Shadow City

Shadow CityHorngate Witches, Book Three

Shadow City
Pocket Books (December 27, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1451613857
ISBN-13: 9781451613858

Print: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | IndieBound
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The world is falling apart. The magical apocalypse has come. Now is the time to guard the covenstead against both raiders and refugees. But Max has been stolen by a powerful demi-god who is determined to force her to find a way to use a magical power she never knew she had—even if it kills her. Meanwhile, back in Horngate, a Fury is birthing. When the creature breaks free of the fragile bonds that enclose her, her rage will scour the covenstead from the earth.

Max finds herself in the Shadow City, a place of mysteries and magic, where she must battle for her freedom or become a slave to creatures of dreadful greed and power. Back in Horngate, Alexander must swallow his anger and pride if he hopes to defeat the Fury, a creature that no one has ever successfully fought before.

In the end, it will be courage, friendship, faith and loyalty that win the day. Or else so one will live to see tomorrow. on the Horngate Witches tab above and you can read the first chapter.

Praise for Shadow City:

“I can’t recommend this series enough, if you haven’t started this series yet…what are you waiting for?! Buy it now, and I highly suggest you read this series in order starting with Bitter Night, Crimson Wind, Shadow City and finally Blood Winter. Superb writing, world and characters that will stay with you long after you finish a book, I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!”
Short and Sweet Reviews

“She remains to be one of my all-time favorite heroines and certainly one of the toughest that I’ve ever read about. If you enjoy high-paced, action-packed dark fantasy then I suggest you give Francis’ Horngate Witches a try.” Addicted2Heroines

Chapter 1

Alexander crouched on the ridgeline. His head swiveled as he sniffed the crisp, still air. Uncanny and Divine magic washed across his tongue: bitter and sweet, caustic and cloying. His eyes narrowed as he tried to sort the scents of what belonged from what did not.

It was impossible. There was simply too much magic in the air. But at least one thing was clearly out of place. On a small flattish spot on the slope below him was a fairy circle made of deep-pocketed morel mushrooms. It was about seven feet in diameter, and the edges of the ring were thick and deep. There had to be at least a few hundred mushrooms. But that was not what caught Alexander’s attention.

Inside the circle was a pile of skinned bodies. Alexander could see two wolves, five rabbits, three raccoons, a pair of ducks, three deer, and a small bear.

He reached for a rock. He found one the size of a hubcap and weighing a good fifty pounds. He tossed it one-handed. It thumped down heavily inside the circle. The ground heaved and funneled downward. The bodies and the rock plunged into the sudden maw. A second later, the grass rippled back into place. Alexander pursed his lips in a silent whistle. Something down there was hungry.

He frowned. A flicker of motion caught his attention, and he tilted a glance upward. An angel glided across the night sky, silent and deadly. Alexander’s teeth bared as he watched Tutresiel circle. Suddenly, the angel’s silver wings folded with a metallic hiss, and he dropped to the ground only a few feet from the fairy ring.

He landed in a crouch before straightening with tigerlike grace. He stared at Alexander with scarlet eyes. His face was pale marble, his body hard with muscle. His black hair hung to his shoulders in sharp contrast with his white skin. He wore black jeans, heavy biker boots, and a scarred leather vest laced loosely around the roots of his wings.

Alexander’s nostrils flared, and his body went taut. He rose to his feet but held himself tightly leashed, despite the nearly uncontrollable urge to pummel Tutresiel’s face into a pulp. Not that he could. But something about the angel triggered a primitive reaction in Alexander that had nothing to do with logic and reason and everything to do with animal instinct.

“What do you want?”

“Niko sent me to find you.”

Alexander’s lips flattened. “What for?” But he knew what for. Niko wanted him to become the Prime of Horngate’s Shadowblades. He’d been after him about it since Scooter had taken Max. It was the last thing she had asked for before she had been taken.
Fury, frustration, and unspeakable pain churned molten in his gut. It had been weeks, and there’d been no word, no sign. The beast inside him howled with loss, and he doubled over, bracing his hands on his knees as he fought to breathe. She will return, he told himself. If she does not, I will go find her.

