Soulbound – Bec McMaster

CLEO MONTCALM WOKE TO A DREAM. She sat at a small table in a room with no walls, a room that stretched into infinity. The ceiling was the night sky, blossoming to early dawn on the horizon, and a floor of black and white tiles gleamed beneath her. A chessboard reigned on the table in front of her, a game in progress. There was a silence to the place that felt somewhat leaden, and her skin itched as though thousands of invisible eyes watched her. She was not alone. She never was, when she found herself at this immortal chessboard. “You look tired,” said a faintly amused voice, a voice that echoed slightly, as if it came from a throat that was somehow hollow. The figure seated opposite her wore a silk cloak and hood of purest ebony, and it could have been male or female—she could never tell. It was certainly not human, regardless of gender. “What am I doing here?” she demanded, her heart leaping in her chest. She pushed away from the small table with its chessboard, and turned around, but there was no escape. Not physically. “Why did you pull me into this cursed place again?” “What did I tell you the last we met?” The voice finally sounded male. Cleo slowly turned to look at him—it.

The last time she’d woken in this plane had been following the incident in which her husband, Sebastian Montcalm, had been gravely wounded. “You said I was here to make the moves,” she whispered, and she could no longer avoid the sight of that mocking chessboard. “And I did. I put my bishop into play, and it defeated yours.” “Defeated?” There were now two white bishops on the chessboard. “Verity Hastings came to our side,” Cleo said, her voice strengthening. “She’s one of my pieces now. I’m winning.” But even as she said the words, she began to take in the structure of play. “Are you,” said the entity, and it wasn’t a question.

The board had changed. The white queen no longer wore her blindfold; a fitting tribute, since Cleo herself had lost the piece of linen that guarded her regular sight, and protected her true Vision. The white king wore her husband’s face, and though he still protected her, he’d moved several paces away from her to counter the demon’s threat. Or perhaps the distance indicated the way he’d left her following the demon’s previous move. After all, it was a marriage of convenience between them, not a true alliance. The black king’s carved face had finally revealed itself. Drake de Wynter, Sebastian’s father, was now the human vessel for the demon, a blow from which they were struggling to recover. The black king radiated menace as it replaced a square that had previously held one of her heretofore-unseen pawns. Who had she lost? She couldn’t see all the faces on the little pieces, as though some magic obscured them from her. I don’t want to make the moves.

I don’t want to set the play. Cleo wrapped her arms around her middle. This game had consequences beyond what she was prepared to pay, but the last time they’d played, the demon had been merciless. “Of course you make the moves. You’re the one who can see the future.” Those hollow words were branded across her mind from the previous dream it had dragged her into. But I can’t. I can’t see the future anymore. And her pieces were her friends. One wrong move and she’d lose another one.

“Your move,” the demon said. The black queen had advanced with her array of pawns. Cleo couldn’t see the trap or what the demon intended with this advance, but she knew it was a threat. Premonition itched along her spine, like icy little prickles. Following the loss of her blindfold, and her Visions along with it, Premonition was virtually all she had left. “And what if I refuse?” She lifted her gaze. The demon remained still. “Then you forfeit your turn. And I gain it. If you refuse to play, then I will make my move.

” Cleo paced in front of the board, rubbing at her mouth. Her eyes kept settling on the black queen. Just what was he planning with that piece? Who was the black queen meant to represent? The face remained blank, but the woman’s dress was low-cut and vaguely obscene. The last time they’d played, the black queen wore the face of Sebastian’s mother, but there had to be a reason it was blank now. Could he change the importance of players? “I traded you a player,” the demon said. “Drake for Verity. Which do you think is the more powerful piece?” Drake. Cleo swallowed, and considered the board. He was trying to draw her attention to the black king, but every itch of her Premonition said that the queen was the dangerous one. “Make your move, Cassandra.

” She flinched at her old title, and then waved her hand slowly over the board, trying to “feel” which piece to play. The second she reached the black queen, an image sprang into her mind; a mirror with a hooded figure lifting its hands to the cloak it wore, as if to reveal itself— “I don’t think so,” said the demon, shattering the swift pulse of vision before the black queen could be revealed. “Not yet, at any stage.” Instinct shivered as Cleo paused over the white king. Sebastian. But he was gone from her side, trying to recover from the loss of his father, and the part he had played in it. Drake had sacrificed himself for Sebastian, and her husband had taken the blow hard. Or at least, she presumed he had. All her letters remained unreturned, and he’d shut down the mental link they shared, until she could barely feel him anymore. “Wake up,” she whispered to herself.

