Magick Marked (The DarqRealm Series), page 8
One shoulder propped against the doorway, Jess pulled a strand of hair behind her ear and gave him a suspicious stare. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing. Just Nick, calling to say hello.”
Jess raised a brow. “This late?”
He set the phone on his desk and glanced at the massive clock on the wall. “Oh, thanks for reminding me. Partying late again tonight, were we?”
“I’m an adult. My business is my business. And don’t change the subject. What was that about?” She folded her arms across her chest, her stubborn jaw edging forward. “Listen, I know there was a female vampire in this house, and that didn’t sound like a hi-how-are-you conversation, so don’t play me for a fool. Either you tell me what’s up or I’ll find out on my own. You know I will.”
“And you promised to stop treating me like a baby. So what’s it going to be?”
Abra, Jess’s beloved black cat, slinked between her legs, rubbing against her and purring relentlessly. Jess stared at him from across the room, her gaze unyielding.
Damn it, she wasn’t bluffing. She wouldn’t hesitate to use her animal-speak abilities to find out what he was up to. Whatever they heard, she’d hear, and she could be unbelievably invasive with that talent when she wanted to be.
He popped his knuckles, giving in. “There’s an emergency Collective meeting tomorrow.”
“Kamens are missing.” No reason to hold back now. Pushy woman.
Her eyebrows shot up. “More than one?”
“The mover and vampire Kamens.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m assuming that was Nick and he was telling you about the mover Kamen. So how do you know about the vampires?”
Eldon motioned with his hand toward the doorway. “Go get Adelle and bring her in here. I might as well tell you both.” Not point in relaying the story twice.
As Jess turned and headed down the hall, he shook his head. He really didn’t want to explain the business he’d done with that female vamp. They’d be furious.
But his sister was right. They weren’t babies anymore, and they couldn’t protect themselves from what they didn’t know was coming. And something told him the storm on the horizon might spell disaster.
“Call to order!” a voice boomed. “Call to order, Collective, this meeting is now in session.”
A redheaded woman at the head of the table rapped her knuckles against the wood surface, quieting the chatter of introductions and pleasantries.
The room was small and cramped, but as the tradition mandated, the twelve head movers of the Collective crowded around the oblong redwood table in the basement of their official headquarters. They’d traveled from all corners of the globe to convene here in the outskirts of Massachusetts. Those who didn’t possess the ability to ride the lines appeared worn and ragged from redeye flights.
Eldon stifled a yawn. Nick placed a coffee on the table in front of him before settling into the seat at his right, and he accepted it graciously. Riding the lines required concentration and effort, especially when he had to focus on moving more than one person. Just as he’d expected, Jess and Adelle demanded to join him. So he’d had to make the trip twice. They sat in the metal chairs on the wall behind him, silently stewing.
Yeah, they were still pissed.
He’d brought a vampire into their home and agreed to perform magick for her, despite his race’s longstanding prejudice against the undead. With a rich family history and even richer bank account, they didn’t need the money. So whether it was five dollars or five hundred thousand, in their opinion, he never should’ve agreed to help her. Just look at the liability he’d created.
Eldon shook his head, focusing on the droning opening words of their leader.
“—and so we seem to have a major situation on our hands. Our Kamen is missing.”
The room exploded into conversation and accusations, those who hadn’t been aware of the loss rising from their chairs, angry, confused and fearful.
“How could this happen?”
“Who is responsible?”
The chorus of questions grew louder and louder, each person speaking over the other, a whirlwind of chaos and uncertainty. He was in no small part responsible for all of this. Eldon rose from his chair and slammed a fist on the table. “Enough!”
The chatter sputtered into silence, dozens of eyes turning to him in unison.
“Enough,” he repeated. “There isn’t time to argue about this. And there’s something I need to say.”
Nick rubbed his eyes. The tension emanating from his sisters was nearly palpable.
The Collective leader tilted her head. “Eldon?”
“Thank you, Cadence,” he bowed slightly. “I’d like to address the Collective directly, please.”
She leaned back in her chair, motioning towards the table in invitation. “By all means.”
Eldon cleared his throat. “Please, I ask that you all remain silent until I finish speaking.”
The table nodded in answer, expressions curious. Nick, Adelle and Jess stared daggers at him as he spoke.
He drew a deep breath. “Several weeks ago, a female vampire came to my door. She requested the most advanced protection spells I could muster, and I provided them to her at a cost.” Hushed whispers rumbled in the room, the Collective members glancing at each other in disbelief.
Eldon raised a hand. “She used the spells to protect the vampire’s Kamen. When she came back to see me two nights ago, she told me their Kamen was missing. Now that ours has been found missing as well, I believe this changes the course of our investigation.”
The room erupted in questions again, people rising from their chairs. Some paced while others stood, but every single one wore a mask of grave concern. Cadence remained seated, her eyes locking on Eldon.
