"This is a fool's errand," John Grey hissed to his companion.
Tom Byrd pushed his way through the throng of people crowding the packed Edinburgh streets. There was a palpable unease about the city, like they knew something was coming, even if they didn't know precisely what it was.
Grey followed behind, most everyone giving them a wide berth. They always did. At first glance, Tom looked like little more than an exceptionally attractive young man. Average height and slender, dark hair and fiery eyes, porcelain complexion, he was dressed head to toe in perfectly matched black, which only made his pale skin all the more striking. He carried himself with a casual grace, like a panther, all lithe muscles and I-can-eat-you-for-breakfast confidence. But he smiled, his youthful face always warm and expressive. To make eye contact with Tom Byrd was to feel absolutely certain he had a secret to tell you over expensive wine in a candlelit bedroom.
Captivated though the populace was, they parted like the Red Sea before Moses, their lizard brains sensing the danger.
But it wasn't Tom and Grey that had the city on edge. It was a stirring of a malicious something, like a hurricane, gathering power on the horizon and inching closer.
“Did you hear what I said?” Grey asked, quickening his step and drawing closer to Tom. “If any of the stories are at all true, he’ll kill me on the spot and torture you for your power until he gets bored of your screaming.”
“Do you always believe the stories you hear from the Wee Folk?” Tom smirked at him, arching one impeccable eyebrow. The expression sent an involuntary shudder through Grey, down his spine to his prick, tingling all the way.
“When it concerns how much the Sorcerer wants my head on a stick, yes.”
“I thought he wanted to grind your bones to make his bread?” Tom didn’t turn back to John, but he could hear the grin. Byrd was making fun of him.
“You said he was a giant. Make up your mind what you’re going to be paranoid about, John.” Tom paused long enough for Grey to come up next to him and reassured him with a squeeze of his arm. Even through Tom’s leather gloves and Grey’s long sleeve, the touch sent anticipatory fire through Grey’s blood. “We need his help. He’s the only being I know of with the power to influence the Wild Hunt. Besides, he’s a sorcerer, you’re a wizard, what’s the difference? You’re practically family.”
“Somehow I doubt he’ll see it that way.” Grey sidestepped to avoid a red-faced jogger, retreating to his usual place behind Tom and slightly to the left. Wizards and sorcerers were not the same thing, and Byrd knew it. The magic that a wizard wielded was different than what a sorcerer tapped into. Grey’s magic had rules, required incantations and tools to focus it, not to mention decades upon decades of training and practice to hone the skills and reflexes. Grey was good, one of the best, but he was no sorcerer.
Sorcerers wielded the raw power of the cosmos with little regard for silly things like intent and finesse. They didn’t need tools or incantations, and if their magic had rules, sorcerers didn’t make a habit of obeying them. Wizards followed a strict honor code; sorcerers were free agents, allowing their moral compass to swing like a weather vane. Fortunately, they were exceptionally rare, and this one, The Sorcerer, was thought to be the first, the father of them all. Except no one knew for sure because he killed everyone with a modicum of preternatural inclinations as soon as they darkened his doorway. Or so the lesser Fae claimed.
The Sorcerer was rumored to live in Carfax Close, in a building that had apparently burnt down and been rebuilt a dozen times over the centuries. Just about everything in this part of Edinburgh was old, and this little street was no different in that regard. The striking difference, however, was that this street was almost completely deserted, and what few people were on it, traveled in a hurry.
The hair on the back of Grey’s neck stood on end, and he gripped his staff tighter with his right hand, bringing a defensive invocation to mind, ready to loose. The Sorcerer—or something more sinister—definitely made this place its home. That sort of power has a kind of flavor that hangs on the air and no one ever really gets used to it. It’s that nameless, icky feeling that makes even the most vanilla mortal shiver and hurry past certain places. Houses where whole families have been horribly murdered, or cracks in the Veil where demons have crawled out and nested among the living. Witches and wizards who’ve tapped into the black arts and corrupted the natural energy around them. People can sense it. They may not have a clue what it is, but they get the heebie-jeebies and nope out of getting too close to those places.
