They met on the high hill, far above the world, beneath a sky struck with the dazzle of stars and a white, waiting moon.
Together the goddesses looked out beyond the castle shining on its own fair hill, to the dark glass of the sea.
“Two stars found, and held safe.” Luna lifted her face to the sky in joy, in thanks. “The fates that be chose well with the six. The guardians’ own hearts are strong and true.”
“Their test is not finished,” Celene reminded her. “And what they come to face will need more than true hearts.”
“They will fight. Have they not proven themselves warriors, sister?” Arianrhod demanded. “They have risked. They have bled.”
“And will risk more. I see battles to come, blood to spill. Nerezza and the evil she created want more than the stars, more than the blood of the guardians. They want annihilation.”
“It has always been so,” Luna murmured. “In her heart, it has always been so.”
“They have weakened her.” Arianrhod put a hand on the jeweled hilt of the sword at her side. “All but destroyed her. Without the human she turned, they would have destroyed her.”
“Did we not think the same,” Celene reminded her sisters, “on the night of the queen’s rise, on the night we created the stars?”
Celene stretched out her arms, and below, on the edge of the great sea, the images of what had been shimmered.
“A night of joy,” she continued, “of hope and celebration. And we three conjured three stars. For wisdom, forged in fire.”
“For compassion,” Luna added, “fluid as water.”
“For strength,” Arianrhod finished, “cold as ice.”
“Our powers, and our hopes, in a gift to the new queen. A gift Nerezza coveted.”
On the beach, white under a white moon, the three goddesses faced the dark one. As they sent their stars flying toward the moon, Nerezza lashed out, black lightning, to strike them, to curse them.
“And so we cursed her,” Celene continued, “cast her into a pit. But we did not, could not destroy her. It was not for us, this duty, this task, this war.”
“We protected the stars,” Luna reminded her. “They would fall, as Nerezza had cursed them, but we protected them. When they fell, they would fall in secret, and remain hidden.”
“Until those who came from us bound together, joined in the quest to find them, to protect them.” Now Arianrhod’s hand tightened on the hilt of her knife. “To fight, each and all, against the dark. To risk all to save the worlds.”
“Their time has come,” Celene agreed. “They pulled the Fire Star from its stone, gathered the Water Star from the sea. But the final tests of the quest wait. As will Nerezza and her army profane.”
“Whatever their powers, whatever their gifts, the six face a god.” Luna pressed a hand to her heart. “And we can only watch.”
“It is their fate,” Celene said, “and in their fates live the fate of all the worlds.”
“Their time has come.” Arianrhod reached out, took her sisters’ hands. “And with it, if they are strong and wise, if their hearts remain true, may ours.”
“The moon runs full, and so the wolf howls.” Celene gestured up to the comet streak arching through the sky. “So they fly.”
“And courage flies with them,” Arianrhod said.
“And there!” Luna pointed across the wide, dark sea where light bloomed, then fired, then quieted. “They are safe.”
“For now.” With a wave of her hand, Celene dismissed the wavery images on the beach. “Now begins the future.”
A man who couldn’t die had little to fear. An immortal who’d lived most of his long life as a soldier, waging battle, didn’t turn from a fight with a god. A soldier, though a loner by nature, understood the duty, and loyalty, to those who battled with him.
The man, the soldier, the loner who’d seen his young brother destroyed by black magick, who’d had his own life upended by it, who fought a god’s crazed greed, knew the difference between the dark and the light.
Being propelled through space by a fellow soldier, a shifter, while they were all still bloody from the battle didn’t frighten him—but he’d have preferred any other mode of transportation.
Through the whirl of wind, the blare of light, the breathless speed (and all right then, there was a bit of a thrill in the speed), he felt his companions. The sorcerer who held more power than any Doyle had known in all his years. The woman who was as much the glue who bound them together as a seer. The mermaid who was all charm and courage and heart—and a pure pleasure for the eyes. The shifter, loyal and brave, and a dead shot as well. And the female—well, wolf now, as the moon had risen just as they’d prepared to shift from the beauty and battles of Capri.
She howled—no other term for it—and in the sound of it he heard not fear, no, but the same atavistic thrill that beat in his own blood.
