I searched my desk frantically. “Where the hell are they? I’m going to kick Herne’s ass for this.” I couldn’t find a file we needed for a meeting, and it was all Herne’s fault.
My desk was one massive pile of papers and folders, and to top things off, I had spilled my latte all over everything, making even more of a mess. The wastepaper basket was full of wadded-up paper towels saturated with the stains of coffee and milk and sugar, and the half-used roll was on the floor, next to my boot. I kicked it out of the way as I scooped up an armful of the files and dumped them on the seat of my chair.
The next moment, I let out a long sigh when I finally saw the file with the name “Cleandra” on the label. I fished it out from the stack of folders it was sitting in, managing to knock over another pile in the process. Ignoring the mess for now, I hurried out the door. I jogged back to Herne’s office, pausing by the door to collect myself. Then, and only then, did I turn the knob and let myself in.
“Welcome back,” Herne said, smiling pleasantly from behind the desk. But his gaze fastened on me and I knew that—inside—he was cringing. He knew exactly what kind of a mood I was in. I said nothing as I held up the file. “You found it, thank you,” he said. “Let’s get back to business then.”
I slid into the chair next to his desk. Our client—a very wealthy dwarf named Keri Cleandra—gave me a long look, then smiled. I had the feeling she knew that I was about to smack Herne, because she gave me a secret smile that women have when it comes to dealing with men. Dwarf or Fae, human or god, we all had those times when the men in our lives were this close to sleeping on the sofa.
“Yes, I found it,” I said, gritting my teeth. But I was a professional, so I shook off my mood for the moment and turned to Herne. “So, what’s our next step?”
“The next step,” Herne said, “would be to visit Keri’s property. We need to figure out how the thief is getting into her house.”
“I don’t understand why my alarm system isn’t working,” Keri said. “I had it checked out.”
Herne nodded. “Given you have an alarm system and a guard dog, and neither one reacted to the break-in, yet you keep losing property is pushing me to think you might have a poltergeist or something of the sort. But we can’t make that determination until we’ve actually examined the house.” He held out his hand for the file.
I slapped it into his hand, harder than necessary. As I did so, I noticed the blueberry stain on the cover from my blueberry jam and peanut butter sandwich. I tried to ignore it, but Herne caught sight of the mess and gave me a long, meaningful look. I glared back at him and he hastily turned back to the file, opening it and placing it on his desk.
“When would be good for you, Keri? We can come out either tomorrow or Wednesday morning.” Herne pulled out his tablet and brought up his schedule.
Keri, who was around four-two—she was tall for a dwarf—and golden blond, smiled. Like almost all dwarves, she was sturdy, and muscled, but she was also stunning. She ran a mechanic’s garage, specializing in foreign engines. Even though she had a thorough grasp of domestic models, she preferred working on Porsches and Jags.
“Tomorrow morning would be best. Around ten?”
Herne nodded and tapped away with his stylus. A moment later, the appointment came through to my phone and tablet as well. “Ember and Yutani will look around and ascertain what we need to do next.” He stood, and I took my cue from him, also standing.
Keri Cleandra slid out of the chair and gave us a formal nod, then turned. “Thank you,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll see you then.”
As soon as Herne closed the door behind her, he turned back to me. “What the hell? The file folder is covered in peanut butter and jam?”
“You’re lucky I even found it! And it’s not covered in jam, so chill out. I’ll have Angel make up a new folder. But Herne, if you ever dump a mess like that on my desk again without asking, I’m going to kick your ass. And I know Yutani and Talia feel the same way. What the hell were you thinking, having Rafé stack all those files on my desk? I have an office full of papers that have to be sorted out now. You think I can go through them easier when they’re one big jumble?”
Herne and I didn’t fight often, but the past few days had been one nightmare after another and we were all on edge.
Herne paused, closing his eyes for a moment. He smiled, looking for all the world like a cute but lovable naughty little boy. “Okay, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
“No, it’s not that simple. You can’t just mutter ‘I’m sorry’ and expect it all to be okay. First, if we had lost the file, we have all the information in the computer and Angel could just print it out for us again. And second, panic will do you no good. We can find the mistakes easier if we go through the files one by one. You don’t need to dump everything on our desks at once. That’s not helping matters any.” I dropped into the chair next to his desk, leaning back as I stretched my legs out in front of me.
We were facing a war with the dragons, the dead were flooding the graveyards, and worst of all, the United Coalition was considering letting the dragons have a seat in government. And on top of all of that, we had discovered a big mistake in the firm. Or rather, Charlie, our vampire accountant-in-training, had. That mistake meant that the Wild Hunt had overcharged at least eighty clients over the past few years.
