The lights died, and shadows replaced the candescent glare. Anna threw her gaze to the window. Dusk.
She slid the aromatic candle closer, using the dim light to finish positioning the intricate glass forms. Its stout core had lessened over the hours she’d worked. Though she thought about snuffing out the gift after Dressen’s actions, she couldn’t bring herself to extinguish the comforting scent.
Cursed time. She draped her work station with a light cloth and threw on her jacket. With the bejeweled candleholder tight in her grip, she rushed out the door. The scent of licorice and vanilla trailed from the flame as she weaved her way through adjoining art studios and corridors.
As she emerged from Cantrell Artisan, she shivered in the spring air. Sulfuric odor from the industrial west side rode the breeze from across town and the fragrant fire flickered out. She cradled the holder between the large granite lion paws that sat beside the steps. It fit nicely. She sniggered at the sight.
Kyle Dressen’s artistic contribution to the Sphinx.
She stepped onto the sidewalk and looked around. Humor faded. Vapor loomed over the empty streets like phantoms gathering warmth from the asphalt. She briskly rubbed her sleeves. The slight warming did nothing to ease her insecurity. Street lights blinked on but offered little comfort as the newscaster’s announcement flooded her mind.
“After much deliberation, the new curfew has been set into place. Lord Kyle Dressen, Senior Grand Marshal of the courts, announced the bill’s passing, and urges all to adhere as strict measure will be taken to ensure vandalism of the east side is eradicated.”
What a ridiculous notion, the impoverished east side getting aid from the lawmakers.
Yet now, unease filled her. Her co-workers’ gossip on the matter didn’t help her anxiety. An apprehensive tone caught her voice as she repeated the warning aloud. “Curfew breakers will never be seen again.”
Her whisper sent mist through the chill. She wished she hadn’t spoken.
Anna hurried across the open court and then down an adjacent street. Awnings rustled in the wind. Neon signs, that once invited late-night commerce, hung dead behind barred windows. Her rushed steps echoed through the air.
She looked to the sky. A blanket of stars covered the firmament. She’d worked too late. Again. “Gods, I’m not going to make it.”
Her steps quickened, and she caught her breath as she approached the shortcut through the park. The wide corner entrance stood closed. The ancient stone griffin perched high on the gateway glared down at her. She shook the bars with disbelief and scanned the long gates that fortified the urban green. Fear clutched her stomach. “When do they ever lock Shilo Park?”
The voice whispered in her mind, clear as if spoken. She whipped around and studied the shadowed pavement. Beneath the dim light of a street lamp, dense smoke billowed, taking the form of three men. Her throat clenched.
“What. In. The. World!” She spun around and ran.
“There’s no use in running.”
Throwing her hands to her ears, she tried to block out the voice. An abandoned shuttle van propped halfway up the curb offered the only protection along the vacant street. She darted across the road to find refuge.
Her long hair netted over her face as she stumbled past street-side clutter. She swiped the strands away. Catching her balance, she raced along the storefronts and spotted a weak halo down an alley. An open door!
She rushed toward the promise of safety.
Puddles of discarded waste filled the dips in the pass, and the air reeked with a foul stench. Her frantic feet beat the pavement as she raced to every locked door. She gasped with each failed entry. “Come on. Just one open door.”
Steady footsteps followed.
A cry ripped her throat as she turned to the final promise of refuge. A small lamp flickered. Obscene graffiti sprawled the length of the wall that blocked her escape; a dim halo highlighted the neon paint.
She turned to the way she came and stared at the forms as they overtook the narrow alley. A man led center, his companions flanking. Each unified stride caused their capes to furl with like motion. The bleak lamp lit their approach—a dark trio. Reapers, all of them—black hair, black eyes, black cloaks.
Curfew breakers are never seen again. At that moment, she believed.
Her body trembled, and she backed into a corner for support. “This is a nightmare.” Her shallow voice quivered and sent denial through her. “This isn’t happening!”