If a man had to align himself with others, had to throw his fate in with others, he could do a hell of a lot worse than these.
Then he smelled Ireland—the damp air, the green—and the thrill died in him. The fates, canny and cold, would drive him back here where his heart and his life had been broken.
Even as he geared himself up to deal with it, to do what must be done, they dropped like stones.
A man who couldn’t die could still feel the jolt and insult of hitting the ground hard enough to rattle bones and steal the breath.
“Bloody hell, Sawyer.”
“Sorry.” Sawyer’s voice came from his left, and in a kind of gasping wheeze. “It’s a lot to navigate. Anybody hurt? Annika?”
“I’m not hurt. But you.” Her voice was a musical croon. “You’re hurt. You’re weak.”
“Not too bad. You’re bleeding.”
Bright as sunlight, she smiled. “Not too bad.”
“Maybe we should try parachutes next time.” Sasha let out a quick moan.
“There now, I’ve got you.”
As his eyes adjusted, Doyle saw Bran shift, gather Sasha close.
“No, no.” Sasha shook her head. “Cuts and bumps. And the landing knocked the wind out of me. I should be used to it. Riley? Where’s Riley?”
Doyle rolled, started to push himself up—and pressed a hand into fur. It growled.
“She’s here.” He shifted his gaze, met those tawny eyes. Dr. Riley Gwin, renowned archaeologist—and lycan. “Don’t so much as think of biting me,” he muttered. “She’s fine. Like she tells us, she heals fast in wolf form.”
He got to his feet, noted that however rough the landing, Sawyer had come through. Weapons cases, luggage, sealed boxes of research books, maps, and other essentials lay in a somewhat orderly pile a few feet away on the cool, damp grass.
And of great personal importance to him, his motorcycle stood, upright and undamaged.
Satisfied, he stretched out a hand to Sawyer, pulled the man to his feet.
“Not altogether bad.”
“Yeah.” Sawyer combed his fingers through his mane of windswept, sun-streaked hair. Then grinned when Annika did a series of cartwheels. “Somebody enjoyed the ride anyway.”
“You did well.” Bran dropped a hand on Sawyer’s shoulder. “It’s a feat, isn’t it, juggling six people and all the rest across the sea and sky in, well, a matter of minutes.”
“Got one bitch of a headache out of it.”
Bran lifted Sawyer’s hand—the one that had gripped Nerezza’s flying hair while he’d shifted her away. “We’ll fix that, and anything else needs fixing. We should get Sasha inside. She’s a bit shaky.”
“I’m all right.” But she remained sitting on the ground. “Just a little dizzy. Please don’t,” she said quickly, and pushed to her knees toward Riley. “Not yet. Let’s just get oriented first. She wants to run,” she told the others.
“She’ll be fine. There’s no harm here.” Bran helped Sasha up. “The woods are mine,” he said to Riley. “And now they’re yours.”
The wolf turned, bounded away, vanished into the thick trees.
“She could get lost,” Sasha began.
“She’s a wolf,” Doyle pointed out. “And likely to find her way around better than the rest of us. She changed, but as we were leaving, and needs her moment. Wolf or woman, she can handle herself.”
He turned his back on the woods where he’d run tame as a child, where he’d hunted, where he’d gone for solitude. This had been his land once, his home—and now it was Bran’s.
Yes, the fates were canny and cold.
In the house Bran had built on the wild coast of Clare, Doyle could see the memory of his own. Where his family had lived for generations.
Gone, he reminded himself, centuries ago. The house and the family, gone to dust.
In its place was the grand, and he’d have expected no less from Bran Killian.
A fine manor, Doyle mused, with the fanciful touches one might expect from a wizard. Stone—perhaps some of it from the walls of that long-ago home—rising a full three stories, with those fanciful touches in two round towers on either side, and a kind of central parapet that would offer mad views of the cliffs, of the sea, of the land.
All softened, Doyle supposed would be the word, with gardens fit for the faeries, blooming wild and free, with the mixed perfumes blown about on the windy air.
Doyle indulged himself for one moment, allowed himself to think of his own mother and how she’d have loved every bit of it.
Then he put it away.
“It’s a fine house.”
