It has all come down to this.
The battle to save Kingsley's pack, and Austin's place of birth, is upon them. They have their team, they have their supplies, and they have a very nerve-wracking secret weapon that Edgar devised.
They aren't even close to ready.
If they lose this battle, every shifter in the world will be in jeopardy. But to fight means danger they might not all walk away from.
If only the battle was their sole worry.
Austin has come home for the first time in fifteen years. He left the pack in tatters and a great many people haven't forgotten, his family included. He must finally face his past.
Get ready for a thrilling and emotionally charged next installment in the Leveling Up saga.
Release date: September 19, 2023
Print pages: 454
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Magical Midlife Battle
Chapter 1 ~ Jessie
Large white vans waited by the curb as I jogged down the steps of Ivy House. Trunks sat on the front lawn, waiting to be packed inside the vehicles by the gathered shifters and gargoyles. I stopped beside one of them, taking in the flurry of activity.
Sebastian wandered within the hustle and bustle, his head tilted down toward the electronic notebook in his hands. Every so often he’d stop at one of the trunks and peer inside, double-checking the contents. After giving a satisfied nod, he’d make a note and continue on.
“Ready?” Austin asked as he came up to me.
Wary expectation radiated through our bonds but didn’t show on his face or interrupt the confidence in his bearing. If a person couldn’t feel it, they would have no idea he was keyed up about our fast-approaching trip to his former pack.
“Yeah.” But I still took a moment to survey the goings-on.
I wasn’t worried about meeting Austin’s family or his old pack—his grandma had told me not to waste my brain space on it, and given all we’d had to do, I’d gladly taken her advice—but we were heading toward a massive battle. We’d been up late and awake early these last few weeks, hard at work preparing for a full-on battle. It felt like I’d been constantly training.
There had only been a couple breaks, one for Edgar’s flower show, where he’d showcased killer, poisonous flowers to non-magical people (he was now on flower show probation) and a date I’d taken Austin on to repay him for the fantastic dates he’d always planned for me. Other than that, it had all been fighting or magic, and I still felt like we were sorely underprepared.
At least we had something to show for our late-night magical work. The trunks of those cars were about to be stuffed full of potions, and Sebastian and I planned on making more once we got there. We needed to close the gap in magical resources between us and the enemy.
It was a very large gap.
Sebastian and Nessa had shared some numbers with us, harvested from their network. Momar was planning for annihilation. He had ground troops trained by his people, hired mercenaries, and an absolute crapload of mages. Some wouldn’t be all that powerful, sure, but others were just shy of Sebastian’s level.
We were magically outgunned—badly—and Sebastian wasn’t even sure those were the most recent numbers.
Trepidation filled me, but I made sure none of it dripped through my various bonds and connections to my people. Now was the time for leadership to show strength. To show confidence, like Austin was doing. We had to hold up our heads and make it seem like we had zero reservations that we’d come out the victors.
Learning how to put on a front hadn’t been easy for me. Thank God for Mimi’s coaching.
And yes, Austin’s grandmother had said I could call her Mimi. Well…more like demanded, then stared hostilely at me until I did so.
“Right. Okay,” I said to myself, doing a quick mental checklist of what still needed to get loaded. I turned to Austin with a nod. “Ready.”
We needed to check out Edgar’s special project.
He put out his hand for me to go first, and I led the way around the house to the backyard. In addition to Edgar’s project, I wanted to check out the grounds and make sure nothing was too terribly out of place. Dare to dream. The gnomes had become absolute terrors. Edgar really had stuck his foot in it when he’d allowed these little buggers to infest the place. It had become a real struggle not to lose my temper.
“Three waves, right?” I asked Austin, the grounds so far clear. “We’re still traveling in three waves, starting tomorrow? We’ve changed the plans so many times, I’m not sure I remember the latest.”
“Two waves, one day apart, four groups of people.”
I took a deep breath. “Right. Groups one and two will leave from the Clinton Metropolitan Airport on a commercial flight, and groups three and four will leave from the magical landing strip in a jet, since it’s too far to travel quickly on foot and we can’t take the basajaunak through a Dick and Jane airport.”
“Correct. Luggage—normal suitcases—will go with groups one and two, and trunks and the battle supplies will go in the private jets.”
“Starting tomorrow,” I said, my heart speeding up.
A flurry of anxiousness came through our bonds. “Starting tomorrow,” he repeated.
