“Never look them in the eye,” Uncle Gerald murmured.
Grace nodded. He’d calmed down some when they had boarded the plane, enough to offer her a reassuring smile, but now as they landed, he turned pale. Sweat gathered at his hairline. Gripping his cane, he scanned the human currents of the airport as they entered the terminal building. His fingers shook on the pewter wolf’s head handle. She’d seen him take out a couple of men half his age with that cane, but she doubted it would do them any good now.
He cleared his throat, licking his dry lips. “Never contradict. Never ask questions. Don’t speak until you’re spoken to and then say as little as you can. If you’re in trouble, bow. They consider it below them to strike a bowing servant.”
Grace nodded again. This was the sixth time he had recited the instructions to her. She realized it calmed him down, like a prayer, but his trembling voice ratcheted her own anxiety until it threatened to burst into an overwhelming panic. The airport, the booming announcements spilling from the speaker, the crush of the crowd, all of it blended into a smudged mess of colours and noises. Her mouth tasted bitter. Deep inside her a small voice protested, “This is just crazy. This can’t be real.”
“It will be fine,” Gerald muttered, hoarsely. “It will be fine.”
They passed the gates into a long hallway. The bag slipped off her shoulder, and Grace pulled it back on. The simple action crested her panic. She stopped. Her heart hammered, a steady heavy pressure pushing on her chest from inside out. A soft dullness clogged her ears. She heard herself breathing.
Twelve hours ago she woke up four states away, ate her usual breakfast of an egg and a toasted English muffin, and got ready to go to work, just like she had done every day. Then the doorbell rang and Uncle Gerald was on her doorstep with a wild story.
Grace always knew her family was special. They had power. Small magic - insignificant even - but it was more than ordinary people had, and Grace had realized early on she had to hide it. She knew there were other magic users in the world, because her mother had told her so, but she had never met any of them. She’d thought they were like her, armed with minor powers, and rare.
According to Gerald, she was wrong. There were many other magic users in the world. Families, whole clans of them. They were dangerous, deadly and capable of terrible things. And one of these clans had their family in bonded service. They could call upon them at any time, and they had done so for years, demanding her mother’s assistance whenever they needed it. Three days ago they requested Grace. Her mother had told her nothing; she simply went in her place. But Clan Dreoch called Gerald. They wanted Grace and only Grace. And so she flew to the Midwest, still dizzy from having her world turned upside down and listening to Gerald’s shaky voice as he told stories of terrible magic.
Her instincts screamed to run away, back into the airport filled with people who had no concept of magic. It was just an animal reaction, Grace told herself. The Dreochs had her mother and if she did run, her mother would have to take her place. Grace was twenty-six years old. She knew her responsibilities. She had no doubt her mother wouldn’t survive whatever they demanded, otherwise they wouldn’t have required her presence. Grace knew what she had to do, but her nerves had been rubbed raw, and she simply stood, unable to move, her muscles locked into a rigid knot. She willed her body to obey, but it refused.
The crowd of people parted. A man stood at the end of the hallway. He seemed too large somehow, too tall, too broad, and emanated power. He loomed, a spot of otherworldly magic among people who stubbornly ignored his existence. She saw him with preternatural clarity, from the ash-blond hair falling to his shoulders to the pale green eyes, brimming with mournful melancholy like the eyes of a Russian icon. His was the face of a brute: powerful, stubborn, aggressive, almost savage in its severity.
He looked straight at her and in the depths of those green irises she saw an unspoken confirmation: he knew. He knew who she was, why she was here, and, more, if she were to turn around and dash away, he wouldn’t chase her. The choice was hers and he was content to let her decide.
The flow of people blocked him and she reeled, released from the spell of his eyes.
Uncle Gerald thrust into her view. “What is it? You have to come now, we can’t keep them waiting, we—”
She looked at him, suddenly calm. Whatever would be would be. Her family owed a debt. Her mother had been paying it for years, carrying the burden alone. It was her turn. “Uncle,” she said, holding on to her newfound peace.
“You have to be quiet now. They’re here.”
He stared at her, stunned. Grace shouldered her bag and walked on.
They reached the end of the hallway. The man was gone, but Grace didn’t worry about it. She headed to the twin slope of escalators. Behind her Gerald mumbled something to himself. They took the escalator down to the baggage claim.