“Cleo, wake up.” You need to escape this nightmare. Her hand reached inexorably toward the white king, just as something began sucking at her. Vision hammered through her. A book sat unopened on her bed, and as she looked at it, the book jerked open, its pages rifling in an unseen wind…. What did it mean? The world swirled around her as she blinked back to reality. The skin on her arm seemed to waver, her skirts shivering in some nonexistent breeze. “I choose Sebastian.” “So be it,” said the dark entity opposite her, and Cleo shivered as she heard the amusement in its voice as if she’d just stepped into its trap. It reached out a pale hand and set the black queen into play.

“White king meets black queen. I wonder who shall win? Sebastian? Or—” “Wake up!” some part of her screamed. And Cleo sat up in bed with a gasping breath as her opponent’s laugh echoed in her ears. W CHAPTER 1 hen the red comet rules the skies, the Prime shall fall. A new Prime shall ascend to the head of the Order. Three sons. Three relics. Three sacrifices. Only then can the Prime be torn down. —Prophecy as spoken by the Order’s previous Cassandra THE PROBLEM WITH being able to see the future was what happened when you no longer owned those abilities.

Cleo Sinclair, no, Montcalm—she had to keep reminding herself she was married— stepped inside the Black Horse Pub and gently tugged her gloves off. The scent of the place almost made her eyes water; stale beer, hints of vomit, and the pall of malignant sorcery that coated her tongue like something metallic. “I really don’t think we should be here, ma’am,” said her nervous footman, a sorcerer named Jeremy Prior, who was serving his apprenticeship with the Order of the Dawn Star. “This is Balthazar’s Labyrinth.” His eyes showed their whites as he looked around. “Our sort don’t come here. This is where black magic lurks, and those as have been cast out of the Order scurry about. You can find anything occult here—but the price you pay isn’t in coin. Or so they say.” “Precisely.

” You can find anything. She was tired of sitting on her thumbs and waiting for word from her reluctant husband. She had a demon to find, and without her visions…. Well, a girl had to do something. She’d been dreaming of a mirror of late, and it had hounded her nights long enough. She needed to find it, and her dreams had brought her here. She didn’t know if they meant anything… but then she’d never seen that mirror before in her life. All she knew was she needed it. It had to be a sign of her divination gifts trying to send her a message. “Come along then, and step lively.

The sooner I find what I’m looking for, the sooner we can leave.” “But the Prime—” “Is busy,” Cleo interrupted. “We don’t need to disturb Lady Rathbourne, and if successful here, then hopefully I shall be able to aid her current cause.” She couldn’t simply sit at home anymore, trying to avoid the nightmares that woke her. Cleo needed to do something to stay them. She was the only one who had caught a glimpse of the demon’s plans. A half-dozen residents peered at her from the dim confines of the tavern, then blinked in shock. The bartender almost dropped the glass he’d been polishing, and Cleo swept toward him with a smile, knowing her appearance had set the cat among the pigeons. It wasn’t every day a young woman dressed like one of the haut monde entered this place. The bartender was a short man, standing on a stool behind the counter.

Part imp, perhaps, judging by the set of his nose and forehead. His sleeves were rolled up, revealing a heavy manacle around his left wrist, and runes burned a bright copper against the brass. A shackle by the look of it, which meant he’d run afoul of the Order at least once. And considering her status as an Order sorcerer, she doubted he’d be much inclined to help her. “Good day,” Cleo greeted. “I’m interested in passage beyond those doors”—she tipped her head toward the enormous steel bank vault doors at the end of the room—”and I’m willing to pay for it.” “You,” said the imp, “don’t belong here.” “I’ve been trying to tell her that the entire carriage ride,” Jeremy blurted, “but she won’t listen to me.” “Mr—” “Cochrane,” said the imp, and then spat on the floor beside his stool. He leaned on the counter.

“You should listen to your friend here. It ain’t my place to warn away pretty little morsels like yourself”—this with a sneer—”but there aren’t many rules in the Labyrinth. And if you walk in there, chances are, you won’t walk out.” “I’m aware of the risks,” she said, forcing herself to smile through her teeth. “My father was Lord Tremayne—you might have heard of him.” Cochrane’s face paled, but he recovered quickly. “Heard his lordship’s dead.” “Yes.” It didn’t hurt as much as it once had. Her visions had seen the cause of her father’s death, but he’d chosen his own road in the end.

He hadn’t had to stray down the dark path she’d seen. “My point being… if you think this is the worst I’ve encountered, then you are very much underestimating me. If you think your Labyrinth dangerous, then I assure you it’s a walk in the park. My father dabbled with demons. He tried to undermine the Order, and paid for it with his life. Dion Letchworth dandled me on her lap when I was a child, before she sold her soul to a demon. Madame Firth was my first tutor in the Dark Arts, and let me assure you, she was not a very kind mentor.” Cleo frowned. “Sir Alaric Erskine was my godfather, though he died when I was two. Or got sucked into one of the Shadow Dimensions he was dabbling with—Father never really did say.