He straightened, meeting Tutresiel’s gaze, expecting mockery. But the angel only offered a short nod of understanding. Except he could not possibly understand. He was cold-blooded as hell and cared nothing for anyone. As his next words proved.

“When are you going to pull up your big girl panties and get over it?” he asked, folding his arms and cocking his head to the side. “If Max could see you now, she’d be puking up her guts with disgust. She needs a man, not a weakling child.”

Alexander’s anger hardened. His Prime bristled, and he went iron-cold as the beast took over. “What would you know about Max?” he asked softly as reason fled. He was going to kill the angel. Somehow. “You tried to destroy Horngate. The only reason you joined the covenstead was to get out of the Guardians’ shackles. You are a coward.”

A smile flickered over Tutresiel’s lips and was gone. “Am I? Some would call me smart. Or lucky, even. You, on the other hand, they’d call stupid and suicidal, if you decide to attack me like you want to.” His wings flared, each feather a shining blade, sharp and deadly. “I would flay you into hamburger before you put a hand on me. But maybe that’s what you want. Better to lie down and die than act like a man, like the warrior you’re supposed to be.” His lip curled in a sneer.

Alexander did not move. Tutresiel’s taunts were meant to drive him into a frenzy so that he would attack stupidly. He was not going to succumb to the tactic. “And what would you have me do, oh great and wise angel?” he asked derisively.

“Do the job that Max wanted. Keep the covenstead safe until she comes back,” was Tutresiel’s cutting reply.

“I am keeping it safe. I do not have to take on Prime to do so,” Alexander said.

Max was Horngate’s Shadowblade Prime, or leader. Shadowblades were nighttime warriors created by witches. They had super strength, super healing, and many other varied abilities, according to the whims of the witch who created them. If they went into the sunlight, they’d burn up. Their daytime counterparts, the Sunspears, were poisoned by the night. Max was a good Prime. Better than good. The best Alexander had ever seen. But weeks ago, she’d been taken.

No, taken sounded like she had been kidnapped or like she had fought. The truth was, she had been bartered and had gone willingly, Alexander thought bitterly. Giselle, Horngate’s territory witch, had bargained with the powerful creature Max irreverently called Scooter. An otherwise nameless being, he claimed to be the child of Onniont, the horned serpent, and Nihansan, Spider Woman, both of whom were legendary creatures, possibly gods. He had more magic at his fingertips than most covens could command.

Giselle had traded Max to Scooter in exchange for a powerful warding spell to protect the coven. No one knew what Scooter wanted with Max, but once he had fulfilled his side of the bargain, he had come demanding his prize.

Now Horngate, already crippled by the attacks that had resulted in Tutresiel and the fire angel Xaphan becoming part of the covenstead and teeming with refugees from the Guardians’ cataclysmic unleashing of wild magic on the world, was without a Shadowblade Prime. They wanted Alexander for the job. But if he took it, it would guarantee that Max would never come back. Not that he was going to tell Tutresiel about the prophecy Magpie had given him. It was none of the angel’s damned business.
“The Shadowblades are sheep without a shepherd. They need you to step up,” Tutresiel told him. He brushed invisible lint from the side seam of his leather pants. “Not that I care, of course. But they are so pathetic, it’s getting hard to watch.”

“No. Max is Prime. She is coming back. I will not steal her place.” The words were hard as bullets.

Tutresiel laughed without humor. “Is that it? You think if you take Prime she won’t come back?” He snorted. “As if anything you do or say could stop her. Count on it. The question is, what will be left when she gets here? You’re not helping, going off to lick your balls while the rest of the covenstead struggles to pull itself together in time for winter. It’s going to be ugly. There’s not enough food, and we both know trouble is coming. Local humans are going to get hungry, and so are the Uncanny and the Divine. Horngate is going to look awfully tasty to a lot of creatures. We’ll be fighting them off, if we can even harvest enough food to feed ourselves.”

