Dragon Moon

Dragon Moon: The Amaki, Book 2

Dragon Moon

Cover art by Tori Minard from photos by

© Luceluceluce, © Stryjek , © Fernando Cortés

 

Tori Minard

Enchanted Lyre Books

Copyright © 2011 by Tori Minard

 

This story is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are invented by the author or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.

All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author.

 

The Amaki are what humans could have been, if they hadn’t rejected magic.

— A traditional Amaki saying

 

CHAPTER ONE 

The girl was doomed unless he intervened. The agents he’d targeted were following her, although why they thought an ordinary college-age human had information worth knowing was beyond Thorn. She was just a drum-circle aficionado. Her knowledge of the Amaki was about as accurate as one of those flower fairy coloring books sold at toy stores. The Order must be getting desperate.

He ghosted along after them, soundless and nearly invisible in the winter night. The girl wore knee-high snow boots under her denim prairie skirt. She left gaping holes in the snow as she trudged toward her car, a rime of white crystals stuck on the hem of her skirt. The men who followed her obliterated her tracks with their own and made enough noise they could probably be heard two blocks over.

The girl gave no sign she knew they were there.

She lugged her drum, a huge Native-American style one with a medicine shield painted on it, around to the back door of her brown sedan. Opening the mismatched green door, she stuck the drum on the seat and dumped a bulging tote bag on the floor in front of it. When she turned her head, the earbuds of her MP-3 player flashed silver through the thickly falling snow. No wonder she hadn’t heard the agents.

They closed in on her in a pack. Her head came up, her eyes round behind the wire-frame glasses she wore. She gasped at the sight of the ski-mask-wearing men. Her fear beat at Thorn. She turned as if to duck into her car, but the nearest agent grabbed her arm and spun her around. Thorn tensed, ready to spring.

“Leave me alone!” Her voice was already tight with anxiety.

“We want to talk to you,” the agent said. Thorn had heard them say it before, to other humans who’d gone with them and never come back.

“Who are you guys?” Her voice rose in pitch.

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Are you cops? I haven’t done anything.”

The other two agents formed a wall around her, trapping her against the car. He hadn’t planned to kill them tonight. Information was what he wanted. But he couldn’t allow them to hurt this innocent girl.

“We just have a few questions for you,” the head agent added. “Come with us.”

“I want to see your i.d.”

Thorn tensed as they chuckled. If they took her off to question her, she might not make it out alive. The agent holding her started to drag her away from the vehicle, and Thorn broke into a run.

“No!” Her knee slammed into the agent’s groin.

He roared and backhanded her. The girl stumbled, falling to her hands and knees in thickly drifted snow. Then Thorn landed on him, taking him to the ground.

He cuffed the human in the head, knocking him unconscious. When he turned, the others had drawn semi-automatics and were aiming them at him. Were the bullets lead or iron? One would merely be painful. The other would be deadly. His lips pulled back from his teeth in a humorless grin.

The agents fired.

Thorn’s body jerked with the impact of the bullets. They hurt like fuck-all, but his powers were still intact. Lead, then. He strode toward them.

They continued firing into him. They were using silencers, but at point-blank range the bullets weren’t slowed enough to matter. Thorn gritted his teeth against the savage pain, watching their eyes go wide with panic as he got close. He yanked the guns out of their hands, the heat of the barrels scorching his palms.

Behind him, in the snow, the girl whimpered.

The humans turned to run. But Thorn was faster than any human. He dashed around, appearing in front of them. They had just enough time to scream before he put a bullet in each of their heads. Their bodies slumped to the snow, sprays of blood and brain matter decorating the whiteness behind them.

Now the girl screamed.

Thorn went to the first agent, who was still out, and shot him in the back of the skull. The girl continued to shriek.

He tossed the guns into the snow next to the agent. Then he turned to the girl, extending his hand.

There was some effort involved in speaking English. He took a breath and focused his thoughts on the alien language. “I won’t hurt you, Terra.”

Her head flew back and forth so violently that her brown hair fell over her face, obscuring it from view. “No, no, no, no.”

He crouched next to her and laid a hand on her shoulder, sending a command to her psyche. Calm. Be calm. All is well.

Terra stopped shaking her head. She peered up at him through the thick fringe of her fallen hair. “W-who are you? How do you know me?”

“That is of no consequence. Go home now. And don’t walk around in dark places such as this alone. Do you have a male companion?”

She looked at him blankly.

Thorn searched for the correct word. “A boyfriend?”

“Yes.”

“He should be watching out for you. The nights are dangerous.” Thorn helped her stand. “Get in your car, lock all your doors and turn on the heat. You’re covered in snow.”

“Okay.”

He watched as she obeyed. She wouldn’t remember anything that had happened this night after she’d left the community center where her drum circle was held. But he would.

He was tired. Tired of the killing, tired of being alone, cut off from his people and everything that made life worth living.

Maybe he’d been on this crusade long enough. It was time to go home.

 

Two and a half years later

Maddy guessed that Colin Grant was only about twelve years old, but his bizarre behavior made it difficult to tell. He sat in a chair in her office, between piles of books and research documents, rocking himself and giggling continuously. The laughter had a mechanical quality, as if it came from a bad television actor. There was nothing of real humor in it.

His curly brown hair stuck up all over his head, as if it hadn’t been combed in days. While he laughed, he made repetitive gestures with his hands, swooping and fluttering them in what looked like a combination of sign language and Asian dance gestures. He wore gray sweatpants in defiance of the Willamette Valley summer heat, and his toes, clad in running shoes, tapped rapidly on the oak plank floor. Maddy looked at his mother.

“How long has he been like this?”

Tracie Grant clasped her hands together so tightly her fingers turned white. “It started last night.”

“What makes you think it’s a fairy attack?”

The woman ran her fingers through her frizzy dyed-auburn hair, making it stand on end. She leaned over her son and caught one of his hands in mid-swoop. When she turned his palm upwards, Maddy saw the band of red abrasions on his inner wrist. It looked like some kind of clamp had been applied to his skin.

She caught the mother’s eyes. “This looks mechanical to me. Not like the work of a fairy.”

“He hasn’t been anywhere,” Tracie said. “The only thing he did last night was play in our back yard before bedtime. We heard him screaming and ran outside. He’s been like this ever since.”

“Could someone have gotten in your yard and attacked him?”

“I don’t think so. Our dog was with him. He’s a big dog, a Rottweiler. He was barking and snarling like crazy. He would have bitten any human who came into the yard.”

Maddy frowned. The Grants were members of the Order, and they were familiar with the ways of fairies, but there was something about this case that wasn’t right. Most fairies shunned machines of all kinds.

“I’m going to call my uncle in to have a look at your son.”

Tracie nodded nervously.

Uncle Stephen’s office was right next to hers, and luckily he was in. He usually worked from home. He poked his head in the doorway with a smile. His gaze fell on the Grant boy and his smile faded.

“What’s going on?”

Tracie Grant described what had happened to her son, while Stephen’s face grew more and more grim. He came into Maddy’s office and sat in her desk chair, pulling it up to face Colin. The boy continued giggling and gesturing, oblivious to the adults in the room.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” Maddy said.

Stephen nodded, his brows knit together. “It’s definitely a fairy assault, by a very rare creature. We don’t know much about them, but we have seen their victims.”

Those goddamn fairies. They preyed on humans for no reason Maddy could understand, except for pure malice. There was no other explanation for an attack like this. What did it gain the fairies? They didn’t eat humans, or love them, or have any kind of relationship with them that she could fathom. They were alien, in the truest sense of the word, senselessly cruel even to children, and she’d like nothing better than to see them gone from the face of the Earth.

Tracie took a step forward. “Is there anything you can do for him?” she said in a pleading tone.

“I’m afraid not.” Stephen shook his head. “I’ve never heard of anyone recovering from this kind of thing.”

She put her hand over her mouth. Maddy’s heart pinched at the expression of horror on Tracie’s face. Stephen’s careless remark seemed wrong under the circumstances, and although she barely knew the woman, she placed a hand on her shoulder for comfort.

“Have you taken him to a doctor yet?” she said softly.

“No. I brought him here first thing. I hoped – “

Maddy put her arm around Tracie’s shoulders. “We’ll look into a solution for this. We’ll do everything we can to help Colin, but in the meantime I think you should take him to a doctor. They might have a medication that could help control this behavior.”

Tracie nodded, her eyes glistening.

“I’m so sorry we don’t have better news for you,” Maddy added. “I wish there was something we could do right now to make it better.”

“Thank you,” Tracie whispered.