I meant to reach back and take his hand, reassuring him that we’d face his past together, but blotches of red caught my eye as we turned the corner. Paper hearts attached to sticks had been embedded in the decorative gravel along the side of the house, the items all different sizes and heights. Tightly grouped together, they created a red sea of cardboard, the path to get through it winding and convoluted. Treacherous, if you knew what awaited you somewhere in the little voids that had absolutely been built into the otherwise densely packed Valentine’s decorations.
“Dang it,” I grumbled, coming to a stop and bracing my hands on my hips. “I don’t have time for this. Edgar!” I yelled, feeling him on the back lawn. I amplified my voice with magic and tried again. “Edgar!”
I felt him sprint in my direction.
“I’m coming!” I heard faintly as he drew closer. “Coming, Jessie! Coming!”
“I mean…” I kicked at the first line of hearts, knocking them off-kilter. An evil little laugh came from somewhere in the sea of red. “This is nightmare-inducing. I thought the dolls were bad, but they at least aren’t vindictive. They don’t create booby traps and surprise attacks!”
“They probably would if you couldn’t feel them,” Austin said as Edgar came into view with his weird, loping sort of run. “You need to circumvent Ivy House’s magic and expose the whereabouts of the gnomes on the property.”
“I know. Hiding them from me is her funny little joke. She has dark humor, obviously. Sebastian suggested there might be something in the library that can help us figure it out, but we haven’t had time lately. Dealing with the gnomes isn’t as dire as preparing for the battle.”
“Normally I would agree. Now that I’m standing in front of a sea of reinforced cardboard hearts, knowing murderous gnomes are lying in wait to chop something off as we pass through it, I’m waffling on what exactly is more important.”
I couldn’t help laughing as Edgar caught sight of the problem and slowed to take it all in.
“Oh, Jessie. This is not ideal,” he said, on the edge of the heart forest. “No, indeed. I see now why you called me. Don’t worry, I can handle this! I’ll distract them so you can get across.” He trudged into the fray, working hard to stomp down the sticks holding the hearts. “Here we go.”
Knives and tiny swords rose above the hearts in three different locations. The hearts bumped forward as the little bodies pushed through them. Occasionally a pointed red hat appeared in an empty space. They beelined for Edgar, now trudging to the northeast corner with a determined expression, allowing us plenty of room to cross.
“Come on,” I told Austin, not waiting to see if he’d follow as I kicked and stomped into the heart forest.
A high-pitched laugh rose from my right side. I barely caught a glimpse of the red hat before the white of a beard came into view. A tiny machete swung above two paper hearts, cutting through the air at me.
“Crap!” I reacted without thinking, spraying it with the spell for elemental fire.
Unfortunately, that spell took a lot of concentration — concentration I didn’t have at that moment. Something like magical acid manifested instead. It glopped down on top of the creature and the hearts around it.
Its laugh turned into a horrible wail. Paper hearts waved and shook as the creature ran for the edge, exploding out and then running for the back of the house. Up ahead, dolls jumped out of seemingly nowhere and the chase was on.
Sighing, I said, “Kingsley’s territory is going to be a nice reprieve from the absolute weird that has become this house—”
I cut off as Austin grabbed me and swung me up over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold. He started jogging through the hearts.
“That has become this house?” he asked incredulously, kicking at a little body that popped up. His toe connected with its bearded face. The gnome made a little weeeee sound as it flew five feet and crashed into a few of the hearts. “The house has always been weird. This is downright insanity. How the hell are they hiding in the densely packed heart stick…things? It’s like they have some sort of magical space-shifting ability…”
Edgar made an “aaiiiiiii” sound as Austin reached the other side of the maze, breathing harder than a tough alpha shifter really should have after a spat with gnomes. I couldn’t help laughing as he put me down, out of breath as well, turning to check on Edgar.
“No, no, no,” he said as he picked up a miniature weapon that one of the gnomes had clearly dropped. He had blood dripping down from a cut on his thigh. “That is no way to treat Uncle Edgar.”
“Uncle Edgar?” Austin whispered.
Edgar turned into a swarm of insects and hovered across a patch of hearts before materializing again and slashing. His blade clanged into one of the gnomes, eliciting another little howl. Edgar chopped down at it a second time, turned, and chopped at another one that was trying to crowd him from behind.
“Looks like he’s figured out how to deal with the gnomes,” Austin said, his firm pressure on the small of my back a cue to get moving.
