In the future
Sebastian came toward me, that look in his eyes. There was energy there, spreading through his stiff cheeks and hard jaw. Hell, who was I kidding? Energy spread through his whole body. I didn’t need to see the magical illumination breaking around the cuffs of his expensive suit or the glimmer playing along his signet ring. It was in his eyes, in his strong shoulders, and more than anything, in the hand holding the wedding ring.
“You ready?” he asked in that breathless voice I was now getting far too used to.
My stomach kicked as if I’d swallowed a thousand horses. Ready? Hell no.
“There’ll be no going back. Then again, it’s preferable than dying at the burning hands of a demon, isn’t it?”
Preferable? I wasn’t so sure.
He reached me. My hand was shivering beside me. He plucked it up. That tremble only raced into my shoulder, pushed down my back, and settled in my stomach. It got a hell of a lot worse as he angled closer. I saw the gold ring glinting in the moonlight making it in from the window behind him. It gave it this otherworldly presence. Fair enough; it was otherworldly.
Sebastian didn’t look away, not once. There could be an earthquake behind me. The whole city could fall to demons. He wouldn’t care. He only had eyes for me. And if his promise was correct, he’d only have eyes for me until the day he died.
I suddenly became aware he hadn’t taken a breath for a while. His chest froze, his muscles pushing against his expensive white shirt and crisp black tie.
… Then, in a rush, I realized I hadn’t breathed ever since he’d walked toward me. I took a rattling gasp. He didn’t shift his eyes off mine, but I knew he was well aware of every single one of my nervous symptoms. His superior vampire body would be able to track them, just like a scientist noting down every single milligram change in blood pressure, every new electrical potential racing through my heart, the temperature building across my skin, and the sweat collecting between my fingers.
From somewhere outside, I thought I heard this crack. It could have been a car approaching the manor – and maybe it had backfired. The sound was far too close to the crack of a demon’s wings, though, and I let out a scream.
At the sound of my fear, Sebastian’s body tensed. It was like his nervous system connected to mine.
He held my hand tighter. He gazed at my finger once, and as soon as he dragged his stare away, it was like the sun moving behind a cloud. But when he sliced his eyes over to me once more, intensity built in his pupils, gathering like sparks ready to surge into flames.
This was it. Everything would change from now on.
He placed the ring on my finger. I secured my eyes as tightly shut as I possibly could. I couldn’t stare at him anymore, and I sure as hell couldn’t face this moment.
“Millie Crown, I do thee wed. From this day forth, you will be my bride under the auspices of the St Vern family. Those who attack you, attack me. The protection of my family now falls upon your shoulders. And the weight of your heart is now borne by my hands. From ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Only death will do us part.”
It wasn’t the standard wedding vows a human like me was used to. But this was no standard wedding.
Only one thing remained. He leaned toward me, his lips close. I could feel his breath on my cheek.
And outside, that crack changed. It turned out it hadn’t been a car backfiring after all. It was a demon. And it was coming right for me.
I thrust my hands into my pockets and stared at the TV screen past my niece’s shoulder. She was joyously bouncing up and down on the couch.
“Aren’t you a little too young for this?” I frowned hard, shoving my hands further into my pockets and disturbing my police tag. It was brand-new.
Because I was brand-new. Okay. That was a lie. I was not new. I was pretty crusty around the edges. But I was brand-new to the violent crimes division of the Angeles Police Force.
I’d made my way as a consultant witch up from the traffic division to violent crimes. And that was a feat indeed.
My niece, Vivian, whipped her head over her shoulder, her blond locks playing around her face. She gave me this scandalized frown. “Too young for what?”
I gestured toward the TV. “Watching vampire romances. I mean, who even does that anymore? They had their heyday, like, 20 years ago, back when I was a kid, but times have well and truly moved on. Right?” Maybe there was a hopeful note in my voice. I’d been obsessed with vampire romances as a kid. As I’d grown, I’d kind of hoped the whole world had grown up with me.
Fat chance. The world was just as obsessed with vampires as it had been when vampires had revealed themselves 50 years ago, instantaneously modernizing society while securing themselves firmly at the top of the food chain. Not, of course, that they ate humans. Or at least that’s what they told the ordinary populace.
Vivian turned her head back to the TV just as a ludicrously hot vampire grabbed some trembling woman’s hand and placed a ring on it.
Vivian clapped her hands together. “This is my favorite part,” she cooed. That revealed she’d seen this not just once, but probably hundreds of times, knowing her.
I winced at the TV. It was sickly sweet.
The heroine’s expression made it clear she was not, a) a heroine, and not, b) aware of how manipulative vampires were.
Yeah, before I’d joined the force, maybe I’d had the hots for them. They tended to have preternatural good looks. But after you’d dragged your first arrogant vampire in to speak for a crime, the luster quickly wore off.
On the face of it, they didn’t think they were better than humans or the meeker magical races. In practice, they knew they were at the top and could do whatever they wanted.
So I watched this scene with a slightly more learned eye. While Vivian grabbed a cushion, flopped down onto the couch, and hugged it tightly, I actually growled at the TV screen. I saved most of my attention for the vampire. He was honest to God wearing a lacy cravat. He even had a velvet suit on. It was red. Most vampires on TV wore red, as if they couldn’t get away from the color of their favorite food. It would be like humans walking around dressed as steaks.
The scene lingered. Before the vamp slipped the ring onto his bride’s finger, we got a close-up of his teeth. They were too long. Trust me, I’d seen enough vampire incisors to know just how long they should be. While most of them peered just past the corner of a vamp’s lip, there were vampires with longer teeth. They were the ancestral kinds.
I didn’t deal with them too often. When I did, it was a cringe-worthy affair.
I rolled my eyes again just as the vampire finally kissed his heroine and finished securing the ring on her finger with a whispered spell.
“I do thee wed,” he began.
I couldn’t take this anymore. “You know she is nothing more than a damsel in distress, right?” I said pointedly. “In the real world, you need to look after yourself. You can’t just wait for some vampire to come and sweep you off your feet. Plus, you don’t want. You want to be in control,” I emphasized as I slammed a fist into my palm.
Vivian just looked at me, her brow rumpling. “You haven’t seen the whole story. She’s a kick-ass vampire hunter. She can throw a vamp across the room with nothing more than her mind.”
My lips kinked into a snarl. I didn’t like it when I was wrong. Still, in a way, I was right. “Sure. I don’t care how far she can throw a vampire. I care that she’s giving in to that idiot.” I shrugged toward him. “I mean, look at him? Arrogance oozes out of every pore.”
“Shame on you. Vampires are different from us. We need to accept their culture.”
“This has nothing to do with culture,” I said, now getting really riled up. As she spoke, and as I watched, I thought of one specific vampire I’d been unlucky enough to have multiple run-ins with ever since I began my tenure as a witch consultant. He was the most arrogant of all. He was also one of the strongest vamps in the city. The richest too. And if you believed the gossip mags, he was easily one of the hottest.
I did not. I’d seen him up close. I’d had to deal with his snarling stupidity on far too many occasions to ever think he was hot again.
“That’s not the point. None of this is the point. A real woman,” I said, voice hard, “would never give in to a dumb vamp like that.”
“But this is so romantic. He’s marrying her to protect her.”
“If she can throw a vamp across a room, why would she need protection from him?” I crossed my arms.
“From the damned. You don’t know anything about vampire romances. Just crawl back into that lonely little cave you live in, Auntie, and head to work before you’re late.”
I spluttered as if I was a big fat balloon of anger and someone had just poked me with a pin. “I’m sorry? Lonely little cave? I—”
She brought up her wrist and tapped her smartwatch. “Time’s ticking. You don’t want to be late for your first day in the violent crimes unit, do you? That would not go down well.”
She was right. She was wrong on every other level, though. I didn’t even deign to say goodbye. I turned around fast on my foot and headed for the door.
I passed my sister, Anne, on the way.
She chuckled. “Go easy on her. It’s her favorite genre at the moment.”
“Don’t you think she’s a little young to be watching that crap?”
“You read vampire romances from the age of five,” she said pointedly.
I kind of hid the flush that climbed my cheeks. “Whatever.”
“Yeah. Good luck on your first day.”
I sighed. I hoped like hell I wouldn’t need it.
I walked out to a blustery breeze. It ran down the street. It soon collected the hems of my jacket and sent them whipping around my hips.
I ignored it. I settled the hope in my heart that today would be a good day.
My chief had taken a gamble on me. I wasn’t quite the witch consultant they usually had in violent crimes.
I didn’t have the requisite power, see.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t selling myself short. I was an absolute ace when it came to potions. I lived with my sister, and I had the whole basement. It was cram-packed with absolutely all of the greatest chemistry equipment you could imagine. I was always distilling something, always enchanting some new potion, and always preparing myself for the next battle.
Okay, I said battle, but I’d hardly ever investigated many violent incidents since I’d started working for the police 10 years ago.
That was not the point.
I didn’t have raw magic, but I had intelligence. That was better by far.
I barely made it to the car by the time my phone rang. I shoved it in its holder, turned the car on, and answered. “Millie here,” I muttered as I pulled out from the curb.
“Don’t bother heading to the station.” It was my boss, Frank Smith. He’d been my boss in the traffic unit, too. He’d hand-picked me to go on with him when he had received a promotion himself.
I frowned hard. “What’s going on?”
“There’s been a disappearance.”
I frowned. “I don’t recognize the name—”
“You should. She changed her last name to her husband’s. She was Samantha Vaughn.”
I clenched my teeth together and forced a whistle through them. “Damn. Wait, one of the most powerful ancestral vampires in the city has gone missing?” My voice shot up high.
“So where do you want me to head?”
“To Franklin Quay. To the superyacht docked off it, to be exact.”
“I have high hopes for you, Millie. You might not be… as skilled in the witch department as our last consultant, but you’ve got what matters.”
I grinned. “Thanks, Frank. I won’t let you down.”
I drove to Franklin Quay as fast as I could. Fortunately there wasn’t much traffic around. Maybe the wind kept people away. Maybe the fact it was a crisp Monday morning kept other people away, too. It looked like it would be a grim week ahead.
I knew I would’ve preferred to stay in bed a little longer.
I parked at the dock. It wasn’t hard to spot the superyacht. You could’ve seen it from space. Not only was it so big that it looked like it had swallowed every other boat, but it just drew the eye. Whichever pretentious git owned it probably had a personality twice the size of it.
And whichever pretentious git owned it was most likely a vampire.
I’d already made my peace with the fact I would be dealing with more vampires as part of this job. As I jumped out of my car, I sealed a breath deep in my chest, and I told myself I could do this.
It didn’t take long to see the other detectives. They waved me toward the yacht.
They weren’t the only ones standing outside. Besuited bouncers stood ramrod straight like tent poles. One look at them, and it was obvious they were vamps.
One look at me, and it was obvious they thought I was no threat at all. Fair enough. I was pretty small, and I certainly didn’t give the impression of someone magical in the first place.
I yanked my tag out of my pocket and secured my lanyard around my neck.
Phillip Jones stood close by one of the bouncers. I’d done a short stint with him on a combined case a while ago. We’d become fast friends.
He grinned and gestured me toward the gangplank. “The boss is waiting upstairs. You ready for your first day?”
I flashed him a smile. “I think what you meant to ask is whether Angeles City is ready for my first day? I’m gonna become a hell of a witch consultant.”
He laughed. Maybe others thought I came across as arrogant, but that wasn’t in my tone. It was just pure playfulness.
“Trust me, Millie, Angeles will never be ready for you.”
I conceded his point just as we reached the top of the gangplank. I jumped down. Then I confirmed my every single suspicion. Not only was the superyacht massive from the outside, but it was so frigging opulent now I was on it, I wondered how many small countries’ GDPs had gone into making it.
Ancestral vampires didn’t just have their own family money. They were into business in every way they could be. Mining, services industries, you name it. If there was a big conglomeration out there, I could guarantee a vampire either ran it or owned it.
I wondered what this guy did.
“What do we know about the case?” I asked.
“Samantha Appleby disappeared last night at a party held here.”
“Why are people so sure she disappeared on the yacht?”
Phillip shot me a look. “The boss didn’t tell you the details of the case, did he?”
I frowned. “Nope. Just told me to come straight here.”
“Everyone’s pretty sure she disappeared on the yacht, because she disappeared in front of them.”
I frowned. “What does that mean?”
“Unsolicited transport spell,” he muttered.
That was some pretty heavy magic. There was a lot you could do with potions if you were smart enough, but hard magic like transportation would always remain out of reach. That was a level of magic so beyond me, there was no point in even comparing me to it. It was like an ant to a mountain.
I scratched the side of my face. “Well, okay. Did anybody get details about the transport spell?”
“Yeah, we questioned most of the vampires involved. The chief is still questioning the owner of the yacht.
“And who is that?” I asked conversationally.
“Sebastian St Vern.”
I stopped and twitched. It looked like I’d been hit.
Phillip turned slowly. He shoved his hands into his pockets and chuckled. “I forgot. You two have a history, don’t you?”
“History? I wouldn’t call it a history. That asshole does nothing but tease me. He’s so frigging arrogant.”
Phillip quickly snapped a finger up and pressed it against his lips. “Refrain from calling him an asshole while we’re on his yacht, Millie. He’s cooperating with us every step of the way.”
I crossed my arms. “Just as he should be. That’s nothing to be thankful for. He’s obliged to.”
“Yeah, yeah, but you still can’t call him an asshole. Don’t let him get to you. You’re right; it’s just a game.” With that almost dismissive comment, he waved me forward.
I tried not to think about it as we walked up to the top deck.
There was a large open area. There usually were on yachts, but on this superyacht, it was so enormous, you could have fit 10 helicopters up here.
Judging by the forensics team, this was where our victim had disappeared from.
I could see the photographer down on her knees taking footage of a mark on the floor. That, presumably, would be the last evidence Samantha had left.
I didn’t have great witch senses, but what I did have I used now.
“Are you picking anything up?” Phillip asked conversationally.
He knew my limitations.
“I guess,” I muttered, even though I hadn’t picked up anything other than the fact the forensics team swarmed over this place. Maybe a different kind of witch would’ve felt tingles rushing over her skin. She would’ve felt some kind of vibe in the air. I was just… a little hungry. And very, very pissed off. If I’d known this was Sebastian’s yacht, regardless of this being my first day, I would’ve chucked a sickie.
Sebastian and I went way back. To be precise, we went back to the day I joined the police force.
On my first mission as a witch consultant to the traffic unit, I’d pulled him over for outrageous speeding.
It’d been a great hullabaloo. I’d actually tried to arrest him. He’d played along the whole time until he’d revealed who he was and made a complete idiot of me.
From that day, the game had begun.
What did I mean about the game?
As I thought about it, I had to back off a little, getting further away from Phillip as he locked his attention on the crime scene. I pressed my back up against the railing behind me and let the cool sea breeze brush along my neck. I even closed my eyes slightly.
Sebastian kept promising to marry me.
Yep. You heard that right.
Me, just some random witch consultant, just some poor, down-on-her-luck tiny fish in the otherwise massive pool that was Angeles City. There were so many ancestral vampires here, it was one of the most important vamp cities in the world.
When Sebastian did marry, he would probably marry someone like Samantha Appleby. Okay, she had disappeared. Not my point. My point was he would marry someone super important and insanely attractive.
He’d only ever started this game to rile me up, likely to get me back for trying to arrest him.
Still, Phillip was right. I just had to shake it off.
So I dropped my hand.
It was just in time to see a uniformed officer walking up to me. “You’re Millie, right?”
I nodded. “Where do you need me?”
“The chief wants you down in the main room. He’s questioning the remaining witness.”
I followed her down the stairs. All the while I tried not to touch a thing. They belonged to Sebastian, after all.
I might have said I’d grown up ever since I’d been infatuated with vampire romances, but I still had a childish streak. If there had been no one around, I think I would’ve petulantly kicked the wall.
There were a lot of police people coming and going, so instead I held my head up high.
I was taken through the yacht. It was so much bigger than I’d first assumed. It was like a floating apartment block. It was like a frigging cruise ship. And it was all for one person?
Sorry, not person. Not even a vampire. One arrogant, pigheaded prick of a man.
And speaking of the arrogant prick of a man, we walked into this massive room, and there he was, draped on one seriously comfortable-looking couch with another vampire draped over him.
She was stunning, likely some kind of model, and wearing this silky thing that looked so slippery, she was probably holding onto him for dear life so she didn’t slide off the couch, over the floor, and into the ocean.
She of course didn’t look like that. She had this almost purring expression on her face.
I stopped in the doorway, long before Sebastian could see me. Or at least that’s what I hoped.
He was currently ensconced in a conversation with Frank.
Sebastian leaned all the way back, one arm holding a tumbler of golden liquid while his other arm rested along the back of the couch.
His vampire model leaned forward, plucked something up off the table in front of him, and slipped it into her mouth. The whole while, she moved exactly like her dress. It was like there was no friction in her life.
Meanwhile, I grated into the room while the uniformed officer beside me cleared her throat because I’d just stopped dead.
Sebastian’s attention was already on me by the time I took a step into the room. As for his eyes, they slowly slid my way.
Then that smile, that same damn arrogant smile he always used when I was around curled his lips. He leaned forward. He didn’t exactly push his model vampire off his lap, but he made it harder for her to drape there. She sat straighter, arching an eyebrow in confusion.
That smile just grabbed Sebastian’s lips harder. “Long time no see, wife.”
My hackles rose so high, I thought my skin would crack off my back like ceramic hit with a sledgehammer.
The uniformed officer beside me made a face.
My chief didn’t. He’d been there that first day when I’d tried to drag Sebastian in. He knew all about this game.
If it were anyone else, he would tell Sebastian to hold his tongue. But Sebastian wasn’t anyone else, and that was the damn point.
I tried not to make my anger too obvious. Don’t get me wrong, if it had just been us, I would’ve told Sebastian to shove it.
But it wasn’t just us. I had a crowd, and while I hated it, Sebastian just smiled harder.
I locked my hands behind my back, securing my fingers in hard. At this rate, it felt like I’d dig through my hands. Whatever.
That smile somehow continued to grow on Sebastian’s lips. I mean seriously, was it a weed? Was it going to take over the rest of his damn head and choke him to death? I could only hope.
He leaned back again, but when his model tried to drape over him once more as if he was cold and she was his blanket, he just shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to be disrespectful to the missus.”
God. I just wanted to walk over to him and punch him. I settled for coming to a stop beside the chief.
He shot me a look telling me he knew exactly how pissed off I was right now, but a look that also told me I had to hold onto that anger.
“We should get back to discussing the incident,” Frank said pointedly.
Sebastian nodded, but he didn’t take his eyes off me once.
It was so damn obvious that he was paying so much attention to me that everybody else in the room was now staring at me too. The chief might know what was happening, but no one else did. I had to work with these people.
Why was it that Sebastian always ruined everything?
“What did you see?” Frank began.
“Samantha was nervous most of the night,” Sebastian said. He leaned forward once more. He locked an elbow on his knee, and he started to brush his fingers down his jaw and lips.
It was a very pointed move. He looked at my jaw, too. And it didn’t take my otherwise slow brain long to figure out what he was doing.
God. I just wanted to punch him. Once. That was all it would take.
Then again, if I punched him, it wouldn’t do anything. He was a seriously powerful ancestral vampire, and I was a tiny little potions witch.
I settled for staring at anything other than him.
“To be honest, Samantha’s been a little on edge for the past week,” Sebastian added.
I could tell Frank frowned hard even though I wasn’t looking at him. This was the kind of detail he would latch onto. “We didn’t hear that from anyone else.”
“I had a lot to do with her over the last week. One of my businesses was planning a merger with one of hers.”
“Did you notice anyone hanging around with her? Did she mention anything to you?” Frank asked quickly.
“She did seem to get a lot of phone calls. I don’t know who was calling her, however. I imagine you can track it, though. That being said, whoever they were, they were likely using strong spells to hide their footprints. But if you have a strong witch consultant, I imagine you’ll be able to tease apart the real evidence.”
Here we go. Sebastian knew exactly what kind of witch I was. And what he was suggesting was well, well outside my skills.
“Is there anything else you can share?” Frank asked.
“Samantha bought a new apartment last week. She planned to move in straight away. I know she spent a lot of time looking at it yesterday. You might find something there.”
The chief nodded, and he wrote that fact down straight away. He turned around to talk to an officer behind him. He clearly wanted to get the investigation going, but that just left me alone, right in Sebastian’s sights. Now he’d given his witness report, I could tell there was nothing to stop him from playing with me.
That model vampire took one look at me then at him. “You know her, baby?” The word baby slipped off her lips just as I imagined the satin dress could slip off her body if she wanted it to.
Sebastian smiled at me again. He had a range of smiles – this was the most predatory of all. “I told you before. That’s my wife.”
She clearly had no idea how to react.
Most of the other officers had returned to work. Now they paused and looked at me again.
I was clenching my hands so tightly that my shoulders were practically popping out of my shirt.
“Wife?” The slinky vampire’s voice shot up so high, I thought it would crack the glass window behind Sebastian.
Sebastian just chuckled. “We’re not married yet, but that will come sooner rather than later.”
I just stared at him. There were a thousand things I wanted to say to him. More than anything, I wanted him to just leave me alone. I get it, I’d had the hubris to pull him over. But the bastard had broken the law.
He’d also broken my heart, but not in the way he thought. Before I’d met him, I’d still been enamored of vampires. I’d thought they were the coolest things out there. I’d never had personal experience with their arrogance, though.
Sebastian had pulled the wool from my eyes. And I had not been blinded to the real vampire world since.
The chief quickly came back. “That will be all. You don’t object to our witch consultant here walking around, do you?”
That was a polite way of Frank asking Sebastian if he had anything to hide. But it was just another invitation for Sebastian to shoot me one of those sarcastic smiles. It was even worse. I didn’t just want to punch him now. I wanted to throw him off the side of the ship.
“I would never object to my wife walking around here. What is mine is hers.” He graciously bowed forward.
I took that as permission to leave, and I turned around so stiffly, I could’ve cracked.
I practically ran for the door.
Frank was behind me. When we made it into the corridor, he winced at me. “Sorry. I thought someone would have told you this was Sebastian’s yacht.”
I took a tense breath. “It’s fine. I dealt with it, right? I didn’t punch him, did I?”
“Keep your voice down. He can definitely still hear us,” Frank said as he locked a hand on my shoulder and drove me forward through the wide corridor. When we were at a safe distance, he turned. “You held yourself together well. Now, do your thing.” He gestured to the yacht like I was a bloodhound and all I had to do was follow a scent.
I became very uncomfortable. “You… know my limitations, right—”
“Yeah, I also know that while you can’t sniff out vibes or snap your fingers and conjure weapons, you’ve got a better head than any other witch I’ve ever worked with. Now go use it. This is an important case. The commissioner is already breathing down my neck.”
With that, he walked off and plucked his phone from his pocket. He was engaged in a serious conversation before he was several meters away.
That left me alone on Sebastian St Vern’s yacht.
Great. This was my first day. It couldn’t get worse, right? Wrong. It was about to get much worse. Not just for the day – for the rest of my frigging life.
Fortunately I didn’t wander into Sebastian again on his yacht. I got the impression he kept watching me, though. When I started searching one of the lower decks, I looked up to see him on the top deck. There he was, a drink in his hand. Miss Slinky was around, but she kept her distance. She looked at me like I was some kind of swamp monster that had dared drag itself up from the sewers.
I didn’t let Sebastian rattle me. I had a job to do. So I did it.
There wasn’t much evidence on the yacht. By the sounds of it, there was never going to be.
Someone had clearly been tracking Samantha. The evidence wouldn’t be here. It would be elsewhere. She would’ve unwittingly brought that transport spell onto the yacht with her. Something would’ve instigated it, and she would have been pulled away.
This was a waste of time.
The only thing I was doing by searching this yacht was becoming more aware of how much of an arrogant prick Sebastian was. I’d been to some of the ancestral vampire mansions in town. Not a single one was as fancy as this place. I hadn’t been to Sebastian’s manor, though, had I? Even though he’d invited me there on several occasions.
When it was all done and I was back in my car, I hit the steering wheel several times. “Bastard,” I snarled at the image of Sebastian in my mind. Then I promptly drove back to the police station.
It was crazily busy. It always was. Angeles City was filled with crimes. Some of them were pretty standard. Others weren’t. With this many ancestral vampires around, it attracted other magical races. And that attracted true criminals.
The violent crimes unit was massive. There were at least 100 officers working on it, with others who could be seconded in for various cases. I was the primary witch consultant, but at any point, when things got serious, they could pull other witches from other divisions.
I crossed paths with one such witch now. Her name was Alicia White. She had a slightly glum look on her face. She managed a smile. I’d actually taken her job when I’d come to the violent crimes unit. She’d been given a promotion. “How’s your first day going, Millie?”
I shrugged, feigning competence though all I wanted was to scream at the wall for running into Sebastian on my first day. “It’s great. How about you?” I forced a smile. I didn’t want Alicia knowing I’d had a hell of a day; apart from the chief, she’d been my next greatest mentor. I couldn’t count how much advice she’d given me over the years. Of all the police consultants, she’d paid the most attention to me, and it’d been welcome.
“Oh, you know. Work’s work. No rest for the wicked,” she said with a halting laugh. She walked past me, patted my back, and continued down the corridor.
I frowned at her, then turned and headed to the right floor. It was bustling. I made it over to the chief. “I finished my report. I’ve already uploaded it.”
“You banged it out on your phone? Not too many people could bang out a 3000-word report on their phone.”
I lifted my thumbs and twiddled them. “Fastest texter in the West. Now, how about I head to Samantha’s apartment?”
“About that,” he began.
I frowned. “What?”
“Something’s just come up.”
I blinked quickly. “Already? Have you got new evidence? Or has someone come forward?”
“No, it’s actually a traffic case.”
It took a long time for the smile usually on my lips to fracture and fall. “Did I—”
“No, you didn’t do anything wrong. You’ve just got a lot of history with this specific crim. The traffic division called, and they need your assistance to question him.”
I frowned, trying to think of who it could be. I had a lot of history with a lot of guys, and no, not the way you thought.
I was unrelenting. It was one of the reasons Frank had decided to take me to the violent crimes unit. When I locked onto a target, I got them. I didn’t care where they came from. I didn’t care what background they had, and I didn’t care who they said was watching their backs. If they broke the law, I held them to account.
So there were a lot of people Frank could be referring to.
Frank saw me trying to figure it out, and he chuckled. “Does a certain dwarf by the name of Farrell ring a bell?”
I suddenly became pale. I actually clutched my neck, too. “You serious? That little creep pulled himself out of the sewers again?”
“Yeah, he has, and the traffic unit thinks he was using refrigerated trucks to run drugs around the city. We’ve got him down in lockup. They want you to question him. They want somebody who’s familiar with his style.”
“Shouldn’t narcotics be onto this?”
“They’re out dealing with a much bigger case. Plus, they know you’ve got this in the bag.” He shrugged to the side.
I actually offered a salute.
He chuckled and offered one back. “I knew you were the best person for this job,” he muttered.
I didn’t point out I’d barely dealt with any violent crimes yet. I’d just refrained from punching the most powerful vampire in the city. It was hardly something to be proud of.
I took the elevator down to the right floor then walked through the main lockup.
I saluted William, the guy in charge. He was a half-witch himself. He nodded at me. “Back so soon? You miss traffic, don’t you?”
