“Everyone knows you’re not supposed to pick up the golden idol!” I shouted to Aidan as we sprinted down the dark corridor, deep within an ancient Mayan pyramid. The sound of jaguar paws thundered behind us.
Excuse me—demon jaguar paws. Far be it from me to forget exactly what chased me. Plain old jaguars wouldn’t be guarding a treasure as valuable as the one I’d just stolen.
“Just because it almost bit Indiana Jones in the ass doesn’t mean it’ll bite us,” Aidan said from beside me. “And you were the one who picked it up.”
I grinned, loving that he’d caught my Raiders of the Lost Ark reference. My temporary tomb-raiding partner was more than qualified for the gig as my sidekick. I tightened my grip on the golden diadem I’d plucked off the pedestal in the treasure room we’d raided. I’d known it would set off a booby trap, but I’d done it anyway, of course.
To be clear, the jaguars were the booby trap—my own snarling, furry version of the giant boulder that had chased Indie through that temple in Peru.
“I think they’re gaining on us,” I panted as we sprinted toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
The exit was close enough that I could almost smell the humid jungle air. Only thirty more yards and those damn jaguars should go poof once they hit the sunlight. At least, that was how it normally worked with the enchantments guarding the tombs I raided.
The glowing exit beckoned.
A loud grinding noise filled the narrow corridor.
“Oh, hell,” I muttered.
A massive stone door slowly lowered over the exit, cutting out the light.
I sucked a breath into my aching lungs and pushed myself faster, but it was a lost cause. The stone door was closing too quickly. It crashed to the ground.
Darkness. We were still ten yards away.
Damn. Stuck in a dead-end passage with six demon jaguars on our heels. I raised my hand, my lightstone ring flaring to life. A yellow glow poured over the gloomy tunnel.
“There!” Aidan pointed ahead.
My lightstone illuminated a narrow stone ledge over the blocked exit. We could fit on it. Barely. There was nowhere to go from there, but at least we’d have a sec to get our bearings and come up with a plan.
Assuming the jaguars couldn’t jump that high.
I chanced a glance behind me. The jaguars were gaining, their emerald eyes glinting in the dim light. Short black horns poked out in front of their ears. These were not your average, oversized house cats.
“Yep!” I said. “Ledge looks good.”
I’d jump onto pretty much anything to avoid those fangs.
“I’ll toss you up,” Aidan said as we neared it.
I eyed the ledge. If I took a running leap and used the side wall for leverage, I could probably make it. But it was damned tall. And the jaguars were damned fast. I had one chance, so why not use the services of the seriously built man at my side?
“All right,” I said.
We skidded to a halt in front of the ledge. Aidan’s big hands gripped my waist and he tossed me up. I grabbed the ledge and heaved myself onto the stone. Aidan pulled himself up behind me as the jaguars closed in. They leapt and snarled, their fangs gleaming in the light of my ring.
“Nice kitties,” I cooed.
The biggest jaguar snarled and leapt so high his head was level with the stone ledge. I cringed, scrambling back.
“Yeah, that’ll be the demon in them,” I muttered. These were not normal jaguars.
“You’re the one who thought this job would be a good opportunity to practice your magic, Cass,” Aidan said, his deep voice making me shiver.
I glanced at him, struck anew at his dark good looks, then raised the diadem. “Yeah. This is worth a hell of a lot of money and the magic in it is almost decayed. A perfect find. Worth a little nip from one of these guys.”
“A little nip?” He glanced down at the jaguars, his gray eyes skeptical.
“Fine, a big nip.”
Aidan nodded. He was a big man, and all six feet-plus of him crowded me on the ledge. I tried to ignore the flicker of awareness. I’d only known him two weeks—since he’d hired me to find a dangerous scroll—and I’d developed a thing for him almost immediately. Like an addiction, but one I enjoyed even though I knew it was bad for me. Clearly I was crazy.
Just because we’d kissed once a week ago and I’d confirmed he was awesome at it didn’t mean I had to get hot and bothered all the time. And this was clearly not the best moment.
