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The Last Queen Book One

Try to imagine this. Try to imagine that you’re the last of a dying, powerful breed. Try to imagine that you can’t live alone. You have to marry a modern-day king, or you’ll die.

That’s me – the Last Queen. As my life falls apart, I’m forced into a world of dark magic, death, power, and arrogant kings who will do anything to acquire me.

In this violent game, I will need to align myself to live. But, instead, I will choose to fight….

The Last Queen is an action-packed, fast-paced urban fantasy from Odette C. Bell. It’s sure to please fans of The Frozen Witch.

Chapter 1

I don’t know what I’m doing. I haven’t known what I’m doing for the past year and a half, ever since the changes started.

No, who am I kidding? The changes started a hell of a lot longer ago than that.

Ever since childhood, I’ve been… undergoing something. A transformation. Miraculous changes that don’t make any damn sense.

But in the past several months, those changes have been coming quicker, they’ve been harder, and there hasn’t been a goddamn thing I can do to stop them, let alone ignore them.

I’m walking through a darkened laneway, hands stuffed in my pockets, fingers curled all the way into my palms. Any harder, and I won’t just cut the skin, but I’ll start that process again. That process that happens whenever I force too much strength into my fingers.

Charges of electricity, maybe. Power, possibly. I don’t know. There’s never been anyone for me to call on, anyone to rely on to figure out what the hell is happening to me. Just a few notes I’ve found here and there in family files. Nothing else.

Carefully, I slink along the side of the darkened building.

Thankfully, there are no lights on. Maybe that’s by design. Maybe it’s by accident. I never can tell until I figure out what I’m hunting.

Shit, hunting. I’ve been trying to stop myself from thinking like that. Though I’ve come out like this every night for the past month and a half, tracking those creatures, I’ve been desperately trying to hold onto a sense of normalcy. But it’s starting to slip away, isn’t it? Like goddamn water through my shivering fingers.

I cram my hands harder into my pockets, shifting my head to the side with a hard tick as I try to dislodge my heavy fringe from over my eyes.

I should get it cut. I should get my whole damn head shaven. Even though my silken, long dark hair has always been my crowning glory – about the only feature that sets me apart – it’s starting to become a nuisance. Hell, everything that ever set me apart, everything I’ve ever found special is starting to become a goddamn nuisance.

Friends? My surrogate family? Even the people I work with? There is a part of me that wants to push them all away before whatever changes that are happening to me go too far.

I shiver at that prospect. A hard, darting shiver that snakes all the way down my back and plunges into my coccyx. It makes me walk just that little bit quicker. And that’s good, because finally I can hear the footfall. Quick, darting, probably a good hundred meters in front of me. Before you ask how the hell I can pick that up – considering no ordinary person would be able to discern footfall a good half a block away – just don’t. Don’t ask. Because I stopped asking myself a long time ago. There are no answers. No information whatsoever about what’s happening to me.

There’s only one thing I can rely on – a fact that seems embedded right there in the center of my chest and beats all the harder as I kick into a sprint.

I can’t stop this. I’m compelled. Every night whenever I sense that distinct energy that warns me of those creatures, I have to roll out of bed, throw on my boots and jacket, and I have to get out here. I have to do something.

God knows the cops can’t do anything. Once or twice I tried to call them, but it never ended well. They might have guns, might have weapons, might have fast cars, and might technically have the law on their side, but in a fight with these creatures, nothing matters.

Only power does. Only magic.

I wince as I think of that word. Good God, I’ve been hiding from it for years now. Because the day I accept that what’s happening to me – the power that darts in my veins – is magic, is the day I should check myself into a psych ward.

Because magic doesn’t exist.

I used to be a big believer in science – a big disbeliever in anything my eyes couldn’t see.

But then this world rose up to meet me.

The creature I’m tracking suddenly puts on a burst of speed. Maybe it can sense me behind it, maybe it can’t.

Then I hear it – this shrill pitching, keening cry. It reminds me of a crow somehow combined with a wolf. The exact shaking, piercing quality of the tone is so damn penetrating that instinct alone tells me it should wake up every single person on the block.

It doesn’t. Because they can’t hear it.

Only I can.

If you want any more evidence that I’m going crazy, this is it. Surely this is it. But I don’t suddenly shift to the side, set myself down against the cold, damp brick, call an ambulance, and wait to be taken away.

Instead, I put on another burst of speed.

The more I fight them, the more skills I unravel. Jesus Christ, it’s happening faster every day. I swear it is.

Last night, I discovered that I can survive being thrown off the top of a building.

And that is a hell of a discovery to make as you’re pitched off a 10-story apartment block and your body strikes the bitumen below, but your head doesn’t crack and your brain doesn’t splash over the pavement.

I can jump. High. I can run, blisteringly fast.

And what’s more, I can produce magic.

I don’t shy away from it this time as I surge forward and throw myself around a corner fast enough that I finally catch sight of it.

I call them pawns. Not because I think they’re expendable chess pieces, but because that’s what they call themselves. Once or twice, I’ve heard them talking. Either muttering amongst themselves or hissing down their phones. And don’t even get me started on the fact that these creatures have mobile phones. There’s so much about this world that doesn’t make any damn sense. If I ever have the chance to sit down long enough and assess it, I will probably take a gun to my head to end it all.

I don’t have that option.

The pawn, on the face of it, looks like a human. From certain angles, that is. It’s almost as if it has been carved or painted to resemble a person. But if you move quickly enough – which I can – you can catch them off guard, and you can see something underneath.

What that thing is, I have no freaking clue.

The pawn is blocky, squat, muscular, with a large, round, hard head. It has wide, penetrating eyes that are a yellow-brown, like the color of a fatty liver.

It has sharp, jagged teeth, too.

And yet it doesn’t look like any monster from any myths I’ve ever read. And trust me, because as soon as I saw my first pawn, after I’d calmed down long enough to think straight, I went straight to the local library. I looked up every single image from mythology I could, desperately searching for anything like this creature.

Nothing.

It is too ornate, almost like a carving come to life. And it lacks the grisly, animalistic quality of monsters from legend.

I put on another burst of speed, and the pawn finally slices its head to the side, its big, fat, yellow, wide eyes blasting wide as they lock on me.

For a second, I can tell it is trying to look more like a human. Whenever the pawns try to hide their true appearance, they do this thing with their bodies, almost as if they are settling down into their disguises like a man fixing the shoulders of an ill-fitting suit.

The pawn does that now. It makes itself look like a businessman. An ordinary, middle-aged businessman with a bald spot on his round, shiny head and a briefcase under his arm.

No matter how many times I fight the pawns, they don’t recognize me – because every time I fight them, I win.

Even the first time I was attacked by one, I won.

And that moment? Goddammit, it is seared into my mind. Every single time I roll into bed at night and try to close my eyes, there it will be. For it is the moment when my life changed forever.

I am starting to learn that speed is everything.

Never give them a chance. Because if you do?

People die.

Honest to God, people will die.

I’ve seen these pawns go through people like a knife to butter.

They kill them. Though they won’t rip them apart with their block-like hands. Oh, hell no. They will… suck something out of them.

Like a spirit, like a soul – I don’t goddamn know, but as soon as it is removed from the person’s body, they die. Right there on the spot. Sometimes in my arms.

So I know the cost of waiting.

I finally pull my hands out of the pockets of my thick leather jacket.

I’ve never been a girl for leather. But ever since I tore through three expensive woolen winter jackets, I realized the sense in keeping tough hide around me.

I’m not made of money, and I can’t afford to buy new clothes every single night.

Plus, this old, tattered leather jacket I bought for 10 bucks at a thrift store is almost starting to be my uniform. Whenever I shrug into it at night before I go patrolling, just the scent of it alone and its trace of warmth bolsters me.

Right now, if flaps around my hips as I thrust forward.

I immediately form a hand into a fist. As I do, I open my mind through my circulatory system. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But not too long ago, I found I could direct my blood with nothing more than mental control. And with my blood – or within it – comes the power.

With a snarl parting my lips and a charge of blue light blasting over my hand, I strike it into the seemingly ordinary businessman.

I move so fast that he barely has time to react. Just a second, in fact. A second where his eyes open as wide as they possibly can and his lips crack back into a snarl.

As they do, they reveal the pawn’s real teeth.

It doesn’t have a chance to use them on me. As soon as my electrified fist strikes its face, it falls hard to the side.

I don’t wait for it to get up. I round on it, grab it up by its collar, and thrust it against the wall. As its body impacts the brick, all semblance of the businessman extinguishes like two fingers pressing against the flame of a candle.

In a snap of a second and with a crack that sounds like a glass being pushed off a table, its true appearance is revealed.

Though most pawns I’ve fought look similar, they’re often wearing different clothes… almost as if they’re in uniforms.

In my head, that tells me they come from different armies.

That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Armies of pawns with magical abilities prowling the streets at night and killing unsuspecting people?

This is crazy.

A fact I keep repeating to myself over and over again as I slam the pawn into the wall once more.

It now obviously appreciates I’m no normal person. It jerks its head toward me, its massive lips opening wide as its snarling teeth gnash toward my face.

I don’t give it a chance to lock that jaw around my neck and slice through my jugular.

I yank one hand off its collar, cup its chin, and slam it against the brick wall. Once, twice, then a third time.

I’m taking this fight slowly. Not because I want to enjoy it. Jesus Christ, these fights terrify me, even if I am getting better at them.

No, the reason I’m taking this slowly is that even though I can end it now, to do that would be to gather too much attention.

I have… more than one ability.

Like I already said, I seem to be discovering new abilities every single night. But whereas I can keep myself relatively hidden by simply jumping off buildings and punching these pawns in their faces, if I use some of my other powers, I will draw way too much attention.

Once when I tracked a pawn into the basement of a building, I almost destroyed the entire thing when I accidentally shot a blast of light out of my body as if I were a goddamn cannon.

I have other abilities, too. I can call on swords that spin around me and that can form barriers.

I can slam my fist into the floor, too, and crack concrete with all the ease of a wrecking ball being slammed into it at a hundred kilometers an hour.

I can’t use any of those abilities now.

To the side of us is an apartment block. And to the other side is a squat office building.

Though it’s late at night, the office block still has lights on. The last thing I can afford to do is plow through a wall and let an ordinary person see me.

So I just round my hand into another fist and strike it against the pawn’s jaw.

It tries to fight me, but there’s nothing it can do.

One more hit.

I keep it pinned against the concrete as I allow a true, powerful surge of magic to wash through my veins. It concentrates on my fist, plowing into my fingers as I open them then close them with a snap.

I strike it on the jaw.

The pawn’s head jolts back, slams against the concrete once more, and then the light simply goes out from its eyes. It’s like I’m looking at two globes that have suddenly blown.

Its body begins to shudder. Harder and harder, as if I’m holding onto a jackhammer.

Then it happens – the light simply disappears from the pawn. For a split second, there’s a perfect copy of it made out a faint blue glow. It shifts several meters above the pawn’s body as I take a step back and allow it to slouch down.

Then the light just disappears. Shoots across my left shoulder. It always does that. And I always feel this particular prickle as the hair along the back of my neck stands on end and the skin feels momentarily as if it’s been touched by ice.

I take a step back, let my hands spread out wide, half close my eyes, and I breathe.

It’s over.

Another hunt is complete.

I shake my head, fighting back tears as I think that. “I’m not a hunter. I’m normal,” I gasp at myself as another tear trickles down my cheek. But even my desperate, shaking words can’t convince me.

Nothing can.

As I take another step back, I don’t need to worry that I’ve left the body of some mystical creature in an abandoned laneway to be found in the morning. No, it jerks several times, then with a hush like falling sand through an hourglass, it just disappears. For several seconds, a pile of dust remains right there next to the dented brick, then that too is caught by the wind and chased away.

I take one final step back. I close my eyes as tightly shut as I can as I tip my head back, press my bottom lip hard into my teeth, and shove my hands into the safety of my leather pockets.

I stand there, trying to hold myself. Then I open my eyes, ready to head away.

But I don’t get the opportunity.

I hear a scream. Pitching, keening, loud. Human.

I jerk my head to the side, eyes blasting wide.

Jesus Christ, there’s another pawn.

I missed it. And now it’s out there, attacking someone.

I’ve never moved faster in my life as I throw myself down the laneway, as I run so damn fast, that if anyone is watching me from the office block above, they will know that I’m not human.

But what am I? While I can point out that there’s no way I can be human anymore, I can’t give myself an answer as to what I am instead.

I’m shaped like a human. I think like a human too, don’t I? So what’s this power that washes through me? Where do these abilities keep coming from, no matter what I do to stop them?

I have no answer. Nor do I have time to search for one.

As I round the corner, I see a young boy, no older than 15. He’s in an expensive, well-tailored uniform, and I instantly recognize it as belonging to one of the most expensive private schools in the city.

That’s irrelevant, though. He has his bag off his shoulder, his white-knuckled grip on the handle as he attempts to draw something from the open zip as quickly as he can.

But there’s a pawn in front of him. One that has a sword in its hand.

Though I never give the pawns time to arm themselves, they can.

Back there in the laneway if I’d allowed that so-called businessman time, he would’ve made his briefcase transform into a sword.

They don’t look anything like my own weapons. The swords of the pawns – no matter what uniform they wear or what army they belong to – are all short, all stunted, and none of them glow. In a way, they almost look like cheap props from some high school drama. That is until the pawns use them against living flesh. The instant one of those swords slams against a breathing human being is the moment that breathing human being dies.

I try to rush forward. I put on a burst of speed, but I don’t get there in time.

The kid is fumbling in his bag and gives the pawn all the time it needs to dart forward quickly and slash the sword right across the kid’s side.

The kid tries to turn away, but in doing so, he just reveals more of his flank.

Though most humans die instantly the moment one of those swords touches them, I’ve started to figure out that the likelihood of perishing on the spot is contingent on how much of your flesh that sword touches.

And this kid obviously doesn’t know that fact. For, in turning his flank to the pawn, he simply offers more of a target. It’s one the pawn gleefully takes. There’s nothing I can damn well do as the creatures’ sword slices right down the boy’s arm all the way down to his hip.

The kid staggers back.

I expect him to die. Right then and there. In a flash.

He doesn’t.

He still has a hold of his bag, and he somehow manages to jerk it away from the pawn, even though it reaches for the bag with a greedy hand.

I finally reach the pawn.

The kid can see me now. And even though his movements are weary and drawn out as he staggers down to one knee, his eyes open with shock. “Get out of here,” he mutters as blood splatters from his mouth.

I don’t get out of here. I make a run for the pawn just as the creature slashes toward the kid once more.

I don’t give the pawn that option. I duck in from the side, somehow grab a hand around the thing’s throat, and then slam it down against the bitumen with all my strength.

I’ve never fought a pawn harder. And tonight, I access a new depth of strength. More and more power blasts through me until my hand lights up like a goddamn Christmas tree.

Though it should usually take me several strikes to down a pawn, right now, all it takes is one as I slam it against the pavement with so much strength, it’s buried halfway up to its face in cracked bitumen.

The kid splutters in shock as the pawn shudders, the light leaves it, and it quickly turns to dust.

I turn around. I push up, try to get to the kid as he falls forward.

I let my arms furl around him, guiding him down into my lap. “You’ll…” I begin. But I can’t push the words out. There’s no way this kid is going to be okay. He managed a small miracle in surviving long enough to see me dispatch the pawn, but he won’t be able to live any longer. I can see the light starting to shift through him even now.

The kid still stares up at me in unabashed wonder.

I expect the kid to die with every second, but somehow he keeps holding on. Long enough to reach a hand up to me. There’s such a shocked quality to his expression. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if he thinks I’m a god or something.

“Just stay still,” I try.

He coughs, and more blood splatters over his lips. “You’re a queen,” he says. “You’re an unattached queen. Jesus Christ,” he begins. He coughs again, and more and more blood splatters over his lips. But it doesn’t stay on his lips. It quickly shifts into that same light that occurs whenever something dies and its sole leaves them.

“Just stay still,” I try.

“You need… you need to tell John. You need to warn him about what’s coming. You need to help him,” the kid says, words coming quicker as more blood splatters and dribbles down his chin only to evaporate into light.

“Just keep quiet, I’ll… I’ll try to get you some help,” I try, even though I know it’s goddamn useless. I have to do something – say something. Because I can’t just kneel here with this kid in my arms as he stares at me like that. As he stares at me as if I’m the solution to every problem there ever was.

“You’ve… gotta warn John.”

I can’t push away his desperation anymore, even though I want to. “Who’s John?”

“John Rowley. I’m one of his pieces. You… you have to warn him that a war’s coming. You have to help him. Please.”

I look at the kid.

I know he has seconds left now. No more pushing it off. His body is starting to shake.

I form a soft fist, and I manage a nod. “I’ll relay your message.”

“And help him,” the kid manages. Then he dies. Right there in my arms. One shudder, two shudders, then three. His soul leaves him. The light’s beautiful as it shoots over my shoulder. It leaves such a tingle down the back of my neck that it’s as if somebody has shoved electrodes into my skin.

The tears come thick and fast as the kid’s body jerks like a leaf in a hurricane until finally it turns into dust.

I sit there and bawl my eyes out. Not loud enough that I can raise any alarms, but the sorrow is just the same. It wrecks my body as I desperately try to push the dust off my pants, as I try to rid myself of the specter of death that now hangs off me like a shroud.

It takes a long time for me to stagger to my feet. Even longer for me to turn away from the dust that had once been a living human being.

I manage it. But then I stop. I see the kid’s bag out of the corner of my eye.

I frown.

The pawn had been reaching for it. In fact, as I cast my mind over the fight, I realize the pawn had definitely been after that bag.

I pause.

I never usually take anything back from a fight – because there’s usually never anything to retrieve. Anything that’s touching a person or a pawn when they die is usually turned into dust. But the bag is fine.

I hesitate.

I’m not a thief – I try to tell myself that. That bag belongs to the kid’s family. And if I leave it here, maybe someone will find it, maybe someone will tell the police, and maybe then they’ll figure out that this kid is dead and call his folks.

… Or maybe someone will just steal the bag, my better judgment tells me.

I hesitate for one more second, then I reach over, pluck up the bag, and lift it easily. I know it’s technically heavy – I can tell that from the way the fabric struggles against the strap. But I can’t feel it.

I feel like utter shit as I finally walk away from the kid, lug his bag over my shoulder, and make no attempt whatsoever to dry my tears.

Maybe… maybe there’s something in this bag that could be useful to me. No, not the kid’s wallet, not his laptop – not anything I can hawk. Just information. Because right now, information is everything. If I can just find out what’s going on with me, I can… I can what?

This has been happening to me my entire life. And for the last year and a half, there’s been no stopping it. No break. Back when I was a child, I only saw glimpses of this world. But now this world has expanded to take up my every living, breathing moment.

I know there’s not going to be a damn thing in this bag that’s going to stop that. But maybe there will be something to help me figure out what’s happening to me.

So I shrug the bag further over my shoulder as I walk away.

Chapter 2

I wake up early that morning. Did I say wake? I didn’t sleep. How the hell could I sleep? That image of the kid staring up at me with such gut-wrenching shock will be with me for life. It can compete with all the other horrendous memories the keep vying for my attention during every waking moment.

I shift out of bed, don’t even bother to shrug into the dressing gown that’s hanging over my chair. I ignore it. It’s a seriously cold morning, and I don’t have any heating on. I don’t bother paying for it anymore. I can’t feel the cold. All it takes is a single moment of concentration, and I can call on the fire within. It will warm me and anything I touch.

Heck, if I want a hot drink, I don’t even have to bother boiling the kettle – I just put water in a mug and then heat it from the outside in.

God, I’m a freak.

I’m a freak.

I bring up a hand, lock it hard over my brow, and let my fingers drag down over the skin.

I walk over to my crappy old laptop sitting on my equally crappy old chipboard table.

I turn it on as I gulp. One of those hard, long gulps that make you feel like a fish desperately trying to draw in its last breath of air before it’s plucked from the ocean.

Every morning I do this. And I swear, every morning it gets harder.

Because every morning it simply gets more likely that I’ll be found out.

That’s what I do as I quickly check news sites, social media, news feeds, everything.

I look for any mention of a woman in a leather jacket trying to protect a kid from a monster.

Nothing. Even the more fringe conspiracy sites don’t mention me.

Locking a hand over my mouth, I shift all the way back in the old, crappy plastic chair at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and draw in a full breath of air. I let it settle in my lungs for several seconds until I push up, walk over to the fridge, and yank open the door.

Goddammit.

“Again?” I swear as my fingers tighten around the door of the fridge.

For a second, I’m not paying enough attention, and my fingers actually eat into the metal.

“Jesus,” I stutter as I jerk back, staring wide-eyed from my fingers to the marks on the door.

I did that.

My fingers bent through goddamn steel, and all it had taken was a single moment of inattention.

“You’re not human anymore. There’s no way,” I say as a tear trickles down my cheek.

I stand there for several seconds, indulging in that awful realization, and I tick my head to the side.

The fridge is empty of food, and with a growl, my stomach grumbles.

One of the consequences of changing at the rate I am is that I eat food. All the time. It’s like I’m a pig at a trough some days. If I don’t eat enough, I get tired quickly.

Logically, it’s because I’m spending more energy, right?

If I don’t feed myself enough, maybe I won’t be able to win the next fight I get into with one of those god-awful pawns.

I think about that as I reach for the carton of milk in the door and drink it down in one gulp, splashing drops all over my top.

Finally I let my gaze tick toward the kid’s bag. It’s by the door. That’s where I left it last night. Exactly where I dumped it after I staggered in and bawled on the couch for half an hour before dragging myself to bed.

It’s almost as if I don’t want to bring it further into my house. Not just because it would be incriminating as soon as anyone finds out that the kid’s dead, but… because I swear it’s staring at me.

I swear that kid’s final message is somehow imbued in that bag.

“John Rowley,” I mutter to myself under my breath as I dump the empty bottle of milk into my sink, wipe my hands on my pants, and take a careful step toward the bag, then another.

I’ve fought some seriously creepy things over the past year and a half, but this bag seems to be imbued with this goddamn sense of doom. It’s as if with every single step I take toward it, I’ll never be able to walk away again.

“I know that name… I know that name,” I say to myself under my breath as I draw my phone out of my pocket.

I’m halfway through typing it up, and Google starts suggesting things.

John Rowley, richest bachelor in Rival City.

My eyes widen as my cheeks pale. “No way – the kid couldn’t have meant that John Rowley, right?”

I remember why I know that name – everyone in Rival City knows that name. Because John Rowley is the richest man in the country. He’s located right here in Rival City, despite the fact it’s a shit hole. He owns most of the buildings downtown. He’s located in this massive, super fancy, huge office block right next to the mayor’s building.

It was designed by this world-renowned architect, and I’ve always wanted to go inside because apparently there’s this ancient history museum on the first floor. There are exhibits dotted around in the foyer. There’s meant to be some pretty expensive stuff, too.

Suffice to say, it’s just another dream I’ve never had the chance to go through with. Because I’m not the kind of girl who has a lot of free time on my hands. Not only do I have to work during the day to fund my seriously expensive food habit, but at night, I have to save people.

“Save people. Jesus Christ, girl, did you actually just think that? You sound like a goddamn superhero.”

As I spit the word superhero out, it’s bitter. Tastes like lemon right on my tongue. Modern society may have a fascination with superheroes, but trust me, that’s not what I feel like. I feel like a goddamn freak. Like a secret you have to hide from prying eyes in case I’m carried away and stared at in a laboratory. Or, who am I kidding? If people find out what I can do, they’ll just kill me, right? Because superhero movies paint a seriously rosy picture about how ordinary people deal with freaks. No one would be able to understand the power that rushes over my hands. Nobody would be able to understand the swords I can call to my side.

When ordinary people encounter extraordinary people with powers they do not understand, it doesn’t lead to mass acceptance. It leads to violence. And I’m aware of that – so goddamn acutely aware. It’s the reason I check the news in a flood of fear every frigging morning. It’s the reason I can never sleep right anymore.

With my phone in one hand, I finally pluck up the kid’s bag and nurse it all the way back to the table. As carefully as I possibly can, almost as if I’m dealing with a corpse, I bring the bag up and settle it on the table.

I’m still clutching my phone in a tight grip, and I have to keep reminding myself not to let it tighten any more – do that, and I’ll smash right through the gorilla glass.

I can’t let it go, though. It’s not because I honestly believe that this kid wants me to go contact the John Rowley, right? Because, despite the fact the kid was in the expensive uniform of one of the richest private schools in town, this just… there’s no way. It can’t be that John Rowley.

When I got home last night, I told myself that I’d go through with that kid’s wish. I’d find his John Rowley and warn him about… this oncoming war. I won’t help John, though. There’s no way I can reveal myself to anyone. Even if it’s to fulfill some kid’s dying wish.

“But you still have to find him,” I mutter to myself bitterly as I hear a crack from my phone.

“Fuck,” I spit as I instantly release my grip. I check my phone, stabbing the screen with my thumb, and a flood of relief washes over me when I realize it still works. There’s a massive crack up the side of the metal casing, though.

It will probably come good with some sticky tape and glue. I can’t afford a new phone right now. A fact my stomach reminds me of as it grumbles so loudly, I’m surprised the neighbors don’t hear.

I get back to carefully staring at the bag.

Though it takes me a while, I finally find the courage to lean forward and start looking through the bag.

There are school books, a set of gym clothes, a laptop, a phone, and a wallet.

I’m silently thankful that the kid’s wallet was in his bag and not on his body when he died. If it had been on his body, the wallet would’ve turned to dust with the rest of him.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt sicker as I force myself to sit, press the back of my hand against my mouth, and make a gagging noise. It takes a heckuva lot of will to push my hand forward and pluck up the kid’s wallet.

I rightly feel like I’m picking over a corpse.

“Come on, you can do this. You have to do this. That kid died right in your arms. This was his last wish. Come on.” My pep talk is all it takes. Pressing one last breath through my teeth, I pluck up the wallet. I open it.

There’s his name staring right back at me from his bank card.

Walter D. Shepherd.

There are a workbook and a pencil case resting on the table. Without thinking, I reach forward to grab a pen and write his name down as I start to take notes. Then I realize that’s wrong. I can’t use his stuff; it feels like writing all over the memory of him. So I head back into the kitchen, grab the notepad attached to the fridge by a magnet, pluck up a pen from the bench, and head back. I write Walter D. Shepherd down and underline it.

There’s something refreshing about doing that. Almost as if writing the kid’s name down and continuing to scribble notes as I search through the rest of his bag makes me like an objective cop noting down the details of a crime scene. And I can really do with some objectivity now before I get so nauseous from picking over the kid’s stuff that I throw up my milk.

I pluck up the kid’s phone and laptop – but they’re passcode locked, and I can’t access them.

I put the phone on top of the laptop, neaten up the other goods from his bag, then kind of just… kind of just sit there and stare at it all. It is almost as if I expect the kid to come back and get his stuff.

