You wouldn’t think anything could be worse than the most ancient supernatural beings in existence wanting to murder you before you ended the world. Tough luck—it could.
For starters, you could wake up in a room so dark you couldn’t determine a hint of what it held other than dank, stuffy air and a lumpy mattress that was poking your backside, with no idea where you were or how you’d gotten there. Or how many people might be lurking in that darkness preparing to murder you at this very moment. Then you could sit up and discover one of your wrists was chained with a heavy metal cuff to some fixture that refused to budge, making the possibility of lurking murderers even more likely.
And to be clear, by “you,” I mean me.
The frame that held the mattress squeaked with my movement. I tested the cuff with a jerk of my arm. The chain clinked, holding firm—and light washed through the space. A fairly dim light, really, cast by an electric lantern, but the darkness before had been so complete I was left blinking the glare from my eyes.
The room around me appeared to be some kind of underground bunker. Rough rock walls, floor, and ceiling surrounded me. The metal cot had a dappling of rust on the frame and squatted next to a matching metal cabinet that I guessed held some kind of supplies. The whole space couldn’t have been more than ten feet both long and wide, and standing in the middle of that space, gripping the lantern, was the most powerful supernatural being I’d had the irritation—and, okay, sometimes enjoyment—of actually meeting.
The wan artificial light turned the angles of Omen’s narrow face sharper. His icy blue gaze fixed on me, as piercing as ever. His tawny hair lay flat, slicked back over his head, which meant he had his temper in check for now. I supposed I should be glad his hellhound fangs and claws weren’t out.
He didn’t look like he was planning on murdering me quite yet.
I couldn’t take a whole lot of comfort from that fact, though, or even from knowing that up until now this monstrous man had been fighting whole-heartedly on the same side as me. Wherever this room was and however we’d reached it, this dude had dragged me here. The last thing I remembered was him clocking me hard enough to knock me right out.
My temple ached dully where his fist had rammed into it. No doubt I was sporting a pretty spectacular bruise. Thank furtive fiddlesticks I didn’t feel any signs of a full-out concussion.
Hey, might as well count my blessings, meager though they were.
Omen hadn’t turned me straight over to the Highest, at least. If he had, I’d probably already be dead. As long as I was still alive, I had a slim chance of staying that way.
Why the hell had he brought me to this wretched place?
My mouth, as it so often did, started moving without consulting the rest of me. “What a coincidence, running into you. Come here often?”
Omen’s voice came out as little more than a growl. “Sorsha…”
I raised my cuffed wrist, which I could now see was attached to one of the legs of the cot—which was in turn bolted to the stone floor; fat chance of wrenching that up by hand. The metal chain clinked again as I waggled it. “You wanted to dive right in with the kinky stuff, huh? Next time, you could just ask.”
We had actually hooked up once before, chains not included but with plenty of fire. The hellhound shifter didn’t appear to appreciate the reminder. A few tufts of his hair rippled upward. He bared his teeth, which were already looking pointier than they had a moment ago. “Do you ever stop joking?”
I leaned back on my hands and gave him a tight smile. “Nope. It’s called a coping mechanism. Look it up, dog-breath.”
All right, so insulting one’s captor, especially when that captor is a highly dangerous shadowkind, was probably in the What NOT To Do column of advice for kidnapping victims. I couldn’t claim to be a paragon of wisdom.
But despite my attempt at keeping my spirits up, when Omen took another step toward me, both fear and anger jittered through my nerves. The jolt of adrenaline set off a flare of heat in my chest that tingled all the way up to my skin—and sent fire licking across both the collar of Omen’s shirt and my bare forearms.
As Omen slapped at his shirt, I smacked my arms against my sides as quickly as I could to snuff out the flames. They vanished, but they left my skin pink and prickling with a fresher pain.
Omen took one last swipe at the singed fabric around his neck and held the lantern out—to check my arms, I realized. To see how much damage I’d done to myself. He wouldn’t have bothered with that if he was sure I’d be kaput within the next few hours anyway, right?
“Look,” he said, his tone oddly less growly than before I’d set him on fire, “I’m not happy about this either. But you’ve just proven exactly why I can’t completely ignore the Highest’s warnings.”
“So you decided to haul me off to some desolate cave?”
“I need time to think and decide what to do without your fan club interfering.”
