OATH OF SERVICE
The bald leather-clad man hauled the plump, pretty blonde across his lap and flipped up her short PVC skirt to reveal lacy stockings, a garter belt, and no panties at all. Growling, he gave her a dozen ruthless swats that made her yelp and buck. When he finished, the blonde collapsed over his thighs with a moaning sigh that sounded far more like pleasure than pain.
A flare of longing flashed through Morgana le Fay, and she looked hastily away from the sated sub. It was far too easy to imagine herself draped across a man’s lap. Not the bald dominant’s, but his.
Keep your mind on the job, witch, she told herself firmly, forcing her thoughts away from the knight who’d been an obsession for too long. Somebody’s murdering these people, and using magic to do it. You don’t have time for kinky fantasies if you want to stop the killer.
And it would be far too easy to get distracted in a place like Club Penitent, which seemed designed to rouse the forbidden needs she fought so desperately to ignore.
Especially tonight, on a day her ghosts paced and moaned, tormenting her until she had no business going out on any mission at all.
The only thing more unacceptable was to allow her team to go into battle without her. No other witch could protect them as well as she could, because no other witch had her raw power.
Just keep your mind on the job, Morgana. Stop the bastard. Concentrate on that. Forget everything else. Ignore everything else. All the ghosts. All the need. None of it matters but the team and the killer’s victims.
She swept another glance over her surroundings. Club Penitent was one of New York’s most exclusive nightclubs, whether devoted to Bondage, Domination and Sadomasochism—the erotic lifestyle called BDSM—or to more vanilla activities. The membership leaned toward upwardly mobile, if kinky, professionals: doctors, lawyers, bankers, stockbrokers, even a celebrity or two.
The place accordingly had an air of expensive seduction, between the long, massive bar and the surrounding tables and chairs, all of them dark walnut carved with gothic crosses to go with the club’s Spanish Inquisition theme. The bar area was surrounded by a ring of smaller “dungeon” rooms equipped with St. Andrew’s Crosses, spanking benches, and other assorted gear designed for tying people up and doing painfully erotic things to them. The overall result was an air of sensual menace, rather as if the fifteenth-century Grand Inquisitor Torquemada had decided to run a bordello between torturing alleged witches.
Gregorian chants filled the air with deep masculine voices instead of the usual deafening rock du jour of other clubs. Given Morgana’s sensitive Maja ears, she approved, though the reminder of the Church’s witch-torturing history made her twitch.
She’d come entirely too close to getting hanged by a fanatical priest once. It hadn’t been erotic at all.
Though if Percival was doing the torturing . . . Stop that.
Involuntarily, her gaze flashed across the bar to the rear booth where her team sat. The three men looked ready for battle at a moment’s notice, between their holstered 9mm SIGs and the long swords they wore diagonally across their backs. Illegal weapons, of course, but also invisible to mortal eyes, thanks to the spells Morgana had cast.
While the club’s Masters wore everything from monk’s robes to biker leathers, her teammates needed no special regalia to look like dominants. Instead they’d chosen clothing that would allow them to blend without hampering their ability to fight: leather vests over bare chests, faded jeans and tooled leather boots, perfectly broken in.
Looking at them lounging in their booth like a trio of lions on the veldt, Morgana couldn’t deny their effect on her. But then, if a woman didn’t feel a tingle at the sight of Percival, Cador, and Marrok looking ready to break all Ten Commandments, she needed to check her pulse.
Someone who didn’t know them would probably register Marrok first. He appeared the most menacing of the three, being six-five and brawny as a bull, with a lantern jaw, deep-set brown eyes, and a lazily sensual mouth. His crooked nose had been repeatedly broken during childhood by his abusive prick of a father. Despite the air of brutishness, he was a laughing, genial soul who often played peacemaker between his hot-tempered teammates.
Which made what happened if you managed to truly anger him all the more shocking. His berserker rages could make even King Arthur Pendragon step softly. He’d been known to cut through enemy forces like a plow through a wheat field, leaving broken bodies and barren earth in his wake.
Then there was Cador. At six feet, he was shorter than the others, but that only made him look more like a muscular male wall. Which was something of a natural result given that all three spent hours a day swinging battle-axes and broadswords.
In contrast to Marrok’s short dark hair, Cador wore his long, braided tightly for combat. At the moment, though, it tumbled past his shoulders in a curling mane. The eye-catching effect was intensified by its color, a rich, dark auburn, glossy as a fox’s pelt.
His features looked as if God had calculated every angle for maximum impact on anyone with estrogen in her veins. Thick auburn brows dipped over laughing eyes the striking turquoise blue of the Caribbean. His nose was straight and knife-blade narrow, while his wide, mobile mouth was prone toward deceptively charming smiles.
Deceptive, because Cador had a sadistic streak as broad as the Thames. He was not the kind of man you wanted to meet in combat, particularly if you’d done something to piss him off. He and Morgana often locked horns; he had a cutting, cynical sense of humor she found irritating. For his part, he called Morgana arrogant, though she preferred to think of it as natural self-confidence.
All right, she supposed she was a little arrogant.
Last—but hardly least, since he was the trio’s leader—there was Percival. At six-three, he was a bit leaner than the others, with all the muscular power, explosive speed, and hypnotic grace of a puma. His broad-shouldered, elegant body was marked here and there by scars from spears, arrows, and swords—reminders of his mortal life fighting King Arthur’s wars.
