The location of Valhalla, the main home of the high-bloods, wasn’t a secret.
Even with a magical dome of protection, it was tough to hide several thousand acres of land smack dab in the middle of the United States with two-dozen structures that included living quarters, workshops, garages, barns, and a school.
Of course, very few “norms” were allowed through the magical barriers to visit the central building that was constructed in the shape of a pentagon with an inner courtyard that was famed for its gardens. And those who were permitted to enter found themselves confined to the upper floor that was reserved for official offices and formal reception rooms, plus a small number of guest rooms if the visitors were expected to stay more than a few hours.
Only high-bloods were allowed into the nine lower levels that contained private quarters and secret labs that were dug deep into the earth.
And only Sentinels were allowed on the bottom floor that was reserved exclusively for their use.
With a central room that was dominated by a state-of-the-art computer system and heavy wooden furniture, it looked like something out of a James Bond movie.
Two walls were lined with monitors that were connected to dozens of satellites and surveillance equipment spread throughout the world. On another wall were several doors that were closed and monitored with motion and heat sensors. The weapons that they kept inside were not only lethal, but many were magically enhanced to create enormous damage.
Standing in the attached private office, the two Sentinels stood face-to-face.
At a distance, the warriors were remarkably similar.
Both had long, dark hair that framed narrow faces with copper-toned skin and eyes as black as polished ebony. Both had the lean, chiseled muscles of trained warriors. And both were wearing casual jeans and T-shirts that did nothing to disguise their lethal power.
A closer glance, however, revealed that Wolfe, the leader of the Sentinels, had a streak of white in his hair at his right temple and that his features had been hewn in the deserts of the Middle East.
Mika Tanner, on the other hand, shared the chiseled features of his Native American ancestors.
Over the years, his stark beauty had attracted the notice of women. A
of women. But none had managed to capture his aloof attention.
Of course, his lack of interest only made them more determined to be the one to claim him.
Not that Mika noticed.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like women.
Hell, that was the problem.
In one spectacular case he’d loved a woman.
Deeply and irrevocably.
Now he was dedicated to his duty as a hunter Sentinel. Nothing was allowed to distract him.
Which was why he’d abruptly walked away from the pretty witch who’d been trying to convince him to join her for dinner the second the text from Wolfe had hit his phone.
Folding his arms over his chest, he studied Wolfe with a stoic curiosity.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Here.” Getting straight to the point, Wolfe shoved a file folder into Mika’s hand. The Tagos (leader of the Sentinels) was never big on chitchat.
Mika hated wasting his time with worthless small talk.
Opening the file, he stared down at the photo of a young man who looked to be in his early twenties with short brown hair and a face that was remarkable only for the fact it was so completely average. The type of face that would never stand out in a crowd.
He read the name at the bottom of the photo.
“Jacob Benson. Is the name supposed to mean something to me?”
“Until yesterday morning, he was an acolyte at the monastery in Louisiana,” Wolfe readily answered.
Mika lifted his gaze, not surprised to find that Wolfe’s expression was unreadable.
The older man rarely gave away his inner thoughts.
Mika arched a brow, waiting for the rest of the story.
Even for Wolfe, that was vague.
“What happened?” he prompted.
The leader shrugged. “According to Brother Noland, the young man was a quiet, diligent student who’d never caused trouble until he unexpectedly snuck into the garage and stole one of the cars used by the monks.”
All Sentinels were trained by the monks, whether they were to become guardians or hunters. It was a tradition that had started in ancient times.
And while a few of the methods had changed to include the latest weapons and technology, the basics had remained the same throughout the centuries.
How to kill as swiftly and efficiently as possible.
“It’s not that uncommon for an acolyte to decide to go for a joyride,” Mika pointed out.
Boys would be boys regardless of their special powers.
And since Sentinels lived several hundred years, they were still considered juveniles until they reached their late thirties.
“On his way out of the garage he hit one of the monks,” Wolfe said.
Shit. Mika scowled. “How bad?”
“He’s on the mend, but Jacob never stopped or even slowed to check on the man he’d injured.” Wolfe leaned against the corner of the desk. “His complete lack of concern is so out of character that the monks are certain something is wrong.”
“And no one has seen him since then?”
“No, they checked with his family and friends, but he hasn’t contacted any of them.”
Mika understood their concern if the acolyte was acting out of character, but there were a number of fairly obvious explanations for his impulsive behavior.
“What about a girlfriend?” He named the obvious. “When a young man is doing something idiotic, it can usually be traced to his belief that he’s in love.”
Wolfe sent him a wry smile. “You sound as if you have personal experience.”
A familiar ache twisted his gut at the memory of a young girl with white-gold curls and huge green eyes set in a heart-shaped face.
Bailey Morrell was a healer who’d stolen his heart when her parents had traveled to the reservation in Oklahoma to teach.
The two couldn’t have been more different.
Where Mika was quiet and reserved, Bailey had possessed an infectious spirit and a joy for life that instantly captivated him. She’d been like a brilliant butterfly who’d fluttered into his life, dazzling him with her charm and generous heart.
Of course, it was those same qualities that had ripped them apart.
While Mika had gone to the monastery to be trained as a Sentinel, Bailey had traveled to Valhalla to hone her skills as a healer.
He’d thrived among the other warriors, perhaps for the first time in his life feeling as if he truly belonged. There was no need to disguise his superior powers or to feel as if he was a freak. The Sentinels became his family.
Bailey, on the other hand, had felt stifled by the rules demanded by her trainers. She’d inherited her parents’ disdain for authority and constantly rebelled by sneaking away to heal those high-bloods who were afraid to travel to Valhalla or were hiding from the authorities.
