WITH AN IMPATIENT tug on the cross strap of my broadsword’s scabbard, I watched the bouncer, a lanky man of Elvish descent, examine my mercenary credentials. He scanned the I.D. and activated the magical hologram to verify its authenticity. Among other things, the card displayed my name and the Fae ruler to whom I was sworn.
“Petra Maguire,” he read from my I.D. in a lilting Irish accent. His shoulder-length orange-blond hair was pulled back in the requisite Elf ponytail, exposing the pointed tips of his ears. “Bit of a runt for a New Gargoyle, ain’t ye?”
He peered down at me, his eyes flicking over what little skin I had exposed, looking for outward evidence of my stone blood.
I bit back a smartass retort. My Fae bloodline sometimes aroused some reaction, especially among the Fae races who seldom interacted with my kind. Curiosity was the most common, though revulsion still cropped up occasionally. I reached for my I.D., and he yanked the card back beyond my fingertips.
“You’re half a foot shorter than all the New Gargs I know,” he pressed.
I seriously doubted he knew any New Gargoyles. For one thing, there weren’t that many of us. New Gargs were a new race of Fae spontaneously formed at the Cataclysm, a catastrophic shift in the magical world that occurred a few years before I was born. In a transformation that defied logic, a few hundred Fae abruptly acquired new magic and different features. My father was one of them.
Music pulsed from within the bar, and a line formed behind me. My impatience grew, becoming an itch in my palms, a desire to draw my sword. The Elf, though over six and a half feet tall, wasn’t a fighter. He stood back on his heels, and his upper arms and chest had hardly any muscle tone. He wore a light caliber magi-zapper, a magic-powered stun gun holstered on his hip, but it wasn’t even turned on. If he actually needed to use it, he’d have to wait several seconds while it warmed up. Amateur.
I could have him on the ground, screaming for his mother with a dislocated shoulder in less time than it would take him to reach for his gun. But I knew I had to behave. I’d save my aggression for my mark, who I hoped was inside the bar.
The Elf was still waiting for me to fulfill his curiosity.
“I’m not full-blooded New Gargoyle,” I said, finally relenting.
His mouth widened in satisfaction like a cat who’d just cornered a mouse. He didn’t care about my answer so much as the fact that he’d manipulated me into giving one. Elves could be such assholes.
He settled his weight onto one hip. “Your kind is known for fighting. Maybe I shouldn’t let you in.” He tapped the corner of my I.D. against his lower lip, as if he were going to stand there a while and consider his options.
My temper began to flare in earnest. I needed to get past him before he really tempted me to pull Mortimer on him.
The nightclub I was trying to get into was an establishment on the Faerie side of the hedge, the name for the border between the Faerie world and the Earthly realm where humans and other non-Fae lived. He couldn’t bar me from entering based on bloodline alone. In Faerie, you couldn’t discriminate based on race.
“That’s illegal, and you know it,” I growled. “You’ve wasted enough of my time.”
In a blur of movement, I snatched my merc I.D. from his hand and darted around him before he could react. As I passed, I hit the back of one of his knees with my heel. He grunted as his leg buckled, and he scrabbled for the door handle to catch his balance.
A satisfied smile tugged at the corners of my lips. I relished taking people by surprise with my quickness. New Gargoyles were known for being extremely strong, but not swift. My non-Garg blood had diminished my size but also gifted me with reflexes and agility that full-blooded New Gargs didn’t possess. Only thing was, I had no idea what made up the rest of my bloodline, because my father refused to tell me who my mother was. Just one of several bones of contention between me and him.
The bouncer didn’t come after me, as I knew he wouldn’t. I was tempted to pull Mort from my scabbard, sneak back to the entrance, and give the Elf a little parting poke in the ass just for good measure—nothing fatal, of course—but I reined in my focus. I had work to do. A faint zip of energy streaked across my back, the broadsword’s response to the possibility of some action.
“Soon, friend,” I said under my breath.
The bar, called Druid Circle, had only recently sprung up in this newly-established Faerie territory of the Spriggan kingdom, anchored near the famed Las Vegas Strip. Every Faerie territory had an invisible anchor, or attachment, to a location in the Earthly realm. Up until the Cataclysm, all Faerie territories were anchored in Old World locations—mostly Ireland, Scotland, and England.
