The crows murder, p.4
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       The Crow’s Murder, p.4

         Part #5 of Kit Davenport series by Tate James
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  Caleb smoothly rose to his feet as well and laid a hand on Austin’s shoulder. They were obscuring my view of the crowd now, and I fought the urge to push them out of my way so I could see.

  “Perhaps we misheard a sneeze,” he suggested sarcastically, and the room tittered with laughter. “Welcome, friends. It’s our honor to meet you all officially. I am your Blood Mage, Caleb, and this is my twin brother and your Ink Mage, Austin.”

  A rush of murmuring swept through the room, but this time I understood the sentiment. The twins had previously told me that it was rare for the Blood and Ink Mages to even get along with one another, so for them to be twins was probably something to talk about. I didn’t know; I was just making assumptions.

  “As you all know,” Caleb continued in a smooth voice, friendly and hypnotizing. Dare I say he was lulling the crowd like a snake charmer? “You are all required to swear fealty to us as your new ruling Mages. In addition to this ritual tonight, we have a concern to raise.” He paused, seemingly for dramatic effect, and it worked. Even I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation, and I already knew what the concern was.

  Necromancers. Or more specifically, necromancers working with whoever just tried to kidnap me. Again.

  This ritual had me curious, though. The boys had mentioned it briefly but more in a casual kind of “Oh, yeah, all the mages in attendance need to acknowledge us as their leaders,” way, whereas now it was sounding somewhat more ominous and permanent.

  “Let’s begin with the ritual,” Austin commanded, and sure enough the dreadlocked girl popped back out of nowhere carrying an intricately designed silver bowl and a... paintbrush? Whatever, I would find out soon enough.

  My boys took the bowl from their helper, who scurried back into the shadows once more, and then they stepped down from the dais and into the open space before the chairs began. It was badly lit in the chamber, and I wasn’t sure if that was because we were underground or because it added to the magical atmosphere. Either way, I hadn’t noticed the mosaic design in the floor tiles when we had entered the room.

  Squinting at them now, I could make out the rough outline of a pentagram hidden within all sorts of other runes and symbols that made up the full design. Some of them I recognised from my lessons with Austin, but some were totally foreign to me.

  Gripping tight to my seat, I watched with nervousness as first Austin, then Caleb sliced their palms and bled into the silver bowl. Gasps rose from the gathered mages, and I guessed that Caleb’s fangs were showing. Understandable, though. He’d said that the more powerful the blood, the harder it was to control. Next to mine, I could imagine Austin’s packed a heavy punch.

  “A lot of these mages have never seen a Blood Mage in the flesh before,” the dreadlocked girl whispered in my ear, making my jump slightly. I hadn’t even seen her approach, but of all the mages in attendance, she seemed like the only one willing to even speak to me. So I kind of liked her.

  “How come?” I whispered back, but my gaze stayed locked on the guys as Austin mixed a bottle of black ink into their blood and then used the little paint brush to highlight certain runes on the mosaic.

  “Because Jackson abandoned his duties hundreds of years ago. A lot of these mages hadn’t even been born then, so they had only ever met Yoshi. Even then, it would have been once only for their fealty oath and after that, only if they had a specific reason to meet with him. This is a really big deal.” Her words were thick with undisguised awe as she watched whatever the twins were doing in preparation for their ritual.

  “And you?” I asked, turning slightly to look at her with curiosity. She was young, or at least seemed young. But so had Yoshi.

  She smiled mischievously at me. “You don’t become Keeper of the Inner Sanctum overnight, hon. I’m older than you think.”

  Smiling back at her, I nodded in acknowledgement, then turned my attention back to the twins. Austin had finished highlighting his chosen runes with the bloody ink mix, and they were both now speaking some words in their language.

  “So what happens now?” I asked the informative mage, unable to curb my curiosity any longer.

  “Now each and every mage in attendance needs to step into the circle, speak their oath, and then be anointed with the blood ink. It forges an unbreakable bond between the Mages and their subjects.” She spoke with reverence, and I understood this was a sacred ritual I was witnessing.

