Magick Marked (The DarqRealm Series), page 23
Tim released his grip from Eldon’s shoulders the moment they materialized near the woods, and that was fine with him. His first instinct was to find Rho, and he scanned the shadows. A tiny rush of relief hit him as he spotted her profile against the darkness only a few feet away.
“Who’s that?” Tim asked as he strode forward.
“Nick, an old friend,” Eldon answered.
“Are we inviting people on missions now?” Tim shot Eldon a pointed stare.
“I didn’t invite him,” Eldon said, casting a glance toward Rho. She was standing beside Nick—her expression as if someone had slapped her across the face. Her cool gray eyes were wide, her fair skin more pale than usual. Damn Nick. He’d said something to her, and whatever it was had her spooked. He scooted behind the wolf and tried to be casual as he stepped toward Rho.
Nick extended a hand to Tim. “Nick.”
Tim eyeballed his hand before slowly extending his own. “Tim.”
Ignoring the pleasantries, Eldon paced over to Rho and set a hand on her lower back. “Everything okay?” he asked quietly.
“Fine. Everything is… fine.” She didn’t look at him.
“You’re a terrible liar.”
She fiddled with a blade in the sheath strapped to her chest.
He stepped in front of her, lifting her chin with a finger. “You can’t be straight with me, can you?”
“Not now, Eldon.” She pulled her face away from him to stare at the ground.
His eyes narrowed. So there was something they needed to discuss. Judging from the way she was reacting to him now, it wasn’t good. He shot a ball-busting glare at Nick, who looked guilty as sin. Yeah, Nick’s expression said it all. He knew that face way too well.
Eldon stroked the long locks riding down Rho’s back before turning away to glance at Tim. “You ready to lead the way?”
Tim nodded and removed a small box from his pocket. “First things first. Who has a gun?”
Every person yanked a pistol from their waist, including Nick. Eldon wasn’t surprised. Nick always carried a gun with him everywhere and he happened to be a damn good shot. Even when they were kids and the only thing they’d had to shoot were BB guns, Nick had rarely missed.
Tim pulled a box from his pocket. “These bullets are made of gold.” He flipped the box open and emptied the contents into his tattoo-covered palm.
He placed three bullets in Eldon’s hand. They were heavy, much heavier than a normal round. Eldon held the shiny gold metal toward the light to inspect it, wondering where he’d managed to scrounge up something so unique.
Tim distributed a handful of bullets between Eldon and Rho before releasing the magazine in his own gun. “My sources tell me that if shifters touch gold, they can’t shift. These bullets are impregnated with gold.” He popped the bullets in and slid the magazine back into its home with a loud click.
Nick extended a hand. “I’ll need some, too.”
Eldon snapped to attention. “No, you don’t.”
“Yes. I do.”
Eldon marched over to Nick, standing so they were only inches apart. He kept his voice low. “This isn’t your fight, Nick. Not your problem. Go home.”
“Bullshit,” Nick spat.
“Tell the Collective I’m fine. I’ll check in with them tomorrow.”
Nick scoffed. “You think I’m going to let you go in there without my help?”
The last thing he needed was to worry about someone else in the mix. “Like I said. Not your problem.”
Nick’s brows knotted in anger, his lips a thin slash. “My entire life, you’ve been like a brother to me. I’ve looked out for your family and I’ve always had your back. How is this different?”
He’d always been there, true. But this was dangerous, and he wouldn’t put his best friend in unnecessary danger. “Don’t get involved in this.”
“Too late. I’m already involved.”
Eldon pinched the bridge of his nose, so frustrated he wanted to scream. “Nick, what if something happens to me? What will happen to my sisters? Who will protect them?”
The muscles in Nick’s jaw flexed. He didn’t speak for a moment. “Fine. I’ll hang back. I’m still going to come, but I won’t fight hand-to-hand unless I have to.”
It wasn’t the one-sided agreement Eldon was after, but it was the best he was going to get. “Deal.” He glanced at Tim and jerked his head toward Nick. “Get him some bullets. Just in case.”
Tim nodded and poured three bullets into Nick’s hand.
“Let’s go.” Eldon spun around and headed for the trees.
Gun drawn and to her side, Rho crept slowly through the forest. She trudged across another small stream, grateful she’d worn her heavy, watertight boots. Spending the rest of the night with soggy feet would have royally sucked.
Sometimes practical trumped pretty. Sometimes.
She squinted against the darkness, spotting the nearest neighbors around a hundred yards away. The generic cabin resembled every other home in the neighborhood, easy to spot with its bright interior lighting. Large lots and dense trees separated the properties, giving her a sense of innate security. If she bought a home with privacy in mind, this would be the one.
A low whistle stole Rho’s attention. Tim’s signal.
All four of them came to an abrupt standstill. No one had argued when Tim said they’d be taking cues from him. The intel on this location resided solely with him, and they were just along for the ride. Not to mention, he was the Alpha of the group. Giving orders was kind of his thing.
