Prince of Roses Book One

The night was cold. All nights are, but this was worse.

The window was open a crack, the gossamer curtain in front of it blowing around with every new chilling gust of wind. I sat on my bed, my legs huddled up by my chin. With wide eyes, I stared at the crack of moon visible between the fluttering fabric.

Its light cast an eerie silver glow over the room. It had this otherworldly feel. A tarnished one. It reminded me of a rusted coin whose face you could no longer see.

There was a sudden gust of wind. It took the curtains and blew them higher. It almost ripped them off their rails. It snagged hold of my bed covers and my light linen nightgown. It fluttered around my knees. And yet, not a single hair on my head shifted.

My heart did. Beating at a million miles an hour, I managed to pry a hand off my knees. My limbs creaking, I pulled myself off my bed. I reached for my window to close it. But that would be when something snagged hold of my wrist.

A man climbed right through and into my room.

In the brilliant bright moonlight, I saw his face – every detail, every mark, every line and shadow. From his powerful pale violet eyes to his angled jaw, to his lips as they pulled thin over his white teeth.

I couldn’t move.

He stood before me, and he stared.

I… I had to be dreaming. For the man in front of me was none other than Ridvarn Rose. The most powerful vampire in the city, a man who sat on the Council of Seven, an enforcer who kept the other magical races in line – that Ridvarn Rose.

He didn’t blink – not once. He angled his head to the side. The look in his eyes… it was endless. Those two pale violet pools watched me, taking in every detail, never missing a thing.

Just when I thought it would last forever, with me in his hand and me in his eyes, I heard a crack from downstairs. It was sudden, it was violent, and it pounded up through the floor like a hammer against an anvil.

I jerked.

Ridvarn let go of my hand. He tilted his head to the side and watched, his gaze slicing over to the door briefly before it magnetically locked back onto me.

I could hear a creak on the landing outside. It was the sound of footfall.

I lived alone. I didn’t own a cat or a dog or anything that could possibly be making that sound.

So there was only one possibility – there was someone in my house.

Ridvarn Rose just stood there, never saying anything, never interfering, just watching me like a show he’d been waiting for his entire life.

As my heart pounded so hard, it could have torn from my rib cage, I heard someone pause behind my bedroom door. Even from here, I detected their breath. With every sharp, husky inhalation, my hair stood on end and sweat slicked down my back and in between the webbing of my fingers.

The window was still open. Another gust of wind caught my nightdress and sent it fluttering around my knees just as the door creaked open.

A man walked in. He was twice as tall as my diminutive form. The silvery moonlight couldn’t reach him. It cast his bulky body into a long shadow that made him look even taller.

I couldn’t scream. The only thing I could do was defend myself as the man cracked his neck from left to right then threw himself forward.

My whole life, I’d always run away. From every fight, from every dream. But this dream no longer let me.

The guy reached me, pounding his suddenly magic-encased fist into my jaw. I was sent flying. I smashed into the wall beside me. My body struck it with such force, I went straight through the plaster and several supporting wooden beams beneath cracked under my weight.

I waited for my spine to break. I waited to cough up blood. It didn’t happen.

Because… this was a dream, right? It had to be a dream.

The guy grabbed me by my collar and pulled me up. The fabric ripped down one of my shoulders. Another gust of wind grabbed the tattered linen and threatened to pull it from my back.

But I had bigger issues right now.

The massive man snarled again. He brought his face close, his sneer taking up my whole world. Then he angled his head forward in a vicious attack.

I just managed to pull my face to the side so he didn’t catch me front on and shatter my nose. He caught me on my shoulder instead. Pain erupted through me. It started to challenge my assumption that this was just a dream. But it had to be. It had to be, because something was happening to me.

Just as the guy picked me up by my side and threw me down with an echoing thump that could’ve torn a hole through the floor, I felt something within me. This energy – this unstoppable force. It began in my stomach – reacting to the aching, goading fear. It pulled its way up through every cell. It gushed into my back, it raced into my throat, and it spread through my mouth as I screamed.

For the first time in my life, it wasn’t a cry of terror but one of anger.

When the guy came at me again, one yellow-encased fist smashing into my side as he let magic spread out and blast through the room, Ridvarn Rose just stood there. He stood there, and he stared at me. Not once did his eyes deviate off course, even as the guy came at me again and punched me hard enough to make my frigging head explode.

The wind continued to rage through the open window. My gossamer curtains whipped across the windowsill, making the only noise aside from my attacker’s grunts as he came at me again.

This time, he grabbed me up by the throat. He easily pulled me off my feet. He brought me close enough to his eyes that I saw right through. They glowed this blood red – this fiery, chaotic color no ordinary human’s irises could ever achieve.

They spoke of endless pain and endless power – all of which would be directed at me.

I freaked out. One last torrential downpour of horror struck me. It shook through my body. It pulled up my hands, and it spoke to that power buried deep in my stomach.

It rose through me in an unstoppable wave. Just as the guy tightened his fingers around my throat, just before he ripped it right out of my damn neck, I screamed. And I fought back.

A wave of magic blasted out of me. It pulsed through the room. It smashed into my desk, upturned it, and sent every single paper on top scattering over the floor. It also struck the door. It pulled it right off its hinges and shattered the wood into a thousand pieces.

It tore the covers off my bed and set my pillow on fire. But more importantly than all of that, it struck my attacker – right on his chest. He went flying. He smashed into the window, but he didn’t stop there. He was blasted right through. He sailed down the side of my house and out of sight forever.

I staggered to my feet.

There were two soft footsteps. Ridvarn Rose, the most powerful vampire in the city, stopped right in front of me. He pushed one hand toward me, his fingers open in a clear invitation. His other hand disappeared behind his back.

I didn’t know what I was doing. My mind was fracturing on fast forward. I had… I convinced myself this was a dream, but now I wasn’t sure. Though I’d had crazy dreams my entire life, none had ever been as intense as this. As I stared at Ridvarn’s hand, I saw every detail. From the lines in his palm to the perpetually glowing red rose tattoo on his wrist.

“Take it,” he said, his voice vibrating through the room. It was the first time he’d spoken.

Lost, alone, and terrified, I lifted my hand. The wind was still fluttering in through the now completely smashed window. It gently brushed my fringe and sweaty hair like a lover’s touch.

“Take it,” Ridvarn said, his deep voice vibrating through the room, shifting into the floor, and pitching up into my stomach.

Closing my eyes briefly, I reached out. I took his hand.

That’s when he brought his other hand around from behind him. I opened my eyes to see a rose – blood-red and encased in wisps of black smoke. He grabbed my hand, spread it open with a broad stroke of his thumb, and shoved the rose into my grip. He forcibly closed my fingers around it until they were cut by the scalpel-sharp thorns.

As I stared up in shaking fear at Ridvarn’s face, my blood trailed down my wrist.

Never taking his eyes off me, he slowly traced a finger down my blood. Then he lifted it up to his lips. “From today on, Valerie Stevenson, you’re mine.”

I awoke, covered in sweat and screaming.

It took 20 gut-wrenching, fear-filled seconds until I realized that had just been a dream.

Shuddering and locking a shaking hand against my forehead, I doubled forward. I grabbed my pillow from behind me, locked it against my stomach, and rocked back and forth. “What the hell was that? What the hell was that? I bleated louder and louder.

From beside me, my alarm rang. Its insistent tones shook through my reverie. It reminded me that, not only had that crazy nightmare been a dream, but the real world was waiting for me and I had 10 minutes to get dressed and rush for the bus.

“Valerie,” I said to myself as I squeezed my pillow tightly once more, “that was just a freaking dream. It’s not as if you’ve never had them before. Now thrust it aside,” I forced myself to push my pillow off my bed, “get up,” I shoved off my covers and stood, “and get to work.”

I rushed to get dressed. That’s when I noticed that my window was open a crack.

It sent me straight back into the arms of that terrifying dream. I’d been somewhat lucid of the fact that I was dreaming while I’d been stuck in that nightmare. It was enough that it reminded me sharply of how real it had seemed.

“But it was still just a dream,” I said forcefully once more as I marched up to the window, closed it, tugged my curtains shut, and turned hard on my bare foot. I had work to do – a normal life to lead. At the end of the day, no matter how real or violent, dreams cannot hurt you unless you let them.

At least, that’s what I told myself as I left the house. When I returned, I would be a different person.

I just made it to the bus. That dream was lingering. It wasn’t just chasing around my thoughts – I swore it was locked in my body. My limbs were heavy, and as I pulled myself onto the bus as it darted out from the curb, the bus driver cracked a sneer. “Not the fastest filly out of the barrier, are you? Now, pay and sit down.” Gesturing with his shoulder, he directed me toward the self-service box to his side.

Choosing not to roll my eyes at his filly comment, I managed to stabilize myself by grabbing one of the metal bars next to the ticket register, and I brought my face close enough that the sophisticated scanner captured a snapshot of my eye. The little electronic display above the scanner blinked to green. The word human scrawled across it quickly, then the amount that would be debited from my account.

“Valerie,” someone called out cheerily.

Still clutching hold of the metal pole for support as the bus driver took to the streets like a skier down a slippery slope, I turned around to see my best friend and colleague, Cassandra, near the back of the bus. She waved me over with a grin on her lips.

I made it through the other packed seats, pressing my bag hard against my chest as I did. I wasn’t honestly worried that anyone would try to steal my stuff. I didn’t have anything worth taking. I was just….

I sat beside Cassandra. I rubbed my face.

Cassandra instantly frowned at me. “Don’t tell me, you had a funky dream last night? Well, we’ve got 20 minutes before we reach work. What happened?” She crossed her arms. “I will be your agony aunt and psychic.”

Several people turned around and stared at her on the term psychic.

I tried to smile back politely. “She’s not a real psychic. She’s just a human. It’s nothing more than a saying.”

Cassandra just scrunched her lips together and laughed. “No one actually thinks I’m a psychic, sweetie. If they did, they’d be too stupid for this town. A psychic wouldn’t be on the bus with commoners. They’d be out working for the government. Or living with one of the Seven,” she added as she leaned back, her faux leather jacket scrunching against the polyvinyl fabric of the seat. She waved at her face. “Can you imagine what it would be like to work closely with one of the hottest vampires on the planet? I wish I were a damn psychic. Beats working in dry-cleaning.”

I just stared at her. At least the interaction allowed me to pry my tight fingers away from my bag. I drummed them on my knees instead. “What would be so great about living with one of the Seven? Presumably, you’d be indentured to them. I could think of better things than working for a vampire lord.” Unlike Cassandra, I controlled my tone.

It wasn’t as if what I was saying would be unpopular, it was just… not something you said on the bus, okay?

The Seven didn’t just rule this town – they ruled the whole country. And versions of them ruled every damn city in the world. They were the means by which humans could comfortably get along with the magical races in their communities. Before the Seven had come along to control the otherworlders, it had been chaos.

While human governments looked after humans, the Seven looked after the various magical communities. But they sure as hell were not democratically elected – let’s just put it that way. They were the most powerful representatives of the most powerful magical race – the vampires.

While I understood that without them, the magical races would be almost impossible to control, I didn’t think it was fair that humans got democratic political autonomy when the best magical creatures could hope for was not to fall afoul of their vampire overlords.

Cassandra suddenly leaned in. Thankfully, she controlled her tone. She did nothing, however, to modify her piercing gaze. Cassandra might technically not be a real psychic, but she had pretty ace observational skills. “I know what you’re thinking about. Stop it. If we didn’t have the Vampire Council, society would break down. Now, what did you dream about?” Leaning back, she patted me hard on the shoulder.

I pressed my lips together. It was a slow affair. It was like I was trying to shut the only door into my tortured thoughts. But I had no hope of keeping it closed anymore – not now that I’d blurted out to Cassandra that I’d had a crazy dream. Most people ignored my dreams – but Cassie didn’t. She never had. Even back in high school when kids would tease me about my dreams, telling me I was trying to fake magical powers to pretend that I was more interesting, Cassie had always stayed by my side.

She leaned in. “Come on. It usually takes a good 20 minutes to digest one of your dreams. Spit it out already.”

I sighed. I locked my hand against my brow and let my fingers drag down. “There was a guy.”

“I like this dream already,” Cassie approved with a purr.

“Not like that,” I squeaked.

“Ah ha like that.” Cassie just grinned all the deeper. “I heard it in the way you said guy. So tell me, is this the kind of PG dream we’re allowed to share on a bus, or should we keep this for work?”

“Believe you me,” I crunched down and settled my elbows on my knees, “it was not that kind of dream. It was terrifying.”

Cassie dropped the act. She followed me down, crunching forward as she settled a hand on my back. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. This guy climbed in my bedroom window. He just,” I shivered, “spent minutes looking at me.”

She made a suitable face. “That’s creepy. But you’ve always had weird dreams, right?”

I shook my head. “It doesn’t end there.”

“What happened?”

“There was a crack from downstairs. I heard somebody down in the kitchen.”


“Then my bedroom door opened,” I shoved a stiff hand down through my polo shirt collar and pulled it out, “and this massive guy came into my room and… we fought.”

Cassandra made a face. “You mean like physically fought?”

“Yeah. It was insane. I’m always running away in my dreams. Not last night, though. I…” I paused. I wanted to add that I’d used magic in my nightmare, but something told me to hold back. It was that same little voice that had been telling me to hold back since high school. Whenever I’d talked to people about my crazy magic-filled dreams growing up, they’d always told me I was a poser. I was just another sad human who wanted to pretend I was magical to make me more interesting. The other legitimately magical creatures in my school had quickly veered from finding me sad to actively bullying me.

“What else happened?” Cassandra pushed, thankfully keeping her voice low.

I shrugged. “I won the fight. And all the while… that other guy – the one who’d climbed in my bedroom window… just watched.” I remembered perfectly who that guy had been, but I couldn’t share. Not here – not on a frigging bus.

Ridvarn Rose owned this city. He was the most powerful vampire on the Council of Seven. While most people would find it plain creepy that I’d dreamed of him, if there were any magical races on this bus listening in, they’d find it insulting. A little crappy human like me had absolutely no place dreaming about someone like him – especially not so intensely.

Cassandra pulled her tongue over her teeth. “That has to be one of the weirdest dreams you’ve had.”

“It’s not over,” I said. I hadn’t been wanting to add this bit – but out of all the details, it was the one that kept playing in my mind the most. I had to tell somebody to lighten the load. That, or I’d go mad. I had a full shift at the dry cleaners today. I’d be the last there until late at night. The last thing I wanted to do was be alone with my crazy thoughts. It meant my dreams would be even more hectic tonight.

“What was the other detail?” Cassie asked.

I pressed my lips together and blew a breath out of them. Here goes nothing, I thought. “The guy gave me a rose.”

I was as quiet as I could possibly be as I shared that detail, and for the first time in Cassie’s life, so was she.

She gave me this silent look. Her left eyebrow was ever so slightly arched. Her lips were thin and pulled hard against her teeth, and there was a sharp, slightly frightened, piercing look in her eyes. “Rose?” she whispered.

I shoved my fingers back down my collar and tried to pull it out. I was wearing a comfortable polo shirt with the dry cleaning company’s logo on the front, for God’s sake. I wasn’t in a straitjacket. But suddenly anything touching my skin felt like chains. I managed a nod.

Cassie leaned close. She placed a supportive hand on my back and let her fingers trail up and down my hunched, tensed shoulders. “Don’t worry. It’s just a dream.”

Yeah. Just a dream.

I sat back.

A flash of movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention.

The guy sitting in the seats just opposite us was tall, thin, devilishly handsome, and probably a vampire. Though some people claimed that you couldn’t tell a vampire just by their looks, you could. All that really mattered was their eyes. Not only did vampire eyes come in a larger range of colors, but they had a piercing quality ordinary people could not match.

They also moved quicker. And this guy moved like a frigging robot as he texted somebody. He… had he been listening in to the conversation I’d had with Cassie? It had been quiet and muttered, and though I would confidently proclaim that no one else would’ve heard it, vampires had formidable extended senses. If they were powerful and well fed, they could pick up conversations a block away. I hadn’t been expecting one to be on the bus with us. As representatives of the most powerful race, vampires tended to all be well-off. The kind of well-off where you could afford several sports cars and the concept of public transport was as foreign as Pluto.

Cassie leaned in. “You should just put it out of your head. There’s no damn way it could be a symbol from Ridvarn Rose. In fact, I know what it was.” She suddenly patted my shoulder excitedly. “Did you see that news piece last night? You know, the one about the illegal fairy fighting ring that was broken up this week? They said it was at the hands of Ridvarn and his fays. In fact, I remember that piece clearly stating that he’d given out roses beforehand. You would’ve seen it and subconsciously brought that into your dreams. See? Nothing.” She fondly patted my back again.

The whole while, I just paid attention to the vampire. “Yeah, sure,” I muttered.

“It would be ridiculous for someone like you to get a symbol from Ridvarn.” I didn’t think that Cassie had ever been more discreet in her life. Her tone wasn’t just controlled. She sounded as if she’d been trained by the government to ensure her voice couldn’t be picked up by anyone but the person immediately beside her.

“Yeah,” I muttered as I still stared at the vampire out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t be sure – it wasn’t like I had magical senses – but something told me that while I was watching him, he was watching me.

“I thought it would take longer to go through your dream,” Cassie said, speaking fast, either to distract me or to put my creepy dream behind her as fast as she could. “Now we’re going to need another topic of conversation for the rest of the bus trip. How about this – I heard from our boss last night that we’ve got a mega job today. Clothes coming in from a vampire party.” She scrunched up her nose. “You’re the one who’s best at getting bloodstains out. How about I take the front desk today?”

Nobody liked dealing with vampire clothes. Bloodstains were a pain in the ass. One or two were fine – but sometimes you’d get silk blouses absolutely covered in the stuff or expensive suits that looked as if they’d been wiped over a bloodied corpse. What made it worse was that depending on the origin of the blood, some of it was next to impossible to get out. Fay blood was by far the hardest. It left this enduring blue stain that bloomed through fabric the longer you left it. If you left a single drop of fay blood behind, the whole top could be permanently ruined, and the customer would be furious.

Still, clothes from a vampire party would be a hell of a lot easier than having to deal with people today.

My paranoia was getting the better of me. That vampire had stopped texting furiously. Now he was just sitting there. I didn’t want to turn to face him. I couldn’t make it too obvious. But every single movement he made set my nerves on edge. At one point, he got up to get off at the next stop. I felt his eyes slicing toward me. They were just as sharp as a knife. When I didn’t get up, he sat back down.

My cheeks paled.

He was just stretching his legs, you idiot, I remonstrated myself. He didn’t just decide not to get off just because you aren’t.

Cassie leaned in. “What did you think about that news story, anyway? It’s the talk of the town. Can you imagine it?” She shuddered. “Fairy fights would be terrifying. You know, back when I was a young kid, before my parents took the time to describe the various magical races to me, I actually thought fairies were the cutest.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, not that I’d ever had any illusions about fairies. My parents were into watching the news. From a young age, I’d sat on their laps, and I’d seen real quickly just what fairies were and the kind of horrors they were capable of.

The name was deceptive – their powers were too. Fairies were a little like vampires. They could slip in unnoticed amongst humans. Certain fairies were almost impossible to identify outside of lab tests. It meant they were perfect to use on covert missions. They were also very powerful. You get the right fairy with the right training, and they could technically take on a vampire.

Cassie gave another shudder. “I can see why the Prince of Roses shut it down. Fairy fighting would be horrifying.”

Prince of Roses….

That was Ridvarn’s nickname – to most humans, at least. Ridvarn technically had no jurisdiction whatsoever over humans – just the magical races. They would be way too scared to call him that. It was Lord Ridvarn Rose or nothing at all.

“On the news, it said that Ridvarn had gotten his fays to deliver roses to everyone he’d known was involved, but rather than cease immediately, they’d gone ahead with the fight anyway.” Cassie shook her head in wonder. “Can you imagine the balls of a fairy who would take on Ridvarn? Maybe all the fighting had gone to their heads or something. I did hear that the more fairies use hard magic, the more unpredictable they become.”

I just let Cassandra’s words wash over me.

I paid every scrap of attention I could to the guy I was certain was a vampire. And I just knew he was paying every scrap of his attention to me, too.

When Cassie looked up at the front of the bus then nodded, “We’re up next,” the vampire shifted forward in his seat, obviously getting ready to stand.

My heart skipped a beat.

“I heard Ridvarn went to that fairy fight himself,” Cassie stabbed a finger forward, “and helped his fays to break it up. I wonder what he’s like in person? I wonder if he’s larger than life? He certainly seems to be on the news. Damn, what I wouldn’t give to trade my boring ass life,” she thumped the embroidered emblem on her uniform top, “to be close to Ridvarn. You know, I hear he treats his fays like royalty.”

I couldn’t take Cassie’s endless chatter anymore. I leaned in. “His fays are his army. He doesn’t treat them like royalty. They’re his employees.”

“He gives them all fast cars, whatever clothes they want, and fancy ass apartments. It’s a pretty fair trade.”

I opened my mouth to continue the argument, but there was no point. We were nearing our stop. Cassie grabbed my arm and pulled me up. Her grip was tight. She didn’t usually manhandle me like this. But from her incessant chatter to her tight fingers, it was clear that she was trying to pull my mind off my dream last night. I would’ve smiled at her efforts. Smiling, however, was the last thing on my mind. As soon as we stood, that vampire stood beside us. Not once did he slide his gaze my way. Gathering the gumption, I turned to him as I pretended I was just pulling my hair over my shoulder to neaten it. I saw that he was intently staring at me in the reflection of the window beside him.

My blood chilled further.

The bus drew to a stop.

Still chattering, Cassie pulled me out.

The vampire was right behind us.

The bus stop was directly across the road from the dry cleaners.

I stiffened, not wanting to lead the guy directly to where I worked. “Can we go get some breakfast first?”

“Breakfast? You mad? We have to get to work or our boss is gonna kill us.” Looping an arm through mine, Cassie pulled me across the road. Once we reached the other side of the street, she stretched her shoulders, headed to the front door, unlocked it, and ushered me in.

I stopped. I turned. At first, I couldn’t see the vampire. Then I glimpsed him down a side street. He was leaning back, his head inclined my way, his hands in his pockets.

“Valerie, hurry up already. I know you’ve got to work late, but at least you’ve got a job.”

I stayed there, a clipping wind rushing down the street. It tugged at my hair and sent it scattering over my shoulders. Even from here, I swore I saw that vampire smile – all at five words. You’ve got to work late. He turned around, pulled his hands from his pockets, and walked away.

By that night, I’d almost completely forgotten about the creepy vampire from the bus.

I hadn’t forgotten about the dream.

I swear it had gotten sharper – not foggier – over the day. Certain moments kept replaying in my mind, from when my magic had risen, to when Ridvarn had cut my hand on that rose, trailed his finger down my blood, and brought it to his lips.

“You’re mad,” I whispered to myself underneath my breath for the umpteenth time as I sifted through the racks of clothes.

If there was one thing I could be thankful for it was that the clothes that had come in from the vampire party were absolutely drenched. Who knows what the hell had gone down, but it looked as if someone had been killed.

“Now, now, Valerie – you know full well that vampires don’t take blood – they are given it freely.” There was no one around to listen to me talking to myself. Cassie had left half an hour ago. I just needed to finish off these clothes – as they were for important clients – then close up and head home.

I never usually talked to myself. Today was different. I wanted to fill the echoing space around me.

“No, Valerie,” I unzipped a coat that looked as if someone had thrown blood and tar over it, and clucked my tongue, “you’re trying to fill the silence in your head. Now put that damn dream out of your mind already. It meant nothing.”

The window at the front of the store rattled.

I didn’t jolt toward it, terrified it might be someone breaking in. It was the wind. It’d been ferocious all day. It was only getting worse. By the time I had to leave, it would be blowing a full-on gale.

I concentrated on selecting the correct chemicals to soak up the suspicious stains on the Cashmere dinner jacket in front of me.

As they worked, I used every technique I knew to thrust away my dream until finally the end of my shift clocked around and I finished the last suit jacket. I hung it up, zipped its cover closed, grabbed my bag from the break room, and stopped in front of the main windows. I inclined my head up. It wasn’t cloudy – despite the wind. The moon was midcycle, and its silvery half round shone down between the buildings to my left. I took too long staring at it.

I shivered. “Come on. The sooner you leave, the sooner you get home.”

I locked the front door. I walked through the store to the back.

I paused again at the back door, then grumbled at myself that I was such a pathetic idiot before thrusting it open.

I walked out. It was dark out here. That usually didn’t bother me. Cassie hated being the last to lock up at night. I really didn’t care. The city was pretty safe – for humans at least. And what was I if I wasn’t a human?

Plus, the money was good.

I’d always preferred to live on my own. Maybe it was something to do with my dreams. Maybe it was just that I was a bit of a loner at heart. The point was, to live alone, I needed to get a good wage – hence working late.

Turning around on the cracked concrete step that led to the back door, I locked it, checked that it was properly bolted, then turned and shoved my keys into my pocket.

I became overly fascinated by the small side street the store backed into. I felt my eyes darting between each shadow. Though the moon was brilliant tonight, for whatever reason, its silvery glow couldn’t penetrate this far.

I went to open my mouth to tell myself to stop being so pathetic, but I thought better of it. This little twinge at the back of my head told me to shut up and move quickly.

I shoved my hands into my pockets, wrapping my fingers around the keys tightly as I pushed off down the side of the store. By the time I pulled out along the side of the building, I’d convinced myself that the tremor in my breath was nothing. Residue from a nightmare I’d paid way too much attention to and nothing more. But with one more step, I stopped.

There was a man standing at the mouth of the laneway. He was leaning with his back pressed up against one of the dry cleaner’s old brick walls. He had his legs forward, one locked over the other. His hands were firmly in his pockets.

Slowly, like a puppet, he turned his head to me.

In the light of the moon making it through the laneway, I saw his face.

He was the same vampire from this morning.

My world….

I’d never been attacked before. I was just a human. No one in my family had ever been attacked, either – and neither had any of my friends. The one good thing about having a tightly controlled magical community was that there was barely any human crime. People just didn’t bother. There was theft – but nothing that violent. A crim with a knife was nothing – absolutely nothing – compared to a vampire. Human criminals over the years had quickly realized that there was zero point in competing with actual predators.

But… there was a vampire in front of me. A real vampire. I could see it in his eyes as they opened wider. I could see it in his piercing gaze as it locked on me.

The magical community did not attack the human community. That’s why people like Ridvarn existed. They brought order to a world that would otherwise be completely chaotic. They ensured a human mom could happily walk down the street right beside a golem or a fay and not blink once.

