Intimacy wasn’t having someone’s cock buried inside of you. That was pleasant; it was a lullaby and an escape and something that made the world go round. Intimacy was much more painful. It involved talking and feelings and all of those things better left unsaid.
So, when anyone seemed to pick up on the fact that I spent more nights in the club than at home, that I’d fucked more men in the last year than most witches did in a century, that was the line I used to sound like less of a whore. Regardless, it came out sounding fucked up and like I needed more than my self-help: a joint and a hot piece of ass. And of course there was always some sad sack of shit that heard me spouting my philosophy and suddenly had this notion that because I’d fucked them they could tame me, bandage me up, and make me all whole and healed.
That’d never worked out particularly well.
Enough of my life had been spent in shackles, trying to be tamed, and then being spat on and beaten and a whole host of other shit when they found out that I was untameable.
But, the more time that dragged on, the more I learned, the better I became at defending myself at assholes like them. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a friend, the most consistency I had in my life were the people at my office, but they weren’t a threat. Hell, they barely even knew me. It was for the best, though. When anyone got close, things never went well for me. I’d finally reached the point in my life where I just couldn’t be bothered to give a flying fuck about anyone else. If I wasn’t safe or happy, then what was the fucking point? I did my time. It only made sense that I finally got to have a little freedom.
And that was the very reasoning that led me to my fifth night in the club that week, grinding against some guy with olive skin in tight leather pants and covered enough body glitter to put a craft store to shame. At this point, it was more of a sleep routine than anything else. While I’d mustered up the energy to change clothes, my skin was sticky and my jeans were clinging to me uncomfortably, no doubt because of the leftover phantom residue from the evening’s ghost hunt. All I wanted was a quick blow job, then to retreat back home, smoke a blunt, and pass the fuck out.
The guy wound his hands around to my front, groping me. I hummed, bucking my hips forward, urging him on. I wasn’t really into it, but I needed a release, and my hand just wasn’t going to cut it. It was just so much work, getting dressed, looking half-decent, finding someone I could actually get it up for, seducing them, going through the whole spiel of what we were doing, where we were doing it, what each of us did and didn’t like.
It went against my rule for not getting attached to anyone, but I found myself suddenly wishing Leo were there. Leo knew what I liked. He didn’t ask questions anymore when I teleported us back to my place, fucked him, and then sent him on his way. He was a little more sunshine and roses than I was, but he was still up for jumping in bed for nothing more than a couple hours of amusement.
We’d been bumping into one another for months. Each time, it began with a couple drinks, some small talk, and then we’d head back to my place. It was easy with him. I didn’t have to try, and yet, he was still the best I’d had. We knew nothing about one another aside from first names and sexual preferences, and yet, he was probably the only person that I’d made any sort of continuous connection to in my personal life.
Biting my lip and closing my eyes, I broke another rule and imagined Leo behind me, running his hands down my sides, slipping them into my jeans… Yeah, I had to get this over with. If Sweaty McGlitterass grabbed my crotch like a starving guy going for food one more time, I’d deck him. I turned, planning to coax him into the bathroom for a quick blowjob, but when I turned a set of dark brown eyes met mine across the room.
As if my thoughts had summoned him, Leo sat at the bar, drink in hand, watching me with a brow cocked and his lips quirked up in a playful smile. Had I not been exhausted and frustrated, I might have ignored him and finished off with McGlitterass, just to get the point across—mostly to myself—but I was exhausted and frustrated and wanted a release without having to go through the whole nine-yards that it typically entailed.
So, I leaned up to McGlitterass, and said, “Thanks for the dance.” Without another word or glance back, I cut across the dancefloor, straight to the bar, taking the empty stool next to Leo. As soon as my ass hit the seat, the bartender plunked a couple shots of vodka in front of me.
“Are you here every night?” Leo asked, watching as I downed the first shot.
I smirked. “Only the nights you are, darling.”
Leo rolled his eyes, the neon lights glistening beautifully on his umber skin. “Long day at the office?”
“We’re gonna have to fuck in the bath, if that tells you anything.” I took the second shot, hissing as I set the glass back on the bar. “You usually aren’t here on Wednesdays. What’s the occasion?”
“Sometimes you just get the craving for shower sex with an incredibly attractive man in the middle of the week,” Leo said.
“Well, I’m happy to oblige.”
“You wanna get out of here?”
Downing the last shot, I stood up and grinned. “Hell yeah. I’ve been trying to get out of here for half an hour now.” I offered my hand out to Leo.
He took it, and the club vanished before my eyes, being replaced by my living room as we teleported to my apartment. As soon as we were in there, I had him pulled against me, my lips pressed to his, kissing him deeply. Leo hummed and ran his hands up my arms and down my chest, going straight for my belt. As he unfastened it, I broke the kiss.
“Bathroom,” I murmured, nodding toward the hall. I slipped out of my shoes, and Leo followed suit, then trailed me as I headed into the bathroom. Waving a hand, I started the water, and then turned to face Leo, watching as he stripped himself bare.
He was tall—as tall as I was, standing at about six-one. Dark umber skin wrapped tightly over hard muscles, purple and gold geometric tattoos ran the length of his arms and chest, while more cascaded down his strong thighs. His long dreadlocks were pulled back into a loose ponytail, and his dark eyes were roaming over my body, staring at me like I was water in the desert, and he was the sad soul who’d been stranded out there.
