Bloodmages and Blackmail Cover

Bloodmages and Blackmail

Magic & Mystery: Book Ten

Chapter 1 Preview

A sickening crunch echoed throughout the room, nearly drowning out the wailing of the baby girl in my arms, and I instinctively cringed at the sound. Beau, my fiancé and father of our infant twins, froze in his tracks and squeezed the warmed bottle of formula he held in one hand so hard I worried the nipple might pop off.

As tired as I was from raising two magical miscreants, Beau looked even worse. His normally bright, cheery face had taken on a sunken, haunted look — no doubt from weeks without adequate sleep — and though I knew he didn’t for a second regret the expansion of our family, it had clearly taken a toll on him. That realization alone helped me keep a lid on my panic.

I shot him a worried look as I realized he’d entered our living room without our son. “What was that noise? Where’s Blaise?”

Beau’s warm brown eyes widened. “Your grandma was supposed to be watching him for a second while I brought you Ellie’s bottle,” he muttered as he held out the bottle to me, but rather than take it, I shoved past him and made my way into the kitchen. Just moments prior, Grandma had been sitting and supervising Blaise at the table while he nibbled on a baby biscuit in his highchair.

Thankfully, he was right where we’d left him before Ellie started crying — though Grandma wasn’t.

Ellie’s crying quieted at the sight of her twin brother, and she made a sound somewhere between giggling and sniveling. Blaise’s pudgy back faced me, but even so I could see that he was chewing intently on something, and as I worked my way around the corner of the table, the knot of dread in my stomach clenched.

It wasn’t a teething biscuit he was chewing on — it was my wand. “Blaise, no!” I groaned and tried to take it from him with my free hand, but he spun out of my reach and lodged the wand right back in his mouth. Spit glistened on the tip and bite marks littered its shaft.

“How did this even end up in here?” I asked, pointing at my wand clutched between Blaise’s wet, biscuit-covered fingers.

Beau refused to meet my eyes. “You, uh, you left it there. When Ellie started crying, remember?” he asked and wrestled the wand from Blaise’s grip, which was easier said than done. Despite the baby’s age, he was already as strong as an ox and anything that was unfortunate enough to find itself locked in his jaws — in other words, everything he could get his little hands on — probably wasn’t coming back out in one piece.

“Oh,” I muttered, though I had no recollection of having set the wand down there. I could hardly be mad at Beau for that, and there were more worrying matters at hand, anyway. “Where in Lilith’s name did Grandma go?”

“I’m back here, Sugar!” Grandma called from the hallway bathroom. “I just stepped out for a sec to answer the call o’ nature.”

“Thanks, Gram, but that’s way too much info. Why didn’t you tell one of us?”

“Well, I reckoned the lil’ guy would be all right for just a second. He’s got his biscuit, don’t he?”

“Er, not exactly,” Beau laughed.

The toilet flushed. Grandma hurriedly washed her hands and came flying out of the bathroom, her snow-white curls ruffling and making her look crazy. “Whaddya mean, ‘not exactly’?” she asked as she dried her hands on her robes.

Beau dangled the wand out in front of Grandma, and she burst out laughing. “Well, you know, boys will be boys.”

“Were you like this when you were a little boy?” I asked Beau as I took my wand from him. I wiped Blaise’s slobber off on my robes and tucked it into my inner pocket.

Beau shrugged and nodded. “Shifters don’t teethe like human babies do. Have you ever raised a puppy?”

“No, but I know what you mean.”

“Well, it’s even worse than a puppy. Blaise is gonna chew on everything until he gets his doggy teeth, and even then, he might not stop for a while after.”

I laughed and shook my head. “Lucky us. Oh well, at least it won’t be both of them ripping our entire house to shreds,” I said and tucked a stray strand of hair behind one of Ellie’s ears. She and Blaise both had red-brown hair sprouting on their heads, a mixture of colors inherited from me and Beau.

“Well, we don’t know that just yet. Boy shifters often show their magic sooner than girls,” Beau said.

I sighed. “I hope not. Why couldn’t we have just gotten a witch and warlock?”

“That’s not how it works.”

“I know, I know. Mixed families, mixed magic.”

“Right. And besides, that might’ve been worse. Wait until Ellie finds her magic. The amount of mischief a little witch baby can stir up is way worse than a nibbling shifter. You’ll see.”

I furrowed my brows at him. “How do you know?”

“I’ve lived in Moon Grove my entire life, remember? These aren’t the first magical babies I’ve met.”

“I can’t leave you alone even for a second, can I? C’mere, buddy,” Grandma asked as she reached to lift Blaise from his highchair. He giggled, snagged a handful of Grandma’s curls, and planted them in his mouth. Grandma chuckled. “I swear, this lil guy is just like a dog. He experiences the universe through his mouth,” she said, though she didn’t seem to notice or care about Blaise slobbering all over her hair as she carried him into the living room.

