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Hammering my fist against the back of my closet wasn't one of my more pleasant dreams. Actually, it hurt. The pain broke through my comfortable sleepy haze, and I felt the primitive part of me that never slept coolly measuring my slow gathering of will as I tried to wake up. With an eerie feeling of disconnection, I watched it happen, even as in my dream I tore the clothes off the rod and threw them to my rumpled bed.
Something, though, wasn't right. I wasn't waking up. The dream wasn't passively shredding into hard-to-remember bits. And with a jolt I realized I was conscious but not awake.
What in hell? Something was really, really wrong, and instinct sent a pulse of adrenaline thorough me, demanding I wake. But I didn't.
My breath was quick and ragged, and after I emptied the closet, I dropped to the floor and tapped my knuckles on the boards for a secret compartment I knew wasn't there. Frightened, I grasped my will and forced myself awake.
Pain reverberated through my forehead. I sprawled, all my muscles going flaccid. I managed to turn my head, and my ear stung instead of my nose breaking. Hard wood pressed against me, cold through my pajama shorts and top. My cry came out as a gurgle. I couldn't breathe! Something . . . something was in here with me. In my head. Trying to possess me!
Terror smothered me like a blanket. I couldn't see it, couldn't hear it, could hardly sense it. But my body had become a battlefield—one where I didn't know how to win. Possession was a black art, and I hadn't taken the right classes. Damn it, my life isn't supposed to be like this!
Utter panic gave me strength. Itried to mobilize my legs and arms under me and push. I managed to rise to my hands and knees, then fell into my bedside table. It crashed to the floor and rolled to the empty closet.
My pulse hammering, the fear of suffocating overtook me. I managed to stagger into the hallway, looking for help. My unknown assailant and I found common ground and, working together, we took a breath that escaped in a choked cry. Where the devil was Ivy? Was she deaf? Maybe she hadn't yet come in from her run with Jenks. She'd said they'd be late.
As if bothered by the cooperation, my attacker gripped harder, and I collapsed to the floor. My eyes were open, and the red sheet of my hair stood between me and the end of the dusky hallway. It had won. Whatever it was, it had won, and I panicked as I found myself sitting up with an eerie slowness. The thick scent of burnt amber hung in my nose, rising from my skin.
No! I cried in my thoughts—but I couldn't even speak. I wanted to scream, but my possessor made me take a slow, sedate breath instead. "Malum," I heard myself curse, my voice carrying an odd accent and a sophisticated lilt that had never been mine.
That was the last penny in the jar. Fear shifted to anger. I didn't know who was in here with me, but whoever it was, was going to get out. Right now. Making me speak in tongues was just rude.
Falling into my thoughts, I felt the barest brush of someone else's confusion. Fine. I could build on that. Before the intruder could figure out what I was doing, I tapped the ley line out back in the graveyard. Stark, foreign surprise filled me, and while my assailant struggled to break me from the line, I formed a protection circle in my thoughts.
Practice makes perfect, I thought smugly, then braced myself. This was going to hurt like hell.
I opened my thoughts to the ley line with an abandon I'd never dared before. And it came. Magic roared in. It overflowed my chi and poured into my body, burning my synapses and neurons. Tulpa, I thought in agony, the word opening the mental channels to spindle the energy. The rush would have killed me if I hadn't already burned a trail of nerves from my chi to my mind. Groaning, I felt the power sear anew as it raced to the protection circle in my thoughts, expanding it like a balloon. It was how I spindled ley line energy to use later, but at this rate it was like diving into a vat of molten metal.
An internal yelp of pain resounded in me, and with a mental push that I mirrored with my hands, I shoved away from myself.
A snap reverberated through me, and I was free of the unknown presence. From the church's belfry above came the sound of the bell tolling—an echo of my actions.
Something rolled and bumped down the corridor to crash into the wall at the end of the hall. I gasped and pulled my head up, then groaned in pain. Moving hurt. I held too much ley line power. It felt as if it had settled in my muscles, and using them squeezed the energy out.
"Ow," I panted, very aware that something at the end of the hall was standing up. But at least now it wasn't in my head. My heart beat, and that hurt, too. Oh God, I'd never held this much power before. And I stank. I reeked of burnt amber. What the Turn was going on?
With a pained determination, I squeezed the protection circle in my mind until the energy slipped back through my chi and into the ley line. It hurt almost as much as taking it in. But when I unspindled the ever-after from my thoughts to leave only that which my chi could hold, I looked up past the snarls of my hair, panting.
Oh, God. It was Newt.
"What are you doing here?" I said, feeling coated in ever-after slime.
The powerful demon looked confused, but I was still too out of things to appreciate its shocked expression: either a smooth-faced adolescent boy or a strong-featured female. Slender of build, it stood barefoot in my hallway between the kitchen and the living room. Squinting, I looked again—yeah, the demon was standing this time, not floating, its long, bony feet definitely pressing the floorboards—and I wondered how Newt had managed to attack me when I was on hallowed ground. The addition to the church, where it stood now, wasn't sanctified, though, and it looked bewildered, wearing a dark red robe that looked somewhere between a kimono and what Lawrence of Arabia might wear on his day off.
There was a soft blurring of black ley line energy, and a slender obsidian staff as tall as I was melted into existence in Newt's grasp, completing the vision I remembered from the time I had been trapped in the ever-after and had had to buy a trip home from Newt. The demon's eyes were entirely black—even what should be the whites—but they were more alive than any I'd ever seen as they stared at me unblinking down the twenty feet that separated us—twenty tiny feet and a swath of hallowed ground. At least I hoped it was still hallowed ground.
"How did you learn how to do that?" it said, and I stiffened at the odd accent, the vowels that seemed to insert themselves into the folds of my brain.
"Al," I whispered, and the demon's almost-nonexistent eyebrows rose. Shoulder against the wall, I never took my eyes from it as I slid upward to stand. This was not the way I wanted to start my day. God help me, I'd only been asleep for an hour by the looks of the light.
"What's the matter with you? You can't just show up!" I exclaimed, trying to burn off some adrenaline as I stood in the hallway still in the skimpy shirt and shorts I wore to bed. "No one summoned you! And how could you stand on hallowed ground? Demons can't stand on sacred ground. It's in every book."
"I do what I want." Newt peered into the living room, poking the staff over the threshold as if looking for traps. "And assumptions like that will kill you," the demon added, adjusting the strand of black gold that glinted dully against the midnight red of its robe. "I wasn't standing on hallowed ground—you were. And Minias . . . Minias said I wrote most of those books, so who knows how right they are?"
Its smooth features melted into annoyance, at itself, not me. "Sometimes I don't remember the past right," Newt said, its voice distant. "Or maybe they simply change it and don't tell me."
My face went cold in the predawn chill. Newt was insane. I had an insane demon standing in my hallway and roommates coming home in about twenty minutes. How could something this powerful survive being this unbalanced? But unbalanced seldom equated with stupid, though powerful and unbalanced did. And clever. And ruthless. Demonic.
"What do you want?" I asked, wondering how long until the sun would rise.
With a troubled look, Newt exhaled. "I don't remember," it finally said. "But you have something of mine. I want it back."
While unknown emotions flitted through and Newt's thoughts cataloged themselves, I squinted down the shadowy hallway, trying to decide if it was male or female. Demons could look like anything they wanted to. Right now Newt had pale eyebrows and a light, absolutely even skin tone. I'd say it was feminine, but the jaw was strong and those bare feet were too bony to be pretty. Nail polish would look wrong on them.
It was wearing the same hat as before—round, with straight sides and a flat top made from a scrumptiously rich red fabric and gold braiding. The short, nondescript hair falling to just below the ear gave no clue to gender. The time I'd questioned what sex he or she was, Newt had asked me if it made a difference. And watching Newt struggle to place a thought, I had a feeling it wasn't that the demon didn't think it was important but that Newt didn't remember what parts he or she had been born with. Maybe Minias did. Whoever Minias was.
"Newt," I said, hoping my shaking voice wasn't too obvious, "I demand you leave. Go directly to the ever-after from this place, and don't return to bother me again."
It was a good banishment—apart from my not having put it in a circle first—and Newt raised one eyebrow at me, its puzzlement set aside with an ease that spoke of much practice. "That's not my summoning name."
The demon jerked into motion. I shrank back to invoke a circle—paltry though it would be, undrawn and unscribed—but Newt stepped into the living room, the hem of its robe the last thing I saw slipping around the doorframe. From out of sight came the sound of nails being pulled from wood. There was a sharp crack of splintering paneling, and Newt swore colorfully in Latin.
Jenks's cat Rex padded past me, curiosity doing its best to fulfill its promise. I lunged after the stupid animal, but she didn't like me and so skittered away. The caramel-colored kitten paused at the threshold with her ears pricked. Tail twitching, she sat and watched.
Newt wasn't trying to pull me into the ever-after, and it wasn't trying to kill me. It was looking for something, and I think the only reason it had possessed me was so it could search the sanctified church. Which boded well as a sign that the grounds were still holy. But the damned thing was crazy. Who knew how long it would ignore me? Until it decided I might be able to tell it where it was? Whatever it was?
A thump from the living room made me jump. Tail crooked, Rex padded in.
The sudden knocking on the front door of the church spun me the other way to the empty sanctuary, but before I could call out a warning, the heavy oak door swung open, unlocked in expectation of Ivy's return. Great. Now what?