Fifteen minutes later, Uncle Stephen was shaking his head at Maddy. The Grants were gone, and she was alone with him, her office door closed against intrusion.

She folded her arms over her chest. “What?”

“You shouldn’t give her false hope.”

“It isn’t false. I think there might be something we can do.”

“Maddy, you don’t even know what you’re dealing with here.”

“And you do, so why don’t you explain it to me?”

He shrugged. “I can’t. Really, all I know is what I already told you. It’s a creature so rare we don’t even know what to call it. We’ve only seen a few cases like this, and no-one has recovered.”

Maddy drummed her fingers on her desk top. “In the traditional lore, several types of fairies are known to cause insanity with contact.”

“Yes.”

“Is it one of those?”

“Not as far as we can tell. This thing appears to have machine parts of some kind. The traditional lore doesn’t show anything like that.”

“I’m going to look into it. If something like that is loose in Eugene, we ought to know more about it.”

He patted her on the shoulder. “I agree. But don’t let it interfere with your Thorn project.”

“I won’t.” Nothing would get in the way of her capturing her parents’ killer.

“How is that coming along, by the way?”

“We’ve got everything set up and ready for Friday.”

“Wonderful.” Stephen gave her another pat. “I hope you nail the bastard.”

So do I. She’d been looking forward to it for almost twenty years.

 

On Friday, Maddy and her team were in position in the Coast Range just west of Eugene, Oregon. She sat on an old fallen log behind a screen of underbrush, in the green shade of a huge spruce, watching the remote video they’d set up to monitor the clearing where they expected Thorn to appear. And he would. She knew it. The others might laugh, but Maddy believed he would be there.

This day was the twenty-first anniversary of his wife and son’s deaths. It had happened in the clearing above her, where they’d set the camera. He would come today. And if he didn’t, she’d wait until he did.

It had happened? That makes it sound so bloodless, like it was a freak accident or something. But it wasn’t an accident. Thorn had murdered them with his own hands.

A tall, male figure appeared on her video screen, as a man ambled across the clearing. She gave a start. It was him. Had to be. Tall, long blond hair, a single narrow braid on one side of his head. He was either a local hippie or he was Thorn. And she was betting on Thorn.

Her mouth went dry. Did she have her cell? She patted her shorts pocket to feel the lump of the phone. Yep. Did she have the cookies? Maddy unzipped her backpack to peek inside. There they were.

Reaching into the hip pocket of her cut-offs, she touched her tin of fairy ointment. No. She’d already applied it.

There were fairy eyes everywhere. Not all of them were the heroic type, like Thorn. Some were more like nature spirits, and this forest was thronged with them, including the one peering out at her from a fork in the branch of a nearby Douglas fir. If she applied fairy ointment while it watched her, it would definitely notice.

She ignored the gnarled, brown features of the tree-spirit as if she didn’t even know it was there. Acknowledging it would make it suspicious, and then it might run off and warn her target. Monitoring the Order’s hidden camera was odd enough behavior, let alone waving at a creature who assumed she couldn’t see it.

Everything was ready.

Quit stalling, DeGuiscard. You can do this.

She pulled out the phone and dialed her cousin.

“Drew here.”

“He’s in the clearing.”

“Are you sure it’s him?” Drew sounded surprised.

“Ninety percent. I’ll know for sure when I get there.”

“Be careful, Maddy.”

Her palms were slick with sweat. This was her first field assignment. In fact, it was the first time any woman had worked in the field. The Order was old-fashioned and considered field work too dangerous for women. But she could do it. She had to do it, to bring her parents’ murderer to justice.

Shouldering the pack, she marched out to the trail as butterflies banged around inside her stomach. Fear was no excuse to bail out of this mission. Thorn had killed many people besides her own family – for two decades he’d been the scourge of the Order’s East Coast offices – and he needed to be stopped.

She was going to take him down hard. He’d never murder another agent or hurt another child again.

The Order’s central goal is to exterminate any and all primarily magical beings

— Order Policy and Procedures Manual

CHAPTER TWO 

Maddy hiked past dense stands of salmonberry, vine maple and sword fern, all under the shade of the enormous Douglas firs and spruces that cloaked the mountainside. Shafts of sunlight lay like gold across the trail. As she made her way upward, more fairy faces peeked out of the greenery or blinked sleepily from the rough sides of boulders. Tiny sylphs fluttered by alongside the fuzzy bumblebees humming back and forth in front of her, and birds sang in the trees just as happily as if there were no soulless killer lurking in the woods.

A bee droned past her face with a sylph on its back. Maddy kept her face carefully blank. She’d never seen anything like that before, yet she couldn’t let herself have a visible reaction. She couldn’t let the fairies know that she’d seen it. The sylphs might be cute, but under the sweet exterior they were just as treacherous as any other fairy, and they could just as easily betray her to Thorn.

Coming around an outcropping of black basalt, she ran straight into a hard wall of flesh. She didn’t have to fake her yelp of fright as she stumbled backward to get away from him. The man grabbed her by the elbows. The musky male scent of him traveled right to her sex, making her instantly aroused. What the hell was that about?

“Steady, now.” His breath carried a strong whiff of alcohol. He must have been drinking.

“I-I’m sorry. I thought I was alone on the trail.”

“There’s no need for fear,” he said. His deep voice carried an unusual accent.

What if he could tell who and what she was? The urge to reach into her t-shirt and touch her protection charm became nearly irresistible. Had she put it on? Maybe she’d forgotten it.

Maddy stuck her hand in her pocket to keep it away from her charm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

Thorn gave her a little bow, a gesture that contrasted oddly with his threadbare jeans, faded blue t-shirt and hiking boots. “I understand. The woods can be dangerous.”

He ought to know. “They can be,” she said, plucking at the hem of her shirt.

“I apologize if I frightened you.” He gestured up the trail. “I won’t keep you from your trek.”

He studied her without a trace of friendliness, yet there was something compelling about the way he looked at her. The face of an angel and the soul of a devil. The weight of his gaze pressed into her, made her shiver in the July heat.

Maddy looked up into the depths of his eyes and was lost.

They were deep green, the green of a forest lake, almond-shaped and flecked with gold and brown. Thick, sooty lashes fringed them, looking so soft she wanted to touch. There was sorrow in those eyes, and desire too. Something hot that made her quiver inside as her core moistened, opening for him.

One eye was brighter green than the other. Mismatched. Mismatched eyes were a hallmark of the heroic fairies. Maddy shivered again. This is Thorn, you idiot. Don’t let him draw you in.

She cleared her throat, forcing herself to move away from him. “I’m alright. Thanks for catching me.”

“You’re very welcome.” Thorn retreated a few steps, watching her with those compelling eyes of his. Because of the fairy ointment she could see the subtle glow coming from his skin. It was the only thing that differentiated him from an ordinary human male, and it confirmed her guess that she had the correct target.

“Whew.” Maddy smiled, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. “It’s hot today. Mind if I take a break here?”

He made a welcoming gesture. “Certainly not.”

“Thanks.” She flopped to the dusty ground. Compared to the fairy women he consorted with, she probably looked like a cow, but who cared? She was human. That was better than any fairy, any day.

Now all she had to do was convince him to eat the poisoned cookies and she’d be home free.

Maddy slipped her backpack off and laid it on the ground in front of her. She withdrew a bottle of water and the bag of cookies. Thorn settled down next to her, lowering himself into a cross-legged position so smoothly she couldn’t even see how he did it. But he wasn’t looking at her. He stared at the dust as if he could see visions in it.

Maybe he could. Maybe he was remembering the terrible things he’d done here so many years ago. Her stomach made a slow, nauseating roll. Was he proud of what he’d done? Did he think of it as an accomplishment? She snuck a peek at him out of the corner of her eye. He didn’t look proud. His eyes had a hollowness to them, as if his inner energy had drained out under the force of terrible memories.

Faking a smile, she extended her hand, hoping he wouldn’t notice the perspiration. “I’m Maddy, by the way.”

They shook. The touch of his skin, warm against hers, sent another tingle of arousal through her. “Thorn,” he said.

“That’s a cool name.”

The fairy smiled back at her. His whole face warmed, the corners of his eyes crinkling. It was just charm, the glamour fairies used to lower a human’s guard. But, damn, it felt real. “I’m glad it pleases you.”

She blinked. “Yeah, um, it’s unusual.”

For crying out loud, she needed to get it together. Her protection amulet should block any glamour he tried to use. He couldn’t affect her thoughts or feelings when she wore it. Only a fierce effort of will kept her hand from reaching for the pendant.

She unscrewed the lid of the bottle and took a sip. “This is such a beautiful place.”