“Grace!” The shot laced her ears. She wheeled about and saw her mother on the escalator rising in the opposite direction. Her mother stared at her, a horrified expression stamped on her face.
“Grace! What are you doing here?”
Mother turned around and clutched the escalator handrail, trying to head down, but two people in grey blocked her. She pushed against them. “Let me through! Gerald, you old fool, what have you done? I’ve lived my life, she hasn’t. She can’t do this. Damn it, let me through!”
The escalators dragged them in opposite directions. Grace spun around to run up the moving steps and saw the man with green eyes blocking her way. He towered behind her uncle, immovable like a mountain. Green eyes greeted her again. Power coursed through them and vanished, a sword shown and thrust back into its scabbard. Uncle Gerald turned, saw him and went as white as a sheet.
They reached the bottom. Three people in grey waited for them, one woman and two men. Grace stepped onto the floor, light-headed as if in a dream.
“I’ve done . . . I’ve done the best I could,” Gerald muttered. “The best. I—”
“You’ve done wonderfully,” the woman said. “Nikita will escort you back to your plane.”
One of the men stepped up and held out his hand, indicating the escalator heading up. “Please.”
The green-eyed man stepped past them. His gaze paused on Grace’s face. An unspoken command to follow. Grace clenched her teeth. They both knew she would obey, and they both realized she hated it.
He strode unhurriedly towards the glass doors. Grace matched her stride to his. She supposed she should have bowed and kept her mouth shut until she was spoken to, but she felt too hollow to care. “You robbed me of what might be my last moment with my mother,” Grace said softly.
“It couldn’t be helped,” he answered, his voice quiet and deep.
They stepped into sunshine in unison. A black vehicle waited for them, sleek and stylish. The trunk clicked open. Grace deposited her backpack into it. The man held the rear door open for her. Grace took her seat on the leather.
The man slid next to her, filling the vehicle with his presence. She felt the warmth of his body and the almost imperceptible brush of his magic. That light touch betrayed him. She glimpsed power slumbering inside him, like an enormous bear ready to be roused and enraged in an instant. It sent shivers down her back, and it took all of her will to not wrench the car door open and run for her life. “You’re him.”
He inclined his head. “Yes.”
The car pulled away from the kerb, carrying them off. Grace looked out of the window. She had made her choice. She was a servant of Clan Dreoch and there was no turning back.
The scenery rolled by, scrawny shrubs and flat land, its sparse-ness mirroring her bleak mood. Grace closed her eyes. A whisper of magic tugged on her. It was a polite touch, an equivalent to a bow. She glanced at him. Careful green eyes studied her. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“It’s a lovely name. You may call me Nassar.”
Or “Master”, she thought and bit the words before they had a chance to escape.
“How much do you know?” he asked.
“I know that my family owes your family a debt. One of you can call on one of us at any time and we must obey. If we break our oath, you’ll murder all of us.” She wished she had been told about it sooner, not that it would make any difference at the end.
His magic brushed her again and she edged away from it.
“What else?” Nassar asked.
Say as little as possible. “I know what you are.”
“What am I?”
“And what would that be?”
She looked him in the eye. “A man who died and robbed another of his body so he can continue to live.” The cursed revenant, Gerald had called him. A bodysnatcher. An abomination. Monstrously powerful, clouded in vile magic, a beast more than a man.
Nassar showed no reaction, but a small ripple in his magic sent her further away from him. She bumped into the door.
“Any further and you’ll fall out of the car,” he said.
“Your magic . . . It’s touching me.”
“If all goes as planned, you and I will have to spend the next few days in close proximity. I need you to become accustomed to my power. Our survival will depend on it.”
She sensed his magic halt a few inches from her, waiting tentatively. She was a servant; he could force her. At least he permitted her an illusion of free will. Grace swallowed and moved within its reach. His magic brushed her. She winced, expecting his power to mug her, but it simply touched her gently, as if her magic and his held hands.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said. “I know how people in your family see me. Body thief, aberration, murderer. The Cursed One. What I’m called doesn’t concern me. Neither I nor my family will torture, rape or degrade you in any way. I simply have a specific task I need completed. I need you to want to succeed with me. What would make you want to help me?”
“Freedom,” she said. “Let my family go, and I’ll do whatever you ask.”