Magic Currents (Cursed Angel Collection), page 5
I finished tucking in the end of the bandage, and Peter gently grasped my wrist. I looked down at his hand, surprised.
“If he’s harassing you, if you want me to do something . . .” He gave me a sincere, unblinking look. “You know I’d do anything to help you.”
I smiled softly. “I appreciate that.”
He seemed to want me to say something more, or maybe he was working up the courage to make some sort of declaration.
A loud group of men from the Harbor came in, saving me from having to rebuff Peter’s affection. I knew I would have to, eventually, but I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to a moment of blatant rejection. I knew he recognized the tacit distance and boundaries I’d maintained between us, but could see that he still hoped some deeper affection would grow on my part.
I slipped my arm from his grasp. “I’d better go tend to them.”
The men smelled of seawater, fish, and sweat. They were in a jovial mood, having moored their boats for the day, their labor done until tomorrow. If I kept their mugs full, I knew they’d tip well.
I could feel Peter’s eyes on me, his unspoken question still lingering. Part of me wished I had the kind of life where things like love and romance had a place. Where I wouldn’t have to push away a nice man who’d never been anything but good to me. Where my heart didn’t still ache for someone who was all but gone.
We stayed just busy enough that I had no chance to linger at the bar, so by the time my shift ended, there was no chance for Peter to continue our conversation. Probably for the best. The day had been too intense and shocking, and I didn’t trust myself to let him down with the sensitivity he deserved, if it came to that.
The day wasn’t over yet, though. I would run home for a quick bite with the girls, and then I would have to head out again for a meeting of the Underground.
If anyone would know something about Lorenzo’s strange discs of light, it would be Underground warlocks. I needed answers, and I needed them soon.
THE DINING ROOM of the Royal Luxury Hotel was abuzz with talk of the blood mist. The Watchtower might’ve been able to keep us from printing stories about it in the paper, but even the Demon Lord himself couldn’t keep people from talking and gossiping.
As always happened after an attack of the curse, people speculated about which witch had lost her life to the Demon Lord’s gluttony. The names of those who’d been possessed by the mist and those they’d killed circulated in somber tones.
The girls and I—including Chelle, who felt well enough to venture out of the flat—found a table for eight, and Amy swept in to take the remaining chair.
Amy set her tray down and leaned in with a conspiratorial gleam in her round brown eyes. “Did you hear about the woman who lost one of her—” She made a noise in her throat and slashed her hand across her ample left breast.
Karen and Kira gasped. Even Sang-Hee looked shocked.
My mouth dropped open. “You mean one of the possessed cut off her breast?”
Amy nodded silently and sawed at her piece of ham with a knife.
I narrowed my eyes. Sometimes I forgot that she was more than a little prone to exaggeration. “Really?”
She shifted her gaze to the ceiling as she chewed. “Well, maybe it was more like she got slashed across the chest by the devil claws. I think my version was more interesting, though.”
The girls all giggled, or at least cracked a smile in Sang-Hee’s case, and I relaxed a little as I looked around at their faces. Yes, it was morose conversation, but we had to deal with it the best we could. I’d been through many curse attacks with all of them by now, and it always left them rattled and fearful. Watchtower orphans were a wounded bunch to begin with. The ones who weren’t old enough to remember their mothers being carried away by Hunters were the lucky ones in some ways. Though every time there was an attack of the blood mist, I knew all the girls wondered if the woman sacrificed was their mother. Even now, twelve years after my own mother was taken, the same thought still crossed my mind.
Amy tipped her head down and looked at me from under her eyebrows. “Ready for the residents’ association meeting tonight?”
This was our code for Underground meetings. Undergrounders were divided into smaller enclaves, and there was no contact between the groups except at the highest levels of the organization. The meetings were under the guise of neighbors getting together to discuss neighborhood issues. Therefore, we were assigned to localized enclaves according to address. The warlocks had to use a bit of dissuasion magic to discourage anyone who wasn’t a hidden witch or a warlock from trying to join.