“It’s good land. And as I said to Riley, it’s yours as much as mine. Well, that’s my feeling on it,” Bran added when Doyle shook his head.
“We’ve come together,” Bran continued as the wind tossed his hair, black as the night, around his sharp-boned face. “Were thrown together for a purpose. We’ve fought and bled together, and no doubt will again. And here we are, standing on where you sprang from, and where I was compelled to build. There’s purpose in that as well, and we’ll use it.”
In comfort, Annika ran her hand down Doyle’s arm. Her long black hair was a sexy tangle from the shift. She had bruises on her remarkable face. “It’s beautiful. I can smell the sea. I can hear it.”
“It’s a ways down.” Bran smiled at her. “But you’ll make your way to it easy enough, I wager. In the morning, you’ll see more of what it offers. For now, we’d best haul all of our things inside, and settle in a bit.”
“I hear that.” Sawyer reached down, hefted some boxes. “And, God, I could eat.”
“I’ll make food!” Annika threw her arms around him, kissed him enthusiastically, then picked up her bag. “Is there food to make, Bran? Food I can make while you tend the wounds?”
“I had the kitchen well stocked.” He flicked his fingers at the big, arched double doors. “The house is unlocked.”
“As long as there’s beer.” Doyle grabbed two weapon cases—his own priority—and started in behind Annika and Sawyer.
“It hurts him,” Sasha quietly told Bran. “I can feel the ache in him, the ache of memories and loss.”
“And I’m sorry for it, truly. But we all know there’s a reason for it, why it’s here that we’ve been led to find the last star and end this.”
“Because there’s always a price.” On a sigh, she leaned against him, closed eyes blue as summer and still hollow from the battle and the shift. “But Annika’s right. It’s a beautiful house. It’s stunning, Bran. I’ll want to paint it a dozen times.”
“You’ll have time for dozens of dozens.” He turned her to him. “I said it was Doyle’s and Riley’s as it’s mine. It’s Annika’s and Sawyer’s as well. But, fáidh, it’s yours as my heart is yours. Will you live with me here, at least some of the time in our lives together?”
“I’ll live with you here, and anywhere. But now? I should take a look inside and see if it’s as wonderful as the outside.”
“It’s a true home now that you’re here.” To dazzle her, he waved a hand. All the windows illuminated. Glowing lights shimmered along garden paths.
“You take my breath.” She sighed it, then picked up the case holding most of her art supplies—her priority.
They went inside, into a wide entryway with towering ceilings where wide-planked floors gleamed. A heavy table with curled dragons for its legs held crystal balls and a tall vase bursting with white roses.
It opened to a living area with jewel-tone sofas, more heavy tables, sparkling lamps. And with another wave of the hand, Bran had red-gold flames erupting in a stone fireplace so large the muscular Doyle could have stood upright, arms stretched to either side.
As he walked in from the back, Doyle raised an eyebrow, toasted with the beer in his hand. “You went for posh, brother.”
“I suppose I did.”
“I’ll get more if you’ll see to Sawyer. His headache’s real enough. I can see it on him. And he’s carrying some ugly burns. Annika’s hurt more than she lets on.”
“Help Sawyer and Annika,” Sasha said. “I’ll help Doyle.”
“He’s in the kitchen with Annika.” Doyle glanced at Sasha. “I can handle bringing in the rest. You’ve got your own battle scars, Blondie.”
“Nothing major. I’m fine,” she told Bran. “The dizziness only lasted a couple minutes this time, and the rest can wait. I could use a glass of wine if you have it.”
“I do, of course. Let me see to him, then I’ll help you with the rest.”
She walked outside with Doyle, started to pick up more bags, then just stared out into the woods.
“She’ll be back once she’s run it off.” Doyle took a pull on his beer. “But you’d be happier with all your chicks in the roost.”
Sasha lifted her shoulders, let them fall. “I would. It’s been . . . a day.”
“Finding the second star should put a smile in your eyes instead of sorrow.”
“A year ago I was still denying what I was. I knew nothing of any of you, of gods—dark or bright. I’d never harmed anyone, much less . . .”
“What you fought and killed wasn’t anyone. They were things created by Nerezza to destroy.”
“There were people, too, Doyle. Humans.”