Humans were safe.

That repeated in my head, over and over again, like an alarm. It repeated even louder as the guy pushed off. Slowly, he pulled his hands out of his pockets. Even more slowly, he tilted his head to the side and sniffed. I watched as his nostrils expanded, practically felt as he smelt me. Then a smile – steady but quick – cracked across his lips. “I’ve been waiting for you all day.”

Though the rest of my body was completely frozen to the spot, I managed to unstick my lips. “I don’t know you,” I stammered.

I locked my attention on the main street beyond him. The laneway was tight, but I could still get past him.

I unstuck one of my feet and went to take a quivering step.

He turned around and squared off in front of me. He kept looking me up and down as if there was something to see. I fortunately had a winter’s jacket I kept in the break room. I’d snuggled into it before I’d come out to brave the wind. It was large and hid everything.

That didn’t stop that guy’s piercing gaze from roving over me several more times. With every sweep of his eyes, his smile curled higher up his lips. “How are you going, Valerie?”

Terror engulfed me at the fact he knew my name – then I quickly pulled myself up. He’d been right there on the bus – just opposite us. He would’ve heard Cassie refer to me as Valerie.

… So? He was still standing between me and freedom, staring at me like I was just a piece of meat on a butcher’s hook.

He took a step toward me.

I jerked back. “What are you doing? What do you want?” My voice became steadily louder. It was whirring up like helicopter rotors that were about to take off.

“What do you think?” His gaze slid down to my belly of all places.

I took a heaving breath. I backed off again. “I’m human,” I said, spitting the word human out with all my might. It was the first time I’d actually shown any pluck during this conversation – or whatever you could call it.

His smile changed. It kinked into a curious grin. “You sure?”

Nerves pounded through me. They started in my stomach and gushed out into the rest of my body. They shot into my legs and begged them to run.

“I am human,” I said, finding the strength from somewhere to repeat that. “You cannot attack me. If you do, you’ll come to the attention of—”

“But if you’re not human,” he cut me off as he took a step forward, his body blocking out more light than it should, “then ain’t no one gonna care, are they, sweetie? Because while the human world’s ordered, the magical ain’t.” He looked me up and down again. His gaze locked on my belly once more.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned and went to run.

That’s when I felt him right behind me. Somehow he closed the distance between us in the blink of an eye – and the beat of my heart.

I felt him jerk a hand down and lock it over my stomach as he hauled me backward.

I went to scream, but he shoved a cloth over my mouth. It smelt vaguely chemical.

“Ridvarn doesn’t need any more roses with thorns,” he hissed in my ear as he crammed that rag harder over my mouth. All the while, he kept his grip on my stomach.

I couldn’t process anything. My thoughts became hazy – my whole mind shutting down.

He never switched his grip from my stomach – I noted that, even as this black void spread through my mind.

I… some creatures generated their magic in their stomachs – the more instinctual, violent fighters. The magical races who were predators at heart. I’d heard once that vampires hunted suitable prey by the twinges they’d get in their guts. If they smelt suitable blood, their stomachs would kick with a violent tingle.

The guy started dragging me back down the laneway. Out of one bleary eye, I saw that he had a car parked a few meters away – this small, zippy thing. It was right in the middle of the street. It looked as if he’d wanted a quick getaway.

His movements were jerky – primal. I could sense his greed. Though I was starting to black out, his face was right up close against my neck. I felt him smell my blood again.

I… his hand was still on my stomach.

Of the races who fought instinctually, there were none like the fays. They were a specific breed of fairies. They were prime hunters – apex predators. They didn’t cast calculated magic like some of the other magical creatures. They didn’t need complicated spells like the wizards or curious ingredients like the witches. Their bodies self-generated the spells they needed. Millions of years of evolution had ensured that their keen predatory senses could be instantly honed to the prey they were tracking. All they had to do was lock on, and their bodies would do the rest.

We reached the car.

I thought the guy would keep the rag over my mouth. It was clear there was some anesthetic on it. It was quick acting enough that I could barely move my limbs anymore.

After hesitating, he let the rag drop from my mouth. He never, however, shifted his hand off my stomach. It was only then that I felt this slight invasive prickle. It was like pins sinking into my skin. Darting, quick, and violent, they were made out of charges of magic.

… Why… would he be casting a spell on my stomach?

The dream came back. The fight slammed into the front of my cerebellum. It shook through my brain like a mortar. As it took to my limbs, they started to shake.

The guy hissed right in my ear as he managed to open the door into the back of his car.

He crammed his hand harder over my stomach.

That darting sensation of magical pins only became twice as sharp.

My body was filling with this strange, overpowering sensation. It was like I’d forcibly been injected with static. It was interfering with something deep down inside me. The guy leaned down, grabbed up his rag, and crammed it over my mouth. “Fall unconscious already, fay.”

That one little word made a crack form in my reality. It blasted right down the middle of everything I thought I knew. It brought the dream back, front and center – front and damn center until I could see it replaying right in front of my mind’s eye. I watched the moment I fought back. I heard the rapid, violent scream that had cracked from my lips before I’d sent a charge of magic blasting into my attacker. As every second of the fight replayed in my mind, it replayed in my body, too.

“Shit,” the vampire said as he crammed his hand over my stomach harder. His fingers were now pushing in so violently, it was like he was trying to shove my gut out of my back.

All my life, I’d run away. It was time to start fighting back.

The guy ground the chemical-soaked rag harder into my mouth until it scrunched up and dragged over my lips and nose. Its overpowering scent pushed a fog through my mind. It didn’t matter how thick it was – nothing could detract from the power rising within me.

“Just fall unconscious, fay,” he hissed once more.


I was a fay.

As I accepted that fact – really took it in and let it explain the violent sensations tearing through me – I saw my dream again. Right in front of my mind’s eye, I watched Ridvarn shove his hand out toward me. I saw it glinting in the moonlight.

All I had to do was take it.

Just as my mind started to shut down and the guy seemed satisfied enough to shove me into the back of his car, I took the hand from my dreams.

The guy went to close the door after he’d looped my legs onto the back seat. Just at the last moment, I threw out a hand. I grabbed the door.

The guy turned. There was nothing slow or intimidating about the move. It was fast, and it was desperate, but he was too late.

I brought my leg up and slammed it forward. It connected on his shoulder just as he threw himself at me.

Humans did not have the same strength as magical creatures. Even the weakest of the magical creatures – like ordinary fairies – could still outpace a human on a track and lift more than anything even a pro athlete could muster.

And when it came to the magical creatures, none were as strong as the vampires. But you tell that to this guy as my kick snagged his shoulder and sent him skidding back. He hit the rough cobble behind him, and he rolled, once, twice, three times before coming to a stop.

I remained in the back of the car, breath a terrified lump in my throat, heart shaking like a trembling bell.

The guy snapped to his feet.

I shot to mine.

Maybe this was where I needed to fight – calling on my newfound powers to buy myself a chance. But I wasn’t an idiot. I’d got lucky. I wouldn’t get lucky again. This guy was still a vampire.

He didn’t roar as he threw himself at me. He didn’t waste a single movement. He shifted like the frigging wind as it sliced around us and howled down the laneway.

I tried to dart to the side and roll away from him, but he grabbed my hair. He screamed as he pulled me back. He twisted me around and locked his arm over my throat.

My scream was abruptly cut short as his near impossible strength cut off my breath.

All I could do was gasp and splutter as he brought his face alongside mine. I felt him open his mouth – heard him reveal his teeth. “It’s forbidden to drink fay blood. But here goes.”

His teeth impacted my neck. Without any resistance at all, they sliced right down.

I felt him start to drink.

Total, complete, soul-crushing fear took me. It shook me right to my core, paroxysms of horror jolting down my spine and blasting through my gut. In under two seconds, I became so weak, I couldn’t hold myself up.

I fell slack against his arm as he continued to drink, his movements becoming faster, greedier. At this rate, he’d suck me dry in under a minute.

As this fog swirled around me, he suddenly twitched. His throat expanded as if he’d just swallowed a balloon, and it pushed against the back of my neck. He made this choking sound I’d never forget. Abruptly, he dropped me. I fell at his feet, completely incapable of standing on my own.

I just managed to shift my head to the side and stare at him as he clutched his throat.

His eyes started to bulge.

He jerked his gaze down to me. His lips opened, but on fast forward, they became swollen. They’d been ordinary flesh previously, but now they bulged purple.

I was too weak to do anything. All I could do was stare as his whole body became engorged as if somebody had injected him with gas.

He took one last look at me, then… then he exploded.

Chunks of blood splattered out everywhere. Some fell against my face, the rest around me.

Wherever chunks of his actual body struck, they quickly turned to dust.

I… I, Valerie Stevenson, shut down. I remained there on my side, staring at the dust and blood.

I’d woken up this morning from a dream I couldn’t shake. It had been my destiny reaching out of my subconscious to catch up with me. I would never be free of it again.

Eventually I managed to pull myself up into a seated position. I remained there until a passing motorist saw me and the blood and called the cops.

And I remained there, even as the cops arrived. I remained there, despite the fact people tried to get me to stand, even as the magical forensics team came onto the scene.

I remained there, drowning in the fog of my thoughts.

But even through that fog, several little words managed to penetrate. Murder of a vampire. First degree.

I was at the police station. Either the effects of what the vampire had drugged me with had started to dissipate, or my situation had started to sink in, because my thoughts weren’t broken anymore. They were as sharp as a knife pressed against my neck.

I was sitting in a cell – a magical one.

For about the tenth time, I whispered, “There’s been a mistake. There’s been some kind of mistake. I’m not magical. I was attacked – I didn’t murder anyone.”

No one had spoken to me since I’d been put in the cell. I was on my own. There wasn’t even anyone else in the corridor. It was just me and the crackling magical bars. I sat there, my knees pressed up against my chest, my hands locked around my head. I ground my cheeks over my jeans. “There’s been some kind of mistake,” I wept for the hundredth time. “I didn’t murder anyone. I’m not magical. I’m not a fay.” I almost choked on that word.

“Only one of those is true.”

The words came out of nowhere. I thought I’d been paying attention to the corridor outside my cell. I’d been listening out for the first sign of footfall.

As I jerked my head to the side, I saw someone beyond the crackling bars. They were standing right there, their hands in their pockets.

And they were….

My cheeks slackened. My whole body felt like it had just had the rug pulled out from underneath it. Despite the fact I was already leaning against the wall, I fell harder against it for support.

It was Ridvarn Rose.

I had never seen him in the flesh. I’d possibly passed him once in one of his traveling motorcades, but that was it.

Now he was right there, technically close enough to touch – if I was stupid enough to come anywhere within contact of those deadly magical bars.

He looked at me. He looked down and up. His gaze was just as piercing as my attacker’s had been, but it lacked the predatory edge.

… Or did it? There was something behind his stare. It was hard to see through the bars, but it was there.

I suddenly realized that I hadn’t taken a breath since I’d heard him speak. I spluttered through one. It felt like my lungs would pop.

He just stood there and watched me. That’s it. He didn’t say anything. It was almost exactly like my dream from last night. No, wait – it wasn’t. Because last night, my dream had just been a nightmare. This was real.

I shook my head, turned from him, and ground my cheeks against my knees.

“Choosing not to face reality does not make it go away.” He had this penetrating, deep voice. It made you feel as if the center of the earth was rising up to speak to you.

I ground my eyes shut.

He just continued to watch me.

I was the first one to crack. “I didn’t kill him,” I stammered. “He attacked me. He tried to kidnap me. Then he… he drank my blood. I don’t know what happened next. But I didn’t kill him.

“Of the three things you claimed previously, that’s the only one that’s true.”

Of the three things I’d claimed previously?

I didn’t have to force my mind to track back. I knew what I’d said. I wasn’t a fay, I wasn’t magical, and I wasn’t a murderer.

“You’re not a murderer, Valerie Stevenson,” he looked right at me, “but you are magical. You are a fay.”

The way he said fay was so memorable, it felt like it was instantly carved into my ears. It was this deep, shaking, resonant statement like he was a god proclaiming truth to those who were simply too stupid to see it for themselves.

I took in another shaking, broken breath.

He just looked right at me. “It’s been a long time.”

“I don’t know you—” I stammered, my voice so freaked out, I could barely push it from my lips.

“It’s been a long time since a fay has managed to get to your age before their powers have been discovered,” he corrected over the top of me.

I should’ve only cared about the fact that he believed that I didn’t kill that vampire. But I was so drawn in by the look he was giving me that I couldn’t process anything else.

“This is where you have a lot of questions to ask, Valerie. I will answer some. The rest, you will learn in time.”

Again, there was silence. The way he watched me… if my dream hadn’t prepared me for it last night, I think I would’ve blacked out. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life. It wasn’t dulled by the fact I could only just make him out between the crackling magical bars. If anything, they were just a frame for his far more intense power. The bars would kill me instantly if I was stupid enough to touch them. Who knew what would happen if I was stupid enough to touch Ridvarn?

“You won’t be charged for murder,” he said smoothly. “The human investigators at the scene made a mistake. They assumed you were an undercover fay who let a vampire knowingly drink your blood. Their mistake has been corrected and charges have been dropped.”

“That guy… that vampire… he… he just….” I crammed a hand over my mouth as I tried not to remember the way he’d exploded right in front of me.

“He made a mistake – a fatal one. There is a sacrosanct rule in the vampire community. You do not drink fay blood.” He looked to the side, then looked back quickly. “Because you never know what you’re going to get.”

“What does that mean?” I twisted my hand around and locked the back of it against my lips. I spoke in between grinding my knuckles against my teeth.

“It means, Ms. Stevenson, that he made a fatal mistake. He drank something he shouldn’t. His greed got to him, and he ultimately consumed a power he could not digest. If you mean what physically happened to him, the moment he drank your blood, his cells opened to take in your power, but they were forced open too far too quickly. Hence the explosion.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I lurched to the side and threw up in my cell.

Ridvarn watched me the entire time. He didn’t say anything, and he didn’t make a disgusted face.

Heaving, tears trailing out of my eyes, I grabbed my mouth again as I turned to him. I shook my head.

“What are you disagreeing with this time?”

“This can’t be happening to me. I’m… I’m just human.”

He looked right at me. He had this ability to cut out the rest of the world as he stared at you. All of history could’ve played behind him – the greatest moments of the human race – and none of it would’ve mattered. It would’ve paled into insignificance compared to his gaze.

“You might’ve legally been defined as a human this morning, but you aren’t anymore. Your citizenship database entry has been updated. You are now officially recognized as a fay.”

I sucked in another breath. Then another, then another. I couldn’t stop. “But I can’t… I can’t live where I live if I’m not human. My boss doesn’t accept magical folk, either. I’m—”

“Your living and work arrangements have been taken care of.”

There was something about the way he said that – it made it feel as if his words were vines wrapping around my wrists. I suddenly remembered his grip from last night – the way it had anchored me as he stood there and stared.

If I hadn’t already been down on my ass, I would’ve fallen over.

“As of right now, you work for me.” He pulled a hand out of his pocket and dipped his finger to the side.

My magical bars disappeared in a cascade of sparks that were quickly sucked into vents on the floor.

He took a step in beside me. Not once did he turn his nose up at the pile of sick beside me. Vampires had one of the strongest senses of smell in the world. He must’ve been going crazy. Or maybe he had something to focus him. Me.

It certainly looked as if he would never turn away from me again.

He reached a hand out to me.

I stared at it. I wouldn’t accept it, not for the world. The memory of my dream rose. If I accepted that hand, he would cut me with a thorn and drink my damn blood.

Shaking my head, I jerked back and pushed up hard against the wall.

“This is not a request – understand that. You might not have killed that vampire on purpose, but you are a powerful fay. From now until the day you die, you must be controlled. It is my responsibility to keep the magical races of this city in check. You have now fallen under my jurisdiction. Take the hand, Valerie Stevenson.”

I continued to shake.

He didn’t say another word. I think a full minute ticked by. Years could have passed, but I still wouldn’t have accepted his outstretched fingers.

I closed my eyes and ground my head against the wall.

“Accept my hand.”

“No way,” I hissed. “You just want to drink my blood,” I managed.

There was a pause. “I assure you, I would never be that stupid.”

There was something about the way he said that. It enabled me to pull my face off the wall. I turned and stared at him. Slowly, I let my gaze travel down from his piercing pale violet eyes to his fingertips.

I had no other option. If he was serious – and I couldn’t think of a single reason for Ridvarn Rose to lie – then my citizenship entry would’ve already been updated. My life as I knew it was over. My landlady would find out in the morning, and my boss would’ve probably already been called.

I had nowhere to go. I could stay here, or accept the hand.

I managed to unstick my arms from around myself. Shaking, taking several seconds to lift my arm, let alone my wrist, I paused just before my fingers touched his. I looked up at him sharply. “What happens next?”

“You become one of my fays. You will be trained and taught.”

“And after that?”

“You will assist me in keeping the peace.”

“I… don’t want to kill anyone.”

“Very well.”

Emboldened by his response, expecting that he would’ve fought me on that, I swallowed. “I don’t want to disappear. I want to be able to see my family and friends.”

“That will be up to you and them.”

I took another shaking breath. I kept waiting for him to say that my life would never be the same again. “I don’t… I don’t want anything like tonight to ever happen again.” I didn’t know why I added that bit. No one could control fate, and it was childish in the extreme to think they could. I had to remind myself of who I was speaking to – this would be my new boss, and he didn’t look like he’d abide weakness. But none of that mattered. The words still broke out of my trembling lips.

He nodded. “I will see what I can do. Now, take the hand.”

I closed my eyes. “I want you to tell me everything. I want to understand what I am and what happened.”

He didn’t move a muscle.

I finally did it. With one more shuddering breath, I shoved my hand forward.

My dream told me that this would be where he would cut my palm on a rose thorn and drink my blood. But that didn’t happen. He simply accepted my hand. Then he dropped it. He turned on his expensive shoe and nodded forward. “You will be released under my care.”

“But I thought you said you already got the charges dropped?” I stammered as I rose unsteadily to my feet.

“You’re not responsible for the first-degree murder of a vampire. However, you are an untrained fay. You require the supervision of a registered responsible party to be let back into the community.”

I swallowed hard.

He walked me out of the cell. I shivered just before I walked beyond where the magical bars had been. My paranoid mind told me at any moment they could snap back into place and fry me.

They didn’t.

He walked to the end of the corridor and faced off against a reinforced door. He slowly turned over his shoulder. He waited for me without another word.

I finally gathered the gumption to walk over the threshold of the cell. I turned and stared at it. My gaze locked on the section of wall I’d been shuddering against for the past God knows how many hours.

I’d prayed for a miracle to keep me out of jail. One had come, apparently. But as I turned and stared at Ridvarn, catching a strange look in his eyes, I realized that this rose was still covered in thorns.

I followed him. What choice did I have? He would now lead me into a new life whether I liked it or not.

I traveled from the police station in Ridvarn’s motorcade.

He was one of the most important men in the country – so he was provided just the same protection as the president. Hell, realistically, he had more protection than the president, because the president didn’t have his own personal fay guards.

I’d thought Ridvarn would stick me in one of his other cars, but he didn’t. I sat right beside him in the limousine. It was wide enough that our legs didn’t touch, so why did it feel as if he was pressed right up against me – no, right around me?

I knew that answer – I pretty much belonged to him now.

As I rubbed my eyes way too hard and saw stars darting across my vision, I remembered what he’d said in the dream. As he’d pressed my blood against his lips, he’d muttered a triumphant, confident, “You’re mine.”

“I read your report. I want to ask you – did that vampire say anything else to you?” Ridvarn asked as we traveled through downtown.

I had no idea what hour it was. It had to be early in the morning – maybe three or four a.m. The city was still dark, but it never slept. We passed clubs, and their flashing lights flitted through the tinted, thick windows of the limo. They played along the side of Ridvarn’s face. He, like all vampires, had a broad body. And, just like all vampires, though he was nominally dressed up like a human, there was still something different about him – something primal that could not be wrapped up in Armani and ignored.

“Ms. Stevenson,” he prompted when I didn’t reply.

I took a shaking breath. “He just tried to drink my blood,” I stammered.

Ridvarn looked at me patiently. “He did not try to – he did. And that is not all he did. In your report, you claimed that he was attempting to kidnap you. Now, did he say anything to you?” He looked at his phone as he clearly read something on it. “You told the police that he admitted to the fact that it was forbidden to drink fay blood before he bit you. Was there anything else?”

I honestly wasn’t in the mood to remember anything. Things were changing too damn quickly. My memories felt like foundations someone had just taken a jackhammer to.

Ridvarn continued to look at me patiently.

I went to shake my head. His gaze somehow became sharper. “I’m not looking for an automatic, frightened response. This is important. While your memories are still fresh, did he say anything else to you?”

I turned from Ridvarn. It was easier not to look at him as I tried to remember this. Hell, who was I kidding? It was easier not to look at him at all. Looking at Ridvarn did dangerous things to my mind.

I wiped my sweaty lips on my fingers. Then I dragged my free hand up and down my jeans until I left tiny scratch marks along the grain of the fabric. “No…” I trailed off.

Wait, he had said something to me.

“What is it?” I heard Ridvarn strain against his seatbelt as he leaned closer. Yeah, sure, this was a limo, but it was still narrow enough that it had to fit on a standard road. I could feel his breath on the back of my neck.

I thought it would set my nerves raging again, but it didn’t. It did something entirely different to me.

“Ms. Stevenson,” he prompted.

“You don’t need any more roses with thorns,” I blurted.

I couldn’t see Ridvarn, but that didn’t matter – I knew he stiffened. It was all in the sound of how his body strained against his seatbelt.

He quickly shifted back. There was a pause. “Anything else?”

I searched my memory. “He just kept hissing at me that I should black out already.”

“I see.”

Did he? Because I didn’t.

I didn’t want to face Ridvarn again, or maybe I did, because even though I told myself that, I still snapped my neck around and stared at him. “Why did that guy go after me?”

“It seems he somehow became aware of the fact that you are a fay before you did.”

My mind latched onto the word somehow, and I flushed.

Even if Ridvarn hadn’t been a vampire, he would’ve picked up on the move. He frowned. “What aren’t you telling me?”

I shook my head and turned back to the view.

“You will share with me every important detail, Ms. Stevenson.”

“Or what? You’ll put me in jail?” I stammered, thoughts of that prison cell filling my mind again as I gave a shudder that scrunched my jacket against the plush leather behind me.

I expected Ridvarn to bite back. God, I knew that I shouldn’t be baiting him, but at the thought of sharing my dream, I became too embarrassed and defensive to function properly.

After a long, almost echoing pause, he shook his head. “No. I will not take you to prison. You haven’t committed a crime. I’ve also signed you into my care. I will be the one who’s responsible for your actions. You should tell me,” his voice deepened, “so that I can fulfill my promise to you.”

My cheeks paled a little on the word promise. I had no idea what he was talking about.

He clearly understood that. “Back in the prison cell, I promised that nothing like that would happen again. For me to ensure that it doesn’t, you need to know why that vampire figured out you are a fay before you did.”

My shoulders crumpled. I was already too embarrassed to continue. But I also knew that the longer I drew this out, the more awkward it would become. “I guess I had a conversation with my friend on the bus this morning.” I don’t know why I said guess – I did. It was a fact. I rubbed my brow as I turned away from him again. “I was discussing… a dream,” I finally spat it out. “Afterwards, I noticed that vampire. He was sitting across from me. It looked like he’d heard the whole thing. I’m pretty sure he specifically got off at the same stop as me just to figure out where I worked.”

“What was the content of your dream?”

I knew there was no point in hiding your face from a vampire when you were flushing. Their bodies were so primed to the blood flow around them that they could sense even the most minute change, let alone a full-on flush. I still did it. I wanted to hold onto the little dignity I had left.

“Nothing, really. I just… I dreamt I had this fight in my room. It was magical. Not that I added that detail in at the time.”

“There must’ve been something that would have clued that vampire into the fact you are a fay. Recount the entire dream, please – every detail you can remember.”

I crumpled, just like that. Maybe it was his gaze – maybe it was my frayed sanity. Or hell, maybe a little part of me wanted to tell him for some suicidal reason just to see how he would react. “I dreamt that a vampire climbed through my bedroom window and spent several minutes staring at me.” I pressed my fingers into my eyes. I pushed in and in. I pretended I was cleaning them of stray eyelashes or sleep or grit or whatever. In reality, it was easier to share this with my eyes closed.

He didn’t say anything.

His silence… it was weirder than before. There was this real edge to it. I longed to open my eyes, but I didn’t.

“I heard something. Then this guy came in through my bedroom door. He was twice my size. He threw me around a bit, but then… I cracked, I guess. I fought him – with magic. I blasted him right out of the window.”

“And that’s the dream?”

I opened my mouth to say yes, but my lips stopped. What if this was a test? Ridvarn was a vampire himself. While I didn’t know what details had clued that other vampire into the fact that I was a fay, Ridvarn would.

It would be stupid to keep lying to him. Ridvarn would only cut me so much slack.

So I sighed. “No. That’s not it. The vampire – the guy who’d climbed in the window,” there was no way I was going to tell Ridvarn it was him, “he took my hand and gave me a rose.”

That’s it. I’d done it.

I waited there in deathly silence with my hands pressed over my eyes for Ridvarn to say anything.

But he didn’t say a thing.

Eventually, I heard him move. It sounded as if he was now facing his window.

It gave me the strength to drop my hands.

Slowly, I tilted my head around and stared at him. “How does a dream like that mean that I’m a fay? Was there some kind of detail in there that I don’t understand?”

“Did you recognize the vampire who gave you the rose?”

I shook my head so quickly, it could’ve spun off.

He dropped into silence. I couldn’t be sure, but he seemed disappointed.

“Did my dream mean anything?” I asked after a while, way too uncomfortable to look at him.

There was another protracted pause. I swore Ridvarn was so good at them, it was as if he’d been taught by Cronos himself to halt time.

“It depends.” It was Ridvarn’s turn to shift away from me. He stared out of the windows with such fixity, you could’ve tied him to a meteor and shot him off into outer space, and he still wouldn’t have moved.

My hands were itchy. I mean like ants-in-my-skin itchy. Like fire-in-my-flesh itchy. Like sawdust, feathers, tar, and sand all mixed up and smooshed over me itchy. I don’t think I’d ever been more uncomfortable in my life. At the same time, I wanted to sit perfectly still yet jump right out of the moving vehicle.

“Oh,” I managed after way too long.