“You haven’t used your magic, you know.” Censure colored his voice.
“Damn it.” He was right. I was here to practice, not just find magic to stock my shop. As soon as I’d set off the jaguar booby trap by removing the diadem from its pedestal, I’d used my wits and speed rather than my magic.
“It’s instinct not to use it,” I said. “Keeping my power hidden is the only reason I’ve stayed alive all these years.”
Normally I worked alone, but Aidan had come along because he was training me to use my magic, something I’d repressed all my life out of fear of being discovered as a FireSoul, the bogeyman of the supernatural world. I was hardly the bogeyman, but tell that to some scaredy-cat supernaturals and see how far it got you.
“I know. But something worse hunts you now.” He nodded to the snarling jaguars. “Something that makes these guys look like kittens. The point of this job was so you could face a real threat with no witnesses.”
“And stock my shop.” But he was totally right. Practicing my magic was the priority. The Monster from my past hunted me. I didn’t know his name, but I’d learned a week ago that he was still seeking me and my deirfiúr. My deirfiúr, Del and Nix, were my sisters by choice. If he caught me, I could kiss my life goodbye. And the lives of my deirfiúr. I needed to be strong enough to defeat him if—when—he found us.
The jaguars below continued to growl, their fangs flashing. Light shimmered around one, obscuring its form. When the glow faded, a tall demon stood in its place. The demon’s skin was the same midnight shade as the jaguar’s fur and his eyes an identical emerald green. White fangs peaked out from beneath his upper lip.
Excellent. The demon jaguars could shift. It made me feel less guilty about killing them. I didn’t like killing animals, even ones out for my blood. But demons were fair game, and these jerks were just demons who could take the shape of a jaguar—all the better to catch and eat a tomb raider like myself.
“Come down from there, and we’ll be nice and kill you quick.” The demon’s voice rumbled like the growl of a large cat.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Use your Mirror Mage powers to shift,” Aidan muttered. “I’ll join you. We’ll tear them apart.”
My Mirror Mage powers allowed me to temporarily borrow the gifts of any supernatural around me. If I wanted, I could mimic the demon’s ability to turn into a jaguar. Aidan, as the toughest Shifter of them all, could turn into a griffin. Together, we’d tear these guys apart.
Problem was, I was seriously out of practice with my magic, even after the five days I’d been training with Aidan. Shifting was one of the hardest things of all for me.
“I don’t have a handle on shifting yet.” Even so, I itched to try.
Below, a shimmer of light surrounded one of the other jaguars. A moment later, a tall demon stood in its place.
“Give me a boost,” the demon said to the other as light began to glow around the remaining jaguars.
Damn it, they were all changing. They’d climb up here, and then it’d be hand-to-hand. I loved hand-to-hand—it was how I did most of my jobs—but this wasn’t a normal job. This was magic practice.
And Aidan had insisted on taking my two trusty daggers so I’d be forced to practice my skills. I’d be demon chow without Lefty and Righty.
“Shift, Cass,” Aidan demanded.
“No way. Too hard.” I hadn’t successfully completed the transition before, but Aidan was all about pushing my limits.
As an Elemental Mage in addition to being the most powerful Shifter in the known world, Aidan had elemental powers I could mirror, but I didn’t want to start throwing stones around in a pyramid that could collapse on us. I could shoot fire from my fingers and turn them into demon barbecue, but that was too easy. I needed to challenge myself. That left one thing.
My FireSoul powers.
I thrust my hand toward the demons and envisioned lightning, bright and white. It flashed in my mind’s eye, and the power crackled against my skin. The scent of ozone permeated the air.
The fizz and burn filled my chest, lighting me up like a livewire. It’d taken me all of the past week to master my new gift of lightning, but when I released the huge bolt, it cracked right into the middle of the demons. A direct hit. Adrenaline surged through me, joy on its heels.
It felt good to use my power.
Light flared and the ground quaked. Damn. I’d thrown too much power at them. The rock beneath their feet exploded, and shards of stone ricocheted toward us.
