Him being naked was expected since I was doing my ducking, weaving, and dodging down a hall in the Isle of Mid’s finest bordello. You’d think that the worst that could happen to me was acute embarrassment and possible death. But this naked guy was possessed by the specter of a three-thousand-year-old, evil elven sorcerer who’d turned Mid’s red-light district into his personal playground. I’d interrupted recess, and he was mad as hell.
My name is Raine Benares, and I’m a seeker. Tonight I’d found what I was looking for, as well as things I never wanted to see. The men who frequented the Satyr’s Grove were here because they had money, not muscle tone. These weren’t your finer specimens of manhood. And believe me, I got to see enough manhoods and fleeing pasty white posteriors to last me a lifetime.
Even worse, the sorcerer’s specter had picked himself a young, fit, and fast body, not an old, flabby, and slow one. But on the upside, apparently slinging spells was a challenge when wearing someone else’s skin. Hence the big knife and bad attitude.
There were screams, shouts, and chaos from the first and second floors. We now had the third floor hallway all to ourselves. Everyone had either fled downstairs, or barricaded themselves in the bedrooms that lined the hall. Unfortunately in the Satyr’s Grove, the more expensive ladies were on the top floor, and our quarry had decided to splurge. I’d gotten separated from my Guardian bodyguards in the stampede of working girls and clients on the two floors below. I couldn’t stop to wait for them. I’d been tracking this specter all week; I’d found him, and he was not getting away.
We’d had a plan, a good plan, but like most plans I’d been involved with lately, it’d gone straight down the crapper moments after implementation. I was upstairs, the specter was upstairs, but the man with the containment box to trap the specter in was somewhere in the chaos downstairs.
“Get him to stand still,” shrieked the necromancer.
Yeah, I was sure he’d do that, just as soon as he got close enough to start killing me. The specter-possessed man was chasing me. Sid, the necromancer on loan from the college’s necrology department, was chasing the man. At the same time, he was waving around a little drawstring bag of something he’d promised would keep the specter in his host body until an exorcist could extract him. With a choice of a naked guy with a knife versus an evil sorcerer with three thousand years of practice, I was all for the specter staying right where he was. Then it wouldn’t matter if the containment box that was downstairs found its way upstairs.
My job had been to find the specter; that’d been the easy part. But judging from the ruckus and outraged upper-class-sounding voices coming from downstairs, Mychael and his boys had caught some of Mid’s elite with their trousers down or their robes up. Getting caught being naughty by the commander of the Conclave Guardians and a dozen of his best knights had heaped mortification on top of outrage.
So until Mychael could cut through that crowd with the containment box, it was just me and Sid.
And a dead-end hallway.
I drew a long dagger and spun to face tall, naked, and pissed—and he stopped dead in his tracks, eyes wide in recognition. He probably didn’t know who I was, but he knew what I was.
What he saw was a slender elf with red hair, pale skin probably paler than usual right now, and gray eyes wide with either mere panic or basic terror. But the thing he sensed coiled and eagerly waiting inside of me was what froze him to the spot.
The Isle of Mid was haunted. Not by the chain-rattling, cold spot, moaning sort of specters. This sorcerer and five of his coconspirators had escaped from the Saghred, a soul-stealing stone of unlimited power. They weren’t dead, but they weren’t exactly alive, either. A couple thousand years ago, this guy had probably tried to use the Saghred to do something he shouldn’t, and by some mishap had gotten himself sucked inside.
Through a few mishaps of my own, I was linked to the Saghred. My life’s goal had become to find a way to sever that link, but for now the rock and I were locked in a struggle of wills. It wanted me to use its power so it could take my soul or possibly my sanity one nibble at a time, but mostly it wanted me to feed it. And right now, it wanted the ancient shadow I saw reflected in the man’s eyes, and it wanted it badly. My link to the Saghred made me the Conclave Guardians’ specter-hunting bloodhound. Not only could I sense the specters, I could see them. Lucky me.
No way in hell was I going to be a straw for the Saghred to slurp up stray souls, and I didn’t want to kill the host body. That would just force the specter out, and Sid and I were not equipped to handle that alone. Besides, this poor naked bastard had just been looking to get laid, not possessed. I didn’t want to kill him, but the specter inside of him didn’t share my moral dilemma.
His eyes glittered in the dim light. That was all the warning I got.
