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The bar was full tonight, the air thick with smokenot unusual for a Friday night at the Guardian's Keep. Also not unusual, at least lately, the place was laden with tension, every customer coiled and ready for the hell that was about to break loose.
Every customer but one, that was.
Kol Hildr dropped the damp cloth he'd been using to rub down the top of the bar and stared at the tiny figure slipping through the crowd in a direct path to the back of the room, to a booth right next to the four male challengers he was going to have to battle at any second.
Did the woman actually look for danger? Or did she just have a rare talent for stumbling across it? Mumbling a low curse, he flipped the hinged portion of counter out of his way and stalked after her.
"What are you doing here?" Kol stared down at the female now shoved into the corner booth. Two huge blue eyes snapping with annoyance stared back at him.
"You turning down customers?" Kelly Shane, a witch who had already managed once before to get herself kidnapped and traded for passage through the portal housed in his bar, pulled the ridiculous hat she wore off her head, plopped it down on the table in front of her, then smiled up at him.
"Go home." He slid his gaze to the table full of garm, wolf shape-shifters like himself, only one space over.
"I'll take a beer. Thanks for asking." Kelly pushed her hand into the pocket of her coat and pulled out a wad of bills.
Annoyance prickling the back of his neck, he leaned over, placed his hand on top of the money and shoved it back toward her. "Don't you learn?" he asked.
"Learn what?" she replied, her face full of faux innocence.
Something tightened deep insideKoljust like it always did when Kelly was around. He tried to convince himself it was irritation at her steadfast refusal to let go of what she saw as a wrong done to her. A few months earlier he had allowed the natural order of the portal to rule; he had done his duty as the portal guardian. Portal guardians maintained balance. That was all. They did not interfere with trade or transportas long as fees and tolls were paid. He'd tried to talk the obstinate witch out of offering herself as a toll, but she was determined to follow her friend who had been captured earlier. Thanks to her twin sister, also a witch, and a hellhound, Kelly had come out of the ordeal relatively unscathed.
Her friend hadn't been so lucky.
Kelly's hand jerked under his. His gaze shifted to her face. She frowned and tried to free her hand again.
She was an irritating bundle of prickles, but something about her brought out every protective urge Kol possessed.
Low rumbles sounded from the booth next to them. Kol muttered a curse. The natives, or in this case invaders, were getting restless. Time was running short.
Without pausing to analyze why he cared about her safety, or giving her time to argue, he scooped the little witch and her hat into his arms and strode to the door. She weighed little more than a breeze.
But her recoil was wicked.
Her thumbs pressed instantly into his trachea, a move that would have cut off the air supply of an ordinary man. Kol just blinked down at her. "You're leaving."
She blinked back, frustration warring with uncertainty in her eyes. She pulled her lip between even teeth. "I'm not."
In other circumstances, if he hadn't been in such a hurry to get her out of danger, Kol would have laughed at the statement. She hung dangling five feet off the ground cradled in his arms. She wasn't in much of a position to argue.
Then he saw it; her hand moved to her pocket. Growling deep in his throat, he shimmered, rematerializing outside the bar with Kelly still nestled against his chest.
Barely giving her time to emit a squeak of surprise, he dumped her onto the wet pavement. "Don't try your magic on me, witch," he warned her, then with a grin at her irritated harrumph, strode back into the bar.
He waited, his back to the door, his gaze flowing over the bar patrons, watching for a sign of the attack that he knew was imminent. Since the hellhound and Kelly's sister rescued Kelly, there had been one challenge after another. Coincidence, or somehow related to those past events, Kol didn't know, and at this moment didn't care.
His back pressed against the door, he closed his eyes for a brief second. She was still out there. Disconcerting though it was, he could feel her. Up close, her heartbeat and breath had tangled with his own. But even with her on the other side of the door there was an awareness, something he had never experienced with any other being, and didn't want to experience now. He let out a loud breath. He didn't need this. A muscle ticked in the side of his face. He waited a few more seconds, until the awareness lessened.
She had moved farther away. Probably thought she was hidden.
Hidden enough so the garm he was about to confront wouldn't spot her when Kol tossed them out on their asses?
He pulled open the door a few inches, letting cool, damp air spill into the smoky space and stared out into the darkness.
He couldn't see her, but even without his senses telling him she was still lurking somewhere nearby, he'd have known she was waiting. Kelly Shane wouldn't leave so quickly, wouldn't give up that easily. He might be able to run her off, but he couldn't leave the bar unguardednot right now. His fingers tightened around the worn wood of the door and his gaze probed the darkness one last time.
