The sun was setting when Rie entered the city of Nalakadr, the sky lit with an entire spectrum of blues and purples. The moon rose high and full overhead, sending deep shadows dancing in the corners and alleyways. As darkness took hold, lights began to appear beneath archways and bridges, giving the entire cityscape a warm glow that softly moved from light to shadow and back again.
Curuthannor and Lhéwen had seen her off before daybreak, as promised, riding with her to the center of Etsiramun. Following Lord Garamaen’s instructions, she used his personal code to evade the Watchers that monitored public portal travel. She traveled light and fast, carrying only the bare minimum essentials, including a good-sized bag of gold coins that Lhéwen had pressed into her hands at the last second. The women clung to each other as they said goodbye, knowing that it might be their last meeting in this life. Curuthannor kept it simple with a warrior’s handshake and a nod, before turning back to the horses.
The Shadow Realm, so named because the longest day lasted only 6 hours, was warm and humid, thanks to the lava that flowed beneath the streets. Here and there, steam vents blew the smell of sweetened ash in clouds above the skyline. As soon as she felt confident no one noted her presence and followed her into the city, Rie took off the jacket with its heavy hood. Sweat still ran in rivulets down her spine.
Unlike the ostentatious High Court, with its heavy white marble pillars and gold plated halls, the Shadow Realm capital of Nalakadr was crafted in sinuous wood and delicate carved stone. The buildings were multi-storied, but graceful, flowing from one form to another and highlighting the natural structure, rather than forcing form and order on the materials. Archways rose high and twisted, bending up as if searching for the light. The streets were paved with smooth worn stone and crowded with fae of all races. Even the dwarves, blind and allergic to the sun, made their presence known as they hawked their wares.
People bustled about their business, all seeming to know precisely where they should be and what they should be doing. As the light diminished, Rie expected the streets to clear. If anything, they became more crowded.
A troll the size of a human bus lumbered into Rie, sending her careening into a stand filled with some kind of purple hard-skinned fruit that smelled like rotting fish.
“Watch it.” The stand owner, a portly goblin with four eyes and four arms, glared as Rie picked herself up and returned the fallen merchandise. “Damaged goods are your responsibility.”
Rie averted her gaze and bowed slightly, apologizing as she backed away, stepping on the foot of a green-skinned gremlin in the process.
“What do you think you’re doing, girl?” the gremlin growled.
Rie bowed, plastering a conciliatory smile on her face. “I’m looking for the Crossroads Inn. Can you point me in the right direction?”
“Damn tourists,” the gremlin grunted. “See that spire?” She pointed to a narrow tower barely visible above the surrounding buildings. “Head that direction and you’ll find it.” Without another word or a backward glance, the gremlin continued on her way.
Following the gremlin’s advice, Rie tried to keep the spire in sight, but she kept losing it behind buildings. Curuthannor said that all roads lead to the center of the city, but the one she walked was forked and turned several times. She wished she’d thought to ask for a map.
“You should go left this time,” Niinka said. “Last time you went right, so it’s time to go left.”
All five of Rie’s primary pixie cohorts had decided to travel with her to the Shadow Realm. None could resist the temptation of new treasures from a restricted world. Plus, who knew what kind of mischief might be made? Niinka and Hiinto took places of honor hidden in Rie’s hair behind each of her ears, while Possn and Gikl found space in her pack. Tiik preferred to ride on her sleeve and had tied himself a seat with a ribbon around her arm.
“Aren’t you supposed to stick with the same direction each time?” Tiik swung his foot back and forth, rocking himself in his swing. “That’s what they say about mazes.”
“True! That’s true!” Hiinto chimed in. “Maybe that’s why you’re lost. We should go back to the beginning and try again.”
“We don’t know where the beginning is,” hissed Niinka.
“We can just retrace our steps,” Tiik offered.
“Shh, all of you,” Rie said. It was nice to have friends with her, and she was honored that they had chosen to come, considering it might be a permanent exile, but sometimes she wished they would just stay hidden and quiet. “I need to think. Going back is out of the question. We have to be closer to the center than the edge.” Rie looked around. No one looked friendly enough to ask for directions, and everyone seemed to be in a hurry.
“There.” Rie pointed to an elegantly carved wooden sign with a red goblet hanging above an open door. “That must be a tavern of some kind. I can ask the bartender.”
Rie hurried across the street and into the bar before the pixies could protest.
