The sun was out, the birds were chirping, and I could barely control my rage.
“What do you mean you sold it?”
Gary gave me an impatient look. “You missed out. Someone else wanted it more. They outbid you.”
I kept my voice low as I leaned against the counter. Deep, beneath my failing shields, my power roiled, dark and deadly.
“You said no one used black monkshood.”
“Yeah. It was weird. Someone bought my entire stock. I was chatting to Merrill and he said someone bought his as well.”
“That’s fucking great.”
“It’s not personal. It’s business.”
Gary stood straighter on his stool in front of the counter, squaring his shoulders as I took a deep breath. Adult gnomes were between four and five feet tall, and Gary was too proud to lower the counter to his own height so his customers would have to bend.
Power seethed around my body. For the first time, true fear crossed Gary’s face. Then it hardened. “Watch yourself, Danica.”
I shuddered, fighting for control. Someone had placed a suppression spell on my power when I was a kid, and now that it was slowly crumbling, my power tended to spark with strong emotion.
A few weeks ago, two of my marks were killed in front of me. Both held information about my mother’s killer, and both were killed by arrows which shouldn’t have taken down a lesser demon—let alone a high demon. When I’d asked Cara to investigate just what made the arrows so special, she’d told me to purchase black monkshood. Apparently, it could be used in a spell to discover if the arrows contained a poison found in any of the realms.
Unfortunately, black monkshood only grew in the middleground– the mysterious, dangerous realm that had long been home to those fleeing other worlds. I’d called Gary the moment I learned what I needed, and a few hours later, someone had beat me to it.
“How much did they pay, Gary? You didn’t even give me the opportunity to outbid them.”
He sniffed. “You couldn’t have outbid them. They had deep pockets.”
That made it worse. If someone had bought up all the black monkshood hours before I could, they’d done it because they knew I was onto something. Or they wanted me to think I was onto something. Whoever had fired those bolts into the demons I was questioning had prevented me from learning who had killed my mother. And now they were covering their tracks.
All because Gary was incapable of keeping his word.
“I trusted you,” I hissed.
More magic leaked from me. The store was darkening. Maybe if I pulled the gnome’s head from his shoulders, he’d think twice before double-crossing me.
No, Danica, then he won’t be able to think at all.
Gary thinned his lips and I snarled. “Who were they?”
“I don’t know. I’d offer you security footage, but that camera doesn’t work.”
My shield cracked. Power began to slide from me as I trembled, blind with fury. He had promised. Promised he wouldn’t sell it. He had dared lie to me.
“Daddy I’m scared!”
Gary had two kids. Young boys who constantly caused havoc. Last time I was here, I’d played hide and seek with them.
Now, Ziprick was clutching his dad’s leg, staring at me like I was a monster. His brother scampered close, practically climbing up his dad’s leg as he stared at me, white-faced. I glanced around at the thick, dark purple power that had leaked from me, filling the store like smoke.
I was a monster.
Gary held Ziprick to him, glowering at me. “Get out.”
Words escaped me. My throat ached and my power disappeared back beneath my shield as if it’d never been there.
Oh, how I wished it had never been there. I stumbled to the gutter outside Gary’s store and heaved, bile creeping up my throat as tears pricked my eyes.
I’d been excited to chip away at the suppression spell when I found out about it. After rejecting the tiny ember of power I’d had my entire life, I’d thought I could finally use my power to keep myself safe.
Instead, it constantly slipped through when it was least convenient. Samael’s words ran through my mind on a loop. “That suppression spell would’ve crumbled eventually. Likely at the most inconvenient time possible. And you would’ve been all alone, with no idea what was happening to you, and no way to regain control. Your magic flares with great emotion. Who brings that emotion out in you, hmm?”
I hated that he was right. And I lived in terror that I’d invertedly use my power on my sister. I needed help. But the world would burn before I’d voluntarily ask Samael for it.
Every time I thought about the demon, I had to restrain the urge to go to him. Some days, it was because I dreamed of stabbing him in the gut and watching him bleed out. Other days, it was because I longed for the feeling of safety I’d briefly had in his arms.
I was losing it. And I needed to head to the Mage Council to file the paperwork for my last bounty. I glanced back at Gary’s store and my chest clenched. The look on his face. The terror in his kids’ eyes. If this was what my power did, I didn’t want it.
Straightening my shoulders, I turned and began walking toward the Mage Council. The Durham Mage Council Facility was two blocks away, in what was once the Durham County Human Services building. The building had been more pleasing to the eye when it was owned by the government. The Mage Council took paranoia to a whole new level, and now it was thick gray stone and small windows with bars on them. The thought of working inside the facility all day made me shudder.
The facility was quiet. A group of mages and bounty hunters had been sent to Raleigh, where someone had decided to wake up a troll. The troll had already done a couple million dollars of damage, and since the unseelie king hadn’t sent anyone to kill the troll, it was now the Mage Council’s job.
I signed in and made my way to the check-in counter.
My bounty had been a banshee who’d decided to torment her neighbor after they had an argument about the length of her grass. She’d spent the next week screaming and wailing all night, every night. Her screams created blind terror in anyone who heard them, and there had been a spate of car accidents on her street.
I’d shoved ear plugs deep into my ears and given her a look that told her that today was not the day. She’d received a hefty fine from the Mage Council, but from the look of retribution on her face, her neighbor was likely to regret reporting her. I had a feeling I’d be seeing her again.