With one finger, Tim pointed to both of his eyes, then Rho and Eldon, then to the left side of the house. Tim was going to the left side. He made another motion along his eyes before ordering Eldon and Rho around to the right.
Rho nodded and took the lead around the side of the house, stalking cautiously through the woods and trying not to make any noise. At their unbearably slow pace, it took forever before they were only feet away from the house. Keeping the gold-loaded gun in her hand, Rho crouched to the ground.
Her eyes locked with Eldon’s as she mouthed, Let’s go to the side of the house. Sure would be nice if she could control the connection between them, channeling it for communication, but apparently it didn’t work like that. He nodded and followed her.
There was a chance that Vectra was here. This was Alexander’s house and he was the one who had signed that letter. Even though they’d come here to retrieve the Kamens, they at least had to search the place to make sure he didn’t have Vectra locked away somewhere. Chances were, with her vampire hearing, she’d be able to hear Vectra before she saw her. Of course, she wasn’t exactly sure what she was listening for, but she imagined the little shifter wouldn’t be happy. If she was anything like Preshea, she’d be loud about it.
Eldon stepped around her while she covered him and scanned the periphery. Amazing that Alexander didn’t have any guards here. Or wards. By now they surely should have tripped some sort of alarm.
He made it to the side of the house and pressed his back to the wall, jerking his head to signal her to move forward. Palming his gun, he lifted it with purpose. It was his turn to cover for her.
As much as she hated to admit it, she and Eldon made a pretty good team. She felt secure with him watching her back, and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to say the same with anyone else. Maybe their connection put her at ease. Who knew?
The sound of crunching leaves brought Rho’s head around toward the source of the noise. She squinted, but even with her vampire vision it was too dark to spot a damn thing.
“What the fuck are you doing?” a familiar female voice whispered in the darkness.
Rho stilled, watching intently as a small figure emerged from behind the d
Preshea. Sweet Jesus, Preshea was here.
“What are we doing?” Rho whispered loudly. “What are you doing here? Why did you leave?”
“I had to find the ShiftMaster.” Preshea glanced behind her at the cabin, and Rho turned to follow her stare, watching as Eldon emerged from the darkness. He didn’t look happy.
“You bailed on us,” he said, his quiet tone disapproving.
The short strands of Preshea’s black and white hair shimmered in the moonlight as Rho took in her appearance. Dark eyeliner was smudged beneath her eyes, no doubt the remnants of days past. Her clothes were wrinkled and torn, as if they’d seen a fight or two since they’d first been worn. She looked like hell.
“My priority is and will always be to my family first. Period.” Preshea glanced toward the house. “Where’s Tim? Is he here?”
Eldon ignored the question. “You made a promise to this team.”
Her eyes grew cold as she fixed her stare on the mover, anger stirring in their depths. “Vectra is more important to me than any promise. So you can kiss my ass with all this inquisition bullshit. I don’t owe you any explanations.”
Lights flooded the front of the house and poured over the lawn toward the back. Without a sound, Preshea vanished.
Rho and Eldon hit the ground hard, her own breathing loud in her ears. She shut the human instinct off immediately and tried to get a grip on herself. She couldn’t afford to be distracted by Preshea right now. They had a job to do. Adrenaline pumped in her veins as she lifted her head.
A car. Someone had arrived.
Wherever Preshea had gone, Rho hoped the shifter remained close. She hated the idea of Tim on the far side of the house without any backup. They were probably going to need all the help they could get.
Her gaze met Eldon’s, a silent agreement passing between them without a word. Neither of them could move until that person got inside the house. She only hoped Tim had seen the light, too.
The sound of keys clanking echoed in the stillness. Moments later, a door opened and shut again. They lay motionless on the cool grass for several long seconds. On Eldon’s signal, they army-crawled together toward the side of the house.
Eldon grabbed her elbow and helped her to her feet, then shoved her against the wall. She pressed her back into the wood beams along the cabin’s exterior. Thank God there were no windows on this side. One less thing to worry about.
Rho glanced at Eldon and pointed to her ear. He nodded.
She took a few tiny steps forward, as close to the back door as she dared while still maintaining her position in the shadows. Two voices. One male and one female. Could that be Vectra? This close to the door, it would be easy to do a little snatch and grab. They wouldn’t know what hit them.
Rho held up two fingers to Eldon.
A hand touched her elbow, and she turned to meet his pointed stare. He shook his head. Without a word, he was ordering her to stay in place, as if he knew exactly what she wanted to do. She tried to push away the urge to run inside. He was right. They couldn’t be sure the female voice was Vectra’s.
Rho nodded and tilted her head. Opening her senses completely, she followed the string of sound and honed in on the words.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” a man said. That had to be Alexander. If this was his house, he must be the one who’d arrived.
“It is poor form to show up late to a meeting when you have already failed to produce what I’ve asked for,” the shrill female voice replied. That couldn’t be Vectra. She wouldn’t have agreed to meet with him—or needed to. She also sounded too… old. No way was that woman fourteen.
“I’ve given you the shifter’s Kamen,” the man answered.
“And yet your debt remains unpaid.”