  “What sort of bond?” I pressed. “What does it do?”

  The girl—woman—wrinkled her nose. “I’m not totally sure, but from stories it is supposed to prevent anyone from lying to the Blood and Ink Mages. It’s how they’re able to settle disputes fairly within our community. When they can sense the truth of any situation, there can never be any unfair judgements.”

  “Makes sense.” I nodded, and we fell silent as mages began lining up to take their turns swearing fealty to my lovers.

  After some time, I needed to stifle a yawn, and my new friend snickered.

  “Yeah,” she laughed quietly. “It’s a long process. Be glad this is only family heads and not every mage in existence. Excuse me, I need to jump in for my turn.”

  I nodded to her, and she slipped back into the shadows only to reappear in the line of waiting mages. As she approached my boys, she threw me a wink and then sank to her knees before them in the rune circle.

  They repeated the same ritual with her. Words exchanged, a dot of blood ink pressed to her forehead, then a flare of light as the ink absorbed into her skin, and it was done.

  Returning to me, she was beaming with excitement and practically glowing. Actually... on closer inspection, she really was glowing a little bit.

  “That was incredible,” she breathed. “Totally, totally unlike Yoshi and Jackson’s power. There is something different about these Mages.” She narrowed her eyes at me in playful suspicion. “I think I have a fair idea what that might be too.”

  “Hmm?” I cocked my head at her in the picture of innocence. Neither twin had offered up any information about me this far, so I was keeping my mouth shut. As much as I liked this girl, I didn’t even know her name. Besides, I wasn’t really turning out to be the best judge of character when one looked at how my adoptive father was turning out.

  She smiled at me for a moment longer, then changed the subject. “Can I get you tea or coffee? This is going to probably take an hour or longer.”

  “Coffee would be amazing,” I gushed, suddenly realising I hadn’t had any since waking up from my daytime nap with Cole and River.

  “You got it,” she enthused. “I’m Emerald, by the way.”

  I grinned, glancing at her green hair. “Fitting.”

  Emerald snickered and left to get my coffee. I stifled another yawn and shifted in my seat again. If I’d known how tedious this ritual was, maybe I wouldn’t have insisted on coming.

  Nah, I still would have.

  It was some time later, when a solid three-quarters of the room was glowing with that same faint shimmer Emerald wore, that things got interesting.

  A large man with a silver-shot beard had reached the front of the line, but instead of stepping into the circle and kneeling as hundreds had before him, he just stood there with his arms folded over his chest.

  “Is there a problem, mage?” Austin snapped, and I could hear exhaustion in his voice. I wondered if that had been this guy’s intention. Wait until they’d used their magic on several hundred mages before stirring up shit? They were bound to be tired as hell by now, but if this guy thought it’d make them any weaker, then he was in for a shock.

  “Yeah, there’s a problem,” the guy snapped back, and a few mages behind him nodded their support. “It’s been seven hundred-odd years since new Blood and Ink Mages came into power. How the hell are we supposed to believe you are what you say you are? Or even if you are, that you’re anywhere near strong enough to lead us. From what I hear, you two were nothing more than human just a few weeks ago.”

  A range of gasps an
d murmurs rose from the gathered mages, and Austin’s jaw clenched.

  “If we weren’t your rightful leaders,” Caleb informed the man in a deathly quiet voice. “Then the fealty spell wouldn’t work.” The crowd nodded, and the general feeling was that they agreed with him. “As for your other concerns. Yes, we were human. But we’re not now, as you can plainly see.”

  Caleb’s back was to me, but I assumed his fangs were still on display. It had been a long time since he and Austin had bled into the bowl though, so it must be a conscious choice on his part.

  “So what?” the older man sneered. “You’re still probably watered-down at best. How can we be expected to swear fealty to you when you were raised human.” He spat the word human like it was a venereal disease or something. What a cocksucker.

  Around him, the same group of men cheered their support, and it became pretty clear that he had primed them for this. God forbid someone take a stand without a gang of supporters at their back.

