The glass doors to the building ten feet away slid open slowly. That feeling, like a breeze lifting fall leaves off the ground, swirled in the pit of his stomach. Theo Masters eased off his bike and held the helmet between his arm and his hip as he continued to stare at that door. He considered removing his sunglasses since the sun had set hours ago, but decided against it.
Seconds later, three women stepped out. His gaze fell quickly over each one, noting bare feet, long legs and deep green material swaddling their bodies before stopping inches above the knees. Red and gold stripes slashed across their forehead and cheeks coupled with long gold spears held tightly in hand announced their warrior status while his wish for a quick pickup and drop-off dwindled.
The Odò Guard.
Or, the river guards. They were foot soldiers from the River Tribe that lived in a village located along a portion of the Niger River, which flowed through western Nigeria. Theo had visited the area close to one hundred years ago.
Three more women exited the building approximately two feet behind the first trio. And then three more, until nine in total were now in a triple-file line in front of him. At some other time, in some other place, he might have been impressed. As it was now, their grand entrance was making his last minute task take much longer than he’d anticipated.
“You are the guardian we hired?” The middle woman in the first row spoke to him, her voice loud, strong and heavily accented.
“I’m from the Legion Security Company.” Even his voice sounded tired, deep and raspy, as it did when he woke in the mornings.
In unison, each woman holding a spear clanked the metal ends to the ground. The tight formation parted with each of the side lines stepping away so that only the woman standing directly in front of Theo, and another woman a few feet behind her, remained in the middle.
“The ceremony is in two weeks. The accommodations are listed here, as well as the location for the ceremony, where you will deliver her safely. Joku N’Gara and the River Tribe thank you for your services.” Her words sounded rehearsed.
With a crisp movement, she extended an arm in Theo’s direction. A large white envelope was clutched between her fingers until he slipped it away.
The woman stepped to the side, standing in line with the other guards, leaving only one woman in the middle.
But this was no ordinary woman.
Those leaves that had begun stirring in the pit of his stomach now swirled and twisted up into a funnel. His chest tightened, and his gums itched, as the beast within that had long lay dormant began to stir. Theo’s fingers clenched into fists, the envelope crackling beneath his natural strength.
She appeared ethereal, her silhouette wavering slightly as with the rhythm of the wind. Her eyes were like ice, clear white but for the iris that was a singular black dot, and she bore similar markings as the guards on her face, only hers were all white. Atop her head was a gold- and diamond-encrusted crown that sparkled against the night backdrop.
“You will transport me on that?”
Her voice was like the sun rising, glorious and breathtaking. It was also stabilizing. He caught the slow easing movement beneath his skin. With practiced strength, he pulled the beast back. His body once again still, he fixed his gaze on her. Only now that his vision had cleared, the woman standing in front of him looked different than she had just seconds ago.
A rainbow of brown hues, the Odò Guard were different complexions, their hair either cut close to the scalp or twisted intricately. On the surface, the woman before him initially appeared different from the others, but now there was no crown and no markings on her face; her skin was the deepest brown and hair a kinky mass circling her narrow face. All things easily noted by sight, but it was the languid stretch of muscles and tendons in his body that made the real point.
“That is a bike, and yes, it will accommodate two.” The tilt of one perfectly arched brow said she did not like the accommodations. That made two of them, and Magnum was going to feel his wrath first thing tomorrow morning.
“I have seen a bike before. This is bigger, but not as big as a car, which would have been more comfortable for such a trip.”
Not at all what she appeared. The thought played in his mind like a song on repeat, and his gaze eased over her once more. High cheekbones, pert chin, reddish brown eyes and a muted colored dress belted high at her waist—just another client.
Except there’d never been a client who clawed along his flesh with such urgent fervor before.
Theo shook himself free of thoughts that had gone deeper than they should have and stepped forward. The Odò Guards took a quick, succinct step to close the space between them and her, but not enough to hinder her progression forward. She came toward him slowly.
“There was a change of plans,” he snapped, edginess and annoyance now plaguing him. “I promise to get you to your hotel as quickly as possible.”
Each step she took felt as if she were already beside him, brushing slowly against the scaled skin of his beast. It was eerie, and yet…comforting.
“If you have luggage, I can send someone back for it.”
“My things were sent ahead. They should be already at the hotel.”
Her voice, each word was spoken in a melodic tone, thick with her accent, yet as clear to him as his own dialect.
“You can wear this. Then we should get going,” he said because this wasn’t normal.
Or at least the version of normal Theo knew humans accepted. He was three hundred years old and came from the Far Realm. There was no doubt the people of Burgess, Pennsylvania wouldn’t find that normal at all. Still, there was something odd happening here, and he wasn’t sure he liked whatever it was.
He closed the small space she’d left between them and resisted the urge to touch her cheeks where he knew those tribal stripes had been before. Clenching his fingers on the helmet, he thrust it toward her and turned away. Tucking the envelope inside his jacket, he moved to his bike and tossed a leg over the seat. His palms burned with the urge to touch, caress, explore, so he grabbed the handles. “Get on.” Shifting from just moments ago, his voice was now deep and stern, his mood decidedly darker even though he couldn’t explain why.
The Odò Guard also hesitated, looking ready to use those spears and whatever other defensive devices he was sure they had against him at any second. He didn’t move. He’d been paid a hefty deposit for this two-week assignment, and when it was over, his company would collect another large payment. It was a simple job—keep an eye on this woman until the day she would be delivered to her wedding. That was it. Even one of his lower level agents could have done this.
But as Theo watched her arms slowly lifting to settle the helmet over the poof of her hair, he knew that wasn’t true. She was not just a bride. No ordinary bride required a personal escort like the Odò Guard. And no normal bride had a soul identity that looked like hers.
She stepped closer to the bike, eyeing it suspiciously for a few seconds before letting her fingers tug the material of her dress up. She lifted her leg to cross over the seat.
Theo started the engine.
“Just go.” Her reply was curt and she did not put a hand on him.
With a shrug, he did what he was told, peeling off from the spot at a modest speed before picking up the moment they hit the open road. He had to hurry to get her to the hotel and in the hands of his other agents because the beast inside, the one that had lay dormant for the past two hundred years, had awakened at the sight of her spirit. Theo didn’t know why, nor did he care. All he knew was that this could not happen. Not here and definitely not now.