The Frozen Witch Book One
He leaned back, his leather chair creaking as he rested his hands on the desk before him.
Larry McGregor cowered in his seat, back hunched and shoulders jutting out as he stared at the room. There was no light on in the office, and dark shadows danced over Larry’s face.
“Please, just give me another chance. Another chance,” Larry begged, words quick and spluttering like blows from a whip.
The other man didn’t say a word. He remained there, still and silent, as he watched in the half gloom. His eyes were practically luminescent, the deep blue pools achieving a color rarely seen. “You had your chance,” he said, voice a rumble like the ocean during a storm.
“Please, just one more chance. Give me just one more chance!” Larry pushed up from his chair, got down on one knee in a supplicating position, and brought his hands up as if praying to God. And in many ways he was – except this god wouldn’t listen.
The man behind the desk rose slowly, clutching a hand onto the polished mahogany wood and pushing up. The chair clattered over behind him as he took one strong step toward Larry.
Along the side of the room, a large plate-glass window offered an unrivaled view of the city beyond. At 3 o’clock in the morning, with its lights aglow under the dappled starlight from above, it looked like a painting, each stroke carefully selected by a master. The view, however, couldn’t match the godlike man as he made his slow, deliberate way across the room. He was wearing a fine, pressed suit made of the most expensive Italian wool. It couldn’t hide his build. With broad shoulders, a tall frame, and an angular jaw, he looked like a carving from old. His stature was nothing compared to his eyes. Set in a strong face, outlined by a halo of golden hair and a thick flax-colored beard, he almost didn’t look real.
But real he was.
His muscles and joints creaked as he leaned down and locked a hand over the back of Larry’s neck.
“No, please, stop. I’ll do anything, absolutely anything if I’m given one more chance,” Larry begged.
Larry’s face slackened with desperation, for even though he was terrified, he was still frozen by the look playing in those impossibly deep blue eyes.
“Will you really do anything?” the other man repeated, voice once more like an angry ocean being swept around by a violent storm.
“Yes. Yes. I’ll do anything. Just one more chance.”
“Two weeks ago, you sold this item.” The man reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He unlocked it with a slow move of his thumb. The screen was already waiting on a picture, a picture of a simple box. Ancient, made of old, chipped, dark-brown wood, it had a single rune carved over the top by a hasty hand. It was almost as if the craftsmen had been forced to finish the box at the point of a sword.
Larry gasped, his shuddering breath shoving hard into his torso as he almost crumpled forward. The other man wouldn’t let him.
“Two weeks ago,” the man repeated slowly, each word like a drumbeat, “you stole this item from my office. I want it back. You have two days. If you fail—” He didn’t finish. Instead, he turned and walked back to his desk. Picking up his chair in a smooth move, he sat. Just as he did, the door behind Larry opened with a creak.
“That… that box – it will be impossible to get back—” Larry began.
The other man tilted his head and stared with the power of 10,000 suns. “Then it will be impossible for you to live. For, Larry McGregor, unless you bring that to me in two days, you will die.”
“No, Larry, I can’t work tonight. Are you serious? I already told you I need the day off. My grandmother’s barely got a week. Do you have any idea what my mom will do to me if I miss saying goodbye to her?”
“But you need money, don’t you, kid? Rent’s gone up again, hasn’t it?” Larry said in that smooth, sanctimonious voice that half made me hate the guy and yet always made me chuckle at his sheer ballsiness.
“Yeah, sure, I need money. But she’s my grandmother.”
“And you can thank her when she leaves you a chunk of cash in her will. But right now I need your help, kid. Who’s more important? A grandmother who always hated you because you didn’t live up to her crippling expectations, or me, a guy who dragged you out of the gutter and gave you the job you always dreamt of?”
There was so much wrong with that statement. Firstly, he hadn’t dragged me out of the gutter. And secondly, I really doubted late-night waitressing gigs for a somewhat shady catering company was my dream job. I didn’t actually know what my dream job was, but I was relatively certain serving alcohol and finger food to inner-city businessmen wasn’t it.
I brought a hand up and peeled my curtains back, gazing at the view. I pressed my phone closer to my ear and glared at the clouds as they marched across the horizon. The last few days had been miserable. It was meant to be midsummer, but I couldn’t tell that with the gusty wind chasing through the streets and rattling everything that wasn’t tied down. It felt more like deepest winter.
I brought a hand up and rubbed the center of my chest, right over my sternum. My skin was cold. Call me crazy, but my chest had been cold for weeks now. It felt like I’d swallowed a small fragment of ice, and it had become stuck above my heart.
“Come on, kid – you owe me. Now, I’m not taking no for an answer,” Larry said, words more snapped than usual.
Don’t get me wrong, Larry was hardly the politest guy in the world. If they gave out an award to slightly balding, potbellied men in their mid-50s who’d made a career out of shouting at people for dropping wine glasses, Larry would win hands-down. Still, I kind of liked to believe that underneath that extremely frosty exterior was a nice guy. Deep, deep underneath. Heck, you’d probably have to get some geologists from an oil rig to plumb the depths of his soul before you found a grain of good, but I was certain it was there. And that was the only reason why I took a deep sigh and let my shoulders deflate.
Dropping the corner of the curtain from my fingers, I whirled and marched through my room. “All right, fine. I’ll do it. But, Larry, listen to me. You owe me.”
He let out a sharp breath of his own. “Yeah, sure. I owe you like I owe Franklin Saunders. I’ll take a debt to you any day over that guy.”
I frowned. Sure, Larry talked shit. It was a combination of the fact he never slept and his liquid of choice wasn’t water but whiskey. Still, though I let most of his insane comments slide, this one was weirder than most. “Um, sorry, are you in debt to Franklin Saunders? What the hell does that mean?”
Larry took a hissed breath, one that rattled down the line and proved to me he hadn’t been conscious of what he was saying. “Never mind,” he said with a snap. “Just be here by six for prep. I’ll text you the address. And, for the love of god, put a little bit of effort into your appearance this time. This is one of the highest class gigs I’ve had in a long time, and I don’t want you ruining it by looking like something the cat dragged in.”
I made a face at my mirror as I poked at the deep, dark circles around my eyes. “Yeah, got it,” I snapped back. “But seriously, Larry. What do you owe Franklin—” I began.
I didn’t get the chance to finish; Larry hung up.
Like I said, he was usually rude, but Larry never hung up on you. You were usually the one to hang up on Larry. He could talk your ear off, and he often did, warning me with colorful insults to do my hair and makeup so I didn’t look like a dog-eared doll (his words).
Frowning at my phone, I chucked it on the chipped wood dresser before me and went back to poking the circles under my eyes. I sure would like to look nice tonight, but the fact was, I’d barely slept in weeks. I was working around the clock in four different casual jobs, and it still wasn’t enough to pay the bills. So yeah, Larry was right – I didn’t exactly have the luxury of passing up this job. And maybe he was right about my grandmother, too. She’d never liked me. I’d never been able to match her crushing expectations, as Larry had put it so succinctly.
It hadn’t always been that way. Back when I’d been a kid, she’d doted on me, giving me anything I asked for. But something had changed. If you asked her, it was me. I’d changed when I’d grown up, when I’d no longer been the angel she’d loved. According to her, sometime in my teens, I’d started down a bad path. According to my dear grandmother, I’d lost my morality. And to her, morality was everything.
Frowning at my reflection in the mirror, I pushed back and bared my teeth at it. “It was always different for you, wasn’t it? Nona, you grew up in a world where you didn’t have to struggle to survive. Everything was handed to you on a silver platter. You had money, you had prestige, you had class. And I’ve got nothing,” I said as I tried but failed to swipe a hand through my knotted hair. Getting even more frustrated, I gave the door a petulant kick as I walked out into my tiny kitchen.
My apartment had three rooms: my bedroom, a bathroom, and a glorified kitchen. It had just enough space for a tiny table, a tiny chair, a stove, a fridge, and a sink. It gave close quarters a whole new meaning. I didn’t have to take a single step to reach the cupboards when I was cooking, and if I needed something from the sink, I had just to pivot on my foot.
My grandmother, on the other hand, had grown up in a mansion. But Larry was wrong: when she died, there was no way I was going to inherit a cent. She’d already made it crystal clear that I’d been struck from the will. I wasn’t ready for my inheritance according to her. In fact, the old ditty had written those exact words in a card she’d sent to me barely a week ago. That same card was now lodged under my fruit bowl, a few tattered apple leaves covering it.
I still wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it. Burn it? Chuck it out the window? Write a quick, snarky reply and send it back to her along with a gorilla gram? Or should I keep it because, like it or not, Nona was on her way out, and this would be the last letter I would ever receive from her?
My belly gave a sudden rumble, and I turned to face the fridge. Opening it with my foot, I stared glumly at the contents: one half eaten packet of Chinese take-out that was several days old.
I grabbed it, sniffed it experimentally, winced, and shrugged my shoulders. It was the best I could do. Grabbing a used plastic spoon from the counter, I sat down at my cracked Formica table.
As I settled down to eat my old Chinese, I plucked my phone out and began texting my mother, telling her I wouldn’t be able to make it to Nona’s. She was currently holed up in her mansion in a room that had been renovated with specialist medical equipment.
Even though I’d only gone to see her a few times over the past few months of her palliative care, for some reason that room was seared onto my eyeballs. I could even hear the hiss of her oxygen machine.
Rubbing that particular image from my mind as I pushed my fringe from my eyes, I leaned over my phone.
I lied, quickly coming up with a better excuse than I had to work. Then I sat back and downed my Chinese in a few unpalatable gulps.
Even though I’d just gotten up, I headed back to bed. I had a feeling tonight would be a long one.
The room was dark, gloomy, a musty scent filling the air. Running along with it was the sharp smell of fresh blood.
Hank walked forward, hands in his pockets. He tipped his head down and nodded at the box on the plinth. “Tell me we finally found it?”
A man stood behind the plinth in a long, dark robe that touched the dust-covered floor. The robe was completely black except for red accents of perpetually fresh blood rimming its sleeves and collar. The blood dripped along the fabric until it splashed onto the floor.
The man inclined his head to the side, bringing up a hand as it escaped from his long sleeve. His hand caught the light. It was gnarled down to the bone, nothing more than a thin sheet of skin stretched across joints.
Hank didn’t shudder back in fear; he’d seen much worse and done much worse. “Tell me it’s the right box, finally. Tell me we’ve got our hands on it?” he demanded once more.
The other man ignored him as he picked up the box carefully with the gentle touch of a soldier brandishing a live grenade. The old man tapped one of his twisted, skin-covered fingers along the wood. A dull, resonant thump echoed through the room. It sent a thrill racing up Hank’s spine.
“I need fresh blood,” the old man announced.
Hank didn’t wait. He shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out a vial, chucking it at the old man.
“And the victim?” the man asked.
“Killed in all the right ways. It’s as fresh as fresh can be. Just what you need.” Hank’s words were quick, snapped, all his attention locked on the box and the promise within.
The old wizard didn’t waste any more time. Carefully, he undid the lid of the vial, and with a single word echoing under his breath, he tipped the blood over the box.
At first, nothing happened, and Hank’s heart sank. Then an explosion of magic covered the box, blue flames sparking so high Hank had to take a step back and protect his face.
As he let his hand drop, an enormous grin cut across his face. “Finally, finally, we found it.”
The wizard didn’t reply. Instead, he brought his hand down, and despite the licking blue flames, he plunged it past them to run a gnarled nail across the wood.
Though a protection spell ran along the wizard’s hand, it wasn’t strong enough to completely protect him from those dancing flames. The old man gave a hiss but did not stop running his nail down the length of the box.
“Open it,” Hank insisted as he pressed forward. The heat from the flames simply wasn’t there, and yet he knew if he reached a hand out without the right protection spells in place, the flames would consume him. It took practitioners of the strongest caliber to be able to push the power of that fire back.
The wizard continued to rake his fingernail across the runes carved into the wood, but the flames kept licking higher and higher. With every second, his protection spell ran out, until, with a rattling gasp, he jerked back.
“Open it!” Hank screamed, spittle flying from his mouth.
“I cannot,” the wizard conceded as he drew his damaged hand back into the protection of his blood-soaked sleeve.
“Then find a way.”
“I will,” the wizard promised.
“And keep that thing safe, for god’s sake. Who else knows about the box?”
“Only the fools who sold it to me,” the wizard replied.
“Have them eliminated at once.”
The wizard nodded his head down low.
“Right.” Hank shoved his hands back into his pockets. Before he could turn and leave, he shot one last, lingering look at the box. Within was the power to change everything. Whosoever held that power would hold the world in their hands.
I didn’t like the waitressing business. Never had. I’d fallen into it like every other job in my life. If you asked my grandmother, I had no direction. In her books, I was worse than a murderer, because I had talent. I was intelligent, and under my frumpy hair and baggy eyes, I was almost pretty. But I never did anything with my potential. I wasted it. Squandered it.
As she’d once told me to my face, in her books, ignoring your abilities was as bad as killing a man.
Rubbing my sleepy eyes, I listened to the train’s PA announce the next stop.
Sighing into my hand as I yawned, I got up and followed the other commuters off onto the station.
Even down here it was fiendishly cold. Despite the fact it was midsummer, and it should have been a warm, balmy night, I felt a tight shiver press down my back. I shrugged further into my thick winter jacket, just as I noted that the other commuters were in shirts, skirts, and shorts. They hardly looked like they were about to face a blizzard. But me? I couldn’t chase away the sudden sense of cold that had descended over me in a wave.
Clenching my teeth and listening to them chatter in my skull, I headed up onto the street beyond. Immediately, I glanced up and stared at the clouds gathering along the horizon.
“Christ, those look like storm clouds,” I muttered to myself as I huddled further under my jacket.
A cold blast of wind slammed into my back, chasing the loose ends of my hair over my shoulders.
Despite the fact the street was packed, no one else appeared affected by the gale. Which was just my luck – even the weather was out to get me.
After a few city blocks, I made it to the right place. Dragging my phone out of my pocket, about as chipper as a prisoner about to be sent to the gallows, I checked the address Larry had texted to me.
“Yep, this is it,” I said under my breath.
I took a few seconds to drink in how expensive the building looked. It was one of those new towers that had replaced one of the inner city parks. Weirdly, though I’d lived in Saint Helios my whole life, I didn’t remember this particular building.
It seemed… kinda weird for some reason. Almost like it was a cardboard cut-out someone had propped up on the horizon. Kinda like if I turned back and blinked, the building would disappear completely….
As I tilted my head back and took in its enormity, it looked as if it had cost more than the GDP of a small country. As someone who always had to scrounge to get by, that pissed me off.
Before I headed around back to the service entrance, I smoothed a smile over my face. I even checked my reflection in the shiny door as I entered the kitchen. Larry, who was always up in my face when I turned up for work, was nowhere to be seen.
Instead, Stacy appeared, holding a bundle of clothes. “Hey, kid. You’re late.”
“Sure am. Where’s the codger? Off robbing old ladies?” I quipped as I looked over my shoulder in case he was somehow hiding in one of the giant industrial ovens.
“Haven’t seen him,” Stacy said as she handed me the clothes. “Now change into this uniform; we’re already running pretty late.”
I frowned obviously, gesturing to my black skirt and shirt with a brush of my hand. “I’m already wearing a uniform.”
“Not good enough.” Stacy shrugged and handed me the new uniform. “This is a high-class gig.” She gestured to the expensive kitchen equipment behind us. “I’m surprised Larry isn’t making us wear evening gowns.”
I snorted. “That, or lingerie,” I quipped as I spied a bathroom sign and hustled over, tugging my jacket off before I’d made it into one of the female stalls.
I heard Stacey walk into the room behind me. “Larry’s going ballistic about this one. Got a long list of dos and don’ts. He made me personally promise to remind you to look presentable. Seriously, he’s crazier than usual.”
I’d left the door to my stall ajar, and Stacey nudged it further open. She handed me a cute, little makeup bag.
“I’ve already got plenty on,” I said as I wriggled into an extremely well-fitting skirt and blouse.
“It’s not enough. Larry wants everybody looking our best. And Larry…” she trailed off.
I frowned, finally managing to wrestle the blouse over my bust. “Larry is what?” I nudged the door open with my knee and faced Stacy as I zipped my skirt up and buttoned my top. “He was weird on the phone,” I pointed out as I grabbed Stacy’s makeup bag and rifled through it for a shade of lipstick that didn’t belong on a news anchorwoman from the 90s. Clutching a suitably soft pink, I darted over to the large mirror behind the sink and started to apply the lipstick with a quick hand.
Stacy frowned as she turned around and jumped onto the counter. She sat there, swinging her legs, looking decidedly un-Stacy as she continued to consider me with a concerned look. “Something’s not right with him. I mean, I know we’re always saying that, but seriously… I’ve never seen him like this.”
I smudged my lipstick, hand ticking to the side as a sudden burst of nerves pounded through my gut.
While I thought, deep down, that Larry was a good guy. The cops might not agree. I’d heard enough around town to know he wasn’t always an upstanding businessman.
I frowned at Stacy as I grabbed some mascara and started applying way too much until my eyes looked like they were framed by spider legs. “What do you mean? Where is he, anyway? He should have been at the door, chiding me for being late.”
Stacy shrugged. “I saw him when I got here. But I haven’t seen him since. Camille from the kitchen staff said she saw him darting off into a taxi an hour ago after he had a conversation with a god.”
I arched an eyebrow. No, I didn’t think Stacey actually thought old Larry McGregor of Fabulous Catering Services had nicked off in a taxi after a meeting with the divine.
One look at the way Stacey was biting her lips told me the only godly thing about the guy Larry had talked to would be his butt. Or his abs. Or his chest – Stacey was never picky.
“What guy was he talking to?” I clicked the lid on the mascara and shoved it back into Stacey’s makeup purse.
She took an entirely unnecessary breath as if she had plans on swooning into the sink. “Franklin Saunders. This party is his. I heard from the other waitresses that he has just rented out this entire tower. You know who he is, right?”
Yeah, sure – I knew Franklin Saunders. Anyone who stepped foot in Saint Helios City soon met the guy. And no, he didn’t walk up to you and personally introduce himself – he was just everywhere. From the gossip rags to newspapers, you couldn’t move without news of Mr Saunders. The city’s number one philanthropic, rich, handsome bachelor. The media couldn’t get enough of him, and nor could any red-blooded female.
Franklin was the kind of perfect you didn’t actually see in real life. Though I’d never met him personally, by all accounts, he looked like a Greek statue come to life. Airbrushed, muscled, and crammed into a fine Kashmir suit, Gucci loafers, and a Cartier platinum watch.
“It’s like the guy’s been carved out of hotness or something.” Stacey fanned herself.
I ignored her textbook, girlie move and scratched at my neck.
What was going on here? When Larry had said he would rather owe me than Franklin Saunders, had it been more than a throwaway comment?
“Anyhow, when you’re finished here, we need you on the floor. Drinks are about to start.” Stacy jumped off the bench, pivoted, checked her lipstick, and waved as she walked through the door.
She left me there, frowning at my own reflection.
My phone vibrated with a message, the sound so unexpected I had to stifle a yelp.
Groping in my bag, I pulled out my mobile and frowned all the harder when I saw it was my mother. The text was suitably brief. Just three words, in fact: not good enough.
It was a response to my earlier message that I wouldn’t be able to see grandma today.
I sucked in what I hoped would be a calming breath, but it just made me all the more pissed off. Lashing out, I kicked the bench. Though everything in this building was made of steel and polished chrome, I still managed to dent it.
“Shit,” I spat under my breath, dropping down and running a hand over the damage.
A good girl, in my grandmother’s eyes, would promptly turn around and tell management what she’d done. Me? I walked away, grabbing Stacey’s makeup bag. Checking my reflection one last time, I left.
I wouldn’t bother replying to my mother’s text until this gig was over. And, hey, by that time, maybe I wouldn’t have to reschedule with my Nona – maybe she would be dead.
I winced at the thought. There were some lines even I wouldn’t cross.
Or at least, so I told myself.
This was it. He was a dead man. Even if he managed to make it back to Saunders in time, it wouldn’t count.
Larry had already burnt too many bridges.
“Move your funkin’ ass,” Larry spat at the taxi driver as he banged his knuckles against the glass dividing window.
“Sir, I’m driving as fast as I can.”
“Well, it ain’t fast enough. I’ve got two minutes.”
Franklin Saunders had given Larry two days to retrieve the box. Larry had gotten it. But it had cost him. He’d had to personally go against Hank Chaplain’s men to steal it back. And Hank Chaplain? He was the worst asshole in Saint Helios City.
Larry was a small fish, and Hank had always ignored him, only partnering up occasionally if Hank really wanted something Larry could get.
Now Larry had burnt that bridge.
All to get this stupid box back.
Not for the first time, he timidly ran a hand along the rough wood. The thing was old – ancient if Barney was any expert. And he was; Larry had stolen enough antiques from clients over the years to appreciate that Barney had a real nose for figuring out how much something was worth.
This box? When Barney had seen it, his beady eyes had popped. The old grouch had doubled over his bench, practically salivating.
Larry had tuned out most of what Barney had said. There’d been something about ancient Norse runes carved into the wood. Something about the box potentially being thousands of years old.
The only thing Larry had cared about was one little word: priceless.
Priceless never meant priceless. It meant something was so rare it couldn’t be replaced. Larry knew from experience that everything – everything – in life could be bought. You just had to find someone willing to pay.
Now Larry’s knuckles tensed, protruding like white rubber balls against his flesh as he pushed the box harder into his chest. It was Larry’s turn to pay.
Pay for his sins, as Franklin Saunders had put it.
“Just hurry the hell up,” Larry snapped as he glanced at the clock on the dash once more.
One minute. Larry had one minute. If he didn’t show up at Franklin’s door in time….
“God, it’s packed in there.” Stacey grabbed her skirt, neatening it with a quick pat as she shoved her empty tray toward me.
I leaned past, catching a glimpse through the service door. Stacey was right – the function hall was packed. It was a massive room, too.
“There’s gotta be at least 500 people in there,” I whistled under my breath.
“Sure are, and they’re drinking like fish. We need more champagne and Chardonnay, stat.”
“I’ll let the kitchen know.”
“No, I will. You’ve got to get out there – I’m all smudged,” Stacy pointed out as she checked her reflection in her shiny silver tray.
“You look okay,” I tried.
She snorted at me derisively. “You think okay is good enough? My future husband’s waiting out there.”
I chuckled. “Does he know that?”
She flashed me a smile that was all teeth. “He will soon. Now cover me while I go do some touchups.”
I didn’t question. I grabbed one of the trays along the service bench to my side, smoothly backed toward the door, pushed it open, turned, and entered the function.
Immediately, I smoothed a smile over my lips. The kind of smile that would not be moved no matter what happened. Drunk guy spills his burgundy down my pristine white shirt? I would smile. Some old lady elbows me in the face while she reaches for a canapé? I would smile. Some letch goes for my ass? I would smile stiffly then tell the kitchen to spit in his drink.
It was all about the smile, as Larry always said.
My mind instantly snapped back to him. I hadn’t seen him yet. Which was insane. Larry ran his business right down to the minutest detail. He took micromanaging to a new level. As he always harped on, he hadn’t created the city’s most lucrative catering company by sitting back and watching buffoons like me flop around ineptly.
Then again, it wasn’t micromanaging that had brought Larry his success. Considering some of the rumors I’d heard about him, it sounded like Larry wasn’t always shy about taking a souvenir from clients. And the richer the clients? The more expensive the souvenir.
You’d think, knowing this, that I wouldn’t work for him. Firstly, I needed the money. Secondly… god, I don’t know, but I seriously didn’t think Larry was a bad guy. Sure, he was as crooked as a gnarled tree, but that didn’t make him bad.
I knew instinctively that my grandmother would cringe at my loose morality. To her, Larry had broken countless laws and should pay for them. To me? Larry had lived a hard life. Sure, that didn’t justify stealing. But let’s face it – the kinds of rich assholes who could afford functions like this were also stealing. They were just doing it in public by messing with everyone’s finances. Society was strangely okay with that. I wasn’t.
A guy leaned past me and snatched one of the drinks off my tray before turning to offer the woman beside him a wink.
She was stunning, decked out in a blue satin dress with diamonds draped around her throat.
I glanced at her but didn’t stare. Because I wasn’t allowed to stare. Smile, of course. But staring – actually using your eyes to make eye contact with people – that reminded them you were here. Reminded them that they should say thank you, please, and excuse me.
The only time these guys would say thanks to anyone was when they were helping themselves to your retirement fund and screwing up the economy.
So, without making eye contact, I offered the woman a drink.
She reached out one long, elegant arm, hesitated then took one of the flutes of champagne. And that brief moment of hesitation? It was enough that I swore I saw something.
Something that couldn’t have been there. Something that must’ve been a trick of the light. Maybe it was a reflection from all those glittering diamonds.
Still, for the briefest fraction of a second, it had looked as if a symbol had flickered over her wrist. A symbol made entirely of blue light.
I twitched with nerves, and that cold hard lump I’d been battling in my chest for weeks suddenly became all the colder.
It was such a pronounced, awful feeling, I had to readjust the tray as I rubbed at my sternum.
Feeling my cheeks slacken and a quick sweat slick across my brow, I turned on my foot quickly, wanting to do the rounds and get off the floor before I fainted or hurled. Larry may be a good guy way underneath, but if I screwed up this gig, he’d find some way to make me pay.
I turned so fast that I didn’t see a figure behind me until it was too late.
I slammed into a man, and instantly I lost hold of the tray, the drinks teetering to the side.
Before they could fall all over me and smash against my feet, something happened. Something my rational mind told me shouldn’t be possible.
The guy I’d bumped into pushed a hand out, grabbed my wrist, and twisted it to the side. It was a precise move, a smooth move. It straightened the tray and stopped the glasses from falling. A few glasses splashed their sticky, alcoholic contents over the tray and my wrist, but that was it.
As soon as I was stable, he took a step backward.
You know that trick where a magician comes along and grabs a tablecloth, pulling it out from underneath an expensive dining setting?
Yeah, that was like this. Except this was real and way more impressive.
I stood there, heart pounding as I stared up at the guy.
Except he wasn’t just a guy. As the man brought a hand up and neatened his tie, straightening a strange, brass tie pin until it sat perfectly horizontal with his collar bone, he offered me a short nod.
And who was he, exactly?
Oh, he was Franklin Saunders.
The Franklin Saunders.
And he was way hotter in the flesh than he was in the magazines. Which, my mind told me, should be impossible. There wasn’t any airbrushing in real life, no fancy lighting, no staged sets. And yet Franklin Saunders looked… sharper, clearer, realer than anything I’d ever seen.
And no, I was not a girly girl. Unlike Stacy, I didn’t sit on bathroom benches and pretend I was going to swoon.
Still, I couldn’t fight the effect he was having on me.
I’d drawn a crowd. I may not have just broken a tray full of expensive champagne on the floor, but that didn’t matter. Franklin Saunders had used super-human reflexes to save a ditsy waitress.
People were already craning their necks to stare.
Clearing my throat and redoubling my grip on the tray, I managed a quick, throaty, “Thank you, sir.” I twisted around to leave quickly. As I did, I heard the woman in the blue dress introduce Franklin. It sounded like she was his secretary.
Seriously, his secretary? She looked as if she were wearing a million bucks.
Trying to hide behind my fringe, I had to fight off the urge to turn and get another look at him.
I had to fight and fight, and by the time I made it to the service door, I lost the battle. With one hand resting on the smooth metal frame, I shifted over my shoulder, craning my neck as far as it would go until I caught sight of him. Fortunately, he was tall and broad enough that he stood a full head and shoulders above most of the crowd.
Fortunately, he was also turned in my direction. No… he wasn’t just turned in my direction – he was facing me, looking right at me. And even from here I could see a slight, confused frown pressing over his lips. His gaze darted from his hand then back to me, almost as if I’d left a stain on his fingers when he’d grabbed my wrist.
My heart started to go crazy. It was as if somebody had reached inside my chest cavity, wrapped their hands around my heart, and started shaking it with all their might.
And that cold sensation lodged in my sternum?
The unmistakable taste of metal filled my mouth as my head started to spin.
Before I could drop the tray again, somebody suddenly shoved the service door from the other side. The door rammed into my shoulder, and I jolted forward.
I managed to shift, saving the tray in time, even more of the wine spilling out of the glasses and covering my arm as I turned in time to see Larry.
He was finally here. And he was as white as a sheet of ice. His cheeks were so sallow it looked as if he hadn’t rolled out of bed that morning, but he’d rolled out of the grave instead.
“Larry? You okay?” I asked in a stuttering breath.
He ignored me. He stood there, somehow growing paler by the second as he appeared to search the crowd for somebody.
That somebody started to walk toward him.
As soon as Larry made eye contact with Franklin, it looked as if the little guy would have a heart attack.
Franklin brought a hand up and tried to straighten his brass tie pin once more. “Let’s take this somewhere quiet,” he suggested.
One of the other wait staff had bustled past me, and as she shifted out of the way, Franklin’s eyes locked on me.
His stare didn’t stay on me, though. His attention fixed on my wrist. The same wrist he’d clutched minutes before.
He looked like he wanted to ask something, but he didn’t get the chance.
Larry untucked something from under his arm. Whatever it was, it had been hastily crammed underneath Larry’s jacket. Larry never took his jacket off at gigs like this. It could be sweltering, the air con could be broken, but Larry always wore his suit and tail.
Now his pristine jacket was getting crumpled under his sweaty grip.
Larry, usually as talkative as a pet parrot, didn’t say a word as he turned and walked back through the service door.
Franklin appeared to pause for several seconds, his attention still riveted on me.
I watched his lips open, watched him begin to ask me something.
What it was, I didn’t get the opportunity to find out.
At that moment, several more waitresses shifted through the door, blocking me from view.
When I looked up again, Franklin had disappeared, the service door swinging on its hinges.
I stood there, stock still, for several seconds. Several seconds where my heart rammed so hard in my chest, I was sure I would end the night in the hospital.
Back when I’d been a kid, I’d been anxious. Though I hid it well as an adult, I got scared easily. I always found it hard to talk myself down whenever terror raised its ugly head.
I had plenty of coping mechanisms these days, but deep down, under this acerbic personality I’d built myself, I was still that scared, anxious child. And right now, she shivered. Shivered at the look Franklin had given her, shivered at Larry’s pale cheeks, and more than anything, shivered at the cold spreading through her chest.
Stacy suddenly walked through the door. “Hey, there you are.” She looked flustered. “Suzy has burnt herself in the kitchen. I’ve got to get back out onto the floor. Can you get the first aid kit—” she began.
I didn’t give her the chance to finish. I walked through the service door.
“Hey!” she protested.
Though all I wanted to do was turn tail and hide, I… found myself strangely pulled toward Franklin.
For somebody with known anxiety problems, I also had a known curiosity problem. And those two disorders did not go hand-in-hand. Sometimes I would flip. I would become intensely curious about the very thing that made me frightened, so curious that I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from seeking it out.
And that’s what was happening now, right? That’s what was drawing me after Franklin and Larry. Curiosity and a desired to ensure Larry was safe.
It had to be curiosity, because what else could it be? It couldn’t be that I felt… compelled. That the cold sensation welling in the center of my chest felt like it was pulling me along, like somebody had wrapped a rope around my wrist and was now dragging me forward with relentless strength.
I tuned out the chatter of the wait staff as they bustled around me. Instead, I followed Franklin and Larry at a distance. Though Franklin appeared to take Larry on a circuitous route through the depths of the building, I never got lost. It was almost as if I knew where they were going….
I had no idea what I was doing – none. This was crazy. And yet I couldn’t stop.
I followed them until they came to a relatively simple corridor, considering how fancy the rest of this building was.
Pressing myself behind a thankfully tall and verdant Kentia palm, I watched Franklin open a door and lead Larry inside.
“God, what the hell is happening?” I mouthed under my breath.
I teetered on the spot, trying to decide whether to turn around or try to overhear what was being said.
My curiosity won out.
I darted out from behind the tall palm and shifted forward warily.
Shaking, I pressed my ear against the closed door. My fingers practically scrabbled over the door in my eagerness to overhear what was being said within.
At first, all I could discern were low, muffled tones, interspersed here and there with louder bursts as if somebody was shouting. With my heart ramming hard in my throat, I tried to decide what to do. It wasn’t as if Larry McGregor ever had trouble holding his own. And yet, even a fool would realize he was no physical match for Franklin Saunders.
Again my wrist tingled where he’d grabbed it. In fact, it did more than tingle. If I’d had the presence of mind to drag it up and check the skin, I would have seen something. Something funny, something flickering, and something winding its way under my skin. But right now all I could do was lock my full attention on that door and the argument within.
I wasn’t a lucky girl. Nor was I very good at predicting events even when they were obvious. I was more of the kind of clueless chick who would miss the leprechaun for the rainbow. And yet, right now, my tummy pitched, and just in time I scuttled off down the corridor, found a half-open door, and threw myself within. A second later, I heard a door open and footsteps ring out.
Pressing myself against the doorframe and peering out of the crack in the door, I caught sight of two figures: Larry and Franklin. I could have fallen to my knees as a relieved shudder passed through my body. Larry was alive, then.
Of course he was alive, my rational mind retorted immediately. Because this entire situation was innocent, right? I hadn’t slept well last night, I was stressed, and god knows I wasn’t eating well. The tingle dancing through my wrist, the look Franklin Saunders had shot me – none of this was real. It was all my overactive imagination—
“So what happens now?” Larry asked through an unmistakable shaky, terrified breath.
I watched Franklin Saunders smooth down his tie and take special care to neaten his brass tie pin. I hadn’t managed to get a good look at it when I’d seen him in the function hall, and I was too far away to properly discern it now. And yet, whatever it was, it was clearly important to him. Evidenced by the fact he gave it one more lingering pat before he stretched out his shoulders and let his hands tensely drop to his sides. “What happens now, Larry McGregor, is this: you leave town, you sell your business, you donate the proceeds to charity, and you never return.”
I waited for Franklin to laugh, for somebody to point out this all had to be a joke. But from the ashen, destroyed look crumpling Larry’s features, to the tight, determined angle of Franklin’s jaw – none of this looked funny.
Stifling a gasp, I crammed a hand over my mouth, crumpling my lips with my rigid fingers and feeling saliva slick my skin.
“Sell everything—” Larry began, voice shaking. Not with anger, mind you, but with fright. The Larry I knew would take the opportunity to turn hard on his foot, sock Franklin on the jaw, and laugh his ass soft. There was nothing more important to Larry than money. And giving every cent he owned to charity? Yeah, he would rather feed his entrails to a bear.
