Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Viperous Sneak Peek: Chapters 2-3

To read the prologue and first chapter, click HERE.

I Don’t Wanna Live Forever

I didn’t say anything.

I couldn’t.

When I just stood there, frozen at the top of the porch, Blaine drew back, diffidence paling his features.

Those familiar, yet equally startling pale blue eyes were just as magnificent as I remembered. Still, it took me a moment to digest the face attached to them. For as long as I knew Blaine, he had always been clean-shaven. Yet, a slightly cultivated five o’clock shadow framed his entire jaw. And in the week since I’d last seen him, even the hair atop his head seemed noticeably longer. It was properly tousled, the front strands framing his eyes as it toppled into his face. More so, the hint of its natural wave had the very ends curling up just beneath his ears. And despite the vibrant bleached blonde locks, his black roots were now blatantly visible at his hairline, by at least a good inch or so.

Bounding down the porch steps, I met him in an instant, my arms ensnaring around his neck and shoulders. My momentum seemed to knock him off balance, because Blaine staggered back with a soft huff before managing to accommodate my weight.

I recoiled with a shriek, remembering all too late where he had just come from. “Oh God, I didn’t mean… Are you okay?” With the high collar of his jacket hiked up, I couldn’t see his neck. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
To my relief, Blaine laughed—actually laughed—before pulling me back into him. “If I knew this kind of homecoming was waiting for me, I would’ve escaped from the hospital days ago.”
I’d grown so accustomed to his teasing grins that I nearly forgot what his genuine smile looked like. The sight was spectacular.
And it vanished in an instant as his gaze flicked up and down my figure, concern sharpening his features. “What’s wrong? You’re shaking.”
He was right. Adrenaline still racked every nerve in me, and the remnants of that agonizing pain slicing through my chest remained.
Had I hallucinated that back in the house? Or had that been a premonition? Was the woman I saw even real? I tried to recall her sadistic little rhyme, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember more than a few lines. None of which offered me any reassurance.
Before I could find the words, a bitter scent hit me in full force.
Someone was definitely not happy…
I followed Blaine’s gaze over my shoulder, finding my friends staring down at us from the open doorway. Mark and Carly’s jaws were set, hardening their expressions, but it was Reese’s murderous glare that did me in, because I found myself recoiling at the sight, as if I’d been caught in the act of doing something truly horrific.
Blaine’s own expression was equally as lethal, homing in directly on Reese. His voice came out in a low snarl, retribution lacing every word. “What did he do?”
I stole a look over my shoulder, spotting Val behind the wheel of the recently parked car. He gave me an uneasy sort of smile that seemed as if he was trying to convey remorse. It failed miserably. He looked less guilty and a whole lot more like the cat that ate the freaking canary. 
Ooookay, so Val had obviously told Blaine about my vision involving Reese.
What a douche canoe.
I’d been hoping to avoid a confrontation, knowing full well that Blaine would annihilate Reese at the first hint his hex may have enacted. Sure, I knew I couldn’t avoid the situation forever, but watching Blaine use Reese’s blood to paint the front of the beach house wasn’t exactly my idea of an idyllic day. And seeing as how the vibration coursing up Blaine’s arm only seemed to be growing stronger, I had a feeling my macabre imagination wasn’t entirely wrong. It was his Wrath rune.
I pinned a hand to Blaine’s chest, trying to summon some sense of calm into my voice as I eased him back. “Reese didn’t do anything.”
That didn’t seem to instill much confidence, because that lethal flare in his eyes didn’t lessen any.
“Simmer down there, Romeo. We’ve gotta head back to the house before the Boss arrives,” Val called out, demanding his brother’s attention.
Blaine’s expression remained hard-edged, his eyes only softening as he looked back down at me. “If you want, I can come back and get you after Raelynd leaves.”
One look over at my friends, and my stomach hollowed out.
Again, not the reaction I was expecting.
But seeing as how everyone had entered into the scowling equivalent of a Spaghetti Western Showdown, the beach house was feeling less and less welcoming by the minute.
“No can do.” Val appeared beside us, pulling open the back door of the car. “The Boss insisted you both be there when he arrives. So as much as I’d love to stay and chat with your enchanting friend up there, we’ve gotta get going.” He cast Carly his most charming smile, receiving only a deeper glower from her in return.
Nodding my understanding, I headed back inside to grab my things.
“You sure you don’t want to stay here?” offered Carly under her breath, as if fearing that Val and Blaine could hear through the walls. “I mean, no one apart from my parents and the four of us has an invitation to get inside, so you’ll be safe.” I knew what she really meant. You’ll be safe from him.  
Yeah, my warm welcoming with Blaine definitely hadn’t won me any brownie points in the whole I’m-not-brainwashed debate. With the pitying look Carly gave me, you’d think I was one of those poor emaciated puppies you saw abandoned on the side of the road in those animal rescue relief commercials.
I pulled her into a hug. “Thanks. I just might take you up on the offer.”
The thought rang through my head, clearer and louder than if I’d said the words aloud, leaving me frozen in Carly’s embrace.
Reese seemed to notice my sallow expression, because he followed me back out on the front porch, his arms enveloping around me as his mouth dropped beside my ear. “I love you.” Hands took hold of my face, inclining my head as soft lips skimmed along my jaw, eventually meeting my mouth. The kiss was gentle, but the brush of his tongue against my lips promised much, much more. Even his very touch had dizzying sparks of electricity pressing against my skin everywhere he held me.
Before I could open my mouth though, Reese’s hand dropped to my left ring finger, running over the tattooed band situated at the base of it.
“We’ll find a way out of this,” he whispered. “I promise.”
It wasn’t just a thought this time. It was panic that seized every ounce of my body at the contact, screaming out at me to break the connection as my eyes fell to Reese’s neck. From the very moment I saw him back in the house, it hadn’t escaped my attention that the collar to his jacket had been purposely hiked up, concealing all traces of the hex now tattooed to the side of his neck. Only, as he leaned in closer, the fabric drew down, just enough to reveal the very top of that hideous brand.
“Gotta get rollin’, Doll Face,” Val announced, appearing directly behind Reese. He already had his arm offered out to me before I even pulled myself out of Reese’s hold. Val apparently wasn’t in the mood to wait, because he stepped between us and hooked his bent arm with mine to pull me away—and not tentatively either. I damn near lost my footing as he directed us down the porch steps to the driveway.
“You’re welcome,” Val whispered, doing nothing to hide the Cheshire smile playing at his lips.
“For what? Being rude?” I finally managed to weasel my arm out of his hold, allowing me to give him a solid shove.
“For rescuing you. Hate to break it to you, Doll Face, but your poker face sucks.”
“Excuse me?”
His only answer was a chuckle, accompanied by a punch-inducing smirk. “You better get that thing back to the manor in one piece, or it’ll be my ass,” was all he said, gesturing to the Mercedes as I rounded the front of the car to the driver’s seat.
“Don’t give me any ideas,” I muttered.


