“Begin,” a toneless, electronic voice said.
Mary couldn’t move – didn’t have the time. The tournament had begun, and there was no stopping it.
Amy, the sorceress, wasted no time. She shot forward, her body glowing so violently, she must’ve swallowed Hell.
Mary tried to round her fists, but Amy ported two centimeters behind her skull.
Mary lurched, but Amy still punched her in the back of her head. Mary fell on her front. Her eyes threatened to roll up as blood splattered from her mouth.
The crowd went even wilder. They shrieked for blood, sounding like Hell hounds and not humans.
The crowd was nothing compared to the Hell seal. It pulsed through the room, greedily accepting every unwitting sacrifice of the crowd’s brutal joy and Mary’s dripping blood.
As Amy struck her again, Mary swore she could hear Hell – feel it rising through the shadows dancing over the electrified ring. Rising to swallow her and break this town once and for all.
Amy cheered herself on, lifted her hands, danced back like a boxer, then rocked forward once more. She struck Mary, this time across the chest, and Mary went flying so high, she got airtime like a basketball. She whacked into the ring-fence protecting the tournament from the crowd. It forced her back with a ferocious sizzle of biting magic like a vice trying to crush her bones.
She fell to her side. More blood splashed from her mouth as her eyes opened in real fear. The kind of fear she’d never shown before – the kind that rose when you knew your last breath was coming, and real darn fast.
“Mary,” someone called.
Not someone – him. Vincent. He was out there. She couldn’t strain her head to the side and stare past the electrified fence to see him. That didn’t matter. She picked up his terror, his pulsing need to save her.
He’d never get a chance to protect Mary. If she wanted to live, she had to save herself.
Amy danced back again. She enjoyed this. The smile slicing over her face like a knife looking to draw a permanent scar would tell even the newest psychologist she was a psychopath through and through.
She even laughed. Until Theodore, her husband and master, snarled, “Finish her now. Don’t waste time.”
Theodore’s voice wasn’t even. It crackled with fear – the kind that told Mary, despite the crippling odds, he still thought she could win this.
Win… this? She didn’t have a chance.
The writing was on the wall – and her blood already all over the floor.
She’d lose, then Theodore would win her, everything she owned, and every drop of magic in her blood.
When Amy didn’t finish the fight, lifting her arms to enjoy the adoring chants of the crowd instead, Theodore strained closer to the ring, his tuxedo glinting under the crackling magic of the fence. “Finish it,” he roared.
Amy paid attention.
This… this was it.
No more second chances. And no one to save her.
Mary Lou was going to lose, and Theodore Winchester would marry her when she did.
“I’d try to give you some tips, but it’s not as if you need any. Just keep a cool head, sir. You can’t afford to upset the council again,” Bates said as he walked close by his boss’s side.
Vincent watched him out of the corner of his eye.
He watched most things like that. It wasn’t just that he was an ancestral vampire and his senses were unmatched, meaning he could pick up more information indirectly than a human could if they spent their entire life staring at the same thing.
Vincent was the last of his kind in Bridgetown. He always had to ensure no one knew what he was thinking or doing. Especially now he had stepped foot inside the magical council.
Bates came to a stop at the stately stairs that led up to the dark landing above.
The magical council building was in the town hall. Albeit in the alternate version thereof which you could only access if you had true magical roots.
Vincent had already shown his ancestral blood and been allowed entry. Now as he approached the stairs and Bates pulled back, Vincent brought up one finger. He had a short, jagged nail on his left hand. He never cut it. He required it for this very purpose. Without flinching and while looking up at the darkened landing above, he sliced it across his wrist. He cut through one of his veins, and magical blood spilled out. Great beads of it slid down his skin, staining his once pristine white Egyptian cotton cuff.
The cotton didn’t care, but the stairs did. As the first few droplets rained down onto the step below him, it lit up.
It didn’t show him a direct, straight path upward and instead highlighted certain sections of each step. It was a path – one he would be at pains to take precisely. Stray from it, and he wouldn’t just miss his meeting. He’d be thrown right down into the bowels of the council building, and right down into a mini Hell. He had never known of anyone who had escaped that dungeon.
But Vincent’s blood was more than bright enough to give the stairs the magical power they needed to guide him forward.
“Good luck,” Bates grumbled from behind him.
If Vincent were any other vampire, this was likely where he would growl at Bates to hold his tongue. Vincent needed no luck. All he required was his inherent strength and family position. It might not matter that he was now the only Flagstaff in Bridgetown. What counted was the fact his forefathers and foremothers had been the most powerful vampires on this side of the country for 300 years. Their lineage was so powerful, a single drop of Vincent’s blood could open most locks in this city.
