My patience, like the air, was wearing thin.
The cobblestone streets of the city of Gralvein had ended a mile back, and I was further from the city center than I’d been in quite a while. The dirt road beneath my black boots was devoid of the deep ruts made by carriage tracks. Two steps before me, the devil trudged on with steady steps, even though his yellow aura pulsed with nervous energy.
“I do not have time for games, Lennox,” I said firmly. A mountain of correspondence sat on my desk, and few of the jobs on the roster could be easily delegated to Marcas, my young apprentice.
I was a finder, a warlock with the ability to scry for both people and objects. I had made quite the name for myself early in my career by finding the kidnapped brother of the previous Warlock King Dunaidh. The boy had been abducted by a small would-be gang of devils determined to bring about an end to the peace that had reigned since the signing of the Accord nearly fifty years ago. But the devils were weak and their cloaking spells pitiful, and I’d found the boy in less than half a day. He’d barely even had the chance to go hungry. The devils had been left to beg the mercy of the Devil King Glas and the last I’d heard of them, they were rotting away in one of Rassoul’s dungeons. For all his faults, Glas was dedicated to the Accord that prohibited the races from using their powers to harm or kill one another.
Lennox muttered something that sounded like an apology for our slow stride, but his fiendish groveling was cut short. The lonely whistle of the steam train blew over the next ridge as it carried the humans to and from the Southern cities. The ocean was a mere speck on the horizon, though the smokestacks of the ships at the docks were still visible, unloading their wares for sale and trade. The port city had been my home all of my life, and my family’s home for more than five generations before that.
I shivered, despite the thick canvas of my waistcoat. Shoving my hands deep into my pockets, I followed the pale, slovenly devil as he waddled ahead of me. We had been walking long enough for the sun to pass overhead and begin its long, slow trek to the mountains to the west. My eyes flicked back and forth, seeing no birds, not even any insects crawling upon the hard ground. An odd tension settled between my shoulder blades and I moved them restlessly as I watched the devil’s dancing yellow aura. Sweat rolled off his brow. He wiped his hands on his brown waistcoat for the fifth time in the past few minutes.
“How much further?” I asked impatiently.
His raspy voice rose half an octave. “Oh, not long now. I offered to teleport you here, Brùn. It was you who decided to walk.”
“I do not wish to suffer your touch, devil,” I spat. The last time I had done that, to shake his hand over our business deal, the feeling of dread that had rolled through me had not faded for three days. So today I had met him at the edge of the city and followed him from there.
“It will be worth your time. I have a gift for you that you will certainly enjoy.” He cackled to himself and hurried along.
I sighed. Lennox had incurred debts all over the city, but none so large as the one I was owed. Calling whatever he was to show me a “gift” was a bold move. I hoped it would be worth the half a day’s journey. Regardless, the debt collection was secondary to my true reason for dealing with this scoundrel.
A member of the Council, the aristocracy of Carraig an Ghrian and advisors to the three Kings, had contacted me a few months prior.
“Raven, do you know much about the devil community in Gralvein?” the witch had asked me after spelling me into her bed. We had an uneasy relationship that included sex whenever the mood took her. Though I preferred to keep our relationship professional, I had to admit she was a skillful and passionate lover and I did not regret our liaisons. I never made it easy for her, however.
Clasping my hands behind my head, I stretched out under the silk sheets. “No, Moire. They live on the east side of town, mainly sticking together. I have occasionally found objects for them. Why do you ask?”
She trailed her long fingers down my side, reaching under the sheets and skillfully bringing me to arousal again. I groaned and reached for her.
“We have heard rumors,” she murmured, kissing my neck and down my chest, “of a small band of devils who are displeased with Glas. The Council would like you to investigate.” Sliding down my body, she flicked her tongue around the head of my cock. Her teeth scraped gently along the shaft as she tasted me, taking me deep within her.
“Inves—“ Tremors wracked the muscles of my torso and my vision wavered as she purred, the subtle vibrations of her mouth maddening me. “Fates help me,” I managed.
The firm moue of her lips drew over the head of my sex and she tipped her head up, her green eyes dark. “Will you swear to do this for us?” she asked, smiling seductively and assaulting me with her generous mouth once more.
“Yes,” I groaned as she teased me closer to release. “Anything.”
The firm heat of her mouth moved faster and her tongue swirled along the throbbing length of my cock. Her moans of pleasure vibrated through her lips and the sensation had my hands fisting the sheets, struggling to hold on to my senses. I had the uneasy feeling she’d just elicited a promise from me I should not have given, but at that moment, it mattered not.
