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“YOUR TIMING BLOODY SUCKS,” Simon Northam, Duke of Hurstgrove, said as his boots crunched on the snowy field. Charred ruins rose like specters in the foggy distance. Fat gray clouds and evening mist promised more bad weather.
“Tell that to Mathias.” Bram Rion brushed back his tawny wind-blown hair.
“True,” Duke, as Simon preferred to be called, conceded.
There was no convenient time for Mathias d’Arc to attack Bram’s home. But weeks ago, he and his Anarki army had descended on Bram’s residence in the hopes of eradicating the Doomsday Brethren, a group of wizards devoted to ridding magickind of the evil sorcerer and his minions. Mathias preached equality to the Deprived class of magickind, but it was a ruse. He dealt in torture, plunder, and murder—all for ill-gotten power. The attack had nearly taken Bram, the Doomsday Brethren’s leader, and the rest of the warriors by surprise. They’d barely escaped, and had been forced to abandon the house—their headquarters—to stay alive.
Now, Bram had gathered Duke and two other warriors together at the estate’s remains. Duke dreaded sifting through the piles of blackened stone, plaster, and brick scattered among so many discarded personal effects. It looked like the aftermath of a natural disaster. But there’d been nothing natural about this.
“You’re missing my point.” Duke raised a brow at Bram. “Today is damn inconvenient for you to drag me here. Yesterday? Tomorrow? Either would have been splendid.”
“So sorry I didn’t consult your social calendar.” Bram’s tone dripped sarcasm.
“If I’m late to Mason’s wedding, my family will kill me. He’s my brother.”
“Half-brother,” Bram pointed out none too gently. “This won’t take long, your highness. You’ll be at Lowechester Hall long before the big event.”
Duke smiled. “I’ll string you up by the balls if I’m not.”
“You’ve got time. The ceremony isn’t until midnight, yes? Odd time.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve. New beginnings, and that sort of rubbish.” Duke shrugged. “What I’m wondering is why you demanded we come here tonight.”
“I only discovered hours ago that I can no longer teleport inside my own home. Or enter in any other way. There are several possible reasons.” He sighed. “None of them good.”
“Think you, the great Bram Rion, will explain himself?” Marrok leaned across the line of warriors, his blue-gray eyes full of mirth. The gargantuan Arthurian warrior loved teasing Bram.
“Without his usual dodgy charm?” Ice Rykard, Bram’s brother-by-mating, raised a dark brow that nearly disappeared beneath his black skullcap. “Why would he start now?”
“The lot of you can piss off.” Bram pressed ahead to the blackened, leaning house in the distance. “Other than the recent attack on the Lowery family, Mathias has been like a church mouse since he failed to defeat Ice for a Council seat. We know he won’t abandon his quest to overtake magickind. So his nearly three weeks of silence makes me itch.”
Agreed. The Doomsday Brethren was the biggest stumbling block between Mathias and ultimate power. None of them liked it when they couldn’t guess the vile wizard’s next move.
With a ripe curse, Bram ranted on. “The Council gave us—and us alone—the mandate to kill Mathias … but to do that, we must find him.”
“We will.” Duke hunkered into his brown Italian wool overcoat, then drawled, “I hope he doesn’t feel compelled to ring in the New Year with a bang. Tomorrow is much more convenient for me to fight mayhem.”
As was often the case, humor was lost on Ice. The warrior’s mood was as black as his turtleneck sweater. “Fucking bastard needs to be put down. But how do we kill a man who was already once dead?”
“We will—somehow. But first we must gain entrance to my house. There’s too much information inside that could help him.”
Ice shot Bram a stunned glare. “Not your grandfather’s writings?”
Bram didn’t say a word.
“You left Merlin’s work here?” Duke nearly choked.
“I was unconscious when Mathias attacked, if you’ll recall,” Bram said defensively.
A sick feeling settled into Duke’s stomach. Merlin had been the greatest wizard ever, dating back to the time of King Arthur. “If those writings fell into the wrong hands, magickind would be totally buggered.”
“Completely,” Bram admitted.
“Fuck,” Ice muttered. “Any chance Mathias doesn’t know you have Merlin’s texts?”
Bram shrugged. “At the very least, I’m sure he hopes I do. And of course, I have no idea what Shock might have told him.”
Their supposed double-agent Shock Denzell … whose loyalties no one could quite seem to pin down. Dodgy bastard.
