Bronze dust and red buffing compound coated my work surface, my jeans, and my hands. Pulling down my respirator mask so it hung over my collarbone like a necklace, I set the Dremel aside and, fingers clasped, pressed my palms toward the ceiling until my back popped. My stomach growled, and I glanced longingly at the dregs of coffee staining my empty mug. Breakfast had been a long time ago. The air in the studio smelled of warm metal and sulfur patina, and my nose twitched with the warning of an oncoming sneeze.
Sniffing, and brushing the back of my wrist over my upper lip, I snatched up a polishing cloth to wipe out the residual red rouge caked in the corners of the bronze queen chess piece. I was careful to keep my mind clear as I worked, blocking off my emotions so they didn’t accidentally spill over into Uncle Sol’s Christmas present due to my magical ability.
That would be a fine gift. Here’s a fun game full of anxiety and stress that makes you sick to your stomach when you touch the pieces.
When the queen shone with a mirror finish, I set her beside her king, ready to lead her army across the cherrywood chess board.
On one side of the battlefield, fractal-pattern pawns guarded a court of frozen snowflakes—all sharp angles and hard lines—their shapes as bright and clear as their finish. Across the no man’s land of checkered space, a second army sat, ready for war. These pieces were dark, stained to an oil-slick finish. In contrast to their counterparts, the patinaed court swooped and curled with organic curves.
The set was done. One more item checked off my to do list, and not a moment too soon. I’d be on my way to the fae Winter Festival in less than a day. My tutors, Kai and Hortense, had been cramming almost every waking moment with fae etiquette lessons to help me survive my debut at the Court of Enchantment. Most of the lessons boiled down to “Don’t be yourself.”
Standing, I brushed what metal dust I could off my jeans, then scrubbed my hands raw at the sink in the corner.
I had a box all prepared for Sol’s gift, kept safe from the studio’s mess in a cabinet off to one side of my work space. The chess pieces each slipped into individual pockets in two felt-lined drawers under the board. Once the armies were laid to rest, I set the board on a bed of bubble wrap, covered it, and tucked it in. I secured the box with packing tape and scribbled the address for Uncle Sol’s New York apartment, the closest thing he had to a home, across the top. Then I cleaned my Dremel, placed it back on its peg on the wall, and swept up the evidence of my work.
Straightening, I turned a slow circle, making sure everything was tidy. Thanks to the time-dilation between realms, this would be the last time I set foot in my studio for at least a week. Assuming I came back at all.
A colorful sheet hung like a ghost in one corner of the room, suspended on the copper sculpture it was keeping safe from my creation process. All the tools were in their places, the kilns were off, the forge was cold.
Grabbing Sol’s present, I turned out the lights and locked the studio door. The mid-morning sky was clear but cold, tightening the skin across my cheeks. Tendrils of mist still huddled in shadows, close to the ground where the sun couldn’t find them. I breathed deep, and crossed the clearing to my house.
I set Sol’s package on the breakfast bar that separated the kitchen from the living room, and glanced at the clock on the wall.
Crap. I only had thirty minutes until my shift at the bookstore.
I flew through the back door to Magpie Books, purse dangling from one hand, keys clenched in the other. I’d stripped off my dirty clothes, wiped the worst smudges off my face with a damp rag, and pulled on a clean outfit in two minutes flat. I’d also careened down the Boulder Canyon like a maniac, so I was only five minutes late for my shift.
Shoving my belongings into a locker in the back room, I pushed through the employee-only door to the store proper and jogged up an aisle of bookcases toward the front.
Dozens of people were perusing the shelves, arms piled high with popular titles, and the front door jingled constantly with the flow of holiday traffic. The scent of pine and cinnamon mixed with the smell of books and coffee. A row of over-stuffed stockings hung on one wall, each embroidered with an employee’s name. Mine was third from the end.
Kayla stood by the register. Her platinum blond hair was pinned back from her face with two tiny silver clips. She wore her usual high-collared, ankle-length dress to hide the gossamer pixie wings she’d once shown me. I licked my lips, recalling the heady sensation caused by the magical dust that came off those wings.
“Hey, Kayla. Sorry I’m—” My apology stalled as my gaze shifted past Kayla to the café area and a knot lodged in my throat.
Standing at the counter was an agent of the Paranatural Task Force—PTF for short. He wore blue jeans, brown boots, and a button-up shirt with a beige plaid pattern, nothing to mark him as a PTF agent, but I’d recognize Benjamin O’Connell anywhere. Hard to forget a man who’d sworn to ruin your life. Especially when he had the means and authority to actually do it.