“Bailey’s strays” became a constant source of irritation to her teachers as well as the Mave, the powerful witch who was the ultimate ruler of Valhalla.
By the time Mika felt in the position to turn their passionate love affair into a more permanent arrangement, Bailey had reached the end of her patience.
Instead of putting down roots at Valhalla, the beautiful healer wanted him to turn his back on his duty to follow her into a life of constant travel and uncertainty.
Bailey might call it freedom, but he couldn’t walk away from the brothers who depended on him. Or the pledges he’d made to the monks.
So she’d left.
Without even saying good-bye.
Abruptly realizing that Wolfe was watching him with a knowing gaze, Mika cleared the lump from his throat.
“Don’t we all have a past?” he demanded.
“Touché.” Wolfe’s expression hardened, as if he had his own painful memories. “What happened to yours?”
Mika grimaced. “She refused to be caged.”
“I have no information on a girlfriend.” Wolfe abruptly turned the conversation back to the reason he’d called Mika to his office. “But that might be an angle for you to investigate.”
“I want you to track him.”
“Why?” Mika frowned. Without false modesty he knew he was the best tracker in Valhalla. It seemed a waste of his skills to send him on a chase for one boy who would more than likely return from his mysterious journey within a day or two. “He isn’t the first and he won’t be the last acolyte to run away, for whatever reason.”
“As I said, the Brother is convinced that there’s more going on here than just the disappearance of one student,” Wolfe said.
“He doesn’t know, but I trust his judgment.” Wolfe’s voice warned that he wasn’t in the mood for a debate. Hell, the Tagos was never in the mood for debate. His word was law among the Sentinels. “We need to make sure that Jacob wasn’t forced or intimidated into leaving the monastery.”
Mika heaved a sigh. “Perfect.”
Wolfe arched a brow. “Did you have other plans?”
“Would it matter if I did?”
Mika gave a short laugh. He liked the fact his leader was so predictable.
Besides, it’d been over a week since he’d last been on the hunt.
He had to remain active to keep his instincts sharp.
And to keep his thoughts occupied
, a voice whispered in the back of his mind.
“I’ll leave after lunch. I assume you’ll have a guardian transport me?” he demanded, referring to the Sentinels who could travel from monastery to monastery through mystical pathways.
“Fane will meet you in the chapel.”
Knowing the meeting was over, Mika turned to head out the door only to be halted when Wolfe cleared his throat. Swallowing a curse, he glanced over his shoulder.
“When you do find the boy, leave the punishment to the monks.”
Mika stiffened, instantly offended. “I wouldn’t hurt a mere boy.”
“I know, but you can be . . .” Wolfe searched for the appropriate word. “Intimidating.”
“It’s all that stoic silence,” Wolfe informed him. “It makes people itchy.”
Mika shrugged. He knew what people whispered behind his back.
He was aloof.
A cold, unfeeling bastard.
He really didn’t give a shit.
“I speak when I have something to say.”
“Good.” Wolfe tossed him one of the disposable cell phones they always used when they were in the field. “Then you can call me when you find the boy.”
It was difficult to decide what was more aggravating.
The swarm of bugs that attacked without warning.
The goopy mud that clung to her shoes.
Or the air that was so thick with humidity that breathing was an Olympic sport.
August in the swamps of Louisiana was a lesson in endurance.
Still, there were bonuses to choosing the area for a temporary home, Bailey Morrell reminded herself as she ran her fingers through her short mop of blond curls that were already clinging to her damp skin.
It was isolated. Dangerous for humans. And best of all, a local witch had wrapped her small cabin and the surrounding grounds in a powerful layer of magic that meant no one could enter without her allowing them through.
A perfect place to set up her tiny clinic to help those high-bloods who preferred to avoid the more formal healers.
Like the young man standing beside her.
She frowned as she glanced at Jacob, no last name given.
As a healer she possessed the rare talent of being able to sense when a high-blood was injured or sick in the local vicinity. Which was what had led her from her cottage yesterday morning to discover Jacob staggering along the deserted road that ran next to the bayou.
She’d been horrified to see his battered and bruised body. Although he was still young and hadn’t yet received the tattoos that would offer him protection, he was a potential guardian Sentinel. Which meant that he could endure ten times the battering to his body than a normal human could.
For him to be so grievously injured meant he’d taken one hell of a beating.
Not that the acolyte would tell her what had happened.
And she hadn’t probed.
That was her mantra.
Live and let live.
Now, however, she couldn’t help but try to convince the boy he was making a mistake.
Despite her healing, he remained dangerously weak. He needed rest and plenty of good food to complete his recovery.
Gently smoothing the light brown hair from his forehead, she studied him with a worried gaze.
“Jacob, I don’t think you’re strong enough to leave,” she said in soft tones.
He grimaced, one eye swollen and his bottom lip split.
“I have to,” he muttered.
“If you’re worried about the monks, I could contact them and explain—”
“No.” Jacob grabbed her arm, his panic making him clutch her hard enough to bruise her pale skin. She winced, and Jacob instantly eased his grip, but his distress remained. “Please. I can’t face them. Not yet.”
Her lips flattened. Unlike those healers who worked for Valhalla, she wouldn’t force him back to the monastery.
“Where will you go?” she instead demanded.
“I have a . . .” He paused, his gaze shifting away in a gesture that warned he was about to lie. “Friend I can stay with.”
Her hand cupped his cheek, her healing power naturally flowing from her palm into his still-weak body.