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Born in Fire (Page 38)

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I could barely see Darius shaking his head. I tried to hold back the silent laughter.

Rodney licked his lips. He bounced from foot to foot, not sure what to do.

“Bite her, Darius,” I ordered.

Chapter Sixteen

The whole room paused. I’d been certain the threat would be enough to spur Rodney into action, but no one said a word.

“What the hell is up with you people?” I stepped forward and grabbed Rodney by the throat. His eyes widened in surprise. “You’ll let your wife take a beating, but will you?” I threw him against the wall. “Keeping that book is just asking for someone to come and take it, moron. You are doing the magical world a disservice by not giving it to someone who has the power to keep it safe.”

I advanced on him, grabbed him by the shirt front, and lifted him into the air. His mouth gaped.

“Yeah, I’m strong.” I shook him for effect. “Can you imagine what a punch feels like?”

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“It’s in my house. In someplace safe,” Rodney blubbered. “Please don’t hurt me.”

“What do I look like, your slave? Go and get it.” I tossed Rodney toward the archway. He crumpled to the floor like a doll and sobbed. “Good grief, man, it wasn’t that bad. You’re not hurt. Go get the book.” He dragged himself up like a wounded puppy and dramatically limped out of sight.

“This is not at all how I saw this meeting playing out…” I said with a sigh.

“Will he come back?” Darius asked, releasing Tamara.

“Hmm. Go ahead and bite. I’ve always wondered what it feels like.” Tamara reached for Darius.

“And the crazy keeps rolling.” I scratched my nose, willing my frustration to simmer down. “Can you put her outside or something? She’s making me uncomfortable.”

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He took a card out of his wallet and handed it to her. “If you would really like to know, call that number. One of my people will get in contact with you.”

“Tamara, we’ve talked about that,” Margaret said disapprovingly. “It’s a dangerous road.”

“It is quite safe, I assure you,” Darius said, directing Tamara out of the room. “Beneficial to all parties.”

“Will you be there?” I heard her ask.

“Decidedly not.” The door closed and he appeared in the room again, looking calm as usual.

“Definitely not how I saw all this going,” I repeated. “One minute, serious questions, talk of torture, and a run-of-mill scare tactics. Next minute, crazy vampire lust from a middle-aged married person looking to get bitten by a walking corpse.”

“That is offensive.” Darius poured himself some more tea.

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“Margaret,” I said, drawing her attention my way. “You need to break up this neighborhood. It’s gotten weird, sweetie. The witch next door was clearly insane before he elevated to mage, your neighbor is looking for thrills while her husband stands by, you’re dabbling in spells way above your pay grade…” I touched her arm. “The first step is admitting you have a problem.”

She blinked at me for a moment, her face white. “Please don’t bite me. Or hurt me.”

“Good. A normal response. Thank you.” I went to the window and pulled back the curtain. Rodney was on the sidewalk, and he and Tamara looked to be in an argument. He had something tucked under his arm.

Another light-bulb moment. “Darius, go get that book.” He was out the door in a moment. “Margaret, you need to watch Tamara. I bet she’s looking for a way to power up too. She’ll follow in your neighbor’s footsteps when she realizes getting bitten by vampires doesn’t help.”

“No, she won’t,” Margaret said, setting her cup and saucer aside. “They wouldn’t take her.”

I turned around slowly, pretty sure I had an oh my God! expression. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Darius walking up the stairs with the book. He was moving slowly, studying it. That was probably bad, but right now, this took precedence.

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I lightly tapped the window and waved my hand, indicating he should stay out there. I was in friend mode right now, letting her talk. Telling me things I hadn’t known to ask about.

“They have criteria on who they take?” I asked, playing it cool, pretending I knew who they were. Just a couple of girls gossiping, that was what we were.

Darius continued toward the house. He was going to come in anyway, which was probably good, because his memory was better than mine. I just hoped he did it in stealth.