“So then why hasn’t he gotten rid of the gnomes?”
“Likely the same reason none of you have—he’s had a big job to do. Let’s hope he at least saw that through.”
“None of…you have?” I crinkled my nose at him as we walked. “You’re not planning to help with the gnomes?”
“Absolutely not, no.”
I laughed and shook my head. “He did manage his tasks, though,” I said. “The non-gnome ones.”
“We shall see,” he said darkly.
Since the flower show incident, which he’d had to help clean up along with the rest of us, Austin didn’t have much faith in poor Edgar. And while I saw his point, he also hadn’t seen what Edgar had come up with in these last few weeks. I, however, had been monitoring his operation closely.
“The new healer has been a godsend,” I said as we crossed the grass and I ignored the doll sentries. I might not like them, but they fulfilled an important duty in ensuring the gnomes didn’t make it to the back door. Now if they could just watch the side yard as well… “She and the basajaunak have really helped Edgar with those flowers. I think it’s one of the main reasons she agreed to stay.”
The new healer, who called herself Indigo because she didn’t like her birth name Skye, had answered the accidental summons I’d placed in the basajaunak lands. She’d been understandably hesitant about joining our strange team of mythical creatures.
In the beginning, she’d bonded most with the basajaunak, walking through the wood with them and discussing the plants used in natural remedies and salves. Then she’d surprised us all by glomming on to Edgar. She was enraptured with his magical flowers, and I suspected she’d only agreed to go to Kingsley’s territory with us because she wanted to see them at work.
The path through the flower display at the edge of the grass was wider than usual, and gaping holes now existed in what had been a stranglehold of flora. Edgar was letting the basajaunak eat at will so they could eventually redo this area. The yard was not at its finest.
At the moment, none of us cared, not even Edgar.
“I’m coming, Jessie. Here I come!”
Speaking of, he ran up behind us, bleeding out of a few gashes and missing half a pant leg.
“Don’t bother healing me.” He waved at me as he loped by. “Indigo can handle that. Save your strength.”
“Save my strength for what?” I asked in a wispy voice.
After walking through the trees a ways, we emerged into a decently large clearing. Black plastic tubs covered the space. In each grew a seedling, the bright green stalks anywhere from six inches to two feet tall, with leaves and little branches starting to emerge from the sides. None of them swayed like killer plants 2.0 through 2.5 had. They didn’t grow diagonally, either, like 2.6 through 2.8. In fact, they didn’t seem to move at all, despite the soft breeze blowing through the clearing.
Edgar stood in the very middle of the group with his hands clasped in front of him. Indigo stood a little behind him, her hand on his shoulder, looking at us quietly. She needed touch as a means to heal, using plants and natural remedies to sometimes aid her magical process.
Basajaunak drifted toward us within the wood. Those closest stopped at the tree line to watch and listen.
I started the same way I always did. “What’ve we got?”
Edgar gave the same reply he always delivered out of the gate. “Yes, Jessie, thanks for coming.” He then bowed. “Alpha Steele, lovely to have you.” He spread out his hand, accidentally bumping Indigo. “Meet the Violator.”
I lifted my eyebrows. “What?”
“This is the new generation of assault flower,” he replied. “Attack flower 3.0, so perfect I want to weep at the mastery of it. I am calling it the Violator.”
“They each have names, though,” Indigo said, her voice high and childlike, matching her small frame and somewhat mousy appearance. A smattering of freckles dusted her button nose, on which sat large, black-framed, rectangular glasses. Thick bangs covered her forehead, and her brown hair was loosely pulled up into a messy bun. “They aren’t all called the Violator. That’s just their group name.”
“Oh yes, correct.” Edgar nodded dramatically. “Indigo is correct—how silly of me to forget. We have given each flower a name, as befits a friend. So here is…” He hesitated as he hovered over the seedling near his blood-crusted leg.
“Ethel,” Indigo helped.
“Yes, right. Ethel. And we have Florence the Flower over here—”
“Alliteration was necessary with that one,” Indigo said with a little smile.
“Ton, over there. Jan, Cathy-Jane, Marsha-Marsha-Marsha… Let’s see. Wayne and Garth—”
“Party on.” Indigo lifted a fist.
“Yes. They are rambunctious. Dean and Billie-Jo. Jolene—”
“‘Jolene, Jo-lene,’” Indigo sang, the tune from Dolly Parton’s song.
“Very musical, that flower,” Edgar responded. “She really likes singing.”
