To Kill a Fae (The Dragon Portal, #1) - Jamie A. Waters - E-Book

To Kill a Fae (The Dragon Portal, #1) E-Book

Jamie A. Waters

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Beschreibung

The darkness holds more than just secrets...

Marked for death, Sabine escaped from her home more than ten years ago. 

But the Wild Hunt will never give up.

It should have been easy to stay hidden. All Sabine had to do was keep her head down, avoid telling anyone about her past, and above all else -- not let her glamour drop.

Even the best-laid plans eventually fall apart.

When a charismatic stranger arrives in the city, Sabine finds herself unwittingly drawn to the power she can sense hidden within him. Keeping her distance is nearly impossible, especially after a life debt is called due and she’s tasked into helping steal a rare artifact.

Sabine is the only one who can break the magical barriers protecting the item, but that means revealing the truth about her identity and exposing her darkest secrets. 

Unfortunately, the Fae aren’t the only ones hunting her.

And the most dangerous monsters aren’t always confined to the dark.

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To Kill a Fae © 2019 by Jamie A. Waters

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Cover Art by Deranged Doctor Designs

Editor: Beyond DEF Lit

ISBN: 978-1-949524-17-8 (Hardback Edition)

ISBN: 978-1-949524-16-1 (Paperback Edition)

ISBN: 978-1-949524-15-4 (eBook Edition)

Library of Congress Control Number:  2019911511

First Edition *September 2019

Contents

The Dragon Portal Series

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Also by Jamie A. Waters

About the Author

The Dragon Portal Series

To Kill a Fae

To Kill a Fae

By Blood and Magic

Facets of Power

An owl hooted in warning.

Sabine brushed her fingers against the handle of a throwing knife strapped to her thigh, but she didn't alter her stride. Boots crunched upon the cobblestone street behind her at a steady beat, keeping pace with her. Whoever had decided to follow her this evening hadn’t bothered to mask their intent. The weight of the weapons she carried was a small reassurance, but it was no guarantee of safety.

She turned the next corner, angling her head to catch a glimpse of the people trailing her. A shaft of moonlight illuminated both men’s features enough to be certain she didn't know them. Not only that, but they were too well-armed to be out for a midnight stroll. She frowned and adjusted her cloak to better cover her silvery-white hair and continued walking. It wasn’t an uncommon color in the city, but it was still distinctive and far too recognizable.

Approaching footsteps from an adjacent alley caught her attention. It might be a coincidence, but it wasn’t likely in this part of town. Sabine didn’t travel to the more affluent areas of Akros often, and when she did, it was rarely on the surface streets. She was too recognizable—being noticed was something she needed to avoid. If she hadn’t agreed to meet with a prospective informant with the hope of learning more about the strange rumors surrounding the city council, she wouldn’t be in this situation now. Unfortunately, he’d been as clueless as everyone else. No one wanted to talk about what the council was doing—and that was one more thing to make this situation more infuriating.

At the next intersection, Sabine glanced down the adjacent street. It was a dead end. Mentally kicking herself for her earlier cockiness, she debated her limited options. If they were trying to herd her to a place of their choosing for an ambush, another man would be waiting on the next street—she was sure of it.

Stupid. So stupid. What had possessed her to ignore every lesson shoved down her throat since arriving in the city almost ten years earlier? The shadows surrounding her had become like a second skin—one she’d grown accustomed to wearing. Most people barely noticed her presence anymore, unless she specifically tried to draw attention to herself. For her, such behavior was akin to suicide.

Sabine listened to the leisurely pace of the footsteps following her. So far, her would-be assailants weren't in a hurry to engage her. If she could manage to make it closer to the wharf, she'd be back within safe territory. Safer for her, at least. The same couldn't be said for most others, including the ones currently trailing her.

The streets in this part of town were mostly quiet at this time of night. Businesses were closed, and the good citizens of Akros were safely tucked in their beds. Those who wandered the streets usually risked their purses being lifted and any removable belongings stripped by morning. Of course, that was assuming they managed not to have their throat slit. Shadows came out to play at night, and only the clever or lucky usually survived.

For the most part, Sabine didn't worry about the threat of the miscreants who may be lurking within these darkened streets. They knew enough to leave her unhindered; her associates had made sure of that. The fact Sabine was a target now was more than a little curious—and equally worrisome. It was unlikely this ambush was random, especially since the streets were uncharacteristically empty. Not even a few drunks or beggars loitered in any nearby doorsteps.

She frowned and took a deep breath, inhaling the faintest trace of magic permeating the night air. It was subtle enough she hadn’t noticed it right away. It had the feel of a witch or wizard’s spell, which was part of the reason she hadn’t paid much attention. Most witches and wizards were human who relied on nature magic in the form of herbal tinctures and poultices. Only a rare few had enough power to be much of a threat.

Sabine took another deep breath and nearly stumbled as recognition slammed into her. It was definitely a witch, but there was also a trace of a different sort of magic. It took everything in Sabine’s power to keep moving at the same leisurely pace when every instinct warned her to flee. Somewhere in this witch’s family tree was a Fae, and that type of magic was much more dangerous, especially to Sabine. The witch’s spell had been carefully woven to be little more than a suggestion, encouraging mundane passersby to travel another direction. It was a clever bit of magic, and its passive nature hadn’t triggered the warding bracelet around her wrist to warn her. Someone had paid a hefty bit of coin for such a spell.