But he can’t, because he’s very much dead, and I now need to figure out what I will do next.

Don’t… don’t I have an obligation to tell his parents?

After my few minutes of snooping, I now know the kid’s name, date of birth, and address. Shouldn’t I go to his house and inform his parents he isn’t missing – that he’s dead?

As soon as I think that, I shake my head so hard, it could fly off and hit the floor.

If I do that, his parents will ask how he died and where his body is. And I won’t be able to answer those questions.

Again I lock a hand over my face as I realize how impossible this situation is.

Finally I get up from the table, rip the sheet of paper I was working on from the notepad, fold it up neatly, then just kind of clutch it as I stand on the spot, pushing back and forth on the tips of my toes.

I clench my teeth hard, looking from the kid’s phone to his laptop to the rest of the contents of his bag.

Though I’m getting new abilities by the day, I haven’t yet unlocked the skill to hack through a kid’s passcoded phone. And I seriously doubt I will ever be able to do that. Which means one thing, right?

That saving this kid’s bag had been a waste of time. If I’d honestly taken it because I thought the pawn was interested in the contents – and if I’d thought those very same contents could somehow help me to figure out what I was – I was sorely mistaken.

I shake my head. “You still have to do something,” I chide myself. “Not just stand here and stare at the kid’s bag. Go deliver his message.”

As I think that, I clench my teeth again. I still haven’t confirmed that this kid wanted me to contact the John Rowley. And I need to confirm that, don’t I?

I pluck up my own phone, and though I pause, thinking of the best way to phrase the search, I soon decide to look up John Rowley and not Walter D. Shepherd. The kid is dead, after all, and though I want to doubt that he was any relation to John Rowley, if he was and I start looking up the dead kid’s name on Google, surely someone will be able to track my search history?

So I settle on searching for John Rowley, instead, and I am instantly hit by a wealth of information. Everything from news pieces about his unrivaled business acumen, to his status as the country’s most generous philanthropist, to the fact he is still unmarried.

He is meant to be the world’s most eligible bachelor – a fact the Internet keeps repeating to me. A young, handsome, rich, self-made billionaire. What is there not to love?

I honestly don’t frigging care. The only thing I want to know—

I stop.

I am surfing through photos of him from one of his recent charity functions, and I pale.

There he is – Walter D. Shepherd standing next to John. Though I could innocently assume that they are just both in the same shot, John has a hand flat on Walter’s shoulder.

It is a brotherly move. In other words, not the kind of thing you do to a stranger.

I tip my head all the way back, squeezing my eyes as tightly shut as they will go. “Shit,” I say quietly, “shit,” I bellow at the ceiling once more.

I even make a fist and bring it down toward the table, but I stop myself just in time, just as a blue fleck of magic escapes over my skin.

I stare at it, wide-eyed, and realize that if I allowed my fist to come in contact with the table, the damn thing would’ve exploded in a charge of broken wood.

I shake my head.

I shove my phone in my pocket, and I turn to walk away from the table. To walk away from the kid, from his bag, from his message.

Then it strikes me – the things he told me. As he stared up at me after I saved him with such a surprise-filled face, he told me I was a queen. An unattached queen, whatever that means. Though I could pretend that the kid had been dying and that of course he hadn’t been thinking straight, he appeared to know what he was talking about.

… But what the hell was he talking about?

Unattached queen?

Though either of those words kind of make sense on their own, they don’t make sense in combination. Also, while I am unattached in the sense that I am not hitched to anyone, I very much am not a queen. In my beaten leather jacket and with my fat fringe, no one would be able to mistake me for one.

So what the hell?

“You have too many fucking questions and no answers,” I spit at myself as I whirl back around and stare at the kid’s stuff. “And the only way you’re going to get answers is if you follow this down the rabbit hole. That kid knew something about you. He also wasn’t surprised by the pawn,” I continue to explain to myself out loud as I bring up a hand and scratch my cheek. “In fact, it almost looked like he was trying to fight the pawn,” I add as that realization strikes me. “So maybe… maybe this John Rowley knows something?” I manage in a choked voice.

I stand there and stare at the table.

So what if John Rowley knows something? Am I actually just going to walk into his office, slam an electrified fist down on his desk, and ask him to tell me what the hell I am?

Just thinking about it makes me cold.

I go to turn away again, but… I can’t.

“You have to do this,” I tell myself one final time.

And sure enough, I do.

I pack up the kid’s stuff, shove his bag under my bed as if I’m some kind of dumbass criminal, shrug into some semi-decent clothes, and I walk out my door.

I have no other option.

But little do I know that striding into John Rowley’s building is the worst damn thing I can do.

Because I’m an unattached queen. And even if I don’t know what that means, everyone else in this world does. They also know what I’m worth.

Chapter 3

My stomach is practically groaning with hunger. Though I stopped off at several food vendors on the way and grabbed five hot dogs and wolfed them all down, it wasn’t enough. I swear, these days every single morning when I wake up my hunger intensifies by 100%. By the end of the month, I’ll be going through a truckload of food a day. While some people would think that would be awesome – as I can pretty much get away with eating whatever I want from doughnuts to fast food – it isn’t awesome. My bank balance very much does not think it’s awesome. And while I’m here, taking a day off work to track down what John Rowley could possibly know, I’m making no money, which means no food tomorrow.

I try to ignore that as I finally reach the base of the Rowley Tower.

It’s huge. And though I’ve walked past it on many occasions, I’ve never just stopped and stared up at it.

Fortunately, I don’t look too conspicuous as I do, as plenty of tourists often line the streets as they take photos of it. After all, like I said, this building is one of the architectural wonders of the world.

But… that doesn’t account for the feel. I swear there’s this unique… sense about the building as I stand there and shift my head all the way back until my neck’s arched like a swan’s.

It feels… God, I don’t know. Like staring up at a castle from medieval times. There’s this… import about it. That’s right – that’s the right word. Import.

This building is the architectural equivalent of someone grabbing me by the shoulders, turning me around, and staring right into my eyes as if they can pierce the veil of my very soul.

I try to shake that particular notion off as I finally take a step forward, bring a hand down, and smooth it down my cardigan.

I look frumpy. I know that. There would’ve once been a time when I would’ve cared. That time is no longer. I have no money whatsoever to spend on clothes. Plus, though my sturdy leather jacket has managed to survive most of my fights these days, I go through pants and tops like nobody’s business.

So I had to scrounge some clothes from the back of my closet this morning that weren’t my sales uniform.

Hence the old slightly moth-eaten pastel pink cardigan, a kind of flowery blouse, and a black skirt.

I look like I’ve come fresh from a librarian conference from the ‘50s.

I don’t goddamn care.

I stride up the short set of stairs that lead to the imposing, polished brass, glass fitted doors.

There’s a doorman. An actual doorman. This is the modern age, and short of highfalutin fancy hotels, no one needs a doorman.

Rowley, it seems, does. As my gaze quickly ticks over the man’s body, I realize he’s big, well-built, and from the exact way he apportions his balance on his sturdy shoes, he’s well-trained. He also assesses me with a quick glance as I walk past and smile at him.

There would’ve been a time not so long ago when I didn’t automatically assess people as I strode past them. That time ended as soon as I started hunting nightly. Now I do it without thinking. I see somebody, and with a single glance, I realize how much force it will take to knock them out or outright kill them. And yeah, that thought is just as scary as it sounds.

It’s damn clear from the smile this man flicks me that to him I’m no threat.

“Um, excuse me,” I say in my lightest, sweetest voice. “I heard that there’s some kind of ancient history museum in the foyer of this building. I heard it was free admission?”

He nods. “Sure is, ma’am. John Rowley is very generous. The public has free admission to the foyer of the building. However, we ask that you do not venture near the elevators at the end of the atrium. Those are for employees only.”

I smile. “Thank you so much. Have a nice day,” I add automatically, a habit after working in sales for so long.

The man tips his head at me, then quickly slides his gaze to the next person approaching the building. This guy’s much larger and gets more of the doorman’s attention.

The doorman must be ex-army, I think to myself. Maybe an ex-cop.

There’s a very practiced quality to the specific way the doorman assesses every single person who approaches the building. My God, I can even track the small muscle movements around his eyes and jaw as he stares at people.

Now I’m out in public, I can hardly draw my hands up, flatten them over my face, and scream at how much of a freak I am. So I just stride through the doors as they open and enter the atrium.

God, in here, it’s even worse than out there.

As several tourists stride past me, ogling the amazing atrium, I just kind of stand there for several seconds and try not to be bowled over by this sense of import.

I take it back – it isn’t like facing a castle from medieval Europe – it’s like having one built around you. Entering this building is like striding into the strongest battlement that has ever been. And yet, it’s just so much steel, glass, and stone.

It takes me a few seconds to unstick my old Mary Janes from the floor and to shift forward.

Though all I want to do is be drawn forward by that powerful feeling that’s welling through this building, I have to stop myself – because if I do that, I’ll be led straight toward the elevators. And though the doorman hadn’t pegged me as a threat, if I go ahead and do the one thing he’s told me not to, he’ll act.

Though I can take him – on any day – I won’t be able to do it in public. So I keep my head low and head straight for the first exhibition item.

The atrium is massive. Though there’s a huge counter to one side with 10 receptionists behind it, there are little alcoves and glass display cabinets dotted around the room and the sides of the walls.

With my hands in the pockets of my old, worn cardigan, I stride toward the nearest exhibition item.

It’s a set of old vases from ancient Greece. As I read the information board quickly, I’m not really interested, and I dart over to the next piece, then the next piece.

Everything is impressive. From old pottery to jewelry to weapons. It’s the jewelry and weapons that get most of the tourists’ attention – of which there are about 20 other sightseers in the atrium.

In fact, it’s damn conspicuous as they huddle around those exhibition pieces.

Me?

I find myself being drawn right over to a strange alcove in the side of the wall. It doesn’t match anything – from the design of the building to the other exhibition items to the feel of the place. And that – more than anything – is what gets my attention.

I won’t say I’m the human equivalent of a divining rod, but ever since my body has been changing, I’ve been… starting to get this sense of things. It’s like I can feel ancient energies pulsing through the Earth. And if I follow them, they always lead me to places I need to be. When I am out hunting at night – even though I really don’t want to admit to myself that it’s hunting – often, I follow those energies. All I have to do is close my eyes and start to concentrate on that feeling of energy rushing through the world. Then I follow it. And right now, that feeling leads me toward that alcove.

I can’t control my expression as I stride toward it.

The alcove is nestled in the wall, and there’s an object behind an inch thick pane of glass.

While all the other exhibition pieces on display in the atrium are protected, none of them are protected like this.

The object isn’t just nestled in the wall. No, the alcove is lined with steel. And as I dart my gaze over it, I can appreciate the metal is seriously thick. The glass is bulletproof, too, and it would take a punch or two from even me to get through it.

So you’d think that the object protected by that much steel and glass would have to be seriously impressive. Maybe an enormous diamond, maybe some rare artifact that every single museum in the world wants to get their hands on.

That’s what I expect… but that’s not what I get.

I get a chessboard.

It doesn’t even look that old. It’s made out of polished, smooth metal that has an unusual shine to it. And though it isn’t recognizable as a chessboard immediately, as I tilt my head to the side, I can see that familiar checkered pattern.

It… it makes no sense, but the sight of that chessboard sets my heart pounding at a million miles an hour. I want to bring a hand up, lock it over my chest, and will the muscle to calm the hell down.

I feel sweat slick across my brow, and I’m thankful for my massive, heavy fringe. Even though it makes me look dated, at least it hides how pale my forehead becomes as I continue to stare at that chessboard.

Unlike everything else in the exhibition, there’s no information on this thing.

Just a chessboard protected by a seriously expensive, seriously hard-to-break security system.

I think I lose myself as I stand there and stare at it – I must do, because even though I usually have extended senses that can track people a block away, I fail to hear somebody walk right behind me and clear their throat.

“An unusual piece, isn’t it?” they say.

I jump, not expecting the voice.

“Sorry – didn’t mean to startle you.”

I turn around. I’m expecting the doorman or just a security guard. That’s not what I get.

I get a face full of John Rowley.

He’s standing right there behind me, dressed in an expensive suit, though he’s wearing it casually. His tie is loosened, his sleeves are rolled up, and his jacket is over his shoulder as he takes one look at me then nods at the chessboard. “Not too many people are interested in that piece.”

I have to use everything I have to control my expression.

For so many goddamn reasons. It isn’t just the fact that I strode into John Rowley’s building on the off chance that I would find him and be able to relay the kid’s message. No. It isn’t even the fact that I’m meeting the city’s most eligible bachelor – I don’t have the time to give a frigging care about something like that.

No – it’s… the feel of him. I’ve never met anybody like him. He seems to have this… magnetic connection. This connection that’s trying to draw me in.

I’m not making this up. This isn’t because he’s meant to be hot – in many ways, he isn’t my type. He’s too chiseled, too perfect-looking. He looks as if he’s been carved by Pythagoras himself and then Gucci has dressed him.

I prefer my men to have slightly unusual looks. Also, I care far more about personality.

But none of that matters. Because the surface of this man isn’t important. His hard jaw, his bright eyes, his easy smile – they’re all irrelevant. What draws me in is what’s underneath.

You know how before I said that I can feel things these days? If I half close my eyes and concentrate, it’s almost as if I can access the Earth’s energy or something? If I allow it to direct me, it will lead me somewhere I need to be, right?

Yeah, well that sense is acting up. Acting up in a way I’ve never felt. It wants me to reach out, wrap my arms around this man, and embrace him like he’s some kind of long lost lover.

Suffice to say, I don’t frigging know him. But it’s the hardest thing in the world to control that desire.

Though John gets distracted staring at the chessboard, he cuts his gaze back to me. “You like it?” he asks.

Is there… a leading edge to his tone? An ordinary person wouldn’t be able to pick it up, but I can, because I can see the micro muscles around his jaw contracting.

Pull yourself together, girl, I chide myself quickly.

I shift my hands behind my back and curl one hand into a hard fist. Nowhere near hard enough that I will activate the magic in my veins, but hard enough to distract me.

I force myself to shrug. “I guess it’s… unusual,” I manage, coughing as I try to hide the waver in my tone. “Its location, more than anything, got my attention. Why is it away from the rest of the exhibition?”

He shrugs. “Because it’s not part of the exhibition.”

My brows click down. There’s something in that answer. What’s worse – there’s something in his look as he continues to gaze at me.

There’s a certain… strange quality, isn’t there? And though a part of me still wants to rush forward, wrap my arms around his neck, and whisper into his ear that he’s found me – whatever the hell that means – the rest of me wants to run away.

Honestly, there’s some kind of war going on inside me. Though I want to desperately be seen by this guy, at the same time, I want to run a mile.

I must look like a complete basket case as I stand there with my hands behind my back as if I’m on patrol.

“It’s part of my private collection,” he continues, even though I hadn’t asked that question. “I’m John Rowley,” he adds.

“I know,” I manage. “Your exhibition is… nice,” I say.

Really? Nice. These were some of the most expensive ancient artifacts in the world. They weren’t nice – they were incredible.

This is probably where I should gush at how amazing it is to meet him and how so damn kind he is for allowing people free admission to view his artifacts, but I don’t. I can’t. Those two sides of me are still warring – the side that somehow wants to rush up to him, wave my arms in his face, and reveal my abilities, and yet the side that wants to run away and never see him again.

Oh, and then there’s the part of me that knows I have an obligation to pass on Walter D. Shepherd’s message.

John smiles. Then he turns. “Please enjoy the exhibition.”

With that, he walks away.

I… almost reach a hand out to him. Honestly I do. The side of me that wants to be seen by John Rowley practically curls up and dies as he walks away. That… that part of me can’t understand how he doesn’t recognize what I truly am.

The rest of me just stands there, blinks hard, then quickly turns back to the chessboard. Not because it has caught my attention again, but because I have never experienced anything like this. Fighting the pawns is one thing – but what I just experienced in John’s presence?

It doesn’t make any damn sense.

No damn sense at all.

I… I must be losing it.

That’s it. Too much stress. Too much damn pressure. From that kid dying in my arms last night, to the general sheer horror of what’s been happening to me – I’m losing it.

So I turn away from that chessboard. Though it takes a hell of a lot of effort to turn from it as it absorbs my attention once more, I clench my teeth and spin on my foot, then head straight for the doors.

John Rowley is at the counter, talking to two of his receptionists. He is right there – and I’ll probably never get another opportunity like this to sidle up to him and hand over the kid’s message.

But what the hell am I thinking? That I can just march up to him, tap him on the shoulder, and tell him that the kid he treated like a son died in my arms last night and he wanted me to pass on the message that I was an unattached queen and a war is coming?

God, I should never have come here.

My twisted sense of obligation to that kid saw me walk out the door this morning, but my common sense should’ve seen me walk right back in.

I feel like utter crap – like the world’s biggest fool – as I walk for the doors.

With my hands in my pockets and my head directed at the ground, I stride past somebody.

I stop.

The guy is big, heavyset, and has broad shoulders that push out hard against his T-shirt. He has a cap and sunglasses on, and he’s wearing a utility jacket with the name of a popular delivery company on the back.

He’s obviously come here to deliver a parcel. So why does he have a gun in his pocket?

Because he does have a gun in his pocket. I can’t see it through the fabric – I don’t have x-ray vision like Superman. That doesn’t change the fact I just know this guy is armed. This sense wells up and slams into my gut, stopping me on the spot.

The guy takes one look at John standing at the counter, and the slightest smile spreads across his lips.

I’m staring at the delivery guy over my shoulder now, still frozen rigid to the spot.

Hunting the pawns at night is one thing. But this isn’t at night – this is in public. And this guy has a gun.

I should scream, point that out, and run for cover. I don’t. Can’t.

I find myself pivoting on my foot and walking toward the guy.

I find myself reaching out a hand to him. “Hey, excuse me. Do you know the time?” I say.

The guy has shoved a hand into his pocket, but he arches his head toward me.

At that exact moment, the doorman from outside yells. He runs through the doors.

The guy in the delivery jacket acts. He shoves his hand into his pocket and pulls out his gun, twisting on his foot as he aims it at John Rowley.

I act quicker. I round my shoulder, shove it into him, and push him out of the way just as he fires. The bullet slams into the counter a good half a meter from where John is standing.

Everyone screams as alarms start to power through the building.

People start to run for the doors.

Not me.

I’m still close to the deliveryman.

He’s on his back, the gun still in his hand, and he launches a kick at my face.

I dodge out of the way, grab his leg as it jerks past, and pull. Not with all my might – I don’t want to wrench his leg from its socket. It’s enough to keep him off balance as he goes to push up. More than enough for me to roll on top of him, pin his arm down with one hand as he goes to pick up his gun to shoot me, and then I land a punch right on the middle of his jaw.

Just one punch, and that’s it.

I knock him out clean.

For a second, I just sit there, straddled over his torso, realizing what I just did.

Then someone reaches us. It’s the doorman.

He goes for the gun just as someone else reaches me. This time it’s John Rowley. In one swift, strong move, he locks an arm around my middle and plucks me off the man, pulling me to my feet and jerking me out of the way.

He picks me up as if I weigh nothing more than a feather.

If John is trying to protect me, he needn’t have bothered, because the deliveryman is out cold.

A fact the doorman confirms as he reaches forward and shakes the deliveryman’s shoulders several times.

The building is in chaos, but while the 10 reception staff hold their positions, all the tourists run for the doors. At the same time, more security arrives in one of the lifts and spill out, running toward us.

John needlessly keeps an arm around my middle for several seconds, and I… I just hang there, allowing him to hold me, almost as if I’m an inactive doll he’s just plucked up off the floor.

“Are you alright? Sir, are you alright?” the doorman stutters.

John finally releases me, takes a step back, and nods his head hard.

I stare at him out of the corner of my eye. I don’t turn toward him, though. Don’t move a muscle. I just kind of… stand there, realizing what I’d done.

I stopped a man from going on a shooting rampage. Or hey, maybe his intended target had only been John Rowley, but it doesn’t matter. Saving people at night from those pawns is one thing – what I did here is something completely different.

Several suspicious security guards shift toward me, and I wonder if what I’ve done here could be construed as a crime. Maybe they think I somehow know this deliveryman – maybe they think this is all some attempt by me to gain John Rowley’s – the most eligible bachelor in the worlds – attention.

John clears his throat. “It wasn’t her – the gunman acted alone. She simply disarmed him. Search his pockets. Find out who he works for.”

“And call the police,” the doorman adds with a pointed cough.

“Yes, call the police,” John adds after the fact.

I can feel John’s gaze on me, even if I still kind of stand there all limp and useless, staring at a patch of scuffed floor.

I hear him clear his throat, feel him shift toward me. “Are you alright, ma’am?”

Though I just want to whirl on my foot and run away, I know I can’t. I also know I can’t just stand here meekly – I’m already drawing too much attention.

So I pivot on my foot, turn, and face him. I nod. “When I was walking past that guy, I saw something in his pocket – looked like a gun,” I begin to explain, even though no one has asked me to explain. The excuse just floods out. It is better for me to volunteer my story now than be questioned later.

“I saw you taking him down,” the doorman says. “You trained?”

I think quickly. Just how much strength did I use to down that man? Though someone twice my size might be able to knock the guy out with a single punch, I’m relatively small, even for a woman.

So I think quickly. I shrug. “I guess you could say I am. I don’t work for the police, or anything. I just know self-defense,” I add, hoping it’s a vague enough lie that no one will be able to prove it wrong.

The doorman looks impressed and nods again. “Thank you, ma’am. If it weren’t for your quick thinking…” he trails off.

I can still feel John Rowley’s gaze on the back of my neck. It’s at once the most unpleasant thing in the world, and yet it sends the tightest of nerves driving hard into my gut. The kind of quick, hot, tingling sensations you would only feel around a lover – not someone you’d never met before.

I clench my teeth and try to tell myself to keep it together.

“What’s your name?” the doorman asks.

I stiffen a little.

“You’re going to need to sign a police report,” he explains.

Shit. Of course I am. Not only have I just knocked a guy out, but I saved goddamn John Rowley in his own building. I offer a wincing kind of smile. “Kara Khan,” I manage.

“Thanks again, Kara. You ever had to sign a police report before?”

I shake my head.

“It’s easy enough. And don’t worry about any recriminations,” he adds as he gestures at the guy, “we’ve got this all on tape.”

Shit.

I know I pale at that.

While the tape will prove that I hadn’t been working with the gunman, what it could also be used to prove is that I have strength a woman of my size should not.

I glance at the doors on the opposite side of the building, wondering how long it would take for me to reach them at full pelt. Though I have no idea exactly what will happen if I dare to run that fast in front of ordinary people. How long will it take until they call the police, the army? How long will it take until I become the most hunted woman in the world?

John has walked several steps away from me, and he’s chatting to somebody quietly on his phone. Even though I’m usually good at picking up voices, even if they are far away, he isn’t speaking much, and the phone is pressed so closely to his ear, I can’t hear the voice of the person on the other side.

I can still feel his gaze locked on the back of my neck, though, and that makes my skin crawl.

“How long will this take?” I try to ask the doorman casually. “It’s only that I have to work later.”

“Shouldn’t be more than half an hour. When do you start work?”

“An hour. I’ve got to cross town, though.”

The doorman nods. “It’s all right. Considering what you’ve done here, we’ll arrange you a car.”

I blink hard. “You mean a taxi?”

“A car,” he supplies smoothly. “Not every day some young lass saves Mr. Rowley.”

Though the last thing I want is to have anything more to do with John Rowley, I shrug and nod my thanks.

I cast my nervous glance toward the deliveryman. Though I am sure I didn’t hit him hard enough to do any permanent damage, he still isn’t coming around.

What if I’m wrong? What if I’ve shattered his jaw? What if I broke his nose and bits of his skull rammed into his brain?

I feel like total shit as I stand there, one arm wrapped around my middle.

The doorman is quickly called away, and I am now starting to realize from the efficient way that he’s dealing with the rest of the security and the fact he offered me a ride in a company car without John’s explicit permission, that he is more than a doorman. In fact, from the exact way he holds himself and others refer to him, it quickly becomes apparent that he is head of security.

Why John Rowley would have his head of security as a doorman, I don’t know. And how that doorman hadn’t picked up on the gun is another important question.

The doorman – whose name turns out to be Antonio Ferrari – tells me to stay exactly where I am as he goes to deal with something behind the counter.

I stand there, in precisely the same spot I stopped after John pulled me to my feet, with one arm hooked loosely around my middle, the other kind of drooped by my side.

I shiver. I’m not cold. Not physically, at least. Mentally, I’m frozen. Though dealing with my new world is hard on ordinary days, I somehow can’t shake the feeling that I’ll never have an ordinary day again.

I suddenly feel someone furl a jacket around my shoulders.

It’s John. As I dart my head over my shoulder, I realize he’s walked up beside me without me even noticing.

Which is the second time that’s happened.

He shoots me a grim and yet kind of warm smile. “I didn’t get the chance to thank you. So thank you,” he says as he makes the kind of direct eye contact that few people do. You see, few people have the guts to stare at somebody with that much attention.

It seems John Rowley does. And though he only stares at me for a few seconds until he glances down at the gunman, that flickering moment of attention is like a gateway drug. I want him to stare at me again, this time for longer. Hell, I don’t want him to ever look away.

I’m not… kidding – some part of me wants to be noticed by this man. I’m seriously not talking about some girly crush on the country’s most eligible bachelor, either. It’s something much, much deeper than that. It has to do with my secret – my skills. I just… I get this urge to walk up to him, to allow magic to spread over my fingers, and to wave my hands in his face until he realizes what I am.

I shiver again, though I’m not cold, and I bring my arms up, hook them on the lapels of his jacket, and hug it close.

Though it seems John wants to talk to me, and a few times he shifts my way and opens his mouth, he’s always distracted. And soon enough, the police are called. I’m whisked to a security office at the back of the building and asked to sign a witness report and to hand over my details. Then, true to his word, Antonio arranges a car. Before I know it, I’m being dropped off in front of my work.

I don’t have my uniform. I called in sick to work today, after all. But I’d lied to Ferrari to try to get out of there, and after he’d arranged the car, I hadn’t had the heart to point out I didn’t intend to head to work.

But as the car drops me off in front of the electronics store I work for, there’s no backing out.

I walk around the front of the car and nod to the driver as he winds his window down.

“Thank you,” I say.

The guy fumbles with something in his pocket and pulls out a card, handing it to me. “This is Security Officer Ferrari’s card,” the guy explains quickly.

“Ah, thank you,” I manage, blinking at it in surprise.

“You can call him when you’re done with the jacket. And if you need any help,” he adds.

I blink hard. The second comment throws me so much that, for a second, I forget I’m still wearing John Rowley’s jacket.