Herne would have no trouble paying them back. The real problem came in ascertaining just how much each client was owed, and convincing them not to sue us for fraud. While the Wild Hunt never meant to overcharge clients, a court might not see it that way, given how big of a mistake it ended up being and how many people had been affected.
All of that meant that we had to go through every single file and review the hours listed for each client, run the figures through our new software, and note the difference between what our records showed they had paid, and what they should have actually paid. This would also impact taxes for that year, so we were hip-deep in overtime until we took care of the issue. Yeah, it had been an extremely rocky past few weeks, and we were all tired.
I knew that this weighed on Herne’s shoulders more than it did on mine—he was responsible for the entire agency and I was just an employee, but his frantic desire to be done with it and make sure everyone was paid back had resulted in chaos.
“So…talk to me,” I said.
He jerked his head toward the daybed in his office. Herne kept his office organized and clean. The desk and other furniture was heavy walnut, old gleaming wood. The walls of the office were painted a robin’s-egg blue, and the ceiling was white. Over Herne’s desk sat a rack of antlers, massive and heavy, mounted on the wall. Two pair of wingback chairs offered plenty of seating, and a locked case displayed a number of various weapons. The daybed was for when Herne needed to spend the night in the office.
In the year and a half that I had worked for the Wild Hunt Agency, I had never once seen his office untidy. Even now, in the midst of a crisis, it was calm, with plenty of plants to offer fresh oxygen and serenity. Mine had been tidy, too, until this morning.
I followed Herne to the daybed. He curled up against one end and held out his arm. I snuggled up into the niche he offered, resting my head on his shoulder. My long raven hair mixed with the sprawling strands of wheat-colored hair that fell below his shoulders.
“You’re right,” he said after a moment. “I’m sorry. We’re all on edge, I know that. I thought that by dividing the files, we’d be able to get through them faster.”
“Well, it would be faster except that the stacks of files tipped over and they’re now all over the floor of my office. We should’ve just started out taking four or five at a time and worked our way through that way.” I frowned, my anger easing as we talked. I tried to suppress a smile. One thing I had learned during my time at the Wild Hunt: the men who worked here had very little sense of organization. Although Herne’s decisions were being influenced by his focus on the dragon menace. That was a hard reality to avoid or push out of mind.
“Speaking of dragons,” I said.
“Were we speaking of dragons?” Herne asked.
I shrugged. “Well, I was thinking about them. Even though the dead are still on the move, and people are pissed over the curfew, have you noticed how quiet it’s been lately? Regarding the dragons, that is? Gyell is out there, targeting us, but he hasn’t done a single thing to retaliate. When I think of the look on his face the last time I saw him…” I shuddered. “He’d kill us all if he had the chance.”
“I think that’s what’s worrying me most. We haven’t had any reports about the dragons in days. So, what are they doing? We know they’re not just going to give up and go away. Maybe you should contact Ashera to see if she knows anything?”
“I can do that,” I said. “Have you heard from Cernunnos or Morgana regarding Echidna?”
Herne shook his head. “Ever since they transferred her to Annwn, there’s been radio silence. And I don’t feel like I have the right to ask at this point. Morgana and Cernunnos will tell us what they want us to know when the time is right.”
Herne’s parents—Cernunnos, the Lord of the Forest, and Morgana, the goddess of the Sea—had created the Wild Hunt Agency, to deal with the twin courts of Fae.
When we had discovered that Echidna, the mother of all dragons, was still alive, they had swept her away before Typhon discovered she was still alive. Echidna was our one hope in defeating the Father of Dragons, and she was sequestered away in Annwn, discussing strategies with the gods.
I wasn’t sure what to say. Part of me wanted to urge him to contact them. After all, we were in this war, too. But reality was: the less we knew, the better. We were all careful, but should one of us be captured, what we didn’t know, we couldn’t tell.
The phone rang, interrupting us. It was Herne’s landline, so it was probably Angel on the intercom. I shifted so that he could stand up, and he hurried over to his desk to answer. He listened for a moment, then said, “Meet us in the break room.”
He motioned for me to join him and, gathering my tablet and files, I followed him down the hallway. Viktor was already there, along with Angel. Talia and Yutani were almost to the break room when we got there. Rafé wasn’t in yet—he often came in during the evenings, along with Charlie.
When we had gathered, Angel cleared her throat. “I just got a call from Rhiannon. You know, from the Foam Born Encampment?”
