Worlds Asunder

Book I: Council of Blades

by: Alan Rogers (masterofwords@shield.com)

Author's Note: This is a work of fiction. Some of the cultures and histories are based on real cultures, groups, events, etc, but MANY poetic liberties were taken. My apologies in advance to any who may be offended by my warping of history and culture.

Rating: R, for graphic violence

Disclaimer: I, Alan Rogers, am the sole owner, creator and author of this piece of fiction. If you want to use anything or anyone in here, feel free, just please let me know so I can get an ego boost from it. Thanks.

The world and races of Essaria are property of Jacob Henry and Alan Rogers. (Teren are the sole property of Jacob Henry)

Acknowledgements: To Xanthia Aldones and Xaverii Kiyalla for reading every single version of this thing, and telling me how good it was even when it wasn't. Infinite gratitude and many thanks to Karen Tuthill for her continued beta-reading of the same stuff over and over as I tried to turn a ten-minute vignette into something worth reading. Without her efforts, this would still make no sense to anyone but me.

Dedication: To Noelia Gomez. my first love, who helped inspire this epic and gave me characters I'll never forget.


Summary: Everyone arrives at Midnight house and plans are made.


~ Chapter Five ~

Surrounded By Darkness

Moments like these were not supposed to be awkward. Or uncomfortable. Moments like these were supposed to be savored while running barefoot in sunlit fields of summer wildflowers with sappy and badly scored classical made-for-TV music warbling in the background.

Moments like these were not supposed to happen while you were hungry and exhausted, clutching a too-small bath towel around your dripping body, praying that the water obscured your tears while greeting your lover on the front porch of your best friend's house while heavy clouds and cold wind threatened to turn a sunny day into a rain-drenched evening that mirrored how you and your comrades-in-arms felt after staving off not one, or two, but three magical and physical assaults by a mysterious semi-criminal organization that had taken a sudden and violent dislike to you.

Or so Shadow had always thought.

Somehow, she had always managed to be wrong about stuff like this.

It wasn't like she wasn't glad to see him. Just by being there, Carlos, with his constant rogue smile and passionate eyes, made her smile and shiver at the same time. Sighing in relief that he was there, she tried to ignore the burning nervousness in her gut that made her feel awkward and embarrassed in front of a man who had seen her wearing far less than the towel.

"Come on in and have a seat. Raid the fridge if you want, 'cause I'm gonna finish my shower..."

Shadow never got to finish her sentence and promptly forgot about her shower when Carlos wrapped his arms around her and held her to him as if she were a fragile and priceless treasure, ignoring the fact that the water soaking from her skin into his clothing probably ruined the suit.

"You looked like you needed this." His whisper sent a thrill down her spine as he pressed his cheek to hers. "You all right, babe?"

Damn him for knowing me so well!

She looked up into his dark eyes, not bothering to pretend she hadn't been crying. "No. I need to finish my shower, and then when everyone is here, I'll tell you."

Knowing that tone of voice all too well, he let go of her and let her lead him into the house, absently grabbing his bags from the porch. It was one of the things about their relationship they both enjoyed; there was no need for niceties like 'hello, how are you?'; they just said what needed to be said, and not a lot more. It left room for a lot of passion and very few misunderstandings.

But sometimes I wish there were more tenderness...more moments like at the door. He almost never does that.

I'm glad he did, though.

Glancing around at the elegant living room, Carlos raised a blonde eyebrow and shrugged.

"Nice place. And I'll be patient...but I can tell something's bothering you. I want to help, okay?"

Turning back to look him in the eye, she nodded slowly, letting a ghost of a smile trace her lips. "Thank you."

Indulging both of them, his fingertips caressed her cheek. "Hey, I love you. You know that."

Her smile grew, brightening her whole face. She knew Carlos loved her, but he rarely said the words, least off all when she really needed to hear them. His arm slid around her waist from behind, letting her lead him in an awkward waddle to Midnight's parent's bedroom, where he promptly kissed her again, gently letting his mouth say the words again.

"Finish your shower. I'll get changed, and then we'll catch up. I've missed you."

Squeezing his hand, she smiled again. "Thanks. I'll be fast."

Carlos shrugged at her. "Don't. Take your time and enjoy your shower. You don't ever take enough time for yourself, you know." He sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. "I can sit here and keep the cat company."

Sighing, Shadow let her towel drop to the floor as Carlos reached for Javerri, who was coolly eyeing them from the middle of the bed. As Carlos' hands got closer, Javerri hissed and slashed out with his paw, batting the surprised man back.

"Hmm...methinks he's not very friendly." Carlos commented, taking off his sport coat and laying it across the back of a chair.

Giggling, Shadow scooped up Javerri into her arms, where he purred like a contended kitten. "Silly...he's just kinda odd. Midnight has to tell him you're okay first, I think, or he doesn't like you. As soon as Jason and Amber bring dinner, she can introduce you two."

A droplet of cooling water splashed on Javerri's forehead. Mewing in annoyance, he shook his head and leapt from her arms back onto the bed, sniffing at Shadow disdainfully.

Laughing, Carlos tugged at his shoes. "Well, he certainly is opinionated, isn't he? Ugh…I am going to be so glad to get into street clothes again!"

Suddenly feeling playful, Shadow turned back to Carlos and sauntered over to him, the sway of her hips stolen from Amber, her blue-gray eyes sparkling in the dim light. Carlos was pointedly all too aware of her nudity, especially as she leaned down to leave a soft, warm kiss against his lips. She leaned back, the light making her slick skin shine. Knowing right then was not the time, Carlos bit back his urge to kiss the hollow between her breasts, knowing just what that would start. I don't think she wants that right now...but, oh god a year is a long time!

"Thank you, love, for your greeting. You were right; I needed that. And I love you too."

