She’d just busted a prisoner out of jail. And not just any prisoner. A tall, muscular, dangerous-looking one whose eyes felt like they were burning into her back. He was too handsome for her sanity, with black hair and black eyes that saw too much. He looked like a poet but was built like a warrior. A warrior who would help her get that damn book back.
Fiona marched down the stone hallway like she had every right to be there. Which she did. Sort of. After Logan had delivered his odd message to her this morning and said that Ian was the only one capable of getting through the museum, she’d gone to Lea, the highest-ranking university official that she knew, to plead her case. Lea was the historian, and one of the top three officials at the university. They were the only three with the unilateral ability to grant prisoners temporary release. Thank gods she was also Fiona’s closest friend.
Lea had agreed to provide Fiona with the documents that would release Ian temporarily, on the condition that he wore the collar, which would ensure that he couldn’t make a run for it and couldn’t use his most dangerous magic. So they should be fine—as long as they made it out of the building and no one asked too many questions. Even though Lea had okayed Ian’s release, Fiona’s boss, Darrence Wright, sure as hell wouldn’t like the fact that she’d taken matters into her own hands. Utilizing prisoners for intel was definitely not in her job description at the moment.
But she had to get that book back.
“I’ll lead from here,” the guard said from behind when they walked through the entrance to the prison, which was in the basement of the building that housed the Praesidium, the university’s security division.
The guard walked past her and pushed open the door to the stone staircase. His were the only handprints that could activate the door. And only if they were alive and willing. She and Ian followed him up the stairs, eventually alighting on the first floor of the Praesidium.
“Thanks,” she said, then nodded at Ian while trying to keep from appearing too rushed.
The Praesidium, named when Latin was still the language of knowledge, provided security services for the university. Now she and Ian would have to make it through the building without being stopped. No one would recognize Ian, not after nearly one hundred years down below, but the collar around his neck marked him as a prisoner.
But he’d ditch her without it, so it stayed on. She shot him a look that she hoped said let’s move.
His eyes lit with understanding.
Good, he could read people well.
She walked quickly, nerves making her chest feel tight. He followed her down the stone-paved hallway, his presence huge and looming behind her, and through the beautiful atrium of the entrance hall. Gray clouds hovered over the glass dome in the ceiling, casting a dim light on the wooden floor. They crossed it and pushed out through the great wooden doors into a cold January day.
She heard him inhale deeply from beside her, pleasure plain in the sound. It struck something within her, something that mourned for the years he’d spent locked up, though she barely knew him and definitely disapproved of what he’d done to get himself imprisoned.
“Air taste better when you’re free?” she asked.
“Hell of a lot better,” he said as he followed her down the grand stone steps. The pleasure was thick in his voice.
He’d be thrown back in prison when this was all over. She felt guilty about it, but it didn’t stop her. Whatever it takes. The motto had served her in the past and would continue to do so.
She finally had a chance to fix her life. To fix what she’d screwed up so badly. For ten years, her life had revolved around her failure to locate the Book of Worlds, as she’d been prophesied to do. Hell, it still revolved around it and probably always would.
Five different fate gods had prophesied that she’d return it to the safety of the university. And she’d failed to find it. For ten years.
That book defined her. It was everything that made her special, everything that made her a failure.
Her skin prickled as they strode across the cobblestone parking lot, around the great oak in the middle, and toward her little hatchback, which she’d parked in the shadowiest part of the lot. It was lime green and stood out like a priest in a brothel. She had no reason to be parked at the prison and didn’t want anyone noticing her car.
No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than a car door slammed. She jerked her head to the right and caught sight of Cerus, one of her colleagues in the Department of Magical Devices. Francis climbed out of the dark sedan after him. Her spine stiffened as they glanced at her and their mouths twisted in a sneer.
Her head snapped back toward her car and she picked up her pace, her cheeks burning with shame. She prayed they didn’t catch sight of Ian’s collar.
“Friends of yours?” Ian asked.
“Hardly.” They were former colleagues, from before she’d been demoted for failing to find the Book of Worlds. Their open disdain was a fact of life now, and she despised it. But she was a Failte, one who’d failed her fate, and she should expect it.
She shook the thought away and glanced at Ian out of the corner of her eye, struck once again by the sheer physicality of him. He was so damn big. Three or four inches over six feet. Nearly a foot taller than her and all hard muscle.
When she’d stood so close to him and snapped the collar about his neck, it had been as if a live wire had connected them. She’d wanted to touch him, to see if he felt as hard as he looked.
She shook the thought away. It was crazy. She was crazy. She shouldn’t be attracted to the too-handsome, black-haired thief whose dark eyes gleamed with intelligence and cunning.
