Malice dropped her energy web completely and moved to face the owner of the deep timbered voice. Irritated, she found three males standing behind her, but it was obvious which one had spoken. It was also obvious that all three were demons.
All were dressed in long black caftans that came to their ankles, rimmed at the front with ornate gold runes. Black pants were beneath the garb and bare feet beyond that.
One was a water demon, with nictitating membranes over jet-black eyes. His hair reminded her of green sea kelp, while his flesh was a pale peach tinged with blue, and the softest impression of scales. His stoic expression gave nothing away.
There was a tall, broad beast of a demon with horns and facial features that resembled a bull’s. Arms crossed about his massive chest, his tail bulky and ending in a heavy-looking club was too still upon the ground. He too bore a rather obedient look.
The one in the middle, with a smile upon his face, stood out significantly.
He was slightly taller than the other two with three golden hoops through his left ear and a small one through the upper shell of his right. He appeared to be human, but a downward glance revealed the dart-shaped tip of a tail peeking from beneath the hem of his robe.
His features were stunning: a sharp, definitive nose with wide nostrils, like a panther’s, above sumptuously full lips. Then there were his eyes: light blue orbs that looked practically unholy against such dark flesh. That they were absolutely stunning, the shade of a winter sky, captured her attention wholly. She had seen such eyes once before.
She snapped out of her trance, reminding herself that theirs was not a welcome visit. “Who are you? How the hell did you break my wards and get into my house?”
The dark one with the gorgeous blues cocked his head and smiled at her as if they were the best of friends. “Forgive me, Malice, for my intrusion. I suppose that I could have picked a more suitable time, but opportunity presented itself, and I could not refrain. My name is Naeem, by the way.”
He had the kind of voice that sounded like it was made for song. Finding it difficult to remember all that he said, she sought only an answer to her question. “How did you break my wards, Naeem?”
“Your wards were not weak, sorceress, but they were quite paltry to me. Warding is certainly not your strongest point. But do not worry. They will keep out the rabble, and if they don’t, I’m certain there is little you can’t
It was partially true, but not what she wanted to hear. That Naeem seemed to know so much about her was also disturbing. He and his friends had intruded in her home, and while Alistair seemed to be the cause, Malice couldn’t help but wonder if more was behind Naeem’s visit. “What business do you have here?”
“I’m here to apprehend your vampire for questioning, and since you have him all trussed up and ready to go, I will take him as he is.” He stepped forward along with his entourage, as casually as if he were coming to accept a gift.
She moved to Alistair and raised her arms defensively. “Stay back! My home is sanctuary to all who enter. I won’t have you hunting on my grounds. Whatever it is that he has done, you can settle it elsewhere.”
“That’s a really good idea.” He paused, cocked his head to the side as if in contemplation; then he shrugged. “I shall take him out of here.” With a snap of his fingers and a shrill popping sound, the two demons accompanying him disappeared.
She turned to find Alistair gone as well. Her precious designs were piled upon the floor, nothing more than rope. She glared back at Naeem, hot with fury. If it was known that her defenses could be broken so easily, that she could be bullied, business would definitely suffer. Her confidence was already shaken. “Who the hell are you?”
Nonplussed, Naeem simply replied, “I told you my name already.”
“You know what I mean, demon, demonkin...whatever you are!”
Naeem merely shrugged. “I am a full blood, not half, but then why can’t I just be a potential client?”
Her body tense and ready to unleash hell upon her intruder, the last thing she had expected was a proposition. Her anger faltered with the obstacle. “What? Excuse me?”
Naeem walked over to the place where Alistair had been bound so beautifully. He looked at the pile of rope upon the floor, then at her. With a grin that suggested wickedness, he replied, “You are not deaf, demonkin. I said--”
“I heard what you said,” Malice snapped back, furious he could easily decipher what only a handful knew.
“So. You could tie me
up. It seems like such a...relaxing exercise, and with the month I’ve had, I could use it. I may not be as effeminate a subject as Alistair, but I’m sure you know what to do for bigger males.”
“No,” she said, holding an expletive back. What she did was an art form. Despite the carnal enjoyment she received, the true pleasure was the ritual. She got to know her clients before their sessions, and after, selected their level of binding to suit their nature and tolerance. Yet the arrogant male before her sounded as if he were mocking her profession. “You disrespect the sanctity of my home and yet expect me to take you on? You must be insane. Alistair, whatever it was that he did, at least he
respected the rules I set. And you want to relax,” she scoffed. “Well, I can’t help you.”
Naeem unfurled his arms, held up a claw-tipped hand, one forefinger directed at her. “Wait a sec. I know that you derive as much pleasure from binding as your subjects do from being bound. You were in the midst of performing, and I interrupted that, but let me assure you I would make a better subject in your hold.”
She considered it several times, yet came back to a negation at every option. An unmeasured element such as he was could not be taken on lightly. And while he did look every bit a magnificent subject, Malice was not about to risk her safety on a desire to see dark skin bound by white rope. “You should go,” she warned.