I laughed. “Yeah, so much. Where’s the little prick?”
“Is that the most respectful way to refer to Farrell?”
I just snorted. It was entirely too ribald. “I know him better than most.”
“Yeah, you do. And I’m sure he deserves your ire. He’s in the interrogation room. Second on the left.”
“Great.” I reached the room, knocked on the door, and walked in.
There was Farrell, sitting in a white plastic and metal chair, looking about as angry as any dwarf ever had.
In front of him was Bridget from the traffic unit. Her face had been crumpled in barely hidden anger a second before, but as soon as she saw me, she looked relieved. “You’re here. Thank God. He’s—”
I shoved my hands into my pockets, walked over, and flopped into the chair beside her. “He’s a career criminal. He is a consummate manipulator. And he is most definitely guilty of this crime. Which he is going to admit to,” I added, “by the time I get up in a minute and a half.”
I let my lips twitch. “Which part of that did you enjoy? It was the consummate manipulator part, wasn’t it?”
He slapped his chest. Dwarfs were not small. Some of them were. He wasn’t. He was this big barrel-chested thing. He was only a few feet taller than me, but weight for weight, he was twice my size. “It was the career criminal part,” he sneered. “Not too many people other than you appreciate how much of a professional I am.”
I laughed. “Don’t worry, I appreciate it. I’ve seen your work. You’re really good,” I said sarcastically.
He just grinned. “One of the best, wouldn’t you say?”
I paused, tapping a finger by my mouth. “I wouldn’t say you’re one of the best. The best has got to be Michael. He’s light years ahead of you.”
I hadn’t just picked a name out of a hat. I had referred to one of the most consummate dwarf criminals in the city for a very good reason. These two had a history.
He snarled, the move puckering his lips hard to the side. “That asshole? He’s an idiot. He works for some of the Alpha Gangs downtown. He does whatever the hell they say. He’s nothing more than a lapdog.”
“Really?” I frowned hard. “Michael works for the Alpha Gangs? You sure they don’t work for him?”
He let out this earsplitting laugh. Dwarves could shriek. People thought banshees were bad. They had no clue. When a dwarf tried to get your attention, he could scream so loudly, it would cause a cave-in. It was a natural defense mechanism. When they went to ground, they needed to dig a tunnel and collapse it as fast as they could.
“Michael is nothing.” He leaned forward and locked his elbow on the table. He looked me right in the eye.
There was something about that look.
“Maybe Michael wasn’t nothing in the past, but why do I get the impression,” I locked my own elbow on the table and leaned in, even though most people wouldn’t voluntarily want to get this close to fetid dwarf breath, “that he won’t be anything in the future?”
He couldn’t hide it in time, and his lip twitched. He tried to smile, but clearly he thought better of it.
Bridget watched me. There was a slightly awed edge to her expression. I mightn’t look like much, nor did I have raw power, but what I lacked, I made up for with my ability to deal with criminals. Everyone save for Sebastian, that was.
“You don’t usually ship drugs, Farrell. You’re too smart for that. You wouldn’t do it unless something big was involved and you saw a reward you couldn’t pass up, or you saw an opportunity to get revenge on someone you couldn’t ignore.”
“You don’t know nothing,” he snarled.
“Dwarves are very intelligent creatures. They understand double negatives. So that means we can both appreciate I do know something. I know how you operate, Farrell, and I understand you wouldn’t do something so stupid. Shipping drugs around in refrigerated trucks? That’s what a newbie would do. You’d only stoop so low if someone promised you something big. It wouldn’t be gold. And it wouldn’t be your own patch of dirt,” I said, referencing how much dwarves frigging loved to dig, “so it has to be revenge, doesn’t it?”
He leaned back. His cheek twitched. It had this very specific almost flighty quality as if someone had stabbed an electrode into it.
I just leaned back too. I drummed my fingers on the edge of the desk. “Michael’s been your better competition for years. He is faster, smarter, and way better at manipulating,” I said pointedly.
He now hissed as if he was a broken steam pipe. “You ain’t got no idea what you’re talking about.”
I clicked my fingers at him. “That would be another double negative. Which means I know exactly what I’m talking about. Which I do. Michael’s not the one working with the Alpha Gangs, is he? It’s you. They promised you not just revenge, but a big reward. I have to ask, though,” I leaned forward again, catching another whiff of that totally fetid breath, “why would somebody as smart as you voluntarily work with them? You would only do that if they had some kind of dirt on you. What have they got? It can’t be standard evidence. You’d just brush it off. Your cousin is such a good lawyer, isn’t he?” I added, remembering his cousin had managed to get him off so many charges, the lawyer needed a prize. And if I had anything to do with it, the prize would be a long stint behind bars.
“Shut up,” he hissed.
“I’m taking this interview. So I’m not about to shut up. I’m getting to the bottom of this mess, aren’t I? You’re working for the Alpha Gangs. What have they got on you? It’s gotta be something big.”
“I said shut up, lady. I’m not going to say another word without a lawyer.”
This was always going to happen. But it didn’t matter. I’d pretty much gotten the evidence I needed. Based on his reaction, I knew we were on to something.
I turned to Bridget. “Get him his lawyer. At the same time, drag in the head of the Alpha Gang. He’s in lockup, isn’t he?” I’d heard someone mention on the way here.
It was a targeted statement, and it damn well worked.
Farrell’s face practically collapsed with anger. His chin twitched, and his long beard quivered. He shot forward.
“Whoa,” Bridget said as she locked her hand on the table. “If you make another aggressive movement, we will call in the remand officers to drag you back to your cell.”
Farrell couldn’t even hear her. I could practically feel the fear vibrating through him. His eyes widened again. “You stay the hell out of this, Millie,” he snarled at me. “You ain’t got no idea what you’re dealing with.”
I opened my fat mouth to tell him was another double negative, but he just shot to his feet.
Bridget followed. She pushed the panic button under the desk long before she stood properly.
Immediately the door buzzed open, and two burly officers walked in.
Farrell didn’t try anything, though. He watched me. “If I were you, I’d stay the hell away from this case if you want to live.”
“Do not threaten a detective,” Bridget snarled.
“This ain’t no threat.”
Again, I could have pointed out the double negative. I just stood there. I was usually really good at shrugging off idiots like Farrell. They threatened when they didn’t have anything else to go on. I could see the desperation in his eyes. I could also… I could see something else.
He pointed a stiff finger at me just as the two remand officers shoved in from behind and grabbed him. “Stay the hell away from this, Millie. That’s your last warning.”
This is where I should’ve said something, but I just stood there, a little cold as I watched him.
He was dragged into the corridor.
I fixed a smile on my face as I turned to Bridget. “I did it. You’ve got your lead now. I can guarantee you he’s working with the Alpha Gangs. He made some kind of deal to get Michael off his turf. Is there anything else you need?”
She smiled. “You’re the best.”
“I’m pretty good, but we all know I’ve got my limitations.” I walked backward through the door, nodded, then turned in time to hear two thumps.
The remand officers in the Angeles primary police division were massive. They were half gargoyles usually. They knew exactly how to handle themselves, and importantly, they knew how to handle absolutely everybody else, too.
But in a split second, Farrell took them both down.
I didn’t see what he had, but something flashed on his skin. It was some kind of hidden tattoo that had only risen to the fore when he’d punched them both across their jaws. Now they crumpled just like sacks dumped on the ground.
In a blink, he came at me. I didn’t have the strength to throw him off, and God knows I didn’t have the magic.
Bridget screamed just as he shot in behind me. I felt him lock his beefy arm against my throat. I didn’t care about his fetid breath anymore. I didn’t care about the stench of the rest of his body. What counted was the vibrating force of the magic spreading over his skin. I could see tattoos marching over his bare arms, down to his fingers, and across his palms.
These were no ordinary marks. This was a suicide bomb. If he let the magic run its course, and he exploded, he would take me with him.
Both of Bridget’s hands were up. “Don’t do anything stupid,” she hissed.
“I’m getting the hell out of here, and I’m taking this bitch with me. And there’s nothing,” he screamed, “you idiots can do about it. Now get the hell out of my way.”
Bridget backed off. Her hands were still high.
The alarm suddenly sounded.
She winced. So did I. Because the magic rushing over Farrell’s form only became twice as strong. It reacted to every shaking pitch of the alarm.
I… there was a real chance he’d actually end this, wasn’t there? It wasn’t just the magic building across his body – it was the sheer fear lapping off him in waves. Dwarves had powerful scent glands. You could tell what they were thinking based on what they smelt like. And now he was just pure desperation.
There was the sound of footfall. Other remand officers came into view. They pulled out their weapons.
Bridget threw her hand to the side. “He’s got a suicide spell. Don’t do anything. Just….”
“That’s right. You can’t do a damn thing. If you don’t want me to take this bitch with me, get the hell out of my way,” he screamed.
He started to drag me forward.
Even if I had tried, I wouldn’t have been able to break his grip on my throat. It was complete. It was like he had secured a choker around my neck.
The remand officers parted.
Bridget locked her terrified gaze on me.
The whole while, I just remained stiff and still. I was like a rabbit trying to pretend to be dead. But Farrell knew full well my heart was still beating. Maybe he planned on ending that, though, because his grip around my throat began to get tighter and tighter.
As he walked past the major line of remand officers, he turned to face them. He backed off through the open door. “Don’t try a damn thing,” he screamed.
His high-pitched shrieking voice sounded out right by my ear. It was so loud and insistent, he could’ve burst my eardrums.
As he backed off through the door, I saw the other officers. They weren’t getting too close. News he had a suicide spell would’ve spread.
I… I should only think about being on the edge of death, but I couldn’t. My brain could never really be switched off, and it pointed out it was insane for him to have a suicide spell.
One of the reasons I’d been so cocky during that interview was because I knew Farrell. I understood exactly the kind of criminal he was. A cheeky little prick, sure, but he wasn’t the kind to engage in something like this. Something had changed for him, though. It had to be the Alpha Gang.
When I’d mentioned we had the head of the Alpha Gang in remand, he’d freaked out. So it had to have something to do with the Alpha Gang specifically.
I didn’t know why the guy had been brought in. Likely narcotics charges, too. But why would Farrell try to risk his life for them?
There was only so much distraction my brain could involve itself in. At some point, Farrell would drag me out of the police station, and then what?
I’d like to think Farrell would not turn into a murderer to get rid of me, but clearly everything I’d thought about him in the past no longer stood.
To get out of the remand center and out of the police station, we first had to make our way out of the front room. That was where most people came to the desk to report crimes and most captured criminals were processed. As Farrell walked backward into that room, the usually bustling, tumultuously loud place became eerily quiet.
I couldn’t see anything. My gaze was still locked ahead.
“If anyone tries anything,” Farrell snarled as he started to turn to face the main desk, “I’ll explode, and I’ll take her with me. There’ll be nothing left but chunks of flesh over the wall. So you will stay exactly where you are,” he shrieked.
Nobody said a damn thing.
He backed off, facing the primary desk and all the stiff-lipped officers staring at me.
He reached the main doors. They were right behind him.
All of the things I’d been trying to ignore suddenly rushed to the fore. This was no time to think about the Alpha Gang. I couldn’t track just how stressed Farrell was. I had to think about myself. Because once he took me through those doors, I—
The door opened. Just like that.
Farrell had a chance to turn around. He never got a chance to do anything else, though.
Somebody punched him right across the jaw. This was no mere blow. This was no normal attack. It came with a charge of magic so lethal and destructive, it not only ripped Farrell’s arms from around my neck, but it ended his spell with the equivalent of somebody slamming their foot down on a candlewick.
I fell to the side, but I never struck the floor.
Someone leaned in, grabbed my wrist, and pulled me around. I fell against their chest.
A second later, the police station erupted into activity. Several officers leaped right over the main counter and launched on top of Farrell. He hadn’t roused yet. From the sound of that magical punch, he wasn’t going to wake for a week.
So the police could deal with Farrell. I had to deal with the person who’d saved me. Sorry, vampire.
I looked up with a trembling gaze into Sebastian St Vern’s eyes.
And he just cracked a smile.
The bastard… the bastard had saved both me and the station.
I would’ve preferred to go down to Farrell, frankly. But that was no longer on the cards. Something else was.
The look in Sebastian’s eyes said it all. He had me right where he wanted me, and this time, he wasn’t going to let me go.
Sebastian didn’t pull away from me. It seemed he would’ve been happy to have me in his arms for the rest of the day. When everything caught up to me, I shoved away from him as if he was a hot coal.
By now the news of what had happened had likely spread throughout the police station, and I heard thundering footfall that could only belong to one man. “Millie?” Frank demanded from across the room.
I turned. I managed to subdue the red-hot blush thundering up my cheeks at the fact Sebastian had saved me long before Frank grabbed my shoulders. He looked at me, and when he confirmed I was whole, he sighed. He shot Farrell a look that could’ve burnt through steel. “What the hell happened here? How did we let a prisoner with a goddamn suicide spell into the building?”
I spent several seconds looking at the floor. I finally sliced my gaze back up to Sebastian. Predictably, he was still staring at me. He had a smile that… God, I couldn’t really describe it. It was a smile that elicited one feeling and one feeling alone. And it sure as hell wasn’t relief.
He’d just saved me, and he would milk this for all it was worth.
He looked like he hadn’t cared that I’d been in danger. All he cared about was that he now had yet another thing to lord over me.
Frank reached a hand out.
Sebastian shook it. He pretended to look professional as he nodded. “You don’t need to thank me. I couldn’t just stand there and do nothing.”
“We were lucky to have you here. Things could’ve gone a lot differently.”
This was presumably where I had to launch forward and thank him, too. But I just stood there.
I sliced my gaze away and stared at anything but him. I pretended to be a lot more interested in Farrell, and to be fair, that was because I should be. I’d had no clue he had a suicide spell on him. Yeah, I wasn’t a great witch, but suicide spells smelt obvious. He should have been picked up when he’d been remanded anyway.
Sebastian cleared his throat.
I could feel Frank’s gaze on the back of my neck.
It was starting to become very obvious I hadn’t said a damn thing to my savior.
So I momentarily sliced my gaze over to Sebastian. I grunted. “Thanks,” I managed. It was the most apathetic thanks anyone had ever heard.
Sebastian just took it as a reason to smile even wider. “Anything for my wife,” he said clearly, loudly, and in front of most of the police station.
I felt like sinking my head into my hands.
Everyone looked confused, but it was too chaotic for anyone to question.
Bridget soon rushed in. “God, you’re fine,” she stammered. “I’m so sorry. I had no clue—”
“It’s okay.” I brought my hands up wide. “No harm done.”
“There could’ve been, though,” Frank said. He was down on his knee checking the comatose Farrell. “I haven’t seen a suicide spell like this in a long time. This is seriously powerful. It could’ve taken out half the police station. How the hell did he get in with this on his skin?”
The whole while Sebastian just stood there. And I shouldn’t have to tell you that the whole while he stared at me.
He had an effect on most of the other people around him. Those who didn’t know what kind of git he was were even a little red-cheeked. It wasn’t every single day somebody as hot and important as Sebastian deigned to share his presence with us.
But Sebastian only had eyes for me. “You should get that looked at at some point.”
I didn’t want to face him. I didn’t want to acknowledge him. So I just pretended he hadn’t spoken to me. It wasn’t mature, but whatever.
I went to walk away. So he leaned in and moved in close beside me. Then, with one hand in his pocket, he inclined his head to the left. “You should get that looked at at some point,” he said louder.
There was only so much I could ignore. Because there was only so much the people around me could ignore. Sebastian, despite the comatose dwarf on the floor, still had the majority of people’s attention.
I came to a stop. My breath was settled somewhere high in my throat. It’d bypassed my lungs. It was now filling up in my neck as if I was about to pop like a toad someone hit with a hammer. “Get what looked at?” I said way too tersely for someone who’d just been saved by this guy.
He tapped his neck. Thank God he didn’t tap mine instead.
I touched my own throat. And that’s when I realized I was bleeding. I stared at my fingers, shocked.
“The edge of the spell likely caught you. You should get it looked at,” he said more clearly now.
I was too startled by my injury to say anything to him.
Bridgit tilted her head to the side. “Looks pretty nasty. I’ll call one of the medics.”
No. I wanted to grab her arm and hold her to the spot. At least that would mean there would be someone between me and Sebastian.
But here’s the thing – even if I’d had an entire crowd between me and Sebastian, he would have ignored them anyway.
He sliced his gaze down to Farrell briefly. “What was he in for?”
“I’m not about to share the details of a police case with you—”
“Drug running,” the chief said as he pushed up, a deep frown still marching over his lips.
I tried to shoot the chief this look that said Sebastian was just a civilian, but clearly in Frank’s eyes, Sebastian wasn’t. And to be fair, there was a relatively gray area there. As one of the most important vampires in the city, Sebastian had an essential seat on the Vampire Council. And the Vampire Council helped to control the vampires in town. They didn’t bypass the police or anything, but they certainly assisted whenever powerful vampires were suspected of crimes or crimes had been committed against them.
“I would wager whatever this dwarf has been up to, it has been more than petty drug running,” Sebastian said quickly.
Yeah, what a genius. I’d already figured that out.
“What do you think? Have you heard anything?” The chief locked a frown on his lips as he crossed his arms.
“I will ask around. My wife here needs assistance first, though.”
God. I’d foolishly hoped he’d stopped calling me his wife. But clearly Sebastian was never going to stop referring to me as his damn missus.
I was starting to become red-cheeked. But in a kind of apoplectic way. I would likely look like a volcano that was not just getting ready to explode, but getting ready to take the rest of the world with it.
All I could be thankful for was the medic didn’t take too much time. I soon saw her pushing through the crowd with a medkit in hand.
I could’ve let out such a loud sigh, it would have broken the windows.
Sebastian was called away by the chief to look at Farrell. Clearly the chief wanted some pointers on the suicide spell. Frank would be going spare. I didn’t want to even think of how large the security breach would have been to allow somebody with a suicide spell into the station. Magic was checked before you came in the door, especially when you were a perp. Farrell would have been scanned by multiple wizards. Yet it hadn’t mattered. He’d almost taken me out….
The medic sat me down in a plastic chair that was brought over, and my neck was checked. It was a lot more uncomfortable than I thought it would be.
She chuckled. “The spell got you good. Just the wrong angle, I’d say.” She started to clean up the blood and place a long plaster over the wound. All the while, while I could have been joking with her, I chose to stew and stare at Sebastian’s back. What had he been doing here? Why did he come in? Was it specifically to bother me again?
He turned around at the wrong moment, and he caught me staring at him.
He flashed me a smile, as if to confirm it was perfectly reasonable my eyes would be on him 24/7.
I crossed my arms and huffed.
“I still need to get to your neck,” the medic warned.
Yeah. And meanwhile, Sebastian still had to get to me. Likely for the rest of my damn life. When I’d first met him and he’d started claiming to everybody he would marry me, I’d hoped it was just a game. You know, something a bored, arrogant vampire would get up to for a couple of kicks. But not something that would last. And yet, here we were ten years later, and it had still lasted. But it couldn’t go on much longer, could it? There would be a natural end to this.
But it wouldn’t be the end I hoped for. Because my destiny was catching up to me. And it was about to gather speed.
I walked in the front door to my home, and I gave such a large sigh, it actually upset Vivian from the lounge room. I heard her extricating herself from the couch. She came trundling over, a cushion held under her arm. She looked up at the plaster around my neck and arched an eyebrow. “You know you’re meant to investigate violent crimes, right? You’re not meant to dole them out or have them doled out on yourself. Which one was it?”
I crossed my arms. “Don’t I get a little bit of compassion? This really hurts.” I pointed to it, frowning and wondering why exactly it was it hurt so much. I brushed my fingers down my throat again.
“Yeah, whatever. Seriously, though, who hurt you? It wasn’t the other way around, was it? You just don’t have the gall or the magic to attack someone. Unlike the heroines in the shows I watch, you just have a big fat mouth.”
I slowly clenched my teeth together.
At least Sebastian pretended to care.
I had to catch myself so damn quickly, I could’ve skidded and fallen on my ass. Sorry, had I just compared Sebastian to my own niece?
Sebastian was still playing a game. His apparent care for me was nothing more than twisted vampire fun.
Anne came in from the kitchen. She shot my neck a look. Finally I got some compassion. “What happened?”
“She got in trouble with her big fat mouth. That’s my guess,” Vivian suggested.
“Vivian,” Anne chided. “Wait to hear the story first.”
Great. My sister had come to my defense, only to swiftly retreat. Because both of them thought it was far more likely I’d gotten my ass kicked for being a sarcastic half-witch. There was no chance at all I’d received my injuries in a fair fight.
I briefly thought of not telling them, but I soon sighed. “There was an incident at the station. Someone in remand got free. They used me as a hostage.”
Anne’s eyes widened with true alarm. “What? That’s just a joke, right? You’re lying.”
Vivian snorted. She was a much better student of psychology. “She’s not lying. You know, Auntie, if you had stronger magic, you wouldn’t have been used as a hostage. You would have knocked the criminal out and gotten yourself a commendation.”
Anne grabbed Vivian by the shoulders. “Be nice to your aunt. She’s had a very hard day. Do you want a cup of tea before you go out?”
I made a face at her. “Sorry, out?”
Vivian’s face descended like a storm cloud. “You promised,” she hissed in that very specific voice she used when I was about to get an ear-full. I wasn’t the only person who could harangue people verbally. It was a family trait.
“Whoa, what did I do?” I felt obliged to put my hands up quickly. It was like they were attached to springs.
“The night market. She really wanted to check it out this time with the both of us,” my sister explained quickly.
My gut sank. The only thing I had wanted to do was go and have a bath, then crawl into bed. I clearly wasn’t going to get that opportunity. Sure, I could play the sympathy card, but Vivian didn’t believe in sympathy. I doubted she knew what the word meant.
I let out a sigh. “Fine. Just let me go change my clothes.”
Vivian nodded. “That’s the spirit. We’ll make a real officer out of you yet.”
There was a lot I could say to that. I wasn’t an officer, and I never would be. I was a consultant. But Vivian didn’t need to know the finer points of the HR structure of the police force. She wouldn’t care, anyway.
She wandered off, the cushion still clutched in her arms. She was likely about to get back to her vampire romances. I just shot the back of her head a long look.
Anne leaned against the wall beside me. “Are you really okay?”
I shrugged. I didn’t want to look tender in front of her, but I still hadn’t shaken this off and likely never would. It wasn’t the indignity of being used as a hostage. What my niece did not know was that pretty much anyone in my situation would have been just as screwed. Anyone save for Sebastian, that was. He’d destroyed that suicide spell in a single hit. There was almost no one else in the city who had that kind of power.
But there I went, thinking about him again. I clenched my teeth and sighed. Today wasn’t bothering me – he was.
My sister pointed her thumb down the stairs. “Go get cleaned up. We’ll make this quick.”
“Yeah.” I trundled down the stairs, my fingers dragging over the shined banister. I soon reached my basement.
It was big and a little musty. There was only one window. But it was all mine.
I walked straight over to my bed, fell face-first onto the pillow, and hugged it underneath me. I spent a few seconds breathing in its warmth. Then I rolled over. As I stared at the ceiling, I gently checked my plaster. It was on securely, but as soon as I rubbed my fingers over the top of it, despite the fact I was touching it lightly enough that I was like a feather, I twitched.
Was it normal to have this much pain after a run-in with a strong spell? I’d had similar injuries before, but they hadn’t hurt like this. Then again, they hadn’t been suicide spells.
I decided to put it out of my head. I got up. I dressed. I had to put a scarf on to hide my plaster. Then I frowned at my reflection in the mirror. I gave myself a good thorough looking up and down. Did I look okay? Yeah, but just okay.
“So enough of the game, already,” I said, speaking to the one man who couldn’t be in my room with me and never would be. I couldn’t think of a single reason Sebastian St Vern would ever come down here. Not the point. I was done with this game. It was getting petty, and it was starting to affect my work. I gripped the side of the mirror and pushed in, pretending the glass was Sebastian’s face. “You’ve had your fun. Just let me go. Hurry up and get married, Sebastian. And then just leave me the hell alone.”
When I was sure the mirror had received my message loud and clear, I finally went upstairs.
Vivian was already ready. She had a terse expression. She tapped her smartwatch. “If this is the kind of time you keep, then you will be kicked out of the violent crimes unit in a week. We’ve got important things to do, so hurry up.”
I frowned over at my sister. “Why does she want to get there so early? I thought it only started at seven?”
“There’s meant to be some kind of show on.”
I frowned. “Show? I checked the schedule last week. There’s nothing but stalls.”
Vivian held a bag. She authoritatively pulled something out of it, and she gestured at me. It was a magazine.
I rolled my eyes. “You actually read those things?”
She proffered it in front of my nose. And that’s when I caught sight of Sebastian. My gut clenched, and I stiffened. This real visceral change came over me as if the bastard had somehow crawled into my house. And, in a way, he had. Just via newsprint.
“There’s a rumor an important member from the Vampire Council will be there today to open the new arm of the subway. It’s right by the market.”
I just looked at her. “When did you get so into civic activities? They’re just opening a new station for the damn subway—”
“She’s started watching vampires,” my sister said as she chuckled.
“I’ve heard of people watching birds—”
“Watching vampires is so much more interesting. At school, a bunch of friends and I have been charting their activities. You know, I think Sebastian St Vern is about to announce his engagement,” she began, right out of nowhere.
Earlier, I’d stiffened, and I’d kept it to myself. Now I probably turned as white as a sheet. And you know what? I could admit it was for more reasons than one. “What? He’s about to announce his engagement?” All I could think of was that slinky woman who’d been draped over him today. She would be the perfect candidate. I didn’t honestly know if she was ancestral, but that wasn’t the point. She looked the part. Whereas I….
I’m sorry, I just had to kick my brain right out of my head for even suggesting that. I didn’t need to compare myself to her. There was no comparison here. All there was was Sebastian, the pretentious git. If he was about to get married, great, because it meant this game would be over finally.
“Why have you become so pale?” Vivian asked as her eyes narrowed.
I straightened and checked my plaster. “It’s just bothering me, okay? Let’s get out there. Wait.” I turned quickly. “You don’t think it’s gonna be Sebastian, do you?” I asked her, my voice wavering with a true note of panic.
“Sebastian? You mean St Vern? Since when were you on first-name terms with one of the most important vampires in the entire city, nay, the entire country?”
I didn’t pull my niece up on saying nay. Nor did I explain I knew Sebastian all too well. I just rolled my eyes. “Let’s go get this done.”
“And to answer your question, it’s not going to be Sebastian. He’s far too busy for this. Plus, he’s worth a thousand points,” my niece said with a giggle.
I made a face. “Thousand points? What does mean?”
“She and her friends have a points system. It’s for tracking vampires. Low-level vampires aren’t worth much, but a vampire like St Vern is worth a thousand points.”
“It’s the most there is,” Vivian said authoritatively. “I live in hope of spotting him one day.”
“No, you really, really don’t,” I muttered, and I walked out the door.
The first thing I noticed was the wind was back. It wasn’t as cold as it had been, but it was quicker. The way it darted down the street, the way it rushed past my face, and the way it hissed right past my ears felt like somebody chasing me.
And that was an image I wouldn’t be shrugging off for a long time yet.
I might not be the most powerful witch, but it turned out I’d just had a premonition. It would be too little too late.
We made it to the night market. It was bustling.
