Mistake of Magic – Alex Lidell

I circle, my hands raised, my breath coming hard. Rapid. Nothing like the calm male before me, whose every movement is water incarnate. Beads of sweat snake down my skin, stinging my eyes and salting my lips. A distant part of my mind remembers this mountain path being bitingly cold, but that was an eternity ago, when my lungs had all the air they wanted. The soft crack of twigs beneath my leather boots mocks me gently. The male’s feet make no sound, as if the drying autumn leaves have no power to get in his way. Bending my knees, I launch forward, bracing for the impact. I aim my shoulder for the male’s thigh, my hands ready to chop his knees just as soon as I lock against his body. No hesitation, that’s the key. Move through him. Penetrate. Now that I’m committed, one of us will be hitting the ground. Him or me. It will hurt a lot less if it’s him.

My shoulder strikes a wall of deadly, immortal flesh. Penetrate. Penetrate. Penetrate. I keep moving, shoving, as if my true target isn’t the male himself but something beyond him. The male’s musky, metallic scent fills my nose. My legs strain with the burn of depleted muscle. The wall that is him holds. One heartbeat. Two.

On the third, it finally wavers, then gives. The male lands gracefully on his back, my body sprawled a great deal less gracefully atop him. My sweat-slicked cheek slides across the hard squares of his bare abdomen. And I realize I was very wrong: It hurts just as much to land on top of the male as on the ground, his coiled muscles offering all the cushioning of bloody rocks. Before I can gather myself, I realize I’m still moving. We are still moving. The male’s muscled arms wrap around me, his hips continuing the motion that I kindled. I feel myself pressed against him as he rolls fluidly over his shoulder, reversing our positions. It’s my back on the ground now, the twigs digging into my flesh while the male straddles my body, his hands pinning my wrists to the dirt. His face floats above mine, piercing blue eyes lit with frustration.

His sharply carved jaw is clenched even tighter than usual, and a wisp of blond hair that’s escaped his bun drops down to tickle my cheek. “Mortal.” His voice is a low velvet that vibrates through my body. “You are a bastard, Coal,” I say through clenched teeth. Coal raises a brow. His hips shift, somehow making him feel three times heavier. He lowers his face to mine, the hair’s distance between us saturated with his body’s blazing heat. His eyes meet mine, the purple tinge around his irises hidden. “You stopped paying attention the instant your takedown succeeded.” I wonder whether that purple is a trick of the light or a reflection of Coal’s thoughts.

It would be very interesting if it were the latter, though I doubt it’s possible. “Mortal.” Coal squeezes my wrists harder to get my attention, his voice dangerously quiet. “Next time your mind goes on holiday, I’ll crack a rib or two.” “Empty . threat.” I fight to get the words past the pressure on my chest. Coal’s sharp canines bare themselves. “Shall we wager on it? Shade can heal you afterward, but I promise it won’t feel good.” Shit.

My stomach clenches, a rush of unease pushing my heart into a gallop and my attention on Coal to razor-sharp focus. I trust the warrior with my life, not with my enjoyment of it. He just might crack ribs if that brutal mind of his thought it a good idea. Coal slides off me, extending a hand to pull me to my feet. I climb up slowly, stretching out the moment in hopes of finding my suddenly elusive balance, of convincing my heart to slow. Just when I think I’ve cracked through Coal’s facade, I discover a new level of steel underneath. I straighten my shirt, brush dirt and leaves off the back of my head. I’m wearing what has become my customary training outfit: supple black leather pants, soft boots that lace up the back of my calves, and a fitted linen shirt. I learned my lesson about wearing loose clothes a week ago—when Coal proved he wasn’t above yanking me around with extra fabric. Coal presses his hand between my shoulder blades, nudging a finger beneath my auburn braid.

“You are all right. Feel the solid ground beneath your feet, and breathe.” And here I thought myself better at hiding emotions. “I can smell fear,” Coal says, as if having heard my thoughts. For a male who thinks a cracked rib to be an acceptable teaching aid, his awareness of my body is frighteningly perceptive. Switching his grip to my shoulders, Coal twists me about to face him. Sweat drips lazily down the deep groove between his pectorals, and I have to force myself not to track it with my eyes. Like all of my males, Coal is large for an immortal fae warrior, and I—being small even for a human—barely reach his corded shoulder. Coal’s face tips down, clear blue eyes studying mine. “I can smell the absence of it too, mortal.