She fingered the hilt of her blade again, preparing for the inevitable. Given the costly spell and the location, it was even less likely this was a coincidence. But something wasn’t quite right. If they had guessed her identity, they wouldn’t have sent humans after her—even if a part-Fae witch had created the spell. She needed to think, but she had to lose her tail first. Unfortunately, her options were somewhat limited.

She started to turn down another alley but hesitated at the sight of the last man.

“Damn. This is bad,” she muttered under her breath. Turning away, she heard the footsteps behind her move faster. She only had a handful of seconds before they intercepted her. Scanning the empty street, she noticed several of the buildings in this area were abandoned rather than simply closed for the evening. Her assailants had chosen well, and she'd been a fool to fall so neatly into their trap. If she was going to do something, the time was now.

Taking a steadying breath, Sabine caught a faint whiff of the nearby sea. She slipped off the warding bracelet and dropped it into her pocket before opening herself to the pulse of the night. Even if she could perform magic while wearing it, she wasn’t willing to risk anything interfering with what she was about to attempt.

The moist air tickled her skin, and she allowed the moonlight to penetrate through her protective barriers. Power flared within her briefly before she managed to wrest control of it. The longer she went without actively using her magic, the more difficult it became to suppress it. She wouldn’t need too much, but it was dangerous without her usual protections in place.

She inhaled and gathered her power, infusing her very breath with elemental magic. When she exhaled, she projected her magic skyward. The moon slipped behind the cloud cover and darkened the area. She was too exposed to risk using more magic. It would have to be enough. Sabine took the opportunity to duck into a doorway and crouched down to wait.

“Where did she go?” one of the men whispered loudly.

“She’s got to be here somewhere,” another one snapped. “Find her, or we don’t get paid.”

Sabine withdrew one of her knives and pressed the poison dispenser on the hilt as she listened to the footsteps hurrying on the pavement. When one of them was close enough, she threw the blade in his direction and rolled forward. A howl of pain signaled she’d hit her mark. The lethal poison would keep him busy—in perpetuity.

Springing to her feet, she pulled another knife free just as someone grabbed hold of her. Lashing outward, she swiped her knife deeply across his forearm.

“Fuck! She cut me!”

The moment he released her, she spun away. The third man grabbed her from behind, jerking her backward. A sharp, stinging sensation burned along her side as his knife sliced across her skin. Ignoring the pain, she stepped down hard on his insole.

Sabine’s long, silvery-white braids whipped around as she spun to face her attacker. She slashed with her blade, feeling the soft flesh give way until it met bone. He cried out in pain, and she yanked out the knife. Before she had time to flee, the fourth man appeared and rushed toward her, knocking her to the ground. Her knife flew out of her hand, the metal clattering against the paving stones.

“I've got you, bitch,” he rasped in her ear. The stench of stale sweat and cooked onions choked her senses.

Sabine raised her knee between his legs. Sweaty onion man grunted in pain. In one swift movement, she withdrew another dagger and slashed diagonally across his throat. Blood splashed outward, and she ignored the gurgling noise as she scrambled to her feet.

Two down, but there were two more who needed to be eliminated.

“Kill her already!” a man shouted.

Aha. So not an abduction. They wanted her dead.

A blond man rushed toward her, and she kicked out at him. He stumbled backward as her heel hit the center of his chest. Sabine turned toward the one who had shouted. The scar on his chin was vaguely familiar, but she wasn’t sure where she’d seen him before. Grabbing her, he shoved her hard. Her back hit the wall, and she let out an oomph as her breath rushed from her lungs.

The flash of a blade caught her attention, and her eyes widened at the sight of the ancient iron dagger and the tattoo on the inside of the man’s wrist. Any doubt she had about the randomness of the attack fled. If she were going to survive the next few minutes, she needed to take drastic measures. Hiding in the shadows wouldn’t matter if she were dead. Her middling weapons skill was no match against this opponent.

Dropping to her knees, Sabine cut her palm and slapped her bleeding hand against the ground. Pulling the earth’s energy up through the paving stones, she held up her other hand and projected the power outward in a sharp blast. Her would-be assailant flew backward, hitting the opposite wall.

“It’s her,” the tattooed man shouted, pointing in her direction. “Kill her! Now!”

The blond man rushed forward in her direction. His weapon wasn’t iron, but it was no less deadly. She couldn’t risk performing more major magic and alerting everyone of her presence. Death always happened in threes, and she was one power-pull away from a calamity. She needed to make sure the next person who fell was one of her enemies.

Bracing herself, she remained crouched as the man ran toward her. A moment before impact, she leaned forward and pushed herself upright with the blade still in her hand. The angle was perfect to pass between his ribs and straight into his heart. Yanking the knife free, she shoved him aside and prepared to throw her weapon.

The last man, the one who’d held the deadly iron dagger and promised to be the most formidable, was on the ground with a puddle of blood pooling beneath him. A dark-haired stranger stood over the body. He yanked his sword free, and Sabine raised her hand, preparing to let her knife fly.

His eyes widened slightly, and he held up his hand in a peaceable gesture. “I swear to you: my word is as strong as the elements. I mean you no harm.”