"Rachel?" a worried voice called, and Ceri strode in, fully dressed in faded jeans with dirt-wet knees, clearly having been in the garden despite it being before sunrise. Her eyes were wide with worry, and her long, fair hair billowed about her as she paced quickly across the barren sanctuary, tracking in mud from her garden-inappropriate, elaborately embroidered slippers. She was an elf in hiding, and I knew that her schedule was like a pixy's: awake all day and night but for four hours around each midnight and noon.
Frantic, I waved my hands, alternating my attention between the empty hallway and her. "Out!" I all but yelped. "Ceri, get out!"
"Your church bell rang," she said, cheeks pale with concern as she came to take my hands. She smelled wonderful—the elven scent of wine and cinnamon mixing with the honest smell of dirt—and the crucifix Ivy had given her glinted in the dim light. "Are you all right?"
Oh, yeah, I thought, remembering hearing the bell in the belfry toll when I had pushed Newt from my thoughts. The expression "ringing the bells" wasn't just a figure of speech, and I wondered how much energy I had channeled to make the bell in the tower resonate.
From the living room came the ugly noise of paneling being ripped from the wall. Ceri's blond eyebrows rose. Crap, she was calm and sedate, and I was shaking in my underwear.
"It's a demon," I whispered, wondering if we should leave or try for the circle I had etched in the kitchen floor. The sanctuary was still hallowed ground, but I didn't trust anything except a well-drawn circle to protect me from a demon. Especially this one.
The questioning look on Ceri's delicate, heart-shaped face went hard with anger. She had spent a thousand years trapped as a demon's familiar, and she treated them like snakes. Cautious, yes, but she had long since lost her fear. "Why are you summoning demons?" she accused. "And in your sleepwear?" Her narrow shoulders stiffened. "I said I'd help you with your magic. Thank you very much,
Ms. Rachel Mariana Morgan, for making me feel worthless."
I took her elbow and started dragging her backward. "Ceri," I pleaded, not believing that her delicate temper had taken this the wrong way. "I didn't call it. It showed up on its own." Like I would even touch demon magic now? My soul was already tainted with enough demon smut to paint a gymnasium.
At that, Ceri pulled me to a stop, steps from the open sanctuary. "Demons can't show up on their own," she said, the flicker of concern returning as her white fingers touched her crucifix. "Someone must have summoned it, then let it go improperly."
The soft scuff of bare feet at the end of the hallway cut through me like a gunshot. My pulse catching, I turned, Ceri's attention following mine an instant later.
"Can't—or don't?" Newt said. The kitten was in its arms, paws kneading.
Ceri's knees buckled, and I reached for her. "Don't touch me!" she shrieked, and I was suddenly battling her as she swung blindly, pulling from me and lunging into the sanctuary.
Shit. I think we're in trouble.
I lurched after her, but she jerked me back when we found the middle of the empty space. "Sit," she said, her hands shaking as she tried to yank me down.
Okay, we weren't leaving. "Ceri—" I began and then my jaw dropped when she flicked a dirt-caked jackknife from her back pocket. "Ceri!" I exclaimed as she sliced her thumb open. Blood gushed, and while I stared, she drew a large circle, mumbling Latin. Her waist-length, almost-translucent hair hid her features, but she was trembling. My God, she was terrified.
"Ceri, the sanctuary is holy!" I protested, but she tapped a line and invoked her circle. A black-stained field of ever-after rose to encompass us, and I shuddered, feeling the smut of her past demon magic slither over me. The circle was a good five feet in diameter, rather large for one person to hold, but Ceri was probably the best ley line practitioner in Cincinnati. She cut her middle finger, and I grabbed her arm. "Ceri, stop! We're safe!"
Wide-eyed in panic, she shoved me off her, and I fell into the inside of her field, hitting it like a wall. "Get out of the way," she ordered, starting to draw a second circle inside the first.
Shocked, I pulled myself to the center, and she smeared her blood behind me.
"Ceri—" I tried again, stopping when I saw her intertwining the line with the first, enforcing it. I'd never seen that before. Latin words fell from her lips, dark and threatening. Pinpricks of power crawled over my skin, and I stared when she cut her pinkie and started a third circuit.
Silent, desperate tears marked her face as she finished and invoked it. A third sheet of black rose over us, heavy and oppressive. She switched the filthy gardening blade to her bloodied hand and, shaking, prepared to cut her left thumb.
"Stop!" I protested. Frightened, I grabbed her wrist, sticky with her own blood.
Her head swung up. Blue eyes lost in terror met mine. Her skin was chalk white.
"It's okay," I said, wondering what Newt had done to cause this self-assured, unflappable woman to lose it. "We're in the church. It's sanctified. You built a damn fine circle." I looked at it humming over my head, worried. The triple circle was black with a thousand years of curses that Algaliarept, the demon I'd saved her from, made her pay for. I'd never felt such a strong barrier.
Ceri's pretty head shook back and forth, lips parted to show tiny teeth. "You have to call Minias. God help us. You have to call him!"
"Minias?" I questioned. "Who in hell is Minias?"
"Newt's familiar," Ceri stammered, her blue eyes showing her fear.
Was she nuts? Newt's familiar was another demon. "Give me that knife," I said, wrestling it from her. Her thumb was bleeding, and I looked for something to wrap it in. We were safe. Newt could have the run of the back for all I cared. Sunup was near, and I'd sat in a circle and waited for it before. Memories of my ex-boyfriend Nick rose through me and vanished.
"You have to call him," Ceri gushed, and I stared when she fell to her knees and started scribing a plate-size circle with her blood, tears spotting the old oak timbers as she worked.
"Ceri, it's okay," I said, standing over her in confusion.
But when she looked up, my confidence faltered. "No, it isn't," she said, her voice low, the elegant accent that gave away her royal beginnings now carrying the sound of defeat.
A wave of something pulsed, bending the bubble of force that sheltered us. My gaze went to the half sphere of ever-after around us, and from above came a clear bong of the church bell resonating. The black sheet protecting us quivered, flashing the pure color of Ceri's blue aura for an instant before returning to its demon-fouled black state.
From the archway at the back of the church came Newt's soft voice. "Don't cry, Ceri. It won't hurt as bad the second time."
Ceri jerked, and I snatched her arm to keep her from running for the open door and breaking her own circle. Her flailing hand struck my face, and at my yelp she collapsed to slump at my feet. "Newt broke the sanctity," Ceri said around her sobs. "She broke it. I can't go back there. Al lost a bet, and I twisted her curses for ten years. I can't go back there, Rachel!"
Frightened, I put my hand on her shoulder, but then hesitated. Newt was female. Then my face blanked. Newt was in the hallway—the sanctified part.
My thoughts returned to that pulse of energy. Ceri had once said it was possible for a demon to desanctify the church, but that it was unlikely as it cost far too much. And Newt had done so without a thought. Shit.
Swallowing, I looked to find Newt framed by the hallway, well within what had been holy ground. Rex was still in the demon's arms, smiling a stupid cat smile. The orange feline wouldn't let me touch her, but she'd purr while an insane demon petted her. Figures.
With her black staff tucked in the crook of her elbow and draped in her elegantly cut robes, Newt looked almost biblical. Her femininity was obvious once her gender was settled, her black, unblinking eyes placidly taking in Ceri's circle in the middle of the all-but-barren sanctuary.
I crossed my arms over myself to hide my near nakedness. Not that there was that much to hide. My heart pounded and my breath came fast. The demon mark on the underside of my foot—proof that I owed Newt a favor for returning me back from the ever-after into reality last solstice—throbbed as if aware that its maker was in the room.
From beyond the tall stained-glass windows and the open front door came the soft whoosh of a passing car and the twitters of early birds. I prayed the pixies would stay in the garden. The knife was red and sticky in my hand from Ceri's blood, and I felt ill.
"It's too late to flee," she said, taking the knife back. "Call Minias."
Newt stiffened. Rex jumped from her arms to land upon my desk. Panicked, the cat leapt to the floor, scattering papers as she streaked into the hall. Red robe furling, Newt strode to Ceri's circle, slamming her spinning staff into it. "Minias doesn't belong here!" she shouted. "Give it to me! It's mine. I want it back!"
Adrenaline made my head hurt. I watched the circle quiver, then hold.
"We have only moments after she becomes serious," Ceri whispered, white-faced but looking more collected. "Can you distract her?"
I nodded, and Ceri began to prepare her spell. Tension pulled my shoulders tight, and I prayed my conversation skills were better than my magic. "What do you want? Tell me, and I'll give it to you," I said, voice quaking.
Newt began to pace the circle, looking like a caged tiger as her deep red robe hissed against the floor. "I don't remember." Confusion made her face hard. "Don't call him," the demon warned, black eyes shining. "Every time I do, he makes me forget. I want it back, and you have it."
Oh, this just gets better and better. Newt's gaze went to Ceri, and I blocked her view.
I had a half-second warning before the demon again jabbed her staff at the circle. "Corrumpro!" she shouted as it connected. At my feet, Ceri trembled when the outermost circle flashed into utter blackness as Newt owned it. With a little smile, Newt touched the circle, and it vanished to leave two thin, shining bands of unreality between us and death, dressed in a dark red robe and wielding a black staff.
"Your skills are much improved, Cerdiwen Merriam Dulciate," Newt said. "Al is an exceptional teacher. Perhaps enough that you might be worth my kitchen."