He glanced at her sidelong. “I suppose.”

“You don’t think so?”

“It has a violent history,” he said with a shrug.

“Oh. I didn’t know that.” Maddy opened the bag of cookies ever so casually and took one out. “It feels so peaceful.”

He fingered a wooden pendant that hung on a piece of twine around his neck. “Maybe it is, now.”

His gesture reminded her of the way she wanted to touch her own charm. Maybe his pendant was similar to hers, a protective talisman that would prevent the poison from working on him. Maddy swallowed hard. She had to try – she was here now, and this was likely her only chance to get close to him.

“Do you know what happened?” Shit. It’s probably not a good idea to talk about it. But the words were already out of her mouth.

Thorn closed his eyes. “A woman and her son were murdered here.”

Because you killed them. “That’s awful. Wait, you mean right here at this very spot?”

“Yes.”

The stubble of new beard shadowed his sharp jaw, and Maddy caught another whiff of alcohol as he moved. He must have been drinking a lot if she could smell it so easily.

People drink when they’re grieving. She told her inner voice to shut up. “I wonder if it’s haunted.”

“It isn’t haunted.”

“I bet you don’t believe in that stuff.” She pulled out a second cookie and held it out to him. So casual. It’s not like I care whether you take my cookie; I’m just trying to be polite.

“Want one?”

Thorn reached for the treat. “That’s kind of you.”

An odd feeling washed over her, cold and heavy, like guilt. “Don’t mention it,” she said stiffly.

There was nothing to feel guilty about. This man, this fairy, had murdered many humans and probably countless numbers of his own people. For two decades he’d made a hobby of picking off Order agents. He deserved no compassion. For God’s sake, he’d killed his own child.

To cover her confusion, she took another swig of water. A goal she’d worked toward for years sat within her reach. Misplaced guilt could ruin everything.

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Thorn bit into the cookie and chewed thoughtfully, without seeming to notice the slightly metallic flavor. The spices worked just the way she’d hoped.

His lips were beautifully curved and just full enough for really pleasurable kissing. God, to put her mouth on his, to take his lower lip between her teeth and slide her tongue into him. Her core throbbed with longing.

Maddy blushed and took another gingerbread for herself. These thoughts were wrong. She shouldn’t be ogling her target. Besides, it wasn’t like her to be overcome by a pretty face. Although she knew there could be no glamour, she had to battle another urge to reach for her amulet.

“They were mine,” he said.

“Come again?”

He glanced at her sidelong. “They were my wife and son.”

Maddy froze, a cookie halfway to her mouth. Her heart banged away in her chest. He’d actually admitted – well, he hadn’t really admitted anything yet, but he’d claimed the victims as his relatives. “My God,” was all she could think to say.

“I wasn’t with them,” he muttered. “If I’d been here, I could have protected them.” His voice was pitched so low it seemed he hadn’t meant for her to hear it.

The chill returned. Maddy stared at the thick wall of Douglas fir, vine maple and wild currant that pressed in on their small clearing. More faces gazed out at her, some gray or brown like bark, others green and leafy. Fairies were all around them.

Thorn was guilty. Everyone knew he’d done it. The Order had witnesses to the crime. Besides, what about all the other atrocities he’d committed?

“I’m sorry,” she said.

She held out another cookie. Her hands were perfectly steady now, though her pulse raced. Thorn looked at the treat as if he expected it to bite him. His hand came out, slowly, then hesitated. Maddy just held the cookie, waiting, as if she couldn’t care less whether he accepted it or not. Take it, goddammit.

His long fingers brushed hers, sending a jolt of awareness and longing through her. Their eyes met again. She wanted him. And he – his gaze traveled over her face like a caress, like a kiss.

It’s just fairy glamour. He probably uses it on every woman he meets.

Yeah. Just glamour. The attraction wasn’t real, and she couldn’t allow it to distract her.

“It happened a long time ago,” he said.

“But you go on missing them. That crap about time healing all wounds isn’t true. It doesn’t heal them, it just papers them over.”

He turned his head to look at her. “That sounds like the voice of experience.”

“Yeah.” She dropped her gaze to her lap. “My parents died when I was ten.”

“Then I’m sorry as well.”

Maybe she was losing her mind. He didn’t seem guilty, didn’t seem like a murderer at all. But feelings could deceive. How many sociopathic killers had used friendly charm to lure their victims?

This man wasn’t just any fairy. According to the Order’s informants, he was a sorcerer of rare power. Thorn could probably make her believe anything he wanted, even if she was wearing a protective charm.

She remembered the night her parents had died, and she remembered seeing their bloody bodies before Uncle Stephen covered her eyes. The creature sitting next to her had enchanted a bear to attack them, for some reason known only to the fae.

Her parents hadn’t even belonged to the Order – that was Stephen’s project. Yet Thorn had wiped them out. He didn’t deserve her pity. He deserved what he was going to get for all the people he’d slaughtered.

When would the iron kick in? She’d never fed it to one of them. In fact, she’d never heard of anyone feeding a fairy iron. Maybe it wasn’t absorbed through the digestive system. Maybe this plan wasn’t going to work.

He swallowed the last of the second cookie. A grimace crossed his features. Too late for regret. The iron was doing its job. Thorn gave a choking cough as the color left his face. Then he bent over, gagging, one hand to his throat.

“Are you alright?” Maddy said, backing away. She put her hand in her pocket and hit number one on her cell.

“What have you done?” he rasped.

Maddy scuttled away from him. “I haven’t done anything. What’s wrong with you?”

“Poison.” He lurched toward her, catching her by the elbows just as he had earlier. His body bore her down to the hard-packed ground, his grip as unyielding as if his hands were stone. Her breath came in frightened little pants and her heart raced so fast she felt lightheaded as she squirmed beneath him.

“What kind of poison?” he growled.

“I don’t know! Let go of me.”

Thorn shook her. “What did you do? Who are you?”

Her mouth was so dry she only made a croaking sound in response. Jesus, when was Drew going to get here? Thorn loomed over her, his body pressing her into the unyielding earth, his face twisted in anguish. She tried to force her knee up between them, but there wasn’t enough room.

“You little bitch. You’re with the Order, aren’t you?”

She heard feet pounding down the trail. Thank God they were going to get to him before he had time to kill her. She met his eyes. “Yes, I am. You killed my parents, asshole.”

 

Our power comes from the green world, and without it we die.

— Amaki proverb

 CHAPTER THREE 

Men were coming. Humans. Thorn released the woman and staggered to his feet in time to see them thundering around a bend in the trail. Four of them, coming to the rescue of the treacherous little bitch who’d poisoned him. As if she needed rescue. He almost laughed.

Then they were upon him. Thorn swung at the first, but his strike went wide and threw him off balance. What the hell had she given him?

His opponent landed a blow on his jaw that almost knocked him over. The trees. He had to get into the trees and try to shift to his dragon form. Or the Between. He looked around himself with glazed eyes.

Another man came at him. Thorn kicked low at the man’s legs, sweeping them out from under him. The fellow went down just as another slammed into him from behind.

The Between.

He stepped to the side, but his mind couldn’t reach for that other dimension, couldn’t even feel it. She must have fed him iron. Shaking his head, he shoved at the man on his back. The human didn’t budge. With a backward jerk, Thorn pounded his skull into the man’s face, and the human’s arms fell away as the man gave a loud groan.

But there was another, and another. They seemed to be multiplying. Two grabbed him by the arms and held him as he tried to wrench himself free. He roared, kicking out at them. They grunted as his feet connected hard with their bodies. They didn’t let him go.

The man he’d kicked over strode to him and rammed his fist in Thorn’s belly. “Go ahead and fight me, motherfucker. Give me an excuse.” He punched him again. Thorn vomited everything in his stomach.

“Jesus Christ.”

Through slitted eyes, he saw the human draw back his fist.

“Don’t damage him,” the woman said.

The man hesitated. His eyes looked exactly like hers, large and dark.

“We want him intact. Get the shackles on him.” She held out black iron fetters.

No! He flailed, twisting his arms in the grip of the humans. Roaring. Kicking. Jackknifing his body so the humans who clung to him swung around as if they were puppets. Yet somehow they held on while the man hit him with fists like hammers.

He sagged under the blows, going to his knees, blinded with sweat and poison. The iron in his system made everything hurt, made his vision blurry, his head dizzy, his feet heavy. Even his thoughts stumbled about like drunkards.

Thorn’s cheek met the ground. The human men piled on top of him, holding him down, while the woman clasped the iron on his ankles.

