This second book in the “Of Wars” series is due out soon. The first book, “Rumors of Wars” is available now!
Gregor Glinka stared through the windowpane at the dark city street outside his home, his long fingers cradling and caressing the bowl of the brandy snifter he held with both pale, narrow hands.
“I hope you are right, my love, and the Abomination returns with the information you need. I do not trust her. One should not trust any of her kind; the how of their existence would naturally make them a faithless group.”
The silky, heavily-accented voice came from behind him, and Gregor turned from the window to look at his lover of fifty years. She was a beautiful woman, and her beauty had been what had attracted him initially, but other qualities beckoned him to her side time after time. Ambitious as she was beautiful and with equal parts vicious and good, she had powerful magic in her and was the only partner, male or female, in his centuries-old life that he’d had the desire to be with for more than a few months. Now, though, her presence merely irritated him. “We do not even know if more like Ms. Blackburn exist, and you would do me a great favor, Ysabel, if you would cease repeating your doubts regarding her loyalty.”
“I am only speaking truth. The hold you have on that jack-booted thug that calls herself a bounty hunter is negligible at best. She owes you nothing, and has no ties to the Confederacy. You cannot control her,” she said with a petulant shrug, “therefore you cannot trust her.”
Gregor winced and turned away from her. Finally, a barb had found its mark, slicing neatly to reveal the small amount of doubt he’d felt since he’d first learned that the woman under discussion could successfully time travel. Unfortunately, the love of his life was correct; Perish Blackburn was not connected to the Confederacy of Talents as all other people with supernatural powers were. She never had been, and wanted nothing to do with the agency that had not only protected people of their kind for centuries, but had also brought disparate groups together and made them an alliance.
No, Gregor thought, Miss Blackburn did not belong. She had not “gone rogue” as people were fond of saying, she had always been so without thought or provocation. She was a lone soldier who did not want to be beholden to anything or anyone. This explained why they at the Confederacy had had no knowledge of her existence until a few years before. It still galled him that while he’d had no knowledge of her, she’d known all about the Confederacy. Gregor worried the glass some more between his hands as the slight concern he’d felt wheedling its way back earlier began to dig deep and find a home in his full consciousness.
He then recalled the expression on Perish’s face when he’d made his proposition. He smiled at the memory, the worry once again banished. Oh, yes, Perish Blackburn would return with the information he needed. “I am not concerned, my love,” he said aloud to Ysabel. “She will return, and all will be well.”
“Good morning Sleeping Beauty.”
The perfectly balanced, custom-made throwing knife left Perish’s hand with a feat of motion so subtle it was almost Zen. As though controlled by nothing more than thought itself, the blade pierced the pitch-black darkness of her bedroom and flew toward the one foolish enough to disturb her much-needed rest.
The laughter that followed her attempt at homicide gave Perish all the information she needed to know. Wolf. Only a wolf had the reflexes and instincts to sidestep her best blade. Even worse, she knew which wolf. Audacious Pride, Pride’s brat of a baby sister. Seriously, someone should have smothered the kid at birth. Perish flopped back down on her bed. Telling Audacious to get the fuck out of her house would be a waste of time. So she just waited to find out what the little monster wanted.
Perish sighed. It had been two days since Pride’s and her return from Nazi-era Germany. While she’d slept for most of the first day, she’d expected to see Pride on the next so they could decide what to do with the information they’d gained about the Amber Room. Her client for whom she’d travelled back in time, the master wizard Gregor Glinka had been surprisingly patient, but she didn’t expect that to last much longer. Pride had been a no-show, and now she wondered if Audacious was the reason. Keeping their oldest brother from killing their sister would require all the beta wolf’s considerable diplomatic skills.
Audacious walked over to the bed from the shadows where she’d retreated to avoid Perish’s deadly missile. “Someone is getting soft in their old age,” she said in a sing-song voice more suitable to an adolescent on a playground.
“You do know that’s not my only knife?” Perish felt compelled to point out.