A whole section of downtown had been cordoned off. There was usually a street or two involved, but now it was several blocks. It was massive. There were even uniformed police officers around the front, checking people weren’t rowdy and just giving off the general vibe that this place was not going to put up with shenanigans.
I didn’t recognize the officers, and that was likely a good thing. I imagined by now news of what happened with me today had spread. No one had directly asked me what had gone down between me and Sebastian, but the questions would come eventually. Just for one night, I wanted to pretend my first day in my dream job had gone well.
I walked with my hands in my pockets behind my niece and sister. Vivian was so excited to be here. She went from stall to stall, and in the first few minutes, she’d already got a dream catcher, a lucky mug, several pens that could produce true invisible ink, and a Vampire Council appreciation sticker. It was that one I wanted to burn to a crisp.
I settled for just stewing.
I’d never been good with rumination. When I let my mind go, it always circled around and around and around some topic until I felt like I was a vortex getting ready to implode.
There were so many people here, and there were a great many vampires, too.
At one point, I got the impression some of them were watching me.
Hey, maybe news had spread through the vampire community, too. Perhaps that slinky vampire from earlier had told everybody of the hilarious game Sebastian was playing with the poor little witch detective in the local police force.
Great. Just something else I wouldn’t live down.
I started to get further and further back from my niece and sister. It wasn’t an issue. I was a big girl. I was fully capable of navigating the markets on my own, and my sister would watch Vivian like a hawk.
We were walking down the food stalls. They were amazing. The scents were heady. There was every cuisine you could think of. There was even plant-derived vampire blood for the vegan conscious vamp. How it worked, I didn’t know.
I clearly did not partake. I just rammed my hands into my pockets and sighed again.
I stopped as my phone vibrated. I plucked it out, hoping it would be someone like the chief with more information about Samantha Appleby’s case. There was no reason for him to contact me out of office hours. But I just needed a distraction. And throughout my entire life, throwing myself into curiosities had been the way I’d distracted myself.
No luck. It was just a spam message. I shoved my phone back into my pocket, but that’s when I saw something – a guy slinking down the side of one of the food tents.
He was tall, lanky, and clearly magical. I could see that, because a few sparks were collecting along his fingers. They were pushing into the fabric of the tent he was propped up against. They were burning the canvas ever so slightly.
There were only a few good reasons for somebody to be charged with magic like that at a market like this. He could have been a performer, but the magic would’ve been a different color, and it would’ve also been a heck of a lot less destructive. So there was only one other thing he could be doing.
Tracking somebody. The guy was rumbling for a fight.
I cast my gaze around, looking for any uniformed officers, but I couldn’t find any. Great. I had to do this myself.
I got my phone out again and called the station. Before they’d even said hello, I announced I was Millie Crown from the violent crimes unit. “I’m at the night market,” I muttered quickly. “Just outside the National Bank. There’s a guy charged with magic. He’s clearly—”
I couldn’t finish. The guy promptly stopped charging himself and started attacking. He sent a bolt of magic slicing forward. It was just a seemingly random attack. It slashed down toward my feet and not a real target. I managed to lurch back and onto my ass.
People started screaming. His magic was strong. It caught the edge of a catering tent, and it went up.
“Jesus,” I spluttered. I shoved to my feet.
The cop I’d reached on the other end of the line demanded more information. I repeated my location and told him I was in pursuit. Then I shoved my phone into my pocket, took my life in my hands, and ran down the side of the catering tent.
I had no idea what the guy had been intending to do and what his plan had ultimately been. The attack had been so seemingly random.
Whatever. I was in pursuit, and I would catch him. Or at least, I’d slow him down, and the real uniformed officers would catch him.
Once upon a time, I’d done the same thing, following some perp in the hopes the real cops would come eventually to catch the guy, but it hadn’t worked.
I’d been pinned, and I’d been hit so hard, I’d had to have a brain scan.
That wouldn’t happen now, right?
Who cared? I couldn’t think. I could only move.
I followed the guy through another set of stalls and out onto the street. He didn’t slow down, even when I shouted at him to.
There was a commotion from behind me. I was drawing a crowd. Hopefully that meant officers would be on their way.
Whatever. I’d just deal with it.
That was my motto. Or at least, that was the foolhardy idiocy I lived by, as the first boss I’d worked under had once called it. If you were like me, and you didn’t have any raw strength, then you had to know your meager potential, and you had to fight within it.
But I was motivated today. Maybe it was because I wanted to get back at Vivian and show her while I wasn’t some fancy vampire hunter, I was still a consultant witch, and I could still hand out justice whenever I needed to.
Or maybe it was just my stupid brain malfunctioning.
The guy looked around. I still hadn’t gotten a good look at him. He was tall, and he was relatively handsome. I should have put those two together.
I didn’t see a flash of teeth or anything, but that didn’t matter. Strong magic, muscular build, and high cheekbones? That meant he was a vampire through and through.
There were things I could manage on my own. Vampires were not one of them.
The next thing I knew, he took me down a little side alley that led right back to the market.
I didn’t think it through. I just put on another burst of speed, really letting my arms pump by my sides. “I said stop,” I screamed.
So all of a sudden, without any damn warning, the guy stopped. I rammed right into his back. It was like hitting a brick wall.
I fell to the side. I tumbled sharply onto my hip and let out a grunt.
He turned slowly. It was a very dramatic move. His cheeks twitched. That’s when I noticed the glitter in his eyes. Several magical races could make their eyes literally glitter, but nobody could do it like a vampire. That wasn’t to say it looked as if he had sparks darting around in his pupils. It was to say that suddenly they became rimmed with just a flicker of magic.
I pushed back. Not far, but just a little. Then I shoved to my feet warily. “You’re under—”
“Arrest?” he said casually. There was no force in his voice, and neither was there fear. He was just talking like somebody who knew that no matter what happened, they would be fine, because they were very much in control.
He reached toward me. I tried to kick him in the shin. It was a solid move. It was one my chief would be proud of. And it could’ve worked, if this guy weren’t a vamp. Instead, it felt like I had just kicked a brick.
My toes erupted in pain. The guy grabbed me by the shoulder. He brought his hand toward my neck. So I bit his fingers.
“Bitch,” he snarled.
I kicked him in the shin again, and this time I think I got lucky, because it loosened his grip on my shoulder ever so slightly. I tumbled to the side, rolled, and shoved away.
I’d been chasing him, but now he chased me. I didn’t have time to appreciate the irony. Not, of course, that that was ironic at all. It was just bone-shakingly terrifying.
I managed to get several meters away, but then he was right there, right behind me. I could actually feel his breath on the side of my neck.
He grabbed me around the throat, pushed me to the side, then pinned me against the wall. For the second time today, someone tried to choke me.
My eyes widened as I stared at him.
His own eyes narrowed. His gaze flashed down to my neck, then up to my face. “They’re looking for us out on the other street, you know? They have no clue we looped around. So there’s no one to bother us. Neat, ha?”
Neat? Was this guy fresh out of the 1950s? Had he learned his vernacular from Archie cartoons?
I could sarcastically think that all I wanted, but all I could do was splutter.
My lips could barely move. His grip was so complete. He wasn’t just using strength, either. Little charges of magic were rushing through his arm, into my throat, and into the rest of my body. They had this numbing effect. My eyes were almost rolling into the back of my head.
It took that exact moment to start raining. I hadn’t even known the sky was cloudy.
The guy didn’t notice. If a little thing like rain could bother a vampire, then to get them off your lawn, all you’d have to do was turn the hose on. I would not be that lucky.
He brought his face up really close. He closed his eyes and smelt. It was such a primal move.
Sometimes, even in my job, I forgot what vampires were at heart. Because, to be fair, it had been a long time since they had been predators of humans. That wasn’t to say they didn’t drink blood every now and then, but it was usually a consensual affair. But these days, they had much better synthesized blood with all the nutrients they needed.
Clearly this guy hadn’t forgotten his evolution. He slowly winked one eye open then the next. More magic rimmed his irises. “Nice to meet you.”
I tried to splutter around his grip. I couldn’t.
“As much as I’d love to take a snack, that’s not what I’ve been told to do. So say good night for now.”
He punched me in the stomach. I immediately heard bells ringing in my ears. I’d been hurt before. But this was….
I slumped down.
When he realized I wasn’t unconscious, he grabbed me by the throat once more and pinned me against the wall. “Stronger than you look. I guess it’s happening earlier than we thought.”
He said a lot of things that didn’t make sense. My brain couldn’t track them. The only thing it was aware of was that he was about to knock me out. And after that… I didn’t have to worry about what would happen after that, because I would likely never find out.
The very day I started working for the violent crimes unit, I was about to become one of their statistics.
That thought had a chance to rush through my mind, but it did not have a chance to become true.
Just as he reached his hand back to punch me one last time, and just before I started to choke on his grip around my throat, I saw something flash in close beside him. It moved so fast, my addled brain couldn’t track it. It was like I was glimpsing a fleeting comet.
That something rammed into the side of the vampire, wrenched his grip free from me, and grunted.
I slumped down the wall. I fell so hard, I thought I broke my ankle.
None of that mattered. I tried to shove up. I couldn’t. I was way too weak. But… I finally saw what was happening. Another vampire had rushed in. It was that, or a blazing star. The guy was charged with so much magic, you would have been forgiven for thinking he had been part of the sun until a few seconds ago.
That other vamp tried to push up, tried to get to his feet. Then I saw his eyes widening in total frigging fear. “St Vern?
Just as my eyes threatened to close, those two words kept them open. I sharpened my vision, despite it being blurry. And there, smack-bang in front of me, standing between me and the vampire, I saw Sebastian, all right.
Another wave of wooziness came over me. My eyes closed. By the time I forced them open, I saw both vampires grappling. Or should I say it was to the sight of Sebastian picking up the other vampire? That guy didn’t have a chance. He let out a roar, but it was vibrating with real fear.
Sebastian slammed him down onto the pavement between us. There was a crunch. The guy did not move again.
It was still raining. It got heavier, too. It was already pooling under my face.
Sebastian stopped in front of me. There was a flash of lightning in the heavens above, and it illuminated the side of his body.
He looked… he looked hot in the rain.
My mind was too overcome for me to quickly correct that thought with the fact I no longer found Sebastian attractive. Now I knew his personality, he was like a wet lump of coal.
But that wet lump of coal soon pushed down to his knee and brushed his fingers along my face. “You’re awake. You’re alive. Don’t worry, Millie – I’ve got this.”
The little brush of my cheek was more than a mere pat. I felt a few charges of magic sinking into my skin. Most vampires had the ability to control lesser magical creatures with their mere touch. That wasn’t to say they could completely control someone’s nervous system and make them do whatever they wanted. But it was a consequence of previously predating on humans. They had the capacity to numb somebody with nothing more than their fingers. They also had healing magic.
As I felt that charge of force zipping through my cheek and down into my body, it concentrated on my neck and my stomach. I no longer felt like I was about to crumple. Instead, I became all too aware as he plucked me up.
The rain continued to drive down. It drummed into my cheeks. There wasn’t so much pain anymore as this wash of almost pleasant euphoria. It saw the slightest smile crumpling my lips. That was until Sebastian chuckled. “Twice in one day. You’re never going to live this down, Millie Crown.”
Slowly but surely, my better reason started to catch up with me. It reminded me of what had just happened, and critically, whose arms I was in.
We made it around the side of the alley.
My senses were becoming sharper again. My hearing had been particularly dull, but now I picked up everything was around me. Specifically, I heard the people talking.
They repeated Sebastian’s name.
… Crap, we had a crowd.
I thought I wouldn’t live the incident at the police station down, but at least that had been in a professional setting. This was out in frigging public.
He took another step, and I started to hear this specific sound which I soon realized was a camera shutter.
I opened my eyes warily to see there were reporters gathering. They were taking photos of us.
My eyes widened in alarm.
“Please step out of my way,” Sebastian said in a firm but still polite voice. “Millie here needs assistance.”
God, why did he have to use my real name? Couldn’t he just have referred to me as some woman? Calling me Millie confirmed we knew each other. Worse than that, it meant the press now had my frigging name.
Maybe my niece had been right. Maybe I would have the shortest known career in the violent crimes unit possible.
Where Sebastian was taking me? Though all I wanted to do was snap at him to put me down, the reality was I couldn’t walk. And it would likely be worse to be surrounded by the press on my own. I had to admit that in this instance, and this instance alone, it was better to be in Sebastian’s arms.
We soon reached his car.
It was clearly his, as it looked as if it was worth a million bucks, and no, that was not an underestimate. It was likely worth more. It would be some one-of-a-kind luxury vehicle made specifically for him.
All he had to do was approach and snap some command, and the door reacted, unlocking. Then the back door opened.
He gently set me down onto the long back seat.
That’s when the real photos started. The press must’ve taken the last couple of minutes to gather like a freaking storm. I had to blink under the light of the constant flashes.
The real storm was only getting worse, but that didn’t deter people. I even heard one photographer muttering about how damn hot Sebastian looked in the rain.
Sebastian turned around in front of the press. “This woman has just been attacked. Please give her some privacy.” He closed the door. Though all I wanted to do was hide underneath the seat, I pushed up to see Sebastian walking over to several uniformed officers. Others were rushing away, hopefully to go detain the vampire. Thank God. At least that was sorted. But… absolutely everything else was going to hell.
I left a sweaty handprint on the passenger window, then shrank down. If I could have become twice as small, I would have. Hell, if I could have become an amoeba and just slipped away, I would’ve done that instead. But there was nowhere to go.
When Sebastian finished his conversation, he walked right over to me, and he opened the door. He looked down. Then he motioned at me to scoot over.
“I need to sit beside you, Millie,” he said pointedly.
It was only the shock of the situation that made me scoot over without snapping at him. Then he closed the door.
It was then I realized I was in the back seat of a very expensive car with none other than Sebastian St Vern.
I just looked at him. He looked at me. Though not for long. His gaze sliced down to my neck. He pulled back my scarf. I receded a little, but not far.
“Bastard,” he muttered under his breath, and there was a real sharp edge to his voice. This was not some throw-away comment to him.
He’d pulled off my scarf before I knew what he was doing. Then he pried back the plaster on my neck.
I winced. “That—”
“Hurts. I imagine it does. It’s meant to.”
“Just come here.”
“Sorry?” I spluttered, my voice becoming high-pitched.
He looked at me. He reached a hand out, and I could see his fingers were now charged with magic. It was… gentle. You wouldn’t have heard me saying that about an ancestral vampire usually. They were nothing but pure frigging power. Privilege, too, but fundamentally force. Yet right now his magic had this warm, tender yellow glow to it. It was kind of like a nice roaring fire on a cold day. It was something I wanted to lean toward, especially now I had been soaked through.
I sure as hell didn’t lean toward it. I just sat there, blinking at him like I was a stunned mullet.
He let out a sigh. “You’re very injured. Fortunately you don’t have internal bleeding,” he said as he flashed his gaze down me, using skills that would have rivaled a medical scanner, “but you still need to be attended to. Sooner rather than later.”
“Shouldn’t I just… go to the hospital?”
“I’m not gonna let you do that, Millie. I’m going to fix your injuries right now.” He didn’t add whether I wanted him to or not. He just plucked up one of my hands.
It took me a few seconds to realize what he was doing, then my body understood, all right. This wave struck me. I… God, I didn’t exactly know how to describe it, but it felt like pure, wonderful magic.
It was the most blessed experience of my life. I very almost lost control as I relaxed all the way back in the seat. I held on just in time before I sighed right in his face.
My expression said it all.
And that just made the bastard smile. “I’m good for something, aren’t I?” he whispered in a voice that was entirely too low.
Yeah, he was good for something. Getting me in trouble. Because all the while, the press was around the car, taking photos.
He could see what I stared at. He shrugged. “There’s a magical spell on the glass. None of the photos will come out properly. Don’t worry.”
“But what about the photos of you carrying me here?”
“Those will come out,” he said with a shrug.
“What if they get the wrong impression?”
With his fingers still clutched around mine, he tilted his head ever so gently to the side. “And what exactly would be the wrong impression?”
I just looked at him pointedly. This was a decidedly intimate move. Here he was, holding my hand, his fingers locked all the way around mine as his blessed healing magic pumped into my body. There was no way to get away from him. I should’ve been cowering in the corner, but instead I voluntarily faced the bastard. I could tell he was just lapping up my attention.
When he didn’t answer his own question, I let out a huff. “What if they think… I dunno… you know… what if they think that?” I asked.
That had been possibly the least eloquent statement I had ever managed. To be fair, it wasn’t even a statement. I hadn’t explained myself at all.
He arched an eyebrow. It was a move he was so damn good at. When Sebastian showed irony, the whole world paused. “I’m having trouble understanding you.”
“You know, Sebastian,” I said, pissed off that I actually had to say this out loud and knowing perfectly well he understood exactly what I was talking about, but he was just forcing me to articulate it. “What if they think we’re together?” I finally spluttered.
His head was still tilted to the side. That smile slowly crumpled one side of his lips then marched across to the other side. He reached out a hand. I didn’t really know what he was doing. Then he tapped me on the cheek ever so slightly. He didn’t add anything to the move. He soon let his fingers drop. “They can think what they like.”
My stomach exploded with nerves. These tingles were rushing down into my belly, darting into my hips, then scissoring down my legs.
I tried to control them, considering Sebastian would know exactly what was going on with me. That was the irritating thing about vampires. You couldn’t hide your true feelings around them, because they were so exquisitely tied into someone’s nervous system.
Worse, he currently had a hand on me, and worse than that, he was currently using magic on me.
He smiled, and I knew exactly why.
I started to become red. “We’re not together, Sebastian. But if the press thinks—”
“We should allow them time to get used to the idea,” he said pointedly.
“What are you talking about? Used to what?”
“I’m getting married. I, admittedly, have been a somewhat popular bachelor in this town for a long time. I will likely be breaking a lot of hearts. At least this way, it will let people down gently before I announce the happy news.”
My brow descended quickly. “Great. So spend some time with your fiancée. Don’t get caught in the rain with me.”
He shot me this look. Who knew what he was about to say? Somebody suddenly rapped their knuckles on the window behind him. I was surprised they’d managed to get so close. Though the press tried to snap lucky shots in through the window, there were police officers around the car now.
I looked up to see it was none other than my niece. Even a raging bull wouldn’t stop her.
Sebastian frowned. “Why is there a child knocking on my window?
“My niece,” I spluttered.
I went to pull back from Sebastian, but he just tightened his fingers around mine. “You still need a magical infusion. That vampire,” his voice descended like a harsh crack of a whip, “hurt you more than you can know.”
I didn’t really know what that comment meant. The vampire had gone to town on me. We could agree on that. I still leaned forward. I didn’t know what I’d say to either my niece or my sister.
Sebastian took one look at me, then shrugged. “I can open the door, but understand this, the press will then get photos of us. But, then again, as I already said, it will get them used to the idea.”
“What are you even talking about? Like I said, you should just take more photos with your actual fiancée.”
He opened the door.
And there was Vivian. She was getting rained on. She had an umbrella, but it had dropped beside her.
She did not look at me once. Here I was, her auntie, and I was clearly injured. Though Sebastian’s magic did a good job of fixing the injuries around my throat, they were still visible. She only had eyes for Sebastian. Her jaw practically dropped off her face. “A thousand points,” she stuttered excitedly.
Sebastian just shot her a look. “I take it you are Millie’s niece. It’s very nice to meet you.” He reached his spare hand out.
Vivian did all the shaking. She looked as if she had just seen the most important person in the entire world. Not once, not once did her gaze flash toward me.
At least my sister was behind her, and she stared at me in horror. “You okay? What the hell happened?”
“I’m fine.” I tried to shift closer, but again Sebastian just tightened his grip on me.
I didn’t always think my sister was particularly perceptive, but she looked from Sebastian, over to me, then back to Sebastian, and her expression became progressively more confused.
I just shot her this kind of thin-lipped grimace. I hoped she’d figure out what it meant.
Meanwhile, Vivian was far too impressed by scoring a thousand points. “Can I have a photo with you?” she stammered quickly.
Sebastian, considering he was a frigging pompous vampire who never passed up a chance at positive PR, simply shrugged. “Very well. Anything for Millie’s relatives. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Hold on. Why do you know her name?” Vivian frowned.
My gut really tightened now.
He couldn’t tell her the truth. So I stared at him with everything I had. I tried to download as much as I possibly could in that look. It even had this almost tender edge. He could play with me at work all he wanted. He couldn’t do it in front of my family.
I was surprised when he didn’t suddenly declare I was his wife. He simply smiled. “Yes. We’ve known each other for some time. She bravely tracked down a vampire criminal. However, she got into a spot of trouble. I intervened. She was very courageous.”
Vivian looked as if she didn’t believe a single word of that. She clearly also didn’t care. I could tell all she wanted to do was text her friends that she’d got a thousand points.
An officer walked up behind her and cleared his throat.
Sebastian shot his sharp gaze over to him. “I take it you’ve got our perpetrator?”
The officer actually snapped a salute. “He’s being transported to remand.”
“Good. I will take Millie home, and I will come and deal with him personally.”
“Personally?” The officer frowned.
“He is known to the Vampire Council. We will be assisting the police with your inquiries, and hopefully you will also assist us with ours.”
The officer was clearly aware of that gray line between the Vampire Council and the police. He snapped another salute.
I got stuck obsessing about Sebastian taking me home. I shook my head. “I don’t need you to take me home. I can walk.”
“Really? You would like to walk in front of all the press right now, regardless of the fact they have photos of me carrying you in the rain? Very well.” He went to lean past me to open my door and likely to eject me out into the waiting arms of the photographers.
He got close to me, close enough that I looked right into his eyes. I could tell he never backed down.
But I could also tell this was just a challenge and he would prefer me in here than out there.
I caved, my shoulders falling. “Fine. Fine. You can take me home.”
“It will be my pleasure.”
My sister became even more alarmed by the second. She could see what Vivian could not.
“I take it you all came together?” Sebastian questioned. “I’m sorry your experience tonight was cut short. Would you both care for a lift as well?”
“Yes,” Vivian said. Without being invited, she pushed into the back seat, squeezing Sebastian closer to me.
“Vivian,” my sister spluttered.
“It’s fine,” Sebastian said. “You’re welcome to sit up front.”
“I don’t think I could drive a car like this.” My sister paled.
“I assure you, it will drive itself. As it will also become a little more comfortable.” As he said that, he spread his fingers then sliced his ring finger down to his palm.
The car expanded. Just like that. It was seriously strong magic. But this was Sebastian, wasn’t it?
“Whoa,” Vivian said. She then clapped her hands together.
Sebastian nodded at the officer outside once, then closed the door.
Then… I had to become comfortable with Sebastian still holding my hand while my niece and sister were right there in the car with me.
When I got home, I would have to answer a thousand questions.
The car, as promised, started driving itself.
“This is so cool,” Vivian spluttered. “I’m gonna win at school.”
“What do you mean?” Sebastian asked.
“My friends and I are vampire watchers. Different vampires are worth different points. You’re worth—”
“The last time I checked, I was worth a thousand points, wasn’t I?”
I thought this was just some game Vivian had concocted with her friends, but clearly it wasn’t. If Sebastian knew about it, obviously other people did too. Hell, I knew exactly how he and the rest of the Vampire Council worked. It was likely something they encouraged.
I would’ve leaned away from him and slapped him had his magic not been healing me.
Vivian clapped. “Yeah, you know about it?”
“Indeed. How much is driving in a car with me worth, anyway?”
Vivian looked as if she tried to calculate something. “I’ve got no clue. We’ll need a new points structure.”
“Yes. And what if you see me frequently?” Sebastian asked as he stared at me out of the corner of his eye.
I just shot him this look that begged him not to say it.
“Frequently?” Vivian didn’t catch anything from the way he’d said that. Her nose scrunched up. “I guess it’s a thousand points every single time I see you?”
My sister sat super uncomfortably in the front seat. I could tell her neck was craned so she could see me from the rear vision mirror. She would have so many questions. I wouldn’t be able to answer any of them.
Sebastian kept his hand on me the entire time.
My stomach no longer hurt. And that was pretty insane considering how hard that guy had hit me. Just thinking about it, I twitched.
We hadn’t really had a chance to discuss what happened, but there was no way I would now my niece was sitting in the car with us. She was busy distracting Sebastian, anyway.
He played along. He didn’t even act like an arrogant git in front of her. Clearly he kept all of his irritating personality for me.
When we finally got home, he removed his hand from mine.
At first I didn’t even feel it. Then suddenly I did. I became all too aware that the blessed calming, gentle magic pulsing through me had just been taken away. I almost, almost reached out and grabbed his hand again. It was this visceral body move. It had absolutely nothing to do with my mind.
My sister jumped out of the car. Then she rushed around, opened Vivian’s door, and manhandled her out of it. She nodded quickly at Sebastian. “Thank you very much for your assistance.”
“Hey, mom,” Vivian spluttered.
It gave me a chance to open my door and barrel out. I did so quickly. The only reason I could do that was I was no longer injured.
It meant I didn’t have to sit there next to Sebastian for another second. But if I thought that meant he would just drive on, I was sorely mistaken. He pushed out of the car. He flattened his tie down his chest. It was still raining. He didn’t care. Rivulets of water ran down his high cheekbones. They framed the look in his eyes.
“Do you want to come in for a cup of tea? Or a cup of blood? I don’t know? What do you drink? Some vampires only—” Vivian began.
“I eat and drink human food. I’m not fussy,” Sebastian replied.
“Then come in for a cup of tea. Think of it as an apology for having to deal with my fuddy-duddy auntie.”
Sorry, fuddy-duddy? Really?
Sebastian arched an eyebrow. “If you insist—”
I shot him this look. I didn’t need words. It conveyed absolutely everything.
He settled his gaze on me. “I may have other things to do. I apologize. Another time.”
“Come inside.” My sister practically manhandled Vivian in through the door. Then she turned and shot me another look. Yeah, I’d get around to explaining everything to her once this was done.
When they were both safely inside, I just stood there in the pouring rain facing Sebastian. I clenched my teeth and pushed a breath through them. “I guess this is where I have to say thank you, right?”
“If it were a real thank you, you would not have couched this with I guess, and you certainly would not have used that tone.”
He was right. I wasn’t going to hold back. “I’m not exactly sure what I have to be thankful for.”
“Can’t you remember?” I would have assumed he would’ve rubbed my nose in the fight, but he didn’t. He just left it at that.
I put my hands on my hips. I looked down at my feet. “Fine. Thanks for intervening back there. And thanks….” I couldn’t add anything. I just looked at the back seat of the car. He would have to fill in the details.
He pushed his hands into his pockets. He nodded. That was it. “I can sense a but coming, Millie,” he said pointedly.
Yeah, he could. Because there was one. “Can we just stop, already?” I said, a note of total frustration making its way through my tone.
“Stop with what?”
“The games. Can we just stop with the games? I don’t know how I’m going to deal with the press. They’re going to laugh their asses off, all at my expense. Actually, what am I even thinking? They’re not going to assume we’re together. There’s no conceivable way. Fine. That’s that dealt with. I… hope I’ll never see you around again.” I went to turn away.
“Your shoelace is undone,” he muttered.
I was in a pretty clumsy mood. If I walked away with my shoelace undone, I would likely fall flat on my face, and God knows I didn’t need to keep doing that around Sebastian. So right in front of him, I leaned down. That was to find my shoelace was not undone. By the time I pushed up, he brought his face down, right in front of mine. I had this moment. My whole body froze. It wasn’t the same primal fear I’d felt when that other vampire had stared at my neck. This was exactly the opposite. I wasn’t afraid. I was—
There was no chance to see his pupils dilate. He straightened and smiled.
