This one’s for my parents because they always said yes when I asked if I could have just one more book. Thanks for always believing in me.
This book was such an endeavor and there are so many people to thank there is no way I could possibly name them all. Hopefully, I’ll hit all the major ones.
First and foremost, thank you to my husband and my kids for putting up with the many hours I spent working on it in one form or another. Also for the many times you could have complained about the frozen pizza or fast food and didn’t. Love you guys.
Next, thank you to everyone that read the book in one form or another and offered feedback or encouragement. Most importantly thank you to my crit partners at various stages: Denise, Trisha, Julie, Sara, Sarah, Alta, Michael, Terri, Shannon, and Gretchen. You all read it or part of it and/or gave me invaluable advice. Thank you for your time and help. You helped make it the book it is today.
Thank you to my editor Krista Stroever who took a good book and helped me make it something great. Thanks for all your hard work. We make a good team.
And lastly, a huge shout-out to my girls who kept me sane through the whole process. You know who you are and you know I couldn’t have done it without you because I’ve told you that many, many times.
Juliana Norris didn’t want to die in the cold Canadian snow. Of course, she hadn’t wanted to die on the rain-slicked streets of Bern, the cool sheets of her freshly made bed or the backwoods of Alabama either, but that hadn’t stopped it from happening just the same.
Despite her grim thoughts, the odds of actually freezing to death were low. The troll would kill her before she lasted that long. She let out a laugh that sounded more like a snort. Gods, she was such a pessimist. She blamed the weather.
Her breath formed a cloud around her face and ice crystals in her nose. Her eyes burned, her fingers ached. For hours, she’d been hunting the troll. Hours she was supposed to have been spending in the warm Fiji sun drinking a Mai Tai and walking barefoot in the sand at a mermaid coronation. The Agency called to tell her about the reassignment just as she’d been ready to walk out the door. Damn, stupid flea-bitten troll.
Her only consolation was that she wasn’t here alone. She’d conned her mentor at the Agency into coming with her by reminding him that he still owed her for tracking down a band of feral pixies the month before. Nathaniel West was a 150-year-old werewolf with an immunity to silver and a wicked sense of humor. He’d taken her under his furry paw when the Agency recruited her and he’d been looking after her ever since. Last she’d seen, he’d been in full wolf form as he followed the troll’s path into the trees. All that fur probably kept him warmer than she was at the moment.
She thrust her hands out in an angry gesture and thought of fire. Flames sprang up before her in a thin line. Her spell, mediocre at best, was enough to melt the foot-deep snow and harden the ground beneath when it threatened to turn to mud. The warmth soaked through her jeans, thawing her briefly before it disappeared, leaving the cold to seep into her skin right to her bones. A brief thought of the idiot the Agency sent to Fiji in her place had her gritting her teeth. She didn’t even know who it was, but she doubted they deserved the sun and the sand more than she did. She always pulled the crap assignments. Maybe if she quit being so cursed good at her job they’d quit calling her.
Juliana needed to find her prey. She couldn’t go home until she did and she didn’t intend to spend the night in the wilderness. The beast had been making supper of the locals’ prize steers for months. Game wardens had been looking for the troll with no success. After losing four cows in a fortnight, the farmers complained to the right people and the Agency was called in.
Once her target entered the heavily forested area, it followed a well-worn game trail. The troll kept meandering off into the trees, but she wasn’t even tempted to follow the three-toed tracks. She left that to Nathaniel and his nose. Filling her lungs with crisp air, she forced herself to relax and let her gift flare to life. Neon bands of color immediately shrouded the landscape showing her the path of any creature recently in the area. Apparently, there were a lot of gnomes in Eastern Canada. Who knew?
Every being had a signature. A color uniquely theirs. Juliana didn’t know anyone else who could see them. Which was why she hunted the troll. It could cover its tracks all it wanted, but there was no way it could hide from her.
As she followed the main path, she kept her eyes locked on the landscape around her, searching for the troll’s earthy brown signature or Nathaniel’s vibrant mix of yellow, brown and red that marked him as a shifter. For a while she’d seen both paths intersecting as her friend followed the trail laid by the beast, but she’d seen neither for some time.