Audacious laughed again. “See that’s what I’ve always loved about you Perish. Lethal as hell and twice as pretty. I’m sure you have an arsenal in this house, and if my brother didn’t already have prior claim…”
“Your brother does not have prior claim. I’m not a piece of meat. And something tells me neither you nor I would’ve survived the encounter.” Audacious laughed again and Perish sighed, thinking it could be a long, sleepless night if she allowed herself to get caught up in Audacious’ particular talent for annoying the hell out of her as she usually did. “Seriously, Audie, what the hell are you doing in my house at,” she glanced at the clock and wanted to groan out loud. “Three o’clock in the goddamned morning?”
Audacious perched her lithe frame on the edge of the bed. “I thought my brother would have enough sense to be here with his woman.”
“You haven’t been gone that long. Why would Pride be here? He has his own house. And I am not his woman.”
“Yep. A house he’s currently not occupying. So where else would big brother be, but in your bed?”
Despite her best efforts, Perish couldn’t ignore the concern niggling at the back of her mind. Where the hell was Pride at this hour? For that matter, where the hell had he been all day? Usually he at least returned her calls, if for no other reason than to tell her he was busy and would get in touch later. But today had been total silence. The last time she’d gone more than twenty-four hours without hearing from him, he’d been furious at her. That was not the case this time…at least she didn’t think she’d done anything to piss him off. It happened so often it was hard to keep track. Of course, Pride was a good-looking healthy man. It would be crazy to think he wasn’t in somebody’s bed. But it was something Perish deliberately didn’t think about. And she grew even more annoyed at Audacious for forcing her to do so.
“Oh ho! For someone who is not my brother’s woman you certainly look concerned about his whereabouts at this time of the morning. Has some pretty little wolf been sniffing around your piece of ass?” Audacious laughed again, the bright whiteness of her teeth clearly visible in the dark room.
Mainly for time to collect her thoughts, Perish sat up on the bed to turn on the light. It was unnecessary; her night vision was more than adequate for the occasion. It had been two years since she’d seen the other woman. Audacious was around average height for a woman; five feet four or so, but she maintained a dancer’s erect posture that made her seem considerably taller. She also looked enough like Pride to be his female twin. If it were not for her ultra-long hair which hung down her back in a raven-black swathe and a certain feminine roundness to her chin and jaw, it would be hard to tell them apart.
“I’m not worried about where Pride is; I’m far more concerned about where you are right now. In my freaking house if you want to be specific. What the hell are you doing here? I know Trick banished you from the pack.”
“Yes my lord and master banished me two years ago.”
The usage of the honorific had to be sarcasm. Audacious’ lack of obedience to the alpha, who just happened to be her brother, was the main reason she’d been kicked out. “Aren’t you concerned about the consequences of coming back?”
“I need Pride’s help.”
“You know he’s not going to do anything without Trick’s permission. Dragging him into your problems will only cause a rift between them,” Perish cautioned, partially out of guilt. After all, she’d been the cause of conflicts between the brothers most of her life.
“You mean like the rift you’ve been causing since forever?”
Perish squared her shoulders and sat up straighter on the bed. She was not going to let this little pissant get to her. “Your brothers are grown men. Unlike you I’m not in your family or even your pack, so it’s pretty much irrelevant. You on the other hand are doubly bound to them, but you know this. Look Audie, Pride’s not here. I have no idea where he is, and I want to be able to say the same thing about you.”
“Well, that’s the problem. I need somewhere to lay low…”
Oh hell no. Perish grabbed her phone from the bedside table. She quickly punched the code for Pride’s number. For a moment she almost panicked, thinking he wouldn’t answer. He finally did. On the fifth ring.
“Good morning Perish. I’ll be over later today,” Pride snapped, irritation evident in his tone.
Where the hell are you? It took a total act of will not to ask the question. “Your sister is here,” she said baldly, her mind occupied with the question she couldn’t ask.
“Which one?” he asked, a bit of humor creeping into his tone.
Pride had four sisters. “The only one who would show up at my goddamned house at this hour.”
“Audie? What in the world is she doing back here?” he asked in evident astonishment and not a small amount of horror.
