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Black Magic Sanction

Black Magic Sanction: Page 14

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The woman with the laptop seemed to be the high witch, since she did a quick look around at the others before asking Nick in a pleasant voice, "Is this Morgan, or the demon?"

I wrapped my arms around myself, wanting to demand that they let me out, but I knew they wouldn't. They wanted me in a hole in the ground - quick and quiet. I was in so much trouble.

Nick obviously knew it was me, but he came close, as if unsure, faded satchel in hand, shoulders at an uneven slant and a tired look in his eyes. He appeared old and weary, and the sheet of ever-after between us hummed as I moved so close that my breath came back to me. His wrist was a mass of scar tissue where his hand had almost been chewed off during his stint as a rat, and his black hair was longer than I remembered. Slowly, my hands formed fists.

I'd slept with this man, thinking he loved me. Maybe he had. But he'd betrayed me, selling secrets about me to demons and then trying to double-cross me after I'd saved his life. My fist jammed out, hitting the barrier inches from Nick's stomach. Pain cramped my hand and clawed its way up my arm. There was a collective gasp as I danced back, shaking my fist. Rubbing my knuckles, I met Nick's sad expression with a heightened feeling of bitterness.

"I thought you were smarter than this," he said, a toss of his too-long hair the only clue that I'd startled him. The demon scar on his brow that he'd gotten from Al showed for an instant, then was hidden. "Are they right?" he asked. "Did you go into partnership with Al? Is that why you showed up instead of him? God, Rachel. You were supposed to be the smart one."

"I didn't have much choice, Nicky," I said sharply.

His eyes flicked away for an instant - his only sign of guilt. "Neither do I. Remember that when this is done. I'm settling a debt you foisted on me," he said loudly. "Did you think I wouldn't have to answer for you running off with the focus?"

My chin rose. "It showed up on my doorstep with my name on it. Tell me you weren't going to sell it to the highest bidder. Tell me that, Nick."

"I was," he said belligerently, his attention shifting to the witches around us. "Them."

Them again. The same them who now had me circled like an animal. "Looks like I made the right choice in giving it back to the Weres then, huh?" I was so ticked I could scream.

Nick looked me up and down, his gaze lingering on my strawberry-covered coat before he put a hand to the back of his neck and walked away. "It's her," he said to the tall witch with the laptop, and there was a soft exhalation as they all relaxed.

My tension, though, spiked as the witches left their posts to join the tall woman at her computer. The humming of the barrier eased as they lessened their collective attention holding it, but the circle was still strong enough to stand.

The oldest man was wearing a large amulet, probably defunct this close to the coast. Earth-magic user, obviously, which made the older woman with the laptop their ley-line master. His cuff links were Mobius strips, and my face warmed when he handed Nick a stack of bills.

Nick shoved the money in his bag with unusual haste and turned to me. "We re even now," he said, his brow furrowed, and I flipped him off. His lips tightened and he looked away. "Don't call me again," he said to the man as he started for an elaborately tooled wooden door, but upon reaching it, he hesitated. "You either," he said to me, and then he... sort of... smiled?

Dont call him? I thought. Like I ever would? But I forced my breathing to remain slow as I glimpsed the hallway beyond the door, an idea trickling through me. Carpet and soft colors, pictures on the walls. I was in a private home, not an institution. As the witches watched the door shut behind him, my hand crept back to my jeans pocket to find the lump of my phone. Holy crap, Nick had reminded me of a way to get out of here. An active phone line could break a circle - if one was skilled enough in taking them down.

The door snicked shut, and I heard a sigh from one of the five witches. "I really dislike that man," one said.

"Me, too," I said loudly, then pulled my fingers back from the cramping sensation of the barrier. It was still too strong - they needed to lower their guard more.

