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Not. Dead. Yet. Valeria Banning panted behind the sour-tasting gag. She still had half a chance to survive.
At least she’d helped that Mundane woman and her child escape the ghouls trying to kidnap them. And she’d killed two of the ghouls before the rest overpowered her. But now she was wounded, aching, and trussed like a Thanksgiving turkey in the trunk of their car.
Which came as no surprise. Seven to one odds were great for the seven. Unfortunately, she’d been the one in the equation, but no mage would turn away when humans were in danger. That went double for her as shire reeve, or sheriff, of the Southeastern U.S. mages’ Council.
At least the nausea and chills—side effects of venom—were fading as her immune system purged her blood. The talon wounds where the ghoul had injected the venom in her back still burned like flaming acid, and that wasn’t going to improve anytime soon.
Val shifted restlessly, trying to draw a deep breath. The stuffy air didn’t help. Thanks to the heat of a Georgia night in August, the sedan’s small, dark trunk felt like an oven.
Best not to think of ovens. Or the fact she was mageborn toast if she couldn’t remove the amulet her ghoul captors had hung around her neck, blocking her power. They’d tucked the pendant into her tank top, making it harder to shake off. Nice trick.
They likely meant to siphon her life energy, fueling their power and killing her. Or they might intend to rape her, force her to breed, as they often did with kidnapped mages and Mundanes. Ghouls couldn’t breed with each other and so took captives to keep their population levels high.
Her stomach did a slow, queasy twist. She swallowed against bile and paralyzing fear. She could see the bulletin now: Valeria Banning, age 27, KIA because she let a bunch of ghouls get the drop on her.
Hell if she was going out that way.
First step, somehow remove the pendant, tough job with her hands cuffed behind her. Second step, get these restraints off.
Before the car stopped.
She could worry later about where ghouls had gotten the amulet. Ghouls were strong at night and weak in the daylight, bound to dark magic but limited in its use. They weren’t capable of the complex magic needed to create such objects.
She tried to roll, bring her knees under her, but couldn’t find her balance as the car jounced over what sounded like a gravel road. Crap. Breathing hard, she rested a few seconds, then tried again. And again.
If she didn’t manage this, she was totally fucked.
She clenched her jaw against the pain as tightly as the gag would allow, pushed off awkwardly with her chained hands, and finally—finally!—gained her knees. Sweat ran down her face and body in rivers. She needed a minute to gather herself. If only she knew how many minutes she had.
The rough ride probably meant the driver was heading into the country. On the upside, that gave her more time to free herself. Also, heading away from town meant there would be a lot of plants and wildlife, sources of natural energy she could draw on to replenish the power the amulet had stifled.
On the ominously bad downside, ghouls only sought privacy when they wanted to play with their prey.
Her gut churned again, and a shiver of fear rippled through her. Val drew the hot, stale air in as deeply as she could. Focus, Val. Focus or die.
Sweat stung her eyes. She blotted it against the carpet and caught the coppery scent of blood under the more usual one of motor oil. At least there wasn’t a body jammed in here with her, thank God.
The car slowed, and the bouncing decreased. Breathing through the pain, Val bowed her back and lowered her head. The pendant dropped clear of her tank, onto the smelly carpet. So far, so good.
The heavy chain slipped down to the curve at the back of her skull. Almost off. Just a little bit more.
If she could ditch the amulet and have a few minutes to recharge, she would be able to pop her shackles and transmute them into a very big, very handy knife. Good thing they weren’t made of bespelled iron, just cheap ankle and wrist cuffs.
Pressing her cheek into the dirty carpeting over the spare tire, she scooted backward. The chain slipped down to the carpeting but tangled in her hair. Shit. She had no way to tug at it.
The car spun into another turn with the rasp of gravel spewing from the wheels. Val braced herself and tossed her head as hard as she could against the turn’s momentum. At last, with a painful yank on her hair, the chain slid free.
Behind the gag, she gasped in relief. Renewed power coursed through her body, though not as much as usual. The amulet lay too near. Still, she had a little strength back.
She cracked open the cuff on one wrist, but that took more power than she’d expected.
Hell, the car was slowing. She popped the other cuffs, then lay panting, drained, in the stuffy darkness.