I had no real clue where Ridvarn was going to take me. Back to one of his houses, presumably. But the important fact there was ‘one’ of his houses. Come on, this was the Prince of Roses – he owned most of the city.

Though I thought he would just dump me in one of his numerous apartments, it appeared that he wanted to keep me close. We started to head out of town. I knew from the news that he had one official residence more important than the rest – a mansion just out of town up on one of the hills that overlooked the city. Whilst the rest of the city was cram-packed like a tin of sardines, up in the rolling hills behind, it was another world. As we drove through, it was like I’d been transported to some old English county. I shuddered to think how much a house out here would be worth – not just more than I could make in a lifetime, but more than I would ever be worth in combined lifetimes.

To buy one of these houses, you didn’t just need to be shockingly rich – you had to be a vampire.

For the whole rest of the trip, both Ridvarn and I didn’t say a word. While I was too overwhelmed and couldn’t get my head straight to ask smart questions, Ridvarn’s silence was far more protracted. Ever since I’d mentioned that dream, he’d gotten this strange look on his face. I couldn’t place it. I was desperately underequipped to be a fairy, let alone read the expressions of one of the most powerful men in the world.

By the time we made it to his manor, I was itchy all over. I kept scraping my long nails over my arms. It was as if I wanted to pull off my old skin and jump into a new set. I wanted to know right then and there exactly what my new world had in store for me.

I went to get out of the car as soon as we parked, but Ridvarn cleared his throat. “We need to wait for the grounds to be checked first.”

Frowning, I finally gathered the gumption to look at him for the first time in 20 minutes. “Checked? For what?”

A placid smile marked his perfect lips. “Weapons, bombs, enemy fairies. I’m sure you have a functioning imagination, Valerie.” He turned from me and appeared to be more interested in his phone.

Maybe this was where I needed to start acting bravely, but it was the last thing on my mind. I swallowed hard. I would’ve sounded like a fish someone had pulled from water.

“You’re Ridvarn Rose,” I said, not watching my tone. A little girly awe managed to sneak in. It was one thing listening to Cassandra go on and on about the Seven. It was another gushing over one of them while I was in his presence. And yeah, okay, I was hardly gushing. That wasn’t the point. I was about to have a business relationship with this man – I needed to control myself.

“Yes, I am,” he muttered as he turned from me before I could track his expression.

Not for the first time, my thoughts became foggy. It was a defense mechanism. There was too much to think through and too much to do.

Once Ridvarn was given the all clear when one of his massive fairies knocked twice on the window, he nodded at the door.

For whatever reason, he waited until I opened my door and got out before he moved.

As I got out, I faced Rose Mansion. What a place it was. I think I’d vaguely seen it on the TV a few times. Just far off shots – nothing this close. Because up this close, it was insane. I’d never seen castles in person. I didn’t have the income to go scooting off to central Europe to see old chateaus hiding amongst pine trees and snowcapped crags. But my grandma had been into puzzles – and yeah, I know that sounds kinda pathetic. But they’d been covered in resplendent pictures of gleaming castles with so much old-world charm, it was like you were transported back to another time and place with every damn puzzle piece. This… God, I knew my thoughts were getting stupid, but this was so cool.

Still on his phone, Ridvarn got out of the car and stopped beside me. Then he nodded over at a man. Sorry, the guy had to be a fay. He was massive. I don’t think I had ever seen someone as large. He was wearing a shirt with a tight vest over the top. Around his hips was slung a low holster. He looked like he was in his early fifties maybe, but he had the kind of physique that said he could take on a man half his age and win every time.

With low, cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and a smile that was cheeky yet gave me the impression of a cocked gun at the same time, I spent way too much time staring at him as he walked through the other fairies. Something told me whoever this guy was, he was about to become a fixture of my life.

He looked right at me. He seemed to be sizing me up – he tilted his head from left to right, and judging by the angles he had to achieve, it was clear that he did not like what he saw. “So this is it, ha?” he asked in the kind of deep voice you could use to reach the center of the earth if you ran out of powerful drilling equipment. “This is our new fay.”

Ridvarn nodded once. “Yes. Valerie,” he said professionally. “This will be your trainer and direct supervisor.”

The guy spent several more seconds sizing me up. He thrust a hand forward. His fingers looked as if he could easily grab hold of several basketballs at once. “Charlie Stanza.”

Meekly, I grabbed his hand.

Suffice to say, I let him do all the shaking.

“Right, what do you have for me?” Ridvarn asked.

Stupidly, I thought he was talking to me.

“Nothing,” I squeaked.

Both men ignored me.

Charlie strode beside Ridvarn as they made it up the steps to the front of the mansion. Me? I just stood there. I felt exposed, stupid, and way out of my depth. A little wind was picking up. As it buffeted my hair, I turned around. I could see the city below. Its lights, as always, shone gloriously at night, but they sure had a different edge now. They were like a glittering backdrop to hell. Because from now until the day I died, what I enjoyed, what I did, and critically, what I fought, would be up to someone else. My life would never be the same again.

I lay in bed. You see, I had a bedroom now. I didn’t know if it would be my bedroom forever or if it was just a place I’d be staying in for the direct future until my powers settled and Ridvarn could let me out of his sight.

My room was massive. This was a mansion, fair enough, but it was still ridiculously huge. It was like the kind of room you’d see on TV when you were looking at one of those world’s craziest cribs shows. I wasn’t good when it came to assessing the size of something, but I was pretty sure a whole family of four could fit in here.

There was a bed – which was fit for a queen – and then there was about every other piece of furniture you could think of. There was a couch, and dotted around it were several comfortable recliners. There was a massive TV. There was a wall of books covered about every single topic in the world. Then there was a walk-in wardrobe. And of course, there was an en suite. I wanted to find a fault with something, but I couldn’t. Not only was this space impossibly large, but it was tastefully decorated. There were no solid gold taps or massive portraits of stern looking vampires staring down at me.

I’d woken early. Early for me at least. And for a solid hour, I just lay there staring at the ceiling. It was like I was waiting for my life to change back to what it was. Fat chance. It had gone to hell, and it wasn’t gonna come back anytime soon.

The one thing I could be thankful for was that last night I hadn’t had any dreams. Which was kinda insane, frankly, because my entire life I’d been dealing with my nightmares. Barely a night had gone by without them creeping me out in some way. Now? Nothing.

It was good but a little disconcerting.

By the time I decided to finally drag myself out of bed, there was a knock on the door. Immediately, I froze, my imagination telling me it was Ridvarn. He’d be here with my first mission. He’d send me off alone against some terrible fighting ring or a fairy drug cartel or vampire murderers or something.

My imagination did not win out. There was another soft knock, and when I didn’t answer, someone cleared their throat. “It’s Charlie,” a deep voice boomed through.

I might’ve only heard it once, but it was already memorable. I felt like the entire world knew Charlie’s voice – as if the Earth’s crust had to watch out for it in case it caused earthquakes or something.

Closing my eyes for just a few more seconds as if I was giving my old life one last futile chance to wake me up from this crazy nightmare, I let out a long breath. “Yeah?”

“Can I come in?”

I’d already found a dressing gown. I clutched at it even though I was wearing perfectly respectable pajamas underneath. “Yeah, sure,” I managed.

Charlie walked in.

He was in a variation of the same get-up he’d worn yesterday. I’d only seen him once before, but there was something about him that told me he was never far from his holster. The way it was slung around his hips gave me the impression he’d been born with it.

Though he didn’t look like the kind, as soon as he saw me, he gave a grin. It was friendly enough. It didn’t immediately make me suspect that he was just doing the monkey equivalent of showing his teeth before he attacked.

“How’s your room?”

“It’s… nice,” I managed.

He laughed. “Not the response we usually get when someone stays at Rose Mansion. The room you’re staying in is technically fit for a queen.”

I just frowned.

“As in a queen has actually stayed here. No,” he scratched his neck, “sorry, I think three queens have stayed here.”

Not knowing what to do with that comment, I just stood there, my mouth slightly open.

Charlie laughed.

His laugh was booming. It was also very much not fake. The way it shook up and down actually pulled me out of myself sufficiently enough for me to give an awkward shrug. “Sorry. The room is great,” I stammered.

Charlie pressed his lips together. “You’re doing fine,” he said suddenly.

“Fine?” I squeaked.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a new fairy of your age, but at least you’re still standing.”

My muddled half smile twitched. “Standing?”

“The last guy lost his mind. Only took several hours. The boss put him in the best psychiatric care he could, but it didn’t matter. I think the guy’s still in one of the permanent psychiatric hospitals upstate.” Charlie jammed a thumb over his shoulder.

I just stood there. My cheeks were cold, my chest was frozen, and I was starting to realize that I was very much not equipped for this world, after all.

Charlie stared at me for several more seconds, then clapped his hands together and gave out another chuckle. “I’m just kidding. Don’t worry. The boss is not gonna let you go mad. You’re too valuable to him. Now, what do you say you get dressed and you jump in the car with me? We’ve got a job to do.”

I almost got whiplash from that interaction.

I managed to keep it together long enough to let my lips part slowly. “Job? But I’m new,” I stammered. “I… I only learned about my powers yesterday. I’ve got no idea what I am meant to be doing.” With every word I spat out, my voice became faster and more tortured.

“You will learn on the job, Valerie. It’s the best way to do it. It’s how the boss teaches all his new fairies. Maybe you’re starting at more of a disadvantage than most, but it won’t matter. You’ve got me right by your side. Now, get dressed. I’ll meet you down in the car.” With that, he turned and walked out of the room.

“I don’t even know where the cars are,” I stammered after him.

“You’ll find them.” He offered a wave, walked out, and closed the door.

I flopped. Maybe it was pathetic, but I didn’t know what else to do. Things were moving way too quickly. As I sunk all the way down to my knees, I wondered how long I could just stay here as nothing more than a deboned mess of jellylike confusion. The answer was not long. I heard a ringing from beside me. Startled, I let out a pathetic scream. Then I turned around to see my phone. It had been taken from me at the police station. I hadn’t brought it into the room, and yet somehow it was on one of the dressers to my side. Frowning warily at it as if I couldn’t trust anything these days, including my own phone, I finally plucked it up. “Hello?” I asked through a constricted throat.

“Time’s ticking,” Charlie said. “Hurry up.”

He hung up.

Gulping, I settled the phone to the side.

Though I really didn’t want to do this, what choice did I have? Charlie seemed nice and all, but he was still the biggest fairy I had ever seen. He also worked for the Prince of Roses. I knew that there would be a finite amount of time where Ridvarn would put up with my weakness. The second I became too useless to be one of his fays, he would… what? Crap, I had no damn idea. I was now his ward, wasn’t I? I’d only been let out of the police station because he’d agreed to look after me. Without him… I’d go to jail, right? Or at least some kind of government camp.

With that thought assaulting me, I finally turned. I headed toward the open walk-in wardrobe. I was startled to find hundreds of clothes – all in my size.

I’d never been one for fashion. Hello, I’d never been able to afford it. But now there was every designer label you could think of. There was every style, too – from trekking gear that looked as if it had been taken from some Antarctic expedition, to full-on ball gowns.

I trailed my fingers over one particularly sumptuous white silk dress. Then I shook my head. “Don’t waste time, Valerie.”

I gravitated toward the simple casual clothes. I selected a pair of blue skinny jeans, a gray top, and a sturdy looking bomber jacket. Then I finished it off with a pair of sensible shoes. Once I was done, I shoved my phone into my pocket. Then I crept toward the front door. You would think there’d be a monster behind it, considering how I was acting. And hey, there was – in my head, at least. That monster was Ridvarn himself. I didn’t honestly think that he would be outside my bedroom door, lurking. He clearly had much better things to do. But the point was, my bedroom and the little sanctuary it offered could not last – the real world was just out there.

I reached the door, squeezed my eyes closed, and shook my head. “Just do it, Valerie. Go out there. You’re a fay now. Show the world what you can do.”

I managed to settle my hand on the handle. My fingers were slicked with sweat. Hell, who was I kidding? They were practically drenched in it. I finally gathered the gumption to turn the handle.

Then I walked out. I didn’t remember this corridor. Hell, I didn’t remember coming to the room. At some point last night, my mind had just shut down. My psyche had decided that it had all been too much, and I’d given in to the perpetual ringing in my ears. So this was all new to me.

The corridor, as you’d expect, was massive. It was seriously wide. It was as if Ridvarn had cart races down here or something. The carpet was predictably luxurious and soft. It had this old-world pattern. It was full-on, but it matched the decor. The walls were wood paneling that ran up to this glorious red-painted plaster and a vaulted ceiling above. Interspersed at every three meters were floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows. They depicted vampires of old.

I stared at them, overcome by their beauty yet trembling inside at their power. You wouldn’t think that a stained-glass window would be able to scare me, but there was serious import behind these portraits. Not that I’d ever forgotten what I was and where I was, but if I had, they would’ve reminded me.

I finally reached a set of stairs. They were grand and sweeping. They looked as if they belonged out of some Disney film and at any moment a blushing heroin would come sweeping down them in a massive dress and smile at her prince.

Me, I just wobbled down them in my jeans and jacket, my balance affected with every new barrage of nerves that tumbled through my belly.

This mansion was having a disproportionate effect on me. And shit, it was just a house. At the back of my head I appreciated fully that out there, the real world of magic awaited me.

By the time I made it down to the ground floor, I think a whole year had passed. I hadn’t stopped to stare at too much, but my mind had slowed all the way down. There was now absolutely no denying where I was and what my life was about to become.

All I could do was obsess about the conversation I’d had with Cassandra yesterday. It repeated and repeated in my head. Cassandra had said she would give anything for an opportunity like this. Me? I’d give anything to get out of here.

I thought staff members would be running around the halls. They weren’t. I heard voices further off into the mansion, but I was on my own.

With itchy, sweaty fingers, I patted my hands on my jeans as I continued to look for the door out of here. Charlie had already called me once. Though he appeared to be pretty cheery, he also had a holster. His patience with me would not last.

“Come on, how the heck do you get out of here? Where the hell is the exit?”

The corridor I was in was long, and it terminated in a large, ornate door.

The sheer grandeur of the door should’ve clued me in about its importance, but honestly, the entire mansion was so frigging fancy that I lacked the ability to tell what was only mildly important from what was exceptionally so. Without even knocking, I shoved the door open.

And there, right in front of me, was Ridvarn.

He was standing to the side as a beautiful woman in a red dress leaned suggestively against his desk.

I took one look at them, went bright red in the face, and shut the door without a word.

I didn’t even say sorry.

“Shit.” I crammed a hand over my mouth.

I went to run away, but the door opened quickly.

I could feel Ridvarn’s eyes on the back of my head.

I slowed down. I clutched my hands in front of my stomach then went to turn but realized I was too chicken to. “I’m really sorry for interrupting you,” I said, speaking at a million miles an hour. “I have no clue how to get out of this mansion. Charlie told me to meet him at the car, but I don’t even know where the front door is.”

“Take the door to your left,” Ridvarn said. “And good luck today.” Without another word – and without any remonstration for interrupting whatever the hell that had been – he closed the door.

My cheeks were now so frigging red, you could’ve navigated with them on a dark night. Palming them, I turned and winced at the door. At any moment, I expected it to be thrust open and for Ridvarn to come out and bark at me, but he didn’t.

I stood there for way too long. I mean way too long. I knew perfectly well what that interaction had been. Not only had that woman been exceptionally stunning, but even a cloistered nun would have figured out what she was after from Ridvarn.

But do you think I moved? No. Not for a few more seconds, at least. Not until I was so thoroughly embarrassed, I could’ve popped. Finally, I took the door to my left. And… I found myself in the garage.

I’d already figured out that I was on the ground floor, but judging by the windows that I’d passed, there was no way the garage could’ve been beside me. That didn’t change the fact that I exited into it anyway.

It was utterly massive. There was every single kind of car you could think of, from ordinary sports cars to frigging military grade Humvees.

I took one look at the place and almost turned around and walked out – not because I hadn’t found the correct location, but because this was all too much to take in.

Charlie was leaning against a black SUV with such heavily tinted windows, it looked as if they’d been painted with the depths of space.

He shifted up as he saw me and waved me over. “You managed to find this place. Well done. It was a test.”

I pressed my lips together and didn’t say a word.

Warily, I walked over to him. I stared at the car, then across to his holster, then over to the car.

He arched an eyebrow at me. “What’s with the look?”

“I don’t want to kill anyone,” I said, my voice nothing more than a whisper.

At first, Charlie did nothing – then he slowly smirked. It was not the kind of reaction I’d been expecting. I took a step back from him.

He lifted his hands and spread them wide. “I don’t know what kind of impression you’ve got about us, but we don’t kill people. We’re an enforcement squad, sure,” he shrugged, “but the thing about being a strong team and watching each other’s backs is you rarely have to use that kind of violence. I’m not saying that there aren’t violent forces out there, but you won’t be the one dealing with them. Now come on.” He shrugged over to the car. “Get in. We’ve got a delivery to make.”

I stared at him warily, but when he didn’t suddenly hand me a gun, give me a photo, and tell me to go murder someone, I finally got in the car. I had to pull myself all the way up to manage it. This car was utterly massive.

As for Charlie, he was tall enough that he just leaned in.

He settled his hands on the steering wheel then inclined his head over to me. “Why are you so red?”

I patted my cheeks quickly. Realizing that if I opened my mouth, I’d just say something silly about my embarrassing interaction with Ridvarn, I shrugged.

“Not very talkative, are you?” He started the car and pulled out of the garage. As the massive doors at the front opened at our approach, they let in the streaming sunlight.

I reacted to it badly. Usually, I loved the sun, but right now it gave me a sudden, splitting headache. I locked my hand over my eyes and groaned.

I heard Charlie shift against his seatbelt as he turned to me. “Unusual reaction, but not unheard of,” he said out of the blue.

“What are you talking about?”

“Your reaction to your burgeoning powers. Some new fays get photosensitive.”

I heard him open the glove compartment. He rustled around and then pulled something out. He threw it at me.

Wincing as I opened my eyes, I grabbed it. It was a pair of sunglasses.

“Well, don’t just look at them. Put them on.”

I crammed them onto my face. I didn’t expect they’d make much of a difference, but instantly they gave me the relief my pounding skull was after.

Surprised by the effect, I pulled them off, but once more, my head throbbed and I winced.

This just made Charlie laugh. “Not one to trust your senses, are you? That’s gonna have to change. The first thing you will learn as a fay is that your senses,” he tapped the side of his eye then his nose, “are all that matter to you. I’m sure you learned about fays in school. We all did. So you know what we are. You know we’re apex predators. As you come into your powers, they’re also gonna come into you.”

Keeping a hand on my glasses so they didn’t slip even a little, I frowned. “What does that mean?”

“Every fay has different senses. I mean, we all have the same kinds of noses and eyes and all that, but our acuity is different.” He yanked a hand off the wheel and tapped his chest twice. “Our overall energy is different, too. Some of us are like daggers – slow but sharp and effective. Others are like bullets. We have powerful blasts of energy, but we’re not necessarily good at modulating our force. Over the next couple of weeks, you will figure out what kind of fay you are.”

I didn’t know if Charlie just wasn’t good at explaining things or I just wasn’t in the mood to start understanding what I was – but I didn’t follow.

Obviously the frown I faced him with was clear enough, because he let out a short laugh. “Don’t worry, we’ll take this one step at a time. Now, you said you didn’t want to kill anyone,” he said suddenly.

I immediately stiffened.

He just smiled, his lips kinking high as he drew his hand off the steering wheel again and spread it wide in a stopping motion. “I’m not suggesting you are going to have to – I was just playing with you. That being said, we are fully aware of the fact that you have just come into your powers. You will not be asked to do anything even remotely dangerous for a long while. The boss knows you have no clue about this world. Until you get on your feet, you’ll just follow me around – you can do that, right?”

For the first time, my raging nerves actually started to settle. I managed a weak nod, then, thinking better of it, I made it stronger.

This brought a smile to his lips. “You might not think it, Valerie, but I’m getting the feeling that you’re gonna be a great fay. And I’ve got some of the best instincts in the business.”

I just frowned at him as we finally made it to the edge of the property and pulled out of a huge set of gates. They were so massive and reinforced, they would’ve even sent the Mongols away.

We drove in silence. It took me a long while to gather the gumption to speak. “Where are we going, anyway?”

“I told you.” He jabbed a thumb behind him, indicating the back seat. “We’re going to make a delivery.”

Turning around in my seat, I caught a glimpse of a box. It was filled with blue velvet, and inside were several roses.

Bucking back, I jerked around in my seat as if I’d been struck.

“Whoa,” Charlie said as he patted a hand toward me.

“Those roses… we’re going to threaten someone today, aren’t we?” I asked, my voice half terrified and somehow half excited. It was as if I was briefly channeling Cassandra.

“Trust me, whatever you’ve heard about us on the news, it’s only partially right. Yeah, we’re going to deliver some roses today. And yeah, that’s a large part of our job, but you probably don’t understand what that actually means.”

“Ridvarn uses roses to intimidate people. If they don’t stop what they’re doing, he uses his fays… us,” I said so uncomfortably, I could’ve swallowed my tongue, “to go in to eliminate them.”

Charlie looked at me, but when I didn’t say anything more, he just laughed loudly. “Eliminate? What do you think this is, some kind of mob operation?”

I opened my mouth but quickly decided that he was not looking for an affirmative answer.

He looked at me with a piercing gaze. “We’re the good guys, Valerie. We are the police, just the magical version thereof. We guard and enforce the magical community.”

I opened my mouth to say that we weren’t the police – but you know what? I’d never really thought it through. In a way, we were. But there was one glaring problem. While the police were regulated by democracies, we weren’t.

Charlie could obviously guess what I was thinking by my expression alone. He spread his lips into a thin line. I didn’t know if it was a frown or something else, but he didn’t look too angry with me, just a little disappointed. “We’re honestly not the bad guys. And this honestly will not be as bad as you think. Yeah, we are off to deliver roses today. But do you want to know why?”

It took me a long time to answer a meek, “Yes.”

“We’re going to check out one of the shifter gangs – we’ve got an informant who works with us regularly. His gang is mostly big cats. You’ve probably heard about it. They run a successful construction company – Lion Holdings.”

I shrugged. I didn’t know any specific big cat shifter gangs off the top of my head, but I understood what they were.

Shifters were body changers. While technically a true shifter could change into any form, most of them specialized pretty young. They would get used to one magical body. The more they shifted into it, the harder it would become for them to shift into anything else – the more powerful they became, too. While some shifters did retain their ability to change into other forms, they were few and far between.

“There’s a new drug on the streets,” Charlie continued. “Nasty. It’s aimed at magical folk as well as humans. While it has pretty bad consequences for magical races, it’s already killed two humans. 10 others have been hospitalized with serious injuries.”

I didn’t want to be drawn in by the story, but I was. I frowned. “I’ve never heard about it on the news.”

He just laughed softly. “One of the first things you’ll learn is that a lot of the stuff that goes down in this city you do not hear about on the news. Humans don’t want to know what we have to do to keep them safe.”

I opened my mouth to agree, but what was I about to agree to? I wasn’t human anymore. So I remained silent.

He watched me. How he could pay so much attention to me while driving safely, I didn’t know.

“The drug – K2 – has got pretty nasty consequences. It’s being marketed to junkies as a magic booster. You know what that is?”

I searched my memory, but I shook my head. I was starting to appreciate that everything I thought I’d known about this world was wrong anyway. It was just better to shut my mouth and be told.

“If you’re already magical, then a magic booster does what the name suggests. It gives you a limited, short time bounce. It won’t necessarily increase your magic, but it will have an effect on your mind which will often sharpen your magic anyway. It will help you locate targets quicker and attack things faster. If you aren’t magical,” his voice bottomed out, “for about an hour, it will give you a glimpse into our world. It won’t turn you into a shifter or anything, but it will give you limited magical skills.”

I turned right around in my seat to look at him. “I thought technology like that was highly illegal and dangerous?” The words were out of my mouth before I could realize how stupid and innocent that observation was.

Charlie didn’t point that out. He smiled as if he was simply happy at the fact that I was interacting with him. “Yeah, you’re right – very illegal. The tech primarily comes from an old government experiment from about 20 years ago. It failed, and everything relating to it was shut down, but some of the research got out. Ever since, idiots have been trying to replicate magical powers in the mundane – always with painful and terrifying consequences. One of these boosters might momentarily screw up someone who’s from a magical race, but they will permanently alter if not destroy the life of a human. In order to simulate magical powers for an hour, the human body must give up most of its energy reserves. Fat and muscles are just burnt up. If you’re stupid enough to take another booster after the first one runs out, your own damn heart will be burnt for fuel. Nasty stuff. And it’s got to be stopped.”

I just sat there, staring at him, my mouth open.

I wasn’t incapable of processing what he’d said. I heard alright – I understood every single word, and that was the problem. Because he was totally right. It did have to be stopped. I’d just never been in a position to do anything about a problem like that before.

It was the kind of thing that, if I’d heard about it on the news, I would have worried about it for a couple of days until I convinced myself that the authorities would have it in hand. Now… I was the authorities.

I clamped a sweaty hand over my mouth. I leaned forward, compressing my torso against my knees.

Charlie followed me without ever losing his attention for the road. “I’m not trying to freak you out, Valerie. I’m just trying to give you a glimpse of what we do. It’s important work. We’re really not the mob,” he added.

“Sorry,” I said through a husky mutter.

He laughed. “Who are you apologizing to? You’ve just gotta learn this stuff.”

That repeated in my head as we pulled off the highway and into the industrial district.

Charlie soon yanked the car up onto the curb. “Here we go.” He inclined his head toward the construction zone to our left.

I frowned at it. “There are shifters in there?”

“Yeah, I told you – big cat shifters. They’re not your usual construction crew – those tend to be bears. But there ain’t much Jake Whip can’t do if he puts his mind to it.”

“Jake Whip?”

“You’ll see.”

He got out of the car.

I sat there – but not for too long. I finally pulled myself out.

As soon as I stood on the street, I tilted my head back and stared up the side of the massive tower. “What’s a construction like this doing all the way out here?” I muttered as I hurried after Charlie.

Charlie walked as fast as a speeding bike.

“Car park,” Charlie answered. “They’re about to begin a new office area not far from here.”

“Oh,” I managed.

With no other pertinent insights to make, I hurried after Charlie.

I had never been to a construction site. I’d pretty much only ever worked two jobs – dry-cleaning and a small stint in a deli when I’d been going to school.