He was a thief, for gods’ sake. And not just any kind. A thief of history, of the artifacts she held so dear and had based her life around. They’d barely spoken back in his cell, yet her stupid body was still attracted to him.
Her body was a moron.
“Here we are,” she said as they reached her car.
He slid in after her. He filled the small space, his scent dark and masculine.
She swallowed hard. Dealing with him was going to be a whole lot more complex than she’d anticipated.
Ian ran a big hand over the dash. The dials looked minuscule next to his big fingers. “Things have changed.”
She laughed. She’d forgotten that he’d been in prison since 1916. “Aye. This car is nothing special, either. Wait ’til you see some of the really nice ones.”
He huffed out a laugh and she had to wonder what it was like to see things through his eyes. The university campus wasn’t a shock. All rolling hills and oak trees, there were no masses of paved highways here. The buildings were stone monstrosities and were older than he was, so they wouldn’t be a shock either.
“We’re going to meet Logan.” She hadn’t mentioned that to Lea when she’d begged for Ian’s release. Logan had wanted to ensure she had a way to get into the museum—Ian—before he gave her any more intel. She had a feeling there was more between Logan and Ian than was on the surface, but she was willing to take the risk. She could protect herself, even if it was dangerous as hell to meet a known thief like Logan away from the safety of the Immortal University. It was a risk she was willing to take. She’d reached the end of her line long before this. When Logan, a thief she’d been looking for because he’d stolen from the university, had approached her with information about the book, she’d been skeptical.
But she needed to find that book so damned badly that she’d decided trusting him was worth the risk. It was the only good clue she’d had in over a year.
She pulled the car out of the lot and headed down the lane that led to the university entrance.
Great oaks rose on either side as they rolled down the main drive and arrived at a great wrought iron gate that hid the campus from mortal eyes. It swung open silently, and she drove through the forest that would lead to the main road.
The night was black as tar as they sped down the winding country road, the beam of the headlights cutting through the dark. There were no other cars, and when Fiona pulled onto a lane that led deeper into the forest, if she hadn’t known better, she’d think left the last of civilization behind.
“You work for the university, do you no’?” Ian asked.
The Immortal University, which had begun its existence thousands of years ago as a group of Mythean warriors and their families who’d banded together for protection from mortals, had eventually become a research institution of enormous power. Though it had taken the name Immortal University and taught a few classes to educate young Mytheans, the institution was more concerned with ensuring peace between the gods in the afterworlds and mortals on earth. They were keepers and enforcers of Mythean law.
“You’re a diplomat?” he asked.
Diplomacy and knowledge were the university’s primary tools. But that didn’t mean they didn’t have a top-notch security division. It was how Ian had ended up imprisoned for his crimes.
“I’m an Acquirer with the Department of Magical Devices.” She was a Historius, like him. Their long-dead ancestors had been disciples of the Celtic god Gwydion, a god of magic and the arts, who’d gifted his followers with the ability to locate valuable artwork and artifacts. The skill had passed down through the generations, which were few, as immortals rarely reproduced.
The car turned into the little gravel parking lot at the side of an old country pub.
“Bit remote,” Ian said.
“Aye. And better for it.” She cut the lights and pulled the key from the ignition.
He followed her up to the heavy wooden door.
“After you,” she said as she pushed it open.
He reached over her head so that he held open the door and nodded, indicating she should precede him.
“After you,” she repeated, determined not to let him pull that archaic crap on her.
He shook his head, his face set. He wasn’t going to move, that much was clear. Stubborn man. She shrugged and walked through because it was easier.
Ian followed Fiona into the pub, his entire body tingling with the glorious sensation of being free. The collar, though a pain in the arse, was nothing compared to the hell he’d just escaped. The air was sweeter, the sky higher, and everything around him more incredible than he’d ever realized.
The pub was dimly lit and dingy, but even that was a joy. A grizzled old barkeep wiped the nicked expanse of wood with a rag and watched them with a frown. The pub was old enough that it reminded him of the pubs of his day, and a rush of nostalgia washed over him.
He’d make this freedom permanent. Nothing would stand in his way now that he was out.
He glanced around and caught sight of Logan sitting at a table in the darkest shadows, half his face obscured. A grin stretched across his face and he nodded. Damn, it was good to see his old friend. He turned and followed Fiona to the bar, not wanting to alert her to his familiarity with Logan, though he was certain that she was suspicious.
“Pint of Tennent’s,” she told the barkeep, then looked at Ian.
He nodded. She drummed her fingers on the bar, no doubt anxious to get the information she sought. But they were in a mortal pub, and blending in was vital.
