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Anger and anticipation warred inside Raf Dolg as his gaze clocked each movement the lithe elfin princess made. Even dressed in dirty dungarees and a stained over-sized shirt advertising some human sports team, Marina Adal was as alluring as ever. He gripped the tree in front of him, his fingers digging into the bark as he spied on her.
Her scent was different than he remembered it, but then her emotions were different, too. The sharp tang of confidence that had emanated from her was gone.
Good. She shouldn't be confident, and she had no reason to be. Marina Adal, elfin princess, had a lesson to learn, and he was here to teach it to her.
She had taken his freedom from him; now he would return the favor.
Marina Adal jerked the heavy bucket up from the sidewalk.
"Why won't you help me?" she murmured to the witch inside her. "Do you like existing like this? Hiding?"
The witch whose spirit Marina had taken inside her own body refused to speak. Marina would have almost believed the witch, Amma, hadn't really made the transfer, was still locked in that needle back in Gunngar, but every so often, she'd feel her. A tickle. A frown. Always some ugly emotion.
Amma hated Marina. Because of the act she had played in Gunngar, everyone hated Marina now.
Marina had accepted that, made the best of it by striking before being struck. But even that hadn't worked.
Her body was host to one of the most powerful witches in the nine worlds, but she was cleaning toilets at a dive motel in the human world. Stuck here until Amma decided to show herself and release her powers.
Dirty water sloshing out of the bucket onto her leg, she teetered toward a small grassy area next to the office. As she turned the corner of the building, she caught sight of movement behind her. She turned, the knife she kept hidden under her sleeve instantly moving to her hand.
A cat jumped from a tree on the other side of the parking lot. The animal landed with elflike grace on the hood of a car.
Marina bit the inside of her cheek. She was jumpy, had been since she had escaped Gunngar.
Her uncle would surely have heard of her disappearance by now, the elf lords, too. All would be looking for her—and she most definitely didn't want to be found. Not yet. Not weak.
Raf watched Marina slosh the bucket over onto its side. As dingy water swirled onto the grass, she played with the blade that had appeared almost magically from her sleeve. Perhaps it had. Perhaps the witch Amma was working with her.
His body stilled; his mind whirled.
If Marina had Amma's powers in addition to her own elfin talents, she would be near unstoppable. But if that were true, why would Marina be here, waiting on humans?
Content she couldn't have Amma's powers, he went back to watching her, to enjoying this part of his hunt… anticipating what was to come.
The bucket empty, Marina placed her foot on its bottom edge and flipped it with her toe into an upright position. A lock of her platinum hair slipped from under the scarf she had tied around her head. In that second, Raf saw the elf princess that he'd known in Gunngar—the confident beauty who had treated him as an equal, inspired his trust. A band tightened around his chest. He gripped the bark in his hand and squeezed. Lies.
The bark nothing but dust in his hands, he let the bits fall to the ground and ran his palms over his twill pants. He took a step forward; he'd stayed hidden long enough, used the hellhound talent for blending long enough. Time to face Marina—or more accurately, force her to face him.
As his heel hit the cement sidewalk in front of him, two dark forms dropped from the motel's low roof. Stretched between their hands was a shimmering net.
A snarl lifted Raf's lip.
Someone was trying to steal his prey.
A whoosh sounded behind Marina. She spun on the ball of her foot, the knife slipping into one hand while the other reached up to ward off any approaching blow.
Two dark-skinned males, svelte by human standards, stocky by elf, stood in front of her. Svartalfars, dark elves, mercenaries. One motioned to the other.
Her heart fluttered. They'd found her.
A sheet of shimmering material…a net…appeared between the two.
Marina took a step back, her knife ready. She recognized the tool, had used it herself. Laced with elfin magic, the net would douse any powers that lay beneath it, render a shape-shifter unable to shimmer, and a witch unable to cast a spell.
It would make her helpless…
She gripped the knife, kept it secure but not tight— ready to throw or slash, whichever would serve her best.
Then she waited, but not for long.
The Svartalfars moved closer, sideways. One reached into his pocket, pulled out a blade of his own. The weapon snapped and popped with electricity.
They meant to stun her, wrap her helpless into the net, then what? Marina blinked away the thoughts, concentrated instead on what she could do to avoid capture.
Her gaze darted behind the pair to the tree the cat had leapt from. It was far, but not too far, not for an elf. She tucked the blade back up her sleeve, bent her legs and forced every bit of energy she had into an upward motion. Her hands held forward, she focused on the lowest branch. As the rough bark bit into her palms, she saw light shimmer below her.
She swung up and onto the tree limb, crouched there, like a bird. From her perch, she twisted and looked down. The Svartalfars had dropped the net. One lay unconscious on the ground. The other still stood, but an arm, solid as the branch she stood on, was pinched around his neck.
Her breath caught. For a second, she could only stare. She knew the male holding her attacker—Raf Dolg, the hellhound who'd wandered into Gunngar. Who she'd let closer than she'd ever let anyone. Who had lied to her and spied on her until she found him out and ordered him locked up.
The hellhound stared at her, too. His dark gaze was hard, unforgiving.
Her hands balled into fists. Unfair, since he'd betrayed her first. But he didn't know she'd discovered his lies. She hadn't explained. Why would she?
As the thoughts spun through her head, Raf twisted the dark elf's neck, let him fall lifeless to the ground. And all the time his gaze held hers, angry and intense, just like the hellhound himself.
When he bent to retrieve the net, she blew a breath out of her mouth and forced her legs to move. Run. She had to run. Her savior, Raf, was far more dangerous than the males he'd just protected her from.
Raf dropped the dark elf to the ground. He'd killed neither of the males…a kindness he was sure they wouldn't repay given a chance. It was the least he could do, though, having stolen their tool from them—and soon their bounty.
