We sat in Ruby’s car, waiting for her to disable the security system in Newton’s home. After using the Coven witch’s phone to find us a new place within his radius, we loaded our things and left him and the house behind. Ruby followed Newton digitally for the rest of the day after our relocation. He was never alone. Bodyguards even followed him into the bathroom. When he got home, though, we finally caught a break. His guards inspected his room thoroughly, but when they finished, he closed himself in alone. Maybe he couldn’t sleep with people watching him. They stood right on the other side of the door, ready to enter at a moment’s notice. Ruby searched every electronic system she could to ensure there was nothing in the room that would alert them if I shadow-stepped in there.
When she was sure it was clear, I went over the plan one more time. If everything went well, I’d be in and out as quickly as cutting his throat. If anything went wrong, they would run, and I’d find my own way out. Clark and Eli didn’t actually know that part. I made Ruby promise me that lock them in the car and speed at first sight of danger. The version of things I repeated to them involved them storming the castle. Knowing that Eli could break the compulsion emboldened him. It hadn’t stopped Newton from compelling him, though, so I would not risk him or Clark. One accidental liberation didn’t make him an expert. If I couldn’t get out on my own, it was already too late, and they wouldn’t do much good rushing towards the most dangerous witch in Las Vegas. Clark wouldn’t give up that easily, but Ruby would help them develop a better plan than tasing every compelled person between them and Newton.
I focused on Newton’s room. Umbra went ahead of me, testing the security system’s ability to detect shadow magic. No alarms sounded as soon as Umbra successfully slipped into the room unnoticed. The reality filled in over what I was imagining. He liked to have a lot of space; he’d centered an antique four-poster bed on one wall. Large nightstands sat on either side of it. A wardrobe stood against the wall directly opposite the bed. A loveseat sat next to a door that led out onto a balcony. There were powerful wards on the balcony doors. They’d likely kill anyone that tried breaking in that way. Even with the oversized bedroom set, there was enough space to waltz around the room. I slid into the shadows at my feet and rose out of the floor in the darkened bedroom.
The man in the bed radiated magic. It was definitely him; cerebremancers of his caliber burned hot with power. He’d be strong enough to cast any group spell on his own and still be ready for more. I moved silently to his side and sunk my knife into his neck. My mind replayed the last time I did this. I remembered the warmth of the blood rushing out onto my hand and the noise of Vincent trying and failing to breathe. It was only a memory, though. No blood came. I pulled my knife out, and still, nothing happened. The magic vanished, leaving me standing over a human-shaped clay figure. It was a golem. He’d projected his magic into it until I tried to cut his throat.
“Hold still, Milo,” a man said. His honey-sweet voice dripped with magic, and I froze. He knew I was coming. More than that, he knew my name. How did he know my name?
You don’t have to listen to him, Milo. Umbra whispered in my mind. It wasn’t as swift as the release from Eli’s magnetism. They cut through the compulsion piece by piece. It hurt, but it was working. I forced myself to hold completely still while all I wanted to do was run.
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time. Well, it felt like a long time. A few weeks can seem like an eternity to someone like me. I’m so used to getting what I want when I want it. But I knew you’d be worth the wait,” Newton said. His voice got closer by inches. “Not a single alarm set off. Do you know how good my security is? You can answer.”
“I’ve seen better,” I said. I needed him closer. Once Umbra finished freeing me, I’d have one shot before another compulsion started this process over.
“I’m sure you have. The Coven is an impressive organization. I’m still no match for them,” he said. In my mind, I heard the ‘yet’ he left off. Could he hear Umbra there, fighting his magic? “Look at me.”
I turned to face him. This time, the compulsion was weaker. He was still too far for me to strike. Umbra’s fight hurt less and less; I’d be back in control in a moment. If he would just take a few steps closer, I knew I could get to him before he issued another command. The plan could still work. Newton looked me up and down, smiling as if he’d won the lottery. He said he’d been looking forward to meeting me. Did Eli sell me out? Was his suggestion to kill Newton part of a plan to get me here, under the cerebremancer’s control? I heard something explode. Dogs started barking frantically, and I knew. It wasn’t Eli; he and Clark were going through with their part of the plan. It was Ruby. She’d been playing the long game, and I fell for it completely. How much longer would we have run if Eli and Clark hadn’t motivated me to come here?
“You’ll never be on their level,” I said.
“Because you and your friends are going to kill me?” he asked. “You can’t even move. How do you expect to win?”
“With my knife in your neck,” I said. His smile grew until a laugh burst from his mouth.
The door blasted open, sending splintered shrapnel flying in, along with one of the bodyguards. Clark and Eli stood in the doorway, audibly crackling with magic. The house beyond them was in chaos. The rest of Newton’s protection lay slumped and beaten in their wake. They were backlit by a fire somewhere in the other room. They looked every bit the heroes they intended to be. Newton turned to see what the disruption was. I lunged forward, my knife aimed at his artery. I wasn’t fast enough. He threw his hand up and the blade caught in his palm. I was ready to drive it forward until I pushed it all the way through and into his neck.
“Stop!” He screamed so loudly it seemed like time itself stopped. This compulsion was stronger than the first. Umbra worked furiously, trying to break it. Clark and Eli both froze mid-step, the dog’s barking cut off, and the closest bodyguard actually stopped breathing. Newton pulled his hand away, and his blood dripped from the tip of my knife to the floor. He pointed to Clark. “Kill him.”
I fought with everything I had to refuse, but I couldn’t. I took the first step, and I knew it was over. If I lost him again, permanently this time, I wouldn’t survive long without him. He couldn’t die. I couldn’t be the one who killed him. There was only one thing I could do to protect him.
Umbra, save them.
My shadow familiar stopped struggling against the compulsion and lept to Clark and Eli. Before I was even halfway to them, they vanished into the shadows at their feet. I could still feel Newton’s command in my mind. Umbra had fought enough that it couldn’t force me to follow them. I might have been able to follow Umbra’s shadow-step and carry out the order if I wanted to, but I cried with joy that I could resist that much. I held still and fought against the magic in my mind, swearing over and over that I would never do that.