Tensing his jaw, he turned back to the bar. The door slipped closed behind him with a whisper. His irritation with the bewitching shadow who skulked out in the gloomy night still gnawed at him, but he ignored the feeling and let his dark gaze drift toward the four men seated in the back. They'd arrived not long before Kelly, reeking of arrogance and garmwolvesbut without a portal or world of their own to guard.
Challengers. They didn't even bother to hide it.
Kol sighed. This was getting monotonous.
Deciding he didn't have the patience or time to wait for their attack, he huffed out a breath, grabbed the baseball-bat-size piece of silver-coated iron he kept stashed behind the bar and strode to the back of the room, his heels making a sharp rapping noise against the wood floor.
He wasn't interested in stealth. Let them know he was coming, and he was pissed.
The biggest one, a blond giant dressed in a polo shirt and creased slacks, stood first. "You need something, bartender?" His tone was casual, but his posture was coiled and ready for attack.
The length of silver pressing against his leg, Kol didn't give the garm a chance to move on the promise. He balled his fist into the other man's shirt and jerked him close. "Question iswhat do you need?"
The blond grinnedstill arrogant. "Don't worry. I'll get what I need." He made a short motion to his companions.
Before the garm could act, Kol pulled the blond closer then quickly snapped the man's head back against the column that separated the booths. The crunch of bone hitting the iron trim of the column stopped the others just long enough for Kol to step to the side and swing the silver bar in an arc toward them. It caught the first squarely in the side of the head. He crumpled to his knees, his chin, then face, landing on the tabletop with a dull thud. His eyes still open, he stared blankly into the room.
The two remaining looked from their fallen companions to Kol, their eyes darting from his dark face to the gleaming silver bar still gripped in his hand.
"Who sent you?" Kol asked. Lately, he'd noticed a change in the challenges. They seemed more organized, orchestrated. He now suspected what started as attacks by random opportunists had changed to something much more targeted. Something directed by one individual with a goal.
He wanted that person or being's name. If he could get it, great. It would simplify his problems, but if he instead had to beat each and every challenger until there was no doubt of his dominancehe could do that, too.
He raised the bar again, letting the dim light dance down its length.
The garm still upright blinked, their eyes darting to each other, then the door.
Kol loosened his grip on the blond giant and let him slide under the table onto the sticky floor. Smacking the silver bar against his palm, Kol repeated his question.
"Who sent you?"
The two shared another glance then began to shimmer. Shaking his head at their cowardice, Kol swung the bar with both hands, hitting them both in the gut. The silver lit to bright blue, then deflected their magic, not totally, but enough that their attempt to escape ended as quickly as it beganand with both of them still stuck in the bar with Kol.
He arched one brow. Let the fun begin.
Kelly pulled the brim of her black rain hat lower on her face; rain streamed from the wide strip of material blinding her for a moment. She shook her head, cursing her idiocy at letting Kol recognize her.
She'd been staking out the bar for weeks, ever since taking on her latest case, but tonight was the first time she'd ventured inside, stupidly believing she'd go unnoticed in the crowd. But even huddled into a corner, quietly listening to the conversations going on around her, Kol had noticed her, called off the waitress and approached her himself. And damn, if a part of her wasn't excited to see him standing there, leaning over hertall, lean and dangerous.
Memories flashed through her mindhis blue eyes blazing as he scooped her up, his grin as he deposited her on her behind in the rain. Her eyes narrowed, but something deep inside her flickered, too. Kol, just like Kelly, didn't back down from a challengeshe couldn't help but respect that.
Unhappy with the direction her thoughts had taken, she flipped up the collar of her coat against the rain and concentrated on what brought her herewhat she knew about Kol.
Although her daily surveillance started with her new case, she'd been watching the place off and on since she escaped from the underwater world of Jormun, a snake shape-shifter intent on playing god. She'd escaped, but others hadn't.
Her friend Linda. Kelly squared her jaw, wrapped her arms around her middle and tried to block out the pain. Linda who trusted her, let Kelly talk her into coming hereto this barwhere she was captured and dragged through a portal, never to leave. At least not alive. And, according to Kelly's twin sister, Kara, who had seen Linda afterwards, seen her body, Linda's death hadn't been pleasantnothing left of her but a charred, blackened corpse.