As if to emphasize all that stark masculinity, Percival had the kind of face that called ancient gladiators to mind: angular, square-jawed, with a flaring swoop of a nose that just missed being too long, and a pugnacious cleft chin. The overall effect was softened by a wide, lush mouth that Morgana had hungered to kiss for a very long time. His deep-set gray eyes were cool and watchful, heated by flashes of erotic cruelty she wished she didn’t find so intriguing. One of his blond brows was bisected by a thin scar, a reminder of a wound that had almost cost him his right eye. He wore his thick, honey-gold hair just barely long enough to curl. Morgana longed to run her fingers through it, but it wasn’t a good idea to give into temptation where Percival was concerned. He’d take ruthless advantage of any weakness she handed him.
Percival wanted her. Had wanted her for years—centuries—though she doubted the desire he felt was anything more than physical. If she wasn’t damned careful, Morgana knew she’d end up the latest in his parade of hapless submissives. The really galling thing was that she’d probably love every minute of her subjugation—until he moved on to the next sub, leaving her heart in ruins. Dangerous ruins.
The kind with nuclear land mines.
Yet sometimes when she gazed into those demanding gray eyes, Morgana wanted to confess all the secrets she’d kept so long. She knew better, though. She didn’t dare let Percival discover that she teetered on the edge—or how far she had to fall.
She’d been skating along that precipice for fifteen hundred years, since becoming one of the immortals tasked with protecting mankind. That was when the wizard Merlin and his enchantress lover Nimue had appeared at King Arthur’s Camelot court, where Morgana had been a Druid healer.
Merlin had told the king those who drank from his enchanted Grail would gain immortality and vast power—if they could pass the couple’s tests. For the knights, that meant duels to prove their strength and courage.
For Camelot’s ladies, the challenge was mental rather than physical. Nimue’s psychic spells forced each woman to confront her worst fears, while giving her the illusion of vast magical powers. The enchantress then evaluated her response to determine whether she could be trusted with real magic.
But when it was Morgana’s turn, even Nimue was astonished at the results . . .
Morgana balanced on a stool on the tips of her toes, her rope-burned, bloodless wrists bound in front of her, dark spots dancing before her eyes. She couldn’t draw breath for the pressure of the noose around her neck, its taut rope looped over the hook in the cottage’s ceiling.
A little boy screamed, his voice ringing high with terror. Morgana’s blood chilled as a man in a priest’s robes dragged the struggling dark-haired child into the room. “Mamma!” the boy shrieked. “Mamma, help me!”
“I can give you the power to save your son—and yourself,” a bodiless voice whispered in her mind. “Will you accept?”
Desperately fighting to suck in a breath past the strangling noose, Morgana wheezed, “Yes. Horned God, yes!”
Energy poured into her, a flaming wave of it that seared its way up her spine. Magic such as she’d never known, effortless and blazing. It made the power she was used to wielding feel like a feeble trickle.
She sent that blaze shooting down to her bound wrists and up to the noose around her neck. When her new power hit the loops of rope, it burned them instantly to floating flecks of ash. Sucking down a relieved whoop of air, Morgana fell off her tiptoes, rocking back down onto her heels so suddenly she almost toppled off the stool.
As the sensation of suffocation lifted, she looked down at the priest who’d just forced her shrieking son to the floor. Rage flooded her with the blind need to kill. Her hands began to burn, casting a furious yellow light over the dark, dirty little cottage with its stink of piss and terror. “Now, you bastard,” she hissed. “Now you’ll pay.”
The priest stared up at her, his eyes widening at the sight of her blazing hands.
She stepped off the stool. Bennett leaped to his feet and backed away, his watery blue eyes darting beneath his balding pate, his thin lips peeled back from yellowed, crooked teeth. “Witch! Damned creature, you will not touch me, or you’ll know God’s justice!”
“I’ll do more than touch you.” Morgana’s hands shot out, seized the sides of his face and jerked him close. “And if anyone should know divine justice, it’s you.”
The old man jerked against her grip, fighting like a rabid fox in a wolf trap, yelping in terror.
“Enough!” she snapped. “Be still!” Her will blasted him, paralyzing him where he stood and locking his terrorized mind in winter ice. The need to kill lashed within her like a flaming snake. He deserved it for what he’d done to her, to Mordred.
And yet . . . killing left a stain on the soul. He’d taught her that. Better to leave the bastard alive—but make damned sure he never did to anyone else what he’d done to them.
But more, he needed to suffer for his crimes, share the pain and terror of his victims, feel the weight of his betrayal of his God and his flock.
Morgana’s will slashed Bennett like a steel-tipped flail, forcing him to experience the full horror of his sins. By the time she was done with him, she knew he’d never harm another innocent as long as he drew breath.
You are not like the others.”
Morgana opened her eyes to find Merlin’s witch lover studying her, a frown on her too-young face. Nimue looked fifteen at most—a delicate nymph with waist-length blonde hair and eyes as black as a night sky. Eyes too ancient and wise to belong to any mortal, much less a fifteen-year-old child.
“You don’t seem to have the magical limitations the others do,” Nimue told her thoughtfully. “That could be dangerous; the human mind is not equipped to deal with power without limit. And yet . . .” Her gaze flicked as if studying something in the distance, and she paused, appeared to debate herself.
At last the enchantress shrugged. “But your power is needed, despite the risk. You will simply have to take care.”
The girl gestured, and the Grail appeared, a delicate filigreed silver cup. The potion it held glowed and bubbled gently, misted by shimmering tendrils of blue smoke. “Will you drink from the Grail and become an immortal witch? Will you use your skills to safeguard humanity, even from itself?”