Fiona handed over two bills after the barkeep set the pints on the bar. The pub was so dingy that even the golden liquid lacked its usual gleam.
They each grabbed a pint, then strode toward Logan, who surveyed them as they approached, his black eyes falcon sharp. His dark hair and pale skin hadn’t changed, but the shadows under his eyes were deeper. Ian wanted to hug him and punch him. He’d missed his friend, but damn, he’d expected Logan to get him out of prison sooner.
“It didn’t take you long to get him out,” Logan said to Fiona. He didn’t look at Ian.
“Nay. You were verra convincing this morning. And doona bother pretending you doona know him. There’s something between you two,” Fiona said.
Logan shrugged. “You’re brave, then, if you’ve come here believing that Ian MacKenzie and I are in league together. One of you against two of us.”
“Desperate,” Fiona said. “And I can protect myself.”
“That, I am aware of. You’ve been quite aggressive in your hunt for the Book of Worlds.”
“Exactly. Desperate enough to be dangerous. I’ve hunted that book for ten years. I should have found it years ago, and I’m running out of time. It’s the only reason I’m taking this chance.”
“Ironic, isn’t it, that you were hunting me for the theft of the amulet, yet I came to you with something you want even more?” Logan asked.
Amulet? Ian wanted to ask, but Fiona spoke.
“Aye. It’s makes me nervous. You didn’t give me time to ask this morning, but I assume that in exchange for giving me information about the book, you want me to forget you have the amulet?”
“Exactly. You’re tenacious. The last thing I want is the university on my trail for something like the amulet.”
Of course he wouldn’t want the university knowing much about him, Ian thought. Not with his secrets.
Fiona scowled, then nodded. “Tell me about the book. I’ll forget you have the amulet.”
“Excellent.” Logan said.
“Good. Tell me why the hell the book is in a human museum.” Fiona asked. “It shouldn’t be there.”
“I put it there.”
Well, that was unexpected, Ian thought.
“What?” Fiona nearly shrieked.
“I bartered it to a god. He had something I wanted. We agreed to drop off our items at neutral locations to make the trade. Except, I didn’t pick a neutral location.”
“Why?” Fiona’s voice was breathless with fear, as if she knew what was coming.
“I’m betting that the god wants to destroy the covenant and reignite the Divine War,” Logan said. “I don’t want that to happen. I quite like earth the way it is. But I wanted what he had to trade more. So I’m giving the university—and you—a chance to recover the book first. With his help.” Logan nodded at Ian.
Ian tipped his head back slightly. Good man, Logan. Cunning, as always. Ian had no doubt that Logan spoke the truth. It was precisely like him. Self-interested, yet if given the opportunity, he leaned toward doing right. He’d deny it, but it was in his nature. Seeing that the covenant was in safe hands at the university made sense. Ian might hate the institution, but it was doubtlessly the best place for the book. Everything about this deal worked out in Logan’s favor. As usual.
“You selfish fucking bastard! If the covenant is destroyed, there are at least a dozen ancient pantheons that would take the opportunity to come to earth to war for worshippers.” Fiona’s voice was horrified.
“True,” Logan said. “And the mortals would certainly fight to defend their beliefs. The ancient gods would have mortals fighting in their name. Nothing would please them more after millennia of being ignored.”
The idea made Ian’s skin crawl. He liked earth the way it was. After all his time in prison, he didn’t want to be released into another hell. Not all gods wanted worshippers to war in their name, but many of the most ancient ones did.
“Which god did you trade it to?” Fiona asked. Fiona looked like she was about to reach across the table and strangle Logan.
“I don’t know,” Logan said.
“How the hell do you no’ know?” Fiona’s jaw was so tense Ian was afraid she’d pull a muscle.
“I made the deal through a broker. Neither the god nor I want anyone to know what we have.”
“Shite,” Fiona said.
“You can assume that whoever is trying to get the book doesn’t just want it for his library,” Logan said.
“So we have to beat the mystery god to the book,” Ian said.
Logan nodded. “Whoever it is has no idea the museum is enchanted, so he’ll likely send an envoy to recover it. Demons or other rogue Mytheans who don’t give a damn about the havoc their actions will wreak. They’ll expect to break in and have the book in no longer than it takes to walk through the museum.”
Ian nodded. It was a good plan. Not foolproof, as his and Logan’s enchantments were no doubt warped after lying fallow and would be difficult even for him to get through, but it was a solid plan. They just had to beat the god’s envoys and get the book first. Then Ian could steal it and threaten to destroy it unless Fiona removed his collar.
He wouldn’t have a chance to speak privately to Logan, but it was clear this was his friend’s way of getting him out of the university prison.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish