Need to catch up?
- What is The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp?
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Prologue
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Chapter One
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Chapter Two
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Chapter Three
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Chapter Four
The alarms went off at 10:30.
Marcaeus turned away from his standing desk and strode to his office door just as Hobb pushed through it.
“Have the laboratories locked down?” Marcaeus’s jaw tightened as he and Hobb moved fast through the corridors.
“Everything has locked down,” Hobb assured him. “All floors.”
“Do we know what it is?” There had only been two security breaches in the company’s history. One had been a false alarm. The other…
“Security says they found traces of demonic residue in the lobby and the elevator buttons. And on the seventh floor.” Hobb let that settle in a moment. “You know who it is.”
“I do,” Marcaeus acquiesced grimly. There was no way he could allow her to continue her employment now, no way to make her an asset.
Not an asset. A weapon, to be used against her own family. Have you truly allowed humanity to rob you of your morals?
He’d hoped she’d been sincere in her intentions. There had been no reason to put his trust into the notion, nothing but the way her presence in his thoughts pestered him whenever his mind wasn’t occupied with other things. Though that was something she may have accomplished through demonic magic, he could not lay the blame on her; he’d tricked himself.
“Take me to her.”
The bioluminescence lab roiled with confusion and panic. No one seemed to know where to go or what to do; the trees had closed up in response to the pheromones released as a security protocol, leaving some workers trapped at their desks and others roaming the aisles, perplexed and muttering.
The selkie, Ealusaid, approached, armed with an ancient harpoon. “We’re searching the lab now. What shall we do with the intruder?”
Marcaeus reached out warily and tilted the spear into a less ready position. “Let’s begin by not piercing them.”
Hobb frowned down at his holopad. “She’s this way.”
“Who are you looking for?” Ealusaid asked.
“Flicka Star.” What a ridiculous name. He should have seen through it immediately.
The selkie shook her head. “Impossible. Marcaeus, she’s one of our best employees.”
“She may also be a security risk.” He started off down the path into the forest of productivity that had ground to a chaotic halt, the click-clack of Hobb’s hooves close behind him.
Each of the trees had tightened their vines snuggly, their shiny leaves stuck together with sap that cascaded down their leathery surface. Now and then, one of them would shudder and heave; one loudly complained: “Allergies! Bah!”
Hobb grimaced in disgust and wiped a blob of the mucus from his shoulder. “There has to be a less messy way to do this.”
“Here.” Marcaeus stopped before Fiona Trasket’s tree and rapped on the slick pod that encased her. He shook his hand once, hard, slime flicking from his knuckles to land in a shivery glob on the path. “Open, plant. I’m your boss.”
“Oh no, the big scary donkey man might fire me. What would I do if had to live out my days in a park or a real forest? That would be just dreadful.”
“You can live out your days in a wood chipper, for all we care,” Hobb warned.
The tree rustled like a dog shaking off after a swim, splattering both of them gelatinous sap.
Inside the pod, the bioluminescent bulb above the desk glowed at half brightness. Fiona Trasket leaned over her holopad, tapping away. With her huge headphones on, there was no chance she’d heard the commotion around her. Perhaps not even the security alarms. She glanced up at Marcaeus and Hobb, her eyes growing wide.
Marcaeus summoned as commanding a presence as he could muster while dripping with goo. “Ms. Trasket. Come with me.”
* * * *
The room Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hobb had marched Fiona to had ink-black walls, floor, and a ceiling of stone, all polished to a mirror finish; her image reflected around her, colorless and gray. Already a wraith.
They won’t kill you, she tried to console herself. You may go to jail, but they can’t execute you right here in the building.
Perhaps they weren’t in the building, anymore. The room—the cell—had no door. They’d entered through a swirling portal of silver light that had disappeared once Johnson and Hobb left. She could be in a prison on the astral plane. She had no idea how long she’d been waiting in the lightless, but oddly bright void.
Worse, she had no idea what she’d done to be found out.
A pop! sizzle startled her. The silver portal appeared once more, a spiral of smoke that opened from the center to admit Mr. Johnson. Alone.
He’d changed from his human form, standing before her in a dark blue jacket and crisp white shirt covering his torso. His equine body shone with a coat of deep ebony, almost as dark as the room around them. He flicked his tail and she averted her eyes.
“Isn’t it company policy that you have to have an HR representative present to discipline employees?” She lifted her chin in defiance. “And you’re definitely supposed to have pants on.”
“You must excuse me. Someone’s cubicle sneezed on me.” The clipped tone suggested he somehow held her personally responsible for that. “But congratulations. You’re the second spy in the history of our company to make it past our security protocols.”