In a flash, Aidan curled his huge form around me, protecting me behind a wall of muscle. Normally, I’d be annoyed. I could protect myself, damn it. But I was so hopped up on the thrill of using my magic in a fight that I didn’t care.
And this was the second time in two weeks that Aidan had thrown himself between me and a threat. I’d been peeved at him for coercing me into practicing my magic, but it was hard not to like a guy who put himself between you and danger.
Aidan jerked and grunted as flying stone hit him. Guilt chased away some of my power high. I hated hurting Aidan or causing damage to the pyramid. So far, I was 0 for 2.
“Sorry,” I said. “Seems I still haven’t got the lightning down either.”
I really thought I’d mastered it. I’d practiced the new skill almost all week at Aidan’s place, a remote estate in Ireland where no one could see me or figure out what I was capable of.
“Still putting too much power into it,” he muttered.
His breath was warm against my neck, the rumble of his voice a caress. I shivered. The power high and desire made my skin prickle with sensitivity. I ached to pull him toward me and confirm that he kissed as well as I remembered. The one we’d shared last week had been the best kiss I’d ever had with the hottest man I’d ever met.
Bad idea. I’d known him such a short time. And my life was too crazy right now for a relationship. There was a whole lot about Aidan I didn’t know. He seemed too good to be true, and in my life, that’d always been a red flag.
“I think we’re good,” I said, pushing at his hard chest. “Rubble’s not flying anymore.”
“I kind of like this position,” Aidan said.
Desire tugged at me. I liked it too. This was the first time since our kiss that he’d been so close to me.
Really bad idea.
I shoved him and he moved. “Yeah, well, if I haven’t zapped those demons, you’re not going to like it for long.”
I peered over the ledge. My lightning had gouged away part of the stone floor and wall. Guilt pierced me. This place was old as hell, and I’d screwed it up. It’d been fine for a thousand years, and then I came along and bam! There’s a giant hole in the entrance. There was a customer waiting on this diadem and we needed the fee pronto, but I’d have to come back and fix this when I returned the diadem.
The demons—all of them in their demon forms—lay scattered like fallen bowling pins below. A satisfied grin stretched across my face, nudging out some of the guilt.
Sort of. You couldn’t really kill demons. After death on earth, they regenerated in their hell. But they wouldn’t be giving us trouble anytime soon. Lightning was a hell of a gift to have.
It was the only gift I’d ever used my FireSoul powers to steal, though I didn’t technically steal it. I’ve always owned up to being a Mirror Mage. That was acceptable in the world of magic because I only borrowed the gifts. But if the Order of the Magica or the Alpha Council found out I was also a FireSoul, they’d toss me in the Prison for Magical Miscreants to rot to death. Their fear was understandable. A FireSoul had to kill to steal magical gifts. We were the only species who could do so. One power-hungry FireSoul could cause a hell of a lot of damage.
“Looks like you got them,” Aidan said.
“Yeah. Let’s get out of here.” I cradled the delicate diadem to my chest and jumped down from the ledge, avoiding the crispy demons at my feet. Their bodies would disappear soon, returning to their hells. Thank magic, because I really didn’t want to clean them up. Their scent gagged me. “They stink, and this thing needs to get back to my shop.”
Aidan’s big form thudded to the ground next to me. “Agreed. How about you get us out of here.”
I turned to the rock slab that acted as a door. He could move it in the blink of an eye, but that wasn’t the point of this exercise. I had to do it.
“No problem.” I reached out for Aidan’s Elemental Mage abilities. His power seethed against mine, immensely strong and vibrant. He was one of the most powerful Magica in the world, not to mention the Origin, a descendent of the original Shifter Alpha. A scary bastard, when you got down to it.
When I was near him, I could borrow whatever power I wanted. That made me a scary bastard too. Though I liked to think of myself as one anyway.
