Metal, Page 1Olivia R. Burton
EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ®
Copyright© 2016 Olivia R. Burton
Cover Artist: Jay Aheer
Editor: Lisa Petrocelli
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Preternatural PNW Novel, 3
Olivia R. Burton
Copyright © 2016
Veruca Lake felt full of life—literally, figuratively, and every way in between. She’d woken up next to a beautiful man who treated her like a queen and was ending her day taking a soul.
Weaving the new soul into her own was a simple task, one she hadn’t had to think about since childhood. Pulling on the glowing, golden string, unwrapping it from someone else’s heart, and intertwining it with her own made her feel powerful. Technically, that wasn’t untrue, but it wasn’t the experience of gaining another bit of magic that made her feel invincible this time. It was the life itself.
The woman at her feet hadn’t asked for power, hadn’t asked for riches, and had been so desperate to bear a child she’d eagerly signed away the end of her life for the gift of motherhood. She’d been allowed eighteen years with her son before being asked to make good on her debt. Despite that, she’d been strong, going quietly and without argument. Veruca had seen grown men with less to live for blubber like babies, beg, bribe, and try to run. Denise had been brave, though, and Veruca admired her strength.
When the scout appeared silently in the room, she didn’t jump, didn’t worry. Scouts were small-time within Fairy, merely messengers, gofers, and occasionally enforcers if they had enough power to threaten even lesser fae. Veruca knew, though, that even without Denise’s courage illuminating her soul, she wouldn’t have been worried.
“Sir,” Veruca said, turning to face the visitor before reconsidering her words. “If that isn’t correct, I apologize. It’s difficult to tell sometimes.”
Veruca smiled but shifted her stance in case the inscrutable look on the scout’s face meant this wasn’t a friendly visit. It wouldn’t have been the first time scouts had shown up to silently judge her for taking souls. Violence had been implied but never directly threatened, so Veruca had always chosen to err on the side of friendliness. She could handle herself, in any case.
The scout waiting quietly across the living room was oversized, Veruca decided. It wasn’t his only quality, and she felt the term didn’t properly convey the enormity of his width, but it was the first word that came to mind when she got a good look at him. Tall as a doorway and nearly twice as wide, the creature was as unique as they came. This wasn’t uncommon, of course. She herself was the descendent of some elicit mixing of human and fae DNA, though her blood had probably come from a creature of Fairy that looked much more human.
He was furry, packed solid with muscle, and watching her with intimidating eyes that looked small in his massive face, though perhaps it was his massive tusks alone that dwarfed the rest of his features.
To her surprise, he sunk to his knee, bowing his head in a gesture of subservience that Veruca had rarely seen from the fae. As a Reaper, she wasn’t terribly popular among their kind, even though they may have shared some great, great ancestor and could both use magic. When he didn’t correct her assumption about his gender and didn’t speak, she got the impression that perhaps he had been ordered to treat her as if she had something very valuable to offer. Taking the cue, she stepped closer, gesturing for him to get up, even though he couldn’t have seen the action with his head bowed so low.
“No need for such formality, I don’t consider myself your superior.”
The scout got to his heavy feet and closed in further, holding out a hand the size of a dinner plate.
“Syham,” he began, introducing himself out of politeness, and perhaps out of ignorance of Veruca’s ability to read his name right off his soul. “It’s a privilege to be allowed in your presence. May I address you directly?”
“Veruca.” She took Syham’s hand and found that even though his thumb nearly dwarfed her entire hand, his grip was soft and gentle. “Delighted.”
“It’s my pleasure, truly,” he said, though his tone spoke of false flattery. She kept a bead on his soul, very aware that it was as she often thought of claimed souls, “up for grabs.” Someone somewhere, most likely a Fairy lord or lady, duke or duchess, or perhaps the king and queen themselves, had forced him to give himself over to his job. When it came to scouts, Veruca had always seen that their claim on their own lives had gone away with their agreement to serve, though she wasn’t sure they were aware of what they’d given up.
“We were recently tasked with tracking down one of yours—a demon who had run afoul of Fairy. In return, we are to ask your assistance.”
“In return for what?” Veruca asked, noting the edge that had crept into Syham’s voice and wanting to make sure he knew that, despite her politeness, she wasn’t going to lie down across a puddle and let him walk right over her. “I was told your role in the demon’s capture was minimal, that you and your associate acted merely as guards. The rest was done by a gavel, a woman in subservience to Lady N—” Veruca cut herself off, reminding herself that those of low rank got very nervous when certain proper names were even so much as whispered in their presence.
Syham stayed silent for a moment, his enigmatic expression tightening slightly. Veruca tried to decide if that meant he hadn’t expected her to know the whole story of the recent break in the ranks of the Prince of Hell. She hadn’t been involved, and could understand why it may seem to those who were never told anything by their superiors that ignorance was the norm. Perhaps, she reconsidered after a moment, he just didn’t like her much. Many lesser fae, especially those without a concrete heritage, seemed bitter about her high status, when they themselves were often considered nothing more than mongrels and servants.