I waited until the mage finished with the bounty hunter in front of me, and handed over my paperwork, receiving three hundred dollars in return. Then I took the elevator to the fifth floor where I hovered in front of Charles, waiting for my next job.
The mage raised one eyebrow as he skimmed his screen. “Says here you’re on leave.”
“Yeah. No jobs for you.”
“I’m not on leave. I brought a bounty in earlier today.” I spoke with the exaggerated patience of a woman who was struggling not to lose her shit.
Charles shrugged and shifted his gaze behind me at where a line was forming. “Take it up with Albert.”
“You bet your ass I will.”
Albert worked on the ninth floor. I stalked toward his office, noting his receptionist was nowhere to be seen. It was eight pm, and she’d probably gone home. Good. I kept walking, knocked once, and opened the door.
The most powerful mage in North Carolina was standing in front of a large closet, the door open. Inside the closet was what looked like an old trunk. The trunk was open, but all I could see was a grey blanket covering whatever treasures he had hidden away. My curiosity was officially piqued.
Albert ruled his mages with an iron fist, and he occasionally liked to confiscate weapons and spells he didn’t approve of. If they were deemed to potentially be dangerous to a human bystander, they ended up in his office.
As a contractor, my weapons had always been safe. But I bet if I could peer inside that trunk, I’d find plenty of goodies from his mages.
Albert slammed the lid down on the trunk, threw a dark cloak over it, and closed the door. Then he turned to me, red slowly creeping up his cheeks. I’d pissed off the man who would decide whether I could pay my rent. Awesome.
“Sorry, Albert,” I smiled sunnily. “Your receptionist wasn’t around so I figured you’d have a few moments free.”
He stared at me, his eyes piercing. “Take a seat.”
I did, but my mind was on the trunk. What was in it? Why would Albert be so worried about me seeing inside it?
“Charles just told me he couldn’t give me my next bounty. Apparently, I’m on leave.”
Albert sat behind his desk, his face still red. “I think we’re both well aware of why that is.”
“Why don’t you spell it out for me?” I’d never liked Albert, but up until now, I’d respected him. I had a feeling that was about to change.
“The recording, Danica.”
My hands wanted to fist, but I forced them to lay on my lap. Four weeks ago, Samael had been betrayed by a demon he’d trusted for centuries. A coven of insane witches had planned to kill him. They wouldn’t have stood a chance against a high demon, except that they’d been harnessing power from each demon they’d killed. After Samael had been betrayed and taken unaware, they’d clamped him into Naud Chains.
I hadn’t forgotten that those chains were only accessible by the Mage Council.
One of the witches had been recording the entire exchange. She’d died when Samael turned the coven to ash, but her phone had continued to capture the video, and Vas had missed it when he’d searched for any tech. That recording had fallen into the hands of the Mage Council. Samael had assured me that Albert would be keeping the recording locked up and hidden from prying eyes.
But obviously I would still be dealing with the consequences.
“I saved Durham– and the world– from a coven of witches who were about to be bloated with demon power. You’re welcome.”
“You saved the most powerful demon in this country from certain death.”
I gave him squinty eyes. “Samael was approximately three seconds away from saving himself. The power he had gathered was… indescribable.”
“Regardless, I found it necessary to take the recording to the other members of the council.”
Oh yeah, this was bad.
“And saving a demon from humans is not in your job description.”
“Those humans would have killed you. You realize that, right? They wouldn’t have stopped at the demons.”
“So, what, because I dared save Samael’s life, I’m now fired?”
“No. You’re on temporary leave while the council conducts a review. You’ll be notified of the council’s decision once the review is complete.”
I stared at him. We both knew I was fired. This was just his way of keeping it clean.
“This is horseshit.”
Albert’s gaze dropped to my arm, and he stared at the intricate gold design for a long moment. It was too damn hot to wear a long-sleeved shirt today, and half of Durham already knew I was bonded to Samael. But I still had to resist the urge to cover it up.
“You had the opportunity to break that bond. If Samael had died, we would be having a different discussion.”
I’d known the consequences when I made my decision. I’d known damn well that I could’ve broken the bond and continued with my life. Except that if I had, we’d now be dealing with thirty insane witches who suddenly had an infinite well of power. I’d make the same decision again. But the fact that there was still a recording of that decision meant I was screwed.
I wasn’t getting anywhere with Albert. It was obvious what would happen next. The review would find that I was a liability to the Mage Council. My days of working here were numbered.
I was surprised they hadn’t already taken away my access to the facility itself. I was guessing they would wait until the review was completed. The council liked to do everything by the book.
My power pressed against my shield, and I envisioned a thick steel door, ruthlessly holding it back. I wouldn’t let Albert see how much I cared.
“My record speaks for itself,” I said. “You’ve made the wrong choice here.”
His expression was carefully neutral. “You’re entitled to think that.”
I shook my head, got to my feet, and stalked out of his office.
It was as if I was sleepwalking as I made my way back into the elevator and down to the lobby. Working for the Mage Council hadn’t been my life’s dream, but it had allowed me to interrogate paranormals who might’ve seen my mom before she died. And, it had allowed me to pay my bills.
Panic climbed up my throat. I had a few weeks of living expenses saved, but that was it. I needed to find a new job. Fast.
My phone vibrated and I fumbled for it, almost dropping it as I pulled it out of my pocket.
I’m here, at a table near the back.
My sister. Shit. Luckily Meredith’s was a four-minute drive from the Mage Council.
On my way.
* * *
“The grimoire is authentic.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Are you sure?”
