Guest Author ~ Ann GimpelPosted: February 14, 2014 | |
In a post-apocalyptic world where most people have been slaughtered, the Celtic gods and a few humans with magic are all that stands between survival and Earth falling into alien hands. The combination of dark sorcery leveraged by the enemy is daunting. Destruction is all but certain if the small enclaves of humans who are left can’t get past their distrust of the Celts.
Captured by the enemy, Aislinn Lenear wonders if she’ll ever see her bond wolf or Fionn, a Celtic god, again. She’s had nothing but her wits to rely on for years. They haven’t failed her yet, but escape from her current predicament seems remote.
An enticing blend of urban fantasy and romance, this second volume of the Earth Reclaimed Series provides fertile ground for Aislinn and Fionn’s relationship to deepen. Headstrong and independent, the pair runs up against each other’s demands time and time again. Fireworks spark. In the end, they learn to savor every moment in a bittersweet world where each day may well be their last.
Fionn tumbled through a gateway and leapt to his feet. Something was decidedly wrong. The wolf and raven were right behind him, but he’d lost all sense of Aislinn’s presence in the traveling portal. It made him half-crazy with fear, but there was nothing he could do until the spell spit him out. Mouth dry, heartbeat thudding in his ears, he waited to see who would follow him out of the ragged hole he’d left in the ether.
For the love of the goddess, please let me be mistaken about this.
Rune emerged. A howl split the still air. “Where is she?” the black and gray timber wolf demanded. He reared up and plunked his paws on Fionn’s chest. “What happened to my bond mate? I cannot feel her anywhere.” He howled again. It was a mournful sound, full of grief. Fionn wrapped his arms around the wolf, but Rune dropped to the ground, apparently not interested in comfort.
“Yes, where did Aislinn go?” Bella demanded, bouncing forward with her awkward avian gait. Ever cantankerous, the raven was bonded to him, so Fionn was used to her moods. She spread her large wings, took to the air, and cawed her displeasure. He stared after her and struggled to manage a mounting sense of panic while balling his hands into fists. Both bond animals knew the truth: Aislinn had disappeared somewhere between Ely, Nevada and wherever they were now. He barked a word to close off his magic. The place they’d rolled out of shimmered and disappeared.
He loosed a string of Gaelic curses. “What the fuck went wrong?” he muttered. Fionn drew magic to augment his night vision and gazed wildly about for clues. They were in the midst of rubble that could well be Salt Lake City. So at least that part of his casting had been true. No, an inner voice corrected him, I doona know that. This could be anywhere. He shoved straggling strands of blond hair out of his eyes and sent his magic spinning outward to gather data. His heart beat a worried tattoo against his ribcage.
The air to his right took on a pearlescent hue. Bran and Arawn leapt through a portal in a flash of battle leathers, the snug-fitting garments indistinguishable from Fionn’s attire. Arawn barked a command; their gateway winked shut. His midnight gaze scanned the small group. “Why is Gwydion not here?” he demanded. “He left afore any of us.”
Rune threw his head back. Another desolate howl split the night.
Bran’s coppery eyes narrowed. “Aye, and where is the lass?”
“And that Hunter scum, Travis,” Fionn growled. He spread his hands in front of him. “I havena felt Aislinn since a few moments after we entered the portal. Join your magic to mine so we might figure out what has happened.”
Bran nodded curtly. “Aye, Travis must have lied to us, but to what purpose?”
“To save his own sorry hide, what else?” Fionn snapped. “Or mayhap because he wanted Aislinn for himself.”
The air took on an iridescent waviness. Gwydion stumbled out of the odd-looking place. Tangled in a welter of blue robes, he clutched an intricately carved staff; blond hair swirled around him. “Be gone, I say—Wait, what happened to—?” He took in the tableau as he lurched unsteadily to his feet. Fionn almost heard wheels turning as Gwydion tallied who was missing. The warrior magician pounded the end of his wooden staff into broken asphalt. Lightning crackled from the end of the staff, betraying his annoyance.
