Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Heart's Desire, Part 43 and THE END

Chapter 41

The summons had been subtle; Malachi hadn't even felt her spell claw its way into his mind before it was too late. No one had noticed his departure, and he had not used the bond to tell his Master of the spell; the nature of it prevented even that.

She had thought of everything to get him back. And as he crept through the forest, he tried to think of a way to escape, but the spell prevented that as well.


Eri's voice stopped him cold. He turned, his feet wanting to move the other way. "Go back."

"Where are you going?" She stood in the forest, her hair shining in the moonlight, a thin sylph of a child, easily killed.

"Go back," he repeated, and turned away from her again, despair washing away any hope he had of freedom.

"Malachi--" Eri touched his arm and he snatched it away from her, tears blurring his vision now as he fought with the spell.

"Go back!" He growled the words and ran from her, shifting into the form of a Hound for speed.
She caught up with him easily, and nipped at his back legs to slow him down. He snapped at her, half mad from the spell, inwardly cringing when he realized what he had done.

Go back!

There is something wrong, Eri said, not through the bond, but silently anyway, her lips drawing back from her teeth. What is wrong with you, Malachi?
I am--

Pain poured through his mind and he shifted shape, curled up on the ground with his arms pressed over his head. He bit his lip to hold back a scream, but even then Eri felt a portion of the pain and backed away, shifting into human form with a frown on her face.

"You are under a spell." She reached out to him, her touch burning into his skin. "Let me help you."

"No, child." Malachi recognized Stefan's voice even as he heard the growling of his remaining Hounds. "You cannot help him."

Eri stood up, her arms folded against her chest. "Who are you?"

"My name is Stefan. I--I once knew your Mother." Stefan bared his teeth. "And you do not want to fight me, child."

The spell continued its pull. Malachi crawled towards his goal now, even as his mind desperately begged him not to abandon Eri.

Why couldn't his cursed 'talent' break this spell?

He glanced back once as Stefan's remaining Hounds closed in on Eri, who shifted shape and fled into the night.

Stefan's Hounds did not follow her. Malachi supposed he could be thankful of that, at least.

He crawled on, the spell's relentless tugging forcing his arms and legs to move, despite his effort to stop his momentum.

"You will die here," Stefan said from behind him, his voice completely disinterested in Malachi's fate.

"I will curse you, then," Malachi gasped, and shifted shape so he wouldn't have to speak to Stefan again.

When he glanced back, Stefan had vanished with his Hounds, as if they had been mirages all along.

By then, it was too late. He had reached the house, which loomed in all its glory above him.

And the dampening spell prevented him from even attempting to contact his Master one last time.

He had heard Josiah's question through the bond, despite her spell, but he could not answer it.

The door was open; inviting him inside. In the form of a Hound, Malachi crept up the stairs, dreading Magdalen's touch and the teeth of Stefan's Hounds.

But when he walked into the parlor, only Magdalen sat there, with Seth's body lying in the middle of the rug, mocking him.

Without a word, Malachi shifted shape and knelt beside him. "You will die for this," he said, his anger pushing past the pain.

"I did not give you leave to speak," Magdalen snarled. "Leave him. He is a corpse now, and nothing more."

"He was one of us," Malachi whispered, ignoring her order.

She had drawn a circle around Seth's body, encompassing the entire rug. Malachi hadn't noticed it until now, and when he tried to step outside of its boundaries, something sizzled across his skin--a barrier of some kind.

He did not try again. Instead he glared at her and folded his arms. "What do you want?" His mind was clearer now, the pain almost gone. He could think again, however good that would do.

"I want the Wild Hunt," Magdalen said. "I want your Master. And I will have him. He will follow you here."

"Did you try to summon him?" Malachi asked. "And fail? The Hunt is free now. You will not bind him again."

He hoped his words were right, at least; there was always the faintest possibility of damnation.

Seth's throat had been torn out by teeth, not cut by a knife. So Stefan was responsible for his death. Malachi tucked that away for later. After he had a chance for revenge, if he lived through this.

"You do not know he will follow me," he said.

"Don't be naïve," Magdalen sneered. "Of course he will follow you." She walked around the circle, watching him from all angles. "You broke my spell again. It is strange, isn't it, that two of Gabriel's Hounds have some sort of talent?"

Malachi shrugged. "It's not so strange." He hesitated. "Did you know that Althea is dead?"

Even that only gave her a moment's pause. "Good riddance," she said, and spun away from him so he could not see her face. "She was a traitor to the Council."

"Yes, with your aid," Malachi said. "Surely you realize that this cannot end well for you. Too many people know what happened." He had lost much of his fear now--perhaps that stemmed from Althea's death more than anything. Oh, he realized she could kill him, but he wasn't afraid of her anymore.

"The only thing that matters is that I control the Wild Hunt," Magdalen said. "And I will."

"No. You will not."

Malachi almost laughed at the look on Magdalen's face when Gabriel appeared in the parlor. None of her spells had heralded his arrival. Perhaps Josiah had helped with that.

Gabriel glanced at Malachi. Do not react. Josiah is outside, attempting to destroy the dampening spell. Eri is safe.

"I have your Hound," Magdalen said. "He will die if you do not bind yourself to me." She motioned with one hand and half the floor vanished.

Malachi scrambled backwards as Seth's body slid into the water below, vanishing under the depths without a sound. The floor underneath him creaked and groaned under his weight, threatening both his safety and his life. He backed up too far and pain sizzled across his arms. And then, of course, he scrambled too far forward, and almost lost his balance.

Magdalen laughed as a board cracked under Malachi's weight. "The floor will not hold forever," she said. "And I can make sure he drowns."

"I will not bind myself to you," Gabriel said. He took a step forward, towards the circle, and the house shuddered.

Another piece of the floor vanished. But this time, Malachi thought that Magdalen had not intended that to happen since it was outside the circle.

"The Council knows what you have done." Gabriel stopped as a hole opened up in the floor right in front of him. He stepped around it, closer still.

Malachi perched on the edge of what was left of the floor, as close as he dared to the edge of the circle. "You did not ask how Althea died," he said, hoping to distract her.

Behind Magdalen, the walls cracked, burned and vanished in an instant. Stars shone overhead and then vanished as the spell regained its hold. How long could this go on?

"I don't care how Althea died," Magdalen snapped. "If you will not bind yourself to me, then your Hound is dead." But instead of making the rest of the floor vanish, she reached her hand through the circle and pulled Malachi back against the barrier. "Shadow take you, give me your light!"

Pain seared across Malachi's nerves. He felt his talent--or whatever it was--struggling to block Magdalen's spell, but it was too powerful, too vast. He screamed, but then--

Too much power breaks the spell, Josiah said inside his mind and used the bond between them as a conduit to add his own power to the mix--his own talent that Althea had lived on for ten years.

The floor collapsed, and for a moment, Magdalen's grip was all that held Malachi upright. But even she could not hold him forever, and when her grasp slipped--

Gabriel was there, a solid weight behind him, pulling Malachi to his feet as the circle collapsed, and adding his own power to tip the balance of the spell.

With all of his might, Malachi visualized a mirror.

And Magdalen screamed.

Mirrors weren't conduits. They reflected, nothing more, quite possibly the best kind of shield anyone could envision, despite what Lucas had said.

The house collapsed in an ungraceful mess. The backlash from Magdalen's spell bounced off the mirror as well, and that, in truth, was her downfall. She staggered back and tripped before she could attempt to harm anyone ever again, vanishing into a hole that grew wider as they watched, safe on the edge of the grass where Gabriel had pulled Malachi to safety.

The house continued to collapse, almost as if it protested the spells. The chimney fell first, and then the remaining walls, until all that remained was a pile of rubble to mark Magdalen's grave.

Malachi felt a hand on his arm long before he realized that the threat had ended. He would have banished his mirror if he knew how; his mind refused to believe that he was safe.

"Let me," Josiah said, and released it. "I didn't think she would use that spell."

Malachi blinked. "That--That was the spell Althea used on you, wasn't it?" Slowly, feeling returned to his arms and legs; he realized Gabriel was holding him up, and that Zechariah and even Eri were nearby as well, lending him strength.


"And you survived?" Malachi's mind felt flayed, almost, and a headache throbbed behind his eyes. He wanted to sleep, to escape the inevitable questions and the aftermath of this.

"Yes." Josiah's worried gaze met his own. "And you will too."

"I'm so tired," Malachi whispered. "Is it over? Can we go home now?"

"Is her spell broken?" Gabriel asked, breaking his silence for the first time.

"I--I think so," Malachi whispered. "I am sorry, my lord--"

"Hush. Josiah?"

"I don't sense any spells," Josiah said after a moment.

"Stefan wasn't with her," Gabriel said. "We will search for him, but later, after everyone is healed and rested."

"So that means we can go home?" Malachi asked, closing his eyes.

"Yes. Magdalen is gone. We'll return for Seth's body later." Gabriel swung Malachi up into his arms.

"Let's go home."

god knows when (May 2005)-9/3/06 4:29pm
revision/addition 1/11-4/4/07 10:30PM


Lucas opened his door at the knock, half-expecting to see Malachi, or Zechariah, perhaps, sent to inform him what had happened. He knew bits and pieces of it, of course; he'd helped Gabriel raise Seth's body out of the destruction, but he had stayed away. The Hunt needed time to itself for a little while. Time to heal more than anything, but also time for Gabriel to decide on their new role in the world.

The other members of the Council had accepted his version of events, but Lucas had not gone into great detail. It was enough for them to know that Althea had been a traitor, working with Magdalen to get control of the Hunt. They didn't need to know that Malachi had effectively killed her. Lucas did not want to put him through any sort of a trial, even though it had been a clear-cut case of self-defense.

The Hound on his doorstep--

"Hello, Lucas."

Josiah held himself as if he wasn't quite sure of the reception he would receive. He had not aged, but he was much paler and thinner than before, and his gaze reflected some thin thread of his ordeal.

"Gabriel let you come here alone?" With Stefan still somewhere at large, Lucas couldn't believe Gabriel would be so lax, especially so soon after Josiah's reappearance.