Ceri didn't look up. The curtain of her pale hair hid what she was doing, and its tips were stained red from her blood. My breath was fast, and I continued to turn to keep Newt in sight until my back was again facing the open door to the church.
"I remember you," Newt said, tapping the butt of her staff along the circle where it met the floor. Each jab sent a deeper wash of black crawling over the barrier. "I put your soul back together when you traveled the lines. You owe me a favor." I stifled a shiver when the demon's gaze went past my bare, pasty legs to Ceri. "Give me Ceri, and I'll call it null."
I stiffened. Kneeling behind me, Ceri found her strength. "I have my soul," she stated, voice quivering. "I don't belong to anyone."
Newt seemed to shrug, fingers playing with her necklace. "Ceri's signature is all over the imbalance on your soul," the demon said to me as she moved to Ivy's piano and turned her back on me. "She is twisting curses for you, and you're taking them. If that doesn't make her your familiar, then what does?"
"She twisted a curse for me," I admitted, watching the demon's long fingers caress the black wood. "But I took the imbalance, not her. That makes her my friend, not my familiar."
But Newt had apparently forgotten us. Standing beside Ivy's piano, the robed figure seemed to gather the power of the room into her, turning all that had once been holy and pure to her own purpose. "Here," she murmured. "I came to get something of mine you stole . . . but this . . ." Tucking her staff into the crook of her arm, Newt bowed her head and held it. "This bothers me. I don't like it here. It hurts. Why does it hurt here?"
Keeping Newt distracted while Ceri worked was well and good, but the demon was nuts. The last time I had run into Newt, she had been at least rational, but this was unimaginable power fueled by insanity.
"It was here!" the demon shouted, and I jumped, stifling a gasp. Ceri's breath caught audibly as Newt turned, her black eyes full of malevolence. "I don't like this," Newt accused. "It hurts. It shouldn't hurt."
"You shouldn't be here," I said, feeling airy and unreal, as if I were balancing on a knife's edge. "You should go home."
"I don't remember where home is," Newt said. Vehement anger colored her soft voice.
Ceri tugged at me. "It's ready," she whispered. "Call him."
I pulled my eyes from Newt as the demon began to circle again, dropping my attention to the ugly, elaborate, twin-ringed pentagram drawn with Ceri's blood. "You think calling one demon to take care of another is a good idea?" I whispered, and Newt's pace quickened.
"He's the only one who can reason with her," she said, panicked and desperate.
"Please, Rachel. I'd do it, but I can't. It's demon magic."
I shook my head. "Her familiar? Would you have helped Al?"
While Newt chuckled over my nickname for Algaliarept, her demon captor, Ceri's chin trembled. "Newt is insane," she whispered.
"You think?" I snapped, jumping when Newt slammed a side kick into the barrier, her robes swirling dramatically. Great, she knew martial arts on top of everything else. Why not? She'd obviously been around a while.
"That's why she has a demon for a familiar," Ceri said, eyes flicking nervously. "They had a contest. The loser became her familiar. He's more of a caretaker, and he's probably looking for her. They don't like it when she slips his watch."
The lights in my head started to go on, and my mouth dropped open. Seeing my understanding, Ceri tugged me down to her pentagram drawn in blood. Grabbing my wrist, she tuned it palm side up and aimed for my finger with her knife. "Hey!" I shouted, snatching my hand back.
Ceri looked at me, her lips pressed together. She was getting bitchy. That was good. It meant she thought she—we—might live through this. "Do you have a finger stick?" she snapped.
"Then let me cut your finger."
"You're already bleeding," I said. "Use your blood."
"Mine won't work," she said from between gritted teeth. "It's demon magic, and—"
"Yeah, I got it," I interrupted. Her blood didn't have the right enzymes, and thanks to some illegal genetic tinkering to save my life, I had survived being born possessing them.
The humming presence of the circle above us seemed to hesitate, and Newt made a sound of success. Ceri shuddered as she lost control of the middle circle, and Newt took it down. One thin, fragile circle left. I held out my hand—consumed with fear. Ceri's eyes met mine, stress making her angular features beautiful. I only looked ugly when I got scared. Newt's hand hovered over the last circle, smiling evilly as she muttered Latin. It had become a race.
Ceri made a quick swipe at my finger, and I jerked against the sting, watching a bead of red swell. "What do I do?" I asked, not liking this at all.
Blue eyes dropping, she turned my hand palm down and set it in the circle. The old oak seemed to vibrate, as if its stored life force were running through me, connecting me to the spinning of the earth and the burning of the sun. "It's a public curse," she said, her words falling over themselves. "The invocation phrase is mater tintinnabulum. Say it and Minias's name in your thoughts, and the curse will put you through."
"Don't summon Minias," Newt threatened, and I felt Ceri's control over the last circle swell while the demon was distracted. "He'll kill you faster than I will."
"You aren't summoning him, you're asking for his attention," Ceri said desperately. "The imbalance would normally go to you, but you can bargain with Newt's location and he'll take it. If he doesn't, I will."
It was a huge concession from the smut-covered elf. This was looking better and better, but the sun wasn't up yet, and Newt looked ready to tear us apart. I didn't think Ceri could hold her concentration much longer against a master demon. And I had to believe that the demons possessed a way to control this member of their species, otherwise they'd be dead already. If his name was Minias and he masqueraded as her familiar, then that's the way it was.
"Hurry," Ceri whispered, sweat tracking her face. "You'll probably show up as an unregistered user, but unless she's cursed him again, he's likely looking for her and will answer."
Unregistered? I wondered. Licking my lips, I closed my eyes. I was already connected to the line, so all that was left was invoking the curse and thinking his name. Mater tintinnabulum, Minias, I thought, not expecting anything to happen.
My breath came in a quick heave, and I felt Ceri's hand clamp on my wrist, forcing my own to stay in the circle. A jolt of ever-after spun from me, colored with my aura. I felt it leave me like a winging bird, and I struggled to hold myself together as I saw it flee in my imagination, taking a portion of me with it.
"I won't let him steal it from me!" Newt shouted. "It's mine! I want it back!"
"Concentrate," Ceri whispered, and I fell into myself, feeling that freed slice of me ring like a bell through the entirety of the ever-after. And like a ringing bell, it was answered.
I'm a little busy, came an irritated thought. Leave a message on the damned landline and I'll get back to you.
I shuddered at the sensation of thoughts not my own curling through my mind, but Ceri kept my hand unmoving. Within Minias was a background clutter of worry, guilt, aggravation. But he had dismissed me like a telemarketer and was ready to snap the connection.
Newt, I thought. Take the imbalance for my calling you, and I'll tell you where she is. And promise you won't hurt us, I added. Or let her hurt us. And get her the hell out of my church!
"Hurry!" Ceri cried, and my concentration bobbled.
Done, the voice thought decisively. Minias's worry sharpened to a point and joined mine. Where are you?
My brief elation vanished. Uh, I thought, wondering how you give directions to a demon, but Minias's own thoughts faltered in confusion.
What the devil is she doing past the lines? It's almost sunup.
She's trying to kill me! I thought. Get your ass over here and collect her!
You aren't registered. How am I supposed to know where you are? I'll have to . . .
I stiffened, jerking my hand out of the circle and Ceri's grip when the voice's presence squeezed my thoughts harder. Gasping, I fell backward onto my butt, my body mirroring my attempt to jerk away from Minias's presence.
". . . come though on your thoughts," a darkly mellow voice said.
"Heavenly Father, save us," Ceri gasped.
My head spun, and I caught a glimpse of Ceri falling backward. She hit her circle, and panic iced through me when it broke in a flash of black.
Oh, God. We're dead.
She met my gaze as she sprawled half upright up on the floor, her eyes saying she thought she had killed us. Newt cried out, and I spun where I was sitting, only to freeze in shock.
Nothing stood between Newt and us now but a man, his purple robes reflecting hers in all but color. He was barefoot, and only now did I remember the flash of those robes coming between me and Ceri as he shoved the elf into the bubble to break it so he could get to Newt.
"Let me go, Minias," Newt snarled, and my eyes widened at his thick-knuckled hand gripping her upper arm. "She has something of mine. I want it back."
"What has she got of yours?" he asked calmly, his back to me. Newt was a head shorter than Minias, and it made her look vulnerable despite the scathing vehemence in her voice. His voice carried the intent sound of a more-than-casual question, and my eyes dropped to the grip he had on her staff, right above her hand. It never eased up, not even as his honey-amber voice spilled into the violated sanctuary like a balm. Soothing, yes, but holding tension, too.
Newt said nothing. I could see the hem of her robe past Minias tremble.
I scrambled up, Ceri finding her feet beside me. She didn't bother to reinstate the circle. What was the point? Minias shifted to block Newt's view. He was focused on her, but I was sure he was aware of us, and he looked like he knew what he was doing. I had yet to see his face, but his brown hair was short, the curls crushed by the same hat Newt wore.
"Breathe," Minias said, as if trying to trigger something. "Tell me what you want."
"I want to remember," she whispered. It was as if we weren't even in the room anymore, so focused were they on each other, and only now did Minias's grip become gentle.
"Then why do you—"
"Because it hurts," she said, her bare feet shifting.
Leaning in as if concerned, he asked gently, "Why did you come here?"
She was silent, and then finally said, "I don't remember." It was agitated—soft and threatening—and the only reason I believed her was that she had clearly forgotten before Minias had shown up.
