against hers.

Whimpering with need as Kayne delved deeper and deeper, fanning the flames of desire with his every erotic move, Pearl felt her arousal wet the crotch of her panties as her body yearned to be one with his. Climbing over her, gently lowering his body onto hers, Pearl reveled at the perfect synchronicity of the moment and the flawless way her Dragon’s rock-hard body melded against her curves.

Wrapping her legs around his waist, holding him as close as possible, she moaned into their embrace as Kayne rocked his hips between her legs, bumping her clit making it throb with the need to come. Raking her nails down his back, Pearl pulled him closer, gripping the muscular cheeks of his ass to keep him where she needed him most.

His answering growl, rumbled through her body, setting her on fire from the inside out. Sparks of their connection, pure combustive electricity shot to her core and ignited her lust. Never in all her years had she needed anyone as much as she needed Kayne in that very moment.

Caressing up and down his spine and roaming his body, she kneaded and massaged his muscles, needing to mark every inch of his body with her scent. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. Her world started and ended with Kayne, on that mountaintop and nothing else mattered.

Moaning at the loss as he pulled his lips from hers, Pearl sighed in ecstasy as Kayne kissed and nibbled his way across her jaw and down her throat. Sucking the tender skin where her neck met her shoulder between his lips and teased her pounding jugular with his teeth and tongue, she swore stars bursts behind her eye lids as he let his canines slide through her skin.

“Oh, my Goddess, you’re making me…” Unable to complete her thought as he withdrew his fangs from her neck and licked the mark she knew he’d left, leaving her mind blank and her hormones on overdrive.

“I’m makin’ you mine, my sweet little Pearl,” her Dragon grinned, raising his head and staring at her cleavage as it nearly popped out of the V-neck of her stretched out T-shirt.

Unconsciously raising her chest to meet his fingers as he trailed the backs of them along the lacey top of her bra, Pearl was sure she’d died and gone to Heaven when Kayne’s sexy lips broke into an all too wicked smile as he purred, “Like that, do ya’?”

Before she could answer, he was gripping the neckline of her shirt, ripping down the center, and throwing it open. Not realizing the talons of his Dragon had pushed through the end of his fingers, Pearl gasped as in a single swipe, Kayne cut through the center of her bra, relieving her of that piece of clothing as well. Holding her eyes hostage with his smoldering gaze, Pearl struggled to keep from passing out when his hand closed over her breast, massaged her heated flesh, and rubbed her already hardened nipple with his calloused palm.

“Gorgeous,” he groaned, kissing his way up the side of her breast,

Biting her tongue to keep from screaming her head off, Pearl damned near lost consciousness when Kayne nipped the tip of her nipple a split-second before he sucked it into the warm, wet heat of his mouth. Lavishing it with his tongue, sucking hard on her skin, her Dragon growled low in his throat, every vibration sending a direct bolt of lightning to her clit, making her pussy contract with the need to have her mate buried deep within her.

Desire. Yearning. Uncontrollable Hunger.

All the years of fantasizing about this moment… All the erotic dreams she’d hidden from her Sisters… All the times she’d tried to deny what Fate and the Universe had set into motion… None of it… Nothing… Not one second, had prepared her for the feel of Kayne’s sexy mouth on hers, the feel of his body pressing into hers, or the hard column of his cock rubbing against her wet and needy pussy. She was in Heaven and never wanted to fall to Earth.

Shoving her fingers into his long, silky hair, she fisted the strands, as she begged, “Please… Please… Kayne, please…”

Over and over. Nip. Suck. Lick. Again and Again. The quickening of her arousal made her wild with need. Lost to what she and Kayne were together, Pearl barely realized him unlocking her legs from his waist and jerking the jeans from her body.

Letting go of his hair and spreading her legs, Pearl lifted her hips as she waited to welcome the long, hard length of her mate into her body. Popping her head off the ground and prying her eyes open when the stubble of his jaw teased the inside of her thigh, her heart skipped a beat when he snarled, “Mine.”