Dashing back into the bathroom to finish her shower, Shadow rubbed at the hair on her arms as it stood on end.

I just wish I could get Jason out of my head!

Looking very smug, Javerri crept out of the room to go find Midnight.

~ * ~

I am going to be soaked by the time I get there.

Jagged lines of lightning split dark clouds with brilliant slashes of white-hot light that seared the back of his eyes worse than the flash on a high-powered camera, followed seconds later by the rolling explosions of hot and cold air mating into thunder. Sheets of rain fell from the sky as Mother Nature decided to give the big city a shower.

Jos Airaalin was by no means a practical man, and at times he considered himself somewhat self-aware. He was nothing like Jason, who seemed to know and understand his every emotion and thought. But both of them knew that practicality lay just outside of their reach. Instead, they reveled in existing inside a fantasy world where everything would work out in the end.

It was a devout faith they needed to practice, or go insane.

But there was something about the impracticality of driving a motorbike through a raging thunderstorm and arriving on the doorstep of the woman he was most likely falling in love with drenched to the bone that pushed away idealism and hope and left behind the dull ache in his chest that he knew was resignation to looking like a fool.

Again.

Emotions he had become all too familiar with licked at the edges of his mind as he slowed the bike to curve around a tight turn with all the skill riding second to Jason Amaris for six years could give him. Droplets of rain pummeled him like spears of ice, soaking his clothing and seeping through to his skin, leaving him feeling as if he were smothered.

I hate the rain.

He could feel it in the air around him, overlaying the scents that thunderstorms brought with them. The faint metallic scent of ozone in the air told him all he wanted; this storm was a backlash from whatever Jason had been involved with that afternoon. Jos was not a mage by any stretch of the imagination, but he knew quite a bit about magic.

Whatever it was, it was bad enough to scare him into asking for back up. Jace never asks for back up.

When Jos had called Master Elari, he had agreed to meet them at Midnight's house as soon as he got a chance, but that he had some business to take care of first. Which means it could be very late before he shows up.

Shivering, wet, and cold, Jos arrived at the massive house, weaving the motorcycle in and around the slightly opened gate. He knew he had made it back before Jason, and suddenly wondered if they knew to expect him.

"Either way, here goes nothing."

He parked the bike along the side of the house, knowing Jason's protections on it would more than keep the rain off. He shouldered his waterproof duffel bag and started to make his way through the rain, but as soon as his feet touched the white stone of the walkway, he had a sinking feeling that making it to the door was going to be harder than he thought.

Jos knew that rich eccentrics kept odd pets, but the rather large white tiger laying on the porch and watching him walk towards the door seemed almost ridiculous. And until it's ears flicked back and he felt, more than heard the growl, he had been half-convinced the beautiful cat was just an exceptional lawn decoration.

Fear clenched at his gut as he clamped down on the urge to step back. Master Elari's words came back to him, almost as if his teacher were standing next to him. "Jos, when faced with a man, you can always win. This is not so with natural or magical creatures. They are better equipped to hunt and kill than a human is. Don't fight them if you don't have to. Chances are, you'll lose. And you'll die."

He stopped moving; holding himself motionless in the way only predators and warriors could, and locked eyes with the cat. He didn't threaten; he didn't challenge. He just stared, letting the animal see what was there. And in the instant their eyes met, Jos saw a flicker of higher intelligence in the cat's eyes that made him wonder if it really were a pet.

I suppose this should be hardly surprising, considering the company Jason keeps sometimes.

The cat's eyes looked deeper, and Jos blinked. He and the cat knew each other far too well. This is the cat from the dream. The one who helped me save her.

This time when he saw the cat's expression, it seemed more amused than threatening. Almost as if the cat were saying 'we may be friends, but I'm not getting wet'.

Sighing, Jos almost bent down to touch the tiger, but figured he would appreciate staying dry as much, if not more than attention.

"You know, cat, I should have known that if she were real, you would be too." Cocking his head to one side, the cat almost nodded. Again, blue eyes met gold.

The unspoken rapport between Javerri and Jos carried between them a thought on which they both agreed: No harm would come to Midnight if it were in their combined power to prevent it.

Pausing a moment, the young swordsman stared up at the brick and mortar holding the fortress-like building together, and back over his shoulder at the long stone walkway.

All I need is some armor, a moat and drawbridge and I would be a knight returning from a long journey to see his lady.

Only she's not my lady. I don't think so, anyway.

Jos walked in the door, somehow knowing that behind him a small white cat was staring forlornly at the rain.

~ * ~

"You know, Jos, I'm glad you don't know how to knock because I really don't feel like getting up."

Shadow's acerbic comment barely fazed the drenched young man who strode in from the rain, a grim expression painted on his delicate face. Shaking his head a little like a cat, he turned his gold-eyed gaze towards Shadow and Carlos, comfortably nestled on the couch. Carlos was sprawled out with one foot on the far armrest and the other hanging off the edge of the couch, with Shadow's hips between his thighs so she could use his chest as a backrest. Now showered and changed, Shadow was getting hungry and was more than a little disappointed that it was Jos, not Jason who had barged in. Tugging at her borrowed silk robe, she raised an eyebrow in his direction.

To Shadow's surprise, the young man didn't have the grace to look embarrassed. Instead, he shrugged in a way that made Shadow think of Jason, and gave a casual smile.

"The cat invited me in."

Cryptic much? The cat. Right. Tell me another one. Absently, she noted that he was soaked to the bone, and probably needed to change clothes. What is it about everyone coming in here needing to change today? I think only Jace has escaped such a fate. Funny, how he always seems to be an exception to the rules.

"Funny. I didn't think Javerri could talk. He's smart for a cute cat, but he's just a cute cat."