“Yes,” Morgana said.
Accepting the cup, she swallowed liquid fire.
It had been fifteen centuries since that night. Morgana had never told anyone of the potential she had for power greater than what any other witch could claim.
And yet . . . when Percival looked at her in that way he sometimes had, her heart insisted, You could give him control. You could trust him. He would never betray you.
No, her fear hissed. Stop it, Morgana. You can’t take the chance.
Not with her demons.
ACeltic-pale redhead strutted past, clamps swinging from her generous breasts. They looked damned painful, judging by the swollen red nipples they gripped. Heat rushed into Percival’s groin at the thought of capturing another woman’s nipples in such clamps . . .
“God, I’d love to put a pair of those on Morgana,” Marrok murmured, saying exactly what Percival was thinking.
Snorting, Cador took a swig of his Coke. “She’d geld you with a fireball.”
“Yeah, but it’d be worth it.”
As the clamped girl jiggled past Morgana, the witch’s eyes slid to the girl’s bare breasts, then directly to Percival’s face. Her spring-green eyes darkened with need. His cock hardened to its full length in a searing liquid rush.
In the middle of a fucking mission to keep a werewolf from eating more women.
And it hadn’t even been the first time tonight. The raw eroticism of the club’s atmosphere had obviously shot Morgana’s concentration all to hell. Even worse, the effect was contagious. He and his knights seemed to be suffering too. Except in their case, the focus was Morgana herself.
Which wasn’t surprising. During the years they’d worked together, Morgana had been equal parts temptation and frustrating pain in the arse.
True, most of the time she was an invaluable addition on any mission. Percival, Marrok, and Cador had worked with a number of witches over the centuries, but Morgana was the most powerful of them all.
She was also as fearless as any male warrior, and damned near as good with a sword as one of the Knights of the Round Table.
What’s more, Morgana never admitted defeat. She’d do whatever it took to succeed, refusing to yield to physical or mental exhaustion. She pushed herself so hard that she’d won the respect of all three knights, even Cador, who personally disliked her. Percival had seen her keep casting spells to defend the team when she was so badly wounded he was surprised she was even conscious. Again and again, she’d proven she was willing to die for them—as they, in turn, would die for her.
Which didn’t mean she couldn’t royally piss them all off.
For one thing, Morgana only went on the most tricky and dangerous missions, and insisted on leading most of those. She steadfastly refused to bow to any authority but her own. If Percival tried to assume control, usually because things had gone to hell, her reaction was often bitchy in the extreme.
That wouldn’t drive him half as mad as it did, except his dominant instincts insisted she was hiding a submissive streak. At times she seemed to be deliberately bratting—the BDSM term when a submissive tried to earn a punishment from her dominant by acting out like a bratty child.
Except in Morgana’s case, it was worse than obnoxious behavior, because she sometimes gave him and his team painful magical jolts.
The powers given to witches and vampires complemented each other; vampires couldn’t work magic beyond self-healing and shape-shifting, while Majae weren’t as physically powerful as their counterparts. That meant a vampire couldn’t overpower a witch’s spells, just as she couldn’t overpower his strength.
A Maja could, however, use her abilities to give a vampire a nasty jolt if he forgot himself and tried to take her blood by force. Most Majae were careful not to abuse that power, but Morgana never seemed to hesitate. Percival had sworn he’d one day give her bare arse a swat for every zap she’d dealt him and his team.
A woman cried out from one of Club Penitent’s dungeon rooms, her voice spiraling high with a blend of arousal, pain, and pleasure. Perhaps from the application of nipple clamps or a riding crop or a demanding kiss.
For the second time in less than a minute, Morgana’s gaze slid back to the three knights.
Percival’s temper began to steam, burning all the hotter because he was as angry at himself as he was at her.
Passing his thumb over the heavy gold enchanted ring on his right hand, he activated the spell that allowed them to communicate during missions. “Get your head out of your cunt and on the fucking job, Morgana. If one of these women dies because of you, I swear to Merlin I will bend you over the Round Table and flog you with a buggy whip!”
“You forget yourself, Lord Percival,” she replied in that cool contralto voice of hers. “I lead this mission.”
“Then lead it,” Percival snarled, “and quit turning it into fucking amateur hour.”
A white-hot stiletto of agony stabbed between his eyes, so savagely intense it almost tore a gasp of pain from his mouth. He bit it back.
“Goddammit Morgana!” Cador growled in the link, “’Rok and I didn’t do anything. Why hit us?” Morgana’s spell must’ve caught the pair as it traveled through their mission rings. Morgana made no reply; she’d evidently closed communications.
“Sorry,” Percival growled.
Cador grunted and took another deep swallow of his Coke, auburn brows dipping in a frown. “I don’t like the way this is going. I’ve never seen Morgana so far off her game.” He glowered. “I’m beginning to wonder if we should work with her again. We may have reached the point of diminishing returns.”
“Bullshit.” Marrok glowered at him. “Name one witch with as much raw power as Morgana le Fay. I’ll admit she can be a pain in the arse . . .”
Cador smirked. “Sometimes literally.”
“. . . But we’ve never failed to achieve a mission objective when we worked with Morgana. That’s not always a given when we work with other witches.”
“You know, it doesn’t have to be just one Maja,” Cador pointed out. “Two or even three . . .”
“Might be equivalent to Morgana’s power, but they wouldn’t have her experience or skill in magical combat strategy.” Percival rattled the ice in his glass impatiently. “Nobody is as good in a magical fight as Morg. Except maybe Kel, and he’s a dragon.”