Sabine froze at the irrefutable oath he’d made. The language of Faerie wasn’t uncommon within the city, although many of the residents had adopted a bastardized version or used a mixture along with the common tongue. But the ritualistic words he’d uttered were not common knowledge nor was the formality of his speech. The oath was enough to stay her hand, but she wasn’t foolish enough to lower her weapon.

The man standing before her radiated tightly controlled energy unlike anything she’d seen before. The color of his aura, a rich silvery-blue, reminded her of the night sky after the sun slipped past the horizon. His golden skin and dark hair indicated he wasn’t Fae or even a native to Akros, but he might be wearing glamour to hide his true nature. It was too dark to see his eyes, but she wondered if the secrets he harbored would reflect back at her.

Sabine straightened slowly, refusing to lower the knife in her hand. Beautiful or not, no one would know that oath unless they were intimately familiar with the Fae and their ancient customs. He appeared decidedly human, but his energy was something more. It was possible he had some Fae blood in him. It still didn’t explain why he was here, especially considering he’d appeared on the heels of an attack. He couldn’t lie if he were Fae, but his ability to wield truth and lies depended on how much human blood he possessed. Humans could be just as tricky as the Fae.

If necessary, she could kill him later—after she questioned him.

Sabine relaxed the hand holding her weapon, acknowledging curiosity had gotten the better of her. She wouldn’t kill this stranger yet, but whether she’d trust him was a decidedly different matter.

Footsteps pounded on the pavement. Sabine tensed, her hand tightening around the knife again. A short and stout creature approached, his purple eyes widening at the sight of her.

“Oh, hell’s balls. What have you done, Malek?” he croaked hoarsely, the greenish skin of his goblin heritage becoming a sickly hue that was almost the exact shade of regurgitated grass.

Another man, similar in appearance to the one called Malek halted beside him. He frowned at the bodies on the ground before meeting her eyes. He didn’t possess the same magnetism as Malek, but he was also a curiosity. If he were completely human, she’d swallow her knife whole, but he definitely wasn’t full-blooded Fae either. Sabine would bet her last weapon neither one of them were from Akros.

Sabine’s eyes narrowed on the familiar goblin. “Pozgil, are these friends of yours?”

Pozgil swallowed and hastily nodded, shifting nervously from foot to foot. His tongue flicked out again before he responded. “I-I was ordered to collect them from the docks. This is Captain Malek Rish'dan.” Pozgil gestured to the man who had spoken in the language of the Fae before gesturing to the other. “And this is his first mate, Levin Corynth. They’ve just arrived in Akros. I’m escorting them to the tavern to meet with Dax.” The goblin paused for a moment, hunched his shoulders, and hastily added, “Wi-With your permission, of course.”

Sabine blinked at him. The goblin trembled in terror. She was surprised he hadn’t fallen to the ground with the way his knees were knocking together. There wasn’t much she could do about dispelling his fears. In any other situation, she’d simply walk away and leave him to his errand. The attempt on her life had changed things. She couldn’t afford to back down, not now. But she could resolve this entire situation as expediently as possible.

Sabine tucked one of her braids behind her pointed ear, using the gesture to buy a few moments of time while she studied this Captain Malek Rish’dan. He didn’t appear like any ship captain she’d ever met. If he were new to Akros like the goblin claimed, it was unlikely he was involved in the recent attack on her. She wouldn’t write him off completely, but Dax’s goblin messenger would never dream of being involved in a plot against her. Dax was the leader of the local thieves’ guild, and he wasn’t exactly forgiving when it came to those who betrayed him.

She took a deep breath but couldn’t detect any lingering foreign magic in the area. The spell encouraging people to avoid these streets had broken during her power-pull on the earth. She couldn’t sense active magic from Malek or his companion either. But still… his connection to the Fae was troubling and curious at the same time.

If Malek had business with Dax, she'd cross paths with him again. Although, Dax’s involvement might prove to be inconvenient. Dax was unpredictable at times, and Sabine wasn't willing to risk him killing off the ship captain. It might be considered a weakness, but she wanted to know about his ties to the Fae.

A pained wail broke through her thoughts, and she glanced over at the man she'd struck with the poisoned weapon. It wasn't a death blow, which was nearly impossible with a throwing dagger, but the poison had done the job. He was paralyzed, and the poison was working through his system and burning him up from the inside. Considering the damage was irreversible, there was only one solution.

Walking over to the man on the ground, she gripped his hair and jerked his head upright. With the knife still in her hand, she slashed it across his throat, allowing his lifeblood to spill onto the cobblestones below.

Sabine released his hair and collected the dagger she’d used to dispense the poison, making a mental note to add more mandrake next time. Regardless of his attempt on her life, she couldn’t leave anyone to suffer. Leaning down, she wiped her blade on the man’s clothing before slipping it into the sheath on her thigh.

“What in the name of the underworld?” Levin muttered.

Pozgil shushed him and whispered, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep your mouth shut.”

Sabine lifted her head to regard the goblin again. Her reputation wasn’t the best, but the fear emanating from Pozgil was a little excessive. Most goblins enjoyed it when a little blood was spilled; it was considered something of a sport among their kind. Pozgil’s eyes gleamed with a wild hunger, but his fear overshadowed everything else. If Dax’s little minion was so out of sorts that he wasn’t licking the blood from the cobblestones, the stories floating around about her were even worse than she’d assumed. Perhaps she’d kept herself more isolated over the past few months than she’d realized.

