As quickly as the image of the strange woman had appeared, it vanished again, dissipating on a curling breath of fog filled air.
Nikolas spun on one heel as he looked sharply around the clearing, sword at the ready, but there was no further sign of attack. Heavy, aged oak trees surrounded an emerald lawn, interspersed with park benches. Not twenty meters away, the waist high fieldstone fence that bordered the small park seemed as insubstantial as a shadow, as heavy fog pressed all around, blocking out the sun, limiting sight and muffling noise.
On the other side of the fence, traffic sounded heavy and distant. A male called out, and he tensed, but the voice sounded normal, cheerful. Oblivious.
“Came on bloody quick, that did!”
Another man shouted back. “Never seen a fog roll in so fast.”
“All this astonishment has given me a thirst. Meet you at the pub in fifteen?”
The second voice called out, “Aye!”
Dismissing the exchange as harmless, Nikolas turned his attention to the carnage he had wrought.
Four slain Hounds lay scattered around the small clearing, and killing them had not been neat or simple. On edge, muscles still leaping with the aftermath of combat, he studied their massive, fur-covered bodies. Each weighed eighteen, twenty stone easily. They looked like a cross between wolf and mastiff, and something else that was entirely monstrous.
Despite their size and weight, he knew from dark experience that they could run tirelessly for kilometers, track with relentless tenacity, and rend a body to pieces with long, knife-like claws and razored teeth.
Instinct urged him to leave the scene, quickly, while the unnatural fog still lingered and could mask his presence, but he held himself in check. As he waited, he bent to wipe his sword clean on the grass and slipped it back into the sheath he carried on a harness between his shoulders. When the blade slid home, he felt the spell on the sheath activate, cloaking both sword and sheath from sight.
His wait did not go unrewarded.
As he watched, the body of the nearest slain Hound shimmered and began to change. Bones realigned, fur disappeared, and the long, wicked muzzle shrank back until the monster had disappeared, and a dead man lay in its place.
Once they had been killed, the Hounds always shifted back to their human forms.
With the toe of one boot, Nikolas flipped the body over and took in the dead man’s features. It was nobody he recognized. He searched the man’s clothes, pulling out everything and stuffing the contents into his pockets to examine later. As the bodies of the other Hounds shimmered and changed, he did the same to them.
None of the slain men were Morgan, but Nikolas already knew that. Morgan was infinitely more dangerous than these creatures, and would be so much more difficult to kill.
Nikolas lived for the chance to be the one who accomplished that feat. If Morgan were killed, his death would be a massive blow to the Queen and her Hounds. His death could change the course of the war between the Light and the Dark Courts.
Magic sparked here and there in the items Nikolas took—a ring on one male’s finger, a medallion worn on a necklace on another. He took those items carefully, using a handkerchief to keep from touching them until he got a chance to examine them more closely.
When he was finished, he gave the bodies one last, frowning glance. How had they found him? Had he somehow given away his location, or had the encounter been sheer bad luck? And who had called the fog down to cloak what had obviously been intended to be his murder?
Morgan would have had more than enough magic to conjure the fog, but Nikolas didn’t sense his presence anywhere nearby, and if Morgan had been near, he would have been present for the attack. Nikolas would give Morgan credit for one thing—he was not the type of man to stand back and let others fight his battles for him.
Had it been the unknown woman Nikolas had seen?
He had felt her first, a cool breath of presence entirely different from the red hot killing rage that had ruled him only moments previously.
When he had turned to confront this new threat, he had seen her—dark, curling hair, pale skin and a scattering of freckles across a thin, angular face. Black Irish coloring, with high cheekbones pressing against the delicate skin that stretched over them. Lips, plush and pink. Eyes a light, indeterminate color, possibly gray or hazel. Height, irrevelant.
His first reaction had been irrelevant as well. She looked tired, possibly ill, he thought, and her face was too thin, almost gaunt.
Then their gazes had collided, and those pale, uninteresting eyes of hers had widened. She looked stunned that he had seen her, and as she opened her mouth, he moved to forestall whatever she might have said. It might have been a spell, or a curse, or a simple how do you do. He didn’t give a shit.
After he had lashed out at her, the vision had splintered. Now, he couldn’t sense her anywhere.
But he knew what she looked like. He knew what her Power felt like. If she had been working in collusion with Isabeau’s Hounds, she had just signed her own death warrant. Didn’t matter when, or how long it took. If Nikolas ever ran into her, he would make sure she regretted her collusion before she died.
The fog was beginning to disperse, the veil on the carnage in the clearing growing thin. His clothes were wet with the slain men’s blood. It was time for him to leave, but first he had to cleanse the scene.
Kneeling, he placed his flattened hands on the ground and sank his awareness deep into the land. When he connected with the land magic that was so rich and abundant, he asked it to take the bodies. After a few moments, the land responded. The ground shifted, and the slain Hounds sank below the grass.
Once he had rid the clearing of the evidence of the battle, his attention turned to the Sainsbury bag on the ground. He had almost forgotten why he had stopped in this village in the first place. Gathering it up, he strode rapidly along the path to the nearby car park.
At least he had bought petrol before he had gone in search of a supper he could eat on the road. He didn’t take time to change out of his blood soaked clothes. Several moments later, as the fog dispersed completely and the late afternoon sun came out in full force, he pulled onto the motorway and sped north.