  “No, I say we don’t need you two children in charge of us,” the man continued, puffing himself up more as he heard his supporters’ approval. “We need someone strong to lead us.”

  “Oh yeah?” Austin challenged in his menacing voice, “Like who? You, Necromancer?”

  My eyes widened, and I sucked in a sharp breath. This must have been the guy we’d been warned about. I carefully set my coffee cup beneath my chair, just in case I needed to intervene. Somehow. My magic was still on the fritz, so I had no idea, really, how I could be of any help, but just in case.

  The man smirked, full of confidence. “Yeah. Like me.” His arms unfolded from across his chest, and in his left hand he conjured a ball of glittering light. “Consider this an official challenge for your titles.”

  Around him, his cronies all conjured their own magics, and I knew from lessons with Austin what a punch they could pack when thrown at someone. Hell, if there was enough power and intent behind it, those balls of energy could kill.

  My guys weren’t putting up with that sort of shit, though. My fingernails gripped tight to the edges of my seat as I watched their familiars unravel from the ink on their forearms and materialize beside them both.

  A hush fell across the room as Tyson stretched his massive jaws in a growl and Sam reared up to flicker his tongue at the challenging mage. The two magical creatures glowed with power and were significantly larger than I’d ever seen them before.

  “You...” the man gasped, and I noticed several members of his backup let their magic fade as they melted back into the crowd. “You’ve got...” He trailed off again as he swallowed audibly.

  “Familiars,” Austin finished for him. “We do. But you didn’t come here today to chat, did you? Or have you changed your mind about challenging us?”

  The bearded mage flickered his gaze at both Tyson and Sam, then back to Austin and Caleb, then finally over his shoulder to see if he still had any supporters. He did, though not as many as he’d started out with.

  Stupid man that he was, took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes. He was clearly going to follow through because the only thing worse for a man like that was to look weak by backing down.

  Without any other indication of his next move, he launched his ball of power at Austin. Quickly, his supporters did the same, but they all evaporated before ever reaching the twins. Meanwhile, Tyson bounded forward, knocking the bearded mage clean on his ass and locking his massive jaws around his neck. Sam had darted between the other mages who’d participated, sinking his fangs into each and every one of them before returning to Caleb with blood dripping from his mouth.

  “Now, what were you saying?” Austin asked in a cool tone of voice as he stepped closer to the man and peered down on him. By this stage, I was out of my seat and standing at the edge of the dais so I could see. All right, I had also been ready to jump into the fray if things had gotten out of hand. Magic or not, I threw a mean right hook.

  “I’m pretty sure he was apologizing.” Caleb smirked.

  Austin had his back to me now, so I couldn’t see the expression on his face. The set of his shoulders, though... it suggested he burned with anger. Tyson growled low, and his teeth closed a fraction more on the man’s neck, spilling blood.

  “Austin,” I said quietly, clambering down off the dais and laying a hand on his arm. “Tell Tyson to back off. You’ve proved your point.”

  His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t take his gaze from the mage at his mercy. “Have I?”

  My gaze flicked to the would-be usurper’s friends, urging them to speak up. They all babbled their agreement, that yes the point had been proven. Each of them clutched tightly at their bleeding snake bites and all looked on the edge of panic.

  “Kit’s right,” Caleb said quietly, giving a barely noticeable shudder as Sam draped himself over Caleb’s shoulders. “Let him up. We win nothing by killing this asshole tonight.”

  He had a faint lisp on “asshole,” and I bit back a smile. Must be hard, talking with fangs. It was also kind of sexy... okay fine, it was really sexy, in a dirty vampire romance book kind of way.

  Austin said nothing for a long, tense moment before Tyson eased his jaws off at an unspoken command between them.

  “Get up,” Austin ordered the bleeding mage. “Kneel in the circle.”

  The beaten mage glared death at Austin but reluctantly did as he was told. What choice did he really have here? He’d made a bold move in challenging the new Mages, and he’d lost. His options were clear. Swear his fealty or die.

