Authors: Jaime Rush
She held out her hand and let the blue orb float above her palm. “It’s tempting.” The arcs of energy inside flickered eagerly. He didn’t look the least bit concerned, damn him. “You took everything from me. My virginity. My heart. My trust.” Her emotions snowballed as she spoke. “I lost all of that, my mother, and now my father too!” The orb grew as big as a basketball, and the arcs flared as her emotions and voice intensified.
She threw the orb. It hit the wall and exploded in a shower of sparks. She took several deep breaths, hating that he made her feel…so much. Still. She was as angry at herself as she was at him.
He hadn’t moved, though the orb had passed close enough by that he must have felt the heat. “Your father’s gone?”
She replayed her words. Hell, she
said something about losing her father. “Leave, Kirin. Now.”
He walked closer instead, concern on his face. “Lyra would have told me if he’d died.”
Because he cared? Elle crossed her arms in front of her again, a physical shield. “He’s not dead. He’s missing.”
“He hasn’t answered his phone in two days.”
Kirin ran his hand over his mouth.
“What?” she asked. “You know something, don’t you?”
He dropped his hand. “Stop spearing me with that accusatory look. My father is missing too, for the same amount of time.”
Anger unfurled inside her. “Their disappearances have to be connected. Your father did something to mine.”
He held up his hand. “Let’s not jump—”
“That’s what it has to be. Both men go missing at the same time? Come on. You can’t ignore that, too.”
His upper lip lifted in a snarl. “I’m not ignoring anything. Yes, it’s too much of a coincidence to mean nothing. But if my father did something to your father, why would
disappear? If he killed your mother, as you believe, he didn’t run then. Why run now?” He crossed his arms over his chest, mirroring her defensive posture. “Maybe your father did something to mine.”
“You’re crazy! My father would never hurt anyone, even as much as he hated Stein.”
Except he’d had that determined glint in his eyes. Her fear was suicide, but no, he wouldn’t do that to her. She abhorred thinking he would do something to Stein, but the idea had planted itself, roots digging insidiously into her brain. It had scared her, that look, that feeling of purpose.
“Sucks to doubt, doesn’t it?” he asked, and she wanted to punch him.
Instead, she grabbed onto his subtext. “Does that mean you doubt your father’s innocence?”
His expression shuttered. “I didn’t say that.”
“But you did, in a way. Tell me, Kirin.”
He met her gaze, his eyes clear. “I don’t think he harmed your mother.”
“But he knew something, didn’t he?”
“Sometimes I wonder if he helped her to run away. I know it’s awful to think a mother would cut ties to her daughter, but she did it with her clan. She turned away from them, turned away from her Dragon, to marry your father. Did she ever tell you why?”
“You have no right to suggest she’d abandon us without even a note. She was an obsessive note writer.” Elle tucked the journal cover tight against her chest. As much as she hated to admit it, she’d considered that possibility, too. Maybe denying her Dragon had finally overwhelmed her mother. “I want you to leave,” she said quietly.
“Huff’s been coming here, hasn’t he?”
He grabbed up his shoes and socks and walked to the door. A slash of sunlight spilled in when he opened it. “You shouldn’t be here alone. There’s a presence here. Have you felt it?”
“I felt something. I wondered if it was some kind of Elemental. Or maybe a demon.”
“Not the right kind of energy for either. I’ve never felt anything like this before. Whatever it is, it’s masking itself. I’m not leaving until you do.”
“Don’t. Don’t stand there and pretend you’re someone I can count on.” She scanned the dark warehouse.
And, um, don’t leave without me.
She heard his exhale, turning to see the dark red glow in his eyes. “Ellie—Elle, I know I hurt you. You hurt me, too, when you broke things off because your father didn’t like what I am. But the past is over. All I care about is right now. Two men are missing. There’s a sinister presence here. You can hate me all you want, but I’m not going without you.”
She released a breath, too, acknowledging the relief coursing through her. “I was leaving anyway.”
After they’d left the building, she turned the key in the front door’s lock, trying hard to keep her eyes on her task and not him. Her mouth tightened on words that wanted to come out. Okay, she’d say them, then be done with it.
“I don’t hate you. But I will never love you again. Or like you.” She pressed the key hard into her palm until the edges bit her skin.
“I’d rather you hate me.”
She furrowed her eyebrows. “What?”
He moved closer, his gaze on hers. “I’d rather see that fire in your eyes when you look at me than nothing. And I do see that fire, Elle.” He brushed a strand of hair from her cheek, then let his hand drop. “I’m going to pull around front and wait for you to leave.”
She watched him wade through the grass to where he’d obviously parked his car. He walked with the grace of a man comfortable in his skin, even if that skin sometimes had scales. He didn’t glance back, even as he disappeared around the corner. Thank God, since he would have caught her watching.
Like an idiot.