Cador pursed his lips, considering. “Gwen’s pretty damn good.”
“True, but Arthur is hardly going to let us have Gwen, is he?” Marrok leaned in, his jaw taking on a familiar stubborn jut.
As the two knights began arguing about which Maja would make a better addition to their partnership, Percival’s gaze drifted back to Morgana. He’d known the witch fifteen centuries now, years of desperate combat, furious arguments, and steely friendship. She’d been driving him insane for most of that time.
Centuries ago, the four of them had been among the first twenty-four people to drink from Merlin’s Grail. The potion it contained had magically transformed them all. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table had become Magi—vampires, in other words. The twelve ladies of Camelot’s court, including Morgana and Queen Guinevere, became witches, or Majae.
In the centuries since, those twenty-four had become ten thousand, as their descendants joined them in the battle to protect humanity against its own self-destructive impulses. Collectively they were called the Magekind, sworn to use their impressive abilities to hunt those like the magical killer who was their target tonight.
Today they all lived in Avalon, an enchanted city of immortals located in the Mageverse, a parallel universe where magic was a universal force like gravity or electromagnetism. Which was why that universe’s version of Earth was inhabited by everything from fairies to dragons.
This Earth, meanwhile, was home to werewolves like the one they were hunting today.
Though most werewolves were basically decent, this one was a thoroughly nasty bastard. Over the past two months, seventeen women had vanished from nightclubs around the country, only to be found the next day as piles of gnawed bone. He’d evidently eaten them.
The mortal authorities had yet to realize what was actually going on. Because the victims’ bodies had been reduced to skeletal remains so quickly, law enforcement had assumed they’d been dead much longer than they actually had been. This made identification basically impossible. Police needed some idea who a victim might be in order to obtain dental records to compare skulls to, and they’d excluded anyone who’d been missing less than a month.
Unlike the police, however, Percival and his team had Morgana. Last night the witch had a vision that some kind of magical predator was abducting, murdering, and eating women. Women who’d been taken from nightclubs. Merlin’s Grimoire—an enchanted talking book that was the magical equivalent of a supercomputer—had produced articles from newspapers around the country dealing with skeletal remains said to be the victims of animal attacks. When Morgana described an image from her vision—a hand holding a whip outlined in red neon—Grim had identified it as the logo for Club Penitent.
Which explained why the most powerful witch on the planet was dressed in a red corset, matching thong, lacy stockings, and high heels. The costume displayed every gorgeous inch of her elegant body, long, toned legs, and full breasts—and made Percival’s dick sit up and beg.
She also looked like just the sort of submissive the killer liked to hunt. Morgana played bait the way she did everything else: to the hilt, prancing around on those crimson stilettos, drawing the eyes of every straight man in the place, whether dominant or sub.
Percival couldn’t blame them for drooling. The witch had a long-boned, elegant face with a narrow nose, full lips, and delicately chiseled cheekbones. Her large eyes were a green so vivid, they reminded him of spring leaves, and her black hair fell in a silken waterfall of ebony curls to the small of her back.
All in all, an irresistible target for the killer.
Which was why the three knights were undercover as sexual dominants. If the killer was a werewolf, as Morgana believed, she’d need the backup. Werewolves were not only eight feet of fangs, fur, and claws, they were invulnerable to magical attacks. That would leave her with no way of defending herself; she’d be almost as helpless as the mortal victims had been.
True, Morgana was stronger than a human, not to mention good with a sword—given fifteen hundred years of experience, she should be—but that might not be enough to let her fight off a monster. Percival, Marrok, and Cador, with their vampire strength, would more than balance the scales. Considering what the killer had done to those seventeen women, the fuzzy fuck deserved everything they could dish out.
The bastard couldn’t even claim to be a victim of animal instinct. Unlike the movie version, real werewolves were no more driven to murder than real vampires. This prick was just a serial killer, fanged and furry or not.
“Morg’s got another nibble,” Marrok said.
Percival tensed as the strange dominant approached Morgana. He was a handsome man, tall and blond, with blue eyes so piercing the color was evident all the way across the room. Dressed in black jeans and a navy blue polo shirt, he looked broad shouldered and muscular as he loomed over the witch, though she was not a short woman. Percival figured he must be six-one or six-two. Just her type; Morg liked them tall. He leaned down to speak to her, his expression hooded, sensual.
Under the table, Percival’s hands curled into fists.
Morgana looked up at the man, sweeping an assessing look from feet to face. She said something and turned away, her body language dismissive.
The big man froze, going expressionless. Then he nodded stiffly and walked off.
“Aaaaand another one goes down in a rain of flaming wreckage.” Cador flashed a cynical grin and lifted his Coke in a mock toast. “Morgana le Fay—body of a Victoria’s Secret model, personality of a rabid polar bear.”
The witch glanced toward their table, then quickly away again. Her cheeks darkened.
Percival knew why, too. Normally Morgana could watch an orgy without turning a hair, but in a place like this, given the submissive streak he suspected? He’d be willing to bet if he came up behind her, stroked a hand down the delicate curve of her back, put his lips to her nape and caressed her with his fangs . . . she’d cream that pretty thong. Which explained why her cheeks had been going cherry red all night.
The woman would be the death of him yet.
Cador straightened, eyes narrowing as Morgana glanced hastily away. “Did she just blush?”
“Appeared that way to me,” Marrok drawled.
Both men turned and looked at Percival, who glowered back. “What?”