Josiah smiled and shook his head. "No. Zechariah and Thomas brought me this far. They'll come back when I am ready to leave."

"My house is open to them as well as anyone else," Lucas said. "They could have stayed."

"Our Master thought you might wish to speak with me alone," Josiah said. "And he wanted me to tell you--his daughter was born last night." He hesitated. "Her name is Chloe." A smile slipped past his lips, and he held his hands a span apart. "She is just about this big."

What did that make Josiah? Her older brother? "That is a fine name. I assume everything went well?"

"Our Master's lady is resting," Josiah said. "But yes. Sennet told us that everything would be fine."

"Are you--" For a moment, Lucas didn't know what to say. "How are you?"

"I am--" Josiah's mask of calmness slipped. He stood there for a moment, staring at Lucas, then sank down into a chair and covered his face with his hands. "I am here. I am alive."

"Come inside," Lucas said, holding the door open. "Do you wish to talk about it? I'm not going to force you to do anything you don't want to do."

Josiah didn't move at first. He remained huddled on the porch chair, his shoulders shaking, his hair veiling his face.

"Josiah." Did Gabriel know that he was this affected? How could he not be affected? "You are free now. Remember that."

"Yes, I know." Josiah's voice caught. "But I--"

"What are you afraid of?" Lucas asked gently.

Without looking up, Josiah whispered, "I am afraid that someone else will die. And that the bond will be broken again. And that I will be alone again." He took a deep breath. "That's what I'm afraid of."

"I would like to assure you that no one else will ever die and that the bond will never be broken again, but I can't do that," Lucas said. Especially since Stefan had yet to surface. "And you know that I can't. Neither can your Master."

"I know all of this," Josiah whispered. "But--But it--"

"It doesn't help."

"No." Josiah's voice was very small. "When I--I--"

"Come inside," Lucas said again.

This time, Josiah slid off the chair and straightened up, his eyes bright with unshed tears. When he stepped into Lucas' house, some tension seeped away from his bearing, and he actually managed a smile before gesturing to the couch and chairs. "You--You changed things."

"Yes, a bit," Lucas said. "But there's one thing that hasn't changed around here."

"What would that be?" Josiah asked, still staring, as if he had never ventured inside a house before in his life.

"The library at Darkbrook," Lucas said. "Oh, there are more books, I'm sure, but the library itself has stayed the same. And I'm certain you would just as welcome there as you were before."

"We haven't spoken of--of Darkbrook yet," Josiah said. "I think--I think Our Master wishes me to stay home, at least for a little while."

"I imagine he would," Lucas said. He wanted to--to reach out to Josiah; as he would any other student, but Josiah was not--in any way--any other student. "Is he listening to this conversation?"

Josiah shook his head. "No. He dampened the bond between us. We are--effectively--alone, for the moment, at least."

Did that make it worse, then, knowing that Gabriel wasn't listening? "You know what happened, then--when you disappeared?" This was almost as awkward as his first attempt to find out if Josiah was truly a Hound.

"My Master blamed you," Josiah whispered. He glanced away, just as uncomfortable as Lucas. "Malachi would have died that night if you hadn't intervened."

That was the first time Josiah had even mentioned Malachi's name. "How is Malachi?"

This seemed to be a safer topic. Josiah's shoulders straightened. "He is supposed to be resting. Magdalen--she trapped him before she died. And she used the same spell on Malachi that Althea used on me."

Lucas had managed to find a tiny bit of information about that spell in the week and a half since Magdalen's timely death. "And he lived?"

Josiah shrugged. "I helped him overcome it, but he's still--recovering. He is under Sennet's care." He added that last part almost fearfully, as if he expected Lucas to demand access to Malachi at any moment.

"Good." Lucas hesitated. "We could talk further in my library, if you'd like. I'll make some tea--I have cookies and leftover cake from my niece's birthday celebration--"

Josiah hesitated.

In that instant, Lucas realized what was wrong. It wasn't the awkwardness of fear--truly--it was the awkwardness of what neither of them could bring themselves to say.

"Josiah, I am more happy than you realize that you are safely home," Lucas said gently. "And I don't expect we can just pick up where we left off. I know that. But I don't want you to be a stranger, either. I don't want you to be lost to me--or Darkbrook--forever."

Josiah's lower lip quivered, but he did not lose his composure this time. Instead, he nodded, his eyes bright. "We can--We can speak more in the library," he whispered. "I--I would like a cup of tea. If you don't mind."

"Of course I don't mind," Lucas said. "Wait here--or wait in the library if you wish. It hasn't moved. I'll be right back."

Josiah smiled, and for a moment, he looked like the boy he had seemed to be before. "Thank you."

Malachi opened his eyes. For a moment, he couldn't remember why he lay in a bed, under a thin quilt that had seen better days, but then he remembered Magdalen, and her spell, and his reaction to her venom.

"What do you remember?" Sennet asked from where she sat across the room.

Malachi licked his lips. "I--I don't know. What should I remember?"

"Your name?"

He stared at her. Was she joking? "Malachi?"

Sennet nodded. "You didn't know that before."

Coldness settled in Malachi's stomach. He clutched the quilt around him, shivering despite the warmness of the air. "I did not? My own name?"

"No." Sennet stood. "May I approach?"

"Of course," Malachi said, confused. "Did I prevent you from approaching before?"

"You could say that," Sennet said, and smiled at him. "You learned your lesson a little too well, I think. If you really wanted to, you could block your Master from your mind."

This was worse, even worse than Magdalen. "No. Don't say that." He almost pulled away when she took his hand, but let her take it at the last minute. "Don't--"

"You've done it already," Gabriel said from the doorway, his voice soft and unthreatening. He held a tiny bundle in his arms--a bundle wrapped in a soft swatch of cloth.

Malachi closed his eyes. He remembered something about a baby; something fleeting and quick in the midst of confusion.

"Her name is Chloe," Gabriel said. "It is more of a human name, but Emle likes it."

It was a lovely name.

"Would you like to hold her?"

When Malachi opened his eyes, his Master blurred in his vision. "Are you certain you can trust me to hold her?" he asked, not really knowing the answer to his own question.

"I think the worst--this time, at least--may be over," Sennet said, and squeezed his hand.

With her help, Malachi managed to sit up and lean back against a stack of pillows. The room briefly reeled around his head, but it settled quickly as Gabriel approached to place the sleeping bundle of baby in his arms.

She was tiny and perfect, with near-invisible eyelashes and wisps of pale hair peeking out from under a knitted cap. When Malachi touched her tiny hand, she curled her fingers around his finger and wouldn't let go.

She is--She is beautiful, my lord.

Yes. She is. Aloud, Gabriel asked, "How do you feel?"

Malachi considered the question. "I--I'm confused, my lord." He had no free hands, so he settled on a shrug. "Sennet said I did not know my own name."

"You did not, last time," Gabriel said. "Josiah says it's a leftover effect of Magdalen's spell."

"Your mind is still casting out her influence," Sennet said. "And it will pass."

"Do you know that for certain?" Malachi asked.

"Of course not," Sennet said. "You and Josiah are the only two people who have ever survived that spell, muchless lived to talk about it afterwards. But I am hopeful of your complete recovery."

Still, even with the miracle of Chloe in his arms, Malachi could not leave the matter to rest. "And if I do not recover? What then? My lord--" He tightened his grip on the baby and she squawked and opened her eyes.

Hardly daring to breathe, Malachi stared into her gaze. I am sorry, little one.

Something--something soft and unformed, but also powerful and curiously alive--washed through the bond. It wasn't an invasion, truly, but more of a question, and Malachi felt the others' shock and interest just as he realized what had happened.

He would have dropped her if he had been standing. Instead, she nestled in the crook of his arm, smiling up at him with toothless gums.

"What exactly did you say to her?" Gabriel asked, his voice fighting for control.

"She--" Any other time, his tone of voice would have caused Malachi to flinch, expecting punishment, but he did not even hesitate. "She used the bond, my lord!"

"I know," Gabriel said. "What did you say to her?"

"I--I told her I was sorry," Malachi whispered. "I woke her up. I didn't mean to."

"I guess you didn't know this would happen?" Sennet asked, keeping her voice low.
Your name is Chloe, Malachi said through the bond. You are beautiful, and I will never let you come to harm.

This time, her response was less aware and more sleepy. She closed her eyes and gave a little sigh, almost as if the initial use of the bond had been much too exhausting for a tiny baby.

And perhaps it was. Malachi glanced up at his Master. "She's asleep again." He kept his voice low and soft.

"I see that," Gabriel replied. "Would it surprise you if I said I don't know what would happen if you do not heal?"

Malachi had almost forgotten his unanswered question. He considered every possible reply, then sighed. "No. It wouldn't. At least not anymore."

"We will wait and see," Gabriel said. "But for now--Chloe needs to sleep, and so do you."

Sleep held no peace in Malachi's mind. "But what if I don't wake up myself?" he asked--a possibility that frightened him more than he cared to admit.

"You will," his Master said. "Now sleep. The worst is over. Magdalen is gone."

But Stefan still remained. Malachi closed his eyes as Gabriel lifted the baby from his arms. Despite the fact that she weighed almost nothing, he could still feel her absence. But her smell clung to his skin and followed him down into the deep healing darkness of sleep.

Perhaps the worst was over. But even then, the spectre of Stefan haunted his dreams.


If you've gotten this far, thank you so much for reading. Authors love comments! Please feel free to leave one. :)

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Heart's Desire, Part 42

Chapter 39

The basement had not returned to normal this time. Stefan checked it again and found the water even higher--the stench almost too much to bear.

Perhaps it was time to cut his losses and escape before Magdalen's downfall became his own. She had never seemed so close to failure.

And if, by any chance, she succeeded in her quest to control the Hunt, what then? Would he end up tossed aside like the elf she had killed?

He had talents of his own, after all. And since Gabriel had stolen one of his Hounds, a score to settle as well. Not to even mention the fact that Gabriel had stolen his swan, saved her life, and impregnated her with his seed.