I shimmied out of my leather jacket, then pulled off my t-shirt, tossing them into the hamper next to us. Peering up at Leo, I slowly slid my hands down my chest, down my stomach, slowly running my fingers along the waistband of my jeans. Unbuttoning my jeans, I slipped a hand inside of them, brushing my hand over my half-hard cock, biting my lower lip. Almost as if on command, Leo came straight over to me, knelt down, and unzipped my pants with his teeth. He pulled them down a fraction, exposing my underwear. He mouthed at my cock through the cotton, making me grit my teeth, sucking in a sharp breath.
Sitting up, Leo planted wet, sloppy kisses along my hips and ran his hands up the back of my thighs, up to my ass. He slipped a few fingers under the waistband of my briefs and tugged them down to my ankles, along with my jeans. As he rose back up, he nipped at my hip bone, making me hiss as he stood back up, smiling serenely, lust illuminating his eyes.
“Tub’s full,” he said, nodding toward the tub.
“Oh yeah,” I said, grinning as I turned to stick my hand in it, ensuring the water was warm. “You’re in first.”
Leo crawled in without protest or any questions, sitting with his back pressed against the backside of the tub. I slipped in next, facing him, a knee on either side of his hips. Running his hands up my sides, he rested them along my neck, pulling me down to his lips. I parted his lips immediately, diving straight into the symphony of lips, teeth, and tongue meshing together, lightly rubbing myself against him as he gently tugged the short, silver hair at the nape of my neck.
One of his hands ran down my chest, past my cock, and wound around to my ass. Leo slipped a finger inside of me. He broke the kiss. “Lube?”
I snapped my fingers, kissing down the side of his throat as a bottle of lube materialized on the side of the tub. While Leo coated his fingers, I worked at the sensitive patch of skin just under his chin, my cock hardening at each of the little whimpers that escaped from his mouth. I grunted, squeezing my eyes shut and adjusting to Leo as he slipped a couple of lube-slicked fingers into me. He didn’t waste any time teasing me, cutting straight to the chase and pumping in and out of me, stretching me as he went about it.
Yes, Leo was well accustomed to fucking for fucking’s sake, as well as not dawdling as he went about it. Quick, dirty, and enough to set me off the edge. Some of the other guys I’d brought back had the fucked up notion that what we were about to do needed to be slow or sensual. That we were making love and embarking on some spectacular journey, when in all reality I just wanted to scratch an itch and relax. Leo understood that, and I appreciated it.
He had a vibe about him, though, something that made me think he typically didn’t partake in that sort of fucking. I could’ve been wrong, but he just seemed too pink and romantic, like he was repressing something. But, as long as he didn’t pull any of that shit on me, I couldn’t really say that I gave a damn if he was actually like that. I had no intention of ever getting to know him beyond what made him moan, let alone a last name, what his favorite flower was, or what he’d do during the perfect date.
I rolled my eyes at myself. As good as Leo had been over the last few months, I needed to start putting a little distance there. I’d already broken two rules because of him, that was as far as I was willing to bend. Anymore and I would run the risk of getting close, of getting myself fucked over, and I’d had enough of that.
Hissing, I pulled back from Leo as he slid his cock into me. I’d been so deep in my thoughts I hadn’t even noticed he’d stopped fingering me.
“Yeah, keep going,” I said, gritting my teeth as I adjusted, kissing his lips.
On command, Leo kept going, thrusting shallowly, but hitting my prostate on each stroke. The pleasure began to override the pain and bleed into it, becoming a hot symphony of lust and need to release. Rolling my hips in time with his thrusts, I hummed as Leo stroked my cock with one hand and grabbed my waist tightly with the other. His lips were all over my chest and neck, nipping at me and planting wet kissing everywhere he could.
Fucking hell, it was nice.
The pressure of his hand on my cock, each thrust sending electricity up my spine, making my knees shake, I was close. “Fuck, I’m gonna—”
Leo pounded into me, the hand that was on my cock dropping to my other hip, holding me down against him as he drove himself into me hard and fast.
“Fuck yes,” I groaned, tipping my head back. I moaned, long and low as the tension seeped out of my shoulders, my release washing over me, uncoiling me and relaxing me like eight hours of sleep never could.
A second later, I felt Leo follow up, cumming inside of me. I dropped myself against him a few more times, wrenching the last bit of euphoria out of him before I adjusted, letting him slip out of me.
“You want to go again tonight?” Leo asked, head leaned back against the edge of the tub. His eyes were half-lidded, lips parted, cheeks flushed, looking disheveled and wrecked and even more gorgeous. Gods, why did I have to get too close to the hot one?
I hummed, backing off of him, settling against the other end of the tub. “Better not,” I said at last, feeling the heaviness behind my eyes. “It’s a Wednesday, after all.”
“You don’t strike me as the type to abide by weekday restrictions,” Leo said, lifting a brow.
He wasn’t wrong… which was just another sign that it was time to sever this shit. “Well, it’s not a rule, but for tonight, one round is best.”
Leo nodded, smiling as he stood, climbing out of the tub. That was the other thing I appreciated—I didn’t have to kick him out. He’d leave. He never dawdled, never tried to cuddle, none of that bullshit. He knew better than to overstay his welcome.
I watched through tired eyes as Leo began getting his things together, gathering his clothes and shrugging them on. “Remember your shoes,” I said.
I waved a hand dismissively, watching as he pulled his jacket back on and turned to face me, still smiling serenely, fucked out and relaxed.