A gust of wind puffed at her ear, feeling eerily like a breath. She spun, rubbing the chills from her neck. No weed or pine needle moved in a breeze. Yet she felt it again, more like…an inhalation. She quickly got into her car and left.
irin started to follow Elle’s car out of the entrance when his engine died. Just like that, no cough or sputter, just silence. Since that never happened, and the car wouldn’t restart, suspicion prickled along his skin. He stepped out and surveyed his surroundings. The heavy energy hovered close by. He stripped out of his clothes and Catalyzed, able to see in the dark better as Dragon.
, his Dragon warned.
He went back inside and searched the space. Yes, it was strong inside now, but he saw nothing out of the ordinary…until he found a large, black circle on the floor. Inside the circle were two long ovals that formed a cross. Kirin knew little about Deuce rituals, but this looked like Shadow magick. He stayed outside the circle, which had been broken on the other side by a smearing of the line.
He searched for movement, alert for the slightest sound. The air above him shifted, and a huge, black cloud descended on him. He shot out of the way, and the mass hit the floor with a
What the hell?
It took form: a misshapen head, no neck, huge arms ending in ham-sized fists. Its chest was massive, thighs as big as tree trunks, its essence oily and churning. It stood over fifteen feet tall, arms poised as though ready to give him a hug. It looked like a dark, demented version of Shrek.
“Kiiiiiiiil,” it uttered in a deep, scratchy voice and lunged at him.
Kirin ducked to the side, and the thing smashed into the wall. It wailed as it spun toward him. He was quicker, but running away wasn’t an option. No way could he leave this thing here, especially knowing Elle might come back. He charged it, his fangs tearing into its side. Dragons fought like wildcats, methodical, stalking their prey, then going in for the kill. Kirin didn’t have time to stalk this particular prey.
The thing howled, clutching its side. Its essence poured out of the wound but disappeared like smoke. Kirin spit out the piece of “flesh” that tasted of old rubber. As soon as it hit the floor, it evaporated, too.
The entity reached toward his throat, claws like four knives. Kirin dodged the other way, hitting a hard object that sent him skidding across the floor. The thing’s other hand.
Didn’t see that coming.
“Kiiiiiil,” it screeched again, its fiery eyes pinning him.
It leaped. Kirin rolled, only getting the brunt of the thing’s thigh against his back.
Scales acted as mini-shields all over his body, but Dragons had a vulnerability. A spike driven up into their kill spot, under their chin, would push unheeded right into their brain. The thing knew this. Its gaze was glued to Kirin’s throat.
Kirin lowered his head, hiding his throat from view with his snout. He bared his teeth, but the thing didn’t seem fazed by his gleaming fangs. He raced toward it, talons out, intending to carve a hole right through it. A stream of his breath, spikes of fire, preceded him.
The thing slapped him aside just as he reached it. He rolled, head spinning, until he slammed into a large table, which tipped over and landed on him. The thing was fast, faster than Kirin had calculated. He threw the table at it with his strong legs. The flat surface knocked the creature backward, but only for a second. It grabbed the table and tossed it back. Kirin jumped out of the way as the table hit the floor and broke into pieces.
It grabbed at him again. Kirin spun out of its reach. He knelt on the floor, pushed off with his arms, and back flipped into the air to land behind the behemoth. Using spikes of fire, he dove at the thing as it turned and went right through it. Its interior felt oily and thick as he passed through. He thought he heard a scream, muted in the mass of energy the creature was made of. But there were no guts, no bones. He shot out the back and rolled into his landing. The hole mended. The black goo covering Kirin disappeared like a mist.
“What the hell are you?” he asked.
It laughed, a deep belly laugh. “I am a squasher.”
“Squasher?” He’d never heard of such a thing.
“I will squash you.” It tilted its head. “You are not afraid?”
Kirin flexed his claws. “Fear is for sissies.”
“Fear is for sissies,” it repeated, as though it was some novel concept.
The thing wasn’t afraid, nor bothered that a Dragon had burrowed right through its center. Of course, it had healed within seconds, so why should it be?
Kirin stalked it now, searching for some vulnerability. It appeared to be ephemeral, yet it had form.
“Are you some kind of demon?” he asked, though it didn’t look or act like any demon he’d ever seen. They were smarter, for one thing.
The thing swiped at him again, catching Kirin in the side. He dove to the right and sent a blast of fire at it. Flames caught on its surface, and it howled in pain as it patted them out.
It faced Kirin and expelled a black cloud that enveloped him. He fought the pull, struggling within the confines of the oily net that held him as the creature dragged him close. Kirin’s talons were out, tail whipping from side to side and tearing bits of “flesh” from the thing’s hide. Untroubled, it reached down and grabbed him.
Kirin lunged up and took a bite out of its throat. He clamped down hard as the thing tried to shake him off. Kirin broke free and took a nice-sized chunk with him. It bled black, but the wound healed fast. It must have hurt, because its face was screwed up in anger. So it had feelings.
“Come and get me, you ugly son of a bitch,” Kirin taunted.
It smacked him, its hand coming from nowhere. Kirin fell to the floor at the same moment the thing launched itself at him. Kirin took the deepest breath, using the Dragon’s ability to pull all of its power into one stream of fire, and aimed at the creature’s head and chest. He couldn’t do that and move at the same time, so he remained on the floor as it lunged down toward him.