It was almost too much to bear.

Without speaking, he summoned his remaining Hounds and walked past the parlor that was Magdalen's stronghold; the only room in the house that had not changed.

She had dragged the Hound's body into the middle of the room as if to cast a spell, but what kind of spells could you cast with a corpse?

"I will bring you an elf," Stefan said, hoping she would accept that excuse so he could slip away.
Magdalen waved her hand. "It doesn't matter; the Council's binding has changed. I can feel it."

"Then summon Gabriel here and end this!" Stefan snapped. "You cannot hold this spell much longer; you said that yourself!"

"In due time," Magdalen said. "I still need a hostage."

"Althea is not going to return here with Gabriel's whore," Stefan said, anxious to leave.

One of his Hounds whined and he snapped at it, growling.

"I can still summon Malachi," Magdalen said, almost purring. "And Althea dares not disobey me. She has a lot to lose, after all."

"He lives?" That was a surprise in itself. "How do you know?"

"I know."

And it was just like her not to share anything with him; she thrived on mystery. And deceit.

"Do you still need elven blood for your spell?"

Magdalen waved him away. "If you wish to find an elf, feel free. If you find Kyren or his Cousin, all the better. But don't be long."

Stefan could be at the other end of the forest before she realized he wasn't coming back, and he intended to do just that.

Under cover of the darkness--and through Faerie to slip past the scouts who watched the house in the human world--he shifted into the form of a Hound and vanished into the forest.

His score with Gabriel would be settled soon enough. Until then, he would lie low and let the furor die down after Magdalen's defeat.

He had no true hope that she would win.

Chapter 40

Josiah awoke to find he lay on the bench in the living room, not a comfortable bed by any means, but a marked improvement from the cell behind the mirror.

He heard soft voices first--an argument of sorts--his Master and Sennet; the former wanting to wake him and the latter protesting that he needed his sleep.

"Althea is dead," Malachi said, close by. "I thought you would want to know."

Josiah opened his eyes. Malachi sat on the floor on the other side of the bench, watching the argument. "You knew I was awake," he said. And then, "Althea is dead?"

"I killed her," Malachi whispered, and covered his face with his hands, as if he still could not quite believe that he had done such a thing. "It was an accident."

Josiah glanced at their Master--and saw a beautiful woman standing next to him. The woman smiled at him, then touched their Master's arm.

"I believe you can stop arguing now," she said. "He is awake."

"She is our Master's lady, Emle," Malachi said for Josiah's benefit.

"I remember her," Josiah said, and sat up. There were more people in the room as well--Amalea, sitting stiffly on the hearth, and Brenna, still a Hound, her eyes wide with fear. A girl who looked a lot like Gabriel sat on the other side of the bench. Thomas stood in the doorway leading to the cave, and Zechariah was there as well. Nathaniel, however, was nowhere to be seen.

"Nathaniel is guarding the cave," Malachi said. "And it was Seth's death we felt."

"And Althea is dead?" Josiah could not mourn for her, not after what she had done to him. "She trapped me, my lord. With a spell that Magdalen gave to her--"

"Yes. I know that now," Gabriel replied. "I am glad--no. I am much more than glad to have you back, Josiah." He crossed the room to where Josiah sat, and gently touched his face. "You are home now."

At his touch, the bond bloomed in his mind, whole and complete as if it had never been broken.

My lord-- Malachi reached out to their Master, and Zechariah as well. Thomas moved into his embrace, and even Nathaniel appeared, much restored, so the bond could be renewed.

"Without Sennet's aid, the bond would still be broken between us," Gabriel said. "So we owe her our thanks as well."

Sennet frowned, but did not argue, as if she had finally given up protesting.

Gabriel motioned to the girl. "This is my daughter, Erianthe. Eri, this is Josiah. We are family now."

Josiah glanced at Emle, and saw a smile on her face.

"Malachi, you told Brenna you would try to help her shift." In the corner where she had cemented herself, Brenna sat up and eyed their Master warily. "See what you can do."

Without speaking, Malachi rose to do his bidding.

Josiah watched--they all watched, in truth--as Malachi knelt in front of Brenna and held out her hand. She sniffed his fingers, still wary, but allowed him to touch her head, and he placed his hand right between her ears.

Less than a minute later, she screamed--a raw, angry shriek that trailed away into sobs as she curled on the floor in human form, her hair matted, her skin filthy, her clothes gone.

Josiah averted his gaze as Emle covered her with a blanket, helped her up, and led her away. Sennet vanished with them, her mouth set into a thin line.

Did the Hound he killed have a human form too?

As if he had read his mind, Malachi shook his head. "She told me that the others were Hounds, nothing more."

"Tell me what happened," Gabriel said. "All of you. I want to know the whole of it."

The story--in its whole--took less time than Josiah thought it would to tell it. Everyone said their part, the others listening in, until the entire sordid tale lay exposed and writhing in the light of their scorn.

Even Brenna said her piece in a halting, tiny voice, freshly washed and clothed, with her hair cut as short as Malachi's, right below her ears.

By dawn, after endless cups of tea and plates of food for everyone, there was no real decision as to what to do with Magdalen and to a lesser extent, Stefan, only that something had to be done.

Josiah had almost fallen asleep again, curled up against Nathaniel in Hound form, when something pricked at the edges of the wards outside.

He raised his head, but Gabriel had felt it too.
Friend or foe? Josiah asked, but the wards did not answer. Perhaps they did not know.

He followed his Master out into the garden with Zechariah and Amalea, where an elven horse had stopped at the edge of the wards.

There were two people riding on the horse, but only one of them was an elf.

"Kyren!" Amalea raced through the wards before anyone could stop her, just as her cousin slid to the ground. He wasn't conscious when Zechariah helped her carry him through the wards, but his charge--a young human boy--would not leave his side, even for Sennet.

"You are welcome here," Gabriel said to the boy, who seemed a bit skeptical until he saw Emle standing in the doorway.

"Oh." He glanced at Gabriel, then at Emle again. "I--I didn't know you were with the Hunt."

Emle smiled. "Why don't you clean up a bit and change your clothes, and then we can talk about finding you somewhere to sleep," she said. "I'm glad to see you, Jordan." She led him away, into the house.

As they passed through the doorway, Josiah heard Jordan ask about Malachi.

Which was odd, because Malachi had stayed inside.

Josiah drifted back into the house as Sennet worked on healing Kyren, expecting to see Malachi still asleep in front of the hearth, but he was gone. He wasn't in the cave, either, and Thomas swore he had not passed through the cave at all.

He wasn't in any of the bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen, or the library. He wasn't in the garden--Josiah stopped right outside the door. He had forgotten the bond.

Malachi, where are you?

But Malachi did not respond.

He tried again, with no better luck.

"My lord--" Josiah spoke aloud so that everyone could hear. "Where is Malachi?"

He asked that question just as Emle appeared in the doorway. "Where is Eri?"

And then he knew. No one had thought to check if Magdalen's spells had been broken; they had just assumed, and Malachi had not mentioned anything out of the ordinary. And perhaps--perhaps she had cast a spell to force his return to her stronghold, which meant he was trapped inside her dampening spell.

Had Eri followed him?

"He is gone," Gabriel said after a moment. "Damn her! But at least we know where he will be."

"And Eri?" Emle's fists clenched, as if she could not bear to think of her daughter captive again.

"Perhaps she followed him," Nathaniel said. "I did not see her leave, my lord."

Josiah was halfway across the garden before their Master stopped him through the bond.

"Where are you going?" There was no anger in Gabriel's voice.

"I'm going," Josiah said.

"So am I." Zechariah stepped up beside him. "This needs to end."

"Gabriel?" Emle appeared in the doorway. "What of our daughter?"

"Perhaps she followed Malachi," Gabriel said without much hope. "Either way, we will find them both, and bring them home. You are right. This has to end. Now."

(Last update: October 14th)

House St. Clair Home

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Heart's Desire, Part 41

Chapter 37

Emle's garden had never looked so beautiful, even in the dark. Nathaniel opened the carriage door as the horses stopped at the edge of the wards and gently shook Josiah.

"We're home."

The younger Hound opened his eyes. For a moment, panic bloomed in his gaze, and then he took a deep breath. "Home?"

"Yes." Nathaniel glanced at Amalea. "Will you wait? Please?"

"I have no wish to anger your Master," Amalea said. "But if you'd like, I'll wait with Brenna until he gives us permission to enter."

"You've been here before," Josiah said. "When our Master killed the troll." He stood, and hesitated before climbing out. "The wards will let you pass."

"I came here with Kyren to claim my brother's body, yes," Amalea said. "But I think I should wait out here."

Nathaniel did not like the thought of Amalea by herself outside the wards, but she could take care of herself. With one glance back at the carriage, he followed Josiah into the garden.

So far, no one had noticed their arrival. Nathaniel did not want to speculate what that might mean.

Josiah fell back as they approached the house. "Not a lot has changed," he said, and tears trembled on his lashes. He wiped them away. "I am sorry. I just--I never expected to see our home again."

By mutual consent, Nathaniel stepped through the door first. And although he expected their Master to be waiting in the doorway--or the living room, at least--the house was dark and cold and silent.

Josiah ran his hands across the nearest wall and the house responded with its peculiar ambient light. "Do you think something--Do you think something happened?"

"When I left, Lucas and Sennet were here," Nathaniel said. "I don't understand." Without the bond, he could not open it to contact any of the others, or to find out who was still alive.

Could something have happened? Had Magdalen attacked and spirited them all away?

The first place to check, of course, would be the cave, just in case their Master had left anyone on guard. Nathaniel took a step towards the doorway and heard a small sound behind him. He turned.

"You are alive," Zechariah breathed. "Then--" He spotted Josiah, paled, and took a step back. "Josiah?"

"Where is our Master?" Nathaniel asked.

"There is a traitor in the Council," Zechariah replied, still staring at Josiah. "He went with Malachi to Lucas' house to tell him."

"The traitor's name is Althea," Josiah whispered.