Faerie and the Earthly realm were like two parallel worlds. There were points, called doorways, where Fae could pass back and forth between Faerie and the Earthly realm. The doorway outside of Druid Circle was one of the new ones. It was a bit like the normal world versus the Wonderland that Alice found when she fell down the rabbit hole. Two complete worlds that existed separately.
Pausing off to the side of the nightclub’s entrance, I reached down and pretended to adjust the zipper of one calf-high boot, allowing myself a moment to get my bearings and let my eyes adjust. I shifted my attention to my magical senses so I could feel out the crowd. The place was full, but not yet packed. Mostly Fae, with a sprinkling of vampires and human magic users who’d come over from the Earthly side of the hedge. Non-Fae could come into Faerie, but only with a Fae escort.
I couldn’t imagine how King Sebastian, the ruler of the Spriggan kingdom, had managed to grab a piece of Faerie territory anchored so close to the Las Vegas Strip. It took specialized, extremely expensive magic to carve out new Faerie territories. Plus, the Strip offered the opportunity to easily bring in high rollers from the Earthly realm, so it was valuable territory from a financial standpoint and there would have been competition for this piece of Faerie land. The Spriggan kingdom wasn’t particularly large or rich, and I wouldn’t have guessed Sebastian had the resources for such a land grab. I’d heard no rumors about the transaction, but that didn’t mean much. I usually made it a point to stay as ignorant as possible about Fae kingdom politics and power plays, unless such info might somehow help me catch a mark. My job kept me in the action I preferred: taking out menaces of supernatural society as a bounty hunter for the Mercenary Guild.
Speaking of marks, I’d gotten a tip that my current target, a reclusive vamp, had been seen here in Druid Circle.
I wove through the milling crowd and tall tables to the bar, where I ordered a seltzer with lime from a curvy Fae woman with impossibly long and feathery eyelashes, a dead giveaway of her Sylph blood. I sipped from my straw and focused my senses, trying to zero in on all the vamps in the bar.
Hunting down criminal vamps was personal work for me, just about the only thing that tied me to the mother I never knew. A vamp had killed her not long after I was born. I was eight years old when my father, Oliver, revealed that my mother had been murdered by a vampire. Usually vamps targeted humans. But my Fae mother, who’d been troubled and vulnerable according to Oliver, had somehow gotten caught up with one and had paid with her life. He’d immediately regretted telling me how she died, because I began having nightmares about fanged, bloodthirsty killers. In my child’s mind, all vamps were powerful and monstrous, constantly on the prowl for their next victims. Later I learned that wasn’t entirely true; plenty of vampires led normal, peaceful lives. But the mental image of vamps as evil monsters still lingered.
Protecting other innocents from my mother’s fate was the best thing I could think to do to honor her. So, after graduation I’d moved out of Faerie into the Earthly realm so I could join the vamp-hunting division of the Mercenary Guild, an organization that came into being after magic went haywire following the Cataclysm. The Guild was formed to deal with the post-Cataclysm criminal activity that the pre-Cataclysm laws weren’t doing a good job controlling. Private citizens also sometimes hired the Guild for personal assignments.
Holding my glass, the only purpose of it to help me blend in, I casually turned around and leaned my back against the bar so I could survey the place with more ease. The music was pulsing, but not yet at the volume or tempo that would get the crowd moving. A group of Cait Sidhe girls who looked barely old enough to be out alone were the only ones on the dance floor. They gyrated their lithe bodies with sinuous, feline movements.
One of the girls raised her arms in the air and pitched unsteadily. A couple of her friends caught and righted her before she face-planted.
She raised her arms as if remaining on her feet was a huge victory. “Wooo!” she hollered in an eerily cat-like voice that carried over the noise.
I looked past the Cait Sidhe, refocusing on my assignment.
My mark was a male, one of the new generation of vamps infected by the VAMP3 virus that had spontaneously ripped through the population following the Cataclysm. VAMP3s could be aggressive, but the real danger was their persuasiveness. They could naturally walk in sunlight unharmed, and the Type 3 vamps had glamour abilities that bordered on hypnotism. Unfortunately, supernatural lawmakers in the Earthly realm hadn’t figured out how to enforce limits on the use of charm. And so far, vampire rights groups had managed to keep VAMP3s free of the docility implant requirement that befell the naturally bloodthirsty VAMP2s. The Mercenary Guild got a lot of jobs involving VAMP3s.