Something snapped in Fionn. Bright, brittle anger lanced through him He launched himself at Gwydion and drove the other Celtic god to the ground. “Bastard,” he screamed. “Ye were in charge of Travis. What? Ye couldna control a simple human? Look what your slipshod seeds have sown—” He raised a fist and drove it into the side of Gwydion’s face. It was more satisfying than using magic. Closer and more personal.
Rune jumped into the fray and sank his teeth into Gwydion’s leg. Bella cawed her disapproval. She tangled her talons in the mage’s long hair and pulled as she pecked at him. Gwydion bellowed in pain. The air thickened and developed an electric quality as he reached for his magic.
Fionn had just cocked his arm back to hit Gwydion again—before his fellow Celtic god shielded himself—when strong arms closed about him and dragged him back. Magic surrounded him, forming a barrier.
“That willna help,” Arawn, god of the dead, revenge, and terror, said, voice stern with command.
“Aye, it willna get your lass back,” Bran agreed. God of prophecy, the arts, and war, he often had a gentler approach than the other Celtic deities.
Gwydion rolled to a sit, looking dazed. He placed his hands on the wolf and raven, muttering in Gaelic. After a time, both animals retreated. He touched the bloodied places on his thigh; the flesh mended quickly. The master enchanter and god of illusion did not make any move to get to his feet. He settled his blue gaze on Fionn, bowed his head slightly, and said, “I am most sorry. Ye are right to be angry with me. The lad came at me flanked by Lemurians. I never even knew how many. When I sent my magic spiraling out to find Travis, he was gone beyond my reach.”
“Why didn’t ye tell me?” Fionn growled.
“How?” Gwydion countered, sounding weary. “Communication isna possible in the portals.”
Fionn groaned inwardly. He knew that. Where were his brains? Taking a wee holiday, a sarcastic inner voice suggested. Fionn jerked against the magic holding him. “You can let me go now,” he told Arawn and Bran. “I’ve returned to my senses.”
He stepped forward and extended a hand to Gwydion, who grasped it. “I am sorry I lost my temper.”
Something sparked from the mage’s blue eyes—compassion laced with pity. Gwydion stood, and then brushed off his robes; dust flew in all directions. He bent to retrieve his richly carved staff. It glowed blue-white when he touched it and he arched a brow at Fionn. “See, the staff knows battle lies ahead. The important thing is what we do now. A good start would be not tearing one another to bits.”
Though Fionn agreed, he secretly wondered if Gwydion might have tried harder were it not for the bad blood between them over Tara, Aislinn’s dead mother. As a MacLochlainn, Aislinn was bound to him, just like her mother had been. But Tara had loved Gwydion. To avoid marrying Fionn, she’d given herself to a stranger and run away to America, effectively severing an age-old bonding. Tara MacLochlainn had been an Irish queen. Under laws of blood and dynasty, she should have belonged to him, Fionn MacCumhaill, Celtic god of wisdom, knowledge, and divination…
Guess she had other ideas about that. What a fankle. Mayhap one we are still paying for. Fionn forced his mind to stay in the present. No point in dragging old bones out and chewing them half to death. Rune’s large black and gray head rammed his side. The wolf bared his fangs and growled.
“I understand.” Fionn settled his blue gaze on Rune. “We have to find her. And we will.”
“Let us go over what we know.” Bran stepped closer. Blond braids were tucked into tight-fitting battle leathers. He had a dreamy look about him, but Fionn wasn’t fooled. The god of prophecy’s mind was sharp as a whip.
“Good idea,” Arawn echoed. Dark hair cascaded down his leather-clad shoulders. Looking as grim as the dead he commanded, his face etched into harsh lines. Eyes so dark iris and pupil were indistinguishable, flashed fire.
“Let us ask the goddess’ blessing,” Fionn intoned. A weight like a cold stone settled into his guts. They couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. Aislinn’s life depended on them getting this right the first time. And my life right along with it. Fionn thought about the next thousand years without the only woman he’d ever truly loved; his soul shriveled. He cursed his immortality. Life without Aislinn wouldn’t be worth very damned much.