“Christ, this guy can fight,” the first speaker said. “I thought the iron was supposed to incapacitate him.”

“It was.” Maddy’s voice sounded far away. “Maybe he didn’t take enough.”

She was responsible for this, the lying little viper. They never would have captured him without the poison.

At the touch of the metal, his skin seemed to ignite. The burn penetrated his flesh all the way to the bone. He moaned. Her cool fingers brushed against his wrists as she shackled them, too.

He moved his head, squinting up at her. The dark eyes he’d so admired were distant and cold, like the eyes of a statue. She’d said something – what was it? He’d killed. Her parents? No. No. Thorn shook his head to show her he wasn’t the killer, but it only made his skull feel like it was about to explode. With another groan, he subsided.

The men hoisted him upright and started dragging him back down the mountain. His feet wouldn’t work. They kept folding underneath him and making him trip. The fellow who’d beaten him jabbed him in the ribs with a sharp elbow.

“Stand up, asshole.”

Thorn clenched his teeth. “Kiss my ass.” But it came out in Amaki.

“What language is he talking? Maddy, do you know?”

“It doesn’t sound familiar,” the woman said.

Her voice sounded right next to his ear. When Thorn turned his head to look for her, she was walking one person removed from him. Nothing felt right. Nothing was where he expected it to be. His feet couldn’t find the ground.

Thorn dropped his head to his chest. The maples and spruces and ferns blurred together into a faceless green smear as they stumbled down the hillside. Sounds blurred, too, until he couldn’t make out individual voices. He could no longer hear the singing of the tree nymphs. Even the chirping of the birds seemed muffled and strange.

He heard roaring. Then laughter. Shouts. More laughter. Words, but none of them made any sense.

There was a metallic slamming noise. The men shoved him and he fell forward, into a small, dark space. More metallic slamming followed. That was vaguely familiar. He ought to know what that meant. Then there was rumbling beneath him, and movement.

They were taking him. Somewhere. A bad place, a place of death. Thorn struggled to rise, but the darkness reached up and engulfed him.

 

Uncle Stephen’s home office had white carpeting and a glass-topped desk with a gleaming steel frame. The air smelled like ammonia, so he must have just cleaned the glass. Behind his desk, a floor-to-ceiling window looked out on the tawny fields that surrounded the house.

Maddy had washed the fairy ointment from her lids as soon as they’d reached their vehicle, which meant she couldn’t see any faces in the grass or trees anymore. Thank God. She hated seeing those faces—they always made her skin crawl.

Twenty feet from the house was an aggressively modern detached garage that housed Stephen’s vehicle collection and one very unusual feature. Below the garage was a prison designed to hold fairies. Thorn was in there.

Was he afraid? Angry with her? Try not to be an idiot, Mad. Of course he’s angry with you.

Stephen grinned broadly at Maddy and the rest of her team. “Congratulations on a job well done.” His voice was more jovial than she’d ever heard it.

“Thank you.” Maddy glanced at Drew and her other team members. “But they did the hard part. All I had to do was get him to eat the cookies.”

“That’s bull, Maddy.” Drew punched her lightly on the arm. “You had to sit with that psycho all by yourself. It took a lot of guts to do that.”

Yeah, right. Maddy DeGuiscard, intrepid girl agent. Her face heated. She’d been lucky not to pee in her pants.

“You did so well I’m considering allowing more women in the field,” Stephen said.

Maddy forced a smile. “That’s great.”

“If it’ll help us kill more of the bastards, I’m all for it,” Drew said. “I wish we could’ve seen his face when he found out you poisoned him, Mad.”

“We’ve got the camera,” Stephen said.

Everyone laughed except Maddy.

There must be something wrong with her. She’d been waiting for this moment for eighteen years, and now it had arrived she couldn’t enjoy it. When she’d confined herself to desk work and research, she’d had no doubts. Maybe she didn’t belong in the field.

“First I’ve got to find you a replacement for your office job, though,” Stephen continued.

“I didn’t know I was quitting.”

Her uncle raised his brows. “You don’t want to remain in the field?”

“Not really, no. I mean, it was exciting, but I thought of it as a one-time thing. I got Thorn and that’s what I set out to do.”

“Well, give it some thought. In the mean time, let’s celebrate your success. What do you say to a few beers on the deck?”

The guys all cheered, so Maddy went along with it. Her nerves could probably use a little help relaxing anyway. There was a sharp, heavy sensation in her stomach that had settled in when the men tackled Thorn, and right now it felt like it might become permanent.

Uncle Stephen and Aunt Caroline had installed a new deck just a month earlier, and on sweltering afternoons like today it smelled of cedar. Luckily it was on the east side of the house, so it got shade at this time of day. Otherwise it would have been unbearable.

Maddy plucked a beer from the mini-fridge, pulled the top off the bottle and sat down in a cool spot to drink it. She could still see the look on Thorn’s face when he’d realized that she’d poisoned him.

Could you betray someone who was evil? And why the hell should she feel guilty about it? It just showed how manipulative and deceitful fairies could be. Here she was, kicking herself over punishing the man who’d murdered her parents. Wincing over the way she’d tricked him, just because he had a pair of soulful green eyes. He was a murderer, for God’s sake. He didn’t deserve her pity or her guilt.

Stephen sat down next to her. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” She forced another smile. “Fine.”

“You look like someone ran over your puppy.”

Maddy gave a scornful snort. “Please. I’m just tired, that’s all.”

“Your first day in the field can be pretty rough. It takes some getting used to.”

“Yeah, I’m sure it does.”

“Maddy, he didn’t hurt you, did he? Something the guys didn’t see?”

She quirked her brows. “Hurt me? No. Well, he did grab my arms, but it wasn’t a big deal.” Except for the part where she’d been scared he was going to kill her.

Stephen toyed with a strand of the clematis that had begun to twine around the deck railings. It broke off in his fingers and he tossed it to the side. “The fairies have a way of making you think things that aren’t true.”

“I know.”

“They can even make you think they love you.”

“Uncle Stephen, he didn’t try to tell me he loved me. We’d only just met.”

“I was just using that as an example. My point is he could have messed with your mind while you were alone with him.”

She’d wondered that herself. “I had my charm on.”

“And it should have protected you. But Thorn is legendary for his power as a sorcerer. Maybe he could defeat the charm.”

“Maybe. Or maybe I’m just tired.”

He patted her knee. “Okay. I’ll back off.”

Maddy smiled, genuinely this time. “Honestly, I’m fine. I’m happy we got him.”

They clinked beer bottles and Stephen got up to slap Drew on the back. Her cousin looked so much like his father, like a younger copy of him, and both of them looked like her dad. Her memories of her father were hazy, but she had photos to look at, so she knew he and Stephen had strongly resembled each other.

Was that why she’d slipped so easily into her uncle’s family?

“De Guiscard sure got up close and personal with him,” said a loud voice.

Maddy looked up to see Craig, one of their most successful agents, grinning at Drew.

“Fuck off, Craig,” her cousin said, laughing.

“Seriously. You were all over the guy.”

“Yeah, beating the shit out of him,” Drew countered. “I’ve wanted that asshole for years.”

Maddy tried to hide her wince. Damn it, she was doing it again.

“He sure is pretty.” Craig smirked. “I think maybe you want him as a special friend.” He waggled his brows suggestively.

“You’re the one admiring his looks.” Drew took a long pull from his beer. “Didn’t know you swung that way.”

Craig pretended to throw a punch at Drew. Again, everyone laughed except Maddy. What was wrong with her? Could Stephen be right? The thought of a fairy getting past her charm and messing with her head made her queasy all over again. If she couldn’t trust her own feelings and perceptions, she was truly screwed.

On the other hand, she couldn’t go around thinking other people were controlling her thoughts, or pretty soon she’d be making her very own aluminum-foil hats.

Either way, Thorn can’t affect me now. He’s been neutralized.

 

He was cold. So cold. The chill penetrated his flesh all the way to his bones. The only place he didn’t feel it was at his wrists and ankles, where the iron burned his skin.

Thorn drew in an experimental breath and groaned at the pain. Either he had a broken rib, or internal bleeding. Maybe both. In either case, it was probably unwise to sit up, so he remained curled on the floor.

His lashes were stuck closed. He lifted a hand to rub at them until he removed all the grit. Light stabbed at his eyes even before he opened them.

There were bars in front of him. Iron bars, close together. Thorn lifted his head enough to get a better view. He was in a cage inside a room with concrete block walls painted an ugly tan color. A fluorescent light fixture that looked like it belonged in a human’s garage hung from the ceiling. The long bulbs inside it flickered and buzzed.