Shocked by how much his macho Dragon bullshit turned her on, all thought evaporated from her mind when he blew concentrated puffs of hot air on her pussy. Squirming and lifting her butt off the ground, trying to force Kayne where she needed him most, anticipation danced across her nerve-endings as he pushed her legs open wider with the bulky muscles of his broad shoulders.

“Kayne…” Her order turned to a moan of sheer pleasure the second the rough tip of his tongue flicked the tip of her clit. Lust exploded within every cell of her body and raced through her veins, landing straight in her core.

Licking her pussy, thrusting his tongue as far as it would go then immediately pulling out and teasing her clit, Kayne started a frantic rhythm, repeating the motion over and over until she hurtled into her orgasm, screaming his name to the Heavens. Grabbing his hair, pushing her pussy tight against his face, she dug her nails into his scalp as she rode the waves of her release.

Still soaring somewhere in the stratosphere, unable to catch her breath, Pearl’s world spun before her barely open eyes as Kayne flipped her onto her stomach. Wrapping his hands over her hips, he pulled her onto her knees, kissing down her spine, his appreciative growls sending scrumptious vibrations throughout her body.

Throwing her hair to the side, Pearl glanced over her shoulder, and with a wicked grin, purred, “Waiting for an invitation, Dragon Man?”

“Don’t need one. You’re already mine, Winged Lady.” Pushing his hips to her ass and laying his hands next to hers on the ground, Kayne caged Pearl in as he whispered all the naughty, wonderful things he was going to do to her.

Hanging her head as the tip of his cock teased her sensitive lips, her breath caught in her lungs as he slowly pushed the head of his cock into her. Slowly, inch by delicious inch, his thick, hard erection filled her so fully that she felt the walls of her pussy contracting and stretching pulling him in until he could go no farther.

Kissing her neck, his chest tight to her back, Kayne quickly pulled back until he almost fell from her body then faster and harder thrust back in. Again and again, he drove in and out, rolling his hips, touching her everywhere, driving her mad with the need to come.

Faster than before, she was riding the edge of ecstasy, her orgasm barreling through her body like a runaway train. Over and over, his fingers digging into her waist, the sound of their bodies slapping together, her skin felt too tight, her heart beat too fast, she was panting and begging, “Kayne… Oh my Goddess, Kayne… please.”

“Say it, Pearl. Tell me who you belong to.”

Her body tightened around his. The culmination of every fable, myth, and bedtime story she’d been told about the One the Universe had made for her was coming true and Destiny help her, she wanted to answer him.

“You. I belong to you, Kayne.”

No sooner had the words crossed her lips than her Dragon lost all control. Fucking her with a passion that could only come from Fate, Destiny, the Universe and the Gods’ blessing, Kayne loved her hard, deep, and with just the perfect amount of aggression, and Heavens help her, she begged for more.

Lights flashed before her eyes. She felt as if she was floating. Her body was on fire from the inside out. Nothing and no one had ever mattered like Kayne did in that moment.

Snarling her name, his cock marking her from the inside out, she could hear his thoughts, and knew he was just as gone as she. Lifting her knees from the ground as he thrust deeper and harder than ever before, Kayne commanded, “Come for me.”

And she did.

Flying high. Sure she was about to lose consciousness, Pearl had never imagined it could get better, then he bit her. The second his canines slid into the exact same spot he’d bitten her before, her world shifted on its axis.

Mind, body, and soul, she shattered. Everything flashed into overdrive. Colors, like fireworks, burst in front of her eyes. Pure unadulterated joy filled her center and spread through her body, her heart taking flight as Kayne roared, “Mine.”

Thickening inside her, pushing her body as far as it would go, wringing orgasm after orgasm out of her, Kayne came over and over in short, jerky bursts. Growling her name and sweet sentiments in Gaelic was sexy as hell and made her heart do silly little flip-flops that any other time she would’ve denied.

