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Gradoxst slipped away from the festivities. His Goblin commanders were so drunk they could barely stand; they’d never notice his absence. Once he’d put some distance between himself and the revelry, he allowed his lips to draw back in a sneer. He needed his Goblin cohorts, at least right now. But their coarse ways disgusted him. They reeked of dead meat. And the dirtier they were, the better they liked it.
He knew better than to let them know how he truly felt about them. Gradoxst wasn’t under any illusions. The Goblins would turn on him in a trice if they could see into his mind. A muted laugh bubbled past his lips. Not much danger on that front. Mind reading was a Sidhe skill. As far as he knew, he was the only Sidhe who’d embraced darkness in millennia.
As he walked toward the castle in the Dreaming, Gradoxst remembered the day long ago when the gods had picked Raven over him. Even now, thousands of years later, anger ate at his guts like acid at the thought. To be sure, he’d waited his turn, but the gods had passed him over many times. Finally, sick of waiting for the recognition he knew he deserved, Gradoxst had taken matters in hand. The gods weren’t the only ones who could augment his power.
He passed under an impressive stone archway that curved at least fifteen feet above his head. The castle was made of flat gray stones so cunningly arranged it was hard to see where one block ended and the next began. A sense of pride in Sidhe workmanship filled him, but he pushed it aside. Gradoxst knew he needed to hurry. The stones would recognize his Sidhe blood and allow him entrance. But they’d sense soon enough he’d parlayed with demons. By then he needed to be well-ensconced in the lowest level of the castle for his plan to succeed. He grinned, pleased with himself. To be sure, he and the Goblins were gradually wresting the Dreaming from the Sidhe. If he was successful, today would hasten things dramatically.
Gradoxst trotted down curving stone staircases ever deeper into the earth. His mage light bobbed along beside him, adding a crimson tinge to things. A shudder ran through the rock. He knew he’d been discovered and broke into a run, sucking air like a bellows. He cursed his ancient bones. Every step made something ache.
What he wouldn’t give to be young again. Truly young, before he’d traded sidestepping the aging process to enhance his magic. He still remembered the lascivious grin on the demon lord’s face as he’d asked if Gradoxst was quite sure he was willing to relinquish the appearance of youth. The second he’d nodded, his body had felt as if it were on fire. When he’d staggered to a mirror, he’d been shocked to see a seamed face and rheumy eyes staring back at him.
He breathed a calming spell as he ran, aiming it at the rocks. They were always slow to react. He might still make it in time—but only if he gave it everything he had.
Pushing open a heavy door, he raced into a subterranean chamber and immediately placed his hands on two adjacent walls. The incantation he’d readied spilled out almost before his hands were in the proper juxtaposition. He sent his will into the stones, along with a curse that would separate the full-blooded Sidhe fighting him from the roots of their power. He had to be careful to maintain his own link, so he concentrated on the Sidhe he’d met in battle over the past month. One by one, he clipped the strands.
The stones began to tremble. A high, wild sound filled the air. It took a second before Gradoxst realized he was laughing. “Yesssss,” he muttered. “It’s working. Once I have control of the castle, it is only a matter of time before the rest of the Dreaming belongs to me.” He hadn’t quite figured out how he’d manage to send the Goblins packing after he no longer needed them. But he was certain he’d think of something. Furthermore, he thought it likely the stones themselves would undo his handiwork. He just hoped they couldn’t work fast enough to sabotage his plans.
“You do not belong here!” echoed through the chamber.
“You’re absolutely correct,” Gradoxst answered the sentient rocks. “And there’s not a damned thing you can do about it now.”
Lara McInnis sat at an old-fashioned foot treadle sewing machine, working her way through a stack of ripped and worn clothing. As she pulled another pair of Trevor’s work pants from under the presser foot, she shook her head, shoving a few long strands of coppery hair out of her eyes with an absentminded gesture. “I don’t see why it’s so hard to keep things decent out here,” she muttered, pulling thread through the built-in cutter behind the needle holder. Sitting straighter, she rotated her shoulder blades. As soon as she moved, Gunter, a seven-month-old German Shepherd, rose from where he’d been lying in a corner of the room and came to her, shoving his nose against her leg. His rough outer coat was still a touch damp from an earlier romp outdoors.