They’d taken his clothes and replaced them with a heavy leather collar. He explored it with his fingertips. It felt like a dog collar.

He couldn’t see a window. Did that mean he was underground? Or had they stuck him in a storage locker? To his knowledge, the Order didn’t have any storage lockers, but his knowledge of their activities was hardly exhaustive.

The floor of the cage was made of plywood, which reeked of urine, blood and shit. Others had occupied it. Before.

Thorn let his head fall back to the stinking plywood. He was a fool. Only an idiot would get drunk and toddle off to cry on his son’s death place, knowing that place was accessible to the enemy. And to be taken in by a pretty girl with big brown eyes, as if he were some untried boy, was behavior unworthy of the Red Dragon Clan.

Her obvious fear of him had pained him. As if he were the kind of man to attack a woman. He rarely fought anyone except members of the Order – and it hadn’t occurred to him that they would use a beautiful young woman like Maddy as a field agent. They’d never done it before.

And then she’d seemed to let down her guard. There’d been something in her eyes, grief akin to his own. She’d been friendly and trusting, just when he felt he was drowning in loneliness and loss. The little faker had completely fooled him, and if he admitted it, he’d wanted to be fooled.

You brought this one on yourself.

Yes, he surely had. And he would pay, probably with his life.

The door opened. He turned his head to look without jostling the rest of him. A middle-aged human male with dark brown hair sauntered into the room with a smile on his face. He looked like an older, male version of Maddy. Thorn narrowed his eyes. Damn. How was it he hadn’t seen the resemblance before?

“You’re awake,” the fellow said, his smile broadening. “I was afraid you’d be out until morning.”

“DeGuiscard.”

“And you remember me. I’m flattered.”

“As if I would forget the man who murdered my wife and son.”

StephenDeGuiscard laughed. “I like to think of it as extermination.”

Thorn’s hands clenched against the plywood. He fought to keep all emotion off his face, because that’s what the piece-of-shit human wanted – to see him writhe.

“Does it help you sleep at night?” he said, his voice tightly controlled.

“Now why would I have trouble with that?” DeGuiscard approached the cage, staying well out of Thorn’s reach. “I’m doing important work for the Order. Speaking of which, why don’t you save us both some trouble and talk to me now? It’ll be a lot easier on you, believe me, than if my interrogator gets involved.”

If he laughed, it would only worsen his injuries. “I am talking to you.”

DeGuiscard pulled a battered desk chair near the cage and sat in it. “Yes, you are. So tell me, where is Red Dragon headquarters?”

They knew the name of his Clan? Thorn stared flatly at his enemy. “We have no headquarters.”

“Sure you do.”

“No. We don’t.” What they had was a Clan stronghold, but DeGuiscard didn’t need to know what it was called.

“Where can I find your Clan chief, then?”

“I have no idea.”

“Are you planning any attacks on our people here in Eugene?”

Thorn allowed himself a grin. “Right.”

“Should I take that as a yes?”

“Take it any way you want.”

DeGuiscard sighed, shaking his head. “You’re not being very cooperative.”

“I do apologize.”

“It’s going to get very messy in here before my interrogator is done with you.”

“I’m sure you have staff to take care of that.”

“Yes, we do. Well, since you don’t want to talk to me, I’m going to hand you over to Maddy. She’s the one who planned our operation this afternoon, by the way. I think it was very clever of her.”

 

We believe that humanity was not meant to have contact of any kind with magic.

— The Order Policy and Procedures Manual

CHAPTER FOUR 

DeGuiscard stood, brushing imaginary dust from his hands. He left the chair in place and went to the door. When he opened it, a glimpse of slim feminine legs clad in jeans showed beyond him. The legs moved forward, into the room, as DeGuiscard stepped aside.

Thorn looked up into the face of the woman who’d betrayed him. She wore a different t-shirt than the one she’d had on earlier. This one was looser, with a higher neckline. Apparently she no longer needed to tempt him with her beautiful little body.

The door of his cell slammed shut. Maddy took the chair her uncle had vacated, her face pale under her tan. She looked as tense as he felt. Her gaze remained fixed on his face, as if she hadn’t noticed he was naked.

“You look like him.”

“Thank you.”

He smiled. “It wasn’t a compliment. Is he your father?”

“No. Uncle. Why would you care?”

“Just wondering how far the apple fell from the tree. Isn’t that the saying? My English isn’t so good.”

“My uncle is a great man.”

Thorn studied her face. Her wide brown eyes were guileless – but then they’d been just as innocent when she’d handed him the poisoned cookies. Maybe she really believed what she said, or maybe she only said it to irritate him.

She leaned forward and propped her elbows on her knees. “Why did you do it?”

He frowned. “Do what?”

“I told you what, you supercilious bastard. You killed my parents. Why?”

Her words came back to him through a fog of remembered pain and rage. “I didn’t kill them.”

Maddy jumped to her feet. Her breasts bobbed a little with the movement, a detail he caught in spite of the agony in his ribs. “You liar! We have evidence! We know you did it, and I want an explanation.”

Thorn’s lids seemed to be weighted with lead. He was exhausted and he didn’t want her to see it. “I can’t explain what I don’t know.”

“Right. You’ve probably murdered so many people you’ve lost track.”

“I don’t kill women. Presumably your mother was a woman. Therefore, I couldn’t have killed your parents.”

Her mouth twisted, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. “I guess I shouldn’t have expected truth from a fairy.” She turned her back on him and stalked to the door. “The interrogator is going to see you soon. You’ll wish you’d talked to me instead.”

The door slammed a second time. With the iron on him, his senses were too dull to hear if she walked away from the cell. Would she come and observe the interrogation? Probably not. She was involved in his capture for emotional reasons, for revenge.

But what better way to savor her revenge than watching them torture you?

Well. It remained to be seen whether Miss Maddy DeGuiscard had the stomach for torture. She’d certainly found it easy enough to feed him toxic cookies.

Why hadn’t he known what she was up to? Normally he could easily read a human’s intentions, if not her individual thoughts. And he hadn’t even noticed she was blocked to him, although he could blame the whiskey he’d swilled for that.

A charm. Miss DeGuiscard must have worn a charm beneath her shirt. He gave a contemptuous snort, then winced in agony when it jostled his internal injuries. Wasn’t that just like the Order, to condemn all magic except when they needed it to destroy the Amaki?

If she had a charm, she might be using glamour to make herself more attractive than she really was. Because usually he had little interest in human women. Usually he barely noticed them, no matter how beautiful they were. Human women were as poisonous as those cookies Maddy had given him.

She was probably a homely little thing without her magic. Buck teeth, cystic acne. Frizzy hair. Little pig eyes. No, maybe not. Her uncle had the same dark, beautifully shaped eyes she did, framed by lashes so long they didn’t look real. So the eyes had to be genuine. But he’d wager she was lumpy and plain in every other way. If he saw her again, he’d find a way to snatch her charm and reveal her true appearance.

His eyelids were too heavy to remain open. Thorn let them close. They couldn’t shut out all the ugly bluish light of the fluorescent lamp, but they helped. If only he could shut his ears so he couldn’t hear the hellish buzzing that scraped relentlessly on his nerves.

This concrete and iron prison was like a tomb, shutting him off from more than freedom. In here, he couldn’t feel sun or moonlight, couldn’t hear the birds and insects or the wind in the trees. He couldn’t soak up the green energy his people needed to stay sane and healthy. Down here, he would eventually go mad. Even without their torture.

 

Gahsenni was hungry. Inside it was empty and its motors grew slow and weak. It clicked to itself. Gahsenni would eat. There was magic here in the human world, a lot of magic, and it could find all it needed once it left this place.

The humans wanted to play their game with Gahsenni. Stupid humans. They had rules. Gahsenni did not have rules. Gahsenni did whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted. Right now it wanted to eat.

It floated out of its box, out of the house filled with cars, into the rich, dark night. The humans thought their box could hold Gahsenni. Stupid humans. Gahsenni clicked and whirred to itself.

Small humans had the most magic. They were inside their houses, sleeping. It would be easy to go inside a house and take a small human, but then the big humans would put up a fight and Gahsenni would be noticed. Being noticed was bad.

Summer wind tossed the treetops as Gahsenni floated just above the pavement. A cat paused in the road ahead, staring at Gahsenni with round yellow eyes. Cats had magic. But the creature yowled and sped into the shadows so quickly that even Gahsenni couldn’t follow.

Young human voices came on the wind. It paused, listening. Small humans. Gahsenni turned toward the sound, following, until it floated over a high wooden fence and into a grassy enclosure behind a house. There was a fabric thing in the enclosure, like a tiny house with poles sticking up at the corners. The small humans were inside it.