At his words, Alexander darted a glance at the fairy ring. Was it his imagination, or was the interior rising and falling as if something beneath was breathing?

The angel didn’t notice. “Then again, maybe we’ll feed you to them first. An appetizer. Getting rid of you and your bottomless Shadowblade hunger will leave more for everyone else.”

“Someone really needs to kill you,” Alexander said, feeling his anger drain as the truth of Tutresiel’s words pulled him from the cauldron of his fury and pain.

“You’ve tried. More than once. Didn’t do a very good job. Of course, I’m immortal.”

Alexander snorted. “So am I. Until someone kills me. The only question is how to go about making you dead.”

The angel smiled. “Good luck with that. There are only two in the world who know how to kill me permanently, and I’m one. I’ll never tell.”

“I guess I will just have to keep trying. I am bound to stumble on it one day. Just for giggles, want to step sideways into that circle and see what happens?”

The angel glanced down. “What is it?”

“Hungry, from what I can tell. Bet it would not object to an angel snack.”

Tutresiel reached out into the air, and suddenly a sword was in his hand. Its seven-foot blade glowed with brilliant white witchlight. He paced around the outside edge of the ring. “I told you trouble was coming,” he murmured.

“What is it?”

“A mouth.”

“Thank you, Mister Obvious. I figured that out already.”

Tutresiel continued, ignoring Alexander’s comment. “The ring is to imprison it. The question is whether the fairies lured the mouth in to use it or if they’re just pinning it down to protect themselves.”

“I do not think they plan to kill it. It just sucked down more than a dozen animal carcasses. All skinned.”

“Interesting,” was Tutresiel’s noncommittal reply.

“We cannot just leave it. How do you kill it?”

The angel gave an infuriating shrug. “Depends on what’s inside.”

“I thought you knew.”

“Could be a lot of things. Fairies, demons, monsters. Possibly even Muppets.”

Alexander scowled. Tutresiel was baiting him. He snarled, hating to ask, but having no choice. “What do you recommend?”

“Easiest way to figure out what’s inside is to jump in.”

“Sounds stupid. “

“That too.”

Alexander’s Prime lunged to the fore. His human senses flattened, and the heightened instincts of the beast within took over. He rose and drew a combat knife from the sheath on his hip. “I guess Niko will have to wait,” he said, and leaped down off his perch. He strode purposefully toward the circle of mushrooms, but Tutresiel’s sword came down and barred the way. He glared at the angel. “Get out of my way.”

“I wondered, but I didn’t know for sure until now. You are as stupid as you look,” Tutresiel said. “You’ll die if you jump into that throat.”

“I am not that easy to kill,” Alexander said, shoving down on the sword with his knife. A jolt of electricity shot through him, and every hair on his body stood on end. His blood sizzled with the energy.

“Maybe. But as much as I don’t care what happens to you, Max will, and she’s just crazy enough to hunt down the one way to kill me if I let you die. So call this self-preservation.” He paused for a moment and then frowned. “I shouldn’t have to say this, but given the fact that most of you idiots at Horngate have a ridiculously overblown sense of responsibility . . . Stay put. I can handle this.”

With that, he hopped into the circle. The moment his feet touched, the ground split open and the angel plunged inside. A moment later, the circle of emerald grass rippled flat and pristine.

Alexander could only stare in blank shock. Of all the things he might have expected from the angel, this was not one. Tutresiel was a selfish bastard. He looked after himself and no one else.

A few seconds passed, and a tremor shook the ground. Everything went quiet. Not even a bird chirped. A long minute passed. Then, suddenly, the grass inside the ring erupted. Blood, dirt, and gravel spewed in every direction. Tutresiel exploded upward in a shining whirlwind, his wings slashing and chopping.

He halted ten feet above the hole, his sword held high. Blood and gore clung to his wings and sword and splattered his body. He grinned with vicious triumph, and the sword vanished. He extended his wings, and the blood ran off them as if expelled, leaving them silver-bright as usual. He floated down to stand beside the gaping hole he had made.