“You might want to ask her that, right when you pick her up and take her away from here before I introduce her to the business end of my other knife.”
“See now…Tell you what, I can be there in a couple of hours.”
A couple of hours? What in the hell was he doing?
“I’ve got business to take care of, you hold tight, and I’ll be there.”
Perish sighed. “Fine Pride, just get here as soon as you can, or you will have a body to clean up.” Without waiting for his response, she tossed the phone back down on her bedside table.
“Is there some place I can crash?” Audacious asked.
“Sure, Pride’s house,” Perish said, then turned sharply as the door of her bedroom was thrust open.
“Perish! Are you all right — Audacious!”
The squeal was high-pitched enough to shatter crystal. Now Perish really did regret missing Audacious with the knife. For reasons she’d never understood, her housemate PB and Audacious adored one another. At one point she’d thought their bond might be romantic, but she’d been disabused of that notion. PB’s and Audacious’ relationship was strictly platonic, but annoyingly girly. They embraced, jumping up and down like a couple of uber-excited eight-year olds.
“Are you hungry? How long are you in town? Come on downstairs. I’ll fix you something to eat and then you can rest in the guest bedroom.”
As the other two women bustled out of the room, Perish flopped back onto her bed and stared at the ceiling. Clearly she needed more knives.
Pride looked tired, Perish saw later with some surprise. That was unusual because normally the man bristled with the energy of a new puppy. She’d probably be better off not mentioning that though, since she had been instrumental in his recently being turned into a puppy…er…cub. Even so, he did look tired. His swarthy complexion didn’t handle sleepless nights well, and not only were there dark circles under his eyes; they were red-rimmed as well. She knew she was responsible for at least some of his exhaustion, but he had to have brought some of it on himself.
“Good grief, Audie, what on earth are you doing back?” he asked his sister.
“Did you expect me to stay gone forever, just because our tyrant of a brother told me to go?”
“Trick is no tyrant. If he were, you’d be deader than hell. You know the penalty for disobeying the alpha.”
“I had to come back, I need your help.”
“Oh for God’s sake! What have you gotten into now?”
“It’s not me. It’s my girlfriend, Honeybun.”
Before he could ask another question, PB interrupted to direct them to the kitchen where she’d laid out breakfast. Though it was too early for her to have much of an appetite, Perish poured a cup of coffee and nibbled on a slice of toast before taking a seat opposite Pride at the small kitchen table. Audacious sat to her right, while P.B. took the last seat on her left.
“And where is she?” Pride asked.
“She’s at the Water.”
“The Water?” P.B interjected. “I thought that was myth.”
“Oh no, I’ve been there. It’s no myth,” Audacious said around a mouthful of one of PB’s vegan muffins.
The girl must have been starved. She’d done nothing but eat since she arrived, and Perish knew from experience that those muffins tasted disgusting. It had been a couple of years since Perish had seen Audacious, and she’d definitely lost weight, but something about the way she looked made it clear that the weight loss was very recent.
“Where the Water Came In, or what used to be known as the Gulf, is a big gaping hole in the land and it’s all swampy and unstable because the water keeps coming,” Audacious continued.
“Folks working down there drown all the time. Some just disappear. I guess alligators or some other animals are taking them off.”
“Working there? What kind of work are they doing? I thought it was evacuated and abandoned years ago,” PB said.
“I don’t think they ever totally abandoned the Gulf,” Pride said. “There’s still a ton of oil down there, but it’s harder and more expensive to get it out now. There are no bridges, roads or anything.”
“Well, that’s what they’re working on: new roads, but there’s so much water they have to build these big dams and dikes first. Nobody will work there willingly because it’s so dangerous so they use slaves.”
“Slaves?” Perish asked.
“Well, as good as. They use anyone who gets arrested, and has no money. That of course could be anyone. They ship them down there, and most don’t come back,” Audacious said.
Pride took a long sip from his coffee cup. Perish tried to read his expression, but he gave nothing away. Finally he sighed and carefully placed the coffee cup back on the table at his elbow.“Since we’re all here now Audie, would you be so kind as to tell us what’s going on and what you’re doing back here?”