Pulling from her while her body was still experiencing tiny shockwaves, Kayne lifted her from the ground and in one fluid motion laid on his back and placed her beside him with her head on his chest and his arm wrapped securely around her. Satiated and feeling treasured as he ran his fingers through her hair, Pearl had just let her eyes slide shut when Gwennie’s irritated voice blasted through her mind.

“Good Lawdy, Pearl, did ye really stop in tae middle of all this shite tae have a shag?”





KAYNE





Chapter Eight





“So, you thought there was time for a little get-to-know-your-mate hanky-panky while the world was deciding if it was going to come to an end or not?” Drago snickered, the brogue of his homeland heavy on his voice. “I thought Orion was going to have to tie his Sadie to a tree. She was threatening to burn you at the stake, along with a few other colorful ideas about your ‘twig and berries’.”

Rolling his eyes, but taking his punishment like a man, Kayne couldn’t help sliding his eyes towards Pearl as she and her Sisters knelt twenty or so feet away, tending to the unconscious and battered Berserkers. Even without his enhanced hearing and the strong mating bond he shared with his mate, the Demi-God could tell that the extremely diverse group of female Shifters, known as the Ladies of the Sky, each had very definite ideas of what they’d like to do to him for ‘taking advantage’ of their sister.

“Wasn’t it you who said something about being a confirmed bachelor?” Angus, another of the elite Enforcers and brother to Drago, chuckled as he slapped Kayne on the back, pulling him from his thoughts. “Oh, my Heavens, how the mighty have fallen.”

“What was it you said,” Orion, yet another of the famed Enforcers whose mate just happened to be the Leader of the Ladies of the Sky, Sadie, one of the only female Dragons left in existence and a Queen no less, teased, his dark eyes dancing with glee. “Only the weak fall for the charms of their mate when they first find her.” Nodding his head as his sniggers turned into all-out laughter, he swatted Uther on the shoulder as he added, “Even those of us who’d been buried underground for a century at least waited ‘til we were alone.”

“At least give me a break on that one,” Kayne playfully scoffed. “I’ve known where she was for quite a while, even met her a few times, dad saw to that. It just took us a bit to get it all together.”

“And then BOOM went the fireworks, am I right?” Uther chimed in with a knowing nod.

“Well, at least I didn’t go running into a volcano to save…” Stopping mid-sentence, realizing that he’d just profoundly screwed up, Kayne had to laugh right along with his Brethren. Of course, Drago, the Assassin to those who’d fought against him, had to add, “Jumping through fire, battling demons, it’s all part of the mating process. Surely, you figured that out by now.”

“Damn sure should’ve,” the Demi-God chuckled. “And I’m somehow sure every last one of you has made sure that Maddox and the others know what a sorry, lovesick drake I’ve been?”

Their laughter grew louder at his mention of the one known as the Mad Dragon. Not only was Maddox an incredibly magical Dragon, who’d studied damn near every text ever created by all of Dragon kin, he was also mated to the Grande Priestess of Earthen Witches – the single most powerful Witch in the entire universe. As if that wasn’t enough to set the old man apart, Maddox had lived alone, atop his very own mountain for decades, and during that time had become grumbling, growling, and prone to talking to himself. Hence the moniker, Mad Dragon.

“Doxie t’was tae first one we called while waitin’ fur ye to come oot.” Drago’s brogue grew stronger and stronger the longer they all stood and joked. It was a sure sign he was becoming more comfortable with his surroundings.

“Well, I wanna thank each of you so much for making sure he knew,” Kayne chided sarcastically. “You know he made sure to tell damn near everyone just to make sure I get my fair share of teasing when we get back.”

“Why the hell else would we have done it?” Angus laughed just as Uther’s expression turned dark and he looked from side to side.

“Have you seen King?”

“Not since I got down here,” Kayne answered, walking towards the Enforcer who’d only been back above ground for less than a week. “I’m sure he’s just sniffin’ around. Isn’t that what jaguar’s do?”

“Indeed, it is.” A deep, rumbling voice with a Latin accent answered. “But then again, not all cats are as they seem.”