With a sigh, Sabine gestured to the man she’d executed. “I used an experimental poison. It still needs some adjustment.”

She paused, considering her words. They probably weren’t the most reassuring. She didn’t enjoy killing, but it was sometimes necessary. With a frown, she studied the body and wished she’d had time to craft and dispense an antidote. Now it would be even more difficult to find out who had hired him.

Bending down, she went through his clothing with the hope of finding some clue to his identity or employer. Other than a small pouch of coins at his waist, there was nothing else. She scooped up the pouch and whistled sharply. Tentative footsteps sounded a second later, emerging out of the darkness. Sabine tossed the pouch in the air and caught it, gauging the weight of the coins within. Good. It would be enough.

Walking over to the young boy who stood at the foot of the alley, Sabine dangled the bag in front of him. “For your warning.”

His eyes widened as a lock of dark, sooty hair fell over his forehead. He was underweight and filthy, like many of the street urchins. He gripped the bag tightly but didn’t turn away. Sabine had noticed him shortly after she’d left her informant, but this young boy had dared quite a bit by trailing behind her attackers. Only someone with strong spirit and intent could have broken past the witch’s avoidance spell. He’d taken the extra measure to use an owl’s warning call to alert her about the threat. He had potential, and she owed him a debt—Sabine always paid her debts.

Keeping her voice and expression neutral, Sabine nodded toward the pouch. “That’s enough coin to feed you for a week.”

The boy stared at the bag, but he made no move to leave. She arched her brow at him and waited. In her experience, people had to want something badly enough to do what was necessary to make it happen. If this boy couldn’t bring himself to ask the question, he wasn’t ready.

After a long moment, the boy lifted his head and held out the bag. “I’d like to trade for a wooden coin.”

Sabine tilted her head and idly tapped the hilt of her knife with her fingers. The boy’s eyes widened, and he swallowed. His nervousness was obvious, but she was more curious about whether he was willing to fight through his fears to accomplish his goals.

Unwilling to make it easy on him, she frowned at him. “That’s a lot of coin to exchange for a piece of wood. Are you sure that’s what you want?”

His hand clutching the bag trembled, but he nodded. The determination in his eyes was enough to erase any lingering doubt.

“Very well,” she agreed and took away the purse. Opening it, she slipped out a coin and infused a bit of magic into it. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Malek’s sudden interest as he took a step toward her, presumably to get a better look.

Hmm. As she had suspected, the captain was sensitive to magic. That must have been what caused him to come down the street in the first place.

His magical sensitivity might be a problem, but it also made her question his origins. Anyone who was wholly human wouldn’t have felt the magic she’d pulled from the ground, especially while they were hidden behind the witch’s avoidance spell. Forcing herself to ignore the intriguing stranger, she focused again on the boy in front of her. “What do they call you?”

“Johnny,” he said, straightening his thin body. He couldn’t be older than nine or ten, but he had the world-weary gaze of someone who had been on the streets for most of their life.

“Do you know who I am, Johnny?”

A trace of fear came back into his eyes, but he nodded. Sabine kept her expression neutral, not allowing him to see the sadness that filled her. He may know the name she went by here and the persona she’d carefully crafted, but only a select few knew her true identity. Just like the shadows hid her from view most of the time, so did the surrounding rumors.

Holding out the wooden coin she’d transmuted, she placed it in Johnny’s hand and traced her fingernail over its surface. “Choices surround you and dictate possible paths to your future. A baker at the south end of town needs an assistant. He grows older and has no children, but he would gladly pass along his knowledge to one who is eager to learn and serve.”

The boy stared in wonder at the loaf of bread now etched into the coin. It was little more than a parlor trick. Anyone with an ounce of magical ability could perform such a thing.

“But there is always another choice.” Sabine paused and flipped the coin over before tracing her finger over it again. “If someone is smart, quick, and lucky, they may survive what the future holds. It would be a life of danger, but one with great rewards and greater risk. How much of each depends solely on you. There are no guarantees in either choice, just a chance to unlock a different path than the one you currently walk.”

Johnny’s eyes lit up, and he opened his mouth to make his choice. She gave him a curt shake of her head, and he froze, clamping his mouth shut. Sabine withdrew her hand, leaving the impression of a knife on the wooden coin in his hand. “No, Johnny. You will think upon your choice for at least one full night. After that, you can make your decision. As long as the coin remains in your possession, the choice is yours and yours alone.”

He lifted his head again and closed his fist over the coin, gripping it tightly. “I won’t let anyone take it from me.”

She inclined her head in acknowledgment of his words. Based on his demeanor, that small piece of wood had just become the most important thing in his life. “You have a fortnight to make your choice. If you wish to become an apprentice, you will take the coin to Bjorn, the proprietor of Batter’s Edge. In exchange, he will provide you with a bed, food, and a chance for something more—but only if you’re willing to prove yourself. Do you know where his shop is located?”

“Yes.”

She nodded. “If you wish to have a chance to learn the craft of those who live in the darkness and dance on the edge of a blade, you will take your coin to Copper’s Crossing and find Edvar. Do you know him?”

Johnny nodded eagerly. Sabine resisted the urge to snort. Everyone seemed to know Edvar, a former street rat who had his hands in all sorts of pies. Edvar was going to have to start staying in the shadows. He was incredibly talented but a little reckless at times.