“See you around.”
Leo vanished from my bathroom. I heard his footsteps in my living room, no doubt retrieving his shoes. Moments later, my front door squealed as he opened it, and my magic surged. The barrier encasing my door doing its work, teleporting Leo home and wiping any memory he had of my home, what it looked like, or where it was located. While it was convenient, more than anything it was a way to protect myself from anyone coming back, from finding me again, especially if things had gone sour while they were in my home.
They still had full memory of me, of what we had done, so it wasn’t like I was deceiving them or anything. I just didn’t want them to be able to track me down.
I hauled myself out of the tub, pulling the stopper out and letting it drain. Grabbing a towel, I padded back into my bedroom, shivering. I changed quickly into sweatpants and a hoodie, then went over to my nightstand and grabbed the small, black container holding my weed. I rolled a small joint, just enough for a buzz that’d lull me to sleep.
I turned up the thermostat and piled up on the sofa, staring out the large bay window that overlooked the city as I lit the joint. As I took the first drag, the sharp scent of weed filling the room, a harsh ringing cut through the apartment. Groaning, I stood up, going back to the bedroom to grab my phone. There was only one person that’d call me at this time of night.
“Who’s dying?” I asked by way of greeting, propping an arm on my footboard.
“A group of kids at the park on 11th,” Barnabas Turner, the secretary of PhantomX, said. “They were fucking around with a ouija board and provoked one of the spirits. Some of the residents nearby phoned it in. They said it’s been going on for about half an hour now.”
I rolled my eyes. “Great, by the time I get there, at least one of them will be possessed. I thought Opie was on call tonight.”
“She is, but she’s in Ironto doing an exorcism on a house. Arin was on call last night, so you’re next on the list. Sorry, Rave.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll head out in a sec.” I cut the connection, sliding my phone into my pocket and scratched the back of my neck, suddenly feeling the heaviness in my eyes hit me ten times harder than it had the entire night.
If I were an optimist, I’d gleefully point out that at the very least, I wasn’t high. But, I wasn’t an optimist.
I snapped, my clothes swapping themselves out, my pajamas dissipating. In their place appeared a pair of black jeans, combat boots, and a matching sweater, finished off with a PhantomX jacket, equipped with armor pieces in the back and breast panels, as well as holsters for weapons lining the insides. As always, I carried a minimal amount of weapons—one handgun and two rounds of cursed ammo. Everything else had to be handled through magic alone, whether it be spells or outright use of powers. Phantoms, shadows, and ghosts didn’t tend to respond as well to bullets and blades as demons, witches, vampires, or any other host of organism roaming the realms. Perhaps that was why every Phantom Chaser I met was a walking magical reservoir, filled to the brim with it, and able to dish it out on a whim. Beings that were lower in how much magic they could expel could never be a chaser, not when they’d be down within a matter of minutes.
Flexing the fingers of my left hand, a set of black rings materialized on my fingers, all of them containing cursed thread—like wires—able to restrain phantoms. And just like that, in a matter of moments, I was suited up and ready to go Chasing when all I really wanted was to polish off the joint in the living room and get a couple hours of shut eye.
And thus began the longest week of my life.
Loud, metal music blared through the speakers in the ceiling, as the numbers on the screen before me kept slipping in and out of focus, leaving me frustrated and desperately trying to read and comprehend the information in front of me. Frowning, I blinked, inching closer to the screen, trying to read the string of numbers yet again. Usually, I’d just estimate the amount of each solution I needed, do a trial and error approach, but I’d gotten as close as I could to developing a solution to stop a possession while making it effective without incinerating my lab—although, I couldn’t say the same for my eyebrows.
Thank the gods for regenerative magic, or I would’ve looked like even more of a goddamn freak until they grew back.
Sighing, throwing in the towel on making any real sense of the numbers, I grabbed the vials. At least half an ounce more of Klafahnium could be added to make it more potent without blowing anything up… probably. Squinting, I tipped the vial, planning to mix the Klafahnium into the solution before doing the next batch of tests, but the second it hit the solution, a loud bang rattled my lab, knocking me on my ass as black smoke filled the small room.
Swearing, I turned over and crawled out of the room, slipping out of my lab, into the common area between the three labs in PhantomX. I shot out of the floor and slammed the door shut, leaning against it as I turned to find every employee there—Barnabas Turner, the secretary; Arin Wesley, a Chaser and exorcism researcher; Ophelia Greene, a Chaser and phantom species diversity expert—watching me.
“Fucking hell, Sterling, are you trying to tear down the goddamn building?” Arin demanded, crossing her arms over her chest, arching a brow at me as she smirked.
I coughed. “If that were my intention, we both know that we wouldn’t be standing here right now. I was working on your possession potion.”
“Yeah, possession potion, not a jumpstart to armageddon,” she said.
I rolled my eyes. “You’re just bitter because I’m being productive today, and I got a good case last night.”
“Productive my ass,” Barnabas snorted. “If you want to be so productive, you can come meet with the client I have in the front.”
“Oh no fuckin’ way. I had to go out on call last night, and—”
“Shut it, Raven. You need to wait for your lab to air out anyway, so you can take this while you wait, since you’re being productive today.”
“I’d think I’d rather go back in their and let my lungs rot.”
“Too bad, come on.” Barnabas turned to lead us back out to the lobby, when Ophelia caught my arm, licking her thumb, and wiping my cheek.
