The Contract – Part 1

To celebrate the release of my new novel, Contained, I will be posting chapters from the prequel to the Fractured Series, The Contract.

Today is the first chapter, which includes a brief prologue.


In the beginning, there was darkness, and at the very centre, at the heart of it, was a light so powerful it was unbreakable.

Its power, the sole reason for being, was to survive.

For thousands of years the darkness tried to extinguish this power; its one true weakness. It began to close in on itself, hoping to snuff the life force from existence.

An extraordinary thing happened. Instead of obliterating the power within, it created a catastrophic shift which caused the light to explode in a kaleidoscope of colour.

In the aftermath of the explosion, an unfathomable number of souls were born. At the centre of each, a power as bright and true as the heart itself.

There were other consequences. As the darkness settled, stretching to encompass this strange new universe, a network formed; fragmented systems of matter which would later make a home for the souls who lived within the darkness.

The heart had found a new purpose: to create balance and bring order to the ensuing chaos.

The souls on the outer layer of the darkness settled in whichever plane they could. For the ones who rebelled against the order, they became the Fractured; souls who belonged to no other and chose to follow their own rules.

Each realm was governed independently, with a legion of souls to lead and protect their brethren.

Millennia passed before the souls discovered a way to exist in both their chosen world and their home. The mortal realm was born so that every life they led carved a new path to their existence, an echo of themselves to create a universal strength.

But soon the Fractured grew restless. They wanted more power, and more control. They waged a war with every living soul, poisoning the minds of weaker beings in an attempt to rule, and lend their power to the darkness.

Chapter 1

Maddison roamed the Great Halls, her eyes blind to the ancient beauty. Instead, she was tormented by thoughts of Tobias Locke, the half-blood leader of the Enchanted League. She had pondered over his request for days. A request, coated in a demand, which amounted to the same thing – he needed her help. She should have been flattered, because Tobias trusted few outside the League. But what she felt – was anger. No, anger didn’t cover it. She was pissed. Royally pissed.

As a freelance demon hunter, she had often crossed paths with the League. In fact, more than once she had formed a tentative alliance with Tobias and his guards. Sometimes it was even fun, if she managed to convince herself he wasn’t an ass.

An ass who kissed you, don’t forget that.

Her boots hit the stone passage with a resounding thwack, thwack, as she tried to walk off her temper. Tobias hadn’t just crossed the line, he’d obliterated it. Taken a giant leap into a different continent and changed the very nature of their relationship. And the worst part – she’d enjoyed it. His sensuous mouth had dominated her dreams, which wasn’t all bad – at least it kept the nightmares at bay. Perhaps she should thank him for the distraction, and she would have. But beating him bloody probably didn’t count.

Still, she hadn’t accepted the assignment. Yet.

“Who crapped all over your day?”

She turned to Jonas, their self-proclaimed patriarch at Hunters-Are-Us. He was the only human among their band of merry fighters.

“The Enchanted League.” She grinned at him. “But you know I never turn down a paid gig.”

“Or the chance to get your hands dirty,” he said, raising his brows when she opened the electronic door with the flick of a wrist.

“Well, there is that.” She laughed, falling into step as they made their way down the long stretch of corridor.

After the Demonic War, a battle which had devastated the mortal realm, buildings like this one were all but extinct. Once a prominent part of the community, the town hall was now an operations base. The former meeting rooms were transformed into living quarters, to house the mercenaries fighting to keep people safe.

For the most part, humans kept to the major cities. They lived a kind of ignorant bliss; aware that monsters were real, yet convinced they were safe now the war was over.

“Have you thought any more about the Alliance?” Jonas asked.

She wasn’t fooled by his casual tone.

The Race Alliance existed outside of the mortal realm, an authority established to keep order. They had shown an interest in her skills. In a way, she was being head-hunted by the big leagues.

“You know me.” She shrugged. “I like my freedom.”

“I get that and, don’t get me wrong, you’re one of the best freelancers we have-”

She stopped outside her room. “But?”

“But I don’t want you to waste an opportunity. The Alliance would be lucky to have you.”

“You’re lucky to have me,” she said, pushing open the door. “And you just want a room upgrade.”

His laughter followed her inside. “See you at feeding time,” he called, already moving on.