As a wizard, Grey was particularly in tune with these subtle shifts in energy. This one was… strange, unlike anything he’d ever felt before. It was all the raw charge of a nuclear explosion waiting to pop off. Not precisely evil, but… grouchy. Rather like a giant grizzly bear growling at him. All his nerve endings felt charged, tingling and uncomfortable. He resisted the urge to walk closer to Tom.
The Sorcerer’s… lair? Sure, lair. The Sorcerer’s lair was a few doors down from a corner in Carfax Close, stone steps with an iron railing leading up to a door on the second story. Tom and Grey stopped at the bottom of the stairs, watching the door.
“Should we… should we knock?” Grey asked.
The weathered, red door swung open. There was no one in the doorway.
“Oh good, we’re expected.” Tom swatted Grey’s chest with the back of his hand and started up the stairs. “Come on then.”
“Right. Expected,” Grey said, deadpan. “Love an ambush on a Wednesday.”
The open door spat them out at the top of a loft that looked like a storefront from a hundred and fifty years ago. To their left, a catwalk crossing the open floor below led to a pair of closed doors, and straight ahead was a set of circular stairs leading below. The Sorcerer’s lair smelled of woodsmoke and the fiery tingle of industrial alcohol, all overlaid with the slightly bittersweet odor of machine oil. Between that and the sound of heavy iron machinery and gush of escaping heat, the place was a steampunk dystopian nightmare.
Okay, so Grey had to admit his own unease added the nightmare. He hadn’t felt any warding tug at his power; either they were in the wrong place—not a chance in hell—or the Sorcerer feared nothing. Super.
The door behind them shut hard, rattling both its frame and Grey’s nerves. He whirled and came face-to-chest with a very tall man. His arms were crossed over the broad chest, scowling down at Grey with eyes an otherworldly blue and slanted like a dragon, the reptilian pupils fathomless black.
Grey should have taken a giant step back and muttered some defensive incantation. All his instincts screamed at him to do just that, to put anything he could between himself—and Tom—and the Sorcerer. But every spell he’d ever known evaporated from his mind and his feet were rooted to the floor.
The Sorcerer was, frankly, beautiful. Tall, two meters at least. A wild mane of stag-red hair, exquisitely formed muscles barely contained by… a hoodie? A jaw sharp enough that it would cut Grey’s lips, a dark ink stain on his cheek. Worn jeans, ripped and stained with ink and motor oil and gods knew what else, over a beat-up pair of work boots. Dark circles under his strange eyes.
He was a mess.
Despite the brooding and scowling and general sense of impending doom about the place, the effect was so disarmingly human that Grey relaxed his grip on his staff.
“I apologize for intruding,” Grey said. “But I was hoping that—”
“I ken why ye’re here.” The Sorcerer’s dragon eyes cut to Tom and stayed there, leaving Grey feeling inexplicably cold. “Ye wish my help with something. Or ye seek a favor.”
Grey didn’t look back at Tom, but he could feel the subtle shift in the air that happened whenever Tom hunted. He rarely did anymore, not needing the extra sustenance, but it was different… probing. Like Tom was sniffing the Sorcerer to see if he might be tasty.
Now there was a thought…
Bad. A bad, dangerous thought. Focus, Grey.
“Aye, Grey, focus.” The Sorcerer’s eyes settled on Grey again and his mouth went dry.
“Pluck yer unguarded thoughts from yer hied? Aye.” The Sorcerer stood unnaturally still. Grey got the unsettling impression that he only breathed for Grey’s benefit. He was clearly ancient, powerful enough that just being near him made all the hairs on Grey’s body stand on end, like he was too near exposed power lines.
“Well, I suppose it’s pointless to beat around the bush, then.” Grey took a deep breath, that woodsmoke smell stronger now, rolling off the Sorcerer’s body and clothes, mingled with the pungent scent of ozone.