Apparently, when an upper-level demon came to visit, even physical exhaustion could be overridden by nerves, because my toes kept tapping on the hardwood as I continued peering out the front window from the family room. All the maple trees were now wholly barren of leaves, covered only by the light dusting of snow that had fallen late last night. Thankfully, evergreens still bordered the outskirts of the entire property, guaranteeing Haven Crest Manor total privacy. In truth, I wasn’t sure how close our nearest neighbors were. I couldn’t see any rooftops, even from the windows on the top floor of the estate. All that could be seen now was the untouched blanket of powdery white draped across the lawn. Though, the driveway had been cleared when I left this morning. Something told me it had to be magic, seeing as how I couldn’t exactly envision Val shoveling the whole thing. The driveway was more like a one-way street, running so long that the path disappeared from sight as it wound down between the trees to the front gates that weren’t even visible from here.
“Why do you look like you’ve got ants in your pants?”
I startled at the voice, finding Val standing behind me. “Will you stop that? You’re gonna give me a heart attack!” I shoved my hands against his chest, but he didn’t budge. Seriously, the guy was like a freaking ninja, and he thoroughly enjoyed sneaking up on me.
He laughed. “Awww, but I love to hear you scream.”
I elbowed him, but couldn’t contain a sliver of a smile. “Pervert.”
“Seriously, what’s with you?”
“Apart from your boss showing up here? Gee, not much,” I said flatly. None of my interactions with the demon in question were incidents I wished to live again, and I had enough on my plate as it was. It couldn’t be a mere coincidence that he’d show up today of all days. This little drop-in was the last thing I wanted to contend with, and I could only pray that Raelynd would play nice.
“Don’t you worry yourself, Doll Face,” Val assured, giving me a playful nudge with his elbow. “With the exception of my brother and me, Rae’s the last person on the planet who would wish you harm.”
Sadly, that wasn’t my concern. I knew all too well Raelynd wouldn’t lay a finger on me.
God, when had demons become my allies?
Val whistled a show tune I couldn’t quite place, continuing to eye me with a surreptitious grin as he poured himself a drink with the Scotch sitting on the nearby liquor shelf.
“What?” I finally muttered.
“Just curious is all,” he mused in a sing-songy fashion.
“Where you ran off to last night.”
I wasn’t sure if I should have been more angry or horrified. How the hell could Val know that? He’d left the manor over an hour before I had!
Without so much as a glance back at me, Val lobbed his cell my way. Sure enough, there was a video on display, the camera angle positioned high enough that it looked to be sitting up in the top corner of the manor’s garage. It was surveillance footage! And sure enough, it showed a leather-clad version of me settling in behind the wheel of Val’s spare car before driving off into the night.
“Enjoy the Lexus?” he drawled.
I had, but… “Are there cameras all over the house?”
Val noted my obvious disgust and laughed. “Relax, Doll Face. No one’s spying on you in the shower. They’re only positioned at the exits and outside around the property. But back to my original inquiry, where did you run off to?”
“I…forget.” I said it almost like a question, the whimsy in my voice having no effect on the Mage.
“You do know there’s a tracking device on the car, right? All I would have to do is call up my tech guy and have him run a trace on its whereabouts last night,” he drawled. “But I thought perhaps we could skip over the dramatics.”
With how rotten my luck was, Val’s tech guy would probably call him back with the results after Blaine came back downstairs from the shower. And that would definitely be a no-no. Last thing I needed was two irate brothers in front of me, ready to kick my ass. Perhaps if I wore down Val now…
“It’s not a big deal—”
He huffed. “Doll Face?”
I deflated, letting my words drone into an indistinguishable chorus of mumbles.
“Sorry, could you reiterate that?” Val demanded. “I’m pretty sure what you’re saying bears repeating, and this time can you speak up? My hearing’s just fine, but I’m not a dolphin.”
I coughed for theatrics, as if my vocals were beginning to fail me, but his unamused glare forced the words back out of me. “Fine, I may or may not have gone down to The Office.”
To my amazement, Val simply shrugged as he set the Scotch back on its designated shelf. Clearly, it had taken a moment for the words to truly register, because he suddenly whirled around, the glass of liquor nearly slipping from his hands. “I’m sorry? The Office?
“Please tell me you’re referring to a boring place filled with cubicles, and not a certain Reaper-owned bar,” he begged, dumbfounded.
“I plead the Fifth,” I said sweetly, giving him the widest (and most uneasy) smile I could muster.
“Kat!” The puzzle pieces in his mind seemed to be shifting into place, because his eyes bulged as he stared back at me like I was Anthony Perkins wielding a steak knife and I’d just ripped the shower curtain open. Val looked back to the muted television, where sure enough, news coverage for the massacre was displayed in big bold letters. “You didn’t…?”
“Doll Face?” He said it so tentatively. “What. The. Hell. Did. You. Do?”
I actually punched him in the chest. “Are you kidding me? I didn’t do anything. I just went down there to…talk.” Mostly.
“To talk?” Val’s shock gave way to suspicion. “And pray tell, what did you discuss with all your little Reaper buddies? The weather? The Patriots? How good blood would look sprayed all over the walls?”
Yeah, with the floorboards creaking from somewhere upstairs, this was definitely not the time and place for that conversation.
“How could you be so stupid to go there alone?” he snapped, trying and failing to keep his voice down.
“I didn’t!” Without meaning to, I looked out the front window.
That little nugget was something I had hoped to keep to myself. 
Val quite literally staggered back, open-mouthed and gaping. “Noooo…”
I. Wanted. To. Die.
“Raelynd?” He may as well have been holding a freaking megaphone, because the name practically echoed across the house.
“Will you shut up?” I sneered.
“Raelynd?” Val repeated, this time thankfully in a whisper. If anything, he appeared…wounded. “Why didn’t you tell me? You know I would’ve gone with you.”
“Yeah, because that would have gone well.” I rolled my eyes.
“What? In comparison to the delightful evening that followed?” he mocked.
Good point.
If anything, Val would’ve only lowered the number of bodies available for the later bloodbath.
“Well, unlike some people,” I countered, jabbing my pointer finger into his chest, “your boss can keep a secret. And thank you, by the way, for telling your brother about my vision concerning Reese. You know, considering that I expressly asked you not to.”
Damn it.
No, scratch that.
Damn him.
As angry as I was with this jackass, it took everything in me not to crack a smile as Val shot me a pair of batting eyes, along with a cartoonish pout.
“What else was I going to do?” he asked, oh-so-sweetly. “My brother was miserable being in the hospital. I just wanted to cheer him up.”
I damn near choked on my own snort.
I knew the wiring in Val’s brain was different, to say the least, seeing as how he used an old demonic trick to shut off most of his emotions, but this one took the cake. “You thought it would make Blaine feel better by telling him that he was going to be brutally murdered? Wow, what was your backup idea? Smother him with a pillow?”
Val laughed. “Say what you want about my methods, but it has merit.”
“I mean, premonitions aren’t always correct. If anything, they serve as a forewarning,” he clarified. “So long as you pay heed to them and avoid what triggers that specific outcome, the vision won’t come to pass. And my brother already knows this. So, with Blackburn now out of the picture, you two can…you know—”
Out of the picture?
“Reese isn’t out of any picture,” I snapped.
Sure.” Just the way he enunciated the word made me want to slap him—slap him and that shit-eating grin off his face. That smugness didn’t lessen any, accompanied by an infuriating sweetness that lilted his voice. “Not sure if Blackburn noticed back there, but your reaction to him before we left was far less come-hither and a whole lot more hightail-it. He’s so far out of the picture, you don’t even realize you’re staring at the wrong image.”
“My reaction had nothing to do with him.” It took everything in me not to seethe.
“My dear, sweet, beautiful Doll Face.” Val brushed his fingers beneath my chin. I swiftly slapped them away. “Are you really so stubborn that you can’t face facts?”
“I know you have a hard time comprehending emotions there, Pinocchio, but why on earth would you think I’d break up with Reese—especially after you witnessed us kissing back there?”
There was a noticeable shift in his demeanor, in his tone, his entire body even. Val had been talking to me as if I’d been a petulant child he was merely humoring, like my stubbornness served no other purpose than to annoy him. But the way his back stiffened, the way his throat bobbed, it told me he was finally listening to what I was saying.
“H-Have you talked to my brother? Has he said anything to you?”
Did his voice just crack?
“Other than what you saw at the beach house? No, that’s the first time we’ve spoken,” I said, my anger petering out at the sight of him.
Something resembling…I wasn’t sure; frustration? Resentment, perhaps? Whatever it was, it slammed down on the Mage’s face, making his typically devil-may-care features suddenly appear harsh.
“Not even through the bond?”