We nodded. Rhiannon was the matriarch of the Foam Born Encampment, a Pod of water-horse shifters who lived over on Whidbey Island.
“She’s coming in for an appointment this afternoon. She says it’s urgent and can’t wait.”
A shiver raced down my spine. Shortly after Angel—my best friend—and I started working for the Wild Hunt, we had investigated a case over on Whidbey Island for the water-horse shifters. We thought we had managed to close it, but as time went on, we found out that it wasn’t quite as closed as we had hoped.
We had captured one of the Ante-Fae—one of the ancient Fae. He had been killing people and siphoning off both their life force and their blood. When we delivered him to Cernunnos, Herne’s father had thrown him deep into a dungeon, planning to leave him there for the rest of his life. But then, one of the guards set to watch over him had vanished, and Straff vanished along with her. We had no idea where he was, but we suspected that he was on the prowl again because reports of similar murders had cropped up recently.
“Crap, you know what that means,” I said.
“Don’t assume,” Talia said. “We don’t know yet—”
“Well, I’m not sure,” Angel said. “She did mention that two teens from the Pod have gone missing. One was a young woman named Lecada, and Lecada has a twin. They’re bonded. You know how human twins bond? Well, apparently among the hippocampi, twin-bonds are even stronger and if one of a set of identical twins dies, then the other will feel it.”
“Oh no,” I said, closing my eyes. “Tell me she didn’t feel the pain—because if Straff is involved—”
“Oh, there was pain,” Angel said, a grim look on her face. “But not the way you might be thinking. Aja said her connection to Lecada was abruptly severed. It wasn’t the same as if her sister had been killed or even hurt, but she described it as if she and Lecada had never been connected. It traumatized Aja, because it was like cutting off something in one of her senses.”
Talia paled. “That’s odd. Perhaps the girl was taken through a portal?”
“That’s possible, but Rhiannon didn’t say anything about that.” Angel consulted her notes. “The other girl vanished a month or so ago—her name was Twinkle. She vanished without a trace.”
“We need to talk to the twin, obviously, but I don’t want to scare her. What do the parents have to say? Were the girls prone to running away?” Herne asked.
Angel shrugged. “You’ll have to ask her when she gets here.”
“So, she’s not coming because of Straff?” Talia asked.
“I don’t think so, but again, we’ll have to ask her when she gets here.” Angel glanced at her notes. “She’ll be here in an hour or so.”
“One thing I don’t understand is why Straff returned to Whidbey Island. Surely he has to know that we’ll be hunting him down again?” Yutani was the son of the Great Coyote, and he was a brilliant man, if a tad volatile. He was also our IT guy, and had managed to find a way onto the Dark Web without being traced, which opened up a well of knowledge for us.
“You say that as though we’re dealing with someone sane,” Viktor said. The half-ogre shook his head. “Straff is about as far from sane as I am from being a pygmy.”
I repressed a snicker. “True that,” I said. “But Yutani raises a good point. If Straff’s on the island again, he has to know that we’ll be seeking him out. He can’t think that Cernunnos hasn’t found out that he escaped, can he?”
It seemed ludicrous to think that Straff would be that oblivious, unless he was listening to the guard who had sprung him out of the dungeon. If she was still alive. There was a distinct possibility he had killed her. A sudden thought hit me, one that made my stomach lurch.
“Do we have to contact Blackthorn again?”
“Oh, yes. We’ll need to consult the King of Thorns again,” Herne said. “I don’t relish the thought, either.”
The last time we had met, Blackthorn had shown too much of an interest in me, and I hadn’t forgotten the sleazy, creepy way he had tried to insinuate himself between Herne and me. Blackthorn, the King of Thorns, was Straff’s father, and to me, he had been more frightening than Straff himself.
Angel’s cell phone rang and she glanced at it. “I set the reception phone to forward to my phone.” She moved away from the table to answer, while the rest of us continued to discuss Straff. But less than a minute later, Angel hurried over and turned on the TV.
“Guys, that was Maria Serenades, the deputy mayor. She has what she calls some disturbing news and she wants to talk to us today. She’ll be here around three o’clock. She told me to turn on the television and watch the breaking news.”
We quieted down as the newscaster came on. Marcy Winters—a ditzy bleached blonde for whom the song “Dirty Laundry” might have been written—faced the camera with a blisteringly cheerful smile.