Her line of sight shrank as the ground dropped away over the edge of a hill. She paused and sucked in several deep breaths, wanting to be in top form before she went farther. After a moment, she eased forward again. Trolls were lethal opponents. If it snuck up on her, she’d be in more trouble than a knight at a dragon rally. When she reached the top of the hill, a clearing came into view below her. So did the troll.
She bit back a curse and swept aside the edge of her heavy leather duster as she sank into a crouch. All of her training couldn’t keep her heart from pounding, her pulse from racing. She wanted to avoid a confrontation until she sized up the situation. Just because she followed one troll didn’t mean it hadn’t led her back to its pod. Not all trolls were solitary creatures.
She scanned the clearing and the surrounding area, including the tops of the trees. No other signatures lit her vision except a few birds nestled in the branches above them. There was no sign of Nathaniel. Where was he?
Her eyes started to ache and a shard of pain drove itself into her brain. That was her indicator, her warning that she’d used her gift too much. She shut it down and the pain receded. If she were lucky, it wouldn’t revisit in the form of a killer headache later.
Juliana’s eyes darted around the perimeter as she planned her approach. Making her way to the troll without alerting it of her presence would prove tricky. The snow had been mostly cleaned away in the clearing below and the troll sat in front of a roaring fire burning away in the middle. She squashed the brief yearning for warmth that crept up. Her prey faced the fire, its back to her. Its grey-white fur, already thick and shaggy in late September, blended perfectly with the environment.
“Night is coming. Can you feel it?” Its voice—rough as an old washboard—told her nothing of its sex.
She forced a breath into her now tight chest. Downwind and quiet, she shouldn’t have been detected. Certainly not this quick. At least she assumed the troll talked to her. There was no one else around. There were plenty of trees, but she didn’t think they were sentient. Not that she checked that closely.
She wondered what answer it expected. All Altered knew when night approached. An instinct born from millennia of living in the dark didn’t disappear just because they were suddenly thrust into the light. Magic thrived in the shadows, in the blackness away from the sun. It was that way until the atom bombs of World War II brought high doses of radiation and with them, the Rending. The old magics didn’t mix well with even the low radiation from the sun. The bombs stripped away the protection the night offered and the Altered finally found themselves unable to hide. Now they didn’t want to.
The troll cocked its head to the side as if listening for her response. Evidently, her silence wasn’t going to convince it she wasn’t there.
“I feel it,” she answered. “Not that I’m complaining, but is there a reason you stopped?” She bit her tongue to keep from asking it about Nathaniel.
It chuckled. “I grow tired of playing with you. You would have caught me eventually at any rate. You’re much better than the others. Maybe it’s because you’re female. You are, aren’t you?”
A smile curved the edge of her mouth. She was beginning to like the troll in spite of herself. “Last time I checked.”
“Thought so. Cursed hard to tell with your kind sometimes.”
Juliana tried not to be offended but she’d never been confused for a man before. At least, not in the daylight. At night when she was kicking the crap out of something, well...mistakes were understandable.
“If you’re waiting for your friend, I’m afraid he won’t be joining us,” the troll said.
Adrenaline spiked through her making her pulse race and her heart pound. “What did you do to him?”
A low chuckle answered. “I merely delayed him. He’ll find his way out eventually.”
She breathed in relief and started planning her approach again. She’d worry about finding Nathaniel later. Right now, she needed to concentrate on herself and getting the troll relocated. Though the element of surprise was no longer on her side, she still held the high ground. If she intended to kill the beast, that would have been great. Since she wanted it alive, it didn’t mean crap.
“I suppose that means you aren’t going to cooperate then?” she asked, unable to quash the thin thread of hope that took up residence in her brain even though she knew better.
The troll snorted. “You are correct. I’m just saving my energy for our confrontation.”
Just lovely. “You do realize I’m not taking you in for anything. I’m only here to relocate you.”
It twisted its torso and snarled, flashing sharp teeth. Her heart skipped a beat at the primal display. No longer the predator, she was now the prey. At least she was smart enough to realize it.