So why did Larry take a dejected step back, his eyes now so hooded it looked as if they were trying to sink through his skull?
“Yes, sell everything. Give the proceeds to charity. And, Larry McGregor, never come to my attention again.” With that, Franklin Saunders turned hard on his foot, his expensive shoes squeaking over the polished floor. He neatened his tie pin once more, cracked his shoulders, and walked off.
I stood there, still pressed up against the crack in the doorway, breath a frozen lump in my lungs.
Larry took an unsteady step toward the wall, planted a hand onto the plaster, let his head drop, and breathed. Just when I thought he would keel over, he pushed a hand into his pocket and plucked out his mobile.
Franklin Saunders may have been the richest man in town, but Larry McGregor was no pushover. He also had the kind of contacts in the underworld who would make any good boy cringe. Except Larry didn’t make a call to every mob kingpin he knew. Instead, he called his bank.
I only caught the beginning of the conversation before Larry pulled himself together and walked off down the corridor. But I heard enough to confirm one fact – Larry was selling everything.
As soon as his heavy, dejected footfall was out of earshot, I let a gasp rattle out of my mouth. I took a step back into the darkened room behind me, now cramming a hand so hard over my mouth it was a surprise I didn’t squeeze my lips into spaghetti. “What the hell is going on here?” I questioned no one in particular.
This… this couldn’t be happening.
It had to be some kind of mistake. A game, maybe. Perhaps Larry had seen me dart into this room, and he was good friends with Franklin – and the two were now playing a trick on me. Except they didn’t turn around, rush up, and laugh until they went blue in the face.
“Shit,” I muttered under my breath, finally realizing I couldn’t exactly stay in this room forever.
Instead, carefully checking that no one was in sight, I walked out, cringing when the door creaked on its hinges. It didn’t bring Franklin Saunders powering down the corridor, though.
No, fortunately I was alone.
Adrenaline pumped through every muscle and tissue, leaving my fingers and toes tingling as if I’d just dragged them through a bed of lightning.
I hesitated before shifting forward. Though common sense told me to get the hell out of here, I was way beyond common sense.
Because… I felt something in the room Franklin and Larry had been in. As I approached, I felt like I was being reeled in like a caught fish.
I couldn’t really describe it. This sense shot down my back and sunk hard into my middle. It left a tight shiver racing across my shoulders.
I crammed a hand on my tummy and tried to stifle the strange sensation. But there was no chasing it away.
My gaze cut up and locked on that doorway once more.
Now I’d confirmed Larry was okay(ish), I should have been rushing to get the first aid box for Suzy, but suddenly that didn’t matter. Suddenly, nothing at all mattered, apart from that door.
Almost unconscious of the action, and completely unable to stop it, I reached a hand forward. As my fingers brushed the cold metal handle, I had a sudden second of clarity – just enough to question what I was about to do.
Curiosity got the better of me. I opened the door and walked into the room. It was simple, seriously simple compared to the rest of this opulent building. It was almost entirely unadorned, except for a single desk and a single chair.
It was a small room, and it had no windows. I really doubted it was somebody’s office. Not unless they were really unpopular. Nope, the first impression that came to mind was an interrogation room.
I shifted forward, hand still locked on the door handle. Almost instantly my gaze was drawn toward an object sitting on the desk. It was a book. I leaned forward and picked it up. Frowning as my fingers brushed against the old black leather, a jolt of something snapped hard up my back. It was such a powerful sensation, I felt as if I’d been thrown from my feet.
“What? What the hell?” I stuttered.
Before I could open the book and find out what was inside, I saw something that had been hidden beneath it: a small wooden box.
I was no expert when it came to antiques, but I was guessing it wasn’t from the local souvenir store. The wood was cracked and chipped, marked with age. There was something about that unmistakable feeling of antiquity that lapped off the box that made me grind to a standstill. I stood there, frozen like someone had just locked me in shackles.
Unconsciously, before I knew what I was doing, I reached a hand out and plucked the box up. A tight shiver escaped down my back: fast, unrelenting as it took my heart on a rollercoaster ride.
Suddenly and completely overtaken by the box, I let the book drop. It fell onto the table in front of me, opening to a seemingly random page. It caught my attention for half a second, and that was all it took.
The book was almost a ledger, except it wasn’t reconciling accounts. Instead, it appeared to reconcile crime. A name was written in the left hand column. None other than Larry McGregor. Written in the right-hand column was a horrible list of crimes: theft, racketeering, aiding and abetting, cooking the books. You name it – apparently Larry had done it.
My lips froze open in surprise as I brought the book up and read it.
It didn’t take long for the box to steal away my attention once more. Placing the book back down, I slowly sat in the chair. Unintentionally, I ran a hand over the box. There was an odd symbol carved in the lid. It didn’t look rough, and yet cut my thumb as I stroked it.
Yelping, I sucked in a sharp breath as several droplets of blood splashed down from my thumb and ran along the carved symbol.
Something… something started to happen. Light. Light began to spill along the symbol as if someone had somehow filled it with fire.
“What the hell?” I screamed as I pushed the box back. I jolted to my feet.
At first, my rational mind told me it was some kind of electrical effect. There must be globes hidden under the wood, too small to see.
But a second later, unmistakable blue flames grew brighter and brighter. They began to leap all over the wood, somehow consuming it without destroying it.
I jolted back again, my foot catching the chair leg. The chair clattered out from behind me, slamming against the floor with a rattling thump.
I felt something moving along my thumb. Shrieking and backing off, I jerked my hand from side-to-side. I assumed it was a spider, but it was no spider.
As I brought my hand around, I saw a tiny lick of blue flame trapped within the skin. For a sudden, shifting moment of shock, I could do nothing but stand there and stare at it.
Then… then something exploded across my skin. At the same time, the coldest sensation I’d ever felt spread through my chest. It shifted with all the chaotic fury of wildfire, and yet felt as cold as the heart of the oldest glacier.
Symbols exploded across my body. They started from the cut in my thumb, powering down my wrist, exploding up my hand, and rushing over my chest.
“Oh my god!” I shrieked, shaking my hand wildly as I tried but failed to dislodge the light.
Symbols danced over my flesh like live tattoos. At first, they stung but soon felt like nothing more than creatures wending beneath my skin.
I screamed and screamed, but no one could hear me.
Shaking, practically convulsing, I cowered against the wall, back slamming into it as I lost all balance. Knees buckling, I fell on my ass.
With one hand still raised, I stared in abject horror as the light grew brighter and brighter. It now filled this tiny room, sending shifting shadows playing along the bare, stark walls and underneath the simple desk.
My head started to spin. Stars exploded through my vision. The taste of iron filled my mouth as if I’d just been struck on the side of the head.
As my shoulders hunched in and I felt myself lose all muscular control, I heard a creak.
The door opened.
I had a single second to use the last of my energy to lift my head.
I saw a man. Through my swimming vision, I made out a golden beard, flax-colored hair, and piercing, piercing blue eyes.
Overcome by light, I reached a shaking hand out to him. “Help me,” I managed.
As I lost consciousness, I had time to notice one fact – he did not accept my hand. He simply watched as I fainted, those blue eyes never leaving the symbols dancing along my flesh.
I awoke with my face pressed into the concrete.
It was so hard to rouse myself. My thoughts were a pounding mess right in the center of my skull. It felt as if somebody had replaced my gray matter with a pulsing heart. But slowly, slowly I came around.
Though my muscles ached as if I’d just run 20 marathons in a row, I groaned as I found the strength to push into a seated position.
It took several seconds for my bleary eyes to take in the rest of the room. There was no light on, and the only illumination was a slice coming in from underneath the closed door.
No. No, that wasn’t the only illumination. I yanked my hands up and turned them over. And there I saw the light. The same light that had pulsed over my body, the same light that had driven me to my knees, and the very same light that had knocked me out to begin with.
I jolted so hard that my back slammed up against the wall behind me. My leg also shifted forward and snagged the desk in the room. I hit it with such force that it almost fell over.
Breath shuddering in my chest, I began to cover my mouth with my hand but pulled back when I saw those same strange symbols dancing across my flesh in cold, blue flame.
Just as tears began to streak down my cheeks, I heard something. Breath.
Someone was in the room with me.
“Who’s there? Who’s there?” I demanded in a shaking voice as I pressed myself against the wall with all my might. My shoulders were so locked with tension, it felt as if they would pop out from their joints and fall loosely by my shaking knees.
I heard someone shift. Through the gloom, I saw him: the guy who’d come in just before I’d lost consciousness.
He’d been standing there on the opposite side of the room, arms crossed, staring at me in the dark. Now he came close enough that I could see his face from the illumination of the marks along my hands.
I shuddered back, pushing so hard against the wall it was as if I were trying to push right through it.
“What… what do you want?”
“What do you want?” he asked in a completely casual, normal tone. Exactly not the kind of tone you would use against a frightened woman who was covered in burning symbols.
I jolted so hard against the wall, the back of my skull slammed into it and I felt a shifting pulse of nausea sweep down my neck and plunge into my back.
Again I went to cover my mouth with my hand, but again I jerked back at the sight of those symbols.
With my stare locked on Franklin’s imposing form, I tried to rub the symbols off my flesh. But they wouldn’t budge. Even when I gouged at them with my nails, they could not be removed.
Franklin stood a half a meter before me, then he casually leaned to the side, shifting his weight against the table as he ticked his head on an angle and looked at me. “You’re a witch, then?”
I had no idea what he’d just said. My desperate gaze sliced off him and locked on that dim line of illumination under the doorway.
I knew I had zero chance against a guy with Franklin’s build. Even with a gun, I doubted I could down him.
My only chance lay out in the corridor among other people.
“They can’t help you,” he said.
I stiffened, a cold slick of sweat drenching my brow and flooding between my shoulders. “What?”
“There’s no one out there anymore. They’ve all gone home.”
“What have you done with them?” My voice shook so badly I could barely understand it.
Franklin chuckled. “Nothing. Like I said, they’ve gone home. It’s 4 o’clock in the morning.”
“4 o’clock?” I repeated in a shaking voice that was little more than breath and desperation. “That’s not possible.”
He gave another unkind chuckle. “You were out for five hours.”
I shook my head, wrenching it from side-to-side. “W-what’s going on here?” I asked through another choked breath, the light along my hands pulsing even brighter like a flame that had just been fed a mound of dry wood.
This time Franklin didn’t chuckle. He pushed off the table, and I heard its legs grate against the marked concrete.
If I’d stiffened before, it was absolutely nothing compared to what my back did now. It felt as if I had become so rigid I’d turned into a carved statue.
I heard the creak of his knees as he shifted down into a kneeling position.
I freaked out. Something within me – the fear that had welled and welled upon waking – it broke. I kicked at him, and my foot rammed into his knee.
It was a good blow, solid. I’d taken a couple of self-defense lessons way back when I’d started waitressing shady gigs. So I knew the kick was strong, just as I knew it caught him right on the tip of the knee. It should send him back no matter his size.
The problem was, it didn’t. It felt like I’d just kicked a mountain.
“Get away from me. Get away from me!” I screamed, voice pitching high. Then I realized something: I should have screamed earlier. “Help, someone help me. Help me, please! I’m being attacked!”
“No one can hear you,” he repeated in that same dull, easy, casual tone as if we were chatting about nothing more important than the weather.
I tried to kick him once more, and even though I connected with his knee again, it just didn’t matter.
I saw his hand reach toward me. I saw it because the light playing across my skin caught the underside of his fingers as they stretched my way.
“No, get away from me,” I began.
I couldn’t push him back. A second later, he latched a hand around my wrist and pulled me forward.
I can’t say the move was violent. He didn’t try to wrench my arm from my shoulder. It wasn’t exactly gentle, either.
No, it was cautious.
He didn’t use his grip to yank me to my feet. Instead, I felt him lean closer as he appeared to appraise the symbols still dancing along my flesh.
I could feel them. Feel them like they were insects burrowing underneath my skin. Insects made of light and fire. Except the fire? It burnt cold.
I’d never felt more frozen in my life. Maybe it was the fear, maybe it was the adrenaline, maybe it was the fact I’d apparently spent the last five hours in this cold room.
Or maybe it was the symbols.
I felt as if my insides had been carved from ice.
“Fortunate,” he muttered to himself. Then, abruptly, he let my hand go.
I hadn’t been supporting it, and it slammed into the concrete with a crack.
Hissing against the pain, I instantly brought my arm up and cradled it against my chest. Then I tipped my head back, way back as I stared at him. He looked even more imposing in this gloom.
“Please, please, just let me go.”
“You don’t deserve to be let go,” he commented.
And that comment was enough to completely extinguish the rest of my hope. Up until that point, it hadn’t been clear what Franklin Saunders was planning.
Now it was.
He reached over, not turning from me, using one of his long, strong arms to pluck something up from the desk. The same book that had Larry McGregor and every crime he’d ever committed written neatly on one of the pages.
Franklin patted a hand down his suit and produced a pen from his pocket. Then he proceeded to open the book and began to write on a fresh new page.
With my heart ramming against my ribs, feeling like it would tear the lining from the flesh and then chip away at the cartilage and bone, I shuddered. “What are you doing? Please, look, whatever you think I’ve done—”
He abruptly finished writing and closed the book with a snap. “I don’t think you’ve done anything. I know what you’ve done,” he concluded in a rumbling tone. It was the kind of strong, punchy tone that would get anyone’s attention. It didn’t just shake through him, but rattled the room.
As for me? It felt like he clutched his hands on my shoulders and threatened to ram me into the floor.
“What?” I asked through a rasp.
He made a show of putting his pen back in his pocket, then, leaning against the table once more, he opened the book. “Petty theft at the age of five. You went to the local supermarket and stole an orange.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You followed that up with a string of offenses during your teens. Stealing, for you, was how you found yourself away from your family, wasn’t it?”
“What… what are you talking about?”
“It escalated until you stole from family friends. This time, you’d gone too far. This time, they were going to call the police. And they would have if it weren’t for your grandmother. She paid off the debt, smoothed things over, kept you safe.”
“I… I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I stuttered. I was frozen to the spot. The cold in my chest kept sinking further and further through my body until it felt like I would never know warmth again.
It wasn’t just the magical symbols dancing over my hands. It was what he was saying.
He wasn’t making these wild accusations up.
They were true.
The kind of truth I’d swept under the rug. Everyone was foolish in their teens, weren’t they? Everyone made mistakes. You were meant to forget them and move on. Problem was, this guy had a list of every rule I’d broken and crime I’d committed.
I began to submit to the situation. I didn’t surrender, I just stopped, like a bird that had become immobilized by the presence of a predator it could not escape.
The symbols continued to dance across my skin, the cold continued to march through my chest, and Franklin Saunders continued to read through my crimes.
“Who… who are you? How do you know these things?”
“It’s irrelevant. You don’t need to know who I am. All you need to do is pay for what you’ve done.” His voice changed. For the first time, it wasn’t easy anymore. There was no longer any sense of casual calm. No, it was dark. Dark like the room around me.
“Oh god, oh god. What are you going to do? What are you going to do?” I began to speak so quickly I couldn’t draw my breath in fast enough.
“I’m not finished.” He brought up a hand as if I were being impudent for interrupting his speech. “Your petty crimes pale in comparison to what you did tonight,” he said. Again his voice became so dark it made this gloomy room luminescent in comparison.
“Tonight?” I gulped through a shaking breath. “I haven’t done anything. Look, I didn’t mean to find this room, that book, that… box,” I could barely say it. My voice became so twisted on the word box, it was like it had tied knots around my throat.
“Just like you didn’t mean to become distracted by your greed and ignore the plight of a friend? Weren’t you meant to go find a first-aid box for Suzy? Just like you didn’t mean to accept Larry McGregor’s offer for work instead of seeing your grandmother before she died?”
“W-what are you talking about? My grandmother isn’t dead.” Even as I said it, cold dread began to form in my gut like a knot.
“You promised you’d see her tonight. And she held on to the hope you would. But when you backed out once more, it became too much for her. Lilly White, your grandmother’s dead. She died two hours ago.”
It was blow after blow. Relentless. From reading through my crimes, to casually commenting on the fact my grandmother was now dead – just as my chest had become cold, this situation had now turned to ice.
I wasn’t equipped to deal with something like this. I wasn’t the kind of girl who could roll with the punches. I liked a neat, orderly, explainable life. And from the symbols dancing across my skin, to Franklin Saunders’ cold eyes as he stared at me and judged my every crime – none of this was explainable.
I began to breathe harder, my heart pounding with such fury it felt like my chest would explode.
A couple of times as I’d been growing up, I’d hyperventilated. Anxiety. Anxiety caused by a girl who could never grow up and fit the shoes that had been left for her.
If Franklin noticed, he didn’t seem to care. He continued to stare at me, his head on an angle. “What do you say?”
“How do you answer for your crimes?”
The fear – the total fear that had seen me riveted to the spot abruptly twisted and turned into a pulse of anger. “Let me go, you bastard. Let me out of here. Someone, anyone, please, help me!”
“There is no one to help you. You have angered the gods, and now you will pay.”
“Angered the gods? You’re crazy. Oh god, you’re mad—”
He let out another distinct chuckle.
“Gods don’t exist. This can’t be happening. It can’t be happening.”
“It is happening. And the symbols on your arms beg to differ – gods do exist.” With that, he returned the book to the table, closed it neatly, then patted his hands down his front, smoothing his jacket.
He reached behind him and produced something from his back pocket.
My attention was riveted on him as I saw a flash of metal.
It was a gun.
Oh god, it was a gun.
Tears ran down my cheeks, bathing my shaking face as I sobbed wildly. “What’s going on? Who are you? Please, if there’s any way—”
He stopped. That flash of metal I’d seen in his hand somehow disappeared. He took a step toward me. I saw him outlined in full this time, even though no one had stepped into the room and handily turned on the lights.
His body… it was almost as if it began to glow. That, or the symbols along my hands and down my arms suddenly became all the brighter.
Stacy had been right, and even though this was a terrible time to pause and note it – Franklin Saunders was impossibly good-looking. With emphasis on the impossible. He just seemed… realer. Even the darkened room behind him seemed to drop off into insignificance compared to him.
It wasn’t just that his body was large, his muscles practically rippling under his tight suit. It was way more than that.
I caught sight of the flash in his eyes. And I do mean flash. For, in an instant, it looked as if his irises turned into torch beams, or someone shoved a candle behind them and lit them up from the inside out.
If I’d shaken before, it was absolutely nothing compared to the convulsions that tore through my body now. My shoulders banged against the wall so quickly and with such a rapid beat, it would have sounded like somebody playing a drum.
“Finish your question,” he demanded, voice gravelly.
“Finish your question,” he said once more through a growl.
“You were about to beg me. You were about to ask if there is anything you can do to save your life. Now, finish your question.”
My heart stilled. It wasn’t that I calmed. It was like my heart was about to give up.
I was way beyond terrified now. Way beyond simple fear.
There was a man with glowing eyes staring at me and threatening me in the dark.
I wasn’t stupid enough to pinch myself in case I was dreaming.
This was no dream.
A point that was proven as he took another step toward me, his body once more seeming realer than everything else I had ever seen. Every man, all of them, seemed nothing more than a mere image smeared across reality compared to Franklin Saunders.
“Finish your question,” he growled once more.
My jaw practically unhinged as it opened with a jolt. “Is there… is there….” I couldn’t push it out.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t the kind of girl to deny a torturer what they were looking for. The exact opposite, in fact. I didn’t have a backbone. Sure, sometimes I had a loud mouth, but I wasn’t courageous. Never would be.
And yet, despite the fact this guy was ostensibly offering me a lifeline, I couldn’t clutch it. Because I couldn’t push those damn words out of my mouth.
Again he leaned down. I watched him latch two hands onto his pants to pull them taut to offer his knees room as he knelt down beside me. On his haunches, with his arms propped on the top of his legs, he faced me, little more than a ruler’s length from my face. It offered me the perfect perspective as I saw his lips press open once more. “Finish your sentence,” he said, each word a blast of air against my sallow, tear-streaked cheeks.
Something in me snapped. “Is there anything I can do?”
“To save yourself,” he prompted.
“Say it,” he bellowed, voice bottoming out with such a resonant clap it was as if a bolt of lightning had shaken through the wall behind me.
I whimpered. “Is there anything I can do… is there anything I can do… to save myself?”
There, I’d said it.
I waited – waited as he continued to assess me. Several times, his luminescent eyes darted down and locked on the symbols still playing across my flesh.
They were brighter than ever. In fact, with every passing second, they became lighter and lighter, the runes moving more frantically like flames being pushed around by darting wind.
Again he reached down and picked up my wrist. Though I stiffened and tried to jerk back, his grip was stronger.
Finally, he let my hand drop. Then he faced me once more. “Yes, Lilly White, there is something you can do to save yourself. To redeem yourself,” he added, voice punching out with a guttural bellow.
I shook back against the wall.
He reached a hand into his pocket. I could see another flash of metal, and as my body locked in rigid fear, preparing me for my end, I watched him pull out… a document.
No… it wasn’t a document; it was a scroll. It couldn’t possibly have fit in his pocket. From end-to-end, the scroll was at least a foot and a half long. It was also one of the strangest objects I’d ever seen. The parchment was yellowed and tattered, and looked like it was hundreds of years old. And the wood that held the scroll in place? It was so delicately carved with intricate runes and symbols, it looked as if it belonged in a museum.
“What… what is that?” There was something so mesmerizing about the scroll that it gave me the distraction I needed to push my question out.
“Your lifeline,” he answered simply. He reached a hand around and drew something from his back pocket again. It was the same flash of metal I’d seen before.
This time as he whipped it out and brought it around, I saw what it was.
It was no gun. It was a knife. A dagger carved with three finger holes and a long, curved blade. Blazing down both sides of the knife were two little channels of light.
“Oh god, please. I said what you wanted me to say. Please—”
“Cut your thumb and seal the scroll,” he demanded as he held the knife out toward me.
I was locked with fright as I trained my gaze on the tip of that flashing dagger.
When I didn’t move, he snatched up my wrist and pressed the knife toward me. He did not, however, pluck up my thumb and slice it clean off with the dagger.
He just waited.
“I’m not going to,” I began.
“You have two options, Lilly White – seal the scroll with your blood and submit to the process of redemption, or pay for your crimes.”
“Who the hell are you?” I began.
He ignored me. “You have two options, Lilly White,” he repeated, voice even darker than before.
I crumpled, shaking as I brought out my hand. He didn’t let me hold the knife – he obviously wasn’t that stupid. Instead, as I winced, he clutched up my hand and sliced the tip of the glowing dagger along my thumb.
I expected to feel pain – a bite of agony twisting down my thumb and hard into my wrist.
… Except I didn’t feel a thing. Not a damn thing. I felt the pressure of the dagger as it was dragged across my thumb, and god knows I saw the blood as it spilled from the wound and trickled down my hand. The pain? It wasn’t there.
“What’s going on?” I demanded once more.
“Seal the scroll,” he said, dropping the dagger to the floor as he clutched the scroll with two hands and pressed it before me.
Instantly, my attention locked on the dagger. It was right there, just by my foot. If I managed to surprise him, shoved him out of the way, I could pluck it up….
“You have no chance against me. Just as you have no chance if you try to escape. Succeed, Lilly White, and you’ll find the world out there is a different place now. One that will never welcome you again. Your only option is this.” He pressed the scroll toward me once more.
For the first time, I looked at it, finally dragging my attention off the dagger next to my foot. And as soon as I looked at the scroll… I… felt something. Right in the center of my chest. Exactly the same position where the knot of cold had rested for the past several months.
It felt like… like a blast of something. A cold wind, a roaring blizzard. It felt as if my chest opened out and my body pulsed with a power that was not mine, that was not human.
“Sign it,” Franklin warned once more.
Drawn in by the scroll, I brought my bleeding thumb up and pressed it against the parchment.
The parchment had been blank, nothing more than cracked cream paper. A second later, as my blood dribbled off my finger and spilled across the page, writing appeared. It appeared from my very blood. I felt a wave of nausea as I watched, horrified.
The same strange symbols that had danced across my flesh now danced across the scroll in shimmering red.
They alone were enough to help me fight against the wave of weakness that shot through my body.
Franklin moved. He shifted back, turned the scroll around, stared at it as if checking something, then rolled it up and pressed it into his pocket.
He pushed back and rose, his knees creaking like old trees under an onslaught from a ferocious gale. “That’s the first smart thing you’ve ever done, Lilly White.”
I was still staring at his pocket, where the massive scroll had just disappeared. Finally, however, I jerked my gaze off it and settled it on his luminescent eyes.
I think I’d noticed them back at the party. How impossibly deep they were. They weren’t like eyes, more like doors, like a fire that would never go out.
“What… what happens now?” I forced myself to ask.
He considered me for several seconds. My paranoid mind told me he was pondering exactly how to carve me up. But rather than lurch down, clutch at the dagger, and press it against my jugular, he shoved his hands into his pockets. He arched his head toward the door. Somehow, the door unlocked. It swung open with an ominous creak as it let the light from the corridor flood into the room.
It was so sudden and so blinding, I jerked, brought a hand up, and protected my eyes.
But once more I saw the symbols dancing across my palm and fingers, charging up my wrists, and playing along my arms. Instinctively, I yanked open the rumpled collar of my shirt and stared down in horror as I saw the symbols were all over my chest, too.
With renewed desperation, I tried to rub them off, even raking at them with my fingernails.
“You will not be able to remove them. They will remain with you for the rest of your life. A constant reminder until the day you achieve your redemption.”
“Redemption?” I asked with a shaking voice.
“Come with me, Lilly White.” He turned hard on his foot and headed toward the door.
I didn’t move. Couldn’t move. It wasn’t just that it felt as if I’d lost a liter of blood to that parchment. I was still practically hyperventilating, sucking in breaths so quickly it was like I had a leaky throat.
I heard Franklin pause on the opposite side of the door. “Come,” he demanded once more, voice low.
I ignored him as I brought a hand up, pressed it over my brow, and blinked hard into my palm. Another wave of nausea struck me, and this time I fell hard against the wall.
I couldn’t… couldn’t slow down my breathing. It was getting faster and faster. I just couldn’t… couldn’t suck in enough air!
I heard him shift, and once more he appeared in the doorway. His large, broad form was outlined by the light filtering in from the corridor. I watched as he crossed his arms. “Calm yourself,” he demanded.
What was the point?
Either I’d died and gone to hell, or….
My mind began to shut down. As I hyperventilated, my thoughts fractured like broken glass swarming through my mind, shredding what remained of my consciousness until I fell back. I slid down the wall and crumpled against the concrete floor for the second time that night.
Before I lost consciousness, I watched Franklin sigh. He walked back into the room, and after a single moment of hesitation, leaned in and picked me up. I felt his arms wrap around me, felt him lift me up with the ease of a man carrying nothing more than light.
He carried me from the room as I crumpled against him.
I awoke… in a bed.
Problem was, it wasn’t my bed.
It didn’t take long at all to remember what had just happened. In fact, as soon as I opened my eyes, the memory struck me right in the middle of my skull.
I jolted, a large, soft pillow tumbling out from behind my head and striking the cream carpet below me. Filled with panic, I swiveled my head as I assessed the room.
It was darkened, the only light visible through a crack in the curtains on the far wall.
“Who’s there? Where am I?” I demanded. But the empty room didn’t answer.
Shaking, shivering all over, the cold in my chest so hard and dense it felt like I’d swallowed a glacier, I pushed out of bed. A thick comforter fell off my trembling form as I jumped to my feet. I was unsteady and instantly had to shove a hand out. I locked it on the wall, taking a few seconds to steady myself. Then I shifted back. My eyes were bleary, so I headed toward the only illumination – the crack in the curtains. Still trembling, I reached it, grabbed hold of the fabric, and yanked it open.
And that would be when I gasped. I was on top of the city. Well, virtually on top of it. I was in one of the massive, tall towers in the downtown district. The view was unrivaled, the kind of picturesque panorama you get in one of the top hotels.
“Where… where the hell am I?” I demanded as I turned hard on my foot, feet dragging through the plush carpet.
Now I’d thrown some light into the room, I saw how nice it was.
My room back in my tiny, miniaturized apartment was about 2 m x 2 m. Enough for a short bed and that’s about it. I kept my clothes in plastic boxes under the bed.
This room? God, I couldn’t tell you how large it was. Big enough that it took me more than a few steps to reach the door on the opposite side.
Everything was modern, from the bed to the furniture to the door.
In fact, the door was so modern, it appeared to require a key code to open. As my fingers latched around the handle and I rattled it, a beep filled the air. “You do not have the right to leave this room,” an electronic voice informed me in a dull tone.
“What?” I spluttered as I took a sharp, fast breath.
I’d only hyperventilated a couple of times in the past year. Now it looked as if it would be the third time in a day. My breath began to ram hard into my chest as I tried to suck in as much oxygen as I could.
Just as I felt my body lock with dizziness, the door beeped. I had time to shove backward before it opened.
I expected to see Franklin Saunders.
Instead, I saw a woman. One I recognized from the party.
“You’re… you’re Franklin’s secretary,” I managed. “Where is he? And why am I here? What—”
The woman brought up a hand. She may have been dressed in an exceedingly expensive blue satin dress last night, but now she was in jeans, boots, and a sturdy-looking leather jacket. “Firstly, I am not Franklin’s secretary. That’s insulting. Secondly, you’re here because you’re working off your sins.” Her voice dropped, tone becoming unmistakably judgmental.
Still struggling for breath, I managed to lock a hand on my chest. “Work off my sins? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Do you need a paper bag or something? Calm down. Franklin would have explained the process to you last night. You can’t win any sympathy from me by acting all doe-eyed and terrified.”
“Terrified?” I stuttered, hoping it would reveal just how terrified I was.
I began to back away, leg catching a chair. Before I could tumble over and knock my head against a coffee table, I caught my balance just in time.
With one eyebrow raised, the woman took another step into the room. “It’s time to get you registered. Then, if I were you, I would work double time. I recommend you make a good impression on Vali while you still can. He may have found it in his heart to contract you instead of killing you, but trust me, his heart can change.”
Tears began to streak down my cheeks once more. I stumbled backward until I reached the bed. Flopping onto it, I brought up a hand and slammed it over my chest. I slammed the other hand over my mouth. And that’s when I noticed that I was wearing two large, silver cuffs.
In an instant, I remembered the blue symbols from last night.
I brought my hands up as quickly as I could, staring at them in terror. But there was nothing there.
The woman narrowed her eyes, crossing her arms in front of her bust so tightly it was almost as if she wanted to squeeze herself in half. That was nothing to mention her frown. It cut so hard across her cheeks, it was as if a butcher had sliced her across the face. “You need to start taking responsibility for your sins,” she growled once more.
“What sins?” I bellowed at the top of my lungs, not out of anger but out of terrified desperation. It was slowly dawning on me that this wasn’t a dream.
There was only one thing I could be thankful for: those squirming, dancing, burning blue symbols were no longer writhing under my skin. As I warily brought my hands up and drew down the cuffs of my shirt, I stared at the silver bangles.
I frowned. I looked up just in time to see that the woman was frowning, too.
“They’re magical locks. They’ll only come off once you know how to use your powers.”
“Powers?” My voice shook.
“Yes, powers,” she said in a strong, punchy tone like a teacher demanding a pupil pay attention. “Magic,” she said as she brought a hand up and casually flicked her fingers to the side. Instantly, a disc of brightly blue colored light spread out from her fingers.
I gasped and jerked back. “That’s impossible.” I struggled through a breath. I was way beyond hyperventilating. It felt like I would never take a breath again. As I cowered against my bed, it felt like it would be the last moment of my sorry existence.
The woman rolled her eyes. She also flicked her fingers to the side. That circle of light shifted under her fingertips, kind of like a cog spinning within a clock. She pressed her finger against a glowing symbol. As she did, something lit up over her skin: green flames.
I’d never seen anything like it. Not on television, not at the movies, not in the news. It was completely and utterly impossible. My shoulders shook so badly as I remained pressed against my bed that the frame jittered against the wall like someone trying to knock through the plaster.
She let the flames leap across her skin for several seconds. Then she clicked her fingers. That circle of light in front of her hand shifted, the cog spinning to the left. She selected another symbol, and abruptly, spinning particles of dust erupted from her hands. They traced around her fingers with such speed, it looked as if she’d shoved her fist into the center of a hurricane.
“This- this is impossible,” I stuttered.
“No, it’s not impossible; it’s magic. Now get used to it. Like I said, this innocent act won’t work on me. And trust me when I say it won’t work on Vali, either.”
“Vali?” I managed to stutter.
“Franklin Saunders.” Her voice took on the strangest tone for half a second until that steely, angry determination returned to her expression. “He’s your new master.”
“Master?” My voice shot up high.
“Last night you signed a contract with the god of revenge, agreeing to work away your sins. It was that, or die.”
“Wait, what? What are you talking about? What sins? What contract?” As I said that, I stopped. A sharp, clear memory slammed into the center of my head. I remembered Franklin Saunders leaning in front of me. I remembered the creak of his knees. I remembered the smell of his cologne. And, more than anything, I remembered that deep, dark look in his eyes. The one that drew you into infinity. He’d pressed some kind of strange scroll against my bleeding thumb, then I’d passed out.
I brought up a shaking hand and clamped it against my mouth. “What do you mean he’s my master?”
She clicked her fingers, and the swelling dust around her hand disappeared with a flicker and a crackle of energy. The spinning circle blinked out, leaving her normal. Well, a measure of normal. She put her hands on her hips and took a strong step forward. “You came to the attention of the god Vali, the Norse god of revenge. He exists to mete out punishment when we humans,” she patted a hand on her chest, her jacket scrunching, “anger the gods. Vali, under certain circumstances, sometimes gives sinners a second chance.”
“A second chance?” I asked in a hollow tone.
She nodded low, a few wisps of her loose blonde hair trailing across her shoulders and the long cut of her neck. “A second chance. But we have to earn it. Otherwise, he’ll take it back.” She spoke with such finality, I couldn’t help but shake. I was now completely covered in sweat. It didn’t just slick my brow; it drenched it as if I’d just hopped into the shower. At least I wasn’t hyperventilating. But I could feel it – the nerves were sinking deeper into my gut, chasing up into my legs, making them feel as if they were as heavy as stones.
I flattened a hand on my chest and tried to calm myself. Ah, who was I kidding? How the heck could you calm down from a situation like this? Apparently, I’d signed a contract last night, and I was now indebted to the Norse god of revenge.
With her hands still on her hips, the woman continued, “You are now indentured to Vali, and you must work off your sins by working for him.”