“Today, history was made when Frassáire—the spokesman for the Dakkar Mountain Dragon Clan—bought the entire town of Remington, a small mining town last occupied in the early 1920s by prospectors. Located near Monroe, the town has sat empty since 1941, when the last residents moved away, and has been up for sale the past ten years. Frassáire told our reporters that the Dakkar Mountain Dragon Clan plans to renovate it into a tourist village, with rides and vendors, where families can come to meet and interact with the Dragonkin. They plan to open by early April.”
I stared at the screen. “What the everloving fuck?”
Herne swore, hitting the table with his fist. “I talked to the governor a few weeks ago. I warned him this was going to happen.”
At first, we had been worried that the dragons were going to take over by force, but as the weeks wore on and the dragons made themselves known but backed down in actual attacks, we began to suspect a more devious plot. Though the dead were walking—and they would as long as Typhon was around—we began to realize he was aiming to gain trust. He was a treacherous wyrm, and we had begun to suspect that Typhon and his dragons were going to try to insinuate themselves into society and then demand a seat on the United Coalition, much like the Fomorians had. Now, it looked like we were right.
“What are we going to do?” I asked. “Can’t we stop them from buying up land?”
“No, we can’t,” Herne said. “When I talked to the governor he assured me that his office would keep an eye on the dragons. And when I told him that the gods were looking for a way to drive Typhon out of this realm, he assured me that the state has our back. That the country has our back. The dragons are here on a worldwide basis, and pretty soon the countries will have to come together to decide what to do about this, and that’s just going to end up in one big clusterfuck. Pardon my language, but…we all know it. That’s one reason the gods have taken the reins of this battle.”
I stared at the table. We knew for a fact that Typhon’s end goal was to enslave humanity as both servants and food, but we didn’t dare let that information loose to the general public or panic would ensue. Unfortunately, dragons were both crafty and charming, and they were quite happy to use whatever means possible to bring about their desired results.
“Basically, they’re creating an amusement park and making themselves into a spectacle. On the surface, it seems so undignified,” Yutani said. “But they’ll be able to disarm people. Can you imagine the children begging to ‘go see the dragons’? We’re talking Jurassic Park all over again, except this isn’t fiction, and we aren’t the ones setting up the disaster.”
“Yes, we are,” I said. “We aren’t stopping them from building it.”
“What can we do to stop them?” Angel said. “It’s not like the old days when you could scream ‘illegal immigrant’ about somebody coming over the border and slam the door shut on them. The world is more interconnected, and that’s a good thing. Generally. But it also makes it easier for a group like the dragons to wedge themselves in.”
Herne shook his head. “My guess is that there are laws in place about this, but they’re being overlooked because dragons have money. You can bet that every dragon on this planet has amassed a fortune, and the moment someone who’s both greedy and powerful gets wind of that, the kickbacks are going to be enormous—” he paused as my phone rang.
I glanced at the caller ID and groaned. “It’s Saílle.”
The Queen of the Dark Fae seldom contacted me unless she wanted something, or something so serious had happened that she had to bring me in on it. I was half–Light Fae, half–Dark Fae, and on my way to becoming a goddess.
When I first arrived at the agency, both the Queens of Light and Dark had ignored me. In fact, I had been pariah, a stain on their heritages. Half-breeds, whether the other half was human, Fae, or other Crypto, were excommunicated. But the moment they found out I was engaged to Herne and that I would take my place as one of the Fae goddesses, both Névé and Saílle had done their best to woo me over. I walked a delicate tightrope between the two and felt like I was one step away from tumbling to the rocks below, because with those two, there was no safety net involved.
“Hello?” I had neither the energy nor desire to play their games today.
“Ember, we need to talk to you and your agency about this dragon news. Those beasts cannot be allowed to have a foothold in the land. They’ll—”
Before she could finish, I cut her off. “Queen Saílle, we just heard about it and we’re discussing what to do now. Trust me, we aren’t happy about it either. If you have any ideas beyond taking a nuclear bomb to them, please let us know.”
“Don’t you shush me, girl!” Saílle’s voice thundered over the phone so loud that everybody in the room heard and turned to stare.
I stifled a laugh. We were probably going to need their help and I couldn’t afford to alienate her. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long morning.”
She let out a sigh. “I realize that you’re probably busy and I’m interrupting a meeting, but please tell Herne that we—we being Névé and me—want to meet with him at the first available opportunity to discuss this travesty.” And then, she abruptly ended the call.
I turned back to the others. “That was Saílle. Guess who’s not happy over the announcement about the dragons and wants to meet to discuss strategy?”
Herne groaned. “Wonderful, just wonderful. That’s all we need.”
I sank back into my seat as the others continued to speculate over both Straff and the dragons. Some days, it just didn’t pay to get out of bed.