Andris stalked into the white mage’s chamber in a cloud of irritation, ignoring the newest statue, gleaming and gaudy, decorating the far corner of the enormous room. Why anyone needed this much space, he couldn’t say, but the room screamed conceit. A large self-portrait hung above a sweeping fireplace, drawing the eye. Mirrors dotted the walls, positioned for the best effect to catch and throw back a glimpse of their master. Bronze sculptures or statues, intent on duplicating the white mage’s attributes in some way, littered the tabletops and desk. Unlike Andris’s living quarters, which boasted its owner’s refined grace and subtle workings, Trek liked flashy and extravagant.
“White Mage,” Andris said with a slight bow. Trek demanded formalities: bowing, titles, and often whimpering from those who reported to him.
Those that reported to him…
That concept was beginning to rankle. Trek was blind to his surroundings, unorganized, and completely unable to lead. Andris had not only found him, trained him, and shown him the underbelly of magic working, but he’d put the sniveling fool into his position. At first Andris had gone along with Trek’s illusions of grandeur in order to manipulate him more easily. Now, however, he saw his error. The younger man was starting to don his position like a lead suit in the ocean—he bullied others and created dissension within the ranks. Basically, instead of working together to create a team of power, as a mage and leader should, he was dismembering their advantages.
Andris took a deep breath. He couldn’t set that issue straight at the moment. He had more important loose ends to knot together.
“Ah, Andris, yes.” Trek walked at a measured pace to a large, throne-like chair. His pretentious white cape billowed behind him as he sat. “Have you been able to solve the mystery of how those skulking rejects were able to find our secret fortress? My enchantment, not to mention the underground facility, should have prevented that.”
“I believe Stefan is linked in some way to the girl. He is often able to pinpoint her whereabouts when no one else can.”
“I see. I thought it was something like that. Fine. Any ideas as to how she was able to suck all my power out? I could have burned Stefan from the face of the earth had that strike landed.”
“My source in his establishment did not know. They say her magic does not operate like ours, but they don’t know any more than that. Their Regional and his linked mage are expected within the week to assess.”
“Yes, your source. The same source that gave the task to capture the girl to an incompetent boy.”
Andris curled his hand into a fist. “He did actually deliver the girl. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the information we needed when she was in our possession.”
“True. The black power level has always been a myth. Hmm. How do you plan to amend your failures, then?” Trek's magic crackled with the implied threat.
Andris barely suppressed his chuckle. Maintaining an even voice, he said, “My source wasn’t able to get close to the girl without being detected, but with the Regional coming, there is room to amend that. The girl is untrained. We need to make the grab soon, before she learns to work with her power.”
Trek nodded slowly, his fingers intertwining on his lap. “I’m sure I don’t have to impress upon you how important it is that we get that girl. With her, no one can stand in our way. Not even that group of wrinkly Council members with their circle of white mages. No one! Even if she fails to work with us, which I doubt since you have your ways, I can grow stronger with her blood. I can create Dulcha with exceedingly more power. Maybe even demons. She is the key.”
The lack of speed at which the idiot came to his conclusions was almost awe-inspiring. “Logic, yes, you have some. Splendid.”
The other man’s eyes flashed. Definitely a problem for another day.
“I’m already on it,” Andris stated smoothly. “I am simply informing you of my…our progress.”
“Good then. Carry on.” Trek waved him away with a regal posture.
With a slight nod, Andris turned and stalked from the room.
The human was a huge roadblock. She wasn’t even trained and she had been able to suck all the magic from the room at that last battle. That form of magic did not translate to Andris’s knowledge. If she did learn to use it before they could capture her, she’d be a huge problem to both their way of life, and also their agenda. The enemy would cash in and use her to crush Andris and the other usurpers. All Andris had done thus far would be useless.
She was a great pivot in this war, the winner largely decided by which side she chose. Being that she had allowed Stefan to mark her, clearly she’d already chosen a side, and this left them with two options: use her for her blood, or kill her. Andris would not hesitate to do what was needed. He just had to get close to her.
Which meant he needed to make a call. What good were spies if you never used them?
A smile flashed across Stefan’s breathtakingly handsome face in the failing evening light. “You are so hell bent on not blasting me, you aren’t working the blade. Try again.”
I bounced from foot to foot like a football player waiting for hike. Stefan stood in front of me, large sword held lightly, waiting for me to strike. I feinted left and dove right, slashing with my very sharp dagger. The blade hacked down toward his forearm, making me squint in fear that I would hit him, until he easily shifted at the last second. The blade swept by toward the ground.
Stefan’s laughter echoed off the trees as he wrapped his big tattooed arms around my middle to keep me from landing on my head.
This was his special tutoring. Getting up before nightfall, sneaking out to the wooded area behind his mansion, hanging out in a bunch of trees, and laughing at me as he tried to teach me to use my dagger. I failed to see the humor.
“That was good,” Stefan commended. “I like the feint. Believable.”
I sighed with the feel of him. His strength. His power. The man was made well. Very well.
“Hmmm, chocolate chip cookies. I would love to eat you right now.” His lips trailed up my neck as tingles worked between my thighs. I melted into his arms as he sucked the hot skin on my neck. “But we need to get you using that dagger, so I’ll wait.”
“We have plenty of time for training,” I breathed.
Ignoring my roaming hands, he propped me up, held me away from him for a moment so my Gumby legs could straighten out, then stepped away with a mouth-watering smile.
I tried to force my frazzled brain back to the situation. “Except, I missed with that feint. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a good thing, since if I’d hit you you’d be missing an arm, but still. I can’t be that good. My comic timing, however, seems to be perfect…”
“Sorry, lovely, I can’t help it. Your face goes through all these expressions. Determination first, pa-zazz with the feint, fear when you think you’ll get me, and finally relief right before you land on your face. It’s comical. You have no poker face.”