I realized that had just been a game. “You—”
“That,” he pointed down at my shoelaces, “was a game. The rest, I assure you, isn’t.”
“What? Look, I just want you to stop telling everybody we’re married. I’m not your wife. You’re gonna marry that slinky thing that was draped on you on your yacht. You’re not gonna marry me.” I had to stop saying marry. It felt like I was digging myself further into a hole. And though it was genuine frustration I was feeling, maybe there was… maybe there was also a little lack. I didn’t want to have to keep comparing myself to impossibly good-looking vampires. I just wanted to go back to normal.
He tilted his head back. He briefly looked at the sky then back down to me. “I’ll see you around, Millie.”
“I told you to stop playing this game,” I spluttered desperately.
He turned, but he shifted his head over his shoulder to look at me. “As I told you before. That,” he nodded down to my shoelaces, “was a game.” Then he looked at me as if he would never miss a damn thing for the rest of his life. “This isn’t.” Without another explanation, he just got into his car. This time he got into the front seat. I could see magic taking hold, and the car changed back to its ordinary size. Then he drove away.
He left me standing there, cold and alone. I wasn’t injured anymore, but I was confused, and that was worse. It felt like somebody dancing the tango in my head.
I finally turned.
I got in the front door, but that was to the sight of my sister.
I could hear Vivian in the lounge room on her phone, talking excitedly to her friends.
My sister crossed her arms and made this face.
I grabbed the side of my head. “He’s just someone I know from work, okay?”
“No. Not okay. He was… sitting in the back of the car, holding your hand the entire time. What the hell was that, Millie?”
I tried to push past her. “It was… nothing, okay?”
“Vivian might’ve been clueless, but I’m not. What the heck is going on? Has something happened between you and the most powerful vampire in the city?”
“No,” I shrieked way too loudly. Vivian even heard. She paused her conversation.
My sister’s eyes just widened with evermore growing fear.
I rubbed my arm. Then unconsciously, I brushed my fingers over my neck. I didn’t feel sore anymore. All the pain was well and truly gone. It had only taken 20 minutes of his blessed touch. Sorry. Go back. Delete that. Blessed touch? Cursed touch.
Sebastian might’ve saved me. But he’d also condemned me. I would just wake up to social media rumors in the morning. My job would be even harder to do.
I successfully brushed past my sister. I turned and waved my hands at her. “There’s nothing going on between us, okay? I promise you that.”
She clenched her teeth and forced a breath through them. “I’m just worried about you.”
“Yeah, so am I.” I managed to trundle downstairs.
I stood there in my room, dripping water all over the carpet. I closed my eyes. I touched my throat. And even though I wanted to stop myself, I smiled.
I imagined it would be the last time I’d be doing that for a long time yet.
The next few days were thankfully quiet.
Sorry, they were chaotic, but I made them quiet by blocking out everybody’s comments and by not looking up the news once. As predicted, the photos of Sebastian carrying an injured woman in the rain had gone absolutely crazy. They were plastered over newsprint, magazines, and the Internet. I’d even walked behind some people chatting about them on the road. One girl had had the picture as her home screen. I mean, fair enough, Sebastian had looked hot, but….
Sorry. No. I couldn’t go there. I just couldn’t go there.
It had been two days after the incident. I was at my desk, twiddling my thumbs, literally.
The case of Samantha Appleby had slowed down. Another team had checked her apartment, but there was nothing there.
There were no more leads.
I should’ve been thinking about that instead of chasing thoughts of Sebastian around my head. But in every quiet moment, I thought about him.
And I also thought about the bastard who’d attacked me.
After the incident, the memories had been hazy. But ever since, they’d been getting sharper.
He… it like I’d been his target. I’d pointed that out to the chief a couple of times, but he’d just chuckled. The Vampire Council, apparently, were already dealing with it. He was a known criminal. He’d been there, according to them, to attack Sebastian. He’d just used me to draw Sebastian out.
But that just left the question of why attacking me would draw Sebastian out?
I sighed again, grabbed my head, let my fingers fall down it, and pushed back on my chair. It squeaked.
I yawned, turned my head, and realized it was still raining. It had been ever since that day.
I grabbed my face and closed my eyes tightly, but that was a mistake, because all I could see was Sebastian’s handsome face covered in water, his cheekbones all prominent, his eyes even more so.
I groaned and shoved forward. That’s when I heard footfall behind me. “I would’ve hoped this job would be more interesting than that.”
I thought it would be my boss, but it wasn’t. It was Alicia. Frowning, I turned quickly and faced her. “Sorry. I’m not thinking about the job. Just something else.”
“I guess you’ve had a lot of attention of late.” She left it at that.
I winced, wondering if she would ask me about Sebastian, but thankfully she didn’t.
So I just nodded. “Yeah. And none of it was wanted attention. Can I help you?”
She had a Manila folder under her arm.
Alicia hadn’t looked happy for the last couple of days whenever I’d seen her. Maybe she was regretting losing her job.
“Yeah. I just wondered if you could cast your eyes over something, that’s all.”
“Sure.” I straightened. Alicia was a far more powerful witch than me. My boss might believe in me, but that was because he strangely thought I had a good head for tracking people down. A good head and a big mouth. But both traits could only get me so far. Alicia, on the other hand, was a full witch. She was likely just as good at potions as me, but she was also good at most other kinds of magic. She could hold her own. Whereas I couldn’t even stop myself from crumpling right into a certain vampire’s arms.
I quickly chased that thought away.
She settled the file down in front of me, then she frowned. It was pretty noisy in here.
“Do you want to go somewhere quieter?” I smiled at her.
“Yeah. Come to my office.”
I pushed up, happy for a task, and I followed her.
Her office was a floor up. It was also all to herself. It was pretty nice, too. She settled the file down on the table. But I got distracted staring at the view.
She looked at me. “How are you settling in?”
“Oh, you know, in between having unsettling run-ins with vampires, I’m fine.”
“I heard about it,” she said quietly.
I sighed. She wanted some goss on Sebastian after all. “There’s nothing going on between us. He’s just an idiot. He plays games with me—”
“I was talking about your attack. Do you remember anything?” Her voice was light.
“Oh, that.” I shrugged. “Not much. The guy attacked the market, and I foolishly ran after him, thinking I could take him on. At the time, I hadn’t realized he was a vampire. When I did, it was too late. But… it all worked out in the end,” I muttered, not wanting to point out the only reason it had worked out was because of a certain Sebastian St Vern.
She looked at me. She had a really piercing gaze. “So that’s the only thing you remember?”
I shrugged. “Is something going on? I thought the guy was in lockup? I thought the vampires were dealing with him or something?”
She smiled. “Ignore me. I’m just concerned about you, that’s all. I knew how excited the chief was to give you this job. I didn’t want a few bad experiences on your first day to put you off doing it.”
I stuck my hands up quickly and waved them in front of my face. “You serious? This is my dream job. I just got unlucky,” I spluttered.
She nodded. “Yeah, unlucky.” She rapped her knuckles on the file in front of her. “Here it is.”
Frowning and trying to look professional, I shifted over. I plucked up the file. I soon got ensconced in the details. This was no ordinary file about a crime. This went right into the chemistry of potions. I got so drawn in, I didn’t realize Alicia was looking at me seriously until I glanced up at the sound of a backfiring car. A little smile crumpled her lips. She soon looked away then looked back at me. She drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Do you think you can help? What are you feeling?”
There were scant details of the case, but it looked like specialized potions were appearing all over the city. Potions people didn’t understand the purpose of. Yet. It was pretty serious. As my attack last night had proven, Angeles City wasn’t always the safest place. I’d mentioned that before. What, with such a collection of important vampires, it tended to attract all the wrong kinds of crims. And some of those crims were very good at what they did. They were even better at hiding their tracks.
As I looked over at Alicia, for a fraction of a second, a burst of low self-esteem struck me. Come on. This was Alicia. She was way better than I would ever be. And our prowess with potions was either equivalent, or she was better than me.
Maybe she could tell what I was thinking. She suddenly pushed up. “I’ve hit a dead end. I don’t really know what I’m looking at. I need another set of eyes. So what do you say?” she asked, and she reached over to the back of her chair and grabbed her jacket.
I frowned. “Ha?”
“I want you to come to the case with me right now. You’ve got nothing else to do, right?”
I thought quickly. I grinned. “No. And this would be great experience. You can give me some pointers about the violent crimes unit while you’re there.”
She chuckled. That was it. She didn’t tell me that she would. She just looked into my eyes and nodded. “If you’re ready, let’s go.”
My stomach kicked with anticipation, and I wasn’t entirely sure why. It just seemed… it just seemed that she was talking about more than one thing.
Whatever. That was just my paranoia getting the better of me. I’d barely slept over the past two days, because over the past two days, I’d only been thinking of one man and wondering when he would come to see me next.
I didn’t know then that I needed him now more than ever.
We went to the vampire museum of all places. I shouldn’t have to tell you I hadn’t been here in years. Ever since the wool was pulled from my eyes about how cool vampires were, I’d had absolutely no desire to ensconce myself in their history. It was mostly fake, anyway. There was no one like the vampires when it came to PR. They knew how to spin even the most horrendous tale. Hell, when it came to talking about the fact that vampires had once upon a time predated on humans, it was displayed as a kind of cheery affair, as if it was just a game of hide and seek.
When we pulled up out front, I shoved my hands into my pockets quickly. A fast wind rushed down the street. It had this moaning quality. It almost sounded as if there was some kind of wolf trapped in it.
“No time to waste,” Alicia said, her voice harsh.
I frowned at her. “Have you got somewhere to be after this or something?”
“No.” She wouldn’t look at me as she spoke. Instead she inclined her head back, and she faced the opulent building in front of us. When it came to architecture, there was no one like the vampires. This place looked like it had been ripped off the side of a castle. “I just get the impression this is going to be a really important case, that’s all.”
I shook a little at the ominous note in her voice. I opened my mouth to tell her I was certain everything would be okay, but then I stopped myself promptly. She was the expert. She’d worked in the violent crimes unit for over 10 years. Meanwhile, I’d been in traffic.
Most of the time, I had pretty good self-esteem. Yeah, so I wasn’t the strongest witch out there. And yeah, so I didn’t have much going for me. But I was cheery. I knew that was often the way you got through most problems in life. But compared to Alicia, I knew where I belonged. So I didn’t question once.
We walked up the steps to the main doors. There was always a bouncer/staff member working there. It had even been that way back when I’d frequented this place as a starry-eyed idiot.
I said a staff member/bouncer. That was because when it came to vampires, no matter what they were involved in, they could always fight if they had to. You could have the most meek and mild childcare worker, but if they were a vampire, they could also take on home invaders, tackle a bear, and otherwise show their physical prowess.
This guy, for whatever reason, looked at me more than he looked at Alicia. I said for whatever reason, but I made the mistake of looking into his eyes. The slightest grin parted his lips. Great. News about Sebastian’s game really had spread, then?
If Alicia noticed, she ignored it. She was making a beeline to the left.
I hurried up behind her. She was taller than me, and when she marched, it was like she could take two of my steps at once.
“Do you honestly think we can find any information here that the forensics team hasn’t already found?” I continued to rush along beside her.
“With the two of our heads put together, yeah,” she said plainly. There was clearly no question in her mind.
It sounded like I’d have to give her a refresher course on my inability. Yeah, I had a big mouth. And yeah, back in the traffic division, I’d learned how to deal with a lot of the repeat offenders. But they hadn’t usually been violent criminals. I certainly hadn’t had to deal with potentially city-threatening events.
Even if I tried to tell Alicia I wasn’t up to this, she currently wasn’t in the mood to listen to me. Her attention was fixed. I’d never seen anything like it. It was like she was tracking something through the walls I couldn’t see. That was a particularly paranoid image, and it made my stomach flutter.
We soon made it to a new exhibit. We had to walk through a jet-black door to do it. There had to be a little bit of magic cast on the door, because it wasn’t ordinary black. It absorbed all light that went near it. I pressed my hand against it, and I couldn’t even see my fingers. “Whoa,” I said, probably acting unprofessionally and confirming absolutely everything Alicia already suspected about me.
“We have to go through here to get to it.”
“Where is it exactly, anyway?”
“They were recently creating a new wing to the museum. They accidentally found underground tunnels.”
My eyebrows shot up. Now that was news. I hadn’t heard that anywhere. You would have thought that would be a really important fact, though. If the underground tunnels were old, that was one thing. But if they were new, that meant someone had been digging under vampire property.
Though Alicia wasn’t paying attention to me, clearly she still somehow was, because though she hadn’t faced me, she chuckled. “They’re old. Turns out they were always there.”
“How come no one ever felt them before? I thought powerful vampires could sense their environments, kinda like a bat?”
I wasn’t being eloquent. Then again, when was I ever eloquent? Apparently around Alicia, I just turned to goo.
“They were hidden.”
I clenched my teeth together. “Hidden? What exactly are we dealing with here?”
“Depends on what?”
She opened the door when I didn’t and walked through.
A few lonely lights turned on above us. The walls were black, and so was the floor and ceiling. It gave this room a very tunnel-like feel. Right at the end there was a sunken display in the wall. There was a single light above it. It drew my attention. That was until I got too close and I realized it was a simple gold band.
I said simple, but I could sense the magic from here. This was a vampire wedding ring.
For obvious reasons, that made my stomach kick. Heck, who was I kidding? It made it tumble as if someone had thrust a thousand horses down there. I even crammed a hand on my belly and willed it to stay still, but it just ignored me.
“Though it wasn’t in the file, the potions I got you to look over have all been associated with previously undiscovered areas around the city.”
I ripped my attention off the ring. “What? What do you mean previously undiscovered areas? That’s….” What was I going to say? A mistake? Impossible? Insane? Seriously unlikely? Okay, the vampires not knowing there’d been a set of tunnels under their museum was one thing. But there were hundreds if not thousands of ancestral vampires in this frigging city. There weren’t many who lived here, but they often visited. With that many powerful magicians walking around, they would’ve discovered hidden spaces decades ago.
Alicia suddenly got a distracted look on her face. She plucked her phone out of her pocket a second before it rang. I didn’t take too much of that. She was a powerful witch, and therefore she would have powerful precognitive abilities.
She muttered she had to take it, and she walked away. That left me facing the display with the vampire ring. At first I looked anywhere but at it, but all too soon, my gaze was drawn to it.
I made a face as I stared at it. From one angle, it was entirely simple. From another, the ring shone. I turned away from it. Then I turned back. Then I turned away, then turned back. I did this several times until I would’ve looked like an idiot to anyone watching the security footage. Finally, with a massive frown marching across my lips, I tilted forward, and I read the description. It talked about vampire brides. It spoke about the power of being bonded to an ancient family. Apparently, when a bride married into an ancient family, all of the protection of that family’s house would fall upon her.
I was suddenly struck by thinking that if my niece were here, she would think this was the most romantic thing in the world. She’d get the context wrong, though. If the very first thing you had to know about a vampire bride was the whole family house would protect her, then the most important fact about her was she would be in danger. From the very get-go.
My stomach was churning more and more. If I’d been paying real attention to it, I would’ve appreciated these nerves were way too big. This wasn’t just the mess Sebastian had put me in. This was….
I settled a hand on the wall by the glass. I read the last line. It told me to the sound of my pounding heart that seriously powerful vampires would know the day they met someone if they would become their vampire bride. It was in their blood, apparently. And every beat of their soon-to-be fiancée’s heart.
I think I’d known that fact before, but I’d obviously wiped it from my mind. Now it came raging back in. So I soon laughed. It was that or attempt to take this seriously. My chuckle was this disjointed affair. It made it sound as if I had completely lost it.
Alicia came back. I forced my laugh to become a hiccup. She came to a stop beside me. She glanced over at what I stared at. “Why is it so funny?”
I had to think of something very fast. “Not that. It was just something I was looking up on my phone. There’s no way I would interact with this exhibition,” I said way too defensively. “Vampires really lose their luster after you drag your first one into lockup.”
She shot me a look that said she didn’t know what to do with that comment and maybe a look that also said she didn’t believe me. Then she gestured me on.
We walked through the rest of the exhibition. I didn’t pay attention to a single thing, even when I got to a section that had these seriously ornate wedding dresses. Some of them were crazily over the top. Others were kind of pretty.
I just told myself to keep my frigging head down until I finally made it out the other side.
Alicia had to use a security pass that the vampire bouncer at the front door had given her. As she swiped us through the back door, it opened into a construction area. And there I saw a witch’s hat that blocked off a relatively rough section of stairs. It was not in keeping with the rest of the decor, and it must’ve been unearthed recently.
I found my curiosity drawing me toward it.
My curiosity and something else. My stomach shook. I didn’t entirely know why. It was like it was warning me about something. Not about something I could avoid. Something that would happen to me, no matter what.
Alicia sighed again just as her phone rang. “Seriously? I have to take this one as well,” she said as she glanced at the screen. Then she slid her gaze over to me just for a few seconds. “You’ll be alright on your own, won’t you?”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. Yeah, I’d be okay. I was a functioning adult, despite appearances, and I knew how to stand on the spot without getting in any trouble. I gave her a cheery wave.
She walked off. And that left me there, standing just above the stairs.
There was nowhere else to stare, so I stared at them. They had this… I didn’t really know how to term it. Maybe this energy about them? If energy didn’t work, then presence did. They certainly drew the eye.
Alicia didn’t come back. Soon five minutes had ticked by, but she still hadn’t come back. I walked back and forth in front of the stairs, my hands in my pockets.
I had a pretty wild imagination. And when it was left alone, it got kind of destructive, too. After a while, I told myself I could hear something down there. It was so indistinct, it could have easily been my imagination.
“It almost… almost sounds like claws,” I muttered to myself. Then I laughed. It was way more forced than when I’d read that claptrap about vampires knowing their brides at first sight.
I laughed again. But I stopped in front of the stairs once more. I’d just heard it again, right? This slight scratching sound….
I decided I couldn’t just stand there. I was clearly freaking myself out. So I walked away. I didn’t leave the corridor, but I did walk all the way down to the other section. It was a long corridor. It took me thankfully far away from the mouth of those stairs.
I was just next to a door, in fact.
I’d assumed there was no one out here. This was clearly the back of the museum, and the bouncer had known we were out here investigating. As I leaned against the door, I suddenly heard the rumble of voices from within.
I pushed back, intending to shove away, but that’s when I heard a name. Samantha. Excuse me if that name wasn’t front and center in my mind. Despite everything my unit was doing, nobody had managed to find out any information on her. It didn’t matter who we’d turned to and who we’d asked, nobody knew a thing.
I didn’t exactly have a reason to spy on whoever was behind this door, but I couldn’t pull myself away. I sharpened my senses. I had pretty good hearing. I didn’t have any magic on board to help me with it. I’d just always protected it over the years. No earbuds for me, and no loud music. Even though it sounded obsessive, back when I was starting to become a consultant witch, I’d even tested my hearing every few days, trying to pick up even the slightest sound through a wall. All that came in handy now.
As I focused, I heard the conversation.
“Nobody’s found out anything. There’s no reason to be worried.
“No reason to be worried? We’re standing on a knife’s edge. He’s already onto us.”
My stomach kicked. They hadn’t mentioned Samantha again, but that didn’t matter. Whoever was talking clearly intended to dodge some kind of criminal responsibility.
I got closer to the door. I pressed my hand against it. I pared back my senses until nothing could distract me.
“You don’t have to worry,” the first voice said, the tone kind of bored. “St Vern has nothing on us. There’s nothing he can do, anyway. We just have to kick back and watch his world crumble.”
As soon as they said the words St Vern, my stomach reacted. It was as if someone had just shoved a thousand volts down there. It trembled. Then nerves shot up to my heart. It started to beat twice as fast.
This wasn’t just at the mention of his name. This was the context. Somebody wanted to attack Sebastian? Who the hell would even dare? That wasn’t my stupid nerves talking, either. That was the mere fact Sebastian was decidedly one of the most powerful vampires in the damn country. So who could possibly be behind this door?
I got closer, really shoving my ear against the cold, grainy wood. They had to repeat the name Samantha. I had to find out what the heck they were talking about.
But that would be when footfall pushed toward the door.
Crap. I threw myself away as fast and as far as I could.
The door opened. Somebody pushed out. They paused. I could practically feel their gaze on the back of my neck.
I stopped, pretending I’d just received a message. I plucked my phone out of my pocket and turned over my shoulder. And that’s when I saw none other than Samantha’s husband. I’d read her file enough times to recognize his face. Daniel Appleby. He was a banker. He was a serious rising star in the financial community. And that’s likely how he’d managed to bag himself an ancient vampire for a wife.
His gaze settled on me, but not for long. He walked past me. He shoved one hand into his pocket. I was aware of how stiff his knuckles were as I caught a flash of them. They were bone white.
Even though he walked right past me, I could tell his attention was still on me. It almost made me breathless as if his hands had just descended around my throat.
When he was gone, I even let out a stuttering breath.
Then I walked right back to the top of the stairs.
I still had my phone, and I had to call somebody. I hadn’t really heard much, but I… what? Who would I call? The chief? The only evidence I had was I thought I’d heard Samantha’s husband mention her name. I hadn’t heard that part of the conversation, though. For all I’d known, he’d been discussing how sad he was. The only real thing I’d overheard was about Sebastian. So what…? Should I call him? I didn’t even know his number.
I stared at my phone morosely. I thought I heard a door slamming closed somewhere. I turned over my shoulder, but it hadn’t been the one Daniel Appleby had walked from. Nor was Alicia back. I was….
I heard a scream. It was right behind me, down the stairs. It sounded like Alicia.
I spun around on my foot so quickly, I almost fell over. “Alicia?” I planted a hand on the wall. My heart started to pound.
I didn’t hear the scream again. I started to doubt I’d even heard it the first time, but then it became high-pitched. It was not the scream of someone who’d accidentally fallen over and stubbed their toe. She was in danger.
I didn’t question again. I sprinted down the stairs, throwing all caution to the wind.
The stairs were old. With each one I took, they somehow felt older, as if I was actively walking through history. When I reached the base, it was to this roughly hewn stone corridor. It was kind of hard to describe. I… I’d been in caves, and they’d been ancient. They’d been carved by time itself. But this… this felt like I’d walked right back through history to the beginning.
My stomach reacted, trembling something awful. But I had to ignore it. I shoved into a run.
I could see construction equipment on either side of me. It was clear they were still hollowing out this basement.
Just when I didn’t know where to go, I heard a far-off scream. It sounded as if Alicia was being carried away.
My phone was still in my hand. I had to use it. I went to call the station, but that’s when I realized with a sinking heart that I didn’t have a single bar of signal.
Dammit. I paused. I had to go back up the stairs and let the station know what was happening. I couldn’t rush down into danger. If there was one thing two days ago had taught me, it was that I had no skills when it came to fighting. But—
Alicia screamed again. Then I heard her begging me to help her.
That did it. I had to run. I threw all caution to the wind. I think I’d already said that, but this really was doing it. I was pushing myself into a seriously dangerous situation with no backup whatsoever. I had to go back to the fact nobody – not a single soul – would know where I’d gone.
I soon reached another set of stairs. This one felt even worse than the last one. As I took to them, it wasn’t so much like I walked through history anymore. It was like I strode through the light down to the dark. The perpetual, endlessly dark center of the frigging earth. Forgive my mind for becoming so poetic, but yours would too on a threshold like this. My body was certain that once I took those stairs, there wouldn’t be any turning back.
But I just heard Alicia scream again. My heart now beat so hard, it was ricocheting around in my chest. It’d clearly become loose, and it felt as if it would bash its way out of my torso.
The end of the stairs kind of abruptly turned into these old tunnels. They didn’t even have proper rooms. It looked as if someone had just cut them out of bedrock.
I sometimes got a little claustrophobic in closed-off spaces like this. I said sometimes. I’d really worked on that fear over the years. No one else knew about it. It was just an internal state I got into occasionally. My heart would pound harder, and more sweat would race down my brow.
But now there was no one to hide this from, and my symptoms became 10 times worse than they usually were. My heart honestly felt as if it was about to give up. I didn’t think it had ever beaten harder in its life.
It trembled, too, but I couldn’t do anything but run forward.
I kept hopefully looking at my phone screen. Of course there were no bars of signal. I turned the flashlight on, though, to at least illuminate my path forward in this otherwise completely dark abyss. The light it threw wasn’t complete, though it sent shadows dancing over the walls. They were deep, and I swore they hid things that shouldn’t be there.
I had to control my mind, had to push away my fears.
Alicia needed me.
I got to the end of the tunnel and had to figure out which direction to go in. There was a T-intersection.
Both sides looked equally roughly hewn. In fact, they were practically identical. When I hesitated and went to go to the left, I heard Alicia screaming once more. I should’ve taken something from that. Hell, if I’d taken a step back from the situation, I would’ve realized from the beginning that scream had been driving me, dragging me further into these tunnels. It was almost as if it was a trap.
I didn’t have the time to think. My trembling heart would only let me act. Which is exactly what I did. I ran toward the scream.
I entered an even narrower tunnel. This one had seriously musty air. It smelt as if the air had become stagnant over thousands of years. If I’d had a breathing condition, I would’ve likely started spluttering and coughing. As it was, I clutched my phone with both hands as if it was a gun.
I finally came around a corner. I entered a large room. I mean really big. It shouldn’t by rights be under the vampire museum. If there was a cavity this large, someone would’ve picked it up, even if it was just a surveyor.
I tilted my head up. I stared above me. I twisted my phone torch up, but there was no way I could see the ceiling. It was too high. Plus, yanking my torch away from what was in front of me felt like putting away my weapon.
“Alicia?” I called. My voice boomed out. This room was so echoey, it could’ve helped me pick up ant footfall.
My heart pounded harder in my ears. Sweat now slicked all the way down the back of my neck.
“Alicia,” I called again. Nothing. She’d been screaming regularly until now. Now….
“Alicia,” I shrieked once more. I took another step. That’s when I noticed there was more light in this room. To be specific, it was right underneath my feet. I’d disturbed some kind of spell. I watched magic race around in a circle. It was bright. It looked as if I had somehow disturbed the sun.
I yanked back as quickly as I possibly could. If there was one thing going for me, I had pretty good reflexes. Not all the time, but when I was in serious danger, I could get out of that serious danger in a heartbeat.
I managed to push just outside the illuminating circle before it could close off.
There was a shudder. It passed through the floor and up into the ceiling. It disturbed dust, and it rained down on me.
I started to scoot back on my butt, getting as far away from that circle as I possibly could. I didn’t need the illumination of my phone anymore. The light that circle threw was more than enough.
As my heart pounded harder and harder in my chest, this hum picked up. It vibrated through the room. At first I could put up with it, but the louder it became, the more felt like it would burst my eardrums. I screamed. I was so reluctant to remove my hand from my phone, I had to shrug my head down and try to use my shoulders to block off my ears.
Just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, all of a sudden, the hum cut out.
That was not a good sign. That had been magic building. Now it had clearly reached whatever threshold it required.
I gazed down at that circle. It was now glowing so brightly, I could finally see the ceiling. It felt like it was kilometers above. How big was this place? Yeah, I’d traveled down, but the ceiling was too tall.
Things started to stack up. I started to appreciate this was no ordinary space. It was magical.