“Thanks,” the Demi-God shook the King’s hand before continuing, “But I’m pretty sure you already had that figured out.” Dropping his hand to his side and grinning as Max stepped back, he added, “By the way, how are things with your feathered lady.”

Scratching at the dark stubble covering his jaw, the King chuckled mischievously, “A gentleman never kisses and tells.” Clearing his throat and continuing before Kayne could continue to poke fun at him, Max motioned to the man beside him then looked at Uther. “It is good to see you alive and well, mi amigo.”

“Good to see.” The Enforcer’s reply was somewhat strained as if he also knew what was coming next.

Never one to beat around the bush, Max quickly went on, “This is Lucian, a member of my pride. And I must apologize for his subterfuge. He has been a loner his entire life and only recently came to us. It is not an excuse for his behavior, only an explanation which comes with my sincere promise that he will be punished for not identifying himself sooner.”

Nodding, Uther stepped forward and held out his hand to Lucian. As they shook, the Guardsman acquiesced, “There’s no need for punishment. He was a great help to me.”

“As you wish,” was Max’s only reply before he was once again smiling as he explained, “It was Lucian who called me here. He feared that you,” the Panther King nodded towards Kayne, “Had been lost to the Devil’s Kiss.”

“No, I made it out, but only with the help of Arawn and Pearl.”

At the mention of her name, Pearl’s eyes met his forcing the Demi-God to summon all his considerable control not to go to her. Reaching through their bond, he spoke directly into her mind, “Don’t you think it’s about time to get everyone outta here?”

“It is and not just so we can be alone…again.”

The stern tone she pushed into her voice didn’t cover the smoky, sexy tenor that made his Dragon groan. Quick with a comeback, Kayne teased, “You wanna tell me you weren’t thinking about it, too?”

“Hush,” she scolded. “And stop reading my mind. We almost have Zared stable enough to fly.”

“And the other two? Zaira and Arie?”

“Physically, they’re both doing pretty good. It’s mentally, at least for Zaira, that is giving Phryne the most worry.”

He loved Pearl’s sultry, contralto voice and the way her lilting British accent made everything sound so perfectly proper. It was nearly as wonderful as her tall, sleek body, her beautiful platinum hair that reached just the top of her pert, round ass, and hypnotic lavender eyes. Kayne had known for quite a long time that the Strix was his mate, but he’d never imagined reacting to her in such a way.

Feeling Pearl’s frustration and lag in answering, he hurriedly asked, “Why is Phryne concerned? Do they know one another?”

“Of course, they do. Oh, wait,” her agitation turned to snickering. “Is there actually something the great son of Lugh doesn’t know?”

“There’s a whole shitload of things I don’t know. But if you keep teasing me, I am absolutely sure of one thing…” He let the naughty images that had been parading through his mind since the moment she’d used her magic to dress them both after their unexpected coupling flow to her. Smiling from ear-to-ear when a soft pink blush covered her porcelain skin, he added, “I’m going to run over there, throw you over my shoulder, carry you off to a secluded island, and have my wicked way with you. Now, tell me how Zaira and Phryne are connected.”

Laughing nervously, obviously trying to hide her arousal from her Sisters, she replied, “You know Zaira is part Valkyrie, yes?”

“Yeah, that’s common knowledge.”

Well, Phryne is Zaira’s…”

Whatever she was about to say was cut off as a fierce roar of absolute dominance and unyielding mastery resonated straight through the Demi-God. Vibrating his very core, demanding his Dragon respond in kind, it left no doubt of the owner’s supremacy and willingness to fight.

Sprinting towards Pearl, watching as she dropped to her knees, he barely reached her in time to cover her body with his own before the ground began to shake. Appearing as if out of the mist, came seven feet of pissed off, out for blood, revenge-seeking Berserker Dragon who snatched Phryne off the ground and in a single mighty leap, took flight.

Watching the Amethyst Dragon, covered in the impenetrable scales of her Warrior form, breathing fire across the sky, roaring her defiance at her years of imprisonment was both glorious and terrifying. Was she in her right mind? Would she hurt Phryne? Where was she going?

