They crept silently through the darkened tunnels of the Edinburgh underground, each dodging the deepest puddles in the worn dirt floor. Unrelenting rain had leaked through the porous ceiling, which was actually the street above, and Esha could feel the Chairman’s foul mood. It matched her own, which was the reason she’d leapt at the job to kill the rogue demon who’d been lurking down here.
She caught sight of a cluster of remnant shadows to her left and gave them a wide berth. Shadows of old evil that lingered after the death of the evildoer were thick down in the underground—one of the reasons Edinburgh was considered the most haunted city in Europe. She could have banished the shadows, but the shadows were relatively harmless and any magical activity might alert her prey.
Anyway, she kind of liked Edinburgh’s reputation.
A soft rustling noise made Esha and the Chairman freeze. Esha squinted into the darkness, knowing the Chairman did the same. She hadn’t wanted to alert the demon to her presence before they managed to find him, so she carried no light.
Instead, she instinctively followed her connection with her familiar, whose night vision was far better. But the Chairman was antsy in the unusual damp of the underground, and her skin almost crawled in empathetic annoyance.
It was turning out to be a shitty night.
The rustling grew louder and the smell more rank. Like dead bodies and misery. She covered her mouth and nose with the sleeve of her shirt. The Chairman crowded up against her legs. With a tinge of dread, she held out her right hand and willed a bright fireball into existence in her palm.
“Ugh,” she said at the sight of her prey.
The Chairman hissed. In less than a second, she took in the small cavern that opened up from where they stood. A tall but spindly red demon crouched along one wall, some kind of body part—she didn’t want to dwell on which—gripped in its claws. Red splattered the walls and more unidentifiable pieces of gore littered the floor.
The Chairman’s revulsion, combined with her own, made her gag.
Disappointed, she pumped more power into the fireball and flung it at the demon. It shrieked. She flinched.
The Chairman turned to smoke, becoming incorporeal so that the noise and other earthly threats couldn’t hurt him.
Bile rose in her throat as she watched the demon burn. She made herself watch so she could be certain that she’d accomplished the job, even though she wanted to turn away to save her appetite.
When the demon was nothing but ash, she waved her hand and forced a cleansing wind through the dark space. It was the wind of time, which she used rarely, and never in the presence of another except her familiar.
Time accelerated within the wind — in this case, enough to disintegrate the gore into dust, as though a hundred years had passed.
She felt grief for the mortal families who would never know what had happened to their loved ones, but she couldn’t leave the bodies down here to be discovered by mortal police. They were unlikely to find the place since they didn’t know it existed, but she couldn’t take the chance.
Remaining secret from mortals was a Mythean’s number-one priority and one of the main goals of the Immortal University, her employer. To ignore the importance of secrecy made one a rogue. A lesser criminal than the one she had just slain, but a rogue nonetheless. If one alerted the mortals to the existence of Mytheans—creatures from myth made real by mortal belief—then one would be targeted for imprisonment or death.
In which case, Esha was sent to deal with the lawbreaker.
“Come on, let’s get a drink,” she said to the cat and turned to make her way out of the underground. After that, she sure as hell needed one. She’d been in a pissy mood lately, and this rogue hunt had been an opportunity to get some aggression out.
It was one reason she liked her job as a mercenary for the university. Esha was a soulceress, the only one in Britain, and she was perfectly suited to her field, given her ability to see the shadows of evil that lingered around a person. Without a doubt, she could determine if the one she’d been sent to kill was deserving of death.
Since they were no longer worried about running into a rogue, it didn’t take long for Esha and the Chairman to get out of the underground. They exited through an opening in the cliff beneath Edinburgh Castle, close to the Grassmarket and some of Edinburgh’s older pubs.
A quick sprint through the rain and soon she strolled into an ancient little pub, looking for a man to take her mind off things. Stormy winds slammed the heavy wooden door behind her as she shook the raindrops off her short, honey-brown leather jacket.