And when you stop being a little bit afraid of the consequences, you forget that you are training to defend yourself against the darkness of Mors.” “I think you are confusing ‘a little bit afraid’ and ‘paralyzingly terrified.’” I step closer to him, reaching for his body with one hand. Coal’s arms stiffen. “I don’t hug, mortal.” “Says the male who was just sitting half-naked atop my chest.” “I do as much to River, Shade, and Tye. If it makes you feel better, I do not hug any of them afterward either.” Coal releases my shoulders and steps back, reclaiming the alltoo-familiar distance between us. The same distance he keeps between himself and everyone.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that this male—the one who took half a dozen arrows in silence to protect my life—was afraid. Perhaps I don’t know better. Slavery in the dark realm of Mors could have left scars beyond those on his wrists and flesh. “Get some breakfast,” Coal calls, turning in the opposite direction of camp. “I’m going to wash up.” I watch him walk away. “The lake is freezing,” I call, but he only lifts a dismissive hand in response. His black pants cling to his hips, which flare into a broad back, crisscrossed with latent muscle and jagged scars. That mysterious tattoo twists down his spine, practically begging my fingers to explore it. Shaking my head, I start through the dense autumn wood toward the scent of frying meat.

After a week of trekking through the neutral lands—skirting along the base of the mountain range that dominated our horizon in Slait Court, and then rising into it, through whispering green foothills and forests ringing with birdsong—the fae and I are now only four hours from the Citadel. Perched atop the summit of a forested mountain, the Citadel is a court unto itself, complete with a strategic view of its territory. Four hours and then we’ll be there. Asking the Elders Council to accept our oath as a quint. My chest tightens, nausea shifting my stomach. If the rest of the Elders Council is anything like Klarissa—the gorgeous, manipulative viper who tried to have me killed— then the five of us are walking into a predator’s open maw. Not that the males have been anything but cavalier about it, their quiet discussion focused primarily on how to continue killing dark things coming out of Mors without those dark things killing me in the process. As for Klarissa, River said he’ll handle her. Has done so for centuries. There was little point in noting that despite being “handled,” Klarissa still nearly succeeded in killing us.

The mistake of magic that bonded me, a mortal female, to four immortal fae warriors still feels like a bard’s tale to me—and even those don’t always end well. The mouthwatering smell of sizzling rabbit carries on the wind, guiding me to the morning meal. Our never-ending supply of game is a side benefit of traveling with four predators, one of whom prowls the night as a wolf. And not just the night. I curse as I trip over a large, furry body lying across my path. “Is it really necessary to nap in the middle of a trail when there are acres of land around?” I ask Shade. If Coal won’t tolerate touch outside training, threatens to crack my ribs, and generally makes himself scarce, Shade is his polar opposite: ever-present, cuddly, and as overprotective as a mother bear. Or mother wolf. Shade yawns, opening his black muzzle wide to show an impressive set of teeth, and rises lazily to his feet. Pressing his front paws into the ground, he stretches his back.

One way. Then the other way. Tail up, nose up. Then he shakes. With his sleek gray fur, powerful build, and sharp golden eyes, Shade’s wolf is a sight to behold—and the furry bastard knows it. “Oh, for stars’ sake.” I go to walk around the wolf, only to see a flash of light and find the male, now in fae form, silently falling in behind me. “How was training?” Shade’s arms capture my waist, forcing me to a halt against his smoothly muscled chest. His voice is a low caress across the top of my head that sends a delicious shiver through me, his body heat a blanket. “Are you hurt?” “Only my pride.

” “Mmm,” Shade makes a noncommittal sound, his hands already moving over my skin, my arms, my shoulders, pressing gently against my ribs. I twist around to face him. This version of Shade is even more distracting, with strong cheekbones and full lips, black hair swinging around his shoulders, and haunting eyes that seem to grow more intent on me with each passing day. “Nice as this is, you and I both know you are fussing. Blocking my path on happenstance is about as subtle as asking me questions to which you’ve no intention of believing the answers.” Shade blinks in offended innocence. “I’m not fussing. I’m simply aware of how rough Coal is with training.” I raise a brow, even as I savor the warmth spreading through me. No one has cared enough about me before to bother questioning my claims of wellbeing.

After spending years as Zake’s convenient mix of indentured servant and punching dummy, the quint’s concern still sets me ablaze. “So you do this with everyone after they train with Coal?” Shade’s innocence surrenders to a chuckle. “Only if I want my ass kicked. But I think you need a little more training before you pose a true danger to me, so I can indulge.” Shade’s hands slide to my face, the yellow eyes drinking in my gaze no longer a healer’s, but a male’s. He lets out a long, shuddering breath. “Does it bother you very much, cub?” Leaning forward, I kiss Shade’s cheek, his golden skin slightly prickly with stubble beneath my lips. “It’s sweet. Just unnecessary.” Shade’s jaw tightens, his throat bobbing as he swallows.

“It is neither of those things,” he says softly. “My wolf . My instinct to protect you grows by the day. It isn’t easy to curb. Impossible altogether at times. I am sorry.” I bite my lip, my skin tingling as if a thousand little pricks of fire play along its surface. Despite the chill, Shade’s cream shirt collar is open, revealing the hard swell of his pectoral muscles, the dip of his sternum. The leather laces whip like little flags in the wind. “I’m the only human in Lunos,” I whisper.

“A little protectiveness now and then is rather welcome.” “I’ll remind you that you said that.” Shade’s calloused thumb traces my cheekbone. “You can still say no, cub,” he whispers. “We are stepping into the Citadel today, but we aren’t there yet. Now that you’ve had a chance to think . We’ll understand if quint life isn’t what you want. A mortal shouldn’t be charged with defending Lunos and fae from Mors.” “I’m staying,” I say firmly, my stomach clenching as Shade lets out a deep sigh of relief. “Of course I’m staying.

” Shade’s brow tightens. “There is a ‘but’ in there. I can smell it.” Damn fae and their bloody noses. Fine. “I don’t want to be useless.” “You couldn’t be useless if you tried, cub,” Shade says with no trace of humor. “Your very presence gives us life. Stars. I wish I knew how to make you believe it.

” I press my cheek into Shade’s palm and he pulls me against him, his silky hair brushing his shoulder as he bows his head over mine. The smell of damp earth and rain fills my lungs, and my heart quickens in spite of itself, my hands rising to rest on Shade’s taut hips. The yellow of his eyes shines in the sunlight, the bit of black in the center swallowing both the light and my thoughts. I wonder what those eyes see when they look at me from a wolf’s body. Shade’s face dips down, his full lips parting in a way that turns the tingling along my skin into something feral. My body shivers, awakening with a steadily heating need that defies my command to stay put. “Cub.” Shade’s voice rumbles from his chest, so soft that I feel rather than hear the sound. My breath stills, my lungs no longer interested in air. Not when my mouth already tingles in anticipation— “Breakfast?” Tye’s voice wriggles between Shade and me.

We step apart, my face blazing. Shade gives the redheaded male a vulgar gesture. Tye wraps his arm shamelessly around my shoulder and looks down at me, his green eyes glinting in mischief, his sharp features spread into a grin. Up close, he’s too handsome for his own good, and I scowl at him for it. “You must be starving, lass. Come eat while there is still meat left. We’ve Klarissa’s mood to ruin today, and a millennium of Citadel tradition to turn upside down. Such endeavors are always better on a full stomach.” T 2 T Y E ye smiled as he pulled Lera away from Shade, who was now staying back while he mastered himself. Had Tye’s Lilac Girl found a way into River’s or— by stars’ own miracle—Coal’s arms, he’d have given the pair their space.

