Cross Keys (MF)

Elvenrude 1

Etopia Press

Heat Rating: Sensual
Word Count: 93,491
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Conspiracy, murder, and magic…and the death of all they hold dear.

When the first wanderer—a common elf who isn’t authorized to use the portal—is spotted on the streets of New Orleans, the king assigns Kameo Ryndel to assist in the elf’s capture. But before she can intervene, humans with guns shoot the wanderer and steal his body. When Seth Lormarc, an Elite elf from a rival guild, appears at the scene, Kam suspects he is involved.

Seth Lormarc is in New Orleans to find out who was behind the portal breach, and his best lead is the intriguing Kam Ryndel. When he stakes out her apartment and finds her sneaking out in the middle of the night, dressed in black and leaping to the top of the nearest building, he knows there’s something unique about the beautiful elf. That kind of feat requires magic. Ancient magic.

As their paths cross during their investigations, they develop an irresistible attraction, although there’s little time for romance. The portal breach is tied to an illegal smuggling operation that has come to the attention of the human CIA. But the stakes are raised when Kam and Seth discover a band of conspirators and a rebellion deep in Elvenrude that promises nothing except destruction of their world.

Cross Keys (MF)
0 Ratings (0.0)

Cross Keys (MF)

Elvenrude 1

Etopia Press

Heat Rating: Sensual
Word Count: 93,491
0 Ratings (0.0)
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Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