She was unhappy, yes. But something in those eyes was calculating.
“Silence.” The Collective leader’s quiet voice hushed the room instantly. People turned to reoccupy their seats.
Several moments passed. She tapped her fingernails lightly on the table but didn’t drop her stare. “You haven’t done anything illegal, although I can’t condone your actions. Are you certain their Kamen is missing?”
She paused. “I’m pleased that you brought this to the attention of the Collective, although I already knew this information before our meeting. The Lamia King called me personally last night.”
Eldon frowned. She already knew? No one spoke for a moment, but Eldon could feel Nick’s stare boring into his skull.
Eldon clenched his jaw and didn’t dare look at him. That would only give him the satisfaction of saying ‘I told you so.’ All this drama could have been avoided. He didn’t want to think about the hell his sisters would give him after this.
Cadence leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table and tucking her folded hands beneath her chin. “The king has appealed to the race leaders of the DarqRealm, requesting assistance with its retrieval. They have offered to assist us in return. Since we now face the same predicament, I am inclined to accept their offer.”
He closed his eyes, knowing exactly where she was going with this.
“I will assign someone to the task if I must. However, if there is anyone who would like to volunteer for the job…” Her voice trickled off, leaving behind a trail of heavy implication.
Eldon rubbed his tired eyes, reopening them to study the faces of the eleven fellow Collective members. Each one tried to appear occupied, glancing at their nails or pretending to make notes in open binders on the table. Not a single volunteer, and who could blame them? They didn’t wan
Yet they didn’t carry the level of responsibility he now shouldered.
If his spells had worked, the vampire Kamen would still be in the vampires’ possession and they wouldn’t need to call on the Collective for assistance. But he’d changed all that. He’d chosen to accept that money and in doing so shifted culpability to his people.
Damn him, but he couldn’t let anybody else stand in his place. Not when the responsibility was his. Not when he’d created the mess.
“I’ll go.” Eldon’s voice was soft, but every head swung around to face him.
Cadence raised an eyebrow. “Pardon?”
“I said I’ll go. I volunteer myself.”
“No, he does not!” Jess jumped out of her chair, her loud voice ringing in his ears.
“What are you doing?” Adelle whispered.
Nick stared at him as if he’d lost his mind.
Adelle gripped Eldon’s arm, fingers finding bone as she squeezed. “We need a moment,” she said politely to no one in particular.
“No, we don’t.” He turned toward his sister and glanced at her hold on his arm. “Let go.”
She released her grip but held his stare. “Can we speak in private?”
He studied her face, the concern in her eyes showing clearly through her familiar features. She reminded him so much of their mother. “Fine.” He turned to Cadence. “Please excuse us. We’ll only be a moment.”
Without bothering to glance behind him, he strode toward the doorway. He knew instinctively that Nick, Jess and Adelle were right behind him.
Jess’s anger was so hot he could feel it on his skin. “What are you thinking?”
When Eldon didn’t answer, Nick shoved him in the arm. “She asked you a question.”
Eldon raised his eyes to meet his best friend’s. “This whole thing is my fault. I can’t ask someone else to take responsibility here.”
“Fault?” Nick asked. “You didn’t design those spells to fail.”
Jess nodded. “If the fault falls with anybody, it’s that vampire girl.”
Eldon shook his head. “She asked me to protect them. I accepted.”
Adelle reached out, grabbing onto his biceps. She gazed up at her brother, eyes intense and worried. “Eldon, you can’t do this. I’ve seen it. You can’t let this happen.”
Eldon stepped back. “What are you talking about?” Adelle rarely brought up her future sight abilities. Most people considered precognition a gift, but not her. She couldn’t control what she saw or when she saw it, and she never, ever divulged where their course would lead them. To her, that was playing with fire and fate.
His sister cringed. “You know I can’t say. I can tell you it’s not a good idea, and it’s not what I want for you.”
“Not what you would want for me or not what I would want for me?”
She shook her head slowly. “I don’t know what you want.”
“Then I’m doing this.”
The four of them stood in silence, his resolve a wall of steel between them. His sisters stood together, a united front against his decision but powerless to override it. He stared at the ground and tried to avoid eye contact, pretty sure from the sniffling that at least one of them was crying. He would do this, and they couldn’t stop him.
Nick stepped forward, extending his hand. “Good luck. I guess we’d better go in there and tell them they’re off the hook.”
Eldon shook his best friend’s hand and nodded. “Thanks, man.”
Rho hated dresses with a fiery passion, a fact she was reminded of as she stared down at what the queen had selected for her. Absolutely ridiculous.
The elaborate gown had taken her fifteen minutes to put on, and most of that time she’d spent fighting with tiny zippers and lacing the black bodice. Leave it to a millennia-old vampire to select the most gothic, vampire-appropriate gown she could find. The long sleeves hid her tattoos perfectly. The bottom half of the dress hugged her ass and legs and flared at the ankles in what the queen called the ‘mermaid’ style. Whatever that meant.