I glance down at the jacket around my shoulders, and I blink hard. I promptly unhook it from around my arms. “Here, take it now—”

The guy shakes his head. “You look rattled, ma’am. I’m under orders to let you keep it for now. Get inside, get warm, and you can arrange to return it later. And don’t forget, call Ferrari if you have any issues,” he adds.

I frown. “Ah, sorry – I don’t understand. I was under the impression that the police would call me if they required a more detailed witness report, but apart from that, this incident is now over.”

The guy… he shoots me a look. One I don’t understand. “Antonio just wants you to call if you have any trouble, got it?”

I don’t know how to respond, so I give a small nod.

Apparently, that’s all the guy needs, and with a brief wave, he drives off, leaving me there on the pavement in total shock.

What the hell just happened?

Okay, so I stopped an attack. Okay, so I have Rowley’s jacket, but why would Ferrari, the Head of Security, want me to call him if I have any issues?

A… specific kind of feeling starts to well in my stomach. One I can’t ignore as I turn on my foot and head down the street.

That would be when the door to the store opens, and out pops my friend, Shirley.

“Kara, is that you?” Shirley says, obviously recognizing me as she practically unhinges her jaw and stares from me to the departing car. “What are you doing jumping out of a Rowley car?”

I open my mouth to ask how the hell she knows that car belongs to John, then I realize it has named number plates. Also, it is a freaking Rolls Royce.

I make a face.

Instantly Shirley looks from that face then down to the expensive suit jacket I’m wearing.

“Why are you in a man’s jacket? A seriously expensive man’s jacket. It’s been a long time since I worked in the fashion industry,” Shirley says as she finally shoves away from the doorway, strides over, and plucks up one of the loose sleeves of the jacket, “but that’s Gucci. That jacket’s like worth… I dunno, $20,000. What the hell are you doing wearing it?”

I blanch at the fact the jacket alone is worth $20,000 – about as much as I make in half a year.

Shirley sees my expression and arches an eyebrow. “What the hell happened to you this morning? You called in sick. You look okay to me,” she adds.

If I look okay to Shirley, then she really needs to update her definition of what okay looks like. Because I can feel that most of the blood has drained from my cheeks.

I’m pale, sallow, and feel utterly, gut-wrenchingly shocked.

“Go on, tell me what happened?” Shirley insists as she continues to inspect the sleeve of Rowley’s jacket.

I grit my teeth together as if I’m trying to lock my jaw closed.

Shirley finally looks up and appears to see my exact expression. A large frown marks her lips as she ticks her head to the side and her strawberry blond hair rustles over her shoulder. “You look pretty bad. What happened?”

I finally react. “I was just involved… in a little incident,” I manage. Maybe it’s stupid to admit this – though I’ve hardly told her anything yet. But it’s probably stupid not to admit it. It will reach the press – even if it hasn’t already. Though I imagine John Rowley has considerable powers when it comes to hushing up news, there’s no way he’ll be able to quiet the tourists who were in the building when the gunman attacked. The attack is probably already all over social media.

Shirley looks alarmed now, her eyes opening wide. “What do you mean?”

I open my mouth but shake my head. “I don’t really want to talk about it. I just… I went to… deliver something to someone at Rowley Tower this morning, and a gunman walked in,” I admit.

Shirley pales in a snap. “Oh my God,” she says breathlessly. “What happened? Are you all right? You poor thing.” Shirley has a habit of treating me like I’m a fragile little kid. She’s taller than me, stockier than me, too, and she has absolutely no idea that with a single finger, I can probably kill her. But that’s not the point. I don’t begrudge her at all as she leans in, locks her warm hands on my shoulders, and rubs them up and down. “Let’s get you around back,” she says quickly and with a motherly tone as she flattens a hand on my back and leads me around the side of the store.

For some reason, I find myself glancing over my shoulder, almost as if I expect Rowley’s car to come back. There’s no reason for the car to come back – it was pretty clear that the driver had other things to do. Plus, the ball is now in my court. When I’m ready to give John Rowley his jacket back, all I have to do is call Antonio.

But the mere thought of it makes my stomach pitch like a ship that has just been torpedoed.

It isn’t that I have a problem with Antonio – he seems like a pretty upstanding guy. It’s that now I’ve met John Rowley, I can’t get him out of my head. I can’t get him out of my body, either. The memory of meeting him is visceral, and it’s locked in every single muscle, embedded in my very veins as if he somehow changed me at the genetic level.

I shiver hard as I think of that, and this seems to worry Shirley even more as she finally leads me around the back of the building and uses her swipe card to get inside.

Fortunately all of the other staff are on the floor, and she leads me into the kitchenette at the back of the store. She quickly grabs a mug from under the sink, makes me a stiff cup of coffee, then rushes back. She sits on the little plastic chair beside me and makes me take several sips. Then she sets the coffee down, plucks out her phone, and looks up the incident.

Though I’m being haunted by my thoughts, I still have enough attention left over to glance to the side and realize that I’m right – the news is already abuzz with what happened at Rowley Tower.

Though I hardly pay Shirley any attention as I lean forward, grab the coffee, and now take some sips unassisted, suddenly my awareness rivets on her phone as she scrolls down past something.

I slam the coffee down, not caring as I spill several hot drips up my bare arms. Fortunately, I’ve taken Rowley’s jacket off, and it’s carefully folded on the opposite side of the table.

Shirley looks startled and blinks her mascara clad eyes several times. “You okay? What happened? You spilled coffee all over yourself,” she admonishes in a quick, worried tone as she jerks up, grabs some paper towel from the dispenser above the sink, and rushes back.

I don’t pay a single scrap of attention to her as she tries to wipe the coffee off me. I hold every single iota of focus I have for her phone. As I scroll back up, my stomach clenches.

It’s a news piece from the local inquirer. Though most of the other crap Shirley is reading is just sensationalist accounts, this is a hastily, but well-put-together item on John Rowley himself. Importantly, it talks about the fact this isn’t the first attempt on his life.

In the past year, John Rowley, it seems, has dodged death at least five times.

Five times. I may not have any idea how hard it is to be rich and famous, but I can appreciate that ordinary socialites don’t have to dodge death every other day. No, this seems like some kind of coordinated campaign against Rowley.

As I sit there and stare open-eyed at the news item, my mind unavoidably ticks back to the incident.

It’s the first time I’ve truly focused on it since I managed to knock that guy out.

But I’m remembering more details now. This sometimes happens at night after I roll back into bed after fighting those monsters – I’ll close my eyes only to appreciate that my brain picked up more of the battle than I thought it had. Snippets of information will replay in my mind as if my brain is nothing more than a glorified digital recorder.

And now the exact same thing happens as I replay a perfect account of that deliveryman walking into the building.

There’d been a particular confidence about him, a particular swagger to his step. And though he’d been wearing sunglasses, his expression had been visible. And it had been one of unchecked confidence.

But those details weren’t what riveted me to the spot. It was that… he’d felt different.

Suddenly, a truly uncomfortable sensation starts to shift through my gut. It feels as if I’ve swallowed a jar of spiders and they’re currently climbing their way up my throat.

Shirley looks truly worried now, as I stare over the top of her phone, gaze unfixed, eyes open, brow pressed hard with confusion.

“Maybe I should take you to the hospital or something,” Shirley mutters under her breath.

I have just enough attention left over to shake my head. “I’m a little shocked, Shirley. That’s all. I don’t need to go to the hospital. I just… I just need to sit here for a little. Is that okay?” I find the focus from somewhere to wrench my dead gaze off the wall and lock it on her entreatingly.

Obviously this is the only sign she needs, because she lets out a relieved sigh and her shoulders cave a little. “Okay. You take all the time you need. But we’re understaffed, and I’m going to need to get out there in five minutes or so.”

I shake my head immediately. “You go now. I’m okay – honest,” I say, ensuring I make direct eye contact once more, even offering her what I hope is a normal smile.

She smiles back, her lips pressed together, that worried look still flickering deep in her eyes but no longer with the same intensity.

She takes a step back, without turning, then another. It’s obvious she doesn’t know whether it’s right to leave me alone, so I reach forward, grab the coffee cup, take another controlled sip, and nod toward the door. “I’ll be right here. I won’t go anywhere, promise. I’ll know where you are if I need you.”

One side of her lips crinkles into half a smile. “You sure?”

I nod hard. “I’m sure. Get out there.”

“Okay,” she says warily as she finally turns around and ducks through the employee door and back into the shop.

As soon as she’s gone, I go back to staring at the wall with a dead gaze.

I lied to Shirley. Hell, I’m lying to myself right now. If I’m under the impression that I’ll ever be okay again, I’m dead wrong. Because today, not only did I meet a man who set my veins on fire, but… I’m starting to think I might have downed a pawn in the middle of the day.

Because I can’t shake the feeling that that deliveryman wasn’t human.

As I think that, I become so cold, it’s a surprise I don’t freeze the contents of my coffee cup and shatter the damn ceramic.

My fingers tighten around it, and if I let them clench any harder, I know I’ll break the cup and send shards scattering all the way around the room.

I blink hard, drawing up a shaking hand and slapping it over my face as I try to hide behind my fingers.

But there’s no way I’ll be able to hide from this.

“Maybe… maybe it wasn’t one of those things,” I mutter under my breath, words incoherent, quick, and little more than breathy hisses. Even if I wasn’t alone in the room, no one would be able to understand what I’m saying.

I take in another deep breath, but it doesn’t matter how deep it is – it can’t do anything to calm my raging nerves.

A second later, I have to stand. As my fear peaks, it drives me to my feet, begging me to do something. Because if I’m right – and the suspicion licking at my heart doesn’t feel as if it can be wrong – then I attacked a pawn in daylight.

I didn’t use my magic, and God knows I didn’t use my two swords, but will that matter?

Just how much does John Rowley know?

It was obvious that the kid Walter knew something – or knew enough to refer to me as an unattached queen. So what the hell does Rowley understand about this world?

Is it enough to appreciate what I am?

I now tip my head to the side so hard, I hear something creak in my neck.

I realize my whole body is stiff. It’s not just from the shock. A second later, my stomach rumbles.

I slam a hand on it, trying to get it to calm down, but I’m hungry, tired, confused, and completely freaked out.

I also have no idea what to do next.

… Or maybe I do know what to do next. Maybe I should just wait this out. Because even if paranoia is telling me that John Rowley somehow knows what I am and somehow appreciates that I fought off a pawn in daylight, that doesn’t make any sense. Because if that were the case, he wouldn’t have allowed me to leave. Sure, I have his jacket, and at some point, I’m going to have to return it. But if I’m… this unattached queen and I’m somehow important to John Rowley – and he appreciates what I am – then he wouldn’t have allowed me to get in one of his company cars and drive away.

The more I point that out to myself, the more I calm my raging nerves. It’s enough to suck down the rest of my coffee and to shift back to the table.

I sit, bring a hand up, and wipe it across my sweaty brow, wicking away the sweat as I swallow several times, then flop all the way back. I allow my once tense shoulders to completely relax as I let my head tick to the side and I close my eyes.

I should never, never have gone to John Rowley’s tower this morning. So much for passing on the kid’s final message. So much for using the experience to find out more about myself.

Once upon a time, I had a sense of humor. Once upon a time, I found it pretty easy to bounce back from negative experiences. But those times are long ago now. Hunting every night and having no one to rely on but myself has made me bitter and reactive.

I need to distract myself, clear my head, and come up with a plan.

So even though I’m in no mood whatsoever to work, I find one of the spare uniforms, and I head out onto the floor.

Shirley’s shocked, but I tell her I’m fine, and I sink myself into the boring task of helping customers.

In my head, I try to plan. I try to decide just how much trouble I’m in.

But it’s hard.

For one reason – no matter how hard I try to think of something other than John Rowley and the connection that’s formed between us, I can’t. For that connection continues to pull and push me like a confused gale.

A part of me wants to be as close to John Rowley as it’s possible to be. And yet, an equally strong part wants to never see him again.

I have no idea which side will win, but I know that whatever happens next, it will decide my destiny.

Chapter 4

By the time I finish work and head home, I’m tired. Bone weary. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve ever felt fatigue like this. Because it’s not coming from my body. It’s coming from my mind. My entire shift, the entire ride home in the subway, every second of every minute – I’ve been thinking of Rowley.

I’ve never really had a problem with obsessive thoughts. Until now. But this… it can’t even count as obsessive thoughts. It’s way, way more intense than that. The way I’m thinking about him is as if I’ve known him my entire life.

And if I’m stupid enough to close my eyes for more than half a second, I can see him. A perfect impression, right there in front of my mind’s eye. I swear, even though I’m not a great drawer, I could mark down every line on his face, the exact edge of his jaw, even the precise quality of his stare.

“This is insane,” I comment to myself under my breath as I climb the stairs to my apartment.

My footfall is heavy as I climb the worn, stained, old carpet and reach my floor.

I open my mouth, about to tell myself once more that I’m completely and utterly insane for becoming so obsessed with John Rowley, but I stop. There’s someone standing in front of my door.

Before my hackles can rise and I can think it’s a home intruder about to pick the lock, I see it’s Antonio Ferrari.

He’s on his phone, but as I approach, he turns around and shoots me a smile. He waves, too. It’s brief, but it’s friendly.

Even if his smile weren’t broad and warm, I’d be able to tell from one quick glance at his stance and body language that he isn’t a threat.

I blink in surprised confusion as I make it up to him. “I—” I begin.

“You’re not in trouble,” he begins as he brings his hands up in surrender and continues to offer me a broad smile. It’s the kind of smile that could put anyone at ease.

“Oh – you just want John’s jacket back?” I try to put two and two together.

I’m not wearing John’s jacket anymore. I probably should be – as it’s cold out, and I hadn’t brought a jacket of my own this morning. But there’s no way I’ll ever put that jacket on again. If I obsess about John ordinarily, as soon as I damn well touch the fabric of his jacket, let alone catch a whiff of his specific, expensive cologne, my thoughts get completely out of hand.

I know that some animals are driven on by their pheromones. I know they have a distinct, powerful connection between their behavioral systems and their sense of smell. But goddammit, I’m not an animal. And the mere scent of John Rowley shouldn’t be enough to focus my frazzled brain on him like two magnets being inexorably pulled together.

I got Shirley to carefully fold John’s jacket and place it in a plastic bag before I left the store. I’m carrying it, and I quickly shove it at Antonio. “Here it is.”

Antonio looks confused. “I’m not here for the jacket.”

“Oh,” I begin, a pulse of heat slamming through my stomach. Because if Antonio Ferrari – the head of John’s security – isn’t here for John’s jacket, then what the hell is he doing at my apartment?

I don’t need to freak out at the fact that Antonio knows where I live – I told him this morning. It was part of my witness report. And he already mentioned that he might have to contact me for further details.

But now, as I stare at him, he’s got… this strange look in his eyes. I swear it’s a calculating look, and though he tries to hide it, his gaze ticks quickly down my body then up to my face.

He opens his mouth.

Before I can freak out, I hear a thump in my apartment.

I don’t own any pets. Though I would love to have a companion, I can’t afford one. It’s hard enough feeding me without having the responsibility of feeding another creature too.

So there should be nothing in my locked apartment that could make a thump like that.

Though I have an incredible sense of hearing, Antonio picks up the thump too. And before he can say anything, he darts his head around and locks his gaze on the door.

He shoots me a worried look.

We both hear another thump.

I go for my keys, wrenching them out of my pocket as quickly as I can.

Though this morning after I downed the gunman I froze in fear, that fear is now far away as my body pulses into action.

Antonio tries to grab my wrist and haul me back protectively, but I shift out of his way, jam the key into the lock, and wrench the door open.

It’s just in time to see a man in my kitchen.

He’s found Walter’s bag from under my bed, and the contents are strewn over my bench and table.

He looks up just as I look at him.

Antonio tries to lock an arm around my hips and yank me back, but I won’t have a bar of it.

I surge forward into my apartment, running at the man.

But he’s no man. Even from here I can tell that. Even without moving at my top speed, I can tell he’s a pawn. I can smell him, feel him. And though it usually takes me longer to draw up my instincts, today, they’re running on optimal. Maybe it’s something about the fact my mind was primed by John Rowley this morning, but I feel like a different fighter right now.

The pawn is pretending to be a young man, probably in his early 20s. He’s apparently wearing a pair of old blue jeans, a black hoodie, and a pair of broken, scummy sand shoes. It’s clear he’s trying to look like a bum. But underneath?

He’s a pawn.

I can see his uniform. It’s dark black with a strange gold symbol on the back. It’s one I’ve never seen before.

That doesn’t matter as I launch myself at the pawn.

“No, hey, come back,” I hear Antonio scream from the doorway. But I’m too quick.

I reach the pawn, round my shoulder, and slam it into him. Though I can tell he tries to use his magical strength to rebuff my move, he has no chance.

I break through his defenses with a snap, and he slams against my fridge with enough force to rattle it. If there’d been anything inside, it would’ve all fallen off the shelves. But fortunately my fridge is empty. Equally as fortunately, the door is still hard, cold steel, and as the pawn slams into it, it rattles his body hard.

Antonio finally reaches me, but he no longer attempts to grab me out of the way. Instead, with the sound of his rubber-soled shoes squeaking against my kitchen tiles, he shoves to the side, now ramming his shoulder into the pawn as it tries to pick itself up and launch toward me.

I’m surprised by how quickly Antonio can move. Though I’ve already pitted him as a strong, obviously well-trained man, there’s something almost… animalistic about the exact snapped, speedy quality to his movements.

They go beyond training. They go beyond mere physical strength.

Though I had more than enough power to knock the pawn into the fridge, Antonio does too. And just as the pawn tries to reach for something in his pocket, Antonio knocks it backward, locks an arm around the pawn’s neck, and wrenches it to its feet.

In a flash, I see the pawn’s eyes. It’s no longer pretending to be a human, and it loses control of whatever spell it’s using to try to fool me into thinking it has an ordinary human face.

Its eyes are some of the yellowest I’ve ever seen. And the exact focus of them as they stare at me with bulging rage is enough to make my stomach pitch.

“Get out of here,” Antonio screams, a strangled quality to his voice as he obviously uses all of his strength to wrench the pawn upward as its kicking legs snake through the air.

I don’t get out of here.

I stare.

Though I’ve faced other humans who’ve tried to fight pawns in the past, they’ve never had the strength to lay a hand on one, let alone wrench one off its feet. But that’s exactly what Antonio does as he lets out another bellowing growl that can probably be heard by every single one of my neighbors in the apartment block.

I catch a glimpse of the pawn’s real teeth as it loses control of more of its face. They’re jagged and hard-edged like the broken peaks of a mountain. They gnash toward me, too. Almost as if the pawn wants to latch its teeth around my throat and pull.

Though I’ve been hunting pawns for the past year and a half, none have ever followed me home. I’ve always managed to dispatch every single pawn who’s seen me. But now that’s changed. There’s one in my apartment.

I don’t have the time to appreciate that my ordinary life has ended right here in this moment.

I hear scattering in my room.

Footfall. Frantic, quick, coming my way.

Though I should be the only one who can hear it – and Antonio’s human senses shouldn’t be able to pick it up – his eyes blast wide. “Get out of the way,” he says as he breaks his grip on the pawn’s neck, drops the thing, then shoves into me, pushing me out of the way.

It’s a foolish move. For as Antonio shoves me out of the way, he pushes me off balance at the last moment. He also brings himself directly in line with the pawn as it springs from my room.

This one isn’t playing any games. It doesn’t even try to look human. It’s wearing the same uniform as its friend. And though I’ve never seen that particular uniform before, there’s one thing about it that I can appreciate – it’s more ornate than any I have ever seen. These pawns appear to be more powerful, too.

If I’d had the time to appreciate what was really going on here, I would’ve realized that Antonio wasn’t freaking out. The pawn that had sprung from my room was clearly not a human, and was making no attempt whatsoever to pretend it was. If Antonio was an ordinary man, he’d be freaking out. I’d seen ordinary people witness pawns for the first time, and every damn time, their reactions had always been the same – soul-crushing fear.

But Antonio doesn’t look surprised. Scared – yes. But even then, I can appreciate he’s not scared for himself – he’s scared for me.

Though Antonio manages to push me out of the way, the pawn that springs from my bedroom is quick. It’s also armed. It has a sword in its hand – one I’ve never seen. Though usually the weapons of the pawns don’t glow, this one does. It’s got a dull yellow vibrancy about it, almost as if it’s a trapped star being viewed underwater.

There’s a murky, dirty quality to it, too, one that turns my stomach and for some reason makes me think of poison.

Antonio pales with surprise, but he doesn’t have time to shift out of the way.

The pawn brings the sword down toward Antonio’s neck.

I act.

I’m close enough to Antonio that I launch a kick at his side, pushing him out of the way. I don’t kick him hard enough to do any internal damage, just to shift him off course before the pawn can slice right through Antonio’s surprised face.

The pawn gnashes its teeth and screams, the quality of its tone so goddamn brutal, it sounds like the combined rage of an army.

Antonio strikes the kitchen floor and rolls, coming up hard against my table. As he does, he dislodges Walter’s workbook from on top of it, and it scatters down, landing right in Antonio’s lap.

Walter’s workbook has his name written across the front. Though there’s a full-on fight going on in my kitchen, Antonio still has time to snap his eyes down and stare at the book. I see a blast of recognition pulse through his gaze.

He has just enough time to stare at me, his friendly gaze now completely marked with suspicion.

The pawn Antonio had in a headlock attacks.

Both of them now focus on Antonio.

Before the pawn with the sword can slice at Antonio’s throat again, I kick the kitchen chair beside me, sending it clattering into the pawn’s knees. The move is more than hard enough to slam against the pawn’s legs and to force it to lose balance.

It teeters backward.

I rush forward. I’m not thinking. Antonio – a real live witness – is right behind me.

Though part of me appreciates my secret is the most important thing I have, the rest of me is driven by the fact I have to end this. My whole body is pulsing with the knowledge I have to dispatch these creatures. If I let them run riot through my apartment block, God knows how many people they could kill.

So I don’t even think anymore.

As the pawn tries to slice at me with its sword, I simply grab the hilt, wrench it free, spin the sword around, and plunge it right into the pawn’s chest.

The move is blisteringly quick, so quick that even I have trouble keeping up with it.

So much force and rage and magic pulse through my veins that my body becomes an instrument of my passion, not my mind.

And it’s more than enough to see me win. I defeat the pawn in a single move, and it has just half a second to stare up into my determined gaze before its body jerks and an after image of its light shoots over my left shoulder. The creature scatters into dust.

I’ve seen Antonio handle himself, and though I’m many things, I can’t be in two positions at once. My intuition tells me he’ll be able to deal with the other pawn, though. My intuition is wrong.

For, as I turn hard on my foot and launch to my feet, it’s to the sight of the other pawn scattering over my kitchen floor. It's down on both hands and knees now, pushing forward, running, skidding, looking like a dog trying to gain purchase over a slippery surface.

Antonio’s eyes have just enough time to blast wide, but then the pawn reaches him.

Though Antonio tries to bring up his hands and fight the pawn off, this time the pawn is ready for him. It latches its clawed, strong, massive hands around Antonio’s neck and starts to pull.

Antonio’s eyes bulge, a vein appears on his head, and his scream is cut short.

“Get off him,” I bellow as I round my shoulder, shift forward, and knock into the pawn.

It tries to loop an arm around my neck, but I just grab its wrist, jerk it to the side, and break that arm in a single snap.

Though this is no time to appreciate it, again my abilities have increased.

Last night it took me several punches to down a pawn, but now, in a single snapped second, I can break one’s arm.

But there’s no damn time to get freaked out by that fact.

As the pawn screams at having its arm broken and tries to use its free hand to clutch at my throat, I bring around the sword I stole from the other pawn and slash right through its throat.

No blood scatters out at the move. Just light.

There’s another shuddering moment, then, a second later, an afterimage of the pawn shoots over my left shoulder and the creature scatters into dust.

I stare at it, stand there and shiver, then jerk my attention down to Antonio as he lets out a gasp.

Blood is spilling from his mouth, and I realize as I stare at his throat that the pawn has done considerable damage. Massive dark red and brown marks are spreading over the skin, and as Antonio tries to breathe again, more blood spills over his lips.

I drop down to one knee beside him. “Shit, you okay?” I try.

Either he doesn’t want to answer or he can’t. He stares at me, though, with the widest damn gaze I’ve ever seen. He looks terrified.

And there’s something visceral about that terror. Because even though I’m still pumped full of adrenaline and determination from the fight, it reaches in and shakes my heart.

My brow slicks with sweat, and I pale. I bring up two hands. “I’m not going to hurt you,” I try as I shift toward him, but he jerks back. This just means his shoulders slam harder into the table, and another item topples off and falls into his lap.

It’s Walter’s wallet. It’s open, his bankcard half out of one of the plastic pockets.

If Antonio looked terrified before, now he looks red with rage.

But he’s also passing out. And that rage can’t last long as his eyes roll into the back of his head. He slumps forward. I shift a hand out, latch it on his shoulder, and stop him from face-planting the floor. Then I… I kind of just kneel there for several seconds, supporting him as my mind whirls.

What… what the hell do I do now? Antonio didn’t just see me dispatch two pawns, but he saw Walter’s bag, Walter’s wallet, too.

There’ll be no hiding from this.

I… I have no idea what to do as almost a full minute passes. I can hear it marked by the ticking of my clock over the kitchen sink.

There’s one thing I can be thankful for – despite the loud, violent fight, I don’t hear any screams further into the apartment block. My immediate neighbors must be out, or maybe the pawns somehow managed to magically hide this fight from everybody else. The point is, there’s nobody to disturb me, nobody to hurry me up as I just kneel there, supporting Antonio’s comatose body with one hand.

The look he shot me before he blacked out is seared into my mind. The hatred, the anger – it’s worlds apart from the friendly, broad smile he offered me after I saved Rowley this morning.

Which means two things. Walter Shepherd wasn’t just known to John Rowley – but the two must have known each other well enough that Rowley’s head of security could recognize Walter’s wallet.

And the other thing?

I’m now screwed.

I finally shift back, gently guiding Antonio’s body to the ground.

I put him in the recovery position, shift up, then jerk away.

My hands are shaking by my sides, slicking my rumpled skirt with sweat.

I’m breathing so hard that my thick fringe is jerking over my eyes.

I don’t try to calm myself down.

I just think.

Though adrenaline tells me to run away, abandon my apartment, and never look back, I know I can’t just leave Antonio like this. He’s not on death’s door at the moment, but he still needs immediate medical attention.

So I shift a hand into my pocket, intending to pluck up my phone.

I stop.

I jerk down to one knee, rifle quickly through Antonio’s pockets, and pluck out his phone instead.

I don’t have to unlock it to make an emergency call, and I quickly phone in an ambulance.

I don’t give them the address of my apartment, though – I give them the street just outside.

One wall of my apartment block leads down to a cramped, narrow alleyway, and I’m fortunate enough that a fire escape leads from my bedroom window down to that same laneway.