Cador put down his glass with a thump. “You know what. Percival, you need to do something about this thing you’ve got going with her.”
“There is no ‘thing.’” Percival gritted his teeth so hard, they creaked.
“Don’t play stupid,” Cador snapped. “You can’t pull it off.”
Marrok leaned forward and directed a cool, level gaze his way. “She wants you, Percival. She’s wanted you almost as long as you’ve wanted her. And it’s time you quit fucking around and claim her for the sake of our collective sanity.”
“Morgana doesn’t want me—she wants a bloody giant lizard.” Percival curled a lip and sipped his drink, only to grimace as he realized it was nothing but half-melted ice. He gestured their waitress over, wishing he could order something with a bit more kick; by law, New York BDSM clubs could only serve soft drinks. “I’m afraid I don’t measure up.”
“Soren’s not her lover.” Cador sprawled back in the booth, eyeing him. “Soren’s just her scaly, shape-shifting fuck buddy, and well you know it.” He was also Dragonkind’s ambassador to Avalon. The pair had been on-again, off-again lovers for the better part of a decade.
Yet Percival would bet his enchanted sword she’d never submitted to her dragon lover. Or, for that matter, any of the others she’d dallied with, even knights like Galahad. Certainly not the way she’d always seemed to tremble on the edge of yielding to Percival.
One day, he swore, he’d push her right over—and catch her when she fell.
Morgana wished Percival would stop watching her with his eyes burning with that hooded heat. She wasn’t sure if the emotion was lust, or anger over that jolt she’d given them.
Either way, she really shouldn’t have zapped them. It was a blatant misuse of her power, even if the spell did nothing worse than give the knights headaches. It was no more acceptable for her to hurt them with her magic than for them to misuse their vampire strength against her.
In fifteen centuries, she’d never seen Percival turn his power against an innocent, not before he’d become a vampire, and not since. His sense of honor wouldn’t permit it. He’d sworn to protect the helpless, and that’s exactly what he did.
Morgana, though . . . Whenever she felt backed into a corner, it was if a switch would flip somewhere in her brain, and her ghosts rose again to torment her into doing something she’d regret.
Even today, after so many centuries, she heard Mordred’s voice breathe low and deep with that chilling, stomach-churning note of seduction. “When Arthur’s dead, you’ll be at my mercy. No one will care what I do to you. They’ll be too busy seeking my favor . . .”
“I’ll do everything I ever fantasized about, and you’ll be helpless . . .”
“Stop it stop it STOP IT!”
“It’s no more than you deserve. After all, you let that priest do it to me, didn’t you?”
Gritting her teeth, Morgana forced away the memory of big hands clamping around her arms with bruising force, the hard crack of a fist against her cheek, the explosion of light in her head, her own high-pitched cry of pain.
Another man’s face rose in her memory, twisted with lust, fevered eyes glittering in sick excitement. Father Bennett spoke in a voice pitched higher than her son’s velvet baritone, but edged in the same vicious malice. “You may as well admit your crimes, witch. We all know what you are, what black perversion you hide beneath your beauty. Confess, and seek my mercy!”
Stop it! They’re dead. They’re both dead. They’ve been dead.
She’d worked so hard to slay her demons. Yes, it had been bad the first three or four decades, but as she’d put her first century behind her, she’d learned to ignore those black memories. She’d often gone years without thinking of either of them, though Mordred’s birthday could bring it all back.
But then things had . . . changed. The last decade had been a difficult one for the Magekind, as they’d found themselves fighting everything from demons to dragons to werewolves who were immune to magic.
And Morgana, who’d thought she had everything under control, found she controlled nothing at all. Especially not herself. As her control frayed, it became all too tempting to strike out with her magic against anyone with the bad luck to rouse her ghosts. Including Percival and his team.
That lack of control, of honor, was one of the things she most despised about herself. Especially since she was surrounded by those whose sense of honor was so acute.
For fifteen centuries, the Knights of the Round Table had been considered the very embodiment of honor, even by those mortal storytellers who knew nothing of who they truly were. The same bards portrayed Morgana as the villain of the tale. In their songs, she was the witch who’d given birth to Mordred after an incestuous union with Arthur. Mordred, in turn, had led a rebellion against the king that plunged Britain into the Dark Ages. The songs the mortals sung bore little resemblance to reality, yet the bones of the truth were there.
The poets had been right when they’d said Mordred was Morgana’s son with the High King from an incestuous union. What they hadn’t known was that Morgana and Arthur had been teenagers when the boy was conceived, chance-met strangers. It was only much later that Merlin told them Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon, had raped Morgana’s mother, a Druid priestess.
In retrospect, that revelation had explained a great deal Morgana had never understood about her childhood. Her mother had always treated Morgana with a certain frigid distance. Duana, a Druid priestess, had only shown any interest in her daughter at all when it became obvious the child had a natural talent for healing. Even then, Duana had subjected her to constant stinging criticism of her attempts to master Druid herbal lore.
Morgana had never understood why her mother treated her so coldly, until Merlin’s revelation. Duana was a tall blonde whose lovely face was a soft oval, while dark-haired Morgana’s features were a more delicate version of Arthur’s strong, angular face.
And Arthur, she’d been told, looked exactly like his father.
Every time she looked at Morgana, Duana must have been reminded of Uther Pendragon. Yet her mother had never told Morgana she was a product of rape, probably because of the cold pride that was so much a part of the Druid priestess’s character. If she had, history would have followed a very different course, for Morgana would have never knowingly slept with her half-brother.
