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Bewitched & Betrayed

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Bewitched & Betrayed

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Author: Lisa Shearin
Publisher: Ace Books, 2010
Series: Raine Benares: Book 4
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Raine Benares is a seeker. She finds lost things and missing people - usually alive. But now she's been bonded with the Saghred, a soul-stealing stone of unlimited power, and must hunt down its escapees. Especially since one of them is also hunting her.


Excerpt

Bewitched and Betrayed
Chapter 1

I was being chased by a pissed off naked guy with a knife. A really big knife.

Him being naked was expected since I was doing my ducking, weaving, and dodging down a hall in the Isle of Mid's finest bordello. You'd think that the worst that could happen to me was acute embarrassment and possible death. But this naked guy was possessed by the specter of a three-thousand-year-old, evil elven sorcerer who'd turned Mid's red-light district into his personal playground. I'd interrupted recess, and he was mad as hell.

My name is Raine Benares, and I'm a seeker. Tonight I'd found what I was looking for, as well as things I never wanted to see. The men who frequented The Satyr's Grove were here because they had money, not muscle tone. These weren't your finer specimens of manhood. And believe me, I got to see enough manhoods and fleeing pasty white posteriors to last me a lifetime.

Even worse, the sorcerer's specter had picked himself a young, fit, and fast body, not an old, flabby, and slow one. But on the upside, apparently slinging spells was a challenge when wearing someone else's skin. Hence the big knife and bad attitude.

There were screams, shouts, and chaos from the first and second floors. We now had the third floor hallway all to ourselves. Everyone had either fled downstairs, or barricaded themselves in the bedrooms that lined the hall. Unfortunately in The Satyr's Grove, the more expensive ladies were on the top floor, and our quarry had decided to splurge. I'd gotten separated from my Guardian bodyguards in the stampede of working girls and clients on the two floors below. I couldn't stop to wait for them. I'd been tracking this specter all week; I'd found him, and he was not getting away.

We'd had a plan, a good plan, but like most plans I'd been involved with lately, it'd gone straight down the crapper moments after implementation. I was upstairs, the specter was upstairs, but the man with the containment box to trap the specter was somewhere in the chaos downstairs.

"Get him to stand still," shrieked the necromancer.

Yeah, I was sure he'd do that, just as soon as he got close enough to start killing me. The specter-possessed man was chasing me. Sid the necromancer was chasing the man, waving around a little drawstring bag of something he'd promised would keep the specter in his host body until an exorcist could extract him. With a choice of a naked guy with a knife versus an evil sorcerer with three thousand years of practice, I was all for the specter staying right where he was. Then it wouldn't matter if the containment box that was downstairs found its way upstairs. Whenever we'd gotten a lead, one of the necromancers from the college's necrology department had gone with us. Sid had definitely drawn the short straw tonight.

My job had been to find the specter; that'd been the easy part. But judging from the ruckus and outraged upper-class sounding voices coming from downstairs, Mychael and his boys had caught some of Mid's elite with their trousers down or their robes up. Being caught being naughty by the commander of the Conclave Guardians and a dozen of his best knights had heaped mortification on top of outrage.

So until Mychael could cut through that crowd with the containment box, it was just me and Sid.

And a dead-end hallway.

Oh crap.

I drew a long dagger and spun to face tall, naked, and pissed--and he stopped dead in his tracks, eyes wide in recognition. He probably didn't know who I was, but he knew what I was.

What he saw was a slender elf with red-gold hair, pale skin probably paler than usual right now, and gray eyes wide with either mere panic or basic terror. But the thing he sensed coiled and eagerly waiting inside of me was what froze him to the spot.

The Isle of Mid was haunted. Not by chain-rattling, cold spot, moaning sort of specters. This sorcerer and five of his co-conspirators had escaped from the Saghred, a soul-stealing stone of unlimited power. They weren't dead, but they weren't exactly alive, either. A couple thousand years ago, this guy had probably tried to use the Saghred to do something he shouldn't, and by some mishap had gotten himself sucked inside.