Yes, it was certainly a zoo, and she wouldn’t change a damn thing. Especially not her place in the world.

She walked across the room, a boardroom in its previous life; grand and intimidating. Now though, instead of the antique table, sat a battered couch facing a long stretch of window. The heavy frame was dressed in rich, cherry-coloured curtains.

The view drew her forward as it often did. Her window looked out onto a square, which bordered a once prolific fountain. Even dormant the feature was an impressive sight and, because she could, she used her power to give it life. If only for a few moments. It pleased her to make the water dance and, like a conductor guiding an orchestra, she put on quite a show. When she felt one of the others take the reins, she pulled back on a light laugh, happy to enjoy the magic.

The energy, which still hummed through her, evaporated the moment she felt his presence. It was replaced with irritation; annoyance he was in her space. He already occupied too much room in her head.

Turning slowly, she gave herself a moment to fight the swell of emotion. Tobias filled the doorway, though he was already inside the room. His height made it impossible to stand beneath the tall frame. At 6ft 5 he made a domineering sight, even without the dark blue eyes and shock of ebony hair. His long, graceful posture was offset by wide shoulders. She didn’t even want to think about what lay beneath the silk shirts he favoured, it was too easy to remember how it felt to be pressed up against all that hard muscle.

Damn him for putting such thoughts in my head.

“I don’t remember giving you permission to enter my quarters,” she said, wondering who he’d brought with him. Tobias never went anywhere without his posse. It would not bode well to leave the Hympe King unprotected.

“What else is there to do? You’ve been avoiding me.” His deep, throaty voice rumbled with frustration.

“You flatter yourself.”

“Just say the word, Maddy,” he said in challenge, eyes darkening. “I’ll relieve you of the unpleasant memory.”

She moved closer, her anger burning bright. “Don’t you dare.”

His mind tricks wouldn’t work on her, despite the niggle of doubt. She had seen his power in action, the way he took control and made people bend to his will.

“You enjoyed it,” he said, his bewilderment catching her off guard.

Her shoulders rose in what she hoped was a careless shrug. “I live with my mistakes, as you live with yours.” It was time to put them back on an equal footing.

Thinking only of the assignment, she welcomed the magic gathering inside her and pushed outwards. Her long mane, tied as always in a single braid down her back, extended on her command. It whipped out like a snake, to wind itself around his neck. She wasn’t gentle as she pulled him down, and clamped her mouth over his.

It wasn’t one of her better ideas. She was challenging a king, even if she didn’t fall under his rule, and the act wouldn’t go unpunished. But for the briefest of moments she felt a lick of desire as it battered against her magic. It was strong, stronger than it should have been. He tasted earthy, like the forest he loved, with a spice beneath that was uniquely his.

Before she lost herself to pleasure – or worse – the fantasy, she pulled back. As she did, her hair slid away from him to her side. “Now we’re even,” she said, straightening her shoulders.

It pleased her when he did nothing but stare down at her with a mixture of shock and arousal, giving her time to turn and walk towards the door. “I’ll take the assignment,” she said over her shoulder. “But right now I have to get ready for a date.” He didn’t need to know the date in question was a rambunctious meal with her fellow housemates.

“Maddy,” he began, taking a step forward.

“Yes?” She stood in the doorway and gazed back.

After a few tense moments, he shook his head. “Nothing.” It wasn’t nothing, she could almost see the emotion. “Usual place?”

She nodded, relief flooding through her. “I’ll see you tomorrow at noon.”

Not waiting for a response, she walked out. In her haste, she almost collided with Marcus, one of Tobias’ three. The senior guard, who got off on pushing her buttons, morphed into a character from the Wizard of Oz. Marcus was a talented shape-shifter, with a penchant for black-and-white movies. He wasn’t always subtle, but she got the wicked witch reference and had to bite back a laugh.

“You have no power here,” she muttered and stormed past.

She didn’t stop until she reached the bathroom, a facility she shared with three others. Pressing her back against the old, familiar wood, she waited until she was sure they were gone.

“Stupid,” she muttered to herself, stopping before the mirror to glare at her reflection; her green eyes narrowed to slits. The dark gloss of her hair gleamed with power, as though taunting her. “You just had to push it, didn’t you?”