I knew the gender and name of my mark, but he tended to hide out in Faerie where cell phones and other communication technology didn’t work, and no one had managed to capture a photo of him. He’d been selling VAMP3 blood on the black market, touting it as a magical potion that gave the user a soaring high and also imparted some of the legendary VAMP3 powers of charm. Only problem was, after a few doses it was turning users into murderers. One or two highs seemed to be fine, but further exposure somehow flipped a switch, turning users into blood-hungry maniacs.
I distinguished five male vamps in the vicinity, all Type 3. I eyed the male vamp nearest me. His straight blond hair was slicked back from his forehead, and he wore a black leather jacket. He was chatting up the Sylph bartender with his glamour in full effect, but being Fae, she was holding her own against his charm. He didn’t appear particularly shady, and my instincts told me he probably wasn’t my mark. I could have pulled the bounty card on him, which would have magically identified whether he was the vamp I was after, but if I guessed wrong it would tip off anyone else in the vicinity. I’d check out the rest and come back to him if I didn’t get any hits.
The next vamp pinging my senses was above me on the balcony. I scanned the area with a casual glance. Large VIP booth with table service. Money and an entourage—possible signs of a drug dealer. I straightened and set down my glass, looking for the staircase so I could get a closer look.
I twisted around at the sound of my name and found myself looking up into the face of Maxen Lothlorien. Full-blooded New Gargoyle. One of the most eligible bachelors in all of Faerie. Son of Marisol, monarch of the Stone Order to which I was sworn.
“Maxen?” I couldn’t cover my surprise. “What in the name of Oberon are you doing here?”
He was dressed in the official white and grays of the Stone Order. Usually his diplomatic duties took him to court in the Old World—the castles, palaces, and other strongholds of the Faerie kingdoms. What Order business could he have here in the Las Vegas-anchored territory of the Spriggan kingdom?
A smile broke out over his boyishly handsome face. “I knew it was you, even from a distance,” he said warmly.
He leaned against the bar, his blue eyes sparkling in a way that inspired palpitations in the hearts of many Fae women. Some men, too. His easy smile and good looks were disarming, and his warmth unexpected in a New Gargoyle. But underneath the charisma was a shrewd diplomat and a skilled fighter.
His eyes flicked to Mort’s grip, which protruded over the top of my right shoulder.
“Here for work, I see,” he said.
I gave a half shrug. “When am I not? Guild assignment.”
He tsked. “You should be at home, helping your people.”
I snorted. “You mean at home, following Marisol’s orders and popping out a few New Garg offspring?”
He tilted his head. “Not the phrasing I would use, but if that’s what works for you.” He leaned in a little and gave me a teasing smile.
We’d been going back and forth like this for years. New Gargoyles were blessed with physical strength and natural fighting skills that were the envy of Faerie, but being a new Fae race, and one even less fertile than the average Fae, we lacked numbers. In Faerie, there was power in numbers. There were several hurdles to overcome to reach Marisol’s goal of kingdom status, but the biggest challenge facing the New Gargoyles was population size. It was hard to make a case to the High Court for a kingdom charter with such a small population. Maxen’s mother—and likely many New Gargoyles—thought it a disgrace that I was wasting my peak fertility years in the Earthly realm working for the Guild.
But my life outside Faerie gave me some degree of freedom from Fae affairs and politics, which I strongly preferred to avoid. My job in the Earthly realm also gave me space from Marisol. If I’d lived in Faerie, I’d be at her beck and call. Hunting down criminal vamps was more important to me.
Maxen’s eyes slipped down over my patched scabbard strap, torn jeans, and worn leather boots. “If you joined the Stone Order’s fighting legion, you’d have top-of-the-line equipment. Daily access to the best training facility. You’d be set up with everything you needed, and you wouldn’t have to worry about earning a paycheck.”
This was our other little ongoing push and pull. When I sidestepped the obligation-to-your-people play, he always tried to persuade me to leave the Guild to join the battle ranks of the Stone Order.
I shook my head. “Placing myself squarely under Marisol’s thumb for all eternity? No thanks.”
He gave a sad smile that was very much meant to tug at my heart. “You’re one of the best fighters in Faerie, Petra. Your skills are wasted with the Guild. The future of the New Gargoyles hangs in the balance. Your people need you.”