The car stopped. Terror squeezed her throat, and she swallowed against it. She needed a minute she didn’t have to recover enough to fight. She pushed the amulet into the wheel well to hide it. That gained some distance but not nearly enough to let her recharge.
Car doors squeaked open, and footsteps crunched on gravel. Panic kicked her heartbeat up. Trying to steady it, she took as deep a breath as the gag allowed. Do or die time.
She flopped onto her side, hands and feet behind her, but left the gag on for the element of surprise. If she was lucky, her tawny hair flopping across her chest would hide the absence of the amulet.
When her captors opened the lid, she’d have only seconds more to prepare. She drew in a slow breath to center herself.
She’d try to knock them all back magically, then go for her sword. With the amulet off, she sensed the weapon nearby, probably inside the car. It would amplify her magic and improve her odds. Without the sword, she’d have to rely on Latin words of power to make any contact lethal. She hadn’t recovered enough to shield herself or to punch a barehanded blow through ghoul shields with enough force to kill.
The trunk latch clicked. The lid rose. Redolent with the scents of earth and plants, the thick, humid summer air hit her. There was life here, and lots of it. She drew the natural energy in like a dry sponge in water and gathered herself. Moving too soon would waste her shot.
Five faces leered down at her in the waning moon’s glow. They appeared human, but her mageborn senses caught the telltale scent of ammonia from the high levels of venom in their blood and saw, even in the faint light, the muddy whites of the ghouls’ eyes. The four males looked to be in their thirties, with the lone woman, a busty brunette, on the far side of forty.
“Get her out,” the thin, blond male on the right ordered. “I’m hungry.”
Since none of the others snarled at him, Val pegged him as the leader. His grip on the trunk’s edge showed his inch-long talons already deployed behind his fingernails, ready to suck out her life energy or rend her flesh.
Suddenly cold again, Val forced herself to shrink back inside the trunk. She needed all of them as close to her as possible. The female and the dark-haired, scrawny male at the rear had retreated a few paces.
“Pull the bitch out,” the leader snapped.
Leaning in, one male grasped her knees while the other reached for her shoulders. She thrashed against their hands, whimpering for show, but kept her struggles to a minimum. If she fought too much, they’d realize she’d freed herself.
As they pulled her out, she kept her knees bent to hide her unchained ankles. The leader slammed the trunk shut. The man holding her legs dropped them to grab her left arm while his buddy held her right.
They shoved her backward against the trunk. Her heart pounded like a jackhammer. They hadn’t noticed her ankles—probably too gripped by power lust, and maybe too confident, to be careful. Their excitement ramped up the ammonia scent, stinging her nose.
She fought panic, tried to slow her shallow, fast breathing. The leader stepped in front of her, his dark, satisfied gaze raking over Val’s body. Power flared into a muddy aura around him. His taloned hands reached for her face, and the other ghouls pressed in.
Val blew out all her stored power like a human claymore mine. The gag disintegrated. Four of the ghouls tumbled backward and fell, dazed.
The one holding her right arm rocked back but tightened his grip. His claws spiked white heat into her shoulder. She bit back a scream. Her eyes teared as magic thickened into a muddy brown shield around him. His venom shot nauseating cold down her arm and side, raising the taste of ammonia in her mouth as the venom hit her blood.
Shuddering, she turned toward him, drawing power from the swamp before the venom made that impossible. She slammed her fist through his shield. With her palm against his chest, she thought, Morere, for Die, and pictured a bursting heart.
His body jerked. Face contorting, he made a gurgling sound. He clawed at her hand, raking it with new venom. The same sickening cold rolled up that arm, too.
She gritted her teeth against nausea. Twisted her fingers in his shirt to keep her grip.
Morere, she repeated.
Her power sputtered. Faded. His friends were stirring. Crap.
Suddenly, his claws retracted. His grip failed, and he fell, dead. She was free.
But his friends were on their feet.
Val stumbled over the dead ghoul and half staggered, half lunged toward the car’s rear door. Yanking it open, she grinned. Her broadsword lay on the seat, its leather-wrapped hilt against the opposite door.
Footsteps scuffed behind her. She mule-kicked backward with magic powering the move. Someone whoofed.