Shadow felt the taut muscles in Carlos' arms ripple with tension as Jos gave them both a glance that was both dismissive and arrogant. Amber-flecked gold eyes met Shadow's blue-grays coldly.

"Maybe you should listen more, and speak less."

It was right then that Carlos felt Jos Airaalin's gaze as a slow chill crawled up his spine. A graduate with honors from West Point Military Academy and veteran Interpol Agent, Carlos Fierre was not easily spooked. But there was something about that gaze that made his skin want to crawl off his body.

"Who is this guy, babe?"

Shadow patted him on the shoulder, murmuring. "Later, love. I'll tell you later."

When they looked back up, Jos was gone, only a trail of water revealing that he had been there at all. Her eyes following the trail, Shadow sighed.

"Jos."

He turned back to her, his expression one of annoyance. From the look in his eyes, she guessed that he rarely if ever got caught.

"I don't think she wants to see anyone right now." Shadow found herself speaking softly, even sympathetically. If he walked all the way here then he's got it worse than I thought. Maybe even as bad as she does.

A bitter smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "I'd rather she tell me that, Nadja. I think that you are the last person that I would ever trust romantic advice from."

He spoke to Shadow, but his eyes never left Carlos.

"You got a problem?" Carlos shifted under his girlfriend, trying in vain to look macho in an old T-shirt, ratty jeans and sneakers with his arms around the waist of a silk-clad blonde. It didn't work very well.

Jos' only answer was to disappear up the stairs.

"The cat invited him in?" Carlos asked, incredulous. "Never mind who he is, who does he think he is?"

Shadow shrugged, nestling back into Carlos with a disgusted and despairing sigh. "I think he thinks that he's the only one of us Jason trusts and the only person who might snap Midnight out of it. And just maybe the only one of us that can beat Saydan mano-y-mano."

"Arrogance and idiocy all rolled up into one. Great taste in men your friend has."

Shadow turned to regard the love of her life with a scathing glare. "As much as this pains me to say, Carlos, he's probably right."

Settling back into the couch with a soul-deep yawn that only serious jet lag and battle fatigue could create, he shrugged. "Oh."

About thirty seconds later, his body went cold. "Saydan?"

~ * ~

Midnight heard him stop just outside her room, somehow not even casting a shadow in the doorway. She knew he was there, a feeling in her gut that shivered through her like a warm breeze. She knew it was him from the hint of his scent hanging in the air. Only she wasn't sure it was really a scent as much as it was his presence.

From the way he's lurking, you'd almost think he was nervous. Imagine that?

Butterflies were playing with high explosives in her stomach.

"You can come in you know." Her voice was quieter than she thought it would be.

Silent footsteps carried him inside the darkness of her room, where she was leaning against the wall, knees drawn to her chest, watching the storm rage outside.

As he stepped closer to her bed, she drew in a deep breath, the quiet stillness he carried like a blanket falling over her, easing cramps in her neck and shoulder she hadn't even really felt.

At his embarrassed cough, she looked up at him with a sheepish smile. Oh yeah. I'm still naked. Why is it whenever we're alone together, I forget about that?

Hoping he couldn't see her blush, she tried to play it off. "That's what you get for not calling before you come over."

He opened his mouth to apologize, but her finger moved up to his lips, barely touching him there. The warmth of his breath played over her suddenly hypersensitive fingertip. The skin of his upper lip was damply cold and clammy. It dawned on her that he was dripping onto her carpet, and doing his level best to hide his shivers.

"You're soaked! And freezing!" Unfolding herself from her bed, Midnight stood beside him, her concern overriding modesty. After that dream I think modesty may be a lost cause.

"Yeah, a little." He answered with a shrug, his eyes smiling more than his face. "I came to see if you were okay."

Even whispered, his voice had the same rich sound that sent shivers of warmth up her spine. His hands, feverishly warm compared to the rest of him, caressed her cheek gently. Their eyes met in a silently shared smile.

"I will be now." She leaned into the palm of his hand, a hollow place in her chest aching for more contact. "We need to get you dry and changed."

He shrugged and held up his duffel bag. "Bathroom?"

Putting her hands over his, she held his palm to her cheek, not wanting him to leave, even for a moment. "Down the hall."

His fingertips brushed her skin as he drew his hand back. "I'll be fast."

As he practically ran out of the room, she slid back on the bed, hugging herself and watching the storm, now a perfect mirror for her emotions.

How is he doing this to me?

Her room seemed a much colder, emptier place without him. And I want him with me so badly. Something...something in him makes me feel better, just by him being there. Even Kai couldn't do that...

It seemed like an eternity that passed in the blink of an eye as he stepped back inside. Craning her neck to see him, she smiled softly.

He's beautiful.

Barely taller than she was, Jos was whip-slender, but his bare chest and arms looked to be carved from sinew and muscle wrapped around delicate bones. His movements reminded her of Javerri; light and silent, a deadly grace that was as natural to him as breathing. But there was a soft vulnerability that was seen only in his golden eyes, a need for something that he refused to acknowledge to himself.

She saw his tattoo; it was a dragon, like hers, but that was where the similarities ended. If anything, his was more detailed than hers was, but had been colored in black and blue inks, wrapping around his chest and arms. In the dragon's talons was a pair of swords. Somehow, the blades shimmered with metallic silver against his skin.

He had dressed in a loose pair of black pants, but had a shirt in his hands. He deliberately placed his duffel bag and shirt on the floor next to her bed, and then looked at her with a steady gaze, not asking or giving anything.

A few strands of his wet hair and escaped his ponytail to curl around his elfin face.

Emotionally exhausted and tired of hurting, Midnight indulged herself in getting lost in his eyes and setting her mind on autopilot.

"Hold me?"

She hadn't meant for it to be a question.