Gwydion began a Celtic chant. The other three joined in at proscribed intervals punctuated by Bella’s shrieks and Rune’s barks, whines, and howls. Night yielded to a sickly orange sunrise as they sang.
“I believe we are ready,” Gwydion murmured.
“Aye, I feel a goddess presence.” Arawn spoke reverently. “’Twill provide a balance point against all our male energies.”
“Let us return to cataloging what we know.” Fionn gestured impatiently. Though he understood the wisdom of securing divine assistance, he wanted to get moving before something lethal happened to Aislinn. A vision of her being tortured—long limbs splayed over a rack—rose to taunt him. He muffled a cry, but his mind wouldn’t clear. Blood ran down Aislinn’s face and blended with the red of her hair. Her golden eyes were glazed with pain. He bit down hard on his lower lip, feeling powerless. Adrenaline surged; it left a sour taste in the back of his throat.
“We are, indeed, ready.” Bran nodded.
Fionn latched onto the sound of Bran’s voice and let it pull him out of the black pit his mind had become.
Bran inhaled sharply. “The Hunter, Travis, sought us out. I dinna try verra hard to test his words, but there was enough truth in his tale to satisfy me.”
“And I, as well,” Gwydion agreed. “So mayhap his small group of humans truly was set upon by Lemurians—”
Fionn snapped his fingers. “I have it. That putrid poor-excuse-for-a-human cut a deal to save himself. Mayhap part of it was designed to wrest Aislinn away from me since he was in love with her, too. She told me—” The words curdled in his throat. He couldn’t bear the thought of Aislinn fucking anyone else. She’d been with Travis once. If she was telling me the truth… Mayhap she was with him many times and softened the telling to spare me.
Arawn cocked his head to one side. “Even though ye stopped midstream, what ye did say made sense. Travis agreed to serve as bait in exchange for his life—and mayhap the life of his bond animal as well. If he had his eye on the lass afore all this, well, the pot would have been all the sweeter.”
Fionn waved him to silence. “Ye say ye felt Lemurians?” He looked at Gwydion who nodded. “Well, then, she must be in Taltos. Where else would they take her?”
Relieved to have a destination and something to do, Fionn pulled magic, intent on leaving immediately.
“Hold.” Gwydion put up a hand.
“What?” Annoyed, muscles strung tighter than a bow, Fionn locked gazes with him. Blue eyes sparred with a nearly identical set.
“Ye canna go off half-cocked. There are not enough of us.” Gwydion hesitated. “As the god of wisdom, knowledge and divination, Fionn MacCumhaill, I would think ye would know that without me having to tell you.”
Frustration fueled rage. Fionn opened his mouth to tell Gwydion what he really thought of him. “Why you sanctimonious—”
“Never mind that,” Bran spoke up. “We need a strategy.”
“And mayhap more of us,” Arawn added.
“Aye, and what about Dewi?” Ignoring Fionn’s bitten off words and the challenge beneath them, Gwydion furled his brows.
Fionn blew out an impatient breath; his anger receded. The others were right. Dewi, the blood-red Celtic dragon god, was linked to the MacLochlainn women. She’d also spent centuries in the tunnels beneath Taltos, spying on the Lemurians. Yes, they definitely needed the dragon.
“All right,” he ground out through gritted teeth. “I get it. I agree we need Dewi, and probably more of us as well.”
“We must return to Marta’s house. As soon as we can.”
The wolf’s voice startled Fionn. He turned to look at Rune. The wolf padded closer. “I have been to Taltos both ways,” the wolf reminded him, growling low. “It is much easier and more direct if we enter through the portal in Marta’s basement. That way we maintain the element of surprise. The Mount Shasta gateway is akin to going to their front door and ringing a bell.”
Fionn kicked himself. Even the wolf is thinking more clearly than I am.