There was another powerful blast of light. This was worse. I screamed. I let go of my phone. Which was a massive mistake, because suddenly, the light cut out entirely.
I groped to the side, but my phone wasn’t there. I threw myself around, practically rolling over the rough stone floor, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t find my phone.
“No, no, please,” I muttered. I pushed those words out of trembling lips. It didn’t matter how much I prayed and begged, I couldn’t find the phone. Had someone spirited it away?
I tried desperately to figure out where I’d come from. I had a relatively good sense of direction, but I couldn’t tell how to get back to the door. Was it behind me, or was it a little to the left?
I didn’t get a chance to shove to my feet and run. I heard something. It was that scratching sound. I realized I’d picked it up earlier when I’d been standing in the corridor above. But it was a lot louder down here. It was impossible to ignore. As it sounded out, it felt like somebody was scratching their claws down the back of my head. I gave this full-bodied shudder. It felt like I was about to rip myself free of my damn skin.
The scratching got closer and closer and closer until I detected a light touch on my ankle. I shrieked and jerked it back. Then I felt that light touch again, then another.
I screamed as loudly as I could, but it didn’t count. That touch kept gathering until suddenly, it grabbed hold. It might’ve been light to begin with, but now it was as strong as steel wrapping around my skin.
I tried to kick it back desperately, but I couldn’t. I felt myself being dragged, dragged backward toward that circle.
Though most of the room was pitch black, I began to see just the faintest illumination. It was enough for me to tell where the circle was, but that was it. I couldn’t figure out where my phone was, and I sure as hell couldn’t make my way back to the tunnel.
I screamed and screamed, but nothing mattered. I tried to dig my fingers into the stone floor to stop myself from being dragged, but that didn’t count either.
God. Oh God.
I could see the rim of the circle. There wasn’t a single thing I could do to stop myself from being pulled into it. And as soon as I broke the threshold, I felt this rush of magic gathering around me. It was as if someone had just pulled me into the heart of a storm.
I couldn’t tell you how fast my heart beat now. I couldn’t tell you how much sweat slid down my brow. My body sensations became completely irrelevant. This existential wave descended on me as all my training told me this was it. I couldn’t tell what kind of spell I’d disturbed, but it was seriously powerful, and there would be no way to fight it.
I began to hear this muttering. It first started to my left, then to my right. It was underneath me, then it was above me. And then, louder than ever, it was right behind me.
My eyes opened wide. My breath became trapped in my chest. That pressure on my ankle changed. Now it was around my leg. Then it was around my stomach. It was climbing my body until it was around my throat.
I felt myself being plucked up. Something was suspending me in the air. At first it was with magic. Then I felt an energy forming. A solid substance began to gather.
I couldn’t scream anymore. My throat was too closed off.
I felt a breath by my cheek. It hissed. It wasn’t human. It felt anything but human.
My whole body froze. It was like I was about to be pushed backward into oblivion. “There you are,” somebody hissed. No, something hissed. The voice was wrong. It was too scattered. It sounded like insects talking.
The light of the circle began to illuminate more. It was just enough that I looked down and I could see a pair of clawed feet. And just to the side, out of the edge of my peripheral vision, I caught a tail. A forked tail.
You quickly learned when you joined the police that there was a hierarchy of potential criminals. Your dwarves and ordinary magicians and witches were right down the bottom. Vampires were worse, and ancestral vampires were worse again. But if there was one category of creatures you never wanted to run into, even with backup, it was damned creatures. And the very top of the food chain when it came to the damned was demons.
The city hadn’t seen one for about 100 years. They were talked about, usually to frighten the socks off recruits. But… they were never seen. Except… except there was a demon right there. I….
“They did a good job. This is happening sooner than I thought. Good. I’ve been waiting too long.”
I’d already pointed out it was hard to describe his voice. Maybe the easiest thing to do was to describe the effect it had on the matter around it. It virtually burnt through the air. As I felt it buffet against my neck, it was in these hot bursts of wind.
I could even hear a crackle.
As for the sound, it burrowed right through me. It felt like it could push through any matter. The demon could speak through several walls, and I would still hear it, louder than ever, ever-present and shaking through my bones.
I finally let out a delayed scream. There was no volume there. It was like my stupid body thought that if I kept things quiet, the demon would somehow conclude I was dead and leave me alone.
It was very clear the demon had been waiting for me. I heard the hiss of his breath behind me once more. “I’ve been watching you, Millie Crown. It’s an honor to finally meet you in person.”
I couldn’t feel any more fear than I was already experiencing. I reached the limit of the human body. If it kept coming, I wouldn’t just have a cardiac arrest – my lungs would pop, my muscles would seize, and I would turn into unresponsive jelly a second later.
This… demon knew my name.
He brought his face down close. I couldn’t just feel his breath anymore – I could feel the magic buffeting off his skin. It was generous to call it skin. What it was was a conglomeration of magic. It was force that had agreed to work together, for now.
I might have had a human body and have had the limitations that came along with one, but it was very clear this demon did not.
“I am an impatient soul. So it’s time to begin the end.” He reached one of his clawed hands up and settled it on my neck.
In a burst of total adrenaline, I realized this was it. I was about to die, and there was nothing I could do about it. Shivering, I closed my eyes. I even managed a smile, but it sure as hell wasn’t because of my current situation. It was for my family, for my sister, for my niece. It was for everyone in my life who’d ever mattered to me. Hell, I could even admit the thought of Sebastian crossed my mind fleetingly.
It was over. I’d had a good life, but I—
The demon brought his claws up and nicked the side of my neck.
I trembled, knowing he would dig his fingers in, knowing he was gonna rip my throat out of my neck.
But he didn’t. I saw him draw up a clawed hand. And on it was a trembling drop of blood. My blood. But there was a problem. Because there was something shimmering in it. It was this strange golden-blue color.
I hadn’t bothered to speak for a while, but now my lips fell open. “What—”
“Just a little longer now. I won’t have to wait forever anymore. A few more days or a few more weeks, and your magic will finally be ready.”
“Magic?” I couldn’t push that word out. I couldn’t breathe. The only thing that could move was my lips. I….
Very few creatures had magic in their blood. That’s not how force worked. Especially for someone like me, where magic was more of a cerebral affair. So there was no way it was in my blood. This was a trick of the light. This….
The magic in the circle started to pick up. It became brighter and brighter. I might’ve been completely overcome by what was happening to me, but I still understood what that meant. I was about to be transported – whisked away forevermore.
“Don’t concern yourself with thoughts. Simply give in. Let the magic rise once more.”
No. I couldn’t go with him. I couldn’t leave my family. I couldn’t…. Thoughts started to flash through my head. They became faster and faster. My mind was about to give up. Or maybe it searched for something. It settled on a memory of Sebastian for whatever reason.
I saw him there on his yacht, draped like he was some kind of leopard with Miss Slinky over his knee.
I saw him there looking at me. And it was that sanctimonious look in his eyes that really settled into my gut. You would think that right now I wouldn’t have the capacity to feel anything but fear, but when it came to Sebastian, my depths of anger were untapped.
I closed my eyes.
I concentrated like I never had before. Ostensibly there was nothing to concentrate on, but… but I felt this chance inside me, this possibility – this hand reaching out to me in my darkest moment.
Just as the magic developed more and more, I rounded a hand into a fist. I couldn’t fight a demon, right? Wrong, apparently. I punched with all my force. It smashed into the demon’s leg.
I felt magic rippling out. As I’d already told you, he didn’t really have a solid body. He had a body that could decide to be solid at any point in time but then could decide the next moment to become as insubstantial as a cloud.
But as I struck my fist back, I felt something rippling out, and it wasn’t just his force.
I could feel… I could feel something in my blood. It pumped in my veins. It grew brighter and brighter, hotter and hotter, stronger and stronger.
I screamed, and I did it again. I put all my earthly force into punching him. I sank all of my fears into it, all of my hopes, too. Just as the circle became so bright I knew I had mere seconds, I felt something slice out of my hand.
Once or twice, I’d practiced a little real magic. I had to occasionally to activate a potion. But there was that, and then there was this. And this was in a completely different league.
The demon was thrust back. My attack pushed me forward, right out of the circle.
I had a moment where I didn’t understand what happened. A moment when my brain simply could not catch up. And in that same moment, I stared down at my hand, and I saw… magic. Real, honest to God force. It was rippling over my palm, up onto my knuckles, and then down my wrist.
If I could suddenly have hit pause on the entire world to stare at what was happening to me, I would have. Instead, I turned over my shoulder. It was to the sight of the demon. I hadn’t seen him properly before. Now I did. He was tall, muscular, and so powerful, his force perpetually rippled over his body as if someone was continually throwing stones in a pond.
I staggered, fell down to my ass, then immediately shoved up.
I didn’t need to look for my phone. I didn’t need to use it as a light. My hand was more than enough.
The demon narrowed his eyes at me.
If you could believe it, he had a handsome face. I knew full well demons could become human, but even in their truly demonic forms, they had human features – a mouth, a nose, even eyes – and all the things you would require to recognize a standard biped.
But his eyes were nowhere near normal. They actually blazed, the irises perpetually aflame.
He reached a hand out to me.
He muttered something, but I never heard it. I turned, and I ran.
My sense of direction rose to the fore. My hand was throwing a lot of illumination out. I saw that door. I thought I heard demon claws behind me, but I couldn’t be certain.
I just pushed myself into a sprint – the fastest sprint I had ever managed. I sank my attention into my limbs, into my muscles, into my drive.
I didn’t let anything get in my way. No thoughts, no obstacles, nothing. And the whole while, I kept my hand raised up, my fingers acting like the equivalent of a human torch.
I ran down the tunnel, reached that T-intersection, and hooked the corner back to the tunnel that led up to the museum.
My heart pounded. My breath became this raggedy continuous pant. But I pushed, and I pushed, and I pushed.
Soon, the scrabbling of claws fell behind. I didn’t know if that was because I was somehow faster than a demon or because the demon couldn’t afford to get too close to the vampire museum.
There were real magicians up there.
I had a chance to think that. Then I gazed at my hand again. The magic was… it couldn’t be mine. It was way too powerful.
I finally reached the second set of steps. I threw myself up it. I fell on my knee, but I just shoved up. I was battered and bruised, and I didn’t care.
I ran until I reached that last set of stairs. I threw myself up it so fast, I felt like I would rip through my muscles.
I couldn’t describe my heart anymore, couldn’t describe what my lungs were doing. My body was irrelevant. I would chew through every single muscle and burn through every gram of strength if only I could get out. If only—
I crested the top of the stairs.
I could see a figure there. I didn’t know who they were, but maybe my body did. As I threw myself right at them, my arms opened wide.
And their arms opened wide, too.
I fell against their chest.
In an explosive moment, everything came back. The tears, my breath, my trembling heartbeat, and the fear.
I tried to fall down to my knees, but whoever had a hold of me wouldn’t let me.
And that’s when he said my name. “Millie?”
I looked up into none other than Sebastian’s eyes.
For the third time in as many days, he’d save me.
But this one would count more than the rest combined.
Concern exploded over Sebastian’s face. If I’d been in my right mind, I would’ve realized this was no act. This wasn’t him playing with me. This was real. As his lips parted hard over his teeth and his eyes focused on me, the emotion was clear in every single movement. He guided me down to my knees. I just couldn’t stand anymore.
There was footfall.
Somehow, I heard the chief’s voice, even though he hadn’t been here. I don’t know how long I’d been down there, but it couldn’t have been more than 5-10 minutes. How could he have gotten here so quickly?
“Millie?” Frank demanded. “What the hell happened?
“I… Alicia’s still down there,” I stammered.
Sebastian had his arms around me. He stared at me. More than anything, though, he stared at my hand.
And my hand… it wasn’t covered in magic anymore. It had gone back to being just ordinary flesh.
I couldn’t care about that right now. I grabbed Sebastian’s collar. “She’s still down there—”
“Alicia is not down there. She’s over there.” He shrugged to the side.
I swiveled my gaze over to her. She was standing only a few meters away. She looked absolutely fine.
I blinked at her in shock. “But—”
“I’ve been here the entire time. I was fine,” she said in a trembling voice.
“But I heard her voice—”
“What was down there?” Sebastian said in a halting voice so full of anger, I could barely understand it.
“There’s no way—” Alicia began.
Sebastian, on the other hand, didn’t question me. He unhooked my hands from around his arms. He stopped above me for a few seconds, staring down. That gaze… it was kind of like it was promising me it would do anything, anything at all to make this right.
But that was crazy. That just had to be my hormones talking. This was still Sebastian St Vern, and he was still an asshole at heart.
He turned to the chief quickly.
Frank looked like he had absolutely no clue what was going on. “What—”
“I will go down and investigate. Stay here,” Sebastian said. “Look after Millie,” he added. He didn’t call me his wife. But the way he said Millie… God, it was like he had anyway. He turned quickly on his foot.
That’s when I reached out, and I grabbed his pant leg. I stopped him in place.
He froze then slowly turned to me.
I shook my head. “There’s an honest to God demon down there. You—”
“I’ll be fine.” He reached down, removed my grip from his pants, turned, and walked down the stairs.
And that just left me there, shaking, terrified, covered in tears and sweat, and completely unsure of what the hell had just happened.
I stared at Alicia again. She was unmarked. There wasn’t even dust on her. I—
Frank got down on a knee in front of me. He looked at my face. “What the hell happened?”
“I… I heard Alicia scream—”
“I told you, I was fine,” Alicia said quickly. “You must have been hearing things.”
Frank looked at me. “I doubt she was hearing things. Millie here has the best sense of hearing there is. So—” He looked away from me and down the stairs. He didn’t add that so that meant there had to be a demon. That was clearly a bridge too far. And… fair enough. The more I calmed down, the more I realized how crazy this story would sound. A demon? Like I’d told you – there hadn’t been a demon in Angeles City for 100 years. Now….
I looked at my hand again.
Frank followed the move. “What is it? Did you fall over? Did you hurt it?”
I opened my mouth to tell him I practiced magic. But then reality struck me. Magic? Me? Really? I didn’t have any magic. Not anything to write home about, anyway. I’d been tested many times. I’d been a witch for so many years, too. I’d been in some pretty crazy hair-raising experiences. My magic would have already come to the fore if it had been there. It hadn’t… so….
What? I’d imagined everything?
I usually prided myself on my sense of reason. I didn’t believe what I didn’t see with my own two eyes. But did that extend to not believing what I had seen with my own two eyes because it didn’t make any sense?
Frank soon helped me up. My hip was sore, though. It was from where I’d fallen down multiple times. I grabbed it. As my fingers slid over my jeans, I saw I was covered in rock dust.
Rock dust, but nothing else. There wasn’t any demonic energy on me, and my magic had disappeared – likely because it had never been there in the first place.
It was just… I was doubting absolutely everything. That was until Sebastian finally came back.
His clothes weren’t ripped. There wasn’t a gash on him. He didn’t look like he’d practiced any magic, either. But as soon as I saw his head appearing over the threshold of the stairs, his grave attention locked on me.
Frank sighed. “Thank God. What… what was down there?” There was a falsely light note to Frank’s tone. I could tell he was torn. He was a levelheaded man himself. And levelheaded men did not believe in demons attacking relatively worthless witch consultants.
Sebastian didn’t answer. He came to a stop in front of me.
I was now standing with my back propped up against the wall.
We’d drawn a crowd again. I still had no clue how there were so many people here. I would have turned to the chief and asked, but I couldn’t pull my gaze off Sebastian.
The chief let out a chuckle. It had an edge to it, and he was clearly trying to break the ice on this otherwise frosty situation. “Sebastian? What was down there?”
Sebastian leaned forward. He plucked up my hand – the one that had been covered in magic.
With nothing else to do, every single person in the corridor watched the move.
There was tenderness there, but there was also a direct quality to the way he turned my hand over and over, clearly looking for something.
My heart started to pound again. “What…?”
“To answer your question, Chief,” Sebastian said, still staring at my hand, “it was a demon.”
The chief paused. He went to try to laugh, but then clearly the situation caught up with him. This was Sebastian St Vern. Yeah, he clearly liked playing games, but it was also clear he was not playing a game right now.
“That’s impossible,” Frank said in a tight voice.
Several other people in the corridor tried to point out that couldn’t be true, either. But the chief just stared at Sebastian then over at me. Reality soon caught up with him. When he realized one of his staff had almost been attacked by a demon, his face broke with true tension. “What the hell happened, Millie? You need to explain absolutely everything—”
“No, she has to get to the hospital first.” Sebastian briefly closed his eyes. It was clear he was under serious pressure. I could see it in his shoulders, see it in his tight, ropelike neck muscles. It felt like they were a noose around his throat.
He started to pull me away.
“We’ll get a medic to come and look at her,” Frank tried.
“I will be taking her to the vampire hospital,” Sebastian said directly.
I blinked quickly. I didn’t have to splutter – Frank did that for me. “She’s human—”
“There’s a certain specialist she will need to see,” Sebastian supplied quickly.
The brief calm that had settled over me ever since I’d managed to get away from the demon and ever since I’d tried to convince myself nothing had happened broke. It was like a mirror shattering at my feet.
I shook my head. Then I shook it again. It was a fast, edgy move. It felt like my neck was about to snap. “I don’t need to go to the vampire hospital. Nothing happened,” I tried.
Sebastian didn’t even look at me. He settled his attention on the chief. “I’ve dealt with the demon’s gate. That being said, ensure no one goes down there. Inform the vampire museum, too. This whole area will have to be blocked by magic. The museum itself will have to be closed for several days until we’re certain the gate will not reopen.”
Frank just stood there, overcome. In all the years I’d worked with him, I had never once seen him overcome. And we had dealt with some pretty curly experiences. Now it just looked… now it just looked as if his whole world had come shattering down at his feet.
When he didn’t respond, Sebastian cleared his throat. “When dealing with a demon, one must move quickly. Did you understand anything I said?” he asked in a clear tone meant to get Frank’s attention.
Frank finally snapped back to reality. He nodded. He looked completely sick.
He turned around. He started giving orders.
I was aware of Alicia staring at me. I didn’t exactly know what that stare meant, though. And to be fair, I was only using it to distract myself, because someone else stared at me, too, and I shouldn’t have to tell you it was Sebastian.
He still had a hold of my hand. It was the same hand that had exploded with magic. He didn’t ask a single question, but he did close his grip around my wrist in a specific way. “Come on, Millie.” He went to pull me forward.
My feet had gotten stuck. I shook my head. But I didn’t know what I shook my head about.
He looked at me steadily. “You have to go. You need to get checked out.”
“But… nothing happened here,” I tried. There was a real desperate quality to my voice. It would’ve been obvious to absolutely anyone that I was attempting to convince myself of this.
Sebastian wasn’t about to play games. “Let’s go.” He tugged me forward.
I kept shaking my head. I would look like a complete idiot. My colleagues were around, and usually I cared about how I came across to them. Now it was irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was I had to deny everything that had happened back there. Because if I didn’t… I… I couldn’t have magic. The demon couldn’t be after me.
I stared at my hand again. It was kind of hard to, because it was the one Sebastian was using to pull me forward with.
“I can walk on my own,” I tried after a while.
“I am well aware of that.”
“So why are you holding my hand?”
“You are well aware of why I’ve got a hold of your hand, Millie.”
“I’m not going to run away—”
“No, you’re not. But I think we should keep it contained for now, don’t you?”
I hated the way he said the word it.
I took a breath, but it wouldn’t go down far enough. I hadn’t hyperventilated in a long time. Just as I hadn’t had a real claustrophobic attack in a long time.
He’d already pulled me into the fancy exhibition I’d walked through with Alicia to get here. He paused. “Everything… will be all right in the end.”
Sebastian wasn’t playing right now. This was a promise. I could see it flickering in his gaze.
I went to shake my head again, but I stopped.
Slowly but surely, the whole situation caught up with me. It wasn’t a game. I hadn’t pretended to see a demon. There’d really been one there. Which meant….
My gaze locked on my hand.
He shook his head quickly. “Don’t think about it yet. We just have to get you to that specialist.”
“Specialist? But I… I don’t practice….”
“Magic,” he said. He stopped under a powerful downlight. The rest of the exhibition faded into the background. It was just him, him and that direct expression.
“This is a game, isn’t it, Sebastian?
“I told you two nights ago – I don’t play games.”
“But I don’t have magic,” I tried, desperation peaking through my chest and rising high. “I’m just an ordinary potions witch.”
“You know what I always liked about you, Millie? You never denied what was in front of you. Other people often play games with themselves, but you don’t.”
If this situation were ordinary, I would snap at him he didn’t like me. He hated me. That’s why he’d been playing this game with me for so damn long. I just caved a little.
I let him pull me on. I became aware of just how hard he was gripping my wrist. It didn’t hurt me, but it did draw attention to the fact he was practicing a little magic on me.
“What… what are you doing?” I whispered when we made it out of the exhibition.
Police were rushing past us. Nobody paid attention to Sebastian or me. There were far bigger fish to fry.
“Don’t let your magic out – not here. You need to be looked at first.”
“But how the hell do I possibly have magic, Sebastian? I’m just….”
He chuckled. There was this dry quality to it. It was the kind of laugh somebody gave when the situation was far too pressured to laugh at in the first place. “I wouldn’t say you’re not magical, Millie.”
“Don’t think about it. Just come with me.”
He took me through the front of the museum. One of his cars waited for us. It was different from the one he’d driven two days ago. But that didn’t surprise me. I’m sure he had a car for every day of the week.
He didn’t put me in the back seat. He sat me right beside him as he drove.
As soon as he got in the car, he let go of my wrist. He frowned at me several times, though.
The vampire hospital wasn’t far away. It was only several minutes, but that was long enough for me to stare down at my wrist and start to see crackles appearing over the skin.
The first one freaked me right out. I almost screamed.
Sebastian kept his gaze on the side of my face. “You will take it in your stride. You always do.”
That comment was so left-of-field, I had to look at him. “Take it in my stride? I always do? Do you even know me?”
His eyes settled on me. “I’ve only had eyes for you for the past 10 years. So I’d like to think I know you.”
I didn’t draw him up on the stupid comment that he’d only had eyes for me. Really? So what about that slinky vampire who’d draped herself over him on his yacht?
There was something about what he was saying. “You’re diligent, Millie. You’re forceful, and you always say what’s on your mind.”
I laughed. It was a survival mechanism. I had to find something funny. Otherwise the seriousness of the situation would choke me. “That’s a way of saying I have a big fat mouth. Yeah, everyone always tells me that.”
“It takes someone of courage to actually say what they see. It is not something to be embarrassed about. Plus, that’s the other thing I like about you.” He looked me up and down briefly.
I would admit that, despite circumstances, my gut churned a little. The nerves in my stomach lifted. They had this slightly flighty quality to them.
I waited for him to finish, but he didn’t. This was clearly a trap. He wanted me to ask the question. But I just wandered right into the trap happily.
“What,” my lips trembled, “was the other thing you like about me?”
He looked right at me as we pulled up in front of the vampire hospital. “You don’t see what others see. And you don’t let what others see get to you.”
… Had he met me?
Sebastian just looked at me, hammering home what he’d just said.
I gave a spluttering laugh. “I don’t know about any of that.”
He finally looked ahead. “Well, I do.”
We descended into silence. There was no good reason for it. We’d just arrived at the hospital, and in a rush, I remembered all of the things I hadn’t told him, all the questions I hadn’t asked.
I jerked my head around quickly. It was to the sight of him extricating himself from the driver’s seat. He stopped there, one hand on the door, the wind rustling past his tie and jacket.
I’d never asked him why he was always so professionally dressed. Likely because he never knew when the paparazzi were going to be around. But it gave him an overly dramatic flair right now. “Come on.”
“I just realized there’s so much I haven’t told you. I lost my phone down there,” I spluttered.
“Another phone can be bought.”
“How were you even there?” I rubbed my face hard, dragging my nails down the side of my temple. “It didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t have been down there for more than—”
“You were gone for over half an hour.”
That comment floored me. My eyes widened with a twitch. “Half an hour?” My voice shot up high. “How is that even possible? It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes, tops.”
“Yet it was half an hour. Time was likely affected by the demon’s presence. Alicia had the presence of mind to call the rest of the station, luckily.”
“Why didn’t she just come looking for me herself?”
Sebastian shrugged, obviously not knowing the answer to that. “Now, are there any other questions? Is there anything else stopping you from getting the medical attention you desperately require?”
I didn’t know about the word desperately. Yeah, there were a few crackles of magic making it across my skin, but I was hardly on death’s door here. So my mind shifted gear quickly. I went through all my thoughts until one practically punched me in the gut. “You.”
He frowned. “I’m preventing you from getting medical attention? Quite the opposite. I only want to see you get better,” he added in a strange little voice that didn’t match his massive stature.
“No, you. While I was at the museum….” My eyes fluttered closed as I tried to remember this. I had to block out the horror of the demon first. “I ran into Daniel Appleby – Samantha Appleby’s husband.”
I opened one eye a fraction to see he was suddenly stiff. “And?”
“He threatened you.” My voice did this thing. It shot up. Then it bottomed down, then shot up again. It was like it was attached to some kind of Richter scale.
His cheeks twitched. “I see.” Apart from saying that, he gave absolutely nothing away.
So my gut just twitched harder. “You see? That’s strange – because I don’t. How could someone like Daniel Appleby,” I didn’t want to sound like I was too much on Sebastian’s side, but it came through my shaking tone, “threaten someone like you? He said,” I actually pushed a hand over my stomach, “that all they had to do was kick back and wait for you to crumple. What—”
“It’s nothing. Just the machinations of the magical community,” he said in a long-suffering voice. “They never end. And they never get boring. Trust me on that. Now,” he fixed his direct attention on me, “you will—”
I threw my hands up in surrender. “Fine, fine, I’m getting out of the car. I still don’t see why I have to go to a vampire hospital. You realize I’m not a vampire, right?” I undid my seatbelt and, a little shakily, got out.
The same wind that had been chasing his tie over his chest grabbed my hair. It was far colder than it should be. Or maybe that was just me. Maybe a little of the demon’s touch was still on my skin.
I frowned as I checked my wrists obsessively.
“No. You’re not a vampire. And I am well aware of this fact. Now.” Without another word, he stopped beside me and angled his neck forward.
My stomach kicked again. I’d never even been inside a vampire hospital. Back when I’d been obsessed with vampire romances, I’d read about a lot of them, to be fair. They were a great place for romances to kindle. But I really doubted what I would see in there would even remotely resemble what TV had thrown at my young, foolish eyes.
When I didn’t move fast enough, Sebastian locked a hand on my back and pushed me forward. He did so with this deep look. As it locked on me, it was like every single thing that had happened during the day was stripped away. No more demon, no more horror, no more magic – just him. And for the first time in my life, that wasn’t a bad prospect. If I could just hold on to him and all of the other crap in my life could fall away, maybe I’d do it….
But I had to be careful about what I wished for.
He took me in the front door.
A nurse walked past, but immediately she stopped, her shoes skidding. She turned, and she actually snapped a salute as if Sebastian was some kind of military leader.
There was a flurry behind her as people rushed this way and that. What? Were they gonna crack out the red carpet?
I was all too aware that Sebastian’s hand was still on my back. Somehow, despite how my body usually reacted to him, his touch had just become part of the background. Now it rose up, clearer than ever. I could feel how broad his hand was, even detect how rough his thumb was against the fabric of my top. The heat, the presence, and the power were right there, kept away from me by nothing more than a few layers of flesh.