"Malachi felt well enough to leave?" Nathaniel asked.

Zechariah shrugged. "Probably not. But he did not protest." To Josiah, he asked, "You are truly here?"

A smile brightened Josiah's pale face. "Where else would I be?"

"Our Master will be pleased by your return," Zechariah said.

"He won't be so pleased when he discovers what happened," Nathaniel said. "Is Sennet still here? Josiah is still weak."

"She is with Thomas, in the cave," Zechariah said. "I'll go to Lucas' house--"

"Wait a moment, please." Nathaniel had no right to ask him to wait, in truth. But Zechariah did not protest. "Seth is gone, then, if Malachi is alive. He was ambushed, I think. I followed him, but he vanished. And then the bond--"

"We were all affected; Malachi even more," Zechariah said. "He almost died." Gently, as if he were afraid that Josiah might bolt, Zechariah approached him. "Are you well?"

"I am here; that is well enough," Josiah said. "Nathaniel, there is much we need to tell our Master--"

Which was true. Nathaniel closed his eyes. He was not used to making decisions that would affect the entire Hunt. "Where is Sennet?"

"I'm right here," Sennet said, appearing in the doorway. "Gabriel asked me to stay behind, just in case you returned." She saw Josiah then, and glanced at Nathaniel, confused. "Who is this? Seth has black hair--"

"This is Josiah," Nathaniel said. "I found him." He sighed. "No. I found Amalea, the elf who is waiting outside the wards. She found him."

"Seth is dead," Josiah whispered. Zechariah steadied him as he swayed, but Sennet knew when she was needed. She helped him to the bench against the wall, her hands already glowing.

"Someone has to go to Lucas' house," Zechariah said. "Either you or me or Thomas." He cocked his head. "And you said there is an elf waiting outside the wards?"

"And one of Stefan's Hounds, claiming sanctuary. She claims she saved Malachi's life."

"Zechariah, you go to Lucas' house," Sennet said. "Leave Thomas on guard. Nathaniel, you don't look like you would last the journey."

"You are wounded," Zechariah observed.

"Be careful." Nathaniel wondered what his Master's response would be to their return. "Tell him--Tell him I am sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry about," Zechariah said, confused. "You brought Josiah back."

"But I let Seth die," Nathaniel whispered.

"That was not your fault." But Zechariah seemed to realize that his words would not change Nathaniel's mind. "I'll be quick. Don't leave again." He shifted shape and ran out of the room before Nathaniel could prolong the argument.

Josiah was curled against Sennet now, his eyes closed.

"I'm surprised he made it this far," she said. "He is very weak."

"He killed one of Stefan's Hounds by himself," Nathaniel said. "He's stronger than you think." He did not know what to do about Amalea's presence--and Brenna's request. Malachi would have made a decision already, despite the possible consequences. Nathaniel cursed his indecision.

"Would he truly mind?" Sennet asked, as if she knew what he was thinking.

"I don't know," Nathaniel said. "I--want to say he wouldn't mind, but I don't know."

"And what would be the consequences?" Sennet asked. "His displeasure?"

"That's a--a bigger thing than you realize," Nathaniel whispered. "But yes, he would not be pleased." Did that matter now? His Master's displeasure would not mean a death sentence, even in the vilest of incidents.

"I always ask myself 'What's the worse that can happen?'" Sennet said. "When I am afraid to do something."

Nathaniel couldn't imagine Sennet being afraid. "You--" He shook his head. "But you are a Healer."

"Healers aren't immune to fear," Sennet replied, and turned her attention back to Josiah.

What was the worst that could happen? He had borne his Master's anger before, and this time, Josiah's reappearance would temper some of that. "I think--I think I will see if Amalea and Brenna want to wait inside."

He thought he saw Sennet smile, but she did not raise her head.

"That may be best." Her voice held no humor; no inkling that she thought his fears unfounded.
But her words helped calm those fears, and Nathaniel did not hesitate when he walked out the door and into the garden.

Chapter 38

The child slept with one arm wrapped around a pillow, her face smudged by shadows, her hair fine silk across her cheeks. Althea stood and watched her for a moment, then stepped inside the room. She did not know where the child's mother was--or Lucas, for that matter, and that meant she would have to move quickly.

The house's silence belied the urgency of the situation. Althea only had one chance to get this right; one chance to keep her reputation intact and escape from the fallout without a scratch.

She had decided, after much deliberation, that it would be easier to kidnap the child and murder Gabriel's whore. The loss of his whore would drive him mad, and Magdalen could hold his daughter for ransom--and demand that Gabriel bind himself to her as payment for his daughter's life.

It would be an offer he could not refuse.

With the utmost of care, Althea closed the door behind her, then crouched beside the child's bed. The girl awoke as soon as Althea shook her lightly, her eyes widening when she saw Althea's face.

"I'm sorry to wake you up, but Lucas asked me to bring you to the library." She kept her voice friendly, but not overly so. Not fake. "There's nothing wrong, but your mother is--" What to tell her? "Your mother is having the baby a bit early, that's all. Lucas went to find your daddy, and--"

The child scrambled up. "Is she okay?"

"She'll be just fine," Althea assured her, although the opposite would be true, in the end. "If you just come with me, I'll take you to her." She held out her hand.

The child hesitated, as if she heard something false in Althea's tone of voice, but she took Althea's hand after a moment. "Is someone going to tell my papa?"

"Of course," Althea said. "Lucas sent someone else to tell your papa." He'll be along in a minute, I'm sure." She tugged on the girl's hand. "We have to hurry, though--Lucas told me to hurry."

"But--But Mama went to see Sennet, and Sennet told her everything was fine!" With surprising strength, the child pulled her hand from Althea's grasp. "Where is my Mama?"

"She'll be dead soon if you don't do what I say," Althea heard herself say, and inwardly cursed the knowings of meddling Healers. "Do you understand?" She made a grab for the girl, but the freak shifted, and the teeth of a young Hound closed over Althea's wrist.

She shrieked, despite herself, and threw the dog down onto the floor with a strength born of desperation. As it rose to attack again, Althea kicked it in the ribs, and the creature yelped--a sound that would no doubt alert her mother and anyone else who happened to be listening.

"You were supposed to live," Althea growled, and picked up the nearest heavy object--a bookend--she could find. "I intended to spare you and kill your mother, but since you won't cooperate--"

Human hands reached up to grab the bookend as Althea brought it down. The child twisted out of the way as the door opened behind Althea, and Emle's voice brought everything to a standstill.

"Eri? What--" Althea heard Emle gasp. "What are you doing?"

With exaggerated care, Althea grabbed the child's arm before she could escape and pulled her up. Tears left dusty tracks across Eri's cheeks, and a bruise darkened her arm, but she was largely unhurt.

"Close the door behind you, my lady," Althea said. "And do it slowly if you want your daughter to live."

"She wants to kill you, Mama!" Eri tried to twist out of Althea's grasp, but a small spell of binding left her helpless, bound hand and foot with invisible ropes.

"If you say another word, I'll gag you, child," Althea said. "Your mother and I have a lot to talk about."

"We have nothing to talk about," Emle said, her eyes narrowed into slits. "Let my daughter go. I'm not sure who you're working for, but you cannot imagine you'll get away with this!"

Althea could feel her smile stretching almost ear to ear. "Oh, but I do intend to get away with this," she said. "I only have to deliver one of you as ransom; the other will die. Which one of you will live, my lady? You or your daughter? The baby dies with you, of course, if you choose yourself."

Emle's hand strayed to her belly, as if attempting to shelter her unborn child from Althea's words. "You cannot expect me to make a decision like that!"

"Then I'll make it for you." Althea called up a suitable spell and dragged the child farther into the room. Emle followed, as she must, of course, her hands clenched into useless fists.


"You have a decision to make," Althea said, her voice as hard as steel.

Emle did not respond. And before Althea could cast her spell, Eri--that damned brat--shifted shape again, and in her Hound form, the ropes fell away like they were made of water. She snapped at Althea and twisted out of her grasp, bounded off the bed, and cowered behind her mother.

"Your mother can't save you, little Hound," Althea growled, and took one step towards the two of them, her hands raised to kill them both.

Magdalen could clean up the mess by herself.

Inexplicably, the doorbell rang, audible even through the closed door. Althea hesitated as it rang again, and then she heard muffled voices--Lucas, yes, and someone else. Who? Gabriel?

She readied her spell, but knew at once that she was out of time as the door burst inward, and let in the destruction of her dreams.

Emle assumed Althea intended to cast a spell, but she never got a chance to begin. Gabriel burst through the door, closely followed by Malachi and Lucas.

Althea bared her teeth, her hands still outstretched. "Lucas?" She seemed not to notice Gabriel or Malachi.

"Althea, I think you have some explaining to do," Lucas said, his voice grave. "Gabriel just informed me--"

As Gabriel enfolded Emle into his arms, Althea noticed Malachi's presence for the first time. "You!"

She cast her spell before anyone could stop her, throwing something vile and black through the air. Emle shrieked, Lucas yelled, Eri screamed, Gabriel lunged for his Hound, but Malachi--

Malachi threw up his hands, flinching back as the spell reached him. He fell against a table and knocked everything on it to the floor. Then he slid down the wall, lurching sideways, his eyes closed.

Lucas reached him first, throwing up what Emle presumed was a ward to block any further spells. She had to grab her daughter to prevent her from disturbing Lucas--Eri sobbed against her belly, her whole body shaking.

When Lucas touched Malachi's shoulder, Malachi jerked awake, his eyes wide now, staring over Lucas' shoulder at Althea.

Gabriel was an immobile rock beside her, his arms around her still, his face remote as he, too, stared at Althea.

Emle had to crane her head to look at her. As soon as she did, she wished she hadn't looked--the spell Althea had cast had very obviously not hit Malachi, as she intended.

"Lucas--" Gabriel kept his voice low. "I think Malachi learned well."

"What do you--oh." Lucas turned around as Althea collapsed.