“Working for him?”
“You must use your magic to track down other criminals and bring them to justice.”
My head started to spin. It was so bad, it felt as if somebody had attached my brains to helicopter rotors and turned the engine to full. I pressed a sweaty hand through my hair, my fingers getting tangled and caught up in my knots.
“You must use your magic to track down other magical criminals.”
“Other magical criminals?” I asked in a far-off, distant tone, almost as if I were beginning to disassociate from the situation.
She nodded firmly. “I realize this is a quick introduction. Obviously, you didn’t know anything about magic before yesterday. That happens sometimes.”
“It does?” I asked weakly.
She nodded, expression still firm. She may have been finally explaining things, but I could tell she was doing so begrudgingly. “Magic has existed since the day dot. But it’s a heavily regulated power.”
“Regulated by whom?”
“The gods.” She crossed her arms again.
“The gods?” I was sure my head couldn’t spin any faster. Yet with a lurch, it achieved Mac 10. I wasn’t religious. Okay, I’d been to church a few times with my grandmother, but that was it. I didn’t believe in divine beings; I believed in life, in money, in survival. Now this blonde bombshell was telling me that I’d angered the gods with my sins.
I felt so woozy. I was about to throw up. I clapped a hand over my mouth, my fingers shaking.
She shot me a withering look. “Just hold it together. If you are this weak, you will never work off your sins. And if you don’t…” she trailed off.
I looked up sharply. That implied threat was the only thing that could make me drop my hand. “If I don’t?”
“You’ll die,” she said matter-of-factly.
I die? Oh god no. God!
I crumpled even further into my hands.
“Though Franklin usually gives new recruits time to settle in and learn the ropes, he wants to test you off the bat.”
“I’m sorry?” I blinked, my eyelids feeling as heavy as two mountain caps.
She shoved a hand into her pocket and pulled out a scroll of all things. It reminded me of how Franklin had done the same. While her jeans and blouse were tight, her jacket wasn’t, but there was still no way a long scroll could have fitted inside the fabric.
She pulled the scroll out and rolled it open, an officious look on her pretty face. “He wants you to go after John Lambert, a fire practitioner who has been doubling as a hitman.”
“I’m- I’m sorry? What? A fire practitioner? A hitman?!” My voice went up so high, I could have cracked the window.
She nodded firmly. “Like I said, Franklin wants to test you off the bat. Obviously, he’s not convinced taking you in was the right thing to do.” Her voice dropped down low, and she shot me such a judgmental look it was obvious I was nothing more than pond scum in her eyes.
I’d clamped my hand back over my face, and there wasn’t anything this side of a tow truck that would be able to remove it.
“You’ll have one chance to impress him. If you don’t…” she trailed off again.
I didn’t need her to finish her sentence – I could finish it myself: if I didn’t impress Franklin, I’d die.
It slowly, slowly started to sink in. With a pang, I realized just how dire this situation was.
My hand fell from my face. My shoulders loosened, and I sat there, loose and limp on the edge of the bed.
For the first time, I fancied that just a flicker of compassion crossed through the woman’s gaze. “Did you think working off your sins would be easy?”
I didn’t answer. Couldn’t. Working off my sins? I still couldn’t accept that the handful of thefts I’d done in my teens justified this. As for not seeing my grandmother before she died? It was tragic, but it was hardly the kind of crime to justify being indentured to the Nordic god of revenge.
I closed my eyes and clapped my hands over them. I was wrong. This had to be a dream – some kind of cruel hallucination. I shook my head and waited for it to end.
The woman simply stood there and curled her lip with disdain. “If you do that, there’s no way you’ll complete this case. And if you don’t complete this case…” she trailed off again.
Angrily, I let my hands drop. “Who the hell do you people think you are? I haven’t done anything wrong, and I certainly can’t go after a magical hitman.” My voice hit such a note of indignant frustration on the word magical, I felt it would tear the lining from my esophagus. “This isn’t possible. None of this is possible,” I defaulted to saying.
The woman took several more steps until she stopped right in front of me. She brought up her left hand, clicked her fingers, and stared right in my eyes. As she did, that same disc of magic appeared in front of her hand. She flicked her fingers to the left, and suddenly licks of water began tracing up and down her hands. “It is possible, and if you don’t get used to it and complete Vali’s orders, you’ll die. Now get ready; get dressed.” She pointed to one of the chairs in my room, and I suddenly saw there was a neat pile of folded clothes on it. “There’s a bathroom through that door.” She jammed a thumb behind me, and I noted an en suite. “Get washed. And for god’s sake, do your hair. When you’re done, you’ll have your first meeting with Vali. I suggest you are a lot less emotional and a lot more thankful when you see him.”
I sat there, crumpled, tears streaming down my cheeks.
“He’s an unforgiving man,” she said as she turned hard on her foot and headed toward the door. Before she bustled through, she paused, that same tiny flicker of concern buried deep in her stare. A second later, she extinguished it as she crumpled her brow low. “You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t done something heinous. Now is when you pay for your sins. Few people get the opportunity to do that. So time to take responsibility for what you’ve done and be thankful.” With that, she walked out of the door, slamming it behind her.
There was an electronic click, and I could tell that the fancy lock re-engaged.
I sat there, and I don’t know how long it took me to finally push up. My thoughts were a broken mess.
I was no longer aware of the tears as they streamed down my cheeks, trickled along my neck, and stained the torn collar of my uniform.
Eventually, I managed to lurch into the bathroom. It took my sweaty hand several tries to twist the handle on the door. I staggered in, falling against the sink, clutching it as I pressed my hot, tear-streaked cheek against the porcelain. I hugged it as if it were the only comfort I had left.
As I heaved and sobbed, seconds turned into minutes. Heck, maybe even an hour passed. It took me so long to push back.
The en suite was generous and had a claw footed bath. I pressed my back into it, locked a hand over my face, and hid behind my fringe.
I breathed and breathed and breathed.
Slowly, achingly slowly, the fear and sorrow gave way. Just there – deep in the center of my tummy – I felt a flicker of curiosity. It was enough to force my hands to drop as I stared at the heavy bangles around my wrists again. I poked at them experimentally. When they didn’t explode, I brought my fingers up and gently caressed them. Nails trailing down the metal, it felt different somehow, smoother than any other metal I’d ever felt. Colder, too. So cold, in fact, they should have been freezing my hands off. Yet they weren’t.
I brought my head up and looked straight into the mirror. I faced my reflection – my knotted, messy hair, my torn, singed uniform, and my puffy red cheeks. “What the hell is happening?” I begged my reflection.
She couldn’t answer. In fact, there was only one way to find out. I pushed up, staggered into the other room, grabbed my clothes, and had a shower. As the water washed over me, I tried to let it extinguish my burning fear. It helped, but only a measure. Enough that I managed to dry myself and dress.
I faced my reflection once more before turning and heading back to the main door in my room. The woman had warned that I should get dressed quickly and see Vali.
I felt numb, cold all over.
I reached out a hand, curled it into a fist, and knocked on my door. I was surprised when it opened with a click.
I jerked back as if I’d been struck, but the door simply swung open. It revealed a long corridor.
Warily, as if I expected to be shot at any second, I pushed out, shifting my head from side-to-side, my freshly brushed hair trailing softly around my shoulders. I crept out into the corridor.
When alarms didn’t blare and security guards didn’t rush toward me, I let my shoulders deflate a fraction.
I continued forward. Eventually, I reached a door. I could tell it was important, because it looked as if it was made out of a meter of solid wood.
I hung around it for a full two minutes before I gathered the gumption to knock.
It swung open without any warning.
I walked in.
The door opened to one of the most opulent, fanciest offices I’d ever seen. Move over the Oval Office. This looked as if it belonged to a king. Or perhaps a god, I realized as I shifted my head and saw Vali seated behind a desk on the opposite side of the room.
Instantly, I stiffened. Instantly, my hackles rose. And instantly, my breath froze in my chest. Right there underneath my sternum, I felt that storm of cold, that grain of ice. It was lodged above my heart. I jerked a hand up to it, clutching the fabric of my top as I stared at Vali in total, abject horror.
He simply looked back, an expression of calm control plastered over his face. He was working on something, bent over a book as he wrote. He flicked his stare up to me several times, but then returned it to what he was doing.
I began to back toward the door, realizing I’d probably interrupted him. That’s when the damn thing slammed closed. It shut with such force, it buffeted my hair over my forehead.
I let out a pathetic yelp. Then I heard the sound of a book being snapped shut.
Warily, slowly, I looked up, my neck as stiff as sheets of steel.
Vali leaned back, arranged his hands on his desk, and stared at me. He didn’t say anything.
With my hand still tightly clutched around the fabric of my blouse, I managed a tight breath. “I was told to come see you. I just knocked—” I began.
He brought up a hand. It was stiff, and it was clear he was telling me to shut up.
I pressed my lips together and bit them.
“Megan would have explained the process to you,” he said.
“Process?” My voice shook.
“You’ll be sent out on a job tonight. I’m eager to find out what you can do. Just as you should be eager to pay off your considerable debt.”
“Your sins,” His voice rattled low. And though, up until now, you could have confused him for an ordinary human, what his voice did to the room revealed he was so much more. Somehow his tone pitched through the very floor, shook up my legs, and lodged hard into my stomach.
I took a nervous step backward, but with nowhere to go, I was stuck. Trapped.
He leaned forward, unclenching his hands, shifting his shoulders, and cracking his neck. “Megan would have shared the details of this case with you. You’ll see her for a full case history on John Lambert before you head out tonight.” He spoke like I had a clue what he was saying.
I clearly didn’t. I had absolutely no idea what was going on here. And as more people threw useless, unconnected facts at me, I became even more confused.
I brought up a hand and locked it over my head. “What’s going on?” I asked in the most pathetic whimper I’d ever made.
“What’s going on is that you are working off your sins, and you will be working them off for some time.”
“But I—” I began, my hand dropping as the anger flared in my gut. I wanted to tell him I still had no idea what was going on, but more than anything, I wanted to tell him that my sins weren’t that bad. Whatever he was doing to me couldn’t be justified.
But then I met his gaze, his dark warning gaze. Somehow, right there in the center of his eyes was something… different. There was a kernel of something….
My grandmother had once called me gullible. She said I believed in people when they didn’t even believe in themselves. Kind of like I could see the good side to Larry, I usually found myself excusing and justifying criminals based on their history. Maybe they’d grown up in a violent home. Maybe they didn’t have the privilege others had. And as someone who’d grown up in privilege, I understood what kind of an advantage that was.
So right now, even though I wanted to resist what my heart was telling me, I got the sudden impression that deep, deep under the surface of this god of revenge was something – something kind, something good.
“I have already established your crimes, just as you have already signed a contract indenturing yourself to me. You must now work off your sins. And you will begin tonight with John Lambert, the hitman,” he said so matter-of-factly, it was as if he was talking about nothing more offensive than sporting results.
“A hitman?” I could barely push my words out. “How on earth am I going to catch a hitman? A magical hitman?” My breath became shallow again, driving hard into the center of my throat.
For the first time, Vali’s gaze narrowed in concern, but it didn’t last. He cleared his throat. “You will do so by using your magic.”
“Magic?” I turned my head down, attention falling on my bangles for the first time since I’d seen them. I tried to take them off. I latched a hand on one, spying a lock in the middle of the metal.
Vali punched to his feet. His chair clattered behind him, thumping against the carpet with such a bang, it was as if he’d fired a gun.
I jolted backward.
“You will not remove those,” he said as he swiftly walked around the side of his desk and stopped a half meter before me, looming over me like a storm cloud.
I shuddered back. “What? What are you talking about? What are these?”
“They are magical locks. And you will not remove them unless under express instruction from me.”
He paused. Paused for such a long time, I could tell he was quickly thinking of some excuse. “Because I demanded it of you,” he defaulted to saying.
“Because you demand it,” I repeated slowly, voice a jumble of breath. “But what… what were those symbols that… covered me last night?”
He growled. “You will be told everything you need to be told. So do not ask questions out of turn.”
Ask questions out of turn? Last night I had been completely covered by magical light.
I stood there and faced him. Half of me cowered at the sight of the Nordic god of revenge. The other half couldn’t damp down my curiosity. It couldn’t stop staring into the center of his eyes, hoping to catch just another glimpse of that kind heart.
I didn’t get a chance to see it again, because Vali turned hard on his foot. He straightened his brass tie pin before shifting around, picking up his chair, and sitting in it once more. He sat there silently. And as every silent second passed, I clammed up more and more, nerves climbing high over my back and clenching around my throat like hands.
“I don’t get it. If I can’t remove these locks, how exactly am I meant to use magic to catch that man, and why exactly do I have to catch him?”
“You have to catch him because he is not just a hitman, but a magical hitman. He uses his abilities – power no ordinary human should have and powers taken directly from the gods – to harm others. He has killed over 35 people, some of them brutally, all in the name of profit. He is irredeemable,” Vali said so matter-of-factly and so emotionlessly, it was like we weren’t talking about a human life at all.
I shivered at the cold expression on Vali’s face. But more than anything, at the thought of 35 murders.
Suddenly that shiver turned into a shard of ice that stabbed me right in the center of the chest. “You… you honestly expect me to be able to catch this man? I only found out about magic last night,” I began, getting desperate.
“Yes, I expect you to catch this man. Like I said, it’s a test. A test to see whether you are ready to take responsibility for your sins. You have, as yet, failed to acknowledge them. If you do not do so by tonight and use everything at your disposal to catch this man, then…” he trailed off. He picked up his pen, opened the book, and scribbled something on one of the pages.
Somehow I got the distinct impression that it would be the ledger of my crimes.
I stiffened, letting my hands fall behind my back. I curled them into tight fists. That was literally all I could do. I couldn’t shout at him, and god knows I couldn’t beg. I would have loved to turn on my foot and stride out of this building, but I didn’t have that option, either. I was totally and completely trapped, a magical slave of the Nordic god of revenge. And yet I still faced him until he finished writing and closed the book.
“Until you learn to control your… abilities,” he said after a considerable pause, “you will be given weaponry.”
“Weaponry?” My tone was dull, dead.
“A magical gun.”
“A magical gun?! But I can’t shoot. I’ve never fired a weapon before!” I began.
He brought up a hand, so stiff, so cold, so white with tension it looked as if it had been carved from ice. He spread his fingers wide in a silencing move. “You will learn. As I said, you will either dig deep tonight, take responsibility for your sins, and do everything within your power to catch this man, or…” he trailed off.
“Or I’ll die?”
He met my gaze then nodded once. “Leave now, Lily-white.” He said my name, stringing it together in one word. “And only come back once you obtain your target.”
“Obtain my target?” My breath caught in my throat. “You want me to bring him in alive?”
Vali suddenly looked up sharply. “Without question. For if you murder, there will be no redemption.”
I nodded. I nodded even though I didn’t understand a word.
I turned on my foot and headed toward the door. Though it was closed, I heard something unlock, and it creaked open.
Before I managed to take a step through it, I heard Vali shift once more. “You will not take your locks off under any circumstances. Do you understand?” His voice achieved such a low note of warning, I was certain it would trigger an earthquake.
With cold dancing up my back, I forced myself to nod.
I walked forward. With every step, I waited for this hallucination to end, but with every step, it simply became more real and more horrible.
I’d gone from being indentured to the so-called Nordic god of revenge, to being given an ultimatum to track down a magical hitman by tonight, or suffer the consequences….
I expected to get some training. Something. Anything. Even if it was just a manual on how to use a magical gun and track down a hitman.
I got nothing.
After my short meeting with Vali, I headed back to my room, because I had absolutely no other option. The corridor outside Vali’s office seemed to only lead in one direction, even though I twisted to the right instead of the left. It still led back to my bedroom.
I walked inside, the door clicking open and swinging shut behind me.
I fell down to my knees, the sound thumping through the room.
I brought a hand up and covered my eyes. This time I didn’t wait for this stupid nightmare to end, because this time I understood it never would.
This was my life now.
I felt so cold, so very cold. I’d never felt colder in my life. Every muscle, every bone, every tissue felt like ice. I wasn’t human anymore. I was a storm, a blizzard come to life.
Slowly, I stumbled to my feet. I began to pace back and forth, back and forth, clutching one sweaty hand into a fist over and over again.
More than once, I brought my attention down and locked my gaze on my bangles. I was terrified of them. As I tentatively touched a finger along their smooth metal, dread washed down my back. And yet, at the same time, I couldn’t deny the urge to take them off. I wasn’t an idiot. Take them off, and Vali would kill me. So instead I settled to staring at them.
As I continued to pace, the sun, which had once been high in the sky, began to set. I had no idea when I would be let out of here for my so-called first mission. All I knew was with every dying ray of dusk that moment was coming closer.
Finally, I heard a click behind me as the door unlocked.
I whirled on my foot to face Vali’s secretary, Megan. She was decked out in a stunning white silk dress, a beautiful sapphire pendant hanging down her throat. Her hair was curled and set up in an elegant bun.
“Why are you dressed like that?” My curiosity got the better of me.
“Because I’m going on a job with Vali tonight,” she snapped.
“We’re tracking down a target. A high-level target,” she added primly. “Now, follow me.”
I didn’t question. I simply took up step a meter behind her as I followed her out of my room.
Somehow, the corridor beyond was different. It didn’t lead in an unending line to Vali’s office. Instead, there were doors on either side. There were also people. So far, the only two people I’d seen since I’d woken up this morning were Vali and Megan. Now I saw others, and they looked weirdly normal. They came from a great cross-section of society: from teenagers to senior citizens. A few were guards in blue uniforms, but the rest seemed to be wearing ordinary clothes.
I stared at them with complete confusion crumpling my brow, and they stared back with obvious curiosity. I heard a few comment that Vali “Had another one. Another sinner.”
That word… every time I heard it my hands would clench into bloodless fists.
Vali was absolutely right: I had not yet accepted the fact I was a sinner, and I had not embraced my responsibility, as he’d put it. And I never would. The first chance I got, I would get out of here. And hey, maybe that chance would come tonight.
As soon as I thought that, my common sense got the better of me. I was indentured to the god of revenge. Where exactly could I run?
With that disappointing thought shifting through me, my shoulders loosened and my hands dropped limply to my sides.
Without a word, Megan led me into some kind of armory. There were lots of people about. What was more, they were doing magic.
My gut reaction was to scream, turn, and run the hell away. Instead, I stood there, wide eyes bulging as I watched two men attack each other with what looked like magical glowing swords.
No matter how many times I blinked my eyes and tried to rub them clear, every time I opened them the magic remained.
Megan walked me up to a wall and swiped her hand to the left. A second earlier, it had been nothing more than a simple, drab, gray concrete wall. Now weapons appeared – a massive, long row of every weapon you could imagine, from guns to nunchucks to a glowing samurai sword.
As soon as I saw them, I took a nervous step backward, cramming a hand over my mouth.
Megan looked thoughtful as she shifted forward and grabbed a small handgun. She checked it, yanking out the magazine and staring at the glowing bullets within. When she was satisfied, she turned and shoved it against my chest.
I did not grab it. Instead, I jerked back with a gasp.
“Take it,” she snapped. “We don’t have much time. Well, you don’t have much time,” she clarified primly.
I stared at her then gathered the gumption to bring up a shaking hand and grab the weapon. It was strangely light. It didn’t tingle, either, didn’t send charges along my fingers as if I’d just grasped lightning. It felt like nothing more than a plastic gun.
“You point, you shoot,” she said, and then she turned to leave.
“Really? That’s it? That’s my introduction? I’ve never fired a weapon before. I was just a waitress, for god’s sake. I have no idea how to track down a magical hitman.”
She turned sharply on her heel, the pointed end scratching against the concrete floor. “You’ll learn. Like I said before, either you reach forward and embrace your responsibility, or you don’t, and you die.” She walked away.
“Wait. Wait! Where the hell am I meant to go? Where do I track down this John Lambert?”
Megan flicked a hand behind me and gestured to one of the other men in the armory. “Take her to a waiting car.” With that, she was out of sight.
Spinning. Freefall. My mind felt as if it had been pushed into terminal velocity. Every belief, every feeling, every thought – they were all spinning as if I’d been thrown out of a plane.
With one hand, I clutched the gun warily to my chest. With the other, I covered my eyes.
“Come with me,” the man said.
I had no option but to follow, several steps behind him. He led me down the corridor into a large elevator then down into a basement.
It was a carpark, but I could tell from one glance it didn’t belong to the public. Nope, it had every kind of vehicle you could imagine. There were even one of those submersible, deep-range submarines they use on scientific expeditions.
The only thing I could do to keep from screaming that this was insane was to clamp my teeth together. My jaw became so stiff I was sure I was going to strain a neck muscle or crush one of my vertebrae.
The guy led me to a van. I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to point out I couldn’t drive, but a second later, I realized the van had a driver.
“You get in. He’ll take you to the right place. You find your man; you capture him. It’s that simple,” the guard said as he turned sharply and didn’t even bother to nod. He strode off.
Get in, find my guy, and bag him. That simple, ha? Sure, it was so simple I could cry.
I didn’t get the opportunity to cry. The driver grumbled at me, and I jumped into the van, sitting in the back. The door closed of its own accord, and there I remained, a magical gun pressed carefully into my lap, my eyes as wide as the magical disc I’d seen Megan use before. Thoughts ran riot through my mind. They felt like a mob tearing at my sense of self, undoing every belief I’d ever had about reality.
I sat there, one hand crumpled over my mouth as I stared at the city flitting past through the window. It was night now. Dusk had given way to impenetrable gloom. Though I saw plenty of city lights flickering outside and the headlights of passing motorists, they couldn’t touch the darkness that now swelled around me. Nor the cold. For the cold had never left. It simply sat there, growing, that grain of ice above my heart so dense it felt as if I’d swallowed a black hole.
Though I rubbed and rubbed my chest, there was nothing I could do to dislodge the sensation.
I shook as I kept one hand steadily locked on the gun. Though I was terrified of it, I was more terrified to let it go. Megan had said it was simple: I point and shoot. But it couldn’t be that simple. This wasn’t an ordinary gun. I didn’t know anything whatsoever about it. This… none of this was fair, and yet there was no one I could complain to.
Finally, I heard the van come to a shuddering stop.
My heart exploded in my chest.
“We’re here. Get in, get out. I’ll be waiting,” the driver said in a gruff voice as he turned around in his seat to face me.
The door to the van opened itself. I heard it grate back against its mechanism. And though the sound was loud, I swore it blared louder than a bellow between my ears.
Pressing my hands into the seat below me, slowly I rose. I almost lost hold of my gun, almost let it clatter to the ground, but I caught it just in time, a thrill of terror chasing up my back.
I moved to get out of the van.
“Click the safety on and shove it into the back of your pants, for god’s sake,” the driver said, “you’ll draw too much attention. And if you let people see you practicing magic, you’re done for,” he warned.
I shook. I brought the gun up. “Is this the safety?” I asked, pointing to the mechanism at the back of the barrel.
He let out an unkind chuckle. “You’re gonna die. But yes, that’s the safety. Now click it on.”
I did as I was told. Then, reluctantly, I shifted around and tucked the gun into the back of my pants.
I had never been a bad girl. Yes, okay, so I’d stolen some things in my youth. But I’d never done it to hurt others. It had always been to define myself away from my oppressive family. I had absolutely no experience with tucking a gun into the back of my goddamn pants and heading into a nightclub to rough a man up. But experience or not, I didn’t have any option.
With one more rattling breath, I jumped down from the van.
The cool night air hit me – hit me as if I’d just been transported to the Arctic. To everyone else, it seemed like a balmy night, as all the passing women were wearing tiny dresses and the guys were in nothing more than shorts and shirts. It felt like subzero to me.
I latched a hand on my collar and drew it up, trying to nestle further into it. Suddenly, I remembered my gun and tugged my jacket down with all my strength.
“Oh god, I can’t do this,” I muttered to myself under my breath.
Before I’d left, Megan had handed me a written note. It contained all the information I would need on John Lambert. Apparently, he was meant to be at this nightclub tonight. All I would have to do was wait for him, follow him, and capture him. Sure, why not ask for a miracle while I was there? Why not ask for the heavens to be split from the earth, for the stars to fall from the sky? Because I had about as much chance of that happening as seeing this mission through.
As that thought struck me, I realized I was going to die tonight. Either John Lambert was going to kill me or Vali would.
As soon as I thought that, some part of me disagreed. It was the same part that had seen that deep, deep coil of goodness trapped within Vali’s gaze – a glimpse of something beyond the god of revenge.
“Pull yourself together. You can do this. You have to do this,” I muttered to myself under my breath.
I was terrible at stressful situations. And as I’d already mentioned, I never rolled with the punches. I fell with the punches. Now, with nowhere else to turn and no one to save me, all I could do was rely on myself. So I gathered what courage I had – what little courage remained in my frozen heart – and I straightened my back.
I found the line into the club, and I joined the back of it. I tuned out the conversation of the other patrons, their lilting laughter, their drunken slurs. I tuned it out as I focused on one task: get in, get out. Get in, get out. It became a mantra as I reached the front of the line.
The bouncer let me in with one cursory glance, obviously assuming that my sweaty brow and sickly expression were a result of too much alcohol and not because I was indentured to a magical god.
Get in get out, get in get out. I held onto that phrase with all my might as I entered the club and started my first mission.
I hated clubs – hated the press of sweaty bodies, the musty scent of stale alcohol, the noise, the everything. If I wanted to go out and party, I never chose to do it in a sea of other people’s body odor.
But right now I didn’t have an option.
For about the millionth time, I ran a thumb along one of my bangles, my nails snagging against the lock.
I couldn’t quite… accept it yet. Some part of me kept telling me this was a dream. That soon I’d wake up. Hell, maybe I was currently strapped down in some psychiatric ward, just waiting for this hallucination to break….
Or maybe this was real, and it was time to get used to my new life.
That thought sent a cold shiver slamming hard down my back. It shoved me forward, giving me the momentum I needed to push through the crowd.
With the pulsing music thrumming through the floor and the low, sultry lighting, it was seriously hard to make out any faces through the crowd.
My heart started to hammer in my chest, my mouth as dry as sawdust.
I shook my head, sweaty hair jostling over my shoulders. I couldn’t really do this, could I? Chase down a criminal and drag him back to Vali?
The answer was I really didn’t want to – but I didn’t have a choice.
Just then, as I ticked my head back and skimmed my gaze over the crowd, I saw something. A flash of blue.
Even from here, I could tell it was a magical symbol. I shoved to the side, trying to get a better look.
My stomach clenched as I pushed onto my tippy toes and narrowed my eyes. There, just behind the gyrating businessman dancing with a girl half his age, I saw that same flash of blue.
It was him. John Lambert.
My cheeks twitched as a pulse of excitement and terror plunged through my stomach.
I shoved off, heels clicking over the sticky, alcohol-covered floor.
The nightclub was set on several levels, the main dance floor hemmed in by two mezzanine levels that you could get to buy split staircases.
I watched my target dart up one of the packed staircases, his footfall quick. People were leaning on the railings or sitting on the steps, drinking, kissing, and quite possibly doing drugs. But I wasn’t here to collect on their crimes today.
I felt my bangles grow heavier as I raced up the staircase, hopefully looking like I was eager to meet some friends, and not trying to run down a criminal.
I saw John Lambert dart out of sight, movements quick, snapped like a predator tracking prey. As he shifted out of view, I saw a glimpse of the side of his face. What I saw made me sick to my stomach.
I’d never been particularly good at reading people, not like Larry, anyway. Larry had a sixth sense for danger. He could also take one look at your face and realize you were guilty of dropping an entire tray of expensive champagne. He would dock it from your pay before you had a chance to stutter out a lie.
Me? Despite my lack of skills in the prediction department, I suddenly knew that John Lambert was on the hunt. He was on a case, wasn’t he? He was about to go find his 36th victim.
That fact struck me like a blow to the chest. Pressing my hands into white knuckled fists, I fought to suck in a breath as I pushed up the stairs.
Like I’d said several times before, I was not a courageous woman. I always ran in the other direction when there was trouble. I always found someone else to hide behind. Right now, there was no one to hide behind. And from the little I’d learned about John Lambert, his victim would have no chance.
There would be a murder here tonight unless I found a way to stop it.
That fact alone was enough to cut through my fear. It was enough to drag me all the way up the stairs as I caught sight of him and continued to follow from a distance.
I knew some people with nerves of steel. Some of Larry’s friends, to be exact. They were the kind of guys who could look you in the face during a poker game and cheat you out of your life savings with nothing more than a ballsy bluff. They were the kinds of guys who could face a mugger and growl in his face, stealing the guy’s wallet and mask before the crim knew what hit him.
Even though I convinced myself I was weak and pathetic, somehow I found the strength to keep an even expression as I pushed through the pulsating, dancing bodies. My heels quickening over the sticky floor, I watched John Lambert shift forward, steal someone’s drink from the table, down it, flick his head to the side, loosen his shoulders, then head toward the door at the side of the room.
I hung back for several seconds, heart driving wildly in my chest, but breath remarkably steady. I waited for him to dart out of sight. Rather than let the door close, I shifted forward and shoved my heel in it at the last moment.
Pausing, I followed him through the door. Beyond, it was gloomy, several light fittings broken and flickering, casting the long hallway into an eerie glow.
I was so very aware of the gun in the back of my pants. As I followed, it seemed heavier than a boulder as it brushed against my back. I knew full well that when I confronted John, I would have seconds to pull my gun out. But I was gambling on something, wasn’t I? That he would be scared enough of the gun to give himself up. What if he was a good bluffer? What if he ran at me, and I shot him? Vali had told me that if I killed John, I would lose my contract. I would succumb to my sins.
The pressure started to get too much for me, and just as I felt my brow drench with sweat once more, I reminded myself that John was here to kill a man. I was the only one who could stop him.
I hung back, trying to keep the clip-clopping sounds of my heels to a minimum so I didn’t draw John’s attention.
He looked drawn, seemed focused, intent on whatever foul task he was here to perform. From the exact line of his back and shoulders, to the darting movements of his head, I could tell he was in predator mode. That fact made me sick to my stomach.
I continued to follow at a distance as he darted down several staircases, heading even lower into the building. From the outside, I’d assumed there were only several levels to this building, but I now counted at least two basement levels, if not three.
As we shifted further down, something struck me. What if this place was magical? What if John wasn’t the only practitioner around here? I knew nothing about this world, so I had absolutely no idea what I would be up against.
Slowly, carefully, I pushed myself down the stairs, one hand locked on the railing, the other hovering close behind my back, ready to grab my gun at the first opportunity.
That’s… that’s when I heard a scream.
With a low, punctuated breath, I jolted forward toward it. Not away. Apparently, I was more courageous than I thought. Or maybe I really didn’t want to fail Vali.
I followed the scream.
Another terrified scream broke the air as I skidded down the corridor, finding a half-open door. I threw myself in just as I pulled the gun from my pants.
I saw John Lambert crouched low over a middle-aged man. John had a hand around the guy’s throat. Somehow, impossibly, lines of light were pulsing out from John’s strong grip and pushing into the man’s skin.
I smelt the sizzle of flesh and saw blood trickling down the guy’s throat as he bucked backward, trying to escape.
“Put your hands up,” I screamed as I leveled the gun at John.
It took several seconds for John to react. Several seconds for him to turn, a sneer creeping over his lips as he stared at me. “Who the fuck are you?” he demanded. “This is my target. Go get your own fucking job,” he snapped once more.
“I said get away from him, asshole. Put your hands up. This is a magical gun,” I warned. “It will rip right through you,” I added, even though I had no idea what would happen when or if I pressed the trigger.
Slowly, like a snake uncoiling from hibernation, John released his grip on the man’s throat.
The guy convulsed backward, bald head slamming against the wall as the blood continued to trickle down his neck. There were two perfect handprints on his throat made out of bloodied, burnt, singed flesh.
“Walk to the side. I said get to the side,” I screamed at John as I gestured at him with the gun. My hands were so sweaty, I could barely keep hold of my weapon. Nothing but pure desperation was stopping me from keeling over, or worse: hyperventilating. “Get out of here,” I told the cowering man. “Get out of here,” I begged.
The guy did not need to be told a third time. He scrambled to his feet, moves so snapped, he was like a doll being jerked around on a string.
Without another look my way, he flitted through the door, slamming it closed behind him. I heard his footfall disappear out of ear-shot down the corridor.
That just left me with John Lambert.
He tipped his head to the side, gaze suddenly slipping up and down my form. It locked on my shaky grip around my gun. “First case, ha? It will be your last,” he warned. He took a step toward me.
“I said get back.” My voice was shrill, a breathy shriek.
He did not get back.
Right now, right here, I would find out if I could kill a man.
As he took another step back, a smile spreading over his lips, my finger tightened on the trigger.
… But I couldn’t shoot.
He suddenly lurched toward me with speed I couldn’t track. He jerked his elbow into my arm, and I lost hold of the gun. It slammed onto the floor with a resonant thunk and skidded into the shadows.
I gasped and shoved back, somehow showing agility I had no idea I possessed. I dropped to the floor, rolled, and lurched to my feet several meters away.
John ticked his head to the side and laughed, the sound so grating it was like someone was trying to rake the concrete with broken glass.
“Come on, you little bitch. Not so strong anymore now, are you? Tell me, you ever been split from head to toe with a magical sword? Worst way to go. The magic will burn you long before the steel cuts you in half.” He tipped his head back and let out such a maniacal laugh, I could tell he’d lost every scrap of his sanity years ago, if he’d ever possessed any at all.
“Just stop, please. Look, you’ve come to the attention of Vali. You should hand yourself in. I may not be any match for you, but he is.”
On the word Vali, John changed. His eyes pulsed wide – pulsed so wide they could have shot from his skull and slammed against the wall. His cheek slackened, his lips drew open, and he swore in a language I’d never heard.
Then he brought up his arm, snapped it up, in fact, like it was attached by a hinge and not a joint. The move was so jerky, his jacket flared open, his hair plastering over his face.
Suddenly that symbol on his wrist glowed. It glowed so brightly it rivaled a flood lamp.
I swore, shifting to the side, protecting my eyes with my hand. But it was too late.
He muttered something, and a circle of symbols suddenly exploded from his wrist. They hovered just in front of his hand, almost like a hologram from some sci-fi. He flicked his hand up, grasping at one of those floating symbols. As he did, the symbol changed. It reacted to the presence of his touch, elongated, extended, and became solid.
In a flash, he was holding a sword. One that was run through with light. It looked like dry earth fracturing with lava.
He cracked his lips back, showing a flash of teeth as he let out a dark snicker. “Why do I get the feeling this is your first job?”