Rune had been bonded to Marta and knew her secrets. She’d been onto the Lemurians, delving deep into the extent of their lies. Before they’d killed her, she’d managed to figure out that the war against the dark gods was a sham. The Lemurians were actually in league with the dark. They were the ones who’d masterminded cracking the veils between the worlds to allow the dark ones access to Earth. An ancient race, the Lemurians understood they were dying. They needed an infusion of magic so they’d cut a deal. Access to Earth in exchange for—
Fionn filled his lungs with air, blew out a breath, and did it again. He had to get hold of himself or he’d be less than useless hunting for Aislinn. That will not happen. Focus, goddamn it. Pull it together. Fionn pushed the ache in his heart aside and buried it deep. He couldn’t afford emotion. Not now. Or mental forays into Lemurian treachery. When he’d met Aislinn, she’d been a foot soldier in the Lemurian army, branded so she couldn’t use her magic against them.
Voices flowed over him. When words fell into coherent patterns again, he heard Gwydion ticking off a plan on his fingers. Apparently one the others had formed without any input from him. How dare they? Anger flared hot and bright. Fionn welcomed it like a drowning man might grab a spar. He needed the energy to find the woman he loved.
“…agreed, Bran will hunt for Dewi. Arawn will return to the Old Country to muster as many of us as he can find. Fionn and I and the bond animals will return to Marta’s house. We will sneak into the tunnel a time or two to see what we can discover, but we will not move to rescue the lass until you arrive with reinforcements.”
Gwydion nailed Fionn with his blue gaze. “Aye and ye have returned to us. Did ye hear—?”
“Aye.” Fionn cut off Gwydion’s next words. “Let’s get moving.”
The master enchanter inclined his head. “As ye will.”
Fionn looked at him and wondered if it were mere coincidence Gwydion would end up babysitting him. He decided to test those waters. “I really would be fine with just the bond animals, feel free to join either Arawn or—”
“Pah!” Gwydion interrupted. “Not on your life. I know you, Fionn MacCumhaill. If ye returned alone, ye would turn Taltos upside down to find your lady love. Then the rest of us would have two to search for.”
Arawn moved forward and laid a hand on Fionn’s arm. “Remember,” he said, “the Lemurians came from Mu. They may still have a way to retreat there. If they do so, we will not be able to follow. Or they might strike a deal with the five remaining dark gods and go to one of their worlds if they feel threatened. We can travel to the border worlds, but it isna pleasant. Nay, if they have truly taken Aislinn to Taltos—and we do not know this as a fact—it is imperative they remain there. So, doona do anything foolish.”
“I understand.” Fionn clamped his jaws shut. Thoroughly chastised, he felt like a child again. He hadn’t considered either of the alternatives Arawn had just outlined. Apparently they’d come up in the part of the conversation he’d missed while wrestling with himself.
“I know ye do.” Arawn favored him with a rare smile. “Bran and I are leaving.” The words had scarcely left his mouth when the air around both mages took on a numinous quality.
Fionn locked gazes with Gwydion. “Are ye ready?”
“I am.” Rune took up his traveling position next to Fionn’s side.
“As am I.” Bella settled on his shoulder in a flutter of wings.
Fionn stared at the bond animals. They’d returned to audible speech; that must mean they’d gotten their anger under control. If they can do it, so can I.
Gwydion nodded slowly. “I do not believe there is aught else to be done right now, so the answer to your question would be aye.”
The air thickened as Gwydion drew magic to open a portal. Blessedly numb inside, Fionn added his own to the mix, buried a hand in Rune’s neck ruff, and stepped through.
* * * *
After they returned to Marta’s house in the ruins of Ely, Nevada, Fionn spent the next hour rattling through it looking for clues that might help them. He started in the bedroom, but Aislinn’s scent, a mix of honey and musk, clung to everything and nearly undid him. When he caught himself pulling her pillow to his nose, he threw it against the wall and stormed out of the room they’d shared.
The rest of the house hadn’t yielded anything. Fionn didn’t bother going up to the attic. Marta’s parents were there, trapped in a state of suspended animation by a strong spell. Best leave them to their rest since they held the gates between the worlds open.