Austin had gone still, his automatic defense against the strangeness of this house and its crew.
“Let’s move on,” I said firmly. More basajaunak gathered around, silently watching. “I notice that they are still. Too still. They aren’t reacting to the breeze.”
“Oh yes,” Edgar said, now walking through the stalks. “That is because they are dormant at the moment. They are just taking it in, as it were. Learning how to coexist. They interact, sure, but only when prompted. Once they age up and are settled in one location, they’ll act like normal flowers until they’re either among friends or enemies.”
“How long do we have until they settle in?” Austin asked.
“If stable, about a week. Meaning, if we take them to Alpha Kingsley’s tomorrow and quickly find them a new home, they’ll be active adolescents within a week. If we do not find them a home quickly, then it will take longer.”
I put a hand on Austin’s arm. “These aren’t like the other attack flowers, which only tolerated the people they imprinted on in their youth. Obviously that wouldn’t work if we had them around Kingsley’s territory.”
“Correct. Yes, thank you, Jessie.” Edgar bowed slightly. “I have learned from my mistakes, Sir Alpha. Have no fear—with help from the basajaunak and Indigo, I have baked a sort of safety system into these flowers. If anyone they know vouches for a stranger, then they will treat that stranger as a friend. Until the stranger tries to do them harm, of course, and then they will attempt to kill that stranger in the bloodiest way possible. They are not very forgiving to bullies or enemies, these flowers.”
Austin’s eyebrows climbed.
“And!” Edgar lifted a spindly finger. “And their transportation pots”—he bent down to pat the plastic tub of one of the seedlings—“will allow us to take them home if Alpha Kingsman doesn’t want to keep them. They will allow us to dig them up as long as they feel their pots near them.”
“Kingsley,” Indigo corrected him softly.
“Yes.” Edgar inclined his head.
“You see…” Indigo stepped forward. Her toe hit a pot, though, which made her stumble. She reached out to brace herself but must’ve realized she’d likely crush a flower that way. Instead, she completed the fall, flopping down between two flowers and flailing a little.
“Whoopsie.” Edgar hurried to help her up. “That pot jumped out in front of you! I saw it. Silly flower.”
Indigo’s face turned red, and she smiled in embarrassment. “I’m a little clumsy. My mommy always said, ‘Thank the Lord you got the gift of healing, child, or you’d be in a bad way from those two left feet.’”
“What doesn’t kill us, as they say,” Edgar told her.
“You see,” she started again, “the flowers in this batch and the one before it really love people. They love attention and fun. They love children and laughter. We’ve brought a couple into town and coaxed them out of their stupor. They had the best time! As long as the shifters in Kingsley’s pack make an effort to visit the flowers, even just once, they will become friends. If the flowers are treated as part of the community, they’ll lovingly guard the perimeter or—what they’d like more than anything—the parks or nurseries. They’re designed to protect the community spaces of the pack. The town. The homes. The gardens. The vulnerable.”
Edgar’s grin was sly. “And the Annihilator was created for the wilds. For the first line of defense. For destruction.”
I stilled. “The Annihilator?”
“It’s our secret project. Those flowers can be a little…temperamental, but we’ve put in a couple fail-safes that should work. They really should. Don’t worry, Jessie, you’re going to love it.”
It seemed I hadn’t been keeping as close of an eye on the situation as I’d previously thought.
Chapter 2 ~ Jessie
The next morning, I was still stewing about the Annihilator flowers as I stood on the porch, watching the final preparations for our departure. To my utter shock, Austin had agreed to take them with us. He figured it was safe enough if they were kept out in the wilds, where only the shifters’ sentries ventured. The flowers would imprint on them, wreak havoc on any intruders, and all would be well.
I’d reminded him that he was operating on the assumption that the flowers wouldn’t grow legs and terrorize the community. He’d assumed I was joking.
I most certainly was not joking.
This was his show, though. I’d take lead with the gargoyles, and he would take lead with the shifters—including his interactions with his brother. So now psycho-killer flowers were being transported in their plastic pots to unsuspecting shifters who didn’t deal in fantastical and volatile magic. Super.
“Jessie, we’ve got a problem,” a familiar voice said from my left.
I barely stopped myself from sighing as I turned to look at Nathanial.
“What’s up?” I said.
“It’s the basajaunak.”
Terror froze up my middle. “Please don’t tell me they’ve changed their minds about helping.”