I didn’t reply. Instead, I felt my breath becoming ragged as I struggled for air.
He took a step toward me, letting his sword drop to the ground, the tip scratching over the concrete. As soon as the metal indented the concrete, the concrete blistered. It bubbled as if it had just been thrown in a kiln.
And then – and then I started to feel the heat. It was pushing off him in waves, buffeting the room. It caught the ends of my hair and singed them, playing along my cheeks with a burning touch.
“Shit,” I swore as I backed up, lurching sideways and throwing myself against the wall.
My desperate gaze locked on the door, but with a snicker, he shifted into the middle of the room, blocking my path.
He now cracked his lips all the way open, his mouth full of dancing shadows as the reflected light from his sword played along his face. The symbol on his wrist burnt brighter than anything I’d ever seen. So bright, in fact, it looked as if it would consume him.
I pressed myself against the wall, feeling my cheeks singe and the exposed flesh along my shoulders and arms smart.
Two days ago I’d been nothing but a waitress. Today? Today I would die, singed to a crisp in the shifty basement of an equally shifty nightclub.
With manic glee shifting through his expression, he sliced toward me with the sword.
I had a single second where terror pulsed through me. More violent than any sensation I had ever felt, it was as if somebody had taken a hammer to me and crushed me completely.
I screamed – screamed with everything I had.
I also grabbed at my bangles. The move was instinctual, something inside me suddenly seizing hold of my hands and moving them of its own accord.
Vali had told me never to remove these locks.
But now? Now I had no choice.
The bangle unlocked with an echoing click. The click shifted through more than this gloomy basement. It shook right through me.
I felt it – felt it running through me, felt it burning along my skin, cascading up my back, playing along my face.
John jerked back, drawing a hand up to protect his face. His cheeks slackened as his eyes pulsed wide. “What- what the hell are you?” He brandished his sword.
That cold sensation in the center of my chest – it suddenly took up my entire world. Though the flash of steel was close to my throat, and death just a step behind, suddenly I was completely absorbed by that sensation. By the cold eddying in my soul.
It was like a set of hands spreading toward me, beckoning me onward. And all I had to do was reach out.
So that’s what I did.
I shifted to the side just as the man’s sword sliced across the tip of my shoulder. It did not, however, have the opportunity to travel through my neck and cut my head from my body. Instead, I reached forward, accepting the cold within.
And the cold – it spread out from my fingers, out from my arm, out from my body as I was pressed against the wall. This enormous wave of frozen power.
In an instant, the room around us froze, frost spreading across the floor and up the walls until it looked as if we were trapped in an ice cave.
At the last second, the man lost his balance, slipping to the side, body jerking out as he lost grip of the sword and stumbled over the ice. The tip of his sword sliced across the tip of my shoulder but missed my neck.
That’s not all that happened. For the ice started to climb him. Relentless, like a river breaking its banks, it climbed up his legs, marched up his thighs, and powered over his torso. He screamed as he bucked back, body skidding over the floor. Desperately, he tried to scrape the ice from his legs, but his movements became slow, broken.
I watched in total, astonished fear, incapable of moving as blood trickled down my shoulder, splashing against the icy floor by my crumpled body with a wet tap, tap, tap.
The man let out a rattling, desperate scream, clearly using the last of his energy as he jerked his head around and stared at my bulging eyes. “Please. Just stop. Please.”
His terror was the only thing that could move me. With a jolt that rattled my spine, I realized I was about to kill him. My relentlessly marching magic would freeze him to the spot.
I bolted forward, shifting over the ice with ease. I wasn’t cold, either. Even though this basement now looked as if it belonged in the heart of the Arctic, I wasn’t shivering. The man? His lips were blue, his skin whiter than powdered snow.
He had time to shoot me one last desperate, pleading look, then his head rolled back and thumped against the floor, cracking the ice. But the ice did not remain cracked for long – it kept growing. The power kept pulsing out of me, covering this room in more and more frost as the symbols over my body danced brighter and brighter.
“Stop. Please stop,” I begged myself, voice rattling in my throat as I desperately tried to control my power. I begged my mind to switch the magic off. And when that didn’t work, I began to scratch at the symbols on my exposed wrist.
Just as the man’s chest drew silent with one final, shuddering breath, I spied my bangle. I skidded over to it, the move snagging my nylons and tearing them to the knee. With no time to spare, I snapped over, grabbed my bangle, and slammed it over my wrist.
It took several agonizing seconds to work, but slowly the light dimmed and no longer played so brightly over my flesh. A second later, the ice stopped its inexorable march up the man’s body.
I bolted over to him, skidding on my knees and slicing them clean open. I ignored the warm blood as it pattered down my legs. I took my jacket off in a jerky move, rolling it up and placing it under his head. Then I pressed a hand over his mouth, checking for any signs of breath.
When that didn’t work, I pressed my fingers into his neck, and finally, finally felt a pulse.
I couldn’t crumple in relief just yet. For, as my fingers pressed against his neck, my body warmth thawed the ice. In fact, the longer I kept my hand gently locked on his throat, the more the ice receded. It was as if my mere presence was chasing it back.
I watched in stunned astonishment as the ice pulled back like a curtain or a receding river. It still covered the room, but in a few short seconds the man thawed out.
I incessantly checked his pulse and breathing, and when both seemed steady, I realized I had to go for help.
Checking him one last time, I got to my feet and threw myself at the door. I was usually an uncoordinated girl, and yet I could walk over the ice with all the elegance and grace of an Olympic skater. It couldn’t affect my balance, couldn’t chill me. It was almost as if it was still a part of me even though it had spread throughout the room to cover every space, corner, nook, and cranny.
I reached the door and yanked it open, getting ready to scream.
Not only was there no one in this abandoned corridor, but what was I thinking? That entire room was full of ice. There was still a burning, glowing sword on the ground, and even though the man was unconscious, his wrist was still blazing under the light of his magical mark.
These were all things a normal person could not see.
I stood there, frozen, immobilized.
Then that sense returned. I shoved a hand into my pocket, and I went to dial Megan – she’d given me her number on the same small square of paper that had contained a brief bio on John Lambert. Just as I pressed my phone to my ear, I realized I had no reception down here.
I screamed in anger, turning over my shoulder to check on the man once more. The ice had not grown up and encroached over his body again, but I could hardly leave him there.
Nor could I leave his weapon there.
Turning hard on my foot and skidding through the room once more, I lurched down and grabbed the sword up. As soon as my hand wrapped around the handle, I felt a twinge. A second later, that twinge turned into a full-on burning sensation.
I screamed, jerking my hand back as I dropped the sword. I stared down in horror as I caught sight of my palm. It was burnt, the skin blistered in places, a few droplets of crusty blood making it out of gaps in the scorched flesh and trickling down my palm.
The sword, rather than clattering by my feet, began to hiss like a broken steam pipe.
It remained, frozen in midair, jerking on the spot. As I took a terrified step back from it, it suddenly exploded. It did not, however, send burning shards of metal blasting through the room. Instead, it turned into a cloud of fine, gray dust. And that gray dust shot back to the man. Before I could become terrified that it would hurt him somehow, it disappeared back into the symbol on his wrist.
He convulsed but soon became still.
Warily, I crept over to him, pressing my fingers against his neck once more.
He was still alive, and if I was any judge, his breathing was calming. His skin wasn’t deathly white anymore, either.
If I was any guess – and, let’s face it, I wasn’t, considering I had all of two days experience in this magical world. Still, if I was any guess, he’d extended himself by creating that sword. And now it had disappeared back inside him, he was getting better.
Which meant he might just wake up soon.
I backed toward the door, but before I could run through it and try to rustle up some help, I stopped. “You have to restrain the criminal, idiot,” I chided myself as I reached a hand around and snapped the magical handcuffs out from the pocket of my jacket. The guard had given them to me before I’d left the armory.
Leaning down, carefully shifting the man until I could access both of his hands without hurting him, I snapped the handcuffs over his wrists. There was a resounding click, click.
I checked them, even though they were so solid they looked as if they could keep a frost giant in place.
Finally satisfied, I stood up, took a step back, then another, then turned.
I was woozy, dizzy, marching nausea climbing up my back and locking hard into my jaw. I’d lost a lot of blood, even though I couldn’t appreciate that. The wound to my shoulder was deep. I’d also used a lot of my nascent power.
That didn’t stop me from stumbling forward, eyes wide as they searched the darkened corridor for any sign of another person.
I brought my phone out and stared fixedly at the signal bar, waiting for it to change.
“Come on, come on, you bastard,” I begged as I reached the stairs and took to them. I had to lock one hand on the rail, lest I fall back. I was starting to become seriously woozy here.
Fighting against my nausea, I reached the top of the stairs. This level was somehow nicer than the actual nightclub. I’d noted that before, but I hadn’t paid that much attention considering the fact I’d been chasing down a murderer.
Now I frowned, pressing the back of my hand against my mouth as I winced against another surge of dizziness. Crumpling over, pressing a sweaty hand against the wall, I checked my phone once more.
It still had no signal.
Swearing, not daring to move my hand from the wall, lest I fall over, I pushed forward. My whole body was shaking now, bucking as a cold sensation began to press up through my limbs.
I might have felt completely warm in the ice-covered basement, but now it felt like I was freezing from the inside out.
The lighting down here was a little more reasonable than upstairs, but it was still dim. Even so, I could make out the expensive Persian runner that divided the corridor. I could also tell that the doors dotted along the walls had little, expensive brass plates with place names carved into them like Paris, London, and Brussels.
I turned to the first door and knocked on it desperately.
No one answered.
I ran to the next door. No one answered.
I was starting to… shut down.
I suddenly noticed how badly my arm was bleeding. Clutching a hand to my injury, I shuddered as I saw how much blood came off on my fingers.
A new wave of nausea hit me, and I stumbled against the closest door.
That would be when it opened. Hard. I had no balance left and fell forward as the door opened inwards.
Before I could fall on my face, two strong hands locked on my shoulders.
Two strong, warm hands. Warm enough that they could momentarily cut through the cold marching through my limbs.
Sleepily, seconds from falling unconscious, I turned my gaze up and up and up. For the man who had caught me was no normal human.
“Lilly?” Franklin Saunders asked, voice quick with concern. His bright blue eyes darted from my ashen face to the bloodied rip in my leather jacket then down to my burnt, blistered hand.
I could hear voices behind Saunders.
“What’s going on?”
“Who is that?”
“I’ll be back,” was all he said. Then Franklin leaned forward and picked me up for the third time in several days.
It was such an effortless move. To him, I probably weighed nothing more than a breath of air.
“What happened?” he asked, voice low. And though it was low, it wasn’t hissed, wasn’t vibrating with that familiar anger.
Though I’d only known Franklin Saunders for two days now, he’d never simply talked to me. He’d berated me, sure. He’d shouted at me plenty of times. And god knows he’d grunted and growled.
But right now he actually sounded concerned.
“What are you doing here, Lilly? And what happened to you?” he asked once more, slowing his words down as he gently squeezed my shoulders with one hand, the other still hooked easily under my legs.
“What… am I doing?” I repeated, focusing on the question, trying to let it drag me back into consciousness. “Tracking… tracking the hitman.”
I felt him stiffen. “Here?”
“I… I was sent here… then….” Talking abruptly became too much for me. Despite the fact this was Franklin Saunders, and I hated him more than anything else in the entire world, I let my head loll against his appreciable chest.
He shook me gently. “Stay awake, Lilly. Where is your target?”
“The basement, he’s in the basement,” I suddenly answered with renewed vigor as a pulse of fear slammed hard into my gut. If there was one thing that could beckon me out of the waiting arms of unconsciousness, it was the fact I’d almost killed a guy. “You need to call the ambulance. You need to save him. I almost,” I choked, “I almost killed him. He might be dead now. Oh god. What have I done?”
I felt tears begin to streak down my cheeks. They were just as cold as the icy sensations still spreading through my heart.
Saunders suddenly stopped, turning hard on his shoe as I felt him incline his head the way I’d come. “You haven’t killed him,” he said softly.
“I almost froze him to death. He could have died of hypothermia,” I began.
“Lilly White, I would know if he were dead,” Franklin said simply. There was something so reassuring about his tone, so believable about his simple statement.
God knows I didn’t trust Franklin, but right now I hoped he wasn’t lying.
Though it would have been so easy to faint against his chest, I used what little strength I had left to drag my phone up. The dim light of its electronic screen was like a torch. It lit up my bloodied fingers as they clutched around the case.
But then I saw the signal bar and twitched wildly. I began to dial an ambulance.
“He won’t need one of those,” Franklin said, using that same simple, gentle, easy tone. The kind of tone that could lull you to sleep.
“I have to call them – he’s injured. Oh god, what have I done? I could have killed him.”
Franklin paused. I felt a strange tension shift through his muscles as he did. And that tension? It seemed important somehow.
“Did you act in anger or self-defense?” he asked plainly.
“I…” I trailed off as I remembered that flash of steel slicing toward my neck.
“Self-defense, then,” Franklin came to his own conclusion.
“I still shouldn’t have…” I trailed off. My thoughts were becoming thick, heavy, and it took more and more effort to push them through my mind.
There was still one thought that could move me, though.
One terrifying thought.
I suddenly forced my eyes open and locked them on Franklin.
He stared at me.
“Am I going to pay for this crime?” I asked, voice trailing off and becoming weak.
Still staring down at me, he shook his head. “No, this is not your crime.”
With that, I really did start to shut down.
Everything became hazy. The last thing I saw were his eyes – those crystal clear eyes staring down at me. There was something so inviting about them. Inviting in the same way the cold had been when I’d opened up to my magic. It promised to make me more, so much more than I was now. But what did Franklin’s eyes really promise?
I would have to find out.
I woke in my room. Not my real room – the one in Vali’s tower. This was starting to become a habit.
It took me several blinks to remember what had happened. Then I swore at my ceiling. I jerked a hand up and checked it. When I couldn’t find any scars, I brought my other hand up and checked that instead. Nothing. I distinctly remembered grabbing up that sword and its burning handle blistering my skin. In fact, if I half closed my eyes, I could even kindle up the scent of singed flesh.
Shifting hard into my pillow, I rolled to the side and clutched my shoulders, checking for any sign of injury.
How could there be nothing? I’d blacked out due to blood loss. The gash in my arm had been deep enough that I would have required stitches.
But there was nothing.
I sat up as the morning sunlight streamed through the crack in my curtains.
Drawing an arm up and locking it over my face, I heard the door suddenly beep. “You will dress and see Vali,” it said in a toneless ring.
I squeezed my eyes shut and slammed a hand onto the center of my forehead. “Oh god.”
Because apparently it was time to see the god of revenge.
Though all I wanted to do was stay in my warm, inviting bed, I didn’t have any option.
Reluctantly, I got out of bed and dressed. There was a new pile of neat clothes sitting on one of the expensive chairs in my room. A pair of blue jeans, a shirt, and, thankfully, a thick jacket.
I felt the cold everywhere these days. As soon as I wriggled into the jacket, I jacked its collar up and hid behind it.
Then I shot the door a mutinous glare, just daring it to tell me what to do again.
As if on cue, it beeped and swung open.
I jumped. Crumpling my lips in and biting them as if I wanted to chew them off, I approached the door warily. As soon as I made it out into the straight, short corridor beyond, the door closed behind me with a thump.
Then, without any other option, I walked up to Vali’s door. For some reason, my room only seemed to lead to his. It was clear he didn’t want to give me any option for escape.
As I approached the massive, thick, ancient, wooden door, it opened with an ominous, spine-tingling creak.
With a steeling breath, I walked inside.
This time Vali didn’t pretend to be absorbed in his work. This time he immediately shoved back, crossed his impressive arms, and glared at me.
Fright burst through my belly, but I managed to keep a handle on it by grinding my teeth together and telling myself that if he wanted me dead, I wouldn’t have woken up this morning.
“Let me make something crystal-clear.” Vali’s voice dropped as he leaned back in his chair. Though he was a strong man with a large build, the chair didn’t creak, almost as if it wouldn’t dare.
“What?” I asked through a crack in my stiff lips.
“You will never take those off again.” He pointed to the bangles.
I stiffened as I turned my neck down and stared at the locks. “That man was about to kill me. I didn’t have any option—”
“I don’t want to hear it.” He brought up a stiff hand and spread his fingers wide. “You will never take those off again,” he said in that same ringing tone that made it clear he didn’t expect me to reply.
And yet, I couldn’t stop myself. “You threw me into that situation. I had no training. I still have no idea—”
“Lilly White, you will promise me that you will never take those off again unless I direct it,” he snapped right over the top of me.
I ground my teeth together, feeling them vibrating and shuddering down my jaw. Right now I wanted nothing more than to lurch forward and kick the sanctimonious Franklin Saunders. But from experience, that would get me nothing more than a bruised toe. So instead, I stood there, clutching my hands behind my back and curling them into such hard fists it would take a crowbar to pry apart my fingers.
“Say it,” he growled.
“Fine. I’ll never take them off again,” I said, voice a mix of dejection and yet frustration.
Satisfied, Franklin leaned back, steepled his fingers, and looked at me.
I was never good with direct attention. But Franklin Saunders’ attention? That wasn’t just direct – it was like the universe dropped away and there was just the two of you. As he stared at me, it appeared that nothing would distract him, and he would only turn away when he saw fit. It was also clear that he was assessing me, and from the grim look pressing across his lips, it was equally clear that I did not measure up to scratch.
I let out a frustrated, bitter breath, even though I knew better. I willed myself to shut up. I begged myself not to open my mouth, but I couldn’t stop my lips. “Why is it so goddamn important that I keep these things on? You want me to track down your criminals, but how exactly can I do that if I can’t—”
He put up another hand. There was a large stapler sitting on his desk, and I got the urge to push forward and staple his frigging hand to his chair so he could never jerk up that massive palm and silence me so rudely ever again.
I, of course, just stood there, clutching my fists until it felt like I’d crush my fingers.
I was suddenly struck by how different he was. When he’d come to rescue me last night, I’d seen the kindness in his eyes, felt the gentleness of his touch.
Now? It was like he was a different man. With his jaw set so hard and his cold blue eyes glittering so imperiously, he looked like a caricature of an arrogant asshole, albeit an extremely handsome, godly one.
Had it just been an act? The kindness? Had it just been a trap to lure me in? Did he want to keep me confused, keep me pliable, keep me always guessing?
Or was something else going on here…?
He clearly saw me frowning. He waited several seconds before leaning even further back in his seat. “What is it?”
“Why are you so… different?”
“Different?” His tone had an edge, and his eyes glittered with the kind of dangerous look that would tell any normal person to shut the hell up.
I was no longer a normal person. Last night, I had almost frozen a man to death in the basement of a nightclub.
So I plowed on. “Last night, when you saved me… you were different. Nicer.” I let my voice bottom out. “Or was that all an act?”
I fancied that a man like Franklin Saunders knew exactly how to hide what he was thinking. I fancied that he had been schooled since birth to control his body language, his expression, his tone. He would be the best actor this side of Broadway. So why did I suddenly see the tension climbing his jaw, locking it in place, and stiffening his wide shoulders?
And that was nothing to mention the look in his eyes. It became so edgy it was clear I’d hit a nerve.
I took a nervous step back but didn’t stop facing him. “How come you didn’t warn me about taking off my locks last night? How come you didn’t—”
He rose, and my god was it an intimidating move. The way he slowly locked his hands on the corner of his desk, the way he shifted back, shoved his weight into the chair, and then pulled himself to his full height. It didn’t just still my breath; it riveted me to the spot.
“Don’t change the subject,” he warned. “All that matters is your promise that you will never take your armlets off again.”
I was pale with nerves, hands and shoulders sweaty. And yet my curiosity flared.
Why did I suddenly get the impression that Vali was the one changing the subject?
“Last night, you were—” I began.
“You will stop speaking of last night,” he commanded in a voice that rumbled through the room and left me with absolutely no question that he meant what he was saying.
I actually gulped. I did not, however, stop looking at him. I couldn’t help but pick up how rigid he’d become, how cold and guarded his gaze was.
Though I wanted to keep pushing, I quickly realized it was suicidal. Instead, I took another step back. “Fine. I won’t mention it again. But—”
He brought up that same goddamn hand and spread those same goddamn fingers stiffly, silencing me. “There are no buts. And you will not rescind on your promise. You will never take those armlets off again. Unless I request it,” he suddenly added.
My eyebrows crumpled. “You request it?”
“Yes,” he growled. “You will only do so under my instruction and in my presence.” His voice rumbled on the word my.
I frowned even harder. “Why?”
“I will not explain myself to you. Now this conversation is over, you will go and request another assignment.”
“Already?” My voice shot up like a kazoo. “I almost died last night.”
“Almost. And yet now you are fine.” He gestured to me with a stiff hand.
Wait, he was right – I was fine, wasn’t I? Before I’d marched in here to have this meeting with him, the fact I had no injuries had been a pertinent one. I’d forgotten it in the face of his arrogant brutality. Now I frowned. “What exactly happened to my injuries, anyway? I almost burnt my hand clean off.”
“They were healed,” he commented simply.
“You ask questions I have no time to answer. Now, go and request another assignment.”
My nervousness at his anger began to wane. In its place, my own anger grew. Where the hell did this guy get off treating me so badly? Okay, so technically he was a revenge god out to keep humanity in check. But why exactly did he treat my every request for information like an insult?
He stared at me with a hard-edged jaw for several seconds, obviously willing me to go against his warning and ask more questions.
I didn’t. Instead, I stared back. Then I let my arms unhook from behind my back. I now made absolutely no attempt to hide my tightly clenched fists. “I guess I’ll be leaving, then,” I commented as I turned hard on my foot and headed for the door.
“One more thing,” he said as I heard him turn and lean against his desk.
“Have you told anybody about what happened in that basement?”
“About the fact I almost killed a man?” I choked on my words.
“No, about the ice.” His tone became… unreadable. Guarded.
I couldn’t help but turn over my shoulder to stare at him.
He stared right back. “Have you told anybody about the ice?” he demanded once more.
I felt a shiver – tight, cold, strong. It powered through my chest and exploded through my heart. “No. I haven’t had a chance to—”
“And you won’t. All details of this case are now locked. You will share them with no one.”
There he went again, silencing me. It was almost as if he was scared of me.
Though reason told me to turn around and head right through the door, I didn’t. “Why?”
He didn’t react.
He was obviously giving me one more chance to leave quietly.
I didn’t take it. “Why shouldn’t I tell anybody? What exactly are you trying to hide?”
“What I am trying to hide,” he said in an uncharacteristically calm tone, “is something you are not ready to hear. Trust me when I say this, Lilly White, this is for your own good. Now, request another assignment. Your sins remain, and you must continue to pay for them.” With that, he turned from me, walked around, sat at his desk, and proceeded to ignore me.
It took me several seconds to unfreeze my body and push through the door. As soon as I did, as soon as I was out in the abandoned corridor, I closed the door and leaned against it. I instantly locked a sweaty hand on my chest, my frown becoming so pronounced it felt as if my mouth would drop from my face. “What the hell was that?” I whispered quietly under my breath. “I’m not ready to know the truth? What does that mean?” My voice shot up, becoming louder, becoming more desperate.
From within the office, I heard Franklin clear his throat.
That arrogant move was enough to turn my fear into anger. A blast of it suddenly surged through my gut, and I got the distinct urge to kick the door. Do that, however, and Franklin would just add another so-called sin to my growing list of misdemeanors. I felt very much like an indentured slave.
Except unlike the slaves of old, I would never break free of Vali.
I cursed his very existence as I walked away. I also frowned. I frowned because the mysteries were mounting, drawing me further into this new world….
They have a saying – no rest for the wicked. Well, I didn’t exactly fancy I was wicked, but Vali did.
I didn’t get a chance to return to my room and beat my pillow to let out my frustrations.
Megan marched into view, a scowl marking her perfect red lips. “With me,” she demanded as she clicked her fingers and pointed to her side.
I was like a dog expected to heel at its master’s side, ha?
I controlled the mutinous expression that threatened to crumple my brow like screwed up paper. With a breath, I walked up to her.
“It’s time to hand you over to Section One.”
Her scowl hardened. “The lowest detectives.”
Though I seriously wanted to ignore her, I couldn’t. I controlled my interest as I asked, “Lowest detectives, what does that mean?”
“Keep up. Vali has an extensive network of employees.”
“You mean indentured slaves, right?” I don’t know why I was pushing my luck – one look at her stiff lips would tell anyone to cork their mouth and run away. But I was angry, trapped, cornered, and finally fighting back even if the only weapon I had was my words.
“How dare you. Vali offers final chances. He pulls the damned back from Hell. So I do not mean indentured slaves,” she spoke in hisses, “I mean his employees.”
“Fine, his employees.” I controlled my tone. “Why are they detectives?”
“In order to work off your sins, you must bring in other sinners. As a lower detective, you complete basic groundwork, enabling the higher-classed teams to bring in targets.”
“You mean, we’re like a vigilante police force?” I spluttered, realizing how frigging strange this was. I’d stumbled into a crazy nightmare, and now apparently I was going to become a detective tracking down crims for the god of revenge….
“No, we are not vigilantes. But yes, we police the populace of Saint Helios City at the behest of Vali. He identifies sinners, and we bring them in.”
I snorted. It was a dark, judgmental move. “Then what? He chucks them off the roof?”
She turned on me, nostrils flaring, gaze blazing. “Rest assured that I will share your behavior with Vali. If you continue to obstruct, he will add more sins to your file. And if he does that—”
I felt my cheeks stiffen. “I’ll be here for longer,” I managed through a thin crack in my equally thin lips.
She nodded low, meeting my gaze with all the implied force of a sword to my throat.
I sighed, releasing the tension that had crept up my shoulders. Looking at the floor, I asked, “So I join the lower detectives, then? I’ll be expected to track down criminals and bring them to justice?”
“No. You will not mete out justice. Only Vali will do that. As I have already said, you will simply do the ground work on cases, tracking targets down. Now come.”
With no other choice, I followed.
I listened to Megan’s heels clicking along the carpet as she led me down the corridor. A second later, we faced a door. A knot of nerves twisted hard in my gut as I stared at it. For all intents and purposes, it was nothing more than an ordinary door. It didn’t have chains strung across it, and there was no great big keep-out sign. And yet, if you believed my stomach, this would be the gateway down to Hell.
Surreptitiously, I inched a hand underneath my shirt and clutched my stomach, willing my nerves to stay put.
Megan reached around her neck and pulled out a lanyard. She grabbed a sophisticated-looking keycard and swiped it close to the door. I couldn’t see a keypad. That, apparently, didn’t matter. As soon as the keycard swiped over the bold red paint, something unclicked from within. The door opened inwards.
Don’t ask me what I was expecting. In my current mood, I honestly thought this jolly painted door would lead down to the Devil himself. Instead? It led to an office – large, open plan, and chock full of people. Apart from a few glaring differences, it looked exactly like an ordinary open-plan office from an ordinary workplace. But the glaring differences? In the corner were two people practicing magic, great glowing discs of light filtering out from their touches as they selected various magical weapons before continuing their lesson.
I wasn’t ready for this. Okay, I’d seen a lot of magic in the past two days. But this? This was worse. Because this normalized the incredible. There was no longer any hiding from the awful reality of this world when my officemates could call on the very power of fire itself.
I clammed up as I stood there. And you guessed it, my breathing began to get shallower and shallower.
Megan, if she noticed, didn’t appear to care. She led me forward with a flick of her manicured hand. “You’ll be stationed over here,” she pointed out as she gestured toward a desk far along the opposite end of the room. While most of the other desks were generous, and nearly all of them offered a relatively splendid view through the plate-glass windows beyond, this desk was shoved right into a corner and clearly was intended for the lowest member of the pecking order. Me.
I barely reacted as Megan gestured me forward and patted the desk. “You’ll be given a caseload just like everyone else. And just like everyone else,” her voice dipped low, “you will be expected to finish it on time. Vali does not abide slackers.”
My stomach sank at that warning, yet my curiosity peaked. You’d think, considering all the trouble my curiosity had gotten me into today, I would have shoved it into a corner. I didn’t. Couldn’t. A pronounced frown spread across my face. “Why do you call him that?”
Megan’s lips stiffened. “Call him what?”
“Vali?” I forced myself to ask, even though my stomach was starting to sink.
There were plenty of other people in the office, all of them doing their own thing. Except right now they all stopped and looked over at us.
The hair along the back of my neck stood on end, but rather than wave my hands frantically in front of my face and pretend I’d asked the question by mistake, I stood my ground. “Isn’t his name Franklin Saunders?” I asked in a much more careful, wary voice.
Rather than lash out and hit me for asking what looked like an unforgivable question, Megan’s shoulders deflated. “So you don’t know, then?”
Carefully, I shook my head. “Don’t know what?”
“They’re two different people,” she answered, voice dropping low, but not in warning. It was almost as if she was terrified Franklin Saunders himself would saunter over at that exact moment.
I frowned so hard I thought I’d cut my cheeks in two. “Sorry, two different people? What does that mean? Does he have a twin or something?” I asked, eyes opening wide as I realized that must be the case.
Megan simply shook her head. “No, he does not have a twin. They share the same body. But they are… different men,” she said quietly. There was something about the way she said different that sent cold fright shifting hard down my back. It shook through my legs, and I had to stifle the sensation with a cough. “Sorry? Different men? What does that mean?”
I was seriously aware of the fact that everyone in this large office had stopped working, and they were all staring at me. I was clearly making an ass out of myself, but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop, because the more I questioned Megan, the more sense it made. When Franklin Saunders had picked me up last night and cared for my wounds – he’d honestly felt like a different man to the cold asshole who’d berated me a half hour ago.
Megan continued to look at me with a wary, pressured look. “A word of advice. I realize you’re new to this world, but if I were you, I’d be very careful what kind of questions I asked. Now, this is your desk,” she pointed out needlessly as she tapped it. As soon as her hand struck the wood, it upset a cloud of dust that, at first glance, simply hadn’t been there.
I backed away, coughing and batting at the lethal cloud.
Megan simply gave a demure cough and took a step back. “You’ve already had enough time to settle in. You’ll get your first case this afternoon. Considering your exploits last night,” she looked down her nose at me, “I suggest you do a good job on this. It’s not unheard of for someone to gather more sins while under Vali’s care. And if you do, and those sins are considered severe enough—” She didn’t finish her sentence. She didn’t exactly have to. It didn’t take a genius to realize what she was trying to say here. Gather more sins under Vali’s so-called care, and I would wind up with a death sentence.
I made no attempt whatsoever to hide my disgust as I stared at her. In my books, Vali was the worst criminal of all. Judge, jury, and executioner, he had absolutely no moral right to do any of this. And if he ever came up in a court of law, I imagine he would pay for his sins tenfold. But the god would never submit to human justice. This was all a game to him.
Megan obviously caught sight of my less-than-kind expression. She leaned in, locking her gaze on mine, her lips so stiff her bright red lipstick couldn’t hide how white they’d just become. “I suggest you check your attitude at the door. Vali gave you another chance. For that, you should be infinitely grateful. Because if he hadn’t stepped in—” She didn’t finish her sentence again, and instead straightened up, carefully patting down her stunning blouse as she took a step away from the desk. “You’ll get your first case this afternoon. I’ll be watching you. And I report directly to Vali,” she warned. With that, she turned, the sound of her heels clicking over the floor the only thing that could be heard until she reached the door, opened it, and walked out.
The office had been bustling when I came in, but now it was as quiet as a graveyard. Everyone stared at me. They appeared to come from all walks of life. The guy right across from me had the face and build of a middle manager, somebody who’d spent the last 30 years of their life tirelessly pushing pens around. And the woman behind him? With her angular features and hard gaze, I could bet she’d been in the police force or the army.
Though I felt like hiding my head in my hands to get away from everybody’s direct stares, I hunched down and sat quietly. Experimentally, I shifted a hand forward and tried to wipe the dust off my desk. Big mistake. It erupted around me in a lethal cloud. I patted frantically at it, trying to disperse it before I gave myself lung disease.
Once I was done ineffectively cleaning the desk, I tried to figure out what I should do next. Megan had promised I’d get a case by the afternoon, but it was 11 o’clock, and it was still several hours away. Just when I began to freak out, realizing once more how impossibly, frighteningly awful this situation was, I heard somebody scoot over to me, the wheels of their chair clattering over the floor.
I looked up to see a woman probably a couple of years younger than me. “You’ve just become contracted, ha? What was your crime?” The woman shoved a hand in my face. “Theft and arson,” she announced, almost proudly. “What are your powers? My name is Cassidy,” she added as an afterthought, a hand still hovering before my face.
Considering this situation was so fricking surreal and kept moving along at a frightening pace, all I could do was stare from her face to her hand. When I didn’t grab her hand, she leaned forward, grabbed mine, and shook it like a businessman about to seal a deal.
“Yeah, you must be pretty shocked,” she continued her one-sided conversation. “When Vali dragged me out of prison, I had no freaking clue what was happening. But now I’m here, and now I can do this, it ain’t so bad.” She brought up a hand, flicked her fingers, and played with a magical disc of power. Somewhat like the man from last night, the disc almost looked like a hologram. It spread out wide from her touch, and there were multiple symbols around the inside of the magical ring.
I stared at it with slack-jawed surprise. This only drew a hearty chuckle from Cassidy. “You must be pretty new to still be surprised by one of these. I mean, I’m on the lower end of the magical spectrum – still learning the ropes. Vali only saved me two months ago.”
There was one word she’d just said – one word that could finally break me out of my surprised reverie. “Saved you?” I asked through a swallow. Even though the move was nervous, my voice still rang with indignation.
“Sure, if he hadn’t come along and given me another chance, I would have served another few years in prison. And let’s face it, when I got out, I was destined to reoffend. You see, I have a talent – a talent for finding trouble. I’m always hanging out with the wrong kind of people. Anyhow, what’s your name? We should be friends,” she concluded with some finality.
I stared at her. And no, it wasn’t only because she hadn’t taken a single breath between saying she had a talent for hanging out with the wrong kind of people, to suggesting we should be friends. Before Cassidy could start patting me down so she could find my driver’s license, figure out my name, and then continue this one-sided conversation, someone else scooted over.
I looked up to see the stiff-lipped, determined woman I’d figured had been in the police or the army. “Cassidy, for the love of god, give her some breathing room. She’s only just found out about this world. It’s a little too soon to be exchanging numbers.” The woman shoved a hand in my face, and I had absolutely no option but to grab it and let her do all the shaking. “Alice.”
“Ah, Lilly,” I volunteered.
