I took the balaclava off the witch. He was handsome. The mask hid a well-maintained beard. His dark brown complexion was only a few shades lighter than his black hair. When I lifted the sleeping enchantment, he blinked a few times as he woke. The smooth calm twisted into a scowl as he realized what happened. His eyes met mine, and he held my gaze, his expression obstinate. He didn’t even glance at Ruby. He didn’t shift or struggle, so I stayed still, too. We watched each other like this for what felt like a long time. His irises were a lighter brown than Ice’s were. I was waiting for him to blink first, but he seemed to be waiting for the same from me. Eventually, Ruby got tired of waiting for one of us to break.
“I’m not getting any younger. Torture the information out of him and cut the macho staring contest out,” she said. He looked at her thankfully before I caved.
“Do you think you’ll be able to keep avoiding him because you hired a bodyguard?” he asked. He turned back to me. “You won’t be able to protect her. Torture me as much as you like. It won’t make a difference.”
“What if we didn’t torture you?” I asked.
“What?” he asked. He had a script in his mind of how this would go. If he was ready for torture, this would take so much longer.
“What happens if I let you go? The last person your boss sent after her said that he’d rather die than go back, and you’re ready to be tortured to death. There’s gotta be an easier way,” I said. I worried that his willingness to endure torture wasn’t actually willingness at all. If this cerebremancer was as bad as Ruby said, I wouldn’t put it past him to put some kind of psychic gag order on this witch so that no matter how bad the torture got, he would be unable to tell us what we wanted to know.
“You’d really just let me go?” he asked.
“That depends on what you’d do. What exactly are your orders?”
“I was ordered to come to this hotel room, acquire Ruby, and bring her back to Mr. Newton.” Ruby crossed her arms at the sound of the name. She’d never said it before, and I hadn’t been ready to ask her for it yet.
“What else did he say?” I asked. “His exact words if possible.”
“Don’t come back without her. If she is not alone, kill anyone with her.”
“That’s not ideal,” I said.
“Not ideal? If you let him go, he’ll try to kill you. Your talent for understatement is astounding,” Ruby said.
“Did he say anything about if you’re captured?” I asked, ignoring Ruby’s sarcasm.
“If captured, do not break under torture,” he said without embellishment.
“And if you fail?” I asked.
“Kill myself,” he said.
“So if I let you go, you’ll try to kill me, and if Ruby and I disappear without a trace, you’ll try to kill yourself. Did he specify how you should kill yourself? I need to know the exact words,” I said.
“If I fail, I will trace the pentacle on the coin five times. Then, it will release a spell that kills me,” he said.
“So he never specifically said that you have to kill yourself? He gave you instructions for an action that would get you killed but didn’t say anything about killing yourself if that pentacle failed to do the job?” I asked.
“Oh,” Ruby said. She understood what I was doing. She didn’t say anything else.
“What’s the difference?” he asked.
“A gamble,” I answered. “I’ll give you a choice. I am going to take Ruby somewhere safe. There’s no choice there, I’m afraid. When I come back, I won’t be with her anymore so you won’t have to kill me. That’s where you get to make a choice. If you try to kill me when I let you go, I’ll be gone before you can manage it, and you’ll be left in this room with that coin and no way of finding us.”
“What happens if I don’t try to kill you?” he asked.
“If you don’t try to kill me, I’ll stay with you when you activate whatever spell your boss left you,” I said. “If I can keep it from hurting you, I will.”
“All right,” he said. “It’s not much of a choice, but it’s better than what that bastard gave me.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
I put the witch’s knife and flask in my pockets and held out a hand to Ruby. She got up from the couch and put her hand in mine. We slipped through the shadows, disappearing from the living room and reappearing in the bedroom. Ruby held her finger up to her lips, showing that she understood what I wanted to do. If I could push this witch through the worst-case scenario of Mr. Newton’s orders, hopefully, it would break any hold that the cerebremancer had on him. I took the knife and flask out of my pockets and set them on the bed, and moved my hands in a signal that I hoped made it clear that Ruby shouldn’t touch them. Considering how little he’d carried in with him, I wasn’t ready to dismiss them as a danger to her yet. I silently stepped into the shadows again and was back in the living room. The witch looked nervous. I didn’t blame him. I had no way of knowing what spell was contained in the coin.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
He nodded. I knelt down and took the twine off his wrist. He didn’t move, giving me plenty of time to stand back up and step away from him. I made sure I wasn’t standing between him and the coin. He stood up slowly. Umbra bristled when the witch picked up the coin. Images of different types of tripwire spells flashed through my head. They were almost all unpleasant, but only one was fatal. Maybe it should have scared me, but I took comfort in my familiar’s experiences. They’d kept so many other Shadow-Blessed witches safe before me. I knew my chances of pulling this off were stronger with them by my side. We watched the would-be kidnapper trace the pentacle. He counted aloud each time he completed a turn.
As he was about to complete the fifth rotation, I used the enchanted ear cuff to slow time down for those precious few seconds. His finger hit the last point of the pentacle; I grabbed the coin and dropped myself into the shadows. I hadn’t been able to think of a safe place, and so I fell into the void. I threw the coin into that endless darkness. It shimmered brightly before exploding. The combustion spell spread out in every direction, but I pulled myself back to the hotel room before it could reach me. A concussive force knocked me backward, but I wasn’t burned as I stumbled backward. Still, the strength of the blast knocked me to the floor. I had no idea if the blast was meant to be that powerful or if the void had altered it somehow. If it had gone off in the hotel room with that strength, it could have taken out half the floor. That was one way to guarantee Mr. Newton would know his kidnapper failed. That kind of destruction would make national news. The more I got to know what kind of person this cerebremancer was, the more strongly I felt someone had to stop him.