When I consciously reached out for Aidan’s magic, it lit up my senses. The smell of evergreen, the sound of roaring waves, and the taste of dark chocolate hit me. It was a warm caress against my skin, like a massage or a bubble bath. Supernaturals could feel the magic in others, but only strong supernaturals like Aidan gave off signatures for all five senses. Normally, he controlled and hid his signature, but when I accessed his magic, I could sense it.
Mentally, I shifted through his magic. I had to ignore what his power made me feel and sort through the various Magica gifts he possessed. His ability over water felt like raindrops against my skin. I bypassed it. I also bypassed the heat of flame and the gust of air. When I touched upon his gift of power over stone, it felt like rough dry rocks under my fingertips. I grasped hold of it. Power zinged down to my fingertips, and I raised my hands and directed my fingers at the stone. Magic flowed from them.
The sound of thousands of pounds of stone grinding against stone filled the dim corridor as the rock slab rose slowly. The strip of bright sunlight at the bottom widened. I squinted against the blazing light as the Mexican jungle came into view.
“Not bad,” Aidan said. “You’re control is getting better.”
“Thanks.” I couldn’t help the grin that stretched over my face. Every other time I’d borrowed other people’s powers, I’d been in an adrenaline-fueled panic to save my life or someone else’s. I usually got the job done, but my control was limited. See Exhibit A: Exploding Stone Floor from five minutes ago.
My smile faded at the reminder of my lightning power and what it’d taken for me to get it. Aaron, a FireSoul like me, had been a slave to the Monster from my past. I’d met him a week ago, while we’d been fighting over the scroll that Aidan had hired me to find. Aaron had given me his gift of lightning right before he’d died—willingly, he’d said—though I still felt guilty.
“I still don’t get why you’re helping me,” I said. I was such a risk.
We walked out into the jungle. The mid-afternoon sun pounded down, the heat soaking into my skin as the humid air filled my lungs. “It’s a big risk for you. If the Order of the Magica or the Alpha Council find out you’re harboring a FireSoul, you could get tossed in prison as well.”
“Because I like you, Cass. A lot. I’m not afraid of the Order of the Magica or the Alpha Council. They’re not going to stop me from trying to help you. You need your power if you’re going to defeat the Monster who hunts you. I saw how dangerous he can be. I know you’ve hidden your gifts because you’re afraid of being thrown in the Prison for Magical Miscreants, but the man who hunts you is a bigger threat.”
The thud and rumble of the plane’s wheels hitting the runway jerked me out of sleep. I lurched upright in the plush seat and dragged my hand over my mouth.
Oh, crap. Had I been drooling?
Maybe, but at least Aidan had his head buried in a book in the seat across the aisle. His private plane was otherwise empty, as usual. We’d hiked out of the jungle, driven to the nearest airstrip, jumped onboard this swanky tin can, and about eight hours later were landing in my home of Magic’s Bend, Oregon.
It was one of the few concealed, all-magic cities in the world, hidden by an enormous spell called the Great Peace. Humans who approached would veer away. The spell also kept humans from seeing our magic, though they could see us if we were in their spaces.
Which I often was while traveling to and from my job as a magic hunter for the shop I owned with my deirfiúr. It was still surreal to be traveling to and from jobs in a private plane. We could fly to the closest airstrip near the temple or tomb I was supposed to raid and be in and out in a day. Way different than my usual method of flying coach and taking public transport through some seriously remote places.
Traveling with Aidan Merrick, the Origin and founder of Origin Enterprises, was way better than being crammed into a bus between a lady with a chicken and someone’s pig. Apparently owning a security company was lucrative.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“About 7:00 p.m. You passed out as soon as we took off.”
No surprise. Using my magic still made me tired. The more practiced I became, the less exhausted I would be. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very practiced yet.
It didn’t take us long to get off the plane—another perk of flying private—and the cool breeze cleared the sleep from my head. I’d lived in the all-magical city with my deirfiúr for the last five years. Though I’d been staying in a guest room at Aidan’s estate in Ireland for the last five days to practice my magic, we’d had to come to Oregon to deliver the diadem to Ancient Magic, my shop.
