One Hell of an Offer
When friends reach out and offer aid, beware the promised boon,
The solution might seem ready-made, but leave you howling at the moon.
“Don’t be such a baby, Astra.”
“Shut up, Darma!”
“You’re not even trying.”
I couldn’t even respond to that absurdity. Trying was all I’d done in the weeks since I’d had my magic forcibly and painfully stripped away. What I hadn’t done was succeed.
In even the smallest way.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, holding it to keep from spewing the worst kind of hate in the form of a response toward my evil spawn of a sister. I clenched my fists at my sides and turned my mind to the mantra I’d been using to avoid wrapping my fingers around her scrawny throat and squeezing.
She’s trying to help…she’s trying to help…she’s trying to help…
It didn’t work. I still wanted to thrash her to within an inch of her death. I might not have magic anymore, but I still had a certain amount of strength and a lot of rage to give it legs.
I was standing in the middle of my office, dressed in the special armor that had become necessary since I’d lost the ability to protect myself from an army of enemies, and my head throbbed with the effort to draw magic into my core and hold it.
My skin was slick with sweat, my hair stuck to my neck in lank, wet strands, and my breath heaved in my chest. We’d been working for over an hour and I’d yet to grab more than an ion of energy and hadn’t been able to hold it at all.
The air shifted and my eyes shot open. A cold tube of water appeared in front of me. I sighed, letting go of as much of the frustration and anger as I could, and took the water. “Thanks.”
Darma dropped into my visitor’s chair. “I think you’re getting stronger.”
I nearly choked. If Darma was trying to make me feel better I was screwed. Completely and totally screwed. “It’s no use.”
Her ten-second reserve of kindness spent, Darma’s pretty face darkened. “Don’t be stupid, Astra. Nobody ever said this would be easy. You’re being tested. Are you just going to sit back and fail because it’s hard?”
I grabbed the drying spray from my desk and spritzed my face, neck, and arms with it. “Yeah. I think maybe I am.”
She hit me with the mother of all dirty bombs. “You’ll lose Dialle.”
Frunk me to the lowest circle of Hell. “You bitch.”
Her perfect, pink lips tipped upward, knowing she’d pressed my “engage” button again. “I have to go. Slayer and I are going to take down that flashing demon at Twenty-First and Park. Keep practicing and you can fill me in on your progress later.”
That would be flashing as in showing his secret parts to passersby. Not flashing like a neon sign. I was secretly glad I was too pitiful to take on that assignment.
She started to shimmer and then caught herself, looking suddenly uncomfortable.
“Go ahead, Darma, space-shift. I hate it that everybody walks on dragon egg shells around me.”
My sister glared at me. “It’s called kindness.” And with those snotty words dancing on the air between us, my older sister glided toward the door like a royal princess and exited my office the old-fashioned way.
I knew she would leave the magical way as soon as the door closed. It was like not keeping score at a child’s solar football game. Nobody who was involved was fooled. Even if a score wasn’t recorded, somebody was still the winner and some poor schlub was still the loser.
I dropped into my chair and laid my head back, staring at the ceiling and fighting tears. As if it wasn’t bad enough to have lost my own powers, nobody around me would use theirs where I could see for fear I’d curl into the fetal position in a corner and drool on myself.
It was beyond humiliating.
The door opened and I guiltily swiped tears from my cheeks before turning to find one of my office mates standing there looking unsure about entering. Ralph Peters was one of the owners of Werever…Whatever, which specialized in shape-shifter justice. Like his partner Bob, Ralph was a werewolf. He had longish, curly black hair and the most amazing hazel eyes with long, thick lashes that most women would kill for. I rented my office space from them and considered them friends.
Since the loss of my magic, Ralph’s smile had dimmed to more of a soft grimace filled with pity. It was so painful to see that I’d learned to hate it when he smiled. “Hey, Astra.” He moved into my office and sat in my visitor’s chair, his sexy hazel eyes locked onto my face. “I want to make you an offer.”
Whatever it was it appeared serious. “I’m listening.”
The eyes staring into mine turned gold, lost some of their humanity. Under times of great emotion the weres tended to drift more toward their animal natures. Apparently finding that a more soothing state. “I know you’ve been trying to regain your magic…”
I suddenly couldn’t hold his gaze any longer. I looked away. “Yeah. It’s been pretty ugly.”
“I understand. Bob and I have…felt…your frustration.”
Yeah, I’d just bet they had. “Sorry.”
He shook his head, scowling slightly. “Not your fault. We have total empathy for you. I can’t even imagine what I’d go through in your situation.” His frown deepened. “Anyway. We’ve been talking and we think we might have a solution for you.”
I tried really hard not to get excited. But given the frustrating morning I’d had, it was nearly impossible. I felt my eyes go wide. “Really? What did you come up with?”
He nodded, took a deep breath, and seemed to be trying to talk himself into moving forward. That was my first clue that I wasn’t going to like his proposal.
My next clue came in the form of his kick-off.
“Magic is magic, right?”
