His frown deepened. “She never mentioned a neighbor to me.”
“She talked about her a bit yesterday. Some old Russian lady named … Varvara Niko-something.”
“Ahh!” The cackling voice echoed from Harry the skull. “Would you be speaking of Varvara Nikolaev?”
“Yeah, that’s it.” I stared at Harry’s glowing red eyes. “How do you know her name?”
“Varvara Nikolaev,” Harry croaked reverently. “A woman of truly divine stature and utterly demonic cunning. A fine female specimen and, despite her inherent weaknesses as a creature of the fairer sex, a most chilling sorceress.”
“A sorceress?” I repeated blankly.
“A sorceress?” Zak snarled, stalking toward the skull. “How do you know that?”
“Before your contumelious purchase of my person, I passed through the possession of many exquisitely gifted humans who truly excelled in the darkest arts—true masters, whereas you are a soft, sympathetic boor with no sense of—”
Zak grabbed the top of the skull, knuckles turning white as he squeezed it. “Get to the point or I’ll bury you in the deepest cave I can find.”
Harry hissed furiously. “For several most pleasant months, I enjoyed a sojourn from disrespect and defiance in Varvara Nikolaev’s pristine possession. Sadly, she chose to sell my sealed form, though I would have—”
“Varvara is a dark arts sorceress?” I interrupted. “Are you sure?”
“Assuming you speak not of a female possessing the same unlikely appellation, then indeed there can be no question. Varvara Nikolaev has immersed her very being in the most depraved magic of which I have rarely relished myself. She is truly a—”
Zak slammed the box over the skull, his eyes blazing.
“Varvara is the one who killed Nadine’s real parents.” My voice grated from my tight throat. “It’s the only explanation. She brought Nadine here, and stayed close while … while humans raised her? I don’t understand.”
“A layer of insulation,” he growled. “In case Varvara was discovered, she could disappear without anyone noticing Nadine’s existence. With a different name and ignorant human parents, Nadine was invisible to the MPD.”
“But … why? Why would Varvara do any of this?”
The muscles in his arms bulged as he clenched his fists. “She wants an apprentice. It’s largely fallen out of practice, but it used to be common for dark-arts masters to abduct the young children of their staunchest rivals. Turning an enemy’s offspring into your devoted apprentice and future legacy was once the ultimate triumph for an aging dark sorcerer.”
“That’s … sick. Really, really sick.” I leaned weakly against the table, still holding the fae orb. “So you think Nadine’s real parents were Varvara’s enemies?”
“It’s also possible she targeted them because they opposed the dark arts in general.”
I nodded, realizing it didn’t matter why Varvara had gone after Nadine’s parents. What mattered was that she’d killed them, brought Nadine here, and fostered her with human pawns while Varvara stayed close, cultivating a friendship with Nadine so that …
“Oh,” I gasped.
“The envelope. All that information about who Nadine really is. Varvara must have sent it to her, planning to show up shortly after. Nadine would’ve given herself over to Varvara, the only adult she trusted—except Nadine ran away instead.”
“That makes sense,” Zak agreed grimly. “She wanted to win Nadine’s absolute trust and loyalty before beginning her training. Nadine would have seen Varvara as her savior, never knowing she had killed her real parents.”
“She arranged it so Nadine would willingly depend on her. It was a fifteen-year con.” Before I accidentally crushed the fae orb, I set it back in its box. “And now she has Nadine, just like she wanted.”
“But did Nadine go willingly?” Zak paced the length of the table and back. “Nadine knows a human can’t protect her from whoever killed her parents, so why would she go with Varvara, believing her to be human?”
I pressed my hands against my thighs, momentarily startled by the feel of my own skin. Right. I wasn’t wearing pants. “Nadine loves it here. I don’t think she went with Varvara of her own free will.”
“That’s my suspicion as well.”
“Zak.” I stepped toward him. “We have to save her.”
