*18+ for graphic violence and sex*
* Dark Fantasy Romance*
Death stalked his dreams. It shouldn’t have shocked him, not after his years as a homicide detective. But this time, something was different. It hadn’t been the grisly murder-suicide from the night before, though he’d expected those deaths to haunt his dreams. A young mother, barely twenty, had killed her baby daughter then herself. No, he corrected himself; she had shredded that poor little girl before slitting her own throat. No one could explain what had turned a seemingly happy young woman into a brutal murderer, but the images of wading through the river of blood had tormented him as he’d headed home from the precinct.
That would have been horrific enough. But this? This was something he never could have imagined.
Disjointed images bombarded him, nightmarish scenes of battles between creatures that couldn’t exist. Cries of pain and fear reverberated through a forest of strange, twisting trees, nearly drowning out the clash of steel, the sickening crunch of bones breaking, the wet ripping of flesh giving way.
What the hell was going on?
Connor Flynn considered himself a practical man. Having worked too many gruesome crime scenes over the years, it wasn’t unusual for his dreams to be twisted. Yet he couldn’t remember a single instance when his mind had conjured up anything like this.
The beings locked in battle were illuminated by flashes of brilliant color light, seeming to originate from something that looked human, but couldn’t be. No human could produce such effects outside of movie magic, not even his Wiccan sister. That had to be it. This was a movie. What else explained the hulking beast attacking the two figures? One was definitely female, the other male.
Another crash shook the ground beneath Connor’s feet and he watched as the woman, her golden hair streaked with blue, turned to shout at the man in a strange language. Panic coated her voice, her vivid blue eyes wild with terror. And determination, Connor realized. His body inexplicable strained toward her, every fiber of his being wanting to offer aid to them but he was held in place by invisible bonds.
Before him, the air seemed to part, flashing symbols glowing faintly. The woman was oblivious to the new danger behind her and he opened his mouth to shout a warning.
The words died on his tongue as once more the earth heaved beneath him, tossing him to the ground as little more than a rag doll. Pain exploded as his head struck something sharp and his vision dimmed. His eyes swept the ravaged landscape for the woman, but all he could see was devastation. More figures flooded into the clearing moments before Connor gave up the battle to stay conscious.
He awoke with a start, sweat coating his body, his chest heaving as if he’d just run a marathon. His head throbbed and he reached up, tentatively running his fingers across the area he had hit in his dream. What was he doing, he wondered. Of course there wasn’t anything there. It had been nothing more than a vivid nightmare. Wincing as he brushed a tender area near the back of his head, he stared in shock at the traces of blood on his fingertips.
Flinging the tangled sheets aside, he stumbled to the bathroom to splash cold water on his face. There was a perfectly logical explanation for that. He must’ve hit his head on the nightstand and his mind had inserted the pain into the dream. Yes, that was it. That made sense.
Yet, as he stared at his reflection in the mirror, his eyes bloodshot and weary, the dark stubble covering his jaw glistening with droplets of water, he couldn’t shake the image of the woman from his mind. Her fierce gaze as she fought against a beast that had easily been several times her size. Hands clenching into fists to stop the instinctive desire to reach for the memory, he shook his head. Before he could berate himself for a fool, his phone rang.
Bare feet padded across the floor and he dug through his pants, searching for the phone. Glancing at the display, he sighed. Dispatch. Despite Thanksgiving fast approaching, murder refused to take a vacation.
Fire leapt toward the sky as a massive explosion rocked the earth. For a few minutes, chaos reigned while animals raced from the blast zone and the night air was filled with a cacophony of panicked cries.
Heated air washed over her in waves burning her lungs with every harsh inhalation. She shook her head, but it did nothing to stop the incessant, piercing ringing in her ears. It did, however, allow her to whip herself in the face, the slight pain grounding her. Large sections of golden hair were now free from the confines of her braid and she winced at the thought of detangling it later. Then again, there were probably more important things to focus on at the moment besides her appearance.
Fighting for control over her scattered thoughts, she dragged in her first deep breath and frowned. Ignoring the stinging inside her nose, she inhaled again, concentrating on filtering the scents. There it was. Beneath the acrid smoke, she detected the faintest hint of sulfur and avarite. That couldn’t be right, what in the seven hells would avarite be doing here? Sha rose on shaking legs and turned toward her partner a few feet away, amusement at his sprawled limbs distracting for the moment.
“What the hell was that?” Luca asked, looking more than a little dazed as he picked himself off the ground, the barest hint of pallor showing in his olive complexion.
In a voice devoid of emotion, Sha replied, “Now, this is just a wild guess, but I think something exploded. I could be wrong, though.” She patted his shoulder, adopting what she hoped was an appropriately concerned, almost motherly expression. “Everything alright, Luca? You’re looking pretty pale there. Did the big boom scare the fearless warrior? Do you need to lie down?”
