Shadow Bound by L.A. McGinnis

 

By the time the third revenant stuck its ugly head around the corner, my lungs were hollowed out, my heart thumping erratically.

“This is unfair,” I muttered, magic and shadows spilling unchecked from my hands, like my power always did when I was in full-blown panic mode.

“What is that saying the humans have?” Deston’s deep, mocking voice echoed through the chamber. “Life isn't fair. Get used to it, Seraphina.”

God, I hated that bastard.

The first thing I was going to do—providing I survived today—was knock Lord Deston de Rayne on his admittedly fine ass. Hopefully in front of a rapt audience.

Out of all the horrible things in my new world, I hated revenants the most. They were vampires corrupted with the king’s necromancy magic and turned into monsters. Mindless killing machines, they answered only to him.

The revenants closed ranks, their heads low to the ground, mouths drawn wide to show off their double rows of needle-sharp teeth, spindly legs moving unnaturally as they crept like spiders.

Long, deadly claws dug grooves into the floor with every step.

Added to their terrifying appearances was the stench. Black bog water and putrefying flesh, mixed into one malodorous combination.

I retreated a step to keep all three in my sights.

If I lost track of even one of them…

Well, I didn’t know what they’d do, given that they were monsters conjured up by Deston to make my training session appear more real. If I could use my hands, I would've done air quotes on that last bit, but I was too busy harnessing my magic and trying to stay alive.

Another step back and I froze, the hair on the back of my neck prickling.

Okay, so there were four monsters, and one was directly behind me.

My heart hammered so hard in my chest that every breath hurt.

“Anytime now, Seraphina.” Deston’s ghostly voice floated through the frescoed hall of mirrors. Or was this a chamber of horrors?

I had no idea why Deston conjured up this setting for our latest session. Monsters and ornamental finery seemed at odds, but maybe I was missing the irony. Every day he came up with a new test, created with his transmutative magic.

Most days, I passed.

Lets hope today was one of those days.

Bad enough there were three revenants in front and another right behind me; even worse, they were reflected in a hundred Rococo mirrors, giving the impression that I was surrounded by an entire pack of monsters.

Of the ones coming straight at me, two broke off to flank me. God, I hated the way these things moved, that scuttle-slide thing they did. It was creepy and aberrant, although they were usually faster than this. There were usually less of them, too, since they hunted in pairs.

Magic gathered at my hands, and with a twist of my wrist, I threw out a small tendril of flame. My necromancer magic resembled white-hot plasma and was twice as deadly.

I completely missed the revenant but shattered a handful of mirrors, sending glass showering over the creature. The shards bounced off the tough hide and scattered across the floor.

I used a two-handed approach for the next one, yet only managed to sear a long burn down its leather-like body. The thing took offense, threw its head up and howled, the sound echoing down from the gold-embossed frescoed ceiling.

They crept closer.

So close, their damp fetid breath skimmed across my face with expended breath; so close, I saw the blood and gore caked into their curved claws.

I held my ground, unable to maneuver for a better position, moisture washing over my shoulders, the stench making me gag.

Jesus Christ, it’s right behind me, isn’t it?

Even though I knew it was foolish, even though I knew this move was against every rule of engagement, I spun, completely turning my back on the three approaching revenants. The single attacker was barely four feet away. Surely, I couldn't miss from this distance?

I used both hands to cast. My magic did some weird jerky-hop thing, skittering toward the lone revenant like an errant rubber ball.

Thankfully, the thing was leaping through the air at the same time my plasma bounced up. The blast caught the revenant squarely in the stomach. Within a blink, a thousand-pound creature became nothing but drifting ash.

I pivoted quickly, threw another ball of magic, and ashed the one on the left.

Treading carefully, I retreated step after step, matching their movements while they advanced, drawing my magic down through my arms into my hands. But instead of blistering heat, all I got was a tingle. I shook my hands to reset them.

You’d think after three months of practice, I would be better at this.

Twenty feet beyond the revenants, Lord Deston de Rayne—all six-foot-two of him—materialized into the room.