“What did ye unleash, wizard?”
Grey faltered, gave a nervous laugh. “I thought you could read my mind.” He was so hopelessly outclassed. Outgunned, out-trained, physically dwarfed by this being. Running off at the mouth was suicide but there was something in that ink-stained face that gave him pause and made him an idiot.
The Sorcerer scoffed, a wry grin tilting one corner of his full lips. “I just wish to hear ye speak it aloud. Admit yer folly. What did ye unleash?”
Grey swallowed hard, painful with his mouth still dry. Stars above, it was like being in the headmaster’s office for pulling dumb pranks on his teachers when he was a boy. It was that same knot in his stomach, the same rush of heat to his cheeks. He clenched his arse, quite without meaning to. “The… Wild Hunt. I angered the Unseelie Queen and she called up the Wild Hunt.”
Behind him, Tom inched closer, the intoxicatingly sweet scent of his venom overpowering the thunderstorm smell from the Sorcerer. It retreated before it could drag Grey under, but it calmed him, dripping a pleasant numbness down his spine.
The Sorcerer blinked and dropped his arms to his sides. “And what in the nine hells did ye do to the Queen of Air and Darkness herself?”
“Surely you know that the Unseelie will attack unprovoked—”
“Aye. But no’ wi’ the Wild Hunt. What did ye do? Try to overthrow her?”
“Not exactly…” This was stupid, foolish. The Sorcerer wouldn’t help. It’d just be ridicule and scolding and, if Grey was lucky, a quicker death than what the Wild Hunt had in store for him. Well. There was no use in lying, was there? The Sorcerer would know. “She had it in mind that I would make an amusing… consort. I disagreed. She was offended. Off with his head, you know the drill.”
The Sorcerer blew out a low whistle and shook his head, disbelieving. “Weel, I dinnae ken what ye did to get her attention, but she’s no’ such a bad lay. Ye could do worse.”
I could do better, too, Grey thought automatically. Oh, shit.
A predatory grin spread across the Sorcerer’s face and he looked Grey up and down, slowly, peeling away all the layers of Grey’s clothing in his mind. The Sorcerer licked his lips. “And what did ye wish for me to do about it?”
“You’re the only one who’s ever outsmarted the Unseelie Queen and lived to tell about it,” Tom said. “And the only being who can stand up to the Wild Hunt.”
“Of course I can,” The Sorcerer said, smirking. “They’re my children.” He winked at Grey. Or at least, he tried to. He was terrible at it and the effect was to turn—for just a moment—this cosmic terror into a goofy man with weird eyes and messy hair. “How do you think I ken what the Queen is like in bed?”
That filled Grey’s head with all manner of images. The Sorcerer and the Unseelie Queen, in the sweaty throes of passion while the cosmos was still cooling. What—beyond the Wild Hunt—might have come from that union? The Pyrenees Mountains, perhaps? An entire race of Sidhe warriors?
The Sorcerer smiled, smug, and an odd sensation sent all of Grey’s blood pouring south to his prick. Like a phantom caress on his cheek, almost tangible and all the more intimate that it wasn’t. Grey swallowed hard. "Um. Right. So you'll help us?"
For a long moment, the Sorcerer stared Grey down. It was an intense glare, hard and appraising. "No."
Grey's jaw dropped. He hadn't actually expected anything different before. But now that he'd seen the Sorcerer, terrifying though he was, there was a cool sense of detached honor about him. He had morals and lines he would and would not cross, they were just apparently dictated by his own evaluation of right and wrong, and damn anyone who disagreed. "No? Do you know what the Hunt will—"
The lights, old gas bulbs, flared bright enough that Grey saw spots. Then with one loud pop and a hail of shattered glass, all blew. The fading late evening sunset through the grungy shop windows was the only source of light, silhouetting the Sorcerer. Only his eyes gave him away, reflecting back all the sparse light in the room, glowing like amber slits in a faceless abyss.