But Shade . Tye’s grin deepened. It was simply too enjoyable to prod Shade now that the bastard was back in fae form and no stranger to the wonders of Lera’s body. Plus, Tye was doing Shade a service. Fae males were a protective and territorial lot to begin with, but Shade’s wolf added a whole new level to the instinct. Shade was already laying claim to the girl, and Tye suspected that his wolf was trying to mate. If Tye’s suspicion was correct, Shade would soon have a damn unpleasant battle on his hands in trying to maintain civility. Stars knew that Tye himself needed a dunk in cold water most mornings now to keep himself in check—and Shade would have it much worse. Tye whistled a raunchy tune as he led Lera back to the breakfast campfire, pleasantly situated on the edge of a bluff overlooking the forested hills they’d trekked through. Far in the distance, a river glinted on the valley floor—the same river that ran all the way to Slait, emptying into the deep lake near the palace.

“Is there a reason you are so pleased with yourself, Tye?” River asked. The quint commander was checking the horses and gear, his dark eyes grave with planning their Citadel approach, his shoulders spread to carry the weight of responsibility—which he was more than welcome to, as far as Tye was concerned. Following orders was a great deal easier than giving them, and Tye was all about easy. Like fine wine, life needed to be savored. Lera wriggled away from Tye to wrap her hands around a mug of coffee sitting beside the flames, her curvy silhouette making Tye’s heart beat just a little faster than normal. Tye was an expert in very few things . But when it came to females, his was a forte few others could match. Which qualified Tye to say, with authority, that Lera was like no one else in Lunos. Her sensuality went beyond that lush red-brown hair and creamy skin, those chocolate eyes that sent heat along Tye’s veins. Even beyond her tight, gently swaying backside and breasts that peaked deliciously in the mountains’ chill air.

What made the lass unique lay somewhere in her soul and made her gaze at the world with eyes full of wonder and questions. Maybe Lera’s mortality had something to do with it, the way she lived every moment and made those around her want to live it with her. “Tye,” River’s low voice prompted. Tye’s eyes remained on Lera’s backside as she straightened. “What’s wrong with me being pleased with myself?” “Because it is typically an indication that you’ve stolen something or are smuggling contraband,” River said dryly. Tye turned to his commander, who had paused in the middle of attaching a saddlebag to glare suspiciously at Tye. Yes, River oozed confidence and responsibility the way piranhas oozed slime. It was just an inseparable part of the prince of Slait Court that was always there, always awake, always braced to take on the weight of the world. Tye grinned, opening his arms to encompass the whole mountainside. “Where the bloody hell would I find something to steal around here?” “That’s what I want to know.

” River’s eyes narrowed on a spot behind Tye, where Shade must have finally appeared. “Oh, for stars’ sake, you two.” Blinking in innocence, Tye grabbed a skewer of rabbit meat from the flames. The female blushed, ignoring them all and settling herself on a log. Her shyness. That was another one of Lera’s delightful little sparks that Tye enjoyed stirring. Her body longed for touch, but often as not, her mind seemed to scold her for savoring the pleasure she deserved. Fortunately, between himself and Shade, Tye was certain they’d conquer that little barrier. Tye’s chest tightened. He’d had a chance to “conquer a barrier” in a very literal sense a week ago.

Finding herself alone with him for once, Lilac Girl had actually asked him to bed her. Being no stranger to the proposition—on either the asking or the receiving end— Tye still didn’t fully understand why he’d said no, insisting on some nonsense about the whole quint being present. Lera didn’t need the whole damn quint there for her first time. Was it that he was afraid of hurting her—and quietly leaving that job to someone else? No. The first time could be rough on a female, but Tye knew he could make it worth her while. Prepare her until she was so wet and clenching with need that the pleasure of her release would swallow the sting. Make the hurt so good that it morphed into an ecstasy that had her screaming Tye’s name. Tye shifted his weight, the pressure in his cock growing from uncomfortable to downright painful with each colorful thought. Ripping his mind from Lera’s phantom release—and his own matching pleasure—Tye forced himself to return to the question at hand. Certainly, Tye wanted Lera.