Given her the shifter’s Kamen? Why would he do something like that? And who was she? Rho snapped around to look at Eldon, but he only nodded, face pinched in absolute focus, chin lifted as he strained to hear.
She fought the questions firing off in her brain, trying to pay attention to the conversation. This exchange had just gone from casual convo to vital intel.
“I’m working on that,” the man answered.
“I’m beginning to wonder if you are, Alexander.”
So it was him. She couldn’t remember exactly what the man looked like, but she committed his voice to memory.
“I’ve done as you asked. My Kamen has been reported missing. A team has been assembled by the Council. I’ve even taken Preshea’s sister to help us find the remaining Kamens. And to ensure her compliance.”
Rat bastard. He’d just admitted to everything and then some. His Kamen wasn’t missing; he’d given it away. He’d committed treason by lying to the Council, and why?
“You would put forth a member of your team not worthy of the task? Tsk, tsk.”
A branch snapped. Rho shot a worried glance at Eldon who shrugged. The distant sound came from the opposite side of the house. No doubt Preshea had heard what was said, and Tim was having bunches of fun trying to keep her from busting in and breaking that woman’s nose.
“She is worthy,” Alexander said, his voice growing quiet.
“And yet you do not trust that your strength as her leader is enough to demand her compliance?”
Nothing but silence. Rho leaned forward slightly, trying to get a sight on the targets inside. They held the Kamens, and she’d be willing to bet the stones weren’t far. They could even be carrying them around in a pocket.
She caught a shimmer of green fabric before losing her balance. Eldon’s strong hand gripped her arm and pulled her back against the wall. Turning her head to the side, she peered up at him. He shook his head. Maybe he was right. Curiosity did kill the cat.
“Interesting,” the female voice said, her tone amused. “I would expect more from a ShiftMaster.”
“If my hands weren’t tied on the matter, I’d use them to wring your neck,” Alexander ground out.
“But they are tied, aren’t they, little shifter?”
“I could be the ShiftMaster without your spells,” Alexander said.
Holy shitballs. Rho’s jaw dropped open and she swung her head around to take in Eldon’s reaction. His eyes were wide with surprise. The current ShiftMaster hadn’t earned the title? He’d bought spells to ensure his position? Whoever that woman was, she must be extraordinarily powerful to manipulate an entire nation of people into following a leader like Alexander on a whim.
“Oh? You think so? I should very much like to see that.” The female voice was sharp with anger. “Offend me again and you shall.” A spark flashed, bathing the tree line in emerald light for only a second before disappearing again.
“Forgive me, Majesty,” Alexander answered quickly. “I didn’t mean to be insulting.”
Majesty? There were few people who possessed an elevated title in the DarqRealm. The magick movers ruled by democracy, and the ShiftMaster was in that room, which left the vampires, the werewolves… and the fae.
“Then choose your words more carefully,” the woman instructed. “Rather peculiar no one has been able to overthrow your family for so many generations, don’t you think? I would hate for people to start questioning your authority.”
“You wouldn’t,” Alexander challenged.
The woman barked a laugh. “Oh, I’m capable of many things. Blackmail is the least of my proficiencies.”
There was a long pause before the man answered. “I sent the note, as you requested.”
The note to Preshea. Light bulbs flared in Rho’s mind at the memory of that day. This woman had to be fae, which would explain why the fae magick was on the letters.
“Hmmm… yes. They killed two of my warriors, though, and I’m none too pleased about it. They are more skilled th
Damn right, they were skilled. Rho rubbed a hand along the healed scar at her side. She wanted to skill that woman’s ass right into the ground for sending those fae warriors to stake her in the chest with silver. That shit hurt.
The woman sighed. “They are expensive to replace, though. So you shall owe me again.”
“You can’t be serious!” Alexander cried. “I have paid my family’s debts. I have done what you asked.”
“And you will continue to do so.”
“My family should have left you to your banishment in Etherealis,” Alexander hissed.
Costel had explained the other dimension, Etherealis, before she’d left on this mission, about how they’d sealed it off. The Council must have suspected this woman had something to do with the man he’d mentioned—Mo-something.
“You will hold your tongue,” the woman said. “Or every transaction I have kept in confidence will become public record. Remember that.”
Rho stood in shocked silence. Alexander wasn’t even her leader, and she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Preshea and the entire shifter nation had followed this family blindly for years. She had to be frothing at the mouth.
The woman snickered. “You’re charming when you’re angry.”
“I will make good on my payment.” An ugly combination of bitterness and defeat coated his tone.
“Yes, you will. Or your house of cards will fall. Either way, I shall be entertained by the outcome.”
He paused before answering, “As you wish, Majesty.”
Click. Click. The sound of locks slipping followed by the sliding of the rear glass door forced Eldon to the ground. She hadn’t realized he’d moved out of the cover of darkness until that moment.
He kneeled below the surface of the deck, out of sight. Rho’s chest tightened as footsteps rang out against the stillness, each one closer to Eldon than the last. She pressed herself even closer to the cold brick wall.