“Dinnae presume to tell me what my own children will and willnae do.” The Sorcerer’s voice was a low rumble in Grey’s breastbone, like the heavy bass at a rock concert. “I ken them. I ken what they’re made of, of whom they were born. Their violence and rage, nurtured and encouraged in the Unseelie Court.” He stepped closer, he must have. One moment he was a few feet away, the next he was bent to John’s eye level, his breath warm on Grey’s cheek. “Dinnae speak to me of the nature of my own progeny. I ken them all too well, Wizard.” He spat the word wizard.
“We meant no disrespect,” Tom said. Grey hadn’t heard him step closer either, but he was close enough to touch. He’d removed his glove, his fingers cool against Grey’s bare wrist. Tom’s touch sent a shiver down his spine, but Grey suppressed it, squashed the urge to turn into the safety of his embrace.
“You know,” Grey said, deciding in that moment that it made little difference what he did or said. The Sorcerer would kill him or he wouldn’t. He’d help them, or he wouldn’t. Whatever decision he made would be his and his alone. “Don’t you? Why she wanted me.”
There was a long pause, then, “Aye. I ken why.” The Sorcerer drew himself back up to his full height but didn’t back away. Grey’s eyes were beginning to adjust to the low light. “Yer name is John William Bertram Armstrong Grey.”
He said Grey’s name so perfectly, he could feel the power in it, stroking his entire body and all the magic at his disposal. Grey swallowed hard.
“Ye’ve pierced the Veil twice. That makes ye special. Under the right circumstances, with the right… partner… ye could control forces of nature beyond yer wildest dreams." The Sorcerer bent again and whispered in Grey's ear. "She wants to make ye a weapon.” The Sorcerer’s breath was hot on Grey’s flesh. “She wants to make ye a weapon and lead ye around by the cock so ye’ll do her bidding. Does she no’?” It wasn’t a question he was meant to answer. The Sorcerer buried his nose in Grey’s hairline and inhaled deeply. His lips scraped over Grey’s ear. “I admit, I can see the appeal.”
Grey swallowed hard and licked his dry lips. “Then you see why I had to refuse.”
The Sorcerer scoffed. “Wizards. Wi’ yer pitiful human ideals. So misguided. So limiting. Ye mean well, I ken that, but ye spend yer whole life with one hand tied behind yer back.”
“The Wild Hunt will ravage the world until they capture me and drag me back to her," Grey said.
The scent of ozone grew suddenly more pronounced and the Sorcerer hissed, pressing the heel of his hand against his forehead. "Och, shite," he muttered, wincing. He exhaled sharply through his nose. Then, the episode evidently passed, the Sorcerer spoke again. "Nay, John Grey. It isnae you she truly wants, save to wield against me."
Grey blinked at the Sorcerer. "You mean… this whole time, it was what? Some lovers' quarrel?"
"Call it a custody battle," the Sorcerer said, which only served to confuse Grey more.
"Custody of… what, precisely? Or whom?" It was Tom who asked.
"They're a myth," Grey said, stupidly.
"Aye and so am I." The Sorcerer fixed his gaze on Tom. "And so are you."
"Fair point," Grey muttered. "So am I to understand that the Queen of Air and Darkness bore your children in the form of a murderous pack of powerful bog faeries and a pair of sorcerers so powerful and volatile they have to be kept—I assume, if the legend is true—on two different invisible islands in the North Sea. And that, furthermore, she is so hell bent on obtaining ‘custody’ of said sorcerers, that she has threatened to destroy all of Europe with aforementioned murderous bog faeries. Does that about sum it up?"
"In point of fact, the Twins are on the same island," the Sorcerer said. "When they're together they're fine. Separating them is the problem. They go a bit mad. It's the telepathy, ken. Hellfire and entrails, would ye pipe down in there!" The Sorcerer jammed his fingers against his eyelids and winced again.
Speaking of mad, Grey thought, carelessly.