As she dived for the sword’s hilt, the female ghoul jerked open the opposite door and lunged across the seat. Her claws stabbed into Val’s neck.
Oh shit, oh shit. Desperate, Val grabbed the female’s wrist with both hands, but ripping the claws out could be fatal if they slashed across a vein or artery.
Other hands closed on Val’s shoulders to drag her out of the car. As their claws dug in, blackness rolled over her eyes and through her soul. The female’s grip tightened.
“No venom,” the leader’s voice ordered behind Val. He sounded royally pissed. “Carl already shot her with too much, and I’d planned to breed her. At least we can still feed.”
Gasping for air, Val tried to find her feet to steady her power for a final effort. She only had seconds to do it, or she was dead.
Terror chilled her blood as the four survivors slammed her back against the warm metal of the car’s hood. Tearing at her clothes, they found bare skin and sank in their claws. No venom this time, but a drain. They sucked her power like leeches, and the blackness deepened.
Six years of exile, seven friends dead, and fuck-all to show for it. Scowling, Griffin Dare pulled the two-liter Coke out of the refrigerator. A traitor still sat on the mages’ Southeastern U.S. Shire Council, the governing and training body for the region’s mages. That unknown bastard was working with ghouls to send unsuspecting mages to their deaths.
Griff and his team, the baker’s dozen he could trust to keep his secrets, just weren’t enough to turn the tide. When he’d gone rogue at twenty-eight, he hadn’t dreamed his fight for justice would take this long.
He took a big swallow of Coke. Too bad high-fructose corn syrup couldn’t clear the ammonialike venom from his blood. He’d acquired it, as mages often did, through ghoul- inflicted battle wounds. Unfortunately, he’d been alone, unable to reach a healer, and there’d been too much venom in him for his immune system to cleanse.
At least the soda masked the faint ammonia flavor in his mouth. Grimacing at the sweet aftertaste, he set the bottle back inside the fridge. The brief blast of cold air gave him a few seconds of relief from the night’s muggy heat.
Padding barefoot across the plank flooring, he wiped sweat off his face with one arm. Only the bedroom had air-conditioning, and he rarely used it. It cut the humidity but garbled his sense of the life energy from birds and other creatures in the nearby Okefenokee Swamp. His second-floor quarters in the abandoned, run-down chair factory didn’t look like much, but living near the swamp let his power continually recharge, helped control the venom level in his blood.
A sluggish breeze stirred the blue and green glass witch balls hanging at the windows, part of his defense system. A strand of his dark hair fell in his face, and he shoved it back, frowning at the police reports and newspaper clippings spread out on the battered walnut table. The recent increases in violent crime, especially gory murders, pointed to ghoul plans for something big, something involving dark powers.
The dark of the moon, in just under two weeks, would be prime time for such a rite, but for what? And where would it happen?
The ghouls usually focused on kidnapping Mundanes or mages to breed, but they wouldn’t need blood magic for that. Was this a final push to wipe out the mages, whose numbers had dwindled while the ghouls’ grew? Even with the numerical advantage, could the ghouls manage that?
If they did, there’d be no one to stand between the ghouls and complete domination of humanity.
His second-in-command, Will Davis, was an ace researcher, with two doctoral degrees to prove it. Griff reached for his phone. Good thing using his magical tracking skills as a “psychic consultant” for the Feds had netted him an untraceable cell number.
Mage power blasted through his perimeter ward, its echo like a slap in his brain. On reflex, his personal shields flared around him, a faint shimmer in the air as he summoned his quarterstaff. The seven-foot, wrist-thick, ash shaft struck his palm, silver end caps and inlaid copper runes glowing with power on contact. He wheeled to face the threat.
The wave of power broke against his shield, then rolled past him on either side. With it came fury, fear, and a desperate cry for help.
As abruptly as it had come, it vanished. Griff remained in position with his shields up. Somewhere nearby, a mage was in trouble. Or pretended to be. How better to lure him out of hiding than to make him think a mage was in lethal danger? Shielding didn’t survive translocation, so if he answered that call, he’d be vulnerable to ambush when he arrived.
