Authors: Sondrae Bennett
“Here’s how this is going to work. Four of you will die. One of you will go back and warn anyone else who dares think they can take me. I don’t care who lives. So if I were you, I’d start running, and hope I was faster than my friends.”
The ogre who’d spoken for the group grunted. Was that a laugh?
Better not have been a laugh.
Then the other ogres made similar noises. Grunts that sounded an awful lot like laughter.
Well, it was their funeral. Kalindra smiled down at the group. Time to have some fun.
* * * *
Where the hell was she? Cameron wondered for the six-hundredth time as he paced in front of the stove. One moment she was here, and the next gone. He didn’t even know how that was possible.
Not to mention she’d left her precious sauce here to burn. She’d better have a damn good explanation for up and disappearing on him. Literally.
The front door slammed, the boom echoing down the hallway. Well, finally, maybe now he’d get an explanation. Hell, maybe even some appreciation for keeping their dinner from being ruined. Dare he dream he could get a kiss for his troubles? He smiled at the thought.
Kalindra appeared in the doorway in harpy form, covered in blood, a giant wooden club clutched in her claw.
Boy, did she look pissed. And judging by the glare on her face, all of her anger was directed at him. What the hell had he done?
had better start talking? Me? I’m not the one who up and disappeared without warning.”
She stalked forward, and everything inside Cameron screamed at him to move away. But damned if he’d cower for her.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She stopped walking, tilting her head, studying him. “Careful or you’ll enrage the harpy monster. Tell me what I want to know.”
He rolled his eyes. He’d stopped thinking of Kali as a monster almost that first night. If she really wanted to scare him, she’d have to do better than that.
“If I knew what you wanted to know, I’d tell you.” Honestly, could women be any more confusing? “I’m not a mind reader.”
Her eyes narrowed on him. “You’re not scared of me.”
“But I’m a monster. You said so yourself.”
The confusion in her voice tore at him. Had she really believed he thought that of her the whole week?
“Kali…” He didn’t even know where to begin.
She glanced down at her body, turning this way and that. “I’m harpy. How come you aren’t intimidated?” She looked so cute and baffled, he had to stifle a laugh. The noise had her glancing sharply up. Eyes as sharp as any predator’s. He’d best remember she could still kick his ass.
“You are very fearsome. But you forget that things are different now. I know you. You know me. So why don’t we sit down and have some dinner, and you can tell me what you want me to say.”
“My sauce!” she cried, running to the stove. Like water running down her body, her change flowed over her, features softening as hair and skin replaced feathers, hands forming where claws had been seconds before, ending with her legs and feet.
Cameron shook his head. If he’d have blinked, he’d have missed it. The transformation had happened that fast. He searched for a word to describe what he’d seen. Elegant. The change had been elegant.
Backing up until the back of his legs hit the stool, he hastily sat. Amazing. One second to the next and the human stood in front of him. Magic.
He was so shocked, it took a moment to register the lack of clothing. Her shirt either hadn’t survived her larger harpy form or had been ruined in the fight. The scraps hung over one shoulder, exposing her skin almost to her nipple. He could see the outside curve of her breast, and the sight was enough to make his mouth water. His eyes were riveted as she checked the sauce.
“Thank you for taking the meatballs off.”
“Huh?” What had she said? All he could see was the slope of her breast.
Oh, right. Meatballs.
“Sure, no problem,” he choked out.
She glanced over her shoulder. When he looked up, a smile was on her face. Clearly, she knew where he’d been looking.
“I’ll go clean up. Then we’ll sit down and you
explain things to me.”
As soon as she disappeared around the corner, Cameron lowered his head to the counter in front of him. He had a sneaking suspicion whatever she wanted to know related to the shard.
Time had run out. But he needed some answers of his own before trusting her with his secret.
* * * *
“Where did you go before? When you just vanished.” He’d barely waited until his butt hit the seat before starting with the questions.
“I’ll be asking the questions.” She stated in a no nonsense voice, making her sound like a strict schoolteacher. That probably shouldn’t turn him on as much as it did.
When her eyes narrowed on him, he rested his elbows on the table and raised his eyebrows.
“No, you listen.” And he was man enough to admit, it surprised him when she actually did. “We both have questions, and we both need answers. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll ask you a question. You’ll ask me a question. One honest answer for another. Got it?” He held his breath, waiting for her response.
The silence stretched between them until he worried she’d refuse. No telling what would happen if she did, because he wasn’t ready to trust her with his secret just yet. He’d hate to ruin their easy relationship because she couldn’t bend.
His breath left him in relief. Now, they’d get down to business.
“Where did you go?” He asked as he picked up his fork. No sense in wasting a good meal.
“The gate teleports me when the barrier is breached.”
“And the barrier was breached?”
“Ah, ah, it’s my turn.”
Cameron shook his head. “That was one and the same question.”
