A Shift in Fate
My back slammed into the mat for what felt like the hundredth time. Rather than get up, I just lay there panting. It seemed like the smarter move.
“Nice technique you got there.”
“Shut it, vampire,” I growled.
As usual, Mikhail did no such thing. “There are two vampires in this room,” he smoothly stated. “And I’m not even the one who’s been kicking your shifter ass for the past thirty minutes. Why does he get to be called by his name but I just get ‘vampire’?”
“Because I like him more than you. Obviously.” I winced as I pushed off the ground and leaned on my elbows. That last kick had probably fractured my ribs. My shifter healing was already fixing the damage, but it still hurt to breathe. A second later, a hand appeared in front of me, and I grabbed it, allowing Magos to pull me to my feet.
“All good?” Magos asked, not appearing the least bit remorseful about delivering that bone-shattering kick.
I scowled up at him. At just under six feet, I was tall, but Magos still had several inches on me. Tall and broad shouldered, Magos looked every inch the warrior he was.
“I’m fine,” I grumbled and rubbed my side. “Wasn’t expecting that last kick.”
“Obviously,” Mikhail chimed in, echoing my tone from earlier.
“It’s not like you fared that much better,” I snapped.
Before kicking my ass, Magos had sparred with his nephew. Magos didn’t believe in holding back in fighting practice. Which was why Mikhail was laid up on our couch healing from his sparring session, giving him the perfect view to provide commentary on my sparring session. If I’d had a knife on me, I would have thrown it at him, but Magos had instituted a rule months ago that all weapons had to be put away when we entered the apartment. Apparently, Mikhail and I constantly trying to stab each other wore on Magos’s nerves.
The three of us were still figuring out our dynamic. Even though Mikhail had retired from the vampire Council, it was still hard not to think of him as their notorious assassin. Magos enjoyed having his nephew around, even if their relationship was a bit strained. That was mostly why I tolerated Mikhail staying with us. He was the only family Magos had left, and I didn’t want to take that away from him.
Even if Mikhail had the audacity to declare he should move into the empty apartment on the second floor. I’d flat out laughed in his face when he’d made his little declaration. In truth, I had been thinking about offering that to him, but because he got pushy about it, I changed my mind. We’d been bickering about it ever since, but I was holding fast in my refusal. So Mikhail remained on our couch and I had to listen to him heckle me while I got my ass kicked by Magos.
I stretched to test how my ribs were doing. Still sore, but another few minutes and they’d be good as new.
“We should leave soon,” Magos said.
We were planning on taking the vampire kids out around the town. Mikhail had never confirmed their whereabouts to the Council before he split ties with them, but just to be safe, we made sure one of us was always with them when they left the apartment. It had taken some time for the vampire kids to get comfortable around Mikhail; they’d grown up hearing stories of the infamous vampire assassin, so he had set them on edge at first. But they had gradually accepted him over the past few months. Mikhail grunted in agreement and swung his feet off the couch. A grimace of pain spread across his face, and I smirked. Before I could ask him how those ribs of his were doing, our front door flew open and Pele strolled in.
“Vampires. Out,” she announced and dropped the black duffel bag in the living room.
Magos and Mikhail stiffened slightly and looked at the daemon warily.
“Pele, remember how we talked about you being slightly nicer to my vampire roommates? Well, Magos anyway,” I reminded her.
“I remember you whining to me about it. But I never agreed to anything.”
I huffed a laugh. Given that Pele owned this building and was allowing the vampire kids to live on the first floor and two other vampires to live on this floor, we should probably all be happy with that. I was pretty sure she was warming up to Magos, but she wasn’t a fan of Mikhail.
“What brings your beautiful self to our apartment this evening?” I asked.
Pele’s bright turquoise eyes focused on me, and a wicked smile spread across her face. “Jinx mentioned that while your panic attacks have gotten better, you still have issues with being bound. The warlocks almost captured you last time because of it.” She flicked a hand at the bag and ropes sprang out of it, looping themselves over the steel beams that ran across the ceiling. “You’ve been sulking these past few months since your werewolf boyfriend ran off. I’m tired of it. So I thought we’d play some games and see if we can help prevent you from immediately panicking while bound.” Pele sauntered over to me. The tailored dark blue suit played perfectly with her bright red skin and showcased all her curves. She stood in front of me and ran one of her sharp nails down my neck. “I figured it would help with the whole sulking thing, too.”
I shivered as her nail went back up my neck. “Right,” I breathed. “Magos? Are you . . . umm . . . good with taking the vamp kids out?”
Magos looked at me, amusement flickering in his copper-colored eyes. “Yes. I think we can manage.”
