A Shift in Darkness
There’s nothing quite like hunting during a full moon. I had been alive for centuries and had hunted all kinds of things in all kinds of realms. But the exhilaration of finding my prey under the light of the moon never got old. My brother and I had been born in the human realm, but our parents had been born in the feline shifter realm, Kanima. They’d told us bedtime stories of hunting across the vast open plains or stalking through the dense rainforests. My current hunt wasn’t taking place in a location anything like what my parents had hunted in, but it was thrilling nonetheless.
The night was clear and the moon lit our way as we silently moved through empty backyards. It was well past midnight and all the humans were tucked away in their homes, built at the city’s edge. I leapt over a tall brick fence and paused to take in my surroundings. Jinx landed on silent paws at my side.
“This is it,” I said quietly and crept forward across the yard until I stood in front of a solid concrete wall. “The house we want is on the other side. Do you sense anything?”
I was good at sensing magic when it was in use, but I sometimes missed more subtle spells and wards unless I let my magic out to snoop around. Jinx stalked over to the pale concrete wall and sniffed it, then tentatively tapped it with a paw. He backed up a few steps, muscles bunching together, and then leapt upwards. He started the leap as an average sized black domestic house cat and ended it as a hundred pound sleek feline perched on the top of the wall.
There is a ward directly on the other side. It’s not designed to keep anyone out, just to alert its creator if anyone crosses it. His voice rumbled through my mind.
“Well, at least we know we found the house with the warlocks.” I took a few steps back and then sprinted, jumping up at the last second. My fingers caught the top of the wall and I grunted as my body slammed into the concrete, then pulled myself up to crouch beside Jinx.
Smooth, Jinx said with a raspy laugh.
Shut it. I pushed the thought at him. I didn’t want to risk jumping too far and crossing the ward. I scanned the area. The house was dark and no lights were on in the backyard which was mostly open. Like most of the yards we’d passed, this one consisted of several winding pathways that weaved through meticulously trimmed shrubs and elaborate rock structures. We would be easy to spot anywhere in the garden, not that it mattered. They’d know we were here as soon as we crossed the ward.
Plan? Jinx asked.
I pulled a throwing dagger from the sheath on my thigh and palmed it in my right hand. Let’s go say hello. A wild grin spread across my face as I leapt down. A slight tingle ran across my skin as I crossed the ward. Jinx followed a second later. We didn’t bother with stealth and stalked up the center of the garden towards the house. Halfway there, floodlights flipped on and I heard movement from within the house. I stopped and drew in a breath, letting the scents linger above my tongue. Disappointment flickered through me. He wasn’t here.
Two human men opened the sliding door of the house and walked into the yard. Their arrogant expressions gave them away as warlocks as much as their magic. The taller of the two looked at me and then at Jinx, a sneer spreading across his face. “I don’t know who you are, but you and your fae companion picked the wrong house to intrude upon.”
“We’re just out for a neighborhood stroll,” I said smoothly. “Hoping to meet up with a colleague of yours, actually. You wouldn’t happen to know where Sebastian is now, would you?”
“Sebastian?” He glanced at his companion, who grimaced at the name, but shook his head. He focused on me once more, and then his eyes lit up in recognition. “You’re that shifter he’s so obsessed with. Heard what he did to that mermaid lover of yours. Nasty business.” He grinned at me.
I went still at his words. The rage I carried with me always threatened to break the bonds I kept around myself. The chains I needed to make sure I stayed in control. Stayed alive. The warlock’s grin grew wider, realizing he struck a nerve. Something deep within me rumbled.
Nemain, Jinx said in warning.
I drew in a deep breath. These warlocks would die tonight, but they’d answer my question first. I just needed to control myself for another minute then I’d make him regret his words. And that goddamn grin.
“I’m going to ask you one more time,” I said coldly, gripping my dagger tighter. “Do you know where Sebastian is?”
“Even if I knew where he was, I wouldn’t tell you,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know what’s got him all hot and bothered for you, which makes me curious to find out. And I’ve always been one to indulge my curiosity.” He gave me a lecherous smile as he gestured at the other warlock. They quickly moved apart from each other, their magic rising. “I suggest you and the grimalkin surrender yourselves to us peacefully, otherwise this is going to get ugly real fast. And don’t bother screaming for help. That ward you crossed through blocks all sound from getting out. No one will hear your scream.”
“Oh,” I drawled. “It wasn’t my screams I was worried about. But thanks for letting me know I don’t have to worry about waking the neighbors.”
I let the dagger fly as Jinx, and I unleashed ourselves on them. The warlock was true to his word about the ward, nobody heard their screams.
“Another dead end,” I said tiredly. “No signs he was ever here.” I flung the towel I’d been using to dry my hair on the floor and sunk onto the couch across from the mirror.
Jinx was sprawled out on the bed. He’d put his glamour back on for the trip back but as soon as we made it back to our rented room he’d dropped the glamour again. Now his one hundred pound feline form was passed out, snoring slightly. I sighed. Moving him wasn’t an option, Jinx was perpetually grumpy. Waking him up from a nap took him to a whole new level of grumpiness. He’d give me bad luck for a week.
“I told you I couldn’t confirm any of the details about that lead, and that it was likely bogus,” Pele responded from the large segmented mirror where her form took up the left panel.
She was looking at me with her unreadable neutral face she always used when overseeing meetings or negotiations between the various magical factions.