Gloria, the witch I kept on retainer, sniffed in obvious offense. “You have your areas of expertise, demon. And I have my own. This is one of Cyprianus’s Black Books.”
Satisfaction roared through me. Cyprianus was a demon who enraged Lucifer, challenging him for power several centuries ago. Lucifer had ensured he was captured and forced through the closest portal. He hadn’t known where the portal led to, and he hadn’t cared. Unfortunately, for the humans in this world, Cyprianus had arrived, incensed, and determined to make Lucifer pay.
Cyprianus wrote nine Books of the Black Arts. When Lucifer learned what he was doing, he sent his best assassins to find him and kill him. They succeeded, but not before Cyprianus distributed the books amongst humans who had the most power, with the hope that they would one day be able to access that power and take down Lucifer himself.
The coven of witches who managed to wake the demigod and open the portals seventy years ago had used one of the Black Books to do it.
The grimoire in my hand would be added to my collection. I had six of them, with just three more to go.
“You allowed yourself to be taken by the witches so you could get your hands on this book,” Gloria let out a hoarse laugh.
I gave her a slow smile. “Did I?”
She laughed some more, and I turned, taking the grimoire with me as I stepped onto the balcony. I launched into the air, rising to my penthouse, where I landed and tucked the grimoire away in my personal safe.
My thoughts turned to Danica. While she likely hoped otherwise, I hadn’t grown bored and decided to allow her complete freedom.
To deal with the little witch, I had to tamp down all my instincts to dominate. The instincts that made me want to make her beg for me. I had to continually remind myself that if she were the type of woman to submit, I wouldn’t be half as interested. Her commitment to disobedience and determination to buck any and all authority both frustrated and intrigued me.
Centuries of existence had taught me patience.
That patience wasn’t infinite, but I had enough time to allow Danica the illusion of freedom while I aligned all the chess pieces on my board. And then she would be mine.
It had been four weeks since my sister agreed to have that first drink with me. Now, we met at Meredith’s once a week, exchanging pleasantries and tiptoeing around the subject of our childhood. We were both trying.
But we had a long way to go.
I found it difficult to move past the fact that my sister had never gotten in touch— even after I visited to tell her mom’s death hadn’t been an accident.
And Evie? She couldn’t forgive me for not fighting harder to stay. For not running away from Austin and coming back to her. For staying away for so long.
“Sorry I’m late.” I slipped into a chair and Evie glanced up from her phone. She had a wicked smile on her face, and I raised one eyebrow. “What’s that look for?”
“This guy I’ve been seeing–” she frowned. “What’s wrong, Dani?”
At least she was calling me Dani again. That was progress.
“Nothing,” I attempted a smile, and my sister simply raised one eyebrow, glancing away. Her gaze landed on a group of werewolves who were taking shots at the bar. One of them tipped his head back and recognition swept through me. Matt. I’d met him when I interviewed his alpha a month ago. He was looking better than he had that day, but I had a feeling Nathaniel wouldn’t be pleased to learn that such a recently turned werewolf was drinking.
Meredith’s was a squat, brick building with a small outdoor area that was rarely used. Wobbly stools lined the beaten-up bar, the floors were scuffed and chipped, and the lights were dim. It was one of my favorite places in Durham.
I turned back to Evie. Silence stretched between us. I didn’t want to admit what was bothering me, but she had a right to know what was going on.
“I terrified a couple of kids today.” The words tasted like ash.
Evie’s face creased. “What do you mean?”
I took a deep breath. It was time to tell her the truth. “It turns out my father wasn’t human. Or mage. Do you remember that dark fae guy who was hanging around mom for a few years before we left?”
Evie’s eyes flashed at the reminder, but she put it away, frowning as she took a sip of her rum and coke.
“I don’t think so.”
“You were probably too young. Anyway, I think he might have been my father. My power is dark. Likely unseelie. Someone put a suppression spell on me when I was a kid.”
Evie gaped at me, her eyes wide. I almost laughed. She looked like a Disney princess who had just learned that the birds who helped her get dressed every morning were dead.
My sister took after my mom. Huge, aquamarine eyes, thick, glossy blonde hair, perfect skin, and curves in all the right places. When we’d taken family photos, I’d always felt like the odd one out with my dark hair and petite frame. Now I knew why.
“But suppression spells are only for witches who’ve been sentenced by the High Coven.”
“Yeah. Except they weren’t suppressing witch magic.” The magic I’d inherited from my mom was a trickle at best. “It was unseelie power.”
Evie tilted her head. “So, you’re like, uber powerful now?”
She kept her voice light, and I attempted a smile. “I don’t know how powerful. Ever since I worked that case for the demons…” both of our gazes dropped to the gold mark on my arm, and I ground my teeth.
“The suppression spell has been wearing away?”
I nodded. “Apparently these types of spells are usually reinforced every few years.”
“What has this got to do with the kids?”
Bile crept up my throat at the reminder of Gary’s kids. Their little faces, such a pale gray they were almost white.
“When I get… upset, I have a hard time controlling my power.”
Evie’s gaze turned knowing. I’d scared the shit out of her the first time I lost control of my power, holding a witch in place, and forcing her to answer my questions.
She cleared her throat. “You did that to the kids?”
“God no. But I threatened Gary– their father. In front of them. My power leaked out of me and rattled the roof. They were terrified.”
“You didn’t hurt anyone?” her voice was very careful.
“No. But I could’ve. I’m telling you now, so you know. If I ever lose control, run.”
“You won’t hurt me.”