He slid onto the bed, and she scooted up to let him slip in behind her. As soon as he was situated, she curled up against him, her side pressed into his chest and her head on his shoulder. He bent one knee for her to rest her back against and his arms slid around her waist.

The warmth of his bare skin on hers made her gasp as he drew her into him, enveloping her in a bubble of arms and legs that kept everything else out. He rested his chin on the top of her head, his fingers absently playing along the edges of her tattoo.

Her fingers traced his. "What does it mean?" Her voice vibrated against his chest.

"Not much, in the end. Just that I can fight, really." His voice was quietly thoughtful, as if he were answering himself more than her.

"And kill?" Midnight wasn't sure why she had asked that; she just knew she needed to know the answer. Or maybe she just needed to know he would tell her the answer.

"And kill." Jos nodded slightly, sounding almost defeated. Her arms traced the tattoo around him, holding him to her. The muscles of his chest and back weren't hard and solid like she expected, but gently yielding, almost like a firm cushion. He smelled of fresh rain and silk.

"Everything is all right." Midnight whispered, looking up to fall into his eyes.

"It is?" His question was a breath as he leaned closer.

"It is right now." His hands ran up and down her side. She shifted her body so that she was facing him; his arms were still around her. She pressed her cheek into his shoulder, desperate to feel him, but not daring to kiss him. "I can pretend this part is real and everything else is the dream."

His hands explored the contours of her neck, back and hips, but refused to stray lower. "How do you know this isn't real?"

She took a deep breath and nuzzled her cheek into his bare chest, every inch of her skin tingling for more contact with his. "Because I'm not scared right now. I'm not having a nightmare and I'm not alone. The only place that happens is dreams."

He felt her skin warm with a blush. "And I cannot believe how that sounded."

He laughed a little and tightened his arms around her. "It sounded like it was true."

"I wish it weren't."

"I know." Midnight felt, more than heard his voice. "But anytime you feel like dreaming, I'll be here, if you want me."

"Thank you." She shifted herself against him so more of her side was touching him, and she felt his hands move as she did.

"You don't mind?" He whispered one hand around her waist, the other reaching from her hip down her thigh.

"No. You feel good."

"Jos, everyone is coming here. To figure things out. To figure out what this afternoon was." Pressing as close against him as she dared, she hugged his waist. "When I go down there after everyone arrives...I have to try to make this make sense. All of it. I have to know what everyone knows, or we're all dead. I can feel it inside me, like something I should know isn't there anymore."

Every time she thought about what had happened, she had a feeling tugging at the back of her mind, telling her she had the missing piece and the only way she would be able use it was to see the rest of the puzzle first. "You won't hide anything, will you?"

He shook his head, their faces coming closer. "No. No secrets. Not from you."

"You'll do this with me, whatever it is?"

He stroked her cheek. "Of course."

"Good. Because I'm going to need you. I don't know how or why this is happening, Jos, and it scares me. You scare me. Today nearly killed me, and I had to kill someone. I want to know why."

Rocking her gently, Jos shrugged. "Why you had to kill or why you were attacked."

"Both." She pulled away enough to stare him in the eyes. "I need to know why Saydan stalked me, why he...attacked...me and what he wants. I think that if I don't find out soon I'm going to die."

All Jos could do was sit there and hold her in silence.

~ * ~

Somehow, he had managed to get everyone's order right.

Shaking her head in exasperated amusement, Shadow watched as Jason handed out everyone's food as they gathered in Midnight's dining room. I don't think I'll ever know how he does it.

Carlos grabbed his burger and sank into the seat next to her, flashing a small smile. "So, whose idea was it to turn out the lights?"

Shadow took a bite of her salad and shrugged. Carlos was right; having most of the lights off except for the one hanging over the table seemed odd, especially when a thunderstorm raged unabated outside.

"I did." Midnight spoke softly as she walked into the room, her bare feet brushing quietly on the carpet. She was dressed in a wraparound tunic of dark green silk and black silk pants; an outfit probably meant as pajamas. Her dark hair cascaded down her shoulders and back, the dimness casting her in a very elegant light. She looked around the room with her green eyes, every inch the hostess. Javerri pranced ahead of her, the diminutive cat giving the odd appearance of being an escort. Jos followed behind her, clad head-to-boots in black cloth, like a quiet shadow gently looming over the room, reminding them that Midnight was there.

They both sat down, unconsciously scooting their chairs closer, and clasping hands under the table. Jason adjusted his blue glasses and gave a small smile towards his friend as he sat, Amber trying for the seat next to him. Shadow made it there first, and couldn't resist smirking at the girl as she sat between Carlos and Jason. Frowning, Amber sat on the other side of Jos. Carlos frowned and shot Jason a warning glare.

"The lights are turned out to remind us that we seem to be surrounded by things that want to hurt us." Midnight's soft voice was full of fear; she seemed to take everyone's fear and make it her own, because all Shadow felt was nervous. "I was nearly killed today by a psychotic madman whom I don't know. I was stalked and then cornered and then tortured." She paused, her voice choking up. "All of you have kept secrets about these people from me. I want to know who, and what, exactly they are. No secrets. No lies. No half-answers or cryptic nonsense.

"You owe me that much."

Shadow swallowed a bit of suddenly dry salad, and licked her lips as silence draped over the room. Melodramatic. Effective, but melodramatic.

The dining table was in the center of a circle of light surrounded by shadow and darkness. Outside, the rain pattered on the roof in a steady rhythm. Shadow had to admit Midnight's tactic was a bit extreme, but undeniably effective. And somehow, she had figured out that she was the one in the dark while everyone else enjoyed some small but of knowledge about who and what seemed to be after her.

Shadow elbowed Carlos in the ribs. It was better if he went first; his story was the sanest. Besides, she was slightly annoyed that he stopped being affectionate as soon as Jason had arrived.