Beau rested a hand on my shoulder. “See? No harm, no foul, right? No need to worry.”

I sighed. “You’re right, and I know you are, but I’m tired. So tired. I wish I could just take a break from watching them, even for a minute. Grandma’s right; we can’t take our eyes off them.” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten a full night’s sleep, and that was with Grandma’s constant help. I couldn’t imagine trying to raise my terrorizing twins without her around; I probably would’ve had a meltdown.

“Maybe I should have my parents watch them for a night or two to give us a break?” Beau suggested.

“I appreciate that, but I wouldn’t wish these twin terrors on them.”

Beau chuckled. “They’ve already raised shifter babies. They know what they’re doing.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

“You don’t have to do it all yourself, Zoe. You’re making yourself crazy.”

“I know, but I can’t help it.”

“At least let me feed Ellie. You sit down for a minute and rest,” Beau offered and took Ellie from my arms without waiting for an answer. He popped the bottle in her mouth and carried her into the living room to give me a moment alone.

Exhausted, I sank down into one of the kitchen chairs. Though I could barely keep my eyes open, I couldn’t help noticing all the minor things I still needed to do. Biscuit-flavored mush and small wood chips from my wand covered the table. Dishes crusted with the morning’s breakfast sat piled by the sink, and the garbage can was so full that some of its contents were spilling out onto the kitchen floor, but it would all have to wait. I didn’t have the energy to even keep my head up, much less to tackle household chores, so I laid my forehead against the cool surface of the table and took a series of deep breaths.

By the time the twins were born nearly four months ago, I’d survived many things — including running a troubled city as Head Witch and several attempts on my life — but none of it had adequately prepared me for magical motherhood. Who would’ve thought caring for two babies could be more trying than any of that?

Strangely enough, now that my maternity leave was almost over, part of me looked forward to returning to work — if for no other reason than it would give me a break from the chaos of childcare and housekeeping. Grandma had already offered to keep living with us to watch the twins when I went back to work, which was a godsend. Besides, I wouldn’t have trusted anyone else with Blaise and Ellie. As difficult and exhausting as they could be, I still loved them to pieces and wanted them to have the same relationship with Grandma that I did.

My eyelids had just fluttered shut when my cell phone screamed from somewhere across the house — I couldn’t have guessed where. The cheery ringtone I reserved only for Heath Highmore, the Head Warlock, filled me with worry and excitement. He wouldn’t be calling if he didn’t have an urgent reason; he’d promised me he wouldn’t when I went on leave, and so far, he’d made good on that promise.

“Beau? Is my phone in there with you?” I shouted.

“I’m not sure, but you might want to come out here anyway,” he called back, concern coloring his voice. A surge of adrenaline propelled me out of the seat like someone had jabbed me with an electric prod. I charged into the living room where Beau and Grandma kneeled on the couch, staring out the window with their backs to me, a twin in each of their hands.

“What? What is it?” I asked and came closer. Beau pointed out the window and I forced my way onto the couch between them. Across the street, two people in crimson robes with oversized hoods that covered their faces stood staring toward our house. “What the…?” I asked and trailed off as I remembered my phone was ringing. Conveniently, I found it lodged between the cushions of the couch.

I dug it out, wiped off some dust and crumbs, and tapped to answer the call. “Heath? What’s going on?”

“Hi, Zoe. I’m so sorry to bother you. You know I wouldn’t if it weren’t—”

“Urgent, yeah, I know,” I interrupted. “Look, something weird is going on outside my house right now so can I call you back in a few minutes?”

“That’s why I’m calling.”

“Wait, what? So, you know about these red-robed weirdos staring into my house?”

“They aren’t just at your house. They’re here at the Town Hall too. In fact, there’s a pair of them stationed at or near every prominent citizen’s location. My phone has been blowing up for the last several minutes with calls and messages to tell me so,” Heath said, and my heart rocketed up into my throat.

“Why? Who are they? What do they want?”

“That’s the problem. I don’t know, or at least not definitively. I have some ideas, but I’d rather not discuss them over the phone for security reasons.”

Beau shot me a worried look. “What’s going on?” he hissed, but I shushed him with a wave of my hand. There wouldn’t be any sense in getting him all riled up too; he was normally the cool and collected one, and I needed him to stay that way.

“I hate to ask this of you, and you know I wouldn’t under normal circumstances, but could you come to the Town Hall for a quick meeting about all this? I’ll send Umrea to escort you here and back.”

“Is the rest of the Council coming too?”

“As many of them as I could convince, yes.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but if Heath was calling an emergency Council meeting, the Head Witch could hardly refuse, no matter her personal life’s circumstances. “Okay, yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Thank you. I’ll send Umrea over right away. Again, I apologize.”

“No need. See you soon,” I said and hung up to stare across the street at the pair of robed sentinels. Neither of them seemed to have moved an inch while I was on the phone. How long had they been there without me realizing? It wouldn’t have been difficult for me to miss them while my hands were full with the twins, but could they really have slipped the notice of me, Beau, and Grandma?

