By the time the portal spat me out in my little shop, some of my freak-out over the demon had faded.
Which was a good thing, because all hell had broken loose inside Ancient Magic, the entrepreneurial enterprise that kept our collective ship afloat. Del and Nix had been my besties since we’d woken in the field ten years ago. My deirfiúr.
“Nothing’s ever simple, is it?” I muttered.
Two men with stupid black stockings over their heads were grappling with Nix in front of the counter. Looked like her afternoon had been just as adventurous as mine.
Despite their silly disguises, they were both huge, with hulking shoulders and ham-like fists. They’d each grabbed one of Nix’s arms. Probably wanted to tie her up and rob the place. That was the usual deal.
I crossed my arms and leaned against the wall to watch. I’d step in if necessary, but I doubted it would be.
My deirfiúr and I had nicknames for each other. I was called Huntress because I hunted down the sparkles. Del was Seeker because she sought the artifacts we wanted in ancient texts and told me what to look for. And Nix was called Protector for damn good reason.
Quick as a blur, Nix jumped up and planted her feet on the chest of the thief to her right. She used his chest for leverage, kicking off and breaking his hold, then spun and kneed the other man in the chin so hard that he dropped to the floor, unconscious. She had to jump to do it, but she got good height.
I grinned as I watched her lay out the second guy with two kicks and a mean punch. He collapsed to the ground like a sack of boulders. I was grateful he didn’t crush the table full of shiny things behind him.
But then, Nix was good at choosing where they landed.
She was taller than me, and though she didn’t look any stronger, she was a heck of a lot better in a fistfight. Weapons were my game. My hand-to-hand skills were slightly better than good—enough to get me by on most jobs, which almost always involved sending a demon or two back to where they came from—but hers were almost preternatural.
She didn’t look like she could kick someone’s ass, though. She was dark haired and pretty, with warm green eyes and a big smile. Funky t-shirts and ripped jeans with motorcycle boots completed the picture.
“Nice job,” I said.
Nix brushed her hands off and grinned at me. “All in a day’s work. You get the chalice?”
I held it up. “Not my favorite job, but it’s done. Let me help you with those guys.”
Our shop was small. A narrow wooden counter stretched along one wall, shelves and tables on all the rest. Enchanted objects took up most of the space—everything from tiaras that would make a person beautiful to sleeping potions strong enough to rival the one that had knocked out Briar Rose.
Nix grabbed the enchanted cuffs off the counter and tossed me a pair.
I snagged them, then nodded at the counter where she’d had the cuffs waiting. We didn’t usually keep handcuffs next to the register. Looked weird to customers. “Expecting these guys?”
“They weren’t exactly subtle. I saw them crossing the street. No masks on yet, but all bulk and a walk like they kick puppies. Two and two equals robbery.”
I nodded as I set the chalice on the counter, then bent to cuff the guy sprawled at my feet. I wasn’t the only one who liked shiny objects, though these thieves were likely after the magic. Because of the value of the enchanted artifacts in our shop, there was a robbery attempt every few weeks.
After waking in the field ten years ago, we’d scrounged around for a living until we’d figured out how to profit from our skills. And thus Ancient Magic had been born. We found treasure imbued with ancient magic and sold it.
Ancient Magic was located on Factory Row in Magic’s Bend, Oregon, but it was no Fifth Avenue. We provided our own security.
Magic’s Bend was one of three all-magic cites in America that humans had no idea existed thanks to some powerful spells. Supernaturals lived in human cities as well, but this was one of the few places we could be ourselves. It made it the perfect place to set up a shop selling ancient magic.
While I was out hunting down enchanted artifacts, Nix manned the home front. It should have been an easy job—chat with customers, sell the goods, drink coffee from Potions & Pastilles next door. But of the three of us, she was the best at kicking ass and taking names, among other things. So she protected what I hunted. In addition to being Seeker, Del was a demon hunter the rest of the time, something that endeared us to the Order of the Magica, the government that ruled the Magica, and kept our shop on the good side of magical law. She was on a job right now, somewhere in South America.
I nudged the unconscious thief with my foot, then rolled him over so I could get at his back. It took some tugging, but I got his hands bound before I looked up to see Nix hanging up the phone.
She lowered the phone and glanced up. “Cops’ll be here in a minute. Dispatch said there’s a cruiser right around the corner.”
“Good. Then we can grab something to eat. I’m starving.” We’d had so many break-ins that Nix had become friends with most of the force.
It took only three minutes for the shiny police vehicle to pull up in front of the shop. Officers Cooper and Dale climbed out. It didn’t take long for them to collect the thieves off our floor, or for Nix to give her statement. She was well versed by now.
Within ten minutes, they pulled away from the curb, criminals in tow.
“Glad that’s over.” Nix walked behind the counter and leaned on the wood, her brown gaze avid on the chalice. “So this is it? The Chalice of Youth?”
“The one and only.”