After I call in the incident, I wrench my window open, easily put Antonio over one shoulder, then move him down into the laneway.

I am… messing with the crime scene. That should hit me, right? That should make me sick to my stomach. But who am I kidding? I dispatched two pawns in my kitchen. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

Fortunately night has already descended, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to keep my movements hidden and secret as I carefully, quietly clamber down the fire escape with Antonio over my shoulder.

Keeping an ear out for traffic or pedestrians, and hugging the side of the building so that no one staring out of their window would be able to see me, I find an alcove sufficiently far enough away from my apartment to stash Antonio.

Then I stand back and stare at him.

A part of me knows that there’s no point to the charade. Because as soon as Antonio wakes up, he’s going to tell everyone what happened. But at least that will give me time. If he doesn’t wake up for an hour or two, it will give me an hour or two to get out of town.

That realization sinks in and feels like I’ve just swallowed a stone.

Fear and loathing climb my throat as I take another jerked step back from Antonio.

I want to leave him right now, confident that I gave the ambulance clear enough directions that they’ll be able to find him, even in this out of the way alcove.

And yet, despite the fact it could cost me my freedom, I don’t leave his side yet. I don’t trust that there aren’t more pawns out there.

… They’d been after Walter’s bag, right?

Somehow they’d managed to track it back to my apartment.

I rue the fact I ever picked up the kid’s bag last night. I should’ve left it exactly where it was. But what’s done is done, and I have to get out of here.

I wait until I hear the sirens, until I see paramedics park at the mouth of the laneway and start to peer in.

Then I disappear. Keeping low against the side of the building, I run back to the fire escape, haul myself up, climb through my bedroom window, close it, and then I just stand there.

For a full minute. It’s like I’m frozen to the spot. It’s like I’ll never move again. Because… the life I know has just violently ended.

If I hadn’t been stupid enough to head to Rowley Tower this morning, then none of this would’ve happened. Even if the pawns had still come to my apartment block tonight, I would’ve been able to dispatch them silently without any witnesses. But now I have a witness – Rowley’s own head of security – and there is no going back.

“No going back,” I whisper bitterly to myself under my breath as I finally push away from my window.

I begin to madly look through my stuff, making a quick, brutal mental calculation as to what I can keep and what I can afford to leave behind.

I shift toward my closet, pulling out clothes and dumping them on the floor. I select my sturdiest pair of jeans, warmest top, and, of course, my leather jacket.

I practically rip my cardigan, skirt, and blouse off me and dump them in a pile on my bed. I dress in my other clothes, and as I pull my leather jacket on, there’s a sense of undeniable finality to the move. As the leather creaks around me and sits flush against my shoulders, it feels like I’m putting on a uniform.

I indulge in running a hand down the cool leather for half a second, then I whirl hard on my foot.

I put on a pair of old walking shoes, then grab a rucksack from my closet. I start throwing in things that I can’t afford to leave behind. There’s one thing to be said of my life right now – considering the amount I have to spend on food, I don’t have too many possessions anymore. I’ve sold a lot of my stuff that’s worth anything, which means everything that’s left is either necessary or means something to me.

I dash over to my bedside table, pausing as I pluck up a photo.

It’s meant to be of my maternal parents, not that I ever met them. I was a foster kid my whole life. Not one of those fortunate foster kids who found a good family, but one who was handed from institution to institution.

Still, according to the State, this photo is the only evidence of who my family had been.

Grimacing but realizing I don’t have time to do anything else, I punch a finger against the glass just hard enough to see it shatter. Not worrying that I’ll get cut, considering how tough I am these days, I thumb the glass out of the frame, pluck up the photo, and press it against my chest as a tear trickles down my cheek. I carefully place the photo in a book and shove it into my rucksack.

The book is the most important thing I own, short of this photograph.

It’s a family account, if you will. When I was left to the orphanage, though I didn’t have much in the way of possessions, I had my name. And my name led me to this book.

It took me five years to track this book down, and no matter what happens to me in the future, I will never let it go again.

It’s an old collector’s item, bound in beaten blue leather with just a smattering of gold leaf left over the spine and cover. You can’t even make out the title anymore. But I always can. All it takes is for me to run a thumb over the indent where the title had once been, and I can feel it.

The Khan Family Rules.

It’s meant to be a work of fiction. It isn’t.

As I carefully shove it into my bag, I grab another single change of clothes, then head into the kitchen.

I open one of my pantry doors and lean right in, grabbing a jar right at the back. I upend it in the sink, rice scattering everywhere. Right at the bottom is a small pouch. Inside is some jewelry.

A diamond ring, an expensive watch, and a few gold bracelets.

No, I’m not a thief. I just found them, that’s all. One of the things about going out every single night to hunt is that I see more of the darkened city streets and roofs than most people. In the past year and a half, I found these items. And though the good girl in me had wanted to report them to the police, the smart part of me had told me that was stupid. I had to keep my head down, and if I kept finding lost valuables in random parts of the city, the police would start to ask questions.

I shove the pouch of valuables into my bag, then head to my handbag. I pull out the essentials and pause as I get to my driver’s license. Should I burn it now or wait until later? Won’t I need it to drive?

“Jesus Christ,” I suddenly spit as I realize how goddamn hard this is going to be. Running across the rooftops at night is one thing – protecting myself from pawns is another. But being on the run when I’m hunted by the police? That’s going to be something completely different. It’s not going to be easy. I can’t just hire a car and hightail it out of the city – they will be able to track me. Nor can I just head into the woods – I need to feed myself.

My mind starts to whirl again.

That’s when I hear sirens. Police sirens. Though my back initially twitches in terror, I realize they’re going down the laneway, and as the sirens promptly cut out, I appreciate the paramedics probably called the cops to figure out why Antonio appeared in that laneway.

It still rattles me, and I move more quickly now.

I grab what food I can, sticking with nonperishables. Then, finally, I reach the table.

I stare at the kid’s stuff. A part of me wants to just leave it. This kid’s bag has already given me so much grief. But, then again, I appreciate that the pawns are after it. Desperately after it. Not only did they kill the kid, but they broke into my apartment to get this bag. More than that, the exact pawns who broke into this apartment were from a different army to the ones I fought last night.

What the hell does that mean? Just how many people are after this bag?

That makes my decision for me. I jerk forward, shoving the kid’s belongings into my rucksack, pushing them down hard to make space.

Then, finally, I shift back.

I take several steps into the middle of the room, close my eyes, and breathe.

Tears unavoidably trickle down my cheeks. Because this is it. The end of my life is finally here.

It’s not a surprise, though. I’ve been fearing this day for the past year and a half.

It was always going to happen. My nightly exploits and my strange powers were always going to catch up with me.

Now they have, I won’t be able to look back.

“Don’t look back,” I whisper as I finally turn hard on my foot and head out of my apartment.

I don’t know where to go, but I’ll figure it out, because I have no goddamn choice.

Chapter 5

It’s cold, it’s dark, I’m hungry, but I can’t afford to stop moving.

Though a part of me thinks the most sensible thing to do is to leave the city and head somewhere else, something… something’s stopping me. And I know what that is.

As I shift forward, bring up a hand, and lock it on my chest, I can feel my heart.

It’s beating, but for the craziest reason, I no longer think it’s beating for me.

I’ll admit something to you – back before my life turned to hell, I was a romantic soul. I never thought that you could have love at first sight or anything like that, but I’d always adored impossibly romantic tales. The idea of living for someone else had been thrilling.

But this is terror incarnate. For, as I flatten a hand over my chest, shifting my palm down my top and letting my fingers hook over the fabric as if I want to wrench it off, I know what my heart is doing.

It’s calling out to him.

Jesus Christ. Meeting John Rowley this morning did something to me. Something I couldn’t undo. Staring into his piercing, clear gaze set some process off in my body, and no matter what I do – no matter how hard I beg myself – I can’t stop it.

I stand there for several seconds, leaning hard against the cold, broken wall beside me, and I try to breathe through the sensations powering through my chest.

Though I don’t want to admit this to myself, the further away I get from Rowley Tower, the worse these sensations become.

I try to reason that it’s just hunger – that it’s just fear from the worst day I’ve ever had. But that’s not right, and I can’t lie to myself. My heart’s beating as if someone is trying to strangle it, as if someone has tied a string around the very muscle and attached it to Rowley. And with every step I get further away from Rowley, the string strangles my heart harder.

“Jesus Christ,” I swallow through a gasp, “this is impossible. It can’t be happening. It can’t be happening,” I beg. But there’s no one to hear me down in this old basement.

That’s why I picked it.

One of the advantages of running through the city and tracking pawns every single night is that I have become intimately aware of every building, of every nook, of every cranny. So it wasn’t hard for me to find a place to hide.

I’ve selected a basement under an old, abandoned factory on the outskirts of the city.

No one comes here anymore, and though it’s been earmarked for destruction for over a year, I know for a fact that the owners don’t have the money to get rid of it.

I’ll be safe. Maybe for a day, maybe for a week, maybe for a month, maybe for longer.

That thought brings a tear to my eye.

I haven’t been normal for a long time now, but any hope that I’ll ever be able to fit in again dies as several tears trickle down my cheeks.

Fortunately this basement was closed off, and there haven’t been any other squatters here.

I had to break through a seriously heavy steel door and a massive padlock and chain to get in here. It had been too easy. Maybe my body was still razzed by all the adrenaline I’d produced today, or maybe I was just undergoing another change. It doesn’t honestly matter. I was able to break through that door easily, and now I have somewhere safe to stay.

It’s dark, but that’s irrelevant to me as I bring up a hand, spread my fingers wide, and let a pulse of blue magic spread over my palms and fingers.

It dances over the flesh and warms me. Though I’m usually freaked out by my abilities, now I let them comfort me. I let them remind me that even if the whole city comes after me, I’ll be able to protect myself.

“And what about John Rowley?” I find myself asking out loud. “What are you going to do if he comes after you?” I can’t even control my tone, even though I’m not speaking to anyone else. It makes this kind of strangled, choking noise, as if I’d just banged myself hard in the throat.

… What about John Rowley?

If I face him again, what will I do?

Reason tells me that he’ll either call the cops or try to deal with me himself. Because reason tells me that as soon as Antonio wakes up, Rowley’s going to know I stole Walter D. Shepherd’s bag.

But reason cannot penetrate as far as my beating heart as it continues to power through my chest.

It’s so strong that I almost worry I’m going to have a heart attack.

I find a crate, and I kick it to its side in an easy move. I flop on top of it, letting my rucksack fall from my hand and clatter to the floor.

I bring up a fist and try to punch it on my chest, as if I’m trying to beat my heart into forgetting John, but it doesn’t work.

“You can’t live like this,” a voice of reason spills from my lips. “You have to find out what’s going on.”

Those words echo around the room. There’s an empty, haunted quality to them. Because I know the only way to find out what’s going on is to find John Rowley, and though my heart beats for him, the rest of me is truly terrified. You would think after what I’ve been through and what I can do that a girl like me wouldn’t be able to feel true fear anymore.

You’d be wrong. The exact sensations that pulse through my body can’t be mistaken for anything else. They’re powerful in a way I haven’t experienced before. Far more powerful than the fear I felt the very first day I met a pawn. Far more powerful than that fateful day when I produced my first charge of magic.

Feeling weary from emotion more than fatigue, I curl up on top of the crate. It’s not the softest bed I’ve ever slept on, but it will do. It will have to.

I close my eyes and try to stop thinking of him.

It takes almost an hour, but eventually I slip into an uneasy sleep.

One that doesn’t last.

Chapter 6

I wake up suddenly. Violently. My heart rams so hard in my chest, it feels as if it will catapult into my throat. The sensation is more than enough to see me jerk to the side. And that – that is all that saves me as I see a sword suddenly snake out of the darkness and slam into the crate. It moves with such power and force that it cuts right through the metal.

I don’t have time to scream. I jerk backward, pitching right off the crate, landing on the ground, my boots skidding. At the same time, I let a powerful charge of magic blast over my hand. It’s bright enough that it lights up the whole basement.

My heart skids to a stop in my chest.

I’ve fought two pawns at once before, and once, even three.

Now there are 10 of them.

It’s a sight that sees my stomach lurch to the side and my heart give another violent shudder just as two of the pawns slam toward me.

Though the magical light blazing off my hand is more than bright enough to light up the room, it doesn’t light it up completely, and as I twist and spin to the side, it sends scattering, jerking shadows pitching over the walls. It makes the scene even more horrifying as I catch glimpses of the pawns’ teeth, of their outstretched hands and claws, of their hateful, greedy eyes.

I back away just as two launch for me, then I realize that one of the pawns is holding back. He heads toward the bag I left by the crate. He snatches it up.

I try to track him, but several other pawns dart toward me.

I may be strong, and I may be getting stronger by the hour, but these pawns are all armed with swords, and I have to be so goddamn careful as four of them go right for my chest.

I pivot on my foot, falling down to the ground and rolling. As I shift up, I flick my foot around, catch one of the pawns on the back of his knee, and send him slamming into the floor. Though I want to follow-up the move by grabbing the back of his head and shoving it as hard as I can into the cracked, stained, mildew-covered concrete, I don’t have the time.

Though pawns are usually smart, I’ve never seen them fight in a coordinated manner like this. They’re pecking at me like birds going in for the kill.

I jerk backward just as two pawns try to slam their swords into my back. I can feel the power leaching off their blades from here, and it’s strong enough that as it shifts past, it buffets my hair against my back.

Though all my attention is taken up by the immediate fight, I manage to slice my gaze to the side. And it’s just in time to see the pawn who’s holding my bag escape up the steps and into the building above.

True terror pulses through my heart as I appreciate just what’s in that bag. It’s not just the kid’s stuff – it’s my book. It’s the photo of my parents, too. It’s all the food and money I have in the world. It’s my survival, in other words, and yet there’s nothing I can do as the pawn jerks out of sight.

Anger ricochets through me now. Though when I usually fight, I try to keep that anger at bay, now I can’t stop it. My lips jerk hard to the side, and a snarling scream splits from them as I pivot to the side just in time. As one of the pawns slices past my shoulder, I follow the move. I lurch forward at just the right point in time, land a punch against the side of the pawn’s face, then grab the hand holding the sword. I jerk it around in a hard move that sees the blade slice across the pawn’s chest.

The move is swift, though not strong enough to see the tip of the blade slice right through the pawn’s body.

It’s enough to give him a fatal wound, and a second later, he falls, jerks, turns into light, and then his body disappears into dust.

I kick at it, sending it scattering upward just as another pawn launchers for my face.

The fight is frantic. Terrifying. But I don’t have time to feel anything, don’t have time to think anything. I can only fight.

There are no witnesses down here in this basement, and that fact finally strikes me as I realize if I want to end this and have any hope of retrieving my bag, I have to rely on my other powers.

So I put on a burst of speed, flip, and land on top of one of the crates further into the room. As I do, I punch my hands to my sides, round them into fists, and let a hot, violent blast of magic power into my fingertips. They light up with such power, it’s as if flood lamps have suddenly filled the basement.

Several of the closest pawns jerk backward and scream, bringing their hands up to protect their faces.

I do two things. Though it is costly and will use a lot of my magic, I don’t care as I let a bellow split from my lips and allow my light to shift out at the same time. It’s unfocused but violent, and pulses out in a massive arc that shoots through the room. It’s more than strong enough to catch four of the pawns off guard. It slams into their chests and sends them scattering across the room. Two of them fall into a pile of crates so violently that the crates roll over and pin them. The other two roll until they strike the far wall.

Frantic now, knowing my bag is getting further away with every second, I make a spinning motion with my hands.

A specific kind of force pulses through my fingertips, and it’s enough to see something begin to form against them. Though I very rarely call on my swords, every time I do, a distinct thrill jumps hard through my body, sails through my chest, and clatters into my jaw. It feels like trying to swallow a sonic boom, one that’s coming from the very center of my soul.

The swords slam into my hands, and they bring with them their own unique brightness.

The closest pawn who wasn’t knocked off its feet by my earlier attack hisses. Though pawns very rarely show fear, there is no mistaking the terror in this creature’s eyes as it stares from my swords to my face.

It’s a look I’ve seen on several occasions now – from Walter, to Antonio, to this creature.

It’s one that shakes right through me. But it’s one I have to push away as I suddenly spring forward, dart off the crate, and slice at the pawn with my swords.

I don’t have to hold my swords to use them. They respond to my mere thoughts. I send both of them slicing through the pawn, and there’s nothing the creature can do to fight off my power as the swords rend him in half.

Instantly, he turns into light that shoots over my left shoulder, and his body scatters into dust that wafts around me.

The other pawns hold back now. Their fear is evident in every look, in every movement.

I take advantage of that fear as I jerk forward, commanding my swords to spin through the room.

I don’t have to think during the fight. My anger is doing that for me. It commands my body, commands my magic, and in a minute and a half, it’s done. The pawns are just so much dust on the ground.

The skin along my left shoulder is prickling as if somebody has been stabbing tiny spikes into it for the past half hour. I’ve never dispatched more than three pawns at once, but I now appreciate that the more I kill, the more of an effect it has on me. No, wait – it’s not the act of killing that has an effect on me– it’s whatever happens when their light shoots over my left shoulder.

It almost feels heavy now, as if I’m carrying something around.

I dismiss the sensation as I indulge in one single breath and one single second of standing there still. Then I spring forward.

I know I have no time.

Now the immediate fight is over, the fear can float in. The fear tells me that there’s more than enough in my bag for someone to figure out who I am. Though I want to believe that the pawns are only after Walter’s possessions, I’m not an idiot. After my display here tonight, they’ll be after me, too. And though hiding from the police and John Rowley is one thing, hiding from these monsters will be something else. They tracked me here, didn’t they? And I’d been so damn sure that this abandoned factory had been the perfect place to hide.

I barely think as I throw myself through the old, broken factory above.

There are sheets of musty plastic on the floor, broken crates, and piles of roofing tin.

My eyes dart over every single object as I assess them each in turn, trying to figure out if the pawn is hiding behind them.

But the factory is clear. The pawn has already left.

I run out into the street, but before I do, I command my swords to disappear. My gut-shaking fear is one thing, but fortunately I can still see reason, and I know that if any ordinary person sees my swords, it will create anarchy.

I’ve never felt my heart beat faster as I run forward, shoulder the doors open, and spill out onto the street.

It’s dark. It’s probably 3 o’clock in the morning, but I can still hear cars far off.

I try to focus my hearing and attention as I half close my eyes, clench my teeth, and ignore the sweat dripping down my brow.

No matter how hard I try, I can’t ascertain which direction the pawn has gone in.

I stand there on the corner of the street, turning wildly, my hair slapping over my face in a sweaty mess.

But there’s nothing.

I dash forward, heading toward the closest building to my left, intending to jump right up the side of it and onto the roof, hoping that will give me the vantage I need. But at that exact moment, a cop car comes swinging down the street.

Though its sirens aren’t on, that doesn’t matter – it freezes me to the spot.

I stand there, incapable of moving as the cop car swings slowly past.

I try to look as normal as I can, but it’s the most excruciating experience of my life as my hands curl into the tightest fists and true desperation curls around my gut.

Though I can feel the gazes of the two cops in the car lock on me, fortunately they don’t stop.

But the time it takes them to slowly wind down the street and out of sight is all the pawn needs.

By the time the cop car’s gone and I have no more witnesses, it doesn’t matter. I launch myself at the closest building, climbing right up the side, leaping with strength and force a human should never have.

I land on top of the flat roof of the building, and the wind instantly catches my hair, sending it scattering over my shoulders and whipping about like a wet sheet in a gale.

I turn desperately from left to right, opening my mouth, breathing as deeply as I can, trying to catch even the faintest whiff of the pawn.

But there’s nothing.

I’ve lost. Worse? That pawn now has my bag.

It will know my name, my identity, my family heritage, everything.

I’m screwed.

Clamping my hands over my face and breathing hard into my sweaty, shaking fingers, I drop down to one knee then the next. As the wind continues to buffet around me, slamming my hair against my face and back and against the tough shoulders of my leather jacket, I let out all my grief.

But the grief can’t last. And soon enough, I force myself to stand. Then I walk. Then I run.

I don’t know where I’ll go, but I can’t stay here.

Chapter 7

It’s been two weeks now. I’ve been on the run. And it’s been categorically the worst experience of my life.

There’s one good thing, though. Ever since I lost my bag, no more pawns have surprised me in the night. I reason that somehow they were capable of tracking the contents of Walter’s bag. Maybe there was some kind of LoJack inside – or the magical equivalent of a tracking device. Doesn’t matter. Ever since I lost my bag, I haven’t seen a pawn since.

I’ve stopped hunting, too. I just hide. And it’s the most miserable experience of my life.

I scrounge for food in dumpsters, heading behind big supermarkets at the end of the day and stealing whatever I can.

It’s just enough to keep me alive, but that’s it.

I subsist. Barely.

As for my mind? I swear I’m going crazier with every single day.

I know I should leave this city. It’s the only smart thing to do. For all I know, maybe there are only magical pawns in this city, and as soon as I head somewhere else or leave the entire country, maybe… just maybe I’ll be able to live an ordinary life.

But while it’s a faint hope I can entertain, I can’t go through with it.

I can’t leave John Rowley behind.

I swear, the moment he looked deeply into my gaze with his penetrating eyes, he did something to me. Somehow he set up a fence beyond which I can no longer travel. And that fence is the city limits. For every time I try to push past them, going through with my plan to leave and get the hell out of here, I stop. Because my heart starts to feel as if it’s being squeezed to death.

I know I can’t keep going on like this.

I need a new plan.

I also have to figure out what the hell is going on.

Because it’s happening again.

I am… finding new powers. Every day, I swear I grow stronger, even if I only have enough food to live.

And yet, at the same time, I’m growing crazier, and strength and insanity are a volatile mix.

I haven’t yet lost it enough that I’ve revealed my powers to ordinary humans.

No, for the most part, I stay hidden during the day, catch whatever sleep I can, then come out at night to find food.

I feel like a wild animal, like a rat, like nothing more than the vermin that live in the sewers.

But today, it’s 10 o’clock in the morning, and even though I’m curled up in the back of an old car park, I can’t sleep.

I’m on edge. My whole body is zapping and tingling as if I’ve swallowed a live wire. And that energy is forcing me to move.

For a while, I try to fight it, just allowing my body to jerk back-and-forth, my hands to clench in and out as I lie there in a ball.

But all too soon, I can’t stop myself, and I press to my feet.

I’m jittering all over as if I’m coming down from a drug high.

My hair, which has been completely unwashed for two weeks, sits slack and oily around my cheeks, trailing over my leather jacket.

I bring my arms up, try to clamp them around my waist, try to huddle in on myself in the hopes that I can stop whatever weird reaction is happening to my body. I can’t.

And the longer I pay attention to the zapping, chaotic sensations that are running through my chest and hard into my arms and hands, the more they force me forward. I take one step, then another, then another, and before I know it, I’m running.

I shouldn’t be running – this car park is largely unused, and I found a maintenance section toward the back that’s completely abandoned. It’s 10:00 in the morning, and I run the risk of coming across real people.

Which I do. As I stream through the car park, running as fast as I can without calling on my special abilities, I sprint straight past a surprised old couple.

The sound of my frantic footfall against the old concrete echoes through the car park until I finally make it up the ramp and onto a street outside.

At first, I’m disoriented, and as the bright light of the day streams down, I jerk my head hard to the side.

There are several people walking on the street, and they all glance at me, not least because I’ve just pelted out of a car park, but because I’m bedraggled.

Though the sensations running wild in my heart are still strong enough to see me shiver, I try desperately to control myself as I let my hair fall in front of my face and I attempt to hide behind it.

I shift to the side, keeping close to the road as I skirt around people, never making eye contact.

It’s so goddamn dangerous to be out on the city streets in the middle of the day, but I just can’t stop myself. There’s a kind of desperation building within me, and it pulls me forward, directing my body as I head down one block then another.

Before I know it, I come across a tight laneway squeezed between two office blocks.

I hesitate at the mouth, and just for a fraction of a second, I get control of my own muscles again. I pause, shifting backward and forward on the soles of my old, well-worn walking boots.

One of my shoelaces is undone, frayed to within breaking point. I tried to fix it with gaffer tape I found in a dumpster, but it’s not enough, and it shifts loosely on my foot as I hesitate and take another step backward.

But that’s when I hear a particular sound. It’s just beyond a normal human’s range of hearing. So high-pitched, it’s the equivalent of a dog whistle.

I jerk my head hard to the side, clenching my teeth as I try to block out the god-awful noise. But then I find that my body is compelled once more, and I jolt forward, dashing into the laneway.

I swear it’s too narrow – far too cramped to be a normal laneway. It feels different, too. Choking, almost as if someone’s done something to the air to make it feel like it’s millions upon millions of tiny groping hands.

Now I’ve plunged into the laneway, I feel that desperation pulling me forward with even greater strength. I’ve never felt something stronger, and that’s saying something considering the crazy things that have been happening to me over the last two weeks since my life went to hell.

Sometimes… sometimes I swear I can feel when I’m on the cusp of another transformation. And though my mind is being controlled by the terror pulling me forward, I still retain enough reason to appreciate that fact.

I’m coming up to a fight, aren’t I? Another fight which will define me.

Before I know it, I come across someone.

It’s a woman.

She’s standing there in the middle of the laneway. But… space isn’t right around her. That’s the only way to describe it. As I come to a screeching stop several meters away, it’s as if the laneway is bulging. It’s as if it’s a photo, not a real point in space, and somebody has zoomed in on a single aspect of the image.

It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever felt. My skin tingles, hard prickles dance through my belly, and my jaw jerks back-and-forth as if somebody has attached strings to my teeth.

My eyes couldn’t be wider, and finally, I let my lips open and I gasp.

That’s enough to get the woman’s attention.

I can see she’s doing something with her hands. But as she hears me gasp, she turns her head over her shoulder, her eyebrows narrowing. There’s a suspicious look in her deep hazel eyes. In fact, her eyes are so deep, they look like two tunnels leading to some unknown place.

I catch sight of her hands.

They’re glowing.

Magic is zapping over them. Harder, faster, trailing all the way up her fingers and over her wrists.

Though I’ve fought many pawns so far, they’ve never possessed magic like I do. This woman, however, does.

“How did you break through the barrier spell?” she hisses. Then she jerks forward.

Instinctively, I twist to the side.

I don’t call on my swords, and neither do I call on my magic. I just take several swift steps until I reinforce the distance between us.

Her eyes narrow all the way down into two slits, and yet, somehow that can’t change the penetrating quality of her gaze. I imagine even if she closed her eyes entirely, she’d still be able to stare through my very soul with those intense pupils.

I take another hard swallow that somehow feels as if it will tear my throat in two.

She’s wearing some kind of office suit. Trim and stylish, it suits her figure perfectly. Though I should be too focused on the magic snapping over her wrists and fingers to appreciate this, it’s obvious she comes from money. She’s wearing an expensive gold bracelet and diamond earrings. Her hair is coiffed, too, and her makeup is pinpoint perfect.

