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.
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