Minias lost the last of his anger. I felt as if we were witnessing a common but seldom-seen event, and I hoped he would hold to his promise that they wouldn't take us when they were ready to leave. "Then let's go," he soothed, and I wondered how much of this was caretaker and how much was simply caring. Could demons care about each other?
"Maybe you'll remember when we get back," he said, turning Newt as if he were going to lead her away. "If you forget something, you should go to where you first thought it, and it will be waiting for you."
Newt refused to step with him, and our eyes met when Minias moved out of the way. "It's not at home," she said, her brow furrowed to show a deep inner pain and, under that, a seething power held in check by the demon whose grip had slid from her staff to her hand. "It's here, not there. Whatever it is, it's here. Or it was here. I . . . I know it." Anger slipped over her brow, born from frustration. "You don't want me to remember," she accused.
"I don't want you to remember?" he asked harshly, his hand falling from her and extending in demand. "Give them to me. Now."
My gaze flicked between them. He had gone from lover to jailer in a pulse.
"I'm missing my cache of yew," he said. "I didn't make you forget. Give them to me."
Newt's lips pressed together, and spots of color appeared on her cheeks. It was starting to make sense. Yew was highly toxic and used almost exclusively in communing with the dead and for making forget charms. Illegal forget charms. I had found a yew in the back of the graveyard by an abandoned mausoleum, and though I didn't commune with the dead, I had left it, hoping that plausible deniability would keep my butt out of court if anyone found it there. Growing yew wasn't illegal, but growing it in a graveyard, where the potency was enhanced, was.
"I made them," Newt snapped. "They're mine! I made them myself!"
She turned to leave, and he reached out and spun her back. I could see Minias's face now. He had a strong jaw, clenched with emotion. His red demon eyes were so dark they almost hid the characteristic goat-slitted appearance, and his nose was strongly Roman. Anger was heavy on him, balancing Newt's own temper perfectly.
Emotions cascaded over them both in a rapid, fluid torrent. It was as if a five-minute argument were passing in three seconds, her face changing, his responding, causing a shift of her mood that was reflected in his body language. He carefully manipulated her, this demon who had removed the sanctity of the church without a second thought, who had turned a triple blood-circle to her will—something that I had been told was impossible but of which Ceri had known Newt was fully capable. I didn't know whom to be more frightened of—Newt, who could plague the world, or Minias, who controlled her.
"Please," he asked when her face shifted to chagrin and her black eyes dropped.
Hesitating briefly, she reached into the pocket of her expansive sleeve and handed him a fistful of vials.
"How many did you invoke when you remembered?" he asked, the vials clattering.
Newt's eyes went to the floor, beaten, but the sly look to her demeanor told me she wasn't sorry about it. "I don't recall."
He jiggled them in his hand before pocketing them, clearly seeing her unrepentant mood. "There are four missing."
She looked at him, real tears showing. "It hurts," she said, scaring the crap out of me. Newt had inflicted her own memory loss? What had she remembered that she didn't want to?
Ceri was standing beside me, almost forgotten, and she slumped, telling me that it was almost done. I wondered how often she had seen this played out.
His mood easing, Minias pulled Newt close, the purple of his robe curving around her. Newt folded her arms against herself and let him hold her, her eyes shut and her head tucked under his chin. They looked elegant and self-possessed standing in their strongly colored robes and proud stances. I wondered how I could ever have doubted Newt's gender. It was so clear now, and I spared a thought that perhaps she had subtly shifted her appearance. Seeing them together made a shudder ripple over me. Minias was the only thing holding Newt to her sanity. I didn't think he was just her familiar. I don't think he had ever been just anything.
"You shouldn't take them," he whispered, his breath brushing her forehead. His voice was captivating, moving up and down like music.
"It hurts," she said, her own voice muffled.
"I know." His demonic eyes locked with mine, and I shivered. "That's why I don't like it when you go out without me," he said, looking at me but talking to her. "You don't need them." Breaking our eye contact, Minias turned her face to his, his hand cupping her strong jawline.
My arms wrapped around my middle, I wondered how long they had been together. Long enough that a forced burden became one willingly shouldered?
"I don't want to remember," Newt said. "The things I've done—"
A demon with a conscience? Why not? They did have souls.
"Don't," Minias said, interrupting her. He held her more gently. "Promise you'll tell me the next time you remember something instead of going looking for answers?"
Newt nodded, then stiffened in his arms. "That's where I was," she whispered, and my gut clenched at the sound of realization in her voice. Minias froze, and beside me Ceri paled.
"It was in your journals!" Newt exclaimed, pushing him away. Minias fell back, wary, but the demon was beyond noticing. "You've been writing it down. You've written down everything I remember! How much do you have in your books, Minias? How much do you know that I wanted to forget!"
"Newt . . . " he warned, his fingers fumbling in his pocket.
"I found them!" Newt shouted. "You know why I'm here! Tell me why am I over here!"
I jumped when Ceri gripped my arm. Shouting in rage, Newt swung her staff at him. Minias's fingers danced in the air as if babbling in sign language, forming a ley line spell. I felt a huge drop as someone pulled on the line out back, and with a surprising shout, Minias ended his spell by popping the lid to a vial he'd taken from Newt and flinging it at her.
Newt cried out in dismay as the sparkles hung in the air, her anger, frustration, and pain shocking in their depth. And then the potion hit her, and her face went blank.
Sliding to a stop, she blinked, glancing over the empty sanctuary with no recognition in her gaze as it landed on Ceri and me. She saw Minias, then threw her staff to the floor as if it were a snake. It hit with a clatter and bounced. Outside, past the stained-glass windows, the robins were singing in the predawn haze, but in here it was as if the air were dead.
"Minias?" she said, her tone confused and dismayed.
"It's done," he said gently. He came forward, scooping up her staff and handing it to her.
"Did I hurt you?" Her voice was worried, and when Minias shook his head, relief spilled over her, quickly turning to depression.
I felt sick.
"Take me home," the demon said, glancing at me. "My head hurts."
"Wait for me." Minias's gaze flicked to mine, then returned to her. "We'll go together."
Ceri held her breath as the demon approached us, his face down and wide shoulders hunched. I thought briefly about reinstating the circle but didn't. Minias stopped before me, too close for comfort. His tired eyes took in my nightclothes, Ceri's blood staining my hands, and the three circles that had nearly failed to stop Newt. His gaze rose to encompass the interior of the sanctuary, with my desk, Ivy's piano, and the stark emptiness between them. "You were the one who stole Ceri from her demon?" he asked, surprising me.
I wanted to explain that it had been a rescue, not stealing her, but I just nodded.
His head moved up and down once, mocking me, and I fixed on his eyes. The red was so dark that they looked brown, and the characteristic demonic sideways pupil gave me pause.
"Your blood kindled the curse," he said, his red, goat-slitted eyes darting to the blood circle beside me. "She told me about shoving you through the lines last winter." His eyes traveled over me, evaluating. "No wonder Al is interested in you. Do you have anything that might have attracted her?"
"Other than the favor I owe her?" I said, my voice shaking. "I don't think so."
His eyes dropped to the elaborate circle Ceri had drawn for me to contact him with. "If you think of anything, call me. I'll pick up the imbalance. I don't want her coming over here again."
Ceri's fingers on my arm tightened. Yeah, me neither, I thought.
"Stay here," he said as he turned away. "I'll be back to settle up."
Alarmed, I pulled from Ceri. "Whoa, hold up, demon boy. I don't owe you anything."
His eyebrows were high and mocking when he turned around. "I owe you, idiot. The sun is almost up. I have to get out of here. I'll be back when I can."
Ceri's eyes were wide. Somehow I didn't think that having a demon owe me a favor was a good thing. "Hey," I said, taking a step forward. "I don't want you just showing up. That's rude." And really scary.
He looked impatient to be away as he adjusted his clothing. "Yes, I know. Why do you think demons try to kill their summoners? You're crude, unintelligent, grasping hacks with no sense of social grace, demanding we cross the lines and pick up the cost?"
I warmed, but before I could tell him to shove it, he said, "I'll call first. You take the imbalance for that, since you asked for it."
I glanced at Ceri for guidance, and she nodded. The guarantee that he wouldn't show up while I was showering was worth it. "Deal," I said, hiding my hand so he wouldn't take it.
From behind him, Newt eyed me with her brow creased. Minias's steps were silent as he moved to take her elbow possessively, his worried eyes darting to mine. His head rose to look past Ceri and me to the open door, and I heard the lub-lub-lub of a cycle pulling into the carport. In the time between one heartbeat and the next, they vanished.
I slumped in relief. Ceri leaned against the piano, the flat of her arms getting blood on it. Her shoulders started to shake, and I put a hand on one, wanting nothing more than to do the same. From outside came the sudden silence of Ivy's bike turning off, and then her distinctive steps on the cement walk.
"So then the pixy says to the druggist," Jenks said, the clatter of his wings obvious, "'Tax? I thought they stayed on by themselves!'" The pixy laughed, the tinkling sound of it like wind chimes. "Get it, Ivy? Tax? Tacks?"
"Yes, I got it," she muttered, her pace shifting as she took the cement steps. "Good one, Jenks. Hey, the door is open."
The light coming into the church was eclipsed, and Ceri pulled herself up, wiping her face and smearing it with blood, tears, and dirt from her garden. I could smell the stink of burnt amber on me and throughout the church, and I wondered if I would ever feel clean again. Together we stood, numb, as Ivy halted just past the foyer. Jenks hovered for three seconds, and then, dropping swear words like the golden sparkles he was shedding, he tore off in search of his wife and kids.