She takes another step toward me, her high heels ringing against the pavement.

I take a step back, my old, worn walking shoes ringing out with dull thumps.

My arms are held stiffly by my sides, my hands rolled into fists. My teeth are clenched, too, and I know there’s a wild, frightened look in my eyes as I continue to look from her magic hands to the bulging space around her.

“Who are you attached to?” she demands. “My king won’t be happy if you interrupt me.”

She takes another step forward, and I take another step backward. In my head, I kind of hope that if I turn right around and head back out the laneway, whatever this woman’s doing to space will stop. But that hope is sorely mistaken, for as I take two more jerked steps out of the way, space continues to bulge around her as she follows.

“Who are you attached to?” she spits, her voice ringing so loudly, the pavement beneath her shakes.

I’ve fought many pawns by now, and some of them were powerful – but none of them could do this. Bend space, shake the ground. Nor could they produce so much magic.

… I’ve always kind of assumed that I’ll be able to win any fight I enter, but a realization slams into my gut as I take one final step backward.

What if this woman is more powerful than I am?

“I am my king’s fifth,” she says, voice spitting on the word fifth, eyes opening wide, too. There’s an unmistakably proud look in her gaze, a powerful one, as well. It’s clear that she thinks the mere mention of the fact she’s someone’s fifth should shake me to my knees.

I don’t understand. I just clench my fists tighter.

“Who are you attached to?” she demands once more.

A part of me knows I shouldn’t speak to this woman – I should just turn around and run. But curiosity burns through me, forces me to open my lips before I know what I’m doing. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you mean attached?”

She opens her lips quickly in a snarling motion that reveals her perfect white teeth. Then she stops. Her eyes narrow. “Are you unattached?” There’s a covetous quality to her tone, one that makes my back crawl.

She takes a far larger step toward me now, and as her high heels slam against the pavement, it doesn’t just shake – it’s as if the bitumen has been turned into a sheet that somebody is waving in the wind.

I have to widen my stance and force all of my concentration into my balance not to be thrown off my feet.

I barely manage it as she shifts to the side, a prowling quality to her move as she looks me up and down. “My King will be pleased indeed if I bring him an unattached. What position are you?”

I don’t answer – I can’t. I just stare back at her, my fear and confusion obvious.

This makes her lips curl hard and wide into a vicious smile. “No matter. We’ll find out. Now, come here, child.” With that, she springs toward me. So much magic leaps over her hands and curls around her arms, covering her body, that I swear it could light up the entire city. But whatever she’s doing to space – however she’s warping it – seems to contain her light to only this laneway.

It’s the same with whatever she’s doing to the pavement – though it continues to undulate more violently now, trying to throw me from my feet, I can see over my shoulder that the streets beyond are unaffected.

I would never usually fight in the middle of the day. I would be terrified that any of the innumerable office workers in the buildings beside us would glance through one of their windows and see.

But I have no chance now.

The woman is fast – like a goddamn bullet as she blasts toward me.

It’s instinct alone that sees me dodge the first of her blows.

As she curls her fists and tries to punch me in the face and stomach, magic pulses out from her moves in waves.

I shift down, roll, and try to jump to my feet, but she’s still controlling the pavement, and she interrupts my move, sending me lurching to the side.

She reaches me, and before I know what she’s doing, lands a powerful kick against my back. It’s enough to see me skid and roll several meters to the side. I impact the office wall to my left, but before my body can come to rest, the wall starts to undulate. It spits me back toward the woman, and she manages to land another kick against my knee.

It doesn’t buckle, even though that kick is categorically one of the most powerful moves I’ve ever faced. It feels like being struck by a sledgehammer – one that’s completely covered in magic. And the magic is not passive – it doesn’t just bolster her human strength. It tries to shift into me, almost as if it’s some kind of insidious gas that’s looking for a break in my skin, that’s looking for a way into my circulatory system.

And yet, before it can find that way – my own magic reacts.

I don’t even need to call on it – it calls on itself and bursts over my body.

It doesn’t glow nearly as brightly as hers – instead, it’s different. Powerful in a wholly other way.

For the first time since the fight began, the woman stops her relentless assault and takes a jerked step back. As I roll to my feet, finally managing to stand even as the pavement tries to throw me toward her, I see her eyes. They widen. There’s recognition behind there – as if she can appreciate what I am, and it looks exactly like the look Walter gave me after I saved him.

Her lips open in a jerked move, but she stops herself from saying something. She shakes her head and powers forward once more. She has more determination now, which is saying something. As she rushes toward me, it’s like facing an artillery attack.

The only thing that keeps me safe from her relentless blows is my body itself. It’s the same force that saw me rush to this laneway in the first place. As she slashes toward me with her electrified fists and continues to manipulate the space around us, it’s my feelings that keep me safe. That pulsing desperation that first woke me up in the car park and saw me run several blocks – it’s the strongest damn thing I’ve ever felt. And if I’d had the time, I would’ve been able to appreciate that it was coming from whatever John Rowley did to me when he looked into my eyes.

The woman slashes at my face once more, this time with one fist and one foot. She’s the agilest person I’ve ever met. She’s like some ninja or superhero off of a movie. The things she’s doing shouldn’t be physically possible. Human bodies aren’t built for moves like this – they should break and snap and pop.

But the woman? She just moves faster and faster as a new sense of desperation fills her.

Throughout the entire fight, I haven’t yet attacked.

But that changes as I sense something shift within me. It’s almost as if a switch is flicked in my head.

Maybe the woman can feel it, too, because, in a snapped second, her eyes blast wide.

I thrust forward. Since the fight began, my body has been glowing – but now that glow increases tenfold.

Though the woman is categorically the fastest thing I have ever fought – that doesn’t matter. For, as I round a hand into a fist and send a truly powerful charge of magic into my knuckles, there’s nothing she can do as I land a punch.

It slams into her gut and instantly sends her backward. It’s as if I’ve shot her from a cannon. There’s nothing she can do as she slams against the office building to our side. As her back impacts the concrete, even though it tries to push her backward as it undulates, I hear something snap in the wall.

She plows right through it. Not into somebody’s office inside, but into a supporting beam.

Concrete and plaster and snapped bits of steel crumble around her as she slouches onto the pavement.

I have a single second to appreciate just how much power I just used, then she snaps up.

She shoves a hand into her pocket, and in an instant, something forms around her.

It’s some kind of… barrier. A magical wall that crackles and sparks like a force field out of science fiction.

I’ve never seen one before, and that fact costs me, because even if my gut tells me to push out of the way, my confusion locks me to the spot.

As she plows forward, she rounds her shoulder, almost as if she intends to use herself like a battering ram. Her magical barrier slams into me, and there’s nothing I can do as it flattens me backward against the wall.

I hear her screaming as she pushes into me with all her might, trying to squish me between her crackling, charged force field and the concrete wall of the office block behind me.

Fear and terror blast through me as pain radiates through every part of my body. I feel at once as if I’m going to explode outward and yet implode with the force of a dying star.

And that desperation does something.

It unlocks something even deeper.

Before I know what I’m doing, I thrust a hand forward and I produce one of those magical barriers of my own.

There’s no thought in the action – I don’t understand what I’m doing, but I don’t need to. The desperation in my body is enough to dig as deep as it can to unlock powers that had previously been hidden from me.

The woman has enough time to scream, but it’s cut short as my barrier plows into hers, and with a snapping sound like a branch breaking, her magic shatters.

She’s thrown backward. Again I hit her with enough force that she slams across the laneway and strikes the office building on the opposite side.

She impacts the concrete, and it crumbles around her as she falls on her ass, her head and arms slouching down.

It lasts several seconds, then with a gasp and blood trickling over her lip, she pushes herself up once more.

This time she’s a hell of a lot warier, and she doesn’t throw herself at me.

She takes several steps back. And though, before, she was confident as hell on her high heels, now she wobbles, her body obviously injured.

I just stare at her, wanting to draw up my hands and gaze at them until I understand what on earth I just produced.

I don’t have the time. She shoves a hand into her pocket, pulling out her phone.

A thrill of fear passes through me as I realize she’s probably calling for reinforcements.

I go on the attack.

As I do, she flattens one hand toward the pavement, and it kicks and buckles with more power than it had before. It’s as if this laneway is undergoing its own category 10 earthquake.

Somehow, I manage to leap into the air, turn around, land my feet on the nearest building, then leap toward her.

As I do, I finally call on my swords.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to reveal them, but there is a much stronger part that appreciates that if I allow that woman to call for backup, I’m screwed. I just have to hope that whatever spell she’s cast on this laneway is enough to ensure that nobody in the office block beside me or in the streets beyond will be able to see what I’m about to do next.

I sail over her head as my two swords slam into my grip. Though I usually fight with them independently – allowing them to spin around my form as I simply control them with my mind – for now, I need their reassuring weight and strength in my grip.

I tighten my fingers around them in a snapped move as I finally land right behind the woman.

She has time to scream.

I go straight for the hand that’s holding her phone. I slash at it, and though she tries to bolster her defenses as she sends another blast of magic powering over her arm, it isn’t enough.

My sword slices into her arm. It doesn’t cut it clean off, but in a single move, breaks her magic as if it’s nothing more than glass. The sound of it shattering is so goddamn loud, I swear the entire city will be able to hear it.

It’s enough to see her drop her phone.

She jerks toward it, but I get there first. I snap down to the ground, pluck it up, and hold it in one hand before I pocket it, allowing my swords to become autonomous.

They spin around me then push toward the woman.

She’s terrified now. The snarling greed she started this fight with is long gone, and her face is plastered with sweat, her eyes bulging wide, rimmed with white.

“You can’t be—” she began.

I don’t give her the opportunity to finish.

I send both of my swords slicing toward her.

She tries to jerk to the side, but there’s nowhere she can go. She also tries to force more magic into the undulating pavement, obviously attempting to throw me off my feet – but it doesn’t matter now. Once I called on my swords, it’s almost as if the spell she’s casting on the pavement can no longer affect me. I stand there, and the section of bitumen I’m on remains perfectly still. Several meters from me in every direction it shudders and bucks like a raging bull – and yet, it can’t touch me.

The woman screams.

Just before my swords can slice through her middle, she does something. She makes a specific movement with her hand and rubs it right across her chest.

There’s a sparking moment, and it’s just enough to distract me before my swords can slice through her middle.

I bring an arm up to protect my face from the bright light.

As I do, she changes, right in front of my eyes. She goes from wearing her picture-perfect pencil suit to becoming someone else entirely. She is still female, but now she’s 20 years older, wearing old clothes, and has a rubbish bag at her side. She looks as if she’s homeless.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Though I know that the pawns can alter their appearances – I also appreciate that what this woman is doing is completely different. For, throughout the entire fight, she looked human. Only now, she looks like a completely different human.

Suddenly, what she’s doing to the laneway stops.

That bulging sensation disappears with a slight cracking sound like bubble wrap being stamped on.

She pivots on her foot and throws herself forward, shooting me one desperate look over her shoulder as she heads toward the populated street beyond.

I have a single second to appreciate that her magic is no longer keeping this fight hidden.

If she runs out into the city street, there’ll be nothing I can do.

So I have to end this now.

Unconsciously, before I know what I’m doing, I direct my palms down to the ground. I copy what she did. I spread my fingers in exactly the same way, and try to pulse magic into the ground.

It shouldn’t work. But it does. Something in my body understands this magical world, even if my mind can’t yet comprehend it. And as I send a charge of magic into the pavement and the laneway around me, space starts to bend.

It’s enough that as the woman reaches the mouth of the laneway, she is thrust backward.

She hits an invisible wall, rolls, then pushes to one knee, facing me.

She looks terrified. Her eyes couldn’t be wider. Her lips wobble in and out, in and out. “Queen… you’re an unattached queen. You… you shouldn’t exist,” she manages.

Her words and surprise are enough to hold me in place. She’s the second person to say that.

Unattached queen?

What the hell does that mean?

I take a step forward, intending to ask her, but she shakes her head desperately.

“I won’t work for anyone else. I belong to my king, and if he can’t have me – no one can,” with those bitter words, she suddenly makes a fist, brings it up, and taps it on her chest. It looks as if she’s beating her chest like an angry gorilla. And yet, at the last moment, just as her fist strikes her sternum, I see something form in her hand.

A sleek pointed knife.

By the time I see it, it’s too late. It’s already sliced all the way through her chest.

Her eyes widen one last time, she stares at me, and then she dies.

For the first time in a fight, I don’t see an after image of her body shoot over my left shoulder.

Instead, when she strikes the ground, she shivers once, twice, and then returns to her original appearance.

Blood even spreads out from her chest, quickly covering the pavement.

I buck back, clasping a hand over my mouth and gasping in true fear.

I’ve seen a lot of death over the last year and a half – but nothing strikes me like this.

The pawns look like monsters – there’s no denying that. This woman? She has red blood – blood that spills from the deep, mortal wound in her chest and trickles toward my feet.

I lurch back, now clasping both hands over my mouth.

Though I didn’t kill this woman, that doesn’t make any difference. Tears start to streak down my cheeks at the horror of the situation.

It takes me too long to appreciate that the magical spell I’ve cast on the laneway is still in operation.

Space is all twisted around me, and as I wrench my gaze off the dead woman and cast it to the mouth of the laneway beyond, I can see pedestrians strolling past. They don’t even glance my way.

I shake back-and-forth on my feet, but no matter how scared I become, my spell over the laneway does not break.

Slowly, I start to come to my senses.

I can’t afford to stay here.

I have to get out away.

And yet, I also appreciate one fact.

People saw me running into this laneway. Even if they can’t see me right now, that doesn’t matter. The moment I end this spell and leave, they will see the dead woman. And they’ll put two and two together even if there were no witnesses to me actually murdering her.

Though I know the police will already be looking for me, I just can’t afford to add more fuel to the fire.

“I need a disguise,” I suddenly say to myself, the words popping out from nowhere. And as they hit the air, I realize something.

I stare back down at the woman, eyes open as wide as they can be.

Before I know what I’m doing, I make that specific motion she did across her chest when she changed appearances.

As I do, magic charges through my hand and leaps through my skin. I start to glow, too, and before I know what’s happening, I feel myself… change. It’s one of the strangest experiences of my life, and it makes my entire body feel as if I’m being rolled thin.

I shake and gasp and shiver, and I look down to see that my hands are jittering on the spot. Except they’re not jittering – at least the muscles and bones aren’t. It’s almost as if the image that sits atop them is moving. In and out, as if it can’t decide what it wants to be.

“This is impossible,” I gasp as I stare at my hands then down to my body.

I can’t deny it, though.

I try to concentrate, appreciating that unless I can tell this disguise spell what to do, the magic I’m pumping into it will be wasted.

I close my eyes, clench my teeth, and try to imagine someone who looks completely opposite to me.

I’m short – so I imagine somebody tall. I have long dark hair, so I give myself cropped, short, bright white blond hair. My lips are soft and large, so I make them small and shapely. My eyes are brown, so I make them blue.

These ideas snap into my head, and as they do, I feel them snap down into my body.

I begin to change.

More magic spreads from my hand as it’s clasped on my chest, the power biting into my body with such eagerness, I finally feel a thrill dance up through my spine and sink hard into the base of my head.

My head jerks back, my eyes open wide, and I gasp.

Then I let my hand drop.

It takes me several seconds until I allow myself to look down.

Slowly, I drop my hands and stare from them down to my legs, then to my torso, then up to my shoulders.

I… I’m different. I’m taller. I’m wearing different clothes, too. Gone is my treasured leather jacket. I’m in a business suit.

“Jesus Christ,” I snap, trying to jerk away from myself, but getting nowhere as this new appearance comes with me.

There’s nothing I can catch my reflection in, so I bring up a hand and carefully, tentatively run it through my hair. It’s short.

I even pluck a strand out, bring it down, and stare at it. I clasp my free hand over my mouth as I appreciate the strand is bright white blond.

I… changed my appearance.

I rock back and forth on the spot.

Just… how much magic do I have? Just what am I capable of?

And what, in God’s name, is an unattached queen? And why would it make everyone so terrified?

These are questions I can’t answer.

But there’s someone who can answer them, something tells me. It’s my heart. It can’t speak, but I swear it shudders, and unbidden from my unconsciousness, a thought of John Rowley arises.

He clearly knows about this world. He probably knows why those pawns were after Walter Shepherd, too.

And if I could just get close enough to him to find out what he knows, maybe I can finally start to appreciate what’s going on with me.

Those thoughts slam into my head with such rapidity, I take several shuddering steps backward. Then, for the first time since the woman killed herself, I stand with perfect poise and rigidity. Determination flows back into me second by second.

… I don’t look anything like myself anymore. So what’s to stop me from walking into Rowley Tower again? This time I’ll be smart. This time, not only will I be able to hide my appearance, but I’ll be able to control myself. For I have forewarning of what John Rowley can do to my body.

For the past two weeks I’ve been in hell, but now I see a ray of sunshine. Literally. For as the clouds part above, I swear this laneway is lit up with a holy glow.

I curl my hands into fists, take a step away from the woman, and turn.

A plan starts to form in my head.

I have to be careful. God knows I’ll have to be careful. But I need to get as close to John Rowley as I can.

It’s time to find out what I am, what I’m capable of, and why so many goddamn people are after me.

Chapter 8

I don’t stride straight into Rowley Tower. I’m smarter than that now.

I appreciate I need to have more than a single conversation with the guy – I need to get close enough to him that I can spy on him permanently.

Which means one thing – I need to go for a job.

Though I have the requisite skills to go into security, I want to keep as far away from Antonio as I can.

I settle for a secretarial position. And luckily enough for me, one has come up.

I don’t have a CV, I don’t have references, but that doesn’t matter. Because I have something far more important.

I have the ability to change my appearance. I tell myself that even if I fail to get this secretarial position, I can just go for a cleaning position, or a receptionist position. Now I can disguise myself, all I have to do is be creative and persistent.

I can also be my own referee. All I have to do is show up disguised as another person.

I don’t get the secretarial position, but I do manage to get a position as a nighttime cleaner, and before I know it, I finally have access to Rowley tower.

Even if I can’t spy on John during the day, in many ways, my position as a cleaner is far more advantageous. It gives me access to the building. And my growing magic? Gives me access to everything else.

The first day I start work, I’m nervous. I hide it, though. Which is easy now I can disguise myself.

I think I’ll have time to slip through John’s offices, but I don’t. This tower is so large that the cleaning staff is substantial.

So I finish work and head home. It’s the same for the next week and a half. Before I know it, I kind of slip back into my old life – or at least a variation of it. Though I no longer can afford to hunt during the night, and I don’t have a house to call my own, I come to work and earn a paycheck.

In fact, nothing happens until I’m working late one night.

I’m mopping the floors in the atrium, the reception staff packing up behind me.

No one pays attention to me. The cleaning staff, it seems, are invisible.

Antonio is finally back at work, and I’m starting to appreciate he actually lives in this building. He’s more than John’s head of security – it seems he’s John’s bodyguard, too.

Though I haven’t been able to do any quality snooping over the past week and a half, at least being in this building has taught me something. Not least about the energy of the place itself.

I haven’t clapped eyes on John since I started working here, but that doesn’t matter – because this entire building is imbued with him. I swear that every section of concrete, stone, and steel somehow vibrates with his very presence. And every day I come to work, it fills me with this sense… that I’m somehow in the only place I should be.

Though I’m trying to concentrate on mopping, I always have to be careful when I’m in the atrium that I don’t pay too much attention to that chessboard.

It haunts me.

I can appreciate how important it is now – for the longer I spend around it, the more I can feel how powerful it is.

It seems to be an attractor of magic, if that makes any sense. For if I dare to get too close to it, I swear it will turn on like a magnet and suck me toward it.

I shove my mop back into my bucket, drain it, and continue to address a stubborn patch of dirt on the floor.

That’s when I look up.

Before I do, I feel a race of nerves catapult up my back, spread down my spine, and shift over my cheeks until I know they’re as pale as new snow.

John.

My heart beats twice as fast, and this dense pressure builds in my lungs as if somebody has just sucked all of the air out of the room.

I know I freeze. I know I look terrified. I can’t move myself as I hear a ping on the other side of the room and the elevator doors open.

I swear I can feel him as he walks across the atrium.

He’s talking to Antonio in low tones, but I manage to pick up what they’re saying, even though they’re still on the opposite side of the room.

“This is bad, sir – he thinks you’re moving in on his turf.”

“We didn’t kill his fifth,” John replies.

“Nobody else in this town has the power to kill a fifth – he’s put two and two together and assumes it’s us.”

A thrill traces hard up my back and makes me stand all the straighter, my hands now clamping around my mop so hard, I hear the plastic crack.

That’s enough to bring me back to earth, and I let out a hissed breath as I bend over and force myself to continue to mop.

Antonio and John stop chatting as they shift past me.

I swear I can feel John’s eyes on the back of my neck, but his gaze doesn’t linger.

He heads toward the main doors. But that would be when someone knocks on them.

They’re already closed – as it’s way past close of business.

I slice my gaze to the side and see John stiffen. Antonio comes to a stop beside him, and I catch sight of the man’s face. It’s pale, his eyebrows drawn up toward his hairline. “Shit, he’s here. What do we do?” Antonio asks in a voice that’s not designed to carry, and yet one that cannot hide from my hearing.

I’m attuned to John – I swear I am. I swear even though he’s several meters to my side that I can feel the sweat suddenly slick across his brow and his heart begin to beat twice as hard in his chest.

“We can’t afford to anger him,” John says.

“Are you going to let him into the building?” Antonio snaps, his fear evident.

“It appears we have no choice. I’ll explain the situation to him—”

“He isn’t going to believe you didn’t murder his fifth. You’re the only person in town with the power to do that.”

“And yet, I didn’t.”

I know who they’re talking about. They’re talking about that woman. She referred to herself as a fifth, and I really doubt it’s a coincidence.

She also referred to herself as having a king, and as I let my gaze lock on the doors at the far side of the room, an awful thrill of anticipation climbs high up my back.

Could… could there be a king out there?

It’s such a goddamn crazy thought to have.

It makes me sound like I’m thinking of knights of old, of castles, of regencies.

I’m not. Because even if I don’t understand what a king is, I swear my body does.

It tightens as a strange kind of thrill spreads through my gut.

John and Antonio are still talking in low tones that I know they think can’t carry to me. But my hearing is now so locked on John that I swear I can hear every single wheeze of his breath.

“We have no choice,” John repeats. “Invite him in.”

“You want to go up to your office? I can lead him there,” Antonio begins.

I can feel John stiffen long before he lets his mouth split open and he says in a low tone, “No. That’s too dangerous. I need to be right here in case he starts anything.”

“Should we clear the room?” Antonio says.

I’m not facing either of the men, and considering they’re deliberately talking in tones that shouldn’t carry, I’m just forcing myself to continue to mop.

And yet, just out of the corner of my eye, I can see Antonio’s gaze lock on me. It doesn’t rest there long enough that I can start to fear that he recognizes me – even under this disguise. It’s just glancing.

“We don’t have time,” John says in a constricted and yet knowing tone.

A second later, the door opens. Somehow, it unlocks itself, and the glass sweeps opened to reveal a man.

He’s not alone. There are two other men with him and one woman.

He strides in.

He’s wearing a jet-black suit with a white tie. In fact, the fabric is so black, it looks as if it’s been spun from the depths of space itself.

I try not to stare – I know I shouldn’t stare.

I can’t stop myself.

The man’s handsome, and instantly, I recognize him. He’s one of the city’s most successful businessmen. He’s young and rich, just like John Rowley.

And, just like John Rowley, the effect of looking at him is unmistakable.

My body… does something. Every single cell feels like it jolts to the side, almost as if I’m trying to avoid him and yet simultaneously approach him at once.

What’s going on with me?

I want to scream out loud, and yet it’s through my courage and determination alone that I continue to mop. Though my body is as rigid as a spring that’s getting ready to bounce, I force myself to go through the motions of bringing my mop back and forth.

I know I shouldn’t stare, but I can’t stop myself from glancing from the man’s entourage then back to his face.

He’s handsome – of course he is. Spencer Gates is one of the city’s most attractive socialites.

He is also arrogant. A fact that is underlined in every move as he swaggers toward John.

John holds his ground.

Antonio stiffens beside John, and the exact way the man moves reminds me of how Antonio fought that pawn in my kitchen. The fact that Antonio showed speed and agility that wasn’t quite human.

I’ve already suspected that Antonio could be like me. Just how much like me, I have no idea.

But that’s the point of me being here, isn’t it?

Despite the fact I feel like I’m going to explode from the sensations running riot through my body, a part of me can appreciate that this is the perfect opportunity. I accepted employment at Rowley Tower so I could watch, so I could learn. And it’s clear that whatever is going to happen next is going to be important.

John clears his throat. “You should have called ahead,” he says.

“You should have stayed your hand. You have enough pieces, Rowley. You shouldn’t go after mine. I warned you before,” Spencer’s lips are so thin and white, they look like flickering ticker tape in a wind, “if you go after my board, I will go after yours with everything I have.”

I shift around, pretending I’m mopping in another spot that gives me a view of what’s going on.

Though Spencer is as mad as hell, he’s not drawing the attention of the receptionists.

As for the three people he brought with him, I lock my gaze on them in turn. The two men are strong, and the woman is athletic, too. They’re all dressed in expensive suits. But it’s not the suits that hold my attention. It’s the way they hold themselves. Instantly, they remind me of that woman who called herself the fifth.

… I suddenly appreciate that this man – Spencer – is the king the fifth was going to drag me back to. Apparently Spencer, just like John, could use an unattached queen – whatever the hell that means.

I rue the fact that I now have short hair – because I long for a fringe I can hide behind as I continue to force myself to mop.

“Let’s take this up to my office,” John tries.

“Why? I’m blocking our conversation – your staff can’t hear me. And I assume you’re not dumb enough to let them see us.”

I feel John’s gaze slice across the room, from his receptionist desk, then over to me.

… Does his gaze linger on me? Or is that just my hopeful heart?

John clears his throat. “I didn’t kill her.”

“You’re the only other king in the city who has the power to try. And it was a foolish goddamn move—”

“Why would I attack you?”

“Because your power has gone to your head,” Spencer bites back.

I think I can feel it now – the spell that Spencer is casting to ensure nobody can pick up on the conversation.

Suffice to say, it has no chance of working with me. I pick up every single word that’s being said – more than that, too. I can feel Spencer’s anger – I can feel John’s shock. It’s like I’m momentarily tied to both of their hearts. And I shouldn’t need to point out that it’s one of the most awful sensations I’ve ever felt. It’s like being stretched – like being rolled.

I almost make a gagging motion and want to clamp a hand over my mouth, but I control myself in time.

I’m now clutching hold of my broom so tightly, I swear in a few seconds the plastic will shatter.

