“Say what?” I asked. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear you right.”
Shane’s gaze landed on the two men standing before the hut. “You heard me right. The Brothers aren’t fond of travelers. Let’s just say they’ve been burned a time or two.”
“And yet this is where you brought us to spend the night?” Alina said. Despite her lowered brows, there was a suspicious twitch in her lips that made me think she was amused by our situation.
I wished I felt the same.
“I’ll agree it’s not perfect,” Shane said.
Hawk barked out a laugh. In a blink, several of the brothers had weapons in their hands.
We went very still, eyeing their weapons.
Alina’s slender fingers caressed the handles of her guns. “Blades made of stone. Interesting choice of weapon.”
“Don’t underestimate those blades,” Shane said, absently rubbing a shoulder. “They hone them until they’re impossibly sharp. And they can split a mosquito from forty yards with one of those things.”
“Let’s take a vote. Everybody who wants to move on,” I said, raising a hand.
Alina raised her hand too. When she saw Hawk hadn’t raised his, she lifted her other one. “I’m voting for two.”
I snorted out a laugh. A man stepped from the shadow of a smaller black hut. He held his blade low at his side, balanced between two fingertips. His expression didn’t show any emotion, but even from a distance of fifteen feet, I could tell he was tensed to throw the knife.
“Shane,” I murmured, pulling energy from the air. I gasped as the magic rushed to fill my core, thick and rich and vibrant with expectant power. I absorbed so much and so quickly that it shot to my hands, swirling in thick rust-colored clouds that filled the air around us with static electricity.
Every hair on my body stood at attention. Beside me, Alina sucked air and laughed with genuine humor. I turned to find her touching the ends of her hair that were floating around her head.
“What the…?” Shane rubbed the hair on his arms back into place, only to have it rise again.
I looked at Hawk. He looked back, his dark blond hair drifting around his face like an aura. He arched a single brow, making no attempt to tame his flyaway locks. That made me smile.
“I guess now we know why they all shave their heads,” Alina said.
“Um…look alive,” Shane mumbled, moving away from us and extending his hands as if preparing to fight.
That was when I realized every Brother in the camp was holding at least one blade. Several of them held a weapon in each hand.
And the air around us had become so saturated with magic it was almost impossible to draw breath.
We were going to die.
Belle’s door creaked as something shoved it open.
We didn’t dare turn to look at Nicht as he dropped lightly to the ground. A beat later, I heard him yawn, a long, theatrical affair that usually involved exposing a lot of big white teeth.
I risked a look and almost laughed. He looked like a giant black puffball. All of his fur stood at attention from the static.
Like a cold summer rain, the hellhound’s appearance doused the building hostility in the camp.
Blades slipped out of sight without any apparent movement. Backs went ramrod straight.
And before I knew what was happening, every single Brother had dropped to his knees and lowered his forehead to the ground.
We all looked at Shane. He shook his head. “I have no idea. But the dog seems to have caused a break in the hostilities, so I say we go for it.”
His comment was met with a low, extended growl, followed by another doggy yawn.
A portal protector and her baby gargoyle, a guardian daemon, a hellhound, and a witch. Together, they must survive in a strange land filled with unknown monsters. Combined they must be strong enough to defy an elite group of magical terrorists. They are Auctus, augmenting the magic flowing through her world…but will they be enough?
A Taste of Auctus…
The land that stretched out in front of me was a patchwork of different types of plants, all sown in perfect rectangular gardens with strange rock formations on every corner. In the farthest field, an enormous horse pulled a metal contraption through the gray soil. A tall man rode the back of it, standing on a small metal platform as the horse furrowed the fields.
I lay on my belly beneath the soft, overarching branches of a bush, a pair of special field glasses pressed to my eyes. With those glasses, I could see the small patch of white hairs on the horse’s back, probably regrowth after an old injury. I could also see the determined set of her taskmaster’s jaw and the hard glint in his pale eyes.
A bird trilled several yards from where I lay, and my gaze jerked in that direction. Tiny pieces of a nearby sandstone tree fluttered down around my head. I sneezed as the granular wisps of bark that gave the tree its name got sucked into my nostrils.
The man on the plow tensed and a hostile gaze slid unerringly in my direction. I hunkered down with a mumbled swear.
“Don’t swear, Glynnie,” said a soft, chastising voice. “It’th not nithe.”
Setting down the field glasses, I rolled onto my back and looked up at the baby gargoyle. “If somebody didn’t keep throwing bark dust at my face, I wouldn’t be worried about getting caught, and I wouldn’t accidentally say an admittedly unfriendly word.”
Boyle tsked me clumsily, his tongue not accustomed to the gymnastics needed for the sound. “Don’t make ’scuses for your bad behavior, Glynnie.”
I frowned, but there was nothing behind it. He was just too darn cute. Even if he was becoming a bossy boy since his Aunt Sissy had decided we were barbarians and started teaching us both manners. “We have to stay really quiet, baby boy. I told you that. If the man over there saw us spying on him…”
“He’d be really angry,” said a deep, rusty voice from a few feet away.
Boyle’s head shot up, his turquoise gaze went wide, and he covered his mouth with a long-fingered hand.
