Cupid’s Craving _ First Chapter
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Can love truly conquer all, even for a soul-hardened immortal gladiator?
The wild punch came at Skylar Scott’s face faster than she could blink. She ducked, then spun to avoid the off balance hit. Her long, dark auburn braid whipped around and smacked her in the chest.
The twelve-year-old boy stammered an apology. His younger brother laughed. “Kick his butt, Sensei.”
“That was much better,” she said. Not a complete lie. The boys were just overeager. “Make sure you watch your form.”
She adjusted his stance, then continued through the classroom, helping the few students who’d stayed late after class.
The bells on the door to her martial arts classroom rang softly. She automatically forced a smile as she turned.
Her aunt stopped just inches inside the long, spartan room.
As always, Amita looked old fashioned from head to toe. She wore her dark graying hair plaited, and drawn up to encircle her head. Not a strand flew out of place. Her makeup was perfection. Her severely outdated, bustled dress didn’t dare have a wrinkle.
She straightened to her full six-feet, then caught Skye with a piercing glance. Her pinched nostrils flared slightly. Considering the musty odor of sweat permeated the room, her aunt rarely stopped by the rec center.
Skye nodded hello, then turned back to her students, trying to ignore the heaviness inside her heart.
Worry exploded about the hows and whys her aunt was there, but they’d have to wait.
Amita stiffly strode along the back wall of the room, studying the glass shelves holding trophies and weapons from different styles of competition, many of which the older woman had studied to one degree or another.
Some of the trophies were Skye’s. Others had been won by students and given to her. Those she displayed with pride.
The third category though was the one Amita kept wandering back to.
Soon, only the brothers remained. They bowed to each other, giggling. She called the sparring match a draw and directed them to pack up.
Amita still stood in front of Skye’s most beloved shelves. The trophies and weapons displayed there had been passed down through their family–some Amita herself had won long ago, others were generations old.
Red faced and laughing, the young brothers slung their gym bags over their shoulders and headed to the door.
“Bye, Sensei,” the older boy called as they shoved into the hall, vigorously jingling the bells.
“Good night. Have a great weekend.” Skye hurried to Amita’s side and bent a little to kiss the offered cheek.
“Hello, darling girl.” Amita’s voice wavered. Her faded blue eyes seemed out of focus.
Skye’s concern exploded into despairing dread.
Amita reached up and traced a hand over the old staff hanging on the wall. Her aunt had won tournaments all over the world with it. Made from a dark hardwood, the staff was wrapped with a surprisingly strong golden filigree through the middle, except for areas for different handholds. Both ends were capped with a strange metal that sometimes looked gold, sometimes silver.
“Auntie, what are you doing here?”
“Weren’t we going to see a movie tonight?” The woman’s steely voice was thick, nearly as deep as some men’s. But in the past six months, it had begun to crack, more and more, a slight warble ending in broken sounds.
It made Skye hesitate. So did the question.
Amita had asked her to go to some new Friday night release four different times over the past few days. Each time, Skye reminded her they had tickets for the show Saturday morning.
She studied the woman who’d raised her, and her younger sister. The same sister who was supposed to be keeping an eye on Amita. “Where’s Krista?”
“I’m not sure.” The shadows clinging in the woman’s soft brown eyes spoke of something more daunting than just forgetfulness.
Skye’s heart clenched at the thought that something might be wrong. But her aunt was barely in her mid-fifties, far too young for such worries. Or so the doctors kept saying. “How’d you get here?”
“Lonny, the nice boy from the apartment below us gave me a ride. He managed to get through the roads before they closed them for tonight’s parade.” Amita’s shoulders stiffened and her tone turned defensive. “He was coming here anyway for a wrestling class or some such thing.”
“Let me get my things, all right?” Skye slipped a t-shirt over her tank top and adjusted her thick gi pants, then grabbed her jacket. “We’re going to see the movie tomorrow. Remember, Auntie?”
Amita’s gaze flickered sharply before the edges dulled once more. “Well, if we can’t change our plans…” Her brows rose hopefully.
Skye shook her head. “We already bought the tickets. We’ll go right after breakfast though, okay?”
“I guess.” Her lower lip slightly petulant, Amita glanced around the room. “Still happy working here?”
“Absolutely.” Skye held the door open.
Her aunt sniffed, nose wrinkling further as she straightened, then strode into the hall. “As long as you enjoy it, I guess.” The woman power-walked down the hallway.
Skye turned off the lights, then scrambled to catch up.
“You might want to put your jacket on,” Amita cautioned. “The air outside is invigorating.”