Through a few mishaps of my own, I was linked to the Saghred. My life's goal had become to find a way to sever that link, but for now the rock and I were locked in a struggle of wills. It wanted me to use its power so it could take my soul or possibly my sanity one nibble at a time, but mostly it wanted me to feed it. And right now, it wanted the ancient shadow I saw reflected in the man's eyes, and it wanted it badly. My link to the Saghred made me the Conclave Guardians' specter-hunting bloodhound. Not only could I sense the specters, I could see them. Lucky me.

No way in hell was I going to be a straw for the Saghred to slurp up stray souls, and I didn't want to kill the host body. That would just force the specter out, and Sid and I were not equipped to handle that alone. Besides, this poor naked bastard had just been looking to get laid, not possessed. I didn't want to kill him, but the specter inside of him didn't share my moral dilemma.

His eyes glittered in the dim light. That was all the warning I got.

He lunged. I dropped into a low crouch, and his knife missed me by an inch and a hair, slashing the scarlet and gilt wallpaper covering the wall behind me.

I hadn't survived my thirty-something years by being squeamish. I twisted my body, going for an uppercut straight into his nuts, what I got was his fist on my back, pounding me flat to the floor and knocking the air out of me. His knife was going to follow his fist. I needed to roll, move, anything, but all my body could manage was a wheezing gasp. Stupid body. I managed to turn my head to the side and sank my teeth into his ankle.

He bellowed in pain and rage, and I felt a thump as Sid the necromancer jumped on his back and began beating him on the head with his drawstring pouch of ghost dust, pixie powder, or whatever the hell it was. I used the distraction to drag, crawl, and finally scramble my way out of knife range. Once I was on my feet, I drew my sword from the harness on my back. The naked guy whirled face me while reaching back over his shoulder, trying to dislodge Sid. I had to hand it to the little necromancer; he held on with the tenacity of a tick. One thin arm was locked around the man's throat, while the other continued to beat him on the head with the pouch--that is, until the naked guy snatched it away from him.

Oh damn.

Sid's lips began desperately moving in silent incantation. Fast as a striking snake, the man had the tip of his knife under Sid's chin, took a quick step back, and pinned the necromancer to the wall like a bug. A thin stream of blood ran down the blade. Sid whimpered. The fingers of the man's other hand closed around the pouch.

I held out my hands, palms out. "Sid, don't try anything else," I told him, like the necromancer had a choice. I just didn't want to give the specter any more reasons to kill him.

"Listen to her, or not, little human." The elven sorcerer's voice was a deep rasp emerging from the man's throat, the rasp of a voice unused for thousands of years. An amused voice. Amused wasn't good coming from a sorcerer with a couple of millennia of dark deeds and malicious mayhem under his belt. He spoke to Sid, but his gleaming eyes were locked on mine. "It matters not. I am finished with this body for the evening. I can find another. Perhaps yours, necromancer," the last word came out as a lascivious rasp. "I can easily flow from this body into yours." The specter caused the man's lips to curl in a slow grin, and I saw the shadow of the elf's face as if it were floating just beneath the man's skin. His face was gaunt, his lips thin, and his hairline receding. No wonder he grabbed the best-looking body he could find.

"Are you up for an evening of sport?" the elven specter was asking Sid. "There are other establishments we could patronize. What say you, little man?"

My blade was worthless against the sorcerer. He knew it, and so did I. Even if I killed his host body, he would flow into Sid, or through the nearest wall and there wasn't a damned thing I could do to stop him.

But the Saghred could. It could stop him, take him, and have him for a late night snack--through me. Though if I used one iota of the Saghred's power to stop him, I didn't think I could stop the power from taking me. It'd happened before with three demons. I vaporized them, and the only way I'd kept myself from sharing their fate was to discharge the surge of power by destroying another demon the size of a small house. I'd squashed him like a wet sponge--right before I passed out. Right now, I was in a building packed with people. I couldn't let the Saghred off its leash, but the sorcerer didn't know that.