My gaze held his. “I guess.” My lack of conviction throbbed on the air between us.
His stare intensified. “I can turn you.”
I blinked, pretty sure he’d stopped in the middle of his sentence. I can turn you into a lean, mean, fighting machine. Or… I can turn you on if you want a distraction. I shook my head, lifting my hands in question.
He frowned. “Into a werewolf.”
My heart sped up as panic slipped through me. My fingers clutched the edge of my desk. My vision swirled. I realized I wasn’t panicking because I was afraid I’d refuse Ralph. I was panicking because I was terrified I wouldn’t. “I, um…”
“I know this is a surprise. I don’t blame you for being shocked. It isn’t generally known that we can do this. In fact, usually we can’t. The magic I would give to you requires a certain type of vessel. A vessel that has the ability to contain strong magic.”
I frowned. “And you think because I used to hold magic I would be able to retain it once you passed it to me?”
I nodded. “Not that I’m thinking about doing this, mind you.” I lifted an eyebrow and he nodded. “But how exactly would you do it?”
“It’s a fairly extensive process involving purification of your body and meditation. The physical training would be easy for you. You’re already trained in the fighting arts. But weres…think…differently. We see things differently. And you’d need to be acclimated to that before—”
“Cut to the chase. How would the actual change happen?”
His gaze slipped away and I knew his response wasn’t going to take me to my happy place. “Just spit it out, Ralph.”
He sighed, tugged at a hole in his jeans, and scratched his chin.
“The magic is passed on through the carnal act.”
I blinked. Frowned. Swallowed. “By carnal you mean what exactly?”
“Sex, Astra. The old horizontal two step. The hubba hubba rumba. The delicious dance of decadence—”
“Okay. I got it.” Shaking my head, I stood up. “Thanks for the offer, Ralph. I can’t go there.”
He stood too and nodded. “I figured that was what you’d say but I wanted to make the offer. You could do it with Bob instead if that would make you happier.”
The absurdity of the thing suddenly washed over me, spurring a strange sort of mania. I started to laugh, feeling my face heat in an embarrassed blush. “It’s not you. I’m… I just can’t go there. I’m not sure I could do my job in that form anyway…” My voice trailed away as hysteria bubbled in my throat. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “It’s fine, Astra. I understand. I just want to help.” He stepped close. “You’ll ask, right? If there’s some way I can help?”
I nodded and he reached out, touching my cheek with an impossibly warm finger. He held my gaze for a long moment and then turned away, pain etched deep into his handsome face.
I watched him leave, feeling responsible for that pain and for the pain of everyone around me. It was exactly what I didn’t need. More pressure. More guilt. More reason to succumb to bone-deep sadness.
It worried me how comfortable I was becoming with that sadness.
Not for the first time it occurred to me that I should just leave. Go away. And let the people I loved go on with their lives. It was nearly impossible for them to heal with me hanging around. A constant reminder of what we’d all lost when the evil bitch Crisanne had magic-raped me.
Expelling a breath in frustration, I dropped back into my chair and considered where I could go if I left. Olympus was a possibility. The dragons would welcome me there. And I could still function as a warrior if I had dragon brawn to help me fight.
Then I thought of Slayer and that option slipped away. He used to live on Olympus. For all I knew he still did. I knew he wouldn’t let me hide out. He’d pester me.
I couldn’t go to another dimension without the help of someone with the power to shift. Maybe off planet somewhere. That thought had possibilities.
Sighing, I reached for my ankle-length leather coat, preparing to leave. The air thickened a few feet away and two forms shimmered directly into my office. My aunt Myra and my new guardian Aubrey. I cringed when I saw them. No two creatures had ever been better equipped or more motivated to piss me off.
Adding to my discomfort was the fear that they were there to give me news on how Emo’s Settling had turned out. I had a very bad feeling about my friend and former partner and I was uncharacteristically reluctant to face the bad news. So much so that I was considering making a run for it before either of the two bossy guardians opened their mouths and rained on my day…maybe even my life.
Despite my fears, however, they didn’t launch right into the ruination of my life. In fact, my aunt Myra looked just a little too pink cheeked and smiley for my comfort. I hoped like hell it didn’t have anything to do with the tall, sexy blond god of a guardian angel standing next to her. The thought made me grimace. I mean, really, clocking in at a couple thousand years between them, weren’t they just a little too old to be doing the nasty together?
“Hello, Aubrey. Auntie. To what do I owe the…erm…pleasure?”
Aubrey lifted a sculpted white-blond eyebrow and gave me the once over. I stood my ground, refusing to look down to see if my inadequacies were hanging out or my ineptitude was unbuttoned. I already knew they were. Instead, I lifted an eyebrow right back at him.
Tit for tat.
“We came to see how you fare, Astra.”
Sexy Aubrey might be—and a truly fine guardian for a girl who finds trouble more easily than the Plutonian Star Polo team on vacation on sunny Mercury—I was beginning to suspect he had even a longer stick up his ass than my aunt Myra.
“I fare just about as well as could be expected.”
