A Shift in Wings - Chapter Two
I’m bored and sick of looking at these winged assholes.
Gunnar’s piercing blue eyes glared at the much smaller cat who’d been complaining nonstop for the past hour. The skogkatt was crouched next to him so when the wolf snapped open his solid white wings, he sent Viggo flying. Viggo snarled from where he landed unharmed on the forest floor and he crouched down, muscles tensing ready to leap onto the white wolf.
Knock it off, I ordered. Even telepathically there was a bite to my tone. Gunnar tucked his wings in close and pointedly ignored the skogkatt who was still staring daggers at him. They’d been like this all day and it was wearing on my last nerve.
My eyes quickly scanned the hundreds of seraphim camped in the valley beneath us, making sure none of them had heard the commotion. The tension eased from my muscles as they continued to settle into their temporary camp, tearing chunks of meat of the carcasses that were hanging over the fire pits scattered around the campsite.
We’d been in the seraphim realm for over a week now, scouting various cities and collecting information while staying out of sight. Aside from taking out that seraph scout a couple days ago, we’d been in pure reconnaissance mode and the lack of action was wearing on all of us.
I was a valkyrie not a godsdamned spy.
But Viggo and I both had the ability to turn ourselves invisible, and I could extend my spell to hide Gunnar from sight as well, which made us uniquely suited for this mission.
At least that had been Pele’s opening argument for why she wanted us to stay behind after we helped Nemain steal some dragon fangs from a seraph general. I’d looked at her like she was crazy and refused to entertain the idea of staying in the seraphim realm while my friends went off to the dragon realm. Given that I could fly, it’d made far more sense for me to be part of that crew instead of skulking about on an information gathering mission.
But while Pele was a lot of things, crazy wasn’t one of them. Ever since the dark seidr practitioner Gullveig had laid a rather elaborate trap near my home that had put Bryn in her crosshairs, I had been determined to track down the bitch and end her once and for all.
Unfortunately, finding an evil sorceress who had convinced the world she was dead and been hiding for centuries wasn’t exactly easy. I’d made little progress and while Nemain had offered to help, she had more than enough on her plate between dealing with fae bullshit, helping Eddie, and trying to stay one step ahead of the warlocks and vampires. I refused to add yet another problem to her long list of problems.
And that’s where Pele stepped in, smooth as the fucking devil.
Daemons are ruthless when it comes to collecting information, none more so than Pele. She could be arrogant and a little too brazen for my taste, but when she promised to track down Gullveig for me, I believed her.
Truth be told, I hadn’t been expecting to find much here. But I was glad I’d taken Pele’s offer. Not only because it would hopefully lead me to Gullveig, but because Pele was right. There was something going on here.
My wings shifted causing the leather satchel on my back to rub against them. I was running out of paper but Pele would be happy with the maps and population information I’d gathered so far. The seraphim were clearly preparing for battle. All of their cities had been reinforced to withstand sieges and they were conducting regular training exercises. That hadn’t been all that surprising. We suspected that they were working with the exiled fae king, and nobody would use the seraphim for anything other than soldiers. Just point them in a direction and they would be happy to slaughter everything in their path.
What I had not been expecting was the presence of humans.
It had been the same in every city we’d been too. Each one had a small area where humans were kept. In pens. Like cattle.
Given the discarded human bones we’d found, it was clear the seraphim hadn’t lost their taste for human flesh. But we’d been through well over a dozen cities at this point, and there were hundreds more. Assuming they all had humans in them, there had to be over a hundred thousand humans in this realm. I didn’t know much about the human realm, but I doubted the seraphim had snatched them from there.
Aside from the fact that someone would have noticed if a hundred thousand humans vanished without a trace, the seraphim were forbidden from entering that realm. They physically couldn’t enter thanks to the protective spell cast over that realm by the fae and daemons. So where the hell did they get these humans from?
I’d tried speaking to a few of them, but my translation mark failed to understand their language. Based on the confused and fearful expressions on their faces when I’d tried to reassure them I meant no harm, they didn’t understand me either. They stared at my wings in horror as they crowded protectively around each other.
My wings were gold, not white like the seraphim, but that didn’t matter to them. To them, anything with wings represented death. I’d stopped approaching them in cities because my presence only frightened them and they couldn’t communicate with me anyway.
