Claws gripped my throat, shutting off my air and, Raziel laughed against my mouth. It was a triumphant rumble, feral and heated, but the rumble of amusement had an unfamiliar edge, and fear gripped me. “Yesss,” it whispered, mind to mind, “where are the wheels?” The claws relaxed and I inhaled a scent, cloying and intoxicating, like lilacs and jasmine growing up from an open grave. “Your heart beats with the fragrance of Amethyst and her wheels. Where are they”?
I tried to open my eyes. This isn’t Raziel, I thought, instinctively hiding the knowledge in the deeps of my mind, where the whisperer couldn’t find it. And, I’m trapped. I struggled to make a fist, to grip the sword hilt, the metal cold in my unresponsive palm. In the distance, a predator cat called a warning, a portent. A lynx.
Distantly, an alarm sounded, muffled, flat tones. The door of my loft crashed open followed by a bellow of rage. My eyes opened. A Darkness recoiled, wrenching away, roiling over my bed and was gone.
In a single movement, honed from weeks of sword practice, I gripped the handle of my walking stick and pulled the sword from its sheath, rolled from the bed and attacked. Blade and sheath whirled in a frenzy, upward, together, and back out in the sleeping cat, a move that could disembowel an enemy. The sword and sheath, one in either hand, whispered along Audric’s belly. His blades shushed over my head as I pivoted. Coming fully awake, I dashed the tears from my eyes and glimpsed the bed, covers tossed to the floor, barely visible in the pre-dawn light. The loft was icy, the frigid cold chilling my skin. I breathed the floral reek and the sickly sweet scent of decay. An incubus. An incubus had been in my bed.
Audric, a half-breed warrior, rotated and my sword met his with a ringing clang of steel on steel asI leaped high and cut down, placing my feet with precision when I landed. “Where is it?” he roared, ducking under my blade. With his superior strength, he beat me back as I landed, the flat of his blades slapping my sides, the hilts bruising my ribs. “Seraph stones! I smell it on you!”
Using his height and my own diminutive size, I danced under his arms and landed three blows, any one of which would have been mortal had I used the blade. Eventually. His elbow impacted my jaw. I collided with the bed and rolled over the mattress with the momentum. The scent of old death billowed out of the cotton sheets and silk duvet. Behind me, the phone shrilled, ignored. My voice answered on the machine, the volume turned low, the greeting a murmur. I danced away from him. “Gone,” I gasped.
Audric stepped back and crossed his swords, offering a respite. “Rape?” he asked, curt as all the second-unforeseen are in battle. His eyes raked me, assessing. More formally, he said, “You are naked.”
My breath heaved. I looked down. I was naked. My neomage attributes glowed along my skin with the rosy peach hue of mage-power, my scars blazing white like sunlight through quartz crystal. My amulets, which I had worn to bed, were missing. A fleeting look found them tangled with my pajamas, half beneath a pillow. “No,” I said, catching my breath. “You got here in time.” But my loft was icy, the smell of death rancid and choking. It shouldn’t have been able to get in. My home, the shop downstairs, even the spring outside; all were conjured to keep me safe.
“The light is odd. Purple?” Audric scrutinized my loft, his weapons at rest, his dark-skinned face alight with hope. “You used the amethyst in the stockroom to fight the demon?”
I inspected the apartment, breath wheezing, heart hammering with exertion, ripped from dreams of arousal and sex to battle in a heartbeat. The loft was radiant, an irregular lavender thrum in time to my pulse. Mage-sight focused, I sought the stone in its metal boxes one floor below. There was no answering flare of power, no might I could draw upon to fight or conjure. There was nothing. A dull headache started over my temple as I tried to draw on the stone, throbbing with my pulse, with the lavender energies I could no longer use. “No,” I said, hating the timbre of defeat in my voice. “It’s still dead. If there’s energy, it’s residual.”
Audric raised his weapons again, the blades still crossed. “And the incubus?” With his half-mage heritage, his skin glowed like mine, a dull peach sheen emanating from his dark skin.
“Got past my wards,” I stated baldly, finally catching my breath. “I’ll have to try something else. And yes, it still calls. It’s getting creative.”
“It will tempt you as long as it has your blood. Get dressed.”
I sheathed the blade, knowing it was true. A Power of Darkness on the left peak of the Trine had my blood, had collected it during battle dire. Now it wanted all I had, all I was, all I knew. If I didn’t get my blood back, I’d ultimately succumb to its lures, saddle my horse and ride north, up the Trine, the tri-peaked mountain overlooking Mineral City, to my doom.
I turned on the overhead lights, and, taking my cue from Audric’s choice of attire, dressed in white practice dobok, a padded, form-fitting, martial-arts uniform adopted by the first neomages when they created savage-chi and savage-blade. Courteously, Audric kept his back to me, opening windows at the south and north sides of the loft. A frozen wind blew through, winter having returned with a vengeance, but the chill air took with it the smell of death, or froze it out. Before I was dressed, he made the same round, closing the windows. He knelt at the gas-log fireplaces, turning the flames of both on high. I could feel their heat instantly from behind the dressing screen across the room. Below the neomage glow, I was blue with cold, yet I could still smell my mage-heat, like cookies and almonds and blood. “Weapons?” I asked.
“Bamboo staves,” he said, “lightweight.” I heard a cloth-on-cloth abrasion and peeked around the screen to see Audric stripping my bed. When he caught my eye he said, “Stinks.” Audric, in battle mode, was typically laconic, though he never lost the formality that marked his breed—the half human, half neomage second-unforeseen.