"I guess I can start." Carlos said with a sigh, putting his burger down and raking his hands through his blonde hair. "I'm Carlos Fierre, Shadow's boyfriend, and I work for Interpol. A little more than a year ago, I met Shadow in Rio de Janeiro during a routine investigation that had Interpol crossing paths with an odd group called 'The Underground'. Their local leader, Saydan, turned out to be a local smuggling and gambling magnate. After breaking his organization down, I was placed in the task force working to put this 'Underground' down before it gets too big. I think he might be the same guy who attacked you today," He acknowledged Midnight with a silent nod, "but as to what interest he has in you, I'm as clueless as the next guy."

He took a long swallow of his cola before shrugging. "We've discovered nothing more than most of the active members of the Underground are martial artists and like picking fights with other sects of organized crime. We think they started somewhere in the Far or Middle East, but we don't know for sure. Hell, with these fucks, we don't know anything for sure, except that they're better at this than we are."

Suddenly well aware that he had almost betrayed dozens of high-security secrets, Carlos sat down with his head in his hands. Shadow caressed his arm gently.

"I'm sorry...but it'll be easier this way. And thank you...this is important. More than you know, love:" Her whispered words seemed to do little to comfort her lover.

There was a quiet cough from across the table as Jason interjected, shooting Shadow a dark look. "I think I'm beginning to see why I never heard all the details of that trip to Rio."

Shadow looked down at her hands.

Jason shrugged at Carlos. "Sorry, man, but the Underground is already too big for your people to handle. Things like smuggling, drugs, gambling – they're a cover for what they really do."

He looked around the room, his eyes hard, even behind the sunglasses. "The Underground is a loose organization of fighters – mostly swordsmen – that prefer to fight in the old way, according to the old traditions and old rules."

"The old rules?" Midnight asked, holding Jos' arm. "What do you mean by that?" Her voice was tight.

Jos was the one who answered, more to Midnight than anyone else. "In every culture, every history, every people, there are those set apart by violence and the mastery of violence. Often, these warriors had rules that governed how they lived, enforced by duels and the threats of death. Feudal knights, samurai, Arabian horse-lords, barbarian or Native American braves – they all lived according to ideals of honor and behavior that offered them control and release of their harnessed violence. The Underground took advantage of that and has opened the doors of that Old World to modern times.

"The Underworld offers weapons, training and power to anyone who works hard enough to get it, and is willing enough to kill to take it. In exchange for helping keep the Underground a force to reckoned with in the worlds of organized crime, these fighters get the right to fight each other and anyone else they choose – whether the challenged is a member of the Underworld or not.

"That's where the Council of Blades comes in. The Council trains fighters of its own to fight in the place of those people who can't. The Underground allows this because the Council warriors are more of a challenge, and killing them would mean more prestige. The Council counters the Underground by acting as it's opposite – funding charities, orphanages and other such causes instead of organized crime."

Jason nodded. "Jos and I have both been raised by the Council. This is our world, our lives. Please...please accept our apologies that our world has destroyed yours."

"Damn...that explains why we can't pin 'em down on anything." Carlos leaned back in his chair, shooting Jason a dark look. "Funny...you don't strike me as a swordsman." He gestured to Jos, who was standing behind Midnight's chair with his hand on her shoulder. "Now him, on the other hand…he looks like a fighter."

"He is." Jason answered with a shrug. "And I'm not. There is more to this whole thing than just fighting and other illegal activities. A lot more."

Carlos gave him a scathing glance, shooting back. "Really? Like what?"

Shadow's soft voice interrupted, her hand reaching out to the middle of the table, palm up. She took a deep breath in and the overhead light faded away letting the darkness flow in and engulf them. Her eyes glowed softly even as a ball of pale green light burned to life just above her palm.

"Magick."

~ * ~

"You seem to be handling all this rather well." Carlos commented dryly to Amber as he sank down next to her on the couch, a rather large glass of old and expensive bourbon clenched in his surprisingly steady hand. They had moved into the living room after Shadow's little display. At Midnight's insistence, the house was still lit with just one light – but this time it was a mage-light floating above the instead of a chandelier. The soft white glow was even more eerie than the dining room chandelier had been. Every time Carlos looked up at it, his stomach did flip-flops and he shivered.

Amber smiled at him and patted his hand gently. "My father has been a front man for the Underground longer than I've been alive. This is all normal to me."

Shaking his head in stunned silence, Carlos took a sip of the bourbon and sighed. "One thing I don't get. What does all this have to do with Saydan?"

Wincing as Carlos sat down across the room from her, Shadow answered. "When I first met him in Rio, Saydan was on the fast track to becoming a Seneschal – in charge of the Underground members in a given city," she added for Midnight's benefit, " – but when we escaped him and you brought down his smuggling ring, he lost enough face that he lost his chance. He might be after me or you because we broke the Underground in Rio. And anyone who knows me knows Midnight is the quickest way to get to me."

Jos frowned and pulled Midnight close to him. "I find that hard to believe. I've beaten him in the ring almost every time we've fought. The last time was the worst; I could have killed him but I spared his life. He saw me with Midnight this morning and came after her to get to me. To challenge me again."

Amber giggled a little from next to Carlos, and looked around at all of them with a delighted smile on her face. "My, aren't we all arrogant? What makes you think that any of you matter to him?"

Carlos leaned back against the couch and took a sip of his liquor, narrowing his eyes at Amber. "Why don't you tell us?"

Amber shrugged, blinking her blue eyes into the darkness. Suddenly, all three of the men were very aware of her scant attire as she drew her legs up under her demurely.