As soon as she entered, Rie came to a halt. The bar was not what she had expected. Decorated in shades of black, white and red, the dim space was filled with couches and cushioned chairs, even a few beds could be seen in the dark recesses of the room. A faint coppery odor hung in the air. The bar itself lined the right side of the room, but no bottles could be seen anywhere. Instead, a sidhe woman dressed in a tight black bodysuit ushered men and women — human men and women — to the few seated customers. A woman groaned in sensual pleasure while a sidhe man sucked on her wrist.
It was a blood bar. Rie needed to leave, and fast.
She turned to go, but bumped into the broad chest of a man standing behind her. “Now, now, now,” the man said. “Where are you rushing off to tonight? The evening’s just getting started.” His voice was smooth and seductive, sinking barbed tendrils of compulsion into Rie’s heart and mind. He wore a simple pale blue vest over an ivory collared shirt with the sleeves neatly rolled up above his elbow. The undone buttons at his throat revealed a soft golden tan. Her gaze drifted upward to meet his, several inches above her own. His eyes were warm and dark, pulling her in under heavy lashes, his hair the color of burnt cinnamon. His ears were slightly pointed, and the teeth that glistened between parted lips showed pointed canines.
“I am on an errand,” she said, dragging her mind back from the brink of giving him anything and everything. His gaze called to her, daring her to say yes to anything he asked, but she shook off the impulse. “I must be going.”
He placed a hand on her shoulder, attempting to turn her body back toward the bar. “It’s just one little drink,” he urged. Every word twisted the compulsion tighter, willing her to relent. The pixies tittered and chirped, but their warnings were barely heard.
“I suppose one drink,” Rie began, but caught herself after a step. She closed her eyes, momentarily cutting off the pull. “No, I have to go. Sorry.”
The man’s eyebrows lifted a fraction, surprise evident in his wide eyes, but his voice remained soothing and melodic.
“Come on, sit with me for awhile.” His hand slid down her arm, his fingertips raising goosebumps. He took her hand and drew her forward, leading Rie into the dark room like a horse trainer with a skittish yearling. A stray lock of hair fell forward into his eyes. Rie yearned to brush it away. Her hand rose a few inches to follow the thought before she caught herself, pulling back.
“I…” Rie forgot what she was going to say. She licked her lips, glancing at his mouth and away. The man was being so kind, she really should sit with him for a few minutes. She could get to know him a little. It couldn’t hurt, right?
Something bit her behind her ear.
“Ouch!” she said, swatting at the irritation.
“Stop that and get out of here,” Niinka screamed in her ear. Rie’s head snapped up.
Hiinto gripped her earlobe, pulling her head around to the side. “Plug your ears. He’s ensnaring you. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”
Rie yanked her arm from the man’s grasp and unsheathed her blades in the same motion. Her eyes cleared and she looked around. He had brought her all the way inside the room and nearly to the back wall. How had she gotten pulled so far into the bar without realizing? She stepped back, relaxing down into a wide fighter’s stance, her legs balanced and ready for action.
“I am not your plaything. I will not be coerced,” Rie said, her mind once again her own. She spun her blades, first one, then the other, willing to do whatever it took to avoid being the blood sidhe’s next meal. His lips lifted, his teeth flashed in the lamplight. Using peripheral vision she assessed the rest of the bar. The bartender was watching from a distance, but everyone else was too absorbed in their own feedings to take notice. Rie took another step back. Her heart pounded. She stared at the man’s broad chest and willed him to be slow enough for her to escape. She wanted his muscles to weaken, his energy to lag. She bounced on her toes, adrenaline flooding her system with new reserves as she prepared to flee. His eyes widened.
“You’re a drainer,” he whispered. His voice no longer held any power over her.
“Hold it,” the bodysuit woman intervened, sliding forward from the bar and cocking her left hip to the side. “Braegan, baby, you know better. There’s to be no violence in the Red Chalice. All donors are willing, all feeders are paying.”
“I’m neither willing, nor a donor,” Rie spat.
“I am so sorry.” The man, Braegan, held out a hand, palm up. “I thought she was an ordinary human, leaving early. I had no idea. It will never happen again,” he said, face stricken.
“Well, then, that settles that. No harm, no foul. And certainly no need to have naked blades in my reputable establishment.”
Rie’s thumb twitched on the khukuri’s grip. She had been too close to being a predator’s meal. She shook her head. “No offense, but they stay out until I leave. I’m sure you understand.”
“I suppose I do. But I swear you’ll come to no harm. Poaching is strongly discouraged.”
“I’d rather just leave.”
Braegan tilted his head to the side, a wolfish gesture that drew Rie’s attention away from the woman. “Why are you here, then?”
