Authors: Ashley Meira
“You two should go,” said Khalil. “I’ll handle this.”
“What?” I frowned, my brows coming together. “I can call this in.”
“And risk getting caught with those vials? Best to go see Elise now and pay lip service to Flavius later.” He pulled out a handkerchief and grabbed a handful of Robert’s ashes with it. “Give this to her, too. Just in case.”
Alex took the hanky, tied it off, and put it in his pocket. At our look, he said, “I don't see a purse.”
Khalil grinned. “Do you think
would fit in your–”
“Thank you for taking care of this, Khalil,” I said firmly before softening up. “Be careful, okay? If Flavius thinks you and Marcus are behind this…”
“He doesn’t know we’re working together.”
I placed a hand on his arm, ignoring Alex’s frown. “If he thinks you’re involved with anything like this, you’re as good as dead. You don’t have the clout Marcus has, Flavius won’t care what happens.”
The corners of Khalil’s lips quirked up. “And you do?”
“We’re partners, aren’t we?”
The quirk turned into a full smile. “This whole night has been an exercise in overused phrases, hasn't it?”
“Not to interrupt your little moment,” said Alex, “but are we leaving or not?”
“You should,” Khalil said flatly, looking at Alex like he was a fly buzzing too close to his ear. “Your boyfriend appears to be up past his bedtime.”
Alex stepped forward. “You–”
“Whoa.” I came up between them, pressing a hand flat against each of their chests. “Enough. You want to whip’em out and measure’em? Go ahead. Later. When there isn’t a twice-dead body around and assassins aren’t breaking through windows. Let’s go.”
“Assassins?” Alex asked, looking fifty percent confused puppy and one hundred percent pissed off alpha male.
“I’ll explain on the way,” I said, the cold floor numbing my feet. “Um, could I borrow your socks?”
“I’d offer you something to drink, but…” Elise trailed off, gesturing vaguely into the air.
“It’s fine,” I said. “Unless you’ve got some alcohol on-hand for thaumaturgical rituals.”
“Unfortunately not,” she said with a small smile before looking me over, wrinkles forming in her forehead. “…Would you like to borrow a pair of shoes?”
I looked down at the dress socks I was wearing. They were surprisingly comfortable to walk in, even outside. However, I barely made it a foot past the lobby door before Alex insisted on carrying me. I felt like an overgrown child the entire time, but couldn’t bring myself to protest the closeness.
I made a mental note to ask where he bought them before nodding to Elise with a sheepish smile. Alex was sitting next to me, in the same spot Khalil had occupied last night, looking as if everything around was about to jump up and bite him. Apparently, he wasn’t fond of thaumaturges. I didn’t blame him. The majority of renegade mages the Order hunted were either infernalists or crazed thaumaturges.
“Dorian,” Elise called.
The little boy peeked his head into the sitting room. I slid down in my seat, trying to hide behind Alex’s athletic frame. Dorian’s owl-like eyes peered over at me as if he knew what I was doing, an almost cute smile on his lips. He padded over to us and looked down at my feet before turning to Elise.
“Yes,” she said to his unasked question.
Dorian vanished and came back a minute later with a pair of slippers. Alex tensed as the boy held the shoes up to me, his skin glowing a sickly white in the firelight. Feeling better that I wasn’t the only one creeped out by the boy, I took the slippers with an uneasy smile.
Dorian fluttered his eyes as if he was trying to get rid of an invasive eyelash, amused smile still in place, and exited the room. Alex and I traded looks, the same thought in both our minds:
damn, that kid is creepy.
“Is he your son?” Alex asked.
“No.” Elise didn’t even blink. “Monsieur Khalil informed me of what happened. Do you have the ashes?”
“Yeah,” I said, fishing out the vial as Alex handed the handkerchief over. If either of them thought anything of me pulling a dead man’s blood out of my cleavage, they kept it to themselves. “I took some of Franklin’s blood, too. Not that it’ll do much good now. Oh, and–” I gave her my shoe, which she took with a scrunched up face “–that has one of the assassins’ blood and eye juice.”
“Vitreous humor,” she said.
“That doesn’t paint as vivid an image.”
“How long will it take for you to find something?” said Alex.
Elise raised a brow. “All business, I see. How refreshing.”
“Yeah, he’s a real professional,” I said, patting his shoulder. He stiffened at the contact and shifted away. The movement was marginal, but it spoke volumes. Didn’t we already go through this when we met Alistair? Could we please skip the repeat? “Always super serious. Very serious. No fun. Just straight and–”
“I get the point,” Elise said. The throbbing vein in his neck told me Alex got the point, too. “Monsieur Franklin’s remains won’t do much for your or Monsieur Castinus’ objective, but I’ll see what I can do with the…shoe.”
“You don’t want us to know what you’re doing,” Alex accused.
“What did you see of your attackers?” she asked, not even glancing at Alex. “Were they wearing anything special? Did they have any abilities?”
“Beyond super assassin skills?” At her narrowed eyes, I shook my head. “They had a gun to shoot Robert. One had a sword. At least two were able to cast fireballs. Their clothes were black, plain, with hooded shawls in dark red that had openings for their eyes.”
“How strong were the fireballs?”
“Strong enough to set a vampire on fire.”
Elise blinked once, twice, then closed her eyes for a three count. “What color was the fire? Did it have any unusual properties?”
“It was regular fire, Elise. Well, regular magic fire.” I conjured a flame in the palm of my hand. “Like this.”