Alice crossed her arms and scooted back half a meter, pushing out a foot and expertly stopping her chair as she crossed her legs. “What was your crime?” she asked. “I took a hit, got too involved with the mob. They paid me off, so I turned a blind eye whenever I saw one of their cases cross my desk.” She spoke so casually as if she were talking about nothing more innocent than where she’d gone to school.
I stared at her with a wide-open mouth. “So, you’re a cop?”
She snorted. “I was a cop. Now I work for Vali, cashing in my second chance.”
That word rang in my head. As it did, I swear it took on the exact tone and force of Vali himself.
Suddenly, I shook my head and unashamedly leaned a little bit back. Sure, these guys were being friendly, but Alice was a bent cop who’d turned a blind eye to the murderous mobsters of this city. And Cassidy, though bubbly, had admitted to arson and theft.
Alice was clearly more on the ball than Cassidy, because her friendly grin stiffened. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t deserve to be. So what did you do?”
I glanced around to see that everyone was staring at me again.
When I’d first walked into this room, I’d assumed it was just an ordinary office full of workers from a large cross-range of society. Now I realized it wasn’t. It was from a cross-range of criminals, and I very much didn’t belong.
I took a pronounced swallow and pretended to be interested in my desk. “It doesn’t really matter. Nothing much,” I began.
Alice snorted. “Something pretty bad, then? It can’t be murder; Vali never accepts murderers,” she said, her voice dropping down low. “But trust me, as an ex-cop, I’m well aware that there’s a full range of other heinous crimes out there. So put us out of our misery. What did you do to get in here with us?”
I frowned as I stared from her to everybody else. I could feel their attention like drills driving into the back of my neck.
“What did you do?” Alice asked through a growl. She reached just the right pitch, and it shook through me. She had been a police officer before coming here, after all.
“Nothing, okay? Nothing. I stole a few things when I was a teenager, nothing big. No one ever got hurt. And I… I got so absorbed by this box—” I suddenly lost the ability to speak as the memory of that Norse box filled my mind. I could still see it, still feel it. And as its memory filled my senses long enough, I swore I could even hear it. “I got so obsessed with it, that I forgot about an injured friend. I forgot to get a first aid kit. It wasn’t too bad, though. It’s not like my friend was on death’s door—” I shook my head as guilt kindled in my gut. “That’s it. That’s all I did,” I said in a punchy tone, one brimming with frustration and emotion.
If I’d been paying attention to anyone other than myself, I would have realized that both Alice and Cassidy suddenly stiffened. I would have also heard the rather direct footfall behind me. I didn’t.
“I have no idea why that asshole has me here, but I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Someone cleared their throat. From the exact ominous tone of it, there was only one person it could be. Slowly, like a pig on a rotisserie, I turned. There he was right behind me. Franklin Saunders. Or, should I say, Vali.
“Do you really have no idea what this asshole wants with you?” he questioned, voice neutral. Well, neutral on the face of it. But when you factored in his expression, his tone was about as deadly as a gun to your head.
I was frozen to the spot, and it was from more than the way he was looking at me. It was from the reactions of everyone else. Seconds ago, Alice had seemed like the strongest woman I’d ever met. Now, she looked almost meek as she stared at her hands and pretended not to be interested.
Quickly, I glanced around the rest of the room and saw everyone else was the same. Even Cassidy, who’d been bubbly and vivacious moments before, now looked completely withdrawn.
Though I was mortified at the fact Vali had heard me ragging on him, a flare of anger licked at my gut.
I wasn’t usually a courageous girl. I didn’t fight battles for other people. I kept my head down, kept quiet, and avoided trouble like the plague. Right now, I crossed my arms in front of my chest and glared back at him.
I watched his eyes narrow. “Is that really all you did, Lily-white?” he questioned. He said Lilly White in the same way he always did – like it was a color, not a name: one uninterrupted string as opposed to two distinct words.
Lily-white had been my grandmother’s favorite color. And as I thought of that, I thought of her. My gut clenched.
“Aren’t you leaving out the most pertinent detail?” Vali continued. “Your grandmother?”
I couldn’t tell, but he seemed to take a great deal of satisfaction in saying that – in pointing out I’d missed my grandmother’s own death. Though I’d had a heck of a lot to deal with over the past two days, my grief still sat under my shock and surprise. It was lodged hard in my chest like a pill I would never be able to swallow. Sure, I’d never gotten on with her. Sure, I’d been nothing more than a disappointment to her. But she was still dead. I’d passed up the opportunity to say goodbye and give her one more chance to change.
Though ideally I wanted to continue glaring at him, I shifted my gaze, staring at my hands as I clutched them on the desk.
From far off into the room, I heard people whisper. “What did she do?”
My hackles rose, and I yanked my head up, glaring at him. “What did I do? Nothing. I failed to see her before she died. What the hell kind of crime is that? She never wanted to have anything to do with me. Struck me off the will. I was nothing more than a disappointment.” I rose from my chair. I was a smart girl. Or so I thought. And smart girls don’t try to intimidate gods of revenge. I couldn’t help myself, though. The frustration was getting too much for me. It had formed a knot in my gut, one that was twisting harder and harder, harder and harder. “So we didn’t play happy families. So I didn’t achieve her crippling, impossible expectations. You tell me where the hell the crime is in that, asshole?” I finished with a snap.
Vali didn’t shout at me. Instead, he crossed his arms in his go-to intimidating move, and I could see just how much the fabric of his suit had to stretch to accommodate his biceps. “I suggest you start facing your sins instead of running from them.”
“Facing my sins?” I practically shrieked. “What sins. Behind me are a bent cop and a kleptomaniac arsonist. And you think I’m in the same boat? I accepted a fricking job from my desperate employer rather than going to see my grandmother. I had no idea it would be the last night of her life. That’s not a crime. It’s a tragedy.” I wanted to keep my voice even. God did I want to keep it even. I couldn’t. On the word tragedy, it shook, stirring up all the emotions I’d been desperately trying to keep controlled until now.
Vali’s eyes narrowed again, though I couldn’t exactly say it was in anger. “The arsonist and the bent cop are now your colleagues. And I suggest you make friends. With them, you’ll find the only redemption and comradeship you deserve. And don’t make light of your crimes, Lily-white. You didn’t simply fail to see your grandmother on her deathbed – you’re the reason she was killed in the first place.”
Slap. It was the verbal equivalent of a slap. No, who was I kidding? It was the verbal equivalent of being sliced right through the heart.
“What?” My voice came out in a throaty, harsh, shaking gasp. “How dare you suggest something like that. My grandmother was dying of emphysema. I was the reason she was killed?! She died of too many cigarettes.”
“Your grandmother was killed because she was always taking the fall for your crimes. Either conscious or unconscious.” His voice dropped low in such a rattling growl, it was a surprise the floor didn’t shake.
“What? How dare you say that. You’re- you’re a monster,” I said, the only words I could manage through the choking gasp that shook through my throat.
Just for a second – just for a single second, I thought I saw his expression change. I thought I saw the anger and righteous indignation that was the hallmark of his personality slip. And as it shifted, I saw someone I recognized. Franklin Saunders from last night.
The second didn’t last.
Vali returned as he took a strong step toward me. “Incorrect. I am the god who shepherds monsters. Lily-white,” his voice did it again – sinking right through the earth, “you are the monster. Now come with me.”
When I didn’t move – when I stood there, frozen in shock and indignation – he reached forward and locked a hand on my shoulder.
The threat was clear. Or maybe it wasn’t a threat. Because momentarily, his touch seemed soft, almost inviting. Again, the second didn’t last.
Before I could erupt – not that there was much I could do against the god of revenge – with one hand still on my shoulder he inclined his head toward the door. “Come with me.” His tone was pregnant with warning. Obviously, he could see my red-bellied rage.
Something stopped me from screaming at the guy, and/or trying to kick him in the shins.
Instead, face hot with anger and just a little shame, I followed him out.
If all eyes had been on me before, it was absolutely nothing compared to the attention I was drawing now.
I may have just insulted Alice and Cassidy, but they didn’t look angry – just awed. I got the sudden impression that Vali didn’t come and pay house visits to just any criminal under his command.
I managed to hold it together until we were out into the corridor, but my fuse was progressively burning shorter and shorter. As soon as the door closed behind me, I let rip, with more than words. Though I really wanted to control my expression, I couldn’t. It cracked up like a melting glacier. “I don’t know where you get off. But suggesting I got my grandmother killed – do you actually have a heart in that chest? Or are you just some kind of uncaring robot?”
From experience, I knew that anything I said could not affect Vali. And yet, as I accused him of not having a heart, his face stiffened. I watched his cheeks pale. “I have a heart, Lily-white. I am simply careful who I show it to,” he said. His words didn’t punch out with echoing, ringing snaps. No. They were slow, cautious, careful.
And then I saw it in his eyes once more. That specific look that reminded me not of the cold god of revenge, but the man who’d picked me up so caringly after my fight last night.
That curiosity alone was enough to stem my anger. For like half a second. “Why would you even suggest that I got my grandmother killed? Anyone with a phone would be able to look up her obituary. She never looked after her health. She had a lot of money, just no sense—” I began.
I wasn’t provided the opportunity to finish my bitter statement. Vali took a quick, snapped step in. “Do not speak ill of the dead. Especially when they are your family. This is a lesson you have yet to learn, Lily-white, but one you must if you are to ever pay for your sins. Loyalty and trust are all that matter.” His voice took on an almost godly ring, echoing like a strike of lightning on the word loyalty.
I’d only known this man for two days, but this interaction was enough to prove that loyalty was clearly the most important thing to him.
“It is the truth, though you cannot appreciate it and maybe never will – but your grandmother sacrificed her life, her health, to keep you safe.”
I wanted to point out that what he was saying was utter madness. I wanted to thrust forward and slap him. But more than anything, I wanted to run away. Go home. Fall to sleep, wake up from this brutal nightmare. Instead, I just stood there, broken and tired. So very tired.
Briefly, Vali looked almost compassionate, but then that compassion disappeared as his jaw stiffened. “Tonight, once you have finished your first caseload, you will meet me in my office. You will dress elegantly. And you will accompany me to a function.”
“What? What kind of function? And why do you want me? And what the hell did you mean about my grandmother?” I lost it again, voice tightening with emotion as I tried to dismiss what he’d said. Uncomfortable memories suddenly came to mind. Back when I’d been a teenager, after I’d been dragged in by the police for stealing, my grandmother had sat me down. I could still remember the tea she’d served, the roaring crackle of the fire in her sitting room. Even the damn sickly scent of the perfume she always wore. More than anything, I could remember her expression. She’d stared at me with such utter disappointment. I’d just nicked some shitty, worthless costume jewelry from a friend. Something I’d stolen for the thrill of it. But in her eyes, I might as well have attacked her. The way she’d looked at me, the harsh, acerbic words that had spilled from her stiff lips – they’d been totally out of proportion to the crime.
“The function is at nine PM. You will be in my office at eight. Do you understand?” Vali continued.
Pushing the memory from my mind and shaking my head, I returned my full attention to him. “Why exactly do you need me to come to this function? Why can’t you take your secretary?”
He didn’t answer.
“What the hell did you mean about my grandmother?” I asked once more. I was starting to lose it. As uncomfortable memories flooded back in, I was beginning to feel something I’d pushed away, something I couldn’t afford to feel right now – total grief.
I fought and fought against the tears threatening to well in my eyes.
“Megan is not suited to this task. You are. And considering you still have not accepted your folly, you will have to work even harder to pay off your sins.”
“Bullshit,” I spat under my breath.
“You need me to do something. Some task. This has nothing to do with my sins. This is to do with those symbols. My magic,” I began.
I didn’t get the opportunity to finish. Vali took a sudden, strong, quick step toward me.
I almost had to flatten myself against the door. He did not, however, proceed to strike me or harm me in any way. He stared at me with the totality of his icy gaze. And that, coming from a god of revenge, was saying something. I couldn’t move as I stared at him.
“Never forget what I told you. You will tell nobody of those symbols. No one of your magic. And you will never, ever,” he began.
I pulled up my bangles and stared at them. “I’ll never take these off unless I get a direct order from you, unless I’m in your presence,” I finished his statement, voice dull. It was dull, because I was suddenly completely taken by his expression. Vali usually looked strong – impossibly strong, because he was a frigging Nordic god and not a real human. Right now? Right now he looked weak. Vulnerable. Searching.
It was enough to still my anger, to turn the anxiety that always shot down my spine into curiosity.
Slowly, he nodded. “Only in my presence,” he continued, voice so low it was a hushed whisper. “Now, return to work. And I suggest when you do, you apologize to Alice and Cassidy. Whether you appreciate this now or not, the people in there are your only family. Turn your back on them, and you will truly be alone.”
I shivered. I didn’t stop watching him, though. The curiosity that had been ignited by his strange reaction could not be dulled. If you’d asked me two days ago, I would’ve told you that Vali could not feel emotion. Nothing could scare him. He was nothing more than a brute. An automaton – an uncaring, unfeeling god. So what was the look in his eye? And why was he staring at me like this?
“8 o’clock,” he said with a snap as he turned and walked off, steps strident, the powerful, in-control god back.
But now I’d seen his single moment of searching vulnerability, I couldn’t unsee it. It was there, there in the way his shoulders were slightly hunched. There in the way his steps were slower than usual, his legs stiff with tension.
In the past, I’d never done well with situations that unfolded quickly. I was exactly the kind of girl you didn’t bring to an emergency. It wasn’t that I was slow, and I could be pretty quick on my feet when the situation dictated. It was just that it took me a long time to process things. A long time to figure out what something truly meant. And as Vali disappeared out of sight down the corridor, I realized it was going to take a heck of a lot more than one night to plumb the depths of his secrets.
Slowly, almost in a daze, I turned around and walked back into the room. Everyone had been chatting excitedly before, but now the entire room grew into a sharp silence.
I felt everyone’s gazes on me once more, but this time they were different. There was an edge to their curiosity.
As for Cassidy and Alice, they both appeared to ignore me as I sat down.
While Cassidy looked dejected, I could tell Alice was fuming. A second later, she snapped toward me, twisting her head and snarling. “The only way this unit can get along is if we don’t judge each other. You may think I’m nothing because I’m a bent cop, and Cassidy doesn’t deserve your respect because she burnt down a few houses. But getting someone killed—” Alice didn’t even finish her sentence. She just snapped her head back around, grabbed some papers off her desk, and began to read them.
I felt cold and a little sick as I sat there.
Cold, sick, confused, and curious. I was now coming to terms with the fact my life would never be the same again. I still, however, had no idea what would lie in store for me next.
I didn’t have to wait long, staring dejectedly at my hands and wondering why the heck my desk was so dusty.
Precisely ten minutes later, an officious-looking man I’d previously identified as the middle manager, bustled up behind me. He cleared his throat and shot me a judgmental look as I turned around.
Without so much as a hello or an introduction, he dumped a file on my desk.
“That’s your first case.” He shifted back, crossed his arms, and nodded at the file. “As it’s your first case, you have the option of going alone or heading out with more experienced officers so you can learn the ropes.” He gestured toward Cassidy and Alice. “It’s up to you, rookie,” he growled. “If you can’t work with us, then you can learn to survive in this world on your own.”
He stood there, arms still crossed as he glared at me, and I realized he was waiting for my answer.
I looked over at Cassidy and Alice. The smart, good-girl part of me wanted to shake her head. As if I was gonna go out with a bent cop and an arsonist. But then a little voice echoed in my mind. Annoyingly, it was Vali’s voice. These guys were my family now, weren’t they? I wasn’t ever going to get out of here. I had to work off my sins and pay my dues. And I could do that alone, or I could try to learn from others.
My grandmother had once told me that I was an unforgiving soul. That was pretty fricking rich coming from her. She held a grudge for eons.
She told me that I had a broken sense of morality. That I always judged others for what they did, but never put myself in their shoes. She said it was a distraction. A means to stop myself from judging my own sins and finding myself lacking.
As her words flashed through my memory, I opened my mouth to tell this middle manager that I could do this on my own.
No. Granny had been wrong. I could see the good side of people. I’d done that with Larry, hadn’t I?
I blinked. “I’d prefer to work with… help, if I can,” I said, words so quiet they barely made it past my lips.
“Sorry? What did you say?” the middle manager asked in a tone so loud it echoed all the way through the room.
I took a steeling breath and clenched my teeth. “I would prefer to work with help,” I repeated much louder this time.
The guy’s eyes glittered as he clearly thought he’d won a victory. Then he promptly turned hard on his foot and gestured to Alice and Cassidy. “Well, it’s up to you guys. I won’t make you work with a grayer if you don’t want to.”
I had no idea what the word grayer meant, but from the exact growl he gave and the look in his eye, it didn’t exactly sound like a compliment.
My hackles rose, my back stiffening as I stared from Cassidy to Alice. You didn’t need to be a genius to realize they were both going to say no.
Cassidy crossed her arms, sniffed, and turned from me. “I already have a big caseload. I don’t need to help out a grayer.”
Though she’d clearly insulted me, for some reason, I got the feeling her heart wasn’t in it.
The middle manager swiveled his attention to Alice. “What about you?”
Alice glared at me. Glared at me as if she were trying to make me burst into flames with nothing more than her gaze.
Shoulders receding, I turned from them both. “It’s all right. They don’t have to work—”
“Don’t you put words into my mouth,” Alice snapped. “And I’ll work with you. There’s nothing I hate more than people who hurt others through their own sheer stupidity and ignorance.”
Alice clearly never held back.
Though my gut twisted with a burst of anger, and I got the desire to tell her to sod off, I held my tongue.
“Oh, in that case, I guess I’ll come along too. I wouldn’t want Alice to be alone,” Cassidy said, a measure of her cheerfulness back.
I locked my arms in front of my chest defensively but looked up at them both from under my eyebrows.
Why did I get the sudden impression that this was like some buddy-cop film, and the bent cop, the arsonist, and the innocent waitress were about to run amok?
“All right then. This should be a simple case. You’re just gathering evidence on this one. One of the more experienced units will tag this guy and bring him in. I don’t want any bravado. And I don’t want any unnecessary use of magic.” The guy’s voice dropped down real low, ringing with such a note of warning I couldn’t help but shake.
Alice shifted forward, snatched the file off my desk, and nodded in a strong, short move. “Got it.”
“Normal check-in time, normal procedure.” With that, Mr. Middle Manager turned around and waddled off.
He obviously assumed I knew what normal procedure and normal check-in time were. But I knew absolutely nothing. Momentarily forgetting my recent interactions with Alice and Cassidy, I turned. “What does that mean? What’s normal check-in time and what exactly are we meant to do?”
Cassidy crossed her arms and shot me a cautious look that didn’t match her usual cute and friendly smile.
Alice cleared her throat. “When this is over, I’ll hand you the procedure manual. Study it. Breathe it. Live it. Make a mistake, and you’re on your own. Now get your jacket. We’re heading out.”
I spluttered at her sudden orders, but I wasn’t stupid enough to question further. While Vali acted unpredictably around my incessant questions, Alice would not. She would probably wrestle me to the ground and spit in my ear.
Dejectedly, I rose.
A lot of the other workers in the room were still staring at me, but slowly they were getting back to their work. The show, apparently, was over. Now all I had to do was hit the city streets with an arsonist and a bent cop to track down some criminal.
Crap, this couldn’t be real.
Problem was, it was.
I was expecting us to pile into one of those old blue sedans with a cop light on top – like you see in the movies. We didn’t. Instead, we exited out of a door in the side of the building. A door that promptly disappeared as it closed behind us.
I paled as shock shot through my stomach. “What the hell?” My voice arced high. “That door—”
“Yeah, it disappeared,” Cassidy said in a casual tone. “If you point that out to everybody on the street, you’ll break Regulation 1 B, landing you several more months of service. So I suggest you keep your big mouth shut and follow us.”
Cassidy still looked insulted. Her cheeks were red, her bubbly gaze hard.
I got the sudden urge to apologize to her. But just as soon as that urge formed in my mind, I shook my head. She was an arsonist. She’d admitted to burning down several houses. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the shock and hardship she’d put people through for nothing more than a thrill. As for Alice? Who knew how many crimes she’d ignored? And if she hadn’t ignored them, who knew how many crimes she could have prevented by dragging in the mobsters of this city?
So I hardened my expression as I followed them.
Though both of them had their jackets hooked over their arms, as the sun was out, I quickly shrugged into mine. Because I could feel it again. The cold. It was marching up my back, spreading down my arms, and lodging in my chest until it felt like a snow storm was brewing in my sternum.
Cassidy softened her expression. “How are you cold? It’s a nice sunny day. You coming down with something?” she asked suspiciously.
“I just get cold sometimes. I have trouble keeping warm,” I muttered quietly.
Though reason told me that Cassidy still hated my guts because I thought she was dirty criminal scum, reason failed. Cassidy unhooked her jacket from her arm and offered it to me. “I’m not using it. Take this.”
Shocked, I accepted it.
Instantly Alice snorted. “What, don’t think we’re capable of kindness? Fancy you’re the only nice person here?”
Though my jaw naturally stiffened at her attack, I didn’t bite back. “Look, I’m sorry about what I said before,” I lied.
Alice snorted again as she picked up on the lie instantly. “Bullshit. You think you’re with scum. If you didn’t need our help on this, you wouldn’t be talking to us.”
While Cassidy appeared to be softening toward me, I knew full well it would take Alice a couple of centuries to thaw.
“What did that middle manager mean when he said we had to be back by usual time and follow usual procedure?” I asked, wisely deciding to change the topic.
Cassidy’s face exploded into a grin. “Middle manager? That’s the perfect name for him. Seriously, though,” she quickly frowned and made a pained face, “I wouldn’t say that to his face. Ben can be a little tetchy at times.”
Alice grunted. She was striding a few good meters ahead but was clearly keeping an ear on the conversation. “That’s putting it lightly, Cass. If Ben heard that, he would throw you out the window,” she growled at me.
“It was just a stopgap. I did know his name. Ben, ha? What’s he in for?” My curiosity got the better of me.
“Embezzlement,” both Cassidy and Alice said through a laugh.
“Embezzlement? Figures,” I commented.
Immediately, Alice stiffened and turned hard on her foot. “Hard at work judging us all again, Miss Perfect? Forgotten you’re in here for a heinous crime too?”
“Give it a rest, Alice,” Cassidy said in a strangely firm tone that didn’t match her boisterous smile.
She’d clearly already forgiven me. Heck, she’d admitted she had a talent for hanging out with the wrong people. Obviously, she was under the mistaken impression that I had forgiven her, evidenced by the fact she turned and offered me a cute smile. “Lilly here has already apologized, and that’s good enough for me. Plus, Alice, should I really remind you how long it took you to fit in?”
Cassidy returned her attention to me. “We’re all a bit like this when we first join. Especially those of us who come from law enforcement,” she said pointedly. “It takes a while to realize we’re in the same boat.”
I judiciously chose not to comment. We weren’t in the same boat. I knew full well that I hadn’t inadvertently killed my grandmother. Or at least… that’s what I was telling myself. If I had to guess, Vali had indentured me for a completely different reason. And that reason? Those blue symbols that would dance over my skin whenever I took my bangles off. Frowning, my gaze ticked down to my wrists.
Cassidy leaned in and patted me hard on the back. “So, there’s something I’ve been dying to ask – what the heck happened between you and Vali out in the corridor? Why did he come to see you?”
Alice stopped charging ahead and turned, clearly interested in my answer.
I swallowed. “He was just checking up on me. Doesn’t he do that for everyone else?”
Alice made a face, and Cassidy shook her head like a confused cat. “Hell no. I saw Vali precisely once when he showed up at the prison, offering me another chance. Sure, I see him around the office, but he’s never latched a manly hand on my shoulder and pulled me into the corridor. What did you two talk about?”
I bit my lip.
This was more evidence, wasn’t it? More evidence that Vali wanted me for some specific purpose. Suddenly, I remembered the so-called function I’d be attending with him tonight, and my gut began to curdle with nerves.
Alice instantly frowned. Once a detective, always a detective, apparently. “What are you holding back?”
“Nothing, he just wants me to go to some function tonight. Speaking of which, how long will this take? I mean, when middle manager – sorry, Ben – when he said we should be back at standard time, what time is that? I have to be ready by eight.”
I stopped speaking abruptly.
I stopped speaking, because both Cassidy and Alice were staring at me in shock.
Cassidy shook her head, looking like a confused cat unsure of which dangling object to chase.
She planted a hand on her chest. “Sorry? Vali invited you to a function tonight?”
I paled, realizing I’d probably shared too much. Reaching a hand up and patting my hair awkwardly, I shrugged. “Yeah. Why? Is that unusual?”
Both women were shooting me the kind of look that told me that yeah, it was unusual. It was downright fricking rare, in fact.
“That’s what Megan is for. She usually accompanies him on the big jobs.”
It was my turn to shake my head like a confused cat. “Sorry, big jobs? What do you mean? He didn’t tell me what this was about—”
“What kind of magic do you practice, anyhow?” Alice questioned as she crossed her arms.
Now a bolt of fear slammed into my gut. I shifted uneasily back and cleared my throat. “Um, I’m not really sure yet,” I lied. “The last few days have been pretty intense – I haven’t had a chance to figure anything out yet.” That, at least, wasn’t a lie. The last few days had been more than intense. It was a surprise I hadn’t broken my neck from whiplash.
“You aren’t joking with us, are you? Vali actually did invite you to one of the big jobs tonight, didn’t he?” Cassidy looked so amazed, I could tell this was the most exciting news she’d heard for weeks.
Me? I just felt progressively more ill as I looked at the calculating looking Alice’s gaze. “So this is unusual, right? He doesn’t usually ask rookies to come with him on big jobs, as you put it?”
Both Cassidy and Alice shook their heads.
“He only takes strong witches with him, the ones he can trust,” Alice explained, tone guarded as she continued to assess me with a narrow-eyed look.
There were two things about that statement I didn’t like. The first was strong witches. I was just beginning to come to terms with the fact that I had truly powerful magic, yet I still had absolutely no idea where exactly I fit in in the grand scheme of things. Was I somewhere down the bottom in terms of raw ability, or somewhere on top? And what did that even mean?
“I can’t believe this,” Cassidy said, clapping her hands as if this was the best thing that had happened to her in years. “A bunch of the other detectives have been working here for decades, and they’ve yet to catch Vali’s eye. You? You do it from the get-go. He must have a pretty good reason for focusing on you. So what can you do?” she asked with clear glee.
Alice cleared her throat in an unmistakable growl. “Whatever it is, it’s not really any of our business at the moment. I shouldn’t have to remind you two, but we have a job to get to.”
Still pale from this new confusing news, I forced myself to nod.
Cassidy frowned. “Fine, fine. But you have to tell us what happens tonight.” She actually reached forward and hooked an arm through mine as if we were the best of friends. “And if I were you, I’d avoid Megan. As soon as she finds out Vali’s got another witch, she ain’t gonna be pleased.” Cassidy proceeded to whistle with some pleasure.
I paled all the more, feeling like I wanted to crawl home and jump into bed to hide under the covers.
I did not get that opportunity.
After another block, we arrived on a familiar street.
Instantly, I frowned. Because instantly my gaze darted over to the two-story brick building on the opposite side of the street.
The headquarters of Larry’s catering company, to be precise.
Larry! I’d almost completely forgotten about him. Now his interactions with Vali slammed back into the center of my head.
It was Larry who’d delivered that box, Larry who’d brought the odious Vali into my life. I’d heard when Vali had threatened Larry – Vali had told Larry to clear out of town and never come back, or face the consequences.
But right now I watched as Larry darted out from the store, a briefcase held so tightly under his arm it looked like he was about to wrench his shoulder from its socket.
I shrugged back, hiding behind Alice’s tall, strong form as Larry checked the street before jumping into his Porsche.
“Why are you hiding behind me?” Alice snapped.
“I know that guy. He’s my ex-boss.”
“Shit, he’s also our target. Stay there. Cassidy, call a taxi.”
I knew from experience how quickly Larry drove. When Larry was in his Porsche, road rules didn’t matter – only his foot on the accelerator did. “We’re not going to have time,” I counseled as he shot out of sight. Calling a taxi anywhere in this town was like calling for a miracle. Maybe they’d come, maybe they wouldn’t. But you would have to prepare to wait at least two hours.
Somehow, Cassidy called one instantly. I’d checked along the street moments before, and there hadn’t been a taxi in sight. Yet as soon as she jammed her thumb out, one appeared, coming to a screeching halt beside us.
“God,” I managed as I jolted back in shock. That shock slammed even harder through my chest when I realized there was no driver in the taxi.
“Come on,” Alice snapped as she shoved me in the small of my back and pushed me into the back seat.
She got in the driver’s side, slammed the door, and pulled out from the curb with all the speed and grace of a bullet.
I had exactly no time to do my seatbelt up, and I was thrown to the side. Cassidy hooked an arm under my shoulder and kept me steady, leaning around and buckling me up. “Trust me, Alice drives like crazy.”
I trusted Cassidy, because Alice drove worse than crazy. She drove bat-shit insane.
“Hold on, where the hell did this taxi come from? And why didn’t it have a driver?”
Cassidy patted my shoulder tenderly. “Magic. Now, what do you mean you knew that guy? Middle Manager Ben is usually super careful not to put us on cases with people we’re familiar with.”
I gulped, shoulders being shoved into the seat with such force it was almost as if the taxi was about to reach the speed of sound. “He owns a catering company. I waitress for him. He’s my boss. I mean my ex-boss.”
Alice swore. “Ben is obviously distracted. Cassidy is right – you shouldn’t be put on a case where you know the perp.”
“Perp?” My voice shook. “What exactly has he done?”
“We don’t get to know that,” Cassidy assured me as she settled down and did up her own seatbelt. Despite the fact Alice had been driving like a stampeding bull, Cassidy had managed to keep her balance fine. It was either magic, or she had a pelvic floor of steel. “We don’t get to know what crimes they commit. We just drag them in. Vali gets to decide how they’re punished.”
I made a face.
Somehow Alice saw it – she glanced up at the rearview mirror just at the right moment. “I suggest you stop. Trust me, kid. I had exactly the same suspicions when I started here. But those suspicions will get you nowhere. Plus, Vali knows what he’s doing.”
“He knows what he’s doing, ha? How can you be so sure? He’s judge, jury, and executioner. If we don’t get to know why we’re running down some criminal, how can you be sure they’re a criminal at all?”
“Because we’ve seen personally what these scumbags can do. Yes, I don’t know every minute detail of what these perps are up to – but from some of the assholes I’ve dragged in and the injuries they’ve given me, I feel pretty happy in concluding they’re not nice guys.”
I wasn’t ready to drop this. The indignation at the injustice of what was happening to me began to swell in my gut. I strained against my seatbelt as if it somehow embodied everything that was wrong with this situation. “Maybe that’s the case – but maybe those perps were just scared. And how are we sure Vali gets it right every time if he doesn't share the evidence with you?”
“Because he’s a god,” Cassidy said. It was an extremely innocent statement, especially coming from a convicted felon. And yet, because of its innocence and sheer simplicity, it struck a chord with me. An uncomfortable one.
“Don’t you worry, I raged against Vali when he dragged me in, too. But it didn’t take me long to realize I’m on the right side now,” Alice finished weakly, despite the fact her voice had started out punching from her throat with all the force of a storm.
Though I was humbled by her admission, she still hadn’t convinced me. Nothing could convince me. Deep down, I knew Vali hadn’t indentured me because he thought I’d inadvertently killed my grandmother. Nope. It was because of the symbols on my hands. And though I suddenly burnt with the desire to point that out, something held me back. The flickering look I’d seen in his gaze when he’d told me that he was keeping me from the truth for my own good.
I suddenly brought up my hands and ran a finger slowly along one of my bangles.
It brought Cassidy’s attention to them. “Holy crap, where did you get those?” Obviously having zero personal space, she lurched forward, clutched my hand, and stared at my bangle.
“I…” I quickly trailed off. Vali had given me these bangles with the explicit order never to take them off. And considering I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about my true magic, what exactly was I meant to say now?
“Drop it,” Alice suddenly snarled from the front seat. “This is all very interesting, but our perp is getting away. Get back to the part about how you know this guy – got any ideas where he’s heading next?”
Seriously, I was gonna get whiplash from this situation. If things didn’t start calming down, I’d probably throw up.
I settled back further into the seat and remembered that Larry was the one in that Porsche, breaking every traffic rule as he sped through town.
I didn’t have any love lost for Larry. Larry was my boss – a means to money. But I hadn’t been lying when I’d said so many times that deep under his scaly exterior was a good heart.
“I…” I began to say that I didn’t know where Larry would be going. I stopped.
He would be heading to one of his shady contacts in the underworld. Larry was precisely not the kind of guy to give up. Sure, Vali the god of revenge may have told him to pack up and leave town, but it wouldn’t be that easy for Larry – he owed too many people too much.
“Fess up. This guy is a good driver, and we’re losing him,” Alice snapped.
“Head to 32 Fifth Street. There’s a pawnshop,” I began.
“Barney’s World,” Alice suddenly growled. “I know it well. Strong link to the Chaplain Family. What’s this Larry character into?” she mumbled under her breath as she swung a hard right. Though Larry had been heading out of sight, Alice suddenly turned down a completely different street, obviously intending to head him off.
I felt sick – felt sick for 1 trillion reasons.
“You better not be wrong about this. Middle Manager Ben will not be happy if we lose him. Nor will Vali be too pleased when you fail your first job. He’ll add a few more weeks to your sentence.”
“Ha, you just called Ben middle manager,” Cassidy pointed out as she chuckled into her hand.
“It fits. I’m just not stupid enough to say it to his face,” Alice growled.
Alice continued to drive like a rally car driver, the taxi achieving speeds impossible for a standard sedan. I held onto the door with white knuckles, my other hand wrapped tightly around my seatbelt. While the car may have been shooting around like a jet plane, my thoughts were zooming faster.
Larry didn’t deserve to die. He just didn’t. He deserved an opportunity for that kernel of goodness lodged deep in his soul to grow. But Vali wasn’t going to give him that opportunity. When ValI realized that Larry hadn’t skipped town….
I suddenly did something stupid. I opened my mouth, and wincing, I lied, “No. I changed my mind. I doubt Larry is heading to Barney’s World. He’s probably going…” I trailed off as I thought quickly, figuring out some random location on the opposite side of town.
I didn’t get that opportunity.
“There he is,” Alice said, ignoring me as she cut back into traffic, joining a main road right behind Larry.
Because Larry was heading to Barney’s World.
“Shit,” I said under my breath, palms becoming sweaty as I locked them harder over the seatbelt.