A hairstylist had been sent in to do her hair, which now fell over each shoulder and down her waist like waterfalls of loose, tousled curls. Without the pull of the ponytails and buns she usually wore, her hair felt wildly untamed.
But the gown fit beautifully, precisely tailored to flatter her tall frame. If she looked bad tonight, it would only be because of her sour expression. Fluffy, frilly nonsense simply wasn’t her style.
A quick attempt at walking told her the dress was for looks only. Completely impractical. She couldn’t run or fight in anything this tight. Thank God she wasn’t on Guard duty tonight; the guys would give her hell. She looked like a fucking frosted cupcake.
“You ready?” a familiar voice asked from the hallway. Frederick grinned as his eyes skimmed her from head to toe, inspecting her ensemble.
She gave her lips one last coat of lipstick to match her red Jimmy Choo pumps before turning to face him. The smirk across his face was too obvious to ignore, but she tried anyways. “Let’s go.”
Frederick drove, pulling up to the Winter Solstice Ball only a few minutes later. He slid the car into park and stepped out, strolling around to open her door, as usual. Always a gentleman.
He extended an arm and Rho accepted, his firm grip holding her steady as she pulled herself out of the passenger’s seat. The dress had no give to it, and she tried not to topple backwards. When she finally managed to stand upright, she shot him a quick smile and wiggled to adjust everything back into place.
“You ready?” Frederick’s eyes crinkled.
Was he—was that laughing? Was he laughing at her discomfort? That little ass hat.
Rho shot him the nastiest glare she could summon. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Hooking her arm in his, she tried to straighten her spine into some semblance of good posture. The night was cold, but nothing her vampire nature couldn’t handle. As they started the hike up the small hill, she made a concerted effort to step on her tip toes and avoid sinking her heels in the soft soil. They were new and would not be ruined before she made it inside.
Executioner, relic guardian, prom queen.
She grimaced as she added that last one to her resume, trying to focus on her posture instead of the discomfort that came with wearing a corseted torture device.
They arrived at the top of the hill, and a man stepped forward from nowhere to meet them. “Names?”
“Frederick and Rho Vasile,” the prince answered.
Rho glanced around. The moon was out and the night was bright, but she didn’t see any others in the shadows. Five torches were buried in the dirt, forming a massive circle to her right. She raised an eyebrow in question but kept her mouth shut.
The man studied their faces then peered down at the amulet around his neck. The truth charm he bore glowed green, and he gave a quick nod. “You may pass.”
Apparently they’d made the guest list.
Frederick ushered her forward, and they stepped into the circle together. A veil lifted from her eyes. Brilliant shades and sights and sounds emerged, startling her senses and captivating her with color.
A red carpet materialized beneath their feet. The vibrant runner led to a massive white tent, surrounded by oak trees bathed in blue lights. Eerily appropriate for a winter party.
Frederick’s hand fell lightly on her back as he guided her toward the tent. His touch brought her back to reality, shifting her assignment to the forefront of her thoughts with crystal clarity. Tonight wasn’t about fun or laughter or dancing. This evening marked the beginning of the greatest challenge she would ever face.
The idea of meeting people she’d need to entrust with her life scared the sh
With Frederick at her side, she stepped inside the tent. Her jaw dropped, dark thoughts briefly overcome by the interior landscape. Draped in fabric, the walls billowed like clouds. Strips of pale blue organza woven into the sides of the tent shimmered in the flames cast by hundreds of scattered candles. Strands of crystals dripped from flowering tree branches, blue flames suspended between the crystals with magick.
The beauty of it all both humbled and awed her as she stared around the room. With the evidence of her murderous occupation hidden beneath layers of silk and lace, she felt completely inept in the presence of such luxury.
“Ready to meet them?” Frederick whispered. His voice abruptly pulled her out of the fog of admiration.
“They’re right over there.” He jerked his head over one shoulder. “I’ll introduce you then step away. Be polite, please, and remember that you need their help.”
She snorted. What, like she’d be rude on purpose? Okay, well, maybe.
His eyes narrowed, and she lifted a shoulder in acquiescence. He had a point. Her life was on the line and she wouldn’t be able to find the Kamens on her own. A little kindness never hurt anyone. Much.
“Prince Frederick, so kind of you to join us.” A tall man came forward, interrupting his conversation with a tiny but somehow imposing blue-eyed female to greet them.
Frederick smiled as he strode forward and shook the man’s hand. “Alexander, it’s a pleasure to see you again. Rho, this is Alexander, the ShiftMaster.”
Oh, wow. Alexander was the leader of the entire Shifter nation. Rho extended a hand. “Nice to meet you.”