“I may not know what I’m doing,” I warned her. I needed her to take this seriously. “This suppression spell… it hid my power from me all these years, and whenever a piece of the spell crumbles, my power overtakes me. It usually happens when I’m enraged, and it boosts my anger into a new stratosphere. It’s like my power is a river and I’m caught in the currents without a life jacket. Anyone close to me is at risk.”
“You won’t hurt me,” she said again. I sighed, and she gave the hint of a smile. Evie had always been able to out-stubborn anyone. Even me. “What are you going to do about it?”
I signaled for another round, and across the room, Mere caught my eye with a nod. “I’m going to find someone who can reinforce the suppression spell.”
She gaped at me. “What?”
“I don’t need this power. I don’t want it. It was helpful when I was working with the demons and being targeted by those crazy witches, but that’s done now.”
“If you have access to that amount of power, it can keep you safe.”
“Not at the expense of everyone around me.”
“I think you give yourself too little credit. Why don’t you find someone who can help you learn to control it?”
Samael’s face flashed in front of my eyes, and I closed them in a bid to make it disappear. It didn’t. When I opened my eyes, my sister was smirking at me.
“You were thinking about him, weren’t you?”
“Samael can’t be trusted.”
A couple of months ago Samael caught me in his tower, with one of his demons dead on the floor in front of me. He’d bonded me to him, and we’d made a deal. If I could find out who was murdering his demons— and kill them within two weeks– he’d let me free.
During that time, we’d gotten… close. Despite my hatred of Samael and everything he stood for, I hadn’t been able to help myself. We were drawn together like magnets, and at one point I’d been moments away from sleeping with him.
Then I saw the true Samael. The Samael who’d refused to release me from my bond over a technicality. After I’d saved his life, I might add.
Evie raised her eyebrow, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. “Have you seen him since…”
“I made the mistake of saving his stupid life? No. He’s been suspiciously absent from my life. But you know what hasn’t been absent? This stupid mark.” I held it up and the gold seemed to sparkle in the light. I ground my teeth. The mark on my arm proclaimed that I belonged to Samael. And each time I dropped my shields even a little, I could feel his masculine presence down the end of that bond.
“Have you thought about asking him for help?”
“He can’t help me with this. Besides, he’s a demon. What does he know about unseelie power?”
Just the word “unseelie” made me shiver. I didn’t feel half unseelie. But I’d also been magically neutered for most of my life.
“Uh-huh.” Evie’s mouth twitched and I scowled at her.
“He’s dangerous. Besides, I have a new plan. I met a witch when I was investigating the demon murders. Her name is Selina. She was the one who was able to tell me my power wasn’t all witch. I’m going to see if she’d be willing to help me find someone who can perform a suppression spell. Otherwise, maybe she can train me to keep my control.”
In the meantime, I had to accept that I couldn’t be trusted around anyone who could piss me off. So basically the entire population of the world.
Evie grabbed my hand and squeezed. “Go to Gary and explain what’s happening with your power. Apologize. He’ll understand. And in the meantime, if you can’t trust yourself to buy things from him, let me know. I can go for you.”
I smiled. This was the least awkward conversation we’d had so far. Maybe there was hope for us yet.
“Okay,” I said. “But after what I did, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll just ban me from his store.”
“All you can do is try.”
“You’re right.” And now I itched to go talk to him.
Evie’s eyes gleamed. “Go apologize. I’ll wait here and order us another drink.”
Gary’s was just a couple minutes away, further down Main Street. “I won’t be long.” I got to my feet and scanned the bar. The werewolves were busy chatting up a group of light fae women. The goblins in the corner were speaking in hushed voices, and Mere was keeping an eye on the group of human mercenaries near the door. No one here would be likely to mess with my sister.
“I see what you’re doing,” Evie said mildly. “I can take care of myself.”
I grinned at her and strode out of the bar.
* * *
I squinted at my phone. Ten pm. Adult gnomes didn’t need much sleep, and Gary was known for keeping his store open until two am some nights. I turned right as I walked out of Meredith’s, heading down Main Street toward Gary’s small store.
High above me, I heard the rustling of wings. I surveyed the night sky. The sound had only lasted a split second, but I knew what I’d heard. I’d thought I was going crazy over the past few weeks but I wasn’t. Samael still had his people watching me.
I suppressed the urge to call him and give him a piece of my mind. The demon was leaving me alone for now. I had no desire to rouse his interest once more.
I slowed my steps as I approached Gary’s store. The lights were out, which was unusual this early.
Maybe I’d emotionally scarred his kids so badly that he’d had to take them home.
I pushed that thought away and pressed my face against the glass, peering into the darkness.
“Oh my god.”
I threw open the door and bolted across the small store, dropping down to Gary’s side.
Someone had bashed his skull in. His head was caved in on one side, blood leaking onto the floor of his shop. The rest of his body was so broken that it looked like little more than mush.
My hand shook as I pressed it to Gary’s neck, searching frantically for a pulse. I jolted as he opened his eyes. Still alive. I had no idea how, but I was keeping him that way. I pulled my phone from my pocket.
“I’m getting you help,” I promised. His eyes were dark with pain, and he opened his mouth in an attempt to say something. “Just rest, you’re going to be okay.”
I called an ambulance. He’d be taken to the paranormal hospital, where the doctors and healers would work together to save his life.
The operator was calm. “An ambulance is on its way, Miss.”
I left the phone line open as instructed. Gary was still attempting to speak. He would open his mouth, strain for a while, and then his eyes would slide shut.