“Very well. If you do nothing or wait longer than a fortnight, the coin will disappear. That, too, is also a choice.”

“Thank—”

She held up her hand. “There is no debt between us. Take your choice and go.”

Johnny grinned and gripped the wooden coin before sprinting down the alley. Sabine turned and caught a trace of a smile on Malek’s lips. The curiosity in his gaze made her wonder if she’d made a mistake. She hadn’t wanted Johnny to disappear without paying her debt to him, but she wished no one else had been around to witness such a thing.

Ignoring Malek, she walked over to the body of the man who had carried the ancient iron weapon. The goblin was already busy investigating one of the other bodies and she couldn’t allow him close to this one yet. She bent down to search the dead man, discreetly tracing her fingertips over his wrist tattoo to hide it with her glamour. It wouldn’t last, but it would stay hidden until the city guards disposed of the body.

Malek crouched down beside her, his gaze straying to the man’s wrist. She had the distinct impression he knew what she’d done.

He reached down and picked up the iron knife that had fallen to the ground. She tensed, her hand lingering near one of her weapons. Malek held her eyes as he unbuckled the dead man’s knife sheath before sliding the iron blade into the protective leather sleeve and offering it to her. “I believe this is yours.”

Sabine frowned and looked into his clear blue eyes. It was as though the sky itself had been captured in his irises. Unable to look away, Sabine reached out and took the weapon, attaching it to her belt by feel alone. She didn’t like the idea of having the weapon so close to her, but she didn’t have many options. It would be a while before she could discreetly dispose of it, but it was safer with her than in someone else’s hands.

She stood and assessed Malek, once again feeling a pull toward him. He was a mystery she’d need to solve sooner rather than later, but the matter of the dead men took precedence—as well as the injury at her side and her hand. Unwilling to risk sending Malek off to Dax without some form of protection, she took a step toward him.

“It would seem I also owe you a debt,” she said, not specifying whether she meant his efforts at killing one of her attackers or his silence about the dead man’s tattoo. Either way, all debts needed to be paid. The unbalance hung heavily in the air between them, demanding satisfaction.

He searched her expression for a long time. Finally, he inclined his head. “A debt is due.”

Sabine froze for a split second, surprised by the language he’d used. It was the formal exchange of an obligation, even if his words had been spoken in the common tongue. Although many people formalized a debt, few outside Faerie used the traditional wording. Tilting her head, she studied him but didn’t see any trace of the Fae in his features or a hint of glamour. There was something about him though—something dangerous and deadly.

Taking a step toward him, she allowed a small smile to curve her lips. “What do you wish of me, Captain Malek Rish’dan?”

Malek swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing as his heated gaze perused her up and down. If he asked for more than he was entitled to receive, the debt between them would be canceled. She didn’t understand why the magic worked that way, but it was one loophole she’d cheerfully exploited a time or two. She waited, curious if he would rise to her challenge or if the debt hanging between them would shatter.

A small shiver went through Sabine at the intensity in Malek’s eyes. She had the impression he saw much more than she intended. For a fleeting moment, she wondered if she’d misread him.

“Dinner.”

She blinked at him, unsure if she’d heard him correctly. “What?”

His mouth curved upward. “I have no doubt you could have easily dispatched the last man.” His blue eyes twinkled with amusement. “As Pozgil mentioned, I’m new to the city. I could easily learn my way around without your assistance, but a shared meal with exceptional company would be preferable.”

She stared at him, stunned and a little bewildered. Not only had he neatly avoided the trap she’d left open for him, but he’d also made a request impossible to refuse. He may not be Fae, but he knew enough about their ways for her to be thoroughly intrigued. It had been a long time since a stranger surprised her. She closed the distance between them, unable to deny the magnetism she felt for this captivating man. For whatever reason, her power was drawn to him. It left her oddly unsettled.

“The repayment of the debt has been negotiated. Until it is fulfilled, I leave you with a marker of my promise so that you might call upon me.” She held out her hand, both uneasy and curious about what would happen when she touched him.

He placed his much larger hand over hers, and she swallowed. It was just a touch, but she could detect a trace of the muted power within him. She turned his hand over in hers so it was facing palm upward. His fingers were calloused, indicating he was no stranger to hard labor and weapons training. She focused on the rest of his hand, tracing her fingertips over his bare wrist in a pattern. She spoke the words in barely more than a whisper and infused them with a trace of her magic.

He inhaled sharply, and Sabine felt a moment of connection as the debt between them was weighed. With a snap of electricity in the air, her mark settled on his skin. Since the debt was hers to repay, she also accepted the searing pain as though she’d applied it to her own skin. Burying her reaction, she traced the design again. “The agreement is accepted, witnessed, and sealed.”

She lifted her gaze to meet his eyes. He appeared equally as affected by her touch. Slightly disconcerted, she added, “Once the debt has been repaid, the mark will fade. If I expire before the debt is collected, the mark will fade. If you pass on before it is collected, the mark will fade.”

Malek placed his other hand over hers, trapping her hand between the warmth of his skin. It took everything she had to continue to breathe normally. Something about this man called to her on an elemental level—and for that reason alone, he was dangerous. He squeezed her hand gently. “I look forward to sharing dinner with you soon.”