“You’re right,” she announced to the dog. “I have been sitting here for way too long. Bet you’d like to go outside and stretch those legs.” The dog whined, tossed his head and trotted to the door, looking over his shoulder as if to say, aren’t you coming? He shook himself from stem to stern, black fur flying. Lara eyed the dust bunnies in the corners of the room and started to laugh. Cleaning was a pretty low priority when you had to hunt down your food before you could cook it—with no friendly neighborhood store to bail you out.
It hadn’t seemed safe to venture as far as Skykomish, let alone a larger city, to replenish their supplies. Her thoughts turned to the riots and food shortages that had driven them out of Seattle and she shivered. Oh stop that. I’m safe enough here.
She wondered what time it was. She’d stopped glancing at her wrist for the watch that wasn’t there a couple of months before. Getting to her feet, she strode briskly to the window, craning her neck to see if she could determine the juxtaposition of the sun in the sky. Oh my, it can’t be that late, she thought to herself, realizing she’d been sitting at the sewing machine for hours. It was closing on late afternoon.
A sudden chill ran through her. Maybe she’d imagined it, but it felt like someone had just walked over her grave. Lara shook her head to clear the uneasiness. Her pregnancy made her hypersensitive. That was probably it.
“Come on.” She clucked to Gunter as she clattered down the stairs of the rustic, turn-of-the-century lodge that had become her home four months before. Pushing the front door open so the dog could go outside, she scanned the empty yard. Trevor and Brad had left that morning to go hunting. She didn’t understand why they’d not yet returned.
“Brrrrr . . .” She shivered, pulling the door shut. Lara wasn’t worried about the dog. He never ranged far from home. As she paced through the one large room that comprised the bottom floor of the house to the kitchen end of things—passing assorted soft furniture and overflowing bookshelves along the way—she was more-than-a-little worried about her men folk, though.
She’d joined her life to Trevor’s well over twenty years before. Brad, however, was a much newer addition to their household. He’d become part of their family after she’d helped rescue his daughter from Goblins that had kidnapped her. Her usual sadness whenever she thought about Adriana surfaced and Lara offered a silent prayer to the goddess for the lovely, blonde seventeen-year-old buried behind their barn.
Brad had been a cop. A detective actually. She and Trevor first met him when he’d apprehended the violent husband of one of her patients intent on murdering her; he’d been a part of their lives—in one way or another—ever since.
Lara lifted the lid on the cast iron soup pot she’d begun tossing ingredients into hours before. A fetching smell rose to greet her. Snapping up a spoon, she first stirred, then tasted, the bean and canned vegetable mélange, flavored with the last of a chicken they’d killed two days before. “Not bad,” she murmured, wishing again for more salt. They’d run out of that last week.
Paws scratched at the back door and she went to let Gunter in. He ran to her and shook himself, water droplets going every which way. “Okay, okay,” she laughed. “I get that it’s still raining out there.” February. Or is it March by now? Has it done anything but rain this entire winter?
She shrugged a wool cloak over her shoulders, pushed her long braids under its hood and looked at the dog, eyebrows raised. “Do you want to come?” she asked. “I have to milk the goats and look for eggs.” She’d just walked out onto the wide porch that wrapped all around the house, dog prancing before her, when she felt something curious. Laying a hand on her gently swelling stomach, she stopped, heart filling with wonder as she willed the sensation to return. Yes, there it was again. Like the gentlest of fish tails, brushing against her insides. Sudden tears pricked behind her lids, threatening to overflow.
“Elizabeth,” she breathed. “You really are in there.” And then she felt foolish. Lara knew she was old to be having a child, and a first child at that. But joy at the life quickening within her brimmed over and she hummed a tuneless song as she picked up the milking pail and trudged across the muddy yard to the barn. Her boots squished in the ever-present muck. It had rained so much—and snowed when it wasn’t raining—nothing ever had a chance to dry out. She shook back her hood and bent to the first goat; the little animal stared accusingly at her out of its rectangular eyes.
“I know I’m late,” she told it. “The way today has gone, you’re lucky I got here at all.” But the goat just made goat noises and Lara stopped talking to it. Eggs in the basket and milk in the pail, she started back for the house, noticing light was fading from the day. The gray sky was getting darker. Her thoughts turned to Trevor and Brad again.
Where the hell are they? she asked herself, pouring half the milk into a bowl to sour and splitting the rest between two bottles. As she worked, she thought about Trevor with his blonde good looks and his devastating past. She’d been a psychologist before fate had plunked her down at this remote farm. And he’d been a flight attendant. They’d had a pretty posh life. Especially compared with the way things were now.