His hand twitched, and I took it in mine.
“Did you hear that? The ambulance is on its way. They’ll heal you right up, and I swear I’ll kill whoever did this.”
“Boys,” he managed to get out. “Protect them.”
I took a frantic glance around. Where the hell were his kids?
“You guys can come out now.” I closed my eyes when there was nothing but silence. I’d terrified them a few hours earlier, and now their dad was dying in front of them.
“I know I scared you today, but I’m here to help. Your dad wants me to look after you.”
I returned my attention to Gary. Pride shone in his dull eyes. He’d instructed them to hide, and they were doing exactly as he’d said. He flicked his eyes to my left and I peered between the shelves lying on the floor.
The store was a wreck. Someone had almost killed Gary, and they’d ransacked his store. I turned back to Gary. His face was so broken it was almost impossible to recognize him. But his terror was clear. My instincts roared at me.
I needed to get the kids out.
I grabbed my phone, hung up on the operator, and called my sister.
“Evie. I need you to get to Gary’s now. Do you know where it is?”
“Next to that tattoo parlor everyone loves, right?”
“Yeah. I need you to take his kids and keep them safe for me. Can you do that?”
I knew she could. Despite my hatred of the witches, they’d always protect children.
“Of course. I’ll be right there.”
I hung up, and a tear slid from Gary’s eye as he stared silently at me.
“Who did this to you?”
He opened his mouth, and his eyes rolled back in his head as he passed out. Fuck. I turned and crouched next to the shelves in the direction he’d flicked his eyes.
Nothing. For a couple of kids who were like hurricanes every time I entered this store, they were now so quiet it was as if they weren’t here.
I cracked my shield and sent out a tiny tendril of power. There. In the corner of the store. I picked my way over the weapons and spells that littered the ground, ducking around the few shelves that were still standing.
I frowned. “Are you boys invisible?”
A tiny squeak, followed by a hushed ‘shhh.’
They were in the wall somehow. I ran my fingers over it, looking for some kind of trigger. Then I cracked my shields again.
It was warded. Heavily. Gary had paid a pretty penny for such a good ward. I didn’t have time to hesitate. I pulled out my Nim Cub, sliced my arm, and lifted my hand.
The ward snapped, disappearing as if it had never been there. As soon as it was gone, I could see the opening mechanism, hidden in the corner of the wall.
I flicked it, and the bottom half of the wall swung open, revealing two little gnomes, who blinked at me with wide eyes.
“You’re Cilibim, right? And you’re Ziprick?”
Gary had taken a human name when he first came through the portals. He’d said it was to help him integrate with the locals. But he’d given his kids Gnome names.
“I’m Cil, and he’s Zip,” Cil told me solemnly. “Is our dad going to be okay?”
“I’ve called for help,” I said, unwilling to give them false promises. “Your dad asked me to look after you.”
They exchanged a look, clearly wondering why their dad would trust their safety to a woman he’d kicked out of his store just a few hours earlier.
“I won’t hurt you. I promise.” It killed me that they were frightened of me.
The kids looked at each other again, their gray faces wearing identical expressions of distrust. Finally, they stepped out from their hiding place in the wall.
Sirens sounded in the distance.
“I need to check on your dad, okay?”
They nodded, following me back over to Gary, who was now unconscious. I was going to find whoever had done this to him, and when I did, they were going to pay and pay and pay.
I checked his vitals. Gnomes were lesser dark fae, and they were usually pretty fast healers, but Gary didn’t look any better. My chest clenched.
I glanced over my shoulder. Evie’s face drained of color as she looked around the store.
“Who did this?”
“I don’t know. But I need you to take the kids and keep them safe. I’ll come see you after.”
Evie nodded, her mouth firming. Then she gracefully picked her way over the rubble lining the floor until she was in front of the kids. She knelt down.
“My name is Evie. What are your names?”
They told her and she grinned. “What cool names. I have some people who want to meet you. Will you come hang out with me?”
Cil shook his head. “We’re meant to stay with Danica.”
“I’m Danica’s sister. She’s going to come hang out with us once she’s looked after your dad, okay?”
They both looked at me and I nodded. “I’ll be there as soon as the healers are looking after your dad.”
Zip shook his head. “I want to stay with dad.”
“You heard him,” I made my voice firm. “He wants me to keep you safe.”
Cil narrowed his eyes at me, suddenly looking older than his years. “You’ll find the man who did this to our dad. And you’ll kill him.”
Evie made wide eyes at me and I shrugged. They had a right to know the truth.
I knelt down next to Gary again. Still unconscious.
The sirens were getting closer. My gut told me to get the kids out. If they’d seen whoever did this, they could be in danger. I met Evie’s eyes, and she nodded. A few soft words later, and the kids were pressing gentle kisses to their dad’s cheek before filing after her.
I went still. Gary wasn’t breathing.
I leaned down and started CPR.
Rose arrived as Gary was being loaded into the ambulance. I stood in the store and watched, my hands fisted.
Rose cleared her throat. The bounty hunter had never liked me, and she hated demons even more.
“What do you want?”
She smiled. “Danica Amana, you’re under arrest–”
That was enough to make me rip my gaze from the ambulance. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Satisfaction gleamed in her eyes. Rose’s father had been killed in a demon summoning gone wrong. He was an idiot for attempting to set a demon on his business partner, and he’d gotten what he deserved. And I’d told Rose exactly that when she’d pissed me off during my last investigation.