“It’s Honeybun, my girlfriend…”
“Yeah, I got that much. But why don’t you start at the beginning? When you left here where did you go? No, wait. I know where you went after you left here. Where did you go after you left the Middle?”
“You know about that?”
“Do you really think I would let my sister leave the pack and have no idea where she went? I lost track of you after you left the Midwest, though. I assumed you knew I was having you followed.”
“No, I had no idea. That’s where I met Honeybun. She was living there with her daughter, hiding from her husband.”
“Your girlfriend is married?” Perish’s tone was neutral. Whether the Audacious’ woman was married or not normally wouldn’t be of any concern to her, but if that marriage would bring trouble to her doorstep, then she would have to make it her concern, however reluctantly.
“She was done with him before she even met me.” Audacious focused her gaze on Pride. “I know you think I make a habit of poaching…”
“Actually I don’t,” Pride said.
“So why did you let Trick banish me, then?”
“You weren’t banished for sleeping with Henri’s wife. You were banished for not following Trick’s orders. You were told that at the time.”
“I didn’t sleep with her.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t stay away from her either. Because you didn’t obey orders something that should’ve been a minor issue turned into a big deal, and resulted in Trick having to kill a member of the pack.”
Audacious lowered her head. “I know. I told you I was sorry. She was just a friend.”
Pride raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Back to Honeybun and the Middle.”
“Yeah, well her husband tracked us there, so we ran, but we got caught and were arrested. I got away, but Honeybun wouldn’t leave because they have her daughter. She doesn’t know where they’re keeping her. I stayed at the Edge to try to help her, but I had too many near misses. They would’ve eventually caught me.”
“Tell us more about the slave labor,” P.B. said. “Are you sure that’s what’s going on?”
“Of course I’m sure. They work from sunup to sunset. The area is swampy and all kinds of bugs and diseases inhabit it. People are sick all the time from shit like yellow fever.”
“Yellow fever?” P.B. asked.
“Tuberculosis and dengue fever too, and a bunch of other crap I’ve never heard of. I know, right? Sounds like something from the nineteenth century. They’re trying to get to oil, and they’re trying to build canals to get water to the Middle so they can grow crops again.”
“Water is not the only reason they can’t grow anything in the middle of the country anymore. All the soil is gone. And the climate fluctuates too much,” Pride said. “People left because there’s no food and they can’t make money.”
Audacious shrugged and bit into another muffin. “I don’t know, it could be a cover story, but that’s where they sent Honey.”
“But what was your crime?” PB asked.
Perish shook her head. She was astonished by PB’s naiveté at times. PB knew better, she just stubbornly refused to deal with the reality of the world they lived in. Pride and Audacious both were staring at her as though she’d grown antlers. Audacious eventually answered her.
“Since when do you have to commit a crime to go to jail? They had some trumped up charges that we were committing a crime against the state.”
“Because you’re lesbians?” PB asked. She actually whispered the last word. Technically speaking being gay was not illegal, but that didn’t mean a person couldn’t be arrested for it as a crime against the state. Population levels were so low since the Die Off any sex act that couldn’t produce offspring was frowned upon.
“Yeah. But what they really are trying to do is break the Resistance.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, please tell me you’re not involved in the Resistance!” Pride demanded.
“Of course I am. Aren’t you?”
“Hell no. I don’t know about you, but I have no intention of dying of some ancient disease in a goddamned swamp in the middle of nowhere.”
“But that’s just the thing. They had no right to send us there. We can’t continue to live this way: afraid of our own government; hiding who and what we are,” Audacious said, her voice rising in her anger.
“I swear to God Audie, we could send your ass to a desert island and you’d find a way to get tangled up in mess. Unfortunately, Perish and I have our own mess to clean up at the moment. You and your girlfriend will have to wait,” Pride said.
“Where are you staying?” Pride asked.
“I don’t know. I just got back into town tonight. I thought I might stay with you. At least that was my plan.”