I tried to swallow, but my mouth was bone dry. "You're forgetting the rock." I said it slowly and deliberately. It was the only way I'd keep my voice from shaking. My legs were already shaking. They wanted to run; they had the right idea.

The sorcerer drew the man's body up to his full height. "And you're forgetting your place. The Saghred must indeed be desperate to accept a bond servant such as you." The smile widened into a teeth-baring grin, and the man's eyes went completely black. The lamps in the hall slowly dimmed to mere pinpricks of flame, and the bottom dropped out of the temperature. Two of those flames were reflected in the man's black orbs. It was highly theatrical and spooky as hell. "The goblin has told us about you, the elven seeker who battled the queen of demons. I must admit my disappointment."

It was more like a rolling-around-on-the-floor catfight than a battle, but I wasn't about to tell him that. The goblin he referred to was Sarad Nukpana. Blackest of the black mages. Psychotic for the fun of it. Prisoner of the Saghred until said queen plunged a demonic dagger into the rock and opened the way for his escape, along with five other inmates he'd plotted with on the inside. Now they were all outside with us.

I felt the sorcerer's specter gathering power, probing at my will. The air constricted, tightened, cold and brittle. Too tight to breathe, too cold to bear.

"Yes, you are weak, afraid. You will not take souls into yourself," the sorcerer taunted, the heat of the man's breath frosted the air with each word. He laughed, a hollow, ugly sound. "I'm leaving, and I'm taking the necromancer with me. Attempt to follow me and you will both die."

I had no backup--and no choice.

The sorcerer knew I wouldn't take his soul, but the Saghred had other ideas. The rock was starving, so I let it rear its head. I could handle rearing; rearing wasn't taking. I wasn't firing the cannon; I was merely opening the hatch.

And hunger gripped me, fierce and overwhelming.

I was starving. I had always hungered, never been satisfied, eternally needing, forever wanting. I couldn't remember a time when I hadn't been starving. I had been teased with food, so close, the souls writhing helplessly within my reach then snatched away, denying me yet again. I would be deprived no longer. Food was here before me, offering itself, teasing, tempting.

Mine.

The sorcerer made a low sound of satisfaction, and the eyes of the man he possessed no longer reflected flame, they were flame. "There you are." His voice was a caressing whisper. "I knew you wouldn't be able to resist coming out to play."

The crazy son of a bitch was talking to the rock.

He was talking to me.

"Yes, we have spent much time together. I know its needs, its desires." He took one step toward me, then another. "It wants me, almost more than it can bear. You feel its hunger, don't you? I know you do. Your eyes burn with its need. As bond servant, the Saghred's desires are your desires." The man's mouth twisted into a leer as did the shadow lips of the elf possessing him. "Do you want me, servant? There are rooms here in which we may fulfill many such desires. Come to me now and I will allow the necromancer to live."

Take him, take him now.

I dimly felt my right foot slide along the floor, trying to take a step toward him, wanting to go to him, my need overpowering. My breath hissed in and out between clenched teeth, the muscles in my legs were shaking with effort not to move. I would not move; I would fight both of them--the specter and the Saghred. But part of me wanted to give in to the hunger, rush forward and take what was mine. Yes. I would feast on the traitorous spirit, the sorcerer who dared to pit his pathetic power against mine. I would take and rip--

"Raine!"

That strong, deep voice turned my name into a command and a lifeline, raw magical power given voice.

My mind instantly cleared. The sorcerer was a specter; the body encasing him was just a man.

I screamed and lunged, the point of my sword going between the man's fingers, puncturing the pouch of Sid's dust, sending a glittering cloud of glowing blue into the air.

"No!" Two voices screamed their denial--both man and specter. The man flung Sid to the floor and brushed frantically at the powder. It stuck to his skin, then it disappeared under his skin, and the blue glow intensifying, consuming, until the man was glowing from inside. His eyes went blank, his mouth open and gasping. The specter screamed alone, high and keening as the man he possessed slowly sank to his knees, his eyes closing, his body falling forward.