Duke sighed. “Fine, then. We’ll try to enter the house and look for Merlin’s books. I can stay an hour now and return tomorrow, if necessary. Mason extended an olive branch by asking me to be his best man. We haven’t been on speaking terms for roughly a decade, so I really can’t be late.”
Not that Duke particularly wanted to attend the festivities. Felicia Safford would be a stunning bride. White would only heighten her air of innocence. Her blue eyes would dance with life and fire that she’d do her damnedest to repress.
The thought of Felicia made his blood stir, his breathing ragged. Bloody hell.
At their first official meeting last night, when Felicia had slid the soft skin of her palm against his, he’d felt a jolt. Duke suspected then that she didn’t belong with his brother. But she’d chosen Mason for reasons he couldn’t fathom, so Duke would grit his teeth through tonight’s ceremony, hope he could keep his stare off the bride, and tamp down his guilty urge to strip her bare and take her to bed.
“Best man.” Ice scoffed. “All the pomp and ceremony of a human wedding sounds absurd. Why don’t humans simply speak words, like the Call, and be done?”
Duke hid a smile. “They speak vows, but the pomp, I suspect, is for the mothers. Mine is in her element, planning Mason and Felicia into oblivion.”
“If you and Mason don’t get on well, why did he choose you as his best man?” Bram’s tawny brow wrinkled in confusion.
“I’m certain our mother had a hand in it.” Plus, as Duke knew, his presence—given that he’d been labeled one of England’s most eligible bachelors by the human tabloids—would mean lots of press. Damn, where was a noose when he needed one?
“Are you feeling well enough for the festivities?” Bram frowned, staring at the space just around Duke. “I noticed earlier that your magical signature seems a bit faded, like you’re unwell. But shiny ’round the edges. Never seen that.”
His signature was off kilter? The magical aura around every witch or wizard told all others about the person’s state of being. If someone magical was mated, their colors blended with their love’s and visually proclaimed them bonded. If they were magically very weak or strong, a wizard’s or witch’s signature would reflect that with the choice and intensity of colors. Likewise, if one of magickind ailed, their signature would appear faded. But shiny edges?
Sometimes, growing up human only to discover at age thirty that he was actually a wizard was a detriment. He often didn’t understand magic’s subtleties and intricacies any better than magickind understood those of humans.
Duke frowned. “I feel fine.”
“Something is definitely off.”
Something other than the fact he’d awakened in a cold sweat last night, thinking about Felicia being his brother’s wife, thinking of her smiling up at Mason as he sank deep into her body? Imagining her with him made Duke want to demolish buildings with his bare hands.
“You low on energy?” Ice asked, crossing thick arms over his massive chest.
Duke winced. Among magickind, energy was best derived during sex. Frequent, raw exchanges of pleasure powered their magic. Last night, he’d bedded a witch he’d met at a pub. Pleasant enough. He’d already forgotten her name, but remembered her dark blond hair with honey streaks and her shining blue eyes. She’d made it easy to close his eyes and pretend.
“I said I’m fine,” he bit out. “Let’s focus on why Bram is unable to enter his house.”
“Once we reach what’s left of the walls, we’ll find out,” Bram vowed as they strode through the night.
Suddenly, they hit an invisible barrier inches from the crumbling ruins. Marrok stopped short, shoving at the unseen obstruction with a massive shoulder. Ice pushed with brawny hands. Bram poked and punched it, cursing and kicking when he couldn’t break through. Duke probed it mentally. The barrier didn’t budge.
“The bastard put up his own barrier to prevent me from getting inside,” Bram cursed. “I think he lives to torment me.”
“Who?” Marrok asked.
“Shock.” Bram skimmed his fingers across the wall, then nodded. “His magic is all over this place. He wants me to know that—”
“My magic surrounds your house,” said the wizard in question, now standing directly behind them. “You’re not getting in until I say so.”
They whirled to find Shock Denzell dressed in black from head to toe, ever-present sunglasses shielding his eyes, a leather duster falling to his calves, vicious combat boots covering enormous feet.
Behind him stood a half-dozen undead corpses—a small fraction of Mathias’s Anarki army. Their evil glares made them look exactly like what they were: human zombies whose souls had been sucked out and replaced with Mathias’s twisted thoughts.
Shock’s younger brother, Zain, stood in front of the undead creatures, a superior smirk lifting his scruffy goatee. A T-shirt that read Do I look like a fucking people person? sagged across his chest.
Bram seethed, staring daggers at Shock, who strode past, stepping closer to the walls. He towered above all the Doomsday Brethren except Marrok.