I glanced at Mikhail and jerked my head towards the door. He rolled his eyes and followed his uncle.
We’ll join the vampires, a voice grumbled in my head. Magos and Mikhail paused by the front door. A moment later, two cats trotted out from the hallway that led to the bedrooms, one black and one silver. Jinx and Luna.
Jinx glared at me as he walked by. Magos opened the door for him and followed him out. Mikhail waited for Luna. The silver grimalkin paused and looked up at me. I met her lilac eyes and gave her a soft smile. Will you be okay? I pushed the thought to her.
Yes. Thank you, a soft voice said in my head. When Jinx had found Luna in the woods of a fae realm years ago, she’d been seriously injured. He’d managed to get her to some fae who healed her body, but her magic had been completely depleted. When I first met her, she hadn’t been able to speak telepathically. The past few months, her magic had started to come back and so had her voice. Unlike Jinx, she was pleasant to talk to, so I enjoyed our conversations. She still had no memory of what had happened to her before ending up in those woods with a nearly fatal wound.
Mikhail knelt slightly and held his arm out. Luna trotted over to him and smoothly leapt up his arm and settled on his shoulders. To everyone’s surprise, they’d become quite close over the past few months. It was probably the only reason Jinx tolerated Mikhail. Jinx would do anything to make Luna happy and feel safe.
Mikhail walked towards the door and called over his shoulder, “Don’t break any of the furniture.” He hastily closed the door behind him.
The ropes moved slowly and wrapped themselves around my wrists, tugging my arms up. Panic immediately seized me, but the ropes loosened until they were gently supporting me rather than binding me. The panic was still there, but it had eased a bit. Pele was one of the few beings I trusted completely. She ran her fingers through my long ash blond hair, undoing it from the braid I usually kept it in, and leaned in to whisper in my ear, “Now then, what games shall we play first?”
A few hours later, I lay stretched across my bed. I lifted myself up slightly and reached out to trace a pattern across Pele’s sweat-soaked skin. She’d been right. I had needed this. While I was far from being free of having panic attacks while bound, a significant weight had been lifted off me. Pele had always been able to do that for me just as I could for her. We’d had no interest in turning this into anything serious. Kaysea had learned that humans referred to this situation as “friends with benefits” and found the term hilarious. But it summed up my relationship with Pele accurately enough.
“How are you doing? Really?” Pele asked.
I started to lie and say I was doing fine but stopped myself. This was Pele, she would understand. “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop,” I admitted. “The warlocks have backed off for now, but they know my secret. I just want to be done with all of it and live my life in peace without worrying about the fae and daemons finding out about my magic and killing me. Or figuring out a way to use me. I’m not sure what I fear more.”
I looked at the drawing on my dresser of the fae tree in the woods nearby. Andrei had given it to me shortly before he left town. “I’ve never had a normal life, Pele. First it was my parents dying, then it was meeting Sebastian and hunting witches and warlocks, and then . . . everything else.” Thinking about Myrna still hurt; killing Sebastian had helped with that pain, but it still lingered. “I just want to be free from everything and have a chance to figure out who I can be without all of my baggage.”
“And play house with a nice werewolf, perhaps?” Pele turned her head and arched an eyebrow at me.
“Maybe.” I flicked her nose in reproach. “I’d like to be able to try.”
She slapped my hand away. “You seem to have a better handle on your magic. Kaysea’s suggestion helped, I take it?”
“Yes.” I raised my hand, and blue flames danced across my fingers. “Apparently keeping a stranglehold on it like I’d been doing my entire life is what made it so difficult to control. After that fight in the woods with the warlocks, I never put the chains back on it. It’s calmer now. Kaysea says it’s similar to fae magic in that it’s almost sentient.” I let the flames fade away, and my magic hummed across my skin as if pleased with my assessment.
I went back to tracing patterns on her skin, and we lay there for a few more minutes in silence until Pele shifted onto her side, propped up on her elbow. Her sharp eyes focused on me, and I knew without a doubt that she was plotting. And that I wouldn’t like it.
“Out with it,” I said, bracing myself for whatever bomb she was about to drop on me.
“I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Seriously?” I flopped back down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. “It must be one hell of a favor if you felt you had to sleep with me first.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I slept with you first because I wanted to get laid and I figured you would be irrational after this conversation,” she explained calmly, her lips tilted up in a slight smile.
I glared at her. “What, pray tell, is this favor?”
