Tucking my hair back, I squinted at the
parchment, trying to form the strange angular letters as smoothly as I
could. The ink glistened wetly, but it wasn’t red ink, it was blood—my
blood—which might account for the slight tremble in my hand as I copied
the awkward-looking name scripted in characters that weren’t English.
Beside me was a pile of rejects. If I didn’t get it perfect this time,
I’d be bleeding yet again. God help me. I was doing a black curse. In
a demon’s kitchen. On the weekend. How in hell had I gotten here?
Algaliarept stood poised between the slate
table and the smaller hearth, his white-gloved hands behind his back.
He looked like a stuffy Brit in a murder mystery, and when he shifted
impatiently, my tension spiked. “That isn’t helping,” I said dryly, and
his red, goat-slitted eyes widened in a mocking surprise, peering at me
over his smoked spectacles. He didn’t need them to read with. From his
crushed green velvet frock, to his lace cuffs and proper English accent,
the demon was all about show.
“It has to be exact, Rachel, or it won’t
capture the aura,” he said, his attention sliding to the small green
bottle on the table. “Trust me, you don’t want that floating around
I sat up to feel my back crack. Touching the
quill tip to my throbbing finger, my unease grew. I was a white witch,
damn it, not black. But I wasn’t going to write off demon magic just
because of a label. I’d read the recipe; I’d interpreted the
invocation. Nothing died to provide the ingredients, and the only
person who’d suffer would be me. I’d come away from this with a new
layer of demon smut on my soul, but I’d also have protection against
banshees. After one had nearly killed me last New Years, I’d willingly
entertain a little smut to be safe. Besides, this might lead to a way
to save Ivy’s soul when she died her first death. For that, I’d risk a
Something, though, felt wrong. Al’s squint
at the aura bottle was worrisome, and his accent was too precise
tonight. He was concerned and trying to hide it. It couldn’t be the
curse. It was just manipulating an aura—captured energy from a soul.
At least . . . that’s what he said.
Frowning, I glanced at Al’s cramped
handwritten instructions. I wanted to go over them again, but his
peeved expression and his soft mmmm of a growl to get on with it
convinced me it could wait until the scripting was done. My “ink” was
running thin, and I dabbed more blood from my finger to finish some poor
slob’s name, someone who trusted a demon . . . someone like me. Not
that I really trust Al, I thought, glancing at the instructions once
Al’s spelling kitchen was right out of a
fantasy flick, one of four rooms he had retained after selling
everything else to keep his demon-ass out of demon-ass jail. The gray
stone walls made a large circular space, most of which were covered in
identical tall wooden cabinets with glass doors. Behind the rippled
glass Al kept his books and ley line equipment. The biological
ingredients were in a cellar accessed through a rough hole in the
floor. Smoky support beams came to a point over a central fire pit, a
good forty feet up. The pit itself was a round, raised affair, with
vent holes to draw the cold floor air in by way of simple convection.
When it got going, it made a comfortable spot to read at, and when
fatigue brought me down, Al let me nap on the benches bracketing it.
Mr. Fish, my beta, swam in his little bowl on the mantel of the smaller
fire. I don’t know why I’d brought him from home. It had been Ivy’s
idea, and when an anxious vampire tells you to take your fish, you take
Al cleared his throat, and I jumped,
fortunately having pulled my quill from the parchment an instant
before. Done, thank God. “Good?” I asked, holding it up for
inspection, and his white-gloved, thick fingered hand pinched it at the
edge where it wouldn’t smear.
He eyed it, my tension easing when he handed
it back. “Passable. Now the bowl.”
Passable. That was usually as good as it
got, and I set the painstakingly scribed bit of paper beside the unlit
candle and green bottle of aura, taking up Al’s favorite scribing knife
and the palm-sized, earthen bowl. The knife was ugly, the writhing
woman on the handle looking like demon porn. Al knew I hated it, which
was why he insisted I use it.
The gray bowl was rough in my hand, the
inside cluttered with scratched off words of power. Only the newly
scribed name I was etching would react. The theory was to burn the
paper and take in the man’s name by way of air, then drink water from
the bowl, taking in his name by water. This would hit all four
elements, earth and water with the bowl, air and fire with the burning
parchment. Heaven and earth, with me in the middle. Yippy skippy.
> The foreign-looking characters were easier
after having practiced with the parchment, and I had it scratched on a
tiny open space before Al could sigh more than twice. He’d taken up the
bottle of aura, frowning as he gazed into the swirling green.
“What?” I offered, trying to keep the
annoyance from my voice. I was his student, sure, but he would still
try to backhand me if I got uppity.
Al’s brow furrowed, worrying me even more.