Because there wasn’t anything else to do, he settled at the kitchen table with a bottle of mead and nearly emptied it. The anesthetic effect he hoped for hadn’t happened, though. At least not yet.
“Would ye like to talk about it?” Gwydion’s melodic voice interrupted Fionn’s bleak thoughts. He swiveled his head to look at the mage standing in the doorway, flanked by Rune and Bella. Dirt clung to his robes; Fionn wondered where he’d been. Gwydion had told him where he was going, but Fionn hadn’t paid much attention.
Hmph. Even the animals deserted me.
I’d have deserted me, too, a different inner voice inserted dryly. The way I banged around in here wanting to kill something—anything—if only it would bring Aislinn back to me. Fionn understood at a level beyond reckoning, if he ever laid eyes on Travis again, the Hunter would be dead before he saw what hit him.
He tipped the bottle in Gwydion’s direction. “Not sure what there is to say,” Fionn mumbled.
“Och and there is much to be said between us.” Gwydion clomped to the table, hooked a chair out with one of his perpetually bare feet, and sat heavily. “For example, we havena ever truly talked about Tara—”
“With good reason,” Fionn snapped.
Gwydion shook his head. “Ye doona trust me. I sense your hesitation. We must clear the air.”
Fionn opened his mouth, but Gwydion shook his head. “Hear me out. That empty place inside you? The one ye’re trying your damnedest to ignore—or drown with spirits? ’Tis akin to how I felt when Tara fled Ireland to escape having to choose you or me. She wanted me, but the ancient bond demanded she wed you.”
“I know all that. I still doona see—”
“For the love of the goddess, would ye stop interrupting?” Gwydion’s blue eyes flashed dangerously. Fionn subsided against the back of his seat. “’Twas no skin off your ass when the lass left Ireland, yet I mourned her loss every day. It’s been years, but I miss her still. ’Twas a gift to see her once again in the tunnels under Slototh’s lair—even if she was already dead.”
Something in Gwydion’s words penetrated the desolation surrounding Fionn. He’d known Gwydion cared for Tara, but he’d never appreciated the extent of his loss. Truth hit home and shame washed over him. When Gwydion waved it in front of his nose—no, make that shoved his nose right in it—Fionn recognized kindred pain. He drew his brows together. “Why were ye not angrier at me? We had words, but it seemed we made things up soon enough.”
“Nay, I simply buried my resentment. What would have been the point in holding a grudge? I tracked Tara to America. By then she’d wed another and made it painfully clear she wanted nothing to do with you or me—or the dragon—ever again.”
“At least part of that was my fault. I could have—”
A bitter laugh bubbled past the close-cropped red-blond beard on Gwydion’s face. “Aye, ye see it now. Ye dinna see it then. All ye could see then was that she was the MacLochlainn. Your MacLochlainn.”
Fionn looked at his hands. What Gwydion said was true. He hadn’t loved Tara and he’d known she didn’t even like him, yet he’d insisted on pressing forward with marriage. Of course, there was the niggling problem he already had a wife, so he’d been finagling a divorce. That had been when Tara, finally eighteen, took matters into her own hands and left Ireland.
“I really am sorry. I should have been more considerate—of both of you.”
“Och, aye.” A thread of magic forced his gaze to meet the master enchanter’s. “I forgive you.”
A corner of Fionn’s mouth turned downward. “The question is whether I can forgive myself.”
Gwydion held out a hand for the mead. Fionn passed it to him. Eyeing what was left of the bottle’s contents, Gwydion said, “There never was a drink that offered enough oblivion to purge Tara from my thoughts.”
“Wasna working for me, either.” Fionn snorted. “I should know this. Ye told me, but I wasna paying attention. Where did you and the animals go?”
“We did the same outside as ye were supposed to be doing within. That would be hunting for clues Travis may have dropped while he was here.”