“Impressive,” Alexander said, peering down inside. The walls had caved in and there was little enough to be seen. “What was it?”

“No clue. But there were a lot of them. It was a nest of some kind and full of very hungry, very vicious young. I didn’t see any adults. We’ll have to keep watch. If they’d reached adulthood, they’d have infested the area like killer cockroaches.”

“You should do a flyover,” Alexander said. “Look for the parents. I will search on the ground.”

“First, I’ll go report to Niko. Unless, of course, you’ve decided to stop sniveling and do what you are made to do?”

Alexander gave a short jerk of his head.

Tutresiel shrugged. “Then I don’t think I’m going to bother listening to you giving me orders.”

With that, the angel launched into the air. Alexander watched him disappear. His teeth ground together. The problem was that Tutresiel did not understand. None of them did. He could not take on Prime. If he did, none of them would ever see Max again.
Pain boiled up inside him again, and he gasped, letting it flood through his body. He did not know how to survive it. But he had no choice.

* * *

He paused on a pinnacle overlooking a small valley. A small herd of elk grazed below. A mountain lion sprawled watchfully on a limb on the far end, waiting for the elk to wander closer. There was no sign of the adult creatures or the fairies who’d made the mushroom ring.

It was not long before Niko appeared. He was a blocky man with black hair. Muscles piled on muscles, moving like an oiled shadow over the ground. He was danger personified. But then, so was Alexander.

“Something on your mind, Niko?”

It pleased him to no end when the other man started. The thick smell of magic overwhelmed his own scent, and the power of his constantly aroused Prime was a thick cloud that spread over miles. Without a reliable scent trail, Niko had been forced to follow Alexander’s tracks and Tutresiel’s directions.

The other man stared up at him, his body tense. He was itching for a fight. Alexander’s lip curled. Niko was good, but he was no match for Alexander.

“You need to come with me. There’s something you need to see,” he announced curtly.

Alexander turned away. “Get Tutresiel and Xaphan. Whatever the problem is, they can handle it.”

“Fuck them. We want you.”

“I just gave you my advice. There is nothing I can do that a pair of angels cannot. Besides, I am busy. We might have a fairy infestation, or did Tutresiel forget to tell you?”

Niko growled in frustration. “The fairies can wait. As for your advice, you can stick it up your ass. This is a lot more important.”

That caught Alexander’s attention. He gave Niko a long, hard look. The Blade looked worried, more than he had since Max’s disappearance. “What do you want me to see?” he asked finally.

“You’d better come.” Niko turned and leaped down into the gully and back up the other side. He glided almost soundlessly.
Alexander followed, feeling like a rhinoceros blundering through a china shop. He had spent the better part of a century in cities, and the quiet of the wilderness was hard to achieve.

The covenstead spread over miles of mountains west of Missoula, Montana. At its heart was the Keep carved inside a mountain. In the river valley outside were a dozen long greenhouses, and on the peaks around perched cabins where members of the covenstead lived. Or they had, before the Guardian attacks almost two months ago. Now many of those homes were deserted, their occupants dead.

Niko circled around to the other side of Horngate’s necklace of perimeter wards. East of the covenstead, they came to a tightly rucked blanket of ridges. The trees were thick there. Boulders and loose rock littered the crevices between the steep hillsides.

They picked their way carefully over the broken landscape and down into a shadowy gorge. Alexander felt a surge of something the moment he set foot on the uneven bottom. The ground hummed with a low vibration that sent a dull ache up his legs. He glanced sharply at Niko. “What is this?”

Niko shook his head. “Up ahead. You’ll see.”

They wound through the piles of boulders and tangles of scrub juniper. The ground was dry, and the grass crackled beneath their feet. Above, the stars glittered like ice in the velvet night. The smell of Uncanny magic was suffocating, nearly drowning out the slighter scent of Divine magic.