The sheets in a hobo’s knot, he leaned against the front door, clearing a wedge of snow, letting in another blast of cold air and the uncertain sound of sleet peppering the outside world. He tossed the sheets onto the porch and closed the door. The smell of the loft improved quickly, especially when he lit two scented candles, bayberry and fig. The big man, half-human, half-neomage, surveyed the loft and pushed aside the kitchen table.
I sighed. When he rearranged the furniture, I was in for a hard practice session and lots of bruises. It meant he was in a good mood and wanted to share, or was in a very bad mood and wanted to take it out on me. Either way, I would be sore. Still hidden behind the dressing screen, I slid to the bathroom and took two ibuprofen. I wasn’t human, but the anti-inflammatory worked as well on me as it did on them. I’d also release a healing amulet the moment practice was over. Though I was tempted, it would be cheating to release it now. I pulled on socks, two pair, thick and warm, and slapped on soft-soled practice shoes.
While Audric busied himself making tea, I slid from the screen, and approached on silent feet. “If you want a thorough drubbing,” he said without turning around, “you’ll strike when my back is turned. Otherwise, you’ll wait until I’m ready.”
“Snarky half-bred,” I said, sotto voce.
“Indeed I am,” he said, amused. Whipping bamboo staves from under his arm, he tossed a pair to me and slapped me twice before I could snatch mine from the air. “You move with less grace than a ten year old mage,” he insulted, “and you’re as slow as a human.”
Mage-fast, I whipped around him and pricked him three times. “Dead, dead, dead,” I said. “Now who’s slow?”
“Look down,” he said.
I flicked my eyes to see his left stave touching my side, angled to rip liver and kidney. Not so dead, dead, dead, after all. He slid into the swan and rapidly into the horse, almost as fast as a mage, bamboo staves slapping me rhythmically through the sequence. I leapt into the proper blocks, warmth flowing into my chilled body as battle-lust wrestled with the cold of dreams and the touch of evil, as bloodlust replaced mage-heat created by the incubus. Sweat glistened on my arms, trickled down my spine. I couldn’t help what the incubus made me feel, but I could choose what I did about it. Battle was better than sex with an incorporeal Darkness. In fact, almost anything was better than sex with an incorporeal Darkness.
When I was warmed up, Audric slapped me across my butt, hard, like he might a child. “Fight, little mage. You move like a human this morning.” I snarled at the affront. Insolently, he chuckled and taunted, “You nearly let that thing seduce you, little girl. As if you were nothing more than a child.” He slapped my backside again, playfully.
Audric was deftly moving me from one passion to another, from desire to anger. The fact that he had such control of my emotions made me even more furious. “You let a minor Power lay with you, in your bed. You are slow and lazy as a human. And you are a fool.”
Insult piling on insult. But he was right. Evil had been in my loft. It had touched me. Moving as fast as my kind could, I cut, and cut, and cut, delivering deadly blows over his heart, over his left kidney, over the artery feeding his liver. Three deadly strikes slid in under his guard. Audric knew it. “Better and better, little mage,” he danced away. “Someday, if you dedicate yourself to battle and battle alone, you may defeat me. It isn’t likely, but it is possible.”
“I’d rather have you at my back, killing off spawn,” I said. “And Dragons.”
Audric missed a beat. I speared him fast, a single heart thrust. “Dead,” I said.
“What do you know of Dragons?” he asked, closing on me, delivering a lung-thrust.
I blocked and countered. “More than I want to,” I said, still striking fast.
“Here?” he asked. And he slammed me in the left side. My injured left side.
I fell to the floor and he hit me twice more, blows that would have decapitated me from both left and right. Air erupted from my throat with a sound like, “Uueeerpt.” Audric laughed again, cruelly this time, finding humor in my pain. I skittered, reeling across the kitchen tile, seeing only a turquoise blur in the almost-dawn light. My teacher followed, lashing me. “You will tell me soon why this place on your left side causes you such pain.”
“There’s no pain,” I lied. I had thought myself healed, but I could use the old wound as a weapon. Feigning injury with a gasp, I dropped flat and separated my weapons as if in surrender. He reacted, a miniscule hesitation, a millisecond delay. I brought up both bamboo staves, the practice weapons, non-lethal, rounded and blunt. Crossing them at the tips, I hit him, just below his breastbone—a lethal strike had I wished. Even using the bamboo rods the move was capable of rupturing the descending aorta.
The staves indented his chest, the tips shoving up, under his ribs. Air whooshed from his lungs in a pained grunt. His knees buckled. Mage-fast, I whipped from beneath him and watched him fall, tumbling, an avalanche of joints and long-bones and torso, to the floor. And I heard myself laugh. “Die, mule,” I said.
Audric looked up from the floor, his dark eyes meeting mine in horror. He splayed a hand over the spot where I hit him, fingers clenching. The bright glow of a deep bruise emanated from between his fingers. Fear snatched my breath. How hard had I hit him? Shock, sorrow, heartache, and disbelief bled from his eyes. Little mage, what have you done? I am done for, he seemed to say. Horrified, I fell to my knees. Audric bellowed, the tone a lion’s call, and lunged. “Gotchya!”
“Saint’s balls,” I cursed hoarsely, trying to block his practice staves from taking my heart. But the bamboo tips hit my chest, one just below my sternum, digging in hard, the other below my left breast. The breath left my lungs. He rose from the floor and held me down, foot on my throat. I was finished.
“Never feel for the enemy,” Audric said, a lesson from Battle Mage 101. “Never! And stop cursing. Your Darkness might hear you and come back to visit.” His staves clacked together sharply. “Now get up. Try to do it right this time.”