“True, we did ask for assistance,” he admitted after a moment, adding, “per orders from a Lady. However, we were needed to finalize the capture. The gavel…” Syham dropped his gaze for a moment before settling on an explanation. “We were of assistance to her.”
“And what does your assistance to a gavel have to do with me?” She was considered just as important to Belial as gavels were to fae royalty, but didn’t see why that would make her responsible for anyone else in a position such as hers.
“I am to deliver a warning to you and yours, specifically to your necromancer.”
Veruca kept her face blank, refusing to let her breathing or her posture change, though she felt adrenaline spark up her blood, crackling through her body like electricity. A warning for herself she would have shrugged off, knowing her status would protect her from a mutt of a scout who would be considered expendable should it come to that.
The threat wasn’t to her, however, but to the man she loved dearly.
“My necromancer,” she said, her tone measured. “Has he wronged you?”
“He’s become too visible. Fairy has heard of his abuse of power and that it threatens the balance. Unveiling our kind to yours would mean destruction.”
“Whose destruction?” Veruca asked calmly. Exposure of the fae was dangerous enough that she decided she could understand the worry behind his words. Like people, fae reacted to stress and fear in many different ways.
t of destruction would disturb the queen,” Syham said, easing the severity out of his tone. “She has great pride in this world. The king would not hesitate to see her disappointment punished.”
“I see.” Veruca nodded, gesturing delicately. “You believe my necromancer is courting this punishment?”
“I’m to suggest you remind him of his place.”
“His place is by my side,” Veruca said casually, lifting her chin. She wasn’t anywhere as tall as Syham, even in her expensive heels, but she hoped it gave the illusion she was looking down at him. “And I’m sure you’re aware of my place.”
“Of course,” Syham said, his shoulders slumping slightly as he affected a subservient stance once again. “I offer no threat myself. I am merely a lowly messenger, sent to deliver words from those who would see any unmasking of Fairy as a reason to end a life.”
Veruca understood that he wasn’t just talking a life in general, but specifically indicating a threat to Finn himself. Anger flooded her insides, simmering toward a boil, but Veruca remained as calm as she could, making no move that might be considered violent.
“Your delivery is incomplete,” she said quietly. “Have you examples, proof? You’ve delivered a threat without justification. Dangerous.”
“Fairy must not consider you a threat,” he said just as coldly. “After all, you are merely fae spawn, a half-breed. Perhaps they consider my visit a favor, a generous opportunity for you to save your necromancer from himself.”
“I am a half-breed,” Veruca said, stepping closer to him slowly and deliberately. “But two halves are better than many scattered pieces that do not fit together into any sort of pleasing whole. I will deliver the warning to my necromancer, but only once you’ve provided me proof.”
Veruca went quiet, watching Syham intently, making sure he knew he should be listening, that he was aware he’d crossed a line he should have stayed far behind. When he got the message, slumping his shoulders and bowing his head slightly, she continued, keeping her tone light as if nothing insulting had been said and no blood was in danger of being spilled. “You may contact me through an emissary when you wish a meeting. I wouldn’t want you to go out of your way to stand in my presence again, unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Syham’s face was unreadable again, but Veruca knew he’d taken the dismissal as the insult she’d meant it to be. He nodded.
“Very well, Veruca. I shall send another to set up a meeting and deliver the proof that your necromancer is walking a hazardous path.”
“On second thought, I’d like you to refer to me by my title rather than my name. Names are such an intimate thing, aren’t they, Syham?” Veruca was sure to speak his name the same way it echoed out of his soul and into her mind, extending her power out to pluck at the strings of his tightly weaved life force to hint at the power she held. Syham flinched lightly, taking a step back and dropping to his knee again.
“Very well, Reaper. Until we meet again.”
Veruca’s first call as she left Syham kneeling in Denise’s house was to the head of security at one of her many hotels. She was hours away from Seattle, but Donald was the first person she thought of when things were askew, and she needed a little bit of unconventional help.
“Veruca,” he said, answering immediately. Voices in the background cut off a moment later and she pictured him closed up in his office at the hotel, kicking his feet up at his desk. “How’ve you been?”
“I’m well. I need a favor, and you’re the first person I thought of.”
“I’m flattered, what’s going on?”
“Finn might be in trouble.”
“I refuse to believe it,” Donald said, sarcasm coating his tone. “He’s a pillar.”
“I think it’s a mistake this time. I got a message a little bit ago, straight from Fairy itself. Evidently, I’d better get my pet necromancer under control or there will be consequences. I need to know why.”
“Maybe because he’s ridiculous?”
Veruca snorted, giving in to a laugh as she shut the door to the town car that would whisk her away to the airport.
“I can’t argue with ridiculous, but he’s not dangerous. I’m in Idaho, so I’ll be on a plane back home before too long. I need you to look into strange news stories and call me if any jump out at you.”
