Émilien stared at Lamruil, unable to believe what he had just heard. “Did you say you sent a group to Hel?TheHel—goddess of the underworld?”
Lamruil gave him a crooked grin. “We sent her the wimpy group. Neither side seems to want to learn how to control their powers or fight.”
A bark of laughter burst from somewhere deep inside Émilien’s chest as he leaned forward, resting his paws over his knees, as he continued to laugh. Finally, he straightened, the last of his mirth exhaling on a long breath. “That is priceless.” He met Lamruil’s animated gaze. “Karma is a bitch, isn’t it?”
Ailuin frowned, staring at Émilien before turning to his brother. “What gives? Why is that so amusing?”
“It is not my story to tell,” Lamruil said.
Ailuin turned his narrowed gaze to Émilien, who shrugged. “And, I do not want to tell. Now, how does Bernard fare? Has he discovered any more clues as to where his parents may have gone?”
The twins shook their heads. “No.” All humor disappeared from Lamruil’s eyes. “But, if we don’t learn something soon, the idiot will more than likely do something he shouldn’t. While he’s a great buffer between me and Ailuin, we need to work on his own lack of patience.”
“It seems my nephew has inherited more of my bad traits instead of his father’s. Olivier was a saint when it came to tolerance while I, on the other hand, ran full force into trouble.” He held out his arms and glanced down at his large fur-covered body. “What you see before you is a prime example of not thinking before acting, but that is a story for another day. I need to complete my patrol before checking in on my new charges.”
With an old-world bow, he transported to the Shadow Lands. Pulling the dark mist around his body like a cloak, he moved through the open valley and headed toward his mountain retreat where he could slow down and think.
Stepping into the thick expanse of trees, he crept through the forest, his steps silent on the soft vegetation covering the ground beneath him and released the mist, which floated down until it covered the spongy grass, reminding him of water.
Stopping several yards away from the entrance to his hidden cave, he raised his head and sniffed the air. The only scent he found was that of the wolf pack, their den tucked away in the nearby mountainside. Things in the Shadow Lands never were what they seemed, so he held himself still. His ears twitched as a slight sound filtered through the forest. Dark spaces moved, undulating from tree to tree.
It had taken him a while to realize how things in this realm worked, and with Hel’s help, he had learned the difference between the shadow wraiths and ghosts, and the unnatural animals who made their homes in these shrouded lands.
Then, there were the demons. These creatures were not the maniacal monsters of chaos and murder from nightmares, but more like the gremlins and animals of lore that have appeared throughout time and were worshiped by other religions. These beings preferred to hunt in Midgard, but with the increasing human populations, spent most of their time here.
Rustling sounded all around him, and he caught the faint odor of wet cat. A smile raised the outer edges of his lips. A high-pitched chittering came from the opposite direction, and Émilien bit back a groan. He recognized the squeaky voice of the newest chick born to the Huma soon followed by an unfamiliar male voice responding to whatever she had just asked. Delara’s mom, the Persian firebird, had room to be proud since this little one was the first chick born with more female attributes than male.
While the more dominant male sported a brilliant red plumage, Delara’s was just as colorful but softer and not so hard on the eyes. She also had girly pink legs, like human stockings instead of red legs like the males. He had always thought it strange how one bird could be both sexes, but who was he to argue with the creation gods?
An unfamiliar, lower voice interrupted the huma’s incessant talking. “Delara, what has your mother told you about talking so much, especially out in the open where you can be tracked?” Émilien waited for the small firebird to appear. He spotted a quick glimpse of brilliant red between the gray-green foliage. “Come on, little one, I do not bite.”
“That’s not what mama says.” The chick peeked out from between two leaves, staring up at him with large glistening eyes, reminding him of opals.
“Your mother is correct...mostly. I bite, but I don’t bite those I protect. At least, not until they annoy me. Besides, you already know me quite well.” He squatted, turning a little to his left, so he could see the young chick better. “Now, who’s in the thicket with you?”
The chick’s thin leg moved back and forth, her three long front claws digging furrows in the hard ground as she stared toward his cave entrance. “Delara, answer me please. Your mother would be very upset with me, if I let you remain with someone you shouldn’t be with. Tell me who is with you.”
A large panther stepped into their small clearing and sat on his haunches. “The young one has befriended Raróg,” he said in a perfect Slavic accent, correctly pronouncing the fire demon’s name as Raroh.
With a small throat growl, Delara glared over at the panther. “Cattarix, his name is Ostrik, not Raróg.” Her chin rose with a defiant flourish, and Émilien saw the challenge in her gaze. “Ostrik is my friend and would never hurt me. He’s teaching me to control my fire.”
“Ostrik, quit hiding and come out here. You aren’t in trouble.” Émilien strained his ears, listening for the small demon, and was finally rewarded when a slight rustling signaled the creature’s movements. Two leaf-covered branches swung toward them, and the scarlet-skinned demon stepped through. The branches snapped back into place and Ostrik squatted beside Delara, his yellow eyes pinning Émilien’s.
“You say I am not in trouble,opatrovník.”
From the sneer in Ostrik’s voice on the Slavic word for guardian, Émilien wasn’t sure about this little demon. He’d come upon him several times over the centuries, but Ostrik was usually nicer. Émilien decided to push the demon’s buttons a bit to see how he would continue to react. “Yes, fire demon, I am the guardian. I’m not sure I like how you say it.”
Ostrik shrugged. “I do not care how you feel. I don’t like how you talk to me or my little friend here when we have done nothing wrong.”
“I believe he is protesting a bit too much, Émilien,” Cattarix’s deep voice said behind them.
Émilien crossed his arms over his chest, keeping his gaze steady and detached. “I agree, cat king. Maybe I should ask your mother, Delara. Would she tell me the same story? Is Ostrik teaching you how to control your fire?”
The chick nodded. “He gave me his promise. We were going outside the trees, so we wouldn’t burn them down.”
Émilien focused his gaze on the demon. “I’ve never known you to be so thoughtful, Ostrik. Why now?”
If it were possible, the fire demon’s ruddy skin turned darker. “Because her mother threatened me if I didn’t. The forests here are sacred and house many spirits. She said we must guard those inside and make sure not to destroy their homes.”