Personally, Duke didn’t believe Shock was secretly fighting for good while pretending to serve evil. Shock merely placated both sides, knowing the winning side would put him in a cushy position eventually. The fact that Zain was one of Mathias’s most fervent supporters didn’t lend Shock any credibility either.
“Protecting my house for me or keeping it safe for someone else?” Bram raised a sharp golden brow in challenge, his tan cashmere coat flapping in the wind.
Shock sent him a mocking grin. “You have some interesting stuff in here.”
It didn’t escape Duke’s notice that Shock had failed to answer the question.
Ice snarled. “What have you taken, you fucking bastard?”
“Fucking bastard?” Shock’s dark brows raised. “Here I thought we were friends.”
“Always knew you were a delusional wanker,” Ice snarled.
“Your choice of friends leaves something to be desired.” Bram’s gaze ran over the Anarki in their robes. Their rotting faces sat deep in their hoods. But there was no missing the chill they radiated or the eyes that glowed with bloodlust.
Shock crossed thick arms over his chest. “Given your friendship with Lucan MacTavish, I could say the same.”
“He’s my best friend, and you stole his mate.”
“Former mate,” Shock corrected, holding up a meaty finger. “And I didn’t steal Anka. Mathias did. After she escaped, she chose me, not Lucan, to protect her.”
“Protecting isn’t the only thing you’re doing to her.” Ice’s piercing green eyes said he was ready to rip Shock’s head off. Which might improve both their moods.
Sighing, Duke ran a hand over his jaw, grimacing at the two days’ worth of growth beneath his fingertips. He needed to leave, shave, and get ready for this blasted wedding. God knew, this conversation was getting them nowhere. He’d almost rather perform his familial duty—calm his mother, greet guests, and dodge the paparazzi—than listen to this blah, blah, blah.
Or was it that he’d simply rather be near Felicia?
“Lift your magical protections around Bram’s house and let us in,” Duke demanded.
Shock raised a scathing glare to him. The expression slid off, morphing to something like astonishment, as the wizard stared at him. No, at his signature.
Had the witch last night failed to charge his power? He felt well enough, but …
“You.” He pointed to Duke, the surprise on his face replaced by a glower. “Come here and make me.”
Duke hesitated. Not that Shock scared him. Yes, the wizard did his best to intimidate, but what disturbed Duke was that Shock had singled him out. Usually, the leather-clad goon antagonized Bram, Ice, or Lucan. So why did Shock want to fight him now?
Exchanging a glance with Bram, who shrugged, Duke stepped forward. “You’re an annoying bastard.”
Shock sent him a dismissive glare. “You’re barely better than a human.”
“You rattle off your mouth unwisely,” Marrok, himself human, bit out as he tossed back his dark hair and readied for a fight.
With a dismissive wave, Shock addressed the warrior. “You’ve redeemed yourself by mating a very worthy witch and living among magickind. Mr. High-and-Mighty over there,”—Shock nodded rudely in Duke’s direction—“he’s got one foot in both camps. He’s a bloody duke. Who among magickind has use for such worthless human titles? He even smells human.”
“Better than smelling like a backstabbing arsehole,” Duke quipped.
Thunder crossed Shock’s face, and he raced forward and struck Duke, an open palm cracking against his cheek. Duke recoiled. Shock had slapped him, not punched him like a warrior. He felt the insult all the way to his bones.
With a lazy gait, Shock backed up a few paces and sent Duke a challenging glare. “I’d hit you with a spell … but your human blood would probably curdle.”
Gritting his teeth, Duke told himself to stay calm. Shock was baiting him. The question was, why?
Clenching his fists to keep a handle on his temper, Duke squared off with Shock. “As fascinating as your juvenile behavior isn’t, we’re simply here to take stock of the contents of Bram’s house. Kindly remove your … protections and let us in.”
Clenching his fists, Duke repressed the urge to attack. Shock wanted something—not from Bram or Ice or Marrok. But from him. When Shock had made more of a pretense of fighting on their side and actually attended the Doomsday Brethren’s meetings, he’d barely spoken to him. To be singled out this way was confusing.
But Denzell wanted a fight. Fine. Duke would play along until he figured out this rubbish.
He drew his wand from his overcoat and whipped it in Shock’s direction.
Before he could conjure a spell, Shock shook his head. “I won’t fight you like a wizard; you barely are one.” He sneered and crooked his finger. “Come here and fight like the dirty humans you were raised with. Show me what you know.”