Her response to Tobias was unprecedented, though she’d managed to bury it beneath a layer of hostility. They worked well together. It was the only reason she tolerated him at all, that’s what she liked to believe. But then he’d kissed her and ruined everything.

Her gaze dropped to the custom-made suit covering her body – her armour of choice. There were only two people in the world Maddison considered family, and the suit had been a gift from one. It fit like a second skin, shimmering in the mirror with the dark luminosity that reminded her of Michael. It wasn’t special because of its magical properties, though it had saved her in more than one battle. It was like an extension of him. He was still looking out for her, even now.

People often wondered about it. Why the elves had bestowed such an honour on her. Why they had welcomed a witch into their family. She didn’t care about speculation, or what it did for her reputation.

She brushed her fingers along the gold band around her neck. It had once served as a leash of sorts, an instrument which bound her during her years in slavery. She still wore it, because it reminded her she had fought and won her freedom. A freedom which was only possible because Michael and Zachariah had escaped with her.

Zachariah still wore his too, but not Michael. He’d wanted to forget that chapter of his life, and she couldn’t blame him. Still, she missed him. They’d made one hell of a trio; the witch, the vampire and the elf.

There’s a great title in there somewhere.

Dismissing the run-on thoughts, she opened the cubicle door to set the shower running, stepped out of her boots, and flicked a hand across her body so that the suit melted away. Without it, she felt vulnerable, and not because she was naked. It had more to do with loss. A feeling she couldn’t fully explain.

She showered quickly, following a simple routine until she was back in front of the mirror, dry and suited up.

“It was just a kiss,” she assured the mirror, brushing out her hair. “One he’ll think twice about repeating.”

Then why can’t you stop thinking about it?

With a derisive laugh, she secured her mane in the customary plait and went out to join the zoo for feeding time.

The sound from the dining room was akin to the frenzied buzz of a hive. The voices were indistinguishable as two dozen people crammed around the table and abandoned all sense of civility. It was so familiar she felt a rush of affection for her motley crew.

“Nice light show earlier,” Riley said, as Maddy took her customary seat.

Looking into a pair of mahogany eyes, as rich and dark as his skin, she feigned innocence. “How do you know it was me?”

“You’re kidding, right?” He snorted. “You just can’t help yourself.”

“Jealous, wolf-man?” When he flashed his teeth, she laughed good-naturedly. He was the best scout she knew and she had relied on his senses many times in the field. “I was interrupted before the grand finale, but I’m sure Dimitri picked up the reins.” Dimitri was a powerful empath, and though few could sneak past her defences, she trusted him enough to allow the intrusion. He needed to absorb some of her magic to pull it off. “I can’t deny my brothers a little-”

The noise in the room snapped off like a muted television channel. No, not muted, she thought as she stared around the table – someone had hit the pause button. It meant only one thing. Orion Reece was in the building.

Shit. Can this day get any worse?

She waited for the fireworks which usually accompanied his arrival. Orion enjoyed flaunting his presence. He was a god of unrivalled power, one who followed no rules but his own. It was something he had in common with the Fractured, the dark souls responsible for the Demonic War. Rumour had it he’d aligned himself with Draco, their leader.

She saw the gleam of his pale blonde hair first, alight with the depth of his power. Either that or he brushed it a hundred times a day. His dramatic pause at the end of the dining table made her want to roll her eyes. It was nothing compared to the levitation trick as he raised himself onto the edge, his boots making no sound against the scarred wood. Her lips actually twitched in an effort to hold back the smile.

Everything about him was designed to draw a woman; the tall, sculptured body, the strong jaw, the sinful mouth. The effects were lethal. As he walked gracefully down the table, the obstacles in his path slid out of the way; plates, glasses, cutlery, they all moved as he did. His gaze swung from left to right, taking in those who had become mere statues.

“You’ve got to admit,” he said in a dark, seductive voice. “That’s pretty impressive.”

It would be more impressive if you weren’t such a dick.

“Why are you here?” she asked, already bored with the theatrics.

He toed aside her still empty plate to sit crossed-legged in front of her. His deep brown eyes, ringed with a hint of gold, flashed with humour. “Have you ever wondered why you’re immune to the tricks?” he asked in a sultry whisper.

Maybe because you have no substance.