  A year ago, it would have seemed barbaric to me that a man I was sleeping with could so casually end someone’s life for daring to challenge him. But this was a new reality, and not one we could afford to trust anyone in. This guy had already shown his true colors, so if he didn’t take the oath, he couldn’t be left alive.

  “Speak the oath, mage,” Caleb ordered the man, and earned a death glare for his efforts. Some people just didn’t understand when their life was on the line. Then again, perhaps he did, as he slowly growled out the magical words and accepted the dot of blood ink to his forehead.

  One by one, the bitten mages did the same, many pausing before returning to their seats and glanced nervously at Sam and Caleb.

  “It won’t kill you,” Caleb answered their unspoken question. I didn’t blame them for wanting to know... If I’d just been bitten by a huge-ass magical viper, I’d be pretty damn worried myself. “It will just give you a nasty sting if you ever try to collude with this prick again.” Caleb jerked his head at the sulking mage.

  “Return to your seats,” Austin ordered them all. “And don’t forget that you’re on our radar now.”

  They filed off, and I gave Austin’s hand a quick squeeze before returning to my own seat. They still needed to finish the rest of the mages’ oaths before they could get down to why we really came here. Then again, I had a fairly good idea of who the necromancer involved might be.

  It didn’t take long for the guys to finish the remainder of the mages, and the room was considerably quieter during the oaths. Perhaps because Tyson and Sam stayed visible? Whatever it was, I was as tense as a damn violin string by the time Caleb and Austin returned to their seats on either side of me.

  “We have one last order of business to raise.” Caleb glared across the room at the mage who’d challenged them. The one Austin had called Necromancer. “We have reason to believe one of our own has become involved in matters that they’d be wise not to be involved in. The remains of six golems were found at the scene of an attempted kidnapping, and we have it on good authority that there was a revenant present too.” He paused for this information to sink in around the room.

  “Several groups are currently attempting to expose supernatural-kind to the human world,” Austin continued, taking over for his brother. “They are working to bring a war to our world, and we will not stand for it. Let us make this very clear. Mages are not to become involved. You are not to expose your magic to humans, and most of all...” He,
too, glared at the browbeaten necromancer. “Most of all, you are never to be found involved in Ban Dia business.”

  Gasps rose from the crowd, and someone was bold enough to speak up in a shocked voice. “But Ban Dia aren’t real! They’re... stories. Extinct.”

  “You’d do best to continue believing that,” Caleb responded sternly. “If we find any mages have defied these orders, the punishments will be swift and merciless. Is that clear?” Again, his gaze turned to the necromancer, whose face was so red with anger it was almost purple.

  As one, the whole room responded. “Understood, Your Graces.”

  The twins stared down on their subjects for a long moment, the chamber so quiet that you could have heard a pin drop, before rising from their seats.

  “Dismissed,” Austin barked.

  Caleb held a hand out to me, helping me to my feet as I rubbed feeling back into my numb ass and then followed them to the little antechamber where we’d arrived.

  “So, that was, um, interesting,” I offered once we were safely inside the room with the door closed behind us.

  “That was mind-numbing,” Austin snickered. “But now you’ve had a glimpse into Mage politics.”

  “And we found our little troublemaker pretty easily too,” Caleb commented, stripping his blood-red robe off and grabbing his shirt from where he’d left it earlier.

  “Uh yeah, shouldn’t we like... question him or something?” I asked, frowning. Surely he had important information for us.

  “We will,” Austin glanced at his twin, and something unspoken passed between them. “But not while he expects it. Sam nipped him too, while he was distracted by Tyson’s fangs in his neck.”

  “Okay,” I eyed up the huge diamond-backed viper, who flicked his tongue at me in a decidedly snakeish laugh. “How does that help?”

  “His venom acts as a tracker, this time,” Caleb explained, then paused to listen to what his familiar was saying inside his head. I could tell when Sam was talking because Caleb’s gaze would go a bit unfocused and his head tilted to the side.

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