“I don’t like this aura’s resonance,” he said softly, red eyes probing
the glass perched in his white-clad fingers.
I shifted my weight on my padded chair,
trying to stretch my legs. “And?”
Al’s focus shifted over his glasses to me.
“It’s one of Newt’s.”
“Newt? Since when do you need to get an aura
from Newt?” I asked. No one liked the insane demon, but she was the
reigning queen of the lost boys, so to speak, and knew everything—when
she could remember it.
“Not your concern,” he said, and I winced,
embarrassed. Al had lost almost everything in his effort to snag me as
a familiar, ending up with something vastly more precious but broke just
the same. I was a witch, but a common, usually lethal, genetic fault
had left me able to kindle their magic. Al’s status was assured as long
as I was his student, but his living was bleak.
“I’ll just pop over and find out who it is
before we finish this up,” he said with a forced lightness, setting the
bottle down with a sharp tap.
I looked at the assembled pieces. “Now? Why
didn’t you ask her before?”
“It didn’t seem important at the time,” he
said, looking mildly discomforted. “Pierce!” he shouted, the call for
his familiar lost in the high ceilings coated in shadows and dust. Mood
sour, he turned to me. “Don’t touch anything while I’m gone.”
“Sure,” I said distantly, eyeing the green
swirling bottle. He had to borrow an aura from Newt? Jeez, maybe
things were worse off than I’d thought.
“The crazy bitch has a reason for everything,
though she might not remember it,” Al said as he tugged his sleeves over
his lace cuffs. Glancing at the arranged spelling supplies, he
hesitated. “Go ahead and fill the bowl. Make sure the water covers the
name.” He looked at the image of an angry, screaming face scribed into
his black marble floor. It was his version of a door in the door-less
room. “Gordian Nathanial Pierce!”
I pushed back from the table as the witch
popped into the kitchen atop the grotesque face, a dishtowel over his
shoulder and his sleeves rolled up. “I’d be of a mind to know what the
almighty hurry is,” the man from the early 1800s said as he tossed his
hair from his eyes and unrolled his sleeves. “I swan, the moment I
start something, you get in a pucker over nothing.”
“Shut up, runt,” Al muttered, knowing to
backhand him would start a contest that would end with Pierce
unconscious and a big mess to clean up. It was easier to ignore him.
Al had snared the clever witch within the hour of his first escape, the
demon taking great pains to keep us apart during my weekly lessons until
Al realized I was ticked with Pierce for having willingly gone into
partnership with Al. Partnership? Hell, call it what it was. Slavery.
Oh, I was still impressed with Pierce’s magic
that far outstripped mine. His quick one-liners in his odd accent aimed
at Al when the demon wasn’t listening still made me smirk. And I wasn’t
looking at his long wavy hair, or his lanky build, much less his tight
ass. Damn it. But somewhere shortly after seeing him naked under Carew
Tower’s restaurant, I’d lost the teenage crush I’d had on him. It might
have been his insufferable confidence, or that he wouldn’t admit how
deep in the crapper he was, or that he was just a little too good at
demon magic, but for whatever reason, that devilish smile that had once
sparked through me now fell flat.
“I’m stepping out for a tick,” Al said as he
buttoned his coat. “Merely checking something. A tidy curse is a
well-twisted one! Pierce, make yourself useful and help her with her
Latin while I’m gone. Her syntax sucks.”
“Gee, thanks.” The modern phrases sounded
odd with Al’s accent.
“And don’t let her do anything stupid,” he
added as he adjusted his glasses.
“Hey!” I exclaimed, but my eyes darted to the
creepy tapestry whose figures seemed to move when I wasn’t looking.
There were things in Al’s kitchen that it was best not to be alone with,
and I appreciated the company. Even if it was Pierce.
“As the almighty Al wishes,” Pierce said
dryly, earning a raised-eyebrow from Al before he vanished from where he
stood, using a ley line to traverse the ever-after to Newt’s rooms.
In an instant, the lights went out, but
before I could move, they flashed back to life, markedly brighter as
Pierce took over the light charm. Alone. How . . . nice. I
watched him meticulously drape his damp dishtowel to dry on the top of
the cushioned bench that circled the central fire pit, and then, jaw
clenched, I looked away. Standing, I moved to keep the slate table
between us as Pierce crossed the room with the grace of another time.
“What is the invocation today?” he asked, and
I pointed to it on the table, wanting to look at it again myself but
willing to wait. His hair fell over his eyes as he studied it.
“Sunt qui discessum animi a corpore putent
esse mortem. Sunt erras,” he said softly, his blue eyes shocking
against his dark hair as he looked up. “You’re working with souls?”
