Home > Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(9)

Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(9)
Author: Ilona Andrews

A flare was a magic wave on steroids. It came once every seven years. During a flare, magic reigned for several days. Weird shit crawled out of their hiding places, gods walked the earth, and impossible things became possible.

During that flare, Roland had destroyed Omaha.

“The Louisiana covens called themselves the Arcane Covenant. When the flare came, they summoned something, a horde of dire wolves or demons, nobody quite knows,” Lamar continued. “They should’ve wiped our nature guys off the face of the planet, but here they are alive and thriving, while the Arcane Covenant is dead as a doorknob. Rumor says human sacrifice was involved.”

“Terrific.” Of all the fucked-up magic, human sacrifice was the one threshold even Roland wouldn’t cross. It opened the door to old primal powers nobody wanted to resurrect.

“Nobody has proof that any of it happened,” Lamar said. “But it makes any alliance appear shaky. We’re both desperate, and Nez will expect us to cut and run the moment things get hairy.”

Hugh leaned on the corral’s fence. That was a problem. The only way to hold off Nez was to project a show of strength. The alliance had to appear unbreakable, otherwise Nez would expect them to fracture and attack anyway. Lamar was right. They had to overcome that burden. They had to appear completely united.

“There is a tried-and-true method of making an alliance appear secure,” Lamar said carefully.

Hugh glanced at him.

“A union,” Lamar said, as if worried the word would cut his mouth.

“What union?”

“A civil union, Preceptor.”

“What the hell are you on about?”

Lamar took a deep breath.

“Marriage!” Bale yelled out.

Hugh stared at Lamar. “Marriage?”

“Yes.”

They had to be out of their minds. “Who would be getting married?”

“You.”

The realization hit him like a ton of bricks, and he said the first thing that popped into his head. “Who would marry me?”

“You’re handsome, a big, imposing figure of a man, and um…” Lamar scrounged for some words. “And they’re desperate.”

“What the hell have you been smoking? I’m penniless, I’m exiled, I own nothing…” He left out broken.

“And a recovering alcoholic.” Lamar nodded. “Yes, but again, they’re desperate. And we’re running out of food.”

Hugh shut his eyes for a long moment. The world was sliding sideways, and he really needed to get a grip.

“Who would I be marrying?”

“The White Warlock.”

Hugh’s eyes snapped open. “You want me to marry a man?”

“No!” Lamar shook his head vigorously. “It’s a woman. A woman. Not a man.”

Thank God for small favors. He couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “Well, I’m relieved it hasn’t quite come to that.”

“It’s a business arrangement before anything else,” Lamar said quickly. “But if you’re married, that will cement the alliance. You said yourself, you told Nez you were ready to settle down. He will believe the marriage.”

“They have a castle,” Stoyan said. “Apparently, some rich guy bought an old castle in England before the Shift, had it disassembled and brought to Kentucky.”

“You like castles,” Bale said.

“It’s a good defensible position,” Felix said.

“At least meet the woman,” Lamar said.

“Shut up,” Hugh said.

They fell silent.

“Did you come up with this idiotic idea?” Hugh demanded.

“It was a joint effort between me and my equivalent on the other side,” Lamar said. “If it helps, your prospective bride has to be talked into the marriage as well.”

“Perfect. Just perfect.”

He reviewed his options. He had none. He could marry some woman and feed his troops, or he could let them get slaughtered. What the hell, he’d done worse in his life.

“I’ll see her,” he said.

“That’s all we ask,” Lamar said.

3

The wind died. The tree line was still, the wide leaves of sycamores and the frilly foliage of oaks hanging motionless in the fading heat of the early evening. Nothing moved.

Elara leaned on the heavy gray stones of the parapet and sent her magic forward. A sick feeling flowed back to her, a greasy nasty smear on the soothing face of the forest, like an oil spill on the surface of a crystal-clear lake. There you are.

Rook reached for his small notebook, wrote a message, and passed it to her.

Do you see it?

“Yes. It’s alone.”

The blond spy nodded, an impassive look on his tan scarred face. Logic said he must’ve felt emotions, but if so, they were buried so deep that no hint ever rose to the surface.

“Thank you,” Elara said.

The notebook disappeared into some hidden pocket of his soft leather jacket. He crossed the rampart to the inner edge of the battlements, hopped onto the parapet with the easy grace of an acrobat, jumped down, and vanished out of sight.

The vampire remained where it was, in the shadow of a sycamore, invisible from the wall. But now she knew it was there. There would be no escape.

An undead here, only a few dozen yards from the castle and the settlement on the other side. A creature piloted by a Master of the Dead, capable of carving its way through their settlement.

Next to her Dugas stirred, brushing a persistent insect away from his gray hair. The older man was very tall and lean to the point of being almost wiry. A scar crossed his face, carving its way through his forehead, his dead milky left eye, and across his cheek until it disappeared into his short beard. Both his beard and hair had gone white long ago, but his eyebrows kept a few black hairs, stubbornly refusing to age. He was wearing his white robe today. It suited him much better than his usual getup of Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt.

The druid stroked his beard. “They’re getting bolder by the day.”

“It would seem that way.” An undead so close to the castle meant a long-range navigator. Likely one of Nez’s Golden Legion Masters of the Dead.

“I’ll get the hunters,” Dugas offered.

“No. I’ll take care of it.”

“They’re due to arrive any minute.”

“All the more reason to handle it myself.” She smiled at him. “I’m faster than the hunters. We wouldn’t want the undead to frighten our delicate guests.”

The druid smiled into his beard. “I have a feeling this guest won’t scare easily.”

“I hope you’re right. Don’t worry. I’ll be back in time.”

She released her magic. It struck out like an invisible whip and splashed against the trunk of a white oak. She inhaled, took a single step toward that anchor, and let the air out.

The world moved.

She stood in the forest now. The wall of the castle lay fifty yards behind her. Massive trees spread their branches above her head. Magic waves destroyed technology, but they nourished the wilderness. The forest around her looked half-a-millennium old. A few yards to the left, and she would come across the remains of ruined houses, completely buried in the greenery.

The vampire ran.

She still didn’t see it, but she felt it scuttle through the underbrush, sprinting away.

Oh no you don’t.

Elara hurried after it, anchoring and moving, each of her steps swallowing fifteen yards. She could’ve moved faster, but expending magic came at a price. She would have to replace it. Thinking about it turned her stomach.

Thinking about their “guests” turned her stomach also. She should’ve let the hunters handle the vampire, but tension simmered in her, too close to the surface. She had to let some steam out of the pressure cooker, or she wouldn’t be able to sit through the meeting.

The undead ran for its life, bouncing off the tree trunks. The hunger inside her woke. Elara chased it, losing herself to the speed. The vampire vaulted over a huge fallen tree, and she finally caught a flash of its back, once human skin and now a thick pallid hide.

Prey.

Ahead bright red ribbons tied to the tree trunks announced the end of their land. She’d run four miles.

   
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