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As the Earl of Falconer, Simon Malmain traveled with an entourage of carriages and coachmen and most certainly his valet. As the chief enforcer of the Guardian Council, he walked alone, a darker shadow in the night.
The sky was dark with clouds, perfect for secret deeds. Simon wore black, even his fair hair covered by his tricorne hat. Not that he feared Lord Drayton, whose powers were less impressive than his ambitions, but a wise hunter left nothing to chance.
His horse had been left in a convenient field so that Simon could approach Castle Drayton unnoticed. He’d studied the castle from a distance and spoken with a former servant, who had fled Drayton’s service in fear of his soul. The master of the house was in residence, recently returned from London, where Drayton held a cabinet post. Simon had considered confronting him in the city before deciding that this remote area was better. If there was a magical battle, the fewer who might be affected, the better.
The castle stood on a rocky rise cradled in the bend of a small river that ran into the Severn. The original building had been updated and expanded over the centuries, but its site remained an imposing hill chosen to repel attacks. Soldiers would have a hard time penetrating the castle. Simon didn’t.
He met the first barrier near the top of the hill. It was a warning shield of surprising competence. Drayton must have been practicing. Simon sketched a series of symbols with one hand. A man-sized hole opened in the energy shell. He stepped through and closed the portal behind him, undetected. Though he could have taken the wards down entirely, there was no reason to warn Drayton prematurely.
The next barrier was the closed gates. Luckily a small side door cut through the wall, its position largely concealed by overgrown vegetation. Its bespelled lock was no match for Simon. He hushed the squeal of the door and closed it soundlessly behind him. Best to leave it unlatched. He doubted he would have to leave in a rush, but he never took anything for granted. Enforcers of Guardian law who made assumptions were unlikely to die in bed.
In the shadow of the wall, he used his inner senses to study the courtyard. A pair of bored guards stood watch in the turret that loomed above the castle gates. In a peaceable England, that marked Drayton as a most suspicious man. The product of a guilty conscience, no doubt.
Before entering, Simon scanned the keep. At this hour most servants were asleep in the attics or the stables, a separate building behind the castle. He wrinkled his nose in distaste as he felt the energy of the establishment. It was crude, corrupted, with most of the residents either fearful or brutish. He felt the quicksilver touch of a lighter female energy, perhaps a very young maidservant. He guessed she would soon have reason to curse her parents for putting her into service under Drayton. Perhaps literally under. Still another reason to confront the man, before he could do more damage.
A corner chamber on the second floor was brightly lit, and he sensed that Drayton was working there. The man’s energy was untroubled; he didn’t realize his castle had been breached.
Cloaking himself in a don’t-see spell, Simon crossed the courtyard and ascended the steps to the keep. There was no reaction from the guards in the turret. If they noticed him, it was only as a shadow.
The lock on the door to the keep was old and primitive, easy to open. He stepped into the absolute darkness of the entry hall. After pausing to check that the space was devoid of any living presence, Simon conjured a spark of mage light in his palm. He kept it dim, just enough to illuminate his path across the great hall and then up the broad stairs. His blood quickened as he ascended, knowing that the end of the hunt was nigh. Though he acted by will of the council to enforce the laws of the Families, the hunt itself fulfilled an ancient, more primitive need.
Cracks of light outlined the door to the corner chamber. The knob turned easily under his hand. As he had guessed, the room was a study, richly furnished and well lit. Lamplight glinted from gold-leaf decorations on the furniture and the frame of the mirror above the fireplace.
Simon wasted little attention on the furnishings. What mattered was Lord Drayton, the man behind the magnificent desk that faced the door. His powdered wig and brocade garments would not have been out of place at the royal palace.
Simon had found his prey.
Drayton raised his head at Simon’s entrance. There was no shock in his expression. Only . . . a trace of satisfaction? Surely not.
“If it isn’t the esteemed Lord Falconer, dressed as a highwayman,” Drayton said dryly. “I’ve wondered when you would come after me. I expected you sooner.”
“I take my time when I collect my evidence.” Simon’s voice was cool, but a warning bell sounded in his mind. It wasn’t natural for a mage to be so relaxed when confronted by the Guardian Council’s enforcer. “Not that it was difficult in your case. Lately you’ve made little attempt to conceal your transgressions of Guardian law.”
Drayton leaned back in his chair, playing idly with the quill of his pen. “With what am I charged?”