"No. Not without some assurances. I've been his little toy for almost a year now. I don't want to go back. You fix what he did to me, and you keep me safe, and I help you. Otherwise, I'm still a prisoner, just in a different prison."

Before anyone else could respond, Midnight gestured sharply. "Here's the deal. You help us and we'll see what we can do for you. But to be honest, until we know what's going on, we have no way of protecting us from Saydan, let alone you. What we do or don't know could mean all the difference in who gets you in the end."

Amber stared into Midnight's eyes for a long moment before shrugging. "He wants you, baby girl. He wants you as a present for the Magistrate when he comes to visit next month." Scornfully contemptuous of Shadow and Jos, she scoffed, "And as for the blonde and the blademaster? He just wants them out of the way."

Midnight clutched Jos' hand. "Why does he want me?" Each word was forced out as Midnight refused to allow herself to visibly react to what Amber had just said.

Amber shrugged. "Damned if I know why; you're not exactly Consort material, darling. But no one, not even Seneschal Kincaid knows much about you. I'm pretty sure you're just convenient window dressing he can use once he kills blondie. And he's made no secret how much he wants to put Shadow over here out of commission, 'cause she was such a pain in his ass before."

Carlos was looking thoughtful as he put his glass down. The dark golden liquid was barely touched. "What about Jason?"

Amber gave a slight shrug. "Jason? He's just kinda...there. He doesn't fight and he doesn't cause trouble. He's just the Council's little errand boy. From what I understand, he's not even a particularly powerful mage."

Jason looked sheepish and kinda shrugged. "In other words, for the most part, I'm useless."

Shadow winced, and stomped hard on her urge to reach out and grab his hand. Why did you have to sit next to me? Are you trying to make this hard for me?

Jason didn't even appear to notice her.

Carlos nodded slightly towards Amber. "What else do you know?"

"Other than the fact that he thinks you're as useless as the mage? That's just about it, actually." Amber spread her hands wide in resignation and sat back, somehow managing to scoot closer to Carlos. Shadow narrowed her eyes and glared painful death from across the room, her gut twisting into knots.

Oh gods, I hope I haven't lost him! I didn't want him to find out this way!

Carlos nodded. "If this whole thing were real, and not a bunch of high school kids having odd, drug-induced hallucinations, and if this whole thing were an Interpol case, I would say it's time to go undercover and get some recon. 'Cause I don't think you know enough to figure anything out other than Saydan wants to kill or kidnap about half of you."

Midnight gave Carlos a look that was both thoughtful and angry. "What do you have in mind?"

Frowning, the Interpol agent stared into his drink. "You'd have to find a way in, and then a way to get Jason in without getting him killed. A convincing disguise or plausible story – in this case, betraying the rest of you – plus a bit of cover from Jos, probably in the form of a public argument or fight. Some improvised acting here and there and creative embellishments by Jason...and we have an undercover operative."

"Why Jason?" Jos asked, narrowing his eyes at the agent.

Carlos laughed. "Easy. He's the only one Saydan doesn't really give a shit about. So he's the last one Saydan's gonna think is a mole And he knows enough about all this crazy bullshit that he won't do something totally lame and fuck everyone over because he just didn't know any better."

"Makes sense." Amber said, shrugging. "I can help him once he's inside, to try to make sure he doesn't do anything stupid. And he's grown up in between the two Councils. He'll know what to ask and who's safe to talk to."

Midnight nodded slowly. "And he's the only one that I think everyone trusts."

Taking a swallow of his bourbon, Carlos sighed and rubbed his eyes. "But one small question remains. Do we have a way in?"

Midnight smiled slowly. "Yeah, I think we do."

~ * ~

After a final plan had been more or less agreed on, sleeping arrangements had looked fairly logical. Although no one said anything, it was assumed that Midnight and Jos were sharing a room, and the same was assumed of Carlos and Shadow. That left Amber and Jason.

Jos and Midnight could have her room, Shadow and Carlos could have the master bedroom, leaving Jason and Amber to either share the guestroom, or one of them could take the couch.

Things are rarely that simple.

Jos and Midnight faded upstairs to her bedroom shortly after the planning died down. Carlos and Shadow slid into the master bedroom to hash things out. Jason gentlemanly deferred to Amber and took the downstairs couch.

He banished Shadow's mage-light with a wave of his hand and took of his glasses, carefully folding them and leaving them on the coffee table. With a subdued groan, he rubbed the bridge of his nose, and sat back on the couch.

Breathe, Jason, breathe. In with the air, out with the stress.

But deep breathing could only do so much. Rolling his tight neck and shoulders, he peeled off his boots and socks, wishing he had a change of clothes and about an hour for a long, hot shower.

That and some hot tea.

Closing his eyes, he lowered himself to the floor in front of the couch, letting his weight sink back into it, basking in the silent darkness. Quiet solitude had always been his sanctuary against everything. That and his writing. But tonight is not the time to be trying to write. If I start that, I'll never get any sleep.

He really wanted a cigarette just then.

Pushing himself up on the couch, he stripped off his shirt and threw it on the ground next to his boots. What the hell? It's probably cool outside, and I think I deserve it after what I just agreed to do.

Searching for his jacket where his cigarettes were comfortably nestled in the inside pocket brought him nothing but another sigh. Midnight has my jacket.

He rolled his shoulders again, wishing some of the kinks would fade away like his headache was beginning to. Everything was sore.

"You don't have to do this, you know." Her voice came from behind him. He heard the door to the master bedroom shut behind her as Shadow stepped softly into the room. He didn't turn around; he didn't want to see her, clad in silk, her silver-blonde hair and pale features highlighted by the starlight filtering in the curtains, turning her delicate beauty into a fae enchantment right out of the legends.

And he knew if he looked into her eyes once more, he would be lost in them with no way out.

The cool, still air carried the scent of her to him as she walked closer.