He minutely shook his head as Ulric jogged up, his dyed hair combed flat to his head. Clearly he was trying to look a little subdued for Kingsley’s shifters. It wasn’t working.
“The opposite,” Nathanial said. “More have shown up. We no longer have room for them on the chartered flights.”
We’d made space for two dozen basajaunak and our various cargo.
“How many more showed up?”
“A dozen, all parents. They’re watching out for their kids. The lead basandere is one of them. She said she’s not operating in a leadership role here, but she wants to keep an eye on things. They have all agreed to fight.”
Austin walked up wearing a white T-shirt and faded blue jeans. We’d all be changing into nicer clothes after we landed.
I relayed what Nathanial had told me.
Nothing about Austin’s expression or bearing changed. He’d completely done away with the looser persona he’d adopted for Ivy House soil, and even the mildly thawed persona he now displayed in the territory at large. He was back to being a tough, blank-faced alpha shifter, something that would be expected of him in Kingsley’s territory.
“We can add on a third wave and charter another jet,” he said crisply. “It’s too late to change the current setup.”
“Not to mention we need to get those flowers set up as quickly as possible,” I murmured.
“Tell Mr. Tom to arrange it,” Austin commanded. “He can do it from the road. Let’s load up. Time to go.”
Nathanial nodded and turned, striding away, and Austin pushed forward to bark orders.
Nessa bounded up a moment later with a ponytail and a bright smile.
“Going to meet the in-laws, huh?” she asked me, and then winked. “Nervous?”
“Of course she isn’t nervous,” Mimi said as she strode past us toward one of the waiting cars. “What would be the point?”
“Of course I’m not nervous,” I whispered, mimicking Mimi.
Nessa laughed and turned to stand beside me. Ulric was on my other side, all of us surveying the shifters heading for the cars.
“But seriously, are you nervous?” Ulric asked. “I’m nervous, and the thought of my mom potentially embarrassing me in front of a bunch of new shifters isn’t a big deal compared with your deal. Meeting the in-laws is big.”
I shook my head as I watched Cyra and Hollace duck into the wrong van.
“Dang it.” I started forward, but the new leader of my gargoyle forces, Tristan, beat me to it.
He stopped by the opened door, said a few words, and backed away. Laughing, Cyra climbed out, Hollace after her. Tristan pointed to where they should be.
As if feeling me looking at him, he turned to catch my gaze. A subtle nod and he was walking away again.
“Very efficient, our resident gargoyle,” Mr. Tom said, stopping beside us with a basket. “Now. How about some blueberry pancakes for the road? I have some lovely green tea here, should you want it, or even a decaf coffee in case you want something stronger that won’t enhance any travel jitters.”
“I’m fine, Mr. Tom, thanks.”
“If she wanted a bit ta eat, she’d ask fer it,” Niamh drawled as she passed by with her cooler.
“Why are you taking a cooler?” Mr. Tom asked her. “We are going on a commercial flight. We cannot take our liquor cabinet. Do you know nothing of the modern ways of traveling?”
“Of course I know about traveling, ye oul goat. Ye stuck me in coach,” she said, turning back. “Do ye know how slow they are to dole out drinks in coach? What do ye think ‘slowcoach’ means?”
“What do you think slowcoach means, because you’re clearly mistaken.”
“Don’t worry yer head,” Niamh told him. She lifted the cooler so she could pat it. “I’ve got it all squared away. Ye can bring liquid so long as it is in a small enough bottle. I’ve got the clear ones. They’ll have no idea what’s even in it. It’s good.”
She winked at us and used a finger to tap the side of her nose.
“You cannot bring a cooler full of booze, I don’t care what you say,” Mr. Tom replied.
“And ye think ye can bring a couple of metal canisters filled with shite tea and useless coffee, do ya?”
“This is for the car ride, I’ll have you know,” Mr. Tom said pompously.
“Fine. This is also for the car ride. Now mind yer business.”
She continued toward the van reserved for my crew.
“I should medicate before I consent to traveling as a team from now on,” I muttered as Mr. Tom took off after her. At least he’d stopped harassing me about eating.
Austin looked our way, scanning the people who still hadn’t boarded the vans.
“I better skedaddle,” Nessa said. “The alpha is all keyed up. I’d rather not be in the line of fire.”
She hurried forward, giving Tristan a vulgar hand sign as she passed that made him huff out a laugh and shake his head. Half the time they didn’t seem to get along—or she didn’t get along with him—but their chemistry was a little insane. I didn’t envy them the aggravation of trying to figure that out.