The Sorcerer growled low in his throat and the gas lamp across the catwalk between the two closed doors started glowing. The bulb was intact again and it bathed him in a hellish, orange glow. Those dragon eyes flared red, inches away from Grey’s face. “What do ye ken of madness? Ye probably lie down most nights, in yer cozy bed, with naught but the sounds ye choose to hear. Maybe the nightmares of yer own past. Hmm? But no’ I, nay. I hear every thought anyone has ever had. I hear the auld ones singing in the mountains. I can hear the ghosts that howl on the moors. I hear my daughter crying in her tower in the North Sea when she cannae take the madness either. I can hear my son singing to her because all he hears is music, but his third eye is always open. Ye’ve lived what, half a century? I have existed for an age or more. I have seen gods rise and fall, kingdoms crumble to ash. All of it, always, it plagues me.”
The Sorcerer scrubbed his hands over his haggard face. When he looked up at Grey again, his hair was wild, eyes desperate, pleading. “Ye think I outsmarted the Unseelie Queen?” He scoffed. “Nay. I scorned her. I didnae wish to be her plaything any longer. I wanted to be a father to my bairns that she hadnae corrupted yet. I wanted to teach the Twins the auld ways. I wanted to take them into the wilds of the world and let them learn the way of things and make friends with the Wee Folk.
“But Claire wouldnae have it, nay. She cursed me to lose control of my telepathy. To this day I dinnae ken if she cursed my children too or if they were born that way. But I cannae approach the tower and they cannae leave without her finding out.” The Sorcerer covered his face with his hands again, voice muffled into his palms. "I havenae slept in almost four hundred years. Nor have I seen my bairns in at least that, maybe more." The Sorcerer's shoulders shook and his voice broke. Outside it began to rain.
Grey stared at the Sorcerer, truly a force of nature. All this raw power and energy. Willingness too to use it and the strength to control it. But he was absolutely cracking up, heading directly round the bend. It was truly terrifying to see the Sorcerer’s white-knuckle grip on his control slipping.
But also heartbreaking. The Sorcerer wasn't insane; he was in agony. “Perhaps…” Grey took a risk and laid his hand on the Sorcerer’s arm. The muscles there were firm and twitched under his touch. He thrummed with power, not just in the live-high-voltage-wire-on-steroids metaphysical sense, but the raw physicality of the man was startling. “Perhaps we can help each other. If you can help me escape the Wild Hunt, there may be something I can do to help you see your other children.”
The Sorcerer scoffed, an automatic, derisive sound. But then he met Grey’s eyes and held his gaze. Grey let him, allowed the Gaze to take hold and suck him in, drag him under like a maelstrom.
There were no words in any language that Grey knew to describe what he saw inside the Sorcerer’s mind. Cacophonous, howling wind. The bitter, fatal cold of Antarctica and the primordial fire of suns. Blinding light and hopeless, endless night. The crushing power of a black hole and the bizarre weightlessness of eternity. It was the agony of endless torture and yet the neverending ecstasy of orgasm.
When Grey was catapulted from the whirlwind, he stumbled, though he hadn’t taken a step. Tom caught him under the arms and set him back on his feet. “Easy, mate,” Tom murmured in Grey’s ear.
A tear ran the Sorcerer’s cheek. Grey didn’t know what anyone ever saw when they were sucked into a Gaze with him. He’d seen a lot of reactions before, but never someone who looked as spellbound and moved as the Sorcerer did.
“Aye,” the Sorcerer said around a thick tongue. He swallowed hard and nodded. “Aye, alright. We can help each other. I'll help ye wi' yer problem and ye'll help me wi' mine. Agreed?"
Grey really should ask for the fine print. But the Sorcerer was no Sidhe. He had felt it, known it with perfect understanding when he'd Gazed into the Sorcerer's heart. He was terrifying and unfathomable in his power, but he wanted only to be benevolent and kind, to have as little tangible impact on the world around him as possible.