“Auras,” I corrected him, but his expression
was doubtful. There are people who believe that the departure of the
soul from the body is death. They are wrong, I silently translated,
then took it from him to set it with the bottle of aura, bowl, and the
name scribed with my blood. “Hey, if you can’t trust your demon, who
can you trust,” I said sarcastically, gathering up the pile of discarded
signature attempts and moving them out of the way to the mantle. But I
didn’t trust Al, and I itched to look at the curse again. Not with
Pierce, though. He’d want to help me with my Latin.
The tension rose at my continued silence, and
Pierce half-sat on the slate table, one long leg draped down. He was
watching me, making me nervous as I filled the inscribed bowl from a
pitcher. It was just plain water, but it smelled faintly of burnt
amber. No wonder I go home with headaches, I thought, grimacing
as I overfilled the bowl and water dribbled out.
“I’ll get that,” Pierce said, jumping from
the table and reaching for his dishtowel.
“Thanks, I’m good,” I snapped, snatching the
cloth from him and doing it myself.
He drew back, looking hurt as he stood before
the fire pit. “I’ll allow I’ve gotten myself in a powerful fix, Rachel,
but what have I done to turn you so cold?”
My motion to clean the slate slowed, and I
turned with a sigh. The truth of it was, I wasn’t sure. I only knew
that the things that had attracted me once now looked childish and
inane. He’d been a ghost, more or less, and had agreed to be Al’s
familiar if the demon could give him a body. Al had shoved his soul
into a dead witch before the body even had the chance to skip a
heartbeat. It didn’t help that I’d known the guy Al had put his soul
into. I didn’t think I could take another person’s body to save
myself. But then, I’d never been dead before.
I looked at Pierce now, seeing the same
reckless determination, the same disregard for the future that had
gotten me rightfully shunned, and all I knew was I didn’t want anything
to do with it. I took a breath and let it out, not knowing where to
start. But a shiver lifted through me at the memory of his touch, ages
ago but still fresh in my mind. Al was right. I was an idiot.
“It’s not going to work, Pierce,” I said
flatly, and I turned away.
My tone had been harsh, and Pierce’s voice
lost its sparkle. “Rachel. Truly. What’s wrong? I took this job to
be closer to you.”
“That’s just it!” I exclaimed, and he
blinked, bewildered. “This is not a job!” I said, waving the
cloth. “It’s slavery. You belong to him, body and soul. And you did
it intentionally! We could have found another way to give you a body.
Your own, maybe! But no. You just jumped right into a demon pact
instead of asking for help!”
He came around the table, close but not quite
touching me. “I swane, a demon curse is the only way to become living
again,” he said, touching his chest. “I know what I’m doing. This
isn’t forever. When I can, I’ll kill the demon spawn, and then I’ll be
“Kill Al?” I breathed, not believing he still
thought he could.
“I’ll be free of him and have a body both.”
He took my hands, and I realized how cold I was. “Trust me, Rachel. I
know what I’m doing.”
Oh my God. He is as bad as I am. Was. “You’re crazy!” I exclaimed, pulling out of his grip. “You think you’re
more powerful than you are, with your black magic and whatever! Al is a demon, and I don’t think you grasp what he can do. He’s playing with you!”
Pierce leaned against the table, arms crossed
and the light catching the colorful pattern of his vest. “Do tell? You
opine I don’t know what I’m doing?”
“I opine you don’t!” I mocked, using his own
words. His attitude was infuriating, and I looked at the bowl behind
him—the remnant of others who had thought they were smarter than a
demon, now just names on a bowl, bottles on a shelf.
“Fair enough.” Pierce scratched his chin and
stood. “I expect a body needs proof.”
I stiffened. Shit. Proof? “Hey, wait a minute,” I said, dropping the rag to the table. “What are you doing?
Al brought you back, but he can take you out again, too.”
Pierce impishly put a finger to his nose.
“Mayhap. But he has to catch me, first.”
My eyes darted to the band of charmed silver
around his wrist. Pierce could jump ley lines where I couldn’t, but
charmed silver cut off his access to them. He couldn’t leave.
“What, this?” he said confidently, and my
lips parted when he ran his finger around the inside of the silver band,
and the metal seemed to stretch, allowing him to slip it off.
“H-How,” I stammered as he twirled it. Crap
on toast. I’d be blamed for this. I knew it!
“It’s been tampered with so I can move from
room to room here. I tampered with it a little more is all,” Pierce
said, sticking the band of silver in his pack pocket, his eyes
gleaming. “I’ve not had a bite of food free of burnt amber in a coon’s
age. I’ll fetch you something to warm your cold heart.”
I stepped forward, panicking. “Put that back
on! If Al knows you can escape, he’ll—”
“Kill me. Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said,
hitting the modern phrase perfectly. His hand dipped into another
pocket, and he studied a handful of coins. “Al will tarry with Newt for
at least fifteen minutes. I’ll be right back.”