“So is it? Is it real?” The young elf tossed her dark pigtail over her shoulder and leaned over the desk. She trembled with impatience.Kam ducked her head to hide a grin. “It’s remarkable.” She skimmed her fingers over the ancient scroll, letting her magic flow across its surface. “Definitely authentic. You should be proud. We haven’t had a find like this in months.” She studied the yellowed parchment in the box; her eyes catching every detail. “Tell me exactly where you found it.”Kam wrote down the information while seventeen-year-old Reya gave her the specifics: the crumbled walls, the piles of debris, and finally the wooden box containing the Iraqi artifact that had been recovered from a bombed out section of the Middle Eastern palace, unguarded, unpreserved. When Reya finished, Kam looked up. “Our king will be pleased.”“You think so?” Reya grinned, almost dancing on her gangly legs. “Will King Seliwyn know it was me?”“Of course, he’ll know.” Kam stifled a sigh, a hollowness in her chest. Why couldn’t she share at least a little of the girl’s unbridled enthusiasm? She felt…out of step. She straightened and made an effort to keep her tone upbeat. “Your name will be on the report as its official finder. And on the card in the castle museum. Everyone will see it for centuries to come.”“Awesome.” Reya beamed.Kam nodded indulgently at the girl’s easy use of human lingo. It was one of the perils of living Cityside. She had noticed certain words and phrases had crept into her own speech in the last six months, leaving her in no position to comment on Reya’s lapse. All in all, they would be lucky if that was the worst of the contamination that was carried from the human world through the portal to Elvenrude.Reya leaned close for a last look at her first major find, and Kam shifted her attention back to her paperwork. The girl deserved an uninterrupted moment of glory. Reya had been on the job as a spotter less than a year—using a restricted, personal portal to search the world for lost or neglected antiquities—yet she had already developed a good eye. The trait ran in her family.As soon as the authentication forms were completed, Kam laid the scroll in a tubular container and handed it to the spotter. “Want to do the official send off?”“You bet!” Reya gingerly took the cylinder, as if fearing magic might not be enough to keep its contents from crumbling before it reached its destination.Kam crossed to a door at the rear of her office. Pressing her palm with its tiny crossbow tattoo against the silver faceplate, she waited for the magic to recognize the symbol. The magical marking, known as a cross key, was born only by keyholders, chosen members from the two largest families of Elite elves, the aristocracy of Elvenrude. Unlike Reya’s limited transport, the cross keys controlled travel everywhere, including the access portals to and from the homeland.The door clicked open, and she stepped into the darkened room. She gestured for Reya to join her. Light from the doorway illuminated a few file cabinets against a back wall. Kam ignored them and stepped into the center of the room. She held her tattooed hand out at shoulder height, over an identical symbol on the floor. The area between began to shimmer with colorful swirls, changing slowly into a misty white column. A box-shape appeared in the mist, and Reya placed the container inside. A whoosh, and the scroll was gone.“They should already be unpacking it at the museum. Watch your pager.” Kam pointed to the silver ring on the girl’s left index finger. Every elf Cityside wore a similar ring that tingled and grew warm if a message was waiting from Elvenrude. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you receive an official commendation. Where can I send you now?”That cheeky grin again. “Paris. I’m meeting another spotter at our office there.”Celebrating. Nice destination for a party. “Have fun.” Kam activated the portal again. This time the shimmer produced a passage—an opening to what looked like an elevator. Reya hurried inside, waved, and vanished.Kam stared at the empty space a moment. Reya would go far in Antiquities because she loved her job. And why not? Preserving abused and neglected human artifacts was a distinguished career, and the favorite hobby of her country’s monarchs. Kam sighed and turned away. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be her own calling. She shook her head. But wasn’t that one of the reasons she was Cityside, living among the humans? To give her time to figure out what she wanted to do with her life?She walked out of the small storage room and relocked the door with an impatient slap of her palm, disgusted by her restless mood. She glared at the pile of unfilled reports on her desk. Unsuccessful recoveries, fraudulent artifacts. More paperwork. Until six months ago, she’d been a member of the King’s Guard, the only law enforcement in her home world. But Elvenrude was relatively free of crime, and seven years after graduation from the Academy she still hadn’t used her ninjutsu training or weaponry skills, except for mock skirmishes. She’d been bored. So she’d volunteered to come here as an Acquisitions Agent. Well, that had been a mistake. The position lacked challenge. Even the occasional drunken brawl or domestic dispute at home had been more exciting than sitting behind a desk.Kam wanted to do something meaningful, something that made her blood pound. Something that didn’t leave her feeling hollow.She stepped across the room and glanced out the partially opened blinds onto a view of the French Quarter, and her pulse quickened. The city itself hadn’t disappointed her. The quaint, old world streets, the electrifying beat of its music, the spicy aromas, the ever-present fragrance of flowers. Even this late in the year, autumn clematis and winter honeysuckle wafted their seductive aromas from nearby iron-railed balconies. The Quarter already hummed with activity this morning. Tourists swelled the ranks of locals throughout the year, but it was November, and holiday shopping had started. She longed to go out and mingle with the crowds, absorb their energy.But she had work to do. Kam dropped her hand from the blinds and turned to eye her desk again. To be honest, she’d done more than volunteer for this job. She’d damn near begged the king to transfer her, and the final impetus had little to do with boredom. She had been desperate to get away. Mother, Father, Caleb. They were all pressuring her to settle down—get married, have children, join the family business.She wasn’t ready for any of it.A pink parchment stood out among the business documents on her desk—this morning’s missive from her mother, waiting at the portal door when she arrived two hours ago. She hadn’t read it yet, knowing it would only contain a familiar nudge, a hint she should do her family duty.She frowned at the note, then picked it up and lifted the flap.Dearest Kameo,I am planning