As it was, when Morgana was nineteen, Arthur fought a battle not far from the temple. Morgana was one of the healers called out to tend the wounded, and ended up treating Arthur’s best friend, Lancelot. She’d saved his life—and Arthur, who at seventeen had already been a skilled seducer, had taken her to bed.
When she’d returned, her mother had taken one look at her and known—probably thanks to the Sight—that she was pregnant. Duana had demanded the father’s identity. When Morgana told her, she’d recoiled in revulsion and driven her daughter from the temple that was the only home she’d ever known. “Take the contents of your cursed womb, and get from my sight!”
But she hadn’t said why, not even when Morgana had tearfully begged to know. Penniless, the girl had ended up taking shelter in a village not far away.
Which, tragically, had proven to be the home of a certain Father Bennett. After Bennett’s death, the village’s elders had sheltered mother and son—possibly out of guilt as much as anything else—until Mordred was ten. That was when Morgana decided to travel to Camelot to seek the position of royal healer.
Arthur had taken one look at Mordred and promptly realized he was his son. The childless royal couple greeted them with open arms.
After nine years as Arthur’s heir, learning he was the product of incest was the final straw for Mordred. From then on, he’d seemed to see himself as cursed, even evil. It was as if the knowledge gave him permission to ignore any sense of honor and decency Morgana, Arthur, and Guinevere had ever taught him.
But then, maybe he’d always felt that way since suffering the less-than-tender attentions of Father Bennett. In any case, her sweet, sunny little boy had grown up to be a twisted, vicious man.
“I’ll do everything I ever fantasized about, and you’ll be helpless . . .”
Just as the poets wrote, Mordred had gone on to lead a failed rebellion against Arthur. The king had ultimately been forced to kill him. Morgana had felt only relief at her son’s death; he would have destroyed them all.
Today, on what would have been his birthday, the memory of Mordred paced at the edges of Morgana’s mind like some bloody Shakespearean ghost. Her cheek seemed to sting from the spectral weight of his fist, just as his remembered threats made her stomach twist in revulsion.
She’d known today would be bad the moment she woke this morning. Maybe I should have stayed home.
But no. The team needed her.
Percival needed her.
She started to glance toward him, only to freeze as she sensed a wave of dark, boiling magic rolling through the bar toward her. Morgana’s eyes narrowed as she went on high alert. Reinforcing her magical shields, she cast a probing spell. Something was definitely coming, something that felt almost oily in the weight and texture of its evil. There was no doubt about it: Their quarry was here . . . or something just as bad.
Pivoting, Morgana swept her gaze across the bar just as a wave of force hit her, vicious and alien, almost punching through her magical shields. She had to catch the edge of the bar to keep from being knocked right off her stilettos. With an effort, she shook off the effects of that dark attack and focused her attention on the club’s entrance.
It seemed the murdering werewolf had arrived. Now they just had to kill the furry bastard . . .
Except . . .
Morgana frowned in puzzlement. She knew the feel of werewolf magic from painful experience. Claws raked across her skin as the wolves closed in, their eyes glowing orange with bloodlust . . .
The taste of this creature’s power was different, much stronger than anything she’d felt before from any other wolf. A tsunami of malice and magic that was both alien and all too familiar.
“That’s not a werewolf,” Percival said over the mission link, echoing the thought that had made her heart skip in dread. “That’s a dragon.”
“Oh,” Morrak groaned, “we’re so fucked.”
They were both right. Heart pounding, Morgana started toward the club’s entrance, pushing through the laughing, dancing crowd, grimly determined to intercept the killer.
The creature who strode into the bar a moment later didn’t look like a murderous shape-shifting dragon. He was just tall enough to draw a woman’s eye in a crowd, lean and muscular as an Olympic swimmer in a well-cut gray suit that suggested its wearer had both money and taste. Morgana could see how an unwary woman might follow him to her death, deceived by his smoldering GQ looks and artfully tousled black hair.
But the gaze he swept over the crowd was so intensely predatory, so cruel, that Morgana found herself jolting toward him, desperate to divert him before he picked out some mortal woman to victimize.
“Morgana, watch your cover,” Percival murmured through their enchanted mission rings.
She caught herself, camouflaging her alarm with a seductive smile and her best hip-rolling, leggy stride. As she sauntered over, the dragon’s gaze flicked to meet hers, piercingly blue and cold enough to inflict frostbite. The creature smiled, his lips taking on a sensual curve. “Why, hello,” he purred, his voice deep and rumbling as he extended his hand.
Quickly reinforcing her magical shields, Morgana reached to accept the offered handshake, even as she prepared a spell blast. “And hello to you. I . . .”
Inhumanly powerful fingers clamped around hers hard enough to grind bone on bone. A wave of psychic force rolled from his hand to hers, blasting through her attempt to shield as if it were tissue paper. The dragon’s attack slammed into her mind hard enough to buckle her knees.
“Morgana!” Percival’s furious mental bark sounded distant as she fought to shake off the dragon’s attack.
Though her thoughts felt swathed in cotton, she realized she was lucky she’d shielded, even if the psychic barrier hadn’t protected her completely. Otherwise I’d be dead now.
Blinking at the spots that filled her vision, she caught herself against a barstool. Marrok appeared at her elbow to slide an arm around her waist. “Are you all right?” the big knight demanded, lifting her to her feet and steadying her when she swayed. His tone sharpened. “Morgana, answer me. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Scanning the crowd, Morgana realized the dragon was nowhere to be seen. Neither were Percival and Cador. Oh, hell, she must have lost consciousness, or damned close to it. “Where’s the team?”