The spasms of ecstasy rolled through me and I went blind and deaf. My heart pounded in my ears and my eyes rolled back in my head. She swallowed my seed and purred with satisfaction as she drew back with one last flourish of her tongue. Shifting away, she sat up, her pendulous breasts gloriously flushed as she licked her lips. Spent, I lay panting and weak in her bed, trying to remember what I had just agreed to.
“You will hire one of Gralvein’s devils. Use him for menial tasks. We care not what. But follow him. See who he associates with and report back to us.”
“You tricked me into my oath, Moire. I will not be your spy. Have you learned nothing from history? The Great War started because the devils were spying on our race.”
“You swore to me, Warlock. Your word is your bond and my position demands that you obey me. Now be gone.” She slid off the bed, walked naked into her powder room and slammed the door, dismissing me.
The Council, made up of a witch, a human, and a devil, could claim the authority of their respective Kings whenever they desired, compelling their subjects to do their bidding. Moire Cráig had used her position and her generous mouth to elicit my oath and she would and could jail me if I refused to do as she asked. A few days later, I walked into a popular devil pub in Gralvein and made Ivor Lennox’s acquaintance.
For the past three months, I had paid him a handful of coins at a time and asked him to do some menial tasks for me -- mucking about in the cesspool of Market Row for stolen baubles, and just last week, spying on the leaders of a small devil gang that the magistrate believed was responsible for a spate of beatings in the city. The gang was targeting humans, mugging them for valuables and then leaving them bloody in the street.
Lennox had been an utter failure on every task, supplying me with only pitiful excuses and eliciting more coin to pay off his ‘sources’. When he was in town, he kept mostly to himself, and though I had tried to scry for him, my efforts had failed. But my failure had me suspicious. I could scry for anyone. For Lennox to be able to hide from me, he must have been using a powerful cloaking spell on his home. So now I found myself well outside the city, his stench wafting back over me on the gentle breeze, and unease prickling up my scalp.
Finally, a small stone building came into view, partially hidden by the trees. The devil walked up to the blackened wooden door, murmuring a spell I did not understand. I knew the modern Delvian tongue, but this was something different.
“What is this place?” I asked him, raising an eyebrow as the lock twisted under his outstretched hand and the door creaked open.
“Come,” he said gleefully. “My gift awaits.”
“There is little in this world that is worth the coins I have paid you, Ivor. Tread carefully, lest I drag you to the magistrate by your ear.”
Stepping into the building, I smelled the unmistakable scent of sex and blood and my eyes narrowed. The devil beckoned me down a short hallway with walls of cold stone and nodded towards a coat rack. “You may disrobe here.”
“And why would I want to do that? If you think I am at all interested in sex with the likes of you, you are sorely mistaken. Your stench alone offends me.”
“No, no, no,” he replied. He repeated the unlocking spell at another wooden door, opening it for me and urging me through.
I sucked in a sharp breath. The small, filthy room was made of stone and the moldy stench of devil magic saturated the air. But what drew my attention was the woman. Naked. Trembling. Tied to a wooden support in the center of the room. Her head was bowed, her face partially hidden by roughly chopped brown curls, with bruises and scars covering her entire body. A bronze collar encircled her neck with etchings that burned my eyes as I tried to read them.
I awakened my sight to find her aura nearly gone. Only the palest of streaks stabbed through the white halo that surrounded her. My stomach muscles tightened and quivered. A witch's aura was blue, a human's red, and a devil's yellow. The streaks in this woman's aura were so faint they were practically non-existent, but they were most definitely emerald green. She was skin and bones, her skin was chaffed and raw, and the only softness resided in her small, round breasts.
“What the hell is this, devil?” I asked, approaching the woman.
“My gift to you, Raven. Worth her weight in coin for certain.”
I jerked my head around, pinning him with a cold stare as I heard him swallow loudly. The room was silent and the woman’s ragged breathing echoed in my ears as I tore my gaze from the devil and back to her.
Her entire body trembled and she struggled weakly against the restraints. I caught the hitch of her breath as I stepped close enough to touch her, but caution stayed my hands. The scent of her fear punched the air, and gripped my throat with cold, tendril-like fingers.
“Raise your eyes, dear. I will not harm you,” I said softly.
A single shake of her head answered my plea, and a tear fell, landing with a soft sound on my leather boots.
“You left her bound and naked while you brought me here?” I asked, baring my teeth as my lips curled into a snarl. “And what is this around her neck?”
“That is not your concern. All you need know is that you have full use of my slave in exchange for the forgiving of my debt. Use it freely. It does not speak and I will spell it to obey your every command.”
He lifted his hand to cast the spell, but I sprang for him. My fingers encircled his wrist so hard I felt a bone snap as he squealed in pain.
“Spell her and it will be the last thing you ever do,” I growled, and shoved him hard against the wall. “Do not move.”