With a glare, Duke sheathed his wand again and approached Shock. He struck the other wizard with a lightning quick open-palmed slap, tit for tat. Shock’s head snapped to the side. The big wizard laughed.
The elder Denzell brother had long been regarded as crafty and violent. Today, he seemed flat insane.
“Is that the best you’ve got?”
Duke shook his head. If Shock was itching for a fight so badly …
Without another thought, Duke fired a right cross at the leather-clad wizard, who blocked the punch and shoved one of his own at Duke’s gut. As he leapt out of the way to avoid having his guts knocked into his spine, pandemonium erupted around him. Bram attacked another Anarki, tearing his robe away to reveal a greenish-black creature with a sunken face, rotting flesh, and the body temperature of an ice cube.
“Ugh!” Ice groused as he reached for the knife in his boot. “Dead fish floating in the Thames smell better.”
The wizard didn’t exaggerate. Anarki were nasty all the way around.
Marrok engaged two zombies, who circled him, hoping to take him down. Duke flashed a fist out and clipped Shock on the chin. As the other wizard grunted and stumbled, Marrok yanked his ever-constant sword from his scabbard and skewered one of his opponents. Bram kicked the knees out from under his. As the zombie crashed to the ground, his entire body disintegrated, the silky robe fluttering to the ground in his wake.
Shock’s younger brother emerged from the pack of Anarki with a snarl.
“Zain,” Bram called out. “It’s been far too long since you came for a … visit.”
At Bram’s sly reference to Zain’s prior captivity, the younger Denzell bristled. “You no longer have a filthy, cold dungeon in which to keep me chained.” Zain cast a dismissive glance at the ruins of Bram’s house. “Pity.”
Bram snarled a curse. He’d been short-tempered since Mathias had attacked him with some mysterious spell a few weeks back that had since faded but not broken. That Emma, his mysterious new mate, had abandoned him, only made matters worse. This could get ugly.
Zain whipped out his wand. Bram followed suit. Ice tackled an Anarki between them, a dagger in his meaty fist. Flying punches and kicks brought everyone nearby tumbling to the ground.
As the melee ensued, Shock pounced on Duke, grabbed him by the throat, and dragged him inside the circle of protection, against the crumbling walls of the house.
“Listen to me.” Shock squeezed Duke’s throat.
“Piss. Off,” he croaked.
“Take a swipe at me.” Denzell relaxed his hold.
Shock was inviting him to hit him in the face? With a mental shrug, Duke pounded a fist into the other man’s left cheekbone.
“Bugger!” Shock thundered. “Don’t knock my face off, you stupid fuck. I’m trying to help you. Mathias has a new plan.”
Was this a ruse … or the reason Shock had singled him out? “Go on.”
“At least pretend to struggle while you listen,” Shock muttered.
That wasn’t too hard, since he wasn’t fond of Shock’s palm pressing on his windpipe. He managed to shove a fist into Shock’s stomach.
“Barmy fuck!” he growled, then lowered his voice. “Mathias seeks to resurrect Morganna le Fay.”
The air and the fight left Duke. Resurrect one of the most evil witches in history? If this story was real … “Is he out of his bloody mind?”
“If Mathias succeeds, he believes he can control her power, perhaps even absorb it.”
Which would make him virtually unstoppable. “Bloody hell …”
“Exactly. Hit me again.”
Making full use of his free pass, Duke unleashed his frustration with another fist to Shock’s gut. The other wizard paid him back with a mean jab to the eye that sent him reeling.
Duke shook off the pain. “To resurrect Morganna, Mathias would have to get into her tomb. It’s supposedly guarded by impenetrable magic. No one would make it alive.”
“Except an Untouchable.” Shock took another jab at Duke’s jaw, connecting with a harsh blow.
An Untouchable, a human completely immune to magic? Were they mere folklore or actually real? Duke wiggled his jaw, grimacing. This was when growing up human hindered him.
He plowed a fist to Shock’s gut again. “Why tell me?”
The other wizard grunted. “Your signature indicates you’ve come into contact with one in the past day or two.”
Then Bram’s words tripped Duke’s memory. My signature is faded and shiny.
Hell. Duke had forgotten that Shock could read minds. And how did Shock know of this signature anomaly when Bram didn’t? Because Bram didn’t use dark magic? And more important, who was the Untouchable?
Around them, the others fought. Zain and Bram rumbled close. Duke joined in with a square thrust right at the tall wizard’s nose.