Apparently they'd been waiting for Nick to leave, because they gathered behind the sandy-haired witch with the laptop to face me like a jury. The woman looked to be an athletic forty, but I was willing to bet that her surfer-toned body was actually closer to a hundred. You don't find that grace or confidence in a mere forty years, even if you can keep your balance in a tight curl. Her short hair was bleached by sun and salt, not chemicals in a salon, and her narrow, angular nose was peeling from sunburn.

Balancing her was the older witch with that nonfunctioning amulet. He appeared to be about forty as well, and his clothes were stodgy and expensive looking. They clung to him a little tightly, telling me he usually had a slimming charm. Settling in behind them was the middle male/female pair who both appeared to be a spelled thirty, and behind them, a young, gawky guy who was more than likely Vivian's counterpart, probably close to my age and still gaining his full, deadly potential. They all wore the coven's Mobius glyph, the chunky thirtyish woman using it to hold back her long blond hair.

"Rachel Morgan," laptop woman said, her voice taking on a formal cadence. "You have been brought here before the coven of moral and ethical standards to answer for several serious crimes."

I sighed, holding little hope of coming out ahead here. "Why didn't you come see me? We could've settled this over coffee. It would have been less dramatic than Vivian destroying some store's produce section. The FIB was there and everything." I mentioned it only because I wanted them to know there was a report filed. This wasn't going to simply go away.

Sure enough, the woman looked up, cool and unshakable, but her finger twitched.

"Brooke?" the older man said in sharp warning, eying my strawberry-tangled hair. "We agreed Vivian was there for reconnaissance only."

Oh! It really is her name then, I thought. Brooke barely shrugged, but I could tell she was pissed at me. Yeah, this is all my fault.

"The subject's pattern changed. I was afraid we'd lose her," Brooke said. "There wasn't time to ask everyone's opinion. It was a calculated risk, and Vivian was willing to take it."

The subject's pattern changed, eh? Al sending me home early, perhaps? Just how long had they been watching me? Angry, I rubbed an ash-coated chunk of strawberry off my sleeve. "I don't care what Kalamack told you, I'm not a threat," I said, and there was a nervous shifting among them. Clearly they were surprised I knew he was involved.

Brooke's lips tightened, and she glanced back at them, irate. "We think you are."

"I'm not," I shot back, glancing at the witch with the long blond hair listening to the oldest man whispering in her ear. "Trent's a big drama queen."

Damn it, I was going to smack Trent. I was going to smack him good. I was not a demon to be pulled around like a pull toy.

Peeved, Brooke turned to the whispering behind her. "Will you do that later?" she griped, and I tested the barrier to find it still strong. The line I was connected to surged, and I scrambled to handle it. Earthquake, maybe?

The oldest man, the one with the useless amulet, gestured mockingly to Brooke to get on with it, and she gave him an equally sour look. Is there a schism? Can I use that?

The sun-bleached tips of Brooke's short hair swung as she focused on me. "What an elf thinks is of no concern. Your actions are. You have undergone the sentence of shunning but have not changed your ways. You leave us little choice, Rachel Morgan, and are hereby formally charged with willfully allowing a witch to be taken by a demon."

This was so full of crap, I almost laughed. I'd been cleared of this by the I.S. months ago. "Which one?" I shot out. I was being railroaded. This was so unfair.

Brooke looked annoyed by the interruption, but it was the oldest man who said, "You call him Al, I believe."

I grimaced. "Not the demon. Which witch?"

The gawky young man with the off-the-rack suit stammered, "There's been more than one?"

There had, but if they didn't know about Tom's dying and Pierce's taking his body, then I wasn't going to tell them. I pressed into the barrier, finding it wasn't humming anymore, but I jerked back as if it was. "I don't want to be blamed for someone else's stupidity. If we're talking about Lee, then yes. He dragged me into the ever-after and tried to give me to Al. I fought Lee, and lost. Al took Lee instead."

Brooke's smile was a bare hint of one, but it was ugly and I felt a shiver. "The better witch," she said, and I nodded, realizing she was not an honest, upright woman. I didn't care if her aura was a clean, almost clear blue; her morals were gray.

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