Naeem moved toward the pile of rope and shifted it with his toe. He looked up, his beautifully bizarre blue eyes pressing upon her. “You don’t want me to go. You need the challenge. You crave it. Your boredom has weakened you enough already, and we won’t even discuss your repression.”
Her psyche refused to even contemplate the meaning of his words as anger rushed into her cheeks and down to her chest. How dare he make such a comment? He didn’t know a damn thing about her, and if he did, his tact was without empathy.
Boredom? She denied the possibility as she raised her hands to him. Dark crimson flames appeared instantly from her fingertips to her forearms, but it wasn’t fire. It was the energy she commanded. Raising both arms, she directed it out to Naeem. She would show him that she was by no means weak.
Red jets of light shot forth to form a spinning cage around Naeem’s body. Sizzling, throwing off sparks, the binding wave was one of her strongest. It was one that she'd used to cage and hold demons far more imposing than he. “You will get out of my house now, or I will show you how my binds really work. How they’re meant
The sorcerer examined his prison but didn’t try to test it. Within the cage, he did not cower, just stood straight, shoulders back and unafraid. “You would turn down my
business but accept money from a vampire who can barely adhere to the blood whisper laws of his kind?”
She stiffened at the accusation. It belonged to the same class of information she didn’t need any more. No longer a judge and a pursuer of justice, Malice didn’t inquire about her clients’ backgrounds. She didn’t demand to know their vices. What she did--what she thought she was doing--was inquiring about their need to be bound. Chaos, the need for destruction and harm was what she thought she had been curing, but to hear Naeem, her medicine was suspect.
“And if that doesn’t faze you, I could mention that he has a special love of drinking demon blood.”
“What?” The idea that Alistair was powerful or bold enough to attempt such a feat was absurd. “Exactly how does he get it? Begging?”
“If that were the case, he would not have drawn our attention. No. He works with a broker, Karno, a demon I currently have in custody. They have quite the deal going, those two. Karno hunts and dismantles and drains. Alistair is the salesman, and his confession is all that is needed before Karno can be...punished.”
“Punished?” Unable to contain her laughter, she considered the demon that was flirting with punishment before her. Either he was pulling her chain or the state of things in the nether realms had changed a great deal. “So you’re what? A member of an Order? An Order of demons? They have those in the nethers now?”
There was no humor upon his features. In fact he seemed slightly taken aback by her laughter. “Well, actually, we maintain a base on Earth, like the other Orders do, Earth being a neutral plane. What? You find it humorous?”
“Actually, I do,” she confessed. Keeping a keen eye on her prisoner, Malice knelt and retrieved her rope. She gathered the length and began to coil it around her left forearm. “Guess a lot has been going on in the planes since I’ve been away. The other Orders, they tolerate you?”
“Just barely. With enough evidence, Azure will hear our cases and log them. In the beginning, they found the idea of an Order of demons policing our own as humorous as you do, but now some even enlist our help. Crimson, Ombre, and Rose despise us outright, but as the humans say, ‘Rome was not built in a day.’”
At the mention of the judiciary Order of Azure, Malice’s mirth was halted, but with his additional comment about the three elite, known xenophobic Orders, she doubted him less and less. “Right.”
“We all have our ways of doing charity. I seek to monitor our kind with more knowledgeable and unbiased means and you, well you...” He sighed, eyes roving about in consideration of his cage. “You bind.”
She didn’t like the tone of his voice, even less the arrogance behind it. “Yes, I do. Sorry if my way of therapy disturbs you, but it is my
way of trying to prevent the use of reckless energy and rage from getting some in trouble.”
“And I do see the logic in it. Once drawn and exhausted, one does not immediately feel the need to run rampant eating humans, terrorizing sorcerers, or focusing on anything other than themselves. A good tension reliever is what it is. Perhaps not the best use of talent such as yours, but--”
Again with the condescension
. “You know nothing of my talent, demon,” she snapped, catching herself before she threw her ropes to the ground in irritation. “Nothing. I don’t give a damn who you are. Know this. There is no hunting here, and you are not welcome.”
Naeem lowered his head, looking saddened by her refusal. After a moment, his eyes only lifted to face hers, and he muttered, “I did not expect you to be so cold or so lost. You are so much more talented than this.”
Malice couldn’t bear to hear another word, clutching the rope she sincerely wanted to throw at the demon. Truth or no, a stranger had no right to speak to her in such a way. Storming up to the demon’s prison, she growled at him. “Excuse me, but who in the thirteen hells are you to judge me? You come into my home, stole my patron, propositioned me, and now you demean me?” She raised a hand and immediately Naeem’s cage glowed bright, hissed ominously. “Since you are so determined, I could show you exactly how talented I am.”
He didn’t look frightened in the least; instead he looked as if he found the notion funny. “You would destroy me? Now? You saved me once and now you would end me, just as your companions wished.” Naeem lowered his head, grinned almost sheepishly. “I was much younger when you saved me. I was merely a boy. You rescued me twice, once from the demon who would have broken me and suckled the marrow from my bones and once from your partners who would have destroyed me simply for being what I was.”