From the middle section of the mirror, Kaysea studied me, not bothering to mask her worried expression. It was a little jarring to see both of my friends side by side. With her deep red skin, fiery orange hair, and tall, lithe build, Pele was the opposite of Kaysea, who had pale white skin, dark green hair, and a short, soft and voluptuous build. I knew what both of them saw when they looked at me. To say I hadn’t been taking care of myself the past few years was a bit of an understatement.
“It was worth checking out.” I shrugged, wincing slightly at the pain from my shoulder injury.
Pele latched onto the movement before I could kill it. In the dimness of her office, her usually vertical pupils had dilated enough that her eyes appeared almost completely black, with only a slim sliver of turquoise around the outside.
“Has your shoulder still not healed?” she asked, leaning forward slightly in her chair as she studied me once more, looking for anything she had missed previously.
“It’s fine,” I said defensively.
“No, it’s not.” Kaysea frowned as she squinted at me. “You’re clearly favoring your left shoulder. And that scar on your neck is still present.”
I pulled my damp ash blonde hair over my shoulder to cover up the scar I’d gotten courtesy of a manticore. Their kind were devious and loved to scheme, I’d suspected that particular one had made a deal with Sebastian and I wanted to ask it some questions. It had taken offense to my line of questioning and buried its barbed tail in my neck. I hadn’t so much walked away from the fight as limped, but the manticore hadn’t walked away at all.
“Seriously, I’m fine. Everything will heal up in no time.”
“Nemain, it should have healed weeks ago!” Kaysea crossed her arms and gave me her best no nonsense look. “Feline shapeshifters have some of the best healing abilities of any species. That neck wound should have healed within seconds, and that shoulder wound within minutes. And yet here you are, weeks later, still sporting a sore shoulder and a scar. That isn’t fine.”
“She’s right,” Pele said calmly. “You’ve over taxed your magic and pushed yourself too far. Enough is enough, Nemain. You need to take a break.”
“I need to find him! He’s out there somewhere. I just need better leads, is all. Someone has to know something. It shouldn’t be this damn hard to find one warlock!”
“You’ve been searching for him for decades, so clearly it is that damn hard,” Pele snapped back. “I understand why you want to find him, I truly do, but even if you did, you’re in no shape to fight him. You know Sebastian better than anyone. He’s crafty and resourceful. You’ll need to be at your best to take him on.”
Rage shot through me at the mention of his name and the part of my magic I hid deep within me tried to surge out, but the chains I kept wrapped around it made sure it stayed contained. This was the other reason I looked and felt like hell.
On the surface, I was just a feline shapeshifter, but underneath I was so much more than that. The magic I kept locked away would get me killed if anyone knew I had it. Even Pele didn’t know the truth of what I was capable of. Although she had suspicions about some of it, I was sure. Kaysea knew everything. She was one of the few beings in existence that could claim such knowledge.
But even Kaysea didn’t know how much I was struggling with keeping my magic locked down. It had been almost a year since I’d been somewhere safe enough to let it loose. Now it was raging inside me, fighting constantly to get free. It was draining and made me feel weary, both body and soul. Add onto that the number of fights I’d been in over the last six months and I was in rough shape. Still… they didn’t understand. I couldn’t stop now.
“I’ll rest for a couple of weeks before following up on some of the other leads that came in,” I lied. First thing tomorrow morning, I was planning on getting the hell out of this city. The Paris lead sounded promising.
“Liar,” Pele said.
Kaysea opened her mouth, likely to argue with me more or announce she was coming to see me. “I’m tired. We’ll talk about this more tomorrow.” I cut Kaysea off and tapped the glyphs on the mirror. The surface of the mirror rippled and the images of my friends faded away.
Kaysea looked outraged at being cut off. Pele smiled. I knew that smile. My friend was plotting something and I wouldn’t like it.
I glanced over at Jinx. He was still snoring lightly. I’d get dinner without him and just bring some up to the room for him to eat later. Pain shot through me as I lifted my shoulder to rotate it. Grimacing, I rotated it a few more times before gingerly lowering it once more. My friends were right to be concerned. I was pushing myself too hard. But I didn’t have an alternative. Sebastian would never leave me alone. He would continue harassing me in my dreams and leaving bloody gifts for me on my birthday until I came back to him.
That would never happen. I had ended things with Sebastian a long time ago and moved on. At the time I thought he had accepted that. I found someone that I loved deeply and who loved me in return. Myrna. She was my everything. And she was dead.
I refused to live in a world where he still breathed and my love didn’t. He was responsible for her death and he made sure she suffered in her last few minutes. I couldn’t bring her back so I’d have to settle for cutting him apart piece by piece. I knew that this wouldn’t make everything right again. She would still be gone. And I would still be lost. But it’s all I’d had to keep me going.
Unfortunately, despite my skills at finding people and items, I’d been on Sebastian’s trail for decades and I had yet to kill him. Or even come close to it. Hell, I’d only managed to see him in person a handful of times, and that was only because he had carefully planned out those meetings and laid a trap for me.
But it didn’t matter what my friends thought. It didn’t matter that my body and magic were failing. It didn’t matter that I woke every day with this bone-deep weariness and couldn’t remember a time when I hadn’t felt it. I wouldn’t stop. Not until he was dead. What I would do after that or who I would even be, I didn’t know. And I didn’t care.