His accent was thinning. Clearly he could
turn it off and on at will—which worried me even more. What else was he
hiding? “You’re going to get me in trouble!” I said, but with a sly
grin, he vanished. The lights he had been minding went out, and the
ring of charmed silver he had stuck in his pocket made a ting as it hit
the floor. My heart thumped in the sudden darkness lit only by the
hearth fire and the dull glow of the banked fire pit. He was gone, and
we were both going to be in deep shit if Al found out.
Heart pounding, I watched the creepy tapestry
across the room. My mouth was dry, and the shadows shifted as the
figures on it seemed to move in the firelight. Son of a bitch! I
thought as I went to pick up the ring of charmed silver and tuck the
incriminating thing in a pocket. Al was going to blame me. He’d think
I took the charmed silver off him.
Edging back to the small hearth fire, I
fumbled for the candle on the mantel, pinching the wick and tapping a
ley line to work the charm. “Consimilis calefacio,” I said,
voice quavering as a tiny slip of ley-line energy flowed through me,
exciting the molecules until the wick burst into flame, but just as I
did, the ley-line powered lights flashed high, and I jumped, knocking
the lit candle off the sconce.
“I can explain!” I exclaimed as I fumbled for
the candle now rolling down the mantle and into Mr. Fish. But it was
Pierce, tossing his hair from his eyes and two tall grandes in his
hands. “You idiot!” I hissed as the candle hit the scraps of paper, and
in a flash, they went up.<
“Across lots like lightning, mistress witch,”
Pierce said, laughing as he extended a coffee.
God, I wish he’d speak normal English.
Frantic, I brushed the bits of paper off the mantel, stepping on them
once they hit the black marble floor. The stink of burning plastic
joined the mess, and I grabbed the bowl of water, dumping it. Black
smoke wisped up, stinging my eyes. It helped mask the reek of burning
shoe, so maybe it wasn’t all bad.
“You ass!” I shouted. “Do you realize what
would happen if Al came back and found you gone? Are you that
inconsiderate, or just that stupid! Put this back on!”
Angry I threw the ring of charmed metal at
him. His hands were full, and he sidestepped it. With a thunk, it hit
the tapestry, and then the floor. Pierce’s hand extending the coffee
drooped, his enthusiasm fading. “I’d do naught to hurt you, mistress
“I am not your mistress witch!”
Ignoring the coffee, I looked at the bits of burned paper in a soggy
mess on the floor. Kneeling, I snatched the rag from the table to sop
it up. I could smell raspberry flavored Italian blend, and my stomach
“Rachel,” Pierce coaxed.
Pissed, I wouldn’t look up at him as I wiped
the floor. Standing, I tossed the rag to the table in disgust, then
froze. The aura bottle wasn’t green anymore.
It was questioning this time, and I held up a
hand, tasting the air as my eyes stung. Shit, I’d burned the name and
gotten the charged water all over me. “I think I’m in trouble,” I
whispered, then jerked, feeling as if my skin was on fire. Yelping, I
slapped at my clothes. Panic rose as an alien aura slipped through
mine, soaking in to find my soul—and squeezing.
Oh, shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. I’d invoked the curse. I was in so-o-o-o much trouble. But this didn’t
feel right; the curse burned! Demons were wimps. They always made
their magic painless unless you did it wrong. Oh God. I’d done it
“Rachel?” Pierce touched my shoulder. I met
his eyes, and then I doubled over, gasping.
“Rachel!” he cried, but I was trying to
breathe. It was the dead person, the one whose name I’d scribed in my
own blood. It hadn’t been his aura in the bottle, but his soul. And
now his soul wanted a new body. Mine. Son of a bitch, Al had lied
to me. I knew I should have trusted my gut and questioned him. He
said it was an aura, but it was a soul, and the soul in the bottle was
Mine, echoed in our joined thoughts.
Gritting my teeth, I bent double and tapped a ley line. Newt had once
tried to possess me, and I burnt her out with a rush of energy. I
gasped when a scintillating stream of it poured in with the taste of
burning tinfoil, but the presence in me chortled, welcoming the flood.
Mine! the soul insisted in delight, and I felt my link to the
line sever. I stumbled, falling to kneel on the cold marble. It had
taken control, cutting me out!
No! I thought, scrambling for the line
in my mind only to find nothing to grasp. My chest hurt when my heart
started to beat to a new, faster rhythm. What in hell was this thing!
What sort of mind could make a soul this determined? I couldn’t . . .
Eyes tearing, I blinked at Pierce, struggling
to focus. “Get. It. Out of me!”
[ . . . .]