“What do you want?” she asked again, breaking eye contact. It helped until she locked gazes with Riley. The awareness she saw made her pulse skyrocket. He was fighting the compulsion. If he won, things were going to get ugly. Fast.

“I’ve come to collect what you owe me.”

Her head snapped around. “God damn it,” she muttered. “I’m not going to like this am I?”

Orion leant to stroke his fingers against the gold at her neck. It was his way of reminding her she didn’t have a choice. She owed him her freedom, at least in part.

Squeezing Riley’s knee under the table, she prayed the contact would calm him. “What is it you want me to do?”

“For starters, agree to work with Tobias Locke.”

Oh god.

“Then I want you to…what is it the mortals say? Ah, yes – stick to him like glue.”

Her pulse spiked at his words. “Why?”

He shrugged, a deceptively human gesture. “It is a favourable request, is it not?”

“I’ll admit I’m a little surprised you don’t want me to off somebody.”

His laughter thundered around them, making her oddly uncomfortable. “You’ve spent far too long with these Neanderthals,” he said, turning to Riley. “Well, well, isn’t this interesting.” She followed his gaze and watched Riley’s facial muscles tighten. “Your friend is stronger than he looks.”

“I’ll do it,” Maddison said on a wave of panic. “I’ll stick to his ass like Velcro.”

Nice. Could you sound more desperate?

“That is an image I could live without,” he drawled.

She cursed, baring her teeth. “Get out of my head.”

He bowed with a flourish. “Indeed, I’ve taken up too much of your time.”

The next two events happened simultaneously. Orion disappeared, and Riley launched himself across the table. Since the sound rushed in like a freight train, she didn’t hear the echo of broken crockery, but Riley’s growl managed to penetrate.

“Who the hell was that asshole?” he asked, the wolf still evident in his voice.

She frowned. “Draco’s right-hand man.”

“Shit. That was Orion Reece?”

Nodding, she stared at the empty space in front of her. It was unlikely the Enchanted League were working with Orion, yet she couldn’t dismiss the urgency she’d read in his eyes. He was connected somehow. “I have a feeling things are about to get complicated.”

He relaxed into a grin. Riley liked complicated, perhaps too much. “Do you want some backup?”

“Not right now.” Her gaze roamed the table. “But I’ll let you know if I’m in a tight spot.” He was one of the few hunters she trusted with her life. Before joining forces with Jonas and the others, she’d worked almost exclusively with Zachariah. Riley was one of the exceptions.

“Not hungry?” he asked when she made no move to retrieve her plate.

“Not anymore.”

He smiled, all teeth and testosterone. “Do you want to blow off some steam?”

The way her thoughts circled back to Tobias pissed her off. She wanted to hit something. “What did you have in mind?”

“I’ll race you to the Golden Arches,” Riley said, without hesitation. “Winner gets the prize.”

Her brows shot up. “What’s the prize?”

“The satisfaction of the chase.” His expression told her it should have been obvious.

She snorted. “Please, I could beat you blindfolded.”

“You keep telling yourself that.” His eyes brightened to sharp orange as he allowed his animal to surface.

Challenge sang through her. She couldn’t outrun him in wolf form, but she had a few tricks. “Okay. Deal.” She pushed up from her chair. “Let’s go.”

 They walked in silence through the old building, down the once stately corridors and out through the marble-covered entrance. Merc Hall, as she liked to call it, was situated in the centre of thirteen portals. Of course, to the unseeing eye, those portals were mundane-looking street signs, but their location came in handy.

Thanks to a sorcerer with a unique sense of humour, gateways to arcane dimensions were only accessible by passing beneath directional signposts. Given their visibility, it made passage impossible without a cloaking spell. Tonight, Maddy stepped under the worn, degraded metal without giving it a second thought. It was a ghost town.

“I’ll give you a head start,” Riley growled, as soon as the forest emerged.

“Not going to need it.” Without looking at him, she sprinted across the soft, brown earth, chased by the sound of his laughter.

Tobias followed his guards through the portal, his senses on full alert. The twins had already scouted the area, a necessary precaution even if the meeting spot did border his land. He accepted their need to protect, yet their obvious concern was starting to grate along his nerves.

“She’s here,” Rheia said, eyes narrowed on a patch of trees.