Luca’s moss green eyes narrowed, his Elven features drawn into a fierce scowl as he shrugged off her hand. Despite her valiant effort to maintain her composure, Sha couldn’t stop the grin splitting her face. “Very funny. Don’t try to deny you muttered a prayer for forgiveness to the Seven Founders as you dived for cover,” Luca snapped. “You do realize that you have leaves stuck in your hair, right?”
“Crap.” She’d never admit it, but there might have been a moment when she considered making amends for past sins. And while she might have ducked down quickly during the explosion, she wouldn’t call it diving for cover. Cursing, she struggled to untangle the leaves from her thick, golden hair. The streaks of ocean blue signifying her status as an Aquarum Sorceri were imperceptible beneath the crushed foliage. Though she also possessed Infernum abilities of equal strength to the Aquarum, she loved keeping that little bit of information a secret from potential enemies. Better they believe she didn’t have offensive talents until it was too late.
She glared at the ground where she’d lain, taking note of the many places where creep bugs could crawl around. Wonderful.
“Is that a spider I see?” Luca pointed to the side of Sha’s head.
“What, where?” Her hands raced around her head, desperate to locate and eliminate the hideous creature. After a panicked moment, she realized her partner had doubled over in laughter. “I hate you, you know that?”
“Sorry, couldn’t resist. Everyone knows how much you hate spiders so I—oomph” Breath whooshed out as she elbowed him in the stomach.
“Sorry, couldn’t resist,” she mimicked. “I think the blast originated in that clearing.” Glancing back, she saw he hadn’t regained his breath yet. Served him right. One did not joke about spiders and expect to escape punishment.
“There’s a Gate…in that direction…isn’t there? Could it have come…from the Human Realm?”
Although Luca couldn’t sense the subtle vibrations emitted by the portals that connected the two realms, he’d studied their locations during training so he could patrol the Nexus looking for weak spots.
Lucky bastard, she thought as her head began to throb. Sorceri were particularly sensitive to Gate signatures and this was unlike anything she’d ever felt. Instead of steady pulsations, the energy was erratic, overwhelming her shields and driving into her brain like a knife. “Doubt it’s from the humans; it was too loud and bright. Mother Night, my head. I don’t know what’s going on with that Gateway, but we’d better go look.”
“We need to update the commander.”
“Don’t worry, we will. He’d have our heads if we didn’t ensure the entire forest didn’t go up in flames because we took the time to report.” The bright orange glow ahead triggered an idea and she paused to cast a thoughtful glance to Luca. “Think we could make s’mores? I’ve always wanted to try them and I’ve heard they should be made over a campfire. Does that count you think?”
“Seriously? We could’ve been blown to pieces and you want to make a human treat? What’s up with your unnatural fascination with all things human, Sha? They don’t have gifts or magic or anything that makes them remotely interesting. They’re boring.”
She rolled her eyes. Her partner shared the opinion of most Mythrians. He was glad the Nexus had been erected millennia ago to separate the two realms. As far as he was concerned, the humans could live their quiet, little lives and continue believing their legends, myths, and fairytales had no basis in reality.
Shrugging, she continued in the direction of the apparent epicenter of the blast. “Considering it’s our responsibility to protect humans by making sure nothing crosses the Nexus, I would think it’d be advisable to study them.” Sha tried to discern whether he’d believed her rehearsed speech, but the moonless night masked his dark skin too well. Hopefully it would also hide the burning of her cheeks.
More times than she could count, she’d cursed the fact that she hadn’t inherited her father’s coloring. That would have made life so much easier. But no, she had to take after her mother with skin so pale that during training she had been nicknamed The Ghost. Well, until she’d flattened the other trainees with a flame surge. Her lips quirked at the memory. Never underestimate one of the Infernum.
“I know plenty about them. They have no magic, they have no idea there’s another realm outside of their own, and they think we are nothing more than silly stories they hear as children.”
She took a moment to concentrate and formed a soft, glowing orb of light to illuminate their path. “Don’t you think it’s interesting that we have protected them for all these years and nobody really knows why?” From the day she had joined the Sentinels she had adored the archives, which housed everything Mythrians knew about the humans and their ever evolving technologies.
“I would say it’s more interesting that you care so much, but then I’ve always known you were a bit strange in the head.”
Sha pinned him with a withering glare that only resulted in Luca doubling over with laughter. “You better watch it, Lucarion. Otherwise I’ll be forced to tell Soren you’ve been shirking your duties.”
“Using my full name and vague threats? I’m scared, truly.”
“Remind me to blast you later.”