“Ew, what the fuck. Get off.” I wriggled away from her, wrinkling my nose.
“You have soot on your face,” she said, grabbing me again and rubbing the spot a little harder.
Gritting my teeth, I stayed put, letting her finish before I broke out of her grasp again.
“You’re welcome!” she called after me as I followed Barnabas out of the common area.
“He was right behind me, I—”
“Gods, keep your pants on, Barney. I’m right here.” I slid around the corner, propping my elbow on the desk, my jaw almost smacking into the floor when I saw the client on the other side of the desk.
What in the actual fucking hell was he doing there, in my office, wearing a goddamn military uniform?
My stomach twisted immediately, and I clenched my teeth, pulling myself together, desperately trying to calm myself down enough to not stand there, frozen and confused.
“Commander McKinley, this is Raven Sterling. He will be the one you can speak to about—”
“Yeah, Barnes, I really don’t want this one,” I said, fighting to keep a smirk off my lips as I stared right at Leo now.
He arched a brow at me, not quite succeeding in keeping a straight face as his lips turned just a fraction upward.
“Fuck’s sake,” Barney muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. “That’s a little rude, don’t you think, Rave?” he said louder that time, fixing a hateful-ass glare onto me.
I shrugged. “It’s the truth. I think I’d rather doing anything else than taking this consult.”
Before Barnabas could even open his mouth, Leo had jumped right in, rising to the challenge. “Oh? What in the world would you rather be doing right now other than servicing me?”
“You ever heard of the club down on 6th, Blanked?”
Barnabas elbowed me in the ribs. “Do you know this guy?”
“Never seen him before in my life.”
He looked back to Leo, only to be met with the same response. Whatever sick dance we were doing, it was disgustingly apparent how in-tune we were with one another. Either he was better at banter than I’d originally given him credit for, or my fears were confirmed and I had to stop associating with Leo immediately.
Depending on how this consult went, though, that might not be possible.
“Why don’t you step in my office, Commander, and I’ll see how I can service you today.” I spun on my heel and led Leo across the lobby, over to another hallway, adjacent to that of the labs. It was where all of our offices were located, as well as a lounge room dedicated for napping and laziness. I held the door for Leo, gesturing to the chair in front of my desk for him to take a seat.
When I shut the door, I noticed not only Barnabas was glaring into the room, but Ophelia and Arin were huddled around him, also glaring into the room. I scowled at them and closed the door, turning to Leo as I folded my arms over my chest.
“So, is this merely a coincidence, or are my end of the evening spells not working like they used to?” I asked.
Leo propped an elbow on the arm of the chair, settling his chin on his fist. “Coincidence,” he said. “Although, looking back on it, it almost seems obvious that you’re Raven Sterling.”
I walked around my desk, settling in the chair opposite him. “Well, all rumors have a little truth to them, don’t they?” Crossing my legs at the knee, I leaned back in the seat. “So, you’re military?”
“Yep. I’ve been in the Rhiner military for about 70 years now. It’s only been in the last decade or so that I’ve headed up Rhiner’s Special Species Taskforce. Usually we only deal with demons, once in a while we’ll get a phantom, but with the few Chasers in my unit, it’s usually no big deal.”
“And now it is, otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting there.” I sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose. The fact that he was military was already offputting, but knowing he was Rhiner military? That made it so much worse. “I’m going to be upfront with you before we get started. I don’t work with the Rhiner military. I don’t like the way they operate, what they stand for, the power structure, none of it. So, I’m going to listen to what your unit needs, and from that, I’ll match you up with either Arin or Ophelia.” Not only would that ensure I would be kept as far a-fucking-way from the Rhiner military as possible, but it would also start putting some distance between Leo and I.
Leo nodded, a frown forming on his face. “I’m not sure how well that’s going to work considering our problem centers in your expertise area.”
I sighed, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. The universe was fucking with me. And probably laughing as it did so. “Well, you just go ahead and talk, and we’ll see what it comes to.” If it came down to it, if I knew I would be better suited for the job and it was a lethal, absolutely-had-to-be-handled type of job then I would do it. Anything less and nothing, not all the money or hot men or weed in this universe, would be able to make me take that job.
“Fair enough. Lately, we’ve been getting reports of Shadow Amulets being found, usually by kids or pets. They’re always abandoned, and they’re always empty. After a little bit of digging, it looks like the Shadows that owned them have been destroyed.”
Well, that was one of the only three ways to get a Shadow Amulet, and it was probably the most practical. The other two involved either becoming a Shadow—which could only be achieved following death—or befriending a Shadow, which was a difficult feat.
“This happens from time to time, Chasers will kill them by accident, mistaking them for a demon or a Phantom, but my unit has found seven amulets in the last two weeks.”
And just like that, I was on that case. Shadows were what I devoted my research to. They were fascinating. They fed on misery and suffering, yet they were the kindest, gentlest creatures in existence. For millennia, they were misinterpreted as something malevolent, when in all reality, I believed them to be alleviators of pain. They could be pests, and I certainly wasn’t attempting to assert that they were all good, but they weren’t Phantoms or poltergeists. They sure as hell weren’t demons.
“There haven’t been any leads. No evidence is ever left. When people around the scene are investigated and questioned, none of them seem to have any connection with it. None of them even heard a struggle of any sort prior to the incidents. All of the amulets were found in relatively isolated areas, but each incident happened at a different time, in a different place. They’ve all happened within this portion of the realm, so it’s not like it’s spanning particularly far, but there’s something destroying Shadows here.”