Something was very wrong. Someone had called her from her deep sleep with the sole purpose of awakening her Berserker.

Looking down as Pearl’s hand touched his chest, Kayne could see the defiance in his mate’s eyes, was sure he knew what she was about to say, but prayed he was wrong. Unfortunately, just as every other time in his life, Fate decided to reach up and whap him on the back of the head as his lovely mate growled, “Phryne is Zaira’s steed. Has been for centuries.”

“Then Phryne should be able to talk some sense into Zaira, right?”

Shaking her head as everyone around them scrambled to get ready to return to the Lair of the Blue Thunder Dragons, Pearl sadly replied, “I don’t know. Phryne had stormed off in a huff the night Zaira disappeared, and…”

Her voice cracked with emotion, leaving Kayne to finish, “And you fear that Zaira holds a grudge.” Not needing confirmation, he added, “Well, hell, looks like we’ll be trackin’ a Berserker. Some days this whole Guardsman/Demi-God thing is a real pain in the ass.”





Chapter Nine





“Have you heard anything yet?”

“Nope.” Kayne shook his head then looked up at Pearce, the most patient, Zen Dragon he’d ever met. “Not a damn word.”

“And Pearl doesn’t want you asking your father, but she’s talking to Morrigan?”

The look on Pearce’s face said it all. He thought Kayne was completely and totally wrapped around Pearl’s wing. Maybe he was right, but the Demi-God was nowhere near ready to concede defeat.

“The Berserkers are Morrigan’s. She gave them the gift and on this, I agree with Pearl. It should be the Great White Goddess who tracks Zaira down.” Picking a piece of imaginary lint from his jeans, he went on, “Besides, I’m somehow sure dear old dad would shit in his shorts if I ask him to help Morrigan in any way. Their relationship has been less than amicable for a couple of centuries now.”

“I hear ya’.” Pearce sighed. “Sometimes I think that old saying about absolute power is right.”

“In the case of the Celtic Pantheon it damn sure is.” No longer able to sit still, Kayne got up from the bench in the Serenity Garden where he’d been hiding out and started to pace. Deciding to talk about something, anything, that wasn’t his mate, he asked, “Is Uther still mad about King the jaguar being Lucian the Jaguar Shifter and keeping him in the dark for so long?”

“Nah,” Pearce snickered, leaning back and crossing his legs. “From what I hear, Drago, Alicia and Mara talked him through it and after he went for a long walk, he came back with Lucian and everything was hunky-dory.”

“Somehow the expression hunky-dory and Uther just don’t go together,” Kayne laughed out loud. “He always was a brooding old cuss and after all he’s been through, well, in the words of Yoda, the brood is strong with that one.”

“You are truly a smart ass, my friend,” Pearce snickered. “Uther’s disposition maybe a little darker than the rest of us, but if you think about it, he and Julian actually have quite a bit in common.”

“How so?” Kayne stopped, waiting to hear what the Zen Master Dragon had to say.

“Uther was alone for over a century. Lucian has been on his own for almost that long.”

“But Uth was buried alive, and the Jaguar was running about the countryside.”

“Sure, but alone is alone,” Pearce leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, he continued. “We’ve never experienced true loneliness. How would you or I know what it felt like to not talk to another living soul for days, weeks, years, and so on? Imagine never seeing anyone else, shaking anyone’s hand, even scenting another other than yourself. Those two know, in the most real and soul-deep way there is and that, I believe is why they bonded in the first place. I also think that somewhere deep inside, Uther knew the Jaguar was a Shifter.”

Nodding, unable to find fault with anything Pearce had said, Kayne once again began to pace. Stopping at the base of the fountain, he watched the gentle waves emanating from the base of the stone Dragon, his thoughts staying firmly planted on Pearl. It had been three long days since she disappeared into a swirling vortex of Morrigan’s magic and the lack of contact with her was driving the Demi-God crazy.