Gahsenni whirred with pleasure. It peeled away the fabric with its pincers to reveal the two small humans inside. Their faces contorted in the loud sounds humans made whenever Gahsenni came near. It grabbed them, one in each pincer.

The boys struggled, but Gahsenni was stronger. Gahsenni was always stronger. And their magic flowed so freely, so easily, that all it had to do was open its mouth and take it in.

 

When Maddy went downstairs in the morning, she found Drew in the kitchen of the old farmhouse they shared. The farmhouse dated from the late-nineteenth century. It was located at the front of her aunt and uncle’s property, and had been the original dwelling. In fact, she’d grown up in these simple, high-ceilinged rooms and had chosen to stay here when Steven and Caroline built their modern showplace.

Her cousin sat at the table, a half-eaten bowl of cereal in front of him, a folded newspaper to the side. Her stomach let out a growl, so she fixed one for herself and sat down across from him. From the window in the dining nook she could see her aunt and uncle’s lavish new place. It had an enormous, fully glazed southern exposure that came together in a point at the middle, like the prow of a landlocked ship.

Yawning, she poked at her cereal. “Did you make any coffee?”

“I just started a pot. You look like hell.”

“Gee, thanks.”

He stuck a spoonful of raisin bran in his mouth. “Have a bad night?”

That was an understatement, considering that her eight hours felt more like three. Maddy shrugged. “Kind of. I had some weird dreams.”

I don’t kill women, Thorn had said. She could hear him saying it. The words had repeated endlessly in her mind, all night long.

“Huh. Maybe it was the heat.”

Or the guilt. “Yeah, it was hot last night.”

She poked at her cereal again before taking a bite. Until recently she’d never considered whether the Order was doing right or wrong in its hunt for the fairies. She’d known they were right. But now – now she didn’t know what to believe.

“Are you working today?” Drew said.

“Yeah. You?”

“I’m going mountain biking up near Oakridge with some of the guys. Wanna skip work and come along?”

“No, thanks.” She played with her cereal, trying to separate the raisins from the bran flakes and sequester them on one side of the bowl. It was harder than it sounded.

“Hey, Drew? Have you ever wondered about the fairies?”

He turned over the newspaper. “Uh, I guess so. What do you mean, wondered?”

“Well, what they’re really like. I mean, how do we know they’re evil?”

Drew set down the paper and stared at her. He lifted one dark brow. “Yeah, right.”

“I’m serious.”

“Maddy, they killed your parents.”

“I know, I know. But maybe some of them are evil and some aren’t. How do we really know? It’s not like we’ve tried very hard to understand them.”

He laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”

She should have known he wouldn’t get it. “No, I’m not kidding.”

He kept grinning at her. “Did someone loan you that Dancing with Fairies book or something?”

“Come on, Drew, I mean it. Here we are hunting these people and we hardly know anything about them.”

“The only thing I need to know about them is how to kill them.”

Maddy focused on her cereal bowl. “Okay, you’re right. Forget I mentioned it.”

“You’ve been acting strange ever since we captured the sorcerer.”

Instead of answering him, she stirred the raisins back into the bran flakes, carefully mixing them. She lifted a spoonful to her mouth.

“You were alone with him,” Drew said. “Did he do something to you?”

Maddy chewed her raisin bran. The dark scent of coffee permeated the room as the coffeemaker slowly filled. She looked up at her cousin, who’d gone all serious like he thought she was sick or something. “What could he do? We just talked.”

“Maybe he influenced you.”

“I was wearing my charm.” She pulled it out of her shirt, displaying the peridot and amethyst pendant to him. “I haven’t taken it off since.”

“He might be powerful enough to overcome the charm. He could have used a glamour or some other kind of spell on you.”

“Uncle Stephen said the same thing. But if he could overcome the charm then he wouldn’t have eaten the cookies.”

Drew raked his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know, Maddy. It seems suspicious to me. Did you touch him?”

Heat crept across her face. Yeah, she’d shaken his hand and gotten turned on by it. There was no way she would tell Drew about that.

“Right before you guys showed up, he realized I’d poisoned him and he grabbed me. That’s all.”

“You’re blushing.”

She squirmed. “He’s very attractive, alright? Yeah, I thought he was . . . you know . . . . “

Her cousin leaned forward in his chair, putting his forearms on the white-painted table. “A couple of the females have had that effect on me, too. I think it’s how they lure their victims.”

“I know that. What did you do about it?”

“Shot one of them. The other got away,” he said.

“Geez, I hope you don’t treat all your girlfriends that way.”

“I’d flip you off, but I’m too much of a gentleman.”

She laughed. “I’m fine, honestly. I’ve just been thinking about a lot of stuff lately. It’s not a big deal.”

He looked at her while the coffee maker slowly drip – drip – dripped coffee into the pot. “Okay, if you say so. Just be careful, coz.”

She needed to get away from here, go somewhere Drew and Uncle Stephen wouldn’t look for her. Someplace where she could think. Maddy took her cereal bowl to the counter.

“You sure you don’t want to go biking with us?” Drew said.

“I’ve got some important research to do.”

“That sounds boring.”

“Duty calls.” She had a weird mechanical fairy to research.

 

Maddy spend a whole week combing the Order’s archives without finding anything about a mechanical fairy. There was simply no mention of any creature that even vaguely resembled the thing Tracie Grant had described. Maybe Tracie had imagined it. Maybe the mom was just as nutty as her poor kid, only she hid it better.

Maddy ignored her curiosity about Thorn, burying herself in her frustrating research for an entire week before giving in the next Wednesday morning. Instead of going straight to work, she walked over to the garage. It was idiotic, really, to think she could get him to talk. Yet she went inside anyway.

The door leading to the underground cells was made of thick steel. An armed guard unlocked it for her, seeming to take her interest in the prisoner for granted. On the other side of the door, a staircase led down, its only illumination a flickering compact fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Her footsteps seemed to echo on the hard concrete stairs as she descended. It got colder the further down she went. She’d worn capris and a thin short-sleeved shirt in preparation for a day in her office, which lacked air conditioning. She should have brought a sweater.

You’re a fool, Maddy. You shouldn’t go anywhere near him.

Thorn’s cell was at the end of a long, narrow hallway lined with other doors. Other cells. They had enough capacity for ten prisoners, but the place had never been completely full. Although the corridor looked clean, the air held a faint odor of body waste.

Craig was on guard downstairs in the cell block. He sat on a folding metal chair, reading a skin magazine and looking bored. Maddy smiled at him, hoping she looked sincere instead of scared.

“I’m here to see the prisoner.”

He nodded and unlocked the door. “Sure. Go right in.”

To take a human lover is a noble thing

— Amaki proverb

CHAPTER FIVE 

The stench hit her immediately, the stink of unwashed flesh and rotting food so powerful she could almost see it hanging in the air. Dear God.

In a cramped cage too small for standing room lay the huddled figure of a naked man. A tangle of matted brownish-blond hair obscured his face. It must be Thorn, yet he looked nothing like the man she’d met in the woods. He didn’t even look up to see who had entered his cell.

Maddy pinched her nose. “What is that godawful smell?”

“Yep, he’s pretty ripe.” Craig grinned.

Thorn’s shaggy head moved, lifted. His eyes were so hollow that Maddy flinched. One was swollen shut, the flesh purplish-black. His fine lips were so swollen and blackened she couldn’t see their normal shape. More bruises marred the skin of his shoulders and back.

She edged nearer to the cage. Bruises she’d expected, especially after the fight he’d put up, but not so many. And they looked fresh. By now, they should have faded quite a bit.

The dullness of his eyes, as if he hardly knew where he was, made her gut go cold. He was a killer, and he wasn’t even human. But he was a person. He was aware, and obviously in pain. Looking down, she noticed a metal bowl full of what looked like canned dog food.

Maddy pointed at it. “What’s that?”

Craig shrugged. “His food. He won’t eat it, though.”

“It looks like dog food.”

“Well, he’s a dog, isn’t he?”

She gave him a sharp look. “This isn’t right. You’re starving him.”

“You’ll have to take that up with your uncle. I’m just following orders.”

Just following orders, huh? That was always the excuse of people directly responsible for this kind of abuse. She kicked the bowl with her toe.

“Get it out of here. The smell is making me sick.”

“O-kay. Whatever you say.” Craig shoved it toward the door with his foot.

When he’d gone and shut the cell door behind him, Maddy crouched in front of the cage. “Can you hear me, Thorn?”