“Do you know something about this?” Beau asked, gesturing at the street.

“No. That was Heath. He wants me to come to the Town Hall for an emergency meeting.”

Fear washed over Beau’s face as he stole another glance at our uninvited guests. “What, really? Why?”

I pointed out the window at the faceless watchers. “Because of them.”

“What’s this all about, Zoe? You’re scaring me.”

“I don’t know. It’s scaring me too,” I said. “Will you two be okay if I leave you alone with the twins for a while?”

“Are you crazy?! No way, I’m not letting you leave while those people are out there!” Beau insisted.

“It’s okay. Heath’s sending Umrea over to walk me to the Town Hall,” I said, though even I knew it was a thin layer of protection. The gargoyle guards assigned to each of the members of the Council were sturdy, moving slabs of stone, but even they weren’t invincible — and so far, we knew next to nothing about the robed people on the street. They might not even be human.

Beau frowned at me. “That doesn’t make me feel much better.”

“I know, but I don’t have a choice. What was I supposed to say to Heath?”

“That you have two babies and you don’t want to risk your life anymore,” Beau snapped and both Ellie and Blaise started crying at the sound of his raised voice.

“All right, all right. That’s enough, you two,” Grandma interrupted. “You’re scarin’ the lil’ ones. I understand your concern, Beau, but Zoe’s right. She ain’t got a choice here. She might be on leave, but she’s still the Head Witch and Heath needs her.”

“Thanks, Gram,” I said, and tried not to let my surprise at her quick support show on my face. Beau, however, made no secret of his disapproval. I rested a hand on his shoulder and bent to kiss the soft skin on top of Ellie’s head. “I’ll be careful, I promise. Besides, we’re just going to the Town Hall. It’s not that far.”

Thankfully, Umrea appeared in the window before Beau could voice any other objections. She scowled at the robed visitors and I heard her growl through the glass, but even that seemed not to shake the trespassers.

While she approached the front door, I pulled my wand from my robes and examined it, which immediately caught Blaise’s attention. His eyes twinkled and he reached for it from Grandma’s arms. I laughed and patted his head. “I hope this thing still works after what you did to it. Lumino,” I said to test it, and breathed a sigh of relief when the tip of my wand ignited. I hoped I wouldn’t need to use it during the journey to the Town Hall, but knowing it operated made me feel better.

Umrea pounded on the door, shaking the house and startling the twins. To my surprise, the gargoyle’s otherworldly appearance didn’t scare either of the twins when I opened the door.

“Councilwoman,” Umrea greeted me with a nod, her voice like grating rocks.

“Long time, no see, Umrea.”

She nodded. “Quickly, please. The Head Warlock is waiting.”

Beau snuck up behind me and wrapped his free arm around me, sandwiching Ellie between us. She fixated on Umrea, her eyes drinking in the gargoyle’s scaled skin and leathery wings.

“I know I say this all the time, but I mean it now more than ever, Zoe. Please be careful,” Beau begged.

I gave him and Ellie both a kiss on the cheek. “I will. I promise,” I said, though Beau didn’t look remotely convinced — not that I could blame him. I had a habit of not living up to those kinds of promises.

“Nothing will happen to her while I’m around. I swear it,” Umrea said.

Grandma joined us at the door and lifted Blaise’s hand to make him wave. “Tell Mommy bye, now! We’ll miss her, won’t we?” she asked him and showered his cheek and neck with kisses, making him giggle. The sound was like music to my ears.

“I’ll miss you too. Be good for Daddy and Grandma, okay?” I said and stroked Blaise’s soft, tiny hand. “I’ll see you soon.”

“I love you,” Beau said.

“Love you too,” I answered and followed Umrea toward the street and the robed spies. Maybe because of the setting sun, I saw nothing noteworthy about them aside from the blood-red color of their robes and the black trim that lined their hoods. Though I wanted to shout at them to go away, or at the very least stop and ask them what on Earth they wanted with me, I thought better of it — not that Umrea would’ve let me get anywhere near them, anyway.

In fact, she put herself firmly between us as we headed toward Crescent Street and the center of Moon Grove where the Town Hall stood. Still, I gripped my wand like my life depended on it as I stole one last glance over my shoulder to make sure the loons weren’t following us. Thankfully, they didn’t seem to have moved. Were they even alive?

“Hurry, Councilwoman,” Umrea barked, jerking my attention forward again. She seemed eager to put as much distance between us and our company as quickly as possible. Was she afraid of them too? The possibility unnerved me; I’d never known Umrea to be afraid of, well, anything.

Who or whatever the robed individuals were, I didn’t need Heath to tell me their appearance wasn’t good — though I had a sinking feeling their arrival probably wasn’t the last bit of unwelcome news he’d have to share.

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