I rolled and leaped to my feet in a single move, the knife I kept in a sheath on my thigh hitting my palm before my mind even had time to register that I’d gone for it.
The man standing on the gray-green grass five feet away from me crossed tanned, muscular arms over his chest and lifted shaggy silver brows skyward. “First, you trespass on my land and now you’re going to stab me with a knife?”
I moved to stand between him and the baby, who was climbing down the tree with the ease of a monkey or a…well…a gargoyle. “When you put it that way,” I said. “It sounds unfriendly.”
I couldn’t be sure, but I thought his lips twitched slightly at that.
His gaze slid to Boyle as the baby clasped my hand in his warm grip. “Don’t be mean to Glynnie. She’s not treespassin’. She only mostly passed bushes ta come here. Not trees.”
I pressed my lips together to keep from smiling.
The man in front of me cleared his throat. He looked down at his muddy boots. “Well, if you’re sure she’s good people, I won’t yell.”
Boyle’s little face lit up in a smile. He bounced up and down, jerking me along with the energy of his jumps. “See Glynnie, he nice. We don’t have ta be quiet no more.” Boyle kept bouncing like he had an invisible jump rope, his energy off the charts from too many recent days stuck inside Victoria. Apparently, we’d landed in Outvald just before the rainy season. And, so far it had been a doozy.
The man’s eyes sparkled, his steel-gray eyes warming. “He sure is a springy little thing.”
I nodded, sliding the knife back into its sheath. “He’s been cooped up too much lately.”
The man looked out over his fields, grimacing. “It’s all I can do to plow this year. The mud’s just about to do old Bessie in.”
As if responding to his statement. The enormous horse blew through its nostrils and dipped its head. The short tail swished at a bug and her head whipped around, big teeth snapping at something that pestered her. I’d noticed the bugs in Outvald were downright scary. At least twice as big as anything I’d ever seen at home.
The man extended a work-roughened hand. He looked at it and grimaced, pulling it back. “Name’s Shane. You have to be Belle’s granddaughter, Glynn.”
Belle was a nickname Grams had used, a name from her past. “I am. How’d you guess?”
“She had long brown hair just the same color as yours, with the sun glinting copper off the strands. And you have her eyes. A brown as dark as night.” He tilted his head. “You’re taller than Belle though, what are you about five-ten?”
“Five eleven,” I told him, feeling self-conscious about my size. I wasn’t only taller than most women, but I wasn’t small-boned either. I was a big woman, not meaty, but strong. Not a woman who men felt like they had to tuck away and protect.
“Belle was a strong woman too. She always gave as good as she got.” He stared toward my land, his expression seeming to reflect good memories rather than bad.
Hearing him call Grams Belle was a little disconcerting. I knew Grams had been called different names by different people. She’d liked to compartmentalize the segments of her world. But to me, she’d always just been Grams.
Belle had been a special name. She’d told me a little bit about the time when she’d used it. And I’d seen the fond memories dance across her face as she had. It was a name from her youth. So, it made sense she would have gotten the name on Outvald. She’d spent her youth there. “I haven’t heard that name for a while,” I told him, laughing. “Except as it pertained to that stupid car.”
It was his turn to look surprised. “She still has that old Chevy? Goddess, that thing has to be as old as I am.”
“We still have it, yes.” I gave him a searching look. “You knew Grams passed, right?”
His gaze slid to the horizon toward Victoria, and sadness filled his expression. “I didn’t know for sure. But I thought she had.” He stared hard at the rolling hills and oddly shaped trees in the distance as if he could picture Victoria’s weathered peaks and chipped paint from there. “I’ll tell you a little secret, Glynn, your Grams was never far from Outvald, even when she went through the portal that last time.” He thumped his chest with his fist. “She stayed here. In the hearts of all the people she touched.” His eyes glistened and he blinked, looking away with embarrassment. Sniffing, he turned to Boyle with a forced smile. “And who is this handsome young man?”
“I’m Boyle,” the baby said proudly. He drew himself up to his full height of twenty-eight inches and a smidge, as Sissy liked to say to make him giggle.
“Boyle’s my son,” I told Shane. My gaze held his for a beat, looking for any kind of judgment that would make it impossible for us to be friends.
But he only inclined his head in a quick nod and crouched down to speak to Boyle. “I’ll bet you’ve never ridden a horse.”
Boyle’s eyes almost popped out of his head. He started bouncing again, his fingers clutching at my shirt as his eyes went wide. “Can I, Glynnie? Can I? Can I?”
I grabbed his hands to keep him from ripping my shirt and looked at Shane. “Are you sure it’ll be okay?” I nodded toward Bessie, who was contentedly ripping gray-green grass out of the ground with her powerful teeth.
“Absolutely. Old Bessie loves kids, don’t ya girl?”
The horse lifted her head and nickered softly, her ears twitching toward Boyle and then swiveling away, unconcerned.
“Then, I’m sure he’d love it. Thank you,” I told him warmly.
He held my gaze a beat and I saw the truth in his words when he said, “It’s my pleasure, Glynn. It truly is.”