He looked up. Marina had already skittered out of view, over the motel's roof, moving with the speed and sure-footedness of one of the multitude of squirrels that seemed to populate the human world.
He took his time rolling the net into a small bundle, so small it tucked neatly into the back pocket of his pants. Elves might not be the friendliest of beings in the nine worlds, but they did make intriguing toys.
And… he glanced up… Marina's scent was even now beginning to wane… equally intriguing females.
Marina's feet made little sound as she raced over the flat roof of the motel. When she hit the drainpipe-lined edge, she spared only a second to glance back over her shoulder. No sign of Raf or the dark elves. If she was lucky the hellhound had somehow became entangled in the net, lost his powers to shimmer at least for a while.
Even as the thought whirled into her brain, she tossed it aside as ludicrous. Not Raf. No, he would be after her, on her and soon.
She squatted and prepared to jump onto the asphalt below. Then she paused. What would Raf expect of her? To run, of course. Only an idiot wouldn't when pur sued by a hellhound.
She stood, glanced around again. Cars crept down the street beside her. People moved in and out of the café across the road. Everything appeared normal. No one seemed aware of what was happening only a few yards from where they went about their mundane human lives.
Oblivious beings, humans. Easy to catch, she guessed. But she wasn't human. She was an elf. Time to think like one.
She pivoted slowly, quietly, and started creeping back to the area from where she'd come. Raf thought he knew what she would do, but he didn't. Didn't know her, not really.
Back atop the office, she gazed down. The dark elves were there, faces flat on the concrete, but Raf and the net were both missing. She leaned forward, checking to make sure the hellhound wasn't hiding under the overhang, then swung herself down to the ground and let out a relieved breath.
She would gather her things and leave. She would find another part of the human world to hide in. Cars came and went along the freeway only a few yards away day and night. It wouldn't be hard to convince a driver to transport her wherever he or she was going.
But first… she took a step toward the downed Svar-talfar…she wanted to know who had sent them, who was this close on her trail.
The dark elf wore close-fitting pants, a shirt and a padded vest. All obviously of Svartalfar design. But the net, it had been pure Alfheim.
She ran her fingers over the first mercenary's pockets, pulled two blades and a demi ball free before finding a sealed pouch with papers inside. She slid her thumb under the magnetic clasp, popped it open. Two cards fell out. The first was a digital imager. Six pictures, all of Marina, flashed over it. Four were actual pictures she remembered posing for; the other two were doctored to show how she might look if disguised. She pursed her lips and moved her attention to the second card, an advertisement, the kind usually found posted near portals and nine world bars. Another picture of Marina, but this one with words, too… words that promised a bounty equivalent to three years' earnings for an average mercenary. To earn it, all they had to do was return Marina to Alfheim, to her uncle.
Marina held the last card between two fingers. Her uncle then, that was good. Hopefully, the elf lords knew nothing of what she had done and didn't care about where she had gone.
She was still studying the card when a net dropped onto her head.
From the limb of the tree, Raf smiled down at the now completely encased Marina. She'd come back.
Of course, he'd known she was coming back as soon as her body twisted his direction.
The elf princess had underestimated him…. He dropped onto the ground next to her. Her lips opened to release a curse. He smiled.
"Miss me, Princess?" He reached one finger through the weave of the net, stroked it down the back of her hand. "I'm sorry I had to go away so unexpectedly. Oh, wait." He pulled his finger back, curled both hands into fists. "You sent me to that boxed hell, didn't you?" She hadn't just had him imprisoned, she'd had him locked in a box, hung from the ceiling of a dungeon… for years.
She kicked out with both feet, managed to knock the heel of her boot into his shin. He barely felt the pain. It was nothing but a whisper against the roar of success.
He'd caught her. Now the fun would begin.
Marina used her heels to inch her body backward, until she could lean against the wall.
Raf had shimmered them both to some dark pit of a room. The walls were bare and water-stained, the floors concrete. He'd told her he meant to take what she valued most—or what he thought she valued most—Amma. Then he'd fallen silent, hadn't said a word for twenty minutes. He just sat in the lone piece of identifiable furniture the room offered, a battered folding chair, and stared at her. He'd glanced occasionally at the only other object in the room, something big and rectangular covered with a tarp, but he'd said nothing about it and said nothing to her.
Her back pressed against the wall, she turned her head to face him. The net pressed down on her, suffocating her even, though the weave was open and the material appeared light. It was the magic in it, pressing against her, sucking up any power she had, making it hard to breathe, and even harder not to scream out in frustration.
But she ignored both sensations, smiled, pretended she didn't feel a thing.
"What now?" she asked.
He folded his arms over his chest.
"What exactly was the purpose of this?" She lifted her hand, tried to motion with it. Her fingers caught in the net. She jerked them free.
A hint of a smile curved Raf's lips, then was gone.
She leaned her head against the wall and stared up at the stained ceiling. She was tired. Tired of pretending all the time, worrying about keeping up whatever facade people expected.
A female voice whispered in her head, a taunt. "Poor elf princess, forced to live a life of privilege. Were you forced to hunt those witches? To kill them?"
It was Amma, stirring in her brain. She'd begged the witch to show herself, and now when Marina was at her lowest, she did. But not in the way Marina needed.
"I have reasons for what I did," she said to Raf, but to Amma, too. "And regrets."
Nothing about Raf changed. His stare stayed steady, his body stiff. Marina couldn't even say if he was breathing. He was like a statue, a cold judging statue.
"My biggest—" she dropped her gaze, stared at her hands—pale and sleek, elf hands, a killer's hands, or so people thought "—is the witch-burning." Her voice shook as she said it.