Fionn waited. Instead of talking, Gwydion tipped the bottle and drank until it was empty. “Did ye find aught?” he asked after it appeared the other mage wasn’t going to say anything else.
Gwydion’s forehead creased. He shoved blond hair over his shoulders, pulled a leather thong out of his robes, and bound it out of the way. “It was odd,” he murmured. “At first we all,” he gestured toward Rune and Bella, “thought we sensed Old Ones—ah, I meant to say Lemurians. When I looked more closely, though, whatever had been there was gone.” He shrugged.
Something tugged at Fionn’s internal alarm system. Attuned to danger, it rarely failed him. “Do ye suppose they were after Marta’s parents?”
For a moment Gwydion looked confused. His features smoothed. “Och, ye mean the Lemurian-human hybrids ensorcelled in yon chamber.” He waved a hand over one shoulder. “Mayhap. There is little else here to draw the Old Ones.”
Fionn thought about the genetic manipulation that must have gone into hybridizing the couple in the attic and shuddered. Did the Old Ones want Marta’s parents’ blood so they could do the same thing to Aislinn?
“At least Aislinn is likely still on this side of the veil,” Gwydion muttered.
Fionn looked sharply at Gwydion, realizing the other mage must have read his thoughts. He dragged a hand down his face. “Aye, we all hope that.”
Something sharp closed over his calf. Rune had bitten him. “It is time. We should go into Taltos. I must see for myself whether my bond mate still lives.”
“Can ye feel her?” Fionn asked.
The wolf’s amber eyes gleamed in the dim kitchen. “No, but if she is in Taltos, I will know it once we open the gateway and I cross over.”
“They might have her shielded in some way—” Fionn cautioned.
“Enough words.” Rune nipped Fionn again. As if to support her fellow bond animal, Bella landed on Fionn’s shoulder and dug her talons deep.
A wry smile split Gwydion’s face. “It would appear the animals have spoken.”
“We did tell the others we’d do a reconnaissance.” Fionn stood.
Gwydion followed suit. Both men went to the corner of the kitchen with the hidden trap door. Fionn kicked the rug aside and tugged the door upward. When he looked back he saw Gwydion’s staff glowing with a blue-white light.
Fionn worked his way down the ladder, helping the wolf. It was awkward. When Aislinn had gone into Taltos without him, she’d used magic to transport the wolf to the gateway. The thought of her seared his soul. His throat felt thick. A pulse pounded behind one eye, promising a mother of a headache if he didn’t focus magic to soothe the inflamed blood vessels.
At the bottom of the ladder, he strode to the section of wall holding the gateway and began the incantation from Marta’s journals. Gwydion’s energy vibrated next to him. Stones scraped against one another as the gateway swung open. Fionn bent to give Rune instructions, but the wolf bounded through the opening and disappeared into the dark.
“Damn it.” Fionn swore softly. “Ye stay with me,” he said to Bella.
“I am not going past this doorway,” the bird informed him. She fluttered from his shoulder to a chair and perched on it. “Fewer of us, less chance of discovery. Safer for Aislinn.”
Fionn couldn’t help but agree with her. His bird had warmed to Aislinn much to his relief, since she’d taken a perverse delight in making all the other women in his life—including Tara—miserable.
“Mind speech,” Gwydion said sharply. “And precious little of that.”
“I suppose we follow the wolf. He gave us little choice.”
Fionn stepped through into a dark tunnel. Careful to mute his magic in case the Lemurians had posted guards nearby, he turned left and trailed after Rune. Guts tight, barely breathing, he moved beneath Taltos, the city built by Lemurians deep inside Mount Shasta. Desperation thrummed through him.
I have to find her. Failure is not an option.
About the Author
Ann Gimpel is a clinical psychologist, with a Jungian bent. Avocations include mountaineering, skiing, wilderness photography and, of course, writing. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in a number of webzines and anthologies. Her longer books run the gamut from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. She’s published 19 books to date, with several more contracted for 2014.
A husband, grown children, grandchildren and three wolf hybrids round out her family.
@AnnGimpel (for Twitter)