The way these humans looked at me struck a cord deep within my soul. They didn’t know what I was, and just assumed I was some type of seraphim, but the mistrust and terror I saw in their eyes was the same I saw in the eyes of other valkyries. Once upon a time I had been one of the most respected and revered amongst my kind. I had been one of the strongest valkyries in existence even before I had bonded with him.
Now there was no question I was the most powerful valkyrie. But the price I paid for my power left me an exile. The power was never something I wanted. I’d only wanted to save my friend from himself, and I had assumed my death would be the price. It hadn’t worked out that way.
I didn’t regret the choices I had made. But the price of carrying them grew a little heavier every time a valkyrie looked at me with fear and revulsion.
We going to follow this group or continue on to the next city? Viggo asked as he moved to settle down in front of me.
I thought about it as I absently stroked his fluffy coat. We’d seen several large battalions like this over the past few days, all heading south.
Let’s follow them, I decided. We haven’t learned anything new in the last few cities, they all have the same basic layout. Maybe we’ll learn something new if we follow this group to their destination.
And then we can go home? Viggo asked hopefully.
My lips pressed together in a flat line. You know we can’t. Not yet.
He rolled onto his back, stretching out his legs while offering me his belly. I dutifully gave him belly rubs. Where will be go then? He asked as a deep purr rumbled out of him.
Emerald Bay. We need backup, I admitted reluctantly. Pele might not be back yet from the dragon realm, but Asmodeus could have information for us. The wards around Nemain’s place are strong enough to give even Gullveig pause, we can rest there while we figure out our next move.
The purring stopped as Viggo glared at me. You can’t expect me to stay there. With that fae asshole.
I’m pretty sure you’re the one who started shit with Jinx, I pointed out.
Viggo twisted and sprang to his feet. I’m getting something to eat. He stalked off towards the sparse forest behind us. I glanced at Gunnar and he let out a long-suffering sigh before trailing after the sulky feline. The Niflheim wolf couldn’t speak like Viggo, but after five centuries of companionship we understood each other just fine. Despite their bickering, Gunnar felt very protective of Viggo. He was the one who’d found the skogkatt cub alone in the woods, wounded and alone. Much the same way I’d fund Gunnar centuries before. A small smile played across my lips as I watched them head deeper into the woods before I turned my attention back to the seraphim camp.
Prickles ran up the back of my neck and I turned away from the camp once more to study the woods behind me. Ever since that night I’d seen something in the trees, I hadn’t been able to shake the feeling we were being followed. I was reasonably confident that it wasn’t a seraph, they had little patience and would have attacked me by now. But I had no doubt that Gullveig would be interested in having me followed and she was definitely capable of finding someone who was good at remaining unseen and patient.
I exhaled a frustrated breath and focused on the seraphim again as I pondered what to do about our stalker. Maybe once the seraphim settled down for the night, I could go on a little hunt of my own.
Once I found a nice small clearing a safe distance away from the camp, I gathered up some firewood and set about stacking it into a neat pile. With one whispered word, flames burst into life and danced across the branches. Not a hint of smoke to be seen. The fire also gave off no scent which made me a little sad because I loved the smell of a campfire. But my practical side almost always won out over my whimsical one.
Okay I didn’t really have a whimsical side. I had practical and slightly less practical.
Viggo and Gunnar should be back soon. Once we’d eaten, I’d telepathically tell Viggo to do a sweep and see if he could find our mysterious friend while Gunnar and I played bait. It hadn’t worked the past few nights but there was always the chance that whoever was watching us would slip up and Viggo would find them. If that didn’t work, then I’d go for a walk through the woods and see if that would tempt them out. Viggo and Gunnar wouldn’t like that plan but I’d deal with that argument later.
Reaching into my bag, I pulled out a piece of charcoal and the map I’d been working on. I added the river that we crossed earlier that morning, along with extending the forest I’d started to draw yesterday and the mountain range ahead of us.
An awareness prickled at the back of my mind even as my fingers continues their sketching.
Twisting to the side I pretended to be looking for something in the leather bag while I set the map down out of harms way. It would be really annoying to get blood on it after spending so much time mapping everything out.
I rose to my feet and took a few steps away from the tree I’d been resting under. Flexing my fingers at my side, I refrained from pulling a dagger or calling the hammer. I wanted to have a chat with whoever was following me before I tore them apart.