Nessa appeared not to be trying. She slipped into the van where Sebastian had already found his place, looking through a spell book.
“I think I better do likewise.” Ulric put his hand on my shoulder. “We’ve got this. All of this—the in-laws, the new shifters and their rules, the coming mage attack… We can handle it.”
I took a deep breath as he headed for his place. We didn’t have much choice. It was either handle it or die. The mage attack, at any rate. The rest? Well…I still wasn’t allowing myself to process any of that.
Austin stood on the sidewalk with Broken Sue, who’d be leading Wave Two, and Kace, who would stay behind as acting alpha, protector of the territory. I was sure they were going over last-minute plans and directives. Given I had nothing to add, I stopped by the lead van in which I’d be riding and turned to face Ivy House.
“I’m off,” I told her. “Hopefully you won’t need a new heir soon.”
“You are the greatest heir I have found so far, and you’ve summoned and built the most powerful team. In a physical battle, with all your shifters and gargoyles, you will not lose.”
“Right. But it won’t just be a physical battle. It’ll be a magical battle.”
“Yes. That part is worrying. You’re still somehow pretty terrible at magic. Let’s hope you figure it out. I’d hate to have the new interior design stop before it is finished.”
I gave her an annoyed stare and then contemplated fire-blasting the establishment.
“Ready?” Austin stopped beside me before glancing the way I was looking. “You good?”
“I’m ready, yeah. Ivy House— Never mind. Doesn’t matter. I hope the gnomes find their way in and terrorize her.”
Broken Sue and Kace watched our vans pull away, and through my connection with them, I could feel Broken Sue’s uncertainty. It was a sentiment I’d felt on and off from a great many shifters. I couldn’t tell if it was trepidation about the coming battle or entering another territory led by another alpha with a different set of rules. The gargoyles shared no such concerns. For better or worse, they seemed to be taking all of this in stride, the coming battle included.
“Have you heard from Gerard?” Austin asked, his hand resting possessively on my thigh.
Gerard was the gargoyle leader of Khaavalor. He’d given me a Porsche for the connection request and kept in contact after he’d left. He’d been the youngest of the leaders I’d met, the most open-minded, and he had jumped at the opportunity to help us in Kingsley’s time of need.
“Mr. Porsche?” I leaned against his arm. “I have, yes. He confirmed that he planned to fly in with some of his people at the end of the week. After I warned him about the number of people we’d probably be facing, he offered to bring more guardians. He wasn’t worried about the danger in the slightest.”
“And you said…?”
“Sure. More the merrier, just like with the extra basajaunak.”
He didn’t show any sign that he had heard me, staring straight ahead. I could feel his edginess through the bonds.
“Sebastian and I also talked down in the crystal room this morning.”
“He’s nervous,” Austin said.
“I went over the numbers. We have the people to combat this threat. We have the power at our disposal.” He paused, now looking out the window. “But we don’t have the magic. Gargoyles have a natural ability to withstand a certain amount of spell work, and the potions you guys created should help our shifters do the same thing. But a more advanced mage, a mage high on the power scale, will still be able to break through it. And they can just try and try again. Sebastian hasn’t been able to come up with any answers.”
He’d obviously spoken to Sebastian as well. I’d never seen the weird mage so worried.
I took a deep breath. “We’ve encountered dismal odds before. Sebastian and I have been training. There may only be two of us, but we’re strong, and we’ll concentrate our efforts on the highest-caliber mages. We’ll have the home team advantage. Hell, we’ll have fliers! Fliers are incredibly advantageous in a battle like this. We’ve seen the proof.”
“Those mages will be spread out all over the territory, and it’s a big territory. Kingsley has a lot of land.” His voice was hard enough to cut granite. “Momar hasn’t spent this much time sussing out my brother’s territory and defenses with his mini, harmless attacks just to shoot himself in the foot by putting their most valuable players within easy reach. No, each powerful mage will be protected by a team of lesser mages, just you watch.”
“Okay, fine, but we also know mages are cowards. Gargoyles, Cyra, and Hollace can fly into those groups, and some of them will flee. That’ll cut down their numbers enough to give us a chance.”
He ran his thumb back and forth along my thigh. “I hope so. Otherwise, we’ll need a miracle.”