“Who do you think we’ll find tonight?” she whispered to the Chairman, who had turned to smoke again when they’d entered the mortal-run establishment.
He glided along next to her, invisible to all eyes but hers. He couldn’t answer her, but no matter. She knew what she’d find at The White Stag. A willing man to make her forget him. She didn’t go for one-night stands often, but since a real relationship was out of the question for her kind because soulceresses were reviled, she’d gotten used to making do.
“A pint of Tennent’s,” she told the bartender.
As he pulled her pint, she turned and leaned back against the worn oak bar and scanned the wooden-walled room that was crowded with little tables and small leather-backed chairs, searching for a guy who looked dangerous enough to be intriguing but shallow enough not to mind a one-night stand. And definitely mortal. He had to be mortal.
Her brows shot up when she caught sight of a table of giggling witches in the corner of the pub. Their familiars had turned to smoke as well.
“Damn,” she muttered, and turned around to lean on her elbows on the bar. What were they doing here?
Mytheans didn’t normally come to mortal pubs. She hadn’t expected them to be here since they generally liked to keep to their own kind, especially when drinking. It was one of the reasons she liked to hang out in mortal pubs; she didn’t have to be reminded why she was alone. Like a high-schooler who didn’t have a lunch table full of friends, she found it easier to go to the library when the lunch bell rang. Or a mortal bar, where she didn’t expect there to be other Mytheans cringing when she walked by.
“Bunch of losers and half-rate spell chanters,” she muttered to the Chairman.
When his warmth pressed up against her leg, she looked down to see that he’d gone corporeal for a moment to comfort her. Then back to smoke. A small smile pulled at her lips, but it faded as soon as she peeked over her shoulder at the other witches. Still laughing, like girls in movies always did when they were out in a group.
She spun to face the door and head out, then stopped. She didn’t give a damn what they thought. The bartender finally handed over her beer, and she figured she might as well get half of what she’d come for.
Anyway, she wouldn’t have to worry about steering clear of the other witches because there was no doubt that they’d steer clear of her. Smart. She’d suck the power right out of them and enjoy every second. Oh, they’d regenerate it eventually, but no immortal liked giving up their energy to a soulceress.
It wasn’t like she could help how she collected power, but no one cared about the details when they felt the extra power that made them immortal slipping from their souls. They didn’t actually become mortal, just weaker for a little while as they temporarily lost whatever special ability their species possessed.
She sidled down the bar toward a towering man at the end. “Hey, handsome,” she said, giving him a bold once-over. Not bad, for a mortal.
He returned the gesture, apparently liking what he saw, if his grin was any indication. “Hello, lassie. American, are you? On a bit of vacation?”
She smiled when she heard his rough brogue; he was a local. And a damn fine one, at that. Not that she’d keep him around past tonight. Relationships between mortals and Mytheans always ended in disaster. The life-span differential was a bitch. But he’d do fine for her purposes.
“Sure am.” The lie slipped easily off her tongue. After they’d slept together and he’d chipped away at the despicable block of loneliness sitting in her chest, it would be easier to say she had a flight to catch than to explain that she didn’t date. Mortals eventually died on you. And it hurt. “What do you do?”
Warren’s eyes were glued on the entrance to the pub where Esha stood, shaking the rain from her jacket. When she unzipped the leather, she revealed a plain cotton shirt that was too tight for his peace of mind. He swallowed hard and looked away.
Within seconds, his gaze was dragged back to her. She glanced around the pub, her amber eyes bright. She didn’t see him in the darkened corner, and he sat back, no longer intent on leaving.
There was nothing he could do tonight to ensure Aurora wasn’t released, and the idea of twiddling his thumbs at home had been unbearable. He’d come here because he wanted a place to think that was far from the university and devoid of Mytheans.
The White Stag had been fine for all of ten minutes. Then the witches had shown up. Initially, he’d been annoyed. They should be hard at work shoring up the aetherwalls of their prison. But then he’d noticed that they were the youngest witches in the coven. Still in training and likely more of a distraction than a help with difficult spells.