“Of course she is.” Maddison was always on time. “I think I can take it from here,” he told them.

Obeying the subtle command, the twins changed shape and took to the air, their wings glinting under the afternoon sun.

He watched them for a moment, admiring their exquisite grace before he walked across the clearing. He stopped when he saw Maddison. She was halfway through a familiar warm-up routine. It shouldn’t have pleased him to discover she was still angry, but it did. He could see the tension in every line of her body, and knew she would not welcome such thoughts. Yesterday, when he’d sought her out, he’d expected a fight and had relished the idea. She had accepted the assignment far too easily, even without the punishing lip-lock. Maddison never mixed business with pleasure. But then, right now, everything about her was business – right down to her kick-ass boots.

He was playing with fire, seeking her involvement. She was dangerous, at least to him, because she made him long for the impossible. He was a king, and when he took a bride he would be condemning her to a life of sacrifice. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, do that to Maddison.

“When you’re through with the peep show, how about you come spar with me for a while?” she asked without turning.

The witch has eyes in the back of her head. He crossed the field, appreciating the fact she came prepared. Her uniform was custom-made, though it surprised him to realise she had accessorised with a number of blades. The twin machetes strapped to her back were familiar, but the holstered daggers on her thighs were new to the party. They were overkill, in his opinion. Maddison was tall and lithe, and exuded danger like a carefully applied camouflage.

Her dark, midnight blue hair was pulled back in a long plait that hung down her back. It was adorned with harmless-looking jewellery, but Tobias knew that was an illusion.

“I see you brought the man-eaters,” she said, looking up into the sky.

He didn’t need to follow her gaze to the siren twins circling above, he could feel them. As part of his guard, they were connected by blood.

“You know they hate it when you call them that.” He also knew she meant no offence. “Besides, the curse was lifted eons ago, now it’s more about the pleasure.”

She laughed, eyes still on the sky as she watched the twins. They resembled large, fierce birds of prey, as beautiful as the eagle and just as deadly. “So I’ve heard.”

Finally, her gaze dropped to his, and he saw her intent swirling in a sea of green. They circled each other, eyes locked until she made her move.

He felt the jolt of magic like a fist to the side of his jaw. A silken snake wound its way around his neck and squeezed tight, blocking the airway.

By the Gods, she was beautiful, he thought, staring into eyes that became a filter to her power. It shone with a vibrant glow, making her appear almost feral.

“The next time you put your hands on me, I’ll put you in the ground,” Maddison said in a husky, sensual tone, which had his eyes flashing. She was still pissed, all right.

“If you think you can take me, witch, be my guest,” he challenged, manipulating the branches of a nearby tree into doing his bidding.

He had the power to control any living organism, with a few exceptions. Maddison was one of them; her mind was too strong to manipulate.

“Tempting, half-blood, but we have a job to do.”

She used the term half-blood to annoy him, and it would have worked, if she’d put any effort into it. But she didn’t really consider him a lesser being, so he accepted the jibe. Anyone else he would have crushed.

His father was king before he’d renounced his title and married a mortal woman. They had conceived Tobias before the ritual, making him heir to the throne. Now he ruled, and he allowed few to challenge his authority.

“I’m not the one who lost control,” he reminded her, stretching his neck.

With a muted curse, she released him. The silken strand whipped back towards her and coiled into the long braid she wore. It was powerful magic, a fact that made her more than a witch. He wanted to learn all her secrets, which scared him.

“What made you decide to take the assignment?” he asked, glancing across when the twins came into land.

“The Alliance are sniffing around, so I thought working with you would shake them off my scent.”

He laughed, amused by the impertinence. Anyone else would have jumped at the chance. The Alliance resided beyond the realms and governed with diligence and honour.

Tobias despised them on principle. They were responsible for binding his people into a hundred years of slavery. “So you’d rather work for the Enchanted League?”

“I’m good with our arrangement. If I accepted a contract with the Alliance I’d be on babysitting duty, and I enjoy kicking your ass too much to sit on mine.”

“Yet you haven’t asked what I need from you.” The team she was referring to, the Legion of Watchers, was a pretty good gig if you could get it.

“Then why don’t we cut to the chase?” She held up her hand before he could speak. “And don’t give me any bullshit about enjoying my company.”