His smile was hard and brittle, not a shred of warmth. One hand rested on his ever-present silver cane, and his black hair seemed to absorb—rather than reflect—the light. In his black, bespoke suit, the elder vampire was handsome, I’d give him that, but all I wanted was to wipe that arrogant smile off his face.

I wondered if he’d let these things tear me to pieces, just to watch the show.

“Stop dithering, Seraphina.” His voice turned into a rough purr. “Hands up and cast. Hesitation will get you killed.”

I threw everything I had at the burned revenant, smoke rolling off its charred flesh, the stench of cooking meat replacing dirty bog water. It was still howling in pain, and my magic went straight down its throat. The thing shuddered and then burst into a cloud of ash, blotting out most of the room.

Fuck. Now I couldn’t see the other one.I backed up, then one foot landed on a shard of glass and went out from under me.

I course corrected, but too quickly, and overbalanced. A dark shadow shifted furtively within that smoke. Tumbling onto my knees, I cast everything I had into the cloud, praying the sloppy ball would be enough. The creature was still moving when it disintegrated, and ash washed across my feet like a wave on a beach.

Relief swept through me; my eyes blurred with tears. Across the chamber, Deston rubbed his chest as if he were the one who’d just faced down four revenants. Still, this was better than yesterday. I was still bruised from our last session, which had been an unqualified disaster.

“There. I did it. Are you happy?”

One minute, Deston was twenty feet away.

The next, he had my arm in a vice-like grip, his obsidian eyes glittering with rage.

“That was the sloppiest display of magic I've ever seen. Merde, one would think you are a youngling, not a blooded vampire Queen who’s practiced every day for three months.”

I said nothing. Arguing with Deston never got me anywhere because, in his mind, he was always right.

“If those creatures had been real, you would've been dead.”

“Gee, who's nothing but a pile of ash on the floor?” I countered sarcastically. “Hint, it's not me.”

He pushed me away as if I wasn't even worth his time. “They were moving at the speed of sloths.” He sneered down his nose. “And even then, you barely succeeded.”

Okay, so they had been slower than usual.But I was still standing, which meant this training session had gone better than any before.

“Why this place?” I changed the subject. “Pretty fancy dancy, if you ask me, for a revenant showdown.” Not only that, but this room looked familiar, as if I’d seen it somewhere before.

“Why don’t you turn around, Seraphina?”

Like I mentioned before, turning your back on an enemy is a huge mistake. And Lord de Rayne was deadlier than any revenant pack.

I turned. Slowly. Using the mirrors to keep him in my sights.

Ah, now I knew why we were here.“Is this the throne room in the royal palace?” I asked, walking toward the throne at the head of the room.

“No, it's a coffee shop on Bourbon Street,” he said caustically. “Of course, it’s the throne room. Why else would there be a throne?”

I ignored him. He was in a fouler-than-usual mood, and I knew when to pick my battles. I’d never seen King Viktor's throne room in person, but knowing Deston’s attention to detail, this was probably a perfect replica.

The throne sat on a raised platform, five steps leading up. Dark red carpet muffled my footfalls, my old tennis shoes making no noise. When I reached the top, I turned and looked straight down the long, mirrored concourse.

This was what Viktor saw every day.

The throne was black, riveted metal, with a high back and ornate arms molded into fantastical beasts. The ironwork—I assumed it was iron—was intricate, covered in runes and raised designs, some of it so delicate, the filigree was barely wider than a hair.

Deston hadn’t moved from the center of the windowless room. There wasn’t a shred of natural light, yet the entire space was suffused with a golden glow, every mirror reflecting ancient incandescent bulbs glowing in crystal chandeliers.

“I bet those things get pretty hot, don’t they?” I only said it to piss him off, and sure enough, his gaze narrowed, skimming from me over to the throne. Every instinct went on high alert.

“Try it out,” Dustin crooned. “I insist.” He paused before adding, “My Queen,” turning my title into an insult.

I glanced over at the throne. “Yeah, I'm not sitting in that thing until I have to.” A tickle of power shoved me forward a step. I glared back at him, resisting with all my might.

“One would think you don't even want to be Queen.” His mockery echoed like thunder through the cavernous space. “What's the matter, Seraphina?” A ghostly smile flit across his face, this one tinged with malevolence, and I slid another step closer. “Aren’t you even curious to see what power feels like?”