“Yes. John, the…” She swallowed and nodded in the direction of the house next door. “He had the highest level of power in our community. We all have a little spark of natural magic, but he had quite a bit more.”

“Could he get into the Realm?”

She shook her head. “He could see the gate, but it hurt him really bad when he tried to enter. Everyone said he’d die if he went through.”

I nodded, because that was correct. The pain was a warning. Some kept pushing through it. A dead body emerged on the other side.

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“I guess he had enough magic for the high mage, though.” Margaret rose and moved toward the door. I was about to throw a question at her to stop her, but before I did, she asked, “Do you want something stronger to drink?”

I released my breath with a laugh. “I sure do. I’ll help you.”

That was code for: I don’t want to let you out of my sight for fear you’ll stop talking.

Darius stood by the door, quiet and still. Margaret didn’t notice.

“I told John not to join,” she said, moving down the hall. “A few of us did, but the others, Rodney and Tamara included, thought maybe he should check it out. That maybe he could learn something and pass it on. I should’ve pushed. I should’ve tried to drown out Rodney’s goading.”

“Why did Rodney goad John?”

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We entered the kitchen. “Well, you know, he and John never really got along on account of Tamara and John’s affair a while back. And because John had more power. That made a few people jealous. So Rodney didn’t care if it was dangerous. He probably hoped it was.” She shook her head sadly, and I felt my mouth drop open. This coven definitely needed to split up. “John gave in. Then all it took was the first meeting and he was hooked. We saw his power boost right before our eyes. That’s when Rodney and Tamara tried to join. A couple others in the neighborhood, too. I begged them not to, since I could already see John changing for the worst. Thankfully, they weren’t allowed. Not enough power.”

“But in the end, Rodney still got rid of John,” I said softly, the wheels spinning.

“I guess so. Since you had to…” She gulped.

“Kill him, yes.” I didn’t mention that next Rodney would have to contend with a bunch of vampires, which would be much harder competition than a mediocre-powered mage. “So this high mage can boost people’s power, then?”

She shot me a strange look before pulling down a bottle filled with brown liquid. “The high mage didn’t recruit you?” she asked.

“I don’t do magic.”

Confusion surfaced on her face. “Then…they let you go?”

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“Huh?”

“Huh?” she repeated.

I accepted the glass, holding up my hand to stop the crazy. “Why would you assume I was captured? Or even approached?”

Her face closed down into a look of remorse, and worse, guilt.

“Margaret, what did you do?”

“We’d already lost John,” she babbled. “We couldn’t lose anyone else. They would’ve killed us to get that book.”

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I hunched a little. “So when they came looking for John’s goodies, you told them I’d found what was in the kitchen, and you pointed them my way.”

“I figured they’d think I was too low-power to find anything myself, so…”

“They didn’t even bother looking through this neighborhood, they went straight to me.” I nodded, because I should’ve assumed that. “When was this?”

“Yesterday night. He was in John’s house all evening. I saw flashes and fire through the windows, but didn’t hear anything. Nothing caught fire outside.”

“He was… Just one?”

“The high mage. He was alone. B-but, I think he has a few people he sends out to recruit or to assert his will. I’m not sure how many.”

I huffed out a laugh at her choice of words. The high mage was definitely on a power trip with that title and all this will assertion he was doing. “What does the high mage look like?”

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“You mean, besides the mask? You don’t know?” She took a shaky sip of her drink.

“I was gone when they—or some other mages—arrived at my house. I didn’t bother going in after them.”

“And the spells you got out of the kitchen?”

“They’re in a safe place.”

She shook her head. “They’re not safe from the high mage. He’ll blast through your house with fire to find them.”

My heart sank. “Fire won’t work on my safety holds.” No one, not even my father himself, could break into those. I had a spicy blend of magic and history protecting my most valuable assets. The problem was, my house and all my furniture was wood. I would lose everything I called home. Maybe I already had. “Sometimes I really hate my job.”

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