That actually hurt. “How many times have we worked together?” he asked, eyes flashing in temper.

“That doesn’t prove anything. I can count on one hand the number of times you’ve needed my help on a job unrelated to witchcraft.” She paused and turned slowly to survey the wooded area, watching his guards to gauge their reaction. “Someone’s out there,” she said quietly.

“I know. I invited them.” He frowned over the delay; he didn’t like to be toyed with.

“What is it?” Maddison asked.

It took him all of two seconds to make his decision. “The League aren’t involved this time. It’s strictly freelance. I contacted you because it’s personal.”

She gave him a look which he interpreted as “What have you gotten yourself into this time?”

“I was jumped by two Nrikabat demons, and one got away with a sample of my blood.”

Maddison exploded into movement, pacing in front of him as she gestured with her hands. For a moment he thought she’d taken up sign language. “And you didn’t start with that?” After another moment of the crazy pacing she stopped and glared at him. “What the hell do the Nrikabats want with your blood?”

“I don’t know, but they’ve already tried to bind my power. The protection spell I’ve been utilising won’t last forever.”

He thought of the last time he’d been bound, during the Hympe Trials. He’d entered the trials voluntarily, as a pledge to his people. When a hympe reached their eighteenth birthday they were placed under contract. It took one hundred years to reach maturity and in those years they were subjected to a series of trials.

The binding was irreversible, and those who owned the contract held the power. When the system was abused, as it often was, those tests became an instrument of torture. His brethren were lucky to survive the living hell. Most didn’t.

 But Tobias wasn’t like most. He’d used his anger, his betrayal, to pull him through. And, to prove how strong he was, he’d formed the Enchanted League. Most of his colleagues thought him mad, broken by his torture. Perhaps he was.

“Damn it, Tobias,” Maddison said, breaking into his thoughts. “You should have told me sooner. I…I’m not sure what I can do.”

“What you do best. Fight for the underdog.”

She choked out a laugh. “So you’re the underdog now?”

“My people are,” he murmured. “If the Nrikabats succeed, they will start a war.” He glanced over her shoulder, before returning to her. “Right now there’s someone I want you to meet.”

Maddison didn’t move right away. She knew who she would find before she turned. Zachariah’s presence was as familiar as the scarred leather boots Maddison refused to part with. He had been her partner in crime before he got a regular gig.

She tensed at the subtle movement of air and spun to find two strangers flanking her friend. Going by the vibe, they were members of the Fallen; Guardians who now resided in the mortal realm.

“Hag,” Zachariah acknowledged with his trademark toothy grin.

She sent him a nod. “Blood-sucker.”

He had the kind of beauty that earned him a stream of adoring fans, though in truth vampires drew everyone in. As descendants of the Enraptured, they oozed a feel-good vibe that was inherently noble. They could also alter memories and heal pain; making them obvious protectors of the human race.

At 6ft, he had a long, toned body which screamed soldier. His skin had a flawless quality common to his race, and his eyes were like dark, forbidden chocolate, with hair to match.

“This is Sebastian.” Zachariah motioned to his right, before jabbing his thumb in the opposite direction. “And his sister, Zara.”

Maddison looked into intelligent, pale blue eyes and felt a jolt of controlled power. Sebastian stood at the same height as Zachariah, but that’s where the similarities ended. His hair was dark blonde and fell in a careless wave across his forehead. His shoulders were broad and his face hard. She thought he might be handsome if he loosened up.

Her gaze fell on his sister and she warmed to the knowing look in her eyes. Though much shorter than her escorts, Zara’s energy packed a mighty punch. Her eyes were a rich mahogany, which contrasted with her pale blonde hair.

“Forgive the dramatics,” Zara said, smiling towards her brother. “We had to be sure we weren’t followed.”

Maddison frowned. There was a story there, she just didn’t have time to find out what. “You’re in good hands,” she said, and meant it.

Zachariah had been assigned to the Legion of Watchers three years ago, which included the role of Charge. From the way his eyes flicked to Sebastian, it didn’t take a genius to identify his current assignment.

“Thanks for coming,” Tobias said, stepping forward, the twins’ outline appearing to his right. They were keeping a respectful distance, but they were clearly uneasy.