There was only one car on the tarmac, the same large black SUV Aidan drove when he was in Magic’s Bend. An assistant, a tall guy with dark hair, stood next to it.
“I can catch a cab to my place if you just want to head home,” I said.
Aidan had a few houses I knew of, though I’d only ever been to the one in Ireland. He also had a place in Magic’s Bend. On the wealthy side of town, of course. Far from my own side.
“I’ll take you home,” Aidan said. “I don’t like the idea of you being on your own.”
“I’m not on my own. I’ve got Lefty and Righty.” I patted the thigh holsters holding my obsidian knives. I’d insisted he return them as soon as we got back on the plane. “And I’ll be with my deirfiúr as soon as I get back to Factory Row.”
“You need to stop leaning on your fighting skills and practice your magic,” Aidan said as we made our way across the tarmac to his car.
“I hear you, but there’s no way in hell I’m practicing in a city full of supernaturals.” It was one thing to use my magic in an abandoned pyramid that only held demons. But in a city? “If one person gets a whiff of what I am, they’d be scared shitless. They could turn me over to the Alpha Council or the Order of the Magica and probably get themselves a nice bounty.”
Working hard to access your magic was a lot like sweating. You gave off more of your magical signature for other supernaturals to sense. Until I was well practiced, I needed to try not to access my power around others.
“You’ll become better,” Aidan said as we climbed into his car. “With more practice, you’ll be able to keep others from sensing what you are. You can pass your gifts off as Mirror Mage powers.”
“Yeah, as long as they don’t catch me before I’m good enough to hide the truth.” That’d take time. I’d used so much magic over these last two weeks that I was completely on edge. It was super unlikely anyone had seen me—I’d stuck to Aidan’s private property and other remote areas—but it was hard to shake the paranoia and fear that had followed me for ten years.
“You’ll get good enough.”
The faith in his voice hit me hard. I shouldn’t care what he thought of me. He was just a guy, after all. I didn’t have space in my life for guys. Especially not handsome, powerful, kind ones who seemed to be nothing but good. Contrary to what it sounded like, those kinds of guys were actually nothing but trouble. You could fall for one of those guys.
For a girl who could trust no one but her deirfiúr, that was dangerous. Neither my deirfiúr nor I remembered the first fifteen years of our life. We’d woken in a field at fifteen with a single memory each: that we were FireSouls, we were running from someone, and that person wanted to hurt us. That person had been hurting us, because we were FireSouls.
As a result, Nix, Del, and I had moved around so much prior to settling in Magic’s Bend five years ago that I’d learned not to grow attached to anyone else. You would eventually have to leave them behind. If the Monster caught up to us, we’d have to run again.
But I was an adult now. If I wanted to make this work, I might be able to. Though I’d be lying if I said the idea didn’t scare the crap out of me. What if Aidan actually was as great as he seemed? That’d sure as hell be hard to ignore.
“Here we are.”
Aidan’s deep voice startled me out of my thoughts. The tall brick faces of the buildings on Factory Row loomed outside the car, their large windows like great black eyes in the night. Apparently I’d zoned out hard during the drive.
I grabbed the small box containing the diadem and climbed out of the car. I pulled my small bag off the floor and said, “Thanks for the ride. I’ll see you tomorrow. Eight, right?”
We were planning to head back to Ireland to practice my magic. As much as I told myself I didn’t want to go, I was lying. Not only was he right that I needed the practice, but I wanted to be around him. No matter how dumb it was.
“I’ll walk you in.” He climbed out of the car.
“You don’t have to.”
“Call me cautious. Last time we were here, the shop was in the middle of a break-in.”
The thief—Aaron, the FireSoul who’d eventually given me his power—had still been inside. Only that time, he’d been working on behalf of the Monster. He’d caused a hell of a lot of damage.
“Thanks.” I turned to face my building.