“That’s pretty broad,” Donald said, but she could hear his tone had turned thoughtful. “What sort of strange are we looking for?”
“Well, someone thinks Finn’s up to something, so look for anything to do with death, the dead, dying, etcetera. If it looks like a duck…”
“It’s probably a zombie duck. Where should I focus my efforts?”
Veruca considered, frustrated that the scout hadn’t delivered any specifics. That could have been by design, something his boss had arranged in order to see what she might accidentally reveal, or just an oversight. Fairy was a truly massive kingdom and sometimes orders passed down the chain of command in the clumsiest way imaginable. It was possible Syham wasn’t even after a necromancer, but the actual message had gotten warped and Finn was being blamed for something that had nothing to do with either one of them.
“I can’t say. I’m waiting on more information.”
“So I’m looking for weird as a general occurrence? Not to get you down, but I don’t think that’s going to help. I deal with weird on a daily basis, often due to something Finn’s done, but I doubt cleaning up after him getting into one of the fridges at the hotel pissed off the whole Fairy realm.”
“He didn’t make that big of a mess,” Veruca said, smiling at the mental image of Finn on his ass on the floor of the walk-in.
“Only because the jugs of mayo he knocked over were made of plastic and not glass. Look, I’ll see what I can find, call a few people and see what shakes loose. It’s been awhile since I’ve run in my old circles, but I’ve still got guys here and there.”
“I appreciate it.”
“You’re sure it’s not actually Finn causing the trouble? He hasn’t exactly been Mr. Low-Key so far.”
“If he is, I’ll talk to him, but I don’t think that’s it. He’s powerful, but he’s no good at what he does yet. I don’t think he could cause enough trouble to get on a lord’s radar.”
“Lord?” Donald asked, panic seeping in. “A lord showed up? Are you okay?”
“The Lord—or Lady, it wasn’t specified—was nowhere to be found, but the scout claimed he was there on orders. Could have been lying, but I doubt it. It’s a big risk to lie about Fairy royalty.”
“Well, watch your back anyway. And Finn’s. I’ll get back to you.”
“Will do,” Veruca said before hanging up. Watching Finn’s back was something she normally looked forward to. The man had a great ass, after all. With the threat of violence trickling down from above, though, she considered that the task might lose some of its appeal.
“How was your trip, my love?”
Veruca smiled at the sight of Finn, enjoying the way he looked wearing an apron, especially since she suspected he was most likely naked beneath it. They hadn’t been living together long but it had taken him mere minutes to adjust to living the lavish life in her expensive home. Despite the fact that she’d paid a handsome sum to outfit him with flattering clothes and fancy underwear, he still went naked a lot of the time at home. Not that she minded.
Finn had shown up scruffy, bruised, and on the run from a thug twice his size, but not even sweat and purpled skin could warp the fact that he was a very attractive Irishman.
The house smelled like he’d tried very hard to cook something that had been burned very badly, but the table was set around a closed box of pizza. The takeout made her laugh and eased her worry enough that when Finn approached for a kiss, she took him up on the offer instead of evading so she could explain her concerns.
“The trip was successful,” she said when he pulled back enough to hand her one of the glasses of wine he’
d brought over. “I have something to discuss with you, though.”
“Don’t worry, it’s all handled,” he said, turning to move back toward the table, revealing that he wasn’t entirely bare under the apron. He’d thought to pull on silken boxers nearly as pale blue as his eyes.
“I got rid of the evidence,” he said, pulling a chair out and gesturing for her to sit. He winked her way, continuing in his intoxicating accent. “You’d never know I burnt an entire roast.”
“I’m not worried about the mushroom loaf,” she said with a laugh. It was at least the fourth one he’d destroyed that month. He claimed it was her diet that tripped him up, insisting that if she’d allow him to bring animal meat into the house he’d be a world-class chef. She knew the real reason was just that he was easily distracted and usually forgot he was cooking anything in the first place.
“Well, then, we have nothing to discuss. We can eat dinner and then…”—he leaned in to kiss her cheek and whisper against her ear as she settled into the chair—“I can make sure you’re properly filled up.”
“Darling,” she said, setting the glass of wine down and grabbing his arm. “I need you to be serious for a moment. Sit.”
Without hesitation, he dropped his skinny ass into her lap, draping an arm around her shoulders as he grinned at her from a few inches away.
“I take filling you up very seriously,” he said, closing in to kiss her nose and grazing his lips along her jaw as if exploring intently for her earlobe. She could smell wine on his breath and suspected he was onto his second bottle at least.
“Darling,” she repeated, having trouble controlling her own hormones. “Let’s talk and then I’ll catch up to where you are in terms of wine consumption, and we can see where the evening takes us.”
Finn whispered a few scandalous sentences into her ear, and Veruca had to purse her lips against a smile and clench her fists for a moment to fight off the urge to give in to his suggestions. The Irish accent only made them all more appealing.