She obviously carried a grudge.
“Witnesses heard you screaming at this gnome earlier today. Apparently, you choked him with power.”
“Since when does the Mage Council care about lesser fae?”
If anything, I was expecting the dark fae to begin an investigation into what had happened to one of their people.
Rose ignored me. “And just a few hours later, he ended up dead, with his store nothing but rubble. And you were conveniently here to find him. Did you have a moment of regret, Danica? Is that why you called an ambulance?”
“You guys think I did this?” My hands fisted. Rose noted it and smiled.
“It’s ironic, really. Soon, there will be a bounty on your head. Traitor.” She sneered at me, her gaze dropping to my arm.
That’s what this was about. The Mage Council was still punishing me for not breaking the bond with Samael.
“Fine, I’ll come in,” I said. I wanted to talk to Keigan anyway, and maybe I could get Mella to do some research for me. I needed to know if there were any similar cases in the area.
“Oh you’ll come with me, will you?” Rose simpered. “Thank you for doing me that favor, Danica Amana.” Her eyes hardened. “Hold out your fucking hands.”
For the first time, true fear hit me.
The witches who had tried to kill Samael had used these chains on him. With enough time, the sheer force of his power would have snapped them, but while I had power, Samael was power. I’d had a glimpse of it when he’d killed close to thirty witches with little more than a glance. And yet, those chains had blocked his ability to access that power. If they’d made Samael unable to access his power, I’d be completely helpless.
If Rose put those chains on me, I was screwed.
Betrayal stabbed through me like broken glass. Four and a half years I’d been a contractor for the council. Not only had they fired me, but now, they wanted to put fucking Naud chains on me?
I bared my teeth at Rose. “If the mages want me to answer some questions, I will. But if you think I’m wearing those chains, you’re dreaming.”
Not only were the chains guaranteed to render me powerless, but they were meant to humiliate me. The Mage Council did the same to Mella, the selkie who was chained in the facility’s library. Since they’d hidden her skin from her, she was already completely powerless, but they’d put her in chains anyway. Because they wanted to prove a point.
Look what happens to the people who betray us.
Rose planted her feet. “Don’t make this more difficult than it needs to be.”
“I’ve had a very bad day. I’ll come in, but I’m not wearing the chains. Don’t push me on this.”
“I can have backup here in two minutes.”
I laughed, and it echoed through the room. It didn’t sound anything like me. “Bring your backup,” I dared her. Then I dropped my shields.
Power greeted me like a long-lost lover, caressing every inch of my skin. It urged me to make an example of the bounty hunter who’d dared to try to chain me.
Rose went white. She was very still. Prey. That’s what she looked like.
“What about now? Would you like to chain me now, Rosie?”
Wow, unseelie power made me into kind of a dick.
But Rose wasn’t holding out the chains anymore. She handed them to another bounty hunter. The backup. He’d arrived while I’d been attempting to control the power that urged me to kill everyone in sight. I bared my teeth at him.
Then I packed my power away, shoving it down beneath my shields. It hurt.
I followed them out of the store. Out the corner of my eye I saw movement. Vas.
His expression was hard as his gaze took in the bounty hunters behind me. I gave him a nod. I was fine.
He tilted his head disbelievingly and I nodded again. Last week, I’d taken Vas to the shooting range. It had been hilarious trying to teach a demon who was a walking weapon how to fire a gun. He was the only demon I still talked to, and the only good thing to come out of my deal with Samael.
I’d always been low on friends, and Vas was quickly becoming more like a brother.
A flap of invisible wings, and he was gone. I got in the back of Rose’s car and sat quietly. Rose got in the front, and I was small enough to enjoy the goosebumps that rose on the back of her neck.
Oh, she wouldn’t have had a problem with me behind her if she’d clamped Naud chains around my wrists and removed my ability to access my power. I refrained from telling her I didn’t need my power to kick her ass.
The Mage Council Facility was a few minutes’ walk away, and if Rose had been thinking clearly, she would’ve taken the opportunity to march me down Main Street and humiliate me further.
The short drive didn’t give me much time to consider my options, but I ran through them anyway. Option one: tell the mages about the kids. Cil and Zip would be questioned about whatever they saw. Unfortunately, I highly doubted the mages actually gave a shit about Gary. They were bringing me in to put me in my place. The kids would be further traumatized.
Option two: leave the kids out of it. Evie would keep them safe, and I could visit them when I was done being grilled by the mages. They’d be comfortable, surrounded by the witches who— while I couldn’t stand most of them— would probably be delighted to have kids in the house again.
Rose parked the car and I stepped out. I didn’t know the bounty hunter who’d been sending wary glances over his shoulder at me from the passenger’s seat. He must be new. He circled the car and approached me from behind. I snarled at him.
“If you think I’m going to allow you to walk that close to me, you’re wrong.”
If I gave these assholes an inch, they’d stab me in the back and have me in those chains before I could blink.
The bounty hunter gave me the side eye. He had six inches on me and his fist was the size of my face. He stood poised on the front of his feet as if ready to lunge at me. I’d pull him off balance and bury my knife in his gut before he got the chance.
Time slowed down as we both stared at each other. I softened my knees and he squared his shoulders.
Rose jerked her head at him and moved away from me, allowing me to follow them both in. Mages and bounty hunters were gathered in the lobby, mostly silent, all eyes on me. Someone had tipped them off that I was being brought in. Ben, the power-hungry coward and pain in my ass, leaned against the wall near the elevators and gave me a wide smile as we approached.