But things change, don’t they? And over the past four years forces had been moving into Bridgetown, here for its inherent, abundant power. There was no other city on the eastern seaboard with the same natural strength as Bridgetown. A strength that was only now being revealed.
A spate of infrastructure spending had led to excavations throughout downtown, and they were digging up various magical buildings from the past. Ones that hinted at a more magical history than even Vincent had known about. All of that had brought the wrong attention. And as he reached the top of the stairs, grabbed the lapels of his jacket, and dragged them down with a firm tug, he got ready to face that attention.
Once upon a time, he, his family, and their friends had ruled the council in Bridgetown. Now he was on the outer.
He walked down the landing. With every step, fire torches lit up to lead him along. The flames didn’t move right. Nothing moved right in the council chambers. Magic knew it was in the presence of greatness. There’d been so many enchantments cast on this place over the years, they watched your every move. They also absorbed all excess magic, redirecting it to the councilmembers. And while Vincent was a councilmember and technically more powerful than the rest, there is safety in numbers, and he no longer had anyone by his side.
He reached the stately doors that led into the chambers proper. He paused before them. Securing one hand over the other, he grabbed hold of his golden wedding band. He felt nothing as he did – nothing but a sense of betrayal. But it certainly wasn’t one that had betrayed his love.
He’d never desired Amy. She’d always desired his power, and he’d let her have it for a time.
It was time to break their misguided connection for good.
The doors opened for him. As they creaked dramatically, he walked in. His expensive Spanish leather shoes indented the patterned pile of the thick carpet. Why the council persisted to have carpet in their proper chambers, he didn’t know. For many a body had been broken here, and many a drop of blood had been let.
Who knew, maybe his would be let today?
As he walked into the council chambers, darkness met him. It surrounded him like the unwanted embrace of an ex-lover.
He secured his hands behind him, keeping them loose with just a touch of stiffness. If he needed to call on a spell, he could in a split second.
He cleared his throat, the sound rumbling through the room. “I face the council to end my marriage to Amy Lancaster.”
At first, there was nothing but silence. Then, one by one, lights appeared in the middle of the room. They looked like nothing more than lamp posts. They were a great deal more, however. They were the magical embodiment of the councilmembers. As the lights burnt brightly, shadowy hooded figures appeared underneath them. It gave him the odd sense of feeling as if he were no longer in the council chambers but out on some darkened street.
The first cloak to appear was that of the old dame Contessa. Even though he shouldn’t be able to recognize the hooded members of the council, she wore so much jewelry, her rings dripped off her like molten gold. A few caught the light now. Her fingers were stiff as she held her hands in front of her. From that alone, he could tell she was no longer on his side.
So they’d got to her too, ha? How easy the great fall.
One of Vincent’s fingers twitched, but that was it – the only sign of tension he was going to show from now until his divorce was done.
All the rest of the councilmembers appeared.
And then there was Amy.
She’d been in the room since the beginning, but over to the side near the shadows where they were deepest.
She wore a svelte black and blue silk dress. It accentuated her every curve, and trust him, there were many.
Her tousled black hair slithered over her shoulders. Though that may not be the most sensuous verb, it matched Amy’s reality.
As she moved toward him, she had all the poise of a snake.
She came to a stop in the middle of the circle. She inclined her head to the side and clicked her tongue. “I am so sorry for this, my love. It’s time to move on.”
He arched an eyebrow. “It is me who is petitioning for this divorce.”
She crossed her arms and clucked her tongue again. “There’s no point in pretending you’re not disappointed. You’ll miss me forever.”
“Our relationship was never anything more than transactional. You agreed to fight for me in the arena. But you will no longer fight for me.”
She lifted her head all the way back now and laughed. “Will anyone ever melt your cold heart, Vincent?” she hissed, showing her true colors.
“My heart is neither cold nor capable of melting.”
“Of course it isn’t. But I can tell you, it’s capable of being ripped out,” she snarled.
“Enough,” the council adjudicator said, her voice hard. “We are here to process the divorce of Vincent Flagstaff and Amy Lancaster. We are also here to announce a new marriage.”
Vincent’s lips twitched. “What?”
He should’ve monitored his expression, especially with Amy this close. But the news—
She laughed. It was teetering and high. If you thought that meant it sounded stupid, you would be wrong. For every single thing Amy did was calculated. He’d never met a fighter like her. But unfortunately for him, her skills were not just aligned to the arena. It was clear she’d been playing him from the very beginning.
One of the councilmembers walked forward.
Vincent’s eyes flashed up to them.
He didn’t need them to pull their hoods back to know who they were. It was Theodore. Vincent’s direct competition. He wasn’t an ancestral vampire from Bridgetown. He’d moved in only four years ago. He’d brought with him chaos. Though Vincent didn’t have sufficient evidence, he seemed to be in control of most of the new criminal gangs in town. Theodore was also pushing for more fights in the tournament.