"No, I don't. But I am." His voice was quieter than the whisper he had tried for because his throat was closing up.

Please don't do this, Nadja. Please.

Her warm fingertips touched his bare shoulder, and a jolt of electricity ran down his back, knots of tension easing out even as her touch created new ones.

"You have nothing to prove, Jason. You are not useless."

He flinched away from her touch, tightly closing his eyes. "This isn't some macho ego thing, Nadja. This is me, being me. I can't not help."

He knew she was probably hugging herself.

"Damn it, Jace, why do you have to be so dammed noble?" He cringed when he heard the tears in her eyes. "I know I hurt you. All the time, every time I do this, but I still care! You are the one person who knows; you're the one stable rock I can count on in all of this! If they get you..."

Jason sucked in breath through clenched teeth, not bothering to fight his own tears. I'm entitled, damn it! "If they get me then you will do what you have to. Like always." He paused, and realized he was hunched over the couch. Forcing himself to stand straight, he breathed deeply, regaining a measure of control before sitting down heavily. He still did not look at her.

"But that's what this is about, isn't it? He's playing some sick game that all stems from your little secret, isn't he?"

Her small whimper was all the confirmation he needed.

"Please look at me. I need to see...to see that you don't hate me." He heard her swallow hard as he slowly turned until his eyes and met hers, holding onto himself by remembering that her boyfriend and lover was in the next room over.

He had been right. She was beyond beautiful. Even dressed in a gossamer sleeping shift that left her arms and midriff bare and a pair of darker running shorts she was captivating. Her pale skin and hair caught the dim light and collected it around her in an aura of shimmering shadows that made her seem even smaller and more vulnerable than what he had seen in his mind. Her blue-gray eyes searched his for something that he didn't want to name because he was afraid he might be right.

"I can't hate you, Nadja."

She saw his tears and gasped. In the blink of an eye, she was beside him on the couch, her butterfly touches on his face caressed the tears away.

"I'm sorry..." Even as she spoke, her body torso went towards him as he legs slid away, as if she were trying to pull away and move closer at the same time. Her other hand caressed the scars on his shoulders, arms and chest that she knew by heart; they had never made love, but she had dressed more than a few of them. "I never wanted you to get hurt. You're not even a fighter...you're just supposed to be a minor silver mage playing gopher and personal assistant to the Council's golden boy blademaster."

Jason shrugged, trying to pull away. "That's me for you."

"You are so much more than that, but you don't mind being in the background, helping everyone else. You're always there, doing the small stuff, and I hate it. I hate that. You even got everyone's fast food order right without ever asking. No one ever said a thing."

Jason caught her hand in his, and pulled it away from his chest. "Yeah. But that's what I do. I make things easier so that the people who need to do the big stuff can." He smiled. "I like it that way." Taking her other hand away from his face, he scooted back. "And now that's said, you can go back to bed."

Hurt flickered through her soft eyes. "I...I could keep you company out here."

Cold anger swelled in his chest, pushing it's way into his fatigue-befuddled brain. "Did he push you away? Ask you to find somewhere else to sleep?"

Weakly, she nodded, drawing back into herself. Sniffling, she tried hard not to cry as she choked out, "He said he can't trust me not to lie. That I cheated on you with him, and then I kept all this..." She gestured around the room, "from him."

Rubbing her arms, hey eyes pleaded with him. "Jason, I can't tell them all of it. Any of them. I can't. I can't bring them into this. As soon as they're safe, I need to move on. Keep looking. You understand right?"

Her eyes were begging now. Pleasepleaseplease...understand...

In a single motion, Jason leaned forward and gathered her into his arms, holding her against him like a child.

"Yeah, I understand. You have to leave us all behind because of your dirty little secret. As if secret-agent man in there didn't know more than he's letting on. As if Jos, or Midnight, or me didn't have a few secrets. Secrets are a part of this world, Nadja. Yours is bigger than most, so it hurts more."

Shadow found herself nuzzling into his chest, her cheek against his bare skin, breathing in the scent of leather and soap and spice that was perfectly Jason. Carlos always smelled like after-shave and electricity. Why do all the good guys smell like soap?

And when did I stop thinking of Carlos as a good guy?

Her hand came up to caress Jason's cheek again. "Thank you."

He shrugged. "I'm always glad to help a friend."

Shadow winced at that and pulled her hand away. Jason shrugged. "I'll find you some bedding for the couch. I'll sleep on the floor."

He laid her gently on the sofa as he stood, but her hand tugged at his before he was able to go far. Her eyes stared up into his as she sat up, pulling him closer by inches.

"Jason...why can't we do this just this once, just for tonight. We both need each other. We both need this."

Jason calmly noted that she never specified what 'this' was.

Prying his hand away, he smiled bitterly. "Because I'm a nice guy."

~ * ~

Neither of them thought as they walked into Midnight's bedroom. They just started undressing for bed in the darkness, knowing each other's movements as well as they knew their own. Midnight wasn't even embarrassed as she stripped off her clothes and sat on the stool in front of her mirror.

"I need to brush my hair..."

He stepped up behind her, his shirt hanging from one hand. "Here. Let me."

Jos hands took the brush from hers, meeting her eyes in the mirror. The odd intimacy of him gently brushing her hair wasn't lost on either of them. With each stroke of the brush skin grazed skin, leaving lines of sharp electricity tingling through them both. The only sounds were of their breathing and the brush.

"What is it?" She could feel him brooding, getting lost in thought as the monotonous movement of brushing her hair out drew him into his own thoughts.

"I don't like this 'plan'. I don't like it that my best friend is walking into enemy territory just to find out what Saydan is planning."

She threw her hair over her shoulders and leaned back into him, having him brush her hair over her chest, one of his arms around her waist.