The windows of Ancient Magic were dark. It was long past closing time. While I was out hunting artifacts, my sister Nix ran the shop. She was the Protector. When Del, my other sister, wasn’t off hunting demons for bounty, she used archives to identify the magic we wanted to sell that was stored in artifacts. Del was the Seeker. I then hunted the magic artifacts, which made me the Huntress. We made a good team.
We crossed the street to Ancient Magic. The night was quiet save for the chirp of crickets in the park across from the converted factories. Factory Row was the recently gentrified part of Magic’s Bend and was the perfect location for our shop and the apartments we occupied above because it was both spacious and cheap.
I reached the glass door and ran my hands over the exterior edges. The fizz of magic tingled on my palms as the enchantment faded. Only my deirfiúr or myself could disarm it. Though the door looked like nothing more than glass, if you weren’t one of us, there was no way to get through. During opening hours, that wasn’t the case. Anyone could walk in. It’d be a pretty crap shop if customers couldn’t enter.
I stepped through the door and flicked on the light. The sight of the half-empty shelves dragged at my heart.
“Place looks better,” Aidan said.
“I guess. A lot less broken glass, at least. But inventory is down by more than half.” I walked to the front counter and put the artifact on the processing shelf behind it. We’d have trouble with rent because of the diminished inventory.
We didn’t actually sell the artifacts I found. That was illegal. What we sold was the magic the enchanted artifacts contained. We removed it from the artifact, put it into a replica, and returned the original to the site where I’d found it. Without magic to sell…
Well, we needed money to make rent. And fast. This might be the cheap part of town, but we’d rented out the whole building, most of it for our personal, dragon-inspired troves of treasure that we kept secret. FireSouls were said to share part of a dragon’s soul, though no one had seen a dragon in millennia. I possessed the dragon’s covetousness and was compelled to keep a trove of my own treasure. For me, it was leather jackets, weapons, and boots. Weird, yeah, but I couldn’t help myself.
“You hungry?” Aidan asked.
My stomach growled in response, as if it knew English too.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Let’s head to Potions & Pastilles. I’ll get you a pasty.”
“I’d think you’d be sick of me by now.”
“It’ll be a long while before I’m sick of you.” His dark gray gaze met mine. The heat in it made me shiver and wonder when he’d get sick of waiting for me.
The dumb part of me hoped he’d snap and drag me into his arms and kiss me. I shoved that part down deep and said, “Sure. I agreed to meet Nix and Del there anyway.”
“Good.” He grinned.
Damn it, why did he have to be so handsome? And smart and kind?
We headed out, and Aidan waited while I reengaged the enchantments by running my hands around the edges of the door. Light rain began to fall as we walked down the street to the coffee shop run by two of my friends, Claire and Connor.
Fortunately, it was only twenty yards down the way, and we weren’t too wet by the time we arrived. Yellow light gleamed from the windows as we approached, the sight filling me with warmth. This place was probably more my home than my own apartment, which I used just for sleeping and hiding my trove.
Aidan pushed open the door, and I couldn’t help the sigh that escaped me when the scent of Cornish Pasties enveloped me. The kitchen was small at P & P’s, but Connor made a mean Cornish Pasty in the small space. They’d moved here from Cornwall a year before we’d arrived and hadn’t been able to leave that part of their home behind.
And I was grateful. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to continue my half-decade-long love affair with the savory treat. It was the most exciting action I’d gotten in a while, actually, besides Aidan’s kiss.
“Hey! Took you long enough.” Del waved from her comfy leather seat in the corner. Her black hair was pulled back, and her blue eyes gleamed with welcome. Nix smiled at me, then jerked her head toward Aidan and made a face that said, “How’s it going with your guy?”
They sat in our usual spot. P & P was a coffee shop/whiskey bar, depending on the hour of the day. There were about half a dozen small wooden tables in the middle and comfy chairs scattered around the perimeter.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said to Del. “Let me order, and I’ll be right over.”