I returned to the woman. She still had not raised her head but her chest heaved as she tried to squirm away from me. Her bindings prevented any escape.
“Shhh. I am going to free you.” I moved to undo the leather that bound her slender wrists to the post. As my fingers brushed hers, the air around me swirled with the salty tang of magic. The power hit me square in the chest and I sucked in a breath, as she did the same, raising her head to show me the most impossibly blue eyes I had ever seen.
Her body thrashed violently and her legs buckled, but held by the leather, she hung there, gasping for air as her feet scrambled for purchase on the dirty floor. Love, pure and perfect, swelled within me and the world stopped. I could not breathe as the weight of the knowledge washed over me.
“By the Fates,” I whispered.
Gently placing my hands at her waist, I lifted her to her feet as her brow furrowed. My heart ached as I stared into her empty eyes, but her heart-shaped face with high cheekbones, full lips, and a small, delicate chin brought a tentative smile to my face. Her skin was ice under my hands, and I could not pull them away — the compulsion to touch her was so strong.
Magic warmed the air around us. This woman was my mate — the one witch I was fated to love for all eternity.
Her pupils dilated with fear and she shook her head, pulling against the restraints. I caught a flash of movement in my periphery and whirled, seeing the devil’s hand extended towards us.
His teeth were bared in a snarl.
“That is my slave, you righteous prig!”
“Away,” I shouted in the old language. Flicking my wrist at him, I sent him flying back against the wall. “Do not try my patience, Lennox. Not now. Not after what you have done.”
He yelped as he slumped to the dirt floor. The magic was fresh on my tongue, ready to give him another lashing, but I willed myself to focus on the woman. My mate.
My fingers fumbled with the leather bindings until they gave way, and her hands were free. She collapsed to the floor before I could catch her, looking up at me in confusion as she rubbed her wrists.
I dropped to my knees next to her. “Dearest, I am called Raven. What is your name?”
She shrank back, shaking her head, curling inward. Those wide-set eyes just stared at me and I was powerless to look away.
“Please. I will not hurt you. I only want your name. Can you speak?”
She shook her head softly.
I swore under my breath and caressed her cheek, finding it absent of all warmth -- a side effect of the devil magic used on her. Deep inside her, I felt the smallest ember of her witch's flame, all but extinguished. She had lost the will to live. But as my hand rested on her pale cheek, the ember flared up, brighter, stronger. The image of a phoenix bursting from a great conflagration brought a ghost of a smile to my lips as I held her eyes with mine.
“It has no name,” the devil spat behind me. “Nor a voice. I have taken both of them. It has no need for either to serve me.”
My hand flew in his direction. “Silence your foul tongue.” I had bound his lips and the hastily cast spell would last only a few seconds, but I saw in his eyes that my power frightened him. “Be thankful I do not turn you inside out, devil,” I growled.
I slid my arms under the woman, pulling her to my chest and rising as she struggled against my grasp. I frowned. “I am taking you from this place. No one will hurt you again.” But she continued to struggle silently, finally finding enough strength to free herself from my grip and tumble to the ground. Her breathing was ragged.
“Fates be damned, dear. Let me help you.” I reached for her again, but she recoiled in fear. The bruises from the fall were already darkening on her hip.
The devil laughed through his bound lips and I glared at him, my eyes narrowing suspiciously.
“What have you done to her? Explain. Everything.” I shed my waistcoat and tried to drape it over her, but she skittered from under it and curled into a ball on her side, sobbing silently. I tried to step closer, but her breath caught in her throat. I held up my hands and backed away. Standing over the devil, I bristled with anger, my hands ready to end his pathetic life in a heartbeat as I loosened the spell on his tongue.
“I bought and paid for it a hundred times over,” he said.
My fist flew, knocking his head back against the wall. His blood stained my knuckles, and I withdrew a white silk square from my pocket and cleansed his filth from my hand. My next words were quiet and controlled. “If you ever refer to her as it again, it will be the last word you ever utter.”
He understood the deadly seriousness of my words as his eyes grew wide. “You cannot kill me,” he squeaked. “The Accord.”
“You dare invoke the Accord to me?” I squared my shoulders, my magic crackling over my skin, begging to be loosed. “When you have so clearly broken it by torturing a witch? You are an idiot. You know the law. No devil or witch is allowed to use their magic to bring death, torment, or destruction to the other. Now tell me what I need to know before I end your pathetic existence.”
“The…the shackle,” he stuttered. “It is ancient devil magic. It does my bidding. Any part of her I want to take, to control, is within my power. I plucked her very name from her head, spelled her throat to never allow speech. I forbade the comfort of cloth to her skin for I wish to see her naked, always. In her mind, it burns as fire.”