They came through a notch between two granite blocks, each the size of a Greyhound bus. On one side was a clearing. On the far side was a power circle. The outer ring was grayish powder—a mix of salt, herbs, metals, and whatever else witches used to create binding circles. It was a good six inches wide. Inside was another ring. It glowed a sullen red. Within was a fat column of oily black smoke perhaps twenty-five feet tall. It curled and twisted with violent motion.

The hair on Alexander’s entire body prickled. He forced himself to walk closer.

Tyler crouched on the hillside above, just outside Horngate’s perimeter wards. He was a slight man, with a dancer’s grace and an artist’s skill with a blade. He’d recently shorn his hair to a short bristle cut, but his minstrel mustache and goatee remained. He spun a knife in his fingers. As Niko and Alexander approached, he leaped down the scree to land softly on the balls of his feet, sliding the knife into a sheath strapped behind his neck.

“What is this?” Alexander wondered aloud.

“We were hoping you could tell us. We’ve never seen anything like it,” Tyler replied.

At the sound of their voices, the smoke whirled and bulged, pressing against the invisible walls of the containment circle.

“It lies in the path of the old perimeter wards,” Niko said, pointing to a charred circled on the ground. It ran straight through the center of the ring. “That can’t be coincidence.”

“Have you told Giselle?”

“Not yet.”

So they came to him first. His lips tightened. Damn them. He was not their Prime. Alexander turned away from the writhing smoke. “You should do that. She will want to know.”

The other two men exchanged a glowering look. “You know, I’m about ready to kick your ass,” Niko said.

Alexander smiled. It felt stiff and wooden. Inside, his Blade licked its lips, hungry for blood. “Try.”

“What is your problem? You claim you want a place here, but all you want to do is throw it in our faces. This is what Max wanted. You know it.”

“Time for you to step up, son,” Tyler added in his laconic way, echoing Tutresiel’s earlier statement. His tone did nothing to hide the tension coiling through him. Alexander was not the only one spoiling for a fight.

He barely held himself in check. Killing Tyler and Niko would not help get Max back. Besides, he liked them. Instead, he turned away abruptly and went to sit on an outcropping of rock. The others eyed him uncertainly. They had not expected him to just calmly sit.

Alexander rubbed a hand over his mouth as he considered telling them the truth. They might stop badgering him.

He reached under the collar of his shirt and hooked a woven leather strap with his fingers. He drew out a gold disk almost the size of his palm. On one side was a round black diamond the size of a peach pit. Small orange opals traced a glimmering line along the outer rim. Outward-pointing arrows were interspersed among the opals like the rays of a sun. Around the thick edge of the disk were written words in a language Alexander did not understand. They spiraled down over the back to the center to end in a small stylized Egyptian eye.

He pulled the strap over his head and gazed down at the disk. For years, he had craved it. It was worth a king’s ransom. More. Now he wished he had never seen it. He turned it in his fingers, then came to a decision. Secrecy had done him no good so far.
He drew a knife from the sheath on his hip. It was a combat knife, both edges honed sharp. He cut deeply across the pad of his thumb and quickly smeared his blood across the amulet before his healing spells could close the wound. The cold, heavy stickiness of the invisibility spell closed over him.

“What the fuck?” Tyler exclaimed.

Niko just watched the place where Alexander was sitting, his brow furrowed.

Alexander wiped his knife on his jeans and sheathed it. “Did you know that Magpie has the gift of true prophecy?” he asked conversationally, the corner of his mouth lifting in a sardonic smile as Tyler started. Hearing the thin air talking took some getting used to.

“Prophecy?” Niko repeated.

Alexander turned the amulet in his fingers. “Apparently, whatever she sees always comes true. Or so she assures me. Giselle seems to be of the same opinion.”

“Get to the point,” Tyler said. His knife was back in his hand, and he was twirling it between his fingers. It would take barely a second for him to launch it, and even without seeing Alexander, he was sure to hit him.

“Magpie came to see me. The same day that Max’s family was kidnapped.”