"What other option is there? If we don't know what's happening, then how can we protect ourselves?" She met his eyes in the mirror.

"Jason's not a fighter. The Underground isn't his world; it's mine. Not even Master Elari can teach a man to be a blademaster in a week, and that's what you're asking Jason to do. But Carlos was right. I am a fighter. I could challenge and kill Saydan."

Midnight wasn't sure what sent the chills up her spine; the cool confidence Jos has that he could kill Saydan, or the easy way he stated that he would.

"And what happens when someone else, maybe someone worse, steps up to take his place?" She hugged herself, turning her cheek into his shoulder. "Will you kill them too?"

Midnight felt his nod. "In a heartbeat. I'll wade through their entire rank and file if I have to. Especially if it means you and Jason don't get hurt."

"Jos..." Midnight whispered, taking the brush from his hands. "What is this between us?"

He stopped, and stepped back from her. He had known this conversation would come sooner or later; he had just been hoping for later.

I may be joining Jason downstairs...

Her green eyes pierced him like laser beams as he answered. "I don't know, Midnight."

No secrets love. No secrets.

She nodded slowly and stepped closer to him, her breasts almost touching his chest. "Can we trust it?"

Letting his arms slide around her waist, he brought her close to him, pressing his cheek to hers. "You mean to ask if it's real."

Midnight nodded, the pads of her palm running down his muscled back. She wanted to climb into bed, wrapped in him and sleep. Maybe he could chase her nightmares away, both new and old.

"Is it?"

Jos leaned over her and kissed her on the corner of her mouth his lips lingering there for a moment, sending warm shivers down her naked body, making her skin tingle with goose bumps. He pulled away, his arms still holding her tight against him. He left a spicy aftertaste, almost like ginger or peppermint.

"Did that feel like a dream, love?"

His hands slowly ran down her sides, the tips of his nails scraping lightly on skin, making her gasp. "Does that?"

He stopped and rested his hands on her hips, staring into her eyes. "What I feel for you is real. But I need to know – do you trust me?"

Midnight kissed him on the corner of his mouth. "Yes. I trust you. I don't trust me."

Jos guided her towards the bed, holding her close. He knew that as soon as her head touched the pillow, she would sleep. He wouldn't; he didn't need to. He would stay awake with her and keep her nightmares at bay.

"That's okay. I trust you."

~ * ~

I hate this place! Amber Theris sobbed into the pillow, her naked body wrapped in tangled sheets as she frantically fought sleep. If she slept, Sara would slide inside her mind and take over again. Her few hours of relative freedom had been enough of a taste to make her crave more.

Pinpricks of pressure exploded through her thoughts like tiny swords trying to cut their way into her mind. Each time she put a shield in place, she felt another sword.

Sooner or later, she's gonna win. I'm getting too tired.

Each thrust Sara made got deeper and deeper into her thoughts.

: Sister, mine...I know you're there...let me in to play...I've missed you. :

Amber screamed in her own mind as her twin sister stepped inside like the rightful ruler of a castle coming home to find her wayward servant ruling the kingdom.

: You've been a bad girl, but if you twisted the silver mage enough, I might let you off easy this time. :

Sara searched through the memories of Jason and everything they had done together, finding nothing to show she had seduced the mage. I can't touch him; he's too strong, to reserved.

: I told you to seduce him, to make him yours. Even you can fuck decently; you're a Consort after all. What? Doesn't he like blowjobs while driving down the highway? Come on, sister dear, you can do better than this! Why...all he's doing is pining after the blonde? Hey, I know...make yourself a blonde. :

I can't let her win. Not even a little bit! Amber took her memories of the small group making plans and twisted them in her mind, changing her own perception of what had happened, re-writing her own memories. The real memories she stuffed into an overfull box in the back of her mind, where not even Sara dared to go.

Sara found the new memory.

Jason and Amber talking in the car as Amber snuggled up against him. He was whispering bitterly to her.

"They think I'm no one! Nothing!" His eyes blazed with fey magic under the sunglasses. "I'm not! I'm more than any of them! I have to be!"

Amber whispered back, soothing and cajoling as Sara had seen her do dozens of times. Jason wavered and held firm, but the idea of turning his coat from white to black was now a seed in a fertile ground of angst and loneliness.

: Still not good enough. Not good enough at all! I want him to be yours – mind, body and spirit. Leave him nothing but what you want him to have...what we want him to have. If you can, then I'll let you off easy for your betrayal. :

Darkness flickering through private places in Amber's mind as her sister searched for the bonds of Power between them that bound the two together as twins and as Mistress and Servant.

: Come on, sister, dear. Take him. Seduce him. Fuck him. Make his body want you in ways he can't deal with. Even you have enough Power in your to cast a sex-magick glamorie, now don't you? Just look at Saydan...he misses your company so... :

Sara sifted through the memories, watching each person in that evening's melodrama one by one. Amber felt her smile as she saw Midnight's tattoos, and could feel Sara's mental fingertips caressing Amber's own tattoo.

: So she's marked. Not quite a Consort's tats, but close. Find out what they mean...I'll bet your soon-to-be pet mage will know. Maybe you can convince him to seduce his little friend's girl and she'll tell him...oh, my, my sister...you can have so much fun with these people.

It makes me wonder...why, exactly, are you sleeping alone? :

Pain exploded in her mind as Sara left, re-weaving the weakened bonds as she did, pulling Amber even closer to her. Blood trickled from Amber's mouth where she had bit her lip trying to keep from crying out. Sagging to the floor, she sobbed against the carpet, holding her head in her hands, whispering.

"Leave me alone...just leave me alone...go away...."

A small white cat turned away from the slightly opened doorway, his tail drooping and his bright eyes dark with sad thoughts as he made his rounds.