“It’s okay.” Cassidy suddenly leaned out, rested a hand on my shoulder, and patted it tenderly. “You don’t have to track him down. Just leave this one to us. Alice is right – Middle Manager Ben should never have put you on a case where you have to go after a friend.”
I tried to control my expression. I couldn’t. All that muddled confusion, all that fear, and all that twisting guilt – they played over my face with all the clarity of a neon sign.
Several minutes later, we came to a screeching stop outside Barney’s World.
I’d only been to Barney’s shop several times, and even then under protest. For some reason, Larry had trusted me. Out of all the schmucks working for him, as he put it, I was the least likely to tattle. Once or twice, he’d used me to make deliveries to Barney’s. Though I’d always strenuously tried to get out of it, a couple of times I’d caved. I’d always taken the subway, stuck to the laneways, and never walked in front of a cop car.
I frowned at that memory as I realized what it meant. I’d been fencing stolen goods, hadn’t I? A part of me had known that at the time, but I’d pushed it back. It had been an inconvenient truth. I’d needed to keep Larry onside – he was a good employer, and the rent was always going up, wasn’t it?
In my head, I was a good girl. A good, misunderstood girl. But do good girls really knowingly fence stolen goods for their bosses?
It was a question I couldn’t answer.
Slowly, carefully, quietly, Alice undid her seatbelt. Locking a hand on the back of the passenger seat, she turned and faced us. “The file says Larry doesn’t have any magic. But my gut is telling me he’ll know people who do. If he really is connected to Chaplain, then there is every possibility that we’re going to face a pissed off, charged warlock in there. Cass, you’re with me. Lilly,” Alice paused. “Just stay in the car. If Larry comes out, beep the horn. And if we don’t come out in the next half hour,” she reached into her pocket, grabbed a phone, and threw it at me, “you call Middle Manager Ben and tell him to get a proper team down here, got it?”
No. I absolutely did not have it. I had no training, no clue, and I couldn’t drive.
Alice didn’t give me the opportunity to point out any of that. She smoothed down her jacket, checked something on her wrist, then nodded at Cassidy. The two of them got out of the car and walked calmly onto the pavement.
I twisted around in my seat, pressing a sweaty hand against my window as I stared at them.
Barney’s shop was dilapidated. The three-story, run down, tarnished, brown-brick block looked like it should be earmarked for destruction. It had a chipped red sign that read Barney’s World of Goods painted over the doorway. I always chuckled at that – World of Goods? Barney had been in business for well over 50 years, and he hadn’t been able to come up with a business title any less shady than World of Goods? Why didn’t he just call himself Stolen Objects Going Cheap?
Both Alice and Cassidy got out of the car. Alice, at the lead, turned, checked on Cassidy once, then pushed into the store. The shop bell above the door let out a quick tinkle then the door closed.
Though Barney’s shop had windows, they were covered in bars and tinted. I couldn’t see inside.
My heart began to hammer in my chest, my stomach growling with nerves. “This is impossible. It can’t be happening. Seriously, this has got to be some kind of bad dream,” I began.
Pretending this was a dream wasn’t going to change anything.
But what exactly could I do?
I cradled the phone Alice had given me. It kind of looked like an ordinary smartphone, but when I turned it over, I saw a blue symbol blazing on the back. I didn’t need to run a finger over it and feel the charge of magic to realize it wasn’t normal.
I kept swinging my gaze methodically from the phone to the front door of Barney’s.
Not many genuine customers ever used the front door of Barney’s. I’d overheard Larry telling that to one of his suspicious friends before.
The front door was for those confused members of the public who weren’t put off by the shady sign, even shadier name, and shadier still location. The people desperate enough to buy a watch with someone else’s name carved into it because they couldn’t afford any better.
Nope. Barney’s “Genuine customers,” as Larry put it, always used the back door. The back door, however, wasn’t actually located at the back of the store.
Running alongside Barney’s on the left was an old warehouse. It was technically a packing company. But I had to use the word technically with a caveat, there. Barney owned a controlling share in the business, and when he’d bought it a couple of years back, he’d knocked down a door right into his back room.
Alice and Cassidy wouldn’t know about the door. Larry would.
“Oh no.” I locked both sweaty hands on the window, letting Alice’s phone drop into my lap with a thump. “I have to do something.”
I still hadn’t figured out my loyalties yet. Right? Everything was too new, too frigging unbelievable. I did know one thing, though – the side door to Smith Packing Services suddenly opened, and a pale-faced Larry suddenly walked out.
In a snap, I came to a decision. Or at least my body did. I found myself leaning between the seats of the taxi, ramming a hand on the horn. I beeped twice. The noise must have been sudden and unexpected, because Larry jumped and tried to peer into the taxi.
I stared back at him, mouth agape. But when he didn’t look surprised at seeing little old me, all pale-cheeked and blotchy eyed in the back of the cab, he shrugged and moved on.
… He couldn’t see me, right? It wasn’t such a stupid thing to assume. After all, this taxi had driven itself up onto the curb before Alice had got in.
“Come on, guys. He’s getting away,” I said to no one in particular as I leaned forward and tooted the horn once more.
I had no idea what it would look like to Larry. Maybe the taxi was empty – maybe I’d been enchanted to look like a pissed-off cab driver hustling for a ride.
I cast my now terrified gaze back to the front of Barney’s store. No sign of either Alice or Cassidy. I still didn’t know whether I could forgive them for what they’d done. That didn’t stop me from snapping up Alice’s phone. As soon as I unlocked the screen, I swore. There were plenty of icons, but I didn’t recognize a single one of them, and everything was written in a language I couldn’t understand. “God,” I screamed again, “come on!”
I started randomly pressing buttons, but when that didn’t call in the cavalry, I realized I had to act.
Stowing the phone in my pocket, curling a hand into a fist, I got out of the taxi.
Larry was a second from wrenching the door open to his Porsche and leaving.
Though I knew full well I wasn’t meant to intervene, I couldn’t stop myself.
“Larry?” I asked.
He twisted, every muscle so tight he could have twanged. He reached for something in his jacket pocket. Then he saw me, and his features slackened. “Kid? What are you doing here?” He swung his gaze accusingly to Barney’s World.
“Heading over to a friend on East side. I just saw you,” I stuttered. “You all right? I barely saw you last night.”
“You barely saw me? What happened to you? You walked off the job,” Larry began, then he stopped. Larry, once he got started, never stop complaining. You could chuck a chain around his throat, gag him, and shut him in jail, but he would still find some way of shouting at you.
Now his cheeks slackened. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll see you around, kid.”
I took a nervous step toward him, reaching a hand out, still unsure of what I was meant to do. “Where are you heading? You look kind of…. Is everything okay?” I stumbled over my words.
“Beat it, kid. I don’t have time for this.”
I quickly jerked my head back to Barney’s World, noting Alice and Cassidy still hadn’t appeared.
As my gut clenched, I took another step forward. “What’s going on? You look like you’re in a hurry? Larry… you in some kind of trouble?”
I wasn’t being subtle. Because I was never subtle. Seriously, though, when it came to not blowing my cover, I was doing a stupidly awful job. But I couldn’t help myself. Larry just looked so desperate.
“It’s nothing, kid. Now get out of here.”
I didn’t get the chance to get out of here.
At that exact moment, the door to Barney’s World opened. My heart lifted as I turned to it. I may have only just met Alice and Cassidy, but that didn’t mean I wished them any ill.
The only problem was, it wasn’t them.
My heart sank.
I saw two burly men in suits walk from the shop, the door swinging behind them. I swore one of them had singe marks playing up the side of his chest.
Larry balked, jerking backward. “Get out of here, Lilly,” he snapped as he piled into the front seat of his Porsche.
I just stood there, frozen on the spot, staring back at Barney’s shop. “What the hell did you do to them?” I spat.
At first, both men seemed content to ignore me, but at that comment, one shifted toward me. “Work for Vali, then?”
“Get out of here, kid,” Larry screamed once more, gunning the engine.
He did not, however, get a chance to slam his foot on the gas pedal. One of the burly men ran forward and simply placed a hand on the top of the car. Sure, it was one of those speedy, lightweight Porsches, but it was still a freaking car. And yet as the man weighed his hand down onto the top, the tires started to skid as if the handbrake were still on.
Larry began to swear wildly, tugging at the wheel as he tried to pull the car from the man’s grip.
We were starting to draw a crowd of people craning their heads out of their shops to stare at the ruckus.
It didn’t last. Before one of the guys could round on me, he reached a hand into his pocket, drew out his phone, and touched something on the screen. A flickering blue field burst out from the phone and shot up into the sky, covering us all for a 10-meter radius.
At the same moment, an image of the two men walking away calmly and Larry pulling out from the curb played down the street. I’d never seen anything like it.
I had a single second to stare at it in total shock, the blue magic of the flickering force field playing over my wide eyes.
Then the guy snapped toward me. He reached for my neck, pinning me against a lamp post as he swung at me with his fist.
I didn’t have the chance to duck.
The fist connected, slamming into my nose and cheek with such force, my head smacked into the metal lamp post with a rattling twang.
Instantly, pain exploded up my face, sunk hard into my jaw, and rattled through my teeth. Blood burst from my nose, spilling down my top.
The guy swung at me again, and though all I could see were stars exploding over my vision, I had the presence of mind to duck at the last moment. His fist connected with the metal lamp post, and the thing rattled.
He swore in pain, wrenching his fist back and clutching his now bleeding knuckles.
It gave me the opportunity to drop to my knees and lash out. It was an uncoordinated, desperate move, but I got lucky. I got him on the side of the knee as he turned to check on his friend.
It was just enough to unbalance him. I finished off the rest with another kick right to the top of his knee.
He pitched backward. But rather than fall in an uncoordinated mess on the pavement, he shifted to the side, rolled, and threw himself at me like a pro wrestler.
This time I couldn’t duck. I felt two impossibly strong arms wrap around my middle as I was tackled to the pavement.
“Let her go, you assholes,” I heard Larry bellow from the car.
The guy did not let me go. Instead, pinning me to the pavement, he reached two large hands over and wrapped them around my throat. I felt more than his strength press against my neck – I felt a numbing, cold pulse of power.
My head started to spin; blood continued to flow from my broken nose.
“I said let go of her,” Larry screamed.
I heard a gunshot.
I froze, terrified.
It wasn’t Larry who was shot.
The guy with two strong hands wrapped around my throat suddenly jolted. Blood didn’t begin to blossom over his white shirt – instead, magical symbols did.
With wide-open, bulging eyes, he jerked his head down and stared at his chest just as I did the same.
Perfectly circular magical bursts of light were spreading across his torso, blue and bright green.
Suddenly, his grip on my throat slackened. I jerked back, shoving into him, and he fell limply to the side, his eyes still as wide open as two open hands.
I heard the other guy scream as he locked a hand over the car and shoved against it. The move shouldn’t have done anything, were not this guy clearly a mountain in disguise. The car lurched several meters to the side, spilling out into traffic. It pushed beyond the flickering, blue, magical force field that was keeping our fight hidden from the rest of the street. Immediately, the flickering force field grew in response. If I had any hope that the people beyond would see us and call for help, it was immediately dashed.
But maybe we didn’t need it.
The car may have just lurched several meters to the side, but Larry managed to hold onto the door as he leaned right out of the driver’s side window. With nerves of steel and a hand steadier than a surgeon, he aimed right at the remaining mobster before the guy could throw himself at Larry.
Larry fired, right between the guy’s eyes. A ball of magic spread over the man’s face, smaller circles blossoming out down his chest and over his back. He jerked back, momentarily rigid like a sheet of steel until he became limp and fell to the pavement. Just before I could fear he was dead, his lips stiffly cracked open, “You’ll pay for this. Prick, you’ll pay.”
“Maybe,” Larry said, voice shaky but arm still perfectly steady as he got out of the car, walked around, and pointed the gun right at the guy’s head, “but not today.” With that, he fired several more rounds right into the man’s forehead.
I screamed, jolting back, scrabbling on my hands and knees until my back slammed into the lamp post. My nose was still bleeding, practically gushing as it covered my shirt and jacket.
I jolted in terror as Larry fired off two more rounds into the man who’d attacked me.
“It’s okay, kid. It’s okay.” Larry pocketed the gun into the back of his pants, but not before giving the rest of the street a wary look. “Get in the car, Lilly. I’ll explain everything. Just get off this godforsaken street.”
I could barely move. But when Larry leaned down and locked a hand over my elbow, I jolted in fear. “No, my friends are back in Barney’s store—”
Larry’s brow crumpled. Crumpled so hard his beady eyes became nothing more than two little pinpricks of black suspicion. But that suspicion softened as I took another rattling, gurgling gasp, fighting against the blood pouring down my face.
Though it wouldn’t help, Larry reached into his pocket, grabbed a tissue, and chucked it at me. “You look awful. And you don’t need to worry about your friends – they aren’t there.”
“Sorry?” I managed as he pulled me to my feet.
“Barney sent them someplace else. Westside, if I’m any judge. It’ll take a full half-hour to get back here.”
“Sorry?” I stuttered. My gaze lurched down and settled on the man who’d attacked me. The man Larry had shot with some kind of magical gun.
Maybe he could guess what I was thinking, because a grim smile pressed across his thin lips. “I wouldn’t have picked you for a witch, Lilly. Then again, there was always something different about you. You could put up with me, for one.” He snorted as he helped me to my feet.
“Larry, what the hell is going on?”
“You tell me? When you didn’t come back last night and I saw you leaving with Vali,” his voice dropped down low, real low, “I figured you’d gotten yourself into your own trouble. But Vali contracted you, ha? Recruited you to his personal bully force? Good for you, kid. Me? I have to make my own way. Now get in the car. There’ll be more of those warlock pricks coming after us.”
“Warlocks?!” No matter what I did, I couldn’t keep my voice steady. I’d just been punched in the face, after all.
“Some of Chaplain’s men. Trust me, it will take way too long to explain. And we don’t have time. So get in the car.”
“But my friends—”
“I’ve already told you, they’ll be safe on Westside. Barney has countermeasures in place for magicians he doesn’t like. Walk into his door unannounced and uninvited, and you’ll find yourself walking out some other place else entirely. Last I checked, it was the male stalls on Station Six in the subway,” he chuckled.
“What’s going on?” I whimpered. I did not, however, stop Barney from shoving me into his car.
As soon as he got into the driver’s side, he screeched out from the pavement, flooring it.
The car swung out so violently, I fell against the window.
“Buckle up, kid. This will be a long one.”
“Where… where are we going?”
“Someplace safe.” The way he said it, specifically the shake to his voice, told me he wasn’t convinced.
Slowly, slowly my nerve was returning to me. I clutched my seatbelt with both hands. “Larry, what have you done? What’s going on? And who were those men back there?”
“Trust me, kid, this story is way too long and boring.” He suddenly snorted. “Okay, it’s not boring. It involves mobsters, money, and magic. But just sit back, deal with your nose, and for god’s sake, don’t swallow too much blood – I really don’t want you throwing up over my leather seats.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell Larry that the small tissue he’d given me wouldn’t exactly be enough to stem the flow. I was 100% certain that my nose was broken, and as I blustered and gurgled through a breath, I winced against the pain burning through my face. The pain, however, wasn’t enough to pull me away from the situation. I shifted forward in my seat. “Larry, where are we going?”
“I told you, someplace safe. Someplace neither Chaplain nor Vali will be able to find us.” His voice bottomed out and dipped low on the word Vali.
It brought me back to the situation, reminded me what had just happened. “How… how do you know about him? And how do you know I’m a witch?”
“I figured it out. You were traveling with those two other witches, and I really doubt the two magical locks on your wrists are just there for decoration, right? Vali gave them to you, didn’t he?”
I didn’t answer. I just felt sick, confused, and totally freaking conflicted. On the one hand, I wanted nothing more than to follow Larry. Sure, I wasn’t entirely certain I could trust the man, but he had to be better than Vali, right?
I still had absolutely no idea what kind of trouble Larry was in. But I was starting to realize one thing for sure – Vali had eyes everywhere. He was a freaking god, after all.
He’d shown me some latitude to date, but if I tried to hightail it out of town with Larry, where would that leave me?
I started to feel cold. Seriously cold. As cold as I had last night when I’d inadvertently used my power to freeze that basement.
“Just sit back and relax, kid. I’ve got this.”
Sit back and relax? Ha? That sounded nice.
But I couldn’t do it.
Fighting against my anxiety, I shifted forward once more. “Larry, you sure? You sure running is the best thing to do?” I surprised myself as those words sprang from my mouth.
I didn’t trust Vali. I hated him. And yet this was still the smartest thing to do, right?
Larry waited a long time before answering with a splutter. “Sure it is. We’ve got no other option.”
“Larry, didn’t Vali give you an option last night?”
I watched his shoulders jerk, shove hard into the headrest of his seat. He glared at me through his rear vision mirror. “So you heard that?”
I nodded, blood still trickling down my cheek. I made no attempt whatsoever to wipe it off. “I heard everything. And he only gave you one option: sell everything and leave town. But it ain’t that easy, is it, Larry?” I added quietly, gently.
“No, kid – it ain’t that easy,” he agreed in a defeated tone. “I’ve burnt too many bridges to be able to leave. I’ve got nowhere to go, and the kind of goons who are after me aren’t the kind to let you sell up and leave.”
I sat there in somber, sick silence as the situation hit me all at once.
“Larry, you have to…” I trailed off.
I had no idea what to say next.
“Get out of here. It’s the only way.”
“… Then what?”
He didn’t reply.
“Then what, Larry? Can you really hide from Chaplain’s men for long?” The question punched out of my throat.
I watched Larry in the rearview mirror. He stiffened. “I’ll find a way.”
“Larry, you won’t. If he has warlocks working for him, don’t you think he’ll be able to track you down wherever you go? There’s only…” I trailed off sharply.
“What? Only one way? You want me to hand myself in to Vali?” He snorted, the rattling sound echoing through the small confines of the car.
My stomach gave a kick. That’s not what I’d been about to say… right?
No, it was.
Because arrogant asshole or not, somehow, deep down, I trusted Vali.
I pressed forward as far as my seatbelt would allow, and I reached a hand over and touched it lightly on Larry’s shoulder. “Yeah, Larry, you should hand yourself in. Trust me – and trust him. It’ll be infinitely better than dying at the hands of this Chaplain and his warlocks.”
I felt Larry stiffen under my grip, and I was sure he was about to shove me off.
I was almost certain that when I’d been given this case, they hadn’t intended me to get the perp – a.k.a. Larry – to hand himself in. But that was the only way out of this now.
I took another settling breath. “It’ll be okay.”
“You sure about that? You heard Vali threaten me – if I don’t follow his orders, he’ll have me killed.”
I winced but also shook my head. “Chaplain will do worse. Plus, I’ll vouch for you. I’ll use whatever authority I have,” I promised. Which was a hell of a promise – as I had no authority whatsoever. But I was becoming more and more certain that this was the only way to go.
This Chaplain guy had warlocks. Larry would be dead by the end of the day. If I went with him, I’d be dead too.
“Larry, you were always the kind of guy to sniff out the best opportunities. And this is the only opportunity we have left. If life hands you lemons?” I asked, quoting his favorite saying.
“You take a gun to life’s head and demand more.” He snorted.
I let out a soft laugh, never taking my hand off his shoulder.
I watched Larry tilt his head to the side and stare at the magical gun sitting on the passenger seat. He’d shoved it there after he’d got in.
It was almost as if I could see the cogs moving in his brain as he desperately tried to come to a decision.
I didn’t push him, just kept my hand on his shoulder.
Eventually, he deflated. Then he took a left onto the freeway. Not the one that headed out of town – the one that headed downtown.
I let out a relieved sigh of my own, sitting back. “It’s the right thing to do.”
He snorted. “It ain’t right, kid. There’s nothing right about this situation. Vali is gonna….” He shook his head, clenching his teeth. “But you’re right, whatever he does to me, it’s gonna be a darn sight better than what those Chaplain men will do. Plus, I can’t drag you into this,” he added under his breath.
See? There it was – the grain of goodness buried deep within Larry’s soul. I hadn’t been wrong after all.
I had no means to contact Vali and the rest of my team to let them know I was on my way. I’d accidentally left Alice’s phone in the back of the taxi.
So I hoped like hell Vali hadn’t sent out his men to snuff me out for escaping his clutches.
Just as I hoped that Chaplain’s men weren’t on our tail.
We made it. Larry pulled up on the opposite side of the street, double parking.
“Isn’t this a loading zone?” I asked as I got out of the car.
Larry chuckled darkly. “There’s time for one last crime, ain’t there?” He shrugged. Then he took his jacket off and chucked it at me. “You might want to cover your face so we don’t draw a crowd. You look like you’ve been head-butting a brick wall,” he said with his usual total lack of sympathy.
I chuckled, grabbing his jacket and trying to hide underneath it without looking like a complete fool.
For a lingering moment, Larry paused, the door open as he glanced across at his magical gun.
Larry came to another decision, closed the door, locked it, and nodded across the street. “Come on. You’re the one who convinced me to come – so you need to hurry up so you can claim all the glory.”
I offered him a commiserating smile. “I don’t want glory, Larry. I only want what’s best for you.”
He sniffed as he jaywalked, waving me forward when I wasn’t ballsy enough to dart out in front of a truck. “Your heart is not cut out for this world, kid. You’re too nice.”
“This world?” I said, voice muffled as it filtered through the thick, cologne-soaked layers of Larry’s baseball jacket. “How do you know about the magical world, anyway?”
“I’ve been in the game long enough – heard the stories. Plus, it runs in the family.”
With that, we made it across the other side of the street. I headed toward the front doors.
Larry grabbed my arm and pulled me to the side. “Word of advice, Vali will hand you your ass if you walk through the front door looking like that. He keeps his magic and his business separate.”
I didn’t protest as Larry led me around back. There was a green, lawn-covered section down one of the sides of the building, several park benches and even a few tasteful water features dotted around. Larry marched right up between them, heading for an apparently inconspicuous section of wall. As he looked over one shoulder then the next, he reached out a hand, took a steeling breath, and knocked on the wall.
“Ah, Larry, what are you doing?”
A second later, I got my answer. A door formed.
It opened and out stepped two apparently normal security guards. Normal until you saw the shining symbols on the backs of their hands.
Both of them reached for their guns when they saw Larry.
I bustled forward. “No, he’s handing himself in. He’s handing himself in,” I said again in a clear voice.
Both of them darted their direct gazes to Larry. Larry slowly brought his hands up and spread them wide. “She’s right. I’ve got no weapons, boys. And apparently no sense,” he added under his breath. “Now find Vali. The kid’s right – time to hand myself in.”
I watched the security guards exchange a calculating look, but when Larry didn’t attack them, they waved us inside.
Even though we’d entered by the side of the building, somehow we ended up in the middle. Right outside of Vali’s office, in fact.
I took a step forward, head snapping from side-to-side as I tried to orient myself.
One of the guards appeared to steel himself and shifted forward to knock on the door.
It opened, and Megan appeared in one of her perfect pant suits.
Immediately, her gaze darted toward Larry.
Before she could say anything or bring up her hand and cast a spell on him, I ducked forward. “He’s handing himself in.”
Megan sliced her gaze back to Larry. “Handing yourself in?”
Larry nodded low. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Very well. Take him to a holding cell,” she began.
“Who’s at the door?” I heard a familiar voice rumble from inside the room.
“Never mind. Just a low-level perp,” Megan said as she shot Larry a judgmental look.
I heard Vali shift toward the door. Instantly, my stomach knotted with nerves.
Nerves that wrapped tighter and tighter around my gut the closer and closer he got.
He came into view. He looked from Larry straight to me. Then, pointedly, he frowned at the baseball jacket I still had pressed over my face.
I’d kinda forgotten about it.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me.
“Oh. I was… I was on a job. Larry was the… target,” I said uncomfortably, trying to think of a kinder word, but incapable of finding one. “I… I convinced him to hand himself in.”
“I see,” Vali said in an uncharacteristic, quiet tone. Once more, he looked from me to Larry then back to me.
“She’s right. She convinced me to hand myself in. She was under the impression that you would look favorably on that,” Larry added in a strong and yet strangled voice.
“I see,” Vali noted once more, tone unreadable, expression blank.
“Take him to a holding cell,” Megan repeated. “Vali doesn’t have time to deal with this right now.”
I shifted around, intending to follow.
“I do not, however, see why you are hiding behind a crumpled baseball jacket,” Vali added, even though Megan was trying to usher him back into his office.
Vali reached his arms up and crossed them, staring at me pointedly.
“Oh.” I dropped the jacket, wincing when I realized how much blood was covering it. Larry wouldn’t be pleased – he loved that jacket. I swiveled my head down and glanced at my shirt – it was now completely red.
I would look like a total wreck.
Vali became rigid. Just for a second – a flickering, darting second – I swore I saw him: Franklin Saunders. His brow crumpled in shocked compassion. Then, almost immediately, it stiffened as he turned his anger on Larry. “What did you do to her?” he growled.
Larry put his hands up.
“He didn’t do anything,” I said as I darted forward, ready to bodily protect Larry if I had to. “There were two warlocks after him. One of them pinned me against a lamplight and punched me.” I winced at the memory. “Larry saved me. Then I convinced him to hand himself in. Look, I know I’m probably stepping out of line, but I promised him I’d do everything to get him a second chance. He handed himself in,” I emphasized, “that has to be worth something, right?”
“You don’t get to tell Vali what to do,” Megan interrupted.
I ignored her and looked entreatingly at Vali. This morning, all I’d wanted to do was slap him. But right now I appreciated he was the only person who could keep Larry safe.
I was a lot of things, but I wasn’t about to let my ego get in the way of saving a friend.
“Look, I can vouch for him. He’s a good man—” I started.
“It’s all right, kid – you’ve done enough,” Larry said softly.
I ignored him. “Please, you have to help him out. I don’t know what you want, but just help him. If you need to punish someone,” I hesitated for the briefest moment, “Then punish me. Just—”
“Lilly, it’s all right. I can fight my own battles,” Larry said louder now, putting a careful hand on my elbow and pulling me back. “And you don’t have to sacrifice yourself for me.”
I stared at Vali, waiting for him to do the right thing. Because I needed him to do the right thing. I’d convinced Larry to give up his freedom on the chance Vali could help him.
More than that, I needed not to be wrong. When I’d begged Larry to come here, I’d come to a decision about Vali. I’d convinced myself that somewhere underneath that hardened exterior was the seed of a good man. Maybe it was buried deep – buried even deeper than Larry’s seed of hope. But it had to be there.
My nose started to drip again, and I could feel a few drops of blood trickle down my cheek and neck.
Vali watched them, gaze shifting slowly as each droplet traced down my throat.
There was total silence as he stared at me, before finally he took a breath that pushed his large chest against his shirt. “Very well. Contract him,” he said to Megan.
Megan blinked hard. “Sorry?”
“Contract Larry Benjamin McGregor,” Vali said slowly in a clear, direct voice that could not be mistaken.
Though I could tell Megan really wanted to fight this, she would also clearly never talk back to Vali. Instead, with a prim sniff, she turned to the guards. “Make the preparations. I’ll be there in a moment.”
I sighed, releasing all the tension that had pushed me this far. As soon as I did, I winced as the pain flowed back in.
Christ, my nose hurt. It quite rightly felt like I’d head butted a brick wall.
I put a hand up and poked at my cheeks. Big mistake. They were so sensitive, the lightest touch felt like a hammer blow.
“Come with me, Lily-white,” Vali said as he turned hard on his foot and ushered me into his office.
Megan darted in behind him before I could move. “Sir, you’re too busy for this. You need to prepare for tonight.”
“I am,” Vali said in a quiet, patient tone.
I stood outside his office, unsure whether to follow him in.
Larry nodded my way as the guards took up position either side of him and began to hustle him down the corridor. “Thanks, kid. I guess I’ll be seeing you around.” He waved at me and then walked away.
He might be saying thanks now, but when he realized what being indentured to Vali meant, I’m sure he would take the next opportunity to shout until he went purple in the face.
“Lily-white,” Vali said, loud voice carrying out into the corridor.
I made a stupidly pathetic whimpering sound then followed.
Megan crossed her arms and turned to me.
As always, I found myself momentarily overcome by his office. It was the feel of the place. I felt like it reminded me of something… some long lost memory….
Paying no attention whatsoever, I forgot about the fact I was still gushing blood, and made no attempt to stop a few droplets from running down my arm and splashing onto the seriously expensive rug.
Megan’s eyes widened in indignation. “What are you doing?” she hissed. “This rug is worth more than you’ll ever be—”
“Megan, that’s enough. And the blood will wash out. Now, kindly go and oversee the signing of Larry McGregor.”
“Sir,” Megan turned to him, a few strands loosening from her bun and waving around her shoulders, “you don’t have time. The job tonight is too important. We have to take Hank Chaplain down.” Her voice changed, became tight with real emotion. An emotion other than indignation, that was.
So far Megan had been nothing but a bitch to me. Now? Now I took an unsteady breath as I saw how strained her expression became as she stared at Vali.
“I know the importance of this case, Megan,” Vali said with a patient tone. “Just as I know you are too close to it.”
Megan froze. I watched her chest stiffen against her tight blouse.
Like I said, I didn’t exactly like the woman – but right now my heart went out to her.
“What are you saying?” she managed after a considerable pause.
“That I won’t be requiring your services tonight. I know you are eager to see Hank brought to justice. And trust me when I say he will be.” Vali’s voice became dark. I even fancied that clouds suddenly massed along the horizon and darkened the sun momentarily.
“What?” Megan’s voice cracked with emotion.
“You’re too close,” Vali repeated, slower. “You need to sit this one out. As I said, rest assured that Hank will be brought to justice.”
“But you need me, sir,” Megan said, her words strangely garbled.
“I will manage without you. This case is too important, and your wounds are too fresh.” His voice dipped low into a gentle whisper once more.
“No. I want to be there,” Megan clenched her teeth, “I want to personally make that bastard pay for what he did to my sister. She would still be here if it weren’t for him.”
“This is not about revenge,” Vali, the god of revenge, noted. It would have been a rich, hypocritical statement coming from him, were it not for his soft, gentle, careful tone.
I suddenly got the distinct impression that I shouldn’t be listening to this conversation. It was private. Sure, I hated both of the people involved – but they still deserved their dignity.
I began to back away toward the door.
“Lily-white, stop,” Vali said.
“This involves you,” he said simply.
“What?” Megan hissed.
“Lily-white will be accompanying me this evening. Ensure she understands what is required of her,” Vali said calmly, shifting forward and resting his hands on the edge of his desk.
“What?” Megan spat wildly.
I felt sick. “I don’t…” I trailed off, not knowing what I should say.
“Lily-white will be accompanying me. Megan, I know this is hard for you, but I still require your assistance. Once more, I can only assure you that Hank Chaplain will be brought to justice.”
“But she’s new. A rookie. There’s no way she can accompany you on a job like this,” Megan spat.
“There is every way. Now, please, just do as I say.”
Without another word, Megan walked out. I couldn’t look at her.
But as soon as the door slammed closed behind her, I realized one pertinent fact: I was alone with Vali. Again.
It took me a long time to gather the courage to shift my head back and look at him.
“You’ve had an eventful day,” he said evenly. I wanted to say his voice was sarcastic. Problem was, his tone was completely neutral.
“What? You’re not going to take the opportunity to scold me for promising Larry you’d cut him a deal?” I asked, even though it was stupid. The longer I stood here, the woozier I became. And the woozier I became, the more I remembered how much I hated Vali.
He didn’t react. With his hands still pressed against the desk and a neutral expression on his face, he nodded toward the chair that sat opposite his desk.
I stared at it warily. “Can we just get this over with? How much trouble am I in?”
“You are in no trouble. But as I have already told you, I expect you to be presentable for the function this evening. Right now,” he brought a hand up and flicked it toward my completely blood-soaked top, “you are not presentable.”
Sure. I wasn’t presentable. I was also in a heck of a lot of pain, and that was a trifle more important.
Though the last thing I wanted to do was take a seat, I didn’t have the brainpower to fight him.
I fumbled over, swearing as I felt another trickle escape down my hand and splash onto the carpet.
“Leave it,” he instructed in a clear tone. Then he pushed up and stood.
Immediately my heart began to race. For more reasons than one. As he stood, his appreciable form became outlined by the sun streaming through the windows beyond. Somewhere along the line, between me becoming a magically indentured slave, I’d forgotten how damn attractive Vali was. Or was it Vali? Because as he took a step toward me, he softened measurably. Ostensibly it was the same man, the same suit, the same expression. But underneath that? Beyond it? I felt something shift.
I stared at him warily as he stopped half a meter in front of me. Then, without preamble, he held out his hand.
The move seemed pregnant with some import. But it wasn’t like we were meeting for the first time. So why offer me his hand?
I frowned, staring at it. “Ah, what do you want me to do with that?” I asked after an uncomfortable pause.
“Take it,” he said, voice soft. I was now more certain than ever that Vali had made the switch to Franklin Saunders.
Vali I could deal with. If I was defensive enough, I tended to get through my awkward conversations with him. As I tilted my head further back and stared up at Franklin Saunders, my heart began to thump in my chest. “Why?”
“Because, Lily-white, you’re injured. Your injuries were not your own fault. They were incurred while helping another. You don’t deserve them,” he said with some measure of authority.
I wasn’t an idiot. I could recognize that this interaction was important somehow. Problem was, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I stared at him. And when I didn’t reach forward and accept his outstretched hand, his shoulders crumpled. “I’ll take your injuries,” he explained. Well, he tried to explain. If you asked me, that statement was no explanation whatsoever.
I just frowned all the harder. “What? You’ll take my injuries?”
“As I said, you don’t deserve them.” His voice dropped with kindness once more, and I saw his searching gaze dart over my face.
I really had no idea how bad I looked. I could bet I looked like hell, though.
When I didn’t lean forward and grab his hand, his shoulders deflated even further. “It’s okay, Lilly,” he said, for the first time not saying my name like it was a color. “Take the hand. It won’t hurt you. Though you don’t remember it, we did the same thing last night.”
Though I should have stopped and asked the million questions echoing through my brain, instead I reached forward. No, my body reached forward. That dancing cold in my chest – it seemed to know what to do. And it accepted Franklin Saunders’ outstretched hand.
His fingers were… inviting. So very inviting. I’d never felt anything like it. Accepting his hand was like accepting an invitation to heaven. All my pain just drifted away. All the frustration. The anger. The confusion. None of it mattered anymore.
I let out a sigh as I fell back in the chair. The sigh, it didn’t last. It didn’t last, because I felt my injuries heal themselves. I watched a bruise spread over Franklin’s face. Blood began to trickle down his nose as if it had just been broken.