As they neared the clearing, Sha focused on picking up any trace of magical signatures in the vicinity, leaving her partner to visually scan and communicate with nearby animals. She envied the Elves for their ability to speak to animals as well as their enhanced night vision. Not that she was afraid of the dark or anything, she just preferred being able to see everything around her. Especially things that could eat or pulverize her.
“You’re not still afraid of the dark, are you? You’ll give yourself a migraine concentrating so hard.”
For someone with telepathic abilities that supposedly only worked on animals, he had the most obnoxious ability to read her mind. “I am not afraid of the dark; I just happen to like seeing where I’m going. Besides, need I remind you of your fear of chickens?”
“I’ll have you know chickens can be quite vicious when pissed off. And you have a spider on your shoulder.”
Sha prided herself on her calm, rational reaction. Rather than slapping at her shoulder, she took a deep breath…and vaporized the offensive creature. Seeing that Luca had gone still, she frowned. “What’s wrong?”
The instant the words left her mouth, she realized the energies emanating from the Gateway had changed, growing stronger. There was an undercurrent of dark magic that troubled her, but before she could explore it further, alarms rang in her mind. “Shit, the Gateway’s destabilizing.”
His mouth settled into a grim line. “Call for backup.”
Trusting Luca to watch her back, she tried to locate the mental thread that ran to their commander. A prickle of awareness, the feeling of being watched, was all it took to distract her. An invisible fist punched her mind, driving shards of glass into her brain. Mother Night, that hurt.
“Sha!” The sharp tone penetrated the haze of pain and gave her something to latch onto long enough to come out of her stupor.
“Fine, I’m fine. Raging migraine to end all migraines, but it’ll pass.” She almost told him about the sensation of being watched, but the words wouldn’t leave her tongue. The momentary disorientation gave her an excuse to search for whoever, or whatever, hid in the shadows.
“I take it you couldn’t reach the commander?”
Luca’s question drew her back to the present danger and Sha bit back the bitchy retort that welled up. The need to track the presence bordered on compulsion. She didn’t sense a threat, at least not a physical threat. Exactly what it was, however, remained elusive.
“Sha? You sure you’re alright?” Concern tinged the words this time.
“Something just attacked, something strong to have gotten through my shields. I was trying to determine where it came from.” That wasn’t exactly a lie.
“Do we keep going or head back for reinforcements?”
“If that Gate falls, it will rip open part of the Nexus. Nothing like that has happened for centuries so it’s hard to predict the consequences.”
“I’m betting nothing good. Alright, I’ll send one of the wolves to headquarters instead. It’s not the best solution, but it should bring help, especially if one of the watch happens to be Elven.”
“Do it. I’ll see if I can shore up the Gate.”
Sha continued into the clearing, dread weighing her every step. Unseen eyes followed her movement, disconcerting her, but not scaring her. The instability of the Gate, on the other hand, terrified her. It made no sense; daily patrols ran every area containing portals through the Nexus since they introduced vulnerabilities in the barrier. There was no way it could have degraded to the point of collapse this quickly, at least not by natural means. Someone was working very hard to compromise it, but what the hell did they hope to gain?
A low, rumbling growl chilled her to the bone, halting her midstride. Spectacular. Things weren’t enough of a mess. Let’s add in some hellbeasts.
“Luca! We’ve got trouble!”
“No, really? I thought they were your pets,” he replied, arming his crossbow and taking aim in one fluid motion. Before his bolt embedded itself in its target, Luca had drawn his blade to fend off another’s attempt to leap onto his unprotected back.
“Nah, they smell too bad for my taste.” In truth, hellbeasts stank of rotting flesh, the putrid smell enough to turn even the most battle-seasoned stomach. The creatures somewhat resembled a large wolf, but only in the most vague sense. Tufts of dark grey fur matted with dried blood and other fluids grew around jagged scars, a testament to their fearless nature. Hellbeasts were relentless in their attacks; once a hellbeast ambushed, it refused to back down until death came to either its prey or itself. They never retreated, never showed mercy.
One of the hulking creatures stalked toward her, its mouth gaping in a macabre grin. Bits of rotted flesh stuck between teeth stained with blood. Knowing it was futile to try to run, Sha squared her shoulders and unleashed her power in a sharp burst. In the back of her mind, she still felt the gaze on her, but she couldn’t allow herself to be distracted. Give a hellbeast even the slightest opportunity, and you became dinner.
Sha was so focused on the fight that she missed the prickling sensation as the hairs rose along her arms, intensifying until it bordered on pain. Metal overpowered her senses, filling her mouth with the bitter tang, the scent of it enough to make her eyes water. Dread settled as a weight in her belly.
Mother Night. This wasn’t blood from the hellbeast she’d injured. This was worse. This was blood magic. Before she could warn her partner of the new threat, the world exploded and darkness claimed her.