The lamps along the hall brightened, and I leaned back against the wall, taking one deep, shuddering breath, then another. The man sprawled at my feet was still breathing, albeit raggedly, the sorcerer's specter trapped inside. For now.

A few of the doors started opening, heads tentatively peeking out. They took one look at the hard face of the armored man--the owner of that commanding voice--striding down the hall toward me and slammed them shut again. His armor was dark, sleek steel and custom fit, conforming to his leanly muscled body almost like a second skin. No armorer was that good; magic was definitely involved when it was forged.

Paladin Mychael Eiliesor was the top law enforcement officer on the island, and as paladin and commander of the Conclave Guardians, he was in charge of the most elite magical fighting force in the seven kingdoms. He was a master spellsinger, healer, and warrior, lethally skilled in battlefield magic. What had happened downstairs had constituted a raid, even if it was only a raid looking for the naked man sprawled at my feet. A lot of Mid's social elite were probably climbing out windows right now, some of them may have even remembered their clothes.

I felt the sense of controlled power emanating from him as closed the distance between us. He was a man with a purpose, and that purpose was me.

Sid sank to his knees, hand clutching his throat. "It worked," he said in utter disbelief. He took his hand away, looked down at the blood and turned kind of pasty.

I was incredulous. "What do you mean, 'it worked'?"

"I've never used that formula on anything that old. It worked on a six-hundred-year-old poltergeist last year, but I have to admit it was touch and go there for a minute."

A strong hand rested on my shoulder, and I shivered. Mychael's hand was warm and I didn't realize how cold I was.

I turned my head to look up at him. "As always your timing is perfect."

That wasn't all I thought was perfect about Mychael Eiliesor, but I'd been trying to keep those thoughts to myself lately. As a red-blooded, breathing woman, believe me it wasn't easy. I could tell myself that Mychael was just your basic tall, hot, and handsome elf, but there was a lot more to him than met the eye.

The bordello's hall was dimly lit, but I could see Mychael well enough, and what I couldn't see, I knew all too well. Auburn hair, chiseled features, elven ears elegantly pointed and temptingly nibbleable. His eyes were that mix of blue and pale green only found in warm, tropical seas. Eyes that reflected a razor-sharp intelligence, watchful eyes that missed nothing.

He hadn't missed what had almost happened to me.

"My timing could have been better." I could hear the anger in his voice, aimed at himself not at me. "You were alone."

He stepped around me and knelt next to the unconscious man and pulled his hands behind his back, securing them with a pair of manacles. I heard the hum when the locks clicked. Magic-sapping manacles. If the man woke up and the specter along with him, neither one would be able to do any damage, at least not of the magical variety.

I took a shaky breath and blew it out. "Well, next time we won't chase a specter into a cathouse while there's an orgy's going on. Did you know any of them?"

Mychael stood and chuckled softly. "Just all of them. A few visiting dignitaries, a minor elven royal, and more than a few Conclave officials."

Sid whistled. "That must have been some party."

Mychael grinned. "Let's just say I got to see a different side of our government at work."

I grimaced. "Glad I missed that; I got to see more than enough up here."

"So it appears. Never let it be said that I don't take a lady to interesting places." Mychael glanced down at the manacled naked guy at our feet. "And speaking of having seen enough..." He turned and pounded once on the nearest door with his fist. "Blanket, please." The words were polite; the force and the volume demanded a response.

Sounds of scrambling came from inside, and the door opened just far enough for a hairy-backed hand to push a blanket through. The door quickly closed, and at least three deadbolts were thrown. Mychael made good use of the blanket, and the naked, possessed guy was finally covered.

"One down, five to go," I said. "I'm going to take this as a sign that our luck's about to improve."

"Raine, you were going to go to him." Mychael's voice was in my head, his words for me alone. It was smart way to communicate, considering that where we were standing was about as public as you could get. And for a necromancer, Sid was a nice enough sort, but neither one of us wanted him or anyone else to know the details of what had almost happened.