“And the amulets are left? Do they still have residue in them when they’re collected?”
“All of the amulets are there, but each amulet has been drained of its power.”
“Someone is slaughtering Shadows to gain power. Is your unit still in possession of the amulets?”
Leo nodded. “We have everything. We’ve been trying to scrape them for evidence, attempt to get leads from them. This is the first time in a while we’ve been this in the dark.”
“If at all possible, I’d like to take a look at the amulets. Some of them will have slight variations depending upon the Shadow’s power type, power level, their age, anything that could give us clues as to what this fucking psychopath is trying to do.”
“So, you’re going to do it?”
Shrugging, I sighed, leaning forward and propping my elbows on my desk. “I’m a sucker for Shadows, what can I say?” Not to mention the fact that when it came to Shadows and fucking them over, I still had more than enough I needed to repent for. “I’ll take this case, but for the record, I don’t like this. I don’t like your bosses, I don’t like anything about your employers, but I’ll go along with this for now. I’ll have Barnabas draw up a contract and send it to you by the end of the day.”
“Thank you, Raven. I really appreciate having you on this, especially since you’re so well-versed in Shadow knowledge.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered, waving him off. “So, when can I get a look at the amulets?”
“Would you be able to stop by my office at Headquarters tomorrow?”
HQ? Rhiner military HQ? I’d rather papercut the webbing between each of my fingers and pour hand sanitizer on it. “Which part of HQ is your office at?”
“I’m in the Special Divisions building, first floor. The secretary will tell you where to go.”
Special Divisions building… That was on the complete opposite side of— “Okay. What time?”
“Around noon? I should be free during lunch.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Will I see you anywhere else between now and then?” Leo cocked a brow, gazing at me provocatively from across the desk.
I snorted. Gods, I wished. “I’m on call tonight. Seeing me covered in soot in my sweatpants is just going to have to be enough for you today, darling.”
“Damn. I was looking forward to seeing you all hot and bothered in the bath again.” He smirked, eyes running over me, knowing damn well what laid just underneath my t-shirt.
“Distance makes the heart grow fonder… or the cock harder.” I shrugged, grinning as I stood from my desk, heading back over to the door. I swung it open, noticing both Arin and Opie were still lingering in the lobby with Barnabas.
Leo sighed, standing from the chair, and stepping out of my office. “I’m gonna remember what this office looks like when I get to the sidewalk, right?”
I rolled my eyes, pulling my door shut. “Don’t give me ideas. See you tomorrow.”
“Bye, Raven.” And just like the night before, Leo—Commander McKinley—walked out of PhantomX, leaving me alone with the three hyenas at the front desk.
“You fucking know him,” Barnabas said, as soon as the door shut behind Leo. “I know you do, Sterling. Don’t lie.”
“He’s hot, too! Did you fuck him?” Arin asked.
“Shut the fuck up and let the guy speak.” Ophelia folded her arms over her chest, waving at me to answer the questions and explain myself.
I cocked a brow, leaning back against the doorframe of my office. “He’s an acquaintance,” I said. “I didn’t even know the guy was in the military.”
“But did you fuck him?” Arin repeated.
“If I say no, will you believe me?” I didn’t wait for an answer, knowing damn well that they wouldn’t. Despite my lack of providing any personal information about myself, it was amazing how on the mark they could all be. Sometimes, it was a bit frightening.
I headed back into my lab, the door opening to clean air and soot-covered countertops. This case with the Shadows was more important than my feelings regarding the Rhiner military, I knew that, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was about to go horribly wrong, that he would know I was around, that he would find me again…
And then there was my predicament with Leo. As soon as I started making the decision to cut him out, it was like the universe had stitched him to me, ensuring I couldn’t move too far away from him. Even if I stopped sleeping with the guy, being in such close proximity to him for the case probably wouldn’t help with the closeness issue, especially since I’d already hit the fantasizing stage. One way or another, I was going to have to find a way to make Leo less enticing in my mind, or at the very least, find something to latch onto about him that wouldn’t allow me to have any desire to get attached to him.
After everything, I wouldn’t have thought I’d have any desire to attach left in me, but no one ever said I was the brightest bulb in the box. When everyone always either deserted or destroyed you, what was the point in ever giving a shit about them in the first place?
"Are you going to help us or not?” Dane glared at me from across to room, freezing me to the spot with his steely silver eyes.
“Not if you’re doing this.” My voice quivered, the fear obvious despite how hard I fought to keep myself calm, to make my position sound strong. “This is wrong, Dane.”
He sighed, frowning at me as he stepped forward. If he hadn’t paralyzed me, I would’ve already ran out the door. I didn’t want that bastard anywhere near me. “Just think about it, Raven. We could have everything we’ve ever wanted. All I need is you to help me. This realm, this world, could be ours. You could hurt everyone that’s hurt you, you wouldn’t have to fight anymore. Do this for us.”
“You’ve poisoned me, you’ve attacked me, I don’t want a goddamn thing to do with you anymore. Let me go, or I swear to every god in existence I’ll blow this place sky high.”
“You’re crying,” Dane pointed out, his lips quirking up in a barely contained smile.
“Shut up,” I spat, gritting my teeth. I hadn’t even noticed the tears had spilled down my cheeks until he said something.