“I hear you.” His voice sounded rough.

“They’re going to question you tonight. Why don’t you tell me what they want to know?”

He slanted a glance at her. His swollen lips curled up on one side. “They’ve already questioned me.”

“My uncle’s getting impatient. He’s going to be harder on you.”

“What do you care?”

Why did she care? This man was evil and deserved what he got. Right? Yet here she was, trying to spare him pain.

“I don’t believe in harming prisoners,” she said finally. “My uncle is determined to get information out of you. I don’t think you’ll like it.”

His eyes seemed to spark at that. “You’re willing to poison those prisoners.”

Maddy flushed. “It was the only way I knew to capture you.”

“Will you be present at the questioning?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you may enjoy it. You have your revenge, Miss DeGuiscard.”

He rolled on his side, facing her but concealing his sex by bending his top leg. His cheeks and jaw were covered with a week’s worth of beard growth, and the skin beneath looked pale and sickly. He was still beautiful.

“It’s not revenge,” she said. “It’s justice.”

His left hand shot between the bars and clamped on to her arm. He jerked her toward him. Maddy gave a squeak of shock and fear.

“Don’t scream,” he said.

“W-what are you doing?” She spoke through a throat gone painfully tight.

“Just checking.” His other hand reached through the bars and touched her face.

She trembled. “Checking?” God, she sounded like a scared mouse.

Long fingers slid gently over her nose, her cheeks, along her jaw. “Looking for the edge of that glamour you’re wearing.”

She tried to pull away, but his grip was too strong, even with all the iron on him. “I’m not wearing a glamour.”

He laughed softly. Those fingers trailed their way down her neck, across her collarbones. Down to the swell of her breast. Her heart tried to climb out of her chest. Yet she made no sound.

Thorn traced the lower curve of her right breast. Maddy shivered. In spite of her fear, in spite of her hatred of him, in spite of the noxious odor in the cell, she warmed, the space between her legs beginning to tingle. He opened his hand, cupped her.

Maddy’s breath caught. His eyes widened as their gazes met. His hand was warm and heavy against her flesh. It felt good there.

“You’re not – “

“Please,” she whispered. She didn’t know what she was asking for.

Thorn snatched his hand away. Maddy scrambled back, her sandaled feet hitting the cage bars in her rush to escape. She stared at him, breathing hard. Something was wrong with her if she could be aroused in these disgusting surroundings. By him.

A wave of color suffused his face. He was blushing? He rubbed his forehead. “I didn’t think – “

“Why?” she croaked.

“You’re a lovely woman, Miss DeGuiscard.” He smiled coldly, his armor back in place. “It seemed likely to me your beauty was unreal, created to trick me into dropping my guard.”

“I’m not beautiful.”

One caramel-colored brow rose skeptically. “Do you really expect me to believe you don’t know how you look?”

She rose to her feet on a rush of anger. “What does my appearance have to do with anything? I came here to help you. I should have known better.”

He grinned without humor. “Help me? What a charming idea. If you unlock this cage, that would be most helpful indeed.”

“Very funny.” Maddy shook her head. “I can see this was a waste of time.”

“You are correct.”

She glared at him. “Don’t you care about yourself? Don’t you want to get out of this cage?”

Both eyebrows rose. “I’m touched at your concern. However some things are more important to me than my personal safety and comfort.”

“Oh, right.” She snorted. “You’re an idealist now.”

He gave an awkward, truncated bow, hampered by the confines of the cage. “I admit I am.”

If only that were true.

Where the hell had that come from? She despised him. He was a monster. Maddy pressed her lips together.

“I’m not going to ask you again,” she said tightly. “Will you talk to me? Or are you going to wait for my uncle?”

“I won’t talk to you or anyone.” He smiled again, this time with a little warmth. “Would you talk to me? Would you tell me all the secrets of the Order?”

“No. Of course not.”

“Then perhaps you can understand my position.”

I don’t understand anything right now.

Maddy shook her head. Not true. Her training still held. Fairies were evil. Deceitful.

“I’m going now.”

“Will I see you again, Maddy?”

She ignored him and opened the door to the sound of mocking laughter. Why hadn’t she screamed?

 

Maddy’s office was located in what had once been the formal parlor of a large Victorian house, now sandwiched between an office tower on one side and an apartment building on the other. At eleven o’clock on Friday morning, the French doors banged open to admit a determined-looking young woman in a green tie-dyed sundress, thong sandals and a silver toe-ring. Three silver hoops further adorned her eyebrows, and green beads tipped the ends of her multiple blond braids. Lovely. Someone had left the front door unlocked.

Maddy set her cup of coffee down next to her copy of The Order Archives of Fairy Lore, Volume Twelve, which she was searching for information about a fairy with mechanical parts. This was the last volume that had any chance of containing a reference to Colin Grant’s attacker.

She pasted a smile on her face. “Can I help you?”

The invader lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders. “Is this the office of the Order for The Elimination of The Fairy Scourge?”

Maddy’s smile froze in place. The Order was very discreet. The only sign on their headquarters was a small brass plaque with the letters O.F.E.F.S., so how had this person known how to find them? “I think you have the wrong building.”

The blonde shook her head, setting the beads to swinging. “I don’t think so. I saw the sign.”

“Sign? What sign?”

“That metal sign on the front of the house. I know what those letters stand for.”

Maddy hauled out the Order’s scripted response. “They stand for the Old Fellowship of Estimable Freethinkers Society. It’s a social club.”

The blonde gave a snort of derision. She brandished an overstuffed manila folder at Maddy. “I have evidence that your club is a secret society devoted to killing fairies.”

Oh, boy. She needed to get this chick out of the office before she noticed all the pictures on the wall of civic clubs the Order sponsored. The last thing they needed was for people to discover that the After School Club for kids and the Ursine Society were really training and recruitment vehicles for the Order.

 

The Order aims to be a guiding force influencing modern culture from behind the scenes

— The Order Policy and Procedures Manual 

CHAPTER SIX 

Maddy folded her hands on her desk and tried to look serene. “Most girls your age don’t believe in fairies anymore.”

“I’m twenty-one. I’m not a girl. And if you don’t believe in fairies, then why do you have that book on your desk? Besides, the word Order is right there in the title.”

Her face heated as she narrowed her eyes at the blonde. “Reading about folklore isn’t the same thing as believing in it.” She stood. “This is a private club. The only people allowed in the building are members and their approved guests. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

The blonde laid her folder on Maddy’s desk. “You can kick me out, but I still have proof. Go ahead and look. Everything in here is just a copy, so don’t think stealing it from me will do you any good.”

Maddy opened the folder. The top paper was a print-out of a post from an internet loop called Fairies and Demons, from someone calling himself Paracelsus to Aine.

Yes, Aine, the Order really exists. This is not just paranoid conspiracy bullshit. Their headquarters is in Eugene, Oregon. They’ve infiltrated many major corporations and all levels of the U.S. government. Some people also think they have agents in the European Union. Their mission is to eliminate ALL MAGIC. They believe magic originates with the fae and that if the fae die off, then magic will disappear.

Hmm. Not entirely true, yet surprisingly accurate. The Order’s headquarters were actually in Boston. The Eugene office was field agent H.Q. only. She turned to the next page, which was another post full of wilder assertions by the same guy. Paracelsus. Maddy looked up at the blonde.

“Are you Aine?”

“It’s pronounced Anya,” she said, in a tone that implied Maddy should have known.

“And are you Anya?” Maddy said.

The blonde nodded.

“I don’t know who this Paracelsus is, or where he gets his information, but – “

“Don’t try to shine me on. What you’re doing here is wrong. The fairies are beautiful sentient beings and they have a right to exist. Besides that, they’re a vital part of the global ecosystem. Wiping them out would be disastrous for the planet.”

Maddy suppressed a sigh. “Have you ever met a fairy?”

Aine smiled dreamily. “Yes, I have.”

She had the look of complete infatuation. Maddy resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “A man isn’t necessarily safe or good just because he’s charming.”

Aine’s gaze sharpened. “I knew you believed!”

“My point is that you’re being naïve.”

She put her hands on her tie-dyed hips. “The problem isn’t that I’m naïve, it’s that you’re a bigot.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re a bigot. You think the fairies are evil just because they’re different from us. You don’t understand them, so you want to destroy them.”

“You don’t know anything about me.” Miss Fairy Sunshine, she added silently.

Aine’s gaze narrowed again as she stared at Maddy’s forehead. “One of them has marked you.”

“Oh, for pity’s sake!” Maddy scooped up the folder and marched around the desk with it. “You need to go before I call one of the guys to force you out.”