"No chance," I tried for a quip. "Neither one of them was my type."

"Type doesn't matter and you know it."

"Mychael, I'm the only one who can track these things."

"Next time you'll track; we'll retrieve."

I wasn't going to argue with him now. There'd be plenty of time for that later. First, I had to find the next escaped soul--before their ringleader found me.

Sarad Nukpana was an evil that I could almost smell in the air. I glanced at the man on the floor. I could see the faint, dark outline of the elven sorcerer trapped inside. And now the evil could touch me right back. The evil stalking me was breathing down the back of my neck. Not literally, but I could sense the gloating, the anticipation, the eagerness of Sarad Nukpana close to getting what he wanted.

Me.

Nearly two months ago, to keep Sarad Nukpana from sacrificing someone I loved like a brother to the Saghred, I had tricked him into picking up the stone with his bloody hand. In that moment, the Saghred considered him a sacrifice and took him, destroyed his body, and imprisoned his soul. As far as Nukpana was concerned, no body equaled my fault. The bastard would love to take mine.

It had been three weeks since Sarad Nukpana and his allies had escaped the Saghred, three weeks that I'd been hunting him--and he'd been haunting me.

I hadn't even come close to finding him, not yet. The goblin was being smart; he had too much at stake to do anything other than execute his plan. Sarad Nukpana wanted the Saghred and all the kingdom-crushing power that came with it--that and vengeance against me and a number of people I cared about, Mychael included. Our best guess had him holed up in the goblin embassy where there were plenty of magically powerful and politically influential people to possess. Nukpana could take his pick. And even though Mychael was the top law officer on Mid, he couldn't legally set foot in the goblin embassy. If he did, it'd be an act of war. Mychael wasn't holding his breath that an engraved invitation was going to be delivered to his office in the citadel. And with the Saghred in the citadel behind heavily guarded and warded doors, Mychael wasn't going to be inviting anyone from anywhere over for a visit.

We heard booted feet running up the stairs. Vegard didn't even pause at the head of the stairs, but covered the distance to us with long strides. Vegard Rolfgar was a Guardian. He was also big, blond, and human; and as my personal bodyguard, he had his work cut out for him. Let's just say guarding me was a challenge.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," he told me.

"Not your fault, Vegard." I gave him a half grin. "How did you know you were going to get caught in a stampede of screaming, half-naked working girls?"

Mychael scowled. "You wouldn't have been separated from him if you had waited rather than storming up here."

"I wasn't going to lose this one," I said a little more forcefully than I'd intended.

"Instead you'd rather risk losing yourself," said his voice in my head.

Mychael knew what had almost happened as if it had been happening to him. And in a way, it had. Mychael and I were two-thirds of an umi'atsu bond; an intimate, magical bond that usually linked only two mages, binding them first through their magic, then hearing, sight, and finally their minds and souls. After that, an umi'atsu bond could only be broken by death. Body and soul become one; magically mated, if you will. The level of magical talent I was born with came nowhere near mage level. Ever since the Saghred had latched on to me like a psychic leech, my so-so powers had gotten one hell of a boost, and no one knew what my limits were. And in a first as far as umi'atsu bonds were concerned, there was a third mage bonded with us--Tamnais Nathrach, a goblin aristocrat, nightclub owner, and quasi-rehabilitated dark mage. Tam was also a good friend of mine. Some considered an umi'atsu bond much like a marriage, which made my intimate connection to two gorgeous and powerful men more awkward than I wanted to think about.

Vegard handed me a dark cloak. "You dropped this downstairs, ma'am."

I took it and draped it over my arm. "Thank you, Vegard." I'd been cloaked when I came in here, and no doubt Mychael wanted me to wear it when I left. Thanks to the Saghred, I was in enough trouble with a lot of influential people on this island; I didn't need to add to it by being seen leaving the city's most lavish and notorious bordello.