Only a few yards in front of them, the front doors slammed open and a whirlwind blew in. Long blonde hair flew wildly. A jacket only half on dangled from one shoulder. Krista stumbled across the linoleum floor, her bright blue gaze landing on Amita. She breathed a relieved sigh, then met Skye’s glare. “All I did was take a shower after work,” Krista said quietly, pushing her glasses higher on her nose.
Her sister was borderline genius. Unfortunately, it came with a good dose of absentmindedness.
Krista glanced up at the ceiling as she blew hair from her face. “The invite for next month’s LARP event came, but I ignored it. I swear.”
She was part of a large group of people who enjoyed live action role playing. Once a month, they got together with others from nearby cities like Phoenix and Flagstaff to reenact historical warfare, complete with costumes and weapons, though the creatures they fought were sometimes closer to something you’d find in mythology books.
“We’ll talk about it later.” With a deep sigh, she tried to ignore the lingering worry and doubt over her aunt’s health and everything else. At least for a little while.
But her mind spun with ideas of additional safeguards they could use without smothering the woman’s core belief that everything was fine.
Amita patted her arm. “Put your jacket on, dear. The walk may only be a few blocks, but you’ll need it.”
Skye slipped on the thin jean jacket to appease her aunt, then strode outside into the dark evening.
“Brr.” Krista shivered. “I swear it dropped five degrees just since I went inside.”
A chilly breeze settled over Skye’s bare face, slipping beneath the jacket to form goose bumps over her arms. Between the eastern mountains towering above Endurance, and the stretching Arizona desert on all other sides, the weather enjoyed being unpredictable. It looked like an early cold snap would ring in the approaching winter with usual style.
Already crowds of families gathered on the sidewalk in front of the rec center, ready for the Main Street Halloween Parade, going on tonight in celebration of the holiday next week.
Amita glanced up at the nearly full moon, a soft, wistful smile playing on her lips. In a blink, she stiffened and marched down the wide stairs. Skye and Krista hurried after her through the crammed parking lot, until they reached Main.
Turning toward their apartment, they headed side-by-side down the sidewalk.
Kids ran wildly in celebration. Their harried parents lined up along the edges. With the crowds, it took nearly ten minutes to get to the next block. Skye sighed, relieved to be out of the press of people. The buzz of conversation lingered though.
“How was work?” Krista asked, gripping her jacket closer to her neck.
“Great,” Skye replied, staring at the street ahead. It usually was. Teaching others, helping them, filled a strange spot in her soul, considering most of the time, she generally didn’t like people as a whole.
They neared the next intersection, only to find the road blocked with saw horses. Police directed people out toward Main Street, but by the length of the line waiting to move forward, they’d been jammed a while.
“Damn it,” Skye muttered.
Amita pointed across the street. “We can go through there.”
Skye spotted the narrow shadow between two buildings. An alley. “Where that new sub-development is going up?”
The city was finally rebuilding on the area that had burned in last spring’s fire. Skye shivered at the thought of living in such close proximity to one’s neighbors, with tiny patches of rock in the front and miniscule squares of grass in the back. It sounded as close to hell as one could get.
She’d voted for putting in a new park, instead.
They emerged onto the street and headed east once more. As they walked, Skye’s thoughts drifted. Tiredness swept over her. It had been a long day. A long week. Once they got home, she’d get Amita and Krista settled. Then she could take some time to relax.
Her e-reader sat on the nightstand by her bed with a new book, a vampire romance she couldn’t wait to start reading. It called her name, along with a glass of sangria and perhaps even a nice hot bubble bath.
From an alley behind them, a bang rang out. Someone laughed. A slight wind blew over her, bringing a strange scent she couldn’t place. Chills prickled over her arms, then down her spine.
She shook herself, glancing at Krista and Amita. They didn’t seem to feel anything wrong.
Tremors of unease continued to twist Skye’s stomach, though she couldn’t figure out why. With a deep breath, she gave into her humming nerves. “Come on. We’re almost to our road.” She walked faster, pushing them to do the same.
Another laugh came. This time from ahead of them. Skye stopped and grabbed Amita’s arm, drawing the woman to her side. Krista inched closer.
The hair on the back of Skye’s neck rose. She glanced at her sister and finally saw reflected concern. Amita remained oblivious.
Skye looked around, but didn’t see anyone. The strange scent gusted around her on the wind. Bitter, metallic. It might be nothing. Even so, she herded Amita and Krista close to the side of the building, moving faster. At the next street, they’d head back to the crowded parade route.
They neared the corner. A shadow moved ahead of them.
A tall robed figure, nearly hidden by the night, blocked the way.
Skye slowed, watching the person. He didn’t move. Didn’t make any threatening gestures. Didn’t do any damn thing but stand there.