As if on cue, heavy footsteps came from the entry hall. Both women turned toward the office door in time to see Drew enter. She could turn Aine over to her muscular cousin and see how she fared with him.

He gave the younger woman an amused once-over, which Aine rewarded by glaring at him. “I didn’t know you had a visitor.”

Drew would probably put the fear of God into this mouthy little neo-hippie. Maddy opened her mouth to tell him she was a trespasser. And then she imagined what Craig and some of the others might do to Aine if they found out she was poking around in their territory.

“We’re friends from school,” she said. “We were just going out for coffee.”

Before Aine could protest, Maddy clamped a hand around her elbow and hustled her out of the office. She was a fool for helping the kid, but she didn’t want to be responsible for Aine getting roughed up by Order agents.

The blonde tried to talk as soon as they reached the broad front porch. Maddy gave her a sideways glance and a slight shake of her head. Aine shut up.

They walked a couple of blocks in silence. The sun beat down on Maddy’s dark head and glared in her eyes. She ought to have brought her sunglasses and hat, but she hadn’t been thinking about comfort when they left the office.

She let go of Aine’s arm. “What you’re doing isn’t safe. Our mission is private. We protect that privacy very carefully. You’re lucky you met me today and not one of the other employees.”

Aine’s blue eyes widened. “Are you threatening me?”

“Not threatening. Warning. Some of the people who work for us have been know to get – uh – overexcited in protecting our club. You don’t want to draw their attention to yourself.”

“That seems pretty extreme for a social club,” Aine said. “It seems more like something a secret society might do.”

Maddy paused in the shade of a big-leaf maple. “Leave it alone, Aine.”

Aine reached up toward Maddy’s forehead, stopping just short of touching her. “One of them has marked you.”

Maddy took a backward step. “You said that before, and I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“When a human has an emotionally intense encounter with a fairy, it can leave a kind of mark in the human’s aura.”

Maddy frowned. She’d never heard that. Maybe Aine was just trying to rattle her cage. Her meeting with Thorn had been intense, though. She willed herself not to blush.

“I have the Sight,” Aine said. “I’ve always been able to see the Good Folk for who they really are.”

“How nice for you.”

The blonde nodded solemnly. “It’s both a gift and a curse.”

Yeah. “It’s been nice meeting you, Aine, but I really have to get back to work.”

“How can you work for them?” The strap of Aine’s dress slipped enough to reveal a tattoo of Celtic knotwork just below her collarbone. “You’ve been marked by a fairy, so I know you’ve – you’ve – “

“What?”

Aine’s cheeks reddened beneath her tan. “You share a bond with him.”

Maddy’s mouth opened, then closed. “I don’t have to listen to this.” She spun on her heel and stalked back in the direction they’d come.

“Wait!”

No. No, she wasn’t going to wait to hear more ridiculous fantasy spilling from that insulting fairy wannabe. Maddy kept walking, even when she heard the patter of Aine’s running footsteps.

The blonde caught her elbow. “Just let me give you my phone number.”

Maddy sighed. “If I do, will you leave me alone?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, fine.” She held out her hand.

“Give me a second.” Aine fished around in the shapeless sack she had slung over her right shoulder. She drew a scrap of paper and a pen from its ikat-weave depths and scribbled some numbers. “Here.” Aine thrust the paper at her. “Call me if you need anything.”

“I’ll do that.” Right after hell freezes over. Maddy accepted the scrap and left without looking back.

What a goofball. That horseshit about being touched by the fairies was enough to make her want to puke. The note was going in the trash as soon as she got back to the office.

The fairies are beautiful sentient beings. Little Aine should thank God she hadn’t run into Craig or Uncle Stephen today. They would have thrown her out on her eco-friendly ass, and given her something to remember them by as well. Come to think of it, she should thank God she’d never met a real fairy. If she had, she wouldn’t be so full of herself.

You share a bond with him. Yeah, she sure did. A bond created by the terrible crimes he’d committed. Everything she knew about him gave her good reason to despise him.

When she returned to the office, Drew was nowhere to be seen. Maddy wrapped up her work and left early. She had something more important to do this evening than sit and read through moldy old tomes. Tonight, after letting him stew in prison for ten days, they were once again going to interview Thorn, and she intended to be there.

 

“No, Maddy, you can’t come with me.” Uncle Stephen frowned at her as he gathered his papers. “An interrogation isn’t something you need to experience.”

She put her hands on her hips. “I’m not a little girl.”

Even though your tummy is fluttering at the thought of seeing him again? You’re not a little girl, you’re a fool.

“Sure you are. You’re my little girl, and I don’t want you to see this.”

“Why not? That asshole murdered my parents. I want to see him get his comeuppance. You’re just going to ask him some questions, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” His gaze slid away from hers. “But sometimes it’s very upsetting. The interrogator has to be harsh.”

“I’m okay with that.” Geez. It’s not like they were going to torture him. “You can’t get rid of me, you know. If you won’t agree I’ll just tag along anyway. You might as well give in now and save yourself some trouble.”

Her uncle gave an aggrieved sigh. “Alright. But don’t complain later, because I’ve warned you. It’ll be a lot rougher than what you did in the field.”

She suppressed a smile. He was still trying to protect her, even though she was twenty-eight years old and had processed field reports for ten years. Yes, they sometimes used a lot of pressure to get a prisoner to break. It wouldn’t be pretty, but damn it she had a right to see her parents’ killer confess.

Surely he’d be ready to confess by now. He hadn’t been looking so good when she’d visited him on Friday, and he’d had the whole weekend to further contemplate his situation. With luck, it wouldn’t take long and Thorn wouldn’t have to endure too much.

Who are you trying to convince, Maddy?

What would he say when he saw her? He’d probably throw her deceit back at her, accuse her of dishonor or something like that. Maybe he’d claim she wore a glamour again. Heat crept up her neck and over her face. She straightened her shoulders. It didn’t matter what he thought of her. He was a killer.

A killer, Agent DeGuiscard.

Maddy followed Uncle Stephen out to the huge detached garage. She’d warned Thorn this would happen, so she had nothing to feel guilty about. He could have talked to her, and he’d refused.

Once again, Craig sat on a folding metal chair at the end of the hall. He looked up as they approached, grinning at Maddy. “Looks like you’re losing your virginity twice in two weeks.”

She rolled her eyes. “I may be a virgin, but I’ve got natural talent.”

Craig laughed, unlocking the door.

When Maddy walked over the threshold, the stench hit her so hard she almost gagged. God, it was twice as bad as the last time. Swallowing hard, she fought to keep her face neutral. If the guys saw her react like that, she’d never hear the end of it. Craig and Uncle Stephen didn’t even seem to notice.

Gary Brady, the interrogator, occupied the desk chair. He nodded and smiled to Uncle Stephen without getting up. Gary looked like an ordinary middle-aged man, maybe an accountant or a middle-manager of some kind, except for the equipment he’d brought. On the desktop he’d arranged some tools, and Maddy swallowed hard again. He had a dentist’s drill and an electric soldering gun, among other things.

A cage took up the back third of the room. It was just big enough for a tall man like Thorn to come up to his knees. He would never be able to stand in there, not even bent over. It struck her as even more confining than the other times she’d been here.

Thorn sat on the rotting plywood of the cage floor, so close to the bars that his posture looked unnatural. She studied him. Some of the cuts on his face and torso were red and puffy with inflamation, maybe even infection. They’d attached a chain to the collar around his neck and chained him up short against the bars, so he couldn’t move. His arms were stretched out on either side of him, looped up with plastic zip ties that cut into his flesh.

The other times she’d visited, his position had shielded much of him from her view. Now she couldn’t help glancing down between his legs any more than she could help the hot blush that came over her when she saw his cock. Long, straight and heavy, nestled in dark gold curls. Oh, God. Her core pulsed.

There was definitely something wrong with her, leering at a prisoner that way. Maddy wrenched her gaze back to his face. His eyes were open. Watching them. There was something cold in those eyes, like the gaze of a captured predator.

That’s the evil in him, Maddy.

His golden hair was even darker than before and matted with filth. What had he done? Rolled in it like a dog? She wrinkled her nose. Disgusting. It was all over his naked skin, too. Jesus. She’d never seen anything like it before.

There were more bruises on him, ones that she hadn’t noticed when she’d visited him on Friday. His right side was mottled with black and blue marks. Maybe he’d told her the truth and this wasn’t his first interrogation session.

Uncle Stephen glanced at her. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

“I’m sure.”

“Alright. Gary, you’re up.”

I can do this. For Mom and Dad, I can do this.

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