I shook my head.
Val ran a hand over his face, pulling in his lips as if trying to rein in his own anger. He charged over to the other side of the room, cursing as his fists continued to clench and unclench. The Dark Mage muttered something under his breath that sounded an awful lot like, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“What?” I demanded.
If I thought his brooding had been unsettling, it paled in comparison to the smile he sent my way.
Though, calling it a ‘smile’ would be polite. It looked more like he’d slipped on a Halloween mask, the expression exaggerated with flashing teeth and heated eyes. The sight sent me recoiling until I inadvertently plopped a seat on the sofa as he came back towards me.
“Do you have any idea what happened that night, out on that field?” he gritted out through clenched teeth, still attempting to keep his so-called ‘smile’ intact.
That night?
Now it was my turn to glower at him. “As if I could forget.”
“Well, then, explain to me. What exactly happened?”
The balls on this man! “Don’t you dare patronize me,” I growled.
To my surprise, there wasn’t a hint of condescension when he said, “I’m not.” If anything, he looked expectant, like the answer was dangling right in front of my face, if only I’d grab it. When I came up empty for a reply, having no idea what he was getting at, Val just shook his head. Frustrated, he turned his back to me, muttering something under his breath in Latin.
Curiosity had me itching to press him further on the matter, but I thought better of it. I was tired, my head throbbed, and the last thing I was in the mood for was a verbal sparring match, especially as I heard footsteps heading down the secondary staircase in the back of the manor. Whatever Val wasn’t saying wasn’t my concern at the moment, not when I heard the back door open and close a moment later.
I abandoned my frustration on behalf of my ratcheting nerves, opting to head outside as well. It was where I’d have to go to meet with Raelynd anyway, since the demon didn’t have an invitation inside the manor. I made my way out onto the expansive back porch, marveling at the scenery. Haven Crest Manor didn’t have any property behind the house. The Victorian abode sat right on the edge of a small cliff, giving the porch a wholly unobstructed view of the ocean.
I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get past the strangeness of it all. Despite the back patio being completely open to the elements, it was still noticeably warmer than the weather reports were suggesting. Last I checked, it was nineteen degrees below zero, but it felt more like a typical autumn day. No doubt magic. Hell, standing outside Carly’s beach house for those few short minutes had practically left icicles forming at the ends of my hair. Yet, I breathed in the fresh salty air without objection as I comfortably nuzzled into my coat.
Outstretched in front of me lay a dismal overcast, its low-resting fog making the Atlantic tides meld into the indistinguishable dark gray sky as lightning sparked in the distance over the water. The storm system had rolled in several days ago, but for some reason, it never made its way to land, opting to stalk the waters just off the coastline. I’d never seen anything quite like it before, but nothing should have surprised me at this point. The melodic combination of waves crashing and thunder rumbling brought an odd sort of comfort, but any relief I had vanished the moment I saw him.
Blaine stood at the porch railings, his back facing me as he observed the dismal gray horizon. Every inch of his six-foot frame was donned in dark layers, from a casual dress shirt, leather jacket, and faded black jeans that all flattered his lean, yet muscular build to perfection. Blaine’s wardrobe was exactly the same—with one exception. I’d never seen him wear a scarf, ever, yet there was one conspicuously wrapped around his neck, conveniently covering up anything of interest.
The article looked so unnatural on him, I wanted to grab the ends and pry it off.
“You’re staring,” he murmured, not even bothering to look over his shoulder at me.
I didn’t ask how he knew.
Because he was right. I was.
The doctors had predicted Blaine would be placed in a medically-induced coma for at least a week to properly heal, and he most likely wouldn’t be leaving the hospital for over a month. Yet, to their amazement and utter disbelief, Blaine had just walked out of there—fully healed—a mere six days later. In spite of the short recovery time, however, the changes in him were still noticeable, if you looked closely enough. It wasn’t just the facial hair or the black roots clearly visible atop his head. Blaine’s cheekbones appeared slightly sharper, more hollow. And his posture, normally so graceful and almost feline in its elegance, was now unbearably stiff, the muscles in his back visibly straining with every movement.
And I couldn’t ignore a particular detail as he turned to face me. Any other time, my cheeks would have heated with embarrassment from having been caught looking down at the front of his pants. But instead, he was the one who shied away, seeing where my eyes had settled. He knew what I was looking at.
An indentation had formed in his leather belt from where the metal normally rested, and that same stretch of fabric was now sitting slightly off to the side, as he had evidently tightened the belt an additional notch just to keep his pants from sliding off his hips. Even then, they still appeared a little loose on him.
“You’ve lost weight.”
Blaine frowned, sliding his hands into his pockets. “As have you.”
Had I?
It wouldn’t have surprised me. I’d spent the past week, with the exception of last night, living out of sweatpants and hoodies, so it was hard to tell. “I haven’t had much of an appetite.”
He nodded, more to himself.
And he couldn’t seem to figure out what to do with his hands. They alternated from his pockets, to running through his hair, to gripping the banister, to drumming his fingers along the railing, only to end up back in his pockets again. The most peculiar combination of cedarwood and lavender wafted the air as well, only further adding to my bewilderment. Was… Was he nervous? 
What happened to the smiling rogue who had shown up at the beach house?
“I’m sorry,” he said at last, his voice unnervingly timid. And I could see the effort it took him to meet my gaze. “Val told me about Reese, about what…happened to him. I never meant—” His voice trailed off, as well as his gaze, drifting to the floorboards beneath us. “I’m sorry.”
It wasn’t just a polite offer of condolence.
“Why are you apologizing?”
Surprise flickered in those silver-blue eyes, but it only seemed to bring more tension into his shoulders as he met my gaze again.
“Did… Did you think I was angry with you?” I asked.
 Blaine didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. Not when that very same trepidation was scrawled over every inch of his face.
Blaine’s hand trailed over the front of his neck, almost absentmindedly. “If I recall correctly, you once promised to kill me if something ever happened to Reese.”
He may as well have slapped me.
Seeing the unsteady pattern of his chest rising and falling…
The very sight made my stomach tighten, made that same ache from earlier return, twisting and breaking something deep within me.
He wasn’t wrong. I remembered that day in the library all too well.
It hadn’t been an empty threat. I nearly choked Blaine to death, hissing in his ear of how I’d take pleasure in ending his life.
“I was angry. I didn’t mean—”
His smile was a strange, unhappy gesture. “Yes, you did, and you had every reason. If it wasn’t for me, Reynolds’s men never would have gone after Reese that night. He never would have gotten involved in any of this.”       
Despite the ache it left seeing Blaine blame himself for this, a weight seemed to lift off my chest at the realization. “Is that why you never reached out to me through the bond? Because you thought I was mad at you?”
He gave me a knowing look. “My Wrath rune has been vibrating non-stop for days, from you igniting it on your end. Given our history, it’s rather hard to imagine that anger not directed towards me. And it’s not like this is a one-way connection, love.” He actually chuckled softly, gesturing between us. “You could have gotten the ball rolling too, you know.”
“I didn’t know what to say,” I admitted. ‘Sorry my ex-boyfriend’s father slit your throat,’ didn’t sound like the right place to start. And when Blaine hadn’t taken the initiative to talk… I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe he regretted his own decision. After all, lying in a hospital bed, clinging to life, it tended to put things into perspective. Any logical human being would have asked himself, was she really worth it?
“Always.” The single word whispered through my mind, in his voice, and before I could meet his gaze, any distance between Blaine and me was obliterated.
It took everything in me not to cower back, startled at the omission. My emotions were all over the place, apparently giving Blaine the “go” to hear every last word in my head. I still didn’t know exactly how this mental connection between us worked, and I suddenly felt at a distinct disadvantage, especially with him so close.
He whispered the word again, this time out loud, his arms wrapping around me.
Six letters.
Six simple letters was all it took to break me.
Steadied in his embrace, I finally acknowledged the tremor coursing throughout my entire body, felt the tips of my fingers curling into his back, reaffirming my hold on him as silent, hot tears trailed down my cheeks.
My exhale was shaky at best, feeling him gently run a hand up and down the length of my back as the other cradled me against his form. Only when I found my face buried in the safety of his chest did the most pitiful sob finally escape me.
