I let down the shield once I was back in my car. My shoulders slumped with relief, and I could feel the beginnings of a pounding migraine behind my eyes. Rune shields were no laughing matter; they were dangerously draining. If you didn't get out of your situation within ten minutes, your rune shield would suck you so dry you wouldn't have enough magic left to light a candle.
And then you were in deep shit.
It had taken me eight minutes to get out of the house. I couldn't feel my legs.
It wasn't until I shoved the key into the ignition and tried to start the car that I realized one important fact: the magic was up.
I swore loudly, and banged out of the car. No one from the house had followed me outside…yet. Great. I was so tired I could hardly see, and now on top of that it looked like I'd be walking home.
"My kingdom for a horse."
Not actually having any kingdom to trade, I started walking.
I made it about three miles before my legs gave out. I collapsed onto the concrete, face first. I briefly considered attempting to get up, but one try was enough to convince me. Besides, the sidewalk wasn't that bad. It was kind of comfortable, actually. I'd just take a quick nap, then be up again…
I was swimming in darkness. Something had jarred me awake; what was it?
A voice that sounded vaguely familiar whispered into my ear, "The big bad merc doesn't look so scary now, does she?"
I tried to make a fist so I could punch him in the face, but my fingers weren't cooperating. Maybe if I could just open my eyes, I could give him a scathing glare. I fought with my eyelids, briefly, and lost.
Someone else said something in a hushed tone, and I felt strong arms lift me up from the cement.
"Nah," the first voice said, "We'll just take her to the Keep. It won't—"
I tried to hold on to the thread of the conversation, but it was like trying to catch smoke with my bare hands. My mind kept slipping. And then I was out again.
I woke up in a bed, in a familiar room, staring into a familiar face.
"Whats up, doc?"
He snorted and leaned back into his chair. "I'd almost forgotten how amusing you are, Kate. I'd say I've missed you, but I think we saw each other just two weeks ago." His voice was dry, and slightly sarcastic.
I tried to think, but it hurt too much. I shrugged. "Sounds about right."
He made an exasperated noise. "I also seem to remember telling you to take it easy for the next three months."
I opened my mouth to argue, and he shot me a frightening look. My jaws snapped shut, and he continued.
"You were brought in here roughly fifteen hours ago, collapsed from magical exhaustion made worse by the additional physical exhaustion. You were covered in blood—not your own, thankfully, though I burned it anyway—and unconscious." His southern accent grew more pronounced as he got angrier. "Not only did you drain yourself, you also tapped into your body's resources. You very nearly undid the healing I performed barely fourteen days ago! Do you have a death wish?"
Sort of. But it involved Roland's death as well, so that probably meant I should keep my mouth shut.
"Sorry," I said, trying for contrite. It didn't fool him.
Doolittle sighed. "Of course you're not. You seemed convinced you have no limits, Kate. I wish you would listen to me when I tell you I can't fix everything. One day I'll be too late, or you'll be too far gone for me to handle."
"I understand. But this is my work, and I chose it." I stared at him, and he looked away first.
"So…who found me?" I asked, casually. I knew damn well who found me. I was hoping Doolittle could tell me how.
Doolittle raised a sardonic eyebrow; apparently, I needed to work on my innocent face. "His Majesty and the Chief of Security. They were responding to a distress call filed by one of the shapeshifters living just outside Atlanta. Pack business," he added, noting my curiosity. "From what I gather, they stumbled upon your car and followed the bloody footprints."
"It was too easy, really," a voice said from the doorway. "We almost didn't bother, thinking it was probably a trap of some sort. Because even you wouldn't be stupid enough to leave the Order's car with your ID in the front seat next to a blood trail."
My back stiffened. Curran came around the side of my bed and nodded to Doolittle. Doolittle bowed his head, gave me a warning look, and skedaddled. Curran looked me up and down. I pulled the bed sheet up a little higher.
He smirked and took Doolittle's chair. Waiting.