Though she couldn’t see his face, she felt the force of his stare.
Behind them, raucous laughter spilled from multiple alleyways. A few more robed people emerged. Each one turned to face them. Their laughs echoed like the braying of a pack of hyenas. In the street ahead, more shadows resolved into eerily silent, hooded people.
None moved closer, though.
Skye hoped they were all headed to the parade. The roiling in her stomach said otherwise. She drew Krista and Amita closer to the building, trying to plan a way to insure her family’s safety if these people tried anything.
They continued down the road, toward the nearest intersection at a glacial pace. Skye grabbed her cell from her back pocket and turned it on, ready to dial 911 if necessary. The phone vibrated in her hand as text message after text message bombed her. All from one friend, Dia Marius.
Skye ignored them, gripping the cell as she plotted the safest path out of this.
A quick headcount stole her breath. Eight. Eight she could see anyway.
Her phone belted out a symphonic clash, both disjointed and complementary. Exactly like the caller. Dia. Skye swiped to ignore the call, studying each shadow along the buildings for signs of a likely escape route. Or more stalkerish people slowly moving out into the street.
The robed guys continued to laugh. The endless sounds made her temples pound. Her phone rang again with Dia’s custom tone. She ignored it. Seconds later, it rang again.
“Dia?” Skye answered. “Can’t talk right–”
“Get out of there,” the woman’s voice blared from the phone. “Run. Now.”
Jacobus “Jace” Leonius ripped the never-ending stack of paperwork from the top of his desk and dumped most of it into the basket marked “Done”. He grabbed the novel he’d been reading earlier, then bit back a wince at pain radiating in his left shoulder and arm, and down his ribs.
At his sigh, an overgrown, dog-sized ball of blue scales curled up near the wall began to stir. The beast glanced up, then snorted. Thin streams of light gray smoke rose from his snout. Unfolding four gangly paws, he stood and arched his back like a stretching cat, then padded across the floor. Spreading his wings wide, Dragon half jumped, half attempted to fly, onto Jace’s desk.
The novel went flying.
The young beast scrambled to halt his slide across the top, digging his claws into already pockmarked wood.
Jace waved the thick cloud of light gray smoke from in front of his face, then scratched Dragon’s chin.
The magical beast, his best friend and companion, mewled.
The Beastbond flared open and Dragon’s worry flooded Jace. His scaled snout was cold, even through the sleeve of Jace’s black t-shirt as the youth snorted, then sat down, staring worriedly.
“I’ll be fine.” Jace rubbed Dragon’s head between the two golden stumps of his horns.
In truth, the damn wounds should’ve healed by now. He let his head fall back, and stared at the high ceiling. A fan swung in lazy swoops, the opposite of his thoughts, which raced so fast they could barely be caught.
He desperately needed to get out of here for a while, but wishful thinking didn’t go far.
Though he thoroughly enjoyed his club, he’d been stuck inside the place damn near twenty-four seven lately. Business had somehow needed his attention more than usual.
The culprit behind it all?
Had to be Dom.
His older brother knew about the recent attacks, as if the god Bacchus and his assassins were targeting Jace specifically. Four ambushes in as many weeks could be coincidence.
Probably not, considering the dark god was obsessed with Jace’s death–wanted it as gruesome as possible–and had for a couple millennia.
Still, these last few fights, he’d handled himself just fine.
Except for the last time. One of Bacchus’ assassins managed to slip up behind Jace. The creature’s deadly talons had sliced deep. And they still weren’t healing. The simple gashes should have needed a day, two at most. Not four.
The greasy tang of sword oil snapped through the air. Jace’s office door slammed open and Kade, one of his brother’s warriors, stormed inside. At six-ten, thick with muscle, the man dominated wherever he went. From the strong lines of his face to his hulking girth, the warrior looked hewn from stone.
The door thudded against thick bookshelves covering the wall, bounced off, then slammed closed with a resounding thunk.
Dragon spun on the desk, hissing and spitting sharp growls.
The warrior froze at the sounds, his lips tightening, his dark eyes flashing panic. He automatically grabbed the hilt of the sword strapped to his side.
Jace heaved Dragon’s bulk into his arms, and strode through the opening in the wall next to his desk. He dropped the young beast in the rarely used bedroom, then leapt back into his office. Hitting the camouflaged switch started the hidden door’s mechanism. It slid into place and blended seamlessly with the rest of the wall.
Then Jace turned to face this new headache inducing problem.
Over the pungent odor of the special oil from the daggers at his waist, came the scent of wet fur.
Jace sighed. Did Dom really have to send his second in command to try babysitting him? Damn.