But… you do see my point?” “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Capitulation. Excellent. “How much will passage cost?” “Twenty quid.” Cochrane snapped. More than she’d expected. “Well, I’m not carrying a great deal of coin on me. I only have ten pounds. Would you accept a favor?” “No coin, no passage.” “Perhaps a reading?” Cleo persisted.

She reached for Mr. Cochrane’s hand. “Brace yourself.” “What the devil are you—” Then she was touching his manacle, and images exploded into being around his head. Cleo’s gaze went distant. She couldn’t access her Foresight anymore, but predictions were still within her capability, and several other gifts of the divination arts, such as psychometry—the ability to read an object’s history. A woman sprang to being, luring Cochrane into shadows. “There was a woman,” Cleo said hollowly. “She trapped you here. Or urged you to do something that put you on the wrong side of the Order.

A theft…. I can’t see what it is, but you stole something for her. That’s why you’re bound. There’s… a curse hanging over you. She’s coming back for you, to break the curse. There’s a tattoo on your skin, some sort of rune, and it will flare gold the day she sets foot on these shores again—” “That’s enough!” Cochrane jerked his hand from beneath hers, and nearly fell off the stool. He looked horrified. “No! She can’t come back. She was bound. Locked away.

No.” Cleo drew her vision back to the here and now, seeing the sweat on Cochrane’s temples. “Payment enough?” He was practically gray now. Staggering off his stool, he turned for the bank doors, waddling across the room. “Go! I want no more of your ilk in here!” Turning the little round wheel, he unlocked the door to the Labyrinth, and swung it open. Behind the enormous door, another world opened up, raucous sound assaulting them. People bustled past, sparing the doors a curious glimpse, but no more. It looked like some darkened version of the Portobello Road markets outside the Black Horse Pub. “Go, you cursed bitch!” Mr. Cochrane snarled, gesturing her through.

An enormous stone golem guarded the passageway beyond, and Cleo glanced at it as she stepped into a world she’d barely imagined even existed. “How do we get out?” “Find your own way out!” Cochrane snarled, and slammed the heavy bank vault door in her face. “I think you riled him,” Jeremy said. “I don’t think you should have mentioned that bit about his curse.” “Probably not.” People never did like to catch a glimpse of their future. “That wasn’t so hard though, was it? We’re inside.” Now to find the mirror she needed. Jeremy peered with sickly fascination at the warren of alleyways hidden from the world by a glass-paned roof above them. Fat tallow candles sat in every crevice, casting plenty of light to see by, and there were dirty puddles in the narrow cobbled streets, though the liquid within looked like ink and not water.

“I think that might have been the easy part.” Cleo laughed, and set off along Main Street. “Oh, Mr. Prior. Where’s your sense of adventure?” He staggered past a woman in a hooded cloak, pushing a barrow full of little dolls that gave one an eerie sense. “It is wondering why I ever left the Prime’s manor this morning. I mean, my sense of adventure could be studying some of my dusty old grimoires right now. It could be sipping a hot cup of tea in the safety of the Prime’s library. It might even extend to some of Cook’s ginger biscuits, because I’m fairly certain I feel a little nauseous.” “I didn’t ask you to come,” she pointed out.

Jeremy stiffened in protest, his Adam’s apple bobbing nervously. “I could hardly leave you to venture here alone!” “You’re a gentleman, Mr. Prior. No doubt about that.” She looked along the narrow branches of alleys that spiraled out from Main Street. All she’d seen in her dreams had been the inside of a bookstore, and dozens of musty books, a dark mirror calling to her, almost throbbing inside her dream, as if it demanded she pick it up. Closing her eyes, she splayed her hands wide, feeling the bite of the three rings she wore beneath her gloves. The chips of marble and diamond in them revealed her to be an acolyte of the Light Arts, which had to be hidden here. Each ring represented a different Order level she’d passed, and three was only two more than what an apprentice wore. Her father had never seen much use in educating her outside her divination.

No, he wanted what her Visions could bring him: gold, power, allies. But it was moments like these that made her wish she’d had someone to teach her more than divination, healing, and wards. This way, itched her sense of premonition. At least it was finely tuned. Cleo opened her eyes, staring down the alley she faced. Not a creature stirred anywhere along the narrow passage, and the second stories leaned toward each other, creating an almost tunnel effect. Shadows loomed. “Of course.” Jeremy swallowed. “It had to be this one.

.

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