His plea seemed a bit dramatic, but there was some truth behind the seriousness of it. While Marisol was doing everything she could to strengthen the Stone Order’s position, several of the other Faerie rulers were working to oppose her efforts so they could absorb the New Gargs into their own kingdoms. She needed to show strength in every way possible.
“You know what my work means to me,” I said. “I vowed a long time ago to get criminal vamps off the streets.”
He pressed his lips together, seemingly holding back further attempts at persuasion.
“Your turn to answer questions,” I said. “What brings you into a place like this?”
“Business with King Sebastian,” he said. His hand moved to rest lightly on the pommel of his sword. The unconscious gesture suggested perhaps the visit wasn’t entirely amicable.
My eyebrows rose. “Oh?”
Any remnants of lightheartedness faded from Maxen’s face, and his eyes tightened. “Sebastian persuaded a small group of New Gargoyles, ones with some Spriggan blood, to leave the Order and swear fealty to him. I’m here to ask that he allow a Stone Order ambassador to reside in his court, seeing as how we now have this connection.”
Maxen was being extremely diplomatic. Even as ignorant of politics as I was, I knew this wasn’t truly his aim, or at least not his only one. Marisol would want our people to retract their oath to Sebastian. Not that taking back an oath was a simple matter in Faerie, but it could be done, and I knew Marisol took it as a personal affront when a New Garg pledged to a different leader. It didn’t happen often, but as she always said, every New Gargoyle mattered, and our race needed to be united to have any hope of forming our own kingdom.
“And how is the Spriggan king receiving you?” I asked wryly. I didn’t envy Maxen one bit. His mother had sent him on an impossible errand.
“Actually, you can see for yourself,” he said. He pointed up to a roped-off area in the balcony. I scolded myself silently. How could I have missed those royal guards? I should have been paying better attention. “Sebastian is up there right now, and he sent me to ask you to join us.”
I swallowed back a groan. “Can’t do it. Busy.” I lifted my palms and shrugged in a so-sorry gesture.
The corner of Maxen’s mouth quirked a bit. “You know you can’t refuse the summons of a Fae king without causing an inter-kingdom uproar. C’mon, Maguire. Buck up.”
He grabbed my wrist and began pulling me toward the staircase.
“But I’m not dressed for a royal audience,” I protested, dragging my feet. “And he’ll blow my cover. My job depends on discretion!”
As Maxen forced me upstairs and across the balcony, I caught a good view of the vamp at the VIP table just as a human kid wearing a ball cap pulled low over his eyes passed a wad of cash into the hand of one of the vamp’s entourage. The vamp, a stocky, swarthy guy with dark brown eyes, nodded. Then he stood, pulled on his jacket, and headed for the stairs. As soon as he was clear of the balcony, another of his entourage, a too-thin Fae girl with silver hair down to her waist, slipped a small glass vial of a clear liquid to the kid. Not VAMP3 blood, but it had to be some other drug.
Damn it to Maeve, that vamp was likely my mark, and it looked like he was leaving.
“Your sword, madam,” said a deep authoritative voice. It was one of Sebastian’s guards. A typical Spriggan, he was built like a muscle-bound oak. He held out one beefy hand and nodded at the grip of my broadsword. I lifted the scabbard strap over my head and reluctantly passed it to him.
“Let me go, Maxen,” I hissed. “My mark is getting away.”
“Petra Maguire, how delightful to see you here!” called a cultured voice. The guard shifted as he turned to set my sword aside, and I caught sight of Sebastian.
“Too late,” Maxen whispered to me. He actually looked contrite.
The Spriggan king beckoned to me. “Not to worry, my man Gerald will keep a watchful eye on your prized shadowsteel spellblade. Please do join us.” Sebastian’s mouth was relaxed into a pleasant smile, but his eyes were commanding. When I hesitated, his brows rose a fraction.
Maxen was right. I couldn’t refuse an invitation of audience with a Fae king. It was just one of those Fae things there was no getting around.
Before I was ushered past the velvet rope, I caught one last glance of the swarthy vamp. He appeared to be speaking to the head bartender or perhaps the owner, a Fae man with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard. If my mark got away while I was being forced to dance like a monkey for the king, I was going to wring Maxen’s neck.
Irritation buzzed through me like a swarm of hornets. But I tamped it down, mustered up what I hoped passed as a smile, and faced the Spriggan king.