Clenching my fists, I continued past the register, ignoring Kayla’s furrowed brow. I stepped up to O’Connell. “What are you doing here?”
O’Connell raised one eyebrow. “Getting a coffee.”
I crossed my arms. “Why here?”
He shrugged. “Why not?”
Emma, the barista, pulled a lever on the copper machine behind the counter and a hiss of steam poured out. She jingled as she worked, her many chains and piercings clicking with each motion, but her usual perkiness was absent. Her shoulders sagged, and when she turned I saw dark circles below her eyes.
Last month, Emma took, and passed, the test to become a practitioner—a rare human who could use magic. She’d also convinced a local healer named Luke to take her on as his apprentice, which would explain her glazed expression. I knew from experience that using magic was exhausting.
I inched closer to O’Connell and pitched my voice lower. “What do you want?”
“I was worried you might get lonely after I saw the list of potentials brought in this morning.”
My heart stuttered, and my mouth went dry. Potentials were people reported for exhibiting magical behavior. They were rounded up, dragged to the nearest PTF facility, and tested for paranatural abilities. I’d seen firsthand how brutal PTF tests could be, and the consequences of failing . . . I was just lucky my ability to handle iron protected me from suspicion, since that was the main way they tested for fae heritage. Not all my friends were so lucky. If he’d gotten his hands on any of them . . . . I swallowed the sour taste in my mouth.
“Gonna take all day to get them processed.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck—the picture of an overworked employee just trying to get through the day. “Then there’s the testing. Could be days. Weeks maybe, backed up as we are.” He leaned toward me like a friend sharing a secret. His nearness made my skin itch. “We’ve been up to our eyeballs in suspicion reports since the election results came in.”
Colorado’s governor-to-be, Gary Anderson, had run a Purity campaign, aligning himself with the extremist group that endorsed wholesale slaughter of anyone with a drop of magic in their blood. I’d already noticed several disturbing changes around town, like iron bead curtains hanging in doorways, anti-fae stickers in storefronts, and a recent call for magical-segregation in schools.
News that the number of reports had risen since the election wasn’t surprising, but it was disturbing. The same thing happened right before the Faerie Wars broke out, when tension between the humans and fae had been at its highest. I shuddered to think how much worse the situation was going to get come January, when Anderson was officially sworn in.
“I guess between the halfer,” O’Connell cut his eyes to Kayla, “and the witch,” he nodded toward Emma, “you’ve got all the company you need.” He smiled. “For now.”
Emma set a to-go cup on the counter and O’Connell stepped away from me to grab it. He lifted the steaming container to his lips, hissing when the hot liquid hit his tongue. Then he raised his drink in salute and walked out the door.
“Hey, Alex.” Emma smiled. The steel ring in her lip glinted. “Want your usual?”
I set my hands on the counter, leaving sweaty smudges on the glass. “Was that guy bothering you?”
She frowned. “No. Why?”
I shook my head and walked back the way I’d come. Passing Kayla, I said, “I need to make a phone call,” and hustled back through the “employees only” door before either of my coworkers could do more than blink.
Yanking open my locker, I grabbed my cell phone and stood with my finger over the contacts icon. Did O’Connell really have one or more of my friends? Or was he trying to trick me into giving someone away? Could he have bugged my phone?
I frowned. The CSI shows on TV always talked about cloning cell phones, but people had to steal the phones first. And even the PTF needed a warrant for a legal phone tap . . .
I scrolled through entries, wondering who was most exposed.
My first thought when O’Connell hinted a friend had been taken was of Kai. But O’Connell wouldn’t have called him a potential. Kai was a fully registered fae, living at my house on a visa granted by the PTF. Plus, O’Connell had already dragged Kai in for extensive testing.
I shivered, recalling the way Kai had screamed during those tests.
No. Kai was safe. As safe as a fae could be, considering the growing influence of Purity.
But James—a vampire hiding in plain sight—was definitely not safe. O’Connell knew we were friends, and potentially more. Our complicated relationship status had come under close scrutiny when James was investigated for murder. I’d since slammed the brakes on dating, but the jolt of dopamine and the way my body tightened whenever he was around made it painfully clear that my heart and my head weren’t on the same page.
I pressed the call button. As soon as the line connected I asked, “Where are you?”
“The nest.” The sound of James’s voice loosened some of the ropes of tension squeezing my chest.