“Stop fucking around, Deston.”

I wasn’t ready for this. I didn’t even want to be queen, not when the decision was being forced on me. I didn’t want power, or influence or responsibility. Three months ago, I’d been a college student.

Now I had fangs. I drank blood.

I was—technically—undead, though I felt as alive as ever.

But mostly, I sucked at doing magic stuff.

Constant failure was a real ego crusher, especially in front of this pompous asshole. Especially when everyone’s life depended on me.

“What if I give you better motivation? If you stop me, ma cherie, I shall release you from our bargain.” Deston called softly, “Think of it. I shall be gone from your life, forevermore. You will never see me again.”

Now that was proper motivation. I’d love to get rid of his backstabbing ass, no matter how fine it was.

I dug my heels in, walled up my magic until I was surrounded by an impenetrable barrier. He grinned, and I slid sideways until my hip slammed into the throne.

“Fuck you, Deston.” I braced my hands on the arm of the throne, fingers gripping desperately, every muscle straining against his magic trying to force me into that fucking chair. Then my feet left the ground, and I twisted midair, my ass landing in the seat.

Hard.

Deston leaned on his wolf’s head cane, a mocking smile on his face, daring me to stop him.

But I couldn’t. I was smothering, and I couldn’t breathe and…

Just like that, he released his magic, and I sagged forward, pulling in breath after ragged breath. My hands gripping the arms of the throne, I pushed myself upright.

“You are not keeping me here.” The words came out in short bursts, my magic skittering through my body like errant lightning.

“Then do something about it, Seraphina.” He prowled closer, cloaked in darkness and Saville Row. “Stop me.”

How could somebody so beautiful be so menacing at the same time?

This time, when I let my magic go, I didn’t care what it destroyed. The white wave spun free, cutting through the double bank of mirrors like a loose saw blade, spewing glass everywhere, sending shards of glass straight toward Deston.

He shot me that mocking, disgusted smile, then flicked them straight toward me. They turned into a sea of deadly projectiles, every edge a razor, every point a knife waiting to find a heart.

“Stop them, Seraphina.”

I threw a shield of magic in front of me. White hot plasma charred the wooden parquet floor, heated the front of the throne to glowing red.

The shards of mirror hit my wall and melted, dripping down like half-frozen ice. Most of them, except for the ones that got through.

Something warm and coppery trickled into my mouth, and I wiped it off.

My hand came away bloody.

One sniff and Deston’s eyes changed, glowing like banked embers. He prowled closer; my heart thumped faster. I didn’t know the last time he’d fed. Hell, I didn’t know if he fed, but he was looking at me like a linebacker eyes a juicy steak.

“Careful there, de Rayne.” Luthor’s deep voice rang through the chamber, and Deston stopped in his tracks, his hungry eyes never leaving me.

Luthor had appeared just in time.

That was my lover, perfect timing, as always. Luthor stepped between us, his blue eyes fixed on Deston, his broad shoulders taut. The scar down his face only made him look more dangerous, and I knew if he wanted to, he’d have Deston by the throat in a blink.

Je suis en contrôle, Fontaine. Va te faire foutre,” Deston cursed. In French, of course, because he knew I wouldn’t understand. But he stayed put. My heart beat normally again.

“We’re done here.” I pushed out of the chair, drew myself up to my full height, still nearly a foot shorter than the two males below me. “I’m done, and my hands are blistered.”

Deston muttered something else in French, and Luthor replied in the same.

“I’m sure that was properly foul, but it still doesn’t change the fact that I’m finished.” I descended the steps, advanced into Deston’s personal space, my nose nearly touching his silk tie. After a second’s hesitation, he stepped back.

“You lost,” Deston hissed as I pushed by him, my feet crunching on glass. “You owe me that advisory position.” He barked out a harsh laugh. “If you even survive long enough to become queen.” He didn’t add what I was secretly thinking.

Which I highly doubt.

“Looks like we’re stuck with each other, then,” I told him sweetly. I was tired of his never-ending arrogance. Weary of wondering when he’d sell us out to the king.

“But remember this, Deston. I won’t need you forever.”