Vegard indicated the blanket-covered man. "Sir, the coach is waiting outside," he told Mychael.

I knew where that coach would take him--a containment room in the lower levels of the citadel, where an exorcist would be waiting for the man and the ancient specter who had possessed him. Fortunately for the poor bastard, he'd only been possessed a few hours ago. If the specter had been inside of him from one sunrise until the next, the possession would have been permanent.

Four Guardians arrived with a stretcher. They put the man on it, securely strapped him down, and started down the hall toward the stairs. I started to follow. Mychael's hand on my arm stopped me.

"Professor," he said to Sid. "Please accompany my men. I'll escort Miss Benares out another way."

Sid nodded solemnly. "It's not exactly a proper place for a lady to be seen leaving."

"No, it's not."

Once Sid and the Guardians were on the stairs, Mychael took my hand and started toward the wall the naked guy had pinned Sid against.

"Uh, Mychael. That's a wall."

A corner of his lips curled in a crooked grin as he ran his free hand behind a wall lamp. There was a click, and a section of the wall opened.

I laughed once and shook my head. "Damn, there was another way out." I looked up at his sea blue eyes sparkling in the lamplight. "And you knew about this how?"

He winked at me. "This isn't the first time I've been here."

"You don't say. And you know your way around, too."

We stepped into the darkness. Mychael spoke a soft word, and lamps flickered to life, lighting the way down a narrow staircase.

"I know the floorplan of every bordello on this island," he told me. "It's part of my job."

"And which job would that be?"

"Prostitution is legal here, as is gambling." His smile vanished. "But there are other things that are highly illegal. Many of those acts are committed in places such as these, sometimes with the knowledge of the proprietor, most of the time without."

Mychael's hand tightened on mine to assist me down the steep stairs, and a familiar surge of energy radiated from that point of contact throughout the rest of my body. I knew from past experience that Mychael was feeling the same shiver of raw sensation. We shared a bond all our own that had nothing to do with the Saghred. We didn't know what it was; we just knew it was getting stronger. But we had bigger problems to deal with. Sarad Nukpana and evil specters first; deliciously tingly and mysterious magical bonds later.

At the bottom of the stairs was a simple wooden door that provided us with a discrete exit to a side street next to a perfectly respectable bakery.

As we neared the main boulevard, Mychael reluctantly released my hand.

****************************

Phaelan grinned and his eyes sparkled as he watched the Guardians load the stretcher in the coach. "I was right; the old guy wanted to get laid."

I sighed and shook my head.

Captain Phaelan Benares was my cousin by relation, and a seafaring businessman by trade. The Benares family had extensive interests in shipping and finance. That's how the family saw it. Law enforcement in every major port and city in the seven kingdoms called Phaelan a pirate, and our family a criminal dynasty. I walked the fine line of being a member of the Benares family, but not being in the family business. My family didn't understand why; law enforcement didn't believe me.

Phaelan had been the one to come to the conclusion that if a man had spent the past couple thousand years trapped inside a soul-sucking rock, the first thing he'd want to do wouldn't have anything to do with world domination. He suggested checking Mid's brothels and asking the working girls about their clients. Did they have any new ones? Were any regulars asking for something a little irregular? Naturally, Phaelan and some of his crew volunteered for duty.

"Yes, you were right," I told him. "You don't have to be so happy about it."

"Why shouldn't I be? I'm a man proud to do his civic duty."

"By finding a sorcerer in a cathouse."

"By endangering myself for the greater public good."

"By talking to every working girl in the city?"

"And flushing out any new perverts in town. Someone had to do it, and Mychael couldn't spare the men to do the legwork." Phaelan indicated the coach that was pulling away. "And it looks like it went well."

I snorted. "Oh yeah, it was a piece of cake."

A buxom, blue-eyed blonde working girl sashayed by with a come-hither glance at Phaelan and legwork took on a whole new meaning.

"Speaking of treats," he said, moving to follow her.

I grabbed him by the arm.