Alerted by the sound of wings pushing against the airstream overhead, he did an immediate about-face, running at full-speed out of the garden and into the center of the street. Looking up, shielding his eyes against the sun, Kayne’s heart did a flip in his chest as he immediately recognized the gorgeous tawny feathers of Pearl’s Strix.

Watching her change from avian wonder to the beautiful woman he was falling in love with, he couldn’t stand still. Wrapping his arms around her and laying his lips on hers the very second her feet touched the ground, Kayne poured every ounce of love and affection he already felt for her in that single, smoldering, affectionate embrace.

Holding tight as she tried to pull away, he regrettably lifted his lips from hers just in time to see her eyes glass over and the muscles in her face go lax. Stepping back but keeping his hands on her upper arms, he felt Pearce come up on his left and saw at least four others out of the corner of his eye.

“The one who’d walked away has returned, and his mate holds the key to unlock the light and extinguish the darkness. Fairy, not Witch must bear the burden of what her kin has torn asunder.”

“The brother who is sleeping shall awake, fully restored with the Blessing of the Great White Goddess. The Pegasus is hidden in the shadows watching over the Lost Ones. The Valkyrie with the gift of the Warrior Dragon must face her own demons. Bohann’s domain will call to the dual-natured brothers, and along with the son of Lugh and the daughter of Morrigan, the Abomination shall be no more.”

Grabbing his mate as her eyes slammed shut and she fell forward, Kayne lifted Pearl into his arms and racing to his home called over his shoulder, “She needs her rest. Do not follow me.”

Ignoring the outrage of her Sisters and the grumbles of his Brethren, the Demi-God sprinted down the street, through his front yard, and into his house, stopping only when he was upstairs and in his bedroom.

Gently laying his unconscious mate in the center of his bed, he called to Maddox, “Are you with Calysta?”

“I am,” came the Mad Dragon’s gruff reply. “Why?”

“Because your mate is the best Healer aside from Niall and my mate just returned from a meeting with Morrigan in the Otherworld and now she’s unconscious.”

“Morrigan did something to her?” Maddox’s growl was laced with insinuation and doubt.

“No, you pigheaded pain-in-my-ass. She got back, had a vision and collapsed and now she isn’t responding even when I touch her mind. So, for all that is fuckin’ holy can you bring Callie to my house – PRONTO?!”

Closing off his connection as the cantankerous old Dragon was getting revved up to pitch a fit, Kayne carefully climbed onto the bed, curled his much larger body around Pearl and held her close, whispering, “Everything will be all right, mo ghrá, or heads will roll. Of that, you can be sure.”





Chapter Ten





“What do you mean it will just take time?” Kayne snarled, barely missing Maddox’s flying fist.

“Don’t talk to Callie that way, Asshat!” The Mad Dragon roared, throwing another right hook that barely missed its mark.

“Stop it, Maddie,” Calysta scolded, grabbing her mate’s left arm before he could swing again. “You know Kayne is just upset.” Patting his shoulder, she placated as only one mate can to another, “Go down and tell the others how she’s doing. Everything is fine, physically. It is my opinion that the stress of being in the Otherworld for almost three whole days then immediately upon getting home and having a vision was just too much.” Looking directly at Kayne, the Grande Priestess added, “Just a little rest and one more shot of the herbs I mixed up and our Pearl will be right as rain by morning.”

Pointing his monstrous index finger at the tip of Kayne’s nose, Maddox warned, “Yell at her again, and I’ll gut you where you stand.”

“Love you, too, Old Man,” the Demi-God called to his Brethren’s back, running his fingers through his hair for at least the hundredth time. “Will she really be okay?”

“Of course, she will,” Calysta readily confided. “Do you think I’d be standing here doing nothing? Your mate is the last Strix in existence. Not to mention that it is my responsibility to preserve life in all its forms whatever the cost.” Walking to Kayne’s side, she laid her hand on his forearm. “You need to calm yourself. Your frustration and worry are hers, and that’s not what she needs right now.”

“I know you’re right.”

“But?”