Austin didn’t say much after that. We arrived at the airport in silence, and even then he only spoke to direct our people. I took over where I could, especially when it was my crew that was causing the holdup. And, surprise, surprise, my crew caused plenty of problems in the security line.
“What is going on?” I asked through my teeth. Niamh had insisted on bringing her cooler. She’d been stopped by the TSA, to no one’s shock, and was now arguing with the agent.
“This gobshite won’t let me through,” she said, her hands braced on her hips.
“You cannot carry this onto the airplane,” the agent said semi-patiently.
“Can’t I, me arse.” She gestured at the battered blue cooler. “Those are all travel-sized bottles, aren’t they? No more than 3.5 ounces each. The cooler is me luggage. It’s all above board.”
“Take her to prison,” Mr. Tom said as he took a carry-on from the conveyer. “It’ll be the best place for her.”
“Ma’am…” the agent said, ignoring Mr. Tom. He took out a small, clear plastic bottle designed for storing shampoo or conditioner when traveling. Brown liquid sloshed around inside. “This is the right size, yes—”
“See?” Niamh said.
“But you are limited to one quart-size container housing the liquids, gels, and aerosols. This is”—he looked first inside, and then at the outside of the cooler—“significantly more than that.”
“Is that whole thing full?” I asked incredulously.
“Not full,” Niamh said.
“Mostly full,” the man responded.
I sighed in exasperation. “Reduce it to the amount that is allowed and let’s go, Niamh.”
“Why would I need a cooler if I’m only allowed what I can carry in my pocket?” she demanded.
“Get it done,” I told her, my tone brooking no argument.
She glowered at the TSA agent before reaching for the cooler.
“Ma’am, is this your bag?” I heard someone else ask.
Cyra raised her hand with a smile. “That’s mine!”
“Oh no,” I said softly, waiting for her to take her place next to Niamh in the security area.
Grim-faced, the man looked at her over the suitcase. “Do you have any weapons in this suitcase, ma’am?”
“Yes,” she answered jovially.
Hollace, waiting for his bag, glanced over with a grin.
The agent gave her a long, dangerous sort of look that went right over her head before he unzipped the pack and gingerly reached inside.
“Oops. Be careful there.” Cyra put out a hand to steady him. “It is very sharp.”
“What’d you bring?” I asked, peering in as Niamh started throwing bottles in the trash, grumbling under her breath.
“Just a large, serrated knife,” she said, peering into the bag. She affected a strange sort of accent. “That’s not a knife… This is a knife.”
Hollace started laughing. I continued to stare.
“Ulric was watching Crocodile Dundee the other day,” Hollace explained, stopping behind us. “She thought that was a good joke.”
“Yes. I wanted to do that to one of the shifters in this new territory. Sort of like breaking the ice, you know?”
“No—Cyra…” I opened my mouth. Closed it. Collected myself. “No. Take— Get it out. You can’t bring weapons on an airplane, Cyra! Are you nuts?”
“You can’t?” She poked her finger through the lens-less frame of her glasses to rub her eye. The deep scowl in the agent’s face bent a little toward confusion. “Why not?”
“I explained that, remember?” Hollace said. “Just get rid of it. The shifters wouldn’t have thought that joke was very funny anyway. Most of them probably haven’t even seen the movie or wouldn’t remember it. It’s old.”
“Fine,” she said, as put out as Niamh.
She reached for the suitcase only to have the agent stop her. “No. I will handle the weapon.”
“Can’t I at least stash it in the airport and get it when I come back?” she asked.
The agent gave her a hard stare. “No.”
It was a miracle he didn’t arrest her.
The next issue happened when we were trying to get everyone onto the plane. My boarding zone had already been called, but I stayed back to make sure everyone else got on. Good thing.
“I beg your pardon, madam?” Mr. Tom said indignantly to the ticket agent. He pulled his ticket back, not allowing her to grab it and scan him through.
She paused in a moment of confusion.
“No, this is not a costume party,” he said, “and no, we are not cost-playing, whatever that is, a legion of Batmans. An ordinary man with enhanced technology running around the night dressed as a bat with fake muscles is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Little Dicks need to put their faith in something better than mentally unstable vigilantes.”
The woman gasped.
Niamh let out a loud guffaw. “Now who’s going to prison, ya cheeky bastard,” she drawled.
“That kind of language is highly inappropriate, sir,” the woman said, her body bristling.
It took me a moment to realize she was reacting to the phrase “little Dicks,” which for us meant non-magical kids.