“I was in the gifted program at school.” She paused, running over the day in her mind. Sloppy? She’d done exactly what she’d been doing the entire time she’d worked there. Unless… “It was the tree, wasn’t it? It ratted me out.”
And after she’d given it a Toblerone, the ingrate.
“No. It’s the demonic energy around you.” He paced the room, his hooves setting up a ringing echo all around them. “What do you think of this?”
“I think it needs something to dampen the acoustics.” Her head throbbed already from anxiety.
“It’s obsidian,” he said as if they were discussing a kitchen remodel. “It does dampen some things. Dark powers. Charms. Remote enchantments.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know any magic.”
“But the demons you’re working with do,” he accused her. “And whatever you paid them, it was too much. We picked you up the moment you entered the building. The enchantment left a trail wherever you went.”
“That’s impossible.” She looked down at her hands. She would have known if she’d been enchanted. “There’s a glamour. But that’s all. It’s only a glamour.”
“Consorting with demons is a violation of several treaties. You worked on a liminal floor. You could be prosecuted in the astral,” he warned.
The thought chilled her. Depending on which court oversaw her trial, she could find herself in deep, deep trouble. And lately, the mortal courts had been extraditing humans charged with astral crimes as a matter of policy. Her lower lip trembled as she said, “I don’t know any demons.”
“I don’t. I swear.” Her eyes filled with tears and her shoulders sagged in defeat. “I’m not working for demons. My brother, he sent me…I didn’t want to come here at all.”
Why was she blathering on? You’re a Trasket. You’re supposed to be powerful and strong. People fear your family name.
People. She was no threat to the centaur in front of her.
And so, she took the cowardly road. “He was going to blackmail my friend. He had proof that she’d fallen off the wagon again.”
Johnson frowned. It was so heavy, she felt the weight of it on her shoulders.
With a roll of her eyes, she explained, “Fallen off the wagon, meaning—”
“I know what it means. That isn’t why I’m confused.” He walked a wide circle around her. “You’re here because—”
“Because if I didn’t spy on you, Blayde would leak the video to the press. And it could ruin someone’s life.”
“Hmm.” That was all Johnson said, still pacing a circle around the room. “You were spying on my business for your brother, not for your own profit but out of the good of your heart?”
“You don’t have to believe me.” And there was no reason that he should. Her stung pride squared her shoulders in indignation, anyway.
He stopped in front of her and came a step too close; in his true form, he towered over her by feet, not inches.
Are centaurs measured in hands? Like horses?
He leaned down, arms folded across his massive chest, and said, “I haven’t believed you since the moment you stepped into my office.”
That took her aback.
He straightened and resumed his damned dramatic pacing. Are there cameras in here or something? Or does he just like his own reflection that much?
“Whoever your brother paid to glamour you did a terrible job. We knew who you were. We just didn’t know why you were here.” He looked her up and down, not in a lecherous way. He just examined her as though he was trying to gauge whether a painting was level.
“So, you gave me a job?” She waved her fingers toward his face and snapped them. “Would you stop looking at me like that?”
“I’m looking at the demon’s mark on you.”
A cold chill rippled in the air, raising the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck.
“Did you agree to that?” Johnson asked, his voice low and gentle in a way that didn’t reassure her at all.
She swallowed hard. “I’ve never even seen a demon in person.”
After a long silence, Johnson asked, “May I place my hands on your head?”
The request was too strange to deny. She nodded, her heart beating fast.
His hands were enormous; his long fingers rested carefully atop her hair while he cupped her cheeks in his palms.
“Close your eyes.”
The moment she did, a fire ripped through her body. Images she’d never seen flashed sharp and clear, but fleeting. She saw her skin, saw razor-sharp talons gouging lines into intricate sigils. Her blood collecting in a golden bowl. Her brother and sister-in-law standing by.
She’d been lost in the hellish vision for an eternity before the floor spun away beneath her feet and she fell, screaming, back into the present.
“Fiona, stop, stop,” a voice urged her and strong hands closed over her wrists to prevent her from clawing away the bloody marks that had vanished without a trace.
She looked up into the concerned, not unkind face of her boss and whispered, “I swear, I didn’t know.”
He nodded slowly. “We need to get that mark off of you.”
“Do you know how?” Or even what it was? What had been done to her? She shuddered in revulsion, every inch of her flesh suddenly coated with shame.
Johnson shook his head slowly. “I don’t. But I know someone who does.”
He waved a hand at one of the walls and a portal appeared, another swirling gateway out of the doorless cell. On the other side, a meadow of iridescent grass and gleaming gold flowers rippled lazily beneath a bright, but sunless, sky.
“You’ll have to come with me. To Elysia.” He gestured over his humanoid shoulder to his equine body. “Jump on.”