“If you came here for a fight – know that I will defend myself,” John suddenly says, tone changing completely.

“And know that I will defend myself back. But I’m not an idiot, John Rowley – I would not attack you as brazenly as you have done to me. I appreciate the old rules.”

My gut clenches on the term old rules.

I’ve heard that exact term before – or at least, I’ve read it. It’s in my family book – the one I lost when that pawn stole my bag.

A thrill escapes up my back, and before I know what I’m doing, I look right up and lock my attention on Spencer.

Though it’s obvious he has so much hatred for John that nothing should be able to deviate his dark gaze from the man, Spencer sees me staring at him.

I quickly pretend I’m looking somewhere else, flatten a hand over my hair, and go back to mopping.

But even as I turn, I can feel his gaze on the side of my neck.

“What are you looking at?” John demands. “This conversation is blocked from my staff, as you said. They shouldn’t be able to see you.”

Spencer pauses. “Indeed,” he says after a moment. “Now answer your charge – why did you kill my fifth?”

“I did not.”

“Then who did?” Spencer demands, and there’s a searching quality to it. Maybe only I can pick it up, because I swear that every single sense in my body is locked on him.

One thing’s for sure, John doesn’t appreciate it’s a leading question. He lets out a tense sigh. “I do not know. Perhaps another king has moved in on our turf.”

Spencer pauses again. For some reason, even though my back is still turned toward him, I get the distinct impression that his gaze is locked on me momentarily. There’s something very penetrating about it, almost as if he’s trying to bore through my skin to get to something underneath.

“… Indeed,” he manages again. “But that is speculation. And that does not change anything. Either you will offer me a piece of equal equivalence, or I will start a match.”

A piece of equal equivalence? A match? I have no goddamn idea what they’re talking about.

It’s… this sounds crazy, but it’s almost as if they’re talking about a game of chess. I only put that together as, unconsciously, I shift close to the chessboard in the alcove, and my gaze darts up and locks on it.

A thrill escapes hard up my back.

John takes a heavy breath, and I swear I can feel how locked his jaw is from here. “You have no right to initiate a match. You have no evidence.”

“I have all the evidence. Unless you can prove that another unnamed king has moved in on our turf, then I have to assume that you have made an illegal move against one of my pieces. And you will pay the price. Offer something of equal equivalence, or I will take one. There may have once been a time when you were unrivaled, John Rowley, but appreciate that now I am a far stronger player.” With that, Spencer whirls on his foot. He strides toward the door on the opposite side of the room and leaves.

My back is still to him, but I feel it again – his gaze swiping past me.

… Does he suspect something? Did he see me looking at him?

Just what kind of spell was John casting? Though I appreciate from what Spencer said that I shouldn’t have been able to pick up what they were saying, what if John was somehow casting some kind of magic to ensure that no one could see Spencer and his entourage? And what if making eye contact – however briefly – with Spencer alerted him to the fact I’d broken through the spell?

Fear goads at my heart, tearing through my chest as I now clamp my broom so hard, I shatter the plastic in several places.

“This is bad, sir,” Antonio says. “But you won’t offer him up one of your pieces, will you?”

“I will find a way,” John says as he turns on his foot and strides toward the elevators.

I wait for him to see me. I wait to feel his gaze rest on the back of my neck like Spencer’s did. But it doesn’t. And John strides away, enters the lifts, and before I know it, he leaves.

I’m wired as I stand there, finally pausing and resting on the mop, breathing as if I’ve just been in a marathon.

But then something strikes me.

For the past one and a half weeks as I’ve worked at Rowley Tower I’ve waited to find something out – and now I have. Spencer is a king. What’s more, it’s now clear Rowley is a king, too.

I stare open eyed at the chessboard again, my gaze darting across each square on the board.

I make a quick decision, pluck up my broom, shove it in my bucket, and push it toward the service door on the opposite side of the room.

I still haven’t mopped the atrium, and I’m shirking my duties, but that doesn’t matter.

Because I realize Spencer is an opportunity I can’t ignore.

I need to figure out if he’s suspicious of me.

I open the service door, dump my broom and mop on the other side, then run.

I’ve already memorized the blueprint of Rowley Tower, and I head straight to a side exit.

I run out onto the darkened street.

As I do, I scan it, looking for the most expensive car I can.

Sure enough, I find one, and as I jerk my head to the side and narrow my gaze, I can just pick up Spencer through the darkened, tinted glass.

I pelt forward, not toward him, but down a side street.

I know if I have any chance of tracking Spencer, I’m going to need to get up onto the rooftops to get a vantage of him.

The towers in downtown are too tall, though, and it takes me a while to find a 10-story apartment block. I no longer have to dart down a laneway in order to climb on top of the building. I can now just cast that spell I learned from the fifth. With an open palm directed at the pavement, I send a jolt of magic into the ground, and that’s all it takes to warp space around me.

I’ve been practicing this spell for the past week and a half, and now it’s become automatic.

It’s all I need as I jump on top of the apartment block and stream forward. It takes me a while to discern Spencer’s car again, but soon enough I manage it, and I follow him.

It doesn’t take long until he drives down several blocks and stops.

He parks on the side of the street, and soon enough, I see a man walking out of the shadows toward his car.

A thrill of recognition climbs hard up my back and spreads over my head, tickling my scalp as if I’ve just been covered in ants.

The problem is, I don’t know the man who reveals himself from the shadows. He is wearing a long ankle-length trench coat and a dark hat.

He almost looks like an amusing caricature of a shady assassin from some comic book – but that would be denying the exact sense I get from him even from up here. I’m crouched low on the roof, body hunched forward, breath trapped in my chest. And that breath only becomes more trapped as I try to focus on the man. There’s a limit to how much detail I can pick up, even as I narrow my eyes and try to bolster my senses as best as I can.

Still, the sense of him is undeniable.

He’s… dark, dark in a way I’ve never experienced before, dark in a way my naïve mind had once believed was impossible.

It’s almost as if Satan himself has suddenly reached up from hell, slapped on a jacket and a hat, and gone for a stroll.

Spencer opens the door to his limousine, and the man takes several steps out of the shadows, stopping just in front of the open door.

Spencer’s staff have now spilled from the limousine, and the two strong men are standing either side of the car, heads darting this way and that, obviously looking for witnesses.

As for the woman, she’s several meters away from the car with her hand flattened on the pavement. Even from here I can tell that her eyes are closed and I can pick out the quick, darting movements of her lips as she obviously subvocalizes something under her breath.

A spell.

Though I shouldn’t know this, I swear it’s a spell that’s trying to hide Spencer and his conversation with the dark man.

It won’t work on me, though.

I shift further forward on the roof, careful never to come in view of the street below.

The night is dark, and the sky is covered in clouds. There’s no flicker of starlight, no moonlight, no nothing. And even though we’re downtown and the city is usually well lit, this section of it is pitch black.

It doesn’t matter – as my eyes can see in the dark these days.

I shift further forward. When I ran from Rowley’s building and jumped up onto the roof, I changed my appearance. I didn’t revert back to what I originally look like – I let my hair grow, let my skin color change, let my eyes alter. And yet, one thing remains – my leather jacket. It comforts me as I shift all the way forward, the fabric creaking as I angle my head down.

“He doesn’t know,” Spencer says, that obvious arrogance in his voice. It’s arrogance that clearly marks his entire character. From the way he moves, to the way he dresses, to the way he looks at people – it’s clear that Spencer believes he’s better than others. What’s more? It’s clear he believes he can take what he wants.

“You must be sure,” the shadowy man replies.

Spencer snorts. “He suggested it was another king.”

“Were you careful to read his expression? Did you use your training?” the shadowy man continues to question.

“Of course I utilized my training,” Spencer snaps. “He has no idea that there’s one out there,” as Spencer says the word one, there’s an unnatural hushed quality to his voice. It’s the first time he hasn’t displayed direct arrogance, and for some reason, it makes my back crawl.

My stomach clenches and my heart pitches as I now shift all the way forward on the roof, coming so close to the edge, that with little more than a touch from behind, I would teeter over and fall.

I don’t care.

Something tells me I need to get as close to this conversation as I can to pick up every detail that’s possible. For, even though I don’t consciously know what they’re talking about, subconsciously, I can appreciate it’s me.

“This is an opportunity that only comes around once in 10 lifetimes. You will never have another,” the shadowy man says.

I can only catch a glimpse of Spencer through his open doorway. For most of the conversation, he’s remained seated in a casual position, but now he loosens his arms from around his middle and clutches his hands on the edge of his seat as he angles his head out of the car and stares up at the man. “I know,” he says.

“Then don’t ruin this opportunity. If John remains unaware, you will have no competition for her.”

Fear slams into me, itching down my spine, curling around my heart, clutching at my throat. It feels like I’ve swallowed an assassin who’s trying to kill me from the inside out.

I almost gasp, and I have to draw a hand up and clamp it over my mouth, my breath hissing between my fingers.

They’re talking about me.

There’s no other way to explain what they’re saying or to explain the sensations of hopelessness that are raging through me.

“An unattached queen is the rarest treasure in the world. You will not find another.”

“I know,” Spencer spits bitterly. “And I have made the first move. Trust me when I say that John Rowley has no idea that one is out there.”

“I hope that you are right. For if he does, you will have a game on your hands. And though your arrogance makes you mistakenly believe that you can take John Rowley on in any match, you are wrong. He has more experience than you, and even though you took one of his most important pieces in Walter Shepherd, know that he has many more.”

… Walter Shepherd?

Spencer was the one who ordered Walter dead?

Then doesn’t that mean—

Before I can finish that thought, Spencer finally exits his vehicle. He locks a hand on the open doorway and pulls himself out. As he does, I see that he’s holding something.

Even from here I recognize the book. My book. The old tattered blue leather, the rubbed-off gold lettering.

Seeing it is like being punched in the gut. And I now have to plant both hands over my mouth. But it’s not enough – I gasp, and somehow that gasp travels.

The shadowy man is the first and only one to react. He jerks his head up and to the side like a hawk trying to track movement.

Though I want to remain there pressed up against the side of the roof to pick up the rest of their conversation, fear slams into me and pulls me back.

I turn, shove forward, and run.

I don’t hear anybody following me, but that doesn’t matter, because I don’t stop running until I’m all the way on the opposite side of town. Then I change my appearance, then I change it once more.

It takes me a long time to make my way back to Rowley Tower, and as I do, my body doesn’t calm down. It only becomes all the more terrified.

I’m an unattached queen, which, according to that shadowy man, is the rarest treasure in all the world. Worse, it appears Spencer has my book.

And even worse?

It appears he has every intention of coming after me.

I don’t know what to do. But my body does. It walks me back into Rowley Tower.

For here alone I feel safe.

Chapter 9

I’m very fortunate that by the time I make it back to Rowley Tower nobody has noticed I’m gone. Most of the other cleaning staff have already gone home for the night – and maybe that process was expedited by John himself. For, even though I don’t see him as I enter the tower again, I swear the feeling of the building has changed.

Even from here, I can sense his desperation.

I fleetingly wonder if he can sense mine as I bring up a shaking hand, push it through the collar of my uniform, and try to press my cold, sweaty fingers over my heart.

I feel like an utter wreck. It’s not just because of what I learned – it’s because of the lingering effect of that shadowy man.

As I make my way back to where I left my mop, I grab it, twist around on my foot, and lean hard against the wall behind me.

I close my eyes and try to suck in several calming breaths, but short of several Valiums, there’s nothing that’s going to be able to calm me. Nor should there be anything that should calm me. One of the wealthiest men in the city is now after me. He doesn’t know what I look like now, but does that matter?

There’s one fact about this world that I have to keep front and center at every moment – I don’t know enough about it to make any realistic plans. Before I met that fifth in the laneway, I had absolutely no idea that not only can you make the pavement dance as if it’s a bucking bronco, but you can also disguise yourself with mere magic.

It takes me a long time to pull myself away from the comfort of that wall.

Somehow, I force myself to finish my shift, even gathering the courage to walk back out into the atrium. It’s a good thing, I tell myself forcefully. Because there’s no one left in the atrium anymore, and as I mop, it allows me to access the confused energies of the place. And they are confused. Even though I can still sense John’s underlying presence – as it always inhabits every stone, particle of concrete, and scrap of steel in the building – there’s a hard edge to it now. I wonder if the building is somehow connected to him, somehow alive? And as he feels fear at Spencer’s threats, I wonder if the rooms around me feel that very same fear?

Or maybe it’s just me, I reason as I clench my teeth and walk back to the staff room right in the bowels of the building. Maybe it’s just my growing paranoia.

Though I’ve been weird my entire life, back as a kid, I’d had this hopeless optimism about me, too. I’d always thought that I’d be able to bounce back from anything.

But you tell me how the hell any normal person would be able to bounce back from this, let alone somebody as goddamn alone as me?

That thought is truly unsettling as I make my way into the staff room.

I wash up my broom, lock it up, then kind of just sit there on one of the employee couches.

I’ll give John Rowley credit where credit’s deserved – at least he treats all of his staff equally. The receptionists and the other office workers may completely ignore me when I’m out there mopping, but at least the building designers had the kindness to appoint the cleaning room just as well as the other staff rooms in the tower.

There’s several large couches, an electric urn, free milk, free coffee, free tea, and free sugar.

I make myself a massive cup of extremely sugary tea. It’s not because I like it sweet – it’s because I have to calm my nerves, and at the same time, I have to refuel.

Though I’m only starting to appreciate this, I know I have a natural limit to my magic. I’ve never come up against that wall before, but I will. And it may not even happen in a battle. If I’m not careful to give myself enough energy, I may never even make it to the next battle.

I sit there on one of the couches glumly as I suck down my tea and then go and make myself another. By the time I’m ready to make myself a third, I have to stop myself. It’s not because I’m full – it’s because I can’t dare use too much sugar. If I go through a whole packet, my manager will find out, and I’ll be done for stealing resources.

So I just… sit back on the couch.

Then I lie down. Then, before I know what I’m doing, I close my eyes.

I haven’t slept easily in weeks.

I don’t have an apartment anymore, and without a roof over my head, every night I have to find somewhere to sleep. And every night, I go to sleep with the harrowing possibility that when I wake, it will be to a pawn’s sword pressed against my throat.

But even though I don’t appreciate it as I fall asleep, tonight it’s much, much easier to drift off. Because tonight, I feel safe.

It doesn’t last, though.

I can’t tell you how long I’m asleep for, maybe an hour, maybe two.

But I wake as my heart gives an almighty beat, almost as if somebody has attached it to an engine and they’ve just revved it.

I bolt up and sit straight, eyes wild as I expect the worst.

But a pawn doesn’t have a sword pressed against my throat.

No.

There’s something much worse.

John Rowley.

He’s standing several meters away, back propped up against a wall, arms crossed in front of his considerable, carved chest, an unreadable look in his eyes.

It takes me a moment to realize I’m his employee, and I’ve just been kipping on his couch.

I straighten up, stand, and make no attempt to disguise how pale my cheeks become. “I’m so sorry, sir. I… I must’ve been really tired. I took a small lie down on the couch, and before I knew it—”

He brings up a hand.

There’s quickness to the move, an underlying edge of fear pulsing through his body, and yet, he has a warm, broad smile. “There’s no need to apologize. That’s why the couches are there. I appreciate that cleaning is one of the hardest jobs in my tower. You don’t need to say sorry,” he repeats.

There’s unmistakable genuineness about what he’s saying, and before I can fear that he’s just trapping me and he’s going to fire me, he offers me another one of those warm smiles, and I find myself melting.

I sit back down on the couch. I know it’s probably a better idea to stand – a better idea to look at least mildly sorry for what I’ve done, even if he doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem.

But to be honest, I can’t. My body is weary. What’s more, it desperately needs the sleep it was just getting.

It was a restful sleep, too – the most restful sleep I feel like I’ve had in years.

Even though I should be concentrating on the fact that John Rowley himself is right there, several meters in front of me, I have enough attention left over to appreciate that I was right – I feel safe in this building. And I would give anything to stay here forever.

Because that would solve my primary problem, wouldn’t it?

Spencer.

I think I pale even more as I think of him, and I bring up a hand, latch it on the back of my neck, and try to push away the thought.

“You don’t have anywhere to stay, do you?” he suddenly asks.

My eyes bulge wide. It feels like the lids have been attached to horses that have been sent in opposite directions.

If I’d had any hope of hiding the truth, the cat is already well and truly out of the bag now.

He shrugs, finally unhooking his arms from around his middle. “Look, I’m not putting you on the spot. I’m trying to offer you a solution. Plenty of our staff go through housing issues.”

I don’t really know how to react, as I’m only half following the conversation.

The rest of me is being inexorably pulled into the connection that has formed between John and me. And every goddamn time I wind up in his presence, I wonder why he can’t feel this.

Because it’s honestly as if my heart has been connected to his. As if my heart now beats only when his says it’s okay to.

His expression softens even more. “Like I said, I’m not trying to put you on the spot – just offer you a solution.” He shrugs toward the couch. “That’s always open to you. It’s open to any one of my employees. If you need to stay in the tower until you get back on your feet, then do it. All I care about is if you show up to work in the morning.”

I know I have to say something. I know I can’t just sit here and look like a stunned mullet. So I force myself to nod, then I almost shake my head as I realize what he’s saying.

Is John Rowley really offering me the possibility of staying here? Sure, reading between the lines, it’s just a temporary thing, until I get back on my so-called feet, but he doesn’t know that that will never ever happen again for me.

And I can’t pass up this opportunity, even if being in his presence is terrifying.

I draw my hand off the back of my neck and clasp it in my lap. “Are you… serious? Can I just stay on this couch?”

He’s smiling again, and I start to wonder how he can make that move so warm.

I feel like I can easily fall into that smile. It’s also 150% different to the way Spencer looks.

Even before I found out he was a king – whatever the hell that is – every ordinary person on the street knew that Spencer Gates was an arrogant asshole. Because every person on the street knew that to be a multimillionaire, let alone a billionaire, you have to crack a few eggs – and in this instance, eggs means skulls.

Nobody acquires that much cash and fortune without taking it from somebody else.

So why do I feel so different around John?

I don’t even have to look for the answer.

It’s because he’s a king.

As soon as I think that, I can no longer make eye contact, and I clench my hands in my lap, not caring as the thumbs go white.

John clears his throat and shifts away from the wall, taking several steps toward me. “There are several employee rooms just down the corridor,” he says as he shrugs toward the basement. “You don’t need to stay on the couch. There are beds,” he points out.

I still can’t make eye contact, and I’m now clutching my thumb so hard, I swear the thing’s going to drop off. But I know I have to acknowledge what he said. I take a tight breath that kind of wheezes and rattles through my chest. “You… sure?”

“Like I said before, I treat my staff like family. If you fall on hard times, then it’s up to me to help.”

I don’t point out that he hasn’t referred to his staff as a family before.

I just slowly, carefully make eye contact, almost as if I think my pupils will give away the true reason for my fear.

He’s still smiling and looking directly at me.

In fact, he looks as if he’s giving me all his attention. And though that sends a thrill of fear darting hard up my back, at the same time, I tell myself that it gives me an opportunity.

My mind unavoidably tracks back to what Spencer said to the shadowy man in the suit. Spencer seemed so confident that John had no idea that an unattached queen is out in the city. And as I look up at John, I search for any sign that he’s searching for me.

For all I know, he may have the ability to sense magic just like I can sometimes. And for all I know, maybe my disguise spell doesn’t work on him.

But long before that prospect can make me shiver, I appreciate it’s not true.

John offers me one more smile as he shifts around, his expensive loafers squeaking against the polished floor.

He shoves his hands in his pockets and obviously moves to walk away, but then he pauses.

He pauses, because my treacherous little stomach chooses that exact moment to grumble. And it’s a hell of a grumble. One I can’t hide even as I cram my hands on my stomach and try to muffle it.

He shifts his head over his shoulder. “Hungry?” he asks.

With my hands still crammed over my stomach and a seriously embarrassed look crumpling my brow, I try to smile, but it’s a wincing move. “Not particularly,” I manage.

He laughs. It’s an easy move to listen to. It’s also… kind of personal. Almost as if John Rowley doesn’t just laugh for anyone. “I think your stomach begs to differ. While you’re staying here, you have free reign of the kitchen.”

“… Sorry?”

“Come on, I’ll show you where it is. I’m hungry myself,” he says as he shrugs forward.

Though that part of me that always wants to run the hell away from John Rowley tells me to make another excuse, my stomach rumbles again, and there’s no hiding it as John lets out another chuckle.

I have no option as I shift up from the couch and shuffle behind him, though I’m careful never to get too close.

A part of me still wants to get as close as we can possibly become, but I have a full handle on that urge as I follow John through the basement.

I thought I’d already memorized the blueprint of Rowley Tower, but he takes me to a section I’ve never been to.

We walk into a proper industrial kitchen.

There are several rows of gas burners, several massive metal benches, and right at the back, a long line of fridges.

As I catch a glimpse of the fridges, I preemptively clamp a hand on my stomach so it doesn’t sing for joy.

John ushers me to a seat, and then he sets about pulling things from the fridges. I don’t expect him to make food. He’s the owner of this building.

But that doesn’t stop him from methodically pulling a whole bunch of ingredients out of several of the fridges, lighting up one of the burners, and starting to cook. “I hope you like stir-fry,” he says as he begins to quickly chop the vegetables, looking exactly like a professional chef.

I don’t tell him that right now I would be happy to eat anything short of cardboard. For the past several weeks I’ve been dining out of dumpsters, and I sure as hell can’t be picky.

“Ah sure, I love stir-fry,” I say politely.

He shoots me a smile as he continues to cook.

Though I have to continually fight with the two warring sides of my personality that want to get close and yet as far away from John as possible, I have to admit that this offers me the perfect opportunity.

Ever since I started working at Rowley Tower, I’ve been trying to find out as much about this man as I can. But until the incident with Spencer tonight, I haven’t been able to clap my eyes on John Rowley.

Now he’s right here, several meters in front of me with his back to me, cooking.

I… I almost have the opportunity to do anything, don’t I?

And though, for a flickering second, I almost get the desire to tell him about Walter, I clamp down hard on my jaw.

John appears to be concentrating on cooking, but then I see that every few seconds, he darts his gaze up and locks it on the reflective splash panel behind the burner.

He’s looking at me.

I recede.

He clears his throat. “You applied for a position in the secretary pool, didn’t you?” he says out of the blue.

Fear starts to pulse through my heart.

I knew it was a mistake to retain the same disguise. When I’d been knocked back from the secretarial position and had applied for one as a cleaner instead, I should’ve just altered my appearance.

It’s too late now, though.

I force myself to smile, but even I can tell that it’s nothing more than stiff, clenched teeth and worry. “Yes, I did. I don’t… really have much experience, though,” I explain, as if I’m trying to defend the people who didn’t give me the position.

“I can appreciate that it’s pretty hard to get experience if nobody’s willing to give you a chance,” he says.

“Not every company can afford to give people chances. I appreciate you do important work here, sir, and it was the right decision not to give me a job as a secretary. I’m happy as a cleaner,” I say.

I’m babbling. I should be just pressing my lips closed, soldering them shut, and thinking of a way of getting out of here.

Because what if I say something stupid?

What if this chance to observe John backfires, and I give something away?

I needn’t have worried, though, as John continues to switch his focus from me to his cooking.

It takes me awhile to realize that he’s making a veritable mound of food.

There’s just the two of us, right? So why’s he making so much damn stir-fry? It looks like he’s going to feed 10 people.

I think he sees me frowning at the massive wok he’s using, and he looks a little sheepish. “Sorry. I… eat a lot,” he manages.

That could have just been a throwaway comment – and that’s what I try to tell myself. But then suspicion ignites in my gut.

I eat a lot – hell, I eat enough for 20 people. And I now know that John is a king, so maybe he’s just like me?

Which means he probably understands what’s going on with my body, right? Maybe he’s even been through it himself?

I… I long to reach out and ask what the hell is going on, but I force my hands to clamp around the metal bench, and then I force them to promptly release as I realize I really can’t afford to leave finger-dents in the metal.

I clear my throat and straighten up. “Thank you very much for this, sir,” I say as politely as I can, channeling my sale’s voice.

“No need to thank me. Like I said, I kind of consider all my staff to be extended family.”

His staff?

Or his pieces?

I go back to what I heard in the atrium. Spencer demanded a piece of equal value to replace his fifth.

Then my mind inexorably locks on the chessboard.

I can’t shake the suspicion that all of the crazy things that are happening – from my magic to Spencer’s threats – have something to do with that damn chessboard.

What if… Jesus Christ, I know this sounds mad… but what if we’re all trapped in some crazy, enormous game of real-life chest?

What if Spencer and John are kings, and me? I’m a queen.

I shake my head, bring my hand up, and try to flatten my hair on the premise that my scalp is just itchy. But what I’m really trying to do is push out my crazy thoughts as they run riot through my mind.

A giant game of chess? I’m mad. I must be going insane. And yet, at the same time, doesn’t it make some kind of sense?

In a chess game, though technically the most important pieces are the kings, the most valuable pieces are the queens. The queen is the one who can make nearly all of the moves that all the other pieces can do save for the horse.

I shake my head again.

God, if I wasn’t a freak, I’d check myself into the closest psych ward.

It takes me a moment to realize that John’s looking at me. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” he suddenly comments.

My eyes freeze open wide with surprise. “Sorry?” I stutter. “Tell you what?”

“How you fell on hard times,” he says as he walks past me, accesses something from the cupboard under the bench, and pulls out two large bowls.

He fills mine with food and hands it over to me.

He grabs some chopsticks and hands them over too. “Would you prefer a fork?”

I accept the chopsticks thankfully, not bothering to point out that right now I’m so damn hungry that I’d be more than happy to use my fingers.

Once upon a time, I was pretty unco when it came to using chopsticks, but now I find it damn easy as I shovel the food into my mouth.

Maybe I’m not eating gracefully, but my stomach doesn’t care. All it’s concerned about is the fact I’m finally refueling on something other than moldy bread.

John watches me, and far from looking disgusted, he gets a satisfied kind of smile on his face as he starts to eat his own food.

It takes me several mouthfuls to realize he’s still waiting for my answer.

I swallow down my food and sit a little straighter. “I guess I’ve just… fallen on some hard times, that’s all,” I say, trying to explain it without explaining anything at all. “I’m thankful for a job,” I add, trying to distract him before he can ask any more prying questions.

“You don’t need to be thankful. You’re a good worker. And considering you still managed to make it into work every day, despite the fact you don’t have a roof over your head, that makes you an even better worker and a more valuable employee.”

Before I know what he’s doing, he reaches forward, plucks up my empty bowl, and offers me another one.

I’m so distracted by the fact that I have food to eat, that I polish off another bowl.

“Where are you from?” he continues the conversation.

I shrug. “From right here in Rival City,” I say as I continue to shovel food into my mouth with alacrity.

I could polish off all of the massive stir-fry he made, and then several more. And I will if I’m not careful.