“Why should I?” Dane moved even closer, now walking with intent, coming straight toward me.
Everything in my body tried to haul me back, get me through the door, get me away from him, but I was rooted to the spot. At one point, I’d loved that he could paralyze me. I loved the thought that he could take control, do whatever he wanted to me, because I had trusted me. I didn’t think that he would ever betray me… but everyone always did. And he was no exception, it just took him a little bit longer.
Magic crackled inside of me, roaring up and threatening to spill, inching closer and closer to overloading me. If it happened, I would collapse. While I was unconscious, only the gods knew what Dane would do to me… Hell, I might never even wake up.
Dane was on me then, his arms at my sides, trapping me between him and the wall, as if I even had the chance to escape. He leaned in, grabbing my chin, forcing me to look at me. “You’ve already come this far, destroyed this much. Just finish it.”
His grip tightened on my chin, his shoulders tensed. He was frustrated. Despite knowing every single detail about me, about my past, about everything, he didn’t know what to use over me to make me help him, to make me be the initiator of a mass genocide. In all honesty, though, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot that could make me do anything. My friends were gone, because of what I’d done or they were dead. Dane couldn’t be used--I hated him. He betrayed me, manipulated me, and used me… He made me feel like I was crazy when in all reality, I was anything but.
Nothing in this world could be held against me, so nothing Dane did would make me do it. He could imprison me, could beat me, rape me, poison me, push me to the brink of death every goddamn day for the rest of time, and I would never do it.
Even my life was something he could threaten--he had before. I just laughed in his face and dared him to do it. He’d gotten close, but he never followed through. He knew that eventually, I might have something he could use as leverage; he knew that one day, I might help him. Killing me was a disadvantage, but the current predicament was an inconvenience.
“Then go,” he said, releasing his grip on me, the paralyzation slowly receding, leaving me in control of my body once more. “Leave, live your life, do whatever you fucking please. But the second you have something you love, the second you have anything meaningful in your pathetic life, I’ll call in my favor.”
“Go right ahead.” I sent out a blast of magic, the room vanishing before my eyes as I teleported, getting as far away from Rhiner’s military HQ as I possibly could.
*** *** ***
I wondered if it would it be rude to throw up in the bushes before I went inside as I walked up the sidewalk of Rhiner’s Military Headquarters. It was flat, the entire campus placed in the valley in the dead center of the realm. Several buildings were sprawled out, each of them there for a different purpose--training facilities, administration, recruitment. There were no physical barriers around the HQ, like fences, but instead, there was a thick, suffocating magical barrier wrapped around it.
As I made my way toward the Special Divisions building, I fought to keep my breathing steady under the weight of the barrier. All the magic around me was just suffocating… Well, I didn’t know how much of that could be attributed to the barrier and how much was due to the fact that just being on the grounds again had my nerves shot.
I knew I should’ve smoked a blunt before this.
Stepping into the building, into a space only a modicum safer than the sidewalk, and I already had managed to squeeze out a bit of breath a little easier. In the lobby was the secretary, a doe-eyed guy with sandy blond hair and a broad smile.
Had I stepped into an alternate dimension or some shit? Since when did the Rhiner military behave like that?
“Hello! How can I help you, sir?”
“Hey, I’m looking for Commander McKinley. We had an appointment.”
“Oh, you must be Mr. Sterling?”
Fucking hell, had he actually put my name in the system? I knew I should’ve edited the contract Barnabas drew up to state that my name wasn’t to be listed anywhere in their databases. While it was unlikely it would draw suspicion, if anyone happened to flip through the calendars, it could mean trouble for me.
“Okay, his office is right down this hallway. It’ll be on the right. You can’t miss it, there’s a big plaque with his name on it right at the door.”
“Thanks.” I headed down the corridor, shoulders tight, and gaze alert. Just a few more feet and I’d be in the clear--until I left, anyway, but I could probably teleport out of HQ without tripping any alarms. If memory served, only teleporting in unannounced would trigger the loud ass alarms.
I slowed midway down the hall, stopping when I came to Leo’s office door. It was cracked, like he wanted privacy, but knew he had a meeting. I wrapped my knuckles against the door.
“Come on in,” Leo called.
I pushed the door open.
He sat behind his desk, typing away, glancing up at me briefly before focusing back on the screen. “Just give me one second…”
I started to step inside, finally reached safety, when I heard that voice--that fucking shrill, mockingly sing-song, parentese-type voice. As if ice grew over me, my entire body went rigid.
“Agent Sterling, is that you?”
No. It was literally anyone else. Fucking hell. Gritting my teeth, I sucked in a deep breath and turned to face Director Courtney Naft. She wore a pair of tight blue jeans with a sleek red blouse. Her blonde hair was pulled up in a messy bun, away from her face, and her thick, maroon lips drew attention away from her hazel eyes. She never really dressed like most directors, half the time she didn’t even act like one, but she sure as hell knew how to assert her authority. Only if she knew when to assert it.
“Director Naft, it’s good to see you.” The enthusiasm behind my words was absent, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t give a shit as she waltzed over and wrapped her arms around me, making me go stiff. “Oh my goodness, does Commander Carter know you’re here?” she asked suddenly, pulling back from me, holding me out and away from her, her fucking claws sinking into my biceps.
“No, and I’d prefer that you didn’t tell him.” I leaned closer to her. “It’s a surprise,” I whispered.