“I know you’re there.” My eyes rose to the thick branches of the tree where my instincts told me something was wrong. There was nothing about the feeling I could articulate or explain, but I knew with one hundred percent certainty that someone was there.
After a few seconds, some leaves shook from a branch midway up the tree, and a hooded figure dropped to the ground. Their landing was smooth but still jarring enough to cause their hood to slip back.
Huh. Not exactly what I was expecting. My stalker didn’t look like any species I knew of from the Yggdrasil realms… he almost looked fae.
The dark-haired stranger rose to his full height. At just over six feet, I was hardly short, but he had at least a couple inches on me. In less than a second I took in and catalogued every detail relevant to a fight. Broad shoulders and a strong lean build. Just enough bulk that a punch from him would hurt, but not too bulky that he’d be slow. He held a sword in one hand and a short curvy dagger in the other.
Fuck. I hated sword fighters. My fighting style relied on strength and overpowering my opponents. Which usually wasn’t hard because few fighters could match my skills. I sparred with Nemain and her vampire groupies every chance I had because it was hard to find better sword fighters than those three. I could hold my own against them but not without ending up cut to shit.
If he was any good, and I very much suspected he was, then I was going to bleed a lot in this fight. Annoying. But I’d heal as soon as I put him down.
Surprise flickered through me when I took in the strangers face. Something about his features screamed fae to me… but not sidhe. His features were too rough and masculine for the sidhe who leaned towards androgyny. Who the fuck was this guy and why was he following me?
“Fancy wings.” Blue eyes the color of a sunny cloudless day flicked curiously over my golden feathers. “What are you?”
“Pretty sure my gold wings are a big fucking clue,” I replied smoothly even though I was a little thrown off by his question. He had to know what I was if he’d been sent by Gullveig… and I wasn’t kidding about the wings being a clue. Valkyries were the only species to have golden feathers and we were well known across all the realms. Unless…
I scrutinized him further and took a shot in the dark. “I’m guessing you’re one of these devourer fae freaks?” I couldn’t see magic, not without casting a spell, but I could feel it. And his magic felt wrong.
It was the same wrongness that I felt off Finn and Nemain when they used their magic. I’d mostly gotten used to it from them, but coming from a stranger it made me wary.
“Freak seems a bit rude.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “Especially since you haven’t told me who or what you are, and I come bearing gifts.”
I made a show of giving him a thorough once over. “Funny. I don’t see any gifts.”
“Again with the rudeness,” he muttered even as a grin twitched across his lips. “I’ve been in this realm for a few weeks and I overheard these winged pricks talking about a group of misfits who showed up here recently, practically decimated a city, and then left through a gateway.”
The alarm bells that had started going off when I suspected he was one of the devourer fae hybrids began blaring even louder. Gullveig sending someone to spy on me here would have been annoying but expected. Pele had suspected the seraphim were working with Balor, most likely through Lir, but I’d yet to see any of his warriors in this realm.
But one of them had clearly found me and knew that Nemain had been up to something here. I wasn’t sure why he was following me or why he had come alone, but once I figured that out I’d take care of him and get the hell out of this realm.
“Nothing to add?” he asked when I remained silent. He shrugged. “It’s fine. You don’t have to say anything. It was a feline shifter who opened the gateway. I only know of two feline shifters with that type of magic and from my brief interaction with them, I’m confident that they’re both psycho enough to antagonize an entire city of psychopathic warriors who can rain down fire.”
“Watch how you speak about my friends,” I warned. Not that I really considered Badb a friend, I barely knew her, but he didn’t need to know that.
“Are you really going to stand there and tell me neither Nemain nor her mother are at least a little psychotic?” He raised a dark eyebrow.
Nemain absolutely was a little insane. She was also short-tempered and had questionable morals. Based on my brief interactions with Badb, I was pretty confident this was a case of the apple not falling far from the tree. But despite her questionable sanity, when Nemain gave someone her loyalty, she would go through hell for them. And I was one of the few people who could claim that type of loyalty from her. In many ways I thought of Nemain as a younger sister.
Which meant I could talk shit about her, but nobody else could.
“The only thing that matters is that I claim her as a friend.” I took a step forward and he eyed me warily but held his ground. “I don’t know you. Which makes you an enemy until you prove otherwise.”