"I suppose you've come to gloat? I'll save you the trouble: thank you for saving me. What do you want for it?"
"The Order called for you," he said, surprising me.
"Yeah. Raphael saw us bring you in."
Which meant he probably ran to call Andrea, who told Maxine to get me a leave of absence, who told Ted when they wanted me for a job.
"What do they want?"
He shrugged, unconcerned. "I told them to call back later."
My right eye twitched. I covered both with my hand. It was easier to think if I wasn't looking at him.
"Okay. I have to go, then. Doolittle okayed me?"
I removed my hand and sat up. I was wearing an overlarge white t-shirt, grey sweatpants, and no shoes. My hair was down. I looked like I'd just rolled out of bed—which, in the literal sense, I suppose I had. There'd be laughs in the office for a week.
I slid out of bed, testing my legs. They wobbled, then held. Doolittle was good. Curran stood, too. "You're welcome. We'll call you later, to cash in the favor."
And then he was gone. Asshole. It was really too bad he was so gorgeous. I found my bloody tennis shoes just outside the door, and slipped them on with a grimace. It must have been the blood of the man the necromancer killed. The necromancer. I'd have to do something about her, soon.
I grabbed Slayer from where someone had considerately placed it, leaning against the side of the bed, and headed out. Someone was waiting for me with two horses by the gate.
"Derek." I smiled. He grinned back, eyes sparkling. He'd gotten used to his new look, it seemed, but it still twisted my stomach with guilt every time.
"I brought you a horse," he said, proud.
I lifted an eyebrow. "Curran sent you to accompany me?"
He nodded, white teeth flashing. I shrugged. "Fine. To the Order, and no further."
"One step at a time," he told me, and swung onto the horse. It shifted uncomfortably, and Derek tightened his grip on the reins. He wasn't the best rider the shapeshifters had to offer, but he made up for it in different ways.
We started off and a steady trot, and I gritted my teeth against the jarring movement.
"So," I started, "how have you been?"
He shrugged. "Well enough. Busy. I've been helping Jennifer a lot lately."
Jennifer was the female version of the wolves' alpha. "Prepping you to take over, eh?"
He just raised his shoulders again, noncommittal. I looked over at him. "I think you'd make a great alpha."
We rode in comfortable silence to the doors of Atlanta's chapter of the Order. It didn't look like much, from the outside. Which was what they wanted you to think.
"Alright, Derek, here's my stop. Thanks for the company. Send Dali my regards."
He gave me a look. "I'll walk you up."
And then it hit me. I narrowed my eyes at him. "Curran didn't send you to escort me. He wants you to find out what the Order is planning."
Derek froze for an instant, eyes widening. Then he relaxed his shoulders and arranged his expression into a more suitable one of innocent outrage.
I cut him off. "Don't lie to me."
He dropped the act. "Come on, Kate. Just let me come up with you, have a look around. Then I'll get out of your hair."
I sighed. I really was a sucker. "Fine. But only because you don't need more trouble with Curran on my behalf."
Andrea was waiting for us at the top of the stairs. She gave Derek a knowing look, but didn't comment. "They're waiting for you in your office."
"Who is 'they'?" I asked her.
"They" turned out to be a man and a woman. The woman was sitting in the chair opposite my desk, back facing the door, and the man slouched in the shadows behind her.
I stepped inside, Derek at my heels. The man turned his head to look at us. His face was pale, as if he came from a sunless climate, and contrasted starkly with hair so black it was almost blue.
"Ms. Daniels?" He asked.
"Yes. And you would be…?"
"His name is Liam." The woman spoke without turning her head. "And I am Adla. Thank you for seeing us on such short notice."
I walked around my desk to get a better look at her. She flicked her eyes to my face, amused. Her skin was dark, like strong coffee, but her eyes were a light grey. Her hair was black, and waved gently down her back.
"Seeing you is no inconvenience," I told her, sitting down, "But you still haven't told me why you're here."