Simon pulled a folded document from an inside pocket and dropped it on the desk. “Here is a listing of what I know and can prove, though I have no doubt there is much more. You have used your power with greed and selfishness, and injured many innocents in the process.” He shook his head, still amazed at the other man’s callousness. “How could you encourage the Jacobite rising, knowing how many would die? Didn’t those sundered souls cause you pain?”
“Not particularly. Few of the dead were any great loss to mankind.”
Simon clamped down on the anger triggered by the other man’s words. Loss of control would put him at a disadvantage. “I suggest you consult the charging documents. If there is anything you would like to dispute, now is the time.”
Drayton skimmed the pages. “Admirably thorough.” His brows arched when he read the last page. “I didn’t think you’d discover that. Well done. You’re a credit to your lineage.” He dropped the papers back on his desk. “As you suspected, this is not a complete list of my wicked deeds, but it’s quite enough for your purposes.”
This interview was going all wrong. Drayton acted as if he was invulnerable, yet his magical power had never been more than average. Silently Simon began to scan the room, seeking dangerous anomalies. Aloud, he said, “As you know, there are two stages of censure. You freely admit that you have violated Guardian laws. Are you prepared to swear on your blood that you will never do so again?”
Drayton smiled lazily. “You can’t imagine that I will do that.”
“And if you did, I can’t imagine you keeping your word,” Simon said dryly. “You leave me no choice but to forcibly strip your powers from you.”
“Strip away, Falconer.” Drayton’s eyes narrowed. “If you can.”
Simon hesitated a moment. The process of destroying another person’s magical powers was not pleasant for either party, and was very seldom invoked. His intuition was also on high alert—Drayton’s reaction to this confrontation made no sense. Simon detected a very small thread of energy running from Drayton to an unknown destination, but nothing else was out of order. Why was the other man so confident?
Drayton stretched a magic-hazed hand toward a desk drawer. Seeing through the spell, Simon stared incredulously as the other man pulled out a pistol. Did Drayton really think such a crude defense would be enough to protect him from justice?
With a swift gesture to channel the energy, Simon destroyed the pistol’s internal mechanism—and in the same instant, he was blasted by a magic power unlike anything he had ever experienced. Every fiber of his being was under attack, ripping asunder.
As he gasped for breath, he realized that he was falling, unable to save himself, much less fight back. Drayton had pulled the pistol to distract Simon from the real attack. But where the bloody blue hell was the bastard getting such power? This was immense, far greater than anything the rogue had ever shown. Such power didn’t come from nowhere.
He managed to evoke his inner senses and was startled to see that the fine thread of energy he’d seen attached to Drayton had become a river of fire. Raw power poured into Drayton, who channeled it into searing waves that enveloped Simon. Agonized, he thrashed about on the floor, feeling as if he were burning alive. His limbs were being torn and reforged as in a blacksmith’s fire. His pulse hammered in his ears, almost drowning the sound of Drayton’s laughter and a strange, ripping noise.
He tried to muster his own power but he was overwhelmed, voiceless magically and physically. His mind was fracturing, clarity melting in Drayton’s magical flames.
“I have waited a long time to do this, Falconer,” the other man hissed. “In your arrogance, you thought you could take me. Instead, I am taking you.”
More energy scorched through Simon, shocking as a lightning bolt. Was this death? But he had always thought death would be a quiet welcome, not this hell of agony and flames.
The last jolt of transforming power knocked him into blackness. Then, mercifully, the pain began to ebb away. Guessing that he had been unconscious only a moment, he struggled to regain his feet. But his body was unfamiliar, awkward. He was pushing himself up not with arms, but—with forelegs?
Wondering if he was dreaming, he forced himself upright, and saw that his view of the room was curiously distorted. But no dream could feel so real. The scents of books and ink and dust were sharply intense, and he ached in every muscle.
He turned, and almost tripped over his own feet. His body was no longer his own. He looked down, having to turn his head to see. Impossibly, he saw four cloven-hoofed legs tangled in black fabric—the torn remnants of his clothing. Fighting panic, he looked around and saw that Drayton was visibly gloating.
Fear washed through Simon as he recognized vicious malice in the other man’s expression. He backed away from Drayton, his tail lashing.
Frantically he swung his head, somehow managing to bang his forehead on the bookcase behind him. Ignoring the pain, he stared into the mirror above the mantel.
Looking back at him was a shimmering white unicorn.
From the Hardcover edition.