Sabine pulled her hand away, uneasy about what might happen if she continued touching him. She glanced over at the goblin who stared at her open-mouthed. “You are taking them to meet with Dax now?”

Pozgil clamped his mouth shut and straightened. “I’d be honored to escort you too. I’m sure Dax will have questions about this… attack.”

She narrowed her eyes. That was putting it mildly. Dax would lose his mind when he found out what had happened on the border of his territory. Until she got answers of her own, she wasn’t willing to risk another encounter with the unscrupulous leader of Akros’s underworld. “I trust you can relay the events to the best of your knowledge. I have other matters that require my attention.”

When Pozgil’s skin flushed to that sickly green color again, Sabine relented slightly. Aside from accompanying him and handling Dax herself, there wasn’t much she could do except make it clear to Dax that she had refused to go. There would likely be consequences for her decision, but they couldn’t be helped—especially since she was bleeding.

She sighed. “Give my regards to Dax. I will see him soon enough.”

Pozgil looked pained but nodded. “I’ll give him your message.”

She darted another quick glance at Malek and pulled her hood over her head. If he managed to survive his encounter with Dax, she’d have a chance to discover more about him. In any event, she’d done what she could to protect him until then.

Heading away from the alley, Sabine gathered some of the lingering shadows around her. One thing she’d learned years ago was, if she couldn’t see the monsters in the dark, they usually couldn’t see her either. But the assassination attempt had made it clear the shadows weren’t going to be enough for much longer.

Unable to tear his gaze away, Malek watched the mysterious woman disappear into the darkness. The mark on his wrist still tingled, and he resisted the urge to rub it. Her touch had affected him more than he’d expected. Now he had an almost insatiable desire to discover the effects of having her hands on other parts of his body. The thought was more than a little distracting, and he shook his head to clear it.

Even without that brief taste of her power, her features had been a testament to her mixed Fae heritage. She’d even worn her hair in a braided style more suited to the Fae, but it was her nearly lavender eyes that had intrigued him. They were more blue than anything, but he’d caught a glimpse of the pale purple color—the mark of the Fae.

“Pointed ears,” Levin murmured, staring down at the bodies. “Four bodies, and two of them have pointed ears. Think they’re part-Fae?”

Malek made a noise of agreement. The tips of the woman’s ears had been pointed too, arching upward in a graceful slope. The trait wasn’t as common in the northern cities where they were from. He’d heard some people living in Akros were of Fae descent, but he hadn’t realized the strength of those ties until now.

“At least we know we’re in the right place,” Malek whispered.

The goblin’s forked tongue flicked out as he gleefully pocketed another pouch of coins from one of the dead men.

Levin snorted. “I don’t know about that. The Fae are supposed to be the keepers of the forests and lakes. I can’t imagine someone with a lot of Fae magic living in a city like this.”

“Ah, Levin, have a little faith,” Malek said with a grin and clapped his friend on the shoulder.

The goblin cocked his head. “You have an interest in the Fae?”

Malek studied Pozgil in surprise. Goblins were one of the lesser Fae, but they had very little magic. It was unlikely he could help them, except to provide some information. “Of course. Tales of their beauty and magic are legendary. Anyone would be intrigued. Are there many Fae living in the city?”

Pozgil grinned, his tongue darting out between his lips. “We have quite a few with Fae blood, but no full-blooded Fae. Those taste of high magic and sex.”

“I doubt they’d allow you close enough to take a bite,” Levin said dryly. “I’ve heard the Fae are a bit more discerning in their tastes.”

Pozgil shrugged. “The Unseelie Fae are more open-minded than the Seelie. How do you think some of these dead men ended up with pointed ears? When the Unseelie emerged from Underhill after the Dragon War, some took humans as lovers to replenish their numbers.”

Levin frowned. “Underhill? You’re referring to the Underworld?”

Malek leaned over to study one of the men’s ears. Other than a slight point, he didn’t see any other sign the man had been Fae. “It’s one and the same. The Fae refer to it as Underhill, but the demons and dwarves call it the Underworld. The Unseelie Fae escaped their service to the gods and fled there.”

Levin rubbed his chin in thought. “I’d wondered about the difference between the Seelie and Unseelie. You’re saying the Seelie remained as servants to the gods and caretakers of the forests?”

“Yes,” Malek said.

Pozgil scooted over to inspect the last dead man. He was having a little too much fun playing with the bodies. They’d need to pull him away soon, if he didn’t knock it off. They were already running late for their appointment.

Malek turned back to Levin. “The Fae who remained in the light were Seelie, while those who embraced the darkness and abandoned their creators were Unseelie. Their magic is similar, but the Unseelie had to twist theirs into something darker to defend against the demons and dwarves while they were trapped in Underhill.”

Pozgil dipped his finger into some of the blood on the ground and licked it off. “You know your history, Captain Malek. I’d think someone with your learning wouldn’t be such a fool.”

Levin stiffened at the insult and slapped his hand against his sword’s hilt. “Watch your tongue, little man.”

The goblin huffed and finished searching the last body. “I’ll have you know, Dax won’t be pleased with you threatening me. You’re in his city now.”

Malek glanced over at Levin and shook his head. Pozgil could hide behind his master all he wanted for the time being, but the minute Malek got what he’d come for, he’d abandon this ruse. “What did you mean about being foolish?”