The troll’s eyes flickered red in the fading light. A male then—the females had blue eyes. “Why should I go anywhere? This is my land. My home.”
Juliana sighed. She agreed with him in theory, but in practice, she was a Realm Walker. An officer of the Agency. The International Law Enforcement Agency created by the UN in their first official act after the Rending to deal with the Altered threat. As society realized that the Altered as a whole had no grand plans to take over the world, the goal of the Agency changed. But her sworn duty remained pretty much the same as it was then. To neutralize the threat posed by Altered that failed to conform.
Such as a troll poaching from the nearby civilizations.
She preferred the part of her job that involved hunting down the real threats to civilization. The jobs that helped her save humanity, such as it was. Relocation was crap work, but it paid just the same. “You’ve been warned numerous times about the livestock raids. I’m not even going to get into the pets that have been reported missing.”
The troll rose to his full seven-foot height, all arms and legs with a compact body in between. Her eyes locked on the arms that hung just short of touching of the ground. Wicked talons decorated each crooked finger. The best way to handle trolls was to stay the hell away from them. When that wasn’t possible, Juliana got as close as she could, making it difficult for the beast to get its claws into her. Gods, she hated trolls. Trolls and pixies. Both vicious bastards in their own way.
“I was here long before they came. This is my territory and everything in it belongs to me.” He thrust his chin forward, daring her to argue.
If it were up to her, she’d just go home and say she never found him. It wasn’t as if the troll killed anyone. Not that they knew of anyway. But that wasn’t how it worked. They’d keep sending agents out until the troll relocated or died. “Look. The government says this is their territory and the land belongs to the people living on it. You’re stealing. They want you gone. You’re going to a marked troll reserve. There are no people there. No one to bother you.” For now anyway. The reserves never stayed protected for long.
“And if I refuse to go?” The troll’s voice was quiet, almost sad.
She stood and drew the Taser from the holster where she normally kept her gun. “They didn’t send me because of my charming personality.”
“Come, then. Let’s end this.” He rolled his shoulders and shifted his stance so his weight rested forward on his toes.
This was going to hurt. She just knew it. After taking off the pack she carried on her back, she took off her duster and tossed it aside, afraid it would impede her movement. The troll watched, waiting for her to come down the hill. She lit a trail of fire to ease her way, causing the few birds she noted earlier to take flight. There would be no witness to the battle.
Her feet barely touched the ground at the bottom of the hill when the beast lunged for her, swinging one of its massive arms like a scythe. Ducking under the arm, she rolled to the right before coming quickly to her feet. She danced around the fire looking for an opening to close the distance between them. Her goal was to get close enough to use the Taser without getting her head taken off in the process.
Electricity was the easiest and most reliable way to kill a troll. The others were very messy and, in all likelihood, she’d be killed in the process as well. Juliana used a modified Taser that enabled her to control the duration and frequency of the charge. It was up to her whether she wanted to subdue or terminate. As such, the Tasers that shot probes wouldn’t work. They were too unreliable and could only be used once before needing to be reloaded. She was going to have to get much closer.
Without warning, the troll leaped over the fire, his arms spread straight out to the sides. His feet dragged through the flames, singing the fur. She managed to jam the Taser into his ribcage just before he engulfed her in a ferocious grip. He squeezed, pressing her face into his rancid fur. The smell of old blood and pure troll invaded her nostrils. Death, mold and dirt all rolled into one. Not a pleasant combination.
She squeezed off a two-second jolt, feeling only a slight tingle herself, though electricity coursed through her captor’s body. It wasn’t enough to make him let go. She twisted, jammed the Taser into his underarm and squeezed again. Longer this time. The arms twitched and then released her. She staggered back, sucking in mouthfuls of untainted air and blinking tears from her eyes.
Juliana realized she hadn’t put enough distance between herself and the troll about the time he snapped his head forward and sank his teeth into her left shoulder. Pure, white-hot agony flared through her chest and down her arm. “Son of a rotten corpse!” Panic rolled through her in waves. If she didn’t get this bastard subdued, he was going to kill her. And one of these days, that was going to be a permanent condition. Like the day a troll took her cursed head clean off her shoulders.