Ivy put a hand on her cocked hip and took in the three—no, four—circles made of blood, me in my pj's and Ceri crying silently, her hand, sticky with drying blood, clutching her crucifix.
"What on God's green earth did you do now?"
Wondering if I'd ever sleep again, I glanced at Ceri. "I have no idea."
I didn't feel good, my stomach queasy as I sat on my hard-backed chair in the kitchen at Ivy's heavy and very large antique table, shoved up against an interior wall. The sun was a thin slice of gold shining on the stainless-steel fridge. I didn't see that often. I wasn't used to being up this early, and my body was starting to let me know about it. I didn't think it was from the morning's trouble. Yeah. Right.
Tugging my terry-cloth robe shut, I flipped through the Yellow Pages while Jenks and Ivy argued by the sink. The phone was on my lap so Ivy wouldn't take over as I searched for someone to resanctify the church. I'd already called the guys who had reshingled the roof to give us an estimate on the living room. They were human, and Ivy and I liked using them, since they generally got here bright and early at noon. Newt had torn up the carpet and pulled several pieces of paneling off the walls. What in hell had she been looking for?
Jenks's kids were in there right now, though they weren't even supposed to be in the church, and by the shrieks and chiming laughs, they were making a mess of the exposed insulation. Turning another thin page, I wondered if Ivy and I might take the opportunity to do some remodeling. There was a nice hardwood floor under the carpet, and Ivy had a great eye for decorating. She had redone the kitchen before I'd moved in, and I loved it.
The large industrial-sized kitchen had never been sanctified, having been added on to the church for Sunday suppers and wedding receptions. It had two stoves—one electric, one gas—so I didn't have to cook dinner and stir my spells on the same surface. Not that I made dinner on the stovetop too often. It was usually microwave something or cook on Ivy's hellacious grill out back, in the tidy witch's garden between the church and the graveyard proper.
Actually, I did most of my spelling at the island counter between the sink and Ivy's farmhouse kitchen table. There was an overhead rack where I hung the herbs I was currently messing with and my spelling equipment that didn't fit under the counter, and with the large circle etched out in the linoleum, it made a secure place to invoke a magical circle; there were no pipes or wires crossing either overhead in the attic or under in the crawl space to break it. I knew. I had checked.
The one window overlooked the garden and graveyard, making a comfortable mix of my earthy spelling supplies and Ivy's computer and tight organization. It was my favorite room in the church, even if most of the arguments took place here.
The biting scent of rose hips came from the tea Ceri had made me before she left. I frowned at the pale pink liquid. I'd rather have coffee, but Ivy wasn't making any, and I was going to bed as soon as I got the reek of burnt amber off me.
Jenks was standing on the windowsill in his Peter Pan pose, his hands on his hips and cocky as hell. The sun hit his blond hair and dragonfly-like wings, sending flashes of light everywhere as they moved. "Damn the cost," he said, standing between my betta, Mr. Fish, who swam around in an oversize brandy snifter, and Jenks's tank of brine shrimp. "Money doesn't do you any good if you're dead." His tiny, angular features sharpened. "At least not for us, Ivy."
Ivy stiffened, her perfect oval face emptying of emotion. On an exhale she drew her athletic six-foot height up from where she'd been leaning against the counter, straightening the leather pants she usually wore while on an investigation run and tossing her enviably straight black hair from habit. She'd had cut it a couple of months ago, and I knew she kept forgetting how short it was, just above her ears. I'd commented last week that I liked it, and she had gotten it styled into downward spikes with gold tips. It looked great on her, and I wondered where her recent attention to her appearance was coming from. Skimmer, maybe?
She glanced at me, her lips pressed together and spots of color showing on her usually pale complexion. The hint of almond-shaped eyes gave away her Asian heritage, and that, combined with her small, strongly defined features, made her striking. Her eyes were brown most of the time, going pupil black when her living-vampire status got the better of her.
I had let her sink her teeth into me once, and though as exhilarating and pleasurable as all hell, it had scared the crap out of both of us when she lost control and nearly killed me. Even so, I was willing to cautiously risk trying to find a blood balance. Ivy flatly refused, though it was becoming painfully obvious the pressures were building in both of us. She was terrified of hurting me in a haze of bloodlust. Ivy dealt with fear by ignoring its existence and avoiding its origin, but her self-imposed denial was just about killing her even as it gave her strength.
If my roommates/business partners could be believed, finding thrills was what I organized both my daily life and my sex life around. Jenks called me an adrenaline junkie, but if I was making money at it and remembered my limits, where was the harm? And I knew to the depths of my soul that Ivy didn't fall under that "looking for a thrill" umbrella. Yes, the rush had been incredible, but it was the self-worth I had given her that told me it hadn't been a mistake, not the blood ecstasy she had instilled.
For an instant, Ivy had seen herself as I did: strong, capable, able to love someone fully and be loved in return. By giving her my blood, I had told her that yes, she was worth sacrificing for, that I liked her for who she was, and that her needs weren't wrong. Needs were needs. It was us who labeled them right or wrong. I wanted her to feel that way all the time.
But God help me, it had been a rush.
As if she had heard my thought, Ivy turned from Jenks. "Stop it," she said, and I flushed. She couldn't read my mind, but she might as well have. A vamp's sense of smell was tuned to pheromones. She could read my mood as easily as I could smell the sharp scent of rose hips coming from my untouched tea. Crap, Ceri really expected me to drink this?
Jenks's wings reddened, clearly not liking the shift in topic from how to spend our pooled business money to how to keep our teeth to ourselves, and Ivy gestured with a long, slim hand to include me in their argument. "It's not that I don't want to spend the money," she said, both soothing and assertive. "But why do it if a demon will take it down again?"
I snorted, turning to the phone book and shifting a page. "Newt isn't just a demon. Ceri says she's one of the oldest, most powerful demons in the ever-after. And she's stark raving nuts," I muttered, turning a page to another listing. "Ceri doesn't think she'll be back."
Ivy crossed her arms to look slinky and svelte. "So why bother resanctifying at all?"
Jenks snickered. "Yeah, Rache. Why bother? I mean, this could be good. Ivy could invite her mom over for a housewarming. We've been here a year, and the woman is dying to come over. Well, at least she would be if she were still alive."
Worried, I looked up from the phone book. Alarm sifted over Ivy. For a moment it was so quiet I could hear the clock above the sink, and then Ivy jerked, her speed edging into that eerie vamp quickness she took pains to hide. "Give me the phone," she said, snatching it.
The black plastic slipped from my lap, and Ivy drew the heavy book off the table. Retreating to her end of the table with quick steps, she set the directory on her knees and pulled a legal pad from a stack. While Jenks laughed, she sketched a graph with columns headed by phone number, availability, cost, and religious affiliation. Confident we'd be on holy ground before the week was out, I stifled my ire that she had taken over.
Jenks was smiling when he flitted from the windowsill, gold sparkles landing in my teacup before he settled beside it. "Thanks," I said, knowing Ivy would hear me even if I whispered. "I don't think I'm going to sleep again until we're resanctified—and I like sleeping."
Head bobbing in an exaggerated motion, he nodded. "Why don't you just put the church in a circle?" he questioned. "Nothing can get through that."
"It wouldn't be secure unless we removed all the electricity and gas lines coming in," I explained, not wanting to tell him that Newt could apparently get through any circle with enough reason. "You want to live without your MTV?"
"Oh, hell, no," he said, glancing at Ivy when she offered the person on the phone double to get the job done before sunset tonight. Ivy didn't get along with her mother very well.
Tired, I slumped back into my chair, feeling the weight of the insane morning hour fall on me. Jenks's wife, Matalina, had gotten the pixy kids out of the living room, and the sound of them in the garden slipped in with the morning breeze. "Ceri said if Newt doesn't show up in the next three weeks, she'll probably forget about us," I said around a yawn, "but I still want to get the church resanctified." I looked at my chipped nail polish in dismay. "Minias hit her with a forget charm, but the demon is freaking crazy. And she shows up without being summoned."
Ivy stopped talking on the phone, and after she and Jenks exchanged a look, she clicked it off without saying good-bye. "Who is Minias?"
"Newt's familiar." I gave her a tight-lipped smile to soften the shortness of my answer. Sometimes Ivy was like an ex-boyfriend. Hell, she was like that most times, as her vampire instincts fought with her reasoning. I was not her shadow, aka source of blood, but living with her blurred the lines between what she knew and how her instincts said she should feel.
She remained silent, clearly having heard the lack of completeness. I didn't want to talk about it, the fear being too damn close to my skin. Literally. I stank like the ever-after, and all I wanted was to clean up and hide under my covers for the next three days. Having had Newt in my head gave me the willies, even if I'd regained control almost immediately.
Ivy took a breath to press for more, dissuaded when Jenks clattered a warning with his wings. I'd tell the whole story. Just not now. My blood pressure dropped at Jenks's show of support, and, lurching to my feet, I went to the pantry for the mop and bucket. If we were going to have a holy person in our church, I wanted the blood circles gone. I mean, really. . .
"You've been up since noon yesterday. I can do that," Ivy protested, but lack of sleep had made me bitchy, and I dropped the bucket in the sink, slamming the cupboard door under it when I brought out the disinfectant and tossed the scrub brush in.