His jaw flexed. “Varvara was in the town where Morgan and Terrance take the kids every month. She knew where they’d be.” He turned away. “I need to find out more about her and how she found me before I can act.”
“What?” Pushing off the table, I swung in front of him. “You want to wait? That sorceress has Nadine. She’s had her for—for an entire night.” Because Morgan hadn’t told me Nadine was gone when she’d come up earlier. “We can’t leave her with that woman!”
“I can’t go up against Varvara without knowing what I’m fighting.”
“But you’re the most powerful mythic I’ve ever seen! Surely you can—”
“I have other lives to protect!” He glared down at me, our faces a foot apart. “If I go up against her and die, everyone here will die when my defenses on the valley fail.” He stepped closer, forcing me back. “If I go up against her and fail to kill her, she’ll come after me—and possibly rally a force of dark sorcerers against me. I don’t know how she found out where I am or what else she knows. I can’t risk ten lives to save one.”
“But Nadine—” I bit off my protest. “How long before you can go after them?”
“Days? Weeks?” He raked his hand through his hair. “It depends on how difficult it is to find information on Varvara.”
With weeks to gain a head start, Varvara could vanish with Nadine. She’d already done it once when she’d kidnapped Nadine as a baby, and she’d had an entire sorcery guild hunting her.
I drew myself up. “Let me go, then.”
“Let me leave! Let me find Nadine!”
“You? You can’t—”
“I’m only here because of Nadine!” I yelled, startling him into taking a step back. “I let you take me so I could save Nadine!”
Something dark and dangerous slid across his face. “What are you talking about?”
I clenched my hands and plunged in. “Her parents—the fake ones, but they still care about her—came to the guild I work at and—”
“—and we took on the case—well, not we—the actual guild members did—but I helped because—”
“You work for a guild?” His low, vicious snarl didn’t sound human. “There’s no record of your employment at a guild!”
“I, uh, haven’t quite … finished the paperwork … yet.”
As I spoke, I retreated on trembling legs. He advanced on me, menace rolling off him in waves. My pulse raced. I slid my hand toward my back pocket—but I didn’t have a pocket. My pants were on the floor in his bathroom, my Queen of Spades card out of reach.
“Calm down, Zak,” I said weakly. “I’m not a mythic. Even if I planned to, which I don’t, I have no idea how to report something to the MPD. I won’t say a word about you to my guild. All I care about is saving Nadine.”
My back hit a rack of crystals. He towered over me, green eyes hard as steel and burning with fury. I gulped, fighting my terror. Maybe I shouldn’t have told him the truth. He was taking it worse than I’d expected. What a drama queen.
Pushing my shoulders back, I glowered at him. “Quit looming over me! Either make a move or back the hell up.”
A startled twitch of his eyebrows revealed I’d gotten his attention. His fury faltered. “Make a move?”
Uh. Oops. Bad choice of words. “That’s … not …”
I forgot what I’d been about to say as his gaze flicked across my face, then back to my eyes—and my disobedient stare jumped to his mouth, his lips perfectly kissable despite the terse lines at their corners.
He shifted closer, one arm reaching past me to brace against the shelf, rattling the crystals hanging from it. With nowhere to retreat, I pressed backward into the rack. He was blocking any escape, too close, his broad shoulders filling my vision.
The crystals rattled again as he leaned down, our faces inches apart. I wanted to run away. I wanted to close my eyes and tilt my face up in surrender. Was he really going to kiss me now? I could already imagine the feel of his mouth. Aggressive and dominant. All dark, fierce passion. The thought alone left me breathless.
But when I looked into his eyes, I didn’t see passion. I saw anger. And it took me a moment too long to realize he wasn’t leaning in to kiss me.
A cold crystal pressed against my bare arm.
“Ori decidas,” he hissed.
Weakness flooded my body. My legs collapsed and he swept me up before I crumpled. I hung limply in his hold, unable to do more than twitch helplessly.