Blaine had been willing to sacrifice his own life to save me, without even knowing if I cared about him. As for me, I’d spent the past six days going over every horrible, rotten thing I had ever said to him.
I had been cruel.
I’d accused him of murdering me when he’d actually saved my life.
I had told him that he didn’t give a shit about me, even after he’d allowed himself to be tortured by Mr. Reynolds just to protect me.
I’d claimed that he had readily abandoned me after I’d been turned into a Changeling, when it had eaten him up inside to leave me lost and alone.
I’d told him that he was nothing more than a pretty face with a black heart…that no one could ever love him.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I wanted to say the words aloud, but the effort came out as nothing more than another breathless cry.
His own breathing stifled, and to my horror, Blaine’s arms fell away. “Hey.”
His hands captured my face, cupping my jaw as his thumbs wiped the tears from my cheeks. Surely he must have been trying to make me sob harder. It was the only logical reason for the expression on his face, because of all things he looked so unbelievingly taken aback.
He honestly thought I’d been angry with him.
I opened my mouth, but a familiar, invisible caress brushed along the inside of my mind, the sensation as tangible as his own hand. “Please don’t do that, love,” he whispered. “Please don’t say that. Please don’t cry.”
Blaine pressed a single soft kiss to my forehead, and God save me, the warmth of his breath soothed my skin as he wrapped his arms around me again.
“Are you going to tell me about what happened earlier?” he asked. “At the beach house?”
A dull ache returned to my chest at the mere mention, along with the disturbing image of that woman from my vision. I shuddered, and the gesture only earned me more concern as Blaine pulled back to look at me, his eyebrows furrowing.
I knew immediately where his thoughts had wandered.
“Reese didn’t do anything,” I had to reassure. “I passed out and wound up…levitating.”
Considering everyone’s reaction when it happened, I expected Blaine to blanch or shrink back at the mention as well, but he only appeared more curious as he murmured, “An omen premonition?”
Was that what you called it? I only ever experienced it once before, back in October. I’d passed out after coming home from school, only to have some strange kind of dream where I was trapped in an underground hole. It was only later that I realized it had been the exact pit Mr. Reynolds had intended to dump my body down after his hired hand planned to kill me. When I woke up from the vision, I’d been levitating above my bed.
Blaine took hold of my gloved hands, and I instantly sucked in a breath, unable to mask the pain shooting across my marred knuckles. Before I could pull my hand away, Blaine’s hold slid up to my wrist as his features darkened.
“What happened?” he demanded.
“I just had a little mishap in the training room earlier. It’s nothing.”
“Let me be the judge of that.” He tugged on the fabric of each fingertip, drawing the material down just enough to ensure the gloves could in fact be pulled off. Blaine peered down at me.
Was that mischief I detected?
Whatever it was, it danced in that silvery gaze as he lifted the leather-clad hand to his mouth.
Cupping my wrist with both hands, he placed the tip of the glove’s ring finger between his teeth, slowly easing the material off, his gaze never leaving mine. With that dark, inviting smile playing at his lips as the glove fell away, you would have thought he’d removed every stitch of clothing from my body. 
“Would you like me to?” he purred.
I’d become accustomed to his dalliances these past few weeks, and Heaven help me, the man was a shameless flirt. I waited for my annoyance to flare up, as it always did. Only…
It never came.
Facing down such unspeakable horrors as he had, the very idea that Blaine could find any reason to even get out of bed was a testament unto itself. And yet, he did one better. That spark of playfulness, of genuine delight in his eyes, it was so devastatingly sincere.
“I’ll only use my teeth, if you’d like to make it more interesting,” he further teased.
A notable rasp lilted his voice, the throaty hum as rich and inviting as caramel. Even I had to admit, it sounded sensuous.
That sly smile tugging at Blaine’s mouth immediately turned into a wicked grin, confirming that he could still very much hear my thoughts. “Thank you.”
Oh. Dear. God.
Blaine’s gaze at last dropped to my injured hand, and any amusement he had vanished as his thumb traced around the edge of the gash. “When did this happen?”
“Earlier,” I repeated lamely, trying to pull back my hand.
His grip tightened. “Love?”
“A little after seven o’clock.” The words came out as nothing more than a mumble as my gaze fell downward.
It was already half past noon. For our kind, five hours should have been more than enough time to heal a wound, especially one as simple as this. Yet, the cut marring my hand looked just as vicious and fresh as when I’d gotten it. And we both knew why.
“How much sleep have you been getting?”
When I didn’t answer, Blaine released my wrist, only to cradle his hands around my neck. Thumbs grazed beneath my jaw, lifting my chin so I’d meet his eyes.
“You can’t regain your energy if you’re not eating or sleeping, love. Until you do, you’ll be running on fumes.”
I opened my mouth, the automatic response already loaded on my lips. I’m fine—
But the words never came.
The moment I lifted my gaze to meet his face, his mouth crashed into mine.
“What are you doing?” That should have been what I said, but every last letter flitted away like a dried dandelion head caught in the breeze. All that remained was my pitiful, traitorous lips as they molded to his.
The very scent of him seemed to set fire to every cell inside my body in the warmest, most delicious way possible, invading my senses. And that stupid invisible tether inside my chest continued drawing me closer to him. He smelled as fresh as the coast and tasted sweeter than sugar itself. Heat overran my body, easing every ache with a wave of euphoria that left my senses buzzing. I immediately recognized the sensation, snapping me out of it.
My hands slammed against Blaine’s chest, at last breaking the connection. The only way Dark Mages could exchange energy with other demonic beings was either done through a bite or a kiss. “Are you crazy?”
“Debatable.” He reached for me again, that incessant smile never faltering.
I stepped back, ensuring he couldn’t take claim of my waist. “That’s not funny! You can’t risk doing that. You can’t give me any of your energy! Not while you’re still recovering.”
“Is that your only objection? Your fear of hurting me?” Before I could step back out of his hold again, Blaine had me in his arms. Literally. One second, I was standing on the porch; the next, my legs were wrapped around Blaine’s waist as his hands cupped the base of my thighs. “Because I can guarantee what I have in mind will be quite pleasurable for everyone involved.”
Even then, I wanted to laugh. “You’re an ass.”
This close to him, it wasn’t like I could really push or punch him with any force, so I fisted the back of his hair and gave a yank.
“You like it rough, I see.” He only reeled me in closer, his endearing smile mere inches from mine. Because I was smiling. “Admit it, you missed me.”
“As badly as a Stormtrooper’s aim,” I mocked. My hand still rested in his hair, the bleached locks still slightly damp from his shower.
Something in his smile changed, no longer teasing. It was softer, more earnest. “Feel any better?”
If I was being honest, my headache had already lessened, along with the pain pressing against the backs of my eyes. That surge of energy Blaine had gifted me with was so brief, and yet I could feel its effects tingling all the way down into my toes.
I almost screamed, hearing the sharp clang to what sounded like an old rotary telephone bellow out behind me.
“Oh, by all means, don’t let me interrupt,” Val chuckled, leaning against the opened doorway. He plucked out the cell buried in his pocket. With the rising levels of static accompanying the call, he couldn’t seem to hear much of the conversation, because he paced up and down the entire length of the back porch, moving every which way to get a clearer signal. He returned a moment later. “Looks like you two lovebirds are on deck. Raelynd will be here in a few.”
And with that, I slid out of Blaine’s hold, receiving yet another curious scowl from Val before he disappeared back inside.
Noting the unoccupied lounge chair, Blaine settled into the seat, resting his exhausted frame against the backrest. He patted it, inviting me to join him. With his knees bent, there was enough room for me to take a seat of my own at the bottom end, but just as I started to lower myself, hands captured my waist. Before I could protest, Blaine spread his legs and pulled me down, seating me between his thighs as he hauled me right up against him. Those very same hands only snaked around me further, enveloping my tiny frame in his arms as I rested my back against the taut muscles of his chest and torso.
Well, this was definitely…something.
A soft kiss pressed against my temple, and it was like every restless tendril of magic in my body soothed at the contact. He seemed to sense it too, because his breath warmed my ear as he chuckled softly, securing his embrace. The energy within me outright purred, and I found myself only nuzzling closer, like a cat claiming its owner.
The thought should have terrified me, given the hex on my arm, but I was too exhausted to care. Whatever magic Blaine was using to calm me down had my body damn near euphoric as every inch of me melted contentedly into him.
