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Bright Blaze of Magic
By JENNIFER ESTEP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Estep
All rights reserved.
"You are the worst thief I have ever seen."
Felix Morales frowned, stopped walking, and dropped the black duffel bag he was carrying on the ground. I winced at the clank-clank of the items inside the bag banging together.
"Why would you say that?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't know," I sniped. "Maybe the fact that you're tromping through the woods like you are trying to kill every single blade of grass under your feet. Not to mention hacking through the bushes with your sword like we're on a jungle safari. And then of course, there's the talking. There is always the talking. It's a wonder you don't pass out from lack of oxygen."
His eyes narrowed. "And what is wrong with having a little light conversation while we hike through the woods?"
"Light conversation? You've been talking nonstop ever since we left the mansion."
I threw my hands up in the air. "So you actually have to stop talking and be quiet to be a thief! That's why!"
Felix gave me a mulish look and started to cross his arms over his chest — until he realized that he was still holding on to his sword, the one he'd been swinging around like a machete for the past twenty minutes. He glared at me, but he finally slid the weapon into the scabbard belted to his waist. Well, that would cut down on some of the noise. Now, if I just had some duct tape for his mouth....
Felix stabbed his finger at the guy standing with us, who was busy setting his own black duffel bag onto the ground, although with far less noise than Felix had made. "And why aren't you lecturing him about being quiet?"
"Because Devon can actually walk through the woods without cracking every single branch he steps on."
Felix snorted. "You're just saying that because the two of you have been sneaking around the mansion sucking face for the last two weeks."
I tensed, still not used to having a relationship with a guy, much less talking about it with that guy's best friend. But Devon Sinclair stepped up and slung his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close.
"And it's been the best two weeks of my life," he said, grinning at me.
With his black hair, bronze skin, and dark, soulful eyes, Felix was undeniably cute, but Devon was the one who made my heart race like a tree troll hopping from one branch to another. The setting sun filtering in through the leaves brought out the rich honey highlights in Devon's chocolate-brown hair, even as it cast his handsome face in shadows. But it was his eyes that always hypnotized me — eyes that were the same deep, dark evergreen as the forest around us.
I laid my head on his muscled shoulder and leaned into him, letting the heat of his body soak into my own and his sharp, tangy pine scent seep deep down into my lungs. So far, being with Devon had been a wonderful dream, and sometimes I had to remind myself that we were really — finally — together.
Who would have thought it? Not me, Lila Merriweather, the girl who'd been living on the streets for four years before I'd gone to work for the Sinclair Family earlier this summer. And I'd never expected to fall for Devon Sinclair himself, the Family bruiser and the son of Claudia Sinclair, head of the entire Family.
I might be a great thief, but I wasn't so great when it came to people, preferring to pick their pockets than to make friends with them. But Devon had steadfastly ignored and overcome all my defenses, just by being the kind, caring, genuine, loyal guy he was. I hadn't done a single thing in my life to deserve him, but now that he was mine, I was going to care for and protect him as best I could. Technically, being Devon's bodyguard was one of my jobs within the Family, but he watched out for me just as much as I did for him.
Don't get me wrong. It wasn't like I'd gone soft or anything. I still picked plenty of pockets on the streets of Cloudburst Falls, West Virginia, and I wasn't above snatching phones, cameras, and other shiny things from people who could afford to lose them. After all, a girl had to keep in practice. But now I did most of my thieving for the greater good and with a little mob muscle behind me. Like my job tonight. One that Felix was jeopardizing with his constant chattering and tromping around.
Felix rolled his eyes. "Enough with the lovey-dovey stuff already," he groused, grabbing his duffel bag and hoisting it onto his shoulder again, making more clank-clanks ring out. "I thought we had places to break into and stuff to steal tonight."
Instead of letting me go, Devon wrapped both arms around me and pulled me even closer. "And you're just jealous that Deah's not here, or you would be doing the same thing with her."
Felix huffed. "Please. I would already be kissing my girl and telling her how beautiful she is — and that's before I took her for a moonlit stroll. Totally working my romantic A game from start to finish, which I intend to do the second we sneak into the compound and meet up with her. So, if you'll excuse me, my lady awaits."
He snapped up his hand in a cheeky salute, then whirled around and started stomping through the woods again, making almost as much noise as he had before. He might have put away his sword so that he wasn't hacking through the bushes anymore, but he started muttering instead. Felix wasn't completely happy unless his mouth was going a hundred words a minute, even if he was only talking to himself.
I sighed. "I don't know whether to strangle him or admire his confidence."