The tomb-like closure briefly echoed her claim, but the measured steps resounded as they approached.
Anna held her breath as if to ward off the imminent danger. They stopped a few feet away and the leader stepped forward.
Endless time filled her as she gazed at their resolute faces. She swallowed hard to ward off the want of air.
The leader lifted his hand as if setting a butterfly free. A mist, the brilliance of snow crystalline, encircled her and lingered in the air.
Anna struggled to withhold a gasp.
“You have to breathe sometime.”
The voice sifted through her mind. Her lungs burned, begging for relief. Fear gripped her as she succumbed to need, and the tiny crystallites flowed past her lips.
The taste of divinity touched her senses and the promise of bliss sang in her mind. The overwhelming invitation was irresistible. A wave of serenity coated her emotions.
She met his gaze.
A small smile touched his coal eyes. It penetrated her soul. Opposition dissolved.
He inhaled the sparkling mist and leaned close. Cradling her face in his hands, he touched his lips to hers. They were warm and seductive, unexpectedly tender. The aroma of licorice and cream flowed through her. She accepted his attention, intoxicated by the offering. In a gentle motion, his tongue lovingly caressed hers. Eternity echoed in her heart.
With a breath, the magic spell filled her. Heat steamed her lungs and filtered throughout her body. Every wave carried with it memories: the last words of her father, the aged photo of her mother she clung to as a child.
Subjection engulfed her mind. All wonderment ceased under its capture. Rapture sealed her senses and final will vanished.
~ * ~
Anna weakened beneath Cole’s touch. Her mouth relaxed, face stilled. He rose from the tender moment, startled by his actions. They were entirely uncalled for, unexpected, yet he couldn’t deny the pleasure it brought.
She wavered with the effects of empty thought. This girl had indeed sought refuge from her life’s experiences. By her complete surrender, he had no doubt she’d wished for the chance to forget many times—a common occurrence among the homeless. He allowed the spell’s sparkling enchantment to fade. No further need for it with this one. This harvest was complete.
As she opened her eyes, he gazed deeply into them to offer hope and set the desire to take pride in her service. “Your life will find meaning.”
Her gaze wandered amongst them. James, his strong stature evident beneath his cloak, would intimidate many without the effects of the charm. Though distinction trimmed his features, she seemed to be taken by his dimpled cheeks and brushed her own.
Anna leaned her head to the side as she studied Vincent. Smaller in build, he still radiated strength. His deep onyx eyes held his defined brow low. Square jaw set, he looked as if vengeance ruled his core. His untamed locks fell in loose waves past his cheeks. A radiant glow encircled his clenched fists as they clutched his cape.
Cole watched as her gaze returned to him. His lips tightened together as his jaw tensed. She scanned his long hair as if to see how far it fell down his back.
When her gaze met his, he had to touch that angelic face. He raised his hand, but caught himself and straightened to his full height, squaring his shoulders.
What is that pull to touch? It was unsettling. He clasped the edge of his cloak and turned. Leading the way back down the alley, James and Vincent fell into step behind him. Anna gasped, then followed.
The litter from the empty street scurried from their path. Night birds sang from high on their perches, a melody odd in the darkness of the empty streets.
A vagabond sat beside the center fountain. Cole pulled Anna to him and wrapped an arm around her waist. He lifted his cloak with a furl and took on the Smoke of Night before the man could catch their approach.
Giggles and thrills flew through his senses as the young woman’s emotions reacted to the disembodiment. He smiled to himself. Most accompanied him with calm acceptance. This girl seemed to embrace the experience.
As they reached the wide steps to the Grand Marshal’s estate, Cole pulled at their elements to solidify. Anna held to him, her arms wrapped around his neck. Her warm breath puffed against his ear as he grabbed her waist, so she wouldn’t fall. Was she holding me the whole time?
He eased her down his chest until her toes touched the ground and arms left his shoulders. Running his palm down his shirt, he regained his dignity. She drew her hands to her bosom, innocence echoing from her heart, as he strode past the border hedge onto the grounds.