“About a year ago, a fae child stumbled into a small mountain village in Tír na mBeo.” The mention of the realm where the fae capital was located immediately set me on alert. “He was young and badly injured. No one recognized him, and he either wouldn’t or couldn’t answer any questions about where he had come from and who he was. The only thing the villagers knew was that the child was sidhe and that he already possessed great power. Far more than any young child should have. He understood and spoke the language of the fae but in an old dialect, and he didn’t have a translation mark.”
“Odd.” My brows rose. “Those are typically given in the first year of life. Even in the most remote villages I’ve been to across the fae realms, I’ve never encountered anyone who didn’t have a translation mark.”
Translation marks were practically a universal staple across all the realms. Originally designed by the daemons, the fae had created their own version, but they both worked effectively the same way. The mark was applied behind the ear with a magic branding device. It didn’t hurt but left a permanent mark behind the ear which would warm slightly when in use. The design of the mark changed periodically. The current one for the daemons was a fish they called the “babel fish”. The fae one had been the same for the past few hundred years, a mockingbird. The mark allowed someone to understand any spoken language, but some nuances were lost in translation, which is why most of us spoke at least two or three languages along with some different dialects. Given how many languages were spoken across the realms, it was a basic necessity and probably the most commonly used magic spell in existence.
“He didn’t have one,” Pele continued. “They gave him one so he could better understand them. Those who choose to live in the mountains like their privacy. The child was odd but didn’t cause any harm and no one came asking about him, so they let him stay in the village and hoped that as he grew to trust them more, he could tell him where he came from.”
Pele paused as she rolled out of bed and swiped one of my T-shirts off the ground. She pulled it on and proceeded to pace in front of the large window that overlooked the rocky coastline. When leading meetings or negotiations, Pele always presented a calm and collected appearance. But when she was with her friends and family, Pele was a pacer. If she couldn’t pace, she would fidget nonstop. I’d gotten her a bag full of exquisite and well-crafted fidget spinners for her birthday years ago.
I remained on the bed but sat up and rested against the headboard. “I’ve been to fae villages like that. They definitely like to be left alone.” I pondered the information a bit more and slowly said, “Still . . . I would have expected them to at least report the child’s appearance to the nearest city.”
“Mirrors don’t work in that mountain range once you get above a certain elevation. There are a few fae mountain ranges where that happens. No one knows why exactly.” Pele shrugged. “One of my cousins is obsessed with studying it and trying to figure out what causes the interference. Most magic works fine in the region, but apparently mirrors don’t. That only adds to the appeal for the fae who choose to live there.”
“Can’t blame them,” I said with a huff. “There have been times in my life where I’ve shed my human skin and lived in my feline form for years. Solitude is nice sometimes.”
“These villages are remote and communication is limited, but they do get regular deliveries of supplies. Two months ago, a supply train arrived in the village and found it decimated.”
I looked sharply at Pele. Words failed me. The fae would fight amongst themselves, but no one else messed with them, and I couldn’t think of any reason internal fae politics would have resulted in a random mountain village being destroyed. Even more surprising was that they’d kept this quiet enough to stop any rumors from spreading.
“They killed almost everyone in the village,” Pele continued, her tone even. “The only reason some children survived is because some of the adults quickly realized they were outmatched and sacrificed themselves to create one hell of a ward around the basement where the children were hiding.” Pele paused her pacing and looked at me, her words soft and serious as she spoke. “The beings that attacked the village . . . they were devourers, Nemain.”
“Impossible,” I breathed.
Devourers were the bogeyman across all the realms. They appeared seemingly out of nowhere thousands of years ago and poured into multiple realms as gateways opened at random, linking our realms to theirs. That event and the others that followed were known as Cataclysms. The devourers were composed of many species, but they all had three things in common: They were always a predator species, they were immune to any form of magical attack, and they consumed magic. Hence their name. As far as I knew, no devourer had set foot in a fae realm for at least a thousand years.
“What type of devourers were they?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” Pele growled in frustration and resumed her pacing.
“What do you mean? No one recognized the species?” I asked in confusion. “Describe them. I might know what kind they are.”
“The devourers were gone by the time the supply wagon got there. No one who is still alive saw them. We only know they were devourers because of the bodies left behind. All drained of magic.” Pele stopped pacing and looked at me before pacing again. She paused after a few steps, clearly unsure how to proceed. Unease ran through me. Pele was never this rattled.
“What else? Might as well keep this fun train moving along,” I said lightly.
“We’re pretty sure the devourers were fae-like. Or at least able to take that shape.”
Every part of me stilled. “How? How do you know that?”
“There were tracks leading out of the village. They walked on two feet. And they wore shoes. The children never saw them because there were no windows in the basement they were hiding in, but they heard them talking. Arguing about something. The language they spoke was fae.”