Ah heck, what was I doing recounting how many jobs I’d done over the years? Distracting myself – that’s what. Because my CV was completely irrelevant now. The only thing that mattered was that I was about to meet a gang of big cat shifters.

Charlie walked across the street, ducked his head under a line of fluttering construction tape, and angled his neck up with a sharp look in his eyes.

“What have they done, anyway?” I managed as I raced up behind him. “Shouldn’t we head back and grab the roses?”

“The roses aren’t for them. Like I said before – Jake’s one of ours. He keeps his ear close to the ground and lets us know what’s going on in his neck of the woods. He’s a good guy. He keeps his gang under control. He understands the importance of getting on with humans – not eating them.”

I paled several shades. “Eating them?”

I heard a sound behind me. I turned fast. Right there was a guy. Sorry, a shifter. He was half big cat, half man. He had a long tail, spots over his bare chest, and a grin that any lion would be proud of.

I took one look at him and screamed. I jerked back. There was a pile of concrete behind me. Before I could sail into it, the shifter lurched forward and grabbed me. His powerful hand wrapped around my arm, his claws immediately retracting. The only sense I was left with was of an impossibly strong, animalistic grip. Oh, then the smile that followed. I looked up into the guy’s face as he changed back into a human right in front of my eyes. He lost the spots covering his skin, and his pointed teeth transformed. His tail disappeared with a crackling pop. All that was left was one seriously handsome, bare-chested man.

He looked amused as he continued to hold me. It took me way too long to realize that I was leaning back to get away from him. If he dropped me now, I’d fall flat on my ass.

“Jake,” Charlie said as he shoved a hand out.

I finally managed to stand on my own. When I was steady, Jake gave me a look that was clearly intended to test my balance. Then he shoved his hand out and warmly accepted Charlie’s grip. It was a surprise that as both large men shook hands, the world didn’t shake with them.

“What have I done to bring your esteemed presence here?” Jake grinned. Now his carnivore teeth were gone, his smile was unmatched. It was raw and yet somehow refined. It gave you the impression of powerful liquor. Expensive, but it could still pack a punch.

Sorry, what the hell was I doing? This guy was a frigging shifter.

… And I had just screamed in his face. My cheeks became bright red as he switched his attention to me. He arched an eyebrow. He pointed at me. “Now, you must be the new one.”

I just blinked. I would’ve looked entirely ridiculous. “New?” I squeaked.

“Words already done the rounds. An adult fay. Not something you get every day. How’s life going? How’s the Rose treating you?”

I stared at him mutely. I would’ve looked completely stupid.

“She’s taking a while to settle in,” Charlie came to my defense. “Now, we’ve got a lot to discuss.” All levity was gone from Charlie’s voice.

The smile was quickly wiped off Jake’s face, too. He rubbed his hands on his pants, large slicks of concrete dust trailing over the thick fabric. He was still bare-chested. Come on – he hadn’t had a chance to put a top on yet. I would very much have noted that fact. Because he… I just had to pull myself together. This was not the first time I’d seen a bare-chested shifter. The fire department came out with calendars of them all the time. Hell, most action movies these days included a shifter or two. Because when it came to chiseled abs, there was no one like them.

“I think I found something last night,” Jake said as his voice dropped down low. “Come this way.”

He led us through the construction site.

Not all the floors were done. Some of them were completely open. We had to go up a set of scaffolding stairs on the outside of the structure. The first thing I noted was the wind. The second thing I noted was the wind, and it was the third thing, too, because it was ferocious. The higher up we went and the more open the building became, the more it grabbed at me. I knew I should probably have been trying to act tough and all, but I couldn’t stop myself from closing my arms around my middle and shuddering against them.

By the time we reached the top, I was so frigging cold, I thought icicles would form along my nose.

Jake walked over to what looked like an ordinary metal luncheon box. He pulled it up and got ready to open it.

I started to shiver.

Jake looked over at me and frowned. “I thought you fays had high metabolisms?”

“It’s taking her a while to adjust. It’s probably another symptom.” Charlie looked at me and nodded. Then he inclined his head to the side. “Go get somewhere out of the wind. Don’t wander off too far, though.” He looked right at me.

If that was meant to be a warning, I did not need it. I wasn’t the kind of adventurous fool to go out anywhere on my own. But I was thankful for the fact he was clearly looking out for me.

My teeth now chattering so hard it was like someone was shaking a maraca in my skull, I wandered off.

I was sure to stay within earshot of Charlie and Jake – not that I could actually hear what they were talking about. They quickly slipped into discussing the finer points of what was going on with the drugs, and I just slipped into a waking reverie. I walked around the level, staring at various construction equipment. Soon enough, I came to an elevator shaft. It was open, and there was a barrier between it and me.

I frowned at it. I could hear the wind whistling down the shaft. It made my skin prickle. I went to turn away, but I… sensed something. This energy built in my gut. It rocketed toward my throat. Then it powered up into the front of my skull. It was such a strong sensation, I was certain I’d never felt anything quite like it. No, I had – back in my first dream.

I turned quickly. It was to the sound of something moving behind me.

There was construction plastic flapping in the wind, and to my side, there was a bag of upturned concrete. One of the flaps of plastic suddenly slammed into it, scooped a whole lot of concrete off the top, and sent it scattering over the floor.

I gave a soft yelp.

The conversation paused. “Valerie?” Charlie said quickly. “That you? You okay?”

“Fine,” I squeaked, so embarrassed, my cheeks went red again.

Seriously? I was screaming at concrete scattering over the floor? I had a spine of jelly. There was no damn way I was going to survive in this world.

Hating myself for being so pathetic, I turned back to the lift shaft.

I was curious to see what it would look like. I hated heights. But I was also kind of drawn to them. Now more than ever, I had to start facing my fears, right? If I were to have any hope of surviving this new world, I had to stop being so pathetic.

I reached the railing. My heart was pounding. It wasn’t like I was intending to throw myself down the shaft – but you tell that to my cardiovascular system. My mouth suddenly became dry. This ridiculous, crazily strong tingling sensation started to erupt in the center of my chest. It punched up toward my throat.

I placed a hand on the railing and stared down.

Immediately, my gut clenched.

This strange metal taste spread through my mouth. It was like I’d just shoved iron shavings in there.

There was another sound from behind me. This time it sure as hell wasn’t plastic striking concrete.

I had a chance to turn. I felt something being shoved into my hand, and the next thing I knew, someone pushed me backward.

I fell against the railing and tumbled straight through. I went to scream, but that’s when something slammed into my mouth. It covered it as effectively as a strong hand.

I plummeted down the elevator shaft. For one single second, my mind just shut down. It refused to believe what was happening to me – then fear like nothing else blasted through me.

The elevator shaft shot around me, just this dark, continuous wall of impending death.

I could feel myself reaching the bottom. I knew what would happen the second I smashed into it. I was gonna die. There was no more time.

I tried desperately to scream against the thing covering my mouth, but there was nothing I could do.

I was only meters away now. The base of the shaft was right beneath me.

Just before my mind could shut down from the fear, something reached right in. Maybe it was the knowledge that this was it, or maybe it was whatever the hell was in my hand. Heck, maybe it was just luck, but magic blasted out of me.

It pushed around my form, encasing it just as I smashed into the base of the shaft.

I might’ve been covered in magic, but that didn’t save me completely. As I smashed into the concrete base, pain blasted through my body.

Horror engulfed me, that metal taste filled my mouth, and I tried to cough up blood, but I couldn’t. Something was still covering my mouth.

I lay there at the base of the shaft, my eyes wide open in total fear.

It took me too long to try to move. As I twitched, I managed it – one finger at a time. Then I shifted my shoulder and my leg.

I… I was alive. More than that, I wasn’t completely broken.

Somehow, I sat.

My body still exploded with pain, but I could manage it.

Shaking, terrified, I grabbed my mouth.

There was nothing there – no gag, at least, but something was preventing me from moving my lips. They were soldered shut. I could taste the blood behind them.

I had never been more terrified in all my life. I started to rip at my lips, but I couldn’t grab hold of what was sewing them shut. More tears leaked out of my eyes.

Terrified, I managed to stare up at the top of the shaft. I couldn’t even guess how far I’d fallen.

My mind wasn’t working properly, but at least it told me that I couldn’t keep moving. There was no way I could’ve fallen that far, even with the assistance of magic, and not gravely injured myself. For about a minute, I just lay there, but the minute passed. Then another minute passed.

I’d already checked my phone – and it was completely smashed.

I told myself that Charlie would come find me. It was clear that he was here to look after me. When he figured out that I hadn’t checked in, he’d come looking for me. It wouldn’t take him long to find the shaft. But he didn’t come. Another minute ticked past, and he still didn’t come.

Something else did. I started to hear this scrabbling sound. It was barely audible at first, but the more I listened to it, the more my back reacted. It prickled with pure fear. That iron tinge was back in my mouth, but it wasn’t just blood. It was some other sense I’d never accessed before. It reached into me and told me to stand.

I pushed up. There was no way I could’ve held myself still. Hell, even if someone had tried to strap me to the spot, they wouldn’t have been able to do it. This nervous, terrified tension whipped through me and reacted to my injuries, making me even more fearful.

I managed to get to my knees. Then I surprised myself and I pushed to my feet. I was less injured than I’d thought.

The shaft was open to my side. There was a half-finished door. I expected it to head out onto the ground level, but it didn’t. It was too dark out there.

Staggering forward, still completely incapable of opening my lips, let alone screaming for help, I placed a hand on the half-finished elevator door. I peered into the darkness. I could barely see anything, just a few shadows, but that was it.

I think my heart had never hammered harder.

My fear told me to turn right back around and sit there until Charlie found me, but that scrabbling became louder.

My heart, God, somehow my heart beat harder once more.

I had to move. It was that or have a cardiac arrest right here at the base of the shaft.

I staggered out into the darkness.

This must’ve been some kind of basement level. I hadn’t thought this building would have one, but there was nothing else that could account for the darkness. It was unfinished. It felt like it had only just been carved out of the bedrock. The floor was uneven. I kept staggering and falling over, but I couldn’t remain on my knees for long. Every time I fell, a new pulse of fear would strike me, and I’d pull myself up as fast as a bullet blast.

There was something behind me. That scrabbling…. Every time I was stupid enough to slow down, it only got louder.

I moved faster. I started to throw myself forward. I developed this thing where I would push off one wall, reach the next, then use it as momentum to push back to the other side.

Though it was still relentlessly dark, my eyes were starting to adjust.

Maybe this was the second or third basement level or something, but it had to be deeper than I’d originally suspected. It was too dark down here.

I pushed all my awareness into my eyes. I didn’t really know what I was doing at first – then I felt a few faint charges of magic traveling along my skin. They sunk into my eyes. It didn’t mean that I could suddenly see perfectly, but it gave me just that little bit more acuity, and it was all I needed to discern a tunnel to my side.

Not a corridor – not a stairwell – a freaking tunnel. It was dug right out of the side of the wall.

I just stared at it. What kind of building was this? Why the hell would it have a tunnel? Were they planning on housing military secrets or experiments down here?

Suffice to say, I did not take the tunnel. I immediately turned around. I would head back to the elevator shaft. I’d try my hardest to scream past whatever was restraining my mouth. At least, that was the plan. It did not get the chance to eventuate. That scrabbling picked up right behind me. That little part of my brain that knew how to react to threats even if the rest of me was too stupid to appreciate them told me to run. I broke into the fastest sprint I could manage. My injuries meant nothing. The blood in my mouth was irrelevant. I swallowed it and pushed forward.

I was forced to thrust into the tunnel.

I kept falling over, but I just kept pulling myself up.

My heart pounded so hard, I could feel it all the way through my body. It was in my jaw, in my teeth, in my knees, in my hips. It gave me that little extra I needed to keep on the run. The scrabbling was right behind me. I wanted to turn and see what the hell was there, but I wasn’t that stupid. I was only just managing to keep out of its reach. If I turned and wasted even a second, it would catch me.

I’d never been more focused in my life. My body knew what the ordinary me would be too stupid to appreciate. This was now a life or death situation.

I continued along the tunnel. At one point, it narrowed. I just got down on my hands and knees and crawled forward. I’d never been more thankful to have a small body. Whatever was behind me obviously wasn’t as diminutive as me, because as soon as I started to crawl, they lost their speed.

Finally I gathered the advantage to turn around. I thought I saw something glinting in the darkness – two pinprick red eyes. That was just the incentive I needed to turn around and crawl faster. My mouth became dry with total fear.

Come on, I thought to myself, come on.

I had no clue where this tunnel would go. And all at once, it struck me – why the hell would it go anywhere? It was clear that this place was unfinished. What if this was a frigging dead end? What if it was a trap?

As those terrifying thoughts circled through my mind, as violent as a hail of bullets, I finally saw a small light.

I scrabbled toward it as fast as I could. It was like I was a coma patient and it was a glimmer of daylight All I had to do was reach it, and this nightmare would be over.

I gave it my last scrap of power, and I flung myself forward.

I pushed out into a corridor.

I didn’t bother to waste the breath asking where the hell I could possibly be. I turned around and faced the hole in the wall.

It was a tunnel, but just on the wall to my side was some kind of hatch. Without pausing to think it through, I grabbed the hatch, closed it, and used the wheel on the front to lock it shut.

I had no frigging clue how a roughly hewn tunnel could lead to a hatch in a corridor – but I didn’t care.

I stood there, breathing, terrified as I waited. I heard a soft bang. It would be whatever the hell had been behind me smashing up against the hatch. There was another soft bang, but it was only barely audible.

Then… nothing.


I staggered down to my knees. Then I fell onto my ass. I shook there as I faced the hatch.

I don’t know how long I remained there. It could have been five minutes – it could have been five years. Eventually I thought I heard voices. Voices meant people. People meant help.

I dragged myself up.

I finally looked at the corridor.

My head hadn’t been functioning during that chase. Now it worked fine. It told me whatever the hell was happening here shouldn’t be happening. Tunnels connecting to perfectly complete buildings? This wasn’t World War II. People didn’t build blast shelters these days. There was no damn reason to connect two buildings like this.

Pressing my fingers into my lips and trying once more to rip off whatever was covering them, I staggered forward.

All I had to do was find someone. I still couldn’t speak, but that wouldn’t matter. Someone – anyone would be able to help me right now.

I continued forward.

I didn’t know where I was. This building was strange. It was clinical. There was this unusual scent in the air. It took me a while to realize that it was disinfectants – really strong ones. It was like someone was running a hospital down here.

I kept telling myself that at the first voices I found, I would show myself, burst into tears, and just wait for someone to help me. But then I started to hear the voices, and I quickly changed my mind. They were dark, they were deep, and they were discussing experiments.

“The new batch is working better. We’re getting better performance out of our fighters, but we still need to optimize the dose.”

I stood there, shivering.

“We will, we will – because we’ve got another fight at the end of the week. I’ve got my best fairy drones training right now. Don’t worry. It’ll happen.”

“Yeah, well, it can’t happen quickly enough. We can’t afford for another fight to be disrupted. The last was bad enough. They failed to get our best fighters, but if Friday’s match is interrupted, we’re screwed.”

“You don’t need to preach to the converted,” the second voice said, and whoever it was, it was clear they were getting steadily irater. “I know exactly what’s at stake. Now, show me the latest drone.”

I had never heard the word drone before. Okay, I had when it came to human military tech, but not when it came to fairies.

I thought I heard footsteps. Freaking out, I saw a half-open door to my left. I pushed in. Trembling, I remained behind it as the footsteps passed me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the room I was in was some kind of storage room. There was no one in here but me.

“We’ve got to be careful,” the first voice said. “We lost eight fairies last week. They don’t grow on trees.”

“Don’t tell me how to run this operation, and I won’t tell you how to run yours. All you need to do is perfect that drug. You understand?”

There was a long, irate pause. “Yeah, I understand. But if you want this drug, you have to deal with the Rose.”

“Believe you me, I’ll deal with him soon. He won’t see what’s coming.”

I hadn’t been pulled out of my fear – not since I’d been pushed down the elevator shaft. All I’d had time for was thoughts about my own survival, but right then and there that changed. They were talking about Ridvarn.

I pushed closer, trying to hear more, but they walked out of earshot.

I went to walk out – the move instinctual – but I stopped myself in time. I had no idea where I was, but now it was abundantly clear that I was not on friendly territory.

The second I walked out there could be the second I was discovered.

I… stopped. It was like I was a game and someone had just hit pause.

No, that was a terrible analogy. At least in a game if someone picked up the controller, the character would move. I didn’t think I’d ever move again.

A part of me understood that I couldn’t stay here and that I had to leave, but I didn’t understand how to do that.

I wasn’t naïve about what I’d just overheard. These people, whoever they were, were running the fairy fights. That meant that there would be other fairies out there. If I was stupid enough to get caught… what then? Would they turn me into one of their fighters?

Though I understood that I was rare and that adult fairies were hardly ever found, I also understood that when they were found, their outcomes were never that great. It was one thing being discovered and registered as a child. If you were an adult and you suddenly went missing one day, no one would suspect it was because you had fairy powers and dark forces had made you disappear for their own advantage.

I might be registered now, but that would mean little to these people.

My mouth became even drier. I didn’t even know how I was continuing to swallow.

I finally turned around and started to assess the storage room behind me. At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at. I didn’t have the magical education to be able to understand it, but soon enough, I realized this place was full of ration packs.

Fairies – hell, any magical creature – had their own special diet. Considering the modern world, a lot of those magical creatures who had grown up predating on each other needed specialized manufactured food to continue to live. I hadn’t crossed that bridge yet. I had to. Ordinary food still sated me for the time being, but I wasn’t a complete innocent.

At some point I’d have to switch to fay food. Even though I’d never had it before, I could still recognize it, though. So could my nose. As I stared at one of the ration packs, my stomach gave a grumble. I picked it up and turned it over. It read chicken, cranberry and gargoyle.

I pressed the back of my hand against my mouth.

I could not imagine eating another magical creature. I was a vegetarian, for the love of God.

I went to drop the ration pack, but for some reason I thought better of it. It wasn’t like I suddenly had the desire to taste fake gargoyle, but something made me cram the pack into the pocket of my jacket.

I remained there for several more minutes, just listening into the environment, trying to figure out how many people were out there. I heard one more set of footsteps but no more conversations. Then there was silence. And the silence went on and on.

I finally gathered the courage to press myself against the door. Then after one more minute, I pushed out. Immediately, my heart started to pound. My senses went wild once more. I tasted just the faintest tinge of iron.

I hadn’t been paying proper attention to it before, but now, it was like my senses aligned. They told me that whenever that taste in my mouth increased, I had to run, but when it was normal like this, I was fine.

I moved.

I kept low. My body was so hunched, my legs immediately became tired. I didn’t stop.

I had no clue where I was, but I had to be underground somewhere.

To find my way out of here, all I had to do was follow the air currents, right? It wasn’t clear whether this space was air-conditioned, but I couldn’t think of another plan.

As I kept moving, I would periodically lick my finger and check the direction of the air flow.

I convinced myself that I was going in the right direction. But I wasn’t. Soon enough, I encountered a set of stairs – just one that led down.

My gut clenched. My back had a second to arch, then in a rush, that iron tinge filled my mouth.

I didn’t even question it this time. I knew I had to throw myself onward. My fairy senses were telling me someone was behind me.

Even though the last thing I wanted to do was go down, not up, I didn’t have an option. I threw myself down the stairs. I tried to keep my footfall quiet and controlled, but I knew it pounded out too loudly. With every thump, that iron tinge in my mouth got worse.

I finally made it down to the base of the stairs. I looked around me. It… it almost looked like I was on some kind of subway platform. A really clean, new one which no one had ever used before.

I threw myself forward as that iron tinge got worse. It now filled my mouth. It made it seem as if I’d been punched in the head repeatedly.

I didn’t whisper encouragement to myself – I didn’t even think. I focused my every sense on fleeing. I hit the platform proper. It had smooth white tiles up the walls and a polished concrete floor. As my boots skidded over it, I stared around as I desperately searched for a way out.

As I continued to move, one wall ended and became a dark subway tunnel.

I’d traveled the subway my entire life, and I had never come across a platform like this.

I stopped and faced the dark tunnel. Musty air traveled through it, but still, it was fresher than anything I’d smelled back in those corridors.

I hesitated too long, and that iron tinge became 10 times as worse. I couldn’t just stand there anymore – my body wouldn’t let me.

I didn’t even think. I jumped into the subway tunnel, despite the fact I was two meters up. As my feet struck the ground, I wobbled, but I didn’t break one of my knees, thankfully.

With a flighty gasp, I moved.

There were no tunnel tracks. There was just an open tunnel mouth without any other infrastructure.

What the hell was this place? Was a new subway being built or something? I hadn’t heard of any lines being added, but what did that matter? I clearly hadn’t heard about much in this town.

At least there’d been light up in that clinical corridor. There was nothing here. As soon as I left that platform far behind, it became pitch black.

I tried to keep running, but I kept falling over.

My magic was doing an okay job of protecting me from my injuries, but as I fell over once more and smashed my knee hard against the roughly hewn tunnel floor, pain blasted up my patellar and into my hip. I grabbed my knee, groaned, and rolled to the side.

I couldn’t even open my mouth to groan. It came out of my nostrils.

At the back of my head, I kept telling myself that maybe with time whatever was happening to my mouth would stop. But the spell wasn’t shifting.

I’d swallowed the blood that had filled my mouth long ago. That didn’t mean I didn’t get the desire to cough every now and then. Coughing without being able to open your mouth was a singularly torturous experience.

I staggered up. I limped over to the wall. I reached it, flattened a hand against it, and leaned there. My head wanted to explode. The old me would have just shut down at this point. She would have stopped and waited for someone else to save her, but the new me couldn’t do that, no matter how much she wanted to. Because that iron tinge was back once more. It forced me onward. It was an unrelenting master. Every time I slowed down, it told me to speed up.

I had no idea where I would end up. Would I just crawl through these subway tunnels until I died? Or would someone find me?

I shoved my hand back into my pocket and pulled out my broken phone. I couldn’t see the screen, but I ran my fingers over it, desperate to try to bring it back to life.

It remained steadfastly broken.

Tears started to trail down my cheeks. Sorry, who was I kidding? I’d been crying them on and off since I’d fallen down that shaft, but now they became thicker.

The immediacy of the threat wasn’t haunting me anymore, but the reality that I was alone, no one knew where I was, and there was some unknown enemy tracking me sunk in.

All I could do was think of that frigging dream. If I’d never had it, I wouldn’t be in this position right now. No one would ever have figured out that I was a fay. Maybe I was making this up, but I got the impression that if that vampire had never bitten my neck, I would’ve remained hidden for the rest of my life.

I continued to sob. My nose hurt from having to force every breath through my nostrils.

I staggered down to my knees.

I almost gave up, but once more that frigging iron tinge filled my mouth. It forced me on.

I dragged myself up. Just when I thought there would be no hope and I would be here for the rest of my sad existence, I felt an air current. It was different. It smelt a lot fresher.

It made me ground to a halt. My tears were still there, but it was like someone hit pause on them. The animalistic side of my body that I was denying suddenly came to the fore. I started to sniff deeply, and I don’t think I’d ever done anything remotely like it in my life. My whole body got in on the act. I felt my chest pushing forward and my knees rocking back. I felt my every frigging cell concentrate as if my entire form was getting ready to track some scent. Then the next thing I knew, my hands reached the wall. They scrabbled across it. There was nothing there – until there was.

My fingers found a latch. It was a door handle.

Squeezing it tightly, I turned it.

I reached a corridor. It was well lit, open, and wide. And right at the end of it there was a set of stairs that led up.

I heaved through a traumatized breath.

I’d done it.

I’d actually done it.

I ignored the pain in my knee now. You could’ve shot me several times, and I would have ignored that too. I reached the stairs. I collapsed against the railing, sucked in a relieved breath, then pulled myself up. I quickly started to run.

This wasn’t just a short flight of stairs – this stairwell was long, and it led up seemingly unendingly.

I just knew, knew it would take me up to a street somewhere.

I had tunnel vision, but even that tunnel vision couldn’t stop me from seeing a door halfway up.

That door did something to me. Despite the fact I wanted to run and never stop until I got to safety, I slowed down. I stared at it. There was a single number painted across the top of the doorway in this deep red that looked way too much like fresh blood. It was the number seven.

I frowned at it.

Suddenly, my nerves hit a crescendo, and it was like a bomb someone had shoved down my throat. Turning, more tears streaming out of my eyes, I threw myself up the remaining stairs as fast as I could.

The door behind me opened. I thought I heard someone take a gasp. It wasn’t the kind of move you would give if you saw someone in trouble – but the kind of move you would give if you wanted to make that trouble a whole lot more worse.

My senses went wild as they told me a predator had just locked onto me. This tingling built up in the base of my skull. My heart hammered so hard, I’d never experienced anything like it. It shook through my limbs. It gave me the energy I needed.

I reached the door at the top of the stairs and threw it open.

I pushed out into a street.

I wasn’t thinking. The lip of the pavement was just there, and beyond it was a busy highway.

Just before I could throw myself into it and be killed by a careening truck, someone grabbed my middle. A powerful grip wrapped around my hips and pulled me to the side.

I was spun around like a dancer. My loose hair slapped around my cheeks and fanned in front of my eyes. I might not be able to see who was in front of me, but they gave the slightest purr, then a relieved, echoing breath. “Shit, there you are. What the hell happened to you? Charlie’s going insane.”

I angled my face up, and my fringe parted.

Jake was right there. He went to take a step back from me, but I fell to the side, my knee immediately buckling. He grabbed me again and pulled me back from the traffic. He looked at me. Then his gaze locked on my mouth.

“Shit,” he said. “Hold still. This is going to sting.”

Trembling, I faced him, as I didn’t really have that much of a choice. He grabbed my chin and angled it up. He secured his fingers around my mouth.

He winced. “Here we go.”

He ripped something.

It felt like a thousand Band-Aids being ripped off all at once.

I screamed. Then immediately I coughed up blood.

Jake had obviously been expecting it, and rather than let me splatter all over his handsome face, he tipped me to the side. With one hand on the back of my head, he angled me down toward the pavement. He helped me to kneel.

Then he rested on his haunches beside me as he patted me on my back. “Just get it all out.”

I heaved. I’d swallowed so much blood. I hadn’t thought about it until now – my body hadn’t let me.

I tried to hold it in, but he just patted harder. “Let it all out,” he said in that same husky voice.

I threw up.

And then I threw up again.

Jake had already grabbed his phone and called Charlie. “Yeah, I found her. She’s alive – she’s certainly gone through something, though.” He ended the call and shoved the phone back into his pocket. He tilted his face to the side and stared at me. “Anything left?”