"Relax, Lila." Devon turned so that he was facing me, his hands dropping to my waist. "Felix will quiet down once we actually get close to the mansion. He knows how important this is. We all do."
I nodded. "You always know just what to say to make me feel better."
He grinned. "That's part of being a good boyfriend, right?"
I looped my arms around his neck. "The best boyfriend."
Devon stared at me, his green eyes glimmering like dark emeralds. My gaze locked with his, and my soulsight — my magic — kicked in, letting me look into the depths of his heart and feel all of his warm happiness flooding my chest as if it was my own emotion. In a way, it was my own emotion since I felt the exact same thing whenever I looked at Devon, whenever I heard his voice, whenever I made him laugh or smile or brightened his day in any way.
I stood on my tiptoes and pressed my lips to his. Devon's arms tightened around me, and he kissed me back, our lips coming together time and time again, until I felt as though we were spinning around and around in dizzying circles, even though we were standing still.
"Any time you two lovebirds are ready!" Felix called out, his voice loud enough to make the rockmunks on the forest floor scurry into their stone dens.
Devon and I broke apart, both of us breathing hard and holding on to each other.
"Unfortunately, duty calls," he murmured in a husky voice. "To be continued later?"
I grinned. "You'd better believe it."
Devon and I caught up with Felix, and the three of us headed deeper into the woods.
The summer sun had set while Devon and I had been kissing, and darkness was quickly creeping over the land. We didn't dare use a flashlight, and Devon and Felix fell back, letting me take the lead, since I could still see everything around me as clearly as if it were noon. Not only could I use my rare soulsight magic to look into people and feel what they were feeling, but I also had the much more common and mundane Talent of being able to see everything around me in crystal clarity, no matter how dark it was.
And the place we were going was definitely dark — the Draconi Family compound, home of Victor Draconi, the most powerful person in Cloudburst Falls, the sworn enemy of the Sinclair Family.
And the monster who'd murdered my mom.
The longer we hiked, the darker it got, and the quieter the three of us became. Even Felix stopped talking, dropped his hand to his sword, and scanned the trees around us, though he couldn't see through the thick fog that was slowly sliding down from the top of Cloudburst Mountain and invading the forests below.
Every once in a while, I could hear the faint rush of water in the distance from one of the many waterfalls that tumbled down the mountain. The resulting clouds of mist always cloaked the top of the rugged peak, even during the hottest part of the day, but at night, after the sun had set, the fog grew thicker and thicker and sank lower and lower on the mountain.
But the white clouds did little to hide the eyes that stared at us.
Sapphire blue, ruby red, emerald green. The colors were the same as all the jewels I'd stolen over the years, but these were the bright, glowing orbs of the monsters that called the mountain home — tree trolls, rockmunks, copper crushers, and the like. Some more dangerous than others, but there were plenty of monsters lurking in the trees with enough teeth and claws to make meals out of all three of us.
I didn't mind the cool clouds of mist, the watching monsters, or the soft, shimmering sheen of dew that covered everything. It made for better cover for us.
Because if we were caught, we'd be executed on the spot.
Twenty minutes later, we reached the edge of the trees, crouched down, and peered at the structure before us. Technically, it was a mansion, although the gleaming white stone and architecture made it look more like a castle. Tall, skinny, diamond-paned windows. White trellises with red roses winding up through the slats. Towers topped with red flags bearing the Draconi Family crest of a snarling gold dragon. Everything about the castle made it seem as though it had been dropped on top of the mountain right out of a fairy tale. But there were no happy endings here — just danger, despair, and misery.
Devon, Felix, and I had been sneaking over here every night for the past two weeks on our thieves' errand, and we fell into our usual routine of watching the guards patrolling the grounds. It was almost full dark now, and Devon and Felix were both wearing black cloaks to help them blend into the shadows. I sported my mom's long, sapphire-blue trench coat, made out of spidersilk, which also helped me melt into the growing blackness.
The Draconi guards were dressed in black boots, pants, and shirts, along with blood-red cloaks and matching feathered cavalier hats, making them look like extras from a Three Musketeers movie. But they were much more dangerous than that. All of the guards had their hands on the swords belted to their hips, looking for intruders, as well as keeping an eye out for any monsters that might be creeping up on them. Many an inattentive guard had been snatched by a copper crusher and dragged into the forest, unlucky enough to be the oversize, venomous snake's dinner date.
"Are we good?" Felix asked, checking his phone. "It's almost time for us to meet Deah. You know how she worries if we're even one minute late."
With good reason. If she was caught helping the enemy, Deah would be executed right along with us, despite the fact that she was Victor's daughter.