It was dangerous, of course, to meet openly and associate ourselves in a public way. But long ago the Underground had decided that this method of hiding in plain sight was the best approach.
“Looking forward to it,” I said. “I’ve got something interesting to bring before the group.”
Amy asked the girls about school while she and I quickly finished our dinner of rubbery ham steaks, soggy steamed broccoli, and almost-decent dinner rolls.
The girls headed back upstairs with instructions from me to finish their homework and then gather up our collective laundry and take it down to the basement laundromat. I wasn’t worried about leaving them. They were plenty old enough for some independence, and we had a strict household rule of never leaving the flat alone.
We all left our dishes at the wash station, and Amy and I headed out into the waning light of evening. Our meeting would be held at a brewery that was a block down and around the corner from the Royal.
“Chelle is very close,” Amy whispered, with a furtive glance around to make sure no one was within earshot.
I nodded. “I need her to be strong enough to catch her magic and receive the warlock’s charm. She’s better than she was last night, but I’m hoping for a couple more days on the medicine before she has to face that.”
“Karen and Kira will probably be next,” she said. “Though I’d say you have a few months, still. Maybe even a year. Nadia will likely be around the same time.”
The closer a young woman drew to her magic coming in, the more accurately we could predict the exact moment it would happen. In most cases, anyway. Every once in a while, there was an early, spontaneous transformation. Those posed the most risk. If it happened without an Underground warlock nearby and a Hunter felt the new witch’s power first, it was disastrous.
Despite the risks and the oppression, we were lucky to be witches in the current era. At least we had a chance of survival outside the Watchtower. Centuries ago, before the Underground formed and the warlocks devised the charm that hid our magic, all witches were doomed to be sacrificed to the Demon Lord.
The stories that survived from that time were tragic and horrifying. Young witches often committed suicide rather than face having their hearts ripped out to feed the Demon Lord’s gluttony.
Amy and I were halfway to our destination when a figure stepped out from a doorway and blocked our path.
I went rigid, inhaling sharply when I saw who it was: the dark-haired, blue-eyed Hunter who’d tried to haul me off. I started to reach for my knife and then remembered I’d lost it. A quick glance around showed we were alone. Damn the devil, he’d probably followed me. Now he knew where I lived.
“Get out of the way,” Amy growled, her fists clenched. She knew this Hunter was dangerous, but I hadn’t told her about my run-in with him earlier.
He flicked an amused smirk her way.
“I have a promise to keep with this one,” he said, his eyes cutting over to me. A darkly lascivious stretch of his lips sent ice down my spine. “But two would be twice the fun.”
I couldn’t help wondering if this man’s obvious enjoyment of subjugating and threatening women was something that had existed in him all along, or a quality brainwashed into him by the Demon Lord. Had the Demon Lord cleansed my beloved Armand of all his morals, too, or did something of the man remain somewhere, hidden away?
“Leave us, or we’ll scream bloody murder,” I said loudly enough for my words to echo on the empty street.
Where was everyone? Normally there were at least a few people moving through the streets this time of the evening. Had this Hunter enlisted his cronies to clear the block so he could threaten us uninterrupted?
The Hunter was obviously unimpressed by our attempts to ward him off because he lunged, quick as a snake. I tried to jerk back out of his reach, but he snagged my sleeve and yanked me forward.
I heard Amy’s screech of rage behind me, and then the Hunter bellowed with such fury my ears rang. But he dropped my arm. Amy pulled me back away from him, holding me with one arm in a half embrace. I twisted to see the hilt and an inch or two of a slim stiletto dagger sticking out at an angle from his lower abdomen.
Whether luck or skill, Amy had managed to sneak her hand under his heavy leather coat, which would have stopped the blade. Blood was already soaking his shirt, dripping down to the waistband of his pants.
He lunged again, swiping out a hand in a grab. Amy turned away to avoid it, and the Hunter caught a handful of her golden hair. He jerked hard, and her head snapped back. She let go of me to grab at his hand.