I pressed my hand against the back of my lips and shook my head. “I feel awful.”

“I imagine you do. Now, what happened?”

I shrugged. It was not the kind of reaction I should give. I had almost died, yet I was acting like an apathetic teenager.

If other people noticed my crazy reactions, they usually never pointed them out. Not Jake, apparently. He gave me this half wincing frown, half amused smile. “Did you just shrug? By the looks of you, you’ve been attacked. You’ve been through hell – but that ain’t nothing much to you? You’re a lot tougher than you look.”

I really wasn’t.

I heard pounding footfall. I might’ve only just met Charlie, but there was no way in the world it could be anyone but him. I felt a rush of air as he skidded down beside me. It looked like he was about to pick me up, but Jake shook his head. “I think this one is fine on her own. Now, Valerie, are you going to tell us what happened?”

I went to shrug again, but I thought better of it. Charlie’s face was right there. I might’ve been acting scared of him, but the only thing that was clear right now was that he was scared out of his wits for me.

I think I whitened several shades as what had happened suddenly struck me. I let my arms drop loosely to my sides as I slouched forward.

Charlie followed me. “What happened?”

“I heard this sound. Then—” I started to do something funny with my hand. I didn’t know if I was patting at my face or just trying to grab air in case I would need it later.

“Valerie,” Charlie said in a gentle but firm, warning tone.

“Something pushed me down the elevator shaft. I think I almost died. But my magic saved me. I couldn’t scream.” I started pointing at my mouth. I lacked the words to describe what happened.

Charlie looked up at Jake.

Jake was standing between me and the traffic as if he permanently had to guard me from nosediving into it. He crossed his arms. “Gag spell. Pretty strong.”

Charlie bared his teeth as he turned back to me. I knew better than to think that look was directed at me personally.

I kept patting my lips. It felt like my mouth had been removed. There was no injury there, though. I looked up at Charlie, my gaze desperate. “What the hell was that thing?”

“Just tell me what happened,” Charlie growled.

I recounted my tale. It was disjointed. I kept adding in random observations. When it got to the bit about the tunnel that led to the clinical corridors and the two people speaking of fairy drugs, I started to laugh. It was unhinged. Now I was out of there, I realized it couldn’t possibly be true. But as I stared up at Charlie and Jake’s grim expressions, they weren’t laughing their asses off at me.

By the time I reached the end of the story, there was no punch behind my voice at all. It felt like someone had squeezed all the strength out of me until the only thing that remained was my goading fatigue.

Charlie stood. He shoved a hand into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and walked away. He had a whispered conversation. Something told me he was talking to Ridvarn.

That left me and Jake alone. Slowly, I turned my head over my shoulder and stared at him. I tried to offer a smile.

He smirked. “You want to rip my guts out, do you?”

Surprised, I shook my head way too quickly. “Sorry, what? Did I do something wrong?”

He laughed. He had a great laugh. Listening to him hit pause on my fear – only for a few seconds, at least.

“Your facial expression there,” he pointed at his face and drew a circle in the air, “has a different meaning among we shifters.”

Gasping, I secured a hand over my mouth. “Sorry. I don’t know anything.”

“Relax. I was just playing with you. You’re not a shifter, so I know you don’t mean anything when you bare your teeth. I didn’t honestly think you wanted to rip my guts out. But were you trying to say thank you?”

Blushing, I nodded. Fortunately I didn’t flush crimson red this time. I just didn’t have it in me. Weakly, I stared down at my hands.

“You’re pretty strong – Valerie, was it?”

I nodded. Then I shook my head. “My name is Valerie, but I sure as hell am not strong,” I admitted in a wavering tone.

“You could have fooled me.” He snorted. “You just found your way into and out of an illegal fairy ring. I’ve been trying to do that on purpose for weeks now,” he said, his voice dropping down low. The door to the subway would be right behind me. Presumably he was keeping an eye on it.

I turned. Then I sucked in a shaking breath. “What the hell? Where did the door go?” Stupidly, I started looking around the street as if someone had just picked up the door and chucked it onto the road.

“They moved it already. They removed it the second you got free.” He shrugged, let his arms go, then spent some time stretching his shoulders out as if he was prepared for a fight that wouldn’t come.

I paled. Magical gangs could just move doors around like that? Just what the hell kind of world was this? And why had I never known how screwed it was?

He nodded at me. “You want a hand?”

“For what?” I asked stupidly.

“So you don’t have to sit next to your own sick all day.” He reached toward me.

I think I blushed a little brighter this time. I placed my hand in his, and he pulled me to my feet.

It was just in time as Charlie came back to us. He did not look pleased.

I winced. “I’m sorry—”

“See what you can do.” Charlie ignored me and nodded at Jake. He inclined his head to the side. There was a lot of tension in Charlie’s muscles – enough that they looked like they would snap and twang around the street.

Jake nodded. His eyes flashed, too. They shifted and smiled at me. He patted me on the shoulder. “You did good. I’ll see you around.” With an enigmatic look, he turned and ran across the street.

I freaked the hell out. I gargled through a half scream, but Jake was not run over. He moved quickly and deftly and dodged right between the honking cars.

“He is a shifter, remember?” Charlie explained. “Now, that looks painful. I’ll help you to the car.”

“Painful?” It was as if that word set everything off. I suddenly remembered my knee – my back, everything. I groaned and locked my arms around myself.

Charlie stepped in. He picked me up. It would’ve been like picking up a house cat. I didn’t even hear his muscles straining.

He walked me down the street then stopped. A car pulled up about a minute later.

It wasn’t the one we’d driven here. It was a limousine.

Something told me it couldn’t be Ridvarn. It wasn’t a motorcade, after all, but that something was lying. Because as soon as the door opened and Charlie placed me down, it was to the sight of Ridvarn’s expression. What that expression meant, I didn’t know. Even if I’d known Ridvarn my entire life, I don’t think that would’ve helped. It was categorically unreadable. Ridvarn shifted his gaze off me for a few microseconds to nod at Charlie.

Charlie turned around and got in the passenger seat at the front of the car.

Then I just kinda sat there staring at Ridvarn. I was mute. It honestly felt as if someone had reached in, grabbed my tongue, and ripped it out like an unwanted weed.

“I apologize,” Ridvarn said, and he appeared to be genuine.

That pulled me out of my thoughts. My face must’ve looked like hell. It scrunched all the way up as I frowned. “Sorry? Wait—” I had a chance to pale. Some stupid, paranoid part of me was trying to tell me that had been some kind of dumb test and not a real attack after all.

He looked right at me and leaned back, the leather behind him scrunching. “You have an overactive imagination. I did not cause that,” his voice dropped all the way down low, “and I never would. I’m apologizing because I failed. I promised you last night that you would not be attacked again. It seems, however, you were attacked despite my best efforts anyway.”

I didn’t know what to do – not for a long while. So I just sat there and stared at him. Was it uncomfortable? You bet you. Did that stop me? Not for a second.

The car started, and we pulled out from the curb. I automatically went to put my seatbelt on, but I winced as I twisted from the hip and it did something to my knee. Groaning, I grabbed it.

Ridvarn leaned over and plucked up my hand before I could move another centimeter. He secured my palm against his and wrapped his fingers through mine.

… It was like we were on a date.

“What?” I stammered.

He looked at me. “How is your pain now?”

Sorry, pain? It was the last thing on my mind. One of the Seven was holding my hand like we were—

… I had no pain. Nothing.

A second before, it had felt like someone was actively beating me with reeds. Now, I couldn’t exactly say I was on cloud nine, but I was certainly pain-free.

My eyes opened wide with a jerk. “What the hell is happening?”

“Vampires possess the capacity to anesthetize others.”

I didn’t need to ask why. Hell, I think I’d heard that before anyway.

Those two thoughts strayed across my mind, then a third struck me right in the jaw. He was still holding my hand. I could feel everything, from how strong his fingers were to how yielding his grip was.

Don’t do it, don’t do it, I thought to myself, but there was no stopping it as a flush started to march up my cheeks. It was unstoppable, and it was ferocious.

Ridvarn would know. He didn’t need to be a vampire to figure it out – with one look at my cheeks, even someone who was colorblind would be able to tell that I was freaking the hell out.

“So… everything that happened to me… happened to me?” I don’t think I’d ever asked a stupider question in all my life, but it just fell out of my lips, nonetheless.

Ridvarn didn’t answer. How could he to a question like that?

“How could there be a tunnel leading to some kind of underground laboratory?” I stammered.

He still didn’t answer.

“How could you gag someone with magic?” I stammered.

No answer.

“What did they even give me before I was pushed down the shaft?”

Now he frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“I must’ve dropped it, but just before I felt that gag spell slam over my mouth, something was pushed into my hand.” I opened my hand. I hadn’t looked at it yet.

There was a mark on it.

In a snap, he leaned over. He grabbed my palm and pulled it close. He stared at it.

So did I. I now had a tattoo of a black rose.

I was close enough to Ridvarn that even if he tried to hide his expression, he wouldn’t have been able to. So I saw every single minute movement of his muscles as tension stole into them. It grabbed hold of his face and held on.

I almost couldn’t breathe, let alone speak. “What… what the hell is it? Is it dangerous? Does it mean something’s going to happen to me?” With every word I said, my voice became faster and faster.

“It’s a warning to me.” He leaned back. He was already holding onto one of my hands. Now as he broke his grip on the black rose emblazoned on my palm, he tightened his fingers around my other hand.

It took a second for the surreal quality of the situation to strike again, but it did. I was sitting in the back of a limo with one of the most powerful vampires in all the world, holding onto his hand.

This silence filled the limo. It became cloying. I couldn’t think of a single question to ask, even though I should have had thousands.

“I’ll take you back to the mansion.”

“But aren’t you busy?”

He inclined his head to me but didn’t say anything.

I shrugged. “I’m assuming that, considering it took like a minute for you to get to where I was, that you were busy close by. Just… do whatever you need to do. I’ll….” I trailed off.

What would I do? Sit here in the back of this car and cry? Actually, that didn’t sound too bad. I wanted to be on my own – I needed to process what had just happened.

His prying gaze was on me. I knew vampires couldn’t read minds, but you tell that to his sharp awareness.

It made me swallow hard. “What?”

“Nothing.” He turned and looked at the window.

We continued to travel in silence. I didn’t insist that he should just get back to whatever he was doing again. I simply sat there as we drove back out of town to the mansion.

At one point, my leg became uncomfortable, and I pulled my phone out of my pocket.

He glanced at it. “I will ensure you have another by the end of today.”

“No, you don’t have to do that – I can buy my—” I stopped.

Own? I didn’t even own myself anymore.

“When you go back to the mansion, Charlie will remove that mark on your hand. It might hurt. I apologize for that, but there’s nothing I can do.”

I started to grate my teeth together. “What is it, anyway? You said it was a warning. Why is it on my hand?”

He glanced at me. He didn’t look as if he would ever answer that question. That was just the impression I got, but he became so stiff around it, it was like he was erecting a wall between it and himself.

“… So what happens next? Are you going to keep me inside, considering I screwed up?”

He frowned. “I fail to see how that was you screwing up.”

“I let myself be pushed into an elevator shaft. I… I was almost killed.”

“And yet, none of it was your fault. Though you do not seem to be able to recognize this, Valerie, you did well in that situation.”

… Ha. Really? Jake had told me I’d done good, too.

Now I almost let myself believe it.

I, Valerie Stevenson, was not brave. I was the exact opposite. Yeah, okay, so I was comfortable with locking up the shop at night. But I was not the kind of person who would plunge headfirst into danger. And when I found myself in trouble, I tended to freeze up.

But I’d gotten out of there, hadn’t I?

All because of one little thing.

I started to rub my mouth.

He looked at me. “Are the remnants of the gag still bothering you?” He tightened his grip on my hand.

I shook my head. “I kept tasting… iron,” I managed. “It was like it was telling me when something was behind me. Sorry,” I shook my head, “that sounds stupid, doesn’t it?”

“Perhaps to a vampire – but not to a fay. Those are your senses, Valerie. I imagine the only reason you are here with me and not in someone else’s hands right now is because you trusted them.”

I reacted to the statement here with me and not in someone else’s hands.

I tried to ensure that reaction didn’t stiffen my palm as he held it tightly.

It took me a while to be able to speak again. My mouth was dry once more, but it wasn’t with fear – at least not of mortal peril. Nerves certainly tumbled through my belly, though. They were getting faster with the look in his eyes.

“What other kind of senses will I have?” I spluttered as I tried to distract myself.

“Charlie is in a better place to answer that question.”

We reached the gate that led up to the mansion. Damn, that had happened so quickly. As stupid as it sounded, I wanted the driver to turn around and do another loop around the city. I didn’t want this to end. I didn’t even know what I thought this was – because all it was was me sitting in the back of a limo with Ridvarn. It wasn’t like we were sharing an intimate moment or anything.

“If you remember any more details of your incident, I want you to tell Charlie.”

I looked at him sharply. “Why?”

“Because it may be important.”

“That guy – one of the ones I overheard in the corridor – he threatened you.”

“You already told Charlie that.”

“What were they speaking about, anyway? Fairy drones?” My voice became tight.

We were already halfway up the long driveway. Maybe it was just the incident, or maybe it was the fact that his presence was doing something to me, but I couldn’t track time properly. It was happening in little bursts as opposed to one long, continuous stream.

“We’re here. If you remember anything, tell Charlie.” He nodded at me. Then he let go of my hand. Just like that. And just like that, the anesthetic quality of his touch ended.

I groaned. My eyes almost rolled into the back of my head.

“Your injuries will be healed soon. Now,” he looked at me sharply, “something like that will not happen again.”

With that, I got out of the car. I turned to him, but the limo had already pulled out. I didn’t know if that had been him remonstrating me or himself. But as the car drove down the long driveway, I realized I didn’t even have to question. Ridvarn – the Prince of Roses – was disappointed in himself because he hadn’t been able to keep me safe.

If he was disappointed now, it would be nothing compared to what he would feel when this game really got started.

You see, there were people out there, and they would do anything to get to me.

“Just hold still – it won’t hurt if you don’t fidget too much,” Charlie said as he grabbed my knee and pinned it against the chair.

I ignored him and squirmed around. I was wincing – vacillating between blinking one eye open and squeezing both eyes shut while quivering on the spot.

“Just hold still,” he growled once more. There was no anger in that move – just frustration.

Like I’d said before – I didn’t know Charlie, but it would be apparent to anyone that he was disappointed in himself.

“It’ll just be a slight tingle,” he lied.

“No, it won’t—” I managed to say before pain shot up my knee and into my hip. I screamed.

Charlie removed the needle from my patella and cast it aside. He looked at me. “If you’d screamed that loudly when you were being attacked near the elevator, I could’ve gotten to you earlier.” He rose and sighed. Palming his face, he turned around, walked to the other side of the magical infirmary, and grabbed something off the shelf.

My mouth was open to say something back to him, but I stopped.

His shoulders were hunched.

“It’s okay,” I said suddenly.

He turned around and arched an eyebrow. “See, I told you it wouldn’t be that painful.”

I looked at him. “It wasn’t your fault. It was mine. I didn’t know what I was dealing with. Don’t blame yourself.”

He became stiff all over. Without another word, he turned right back around and continued to rifle through the box he’d pulled from a shelf.

I sat there on the edge of the medical bed. I went to kick my legs in and out – something I always did as a short person in a world that was not built for me – but I stopped when a twinge traveled up my knee. Leaning forward, I rubbed it hard with the base of my palm.

Charlie appeared to be busying himself. I could guarantee that he’d already found whatever he was looking for – he just didn’t want to face me.

I sunk my bottom lip in and dragged it through my teeth. There wasn’t even a window in this room, so there was nothing to look at.

“What’s this black rose thing, anyway?” With nothing to distract me, my attention was diverted to it. I should say back to it. I’d been periodically checking it every few minutes. And every frown I gave as I ran my thumb over it would only get progressively deeper.

I couldn’t feel it… except I could kind of feel it. It was like it was conspicuously trying not to take up any space.

“It’s a warning,” he said as he finally turned to me. He had an even bigger, nastier looking magical needle in his hand.

I’d always hated needles. I shrunk back from it. I went to wince like a baby, but I reminded myself that would likely just make Charlie feel worse for himself.

I tried to put on a brave face as I opened an eye slightly. He stared down at the rose again. Just like that – in the click of someone’s fingers – it took my attention, and I stopped wincing altogether. “I’ve never seen a symbol like this. I guess that doesn’t mean much considering I’m not magical and all, but….”

“Don’t look at it too much.”

“Sorry? Why not?”

“Just come here.” He reached me and grabbed my hand. He looked right at me. “I’m about to stick this,” he gestured with the needle, “right through your hand.”

Way to go to distract me. I froze in fear. And I squeaked. I shook my head. “No, you’re not. No—”

He held me in a strong grip – then he did as promised. He thrust the magical needle through my hand. Before I could scream right in his face, I realized that the needle hadn’t actually impaled me. The magic was shifting through the molecules of my palm.

My scream turned into this weird spluttering, gasping hiss. My eyes opened wide as I watched the magic swell over my skin. “What the hell is happening?” I asked in a high-pitched squeak.

“Magical needle. You didn’t actually think I was going to impale you, did you?”

I just stared at the needle. Then the pain started. It was niggling at first – there, but easy to ignore. That quickly changed. This burning sensation started to ripple through my palm. I clenched my teeth. “Jesus Christ—”

“Don’t swear,” he said firmly.

“You’re a frigging fay—”

“And I work for a vampire who has standards. So I’ve got standards, too.”

I didn’t point out how unfair it was that I wasn’t allowed to swear while being stabbed with a magical needle.

I watched as the symbol started to peel back from my skin. It was like someone was putting a tattoo on in reverse.

Charlie obviously thought he’d get away with one needle, but it wasn’t enough. With a severe expression, he left me, rustled up another, and came over.

I was now in blinding pain. I was rocking back and forth against the medical bed. Its metal legs were grating against the floor.

Charlie said nothing more to me. He was quick and efficient as he grabbed up my hand, injected the needle back along the same path, and waited.

The last of the tattoo peeled back from my skin.

I couldn’t hold it in anymore, and I screamed, “Fucking hell—”

“That’ll be five dollars in the swear jar.”

“Are you out of your mind? I feel like you’ve injected lava into my veins. I’ll swear all I fucking—”

“$10 in the swear jar.”

I just gritted my teeth. The pain was starting to ebb, anyway. It happened quickly. It reached its peak. Then it crashed right back down.

He finally removed the needle. He didn’t stand back yet. He crouched down and stared at my hand from multiple angles.

The black rose tattoo hadn’t disappeared. It was floating in the air. I went to poke at it, but Charlie quickly swiped in and grabbed it up.

His power formed some kind of magical seal around it, and it produced this pulsating ball that sent shadows scattering and dancing over the floor at his feet.

I made a face. “What are you doing? Shouldn’t you throw that in the bin or something?”

“The boss wants to take a look.” He straightened up. He nodded at me. “You screamed less than I thought you would.”

Now I was in no pain whatsoever, I narrowed my eyes at him. “Would you like me to scream some more?”

“No. I think you’ve done enough for today.” He started off trying to play with me, but his mood quickly changed. He turned. With his free hand, he ran his fingers down his jaw. I could see how disappointed he was in himself. He walked for the door. When I didn’t follow, he shrugged. “Head back to your room. Just get some rest.”

I pushed off the medical bed. I was surprised when I didn’t wobble. I stood firmly. “I’m kind of hungry,” I said abruptly. It was in time with my stomach churning.

“I don’t have time to rustle you something up – but I’ll get the kitchen staff to look into it soon. Everyone’s gonna be a bit busy for an hour or two.”

“I guess I can just eat the ration pack.” I’d forgotten all about it, but when I jumped up, it banged against my leg. I shoved a hand into my pocket.

He turned faster than a loaded spring snapping back on itself.

I stopped, my fingers around the ration pack as I half pulled it out of my pocket. “What?”

“Where did you get that?”

I opened my mouth, then shook my head. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you. I took it from that storeroom I was hiding in. It completely skipped my mind.”

He shoved over and grabbed it off me. By the way he tightened his fingers around it, it was like I’d just pulled a loaded gun from my pocket.

“What is it? I thought it was a ration pack – just food.”

“I have to call Ridvarn. Head back to your room.” With that, he just marched off.

I was left there feeling cold and completely confused. Rubbing at my face and testing out my knee, I finally walked through the door. I reached the corridor. Of which there had to be frigging hundreds in this massive mansion. I made a face at it. I had no clue where I was going. Why did people keep pushing me into situations I was not equipped for?

“Beats running for your life in subway tunnels,” I muttered under my breath bitterly as I shoved my hands into my pockets and pushed off.

I walked – for entirely too long. Whenever I came across staff, they were too busy to help me.

I wondered if Charlie was doing this to try to get me to explore the mansion. Still, it was cruel. I was frigging tired.

I was weary from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. With every step, I just became more and more tired.

“Come on – where the hell is my room? This place is unnecessarily big.” I continued to moan as I dragged myself through the corridors.

Charlie had to be up to something. I was forced to tour practically the whole mansion. I found a gymnasium, swimming pools, way too many dining halls, and an absolutely enormous, fancy kitchen, but I did not find my bedroom. I didn’t even come close.

Charlie must’ve also told anyone I ran into not to help me out, because people actively avoided me.

By the time I finally came across a familiar corridor, I almost screamed for joy. That was until I recognized exactly what corridor this was. Then the memory of a blush rose up my body so quickly, it could’ve jettisoned me into outer space.

Right in front of me, down a short corridor, was none other than Ridvarn’s office.

The door was open a crack.

Though I was super tired, my senses were sharp for some reason, and despite the fact I was nowhere near the door, I heard voices.

This is where I had to turn around and tuck my tail between my legs. The last time I interrupted Ridvarn, I stood there for way too long. The last thing I needed right now was to become voyeuristic. I’d already put Ridvarn through a lot today. He didn’t need any more reasons to kick me out.

I went to turn around, but that’s when I heard my name. It drilled in, echoing through my ears and holding me to the spot. I inclined my head to the side. I tried to sharpen my senses to pick up more, but I couldn’t.

Before I knew what I was doing, I was taking a step toward the doorway, then another. Soon enough, I was just a few meters behind it.

“It won’t happen again,” Charlie said. I’d only known him for less than a day, but I’d never heard his voice so defeated. It sounded like he’d lost someone in the line of duty.

There was a protracted pause. “It can’t,” Ridvarn said. There was no anger in his words, but there was something else – disappointment.

Don’t ask me how I knew this, but I was simply certain that right now Charlie would be as dejected as a lost puppy. His shoulders would have crumpled forward, and his head would be nodding as if someone had snapped his muscles. “I’m sorry, boss.”

“I understand that. But you all need to understand how serious this is. I didn’t act quickly enough to prevent information of that dream spreading. My competitors know precisely what she dreamt of.”

They were talking about me. They hadn’t said my name again, but that didn’t matter. My back elongated. This quick, darting energy jumped from my stomach, across my shoulders, down my legs, then back into my stomach. It was a feedback loop of pure terror.

It was a terror I couldn’t quite describe, either. I didn’t think I was about to be attacked. And judging by the disappointed tone Ridvarn was using, I didn’t think I was about to be kicked out, either.

But something….

“That could’ve ended differently,” Ridvarn said, his tone controlled. Well, kind of controlled. I didn’t have a degree in reading vampires or anything, but I could tell he was tense. He was masterful at controlling it, but the tension was still there in his voice, nonetheless. I swore that right now he was leaning forward against his desk, his knuckles white as he pressed them into the leather insert.

I might have only briefly glimpsed his office, but that didn’t matter. It had been such an intense experience that I’d logged every single detail, no matter how minute. I knew the exact shade the walls were painted in and the number of portraits adorning them. Hell, even though I usually wasn’t good with spaces, I swore I knew exactly how large it was – how many footsteps it would take to reach the door, back to the chair, then across to the expansive window that looked out over the rolling grounds and the city beyond.

But none of those details mattered. All that counted was what he said next.

“She dreamt of a rose, Charlie.”

Though I hadn’t heard Ridvarn’s voice much, I knew he’d never spoken as seriously as he did now. Hell, Charlie even sucked in an audible breath.

There was a creak as if Ridvarn was leaning forward. “I shouldn’t need to tell you that every single vampire in town, if not the country, is going to want to know who it was who gave her that rose. So keep her safe. That’s an order.”

My mind kind of shut down. It was technically working, but it was fraying at the edges. I’d known that dream was important. Hello, it had precipitated the most violent attack of my life. Everything I was experiencing now was because of that dream. But I still couldn’t have imagined it could be this important. The tension running through Ridvarn’s tone could not be faked.

Though all I wanted to do was shut down at the news, something told me this conversation would not last forever. I had to get out of here before someone came out and interrupted me. The only thing worse than overhearing this would be Ridvarn finding out.

I turned quickly. It was just as they started discussing something else. I heard the words fairy, drone, and fight, and quickly concluded that they had to be talking about what I’d overheard in the tunnels.

I made it out of that corridor before I could be disturbed, and then wandered around in a daze. Somehow, despite not trying at all, I found my way back to my room. By the time I opened the door and staggered in, my mind was nothing more than this echoing, lonely void.

I immediately sat down on my ass and propped my back against the door.

I tried to open my lips, but nothing would come out.

I collapsed my hands over my face. I remained like that for several seconds until I winked one eye open.

“What the hell does that mean? Why does dreaming about a vampire giving you a rose matter?”

There was no one to answer.

There was someone to interrupt me, though. Out of nowhere, a phone rang.

I was so damn surprised about it that if I hadn’t been sitting down, I would’ve lost my balance and keeled over.

As it was, I warily pushed to my feet, my eyes tracking through the room until I located a mobile on my bedside table.

I frowned hard at it as it continued to ring.

Pushing over, I saw the name flashing on the screen. It was Cassandra.

Ridvarn had promised to get me a new phone. He’d clearly come good on that.

Not even thinking that it could be a bad idea, I answered with a splutter. “Cassie?”

There was a long pause.

“Cassie?” I muttered again, defeat, fatigue, and plain confusion making my tone as heavy as the world.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Cassandra said, every word coming out in a splutter. “I cannot believe this. It’s freaking amazing. I heard all about it. You’re a fay now, aren’t you?”

I made a fist. I let my fingers sink all the way in. My breathing became hard.