"You've been up as long as I have," I said over the rush of water. "And you're arranging who's going to bless the grounds. The sooner we get that done, the better I'll sleep." Something I was taking care of until you butted in, I thought snarkily as I took off the metallic bracelet Kisten had given me and draped it around the base of Mr. Fish's bowl. The black gold of the chain and mundane charms glittered, and I wondered if I should take the time to try to put a ley line spell into them, or just leave them as something pretty to wear.
The sharp orange scent tickled my nose, and I shut off the tap. My back protesting, I lugged the bucket over the edge of the counter, spilling some. I awkwardly rubbed the mop over the drops and headed out, bare feet squeaking. "It's not a biggie, Ivy," I said. "Five minutes."
The clatter of pixy wings followed me. "Isn't Newt's familiar a demon?" Jenks asked when he landed on my shoulder.
Okay, so maybe it hadn't been a show of support but merely him wanting to feel me out as to what info to give Ivy. She was a worrywart, and the last thing I wanted was her thinking I couldn't go out for a can of Spam without her "protection." He was a better judge of her mood than I was, so I set the bucket by the circles and whispered, "Yeah, but he's more of a caretaker."
"Tink's a Disney whore," he swore, taking a potshot at his infamous kin as I plunged the mop up and down a few times before squeezing out the excess water. "Don't tell me you got another demon mark?"
He left my shoulder when I sent the mop across the floor, apparently finding the back-and-forth motion too much to take. "No, he owes me," I said nervously, and Jenks's jaw dropped. "I'm going to see if he'll take Al's mark off me in exchange. Or maybe Newt's."
Jenks hovered before me, and I straightened, tired as I leaned on the mop. His eyes were wide and incredulous. The pixy had a wife and way too many kids living in a stump in the garden. He was a family man, but he had the face and body of an eighteen-year-old. A very sexy, tiny eighteen-year-old with wings, and sparkles, and a mop of blond hair that needed arranging. His wife, Matalina, was a very happy pixy, and she dressed him in skintight outfits that were distracting despite his minute size. That he was nearing the end of his life span was killing me and Ivy both. He was more than a steadfast partner skilled in detection, infiltration, and security—he was our friend.
"You think the demon will do that?" Jenks said. "Damn, Rache. That'd be great!"
I shrugged. "It's worth a shot, but all I did was tell him where Newt was."
From the kitchen came Ivy's voice raised in irritation. "It's 1597 Oakstaff. Yes." There was a hesitation, then, "Really? I didn't know you kept those kinds of records. It would have been nice if someone had told us we were a paranormal city shelter. Shouldn't we be getting a tax break or something?" Her voice had gone wary, and I wondered what was up.
Jenks lit on the edge of the bucket, wiping a spot to sit before settling himself, his dragonfly wings stilling to look like gossamer. The mop wasn't doing it; I would have to scrub. Sighing, I dropped to my knees and felt around the bottom of the bucket for the brush.
"No, it was sanctified," Ivy continued, her voice growing louder, clear over the hiss of the bristles. "It isn't anymore." A slight pause and she added. "We had an incident." Another hesitation and she said, "We had an incident. How much to do the entire church?"
My stomach clenched when she added softly, "How much to do just the bedrooms?"
I looked at Jenks, guilt rising thick in me. Maybe we could get the city to defray the cost if we refiled as a city shelter. It wasn't as if we could ask the landlord to fix it. Piscary owned the church, and though Ivy had dropped the facade of paying rent to the master vampire she looked to, we were responsible for the upkeep. It was like living rent free in your parents' house when they were on an extended vacation—vacation being jail in this case, thanks to me. It was an ugly story, but at least I hadn't killed him . . . uh, for good.
Ivy's sigh was audible over the sound of my work. "Can you get out here before tonight?" she asked, making me feel marginally better.
I didn't hear the answer to that, but there was no more conversation forthcoming, and I focused on rubbing out the smears, moving clockwise as I went. Jenks watched for a moment from the rim of the bucket, then said, "You look like a porno star on your hands and knees, mopping in your underwear. Push it, baby," he moaned. "Push it!"
I glanced up to find him making rude motions. Doesn't he have anything better to do? But I knew he was trying to cheer me up—least that's what I was telling myself.
As his wings turned red from laughter, I jerked my robe closed and sat back on my knees before I blew a shoulder-length red curl from my face. Taking a swing at his smirk would be useless—he had gotten really fast since his stint under a demon curse that made him people-size. And turning my back to him would be worse.
"Could you straighten my desk for me?" I asked, allowing a touch of annoyance into my voice. "Your cat dumped my papers."
"You bet," he said, zipping off. Immediately I felt my blood pressure drop.
Ivy's soft steps intruded, and Jenks cussed fluently at her when she pulled the papers off the floor and set them on the desktop for him. Politely telling him to shove a slug up his ass, she strode past me to her piano, a spray bottle in one hand and a chamois cloth in the other.
"Someone's coming out this morning," she said, starting to clean Ceri's blood from the varnished wood. Old blood didn't flip any switches in living vamps—not like the chance to take it did. "They're going to give us an estimate, and if our credit checks out, they'll do the entire church. You want to pay the extra five thousand to insure it?"
Five thousand to insure it? Holy crap. How much was this going to cost? Uneasy, I sat back up on my heels and dunked the brush. My rolled-up sleeve slipped, soaking in an instant. From my desk Jenks called out, "Go for it, Rache. It says here you won a million dollars."
I glanced behind me to find him manhandling my mail. Irritated, I dropped the brush and squeezed the water from my robe. "Can we find out how much it's going to cost first?" I asked, and she nodded, giving her piano a heavy coat of whatever was in that unlabeled spray bottle. It evaporat
ed quickly, and she wiped it to a shine.
"Here," she said, setting the bottle down beside the bucket. "It will get rid of the—" Her words stopped. "Just wipe the floor with it," she added, and my eyebrows rose.
"Oka-a-ay." I bent back over the floor, hesitating at the circle Ceri had scribed to call Minias, then smeared it to nothing. Ceri could help me make a new one, and I wasn't going to have demonic blood circles on the floor of my church.
"Hey, Ivy," Jenks called. "You want to keep this?"
She rocked into motion, and I shifted to keep her in my view. Jenks had a coupon for pizza, and I smirked. Right. Like she would even consider ordering anything but Piscary's Pizza.
"What else does she have in here?" Ivy said, throwing it away. I turned my back on them, knowing that the chaos I kept my desk in drove Ivy insane. She'd probably take the opportunity to tidy it. God, I'd never be able to find a thing.
"Spell-of-the-Month Club . . . toss," Jenks said, and I heard it thunk into the trash can. "Free issue of Witch Weekly . . . toss. Credit check . . . toss. Crap, Rachel. Don't you throw anything away?"
I ignored him, having only a small arc to finish. Wax on, wax off. My arm was hurting.
"The zoo wants to know if you want to renew your off-hours runner's pass."
"Save that!" I said.
Jenks whistled long and low, and I wondered what they had found now.
"An invitation to Ellasbeth Withon's wedding?" Ivy drawled in question.
Oh, yeah. I forgot about that.
"Tink knocks your kickers," Jenks exclaimed, and I sat back on my heels. "Rachel!" he called, hovering over the invitation that had probably cost more than my last dinner out. "When did you get an invitation from Trent? For his wedding?"
"I don't remember." I dunked the brush and started in again, but the hush of linen against paper brought me upright. "Hey!" I protested, wiping my hands dry on my robe to make the tie come undone. "You can't do that. It's illegal to open mail not addressed to you."
Jenks had landed on Ivy's shoulder, and they each gave me a long look over the invitation in her grip. "The seal was broken," Ivy said, shaking to the floor the stupid little white tissue paper I had carefully replaced.
Trent Kalamack was the bane of my existence, one of Cincinnati's most beloved councilmen, and the Northern Hemisphere's most eligible bachelor. No one seemed to care he ran half of the city's underworld and worked a good slice of the world's illegal Brimstone trade. That wasn't even considering his punishable-by-death dealings in genetic manipulation and outlawed medicines. My being alive because of them was a big part of my keeping quiet about it. I didn't like the Antarctic any more than the next person, and that's where I'd end up if it got out. That is, if they didn't just kill me, burn me, and send my ashes to the sun.
Suddenly having a demon trash my living room didn't seem so bad.
"Holy crap!" Jenks swore again. "Ellasbeth wants you to be a bridesmaid?"
Jerking my robe closed, I stalked across the sanctuary and snatched the invitation out of Ivy's hand. "It's not an invitation, it's a badly worded request for me to work security. The woman hates me. Look, she didn't even sign it. I bet she doesn't even know it exists."
I waved it in the air and shoved it into a drawer, slamming it shut. Trent's fiancée was a bitch in all ways but the literal. Thin, elegant, rich, and bitingly polite. We had gotten along really well the night we had breakfast together, just her, me, and Trent caught between us. Course, part of that might have been from my letting her believe that Trent and I had been childhood sweethearts. But she was the one who decided I was a courtesan. Stupid Yellow Pages ad.
Ivy's expression was wary. She knew better than to push me when it came to Trent, but Jenks wouldn't let it go. "Yeah, but think of it, Rache. It's going to be a hell of a party. The best of Cincinnati is going to be there. You never know who will show up."