Actually, that wasn’t true. There were probably more, but this was the one that suited our client the best. According to Mr. Sampson, a weather witch who’d commissioned me to find a youth charm for him, it would keep the drinker looking ever young and beautiful. They’d still age—all the magic and the mages in the world hadn’t figured out the secret of immortality—but they’d look good doing it. Mr. S planned to be the hottest weather witch on TV. Weather witches weren’t usually meteorologists, but Mr. S liked being a semi-famous local celebrity.
Most of my jobs were on spec—Del found record of enchanted artifacts that possessed valuable magic, and I went to find them. But some jobs were on commission, and the chalice was one of them. No matter the job, we stayed away from artifacts from human archaeological sites. They had laws to protect their history—eventually someone would have noticed if I screwed with them. We try not to use magic around the humans, despite the Great Peace.
Besides, their artifacts had no magic, so they were worthless to us. We weren’t in it for artifacts—we were in it for the magic. The problem was that magic could become unstable. After sitting around in an object for too long—anywhere from a few hundred years to a few thousand, depending on the spell—it could cause some serious damage. Like fruit ripening on a tree, eventually it rots. Or in this case, explodes. Our operation was legal because we stuck to magical artifacts that were nearing the end of their life. Otherwise, we’d just be stealing. The Order of the Magica would have a problem with that—and we definitely didn’t want to get on their bad side. And it felt crappy to steal something from an ancient culture that no longer existed.
I leaned on the counter and took a chocolate out of the candy bowl. Nix picked up the chalice and looked at it, squinting at the decorative etching that turned the golden goblet into a work of art.
“This one should be easy,” she said as she set it down.
“You’re going to do it now?” My stomach grumbled.
“Yeah. Only five minutes. It’s a simple one. And the magic has gotten really unstable. Better to do it now. Then we’re done for the night, and it’s off my plate.”
“Fine.” But she was right. We tried not to leave the unstable magic sitting around in the shop. Last thing we needed was a spell going wild in here.
My stomach growled again, and I grabbed another chocolate, unwrapping it as Nix touched the goblet with her right hand, then hovered her palm over the counter. She closed her eyes, and the hum of magic took shape around her, complex and delicate.
Unlike me, Nix could use her magic, as long as she did it in small amounts. She practiced her magic more because it didn’t result in explosions. She was so good at it that I could now barely sense her magic when she used it. The scent of flowers was so light you’d assume it was from a vase nearby.
Her hand glowed. Beneath it, a goblet slowly materialized. It glinted gold—an identical replica.
“Jeez, that was fast.”
“Eh, it’s gold.”
Nix had a knack for replicating gold, even though what she created wasn’t technically the same stuff. Just yellow metal. If we could have replicated gold, we probably wouldn’t have been in the treasure hunting business in the first place.
“Now for the last step,” she said as she hovered her left hand over the goblet.
Magic swirled up from the goblet and into her hand, like blue smoke. It shimmered, the smoke dancing beneath her palm. Once she’d gathered all the magic from the original chalice, she let it hover under her hand for a moment. She infused it with some of her own power, stabilizing it a bit. Once the shimmering faded, she transferred the now stabilized magic to her forged chalice by hovering her hand over it and forcing the blue smoke into the metal. Nix wasn’t able to give the magic its original lifespan, but it’d last long enough that the buyer could use the magic they’d purchased. And it likely wouldn’t blow up our shop.
“There. Ready for old Mr. Sampson. Hottest weather guy on TV for the last sixty years.”
When we’d set up our shop, Nix had learned how to magically forge the artifacts I found so that we could put the originals back in their tombs or temples. It was part of our deal with the Magica—take just the magic. Only the oldest magic, since it was ready to expire anyway. Initially, we’d put the enchantments in regular old pieces of polished glass, but then we’d figured out we’d get more if we sold the magic encased in a replica. Sure, our buyers would like to own an original piece of ancient magical history to put on their mantel, but I wasn’t willing to give them that. Not only was it illegal, I didn’t like the idea of selling off pieces of history.
The memory of the shattered column sent a shiver through me. I hated when I caused damage like that. But worse, I hated the memory of that demon.
“Hey, you okay?” Nix asked.
I glanced up at her.
“You look a little rough,” she said.
I glanced down at my dirty, black tank top and the honey-colored leather jacket that was now blackened with smoke. I got a whiff of my hair, which was even worse, and when I pulled a strand out of my ponytail, I saw that the red was almost completely gray from temple dust.
“Ugh.” I dropped my hair.
“Not your hair, though you could use a shower.” Nix brushed some dust off the shoulder of my jacket. “Looks ruined. Good thing you’ve got a hundred more of these. But I’m not talking about how you look. You just seem off.”
I sighed. “Yeah. There was a demon in the temple.”
“So? There’s always a demon.” She shrugged. “Almost always.”
“Yeah.” Demons were frequently called upon to guard tombs and temples because they made excellent henchmen if you were willing to spring them from their hell, but they really shouldn’t be on earth. Getting rid of them was a big part of my job.
“You sent him back to hell, right? It’s not like one got away.”