Ah, the tournament. It was one of the sickening truths of the magical side of Bridgetown. One the ordinary inhabitants were thankfully kept ignorant of. Vincent professed to have a good working relationship with the police force. He was even close to the mayor and the local branch of the federal government. None of them knew about the seedy underbelly this city had to keep secret.
Bridgetown had deeper magical roots than most people could guess. Magical roots that traveled all the way down to Hell. It was an area where space was thin. The Devil knew this. So he’d made a pact with the magical races of Bridgetown long ago. There were seals preventing Hell from breaking through. But they needed appeasement. And they were given it by fights.
In the bad old days, the fights had been real – gladiatorial matches played until death. Before that, Bridgetown had been the location of some of the most ferocious battles in the country. Now the blood-games were controlled. Every single prominent family in town had their players, and they pitted them against one another regularly, more so if the seals seemed to be weakening. And over the past four years, the primary gate had deteriorated rapidly. The seal required more fighting. And who knew, one of these days, those fights might turn deadly.
Amy chuckled. She moved close to Vincent and plucked up one of his hands. “I can see the disappointment in your gaze, my dear.”
She went to touch his face, but he shot her a look that told her if she did that, she would lose her fingers.
“But I’ve found someone who truly loves me.” She turned over to Theodore.
The entire time, he’d stood there, the slightest smile plucking his lips, the cold move of a man who knew he was about to win.
“Theodore does not love you, Amy,” Vincent said, no volume in his voice. He didn’t need to scream this. Why give it added emphasis? Theodore couldn’t love anyone. And Amy was a fool if she thought affection was part of their equation. For trust him, this was nothing more than maths to that monster.
Amy was one of the most powerful players in the game – a sorceress of such repute, she was known throughout the country.
This was all just business.
Amy leaned in again, and he let her flatten her hand against his chest. She pulled in close like she was a lover. “Don’t worry. We’ll make it swift. The Flagstaffs have been falling for so long now. With one last kick in the guts,” she hissed, “you will go to meet your maker.” She turned, her gaze still flashing as she sauntered over to Theodore.
He plucked up her hand and held it tightly. All the while, he stared at Vincent. He didn’t dare do so aggressively. Not yet. But the energy behind his gaze said it all.
“The divorce of Amy and Vincent is done. They will no longer be recognized as a couple, and Amy won’t fight for him in the arena,” the adjudicator stated.
Theodore lifted Amy’s hand. She got the most ridiculous smile on her lips.
Did she think this was a step up? Vincent cared for every single one of his employees. And yes, he thought of his wife as a member of staff.
In order for someone to fight for him in the ring, they needed to be family. And considering Vincent had no other family, the only way to acquire a fighter was to marry them.
“Don’t look like that,” Theodore said. “This is love. You should try it sometime.”
He lifted Amy’s hand higher. He shoved his fingers into his pocket. He withdrew a ring. It looked as if it had cost the price of a house to buy.
Amy let him slip it onto her finger. Then she bit her lip. She did so too hard. She slackened off just before she could draw blood. But the look in her darting black pupils said she wanted to do it anyway.
Amy, in retrospect, while she’d been a good fighter, had been too unhinged. She’d always wanted to flaunt Vincent’s wealth and power. She’d been disappointed whenever he’d reeled her in.
Vincent crossed his arms and sighed. “I congratulate the happy couple.” He emphasized the word happy.
“Thank you. I’ll be amused to see who will fight for you in the next game,” Theodore said, letting a smile crack across his lips. He looked Vincent up and down, up and down like he wanted a way in. He didn’t need one, did he? He just needed to win the game.
“The next game will be at the end of the week. How are you going to find someone to fight for you, Vincent? Or are you finally going to fight yourself?” Theodore could pretend to be polite all he wanted, but now that politeness just fell away like stones treacherously falling out from the edge of a cliff.
It’d been Theodore’s goal all along to draw Vincent into the arena. Do that, however, and Vincent would swiftly lose his place on the council. It wasn’t that Vincent couldn’t fight; he had certain limitations.
“Do not worry. I will find someone to fight for me by the end of the week,” Vincent stated calmly.
“The matters of the arena are not matters of the council,” the adjudicator said. “The marriage of Theodore and Amy is recognized. May they live happily ever after.”
As soon as the adjudicator finished, Vincent turned without another word. He strode toward the doors. Yes. May they live happily ever after. But there was no happy in Bridgetown. And there wouldn’t be an ever after. If Vincent couldn’t find a wife by the end of the week, everything his family had ever worked for would crumble, and Bridgetown would follow soon after.