“Remove it,” I ordered.
He could not get the words out fast enough now — his fear of me had broken his spirit. “I cannot. It is bound to her life force now. I imbued it with her blood. Only her death can break the spell. It is tied to this place — the consecrated ground beneath this building. If you take her from here, she will die.”
“I possess an athame, spelled to cut through any metal. Will that work?” I grabbed his shirt and shook him hard.
“No. It will kill her,” he rasped. “If the shackle is parted from her skin, she will die. Nothing can remove it. The magic has wound itself around her very soul.”
“Devil bastard. I will see you jailed for this.” I returned to the woman — my mate, still curled on the floor a few feet away. I tried to touch her shoulder, but she just pulled away, covering her head with her arms. “Look at me, please,” I begged.
Slowly, she peeked out from under her arm. I smiled at her and she clutched at the shackle, pulling desperately.
“Stop now,” I crooned, laying my fingers on the metal and murmuring an unlocking spell. The metal chilled and froze under my touch, burning my skin as well as hers. The pain glazed her eyes and I tried to retract my hand, but the shackle held tight. All the horrors the devil had visited upon her — the rape, the abuse, the darkness, and the pain flashed before my eyes and the truth of his words chilled me. If I took her from this place, the devil magic would kill her. Finally, the shackle released my hand and I cradled it in my lap. The skin on the pads of my fingers was blistered and raw and she was panting heavily.
I could not tear my eyes away from hers. Years of horrors were contained within their azure depths. She reached a trembling hand for my wrist, ice against the heat of my skin. I lowered my gaze to the sight of her pale fingers holding on for dear life. As soon as I looked into her eyes again, she yanked her hand away.
“Do not be frightened. I will never harm you,” I said. “I would die first.”
Her lip quivered, but she fastened her fingers around my wrist again, pulling my hand to her cheek and shivering.
“Warmth? You need my warmth?”
At her nod, I murmured a few words of warming, but the spell sizzled against the shackle, fading instantly. Tears fell from her eyes as I took one of her delicate hands in mine. Her wrists were heavily scarred and I rubbed my thumb over the abraded skin.
“Will you trust me?”
When she nodded again, I looked over at the devil, who was still cowering against the wall.
“I cannot remove this cursed shackle. Not alone. But I refuse to believe there is not a way. I will find it -- but I must leave you here for a short time.”
Her grip tightened and she shook her head, looking over at the devil in fear. A whisper, almost as faint as a summer's breeze echoed in my ear, “No...he will kill me now that he knows you intend to free me.”
My heart thudded against my chest. Her lips hadn't moved. I had heard of mated couples being able to communicate without speech, but I'd never thought it possible, especially within mere moments of meeting.
“I am stronger than he is. I will spell him. He will not touch you while I am gone. I swear it.” With my free hand, I loosened the buttons of my shirt and pressed her hand to my heart. “I will free you. On my life I will free you.” Bringing her hand to my lips, I sealed my promise to her.
I crafted a powerful spell that would prevent the devil from touching her for several days, and I watched his eyes go blank as the magic flowed from my hands and settled over him. “You will not harm her. You will keep her alive and safe until I return, devil. If you do not, I will flay the skin from your pathetic, malodorous body.”
I turned back to her. She sat up against the wall with her arms wrapped tightly around her legs, shoulders hunched, knees locked together. Her chin quivered as she watched me.
I knelt next to her again and took her hands, keeping my eyes locked on hers. “You heard the words I used, yes?”
She nodded and flicked her gaze to the door, pleading silently with me.
“I cannot. Not without risking your death.”
“Dead already,” The words were soft and sad in my head.
I brushed a few curls from her face. “Please do not despair. I will return before the spell fades. Nothing will keep me away.”
I swallowed hard over the lump in my throat as I left her, pausing just outside the door to the devil’s lair, locking it with my wards to prevent him or any of his magic from escaping those walls until I returned. The ward was a magical lock, a shield, that would allow only me and my magic to enter and exit.
The light surrounding the devil’s lair was wrong. Somehow, it was harsher and thinner than the sun that shone on the other side of town, where my home lay. There was little warmth here and even the orange leaves that fell from the trees seemed reluctant to linger. I watched as the cold breeze blew a handful of leaves down the dirt road and back towards the city. I would not teleport within sight of this abomination for fear that somehow the magic that protected him and his vile actions would attach itself to me and prevent what I had to do. So I ran. My chest was heaving by the time the sunlight shifted and I leaned heavily against the rough bark of a tall tree that stood sentry along the road into town.
Just before I whispered the incantation that would allow me to travel through the inbetween to my office in the center of town, I turned my gaze skyward. “Please, help me to save her.”
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