Either way, they ruined the anonymity of the place. As he’d been getting up to leave, Esha had walked in.
Now, his eyes tracked her as she sauntered across the pub toward the bar. He liked the way she walked. It was very her, with her chipped-shoulder, couldn’t-give-a-shite attitude. Her hips swayed in jeans molded to every inch of her. She was tall and lean, all strength and supple muscles that made him think she’d give as good as she got.
He shook his head. Not that it fucking mattered. He couldn’t let it matter. She was hell on his celibacy and peace of mind. Iron control kept him sane. She threatened that, and he did his damnedest to avoid her because of it. He’d been pretty successful for the ten years that she’d been at the university.
Until their work had thrown them temporarily together a month ago. Once, she’d asked him why the signals he sent were so hot and cold. She could see that he wanted her as easily as she could see that he resisted it. And she wanted him back. That day, they’d come so close to kissing that he could still feel the heat of her breath.
But he’d pulled away. He’d been an arse to her when she’d asked why. He’d thrown her species in her face. Blaming his rejection on the fact that she was a soulceress was a lie, but it had come out easily, pushed by the panic over what he felt for her.
He could still remember her words. “Always with the soulcery business. Like I have the fucking plague or something. I really thought you were different, Warren. What’s your problem, anyway? You’re a damned mystery monster. I don’t drain your power, so what have you got against me?”
He hadn’t known how to answer, and his words had only made it worse. He’d hurt her feelings, he knew that much. She’d said that she didn’t need him, that she didn’t need anybody. He’d almost believed it.
Warren snapped out of his memories of the past at the sight of Esha sidling up to another man at the bar. No matter how bad an idea it was, he couldn’t stop himself from becoming jealous. Which was a gods-damned worthless emotion, when everything between them was not only fucked up, it was impossible.
Though Esha lent one ear to the rumbling brogue of the man she’d approached at the bar, her attention was dedicated to scanning the room for enemies. It was a hazard of the job, but she didn’t mind, because it wasn’t like she left any of her assignments living. She smirked at the thought. But they sometimes had partners in crime who’d like to exact a little vengeance, so keeping a wary eye out was just good business.
She felt the smirk slip from her face when her gaze connected with that of a man sitting alone at a table in the corner of the pub.
Warren. The man she’d wanted for almost the entire ten years she’d been at the university.
Her heart shivered and goose bumps rose on her arms at the sight of him. The light from a cheery fire cast shadows over his harshly beautiful face. His fierce gaze was trained on her—probably had been since she walked in—and she kicked herself for not noticing.
The voice of the man speaking to her became nothing but a buzz. She licked her lips nervously, but managed to lean back against the bar and glare at Warren. What the hell was he doing here?
“Lassie.” The sexy Scot tapped her shoulder and she jerked back to attention, blinking stupidly up at him as her brain returned to the present. She should focus on the hot man who actually liked her, not on the elusive Mythean who treated her like a bug.
Because the mortal doesn’t know what you are.
But as she stared up into his handsome face, she could feel Warren’s gaze burning into her. Impossible to ignore. She really should try to make him jealous, but her heart wasn’t in it.
“I’m sorry. You know—” Shit, she didn’t know the Scot’s name. Whatever. “It was nice talking to you.”
She tried to smile at him, but all she could think about was the man whose gaze continued to light her up from across the room.
She wasn’t going to go over there. Avoiding him had been working out really well for her.
But she felt herself turning and her feet carrying her closer to him, her body weaving around raucous pub patrons. He was like a giant planet and she some puny little moon, helplessly drawn to him.
She’d thought there could be more between them, had wanted there to be. From what she could tell, he kept to himself and focused almost all of his energy on work. Where her isolation was forced on her by others—their loss—his was self-imposed. He was the only person she knew who was more isolated than she; it intrigued her.
And it had been a shitty night. If anything, he would distract her. True, he’d kicked her to the curb less than a month ago, and it had hurt, yet she’d slapped a bandage over that wound. She’d suffered worse.