I followed Aidan to the small counter bar at the back. My friend Connor stood behind it, dressed in his usual band t-shirt and jeans with his dark hair flopped over his brow. He was busy putting the finishing touches on a whiskey cocktail. Besides enchanted coffees, P & P’s sold a variety of whiskeys at night. Connor’s idea, but it’d been a good one, as it drew in a whole different crowd in the evenings. There were at least half a dozen couples or small groups in the space.
“Hey, guys.” Connor grinned as he glanced up. “Be right with you.”
He handed off the cocktail to the pretty Shifter who stood at the far end of the bar, then turned to us.
“Long time no see,” Connor said. “Where you been hiding?”
“Just working on a tricky job,” I said.
Even though he and Claire were my closest friends besides my deirfiúr, they didn’t know I was a FireSoul. There was no point telling Connor I’d been at Aidan’s, practicing my magic. I should feel guilty about the secrets, but I honestly couldn’t feel too bad about it. It might make me a bad person, but keeping my deirfiúr and myself safe always came first. And the secret actually protected Connor. This way, he wasn’t knowingly harboring a FireSoul.
“What’ll it be, then?” Connor asked. “Whiskey for you, Aidan? I’ve got a new one in from Oban.”
“Perfect.” Aidan grinned. “And the pasty of the day.”
“PBR for me,” I said. “And two pasties.”
Connor scrunched his brow. “You still drink that stuff?”
“Oh, come on. You know I do. I’m not betraying my one true beer love for any of that fancy craft stuff.”
He laughed. “All right, all right. Hang on.”
He poured Aidan’s whiskey, pulled a can of PBR out of the little fridge, then handed them over. “Your hipster beer, madam. I’ll bring the pasties out after I’ve warmed them up.”
“Hillbilly beer,” I corrected as I pulled a few crumpled bills out of my pocket.
Aidan beat me to it, handing over a crisp fifty. “I’ve got it.”
I frowned at him, then remembered the catastrophe at Ancient Magic. Del, Nix, and I were going to have a hard time paying the bills until we found enough magic in enchanted artifacts to refill our stock. Even Del had started hunting artifacts when she didn’t have a demon to track down. We could sell off the treasures in our respective troves, but parting with any of our preciouses would be damned hard.
So, I said, “Thanks. I’ll get you next time.”
“Just because you’re loaded doesn’t mean I’m going to let you pay the bills. This isn’t a date.”
“But it could be, if you agreed to one.”
I shivered. Dates usually involved kissing. At least at the end. His dark eyes promised at least kissing. As much as I wanted to sign up for that…
“Bad idea,” I said as I turned and walked toward my deirfiúr.
Though Aidan always walked on silent feet, I could feel him behind me. His gaze heated my back. I took a seat in front of my deirfiúr.
Nix’s green gaze met mine. Today, she wore the usual ripped jeans and motorcycle boots, but her T-shirt of the day proclaimed her a ball-collecting feminist. I grinned.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“Got the diadem,” I said. “I put it behind the counter. It’s ready for you whenever.”
“I’ll do it as soon as I leave here. The buyer wants it pronto. She needs to be beautiful for some TV thing. You can take the original back to the pyramid any time after that.”
In addition to protecting the shop, Nix was in charge of transferring the magic in each artifact. She used her skills as a Conjurer to create the replicas of the artifacts, then transferred the original artifact’s magic to the replica, which we sold.
“Great.” I glanced at Del. “You get the sword?”
She nodded. “The magic in it was almost decayed, but Nix managed to stabilize it when she transferred it to the replica.”
With time, magic decayed and destabilized. By taking the magic out of the old artifacts, we were saving the artifacts from destruction.
“It’ll make some wimp a great fighter when he wields it,” Nix said.
Each artifact housed a different type of spell. Ones that improved fighting skills were often hot items. We’d sell it for a pretty penny soon.
“But I’ve got a lead on a demon who has a big bounty on his head,” Del said. “I’m going after him later. Shouldn’t take long to bag him. I’ve got a contact who says he knows where the demon hunts at dawn.”
“What kind of demon?” Aidan asked.
“Rylon. A baby eater.” Del’s face twisted with menace.