"She--put a truthspell on me," Malachi whispered, and Emle thought that he looked close to collapse. "She was there, with Magdalen and Stefan."

"You can check the truth of his words," Gabriel said. "To see who cast that spell."

"I am sorry." Malachi sat up and leaned against the wall. "I could only think of a mirror, my lord. I--"

"May I?" Lucas asked, and held out his hand. Malachi hesitated, then placed his hand in Lucas' grip, glancing at Gabriel as if for permission--or reassurance. When Lucas released Malachi's hand, his mouth was set in a grim line. "You're right," he said, and glanced at Althea--Althea's body, Emle supposed. "Did she have something to do with Josiah's disappearance as well?"

He stood, and bent over Althea for a moment to check her pulse. "She's dead."

"You said yourself that you had to take someone's name off that list to place Josiah's name on it," Gabriel said.

Emle gently disengaged herself from Gabriel's arms and knelt next to Malachi. "Are you okay?"

Eri stopped crying long enough to peer at him. "Malachi?"

He was shivering slightly, a natural reaction to Althea's venom. "She's dead?"

"But to go this far?" Lucas shook his head. "She could have reapplied."

"And would you have accepted her?" Gabriel's voice had deepened to a growl. "Lucas, she lied to you to get what she wanted. I know she knew what happened to Josiah."

"She would have killed you," Emle said, trying to reassure him.

"She was a member of the Council," Malachi whispered, and closed his eyes.

"Malachi?" Eri touched his cheek and he grasped her hand. She took that as an invitation and threw her arms around him. He stiffened, then relaxed, hugging her back.

Emle smiled.

"She could not have known that he was a Hound," Lucas said.

"She didn't," Malachi whispered. "Magdalen forced me to tell her--she wanted to know who created the wards. She didn't know." He shuddered. "She wasn't pleased when I told her."

Emle glanced at Gabriel and saw his lips tighten. "I heard Eri cry out, and I found Althea with her--"

"She told me you were having the baby early, and that I should come with her," Eri said, her voice muffled against Malachi's chest. "But I didn't go with her."

"And I'm glad you refused," Lucas said. He almost sounded--embarrassed. "Gabriel, I apologize for this. If I had any inkling that she was involved when Josiah vanished, I--"

"I know," Gabriel said softly.

"My house is obviously not safe," Lucas said. "And I've been a foolish old man, it seems. Gabriel, Emle and I were talking--" He tucked his hand inside his jacket.

The doorbell rang before he could finish his sentence. Gabriel stiffened. Malachi growled.

"Surely you don't believe this Magdalen would be so bold?" Emle asked. "Could it be someone else?"

"I'll find out," Lucas said. "Wait here." He hurried down the hall.

"My lord, I killed a member of the Council," Malachi whispered.

"I know," Gabriel said. His voice held no inflection.

"Gabriel--" Emle struggled to her feet. "Must you punish him? He thinks--"

"You learned what I asked you to learn, and you protected yourself," Gabriel said. "You did well."

Malachi nodded. Emle stayed close to him, just in case her presence helped his fear. But he seemed more at ease now than he had any other time before. Perhaps Eri's presence helped.

Lucas returned a moment later with Zechariah in tow.

"You left Thomas alone?" Gabriel asked, his voice harsh.

Zechariah didn't even bother to flinch. "No, my lord. I left Thomas with Nathaniel and Sennet. Nathaniel--" He stopped, then, when he saw Althea's body, and his eyes widened. "Nathaniel found Josiah, my lord."

While Emle's heart soared at that news, Zechariah's words also meant that Seth's death had broken the bond and shattered the Hunt into pieces.

"Josiah is alive?" Gabriel asked, his voice soft.

"Sennet is caring for him," Zechariah said. "There are others, too, my lord--a Hound named Brenna--"

Malachi stirred at this news. "My lord, she saved my life. I told her I would try to help her shift shape."

"Then do so when we return home," Gabriel said. "But you said others?"

"And an elf--Nathaniel did not tell me the whole tale, my lord. I came right away." He glanced at Althea's body again. "Josiah said that she--Althea--was a traitor, but I guess you already know that."

"Althea tried to kill Malachi," Lucas said. "And he blocked her spell quite--effectively. I would have liked to question her, of course, but she should never have been a member of this Council."

"There is still Magdalen and Stefan," Gabriel said. "This isn't over yet."

"Oh, I think it's over," Lucas said. "They haven't realized that they've lost quite yet. Gabriel, before you go, there is something I have to do." He pulled a folded piece of parchment from his jacket pocket. "Emle suggested this, and I see no reason why such a thing cannot occur." He hesitated. "Five years ago, I assumed control of the binding. No one wants to admit that the Council holds you in slavery; the other Council members would rather retire the binding as soon as possible."

"They only have to wait a week and a half," Gabriel said, frozen in place as he stared at the piece of parchment.

Could he feel it? Did he know that was the real binding? Even Eri had raised her head, her eyes wide.

"I don't want to wait a week and a half and discover that you are now our enemy," Lucas said. "That is not fair to you, your Hounds, your lady, or your children."

"That is true, but if the curse still stands, I may have little choice in the matter," Gabriel said, his voice soft. "Lucas, I will find a way to escape her if that is true. I have no wish to become your enemy."

Lucas held out the parchment. "I believe this truly belongs to you," he said. "I took the liberty of drawing up another codicil--"

Gabriel took it with shaking hands, the only outward sign of his distress. He unfolded it, stared down at the edicts and the codicil, then glanced up at Lucas. "What does this mean?"

"You are free," Lucas said. "I signed the binding over to you, at Emle's suggestion." He hesitated when Gabriel did not reply. "Your children should not live in slavery."

Emle moved to stand beside Gabriel, since he seemed frozen still, staring down at the binding. She touched his arm and he let her embrace him, but his silence was a bit unnerving. "Gabriel?"

"Thank you," Gabriel said. If Emle did not know him any better, she would have said he was close to tears. "No one has ever done such a thing before."

There were tears on Malachi's cheeks, and even Zechariah's eyes were suspiciously bright. Eri's lower lip quivered.

"The Council will not interfere in your quest to be rid of Magdalen and Stefan unless someone else gets involved," Lucas said quietly. "But I am available to help as much as I can. I want this ended as much as you do. Please don't shut me out."

Methodically, Gabriel folded the parchment in half, then tucked it away into a pocket of his pants. "You do realize--even if the curse still stands--"

"I don't think it matters anymore," Emle said. "Even if it isn't, the binding is yours now."

Gabriel smiled down at her. "Lucas I will not forget this kindness."

Lucas nodded. "Will you tell Josiah that I've never forgotten him?" he asked, almost wistfully.

"You may tell him yourself, once he is well," Gabriel said. "I will not hide him--or any of my Hounds--from you again."

"Thank you," Lucas said.

"You're not leaving me behind again," Emle stated. "My place is with you, Gabriel. Not closeted away like a breakable doll."

"Me neither," Eri said, and jumped up, as if ready to fight for her place in the family.

For once, Gabriel did not argue. And they left, together, a moment later, leaving Lucas alone with a corpse and an ocean of unanswered questions.

(Next Update: October 13th)

House St. Clair Home

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Heart's Desire, Part 40

Chapter 35

Malachi awoke to find that he lay in the spare bed, alone. He lay still for a moment, fighting with confusing chunks of memory that told him a little less than nothing. Something had happened. He wouldn't be in bed otherwise. But the details were lost, mixed up in what was left of the soup of his mind.

His stomach growled. At least that part of his body seemed to be working right.

When he climbed out of bed, he almost fell, his legs wobbling when he tried to stand. He made it as far as the door before sagging against it and closing his eyes.

Wasn't there a better way to do this? Couldn't he call his Master through the bond they shared?

The bond that was gone?

He had not noticed its absence until now.
Someone died, his memory supplied, a quiet little voice in the back of his mind. You almost died. You probably shouldn't be out of bed.

But he was too hungry to lie in bed and wait for someone to appear.

No one met him when he walked down the hall to the kitchen. Emle's pot of stew had been put away, but it only took a moment--well, more than a moment, since he had to stop and rest after each step--to warm up a bowl.

Part of his mind wondered where the others were. But the largest part of his mind was only concerned about the food, and the fact that some of the fog began to seep away once he had remembered how to use a spoon.

It was difficult to eat and keep his eyes open at the same time, however. And the kitchen wasn't as warm as the bedroom. He shivered.

"If you were hungry, all you had to do was ask." Gabriel's voice was more relieved than angry. "I left you alone for five minutes."

The spoon dropped from Malachi's fingers. "I am--"

"Don't apologize," Gabriel said. "You've done nothing wrong." With exaggerated care, he picked up the spoon, wiped it off, and placed it next to Malachi's bowl. "Would you like something to drink as well? Tea? Something else?"

"What happened?" Malachi asked. His mind refused to obey his demand for knowledge. "I feel strange."

"You should be in bed," Gabriel said. "You are not yet fully healed."

"I--" Malachi closed his eyes. He didn't realize his head had fallen forward until his Master gently lifted him up. "I'm so tired."

"Then rest," Gabriel said. "I'll help you back to your bed."

"No." Malachi couldn't find enough strength to open his eyes, but he realized--somewhere deep down inside--that he needed food. For whatever reason, he had to eat. "I--I need to eat."

"Then let me help you," Gabriel said.

He vanished for a moment, and Malachi almost fell asleep with his head pillowed in his arms. The gnawing hunger in his stomach would not let him rest, though, and he pried his eyes open long enough to accept a mug of piping hot broth--a much easier meal than the stew. The warmth of the mug seeped through his hands as he raised it to his lips.

When his strength failed, his Master's hand caught the mug and tipped it up again so he could drink.

And slowly, some of the desperate hunger faded.

He drank another batch before he felt strong enough to hold the mug again. "The bond is gone between us." He shivered, only now realizing what that meant. "Who--"

"I don't know," Gabriel said. "Not yet, at least. There are three Hounds missing, and one is dead."