More than he’d ever wanted a female in his centuries of sampling them. He swallowed, his throat suddenly too narrow. Yes, that was it. His longing for Lera went beyond just bedding her. He wanted an exchange of intimacy that he’d not yet earned. Perhaps didn’t deserve. Perhaps never would. “So today is the day?” Lera said, handing her drained coffee mug to River for packing as Coal joined the group, his blond hair down for once and damp with lake water. “We go enter the Citadel and come out as the official, sanctioned quint that we already are? It seems like a lot of ceremony for little effect.” “As much could be said for wedding vows,” Tye replied, though he sensed the ease of the lass’s words was as much a lie as his own.

River shot him a glare then settled his gaze heavily on Lera. “This is a binding oath, not a formality. A pledge of obedience to the Citadel and a promise to protect Lunos.” Tye sighed. That was not the way to sell something—it was the way to chase a buyer off with a broom. River’s voice softened, making Tye dread the words he had no doubt his commander would say next. “Until the oath is spoken, you can still walk away, Leralynn. You should walk away. It would be the smart thing to do.” Lera crossed her slender arms over her chest, holding the commander’s gaze in a way few immortals dared to.

“And if I do, we would either need to sever the bond between us or all go live in the mortal lands?” “Yes,” River said. “Then stop calling something a choice when it isn’t, River,” Lera said primly, snatching one of the meat skewers still remaining by the breakfast fire. Her teeth closed on a morsel of rabbit, pulling it delicately off the stick. “On a philosophical level, does it bother anyone that whoever the magic deigns to select for quint-ness must then bow to the Citadel? What if the chosen fae all want to be basket weavers, not warriors?” Tye grabbed himself another meat skewer and dug out a wine cask from the saddlebags. Coffee was nice, but this conversation would go better with wine. Something dry and a bit tangy. “Mornings have become infinitely more entertaining since you joined our little gathering, Lilac Girl,” he said around a mouthful of rabbit. Shade gave Tye a warning look, a subtle show of rank from River’s second-incommand. River’s jaw tightened, as it always did when he was forced to reconcile his personal dislike of the Elders Council with an equally potent loyalty to the Citadel’s mission. “Flurry’s, Slait’s, and Blaze’s court subjects must pledge an oath to their kings.

This is little different. As for the magic selecting basket weavers, it’s simply never happened. There is a warrior spark in every chosen being. The magic doesn’t make mistakes.” “No?” Lera waved a hand over her very human self. “You aren’t a mistake,” Tye said, getting to his feet and glaring at River. Heat pulsed through his veins as Autumn’s words in the Slait palace library echoed in his memory. Look at your quint now: a child of Slait, Blaze, Flurry, Mors, and now a child of the mortal lands. Doesn’t that seem a bit too neat to be an accident? But the female’s research was only academic proof of what he’d already known in his gut. “Tye.

” Shade’s voice hardened. They were all falling into their hierarchical roles now, with the Citadel looming. Not that Tye much cared. “Flurry,” Tye said, pointing at the wolf shifter, before cycling through the other males. “Blaze. Slait. Mors. And now the mortal lands. Does that seem like a mistake to any of you?” Silence settled over the quint, the others watching Tye warily as he panted, his hands opening and closing at his sides. Let them dare push him on this.

Let them so much as try and Tye’s tiger would feast on their flesh. River cleared his throat, carefully taking a sip of wine before turning to address Lera. “We may not understand the magic’s intentions, but you—” “I connected with the four of you and survived,” she said, smoothly taking River’s sentence in her own direction. Her beautiful forehead tightened into a frown. “I think we should try it again before we enter the Citadel. Connect in a safe and controlled manner without anyone watching. See what we can do as a quint.” River choked on his drink. “Safe and controlled? That’s akin to a safe and controlled fall off a bloody cliff.” Lera threw him a withering glance.

River studied her, his intelligent gaze incredulous. “Have you gone insane, Leralynn? Your surviving enough magic to kill most immortals was a bloody miracle—we are not going to tempt fate twice.” “Of course, River,” Lera said in a too-sweet voice that woke every fiber in Tye’s body to yet another realization. Last time the quint was at the Citadel, Tye and his elastic relationship with the law was River’s greatest challenge to overcome. This time, that mantle would be going to someone else.

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