“Are you sure?”
Pele nodded. “Translation marks react differently when it’s the same language but a different dialect. It was an older dialect of fae but definitely fae.”
“Like the boy,” I murmured as I thought through the implications. “Did they find the child?”
“We’re not sure. He wasn’t with the other children in the basement, and they did not find his body anywhere else. Based on the argument the devourers were having when the children overheard them, it seems like they didn’t find him, at least at the time of the attack. It’s been over two months since the village was destroyed, and there have been no further sightings of the devourers.
“All travel out of that fae realm has been severely restricted. We don’t know how the devourers got into that realm, but the most likely way is that they used an existing gateway. Assuming that is how they entered, it stands to reason that’s how they planned to leave.”
“Devourers don’t plan. At least nothing like this. Many of them are skilled hunters and they’ll plan attacks and ambushes, but this is well beyond that. They don’t plan how to travel between realms while posing as fae. And none of them speak.”
“We both know that’s not exactly true.”
My eyes locked onto Pele’s as her words hit me. “I’m not one of them,” I growled.
“I’m not saying you are. But you do have devourer magic,” Pele pushed. “Maybe whatever these things are is something similar to what you are.”
I rolled off the bed and grabbed my robe off the back of the bedroom door and stalked out into the living room. I pulled the silk robe on and lashed the belt across my waist as I stood in front of the windows and watched the waves crash ashore.
Pele came to stand beside me but said nothing. I’d hidden my magic from almost everyone my entire life, including Pele. But I’d told her everything recently. About my ability to tear open gateways in any realm despite that fancy spell crafted by the fae and daemons to protect their realms against Cataclysms. And I told her about my devourer magic that manifested as pale blue flames and allowed me to consume the magic of others. At first, Pele had been both shocked and scared. Not of me, but for me and what would happen if my secrets were to get out. Devourers were killed on sight by the daemons and fae.
I glanced at Pele. “Any ideas why they were after the child? This all seems odd. A powerful sidhe child appearing out of nowhere and then being attacked by a band of fae-like devourers that no one has ever encountered before? I feel bad for the kid and I’m pretty curious about these devourers, but should I get involved in this? The sidhe must be crawling all over this. I’ll have run-ins with them, and every time I encounter them is just another chance they’ll figure out what I am.”
“I told you I needed a favor,” Pele murmured.
I snorted. “This is a bit more than a favor.”
“The sidhe are hiding something. My father’s always suspected the fae knew more about the devourers than they’ve ever let on. Honestly, I always thought he was just paranoid. But I’ve uncovered some odd things over the years, and a lot of shit has been going on in the fae realms recently. Something big is coming. And I think this child might be at the center of all of it.”
Pele reached out and gripped my shoulder. “You need to find the child, Nemain. And you need to hide him from the fae when you do.”
“Are you insane?” I stared at her in disbelief. “That is a death sentence. I thought we were trying to figure out how to keep me alive. Not get me killed faster!”
“Hear me out.” Pele held her hands up in a calming motion. “You just need to keep him safe until we figure out exactly what is going on. If the devourers made it into the fae realm through one of the existing gateways, they likely had help from a fae. There might be some shift taking place in fae politics right now that we don’t know about. If we deliver the child to the wrong party, we’d be helping them do whatever the hell it is they’re trying to do. I need time to figure this out. And in the meantime, I need someone I can trust who is good at finding lost things to locate the damn kid. Once we figure out what’s going on, we can barter for your freedom with the fae and daemons. If we can tell them about your magic and get them to agree to never come after you, the warlocks will no longer have this hold over you. This could be your chance at having a truly free life.”
Tentative hope rose within me as I rubbed my forehead. Jinx and Magos would not like this. Although it would be kind of funny to watch their expressions as I explained all this to them. Their heads might literally explode. “Is one of the Queens making a play against the other?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.” Pele pursed her lips, and her eyes grew somewhat distant, as they always did when she was thinking through possibilities. “They rarely agree and occasionally take swipes at each other, but they are sisters and love each other. That’s not to say they’re not involved, though. This could be a coup against the both of them.”
“Great,” I said dryly.
“Figure out who is coming with you and bring them to my office, and I’ll give you the rest of the information, plus any leads I have. Make sure someone stays behind to watch the vampire brats. I don’t want them left alone here.”
I rolled my eyes, and Pele swatted my arm. “Oww,” I said and rubbed the spot she’d hit. Blood welled over a few scratches from her claws. They’d heal in seconds, but still. “When are we leaving?”
“Tomorrow. You leave tomorrow.”