The fae warrior continued to point his sword in my direction. His arm never faltered despite its weight and his weight remained perfectly balanced. Curiosity peaked inside me. The fae mostly relied on their magic, some also trained as warriors but I’d never encountered any that were all that good. Whoever my stalker was, he had training and experience. Nemain had told me about Balor and his army, but I hadn’t encountered any of them yet.
Nemain said they not only had strong magic abilities but were also skilled fighters. I wanted to know just how skilled they really were.
“Something tells me you don’t have many friends, which means you move through life thinking everyone is a potential enemy.” His voice was smooth and deep with a lilting accent that I sometimes heard from the older fae, although his was much more pronounced. It was pretty but that didn’t detract from the truth of his words.
“Your point?” I asked flatly even as I flinched inwardly. I could count the number of friends I had on both hands, which considering my age was more than a little pathetic.
“Just seems exhausting is all.”
“And what? You go through life assuming everyone is your friend?” I scoffed. “Seems foolish.”
And why the hell was I having this conversation with him? I should be grabbing my hammer and smashing his head in. It was that damn accent that was more than a little soothing.
He gave me a placating smile like I was a child who had said something amusing. “I’ve lived a long time. Maybe you’ll change your outlook as you get older.”
The curiosity I’d been feeling about his fighting abilities and accent snapped into white hot anger at the patronizing words. The fae and their goddamn arrogance.
Magic sparked from the hammer and it shot into my outstretched hand from where it had been resting beside the tree. For the first time since our interaction started, uncertainty flashed in his eyes as his stare lingered on the hammer.
“When you’ve lived as long as I have,” I said, raising the hammer slightly. “You learn to expect the worst from people, they rarely disappoint.”
He started to lower his sword. “Wait—”
I lunged forward and swung at his head. He ducked beneath my blow and slashed with his dagger at my side. I didn’t try to dodge. As the blade sank into my flesh, I slammed my elbow down onto his outstretched arm. He let out a pained grunt as tendons tore and bones crunched. My other arm was already swinging and he flew backward as my hammer crashed into his abdomen and spark of it’s magic burst free.
I growled at the hammer as I yanked it back. I’d only meant to physically hit him, not use it’s magic. It was getting harder and harder to deny the hammer’s true nature. I looked away from it just in time to see the fae twist in midair so that his feet hit the thick trunk. For a split second he was crouched perfectly horizontal to the ground before he pushed off and landed a few feet in front of me.
He’d lost his dagger but he still had his sword. My eyebrows shot up as he gave me a happy grin. A direct hit like that should have crushed his chest. Even with the healing magic that all fae possessed, he should have been down for at least a few minutes while his body pieced the broken bones and crushed organs back together.
“Nice hit, I was wondering just how strong you were.”
“So you decided to find out by letting me hit you?” I asked incredulously. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Name’s Niall.” As soon as the name left his mouth he moved. My shield sprang into existence from the gold bracer I wore on my right arm and his sword clanged against it. His head cocked to the side as he took in my shield. “Nice. Where can I get me one of those?”
He whirled around, fighting with a tenacity he lacked before. As I used my shield and hammer to block his strikes, I realized he’d been holding back when we first clashed. He was just as fast as Nemain and almost as strong as me. But so far he had yet to use any magic. Either he didn’t have any offensive magic, or he was holding back for some reason. Maybe whatever he had was too slow for a fight like this.
Good for me. Bad for him.
“Or even better”—he caught my hammer against his sword when I swung for his head and peered at it admiringly—“where can I get a hammer like yours?”
I growled and called my shield forth and slammed it into his side. He stumbled back, laughter pouring out of him.
“Touchy about the hammer are we?”
I closed the distance between us as I went on the offensive. But not only did he match me blow for blow, but more than a few of his strikes made it past my guard. I was bleeding from at least a dozen cuts, some of them were deep enough to be problematic. Not enough to kill me, but I could already feel myself slowing down from blood loss.
That wasn’t my only problem. Magic thrummed from the hammer, skittering across my skin like little lighting strikes. It’s magic had been calling to me more and more lately and it had enjoyed being wielded seconds ago and now it wanted another taste of my opponent.
“There are no hammer’s like mine,” I snarled and leapt for him, dropping the hammer a split second before I crashed into him and pulling my dagger free. Blood trickled down his neck from where my blade bit into his skin, but I felt the same bite at my throat.
Keeping his head perfectly still, his gaze fell to where the hammer lay a few feet away before he met my eyes once again. “Why drop the hammer for the dagger?”