His rune-covered hand rested on my stomach, and instinct had me stroking idle lines along the inked patterns. That familiar magnetic pulse softly rippled from his skin, coursing into the tips of my fingers. I angled my head just so, practically burying it in the crook of his neck.
“Greedy, are we?” his voice purred lowly in my mind. Blaine captured my hand, bringing it to his mouth. Soft kisses pressed against each of my fingertips, only soothing me further.
“Hmmm?” The sound came out as more of a sigh than anything else. I lazily stretched, drawing my eyes shut.
He merely laughed.
“Well now, if this isn’t a picture perfect image.”
Blaine and I both startled at the sound of the unwelcomed guest.
The evident delight in this particular voice suggested it should have been Val, but the accent was unmistakable. The realization had my eyes flying open.
I’d become more than accustomed to Raelynd as of late, but it did little to ease my nerves. If anything, it made it worse. The demon’s mere presence set my spine stiff.
“Our darling Katrina here certainly has made herself at home, I see.” As always, the Englishman was dressed to the nines in a dark three-piece suit that I suspected to be Dolce. And that familiar smirk greeted me as I peered up at him, trying to muzzle a yawn. “Glad to know the Princess is acclimating so well.”
No doubt a taunt. Raelynd knew damn well when we first met that I hated being turned into one of them, that I hated the very thought of being their “Princess.”
If anything, I blanched at the name.
It was what Reese always called me, originally meant as a cute reference to Princess Leia from Star Wars. Hearing the moniker coming out of someone else’s mouth just felt…weird.
The hostile glare the demon received from my end only made his shit-eating grin stretch.
Blaine didn’t seem to notice the exchange, because his demeanor and breathing remained even as his chest rose and fell against my back. “Dare I ask why you drove all the way up here? A phone call would have sufficed.”
“Just thought I’d swing by and see how the happy couple was doing,” the demon drawled, pulling up a chair beside us before lighting the cigarette already primed in his hand. “And I thought perhaps you could lend your services.”
This seemed to earn Blaine’s attention. “With what?”
“I take it you’ve heard about the massacre over at that tacky Reaper bar?”
We both nodded.
“I reached out to my contacts at the police department, and they came across some pretty interesting finds.” Raelynd pulled out his cell, seeming to search for said information. “The only shell casings recovered at the crime scene came from the victims’ own firearms, and none of them suffered gunshot wounds. So imagine my surprise when I saw these.” He turned the phone around, allowing Blaine and me to see the screen.
I dared nothing more than a brief glance, noting the copious amounts of blood saturating the images.
“Stranger yet, the assailant was never apprehended, and there’s no evidence suggesting this individual was even hurt.”
How was that possible? Ten people had been killed, and even more were injured, all of which were skilled marksmen. Yet, somebody got the drop on them without ever firing a single gunshot or getting hit?
Blaine expressed as much, not finding any relief in Raelynd’s silence. “Do they at least know what weapon the attacker used?”
“None of the survivors are talking, but most of the wounds indicate a blade of some sort.”
“A few of the killings would suggest a… manual method.”
“Manual?” I damn-near choked on the lump in my throat. “As in with-nothing-but-your-bare-hands?”
Raelynd nodded as he flipped through more of the images on his phone, seeming to admire the evident bloodbath. “One of the men died from pure blunt force trauma to the chest. Another had his jugular ripped clean out of his neck. But I must say, this one is my favorite.” He pulled up the next image, displaying it all too proudly as bile instantly seared the inside of my esophagus at the very sight.
It was like looking at a car crash. As much as I wanted to look away, I couldn’t.
There was no way in hell that could have been done by hand!
Blaine took the phone from his boss to study the image closer, and he only grew paler. “I’m one of the strongest of my kind, and even I couldn’t do something like this.”
“Hence my concern,” confirmed the demon, taking a long drag from the cigarette in his hand. “As much as I appreciate a third party taking out my competition, we have no way of knowing who or what this individual is after. And when said individual is going around decapitating people with nothing but his or her hands, I can’t say I’m going to sleep easy when they could be showing up at any one of our front doors.”
“You sure this wasn’t another demon or a Hellhound?” I suggested. “I mean, plenty of Underworlders have the motive to go after Nathan Reynolds, and something this sadistic is hardly outside their wheelhouse—”
Raelynd shook his head. “All of my men can confirm their whereabouts for last night. And I’ll be the first to admit, I presumed our dear Val had gone all ‘Lone Ranger’ and taken care of Reynolds’s crew himself. But alas, he was visiting the Marquis’s estate at the time.”
The Marquis?
The question was apparently etched on my face, because the demon smiled. Not a smirk. A genuine smile. “Your mate hasn’t introduced the two of you yet?” A soft laugh. “You’ll meet him, in good time.”
Blaine cleared his throat, clearly not liking the change in subject. “How can we help?”
“As Astaroth’s heir, you share his gifts of foresight and intuition,” clarified Raelynd. “I was hoping perhaps you’ve seen or sensed something my clairvoyants have missed.”
“What have they seen?” asked Blaine.
“Nothing so far. And time is of the essence, so I need to know, have either of you had any visions or noticed something odd?”
My stomach hollowed out as an all too familiar ache returned to my chest, along with the same disturbing image that sent me hurtling out of bed every night.
And the Sanctus blade sinking into my heart.
The energy in me clawed against my skin, a silent demand to say something, but there was no way I could tell Raelynd about my reoccurring nightmare. He needed both Blaine and me alive for whatever role we played in his grand scheme. And seeing as how Raelynd was comfortable with offing Reese for simply being competition against Blaine in my love life, I had no doubt he’d track down Reese and kill him on the spot if he knew about the threat his hex now posed.
So against all better judgment, I kept my mouth shut.
But as Blaine shook his head, the energy in me all-out thrashed under my skin so hard that I nearly yelped.
The message was clear: Say something, now!
“I…have!” The words came out in both a choke and a shriek.
Too late to take it back now. Not when Raelynd immediately perked up at the mention.
But before panic could seize me, that same icy voice rang through my mind. “Run, run, run, you lovely little beast.”
I’d been so caught up with my visions about Reese, I’d forgotten about what happened earlier. “I saw a woman.”
Raelynd didn’t seem particularly impressed with the revelation, forcing me to further clarify. I tried to remember everything she’d said, though the lines of her sadistic little rhyme kept escaping me. But this didn’t appear to bother Raelynd all that much, not when I told him about what she had done to the glass door, frosting it over with her mere touch.
The detail struck me as the least important thing about what I’d seen, but for one reason or another, it seemed to transfix the demon.
“What’s the temperature right now?” he asked.
“Negative twenty,” I said, consulting my phone.
It had fallen another ten degrees since yesterday morning, and it still hadn’t improved any, even with the patches of sunshine that occasionally broke through the overcast. At this rate, Mystic Harbor was going to share the surface temperature of Pluto come Christmas.
“And when did this cold front move in?” Raelynd further prodded.
I’d first noticed the drop in temperature the day after Blaine was hospitalized, but hadn’t really thought anything of it. I said as much, only further adding to Raelynd’s interest.
He pulled out his phone, and after a few minutes, he rose from his chair. “Follow.”
I twisted in my seat, finding Blaine looking just as confused. Nevertheless, we did as he said, trailing behind the demon as he made his way off the back patio to the side of the manor. We took the cobblestone pathway, eventually making it to the courtyard out front.
The instant Raelynd appeared, the men stationed inside the five parked SUVs immediately climbed out, standing at full attention, looking suspiciously like military personnel. Raelynd climbed into the passenger seat of the middle vehicle and nodded to the back door where we were ushered inside.
“Don’t worry yourself, darling,” Raelynd assured, noting my evident hesitation. “The tint in the back windows makes it impossible for anyone to see inside. No one will ever know you were in here.”
Yeah…coming from an upper-level demon inside a vehicle full of armed escorts, a statement like that could easily go either way.
But Blaine extended his hand to help me inside.
As promised, the windows in the backseat were so heavily tinted that it was nearly impossible to even see outside with the current overcast.
I slid to the other side of the vehicle, allowing Blaine to climb in after me.
“Where to, Boss?” asked the burly man behind the wheel, shifting the car into DRIVE.
“Out of town,” was all Raelynd said. No directions, no destination, no explanations.
My stomach lurched as the vehicle swung out of the courtyard, and the sensation didn’t lessen any as we barreled down the driveway to the front gate.