Instead of answering him, I started counting the guards along the perimeter. One, two, three. ... It didn't take me long to realize that something was different tonight. Worry shot through me.
"Wait," I whispered. "There are more guards patrolling tonight."
Devon frowned and squinted at the compound. "How can you tell?"
"I can see them. Trust me. There are more guards."
"Can we still take our usual route into the mansion?" he asked in a tense voice, his hand dropping to the duffel bag sitting at his feet. "This is our last trip. If we can get in and out tonight, then we're done with this."
"Give me a second to work it out," I said.
Devon and Felix both fell silent, although they kept looking from me to the guards and back again. I focused on the guards, staring at first one, then another. It took me a minute to realize that Victor had only doubled the number of guards, pairing them up in teams of two. I wondered at the change and why he thought he needed so many men up here at the castle, instead of patrolling down on the Midway like usual. But Victor hadn't altered the guards' routes, which meant that we could still get into the mansion the same way as before.
"We're good," I said. "Text Deah and tell her that we're on our way in."
Felix nodded, his thumbs flying over the screen. A second later, his phone lit up with a message. "Deah says that the coast is clear on her end."
"Good," I said. "Follow me."
Keeping low, I left the woods behind and hopscotched my way across the lawn, hiding behind various trees and bushes and only moving when the guards' backs were turned. Devon and Felix followed along behind me, both of them being as quiet as possible and clutching the duffel bags to their chests to muffle any telltale clank-clanks.
Less than three minutes later, we were at one of the side patio doors. I reached up and gently turned the knob. Unlocked. How disappointing. It was no fun breaking into a mansion when your inside woman left a door unlocked for you.
But I opened the door and ushered Devon and Felix inside. I slipped in after them and locked the door behind me, just in case one of the guards decided to check it. Then I took the lead again, creeping from one hallway and staircase to the next.
The outside of the Draconi mansion might resemble a castle, but the furnishings inside were the real riches. Just about everything gleamed with bits of gold, from the chandeliers overhead to the gilt-edged mirrors on the walls to the trim on the tables and chairs. And Victor's snarling dragon crest was painted, carved, chiseled, embroidered, and stamped into practically everything, from the crown molding that ringed the ceilings, to the stained glass windows set into the walls, to the white flagstones underfoot.
All those dragons were creepy enough, but it seemed like every single one of the monsters turned its head, narrowed its eyes, and glared at Devon, Felix, and me as we crept past. I shivered. Sometimes, I would have been happy not to see so well with my sight magic.
We quickly made our way up some stairs to the Draconi greenlab. Once again, the glass doors were unlocked, and the three of us slipped inside and moved through the area, which was part chemistry lab, part greenhouse, where a variety of magical and other plants were grown and harvested. The long, sharp needles on the stitch-sting bushes quivered as we hurried past them, but we didn't get close enough for the evergreen plants to lash out and try to scratch us for disturbing them.
We made it to the opposite side of the greenlab, and I sidled up to the glass doors there and peered out into the hallway beyond. The lights were turned down low in this part of the mansion, creating more shadows than not. Just the way I liked it.
Since the coast was clear, I opened one of the glass doors and stepped out into the hallway —
I spotted a glint of metal out of the corner of my eye. Even as I turned toward it, a sword zoomed out of the shadows, heading straight for me.CHAPTER 2
The sword stopped an inch from my throat.
I froze, my eyes wide, my body tense, my hand curling around the hilt of my own sword, even though I knew that I wouldn't be fast enough to draw the weapon, much less defend myself with it, before I got skewered.
"You're late," a familiar voice growled.
Deah Draconi stepped out of the shadows, her sword still at my throat. I looked down at the weapon and the stars carved into the dull, ash-colored metal. A similar pattern adorned my own sword. Each of our weapons had been given to us by our respective mothers, and both were black blades, so named because the more blood you got on the blades, the blacker they became.
Deah was quite pretty with her golden hair and dark blue eyes the same color as my own — another sign of our Sterling Family blood, along with our black blades. She was wearing white shorts and sandals with a red T-shirt, but my gaze dropped to the gold cuff stamped with the Draconi dragon crest that gleamed on her right wrist. Deah might be helping us now, but part of me still wondered whose side she would choose in the end, when Victor finally tried to destroy all the other Families, starting with the Sinclairs.
"Why, hello, cousin," I drawled. "I didn't see you there. You're getting better at sneaking around. I approve. We might make a thief out of you yet."
Excerpted from Bright Blaze of Magic by JENNIFER ESTEP. Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Estep. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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