He meant the trio of shadowkind men he’d brought into this realm to help with his mission, who’d ended up more entwined in my life than I’d expected to let anyone get these days, let alone a bunch of monsters. But sweet Snap with his eerie demonic powers, sly Ruse with his incubus passion, and stoic Thorn with the haunted weight of his warrior angel past had made me feel like I was getting the better end of the bargain.
What did they make of all this? We’d barely had time to process Omen’s announcement that I was the supposedly fearsome being named Ruby that the Highest had spent decades searching for—and that it’d been their shadowkind lackeys and not vengeful mortal hunters who’d killed my parents and sent my fae guardian on the run with me—before Omen had grabbed me.
My trio had been obsessive about ensuring my safety even when I wasn’t doing anything riskier than walking down a street. Left without any idea where their boss had taken me or what might be happening to me there, they’d be frantic.
Unless they decided that if the Highest of the shadowkind were terrified of me, they were better off free of me too.
I wet my lips, my fingers curling into the coarse sheet that covered the mattress. My first urge was to keep snarking at the hellhound shifter, but that hadn’t been what had gotten through to him before. The time he’d let down his guard the most—the time he’d let himself indulge in that act of searing intimacy with me after swearing it would never happen—it’d been after I let go of the fight and simply been open and honest with him.
Back then, I’d told him I wasn’t scared of him. I’d told him I knew he cared about me. Maybe we knew things now we hadn’t back then, but I could summon some of that faith again.
Inhaling slowly, I forced my own temper to settle. “Do you really think I’m some huge threat to all existence?” I asked, holding Omen’s gaze. “That I’d destroy all the beings I’ve been risking my neck trying to save? That I could cause mass destruction on the scale the Highest are talking about?”
“I don’t know.” He considered me. “You warned me before. The fire inside you frightened you. Are you sure you couldn’t burn the realms down?”
At that question, I couldn’t help thinking back to the moments when we’d squabbled and the raging inferno had surged in my chest. Just remembering it called up a waft of that blaze. I didn’t like being trapped here—I didn’t like being betrayed by someone I’d been starting to care about. Somewhere in the depths of my being, a little prickling voice whispered, Burn. Burn it all. Burn the fuckers to the ground.
My lungs constricted. I willed that desire away, but the heady heat lingered, nibbling at the edges of my chest.
Was I totally confident that I could control it? No. Let’s be real—just a few minutes ago, I’d scalded myself with that power without meaning to.
Could I say it definitely wasn’t as big and bad as the Highest claimed? I didn’t want to think it was. But there’d been moments when I’d been able to picture leveling entire cities. Just how fiercely could those flames fly if I gave them free rein, if I let them build and build—?
The nibbling turned into a scorching gnawing. I dragged in another breath, dampening the inner fire as well as I could.
Omen was still studying me. The taut slant of his mouth suggested he’d been able to read a fair bit of my inner struggle. The fact that I hadn’t answered yet was probably answer enough.
“I don’t want to destroy anything,” I said. “Well, other than the Company assholes… and I suppose that former co-conspirator of yours who’s apparently supporting them?”
His revelations about my past had been interrupted by a much more current shocker: our plan to demolish the Company of Light, an organization dedicated to ridding all realms of the creatures they considered monsters, had been foiled by a powerful shadowkind Omen had once associated with. He’d believed this sphinx named Tempest was dead, killed centuries ago on the orders of the Highest for the havoc she’d wreaked among mortals.
Why any shadowkind would want to help mortals torment and destroy her own kind was beyond me, and Omen hadn’t appeared to have any idea either.
Now, he grimaced at me. “No changing the subject. I’ll deal with Tempest when the time comes. The problem you pose is more pressing.”
“Why? Can’t we just assume I’ll get my superpowers under control with a little more practice, like you’ve always said? I’ve managed to go twenty-eight years without decimating the entire planet—how urgent can it be?”
“You hadn’t really activated your powers until a few weeks ago. In that time, I’ve watched them grow swiftly. I don’t think you’d be able to make much of a case with the Highest based on that argument.”
My stomach was starting to sink, but there’d never been a situation where a little spin on an ‘80s song couldn’t brighten at least a little. I raised my eyebrows at him and let a lyric slip out. “I’m starting with the man even nearer. I’m asking, rearrange this day-a-ay.”