“You’ve known how to play poker for, literally, forty-eight hours. How would you know about poker face? And what is a pa-zazz face?”
Stefan laughed again. “I’ve been beating you at poker for, literally, the last twenty-four hours,” he mocked. “I like that we upped the stakes. The sexual benefits make it much more fun.”
Being without much money of my own my whole life, I’d always played poker with friends for tokens. Stefan didn’t really get the point of the card game using peanuts, though, so I switched it to strip poker. That got his attention. Then he got the idea to bet sexual favors.
He got really good shortly thereafter. I found myself in some pretty kinky poses with other…paraphernalia that turned out to be quite a lot of fun—for special occasions.
“Beginnerʼs luck,” I commented sourly. “And that was only one game.”
“Several hands in one game, yes. With lots of breaks for touching. I’m one-for-two. After the end of tonight, I’ll be two-for-three. And pleasured often.”
“Okay, Texas Hold ‘Em, focus for one second. Why can’t I make you bleed?” I got back in my ready stance: hands out, knees slightly bent, balls of my feet.
“I’m the best.”
“And modest to boot.”
He shrugged, waiting patiently for me to try and kill him.
I lunged without warning, jabbing for his heart. He stepped right lazily, flicking my dagger away with his sword, the tattoos on his arms glowing gently.
“You aren’t connecting with your magic. That’s the problem.” He focused on my red blade. “You need to use all your power, not just your safety zone.”
“I don’t want to blow you up, Stefan,” I answered seriously, jogging to a stop three paces beyond him. “Red at least is manageable if something goes wrong. If I use black, who knows, you know?”
His smile dwindled. His black eyes regarded me softly. “We have help coming. They’ll know how to train you. They’ll know what to do.”
What he was too kind to say was, “They’ll know why your magic doesn’t work like everyone else’s.” His hope, and mine, was that they could explain why I was different.
All I wanted was to fit in. But Fate continually wanted me the butt of every joke. We were at war, Fate and me. And guess what, Fate was winning. And an ass**le.
“Okay, more power, coming up.” I breathed deeply, opening to the world around me.
Instantly a gush of power flooded my body, raging and flowing, pushing in to fill up every inch. I sent Stefan a panicked look.
Immediately he was there, through the link between us, using his special ability to smooth it all out. Temper it. Balance it.
Elation tingled as the magic swirled and pooled, stretching my skin, making me high. When he was within me, balancing it all out, God I felt good. Masterful. Freaking fantastic!
“Hee yaw, waaka waaka.” I bounced like a boxer and shook out my limbs. “Feeling good. Feeling really good.”
Stefan nodded slowly, his beautiful onyx eyes twinkling. “It gives the feeling of ecstasy if it's balanced right. The blood link—the tie to me—boosts it tenfold, though. It never felt as good to hold max capacity before we developed the blood link.”
His love for me, pulsing through the link, warmed my insides. I smiled like a fool before reality came crashing down. “It seems like it’s getting worse, though. I give a soft tug on the elements and I get a flood, whereas before, I had to actively pull before the avalanche came down.”
All remnants of a smile vanished. “Starting after puberty, we get stronger the more we work with the elements. It’s a steady climb until we reach maximum potential, which happens in everyone at different times. Maybe it’s similar with you.”
“The more I work with the elements, the more open I am to receive them?” I frowned at him. It kind of made sense. “Except I’m already at full power.”
“You’ve had a rough control over your magic for years without knowing it. You’ve had more than enough time to reach max potential, but maybe now, being more open with the elements, it’ll come easier.”
“But why is it such a struggle to contain it all?” I asked sullenly, punctuating the question by stabbing the air.
Stefan minutely shook his head as he studied my mood. “But you do have a lot of power, and with me to balance it out within you, you are learning control. With some better instruction, and your intuition, you’ll be dy***ite.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Dyn-o-mite.”
I got a quirked head in response.
“Never mind. There’s no use in us trying to figure this out. Let’s just hope the guy that’s coming has a clue.”
Stefan dropped his sword and stepped forward so fast I got a nervous flutter he was attacking me. Only, I was still too slow to jab him. He flicked away my dagger and laid a palm on my cheek. “He will. We’ll figure this out, you and me. You aren’t in this alone. I’ve pledged my life to you—I’m in this with you, whatever it turns out to be.”
My eyes misted over with the sentiment. His soft lips brushed mine, the kiss slow and ardent. Expressing his love. Speeding up my heart.
I slid my hand down his defined chest and let it rest on his bumpy abs. “I can’t figure out control over my magic, but I can figure out how to poke things, so I guess I’ll get good at that until these mysterious helpers roll through.”
He gave me one last soft kiss before backing up. His lips curled into a smile. “That’s my girl. Learn to kill monsters while you’re waiting for the next great thing.”
“The next big thing. Is here. That’s an ad. I swear, you and Charles are researching my quirks in the wrong ways. My crazy is not a human problem—it’s specific to me.”
“It’s a good place to start. And the next big thing has been here. Or didn’t you remember getting pounded by it when you woke up?”
I rolled my eyes. “No need to get crude—you’re a man, I hear you roar. Now, prepare to die.”
I lunged at him, magic racing through my limbs, buzzing through my midsection. He rolled away from my blade, barely missed. His glowing sword came up as my dagger sped toward his midsection, blocking at the last moment. On the move again.
“As—ˮ He feinted, making me pivot at the last second, falling behind.
“You—ˮ His sword rushed toward me, causing me to take two fast steps left and smash my dagger against his steel. He was already moving again.
“Wish!” The very tip of his blade flicked at my ribcage, opening a little tear in my shirt.