Phaelan wasn't particularly tall, but he was dark and definitely handsome. Many of the working girls obviously had working eyes, and were doing their best to give my cousin the come hither. Phaelan's dark eyes were busy remembering the cream of the crop for later visits.
Once the coach was safely on its way, Mychael came over to where we were. Vegard had been guarding me from a discrete distance. He was supposed to stick to me like glue, but he was considerate enough to occasionally give me a little breathing room.

"I take it you received my bill?" Phaelan asked Mychael once he was close enough.

I couldn't believe my ears. "You billed him?"

Phaelan looked mildly insulted. "Mid's establishments aren't cheap. I merely wanted reimbursement for services rendered."

I laughed once. "For services rendered to you."

My cousin waved a negligent hand. "Same thing." He beamed with his new-found civic pride. "I believe in being thorough. And I'm only billing him for half. The Fortune has been anchored in Mid's harbor for damned near two months. We've never stayed anywhere this long; my men were getting restless, so I footed the bill for half."

"How generous of you."

"I thought so. My men are happy; you bagged yourself a ghost."

"Specter," I corrected him.

"Same thing."

"One's dead, the other is not."

"Whatever. Either way, tonight was a win-win for me and Mychael."

I turned to Mychael. "And you agreed to this?"

Mychael smiled slightly. "It seemed a small price to pay. I've got enough problems; I didn't want to add 'restless' pirates to the list. It kept the peace."

Phaelan's grinned wickedly. "And we got a piece."

There was a commotion at the entrance to The Satyr's Grove.

"Stay here," Mychael told me. "Phaelan, Vegard--"

Vegard stepped up beside me. "Keeping her here, sir."

Mychael's eyes met mine. "I'll be right back."

Phaelan's civic-mindedness had helped snare one Saghred escapee, but there were five more out there--and one of them was Sarad Nukpana. The others appeared to be sticking to the goblin's plan; and worse, they were saving their collective strength, or at least they weren't wasting it in bordellos. All that power, millennia of intelligence--and it had a purpose.

I looked around us. At nearly two bells in the morning, the red-light district was a busy place. The entire city was busy, day or night. The Isle of Mid was home to the most prestigious college for sorcery, as well as the Conclave, the governing body for all magic users in the seven kingdoms. Thousands of students and mages, and somewhere among them were the specters of five escaped sorcerers, spirits without bodies. The one tonight had taken a body for fun; the others were stalking bodies for power. Mychael had safety measures in place for the students, though he thought that the students would be safe. The specters were after power, so a teenager sputtering through his or her first spells need not apply.

Mychael had made sure that everyone on the island was aware of the situation. But for the vast majority of those on Mid, it was school and business as usual. Public opinion split between not believing in what they deemed ghosts or believing they were qualified to protect themselves. They practiced magic, yet they didn't believe in ghosts.

The public were idiots.

There was plenty of horse and coach traffic along the cobbled and lamp-lit streets. Many of the coaches clearly cost a small fortune, and no doubt their occupants were shopping for equally expensive company. The curtains on most of the coaches were closed. Rich men or women who couldn't afford--or couldn't risk--a house call didn't want to advertise to everyone that they were anywhere near here.

A gleaming black coach stopped in front of us to allow another coach to cross at the intersection. It was pulled by four sleek, black horses. I didn't particularly care for horses, and they didn't particularly care for me, but I had to admire this team; they were magnificent animals. The coachman was cloaked, his collar pulled up, his hat pulled low.

"Bravo, little seeker," he called out. "You deserve a gift."

I froze. I knew that voice from dozens of nightmares. The coachman turned his face toward me: handsome and smiling.

And solid.

Sarad Nukpana. He wasn't a specter. He was solid.

Oh shit.

The coach door opened and a dead body was pushed into the gutter at my feet. The goblin cracked his whip and the horses ran as if the devil himself had their reins. Sarad Nukpana's taunt carried back to me.

"The first of many, little seeker."

Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Shearin


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