“Not a good one. You know how the pack hangs out at my place. You can’t stay with the sisters either. Their husbands are all pack.”
“January got married?” Audacious asked, raising troubled eyes to Pride.
“Yeah, late last year,” Pride said.
“I’ll bet she’s pissed I missed it.”
“Did she marry Harry?”
“Yeah she did. You definitely can’t stay there.” He didn’t have to explain that any member of the pack would kill her on sight for having disobeyed Trick once again. And that would probably tear the pack apart and undermine Trick’s power.
“Of course she’ll stay here,” PB said and Perish would’ve swallowed her tongue had she been able to catch her breath. When she finally managed to open her mouth, PB spoke right over her. “Come on Perish, you know it’s the right thing to do. Just until you guys work out this situation with that damned wizard. What do you plan to do about that anyway? And what about that creepy ass vampire?”
“Wizard? Vampire? Holy crap. What kind of mess have you guys got on your hands?” Audacious shook her head. “I don’t expect any less from you Perish, but Pride it’s not like you to step in it.”
“Shut up Audie,” Perish and Pride said in unison, automatically falling into a long-established pattern for dealing with her. Pride continued, “The last thing we need is for you to get involved in this, Audie. You have a way of making a bad situation awful.”
“I don’t know why you always say that.”
“Because it’s true.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll stay out of your situation. What is your situation, anyway?”
Pride gave her a very brief overview. Perish could tell he didn’t want to, but if Audacious was going to be staying at her house for any length of time, it wouldn’t do for the other woman to be ignorant of the shenanigans that might be going down.
Audacious listened to the whole story, her eyes widening almost comically with each sentence. “Does Trick know about this?” she asked when Pride finally wound down.
“Not everything, no,” Pride said.
“Well, you’d damn well better tell him.”
“We know that,” Pride said.
“No we don’t. Your brother is such a hothead…” Perish began.
“Look who’s talking,” Pride said with a derisive snort.
“Yeah, but my fuckery doesn’t involve the whole pack and a war with every talent in the country.”
“Perish, I’m his beta. Even if I don’t think it’s the best idea, I still have to tell him. We don’t know what the hell the wizards want with the Amber Room, but I guarantee it can’t be good. Trick needs to know about this.”
“I know that Pride, but the truth is we still don’t know where the Amber Room is. We just know who had it last.”
“I think we can make an educated guess,” PB said.
“Maybe you can make an educated guess PB, but I have no idea,” Perish said.
“Eichmann was captured by the Israelis and taken to trial in Israel. He was convicted and hanged in the early 1960s. Not long after that, the Israelis won a spectacular war. They beat a combined Arab force in six days. It was a world wonder.”
Pride frowned as he rubbed his chin. He then let out a long slow whistle. “So you think the Amber Room is some type of power source?” he asked.
“Something like that. Amber has always been known to attract spiritual forces. I would guess that a whole room full of it, especially really old amber, would be even more powerful. And don’t forget it was made by a powerful wizard. Who knows what he put in it.”
“I knew that love offering story was pure bullshit,” Perish said.
“Not necessarily. If it’s a power source, I could see giving it to a royal lover,” PB said.
Perish shrugged. “Whatever. I’m going to tell Gregor what I know today.”
“You…we can’t do that,” Pride said with a forceful shake of his head. “Telling the wizard is the last thing we should do.”
“What?” Perish said. “If we don’t, there will be war. They’ll kill you and you know what Trick will do. And besides, Gregor hired me.”
“Hired?” Pride said with mocking disbelief. “Right. The term, I believe, is ‘bribed.’ At any rate,” he continued when Perish didn’t rise to his taunting, but instead only gave him a bland stare. “You know how important the balance of power is amongst the talents. We can’t give the wizards anything that will make them more powerful. They would dominate everyone. Maybe even the wolves.”
“So you’re saying…” Perish began, knowing exactly where the conversation was going and not liking it one damned bit.
Pride nodded. “It’s even more vital that we talk to Trick.”
Copyright © 2014 Roslyn Hardy Holcomb and Lisa G. Riley
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