Shatter Me

Without the manor’s protective barrier shielding us, the horrific cold overpowered even the car’s heating system as we headed through town. The driver had the vents turned on as high as they could go, but it didn’t seem to be doing much good. I was pretty sure the only semblance of warmth I was retaining came from the mating bond. That heat rooted in my chest seemed to intensify the closer I got to Blaine, and with my teeth trembling like one of those stupid wind-up chattering toys, it took everything in me not to slide over and hug the hell out of him.
I continued peeking around the headrest in front of me, trying to discern where we might be going. A sign reading, “Now Leaving Mystic Harbor” whizzed past the front window, but even then, Raelynd didn’t elaborate any further, only continuing in idle conversation as he kept stealing glances at the dashboard. It wasn’t until we drove through the entire neighboring town that Blaine dared to ask where exactly we were heading.
“To test out a theory,” his boss mused, finally directing the driver to take a backstreet. When we passed another sign declaring we were entering the next county over, he at last instructed we stop.
I had to strain my eyes just to make out vague shapes through the window beside me. And for the life of me, all I could distinguish through the tint was the outline of trees.
“Back up,” Raelynd ordered, his gaze now fixed on the dashboard. “Slowly.”
The driver did as instructed, putting the vehicle into reverse. We rolled backwards a good hundred feet, once again passing the county border sign, before Raelynd demanded we stop. He climbed out of the car and continued pacing along the roadside, his expression caught between confusion and fascination.
To my absolute horror, Raelynd waved us over, ordering that Blaine and I both get out of the car.
I was already shivering so hard, my entire body ached. But it didn’t seem I had a choice.
Keeping my nose buried down in the collar of my jacket, I joined Blaine outside, albeit begrudgingly. The guttural cold sliced into me all the way to my very bones. And just as I thought, there wasn’t anything of interest as far as I could see. No houses, no people, no shops. Just lots and lots of trees.
Perfect. I was going to lose my fingers and toes to frostbite, and for what? Observing some elms?
“Walk thirty paces that way,” Raelynd said upon returning to the front of the vehicle, gesturing over his shoulder towards the road.
Again, Blaine didn’t dare argue, hooking an arm around my waist as he guided me forward.
“What is this about?” I whispered softly, hoping Blaine could hear me over the howling winds biting my face and hands. Every inch of exposed skin burned against the cold, forcing me to hunker further down in my coat, desperate to preserve any warmth I’d gathered.
“Hell if I know.”
I still wanted to know how he did that. Blaine could freely speak to my thoughts, while I didn’t seem to have any control over what he could—and more importantly—couldn’t hear. It was an unfair advantage that needed to be remedied.
“Awww, but I like knowing more than what you tell me,” that same silky voice purred through my mind.
I rewarded the response with a solid shove.
He merely laughed, barely budging an inch, even against the slick pavement. “I don’t need to hear your thoughts, love, to know what’s going on in that beautiful mind. Your body says it all.”
“Yeah, right.” I rolled my eyes, and it apparently only egged him on, because he was at my side one second only to end up in front of me the next, his face mere inches from mine even as he continued to walk backwards as to keep pace with me.
“You tend to play with your hair when you’re nervous,” he said, gesturing to the very hand caught midway through a front strand.
I immediately pinned my arms to my side, and I only wanted to kick myself as he laughed.
“Do I make you nervous?”
“No,” I scowled, “but your boss certainly does. What are we doing out here?”
The moment the words left my mouth, we both froze.
What the hell?
In an instant, the howling winds had vanished. And not only that, but it felt infinitely warmer as well.
Blaine and I turned, noting we’d just walked past the county division sign. He stepped around me, heading back the way we came. Not three steps did the wind hit him again, whipping his hair and clothes about in its relentless battering. Only, the air remained perfectly still where I stood.
I stepped towards him, my hand outstretched. That deathly chill sent me recoiling as it brushed only the tips of my fingers.
It was…an invisible barrier.
Blaine returned to my side, keeping his own arm out over the threshold. Nothing seemed to prevent someone from crossing over the unseen boundary, so…what was this?
“Fascinating, is it not?” Raelynd mused from the passenger seat as the SUV rolled up alongside us. He captured a picture of the dashboard to his phone before swiping back to the previous image. “Take a look at the thermometer readings.”
The first picture read, “-22 °.”
The second: 38 °.” As in positive thirty-eight degrees!
“I have to admit, I originally thought perhaps the pair of you was behind this oddity,” said Raelynd, gesturing to Blaine and me. “But alas, it appears I’m wrong. Whatever’s causing this, it seems to be contained within Fairfax County.”
How the hell could we do this? It was as if the entire region was caught inside an Arctic snow globe, and last I checked, Mages didn’t have control over the weather, let alone be responsible for creating a magical barrier that contained a sixty-degree drop in temperature!
Blaine continued studying the air, presumably for some sign of a ward. I’d seen a few enacted in the past, and if you looked closely enough, you could see a soft ripple distort the air. But there was nothing here.
“Do you think the woman from my vision has something to do with this?” I asked.
That amused fa├žade slipped from Raelynd’s face as he rubbed his temples. “If I’ve learned one thing over the centuries, darling, it’s never to accept anything as coincidence.”

I’d expected after climbing back in the SUV that Blaine and I would be dropped back off at Haven Crest Manor, so it came as one hell of a surprise heading back through Mystic Harbor that we soon found ourselves deep in the West End. It was the one area in town that no respectable member of this uppity community would ever be caught dead venturing into, and that very reason was why residents like Reese gained an unfair reputation. He’d actually taken me through there once when we’d visited his house, and for the most part, it was still a decent place to live. Sure, the houses were older and much, much smaller than the five-thousand-square-foot mansions found in the East End, but it was still a respectable area…except for the one place we appeared to be going.
Lewd graffiti and boarded up windows greeted us as the SUV pulled out onto Nickels Street. My stomach somersaulted at the sight of the foreclosure property coming into view at the upcoming intersection, made all the worse by the vehicle’s constant jostling as the road appeared to have more potholes than it did pavement. The dilapidated house still had its front door ajar, just as we’d left it last week following our meeting with the Sagax. It was where I first experienced my vision of what Reese’s hex would eventually influence him to do. Even being near the property again made my skin crawl.
The worry in Blaine’s voice snapped my attention away from the front window, and my eyes immediately traveled down, finding my fingers coiled so tightly around his hand that my knuckles had turned white. When had I even grabbed it?
“Sorry,” I murmured, releasing my grip.
Before I pulled my hand back into my lap, he recaptured it—albeit not nearly as hard as I had with his, brushing his thumb across the tops of my knuckles. He started to ask something, but was cut off as the vehicle wrenched sideways, sending me sliding across the backseat until I crashed right into him. The scenery from the front window continued to spin, not stopping until the backend of the SUV bucked up as we jumped the curb, skidding to a halt.
“What the bloody hell are you doing?” Raelynd demanded of his driver, but the man didn’t say anything.
He rolled down his window, peering down the street the way we’d come, his face markedly paler.
“What is it?”
The driver shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose as he shut his eyes. “…Nothing. I just thought I saw…” He turned and looked into the backseat—at me.