Shaking his head and exhaling a long, slow breath, Kayne walked to the window and looked towards the setting sun. Was there more he wanted to say? Needed to say? Was Calysta right? Did Pearl just need rest? Why had Morrigan sent her back if all they needed to know was in Pearl’s mind all along?

Turning back towards the Priestess, he finally replied, “I don’t know if there really is a ‘but’. I just know that I’m just as messed up, tangled up, and twisted about as all the others were.” Looking up, he gave Calysta a half smile. “Not quite as bad as old Doxie, but just about. This whole mate gig is hard, harder than I ever realized.”

Smiling and shaking her head, the Priestess chuckled, “You sound like all the others, even my daughter. You think having a partner, a true mate, the one who completes you as no other ever can or will, the one person made for you by the Universe Herself, is gonna be easy.” Taking a seat in the leather chair he usually laid his clothes in, Calysta sat back, crossed her legs, and after clasping her hands in her lap, looked Kayne right in the eye and asked, “Did you know that I knew your mother?”

So shocked that he could barely breathe, let alone answer, the Demi-God slowly shook his head, extremely thankful when she went on to explain, “Yes, it’s true, I did. She was such a pretty young woman, so full of life, so caring and so giving. And smart as a whip, with intuition and foresight that put all the Elders to shame.”

“I remember her coming to the Coven, the big house on the Reserve where all the Witches with homes and families stay, to tell me that she’d met her mate. Sitting at the table in what used to be my kitchen, your mom, Emilia, described her ‘Dragon’ in exquisite detail. Waiting until she was done talking, I poured our tea then asked, ‘Do you know who he is, Em?’ and just as matter-of-factly as you please, she said, ‘A course I do, Callie. It’s Lugh and he says I’m his sun, moon, and stars.’.”

Listening to the Priestess, thankful to gain more insight into the woman who was taken from him before he’d barely opened his eyes, Kayne crossed the room and sat on the end of his bed. Looking at his mate, he asked, “Is it true she had never let her Dragon come forth before she met my father?”

“Oh yes, that’s very true. Emilia never wanted to fly. She wanted to keep her feet firmly on the ground. But then she met Lugh and everything changed. After they were officially mated, she and he flew all around the world, collecting things for the house they were going to build.”

Realizing Calysta had stopped talking, Kayne turned back around, surprised to see tears in the great Witch’s eyes. Not wanting to push her, he waited patiently until once again she started to speak.

“When they got home from one such trip, Emilia announced that she was pregnant and that Lugh wanted her to stay in his castle in the Otherworld. As you can imagine, your grandfather, King Xaviar, had a real live conniption fit. Being the gentleman that he is, Lugh gave in and said Em could stay with her family and he would be back as soon as he could.”

“And…well, you came that very night. Three weeks early and full of piss and vinegar.” Calysta was smiling but the joy wasn’t reaching her eyes. Wondering what she knew that he’d never been told, Kayne leaned forward as she continued. “There was no way for Em to get a hold of your father and your grandfather barely let you out of his sight, so one night before you were even a week old, your mom went to the mountaintop where she’d first met Lugh and tried to contact him.” Clearing her throat, the Witch looked down at her clasped hands and when she spoke, her voice was barely louder than a whisper. “And that happened to be the night of the Wild Hunt.”

Not sure why Calysta had stopped talking or what the Wild Hunt had to do with anything, Kayne stood straight up, took a step towards the Priestess, and knelt down in front of her, asking, “What aren’t you saying?”

Reaching for his hand, she shook her head. “You really don’t know? No one’s ever told you?”

“Honestly, Calysta, I have no clue where you’re going with this? What should I know?”

No sooner had he uttered the question than the hair on the back of his neck stood on end and Pearl began to speak in the low, monotone voice he knew meant she was reciting a prophecy. “The Golden One shall know the truth. He shall strike the death blow and finally know peace.”

Up on his feet, looking at Pearl and then at Calysta and then back at Pearl like he was at Wimbledon, Kayne sat back on the bed and pulled his mate into his arms. Holding her tight and rocking back and forth, he asked through gritted teeth, “What does the Wild Hunt and the Obscured have to do with my mother’s death?”