With a yell, I ran forward and began pummeling him with my fists. He had to be in agony with that blade sticking into his gut, but instead of weakening him, it seemed to fuel his rage.
Pounding feet and shouts sent a shot of relief through me. Finally, someone was coming to our aid. But then I heard the jingling of shackles.
Oh, shells. More Hunters.
Strong hands jerked me roughly off the Hunter, and two other Hunters grabbed Amy. With quick clicks that made my heart stop, the cold metal of shackles encircled both my wrists.
“Hold still, Gerard,” one of the other Hunters, a stocky man with a freckled face and a shock of red-orange hair, said to the one with the dagger sticking out of him. “You’ll make the injury worse if you move. Who did this to you?”
Gerard flipped his fingers at Amy. “That blonde daughter of a whore,” he growled.
Freckles turned to regard Amy with hate in his eyes. “Probably the same one who killed Bors this morning.”
We were surrounded by five Hunters, plus Gerard, and they all looked at Amy like they wanted to tear her to pieces.
“Gentlemen, what seems to be the problem?” An all-too-jovial voice floated to us from behind me.
I couldn’t twist around to see who it was, but I had a pretty good guess. I’d become too acquainted with that voice. I never expected to be so grateful to hear it.
Lorenzo strolled into view, holding a lit cigarette in one hand.
“This is Hunter business,” the redhead growled at him. “Get lost now, or we’ll arrest you as an accomplice.”
Lorenzo ignored him and turned to me. “Let me find out if you’re the one who can break the curse, and swear to follow through with it if you are. Agree to both terms, and I’ll make them forget all about the two of you.” His eyes burned with intensity.
My lips parted, and I glanced around at the Hunters. The freckled one pulled his shackles off his belt and stalked toward Lorenzo.
“Victoria?” Lorenzo said my name softly.
I had to do it. If I didn’t, Amy would be imprisoned for stabbing Gerard. If she also got convicted of killing the Hunter who’d died by my knife this morning, she’d be put to death.
I blinked. “Okay. I agree.”
He gave me a slight nod. “Close your eyes,” he whispered at me under his breath.
I did so, and through my eyelids sensed a swell of light emanating from him, and a moment after, a smell like lightning strikes and fresh rain permeated the air.
AFTER LORENZO ZAPPED the memories of Amy and the Hunters, he had a few seconds to quickly take their keys and remove our shackles before the men fully regained their senses. They stood looking around in confusion for a second or two until Gerard let out a loud groan of pain. That got the Hunters’ attention.
“I saw him! The one who stabbed yer mate here.” Lorenzo affected the dim-witted demeanor I’d seen him use before, and he stepped out into the street and pointed. “Short fellow with missing teeth. He went that way!”
When the Hunters turned to peer where he pointed, Lorenzo hurled a disc of light off to the side. It flew up to a rooftop and burst into sparks.
The Hunters, obviously still stunned from Lorenzo’s treatment, couldn’t decide which way to go—after the imaginary man who’d stabbed Gerard, or over to investigate the shower of sparks. In the confusion, Lorenzo snatched my arm in one hand and Amy’s in the other, spun around, and towed us away from the scene as fast as our legs would move.
I peered at Amy out of the corner of my eyes. She had a glazed-over look on her face, and she kept blinking as if to clear afterimages from her vision. At some point, she’d probably wonder what happened to her dagger.
She looked up at Lorenzo. “Who the devil are you?”
“Ah, I’m new to the neighborhood,” he said distractedly.
Seeming to know where we’d been heading before Gerard accosted us, Lorenzo steered us around the block, eventually aiming us back in the direction of the Underground meeting.
I tried to collect myself. I’d nearly been apprehended by Hunters, but instead had just promised Lorenzo that I’d cooperate with his ramblings about my abilities. I swore I would entertain his claim of being the warlock who tried to break the curse a century ago. I gave him a hard stare, trying to signal that we needed to talk alone. He threw a glance at me, but hurried on to the brewery.