He remembered it with preternatural clarity. He’d been in his apartment deep within Horngate’s mountain fortress. Magpie had opened the door, pushing through the wards as if they were not there. At first, he had thought she must be Max, who was the only person he knew who could open any lock without trouble. It was one of the gifts Giselle had layered into her making.
Expectant hope had flooded through him and then died beneath a deluge of cold shock when Magpie entered. Foreboding grasped him in a hard hand. The witch’s eyes were entirely white. She had fixed him with that unworldly gaze and had delivered the fateful prophecy in a guttural voice that was nothing like her own sharply cut tones.

The amulet is coming to you. It will give you your heart’s desire. You will be Prime.

Later, she had assured him that her prophecies were always true, that he should ignore her words at his own peril. Alexander had long dreamed that the Amengohr amulet would be his. It lent him invisibility at night and allowed him to walk safely in the sunlight during the day. For a moment, he had been elated. He would have the amulet and his heart’s desire—to be accepted at Horngate. But the cost was too high if it meant he would become Prime. He had known such a thing could only happen if Max was dead. Then the prophecy had started to come true. First, Niko and Tyler had begun to accept him as one of Horngate’s Shadowblades, then Alexander had obtained the amulet, and finally, at the moment of her kidnapping, Max had ordered Giselle to make Alexander Horngate’s Prime.

He would not do it. If he did, she would not have a reason to return. The universe would not have a reason to give her back. His face twisted. Maybe it was irrational, but he could not risk it. He could not chance that taking Prime would mean losing Max forever.

Alexander rubbed the blood away roughly, feeling the sticky cloak of invisibility fade. He stared down at the disk, his fingers clenching around it until the edge cut into his flesh. “I will not let it be true. I will not be Prime. Nor will I let anyone else take it. She will have to come back.”

“Holy mother of fuck,” Niko murmured.

Alexander glanced sharply at the other man. That was one of Max’s favorite phrases. His jaw knotted as he fought down the ball of molten fury and pain at the reminder of her.

“Crap on a cracker,” Tyler swore as he strode up and down in front of the column of black smoke. He did not seem to notice it. “So, all we have to do is kill you and it ends the prophecy. Poof! We get Max back.”

“Not necessarily,” Niko said slowly. “All it means is that Alexander won’t be Prime. Doesn’t mean Max will come back, even if we could kill him. Not likely if Magpie’s prophecies really do always come true.”

“Shit.” Tyler’s knife whirled in his fingers as he eyed Alexander. “Still, isn’t it worth a shot? No offense, son, but I want Max back, and if it takes giving you a dirt nap, then I’m all for it.”

Alexander smiled, cold and feral. “I do not disagree, though you understand that I would have to fight you all the same.”
“I don’t think it’s going to come to that,” Niko said thoughtfully, tapping his fingers on his thigh. “In fact . . . we want you to become Prime. Now more than ever.”

“No!” The fury in Alexander erupted uncontrollably, and the Shadowblade took control. He moved in a blur. He lunged and snatched Niko by the throat, throwing him against the rock hillside with all his strength. Bones broke as Niko’s body bounced like a crash-test dummy.

Alexander leaped to finish the kill, and Tyler knocked him out of the air. He landed on his side and flipped up onto his feet. He swept Tyler’s legs out from underneath him and pounded a fist into the side of his head. Alexander moved fluidly, with all the sinuous grace of a cobra. Reason was gone. Only the need to kill remained.

Once Tyler lay sprawled and unmoving on the ground, Alexander spun to look for Niko. The other man stood dazed at the bottom of the slope. Blood ran down the side of his head and dampened his collar. He lifted his hands in a sign of surrender.
“C’mon, now. Settle down. Get hold of your Blade. Just hear me out on this. You know I want Max back, and till just now, I would have said I wanted her as much as or more than you. You know I wouldn’t do anything to hurt her. You know that. So, listen.”

He spoke carefully. Alexander shook himself, trying to ignore the words. He did not want logic or reason. He wanted action. He wanted Max. But she would hate him if he killed any of her Blades. She counted on him to look after Horngate. To look after her family, which included Niko and Tyler.