He lunged. I dropped into a low crouch, and his knife missed me by an inch and a hair, slashing the scarlet and gilt wallpaper covering the wall behind me.
I hadn’t survived my thirtysomething years by being squeamish. I twisted my body, going for an uppercut straight into his nuts, what I got was his fist on my back, pounding me flat to the floor and knocking the air out of me. His knife was going to follow his fist. I needed to roll, move, anything, but all my body could manage was a wheezing gasp. Stupid body. I managed to turn my head to the side and sank my teeth into his ankle.
He bellowed in pain and rage, and I felt a thump as Sid the necromancer jumped on his back and began beating him on the head with his drawstring pouch of ghost dust, pixie powder, or whatever the hell it was. I used the distraction to drag, crawl, and finally scramble my way out of knife range. Once I was on my feet, I drew my sword from the harness on my back. The naked guy whirled to face me while reaching back over his shoulder, trying to dislodge Sid. I had to hand it to the little necromancer; he held on with the tenacity of a tick. One thin arm was locked around the man’s throat, while the other continued to beat him on the head with the pouch—that is, until the naked guy snatched it away from him.
Sid’s lips began desperately moving in silent incantation. Fast as a striking snake, the man had the tip of his knife under Sid’s chin, took a quick step back, and pinned the necromancer to the wall like a bug. A thin stream of blood ran down the blade. Sid whimpered. The fingers of the man’s other hand closed around the pouch.
I held out my hands, palms out. “Sid, don’t try anything else,” I told him, like the necromancer had a choice. I just didn’t want to give the specter any more reasons to kill him.
“Listen to her, or not, little human.” The elven sorcerer’s voice was a deep rasp emerging from the man’s throat, the rasp of a voice unused for thousands of years. An amused voice. Amused wasn’t good coming from a sorcerer with a couple of millennia of dark deeds and malicious mayhem under his belt. He spoke to Sid, but his gleaming eyes were locked on mine. “It matters not. I am finished with this body for the evening. I can find another. Perhaps yours, necromancer,” the last word came out as a lascivious rasp. “I can easily flow from this body into yours.” The specter caused the man’s lips to curl in a slow grin, and I saw the shadow of the elf’s face as if it were floating just beneath the man’s skin. His face was gaunt, his lips thin, and his hairline receding. No wonder he grabbed the best-looking body he could find.
“Are you up for an evening of sport?” the elven specter was asking Sid. “There are other establishments we could patronize. What say you, little man?”
My blade was worthless against the sorcerer. He knew it, and so did I. Even if I killed his host body, he would flow into Sid, or through the nearest wall and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do to stop him.
But the Saghred could. It could stop him, take him, and have him for a late night snack—through me. Though if I used one iota of the Saghred’s power to stop him, I didn’t think I could stop the power from taking me. It’d happened before with three demons. I vaporized them, and the only way I’d kept myself from sharing their fate was to discharge the surge of power by destroying another demon the size of a small house. I’d squashed him like a wet sponge—right before I passed out. Right now, I was in a building packed with people. I couldn’t let the Saghred off its leash, but the sorcerer didn’t know that.
I tried to swallow, but my mouth was bone-dry. “You’re forgetting the rock.” I said it slowly and deliberately. It was the only way I’d keep my voice from shaking. My legs were already shaking. They wanted to run; they had the right idea.
The sorcerer drew the man’s body up to his full height. “And you’re forgetting your place. The Saghred must indeed be desperate to accept a bond servant such as you.” The smile widened into a teeth-baring grin, and the man’s eyes went completely black. The lamps in the hall slowly dimmed to mere pinpricks of flame, and the bottom dropped out of the temperature. Two of those flames were reflected in the man’s black orbs. It was highly theatrical and spooky as hell. “The goblin has told us about you, the elven seeker who battled the queen of demons. I must admit my disappointment.”
It was more like a rolling-around-on-the-floor catfight than a battle, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. The goblin he referred to was Sarad Nukpana. Blackest of the black mages. Psychotic for the fun of it. Prisoner of the Saghred until said queen plunged a demonic dagger into the rock and opened the way for his escape, along with five other inmates he’d plotted with on the inside. Now they were all outside with us.
I felt the sorcerer’s specter gathering power, probing at my will. The air constricted, tightened, cold and brittle. Too tight to breathe, too cold to bear.