I almost huffed a laugh but didn’t have it in me. Nix knew how I liked to leave clean jobs behind. All demons sent back to hell. So far, my record was spotless. Though I wished I’d left that demon alive long enough to get more info out of him.
“Was it an extra awful demon?” Nix asked.
“No.” Like mages and witches, demons had their own gifts. Some could get into your head and really screw around—make you see your worst nightmare, that kind of thing. “No. This one said something creepy. Really creepy.”
Nix just raised her brows.
“He said I was one of the three. And”—I swallowed hard as my stomach turned—“FireSoul.”
Nix’s face turned serious, and her brown eyes darkened with fear. “What?”
I could almost feel her terror. I could certainly hear it.
“How could he know that? No one knows that,” Nix said.
It was hard to breathe. The memories always made it hard to breathe.
“We’ve been hiding for so long,” I said. “It’s been ten years since we woke in that field, and we’ve never told anyone what we are.”
It was our most precious secret. The one that our lives depended upon.
“We have our concealment charms,” Nix said. “They cost a fortune. We should be safe.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” It’d taken us years to save up to buy the concealment charms and another year to find a supernatural to craft them. The spell should hide us from the eyes of any who sought to do us harm, with particular emphasis on my hazy memory of the man from my nightmares. If we ever ran into him, he would see us but not recognize us.
The charms were the only things that allowed us to settle in Magic’s Bend. Without them, we’d have had to stay on the run.
Magic’s Bend was the largest all-magic city in the US. It wasn’t huge—no skyscrapers or anything—but we had a population of over sixty thousand. We’d moved here when we were twenty, right after buying our charms, thinking it’d be the best place to set up Ancient Magic. We’d been right.
I scrubbed a hand over my face, all the worry of the afternoon suddenly unbearably heavy on my shoulders. “I’m not going to worry about it for now. You’re right, we have the concealment charms. I sent that demon back to his hell. He was an old demon—really strong. Maybe that’s how he sensed what I am. But there’s nothing we can do now. I just want to forget it.”
Nix sighed and leaned against the counter. “No, you’re right. We’ll just have to wait and see if something weird happens.”
I huffed a laugh. Weird. Like being thrown in the Prison for Magical Miscreants. “I’m going to grab a shower. I suddenly felt more grimy than hungry. Want to meet at Potions & Pastilles in twenty minutes?”
“Sure. I’m headed over now. Connor and Claire are both working tonight.”
I grinned. It’d be good to see our friends. Our only friends, besides Del.
I waited while Nix put the forged chalice—complete with youth charm—in a box and set it on the shelf behind the counter for Mr. S. She put the original beneath the counter.
I’d return it to the tomb in a couple days. I’d also try to find someone to help me magically undo the damage to the ancient warrior goddess pillar. I hated to see a good woman laid low, not to mention the shitty feeling of having destroyed something so old. I didn’t know my own history, so I didn’t want to go around destroying someone else’s.
We headed out of the shop. Nix shut the door behind her, then ran her hands around the edges of the door, triggering the enchantment that protected the shop. Only she, Del, or I could enter. Even breaking the windows wouldn’t get you in if you weren’t pre-approved by the enchantment.
Nix headed for the coffee shop/bar that sat left of us, and I went right. I lived in the converted factory above Ancient Magic—Nix and Del also had apartments there since we owned everything over the first floor—but the entrance was outside the shop.
It was a brisk summer evening in Magic’s Bend, the sun only now starting to set even though it was nearly nine o’clock. Birds chirping across the street caught my attention. They hopped around on the top of a large, black SUV sitting in front of the park near my own car, Cecelia. My junker rarely had company. Normally people left their cars farther down the street for Potions & Pastilles. I ignored it as I unlocked the green door next to Ancient Magic. I pushed it open and climbed the narrow stairs leading to my apartment. My leg was killing me.
Though I’d been starving just moments ago, now all I wanted was a chance to wash off the dust and see if my leg needed a bandage. If I could wash away some of the crappy feelings from earlier today, all the better.
Ever since Del, Nix, and I had woken up in that field, all we’d wanted was to keep our secret and learn about our pasts. We still didn’t know what had happened to us or our parents—and it drove me nuts—but we’d managed to keep our secret and build a great life for ourselves.
But the demon’s words had threatened that. Big time. And it had left me shaken.
The stairs leading to our apartments were rickety and narrow. We’d meant to renovate them when we moved in, but had never gotten around to it. I passed the second floor, where Del lived. When I passed the third floor, where Nix lived, I stiffened.
I wasn’t alone.
For magic’s sake, I couldn’t get a break.
Quietly, I drew my blades from the sheaths at my thighs and continued up the stairs. Halfway up, I could see the landing at my door. Long legs clad in jeans. A few steps higher and I could make out a broad chest covered in a dark gray t-shirt.
One more step and I laid eyes on the hottest, most dangerous looking guy I’d ever seen. Worse, the power that radiated off him was so intense my eyes almost crossed.
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