Shock tackled him into the wall and hissed, “If Mathias manages to resurrect Morganna, life as we know it will be over. Zain has seen you. He won’t keep the fact you’ve had contact with the Untouchable to himself. You’ve got a few hours at most to figure out who it is before Mathias pounds on your door.”
Every human Duke’s mother had recently introduced him to had some association with Mason and Felicia’s wedding. Zain kept up with a bit of human news; he’d know about the event. That knowledge could threaten hundreds of family, friends, and the press—all of whom would be under his roof for the ceremony. Shit.
Shock got in his face, teeth clenched. “Find the Untouchable before Mathias does.”
“And get him or her deep into hiding.” The older Denzell brother delivered another blow to his cheek.
Damn it, that throbbed like a thorn in a lion’s paw and made him roar as loudly. He stumbled, his ears ringing.
“The Anarki are dead, and your chums are chasing Zain,” Shock said. “Last chance. Hit me hard.”
“Gladly.” With a grimace, Duke reared back to deliver a punishing left hook.
At the second of impact, both Denzell brothers disappeared, teleporting out.
Damn it! That punch would have made him feel loads better.
Shoving his frustration aside, Duke realized Shock had left him inside the protections around Bram’s house. On purpose? Perhaps … one never knew with the elder Denzell. But now Duke could let the others past those protections so they could search for Merlin’s tomes.
As he mentally opened the barriers, Ice ran to Duke’s side. “Devious Denzell bastards.”
Bram nodded, fists clenched. “Shock won that round, I fear. Your face looks terrible. You all right?”
No. Duke was terrified for the Untouchable. Whoever the unlucky human was would be at his house tonight for the wedding, and Mathias would soon know that.
“According to Shock, Mathias has plans to resurrect Morganna.”
“He told you that?” Ice’s jaw dropped. “Is he barking mad?”
Duke frowned. “Shock or Mathias?”
“Mathias … but I suppose the question could apply to both,” Bram said.
“Think you there is any answer except aye?” Marrok stomped toward them, sweat dripping as he sheathed his sword.
Bram shook his head. “Impossible. He’d have to open her tomb. No one but my grandfather knew for certain how to do that, or whether the old tale about her essence remaining there had a shred of truth. He was responsible for Morganna’s demise, after all.”
“’Tis likely he would have written such down,” Marrok pointed out.
Cold dread slid through Duke. “And you kept Merlin’s writings here.”
A heartbeat later, Bram cursed. “That’s why Shock has been poking around here. He was looking for Merlin’s books.”
Duke nodded. “And for a way to help Mathias bring her back to this plane.”
“Horn-swined lout,” Marrok groused.
Bram shook his head. “Still, Mathias would need an Untouchable to open Morganna’s tomb. They only come once every thousand years. Mathias is looking for a proverbial needle in a haystack.”
Duke grimaced. “Apparently, without trying, I found that needle.”
Bram’s gaze zipped over to him. “That’s what’s wrong with your signature.”
“How does Shock know about the Untouchable’s effect on someone magical?” Duke asked, hoping the double agent was merely unhinged or yanking his chain.
“His great uncle. Utterly mental and violent. Rumor is, he killed the last Untouchable, then talked incessantly about the change in his signature after touching her.”
“Why would Shock admit any of this to me, unless …”
“He’s on our side?” Bram shook his head. “Wishful thinking, I fear. I’m sure being ‘forthright’ serves some purpose of his we’ll never know. Rather than puzzling him out now, we must focus on finding the Untouchable before Mathias does.”
“This must be someone involved with the wedding. I’ve met any number of people recently.” The photographer, the caterer, the florist … “Does this person have any characteristics?”
With Duke’s help, Bram tore into the house, picking through the ruins until he came to what remained of his office. They held their collective breath, hoping Merlin’s writings hadn’t been ransacked.
Bram quickly unsealed the protective spell he had previously placed. The ground opened up and a box emerged. The blond wizard tore open the lid and reached inside, grabbing a stack of ancient, yellowed tomes. They all heaved a sigh of relief.
Bram clutched them tight. “I’ll skim these, see if there’s any information.”
“No time,” Duke insisted. “We have to find the Untouchable now. Looks like you’re all invited to my brother’s wedding.”
Bram gestured to their ripped, mud-streaked attire. “Won’t we fit in.”
“Who bloody cares? If we don’t act now, there may be a slaughter.”
© 2010 Shelley Bradley, LLC