“Yes, you are weak, afraid. You will not take souls into yourself,” the sorcerer taunted, the heat of the man’s breath frosted the air with each word. He laughed, a hollow, ugly sound. “I’m leaving, and I’m taking the necromancer with me. Attempt to follow me and you will both die.”
I had no backup—and no choice.
The sorcerer knew I wouldn’t take his soul, but the Saghred had other ideas. The rock was starving, so I let it rear its head. I could handle rearing; rearing wasn’t taking. I wasn’t firing the cannon; I was merely opening the hatch.
And hunger gripped me, fierce and overwhelming.
I was starving. I had always hungered, never been satisfied, eternally needing, forever wanting. I couldn’t remember a time when I hadn’t been starving. I had been teased with food, so close, the souls writhing helplessly within my reach then snatched away, denying me yet again. I would be deprived no longer. Food was here before me, offering itself, teasing, tempting.
The sorcerer made a low sound of satisfaction, and the eyes of the man he possessed no longer reflected flame, they were flame. “There you are.” His voice was a caressing whisper. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist coming out to play.”
The crazy son of a bitch was talking to the rock.
He was talking to me.
“Yes, we have spent much time together. I know its needs, its desires.” He took one step toward me, then another. “It wants me, almost more than it can bear. You feel its hunger, don’t you? I know you do. Your eyes burn with its need. As bond servant, the Saghred’s desires are your desires.” The man’s mouth twisted into a smirk as did the shadow lips of the elf possessing him. “Do you want me, servant? There are rooms here in which we may fulfill many such desires. Come to me now and I will allow the necromancer to live.”
Take him, take him now.
I dimly felt my right foot slide along the floor, trying to take a step toward him, wanting to go to him, my need overpowering. My breath hissed in and out between clenched teeth, the muscles in my legs were shaking with the effort not to move. I would not move; I would fight both of them—the specter and the Saghred. But part of me wanted to give in to the hunger, rush forward and take what was mine. Yes. I would feast on the traitorous spirit, the sorcerer who dared to pit his pathetic power against mine. I would take and rip—
That strong, deep voice turned my name into a command and a lifeline, raw magical power given voice.
My mind instantly cleared. The sorcerer was a specter; the body encasing him was just a man.
I screamed and lunged, the point of my sword going between the man’s fingers, puncturing the pouch of Sid’s dust, sending a glittering cloud of glowing blue into the air.
“No!” Two voices screamed their denial—both man and specter. The man flung Sid to the floor and brushed frantically at the powder. It stuck to his skin, then it disappeared under his skin, the blue glow intensifying, consuming, until the man was glowing from the inside. His eyes went blank, his mouth open and gasping. The specter screamed alone, high and keening, as the man he possessed slowly sank to his knees, his eyes closing, his body falling forward.
The lamps along the hall brightened, and I leaned back against the wall, taking one deep, shuddering breath, then another. The man sprawled at my feet was still breathing, albeit raggedly, the sorcerer’s specter trapped inside. For now.
A few of the doors started opening, heads tentatively peeking out. They took one look at the hard face of the armored man—the owner of that commanding voice—striding down the hall toward me and slammed them shut again. His armor was dark, sleek steel and custom fit, conforming to his leanly muscled body almost like a second skin. No armorer was that good; magic was definitely involved when it was forged.
Paladin Mychael Eiliesor was the top law enforcement officer on the island, and as paladin and commander of the Conclave Guardians, he was in charge of the most elite magical fighting force in the seven kingdoms. He was a master spellsinger, healer, and warrior, lethally skilled in battlefield magic. What had happened downstairs had constituted a raid, even if it was only a raid looking for the naked man sprawled at my feet. A lot of Mid’s social elite were probably climbing out windows right now, some of them may have even remembered their clothes.
I felt the sense of controlled power emanating from him as he closed the distance between us. He was a man with a purpose, and that purpose was me.
Sid sank to his knees, hand clutching his throat. “It worked,” he said in utter disbelief. He took his hand away, looked down at the blood and turned kind of pasty.
I was incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘it worked’?”
“I’ve never used that formula on anything that old. It worked on a six-hundred-year-old poltergeist last year, but I have to admit it was touch and go there for a minute.”
A strong hand rested on my shoulder, and I shivered. Mychael’s hand was warm and I didn’t realize how cold I was.
I turned my head to look up at him. “As always your timing is perfect.”