Because my resolve against using its magic is weakening and I’m just angry enough to say fuck it and fry your fae ass.
“I want to feel your blood flow over my hand before I smash your body apart,” I said instead.
“Liar.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “A slit throat will barely slow me down. And I suspect the same is true for you. What’s so special about that weapon?”
The fae’s bright blue eyes bore into me and his features morphed until they resembled that of another. One with a strong jaw line, a slightly crooked nose, and a scar beneath his left eye.
Fight, flight, or fuck, a deep voice full of amusement rumbled through my mind. We’d never done the latter, that had never been our relationship. We’d done plenty of the first two throughout our centuries of friendship and partnership.
I blinked and the image was gone, leaving only the fae male standing before me and a hollow feeling in my soul. Both of us were breathing heavily, inches apart, with our blades still angled at the other’s neck. He was right, a slit throat wouldn’t kill me. It wouldn’t even slow me down, not for a few minutes anyway. The magic from the hammer was still calling to me, burning through my veins, making me ache for another round of fighting. Or a solid fuck.
It would absolutely not be the latter so I went with the fighting option. I shoved away from him, ignoring the burning slice across my neck. The trees were too dense for me to fly and use air attacks but I had enough space for something else. I hurled myself even further back to increase the distance between us then I shot up into the air and pulled my wings tight, spinning rapidly. They shot open, sending several hard pointed feathers outward.
The fae warrior tried to lunge to the side but I’d spread them in a wide enough arc that he couldn’t dodge all of them.
A snarl ripped out of him as my spear-like feathers pierced the left side of his body. I was on him before he could recover, sweeping his feet out from under him and straddling his hips. The jagged feathers of my wings were aimed at his face while my dagger rested beneath his chin.
“Who. Are. You?” I demanded.
“I already told you.” He bared his bloody teeth at me in a feral smile. “I’m Niall.”
“Give me a reason to not splatter your brains across the forest floor, Niall.” I put a little more pressure on the dagger, forcing him to tilt his head back further.
His eyes darkened for a moment.“Your friend… the shifter with the smart mouth,” he said slowly. “She spared my life. Maybe you should check with her.”
I laughed. “Nemain doesn’t spare anyone. She lives and breathes violence. If the two of you crossed paths, you’d be dead.”
He muttered something under his breath that I was pretty sure I misheard so I nudged him with the hammer. “Speak up.”
“You were right earlier,” he admitted. “I am one of Balor’s creations, a fae tainted with devourer magic. A while back, I was with a group who attacked Nemain in one of the fae realms. She killed the others and got the better of me in a fight. But she spared my life.”
“Bullshit.” I didn’t hide the disbelief from my voice. Nemain was a lot of things, but soft-hearted wasn’t one of them. She would slit someone’s throat in the middle of a meal and go back to eating next to their cooling corpse. She’d also never mentioned choosing to leave one of her enemies alive.
Something flickered across his face. Regret? Desperation? I didn’t know him well enough to tell.
“Not bullshit. Ask her and she’ll tell you.” That cocky grin graced his mouth again. “I’m sure she’ll remember me.”
We stared at each other, my thighs resting on either side of his hips. I kept my expression even despite the hesitancy I was feeling. If Nemain really had spared him, she must of had a reason.
He shifted slightly and my wings surged forward until the points were less than an inch from his face.
“Sorry, just trying to adjust… things.” He let go of his sword and slowly rotated his hands until both palms were facing up. “It’s been… awhile… since I’ve had someone so beautiful on top.”
I froze, at a complete loss for words, as I realized exactly where I was positioned over him. It’d been a while for me too. Once upon a time there was nothing more I enjoyed than a fuck after a good fight. Even better if the person I was fucking was the one I’d been fighting.
But sex required a level of trust I didn’t have with most people these days. And despite how physically attractive this fae warrior was, I sure as shit didn’t trust him.
The sharp blue eyes looked at me and I got the distinct impression that he understood everything that had just gone through my mind and felt the same. It was strange, I knew nothing about him but I suddenly felt this odd kinship.
Sigrun? Viggo asked tentatively. I didn’t take my eyes off Niall but I sensed the skoggkat somewhere behind me, likely still cloaked in his invisibility because Niall gave no reaction to him joining us in the clearing.
“Everything’s fine,” I said out loud for Niall’s sake. “It appears we’ll be having a guest joining us for dinner.”