A tide of cold reality washed over Alexander, quenching the volcanic fury of his Blade. He forced the predator down until he was in control. It was a near thing. But finally, he grappled it into its cage.

“Explain,” he ordered Niko through clenched teeth.

The other man sagged down onto a rock, wiping blood from his neck with his knuckles. “What if you’ve got the prophecy wrong?” he asked, then groaned and rubbed a hand against the back of his head. “Damn, that hurts.”

When Alexander twitched as if he was going to jump on him, Niko sighed. “Just think for a minute. You’ve been basing everything on the assumption that your heart’s desire is to become a member of Horngate. But you’re walking the thin edge of going rabid, and it’s all because of Max. Because she’s what you really want. Would you really be so eager to join Horngate if Max wasn’t part of the package?” He didn’t wait for Alexander’s answer. “It sure as hell isn’t because of the rest of us. You’re bleeding to death without her.

“Don’t you get it? If she really is your heart’s desire, then only one part of the prophecy has actually come true. If you want her back, you have to make the rest happen. You take Prime, and then she’ll have to come back, because the prophecy says you’ll get your heart’s desire.”

Alexander stared as the words percolated through his skull. He closed his eyes and sucked in a harsh breath, hope knifing deep into his soul. Could it be true? It was possible. It even made sense. Niko was right. Since Max had disappeared, Alexander could think of nothing else but getting her back, of seeing her one more time. He opened his eyes. “I cannot risk it.”
“The hell you can’t,” Tyler exclaimed as he struggled up. “Your reasoning sucks ass. You don’t give a shit about Horngate. If you did, you’d have grabbed Prime with both hands. But you won’t, because your dick’s in a knot over Max. That should be proof enough for you.”

Alexander said nothing. It made sense. But—

Doubt clamped him. He wanted desperately to believe it, but from the moment he had met Max, he had known that she would die before abandoning Horngate. The stone-cold certainty that if he took her place she would have to be dead would not let him go. He shook his head.

“Holy mother of fuck! What do we have to say to get you to pull your head out of your ass?” Tyler demanded.

Alexander tensed, his Blade peeling back the bars of its cage and lunging forth. Tyler fell back a step, but his own Blade was rising to the killing edge. He needed a Prime to keep him steady. Niko stepped between them.

“Enough,” he said, his back to Tyler as he watched Alexander carefully. He dipped his gaze to seem less challenging. “Maybe you have a good reason to be so sure that stepping up to Prime will mean that Max won’t come back. If so, I’d like to hear it. Nobody wants to push you if it means losing her forever.”

Alexander opened his mouth. Words jumbled in his throat, but nothing made sense. He spun away, staring at the boiling column of smoke, trying to think. But all he could think of was this was something he could do to get Max back. And if Niko was right, he had no choice.

“All right. I will do it,” he said a minute later. He would rather regret doing something than regret doing nothing. He swung back around. “But if you are wrong, I will make you hurt more than you ever dreamed you could, and then I will kill you.”
“It’s a deal,” Niko said. He reached out a bloody hand, and Alexander shook it slowly. “Let’s go tell Giselle about it.” He glanced at the billowing column of oily, trapped smoke. “And that.”

Tyler dusted himself off, his beast settling down. “She’s going to love your becoming Prime. Not to mention Oz. He’s going to have kittens.”

“None of his concern, now, is it?” Niko said with a shrug. “His job is to look after the Sunspears. This is Shadowblade business. If he doesn’t like it, he can bite my ass.”

“Or kick it up to your ears,” Tyler pointed out.

“Let him try,” Alexander said softly. “No one fucks with my Blades without answering to me.”
His two companions looked at each other, then at him. “You sound like Max,” Tyler said. The muscles of his jaw jumped with suppressed emotion.

“Not as easy on the eyes, though,” Niko said.

“I’ll remember to tell her you said that,” Tyler said. “When she comes back.”

If she comes back, Alexander thought darkly. But hope continued to grow despite himself. Damn her. Where the hell was she?

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