“The witches are losing control of their prison.” Cadan, his friend and colleague, looked grim. “They think the barrier will break within the week.”
“A week?” Warren’s stomach pitched.
“Aye. The only prisoner is too powerful to contain any longer. A soulceress called Aurora.”
Aurora. The name made the blood pound so hard in his head that his eyes throbbed. He hadn’t heard anyone speak of her since she’d stolen his soul three hundred years ago.
“You all right, mate?” Cadan asked.
Warren blinked and met his friend’s dark gaze. He was spacing out—back to the past when he’d fucked up his entire life.
“Aye.” He shook his head, then surged to his feet. He had to get his act together. “I’ll go see them and figure out how we can help.”
“I’ll come too.”
“Ah, doona worry about it. You’ve done enough by telling me.” More than that, he didn’t want Cadan to know the truth about him. Closest friend or not, the fact that Warren was a monster without a soul was something he didn’t want to share.
“Aye, well, you know the witches. Prideful lot. Won’t seek help ’til it blows up in their faces.”
Which made his job a hell of a lot harder. As the head of the Praesidium, the security division of the Mythean University, it was Warren’s job to keep things like this from happening.
Intent on doing so, Warren strode out of his office and down the beautiful old hallway of his building on the university campus. Cadan kept pace with him, ignoring Warren’s assertions that his help wasn’t needed.
Cadan was a Mythean Guardian, as the warriors who worked for the Praesidium were called, and was tasked with protecting the individuals most important to humanity and keeping the dangerous Mytheans like Aurora in check. He was also his closest friend and nosy as hell.
Which meant he was right on Warren’s arse as he strode through the great atrium that marked the entrance to the Praesidium’s building and pushed out through the heavy wooden doors.
“You’re acting damned strange. What the hell’s the matter?” Cadan asked as they descended the stone stairs leading to the cobblestone courtyard.
Warren ignored him and focused on the stone buildings rising on all sides of the courtyard, their gray faces dour on this dreich day. The sun couldn’t beat its way past the heavy gray clouds, and it suited his mood just fine. He strode across the courtyard toward the rolling green hills surrounding the main part of campus. The witches kept to themselves in cottages near the forest. Private, but still within the protection of the university.
“Seriously, mate, what the hell is wrong?” Cadan demanded. “You look like death.”
Where would he start? With the fact that the soulceress who owned his soul and could use it to power her own evil magic was the one who would be released? Or perhaps with the deaths he’d caused that had landed him in this mess? That everything he’d worked for was about to come crashing down around his head? That he lacked any humanity at all?
No. He’d kept those secrets for years and would continue to keep them. The life he’d created here at the Mythean University wasn’t perfect, but it was something good he’d worked hard to create out of the ashes of his past.
“I’m fine. Just doona like the idea of this soulceress getting out, that’s all,” he said.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cadan shrug. His friend didn’t buy his excuses, but Warren couldn’t bring himself to care.
They arrived at the lushly gardened section of the university that housed the witches’ cottages and strode down the path leading to the main cottage in the middle. Roses climbed up the gray stone, pink and red and yellow, all vibrantly in bloom despite the fact that it was a dreary November day. Smoke drifted from a chimney that speared up from the side of the slate roof and the windows glowed with golden light.
Good, they were within. He banged on the wooden door, meeting his friend’s eyes as he did so. Concern tightened Cadan’s brow, and Warren realized he probably looked crazed. He tried to flatten his features into calm even as his insides roiled.
“Be quiet,” a voice hissed from within.
Warren turned to see one of the witches peering through a little slot in the door. Her eyes blazed green and threatening.
“I’m here to talk about the problem with your prison in the aether,” he said.
It was the only prison of its type, a jail without bars or stone. It floated within the aether, that ephemeral substance connecting earth and the afterworlds—known to mortals as the heavens and hells of their religions. It was between here and nowhere, and as such was impossible for him to manipulate. Only the witches had access because they had created the prison.
“We’re working on it. Right now, in fact. And you’re going to screw it up. Come back tomorrow.”
“Now.” Warren’s voice rumbled.
The witch squinted, glowering. “Tomorrow. We’re in the middle of a containment spell. You’re going to screw us up. We’re trying to shore up the boundaries and you’re messing with our concentration. Come back tomorrow.”
Warren frowned, but the seriousness of her voice penetrated. A flash of light bursting from the windows convinced him. If they were doing what they could, he wouldn’t interfere.
“Tomorrow,” he said.
She slammed the little slot in the door shut.
Warren heaved a frustrated sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. Only the witches with their magic could ensure that Aurora remained trapped within. If they couldn’t take care of this, then everyone was screwed. He met Cadan’s worried eyes. “We’re done here.”
Cadan nodded. “Come on, let me buy you a pint. Work day’s almost over.”
“Thanks, but nay. Go back to your Diana.”
“I’ve got time. She’ll be in the library for another couple of hours.”
Warren liked Cadan’s woman, an American scholar who was the reincarnate of Boudica. But his friend would be happier with her this evening, no matter how much he protested. Warren was shite company right now.
“I’ve got some things to take care of. Give my best to Diana.” He clapped Cadan on the shoulder, then spun and strode away, desperate to get some space and clear his head.
The possibility that Aurora might escape made his skin feel like it was stretched too tight over his muscles. He felt trapped in his own body, torn between duty and possibility. He spun on his heel, changing direction and heading to his house instead of back to his office. All he needed was some space.
Ten minutes later, he arrived at the woodworking shop he’d built behind his house. Though close to the main part of campus, the woods separated his home from the other buildings and gave him some much-needed peace and quiet. He pushed open the door to the cedar-scented space, but instead of picking up any of the tools to work on the projects that normally cleared his mind, he sat on a bench and buried his head in his hands.
Fuck. He had to think.
Everything he’d worked for was about to come crashing down around him.Aurora might have made him into a soulless monster, but he’d tried to do good with his life in the years following the loss of his soul and his humanity.
Warren looked at his right hand, the sword hand that hadn’t used a blade against another in three centuries. He flexed it, looking at the broad palm and long fingers that had taken countless lives when he’d been a mortal soldier. But he hadn’t killed in three hundred years and he wouldn’t kill now, no matter how much he wanted to get his soul back.
Though he wanted more than anything for Aurora to be released so he could do exactly that.
Nay. He clenched his fist until it hurt. There was no guarantee he would win. Even if he lost, he’d die happily if his life was all he had at stake. But it wasn’t. No matter how good his odds of defeating her, she was powerful—especially when fueled by his soul—and if he lost, she’d be free to wreak havoc again.
So he’d follow the rules he’d set for himself. No matter what he wanted personally, he would uphold his position and do what was right. She might own his soul, but as long as she was locked up, she couldn’t use it. She was powerless there, and the rest of the Mythean community was safe.
Warren tried his damnedest to believe he would do the right thing. The selfless thing. Keeping her locked up was the best way. Killing her would serve his needs, but the risk of her being freed while he tried to accomplish the deed was too great. Serving his own selfish needs at the expense of the safety of others was not an option.
He squeezed his eyes closed and slowly counted backward from one hundred. Breathe. Count. Breathe. Count.
When he wound down to zero, he told himself he would do the right thing by seeing to it that she stayed in prison.
But he couldn’t say if he believed it.