The Gaze over, never to happen again, Grey met the Sorcerer’s eyes and got lost in their beautiful strangeness. At last, he nodded. "Agreed. If we are to be allies, though, what should I call you?"
"I have many names," the Sorcerer answered. "Seal our bargain with a kiss and I shall give you one."
Grey's mouth went dry. It wasn't an unheard of sign-on-the-dotted-line amongst the arcane, but it wasn't the usual default in Grey's experience either. But, as the Sorcerer had pointed out, his experience was comparatively limited. He nodded slowly, his sense of Tom behind him drawing in on himself, like a dimmer knob on a chandelier.
"Alright," Grey said.
The Sorcerer's palms were hot on Grey's cheeks, fingers sliding into his hair and sending sparks down his spine. His lips tasted of a peaty, Islay whisky, wet and were surrounded by a two-day stubble that scratched at Grey's chin. His tongue—which Grey had never experienced as part of a bargain seal—was a patient question against Grey's lips.
Grey's breath caught in his throat. Heart pounding, he parted his lips and let the Sorcerer in. Those strong fingers tightened in his hair and Grey curled his fists into the front of the Sorcerer’s hoodie, holding on lest he become a complete imbecile and let his knees buckle.
Tom coughed quietly behind him. He wasn't a jealous man, but this was probably a lot like dangling a steak in front of a hungry dog.
The Sorcerer pulled away slowly, both of them reluctant to stop the kiss. "Jamie," he said, breath cool over Grey's wet lips. "One of my names is Jamie and ye may use it as ye like."
"Jamie," Grey repeated, forming his mouth around the name, tasting it, feeling the way the Sorcerer himself had said it. "We have our accord then?"
"Aye, we do." Jamie sucked in a breath through his nose, an odd mixture of drawing himself back to the present and scenting the air like a predator. "I'll help ye wi' the Wild Hunt. But first…" his attention settled on Tom. "I want a taste of yer pet vampire's power."
"What?" Grey whirled around to face Tom who narrowed his eyes at the Sorcerer. "He's not my pet—"
"John," Tom snapped, cutting him off. Grey shut his mouth obediently. "You are asking what I think you're asking?"
Jamie nodded. "I ken what ye are. And what I'm offering. Such a taste is a two-way street, is it no'?"
Tom considered this. For Jamie to sample Tom's power may lend some of his to Tom.
Grey swallowed down the lump of jealousy in his throat. He wasn't necessarily Tom's only source of sustenance, but he was his primary one. Normally it didn't bother John when he fed on others, but that look in Jamie's eye… he didn't just want the hit of venom and to be a quick snack. But who was Grey jealous of? The Sorcerer? Or Tom?
"First of all, the boy is right. I am not his pet," Tom said, smiling. "He is mine."
Grey shivered. All their years together and Tom still called him a boy. In all fairness, Tom was three times as old as he was.
"Second…" Tom looked at Grey and a knowing smile made his dimples appear. A vampire should not have dimples, Grey thought, no matter that he fed on lust and sexual ecstasy rather than blood and death. "We're a package deal." He arched a questioning eyebrow at Grey, who nodded.
Yes, hells yes. Tom had refrained from feeding on Grey since the Unseelie Queen had called up the Wild Hunt. One of the benefits of being a wizard was that his magic made him harder to kill than a normal human, which meant that Tom could feed on him and not leave him as weak—or dead—as if he were a vanilla mortal. True enough, Tom's venom was habit forming, and frankly, so was Tom as a lover. Grey wouldn't go into withdrawals or anything, but… stars above, this exact scenario was the wettest dream Grey had ever had.
Jamie—such an innocuous name for a creature so powerful—mulled it over. First looking Tom up and down with frank appraisal, he turned his attention back to Grey and did the same to him. Could he see through Grey's clothes? Or maybe he'd found some memory in his head, looking at himself naked in front of a mirror…
A smile lit up Jamie’s face. "Deal.”