“Tracking our scaly friend through the club, trying to make sure he doesn’t kidnap anybody. He headed for the scene rooms as you went down. Percival told me to make sure you were okay.” His dark gaze searched her features, his worry evident. “Are you?”
“I’m fine, dammit. Where did they go?”
“This way.” Marrok turned and bulled through the crowd, half-carrying her as the other patrons stumbled back from his overwhelming strength.
The last of the fog from the dragon’s attack lifted, and she realized just how bad the situation was. If they weren’t damned careful—and lucky—everyone in Club Penitent could end up dead. Especially if the bastard shifted.
Forty feet of dragon in the middle of a nightclub was a prescription for tragedy.
Another thing: if somebody got cell phone video of an honest-to-Lord of the Rings dragon and posted it to Facebook, the paranormal cat would be out of the bag. Discovering magic actually existed would change human society in ways no one could predict.
Morgana shuddered. She’d been through witch hunts before. She had no desire to experience the twenty-first-century version.
We have got to lure him outside if we want to get this clusterfuck back under control.
Luckily, Morgana could shift too. She’d been practicing draconic combat techniques with both Kel and her lover, Soren. She was reasonably sure she could handle herself in a fight with the dragon—if she could lure him away from the club and its potential hostages.
What would be preferable was if she could enlist Kel and Soren’s help. Both shifters were veterans of draconic combat who’d be far more capable of taking out the killer than she was.
And they don’t have to worry about losing control.
Though Soren might have to worry about the political implications. True, Cachamwri, the elemental the Dragonkind worshipped as a god, had let it be known he would no longer tolerate his people treating the Magekind as enemies. Unfortunately, that still didn’t mean Soren could take the Magekind’s side against another dragon, not without proof the creature actually was the serial killer who’d been eating women. Soren would probably do it anyway, but the political repercussions could be highly unpleasant for him. There were still a great many dragons who hated humans, just on general principles. Morgana didn’t want to put her lover in that position unless she had absolutely no choice.
Fortunately her other option was a Knight of the Round Table; Morgana could definitely call on Kel. Arthur had made the big shape-shifter one of his elite knights after Kel helped save the Magekind from a demonic magic user. And he was literally the Round Table’s biggest big gun. Morgana had an ugly feeling she was going to need him.
Unfortunately, she soon learned she wasn’t going to get him, at least not right away.
“Nineva and I are butt-deep in a firefight, Morgana,” Kel informed her via their enchanted iPhones when she reached him minutes later. Somewhere nearby, someone fired what sounded like an AK-47 in a thunderous rolling volley. “Bloody terrorists. Look, can you keep the dragon occupied for a half-hour or so?” Something went WHOMP, followed by the sound of debris raining down on the ground. Kel swore. “Nineva, grab that kid before someone shoots her! Morg, if Nineva and I can get these children evacuated, I should be able to come roast the monster for you. Just keep him busy until I get there.”
Morgana’s heart sank as Kel cut the link, presumably so he could concentrate on rescuing the school full of hostages he and his wife were trying to save.
Normally, she’d stack her team up against any other three Knights of the Round Table, including Lancelot, Galahad, and Arthur himself. But skilled as they were, leading Percival, Marrok, and Cador against a dragon could well get them all killed. Vampires could take a hell of a lot of damage, but not the kind of injuries inflicted by a fire-breathing lizard the size of Air Force One.
She’d be damned if she’d put them in that position. Especially not Percival.
“Morgana, Marrok, where the fuck are you?” Percival demanded through the mission link.
“Coming. Where are you?”
“Alley behind the club. When we caught up with him, we found the bastard had put some kind of spell on two girls. He gated off with them.” His tone turned grim. “But before he left, he threatened to eat them.”
The alley between Club Penitent and the deli next door smelled of rotting garbage and cat urine. Something scuttled in the shadows, claws skittering audibly over the sound of late-night traffic rumbling past. The brick walls wore looping lines of spray paint, the efforts of neighborhood taggers marking gang territory.
Percival watched in frustrated worry as Morgana stood in the center of the spell circle she’d cast in an effort to track the dragon. Normally she would have been able to sense the monster’s destination, but because she hadn’t been present when he’d cast his dimensional gate, she had to do things the hard way.
Frowning, the knight studied her in the illumination of the alley’s security light. She’d conjured full armor for them all—chain mail and enchanted plate, camouflaged by a spell to make it all look like jeans and T-shirts to mortal passersby. Normally using that much magic wouldn’t faze Morgana, but she looked too pale, and there was a faint line between her winging dark brows that he knew meant she was in pain. Probably a lingering effect from the dragon’s spell blast.
Percival didn’t like the looks of any of it. His gut told him to abort the mission, but he couldn’t, not with the pair of female hostages.
In all the centuries he’d known the witch, she’d never let personal shit bother her—not even during her son’s rebellion. Something was sure as hell bothering her now, though. Something beyond the lizard’s attack.
“I’ve got it,” Morgana said finally. “It doesn’t seem he’s taken the women back to the Dragonlands, though they’re definitely somewhere in the Mageverse. Probably out in the middle of nowhere, if I had to guess.”
“Good. Let’s gate, then.” Percival drew his sword as Cador and Marrok moved in, preparing to step through the dimensional gate as soon as she got it open.