“Mercenaries, paid by Malmon to kill us, or worse. Have you forgotten what they did to Sawyer and Annika in the cave?”
“No.” Sasha hugged her arms tight against the quick chill. “I’ll never forget. And I’ll never understand how human beings could torture and try to kill for money. Why they’d kill or die for profit. But she does, Nerezza does. She knows that kind of greed, that blind lust for power. And I understand that’s what we’re fighting. Malmon, he traded everything for it. She took his soul, his humanity, and now he’s a thing. Her creature. She’d do the same to all of us.”
“But she won’t. She won’t because we won’t give her anything. We hurt her today. She’s the one wounded and bleeding tonight. I’ve searched for the stars, hunted her for more years than you can know. I got close, or thought I did. But close means nothing.”
He took another long pull from his beer. “I don’t like using fate or destiny as reasons or excuses, but the hard fact is we six are together, are meant to be. Are meant to find the Stars of Fortune and end Nerezza. You feel more than others. That’s your gift, and your curse, to see and to feel. And without that gift we wouldn’t be standing here. It doesn’t hurt that you can shoot a crossbow as if born with the bow in one hand and a bolt in the other.”
“Who’d have thought?” She sighed, a pretty woman with long, sunwashed hair and deep blue eyes. One who’d gained muscle and strength, inside and out, over the last weeks. “I feel your heartache. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll deal with it.”
“I know you were meant to be here, to walk this land again, to look out at this sea. And not just for the quest for the stars, not just for the fight against Nerezza. Maybe—I’m not sure—but maybe it’s for solace.”
Doyle shut down—that was survival. “What was here for me was long ago.”
“And still,” she murmured, “the coming here tonight is harder on you, and the getting here tonight was hardest on Riley.”
“Considering we’d just fought off a god and her murderous minions, it wasn’t a ride on a carousel for any of us. All right,” he said at Sasha’s quiet look, “rough on her.”
He put the empty beer bottle in the pocket of his scarred leather coat, hauled up suitcases. “She’ll run it off, and be back by morning. Grab what you can, and I’ll get the rest. We both know you’d be more help to Bran with the injuries.”
She didn’t argue, and he noted that she limped a bit. To settle it, he set the bags down inside, plucked her up.
“Easier than arguing. Is the house big enough for you?”
They passed wide archways and the rooms beyond them. Deep, rich colors, simmering fires in hearths, glinting lights, gleaming wood.
“It’s magnificent. It’s huge.”
“I’d say the two of you will have to make a lot of babies to fill it.”
“That got you thinking.”
She’d yet to regain speech when he carried her into the kitchen. There, Sawyer, looking a little less pale, sat on a stool at a long slate-gray counter while Bran treated the burns on his hands.
Annika, who managed to look gorgeous despite the cuts, the bruises, earnestly sautéed chicken in an enormous frying pan at what Sasha recognized as a professional-grade six-burner range.
“Okay, now you want to—” Sawyer broke off, hissed as Bran hit a fresh point of pain.
“I take the chicken out, and put the vegetables in. I can do it,” Annika insisted. “Let Bran work.”
“I’ll help.” Sasha poked Doyle in the shoulder. “Put me down.”
The order had Bran turning, and moving quickly toward her. “What is it? Where is she hurt?”
“She’s limping some. Right leg.”
“Put her down there, beside Sawyer.”
“It’s just sore. Finish with Sawyer. I’ll help Annika, and—”
“I can do it!” Clearly frustrated, Annika dumped chicken on a platter. “I like to learn. I learned. I cook the chicken in the garlic and the oil, with the herbs. I cook the vegetables. I make the rice.”
“You’re pissing off the mermaid,” Doyle said, and dumped Sasha on a stool. “Smells good, Gorgeous.”
“Thank you. Sasha, you could tend to Bran’s wounds while he tends to yours and Sawyer’s. Then he can tend to mine. And we can eat because Sawyer needs to eat. He’s hurt, and he’s weak from . . .”
Her eyes filled, glistening green pools, before she turned quickly back to the range.
“Anni, don’t. I’m okay.”
When she only shook her head at Sawyer’s words, he started to rise. Doyle simply shoved him back onto the stool.