“This is the coolest thing that has ever happened to you,” she said categorically, her words becoming progressively faster. I knew Cassie. When she wanted to speak your ear off, she frigging did. It sounded like she was just getting started. “So freaking amazing. I mean, I always knew there was something different about you, kid, but I never actually thought you’d be a fay. What’s it like? What’s he like?” She immediately added, her voice dipping low in a purr.

Maybe it was the effect of Cassie calling and the sheer normalcy of having a conversation with her, but I finally managed to push to my feet. I shoved my fingernail in my mouth and started to chew hard. “It’s doing my head in. This world is crazy.”

Cassandra acted as if she hadn’t heard me at all. She cackled. “This is so amazing. I am so happy for you.”

“Cassie,” I remonstrated, my voice deep with concern. “Haven’t you heard anything I’ve said? I’m going insane.”

“You’ll be fine,” she said dismissively. “You’re always freaking out when things change fast. I know you. You’re a quick learner. You adapt. But you’ve got to promise me one thing.”

I arched an eyebrow. It was a surprise I could manage it. It was a pretty normal move for a head that was otherwise incapable of anything but freaking out.

“Just contact me every now and then, right? You’re the best friend I have. I don’t want to lose you as you become some fancy fay who’s draped off the arm of one of the most important vampires in the world, got it?

There was a lot wrong with that sentence. But something made me smile.

“Hey, are you ignoring me? Are you already planning to ditch me?” Cassandra’s voice became sharper.

“No, of course not.” I turned, reached my massive bed, and flopped down on it.

“Good. Now, what’s been going on? Have you got a fancy apartment yet? Can I come visit?”

“Not yet,” I sighed. I looked around my room glumly. It wasn’t the room that was affecting me. Ridvarn’s words kept repeating in my mind. I took in a sharp breath.

“Okay, I was trying to ignore your scared act, but I can’t anymore. What’s with the freaked out voice and the heavy breaths?”

“Cassie, you know all about vampires, don’t you?”

She cackled. “You know me – resident expert. What is it you want to know? Are you confused by your new, truly handsome boss?”

“Kind of,” I admitted in a quick, grating voice. “You know that dream I told you about?”

“Yep,” Cassie said quickly.

“Do you think it was significant? I mean, do you think it would mean something to a vampire?”

Cassie seemed floored. “Maybe.”

“The bit that seems important,” I began, swallowing hard as I gathered the courage to say this, “is the vampire climbing in my window and giving me a rose. Have you ever heard of dreams like that before?”

There was a long pause. “No,” she said, her voice, for the first time, tense.

I now jumped back and jammed my finger into my mouth so hard, I could’ve chewed the frigging thing off. “I think it’s important. I don’t know what it means. Do you have any idea?”

“You don’t think it portends that you’ll get in trouble with Ridvarn, do you?”

I quickly thought it through and shook my head. “No, it’s not that. It definitely means something. And I need to know.”

“Sure, I’ll just look it up on the Net.”

“No,” I screamed. I surprised myself with my reaction.

Cassie was surprised too. “Okay, okay, keep your shirt on. No Internet.

“I just need you to be discreet, okay?” I kept jamming my finger into my mouth until I could have made myself throw up. “No Internet, and no asking anyone obviously. But I need to know, okay?”

“This is so cool,” Cassie said, and I could tell that wherever she was, she was grinning from ear to ear. “I’m now a fay informant.”

I made a face. “You’re not an informant. You haven’t witnessed a crime or anything like that. I just—”

“You’re relying on me. I’ve got it, kid. I’ll figure it out. By the end of the week, I will tell you why it’s important if you dream of a vampire giving you a rose.”

I sighed. It took a lot of the tension out of my shoulders. I hadn’t even realized how much I was carrying around with me. It felt like, in getting rid of it, I could stand tall for the first time in 24 hours.

“So what’s he like?” Cassie quickly turned the conversation back around to what she cared about. “Is he as handsome in person as he is on the news?”

“Ridvarn?” I asked stupidly, even though it was abundantly clear who she was speaking of.

“Yeah, Ridvarn,” she trilled high. “Of course Ridvarn. Now, answer the frigging question and stop giving yourself time to think of a response. I want raw instinct, Missy. I want to hear the first thing that comes out of your mouth. What’s he like in person? What’s he like to you?” Though I didn’t think that anything would ever mollify Cassie’s excited tone, this did. You see, while she was having fun, and she ogled over vampires like any other fan girl, she was still my best friend. If she found out that someone wasn’t treating me right – even Ridvarn Rose – she’d do something about it.

“He’s fine, I guess,” I said, my voice half the volume it had been previously.

There was a long pause. “I’m not sensing that much enthusiasm.”

“There’s a lot to get my head around, Cass. This world is confusing as all hell.”

“What’s to get your head around? You grew up in the magical world like everyone else. You surely know about this stuff. You’re friends with me, after all.”

“God, you’d be so much better at this than I am,” I managed as I flopped down on my pillows.

“Don’t tempt me. I would love to be where you are now. But I’m not,” she said evenly. “You are. So embrace it. You always did want to be magical.”

My gut clenched. My expression, which had been opening up, suddenly closed off like a hand forming a fist.

Cassandra might not be able to see me, but that didn’t stop her from figuring out what had just happened. “Whoa, cool your jets. You know I didn’t mean it like that. And who cares about the bullies at school? You shared your dreams. You were honest. They were just idiots who couldn’t put up with the fact that someone seemingly mundane had a more interesting life than they did.”

I started to calm. “Sorry,” I said as I massaged my face with the base of my palm. “I just really haven’t got my head around this yet. School’s still a trigger for me,” I admitted as I rubbed my chest hard.

“I imagine it is. Those bullies were harsh assholes. But ha, can you imagine what they’d say now if they saw you? You’re the latest fay of Ridvarn. Who knows what they’re off doing, but it won’t be nearly as epic. You remember Joshua and Melinda?”

I made a face.

I swear Cassie was psychic after all, because she cackled. “I know exactly the kind of face you’re making right now, because of course you remember them. Can you imagine what they’d say now?”

“I don’t know.” I rubbed my cheek as my shoulders sunk a little. “They were pretty relentless. I don’t think they’d care. They found any reason to bully me toward the end of high school.”

“Yeah, they did, and screw them,” she said, her voice punching up high. “Because you are magical. And even if you weren’t magical, it wouldn’t frigging matter. Now, hold your head up high, kid. Who cares what anyone else thinks – even Ridvarn if he’s giving you a hard time. You’ve put up with a lot in your life, and I know for a fact you can keep pushing on, no matter what.”

I smiled. It was one of those deep, enduring moves that shifts up from your stomach, climbs your back, and explodes over your lips. The kind of move that can push away any frown, shunting it back into the background where it belongs.

“That’s the spirit. I can totally tell that you’re calming down now. So, what juicy gossip have you got to tell me?”

I briefly thought of mentioning what happened today, but I quickly decided there was no point. Not only would it unnecessarily freak her out, but it was probably secret information.

I pressed my lips together. I shrugged. “I haven’t gotten up to much, to be honest.”

“Well, tell me when you do – if you want to,” she added. “I don’t want to get in trouble with Mr. Rose.

I laughed.

We fell into an easy conversation. It didn’t last – she had to get back to work, but for a while there, it completely pulled my mind off my troubles. It allowed me to see the one thing I lacked the most – perspective.

The thing about perspective is it can be just as dangerous as it is useful. You see, it doesn’t matter what angle you look at something from if you don’t know what you’re looking at. I still had no clue what I was and what that dream had meant. Until I did, I would have no way of knowing just how dangerous this world was.

I woke the next day, bleary.

My stomach was grumbling and my knee felt like hell. I groaned as I grabbed it.

It was only then that I realized someone was knocking on the door.

“Come on, get up. I know you’ve got a hell of a headache after your injuries yesterday, but we’ve still got to work.”

It was Charlie.

Groaning again, I rolled over.

I went to throw a pillow at the door, but I quickly realized who I was dealing with. I pulled myself out of bed. My head throbbed.

I made it over to my dressing gown. I pulled it on then reached the door. I opened it.

There Charlie was, looking just as professional as ever. He took one look at me and winced. It was like he’d seen a zombie.

He looked me up and down. “That can happen,” he said authoritatively.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “What are you talking about?”

He nodded at me, though he didn’t keep his gaze on me long. I must’ve really looked like hell. “When a fairy receives their first magical treatment, it can be pretty challenging. You’ve also got to accept that your body is changing. Soon enough, human food isn’t going to be sufficient for you,” he added as my stomach rumbled.

I clutched it. I shook my head. “No – no way. I am not going to eat gargoyles.”

“Gargoyles?” He laughed, his ribald voice echoing through the room. “Sorry, gargoyles?” he added again, clearly not willing to let it go as he slapped his leg. “Do you honestly think we go out and hunt gargoyles every night? Fays haven’t eaten gargoyles for about 80 years. If you do,” he looked at me seriously, “you go straight to jail. The only thing we eat now is synthetic meat. It has all the nutrients we need – and trust me when I say we need a lot. You can still snack on human food if you want, but in order to get the same nutrition, you’ll be spending most of the day eating. And we really don’t want that. We’ve got too much work to do,” he said seriously.

My eyes fluttered wide open.

He shot me a muddled smile. “It’s okay,” he said, slowing his voice all the way down as if he was talking to a child who’d just had a nightmare. “Nothing like yesterday’s going to happen today. I promise you,” he added. The way he said promise, it was like he was making a deal with the universe itself.

I slowly nodded. Then I nodded harder. “I don’t blame you—”

“It doesn’t really matter if you do. You are my responsibility, and I screwed up. It will not happen again,” he said harder.

Deciding not to push the issue, I looked over at the windows. It was raining. It had been pounding down since early this morning.

I made a face.

He just arched an eyebrow. “Yeah, we work in the rain. We work in the snow; we work in the hail; we work no matter what’s going on outside. Because what we do is important.”

“I’m just cold, that’s all,” I said as I shrugged further into my dressing gown.

It was his turn to shrug. He gestured with wide sweeps of his shoulder toward the walk-in wardrobe. “Then go get a jacket. I know you’ve got all the clothes you need.”

I nodded.

He closed the door for me.

I selected an outfit. It was pretty similar to the one I’d worn yesterday. There was something about functional jeans, boots, and a nice big jacket that gave me a false sense that I could actually do this.

When I was done dressing, I came out.

This time he didn’t tell me to find my own way back to the garage. He led me. He also bothered to point out various things. He showed me the kitchen, the training grounds, even a personal pool that I could use whenever I needed to.

It did not take me long to wonder why he was doing this now. And it didn’t take much longer than that for my gut to clench.

What if he knew that I’d overheard that conversation with Ridvarn last night, and he didn’t want me to wander around aimlessly anymore?

If he did know, he didn’t mention it once. We reached the car. It was even bigger than the one we’d driven yesterday.

When I made eyes at it, he just shrugged. “Yesterday won’t happen again,” he said as if repeating some mantra.

I nodded and pulled myself in.

It took until we’d driven out of the massive gates until I turned to him. I opened my mouth.

He shrugged at the back seat. “Today we really are just gonna deliver some roses. You can hang back and watch.”

“Oh,” I said. It was a pretty silly response. But to be fair, I didn’t understand. Yesterday, he’d been all gung ho about me learning things. Now he was using the kid gloves.

He obviously saw my reaction. It took him a while, then he turned to me. “I took things too fast yesterday. Don’t worry – you’ll still get the proper training to become a fay, but I understand my mistake now.”

My nose scrunched up. “I don’t understand. Do you treat other adult fays like this?”

He turned around. He distracted himself with driving.

When I went to ask the question again, he thumbed the Bluetooth button on the steering wheel and made a call.

Soon a deep, husky voice echoed through the car. Why was it that every single magical creature I met had a voice that could break the earth in two?

“What have you got for me? We’re on our way,” Charlie added before whoever he’d call could answer. “ETA is about three minutes.”

“Coast is clear. I’ve done a full sweep. Everything should be fine.”

Whoever it was continued to talk to Charlie, and I followed some of the conversation, but a lot of the words they were using went right over my head. I wasn’t the kind to watch military films, and I certainly didn’t read the hard-core news that much, so I didn’t have a lexicon to figure out what they were discussing. But something… something told me it was me.

I knew that was paranoid. Yeah, okay, so I was special in some way because of that dream, but Ridvarn ran a massive operation. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the magical security in this city. Not everything would revolve around me.

“I’ve selected your car park – I’ll send you the details now.” The guy didn’t even bother to say goodbye. He just hung up.

I stared at Charlie out of the corner of my eye.

I thought he’d let it go, but obviously my sharp gaze quickly became too much for him. “Before you ask – because I know what you’re thinking – yes, that was for you.”

“What?” My cheeks became cold. “Why would that be for me?”

“Because you’re valuable, Valerie,” he said in all seriousness. It was the kind of seriousness that made my gut clench and my nerves dance through my body in one nasty ass chaotic wave.

I just managed to stop myself from clutching a hand over my belly.

“Don’t freak out. Actually,” he changed his mind quickly.

I became pale. “Actually what?” I stammered.

He looked right at me. “It’s critically important that you don’t wander off on your own or do anything stupid. What happened yesterday was my fault,” he said through clenched teeth, “but I need you to take responsibility for your actions going forward.”

“Why?” I stammered.

He looked away from me. “Because you’re an adult fay. You’ve got no training, which means it’s really hard for you to defend yourself.”

“Why is that dangerous?”

I knew full well why that was dangerous. I didn’t need him to paint me a picture, but that was not the point. I was learning a lot from this interaction. And all of it just made me think of the conversation from yesterday. Though I was certain this morning that he’d known that I’d overheard it, now I wasn’t so sure. If he knew, he wouldn’t be lying to me right now.

I was not Cassandra. I usually wasn’t good at telling if people were holding back, but now I just knew.

“You saw that place yesterday. You know full well what’s going on in this city. Someone like you,” his voice shook, “is a prime candidate to be kidnapped and used in fairy fights. Okay? I don’t want to scare you, but that’s the truth.”

My stomach clenched then released. I felt like what he was saying was only half true. Yeah, someone like me could be used in a fairy fight, but I had to be missing something. “But I’m registered now.”

“It doesn’t matter.” He still wouldn’t look at me. “You’re a prime target for those fairy gangs. So we need to keep an eye on you.” He turned to me and demonstrated precisely what he would do as he gazed at me directly.

I nodded. I turned back to the windscreen. I was clutching my seatbelt hard.

It didn’t take that much longer until we arrived at our destination. We pulled up in a car park, and I was treated to the sight of possibly the largest man I had ever seen. He was so massive, I was pretty certain he had to have his clothes made for him out of giant hides.

“Bruce Sharp,” Charlie said as he nodded at the guy. “One of the best gargoyles we’ve got.”

“Gargoyles,” I squeaked as I tightened my grip on my seatbelt.

Charlie just arched an eyebrow. “We shouldn’t have to go over this again. We do not eat gargoyles anymore. We eat simulated gargoyle.”

I made a face anyway. “That’s still kinda creepy. We hang out with gargoyles even though we pretend we eat them for dinner?”

“Yeah, we hang out with gargoyles. And trust me, they’re not the kind of creatures to care what we pretend to eat. There’s nothing much that can make a gargoyle bat an eyelash.” He undid his seatbelt and got out.

I followed. I tried not to make eye contact with the gargoyle. That’s what you were meant to do as a civilian. Sure, gargoyles were under the control of the magical community – just like every other race – but gargoyles were a whole lot scarier. Unlike fairies and vampires, you didn’t need to take a second glance to figure out what they were. It was written right over there large, impossibly powerful forms.

I could tell that Bruce’s eyes were on me. He gave a chuckle. He pushed his hands onto his knees and bent down to my level. “I’m not going to bite,” he said. “Plus, it’s usually your kind who bites us.”

I squeaked at that comment. “I would never eat you.”

It must’ve been something about the way I said that, but both men broke into laughter. Bruce leaned over and clapped Charlie hard on the back. It was enough that Charlie momentarily lost his balance. That just made Charlie laugh even harder.

Warily, I looked up at both men. I wasn’t getting the joke.

Bruce shoved a hand out in front of my face.

Reluctantly, I took it. I let him do all the shaking. Even if I had used my magic, there was no way I would have been able to shift his body.

“Nice to meet you. You’re the talk of the town.”

I watched Charlie shake his head once in a direct, quick move.

Bruce cleared his throat. “Anyway,” he said quickly, “I’ve done a bit of pre-work on our targets. Mostly small stuff. I think they’re gonna need a second warning. Idiots who don’t know what they’re doing,” his voice dipped down low. “Fools who can’t imagine the consequences that are about to come knocking on their door. It’s just this way.” He nodded forward.

We were in a square. To my side was a cobbled off area you couldn’t drive through. There were a lot of businesses, from boutique clothes stores, to cafés, to a few fancy restaurants.

Bruce nodded at the back of one of the cafés.

“Here we go,” Charlie said as he opened the back of the car and pulled out the box of roses.

I was hyperaware of everyone else on the street. As soon as people saw a massive man carrying a velvet blue box, about half the people around me paled several shades until it looked as if they were going to faint. Everyone else looked mildly interested, but not as if they were about to have a cardiac arrest.

… The interested people would be humans, and everyone else would be from the magical community.

People parted before us as Charlie walked through with his box of roses.

Rather than heading around the back of the restaurant, he specifically went in the front.

I watched a guy who just had to be a vampire judging by his sharp eyes take one look at the restaurant, change his mind, leave his food, and walk out with a disgusted look on his face.

Immediately someone who looked in charge walked out in pale-faced shock. “What are you doing coming in the front door? You’re bothering my customers—”

“There’s no rule that says we can’t come in the front door. And there’s no rule that says your customers shouldn’t know exactly what you’re up to. Vincent Brown – you’re being handed a warning.”

I’d seen someone handed a warning before – it had happened on the bus once. I’d never known what the guy had done – just the exact color his cheeks had turned.

The owner of the cafe, however, didn’t even bother to look sorry. He made the mistake of ushering Charlie to the side. When Charlie didn’t move, he made the even bigger mistake of placing a hand on Charlie’s shoulder.

Every single person in the café stopped collectively. Obviously the crowd was mostly magical. They could all tell that this idiot had just made one of the greatest mistakes of his life.

I was standing back near the door. Bruce was beside me. He took a step up to Charlie and cracked his neck.

As one, most of the patrons started to leave. They shoved their money on the table and walked out – some of them jogged.

The guy who’d mistakenly grabbed Charlie’s arm became pale with frustration then immediately red with anger. “Look at what you’re doing to my business? You have no right to do this. I—”

Charlie leaned in and grabbed the guy by his lapels and pulled him off his feet. He dangled up in the air like a Christmas decoration.

I watched as his eyes registered just how much shit he was now in.

“There will be no discussion. I also don’t give one hoot about the fact that your business is being affected. Everyone here, or at lease out there,” he shrugged in the direction of where the patrons had gone, “deserves to know you have been acting illegally.”

The guy didn’t say anything, either because this situation was finally starting to register in his thick skull, or because Charlie’s grip on his lapels was way too tight.

“I’m gonna tell you what you’re going to do, Vincent,” Charlie said, his voice hitting this pitch that would make even the stupidest person understand the level of total threat they were now in. “Stop what you’re doing. Right now. You’re never going to go to one of those fights again. And right now, you’re going to tell Bruce everything you know about them. You got that?”

My back itched – all on one word. Fights.

I started to look at this guy with a different eye. The only fights I knew about were the ones that had been happening between fays.

I hardly had an expert gaze, but my instincts locked on his eyes. I didn’t know what race he was, but they seemed too wide for some reason.

The guy continued to mutter, but he didn’t appear to be nearly half as fearful as he should be.

When Charlie suddenly dropped him, the guy simply sneered. He stood up, grabbed his shirt collar, and pulled it out with a wrenching movement. “All I did was attend one of those fights. I have not acted—”

“Here’s a tip,” Bruce said as he settled his hand on Vincent’s shoulder and brought his snarling face close, “this is not a discussion. If I were you, I would stop acting as if it were right now. And right now,” his voice achieved an even lower pitch, “I would do exactly as we say. You come with me, and you tell me everything you remember about those fights.” He looked Vincent up and down. “And you’re gonna tell me where you got your booster from, got it?”

On the word booster, my stomach clenched.

There was only one thing they could possibly be talking about. It was the drug that was causing all this mess.

I stared at Vincent with a far more critical eye. And mostly, it was his eyes that mattered. I realized why they didn’t seem to be functioning correctly.

“Finally starting to appreciate the seriousness of this?” Bruce said as he leaned in.

I didn’t think the guy could get any paler.

“All right, I’ll leave you to it.” Charlie grabbed one of the roses and handed it to Bruce. Bruce snatched one of his massive hands around the guy’s lapel and held the rose right in front of his face.

Charlie settled a hand on my shoulder, patted it, and turned me around. “See – that’s a large part of what we do.”

Yeah, I’d seen, all right. But it wasn’t the interaction that was playing around my mind – it was the look in Vincent’s eyes. It still chilled me.

I shivered as we made it out onto the street.

Charlie looked at me seriously. “You still cold? It’s probably the effect of your injuries combined with the fact you haven’t had a real meal yet. There’s a snack in the car. There’s also a bigger jacket—” Charlie suddenly dipped his head to the side. His gaze narrowed.

I blinked at him. “What—”

“The guy’s giving Bruce trouble,” he said with a growl. “You stay right here.” He pointed to the cobble beneath my feet.

I was only about two meters away from the front of the café door. He turned right around swiftly, settled a hand on his holster, and walked back in. He didn’t bother to toe the door of the café open – he wrenched it right off its hinges and settled it beside him as if he’d done nothing more arduous than pick up a baby bird.

By now, most of the humans had scattered. A lot of the people still left staring on around us would be magical.

I let my gaze shift over several of them. I identified several as vampires. There were three massive gargoyles, and the rest were probably fairies.

My gaze kept skimming over the group. I wasn’t just interested in them as I used my newfound skills to identify them. The memory of yesterday still played loudly and violently in my mind. My senses were honing and sharpening on their own. Whether I was choosing to or not, I kept scanning my environment for potential threats. It was when I was doing that that I suddenly recognized two faces.

It felt like a memory reached up out of my childhood and slapped me.

Holy hell – it was Miranda and Joshua.

They’d been walking down a laneway. They settled their eyes on me.

They were in military gear.

It didn’t surprise me that after school they’d joined the fairy corps. They’d talked about it during high school. And whenever they’d threatened me by barreling me up behind the back of the gym and lifting me right off my feet, they’d always promised that one day when they had real power behind them, they’d pay me another visit.

The sane side of my brain told me that they would just keep on walking. High school had been a long time ago.

But the raw, primal part of my brain told me they wouldn’t, and I tasted that iron tinge shifting through my mouth.

Sure enough, as Miranda nodded my way and gave me one hell of an unkind grin, they angled toward me.

In that moment, I forgot all about the fact I was a fay and that, literally only 10 meters away, were Charlie and Bruce. Memories of my high school trauma came raring up, biting at my heels. Tension flashed through me, and I knew I paled several shades.

Joshua came to a stop in front of me. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his army fatigues. He looked me up and down. “What the hell are you doing in front of a fairy joint? God, you still aren’t obsessed with pretending to be magical, are you?”

I was so tense, I couldn’t possibly speak. I just stared at him.

Miranda gave an unkind chuckle. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. But we’re not ghosts – we’re fairies – and we’re both trained now.”

“I don’t want any trouble.” I brought my hands up. They were shaking.

“Trouble? Who the hell said we’d be trouble?”

“Wait,” Miranda clicked her fingers, the sound echoing around me, “we both promised to be trouble one day.” She laughed.

It set my teeth on edge. I kept my hands up. “Guys, it’s been a long time since high school. A lot has happened—”

“It really hasn’t. You’re clearly still trying to pretend that you’re magical. But you aren’t. You’re just a faker. Another sad kid who wants to pretend they have a modicum of importance in their life. Now,” he said slowly and haltingly, “get,” he pushed a breath through his teeth, “out,” he added, his voice even harder, “of,” he leaned his face forward, “my—”

He never got the opportunity to finish his sentence.

I felt something rear up behind me. A hand shifted past my shoulder and grabbed Joshua’s fingers.

Though Joshua was big, his fingers paled in comparison.

“What are you doing, private?” Bruce’s voice echoed out from behind me. It boomed exactly like thunder.

I surprised myself when I didn’t jump. I was way too busy noting Joshua’s exact expression. He looked as if he’d just seen death itself walk up and knock on his door. “Are you Bruce Sharp? Didn’t you head up the special fairy operations division of the Army for 20 years?”

“Yes, I did. I don’t know your name, Private – and I don’t need to. Get away from her,” he growled.

Joshua looked like he’d been slapped – then punched, then slapped again for good measure. He staggered back. He looked from me up to Bruce. “What the hell is going on? She’s just—”

“Under the jurisdiction of Ridvarn Rose,” Bruce finished Joshua’s sentence.

It was clear Joshua wanted to laugh. It was just as clear that he wouldn’t dare do so in Bruce’s presence. His gaze sliced from Bruce back to me, then over to Bruce. All the while, the blood drained from his face until it looked as if Bruce had yanked his jugular out of his throat.

“Ridvarn Rose?” Joshua stuttered.

Bruce was not the kind of operator to repeat himself twice.

Joshua jerked back so quickly, he almost fell over.

Miranda had already backed the hell off. She brought her hands up. “We don’t want any trouble. We had no idea—”

“If you don’t want any trouble, then I suggest you follow my instructions. Never have anything to do with my charge again. You got that? Unless you want to get a rose,” he added, his voice emptying down low.

Both Josh and Miranda turned around and ran off. Back in high school, they’d never bat an eyelid at anyone’s threat. Now they looked like kids who’d just seen an actual monster pull itself out from under their beds.

Once they were gone, Bruce turned to me. “You okay? How do they know you?”

I tore my gaze off them. “High school. They used to… be unkind.”

He paused. Then he chuckled. It wasn’t compassionate – if anything, he was just trying to point out the obvious. “Then you be sure to be unkind back.”

I blinked at him as if I was finally realizing that was a possibility.

He patted me on my shoulder once more then turned smoothly. “You stay here. We’re just wrapping up in there.”

There were swear words and bangs then a painful gasp. A few minutes later, Charlie walked out. He looked at me. “You okay?”

I thought for a few seconds, then nodded.

Yeah, I was.

I glanced back in the direction of where Joshua and Miranda had run for their lives, and I told myself that I was better than okay. I’d just faced off against a demon from my past. I’d carried the wound of being teased at school my entire freaking life. I’d always tried to justify to anyone who’d ever remembered the incidents that my dreams truly were unusual and I hadn’t made them up. There’d be no more justification anymore. It wasn’t necessary. Because you know what? I, Valerie Stevenson, was about as magical as they came.