I rubbed my forehead, fighting back a headache. James had spent the better part of a week preparing for the arrival of a new master vampire—some woman named Victoria—who’d claimed ownership of the Denver area nearly as soon as we’d put the old master down. How she’d known about the vacancy so fast was anybody’s guess, but she’d come to town two nights ago.
“You’re all right?” I asked. “No . . . problems?”
“I’m fine.” Worry crept into his voice, stretching his syllables. “Has something happened?”
“It’s nothing. I’ll see you at dinner tonight.” I disconnected before he could press me for more information. If he wasn’t O’Connell’s prisoner I didn’t have time to waste chatting with him, and the last thing he needed while dealing with a new, powerful vampire was to be distracted.
I scanned through my remaining contacts. Some names were missing, like Chase and Jynx, the shifter siblings crashing at my house, and Hortense, the tutor sent by my grandfather to fill the gaps in Kai’s lessons. They were all full fae, and I had no way to contact them except face-to-face, but Chase had been a snoring ball of gray fur at the end of my bed when I left for work, and Jynx had been watching television. I bit my lip. I couldn’t imagine Hortense being careless enough to get caught by the likes of O’Connell.
That left the wolves. I knew several members of the local werewolf pack, thanks to my recent exploits, but I didn’t have all their numbers. One number I did have was Marc’s. As the leader of the pack, he was sure to know if any of his members had been picked up by the PTF.
The line rang . . . and rang. No answer.
I took a deep breath. No reason to panic yet. Maybe he was just in the shower. Scrolling further down the list, I clicked the entry for Oz, a pack member I’d actually known before I discovered, rather violently, that werewolves were real.
The line rang. I bit my lower lip, my heart rate starting to climb. No answer there either.
I didn’t have a direct line to Sarah Nazari, a werewolf detective with the Boulder police department. And Sophie—my human friend turned werewolf the night we both learned they were more than just stories—had her phone privileges revoked after sneaking out to go clubbing and nearly shifting in a building packed tight with tasty mortals.
I thumped my cell phone against my forehead. A couple missed calls was hardly conclusive, but my gut told me O’Connell had gotten his hands on some or all of the werewolves. Waves of dread rolled through me. I had to know for sure.
Lifting the phone one more time, I called Maggie. A month ago, talking to Maggie would have been the most natural thing in the world. Now, the prospect made my insides writhe. Maggie was one of my few remaining human friends, and the only one I’d managed to keep completely out of the craziness my life had become. But my secrets had driven a wedge between us, and I wasn’t sure how to bridge that gap.
Before I’d walked into the near-certain death of Merak’s nest, I’d written a letter to Maggie explaining everything and apologizing for keeping her in the dark, just in case. I hadn’t died. I also hadn’t given her the letter yet. I’d stuffed it in my nightstand drawer, too afraid to face the fallout of laying my secrets bare, especially as the gulf between us grew larger.
“Alex?” Maggie’s voice was sharp. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, I just—”
“Are you at the store?”
I looked at the employee door, then at the exit. “Yeah, but I need to leave.”
“Bloody hell, Alex. Your shift just started, and this is the last shift you’ve got before the two weeks you requested off during the busiest shopping season of the year.” Her voice rose as she spoke, her London accent becoming more pronounced.
“I know, but something’s come up.”
A loud sigh came through the phone. “Something always comes up with you these days, and you’ve told me bugger all about it.”
“I know. I—”
“How long do I need to cover? The morning? The whole day? Forever?”
I shuffled my feet and looked up at the speckled ceiling tiles. “Better not count on me today.”
“I can’t ever count on you anymore.”
Dead air filled the line as I struggled to find something to say, something to make things right between us, but she was right.
“I can’t take this anymore, Alex. Not with . . . ” A sharp exhale and a shaky breath. “You’re sacked.”
The words dropped like a bomb in my head, splintering my thoughts into a million shards of jagged shrapnel. I opened my mouth to argue, to come clean about my heritage, to explain why I’d missed all those shifts, but all that came out was a ringing silence.
“I’m sorry, Alex.”
The line went dead.
Pressure built behind my eyes.
I’d thought about quitting the bookstore dozens of times—usually when I was fighting to get out of my nice warm bed before the sun came up—but I’d never really considered it. Magpie Books had been Maggie’s dream, but we’d built it together. I’d been there from the start, and I’d always assumed I’d be there till the end. Magpie was supposed to be a place I would always belong.
Dropping the phone in my purse, I blinked until my tears were no longer in danger of falling. Somehow, I had to repair my friendship with Maggie. I couldn’t afford to burn any more bridges. But first, I needed to find out what had happened to the werewolves.