When Maddison turned back to the group she caught Sebastian’s concern.

“How long?” he asked quietly.

How long what?

She opened her mouth to speak, but Tobias got there before her.

“A few hours. The protection spell won’t last. I can already feel the separation.”

Maddison’s heart thudded. He was talking about his soul, and without it, he would be an empty shell. She swung towards him. “Next time you call me, instead of, ‘Hey, Maddy, I have a job for you,’ why not tell me to batten down the hatches because the shit is going to hit the fan?”

Zara laughed, a pleasant sound which cooled her jets a little.

“There’s nothing we can do for you, Tobias,” Zachariah spoke up. “Not if the protection I gave you is failing.”

Her mind kicked into overdrive. “We could bind him to one of us, and break the link,” she said, ignoring Tobias’ disgust.

“It might work,” Sebastian agreed. He turned to her with appraising eyes. “And since Zac vouched for you, I trust you have the skills.”

She was about to tell him she didn’t need anyone to vouch for her, and he could stick his self-righteous tone where the sun didn’t shine. But her brain engaged before her mouth, and she realised why Tobias wanted Sebastian’s help – to transition if anything went wrong. Sebastian was known as a Collector. He helped a soul adjust when moving from one plane to another.

The realisation hit her like an elbow to the gut. Tobias would never leave his people vulnerable. He would give up his life and deny the demons his power if it meant saving them.

Her protest evaporated when three Nrikabats appeared behind Zachariah. “We have company,” she said, a dagger already in her hand. She threw it at the demon on her right, the blade sailing over Zachariah’s shoulder to bury itself to the hilt in the Nrikabat’s throat. It cut clean through the transporter, a tech developed by the Fractured to allow for a quick getaway.

She didn’t have time to wonder where they had acquired the tech or why, because the fight was on. As the twins burst into action, so did she, hurling another blade with skilled precision.

A bow and quiver appeared in Zara’s hands. She fired three quick arrows and Maddison wanted to high-five her so badly that her hand itched. She would have held it aloft if it hadn’t been for the horror on Zara’s face; she clearly took no pleasure in violence.

They were about to find out how far an empathic member of the Fallen was willing to go because four more Nrikabats appeared to join the fight.

This time it was Zachariah’s turn to act. He moved with the speed afforded to his kind, twirling around the group in fluid, graceful movements as though it were all part of a dance. They were unconscious in seconds.

Maddison surged forward when a deadly duo popped up beside Tobias. In the confusion she hadn’t noticed he’d passed out, and his prone body sent a slither of ice down her spine.

They were too late.

His soul had been taken.

Whirling towards the twins she wasn’t surprised to see them on the ground. They were linked to Tobias, so when he went down, so did they. Since Zachariah was holding his own, she turned back to the demon clutching a ceremonial vial. It shone with the deep emerald glow of Tobias’ essence. A beautiful sight in ordinary circumstances, but nothing about this scene was ordinary.

Her hair whipped out and wrapped around the demon’s wrist as she reached for a machete and dove at him. His large, clawed fist made a grab for the blade, but she dodged it easily and slid the metal home. Right through his gut.

He fell to his knees, screaming a series of garbled syllables she didn’t understand, but which she knew had to be an order. Instinct had her send a jolt of power along silken strands, even though she knew it was too late. He vanished before she could make a stronger connection, taking Tobias with him.

Her hair fell uselessly to the ground, slithering slowly back into place. “Son of a bitch,” she spat, moving towards the others. Now the demons had what they wanted, they would cut their losses and run.

Some Velcro you turned out to be.

Diving for the nearest lowlife, she wrapped her arms around his body in a death grip. She’d promised to stick close to Tobias and catching a ride seemed the only option.

Zachariah turned with a warning look in his eyes. She didn’t have time to reassure him because he disappeared, or more accurately, she did.

A shock wave rattled her bones as her captive ported back to his seedy little hole in the ground. She had been in their den of inequity before and made many enemies.

It wasn’t her style to behave impulsively, to visit the enemy alone and unprepared, but there hadn’t seemed much choice.

Her new friend had ported directly to the heart of his clan, which for her meant a room full of demons who already wanted her head on a platter. She had a mere second to look into the angry faces of his comrades before something heavy smashed into her skull and the lights went out.

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