I helped Charlie deliver roses for the rest of the day. You could easily put help in quotation marks. It wasn’t like I actually did anything. I just hung around. Still, it was quite something to see Charlie and Bruce work. They were one hell of a team. It made me wonder how – or if – I would ever fit in.

By the time I made it back to the mansion, I was inexplicably weary. It wasn’t like I’d done anything. You tell that to my muscles. This deep, aching fatigue had set in. It was climbing my body, using it as its personal torture machine. My shoulders were knotty, my stomach was permanently clenched, and my legs felt as if they’d been stretched over a rack.

When Charlie saw me wobbling badly, he frowned. He opened his mouth, no doubt to ask what the hell was wrong with me, but that would be when my stomach gave one heck of a rumble. It was the kind of noise you’d hear just before the earth splits in two. Embarrassed, I clutched it and winced.

Charlie just laughed.

I was starting to get used to his guffaws. They were genuine enough. They also told me that if Charlie could laugh in a world this screwed, then maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

He clapped a hand on my shoulder. He had to use at least a tenth of the strength he’d used on Bruce earlier when they’d parted. It seemed they were good friends.

That didn’t stop Charlie from leaning in and saying, “I think it’s time for your first taste of gargoyle.”

I stiffened. I turned my face up to him, my cheeks sallow and slack. “Gargoyle?” My lips wobbled open.

He laughed again. “We’ve gone over this. I’m not about to feed you real gargoyle. But,” he paused, and as if on cue, my stomach gave another epic rumble, “it’s time for you to eat real fairy food.” With his hand still on my shoulder, he led me through the massive foyer and through one of the many side corridors.

I think I was almost starting to figure out which corridors led to what. I say almost. I swore this mansion changed rooms occasionally, just to confuse me further.

We entered the kitchen. It was truly massive. It was also packed with staff. It had to be. This wasn’t just Ridvarn’s place. It was full of his people. I wasn’t the only one of his employees who lived here.

Someone who had to be the head chef walked over. The floor rumbled at his approach. I swear the black and white tiles actually undulated like a wave.

The guy, despite the fact he was in a pristine white chef jacket and hat, was a gargoyle. I say despite the fact, because as far as I was aware, all gargoyles went into the security business. Their massive bodies ensured they were built for one thing – combat.

This guy had a whisk in his hand and a bowl of whipped cream in the other. He nodded at me. “She’s ready for her first meal, then?”

Charlie grinned. “You bet you. Let’s say,” he looked me up and down, “gargoyle sous vide.”

The head chef didn’t bat an eyelid at the fact Charlie wanted me to eat one of his kind – even if it was simulated. He nodded, then shrugged. “I think I can cook that up quickly. How about a braised giant leg while we’re there?”

Charlie clapped his hands. “Make that two.”

I just looked at the chef. I waited for him to get insulted.

He nodded, placed his bowl down, reached his hand out, introduced himself as Paul, then walked away. All of the other staff in the kitchen broke away in front of him like waves before a massive icebreaker.

Charlie’s hand was still on my shoulder. “You’re really going to have to get over the fact that we eat simulated magical races. Trust me when I say they’ve gotten over it years ago.”

I pulled my collar out, my skin itchy all over. “It’s just kind of weird, that’s all.”

“It’s hardly that weird. Vampires have eaten simulated human blood for centuries now. If it weren’t for them,” he got a far-off look in his eyes as he tilted his head up and looked through one of the massive windows that rimmed the kitchen, “we fairies would still be the mindless apex predators we were. It was only the vampires who realized that, with just a little effort, we magical races could get along. That doesn’t, however, change the fact of what we are. But due to modern technology, and chefs like Paul,” he nodded Paul’s way, “we can survive and thrive together.”

I’d heard talk like that before. Every single primary school kid knew this spiel. But I’d always just kind of glossed over it.

Now as my stomach gave a rumble, I realized I was about to eat simulated gargoyle for the first time. Charlie was right, though – if the vampires hadn’t come along and rehabilitated fairies 80 years ago, I wouldn’t be eating anything simulated. I would’ve… what? Tracked a gargoyle through town for several days, cornered him, and ripped his throat out?

I shivered at the thought.

It didn’t take long for Paul to whip up our food. He’d obviously had some on hand. Fair enough – Ridvarn did have an entire army of fays to feed.

Though there was a massive dining hall next to the kitchen, then several smaller, private affairs branching off it, Charlie didn’t take me to one of them, thankfully. He took me out of the back of the kitchen and around into one of the beautiful herb gardens that surrounded the mansion. He plonked me down on a seat just under a red Japanese maple. Then he pushed the plate into my hands.

I looked at him.

“I figured the first time you eat you want to do it in private.” He got up, still holding his own food, and walked away.

“You’re not going to stay?”

“Hell no – you will get sauce over my white top.” With that mysterious comment, he waved and strode off.

I stared down at my plate. It was an ordinary-sized portion. I’d been expecting something massive – wanting it, too. My stomach felt like there was a hole in it.

I ran my teeth through my lips. I brought the food up and smelt it.

Whoa. I had never had such an intense experience in my life. My tastebuds lit up like a Christmas tree. This energy bolted through my stomach then up into my mouth. I started to salivate on fast forward. My eyes even rolled into the back of my head.

“What the hell is this?” I stammered.

I was more than thankful for the fact that Charlie had left, and a second later, I understood why. I bent over my meal and just… crammed it into my mouth. I ripped into the meat like I was the predator everyone was promising me I was.

The next several minutes were just a blur. A blur of food, of energy, and of survival instincts. It wasn’t the act of ripping into the simulated meat that got to me, but the exact combination of nutrients, smells, and textures. It spoke to something deep within me. When I was done… God, I made the mistake of looking down at my top. I was absolutely covered in sauce.

I instantly went bright red. Inclining my head from the left to right, I looked to see if I had any witnesses. There was no one. Maybe Charlie had ordered everyone to leave me alone.

I pressed my trembling fingers into my cheek. I found plenty of sauce and wiped it off with my thumb. Then I shook my head, grabbed the plate instinctively, and went to drop it beside me.

I thought better of it.

I couldn’t be embarrassed by what I was – not anymore.

Because this was who I would be for the rest of my life.

Maybe that hadn’t sunk in yet.

I rested back, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the feel of the late afternoon sunshine playing against my face. I thought of Miranda and Joshua. Then abruptly, I stopped thinking of them.

They had been a fixture of my teenage life, and their memory had haunted my adult years. Now… they were gone. Because that old Valerie was gone, too.

I still didn’t know what I would become, because I hadn’t finished becoming her yet. But I finally embraced the fact I was changing.

It would be too little far too late.

I woke the next morning bright and early. It was a first for me. I was very much a night owl and not a morning lark. But as I pushed my covers off and rose, I had this burst of energy.

The first thing I could think of was that meal from last night. My stomach grumbled, but that didn’t detract from how pumped I was.

I immediately got dressed. By the time I opened the door, it was to the sight of Charlie striding down the hallway with his hands in his pockets. He shot me a surprised look. Then he grinned. “Heading down for breakfast, are you?”

“I just woke early. I’ve never… felt so energized.”

“Paul’s cooking will do that to you. Speaking of which – I’ve got a sandwich for you in the car.”

“We’re heading off early? Why?”

“Tricky day ahead,” he admitted quietly as he scratched his brow.

I frowned. “What does that mean?”

“We’ve got several deliveries to make.”

I opened my mouth to ask why that was tricky – considering that’s what he did every day – but he turned away from me quickly.

I’d really only just met him, but I’d known him more than long enough to appreciate that when he decided not to tell me something, he kept his mouth shut. Perhaps he’d accidentally pointed out it would be a tricky day in the first place, because he certainly didn’t mention anything about it again.

We quickly made it to the car. By the time we turned down the right corridor leading to the garage, I could smell the sandwich. I started to salivate like crazy. I crammed a hand on my stomach as it rumbled.

Charlie chuckled. “There’s no going back now, you know. No one else’s food is gonna taste like Paul again.”

I looked at Charlie sharply. “Taste like Paul?

“Taste like Paul’s,” he emphasized the S. “Now come on.” He opened the garage. He selected another massive black SUV. As soon as we were inside, he opened the glove compartment, and right there was a carefully wrapped sandwich.

I grabbed it way too quickly.

Then I looked at him. I really didn’t want to eat in front of him like I had last night.

He just shrugged. “Knock yourself out.”

I ripped the foil off. Just before I succumbed to my hunger and crammed the sandwich into my mouth, I looked at him. “Where are we headed?”

“We are going to pick Bruce up. Then we’re gonna head back to that café from yesterday.”

“I thought we already handed that warning out?”

“We did. But our little friend has already gone missing. He’s gone to ground, I imagine. Idiot, he spat, shoving the keys into the ignition and revving the car into life. He pulled out of the garage.

I concentrated on eating my sandwich. Fortunately, I didn’t rip it apart like I was a lion and it was a tender gazelle leg.

We drove in silence. I could think of thousands of questions to fill it with, but I didn’t. Charlie was somber for some reason. He was also excessively watchful.

Now I was coming into my fay senses, I couldn’t just use them to track threats. I was way more observant than I usually was. I felt every single time Charlie’s eyes tracked across the windows, darting from the windscreen to the left, to the right, then to the rear vision mirror.

It was almost like he expected a threat to rear its ugly head as we powered down the highway.

But no idiot would be stupid enough to attack one of Ridvarn Rose’s cars… right?

“Did you ever find out anything more about that… place I found?” I asked as I finished every tiny morsel of my sandwich and went about the laborious task of cleaning every crumb off myself.

“He’s looking into it,” Charlie said, and the tone of his voice suggested that was the only answer I would get.

Presumably by he, he meant Ridvarn.

I nodded. I distracted myself with scratching my arms. My fingers naturally traveled down to my hand. They stopped on my left palm.

Charlie jerked his head toward me. “It’s not bothering you, is it? You haven’t felt anything under the skin, have you?”

His intensity surprised me. I opened my eyes in a wide blink of confusion. “What? Do you mean that black rose?” I thought of it then shook my head. “No. It’s fine. I can’t feel anything at all. It’s just…” I trailed off.

“It’s just what?” he pushed.

I was confused. Charlie obviously didn’t want to talk about the incident. But now, even if I tried to run away from this topic, he would just track me down and pin me.

“Nothing,” I said as I thought it through one final time. “It’s nothing at all. I guess I just can’t push that incident out of my head.”

“Don’t worry. It’ll—”

“Never happen again,” I finished his promise for him as I leaned back. I grabbed my seatbelt. At first, my grip was too hard, but I soon slackened it off. I started to run my nails up and down the belt.

We drove in silence for five more minutes until we pulled off the shoulder of the highway and down under a bridge. There, waiting for us, was Bruce. He stood right smack bang in the middle of the car park. He looked like a tree.

He waved briefly as Charlie stopped.

“Get in the back,” Charlie told me.

“I’ll feel like you’re my driver, then.”

“Try bodyguards,” Charlie said distractedly under his breath.

That made my stomach clench again.

Yeah, I got it. I had made a promise with Ridvarn. He was meant to keep me safe, but why did I get the feeling that he was going to extremes that he never went to with his other fays?

Silently, I got out of the front seat and moved to the back. I went to sit behind the passenger seat, but Bruce shook his head. He pointed to the seat behind Charlie. “You’ve gotta go behind the driver.”

I frowned at him. “Why?”

“It makes you safer in a car crash. No matter their training, drivers tend to act instinctively when they face oncoming threats and swerve away from them. This can put people in the passenger-side at greater risk.”

With a confused frown marking my lips, I got behind Charlie, nonetheless.

I really did feel like I had bodyguards now.

As soon as Charlie turned the car back on, reversed through the car park, and joined the highway again, I felt this silence spreading between us like an oppressive weight.

I kept scratching my arms.

Bruce turned around to look at me. “You okay?”

“She had her first meal yesterday.” Charlie shrugged.

Bruce grinned at me once then turned back around. “What does gargoyle taste like, anyway?”

I felt sick. I didn’t know what I’d eaten in that sandwich, but it had tasted suspiciously like the meal from yesterday.

“Kid,” Bruce said in a direct but still friendly voice, “I don’t care that you eat simulated gargoyle. As long as you don’t eat real gargoyle, that’s all that matters to me. You’ll find my people are pretty comfortable with the current state of affairs – yours as well. Because while fays used to survive by hunting gargoyle, we gave your people hell, too.”

Not knowing what to say, I kind of just muttered a sorry and then a thank you and went back to staring out the window.

Charlie and Bruce had a muttered conversation about the guy at the café.

For some reason it made my back tingle. I started to taste this latent iron tinge, too – but there weren’t any threats around.

Maybe it was just a reaction to my nerves.

They were certainly getting the better of me.

By the time we pulled up to the same car park we’d used yesterday, these low, heavy clouds had started to push in from the horizon.

It had been raining cats and dogs yesterday. For whatever reason, despite the fact these clouds weren’t nearly as dark, I got a far worse ominous feeling off them.

As I jumped out of the car, I tilted my head up and stared at them.

“There’s a jacket in the back,” Charlie said as he inclined his head to the boot.

I walked around and opened the boot. I’d been expecting just an ordinary coat. What I got was something that looked like it was right out of an Antarctic expedition. I frowned at the fake fur as I poked it. “This is over the top.”

“You’re all white,” Bruce pointed out. “In case you haven’t noticed, your teeth are chattering.”

I shoved my palm against my jaw and anchored my fingers in. I hadn’t noticed. And that was crazy, because my teeth weren’t just chattering – they were shaking like arthritic hands.

Not second-guessing them anymore, I grabbed the jacket. I pulled it on, and it was sheer heaven. As I zipped it up, it was like I finally had a wall between me and the rest of the world.

I did take one look from my coat over to Bruce and Charlie who were just wearing shirts and frown at myself, though. “People are going to think I’m mad.”

“The magical community is pretty lenient. Different races have different metabolisms. No one is going to think you’re crazy. Now come on.” Charlie grabbed the roses out of the back, and Bruce closed the door.

I fell into step behind Charlie. Bruce slowed down until he was behind me.

… They were guarding me again, weren’t they?

I was clearly not the only one who noticed this. As we walked into the square, anyone who looked like they were a magical creature stared directly at me. I could see the questioning quality of their gazes.

We made a beeline for the café.

Maybe it was just my imagination, but it seemed darker than it had yesterday. It wasn’t like someone had just painted it black. There was just… this energy.

That iron tinge in my mouth became twice as bad. I tried to run my tongue over my teeth in the futile attempt to dislodge it.

Charlie stood straighter, and Bruce got this look in his eyes.

“Come on,” Charlie said quickly.

We walked in the front door.

There wasn’t a single patron. Yesterday, this place had been packed.

At first, the woman behind the counter looked at us with surprised thankfulness in her gaze, but when she realized we were not patrons and Charlie had a box of roses, she paled, jerked around on her heel, and ran into the back room without another word.

My gaze got stuck searching the café.

My eyes locked on strange details. There was a set of upturned chairs in the corner. Though I was certain that they were simply seats that they hadn’t gotten around to putting out yet, my overactive imagination warned me they could’ve been used in a recent fight.

The next thing I knew, my nostrils started to flare. I began to draw in deep breaths. It reminded me of the moment back down in the subway when my senses had come online all at once – when I’d used my sense of smell to locate that door.

I… I thought I smelt fresh blood.

I shifted toward the table and chairs just as heavy footfall pounded out toward us.

I expected Vincent – even though I’d already been told that he’d gone to ground.

What I got instead was a guy who looked a lot like Vincent and had to be a relative.

He took one look at Charlie and Bruce, then put his hands up.

Though he looked as if he was in a surrendering position, his gaze was defiant as all hell. “I don’t know where my brother is. If I did, I would’ve already voluntarily shared the details.”

Charlie nodded. He tapped his fingers on the box of roses. “Matthew, you certainly want that to be true. Because if it’s false,” his voice bottomed out low, “then this will be your second warning. Do you know how many more warnings you’ll get after that?”

The chick behind the counter had walked back in after Matthew. She paled three shades at that threat.

Matthew shifted his jaw from left to right. It looked as if he wanted to start a fight, but at the last moment, he brought his hands up instead. “Look, I have no clue where my asshole brother is, okay? I was an idiot for letting him run this café. I don’t care what happens next – even if he comes back alive, I will ensure he has nothing to do with this place, got it? That should be enough for your boss.”

“You don’t get to decide what’s enough for Ridvarn Rose. All you get,” Charlie reached into the box and pulled out one of the roses, “is this.”

The guy bared his teeth.

I was interested in the interaction, but I couldn’t tear my gaze off those upturned chairs. The next thing I knew, I walked toward them.

I was still in the café, so neither Charlie nor Bruce growled at me for trying to wander off.

No one paid attention to me at all, in fact.

I reached the chair. I had my back to everyone. There was no one to see just how wide my nostrils flared. I pushed out a trembling hand. I scraped a nail along the rough wood of the chair leg. Though it was smooth everywhere else, just under my nail, it was bumpy as if it had been beaten against something.

As my nail snagged those rough edges, I saw a few flashes chase through my mind. It had to be my imagination getting the better of me, because I swore I could see the chair being beaten over someone’s head.

My hand suddenly twitched as my nail uncovered something. This smell struck me all at once. It was blood. And it was relatively fresh – it had been let in the past 24 hours.

I’d never felt sensations like this, and I was desperately underequipped to deal with them. My eyes started to roll into the back of my head. I sniffed again, but it was too deep, and I started to hyperventilate.

Just at that moment, Matthew turned from apparently nice to full-on ugly.

“Bastard,” he snapped. I heard his hand tighten around the rose. It was like he was trying to behead it, but it would not be beheaded. A charge of magic zapped from it and into his hand. It had to be some kind of stun spell, because it jolted through him as if he’d been struck by a Taser. He fell to his knee, but he wasn’t down and out yet.

“Idiot,” Bruce growled as he took a pounding step up to him.

Charlie closed in, too.

Even though my back was still to everyone, I felt – I frigging felt – as the waitress shoved a hand into her pocket.

There was the smell of adrenaline – pure fear. Then the sound of fingernails scraping across something.

I found myself turning. I’d never moved faster in my life. I took a step forward. I grabbed the chair beside me and pulled it around. I hefted it up just in time as the waitress threw something at us.

I couldn’t even register what it was – it was moving that fast. It was just a blur of black. But my muscles were just a blur, too. I swiped the chair forward and let it go. It tumbled into that object and knocked it back.

The next thing I knew, there was an unholy explosion. Magic blasted out everywhere. It was an unrelenting, powerful wave. It felt like a 10-meter-high tsunami. As it smashed into me, I was blasted back against the wall. I struck it with the force to not just dent the wood, but splinter it.

I was further away from the locus of the explosion than both Bruce and Charlie, so I got off a heck of a lot better.

Bruce was thrown to the floor. His massive body cracked the polished concrete, and Charlie tumbled until he knocked over several tables and chairs like a wayward bowling ball.

The explosion had occurred close to the waitress. She’d been flung back into the counter. Her back had broken it. It would’ve killed her – torn her in half – were she not magical. Cascades of yellow sparks blasted over her skin, rising off her for a good 30 centimeters. I’d never seen anything like it.

Clearly Bruce had. “She’s an armored fay,” he spat as he tried to push up.

I had no idea what would’ve happened if I hadn’t thrown the chair. But I started to get a fair idea as I went to push to my own feet. I was weak all over. It was like someone had drained my blood. As I forced all my energy into my muscles, I just managed to stagger to my knees, then I fell back flat on my ass.

Charlie wasn’t doing much better. His limbs were jerking around. He was trying to clutch the gun in his holster, but his fingers obviously wouldn’t play nice.

Bruce roared as he punched to his feet. He was enduring the same symptoms, but he had a lot more power behind him in the first place, so at least he could stand.

Matthew hadn’t punched to his feet yet. That explosion had been closest to him. He was twitching on the floor.

The waitress – the armored fay, as Charlie had screamed – pushed up. She slid off the bench. She looked like a snake falling down a wall. When she reached the floor, she planted her stiff hands into it then jerked her head up. She moved like a snake, too – the same twitching, slithering grace yet deadliness. The next thing I knew, she shoved forward. Magic blasted over her skin, forming a barrier 30 centimeters in front of her. It bolstered her shoulder as she shunted it into Bruce.

He grunted, pain tearing through his voice as he was forced back.

Charlie kept trying to get to his feet. Real desperation played through his gaze.

Maybe it was replicated in mine. The situation was going to hell. I finally understood why I’d tasted that iron in my mouth earlier. But now I tasted way more. Hell, it was even worse than when I’d been down in the subway.

This situation was only spiraling further out of control.

As the armored fay struck Bruce again, he was blasted right back into the wall. His massive shoulders smashed right through it. Plaster and some kind of supporting beam hailed down around him.

“Bruce,” I called. My voice had never been weaker. I could only just push it out.

“Wait your turn, bitch,” the armored fay snapped. She’d looked so freaking meek and mild earlier. She was now a completely different woman. From the snarl on her lips to the deadly look playing through her eyes, it was clear she had no intention of stopping until everyone was dead.

“Valerie, get out of here,” Charlie growled at me. I’d never heard fear in his voice. Now it was there, trembling like a child at the sight of a force they couldn’t hope to control.

I tried to push to my feet again. I almost managed it. But Charlie seemed to be down and out. Every time he so much as twitched his muscles, he was faced with these massive paroxysms that bolted through his body, shaking him as if he’d just licked a live wire.

Matthew was finally coming around. He had this deadly sneer crumpling his lips. I’d never seen a look like it. It told me that as soon as he could, he would wrap his hands around Charlie’s throat and end this.

I kept expecting something to happen. Someone would come – strangers from outside would blast in to help us, but there wasn’t a peep from the street.

I just managed to turn my neck to the side. That’s when I saw that there was something crackling over the windows.

“Disguise spell,” Charlie heaved through another strangled breath. “No one can see us. Get… get out of here, Valerie. Now. Do it now, he stammered with ever-growing desperation.

I squeezed my eyes shut as tears trailed down them. I had been promised by Ridvarn – by Charlie, by everyone – that nothing dangerous would happen again, but it was already happening.

I didn’t need my fairy senses to tell me that this fight was about to turn fatal. My human senses were absolutely sufficient.

Judging by how hard my heart was pounding, I had freaking seconds. Suddenly, a bolt of power rose through me from out of the blue. Digging down, crawling through my energy reserves, I found the stamina I needed to push to my feet.

Charlie’s trembling gaze locked on me. He didn’t seem to have the energy to tell me to run again, but he sliced his desperate gaze from me to the door.

I didn’t want to leave them. I had to help Bruce. Though he could still move, I didn’t know how long that would last for. The armored fay was rapidly getting the better of him. He’d endured the same attack we had. It was a miracle he could stand, let alone fight.

Matthew was almost on his feet.

This… crap, this was going to turn deadly.

I had freaking seconds.

“Run, Valerie,” Charlie managed, desperation and fear pulsing through his tone.

I shunted forward.

I didn’t want to run. I couldn’t stop myself. In my head, I knew that the only chance we had here was if I got help.

I turned. Shaking, I thrust toward the door. That’s when Matthew finally managed to push to his own feet. I could feel him behind me. He was only a meter away.

My world narrowed. My focus became just as sharp as it had back in the subway. The rest of the world simply didn’t matter anymore. The only thing that would ever count again was the door in front of me. Because if I didn’t get to it, it would be over.

Matthew was right behind me. He was so close, I could smell the cloying scent of his cologne.

But the door was right there, right there. I thrust forward, closing the final few centimeters between me and the handle. I grabbed it.

I could see the disguise spell flickering over it.

I knew that I probably wouldn’t have the power to blast through it in one go, but I couldn’t account for my desperation. As it pounded into me, sailing high like a rescue flare on a dark night, I felt something snap in my hand. I thrust the door open.

I heard Matthew give a rattling gasp from behind me.

I staggered out into the cobbled laneway just as a blast of ferocious wind hit me. It sent my hair scattering around my face as I fell to my knees.

Matthew reached me. Just as he wrapped a hand around my throat, I looked up to see a vampire only several meters away. I didn’t need to look at the guy’s eyes to know what he was. Right now, I think my senses would have been able to detect help from thousands of kilometers away.

“Help me,” I gasped just as Matthew tried to drag me backward. “I belong to Ridvarn Rose.”

Matthew tugged me back in through the wall of the disguise spell. He had one arm around my throat. He shoved his other hand into his pocket. I didn’t know what he had in there, but as soon as his finger slid over some device, something snapped into place in front of the café door. It was just before the vampire could enter. That didn’t quite matter, though. As fear told me it was over and no more help would come, the vampire slammed his arm to the side. Magic blasted over his skin, shattering whatever kind of spell had just been cast in a sea of sparks.

The vampire jerked in.

Matthew lurched back in fear, but he could not move fast enough.

The vampire powered down, grabbed Matthew by the throat, twisted him to the side, and sunk his teeth into Matthew’s neck. I waited for the terrifying sight of the vampire’s throat to bulge as he drank, but nothing happened. All he did was push his teeth in. Matthew’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. He gave one single second’s worth of resistance, then he twitched and fell to the side.

Bruce was still fighting that armored fay. He was barely on his feet anymore. Blood was trailing down the side of his face, and his muscles shook like flags in a tornado. As for Charlie, he’d fallen onto his back. His fingers were convulsing in and out, and his lips were opening in twitches as he tried to speak. All he could manage were wheezed gasps.

At the sight of the vampire, the armored fay looked as if she’d just been shot. She went from wrapping her hand viciously around Bruce’s throat to dropping him and jerking a hand into her pocket. She must’ve had another one of those strange bombs. She never got the chance to release it. The vampire surged forward. I saw him bare his teeth. In a primal moment that spoke to something deep inside me, he twisted around, grabbed the fay, pushed right through her armored shield, and sunk his teeth into her throat.

Everything I knew told me that it was illegal – and highly dangerous – to drink fay blood, but I never saw the vampire’s throat bulge as he drank. He simply sank his teeth all the way in until the woman’s eyes rolled into the back of her neck. Then he opened his hand, and she fell unceremoniously at his feet.

The vampire reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and carefully cleaned his fangs. Then he looked down at Charlie, across to Bruce, then briefly over at me. He nodded at me once. It was a real move of deference.

“Jesus Christ,” Bruce said as he grabbed his throat and wobbled to his knees. “Thank God you were here.”