"Seth, and Nathaniel." Gabriel glanced towards the kitchen door. "Thomas and Zechariah are in the cave on duty. Sennet is still here--she's sleeping in the other bedroom. I told her I would watch over you."

"I--I was--attacked," Malachi whispered. That felt right, at least.

"Yes. By Stefan's Hounds, as far as I can tell." Gabriel studied him. "Do you remember anything at all?"

Malachi frowned and closed his eyes. His memories were still in pieces, but some of something had fallen into place. "I remember--" His mind obediently supplied a piece of memory. "Althea's truthspell. She wanted to know if Lucas knew we could shift shape."

”Althea?" Gabriel asked.

For a moment, Malachi couldn't even remember what he had said. "My lord?"

Gabriel stood. "You said--You said that Althea cast a truthspell and wanted to know if Lucas--"

"Knew we could shift shape." Malachi rubbed his throat. "Yes."

"Althea was there?"

"With Magdalen and Stefan," Malachi whispered, trembling as the memories swam to the forefront of his mind.

"Althea Dunning," Gabriel stressed. "A member of the Council."

"Yes. I--I did not expect to see her there." Malachi closed his eyes. "I tried not to answer their questions, my lord--"

Gabriel's fury washed over him like a wave of boiling lava. Malachi shrank back into his chair even as he realized that none of his Master's anger had anything to do with him.

"My lord, please--" He did not have enough strength to defend himself from his Master's anger.

"I sent Emle and Eri with Lucas," Gabriel whispered. "Thinking they would be safe." He stared down at Malachi. "Is there more? Was Lucas there?"

"No," Malachi whispered. "And I would swear to that. Lucas is no traitor."

"But Althea is." Gabriel closed his eyes, but only for a moment. "Would you--Are you strong enough to tell this to Lucas?"

"I do not know much else," Malachi whispered. "Only that she was there--the first time. Not the second." He hesitated. Was he strong enough to walk to Lucas' house? "I don't know if I can make it, but I am willing to try, my lord."

"If Althea discovers that Emle is in Lucas' house--" Gabriel stopped then, staring blankly, as if he, too, had lost his mind. "Oh, Josiah."

"Not dead--" Malachi whispered, and watched his Master's face blur through sudden tears.

"Why would they leave him alive?" Gabriel asked. "For ten years? Why?"

"But we felt--"

"This is worse than I thought," Gabriel said. "Much worse." He hesitated, as if unsure whether or not to share his revelations with Malachi. "Do you remember what happened right before Josiah vanished?"

"He was chosen to be tutored by Lucas Lane," Malachi whispered. He could remember that just fine.

"Lucas had to take a name off his list before he could add Josiah's name to it," Gabriel said. "I thought nothing of it, in truth. I truly did not suspect."

"Whose name was taken off the list?" Malachi asked, even as he suspected he already knew the answer. "Althea's?"

"Yes," Gabriel said. "Whatever she did--whatever she agreed to do--" He paused. "No. More like whatever Magdalen gave her--I felt Josiah in Faerie, somewhere--"

"Lucas needs to know this," Malachi whispered. "And I am well enough for travel." He braced himself, then slowly stood. This time, at least, he managed to stay on his feet without swaying.

"I am not sure of that," Gabriel said. "But you are correct. Lucas needs to know."

"What does Lucas need to know?" Sennet asked from the doorway. "I looked in on Malachi, but I got a little worried when you weren't in your bed."

"I was hungry," Malachi said. "Did I thank you for healing me?"

"Seeing you standing there is thanks enough," Sennet replied. "What happened?"

"There is a traitor in the Council," Gabriel said. "And that is what Lucas needs to know."

"And you intend to take Malachi with you?" Sennet frowned. "He shouldn't be out of bed, Gabriel."

"He got out of bed himself," Gabriel replied. "And yes. Malachi is my proof. Lucas will be able to tell who cast the first truthspell."

Malachi shivered. "Will he--will he have to cast another one to tell that I am telling the truth?" The thought was almost too much for him to bear.

Gabriel must have seen something on his face, because he gathered Malachi up into his arms before replying. "No. I won't allow it. Even if he doesn't believe you," he said when Malachi would have asked.

Malachi nodded and closed his eyes. He let his head fall against his Master's chest. For the first time since he awoke, he felt--almost--safe.

"He really isn't well enough to travel anywhere," Sennet murmured.

With an effort, Malachi roused himself, pushing the weariness away. "I will live."

Sennet smiled. "I daresay you will. I can stay here with the others if you wish."

"That may be for the best," Gabriel said. "If Nathaniel returns--or Seth--"

Or Josiah, Malachi wanted to say, but he held his tongue.

"I will find a way to contact you," Sennet said. "At the very least, I can contact Lucas."

"Thank you," Gabriel whispered. "Truly, I cannot repay you for what you have done."

"Go." Sennet briefly touched Malachi's shoulder, feeding in a bit of strength to help him on the journey. "And be careful. I don't need any more business tonight."

"It is not far to Lucas' house," Gabriel said. "Malachi? Are you ready?"

"Yes." He would make it to Lucas' house. But after that--

"Then let's go, before something happens and we are too late."

Chapter 36

The door at the top of the stairs opened at Kyren's touch, but he could see nothing beyond it. For a moment, he stood there, trying to force his eyes to adjust, but then he realized that this absolute darkness was not a natural occurrence.

How cruel was it to keep a young child bound and locked in a closet with no way to shout for help and under a spell of darkness?

And yet he did not dare banish that spell. Not yet, at least. Magdalen might not notice the destruction of a small spell like the gag, but she would notice something like this.

Blind, Kyren knelt in the doorway. "Child? Are you here?"

Something shifted against the far wall, a small, furtive movement as quiet as a mouse.

"I am not here to harm you," Kyren whispered. "I saw you--when the Hound died. My name is Kyren."

Before he could continue, the closet door opened--a heartbreaking glimpse of Beth's room before Magdalen hauled the boy out and closed the door again. Kyren stayed stock-still, unable to believe that she hadn't noticed his presence. He had no wild chameleon talent that allowed him to blend in.

Had they discovered his absence already? Was Magdalen intending to try to force the boy to find him somehow?

Or worse?

He heard murmured voices, and then the sound of a slap against flesh. The boy made no protest until Magdalen removed the gag--he was crying by then, and only sobbed for a long moment as Kyren inched closer to the door to listen.

"She wants to betray me, doesn't she?" Magdalen hissed, her voice carrying enough for Kyren to hear her clearly.

"I--I don't know!" The boy's voice rose. "I didn't know she was here--"

She who? Kyren wondered. Althea? He shrank back as the door opened again, but Magdalen only shoved the boy inside. Perhaps--and this was almost too much to hope for--she couldn't see past her spell of darkness either.

The boy wriggled to the opposite side of the closet--as far away from the door as he could get--then whispered, "Are you still there?"

Kyren reached out in the darkness and found the boy's bound legs. "What is your name?"

"J-Jordan." His voice hitched. "I saw you too--when the Hound died."

"Why is Magdalen keeping you here?" Kyren worked at the knots on the ropes that bound him, wishing he had more talent so he could magic them away.

As soon as his arms were free, Jordan tried to help, but every movement sent him hissing in pain as the circulation returned to his arms and legs.

"I--" He was crying again, silently, but Kyren could hear the tears in his voice. "I have a wild talent."

"That is no reason to keep you locked in a closet," Kyren said.

"I can read minds." Jordan rubbed his arms and flexed his fingers with Kyren's help. "Human minds. Not yours."

"You were wounded, before," Kyren said, storing this information away for later. "I have no healing talent, but if I can get us past Magdalen's spell, are you strong enough to run through the forest?" He didn't dare travel through Faerie, not so close to the house. That meant--That meant he would have to find another place for sanctuary. "Do you know where the Healer Sennet lives?"

"Yes." For the first time, Jordan's voice held a thread of hope. "I know where her house is. I've seen it before."

"Can you find it in the dark?" Kyren asked.

A damp, fetid stench rose up from the basement--the spell had slipped again, and the water had returned. Quickly, before it vanished, Kyren tugged the boy up, half-carrying him to the top of the stairs.

"The house you see is a spell," he said. "Can you swim?"

"I don't know," Jordan whispered, staring down at the lapping water. It wasn't very far up the stairs, but a strange luminescence had appeared--moonlight?--that reflected off the dark water below.

"The true house has burned," Kyren said. "Magdalen's spell slips from time to time. If we--if we find a place in the water, we may be able to escape." He would figure out how to escape from the drowned basement later. He could not whistle a tune for both of them, and he refused to even consider leaving the boy behind. "It may be our only chance."

In the dim light, the boy's face was gray, the patch over his eye hanging askew. "Then I will try to swim," he whispered, and shivered.

On that note, Kyren helped him down the stairs. As before, the water was full of debris--but a coating of slime covered everything now, and Kyren bared his teeth as he waded through it. Jordan's breath escaped his clenched teeth in a steady whine, but he made no true protest; he seemed to realize that this was their only hope for freedom.

The water kept rising, knee-high at first, chest-high as they reached the center of the room where the furniture moldered in the dampness. Kyren lifted Jordan up onto a pile of wood--it would not do as a perch if the water reached the ceiling, but they could try to swim then, at least.
The stars appeared again--and the moon, shining down into the hole that had once been a floor.

"Can we climb out?" Jordan asked, shivering as he stared up at freedom.

"I don't know." Kyren had intended to stay in the basement and wait until the spell stopped struggling, but it made sense to try their escape now. The stairs were gone--only jagged hunks of charred wood remained. But surely they could climb up onto a pile of debris--

Jordan had already begun to climb. Kyren followed him more slowly, trying to ignore the splinters that snagged his skin, or the slippery rot that already covered the remains of Jacob Daulton's house.

Jordan slid once--at the very top--and lost his eyepatch. His ruined eye was scar tissue, nothing more, but the moonlight cast shadows across his face that showed the track of his tears.

Kyren hauled him to his feet and held him for a moment until his shivering subsided. "Who did that to you?"