“You’ll find out soon enough.” Pozgil straightened and brushed the dirt off his hands. “Now then, we’d best be on our way. The city’s guards will be along shortly, and they won’t take too kindly to us being here. One near-death experience for the evening is more than enough. Although, I’d rather face down the guards than risk running into Sabine again.”

Malek looked down at the body of the man whose tattoo had disappeared with a small swipe of magic. For some reason, Sabine hadn’t wanted Pozgil or anyone else to see the design. It had been some sort of dagger with the edge wrapped in ivy. The tattoo had been distinctive enough that Malek intended to learn more about it—and hopefully about the mysterious woman who had hidden it.

The goblin started heading out of the alley, and Malek walked alongside Levin, taking the opportunity to study the city. As first impressions went, Akros wasn’t particularly remarkable. Though it was a little rough around the edges, it was similar to dozens of other cities lining the coast. The biggest difference was, it was the gateway city to the southern lands, housing one of the largest mixed magical communities in the world.

Pozgil pinched the bridge of his pointed green nose. “How’d you convince Sabine not to kill you?”

Levin smirked. “He has that effect on women.”

Malek shrugged, not bothering to explain. He suspected her hesitation had been the result of his hasty attempt to speak the language of the Fae. He’d caught the surprise in her eyes. “What do you know about her?”

Pozgil darted a quick look at him. “I know enough to stay away. Dax won’t be happy when he finds out what happened—or about your dinner invitation. You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t kill you right off.”

“Please tell me she’s not involved with the leader of the thieves’ guild,” Levin muttered.

Pozgil nodded. “She’s under his protection. The fact you helped kill one of those men might be the only thing that saves you. I’d suggest canceling your dinner plans and be ready to board your ship as quickly as possible if things go bad.”

The mark on Malek’s wrist tingled as though it possessed its own awareness. He glanced down at it, but the triangular pattern hadn’t changed. It wasn’t common to formalize such a small debt between two people, but she’d wanted to mark him for a reason. If Sabine was involved with Dax, that might be a problem, but he needed to learn more about her. The mark was a guarantee he’d see her again. Otherwise, he wasn’t sure he would have allowed her to walk away. Her power had been like a beacon calling to him from the docks when he’d disembarked from his ship.

“I’m not concerned. It’s only dinner,” Malek said, continuing to walk through the darkened streets. The buildings in this area of town were more run down and a number of them were abandoned. Even though the streets appeared to be empty, he could feel the weight of eyes upon them.

Pozgil snorted. “Dinner. Right.” The goblin looked around and lowered his voice to a hushed whisper, “The last man who looked at Sabine the way you did was found floating in the canal. His limbs had been ripped from his body and were never recovered. The guards said they thought it happened while he was still alive.”

Levin shot him a warning look, but Malek ignored him and continued walking. He’d hoped to have been here a bit longer before offending the disreputable guild master, but he wasn’t about to abandon his purpose.

They turned a corner, and this street was markedly different. Lanterns lined the path, and the street was more congested. It was still a poor area of town, but a handful of prostitutes lounged against the wall calling out a greeting to them as they passed.

A few other people were milling around nearby. Some were a little too sharp-eyed considering the location and time of night, which led Malek to believe they were some of Dax’s men. He’d heard the majority of the city was locked down by Dax’s people, which was why he’d requested this meeting in the first place. Supposedly, Dax had the pulse of almost everything that went on within Akros’s underworld and even in some of the surrounding villages.

At the end of the street stood a brightly lit tavern. Pozgil led them right up to the entrance and pushed open the heavy wooden door. Malek wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it wasn’t the warm and welcoming sight that greeted them. Tables were scattered throughout the overly large room with dozens of people gathered together and enjoying a companionable drink or two.

The bar itself was unlike any he’d seen before. The base was carved out of a single tree, with detailed carvings of leaves and animals perched in the branches. The top of the bar was almost equally captivating, with what appeared to be fractured glass that caught the light of the candles, reflecting it throughout the room and giving the surrounding walls a warm, cheerful glow.

Several more doxies made the rounds throughout the tavern, most of them more appealing than the ones lingering outside. The patrons, on the other hand, enforced the idea this wasn’t the most reputable of areas. They had the sharp eyes and hardened lines on their faces that made it clear they were intimate with a darker side of life. Each one of them appeared heavily armed, and more than a few had scars from previous run-ins with a blade.

Pozgil pushed past the bar and headed directly to a man standing guard in front of another door. The man’s eyes narrowed on Pozgil, and he crossed his arms over his chest. Undeterred, the goblin straightened his body. “I’ve brought Captain Malek and his first mate to see Dax.”

“It’s all right, Campho. They’re expected,” a man said from behind them.

Malek turned to find another man with mixed Fae heritage. He had the same light hair and eyes as Sabine, but there was a coarseness to his features Sabine had lacked. The tusks jutting out of his mouth made Malek question if he carried a bit of troll in his bloodline. Malek detected a faint trace of power surrounding him, but it was more Fae than troll.

“A-apologies, Javyn, er, sir,” Pozgil sputtered, his eyes wide at the approaching Fae. “I didn’t realize you were here.”

Javyn frowned at the goblin. “Dax expected you earlier.”