Rose pressed the button for the paranormal elevator. The elevator we used when bringing in dangerous bounties. What a nice touch.
Ben winked at me. “Danica Amana brought in for questioning. I never thought I’d see the day,” he drawled.
“I’m not surprised by your mental inadequacies. As always, your train of thought is stalled at the station.”
The male bounty hunter snorted, and Ben glowered at me, stepping close. His hand twitched as if he’d like to smash his fist into my face. I ignored him, sauntering into the elevator as soon as the doors opened.
Rose pressed the down button. They were taking me to the interrogation rooms. Just a few weeks ago, I’d stood in one of those rooms with her and questioned a witch who’d been suspected of killing demons. Now, I was going to be the one interrogated.
Life was funny.
The elevator doors opened and my eyes met Keigan’s. He was pale, his mouth turned down. He narrowed his eyes at Rose, and the look on his face clearly communicated his disappointment. She shifted on her feet and looked away.
“Danica,” he murmured. “I’m sure this has just been a big misunderstanding. We’ll get this cleared up.”
“I don’t think so. They tried to put me in Naud chains, Keigan.”
He blanched and Rose flushed. “Naud chains? What were you thinking?”
“Albert’s orders,” Rose said.
Keigan ignored her. “I’ll speak to him,” he said to me. “We’ll figure it out.”
I had a feeling we wouldn’t figure anything out, but I nodded and followed Rose to interrogation room three. Yes, she remembered the last time we were here too. She’d been so terrified of Vas she’d nearly pissed her pants, and now she was attempting to prove that she was in charge.
I sat down on one of the metal chairs and both bounty hunters leaned against the wall. The room was silent as we waited. Rose had her head bowed and was silently studying the ground. If she hadn’t been such an asshole from the moment I met her, I’d probably feel sorry for her. She’d imagined she would bring me in here in Naud chains, humiliating me in front of everyone. Instead, I’d walked freely behind her, while Keigan— a mage she looked up to— had made it clear he was disgusted by all of it.
The door swung open, and my eyes met Albert’s. He was dressed in a gray suit, his eyes hard, a deep pillow crease on his cheek. Clearly, he hadn’t lost any sleep after firing me.
“Danica,” he said. I nodded at him. He jerked his head at the bounty hunters, and they left the room.
The door opened once more. Keigan. “You’re entitled to a representative,” he said. “Would you like me to stay?”
I smiled at him. “Sure.” It was more for him than me. He was clearly miserable, his face pale and his brow furrowed. If I said no, he’d likely just stand outside the door, wringing his hands. I didn’t know why Keigan had taken me under his wing when I first began contracting for the Mage Council, but he was the only person here who truly gave a shit about me.
Keigan took a seat next to me. Albert didn’t seem pleased, but he didn’t object, sliding into the chair on the opposite side of the table.
“Do you know why we brought you in?”
Oh, is that what they’d done? I gave him a look that said he knew damn well I’d brought myself in. He sat back in his chair, tenting his hands on the table in front of him.
“Rose said the Mage Council got wind of my argument with Gary.”
“Yes. A few hours later, the gnome ended up almost dead. He may still die.”
My stomach twisted. “I have no motive to hurt Gary.”
“Then why were you seen screaming in his store? Why did a bounty hunter nearby report a wave of dark power? If you went back tonight and lost control, it will go better for you if you admit it now.”
“I went back to apologize. I found Gary crumpled on the floor. His shop looked like someone had tried to ruin everything he owned.”
Or, like someone had been looking for something. Had his goods been broken because someone wanted to hurt him, or were they broken by someone who was looking for something?
I hadn’t paid enough attention. I’d been too focused on getting the kids out and keeping Gary alive. I’d kept up the CPR until the ambulance arrived and the fae healer had managed to get his heart beating again.
I needed to get back to his store and take another look.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
Albert gave me a hard stare. “Take me through it step by step.”
I complied, telling him exactly what had happened from the moment I arrived, but leaving out all mention of the kids. Albert let me run through it, nodding along, and then studied his notes.
“It says here that the gnome has two children.”
“His name is Gary.”
He surveyed me, his eyes hard. “Where are the children?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen them. I’m unsure why this is Mage Council business, to be honest. As you’re well aware, Gary isn’t human.”
“You don’t need to be sure. All you need to know is that when a bounty hunter connected to the Mage Council but bonded to a demon is seen threatening a resident of this city, the Council takes notice.”
I heroically restrained myself from rolling my eyes. Albert smiled at me. It wasn’t a nice smile. “Why do I get the feeling you’re not being entirely truthful, Amana?”
I shrugged. Keigan cleared his throat. “It’s late,” he said. “Danica has told you her version of events. With the gnome–” he glanced at me and his eyes softened “with Gary still unconscious, you have no reason to hold her here.”
Albert ignored the other mage. My power licked at my shields, itching to teach him a lesson he’d never forget.
“It doesn’t take a demon to know that Amana is lying,” he said. Then he turned to me, his expression stony. “Either you tell us exactly what happened now, or you leave me no choice but to administer a truth spell.”
My mouth hung open. Next to me, Keigan got to his feet. “This is outrageous!”
The door slammed open, leaving a dent as it hit the wall. All of the oxygen in the room was immediately sucked out as the high demon stepped inside, his eyes on mine.
Power, thick and deadly crept up the walls and along the floor. It radiated from him, silent yet dripping an obvious threat. His silver gaze ignored everyone else in the room and methodically scanned my body as if searching for bruises.