She studied him for a moment before conceding. “Fine. Yes, five ogres came through. They were after something.”
Cameron licked his lips. He knew exactly what they were after.
“My turn. How did you get into Outremer?”
“Same way you did. Used the portal.” His only hope would be evasion until he learned all he needed.
“I walked through.”
Kalindra slammed her hand on the table, her fork still in her clasp. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
“What happens when you die? What stops creatures from crossing over before a new gatekeeper arrives?”
He’d actually shocked her with that question, he could tell.
“The selection is instantaneous. The moment I fall, the next keeper is ported to the gateway. And if they fall, the cycle continues until one is able to force back the horde.”
Well, that was reassuring. At least if she fell, someone else could stop the shard from falling into the wrong hands. But how would the new gatekeeper even know it was there to protect?
“Do you know who’ll be chosen next?” he asked.
She narrowed her eyes on him. “Planning to stab me while I sleep?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
She was out of her seat, hands slammed on the table before he even registered she’d moved. “That wasn’t an answer.”
Was she serious? Of course he wasn’t planning on stabbing her in her sleep. Was this what gatekeepers worried about? Were they all so paranoid?
“No.” He maintained eye contact until she nodded and turned away.
Surprisingly, he still wasn’t frightened. At all. Something had changed in the past week. Even knowing she could tear out his bowels and wear them as a hat, he still wasn’t scared of her. In fact, if anything, he was turned on. Something must be seriously wrong with him. He glanced over as she regained her seat.
She was attractive. More than just attractive. The mixture of earthly grace and otherworldly power was intoxicating. The way she moved, as if so sure of every step. Sexy as hell. But her beauty didn’t make her any less frightening. He couldn’t put his finger on why he’d become so comfortable with her.
“No,” she said, drawing him back to focus. “I don’t know who’ll be chosen next. No one does. Not even the gate. When the time comes, it will find a warrior worthy of the task within seconds.”
“So fast,” he murmured. Had it ever been mistaken in its choice? Chosen someone less than worthy? He opened his mouth to voice his concerns, but Kali beat him to it.
“Why is everyone after you?”
Another moment of reckoning. Now was the time to tell her the truth. But how much of the truth should he reveal? He still hadn’t gotten the answers he needed.
He was beginning to think leaving the shard with her was a bad idea. She was so isolated here. Alone all the time. Who would she pass the duty of protecting the shard to? And not knowing who the next guardian of the gate would be, who would take over if she fell? But she’d answered his questions, and they’d made a deal. Giving her the answers she sought was not the same as handing her the key.
“I have something they want. Something that allows me to pass through the gates undetected.”
“What?” Her tone was incredulous.
He didn’t bother repeating himself. She knew what he’d said, and if her sharp gaze was any indication, she knew the implications. The features in her face sharpened, a cross between human and harpy.
“Give it to me,” she demanded, her voice sharp.
But Cameron had made his decision. The harpy was not the right keeper for the shard. It needed to be kept as far away from the gate as possible.
He shook his head.
“I demand you hand it over.”
“No,” he shouted, his own anger crashing over him. “It’s
task to protect the shard.”
“And you’ve done a hell of a job. You brought it into Outremer. Do you have any idea what might have happened if those vampires had gotten their hands on it?”
Cameron rose to his feet. How dare she lecture him? No matter how right she was, he wasn’t a child.
“You’re right. I’ve failed in my duty. But the shard has been passed down from human keeper to human keeper. And that’s not about to change now.”
Done with this conversation, he crossed to the doorway. He needed to get out of here. No way in hell would he stay.
“Cameron.” The coolness of her tone had him turning around.
He was relieved to see no trace of the harpy in her features.
“Don’t even think about leaving.”
He heard the challenge in her voice. If he ran, she’d come after him. He was every bit the prisoner she’d proclaimed him not to be just an hour before. Without responding, he turned and headed back to his room.
She’d brooded for the night and most of the next day. Wondered how he could possibly have kept something so huge from her. After all, how could she protect this world without all the facts?
For that matter, what the hell was this magical object capable of tricking the gate? She’d never heard of anything with that sort of power. None of the other gatekeepers had, either. She’d spoken with them moments after Cameron had disappeared into his room. She hadn’t even bothered to check the different time zones. Some things simply couldn’t wait.
Pissed, that’s what she’d been. Good and pissed. Not only that such an object existed, but that enemies now knew of it.
It took over twenty-four hours for her anger to cool, and for logic to intrude on her menacing thoughts. Facts were facts. The object did exist. And whether she liked it or not–which she didn’t–Cameron was in possession of it.
She didn’t even know what it looked like, so she couldn’t exactly take it from him–a thought which had crossed her mind more than once. No, he’d have trust her enough to hand it over. But for now, he was here. If he had this object, and she had him, it might as well be in her possession. At least she knew it was safe.