The witch lifted both hands in a gesture he’d seen a thousand times before. Magic streamed from her delicate fingers to splash in midair, forming a wavering oval window on the moonlit forests beyond. Judging by the constellations overhead,the gate opened on Mageverse Earth.
Then a sound rang through the gate: a woman’s scream, high-pitched with utter terror. They all tensed.
Morgana’s gaze met Percival’s as her delicate jaw set, her brows lowering in an expression he knew too well. It meant he wasn’t going to like whatever high-handed stunt she was about to pull. She shrugged. “Sorry.” She stepped through her gate.
Before they could follow, it collapsed behind her. Percival stopped in mid-step, gaping at the fading point of her gate as it disappeared.
“Did that little bitch just leave us?” Cador demanded in astonishment.
“Couldn’t have.” Morrak sounded bewildered. “She wouldn’t do that.”
Except that was exactly what she’d done. “‘Sorry’? You’re going to be ‘sorry’ when I get done with you, witch.” Cursing steadily, Percival pulled the iPhone off his belt.
No cell phone company had service to the Mageverse, of course, but the phones had been enchanted to send messages to headquarters. They were definitely needed; a lot of agents were always on duty on the two earths, working cases involving everything from wars to natural disasters.
To make matters worse, the Magekind were desperately shorthanded. Over the past decade, Avalon had fought a series of battles with aliens, demons, and werewolves, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of agents. Even the dozen Knights of the Round Table were down a man; there were currently only eleven of them.
Fortunately Galahad and his wife were on call tonight, rather than some less experienced team, though Percival did wish Kel had been available. He felt grimly relieved when the pair stepped through Caroline’s conjured gate.
They were a handsome couple. Galahad had that distinctive broad-shouldered swordsman’s build, with long sable hair and blue eyes. His wife had the lush, sexy body of the cheerleader she’d once been, with dark hair that complemented her big brown eyes and girl-next-door looks.
All of which was in stark contrast to the enchanted plate armor she and Galahad wore. Caroline looked tense, while her husband wore a dark frown, his hand lingering on the hilt of his sword.
While Caro went to work on the same tracking spell Morgana had just performed—Percival was definitely going to kick Morgana’s arse—the knights could only cool their heels.
“You went out on a mission with Morgana today?” Leaning against the club’s alley door, Galahad gave them a dubious shake of the head.
Percival eyed the other knight. A hundred years ago, Galahad and Morgana had spent a decade as lovers. Apparently, he knew something Percival didn’t. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s February third.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Marrok said. “She always gets depressed on the anniversary.”
Percival frowned. “That was today?”
“Why the hell would that matter? It’s been fifteen centuries,” Cador said.
“Jesus, Cador, he was her son,” Galahad growled.
“He was a murdering son of a bitch.”
“She was still his mother.”
“I never noticed she got all that worked up about it.”
“That’s because you’re a self-absorbed prick, and you never liked her anyway.”
Cador glared at Galahad. “Aren’t you married, not to mention Truebonded?”
“Drop it,” Percival growled.
Cador, for once, decided to obey.
Percival watched as Caroline chanted the words of her spell, trying to ignore the sick tension gathering in the pit of his stomach. A fight could go bad in the space of seconds—in the space of a single heartbeat. It had been minutes since Morgana had gated out. Was she even still alive? Were the hostages? Morgana, he thought, I’m going to kick your arse so hard . . .
He only hoped to have the chance to do it.
At long last, the gate swelled into existence, a hole in the air that danced like heat streaming up from a summer sidewalk, revealing moonlit forests beyond. As usual, Marrok was the first one to step through; he was so damn big, he gave most attackers pause. The rest of them followed, swords lifted, wary and ready.
They almost stepped on the victims.
Percival cursed as the knights twisted and jumped aside, avoiding the still, bloodied forms that lay in a tangle of arms and legs and torn fabric.
“They’re already dead,” Marrok growled in that deep, barely human rumble that meant he was halfway to losing it. “The son of a bitch butchered them.”
“No.” Caroline dropped to her knees beside the pitiful bodies, magic pouring from her hands to sweep across the still forms. “They’re not dead, not yet. Keep Lizard Boy off me long enough, I may be able to heal them.”
“Oh, that bastard is going to be far too busy to even glance in your . . .” A thunderous crash cut Galahad off. Something roared so loudly the ground shook under their feet.
“Fuck,” Percival spat as fear stabbed his heart. “Morgana!” Whirling toward the sound, he saw a trail of fallen trees and crushed undergrowth that led toward a thick stand of oaks. It looked as if something huge had forced its way through.
“Well, I don’t think we’re going to need a bloodhound to track the bastard,” Cador drawled.
Rather than walking along the trail the dragon had broken—that could too easily be a trap—the knights moved through the woods parallel to it in a crouching rush, swords drawn, dodging stumps, broken tree trunks, and crushed vegetation. Only to freeze in appalled awe at what they saw there.
Two dragons fought in a writhing tangle of whipping tails and snaking necks, ripping at one another with claws and teeth. Percival recognized the smaller of the two, with its sleek, elegant head and black scales shimmering with iridescent blues and greens.
“Morgana, you idiot,” he snarled. “It’s one thing to shift to dragon form to fuck Soren. But that doesn’t mean you can duel one of them!”
That’s the biggest bloody dragon I’ve ever seen,” Marrok whispered, appalled.
He was right. The beast Morgana fought was at least twice her size, a good sixty feet of scarlet-scaled killer. The dragon was massively built, with a head longer than Percival was tall, more teeth than he’d ever seen in one place, and claws the length of Excalibur.