“I see!” She grinned broadly, then peeked inside, looking over at Leo. “What’re you doing here with Commander McKinley?”
“A consult,” Leo said. “And with Mr. Sterling’s busy schedule, we should probably get started on that right away.”
I blinked, for a second completely missing the fact that he was trying to help me out.
“You did tell me that you had an important appointment to get to after this, right Raven?” Leo raised his brows, waiting for me to say literally anything.
I turned back to Director Naft and nodded. “Yeah. Damn, forgot about that. Um, yeah. Good to see you again.”
“Absolutely! I hope to see you around sometime, Agent Sterling. You’re missed in the R&D department.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” I drawled, desperately fighting to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. I slipped into Leo’s office as she wandered down the corridor, her heels clicking the whole way. Letting out a long breath, I shut the door and leaned against it, closing my eyes and tipping my head back.
That was the second worst person I could run into. And despite what I said, she couldn’t keep a secret, not from her best friend. It would only be a matter of time before he knew I was at Headquarters.
Cracking an eye open, I looked over at Leo. “I thought you were finishing an email or some shit.”
“Are you okay?” he asked, completely ignoring me.
I snorted. “Peachy.” I pushed off the door and came over to sit in the plush, white chair across from him. “Now, let’s get this over with.”
“Wait, no--hold on. Were you in the military?”
“Once upon a time, yes. My hatred for the Rhiner military had to start somewhere, Sherlock.”
“But, you and Director Naft seemed--”
“Like best friends? Like we’d been separated for centuries after being attached at the hip and just had some catching up to do?” I rolled my eyes, folding my arms over my chest. “I hate the bitch. She’s two-faced and can’t think beyond the plans her predecessor laid out for her.”
Leo nodded slowly, brows going into his hairline. “Should I even ask about Commander Carter?”
“Depends on how well you know him,” I said. “I didn’t come here to talk about my hatred for the Rhiner military or my time in the military. Show me the amulets.”
“Just, slow down for a second, Raven. We’ve got a while, and analyzing the amulets won’t take that long. How on earth do you know Commander Carter? I’ve been here for seventy years, a commander for a decade, and I’ve only had maybe three conversations with the man. Why would he be seeking you out personally?”
Oh, there were a whole fucking host of reasons, none of which I was prepared to discuss with anyone, let alone the man I fucked on a semi-regular basis--which, I needed to stop doing. “We worked together during my time here. I was on his unit.”
“How long ago was that?”
“What? Trying to deduce why I’m a bitter bitch by tracing the timelines and seeing what happened?”
“No, I’m trying to figure out if we ever bumped into one another.”
“I would’ve remembered you,” I said, before I could stop myself, but it was true. Leo was incredibly handsome, and even before I’d totally lost my morals, I would’ve still stopped to ogle him. “But, I was here probably 15 years ago? Maybe less?” It hadn’t been particularly long. Just enough for me to step out, heal myself as much as I could, and begin to enjoy my freedom.
“How long were you here?”
“I was here on and off for about a century. Now, you get one more question, then it’s down to business. I’m not here to play twenty questions with you.”
Leo sighed, looking frustrated as he propped his chin on his fist, elbow perched on the armrest of his chair. “You’re a difficult man to get to know, Raven Sterling.”
“Good.” The harder it was for people to know me, the less likely it was that I’d be shackled and fucked over again.
Cocking his head, Leo’s dark eyes narrowed a fraction. “What did you do during your time here?”
“Research,” I said, completely neglecting to tell him the handful of times I actually did fieldwork. It was never frequent, and it’d never been my favorite, but I was decent at it. Once upon a time, Dane liked me by his side during a fight. He used to tell me I was his good luck charm, and that he felt safe when I was there to back him up.
Of course, that had all been fucking lies.
Leo pursed his lips, frowning so deeply I thought the vein on his forehead was going to burst if he frowned any harder. “Can’t I at least ask a follow up?”
“No.” I leaned back in the chair, my lips quirking into a smile. “I’m here to help you with a case, not to be interrogated.”
The legs of the chair squealed as they ran across the tile from Leo pushing it back with his knees as he stood. “You’re strict.”
I cocked a brow and rose from the chair, following him as he headed toward the door. “And you’re nosey, but you don’t see me bitching about it.”
Leo stuck his tongue out at me, stepping into the corridor. I followed him silently, creeping down the hall, praying to every god in existence that running into Director Naft was as bad as things were going to get.
We passed through the set of double doors at the end of the hallway, finding a fucking huge lab on the other side. Everything was sleek and silver, high tech and just begging to be fucked up by a wonderfully hellacious lab accident. As much as I hated the Rhiner military, their tech could induce wet dreams. As much as I enjoyed PhantomX, our tech looked like fucking rocks and sticks compared to Rhiner’s shit. Of course, they were competing with surrounding realms, trying to outdo each other, and we certainly weren’t going to win when it came to strongest military or social justice, so research and development was our best bet.
And even then, Xeniden-Qizade was growing closer to us every day with the degree of weaponry research and development in their realm.
“The amulets are over here,” Leo said, sliding open a glass cabinet, exposing seven heart-shaped necklaces. They were all glassy, all of them tinged with various colors and differing opacities. Under normal circumstances, the insides would be filled by magic. Color would swirl inside of it, indicating various information about the Shadow that possessed the amulet. That magic had been siphoned out, however, so I was left with the outside look of the amulet. It wasn’t nearly as informative as the inside, however, it was better than nothing.