All because of Kelly and the portal and the man who kept it running, Kol Hildr.
Kelly stared blindly out into the night, angry tears hot against her cold cheeks.
Refocusing her gaze on the bar door, she settled in to wait and watch.
Cold crawled up her legs, her feet damp even in her supposedly waterproof hikers. She curled her toes inside her boots trying to stop the numbness, and gained a tiny bit of comfort. But almost immediately, the wind shifted, bringing with it a sheet of water that pounded against her, shoving her to the side, next to a Dumpster. Water dripped from her hat down the back of her neck like an icy finger trailing down her spine.
She adjusted her coat, halting the water's downward trek.
A miserable job on a miserable night. Hunching her shoulders, she blocked yet another wave of rain, but didn't even consider giving up her hunt.
The door to the bar edged open and Kelly stepped farther into the gloom, her body pressed against the trash Dumpster, the smell of wet wool and rotting fruit causing her to press her gloved hand against her mouth. This time instead of Kol's profile, which she'd seen earlier, right after he tossed her into the rain, a woman squeezed through the space. After glancing around the parking lot, she popped open an umbrella and scurried across the street straight toward the Dumpster and Kelly's hiding place.
Before Kelly could move to more thoroughly disguise her presence, the door to the bar opened again, this time with a loud bang, and four men tumbled out, down the steps and onto the wet pavement.
Kelly caught a quick glance of Kol's impossibly blue eyes peering into the night before the door slammed shut. He must be on a rampage tonight.
A muffled curse sounded from a few feet away.
The woman stood shaking, her face turned toward the immobile men scattered across the concrete.
Kelly took a step backward, planning to leave before the woman spotted her, but at her movement the woman turned, her eyes seeming to pierce the gloom.
"Is someone there?" she asked, her body rigid.
Damn. Kelly muttered a stronger curse under her breath. She'd never had such poor luck with surveillance before.
"I know you." The woman stepped forward, a frown on her face.
Kelly stepped away from the Dumpster, her arms hanging loosely at her sides, widening her stance, ready to defend herself if she had to.
"You're one of the witches " A thought skittered behind the woman's eyes, then her frown softened.
Kelly maintained her pose, her weight balanced on the balls of her feet. She wasn't totally surprised the woman recognized her. Kelly and her sister had gained a bit of celebrity with the trip to Jormun's and back, but only in certain circlesmagical ones. And the woman had come from the Guardian's Keep. Not a place normal humans hung out or even knew existedat least not innocent ones.
"Can you help me?" The woman held out one hand, her pale skin reflecting the smattering of light from the street-lamps making its way through the rain.
Kelly made no move to take it.
The rain pattered between them, lengthening the silence.
The woman glanced to the side, then took another, bolder step forward. "I'm sorry. You don't know me, but I've been through so much. Almost given up hope." She pressed the hand she'd held out seconds earlier against her mouth, her eyes wide above it. "I heard about you. How you escaped, and hoped the garm had softened, that he'd listen to reason. My son he's only eight." Her gaze dropped to the puddle she'd stepped in while talking. She stood there staring at it, as if she couldn't feel the cold water lapping against the thin leather of her shoes.
Kelly's eyes narrowed. She hadn't noticed the woman inside, but that didn't mean she hadn't approached Kol after Kelly left. An innocent human after all? She studied the woman some more, waiting for her to continue, but the woman just turned with a soft sob and hid her face with the upturned collar of her coat.
Kelly's lips formed a thin line. An eight-year-old child surely, even Kol couldn't justify the story forming in Kelly's mind. Or could he?
"What happened to him your son?" Kelly asked, her voice firm but her fingers curling into her palms.
The woman's eyes darted again, back to the bara slight movement, but telling. Another darker thought occurred to Kelly. The woman could be working for Kol. Part of a trap. Perhaps he'd sent the woman out here to ensnare Kelly somehow, to learn what she knew No, Kelly didn't believe Kol would do that. Subterfuge wasn't his style.
The woman ran a hand under her eyes and then lifted her chin. "I don't know, but I heard he was brought here. Bartered or something. He's special. Has powers. I'd been warned before that beings in other worlds would want him, but never dreamedHe's just a child." As the last escaped her lips in a shocked whisper she looked squarely at the bar, torment pulling at her features.
Something in Kelly clenched. A child.
Anger overpowered her earlier thoughts of caution. The Guardian's Keep was the traffic route for the sale and trade of all things magical.