For there is something… distracting about John’s presence. More than the fact that my heart now seems to be tied to his. It’s… that I’m starting to feel comfortable around him. Almost as if I’ve known him my entire life. Which is utterly insane. Because we have just met.

He offers me another bowl, and I accept it again.

“Where did you work previously? If you did work previously,” he qualifies.

There’s something so smooth about his tone, something so easy about the way he’s looking at me.

Though I can’t appreciate this, it’s lulling me.

Enough that as I open my mouth, I don’t think as I automatically answer, “An electronics,” I begin.

I stop.

I was just about to admit that I worked in an electronics store.

I may currently have an appearance that’s completely opposite to the way I originally look, but that doesn’t matter. If I dangle enough suspicious information in front of John Rowley, he’ll put two and two together.

I cough, as if I’ve just swallowed something spicy. I tap my chest several times. “An electronics factory,” I manage.

“I wasn’t aware we have any in the city,” he says.

Is his tone guarded? Is the look in his eyes searching?

I start to stiffen up, and it’s the hardest thing in the world not to reach a hand forward, clamp the metal bench, and warp it.

I clear my throat again. “It wasn’t in this city. I’ve been pretty itinerant, moving around. I came back to Rival City in the hopes I’d find work. Plus, it’s the only place that feels like home,” I add, hoping that a detail like that will pluck at his heartstrings and make him forget his questions.

He shrugs and goes back to eating his food. “On that, we can agree. Though I appreciate that Rival City has… its problems,” he says, his tone guarded, “this city will always have a place in my heart.”

I can’t help but shiver as he says heart.

It’s not because he says it with a deep, husky, bedroom voice or anything like that.

It’s because the mere word seems to activate that connection between us, and before I know what I’m doing, I bring a hand up and rub it over my sternum.

At the same time, he does precisely the same movement.

He appears too distracted to notice he’s replicating my move, but as I look up and see what he’s doing, I let my hand drop as quickly as I can.

I’m all pale again, and even though my stomach is rejoicing at the fact I’m finally eating proper food, I quickly and suddenly lose my appetite.

I underestimated just how careful I would have to be around John.

I don’t just have to control what I say, but apparently, I have to control what I do.

Just what the hell kind of connection do we have?

I open my mouth, knowing I want to ask something, but incapable of thinking of a way of phrasing it that won’t sound suspicious.

He pauses and looks up at me. “The answer is you can stay here as long as you want. And you can eat as much food as you want, too,” he says as he shrugs toward the fridges on the opposite side of the room. “Don’t be bashful, either. It’s clear it’s been a long time since you’ve eaten properly – so you can have as much as you want.”

I force myself to smile. He’s being so damn kind. And I can’t just continue to sit here and stare at him in abject horror.

“You were in the atrium tonight, weren’t you?” he suddenly switches topics so quickly, I almost can’t keep up.

“Yeah,” I manage.

“I want to ask you for a favor,” he says.

I blanch. “Favor?” I say, trying so hard not to let my voice waver, but failing badly.

“I need you… not to spread the fact that Spencer Gates came to see me tonight.”

I stop. Frozen.

Jesus Christ, what do I say? How do I react?

I picked up every single thing that was said during the conversation, and it was more than enough to appreciate that both Spencer and John were casting their own spells. While Spencer was casting a spell that ensured no one would be able to pick up what was said, wasn’t John meant to be casting a spell that would hide Spencer from his staff?

So is this a test?

Should I just pretend that I didn’t see anyone?

Or maybe John didn’t start casting that spell until later?

I have no goddamn idea how to react, so I just sit there, gaping like a fish that’s been dragged from the ocean.

John puts down both his chopsticks, lays them neatly over the bowl in front of him, clasps his hands on the bench, and looks across at me.

It’s the first time he’s looked like a businessman – the first time he’s appeared anything other than kind.

Not that he doesn’t appear nice right now. It’s just that the specific look in his eyes gives me no illusion that he’s now my boss. “I know it might be… interesting news to spread with your friends on social media that Spencer Gates dropped into my tower tonight, but I ask you sincerely to keep that to yourself.”

I still don’t know how to react, but I tell myself I have to move. If I remain here locked in place like a goddamn statute, he’s going to appreciate something’s up.

And my gob-smacked silence is going to answer for me, anyway. So I force my lips to move. “I… I’m not on social media,” I say. “And I don’t have a phone – or the Internet,” I add.

He looks mollified. “Sorry, of course you don’t. I didn’t think that through. It’s just… it would be best for… a lot of people,” he says after a considerable pause where it’s clear he’s trying to search through his words carefully, “that you don’t tell anyone that Spencer came here.”

I’m staring at him with everything I’m worth, trying to use every skill of deduction I’ve ever had to figure out if this is a test.

Maybe it’s just my crazy gut instinct, and maybe this is the worst move I’ll ever make, but I nod. “I… wasn’t really paying attention in the atrium,” I say carefully. “I was working. I didn’t see any of the meeting, if you had one. And I don’t really know who Spencer is,” I say, stuttering. “So you don’t need to worry – I’m not going to tell anyone. I don’t have anyone to tell,” I add. I shouldn’t add the last bit. It sounds as if I’m feeling sorry for myself. But it’s genuine.

I don’t have another soul in the world to tell. Also, John really doesn’t need to be having this conversation with me. Because, out of everyone in Rival City, I’m the least likely to spread this news. Because it means far, far more to me than it does to John. After all, though he can’t appreciate it, Spencer is after me.

John makes direct eye contact for several seconds, and it’s very obvious from the quality of that eye contact that he’s attempting to assess me.

It doesn’t take long for another broad smile to spread across his lips as it’s clear he’s satisfied by whatever he sees.

He nods low. “Thank you,” he says. Then he gets back to eating.

There’s a quiet, thoughtful quality to him as he polishes off one bowl, then another, then another.

He wasn’t lying, was he? John Rowley can put food away like a goddamn trash dispenser. He’s not making any attempt to hide it, either.

Though I don’t know where it comes from, I get the distinct impression that he wouldn’t be this open with just anyone.

We descend into another easy silence, and before I realize it, I’ve eaten half of the stir-fry, and so has he.

He pushes his bowl back and makes eye contact. “Do you want me to show you to your room?”

Yes and no. I don’t want him to leave, and yet, I long for the chance to fall into a real bed, pull real covers over me, and to sleep in safety.

I shrug. “Thank you so much,” I say again.

He puts up a hand to silence me. “It’s this way.” He gets up and walks toward the door.

“Shouldn’t I clean up?” I say.

“That’s up to you,” he says, and there’s something strange about his tone.

“Sorry?”

“I like what I’ve seen here tonight, and if you want that secretarial position, it’s yours,” he says out of the blue.

I blink at him, completely startled. “I… what? Haven’t you already filled it?”

“Yes and no. I always need more staff. I’m… a uniquely busy man,” he says, voice doing something strange on the word uniquely. “So it’s up to you. If you want, tomorrow you can start work as my new secretary. But only if you want. Don’t worry about saying no. This cleaning position will always be open to you.”

I stare at him, dumbfounded, then a part of me appreciates what he’s offering.

Though I’ve been able to spy on him as a cleaner, I begin to think about how much easier that will be if I’m right by his side.

At the same time, my heart points out how hard that will be, too.

But it also points out something else.

John can offer me protection, even if he’s not aware of it, right? Because if I stay by his side, Spencer isn’t going to find me.

I can’t underestimate Spencer, either. Because he has my book. And as for that man in the shadowy jacket? Just thinking of him makes me want to take a step toward John in the hopes he can protect me.

So before I really think it through, I find myself nodding. “That would be… amazing. But… I’m not sure I’m the perfect person for the job.”

“People can be trained in any set of skills. What they can’t be trained to do is to be nice and genuine. You’re both of those. So the job is yours.”

He shifts forward and leads me through the kitchen.

I take one last look at the dirty dishes, then scurry after him.

He has a quick, strong stride as he heads through the kitchen and down another section of the building I’ve never seen.

I’m starting to wonder if this building is somehow magical – if it has the ability to put on new wings and floors at John’s mere presence. And though, on the face of it, that suggestion sounds absolutely crazy, for all I know, it’s probably true.

I cannot underestimate how little I know about this world, and how dangerous that fact is.

He finally leads me to a room.

“Here it is,” he says as he reaches forward, twists the door handle, and shoves the door open.

I hear something shift behind the door.

Heavy, I can feel it groaning against the wood even from here.

I move before I really know what I’m doing.

My muscles react as they always do – shifting with a life of their own, with a knowledge of their own as the certainty of magic pumps through me.

I knock into John, reach a hand up, and grab a ladder just before it can topple right into him.

It must’ve been propped up against the door. Maybe it had fallen there, or maybe someone had stupidly stood the ladder up just behind it. And as John had pulled the door open, it’d fallen out.

The ladder is long and heavy, and I’m only holding it with one hand, but it’s a fact I can’t appreciate as John stares from me up to the ladder, then back to me.

“Thank you,” he says.

I feel him say it. Not least because of the connection between us, but because we’re close.

There wasn’t really room to maneuver when I knocked into John, and as a result, I just pressed him against the doorway.

Now, as I hold the ladder, I’m right up there close by his side.

More than close enough to feel his breath on my cheek as he watches me silently for a single second then turns, grabs the ladder from me, and muscles it up. “I’m not even going to bother asking why somebody left that there. It shouldn’t be in this room at all,” he continues to comment as he shows considerable strength in shifting the ladder around and heaving it under one arm.

And yet, it’s no greater than the strength I showed when I reached up with a single hand and stopped the ladder from falling on top of his head.

I appreciate that as I kind of stand there, stuck on the spot with fear.

I’m right in the middle of the doorway, and as John approaches with the ladder, he pauses, obviously for me to get out of the way.

It takes me a moment to jerk backward.

His eyes are on me as he muscles the ladder out of the room and places it down in the corridor.

I finally take a step out of the way and kind of back into my room.

I try to calculate in my head desperately if the strength I used was enough to reveal my skills.

Or maybe John hadn’t been paying attention? Maybe he’d been too surprised by the prospect of being bonked on the head with a ladder?

Or maybe he’d been surprised by something else, another voice rises unbidden from my head and rattles around in my mind.

For there’s something I can’t deny. As I pushed John out of the way and pinned him against the doorway, his pupils widened. It wasn’t just in shock. It was in interest, right?

I try to shake my head, try to force that possibility the hell out of my mind as I take another step back into my room, clamp my hands behind myself, and clear my throat properly. “So… what time do I start work tomorrow?” I say, knowing I have to change the topic right now.

John takes one last look from the ladder to me, then shrugs. “I usually get up at six and start work, but officially, you won’t have to start until nine.”

“I’ll be there at six,” I say as I nod my head dutifully.

I suddenly find that I can’t make eye contact with him.

The reason I can’t make eye contact with him is because I can feel his gaze more intensely than I usually can. And that’s saying something, because the caress of his eyes is usually as strong as someone gripping my shoulders.

That fear that always tells me I should run the hell away from John suddenly doubles, and before I know what I’m doing, I take another few steps back into the room.

My leg bangs up against a bed.

If I were any other person, I’d probably lose my balance and fall down.

But I don’t.

John reaches a hand out to me, nonetheless, and there’s a snapping quality to it. “Watch out. It looks as if that room’s a bit of a death trap. Feel free to clean out everything you need to. You can shove the maintenance gear in one of the cleaning cupboards,” he adds.

I haven’t even glanced at the room yet, and I quickly do so now as I shift my gaze from left to right.

It’s full of old tools and junk. But there’s a bed. And on that bed is a blanket and a pillow. I don’t care if they’re musty. Christ, I don’t care if they’re moldy. Heck, they could be full of rats. But it’s still a bed. And, more importantly, it’s still in this tower. I know that the moment this awkward conversation ends and I close that door, I’ll be able to get a restful sleep.

“I’ll be okay. I’m not picky,” I add. “And I’ll see you tomorrow at 6 o’clock.”

“Don’t forget to feed yourself first,” he adds as he shrugs back in the direction of the kitchen.

“Thank you,” I say.

We descend into silence.

An awkward kind of watchful silence.

He’s staring at me openly, and me, I’m watching him with everything apart from my eyes.

I know that sounds crazy – you can only watch things with your eyes. But you’re forgetting that I’m a freak.

As John stands there several meters in front of me, I can feel him with my heart, sense him with my chest, know him with my mind.

But then he finally clears his throat, watches me for another second, then smiles. “Good night, Sarah,” he says.

I almost don’t react. Then I remind myself that the name I gave my employees in the cleaning department was Sarah Smith.

I nod. “Thank you, sir,” I say.

“Call me John,” he says.

“… Thank you, John,” I manage.

We have another moment, then John pulls himself away.

He closes the door.

I stare at it, for almost a minute and a half until I turn around and flop down on the bed. I hook the pillow under an arm and pull it close, smooshing my face into it.

Though I have nothing to smile about, my lips curl of their own accord.

I’m safe and fed, and I have somewhere to sleep. More than that? Tomorrow, I’ll start working for John himself.

I… maybe I have a future after all.

Though I can’t appreciate it now, that is a statement I will rue.

Chapter 10

I wake up the next morning at 5:30, refreshed. I haven’t had that much sleep, but that’s not the point. The sleep I managed to get was the most restful I’ve had for the past several years.

I shift up out of my bed and yawn, spreading my arms wide. As I do, my arm brushes up against some of the junk stowed behind the bed, and it falls down toward me.

I barely have to shift as I reach several fingers out and catch it before it can fall on my head.

I feel strong. And that brings a smile to my lips as I finally stand up.

Though my room is a complete mess, that doesn’t stop me from making my bed lovingly.

Once I’m done, I glance at the clock on the opposite side of the wall. It’s old and dusty, just like the room, but it has a certain charm about it. It’s also counting down the minutes until I have to go and meet John for my first day of work.

The mere thought of it sends a certain kind of tingle racing through my gut. It’s one that’s a hell of a lot deeper than anything else I’ve experienced around him to date. And that’s saying something, considering John Rowley seems to have the exclusive ability to make my body shudder from the inside out.

No, wait, the ability isn’t exclusive.

Though the thought of Spencer Gates terrifies me, at the same time, I have to admit that I’m drawn to him equally as much as I’m drawn to John. This isn’t the emotional me speaking, either. As I bring a hand down and clutch it on my gut, spreading the fingers wide over my T-shirt, I appreciate that it’s the magic within my veins talking.

“One way or another, I have to start to get solutions,” I say through clenched teeth as I shift toward the door.

I head straight to the kitchen, make myself a snack, and I force myself not to go overboard – even though my stomach rumbles like an earthquake.

I tell myself that I don’t need to eat all the food in the fridge as yet. If I go through everything, John is going to suspect something. And if I get too hungry, I can just go back to dumpster diving, right? Even if that will technically take me out of the protection of Rowley Tower.

Once I’m finished my breakfast, I head back to my makeshift room, and I tell myself it’s time to get ready for my first day at work.

I pause just as I reach my room. I look down. I’m still technically in my cleaning gear. I say technically, because it’s a disguise – just an extension of my magic. And, with a simple thought, it can change, right? Though I certainly don’t have the money to go out and buy myself a professional, expensive skirt and blouse, that doesn’t matter, does it?

And yet, at the same time, if I show up to work wearing designer gear, Rowley is going to question my story.

I don’t have too long to stand there in front of my door, wondering what the hell I’m going to do.

Before too long, I hear footsteps.

I think I’m becoming more attuned to Rowley Tower the more I stay here. Because I hear the footsteps long before somebody finally turns down the corridor and heads toward me.

It’s Antonio.

Though it’s been several weeks, he still has a massive bruise over his throat, though he’s clearly trying to hide it with the jacked-up collar of his uniform.

He shoots me a grin as he comes toward me. “You’re Sarah, right? John told me to give you these.”

He reaches me and hands me a bag full of clothes.

I look down at it in surprise, glance up at him, and manage a quick, “Ah, thanks.”

“John said not to hurry. Work doesn’t technically start till nine.”

“I want to make a good impression on my first day,” I say.

Antonio shoots me a confusing smile. “By the sounds of it, you’ve already done that. It’s not every day that John Rowley picks a random member of cleaning staff and gives them a job as his own secretary.”

I freeze. Not completely – I don’t lose myself enough that fear plasters my face and I stare back in shock. But it takes a hell of a lot of effort not to look like a stunned mullet.

… What the hell does this mean? Does John suspect me?

Antonio’s smile grows wider. “Don’t freak out – John just… how can I put this? He likes to read people,” Antonio says.

I blink hard. “What do you mean?”

Now Antonio is not holding the clothes anymore, he shoves his hands into his pockets and shrugs expressively. “He’s always had a talent for looking into somebody’s eyes and getting a gauge on who they are. And he likes to surround himself with good people.”

I soften, if only a little. The suspicion raging through my gut is still there, but it’s slightly mollified. Antonio seems to believe what he’s saying.

But I can’t forget what he originally pointed out – that it’s not every day that John Rowley himself picks a random member of cleaning staff and elevates them to a position of his own secretary.

I swallow expressively. “… Just what will be expected of me? I’ve never actually had any experience as a secretary.”

Antonio shrugs again, and I catch just a glimpse of that dark purple and red bruise over his throat. It makes me sick to my stomach, and reminds me of the exact way Antonio’s eyes widened with suspicion when he saw Walter’s wallet on my kitchen table. “There’ll be other secretaries on the top floor. They’ll help you. But basically, it’s just like a PA – you take phone calls, arrange meetings, and do whatever he says. He’ll be kind to you for the first couple of weeks. Don’t worry – we all need training when we start with John,” Antonio says, and there’s an… odd quality about it.

It makes me fix my gaze on him. “How long have you been working for him?” I ask out of the blue. I control my tone, even though it’s hard. Because this question is leading. I don’t honestly care what date Antonio started working as John’s doorman – what I really care about is when Antonio started working for John in a magical sense.

Because Antonio is one of John’s pieces, right? Just as the fifth was one of Spencer’s pieces, John’s doorman belongs to… to what? This game of chess?

Even thinking that makes me shake my head again.

This entire scenario is ridiculous. And yet, it’s one I’m living. So, forcing my lips to spread, I smile.

Antonio brings a hand up, scratches his chin, and shrugs again. I’m starting to appreciate that shrugging is his go-to move, just as smiling is John’s. “God, I don’t know – it’s been at least 10 years now,” Antonio manages.

I frown. Though I don’t know exactly how old John is, that seems like a long time. “I… don’t really know enough about this company, but I wasn’t aware it had been running that long.”

Antonio’s smile stiffens – if only a little. Then he gives another shrug, and there’s something so expressive about the move that it’s obvious he’s trying to distract me. “My family have always served the Rowley’s. In some capacity or another,” he adds. “Anyhow, when you’re dressed, head up to the penthouse floor. John will be waiting.” With that, Antonio smoothly retracts himself from the conversation, turns, waves, and walks off.

As he does, he draws up a hand, inserts a finger into his collar, and tries to neaten it. I catch more of a glance of the massive bruise that spread over his throat, and my stomach twists.

I don’t know how… important a piece Antonio is, but there’s something I have to appreciate. He wouldn’t be an ordinary pawn like the ones I’m so used to fighting at night. Somehow I get the impression that he’s about as powerful as the fifth. And though I was confused for most of the fight with the fifth, I still managed to defeat her easily.

… Which means what, exactly?

That I’m really starting to appreciate that I’m… a queen?

When Antonio is fully out of sight, I bring a hand up, slam it over my face, and shake my head from side to side as if I’m trying to dislodge my very brain.

That, of course, doesn’t work, so I walk back into my room and change quickly.

I have no mirror to appreciate my appearance, but that doesn’t matter, as from just one look down my figure, I can appreciate that the clothes suit me. Or at least, they suit my current disguise.

Thankful for the fact I chose to have short hair that I don’t need to brush, I run my fingers through it then promptly turn on the spot.

I head through the building, reach a set of elevators, and finally make it to the penthouse floor.

There’s something that feels a lot like climbing a mountain as I head up through the lifts. My stomach clenches, and it’s not just because I’m traveling fast. It’s… I can’t explain it.

Finally the lifts ping and open, and the next thing I know, I’m striding out into the penthouse floor.

It’s amazing. Though the rest of the building is impressive, this floor… it feels like a castle. Not some megalithic structure, but something from the days of yore. Something with import and power.

I take a careful, tentative step out of the elevator, as if I’m worried that the floor will swallow me up somehow.

Despite the fact it’s only 6 o’clock in the morning, there are still people around, and I quickly appreciate that they must be some of John’s senior staff.

Though a few of them glance my way, no one looks at me suspiciously, and it’s clear to me that John has already told everybody that I’ll be starting today.

Nervously, I bring a hand up and compulsively neaten my blouse as I walk toward the massive counter near the elevators.

Behind the counter and to the left is an imposing door. There’s only one person who can be behind it, I tell myself as my stomach clenches and a race of tingles jumps down my back.

John.

Christ, I can feel him from here.

I expect him to come out and greet me. No, I want him to come out and greet me.

That invisible connection that spreads between us seems to be acting up more and more, and with every step I take, my back slicks with sweat.

My heart races, too, promising me he’s just around the corner.

But he doesn’t come to greet me. Instead, someone who looks like the chief secretary shifts around from the main counter and introduces herself.

“You’ll be working here for now.” She nods toward a seat and a computer.

“Thank you, I’m Sarah.”

“And I’m Rosemary. I will be teaching you the ropes slowly over the next couple of weeks, but there’s one thing you should understand to begin with,” she says as she looks at me with her piercing blue eyes.

I swallow. “Okay?”

“John Rowley deserves utmost loyalty,” she says, and there is such force behind her tone, it’s as if she’s some kind of drill sergeant.

I stand there and kind of blink awkwardly. I draw up a hand to shift my hair over my shoulder, but realize too late that it’s short. So I clear my throat. “Oh, of course.”

“He has given us all a position, and keeps us safe. And he deserves our loyalty,” she continues.

… Okay. This is weird.

I don’t point that out. I smile and nod.

Though Rosemary proves to be generally intense, she calms down a little as she stops talking about loyalty. She sets me up, and before I know it, I’m a secretary.

Or am I? Because though I pay attention to what Rosemary tells me with half an ear, the rest of my senses I lock on this building.

I try to tell myself that I need to prioritize finding out just how much John knows first.

I also, as a matter of equal importance, have to figure out just how powerful Spencer is. I can’t forget that out there, wherever he is, he’s looking for me.

Before I know it, the early morning ticks into midday. I’m kept busy, but thankfully with tasks I can manage.

I’m a quick study, even if I only ever pay half of my attention to what I’m doing.

It gives me more than enough time and focus to appreciate certain details of the penthouse floor.

The first and most prominent is the floor. It’s made out of black and white marble – and, you guessed it, looks exactly like a chessboard.

Though I’ve been trying to deny the prospect that everything that’s going on with me has to do with some… magical game of chess, seeing that floor changes things. It ignites more and more questions.

It takes until midday before I finally see John.

He strides out of his office with no warning – but I don’t need a warning. Even if the other secretaries around me appear to be surprised when his large doors open with a creak and he marches out, I know he’s coming. Because I can feel him.

There’s this snapping kind of tingling pressure in my heart, almost as if I’m connected to his body by a bungee rope.

I look up several seconds before the doors open, then I even stand.

As John strides out, he seems to be in a world of his own until he glances at me from the side.

I don’t know where to look. A part of me wants to make eye contact – direct eye contact – and the rest of me wants to hide under my desk. So I fumble around, playing with my hair instead.

He pauses before the counter. “Are you settling in well?” he asks.

I nod. I open my mouth to say thank you again for the job, but I pause. Because I feel something.

This sense that wells right up through me, starting at my feet and shooting toward my head.

It makes me shiver slightly, and before I know what I’m doing, I dart my head toward the elevators on the opposite side of the room.

“What—” John begins. He was looking right at my face when I reacted, and my expression would’ve been unguarded as a sense of shock welled through me.

But he stops halfway through his question, because the elevator beeps and opens.

And out walk three people.

At the lead is Antonio, and he looks immeasurably worried as he darts his gaze behind him and locks it on two men.

One of them is one of Spencer’s guards – one of the massive be-suited brutes he brought with him last night. The other?

It’s a pawn.

I recognize that immediately. I don’t even need to dart quickly to the side to try to catch a glimpse of its flickering magical disguise.

I feel it straight away.

And I wonder if John does, too. Because he straightens up until he pulls to his full height.

His dark, questioning gaze darts from Antonio to the man at the lead, then to the pawn.

I may have only known Antonio for a short period of time, but I can tell from the way he looks entreatingly at John that he’s trying to communicate something with his eyes.

John swallows and shoves his hands into his pockets. It’s not a casual move, though – from the exact tension playing along his shoulders and sweeping down his side, he looks as if he’s getting ready to catapult at the man in the lead.

I can feel his tension from here. God knows I can feel it. With every second, it’s like wire tightening around my gut, looping over my middle, and getting ready to tug me off my feet.

The connection between me and John becomes twice as powerful until it’s the hardest damn thing in the universe not to reach a hand out to him, not to help him.

“I wasn’t aware we had a meeting,” John manages through stiff white lips.

“Spencer is keen to get that matter sorted,” the man says. He has a deep, gravelly voice that sounds like a quarry being torn from the side of a mountain.

The pawn doesn’t stand next to him, but instead maintains a steady distance about a meter behind, and it would be clear to anyone that its taking up a defensive position.

I’m still on my feet, and it gives me the vantage I need to let my gaze sweep between everybody on the penthouse floor. I wonder just how many of them know what John truly is and what’s about to happen.

The man nods toward John’s door, and the look in his eyes is already victorious. But there’s nothing I can do as John takes a hard breath and nods once. It’s stiff, but it’s still a nod.

The man smiles. “Spencer said you would be willing to cooperate. Spencer said you know how much is at stake,” the man adds, his voice dropping low.

As it does… I swear there’s this kind of ripple. It’s as if somebody has thrown a stone in a pond and the waves have spread out throughout the room.

Though Rosemary, John’s stiff-lipped secretary, looked worried seconds before, now she relaxes as she turns around and gets back to what she was doing.

Most of John’s other staff do, too.

… That was a spell, wasn’t it?

Spencer’s man cast some kind of field over this room to stop people from seeing what he’s doing and from hearing what they’re talking about.

I stiffen up as I realize I can no longer watch freely.

I try to force myself to sit, try to hook my hair behind my ears until I realize it’s too short to do that.

But I can’t just ignore what’s happening right in front of me.

“Spencer is willing to give you one more chance to negotiate. Sacrifice the piece of his choosing, and he will sweep this under the rug.” The man shoves one hand into his pocket and smiles broadly.

There’s something so damn animalistic about the move, and, just for a second, I catch a glimpse of what he is underneath. I can sense his raw power, smell his magic, and, more than anything, feel his desire to attack.

John turns hard on his foot, but as he does, his gaze drifts toward me.