I stood next to Leo, close enough that our arms brushed when I reached into the cabinet to grab the first amulet. It was smooth and cool between my fingers. The edges of it were tinged with orange, black specks lined the inside of the amulet, as if the magic had been stolen out of it moments ago.
“Did you freeze these?” I asked, pulling out another, noticing that they all looked as though they’d been frozen before the magic was fully wiped.
Leo shook his head. “They were found like this.”
I popped the amulet open, skimming the pad of my thumb over the inside. It felt smooth. “Whoever’s doing this knows that freezing the amulets like this will make it impossible for the amulets to undergo analyses that delve deeper than the surface features,” I said. “Under normal circumstances, if there is leftover magical residue, it’ll feel gritty. This is smooth. This is intentional.”
“I thought it was just part of the amulet.”
I shook my head, gently scraping my fingernail along the edge, checking for any of the color around the amulet to flake off. While it was uncommon for the out shell of Shadow amulets to be tampered with, it wouldn’t surprise me to find it in that case. If they went as far as to change the inside, it stood to reason that they would also attempt to alter the outside, even if permanent alteration on the outside of an amulet was impossible.
“Most people don’t know it, but when amulets are first distributed to Shadows, they’re completely clear, like clean glass. It’s only after the Shadow absorbs it, entraps magic in it, and immerses the amulet in its aura that it starts turning colors. The inside can always be wiped out, because it’s only influenced by the Shadow’s type and amount of magic used, but the outside is completely warped by aura, attitude, all of that shit. So, this center, if it was genuine, would come right out the second I touched it.”
Leo nodded, frowning as he stared down at the amulets I had sprawled along the desk.
“Just by the outer look of these, it seems like they belonged to a whole myriad of different Shadows. This one looks new, see how it’s not as black and dirty as the others?” I said, gesturing to the one on the far left.
“So, the blackness around them indicates age?”
“Typically. Sometimes, amulets turn black because a Shadow either has a dark aura or it’s experienced heavy trauma.” I touched the amulet in the center. It was sapphire with pitch black corners. “This one likely belonged to a Shadow with a lot of power. Dark blues, purples, and greens usually indicate strength or a hierarchical achievement.”
“All of the others are light colors.”
“Which means they’re being killed indiscriminately,” I said.
Leo cocked his head. “Or the attackers don’t know how to tell when they’re powerful.”
“If they know to freeze the amulets right after the majority of the magic is extracted, it stands to reason that they’re also aware of the Color Trinity.” I bit my lower lip, pushing my fingers through my bangs, slipping them back over my forehead. “I don’t have the shit with me, but I’d like to run a few more tests on these, compare them to some of the other samples I have of the Shadows. Did you guys check for fingerprints?”
“They were clean.”
“No leftover magical residue from the attacker either?”
Leo shook his head. “Everything was clean, even the scene of the attack.”
“Fucking hell,” I muttered, standing straight, glancing over at Leo. “I’ll do some reading tonight, see if I can figure out a way to reverse someone else’s freeze on the magic in the amulet or possibly even do some sort of color analysis to see if we can’t get further. Hell, if I get really adventurous, I’ll try to blow this fucking thing up, crack it, and force the magic out. You don’t mind if I borrow your lab tomorrow, right?”
“That’s fine, just try not to do too much damage.”
I shrugged, putting the amulet back into the cabinet. “No promises, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Leo rolled his eyes, his lips quirking up in a smile.
“I figured you’d want to keep the amulets here, though.”
“Yes, preferably. The details on this case have been kept quiet, so as not to stir up any unnecessary conflict or panic over Shadows being destroyed.”
“Yeah, that’s a hot topic right now.” Hell, it had been for the last few decades as more and more research came out that stated Shadows really weren’t all that bad, despite long held beliefs that they were. If this little issue came out, that they were being destroyed and a military unit had the notion of investigating it with intent to stop it, it could spark an entire fucking storm of political controversy, which wasn’t needed until after the issue was dealt with. Then, if the masses wanted to fling shit at each other, there was nothing preventing them from it. “But, that’s about as much as I’m going to do for now. I’ll run all the necessary tests and analyses tomorrow.”
“Sounds good to me,” Leo said, leaning his hip against the counter. “Would you like to get lunch with me, since we’re through for today?”
Yes, because getting lunch with Leo was exactly what I needed to do to put more distance between us. And, of course, there was the fact that that involved me being in HQ even longer, which increased my risk of bumping into people I sure as fuck didn’t want to see.
“I’ve got things to take care of PhantomX, so I’ll pass.”
“Okay,” Leo said easily, not put off in the slightest by my rejection. “Will I see you later tonight at Blanked?”
He would see me, but we certainly wouldn’t be fucking. I’d broken two rules because of him, he’d already interrogated me over my time in the military, I really didn’t want to push my luck on getting attached to him. So, to make a point to myself, as well as him to stay the fuck away from me, I’d have to fuck someone else. Besides, it’s not like I was doing anything more but settling myself and trying to wear myself out enough to actually sleep.
But, because I was me and I couldn’t help myself, I winked at him. “Only if you’re lucky, darling.” With a smirk, I teleported out of HQ, pleased as punch when I was able to leave the premises through magic without setting off any alarms.
Free again, I walked down the road, heading back toward PhantomX, doing everything in my power to not dread the night ahead of me.