Luminescent globes peaked from beneath bulbous shrubs, lighting the footpath with a radiant glow. Cole looked at the frontage of the imposing mansion. Three stories of white brick stretched out on both sides of a montage of stained glass that arched around the receiving hall doors. He’d never appreciated the over-indulgence of this Grand Marshal, known for his eccentric views and tastes. He seemed more eager to flaunt his position than most.
As they neared the gaudy threshold, he reached ahead and knocked twice with a heavy drive. The left panel opened, and a lanky man peered out. His basset hound visage immediately woke at their presence.
“Good evening, sirs.” The servant quickly stepped back and opened the door wide. “I’ll fetch the sire.”
Anna’s gaze bore into Cole at the word. Heat flushed his cheeks, and he stepped inside before his brothers noticed.
A screen of sparkling crystals adorned the left wall, neighbored by onyx pillars. To the right, a rash of brass hair lines cascaded the pane between two doors like a million squirming worms looking to invade the upper rooms. Sculptures of oversized silver swans stood at each side of the wide staircases, reflecting the multitude of embedded lights in the domed ceiling. Black veins in the white marble floor continued up the divided staircases leading to the enormous stained-glass window at the center of the back wall.
The sire’s deep voice rang from the left-wing hallway. Cole straightened as he neared.
“Sir Cole. It’s good to see the three of you here.” His gaze gravitated to Anna and a wash of satisfaction covered his face. “The addition, I see.”
“As per your bid, she will comply completely. The harvest was a solid take.” He looked back at the lawmaker. “I see she pleases you.”
Dressen smiled and withdrew an envelope from his vest. “Oh, yes.”
Holding up his hand, Cole shook his head. “I believe the fee is double for this one. Your requirements were very specific. Far beyond that of a Grand Marshal’s standard order. So much so, a special spell was created to ensure satisfaction.”
The sire chuckled, and his smile tilted as he pocketed the payment. “Very well. I’ll have the funds delivered in the morn. The Wizards of Shilo Manor continue to exceed their reputation. You are true Reapers.”
The nickname wedged in Cole’s gut. It screamed mockery to their position as Sentinels in this realm. Noblemen had always known they could manipulate the elements purely by their nature and advanced heritage. Yet this generation insisted on labeling them as a demon child at play. Reapers. Wizards. It knotted his stomach.
Intent on making the visit as short as possible, Cole turned his attention to Anna. “Lord Dressen is now your keeper.”
Her regard shifted from him to the Grand Marshal and with it the adoration that had poured from her.
To Cole’s surprise, he regretted the release to Dressen’s care. Countless subjects had been harvested for service to the lords. The assignment of a keeper was an essential step. Why, then, would one more be any different? He reminded himself they had just completed another task, fully satisfying the order.
Dressen waved away the hound-faced servant and dismissed them himself. “Thank you, Sir Cole. It’s rare to find such dedication to quality. You have never failed to produce astounding results.” He grasped the door handle, and his gray eyes sparkled. “I must admit, I find your natures very compelling. Meridian must be an amazing dimension.”
Underlying meaning seeped through Cole, and he straightened to temper a scowl. “Thank you, Lord Dressen. We’re pleased you find our work satisfactory.”
Dressen shook his head. “Silent on the matter as ever.” He chuckled. “Well, do watch for an invitation to my forthcoming celebration. I would be honored to have you present.”
“Of course.” Cole turned and crossed the egress to avoid further remark. As the door closed behind them, Vincent’s chiseled features contorted into rage.
Cole furled his cloak and took on the Smoke of Night before a confrontation could erupt. The last thing he needed was the runt’s temperamental tantrums.
Vincent billowed like the crest of a storm as they flew over the dark city. His brothers’ emotions melded to his; James’ concern and confusion, and Vincent’s pure fury. Small jets of lightning darted through their mass, and Cole knew it was directed solely on him.