A blue orb shot out of nowhere, bursting against the creature. Electrical sparks twisted with Kirin’s spikes of fire, and with a shriek, it shot up to the ceiling and disappeared.
Kirin looked toward the front of the building where the orb had come from. Elle.
He searched for the creature even as he raced toward her, Catalyzing back to man by the time he reached her. “What are you doing here?”
Her face still registered shock. “I saw that you didn’t follow me and figured you were up to something.” Her voice trembled. She raised her palm and created a flashlight orb that lit the place up. “Have to say, I wasn’t expecting what I found.”
that thing? Some kind of Deuce magick, right?”
“My best guess is it was a thoughtform, something created with intense concentration. I don’t know much about them, only that they’re real…and not real.”
He brushed the dirt from his bare backside. “As crazy as that sounds, you’re right about that aspect.”
She searched the ceiling where the thing had disappeared. “Whatever it was, it seems to be gone.”
“I wouldn’t assume it’s dead. I tore through its center, came out on the other side, and it mended itself. I swear I heard a scream as I flew through it. Was that you?”
She shook her head. “At least we know how to make it leave.”
“Not really. You threw your orb at the same time I breathed fire into it. We don’t know which did the job.”
She aimed the smoldering glare he knew so well right at him. “Well, excuse me for messing up your experiment as that thing was about to pounce on you.”
“I had the situation under control.”
She moved a bit closer. “While you were lying there like a log.”
He stepped even closer. “About to incinerate it.”
She opened her mouth to say something but suddenly seemed to realize they were nearly nose to nose. She let out a huff of breath and stepped back. “Fine. Next time I’ll let it eat you.” Her gaze swept down his body. “Would you please put your clothes on?”
“They’re outside. I'll get them when we leave. Chill, Elle. It’s not like you haven’t seen me naked before. Many times.”
“Not that many.” The words came out like bullets.
“Every day for the first month after we got back together and then it tapered to four times a week—”
She put her fingers over his mouth. “Please, don’t remind me.”
He took hold of her hand. “Does remembering those days fire up a hunger that never seems to go away?” He rubbed his mouth against her fingertips. “That makes you crave more?”
“Kirin…” she uttered on a breath. A plea or a reprimand, he couldn’t tell.
God, the sound of his name on her lips, no matter what her intent, rippled through him. “I remember those days, Elle. I remember the sleepy look on your face in the mornings, the scent of your skin in the sunlight, and the way you taste…everywhere.”
She stumbled back. “Stop.”
His Dragon pressed close to the surface, fired by the possessiveness coursing through him.
Forget it. She doesn’t want us,
he told it.
Yes, she does.
His Dragon was right. Because it wasn’t distaste on her face at his words but sweet agony. She didn’t want to want him, but she did.
To hell with it. She’s already pissed anyway.
He pulled her against him and kissed her.
Her body stiffened, but her mouth melted beneath his, opening and letting his tongue in. For about four seconds.
She pushed away, fury on her beautiful face. “Damn it, Kirin—”
“As much as you hate it, part of you still wants me.”
“It’s only instinct. Every guy I’ve kissed since you, and there were a lot of them, made me react that way. You’re nothing special, Kirin.”
“Ouch.” He knew she was lying. She sure didn’t react like he was nothing special. The mist in her eyes swirled like a tornado. He’d seen it do that every day for a month, and then four times a week…
“Get it through your heads,” she said, her hard voice pulling him out of those seductive thoughts. “I’m not going there with you again. Ever. Remember that Taylor Swift song? Yeah, that’s how it is.”
He grasped her chin. “Let’s get one thing straight, Elle. As great as the sex was—and it was great—it wasn’t just about that. Being with you filled my soul and made the world feel right. When I woke up next to you, I knew the day was going to be great no matter what happened. Going to sleep with my body wrapped around yours was the only heaven I needed.” He let his words sink in, then released her.
She looked shell-shocked, eyes wide and mouth open. She snapped it closed. “I definitely should have let it eat you.”
He shook his head as he headed toward the circle. “What is this? Shadow magick?”
Even in the dim light of the orb, he could see her weighing how much to tell him. “I don’t know a lot about Shadow Magick,” she said. “We’re warned about dabbling with it, but no one really talks about it. All I know is that it involves consorting with the gods, which is never a good idea.”
“Has your father used it before?”
“I’ve never heard him even speak of it. He wouldn’t mess with that. I’m sure of it.”
Huh. Sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than him.
“Who else has access to this place?”
“Officially, my father and any real estate agents who might show the property. Unofficially, looks like anything can skulk in.” She gave him a pointed look.
He merely grunted. “This isn’t ordinary ash.”
She shook her head, resignation on her face. “I’m going to take some to my Nana. She’ll know what it is.”
“Roz.” The witch bitch who disliked him even more than her son had. “I’m going with you,” he said.
“To my Nana’s house? You two never got along.”
“She was the one who treated me like I was a patch of mold. I can handle the…nice lady.”
“Fine, come with me. If I’m lucky, you’ll walk in a Dragon and walk out a frog.”