I know I can’t dare to make eye contact – do that, and it might seem obvious that I can see what’s going on here. So I put my head in my hand and pretend to focus on my keyboard.

I can feel John’s gaze, though, as it sweeps past. Just as I can feel twinges of his desperation as he forces himself forward, reaches his door, opens it, and walks in with Spencer’s man at his heel.

The pawn hesitates, casts a glance around the room, then licks its lips. Not with a real tongue, mind you – but with this fleshy white thing that would tell anyone he’s not human.

But the majority of John’s staff don’t react.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Antonio. He’s standing stiffly, kind of like a sentinel blocking off the pawn from retreating back into the building.

The pawn arches its head over its shoulder, shoots Antonio a very specific look, then finally follows its master into John’s office.

The door to John’s office closes with an ominous rattle.

I hear Antonio let out a breath, and he clenches his teeth.

He teeters back-and-forth on his feet, as if he doesn’t know what to do next.

But then something makes up his mind for him. I watch as he snaps his head around and faces the elevator, a deep frown etching across his lips.

I know what’s gotten his attention, because I can feel it too – this kind of tingling that’s jumping up from the floor, biting into my feet, and swaying through my middle like a wave crashing into shore. It’s a strong enough reaction that I have to yank a hand up and flatten it over my stomach, my fingers trembling as they catch against the expensive fabric of my blouse.

I can’t help it anymore, and John’s no longer in the room. So there’s nothing to stop me from punching to my feet as Antonio whirls on his foot, gets into the elevator, and closes the door.

Rosemary frowns at my sudden move. “What is it?”

“… I’m so sorry… but I… I really need to go to the bathroom,” I say with a stutter.

She doesn’t look pleased, and I probably offered her too much information, but she shrugs toward the elevator. “Use the one downstairs,” she says.

“Thanks,” I manage as I shift fast around the bench and try not to break into a full run as I reach the elevator, jam my thumb into the call button, and wait.

Waiting is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because, with every passing second, I can feel that reaction becoming more and more powerful. It’s no longer like mere tingles racing through my feet and sinking hard into my legs – it’s as if I’m standing in an electrified pool.

I can sense that there’s danger outside. And it’s danger Antonio is probably going to plunge headfirst into.

Though I’ve barely had any interactions with Antonio, and, if he knew who I really was, he’d hate me, that doesn’t matter. I know he’s a good guy. And I can’t just stand here and let him wander into danger.

I can thank my lucky stars for one fact as the elevator finally arrives and I throw myself into it, shoving my finger against the ground button and waiting for the elevator did ascend. Thanks to the food John gave me last night and the shelter and protection of this building, I’m raring to go. I’m no longer weak. What’s more, that invisible connection between me and John is begging me to do something – and it’s giving me power.

I can feel it lapping through my veins, begging to be let out.

I ride the elevator all the way down to the atrium, then I spill out. I try not to run, but I straighten my back and stride swiftly, jerking my head from this way to that as I try to find Antonio.

I can’t see him, and quickly realize that if I have any chance of figuring out where he’s gone, I have to feel with my magic, instead.

So I do – I kind of push my feelings out in front of me as I half close my eyes and let a pressured breath through my stiff white lips.

… It takes a while, but second by second, I attune to the building – enough that it tells me Antonio is no longer inside.

I jerk my head up, opening my eyes wide and fixing them on the massive glass doors that lead down to the street below.

Though there are plenty of people milling in front of them, I narrow my gaze and focus my senses until I can appreciate one fact – Antonio is not standing out there pretending to be a doorman again.

No… he’s around the side of the building, isn’t he?

Don’t ask me how I can possibly know that. It has to have something to do with the connection I have to this building. Because I swear, even though the building is inanimate – just made of so much concrete, steel, and glass – it’s still calling out to me in a frightened voice.

Rather than rush out of the main doors and try to reach the side of the building, I head straight toward one of the service doors, instead. The same service door I parked my mop and bucket outside of last night when I fled the atrium.

I stride through it, shifting past one of the cleaners as I tilt my head hard to the side.

Wherever Antonio is, he’s in trouble. And as I finally make it through the service door and the cleaner leaves into the atrium, I break into a run. There’s no one to see me nor hear me as my heels frantically pound the floor.

I reach the side door out into the street, and I open it as fast as I can.

I spill outside, instantly jerking my head up until it feels like I’ll crack the skin under my neck.

I scan the horizon line, I smell, I feel, I use every single one of my senses until finally I get a lock on Antonio.

He’s around the side in one of the alleyways.

I break into a run, but as I do, I ensure there’s no one around me.

And then?

I bring both hands up and flatten them toward the pavement as my legs frantically sprint.

Magic pulses out of my hands and sails down toward the bitumen. As it sinks into it, I warp space.

It’s so damn easy for me. Almost as if I’m simply flicking a switch. In a manner of seconds, an effect field opens up around me, bending reality until it ensures no one can see me, no one can hear me, and no one can interact with me.

At the same time, I bring up one of my hands and swipe it across my chest. I feel my disguise simply shift away in a scatter of sparks.

My hair flops around my face, sturdy shoes form around my feet, and, most importantly, my leather jacket hugs my shoulders and forms against my back.

I push into a full-on sprint now, running as fast as I possibly can, knowing that with every second Antonio is running out of time.

As I reach the side of the building, keeping one hand held flat toward the pavement and ensuring that my effect field follows me wherever I go, I stop suddenly.

I’ve been working at Rowley Tower for over a week and a half now, and I know the building. Even before I started working here, I knew the general layout of this block. So that’s why the sight in front of me is so goddamn startling.

Rowley Tower is still there, sure – but just beside it is this long squat building with a flat roof – one that almost looks like a strange amalgamation between a modern building and an old castle.

I have time to open my eyes wide in utter surprise, but I hear someone scream.

Not even thinking about how much magic it takes and how incredible it is, I force myself to jump right up the side of that building until I land on the roof.

I can hear people scrabbling just up ahead.

Now I’m standing on the building, I can appreciate it’s kind of like a wall. That’s it – it looks like the twisting Great Wall of China – except it’s in the middle of Rival City.

If this crazy world of magic and pawns hadn’t already blown my mind a trillion times over, this sight would have completely undermined me.

But I hold onto my strength and sense of determination as I run forward.

Soon enough, I see Antonio.

He’s on his knees, one hand clutched against his wounded shoulder.

In front of him are people.

One of them I recognize – the man at the back.

Spencer.

He’s sitting on a throne – a gold, ornate throne, both legs crossed over one another, head held in his hand, a bored expression on his face.

He can’t see me – I’m leaning out from behind a large chunk of carved stone, and Spencer is fixing all of his cruel attention on Antonio.

In front of Antonio are four people. I say people – but that’s a generous term.

They are all charged with magic. Something I can see even from here. Some of them are blue, some of them are red, some of them gold.

And all of them are attacking.

Below Antonio is… it’s a chess board. Except it’s made out of pure crackling magic. Alternating black and white squares of power.

Just the sight of it is enough to completely still me.

It does something… powerful to my gut, to my heart, to my everything. It reaches in, wraps invisible hands around my organs, and tries to squeeze them flat. I honestly feel as if somebody is throttling me.

I even bring up a hand and flatten it over my mouth, gasping into it to ensure that my voice can’t carry.

Though Spencer’s people – or pieces, if that’s what they are – attack, somehow Antonio holds them back.

Then the board switches. A crackle passes over it, I can hear a crack, and I can feel the shift in energy.

Antonio staggers to his feet. He still has one hand clutched on his shoulder, and there’s a massive gash in his brow.

“This is an illegal move,” he spits, voice harsh.

“Killing my fifth was an illegal move. This is simply justified retribution,” Spencer answers.

“We didn’t kill your fifth.”

“You have no evidence to support that fact,” Spencer says. His head is still in his hand, his fingers tapping rhythmically against his jaw. There’s a specific kind of smile spreading his lips. It’s one of cold victory.

“Rowley won’t let you get away with this,” Antonio hisses.

“John Rowley will have no option but to let me get away with this. For the time is coming very soon,” Spencer finally lets his hand drop. It falls into his lap, and he secures it on his knee as he leans forward and continues, “when Rowley will fall.”

“You don’t have the power to take him on,” Antonio says, shaking his head desperately. But even though the move is desperate, the look in his gaze is fixed, and it is clear to anyone watching that he believes what he’s saying.

Spencer simply smiles. It’s even colder than before, and makes me feel as if I’ve been transported to the Arctic. “Trust me when I say you are mistaken.”

“You can take me, but it won’t make any difference – Rowley’s pieces are loyal to him. It won’t make any difference,” Antonio repeats. Blood splatters across his lip and flicks over his collar. The collar is torn and shows more of the great big red, purple bruise that was inflicted on him in my kitchen.

“True – you will make little difference. But it’s not you I’m ultimately after. Now, submit. Play your turn,” Spencer says.

I can feel… some kind of charge building in the air. It’s almost as if we’re about to be struck by lightning.

It’s concentrating on the chessboard, though – on those perfect black and white crackling squares.

It seems to be forcing Antonio to do something, and though he tries to stand there perfectly still, something zaps up from his feet and forces him forward.

He stumbles. As he does, it pushes him out of the white square he’s standing on.

As soon as his boot crosses over onto one of the black squares, I see magic erupt over him. It’s the first full evidence I’ve seen that he can produce power.

With a scream cracking from his lips, he finally lets his hand drop from his shoulder, and he thrusts forward, blue sparks collecting over his hand as he forms it into a fist. He drives it into the gut of the man just in front of him.

It’s a seriously strong blow – and I swear I can feel the magic rippling off it from here. It’s more than enough to drive the man to his knees.

“Maybe you will make a difference after all,” Spencer chuckles to himself, despite the fact one of his pieces falls.

As the man does, he slams against the black square he’s standing on, his face impacting with the charging black magic. In an instant, he disappears. He doesn’t die – there’s no blood, there are no broken bones, there are no screams. He just goes from lying there one second to disappearing the next.

Spencer shrugs. But he flicks his hand to the side, and I feel another change in the air. Something crackles through the board, and it becomes clear it’s Spencer’s turn.

Both of his pieces round on Antonio.

I see Antonio’s eyes widen with a jerk.

This is it. Something tells me that this is it. Antonio doesn’t have the strength to withstand another attack.

So far, I’ve just been standing here, pressed up against the stone pillar, hiding my fear as I plant a sweaty hand over my mouth.

But something suddenly pushes me out.

I take one solid step out of the shadow of the stone pillar, then another.

Antonio is trying to defend as both of Spencer’s remaining pieces attack him, but suddenly he jerks his head up and stares at me.

Spencer stops. He’s still on his gold throne, still has his back to me.

But in a single second, he reaches his hand forward, spreads his fingers wide, and sends an invisible charge of magic toward his remaining two pieces. They pause. One of them had leaped into the air, fist rounded, ready to attack Antonio – but the man simply stops, right there in the air, as if he’s a piece of footage that somebody has paused.

Spencer Gates turns in his throne.

It’s a moment I will never forget for as long as I live. The slow, steady, careful way he shifts over his shoulder. The way his eyes lock on me.

The way they shift from my leather jacket, down to my old, bedraggled shoes, then up to my eyes.

He doesn’t ask who I am. He doesn’t demand to know how I got here.

No. Because as he looks into my eyes and I look back into his, he manages to do what John could not.

Spencer Gates recognizes me.

“You’re here,” he says, and there’s a husky quality to his voice. It’s completely different to the cruel, harsh tone he was using on Antonio seconds before.

It’s almost vulnerable.

Antonio has fallen down onto one knee, and has one bloodied hand pressed into the black square beneath him. His head is held up high, though, and I can see his eyes narrow and lock on me even from here.

His lips jerk open as blood still splashes down from the deep gash in his brow. “It’s you. You were one of Spencer’s pieces?” he stutters.

Neither I nor Spencer answer. Spencer seems too focused on staring at me. And suffice to say, in all my life, I have never received attention like this. It’s so damn penetrating, so damn all-encompassing – it’s as if the rest of the universe has fallen away, and even if every single object of power and wealth aligned in front of Spencer, he wouldn’t dare jerk his gaze off me.

And as for me? Just as I am connected to John, it is now abundantly clear that I share the same visceral connection to Spencer.

Though I want to tell myself that this man is evil, repugnant, cruel – nothing more than a bastard. I can’t tell my body that. I get the same desire to run toward him, and yet an equally strong desire to run away.

As a consequence, I just kind of… stand there and stare at him.

“You illegally killed Walter,” Antonio spits. “He wasn’t even part of this game. You’ll pay,” Antonio says. He’s speaking to me.

Even if I can’t dare jerk my gaze off Spencer, I can feel Antonio’s hatred snaking into me.

This finally forces Spencer to react. Still not taking his eyes off me, a satisfied smile spreads his lips, curling one side high until it pushes his cheek against his blue eyes. “And this is why you will never win,” Spencer says, turning his head to face Antonio, but never looking away from me.

… Walter.

Just the mention of the name does something to me. It ignites a feeling deep in my chest – the same goading, awful nauseous sorrow I felt when Walter died in my arms. A sorrow that has been repeated through my life since that fateful day when everything I’ve known was stolen from me.

And it’s all because of this man, isn’t it?

Spencer.

I already know it was his pawns that killed Walter.

He’s the man responsible for my life falling apart.

That fact sinks into me, and it allows me to finally clench my teeth, jerk my head to the side, and pull my gaze off Spencer’s.

As I do, I swear it’s like a rubber band being pulled and then flicking back on itself.

There’s a twang, and though I wasn’t touching Spencer – though I was nowhere near close enough to reach out a hand and clasp his shoulder – he’s shoved back in his throne.

It takes him several seconds to shake his head, to blink – and by that time, I’m already moving.

Not toward him.

To the side.

Even though Antonio thinks I’m a monster – I’m still going to save him.

I don’t know why. I don’t know anything about this world – that’s more than clear enough now. Because if you’d asked me if I could ever have a moment like that with a monster like Spencer, I would’ve laughed in your face. But I can’t deny the import of our first meeting as it fills my heart and sends tingles spreading through my skin.

So I don’t look at him as I let magic spread through me. I let it all fall out. Charges and charges of power – just flowing through me, filling me up, pushing out from every angle.

I don’t attack Spencer’s remaining pieces.

Instead?

I go for the board.

Or at least, I try to.

For, at the last moment, something moves behind me. Something quick, something that snakes into my back, something that wraps around me, and something that throws me to the side.

Before I know what’s happening, I slam against the stone pillar. The move is so hard, that as my body strikes the stone, it cracks and crumbles around me.

I have a single moment of pure fear when my body screams at me that I’m about to be crushed, then whatever has a hold of my stomach yanks me out of the way.

I’m thrown to the floor with such force that as I strike it, stone cracks around me.

I can’t hear anything apart from this dense ringing in my ears that sounds like a choir of bells in my skull. The only thing I can feel is pain as it erupts up my side, plows through my middle, and shakes my knees and arms.

But I’m still aware of that grip around my middle – growing stronger, growing harder with every second.

More than that? I can feel my magic.

And it begs me to use it.

Just as whatever has a grip on my middle wrenches me off the floor and throws me through the air, I finally react.

I don’t bother to lash out with my magic laced fists. Instead, moving faster than I ever have before, I spread both hands wide. My swords form.

I think someone gasps. Maybe I make it up – or maybe I can just hear it over the sound of the wind whistling in my ears.

I can see what has a hold of me now – a tail. Or maybe it’s a long whip. White, small like wire, but one of the most powerful things I have ever felt. It’s entwined around my stomach, holding me fast with a grip that feels like a steel beam that’s been bent around my torso.

It sends me whistling through the air again and whips me toward a stone pillar on the opposite side of the roof.

I don’t allow myself to strike it this time. Using my swords, I send them twisting out in a halo of magical destruction. I don’t go for the whip around my middle – I slash into the stone pillar, obliterating it just before I can strike it.

It means the breath isn’t knocked out of me again, and it gives me just the moment of distraction I need.

Though this fight is unfolding faster than any I have ever been involved in, I have enough awareness to appreciate one fact – I am not fighting an ordinary pawn. This thing – whatever is controlling the whip around my middle – is categorically the strongest opponent I have ever faced.

I haven’t even clapped eyes on it yet, either.

And I know that’s the key.

The whip continues to whip me back-and-forth, slamming me into the floor then over to a pillar – but I retain full control of one of my swords, sending it spinning around me and using it to cut into the stone before I can be smashed against it.

With my other sword?

I send it out. I don’t know where. My senses are being consumed by the immediate power of the grip around my middle, by the scent of rock dust, by the awful certainty of what’s happening to me.

And yet, I retain just enough awareness to send that other sword out.

I hear somebody hiss.

Don’t ask me how, but I recognize that hiss. Even though I only heard his voice once – and even then, it was from afar – I know who I’m facing.

The man in the shadowy jacket. The man who made me feel as if I was dying from the inside out.

As recognition blasts through me, I finally find a target for my sword.

The whip around my middle forces me through the air, sends me barreling toward a massive stone wall that I swear wasn’t there a second ago. But as I sail through the air, I catch a glimpse of the deep shadow.

It’s just beside Spencer’s throne. Several meters to the left, behind a rock recess.

There.

Without another thought, I manage to spread one of my hands wide, and I send my sword spiraling toward that shadow.

With a crack, it lands, and I hear something gasp in pain.

In an instant, the whip around my middle loses all purchase and simply falls. I fall with it, but before I can slam face first into the pavement, I manage to shift around. I land on one knee with one outstretched foot, and plant a hand into the cracked stone.

I allow myself a single second to drive a deep breath into my lungs, then I jerk my head forward.

Though I’ve been thrown into multiple stone walls and sections of floor, I’m not bleeding. There isn’t a single cut on me. I’m shaking, I’m in pain, but I’m ready for the fight.

As I jerk my head up, my hair swinging past my face, I lock eyes on Spencer. This time it’s not long enough to be drawn into his penetrating gaze – but it’s just enough to see his wide-eyed shock as his lips crack open, “No, catch her—” he begins.

I still have one sword twisting around me, and as I leap upward, I open my hand and allow it to slam into my palms. I wrap my fingers around it, and there’s a suitable loud crack as I do, almost as if I’m inviting in the thunder.

I race forward.

My other sword is still attacking the shadow.

Don’t ask me how I possibly have the concentration to be able to control two swords at once. I was never a great multitasker – but this comes naturally. It’s an extension of my power. And for the first time ever, it’s a power I revel in. There isn’t a single thought in my head that I’m weird, that I’m a freak of nature, that I belong in some laboratory somewhere or just 6 feet under.

No, I fully accept my power, and as I do, more of it surges over my skin until I know I’m as bright as a star.

“No—” Spencer has time to say.

I reach the shadow beside him, and for the first time since the fight started, the man finally reveals himself.

He’s still in that long, dark jacket that practically reaches the floor, and he’s still wearing that hat that casts his face into full shadow. But I can see just a slice of his bottom lip. It’s enough to watch it jerk open, enough to hear him let out a primal hiss.

He slices his hand to the side, and another whip appears from nowhere. It jerks toward me, sailing through the air as it attempts to wrap around my middle.

I’m ready for it this time, though, and I twist to the side. I’m still holding one of my swords, and I bring it around, slashing at the whip just before the tip can wrap around my side.

Though it’s hard, I manage to slice right through it, and as I do, the shadowy man hisses and jerks back as if he’s just been burnt.

With my other sword, I slice at the man.

My aim is true, and the sword skewers him right through the middle.

Or at least, it should, and yet, as it punches through the front of his jacket, it’s almost as if his torso turns into air. I watch with wide eyes as the fabric simply jerks backward as if it’s on nothing more than a coathanger.

The man’s arms spread wide, his head ticks to the side, and somehow, the shadow of his brim still hides everything but his white bottom lip.

It opens wide and he lets out a breath. “You win, for now,” he says.

Then he disappears.

For the first time in my life, I don’t beat an opponent – he flees, and there is nothing I can do as a circle of dark, charged magic opens at his feet and he simply falls through it.

He almost takes my sword with him, but at the last moment I realize what’s happening, and I jerk a hand forward, spread my fingers wide, and call it to me with everything I have. It slams into my grip just as the man’s hat disappears through the crackling hole in the floor. I have enough time to see that he’s smiling.

I take my time to catch my breath, then I turn.

Spencer is still on his throne, but one hand is gripped as hard as it can around the gold armrest, and he’s sitting forward. But either he doesn’t want to stand, or he can’t. His eyes couldn’t be wider, though.

Spencer’s two remaining pieces are still frozen on the spot, and so is Antonio – but not through magic. He’s staring at me in complete dumbfounded shock. His lips wobble, and even from here, I hear him breathe out one single word, “Queen.”

I pay no attention to it.

I now appreciate that I have to end this fight now. I can’t allow any time for any more surprises. For all I know, that man in the shadowy jacket may come back, and this time, he might bring more whips with him. Though it was easy enough to dispatch one, what would I do against 10, against 100?

I need to leave, regroup, and rethink.

So I do what I intended to do before he arrived.

With my two swords spinning around me, I go for the chessboard.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The chessboard is what’s locking Antonio in place, right?

If I destroy it—

I don’t reach it. Just at the last moment, when I see my two swords spinning around me and magic charging into them, another thing loops around my middle.

It jerks me to the side, pulling me off course just before my swords can sink into the chessboard.

This time, it’s not a whip.

This time, it’s two arms. Strong, hard, warm. They can only belong to one man. For the instant they wrapped around my middle, I felt him. Every cell vibrated with his presence, every memory expanded at the knowledge he was near.

John Rowley.

He lands just outside of the chessboard. He’s shaking, all over, but that doesn’t stop him from leaning in and saying, “You can’t attack the board – it’s against the rules. It will kill you,” he manages.

I can hear his words – I can feel his breath. But both details are irrelevant. He could’ve just told me anything from stock tips to random comments about the weather – it wouldn’t have mattered, though. His presence is all that counts.

I feel limp. Exactly like I felt when I saved John from that gunman in his tower and he pulled me out of the way. I feel like a doll that has been pulled off the shelf or a robot that has just been turned off.

“You… you shouldn’t exist,” he says, and again I can feel his trembling breath brush against the hair along the back of my neck.

Spencer’s still seated on his throne, but now he’s pressed as far forward on it as he can, and both of his hands clasp the armrests.

I catch a glimpse of the side of his face, and that is more than enough to witness two emotions – shock and total gut-wrenching jealousy.

“Release her,” he spits. “She will be mine. I saw her first,” he says.

He sounds like a kid in a playground complaining about another bully snatching up his toy. But he isn’t a kid in a playground – and I’m not a toy. And that example undermines the true force behind his words, the power behind his eyes, too.

It’s clear with just one look in them that he believes what he’s saying – I’m his.

John doesn’t release me. Instead, slowly, finally, he turns over his shoulder and faces Spencer. “It doesn’t work that way. You know that. One does not take a queen – they earn her,” he says. And as he does, he finally looks at me.

And right there, in his eyes, I see what I have always sought to see. What I’ve wanted since the moment I met him. No, more than that – what I’ve needed since the day I was born.

Recognition.

It’s the strongest moment of my life. I’ll never feel anything with the same import as this. With one arm still loosely hooked around my middle, he’s close, close enough that I can see his entire face contract with hope and fear and longing and shame. So much emotion, too much to understand.

But I don’t need to understand it yet.

All that matters is he can finally see me. He knows who I am.

But the moment doesn’t last.

He finally unhooks that arm from around my middle and stands back.

I’m not injured – not really – and I can stand on my own two feet, but as he releases me, I wobble and stumble. It takes me a moment to press a hand into the cracked stone floor beneath me and to push up.

I’m shaking all over as I stare at him, as I desperately try to catch his gaze once more.

But John Rowley is no longer looking at me. With one hand rounded into the tightest fist I’ve ever seen, he’s facing Spencer.

Spencer is still seated on his throne, and from the exact way he’s pressed against the edge of his seat and his hands are clamped over the armrests, I can now confirm that he can’t stand. Something is keeping him locked there in that throne, and I wonder if it’s the chessboard.

“Run away. Get out of here now,” John says.

It takes me a moment to realize he’s talking to me. He still won’t face me. I stare at his rigid back as he now curls his other hand into a fist. The hard line of his shoulder catches all my attention as the faintest lick of magic presses over his skin.

“… What?” I find myself saying.

“Run away. You can’t have anything to do with this man. He will bring more unattached to fight you. Leave. But,” he finally turns over his shoulder and stares at me, and it is an entreating gaze I will never forget, “return. You know who I am. Come find me. I’ll help you.”

“He will lead you to death. Just like his forefathers wasted all of your other kind,” Spencer spits as he now presses so hard against the edge of his chair that I swear I can hear something cracking. His body is shuddering, too, and it’s almost as if he is forcing himself against invisible restraints. “You’re the last of your kind – and if you join him, he will see you fall.”

“Run,” John says, lips moving hard around the word. “Then come back to me,” he says.

In his eyes, I can see his wish. His desperate plea.

Come back to him.

I take a step backward.

Since this fight began, I’ve been giving in to my desire to get close to Spencer and John, but now, the desire to run away spreads through my chest. It’s a hard, quick, darting feeling, and it slices through my body, powering into my legs.

It sees me take a jerking step back, then another.

Finally, I turn.

I run.

I only look back once. As I do, I see John spread a hand to the side, and from nowhere, a golden throne forms. I see white chains spread out, connect to his ankles and arms, and lock him against the throne, but a second later, they turn invisible with a wisp of curling smoke.

The black and white squares of the chessboard suddenly become electrified, the white squares glowing so brightly, they could light up the city.

I reach the edge of the strange stone wall I’m on. For a moment, I stand there. The wind catches my hair, whips it over my shoulders. I stare as the game begins.

But then? I turn, and I run.

But I do not run far.

Soon enough, I escape from… whatever strange world I’ve entered. As I jump off this stone wall and make it around the side of Rowley Tower, reality re-forms around me. Soon enough, I find myself on an ordinary city street. I walk for several blocks until I allow my reality-bending spell to stop. Then I stand, flop my back against a wall, draw a hand up, and lock it over my face.

I press my eyes closed, and I breathe.

I breathe, and I breathe. But it doesn’t push away what just happened to me.

So I lock one hand on the sleeve of my leather jacket, hooking the fingers against the cold hide.

I let it comfort me.

And then?

I push off from the stone wall. I draw a hand up and spread it over my chest, changing my appearance. My long black hair is replaced with my short, cropped, strawberry hair, and my clothes are replaced with the business suit Antonio gave me this morning.

… I don’t know what I’m doing, but my body does.

Though by all rights I should run away, flee the city, and never return, I don’t.

I walk back to work.

I… it’s the only thing I can do.

When John finishes his fight with Spencer, I know he will return. I know he’ll look for me. But I know he can’t see through this disguise.

So will I reveal myself to him?

I don’t know.

I’ll have to find out.

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