My stomach pitched. There were all kinds of demons from all kinds of hells. They shouldn’t be roaming the earth because they weren’t good at keeping a low profile around humans, but they were often in places they shouldn’t be. The Order of the Magica offered a bounty to those who caught them. Fortunately, Del was good at catching them.
“Good luck,” I said.
“Best pasties you’ll ever taste!”
My friend Claire’s cheerful voice sounded from behind me. I turned. Claire approached with a tray of pasties. She was wearing her fighting leathers, which meant she’d just come from one of her mercenary jobs, but she wasn’t covered in blood, so her brother had clearly roped her into helping with P & P.
“Thanks.” I almost moaned at the delicious smell wafting from the pasties—savory beef and potatoes wrapped in buttery pastry. I bit into one, not caring that it was too hot, and glanced up at Claire. “You kill whatever you were after?”
“You know it. A rogue Shifter who was going after Magica in his wolf form.”
Though they don’t really trust each other, Shifters and Magica got along all right. Despite our different magical skill sets—Magica did magic, whereas Shifters were magic—we were about equal in a fight because Shifters were partially immune to magic when in their animal form. It would take a hell of a lot of my lightning to bring down a Shifter, and in the meantime, they could get to me and chew my head right off. But the lightning would still hurt like hell, and I might get off enough bolts to kill a Shifter before they got to me, so Shifters usually didn’t want to fight us any more than we wanted to fight them.
“At least you got him,” Del said.
“Yep. And now all I want to do is shower, but little brother is a slave driver.” She scowled back toward the kitchen.
I laughed and damn, it felt good. It might have been the first time I’d laughed since I’d realized the man from my nightmares—the Monster—was coming for us. It reminded me that life was good. No matter what our current problems, we could get back on track. Whatever hunted us, we’d face it.
The door opened behind me, and a gust of cool wind blew into the shop. The smell of rain followed it. I turned to see if it was still coming down, but a big man loomed in the doorway. I stiffened.
Mathias. His wild golden hair and hulking size betrayed his Shifter species—lion. I’d met him a week ago when I’d needed help finding the Scroll of Truths. He’d been the lover of the woman I’d gone to for help, a blood sorceress named Mordaca.
His yellow gaze landed on me, and recognition flared in his eyes. He strode toward our group, bringing with him the scent of his magic. Dry, like the desert or the planes of Africa.
He stopped in front of our cluster of chairs and turned to Aidan. He bowed low, a gesture of respect to the strongest of all Shifters. “Origin.”
The deep regard in his voice hit me. I’d forgotten how the Shifters felt about the Origin. He was almost a god to them.
Aidan nodded. “Mathias.”
Mathias rose and turned to me. “Cassiopeia Clereaux. The Alpha Council is looking for you.”
My stomach felt like it had dropped right out of my body and all the breath left my lungs. The Alpha Council was looking for me? That made no sense, unless they knew what I was.
I tried to keep my face impassive as my mind raced. Had Mathias figured out what I was when I’d gone to Mordaca for help? Had he told his government I was a FireSoul? They didn’t govern Magica—my kind—but they hunted FireSouls, just like the Order of the Magica, because we could steal their shifting ability if we killed them. We were a danger to everyone, Shifter, Magica, or any supernatural in between.
Sharp metal bit into my fingers. I glanced down. My hand was fisted around my now dented beer can, and a ridge of metal cut into my finger. Slowly, I drew in a breath and lowered the can to my side so no one could see it.
“Yeah?” I asked, trying to appear calm.
A glance at my deirfiúr showed that Nix was white as snow, her brown hair standing out starkly against her skin, and Del was turning the faintest shade of blue. She was so freaked out she was starting to turn into her phantom form.
When I’d started practicing my magic, this was what I’d been afraid of. One of the two governing bodies catching wind of what I was and coming after me.
“Why is the Alpha Council looking for me?”
Mathias glanced at Aidan. “Aidan told us about your skills.”
Fear and rage clashed within me as my gaze jerked to Aidan. He’d told them what I was?
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