I lifted a plant and ran my hand under it—my version of dusting. "People who want to kill Trent," I said lightly. "I like excitement, but I'm not insane."
Ivy moved my bucket and mop to a dry part of the floor and sprayed a heavy layer of that unlabeled bottle. "You going to do it?" she asked, as if I hadn't already said no.
In one motion I swept all the papers off the desktop and into the uppermost drawer. Jenks landed on the clean surface, his wings stilling as he leaned against the pencil cup and crossed his ankles and arms to look surprisingly alluring for a four-inch-tall man. "Why not?" he accused. "You think he's going to stiff you?"
Again, I added in my thoughts. "Because I already saved his freaking elf ass once," I said. "You do it once, it's a mistake. You do it twice and it's not a mistake anymore."
Mop and bucket in hand, Ivy walked out, snickering.
"It's RSVP by tomorrow," Jenks needled. "Rehearsal is Friday. You're invited."
"I know that." It was my birthday, too, and I wasn't going to spend it with Trent. Ticked, I headed into the kitchen after Ivy.
Flying backward, Jenks got in my face and preceded me down the hallway, slices of sunlight coming in from the living room. "I've got two reasons you should do it," he said. "One, it will piss Ellasbeth off, and two, you could charge him enough to afford to resanctify the church."
My steps slowed, and I tried to keep the ugly look off my face. That was unfair. By the sink, Ivy frowned, clearly thinking the same. "Jenks . . ."
"I'm just saying—"
"She's not working for Kalamack," Ivy threatened, and this time he shut his mouth.
I stood in the kitchen, not knowing why I was here. "I gotta shower," I said."Go," Ivy said, meticulously—and needlessly—washing the bucket with soapy water before putting it away. "I'll wait up for the man coming over with an estimate."
I didn't like that. She'd probably fudge on the quote, knowing that her pockets were deeper than mine. She had told me she was nearly broke, but nearly broke for the last living member of the Tamwood vampires was not my broke, rather more of a down-to-six-figures-in-her-bank-account broke. If she wanted something, she got it. But I was too tired to fight her.
"I owe you," I said as I grabbed the cooled tea Ceri had made for me and shuffled out.
"God, Jenks," Ivy was saying as I avoided my room with my scattered clothes and just headed for my bathroom. "The last thing she needs is to be working for Kalamack."
"I just thought—" the pixy said.
"No, you didn't think," Ivy accused. "Trent isn't some pantywaist rich pushover, he's a power-hungry, murdering drug lord who looks good in a suit. You don't think he's got some reason for inviting her to work security other than his welfare?"
"I wasn't going to let her go alone," he protested, and I shut the door. Sipping the tart tea, I dropped my pj's into the washer and got the shower going so I wouldn't have to listen to them. Sometimes I felt as if they thought I couldn't hear at all just because I couldn't hear a pixy belch across the graveyard. Yeah, they'd had a contest one night. Jenks won.
The water's warmth was wonderful, and after the sharp scent of pine soap washed away the choking smell of burnt amber, I stepped from the shower feeling refreshed and almost awake. Purple towel wrapped around me, I rubbed the mist from the long mirror, leaning close to see if I had any new freckles. Nope. Not yet. Opening my mouth, I checked out my beautiful, pristine teeth. It was nice not having any fillings.
I may have coated my soul in blackness when I had twisted a demon curse to turn into a wolf this spring, but I wasn't going to feel guilty over the beautiful unmarked skin I had when I turned back. The accumulated damage of twenty-five years of existence had been removed, and if I didn't find a way to get rid of the demon smut from twisting the curse before I died, I was going to pay for it by burning in hell.
At least I'm not going to feel too guilty about it, I thought as I reached for my lotion, heavy on the SPF protection. And I certainly wasn't going to waste it. My mother's family had come from Ireland long before the Turn, and from my mom I got my red hair, my green eyes, and my pale skin, now as satisfyingly soft and supple as a newborn's. From my dad I got my height, my lean, athletic build, and my attitude. From both of them I got a rare genetic condition that would have killed me before my first birthday if Trent's father hadn't set himself above the law and fixed it in his illegal genetic lab.
Our fathers had been friends before they'd died a week apart under suspicious circumstances. At least they were suspicious to me. And that was the reason I distrusted Trent, if his being a drug lord, a murderer, and nastily adept at manipulating me weren't enough.
Suddenly overcome with missing my dad, I shuffled through the cabinet behind the mirror until I found the wooden ring he'd given me on my thirteenth birthday. It had been the last one we'd shared before he died. I looked at it, small and perfect in my palm, and on impulse I put it on. I hadn't worn it since the charm it once held to hide my freckles had been broken, and I hadn't needed it since twisting that demon curse. But I missed him, and after being attacked by a demon this morning, I could use some serious emotional security.
I smiled at it circling my pinkie, feeling better already. The ring had come with a lifetime charm reinstatement, and I had an appointment every fourth Friday in July. Maybe I'd take the madam out for coffee instead. Ask her about maybe changing it to a sunscreen charm—if there was such a thing.
The give-and-take of masculine and feminine voices from the kitchen became obvious as I toweled my hair. "He's here already?" I grumbled, finding a pair of underwear, jeans, and a red camisole in the dryer. Slipping them on, I dabbed some perfume behind each ear to help block my scent and Ivy's from mixing, combed my damp hair back with my fingers, and headed out.
But it wasn't a holy man I found in the kitchen covered in pixy children, it was Glenn.
"Hi, Glenn," I said as I slumped barefoot into my chair. "Who's pinching your ass today?"
The clearly uncomfortable, rather tall FIB detective was in a suit, which didn't bode well. He had Jenks's kids all over him, which was really weird. And Ivy was glaring at him from her computer, which was mildly troubling. But considering that the first time she met him, she almost bit him in anger and he almost shot her, I guessed we were doing okay.
Jenks scraped his wings, and his kids scattered, rising up through my rack of spelling supplies and herbs in a swirl of silk and shouts that hurt my eyeballs before flowing into the hall and probably out the chimney in the living room. I hadn't seen him on the sill until now, standing by his pet sea monkeys. How come a pixy has more pets than I do?
I smiled tiredly at Glenn across the table, trying to make up for my roommate's stellar attitude. There was a paperboard tray with two cups steaming between us, and the warm breeze coming in from the garden was pushing the heavenly aroma of freshly brewed coffee right to me. I wanted one in the worst way.
Ivy's fingers hit her keyboard aggressively as she weeded out her spam. "Detective Glenn was just leaving. Weren't you?"
The tall black man silently clenched his jaw. Since I'd seen him last, he had gotten rid of his goatee and mustache and replaced them with stud earrings. I wondered what his dad thought about that, but personally, I thought it added to his carefully maintained, polished image of young and capable law enforcer.
His suit was still off-the-rack, but it fit his very nice physique as if made for him. The tips of his dress shoes poking out from under the hems looked comfortable enough to run in if he had to. His trim body certainly seemed up to it, with that wide chest and narrow waist. The butt of a weapon glinted from a holster on his belt to give him a nice hint of danger.
Not that I'm in the market for a new boyfriend, I thought. I had a damn fine boyfriend, Kisten, and Glenn wasn't interested, though I'm sure if he "tried a witch, he'd never switch." And since I knew that his lack of interest wasn't born of prejudice, that was cool.
I exhaled, my fingers shaking from fatigue. My eyes went from his expressive brown ones pinched in worry and annoyance to the coffee. "Is one of these mine, by chance?" I asked, and when he nodded, I reached forward, saying, "Bless you back to the Turn." Pulling off the plastic lid, I took a gulp. My eyes closed, and I held the second swallow in my mouth for a moment. It was a double shot: hot, black, and oh so what I needed right now.
Ivy kept typing, and while Jenks excused himself to help the forgotten toddler crying in the ladle back to the stump in the garden, I took the time to wonder what Glenn was doing here. And so obscenely early. It was seven in the freakin' morning. I hadn't done anything to tick off the FIB—had I?
Glenn worked for the Federal Inderland Bureau, the human-run institution that functioned on a local and national level. The FIB was way outclassed by the I.S., the Inderlander-run side of the coin, when it came to enforcing the law, but during a previous investigation on which I'd helped Glenn, I'd found that the FIB had a scary amount of information on us Inderlanders, making me wish I hadn't written up those species summaries for his dad last fall. Glenn was Cincy's FIB Inderland specialist, which meant that he had enough guts to try working both sides of the street. It had been his dad's idea, and since I owed his dad bigtime, I helped when he asked.
No one was talking, though, and I figured I'd better say something before I fell asleep at the table. "What's the run, Glenn?" I asked, taking a sip and wishing the caffeine would kick in.
Glenn stood, his thick hands adjusting his ID badge on his belt. Square jaw tightening, he gave Ivy a wary glance. "I left a message last night. Didn't you get it?"
The depth of his voice was as soothing as the coffee he'd brought, but coming back in through the pixy hole in the screen, Jenks did an about-face. "I think I hear Matalina," he said, vanishing to leave behind a sifting ribbon of gold sparkles. My eyes went from the haze of pixy dust to Ivy, and she shrugged. "No," I prompted.
Ivy's eyes switched to black. "Jenks!" she called, but the pixy didn't show. I shrugged and gave Glenn an apologetic look.
"Jenks!" Ivy yelled. "If you're going to hit the message button, you'd damn well better write it down!"
I took a slow breath, but Ivy interrupted me. "Glenn, Rachel hasn't been to bed yet. Can you come back about four?"