He looked like a fallen angel, with his lush mouth, sharp cheekbones and a jaw that looked hard enough to break your hand– if somehow you defied all odds and managed to punch him in the face.
I hadn’t seen him for weeks. He’d been allowing me to skip Monday dinners, which were mandatory for everyone bonded to him. I’d hoped his choice not to make attend his stupid dinners also meant he’d chosen to leave me alone.
I should’ve known better.
“Little witch,” Samael purred, “just what trouble have you gotten yourself into now, hmmm?”
I would kill him. I’d kill him so dead that I’d make what the witches had wanted to do to him look like a day at the spa.
“I’m fine,” I told him. “Butt out.”
Albert went sheet white, and Keigan began to tremble. Samael just laughed.
“I don’t think so.” He turned to Albert. “I must have misheard you. You didn’t just threaten my witchling with a truth spell, did you?”
His tone was one hundred percent possessive male. His eyes dared Albert to misstep, and the corner of his mouth tipped up in sardonic amusement.
“No,” Albert ground out. His gaze flicked to me, and my shoulders wanted to hunch. The disgust was clear on his face.
Samael smiled. “In that case, we’ll be leaving. Come, bounty hunter.”
I’d had dreams of him ordering me to do just that. I shoved the vision away and ground my teeth as I got to my feet.
“Thanks, Keigan,” I murmured.
“Be careful, Danica.”
“You know it.”
I walked out the door. Rose was hunched against the wall as if she was attempting to blend into it. The male bounty hunter was nowhere to be seen.
Samael followed me out, turning sideways through the narrow doorway. His wings couldn’t fit, even tucked in tight. I’d had dirty, dirty dreams about him and his wings.
Albert and Keigan followed us out, and Samael turned his head, glancing over his shoulder.
“Attempt to put Naud chains on Danica again, and I’ll burn this place to the ground.”
His gaze lingered on Rose, and surprisingly, she didn’t piss her pants. She did turn white, her mouth a thin line as she nodded.
“Oh, and Albert… don’t think I’ve forgotten that the witches who attempted to kill me were using those filthy chains. When I find out exactly how they got their hands on them, your name better not come up.”
Albert said nothing, simply watched as Samael turned toward the elevator.
I ground my teeth but kept walking. The elevator certainly wasn’t made for Samael’s wingspan. He pulled me into him and turned, arranging his invisible wings. The elevator doors slid closed, and my eyes met Albert’s. I knew what it looked like. He couldn’t see the fact that there was nowhere else for me to stand, feather’s brushing every inch of my body and likely pressed against all three of the elevator walls.
No, it just looked like I was Samael’s toy.
“I can’t believe you just did that.”
“Believe it, witchling.”
My hands fisted. “You made things a hundred times worse. I was handling it, Samael, and now you made them think I’m one of your subjects.”
“You are one of my subjects.”
I snarled at that, managing to turn within his arms and his gaze dropped to my lips. “There’s that mouth I can’t stop thinking about.” His voice was low, intimate, and my breath caught in my throat.
“Don’t play with me, Samael.”
“Oh, little witch. I would like nothing more than to play with you. Unfortunately, you insist on running from me.”
“And I always will,” I vowed. He merely smiled.
The elevator doors opened to the lobby. Thankfully, at this time of the night, it was almost empty. I was so furious I was shaking. “You undermined me.”
Samael’s gaze turned cold, but he didn’t say a word until we were out of the lobby and on the sidewalk.
“I helped you. You may thank me now.”
“The underworld will freeze over before I thank you for messing with my life.”
“It’s not as hot there as most people think,” he said. “I felt the wards on your apartment. You’ve been practicing.”
“Don’t change the subject. Wait, when were you at my apartment?” I wouldn’t thank him for making me attend those ward lessons. I would not.
The gleam in his eyes told me he knew I was appreciative despite my annoyance at him. I gave him squinty eyes.
Samael raised one eyebrow. “You have much more to learn. Your power is unique but potent. If you truly want to be able to defend yourself, you need to train.”
I swallowed. While I was grateful for the help he’d given me, our ‘sessions’ had been torture. Not only was Samael a strict, merciless teacher, but I’d been forced to sit with him for hours.
Wards weren’t the only things I’d learned during those hours. I’d learned that the tiny crease that appeared between his brows when he was concentrating… it made my stomach flutter.
I learned that the pride in his eyes when I succeeded made me feel like I could take on anything and walk away.
I learned that the scent of him— cedar and citrus and male– made my heart thump harder in my chest.
I learned that despite my every instinct warning me away from the demon, my body didn’t care.
He stepped closer, and I backed up, until I was leaning against one of the concrete slabs that protected the building from anyone who thought they could ram it with a car or truck.
“I missed you,” he breathed, leaning down until his head was almost buried in my neck. “Did you miss me?”
I didn’t miss him. I craved him.
“Ahh Danica, you wound me.”
“Blah blah. Get out of the way, Samael, I have places to be.”
“You’re going to talk to the gnome children.”
“Would you like some help?”
I smiled sweetly. “When I need someone to be so scared they piss their pants, I may give you a call. When I want to talk to two traumatized kids, you can stay far away.”
Something I couldn’t catch flashed over his face.
“Very well. I’ll see you soon, Danica.”
“I don’t think so.”
He merely shook his head at me. The expression on his face said I was the most adorable thing he’d ever seen. I barely resisted the urge to punch him in the nose.
With a snap of invisible wings, he was gone.