Ooookay then.
I was freezing my ass off and was trapped in a vehicle with a high-level demon, the Prince of Hell, and a driver-slash-body-guard who kept stealing wary glances back at me in the rearview mirror like I may have murdered his mother...
Yeah. This car ride was going swell.
Ten blocks later, when we pulled into a gravel parking lot, I honestly didn’t care where we were. All I knew was that I wanted OUT.
That sentiment, however, lasted a whole ten seconds when I finally got a look at my surroundings.
A tacky neon sign in big bold letters announced, “JOE’S TAVERN,” next to the outline of a curvaceous naked woman in a particularly provocative pose.
And my day was getting better and better by the minute…
“You always invite me to the fanciest places,” a teasing, feminine voice drawled from behind us.
We all turned to see a leather-clad brunette leaning against a little red Beetle, sucking on a lollipop in one hand while twirling a streak of purple hair with the other.
Raelynd smirked. “What can I say? You get what you’re worth.”
She flipped him off, but did so with a smile, pushing past him to head inside.
“Always lovely seeing you too, Daisy.”
The rest of us followed in suit, congregating in the entrance hall of the dive bar. It took about half a second to discern that Joe’s wasn’t exactly what one might call a “reputable establishment.” It was seedy at best. There was a small stage at the other end of the bar that was currently unoccupied, but it didn’t take much of an imagination to assume who might be utilizing it later, especially with the pole placed in the middle of it. Neon signs provided most of the light in the joint, with the exception of the singular light bulbs hanging directly above each of the pool tables to our left. And I couldn’t help but notice the dried brown stain streaked across the top of the nearest one. It was probably best not to reflect on what it could be.
The purple-streaked brunette strutted across the bar, leaning right over the counter to snatch up a bottle of vodka. I would have called the move ballsy…if not for the fact that no one appeared to be tending bar, or the rest of the joint for that matter.
The only other patron was an old drunkard passed out at the end of the barstools, his head resting on the counter as he snored like a hibernating bear. 
“So, where do you wanna do this?” the girl asked, taking a sickening huge gulp from the bottle in her hands. The very sight made my throat burn.
Raelynd nodded to the tables in back.
I looked to Blaine for some clarity, but he didn’t offer me anything, appearing just as lost as I was.
The girl, Daisy, swung the large tote bag off her shoulder and pulled out several candles, a bottle of frankincense essential oil, a small container of frankincense crystals, some strange powder, and a piece of white chalk. Without hesitation, she began drawing the chalk over a vacant table in smooth, perfect lines until a large hexagram took up the entire surface of the tabletop. Inside it, she sketched out the image of a large eye, and the sight sent a shiver down the length of my back. Seriously, it looked like something belonging to the Illuminati. Hell, for all I knew, maybe it did.
She continued to sprinkle and line the symbol with her collection of crystals and oils and powders, only stopping once she positioned the candles at the four corners of the table. Daisy planted herself down in one of the chairs, taking one last swig of vodka. When she noted my evident look of disgust, she chuckled.
“Liquor helps lubricate the senses.” She gestured for us to join her.
I took the seat beside the girl, with Blaine on my other side as Raelynd sat across from me.
Daisy held out her hands. “Whatever you do, don’t break the connection until I say so. Got it?”
I had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about, but I followed Raelynd’s cue as everybody joined hands. Muttering under her breath, Daisy closed her eyes. The words definitely weren’t English, and I quickly realized the muttering was in fact a chant of some kind. Likely Latin.
Startled, Blaine and I both reeled back as flames suddenly erupted from the unlit candles. Raelynd and Daisy’s grips tightened on our hands, silently demanding our cooperation.
Still unnerved, we kept our hands linked, my fingers coiling around Blaine’s more tightly. He gave it a light squeeze. An unspoken reassurance. Though, his composure was contrived at best. His chest was falling and rising too fast for comfort, especially as his gaze returned to Daisy.
And I understood why.
Her head bobbed up and down, her eyelids fluttering with every movement.
“What do you see?” Raelynd demanded.
Daisy’s voice was nothing more than a whisper. “…ex hic maledictum.”
As if someone had jammed a rod into her back, her spine stiffened as she gasped. I prayed her eyes had rolled into the back of her head, because the only thing to greet us was a wholly white stare as Daisy’s gaze widened.
“Quod Regi adest.” Panic rose inside her, making every syllable a breathy effort. “Et ipse veniam ad vos.”
Raelynd bit back a curse, determined not to pull his hand from Daisy’s, even as her fingernails pressed deep enough into his skin that I could see blood trailing down from where her thumb was positioned. A strangled cough stole her breath, the sound turning into what I could only imagine a death rattle to be.
I tried to keep my concentration on her, but…
The room started to spin.
Or maybe it was me. I couldn’t tell.
Even my surroundings began to dim…
Hoarfrost sliced through me, my clothes suddenly feeling as thin as tissue paper. The air around me rippled, and an unsteadiness sent my body reeling sideways. With one hard blink of the eyes, it was gone—along with the rest of my surroundings.