"The morgue will have changed shifts by then," he protested. "I'm sorry you didn't get my message, but will you look anyway? I thought that's why you were up."
Annoyance tightened my shoulders. I was tired and cranky, and I didn't like Ivy trying to field my business. In a sudden wash of bitchiness, I stood.
Framed by her new haircut, Ivy's oval face looked questioning. "Where are you going?"
I grabbed my bag, already packed with a variety of spells and charms, then snapped the top back onto my coffee. "To the morgue, apparently. I've been up this late before."
"But not after a night like you just had."
Silent, I pulled my bracelet from around Mr. Fish and wrangled the clasp. Glenn slowly stood, his posture holding a wary slant. He had once asked me why I lived with Ivy and the threat she posed to my life and free will, and though I knew why now, telling him would make him worry more, not less. "Jeez, Ivy," I said, aware he was analyzing us professionally. "I'd rather do it now. Consider it my bedtime story."
I headed into the hall, trying to remember where I'd left my sandals. The foyer. From the kitchen Ivy said, "You don't have to go running whenever the FIB crooks their finger."
"No!" I shouted back, fatigue making me stupid. "But I do have to come up with some money to resanctify the church."
Glenn's steps behind me faltered on the hardwood floor. "It isn't holy anymore?" he asked as we emerged into the brighter sanctuary. "What happened?"
"We had an incident." The darkness of the foyer was soothing when I found it, and I sighed when I scuffed into my sandals and pushed open the heavy door to the sanctuary. Good Lord, I thought, squinting at the bright glare of a late-July morning. No wonder I slept through this. It was noisy with shrieking birds, and already hot. If I had known I was going out, I would have put on shorts.
Glenn took my elbow when I stumbled on the step, and I would have spilled my coffee if I hadn't replaced the top. "Not a morning person, eh?" he teased, and I jerked away.
"Jenks!" I shouted when my sandals reached the cracked sidewalk. The least he could do was come with me. Seeing Glenn's cruiser parked at the curb, I hesitated. "Let's take two cars," I offered, not wanting to be seen riding in a FIB cruiser when I could be driving my red convertible. It was hot; I could put the top down.
Glenn chuckled. "With your suspended license? Not a chance."
The scuffing of my sandals slowed, and I looked askance at him, bothered at the amusement in his dark eyes. "Crap, how did you find out about that?"
He opened the passenger-side door for me. "Duh, I work for the FIB? Our street force has been running interference for you every time you go out for groceries. If you get caught driving with a suspended license, the I.S. is going to jail your ass, and we like your ass on the street where it can do some good, Ms. Morgan."
I got into the front seat and set my bag on my lap. I hadn't known the FIB had even heard about that, much less had been distracting the I.S. "Thanks," I said softly, and he shut the door with a grunt of acknowledgment.
Glenn crossed in front while I buckled myself in. It was stuffy, and I fiddled with the window control to put it down. The car wasn't on yet, but I was irritated. I jammed my coffee in the cup holder and kept messing with the window until Glenn folded his height into the front seat and gave me a look. My brow furrowed in frustration. "It's not fair, Glenn," I complained. "They had no right to take my license. They're picking on me."
"Just take the driver's-ed class and get it over with."
"But it's not fair! They're intentionally making my life difficult."
"Golly, imagine that?" The key slid into the ignition, and Glenn paused to tug a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on to up his cool factor by about ten. Face easing in relief, he looked down the quiet street shaded with trees almost eighty years old. "What do you expect?" he said. "You gave them an excuse. They took it."
I drew a frustrated breath, holding it. So I ran a red light. It was yellow most of the way. And I went a little fast on the interstate once. But I suppose letting my ex-boyfriend run into me with a Mack truck to help a vampire start his undead existence might be cause for a few points. No one had died but the vampire, though—and he wanted to.
I fiddled with the button again, and Glenn took the hint. Warm air sifted in as the window whined down, replacing the scent of my perfume with the aroma of cut grass. "Jenks!" I called as he started the car. "Let's go!"
The rumble of the big car hid the clatter of Jenks's wings as he zipped in. "Sorry about the message, Rache," he muttered as he landed on the rearview mirror.
"Don't sweat it." I stretched my arm along the length of the open window, not wanting to ream him out over it. I'd taken enough flak from my brother for doing the same thing, and I knew it hadn't been intentional.
I settled into the leather seats as Glenn pulled onto the empty street. It would stay empty until about noon, when most of the Hollows started to wake up. My pulse was slow from the early hour, and the heat of the day made me sleepy. Glenn kept his car as tidy as himself; not an old coffee-stained cup or clutter of paperwork marred the floor or backseat. "So-o-o-o," I drawled around a yawn, "what's at the morgue besides the obvious?"
Glenn glanced at me as he yielded to a stop sign. "Suicide, but it's murder."
Of course it is. Nodding, I waved at the I.S. cruiser behind an overgrown bush, then made a bunny-eared "kiss-kiss" to the small Were in fatigues dozing on a bench in the sun watching them. It was Brett. The militant Were had been kicked out of his pack for having failed at kidnapping me a few months ago, so of course I was the one he wanted to pack up with next. It made sense in a warped sort of way. I had bested his alpha; therefore I was stronger.
David, my alpha, wasn't having anything to do with it, seeing as he hadn't wanted a pack in the first place. It was why he'd bucked the system and started one with a witch in order to keep his job. And so Brett was reduced to lurking on the outskirts of my life, looking for a way in. It was flattering as all hell, but depressing. I was going to have to talk to David. Having a militant Were attached to my chaotic life wasn't a bad idea, and Brett truly wanted someone to look to. It was how most Weres were put together. David's protest that Brett was trying to get in good with his original alpha by spying on me to see if I had the Were artifact that had instigated the kidnapping attempt was crap. Everyone believed that it had gone over the Mackinac Bridge, though in truth it was hidden in David's cat box.
Jenks cleared his throat, and when I glanced at him, he rubbed his thumb and fingers together in the universal indication of money. My eyes followed his to Glenn.
"Hey," I said, shifting in my seat, "this pays, right?" Glenn smiled, and, irritated, I sharpened my voice. "It does pay, right?"
Chuckling, the FIB detective glanced in the rearview mirror at Brett and nodded. "Why—" he started, and I interrupted.
"He wants into my pack, and David is balking," I said. "What's so important about this body that you need me to look at it? I'm a lousy detective. It's not what I do."
Glenn's square face was heavy with concern as he looked back at me from the Were behind us. "She's a Were. The I.S. says suicide, but I think it's murder and they're covering it up."
I let the air pressure push my hand up and then down, enjoying the breeze in my shower-damp hair and the feel of my bracelet sliding against my skin. The I.S. is covering up a murder? Big surprise there. Jenks looked happy, silent now that we were working and the question of money had been raised, though not settled. "Standard consultant fee," I said.
"Five hundred a day plus expenses," Glenn said, and I laughed.
"Try double that, ketchup boy. I have insurance to pay." And a church to sanctify, and a living room to repair.
Glenn's attention on the road went distant. "For two hours of your time, that would be what? Two-fifty?"
Crap. He wanted to go hourly. I frowned, and Jenks's wings slowed to nothing. That might pay for the paneling and the guys to put it in. Maybe.
"Okay," I said, digging through my bag to find the calendar datebook that Ivy had given me last year. It wasn't accurate anymore, but the pages were blank and I needed somewhere to keep track of my time. "But you can expect an itemized bill."
Glenn grinned. "What?" I said, squinting from the come-and-go sun.
He lifted one shoulder and let it fall. "You look so . . . organized," he said, and when Jenks snickered, I flung my hand out and bopped Glenn on the shoulder with the back of my fist.
"Just for that, no more ketchup for you," I muttered, slouching. His grip on the wheel tightened, and I knew I'd hit a sore spot.
"Aw, don't worry, Glenn," Jenks teased. "Christmas is coming. I'll get you a jar of belly-buster jalapeño that will knock your socks off if Rachel won't pimp tomatoes to you anymore."
Glenn shot me a sideways look. "Um, actually, I've got a list," he said, fumbling in an inner coat pocket to bring out a narrow strip of paper with his distinctive, precise handwriting on it. My eyebrows rose as I took it: hot ketchup, spicy BBQ sauce, tomato paste, salsa. His usual.
"You need a new pair of cuffs, right?" he said nervously.
"Yeah," I said, suddenly a lot more awake. "But if you can get ahold of some of those zip-strips the I.S. uses to keep ley line witches from invoking their magic, that'd be great."
"I'll see what I can do," he said, and I bobbed my head, satisfied.
Though Glenn's stiff neck said he was uncomfortable bartering law-enforcement tools for ketchup, I thought it funny that the stoic, straitlaced human was too embarrassed to walk into a store that sold tomatoes. Humanity avoided them like the plague, which was understandable, seeing as a tomato had carried the virus that killed a sizable portion of their population four decades ago and revealed the supernatural species previously hidden by the sheer numbers of humans. But he had been forced into eating pizza, real pizza, not the Alfredo crap that humans serve, and it had been all downhill from there.
I wasn't going to give him a hard time about it. We all had our fears. The fact that Glenn's was that he craved something every other human on the planet shunned was the least of my worries. And if it got me some zip-strips that might someday save my life, I thought as I settled back into the leather seats, then it's a secret well kept.For a Few Demons More. Copyright © by Kim Harrison. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.