As she made her way to him, she took in the olive sweater stretched over broad shoulders, which tensed as he watched her.
Good. He tied her up in knots; it should be mutual. His otherworldly stature and confident mien made him stand out among the other pub patrons. Golden hair glinted in the firelight, too angelic for what he was capable of.
It was such a contrast to the dark shadows that always hovered at his feet. They were the shadows of evil deeds, visible only to a soulceress. Normally, she’d only see them on rogues or other evil beings, where they clung like a black mist. But on Warren, they hovered around his ankles, like they couldn’t stick to him.
Why would he have them? Was it because she couldn’t see his soul? She’d heard of some Mytheans who used magic to hide theirs. Because a Mythean’s power originated from his soul, it was closely guarded, even hidden at times.
The whys of his shadows intrigued her. They didn’t mesh with the decent guy she knew him to be. He might be a jerk to her, but overall he was good. Too good to have the shadows.
She sank into the chair across from him, holding his green gaze and propping her feet on the chair closest to him. He was so big she could almost feel the heat of him. At nearly six and a half feet, his head would probably brush the low ceiling of the pub, hitting the decorative copper mugs that hung from it.
“So, boss, what brings you here?” she asked, her eyes racing over his face, taking in the features that had haunted her dreams. A strong jaw, full lips, and a loaded gaze. It was a face that had seen a lot of bad. The shadows that hovered around his feet were sometimes reflected in his eyes. She didn’t know what he’d done to get those shadows, but she wanted to.
“No’ your boss, Esha.”
Right. Thanks for the reminder. She was only a consultant, not a full member of his team. She was powerful enough that no one wanted her working against them—hence the invitation to join the university staff and eventually his department, the Praesidium—but her method of collecting the magical energy that fed her power made everyone loath to include her as an actual team member. Not that she cared, of course.
“Semantics.” She sipped her beer and looked at him over the rim of her glass. His expression was unreadable, nearly unwelcoming. But she hadn’t made a mistake in coming over here; she didn’t make mistakes.
“What’s with all the Mytheans in a mortal pub?” she asked. He ranked higher than she did, so maybe he’d know.
He shrugged. “What’s your reason?”
“Here? I come here all the time.” She gestured to the crowd behind her. “Easy pickings.”
A disgusted sigh escaped his strong throat. “To replenish your power from unwitting victims?”
She ignored the disgust. She had to, to survive. “Please. Mortals don’t have enough to speak of.”
It was one of the reasons she usually slept with them instead of the immortal Mytheans. Her unconscious power collection didn’t cause mortals the shivery sense of powerlessness that Mytheans felt in her presence. What felt like a hit of glorious energy to her felt like a siphoning of strength for any immortal with whom she came into contact.
Except for Warren.
“So, why is it that I never feel your power? You don’t have enough to speak of?” she asked.
Everyone hated her for something she couldn’t control, but he was the only one who didn’t like her out of spite, because he wasn’t even affected by her.
He shrugged again, but she saw a flicker in his eyes.
“You know why I can’t feel the power of your soul, but you won’t tell me. Cat got your tongue?” She snickered and looked at the shadow that was the Chairman, lounging on a chair next to her.
“There’s no’ a fae’s chance in hell I’m going to tell you.”
She frowned as she searched his eyes for any hint, but saw nothing. “Does it have anything to do with the fact that you have shadows that don’t stick to you?”
His eyes iced over, but still, she swore they beckoned. She was clearly mad, but she couldn’t help herself. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She shivered. She was pushing him, but she couldn’t stop herself. He was a mystery that she’d wanted to solve since she’d met him. “You know, you’re pretty much the only one at the university who has shadows. You’re different.”
Their place of employment was committed to maintaining balance between the heavens and the hells and to protecting earth. Someone evil wouldn’t give a damn about keeping the power balance. So if Warren wasn’t evil, why did he have shadows?
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