I jolted back, trying to break his grip, but he was stronger than me.
“Don’t interrupt the process,” he warned.
“What happened to your face? What happened to your face? You’re bleeding,” I insisted.
“I am accepting your injuries because you do not deserve them,” he said as if that was enough to explain what the hell was going on here.
Though I kept trying to pull away from him, he wouldn’t let me. A minute later, he dropped my hand, stood back, tilted his head to the side, and appeared to check my face.
When he was satisfied, he walked around his desk, sat down, opened a drawer, pulled out a tissue, and began to dab at his nose.
I sat there, pressed right up against the back of my chair, shaking.
A man had just accepted my injuries like they were somehow a gift. And not just any man. Vali.
It didn’t take long for him to stem the flow of blood. In fact, it was almost instantaneous. I doubted the tissue he was using to dab at his nose had magical properties. No, Franklin’s god side would be kicking in.
With a few quick wipes, he cleaned up the blood, and the bruise that had blossomed up his cheeks, over his nose, and along his forehead disappeared too.
He sat back and considered me. “Are you still in pain?”
I didn’t answer. Still pressed against the back of my chair, I stared at him in horror. “Why did you do that?” I couldn’t control my tone, and it sounded accusatory.
He frowned. “I didn’t do you any harm.”
“No, you just accepted an injury that wasn’t yours. Why would you…” I couldn’t even finish the sentence.
He considered me quietly for several seconds. “Out there in the corridor, you offered to accept punishment on behalf of Larry McGregor. Did you do so in earnest?”
My back straightened, my stomach kicking as I realized this could all be a trap.
“Did you do that in earnest?” he questioned in a clearer tone when I didn’t immediately answer.
“Yeah, I did it in earnest. If you have to punish someone, punish me. Larry’s had a hard life, but underneath, he’s a good guy. You may not be able to see that, but I can.”
Vali paused then nodded. “Just as you offered to take responsibility for Larry’s crimes, I took responsibility for your injuries.”
I shook my head, calming down enough that I pried myself off the back of the chair. “This isn’t similar. You literally… absorbed my injuries. How did you even do that?”
He stared at me evenly. “I am a god.”
As far as answers went, it was a pretty good one. But it didn’t answer the underlying question. The one I couldn’t push out.
It wasn’t how he’d done it; it was why a guy like him would even bother? Vali was a god of revenge, and why would a god of revenge take it upon himself to absorb your injuries? It didn’t fit.
I didn’t get the chance to question him – he cleared his throat and gestured at the door. “Remember, tonight at eight,” he said as he leaned over his desk and went back to work.
It was obviously my cue to leave.
Staring at him for a lingering moment, I shifted around and headed through the door.
Could… could I be wrong about Vali? Could there be more to the god than met the eye?
Sure, he was a prick. But there was something else there. A mystery I was suddenly determined to unpick.
I walked back into the office, so confused, my head was nothing more than a swirling mess of thoughts.
Before I could mooch over to my desk, Middle Manager Ben appeared in front of me like an apparition.
I doubled back.
He crossed his arms tightly. “Had a big day, then? Caught the perp and convinced him to hand himself in? Ideas above your station?” he added with a growl.
I shrugged, latching a hand onto the back of my neck. “He was a friend. I just… didn’t want to see him go down. Things got a little out of hand,” I added, gesturing to my blood soaked top. It looked a lot less impressive now my face wasn’t mashed up.
Ben flicked his judgmental gaze down my top, tutted, then narrowed his eyes. “You think I’m impressed? You’ll have to do a lot more than that to impress me, and a lot more than that to earn your freedom. Now go get cleaned up.” He jerked a thumb toward my desk.
Shoulders deflating, I walked through the room. Again everyone’s eyes were on me. Though I wanted to sink through the floor, that feeling stopped when I saw Cassidy jump up from her chair.
“Oh my god, what happened to you?”
“What happened to you? You and Alice disappeared into the shop, I beeped the horn, but you didn’t come out.”
“Portal spell,” Alice growled as she appeared from behind her cubicle. She took one look at my top then frowned. “Where the hell did all that blood come from?”
“My nose,” I said as I tentatively brought up a hand and patted my face once more. Seriously, it was fine. No pain at all. In fact, I’d caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror on the way here, and I looked better than ever. Those nasty dark shadows under my eyes from all that lack of sleep and worry? Gone.
Heck, even the discoloration and sunspots that had encroached over my usually pale skin this summer – they were gone too.
“You had a nosebleed?” Cassidy asked, frowning with compassion.
“No, I had my nose punched in by a warlock working for Chaplain.” I sighed glumly as I shifted past, pulled my chair out with my foot, and sat heavily.
“He mustn’t have done a particularly good job – your nose looks fine,” Cassidy said, confusion obvious.
“Trust me, if you’d seen me a couple of minutes ago, you wouldn’t agree. But I guess it is fine now.” I continued to pat at it.
“Wait, I don’t get it.” Cassidy scooted over on her chair, grabbing hold of my desk and peering at my face closely. “You’re not lying, right? But us lower detectives don’t have access to healing magic like that.”
I frowned at her. “What do you mean?”
“No, what do you mean?” Alice turned the question on me as she scooted over and took up position on the opposite side of my desk. She frowned at me. “Vali healed you, didn’t he?” Her tone suddenly dropped so low it couldn’t carry.
Cassidy sucked in an excited breath.
If I had any hope of controlling my expression, it was dashed when Alice shot me a questioning look.
She quickly came to her own conclusion. “He did heal you.”
“Oh my god.” Cassidy crammed her hand over her mouth and spoke between her fingers.
“What? He said I didn’t deserve the injury. Said he needed me fighting fit for the job tonight.”
Cassidy shot Alice a meaningful look. Then she leaned in. Somehow she managed to control her tone, even though she was usually as loud as a firecracker. “He’s never done that for one of us. You keep coming to his attention, ha?”
Tingles escaped up my back. I tried to shrug off her comment, but with the both of them seated around my desk staring at me, it was hard.
“Anyway, you did good. Especially for your first job,” Alice conceded as she shifted back and crossed her arms. “But why the heck didn’t you call?”
“I tried to. Oh crap! I left your phone in the taxi.”
She snorted. “Doesn’t matter. It’s already back. Seriously, though. When we didn’t appear, you should have called. It would have saved you a broken nose.”
“I had no idea how to call you. I didn’t recognize any of the symbols on your phone.”
Cassidy made a face. “Really? You haven’t been inducted yet? Oh my god, you really are behind.”
“Inducted?” I put a hand up and scratched my neck, that sick confusion returning. And hot on its heels? The anxiety. It started as a hard knot deep in my gut then began to climb my spine one vertebra at a time.
Maybe Alice could tell that I was becoming undone, because she cleared her throat in a strong, officious move. “There’ll be time for that. Let Middle Manager Ben know – I mean Ben,” she corrected as she cleared her throat. With a surreptitious look around the office, she continued, “And he’ll find someone to take you through the ceremony. You’ll be able to read runes after that.”
“The language we use when we work for Vali. It’s on all of our phones, on all the files, on everything – only those who have been inducted can read it. But go back to the bit about a warlock from the Chaplain gang hitting you. Did you get a good look at the guy?” Alice peered closely at me.
I frowned. To be honest, I should have gotten a good look at the guy. He had been up in my face, after all. But now I pressed my memory into the task, I realized I hadn’t been able to note anything defining. The guy looked like a cookie-cutter, huge, strapping goon.
Alice sighed when I didn’t immediately answer. She shifted back and ran a hand through her short hair. “It’s a pet project of mine.”
“What?” I frowned.
“Alice is out to get every mobster she can,” Cassidy said matter-of-factly as she pushed off my desk, skidding back in her chair. “It’s a personal project,” she added.
“You’re allowed personal projects?” I questioned.
Alice let out a harsh chuckle. “Only when those personal projects are criminal bastards like the Chaplain gang. And only… when you lost as much to the mobsters of this city as I did.”
Just as a commiserating smile spread across my face, she put up a stiff hand.
“They bribed me, and I took a bribe – I’m not trying to apologize for that fact. I’m trying to make up for it. So you sure you couldn’t remember what the guy looked like?”
I offered her a rough description and promised to tell her if I remembered anything else.
Like a dutiful detective, Alice brought out a pad of legal paper, produced a pen from somewhere, and scribbled down every word I said.
It took until the end of the interaction to realize how easy it was. Just this morning these women had been nothing more than felons to me. Now? They were quite possibly my only friends.
The rest of the afternoon passed easily. Cassidy took me under her wing, inducting me as Alice rumbled and quipped from beside us, commenting whenever she could.
It was easy and weirdly normal. Sure, we were all magical sinners, but it was the friendliest interaction I’d had in days.
It could not, however, take away from the fact that in several hours I’d be attending my first real job with Vali himself.
I could still remember Megan’s expression as she’d stalked from the room. Her cold cheeks, her pale eyes, the sweat slicking her brow.
Cassidy had wandered off to rustle up some food, and Alice had gone back to writing fastidiously on her legal pad, her teeth clenched and expression dark. She wrote with the same gritty determination she held her magical gun with.
Though it looked suicidal to interrupt her, I cleared my throat.
She flicked her gaze up to me. “What?”
“I was just… I was just wondering… who Vali’s secretary is? Megan?”
“Megan Ross,” Alice reeled off, “28, has been working for him for eight years. Solstice witch. One of the strongest in the city, if not the country. She’s Vali’s go-to witch for the tough jobs.”
I blinked quickly.
“That was a lot of information for you, wasn’t it? Let me break it down slow.” Alice leaned back, tapping her finger against her pen. “A solstice witch is also known as an equilibrium witch. Her magic comes from balance. It’s kind of esoteric, and it will take you a while to wrap your head around. Basically, she can turn someone’s magic against them, tipping the balance, as it were. She can make water flow backward, make the wind suddenly change direction, make a fire burn back on itself.”
I made a face.
Alice snorted. “See, like I said – hard to understand. But trust me, she is powerful. That’s why Vali takes her on the big jobs.”
“And what exactly is a big job?”
“Simple sinners like you and me,” she shrugged as she indicated me with a flick of her pen, “we don’t really change much. I’m not using that as an excuse,” she brought her hands up in quick defense, “I’m just saying that in the grand scheme of things the sins we commit don’t affect too many people. But there are sinners out there,” her voice suddenly dropped low, “whose crimes affect us all. You’re talking mob kingpins, drug dealers, serial killers. The guys with truly evil hearts. The irredeemable, cold, and soulless. When Vali goes out to take one of these guys down, he requires backup.”
My nose scrunched. “I don’t get it. He’s a god.”
Alice shot me an even look. “Technically. But that doesn’t make him all-powerful, and it sure as hell doesn’t make him invulnerable.”
I blinked in surprise. “It doesn’t?”
Alice let out a rattling sigh. “Crap, you really need to learn this stuff; you’re walking blind here, kid. Saunders is an incredibly strong practitioner, but at the end of the day, he’s still mortal.”
“I don’t get it. How can a god be mortal?”
“Beats me. All I know is that Vali isn’t all-powerful. And when it comes to taking down the kingpins, he has to tread carefully. Especially in this city.”
“Why? What’s so special about this city?”
“Because there’s magic everywhere. Even before I… took the deal,” Alice punched her tongue against her lips in an obvious move of shame, “I started hearing about it. You’d see it on cases sometimes – things just wouldn’t add up. Rumors, legends – they’d fly around. After a few years on the force, I knew something was up.”
“Are you saying there’s more magic in Saint Helios than elsewhere?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. And I’m saying the city’s criminals – the big guys – they all know about it. That’s why Chaplain’s gang went after you today with a couple of warlocks.”
I sucked in a calming breath, cramming a hand over my stomach as nerves welled in my gut. This was kind of too much. It was a hell of a revelation to be told that the city I’d grown up in was steeped in magic. And more than that, magical crime.
“Anyhow. The really big guys, the guys who run the cartels, the trafficking rings, the drug dealers – they all invest in magical protection. Vali has to plan for months, sometimes years to take one of them down. When he does, he needs backup like Megan.”
That cold sensation in my chest suddenly returned. On overdrive. It felt like a blizzard started to swirl in my sternum. I tried to keep my emotion in check as I took a stuttering breath. “So… so one of these big jobs, they’re… important, right?”
Alice nodded earnestly. “You bet. But don’t look so pale, kid. I doubt the function Vali is taking you tonight is a job. He’s not suicidal. You’re a newbie. My guess is he’s giving you an opportunity.”
My stomach sank. “An opportunity?”
“He gives them to us occasionally.” Her tone dropped. “I missed the last one.”
“What do you mean?”
“An opportunity to redeem yourself. Think of it this way – every time we successfully solve a case, we buy back some of our sins. But occasionally we come across a case so big, so pertinent, that it can reduce a sentence by half. Maybe he’s feeling sorry for you – and maybe you’ll get one of those opportunities tonight. My only advice to you is to take it.”
I just sat there. When I didn’t react, she leaned forward, clapped me on the shoulder, and offered me the Alice version of a commiserating smile. “You’ll be okay. Like I said, it won’t be a job. It’ll just be an opportunity.”
There was a problem. It was a job. Vali had already admitted that to me right in front of Megan.
But there was another problem, wasn’t there? What if this was also a so-called opportunity?
I started to freak out. Who wouldn’t? As the enormity of the situation struck me, my breath became ragged.
Alice returned to her work, but crumpled her brow and ticked her gaze toward me. “Don’t freak out, Lilly. Take a deep breath. Even if you miss out on your opportunity, there’ll be others.”
Sure. Others. “Um, Alice? What do you know about Hank Chaplin? I’m only asking because… because I think I heard one of the guys mention his name today.” I weaved together a pathetic lie. “Ah, he sent them,” I added weakly.
Alice sat up straight. “Really? They mentioned Hank personally? He sent them? Not one of his lackeys? You sure? That’s a clue.”
No. I was lying out of my ass. But right now I had to learn everything I could about my target for tonight.
Alice took several seconds to scribble something on her pad. Then she looked up. “He’s a bastard, that’s what I know about him.” There was such conviction behind her words, I almost didn’t want to press her for more information. But I had to. “Why? What’s he done?”
“What did you do before you started working here?” Alice asked.
“I was a waitress.” I shrugged.
“Kept your head down, then? Didn’t go out much?”
I agreed with a nod.
“Hank Chaplin owns most of the strip joints in Saint Helios. He’s a real piece of work. Has his fingers in a lot of pies, and all of them are unsavory. Back when I was still working for the legitimate police force, we were trying to bring him in on trafficking charges.”
“You mean drug trafficking?” I asked innocently.
She shot me a grim look. “No, I mean human trafficking. Where do you think he got his strippers and prostitutes from?”
I think I became as white as snow as I leaned back and pressed a hand over my mouth. “That’s awful.”
“Which is why Hank Chaplin is a bastard. I didn’t realize he had any connection to Larry McGregor, though,” Alice said excitedly as she continued to scribble on her pad. “I would have thought Larry was too small a target for Chaplain. Something must be up.”
Feeling seriously guilty for lying to her, I cleared my throat. “I think that’s what they said. Maybe Hank didn’t send them personally. Everything just happened too quickly,” I muttered.
“Information is information,” Alice said, looking up. She clipped the lid on her pen, pushed her pad away, tilted her head, and looked at me. “You’re kind of pale.”
Kind of pale? It was a surprise I hadn’t blended in with the white wall behind me.
I felt sick. Thoroughly, thoroughly sick.
I hadn’t signed up for this. I hadn’t signed up for anything at all. I was being dragged into this world. And tonight? I’d be dragged into a far, far darker world.
I sat awkwardly, staring at Megan as she scowled at me from across the room.
She stalked over, dumped a bag on the desk before me, and pulled a mirror from somewhere, resting it against the wall.
God, this was going to take a long time if she was going to sneer at me for the next hour.
She started to snatch things out of the bag and arrange them on the desk.
Her lips were pulled tight, her expression dark.
For several minutes as she busied herself, I kept the silence. Soon, I just couldn’t.
I cleared my throat. “Look, I’m sorry—”
“Just don’t stuff this up,” she snapped through a snarl.
“I won’t,” I promised, though my voice was so soft it couldn’t convince a soul. “But… why is this so important to you?”
Oh crap – it was the wrong question to ask. I instantly realized how inappropriately I’d phrased it.
It was too late.
“Because Hank Chaplain is relentless, uncaring, and willing to destroy everything I ever had. He killed my sister. Then, when he found out I was a witch, he went after me.”
I crumpled my hand over my mouth. “I- I’m so sorry.”
She turned from me sharply. “Don’t be sorry. Just catch that bastard.”
Her fear and anger ignited something in me. The same feeling that had ignited when I’d chased John Lambert to the basement. I was now in the impossible position of saving people again.
We sat in silence for several seconds until I couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m not ready to do this,” I suddenly muttered under my breath. “I don’t know enough about magic to go tonight.”
At first, she didn’t reply. Then she slammed her makeup bag down on the desk, locked a hand on the wood, and turned to me stiffly. “You have no option. Plus, Franklin wouldn’t be taking you along unless he was confident of your abilities.”
“Of my abilities?” I said through a choked breath. “I don’t even know how to use my power,” I began.
She suddenly put a hand up stiffly. “Stop right there.”
“You aren’t allowed to tell me.”
“Franklin told me never to ask, and I will not pry.”
“Wait, what do you mean? I’m not allowed to tell you what kind of magic I do?”
“Yes,” she said through clenched teeth. “Now lean back so I can get your cheeks.”
I shifted back without protest, gut suddenly curling. Why was Franklin so scared of my abilities that he wouldn’t even tell his trusted secretary? None of this made any sense. If he was vulnerable, and this job tonight was important, why the hell would he take me? I got lucky last night because I’d taken my bangles off. But I had absolutely no control whatsoever over my power. So if anything happened tonight, I would choke. And the consequences? I couldn’t face finishing that thought.
I squeezed my eyes tightly closed. I heard Megan take a frustrated, angry breath. But as I warily opened my eyes and waited for her to give me another serve, she stopped. She leaned back and locked a hand over her face. “Franklin’s right – I’m too close to this case. I wouldn't be able to keep it together if I had to face Hank again. So you’re all he’s got,” she admitted. She jerked her hand back and faced me. She faced me with such honesty, her expression so unguarded, I realized for the first time I was seeing the real Megan.
I watched her shift away and carefully pick up a dress. “Look, I’ll be honest – I don’t like you. But right now, I need you to do me a favor: you have to do whatever you can to bring Hank in and keep Franklin safe.”
I was in no position to make a promise, yet I still nodded. I couldn’t say anything, couldn’t break the tense silence that spread between us.
“You won’t have to worry – Franklin will be there, and he won’t leave your side. When it comes to the fight, he’ll tell you exactly what to do. Don’t question – just follow his every order.”
Megan appeared to relax. Without another word, she continued to do my makeup. The entire time, I simply stared at my reflection. If you’d asked me several hours ago, I would’ve said Vali was a monster, that this entire operation was nothing more than vigilante justice. Now? I had no idea what was going on.
It didn’t take too much longer until Megan pronounced me as ready. Though I took a fleeting glimpse into the mirror and realized I looked great, suddenly I didn’t care.
She gestured toward the door. “Franklin will be waiting.”
I took a hesitant step forward. I wanted to know more about what had happened to her, whatever the hell Hank Chaplin had done. I didn’t get the opportunity to ask. She faced me, expression drawn and yet a hard glint flickering deep in her gaze. “Just don’t let that bastard get away.”
I nodded low. I turned and walked out of the room, strangely ready to face the greatest fight of my life.
So this was it, ha? Time for my first real job.
It hadn’t sunk in yet. What I was here to do. The nerves, however? Oh, they were sinking in fine. They chased right through my stomach, up my back, and hard into my jaw until my teeth clattered in my skull.
“Just relax,” Vali said. Or maybe it wasn’t Vali. As I shifted in my seat and surreptitiously shot him a look out of the corner of my eye, I realized his expression was too soft.
It had to be Franklin.
Not for the first time, I wondered how the hell this worked. How could a man be two different people? Okay, he wasn’t a man – he was technically a god. But seriously, how did it work? And what decided when he would switch? Did he get to decide? Or was it other people?
The more I learned about Vali, the more intensely curious I became. And as was always the case with me, that curiosity was the only thing that could fight against my nerves.
“You will follow my lead,” he said for about the tenth time.
With a hand flattened on my stomach so my gurgling, bubbling, nervous gut didn’t rumble too loudly, I managed a nod.
“No matter what happens—” he began.
“I won’t take off my bangles. Got it.”
Well, at least I hope I had it. There was still so much I had to learn. But I wasn’t exactly going to be offered the opportunity to calm down and figure this world out.
No, I would just have to continue at breakneck pace.
It didn’t take too much longer for our car to pull up along the curb.
The first thing I noticed were the other cars, if you could call them that. They were about as far away from ordinary cars as gold was from tin. Some of them were so fancy, I didn’t even recognize their makes. Everything from Bentleys to Rolls-Royces to Ferraris were arranged along the street.
Though I’d worked plenty of high-class functions, this would be the first time I’d ever attended one as a guest. Still, at least my work experience gave me a modicum of familiarity. I’d seen the guests at these kind of gigs; I knew exactly how they acted. Picked at the canapés and wine, laughed at the wealthiest man’s jokes, and kissed ass whenever they could.
Vali paused to look at me, and I could feel his gaze along the back of my neck. Though I’d been turned to the window, staring at the street outside, slowly I shifted and met his stare. “… What?”
“Don’t disappoint me,” Vali said.
And I was pretty sure it was Vali. That hard expression was back.
I didn’t wait for him to open the door for me – fat chance. I shifted forward and fumbled with the door handle, realizing too late I was still wearing my seatbelt. Swearing softly under my breath, I gathered the coordination to get out of the car. Then I stood there on the pavement and sunk my top teeth into my bottom lip.
A new rush of nerves was growing in my gut, and it wasn’t just at the sight of the other guests.
And the cold? It was back. First nothing more than a grain in the center of my chest – with every second, it grew as if a freezing cold ocean had replaced my blood.
I felt Franklin’s gaze on me once more, searching, questioning.
He didn’t say anything, though, just inclined his head forward, ticking it toward the building.
I wasn’t a stranger to wearing heels, I wore them all the time when I was waitressing. But right now, I was finding it so goddamn difficult to hold my balance. Every pockmark in the pavement felt like a great big hole.
Franklin didn’t give me a chance to pause and catch my breath, he motioned me on with a flick of his hand. Drawing close, I heard his gravelly voice right by my ear. “You follow my lead and never leave my side. Understand?”
I offered a tight nod. I understood. As to whether I could comply? We’d just have to see.
He pulled the gold fob watch from his pocket and slowly twisted it around his hand until the watch slammed into his palm and he caught it. It was his go-to move whenever he was intimidating a man, and it always worked without fail.
Barney, bleeding from a massive gash in his head, shifted back in his chair. But there was nothing he could do to fight against the magical ropes that bound him. Hank had paid a whopping half a million for them, after all. He’d bought them from his contacts in the Russian mafia. And while they’d once tried to swindle him, after he’d broken a few skulls, they’d learned their lesson.
It was time for Barney to learn his.
Slowly, making sure Barney could see every muscle in Hank’s neck, he leaned down and inclined his neck from side-to-side as if he were looking for witnesses. “We’re all alone now, Barney. So it’s time you fessed up and told me where the box is.” Hank’s voice dropped as low as a rumble of thunder.
Barney simply stared back, blood still pouring from that deep gash in his brow and stinging his eyes. He blinked wildly, shifting his head as he tried to jerk the blood from his gaze. But with his hands tied, there was nothing he could do.
Slowly, Hank let his lips curl up into a smile. Or at least a grimace. “I kind of liked you, Barney. You always kept to your own patch. So, why, oh why, did you have to steal that box back from me? Does this have something to do with that bastard, Larry McGregor?”
Barney winced. Hank just chuckled. “You know he works for Vali now?”
“What?” Barney’s face slackened.
“Sure. Haven’t you heard Larry’s already sold you out? Went to the competition squealing for protection. That means that asshole Vali is going to know every single one of your crimes by the end of tonight. How do you think that will work out for you, Barney?”
Barney couldn’t answer.
Hank chuckled. He also leaned forward and locked a hand on Barney’s shoulder. The move was convivial, yet his shoulder locked in case he needed convivial to turn into violent real fast.
Barney stared into Hank’s eyes and gulped, his throat pushing hard against his tight collar. “Larry got a deal with Vali. How?” his face crumpled in confusion and fear, the blood still dripping down the side of his face and splashing over his rumpled collar. “I got rid of those two agents in my store.”
“Turns out there was a third waiting right outside,” Hank said through a stiff smile.
“Wait, you mean Lilly? She’s not an agent; she works for Larry, one of his waitresses. I saw her only a couple of days ago.”
Hank frowned. “Then it looks like this Lilly must have done something real bad to come to Vali’s attention so soon. Speaking of which,” Hank leaned in and locked a hand on Barney’s shoulder again, making the move real slow and real intimidating, “if you don’t want me to add to my own considerable list of crimes,” he let out a ringing chuckle, “then I suggest you tell me where the box is.”
“Fine. Last I knew, Larry took it back to Vali. Happy?”
Hank’s face stiffened. It felt like someone had injected ice into his veins. “Happy? Quite the contrary.” He displayed just how unhappy he was by wrapping the fob chain around his knuckles and slamming his fist into Barney’s face.
The old man jerked back, head shunting to the side with a sickening crunch. More blood dripped from a fresh gash over his cheek. With wide pulsing eyes, he stared back at Hank. “Look, I told you what I know. There’s nothing I can do to get that box back. It’s in Vali’s hands now, and not even you can go up against him.”
Hank took the opportunity to tilt his head back and laugh. “I reckon I’ll come up with something. You see, Barney, I want that box.”
“You’re mad. You won’t be able to use its power,” Barney stuttered under his breath.
Hank’s eyes widened in interest. “So you know what it is, then?”
“The box of the gods,” Barney supplied through a croaky breath.
Hank nodded in agreement. “Box of the gods. If you can wield it, you can access the true magic of the divine.” Hank released his hand from Barney’s shoulder, took a step back, and brought his arms up wide like a narrator making a point. “There’s a lot a man can achieve with a box like that.”
“You think Vali is gonna roll over and let you do what you want with that thing?”
“No, I think Franklin Saunders is going to roll over and die, and Vali will have to find a new avenue into this world. And that, that will take time, giving me enough time to figure out how to use that box. And you, Barney? You’re gonna help me.”
“There’s no fucking way,” Barney began.
“There’s every fucking way.” Hank leaned in again, latching two hands on Barney’s shoulders, staring meaningfully into his gaze. He let a slow smile spread across his face, his canines glistening. “You help or you die. Now, you’re going to tell me everything you know about that box. And maybe, maybe I’ll stop rearranging your face for fun. What do you think?”
Barney paused, but the pause didn’t last. The old man had clearly been around long enough to know there was no way out of this deal. He nodded slowly.
Hank shifted back, smiled, turned on his foot, and walked out the door. He had a party to attend.
I felt entirely exposed, worse than a doll on a mantelpiece. I was like a specimen scientists were gathering around. It wasn’t the dress. It wasn’t the makeup. And god knows it wasn’t my face.
It was Franklin Saunders. I – a total unknown – had walked in beside him. I could see them all – all the guests huddling together, whispering, questioning who the heck I could be. I imagined most of them were just curious about the new woman hanging off the arm of the city’s most eligible bachelor. The rest – who knew about magic – would be wondering where the hell Megan was.
I used every trick I knew to keep my expression even. I had to draw on all my training as a waitress not to let the stress get to me. I followed along after Franklin, my steps ungainly, my knees wobbly, but my smile never shifting from my face.
When a waiter automatically offered me a drink, I lurched out a hand to grab it, happy for anything that could steady my nerves.
Franklin cleared his throat. “She’ll be sticking to water tonight,” he said directly.
“I will?” I questioned as the confused waiter walked off.
“You will,” Franklin said. “I need you on the ball. Remember, you stick by my side—”
“And I follow your every order,” I finished as I brought a hand up and momentarily pinched the bridge of my nose.
Every few seconds, Franklin’s eagle eyes scanned the room, and I could tell who he was looking for: Hank Chaplin.
I scanned the room, too, eager to catch sight of him and yet scared at the same time.
I didn’t have a strong stomach, and whenever the news reported some grisly murder or heinous crime, I always turned it off. Yet I couldn’t stop my imagination as it painted horrible picture after horrible picture.
The dress I was wearing had long sleeves, and they covered my bangles completely. Though I couldn’t see them, every now and then they grabbed hold of my attention. I became aware of just how cold they were as they sat against my flesh. I longed to take them off, curious to see what would happen, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to do that here. Not only would Vali take it as an opportunity to smite me from heaven, but I’d probably end up turning the entire function and every guest into ice.
When this was over, if this was ever over, I was going to have to start asking some real questions and not giving up until I got some real answers. What the hell kind of magic did I have? And when, if ever, would I learn how to control it?
To be honest, everything became a bit of a blur as Vali waited for Hank to arrive. I stood there, trying to ignore everyone’s stares and the muttered comments. I stood there and wondered how the hell this would all go down. When Vali spotted Hank what would happen? Would the lights suddenly blink out? Would a storm cover the moon and stars? Would they just take their fight out into the parking lot? I was so far out of my depth here.
Just as I felt my breath become shallow and a new shot of nerves sank hard into my stomach, Vali shifted my way. He’d been talking to an older couple by my side, but now he turned to face me. He looked into my eyes, and I saw Franklin Saunders. The smallest, gentlest smile pressed across his lips. “It will be fine,” he said in the kind of voice that told you he would do everything he could to make it fine.
This hall was packed. Yet, as he spoke to me, I knew his voice wouldn’t carry. He was a god, after all.
I blinked back my confusion. “How can you be so sure? Look, I know this is kind of late, but I don’t think I’m up to—”
He reached a hand out and gently clasped my shoulder. It was an unusual move for a man who spent most of his time growling at me. An unusual and yet supremely comforting move. It was so easy to sink into his warm grasp and that look in his soulful eyes. So easy, that without me realizing it, my breath regulated.
“Remember why you’re here,” he said softly.
I waited for him to tell me I was here because I was working off my heinous crimes, but he didn’t.
“You’re here to protect people,” he said instead.
“Protect people?” Suddenly I felt something – the same charge of courage I’d experienced when I’d seen John Lambert strangling that man. The same charge of courage I’d experienced around Megan earlier this evening. And that courage was enough to keep me whole as Saunders took a step back.
He turned on his foot, and he must have seen something, because I watched his appreciable back stiffen. Though my breath had been easy seconds before, now it tightened and locked hard in my throat.
“Stay here,” Franklin said under his breath, his voice barely carrying as he took a stiff step forward and wended his way through the crowd.
I watched him go. With a prickle of nerves, I realized I was alone. I felt everyone’s gazes on the back of my neck. I shifted uncomfortably from foot-to-foot. If I’d had a glass of wine to clutch, I would have suddenly held it so hard I would have broken the glass.
I watched Franklin until he disappeared from sight. My nerves grew until I heard a soft, sudden voice by my ear. “And what’s your name, then?” someone asked.
I whirled on my foot, so surprised I almost stumbled backward.
I’d done my homework before I’d come to the function. I’d looked Hank Chaplain up on my phone. And right now he was standing behind me, one hand pressed into his pocket, a gold watch trailing from it. He was in a ludicrously expensive suit, and from the look of his slicked down hair to his precisely manicured nails, I could tell his appearance was just as expensive as his clothes. He was clearly a man who cared about his image.
He smiled at me. And though, on the surface, it was a charming move, my stomach sank through the floor.
“What’s your name?” he repeated once more.
I was completely thrown. Rather than think of a suitable lie, I stuttered out, “Lilly White,” immediately regretting it as a strange look flickered through Hank’s gaze.
“You don’t say? Lilly White, ha? Used to be a waitress for Larry McGregor up until a couple of days ago, ha?”
I paled. “How do you know that?”
Hank chuckled. “Where’s Megan?” he suddenly changed the subject, shifting his head, his neck muscles stiffening as his hard gaze darted through the crowd.
For the first time, I swallowed my fear as a flicker of anger ignited in my gut. “She’s not here.”
Hank returned his attention to me, his frown growing more pronounced. “You telling me Franklin only brought you to this party?”
I didn’t answer.
That smile slipped further across his cheeks. “That’s unusual. He wouldn’t bring a green-eared rookie unless he was confident of her powers. Tell me, Lilly White, what exactly can you do?”
I took a step back, realizing I was drastically underequipped for this situation. I also searched the crowd, praying for Franklin to return. But when I didn’t answer, Hank took a step toward me. He pulled his fob watch from his pocket, checked it, and then took yet another step toward me.
There were a lot of people packed into this room, and there wasn’t that far I could go to get away from him.
His gaze darted down my figure, and the exact quality behind it made me want to gag. As his eyes locked on the slight bumps protruding from underneath the sleeves of my dress, I watched him stiffen. Without warning, he shifted forward, grabbed my wrist, and pulled up my sleeve, revealing my bangles.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I said in a tight, low voice. I was ready to scream if I had to.
Hank just smiled. “Now, what do we have here? He’s brought you along, but he’s got you locked up. I wonder what that means?” He clamped his hand all the way around my bangle.
Before I could shove back, call for help, or stamp on his toe with my heel, I heard a rumble by my side. Somebody leaned in and broke Hank’s grip. That somebody was Franklin.
I caught sight of the side of his face, and deep within his gaze, I saw a flicker of Vali. And Vali wasn’t happy. Vali shifted around, using his large, broad-shouldered form to block me from view.
I took a tight, relieved breath and made no attempt to dart out from behind his long shadow.
“What’s the matter, Franklin Saunders, not enjoying the party?” Hank drawled, that same awful smile still pressed across his lips.
Franklin appeared to take several seconds to come to a decision. “No, I can’t say I am. Something’s come up, please excuse us.” He turned sharply on his foot and nodded me forward with a jerked move of his head.
When I stood there, stock still, still surprised, he reached out and latched that same warm, reassuring hand on my shoulder. Gently, he turned me around and pushed me forward.
Hank chuckled behind us.
When we were suitably out of earshot, I turned to Franklin. “What’s going on? Are you abandoning the job?”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” he replied as he kept his head inclined to the side, his attention still locked on Hank.
I shifted and saw Hank hadn’t moved. All he’d done was pull that gold fob watch from his pocket as he took a sip of his wine and twisted the watch around and around his hands. It was a practiced, unnerving move.