Infusing emotion in a magic wave, though, required great skill, and the intensity, the terror, in the call had felt real.
A vision flashed over his sight—darkness, a pine forest. Missy, the cashier at the bakery in the town of Wayfarer, and Todd, the bakery delivery boy, kneeling before a bloodied altar.
The scene shifted. He looked down a rutted, overgrown lane as a woman in a car behind him said, “We’re not having that fight now. Get in.”
Then he sat in the ritual grotto at the Collegium, the mages’ Georgia base, in the obsidian seat of truth, chained to it, hurting in every pore, doomed but desperate to protect a woman. From what? And who was she?
The vision winked out. Foresight was as much a curse as a gift, hard to interpret, and even harder to control. He had no time to puzzle over it now, though.
Griff shook his head, refocusing on the fading remnants of that power burst. A mage needed help. Honor, the last reminder of his old life, demanded he help, no matter the risk. He pulled power from the swamp and translocated.
Seconds later, Griff arrived in a rush of cold near the swamp, in a clearing he recognized. A clunky, blue Toyota sedan stood at the clearing’s far edge, about thirty yards away.
Four ghouls pinned a feebly struggling woman against the car’s hood. Her clothes hung in tatters. A tangle of golden brown hair hid her face, but her agony and the ghouls’ triumph vibrated in the heavy air.
That call hadn’t been a trap but a desperate Hail Mary play. Fury at the ghouls boiled in his gut.
At this distance, the woman’s magic should’ve resonated with his, but he could barely sense her. She must be dangerously drained. He had to finish this fast, get her help.
Silently, he crossed toward them, angling left.
Enraptured by their feeding, her captors didn’t notice his advance. Summoning his shield now would create a glow and alert them, and screening himself from view magically would use energy he couldn’t spare in a fight with these odds. Better to rely on stealth. They weren’t shielded, so he knew he could take one easily before they realized he was there.
A body lay near the back bumper, the green skin and reek of ammonia marking it as ghoul and dead. She’d gotten one. Good for her.
A widespread power blast might take them out, but if the bastards had absorbed too much of her energy, he might not have enough to stop them and stay on his feet. He spun his staff, drawing power from the life forces all around, then swung it like a bat into the skull of a thin, dark-haired male.
Crack. The impact vibrated up Griff’s arms as satisfaction rolled through him. One down.
The ghoul stiffened, then crumpled. He fell, dying, his claws raking the captive mage’s chest. The agony in her half gasp, half scream ripped into Griff’s soul. He gritted his teeth against the echo of her pain in the magic they shared.
As Griff’s shields flared around him, the other three turned to face him. Their shields sprang to life as a muddy, enveloping haze. His strike glanced off the temple of a thin, blond man. The ghoul staggered but didn’t fall. Shit.
The trio spread out, trying to flank him. Griff backed up. Their prisoner whimpered and collapsed against the bumper. Blood seeped from wounds in her neck, arms, torso, and inner thighs. His lips tightened. He would enjoy making these ghoul scum pay.
The female ghoul flicked out a thick baton, and the heavy-set blond whipped out nunchuks. The third ghoul, a burly, brown-haired male, popped a switchblade. Drunk with the power they’d absorbed from the mage, they wavered on their feet.
Nunchuks first. Griff watched them spin, timing them, then whipped the staff up against the connecting chain.
A twist of his wrist wrapped the chain around his staff, breaking the ghoul’s grip, and he flung the nunchuks into the night. In the same movement, he swung the staff’s low end up in an arc. The ghoul’s cheekbone and jaw shattered, partial payback for the wounded mage’s agony. With an outraged cry, the male staggered backward.
The woman lunged at Griff’s back. He pivoted to slam a side kick into her gut. Her newly fed power hadn’t stabilized, and his magic easily drove his foot through her flimsy shields. She fell backward with a gurgling sound, clutching her midsection.
Before he could follow up, the stocky knife wielder charged. Griff feinted toward the male’s face. The ghoul tried to stab under the blow. Griff slashed down against the knife arm. Bone cracked at the impact. The ghoul cried out. His knife fell to the dirt.