Once we finally reached the place, Lorenzo stopped and allowed Amy to go ahead, but held me back.
“Keep all of that between us, sweetie,” he hissed in my ear. “I won’t be Underground business unless I choose to be, got it?”
I stared at him. “You can’t keep me from—”
“I’ll turn you in to the Hunters,” he cut in.
I didn’t think he really would, but he could probably find some other way to make my life miserable. I snapped my mouth closed. “Fine.”
He let me go, and I went to join Amy at the door. I had a feeling Lorenzo would be waiting when I emerged later.
A curly-haired, ruddy-faced warlock named Erlich, the owner of the brewery, let us in and then locked the front door behind us. He was a couple of decades older than me, with thick facial features and heavy-lidded eyes.
“You’re probably the last to arrive,” he said. “The others are already in the back.”
The bready, hoppy aroma of the brewery washed over me. It was a warm scent, comforting somehow, and some of the tension across my shoulders released.
We walked between two rows of metal stills, and then angled off into what served as the tasting room during business hours.
I recognized a few other faces from our building, but none under the age of nineteen. Young witches and warlocks had to wait until the age of maturity to join the Underground. Amy, Armand, and I had all been inducted into this enclave at the same time. Six months later, Armand had proposed. I pushed the poignant memory away, forcing my attention to the present.
In the tasting room, the others had already gathered and milled around half a dozen high tables. Seeing us enter, the current leader of the enclave, Henrietta, moved away from her table.
“Okay, people, let’s begin,” she called over the low murmur of conversation. She swept her long, honey-streaked brown hair over her shoulder.
Six or seven years older than me, Henrietta was the proprietor of a boarding house not far from the Royal. It was generally known that the business was a front for a brothel, with Henrietta as the madam. With generous curves, deep brown bedroom eyes, a throaty laugh, and clothing that always revealed just a little more than was typical for women of The Colony, she was almost a walking advertisement for her backroom business. But she was strictly off-limits, and in fact claimed t
Henrietta recited from memory a list of young men and women in our neighborhood who were nearing magical maturity and would soon need the magic of a warlock to seal and disguise their powers. Chelle was on the list, of course. Warlocks had substantially more freedom than witches. They could put on and take off their protective charms at will. It wasn’t wise to let their guard down often, but occasionally it was necessary, like when new witches and warlocks had to be sealed. A warlock had to be able to sense the magic of others to cast the charm properly. Hunters weren’t attuned to hunt warlocks, so warlocks were usually safe as long as they weren’t caught protecting, helping, or trying to hide a witch.
“Any others to add to the list?” Henrietta asked.
A warlock with a white beard raised his hand. “My grandson, Benjamin.”
She nodded. We didn’t keep any written records, and the enclave leader was responsible for committing all information to memory.
“We have a couple of topics for open discussion, including the killing of the Hunter,” she said.
My pulse thumped hard at the mention of the murder.
“Also, the possessions and deaths from the blood mist. Certainly was a busy day.” Her face was grim.
If she had any idea what kind of day I’d had, she’d know just how big an understatement that was. I remained quiet through the open discussions, as did Amy.
Sure enough, when Amy and I walked out into the chilly night, I spotted the glow of Lorenzo’s cigarette halfway down the block. He dropped it and twisted the toe of his boot on the end to put it out.
“Thought I’d see you two back home safely,” he said mildly.
I shot him a hard look. We definitely needed a moment alone to talk.
But Amy seemed relieved. “That’s kind of you,” she said. She flicked a glance up at his face, obviously taking in his features and liking what she saw.
I was grateful for everything he’d done for me, coming to my rescue an unbelievable three times in one day. But I had responsibilities. A job. Regardless of our deal, I couldn’t just be at his beck and call or do anything that would leave my girls vulnerable, and I wanted to make sure we had some ground rules.