a small family dinner this weekend, if you could come? I ran into Caleb yesterday at the Guild, and he said he was free. We would love to see you. Saturday at eight?Estelle loves her finished gown for the King’s Harvest Ball. Don’t forget you have a final fitting next Wednesday.Fairy dreams and hugs, MotherKam made an unladylike noise in her throat. Just ran into Caleb. How long had her gentle, but persistent mother waited until that happened?At twenty-seven Kam was approaching the age of marriage and settlement—not to mention fertility, which peaked for her race from thirty to eighty. She and Caleb had been compatible sexual partners for almost six years, but marriage… She liked him, of course, but shouldn’t there be more than that if you were going to spend a hundred and fifty or more years together?She snatched a pen and wrote a quick reply before she changed her mind.Busy this weekend. I won’t forget the fitting. I’m sure Esty looks terrific in her gown. At least you have one daughter eager to find the right man. Fairy dreams to you too. KamShe unlocked the storage room and shoved the note into the portal, but not quite fast enough to avoid a twinge of guilt. Mother was only looking out for her interests. Her sigh this time was long and explosive. But excessive parental anxiety had already driven her Cityside. She couldn’t allow them to run her life even from a distance.She yawned and covered her mouth with one hand before picking up the first document.The phone’s ring startled her. Even after six months, she wasn’t used to the shrill sound. Life in Elvenrude was simpler—and definitely quieter—without all the gadgets that humanity seemed to need. No phones, no television, no movies. No electricity, in fact. The electronics and the crowds were the biggest adjustments she’d faced since arrival in the human city.“Acquisitions Office. Kam Ryndel speaking.”“There’s a wanderer loose near the wharf. I saw the portal glow on his face and eyes. He’s really old, and acting strange…like he’s scared. What should I do?” The voice pitched high with distress belonged to Deni, the elven spotter assigned to New Orleans.Kam stiffened. “A common elf from home? Are you sure?” She caught herself. Of course, Deni would be sure. The differences were obvious. “Tag him, if you can. At least follow him and call me back.”She raced to the window again, staring outside as if she might spot the wanderer herself. What was an elf of the common class doing outside Elvenrude? It was forbidden without special permission. Every contact with humans placed the elves’ homeland at risk of exposure. That didn’t mean there hadn’t been portal breaches before, but rarely. Usually it turned out to be an adventurous youth who returned home quickly and received a thorough scolding, but occasionally it was a person suffering a mental problem who had to be retrieved. Which sounded more like the situation today. In either case a keyholder had been stupid or careless for one of them to gain access to a portal.Really old, Deni had said. If he’d lost his mental capacity, Kam shuddered to think what he might say to human authorities. A medical exam would be disastrous. The simple cosmetic adaptation—smoothing the pointed tips of the ears—made by the portal wouldn’t fool anyone who drew blood or listened for a heartbeat in the wrong place.The phone rang again, and Kam snatched it this time. “Yes.”“Kam, I’m so sorry. I lost him. I’ll keep looking, but he must have entered a building or a vehicle. What now?”Kam bit her lip. How had a senile old man given her young spotter the slip? It didn’t seem possible. “Are there police in the area who could have taken him into custody?”“No, nothing like that. No one I saw.”“Then keep looking. Where are you? I’m coming to help.”As soon as she had directions, Kam dashed down the stairs and burst onto the street. She tamped down her elven speed but moved as quickly as she dared along the narrow sidewalks without attracting too much attention. Once she met up with Deni, they went into every nearby store, pub and cafe and searched the cobblestone streets all the way to the river. They visited with warehouse managers in the area and used their commercial passes to enter the wharfs and check behind the stacked shipping containers. A few homeless people had scaled the flood walls and were taking shelter around the stacks, but no one who fit the description or revealed the tell-tale glow left by portal transport. Kam checked with the guild master at their own import/export warehouse to see if their portal had logged any unauthorized users. It hadn’t.After hours of fruitless searching, Kam and Deni stood on the street where the wanderer was last seen. The narrow sidewalks were beginning to empty of shoppers as people headed home for dinner. The evening crowds hadn’t yet arrived. A few tourists were snapping last-minute photos to remember their visit to the Crescent City. Unless he had known someone to allow entry into one of the private residences—and how likely was that?—there was nowhere for the commoner to hide.Kam threw up her hands. “I don’t know where else to look. How could he just disappear?”Deni hung her head. “I should have watched more closely. If something happens, it’ll be all my fault.”“Oh, no.” Kam grabbed the younger woman’s arms and looked in her eyes. “That’s not true, Deni. You did everything just like you should.” She stepped back and looked around them. “We’ve missed something. He must have gotten in a cab or hopped on a bus or streetcar or…something.”“Maybe he went home.” Deni sounded hopeful.Kam grabbed at the suggestion. “Of course. He could have gone back to the portal and is in Elvenrude by now.” Her eagerness was followed by a sinking sensation. Wishful thinking. At best it was a slim possibility. “There’s nothing more we can do tonight, except notify Captain Brunic. I’ll take care of that, but keep your eyes open for the next few days.”As soon as she reached the office, Kam checked her own portal for signs of tampering. Nothing there either. She dashed off a quick addition to her nightly report to Brunic, dispatched it through the portal, and went home to her apartment.She tossed and turned, getting tangled in the sheets, her sleep interrupted by nightmares of Elvenrude irrevocably changed by human invaders. At 2:00 she got up for a drink of water and washed the sweat from her face. Why was she making such a big deal about this? Maybe Deni was right and the wanderer had gone home. Or if he was so old, maybe no one would pay any attention even if he rambled on about Elvenrude. Besides, he was a commoner. He couldn’t tell them anything about how the portals worked.She crawled back in bed, fluffed her pillow. This stray elf wasn’t really her problem anyway. Captain Brunic and the King’s Guard were in charge of elven crime, including portal breaches, and she’d left that service behind.

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