She smiled politely. "We are…searching for someone. A woman. We were told your investigative skills were remarkable."
Whoever told her that deserved to be tarred and feathered. "You want me to find someone. Who?"
"Her name is unimportant, it wouldn't help you even if we knew it. Her power is more significant: this woman is a necromancer. She—"
I held up a hand, cutting her off. "Small and blonde? Blue eyed? Bitchy?"
Adla regarded me cautiously. "You know her?"
Hah. You could say that. "We've met."
She studied my face. "I take it from the look on your face you would not be averse to helping us?"
"Don't agree to anything, Kate." Derek spoke suddenly. He was staring at Liam, eyes golden and lips partially curled back in a snarl.
Liam smiled pleasantly at him, but his black eyes held a hint of menace.
I looked back at Adla. She was eyeing Derek with distaste. "It is not your decision to make, pup," she told him. "Run back to your master, and tell him his interference will not be tolerated. Any deviations from our previous agreement will be dealt with severely."
What? "Derek, what is going on?"
His voice was tense. "Ask her who she is."
"I know who—"
"Not her name, Kate. Ask her who she is."
I stared at Adla, and touched my hand to Slayer, tugging it up an inch from the scabbard. Now it would draw more easily should I need it. Which was looking more and more likely as the seconds dragged on.
"Who are you, Adla?"
She smiled again, but this time it was sharp. The temperature of the room dropped ten degrees. "I have already told you who I am. You're asking the wrong question."
Her eyes looked hard as steel, but they weren't focused on me. They seemed to be looking through me, into something else. I had a sudden sense of déjà vu. A girl in a white dress, with frozen eyes.
I stood up and drew Slayer. Liam tensed. Adla ignored us both.
"Who do you serve?"
Adla's eyes locked onto my face, and it was like being hit by a semi. The power of the blonde girl was like a summer breeze compared to the hurricane that was Adla.
This woman could tear me apart, I realized, dazed. She could level mountains, if she chose. She could ruin cities, destroy armies…reshape the world.
"Adrasteia," she breathed.
The images swimming in my mind changed. I could see the executioner's blade. A sword shone like a beacon in the darkness as it swung. Something hit the ground with a wet smack.
I sat down with a thump. Derek growled low in his throat. The events of last night flashed before my eyes. Sacrifice. Anger. Power. Fear. Faith.
"Will you take an m-scan?" I asked her, surprised by the steadiness of my voice.
Her eyes snapped back into focus, and the horrifying ocean of power was gone. A faint sense of exhaustion remained. She was just a woman again, and one who needed my help. "Is that really necessary?"
Not really. Not after what I'd just witnessed. "I do have one question, though, before I agree to anything."
She inclined her head and I continued. "With that kind of power at your disposal, what do you need me for?"
She let out a short bark of laughter, almost like a release of tension. "What an excellent question. It deserves a better answer than I can provide, I'm afraid. Suffice it to say that, while the goddess has power, she is bound by certain…rules. One of those involves distancing herself from the affairs of mortals not sworn to Service. Our target has hidden herself amongst the ignorant; I cannot find her."
Just to make sure, I said, "So you want me to find this girl, capture her, bring her to you, and you'll hash it out together? Away from Atlanta?"
"Exactly. I would remind you that this woman is not only receiving backing from a notoriously violent goddess, but that she is also a necromancer. Finding her quickly would be in everyone's best interests."
I sat quietly, putting off the inevitable. Why did this kind of trouble always have to find me? What had I done to offend Fate so much that she couldn't give me a month's peace?
"Fine. I'll do it."
A/N: Okay, and the plot begins to emerge. This is kinda fun :) Oh, and for those who weren't sure, yes, this is a Curran/Kate story. The pair is too cute to keep apart.
(1) Adrasteia is the goddess of vengeance or retribution, otherwise known as Nemesis.
And by the way, looking at Liam's description, can anyone guess where he comes from? It will become more apparent in further chapters, but I'm curious.