“What does it matter?” said Alex. “Do you know who these assassins are?”
“No,” she said. “However, some groups do have specific signatures they use as a calling card, and if the fire had been green…”
“Demonic influence,” I said. “You’ll be able to find traces of that in the blood, right? Demons give thralls their blood to help channel infernal magic.”
Elise nodded. “That is correct. Anything demonic – or vampiric, since ghouls imbibe the blood of their masters – will show up when I perform the ritual.”
“You think they could be ghouls?” I asked.
“I think it’s possible.”
“And you won’t let us see this ritual?” said Alex.
“A ritual isn’t a performance; most magic users hate being watched while they practice,” I said, wishing he’d let up for a second. It’s like someone shoved an additional stick up his ass. “Especially for specialized magic. And…”
“Vampires tend to be even more secretive than other mages,” finished Elise.
“I like how we’re at this point in our relationship where we finish each other’s sentences. I mean, it took Marcus years to be able to do that with me. We should do lunch.”
Another closed eye three count. “Even if I could enjoy “lunch,” I doubt we share the same tastes.”
“I don’t know, I do like my steak pretty rare.”
“What, I drain it, you grill it?”
“I prefer fried, but it would be a really bad idea to let me near a stove. Hell, I didn’t even know how to properly use a Bunsen burner until my last year at the academy.”
Alex cleared his throat. “Will you at least tell us what your ritual will accomplish?”
“It will trace the origins of the person to whom the blood belongs,” said Elise. “Age, species…With a large enough sample, the correct ingredients, and the proper spellwork, one could even trace the entire bloodline.”
That caught my attention. “Bloodlines? How? What would it reveal?”
Elise crossed one leg over the other and rested her hands over her knee. “It would depend on what you’re looking for. Specific spells and rituals provide specific results, though they can sometimes be combined. You can trace the various elements throughout the line: whether there were members with demonic origins, shifters, so on. Depending on the power and know-how of the thaumaturge, there are many possibilities. If a group of thaumaturges were to mix their magic and work together, it would be possible for them to perform a higher level ritual despite having lower levels of skill and power.”
“Can it show you where to find specific people of that bloodline?”
“If the practitioner is skilled enough, they could trace a single member through the blood, yes. However, if the target is hiding themselves through magical means, the thaumaturge needs to be at least as learned and powerful as they are.” She paused, eyeing me. “It becomes more difficult the older the family member is. Assuming that person is a magic user or in possession of a powerful magical artifact.”
So, assuming my mother wasn’t hiding herself, I could track her using my own blood. And if she
hiding, well, at least it meant she was alive. The only problem was actually learning how to do this. I considered asking Elise to perform the ritual for me, but just because I didn’t think thaumaturgy was inherently evil, it didn’t mean I was going to give her my blood. Absolutely not. I may have a habit of turning into a human colander every time I went out on a job, but willingly turning blood over to someone who practiced blood magic…Yeah, how about no?
“Is the ritual complicated?”
“Ingredients may be difficult to come by, the school of magic may be hard to learn, but–”
“But actual rituals aren’t a problem if you know the foundation of the magic,” I said. Magic 101 and I managed to forget it. Awesome.
“Indeed. Putting it all into practice isn’t easy, however. As with any type of magic, the subtle, more refined practices require more from the caster.”
“What do you mean?” Alex asked.
“It’s more complicated, for lack of a better word,” I explained. “It’s about the way we manipulate the magic to work for us. Like, firing off a blast of lightning or an ice spear is basic; you just aim and shoot. But tracing through bloodlines or isolating a destination – like that spell I did to trace void powder back in Haven – requires more focus, a better manipulation and understanding of the magic in use.” Wow, that almost made sense. Maybe miracles did happen and I’m actually getting better at explaining things.
At Alex’s furrowed brow, Elise said, “It’s like the difference between knowing how to shoot a gun and how to make one.”
“Oh,” said Alex. I’d be offended if I wasn’t so busy being shocked at how much better her comparison was. Better and shorter. Miracles were clearly a lie.
“Anything else?” Elise asked. For someone who used to be part of the city’s biggest political party, she wasn’t particularly subtle. I suppose it added to her charm.
“Just let us know if you find anything, please,” I said.
“I will.” Elise nodded once more and waved toward the door. “Dorian can show you out.”
“That’s okay, we’ll see ourselves out,” I said hurriedly. “Good night.”
The three of us said our goodbyes, and if Elise noticed the way I rushed Alex out while darting my eyes around looking for Dorian, she was polite enough not to say anything.
Like Cinderella, I came home with my hair half down, my dress in tatters, and missing a shoe. The only difference is that I returned with my Prince Charming, though the charm was overshadowed by the grumpy cat look in his face. It’d be cute if I wasn’t the reason he was wearing it.
“Home sweet home,” I said in a desperate attempt to fill the silence.
“Keys? Oh, never mind,” Alex said, opening the front door. “You don’t lock your door?”
Keys in hand, I stared into the darkness of my living room. “I do. It was open?” Did I forget to lock it before leaving?
He nodded, and we entered the loft. I took off my slippers and the cold wooden floor sent chills through my – Alex’s – socks and up my legs. Something had broken through my wards. The assassins? How did they find out where I lived?
Were the intruders still here? If they were magical, they could have sensed the wards breaking and ran. I placed my palm flat against the floor and scanned through the space, looking for any signs of life – or unlife. My fingers tingled, but I wasn’t sure if that was from residual magic or the frigid floor.