"My--My father," Jordan whispered. "He--He thought my talent would fade if I couldn't see." He pushed away from Kyren's grasp and stumbled across the field of destruction, intent on the forest--and freedom.

At the very edge of Magdalen's dampening spell, Kyren tripped over something and lost his balance. When he fell, he twisted his ankle and heard something pop--the pain left him breathless, unable to call out to Jordan to wait.

As Kyren watched, a shadow detached itself from the forest and approached the boy. At first, Jordan tried to run, but the shadow spoke--and whatever it said must have made sense, because Jordan turned and pointed back to the ruined house.

Another shadow joined the first. And then a third--clearly this was not some force of Magdalen's, but someone else's scouts watching the perimeter.

Had Amalea left them there?

Kyren crawled forward, sinking in ash, tearing his hands and his clothes on melted glass and chunks of wood.

He managed to stand just as someone's hand appeared in his line of sight to help him up.
"We thought you were dead."

Kyren knew the girl by sight, but not her name. "I thought I was dead," he said. "Is Jordan--"

"He'll be fine." The girl hesitated. "We can't bring him back to the castle, you realize. Amalea said nothing about a human child."

"Do you know where the Healer Sennet lives?" Kyren asked, grateful for her assistance as he limped across the grass to where Jordan waited with the others. "We'll go there. I think--I think it would be best if I don't go back to the castle just yet."

"We will loan you a horse, then," the scout said. Kyren knew she wouldn't argue with him--in the peculiar hierarchy of the elves, he outranked her by blood alone.

"Thank you." He hesitated. "I am sorry; I know I've seen you before. I do not remember your name."

"My name is Iria," the girl said, and smiled at him. "It was--It was good of you to save the boy, Kyren."

Kyren closed his eyes and leaned back against the nearest tree. "It was the only thing I could have done," he whispered.

Iria touched his arm a moment later, and he opened his eyes to find that she had brought him a horse--a stately steed of elvish stock, as gray as ash. It knelt so he could mount--and even that was almost beyond his strength.

Jordan climbed up behind him. "We are going to Sennet's house?"

"Yes." Kyren waited until the other two scouts had melted away before addressing Iria again. "I owe you my thanks for the horse," he said. "And the aid." And then, because he had forgotten, he asked, "Where is Amalea?"

"She went back to the castle," Iria said. "But she is not there now. The last time I spoke with her, she was on her way to deliver Josiah to his Master."

From the way she said that, Kyren doubted Amalea had told her scouts of Josiah's origins.

"I thought Josiah disappeared," Jordan whispered at his back.

"Yes, but we found him again," Kyren said, keeping his voice low, just in case the scouts were listening. "And I know where Amalea is headed."


"To the Hunt's lair." Kyren closed his eyes for a moment and tried to decide if he had enough courage to go there instead of the Healer's house. He had Jordan to think of now, after all, and he did not want to frighten the boy.

"Josiah is a Hound?" Jordan asked.

"Yes." Kyren tried to flex his foot to work out the sprain, but it throbbed in time with his heartbeat, drowning out everything else.

It would take them all night to reach the Hunt's lair at this pace. Perhaps that was a good thing.

"Are we going to the Hunt's lair, then?" Jordan asked.

"I think we should." Kyren whispered the new instructions into the horse's ear. Then he settled back, closed his eyes, and tried to conserve his strength for the battle ahead.

(Next Update: October 12th)
House St. Clair Home

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Heart's Desire, Part 39

Chapter 33

Emle found Lucas in his living room, staring down at a piece of parchment on his lap. "Is there anything I can do here?" she asked. "Might I have a book to read, at least?" Although reading wouldn't be her first choice, she would embrace anything that helped keep her mind from worrying about Gabriel and the Hunt.

Eri had fallen asleep--even a ten-year-old child couldn't stay awake forever. But Emle could not sleep.

Lucas glanced up at her, almost as if he was surprised to see her there. "Oh, I am sorry," he said. "This has all been a bit--difficult for me." He sighed. "I know what I should do, but what I should do and what I want to do are two totally different things."

"You will not punish him for showing you--" Emle couldn't bear the thought.

Lucas shook his head. "Oh, no. No." He smiled at her and motioned to the couch. "Why don't you sit down? We could talk--if you don't mind, that is. Did--Did Eri fall asleep?"

"I don't mind," Emle said. "And yes, she's asleep. I don't know how long she will sleep; this has been a stressful time for all of us."

"Yes," Lucas said. "I imagine it has been."

Emle sat down on the couch, sinking into softness. "I will talk to you, but if you're looking for more secrets, I don't know them. Gabriel didn't tell me the Hounds could shift shape until yesterday morning." She hesitated. "He didn't allow them to shift shape until yesterday morning."

"Ten years ago, he did," Lucas said. "Before Josiah vanished. You do know about Josiah, don't you?"

"Yes." Emle smiled. "Finally."

"I wanted to speak to you about the binding, in truth," Lucas said, and handed her the piece of parchment.

It was heavier than it seemed, and not an innocent piece of paper at all. Emle glanced at it, realizing what it was only after she saw the signatures on the bottom, and the dates.

"This--This is--" She could not imagine why he had let her hold such a fragile--and important piece of parchment.


Emle glanced up at him, her eyes wide. "And what would happen if I tore this up right now?" she asked fiercely, almost angry that he had handed it to her. As if it didn't matter. As if it hadn't ruled Gabriel's life for the past hundred years. "Would you try to stop me?"

"Do you know if this curse he speaks of is still in effect?" Lucas asked, not answering either of her questions.

"We both heard about it at the same time," Emle said. "I do not know. I hope not. But as you said, there is no real way to check." She tried to hand the binding back to Lucas, but he would not take it. Instead, he handed her another piece of paper--this one newer.

A codicil to the binding, naming Lucas Lane as the only member of the Council who controlled it. Which meant Lucas was, in essence, Gabriel's Master.

"Why do you show me these things?" Emle asked.

"Because I don't think I can wait a week and a half to see if the Council will have to bind the Hunt again," Lucas said, quite seriously.

Emle almost crumpled the binding in her hand right then and there. "I don't think Gabriel will agree to another binding," she said carefully, not quite sure of his intentions.

"If he has to choose between the Council and Magdalen, who would he pick?" Lucas asked. "He may not have a choice, if the curse still stands. And I know the Council will not allow Magdalen to control him. Not from what she's done--or tried to do--already."

Emle thought this over. His words made sense, especially if the curse still held. But how would they know? The binding had to expire first, and it would not expire for a week and a half. As Lucas had said, too long to wait.

She wished Gabriel had confided in her about some of this earlier. Not knowing--or worse, finding out the same time as a member of the Council--made her feel as if her place as Gabriel's lady wasn't as permanent as she would have liked.

"How long have you been with him?" Lucas asked gently, as if he knew where her thoughts had led.

"He--He found me, and saved my life, when he killed the troll," Emle whispered, and glanced down at the binding in her hand. She forced herself to read the words, since Gabriel had never told her of the binding's essence.

"That was almost thirteen years ago," Lucas said. "He hid you for that long?"

"No." It was a list of rules, in truth, this binding, a list of things the Hunt was not allowed to do. "I left for a while, after he found my skin for me." Before he could ask, she offered, "My people lived as swans. The wizard who lived in that house before the troll captured me--years and years ago. He wanted to be a shapeshifter."

"So he stole your skin?" Lucas asked, appalled. "Does this happen often?"

"None of my kin remain," Emle said. For once, the old sadness was just an ache now, a mournful remembrance of times past. "The wizard who wanted to be a shapeshifter killed them all."

"This wizard--did he have a name?"

Emle shook her head. "If he did, I do not know it. Most of the books in the library belonged to him, I think. But I do not believe he built our house."

There was a clause at the bottom of the binding, a time off for good behaviour addendum. The binding could be ended early. Was that why Lucas had given it to her?

"He kept you a prisoner."

Of course Lucas wanted to know the story; he was the Council Historian, after all. Emle almost smiled.

"He kept me prisoner until Gabriel found me," she said. "And he--Gabriel--treated me with the utmost respect. I stayed with them for many months, and I was happy there."

"But you didn't see the Hounds shift shape," Lucas said. "Was that before he allowed them to do so? If I remember--"

"It was around the same time," Emle said. "And I don't remember seeing them in human form--they could have hidden that from me. I was not well for a little while after my release." She hesitated. "But I was happy. The wizard had told me he destroyed my skin, but I asked Gabriel to search for it anyway."

"And he found it?" Lucas asked.

"After over a year," Emle replied. "After I had given up, and accepted my place with the Hunt. After I had stopped hoping to find my kin."

"After you fell in love with him?" Lucas guessed.

Emle smiled. "I would not have admitted that to myself then," she said. "But yes. And you don't realize--you can't realize--how it feels." She shook her head. "I am explaining this badly. For centuries, humans and wizards have stolen our skins to trap us. The same happens with Selkies, I hear. They keep us captive and use us--until we find our skins again and have a chance to escape." She heard bitterness enter her voice. "It is expected."

"But you said that Gabriel found your skin," Lucas said. "He did not steal it--"

"No. But I thought it had been destroyed." Emle bit her lip. "And I--I did not expect him to give it to me, even if he found it. That's not the way it works." She had never explained this to anyone, because Gabriel already knew how she felt. "And he knew I would leave when he gave me my skin. I had to. I had to see if any of my kin had survived." She paused. "You know a little of it, I'm sure. There is a code, of sorts, in Faerie--and here as well, in places--that if you do something for someone, you owe them a debt that has to be repaid."

"Yes. Gabriel has spoken of that before. But he seems to accept it when I tell him he owes me nothing. Others do not." Lucas shook his head. "It is a curious custom."

"He told me that as well, but I didn't believe him, at first," Emle said. "When I found no sign of my kin, I returned to the forest. But when I left him, I was pregnant. And I stumbled into an animal trap. Sennet found me, and after the baby--Eri--was born, Gabriel welcomed me back."
She had left out a lot, but Lucas truly did not need to know every inch of detail.

"And you've been there ever since." At Emle's nod, Lucas asked, "When is the baby due?"