My heart had already been pounding, but nothing like this. I could hear the throbbing of my pulse in my ears, and my lungs burned so horrifically, it was a wonder I was still standing.
But wait—
Sure enough, the bar had vanished entirely from my field of vision, along with the chair I’d been sitting in not a moment before. The abrupt change in my stance sent me stumbling, careening into the base of a tree.
I wasn’t sure where the thought came from, but everything in my body was screaming at me to get the hell out of…wherever I was.
Trees stretched out in every direction, their twisted branches looming above me like warped fingers. The night sky was bruised in a sickly shade of purple, the light snowfall helping to illuminate the environs from the sliver of moon still visible amid the building storm clouds.
I tried to suppress the tremble ravaging my body, but a familiar, primitive rush of adrenaline had every last nerve ending inside me firing off a mile a minute. With the fatigue devastating every inch of my body, I knew something wasn’t right. I hadn’t just found myself in the woods. I’d already been running—hard. Every breath seared my lungs like a newly lit match, burning all the way up into the back of my throat. It felt like I’d run a marathon, my trembling legs threatening to give out from under me. Still, I couldn’t shake off the urge to keep running.
It took ten whole seconds to realize why.
A strange melodic tune echoed through the chilled air in the form of a birdsong whistle—a tune I’d only ever heard once before.
From the Irishman—as in the crazed bastard who had branded the hex on Reese’s neck at my father’s behest!
Just perfect.
I’d been dropped off in the middle of the woods with the craziest crazy to have ever crazied.
My exhaustion didn’t stop me though. Not when that nightingale whistling only drew closer.
“Come out, come out, my little lass,” he crooned, that smooth Celtic accent so deceptively inviting.
Run, run, run, run!
The pain tearing through my lungs made it impossible to breathe, but I didn’t care. I sprinted off in the opposite direction of the Irishman’s voice, battling my way through the thicket of trees and tall bushes. His taunts continued to follow me, but to my relief, they were growing quieter and quieter, being carried on nothing but the wind.
Still running, I stole a look over my shoulder, grateful to find no one behind me as I darted across a clearing. That relief lasted no more than a breath’s worth as billowing black smoke formed directly in front of me the instant I faced forward. Before I could gain traction, I slammed full-force into the body that seemed to manifest out of thin air. I’d only ever seen that trick performed twice before; from the Sagax…and my birth father.
The form materialized fully, revealing the long black leather duster and deep-set hood shading an impressive body sculpted of muscle upon muscle. The Angel of Death.
My father didn’t so much flinch from the impact, while I was sent careening off to the side, crashing into the frozen ground with a sharp blow to my ribs that ripped what remaining air I had right from my lungs. Before I could even manage dragging in another breath, fingers clawed into my hair, the firm grip wrenching me back up to my feet. A silent gasp escaped my lips, still finding no air to voice the pain as I heard some of my hair tear out. He whirled me around, pinning my back against his front. I didn’t have time to get a look at the sword to know if it was the Sanctus blade, but sure enough, cold steel pressed into the skin along my throat.
“Next time,” my father growled, “don’t tip off your prey by announcing where you are.”
“What difference does it make?” drawled the Irishman, sauntering out into the clearing.
Last time I saw him, the guy had looked deranged, his curious pinstriped clothes ruffled and pressed with wrinkles. His face was still framed with the same dark unruly hair as the intricate tattoos branding the sides of his neck snaked up to grace the edges of his jaw line and chin, but overall, he looked far better kempt. Dark smudges were painted beneath his bottom row of eyelashes, as if he were wearing eyeliner. Or in his case, guy-liner. It would have looked out of place, if not for the knee-length Victorian military coat hugging his athletic form. Buckles and chains accessorized the black leather, accompanied by several sets of brass knuckles brandished around the side pockets.
“You caught her, and I got to have my playtime.” The Irishman cast the pair of us a smile, though it seemed rather forced, almost as if he was…annoyed, maybe?
“Please—” The word barely escaped my lips in a desperate rasp, sounding nothing like my voice as a full-body quiver butchered the single syllable. I couldn’t stop shaking, the sickening combination of adrenaline and terror decimating any shred of dignity I had left.
“I gave you a head start,” the Irishman said flatly, too consumed with examining his nailbeds to even glance in my direction.
“Per sanguine nos offer, tibi et sacrificium quod Magister.” The heat of my father’s breath pressing against my cheek had bile rising in my throat, but his hold was too tight. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t escape. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t—
I couldn’t breathe.
The blade swept across my neck in one fluid motion, so fast I barely had time to register what he had just done!

Screams filled the air even before my vision snapped back into place. It took me a moment to realize the sounds were coming from me. But how? I could still feel the blood collecting in my throat, drowning me from the inside out!
Blaine’s voice served as a knife of its own, slicing right through the veil still trying to keep me in the nightmare. “You’re okay, love.” Everything sounded hollow. Distant.
But I could hear it, hear him.
“Whatever you’re seeing, it’s not real.” His grip tightened on my hand, pulling me out completely even as I choked on the tail end of my scream.
The bar finally came back into focus, leaving me with a wave of nausea that had me reeling back, ready to vomit. Even with the relief of not tasting blood as I coughed, all I wanted was to run to the bathroom and hurl up my guts—
“Don’t,” Raelynd warned. “You can’t break the connection.”
Cold radiated from Daisy’s hand, so strongly now it felt as if she’d been holding it in a bucket of ice.
With her eyes rolled back, nothing but a pure white stare greeted me as Daisy’s head suddenly jerked in my direction. Her entire body gave way to small convulsions just as another trail of blood crept down her skin, only this time it wasn’t drawn from her fingernails.
It was from her nose.
A low rattle slithered up her throat. “Tssk, tssk, tssk.”
The abrupt change in her voice had even Raelynd jerking back, but he didn’t dare break the connection.
This only amused the girl, or whatever possessed her, as her voice took on the same sickly sing-songy quality I’d hoped to never hear again. “His grace is your poison. His poison is your grace. He is in love with an illusion. But he loves your true face,” she purred at me. “He’s the viper in the grass. He wears Hell’s High Crown. He will destroy all you hold dear. In his blood he has drowned.”
The coolness from her hand turned into something else entirely, seeping such unbearable iciness onto my skin that rime began to form along my fingers. I cried out, unable to pry my hand from hers. It was like a child getting their tongue stuck to a frozen pole. If I dared to pull myself free, I knew I’d be taking off my skin in the process. It clung determinedly in her grip, only turning colder and colder.
Blaine shot up from his seat, not giving a damn that he severed the connection, releasing his hold on both Raelynd and me. A blade appeared in his hand, as if manifesting out of thin air, and he prepared to hurdle himself over the table to charge the girl. But the instant he’d broke the connection, Daisy’s head slumped like an abandoned marionette doll, her body toppling right off the chair as she collapsed sideways.
I hadn’t even noticed that Raelynd’s driver had entered the room, but thanked the Lord he was there. Daisy’s limp frame was about to strike the floor when he swooped in, catching her just in time before she struck the hardwood surface.
The driver pressed his fingers to the brunette’s neck. “Her pulse is weak, but she’s still alive.” He looked up at his boss, expectant.
“Then what are you waiting for? Take her car and drop her off at the hospital,” Raelynd drawled flatly. The driver did as ordered, disappearing out the front entrance with Daisy lying limp in his arms, like a dead bride.
 Raelynd merely cursed under his breath, appearing more pissed off than anything else. “Apparently, the fourth time isn’t the charm, either.”
My eyes snapped up to meet his. “‘The fourth?’ You mean the exact same thing happened to the other clairvoyants?”
He scoffed, more out of frustration. “The others were lucky to last for more than thirty seconds. They all suffered brain hemorrhages. Died on the spot.”
“Did she know that?”
“Daisy?” Raelynd actually smirked. “Seeing as how she negotiated herself a twenty-thousand dollar payday, I’d say yes.”
Twenty thousand?
Daisy hadn’t struck me as being reckless or weak. If anything, she’d seemed pretty damn confident going into this, not a natural reaction to come by when your last three predecessors died. From her perspective, I could imagine why the offer had been tempting.
Now, she’d be lucky if that payday covered her medical bills.
Hell, I may be joining her in the hospital soon enough, I thought, barely catching myself on the table’s edge. My vision warped and whirled, and I started seeing twos of everything, including Blaine.
“Hey.” He steadied me in his arms, but I reared back, so certain I was going to throw up.
“Valor mentioned she’s been getting sick a lot recently,” Raelynd remarked. “Morning sickness?”
The fact he was already the second person today who sounded pleased by my increased nausea only made me want to retch harder.
I didn’t wait to hear Blaine’s response, pushing past him and darting to the bathroom.
Bad idea.
There were maybe three inches on the walls still free from graffiti. Everything else was bathed in layers upon layers of varying spray paints and markers. Most of the stalls had succumbed to the same fate, with the exception of the space left for people who had penned their phone numbers on the inside, seeking a “good time.”
If I wasn’t already about to vomit, the smell in here alone would have sent me hurtling for the nearest toilet. That is, until I actually stepped into the nearest stall.
Oh, hell to the no!
I didn’t care if I was going to puke. The inside of each stall looked like the catalyst for every disease known to mankind. And I didn’t even want to think about what was on the floor. My shoes found resistance with every step against an invisible tack as it nearly claimed my left boot. Vomiting directly on the ground probably would have been an improvement for this place.
I made it as far as the row of sinks when a thickening gray haze bled into my vision. Vertigo hit in full, making every step feel as if the floor was sliding out from under my feet. Lurching my way to the mirror, I barely managed to grab hold of the paper towel dispenser, clinging to it for dear life. My legs buckled, and it was as if someone had filled my mouth with cotton balls. Nothing but an indistinguishable grumble escaped my lips…before everything went black.