“If you get me something to drink and about five bottles of ibuprofen, I’ll tell you everything I know,” Pearl whispered.

“You’re awake?” Kayne gasped.

“Yes, I’m awake.” Opening her eyes and smiling up at him, she teased, “At least I wasn’t playing possum, Mr. Dragon Man. That’s your game.”





Chapter Eleven





Unable to keep from touching Pearl, wanting to protect her from anything, everything, and everyone, he nearly came completely unglued when she tried to crawl out of bed, stating, “Let’s just go downstairs and tell everyone what’s going on. That way I only have to explain it all once.”

Wrapping his arm around her waist and holding her tight to his side, Kayne frantically shook his head while growling, “Oh no. Hell no. You are too weak and too tired and…what the… Son of a biiiiitttttcchhh!” His argument turned to a strangled curse as from one heartbeat to the next he found himself kicked off the bed with his lovely mate straddling his chest with the side of her hand at his throat.

“Move and I’ll cut off your airway,” she threatened, laughter dancing in her eyes. “What was that you were saying about me being too weak?”

Holding his hands over his head, grinning from ear-to-ear despite his position, Kayne readily acquiesced, “I give. I’m sorry. I’ll never think of you as weak again.”

A single nod was the only response he got before Pearl climbed off his chest with a satisfied smile. Getting to his feet just as the door to his bedroom burst open, Kayne hammed it up and took a bow as every one of the Dragons laughed out loud and the Ladies of the Sky clapped and cheered.

“Told ye, me Pearl woold kick his arse,” Gwendolyn chuckled. “Ne’er met a man coold best our girl.”

“You pissed her off already?” Maddox guffawed. “Not even I’m that bad.”

“Be careful there, Maddie,” Calysta warned with a wink. “I might just have to make a liar out of you.”

The entire group erupted into laughter as Kayne took Pearl’s outstretched hand and let himself be pulled up. Looking down he spoke directly into her mind, “Without getting my ass kicked in front of everyone, are you sure you’re okay? I worry.”

Patting his chest and giving him a smile that melted his heart and had his Dragon King purring, Pearl answered in kind, “I appreciate your concern. I’ll let ya’ know if I need you to stand in.”

Trusting his mate to tell him when she needed him but still refusing to take his hand from hers, Kayne walked alongside Pearl bringing up the rear of the mob of friends and family. Sitting in his favorite huge recliner next to the fireplace, he pulled his mate onto his lap, gave her a warning growl when she started to get up then whispered, “This is the best compromise I can give you,” into her mind.

Snickering at her grumbled reply of, “I will remember to kick your ass later,” Kayne settled in and listened as Pearl told the group everything she knew about the night the Obscured was let loose.

Everything seemed pretty typical then he felt her body tense, heard her voice drop to an ominous level, and could see the swirling dark memories inside her mind. Whatever his mate was about to say still haunted her no matter the decades that had passed.

“I admit,” she looked over her shoulder, spearing him with her glowing lavender gaze and continued. “It is the one and only time in all my years that I have lost control. The call of the Huntmaster’s Horn, the thrill of the chase, and the wild mysticism in the air was just so fucking overwhelming.”

Rubbing his hand up and down her arm as her usually lilting British accent became hard and staccato, her voice getting louder with every word. “To this day, I’m still so damned embarrassed that my mother, of all bloody people, had to stop me from joining in.”

Anxiety making her quake in his lap, forcing Kayne to relent as she climbed off his lap and began to pace. Slowly stalking the length of the huge great room where everyone was gathered, she looked every single person in the eye, she went on, “On that night I was stripped of my Stringes, made to look like a fool, and now…” Pearl spun around on her toes, slammed her clenched fists onto her hips and staring right into his eyes declared in a tone so full of fury and rage it was low and rumbling, “The final piece of the puzzle has fallen into place. Odin knowingly led his Wild Hunt into that lair and slaughtered the mother