That was a particularly potent image, and it was one I shook off as I took a jerked step forward, breaking his grip on my back. I locked my hands together and ran my thumbs around each other in a nervous, flighty move.
Soon a very official looking doctor came in. She wore no-nonsense shoes and an expression to match. She at least didn’t simper over Sebastian. Maybe she was a high-level ancient herself. She did bow ever so slightly, and that was acknowledgment enough.
Sometimes… okay, you just had to bear with me here, but sometimes I forgot how important Sebastian was. There was the Sebastian I usually dealt with – the childlike idiot who did nothing but play games with me. Then there was clearly the Sebastian everybody else saw – and I couldn’t even begin to describe what he was. The most powerful man in the city? Check. The richest man in the city? Check. And the most prominent member of the most powerful ancient family in the country? Check.
And then there was little old me. A crappy consultant witch who kept getting her ass kicked and who lived in her sister’s basement….
I didn’t have long to prepare myself. The chief doctor with that severe expression came close. Though there wasn’t any magic crackling over my hand at the moment, her gaze still sliced down to the right one. That severe expression only became more severe. It was as if somebody had taken a rolling pin to her mouth and had crinkled her lips down as far as they could possibly go.
I knew I couldn’t keep finding comfort in Sebastian’s presence. He’d only use it as a reason to keep playing this game and tease me further later, but I couldn’t stop myself from darting my pleading gaze up to him. I wanted somebody to tell me this was nothing after all. But Sebastian clearly wasn’t going to do that. He nodded forward, the muscles of his neck tight like ropes. “Let’s do this somewhere private,” he suggested.
“Indeed,” the doctor commented. She led me forward. She kept close by as if I was about to crack. No, not crack – explode, right? That would account for the slightly tense look around her eyes. Her skin was crinkled in.
She took me to a private room. It was seriously well appointed. It looked as if it was its own clinic – just dedicated to one single bed in the middle. I became very aware that it was right there, in the center of attention.
Other doctors started coming in, nurses too.
I stood in front of the bed, even though the chief doctor told me to lie down on it. I just grabbed my arms and started scratching them. “I don’t think—”
“Lie on the bed,” she said in the kind of tone nobody could ignore. If she used it on a mountain and snapped at it to get out of her way, the mountain would’ve picked up its rocky skirts and scurried off into the twilight.
I finally sat down on the bed. It was a bit of an ask. I was relatively short, and to a T, most vampires were tall. I managed it, though. When I sat there, nerves prickled through my stomach and climbed my back. They centered on the back of my neck. It didn’t take too long to realize why. I thought I could still feel that demon’s breath there.
I grabbed my skin and sank my nails in. But that chief doctor simply moved over, pulled my fingers back, and looked at my skin. “I see,” she said.
My gut twisted. Did she? Because I didn’t see. I was the only one who couldn’t see, in fact. Everybody else looked at me with the same expression. It was almost… as if they had expected this to happen. As for Sebastian? He was over by the door. His back was pressed against the wall, one hand in his pocket, one leg slightly up as his foot tapped against the skirting board. His eyes? I shouldn’t have to tell you they were on me. It was like we were magnetically attracted.
And yeah, my gut kicked again on the word attracted.
I didn’t really know what happened for the next five minutes. Bustling activity. But I couldn’t tell you what the bustling activity was directed at. They did tests. At least I think they did tests. They didn’t use the standard medical equipment you usually get in an ordinary human hospital. To be fair, powerful vampires had senses that would cut through most medical scans. Instead, these devices were crackling with magic. I was well out of my depth. By the time they stopped, I was so nervous, I was sweating profusely. I had to keep my arms pressed against my sides to ensure no one could see the sweat marks marching down my top.
“What is it? What’s wrong with me?” I said way too quickly. I’d come in here convincing myself I was just fine. But now, after five minutes of charting people’s rapidly deteriorating expressions, I thought I would die. Soonish. Maybe in the next couple of seconds even.
I locked a hand on my pounding heart.
It just so happened to be the same fingers that had become activated with magic. I felt a few crackles driving into my skin. I jolted and pulled back. I stared at them. Was it just me? Or was the magic more visible now?
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” the chief doctor said. She had her hands behind her back. She had some kind of digital pad in her hand, and she tapped it against her legs. And she looked at me… she looked at me as if I should already know what was going on.
I hated being put on the spot. I especially hated it when people thought I was an idiot. Which happened a lot more frequently than I liked. This was different. This was a whole room of powerful vampires staring at me like, you know… I had any clue what was going on here.
I grabbed my neck again. It was the same hand. I jolted. I kept almost electrocuting myself. “I—”
Nobody noticed I was overcome, nobody but Sebastian. He cleared his throat and pushed forward. “Perhaps you should start from the beginning, doctor. It’s clear Millie here has no idea what’s happening.”
“No idea about what?” I’d been keeping hold of my nerves – believe it or not. But as soon as Sebastian got involved, they rocketed through my chest like a firecracker. There was nothing I could do to tamp down on them. I imagined every single vampire in the room knew my heart rate had almost doubled.
“Your magic is changing, Miss Crown,” the chief doctor said simply.
My nose scrunched up. “Changing into what?”
Sebastian flicked me a smile and let out the slightest chuckle. “See, you can ask good questions when you think things through.”
“What do you mean good questions?”
“Your magic appears to have been altering for some time, but now it is,” the chief doctor looked up and to the side as if she was searching for the correct words, “gathering speed.”
All she had to do was say the words gathering speed, and my gut shook as if somebody had just attached it to one of Sebastian’s sporty cars. I crammed a hand on it. I sank my fingers in. I turned the nails hard against the fabric, and I scraped as if I wanted to rip it off me. “I… what do you mean quickening? I… my magic is not changing. It’s been the same for years.” I knew I sounded like an idiot. I looked like one, too. I stuck my chin out, tipped my head slightly back, and almost pretended I looked down on these people. Because seriously, they might seem like doctors, but they clearly weren’t if they’d concluded something so ridiculous. I….
I made the mistake of palming my face again, but once more, it was with the wrong hand, and this time even more magic sank into my skin. It was enough that I yelped. It was as if I had just bitten my cheek.
“For now, I would be careful of that hand,” Sebastian said carefully. “The doctors here will assist you to control the change – to slow it down a little. You are going to have to learn to control it on your own in the end, though.”
“I don’t understand,” I said way too loudly. Way to go to act like an adult. I looked like I was a tumultuous child about to have a tantrum. I locked my good hand over my face. I sank my palm down hard. I pressed it against my eyes until I saw stars. I willed those stars to turn into something – anything else but what was going on here. They didn’t.
I was still stuck on this cold medical bed, surrounded by vampires who knew more about what was happening to me than I did.
“It is not unusual for someone’s magic to change over the years,” the chief doctor said.
I had to drop my hand. “Not unusual? It’s practically unheard of.”
“Sorry. I was not clear. I meant that it is not unusual for a vampire’s magic to change over the years.”
I frowned at her. I wanted to point at myself with a giant neon arrow. Yeah, sure, a vampire’s power could change, but I wasn’t a vampire.
Wait… I wasn’t, was I?
I almost wanted to show my teeth and touch them, but I settled for slicing my tongue over them. Nope – no incisors.
What the hell was going on here?
Once again Sebastian was the only person who could tell I was completely freaking out. I was now shuddering, and it was a testament the bed’s solidity that those shakes weren’t reverberating down into the floor.
“You’re not a vampire, Millie. But you… shall we say you have a rare strain of magic?”
“No, I don’t,” I snapped.
He chuckled. “Remember what I told you in the car? Do you recall what I like about you?”
I curled one hand into a fist. He couldn’t do this here, in front of all of these professional vampires. He could only play that game with me in private, I wanted to spit. But that was not the point of games, was it? You played them in public so other people could laugh at your prowess and wit.
But he didn’t continue with the lie that I was his wife. He looked at me directly. “You don’t deny reality, no matter how much you want to run away from it.”
Maybe he was willing me to challenge him. Though I always wanted to do the exact opposite of what Sebastian said, I had to appreciate that on this, he was right. Only an idiot would deny reality. Plus, denying it never got you anywhere. It just delayed the inevitable. And while you were busy delaying the inevitable, you tended to lose precious time.
At the beginning of a situation, when it was the most confusing, was usually when you had the ability to change your circumstances the most. Lose that chance, and from then on out, you’d be floundering.
But… seriously… I….
I stared at my hand. I stared at Sebastian. I stared at the doctors. Then finally my shoulders caved. “Why is this happening to me?”
“As has been explained – you have a rare kind of magic.”
I nodded. I wouldn’t look at anyone. My head kind of sank between my shoulders. It was like it was about to detach from my neck. I nodded again. It was so weak, I felt like I was a wilting flower in full sunshine. “And what… what’s going to happen to me in the future?”
“Your magic will change form,” the doctor answered simply. “You’ll find yourself becoming more powerful with each day. Sebastian is right. We will help you control it for now. You will need to train yourself. It can be quite dangerous when somebody comes into more power later in life. All of their habits are already set. They forget how to adapt. And with power like yours, that could be the difference between living or dying.”
“Don’t worry,” Sebastian snapped quickly. “Millie is too smart to have any stupid accidents.”
The doctor just nodded. Then she walked over to a metal tray. She started to draw a syringe. There was this seriously mean-looking crackling blue liquid in it. I had never seen its like. I sat all the way back on the bed, trying to get away from it, knowing in my heart of hearts she was about to inject me with that. It was as if she’d scraped it out of the bottom of a nuclear reactor.
I looked at Sebastian desperately, but he didn’t rush over and protect me. He just nodded once, and the look in his eyes said it all.
I had to do this.
God. I had to do this, because I was Millie Crown, and my magic was changing. All these years, I’d been nothing more than a simple potions witch. But from tomorrow… from tomorrow, if the look in Sebastian’s eyes was anything to go by, my life and everything in it would change. And it would just keep changing. This uncertainty wasn’t done with me yet, and neither was a certain Sebastian St Vern.
We didn’t take much longer to finish up at the vampire hospital. The doctors muttered to themselves, and I did hear the word demon a few times.
I didn’t get the chance to ask what they were talking about. Excuse me if I had other things to think about. My brain was going over and over the fact everything would be different from now on.
I had to… I had to accept I would become powerful. Being just a simple potions witch had been part of my identity my entire life. I’d had to come to terms with not being powerful. That’s why I had developed so many other skills.
But now my identity would change.
I wanted to say I was all alone, but Sebastian, for whatever reason, accompanied me the entire time in the hospital. He even offered to drive me home.
There were so many reasons not to let him. I wanted to tell myself this was just another game. But I didn’t have the mental power to do anything but nod.
We made it back to his car. I stared dead ahead, nursing my hand in my lap as if it was broken. He didn’t say much to me. He offered to put up the heat at one point, but when I didn’t answer, he did it anyway.
He knew exactly where I lived, so I didn’t have to give him directions. That meant there was nothing to disrupt me. I could have all the me-time I wanted, and right now the only thing I could do was think. Sorry, I meant choke on my thoughts as if someone had written them on paper and crammed them down my throat.
We finally made it to my house. Fortunately my sister and Vivian weren’t there. For now. I was keenly aware that they would return soon.
I undid my seatbelt and got out. “Thanks for everything,” I muttered. I went to close the door, but Sebastian got out too.
He shot me a steady look.
“I said thanks,” I muttered.
“I heard you.”
We descended into silence.
I just didn’t have the brainpower to deal with this, so I ignored him, turned, got to the door, pulled my keys out of my bag, and opened it.
That’s when I realized he was right behind me.
I turned. I usually cared if Sebastian was close enough to touch. Right now the only thing that mattered was the dull ache in my hand. “I said thank you.”
“Yes, you did. But I’m coming in.”
I shot him an alarmed look. It was the first thing that had managed to pierce through the fugue descending on me. “Why?”
“Did you forget what happened today?”
I shook my head. It would’ve looked like a painfully innocent move. “My magic started to change,” I said in this kind of distant voice that would’ve made anyone run for the phone to call the doctors again.
“Not what I meant, Millie,” he said quietly.
That’s when I realized he was checking over his shoulder a lot. It was almost… like he searched for enemies. And that’s when reality slammed back into me with a sucker punch. The demon.
He gazed back at me when I straightened and started to tremble slightly. “I just want to see that your place will be safe, that’s all.” He pushed past me. He walked into my house.
The most powerful vampire in the city was now in my abode. It was pretty clean, at least upstairs, but there were so many reasons not to let him in. I couldn’t pull him back, though.
He walked through the hall. He glanced into the lounge room, then made it up to the kitchen.
There were three levels to the house. Vivian and Anne lived above, and I had the basement.
I didn’t have to tell Sebastian where my room was. He got to the stairs, sniffed ever so slightly, and started walking down them.
Damn, he was about to go into my room.
Everything caught up to me. I couldn’t stop him. He reached the base of the stairs, opened the second door, and walked in.
I had stuff everywhere. I was so messy. My sister was clean, but I was anything but.
There was potions equipment on one side of the room. It was this sprawling affair as if someone had planted ivy consisting of little glass bottles and Bunsen burners. It was over tables, even on the floor. Then there was my bed. I don’t think it had been made in several years. There were clothes stuck in there. Once, I’d even found a bowl of toast. It had been moldy. And yeah – I get how disgusting that is.
Sebastian’s nose didn’t scrunch up. I could get used to it, but most people couldn’t. As this was a basement, it always had this slightly musty smell.
I grabbed the back of my neck, sinking my fingers in hard. “I’m sorry about the mess.”
“Mess?” He almost sounded genuine, as if he couldn’t see what was patently there.
Or maybe… maybe he was distracted. He wasn’t looking at my stuff. He gazed at the walls and ceiling. His eyes darted down to the floor. He started methodically walking forward, one soft footstep after another. His gaze swiped from the left to the right as if he was some kind of machine scanning every centimeter of wood.
I stood several steps behind him. My gut continued to churn. Then reality caught up with me. “You don’t think… you don’t think the demon would come here, do you? You don’t think he’s already been here? My—”
“Your family will be fine. The answer is I don’t think the demon has been here, and I doubt he will come here. That being said…” he trailed off. He pulled something out of his pocket. It was a pen.
I frowned at it. They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but I’d seen that demon, and I really doubted he would be put off by a little ink. I doubted he’d be put off by a flying magical sword, either. He’d been seriously strong.
But that’s not what Sebastian was going to do. He walked over to the wall, and right in front of me, he started to write on it messily.
I blinked and went to ask him what the heck he was doing, but then I realized it wasn’t as if the rest of this room had any standard of cleanliness. And then a few seconds after that, I realized he was writing spells. Powerful enchantments. I started to feel them picking up through the room. They hummed in the air. I could even detect them zipping across my tongue, and that was a new sensation indeed. I actually grabbed my mouth and whimpered slightly.
He turned to me. He’d been ensconced in what he was doing, but clearly that hadn’t stopped him from being aware of me at all times. “Are you reacting to magic? You will get used to it eventually. In fact,” he said as he turned around, “you must try to get used to it as much as you can. Throw yourself into the sensation. You will need to develop the ability to control your powers sooner rather than later. The substance you have been injected with will slow the process down, but you need to try.”
There was nothing I could say to that. So I just clenched a hand into a fist and stared at it. I saw a few little tiny charges of magic, but they weren’t that visible. You would’ve had to be paying attention to them as much as I was to even pick them up.
When Sebastian was done, he turned and took a step up to me. And that’s when he stepped over some dirty washing. Not just any washing. It was a pair of my underwear. And not just any underwear – a pair with a crinkled smile on the ass. My sister had bought them for me as a joke.
I’d been so busy paying attention to my frigging magic, I’d forgotten to do a quick recon of the floor.
Sebastian glanced down slightly.
He didn’t say anything. He just removed his foot to the side.
But the damage was done. I was becoming firetruck red. I looked over at the wall as if I wanted him to pull his gaze over there, too. Meanwhile, my heart did a tour of my chest, looking for a way to get out so it could run over and hide under my covers.
The kind of women Sebastian was used to did not leave smiling underwear on the floor for him to trip over. They didn’t wear underwear at all.
“Everything… will change today,” he said softly.
That got my attention and wrenched it off this hyper embarrassing moment. “Everything… what do you mean?”
“You understand. Both the demon and the magic…” he sighed. “Take this.” He reached a hand into his pocket. I thought he would give me his business card or something, but that’s not what he did. He pulled out a phone.
I stared at it. “I don’t have a phone, so I can’t take your number.”
“The phone is for you.”
“But it looks like it’s your phone.”
“It is my phone. All the relevant contacts you will need are in there, including your team at the hospital.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Buy another,” he said flatly.
I imagined he had the money to buy a telecommunications company if he wanted. Then I realized what he was doing. I shook my head. “I don’t need it—” I went to hand it back.
He pushed it into my grip while all the while staring deeply into my gaze. “You can’t do this on your own.”
So I was what… going to do this with him? I didn’t even know what this was.
I opened my mouth. My lips trembled. I couldn’t think of what to say. And that would be when the front door opened. Damn it all to hell. We’d taken too long. My sister and niece were back.
“You should just wait around until they go into the kitchen. Then disappear quietly, okay? I don’t want them knowing you’re here.”
He smiled slightly.
My niece screamed. “Millie? Millie? Sebastian’s car’s out front. Sebastian St Vern’s car’s out front.”
I winced. “Crap.” I guess I hadn’t thought that through. Like everything in my life. I didn’t know what was wrong with my brain. Had it taken a holiday today? Or had someone just poked holes through it? Maybe it was… maybe it was because I was coming into my magic?
Or maybe it was the demon?
Sebastian nodded at me once. “Contact me when you need me. Anything,” he paused right beside me, angling his head my way, cutting down the distance between us ever so slightly, “anything at all, and I’ll be by your side in a flash.”
I wanted to laugh. I mean this was just a joke, right? But… how could it be a joke? Sebastian had saved me from a demon. He’d taken me to the vampire hospital, and now he’d given me his phone. This game was starting to get seriously elaborate.
I couldn’t entertain the opposite possibility, though – that this was… somehow real, and that look in his eyes… that was real too.
I straightened. I clutched his phone a little too tightly. I wasn’t about to break it. It was vampire quality. You could chuck it at a crim and hit it with a sledgehammer, and it would be fine. Instead, I protectively placed it in my pocket and even cupped my hand over the fabric as if I was never going to let go.
He reached my door and opened it. Then he angled his head over his shoulder. “Everything will change from now on, Millie. Just concentrate on controlling your magic. That’s all I ask of you.”
“And… what about you?”
“What do you mean what about me?”
“I… don’t you have better things to do?”
“I’ve never had a better thing to do than this.” Without another word, he walked up the stairs.
I knew I should accompany him. I had to protect him from Vivian. But I couldn’t. I heard her accosting him when he finally got up to the landing. I even heard Anne splutter.
Sebastian was a relatively good sport. He agreed to have a photo with Vivian. Then he extricated himself.
I just stood there. Then I walked over to my desk. I flopped down in my seat.
And I imagined all of the ways Sebastian St Vern would be right. Everything, and I meant everything, would change from now on. And maybe things would start in my frigging heart.
The next two days were relatively quiet. It was crazy, really. I’d seen a freaking demon, and my magic was changing, but I was still at my desk, twiddling my thumbs.
I was doing some paperwork, and I was so thankful for it. If I could just keep my head down, I could pretend I was fine.
I hadn’t looked at the news for two days, and I’d sworn off it completely. I’d usually looked on my phone, anyway. And now… now I had Sebastian’s phone.
I was very super conscious of not taking it out at work. It looked like it was worth a million bucks. It even had his family crest on the back.
If people saw it, they’d ask questions, but how the heck could I answer them?
Was I with Sebastian? Of course I wasn’t with Sebastian. But he’d given me his phone, right? And that had to mean something.…
It was when I was ensconced in paperwork that Phillip walked over. He had a strange look in his eyes. He leaned back, managing a little smile. I’d had two days to come to terms with becoming magical. Fortunately it hadn’t happened in a rush. It was happening slowly with every day. I was thankful for whatever the vampires had given me.
So over the past few days, I’d managed to claw back some of my cheer. It all ended when Phillip’s expression crumpled even more. “You read the news?”
I shook my head. “Avoiding it like the plague. Why?” My tone changed.
“You should probably read the news.”
I didn’t acquiesce. I shook my head. “Why? What’s on it? Don’t tell me… don’t tell me it’s paparazzi photos.” I grabbed my collar and pulled it away from my throat.
“No. It’s… St Vern.”
Excuse me if I was primed to react to that word. I practically flattened my hands on my desk and shot to my feet. “What do you mean it’s St Vern? What’s going on?” I couldn’t push my questions out fast enough.
“I… I guess you’d say the press is turning on him.”
I sat there. At first I didn’t react because I didn’t know how to. I was a little cold. But you know what? I was also a little hungry. That fact took up all of my attention until I just couldn’t hold on anymore. I yanked Sebastian’s phone out of my pocket so quickly, it could’ve shot across the room.
I quickly flipped to the most prominent city newspaper, and my jaw practically fell off. Phillip was right. The news… the news was attacking Sebastian. Why? Over the demon incident.
I knew I looked like a complete fool as I sat there, my jaw almost unhinging.
It was all to do with the demon “incident,” as the news called it. Or the demon lie.
Sebastian had closed the museum down and the whole block around it, the news claimed, on nothing more than the reports of a confused detective. The piece then launched into an explanation of how very rare demons were and how it was impossible one had come to Angeles City. Then it kind of dovetailed and started talking about Sebastian’s businesses and a whole bunch of unsupported claims that he had the city in the palm of his hand. I mean… once upon a time, I would’ve agreed with that statement, but….
“It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?” Phillip said. He stared at me hard.
Yes, it was. Crazy and almost impossible to accept.
“Just so you know, I’m on your side. I believe you saw what you said you saw.”
I suddenly realized he had come over here to support me, not Sebastian. And I… didn’t care about me. It was weird but true.
“Why are they doing this to him? I thought the city liked him? The press usually does personality pieces about him, not this.” I shoved the phone this way and that.
I accidentally revealed the symbol on the back.
Phillip’s eyes opened wide. “Is that your phone?”
My cheeks reddened. “This? You mean the family symbol on the back? It’s something my niece stuck on there,” I said, quickly hiding it considering it wasn’t a sticker and it was very much embossed on the metal. “She’s in some kind of vampire appreciation club. Sickening, right?” I said way too quickly.
Phillip didn’t push. He crossed his arms. “Something pretty crazy is going on in this city at the moment. We still haven’t found anything about Samantha Appleby. It’s honestly like she just disappeared into thin air.”
My stomach kicked.
As my nerves started to get the better of me, my hand arced up. Not heaps – just a little. It didn’t turn into a torch or anything. I felt some crackles developing in my wrist. I’d made the association that strong emotions could bring on magic attacks, so I sucked in a deep breath and forced it through my teeth. I opened my mouth to say something, but that’s when the chief came bustling in. I could tell from the moment his frantic footfall hit the floor something was going down.
I shot up and slipped Sebastian’s phone into my pocket.
“There’s been an incident downtown. A shootout amongst a branch of the Alpha Gang. The special armed unit has dealt with that, but they need us on the scene. They think they’ve found some evidence about Samantha.”
Everybody piled out of the station. I drove with Phillip over to the scene. Neither of us said a word. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t thinking about my magic. Occasionally I thought about Samantha, but mostly I thought about Sebastian.
The press was attacking him… really? It just seemed… so wrong.
Several days ago, you wouldn’t have caught me thinking that. Several days ago, I would’ve cheered. Finally Sebastian was getting the negative attention he deserved. But…. This just felt weird.
Everything felt weird. We arrived at the crime scene. There were police everywhere. The special armed unit had done their thing, and I saw them dragging away several members of the Alpha Gang. As I stopped by the side of my car, several of them made eye contact with me. With me specifically.
They were shoved into the back of a caged magical truck soon enough. That still left me with a cold feeling seeping into my stomach.
“Come on,” Phillip said.
We walked forward. We were in some kind of abandoned office block.
I remembered this place. It’d been cursed. It’d been built quickly when more office space had been needed suddenly in the city. By the time it had come online after a fraught build, so had other better buildings. It hadn’t been used once. It had just been sitting here for five years. And any building that just hangs around with nothing to do tends to attract crime.
It didn’t surprise me one little bit that the Alpha Gang had something to do with this cursed abode.
Frank was already in the lobby. He was directing people. He pointed at me. “Millie, you just… you do you. Wander around and tell me if you find anything.”
Everyone in the unit was already aware of the relationship I had with Frank. He trusted me, and it was time I showed them why.
I nodded competently. I wandered off.
Phillip didn’t come with me. He was directed into one of the areas where the Alpha Gang had clearly been keeping contraband.
I stuck to the first floor for a bit. Then I took the stairs.
There were eight levels. I climbed up to the second one, stopped there in front of the door that led to the main corridor, then paused. I grabbed the railing of the stairs and tilted my head back. I continued to climb.
Something… something drew me upward.
I wasn’t the only one who’d been instructed to investigate the rest of the building. I came across other people rushing up the stairs, but nobody went as high as I did. I soon found myself stopping on the eighth floor. Finally I walked through a door and out into the rest of the building.
It… I don’t know… but it almost felt as if there was something in the air.
Usually I relied on my intelligence when I faced a crime scene like this. I would sharpen my senses and try to put myself in the shoes of whichever criminal I was tracking. What would the Alpha Gang have needed this building for? What could they have been doing? What pressures were they facing at the moment? What resources did they require? All those questions were technically in my head, but… my feelings were what counted most. And they raged through my belly, getting sharper, getting harder. It almost felt as if somebody had shoved razor blades down my gob.
I didn’t bother to cram a hand on my stomach, because the one I wanted to use was already activated with magic.
In time, my magic would spread to the rest of my body, but for now, the docs had told me I’d get the sharpest response on that hand.
With my other hand, I clutched Sebastian’s phone.
I wanted to tell myself it was just because I wanted to hold on to something, and not because I was prepared to bring him here in a heartbeat, just as he’d promised. But….
I continued down the corridor. All of the doors I passed were closed. Some of them had windows beside them, though, and I saw through.
Everything looked normal. But everything wasn’t normal.
I suddenly stopped in front of a door. My heart started to ricochet around my chest. Something… something wasn’t right.
More saliva collected in my mouth. It felt like I’d been hit on the back of the head.
Though I’d never had much magic myself, I understood with seriously powerful people, they could feel magic in their body as a set of sensations, almost as if something was directly disrupting their nervous system. Was this… was this like that?
Throwing all caution to the wind, I finally opened the door. I walked into a completely empty room. Sorry, empty except for magic.
I didn’t have to question myself. And nor did I need to think I was going mad. My hand erupted. This was the strongest spike of magic it had given yet. My eyebrows could’ve shot right off my face. I stared in horror at my fingers. At first the magic was just this kind of dull blue crackling. But it started to get brighter and lighter. It almost looked luminescent white. And it wasn’t even done yet.
I gripped my wrist as if my hand was about to shoot off. “What—”
I thought I saw something through the glass. At first, I told myself it was a bird flitting past the window. Then I saw it again. It lingered.
No bird would do that.
I walked over to the glass. Frowning with a trembling gut, I got close enough to it that my breath started to gather condensation against the window.
I twisted my head, and I saw it – right at the edge of my sight.
I lurched toward it, but it was gone.
My stomach didn’t just kick with nerves now. I swore it burnt with them.