Pozgil swallowed audibly, his coloring deepening to a sickly green. The metallic and bitter scent of the goblin’s fear was enough to make Malek’s nose itch.

The goblin hopped from foot to foot. “Uh, we ran into some trouble. But everything’s okay. We handled it. Yep. Everything’s fine. Nothing to worry about.”

“You can explain your delay to Dax,” Javyn said before turning toward Malek. “You’re the ship captain?”

Malek inclined his head. “Captain Malek Rish'dan of Obsidian’s Storm.”

“Welcome to Akros. The name’s Javyn. If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to see Dax.” Without waiting for a reply, Javyn headed into the tavern’s back rooms. Malek exchanged a look with Levin before following Javyn. Apparently, polite niceties weren’t high on the thieves’ guild’s list of priorities. It was just as well. The sooner he met with Dax, the faster this entire sordid affair could be resolved.

The back area of the tavern wasn’t quite as welcoming as the front. A few closed doors lined the hallway with lanterns tucked into stone alcoves, illuminating the darkness. Some of these rooms were under guard, but other than a few curious glances, no one said anything as they passed. Javyn led them toward a steep staircase and headed downward, not bothering to check if they were still behind him.

Malek couldn’t help but think about Sabine again, comparing her more delicate features with the man they followed. If it weren’t for her skin and hair coloring, he’d wonder if Sabine were a full-blooded Fae. Her voice had the same musical lilt and accent that marked someone of Fae descent, but her appearance was far too human. Part of him wished he’d had a chance to hear her speak more of their language to determine if she carried that same inflection in her words. The few pure-blooded Fae he’d known had the ability to cause a reaction simply by speaking. That was part of their gift and power. Some of their words could cause ecstasy while others could drive someone mad. During the last war, Fae captives had to be gagged to prevent them from singing their way to freedom or inciting mass panic.

At the bottom of the stairs was an expansive corridor. The air was heavier down here, with a trace of moisture, and Malek detected the faint sound of rushing water, most likely from one of the canals. A set of heavy double doors was built into the wall, and Javyn pushed them open and led them into a larger room. This had the appearance of a meeting room with an elongated table set up in the center. A handful of people were gathered around the table talking, but it was the man standing at the head of the table who commanded Malek’s attention.

Levin inhaled sharply, and Malek had to force himself not to react or reveal his surprise. For all his inquiries into Dax and his group, no one had even hinted the man he stood before was a demon. Most of them were confined to the underworld, unable or unwilling to venture into the sunlight, which weakened their magic significantly. If Malek had known the guild leader’s identity, he would have handled this entire endeavor differently or even possibly dismissed Dax as a potential resource. This new development made Malek even more curious about Sabine and her ties to a demon.

If legends were true, the dwarves and demons shared the same origins as the Fae. The demons, with their penchant for violence and working the underworld forges, took up residence in the deepest levels of Underhill. They became the caretakers of the molten rock and fires burning deep within the world’s core.

Demons twisted their brand of magic into weapons, lashing out with fire elemental abilities—and it was that same fire ability that concerned Malek now. He only hoped the warding necklace around his neck was powerful enough to mask his true intent. The witch who had crafted it for him had assured him of such, but they hadn’t anticipated the need to deceive a demon.

Levin whispered, “We might want to rethink this plan. Demons have ties to the Fae, but this is too risky.”

Malek shook his head as Javyn approached the demon standing at the head of the table. In a voice too low for anyone else to overhear, Malek said to Levin, “Not just yet. This might still work out to our benefit.”

Levin frowned at him, but Malek didn’t elaborate. Even though they were in a cellar underneath the tavern, Dax shouldn’t be able to live within a mostly human city cut off from the magic of the underworld. Perhaps Akros had a larger source of magic than rumors claimed, or maybe Malek didn’t know the full truth about demons. Either way, he intended to get to the bottom of it.

The man standing at the head of the table was a powerful and massive man, with skin the color of the darkest obsidian. He was a true master of the night—even the light from the lantern seemed hesitant to touch him. The room fell silent as Javyn leaned in close and whispered something to the demon. Dax lifted his horned head, his amber eyes holding the flame of his ancestors as he pinned Malek with his gaze. No matter what he’d hoped, Malek couldn’t deny the truth: Dax would be an adversary who would require careful handling.

Pozgil approached the table and bowed low, almost touching the ground with his forehead. “I-I apologize for the delay, sir. We ran into a bit of trouble, but I’ve brought Captain Malek and his first mate to discuss a business opportunity with you.”

Dax didn’t respond right away. Instead, he motioned for a woman to roll up the maps they’d been studying. As she moved forward and began clearing the table, Dax sat down in his chair, leaned back, and steepled his hands together.

“What sort of trouble?”

Pozgil shifted from foot to foot, rubbing the back of his neck. Malek half expected his knees to start knocking from the way he was panicking. When Dax arched his brow, Pozgil stammered, “Ah, er, well, we happened to run into Sabine.”

A sudden stillness fell over the room at the mention of Sabine’s name. Everyone’s attention became focused on the goblin trembling in front of Dax.

“Is that so?” Dax questioned mildly, but the sudden rigidity in his shoulders made it obvious he was more than a little interested in Pozgil’s response.

“Ah, yes. She… well, some men…” His voice trailed off and his shoulders hunched, clearly uneasy about spilling the full story.