Griff jabbed his staff’s end into the male’s chest, easily breaching the unstable shields. Morere, Griff thought. He shoved the command along the staff, so the silver end cap flared brilliant white, and into the flesh. Sta cor, he added to stop the heart.
The ghoul gasped before falling near the crumpled mage. With a snap like a twig breaking, his life force snuffed out.
Two parasites down, two to go.
The female ghoul jerked to her feet. Baton in a guard position, she charged. Griff started a low, fast push with one hand, then shifted the fake-out move into a whack against her ribs. He heard one crack as she lurched sideways.
Behind him, magic flared, the injured male assimilating the power he’d stolen. Griff pivoted. An arm-size tree branch smashed through his shield. He dodged, but it scraped his shoulder.
The ghouls had absorbed the wounded mage’s power. Each was now temporarily stronger than he was. Shit. The woman shuddering against the car must’ve been at the upper end of the power scale.
She would be again. He’d see to it.
Her labored, whimpering breaths signaled fading strength and power. He had to finish this.
Retreating, using the swamp to cover his back, he pulled energy from the plants and animals. He focused magic through thurisaz, the P-shaped rune on his staff, amplifying his blast. It struck the male ghoul in the chest, knocking him off his feet, and hurled him into a live oak by the black water. He fell, twitched, and lay still. Dead.
Three down. One left to pay back.
Depleted by the blast, Griff’s power sputtered. Hastily, he drew from the swamp again as a shriek of fury and pain came from behind him.
He wheeled. The female twitched in the dirt, then lay still. Behind her, the wounded mage sagged against the car hood with a switchblade in one hand. Her other hand was clamped to her eyes, and she made choked sounds through gritted teeth. Between her fingers seeped thick, muddy fluid. Venom.
If the ghoul had raked her eyes, every second counted.
Hurrying to her, he caught the coppery scent of blood under the stinging ammonia stench. He glanced at the dead female, and his lips twitched up into a grim half smile. The mage had either more strength or more guts than he’d thought. She’d stabbed the female in the kidney.
“They’re dead,” he told her. “You’re safe now.” A jerky nod answered him. “Eyes.”
“Did she scratch them? I see venom on your face.” He touched her shoulder gently, feeding her power in the contact.
She gave an abrupt headshake and clenched her jaw around a sob. “Need help,” she gritted out. “Healers—”
“I have some training.” No way was he calling the Collegium authorities. He propped his staff against the car. “Let me look.”
Gently, keeping his fingers light on her shoulder, he used his other hand to tug hers from her eyes. That full, lush mouth and determined chin looked familiar, but he could worry about that later. He brushed tangled strands of hair aside to touch the swelling around one eye gently, and she winced.
“Easy.” He probed lightly with his power.
Judging by the way she squinted, she was trying to focus, to see him. He couldn’t let her. At least the swelling and reactive tears would blur his features. “No scratches, but close your eyes so the air doesn’t aggravate the burn.”
“Need healers,” she choked. “Experts.” Biting her lip, she blinked at him as though trying to clear her eyes. They suddenly widened. “You look—you’re— No!”
She wrenched back against his hold, swinging feebly at him with the knife. Tried to gather power for another burst.
Shit. He forced both arms behind her to catch her wrists in one of his hands. “You’re safe, I swear,” he said.
She’d suffered horribly, which made what he meant to do despicable, but she left him no choice. Clapping his hand over her eyes, he muttered, “Dormi,” and fed power into the word.
Asleep, she sagged against him, and he gathered her close. Taller than he’d thought, with a lithe build, she felt solid. Her bare arms under the blood looked toned. Her strength hadn’t helped her much today, though.
He would have to call Stefan, whose healing skills far surpassed his own. Then they would figure out how to return her to Collegium circles and, if necessary, confuse her about his identity. Despite her panic, she might not have actually recognized him. She could’ve been hallucinating from venom poisoning.
He slid a hand under her knees and lifted. Her head lolled back against his shoulder. Her hair fell out of her face. He saw her clearly for the first time and almost dropped her.
Despite the swelling around her eyes, he knew those strong, elegant features. He’d studied them—and her—often enough.
In his arms lay Valeria Banning, his successor as Reeve of the Southeastern U.S. Shire. He’d saved a woman duty-bound to kill him.