I jerked my head around again. Now I saw it on the other end of the window.
I became obsessed with it. That was the only reason I didn’t back off, the only reason I didn’t pull Sebastian’s phone out of my pocket.
I couldn’t sense the danger I was very clearly in.
The magic in the room was only getting stronger. As it crackled, I could feel it darting underneath my tongue. It was like I’d been stupid enough to lick a live wire.
Finally I started to see something gathering within the glass, and it was right in front of me. This time it was impossible to ignore.
This time I saw exactly what it was. It was the outline of a set of wings. A set of wings accompanied by a demon’s tail.
It took me several seconds to actually comprehend the image, then a few more seconds to realize what it meant.
I shrieked and jerked back. I fell flat on my ass.
The image only began to gather more. It gathered and gathered until I saw that demon’s handsome face. His lips cracked into a smile. They disappeared.
I jerked up. I threw myself out of the room. But he reappeared in the glass to my left.
I shrieked again. I backed off. I twisted hard and fell against the wall. I slid down it. My hand now crackled with so much magic, I blistered the paint.
I stared at the mark I left, terrified. But I pushed up just as I saw the demon appearing in another window to my left.
“Millie,” he said. His voice sounded far off. “Millie,” he called once more.
I shook my head. Tears ran down my cheeks. I ran as fast as I damn well could.
“Millie, there’s no reason to run. I’ll find you in the end. Luxor finds everything.”
I didn’t need to have to question who the heck Luxor was. Demons sometimes spoke about themselves in the third person. That would be his name.
It drilled into my head, sinking down and down and down into my body until somebody felt like they were writing it on my bones.
All I focused on was getting away. I’d get to the stairs. Then I’d run and run and scream until I found help.
But there was another form of help, wasn’t there? Sebastian’s phone.
I clutched it up, but that’s when Luxor started to appear in every single piece of glass. Suddenly all of the doors opened at once, and I saw through to the windows beyond.
Magic rushed around me, grabbed my hair, and whipped it over my face. I just clutched hold of Sebastian’s phone harder.
I brought my arm up to protect myself. Magic crackled over my skin.
Luxor chuckled. It was this deep drumming affair that could divide a planet in two. “Don’t hide from your magic. I sense you have an inhibitor onboard. Don’t let the vampires control you. They will try to take what is rightfully mine. Now release it. Give in to your magic. Let it rush through your veins and consume you.” As he said the words consume you, all of the doors in the corridor suddenly slammed shut only to open again. Then they slammed shut once more. The sound was cacophonous. It shook up through my feet and into my clenched jaw.
“Don’t be afraid, Millie. There is nothing to fear. The inevitable will always occur. That is why it is inevitable. It is foolish to fight it, even more foolish to become emotional over it. Just as all humans must die, eventually, you must give in to your magic. That is destiny.”
“I don’t believe in destiny,” I said. As I talked to him, my hand wasn’t idle; I let it flick through Sebastian’s contacts. Finally I got the right one.
I didn’t know how it worked. Sebastian had a new phone, right? But this was still his phone. So how could I call him? Surely he hadn’t changed his number.
Clearly he’d already thought this through, though. As soon as my thumb slid and locked down on his number, the phone started to call.
Now Luxor was onto me. He roared. The doors slammed shut then jerked open in under half a second.
I just concentrated. I pulled the phone up to my ear.
Wind started to rush around me. It tried to yank the phone back.
No, no, no. I had to frigging fight.
And it was only when I framed this as a fight, when I allowed myself to believe I actually had a chance, that I finally managed to cut past that wind magic. I kept the phone locked against my ear long enough to scream down the line when somebody answered. “The demon’s back. The demon’s back.” I spat the address of the building. Then I felt something rush in from behind me.
It wasn’t the demon. It was almost wind shaped like him, if that made any sense. I rolled, kicked back, and pushed up. It was a strangely athletic move for me. It was in time to see the wind desperately trying to form Luxor’s body.
It was a sight to behold. A sickening sight that made my toes not just want to curl, but rip right off my feet.
I backed away, skidding back on my butt. I still had Sebastian’s phone in my hand. I hadn’t ended the phone call, so he’d be hearing all of this.
The wind version of Luxor took a step forward. It boomed. It made the doors shake and the glass through them crack.
“Give in to your power, Millie. I won’t wait anymore. I waited too long. Now I won’t let anyone get in my way. There’s nothing you can do—”
“Millie, run,” Sebastian said. I hadn’t even been aware that he was still listening. In my head, I’d done my part. I’d warned him. Now all I could concentrate on was Luxor. But Sebastian’s terrified plea finally cut through my fugue. I shoved up. I turned.
Luxor was right behind me. He might not be here in his full form, but I could clearly tell his magic was still gathering in the room. Maybe at some point that would mean he’d be able to transport here. I shouldn’t turn my back on him, but at the same time all I could do was follow Sebastian’s words. So I ran. So I used every single ounce of strength I could, pushing them into my muscles. So I even used my magic. And that’s what mattered most. Just as I swore I felt Luxor’s windy hand pushing toward my shoulder, I kicked into a sprint. More than that, I felt something rushing over my skin.
As his magical hand locked on my shoulder, it was suddenly thrust back. He screamed as if I’d just struck him hard.
I managed to reach the door. I actually frigging reached it. I wrenched it open. Some locking spell tried to stop me, but I somehow broke it.
I’d already made the connection that my magic reacted to my feelings. And right now my emotions raged more than they ever had in my entire life.
I threw myself down the stairs, one after another. I couldn’t take them two at a time. I wasn’t that tall. But what I lacked in size, I more than made up for in force.
I concentrated with all my damn might. I kept hold of Sebastian’s phone. My fingers were locked around it. It was my anchor, my chance.
Though I’d faced people on the stairs coming up here, now there was nobody.
I could hear Luxor, still right behind me, still right there.
I finally reached the door leading to the ground floor. I wrenched it open. I pushed through. I moved so fast, I skidded to my knees. Sebastian’s phone flew out of my hand.
The chief was right there, only several meters away. At the sight of me rushing in as if I’d been ejected from a cannon, he shot over to me. “Millie,” he roared. “What’s going on?”
“Following me,” I stammered. I didn’t have the breath to add anything else. I pointed toward the door.
The chief didn’t need any more information. He opened the door. He threw himself up the stairs.
I expected him to scream in the face of the demon, but he didn’t.
Several other burly officers followed him.
I turned my head. I closed my eyes.
Luxor… Luxor had left. I could tell that, because my magic was no longer reacting to him.
I looked over to see Alicia. My phone had shot right out of my hand and stopped by her boot. She leaned down and plucked it up. I watched her eyes lock on the symbol on the back.
I couldn’t see her reaction.
She didn’t immediately walk over and hand it back to me. She just looked at me… and try as I might, I couldn’t figure out what she was thinking.
It took me a while to catch my breath. Nobody asked me what had been chasing me. Because to be fair, in everybody’s head, it’d probably been more of the Alpha Gang.
But soon Frank came back. He was frowning. “We couldn’t find anyone. Who was chasing you—”
“The demon – from the museum. He was there, up on the eighth floor. He didn’t form in full. I—”
“The demon?” Alicia said, her voice even. No, it was falsely flat. She had chosen to take all the emotion out of it.
I was suddenly aware that everybody stared at me. But not in the way they usually looked at me. Even the chief… he didn’t look right.
“You sure?” he asked, and his voice shook ever so slightly.
“Yes, I’m sure,” I stammered. “The demon was there. He was up on the eighth floor. He was interacting with the doors, making them slam closed all at once. I saw him. I even heard him. He even gave me his name.”
“And what name was that?” Alicia said, once more her tone falsely flat.
“Luxor,” I stammered. I shook as I did.
“That’s not commonly a demon name,” she added.
… Why… why was everyone looking at me like this? I’d just survived a demon attack. Why weren’t they jumping into action?
The chief legitimately looked freaked out. And Phillip faced me with a frown. A lot of other people… they looked like I was making this up.
Making up a demon attack….
I finally pushed to my feet. I was wobbly. I didn’t know what kind of magic I’d used on myself, but my muscles were still twitching. And speaking of my magic, it’d well and truly disappeared from my hand. I frowned down at it. Then I looked over at Alicia.
We’d always been friends. At least I thought we had. Now she looked at me as if I’d just escaped an insane asylum. Sorry – she wasn’t that obvious. She was still controlling her expression, but behind her eyes I could see it.
“I—” I began.
“I think you’re stressed,” Alicia said, speaking right over the top of me.
Yeah, I was stressed. I’d almost died at the hands of a demon. “I’m not making this up,” I said quietly, the lack of force behind my words belying just how important they were. “You’re forgetting what happened the other day at the museum.”
“Nobody’s forgotten, because no one saw it but you.”
“What about Sebastian?” I spluttered.
She briefly looked down at the phone. She held it in an odd way as if she didn’t want her hand to touch his family crest. “What about him? He made some serious decisions that day. He shut down the museum, even the entire block, looking for something nobody else could find any evidence of whatsoever. And it just so happened he disrupted a meeting of an important competitor at the same time.”
“So… what? You think Sebastian St Vern is lying, do you?” I asked flatly, but my voice was completely different from hers. I wasn’t withholding emotion to sound like I was unaffected. I was just totally freaking confused.
“It’s hard to say what his motivations are. He’s fond of playing games, though,” Alicia said as she looked at me directly.
I wouldn’t say I wanted to wither under the intensity of her gaze, but… this… this was too much.
Just as I was ready to give up and sink back down to my knees, I heard somebody coming to a skidding stop outside. And finally my savior returned. And yeah, I’d just thought that.
I might’ve spent my entire life hating Sebastian, but as he rushed in, his gaze locking on mine, that changed.
Because here’s the thing. You can hate one thing, turning your heart against it with all your will. But when that one thing becomes the only thing standing between you and the end, you will clutch hold of it. And you will hold on, no matter what.
As soon as Sebastian appeared, the chief’s eyes widened. “What are you doing here? How—”
Sebastian was very clearly good at reading people. He had to be. Not only was he constantly hounded by the press, but as he’d already admitted to me, he spent a lot of time dealing with machinating vampires.
He kept his gaze swiveling over the room until it locked on Alicia. She still held his phone. He tilted his head and stared at it.
Maybe this finally prompted her to do something. She hadn’t been willing to give it to me, but she conceded to give it to him. The whole while… the whole while she had an angry expression on her face. I wanted to walk over to her, slap her, and point out that was Sebastian.
She handed the phone over.
She went back to looking at me. I’d never felt more put on the spot. I’d been in some pretty curly situations in the traffic division, but this….
“Why do I get the impression there are people in this room who do not believe a demon just appeared in this building?” Sebastian said, his voice hard.
“We don’t know what happened—” Frank began.
That was a kick in the guts. He’d brought me to the violent crimes unit because he believed in me. Now, after two little incidents, that belief was burning up, ha?
I didn’t have to point this out to the chief. Sebastian’s expression crumpled. “I would have a little bit more trust for your employees, if I were you,” he rebuked quietly. “Now, I wish to go investigate the eighth floor—”
“And how do you know something’s on the eighth floor? Did you coordinate—” Alicia began, clearly about to accuse both Sebastian and me of making this up together.
He turned the phone around. It showed that the call was still active. “She called me. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Why would she call you? Why—”
I had to come to my own defense. I had to grab back this situation right now, or I would lose it completely. “I have no clue what’s going on here. I don’t understand – I honestly don’t. But I do understand what was up there.” I pointed a finger up toward the ceiling. “It was an honest to God demon. I don’t care if you don’t think his name sounded demon enough,” I said, slowing down my words and trying to put as much force into them as I possibly could. People had to understand how ridiculous this was. They didn’t like the name Luxor? Therefore they could ignore that a demon had come here? Seriously? Was that how the police operated?
“You’re confused—” Alicia said, repeating that line as if she would clutch hold of it, no matter what.
Confused? She was damn right it was confusing. I’d thought most of these people were on my side. Now after two mere incidents, they were treating me like I was an idiot.
As for Alicia? What the hell was her damage? Was she sore that I’d taken her job? She was the one who’d decided to take a promotion.
Sebastian wasn’t necessarily coming to my aid. He didn’t rush over to me. Maybe that was because he didn’t need to. He stood in front of Alicia instead, and maybe that was the equivalent of him blocking me off from the greatest threat here.
The chief could tell something was going wrong, but he clearly didn’t know what to do. He kept swiveling his direct gaze between Alicia, Sebastian, and me.
But Sebastian wasn’t likely to back down. “I’m going to head up to the eighth floor to check on what’s there.”
“This is a police investigation,” Alicia snapped quickly.
“I’m well aware of that. But it also involves the Vampire Council. Do I need to remind you who I am?” There was no arrogance in Sebastian’s tone. Just directness. He didn’t have to show everybody who he was and what he could do. That was a given.
But Alicia did not care. She stood there and locked her hands into fists. I could tell how hard she was grinding them from here. Just what the hell was going on? When had Alicia become like this? I’d never had that much to do with her, to be honest, but in every single interaction we’d had, she’d always been friendly, direct, and professional. In other words, miles away from what she was now.
A little voice at the back of my head said maybe that wasn’t the case. Maybe I was the one who couldn’t see reason. For all I knew, Sebastian could be playing with me. Maybe there never really had been a demon, and I’d just….
I suddenly stopped myself. There was no point in continuing. Maybe there hadn’t been a demon? Yeah right. There was no way that had been vampire magic – no way it had been faked. If I closed my eyes, I could still hear Luxor’s words, and I could certainly still feel his touch. More than anything, when he had appeared, I had sensed his magic. It had been damned, all right.
So Alicia was… what? Going toe to toe with the most powerful vampire in the city? Why? I got that she had to be brave considering she’d worked in the violent crimes unit for so long, but there was brave, and there was stupid.
“If you want to investigate the eighth floor, be my guest,” the chief jumped in. Clearly he could realize that he couldn’t let this go. Right now it looked like there would be some kind of war between Alicia and Sebastian if things didn’t calm down.
She didn’t look at me once. No, she did. As soon as Sebastian got close to me, she sliced her gaze down to his phone. Maybe she was worried he was about to give it back, but he didn’t. He kept hold of it and turned neatly on his foot, heading toward the stairs.
I could feel everybody’s gazes on the back of my neck. I don’t think I’d ever been put on the spot more. I felt like meat parading around in front of butchers. And no, I usually didn’t feel that way about my colleagues, but it was the exact way their gazes were pushing into the back of my head. I’d always had a pretty good relationship with the people I worked with. They would get over my eccentricities and soon understand my worth. But I was new to this unit, and I didn’t have a lot of street-cred yet. And whatever I’d managed to obtain had now been burnt up. People thought… people thought I was crazy.
Even though I should’ve probably bodily distanced myself from Sebastian, I couldn’t. I walked right behind him. Having all of my friends and workmates turn on me was one thing. Going back to where I had encountered Luxor was another. I would trade my damn job and visibly stick to Sebastian like glue to ensure I was safe.
I couldn’t stop Luxor’s words from drilling into my head. I’d mostly ignored them or forgotten them last time, but this time I couldn’t. He’d kept saying he’d been waiting for me… why? Was that just a game demons played? From the little I knew about them, considering they’d pretty much been removed off the police training course, they loved to play games. They were all about psychological manipulation. That and killing people and eating their souls, of course.
I tried not to let my mind wander too much. We walked in a silent procession up to the eighth floor. I couldn’t pay attention to anything other than the magic I no longer felt up there. It was by now completely clear that Luxor had disappeared. But he wouldn’t have gotten rid of all the evidence, right? Those doors had been slammed back and forth so many times, there would be marks on them. As for the windows, he’d smashed quite a number of them.
That made my hope rise. For a few seconds, that was. We reached the eighth floor. All the doors were closed, and none of them were hanging off their hinges. I saw through an office to the windows beyond, and they were… completely fine.
My heart sank. Luxor had fixed everything with his magic before he’d gone.
I was aware that Alicia stared at me. Her gaze was direct, forceful even. It was the kind of look that made me feel as if she was trying to drill through the back of my skull. God knows what she was trying to get to, though.
Knowing that all of the apparent evidence had been removed with magic, I turned. I settled a breath deep in my chest. I faced her and everyone else. “I encountered him at the end of the corridor, over there, through that door.” I pointed to it.
I ensured my tone was professional and as even as I could make it, but I didn’t remove the emotions completely. I didn’t want to come across as unfeeling. In my head at least, that would make people less likely to believe me.
But I shouldn’t have even gone there. No one believed me. Not even the chief. He wasn’t facing me, but I could see his reflection out of a glass window leading to an office, and he winced.
I could practically tell what he was thinking. And all of it would be regret.
He’d brought me to the violent crimes unit thinking I could make a difference. And sure, I had. I’d made everyone think I was mad in under half a week.
I stood there, clutching my arms uncomfortably. Meanwhile Sebastian didn’t say a word. He’d already shifted off to the exact place where I’d first encountered Luxor.
He believed me. To be fair, he’d been on the phone with me. He would have heard exactly what happened, and he would’ve felt the magic, being a powerful vampire and all. But he was the only one on my side.
The whole while, Alicia didn’t move off to check a damn thing. She just stood there, not too far from me. She didn’t stare at me. She was a lot subtler than that, but I could tell her attention was locked on me and on me alone.
When Sebastian started to come back, his phone – or my phone – rang. He answered it smoothly. By the sounds of it, it was the hospital. He darted into one of the rooms to take it privately.
And Alicia took that as a reason to turn on me. Me and the chief. “Nobody blames you, Millie,” she said in the kind of voice completely devoid of compassion. It was the tone you would use on a computer for making a miscalculation. It didn’t have a personality, didn’t really have a mind, so only an idiot would blame it.
“I know what I saw, Alicia,” I said in the calmest voice I could manage.
“It’s just stress talking. That’s what happens when vampires play with your mind,” she added. She glanced toward the room Sebastian had disappeared into, but he didn’t come back.
My stomach kicked.
I waited for Frank to come to my defense, but he didn’t. He just stood there.
“Don’t worry, Frank,” she said, “I will assist you with the rest of this investigation while Millie has some much deserved time off. I mean, she should’ve had it the other day after that unfortunate mugging at the night market. Clearly everything is just a little too much for you right now, isn’t it, Millie?”
Did she think I would agree with her? Did she think I was ever going to agree with her about anything ever again?
You know what? It didn’t damn well matter what I thought. It only mattered what the chief did.
He winced more with everything she said. I didn’t need to rush over to him, grab up his hands, and beg him. It was clear he’d already made his decision. He made eye contact with me briefly, and I knew full well what that look meant.
But I still didn’t cave. I remained exactly where I was. “I’m not stressed,” I said in an even tone, “and I saw a demon. I have no idea what kind of game you’re playing, Alicia, but if you ignore a demon and allow it a head start on the city, this will fall back on the police department in the end.”
She didn’t even flinch. Not once. Either she’d been prepared for my comment, or she just didn’t care.
She didn’t even acknowledge it. She turned to the chief. “I’ve got this. I think I’ve already got a lead on that Samantha Appleby case, too. I’ve been going over the file.”
The chief just continued to make eye contact with me. There was clearly a lot he wanted to say to me. But none of that was along the lines of, “I believe everything you’ve claimed.” It would more be along the lines of, “Maybe you weren’t ready for this job after all.”
I kept my hands in front of me. I knew when to give up. Or at least if not give up, then let the inevitable run its course.
Sebastian finally finished. He walked up to us, the phone still in his hand.
I watched as Alicia glanced at it once more. She tilted her head back slightly and stared at him. She didn’t exactly look as if she’d just won the lottery, but she was close.
Sebastian stared over at the chief. The chief wouldn’t make eye contact. So Sebastian let out a light little chuckle. “I see. How easy it is for people to deny what’s right in front of their faces.”
“Did you find any evidence?” Alicia asked. I wouldn’t say her voice was singsong, but it clearly was obvious she didn’t think Sebastian had found a thing.
I waited for Sebastian to correct her, but he didn’t. He nodded his head. It wasn’t a move of concession, but it was close. “When dealing with powerful demons like this, evidence is few and far between.”
“Really? And yet you decided to close off the vampire museum and the block around it? On nothing more than a whim?”
I just stared at Sebastian. I waited for him to come to his own defense. I waited and waited and waited, but he just stood there, staring at Alicia. He had a very direct gaze. If she were anyone else and she weren’t on a roll right now, she would back the hell down. That was like being stared at by a lion. Instead, she stood her ground. She arched her head back. Her cheeks were stiff. She looked as if she could take on anything, including Sebastian.
I just felt cold. Cold and seriously sick. It was worse than when she’d been attacking me. I understood her going after me. I was an easy and somewhat logical target. Sebastian?
I don’t know why it bothered me so much that she was attacking him. Maybe it was because if she had the gall to attack him, then she pretty much had the gall to attack anyone. Or maybe it was something more I didn’t really have the guts to admit to right now.
As I squirmed there, getting more and more nervous, my skin becoming colder and colder, I also found myself getting ever so slightly closer to him. I didn’t know why. Did I want his protection? Or did I want to stand by his side, showing everybody who I agreed with and who I didn’t?
“I overheard your conversation. It seems you lack faith in Millie’s testimony.” Sebastian wasn’t talking to anyone in particular. His gaze was all-encompassing. Don’t ask me how he did it – it was likely some kind of fancy vampire trick. But as he stared ahead, it was like he stared at absolutely everyone and everything in turn.
“The internal workings of the police department are none of your business,” Alicia said directly.
I found myself looking at the chief again. He was the boss here. So why wasn’t he rising up? Why wasn’t he coming to mine or Sebastian’s defense? Yeah, Alicia had gotten a promotion, but surely she hadn’t been promoted above him? Yet he just stood there. He decidedly did not make eye contact. He also shrugged his shoulders forward as if he was attempting to make a smaller target of himself.
Sebastian stared at Alicia for a few more seconds, then looked at me. “I—”
I didn’t want him to offer me a lift home, even though I could see the offer was in his eyes. I didn’t want people thinking I was close to him and the reason this had happened was because of that proximity. So I physically took a step away from him. I let my hands go. I looked right at Alicia. “I don’t know what kind of point you’re trying to make, but don’t make it with the lives of the citizens in this city. You might not think I’m that much of a witch,” I said with a shaking voice considering nobody knew about my magic yet, “but there’s one thing I’ve always done, and that’s tell the truth. And I’m telling the truth now. This city is in danger, and the demon’s coming.” I looked at everyone in turn. “I don’t know why you don’t want to believe that, but it’s true. So I only ask you this – have an open mind going forward. You can get rid of me, you can even call me crazy, but you can’t get rid of the demon that easily.” With that, I walked straight past everybody.
The chief called my name, but I ignored him.
I could feel Sebastian’s eyes on the back of my head. Fortunately he gave me some time and space. I walked out into the stairwell. I started to descend it. I didn’t hear him behind me until I got down to the seventh floor.
He followed me at a distance, never getting too close.
I walked right out of the ground floor, not answering anyone’s questions. I didn’t know if I was angry or sad. Maybe I was both. This was my police department, and it was in my frigging soul. I loved it, because everybody worked together. We all knew what to do. But now it was being snatched out from underneath my feet.
I wanted to complain that it was all Alicia, but people didn’t give in to crazy opinions unless they held them themselves.
Phillip was nowhere to be seen. I wondered if he was still on my side.
I walked down the block. I knew I was faster than Sebastian, but by the time I got to the end of it, his car pulled up to the curb. He leaned over, opened the door, and just looked at me.
No words, no commiserations, no I’m sorry. Just that look.
I could have kept walking. If this had been the old Sebastian and I hadn’t been so confused, I would have. Instead, I grabbed the door with a white-knuckled grip and slid into the passenger seat. I did my seatbelt up, still not saying a word. He drove.
It took until he was five minutes away from my house before he turned to me. “Try not to leave the house.”
“Do you need to be reminded about what happened today? It’s still fresh in your heart.”
That was a pretty odd way of putting it, but to a vampire, it made perfect sense. Though I wanted to believe I’d calmed down, I knew there was still adrenaline pounding through me. And yeah, my heartbeat was a little faster than it should be.
Sebastian would be well aware of that. More aware of it than I was, to be fair. He’d sense every single microgram change in blood pressure and temperature and stress hormones. I’d never thought about that before, but if a vampire were truly close to a human, then sensing their fear would be a pretty challenging experience. It would probably be worse than you being fearful yourself, because there’d be nothing you’d be able to do about it.
“We just have to ride this out, that’s all,” Sebastian said quietly.
I turned to him. I couldn’t take it anymore. “Why did you let her attack you like that? What was that crap about a competitor’s meeting?”
“I had no clue one of my competitors was there having a meeting. In fact, I doubt the veracity of the story.”
I huffed. “Great, just another lie. So why did you let her get away with it?”
“What exactly would you have preferred that I do?”
I opened my mouth. I wasn’t sure what I was gonna say. Throw his weight around? Remind everybody of who he was? Call the Vampire Council and get Alicia fired? I didn’t even know if that last one was possible. Yeah, the Vampire Council worked with the police, but there were clear dividing lines. Or at least usually.
I slowly closed my lips. I turned, latched hold of my seatbelt, and held on to it for dear life.
Sebastian waited a while for me to respond, but when I didn’t, he sighed. “You just have to wait this out.”
“And what is this? The press is going after you, Sebastian. The press. They’re usually on your side. They’re usually doing pieces about you being the richest bachelor in the country.”
“I guess they got bored with those. They’ll be irrelevant soon, anyway.”
It took me a moment to realize that was a veiled statement about him getting married. I just smoothed right over it. I didn’t care about that game anymore. I continued to stare at him as if I was trying to make him wake up to this situation. “Your credibility is going down. The press is not going to stop attacking you.”
“Then it will make for a nice change,” he tried with a smile. It was mildly enigmatic. I said mildly. His heart wasn’t in it.
I just sighed again. I continued to clutch my seatbelt. That was until a little spark of magic suddenly sank into it. Fortunately it didn’t erupt into flames, but it did vibrate.
“Watch yourself,” he said quickly.
I sighed, released my hand, and realized I’d burnt his seatbelt. I made a quick mental calculation and appreciated, considering how much his car was worth, that I likely couldn’t pay for the seatbelt replacement. It would be worth more than I made a month. So I just sighed again.
“As I already told you, Millie,” he said quietly and yet with a strange force to his words, “everything will be fine in the end.”
“You can’t tell me to just ride it out,” I muttered. “What if the situation is much bigger than you think it is? I mean… there’s a real demon out there,” I said, shuddering. It was the first time I’d really talked to him about it. And in doing that, it was the first time I’d faced the reality of what was out there. For some reason, I’d been more affected by Alicia attacking Sebastian than by the fact a frigging damned creature was about to hit the streets.
“I don’t know much information about him,” Sebastian headed me off at the pass, his voice quiet yet still direct.
“He…” now I couldn’t clutch the seatbelt, I settled for locking my arms around my middle, “said he’d been waiting for me, said I needed to give in to my powers, said—”
“I know,” Sebastian admitted quietly.
I looked at him, my eyes wide. It was with pleading and fright. I probably looked like one of those postcards of an adorable puppy – a pathetic one, too.
“How could you know?” I finally pushed those words out.
“It’s your magic, Millie. It’s a rare strain, remember?”
“Not really. I can’t say I learned much yesterday at the hospital. Just what the hell is wrong with me?” I stared at my hands.