“I need directions, and I didn’t realize this was a blood bar,” Rie admitted.
Braegan stepped forward, pushing into the edge of Rie’s comfort zone. His eyes narrowed in a calculating glance, and a smile that never reached his eyes pulled up at the corners of his lips. “Directions to where, exactly?”
Rie paused. She needed information, but the man had tried to enthrall her. Could she trust him not to chase after her when she left the restrictions of the bar? Deciding it was worth the risk, she answered. “The Crossroads Inn.”
“Well that’s perfect then,” the woman interrupted. “No one knows the city better than Braegan, and he can be trusted, if he gives his word.”
Braegan spoke before the bartender had finished her sentence. “I’d be happy to be your guide.” The woman raised an eyebrow, but smiled with an indulgent twist of her lips.
Rie stepped back, away from the pushy blood sidhe. “Thank you for the offer, but I’ll be fine, if you can just point the way.”
“I know we got off on the wrong foot, but let me make it up to you. I swear, I will get you to the inn, free from harm. I’m really not a bad guy.” His molten chocolate eyes grew wide, and his bottom lip pushed out in a soft pout. He clutched his hands beneath his chin. “Please?” he whined. Rie couldn’t help but laugh, his face was so comically sad.
“Fine,” she relented. “If you swear under solemn oath, I’ll go with you.”
“Deal. I, Braegan Sangrresen, give solemn oath to bring,” he paused, raising an eyebrow at Rie.
“Nuriel Lhethannien to the Crossroads Inn free from harm.”
“And as quickly as possible,” Rie added.
“And as quickly as possible,” Braegan confirmed.
“Now that that’s settled, let’s get back to business, shall we?” bodysuit woman said. “I’m Allana, by the way. If you need anything, well, I’ll give you a good price.” She winked and quirked her lip up in a half smile.
“I’m fine, for now,” Rie replied, sheathing her khukuris.
“Suit yourself.” Allana shrugged. “If you change your mind, you know where to find me,” she said over her shoulder as she slithered back to her post at the bar.
Rie turned to face Braegan, her new guide. He looked strong enough, but he must be young and relatively weak to have caved so quickly to a human.
“Before we go, do you mind if I have a sip?” Rie’s head snapped to the side, her hands dropping to her knives without conscious thought. Braegan grimaced in apology. “From a willing donor, of course, not from you.”
“I suppose that’s okay.” Rie relaxed her guard a fraction. She wouldn’t be entirely comfortable so long as she was in his company, but she couldn’t deny a man his lunch. Together they walked to the bar and leaned against the polished ebony wood. Rie turned to the side, facing Braegan and the front door. She would stay vigilant, even with a sworn oath of safety.
“What did you mean, when you said I’m a drainer?” she asked, while Braegan waited for his meal.
He leaned closer, as if to tell her a secret. “You don’t know what a drainer is?” Rie shook her head. “Spirit magic, you know?”
Rie shook her head again, the mention of spirit magic — the magic of the Upper Realm — making her heart beat faster. “I have no idea.”
“You stole my energy, drained it right out of me. And you did it fast, too. The stories say the Upper Realm has powerful master drainers that sent entire armies to their knees during the Great War.” Rie kept her expression under control, but it wasn’t without effort.
In the Upper Realm, they were called enervators, people with the ability to absorb the energy of others. And Braegan was right, the strongest of the enervators could pull the energy from entire crowds of people, using it to fuel their own power in a giant feedback loop.
“You don’t by chance have some high elf ancestry, do you?”
Rie avoided making eye contact with Braegan, choosing instead to look out across the room with its shadowy alcoves and gasping sounds of pain and pleasure. He was too close to the mark. “Not that I’m aware of.” She wasn’t even sure she agreed she had taken his energy. It had never happened before, and after one hundred years, she thought any magical talents would have expressed themselves by now.
“Huh.” Braegan slid a sideways glance her direction. “Well, it’s a rare ability, anyway. Where did you say you were from?”
A shrill voice called out from the end of the bar. “Pixies? Who let pixies in here?” Rie’s head snapped around as she searched for her friends. Perfect timing. Her backstory wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny, and Braegan seemed a little too interested. “Out, out, out. Damn pests. Talking bugs. Get out!” Allana shouted, swatting at Gikl, who laughed hysterically.
“Well, that’s our cue.” Rie stood and made her way to the exit.
“But I haven’t eaten yet. The donor will be here any minute, I’m sure.”
“You’ll have to hurry. I’ll meet you outside.” Rie walked to the exit without looking back.