No one seemed to give a shit Jace no longer had a thing to do with their useless War. He allowed the warriors to use the basement levels of this building, employed a few to help around the club. That was where the line stopped.
“That cursed creature is gonna end up chomping someone,” Kade grumbled. “He tries taking a bite outta my hide, I’ll return the favor.”
Jace raised an eyebrow. “He likes my people just fine.”
The man ignored the dig. “There’s a problem with one of tonight’s hunts.” Kade glanced down at his right wrist, and the Marius tattoo that proclaimed him a warrior fighting for Mars. A magical symbol of the god, and their endless fighting.
The back of Jace’s right hand flared painfully, though his skin appeared cleaned of such marks. The powerful binding kept him from the rest. Kept him from the damn god attached to the symbol he branded his warriors with.
“I feel it,” Kade said. “My connection to Dia. Something’s gone bad.” He flexed his fingers out wide, then fisted his hands. Spread his fingers, closed his fist.
“What?” Jace snapped to attention.
“I checked before coming. Cupid didn’t show. His partner hasn’t arrived. No word on the target they were sent to collect.” Kade shot a dismissive glance at the two chairs in front of the desk, then perched on the wide arm of the couch, next to the closed hidden door.
Jace’s anger grew at the very name.
So unlike the modern cuteness the god was usually portrayed with. In reality, the bastard was a fierce warrior, just one who’d never been dependable in the best of times. These times certainly couldn’t be called that. The selfish prick–and who cared if he happened to have been Jace’s sperm donor–was probably shacked up with a nymph or ten.
Kade tapped a foot in time to the spasming movements of his hands. “You hear anything?”
“No. Why would I?”
“Damn. I’d hoped, is all.” The man hurtled to his feet, pulling out a cell phone. He glanced at it, but his face fell. “Then can I borrow one of your people? We can track her, try to figure out what’s happening.”
Jace’s gut twisted as it sank. “Everyone’s out. Calls for backup have come in hot and heavy tonight.”
Kade’s smirk grew. His eyes sparked with amusement. “You know the rules, even if you refuse to fight with us anymore. No one goes alone.” He laid his cell phone on the desk, as if it were a line drawn in the sand he dared Jace to cross. “In fact, if I recall right, you were the one who demanded that rule.”
Jace struggled to find a way out. Someone else who could play backup. He did not want to get involved. If he took a step, his brother would force him a mile.
Not that he avoided fights, just Dom’s futile one.
A premonition of foreboding swept over the edges of his mind. He couldn’t pinpoint from what, but he didn’t like it at all. He grabbed his sheathed sword from the back of his chair and laid it across the desk beside Kade’s cell phone.
His usual reasons for saying no paled in comparison to the shadows in his mind. The glint of light refracting from the hilt of his sword shot through him, forcing memories to flood his senses. The nearly inaudible, haunting whispers of watching crowds circled. Hot dry air, filled with a stench he’d never forget, drove into his senses. Surrounding him with the stench of death.
“Jacobus, I don’t care about the problems between you and your brother.” Kade flexed his hands. “I need your help.”
And didn’t that statement barrel over Jace’s last objection. He rose to his feet.
Kade’s cell phone vibrated against the wood. Jace stood mute as the man answered the call.
A female voice gritted low, “The Broken are here.” Dia. Another of his brother’s generals.
Rage surged through Jace at the thought of her fighting alone, all because that bastard Cupid had blown her off.
“On the way,” Kade replied.
Dia rattled off some cross streets that weren’t too far away, then hung up.
“We’re out of time.” Kade headed for the door. “Quitcher bitchin’ and lets go.”
Jace grabbed his sword and headed out into the winding hallway after the man, a sinking pit of dread in his gut, but unable to refuse.
They reached the other side of the long building and the bank of elevators. Kade impatiently jabbed the button a couple times, then pulled a thin black box from his back pocket and started tapping the screen. “Got her up on the GPS.”
Jace had heard Dom and few of the warriors were finally waking up to the newest century, and the benefits of technology.
Seconds later the elevator doors opened with a soft ding. It took scant moments to reach basement level one and the parking garage. Lines of empty vehicles sat in dim pools of light. Except for their rushed footsteps, the area remained quiet and still.
Jace reached Kade’s blue pickup truck and climbed into the passenger’s side. He was still closing the door when the man started the engine. The roar rebounded on the concrete garage. With a screech of tires, Kade hit the gas and sped to the exit ramp.
Out on the street, the man swerved around a minivan, flashed through a yellow light then barreled down the busy road. He tossed the black box over. “Tell me if they move.”
Jace caught it by reflex, then stared at the nearing dot, wondering what he’d just gotten himself into.
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