There came the fangs again. “Do you really think buffoonery is the answer to—"
“Fine, fine. I’m trying to stay in glass-half-full territory. I can be a model of seriousness that’d make even Thorn proud.” I put on my best somber expression, definitely channeling the stalwart wingéd. “Why do you care what the Highest want anyway? They hardly bother with this world unless some shadowkind is causing a total catastrophe, right? I’m assuming you didn’t tell them you’ve been hanging out with the horrifying human-shadowkind hybrid they’ve been searching for. Couldn’t we get back to crushing the Company, and if my powers start heading in a direr direction, then you can make a decision?”
“It’s not that simple,” Omen said, and paused, as if he was debating whether he could get away with leaving it at that. I cleared my throat as a prompt to continue, and he glared at me. “The rest isn’t your concern.”
Oh, yeah? I drew on whatever reserves of calm I still possessed and managed to ask the question in a quiet, earnest tone rather than the acidic one that I’d wanted to toss at him. “Considering what happens here is a matter of life or death for me, I think it’s more my concern than it could be anyone else’s. If there’s something else going on, don’t I deserve to know?”
Omen’s jaw worked. “It isn’t about what you deserve.”
“What is it about, then?” When he continued to balk, I peered up at him, wishing I had Ruse’s skill for cajoling. “Hell, maybe if you explain it to me, I’ll see some loophole you haven’t noticed. I’m very good with getting out of tight situations, as you may have observed.”
He let out a rough chuckle. “I think this is beyond even your thieving talents, Disaster.”
“I’ve proven you wrong before.” I sucked in a breath. “Please. I just want to understand. I thought—I thought we’d gotten to a place where we did understand each other pretty well. If you’re going to lead me to the slaughter, I’d just like to know why.”
Something in my voice must have gotten through to him. Omen turned away with a muttered curse. He paced the width of the room, his hands clenched at his sides, and then turned back to me.
“The Highest didn’t just tell me what you are and what they’d like to see happen to you,” he said. “They outright ordered me to inform them of where ‘Ruby’ is as soon as I found that out.”
“From what I’ve seen, you don’t generally follow orders just because someone gave them to you,” I felt the need to point out.
“Yes, well, this is a special case.” He fell silent, and for a moment I thought he might clam up again. But then he spoke, low and terse. “I didn’t see the error of my infernal ways soon enough. Before I ended my vicious games with the mortals, the Highest caught wind of them and of my past schemes with Tempest. They would have ended me the way they did her if I hadn’t managed to convince them it was worth their while to strike a deal instead.”
A chill rippled down my spine. “What kind of deal?”
“I carry out ten tasks of their choosing, and then we’re even as long as I keep my nose clean. Until then, they’ve got a magical choke chain around my neck that they can tug on whenever they please. They made finding Ruby my last task.”
“Oh.” Even though I was sitting still, my balance wavered on the mattress. “So until you deliver on that…”
“I remain in their grasp,” he said grimly.
“And what would happen if they found out you know where I am but didn’t turn me over right away?”
“I’d imagine they’d decide I’ve reneged on our deal and that it’s fair play to eviscerate me after all.”
I swallowed hard. All he had to do was point the Highest my way, and he’d have his freedom back. I had plenty of experience with the hellhound shifter’s pride—I couldn’t imagine how much it’d chafed at him having that leash around his neck all this time. By even thinking it over, he was risking his entire continued existence.
It was a miracle he hadn’t pointed a blinking neon sign my way the second they’d made their demand.
An unfamiliar emotion rolled over me, suffocatingly heavy. Hopelessness—that was the word for it. I wasn’t just backed into a corner but down the bottom of a deep, dark pit without a single avenue out.
“Well,” I said, and for once in my life I didn’t have any words to follow that with.
“Yes.” Omen sounded more resigned than anything. “You’re welcome to put your sticky situation skills to that.”
I met his eyes again, searching them for some kind of answer there. “Why haven’t you thrown me to them already?”
The narrowest of smiles curled his lips. “You’ve made an impression.” He set the lantern down, produced a plastic bag that he tossed onto the mattress beside me, and tipped his head toward the floor beneath the cot. “Something to eat, and there’s a bucket if you need to take care of other bodily needs. I’ll leave you to it while I contemplate my options.”
With that, he vanished into the shadows, leaving me wondering if there were any options at all that didn’t end with me flayed and gutted.