I returned my attention to Franklin. He reached out a hand and pushed me a little harder in the back, obviously wanting me to hurry up.
“But what’s going on? I thought this job is important? I thought we only had one chance to get Hank Chaplin?”
“Keep your voice down,” Vali warned in a low tone. “And none of that matters. We’re abandoning the mission,”
“Because Hank Chaplin is now targeting you.”
My stomach sank low, so freaking low I could feel it clunk through my legs. My mouth became so dry I could barely swallow. But before my breath could become shallow, Franklin slipped his hand further down my shoulder. His lingering, warm touch was enough to focus my attention.
“Surely it doesn’t matter if he’s targeting me? Surely there’s some way to finish this job?”
“No. We’re abandoning it,” Franklin said in a clear tone. “I see now this was a mistake,” he muttered to himself. “I shouldn’t have brought you out in public,” he added in a lower voice.
What the heck did that mean?
Franklin expertly wended his way through the crowd. I stayed a step behind him. Considering his massive form, he was like an icebreaker, and I found an easy path in his wake. By the time we made it out of the function hall and into the relatively abandoned corridor beyond, my heart was pulsing hard in my chest, hammering at my throat, vibrating in my jaw.
Yes, I was completely new to this world. Yes, I didn’t want to be here. Yes, I didn’t think I was guilty of the crimes Vali had punished me for. But no, I didn’t leave. Because like it or not, I felt some kind of responsibility to stop Hank Chaplin. It was a completely new and distracting thought for me, and yet one that couldn’t distract me for long. For as we walked down the corridor and I began to realize it was strangely quiet, Franklin stopped dead.
I practically saw the hackles rise along his back as his neck stiffened and his head darted to the left. The skin around his eyes tightened, and his cheeks became drawn and slack. “Try anything,” he suddenly warned the silence, “and you will pay for your crimes.”
I heard light, lilting laughter, and instantly I recognized it. Though I’d only just met the man, Hank was now seared into my memory.
Unconsciously, I took a step closer to Vali.
I heard footsteps. Hank appeared, hands stowed in his pockets. He came to a stop, and yet somehow I continued to hear the footsteps. They echoed all around us, almost as if an invisible army was taking up position all around the walls. And hey, maybe one was, because Franklin paled further.
“Nice of you to drop in, Vali,” Hank said through a sneer. “Even nicer for you to bring me a present.” He gestured my way.
Vali didn’t move a muscle, just let his lips twitch back. “She is no present for you, sinner. It’s time for you to pay for your crimes.”
Hank tipped his head all the way back and laughed so riotously, I thought he would lose his head. He continued to twist that fob watch around and around in his hand. The thump as it hit his open palm felt like a drumbeat or a clock ticking down.
“You’ve got some nerve showing up here without Megan. Where is she, anyway?” Hank’s tone took on a nasty, cold quality, and I watched Vali’s chest stiffen.
“You will pay for your crimes,” Vali said once more, tone lower than I’d ever heard it.
“Maybe. But you ain’t gonna make me pay, and I sure as hell ain’t gonna pay today.” With that, Hank shoved his hand to the side. I watched as one of those magical circles appeared in front of his fingertips. He didn’t pause; he simply selected one of the twisting symbols. In an instant, a sword formed in his hands. I’d seen John Lambert form a similar sword last night, but with a single glance, I knew this sword was far, far more powerful.
Vali obviously appreciated that, too, because he took a jerked step back, shouldering me out of the way.
“Come on.” Hank opened his arms wide, hefting the sword easily as if it weighed nothing more than a feather. “Where’s the fun in this? Where’s the old Franklin Saunders?” His voice rumbled on the word old and had an effect on Franklin.
Up until now, I’d thought there was nothing that could unsettle Franklin, because he wasn’t a man; he was a god. And yet, as his cheeks stiffened and a flicker of rage blasted through his gaze, I began to question that conclusion.
Suddenly Hank darted forward. Just as he did, I felt a rush of something behind me. Instinctively, I dropped to my knees, jerking out of the way just in time as a hand formed right behind my shoulder. A second later, I watched a human being appear. In fact, I recognized the brute. He was one of the goons I’d fought outside Barney’s pawnshop. One of the goons Larry had shot, to be precise. And as the guy flicked me a sneering smile, I realized he wanted revenge.
I jerked back.
“Lilly,” Franklin snapped in a clear voice as he brought his hand up and let a sword appear in his grip, “take your bangles off.” His order was easy, certain, and as he spoke, it brought me a measure of much-needed calm. Enough calm that I dodged back out of reach of the goon and latched a hand on my bangles. Last night, it had been easy to take them off; there was a lock in the middle of the metal. But right now, as I jammed my thumb into it, nothing happened. They wouldn’t open.
I heard a dull click, and as I jammed my thumb harder into the lock, I felt a charge of something escape over the metal and bite into my skin. I yelped.
Hank laughed. “What? You think I didn’t take the opportunity to cast a spell on those locks? Think I’m a complete idiot, Vali?” Hank asked, tone dark.
Franklin didn’t respond. Instead, he lurched forward, that sword held stiffly in his grip. I’d never seen anything like it. It wasn’t made of metal, but rather of blistering, burning light. As he wielded it, it sent arcs of power out like blasts from a sonic wave. While it caught several of the goons behind Hank, Hank was too quick. He darted to the side, hefting his own sword in defense.
I tried desperately to unlock my bangles, grabbing them, trying to wrench them from my wrists. But the more I fought against them, the more they fought back, sending pulse after pulse of power biting into my arms until they felt numb like they would drop off.
“Lilly, get out of here,” Vali commanded. Not Franklin – Vali. The tone was too strong, his words too punchy as they echoed through the hall.
I wanted to stay, but couldn’t. I found myself compelled as I shifted hard on my foot and began running in the other direction. Problem was, I didn’t get very far. The goon from earlier today – the guy who’d punched me against the lamppost – was right behind me, and he was quicker. He may have been massive, like a polar bear pressed into a black suit, but it didn’t matter. He was as agile as a gymnast.
As he shoved forward, he put on a burst of speed, and grabbed me by the arm. He wrenched me around, and I lost balance on my heels, twisting to the side and falling hard on my ankle. I let out a half scream, but it couldn’t carry far; the goon pressed forward and locked a hand around my throat. His hand was so large, his grip so wide, he practically garroted me.
As my choking splutters filled the air, I heard Franklin stop.
Hank laughed again. “You should have brought Megan,” he said, voice dipping low. “It would have been a heck of a lot more fun. Now, unless you want your pretty new witch to die, I suggest you give up.”
I knew what Vali would do – knew what he had to do – sacrifice me. This case was bigger than my life. So why did he shoot me one sorrowful look and let the sword drop from his hands? Why did he let Hank give a snicker then dart forward and knock him on the back of the head? There was a sickening crunch as Franklin fell to his knees. Blood poured down from a wound in the back of his head. He had a single moment to make eye contact with me, then he dropped. Out cold.
I screamed. Then I watched Hank take an easy step backward. Swinging his sword over his shoulder, he smiled at me, reached out a hand, and latched it over my arm. Instantly, a cold, dense, darting sensation spread out from his touch.
I started to lose consciousness. The last thing I did was stare past Hank’s awful sneer as I desperately attempted to catch sight of Franklin to confirm he was okay. His body was still, blood trickling down from the wound in the back of his neck. And me? I was falling into the coldest, darkest sleep I would ever have.
I awoke, tied to a chair. I was in a simple, large room with no furniture and no decoration except for me. Though it took a long time to fight against the fog of unconsciousness, I quickly realized I was bound to the chair with more than ropes. Twisting, writhing chains bound my wrists, neck, and ankles with such force it felt like it would take an army to break me free.
It took several bleary, blinking seconds until I realized there was a figure by the door. As soon as I shifted my head toward him, he took a step forward, removing a fob watch from his pocket and beginning to twist it around his hand.
I felt my face slacken in total fear, and as soon as he saw it, a manic grin opened his lips wide. “I’m going to have to thank that bastard before I kill him,” he said through another satisfied laugh.
Trying to fight back the tears, I shifted my head to the side. “Where’s Franklin? What have you done to him?”
“Why care about him? He made you a slave to your sins. What exactly do you owe him?”
It was a good question. One I couldn’t answer, and yet one my heart appeared to know the truth of as it beat harder in my chest.
Though I knew Franklin couldn’t be in the room with me, that didn’t stop me from searching for him desperately. I could still see the sorrowful look he’d shot me before he’d given up his weapon and Hank had struck him across the back of the head. I closed my eyes against the memory just as Hank crossed the distance between us and stopped right before me. He appeared to assess me for several long moments until he stopped, twisting his fob watch around one final time. “You want to know what I’m gonna do with Franklin? I’m going to kill him.”
I shook my head, the move instinctual. “You can’t; he’s a god.”
Hank just laughed. “You’ve got no idea what’s happening here, do you, Lilly White?”
I shrunk back as he said my name, shrunk back as he shifted in close to stare at me from another angle. It was almost like I was some barnyard animal he was assessing before purchase. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he grabbed my mouth and started checking my teeth.
“Franklin is mortal; Vali isn’t. So trust me, Franklin can be killed. And will be,” he smiled, teeth pressing wide, “momentarily.”
My eyes drew wide.
“What?” Hank ticked his head to the side in that same truly unnerving move. “You didn’t know that? That man of yours, Franklin Saunders, is the worst criminal of all. Don’t you know how Vali works?”
I clenched my teeth as I tried to control my surprise.
This elicited a low, dark laugh from Hank as he continued to spin his fob watch around and around his hand. “Trying to be tough now, are you? Bit late for that, love.”
“I… I don’t believe anything you’re saying,” I managed.
He snorted. “Yes, you do. Why wouldn’t you? You know nothing about this world,” he said slowly as he shifted forward. Still twisting his fob watch around his hand, he locked his other hand on the armrest beside me.
I jerked back, terrified as his face came closer. Without blinking, he stared right into my eyes.
“Yes, you do,” he said slowly, each word a percussive beat. “You believe me, because you don’t know any better.”
I grimaced but hid it as I locked my jaw. Rather than snap that I didn’t believe him again, I just sat there in silence.
This drew an even deeper, more resounding laugh. And by god was it unpleasant. That fob chain flicking around just a few inches from my nose, he straightened and took a step back. He began to pace, several meters to the left, several to the right, then he stopped in front of me once more. “He’s a murderer, you know,” he said.
I tried so hard to keep my expression neutral. I couldn’t. My calm cracked, my lips even wobbled. “What?”
“Franklin Saunders. I mean, I take it you know that Vali is a murderer. He’s the god of revenge; it comes with the job. But Franklin Saunders? How do you think he turned into Vali in the first place?”
I shook my head.
Hank grinned. It was an ugly move. For a supposedly handsome man, I was starting to realize his looks were only skin deep.
“I… don’t believe you,” I said weakly.
“Yes, you do.” Hank chuckled as he finally stopped flipping his fob watch around and caught it with a snapped move. “Vali is channeled. He’s the immortal – Franklin isn’t. Franklin did something so heinous that the only way to live was to channel Vali.”
“What?” My voice shook, and there was nothing I could do about it.
“That’s how Vali works. He has to channel himself into one unlucky bastard to exist. And when that unlucky bastard pops his clogs, he just moves on to find another.”
My cheeks paled.
Hank snickered. “What? Thought Franklin would live forever? Franklin ain’t even going to make it past tonight. That asshole Vali is gonna have to find another poor sucker to possess.”
A jolt of nerves shoved hard through my gut, and I pushed against the binds holding me in place. “What?”
“Franklin ain’t going to live past tonight,” Hank said each word slowly as if he wanted me to write them down. “But you?” He paused.
I froze. “What do you mean? Franklin—”
“Really? You’re more concerned about him than yourself? Don’t you want to ask what happens to you next?” He leaned back, released his fob chain, and began twisting it around his hand once more.
“There we go, starting to think of the future now, are we? Good girl. Because it will involve you.”
I felt sick. Completely and utterly sick. It felt like my stomach was trying to rip out of my torso. But I held it together, held it together long enough to clench my teeth and pare my lips back. “Go to hell.”
“No,” he said with a shrug, “I plan on going to the top. First this city, and who knows, maybe the world. Because you present me with a very unique opportunity.”
I couldn’t pale any further, and god knows I couldn’t feel any sicker. But I could recede as I pressed all the way back in my chair.
“Not every century a frozen witch drags herself out of the ice, ha?”
My throat was suddenly so dry I could barely breathe. “Sorry?”
“A frozen witch. That’s you. Did Vali not even deem to tell you that?”
I couldn’t react.
He clapped his hands together as if he’d just heard the funniest joke. “Keeping it from you, was he? Misguided attempt to keep you safe, maybe? Or, more likely, wanted to keep you for himself,” Hank’s voice dropped real low. The kind of low that slices hard into the base of your gut and leaves you shaking. “Anyhow,” he straightened up, stowing a hand in his pocket, “I’ll leave you to think about that. I have a man to kill.” He flashed me a smile, turned on his foot, waved, and walked out.
“No. No! Don’t kill him!” I begged.
Hank closed the door behind him, leaving me alone.
I sat there, shaking, covered in cold sweat.
I had to get out of here. Had to get out of here before it was too late. But how?
This room was empty, but there was a window. And if I could just get to it, I’d have a good chance of breaking it. I could scream until I roused a pedestrian outside.
The problem? The problem was these magical ropes. I had absolutely no idea how to get rid of these.
Whatever Hank had done to my bangles, it wouldn’t be hard to reverse.
Though I should have been more concerned about my own safety right now, I couldn’t stop thinking about Franklin. About what Hank had said. Not about the fact Franklin was a murderer – I just couldn’t believe that. He was too kind, too gentle. No, what was driving me crazy was the thought that he could die. Would die. He wouldn’t see the night through, as Hank had put it with a brutal laugh.
I fought against my ropes harder, pushing into them, wriggling, forcing my shoulders forward, trying everything to loosen them.
But nothing would work. In fact, the harder I fought, the harder they fought back. Small charges of magic kept tapping into my wrist and arms, feeling like electric shocks. As I bucked hard, throwing myself forward with all my force so I could at least topple the chair, a much harder shock jolted into my arms. My head spun as stars exploded through my vision.
I did not, however, let myself blackout.
“Come on, come on, there must be some kind of way,” I begged.
If only I knew more about my magic, or magic in general, then at least I might have a chance. Now I was desperate.
“Come on, come on, there has to be a way!”
I’d seen Cassidy and Alice use magic. And god knows I’d seen that asshole from last night produce a fire sword. Why couldn’t I do that? Okay, I knew what was stopping me – these locks. How exactly did they work?
Hank had called me a frozen witch. And as soon as he’d said the words, they’d had such an effect on me that I knew they couldn’t be a lie. But what the hell was a frozen witch? And how was it different from the other practitioners I’d already met?
From what I’d seen of Megan and what I’d heard about her, it was clear she was one of the most powerful witches under Vali’s command. Yet it was equally clear that I had to be powerful, too. Otherwise Vali wouldn’t have taken me tonight, and Hank wouldn’t be showing so much interest in me.
But what could I do? I already knew the answer to that. I could freeze things. If last night was anything to go by, as soon as I took these locks off, ice would spread from my touch and cover the entire room. And if anyone was in here with me, they’d be frozen, too.
Blinking hard, I suddenly realized it had something to do with that kernel of ice that always felt lodged in my sternum. That fragment of cold that sat just above my heart, stealing away my attention whenever I was terrified. More than anything, I was scared of it. It had been growing for the last couple of months, or maybe it had always been there. If I cast my mind back, I’d felt it as a kid, hadn’t I? This sense of cold that always surrounded me, a sense of cold that terrified me more than anything else. And one that even now I wanted to push back. But push it back, and I’d be rejecting my magic, wouldn’t I?
That thought – it was so powerful, I suddenly stilled. I imagined the room stilled with me. There must’ve been a brisk breeze pushing in from under the door, as the thick curtains around the windows were fluttering. Yet right now they stopped, almost as if they were waiting to find out what I would do next.
What I did next was close my eyes. Even though I had always tried to push away that fragment of ice, even though I’d always tried to tell myself it was nothing more than nerves, for the first time I allowed my curiosity to flare. I pushed my attention into it, using every ounce of courage I’d gathered over the past several days not to turn away. The more I faced it, the more it grew until it pulsed like a growing blizzard.
My lips tugged apart. “Come on, you can do this. You’re my magic, aren’t you? Please, I need your help.” I talked to it as if that growing storm were a person, as if it were somehow intelligent.
I was an independent soul. I liked to do everything for myself. My grandmother had chided me that I never took instruction. I never sought assistance, even when I needed it most.
Well right now, in my last moment, I reached out to that cold, begging it to open up to me.
It did. Slow at first, draining through my body like trickling ice melt. Though it should have frozen me solid, it did the exact opposite. I felt more alive than ever.
I succumbed to it. Charges of magic suddenly leaped up from my skin, sending a thrill of excitement chasing down my back. The more the sensation grew, the more I gave into it, the more my power returned.
With a resounding crack, the chains fell from my wrists, throat, and ankles. And the locks around my wrists? I felt something fizzle and click, and they fell to the floor with a resonant thump.
The symbols returned, blazing over my skin brighter than they ever had before. I snapped my eyes open in time to see their light spread forth like wildfire.
It rushed out of me. The cold. But it was different this time. I wasn’t afraid of it. Instead, I leaned forward and embraced it with both arms.
Ice spread out from my body, crackling as it covered the floors and spread up the walls. In a snapped second, my breath turned to mist as if I’d been plunged into the coldest, darkest winter.
The ice grew so quickly, that in a flash, it covered everything. The brown, tan floorboards were suddenly white-blue, even the velvet curtains looked like nothing more than molded snow.
With my breath still buffeting against me, I experimentally tugged my ropes. With a crack, they broke apart, falling into icicles and dashing at my feet.
I stood, slowly, anchoring myself on the chair for balance. I didn’t need to, though. Just as had happened last night, I couldn’t seem to slip on the ice, even though it covered everything and looked as treacherous as a frozen-over lake.
I wasn’t cold, either. I was in a backless satin dress, and it might as well have been midsummer. Because, hey, it was midsummer – just not in this room anymore.
Warily, I knelt down and picked up my broken bangles. I clicked them back over my wrists, even though I knew full well they wouldn’t work anymore. Maybe they’d buy me some time. Plus, I doubted Vali would be happy if I lost them.
I shifted toward the door. Placing a hand on the iced-over handle, I took a steeling breath as the door opened a crack. When Hank’s goons didn’t suddenly tackle me to the ground, I took a hesitant step into the abandoned corridor.
With every step I took, ice spread out from my feet, covering everything, marching up the walls and cracking the windows.
The symbols and light continued to dance across my skin, so much magic charging across my body, it caught the tips of my hair as if they were being chased around by a sudden wind.
I would have looked like a fearsome sight. A fact that was proven as one of the thick-necked goons from earlier suddenly came racing down the corridor. He came to a skidding stop, eyes bulging from his skull as he stared at me.
His moment of surprise couldn’t last. With a snapped, precise movement, he brought a gun up from the holster around his hip. He fired.
I had a moment to jerk back, fear pulsing through me, but the magic bullet couldn’t reach me. It stopped several inches from my face, and I watched as ice covered it. The bullet fell to the floor and shattered into 1000 pieces.
I heard the guy bellow with rage. He fired off several more rounds. They too could not reach me. They literally froze before me.
When that didn’t work, he brought his left hand up. I made out a blue, blazing symbol on his wrist. Licks of flame powered across it as he twisted his hand in a circle. A magical disc appeared in front of him, and he selected a weapon. A heavyset sword suddenly grew in his palm.
He thrust forward with no warning and no chance of reprieve.
I didn’t even have to double back. As soon as he came too close, he slipped on the ice. It began to grow over him.
He jerked to the side, shoulder ramming into the wall, the entire room shaking. He sneered, swiping at the ice with his sword, but there was nothing he could do. It grew up him, quickly covering his feet then his legs, soon reaching his torso. As it did, he appeared to lose his fight. With a shaking step, he fell to one knee then the other, the sword slamming into the icy floor beside him.
I didn’t want to kill the guy.
Last night I’d had no control over my power as it had charged up John Lambert’s body. Now, I tried to concentrate. I squeezed my eyes half shut, the skin around them taut with tension.
“Don’t… don’t kill him,” I begged.
I could feel my power. It was a storm in my chest. Pure, pure chaos. I had about as much chance of controlling it as you did of catching a cloud in your hands.
But I wasn’t willing to give up. Too much was at stake. If I couldn’t control my abilities, not only would I kill this man, but my magic would probably go on to freeze this entire building, maybe even the city. I would have no chance of saving Franklin, either.
So I concentrated – I concentrated with everything I had, begging myself to find a way.
I’d never been more focused in that moment, never more driven.
The man started to gag, ice covering his throat and marching across his stiff, white-blue lips.
… My chaotic magic couldn’t be controlled, but maybe it could be directed.
I suddenly pulled away from the man. Not just physically, mentally. I withdrew my attention from him, concentrating on my hands, instead.
It took half a second, but it worked. Just before the man took his last, icy breath, he started to thaw. The apparently unstoppable ice finally receded.
I took a shaky, relieved breath. I did not, however, allow my attention to lock on the man for too long, just long enough to ensure his skin was returning to a healthy pink.
I pushed on. I had no idea where to find Hank Chaplain, but I figured – rightly – that it wouldn’t take him long to find me.
Indeed, I didn’t even reach the end of the corridor before I heard footfall. Frantic, heavy, it came to a skidding stop behind me.
I turned. The magic playing over my body now caught the ends of my hair, sending every strand billowing around my head like smoke. My whole body glowed – every centimeter of my skin aglow with those ancient runes.
Though my encroaching ice no longer spread throughout the hallway uncontrollably, it remained concentrated around my body. The floor beneath me was so thick with frost, it looked as if it had been carved from diamond.
I heard someone swear.
Two of Chaplain’s men came to screeching stops along the opposite end of the corridor. Or, at least they tried to. As soon as their feet struck my left-over frost, they fell, skidding onto their backsides.
They’d had guns in their hands, but they couldn’t keep hold of them as they flailed on the slippery floor. As soon as the guns struck the ice, they frosted over. A second later, they cracked, shattering like a sheet of glass thrown on the ground.
The more I learned to direct my magic, the brighter that light glowed along my skin.
I continued down the corridor, passing the two men as they lay spread-eagled on the floor. At first, they tried to jump to their feet, but as I concentrated on their shoes, ice grew up and covered them, locking the men to the spot.
I walked right past them, balance perfect.
I made it all the way down the corridor, following the flow of bad guys who uselessly threw themselves toward me. No matter what kind of weapon they used, they couldn’t touch me. A few were quick enough and powerful enough to produce flaming magical swords – and yet they could never get close enough to use them. Not their bullets, not their blasts of magic – nothing could touch me.
Things became a blur of cold, of light, of ice. And yet, though it would have been so easy to succumb to the chaos at the center of my power, I kept my focus.
Finally, I found Franklin.
I found Chaplain, too.
I came across a ballroom. It wasn’t the function room from before – it was grander than that. It was also empty except for two people: Franklin and Hank.
I still didn’t understand how Vali worked. In my head, I’d convinced myself Chaplain had lied – that he would be ultimately unable to kill Franklin. Yet as I strode into the room, entering from above along a split, sweeping staircase that descended into the ballroom, I spied Franklin. He wasn’t tied to a chair like I’d been. Nor was he tied down at all, in fact. At least not by any visible ropes. Instead, he was down on one hand and knee, head bowed low between his shoulders as if his body were under great strain. Beneath him, a golden circle of light flickered. It sparked, suddenly becoming brighter as he saw me.
Our eyes met from far across the room.
Hank swore then shifted toward me, shoes skidding.
I was still wearing my bangles – I’d kept them on in the misguided hope they might buy me some time. I’d forgotten that anyone with a functioning set of eyes would be able to see my magic – it played across my skin and spread out from my every touch.
As Hank shoved toward me, he brought his hands up, suddenly spreading his fingers wide, his shirt sleeves rumpling as a wave of power burst up his arms.
He incanted something under his breath.
A second before it happened, I felt it – something gathering within my bangles. Though they weren’t part of me, they felt like an extension of my power. And right now that power was being forced back.
I heard something clicking deep within the bangles, almost like they were clock mechanisms being wound up.
“Take them off,” Vali bellowed. Suddenly that gold ring of light beneath him grew until it looked like a flare. But just as soon, it dwindled.
The gold ring was rimmed by the strangest runes I’d ever seen. They didn’t just look ancient – they exuded age like it was a scent.
Even as Hank threw himself at me, I realized that gold ring had to be the possession – the doorway that allowed the god of revenge into Franklin Saunders. Hank was obviously trying to remove it. Just as he obviously wanted to lock me back within the hold of my bangles.
Hank reached the base of the stairs and threw himself up them, two at a time.
I suddenly wrenched my attention off Franklin, locking it on my bangles. Whereas seconds ago they’d been loose, now they closed tighter around my wrists, as if they were about to squeeze through the flesh and cut through my bone.
I jolted, concentrating on my bangles with every grain of power I had.
But Hank was faster. Whatever incantation he kept chanting had a dampening effect on me. Not just my power, but my mind. My thoughts were starting to trail off….
“Fight him, Lily-white,” Vali bellowed. Despite the fact Franklin’s body looked to be under considerable strain, Vali’s voice boomed out with all the authority and power of a true god.
It had an effect on me. An emboldening one.
I shoved back, that fog that had wended through my mind shifting. I moved just in time, throwing myself down the opposite side of the sweeping staircase.
I heard Hank just behind me. He spat my name in between incanting. His voice arced and pitched, each word a spluttered blast of hatred.
My skin crawled with sweat, my body shaking with adrenaline as I threw myself down each step. I kept a hand locked on my bangle, trying everything to wrench it off.
It continued to tighten around my wrist, now squeezing the flesh so tightly, I was sure it would pinch my hand clean off. My hands were becoming numb, and with that lack of sensation, my power weakened all the more.
The light no longer played across my skin.
He was right behind me now – his breath a mere few inches from my back, his outstretched hand even closer.
I reached the base of the stairs and shot forward, shoes slipping on the smooth, marble floor.
I caught sight of Franklin again – he was now down on both knees, his head drooping so low it practically touched the floor. The light of that golden disc surrounding him dimmed, like a candle burning through the last of its wax.
… He was about to die – Franklin. I was sure of it. Just as I knew I had to do something.
I used all my energy to throw myself at him, but I did not reach him.
Hank reached me instead. He shoved forward at the last moment, catching a handful of my hair and yanking me around.
He wasn’t just strong – his magic darted out from his grip and sank into me like wave of electric shock after wave of electric shock.
My teeth rattled in my skull, and my eyes threatened to roll into the back of my head.
I heard a thump as Franklin fell.
Though Hank wrenched me back, I still managed to see Franklin out of the corner of my eye. That golden disc was about to grow dark….
Something inside me snapped. It wasn’t the cold, it wasn’t the chaos, it wasn’t even my mind.
It was that wall that had always kept me back. The one I’d built in my teens and I’d been adding a brick to every day since. My anger, my defensiveness – my bitterness at life. I may have technically grown up in opportunity, but it had bound me. And when I’d broken free, poverty had bound me instead.
I’d never been free.
And now Hank had me, I’d be more trapped than ever with no hope of escape.
At the heart of me, there was something that needed to escape. That had always needed to break free.
It wasn’t my magic. It was something more. That part of me that wanted to create, to protect, to make a difference.
As I reached a hand toward Franklin’s now still form, I let that part break free.
It erupted out of me. Not just the ice – the kernel of pure potential that lay at its center.
And that was more than enough to cut through Hank’s spell. With a resounding, ringing crack, my bangles turned to dust and scattered at my feet.
Hank still had a hand on my hair, but he didn’t for long. He had time to suck in a single, terrified breath.
Then I concentrated on him. The cold spread from my chest, shooting toward him with such speed, I thought I could hear the very air freeze and shatter.
Somehow, he tried to fight back. Though the brunt of my power was flowing into him like a relentless storm, he still reached a hand out. His fingers jerked as they spread toward my neck.
I didn’t take a step back, just faced him and concentrated with all my might.
He fought back, but as his eyes widened to the point of dropping out of his skull, I saw his fear.
He was a sinner – one of the worst. Yet somewhere, somewhere within was something that didn’t deserve death. Yes, Hank Chaplain had killed, but no – I would not kill in turn.
Though it would have been so easy to reach forward and snap him with my power, I let it recede. Not completely – I pushed one last time until the ice blasted across his chest. It was enough to send him reeling backward. He fell onto the ground and skidded to a stop several meters away. He lay still, the last of his magic crackling from him and discharging into the floor.
I turned from him.
I went to drop down to one knee to help Franklin to his feet. I needn’t have bothered.
Franklin got to his own feet. Though his stance was shaky at first, it didn’t take long for his knees to lock, his shoulders to stiffen, and his head to lift as he faced me.
“You – you’re alive,” I managed.
He nodded. His body was covered with bruises, blood splattered over his shirt from a deep cut along his jaw. He looked as if he’d been beaten, and right in the center of his eyes, I saw a grain of fear – the fear of a man who’d almost lost his life.
“Yes,” he managed. “I am alive. Thanks to you.” He shifted his gaze from me and locked it on Hank’s still form.
I turned to look at Hank too.
I got the sudden impression that Vali was checking to see I hadn’t killed Hank.
A fleeting thought caught me – one I tried to stifle, and yet one that flashed through my mind nonetheless. What if this had been a test? What if Franklin had never been in any real danger? What if Vali had held back to see what I could do? And, more importantly, to see what I wouldn’t do – whether I would choose to kill or save.
As soon as that thought struck me, I shook my head and dismissed it.
Expression unreadable, Franklin continued to stare at Hank.
“I – I don’t get it. Why couldn’t you save yourself?” I asked.
It took Vali a long time to answer. He returned his attention to the now still form of Chaplain. I expected to see anger rippling across Vali’s brow, darkening his gaze, tightening his jaw.
I didn’t. As Vali looked at Chaplain – arguably one of the worst sinners in Saint Helios – Vali looked somber, sad even.
For a moment, something flickered deep in the god’s eyes. Something that called to me….
Vali ticked his head up and faced me. “To answer your question, Lily-white, I could not save myself.”
“I don’t get it – you’re a god.”
“Yes, I am. Franklin is not. I am… incapable of drawing on my full abilities at will. The actions of others dictate what I can do.”
I didn’t understand. It felt like I’d need an eternity to fathom his mysteries.
My stomach kicked at the thought, then it kicked again as Vali considered me, expression unreadable.
He reached a hand out. “It is over.”
I looked at his hand then up at his face. “Are you sure?”
A wry smile spread over Vali’s mouth. He didn’t answer, just kept his hand held toward me.
It took me a moment, a long moment. A moment filled with confusing expectation and knotted nerves. A moment of tight breath and tingling cold. And yet, at its core, a moment filled with a promise of warmth.
I took his hand.
His smile spread further.
And together, we walked out.
I was an indentured witch working off her sins for the god of revenge. My life would never be the same again. No more waitressing, no more arguments with my family, no more hiding.
It was time to find out who I really was.
It was over. Somehow, it was over, and I’d survived. No, I’d done more than just surviving; I’d saved Franklin Saunders’ life. Now all I had to do was find out the secrets he’d been keeping from me.
I was standing in his office. He’d healed his injuries. Don’t ask me how, but Franklin Saunders was back on his feet, not a wound in sight.
For several seconds, we faced each other in silence. I had so many questions swirling around my head. There was one more than any other I desperately needed the answer to: just what I was.
“So this is it, ha? You still aren’t gonna tell me what I am?” I faced him, but this time it was completely different. This time, I didn’t find Franklin Saunders imposing. Not even Vali underneath. Because this time I was giving in to my curiosity more and more. Fear may have seen me enter this new magical world, but it would be curiosity more than anything that would get me through this.
I watched him take a deep breath, his chest pushing out hard against his shirt. I waited for him to answer. Instead, he inclined his head toward the view, pushed up, and walked toward the window.
I frowned. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?” I concluded.
“You’re right – I won’t.” He shook his head as he shoved his hands into his pockets.
“Don’t I deserve the truth? I may still be a sinner in your books, but I saved your life and brought Hank in.”
Slowly, he arched his head and faced me. There was something so vulnerable about that look, something so different from the god of revenge I was used to. “You’re right – you have earned the truth. I simply can’t give it to you.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means I can’t tell you what you are, because I’m not entirely sure yet.”
Nerves blasted through my gut, but I didn’t pay any attention to them as I continued to face him. “Hank called me a frozen witch, and I know my magic must have something to do with ice. So why don’t you fill in the gaps?”
He slowly turned from the view. At first, he focused all his attention on straightening his tie pin. Then he faced me. “What you will ultimately be hasn’t been decided yet. Yes, you’re a frozen witch. But unlike other practitioners of magic, your path has not yet been decided.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked, receding.
He paused, and I could tell he was trying to figure out just how much to tell me.
He suddenly smiled, and it was such a private smile that it stole away my attention.
I didn’t push him again. I waited as he appeared to come to a conclusion.
“A frozen witch, beyond all others, is closest to the gods.”
“What does that mean?” I asked through a stutter.
“Your magic – there’s less of a gap between you and the divine. So I simply don’t know what will happen to you next, Lily-white; it hasn’t been decided, yet.”
I still wasn’t following, but there was one thing I could follow easily: his expression. His direct attention as it didn’t waver, as he locked me in his unnerving stare.
Suddenly I realized something. “I’m not here to work off my sins, am I?”
His brow knotted, and I saw Vali return. “Yes, you are here to work off your sins,” he said in a strong tone.
I thought he would turn from me, but he didn’t. Instead, he continued, “In part,” he added under his breath.
My stomach knotted with tight tingles. “What do you mean in part?”
“You are still the reason your grandmother died.” He dipped his head low, the shadows beneath his eyes lengthening. “You have still hurt others in the past without knowing it. And yet…” he trailed off.
“And yet what?” I prompted in a quiet but firm tone.
“And yet there is more to this situation.”
“How much more?”
“We will both have to wait and find out.” With that, the door to his office opened with a creak.
I turned to it then shifted my attention right back to Vali. Or was it Franklin Saunders? It was becoming hard to tell. “I’m not leaving until you tell me more,” I announced defiantly.
“You will eventually find out all the answers you seek. But for now, you must get back to work. For sinners never rest. And until they do, neither will you.”
The end of The Frozen Witch Book One. There are five books in this series, and you can purchase the complete series today for a reduced price.