“You don’t need to thank God – thank her.” The vampire nodded at me politely once more. It… was almost like he was treating me like a queen. There was real deference behind the move.

Bruce jerked over to Charlie. He was gasping for air.

The vampire turned and stared at the armored fay. He arched an eyebrow. He went back to laboriously cleaning his fangs.

Charlie let out a wheeze as Bruce placed his hand on Charlie’s chest.

“You okay?” Bruce stammered.

“Valerie’s the only reason we’re still alive. Jesus—”

“Swear jar. $10,” Charlie managed as he pushed himself up. He looked as if he would snap in half.

Bruce managed a laugh. He helped Charlie up.

I just knelt there on the floor, staring at the scene.

I knew it was stupid and childish, but the only thing I could think of was that Ridvarn had gone back on his promise. He’d told me nothing like that attack down in the subway would happen again. But it had. And I’d barely survived.

… Survived. I was alive, right? The threat was totally over now, wasn’t it? So why was that iron tinge back and getting sharper?

Charlie looked at me then switched his attention over to the vampire. “We’re in your debt.” He nodded deferentially.

“Hardly. It is upon us all to keep the peace. That being said,” the vampire began.

“Ridvarn will be told of your assistance today – mark my words,” Charlie promised.

Warily, I stared around the room. My eyes were wide.

“The threat is over, my lady,” the vampire said as he politely nodded at me.

I didn’t think anything of the fact he called me his lady. What I did was continue to stare around the room. Something wasn’t right.

Charlie was on his feet now, and with every second, he was finding it easier to balance.

He went to walk over to me.

I jerked back, my eyes wide.

His eyes narrowed. “What are you sensing—” he didn’t have a chance to finish. Something slammed into the floor underneath us. It was hard enough and sudden enough that no one – even the vampire – could keep their balance. We were all thrown to the side.

“Attack isn’t over,” I heard Bruce scream as he reached for me. He didn’t get the chance to secure a hand around my leg. Something pounded out from the back of the store.

We all turned our surprised faces up in time to see the door back into the kitchen open with a bang. A massive shadowy figure stood there. I couldn’t see their face, let alone most of their body, and yet something told me in no uncertain terms that it was Vincent.

My lips opened to stammer his name, but Charlie got to me first. With an arm around my middle, he twirled me around. He threw me at the door.

He let magic blast out of his hand. It sank into the door and shattered it. I tumbled out of the smoking doorway and fell flat on my face on the cobbled street outside. I turned to get to my feet – to try to help – but something crackled into place in front of the door.

I backed away from it.

The heavens had already opened up. It was now hammering down hard enough that I thought the rain would drill through the frigging street. There was no one out on the square anymore. They’d clearly all run for cover.

I turned around, ready to scream myself raw in a desperate plea for help, but I couldn’t see a single soul.

I staggered, my mind going wild.

I didn’t care that I’d just met Charlie and Bruce. They were my friends. I had to do something. Instinctively, I shoved my hand into my pocket to get out my phone, but it was cracked.

Swearing, I jerked toward the closest shop door. That’s when I heard the rumble of an engine.

I twisted around, not knowing what to expect, considering this breakneck fight. Before I could wince, my mind telling me that it would be another attack, it was our SUV. It came barreling through the square and stopped right in front of me. It opened one of its doors.

I got to my tippy toes, inclining my head as I waited to see one of Ridvarn’s fays, but there was no one driving. It was encased in magic instead.

Maybe Charlie had managed to get some kind of message off to it before he’d saved me.

There was no time to second-guess. I lurched toward it. I pulled myself into the driver’s seat.

As soon as I was in, the door closed with a snap.

“Thank God,” I had a chance to say.

The engine roared into life, and the car threw itself into reverse. I didn’t even have to touch the wheel as it did a perfect turn.

I reached over to search through the glove compartment for a phone. That’s when the seatbelt snapped around me. It was tight.

I spluttered at it. “It’s okay. You don’t need to restrain me so tightly.”

The words were scarcely out of my lips before the seatbelt became even tighter. It held me to the spot. I could barely reach my diminutive arms forward to clutch hold of the steering wheel. When I tried to, the seat jerked back so I couldn’t even reach the pedals.

“What the hell are you doing, ha? I can drive.”

The car said nothing. We reached a main road. The car was driving so dangerously, we almost hit a taxi. The driver pumped down his window and leaned out to swear at me, despite the driving rain. Then something happened to his eyes. He took one look at something, jerked back into his car, slammed on the brakes, and swerved away from us like we were a dragon.

“What the hell is going on?” I stammered.

The car continued to drive dangerously, swerving across the road, cutting in front of whatever the hell it felt like.

Other cars did what that taxi had. They took one look at this vehicle and swerved or came to screeching stops. Several even got into accidents, all to get away from us.

Yes, I understood this car belonged to one of the scariest vampires in the city, but how would an ordinary driver know that?

There had to be something wrong with this vehicle. I tracked the gazes of several more scared drivers, and they all jerked up, settling on something above me.

What if there was some kind of symbol up there?

I could not move. I had absolutely no hope of grabbing the steering wheel, let alone leaning out of the car and trying to stare above us.

The one thing I could do, however, was fix my attention to the side and try to catch a reflection. Soon enough, we traveled close by a large city block of towers. Several of them had plate glass walls. I finally caught a glimpse of what was above me.

There was a black rose.

Nerves blasted through my stomach. They smashed into my skull. It felt like I’d just swallowed several bullets.

Then, all at once, my right hand started to burn. It was such a distinct sensation, it felt like it would be the last thing I would ever feel.

Screaming in agony, I tried to shift forward, but there was nothing I could do to fight against the seatbelt’s deathly grip.

It tightened around me harder – so hard, I could only just breathe.

I did manage to jerk my hand up, though. A black rose was appearing on my palm. There was a problem – it wasn’t the same palm that had been tattooed two days ago.

“What the hell is happening?” I stammered.

Even without trying to, my memory jerked back into the past. I hadn’t been able to get the exact details of my attack straight in my head. The moment I’d been pushed backward into the elevator shaft was just a jumble. Suddenly, it sharpened. And it told me something terrifying. When something had been pushed into my hand, I’d assumed it had been my left. That’s where the black rose symbol had appeared, after all. But now I distinctly remembered that an object had been pushed into my right hand, instead.

Staring at it, I saw that black rose tattoo become more and more prominent.

Drivers were now having absolutely nothing to do with my car. They took one look at it, slammed on the brakes, and got into any number of accidents, all to get away from me.

I had not been saved. Charlie was not in control of this car.

There wasn’t a damn thing I could do but watch.

We went careening through the city.

I told myself – over and over again – that Ridvarn would find out what was happening. Someone would alert him. He’d send help, or he’d come himself.

I squeezed my eyes closed, tears shaking down them at that possibility.

He would come, I told myself. He’d made a promise.

That promise could echo in my ears all it wanted, but it couldn’t stay there forever. I looked up as the car came to a sudden stop.

I had to struggle to figure out where we were.

There was some kind of construction site in front of us. It was massive. This wasn’t some car park or a huge hotel. This looked like a significant infrastructure project. I had to search my mind to figure out what the hell it could be. Finally I dug something up from the recesses of my memory.

The city was building a new train line or something out of town, right? Hadn’t there been a plan to ultimately connect it to the subway so there could be an underground substation for all the public transport, leaving more space above land for housing?

This had to be that project.

I stared at a huge dugout area. There were these massive black mouths that led into the ground. Some were rimmed with concrete, others weren’t.

The car bolted through a line of fluttering construction tape. Ahead of it was a far more reinforced fence.

I winced, shrinking back as the car thought nothing of smashing into that, too.

It offered no resistance whatsoever. The metal just bent around us as if a giant hand had squashed a tree.

Gasping for breath, I watched as the car turned down an almost 90-degree angle as we headed into the construction pit.

I knew we would roll over. Because physics would damn well dictate that we would. But we didn’t.

Instead, we angled toward one of those massive holes.

Before I could do or say anything, we shot through it.

As soon as the tires hit the rocky ground beneath, they tore up clouds of dust. I could see them behind us, blocking out my rear view as we continued forward.

I had no frigging idea how long this would last for. But abruptly, with no warning at all, the car stopped. The seatbelt released me. I was so surprised that I jerked forward and banged my head against the steering wheel. When I looked up, it was to the sight of the lights progressively turning off. They were these great big construction fog lamps. As they shut down from behind me, their illumination the only thing visible through the clouds of dust, I started to shake.

I clutched the door. I surprised myself when it allowed me to open it. I fell out. I’d forgotten how big this SUV was. I tumbled right down to my knees. I remained there, a shaking mess until the light above me turned off.

I jerked my head to the side in time to see the lights all the way down the tunnel in front of me shut off, one by one.

I was in darkness.

I was out of the car, but what exactly did that mean?

I shoved up.

Trembling, I went to scream for help. I hadn’t seen a single construction worker, but that couldn’t stop me.

As soon as my lips were open, that iron taste filled my mouth. It had been there since I’d been attacked, but now it became so bad, it was like there was an iron ore mine under my tongue.

I jolted back, striking the car with a thump.

I heard footsteps. They were hurrying my way.

“Get her,” someone growled.

I turned. I went to run but suddenly couldn’t. My right hand became so heavy, it was like someone had tethered me to a ship’s anchor.

Screaming desperately, I tried to lurch forward anyway, but I wrenched my shoulder badly. As pain blasted down into my side, tears filled my eyes. I didn’t stop. I continued to try to lurch away. The footsteps were only meters away now.

This had been a trap.

I really doubted someone had randomly capitalized on the attack in Vincent’s café. Whatever they’d done to this car would’ve taken time.

From the moment I’d walked out of the door this morning, someone had planned this.

More tears trailed down my cheeks. More desperate than I’d ever been, I practically wrenched my arm off in my effort to get away.

The footsteps were right there. I could hear someone’s breath. I knew it was a fay. I could feel the magic – the greed and love of violence.

Something snapped inside me. I don’t know where it came from. Magic simply rose up. It was a wave of pure desperation, and it was the only thing that could lift me up and out of this terror. As it pounded into me, I heard something strange. It was my right hand, believe it or not. It sounded like a tether trying to hold some airship in massive winds.

As soon as it snapped, I jolted forward. I fell to my knees.

There was a hiss of fear and frustration behind me.

I let it power through me, let it shake me to the core as I thrust up.

I ran. I didn’t know in what direction – I’d been turned around. I didn’t care. All I could do right now was get away from those men. True escape would come later.

As I powered down the darkened tunnel, I threatened to fall, but I never let myself do it. My magic wasn’t encasing me, but it was inside me. It was giving me that little bit extra, protecting me when my ankle threatened to roll and pushing me on whenever my knee complained.

Don’t ask me how I did it, but I managed to keep my distance. Those men didn’t get closer. But with every passing second, they got angrier. Magic started to blast past me. Either they were crap shots, or they couldn’t see me properly.

There was something truly oppressive about this darkness.

“Lift the darkness cloak,” I heard someone roar. They had such a vicious voice, it was like they could use it as a weapon. As it cut through the air, it sure made me shake.

Darkness cloak? I had a chance to think before another blast of magic sailed past me. I knew it wouldn’t hit me. I didn’t even have to duck. That meant I lost no time.

Every single second would count now. Every frigging one.

“Lift the goddamn cloak,” the guy behind me spat, his rage filling this massive tunnel. “It was meant to confuse her, not us.”

Confuse me?

“We can’t,” someone screamed back. “The cloak’s being generated elsewhere.”

“Shit,” the first voice screamed.

Then I felt the guy use his muscles. I knew he dug deep. I frigging tasted his energy as it surged through him.

He closed several meters of the distance between us.

So I just ran faster and harder.

I had never run in my life. I was not a jogger. In high school gym class, I had been known as the slowest person in the school.

None of that mattered now. The past, the future – all of it paled and just dropped away like a corpse’s hand falling into a grave.

The only thing that would count from now until the moment I escaped was staying on the run.

My focus narrowed.

I’d experienced fear before, but not as sharply as this. Nothing intruded on my focus, not even my thoughts. And as my mind reached this desperate clarity, it sharpened my awareness.

I stopped staggering. I seemed to know what was in front of me, despite the oppressive darkness.

Soon, the unimaginable occurred, and I started to put more distance between me and the screaming men.

I heard them shouting in rage, but their screams became more and more distant.

I didn’t even repeat to myself that I had to get away – I ran.

And I ran, and I ran.

Soon I couldn’t even hear the screams anymore – they dimmed along with the sound of that desperate footfall.

My senses were so sharp, they told me that if I couldn’t hear them anymore, it meant they’d dropped far behind.

Soon enough, they’d lose track of me completely.

This tunnel was thankfully not straight. I kept running across intersections. I took them at random, relying on nothing more than instinct to tell me which direction to take.

I ran for a full 20 minutes until finally I stopped.

That iron tinge dropped to half.

I remained there, frozen still for several seconds. Then I let my knees buckle, and I fell down.

I disturbed dust around me. I felt it arc up, but I couldn’t see it.

I closed my eyes.

I let the situation strike me.

I might’ve left those guys behind, but I was still in the fight for my life.

I had no phone, I doubted anyone knew where I was, and though my senses were sharp, my fairy skills were not.

Everything I knew about myself told me that I would remain there, frozen in fear, locked to the spot as I waited for someone to save me.

But everything I knew about myself was wrong.

It always had been.

And that – that was the point. It was the reason I was being chased relentlessly. It was the reason Ridvarn had taken me under his wing. And it was the reason that, if I wanted to get out of here, I had to rely on myself and only myself.

I remained there for one more second. Then I pushed up.

I ran once more.

I had no idea how long I continued for. Everything became a blur.

My fairy senses didn’t want me to think – they just wanted me to concentrate. But my human side was still too strong. Every now and then, fearful thoughts intruded, warning me that I was walking further into the wolf’s den and not out of it.

It didn’t matter how clever I thought I’d been and how randomly I’d picked my route – those men would find me. All they would have to do is split up.

And when they found me, they would fight me.

Running was one thing – but I lacked the raw power necessary to fight.

As I ran, I pumped my hands in and out. It was like they were bellows and I was desperately trying to use them to ignite the spark of latent force inside me.

It would not work.

I continued in silence, holding onto my senses, not hope.

My senses soon won out. I stopped, stones scattering underneath my boots. My head inclined itself to the side. The move was jerked and shaking.

I could sense something beside me. These tunnels were massive. It took me 20 steps until I reached the wall. I didn’t have to set my fingers scrabbling across it. Immediately, they settled on a door handle.

I took in a sucked, hissed breath.

My human side just wanted to bolt through the door in the hope that beyond could be safety. My fairy side wouldn’t let me.

I focused my attention. I narrowed it in until it was a scalpel. I directed it to cut right through the door. I remained there until I was certain no one was on the other side. And slowly, I opened it and strode through.

At first it was dark, but as I took another step, lights clicked on.

My eyes didn’t have to adjust. I felt them dilate then contract, and immediately I picked up my surroundings. There was another long, clinical corridor.

I went to turn right around and leave, but I thought I heard footfall.

“Screw it.” I closed the door. I pressed my back against it. I waited for that footfall to pass. It did, but then more footfall joined it.

Clearly that group of men had called in reinforcements.

I couldn’t risk going back out there.

So I turned my head around and faced the corridor.

My back prickled with nerves, and iron filled my mouth.

I took another step back toward the door, but that iron tinge only grew worse when I approached it.

I realized my instincts were pushing me forward, so reluctantly I gave in.

I pumped my hands in and out with every step. And with every step, I used every sense I had. From the soft trembles shaking through the ground that I could pick up in my feet, to the scent in the air, to my sharp sight, to the various chemicals I could taste, in that moment, I became this honed machine – this primal animal.

I continued down the corridor.

I reached three doors, one before me and two on either side.

I froze.

Something told me that the decision I would make now would be the most important of my life.

I reached for the door to my left. That only made my mouth fill with more iron, so I reached for the right. But my mouth became so bad, I almost couldn’t swallow.

Reluctantly, wincing, I settled my hand on the door in front of me.

The iron was still there – it was now my constant companion – but this certainly seemed to be the safest door.

I opened it a crack and pushed out.

I heard voices immediately. I was in a darkened corridor that opened out into a large space.

Keeping low, I pushed forward.

I could see people in front of me – hundreds of them. And just before them, I could see a fighting cage.

There were two fairies in it.

I almost ground to a halt, but my instincts told me to keep moving.

I changed my pace as I tried to fit in – it happened instinctually.

I saw some large fairies in front of me, drinks and cash in one hand, and strange pillboxes in the other.

I slipped into step behind them.

I followed them as they walked down a set of stairs to the seating around the fighting arena.

My heart was in my mouth with every step, with every breath – and most importantly, with every scent.

My senses were working on overdrive. For there was a lot to pick up.

There was the scent of sweaty bodies, alcohol, drugs, and blood. So much frigging blood.

I didn’t sit in one of the arena seats. They were these cheap plastic chairs that had been arranged around the fighting cage.

And in the cage were two fairies. They were facing off against each other, their teeth bared. Both were men, and both were bare chested. They had symbols on their backs. As I got closer, I realized they’d been branded into the skin. Scar tissue sat proud around them as they crackled with faint charges of magic.

Neither men had done a thing to each other. Yet.

A bell rang from somewhere.

I jolted. I was still standing on the stairs. It gave me a great view of the men as they shot forward.

Magic pulsed over their forms. It practically rippled their muscles.

They met each other in the middle of the ring.

They fought.

I’d seen simulated magical violence on TV. Every single successful movie had it. Even if you didn’t live in a world with actual magic, the incredible always found its way into fiction.

But this was not fictional. And I had never seen anything like it.

It was so brutal, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t think. It spoke to this part deep inside me, and it wasn’t my own fairy predatory instincts. It was total, gut-wrenching shock at the fact two people could be so violent toward each other.

One of the guys – the biggest fairy – pounded his fist into the other guy’s face. He was thrown back. His magic tried to surge around him and protect him, but it couldn’t. The other guy shot forward, launched onto his chest, and started pounding his face. His head rocked from side to side.

I had to throw up. I couldn’t take it.

But I still couldn’t move.

I watched in soul-crushing grief as the guy’s head became bloodier and bloodier. As his limbs became weaker and weaker. He kept trying to shove the other guy off, but soon enough he couldn’t. Because soon enough, there was a sickening crack.

Magic sunk into his chest. He jolted once, then twice. He lay still.

That didn’t stop the victor from leaning down, grabbing his head, and headbutting him.

This stomach-punching crunch echoed through the room.

Everyone erupted in cheers.

Except me.

Tears filled my eyes. They’d already covered my cheeks without me being aware of them.

I shook back.

That’s when a hand closed around my arm.

I twisted my head around to see a massive gargoyle behind me.

He didn’t look anything like Bruce. He had the same stature, sure, but the look of gleeful hatred in his eyes could not be matched. “Seems we’ve got a volunteer.”

He grabbed my hand up and pulled it higher.

The arena erupted into cheers again.

He pulled me forward.

I offered no resistance. My mind just wouldn’t work.

The door to the cage opened, and two fairies jumped up. They grabbed the dead guy, pulled him out, and just kicked him off the platform. He rolled and fell into this dark recess that was dug around the cage.

Only when I realized what was about to happen did I start to fight back. The gargoyle just lifted me up into the cage.

The fairy – the one who’d just killed a man then head butted his dead skull for good measure – sneered at me. He took one look at me and laughed.

“Got us an interloper,” the gargoyle growled. “Good enough for a little light sparring, methinks. Don’t hold back.”

The crowd cheered again.

The gargoyle dumped me in the cage and closed the gate.

I was down on my knees. I stared up at the brutal fay as he locked his fists together, cracked his neck, and smiled at me.

That smile wended its way into the deepest seat of my fear.

I didn’t need to scream. I didn’t need to shake. Because it was all over.

There was the ringing of a bell.

The guy turned around and shot toward me. I could see his eyes – pulsing with rage and violence – wide with the knowledge that he was about to snap my neck.

I didn’t have the time to wince and close my eyes.

A different bell rang through the room. I even heard the sound of someone’s fingers clicking. I didn’t know how I could manage to have discerned it over the cheering of the bloodthirsty crowd.

The fay fighter stopped.

He looked as if the carpet had just been yanked out from underneath him. “What the hell? She’s a fucking spy. Why stop the fight?”

I heard heavy footfall behind me. Something told me it belonged to the man who’d been chasing me through the tunnels.

I was too stricken down with fear to be able to turn.

“This one’s for the boss.”

The fay fighter just rolled his eyes. He took a threatening step up to me. “I fucking hate spies.”

“Don’t lay a finger on her – or the boss will bite your fingers off.”

The fairy froze.

I heard the cage door behind me opening. Then someone wrapped an arm around my middle and pulled me out.

There wasn’t a frigging thing I could do. I was acting like I was a chunk of meat just waiting for the right carnivore to take a bite.

I felt myself being carried down into the low, dark pit around the cage.

The crowd started to boo, but immediately they changed their tone when someone announced there was a new fairy challenger.

My eyes couldn’t adjust fast enough. My senses had been completely destroyed by that fight. The smell of all that blood was still overpowering me.

I quickly realized that the pit was some kind of corridor. We reached a door.

Someone ducked forward and opened it so the guy carrying me didn’t have to put me down.

I needed to ask where I was being taken, but what was the point? I couldn’t control my lips. Even if I could, I doubted these were the kind of operators to answer me.

I was taken through a dark corridor. We reached another door.

I heard the other men scatter.

I felt their tension. It told me that whatever the hell was behind this door, it was worse than what I’d faced out there.

I’d lost all track of how hard my heart was beating. I started to seriously question whether I had one anymore. It felt like it had been ripped out of my chest when I’d been dumped in the cage.

The guy holding me took a breath. Then he tapped on the door with the toe of his boot.

It opened. I was taken inside. I was placed down. Then the guy turned around fast, headed out of the door, and slammed it on his way out.

For the second time that day, I faced sheer darkness.

I gasped for breath as I tried to peer through it.

Slowly but surely, my fay senses came back online. It was enough to tell me that I wasn’t alone in this room. I could hear someone breathing. There was something directed about it – something powerful. Something that riveted me to the spot.

“It’s nice to meet you,” a voice echoed out.

As soon as I heard it, I shuddered as if I’d been hit. I jerked back until my shoulders slammed against the door. I covered my face with my hands.

“Don’t be afraid. I have no intention of doing anything to you.”

I heard the creak of leather and wood as someone stood up from a chair.

They took a step toward me.

I bucked back. They stopped. I thought I heard tendons straining as they opened a hand toward me in a stopping motion. “Do not be fearful. I have no intention of hurting you. I would not have let that fairy rip you apart. I doubt he would have been able to, anyway.” The man’s voice dipped low in amusement.

I knew there were bad people in the world – unhinged souls that didn’t think twice of doling out violence just because it gladdened them.

But I’d never met one. Until now.

Whimpering, I crammed my face against my knees. I couldn’t cry anymore. My body wouldn’t let me waste the energy.

He took another step up toward me. I thought I smelt blood. It wasn’t magical. It was human. It seemed to be fresh, too.

My nose exploded.

My fear became twice as powerful as I realized one thing.

The guy in front of me was a vampire.

My mind was dragged back to my attack behind the dry cleaners. My body went back there, too. I felt the same fear – the same promise of imminent death. This time I knew no one would save me.

He took another step up to me. I thought I heard the creak of his knees as he tried to get down closer to me. “Do not fear, Valerie Stevenson. Why would I do anything to the woman I would spend the rest of my life with?”

That hit me like a punch to the gut, to the back, to the face – to every part of me.

I jerked my head off my knees.

My gaze finally resolved. The pitch-black darkness didn’t matter. I could see a hand stretching toward me.

He almost plucked up my right hand, but there was a bang from out in the corridor.

The vampire jerked his head up.

I thought I heard screaming.

“What the hell is going on?” he hissed.

I hadn’t moved. I’d remained there, frozen in fear, but something told me this was my opportunity. I launched into him. I rounded my shoulder and used every single gram of power I had. It was enough to force him backward – but only a little.

Before he could scrabble toward me, I opened the door and lurched out.

I could see the guy that had carried me here. Obviously he’d been guarding the door, but as another bang shook through the floor, he ran back in the direction of the cage.

I pushed forward.

The vampire was right behind me, so I just ran faster.

My world did it again – narrowed until it was just me and the chance of escape.

I focused on it with all my might. All my magic, too. It was reaching in and pulling itself out of the depths of my body – out of the furthest reaches of my soul.

It was giving me everything I needed to stay out of the vampire’s reach.

I powered back toward the cage. There was another unholy bang. There were screams. I even thought I heard a lion’s roar.

I took another step, but suddenly something told me to jerk to the left.

I went with my instincts.

There was a door just beside me. I hadn’t even noticed it – I’d had tunnel vision. I threw myself at it. My fingers scrabbled over the handle as I wrenched it open.

It led to a set of stairs.

The vampire screamed.

I threw myself at the stairs.

He was just behind me.

More bangs shook through the floor.

They were so violent, they threatened to unsettle my feet and send me skidding back into the vampire’s arms.

But I just held on. I just stayed out of his reach.

He let out a roar. It was bloodcurdling. It was something the modern world hadn’t heard for a long time – something vampires kept from us.

Fays were apex predators, but vampires arguably rested atop us. For vampires had something fays did not. Brutal but refined intelligence. You would think that both of those were mutually exclusive. You’d be wrong.

Now that brutal intelligence was just behind me.

The long stairs led directly up. I thought I could see a door at the end of them.

I focused on it with all my might.

There was another shake.

I lost my balance.

Before I could tumble backward into the vampire’s clutches, there was yet another shake. I knew this one was coming, somehow, and I managed to account for it while the vampire did not. I jumped and threw myself to the side just at the right time. I grabbed hold of the railing and used it to push up as I heard the vampire stumble.

I was several meters away from the door now. It was just there – it was just there.

But he was just there behind me.

There was one more shake. It was far worse than any that had come before. It felt like a ceiling was crumbling somewhere.

It saved me. For the ceiling did crumble – right above me.

I shoved my body through the falling stones. I didn’t care as they struck my back and dragged my shoulders down – I forced my way through them. I reached the door. I settled a hand on it. I wrenched it open.

And I pushed myself out onto the city street – out into safety.

But safety is a relative term. It is a relative fact. You can be safe from one thing while you fall right into the arms of another.

The end of Prince of Roses Book One. This is a four-book series. It is complete. So pick up Prince of Roses Book Two today.