“Nothing is wrong with you.” He reached over, placed a hand on mine, and pushed them down. We’d just arrived outside my house. Usually I would’ve freaked out and told him not to touch me this close to potential witnesses. Now I just stared at him.
I was happy he touched me, to be honest. Because it calmed my nerves. Or at least it was centering them. It distracted me while my heart continued to pound, while sweat continued to slip across my shoulders, and while my limbs continued to shudder ever so slightly.
With him this close, with his hand on mine, everything changed. Just for a few seconds, it was like turning my head up to a tumultuous storm only to see a crack of sunshine drifting through.
“I intend to explain every single thing about your magic. I’ll do so as your powers come into fruition.”
“Why do I… why do I get the impression you’re not surprised by this at all?”
He didn’t say a thing.
I wasn’t about to let this go, though. “Sebastian, why do I get the impression you somehow always knew I had a rare strain of magic?”
He finally released my hand. It was clear he was happy to be close to me when he was offering comments, but not when I gave them.
I undid my seatbelt to get closer to him. “Sebastian—”
I suddenly saw Vivian walking around the corner. She should have been at school, but maybe they’d had a day off for some reason or she’d gotten sick.
She saw Sebastian’s car, and her eyes practically exploded. She rushed over.
I swore under my breath.
She knocked on the door. She really had absolutely no respect for money, because when Sebastian didn’t immediately open it, she started slamming on the window with the palm of her hand.
“Your niece is delightfully direct,” Sebastian said as he opened the door.
“Yeah, runs in the family,” I muttered.
“Oh my God, you’re back. It is amazing.”
Sebastian smoothed a smile over his face. “How many points is this now?”
“So many. I have a photo with you,” she patted her pocket, “and we all agreed that’s worth at least 5000 points.”
“How about an in-law?” Sebastian asked distractedly.
I stiffened as if someone had shoved a steel pipe down my back. Vivian just made a face. It was clear she had absolutely no idea what he was speaking about. “I don’t really know. But other ancient vampires don’t get to play the game. They don’t get points for running into you and certainly not marrying you,” she explained.
Sebastian just nodded.
I relaxed a little when I realized Sebastian wasn’t going to push and Vivian had no idea what was going on here. That was until I saw my sister. She suddenly opened the door. She stood on the porch, her arms crossed. It wasn’t because her only kid had come home early from school. It was that I was still associating with the most important vampire in the city.
I looked at Sebastian. I didn’t really want him coming in. He probably didn’t want to, either, because it was clear from the way Vivian was reacting that he wouldn’t get a second to talk to me. She’d probably call her friends and parade him around for an hour.
He briefly turned to me. He looked at the house, but he didn’t really need to say it. I had to stay home. Hopefully the protection charms he’d drawn in the basement would be good enough.
He grabbed his phone – or my phone, or whoever’s phone it was anymore – and handed it to me.
Vivian glanced at it. “What’s that?”
“I lost a bet,” Sebastian said smoothly. “Your aunt now has my phone.”
Vivian’s eyes shot wide open as she clearly thought this was the coolest thing in the entire world. “What? That’s your actual phone? Hand it over,” she snarled at me.
I just shoved the phone into my pocket and got out of the car. I looked at Sebastian. He looked at me. Then he nodded. “I’m terribly sorry, Vivian, but I must leave. I have something important to attend to.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve got a thousand points and your phone,” she said.
She did not have the phone, and there was no way I would let her touch it. I used Sebastian as a distraction to make it to the porch. I intended to run down to my basement and lock the door. Then I would just stay there. Stay there until… the city went back to normal. But that wasn’t going to happen, was it? Because everything was broken now. Not just the police department, not just the city, but my frigging heart.
Sebastian nodded at me one last time. He dipped his head low. I’d stopped thinking that he was playing a game. I don’t know when, but it had happened somewhere along the line. Now as he offered me that enduring move, I felt my stomach flutter. I didn’t cram a hand on it, but I also didn’t chase the sensation away. I just let it remain there, climbing up and getting more powerful with every second. Then I turned and walked into my house. I had to ignore my sister. But she was the least of my troubles.
The whole city was going to Hell in a handbasket, and the Devil would be reaching out to me first.
I lay on my bed, throwing a bouncy ball up and down and catching it.
That’s all I did. I’d been doing it all day.
I’d managed to avoid my sister and hide Sebastian’s phone. But I hadn’t been called back by the station. Frank had written me an email apologizing for everything, but you know what? He hadn’t invited me back.
My head kept going back and forth, ruminating on what had happened. I kept looking for some glimmer of hope, some possibility that everybody would just snap back to their senses. That didn’t exist. I suddenly launched the bouncy ball at the wall, then caught it again. It was an angry move. It was also a powerful one. I kept forgetting not to use my magical hand. Now it crackled with force. You know what it didn’t do? Melt the bouncy ball. I’d been practicing. That was the least I could do.
I shoved up to my feet. I walked around for a little bit. I went to check on some of my potions. They were doing their own thing. They didn’t need any help from me. No one, it seemed, needed anything from me.
Fortunately Anne and Vivian were out. They were going to some kind of night play. I could’ve taken the time to go up and watch some TV, but screw that. It felt safer in my basement.
I took a moment to sigh. Wow. I felt safer in my basement? I couldn’t even go up and watch TV? This was only the beginning.
I froze. I started to lock my hand harder around the bouncy ball. I squeezed and squeezed until I thought it would explode. Then I let out a tense breath.
I hadn’t even bothered to dress. I mean, what the hell was the point? I was in a pair of thick comfy pajama pants, an old threadbare top, and a hoodie.
It was comfortable. And comfy was the best I could hope for right now.
I went to throw the bouncy ball at the wall suddenly and dramatically. I don’t know what kind of mood I was in. Maybe I thought it was the James Bond of bouncy balls, or maybe I just wanted to hit something, but I heard the bell ring.
The only thing I could think of was that it was Sebastian. I didn’t think that through, though. He had checked on me, but he’d called his phone. And as for his phone, it was always in my pocket. I kinda didn’t want to admit this, but I’d even slept with it last night. It hadn’t just been in my bed like the moldy toast; it had actually been clutched in my hands. I knew that was sad on every level.
I ran all the way up to the door and went to open it, but suddenly my better reason kicked into gear. I looked through the eyehole, and I saw Alicia.
What the hell was she doing here? Had she come to rub my nose in it again? Had she come to tell me I was now sacked? Because apparently my boss didn’t have the balls to do that himself?
I thought briefly of not answering, but Alicia suddenly locked her gaze on the eye hole. “I know you’re there, Millie. I just want to talk. I need to explain myself. I know you have a lot of questions.”
… Was it just me, or was there actual regret in her voice?
I thought briefly of just ignoring her and going back down to the basement, then my better reason caught up with me. She was still part of the police force. And so was I. I had to act like it.
I opened the door.
I stared at her. She briefly glanced behind me. Then she took a sigh that made her shoulders shake down. “Like I said, I know you’ve got a lot of questions, and I’m here to answer them.” She glanced behind me into the corridor again. What was she looking for? Sebastian?
“He’s not here,” I said in a hard voice. I don’t know what possessed me to actually say that. No, I do. I wanted to see if that’s what she was actually looking for. It was. Her cheeks twitched.
She might be powerful, but she wasn’t that great at hiding her reactions.
“Why would Sebastian be here?” she said in this voice I couldn’t place. Was that derision? Was she trying to put me down? Was she trying to point out Sebastian would never hang out with some loser half police officer like me?
I settled for closing my arms and leaning against the doorframe. I wasn’t a huge, imposing figure, but I certainly took up as much space as I could.
She sighed again. “Look, can I come in?”
“You told everybody I was mad, Alicia. And you still honestly think I should let you into my house?”
“I said I have a lot to explain.”
“Whatever. Come inside then.” It was only my loyalty to the force and my boss – or at least what remained – that allowed me to push the door open.
I took several steps inside, but Alicia didn’t follow. She went to cross the threshold, but she stopped. She became strangely stiff.
I turned, locked my gaze on her feet, then looked up at her face slowly. “What is it? Don’t you like the decor?”
“Look… it’s probably rude for me to come inside,” she backtracked quickly. She stood down on the porch step. “I just want to talk to you. Can we get a coffee somewhere?”
I looked at what I wore. “I’m not really dressed for that.”
“That’s fine. We don’t have to go far.”
You would have thought she would just tell me to change my clothes, but maybe she didn’t want to lose track of me.
… And maybe that was just my paranoid brain getting the better of me. Did I honestly think Alicia was evil somehow? No. My loyalty rose to the fore. I’d worked with her before. She was good. Good at what she did, and good in her heart. But….
She took several steps back.
I frowned at her. “You can honestly come inside if you want—”
“Let’s just go for a short walk. That’s all I ask. I’ll explain everything. And like I said, I know you’ve got a lot of questions.”
Yeah, I did, like why she didn’t want to come into my house all of a sudden and why coffee was no longer on the cards.
I pushed a little further out of the doorway. But I didn’t push all the way out. A frown started to march down my lips. “I’m not really in the mood to walk.”
Alicia suddenly grabbed my hand and yanked me forward.
Alarm shot through me. “What the hell—”
“I’m really sorry,” she said. She kept a hand on my wrist. She darted her gaze up to the house as if she was looking for something. Then she pulled me down a step.
“Get your goddamn hand off me right now,” I snapped.
She pulled me one more step, then she let me go. She brought her hands up, and she took a step back. “I’m under a lot of stress. Okay? I know I’ve been acting weird, but I’m under a lot of stress, and I just need to talk to you, just need to apologize.”
There was only one thing she had just said that was true. She was clearly under stress. It marked her face as if someone had dragged a knife down her cheeks and brow. I could even see the sweat collecting over her temples.
I went to take a step back, but she opened her hand. “The demon’s real.”
That at least made me stand still. “What?” My lips trembled. “I… you knew that all along? Then why the hell did you make everybody believe I was mad?”
“Just trust me, okay?”
Sorry, trust her? She’d done nothing but be beastly to me for the past day and a half.
She soon dropped her hand. “This is a dangerous situation, and you wandered into it without knowing what’s going on.”
“I didn’t wander into anything, Alicia. Now tell me exactly what’s happening.”
She closed her eyes. She tilted her head back. Then she briefly looked at the sky. This wasn’t her just glancing around for something to stare at while she was thinking her words through. She really looked like she was searching for something.
I darted my own head back, but I couldn’t see anything. No, wait. Was it just me, or were there strange clouds developing above the house?
She grabbed my hand again. The move was forceful, but I wouldn’t exactly say it was violent. “You’re in danger, and I’m worried about you. It was better that you have a couple of days off.”
“In danger from what? The demon? I can tell you how you could have dealt with that better. If it’s really out there,” I said, putting no emphasis at all behind the word if, considering I knew full well it was out there, “then the rest of the police station has to understand—”
“It would only put them in danger.”
“So you made everyone think I was mad—”
“It was all for you,” she said. She wouldn’t even let me finish my questions. She just blasted out her own statements, and all the while, she occasionally ticked her head back and stared at the clouds.
“What exactly is up there, Alicia? And what’s this really about?”
I’d given her a lot of trust. It was starting to ebb, though. I didn’t know why, but I suddenly shoved a hand into my pocket and pulled out Sebastian’s phone.
Her cheeks stiffened. It didn’t look so much as if someone had slapped her, as if they’d just beat her to a pulp.
I couldn’t ignore this. “Why are you reacting like that to the sight of Sebastian’s phone?” I clutched it harder.
She pressed her lips together and swallowed. “I know this is a big ask, but hand it over,” she said, reaching out to me.
You know what I didn’t do? Hand it over. You know what I did do? Clutch it closer to my chest. “No.”
“Look, I told you, you have no idea what you’ve wandered into.”
“So I’m gonna wander right back out.” I turned to walk back to the house, but I never got the opportunity.
She grabbed my arm. You know how before I’d said she’d been insistent but not violent? She suddenly crossed that bridge. She sank her fingers in hard, and she used magic, too.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Hand the damn phone over,” she snarled.
I went to elbow her, to push her out of the way, but I didn’t get the chance. She suddenly sank her knee into the small of my back. It was a damn hard and direct blow. It floored me. Then she shifted right around and snatched the phone from my grasp. I tried to use a little charge of magic, but it was too little too late. “Do it,” she snarled.
I didn’t need to ask what she was talking about. The clouds above me started to gather and gather.
Alicia threw something at my feet. I stared at it. It was some kind of potion. Don’t ask me how, but I almost immediately recognized what it was. It was one of the very same potions she’d made me look into at her office. One of the so-called hidden potions that had been appearing all over town and that no one had any idea what they were used for.
“You’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you were the wrong damn witch,” she said coldly as she started to walk away.
I wanted to scream out, but I suddenly couldn’t. This cloying energy was building around me. And it built and built and built. It felt like someone was wrapping wire around where I was kneeling. The storm continued to gather. It was absolutely crazy. The force was ferocious. I told myself everybody would be looking out of their windows right now. They’d scream and call the police. But I couldn’t hear anything. Just this hum getting louder and louder. I clutched my hands around my middle. I was forced down. That oppressive weight now sank onto my shoulders as if somebody had their knee pushed into my back.
I groaned again, and that’s when the force finally hit its peak. It was so powerful, the concrete underneath me began to crack up.
It’s then I realized what this was. It was a frigging transport spell. I had a chance to think of Samantha Appleby, my brain going there for some reason and not the fact I was about to be spirited away for good. Then the transport spell finally kicked into gear.
I felt this force rushing around me. It was so great and tumultuous, it was as if I’d been shoved into a tornado.
I didn’t have the time to scream. I was picked up off my feet. I floated for a single second as more magic settled around me, and then with a snap, I disappeared.
I wouldn’t disappear for good, though. Because this was only just getting started.
I arrived in a completely dark space. I could feel concrete underneath me. There had to be water across it, too, because it was damp and there were puddles in places.
I’d never been transported before, and apparently it was a pretty violent affair, but I didn’t allow myself to scream or remain down on my knees for long. I thrust to my feet.
My pajama pants were now sopping wet at the knees. I ignored them. I didn’t even have shoes on.
As my fear rose, so too did my magic. It didn’t remain dark in here for long. My force started to push the shadows back. That’s when I realized I was in some kind of concrete room. It looked like a crappy office. There was a console to one side and an old computer. There were boxes full of paper.
There was also a little window. I could see outside to some kind of yard. There were stacked up cars.
I tried to calculate quickly in my head where I could be. There was a car scrapyard out on the edges of town.
That was far, far away from my house.
I could hear something out in the yard. It was this scratching sound. I didn’t dismiss it. I couldn’t. Because that specific sound was now in my freaking bones. It was the very same scratching I’d detected in the vampire museum just before I’d had my first run-in with Luxor.
I… this was it. Alicia had been working with Luxor all along.
I probably should have just stayed there, huddled in that concrete room, but I knew there was no point. I would prefer to fight Luxor in an open area where I could potentially run away.
Not trying to control my nerves because I knew I couldn’t, I reached the door. It was locked. I didn’t let it remain locked for long. I used a burst of magic – the very same magic I had been practicing over the past day – and unlocked it. I walked out. Sorry, I staggered out.
I stared at the rows upon rows of stacked up cars. It was quite a stark sight. It was like the bowels of modernity. This is where everybody’s trash went to rot.
I walked through pools of rusted water. I didn’t have to walk far.
I heard the fluttering of wings. I didn’t have anything to hold on to. Alicia had already stolen my damn phone. So I just clutched onto my own hands. I sank my fingers in, grabbing my palms until it felt as if I was gonna pull them out.
The fluttering rang out on my left, then on my right, then on my left again. It was clear Luxor was playing with me.
“Stop it,” I stammered, no force in my words because I couldn’t push the breath out. “Stop it.”
He wasn’t about to stop it. He continued to play that game, zooming around the yard, coming close behind me only to flit away. I finally started to hear his chuckle. There was a lot of force behind it. A lot of pleasure, too. It was clear he had me exactly where he wanted me. I soon stopped. There was no point in continuing on if he was in complete control of this situation.
“Stop it,” I screamed at the top of my lungs. I closed my eyes. By the time I opened them, I saw a shadow picking up right in front of me. I stared at it. The first thing to appear was an outline of wings, then a tail. Then finally a face. A smiling one.
Luxor stepped out of the shadows. He tilted his head and stared at me. “This game ends now. Don’t worry. There will be no more waiting.”
I just nodded. I wasn’t about to give in to him. I stared at the stacks of cars surrounding me. I tried to figure out what I would need to do to get out of here. In the past, I’d run away from Luxor, but that wasn’t because he’d been defeated. I’d just run into the arms of safety, and for whatever reason, he’d decided not to take on the people around me. No, not for whatever reason. He worked with Alicia, and clearly he hadn’t wanted to break her cover.
“Where is she?” I managed to stammer even though my heart trembled with true fear.
“You know who I’m talking about,” I whispered. “Alicia.”
“Busy doing as she must. But do not think of her. Think of yourself.”
If only she hadn’t taken my freaking phone. If only I hadn’t pulled it out. I would’ve still had a lifeline. Now there was nothing but me and Luxor.
He took a step toward me. It wasn’t a heavy step, but at the same time absolutely every single car in the yard shook. It wasn’t physics making them do that. It was his magic. He wanted to point out he had connected to this entire place.
I didn’t back off. There was no freaking point. I just faced him with all the strength I could muster.
He tilted his head. “You have fire in your eyes. That is good. Let it burn into your power.”
“I was kind of thinking of letting it burn you, actually,” I snarled.
He paused, then laughed. It was the laugh of somebody who knew no one could touch them, no matter how hard they tried.
“Have you forgotten? I managed to get away from you two times before.”
“You didn’t beat me, Millie. You got lucky. There is nobody to come to your aid right now, though. It is just you,” he took another step forward, “and me.” When he said that, every single car shook again. This time, it was a lot more violently.
I half closed my eyes. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to face what was in front of me. Sebastian’s words were running through my head. I faced reality. Unlike other people, I didn’t run away from it. But if I truly faced reality, I’d be trembling down to my knees now, because I would appreciate there was no way out of here. I still remained standing.
Luxor narrowed his eyes at me. He finally stopped right in front of me. It was close enough that he could reach forward and snap my neck in a second. “You have been working on your power. You need to let it rise more.”
“Why do you care about my power?” I stammered.
“Because it is a force I require.”
“You do not need to know the details.”
“It’s unique, isn’t it? I thought demons could practice most forms of magic? You would only want me if there was a form of magic you couldn’t practice.”
When somebody didn’t tell you the truth, the best way to get them to tell the truth was to just throw out examples until they reacted. And Luxor reacted. He didn’t tell me I was smart. He simply clenched his teeth and finally settled a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t fall over, though.
I felt the threat in the move – the total power. But I just stared into his eyes.
He was right on every level. I couldn’t fight him. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try.
I suddenly balled a hand up into a fist. I punched it forward. I let my magic blast out – or as much as I possibly could. It crackled over my knuckles. It was the most impressive display I had managed yet. But it didn’t send him hurtling back. In fact, he just stood there. A slight frown crinkled his lips. He stared down at his stomach where I’d hit him then up at me. “What are you doing?”
I roared again and punched his stomach. He didn’t flinch back. He simply looked at me as if I was an amusing child. So I did it again. Then again. I let out a frustrated scream. Fear started to claw its way through my stomach. It had already been there, but this was different. It was telling me to give in. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do.
“You might’ve surprised me the first time we met, but I’m ready for you now. There’s nothing you can do, Millie. Except for come with me.”
I went to punch him again. He just held my fist. So I looked into his eyes. “Why did you bring me here? Why didn’t you send me right down to Hell? You couldn’t, could you? The only reason you wouldn’t be able to is because of my magic.”
“Stop trying to think things through—”
“Then stop reacting. I’m right. There’s something about me you can’t contain,” I stammered quickly.
I had to be onto something, because he suddenly let out a growl. He’d been enjoying this until now. He settled both of his hands on my shoulders. I felt some kind of compulsion magic sinking into my body. This right here was the most fraught moment of my damn life. I could feel my body sinking under his control. I knew I had seconds – split freaking seconds. If I didn’t use them, this would be it.
My mind didn’t do anything. It didn’t show me my life up until now. I didn’t see my family. But I did recall one specific image. And it wasn’t what you would think. It wasn’t Sebastian. It was his family seal for whatever reason. I got a really sharp, clear image of it from the back of his phone.
That compulsion magic continued to twist into me. Luxor laughed right in my face. I was only dimly aware of it.
Why… why in my last moment was I thinking about Sebastian’s family seal? Was there some clue there?
I started to sink down to my knees.
Luxor stood above me. His hands were no longer settled on my shoulders. Instead he whipped his tail around until it was around my middle.
As his magic pushed in, though it was the most terrifying thing I’d ever done, I actually paid attention to it. I started to feel what it was doing to me. It was like… it was like he was trying to chill something. I knew that sounded crazy, but bear with me. It was like his force was turning into shadows and pushing into my blood. It was like he was trying to suppress something, and he was trying to douse it.
I barely had any attention left over now. As for my magic, it had completely disappeared from my knuckles. I wasn’t punching him anymore. I couldn’t move. But I… I could still think.
The dousing effect continued. But so did the image of Sebastian’s family seal in my mind. I couldn’t tell you why it became more and more prominent, why it stood out as if someone had embossed it there. Just at the last moment when I threatened to tip back, I held onto it. I pushed my mind into it. It was just a symbol, just a family shield. Yet maybe it was more, for as I finally grasped hold of it with all my might, I stopped teetering back. And tellingly, Luxor hissed. It was the move of a man – or a demon – who realized he might not win after all.
“Give in,” Millie, he snarled.
Like hell I was gonna give in.
If he was trying to douse my magic, then my magic had to be fast and hot. It had to be destructive, almost exactly like fire.
I paid attention to that, and I reminded myself of every single time a crackle of force had erupted over my skin. Sebastian had promised to explain to me what my magic was, but he’d never gotten the chance. So right now, on my own, in the fight of my life, I had to learn it, right from within me.
I’d always been a little scared of myself, and despite never having much force, I’d feared my power, too. I’d been scared it had never been enough – that, in many ways – I would have been better off with nothing rather than the scrap I’d had.
I’d always been stuck in between, somebody with big dreams who’d had no ability to get to them.
But now… I felt something inside me – this unquenchable well, this unstoppable force. It had always been there, just waiting to get out. I’d just never paid attention to it and never given it enough time to grow. Until now.
Luxor leaned in. He was about to pluck me up. And when he did, who knew what he would do to me? Probably use the rest of his compulsion magic to douse my force completely. After that, he’d likely take me straight to Hell.
That was not going to happen. Not today.
I roared. I didn’t so much access my magic as just accept it existed. I didn’t run from it. I embraced it.
As I screamed, I could feel something racing up within me.
Luxor suddenly twitched. Terror gripped him, but it was too damn late.
My head jerked back, and I screamed with all my might as power erupted from me. It pushed into Luxor and threw him back.
I fell down to my knees, trembling as I stared at my hands. Now both of them were erupting with magic. It was a seriously powerful display. If I’d seen a crim show force like this, I would have turned tail and run, no matter what. But I couldn’t run from myself, and I wasn’t about to.
Luxor thrust up. He pushed toward me. I just opened a hand. Force managed to push out, but not far. It didn’t have to go far, though. Luxor wasn’t ready for it. He didn’t have time to create an attack of his own, and that was a deadly mistake. He struck my attack, head-on. It pushed him back. It didn’t just send him tumbling head over heels. Nope. It sent him smashing into the stack of cars beside me. I stared as he was buried down into a chassis.
He didn’t move. Then he twitched.
This was it.
I had to get out of here now. Though it would be tempting to stay to see if I could actually defeat him, I knew next time, he’d be ready for me. So I had to flee. Right now.
I ran. But didn’t know where to go. If I hit the street, I’d only pull Luxor out with me. I had to get away from here immediately. I….
I ran back to that squat concrete building. All I could do was think of the transport spell.
I knew how transport spells worked – or at least ones created by potions. You had to have the equivalent potion at each destination.
You marked a place, and that kind of created a route between them.
If I could concentrate, I would end up back in front of my house.
I didn’t think, didn’t realize that might not be the safest place to go. I just threw myself through the open door. It was when Luxor screamed. His reverberating blast sounded as if it would tear down the entire yard.
I skidded down to my knees just where I had arrived. That’s when I heard him right behind me.
It took serious magic to reignite a transport spell. Magic I had not had. Until now.
I settled my hands down in the middle of the circle. I let force pump out of me. Luxor reached the door. This was it. This was frigging it.
I didn’t hold back. Neither did I think this wouldn’t work. I plunged my hope into the single possibility it would. And just as Luxor tried to reach through the transport circle, it happened. I was whisked away.
I survived. For now.
Something crazy happened as I moved through the transport spell. I hadn’t been aware of moving through it the last time. Because the last time, I’d been thrust into it. But now, in a split second, time started to elongate.
I didn’t understand the exact physics involved in transportation, but I knew it didn’t just mess with space, but time too.
If you were seriously unlucky and you didn’t have a destination to go to, you could get stuck in this non-space forever. There was no time to freak out and think that was happening to me now. But I did feel my mind expanding.
Though there was the option to head back to my house, another option opened in front of my mind. In fact, almost 100 various transport spells around the city started to open up in front of me.
They led everywhere. They even led into frigging bank vaults. One specific transport spell came to mind. Sorry, it didn’t just come to mind; it came to my heart, too. As soon as I saw it, my emotions latched onto it with both hands. It was even safer than my home.
It was the top deck of Sebastian’s yacht. It was the same place Samantha Appleby had disappeared from.
I didn’t have a chance to think it through. The transport spell obviously reacted to the strength of my emotions. And those very emotions selected Sebastian’s yacht. A second later, I found myself appearing there. It wasn’t in a cloud of power. I just flopped down onto the yacht, a few discharges of power crackling over me.
I pushed up. I jerked my head to the side. I waited for Luxor to find me. But he didn’t.
It wasn’t over yet. I threw myself toward the stairs. It was just as I heard someone thundering up them. “Who the hell would dare to infiltrate my property—” I heard Sebastian spitting.
He reached the top of the stairs just as I launched toward him. I opened my arms. I wasn’t thinking this through. He was ready for an attack right now, but attack me he did not. He saw me at the last moment, and his arms jerked open. He caught me before I could nosedive down the stairs.
“Millie, Millie? What happened?” He held me. I pushed my head back. He locked a hand on the side of my face. “You’re completely charged with magic.”
I couldn’t control myself right now. Just as I hadn’t been able to control the fact I’d selected Sebastian’s yacht over my own home. I was safe. I’d gotten out of there. I’d even beaten a damn demon. My heart was in complete control. Before I knew what it was doing – long before I could stop it – I pushed forward. I gave in to something that had always been there, but something I had rejected along with my magic.
I locked my lips on Sebastian’s.
There were a thousand reasons not to do it. Who was I kidding? There was absolutely every reason under the sun.
I couldn’t stop myself.
He’d pretended to be my husband all of these years, but clearly he’d never actually thought I’d do something about it.
And to be fair, I wasn’t in my right mind, but….
Sebastian placed a hand on my cheek. He opened his eyes and looked into mine.
Then the bastard kissed me back, like he meant it, like he’d always meant all of this.
Like this… like this wasn’t a game. This was real to him, and it always had been.
From now on, it would be real to me, too.
The end of Ashes to Ashes Book One. This series is complete, and there are four episodes in total. You can continue the story in Change of Plans Episode Two today.