My non-answer brought clouds to Auntie Myra’s sunny skies. “There’s no need to be flip, Astra.”
I shrugged. “I’m not trying to be flip, Auntie. Just honest. My life pretty much sucks without a straw these days. I’m barely surviving from day to day.”
Aubrey frowned. “Straw? What is this?”
I grinned. “I guess you’ve been skipping your Human Pop Culture Orientation workshops?”
Aubrey’s fine, straight nose lifted a notch and his celestial arrogance came out to play. “I can’t possibly keep up with all the human weirdisms, past and present. I’ll let you focus on that since you live down here among them.”
I grabbed the small bag I’d started carrying since I’d lost my ability to shift from place to place. Turns out magic comes in handy for lots of things besides kicking demon ass. Who knew? “Yeah, and besides, now I’m one of them, so…” I threw him a glare and started out the door.
I could almost hear the double-barreled air-sucking as the two snotty celestials realized Aubrey’s mistake. The air shifted and Myra was suddenly standing directly in front of me, blocking my exit.
“Get out of the way, angel. I’m going home to drown my sorrows in a hot shower and as much frozen milk sugar as I can stuff down.”
She glared down at me. Funny, I would have thought contrition and apology would have looked a lot less hostile. “Astra, stop being such a baby. We’re going to find a way around this little problem, and until we do, we need you to stay positive.”
“Good, because I’m positive there’s no way I’ll get my magic back.”
Myra crossed her arms over her chest and her face pinkened with pique. I was pretty sure she grew an inch or two, as warrior angels tended to do when they were pissed off. “Despite your defeatist attitude, Aubrey and I have come to make you a proposition. Are you going to listen to us or not?”
I groaned. “Not. I’m full up on propositions today, angel. How about we pick this up again tomorrow…or next millennia?”
Queue the good cop-angel. Aubrey touched my arm. “Astra, I’m sorry. My remark was insensitive and—”
His frown slipped away and he actually smiled. It was one of Aubrey’s better things…his ability to laugh at himself. It was a trait Auntie Myra didn’t share. “Yes. That too. But none of us think of you as a human. You’re a magical creature of great power. You’re just currently a little low on voltage.” His smile widened.
Despite my foul humor I couldn’t help smiling back. “Okay. Got it. You haven’t given up on me. I appreciate that. I really do. But you need to understand that this is really hard and I’m dealing with it as best I can.”
“We do understand that,” Aubrey said. He even seemed sincere. “Which is why we’re offering you some help.”
Uh oh. “What kind of help…exactly?”
“We want you to come up for some celestial counseling.”
My shocked gaze flew to my aunt. “You what?”
“Our trainers have actually had considerable success helping magic users through their rough spots,” Aubrey assured me.
“Hello. Earth to angels. This isn’t a rough spot folks, this is a dead zone.”
“We don’t actually know what’s going on,” Myra informed me. “For all we know your magic is still in there, hidden behind some kind of wall—”
“That would be a hell of a wall, Auntie.”
“Yes. It would. But…” Her pretty face finally softened and she reached to touch my arm. I flinched, scarred from years of being force-shifted all over the place by my pushy guardians. She sighed, letting her hand drop without touching me. “We think it’s worth a try. Will you let us help you?”
“Worst case is that we can help you figure out how to deal emotionally with this issue, Astra. That’s not all bad, is it?” Aubrey’s impossibly handsome face clearly showed his concern.
My mind raced. Heaven. Ugh. I was pretty much allergic to white. Even the silver and gold of the higher angels’ wings couldn’t do much to take the sting out of a world that was almost entirely white. I wondered if I could smuggle some red or blue into the place. On the other hand… I had been considering going away for a while. The Celestial Realm was definitely away. “It’s worth thinking about,” I finally allowed.
I was rewarded for this reasonableness by being the unlucky recipient of two wide, happy, angel smiles. “Good.” Myra nodded as if it was decided.
“I said I’d think, Auntie.”
Myra opened her mouth to argue but Aubrey reached out and gently clasped her arm. “We’ll give you time then, child.” He fixed my aunt with a look that took the militant starch right out of her wings.
I wondered if he could bottle that look and sell me a case of it. I’d been trying to introduce my aunt to the concept of capitulation for almost two decades.
She finally nodded. “We’ll check back tomorrow and get your response.”
I was on the verge of asking for more time but then decided I’d pushed her enough. “Tomorrow works.”
Aubrey nodded and stepped back. “Good. We’ll see you then, Astra.”
Myra stared at me for a long moment and then, seemingly on impulse, stepped in and gave me a hug. I almost swallowed my tongue.
First Darma was nice and now my acid-tongued aunt was going all mushy on me. I figured I only had a few hours to live.
“Please let us do this, Astra. I think we can help.”
I was too shocked even to say something snarky. So I just watched them blip away. I stood there for several moments before I found the energy to move again. Then I went in search of Bob and Ralph. Maybe Bob could do an empathic read on me and discover if I’d lost my mind or something. The Big Guy knew I must be in dire straits if my family was being nice to me.
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