“Right, okay.” I rushed forward, bumping into Niamh so that I could get to Mr. Tom.
“Shite,” Niamh grumbled, pulling the travel bottle away from her body and looking down at the spreading stain on her shirt. I hadn’t even noticed she’d been drinking from her stash—something I was pretty sure wasn’t allowed.
“Sorry, ma’am,” I told the agent, now trying to angle my body so she couldn’t see Niamh. “He didn’t mean— He, himself, is a little off-kilter.”
“How dare you,” Mr. Tom said, stepping away a little.
I yanked his ticket free and handed it to the agent. “His age has caught up with him. We’re getting him treatment.”
“This is an outrage,” he said, his hands on his hips and his wings fluttering.
The other agent, standing beside the first, noticed. Her eyes rounded.
“They’re mechanized. Here we go.” I scanned the ticket myself, something half the agents had people do anyway. I handed it back to him and magically shoved him toward the tunnel to the plane. “All is well.”
Next I turned to Niamh and reached for her ticket.
“Get rid of that!” I whispered at her, my gaze dropping to the little bottle that she hadn’t stowed away.
“Yer such a spoilsport,” she grumbled, and, with very impressive sleight of hand, the bottle disappeared somewhere into her clothes. “I’ll scan it. Good heavens, Jessie, cut the apron strings.”
She pushed ahead of me and scanned her own ticket.
“Don’t worry about that muppet,” Niamh told the agent. “He insists on that ratty old cape. The oul codger thinks Batman stole his identity. Never got over it. Sure, our friends dress up in capes just to make him happy. Too much trouble, if ye ask me.”
“Right, okay.” I stepped in again to hurry this along. “People are waiting. No need to embellish the story.”
Despite the fact that he had a first-class ticket and should’ve gotten on the plane with the first boarding group, Tristan was the very last person, besides me.
“Hey,” I said, stepping in beside him with my ticket finally out and ready to be scanned.
“Hey,” he replied, gesturing for me to go in front of him.
“Why were you way back here? Did you decide that joining this territory was a terrible idea and, as Niamh would say, you were about to pull a runner?”
He gave me a lopsided grin, then broke down into chuckles. “No, but I decided I better take up the rear in case someone got ejected or hauled off to prison or…who knew what.”
Tristan had taken lead during Edgar’s flower show fiasco. He’d had a few moments of what the hell have I gotten myself into, followed by some hardcore self-reflection that Austin had had to walk him through. The poor guy had been thrown for a loop.
“I appreciate it,” I told him honestly, waiting for him. “Maybe you can take over my role as babysitter.”
The agent’s eyes widened as she looked up at him, taking in his height and width. Her throat bobbed with a hard swallow, and then an appreciative flush crept into her cheeks as she noticed his handsome face.
“Wingman does me just fine, thanks,” he told me, nodding his thanks to her before walking with me toward the tunnel. “I don’t have enough patience to manage that crew. It’s like herding cats toward a bathtub.”
I laughed with the analogy. “At least I’ve earned the free champagne, huh? That’s a plus.”
“You have, no question. Jessie…if I may…” He slowed as we neared the open passenger door. “What are we walking into with this new shifter territory? I’ve heard that Austin’s brother is a lot more intense. Is that going to be a problem for our people?”
I stopped next to him and half turned, looking back the way we’d come. “Honestly, Tristan, I don’t know. Some of the shifters are nervous, which makes me a bit nervous. I suspect there isn’t a lot of joking around in their pack, and showing any levity might make them think you’re weak. They’ll want to prove their dominance over the merged pack. That might mean a lot of challenges. I just don’t know.”
“You’re saying that if my gargoyles laugh and act like normal people, they’ll get heat from these other shifters?”
I briefly hesitated in answering. “I expect so. I was warned that they’d challenge me, and that I should go hard when they do. ‘Nearly kill them’ sort of hard. I think we’re about to walk into a turbulent situation, although I can’t say for sure. It certainly defies my logic that they’d want to challenge us, since we’re showing up to help them. And what is with shifters thinking they need to have the emotional range of a stone to look tough? It’s so dumb. But…” I shrugged. “That’s the culture as I understand it. A culture Austin has slowly started to change in our pack. Other than that, I know as little as you do.”
He studied me for a long moment, his eyes sharp and wings still. A smile slowly soaked up his expression.
“A little turbulence might help pass the time,” he finally said. “Go hard or go home, right, Jessie?”
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