"Right around the time of the binding's expiration," Emle said. "That is why Gabriel has been so--tense of late. I persuaded him to allow me to contact Sennet yesterday morning. And then, all of--all of this happened."

"If I destroy the binding and the curse still stands, Gabriel will never be free," Lucas said. "And neither will you--or your children--if you stay with him."

"If you are trying to persuade me to leave, don't." Emle tried to quell a flash of irritation. "I will not raise my daughters without their father, curse or no." This time, when she tried to hand the binding back to Lucas, he took it, albeit reluctantly.

Perhaps he wished she had made good on her threat? But why? Why would he allow her to destroy it?

Or had he just wondered what she would do?

"Why did you give me that?" she asked.

Lucas sighed. "Fifty years ago, there was a push from the current Council members to be rid of this binding," he said. "They were of the mind that the Hunt had been--for want of a better word--civilized, and that Gabriel should be free to do as he pleased, within reason, of course."

"Fifty years ago?" Emle wondered if Gabriel knew. "What happened? The binding still remains."

"I'm not certain who nixed the idea," Lucas said. "But it was discussed, and discarded. Not because anyone believed the Hunt would then turn on the Council; it was unlikely, even then. But because no one knew what would happen once the binding was broken. We didn't know about the curse. I'm sure that would have made a difference."

"You cannot think to extend it," Emle said in protest. "You've already said you do not wish to create another binding."

"No. The Council does not condone slavery," Lucas said. "A hundred years ago, the binding was seen to be the only way to corral the Hunt without killing Gabriel and the rest of the Hounds. It worked, but what if the curse still stands? What if Magdalen gains control of the Hunt and orders Gabriel to attack the Council? Or Beth-Hill? Or Faerie? I cannot wait a week and a half to find that out."

"Then what do you intend to do?" Emle asked.

"Find a way to break that curse, if it still stands," Lucas said. "Otherwise, the Hunt would be too dangerous to free."

His words were true, but Emle could imagine Gabriel's response. "Why don't you let Gabriel make that choice?"

"What do you mean?" Lucas asked curiously.

"You have to remember that I'm biased in this," Emle said. "But it seems to me that Gabriel had never been--he's never been allowed to make his own decisions about his future. First it was the curse, and the the binding for the last century. No one has ever bothered to ask him what he wants. They have always assumed he will serve them without question."

"He questions me," Lucas said, but Emle heard a thread of interest running through his voice now. "But you are right. He has never had that chance."

"Give him that chance, then," Emle said. "Instead of waiting to see what happens when the binding expires, give him the binding. You had it signed over to your control--sign it over to Gabriel."

Lucas stared at her as if he had been poleaxed. "Is that even possible?"

"I don't know," Emle said, suddenly weary. "It is your binding, not mine. But that is what I would do."

Muttering under his breath, Lucas left her then, and vanished into the other room. She heard a door open--the library?--and wondered if she had spoken wrong. Perhaps he had wanted her to say something different. Perhaps he had wanted her to agree that the binding should never be broken, but he should have known she would not say such a thing.

Emle yawned. She would much rather stay up and wait for news from Gabriel, but she needed to sleep. She would be useless otherwise. Perhaps she would sit here and rest for a little while, just to recharge a bit.

Despite its comfort, the couch was cold, and lonely, unfamiliar and strange. Emle lay there for the longest time, the ache in her chest refusing to go away. She wished--Well, she wished for a lot of things, but Gabriel's presence would have eliminated much of her worry.

She should never have allowed him to send her away.

Chapter 34

There was no dead elf lying on the rug this time--Althea could be thankful for that, at least. But the Hound still lay against the wall, his sightless eyes dull now.

Stefan's Hounds had not touched him. In fact, they seemed to avoid the body, even going so far as to stay out of the room.

Or maybe Magdalen had forced them to leave.

"I thought I told you not to come back here," Magdalen said sharply.

"Emle and Gabriel's child are with Lucas," Althea said. "I thought you'd want to know."

"He suspects something," Stefan said. His voice sounded angrier than normal. Had something happened?

"Where are your Hounds?" she asked.

Stefan glared at Magdalen and stalked out of the room.

"What happened?" Althea asked.

Before Magdalen could reply, the house shifted, and a fine rain of ash fell down from the sky. Althea stepped back, suddenly remembering what the house looked like in the Human World. "What's going on?"

"The Veil is fighting my spell," Magdalen said, the calmness in her voice belying her words. "It is not supposed to be here, after all. So it fights to return to where it is supposed to be."

The house rocked. For a moment, Althea stood on nothing--a hole in the floor where a rug had been mere moment before. She stared down into reeking darkness.

And then, the house was restored again, immaculate and elegant, before she could actually fall.
"The Hound's blood was no use to my spell," Magdalen said.

"Then sacrifice one of your prisoners!" Althea snapped.

Magdalen ignored her. "Tell me what you discovered," she said. "Do you know why Gabriel sent Emle and the child with Lucas?"

"I assumed because he thought she was in danger," Althea said. "I--Oh." She had forgotten about the binding. "Lucas took the binding. I think he might free the Hunt. I think he feels sorry for Gabriel." Although how anyone could feel sorry for the Master of the Wild Hunt--

"Then why are you here?" Magdalen asked, and rose from her chair for the first time. "I need your knowledge, child. I need you to be there, not here." She grimaced. "Stefan! The spell needs more blood!"

"Then kill one of your prisoners!" Stefan growled from the other room.

The house dimmed, then, and Althea stepped back, knowing that she couldn't run fast enough if the spell self-destructed. Magdalen bared her teeth and raised both arms, as if lifting the entire weight of the world with the extent of her power.

And the house returned.

"Very well," Magdalen said, composed now, her voice cold. "Bring Kyren."

Less than five minutes later, when Stefan returned, his hands were empty and something--some knowledge haunted his gaze, as if he had seen something that Magdalen would rather have been left in the dark.

"I told you to--" Magdalen's eyes narrowed. "Where is he?"

"He's gone," he said, interrupting her with a scowl. "Your spell has failed. The basement is full of water."

Magdalen swept from the room in an instant, but Althea could not see why Stefan would lie about such a thing. "Did Kyren drown?"

Stefan shrugged. "I saw no sign of him. But the water is almost halfway up the stairs."

Althea studied the walls around her with deep suspicion. She wanted to believe Magdalen hadn't lost control of her spells, but she had a very bad feeling about this. If Magdalen failed in her quest to control the Hunt, then Althea would lose her place in the Council, and possibly her life.
Perhaps she needed to think about herself--and her future--for the time being. But how to ensure she didn't lose everything if Magdalen failed?

The object of her thoughts appeared in the doorway, disheveled for the first time Althea remembered. "He is gone. I found the ropes, but not Kyren. Could he have escaped?"

"If he did, knowing what he knows, then you'll have to kill him when you find him again," Stefan said. He seemed unconcerned by Kyren's disappearance.

"My spell still needs blood," Magdalen said, and the look in her eyes chilled what was left of Althea's soul.

"You won't get any from me," she snapped. "Send Stefan to find another elf if that's what you need." She turned, then, intending to leave, but Magdalen's question stopped her cold.

"Can you return to Lucas' house without raising his suspicions?"

"I was supposed to cast an aversion spell around the ruins of this house," Althea said. "I haven't done it yet. And my obligation to you has ended. I gave you the means to cast the Hunt into chaos." Quite suddenly, she did not want to be involved in this. She wanted to live out the rest of her life as a member of the Council, not as a fugitive.

"But I don't have my hostage," Magdalen said. "What cause does Gabriel have to bind himself to me?"

"I thought you were sending someone to fetch Josiah," Althea said slowly. "Or that you would call Malachi back."

"Josiah--Josiah--killed one of my Hounds," Stefan said abruptly, and now Althea knew why he had been so angry before.

"You sent a Hound after a Hound?" she asked. "Inside the castle?"

"Of course not," Magdalen said. "I need Emle, Althea. Emle or the child. I cannot make this work without one of them. The Hounds are no matter to me now."

"They're under Lucas' protection!" Althea protested. "Do you truly expect me to cross the Council to help you?" And yet, even as she said it, she knew that Magdalen would expect just that. "I could--"

"Don't speculate, just bring them here. Or kill one of them if you wish and bring the other," Magdalen ordered. "And try to find out if Lucas intends to free the Hunt. I need you, Althea. Don't abandon me now."

Despite her misgivings, Althea nodded. "I will do my best," she said, and wondered if she even wanted to do her best. Was it too late to back out now?

She could--

She could have the Hunt for herself, after all.

For a moment, she couldn't believe that she had thought such a thing. She didn't want the Hunt. She wanted to be a member of the Council. She had always wanted to be a member of the Council. Nothing more.

"Do better than your best," Magdalen said, and patted her on the cheek as if she were a tiny child. "Bring her here or bring the child."

Before Althea could muster any indignation; before she could snarl that she wasn't a child anymore, Magdalen swept out of the room. A moment later, Althea heard her walking up the stairs.

To fetch Jordan? If she brought Jordan downstairs, he would read her mind and know her thoughts. And Magdalen would force him to tell her what she was thinking--which would be disastrous.

"I should go," Althea said to Stefan, who shrugged. "I'll be back."

Stefan smiled. "Of course."

If Althea controlled the Hunt--if she could hide the fact that she controlled them from the Council--then she could destroy everyone who knew of her involvement with Magdalen. If Kyren had drowned, then he wasn't a threat anymore, but Jordan knew, and Kyren's cursed Cousin; the elves in general, and Magdalen herself.

Althea stopped with her hand on the doorknob. Of course she wouldn't dare to do such a thing. Magdalen wanted the Hunt. Althea only wanted her seat on the Council.

She shoved all thought of treachery out of her mind and left the house as quickly as she could, all-too-aware of Jordan's presence.

If she controlled the Hunt, the first person to die would be Jordan, if only to eliminate the danger of his continued existence.

Monsters did not deserve to live.

(Next Update: October 11th)
House St. Clair Home

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