This time Malice did drop the rope, nearly fainted herself as recognition crashed over her.
“Come on. I’ll protect you
It had been over thirty years ago and surely the demon who stood before her was no mewling babe. Not long after rescuing him did she find him a home. Although he might have been darling as a boy, Malice knew nothing of caring for children, demon or otherwise.
He was different to be sure. Instead of crimson skin, Naeem’s was of the darkest brown, an indication of maturity, she surmised, which only made his blue eyes stand out all the more. His height, the definition of adult features, were certainly nothing she would have recognized from the cherub-faced boy he had been. Then there were the advancements: height, the breadth of his chest, and bearing...Yet, she knew it was him. “Y-you?”
“Yes, me.” Naeem stepped up to the parameter of the fiery cage and walked through her prison as if he was walking through a waterfall. Whereas anyone, hell, anything
else would have been screaming in agony, he was untouched and unfazed.
Malice was floored as she watched something she hadn’t seen since she was younger, less adept: someone who could break through her bind as easily as discarding lint from a jacket. Weak from the shock, she called the energy back into her body and dissolved the cage fully.
She took a long look, from the bottoms of his feet to the top of his head, only to end back up at those ethereal eyes. He made a stunning form of an adult, a very powerful one, Malice had to admit. “Well...you look--you’ve done well,” she stammered. Unsure of exactly what to say, she found it hard to reconcile the child with the man. “I guess...”
He beamed agreeably. “I have. The matron Anis’thet, with whom you left me, took extremely good care of me. I would always ask about you, about whether you would come to visit but well, she assured me you weren’t the sentimental kind. And”--he sighed with a shrug--“you’re not, really.”
She had been free of any true scrutiny for a long time, and hearing him speak so bluntly, she chafed under his words. In the midst of her dungeon was certainly not the best place for a reunion. Malice searched for a retort. The only word her lips could form, however, was No
, and it was more of a nervous exhalation at that.
“You should know that you inspired me, your actions.”
Malice closed her eyes against the guilt that simply glancing at Naeem caused to swell. She refused to dwell on how the past years had been spent, on whether her choices had been the right ones or the most selfish. “That’s good. Really, I’m glad you turned out all right. Better than all right. Our kind needs unbiased monitoring.”
“Are you so glad that you’re willing to take me on? I would love your attention.”
Her eyes snapped open, more out of surprise than offense at the proposition. More than before, her conscience would not allow her to even contemplate binding Naeem, to see him naked and wanting. He would have made a beautiful client, but his connection to her was still too personal to ignore.
It had been too personal the day she’d saved his life and taken a stand for those who shared half her bloodline. Already mortified by his revelation, she couldn’t bear to think of the little boy, one of the most innocent beings she had ever known, as anything but. Yet still her blood grew hotter at the thought of seeing just how much he had grown.
She shook her head free of naughty thoughts, stammering, “Look, Naeem. There are plenty who could bind you...I don’t know about me...but I could refer you to--”
“Malice.” His tone a reprimand almost, Naeem looked at her sternly. “You were a master of binding, one of the most
And yet you just walked through one of my nets as if it were mist.
“You have bound creatures that would devour this world and several others,” he continued. “In the Order, your power at binding was unsurpassed. Outside of our prior history, I would ask it of none other. We are not blood kin, and I am no innocent to things carnal. You may think I ridicule you for your”--he paused--“your hobby, but my eyes do not overlook the obvious flares you use to embellish the binding, the care you take in presentation and execution. So again I ask you. Will you take me on as a client?”
No. No. Maybe... But hell no.
The verse repeated like a song in her head. “I’m sorry, but no. I can’t, Naeem.”
He shook his head, frowning at the rejection. His lips moved as he muttered low to himself, perhaps a curse or two.
She got the notion he didn’t get turned down often. For a moment she wondered if his true colors would be revealed, if he would fume and throw fury at her instead of propositions. Instead, he gave her a weak smile.
“If you are so afraid to play, I understand. Really, I do.” His voice rang with sarcasm, but it did not cross over into his manner. “You gave me my life and wound me in your hold once. I suppose I should be thankful for the memory and end it there.”
She rolled her eyes. To think that he had even recalled the blanket of energy she had bound him in as a child was too much. If she could make herself believe he wanted her services solely to relive a childhood experience, she might have considered it, but no, she was afraid he wanted more, partly because of her own curiosity for it. And then there was the matter of him just walking free of one of her stronger restraints. Power like that was enticing but dangerous.
He gave a reverent nod to her, deep and gentlemanlike. “I understand, but note that you should still practice and hone your craft, just to stay on the safe side. I have placed my card upstairs on your kitchen counter. Give me a call should you overcome your fears.”
“Yes. You are this,” he said, waving a hand to gesture about her workroom, “and so much more. I am interested in both, when you are.” And with that he simply vanished as if he had never been there.
She knew otherwise. Although not physically present, the demon’s words weighed upon her shoulders, a mantle she could not shake, as already she felt the need to call him back.